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The Biblical Premise of Uniformitarianism, Part 3

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June 19, 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 3

Part 1 of this series addressed geological and historical perspectives regarding uniformitarianism. Part 2 explored 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. Here we argue that uniformitarianism simply looks at God’s providence back to the beginning of time. Further, we show how every biblical interpreter and student of history uses similar uniformitarian principles.

The doctrine of God’s providence underpins all of science including geology. Wayne Grudem puts it well: “God has made and continues to sustain a universe that acts in predictable ways. If a scientific experiment gives a certain result today, then we can have confidence that (if all the factors are the same) it will give the same result tomorrow and a hundred years from tomorrow." It also underpins technology. “I can be confident that gasoline will make my car run today just as it did yesterday, not simply because ‘it has always worked that way,’ but because God’s providence sustains a universe in which created things maintain the properties with which he created them.” (Grudem, p.317)

The present is the key to the past

Geologists extend this application of God’s providence not just forward into the future, but backwards to the beginnings of the earth, 4.5 billion Earth-years ago. Astronomers extend this application back to the beginning of the universe, when time began, 13.7 billion Earth-years ago. These scientists assume that God uses methods of providing for his creation today that he used in the past and will continue to do so until the universe ends.

Uniformitarianism, the principle that “the present is the key to the past,” allows geologists to look at how God interacts with the earth today and make assumptions about how God worked with it in the past. Based on those assumptions and actual measured evidence, we can be confident that the rules of physics and chemistry behind geology are the same today as they have been in the past, since the dawn of creation.

For example, we assume based on God’s providence that the four fundamental interactions of nature – gravitation, the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force – have not changed since time began; that the speed of light has continued to be 299,792,458 meters per second since time began; that the properties of the elements on the periodic table have not changed since time began; that the laws of thermodynamics have not changed since time began.

These physical properties all stand behind geology. For example, we assume that the properties of the atoms calcium, carbon, and oxygen have not changed since time began. When geologists see limestone rocks that contain molecules of CaCO3 (one calcium, one carbon and three oxygen atoms), they assume that this calcium carbonate molecule’s properties have not changed. Thus, when geologists look at limestone today and limestone deposited in that past, they assume that the chemistry and physical properties are the same.

Or consider salt. We assume that the properties of salt, NaCl, have been the same since time began and that salt has always dissolved in water. Thus, when geologists see thick deposits of salt associated with the oil and gas fields of the world, they assume that it was not deposited by a worldwide flood, but by other mechanisms, because salt would have dissolved in water in the past as it does today.

Same principles in biblical interpretation

Every one of us, including Dr. MacArthur, believes that the “present is the key to the past” at some level when interpreting past events where we were not direct observers. We see family interactions today where parents interact in loving relationships with their children. We presume similar behavior occurred in families 2,000 Earth-years ago when we read Mark 5, in which the synagogue ruler Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter, or Mark 9, in which a man in the crowd asked Jesus to heal his son possessed by an evil spirit. We see storms on the Sea of Galilee today, where wind and waves whip up dangerous sailing conditions, and we assume that similarly frightening conditions occurred in the past as described in Matthew 8. We see the sun rise and sun set today and assume that it did so 2,000 Earth-years ago when Jesus himself watched.

Christian geologists are no different than biblical interpreters or historians. They just picture Jesus as God ruling and watching the sun rise and set not just 2,000 Earth-years ago, but 2 billion and more Earth-years ago. After all, Colossians 1:16 says about Jesus, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

While the extent of the use of the two types of God’s providence in his creation may be debated, Dr. MacArthur mistakenly pits the two types of providence against each other when condemning uniformitarianism. Throughout time, God has worked directly by his own hand, through miracles. Mostly, he has worked indirectly, through either uniform processes or catastrophic agents. Just because an event is rare (like a catastrophic meteorite impact) doesn’t necessarily make it a miracle. It may be ordinary providence, just not what we frequently see God doing in nature.

God has worked in the past using what we might consider ordinary or uniform agents. He has worked in the past using “extreme natural forces.” He has also worked in the past using miracles. All of these are considered God’s providence. He continues to work in all these ways today. God’s hand in the present is truly the same hand that it was in the past.

Rejecting uniformitarianism means rejecting God’s providence

The arguments for uniformitarianism being a dangerous and unscriptural dogma cannot be held up unless they also include arguments against the doctrine of God’s providence and the continued fundamental physical and chemical properties of nature.

