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.

5 thoughts on “Testimony of the Rocks by Hugh Miller (1857)

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