On the relation… by John Pye Smith (1840)

Credit: Wikipedia

A contemporary of Miller and Hitchcock, old-Earth creationist John Pye Smith published a series of lectures called On the relation between the Holy Scriptures and some parts of Geological Science. It was apparently influential enough to be addressed by young-Earth creationists Whitcomb and Morris a hundred years later. (I read the book, free in the public domain, via Google Books.)

Overall Themes

Biblical Inspiration. Smith opens each lecture with a Bible verse and peppers his discussion with Scriptural references, often relating to praising the “works of God” and opportunities for man to seek them out and gain understanding of them. He clearly interpreted geological time in this context, and insisted on the need for correct interpretation.

Appeal to Authority. While Smith’s lectures included many claims of evidence for his geological positions, he included far more “appeals to authority” of geologists. In a supplemental note he recognizes the weakness of this approach but defends it on the grounds of the difficulty of explaining the evidence to those without geological training, and argues for its validity “on account of the moral and intellectual character of the witnesses, their scientific qualifications, their opportunities for investigation upon the largest scale, their original prepossessions against this conclusion, and finally their number and diversity as to country, party, religious denomination, and other circumstances which are rational guarantees against prejudice.”

Conservation of Miracles. Smith believed in miracles and divine interventions, but he disliked Scriptural or geological interpretations that required inserting ad hoc miracles all over the place.

Human Dignity. Smith would often bestow flowery praise on the motives and intentions of people before ruthlessly criticizing their positions for their ignorance or logical inconsistencies. Yet in the midst of such takedowns, Smith took care to humanize and value the dignity of those he disagreed with, whether “scriptural geologist” (i.e. young-earth creationist of the time) or atheist. He repeatedly expressed hopes for the salvation of the latter, and his disappointments at attitudes and actions that seemed to push them away from the faith.

Contents

Lecture 1. Summary: Geology is complicated and requires a lot of knowledge of many fields to truly understand, but the facts have been carefully and solidly established that the Earth is much older than a few thousand years. This does not contradict a correct interpretation of Scripture, as there is perfect harmony between the word and works of God, but some perceive a conflict, having sincere intentions but poor knowledge of geology, and have tried to argue against the established geological facts but only revealed their own ignorance.

“a vague idea has obtained circulation, that certain geological doctrines are at variance with the Holy Scriptures… I profess my conviction that it is nothing but a semblance, and that, like many other difficulties on all important subjects which have tried the intellect of man, it vanishes before careful and sincere examination.”

“Geology… The facts on which it rests… have… been collected by the assiduous labour of many men of the finest talents ; and those facts have not only been brought together and freely exposed to examination, but they have been subjected to the most jealous scrutiny and the most rigorous tests that can be imagined”

Smith says old-Earth creationists like Hitchcock have been accused by young-Earth creationists like Penn of atheism, but claims they “have had no idea of doing without God, because they suppose the world to have had an earlier origin than” the censurer “admits : for, at whatever period it began to exist, it would alike require infinite power and wisdom to create and arrange it.” Such writers “are sincerely desirous of vindicating Revelation from the attacks of scientific sceptics,” but “Such persons will see that these authors do not understand the subject about which they write ; and they will see a spirit manifested which will not greatly exalt their ideas of the influence of Christianity.”

Lecture 2. Summary: Describes the patterns of geological strata and the fossils found within them, arguing for distinct creations over periods of time

The surface of the earth is not a boring flat plain, but:

“a number of extended masses of various thickness, and spread out one over the other… from the horizontal position which originally but at different times belonged to the larger number, they have been inclined in all degrees… All strata follow antecedent ones in an order which is certain and invariable for every region of the earth… Nowhere, however, is the entire series found. Some member or many are wanting in every assignable locality ; but they are never put in a violated order. … analogy of composition, order of succession, and (which is a most interesting and decisive evidence,) similarity of organic remains, produce a sufficient equivalence ; and when these three kinds of proof concur, we have a complete demonstration.”

The rocks which lie the lowest in the descending order… are in the state which has been produced by the prodigious heat… The rocks which lie above these… are all composed of… different mixtures of sand, clay, and lime… These have been washed away from the previously elevated rocks… The lower strata… are generally of the greatest extent… The higher and newer are severally of less magnitude in every dimension.

An aside, after discussing the merits of Hutton:

“That any physicists and philosophers are hostile and scornful with regard to Christianity, is deeply to be lamented…but to treat them with injustice is not the way which Jesus Christ would have adopted, and it can tend only to render their prejudices more inveterate.”

On the distribution of animal remains:

“all belong to Classes and Families similar to those which now exist ; but in Genera and Species there are remarkable differences. The earliest are … most widely differing from animals and plants of the existing creation… Each system of strata has species which belong to itself… This fact is among the greatest discoveries of modern times. For it we are indebted to… Dr. William Smith… Each species has a definite period of existence… One species dies off, and its place is taken by another of the same genus ; till at last, in many cases, the whole genus ceases…”

On different kinds of preservation:

“Strata containing shelly, crustaceous, or coralline remains, generally present appearances” of living and dying “on the muddy or sandy bottoms of the waters… spread in beautiful order over considerable areas” with “the preservation of their slender, delicate, and fragile parts.” “There are other cases, in which the organic remains, be they plants, shells, or bones, exhibit proofs of having been washed away from their native seats… and thus transported into new situations” where “the separated parts have become imbedded in the muddy bottom.”

