Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Age of the Earth

I just finished a fascinating book by Drs. Young and Stearley (two believing professors of geology at Calvin College in Michigan) about the Bible and the age of the earth.  I have always been fascinated by the hermeneutics of Genesis 1 and the intersection of faith and science.  My background is mechanical engineering (my undergrad from Baylor), and from time to time my desire to learn from the best scientific research available takes me to books that most people don't read.  This book is one such read. 

Coming in at 460 well-researched and dense pages, The Bible, Rocks, and Time covers an immense terrain (forgive the pun).  The first 160 pages are the history of the science of geology.  The authors give us a snapshot of major figures in the study of geology and their important discoveries.  Their major point in this section of the book is to say that Christian geologists concluded that the earth was very old from an abundance of evidence before Darwin proposed his evolutionary theory and before radiometric dating was discovered.  Their summary is detailed and helpful.

The second section of the book (the next 50 pages) gives a history of the interpretation of Genesis 1.  In this section, the two geologists are obviously outside their primary area of expertise, but they do a great job of quoting major figures in church history and current biblical scholars that demonstrate the diversity of opinions on Genesis 1.  Their main point is the same conclusion that Dr. Letham comes to in his survey of early Christian teaching in the Westminster Theological Journal - http://www.meetthepuritans.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Letham-Creation.pdf - that the church has never had a monolithic position on the interpretation of Genesis 1.  Most held positions, but held them lightly as secondary positions.

The third section of the book (the next 200 pages) goes into great detail on the geological evidence itself for the antiquity of the earth (an earth that is 4.5 billion years old, not 6,000 years old).  This section is the most meaty, as this is the area of expertise of these two authors.  They cover the study of fossils, the geological column (what the layers of rocks teach us in various places around the globe), how sedimentation works, how mountains and plate tectonics works, the combination of catastrophic events and normal processes (like erosion) that have shaped the rock formations that we see today, and the history and accuracy of radiometric dating.  Their scope is expansive and their arguments are convincing.  All along the way, they interact with young-earth scientific arguments to show how the physical evidence leads to different conclusions.

The final section of the book (the last 50 pages) is all about WHY this even matters.  As a pastor, this section was the most compelling.  The authors believe that the young-earth position (that the earth is only 6000 years old) is not only terrible science, but that it is actually detrimental to the cause of the gospel.  Their argument opposes the position of YEC-proponents who believe that their defense of a 6, 24-hour day creation is necessary to proclaiming the gospel.  Drs. Young and Stearley strongly believe the opposite - that continuing to teach that the Bible only teaches a 6000-year old earth is turning a generation of young people away from Christ and ignoring a whole people group (professional scientists) away from Christ who know the truth about the age of the earth.  Here is one of their most compelling paragraphs in their final chapter:

Frequently, students are taught that the traditional six twenty-four-hour days interpretation of Genesis 1 is the only interpretation of the text that is consistent with belief in an inerrant Bible.  Often they are also misleadingly taught that the tenets of young-Earth creationism stand on equal scientific footing with mainstream geologic views of an ancient Earth.  Many young Christians have been reared to believe that this concept of creation is a virtual article of faith that represents the biblical teaching.  Those young Christians then go off to college, to a museum or to another source of knowledge where they may be exposed to legitimate geology and are stunned by the force of geologic evidence for the Earth's antiquity.  They have been personally confronted with an intellectual and spiritual fixed great gulf that is far wider than the Grand Canyon, between their newfound scientific understanding and the religious views of their youth.  To them, the Bible now becomes a flawed book.  Sensing that they have been misled about creation by the religious authorities of their youth, they lose confidence in the rest of their religious upbringing.  Such students may suffer severe shock to their faith.  They were not properly taught the truth about creation, nor were they equipped to deal with challenges to their faith.  Christians who are professional scientists have all heard far too many accounts of individuals whose spiritual journeys sound much like the scenario just described.  Let's have no shipwrecks of faith of young, vulnerable, unprepared Christian youth that can be laid at the door of the pseudo-science promoted by Christians.

Everyone of us who is raising kids to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength needs to listen carefully to these words.  May God give us the grace to teach His gospel faithfully to our children without putting any unnecessary roadblocks in the way of true and lasting faith.


Caitie said...

I love these kinds of books! I can't wait for a day when I actually get to read something besides pharmacy research.
I was actually looking for a book for my road trip coming up, thanks for the review!

Ted Wallace said...

Good stuff, Keith. Nice to know that there are some good works on this topic. Thanks for sharing.

Julie said...

This post has re-started the "age of the earth" conversation between me and Nathan. What do you say (or the authors say, perhaps) to the idea that everything, including the earth, was created with maturity? Does that allow for a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 that still agrees with scientific research? Also, is it true that the word for "day" used in Genesis 1 is the same word that always means a 24-hour period elsewhere in the Bible?

Keith Ferguson said...

