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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John VanZwieten - #17465

June 15th 2010

Good post, Gregory!

Most believers have a hard time keeping hold of a full view of God’s providence. 

I particularly like your use of the word “literally” as in “God literally feeds the birds.” 


Merv - #17471

June 15th 2010

I wouldn’t think that most YECs would completely deny all uniformitarianism.  But they might be more objecting to what they view a an implied or embedded assumption that uniformitarianism denies the possibility of extraordinary providence.  So I think it significant to explicitly state, as you did in this article, that this is not true (though it may be true for the assumptions of some non-believers), and that uniformitarianism (ordinary providence) can be used without denying the existence of extra-ordinary providence.  The tricky part will be that scientists (Christian or otherwise) can’t do anything with or analyze any phenomena that fall into the special providence category other than to observe that it happened.  And when all you have is a hammer…    well, then others accuse the scientists (even the Christian ones) of thinking the universe is nothing but nails.  But the rub is that we can swing that hammer against


Merv - #17472

June 15th 2010

everything with all our passion because (at least scientifically speaking) it’s all we have.  And this still would not amount to a denial of “non-nail” items.  It’s just us using what we have.  But the way some inflate science into all-inclusive Scientism, those who read metaphysical statements into all our wild hammer-swinging could be forgiven for the impression, no?

—Merv


Jordan - #17480

June 15th 2010

If Ecclesiastes 1 isn’t a biblical description of uniformitarianism, I don’t know what is.


Karl A - #17486

June 15th 2010

Thanks for the post, Gregory. 

Although in the article you are careful to define creation as “without the use of preexistent material”, you actually only sometimes mean that when you say “create”, and sometimes mean something else.  For example, you say God “created” humans, which I agree, but I assume you are not necessarily referring to a creation ex nihilo any more than the dinosaurs were created ex nihilo.  (Of course, even YEC’s like MacArthur would probably hedge that humans were created ex nihilo, because they were created from dust!)

A larger question is: How do we in our language hold on to a high view of providence such as you present, while still acknowledging that much of this “creation” of the things and creatures we see around us are actually the result of refashioning of preexistent material?  And if we say God “created” zebras, do we also say God “created” the malaria parasite or genetic diseases?  Did God “create” the Haiti earthquake?

I’m not trying to solve the problem of evil, but rather how do we speak consistently and clearly, and give God the glory for the good stuff without blaming him for the bad stuff?


Bilbo - #17489

June 15th 2010

Karl A:  “I’m not trying to solve the problem of evil, but rather how do we speak consistently and clearly, and give God the glory for the good stuff without blaming him for the bad stuff?

It’s an important question, but couldn’t it derail us from the theme of this thread?  I think it deserves its own thread.


Bilbo - #17492

June 15th 2010

To the point of this thread, modern science is based on the assumption of the uniformity of nature.  Without it, there would be no point to doing science.  But how do we justify that assumption?  Even if all observations of phenomena were identical (they’re not), this wouldn’t guarantee that they would continue to be so.  Underlying our assumption of the uniformity of nature is that nature is rational—reasonable.  It isn’t capricious.  A good assumption for a monotheist.  For an atheist?  Not really.


merv - #17494

June 15th 2010

Bilbo, why wouldn’t it be a good assumption for an atheist?

—Merv


Gregory Bennett - #17496

June 15th 2010

Thank you for each comment above.  Each has identified some of the points and reasons that it would be helpful to discuss the nature and extent of God’s providence at length.  Dialogue about the nature of God’s providence is one of the reasons I was excited to write this blog and Part 3 coming up.  I’m convinced that one of the reasons we struggle in our discussions of science and faith issues is that we disagree on the extent of God’s personal involvement in “nature” and how God’s providence is used as part of supporting the systems, materials, and components of God’s creation.  For example, most would struggle to agree that God’s “fingers” lower each leave from each tree in the autumn.  However, Scripture has many passages that discuss God’s personal involvement.  So, maybe God does lower each leaf from each tree?  Does God care for the bacteria in my stomach the same as he cares for birds and rabbits?  I’m personally glad that God doesn’t take that bacteria for granted, or I’d have digestion problems.  We don’t think about God’s involvement in nature in that way normally, but perhaps God’s involvement is more personal that we give him credit for.


Gregory Bennett - #17497

June 15th 2010

Karl A, perhaps on another thread we could review the relationship between “evil” and God’s providence.  Boy, that would involve lots of tender loving care and consideration of one another’s hurts and feelings.  The whole discussion of what is evil is certainly logically related to God’s providence, but before discussing we might also want to review something like pp. 322-330 in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology chapter on God’s Providence or a similar reference.


merv - #17498

June 15th 2010

Question:  when do our uniformitarian assumptions seem to become (to the YEC perspective) a denial of extra-ordinary providence?

The easy answer may be given:  ‘whenever it goes against [YEC understanding of] anything written in the Bible.’

But we make these decisions without Biblical input all the time.

E.g.  Even though we didn’t directly witness the gullying at the bottom of our driveway during the last rainstorm, we can look at it now and infer that is what happened because we have seen similar events before.  YECs are on board with these ‘safe’ inferences.

