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The Biblical Premise of Uniformitarianism, Part 1

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June 12, 2010 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's entry was written by Stephen O. Moshier. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Biblical Premise of Uniformitarianism, Part 1

Students of geology learn in their first semester that uniformitarianism is the guiding principle by which geologists interpret Earth’s history. The premise, as formulated by James Hutton in the late 18th century and argued persuasively by Charles Lyell in the middle 19th century, is that geological processes we observe today can be used to explain ancient geological materials and structures. For example, today we see the rock basalt forming by volcanic activity. Since we find basalt layers exposed in Shenandoah National Park, we presume that lavas oozed onto an ancient seafloor sometime in the distant past before the Blue Ridge Mountains formed.

Young-Earth Creationists/Flood Geologists reject the geological principle of uniformitarian on the grounds that (1) it is inherently unbiblical, (2) it was developed to refute biblical catastrophism, and (3) it does not fulfill its promise to help us correctly interpret Earth’s history. These concerns are repeated in Young-Earth creationist literature and even from the pulpits of many churches. Recently in his internet blog, distinguished American pastor John MacArthur (well known for his popular radio ministry) portrayed geological uniformitarianism as a dangerous dogma (here and here).

I respect Dr. MacArthur’s commitment to the authority of Scripture and his passion for the gospel message, but as a professional geologist and Christ-follower I found so many errors in his analysis that I feel they must be exposed in a similar forum. In a recent BioLogos Forum blog, Karl Giberson lamented the all-to-common situation in which “uninformed lay people presume to challenge the scientific community.” Pastors should not be expected to know all the nuances of a concept like geological uniformitarianism, nor the details of landforms and strata in some state park in Georgia (we will get to that). However, pastors should be cautious and responsible if they challenge the consensus of an established scientific discipline in the name of advancing the gospel.

Faulty assumptions, old definitions

Dr. MacArthur defined uniformitarianism as “the theory that natural and geological phenomena are for the most part the results of forces that have operated continuously, with uniformity, and without interruption, over billions and billions of years,” and that the “forces at work in nature are essentially fixed and constant.” There are elements of this description in nearly every textbook or dictionary definition of the term. I like the definition in the Glossary of Geology by Bates and Jackson: “The fundamental principle or doctrine that geologic processes and natural laws now operating to modify the earth’s crust have acted in the same regular manner and with essentially the same intensity throughout geologic time, and that past geologic events can be explained by phenomena and forces observable today....the doctrine does not imply that all change is at a uniform rate, and does not exclude minor local catastrophes.”

The example Dr. MacArthur gives to illustrate this principle is not how geologists apply it in their interpretations of Earth history. He writes, “The uniformitarian sees sedimentary rock strata...and assumes that the sediments that formed them resulted from the natural, slow settling of particles in water over several million years.” Geologists can point to very few natural environments of deposition where this kind of slow settling of particles actually occurs – the deep sea and large lakes come to mind. There certainly are some ancient rocks with textural properties that compare with deep sea and lake deposits. But, many more ancient strata compare perfectly with deposits of modern rivers, deltas, reefs and tidal flats (to name a few among many examples) that form by episodic accumulation of sediments in short periods of time (from seconds to centuries), separated by longer periods of non-deposition or erosion (from months to millennia and even longer).

Paradigm shift: uniformitarianism includes catastrophes

Dr. MacArthur mentions that fossils have a better chance of being preserved if they are buried suddenly (if not catastrophically), and uniformitarian geologists would agree! That’s because modern geologists don’t even subscribe to 19th century uniformitarianism. A paradigm shift occurred in the middle 20th century replacing uniformitarianism with actualism, an addendum to the principle allowing that extreme natural forces have acted in Earth’s history. For our purposes, we will use the term uniformitarianism as it is used by geologists today, not the 19th century definition. Uniformitarianism includes catastrophic events such as thousands of earthquakes from plate tectonics and various meteorite impacts (see footnote ii). As with all science, our understanding of processes has changed from the 19th century to the 21st century.

