Testimony of the Rocks by Hugh Miller (1857)

Testimony of the Rocks is a collection of twelve lectures by Hugh Miller, one of the original old-earth creationists. Published in 1857, this work discusses details of the “Geologic” record and argues for its harmonization with the “Mosaic” record of the Bible. The lectures take us back to the original era of discussion about how to interpret the new findings of geology that contradicted previous understandings of Scripture. (I will do my best to limit this post to objectively summarizing Miller’s beliefs and arguments. I may do a follow-up post with my personal opinions and reflections on the work.)

Miller believed geology clearly proved the Earth was older than six thousand years and that the fossil record clearly predated the flood. He argued that Scripture allows for day-age or revelatory interpretations of creation and a local flood, and responded to some contemporary objections to such notions. He also argued against the proto-evolutionary “development hypothesis” with arguments that sound very proto-intelligent-design. He wrapped it all in a developed theology about continually “higher” elements of a progressive creation culminating in man and pointing yet further to the Divine Man and the end of the age.

On animal death before the Fall: Miller does not directly address theological objections to animals eating each other before the Fall, except to express his belief that the facts are so clear that such objections are irrelevant.

In Lecture 8 he says there once was an idea “that there was a time, ere man had sinned, when there was no death among the inferior creatures,” but it was “now no longer tenable.” In Lecture 2 he notes, “It has been weakly and impiously urged… that such an economy of warfare and suffering” would be “unworthy of an all-powerful and all-benevolent Providence.” His response is that the geologist’s job is simply “rightly to interpret the record of creation,” and the “established truths” of the geologic record made it clear that God did indeed create animals in this way. If the objectors want to question the justice of it they can settle that “grave charge” with “the great Creator himself.”

On the creation story: Apparently unaware of any need to harmonize animal death with the Scriptures, Miller spends considerably more time harmonizing the “Mosaic” creation story with the geologic record.

In an introductory letter, Miller notes that he once held “with Chalmers and with Buckland” to the “gap” theory before he was as familiar with the later geologic layers, and he now holds that “no blank chaotic gap” exists in the record. In a later lecture he says that such a scheme was “perfectly adequate in 1814,” but with the advancement of geology “was found in 1839 to be no longer so.”

Instead, Miller essentially argues for a metaphorical “day-age” view, trying to fit three general geological divisions (Palaeozoic, Secondary, and Tertiary) into the third, fifth, and sixth creation days with the respective rise and fall (i.e. morning and evening) of plants, reptiles, and mammals as the dominant groups within each.

Miller philosophizes about how the creation story was revealed, arguing that since most of it took place outside the existence of man, it could not have been written down as observed history, but like John’s prophetic visions of the future, Moses may have received visions of the past in “prophecy described backwards” by God who stands “beyond and above space and time.” Miller points out that Moses received the “appearance” of “the Tabernacle and its sacred furniture” (Numbers 5:4), and argues that in a similar manner he may have received “sight or vision” of the creation, perhaps even individual visions over the course of a week of discrete days from each period.

Miller developed an extensive theology regarding Man “created in God’s own image” as the “highest” created being in a long chain of progressively “higher” animals. Unlike some old-earth readings, his theology does not downplay the Fall. Miller speculates with moving prose about the “Tempter” silently watching God’s long creation until “man enters the scene,” molded in God’s image but with “a weakness in the flesh that betrays his earthly lineage,” which awakened “grim hope in the sullen lord of the first revolt” to disrupt God’s progressive plan and bring Man lower again, until “Messiah comes,” ordained “ere the foundations of the world” to redeem Man and bring him higher still:

What is to be the next advance? …the kingdom—not of glorified man made in the image of God, but of God himself in the form of man… Creation and the Creator meet at one point, and in one person. The long ascending line from dead matter to man has been a progress Godwards,—not an asymptotical progress, but destined from the beginning to furnish a point of union…

(I must note that this upward theology was marred by a literal white supremacy. Miller notes that “all human races are of one species and one family” and even quotes Paul saying “God hath made of one blood all nations,” but he compares features of different ethnicities to argue that Caucasians were the most progressed of humans, even declaring confidence that both the first and second Adam must have been “the perfect type of Caucasian man.”)

