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 department at Wheaton College in Illinois. Moshier has practiced geology as a college professor and an oil company explorationist. 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. He has served as past president of the Geological Society of Kentucky and the Affiliation of Christian Geologists. He is a member of several professional geological societies.

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Andrew - #17255

June 12th 2010

Very nice post.

A thought on your comment: “However, pastors should be cautious and responsible if they challenge the consensus of an established scientific discipline in the name of advancing the gospel.”

You are absolutely correct here, though is there some room for critiques of the consensus the presuppositional level.  In my own field, the “guild” has proceeded to interpret the OT *entirely* apart from willing to admit the existence of miracles and/or predictive prophecy.  While I would even admit that both of these have been eisegeted by evangelicals (i.e., more “naturalistic” approaches often can be used), they are assumptions that should be affirmed.  Perhaps something is analogous here to the difference between catastrophism, uniformitarianism and actualism; is it possible that some features, traditionally attributed to uniformitarian/actualist processes, might actually belong to a catastrophic events?

I hesitate to comment for fear I’ll sound like a fundamentalist.  I’m not.  I believe that historical-study of the Bible is not only compatible with the Christian faith, but necessary for biblical interpretation.  I’d like your thoughts of how to best level challenges (when appropriate) from outside the guild.


Merv - #17257

June 12th 2010

The Ecclesiastes quote you give makes an excellent pair with the oft-quoted 2 Peter passage which offers warnings about those who assume things must go on the way they always have.  (Granted, the latter is given in the context of warning about mockers who repudiate Jesus’ return—but as such it makes excellent comparisons using nature—-certainly not escaping the notice of some modern creationists.) 

Not that I’m trying to highlight alleged concordances between modern geology and Scripture—-Lord knows too many plunge headlong down that road.  But I think it is wise to observe that Scripture does provide its own correctives to those who want to dwell on or push one passage at the expense of taking other passages into account. 

—Merv


Paul Bruggink - #17262

June 12th 2010

Does BioLogos have plans to respond to any of John MacArthur’s other twenty plus YEC blog posts over the past two and a half months?


Stephen Moshier - #17268

June 12th 2010

Merv:  Good point.  I don’t believe that the Ecclesiastes passage should be used as a “proof text” for uniformitarianism anymore than the 2 Peter verses should be used to prove catastrophism and flood geology.  Yet, both concepts are implied in the scriptures and they don’t contradict each other. Paul: there are plenty of respectful critiques of YEC geology on the web and in print, including articles and resources at ASA.org (see links to past issues of Perspective in Science and Christian Faith) and Young and Stearley “The Bible, Rocks and Time” (IVP, 2008).  Its probably more valuable here at BioLogos to question the philosophical-hermeneutical presuppositions of YEC and leave the technical critiques to other, more geological venues.  I do appreciate BioLogos inviting geologists to participate in the dialog here!


Headless Unicorn Guy - #17271

June 12th 2010

I remember Catastrophism and Channeled Scablands from one of my Stephen Jay Gould essay collections. 

In asides on the History of Science, Gould pointed out several times that Uniformatarianism had a strong emotional and cultural appeal to the Victorian English milieu Darwin came from (as opposed to the then-recent Catastrophism of the French Revolution). 

As Chesterton put it, “The Victorians believed history ended well—because it ended with the Victorians.”  And the linear upward march of progress (also a Victorian cultural assumption) was best done steady and incrementally.

You see a similar pattern in pop eschatology (End-of-the-World beliefs).  Victorians were Post-Mil, analogous to Unifomatarianism (the continuous linear upward march of Christianization); after World War One, Pre-Trib Pre-Mil predominated—how else to describe the Secret Rapture/Tribulation/Armageddon scenario except as The Ultimate Catastrophism?