On the implications of differences for common ancestry:

“in the case of countries widely separated, the plants and animals proper to each region so differ from those of every other, as to impress us with the conviction that they have not been derived from a common ancestry for each species, in any one locality upon the face of the earth. They are respectively adapted… These conditions cannot be transferred to other situations. The habitation proper to one description of vegetable or animal families would be intolerable, and speedily fatal, to others…. Hence it follows that there must have been separate original creations, perhaps at different and respectively distant epochs. Man, whom the Creator formed to ” have dominion over the works of his hands,”… was brought into being in one pair ; from which all the varieties of our kind have descended” – not from “separate primary ancestors.”

Lecture 3. Summary: Sets up the “particular details” of how his lectures appear to be “at variance”  with “certain sentiments or interpretations of “the Holy Scriptures,” and with his assurance that he will later provide explanations. Lists “opinions” regarding creation in six days, the sun on the fourth day, the initial placement of all land-animals in one region, and the lack of pain and death before the sin of the first human beings.

It is not the word of God, but the expositions and deductions of men, from which I am compelled to dissent.

Notes some “commentators” have supposed “as the mediate cause of the longevity of the antediluvian patriarchs, a peculiarly salubrious quality in the atmosphere, which they also suppose to have been destroyed by the deluge, or in consequence of it. But this is an imaginary hypothesis, involving heavier difficulties than what it professes to remove…” since “geological evidence” points to past periods as having been “the reverse of salubrious” to the men and animals “now exist.”

Against the gap theory:

“there is no break in the vast chain of organic development, till we reach the existing order of things… the systems of life have been varied from time to time, to suit the altered condition of the planet, but never extinguished.”

Against the “interpretation” that “the sun and all the other heavenly bodies were created on the fourth day after the creation of the earth.”:

“the spheroidal figure of the earth, its position in the planetary system, its rotation producing the nights and days… the existence of water, and that of an atmosphere, both definitely mentioned, and the creation of vegetables on the third day, — necessarily imply the presence and the operations of the sun : unless we resort to some gratuitous supposition of multiplied miracles, of the most astounding magnitude.”

Describes his belief in miracles, yet thinks that the “wise and gracious design” of the universe is “weakened… by those who plead for an exuberance of miracles… 

our ” God is the Rock,” eternal and unchangeable in his attributes ; ” his work is perfect.” He has constructed a system“ which does not “need the interposition of correcting and repairing,” except as regards “the condition of created beings, weak, changeable…”

Lecture 4. Summary: Discusses the apparent “discrepancy” of “the Deluge.” Notes the universality of ancient flood traditions but, like Miller, notes that this does not prove the “geographical universality of the deluge itself.” Criticizes the Deluge as an explanation for every geological feature, rather than a “diversity of effects” implying “a diversity of causes”. Also criticizes those who make the Flood too small, viewing the truth “between these extremes.” Describes Buckland’s view that the “present surface of the Earth” (but not the layers below it) display “the effect of the diluvial waters”.

In what situations soever the remains of animal and vegetable beings were found, it was at once assumed that they were antediluvian relics, brought thither by the flood. It seems never to have entered into men’s minds, to consider the condition of these organic remains, their place in natural history, their relations to each other and the presence or absence of marks of transport… The scooping out of valleys, whether with the most abrupt sides and tortuous courses, or in smooth and gentle undulations of outline, found forthwith a ready explanation ; without any exercise of mind upon the inquiry whether such a diversity of effects does not imply a proportionate diversity of causes in nature, intensity and duration.

The flood must have caused “considerable action,” but “that they should have produced the stratifications of the earth, is a notion which must appear impossible to anyone who has a tolerably correct idea of what those stratifications really are.”

Lecture 5. SummaryGeologists accepted that the Deluge did not produce the “secondary” geologic layers but for a time argued for a universal flood causing the “drift” on the surface. Smith argues that current knowledge shows the global diversity of this drift cannot be explained by a single deluge. He also argues for other problems with a global interpretation, while hinting at a forthcoming Scriptural argument that Noah’s deluge only required enough water to destroy the human race of the time.

“That a transient deluge, like that described in the scriptures, could have produced, and brought into its present situation, all the diluvium which is now spread over the surface of this continent, will not (it seems to me) be admitted for a moment by any impartial observer. It has obviously been the result of different agencies and of different epochs”

Quoting Sedgwick on the changing science:

“In retreating where we have advanced too far, there is neither compromise of dignity nor loss of strength… All the noble generalizations of Cuvier, and all the beautiful discoveries of Buckland, as far as they are the results of fair induction, will ever remain unshaken by the progress of discovery… It was indeed a most unwarranted conclusion, when we assumed the contemporaneity of all the superficial gravel on the earth…

Discusses collection of volcanic hills in Europe with complex intersections of lava flows and different materials of strata, with “light substances” of “volcanic products” resting on the hills that would have been “washed away” by a flood. So “Either, then, the eruptions which produced them, took place since the deluge,” with Smith arguing there was not enough time to produce the sequence of events described, “or that deluge did not reach to this part of the earth.”