On the extent of the flood in Scripture: With great literary flair regarding the way devastating events imprint themselves on individual and collective memories, Miller details the multitude of similar flood traditions across cultures, from Chinese legends to ancient drawings from Mexico. Miller believes they point back to a single event that destroyed all humanity, but he does not believe that event was geographically worldwide, noting the fallacy of suggesting that “that where the tradition is to be found, the Flood must have been,” if there were no survivors outside the Ark, but rather descendants of Noah who filled the world and brought the memory with them.

Promoting a local flood theory, Miller argues for the principle of metonymy, whereby “a considerable part is spoken of as the whole,” to interpret the Flood passages that say things like “all flesh died that moved upon the earth.”

Of this class are the passages in which it is said, that on the day of Pentecost there were Jews assembled at Jerusalem “out of every nation under heaven;” “that the gospel was preached to every creature under heaven;” that the Queen of Sheba came to hear the wisdom of Solomon from the “uttermost parts of the earth;” that God put the dread and fear of the children of Israel upon the nations that were “under the whole heaven;” and that “all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn.”

Miller addresses some objections to the consistency of this interpretation by a contemporary named Kitto, arguing that such phrasing clearly did not apply “to the people of Japan” or “the Red Indians of the Rocky Mountains,” and thus he saw no reason to assume that the Flood narrative’s comprehensive language could not be metonymic as well. Miller notes older theologians (Matthew Poole, Bishop Stillingfleet) who argued for this possibility before geology made it attractive, questioning “the need of overwhelming those regions in which there were no human beings.”

On the extent of the flood in Nature: Miller takes it for granted that the flood was not responsible for the primary fossil layers. Unfortunately, the view was apparently not popular enough at this time for us to know what Miller would have said to defend his opposition to it. Instead, he addresses the more contemporary belief that a global flood was responsible for “superficial” features of “the drift, the boulder and brick clays, the stratified sands and gravels….” He cites the concentration of these effects in colder latitudes, and their absence from the equator, as well as existing shell species having a current habitat “about ten degrees further to the north” than their corresponding fossils, as all better explained by a recent ice age in the northern hemisphere. He also notes extinct volcanoes with “loose” ashes that “exhibit no marks” of the erosion he claims a global flood would have produced.

Miller devotes his entire eighth lecture to critiquing the practical logistics of a global flood, particularly as it relates to the Ark and the animals. He claims the increasing discoveries of animal species, especially extinct varieties, cast doubt on the Ark having enough room – “we now know that there are six species of rhinoceros.” He also highlights the great amount of unrecorded “special miracle” he says would have been required to preserve animals with specific diets and habitats and return them afterwards whence they came.

On the plain reading of Scripture: While discussing his local flood theory, Miller quotes a contemporary theologian who refused to give any ground to alleged objections to the global reading:

“Were the difficulty attending this subject tenfold greater, and seemingly beyond all satisfactory explanation,” says Dr. William Hamilton, “if I yet find it recorded in the Book… I could still believe it implicitly, satisfied that the difficulty of explanation springs solely from the imperfection of human knowledge…”

Here again, however, Dr. Hamilton seems to have mistaken the question actually at issue. The true question is, not whether or no Moses is to be believed in the matter, but whether or no we in reality understand Moses…

The controversy does not lie between Moses and the naturalists, but between the readings of theologians such as Matthew Poole and Stillingfleet on the one hand, and the readings of theologians such as Drs. Hamilton and Kitto on the other.

Miller argues that men fall into “extravagant error” when they “have sought to deduce from it what it was not intended to teach—the truths of physical science.” He argues that the contemporary objections to a local flood or an old Earth were mistaking the teaching of “authorship” of creation to a depiction of its “construction,” and he compares them to previous generations who believed the Bible taught the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer,” or that the Earth was fixed and immovable “until corrected by the astronomer.”

