Does Ken Ham’s Defense of Biblical Authority Lead to Biblical Skepticism?

written by Adam Tucker

posted by SES

At a time when the Bible is being ridiculed on multiple fronts both inside and outside the church, I appreciate Ken Ham, president and founder of Answers in Genesis (AIG), taking biblical authority seriously and understanding its vital importance in Christian faith and practice. I also admire the passion with which Mr. Ham defends biblical authority and young earth creationism. Personally, I do not take a dogmatic stance on the age of the earth. I am convinced that as long as one does not compromise essential Christian doctrines, there is room for disagreement regarding when God created. I think the age of the earth specifically is a matter of interpretation rather than inerrancy or inspiration. I do agree, however, with Mr. Ham’s critique of theistic evolution (including Darwinian evolution in general) and gap theories that postulate a pre-Adamic race or deny a literal Adam and Eve. (Note: one can be an old-earth creationist who also denies Darwinian evolution and these other tenuous ideas.)

My fear, however, is that when it comes to defending biblical authority, Mr. Ham’s zeal clouds his rational judgement, resulting in dangerous ideas about how we know what the Bible is and how we understand its meaning. It is because I think biblical authority is such an important issue that I am here challenging Mr. Ham’s thinking.

In multiple outlets Mr. Ham is known for making a distinction between God’s Word and “man’s fallible word.” Mr. Ham says, “In fact, there are only two kinds of glasses in an ultimate sense. We either wear God’s glasses or man’s glasses. . . . There are only two starting points for our worldviews: one either starts with God’s Word or man’s word.” He goes on to quote AIG speaker/researcher Dr. Georgia Purdom as saying, “I hope this will reinforce the idea that the world looks different when we start with the truth of God’s Word rather than our own ideas or those of others.”

Similarly, in a March 2012 panel discussion with Hugh Ross, Ray Comfort, and other apologists and evangelists on the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s show Praise the Lord, Mr. Ham said,

It’s [secular science] really taking outside ideas to add into Scripture. And the other point I want to make is, that we talk about the book of nature, but you see we’re fallible human beings, and Scripture says we’re fallen, and obviously when you’re taking the Bible, you have an interpretive method; I take the grammatical-historical interpretive method. I take it at face value. If it’s history, it’s history. If it’s poetry, it’s poetry. I understand that. But you see taking this book as written I know that the ground is cursed. . . . It’s a fallen world, and I’m a fallen being. So, looking at a fallen creation and trying to interpret that through my eyes, I can’t trust that. I look through the written revelation from God. .  . I let God speak to me to the best of my ability to not try to impose my ideas on Scripture. . . . To me the issue is biblical authority. (00:38:58)

Likewise, in the AIG produced video Stop Trusting Man’s Word, Mr. Ham says, “Obviously what I’m saying to you is, what the church is doing is taking outside ideas [i.e., man’s word], adding to Scriptures. . . . It’s undermining biblical authority.” (01:12:59) Also, in his dialogue with SES professor Dr. Richard Howe at this past October’s SES National Conference on Christian Apologetics, Mr. Ham discussed the “problem” of “autonomous human reason” when fallen men try to reason to conclusions about the age of the earth apart from the Bible. More recently, in a support letter about his dialogue with Dr. Howe, Mr. Ham said, “I kept hammering away that it was an authority issue—that the battle over the age of the earth came down to God’s infallible Word versus man’s fallible word.” In fact, the AIG “Tenants of Creationstates, “We affirm that the special revelation of infallible and inerrant Scripture must be used to correctly interpret the general revelation of the cursed Creation.”

I think the reader is intelligent enough to recognize the pattern of thought here. It seems Mr. Ham’s position is that because of our fallen state, introducing outside ideas, or man’s word, into the mix of our interpretation of God’s Word ultimately undermines biblical authority. The problem is that there are at least two reasons why this position actually leads to biblical skepticism instead.

The Knowledge Problem

The God’s Word/man’s word distinction is the logical outworking of Mr. Ham’s views on how man knows reality. The idea of “autonomous human reason” referenced by Mr. Ham was popularized by presuppositional apologists like Cornelius Van Till and his disciple Greg Bahnsen (see HERE for a critique of this notion). That notion, along with the popular “worldview” thinking we see today, combine to lead to disastrous results for biblical authority. Allow me to explain.

Recall that Mr. Ham says, “. . . there are only two starting points for our worldviews: one either starts with God’s Word or man’s word.” According to the AIG website, “There is no such thing as being ‘worldview neutral’. . . . We all have the same evidence, but it doesn’t speak for itself. All evidence must be interpreted based on a belief system. As a Christian, we should use the Bible to explain the evidence.”

