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 - #18302

June 21st 2010

Gabriel,

Again you go in the direction of maligning your brothers and sisters in a way that is quite contrary to the charity at the heart of the scriptures you cherish.

To say that a commitment to science is the only glue here is to dismiss outright the sincere and deep faith of those who lead and discuss here.  Whatever other formulations have been developed, the heart of the Christian commitment to scripture has always been that it is a reliable guide to faith and practice.  That is an orthodox commitment shared by pretty much everyone here.

If some seek to define “infallible” and “inerrant” differently than you; or even if some find the present-day conceptions of those words too difficult to contend with and prefer to drop them, that is absolutely not the same as lack of commitment to scripture.


Mike - #18317

June 22nd 2010

John,

I am curious to know how the transition you described above was for you? How challenging was it to your faith as a Christian if it was at all? I know a lot of people have made similar transitions and some have been rather hard to swallow. If you don’t feel like sharing that is cool, but I am curious to know since it sounds like our paths are somewhat similar in the reasons for distancing from YEC alone.


Joe Francis - #18326

June 22nd 2010

John #18301

I will look at the ice layers issue.  10K is within range of what YECs accept.  I agree that perhaps some sloppy work in YEC has been done. That is because the YEC movement of the last century was mostly a lay movement.  There is a new YEC movement involving scientists and experts in their respective fields.  Check out creationbiology.org for example.


Karl A - #18328

June 22nd 2010

Joe Francis: Good to see you back!  I’ve missed you.  Note that I didn’t say that YECs by definition have their eyes squeezed tightly shut.  I was simply rebutting (one of) Gabriel’s judgmental claim(s) about ECs.  I wouldn’t want to turn the tables and be equally judgmental.  Anyone with any position can have their eyes tightly squeezed shut.

Getting back to Gabriel’s and Justin’s pronouncements about non-YECs, the funny thing is that I used to throw those stones myself, until I saw what a glass house I was living in.  We are wrestling with quite difficult and sensitive issues here, and we may get a number of things wrong, but I think the quote by Teddy Roosevelt is quite apt here:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows,


Karl A - #18329

June 22nd 2010

“in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

I hope God is honored by our imperfect attempts in the arena, to unsquintingly look at uncomfortable topics like the age of the earth, evidence for common ancestry, and ancient science in the Bible.  Is he more honored by us hiding from these issues and/or merely critiquing those who do?

Disclaimer: please don’t interpret these words as me saying that acceptance of a particular position can be equated with “being in the arena” or not.  I think you have demonstrated that, Joe.  But as I’ve seen Gabriel and Justin interact with Gordon Glover and many others on this site, my admittedly limited perception is that they are taking the role of critics and scoffers and are not (yet) willing to climb in the arena.  I hope I’m wrong.


Gabriel Powell - #18330

June 22nd 2010

John,

To say that a commitment to science is the only glue here is to dismiss outright the sincere and deep faith of those who lead and discuss here.

It is possible to be sincere, and be sincerely wrong. And it is possible to have a deep faith in the wrong thing. Through my limited interactions here at BioLogos it is obvious that there are Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestants, and probably others. These are three groups that have significant differences, and I venture to say, define the gospel in mutually exclusive ways.

BioLogos has no doctrinal statement of any kind. This means anyone can claim to be a Christian, believe anything they want about the Bible, and be welcome here as having valid alternate views on Scripture. That is a far cry from biblical unity. Paul said if anyone teaches a different gospel, they are to be anathema. According to official Catholic declarations, Protestants are anathema. Protestants should see Catholics (those who hold consistently to Catholic doctrine) as unbelievers of the true gospel.

There are indeed many here who are sincere and have a deep faith. But there is little agreement on what their faith is in.

Cont…


Gabriel Powell - #18335

June 22nd 2010

the Christian commitment to scripture has always been that it is a reliable guide to faith and practice.

Again, the problem is what “faith” and what “practice”? A Catholic and Protestant define those things very differently. They have very different commitments to Scripture. I have been told here at BioLogos that my biblical arguments were worthless, but if I could use Catholic dogma, then we could debate. Seriously?

If some seek to define “infallible” and “inerrant” differently than you; or even if some find the present-day conceptions of those words too difficult to contend with and prefer to drop them, that is absolutely not the same as lack of commitment to scripture.

That’s like saying you don’t have to believe Jesus was God or that He paid for our sin, but as long as you believe in Him (whatever that means) you’re still good to go. Absolutely not! People can’t redefine terms and throw orthodoxy out the window and still claim to be committed to Scripture.

I don’t see how any conservative protestant Christian who hold to the inerrancy, inspiration, and sufficiency of Scripture can remain in this environment. Anyone here with those commitments should read and mediate on 2 John.


Justin Poe - #18342

June 22nd 2010

Gabriel, your last points are exactly what I was saying concerning the Templeton Foundation.  That foundation supports just about every religion out there.  Christianity, Hindus, Muslims, ect.  Does Biologos support the idea that every single one of these religions has the answer to salvation?  Or will Biologos stand by the fact only Jesue Christ through his death and resurrection is the way to salvation?  If so, then why take money from the Templeton Foundation.  It makes no sense from a Christian standpoint.