One of the turning points involved a unique landform called the channeled scablands in eastern Washington State that seemed to defy conventional explanations. Geologist J. Harlan Bretz proposed that they were formed by catastrophic floods of swift, deep water escaping from glacial lakes at the end of the last ice age.1 The geological community eventually accepted his ideas, but it took over 30 years and some mind stretching to think about such forces as being normal or natural. Bretz was not motivated by biblical flood geology, but by following the evidence where it led him.2

An old earth is not unbiblical

Dr. MacArthur claims that geologists have to keep increasing the age of the earth to make time for all the catastrophes evident in the rock record. That comment ignores the historical development of the geologic time scale as eventually quantified by the middle of the twentieth century. Geologists have known that the earth is in the range of 4.5 billion years old since the 1950s.

Our understanding of Earth history was advanced by thousands of geologists since Hutton and Lyell laboring over the details the earth’s crust and considering each stratum in the context of the planet as a whole. They abandoned the ideas of a very recent creation and global deluge of geological significance because those ideas were not supported by the geological data.

Many of the early geologists knew the implications of the emerging picture for the biblical accounts of origins and they looked to Bible scholars of their time for help. Modern evangelicals know those Bible scholars who accepted the new geology and showed that it was not inconsistent with the meaning of Scripture. Men like B. B. Warfield, James Orr and George Fredrick Wright; men who also contributed to the origins of the fundamentalist movement. Just as respected evangelical biblical scholars of our generation find an ancient creation no threat to biblical faith, such as Alister McGrath, C. John Collins, Bruce Waltke, Wayne Grudem, John Walton and Walter Kaiser.

Dr. MacArthur’s blogs conclude with the geological example of Providence Canyons in southwest Georgia to show the ineptness of uniformitarianism. Poor farming practices in the last century in this upland plateau resulted in severe erosion of the natural drainage system, cutting numerous gullies up to 130 feet deep. If Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon could form in only decades, why couldn’t receding water from Noah’s flood carve Arizona’s Big Grand Canyon? That both canyons were carved by water is about the extent of the comparison! A detailed look at the strata eroded in Providence Canyons provides further evidence that actualistic assumptions work.3

Uniformitarianism reflects God’s unchanging nature

Finally, do we really want to condemn uniformitarianism, or its offspring actualism, as an unbiblical premise? Dr. MacArthur quotes scriptures that ring of the catastrophist actions of God in nature. However, there are also scriptures that speak of the unchanging nature of God and...well, nature. Ecclesiastes 1 comes to mind with its poetic refrains: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever....All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.....What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”

In Part 2 and Part 3, Gregory Bennett will explore how the concept of uniformitarianism as used by geologists is necessary for our full understanding of God’s relationship to nature. He will also explore how uniformitarian principles are used by every biblical interpreter including use within one of the core tenants of Christian doctrine, God’s providence.

References:

Bates, R. L., and Jackson, J. A. Glossary of Geology, American Geological Institute 1987.

Donovan, A. D., and Reinhardt, J., Providence Canyons: the Grand Canyon of southwest Georgia. Geological Society of America Centennial Field Guide –Southeastern Section, 1986.p. 359-362.

Giberson, Karl, "Would you like fries with that theory?". May 10, 2010.

MacArthur, John, Uniformitarianim, Part 1. May 7, 2010.

MacArthur, John, Uniformitarianim, Part 2. May 10, 2010.

