The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth
Davis Young and Ralph Stearley discuss the historical development of Young-Earth Creationism and its relationship with science, especially mainstream views of sedimentary rock and the fossil record.
The launching of Answers in Genesis’s (AiG) 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 BioLogos 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 following two sections, 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. – Ted Davis
Excerpts from pp. 118-120 and 157-159
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.
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.
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)]
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 columnand 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 protégéof 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 the 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).
Reactionary Developments: Creationist Organizations (excerpts from pp. 159-162)
Also of great significance was the formation of creation-oriented organizations. The landscape has been littered with essentially one-man young-Earth creationist operations, such as Kent Hovind’s Creation Science Evangelism, Walt Brown’s Center for Scientific Creation and Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum. Of greater impact are organizations like Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). With origins in Australia, AiG has featured writers and speakers like Ken Ham and Andrew Snelling and maintains a very active website. ICR was founded in 1970 by Henry Morris as the research arm of Christian Heritage College (now San Diego Christian College), but since 1981 it has been an autonomous graduate school devoted to the discovery of scientific support for a young Earth, a global Flood and other catastrophic interpretations of geology, and nonevolutionary explanations of the origins of organisms. ICR has regularly published a series, titled Acts & Facts, devoted to challenging standard geology and espousing young-Earth claims.
The Creation Research Society (CRS), founded in 1963, originally had a strong Missouri Synod Lutheran influence. Ronald Numbers has pointed out that one-third of the original charter membership came from the denomination, including biologists Walter Lammerts, Wilbert Rusch, John Klotz and Paul Zimmerman [The Creationists, p. 253]. Since 1964, the Creation Research Society has published a journal devoted to the espousal of catastrophism, Flood geology and a young Earth.
The young-Earth creationist movement has made inroads into the homeschooling movement, and curricular materials commonly endorse young-Earth claims. Young-Earth creationism is frequently featured on Christian radio and television programs. Repeated efforts, almost inevitably unsuccessful, have been made by advocates of a young Earth to introduce their brand of creationism into public school instruction. In 1981, Arkansas passed a law mandating public schools to give “balanced treatment” to both creation science and evolution in science courses, but the law was declared unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Overton in the case of McClean v. Arkansas. A similar act favorable to creationism was adopted in Louisiana and then struck down in 1987 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard. [See Edward J. Larson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, 3rd edition (2003).]
A significant development within the creationist movement was the establishment of the International Conference on Creationism held every fourth year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [Their proceedings are published by Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., of Pittsburgh.] Unlike most of the early creationist literature, many of the papers in the technical proceedings volumes published by the conference were marked by considerable scientific and mathematical sophistication. The movement has also been encouraged by the entrance of a handful of younger scholars with doctoral degrees in geology, a serious lack in the early days of creationism. The presence within the Flood geology movement of people with doctoral degrees like Leonard Brand, Arthur Chadwick, Stephen Austin, Kurt Wise, Andrew Snelling, Elaine Kennedy and Marcus Ross has not only lent greater scientific sophistication to the Flood geology movement but also has served as an internal check on some of the more egregious geologic errors in the writing of enthusiastic but ill-informed creationists. The publications of some of the more recent advocates of Flood geology such as Ariel Roth and Leonard Brand also have a much more irenic and moderate tone that provides a welcome contrast to the sarcastic, sometimes disrespectful tone and unwarrantedly dogmatic pronouncements of earlier creationists. Young-Earth creationists have, of course, continued to issue books and articles designed to convince people of the truth of a young Earth.
Despite the facts that young-Earth creationism has become considerably more sophisticated and that some of its proponents are much more geologically knowledgeable than were earlier advocates like Price or Morris, the claims advanced in favor of a young Earth or of Flood geology remain unacceptable to the scientific community. Thus their claims should also be unacceptable within the church, which, of all places ought to be committed to truth and reality—for the simple reason that the young-Earth creationist claims lack scientific credibility. They neither discredit evidence for an old Earth nor compel acceptance of a young Earth or a global Flood.