That is a great question. Many young-earth creationists, like Al Mohler, who I read a lot and really respect, argue the very case that you are making - that just as Adam was created as a mature man, the earth was created with maturity, making it "look" very old, but in reality being very young. My struggle with that position is that the earth does not just appear old, but appears to have a long "history" that includes ages of time when other animals roamed the earth. The fossil record and the geological column argues for a long history of the earth with many eras, not just a fully-mature tree or mountain. That being said, I struggle with the idea that God made a planet with the appearance of age that is not really old. It seems to me to question the integrity of God. But the bigger issue as you mention above is what Genesis 1 actually says. Be careful when you talk about a "literal" interpretation of Genesis. The most "literal" interpretation is not the one that focuses on the individual meaning of words (like "day"), but the one that most faithfully understands the author's intent (both the human and divine author). Just as science is continuing to develop, so also is the art and science of biblical interpretation - especially of Genesis 1. As we learn more about how the Hebrew language works and the ancient Near-East context in which it was written, we are getting a better understanding of what it is saying. The best recent work covering these issues is Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins. Also, answering the question of whether the word "day" is a 24-hour time period doesn't really answer the question. The question is not how is the word used in other places in the Bible, but how it is used in this passage. Many commentators see ways in which Genesis 1:1 is God's creation of everything, and then Genesis 1:2 and following are the 24-hour days in which God organized and structured everything that He created. I don't find that interpretation compelling, but I throw it out there to say that defending a "24-hour day" doesn't really solve the riddle of how to interpret Genesis 1. My point in my post before (after reading a ton on this issue over the years) is that we need to be careful about being too dogmatic about our interpretation of this passage. There are some things we can say about it with absolute certainty and others that we need to say with caution. I hope that helps-

Julie said...

Thanks Keith!

Mike Glass said...

part 1
Good stuff, good stuff! I have loved reading and studying these issues all my life.
What bugs me about scientists (and i think everyone does this, including myself) is that they often fill in the gaps of what they do not know for certain with theories (which is ok) and then become dogmatic about their theories (which is not ok). A theory is just that, a theory, and a hypothesis, even a very well-educated one, is not a 100% scientific fact. To me there is “solid” science and “theoretical” science. Solid science is what we know for sure - what we can experiment with, duplicate and verify (like water that boils becomes steam). Theoretical science is where there are gaps and variables that we cannot directly observe, duplicate and/or verify, and we fill in those gaps with hypotheses and theories (like how did the sun form; and the current thinking about dark matter). I think that the branch of science that deals with geological history has gaps in it and that scientists fill in those gaps with their best theories. No one is able to time travel and directly observe geological processes over the last thousands, millions, or billions of years. We can make observations in the present and then project those observations back into time, but when science does that it has to assume at least two things that are not directly observable, repeatable or verifiable: that the processes are constant over long periods of time (carbon dating is pretty useless if the rate of carbon decay fluctuates over time); and that there were no significant interruptions to the processes at any point (meteorites, Noah’s flood, ice age(s), possible space/time/gravity issues that science doesn’t presently know about or understand, magnetic field shifts, fluctuations in the speed of light over long distances, etc.) But what science theorizes to fill in the gaps develops and can change over time; sometimes a theory can be completely thrown out and replaced.
We do the same with the Bible. The Bible does not answer every single question we will ever have or exhaustively document history. I strongly agree that the age of the earth is a Biblical “secondary” issue. It is a “filling in the gap” issue as Genesis is not 100% clear on whether the earth is 6,000 or 4+ billion years old, or somewhere in between.
On the young-earth Christian/scientist side, one thing that some fear is that if you say Genesis 1 is not talking about 24-hour days, then next you might say that Adam and Eve were not literal persons; then you might say that all of the Bible’s history narratives are myths or allegories and not real history; then what else in the Bible will you say is not literal and/or not factually true?, maybe Jesus and the cross… It is the slippery slope argument. But i think that there are parts of the Bible that are obviously historical, literal narratives, and other parts that are pretty clearly not. Genesis is “literal” in that it is factual, but as you, Keith, said, we have to strive to know what the original author intended to communicate.
Overall, i do think that you have to be careful, have grace, and be able to acknowledge that your theory might be wrong, whichever side of the issue you are on, Biblically and scientifically - that is on things that are secondary issues (certainly not the foundational Christian beliefs about Jesus, etc.)
Also, just as you should not be dogmatic about young-earth science so you should not be dogmatic about old-earth science. After all, modern science not only hands us old-earth geological theory as undeniable fact, but also hands us evolutionary theory as undeniable fact (even though in my opinion there is zero evidence for evolution - adaptation is not evolution). If you teach your kids that old-earth science is good science and that the fact is that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, what will happen if in 5 or 10 years scientists announce that they have discovered that the universe and/or earth is only 6,000 years old?

Mike Glass said...

part 2
I myself am a “young-earther”, and that means that a lot of people would call me a narrow-minded idiot that probably thinks the earth is flat. But i have read a lot on these issues and i do not think that young-earth science is “terrible” science or “pseudo-science” (though there is some of that out there on both sides). I also acknowledge that i might be completely wrong on the issue of how old the universe and earth are. I do not think that in and of itself young-earth science is “detrimental to the cause of the gospel”. Being dogmatic about it could be detrimental to the cause of the gospel for sure, but being dogmatic about old-earth science could also be detrimental to the cause of the gospel. I think that you can still proclaim the gospel whether you are a young or old earther.
I do think that young-earth and old-earth Christians need to avoid being dogmatic about their theories. As the quote Keith posted said it is dangerous to teach “that the traditional six twenty-four-hour days interpretation of Genesis 1 is the only interpretation of the text that is consistent with belief in an inerrant Bible”. The website www.answersingenesis.org has a lot of great information and articles on this issue; but they are dogmatic about their young-earth position, and i do think they do a dis-service to the issue by having a ‘my way or the highway’ point of view. But despite that i think they have a lot of good info on their site.
Thanks for reading,
mike Glass

Keith Ferguson said...


Thanks for presenting a humble young-earth view. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on all of these issues. They are very helpful for me to consider. I really do ultimately agree with you that we should hold our convictions on this issue "lightly" so as not to make enemies of those who disagree with us. Your comments are gracious and challenging. Bravo!


Mike Glass said...

Thank you Keith. The book you mentioned Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins sounds very interesting.