But are there any other independent means of deciding when to disembark from this uniformitarian boat other than when it begins to infringe on Scriptural traditions?  If not, then YECs have dug in and locked down in some fairly explosive turf.

—Merv


Justin Poe - #17505

June 15th 2010

I want to correct the misinformation on this subject that is prevalent here and also in atheistic evolutionists positions.

YEC don’t totally deny uniformitarianism.  We absolutely adhere to uniformity in nature.  Why?  Because we believe that we have an ordered God that created all the laws of nature, physics, biology, geology, ect.  So a YEC will not shy away from uniformity in nature, that is to say, it is be taken that yes, in general, nature adheres to say the exact same laws throughout history and will continue to do so in the future.

So what’s the problem.  Merv kinda of touched on it in his question.  Scripture states that there was a catastrophic event roughly 4300 years ago.  One HAS to take that into account that that would certainly disrupt uniform laws that apply to geology, biology, ect.  Same with the fallen Adam.  Things were created “very good”, after the fall, this changed….so yes, supernaturally, Christ has intervened, upsetting the laws, but they were not arbitrary or reckless.


HornSpiel - #17512

June 15th 2010

Justin,

You say We absolutely adhere to uniformity in nature.

It seems to me that the YEC position in quite inconsistent in this regard. To account for all the animal species, current YEC thought seems to say there was a spate of rapid evolution, which is not observable today, immediately after the Flood—not after the Fall.

How is that adhering to uniformity in nature?


Karl A - #17521

June 15th 2010

Justin: “One HAS to take [the Flood] into account that that would certainly disrupt uniform laws that apply to geology, biology, ect.”

Hmm, are you sure the Flood disrupted uniform laws?  Did gravity change during or after the Flood?  Are we heavier/lighter than we would have been had not the Flood happened?  Does/did light travel faster/slower during/after the Flood?

“So a YEC will not shy away from uniformity in nature”  Would John MacArthur agree with you there?


Ken Wolgemuth - #17553

June 16th 2010

Justin,
Your comments are rather curious and not consistent with YE writings:  “We absolutely adhere to uniformity in nature.  Why?  Because we believe that we have an ordered God that created all the laws of nature, physics, biology, geology, ect.”

YE writing claims that radioactive decay rates have changed to accomodate the 6,000 years forced on the Creation by YE advocates.  The paper offered to me by AiG about the origin of oil reservoirs concluded by the author saying that he believed God created all the oil in the creation week miraculously.  I wonder how and where he stored the trillions of barrels of oil until the major sedimentary rock sections were formed 4300 years ago in 1 year by Noah’s Flood.  You claim the catastrophic event 4300 years ago disrupted the uniform laws that apply to geology.  If they are disrupted, they are not uniform!!!!!  But tree rings, ice cores from Greenland and Sajama Volcano in Bolivia, sedimentary varves in Suigetsu Lake, and radiocarbon decay show no such disruption.  Please explain this. 

Isaac Newton, as a dedicated Christian, saw God as a God of order and not of confusion.  Examining YE writing and teaching in churches shows a god of confusion.  I choose Newton’s view, thank you.


John VanZwieten - #17555

June 16th 2010

Justin,

The problem with YECism is that you really must depart radically from uniformity in nature in order to explain away all the evidences for:
Old earth (how does sin or a flood really alter radioactive decay rates?)
Gradual development of species over time (based on their fossils in strata formed over ages)
Distribution of species throughout the earth
Ice cores with >10,000 annual layers, none of which show signs of melting from a global flood
Etc., etc.

That’s why Morris and his YEC successors must use the global flood as a “magic wand” to give some scientific-sounding explanation for how things got to look the way they do.


John VanZwieten - #17556

June 16th 2010

Ken,

Nice catch on the oil and the sedimentary rocks.  Maybe the oil seeped out from the fountains of the deep after all the water had gushed out?


Bilbo - #17558

June 16th 2010

Hi Merv,

To answer your question, the (Biblical) theist believes that human beingsa are created in the image of God.  So our rationality is a reflection of God’s rationality.  A capricious universe would be repugnant to our sense of rationality.  Since we believe that the same God in whose image our rationality is created also created the universe, we rightly expect the universe to act rationally.

Meanwhile, the atheist does not believe that his rationality is a reflection of a creator’s mind, who also created the universe.  The atheist must hope that somehow his own rationality is an insight into how the universe must act.  But there is no basis for such a hope.  The atheist scientist must make the biggest of all leaps of faith—his rationality is how the universe must behave.  So when you hear them boasting that they do not depend upon faith, try not to pee your pants from laughing too hard.


Bilbo - #17561

June 16th 2010

If I thought that God wanted us to believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story, I would believe it, in spite of contrary scientific evidence.  But too many good, conservative Biblical scholars have said that it is not necessary to believe a literal interpretation.  So my God-created rationality tells me to follow the scientific evidence inferred from a God-created rational universe.


Deb - #17573

June 16th 2010

A ‘literal interpretation’ = what the author intended the original audience to understand. May I suggest any of John Walton’s writings on Genesis. it has nothing to do with what we bring to the text, i.e. our 20/21st century, Western, materialist, scientific mindset. The literal interpretation of Genesis indicates it has absolutely nothing to do with the material questions we bring to the text.


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