The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 3)

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

INTRO BY TEDIn response to the opening of AIG’s Ark Encounter this month, I am publishing excerpts from an excellent book by Davis Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (2008). Last week, the authors discussed creationist organizations and critiqued evolutionary materialism. This week, they present the rudiments of Flood geology and briefly evaluate it—readers who want to see a full refutation of Flood geology will need to consult the printed book.

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. 224-231)

Flood Geology: Catastrophic Noachian Sedimentation

Large, regionally coherent blankets of sedimentary rock cover the interiors of continents, extend out over the continental shelves, and are commonly folded or otherwise deformed in mountains. As we saw last week,* however, a separate school of stratigraphy emerged during the twentieth century that vigorously asserted and continues to assert that mainstream stratigraphy is grossly off-base. The economic successes of modern stratigraphy were held to be mainly accidental: “The uniformitarian hypothesis and the evolutionary framework of geological ages have been shown to be largely irrelevant to the actual practice of petroleum exploration” (Whitcomb & Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 437). Beginning with George McCready Price and Byron Nelson, this school of stratigraphy emphasized the work that Noah’s Flood could have accomplished in the rock record. [See Price, Q.E.D., or New Light on the Doctrine of Creation (1917) and The New Geology (1923); and Nelson, The Deluge Story in Stone: A History of the Flood Theory of Geology (1931).] This viewpoint is often labeled “Flood geology” and its advocates “Flood geologists.” We follow this convention.

Advocates of Flood geology make several claims regarding the stratigraphic record, most of which are direct or indirect critiques of mainstream geological interpretations. First, most if not all sedimentary rock strata are held to have been deposited by a single planetary catastrophe. Price wrote in 1923:

[O]ur second corollary is that this hypothesis of a world catastrophe deals with the world as a whole, that is, it deals with the world in its planetary aspects; and therefore this catastrophe must have been of an astronomical character, and must have an astronomical cause. In other words, to spoil this ideal world, and to do it suddenly, would require an astronomical cause, something that would disturb this delicate equilibrium existing between water and land, thus destroying the ideal climate, and incidentally destroying the plants and animals existing upon it. But the only astronomical cause which we can readily imagine as being competent to bring about such a result would be something in the nature of a jar or a shock from the outside, which would produce an abnormal tidal action, resulting in great tidal waves sweeping twice daily around the earth from east to west, this wave traveling 1000 miles an hour at the equator. (The New Geology, p. 682, his italics)

A contemporary flood advocate, Larry Vardiman, wrote in 1997:

On average, the continental crust of the earth is covered with about a mile of sediments which appear to have been formed by the Genesis Flood. … It appears that a slurry of mud and sand was formed in the oceans by the action of the Flood events, which was deposited onto the continents and ocean floors to form the sedimentary rock layers.

In 1999, John Morris said that “The Flood would have totally restructured the surface of the globe,” and as recently as 2005, William Hoesch and Stephen A. Austin termed the Flood “the greatest of tsunamis.”

Flood geologists have proposed a variety of causes of a great aqueous cataclysm. These have been summarized by Austin and his colleagues and by Walter Brown. Austin and his colleagues, for example, proposed a “thermal runaway” model that accounts for vast amounts of rainfall plus rapid marine transgression in terms of catastrophic plate tectonics. In recent years, many Flood geologists have modified Price’s position by postulating that some strata were deposited prior to the Flood and some after the Flood. [See Leonard Brand, Faith, Reason, and Earth History (1997), and Ariel V. Roth, Origins; Linking Science and Scripture (1998).]

Second, Flood geologists from Price to the present have consistently advocated the claim that the presence of great numbers of preserved animal and plant remains in the sedimentary record necessitates very rapid sedimentation and burial. This is especially thought to be evident for spectacularly preserved mass mortality layers or “fossil graveyards.”

Third, Price and many Flood geologists following him have placed great weight on their claim that the ordering to the fossil record, which enabled nineteenth-century biostratigraphers to correlate strata from one region to the next, is fallacious or even a deceit.

