The Biblical Premise of Uniformitarianism, Part 2
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 BioLogos believes here.
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.
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.