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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Justin Poe - #17579

June 16th 2010

I’m not sure why some of you think I go against YEC teaching.  I’m not sure how much you have read, but Dr. Jason Lisle has a whole chapter dedicated to uniformity vs. uniformitarianism in his new book.  There is a difference between uniformity and uniformitarianism. 

Karl A.  Obviously I never stated that everything in nature was distrupted in the flood, but certain things were.  I doubt gravity was one of them.


Justin Poe - #17580

June 16th 2010

Ken,

So when Mt. St. Helen’s erupts, and formed canyons that scientists swore up and down would take millions of years to form, that wasn’t a disruption of uniform laws of nature????  It’s obvious that certain, RARE events, can cause massive changes in geology that the science of the last few hundred years claims takes millions of years to achieve, which is just not true.  It is true that given millinos of years these things can take place, but also given a rare catastropic event, it can also take place.


Argon - #17584

June 16th 2010

Bilbo: “Meanwhile, the atheist does not believe that his rationality is a reflection of a creator’s mind, who also created the universe…”

This sounds like Plantinga’s idea. If so It’s a contentious metaphysical argument that I humbly wouldn’t take as *the definitive word* on the subject. To me, the argument seems to be one of those that convinces mostly those who already want to believe in the conclusion and so I suspect there is something awry in the premises. In any case there is a wealth of discussion about Plantigna’s proposal available on the internet.

I think we assume that the universe behaves with and underlying consistency because: 1) It appears to produce more successful and physically useful discoveries,  and 2) Things appear to operate that way. I’d say we create metaphysical explanations to ‘understand’ why this is, post-hoc. Note that the universe operating with an underlying consistency wasn’t always the default belief in human cultures.


Argon - #17585

June 16th 2010

Justin Poe: “So when Mt. St. Helen’s erupts, and formed canyons that scientists swore up and down would take millions of years to form, that wasn’t a disruption of uniform laws of nature???? “

Nope. Basic physics and chemistry.

BTW - Geologists are cognizant of and can distinguish between the patterns that volcanic eruptions and slow processes impose on the geologic record. They’re not idiots.


Merv - #17601

June 16th 2010

Hi, Bilbo.  I guess I when I asked “why not” regarding Atheists expecting intelligibility in the universe, I was also thinking more in the “post-hoc” sense as Argon brought up.  They may not share in the metaphysical presuppositions or expectations as you stated, but they can still see “what works” and make the same observations of physical phenomena that everyone else does.  So to the question of “why should the universe be intelligible”, I could hear the atheist responding:  “I don’t know—nor do I have to know——it just is, so why should I expect it to change?”  Or some others may try to explain intelligibility by resorting to a multi-verse of existences that may or may not be “intelligible”. ——also a presupposition of faith. 

Regarding atheists trying to disavow any faith basis—-I hear you!

—Merv


Merv - #17602

June 16th 2010

Just a reminder:  remember that atheists have been near-kin to Christians who were themselves called atheists for denying a whole pantheon of gods in favor of just One.  To the polytheism of the times such a move must have been deemed indistinguishable from atheism.

—Merv


Gregory Bennett - #17603

June 16th 2010

Bilbo – Just FYI, I am a biblical literalist that believes in the inerrancy of Scripture and a literal reading of Genesis 1 as 6 “earth-days”.  This blog isn’t meant to get into interpretation of Genesis.  Rather it is meant to discuss how we look at God’s activity in the universe over time.  However, considering the fact of general and special relativity and that God is the observer in Genesis 1 (not people on earth), I read the 6 days as “literal days”, but “God-days”.  Their being “God-days” is much more literal than there being “earth-days”.  Of course, this leads to a discussion of who is more literal than the next guy, which of course, reminds me of the Pharisees arguing with the Sadducees about the nature of the afterlife – both were wrong and Jesus straightened them out.  I expect we’ll all get “straightened out” when we get to ask God face to face someday about all the interesting questions we have.


Gregory Bennett - #17604

June 16th 2010

Justin – let me answer for Ken, and I’m sure that he will chime in too.  Nothing that occurs in nature is a disruption to the uniform laws of nature unless it is “extraordinary” providence or a miracle.  If a huge meteorite would land in the middle of Chicago and destroy the city and most of the upper Midwest, that would still be “uniformity” in the laws of nature since it occurred naturally – by God’s “ordinary providence” (unless it was God’s miraculous judgement on the city – which we couldn’t measure scientifically, but rather by God’s revelation). 

