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.
Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, 4th Edition, Eerdmans, 1941.
Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994.