Notes

1. This event occurred about 11,500 years ago during a period of rapid global warming over a 200 to 400 year period of time, according to evidence from ice cores in Greenland and lake and cave sediments across the Northern Hemisphere.
2. In addition, geologists find evidence of major catastrophic events such as meteorite impacts. One example is the Chicxulub crater buried below the surface on the Yucutan Peninsula of Mexico, resulting from a meteorite impact about 65 million years ago and approximately coinciding with the dinosaur extinction. It was discovered during seismic exploration for oil. The crater is over 100 miles in diameter, and left telltale ash about 1,000 miles away in the sediments offshore Florida, and over 6,000 miles away in Italy and Denmark.
3. Once the protection of surface vegetation was removed, streams easily cut through the poorly consolidated sand deposits of the Upper Cretaceous Providence Formation to create the numerous large gullies at Providence Canyons. Those sand deposits compare with sands that are deposited today in near-shore marine conditions (like off the coast of Georgia today). The deposits feature cross-bedded layers formed by migrating sand bars with burrow tubes and traces from animals that lived on and below the sea floor (Donovan and Reinhardt, 1986). This is no flood deposit where animals were suddenly buried in a catastrophic event, but a record of episodic sedimentation in an ancient sea where marine critters ate, reproduced and died under normal marine conditions; modern uniformitarianism exemplified!


Stephen O. Moshier is a professor and chair of the Geology & Environmental Science Department at Wheaton College in Illinois. Moshier has practiced geology as a college professor and an oil company geologist. Much of his early research in geology involved describing and interpreting oil reservoir rocks. More recently, Dr. Moshier's research efforts are in the field of geoarchaeology, participating in expeditions to the Sinai, Egypt, and Israel. He has served as past president of the Geological Society of Kentucky and the Affiliation of Christian Geologists and currently serves on the Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation. He is a member of several professional geological societies.

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John VanZwieten - #17462

June 15th 2010

Mary,

“Bible-science” (the insistence on basing/restricting scientific discovery on our interpretation of the Bible) is simply a complete failure. 

If you really want to be consistent about the Bible-science route, you should go beyond global flood and 10K years and join the folks at http://www.geocentric.com who still insist (based on God’s word) that the sun revolves around the earth each day.

You should also insist that we think with our hearts and that rabbits chew the cud.

I think a better option is to ‘build your life” on God’s word (i.e. be the kind of person Jesus calls you to be in response to who He is) but give up Bible-science and just let the investigations of nature find whatever they find.  You’ve been taught to see the Bible in a certain way, so it won’t be easy to let that go, but as many around here will tell you, it can be done and it’s worth the effort.


Sarah J. MacDonald - #17469

June 15th 2010

Mary, in terms of certainty level, things like the age of the earth and the theory of evolution are unlikely to be totally *wrong*, especially considering we are in the era of modern science and instrumentation. They may be modified, but complete reversal is rare.

Saying we should simply submit to scriptural science, like John has said, when carried out consistently leads to geocentrism. (http://www.geocentricity.com is the correct link).

One of Luther’s companions, Melanchthon ,said this, “But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the [stars] nor the sun revolves…Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it”

Sound familiar?

I agree with what Galileo said, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” I think the same applies to the age of the earth and evolution. God didn’t give us the Bible to teach us science. God gave us our minds to explore the creation He gave us, that is what science is about.


Andrew - #17478

June 15th 2010

Thanks Stephen,

The comments do answer my questions.  Again, a very helpful post!  Thanks!


Mary Kidwell - #17536

June 15th 2010

Submitting to scripture did not lead Copernicus or Galileo to believe in geocentrism. Galileo wrote in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, “I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.” He went to write of Copernicus, “He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scripture when they were rightly understood.”  (http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/galileo.html)


Mary Kidwell - #17544

June 15th 2010

Scripture does not teach geocentrism, as Galileo and Copernicus knew, and I would venture to guess that most scientists have commented on beautiful sunsets in spite of not believing in geocentrism.  When we read the Bible, it is not a choice between wooden literalism or just interpret it however you choose.  We come to scripture prayerfully, dependent on God to reveal His truth, and as we read we consider context and type of literature to help us understand what is the intended understanding, always comparing scripture with other scripture because God will not contradict Himself.  In humility, we don’t impose on scripture what we want it to say, but we seek to understand what God wants us to learn.  God says in His word, (Exodus 20:11 in addition to Genesis 1) that He made the world in 6 days.  It was an act of God who is not limited to what man can understand.


