Students of geology learn in their first semester that uniformitarianism is the guiding principle by which geologists interpret Earth’s history. The premise, as formulated by James Hutton in the late 18th century and argued persuasively by Charles Lyell in the middle 19th century, is that geological processes we observe today can be used to explain ancient geological materials and structures. For example, today we see the rock basalt forming by volcanic activity. Since we find basalt layers exposed in Shenandoah National Park, we presume that lavas oozed onto an ancient seafloor sometime in the distant past before the Blue Ridge Mountains formed.
Young-Earth Creationists and Flood Geologists reject the geological principle of uniformitarianism on the grounds that (1) it is inherently unbiblical, (2) it was developed to refute biblical catastrophism, and (3) it does not fulfill its promise to help us correctly interpret Earth’s history. These concerns are repeated in Young-Earth creationist literature and even from the pulpits of many churches. On his internet blog, distinguished American pastor John MacArthur (well known for his popular radio ministry) recently portrayed geological uniformitarianism as a dangerous dogma (here and here).
I respect Dr. MacArthur’s commitment to the authority of Scripture and his passion for the gospel message, but as a professional geologist and Christ-follower I found so many errors in his analysis that I feel they must be exposed in a similar forum. In a recent BioLogos post, Karl Giberson lamented the all-to-common situation in which “uninformed lay people presume to challenge the scientific community.” Pastors should not be expected to know all the nuances of a concept like geological uniformitarianism, nor the details of landforms and strata in some state park in Georgia (we will get to that). However, pastors should be cautious and responsible if they challenge the consensus of an established scientific discipline in the name of advancing the gospel.
Faulty assumptions, old definitions
Dr. MacArthur defined uniformitarianism as “the theory that natural and geological phenomena are for the most part the results of forces that have operated continuously, with uniformity, and without interruption, over billions and billions of years,” and that the “forces at work in nature are essentially fixed and constant.” There are elements of this description in nearly every textbook or dictionary definition of the term. I like the definition in the Glossary of Geology by Bates and Jackson: “The fundamental principle or doctrine that geologic processes and natural laws now operating to modify the earth’s crust have acted in the same regular manner and with essentially the same intensity throughout geologic time, and that past geologic events can be explained by phenomena and forces observable today….the doctrine does not imply that all change is at a uniform rate, and does not exclude minor local catastrophes.”
The example Dr. MacArthur gives to illustrate this principle is not how geologists apply it in their interpretations of Earth history. He writes, “The uniformitarian sees sedimentary rock strata…and assumes that the sediments that formed them resulted from the natural, slow settling of particles in water over several million years.” Geologists can point to very few natural environments of deposition where this kind of slow settling of particles actually occurs – the deep sea and large lakes come to mind. There certainly are some ancient rocks with textural properties that compare with deep sea and lake deposits. But, many more ancient strata compare perfectly with deposits of modern rivers, deltas, reefs and tidal flats (to name a few among many examples) that form by episodic accumulation of sediments in short periods of time (from seconds to centuries), separated by longer periods of non-deposition or erosion (from months to millennia and even longer).
Paradigm shift: uniformitarianism includes catastrophes
Dr. MacArthur mentions that fossils have a better chance of being preserved if they are buried suddenly (if not catastrophically). Uniformitarian geologists would agree! That’s because modern geologists don’t even subscribe to 19th century uniformitarianism. A paradigm shift occurred in the middle 20th century replacing uniformitarianism with actualism, an addendum to the principle allowing that extreme natural forces have acted in Earth’s history. For our purposes, we will use the term uniformitarianism as it is used by geologists today, not the 19th century definition. Uniformitarianism includes catastrophic events such as thousands of earthquakes from plate tectonics and various meteorite impacts (see footnote ii). As with all science, our understanding of processes has changed from the 19th century to the 21st century.
