Rocks of ages
FEW GREAT WORKS OF SCIENCE HAVE BEEN GREETED with as much a mixed reception as Georges Buffon's forty-four volume work, "Histoire Naturelle". Few homes of note in eighteenth century England or France lacked the tomes. Yet, despite built-in precautions against upsetting the establishment, it was accorded a leper's reception by many, especially churchmen. Buffon had dared to suggest that the earth was older than six thousand years, that it had originated as a primordial blob pinched off from the sun, that tropical animals had once stalked regions now snow-clad, that the mountains had long ago thrust upward from the plains (as evidenced by shells found on the tops of mountains), and that modern animals and man had appeared long after other life forms had made their entrance on the earth's stage.
Under pressure from critics, he capitulated, stating "I declare that I had no intention of contradicting the Scriptures, that I believe most firmly all therein stated about the Creation. I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and in general all that may be contrary to the narrative of Moses" (Taylor, p. 78). We'll never know if Buffon himself considered his ideas to be anti-scriptural, or whether he merely pretended in deference to, or fear of, his powerful detractors.
Does Scripture deny a humble origin for the mountains? Does it flatly contradict any possibility of an ancient earth? It's time we took a look at what Scripture does indicate about the planet we live on, its age and some of its processes.
The age of the earth
The discovery of deep time — the immense age of the universe and earth — at the turn of the eighteenth century, which has taken us from thinking in terms of thousands of years to billions of year, was one of history's major reconstructions of human thought. Most people today are convinced that the blame for impeding a scientific understanding of earth history must be squarely laid at the feet of scriptural myth:
In the bad old days, before men rose from their armchairs to look at rocks in the field, biblical limitations of the Mosaic chronology precluded any understanding of our earth's history (Gould 1987, p. 5).
William Jennings Bryan declared that he was not interested in the age of rocks, only in the Rock of Ages. Other serious Bible students believe that if Scripture is to be taken seriously at all, it must stand up to the yardstick of truth in all matters. This publication takes that stance. The issue is, do the data of Scripture clash irreconcilably with the facts of nature?
As we have already seen, Aristotle believed that the universe, including the earth, was without beginning or end. Yet both Scripture and science agree that there was once when the universe was not. Just how old, then, is it? The Hindus have long held that the earth has existed for thousands of millions of years (Cotterill 1985, p. 100). If they could get it right, how come, many ask, the Bible got it so wrong? For it allegedly teaches the earth is only about six to ten thousand years old.
For hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, educated Europeans accepted the tradition that Genesis one clearly espouses a young earth. This view had its origins with early Christian writers, beginning with Theophilus of Antioch (115-181 AD), and continuing with others such as Julius Africanus (200-245 AD) and Lactantius (240-320 AD). Could they have misunderstood Scripture? In spite of the danger of over-simplification, categorizing the main modern views will help us get a handle on the question.
Young-earth creationists insist on interpreting the days mentioned in the first chapter of the Bible as literal twenty-four-hour periods of time, and claim that the account clearly reveals the earth is only about six thousand years old. They argue that belief in an old earth has pagan origins, being held by Hindus, Greeks and Romans, and must therefore be wrong (Green 1998, p. 47). Some even call belief in an old earth a "doctrine of Balaam".
Young-earth creationists argue that even a superficial reading of Genesis one gives the distinct impression that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth literal day of a creative process that had begun with the initial creation of heaven and earth on the first literal day. They point to Exodus 20:11 as further evidence of this teaching.
The gap theory
Others agree that the days of Genesis one are literal twenty-four hours in length, but that the creation events described therein are not the original act of creation, but a recreation. "Gappers", as they are often called, accept standard views on the age of the earth, their consciences pricking them not at all over the existence of dinosaurs and other now-extinct creatures millions of years ago. Those millions, even billions, of years of earth history are all covered by the very first verse of Genesis one.
Then, a terrible calamity occurred that turned the earth into a state of chaos and confusion, the results of which are described in verse 2. The rest of the chapter describes the new creation of all current life forms over the course of seven literal twenty-four-hour days. Some of today's creatures are repeat performances of pre-catastrophe species.