One of Smith’s most provocative claims, regarding the arrival, preservation, and dispersal of all species from every continent and island, that it would require “miracles more stupendous than any that are recorded in Scripture, even what appear appalling in comparison. The great decisive miracle of Christianity, the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, — sinks down before it.”

Lecture 6. Summary: Rejects idea of altering interpretation of Genesis to fit science, and rejects idea that the language is poetic or that the days can be expanded to fit long ages. But he argues that the first verse is an “independent proposition,” not necessarily connecting the six days to the beginning. He criticizes numerous young-Earth “scriptural geologists,” lavishing high praise upon their intentions and character before ruthlessly criticizing their positions, accusing them of logical inconsistencies and general ignorance of the science of geology.

Criticizes Henry Cole (“a zealous maintainer of the gospel according to his own conceptions of it,”) for adamant position about Genesis 1:1, for quoting Luther’s opinion as if divine despite Luther’s wrong scientific views of his time, and also for missing the humility of Luther, who said of creation, “with respect to the particular things, there is very much that is involved in difficulty and doubt.”

On the “hypothesis” that God created fossils in the rocks:

“We find the dead parts of animals… the teeth with their sockets… the provisions and modes of nutrition…” to say that “these objects were never the parts of any living creature… Shall we throw such an advantage as this into the hands of the atheist ?

On the style of the creation account in Genesis:

“notion, that we have here ” the language of figure and poetry,” is palpably erroneous. The whole is in the style of plain narrative, evidently intended to be understood as a simple, straight-forward, unadorned history…”

However, it uses “a mode of expression adapted, by the graciousness of Divine condescension, to the capacity and habits of thought which belong to men in an unpolished state of society.”

This is indeed the very principle which will… be adequate to carry us out of the difficulty, without sacrificing the reality of the things related, or invading the truth and majesty of Divine Inspiration.

Rejects idea that “the Six Days of Creation may be understood of periods of time.” Despite superficial resemblances to geological order, “the scheme fails when it is attempted to be carried into detail.” Besides, it “requires a stretch of hyperbole which would be monstrous.”

On those who regard “the interval from the Creation to the Deluge, as affording a sufficient lapse of time for the deposition of the chief part of the stratified formations,”

they in general have not spent those years of patient application which the case demands in order to have the prerequisites for forming a correct judgment, but they take up an alluring book… From this they select a few statements, which, by their want of previous knowledge, they are exposed to no small risk of failing to understand…. He finds incoherencies, and has no suspicion that they are produced only by the fragmentary character of his own attainments… forms a theory of his own which delightfully harmonizes with his views of the scriptural cosmogony : he favours the world with it : and, in the end, he is surprised and grieved, and perhaps irritated, that the geologists do not adopt his views.”

Other criticisms of scriptural geologists: Says one “commits the great fault of drawing universal inferences from particular facts and occasional circumstances, without any sufficiently comprehensive induction;” Another: “the keeping out of sight other facts which would be adverse to their hypotheses, probably from not being themselves acquainted with those facts”
Quoting an article: “The anti-geologists taunt the geologists with their diversities of opinion, but keep back that no two of themselves agree : whereas the geologists, amidst all their controversies, are unanimous, as to the main points.”

Quotes a writer saying when you argue with a scriptural geologist “upon the known and incontrovertible facts of Geology”

he cannot deny them ; but… you perceive that his mind has not really grappled with them… He replies ‘ How do we know that it was not a miracle or, ‘ How do we know that things were then as they are now or, ‘ I will believe God rather than man ;’ or, ‘ We know nothing at all about the matter ;’ or something equally vague, and to which of course no reply can be given. But the most common resource is, ‘ The Deluge did it all.’ This reply exhibits either complete ignorance of the facts, or a rejection of the inevitable conclusions which they suggest…”

Lecture 7. Summary: Sketching a Scriptural defense of his positions, Smith argues that the Infinite God condescended to be described in finite, anthropomorphic language that could be understood by man. He refers to older metaphorical interpretations to argue that “references to natural objects” should also be “comported with the knowledge of the age.” Defends a figurative use of “universal terms” to argue that both the six-day creation and the Flood described a limited region of the “earth.” Presents reasons for accepting animal death before the Fall and other related issues, all in the context of an insistence on a true and divinely-inspired Scripture.

Says the Scriptures, “when understood in the sense intended by the Author of inspiration ; possesses the purity of the best refined silver, the infallibility of unmixed truth.” We must seek “the genuine meaning of the divine oracles, without prepossession in favour of some interpretations, or prejudice against others. Our honest question must be, ” What saith the Lord?”