One of the turning points involved a unique landform called the channeled scablands in eastern Washington State that seemed to defy conventional explanations. Geologist J. Harlan Bretz proposed that they were formed by catastrophic floods of swift, deep water escaping from glacial lakes at the end of the last ice age.[i] The geological community eventually accepted his ideas, but it took over 30 years and some mind stretching to think about such forces as being normal or natural. Bretz was not motivated by biblical flood geology, but by following the evidence where it led him.[ii]
An old earth is not unbiblical
Dr. MacArthur claims that geologists have to keep increasing the age of the earth to make time for all the catastrophes evident in the rock record. That comment ignores the historical development of the geologic time scale as eventually quantified by the middle of the twentieth century. Geologists have known that the earth is in the range of 4.5 billion years old since the 1950s.
Our understanding of Earth history was advanced by thousands of geologists since Hutton and Lyell laboring over the details the earth’s crust and considering each stratum in the context of the planet as a whole. They abandoned the ideas of a very recent creation and global deluge of geological significance because those ideas were not supported by the geological data.
Many of the early geologists knew the implications of the emerging picture for the biblical accounts of origins and they looked to Bible scholars of their time for help. Modern evangelicals know those Bible scholars who accepted the new geology and showed that it was not inconsistent with the meaning of Scripture. Men like B. B. Warfield, James Orr and George Fredrick Wright; men who also contributed to the origins of the fundamentalist movement. Just as respected evangelical biblical scholars of our generation find an ancient creation no threat to biblical faith, such as Alister McGrath, C. John Collins, Bruce Waltke, Wayne Grudem, John Walton and Walter Kaiser.
Dr. MacArthur’s blogs conclude with the geological example of Providence Canyons in southwest Georgia to show the ineptness of uniformitarianism. Poor farming practices in the last century in this upland plateau resulted in severe erosion of the natural drainage system, cutting numerous gullies up to 130 feet deep. If Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon could form in only decades, why couldn’t receding water from Noah’s flood carve Arizona’s Big Grand Canyon? That both canyons were carved by water is about the extent of the comparison! A detailed look at the strata eroded in Providence Canyons provides further evidence that actualistic assumptions work.[iii]
Uniformitarianism reflects God’s unchanging nature
Finally, do we really want to condemn uniformitarianism, or its offspring actualism, as an unbiblical premise? Dr. MacArthur quotes scriptures that ring of the catastrophist actions of God in nature. However, there are also scriptures that speak of the unchanging nature of God and…well, nature. Ecclesiastes 1 comes to mind with its poetic refrains: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever….All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again…..What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”
In a two-part blog entry published in 2010, the distinguished American pastor John MacArthur argued that the scientific concept known as “uniformitarianism” is expressly condemned in Scripture. Here, I want to respond to MacArthur’s views, showing that uniformitarianism is expressly supported by the plain teaching of Scripture and by a well-known and accepted Christian doctrine, that of God’s providence.
Let us first of all define what we mean by the terms “creation” and “God’s providence.” Systematic theology textbooks used by beginning Bible students include sections or chapters on these doctrines and two are referenced below.
Defining terms: Creation and Providence
Creation has been defined as that “free act of God whereby He, according to his sovereign will and for his own glory, in the beginning brought forth the whole visible and invisible universe, without the use of preexistent material, and thus gave it an existence, distinct from his own and yet always dependent on him.” (Berkhof, p.129)
God’s providence has been defined as “that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all his creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.” (Berkhof, p.166) There are three elements to providence: preservation, concurrence or cooperation, and government. (Grudem, p.315; Berkhof p.166) Using Berkhof’s model, two types of God’s providence include (1) Ordinary providence where God works “through second causes in strict accordance with the laws of nature” and (2) Extraordinary providence where God works “immediately or without the mediation of second causes in their ordinary operation.” A more common term for extraordinary providence is the word “miracle.” (Berkhof, p.176)
God’s providence teaches that God is the “first mover” and that other forces in nature are the “second movers”—forces such as gravitation, thermodynamics, or the heat of the Sun. Second movers include such forces as the lightning that flashes and sets a forest ablaze, convection in the molten, metallic outer core that creates the protective magnetic shield around the earth, the hand of a person who lights a fire to warm his family…the list is endless. These “second movers” or “secondary causes” all act under the rule of God’s providence.