John VanZwieten - #17560

June 16th 2010

Mary,

Just as submitting to scripture did not lead Copernicus or Galileo to believe in geocentrism, I suggest to you that submitting to scripture should not lead us today to believe in YECism.  I would add that an old earth and common descent do not “contradict the Scripture when they [are] rightly understood.”

It doesn’t take a “wooden” literalism to find geocentrism in the Bible.  It only takes a “plain reading” without the benefit of our modern knowlege.

I’m sure you know that a great number of devout Christians at the time (including many of the most famous) did find a moving earth to contradict scripture, and so they rejected it well beyond the time when scientists had reached concensus on the matter.

Other devout Christians took up the unpopular task of convincing their brothers and sisters that they could accept a non-geocentric solar system without giving up on the Bible.  Some did so by retranslating the hebrew or greek in ways consistent with a moving earth; others did so by allowing greater latitude in intrepretation of just what the scriptures in question were (or weren’t) aiming to teach.


Mark SV - #17672

June 16th 2010

I appreciate this gracious but probing dialogue. I’m grateful that God has given two books: the record of nature and of revelation. Both can inform the interpretation of each other. As believers, we want to defer to scripture as supreme but, as history has shown, additional light from nature has afforded the Christian community to see that God is much greater than rigid forms of interpretation once allowed. For instance, coupling the vastness of space with the deepness of time allows the Christian to more fuller appreciate the power, wisdom, care and patience of God. “Ancient of days” (Dan 7.22), “going forth of old” (Mic 5.2), actually have powerful content in the OEC view.

I’ve also appreciated how we can see the working of God in our personal lives: it has not been my experience to have “poof” encounters with God. Rather, His work has been steady, persistent and gracious. The many years that have taken to learn simple lessons of what it means to be “Christ-like” are still on-going, but effective I trust. His work in history manifests such patience as well. Extrapolate that to His work in Creation ....

Oh God, how great Thou art!


Martin Rizley - #18547

June 23rd 2010

Stephen,  I don’t know any creationist who argues against every form of “actualism.”  Global flood creationists (a better term than “young earth creationist,” since the age of the earth and the universe is a separate issue from the formation of the geological column and the fossil record)  do not attack “actualism” per se, but the concept of “absolute actualism” which denies in principle that there could have been any miraculous divine interventions in earth’s past that have affected the earth’s geomorphology.  They believe that the concept of “contingent actualism”—actualism dependent on God’s sovereign will—is a more biblical concept than “absolute actualism,” because it allows for miraculous divine interventions at certain key moments in the past.  God by His sovereign will could have ‘accelerated’ certain geological processes at the time of the Flood.  Why would any Bible-believing Christian dispute God’s freedom to intervene to do that?  However, you will not find this distinction between “absolute actualism” and “contingent actualism” taught in any state-funded university or science academy, because of the strict separation of “science and religion” that is the bedrock of those institutions.


Gingoro - #18634

June 24th 2010

Martin Rizley @18547

Why would any Bible-believing Christian dispute God’s freedom to intervene to do that?

Certainly I would not argue against God’s freedom to intervene, it is his world and he is sovereign.  However, the question becomes “Has God actually intervened in the places you or I think that he has, or are we misinterpreting scripture and experience?”. 

I’m certain that we would differ on when God has intervened but not that he is free to do so.  Furthermore he can intervene in ways we can at least potentially detect to the extent that we think something unusual has occurred.  God can also intervene in ways we can’t detect even in principle eg timing of the decay of an atom.  To my mind unless we have scripture to inform us that God has intervened, we always have at least some intellectual doubt that in any particular instance God did in fact intervene and that the occurrence of interest was not just the outworking of God’s upholding his created laws. (see Berkhower on the Sovereignty of God)  However in spite of that when something goes especially and unexpectedly well I always should thank God and often do so. 
Dave W


Victor S. - #19260

June 28th 2010

Well, if Jesus turned water into wine, and if you believe that account, then leave all natural processes open to God’s arbitrary acts of intrusion into our neat little theories of “Uniformatarianism”.