Notes principle of the Old Testament “representing God by the figurative attribution of the human form.” He sees this as “figurative language” that is “bringing down divine things to the grasp of man.” To try to take these literally is to create an unnecessary conflict with “the plain declarations of the sacred word, upon the spirituality, the omniscience, the unchangeableness of the One Living and True God”

Applying similar logic to “natural phenomena,” Smith notes that “the immobility of the earth was strenuously maintained” for a time as “the general belief of all denominations of Christians,” quoting a “John Henr. Heideggen” attacking the Copernican view: “some celebrated philosophers have endeavoured to reconcile it to the Bible, by considerations drawn from the ambiguity and various use of language… But our pious reverence for the Scripture, the word of truth, will not allow us to depart from the strict propriety of the words.

By contrast, Smith argues that the Scripture’s condescended style is “that which alone would have been intelligible in the early ages of the world ; but it is still the best adapted for universal use.”

Says Genesis 1:1 speaks of a creation “not from preexistent materials… But when that beginning was, when that act was put forth, it was not the design of revelation to inform us.”

Says the “heavens and earth” of Exodus 20:11 only refers to “All that the Israelites could understand” by it, and argues for a “local” interpretation of the creation story as only applying specifically to “the part of our world which God was adapting for the dwelling of man and the animals connected with him.”

Regarding animal death before the Fall, Smith argues that “Be fruitful, and multiply” implies the “departure of precedent individuals.” He argues that “the threatening of death…‘seems very clearly to imply, that the subjects of this law had a knowledge of what death was”. He argues that even if all animals were “herbivorous,” their feeding would “kill by myriads” the insects and minute creatures that live on plants. Also claims “the anatomical structure of the larger part of animal species presents demonstration that they were created to live upon animal food,” although “a few species indeed are omnivorous ; and this circumstance has misled some persons.” Suggests that “predictions of the peace and happiness of the Messiah’s reign… must be understood… as beautiful poetry.” Argues that passages about death in Romans and 1 Corinthians refer only to humans.

On the Deluge, he argues “that universal terms are often used to signify only a very large amount in number or quantity,” example of Joseph’s famine, also “All the cattle of Egypt died,” yet “in subsequent parts of the same chapter, the cattle of the king and people of Egypt are mentioned,” and many other similar examples, notes “Our Lord himself condescended to use the style of the Jews,” describing the queen of Sheba as coming “from the uttermost parts of the earth.” In conclusion: “I humbly think that those terms do not oblige us to understand a literal universality; so that we are exonerated from some otherwise insuperable difficulties in Natural History and Geology.*

Argues against “calculations” for a huge population of humans at the Deluge, due partially to “the effect of moral depravity in diminishing the fecundity of the human species.” Suggests that “an elevation of the bed of the Persian and Indian Seas” could cause a regional Flood. Quotes Bishop Stillingfleet, “who wrote without the least knowledge of geological arguments,” that “The Flood was universal as to mankind : but from thence follows no necessity at all of asserting the universality of it as to the globe of the earth.”

Conclusion on his efforts to reconcile Scripture and Natural History:

I have not attempted to do this by affirming that the Scriptures teach the sciences ; or that their language can be forced, by any grammatical or critical ingenuity, into a literal accordance with scientific truths : but by adducing abundant evidence to shew that the Author of revelation spoke to mankind in such language as they were accustomed to use, such as they could most readily understand, and such as must ever remain the most affecting and impressive to the human heart.”

Lecture 8. Summary: In closing remarks, Smith encourages his young listeners to study the sciences, and particularly Geology, as part of the Biblical call of “applying the heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom and the reason of things.” He remarks on the need to defend “correct interpretation” of the Bible against atheistic “infidels,” and entreats such scientists and philosophers, who have discovered so much about the earth, to turn their attention to the Infinite God.

“Your penetration into the vastness of space and time, has made you familiar with the sublimest ideas in nature. Those ideas have brought you into a contact, incomparably closer than that of ordinary men, with the eternal and the infinite. Is it then possible, that you do not meditate on eternity and infinity, as subjects in which you have the highest interest?

Smith intreats that

“you would effectually resolve to yield to religion its rightful place in your minds and your hearts : that you would give the just proportion of your studies to the facts and evidences of Christianity, its doctrines and duties, its promises, its invitations, and its faithful warnings. ” Glory to God in the highest ; on earth, peace ; among men, good will ! “

Supplemental Notes. A series of additional remarks, including the theology of animal death before the Fall and geological evidence for long ages.

“A system of nature, according to which organized creatures should not die, would be totally incompatible with the plan which the Creator has been pleased to establish.”

Of carnivorous animals: “Their bones and muscles, their teeth, claws, stomachs, and intestines, demonstrate that they were created to be nourished solely by animal food.”

“what is the just interpretation of Rom. v. 12. ” By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” We reply that it refers to the access and dominion of death over man…” Without sin, “our first parents” would have been “translated” into “a higher condition” without “dying,” but they “forfeited” this “glorious prospect” and “sunk down into the condition of the inferior animals.”