What Do the Formations Represent? But the question very naturally arises, What do they represent? The answer to this is just as obvious: they simply represent a taxonomic or classification series of the life of the ancient world, just as living samples might be made up from here and there all over our modern earth to represent the life of the world today, these samples being each a representative local fauna or flora from some particular locality here or there over the modern world. For it is simply these buried local faunas and floras with which we are dealing when we speak of the various geological formations; and we have been piercing these scattered formations into systems and into groups of strata, under the impression that they represent various time-values, when they can not represent anything of the kind. The whole geological series is just as purely constructive, just as wholly artificial, as would be a corresponding series of the living plants and animals of our modern world, which might be made up by carefully gathering and arranging many thousands of local faunas and floras from scattered localities all over the earth. There would be no essential differences between the two series, save that the geological one represents dead (and often extinct) forms, while the modern one would represent living ones. The one would essentially parallel the other, and would also just as clearly represent a “history of creation” as would the other. (The New Geology, p. 614)

For Price and his successors, most of the geological strata were arranged during a single geological event (the Flood). Thus, the contained fossils merely represent samples of the destroyed biota prior to the event. The histories placed together from this stacked set of samples [by mainstream scientists] are thus viewed as accidental and/or contrived.

What are some predicted features of a global catastrophic stratigraphic record? Since the late 1970s, Flood advocate Walter Brown has promoted the effects of liquefaction on formation and delivery of flood sediments. Liquefaction is well documented today in cases where earthquake shocks provide energy into liquefied sediment. Such sediment flows easily and provides an analog to hypothesized planetary water waves bearing immense slurries of sediment. Furthermore, as these slurries settle, packages of sediment often naturally segregate in a phenomenon that Brown terms “lensing.” Brown believes that liquefaction and lensing furnish the best explanation for many interesting features of the sedimentary record… [SNIP]

ABOVE: Low-angle, planar cross-stratification in modern coastal beach sands, Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Davis A. Young.

LEFT: Low-angle, planar cross-stratification in St. Peter Sandstone (Ordovician), Graham Cave, Missouri. Photograph by Ralph F. Stearley.

In reply, we note that the St. Peter Sandstone [in the American Midwest] is composed of pure quartz, and its sand grains are very well sorted by size. The grains are all extremely rounded. The formation contains internal sedimentary structures like low-angle tabular cross-stratification that forms today in beach and shallow shoreface settings (see the two photographs above). Mainstream sedimentary geologists maintain that the purity, sorting and structural characteristics of the deposit demand consistent conditions operating over time. We find it difficult to image a violent short-term event that churned and dumped vast quantities of sediment capable of such discriminating selection, even granting Brown’s lensing phenomenon. Such an event should mingle sedimentary particles of all shapes and compositions.

[SNIP—further objections are raised.]

Flood geologists associated with the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) have invested much time and effort during the past thirty years in reinterpreting the Paleozoic strata visible in the Grand Canyon. [The authors cite chapters by Stephen Austin and W. R. Barnhart et al. in Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (1994).] Their efforts are much more field based than are those of many Flood geology proponents and are much more geologically informed. In the ICR Grand Canyon studies, physical descriptions of rock layers are accurate. Unconformities are documented but explained as resulting from extremely brief intervals of erosion. Models are presented for layering based on transgressions and regressions of the waters associated with a global flood event. Because mainstream stratigraphers interpret these units as constructed over long time periods under diverse ecological conditions, alternative Flood-depositional interpretations for their origin must be explained and defended. For example, the Coconino Formation is interpreted by mainstream stratigraphers as the deposit of a subaerial sand dune complex, whereas Austin and Brand interpret the Coconino Formation as the result of catastrophic wave-transported subaqueous sand bodies. [Austin, “Interpreting Strata of Grand Canyon,” in Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (1994), and Brand, Faith, Reason, and Earth History (1997). The authors say more about the Coconino Formation in chapter ten, which is not part of these excerpts.]