Old-earth, progressive creationism
Others argue that the days represent long epochs. They point out that in the Bible the term "day" often covers a long period of time, such as a "day of vengeance" (Prov. 6:34), a "day of adversity" (Prov. 24:10), and a "time (day) of harvest" (Prov. 25:13). The "day of the Lord" is also a period of time that represents, possibly, all of future eternity beginning with God's direct intervention in the affairs of mankind. Most significantly, Genesis 2:4, obviously speaking of the entire seven days of creation, subsumes them all into one day, a "day of creation". If that day is clearly not a twenty-four-hour day, why can't those of chapter one also be otherwise? Thus, God created progressively over many millions of years. Genesis one, though accurate, is necessarily schematic, and therefore does not even mention things such as extinctions of numerous creatures over the course of creation week.
Majority Christian opinion today asserts that Genesis one consists of a lofty poetic paean to God's creative power, teaching, yes, that God created, but giving not the slightest hint as to how, or even the sequence. The only place to look for the answer to questions of origin, according to those who adhere to this figurative, or parabolic, view of Genesis one, is in science. Invariably, such interpreters believe in some version of evolution. They interpret Genesis one parabolically because they already embrace evolutionary philosophy. Since they believe that God created the mechanisms of evolution, they are usually called theistic evolutionists. Since, to them, the whole creation account is only a story, they see the details as being meaningless scientifically. Various literary devices are employed, including the organizing principle of periods of days, to convey theological, not scientific, truths.
The biblical data
Sadly, much bad blood exists between the various groups. Young-earthers insist that all other views amount to a betrayal of godliness. Theistic evolutionists vociferously accuse young-earthers of childish thinking.
Which view is correct? Though this publication simply is not geared towards a detailed analysis, the question of whether or not the Bible insists on a youthful earth is of concern. Taking as our starting point that "day" can mean either a twenty-four-hour day or an indefinite period of time, one should reserve judgment as to precisely which version Moses had in mind until other passages have been considered, and until the evidence from science has been brought to bear.
Many biblical passages speak of earth's ancient features. Unfortunately, a word study of Hebrew or Greek words translated as "old, ancient" will yield absolutely nothing about the absolute age of the earth. Scripture speaks of ancient hills and rivers, but gives us no yardstick against which we can determine exactly what is meant. For instance, one Hebrew word, qedem, meaning "ancient", is applied to God (Deut. 33:27), who has lived forever back in time, but also to historical times only going back about six hundred years (Neh. 12:46). No word can be found in Hebrew or Greek necessitating millions of years, any more than in English, where "ancient" can describe anything from hundreds to billions of years old.
However, a few hints suggest that the days of creation of Genesis one are intended to be taken as covering long periods of time. For instance,
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth. Before the mountains were settled… I was brought forth; while as yet He had not made the earth or the fields, or the primeval dust of the world. When He prepared the heavens, I was there, when He drew a circle on the face of the deep, when He established the clouds above, when He strengthened the fountains of the deep, when He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters would not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside Him as a master craftsman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him (Prov. 8:22:30).
Wisdom personified speaks. Both the overall tenor and a couple of specific points in this selection suggest long periods of time. First, the clause, "Before the mountains were settled" reeks of a much longer period than hours. Likewise, the notion of "preparing the heavens" almost forces upon a reader the idea of lengthy periods. The Hebrew word used, kûn, has a rich repertoire of meaning, the chief of which, "establish, settle, fix, make ready, prepare" all presuppose extended time. A young-earther would interpret the meaning of these words through the prism of Genesis one. Why not the other way around?
More telling is the reference to wisdom's being "daily" by God's side during creation. The phrase again suggests a considerably longer period than seven twenty-four-hour days. In addition, the passage tells us that the heavens existed before the earth, inasmuch as "while as yet he had not made the earth" he was in the process of "preparing the heavens". Reconciling this passage with the idea that Genesis 1:1 squeezes the creation of both heaven and earth into one twenty-four-hour time frame seems impossible. Another passage hints, strongly, at a long period of creation time:
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God (Ps. 90:2).