A factor contributing to the remarkably widespread acceptance of young-Earth creationism since the nineteenth century is the strong link geology has acquired with the theory of biological evolution by natural selection, extending not only to lower animals and plants but to the human race as well. [The close linkage of young-Earth creationism, Flood geology and anti-evolutionism has been amply demonstrated by Numbers, The Creationists]. The scientific, strictly biological conception of evolution, unfortunately has on occasion been transformed into an antireligious and anti-Christian philosophy by scientists and philosophers who are committed to or lean toward materialism [here the authors cited Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (1971), Peter W. Atkins, The Creation (1981), and Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (1981).] The materialistic philosophies of these writers take human beings out of the realm of creatures who are accountable to the creator God and place them into a realm where they are subject only to blind, mechanical forces and inherited instincts. As a result of such popularizations, the scientific theory of biological development has become so closely identified with a materialistic worldview in the minds of many Christians, including young-Earth creationists, that they throw out the baby with the bathwater, calling not merely for the repudiation of materialism but also for the rejection of evolution as a legitimate scientific theory. The failure to give adequate recognition to the distinction between the scientific theory of biological evolution and the philosophy of materialistic evolutionism characterizes such works as Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (2004), Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (1999), and Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (1991).
Without question, any purely materialistic philosophy is hostile to Christianity and ought to be opposed by Christians. Christians should not, however, attempt to disprove a materialistic evolutionary theory by discrediting the antiquity of the Earth. Evolutionary materialism and the antiquity of the Earth are two distinct issues. If the vast antiquity of the Earth is amply demonstrated, one must still evaluate the data and theory of evolution on their own scientific merits. By way of example, Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist, and C. John Collins, an Old Testament theologian, are both enthusiastic advocates of an old Earth who, nevertheless, ardently oppose biological evolution.
To summarize, in the face of the facts that the scientific community was virtually unanimous in accepting the vast antiquity of the Earth throughout the twentieth century right up to the present, and the geologic (and astronomical) evidence for such antiquity has continued to accumulate, significant segments of the Christian church have regressed by welcoming scientifically discredited ideas that include Flood geology and a very young Earth. For whatever reasons, acceptance of scientific findings prevails among academic theologians and the vast majority of Christian geologists, whereas acceptance of young-Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism and Flood geology prevails among pastors and lay Christians. Moreover, an astonishing number of Christian physicians and engineers are quite enthusiastic in their support of these discredited theories.
This state of affairs, in our judgment, reflects lack of appropriate geologic knowledge coupled with existence of tendencies to read Scripture in overly literalistic ways that fail to take into account the ancient Near Eastern cultural background of much Scripture and the primary pedagogical concern of the Bible. Our aim is to challenge readers, whether Christian or not, to see the weaknesses in a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 and to appreciate the force of divinely established geologic evidence for an extremely ancient Earth.
Flood Geology: Catastrophic Noachian Sedimentation (excerpts from pp. 224-231)
In the previous section, the authors discussed creationist organizations and critiqued evolutionary materialism. In this section, 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, The Bible, Rocks And Time. – Ted Davis
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 in the previous sections*, 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)
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.
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.
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:
- Mainstream geologists believe that sedimentary rocks must be interpreted in light of modern sedimentary processes.
- 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.
- Sedimentary rocks actually show a number of features that can be accounted for only by very rapid catastrophic deposition.
- The evidences of catastrophic deposition contradict modern geological theory and practice.
- Therefore, young-Earth creationists are right and mainstream geologists are wrong.
- Many if not all highly fossiliferous beds imply very rapid burial under water.
- The only aqueous catastrophe of worldwide proportions that could account for the worldwide distribution of evidences for catastrophic deposition is the Noachian Flood.
- 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.
- 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.
