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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Merv - #18416

June 22nd 2010

which makes them an easier target.  But places like Biologos or TEism in general look more like modern guerrilla warfare vs. the old British red coat “march in lines and fight with honor” mentality.  YECs look for the one nice big target that they can attack to vanquish the enemy and instead find a frustratingly individualistic menagerie of views, defended or rejected piecemeal by each armchair critic.  I think I can understand their frustration—even criticism.  But the very diversity present is the same thing that makes this site attractive.  There is underlying unity (not in the form of rules to keep people out—-as far as I know anybody can post here) but one may appropriately have to go as deep as Christ to find it.  It won’t be a unity centered around things as specific as YEC groups may like to center around. 

—Merv


Peter - #18427

June 22nd 2010

We assume based on God’s providence that…

“Assume” appears 13 times!  How is an assumption rational?  How can anyone take that seriously?

I guess this website is a spoof of Christians, like theonion.com but not as funny.


Peter - #18431

June 22nd 2010

Alright, I found a very similar article also online: 

Eons of Darwinian Evolution Somehow Produce Mitch.  This must be one of the most clever examples of “theistic providential Uniformitarianism” to be found.


Joe Francis - #18440

June 22nd 2010

John 18403,

Thanks for the links. I looked at them. What I see is two groups looking at the same data and comging to different conclusions.  From a purely scientific point of view I think that is good and acceptable.  Oh sure you might see bias and polemics in some of these papers on both sides, but in my opinion, both views should be considered and debated.  I often feel that BioLogos is saying we should think a certain way about scientific data…it only fits one model…we should not think in any other way about the data…why?.  So my question to you is….is that a good approach to science?


John VanZwieten - #18445

June 22nd 2010

Joe,

Are they really looking at the same data and coming to different conclusions?  Or did one (or both) start with their conclusion and read it back into the data?  If there were evidence of flooding within the ice sheet, would Seely deny it or explain it away?

I appreciate some of the scientists at the Creation Biology Study Group you pointed me to.  As I read Todd Wood I find someone who seems honest with the data.  But he also sees that the data and discontinuity between humans and apes is a conclusion based on scripture and is quite unsupported by the kind of research he does.

They are at least honest about their approach on the website: 

Major Subtractive Criteria:

1.Scripture claims discontinuity. This should be concluded only after completion of a semantic and contextual study of relevant words and passages. Clear examples are that Scripture claims humans to be an apobaramin and that cetaceans are discontinuous from land mammals (i.e., each created on separate days).

So the number one reason these scientists dismiss relatedness is because of their reading of scripture.  No amount of relatedness information could cause them to see relatedness of land mammals and cetatians.


John VanZwieten - #18447

June 22nd 2010

(cont.)
If I were convinced that the Bible’s purpose is to help us with taxonomy, I guess I would be a bigger fan of BSG.  As it is, I just see them putting resources toward a fruitless task, but maybe good things will come of it at some point.


John VanZwieten - #18451

June 22nd 2010

Gabriel,

This may come as a shock to you, but Catholics and Orthodox believe Jesus is God and payed for our sins at Calvary.

Seeing as we have brothers and sisters around the world who not only believe this crazy story about God becoming a man who dies and returns to life, but also claim said person as Lord and Savior, maybe we can be demonstrate Christian charity with regard to the (admittedly sometimes major) differences of theology and practice.

It is a basic principle of communication that you build on your commonality, not the things which divide you.  How should Unappologetic Catholic or (Orthodox) Gregory relate to you after you have anathemized them?

I would sincerely suggest that you read and meditate on 1 Cor 13, paying particular attention to the early verses.  I’m quite sympathetic to the fact that you have strong beliefs and come here with the intention of setting things straight.  But the way you tend to go about it often becomes awfully gong-like.