The point of looking at what happens in the universe with the model of “ordinary” vs. “extraordinary” providence is that it shows that everything unless it is miraculous is “ordinary” providence.  We may not see it happening everyday, but our human perspective is very limited.  Scientists are just as limited and miss things like anybody else.  Scientists only appear to know more than they do when the media makes them out to be “demi-gods”.  They get things wrong all the time, and any good scientist will admit that.


Bilbo - #17611

June 16th 2010

Argon:  “I think we assume that the universe behaves with and underlying consistency because: 1) It appears to produce more successful and physically useful discoveries, and 2) Things appear to operate that way. I’d say we create metaphysical explanations to ‘understand’ why this is, post-hoc.

But our inference that the universe behaves with an underlying consistency from the fact that such an assumption is more successful, and results in useful discoveries, and appears to be that way, is another example of applying our rationality to the universe.  Why should the fact that such an assumption is more successful, results in useful discoveries, and appears to be that way, mean that it is that way?  Unless of course the universe is something that matches up with our rationality.

Note that the universe operating with an underlying consistency wasn’t always the default belief in human cultures.

Excactly!  Many philosophers and historians of science believe that the birth of modern science was due to a millenium of widespread belief that the the universe was created by an all powerful, rational God.


Bilbo - #17612

June 16th 2010

Merv:  “They may not share in the metaphysical presuppositions or expectations as you stated, but they can still see “what works” and make the same observations of physical phenomena that everyone else does.  So to the question of “why should the universe be intelligible”, I could hear the atheist responding:  “I don’t know—nor do I have to know——it just is, so why should I expect it to change?”

To which I would reply, why should you expect that it has always been this way and always will?

Or some others may try to explain intelligibility by resorting to a multi-verse of existences that may or may not be “intelligible”. ——also a presupposition of faith.

You lost me on this one.


Bilbo - #17613

June 16th 2010

Gregory:  “However, considering the fact of general and special relativity and that God is the observer in Genesis 1 (not people on earth), I read the 6 days as “literal days”, but “God-days”.  Their being “God-days” is much more literal than there being “earth-days”.

Is this similar to Gerald Schroeder’s idea, based on the relativity of space and time?  Or did you mean something else?


Merv - #17619

June 16th 2010

Bilbo, my ‘multi-verse’ comment was just meant to be an aside—-so I’m not meaning to start up a whole new discussion of something hammered on in other venues or threads. 

But briefly, what I meant was that if we consider the apparent ‘intelligibility’ of our universe to be related to the ‘fine-tuning’ variety of I.D. arguments (which it could be related to, because if, for example, Planck’s constant was different than it is, much intelligibility of phenomena could be lost)  ...then some atheists may give the answer that ‘well, perhaps there are many universes where the constants are different.—and of course, we’ll only appear in the one where certain values for these constants make evolution even possible.’ 

Sorry if this took an unclear reference and totally muddied it up.  In any case there is no proving or disproving such things.  They are only attempts to extend our perceived ‘non-preferential’ status out to scientific and even metaphysical extremes.

—Merv


Merv - #17621

June 16th 2010

By the way, none of us (atheist included) will have any substantial rebuttal for your final reply above, except to turn the burden of proof back on you, asking you:  “What reason do you have for NOT thinking it has always been this way?”

The only tactic both sides really have at their disposal here is to try to dump the burden of proof on the other guy.  Nobody can establish this at any level that would qualify as clean proof.

But the atheist can point to a multitude of things presently observed and regard it as evidence (not proof) that things always happen the same way, though this makes for a weak argument given the very nature of the question (miracles are rare—almost by definition!)  And of course he disregards any reports or testimony of miracles as ultimately being explainable without resort to supernatural (and that is where his presupposition shows through making his argument circular—I agree with you fully in this.)  We theists do the same thing the other way, without the benefit of proof.  Not that we accept all claims to miracle.  But unlike the atheist, we don’t decide presuppositionally that extra-ordinary providence (miracle) is always impossible —just rare.

—Merv


Ken Wolgemuth - #17632

June 16th 2010

Justin,

Mt. St. Helens was a catastrophic event that impacted the local area within minutes of the eruption and then for weeks over an area of a few miles to tens of miles, and then ash falling over hundreds of miles.  Where are you claiming erosion over millions of years that has any relationship to Mt. St. Helens.