Flood Geology and the Biostratigraphic Record: Attack Approach (excerpts from pp. 235-242)
Earlier, the authors of The Bible, Rocks And Time presented the rudiments of Flood geology. This time, they 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, specific fossils are used to date the rock layers, leading to the conclusion that evolution has happened over millions of years, even though the assumption of evolution is needed to order the fossils that are used to date the rocks. Young and Stearley show where this faulty argument comes from and what is wrong with it. They call this argument “the attack approach.” – Ted Davis
Twentieth-century young-Earth creationist authors often accuse geologists of piecing together the fossil record, crazy-quilt style, to fit a preconceived notion of organic evolution. In effect, these modern critics claim that the pattern of fossils depicted in geology textbooks is a fiction, produced for evolutionary propaganda purposes.
As previously discussed, George McCready Price vigorously insisted that fossil faunas were instantaneous “snapshots” of localized faunas preserved by Noah’s Flood. As a corollary to this proposal, Price maintained that stratigraphic layers were sorted by geologists to fit preconceived notions of the history of life. He likened the work of the stratigraphic geologist to that of a librarian sorting file cards. In 1917, Price already elaborated this “card-sorting” activity:
“The geological series is merely an old-time classification series, a classification of the forms of life that used to live on the earth, and is of course just as artificial as any similar arrangement of the modern forms of life would be. We may illustrate the matter by comparing this series with a card index. The earlier students of geology arranged the outline of the order of fossils by a rather general comparison with the series of modern life forms, which happened to agree fairly well with the order in which they had found the fossils occurring in England and France. But only a block out of the middle of the complete card index could be made up from the rocks of England and France; the rest has had to be made up from the rocks found elsewhere. Louis Agassiz did Herculean work in rearranging and trimming this fossil card index so as to make it conform better, not only to the companion card index of the modern forms of life, but also that of the embryonic series. From time to time even now readjustments are made in the details of all three indexes, the fossil, the modern, and the embryonic, the method of rearrangement being charmingly simple: just taking a card out of one place and putting it into another place where it belongs. …. In view of these facts, we need not be concerned as to the fate of the geological classification of the fossils. It is a purely artificial system.” [Price, Q.E.D., or New Light on the Doctrine of Creation (1917), pp. 120-122, his italics.]
In Price’s 1923 magnum opus, The New Geology, he repeated the “card catalog” critique and went further, to elaborate his “law of conformable stratigraphic sequence” by claiming that “any kind of fossiliferous beds whatever, ‘young’ or ‘old’ may be found occurring conformably on any other fossiliferous beds, ‘older’ or ‘younger.’” [Price, The New Geology (1923), pp. 294 and 638.]
Price based this law on two phenomena. First, the presence of gaps in the global fossil sequence within local stratigraphic successions, and second, instances where thrust faults had emplaced older strata, with their entombed biota, on top of the younger strata. His emphasis on local gaps was misplaced for reasons elaborated above [in a section of text not part of these excerpts]. His antagonism toward thrust faults was also misplaced, because thrust faults do exist and are empirically verifiable through careful field observations. Price was so convinced that geologists were practicing a deception that he could not make himself confront the massive evidence for the unity of the order to the fossil record.
Price’s critique of the law of faunal (fossil) succession was enthusiastically adopted by many twentieth-century advocates of Flood geology. In 1931, Lutheran minister Byron Nelson quoted Price favorably in The Deluge Story in Stone. Nelson illustrated the seeming problem of reversal of order in deformed, thrust-faulted regions like the Northern Rockies and Switzerland through a series of remarkable photographs [see below for an example], matched against a standard geologic column, with lines connecting the strata of the column to various layers in the photographs. The result was an impressive tangle of criss-crossed lines resembling a telephone operator’s console from the 1940s.
With The Genesis Flood, published in 1961, Whitcomb and Morris can be credited with the modern revival of the approach of Price and Nelson, arguing that strata are ordered by deceitful geologists, based on a preconceived notion of the evolution of life:
“The rock systems of geology and their corresponding geologic ages have for many years been worked up in the form of a geologic timetable. For a typical example, see figure 5 [an image of the geological time scale]. Such a presentation obviously indicates a gradual progression of life from the simple to the complex, from lower to higher, and therefore implies organic evolution. This is considered by geologists to be a tremendously important key to the interpretation of geological history.