Miller notes there is something different about “the Mosaic geology” that requires some reconciling. But he ultimately compares those who oppose harmonization with an old earth to an earlier theologian named Turrettine who refused to accept that the earth revolved around the sun:

First,” he remarks, “the sun is said in Scripture to move in the heavens, and to rise and set… ‘The sun knoweth his going down.’ ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.’ Secondly, The sun by a miracle stood still in the time of Joshua; and by a miracle it went back in the time of Hezekiah. Thirdly, The earth is said to be fixed immovably. ‘The earth is also established that it cannot be moved.’ ‘Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.’ ‘They continue this day according to their ordinance.’ Fourthly, Neither could birds, which often fly off through an hour’s circuit, be able to return to their nests….” The theologian, after thus laying down the law, sets himself to meet objections. If it be urged that the Scriptures in natural things speak according to the common opinion, Turrettine answers, “First, The Spirit of God best understands natural things. Secondly, That in giving instruction in religion, he meant these things should be used, not abused. Thirdly, That he is not the author of any error. Fourthly, Neither is he to be corrected on the pretence of our blind reason.”

Miller notes that Turrettine, a contemporary of Isaac Newton, “could have found at the time very enlightened teachers” but instead “labored to pledge revelation” to a false astronomy. Likewise, he urges his geological opponents to learn about what he viewed as the obvious truth of the geological record, and to allow that the Bible could accommodate those truths, rather than damage Christianity by limiting it to a false interpretation of nature. Of his contemporary “anti-geologists,” he says:

they sometimes succeed in doing harm, all unwittingly, not to the science which they oppose, but to the religion which they profess to defend…

He believed it would not be long before “the vagaries of the anti-geologists will be as obsolete… as those of the astronomers who upheld the orthodoxy of Ptolemy against Galileo and Newton.”

On evolution: Miller’s lectures predated Darwin’s Origin of Species by a few years, but there were early evolutionary ideas going around. While Miller adamantly agreed with the geological narrative now espoused by evolutionists, he adamantly rejected what he referred to as the “development hypothesis” in its “Lamarckian” stages.

“There are no intermediate species—no connecting links,” Miller claims. “All geologic history is full of the beginnings and the ends of species… but it exhibits no genealogies of development.” And while he believed fossil layers had clear chronological ordering, he didn’t think this order supported gradual development, referring to “the oldest portion of the oldest terrestrial flora yet known” containing a well-developed “stately” tree.

On intelligent design: Miller’s sixth lecture compares “Divine” work to human work in a manner reminiscent of modern intelligent design arguments. He sees similarities between Man’s work and various animal features, and claims numerous examples of old architecture imitating fossil patterns that were unknown at the time.

On the geological evidence: I was hoping this book would offer insight into the construction of the geological narrative in the 1800’s, but Miller spends many more words describing what geologists believed about the record than how it was developed and why they were so confident about their interpretation of it. Perhaps I have to go back further to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology for that.

In one description that indirectly suggests deeper time for fossilization than a single flood, Miller notes that “smaller animals” are often found with “only half the skeleton” – the under side – suggesting that mud hardened the lower bones into place while “the uncovered upper sides” disappeared from prolonged exposure.

Lecture 11 offers some speculation about how mud rolling in from a shallow sea could deposit layers over time. It also mentions some changes and uncertainties in classifications of some deposits, and briefly mentions one instance of “a reverse folding of the strata” – something that, as I understand it, would be the foundation of George McCready Price’s young-earth arguments seventy years later.

Read it for yourself at Project Gutenberg. I found the work for free through Apple’s iBooks app.

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The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

The Creationists is a four-hundred page history of creationism, roughly from Darwin to today. My father gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago, not having read it himself. An old bookmark suggests I made it through a hundred or so pages, but not having any particular focus at the time I remember none of it. (This underscores the importance of taking notes and summarizing what you read, if like me, you like to read to learn while also tending to forget most of what you read).

The book sat on my backup bookshelf, apparently “for such a time as this.” Given my recent interest (detailed in these two posts) in identifying what different groups of Christians in different times believed about geology and why, I opened the forgotten book and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it covered this very topic, starting around the very point that the Davis Young history left off. The latent availability of the book for precisely this purpose, despite the lack of such purpose in the mundane sequence of events that originally brought the book to my hands, had not a little feel of divine orchestration.

