Review of Young and Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time

Review of Young and Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time April 23, 2009
Saying that The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth by Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008) is probably the best book of its kind would not be saying enough, since there really is no other book of its kind: a treatment of the varied and overwhelmingly consistent evidence for the antiquity of our planet, written by Evangelical Christians with the aim of not only making the scientific case for the age of the Earth, but also helping conservative Christian readers navigate the issues of theology and Biblical interpretation that go along with such a conclusion, and all the while pointing out the difficulties and at times dishonesty of the young-earth creationist position. In spite of all the evidence regarding the latter point, Young and Searley manage to treat the arguments of young-earth creationists with a seriousness and fairness that their own arguments are unlikely to receive when the tables are turned. At a whopping 510 pages, I suspect that the average interested layperson may not turn to this volume to help them wrestle with this topic. That is unfortunate, as the survey Young and Stearley offer has both breadth and depth, but neither in excess. At the very least, every academic and public library ought to have a copy of this volume in their collection, so that those who wish to examine this subject may have access to its wealth of information and its judicious treatment of the evidence, all offered with a dose of pastoral concern. I highly recommend this book for any young earth creationist who is open to encountering an opposing viewpoint. I also recommend it for anyone who is unsure what to think about matters of science and creationism and wants more information. The book includes so many helpful pictures and tables that it takes four pages just to list them.

In the preface we learn that the book began to come into existence as a revision to Young’s earlier book, Christianity and the Age of the Earth, but by the end it was clear that a new book had come into existence, rather than a mere revision (pp.9-10). There too we encounter a succinct statement about the book’s aims and intended audience: “The goal of our book is to convince readers, on both biblical and geological grounds, of the vast antiquity of this amazing planet that is our God-given home. Along the way we point out the flaws of so-called young-Earth creationism…This book is addressed primarily to Christian pastors, theologians, Biblical scholars, students and lay people with some interest in scientific questions…” (p.10). The book’s Introduction begins with the historical example of Hugh Miller, a devout Scottish Presbyterian of the 19th century who was so concerned about the spiritual state of his denomination that he joined the evangelical break-away movement that became the Free Church of Scotland (p.20). Miller was persuaded that both the geological evidence and the Bible pointed to an old earth (pp.20-21). Proving to be “a far better geologist than prophet”, Miller predicted that the “anti-geologists” of his time would soon be as obsolete as the geocentrists (p.21). Now in the 21st century, Miller’s prediction still seems far from the mark, for as Young and Stearley write, “Far too many Christian institutions, including colleges, elementary and secondary schools, theological seminaries, ecclesiastical denominations, and individual congregations, and far too many individual Christians, including pastors, theologians, educated lay people, leaders and students, along with much of the general population, continue to dwell in appalling gross darkness when it comes to knowledge about the composition, structure, processes and history of the planet on which they live. The sad thing is that this ignorance accompanies the confession of evangelicals that the Earth is a creation of the God they worship and serve. Not infrequently the little “knowledge” that evangelicals possess about Earth’s history is fiction rather than fact” (pp.21-22).The authors are concerned not only for the accuracy of the knowledge Christians have for its own sake, but also because ignorance about scientific topics and the resultant linking of Christian faith with belief in a young earth makes it all but impossible to share one’s Christian faith with the scientifically well-informed (p.23).

The first of the book’s four major parts focuses on the history of the subject, from the ancient church’s views on the Earth’s age, through the assumption down the centuries that fossils and rock stratification might be remnants of the Deluge, to the accumulation of evidence that forced people, whether Christians or not, to reconsider the question. Earliest Christian writings on the topic are placed against the background of Greek thought regarding the Earth’s age. Much of the young-earth outlook of the earliest Christians relates to their conviction that the history of the world would involve millenia that parallel the days of creation, with the seventh millenium being one of rest. Also discussed is the ancient assumption that Earth and things we would consider non-living or inanimate were in the past viewed as living or as containing the potential for life. This ancient perspective rendered plausible for a long time the viewpoint that fossils might be artifacts of such properties of Earth, rather than remains of actually-living organisms (pp.48-61). Modern geology is shown to have emerged not because of any desire to depart from earlier flood geology (indeed, there was great resistance and reluctance to shift paradigms) but because of accumulating evidence pointing in that direction. The recognition that certain fossils were to be found in certain strata, and that the strata exhibited regularity over vast stretches of the planet, could not be attributed to the chaotic workings of a global deluge (pp.77-79). A key component was the discovery that processes currently observable – sedimentation, metamorphism and volcanic activity – working over long periods of time, not only could account for the sorts of rocks we actually find, but could account for them better than earlier catastrophic scenarios in most instances.