The Bible does not describe God as being part of nature, but as creating it as a potter would work clay (see Jeremiah 18:1-6) and, then, relating to what he has made in an intimate, caring relationship. Pantheism doesn’t distinguish between creation and providence so it is very important to be careful to do so. Theism stresses “the calling into existence of that which did not exist before, while providence continues or causes to continue that has already been called into existence.” It also emphasizes cooperation between “the creature with the Creator” and “concurrence of the first Cause (God) with the second causes. In Scripture the two are always kept distinct.” (Berkhof, p.167)
Uniformitarianism is God’s ordinary providence
Uniformitarianism is simply another way of describing God’s ordinary providence in shaping his world— what we study in the scientific field of geology. Throughout time, God as Creator and Provider has used the many tools at his disposal to make and mold the universe including the earth and its flora and fauna. Geologists have the privilege of studying how God did this creating and providing during the history of the earth.
When geologists speak of uniformitarianism, they mean that God used similar mechanisms in the past that he uses today in creating, ruling, and providing for the earth and its flora and fauna. This work of God throughout time is what we study under the doctrine of God’s providence.
Geologists using the term “uniformitarianism” do nothing more than assume that God has worked in the past in similar ways as he does now. Normally, he works by “ordinary providence”, which includes events that we are used to seeing as well as the ones that are rare. For example, both the daily wind and a hurricane would act under God’s ordinary providence.
It is not possible, nor is it necessary, to distinguish ordinary providence from extraordinary providence (or miracles) when studying God’s creation using scientific methods. Dr. MacArthur mistakenly pits one against the other. For example, geologists cannot determine whether ordinary providence (God’s use of secondary agents of gravity, mass, and planetary motion) or extraordinary providence (God’s direct miraculous hand) caused the meteorite to hit the earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million Earth-years ago, ending the reign of dinosaurs and ushering in the reign of mammals.
God provides for his creation
The Bible shows an intimate, relational involvement by God in what we might consider simply nature at work. God’s providence says that the Creator is also the Nourisher, the Provider, and the Sustainer of all that exists. Before God created people on the earth, he created all kinds of animals. He fed them, shepherded them, took care of them, and involved himself in their existence – all before he created people. A branch of geology called paleontology studies these long-extinct animals that were shepherded by God long before he created people. God shepherded the dinosaurs in the distant past long before he shepherded David or us.
And God has continued with this provision. Should he stop providing, the universe would stop and all life would end. Even though he rested from his creating (Genesis 1), he has not stopped providing for and ruling his creation. Throughout time and at every point in space (including the earth) God has provided for his creation. He provides at this very moment in time for you and for me. He provides for every creature from the most simple to the great complexity of us humans. He provides for the whole of creation – for each molecule, for each rock, for each tree, for each insect, for everything at all times.
Psalm 104 gives us great examples of God’s providence at work, where he feeds animals, gives them a life span, provides day and night, provides rain, forms mountains, causes the wind to blow. Psalm 104: 27-30 says, “All of your creatures wait for you to provide them with food on a regular basis. You give food to them and they receive it; you open your hand and they are filled with food. When you ignore them, they panic. When you take away their life’s breath, they die and return to dust. When you send your life-giving breath, they are created, and you replenish the surface of the ground.”
A plain reading of Scripture shows God relating to his creation using both the normal interactions of gravity, heat, and matter as well as the miraculous or direct changes from his own hand. A plain reading of Scripture also shows God in intimate relationship with his creation. Matthew 6:25 says, “Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” God literally feeds the birds – the finches that eat seed, the bald eagles that eat fish, and the vultures that eat carrion. Or consider Isaiah 45:7, “I am the one who forms light and creates darkness; the one who brings about peace and creates calamity.” God literally forms the day and night for us. He does so through his agents the sun and the rotation of the earth. God feeds the birds and creates day and night under what we describe as God’s providence.
The doctrine of God’s providence underpins all of science including geology. Wayne Grudem puts it well: “God has made and continues to sustain a universe that acts in predictable ways. If a scientific experiment gives a certain result today, then we can have confidence that (if all the factors are the same) it will give the same result tomorrow and a hundred years from tomorrow.” It also underpins technology. “I can be confident that gasoline will make my car run today just as it did yesterday, not simply because ‘it has always worked that way,’ but because God’s providence sustains a universe in which created things maintain the properties with which he created them.” (Grudem, p.317)
The present is the key to the past
Geologists extend this application of God’s providence not just forward into the future, but backwards to the beginnings of the earth, 4.5 billion Earth-years ago. Astronomers extend this application back to the beginning of the universe, when time began, 13.7 billion Earth-years ago. These scientists assume that God uses methods of providing for his creation today that he used in the past and will continue to do so until the universe ends.