We do a great disservice to the person of God in ignoring parts of a key doctrine like Providence. The greatest danger is that we misunderstand God’s person and God’s own nature. In understanding God’s activity on the earth during the past 4.5 billion Earth-years as resulting from his providence, both ordinary and extraordinary (or miracles), we learn more about God. Understanding uniformitarianism in this light gets gives us opportunities to praise God and to see God’s person behind the events of the distant past. Now the great forces of nature studied in that light become the works of God’s hands stemming from his relationship to his creation.

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 - #18557

June 23rd 2010

Justin,

No, it’s not “Bible or science” or “general revelation v. natural revelation.”

It’s “Bible-science” v. “Bible and science.”

“Bible-science” expects the scriptures to contain answers to scientific questions, like “How old is the earth?”, “How did so many different creatures come to be on earth?”, “Which moves, the heavens or the earth?”

“Bible and science” expects the Bible to teach us about the character of God and man and their relationship.  Then it leaves questions of earth age, biodiversity, cosmology, etc. up to the investigation of general revelation in nature.

If you go the Bible-science route, you will always find yourself in conflict with scientific discoveries made by those who either go the “Bible and science” route, or who reject the Bible.  You will likely be decades or centuries behind in your understanding of the natural world as a result.


Merv - #18563

June 23rd 2010

Argon I don’t think you’re being quite fair with Justin——yes gravity is an “amazing” constant, isn’t it.  While the extreme example ought to help highlight for YECs that yes, they also do think in uniformitarian terms whether they admit it or not, this example might be nearer the mark of what Justin may be getting at:

Have you observed any amazing (apparently unexplainable) miracles today?  Did you yesterday?  What about the day before that?  Assuming your answer is no, your conclusion about any miracles having ever happened anywhere would be .... ?

And how you answer that would reveal the biases that often accompany uniformitarianism.  YECs see the extreme rejection and then want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I probably see more eye to eye with you than I do with Justin, nevertheless his insistence on acknowledging bias has a sharper edge to be tested than your gravity example illuminates. 

—Merv


Argon - #18567

June 23rd 2010

Merv, I see unexplained events every day. Whether they’re unexplainable is up for debate. If YECs want to state “It’s a miracle, I don’t know how it happened or how God’s influence left its mark on the physical world” that’s fine with me.

When YECs want to ‘use science’ to demonstrate a Young Earth, then they have to address the same observations and modes by which scientists successively corroborate theories and measurements into a consistent chain of understanding. The ‘different perspectives’ rebuttal is more often the last stand of a losing argument than a principled objection. If their results were truly solid, nobody would need to talk about ‘paradigms’, ‘bias’, and ‘worldviews’.


Joe Francis - #18570

June 23rd 2010

Argon,

It is not my goal to use science to demonstrate a young earth, but instead to use the Bible as a starting point for science.  As I have stated earlier, not all the data points initially to a young earth.  And again, I think this is a major difference in the way a scientist at BioLogos works,.... the presupposition is that science is the most reliable source of truth and we must adapt all belief systems to it…. But if science is driven by presuppositions, how can it be the starting point above and beyond one’s worldview?  This seems like a problem to me and in my opinion it leads to a narrow view of science.


Merv - #18575

June 23rd 2010

Argon, when I spoke of ‘apparently unexplainable’ events it was really intended as a rhetorical reference that almost by definition would not be seen everyday and so be described as ‘ordinary’.  Shoot—-in a deeper causal sense gravity is unexplainable, but we’re used to it so it doesn’t amaze us. 

Or were you really referring to jaw-dropping stuff that you actually do see on a regular basis?  If so, I’d love to hang out with you for a day! 

But anyway, your point is well-taken that the word ‘bias’ isn’t likely to come up in a discussion involving Newton’s laws of motion.

—Merv


John VanZwieten - #18576

June 23rd 2010

Joe,

Good post (18570).

Why do you feel compelled to use the Bible as a starting point for science?  Is that really a proper use of the writings God gave us to share the gospel of Christ with us?

It just seems to me the other side of the same fallacy Dawkins, et. al. are pushing—that science should determine our entire belief system.

Why not opt instead for the idea of “sphere sovereignty” where we allow the scriptures to do what they are intended to do (make us wise unto salvation and equip us for good works) and let science do what it is intended to do (provide us insights into the functioning of the natural world)?


Argon - #18578

June 23rd 2010

Joe,  you mentioned earlier that you thought a “scriptural based YEC approach is a much more liberating position as far as the practice of science is concerned”.

Would you expand on how it’s liberating for the practice of science to use a YEC approach?

Aside, and this is not addressed to you Joe, but those like Justin: One needn’t adapt all belief systems to scientific understanding but one should at least be aware of possible discrepencies and acknowledge these honestly instead of dismissing them with bromides like ‘it’s all subjective anyway’.