Perhaps it was because the issues raised by Copernicus and Galileo were fresher in the minds of scientists and theologians alike, but many recognized that, given the rethinking of the motion (or lack thereof) of the Earth and sun that had been required, and of Scriptures that mentioned such movement/non-movement, rethinking texts that seemed to suggest a young earth was not seen as particularly different (see e.g. p.91). The fourth chapter focuses on how the data from geology and Scripture were harmonized during the 19th century. The matter is summed up well on p.120: “A growing number of orthodox evangelical Christian writers, including geologists, preachers, biblical scholars and theologians, accepted and accomodated their thinking to the mounting evidence for terrestrial antiquity…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.” Two major ways of harmonizing the two, the restitution and day-age viewpoints, are then explained, with mention made of some of the conservative Christian adherents thereof.

The final chapter in part one gives a historical overview of developments in the 20th century and up until the present. The chapter begins by noting that, at the start of the 20th century, the earth’s antiquity was accepted by most Christian scholars. The original fundamentalists accepted that it did no violence to the text to interpret the Bible’s days as ages (pp.132-134). During this period, radioactivity allowed for new perspectives on the age of the Earth, both by offering additional methods of dating, but also by providing a previously unknown source of heat. (The use of radiometric dating methods is a subject to which a full two chapters will be devoted towards the end of the book). Also mentioned in chapter 5 are developments in Biblical studies and theology in this period, including not only higher criticism but examples of a significant number of conservative Evangelicals who held views other than that of a young earth. Of particular importance in this period is our increased understanding of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Genesis creation stories (pp.152-155). Some other key points include the fact that the vast majority of Christian geologists accept the evidence for Earth’s antiquity; the presence of very few geologists or astronomers in the various “young Earth” organizations (a high proportion of which are “one-man” operations (p.159). Also emphasized is the fact that the antiquity of the Earth and evolutionary materialism are distinct issues (p.162).

Part two focuses on the Bible, and begins by looking at the Church Fathers’ views on the subject. Although they tended to assume a young Earth, this often was due to a less-than-literal approach to the creation days, which were often related to 6,000 years of human history. The fallibility of interpreters of the Bible, both ancient and modern, is emphasized, and if modern exegetes are influenced by a cultural milieu that includes increased (God-created) scientific data, ancient exegetes were no less influenced by their own contexts (p.174). Attacks on scientists are also answered, for instance on p.172 where we read, “The charge that modern natural science is “secular” or based on a non-Christian worldview is overstated and misleading…Christian astronomers, biologists, chemists, cosmologists, geologists, paleontologists, physical anthropologists and physicists are not unwitting dupes who go along blindly with whatever an allegedly atheistic scientific establishment dictates.” The authors emphasize their own high view of Scripture as well: “The Bible is not a book of human religious opinion. We believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and is, therefore, normative for our faith and life” (p.175). Their acceptance of the Bible as a “historical book”, however, “does not mean that every biblical passage is historical in the same way or even that every biblical passage intends to convey historical information” (p.176). Determining genre is important, although this doesn’t resolve the issue of Genesis 1, they say, since it is “a genre in a class by itself, a genre of which we have no other examples” (p.178; here they depend on John Stek). The discussion continues with treatment of Biblical perspicuity and inerrancy, emphasizing that the doctrine of the former does not justify superficial reading, nor can the latter claim be made for a face-value reading of the text in English translation (p.181). Chapter 6 concludes by mentioning the solid dome in Genesis 1, and emphasizing that Biblical inerrancy cannot justify the claim that the sky is solid (p.182). This subject is revisited in chapter 7, in conjunction with the notion of divine accomodation – i.e. that divine revelation did not always provide new scientific and other information not pertinent to the communication of the revealed truths in question.

