The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 1)

| By and (guest author) and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

INTRO BY TED: The launching of AIG’s Ark Encounter offers an opportunity to rebut their central message, namely, that the acceptance of a “young” earth is crucial to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and any effort to persuade Christians otherwise is dangerous to the faith. We at BL share their concern for the gospel and their desire to see people in right relationship with God, but in our opinion the real danger lies in holding too tightly to one specific view of Genesis, not in any scientific claims about millions and billions of years. All too often people from solid Christian families, who’ve been taught the AIG message since their earliest years, later question or abandon their faith after becoming persuaded that the earth might be far older than a few thousand years. This crisis of faith arises not because an old earth and evolution are really contrary to the gospel, but because they’ve always been told that they are. We at BioLogos hear from such people every single day.

Our goal is to provide a constructive alternative to this unhelpful message.One way to help accomplish this is to reprint some excerpts from an excellent book by two Christian geologists: The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (2008), by Davis Young and Ralph F. Stearley. 

Young’s father, the late E. J. Young, was a very conservative Presbyterian biblical scholar.In the early 1960s, as an undergraduate at Princeton and a master’s student at Penn State, Davis Young enthusiastically supported Whitcomb and Morris’ flood geology, but he changed his mind as a doctoral student at Brown, subsequently becoming an energetic opponent of the YEC position (Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 304-306). Now retired from a long teaching career mostly at Calvin College, he has written many excellent books and articles combining scientific, historical, and biblical information on the flood, the age of the earth, human antiquity, and even John Calvin’s understanding of nature. His impeccable scholarship led The Geological Society of America to name him recipient of the Mary C. Rabbitt History of Geology Award in 2009.

Ralph Stearley is professor of geology at Calvin College, where he has taught since 1992. A paleontologist with broad interests in the history of life and in biogeography, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in geological sciences, with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology. His published research has included work on marine invertebrate ecology and paleoecology in the northern Gulf of California; fluvial taphonomy; the systematics and evolution of salmonid fishes; Pleistocene mammalian biogeography; and zooarchaeology of fish remains from sites in Michigan and New Mexico.

In this excerpt, Young and Stearley survey Christian responses to geology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, stressing the role of Seventh-day Adventists and Missouri Synod Lutherans in forging the young-earth creationist views that are part and parcel of the Ark Encounter.  

Editorial policy for the excerpts is explained at the end of this post. 

The Bible, Rocks, and Time, by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley (excerpts from pp. 118-120 and 157-159) 

Reactions to Geochronological Developments in the Nineteenth Century 

Despite the inexorable accumulation of evidence supporting the idea that the Earth is far in excess of 6,000 years old, there were predictable antagonistic responses to the developing trends. In the early nineteenth century, a torrent of books and pamphlets designed to uphold the traditional point of view on the age and history of the world, including a global Deluge, were published. [Here Young cites Joseph Sutcliffe, Short Introduction to the Study of Geology (1817); Granville Penn, A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (1822); George Bugg, Scriptural Geology (1826-27); George Young and John Bird, Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast (1828); and George Fairholme, New and Conclusive Physical Demonstrations (1837).] The “heretical” and “infidel” tendencies of modern geology were roundly condemned by some churchmen, few of whom had any knowledge of geology, although there were a handful of individuals who had produced acceptable field-based studies of regional geology in Great Britain. These “Scriptural geologists,” however, found themselves increasingly marginalized by the vast majority who had extensive working geological knowledge and were now convinced that the Earth is very old. 


ABOVE: The subtitle of George Bugg’s book succinctly states the message: Geological Phenomena, Consistent Only with the Literal Interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, Upon the Subjects of the Creation and Deluge. As he proclaimed in prominent capitals on the first page of the second volume, “REVELATION [is] THE PROPER AND ONLY SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE RESPECTING THE CREATION.” Bugg is much admired by contemporary young-earth creationists, who hold exactly the same attitude toward geology. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