Robert Byers - #18345

June 22nd 2010

The present is NOT the key to the past. this means nothing in geology or anything in the universe.
Yes it follows that mechanisms of today must of been possible in the past. Yet past mechanisms need not be possible today.


in geology all one needs to find is a mechanism workable today and so extrapolate that it could work in the past.
So fast actions in geology today like from a flood of water can of happened in the past too.
The concept that this successfully challenged biblical creationism (YEC) is flawed.
They simply, even silly, concluded all geological formations were from slow acting actions because they are slow now. Then said AHA the flood isn/t true.
Now this has failed. The great Missoula flood(Bretz) and modern mega flood ideas(Shaw) has overthrown the old saying. The old saying means nothing. it fails in its purpose to undermine biblical truth.
All geology can be explained from sudden quick events. No need to imagine slow events.
Saying the present is key to the past is saying nothing.
It meant more back in the day because they didn’t have the intellectual imagination to see that great water power could instantly create great geology.


merv - #18357

June 22nd 2010

Justin (18223)—-sorry I hadn’t responded yet, it wasn’t my intention to be ignoring anyone here and I guess I just got into a “rhythm” with Gabriel.

You asked what I would share with someone if they asked “why should they believe in Jesus or his resurrection—-especially with regard to Genesis issues (if I understood your question correctly), and I’ll see if I can do your question some justice in a shortish answer.  I’m not sure I can.

Part of my response, though, (if they were coming to me with the origins issues foremost in their mind) would be to reassure them that there are many sincere Christians they can fellowship with that are all over the map with regard to issues like evolution.  So when they feel cornered in that they can’t ignore evidence that seems so plain to them and yet are torn because their faith depended on God’s methods and creative work only following certain narrow ways, I try to gently get them to see that the humility we rightly expect each other to have as we investigate God’s creative work (science) is the same humility that ought to be attendant as we expound on how we should understand God’s Word.


merv - #18358

June 22nd 2010

And I would reassure them of something that we all here do agree on:  that if God is who Christians claim He is, then God’s Word and his Works will not be in contradiction, though our fallible understandings of either (or more likely both) can cause it to seem so.  All truth is God’s truth, and Christians ought to be (and they have been) as bold as any leading scientists (sometimes they ARE leading scientists) in uncovering parts of the mysteries of God’s world.  I would encourage them to continue struggling to understand things both spiritually, physically, biblically, in every way that Christ puts at their disposal, and also to be wary of those who offer all easy answers and exude a perpetual confidence about their every answer.  Such folks may actually be right about a lot of things (it would take an awfully smart person to be wrong about everything—-think about that.)  but embedded in their plethora of easy answers there will probably be much error to be avoided.  But most of all, pray to God to open up his Word (which is Christ, by the way—-and not, strictly speaking, the leather bound book sitting on your lap)  That book


merv - #18359

June 22nd 2010

is our connection to the teachings of Christ, and the testimonies of those who were changed by Him or prophesied about Him.  Without God, they that labor build in vain.  I think that ultimately applies to our intellectual endeavors as well —with or without the Bible.  And of course, don’t take my word for any of this, but look into it yourself by opening yourself up to Christ.  Sweat out the hard labor of wrestling with Scripture for yourself even if it puts you in questionable company (Jacob, the deceiver had the audacity to wrestle with God).  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!)  Start with Christ in earnest prayer and meditation, confessing your need to God as the


merv - #18360

June 22nd 2010

Spirit enables you to, pouring over those Gospels and Pauline Scriptures as the most important window we have into Christ’s heart, and all the rest, if you even still care about any of the theological arguments when God gets through with you, you can study, discern, and argue about to your heart’s delight later: but ALWAYS under Christ, who is the illuminator of rather than illuminated by Genesis. 

Okay, I guess I got a little beyond “shortish” here——sorry, Justin.  And for all this typing I probably misunderstood your question.  I was going to write something to Gabriel, but since I’ve poured myself into this for now, I should get to bed.  But I will add this one last bit –I need to shed my quickly critical spirit as I visit other web sites like the one Gabriel linked.  It isn’t reasonable of me to expect blogging folks to always be at their


merv - #18361

June 22nd 2010

best; especially if they perceive things essential to their beliefs are being attacked.  As for the pep rally atmosphere, the only one I want to be a part of is the one around the throne at the end of time where I hope we will all end up having hearty laughs at our own expense and with each other;  where we’ll laugh our former misunderstandings to scorn rather than laughing each other to scorn. 

Good night (or morning, rather) 
—Merv


Argon - #18395

June 22nd 2010

Justin Poe: “Argon cont….again, you claim uniformitarianism in your response to me…that’s all you can fall back on, historical evidence, not observable evidence.  You CANNOT observe the evidence as it was 1 billion years ago.  You cannot even observe the evidence as it was during the flood, nor can I or any other YEC, thus your presuppositional worldview.”