Chapter 7 explores the Biblical aspects of the question further. The authors emphasize that creation by divine command emphasizes the inevitability of fullfillment, not that the process was instantaneous. Parallels from Ugarit are provided to the seven-day structure in Genesis 1-2 (pp.192-202). “If contemporary Christians are to understand Genesis 1 properly it is imperative that they reject the idea that Genesis 1 is speaking directly to them in the language and concepts of the twenty-first century” (p.203).

Part three is devoted to matters geological. Significant attention is given to responding to flood geology’s accusations of modern geology’s “uniformitarianism”. It is shown that modern geology in no way denies that catastrophes of various sorts produced rocks that currently exist. What is denied is that rocks which show evidence of having been produced by sedimentation over vast amounts of time must nonetheless have been produced by a worldwide flood that seems incapable of having produced rocks with precisely those features found in nature. Attention is also devoted to faunal succession in the geological record, and the fact that these successions were discovered prior to and independently of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The failure of the supposed global flood to have mixed even a few of certain modern organisms into particular strata remains unaccounted for in young-Earth “geology”. Chapter 9 is dedicated specifically to fossils. Once again, the claim is answered that modern geologists and biologists ignore evidence for traps and animal graveyards – places where many organisms seem to have met an unnatural end. On the contrary, such instances are well documented, and seem to provide evidence of local “traps” rather than of a global flood. In the process, we learn of instances where Whitcomb and Morris took over a description of fossil deposits from a three-page popular article in Compressed Air Magazine rather than from professional literature or their own inspection of the site (p.262). Their being misled by popular rather than expert accounts of fossil and geological data was not a unique occurrence (p.265). The young-Earth creationists cite evidence selectively, mentioning when dinosaur bones were found in a disarrayed “log jam”, without mentioning that the bones showed various degrees of erosion, from very little to the presence of bone “pebbles” warn extensively by the elements and most likely transported as well (p.271). All the evidence suggesting local rather than worldwide catastrophes as a factor is likewise ignored in YEC literature.

Chapter 10 concerns the evidence for sedimentation and erosion over long periods of time. The gist of the chapter is summed up well by the penultimate paragraph: “The separate packets of sediment and entombed biota provide numerous clues as to their formation. The packets (formations and their subdivisions) maintain distinctions in grain size, color, texture, physical sedimentary structures, trace fossils, cements and bounding surfaces that relate to clear physical, chemical and ecological parameters under which these rocks formed. To ascribe all the varieties and their circumstances of formation to a catastrophic Flood is to turn such a Flood into a magical device that can accomplish anything that one desires” (p.311). Chapter 11 focuses on the evidence from igneous and metamorphic rocks, about which young-Earth creationists have had relatively little to say. The amount of time required for magma to cool is relevant to estimating the age of the earth based on the study of rocks. Chapter 12 focuses on a case study on the Michigan Basin. The consistency of local flora and fauna preserved in the geological record is once again seen to be at odds with YEC claims about the global Flood having moved and deposited sediment miles thick (p.363). Chapter 13 focuses on the Sierra Nevada. Important evidence of the Earth’s antiquity from this case study include an instance in which the YEC position would have us believe that fine grained sediment seven miles deep was deposited in a single year, or even in a couple of millenia – without preserving any fossils of fish or plants (p.378).

