Davis Young & Ralph Stearley have just published a book entitled The Bible, Rocks and Time (IVP 2008).
1.According to the authors, “this book is addressed primarily to Christian pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, students and lay people with some interest in scientific questions, but we extend an open invitation to non-Christians to read the book as well because we not only seek to persuade Christians to abandon any idea that the Bible demands belief in God’s creation of the world only a few thousand years ago but also to show non-Christians that acceptance of modern geological conclusions regarding an ancient Earth is by no means incompatible with biblical Christianity” (10-11).
Two things stand out in this statement:
i) Since this book is pitched at a semipopular level, the implication is that a non-specialist is competent to evaluate their arguments for the antiquity of the earth. You don’t have to be a geologist to weigh the evidence which they present.
ii) Their statement is somewhat misleading. Neither of the two authors is an OT scholar. And this book is not primarily about Biblical hermeneutics generally or the exegesis of Genesis 1-8 in particular. Rather, it marshals conventional evidence for the antiquity of the earth. At that level, there’s nothing distinctive about this material. You could find the same material in just about any secular textbook on geology.
The only difference is that our authors take specific aim at flood geology or young-earth creationism.
2.Before I proceed any further, I should lay my own cards on the table:
i) My personal concern is not so much to stake out a particular position on the extent of the flood or the antiquity of the earth. I don’t have a preconceived agenda in that respect.
Rather, my personal concern is to make room for whatever the Bible prescribes, proscribes, or permits on those topics.
ii) Since I’m not a geologist, I’m not going to comment on the technicalities of the geological evidence. Instead, I’m going to raise certain methological questions about the authors’ use of evidence.
3.The authors devote several pages to Henry Morris. I don’t see the point of this. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that flood geology is a genuine science, we’d expect the formulation of flood geology to undergo various modifications over time, just as we’d expect the formulation of cosmology to undergo various modifications over time. Imagine if you were to critique modern cosmology by devoting a number of pages to the very dated theories of Fred Hoyle.
I can only think of two reasons for this emphasis:
i) Because Davis Young came of age when Henry Morris’ version of flood theology was the reigning paradigm, and because, in fact, he’s written books and articles in the past interacting with that particular model, he can’t let go of that target. It’s like a middle-aged pastor who’s never done much additional study since he attended seminary some 30 years ago.
ii) It’s an attempt to prejudice the reader against flood geology by attacking a dated version of flood geology.
4. On an ironic note, there’s a single reference to Howard Van Till, under the general heading of “Christians in the Natural Sciences” (156-57). But from what I’ve read, Van Till recently defected from the Christian faith. So he’s not a terribly encouraging example of concordism.
5.The authors also devote several pages to Walt Brown. But there’s a very selective, piecemeal quality to their criticisms. They leave most of Brown’s case for flood geology untouched.
6.They devote even more pages to a critique of Steven Austin. That makes sense. If you’re going to attack flood geology, then he’s a major exponent.
And, as you might expect, they raise a number of reasonable sounding objections to Austin. I say that’s to be expected since you’re only reading their side of the argument.
But their critique would be more convincing if they had initiated a correspondence with Austin, then published the correspondence. That way, the reader could see how Austin attempts to respond to their criticisms.
As it stands, they control the flow of evidence. They present the evidence they think supports their position. They present the evidence they think undercuts the opposing position.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. But as a reader, I’m naturally thinking to myself that they have no incentive to present any evidence that supports the opposing position or undercuts their own position. So I have to withhold judgment.
7.For a book on dating, they don’t address the old, ongoing debate between temporal metrical objectivism and temporal metrical conventionalism. But, as I understand it, that debate raises the question of whether anything has an absolute date. That transcends the issue of dating techniques.
8.They cite Paul Seeley on the accommodation of OT cosmography to ANE mythology (182n18; 206n25). This appeal disregards scholarly literature which is critical of his approach, cf. G. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Crossway 2008); V. Poythress, Redeeming Science (Crossway 2006), 96n8; D. Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2 (Sheffield 1989); N. Weeks, "Cosmology in Historical Context," WTJ 68.2 (Fall 2006): 283-293.