Justin Poe - #18468

June 22nd 2010

Merv, thanks for your response.  It was more logical and well thought out then most that I get here and seemed very sincere.  There’s really one point that I would like to “argue” if you will and it comes when you said this:

“Don’t start with Genesis; most people who have been worked over by the Spirit and their own sin already know of their own desperate plight by first-hand experience and arguments about how we should be theologically understanding Adam aren’t needed to know that sin is real.  (If anyone doesn’t realize this for themselves, then no amount of ‘literal Adam’ or ‘figurative Adam’ theology will do them a lick of good until the Spirit convicts them of sin for real –their very own!) “


Justin Poe - #18470

June 22nd 2010

cont…

Does belief in a literal or myth Adam save one from sin?  Of course not, I think we both agree there.  However, this doctrine of sin and it’s ORIGIN, I would put more weight on in the witnessing process.  It because of Adam that we need Christ.  I’m sure most here have heard YEC bring Romans 5:12 up.  Christ is a direct descendant of Adam (the Last Adam if you will), according to the genealogies in Scripture, so in witnessing, one can trace the history of “sin” back to Genesis, a starting point, and thus point out the hope and salvation we have throughout the OT in the covenant and in the incarnate Christ of the NT.


Merv - #18482

June 22nd 2010

I do agree with you that where sin started is very important to some, but is it to everybody?  And I’m not asking this rhetorically to make a point—-I’m really asking the question.  And to partly attempt an answer to my own (or your question rather), I would surmise that most people who would come to you or I with a burning question in their mind about how sin historically started probably are asking that question in the context of these very origins issues that we all argue so much about here.  That is, they probably already have an axe to grind on some issue and would be testing me to see if I will give them the “right” answers.  It doesn’t seem likely to me that most seekers who are desperate to find something solid would come to us with an interest in origins issues being first & foremost in their minds.  So I guess I would also ask you how you would counsel someone as they earnestly ask “what do I need to do to turn my life around?”  It sounds like you too would start with Christ; but then I’m curious if you would extend the whole theology lesson to them about origins if they seemed satisfied with the basics?  That may remain our point of disagreement     (cont)


Merv - #18483

June 22nd 2010

here, as I probably don’t see the need to go as far beyond the essentials we agree on.  Now—having said that, our culture makes it pretty difficult NOT to get caught up in all the issues since it is all pretty aggressively pushed (on both sides).  So we would probably both feel a responsibility to issue some warnings to protect our “new believer”, and this is probably where our differences would be a little more glaring.  I would be warning him to watch out for all the militant atheists hijacking science and also all the YEC stuff, and you all would be warning him how messed up he’ll get if he gets caught up in old earth & evolution —-and to stay away from all the wackos over at the Biologos site. 

But if it became apparent that such was important to him, I wouldn’t make any heroic efforts to stop him from finding fellowship on either side of this.  My goal would be to remove whatever stumbling blocks are come between him and Christ.  If billions of years is a stumbling block, I’ll drop it –or wouldn’t have even


Merv - #18485

June 22nd 2010

brought it up in the first place.  If thousands of years is a stumbling block, I’ll happily inform him that many Christians have no trouble with current science (and that he should really check out this great website called Biologos!) ... 

I am having just a bit of fun here at the end—-& I do think Biologos is pretty good, though certainly not above needing critical Scriptural appraisal. (And the blog around here .... well, blogs will be blogs)  But, hoping you aren’t put off by any word play on my part, I am very sincere in trying to answer your questions, and do sincerely want to hear any response you would give to any of this.  Thanks for your kind words.

—Merv


Justin Poe - #18511

June 23rd 2010

Merv- certainly an interesting topic for sure.  I just got through reading Schaeffer’s “The God Who is There”.  He has a very very intersting section toward the end where he discusses this very issue, although it’s minus the origins debate that we have going on here.  He does feel that in apologetics and when witnessing to what he calls the “20th century man” (now the 21st century man I suppose) that one should not start with Christ His death and resurrection.  Why?

Until man sees his need for a Saviour, there can be no Saviour.  Man has to first realize his lost, miserable, death knocking on the door state that he lives in.  Until man sees the tension in his life, which is living a humanistic life while deep down knowing that he is lost and full of guilt, there is no need to tell him of the hope.  That is the second step, but first, he must see that he is sinful and lost.  Schaeffer does, however, start with a literal sinful Adam, not a mythical one when he does this…(well did up until 1984).  I’ll leave it with that unless you have something to add.  Good conversation.


Joe Francis - #18523

June 23rd 2010

John,

You commented:

“Are they really looking at the same data and coming to different conclusions?  Or did one (or both) start with their conclusion and read it back into the data?  If there were evidence of flooding within the ice sheet, would Seely deny it or explain it away?”

I think both groups start with preconceived biases.  There is no way to do objective science is there?..., as many science philosophers have noted,  an objective scientific method is a myth.

