Does Old Earth Geology Presuppose Naturalism and Uniformity?

Abstract:

This article will look at two common objections leveled against old earth geology by the modern movement known as Young Earth Creationism. It will argue that old earth geology neither presupposes naturalism nor uniformity. It will describe the most problematic presupposition that is a negative factor for both science and faith, which is methodological naturalism. It will then observe several examples of the general uniformity that is presented in the history of life on earth, arguing that this uniformity is not presupposed but naturally observed and presented. Finally, it will discuss the importance for Christians, especially leadership, to take seriously the antiquity of earth and will argue why this matter should not simply be dismissed as irrelevant and that it is indeed vital for the Church’s integrity and future witness.

Two common objections are often given to the geological findings of modern science from those who believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old (a young earth) compared to the near unanimous belief of a 4.6 billion year old earth that is held by nearly every geologist in the world from various belief systems including Christianity (an old earth). The first objection, is that anyone who believes this has presupposed naturalism and therefore is embracing an anti-theistic worldview and thus is blinded from the truth of God’s revelation.1 The second objection is another presuppositional charge, that of uniformity, that is that old earth geologists simply are assuming beforehand that the earth’s cycles have always been the same and therefore that’s what they see.2 But do these charges hold weight? Or are they perhaps distracting the Church from much more important matters?

The Real Enemy Is Methodological Naturalism

Let’s examine the first charge, that of old earth findings presupposing naturalism (that nature is all there is). The fact that old earth beliefs are so prevalent worldwide is argued to be a result of the “noetic effect” of sin infecting the mind and rational capacities. I believe in this noetic effect of sin wholeheartedly, however, the appeal to Romans 1 that is sometimes given for this discussion is a clear misinterpretation of what that chapter is actually saying. What creation reveals of God is “clearly seen,” seeing creation is not the problem, but the truth that is suppressed by unbelievers is what that creation reveals, or more accurately, who that creation reveals. The problem is not a jig-saw puzzle created order that relies upon special revelation to understand it, the problem is a clear presentation of God’s work in creation that clearly reveals God, and that truth about God is what is being suppressed. Romans 1, and Genesis 1 for that matter, give us a strong belief that the created order will be intelligible, in fact, that is one of the reasons that modern science was developed within a Christian worldview.

So, if the work of a rational creator God leads us to believe that the created order will reflect rational and orderly sequences, then naturalism need not be presupposed in order to seek such things utilizing science. In fact, I would argue, supernaturalism is a necessary underlying assumption, whether or not it is accepted, that is required for the rational confidence of the scientific inquiry that leads to an old earth.3 If supernatural beliefs can fit along swimmingly with science, then where is the real problem?

As I’ve written on before, methodological naturalism (MN) is a serious problem for Christians, and I believe for science as well. MN is the accepted form of scientific inquiry for a large part of main-stream science. Essentially, MN asserts that all results of science must have a natural explanation. The Big Bang? Natural. The mind of man? All natural. The spirit of man? No such thing. The Resurrection? Not possible. The activity of God revealed in creation? Completely deterministic and mechanistic activity of natural selection acting upon random mutations, thank you very much. Now that’s a problem. Not just religiously either. Methodological Naturalism unnecessarily limits scientific inquiry by presupposing a certain set of possibilities that must cohere with an unprovable worldview of materialistic atheism. Instead of laying all the results on the table, without presupposing what the evidence can’t mean, MN fails to be objective and limits the possible explanations for what is true. 

Even some atheists admit that this should not be the case, as Caltech physicist Sean Carroll states,

“Science should be interested in determining the truth, whatever that truth might be—natural, supernatural, or otherwise. The stance known as methodological naturalism, while deployed with the best of intentions by supporters of science amounts to assuming part of the answer ahead of time. If finding truth is our goal, that is just about the biggest mistake we can make.”4

The Christian worldview accords well with much of modern science, but not with methodological naturalism. As C. John Collins, Old Testament professor of Covenant Seminary, and certainly an advocate for an old earth, states, “It is inherent in the traditional Christian metaphysic that “miracles”—or better, “supernatural events”—are possible.”5 This is the immediate place for conflict when it comes to science and faith. The battle against hardline MN, which is increasingly finding its way into even evangelical circles (minus Lewis’s “camel of the resurrection”), is where Christian energy and fervor should be placed. Certainly, as believers in an active God we ought to be allowed to consider what may be his direct or observable creative action in this world.