Why was this, the FIRST of Jesus miracles even performed?  Could it not have great significance and meaning that applies directly to this discussion; or is it just of minor curious interest?

If God is truly the all wise and almighty Creator, are there any accidents in His creation?

God is a jealous God, and his whole argument with Job is based on his status of an awesome, wise and powerful Creator.  He will make fools of us all; that we shall all surely discover. 

Just the gospel message alone is full of foolishness and absurdity that cannot be embraced except by faith.  He that sits in the heavens will laugh…


Victor Schmehl - #19261

June 28th 2010

If Jesus created wine from water for the benefit of blessing a wedding, Why wouldn’t God do something instantaneous and far more wonderful for the first two humans he created in His image?

I don’t believe we understand the genome as well as our scientist would have us believe.  I’m with Mary Kidwell—we been burnt too many times by the haughty pronouncements of our secular scientists.  There are a great many undisclosed chains of assumptions and presuppositions that go into these models, theories, and statistics.

You ask me to believe (and trust the ‘experts’) these scientific theories when our scientists, engineers and other voodoo children cannot even plug an oil leak that’s desecrated the Gulf of Mexico.  Man’s a joke when all is said and done.

It’s my opinion the evolutionary world view, theistic or not, views creation as an impersonal accident of chance and impersonal ‘laws’, not a miraculous gift of untold value which is good and which God loves, making it easy to take it for granted and treat with such disregard.

Choose your world view, but don’t fool yourselves that yours is “proven” and that your not putting your faith into your ‘priests’ proclamations just as much as I am mine.


gingoro - #19263

June 28th 2010

Victor @19261

I share your skeptism of big science but probably not to the extent that you take it to. 


“It’s my opinion the evolutionary world view, theistic or not, views creation as an impersonal accident of chance and impersonal ‘laws’, not a miraculous gift of untold value which is good and which God loves, making it easy to take it for granted and treat with such disregard.”

No IMO you are wrong given a definition of evolution as common descent.  Even if you add in the neo Darwinian mechanisms, God is still in control of chance occurrences and is sovereign as the Bible says.  Some on BioLogos may assume chance beyond God’s control but that is not a necessary viewpoint and certainly not mine.  As I have said elsewhere IMO the neo Darwinian mechanisms may or may not be capable of producing complex biological features since I do not think they have demonstrated their case to a high degree of probability.  In any case scientific theories are always open to revision, read Karl Popper.
Dave W


Martin Rizley - #19409

June 29th 2010

Victor, You write,  “If Jesus turned water into wine, and if you believe that account, then leave all natural processes open to God’s arbitrary acts of intrusion into our neat little theories of “Uniformatarianism”.  I agree with you that all natural processes are opent to God’s acts of intrusion, although I would emphasize that they are relatively rare and are ‘arbitrary’ only from our perspective; from God’s perspective, they are always purposeful.  I think it is important for those who believe that God’s supernatural interventions in the natural world are not limited to those recorded in Scripture to affirm, at the same time, that God’s usual way of upholding the world is through the pattern of regularly processes that we call “natural laws.”  Edgar Andrews, in his excellent discussion of miracles in his book “Who Made God?” (pp. 156-172) writes that God ordinarily works providentially by employing natural laws for a good reason.  “There is much benefit in this mode of operation. . .the consistency and elegance of these laws testifies to the existence, intelligence, power and orderly nature of God as Creator. . .Furthermore, (continued)


Martin Rizley - #19410

June 29th 2010

the laws of nature serve mankind because their predictability allows civilization and technology to flourish. . .on rare occasions, however, God perceives that a departure from normality is needed and he overrides natural law to effect a non-natural or miraculous event.  In either case, however, whether events occur by natural process or miraculous fiat, it is the present-tense mind and will of God that operates.  The miracle is real but differs from a natural event only in the eyes of the observer, not of the ever-immanent God.”  Andrews well summarizes the Bible’s teaching on natural law by saying that the Biblical view of God “leads us to expect the cosmos to be ‘ruled’ by consistent, rational and universal laws of nature. . .second, it posits that these laws of nature are not self-standing principles that exist apart from their originator, but are rather the moment-by-moment expression of his mind and will . . Third, while God normally directs these laws to accomplish his ends providentially, he nevertheless has complete freedom to ‘change his mind’ and operate within the natural world in a different mode, namely miraculously.”