Stop right there. Those words are not God’s Word. It is Mr. Ham telling me to start with God’s Word. Thus, if one can start with Mr. Ham’s words, then Mr. Ham is violating his own principle making his position false. Moreover, is the idea that “all evidence must be interpreted based on a [worldview]” a product of Mr. Ham’s worldview-driven interpretation, or is it true across worldviews? If it is true across worldviews, then at least that fact is “worldveiw neutral,” again making Mr. Ham’s position false. What about the laws of logic? Do those differ according to someone’s worldview or are they “worldview neutral”? Here’s a hint: if you answer that logic differs across worldviews, then you are actually using logic to say it is true for all worldviews that logic differs across worldviews. I trust the reader can see the contradiction.

Furthermore, how do we know that the Bible is the correct place to start? Why not the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or another “holy” book? And how do I know I am properly understanding what I am reading? We will examine momentarily the interpretation problem that results from these ideas. So far, such ideas are leading to biblical skepticism rather than biblical authority.

Elsewhere on the AIG website we read, “Apart from the Bible, is there any way we could know that the future will be like the past? So far, no one has been able to show how such a belief would make sense apart from Scripture. The only nonbiblical explanations offered have turned out to be faulty” [emphasis mine]. Here, we see the proverbial smoking gun behind Mr. Ham’s false dichotomy.

Modern philosophy maintains that man is not able to know directly sensible reality. That is, man only knows his thoughts/ideas about the tree, say, rather than knowing the tree in itself. In other words, man’s knowledge of things begins in his own mind and is ultimately relegated to stay there. This helped lead to the modern “problem” of trying to bridge the gap between our thoughts about things and the things themselves. How do we know our thoughts about things are accurate if we cannot know the thing itself? Mr. Ham, following Van Till, Bahnsen and others, attempts to fill that perceived knowledge gap with God and/or the Bible. In fact, Bahnsen even says,

[The believer] views logic as rules of thought implanted in man’s mind by the Creator; the [unbeliever] sees logic as the self-sufficient, self-authenticating tool of autonomous man’s reason.…The Christian and non-Christian will take different minds as the final reference point in their own thinking; the believer will use patterns of thought and interpretation provided by God while the unbeliever will derive them from the created world itself (e.g., his own mind) [emphasis mine]. [1]

He goes on to say something that should sound familiar,

So the most fundamental premise of all autonomous science, the uniformity of nature, is neither empirically nor rationally justifiable! . . . If science proceeds autonomously, then the only thing that can be discovered in the world is man’s own interpretative and ordering activity; nature merely echoes back the thoughts of the autonomous man. Hence, he ends up accepting his own revelation, based on his own authority [emphasis mine]. [2]

Why can man not know that the future will resemble the past, all things being equal? Because, on this view, man only knows his thoughts about the reality he currently observes, not the thing in itself. Why can man not trust his senses to reveal truths about the creation timeline? Because, according to this view, all knowledge begins in the mind, the mind is fallen, and hence, the mind of man cannot be trusted. Therefore, on this view, we must be told by God what to think about all aspects of reality.

The question is, if all of this is true (and I do not think it is), is not the Bible part of the same reality from which we are cut off from actually knowing? How do I know I can trust my thoughts about what the Bible actually is? How do I know I can trust my thoughts about what Mr. Ham tells me to think about the Bible? And how does he know what to think? How do I know my current worldview is not skewing my thoughts about what the Bible says? If I do not currently have a “biblical worldview,” how can I ever arrive at one if I have to start with the Bible in order to know anything properly?

Think about what is being said here. If all of my thinking is skewed by my “fallen” and “fallible” worldview, how can I in principle “let God speak to me to the best of my ability to not try to impose my ideas on Scripture”? Mr. Ham has ruled out that very possibility. If I cannot properly understand reality without starting with the Bible, but the Bible is part of reality, then how can I properly understand the Bible? I would have to properly understand a certain part of reality (i.e., the Bible) prior to having my starting point for properly understanding any part of reality, but this is a contradiction and rules out the possibility of properly understanding anything!

Moreover, when this underlying view of man’s knowledge is held consistently, “my ideas” are really the only thing I can know for sure, but if my ideas are “fallen” and “fallible,” then I should not trust them. How do I actually know anything on this view? The Bible itself and our interpretation of it are not immune to this “problem” of only knowing our thoughts about things via our skewed worldviews. The only consistent view to hold with this type of thinking is skepticism. I am not willing to settle for this unbiblical option.