1) I don’t like the term ‘uniformitarianism’. What we’re talking about here is consistency of physical laws, not whether a meteor impacted, a volcano blew or stuff like that.

2) As I mentioned previously, the sorts of measurements made were designed to *test* for consistency. It wasn’t based on an a priori commitment. If you examine the historical progress of geological science you’ll see that hypotheses and models related to the age of the Earth were tested prior to their general acceptance. It wasn’t a precommittment to an ancient Earth and universe but where the results of tests pointed. This is science.

The case for an old Earth is based on the multiple, independent ‘yardsticks’. The problem for YEC is that these yardsticks are generally in synch and consistent.


John VanZwieten - #18396

June 22nd 2010

Mike wrote:

John,

I am curious to know how the transition you described above was for you? How challenging was it to your faith as a Christian if it was at all?

My transition was gradual, and maybe because of that was enlivening for my faith rather than threatening to it. 

In a Christian high school I was thoroughly indoctrinated with YEC—read Morris, wrote papers on all the ways to prove the earth is young, had a Grand Canyon tour describing how it was all the result of Noah’s flood, and visited a creationist museum in California.

At Wheaton College I argued the conservative literalist dispensationalist creationist perspective any chance I got in classes or with fellow students.  For my gen-ed requirements, I needed two science courses which I put off till my senior year, then took “rocks for jocks” because it was the easiest of the options.  There I learned the basics of geology, and it wasn’t until late in the course when someone asked about The Flood.  The professor wisely allowed that if Noah’s flood was miraculous, it need not have left the normal evidence one would expect from a natural flood.  But he said that it is quite clear there was clearly not a recent natural global flood.


John VanZwieten - #18398

June 22nd 2010

(cont.)

That professor did me the service of separating YECism from my commitment to scripture (and attendant literalism).  I could keep my understanding of Genesis without having to buy wild stories about how everything we see today is a result of The Flood.

After college, I was blessed by a wonderful spiritual mentor who also was a physics PhD.  He challenged my belief in a young earth, and suggested possible ways of reconciling Genesis to the evidence of old earth (day-age, gap, 2 creations, etc.)  My preference at that point became the “appearance of age” idea, that God created the earth recently, but (for his own reasons which we may not ever fully understand) created it with the appearance of age.  I was still pretty much YEC, but at least I could hear talk of billions of years w/o cringing.

But the “appearance of age” idea has major holes in it that don’t stand up under closer scrutiny (which I managed to avoid doing for many years).  It was actually teaching The Truth Project that caused me to dig deeper, and was the occassion for someone giving me Collin’s book, The Language of God and finding the Biologos site.


John VanZwieten - #18399

June 22nd 2010

The more I have investigated the scientific issues presented in The Truth Project the more inconsistencies and inaccuracies I have found among YECism (along with a significant history of intentional obfuscation).  I also investigated for the first time the history of modern YEC, and found its foundations, to say the least, troubling. 

I’m still working out the theological implications of Biologos, and the posts and discussions here are very helpful.  Mostly I’ve become fully convinced that the Bible is not intended to teach science, so there is no essential conflict between it and science.  Having a great love of Christian myth (Lewis, Tolkien, McDonald, Lawhead, etc.), facing the mythic element in Genesis actually causes me to appreciate it more than ever.

More importantly, my faith is based on relationship with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, which no theory or hermeneutic or argument could come between.  Christ, literally is my life!  Maybe it’s the strength of that relationship which has allows me to lose my faith in YECism without having my faith in God troubled much at all?

(Btw, I still find the science “tour” in TTP quite valuable, that philoshophical naturalism is not biblical)


John VanZwieten - #18403

June 22nd 2010

Joe Francis,

Here are a couple links for digging into the ice core issue:

http://www.asa3.org/asa/PSCF/2003/PSCF12-03Seely.pdf
and a rebuttal at AiG:
http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v18/i2/icecore.asp

Ask yourself questions like: who is dealing as honestly as possible with the other side’s arguments?  Who is presenting a data-based argument that you or I could engage as we learned enough about the science, as opposed to who is engaging in polemic?


Merv - #18415

June 22nd 2010

Thanks for sharing, John.  It was interesting to hear that the Truth Project was, in part, a catalyst for you.  I elected not to engage in the Truth Project when I was given the opportunity, but in my brief review of some of it, I heard much that I could agree with. 

I too think Biologos is a valuable place for Christians to come and work out big questions from a Christian perspective with (I hope) a minimum fear of being attacked should they stray from some leader’s code of orthodoxy.  The price tag, of course, is that people can range far & wide into many erroneous places.  But their chance of getting course corrections is probably better than if they are locked down into one erroneous place. 

And this, I think I’ve heard Gabriel say, is the very same reason its detractors find it so frustrating:  the lack of one uniform statement of faith or one big monolithic unity of doctrines to determine who is “in” and who is “out”.  I know YECs also are not one monolithic bunch, but they are loosely closer to it than their detractors


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