Yet, even as Christians, we need to be careful of too much overreach when we are claiming that a certain event in the history of life indicates God’s direct intervention. As Collins again states, “there are gaps and then there are gaps. First, there are gaps due to ignorance… But there are also gaps due to the nature of the things involved: The result goes beyond what these natural properties would have brought about.”6 Christians must be open to those later gaps, those who oppose the possibility of such gaps, for science and faith, need to be strongly opposed. That’s where the battle lies.

Uniformity Presented Not Presupposed

This brings us to our second charge leveled against old earth geology, that of uniformity. A philosophical presupposition of uniformity can be a major problem for Christianity. Philosopher David Hume famously argued that we must assume uniformity to understand our world, and thus miracles of all forms are ruled out as they would be non-uniform events and its better to just assume, based on our own experiences, that those events can’t happen. All Hume was doing was starting with a worldview assumption and working from there, his argument can be critiqued from a variety of angles, but all we need to know for this article is that assuming uniformity is hardly a justified action when we are looking into history. As N.T. Wright explains,

“With history it is not like that. Almost nothing is ever ruled out absolutely; history, after all, is mostly the study of the unusual and unrepeatable. What we are after is high probability; and this is to be attained by examining all the possibilities, all the suggestions, and asking how well they explain the phenomena.”7

Clearly, we can see the similarities and link between methodological naturalism and uniformity. Methodological naturalism is the natural mode of investigation for one who has accepted the complete uniformity of nature. But that brings us to our question, does old earth geology assume uniformity?

No. It certainly does not. Far from assuming uniformity, uniformity is in fact presented (at least to a degree). The observable natural phenomena and the outworking of patterns that we can study today before our eyes are clearly presented in the past as well. This is true on a macro and micro level. Consider just two macro examples and then a combination micro example.

Starting with the macro, there is a uniform presentation of various worldwide geological divisions (broadly considered these are the Precambrian, the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic, and the Cenozoic) which are orderly sequenced in their entirety, each depicting an array of history as evidenced through the fossil record.8 Or, perhaps more obvious, consider the presentation of uniformity involving continental drift that is independently verified through several means. Anyone looking at a map can see that South America and Africa appear as two puzzle pieces just waiting to be put together, but is it reasonable to believe, without assuming uniformity, that such is the case because they were once together? Not surprisingly, there are matching fossil forms on the east coast of South America that are matched with “those on the west coast of Africa in corresponding places and sedimentary strata.”9 Not convinced? Neither were some geologists, despite this staggering coincidence until the earth’s magnetic field was measured across the ocean in World War II. These surveys revealed symmetrical magnetic stripes of the earth that correspond to the cooling of magna that is produced between the continental plates. The magnetic pattern, which is “a characteristic magnetic signature reflecting the polarity of the earth’s magnetic filed at that location at the time of its cooling,” is presented with near perfect symmetry across the ocean floor between these continents with the same patterns we observe today and this pattern spans millions and millions of years.10

Finally, on a smaller level, though we could go on with similar evidence for perhaps millions of years, in Lake Suigetsu, Japan, there are currently observable patterns of sediments from single-celled organisms that occur on a yearly basis, these yearly deposits, which are clearly distinguishable from each other by a dark and light separation, are called varves. Well, Lake Suigetsu has over 100,000 of these uniform yearly deposits, or essentially, this lake presents us with a rational and uniform demonstration of 100,000 years of a historical pattern.11 Of course, we could appeal to the miraculous or the possibility of a non-uniform rate of sedimentary deposits, and for those who believe in the supernatural, there’s no inherent problem in doing so. But, it must be remembered that this is then being done in response to the pattern that is presented not assumed. Furthermore, these yearly deposits can be independently verified through comparing carbon-14 rates from nearby tree rings which match perfectly in a sequenced yearly pattern for the 45,000 years in which carbon-14 can be detected.12 Once more, these patterns display a uniform presentation both at a surface level and at the deepest levels of careful scrutiny. There is a good reason that people have come to believe the earth is old, because that is what has been clearly revealed.

Does It Really Matter?

