The Biblical Premise of Uniformitarianism, Part 2

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June 15, 2010 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's entry was written by Gregory Bennett. 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 2

Today's post is the second entry in a three-part series. Part I can be found here.

Uniformitarianism is addressed from a geological and historical perspective by Stephen Moshier in Part 1 of this series. In this, Part 2, I will explore how uniformitarianism provides a model of understanding the earth’s history from the perspective of God’s providence, one of the core tenants of Christian doctrine.

In his internet blogs of May 7 and May 10, 2010: Uniformitarianism, Part 1 and Part 2, the distinguished American pastor John MacArthur (well known for his popular radio ministry and Study Bible) portrayed uniformitarianism as expressly condemned in Scripture. This blog responds to his views with another perspective showing that Dr. MacArthur is mistaken and that uniformitarianism is expressly supported by the plain teaching of Scripture and by a well-known and accepted Christian doctrine, that of God’s providence. Dr. MacArthur’s arguments against uniformitarianism implicitly teach against the doctrine of God’s providence.

Let us first of all define what we mean by the terms “creation” and “God’s providence.” Systematic theology textbooks used by beginning Bible students include sections or chapters on these doctrines and two are referenced below.

Defining terms: Creation and Providence

Creation has been defined as that “free act of God whereby He, according to his sovereign will and for his own glory, in the beginning brought forth the whole visible and invisible universe, without the use of preexistent material, and thus gave it an existence, distinct from his own and yet always dependent on him.” (Berkhof, p.129)

God’s providence has been defined as “that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all his creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.” (Berkhof, p.166) There are three elements to providence: preservation, concurrence or cooperation, and government. (Grudem, p.315; Berkhof p.166) Using Berkhof’s model, two types of God’s providence include (1) Ordinary providence where God works “through second causes in strict accordance with the laws of nature” and (2) Extraordinary providence where God works “immediately or without the mediation of second causes in their ordinary operation.” A more common term for extraordinary providence is the word “miracle.” (Berkhof, p.176)

God’s providence teaches that God is the “first mover” and that other forces in nature are the “second movers”—forces such as gravitation, thermodynamics, or the heat of the Sun. Second movers include such forces as the lightning that flashes and sets a forest ablaze, convection in the molten, metallic outer core that creates the protective magnetic shield around the earth, the hand of a person who lights a fire to warm his family…the list is endless. These “second movers” or “secondary causes” all act under the rule of God’s providence.

The Bible does not describe God as being part of nature, but as creating it as a potter would work clay (see Jeremiah 18:1-6) and, then, relating to what he has made in an intimate, caring relationship. Pantheism doesn’t distinguish between creation and providence so it is very important to be careful to do so. Theism stresses “the calling into existence of that which did not exist before, while providence continues or causes to continue that has already been called into existence.” It also emphasizes cooperation between “the creature with the Creator” and “concurrence of the first Cause (God) with the second causes. In Scripture the two are always kept distinct.” (Berkhof, p.167)

Uniformitarianism is God’s ordinary providence

Uniformitarianism is simply another way of describing God’s ordinary providence in shaping his world— what we study in the scientific field of geology. Throughout time, God as Creator and Provider has used the many tools at his disposal to make and mold the universe including the earth and its flora and fauna. Geologists have the privilege of studying how God did this creating and providing during the history of the earth.

When geologists speak of uniformitarianism, they mean that God used similar mechanisms in the past that he uses today in creating, ruling, and providing for the earth and its flora and fauna. This work of God throughout time is what we study under the doctrine of God’s providence.

Geologists using the term “uniformitarianism” do nothing more than assume that God has worked in the past in similar ways as he does now. Normally, he works by “ordinary providence”, which includes events that we are used to seeing as well as the ones that are rare. For example, both the daily wind and a hurricane would act under God’s ordinary providence.

It is not possible, nor is it necessary, to distinguish ordinary providence from extraordinary providence (or miracles) when studying God’s creation using scientific methods. Dr. MacArthur mistakenly pits one against the other. For example, geologists cannot determine whether ordinary providence (God’s use of secondary agents of gravity, mass, and planetary motion) or extraordinary providence (God’s direct miraculous hand) caused the meteorite to hit the earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million Earth-years ago, ending the reign of dinosaurs and ushering in the reign of mammals.