He compares geological stratum to 30 or 40 volumes of books, many of which each have thin layers like pages, and discusses their general organization and characteristics, which “prove that the whole series of deposits has occupied untold ages.”

“Do not suppose that a satisfactory knowledge of Geology can be obtained in a short time, or by skimming over a book or two… Go into the field of actual search and observation”

Note C refers to a Baobab tree claimed to be older than the presumed date of Noah’s flood. Describes Mr. Rhind’s attempt to argue for “annular circles” that are “irregular” or “that some species may produce more than one woody circle in a year.” Smith exclaims, “I must respectfully suppose that Physiological Botany has not been one of the author’s studies.

Note D responds to “Dr. Young’s Scriptural Geology,” arguing that he cherry-picks examples of flooded fossils to generalize all fossils from the deluge while ignoring fossils with opposite characteristics. “If the worthy author could make so much of his seam of disparted oyster-shells, washed over a small piece of land, what ought he not to have concluded from the case of the opposite character, and covering an area a thousand times more extensive?”

From Note E:

“Can any man imagine that granite was created in its characteristic state, a composition of visibly and palpably distinct materials, scarcely mixed, only put loosely together ? It would be almost as reasonable to affirm that the stomachs of the first animals were created with bitten and masticated fragments of the appropriate food in them.—”…”But this unutterable period ! — Compared with the infinite existence, with the eternity of GOD, it sinks to a moment.”

And a final quote which serves as a fitting conclusion to this summary of Smith’s work:

“This sketch, hasty and imperfect as it is, demonstrates a series of changes in organic nature, adapted to the variations in temperature, atmospheric constitution, and mineral composition, which, upon independent grounds, we have reason to believe did take place. The perfections of the Creator are conspicuous in all this wondrous course of change. We see unity of purpose, harmony of means and adaptations, and infinite variety in modes of development. ” O Lord, how manifold are thy works ! In wisdom hast thou made them all. The earth is full of thy riches : so is this great and wide sea.” (Ps. civ. 24.)

Seven Days That Divide The World by John Lennox (2011)

john-lennox-seven-days-that-divide-the-worldOxford mathematics professor John Lennox offers his thoughts on the relationship between Genesis and science in the short but insightful book, Seven Days That Divide The World. Lennox notes various historical approaches to Scriptural interpretation, comparing the current “young-earth/old-earth” divide to the “fixed-earth/moving-earth” controversy of centuries past. Lennox argues that Scripture allows for an old-earth interpretation involving sophisticated, meaningful metaphors, but he also argues the Scripture indicates the special distinct creation of man, not seeming to allow for the common ancestry of humans and animals. He also offers thoughts on the Bible’s and science’s “convergence” on the non-eternity of the universe, and the significance of “non-material” information in universal constants and the human genome as pointing to a “non-material” Creator.

Some of the quotes below are introductory references to ideas that are presented with more fully-developed claims in the full text of the book.

On Interpreting the Bible, and specifically the first chapters of Genesis

“What we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed.” “”We cannot simply read it as if it were a contemporary Western document written to address contemporary Western concerns.”

“There are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day… The opposite danger is to ignore science.”

“For many years, if not centuries, there would have been two major polarised positions: the fixed-earthers and the moving-earthers… These positions were held.. by those who were convinced that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and who regarded it as the full and final authority.” They agreed “on the core elements of the gospel… They disagreed, however, on what Scripture taught about the motion of the earth.”

“We cannot keep science and Scripture completely separate… the Bible talks about some of the things that science talks about… However, saying Scripture has scientific implications does not mean that the Bible is a scientific treatise from which we can deduce Newton’s laws… We are encouraged… to find out many things for ourselves.” Psalm 111:2, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” “God loves an enquiring mind…”

“If the Biblical explanation” of the beginning of the universe “were at the level, say, of twenty-second-century science, it would likely be unintelligible to everyone, including scientists today… One of the most remarkable things about Genesis is that it is accessible to, and has a message for, everyone, whether or not they are scientifically literate.

“Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.”

“We know now that the earth does not rest on literal foundations or pillars... the words “foundations” and “pillars” are used in a metaphorical sense. However.. the metaphors stand for realities. God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the giant planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane. Earth’s stability, therefore, is very real… Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture… Scripture has the primary authority. Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows.”

“What we learn from this is that it is just not adequate to choose an interpretation simply on the basis of asking how many people held this interpretation, and for how long”

“We should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The Biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined.”

On historical interpretations of the creation account

“The understanding of the days of Genesis as twenty-four-hour days seems to have been the dominant view for many centuries,” but certainly not the only one:

“Philo (10BC-AD 50) … thought creation was the act of a moment, and the Genesis record had more to do with principles of order and arrangement”

“Justin Martyr.. and Irenaeus… suggested the days might have been long epochs on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (“For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past”) and 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). Iranaeus applied this reading of Genesis to the warning God gave regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (“In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) Since Adam lived on to 930 years, “He (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit.”