Unfortunately, over the last sixty years, the age of the earth has been a hot button item for the Church. Ironically, prior to the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961 the majority of believers accepted the antiquity of the earth with little or no difficultly to their faith. In fact, the only strong advocates for what has come to be known as Young Earth Creationism were Seventh-Day Adventists.13 Diverse conservative believers, most of whom were also anti-evolutionists (or at least skeptical of the Darwinian picture), included Charles Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, R.A. Torrey, Billy Graham, and William Jennings Bryan, all of whom accepted an old earth.13 Even in fundamentalist circles their anti-evolutionist activists could state, “[There is not] an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.” Hard to imagine such a world isn’t it?14

But does it matter? Isn’t it just easier to ignore the matter or to just keep believing that the earth is young? I’ve felt that temptation, a lot actually, but I want to give four brief reasons for why I don’t think that is a wise decision, especially for Evangelical leaders, in light of a wealth of better Biblical interpretations that do not yield a young earth.15

Protecting the Faith of Covenant Children

As a Sunday School teacher this is perhaps the reason that is most dear to me. I love letting my kids ask questions, and they sure aren’t afraid to ask them. I teach first through forth grade and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible. I think that answer is very easy, but I’ve also gotten several harder ones, particularly with them asking questions about evolution and Adam. I want these kids to be prepared for a not so Christian friendly cultural environment which most likely awaits them, and having answers to these questions that will not just satisfy them now, but will help prepare them for a future college class is in my opinion vital to their development as followers of Jesus (obviously taught at their level, the idea is laying a foundation that won’t shake). Writing in Modern Reformation eight PCA geologists put it like this, “Covent children who are raised with the impression that a young earth is integral to Christianity have their faith needlessly undermined when they are later confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the earth’s antiquity, and many leave the faith.”16 What a tragedy. Church leaders and parents would benefit their children greatly by thoughtfully considering the evidence before their children are in crisis and by giving them sound reasons, that can stand up to even modest scrutiny, for why the world that the Bible describes is indeed our Father’s world.

Enjoying Creation Not Suspicious of It

I can attest that when I believed the earth was young I had a hard time learning about creation. I had to roll my eyes at all the dates at every natural history museum I went to and in every science class I sat in. Creation was looked at with a subtle suspicion and an underlying fear. As I came to accept the age of the earth, I found that I could enjoy the depths of God’s creation in a way that no longer had me feeling afraid of his work. In fact, it even deepened my awe about God as I saw that, “If you see in the size of the universe a little flavor of God’s infinity, I believe you see in the age of the universe a little hint of his eternity.”17

Bio-Logos and Evolutionary Biology

Bio-Logos is an evangelical web-site that attempts to reconcile a nearly complete Neo-Darwinian account of life with the Christian faith. There are many potential problems with this including, but not necessarily demanding, a denial of a historical Adam, a rejection of inerrancy, and an extremely heterodox metaphysic in relation to God’s activity in the world.18 If I can make a prediction, I believe that more and more Christians will support Bio-Logos, and similar attempts to reconcile evolutionary biology with their Christian faith, as they face the evidence set before them. They will come to believe that, “If [young earth claims] were true, it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology,”19 and will therefore find such claims as inconsistent in so much as, “A failure to claim that the world that the sciences describe is God’s world is a conceptual failure to confess the deity of the God of the Bible.”20 If they have not been taught more nuanced views of less aggressive forms of evolutionary creationism or old earth creationism they will be susceptible to buying into a wealth of heterodox teachings. In a counter-intuitive sense, I find Bio-Logos to be a gift to the Church, in so much as they are helping to awaken the wider Church to the real need for compelling and realistic answers to the antiquity of the earth and universe. Church leaders need to understand the strong theistic evolutionary arguments being presented to their flock (trust me, they are googling it) and to learn how to be equipped to offer Biblical and scientific reasons for maintaining historic doctrines. Those who simply dismiss the science with straw-man argumentation will, whether its justified or not, lose a measure credibility in their flock’s eyes.