Victor - #20138

July 2nd 2010

Well Martin,
I would say the first six days of creation recorded in Genesis would be considered a ‘rare’ event—singular would be a better word.  Sorry, but creating with an ‘apparent’  to us age doesn’t seem far fetched, esp. in light of the water to wine miracle. 

Jesus also seemed to hold to a literal Genesis, when he spoke of God’s creation of Adam and Eve. 

I can understand the desire for conformity, especially when a persons advancement in academia is at stake, and it’s just IMHO, but I think much of this biologos movement is an attempt to ‘keep the “faith”’ and keep the membership.

I don’t think rejecting an evolutionary mechanism for initial creation is intellectually inferior view; it just accepts God doing more outrageous acts in history than are comfortable, and they have the effect (and maybe purpose) of knocking down our persistant creation of more and more “towers of babel”.


Martin Rizley - #20554

July 5th 2010

Victor,  I am in total sympathy with you about God’s freedom to create with an appearance of age.  It may well be that the ‘apparent’ age of the universe is just that—an appearance contrary to actual fact.  People on the Biologos website have a problem with that, because they think it would make God a Deceiver.  I disagree.  God may do things for reasons that transcend our understanding without being a deceiver; to dispute that is to show that one is at heart a rationalist.  My point is that we should only be dogmatic about things that God has expressly affirmed in the Bible, and less dogmatic about those things that are not expressly affirmed but merely inferred as a possible or probable inference.  The ideat that the first three days of creation were all of uniform 24 hours duration seems to me like an inference from Scripture.  It is not expressly taught, and the fact that we have an example in Scripture of at least one literal day whose duration varied from the norm (Joshua 10) tells me that we should be cautious on this issue.  However, I strongly oppose the idea that God cannot intervene in the natural world to perform miracles that affect earth’s geomorphology.


One time commenter - #23718

July 28th 2010

Martin Rizley - #19410
“God perceives that a departure from normality is needed and he overrides natural law to effect a non-natural or miraculous event”

Well,  God may had perceived,  or He’s perceiving, or He Will perceive something. It makes me very uncomfortable when anyone declares to know what God will do, is doing, or did in the past.

Bible tell us how God behaved,, and gives accoun of him for a limited period of time, but how do we know he had behaved like this in the past. How do we know he will behave like this in the future. I know jesus has already made to us a promise,  But is written that God has changed his mind before.

I se uniformalism very alike, I mean you’re sure that God’s opinions and intentios at this very present day are the same as 3,000 or 2,000 or 1,000 years ago. You are so sure GOD’S intentions haven´t changed (In my opinion God can not be totally comprehended by my mortal mind and as long as I know God can do anything he wants even to change his opinion) ,and yet you doubt earth could have some process that have remained the same trhough out its history.


Vic - #23942

July 29th 2010

I don’t think God overrides natural law per se but introduces a more powerful cause or influence that overpowers or supersedes the ‘natural’ law He enforces.  Kind of like me pedaling my bike op a hill doesn’t override gravity but based on my volition overcomes it for a time, with respect to the location of myself and my bike.  God is omnipotent and can introduce His power at His will and decree.  Nothing magic, just omnipotent, transcendent and sovereign.


Patrick - #24813

August 6th 2010

An analogy is a comparison between two different things.  By definition, eschatological uniformitarianism IS NOT the same as geological uniformitarianism.  Macarthur is muddying the distinction—and of course ignores the rest of the book of 2 Peter (day is like a thousand years and only the church has teaching authority—not anyone waving her book over his head).

Peter wasn’t saying anything about evolution.
Peter wasn’t saying anything about creation.
Peter was simply saying that judgement will come just as it has in the past.


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