The Interpretation Problem

Of course, Mr. Ham thinks it is possible to know things and to properly understand the Bible. He claims to hold to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. I agree that this is the correct method for biblical interpretation. But how could one come to this conclusion if one must start with God’s Word since God’s Word does not tell us this? Even more, as Dr. Howe points out, it is impossible in principle to get one’s method of interpretation from the Bible since one would first have to understand the Bible in order to get his interpretative method, but that result is a contradiction and must therefore be false. Yet, if Mr. Ham holds consistently to his teachings, this is precisely what he claims we should be doing. Of course, being a human being living in reality, Mr. Ham cannot actually hold consistently to his teachings on this matter.

To see why, consider the fundraising letter referenced above where Mr. Ham says,

We are seeing a trend in which it seems many of these academics are saying that the average person can’t fully understand the Word of God for themselves, but has to listen to what these ‘learned’ people are saying. In fact, during the ‘debate,’ Dr. Howe made reference to the fact that ‘everyone should have a Hebrew scholar in their life’ [an obvious joke in the context of the discussion] to help them fully understand Scripture! That’s why during this ‘debate’ I said that God’s Word is for all people for all time. And its message (even though there are difficult passages) is easy for anyone to understand—and that it’s not difficult to understand Genesis if we just read it and take it as written, as did Jesus, Peter, and Paul in the New Testament.

The message being conveyed is that anyone can understand the majority of the Bible by just reading it in English. There is apparently no need for Hebrew scholars to help us understand the meaning of the text. To be sure, as Dr. Norman Geisler is fond of saying, I believe the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things so that even a child can understand the basics of the Gospel. In this case, however, we are talking about the more fundamental issues regarding the principles of interpretation in general.

The problem is that if all we need is to have every average Christian read his Bible in English, then why do we still have many differing interpretations of many parts of the Bible by many people all claiming to be Christians and led by the Holy Spirit? If we only need to appeal to our basic understanding of our English Bibles, on what grounds can we adjudicate between these differing interpretations? And why should anyone trust Ken’s interpretation (or anyone’s interpretation) since he (and everyone else) is also a “fallen being”? After all, he has already told us that he cannot even trust his five senses to know things about the history of the physical world.

Furthermore, there would be no English Bible if not for Hebrew and Greek scholars creating the English translation! All of these scholars are “fallen men” using “man’s word” to translate a text (which necessarily involves some level of interpretation and knowledge of history) into an English Bible that Mr. Ham and others can read. In contradiction to his quote above, Mr. Ham acknowledges this fact in the Stop Trusting Man’s Word video when he says,

Does the Hebrew grammar allow for a gap between Gen. 1:1 and 1:2? Well, for those of you who have studied Hebrew, and again, I’m not a Hebrew expert, but I talk to Hebrew experts, and they help me with all of this. And hopefully I’m able to get it right because we talk to people who actually have Ph.D.s in Hebrew who have studied Hebrew. And some of our staff, we have some staff, one who has a masters in theology, and a couple in fact who have theological qualifications who have studied considerable Hebrew. (00:09:06)

Why is that not trusting in “man’s word”? Elsewhere in the TBN Praise the Lord program mentioned earlier, Mr. Ham appeals to Hebrew scholars for the proper understanding of the Hebrew word for “day.” So it turns out that not even Mr. Ham can avoid depending on “man’s word” for his understanding of God’s Word. Yet the false dichotomy he presents between God’s Word and man’s word, if lived out consistently, would preclude us from having any basis for trusting the word of the Hebrew scholars or the word of Mr. Ham. His position can only lead to biblical skepticism and confusion offering no foundation for confidently thinking we have the correct interpretation of Genesis or any part of the Bible.

There are other practical ways to see the problem with this thinking. In the realm of philosophy for instance, there are nearly just as many verses that say God does not know the future as those that say He does know the future. There are also more verses describing God with body parts than those describing God as a spirit. Does Mr. Ham simply take the Bible “as written” without imposing “[his] ideas on Scripture” when the Bible says God changes by learning, does not know the future, and has body parts? These are not hypothetical questions. Pastor Greg Boyd is a prominent advocate of open theism, the idea that God learns and does not know the future free acts of humans. The Dake Annotated Reference Bible teaches that God has body parts. Both of these teachings are defended by claiming to simply take the Bible “as written.” This is important because if God has a body and has the potential for change, then God is ultimately a creature Himself in need of a creator! Yet, I am almost certain Mr. Ham disagrees with these ideas about God. But why?

In the realm of physical science, the idea that the sun revolves around the earth was once the scientific consensus of the day and defended by appealing to Joshua 10:13. Taken “as written,” the sun cannot “stand still” unless it is moving. We also see apparently contradictory claims within the pages of Scripture about the earth when those passages are simply taken “as written.” Isaiah 44:22 says the earth is a circle, while multiple other passages talk about the “four corners” of the earth. A circle cannot have corners. Yet, Mr. Ham rightly thinks a spherical earth revolves around the sun. But why?