Augustine: “As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean… But at least know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.” Augustine held that God had created everything in a moment, and that the days represented a logical sequence to explain it to us.

“Origen… pointed out that in the Genesis account the sun was not made until the fourth day… “Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first, the second, and the third day, and the evening and morning existed without the sun, moon, and stars?”

The word “day” makes no obvious sense in the absence of the sun and the earth’s rotation relative to it… Some have postulated the existence of a nonsolar light source that functioned for the first three days. However… we know nothing about such a light source, either from Scripture or from science. The logical alternative is that the sun existed at the beginning of the Genesis week… One suggestion is that on day 4 the sun, moon, and stars appeared as distinguishable lights in the sky when the cloud cover that had concealed them dissipated… “The verb ‘made’ in Genesis 1:16 does not specifically mean ‘create’… can also refer to ‘working on something that is already there’ or even ‘appointed'”… The verse is speaking about God appointing the role of the sun and moon in the cosmos.”

“In any case, the fact that some early church fathers had difficulties with interpreting the text should give us some comfort, make us more humble, and, in addition, show us that the difficulties are not all generated by modern science but arise from a serious attempt to understand the text itself.”

On the “days”

“The question of the age of the earth (and of the universe) is a separate question from the interpretation of the days… Logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four hour days (of one earth week) and to believe that the universe is very ancient… This has nothing to do with science. Rather, it has to do with what the text actually says.”

“Even though the Hebrew language does have a definite article (ha), it is not used in the original to qualify days one to five… it is used for days six and seven. A better translation, therefore, would be “day one, day two… day five, the sixth day, the seventh day” or “a first day, a second day … the sixth day, the seventh day.” Thus a “possibility” of “a sequence of six creation days… that might well have been separated by long periods of time.”

Does the work week pattern of Exodus 20 insist the creation week was identically structured? “There were not only similarities between God’s creation week and our work week, but also obvious differences. God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is different from ours; God does not need rest as we do… God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical.”

Human Beings: A Special Creation?

“Genesis does not deny what chemistry tells us – that all life has a material substrate of common elements… “let the earth sprout vegetation” … “let the earth bring forth living creatures” … “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” .. Therefore Genesis affirms that (human) life has a chemical base, but Genesis denies the reductionist addendum of the materialist – that life is nothing but chemistry… Genesis seems to be going out of its way to imply a direct special creation act…

“Let the earth bring forth living creatures… Let us make man… This surely deliberate repetition is a clear indicator that, according to Genesis, you cross neither the gulf between nonlife and life nor the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes.”

Regarding the attempt to find a helper among the animals: “It is interesting that the first lesson Adam was taught… is that he was fundamentally different from all other creatures.”

Unlike, for instance, “The Lord appeared to Abram” … “Genesis 1 and 2 are not talking about God revealing himself to humans that already existed, but rather explaining how those human beings came to exist in the first place.” … “There was no man to work the ground” alongside suggestions that “there were millions of Neolithic farmers in existence at the time.”

Death Before the Fall

“Paul… says that death passed upon all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin; he does not say that death passed upon all living things… We do not accuse the lion of sinning when it kills an antelope.”

Discussing the special features of carnivorous creatures: “The view that animal death did not exist before humans sinned makes the existence of predators problematic.”

“In light of the New Testament’s explicit statement “God alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16) does it follow that Adam never had intrinsic immortality, but was dependent from the beginning on regular access to an external source of food (the Tree of Life) for continued existence?”

“What was the difference, exactly, between the inside and the outside of that garden?”

“Evil in the universe appears to antedate the sin of Adam and Eve… C. S. Lewis: “Man was not the first creature to rebel against the Creator… If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.”

“It is simply false to suggest, as some do, that the only alternative to young-earth creationism is to accept the Darwinian model.”

The Message of Genesis 1

“The Genesis account… is diametrically opposed to all idolatrous interpretations of the universe, whether of the ancient, pagan kind or the modern secular variety.”

“The Biblical teaching, that the earth was specifically designed as a home for human beings, fits well with what contemporary science tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.”

“So, both Genesis and science say that the universe is geared to supporting human life. But Genesis says more. It says that you, as a human being, bear the image of God… The galaxies are unimaginably large compared with you. However, you know that they exist, but they don’t know that you exist.”

Information/Words

“The idea that the universe did not come to be without the input of information and energy from an intelligent source seems to me to have been amply confirmed by scientific discovery…. The language of mathematics has proved to be a powerful tool in describing how things work. Its codification of the laws of nature into short and elegant “words” consisting of symbols surely reflect the greater Word that is ultimately responsible for the physical structures of the universe.”

“Above and beyond that… we humans possess a “word” of mind-boggling length, the human genome.

“In recent years information has come to be regarded as one of the fundamental concepts of science. One of the most intriguing things about it is that it is not physical. The information you are reading at the moment is carried on the physical medium of paper and ink. But the information itself is not material… The nonmateriality of information points to a nonmaterial source – a mind, the mind of God.”