9.They say “We suspect that most Christians would agree, as we would too, with the historical Christian doctrine that the initial act of creation that brought into existence the material from which God formed the habitable, orderly cosmos, was an ex nihilo creative act, a sheer, totally supernatural miracle that could not have entailed God’s use of any secondary means or natural processes whatsoever because secondary means and natural processes had not yet been created and did not yet exist. The beginning of God’s work of creation had to be a miracle of the purest kind. The question before us, however, is whether the subsequent creative work of the six days mentioned in Genesis 1 involved purely supernatural, miraculous acts” (186-187).
i) But it seems to me that the admission of creation ex nihilo throws a monkey wrench into geochronology. They want to limit creation ex nihilo to the raw material which God then uses to form the universe. But once you admit that some of the stuff composing the universe was brought about by an instantaneous divine fiat rather than a natural process, then I don’t see, in general, how you could date anything since, on that assumption, I don’t see, in general, how you could distinguish an ex nihilo artifact from a providential artifact.
ii) There might be situations where you could draw that distinction on a case-by-case basis. A providential process of weathering or erosion or sedimentation might better account for a particular effect than creation ex nihilo. But there are other cases in which different causes (providential or ex nihilo) could yield the same effect. For example, could you tell whether the sun was created by a natural process rather than an instantaneous divine fiat?
iii) The authors also confound the issue of fiat creation with instantaneous creation. The question at issue is not whether God created each item instantaneously in the span of six days. The issue, rather, is whether each item was created within the timeframe of the day to which it's assigned. And whether that, in turn, laid the foundation for the next creative stage.
10.The authors say: “One of the earliest arguments for the antiquity of the Earth stemmed from the evidence contained within accumulations of sedimentary rock…Sediments are transported by running water, wind, and glacial ice…By comparing modern processes of sedimentation with the evidences in the sedimentary rock record, geologists have concluded that Earth must be far older than was assumed three hundred years ago. The physical evidence contained within sedimentary rocks provides a powerful argument that Earth is much older than just a few thousand years ago” (217-19).
i) But the problem I have with that argument is this: if you’re going to invoke sedimentation rates to date a rock formation, then don’t you have to know the rate of the processes involved?
If it involves glaciation, don’t you have to know the rate of cooling, the rate of snowfall, the rate of subsequent warming, &c.?
If it involves wind, don’t you need to know the wind speed? As well as fluctuations in wind speed over thousands and millions of years?
If it involves water, don’t you need to know the rate of precipitation or the rate of runoff to calculate the rate of deposition? Don’t you also need to know the original gradient? As well as the presence or absence of groundcover? Can a geologist infer all these variables from the surviving trace evidence?
ii) Moreover, or so it seems to me, sedimentation involves erosion; but aren’t there natural forces that counteract erosion? Forces of accretion as well as depletion? Indeed, can’t the same process yield both effects (e.g. longshore drift)?
Take coastal erosion. A one-day storm surge may rapidly erode the shoreline. How does a geologist infer the occurrence of a one-day storm surge a million years ago?
The authors spend a lot of time criticizing Austin’s explanation of the Grand Canyon. They think the geological phenomena are too varied to be the product of a one-time event (Noah’s flood). Maybe they’re right. Since I think the Scriptural data is noncommittal on the extent of the flood, I have no personal stake in that debate.
However, for reasons just given, their own analysis raises a number of methodological questions which they fail to address. Maybe there are good answers, but you won’t find those answers, if they exist, in this book.
11.The authors say: “Here he [Woodmorappe] criticized geochronologists for attempting to account for poor results by appealing to unusual geological circumstances. Well, exactly! It’s the complexities of geology that make the assessment of analytical results both challenging and fun. It is the business of geochronologists to evaluate their own work and to discard problematic ages…All three of Woodmorappe’s alleged fallacies essentially amount to the same thing, namely, that radiometric dating methods should be discredited and thrown out because bad or meaningless ages are sometimes obtain. But the reason that bad, discrepant, meaningless, puzzling or unexpected ages are obtained has nothing to do with the established physics and mathematics of radioactive decay. Such unusable ages come about because of geologic factors, pure and simple (unless the analyst did a bad job)…Sometimes, a ‘bad’ age for a rock can alert the geologist to a geologic process or event that otherwise might have been overlooked” (401-02).
i) I don’t see how that really addresses the problem. Why go through the motions of dating an object if you’re going to discount the results in case they conflict with your preconception of the “correct” date? If the experimental results don’t matter, then what’s the basis of your expectation? And if absolute dating techniques sometimes yield “discrepant,” “unexpected,” “unusable,” or “meaningless” dates, then why doesn’t that call into question the reliability of the underlying methods?
ii) Also, I don’t deny that other factors could “contaminate” the result, but isn’t that a backdoor admission that assigning the correct age involves a number of other, often imponderable, variables? It is possible to reconstruct all of the salient variables from the trace evidence?
12. As an outsider reading their book, I get the impression that Young and Stearley are so immersed in their field as to be blind to their own assumptions.