The Narrative

The Creationists covers the lives and published work and mutual interactions of a myriad of characters from the late 1800’s through the turn of the 21st century. Without a focus, such a list might be boring, but it was terribly interesting through the lens of the book’s primary claim: Once geologists had established the antiquity of the earth, most Christians accepted it, and for nearly a century young-earth Christians all but disappeared. From the late 1800’s through the 1950’s, there was much resistance to evolution, but it all came from old-earth Christians arguing the gap theory or day-age interpretations of Genesis.

(The gap theory, or “ruin and restoration,” attributed the fossil record to an original creation that was created and destroyed in the ‘gap’ between the first and second verses. Day-age interpretations considered the days of Genesis 1 to be metaphors for long periods of time.)

George McCready Price is a central character. In Ron’s history, virtually no one attributed the fossil record to the flood anymore except the fringey seventh day Adventists until Price published an influential book in the 1920’s (The New Geology) that won over a few devoted followers, including Morris and Whitcomb – the guys that wrote The Genesis Flood in the 60’s and kicked off the big young-earth movement a whole lot of us grew up in.

The details run different from my assumed priors that more conservative Christians had “always” held on to more literal interpretations and more liberal Christians had “always” held on to more metaphorical ones. Ron presents many examples of “conservative” the-Bible-is-literal-and-absolutely-the-inspired-word-of-God Christians in the first half of the twentieth century who apparently had no exegetical objections to God’s creation involving life and death over millions of years, and Ron presents a compelling case that this was a strong majority view for many decades. This leads to a number of interesting implications and questions.

Is It True?

Before looking at those, we might ask – is the narrative really true? It should be noted that Ron confesses an agnosticism that is sympathetic to his former faith. This gives him some objectivity of outsider status, yet it suggests that if he did have incentive to lower the status of any Christian views of geology it might be ones farthest from what he now believes. And I am usually wary of the historical spitting contest that often attempts to imply doctrinal authority by claiming that the other side is the more recent one. Still, Ron presents strong evidence for his claim – for instance, not only musing about the unpopularity of “flood geologists” in the early 1900’s but often quoting such geologists’ own musings about their unpopularity.

At any rate, the narrative shouldn’t be too hard to corroborate. I own a few theological works from the time period in question. I checked Clarence Larkin’s detailed theology from the 1910’s. It is indeed gap theory through and through, complete with several clever supporting verses from throughout the Bible (did you know Jeremiah 4 was considered to support the gap theory?). I also checked Dietrech Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall from the 1930’s. The detailed exposition of Genesis 1 is complex and abstract, but when he gets to the “first day,” he hints at quite an openness to the claims of geology:

“What the Bible means when it speaks of the creation of the day is that what is formless becomes form in the morning and sinks back into formlessness in the evening… and there are times (reaching far beyond the physical day) of wakening and of slumbering in nature, in history, and in the nations… Whether the creation occurred in rhythms of millions of years or in single days, this does no damage to biblical thinking…

If there were fans of the 24-hour Hebrew yom day before 1960, Bonhoeffer certainly doesn’t seem to have been one.

There should still be millions of wise elders who grew up before the 60’s with enough memory to confirm what their family or denomination taught about Genesis; my initial attempts to contact those nearest me have not yet yielded results, but I have not yet begun to try very hard.

Historical Spitting Contest

Let’s suppose the narrative is true. What does it mean? Usually when theologians engage in historical spitting contests, it is to suggest by the “oldness” of their view that it has more authority than the more recent and probably meritless competing view. In fact, this is a common young-earth claim: Christians always interpreted the Bible as describing a recent creation for 1700 years, so who are you to come along now and say it can be reinterpreted?