Joe Francis - #18600

June 23rd 2010

John,

You said:

“Why do you feel compelled to use the Bible as a starting point for science?  Is that really a proper use of the writings God gave us to share the gospel of Christ with us?”

Good question.  As you know, redemption is a central theme of scripture, but there is much much more. As the very words of God,  the Bible is a self-proclaiming authority,  it declares that all wisdom comes from the words of God (Proverbs 2).  Would you not want to then use this as your starting point for all academics and science?

Jesus even uses the scriptures to teach more than the Gospel, when he refers to Genesis for example to teach about marriage etc…

The Bible is the only source of information that to my knowledge proclaims the major presuppositions of science to be true.  For instance one of the major presuppositions of science is that there is a reality and we can know about this reality.  The very first verse of scripture declares this scientific presupposition to be true…and I think this is what inspired many famous scientists of the scientific revolution.

The Bible also infers that man was made in part to “search out matters”...another fantastic concept which supports the scientific endeavor.


Joe Francis - #18602

June 23rd 2010

Argon,

You stated: “Joe,  you mentioned earlier that you thought a “scriptural based YEC approach is a much more liberating position as far as the practice of science is concerned”.
Would you expand on how it’s liberating for the practice of science to use a YEC approach?”

It is more liberating because I assume that the Bible is a final authority and I can take its truths at face value…...  I do not have to worry about how science changes the bible…you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out if Adam was a real person for example, which a lot of folks on BioLogos seem to be spending a lot of their time on. 

Instead I can focus on science, and the discoveries which flow from this activity.  For instance, I believe the fall of man was a real event in space time history. Because of this, as a microbiologist for example, I can postulate that there was no death and disease before the fall.  Now I have a framework for microbiology, i.e. I can postulate that diease causing organisms were at one time not causing disease.  This leads directly to a prediction that perhaps, the non-disease causing bacteria and viruses were performing beneficial functions, and a remnant of these functions may be observable today…


Steven - #18615

June 23rd 2010

Why is it so hard to take God at His word? It’s not hard guys.


John VanZwieten - #18650

June 24th 2010

Joe,

Why assume that bacteria and viruses even existed before the fall?  Surely as a microbiologist you could model what would happen if microbes reproduced but never died?  I’d be more comfortable saying the serpent somehow spawned the first ones after Adam sinned.

You said, I do not have to worry about how science changes the bible but then you must constantly keep in mind how your reading of the Bible changes science.  How do you even keep track of all the places you are “not allowed to go” because of how the Bible restricts what must or can’t be true scientifically?  Is there an authoritative list somewhere of all the scientifically relevant verses?  Is there a clear delineation of which verses are allowed to be understood in the phenomenalogical sense (“appears to”) and which must remain binding on the scientist?


Argon - #18653

June 24th 2010

Joe,
I can see how your beliefs are liberating or perhaps comforting for you, but I’m not convinced they’re liberating to the process of science in general. Myself, I worry about premature closure of possible investigations.

As a microbiologist, you should know that bacteria *today* exhibit a wide range of interactions with other organisms, from beneficial to neutral to harmful, even within the same ‘species’ of bacteria. Given the fossil record, it appears bacteria existed prior to multicellular eukarotes and so why wouldn’t one think that disease causing bacteria originated from non-disease carrying ancetors?

But, if you’d like to take the ‘no death or disease before the fall’ and a global flood as your sole working model, how does that work out in terms of observed genetic bottlenecks and the temporal synchronization of various sequences linked to pathogenicity? Do they all trace back to a specific events of a few thousound years ago?  Take for example the papers out of Howard Ochman’s lab (starting here in 1998 - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9689094). How do the acquisition rates change under the fall/glboal flood model? Are they reasonable?


Joe Francis - #18771

June 24th 2010

John 18650

Great questions.  I think it is reasonable biblically to think that some viruses and bacteria existed before the fall because it appears that God made a fully functional complete creation….hence the “resting”  or stopping point he mentions in scripture.  Microbes are so well tied into life on earth, I would predict that they would be an original part of creation.  Since the bible does not mention microbes directly, (except for leaven) these are predictions…And of course that is a key part of how science works…so I would say again, that the Bible provides a foundation for this kind of thinking.  I would not rule out the derivation of microbes at a later point from pre-existing living things…and so within these constraints I would agree with you that some microbes could be derived later, especially pathogenic microbes.