God provides for his creation

The Bible shows an intimate, relational involvement by God in what we might consider simply nature at work. God’s providence says that the Creator is also the Nourisher, the Provider, and the Sustainer of all that exists. Before God created people on the earth, he created all kinds of animals. He fed them, shepherded them, took care of them, and involved himself in their existence – all before he created people. A branch of geology called paleontology studies these long-extinct animals that were shepherded by God long before he created people. God shepherded the dinosaurs in the distant past long before he shepherded David or us.

And God has continued with this provision. Should he stop providing, the universe would stop and all life would end. Even though he rested from his creating (Genesis 1), he has not stopped providing for and ruling his creation. Throughout time and at every point in space (including the earth) God has provided for his creation. He provides at this very moment in time for you and for me. He provides for every creature from the most simple to the great complexity of us humans. He provides for the whole of creation – for each molecule, for each rock, for each tree, for each insect, for everything at all times.

Psalm 104 gives us great examples of God’s providence at work, where he feeds animals, gives them a life span, provides day and night, provides rain, forms mountains, causes the wind to blow. Psalm 104: 27-30 says, “All of your creatures wait for you to provide them with food on a regular basis. You give food to them and they receive it; you open your hand and they are filled with food. When you ignore them, they panic. When you take away their life’s breath, they die and return to dust. When you send your life-giving breath, they are created, and you replenish the surface of the ground.”

A plain reading of Scripture shows God relating to his creation using both the normal interactions of gravity, heat, and matter as well as the miraculous or direct changes from his own hand. A plain reading of Scripture also shows God in intimate relationship with his creation. Matthew 6:25 says, “Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” God literally feeds the birds – the finches that eat seed, the bald eagles that eat fish, and the vultures that eat carrion. Or consider Isaiah 45:7, “I am the one who forms light and creates darkness; the one who brings about peace and creates calamity.” God literally forms the day and night for us. He does so through his agents the sun and the rotation of the earth. God feeds the birds and creates day and night under what we describe as God’s providence.

Where we’re going

In Part 3 we will explore uniformitarianism as a reasonable model of looking at God’s providence back to the beginning of time and consider how every biblical interpreter and student of history uses similar uniformitarian principles.

References

Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, 4th Edition, Eerdmans, 1941.

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994.


Gregory Bennett has practiced geology as a middle school teacher and an oil company production geologist. He now works in the information technology industry providing consulting to universities throughout the US. Bennett writes and lectures on science and faith topics as an affiliate with Solid Rock Lectures and has drafted a book for youth with the working title, Geology and God’s Work: Discovering a Personal, Loving Artist behind Earth History. He is a member of the Affiliation of Christian Geologists, the American Scientific Affiliation, and an associate with the Evangelical Theological Society.

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Argon - #17719

June 17th 2010

Bilbo: “Theists have the advantage over the atheists, because theists can explain why their expectation that the universe will reflect their rationality:  their rationality reflects the same rationality of the God who created the universe.

Atheists have no such ground for their beliefs.”

As Merv describes, I also see this argument as passing the buck, with regard grounding a unconfirmable belief in “something”. The notion of causality is an axiom, not a theorem.

Aside: I have a hard time squaring the ideas that the universe is rational/comprehensible *and* that God intervenes supernaturally on occassion (e.g. resurrection?). To me, that suggests that a Christian believes the universe operates in accord with understandable laws and regularity, except when it doesn’t. Deism or Howard Van Till’s notion of a ‘fully gifted creation’ would seem more consistent positions.


Bilbo - #17851

June 17th 2010

Hi Merv,

Let’s assume there are an infinite number of universes.  Let’s assume that some are intelligible.  But there will be other universes that seem intelligible, but really aren’t.  Which kind are we in?


Marshall - #17857

June 17th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

Isn’t that kind of like the difference between a universe that really is old and a universe that only appears to be old? Either way, science works the same.