The old-earth narrative applies the same principle, but in a more nuanced way – it simply argues that its position is the oldest since the birth of geology. As Young quotes from the nineteenth century Hugh Miller:

“Plain men who set themselves to deduce from Scripture the figure of the planet” had little doubt that the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer”; “plain men who set themselves to acquire from Scripture some notion of the planetary motions” thought that the sun moved around an earth at rest “until corrected by the astronomer”; “plain men who have sought to determine from Scripture the age of the earth” were confident that the earth was about six thousand years old “until corrected by the geologist.”

Christians have always accepted that Scripture did not actually require a flat earth, after science had clearly proven otherwise, and anyone that tried to demand such a view, while technically resurrecting an older view, would in this context be changing something that had now become quite established. Similarly, Ron’s narrative argues that Christians accepted that Scripture did not require a young earth, after science clearly proved otherwise, and that this view became quite established for quite awhile until Price, Whitcomb, and Morris managed to resurrect it. The implication – that the “younger” view is without merit – is inescapable.

But there is difficulty in such parallels. When it comes to rightly dividing the Word between what men of the time truly believed about the world and what God is truly declaring about it, all facts are not created equal.

In the realm of science, the age of the earth is not quite as empirically clear as the shape of the earth. And in the realm of scripture, the age is closer tied to theological doctrines, and not quite as easily explained away as metaphorical figures of speech. I think most young-earth creationists would claim that earlier Christians were simply mistaken to so easily accommodate the early findings of science, and that creation science is now developed enough to offer a viable alternative to the mainstream view, which, instead of growing stronger, has simply built further upon the same untenable assumptions. Those who accept the mainstream view might explain the ironic resurgence of such “primitive” views by saying that while the evidence against it is now stronger than ever, it’s advanced enough for people to cherry-pick at holes without proper training to really understand all the nuances.

Historical Context

Ron’s narrative is full of historical context about the environments that encouraged such shifts in beliefs. Old-earth geology came well before evolution was a threat to Christianity, and while there was no other viable option it seemed to be incorporated into it easily enough. Ron says that even Darwin still argued for an initial divine creation of a few kingdoms that each diversified through evolution into the modern species. There were adamant atheists like Thomas Huxley that argued for removing God from the picture entirely, but their initial influence was small.

By the twentieth century, though, Christians were feeling more of a threat from evolution, but most continued to argue against it from that same old-earth creationist vantage point that predated evolution. Teaching in public schools was a major factor. As Ron describes it, evolution technically won the Scopes Trial of the 20’s but textbook authors apparently still downplayed it for a little while in response to the uproar. By mid-century, though, that hesitation was wearing off. Ron also describes a remarkable tendency in leading antievolutionist leaders and groups to shift over time from young-earth, to progressive creationism, to sometimes theistic evolutionism, to sometimes wholesale naturalism (the ASA being a key example).

All of this together might explain why elements like an old creation that used to feel like safe Christian ground now felt like part of an unstable middle ground that was increasingly shifting toward the increasing threat of evolution – all of this paving the way for a mighty retreat back to views that had previously been discarded.

Reading List

Now that I’ve stumbled through a comprehensive history of Christian views of theology and geology, I’ve developed quite a reading list of what seemed to be the most influential works. I’ve read what others have said about them, and I’d like to go to the original sources and read them for myself. (Most of the older works are in the public domain, making it very easy to get started.) My plan is to go through my list and review what each had to say about both the geological evidence for old life and the theological implications of it all.

Did the early old-earth popularizers defend the theology of animal death before the fall? Or did it not even occur to them that young-earth defenders a century later would consider it a critical theological obstacle? Did Morris and Whitcomb really pretty much repackage Price’s arguments, and if so what were their responses, if any, to the earlier criticisms of those arguments? What specific evidences for an old earth did the early popularizers reference, and how did they compare to the evidences referenced by the later young-earth defenders? What did the different writers of different eras seem to consider important, and what did they seem to overlook?

As I review, I may state opinions about the strength or weakness of various positions, but I will refrain from arguing for or against any particular view, and try to allow any interested reader to form their own judgments. If the journey so far has been any indication, it will be an interesting ride. Feel free to subscribe below if you want to keep up with my infrequent updates…

Coming up next: Hugh Miller’s “Testimony of the Rocks”