This is the first in a four part series taken from Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth's scholarly essay "Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood: Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology".
As Christians and geologists, we frequently encounter people with stories of storm tossed and shipwrecked faith that started when they began to wrestle with apparent conflicts between science and the Bible. The stories have a common thread. The Bible, they were told, clearly teaches the earth was created a few thousand years ago with life forms fashioned more or less as we find them today. Because the earth is very young, the incredibly complex sequence of rock, sediment, and fossils found on our planet must have been deposited in a very short period of time. Noah’s Flood, as the only plausible causal agent, was obviously a global and violent event. Theories of an ancient earth and adaptation of life forms, they were further informed, have been constructed on flimsy evidence created by atheistic scientists searching for ways to expunge God from modern culture. But as these sojourners began to explore and understand the actual evidence for an ancient earth, they found themselves increasingly convinced of its legitimacy, and thereby increasingly questioning the veracity of their faith – many to the point of relegating Christ to just another wishful myth.
It is our conviction that these stories of strained or lost faith derive not from an inherent unwillingness to trust the Bible, but rather from misguided teaching on the message of Scripture. Those insisting the earth is young are not simply putting their faith in God’s Word, they are putting their faith in their own particular interpretation of that Word. As such, an entirely unnecessary stumbling block to faith is created, where faith in Christ first requires rejection of sound science.
As we have prayed and studied this subject, we have felt God’s call to speak out against this misplaced stumbling block. We are sensitive, however, to the fact that when scientists speak on issues of faith, there is a natural suspicion that science will be regarded as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and Scripture will have to yield whenever conflict arises. It is thus important for us to state here that both of us ascribe to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, the reality and necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection, the existence of genuine miraculous events, and the truthfulness of the Biblical historical narratives. In our understanding, science will never trump Scripture, but by virtue of science being a study of God’s natural creation, it may occasionally assist in our understanding of God’s written Word. Where this has occurred historically and has been accepted by the Church, the invariable result has been the abandonment of an interpretation of some secondary importance, without any change in our understanding of the intended central message.
This phenomenon is illustrated well by the 17th century clash between Galileo’s claims that the earth revolves around the sun, and the multiple passages in Scripture that appear to clearly present a static earth as the physical center of God’s natural creation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that the earth is fixed upon its foundations (Ps 93:1, 104:5) and the sun rises and sets (Eccl 1:5, Ps 19:6). Within the context of the historical narratives (which we are not accustomed to interpreting in any figurative manner) we read statements about “the sun rising over the land” (Gen 19:23), and a miraculous event during a famous battle where “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down a full day” (Josh 10:13). Likewise in the Levitical law, we find commands to complete the Passover sacrifice “when the sun goes down” (Deut 16:6).
God’s people had interpreted these verses for thousands of years to be authoritative statements about both spiritual and physical realms, and 17th century believers understandably struggled with allowing science to alter traditional interpretations. If God says the sun rises and the sun sets, how could it be otherwise?
Fast forward a few centuries, and we are now somehow quite content to have allowed science to alter our thinking on these verses, without abandoning notions of inerrancy or inspiration. The reason is simply because it was eventually recognized that the primary message of these verses was never on the nature of nature, but on the nature of man and his experience with his environment and his God. Solomon and Joshua accurately recorded their experience from an earthly perspective (sun rising and setting), and David praised God for holding the earth fixedly in His hand (Ps 93:1, 104:5), without requiring a meaning of fixity in space. The central message of these verses was apparent to readers before and after Galileo. Only a secondary interpretation, likely never intended by the writers, was cast off after scientific advances.
So what is the issue regarding Noah’s Flood? The modern debate centers around two questions. Was it truly global in extent, and can the Flood account for the earth’s complex geologic record? To address the first, it is worth being reminded of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where he makes a statement that “your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom 1:8). Entire people groups existed at this time in China, Australia, and North and South America who knew nothing of the church in Rome. Though using wording that literally means the entire world population, Paul is clearly referring to the world known to him and his readers at the time.1 Paul speaks truthfully from his experience. Allowing for the possibility that Noah’s Flood encompassed all of known humanity without necessarily covering the entire planet is thus consistent with how other passages in Scripture are interpreted by Christians who believe the Bible is authoritative and trustworthy.
Our primary interest in this blog series is the second question, the widely promulgated notion that the Flood can account for the earth’s complex geology, and that all genuine Christians should accept this viewpoint.
1. Many Biblical scholars define a literal interpretation as one that takes into account the literary genre, figures of speech, context, and author/audience perspective in deriving the intended meaning. By this definition, poetry and allegory are literally interpreted as figurative. In this blog and in our article, our use of literal conforms to its more common definition where a literal interpretation is one that adheres to the precise definition of words without figurative meaning and without requiring additional context to understand.