Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The earth is billions of years old

The current issue of Modern Reformation looks great (not sure which I get more excited about - my bimonthly Modern Reformation or my biweekly Rolling Stone). The main theme of this issue is the formation of the Christian canon and includes articles on the relationship between covenant and canon, the apocrypha, the trustworthiness of the canon, and the gnostic gospels.

In addition, the article "PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth," written by a group of Christian geologists, is very interesting. Let me give you a preview:

"The statement below is extracted from the concluding pages of the 2000 Report of the Creation Study Committee.
Clearly there are committed, Reformed believers who are scientists that are on either side of the issue regarding the age of the cosmos. Just as in the days following the Reformation, when the church could not decide between the geocentric and heliocentric views of the solar system, so today there is not unanimity regarding the age question. Ultimately, the heliocentric view won out over the geocentric view because of a vast preponderance of facts favoring it based on increasingly sophisticated observations through ever improving telescopes used by thousands of astronomers over hundreds of years. Likewise, in the present controversy, a large number of observations over a long period of time will likely be the telling factor.
The geocentric/heliocentric debate refers to a controversy starting some 500 years ago between two conflicting views of nature. The geocentric position held that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth. In contrast, the heliocentric position held that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Several passages of Scripture appeared to support the geocentric view, and heliocentrism was considered by many to be a direct challenge to the authority of God's Word. Others recognized more than one possible interpretation of the Scrip-tures in question, and scientific evidence eventually persuaded them that the sun was indeed the center of our solar system.

In this context, it is important to recognize that science did not prevail over Scripture. Scripture was and remains true. Scientific evidence only served as a God-given aid in selecting the more accurate of two plausible, Bible-honoring interpretations. The CSC report suggests we are at a similar crossroads concerning the age of the earth, but without sufficient evidence to tip the scales one way or the other.

The CSC commendably included several scientists, though none were geologists. So what would a geologist add to the discussion? As practicing geologists committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, in keeping with Reformed tradition, the eight authors of this article maintain that the "large number of observations over a long period of time" mentioned in the CSC report have already been made, and the data are sufficient to unequivocally answer the question. We also understand, however, the inherent difficulty that people have in assessing a vast body of scientific literature filled with terms and jargon that often require years of schooling in very specific fields to comprehend. Such difficulties have landed even well-read and godly individuals such as Martin Luther on the wrong side of these debates. Luther addressed the heliocentric theories of Copernicus in his day as being little more than the pursuit of vanity since Scripture clearly speaks of the sun moving and not the earth.


In this article, we wish to provide our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ with a few general observations, some clarification of a common misconception about our science, and two specific examples that speak convincingly that God's earthly creation has been around for a very long time."


The authors, all eight of them, belief in the inspiration of Scripture and it's inerrancy. And, they also believe the earth is billions of years old. To some, that might not seem possible. The authors respond, "[we do] not regard the scientific evidence [for a very old earth] as challenging the veracity of Scripture, but only as challenging one aspect of the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. The central message of God's authorship of creation was and remains undisputed by evidence of great age. It was not a commitment to naturalism that convinced Christian geologists of the antiquity of the earth, but rather a belief that the history of nature recorded in the earth's rocks should be consistent with the unchanging, truthful nature of its Author. In their estimation, the rock record in outcrop after outcrop in all parts of the world clearly told a story extending far beyond a few thousand years." The bulk of the article is a marshaling of geological evidence for an old earth, using two studies to make the case: Lake Suigetsu in Japan and plate tectonics of the Atlantic Ocean.

While maintaining an irenic tone in the article, the authors maintain that where one falls on the debate does have some significance. They conclude,

"If the PCA recognizes that mature believers fall on either side of the age of the earth debate, does it ultimately make a difference which side you fall on? We suggest it does matter for two important reasons.

The first is a greater appreciation of God's handiwork. If creation conforms to God's trustworthiness and looks old because it is old, we are free to marvel at each new discovery that further reveals the incredible complexity and grandeur of his creativity. If the earth is old and we insist it is young, every new discovery can be met only with distrust and disdain--disdain of his creation!


The second reason is of perhaps greater importance. If the earth is old and Christians insist it is young, we risk becoming a tragic obstacle to faith for those both inside and outside the church. Non-Christians who logically understand geology conclude that the path to Christ requires belief in an intentionally deceptive god and choose to place their faith elsewhere. Covenant 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. It is our prayer that no Christian would be such an obstacle!"

5 comments:

Doug said...

Interesting article, but from what you’ve posted it seems to also leave out a lot of the context and background of the heliocentric vs geocentric controversy. Without that to lend perspective you'll have a skewed comparison with the young/old earth debate of today.

Geocentricism originated from Greek philosophic thinking and did not arise from nor was/is it directly taught by Scripture. The Church’s response to Galileo regarding this matter was primarily from the works of Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers (not exactly sola scriptura). Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and others were the ones who championed the mingling of Greek thought and the Bible.

So presuppositions (albeit widely held ones) heavily influenced what they saw in Scripture and how they interpreted observational cosmology data. The same is true of the young/old earth debate today, and in fact any issues of scientific knowledge that touch on revelation from Scripture.

It's the controlling presuppositions that are the factors that lead to such extremely divergent conclusions on the age of the earth, rather "a large number of observations over a long period of time".

The main three presuppositions being:

- Uniformarianism. This is the belief that the present is the key to the past. In other words, the processes in the universe have been occurring at a relatively constant rate. Eg., the rate of rock formation and erosion. Uniformitarians believe that they must have always formed or eroded at nearly the same rate. This assumption is accepted even though there are no observations of the rate of erosion from the distant past and there is no way to empirically test the erosion rate of the past.

