The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 4)

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

Introduction by Ted Davis

In response to the opening of AIG’s Ark Encounter last 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 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.”

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. 235-242)

Flood Geology and the Biostratigraphic Record: Attack Approach

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.

ABOVE: Byron Nelson, The Deluge Story in Stone (1931), fig. 34 on p. 144. Ted notes: Four more photographs of other mountains are arranged in the same manner on the facing page.  The caption reads, “A few of the immense tracts of land where strata are upside down for modern geology, but perfectly natural for Deluge geology.  Because fossils of plants or animals, supposed on the basis of their simplicity, to have evolved early are in strata on top of others containing fossils of plants or animals supposed to have evolved much later, it is said by modern geologists that the original positions of the strata have been reversed.  Napoleon well said, ‘It is strange what men can believe, as long as it isn’t in the Bible.’  Illustration from AFTER ITS KIND.”  The bottom image of Chief Mountain in Montana is identical to the frontispiece in George McCready Price’s magnum opus, The New Geology (1923).  Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

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).  

LEFT: Ted notes: A leading historian of geology, Nicolaas A. Rupke, would entirely agree with Young and Stearley 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.”  A former YEC from the Netherlands, Rupke makes the very same point in a chapter debunking the myth, “That the theory of organic evolution is based on circular reasoning,” his contribution to Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2010), ed. Ronald Numbers.  (image source)

 (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.

Looking Ahead

In a much shorter final excerpt coming soon, the authors 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?  Come back and find out.




Young, Davis. "The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 4)" N.p., 4 Aug. 2016. Web. 22 January 2019.


Young, D. (2016, August 4). The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Christians and an Old Earth (Part 4)
Retrieved January 22, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-bible-rocks-and-time-christians-and-an-old-earth-part-4

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.

About the Authors

Ralph Stearley

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

More posts by Ralph Stearley

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

More posts by Davis Young