Of course, it is maintained by many stratigraphers that other factors, especially that of superposition of the strata, are also important in geologic correlation and that, in general, these factors justify the usual assignment of ages to strata on the basis of their fossil contents. The usual situation, however, is that only a few formations are ever superposed in any one locality and that it is very difficult or impossible to correlate strata in different localities by this principle of superposition. The fossils must be resorted to, and the fossil sequence is assumed to accord with the principle of evolution.” [The Genesis Flood, pp. 133-35.]
In 1974, Morris more explicitly argued in Scientific Creationism that this constitutes circular reasoning: “And now, finally, we begin to recognize the real message of the fossils. There is no truly objective time sequence to the fossil record, since the time connections are based on the evolutionary assumption, which is the very point in question. The relative positioning of the fossiliferous strata, therefore, must be strictly a function of the sedimentary and other processes which deposited them” (p. 96). [Later in the same work, he said,]
“Here is obviously a powerful system of circular reasoning. Fossils are used as the only key for placing rocks in chronological order. The criterion for assigning fossils to specific places in that chronology is the assumed evolutionary progression of life; the assumed evolutionary progression is based on the fossil record so constructed. The main evidence for evolution is the assumption of evolution!” (p. 136)
During the 1970s, many young-Earth creationists followed Whitcomb and Morris by advocating that the ordering to the fossils and their containing strata was a fiction conceived by atheists bent on proving preconceived notions of evolution. [The authors cite just one example, a book by veterinarian R. L. Wysong, The Creation-Evolution Controversy (1976).] The claim was repeated by Wilder-Smith in 1981:
“Certainly the index fossil method is the most important method for the dating of formations known to modern geology. It has served more than all other dating methods to establish evolutionary theory. It must be remembered that, as applied today, it always supports evolutionary theory! Of course, the reason for this is by now perfectly clear: the method assumes that evolutionary theory is experimentally correct so that a suitable family tree can be set up depending on evolutionary concepts. Then it confirms the veracity of the evolutionary theory on the basis of the evolutionary family tree … that is, the index fossil method is calibrated against the theory of evolution … then it proceeds to calibrate evolutionary theory against the index fossil method. Is it surprising that the theory of evolution confirms the index fossil method and vice versa? Neodarwinian theory has been thriving on this circular thinking between theory and practice and practice and theory for over 130 years.” [A. E. Wilder-Smith, The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution (1981), p. 108.]
However, we saw in chapter four [not included in this series of excerpts] that the founders of biostratigraphy were actively sorting out the pattern of extinct life forms more than a generation prior to the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and were in fact indifferent or hostile to the concept of organic evolution. The pattern of preserved organic remains in rocks is an empirical one. Any valid theory of the history of the Earth must take into account this empirical pattern.
Flood Geology and the Biostratigraphic Record: The “Ecological Zonation” Version
Even as Price and Nelson were vigorously promoting the thesis that the order to the fossil record is a fiction contrived by atheistic scientists, some of their contemporary Flood geologists were grappling with the fact of biotic succession of stratigraphy. Notably, Harold Clark propounded a theory in The New Diluvialism (1946) that the organization of the fossil record basically conforms to an expectation of preservation order according to pre-Flood ecological zonation. Clark, a Seventh-day Adventist, began his career as an intellectual protégé of Price. However, a visit to the oilfields of Oklahoma and Texas during the summer of 1938 persuaded him that the order to the fossil record is empirical and provided practical benefits to those exploring the subsurface (see Ronald Numbers, The Creationists). Clark was forced to part company with Price, resulting in animosity on Price’s part. Clark continued to look up to his former mentor and furnished a one-hundred-page eulogy in 1966 for Price, Crusader for Creation.