So I would say that both groups start with conclusions and assumptions to some extent.  YECs believe as you know the most reliable starting point for science is scripture.  That does not mean that there all data must be forced into a young earth framework, sometimes we just don’t have all the data or facts to know how to interpret the data even within one’s framework.


Justin Poe - #18531

June 23rd 2010

Joe,

Wow.  I’m stunned.  finally someone has stated that everyone has a presuppositional “bias”.  I prefer “worldview” but bias will suffice.  Now, you probably won’t get many here at Biologos to agree with you on this however as it presents a tension point that they have to grapple with.  Scripture or science?  Are they equal?  General revelation vs. natural revelation?  There’s only one answer to that if you buy into the Biologos theories.

What you get however from MOST Darwinian evolutionists is “it’s not a presupposition, it’s a fact.”


John Schoettler - #18532

June 23rd 2010

The biggest problem I see Christians making time and again, is when we put ourselves (humanity) at the center of the universe (both figuratively and literally).  God created the universe (as we know it) for his glory alone and by his grace he chose to create us to enjoy it with him. The Catholic church suffered this same problem when they made heretical theological statements that the son orbited the earth by presupposing that humans were the center of God’s creation (and unfairly punished Galileo as a result).

Unfortunately most of my young earth Christian brothers base their short creation period not on verifiable evidence, but on presupposing that there was no need for the universe to exist for a long period before humans existed. If you assume that God created the universe exclusively for humans (and that we are the figurative center of the universe) I can understand their reasoning. When you view that God created the universe for his own glory first and afterwards created humanity (with free will) to enjoy his creation with him, than a long creation timeframe makes more sense when dealing with an infinite God.


“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go”- Galileo Galilei


merv - #18540

June 23rd 2010

Good points, Justin.  My initial reaction when I read this last night could be summarized as:  “That’s silly –a man’s lack of understanding of nutritional biochemistry or human digestive anatomy will in no way prevent his body from properly metabolizing a desperately needed meal.”  In fact he could have a totally wrong understanding of how his own body works and we still wouldn’t try to force him to read an anatomy textbook before sharing food with him as long as he knows enough to deliver the morsels to his mouth. 

But then even with my analogy here, your points still break in and cause me to reflect on the Biblically obvious:  there are times when we eat just because we know we need to despite a lack of appetite (or an appetite for wrong things).  Granted, God did give us general biological cravings to urge us towards that which we need—-our thirst drives us to


merv - #18541

June 23rd 2010

seek water, our hunger can even be for specifically needed foods.  But we all know that doesn’t always work to our advantage in a fallen world surrounded by billboards to hijack our appetites towards less nutritious things. 

And so it is especially with our spiritual appetites:  an extreme case of cravings gone awry.  So I can see and agree with your points that new Christians and mature Christians both benefit from and need reminders about our sin condition—-and how old it is:  that it extends so far back that no human made in God’s image escaped the curse of it.  Still, I think I would probably let the starving man enjoy his initial meals before trying to thrust any detailed anatomy lessons on him.

Thanks for spurring me on to reflect more on this.  And for you likewise, if you have additional thoughts or responses, I will pay attention. 

—Merv


Argon - #18550

June 23rd 2010

Justin Poe: “Wow.  I’m stunned.  finally someone has stated that everyone has a presuppositional “bias”.  I prefer “worldview” but bias will suffice.

Yeah, therefore it’s all about worldviews—There is no objective reality and nobody can tell the difference!

Aside: I confess to having a presuppositional “bias” about the constancy of gravity that makes me believe jumping off a tall building may cause injury. I just can’t seem to shake it even though I know that just because bravity worked in a certain way yesterday doesn’t mean it will work the same tomorrow. Go figure.


Joe Francis - #18556

June 23rd 2010

Good point Argon,

Science gives us some level of predictability and it is reasonable to think that gravity will operate tomorrow as it does today.  There is a connection between what I know to be true today and what I think will be true tomorrow. I think the same kind of logic can be applied to events in the past, and I think it is entirely logical based on our common experience that we are common descendants of those who proceeded us.  So to me, we have scriptural evidence that Adam was a real person and we have some level of experiential evidence that Adam was real person.  It seems to me that BioLogos wants to deny both of these evidences and that is why their approach is unsettling to me and actually very stifling and confining.  I think a scriptural based YEC approach is a much more liberating position as far as the practice of science is concerned.


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