On Literary Parallels To The Creation Account

“The impression given is of a text that is written in “exalted, semipoetical language”

“Similarities… have led some scholars to surmise that the Genesis account is derived from the Babylonian Enuma Elish… However, many scholars point out that the similarities mask much more significant differences… The God of Genesis is utterly distinct. He was not created by the universe, as were the pagan gods. It is the other way round… Furthermore, according to Genesis, human beings are created in the image of God as the pinnacle of His creation… According to the Enuma Elish, on the other hand, human beings are created as an afterthought to lighten the work of the gods… Also, by contrast with the Mesopotamian myths, Genesis has no multiplicity of warring gods and goddesses; the heavens and earth are not made out of a god… there are no deifications of stars, planets, sun, and moon – the usual names of the last two are not even used in Genesis 1.”

“It is frequently asserted that the text of Genesis is theological and literary, as distinct from historical or scientific… It is, however, perfectly possible for a text simultaneously to inform us about objective facts and to have a theological purpose.”

On Scientific Parallels To The Creation Account

Quoting “English philosopher and historian Edwyn Bevan” discussion of the Genesis days’ parallels to the scientific story of an ocean covered in thick clouds followed by emerging land followed by plant life followed by animals followed by humans: “The stages by which the earth comes to be what it is cannot be precisely fitted into the account which modern science would give of the process, but in principle they seem to anticipate the modern scientific account by a remarkable flash of inspiration…”

Andrew Parker, Research Director at the Natural History Museum in London, “The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.”

On the universe having a beginning: “What is striking is that the Bible claimed it for thousands of years, whereas scientists only recently began even to entertain the possibility that there might have been a beginning.”

From physicist Sir John Houghton: “For human beings to exist, it can be argued that the whole universe is needed. It needs to be old enough (and therefore large enough) for one generation of stars to have evolved and died, to produce the heavy elements, and then for there to be enough time for a second-generation star like our sun to form with its system of planets…”

On Theistic Evolution / God of the Gaps / Miracles

“On the seventh day God rested. The work of creation was done. That would seem to imply that what went on during the creation sequence is no longer happening.”

Michael Behe argues that “natural selection and random mutation do something,” but their limit “can be transcended only if mutations are introduced that are nonrandom.” Simon Conway Morris “suggests that the uncanny ability of evolution to find its way through the space of all possible paths… is congruent with creation.”

On the risk of theists like himself resorting to “God of the gaps” arguments: “I see evidence of God everywhere… God is the God of the whole show…” But if the universe and earth came about as a result of the natural unfolding of fine-tuned conditions and natural laws, “Theistic evolution now asks why we should introduce a special supernatural act of creation at the point of the origin of life…. Of course, the issue is not whether or not God could have done it in a particular way… The question is, did God do it all in that way?”

“Most physicists seem to be able to live with the view that the origin of space-time is a singularity… It is part of the historic Christian faith that there have been other singularities in more recent history – preeminently the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ… That being the case, I find it strange that some Christians seem to find a priori difficulty in the claim that there have been some additional singularities in the past, like the origin of life and the origin of human beings.”

Distinguishes between “miracles” that “stand out against the known regularities of the universe,” and a “supernatural” action to “set up the universe with its regularities.” “For in both Old and New Testaments, the Bible clearly distinguishes between God’s initial acts of creation on the one hand and his subsequent upholding of the universe on the other… Genesis 1 records a sequence of creation acts followed by God’s resting. “

God’s Goodness Over Millions of Years? An Introduction To Old-Earth Theology

Thanks to churches, schools, books, and other materials, I grew up with a lot of exposure to young-earth theology. It’s a fully-developed Biblical paradigm that goes far beyond a “literal” reading of the “days” of Genesis. The cohesive worldview, constructed from verses all over the Bible, involves an original perfect creation that was radically ruined by Adam’s sin and will one day be radically restored again.

I knew people argued for taking the “days” of Genesis metaphorically. I tried to be open-minded to the possibilities – maybe there are some poetic elements in the opening chapter – but I was never persuaded by arguments about Genesis that ignored the rest of the Bible! I couldn’t wrap my head around “millions of years” without forsaking everything I thought the rest of the Bible taught about sin and death.

Until recently, I didn’t really know anything about “old-earth creationism.” I guess I thought it meant maybe you thought the oldest rocks on the Earth or the core or whatever could be really old, but if you believed the Bible you still pretty much had to go with animals in a perfect six-day creation and a global flood to form all the fossils and so on. After all, the only alternative was to start metaphorizing the whole thing and lose a literal Adam and Eve and the whole theology behind sin and the cross and the second coming and everything else…. right?

Actually…. No.

Old-Earth creationists (OEC) treat the Bible just as seriously and inerrant as Young-Earth creationists (YEC). They believe a lot of the same things about Adam and Jesus and everyone in between. But they don’t believe the Bible supports the same paradigm about the world before Adam. If we come to all those supporting verses with YEC-colored glasses, than they all look like they do. But if we try a different pair, well, maybe the text doesn’t literally say some of the things we think it does.