Clark’s “ecological zonation theory” for Flood-buried animals and plants has gradually gained wider acceptance within the young-Earth creationist community. [Morris, Scientific Creationism, 2nd edition (1982); Gary E. Parker, “Part II: The Life Sciences,” in What Is Creation Science? (1987), ed. Morris and Parker, pp. 31-184; Leonard Brand, Faith, Reason, and Earth History (1997); and Ariel V. Roth, Origins; Linking Science and Scripture(1998).] Ariel Roth wrote:
“As we consider how the flood might have caused the sequence found in the fossil record, we should differentiate between the familiar, small local floods and an unfamiliar worldwide event as described in Genesis. Sometimes we think of a flood as washing sediment from a higher area into a lower one and mixing everything in a disorganized pattern. However, flood deposits are often well-sorted, forming widespread flat layers. On a larger scale, mixing is even more difficult. A sequence of fossils would result as slowly rising floodwaters sequentially destroying the various preflood landscapes along with their unique organisms, redepositing them in order in large depositional basins of the continents. … the order of the fossils in such sedimentary basins would reflect the order of the eroded landscapes destroyed by the gradually rising waters” (Origins, p. 170).
Adherents of the ecological zonation theory claim that most large-scale features of the fossil record can be harmonized within the restrictions of a single year-long Flood event. Thus, Lower Paleozoic strata, which lack any record of land plants or land animals, are thought to be the preserved remains of pre-Flood deeper-water marine communities. At the other end of the geological spectrum, Cenozoic strata with their rich record of fossil mammals are claimed to result from concentrations of mobile and intelligent animals which could seek higher ground during the Flood event and so were overwhelmed last. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles were not so mobile and so apparently could not find the highest refuges from the catastrophic Flood, and so were entombed in an intermediate stratigraphic position.
However, there are many blatant incongruities in this explanation. For example, pterosaurs (extinct flying reptiles) are limited in their stratigraphic distribution to the Mesozoic. Presumably they were as mobile as many birds and even more mobile than many mammals and so should be preserved well throughout the Cenozoic. As a second example, why are there absolutely no angiosperm fossils preserved in Carboniferous coal deposits? In today’s world angiosperms [flowering plants] are by far the most numerous plant taxa, with more than 250,000 species documented, and occupying all sorts of habitats, including the coastal marine realm. Why did a catastrophic global Flood not mix a few angiosperms with standard Carboniferous plant communities? As a third incongruity, there are many examples in the rock record of marine fossiliferous successions overlying terrestrial fossil-bearing strata. In the western United States, for example, thick sequences of Cretaceous System rocks with abundant marine fossils overlie the terrestrial vertebrate (dinosaur) fossil-bearing strata of the Upper Jurassic.
To their credit, some Flood geologists recognize that the theory of ecological zonation does not magically remove all paradoxes of Flood geology at one blow. Ariel Roth, for example, acknowledges that the sedimentary record demonstrates abundant marine fossils at several stratigraphic levels. To resolve this discrepancy, Roth proposed that before the Flood, there were major seas, more extensive than the present-day Caspian Sea, for example, existing at various levels on the continents. The biota of these perched seas would be preserved at differing heights from the biota of the pre-Flood ocean floor (Origins, p. 170).
(Controversial) Nature of the Stratigraphic Record?
Much of the surface of the continents and the continental shelves is covered with thick stacks of lithified sedimentary rock deposited in layers. The layers are characterized in terms of bulk chemistry, mineralogy, color, texture, internal features like laminae and traces of burrowing, and body fossils. Beds are separated by discontinuities termed bedding planes.
Flood geologists feel compelled to explain most of these bedded rocks as resulting from the Flood of Noah. It appears that many recent seven-day creationists believe that because animal death stemmed from Adam’s fall, the fossils entombed in rock must be post-Fall, and the most likely candidate for their formation in a limited time span is Noah’s Flood.