The Hebrew word for "brought forth" is "yalad", meaning "to bear, give birth". What was the reason for choosing birth as a metaphor for the creation of the mountains? Certainly it implies a lengthy period of gestation before birth is possible. Likewise, the word translated "formed" also has to do with writhing in the pain of childbirth. Similar metaphor, similar suggestion.
A little later we will examine a passage from the book of Job that strongly suggests Job was aware that the earth was truly ancient. He spoke of the slow destruction of mountains by natural erosion processes (see below). According to creationists, the earth was created only about 6000 years ago. Assuming Job lived approximately 2000 BC, that would mean he was living only about 2000 years after creation — nowhere near long enough for mountains to be leveled by erosion.
How did Moses intend Genesis one to be read? Those who see literal twenty-four-hour days cannot accept that it can be read any other way without compromising the "plain meaning" of Scripture. Those who look at other passages, such as the ones just mentioned, and see in them a biblically-ordained guide as to how to read Genesis one (and Exodus 20:11), feel equally strongly that Moses intended the days to be treated as epochs, if they are old-earth creationists, or poetically, if they are theistic evolutionists.
The "reconstruction" of human thought over the matter of geological time was a welcome development. But who or what should bear the guilt for centuries of young-earthism? The Bible? Or people reading it too superficially?
In sum, the Bible says nothing specific about the absolute age of the earth and universe. But, importantly, it does not insist they sprang into being almost yesterday.
Uniformitarianism versus catastrophism
Another mighty revolution in human thought, closely linked with the question of earth's antiquity, began towards the end of the eighteenth century. For centuries, Western philosophers and theologians held that all geological records witness to either the original creative act a handful of millennia ago or later divinely-initiated catastrophes. Every mountain was created, as is, thousands of years ago. Strata of sedimentary rock, and even river valleys, all formed during Noah's Flood. Such geological thaumaturgy goes by the delightful name of "catastrophism".
A brace of brave geologists, who were willing to cast off cerebral straitjackets, examined the rocks and fossils at their feet, and concluded exactly the opposite — nothing happened in the remote past that isn't happening today. This view, summed up succinctly in the cliché "the present is the key to the past", labors under the appellation "uniformitarianism".
An unnecessary dichotomy has tragically arisen, forcing everybody into either a catastrophist mould, or a uniformitarian mould, with any attempts at maneuvering in the middle ground being blasted as either compromise or sheer ignorance by both sides. The line is no longer drawn in the sand, but etched in concrete.
That account over-simplifies the case. Even young-earth creationists recognize there is some truth in uniformitarianism, but that so few geological features can be ascribed to slow processes that they roundly pooh-pooh uniformitarianism as a philosophy. By the same token, most uniformitarians acknowledge that some structures, such as Western Victoria's basalt plains, formed over a relatively short period of time due to short and sharp volcanic activity on a scale not presently seen anywhere on land. But they insist that such outbursts of activity are themselves explained in terms of processes currently under way.
Does the Bible teach catastrophism and reject uniformitarianism? Many people think so, as is demonstrated well in the following excerpt from a popular encyclopedia:
… all good Christians believed nothing had really changed since Creation a few thousand years ago and then only as a result of catastrophes, such as Noah's Flood, which were caused by supernatural forces. These accepted views were based on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and any attempt at a more scientific study was considered heretical (Mind Alive Encyclopedia of the World, p. 7).
The truth is, nothing could be further from the truth. Where does Scripture round against the idea of slow geological processes at work? Nowhere! The idea that it does is a true straw man if ever there was one. Scripture doesn't even whisper the suggestion that the Flood of Noah's time should be held responsible for earth's major geological structures. The onus of proof that such a flood should cause massive geological upheaval and rock-building lies with those who claim it should.
The Bible can be called on to support catastrophism as the explanation for all geological structures only if it insists on a youthful earth. If it does no such thing, then there are no legitimate biblical grounds against uniformitarianism. Accepting uniformitarianism as a philosophy in no way robs God of His prerogative to intervene catastrophically at any time He chooses, as He has done on occasion.