By the latter half of the century, relatively few hostile denunciations of geology or published defenses of Flood geology appeared. There were exceptions, including Carl Friedrich Keil (1807-1888), a renowned Lutheran commentator and a professor of exegesis and oriental languages at the University of Dorpat, who continued to espouse a six-day creation, the restriction of the fossil formation to the period after Adam’s Fall, and Flood geology. [Keil, The Pentateuch (1878), vol. 1, and “Die Biblische Sch?pfungsgeschichte und die Geologischen Erdbildungtheorien,” Theologische Zeitscrift Dieckoff und Kliefoth (1860): 469] Also significant were the writings in the 1850s of Eleazar Lord (1788-1871) and his younger brother, Daniel Nevins Lord (1792-1880), the lay sons of Nathan Lord, a Congregationalist minister and president of Dartmouth College. [Eleazar Lord, The Epoch of Creation (1851) and David Lord, Geognosy (1857)] The Lords believed that capitulation to modern geology with its call for long ages undermined biblical authority and the Christian faith. Also significant were the teachings of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915), the founder of Seventh-day Adventism, who claimed to have visions from God about the creation of the world in six literal days as well as of a global Deluge that buried all life and produced the fossils. [White, Spiritual Gifts (1864)] White’s teachings and attitudes toward geology profoundly shaped not only Seventh-day Adventist thought but also the twentieth-century young-Earth creationist movement …

[SNIP]

A growing number of orthodox evangelical Christian writers, including geologists, preachers, biblical scholars and theologians, accepted and accommodated their thinking to the mounting evidence for terrestrial antiquity. In response, they began to develop a variety of strategies purporting to show how the biblical data were consistent with the findings of geology. [Davis A. Young, “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists, Part II,” Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987): 257-304] Having been encouraged to look afresh at the biblical creation accounts, experts in the original languages became persuaded that there is no conflict between the data of nature and the teaching of Scripture. These individuals continued to insist on the inspiration of the Bible and refused to call Genesis a myth in order to explain difficulties. It was, however, accepted that the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1 was not the only one that adequately satisfied the biblical data.

In particular, several geologists in the nineteenth century were outspoken Christians who were concerned to uphold Scripture. They had no intention of denying the Christian faith. The nineteenth century thus became an age of harmonization, a time when orthodox evangelical theologians and scientists generally adopted either the restitution or the day-age interpretation of Genesis 1. [Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954) and Herbert Hovenkamp, Science and Religion in America (1978)]

[SNIP] 

Reactionary Developments

An astonishing and perplexing aspect of the twentieth-century scene was the remarkable, unabated resurgence of belief among many Christians in the sciences in the crucial geologic role of the biblical Flood and in the idea that the Earth is only a few thousands of years old—and this in the face of increasing geologic and astronomical evidence for the vast antiquity of the Earth and the universe.

The Flood geology movement in America has steadily gathered momentum throughout the twentieth century. Ronald Numbers, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin and a former Seventh-day Adventist, has shown that much of the impetus for the resurgence of Flood geology can be traced to the influence of Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen Gould White (1827-1915). The major spokesman for Flood geology in the early decades of the century was self-taught Seventh-day Adventist “geologist” George McCready Price (1870-1963), who authored several books that defended catastrophic geology and attacked standard geologic theory. [Numbers, The Creationists (first edition, 1992), pp. 72-101; Price, The New Geology (1923), Illogical Geology (1906), and The Modern Flood Theory of Geology (1935)] Price rejected faunal succession, the stratigraphic column and overthrust faults[Young has an important note here: “Overthrust faults are typically gently dipping planar surfaces along which plates of rock (commonly stratified and up to thousands of feet thick) have been pushed up and over other masses of rock. Instances are known where rock masses have been transported more than 100 kilometers along thrust surfaces. Overthrusts typically occur in association with strongly folded rocks in portions of Earth’s crust that have been subjected to intense compression.] In 1946, Seventh-day Adventist Harold W. Clark (1891-1986), a protégé of Price, published The New Diluvialism. Although Clark endorsed Flood geology, he succeeded in arousing Price’s ire because he conceded the reality of both the geologic column and great overthrusts. [Numbers, The Creationists (first edition, 1992), pp. 123-129] In subsequent years, several Seventh-day Adventist scientists, like Ariel Roth of Andrews University, Leonard Brand of the Geoscience Research Institute, and Arthur Chadwick and Elaine Kennedy of Loma Linda University, have expressed openness to the concept of an ancient Earth, but they are still committed to the idea of a very recent creation of life and a global Deluge. Seventh-day Adventists have also been very much in the thick of the search for the remains of Noah’s ark. [Young, The Biblical Flood (1995), pp. 314-19]

Devotion to a young Earth and Flood geology spilled over from Seventh-day Adventism across a wide spectrum of denominations as well as Mormons and Muslims. In recent decades, a host of biologists, physicists, chemists, geographers and engineers, but extremely few geologists and astronomers, have been insisting on a return to belief in creation in six twenty-four-hour days only a few thousand years ago; an abandonment of all theories of harmonization of modern geology with Scripture; and wholehearted acceptance of a catastrophic global Deluge that produced most of the stratigraphic and paleontological record.