RE:  Ice cores addendum: 

I have personally visited with a Christian geologist who worked for months on the Greenland ice sheet, and the layers are counted visually back to about 50,000 years, and with electrical measurements back to about 100,000 years.  For anyone interested, get “The Two-mile Ice Machine” by Richard Alley, a very readable account of the GISP and GRIP cores cut to bedrock.


Bilbo - #17643

June 16th 2010

Hi Merv,

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against evolution.  I believe in the uniformity of nature, because I believe that God would not create an irrational universe.  I still don’t follow your multi-verse argument.  Are you saying that given a multi-verse, one of them is bound to be rational, and we would only be alive in such a universe?  But again, this assumes that all our reasoning about multi-verses pertains to them.  Why should it?

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.

Was it Galileo who said that he was trying to think God’s thoughts after Him?  I can’t think of a better example of my point.


Robert Byers - #17656

June 16th 2010

The author says the bible didn’t mean what any reader at any time would conclude. A accurate, exact, history on many boundaries in earth history.
As a YEC guy I guess it comes down to geology status quo folks to demonstrate where important origins in geology had their mechanism from uniformitarianism .
to the author I say whats your top three.
?
Is there anything in geology that a YEC geologist could not explain as well or better by fast moving events in earth structures.?
if you are saying human knowledge trumps a clear reading of Genesis, as opposed to your interpretation of what it means/says, then lets see the knowledge.
Slow processes were not witnessed in creating the world and are only presumed because slow only goes on now.
Yet fast could of gone on. The missoula flood showed how fast can instantly cut and create landforms and this was a overthrow of uniformitarianism to some extent. In fact it shows never go slow until fast is is impossible.


Ken Wolgemuth - #17671

June 16th 2010

To:  Robert Byers:

YEC geologists do not provide a scientifically coherent description of the Grand Canyon, the ice cores in Greenland or Antarctica, the ice cap on Mt. Sajama in Bolivia, the 400,000 years of the last 4 glacial stages found in deep sea sediments researched by a Christian brother of mine, the 12,400 years of tree rings of European oaks that are tied to radiocarbon decay, the 5,000 feet of salt section offshore Brazil, and 1000 ft of salt offshore Angola in an oil well, the hundreds of salt domes in the Gult of Mexico, 100,000 years of sedimentary varves in Lake Suigetsu in Japan, and hundreds of thousands of radiometric decay ages in endless mineral samples from around the world.

Robert, how many examples do you want?

YEC geologists (the 3 to 5 of them who write articles) do not give coherent descriptions of the Creation as God has put it together.


Pete - #17707

June 17th 2010

“YEC geologists (the 3 to 5 of them who write articles) do not give coherent descriptions of the Creation as God has put it together.”




What’s more, YEC geologists themselves know this but simply don’t care. See these slides from a talk by Andrew Snelling at the Sixth International Conference on Creationism.

Slide 1

Slide 2


merv - #17711

June 17th 2010

Bilbo, I don’t buy into the multi-verse argument myself so I’ll do a lousy job defending it and an even lousier job explaining it, perhaps.  I’m just trying to repeat what I’ve heard argued by others.

I wasn’t trying to presume what you may or may not accept or take seriously.

To make one more attempt—I’ll try it this way:  We discover that some very special conditions must be met in order for organisms to thrive in a certain environ.  Initially we might be impressed with the ‘fine-tuning’.  That is, until we discover that actually all these other ‘out-of-tune’ environs exist also, but the organism in question simply didn’t thrive in those.  Some would claim that there are no longer any grounds for being impressed by any alleged ‘fine-tuning’.  I’m suggesting that the ‘Multi-verse’ is the same situation only on a grand scale.  If a virtually infinite number of universes have every possible combination of properties, then we seem to have a rational basis for expecting that at least some of those universes are intelligible.  We have no rational basis for thinking all of them are.  But of course, not much can happen in all those; so it didn’t.


merv - #17712

June 17th 2010

Don’t worry if I’m still not making sense here, Bilbo, if not—it may reflect my own faulty understanding.  But such of it as I think I do understand, I don’t buy into anyway.  So we’re only ‘arguing’ over something that we already pretty much agree on.

—Merv


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