Uniformitarianism, the principle that “the present is the key to the past,” allows geologists to look at how God interacts with the earth today and make assumptions about how God worked with it in the past. Based on those assumptions and actual measured evidence, we can be confident that the rules of physics and chemistry behind geology are the same today as they have been in the past, since the dawn of creation.
For example, we assume based on God’s providence that the four fundamental interactions of nature – gravitation, the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force – have not changed since time began; that the speed of light has continued to be 299,792,458 meters per second since time began; that the properties of the elements on the periodic table have not changed since time began; that the laws of thermodynamics have not changed since time began.
These physical properties all stand behind geology. For example, we assume that the properties of the atoms calcium, carbon, and oxygen have not changed since time began. When geologists see limestone rocks that contain the compound CaCO3 (calcium, carbon, and oxygen atoms in a 1:1:3 ratio), they assume that the properties of calcium carbonate have not changed. Thus, when geologists look at limestone today and limestone deposited in that past, they assume that the chemistry and physical properties are the same.
Or consider salt. We assume that the properties of salt, NaCl, have been the same since time began and that salt has always dissolved in water. Thus, when geologists see thick deposits of salt associated with the oil and gas fields of the world, they assume that it was not deposited by a worldwide flood, but by other mechanisms, because salt would have dissolved in water in the past as it does today.
Same principles in biblical interpretation
Every one of us, including Dr. MacArthur, believes that the “present is the key to the past” at some level when interpreting past events where we were not direct observers. We see family interactions today where parents interact in loving relationships with their children. We presume similar behavior occurred in families 2,000 Earth-years ago when we read Mark 5, in which the synagogue ruler Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter, or Mark 9, in which a man in the crowd asked Jesus to heal his son possessed by an evil spirit. We see storms on the Sea of Galilee today, where wind and waves whip up dangerous sailing conditions, and we assume that similarly frightening conditions occurred in the past as described in Matthew 8. We see the sun rise and sun set today and assume that it did so 2,000 Earth-years ago when Jesus himself watched.
Christian geologists are no different than biblical interpreters or historians. They just picture Jesus as God ruling and watching the sun rise and set not just 2,000 Earth-years ago, but 2 billion and more Earth-years ago. After all, Colossians 1:16 says about Jesus, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
While the extent of the use of the two types of God’s providence in his creation may be debated, Dr. MacArthur mistakenly pits the two types of providence against each other when condemning uniformitarianism. Throughout time, God has worked directly by his own hand, through miracles. Mostly, he has worked indirectly, through either uniform processes or catastrophic agents. Just because an event is rare (like a catastrophic meteorite impact) doesn’t necessarily make it a miracle. It may be ordinary providence, just not what we frequently see God doing in nature.
God has worked in the past using what we might consider ordinary or uniform agents. He has worked in the past using “extreme natural forces.” He has also worked in the past using miracles. All of these are considered God’s providence. He continues to work in all these ways today. God’s hand in the present is truly the same hand that it was in the past.
Rejecting uniformitarianism means rejecting God’s providence
The arguments for uniformitarianism being a dangerous and unscriptural dogma cannot be held up unless they also include arguments against the doctrine of God’s providence and the continued fundamental physical and chemical properties of nature.
We do a great disservice to the person of God in ignoring parts of a key doctrine like Providence. The greatest danger is that we misunderstand God’s person and God’s own nature. In understanding God’s activity on the earth during the past 4.5 billion Earth-years as resulting from his providence, both ordinary and extraordinary (or miracles), we learn more about God. Understanding uniformitarianism in this light gives us opportunities to praise God and to see God’s person behind the events of the distant past. Now the great forces of nature studied in that light become the works of God’s hands stemming from his relationship to his creation.