Because of YEC claims about alleged problems with radiometric dating, the authors have made their case using other data thus far. Chapters 14-15 are devoted to radiometric dating and explain how it functions and why such methods can indeed give us pertinent and reliable data regarding the Earth’s age. One of the most striking points is when young-Earth claims about radioactive decay rates having changed, particularly during the creation week and the Flood, are addressed. Such claims are made in the abstract, without any sign of awareness that radioactive decay involves the emission of radiation/heat, which has observable effects. On the one hand, the alleged faster rates YEC proponents have claimed would have boiled oceans and killed organisms en masse (p.399). On the other hand, there is no evidence even for a much less dramatic but nonetheless significant change in the rate of radioactive decay. Moreover, even in cases where geological changes make precise dating difficult, radiometric evidence often still demonstrates that rocks are ancient, even if we only have a range of possible dates rather than something more precise. The date of meteorites is also relevant, giving us a non-terrestrial sampling that consistently indicates that the solar system is 4.4-4.6 billion years old – no matter what dating method is used (p.417). While YEC claims about factors that could cause inaccuracies in radiometric dating are not themselves false, the scenarios they propose are not compatible with the actual evidence from the rocks themselves (pp.430-443). It is not enough to claim that different magmas could mix to produce a certain result – it must also be noted that the ratios of radiometric isotopes that would be produced by such a scenario are not found in nature (pp.435-6). YECs offer abstract scenarios that cannot do justice to real-world data (p.438).

Part four turns to philosophical considerations. The topic of “uniformitarianism” is addressed in more detail, and committment to beginning with observable phenomena is shown to not be incompatible with openness to the possibility of miracles. Modern geology is more honest than the typical proponent of young-Earth creationism, since modern geology does justice to evidence that suggests catastrophic events as well as evidence that seems compatible only with a scenario involving extensive periods of time (p.466). Where the evidence requires it, geologists are willing to and in fact do accept that a catastrophic event occurred (p.470). Historical evidence shows the willingness of geologists to change their viewpoint when the data requires it. In contrast, young-Earth creationists “have…an a priori committment to a particular way of reading the Bible that straight-jackets them into acceptance of a young Earth. As a result, they cannot really approach rocks empirically because they already “know” in advance what the “answer” is supposed to be. They see only what they want to see…They claim continually to argue from the evidence of nature, but they have repeatedly ignored what is inconvenient for them” (p.472). The only honest course for young-Earth creationists would be to claim that everything was miraculously accomplished and abandon the possibility of historical geology altogether (p.474).

The final chapter considers the relevance of the book’s subject to evangelism and apologetics. The book has demonstrated that young-Earth creationist “claims are generally based on incomplete information, wishful thinking, ignorance of real geological situations, selective use of data and faulty reasoning” (p.475). If Christians are to have any hope of reaching out to educated individuals in general and scientists in particular, then the appeal of the authors of this book needs to be taken seriously: “Christian leaders need to flee from promoting scientific nonsense” (p.477). Or as the authors put it a few pages later, “”Proving” the Bible or Christianity with spurious scientific hypotheses does not honor God and can only be injurious to the cause of Christ. We must not defend God’s truth by arguing falsehood on its behalf” (p.481). If one cannot find a way to reconcile the tension between the evidence for the Earth’s age from nature and what the Bible appears to say, it is better to live with the tension than to pretend to resolve it through falsehood – this is something that is done already with other areas of science, as well as with apparent tensions between texts (pp.488-493).

It is better to honestly admit when one is not an expert in a particular scientific domain (or in Biblical interpretation for that matter). I can recall times in my teenage years when I felt like I was obliged to pull an answer to a question out of thin air, as though such off the cuff, spur of the moment responses would win someone to the Christian faith. At the time, I had encountered young-Earth arguments, and had not taken the time to inquire as to whether that view was in fact the Christian view. I hope that those who are interested in matters to do with creationism, evangelism, apologetics, science, evolution, the age of the Earth and all these related subjects will take the time to read this book. Even if it doesn’t entirely persuade you, hopefully it will at the very least open your mind to the possibility that there are other ways of honestly pursuing the call of Christian faith and the vocation of scientific investigation. Young and Stearly thus provide not only a resource for Christians interested in discussing their faith as it intersects with the natural sciences, but also a model for Christians interested in pursuing careers in the sciences who may wonder whether they must choose between their faith and scientific honesty. I heartily recommend this book – all 510 pages of it!

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