If Noah’s flood was competent to deposit thousands of feet of sediment, it must have also been competent to erode vast volumes of sand and mud that comprise much of the sediment. It must also have been competent to smear this soft material over vast regions of the Earth. Thus, Noah’s Flood is depicted as a planetary catastrophe with monstrous waves reinforcing and canceling each other, and racing around the planet at high speed. [Of the dozen sources cited here, the most accessible are Larry Vardiman, “Global Warming and the Flood,” Henry Morris, “Why Christians Should Believe in a Global Flood,” and William Hoesch and Stephen A. Austin, “Do Tsunamis Come in Super-Size?”]
On the other hand, there are scriptural and geological objections to the planetary Flood model. First, Scripture speaks of the general location of the Garden of Eden with reference to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. [See Carol A. Hill, “The Garden of Eden: A Modern Landscape.”] One may surmise that the site of the Garden now lies buried below the Persian Gulf, which has been covered by seawater since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. However, the Tigris and Euphrates lie on top of thousands of feet of fossiliferous oil-bearing strata, which Flood geologists claim were emplaced during Noah’s Flood. The Bible itself appears to argue that Noah’s Flood occurred subsequent to the deposition and lithification of these strata! This difficulty is acknowledged by Flood geologists, who seem to think that the modern Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were named by Noah’s descendants after previous rivers from the antediluvial world. [John D. Morris, “Where Was the Garden of Eden Located?”]
In the second place, geologists wonder how a powerful agent like the Flood described above can deposit sedimentary layers in which great consistency in particular size, color, texture and fossil content can be maintained. How can one layer be distinctive tan limestone that bears fossil corals and other marine organisms, while its upstairs neighbor is a distinctive brown mudstone that contains terrestrial plants? How can layers that are pure accumulations of salt or gypsum, minerals that are produced by evaporating seawater, occur amid the other layers described? Why are not all these elements mingled into chaotic jumbles?
Flood geologists believe that fossil preservation requires rapid burial. This is true to some extent, but rapid burial need not be applied over the entire stratigraphic record in one geologic instant. The record may be a succession of local instances of burial. Many dense skeletal fossil accumulations, when closely examined, are explainable as natural built-in traps for organic remains or are only localized mass mortality settings.
Research by thousands of biostratigraphers during the past two hundred years has verified that a well-defined order to the fossils occurs through the succession of strata. Contrary to the repeated claims of many contemporary seven-day creationist authors, the ordering of the fossil record is not a fiction born of a desire to prove Darwinism. The record first came to view through the hard labor of many, including numerous Christians, a generation prior to Darwin. Other creationists attempt to explain the ordering of fossils as a result of the preservation of pre-Flood ecological zonation. Although this approach obviously has much more merit than that of the attempt to discredit biotic succession, it has to be continually “tweaked” in order to explain particularities of the succession of the fossils. How much tweaking can the record accommodate before the model fails?
During the nineteenth century, prior to the development of geochronometers such as radiometric dating, geologists became convinced that the record gave abundant proof for the passage of time while the layered rocks were forming, far too much time to be accommodated during a single year-long Flood. We examine a few select cases exhibiting the passage of time in chapter ten [not part of this series]. Thus we, along with all other mainstream geologists, insist that the overall stratigraphic record overwhelmingly testifies to the passage of long time intervals rather than testifying to the power of a single, short-term planetary catastrophe.