I am not sure what you mean by the Bible not allowing one to go places.  The Bible offers a very general view of science…i.e. we can observe this world and gain knowledge of how it works….this provides very few limitations in my opinion and I think that is the beauty and liberating aspect of the biblical approach.  As you know, science itself works within a set of limits…


Joe Francis - #18777

June 24th 2010

Argon 18653,

Thanks for your great comments.  As you know, lateral gene transfer (LGT) can lead to a lot of differences among microbes in general….what I think is more amazing however, is that two E.coli can differ genetically more than the differences of any other creature, yet the two very genetically different E.coli look and behave like E.coli.  WILD!!!

Yes, I think that a lot of evidence is accumulating that pathogenecity can be followed back in time somewhat…most all pathogens have pathogenic sequences which are segregated and clustered from the main genome….combined with LGT this would be consistent with the rapid formation of pathogens.

With respect to your idea that it would be expected that pathogens would arise from non-pathogens…sure I accept that….all I am saying is that fits the biblical model.  However, it is a bit problematic to support symbiosis arising before pathogenesis in a pure model of darwinian competition?  This has been admitted in the literature on microbial evolution.


Argon - #18871

June 25th 2010

Joe: “However, it is a bit problematic to support symbiosis arising before pathogenesis in a pure model of darwinian competition?  This has been admitted in the literature on microbial evolution.”

Interesting. Where is that described? I wonder because termites and cattle have mutualistic relationships with archaebacteria which aid in cellulose digestion and the archaea are not generally known as pathogens. I would have supposed that mutualism could arise through either commensal or parasitic interactions but perhaps there is a general property why one route would occur more often than another. The oldest known case of bacterial mutualism among eukaryotes is the mitochondrion, but maybe that organelle was at one time an intracellular pathogen before then.


Joe Francis - #18903

June 25th 2010

Hi Argon,

I don’t have the text in front of me, but Evolution by Association by Jan Sapp is the text I am thinking about.  Interesting book.  He does admit that symbiosis does not necessarily flow from the darwinian model, because tthe darwiniam model is largely a model based on competition…however one can get around that by suggesting that the symbiotic event increases survival of both partners.  Here’s the catch however, most associations are one-way mutualisms where the second partner benefits little or is essentially neutral in the association.  Whats more…is the fact that there are some associations which don’t appear to be beneficial at all…they are just associations.  Again, the Bible is informative here, because it talks about a living creation which was created for community, for relationship and sometimes just for beauty.  These principles are difficult to derive from a Godless evolutionary model.  That said, I think some mutualisms could arise purely because they increase survival…I would not rule that out, but I would also suggest that this is consistent with a merciful God.  I wrote a paper about these ideas in a monograph titled Genesis Kinds published by Wipf and Stock publishers.


TJ - #18904

June 25th 2010

You’re kidding right?  I thought you said that the refutation would be based on Scripture?  Did I miss that part of the 3 articles?


John VanZwieten - #18955

June 25th 2010

TJ,

Are you trying to argue here that God’s providence is not a “Biblical Premise”?

Or are you perhaps saying you can’t buy into the idea of God’s providence without being taken verse by verse through all the passages of scripture which support the idea of God’s providence?

I’m relatively certain that if it is Bible references you need in order to believe in God’s providence, you will find them in the listed references:

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

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


Argon - #18964

June 25th 2010

John, thanks for the reference for Sapp’s book. I’m not sure how one asserts that mutualistic interactions don’t flow from current evolutionary theory. It seems that it’s a possible outcome and that route depends on factors specific to any particular case. People like Nancy Moran are studying the nature of such interactions in great biological detail. They don’t seem to feel that the factors behind the development of mutualism (or rather the full range of associations observed) are incompatible with evoltutionary theory. Game theory and other modeling methods have been used to highlight conditions which can give rise to various forms of interaction.


Gregory Bennett - #19525

June 30th 2010

Headless Unicorn Guy - #18113
Thanks for making me think.  One of the topics that is seems to be rarely mentioned in discussions is the purpose of creating humans in relation to a possible to Pre-Adamic Fall related to the idea that evil (as Satan in the serpent) alread existed before Adam and Eve sinned).  The idea that they - and the 2nd Adam (Jesus Christ) were created to solve a problem of evil that already existed in the universe might give a different meaning to their purpose and the impacts of their Fall.  I’m having some fun speculating here, but I think it is worth thinking about.

Gingoro - #18182
Your “Big Break” before the E=MC2 part is getting me thinking.  Thanks for that idea.  I need to talk to a physicist on whether the universe could exist physically without the existance of that type of equation as a core base for the existance of physical matter, energy, and the rules that support it.

Gabriel Powell - #18116
Your point on science changing and being fallible is well taken.  Science changes its truth all the time.  That is one of the great joys of science as it keeps learning new aspects of how God works in his creation.  That is why it is so much fun reading science fiction.


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