Bilbo - #17859

June 17th 2010

Hi Argon,

Both theistic and atheistic scientists approach the world with a built-in assumptions, among them being:

1)  the universe operates by a finite number of fixed principles,

2)  that their cognitive faculties are able to figure out what those principles are.

The theists have justification for their assumptions:  A beneficent Creator has designed us to understand His creation.  The atheists have no such justification. and must blindly hope that (1) and (2) are true.  So the atheists need as much or more faith than their theistic counterparts.

Can a rational universe have miracles?  Yes, if we see them as fitting into the Creator’s larger plan.  I hate to sound like a broken record, but I must refer you to C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, especially the chapters “On Probability,” and “The Grand Miracle.”


Gregory Bennett - #17873

June 18th 2010

Bilbo –

I’m intrigued by Gerald Schroeder’s ideas about the days of Genesis 1. Reading them got my thinking going on the subject.  So, yes, I’m influenced by Schroeder.

On being “literal”, I think that we always struggle to not bring our cultural biases and personal backgrounds into how we read something.  Western culture is a chronological culture.  So therefore we naturally want to put a chronological length of time on each day in Genesis 1.  The word in Genesis 1 is “day” and doesn’t mention how long a day is.  A 24-hour day on earth is a meaningless chronology to a person anywhere else in the universe due to changes in velocity, gravity, and the other factors in the equations behind time dilation.  God is not within the universe.  Thus, chronological time would be a meaningless concept in regard to his work.  There is nothing symbolic here or mythical or figurative.  Simply a different literal approach than one would come up with from a Western chronologically based culture - which isn’t always the “right” perspective in understanding something.


Gregory Bennett - #17879

June 18th 2010

“… squaring the ideas that the universe is rational/comprehensible *and* that God intervenes supernaturally on occasion (e.g. resurrection?).  … that suggests that a Christian believes the universe operates in accord with understandable laws and regularity, except when it doesn’t.”

Comment:  We, humans, made in the image of God have great capacity for rational thought.  Part of our rationality is developing models to help us understand.  I believe that we have developed a model of “supernatural vs. natural” that is not taught in Scripture, and having done so we back ourselves into the kind of corner described above.

God’s providence is a model of that is core to Christianity, one that describes the universe and its systems all in relationship to God’s hand.  By using it instead of the “supernatural vs. natural” argument, everything becomes relational to the person of God in what we study in science.  It could be that everything is a “miracle” because everything takes place personally at the hand of God.  He may just normally works one way more than another way.  And we call that “natural”.


Argon - #17891

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:
“The theists have justification for their assumptions:  A beneficent Creator has designed us to understand His creation.”

Again, that passes the buck, in terms of explanation.

“So the atheists need as much or more faith than their theistic counterparts.”

I’d say it’s a wash either way. Causality is an axiom. I’m not going to argue this further and hijack the thread. There is a great deal of discussion about this philosophical argument available on the internet. There are also a couple relatively recent books on the subject that discuss the arguments from a variety of vantage points.

*****
Gregory Bennett: “He may just normally works one way more than another way.  And we call that “natural”.

I appreciate your view but I can’t come to understand that how the physical process of resurrection fits the ‘natural’, comprehensible category of events. There is a difference between *understanding creation* and understanding it ‘well enough for some purposes’.


Gregory Bennett - #18115

June 20th 2010

When I was in college, I spent my freshman year considering the different ways people found meaning in life – kind of like Solomon talks about in Ecclesiastes. I partied, I chased girls, I argued, I took lots of interesting classes, I ran on track team, I worked lots of hours, and did everything I could do to see what people found meaning in life. I was looking for the source of power over meaning.  All were dry.  People were just chasing, not finding. Then, my roommate suggested that if the universe was created by and for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16), he held the power of the universe in his control. Why would I follow any lesser choice? Following Christ was only logical based on the source of power over all that exists.

Resurrection is the same way. Christ rose from the dead. He showed that he had power, not just over the universe, but over life and death itself and the consequences of the Fall. I don’t understand how he has that power.  Nor do I understand how he made the universe, but by faith and the revelation of Scripture’s teaching I know that he made it, that he provides for it, and that God is in a close personal relationship with his Creation.


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