A fascinating case study
The book of Job (yet again) embarrasses the Bible's detractors. It contains a lucid description of uniformitarianism in action. Not only that, the case in point pre-empts modern understanding by thousands of years! No humbug! This same example also bears mightily on the subject discussed above about the age of the earth. Consider Job 14:18-19:
But as a mountain falls and crumbles away, and as a rock is moved from its place; as water wears away stones, and as torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so You destroy the hope of man.
Job clearly links an event as "dramatic" as the destruction of mountains with the unheralded, ongoing natural process of water erosion — uniformitarianism in action.
Note also an utterly remarkable insight into the question of earth's antiquity. Job would certainly have been aware that normal erosion would take many more than a few thousand years to accomplish the removal of a mountain, even a hill. If he believed that the earth was only about two to three thousand years old at that time, one cannot conceive of his speaking of the falling of mountains. He would have said something to the effect that "one day even the mountains will wear away". Yet he speaks as if it had happened before, as demonstrated by his use of the metaphor to mourn the death of human beings.
Erosion and deposition are key forces in the earth's history. This truth, seemingly axiomatic to modern minds, and understood by Job, was not at all obvious to even keen observers of the pre-modern era. Yet even Ramm, who has studied the relationship between science and Scripture at length, fails to give this passage the credit it deserves. He says,
… this verse [is]… a reference to the processes of erosion which any sensitive observer would notice as happening in the world around him. Anyone who has been around mountains notices the piles of chips and rocks, and the slides, all of which indicate that the face of the mountain is wearing away. The verse appeals to nothing more than what any intelligent observer would note as he considered such processes in Nature. There is nothing profound here in the nature of genuine geological theory (1976, p. 90).
But such observation is itself the heart and core of the scientific method. Even if Job did nothing more than extrapolate from observing piles of chips he was practicing exactly the methods used by modern scientists. More significantly, Job's remark that "water wears away stones" requires a lot more than "simple" observation. The Hebrew is unequivocal, the verb, shahaq, defined as "rub away, beat fine, pulverize" (Brown, Driver & Briggs 1972, p. 1006). That rock itself is slowly turned to dust by flowing water escaped pre-modern man for many hundreds of years.
And that such processes could ultimately cause the destruction of mountains should never be branded a simple observation. Job didn't suggest merely that the "face of the mountain is wearing away", but that mountains can crumble and vanish through the long-term impact of such seemingly insignificant forces as slope wash, rock falls, soil creep and the action of stream water. One man's observation alone over the course of a lifetime would hardly suggest such staggering effects.
Some Greek and Roman philosophers had speculated, many years after Job, about the nature and causation of land forms, but their studies were limited. Job's amazing record even explicitly states that the motion of flowing water after heavy rains "moved [rocks] from [their] places". And that "torrents wash away the soil". These facts imply clearly that river valleys are formed by the action of running freshwater, and that the muddy soil, the eroded dust, and dislodged rocks are all carried elsewhere. That water could transport large quantities of earth material from one place to another was proposed by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century. His views, like Job's, were ignored for a long time. Job's are still ignored.
That river valleys were created by running water chewing its way through bedrock was not accepted until the work of the Swiss geologist Horace-Benedict de Saussure explained the power of rivers and glaciers to carve out valleys. The Arab philosopher Avicenna had suggested, almost eight hundred years earlier, that landscapes had changed largely from the action of running water, but his views, too, were ignored. For a time before de Saussure, most believed, along with Gottlob Werner (1750-1817), that the earth had anciently been covered by mineral-laden water from which the various minerals had precipitated out (Wendt 1968, p. 83). According to Werner, the river valleys were created by seawater activity.
Those committed to the catastrophist mind frame were convinced that rivers all came into being either at creation (Gen. 2:10), or as a result of the Flood. Job's account suggests rivers are constantly forming. In addition, Judges 5:21 refers to "that ancient river", the Kishon. The statement necessarily implies that other rivers are not ancient, and must have formed more recently. With amazing prescience, Scripture teaches that the landscape is slowly changing; not even the rocks beneath our feet are locked into everlasting monotony.