- Naturalism. A belief denying that an event or object has a supernatural significance; specifically, the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.

- Materialism. A belief claiming that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all organisms, processes, and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or interactions of matter.

The helio/geocentric debate is far from an apples-to-apples comparison to the young/old earth issue. There are few Biblical texts that in any way even remotely address the heliocentric/geocentric question. In each instance there is considerable doubt as to whether cosmology is the issue. Some of these verses are in the poetic books, such as the Psalms. It is poor practice to build any teaching or doctrine solely or primarily upon passages from the poetic books, though they can amplify concepts clearly taught elsewhere. It is also important not to base doctrines upon any passage that at best only remotely addresses an issue. That is, if cosmology is clearly not the point of a passage, then extracting a cosmological meaning can be very dangerous.

But with regard to the 3 presuppositions I outlined, Scripture does directly addresses these in numerous passages that are central to the gospel and an orthodox evangelical theology.

The 8 authors of the article claim it is not a committment to naturalism on their behalf that has led them to conclude the earth is old. This may be true. But I'd bet a brand new rock hammer that a committment to uniformatarianism brought them to the position they hold. Rather than marshalling geological data to support their opinions, since data are neutral but the interpretation of it is not, they should be assembling concrete, Scripture-honouring reasons why the presuppositions they do have are valid and to be followed.

Overturning the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 via these presuppositions cannot be contained to just Genesis 1 and 2. Everything from the Exodus and Mosaic law to the conquest of Canaan, the lives and actions of the Prophets, the virgin birth, Jesus' miracles, the acts of the Apostles, the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the Resurrection itself becomes a jacket hanging on a shaky nail on one hand or an unavoidable bait-and-switch on the other.

Dan Waugh said...

Doug,
Awesome comment. I love having friends that are as geeky as me - and you comments help put things in some context. My comments are questions and clarifications (I always fear misrepresenting others) rather than disagreement.
You list three possible presuppositions. It seems to me there must be a fourth, some sort of modified uniformarianism. Having never thought about it in these terms before, I would adopt a modified version of uniformarianism - one that held the present is key to understanding the past, yet was open to the miraculous intervention of God. It seems that uniformarianism assumptions are essential to doing history and science. Again, there may be other options that I'm not aware of and I'm only assuming that the authors of the article would fall into the same category I chose for myself. They explicitly reject both materialism and naturalism - "There is some confusion over the term naturalism because it is variably used as an approach to day-to-day research and as a philosophical worldview. As a philosophical position, it is better termed materialism, which holds that all that is real is observable or testable using natural tools. Supernatural phenomena and beings unconstrained by time and space--such as angels, demons, or God himself--are deemed impossible by simple definition. Ironically, materialism lacks the tools to test its own postulates and is devoid of real merit."
The authors do a little of what you ask of them in your second to last paragraph, offering reasons they believe to be God honoring, for their assumptions. The offering is slim, but probably due to the format - a popular theological journal.
One of the reasons not mentioned is that "there is not a single oil or mining company anywhere in the world that uses a young earth model to find or exploit new resources. Old earth models work. Young earth models do not." I think that is one reason they offer in assuming a uniformity - based on those assumptions, models work. (continued in comment #3)

Dan Waugh said...

Also, the offer some theological considerations (as part of the discussion regarding plate tectonics). "From these examples, there are only two possible conclusions: either the earth is very old or God intentionally made the earth to appear old. At first glance, apparent age may not raise a red flag, but it should not take much thought to recognize a serious theological problem. Ocean spreading rates and radioactive decay rates are entirely unrelated. If the earth is truly young, it means that God started rapid plate movement and rapid radioactive decay and diminished these independent rates precisely so that today the observed rate of spreading would only appear to confirm the accuracy of radioactive dating methods...In other words, God designed the earth intentionally to mislead all those who are unwilling to ignore the obvious history his natural creation reflects. Reformed believers should be quick to reject this possibility on the grounds that it denies the truth of Romans 1:20, where Paul assures us that God's character is evident in the universe he created. Apparent age makes God a deceiver."

Anticipating the response from young earth advocates that Creation had to have the appearance of age - Adam needed mature trees to produce fruit, etc, the respond, "This confuses maturity with history. A miraculously created tree might well appear mature, but apparent age arguments suggest that if Adam cut down several of these trees, he may have found 50 growth rings with matching patterns of variable growth and burn marks at rings 21 and 43. These data represent not just maturity or age but history--a history that never actually occurred." (Now I've pretty much reproduced the entire article - please don't sue me MR).

Again, I'm not sure what to make of it all as I'm not a scientist. As an interpreter of the Bible, I do not believe Genesis 1 (historical poetry) locks me into a young earth, literal six day creation. In some ways, I don't have a dog in the fight here as I'm open to both options, leaning to an old earth because it seems science points in that direction. I don't see that threatening in any way my belief in the resurrection or miracles as I'm willing to believe in an open universe and allow for a general uniformity of processes that can be, and have been, interrupted on occasion.

More of the exegetical work on Genesis 1&2 was done by the committee referred to in the article (can be found here, though I haven't read it yet: http://www.pcahistory.org/creation/report.html#d3). I see the appeal of many options, but chose to read Genesis 1 according to the 'framework view.'

I'd love to talk more about it when we connect for lunch next week!

Doug said...

Aways happy to talk about it more. Let's just say I don't believe those 8 authors are presenting an unbiased or transparent presentation of where things are at in the world of geology.

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