If it is illicit to use “man’s word” or “outside ideas” in order to properly understand the Scriptures, then Mr. Ham has no rational basis upon which to defend his opposing views. Thus, we are left with only three options given Mr. Ham’s position. One, we must be content with contradictions in the Bible (and therefore an errant text) since, when the Bible is simply read “as written,” it claims contradictory truths about God. Two, we must simply appeal to a blind irrational (and unbiblical) faith in holding to our particular views of God, creation, and the Bible. Or three, we remain skeptics about what the Bible is and what it actually teaches. Again, I am not willing to settle for any of these unbiblical options.

Conclusion: Knowing Reality is Natural

Mr. Ham is certainly not a skeptic. As I said, I largely agree with his stance on, and appreciate his zeal for, the importance of biblical authority. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, however, I am convinced he has a zeal for biblical authority but not according to knowledge. In fact, as we have seen, the underlying commitments of his view preclude one from ever confidently knowing anything. The very foundational philosophical tenants Mr. Ham (likely) unknowingly assumes are the very same tenants that lead many conservative evangelical scholars to wrongly conclude that it is impossible for us to objectively know the meaning of the text of Scripture.

How then can we overcome these issues and say, in agreement with Mr. Ham, that we can know the truth about God and what He teaches us in His Word?

Suffice it to say, it is true that we all approach reality with various presuppositions and therefore view things through our own set of colored lenses. However, it is not the case that that is the end of the story. To say that it is a universally true statement about reality (i.e., worldview neutral) that there are no universally true statements about reality is self-defeating, and thus necessarily false. Additionally, the notion that all knowledge begins in the mind and that our ideas are the only things we know, is also false and results in the self-defeating objective truth claim about reality that we cannot objectively know things about reality.

It is simply false that one must start with God’s Word or man’s word. The truth is that one must start with reality. Space does not permit investigating this in detail (see this book here for a thorough treatment of this issue), but Mr. Ham, along with most modern thinkers, fails to recognize reality’s metaphysical makeup. Things like trees, dogs, and humans all have certain natures that each individual of that kind of thing share in common. When we know some individual thing, we are able to know the nature of that thing so that we are knowing the thing itself rather than merely our ideas about the thing. In other words, there is no knowledge gap to overcome because we are knowing the thing itself, not merely our ideas about the thing. Since the natures of things are constant (all things being equal), then if we know some truth about a thing in the present, we can be confident that truth also applies to the same type of thing in the past. There is no “uniformity of nature” problem given a proper understanding of the makeup of reality and the process of human knowing.

Furthermore, it is also undeniably the case that things like the laws of logic apply equally to everyone in all places and at all times. The laws of logic are the same for everyone regardless of their worldview. These universally valid laws of logic provide an unchanging common ground from which we are able to examine our worldviews and adjudicate between true and false propositions. Given the fact that we all live in the same reality, we are able to know truths about aspects of reality in themselves and use the laws of logic to examine our worldviews and essentially take the glasses off and see reality for what it is. This is not always easy, but it is at least possible.

Thus, we ultimately get our principles of interpreting the Bible, not from the Bible, but from reality as such. It is because we are able to know truth about physical things that we are then able to understand written words about other things. The laws of logic (also understood from our knowledge of physical things) then provide a common tool set by which we can wrestle with various interpretations to discover which interpretation is true. Mr. Ham (and everyone else) naturally does this (at least some of the time) because he is a human being with a human nature directed towards pursuing and knowing truth about reality. Human knowing comes naturally, and we often do not think about it. It is only when false ideas (i.e., the God’s Word/man’s word dichotomy) are introduced that we must stop and critically examine our understanding of how man knows reality.

I greatly admire Mr. Ham’s desire to see the church equipped and to stem the tide of young people leaving the Faith, and I am personally agnostic about the validity of his case for a young earth. Nevertheless, the skepticism inherent in his views is ultimately setting the church up for failure in the apologetics task. While Mr. Ham does not hold to biblical skepticism, the false ideas about human knowing for which he (at least implicitly) advocates can lead nowhere else.

For more information see here:

https://ses.edu/why-ses/distinctives/reality

https://ses.edu/why-ses/distinctives/biblical-objectivity

If you are interested in learning more about apologetic methodology, you can purchase the lectures of Dr. Richard Howe’s “Christian Apologetics Systems” course here.

ENDNOTES

  1. Greg Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2011), 2229-2243, Kindle.
  2. Ibid., 2613-2647.

Follow Why Do You Believe by E-mail

Subscribe to follow this blog and receive email notifications of new posts.