The endless cycle
Talking about rivers, where do they come from? Commonsense suggests that even the earliest thinkers made the same observation as King Solomon when they donned their thinking caps. But he, however, was the first to record the amazing insight:
All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again (Eccl. 1:7).
Ramm (p. 93) says of this verse:
It refers to the monotony of the water cycle in Nature. Water goes through its cycle, so the ocean is never full. the Preacher thought water returned to the springs and sources by seepage.
Did Solomon believe that the rivers are recharged by seepage from sea to spring? To suggest he did is reading into the account. In light of his addiction to natural science, one suspects he had a pretty good idea that the more immediate source of river water was rain, and that the rain came from water that had evaporated from both land and sea. The story of man's understanding of the source of river water is a fascinating one. Believe it or not, what we now call the "hydrological cycle", and which is well-known to every high school student today, was not understood until relatively recent times. The following explanation puts it beautifully:
Scholars discussed where the water [in rivers] came from, but if anyone ever carefully traced a river back to its sources to find out, he has been forgotten. As late as the seventeenth century the prevailing idea about the origin of rivers was the one offered by the German scholar-priest Athanasius Kircher. Water starts in the hills, Kircher explained; it follows valleys down to the land, finds the sea, leaks through the ocean bottom, and somehow finds its way underground back into the hills to start its journey over again. Nor did anyone in those days have a clear notion about the water cycle. The condensation-evaporation-condensation chain which, with the help of gravity, keeps water moving from sea to land to sea again was simple in principle but not easy to witness (Wyckoff 1967, p. 116).
To our way of thinking, only a feeble-minded ignoramus could fail to see the relationship between rain and river. But as Wyckoff shows, we fail to do justice to the facts of nature if we think this way. Surely, heavy rains bring floods which raise the level of rivers. However, other observations suggest that river flow is not associated with rain in a direct way. After all, many rivers flow year round through desert regions, the Nile being a classical case. Egyptians of old would absolutely not have been able to make a connection, based on local observation alone, of any link between rainfall and river flow. Keen observers would actually be quite puzzled by the question of what supports the flow of a river, because most rivers continue to run fairly steadily throughout the year, come rain, hail or shine. The truth is, the source of river water is ground water (Wyckoff, p. 114.). And see Psalm 104:10. where this vital fact is clearly stated! Rainwater replenishes rivers directly and immediately only minimally. So Kircher, and untold millions of our forebears, were not so stupid after all.
However, having said that, modern research shows that the source of the ground water that keeps the rivers flowing even through the dry season, is rain, not seepage from the oceans. When rain falls, most of it soaks into the ground, and then over the following months gradually seeps through tiny fissures in the substrate, and through the interstitial spaces of soil, in obedience to gravity, towards the tiny rivulets and trickles and springs that feed the streams and rivers. So rain is, after all, the source of the water that feeds our streams and rivers.
We must give Aristotle his due, as he had said that rain and snow feed rivers in the mountains. But once again, he was pre-empted by a Bible writer:
And it happened after a while that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kin. 17:7).
What appears to us as the ultimate case of stating the obvious needs to be set against the backdrop of standard histories of the knowledge of the hydrologic cycle. Aristotle is praised to the clouds for suggesting that rainwaters fed rivers and streams. This account was written hundreds of years before his time. Perhaps the ancients were not so ignorant of such matters after all.
This article is excerpted from the Dawn to Dusk book "Jacob's Multi-colored Dream Goats". Please click here if you would like more information about this book.
References and notes
Brown, F., Driver, S. R. and Briggs, C. A. 1972, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, London
Cotterill, R. 1985, The Cambridge Guide to the Material World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Gould, S. J. 1987, Time's Arrow Time's Cycle, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Green, David 1998, The Long Story of Long Ages, Creation Ex Nihilo March-May
Ramm, B. 1976, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Taylor, G. R. 1963, The Science of Life, Panther Books, London
Wendt, H. 1968, Before the Deluge, Granada Publishing Ltd, London
Wyckoff, J. 1967, Geology: Our Changing Earth Through the Ages, Golden Press, New York
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