Paul Bruggink - #17279

June 12th 2010

Re Stephen (#17268):

I fully agree that it is “more valuable here at BioLogos to question the philosophical-hermeneutical presuppositions of YEC.”  Most of John MacArthur’s other twenty-plus current posts on his Grace-To-You blog are of that nature, including the most recent ones: “Changing the Rules” and “The Fallacy of the ‘Framework Hypothesis’.”  That is why I asked the question.  I believe that it is important for Christians to understand that John MacArthur does not have a monopoly on how to interpret the Bible. There is more than one way to understand what God is trying to communicate to us.


Mary Kidwell - #17332

June 13th 2010

As an “uninformed lay person” presuming “to challenge the scientific community,” I am offended by Moshier’s claim that “Geologists have known that the earth is in the range of 4.5 billion years old since the 1950s.”  I would accept that geologists have believed this based on their interpretation of what they can observe in the present, but I reject that they can know as fact what they have not witnessed.


bruce - #17354

June 13th 2010

What sealed the argument for me is that I haven’t discovered a single instance in which MacArthur’s way of interpreting the data has resulted in any economic benefit. It seems money, not ideology drives modern geologic theory. Until the MacArthur-like preachers can do better at finding oil, gas, coal, and strategic minerals than the geologists, they should keep quiet. Thanks for an excellent presentation!


Landon - #17368

June 14th 2010

Mary (#17332),

Do you believe that you can determine the age of the earth on the basis of being “offended” and the fact that you “reject that they [scientists] can know as fact what they have not witnessed”?

I think you are proving Giberson’s point.


John VanZwieten - #17369

June 14th 2010

Hi Mary, and welcome to Biologos!

Whether you realize it or not, your argument that we can’t know what happened in the past by looking at the present is YEC propaganda and is not consistent with how we operate in the real world.

For example, when we find a human skeleton, we accept as fact that a human died in the past without having witnessed the event.  Depending on the condition of that skeleton, we would call in a forensic scientist or a paleontologist to help determine when that death occured.  If you were sitting on a jury, you would accept the forensic scientist’s “interpretation” as long as you found the witness credible.

And the point of the post is that for some 60 years, scientists have _not_ been extending the estimated age of the earth.  They have refined it a bit, but mostly confirmed it using several independent means of calculation.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #17395

June 14th 2010

I would accept that geologists have believed this based on their interpretation of what they can observe in the present, but I reject that they can know as fact what they have not witnessed.—Mary Kidwell

Right out of Ken Ham’s playbook, almost word-for-word—“WERE YOU THERE?”


Mary Kidwelll - #17399

June 14th 2010

Dr. Moshier states “As with all science, our understanding of processes has changed from the 19th century to the 21st century.” The understanding of scientists is always changing.  To imply that what scientists believe at this point is time should be regarded as fact, I believe is arrogance.  I would be fine if scientists would just acknowledge that what they put forth is what they believe.  Implying something is fact that is not provable, is, I believe, intellectually dishonest.


Landon - #17410

June 14th 2010

“To imply that what scientists believe at this point is time should be regarded as fact, I believe is arrogance.”
I don’t know.  To imply that you know more about scientific facts than those who actually work in the field, when you obviously don’t understand much about how science works, I believe is arrogance.


Ken Wolgemuth - #17419

June 14th 2010

To Mary Kidwell,  My name is Ken Wolgemuth and I was involved with reviewing what Dr. Steve Moshier wrote and offered some suggestions.  I am sorry you are offended by the evidence that we as Christian geologists have observed.  Could you have handled the information more easily if we had written that the evidence from radioactive uranium atoms and the resulting lead atoms in the earth pointed to a scientifically logical interpretation that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.  I for one share this observation with a keen sense of humility before God whom I worship.  He gave me the opportunity to study His Creation through the subject of geochemistry, which includes radioactive dating methods. 

Would you care for an email exchange offline from this blog?  I could send you the figure of uranium and lead data for you to visit with a geologist to understand it - data summarized in the mid 1950s.