In contemporary America there now exists a vigorous movement within the evangelical wing of the church that favors recent creation and Flood geology. This movement has very strong transdenomenational support among Christians who are not engaged in scientific endeavor. Outside of Seventh-day Adventist circles, young-Earth and Flood geology has especially shown considerable popularity among conservative Lutherans. In 1931, a Lutheran pastor, Byron Nelson (1893-1972), wrote an interesting and very sympathetic history of the flood theory, The Deluge Story in Stone. At the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church’s Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, professor of Old Testament Alfred Rehwinkel (1887-1979) published The Flood in Light of the Bible, Geology and Archaeology (1951). The movement received its strongest impetus, however, with the publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb, a professor of Old Testament at Grace Theological Seminary, and Henry M. Morris (1917-2006), then a professor of hydraulic engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and later the founder and president of the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon, California. There followed a long list of writings devoted to the Flood and to the young-Earth theory, including numerous books by Henry Morris, including Science, Scripture, and the Young Earth (1983), a critique of the first edition of Christianity and the Age of the Earth (1982).


ABOVE: These books by Byron Nelson, a veteran of World War One who became a Lutheran minister, make an interesting combination. His book about the deluge praises the flood geology of George McCready Price, while his book about humans living “before Abraham” rejects the traditional young-earth timescale of James Ussher; he believed that humans had existed far longer. “Why should man not be very, very old, if that is the case? What is there in the Christian religion against it? What doctrine is in any way changed? Six thousand or sixty thousand or six hundred thousand years affect the fundamental situation set forth by the message of the Gospel not a whit. Rather the older man is[,] the greater is the significance of the statement of the New Testament that Christ appeared in the ‘last time,’ and that we are now living in ‘the last times.’” (p. 95) Thus it is not surprising that the Answers in Genesis website completely ignores Byron Nelson, despite his status as a pioneer of flood geology. His grandson, philosopher of biology Paul Nelson, is both a young-earth creationist and a prominent advocate of Intelligent Design.


Looking Ahead

When this mini-series resumes next week, Young and Stearley discuss various creationist organizations and critique evolutionary materialism.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 1)"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 14 Jul. 2016. Web. 21 September 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2016, July 14). The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 1)
Retrieved September 21, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-bible-rocks-and-time-christians-and-an-old-earth-part-1

References & Credits

References and Credits

Excerpts from Davis Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (2008), copyright InterVarsity Press, are reproduced by permission of InterVarsity Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers. For information on Byron Nelson, see the introduction in Paul Nelson (ed.), The Creationist Writings of Byron C. Nelson (1995).

Editorial Policy

Editing these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two (which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point), inserting annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets like this] to provide background, and converting footnotes into briefer bracketed phrases or embedded links. Images from the book have not been reproduced (owing to matters related to copyright); all images in these columns have been chosen by Ted Davis.

About the Authors

Davis A. Young (Ph.D., Brown University) is Professor of Geology Emeritus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His books include John Calvin and the Natural World, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extra-biblical Evidence, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation and Science Held Hostage: What's Wrong with Creation Science and Evolutionism.

More posts by Davis Young

Ralph Stearley

Ralph Stearley is a paleontologist with broad interests in the history of life and in biogeography. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in geological sciences, with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology. He is professor of geology at Calvin College, where he has taught since 1992. His published research has included work on marine invertebrate ecology and paleoecology in the northern Gulf of California; fluvial taphonomy; the systematics and evolution of salmonid fishes; Pleistocene mammalian biogeography; and zooarchaeology of fish remains from sites in Michigan and New Mexico. He was privileged to be able to co-author, with former Calvin College colleague Davis Young, The Bible, Rocks and Time, published by InterVarsity Press in 2008.

More posts by Ralph Stearley

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

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