Christian Witness to History

It’s been said that, “Christianity is basically a vigorous appeal to history, a witness of faith to certain particular events in the past.”21 Perhaps no one on this planet should be as concerned with history as Evangelical Christians. Our faith hinges upon events happening within time and space history. Our appeals to this lost world come directly from events that did not happen in a corner, but were public and did not escape the notice of the unbelieving. (Acts 26:24-29) If we find ourselves denying the actual or real history of an apparent 4.59999 billion years of our planet’s 4.6 billion year historical record, we, as Christian witnesses, should be uneasy as to our conclusions. Yet, this unease must not be in God’s Word, but in our interpretations of it. For it is the Christian worldview itself that affirms the created goodness, the discernible reality, the intuitive comprehensibility, and the absolute necessity of historical redemption. We worship the living God who has acted in real time space history. As one of the only people groups on earth who would call it into question, we ought to be sure that we are not denying 99.999999% of our God’s historical handiwork. Indeed, such a view is surely, “uncomfortably gnostic.”22

Not every Christian is called to study the sciences, and, with a Gospel focus, there is certainly a large breadth of room for charitable disagreement, but neither of those facts negates the urgency of the reality before us. Offering ungrounded arguments against old earth geology will simply not do, whatever one’s move, it should not be there. For too many decades unbelievers have failed to take the Gospel seriously as they have witnessed their own views not seriously addressed. For too long Christians have walked away from their Savior for reasons completely irrelevant to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of the “foolishness of the cross” these people have stumbled over simple foolishness, even if it came from the best of intentions. My hope is that the Church, especially it’s leaders, will follow in the footsteps of those believers who first came across the clear general framework of earth’s history, and that they will display a similar confident, intellectually robust, doctrinally sound faith that neither rolls over to every scientific claim nor unfairly represents opposing views. For the glory of God, for the salvation of souls, and for the good of Christ’s Church, may it be so.

Notes:

  1. This false dichotomy of a young earth compared to a complete materialistic form of naturalism is witnessed in the 2017 Young Earth movie “Is Genesis History?” which has influenced some within my own circles and received popular level endorsements from some reputable reformed bloggers such as Tim Challies (who I personally believe shows much discernment on a variety of issues, though a certain lack of such clear thinking when it comes to age of the earth topics). Reformed theologian Gavin Ortlund, who in my opinion handles these matters with expert level precision, has offered a response to the movie itself, and also to Challies’ endorsement (which comes through Thomas Purifoy).
  2. For an example of this type of reasoning see Albert Mohler: https://credomag.com/2013/06/why-does-the-universe-look-so-old-albert-mohler/
  3. See: Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), Ch. 7: “Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?”, 109-130
  4. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York: Dutton, 2016), 133
  5. C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 271; Yet, it must be remembered that the Christian metaphysic also goes further, by “yield[ing] a metaphysic in which God is active in every event, every bit as directly in the natural as in the supernatural.” Ibid. 270
  6. Ibid. 273
  7. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 706
  8. Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014), 304
  9. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 346
  10. Ibid. 347
  11. Chip Cates, David Campbell, Davis A. Young, Gregg Davidson, Kent Ratajeski, Kieth Long, Lyle D. Campbell, Richard F. Mercer, “PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth,” https://www.whitehorseinn.org/article/pca-geologists-on-the-antiquity-of-the-earth/
  12. Ibid.
  13. Keathley and Rooker, 40 Questions, 183-87
  14. Ronald Numbers, The Creationists (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992), 45
  15. See: Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019); or C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018); or Kevin Vanhoozer, “Shining Light on Literality: From the Literal Interpretation of Genesis to the Doctrine of Literal Six-Day Creation” Youtube, Henry Center, August 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vzRTjkxPdI&t=3s
  16. Cates, et al, “PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth,” https://www.whitehorseinn.org/article/pca-geologists-on-the-antiquity-of-the-earth/
  17. Gavin Ortlund, “What I Learned from Church History about Science and Faith,” Youtube, Reasons to Believe, April 20, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tx9dbc9nos ; 49:30-42
  18. For arguments against such moves see: J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017)
  19. Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2006). 173-74
  20. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Eredmans, 1994), 6
  21. Quote from George Florovsky in: Robert T. Mckenzie, A Little Book For New Historians: Why and How to Study History, (Downer Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2019), 14
  22. Keathley and Rooker, 40 Questions, 223

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

One thought on “Does Old Earth Geology Presuppose Naturalism and Uniformity?

  1. “For it is the Christian worldview itself that affirms the created goodness, the discernible reality, the intuitive comprehensibility, and the absolute necessity of historical redemption.” This is a powerful and truthful statement.

    Liked by 1 person

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