Mary Kidwell - #17424

June 14th 2010

Ken,
I am not offended by the evidence (data) and would have easily accepted the statement that the evidence was pointing to a scientific interpretation.  But since it is an interpretation of data and not proven fact, I think it is important to state it as an interpretation.  I strongly believe that Bible clearly teaches a literal 7 day creation and that the earth is probably no more than 10,000 years old but I admit that this is my belief and a conclusion I take in faith.  I don’t understand why so many scientists can’t admit that their conclusions are just that, conclusions and not proven facts.


Robert Byers - #17439

June 14th 2010

I am YEC. and study geomorphology.
I read the author and recommend this to biblical creationists.
It makes our points on many points.
Paradigm shift is just a way to avoid incompetent error charges.
Uniformitarianism didn’t just get struck by Mr Bretz but made irrelevant in origin geology.
there is no need ever to see slow actions as a origin to earth history.
In these days John Shaw and others are overthrowing interpretation of whole areas of northern lands with mega floods acting instantly (not the biblical flood but “ice age” ones) replacing ideas of slow glacial movements being the cause.

Any action seen today on earth can be speeded up with results or compound results.
All of geology can be explained by the great flood or post flood events.
Geology researchers today are still fighting Bretz except in the scablands.
Turning points should be easy in these fields and not like the embarrassing example of Bretz.
It comes down to a claimed witness of scripture and data in the fields.
Biblical creationists insist we win on both points.


Stephen Moshier - #17442

June 15th 2010

Responding to Andrew (the first!): (1) “is it possible that some features, traditionally attributed to uniformitarian/actualist processes, might actually belong to a catastrophic events?”  Do you mean geological features?  Certainly, my point is that mainstream geologists (that includes OEC) see all manner of evidence of catastrophic events in the geologic record.  Floods, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, and even (at least) one natural nuclear fission reaction.  But in the context of the entire geologic record they only make sense on an old planet.  But there were probably many catastrophic events with no record.  The earth has a nasty habit of recycling its crust or scrubbing itself clean with wind, water and ice.  Am I addressing your point?  I’m not sure if you were talking about features in the geologic record or in the Bible.


Stephen Moshier - #17443

June 15th 2010

More responding to Andrew: (2) “I’d like your thoughts of how to best level challenges (when appropriate) from outside the guild.” It would be hard for someone without the technical background in a particular science (guild) to have command of the data resulting in a paradigm shift (those things that RB above doesn’t think much of).  That was Karl G’s point in the “Fries with that Theory” blog.  YEC has failed to convince the rest of the geological community because, frankly, their critiques and proposals lack merit.  I think the history of science shows that when someone comes up with a better idea, even after some heel dragging, its not long before it becomes mainstream.  After 30+ years, YEC geologists have offered nothing at all to cause the geological “guild” to question the prevailing paradigm.  Perhaps astronomers could do that with evidence from beyond the solar system.  But, on the contrary, these two independent studies of creation come to the same conclusion about its antiquity.


Sarah J. MacDonald - #17447

June 15th 2010

Mary - Science never gives us “proven facts” but it can give us a strong measure of certainty.  The age of the earth is an area where we have good certainty, since there are a variety of methods and data sets that give a similar result for the age.  “Interpretation” doesn’t move the data from approximately 4.5 billion years to less than 10,000.


Mary Kidwell - #17460

June 15th 2010

Sarah,
My point is that the “certainty” of scientists has been proven wrong throughout history as new data is discovered or old data is reinterpreted.  That is why it is important to clearly see it and present it as interpretation.  Science can and has done much good and is a worthy endeavor in proper context.  But when the “certainty” of men or women causes them contradict the scripture, I believe it is foolish and harmful.  An example is interpreting the “earth”  flood of Genesis as local when God uses the same word for “earth” in promising never to again flood the earth. 
This interpretation makes God a liar when many local and devastating floods have since occurred.  Be careful on what you base your certainty.  The wisdom of men is foolishness with God (1 Cor. 3:19).  The truly wise man will build his life on God’s word rather than the shifting sand of man’s certainty.


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