Flood-Geological Critique of “Uniformitarian” Logic

Not surprisingly, those who insist that the Earth is very young do not accept the approach to sedimentary rocks taken by mainstream geologists. There has been a prodigious effort by Flood geologists to discredit the evidences that indicate the antiquity of sedimentary rock sequences. In addition, there has been a great deal of young-Earth creationist literature that, while ignoring, discrediting or explaining away evidences for antiquity, focuses attention on several features in the sedimentary rocks, such as “polystrate fossils,” that supposedly can be accounted for only in terms of very rapid or catastrophic deposition. The evidences of catastrophic deposition are then used as one supposed proof of the young-Earth position.

The Flood-geology version of the creationist argument typically follows these lines:

  1. Mainstream geologists believe that sedimentary rocks must be interpreted in light of modern sedimentary processes.
  2. Mainstream geologists believe that most modern processes are all slow and that since catastrophes rarely occur today, they are only sporadically represented in the rock record.
  3. Sedimentary rocks actually show a number of features that can be accounted for only by very rapid catastrophic deposition.
  4. The evidences of catastrophic deposition contradict modern geological theory and practice.
  5. Therefore, young-Earth creationists are right and mainstream geologists are wrong.
  6. Many if not all highly fossiliferous beds imply very rapid burial under water.
  7. The only aqueous catastrophe of worldwide proportions that could account for the worldwide distribution of evidences for catastrophic deposition is the Noachian Flood.
  8. Scripture indicates that the Flood affected the Earth only for one year, that it occurred only a few thousand years ago, and that it occurred only a few thousand years after the creation in six twenty-four-hour days.
  9. Therefore, the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

In very general terms we can say that the premises of the arguments are faulty, and, therefore, the conclusion is by no means certain. As regards premise (3), we agree that many sedimentary rocks around the world do contain features that were produced by very rapid or catastrophic deposition. But the premise is misleading because it tells only half of the truth. Many other sedimentary rocks around the world contain features that must result from extremely slow rates of deposition. Any valid theory of the origin of sedimentary rocks must not ignore either of these groups of features.

Regarding premise (2), it is not true that modern geologists entertain the idea that most modern-day geologic processes are slow. [The authors say more about this in chapter sixteen, which is not part of these excerpts.] Neither is it true that mainstream geologists reject the idea that catastrophes rarely occur today or that they rarely occurred in the past. Geologists certainly accept the idea that the average rates of sedimentary depositional processes over long stretches of time are quite slow, but it is also accepted that there may be brief, spasmodic episodes when rates of deposition may be extremely high, even catastrophic. [The authors give some examples of modern catastrophic deposition elsewhere.] Since premises (2) and (3) are incorrect, conclusion (4), that evidences of catastrophic deposition contradict modern geologic theory and practice, does not follow. Thus, neither is conclusion (5)—that creationists are right and modern geologists are wrong—established.

Fossil accumulations contain internal evidences as to circumstances of deposition. In some cases deposition is rapid, but in other cases the deposit may represent a “trap” that operated over time. Thus premise (6) paints a simplistic and misleading view of the fossil record. [The authors examine such cases in depth in chapter nine, which is not part of these excerpts.] We also note with regard to premise (7) that there exist other reasonable explanations besides a global Flood that can explain the worldwide distribution of evidences for catastrophic deposition. Because of the incorrect premise, conclusion (9) is not established.

Looking Ahead

In the next excerpt, the authors refute a very common YEC claim, that the standard picture of fossils in a certain sequence is based on circular reasoning. As that argument goes, fossils are used to date the rock layers, but the assumption of evolution is needed to order the fossils that are used to date the rocks. Young and Stearley show where this argument comes from and what is wrong with it. Be sure not to miss that!




Davis, Ted. "The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 3)" N.p., 27 Jul. 2016. Web. 18 November 2017.


Davis, T. (2016, July 27). The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 3)
Retrieved November 18, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-bible-rocks-and-time-christians-and-an-old-earth-part-3

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.

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 moving footnotes into the main text or converting them 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. 

*The beginning of this sentence has been modified to reflect the blog format. In the book, it reads, "As we saw in chapter five,"

About the Author

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