Excerpts from pp. 472-474
We learned in the previous section that a common YEC claim is false: that the standard picture of fossils in a certain sequence is based on circular reasoning. In this section the authors of The Bible, Rocks And Time conclude that “the dogged persistence in holding on to a young Earth and a global Deluge has less to do with geology than with other concerns.” What are those concerns? Let’s find out. – Ted Davis
Because they have put on blinders, young-Earth creationists are unwilling to accept the totality of the available geologic evidence. They are unwilling to abandon their young-Earth, global-Flood hypothesis even when the evidence shows it to be untenable. They have ignored or distorted a vast body of evidence that is contrary to their preconceived notion of what Earth history must have been like. They have focused only on data that, taken in isolation from geologic contexts, might be seen as favorable to their own theory. They claim continually to argue from the evidence of nature, but they have repeatedly ignored what is inconvenient for them. Although some of the phenomena of the sedimentary rock record might be interpretable in terms of a great Flood, most of the phenomena to which they appeal are far more satisfactorily explicable in terms of much smaller scale processes than a global catastrophic Flood. Most important, young-Earth creationists have refused to accept the abundant evidence of glacial deposits, lake deposits, desert deposits, delta deposits, shore deposits, reef deposits and evaporite deposits in the rock record. Young-Earth creationists have refused to face the evidence from metamorphism, the kinetics of mineral formation and heat flow from cooling magmas. They have tried to make the evidence from radiometric dating say something opposite from what it does say. The attempt to find a way to have the decay constants of radioactive isotopes change in an unbelievably spectacular fashion is a desperate attempt to rescue their view of the world. To date, all physical evidence pertaining to decay constants indicates the virtual immutability of those constants. Although a tiny fraction of geologic evidence might suggest a global Flood if considered in complete isolation from the wealth of other evidence, the overwhelming totality of evidence argues mightily against a global Deluge.
In the end, the dogged persistence in holding on to a young Earth and a global Deluge has less to do with geology than with other concerns. Even some young-Earth creationists grant that the evidence at present does not support their view. Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, in an honest assessment, wrote in a philosophical and biblical defense of young-Earth creationism that “natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos,” and they conceded that “it is safe to say that most recent creationists are motivated by religions concerns” (“Young Earth Creationism,” in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, pp. 41-75, on p. 49).
But if this debate over the age of the Earth is not really about physical evidence, then what is it about? We believe that those who are most firmly committed to young-Earth creationism do so because they are convinced that a divinely inspired, infallible, inerrant Bible demands it. We admire young-Earth creationists for their total commitment to Scripture, because we are likewise committed. We are one with them in our total commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and rejection of the secular humanism of our day. Yet, as we pointed out, a firm commitment to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture does not require a Christian to believe the theory of a recent creation to which young-Earth creationists adhere. And certainly the gospel of Jesus Christ does not demand acceptance of a young Earth. Nor is the eternal salvation of anyone anywhere ever dependent on acceptance of a young Earth. It is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that saves us from the wrath to come, not belief in a young Earth. The data of the Bible certainly do not demand that we hold to these views.
Christians need to relax and stop being afraid that some scientific evidence will disprove the Bible or undermine Christianity. We should not be afraid of the evidence that God has put into his world. We do ask, however, that if the Bible convincingly teaches that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and if there was a geologically active global Flood of such cataclysmic proportions, why is it that the physical evidence in God’s world, evidence that God put there, evidence interpreted by thousands of competent individuals, many of whom are themselves Bible-believing Christians, constantly points overwhelmingly against that idea and in the direction of an extremely ancient world?
The only recourse that flood catastrophists have to save their theory is to appeal to a pure miracle and thus eliminate entirely the possibility of historical geology. We think that would be a more honest course of action for young-Earth advocates to take. Young-Earth creationists should cease their efforts to convince the lay Christian public that geology supports a young Earth when it does not do so. To continue that effort is misguided and is detrimental to the health of the church and the cause of Christ.
Concluding Statement By Ted Davis
I wholeheartedly agree with Young and Stearley’s assessment of the real concerns of young-earth creationists: it’s about the Bible. More precisely, it’s about their particular view of the Bible and how it ought to be interpreted. In my opinion there is no more helpful response to the YEC view than the classic article by Conrad Hyers, “Dinosaur Religion: On Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Creation Texts,” and a sequel, “The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No,” in which he employs an interpretive scheme highly similar to the Framework View. I recommend those to inquiring minds on every possible occasion. Once the problem of excessive literalism has been removed, many Christians are able to evaluate the science on its own terms, without seeing a theological threat under every rock.
About the authors
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