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive look at old-earth theology, which has a lot of complexities and variations (just as young-earth theology does). Nor is it intended to argue that old-earth theology is a better interpretation of the Bible than young-earth theology. It is simply intended to introduce the theology to those who may not be familiar with it. Even if you don’t agree with the old-Earth paradigm, I think more people should be aware of it.

So what is it?

Adam, Christ, and the Animals

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Paul’s letters paint clear parallels between Adam and Christ. OEC’s tend to agree YEC’s on these parallels. But what kind of death was entering the world? It didn’t necessarily affect everything we call “alive” today; even YEC’s don’t usually define this “death” so strictly as covering every cell at the molecular level, allowing plants to “die” as food sources before the Fall. Some even define Biblical “life” via passages referring to the “breath of life” or “life is in the blood” and allow for insects or other invertebrates to have perished pre-Fall as well.

So the OEC question is somewhat narrow: did Adam’s sin bring death on the set of animals that couldn’t have already been dying? “Death came to all people, because all sinned.” Romans says humans all die because we all sin, but it doesn’t follow that animals die for their sins. OEC’s also say it seems strange to include animals in 1 Cor 15’s “as in Adam all die” since we don’t believe they are included in the resurrection of Christ’s “all will be made alive.”

Whereas YEC’s use these passages to argue that Adam’s sin introduced death to all of creation, OEC’s argue that these passages only literally refer to humans.

But even if Paul’s theology doesn’t forbid the possibility of animal death before humanity’s sin, doesn’t God do so in Genesis?

Perfect vs. Very Good

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)

Old-earth and young-earth models agree that after God finished his creation with the creation of man, everything he had made was very good. But what does that mean?

YEC’s say before sin entered the world, it was perfect, free from all death and decay. How could millions of years of animals tearing each other to pieces be “very good”? This is a powerful argument, but OEC’s say this is simply an emotional one, and it does not use Scripture to define what “very good” could or could not be.

OEC’s argue that God said his creation was very good, but not perfect. There are distinct Hebrew words used for both throughout the Bible, so perfect could have been used if that was intended. OEC’s argue that an intricate, well-balanced ecosystem of predator-prey relationships can, in fact, be “good.”

They point to Psalm 104, which in many ways parallels the creation account, and says this when it gets to the animals:

The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…

These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

Creationists of all stripes acknowledge this when we marvel at the complexity of God’s creation in today’s world, like the bombardier beetle’s two-chambered explosion factory, or how lizards use their blue tails to escape birds. While we use these elaborate defenses as arguments against undirected evolution, we often don’t think about the fact that they are only so amazing because they are used to defend against other animals that want to eat them! Nor are any of these defenses perfect enough to allow all members of any given species to always escape. Of course, that would not be very good for their predators, who have their own specialized complex features for capturing prey.

I was just reading in The Tyrannosaur Chronicles how “herbivores have laterally positioned eyes that give them something close to wrap-around vision and enable them to look out for threats, but predators have forwards-facing eyes for measuring the distances to their potential meals and calculating strikes.” Isn’t that amazing? Nature has literally thousands of connections like that! In any given predator-prey relationship, neither species has perfect offense or defense, just good enough to allow both species to continue to be fruitful and multiply in a beautiful balance.

And on that note…

The Past And The Future

A major element in the balance of today’s world is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Old trees die and new trees arise from their decaying matter. Dead animals release nutrients back into the soil for the use of the living. Did God really intend all the animals to be fruitful and multiply but never die? Some OEC’s argue that given the rate some animals reproduce, this would have quickly overrun the Earth. Maybe God in his infinite wisdom could have initially created a totally different system that would have worked without any predators or death. After all, that’s what the future is going to look like, right? Well, let’s explore that birth-death connection a bit.

Our current world is full of births and deaths. Revelation presents a picture of a future with no more death. But Jesus also said there would be no marriage in heaven. Does this mean no births, either? Is there any indication of fruitful multiplying on that yonder shore? Or was that something from this world – including before the Fall – that is not going to be part of the new world? What if Isaiah’s prophetic imagery of the lion lying down with the lamb doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the original creation?

OEC’s argue the Bible doesn’t say we’re going back to a garden. We’re going to a giant city, to a new heaven and a new earth. The restoration of an original perfect world that was lost has a nice feel to it, and the end of sin and death will certainly usher in a form of restoration… but what if God never intended the future to look quite like the past?

The Old Earth View of Creation

“when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:29-30)

OEC’s believe God created the universe, and planet Earth, over time, based on a variety of scientific evidences they find convincing. They tend to be skeptical the evidence shows he used evolution, suggesting he may have introduced new life over time, pointing to geological features like the Cambrian Explosion.

Through it all they see an amazingly intricate and perfect plan to prepare the universe for the eventual creation of man in his own image. Edward Hitchcock pointed in the 1800’s to a greatly increasing understanding and appreciation of “the vast plans of Jehovah.”

Would that all be a big waste? A woefully inefficient process? William Lane Craig argues that waste and efficiency only matter to creatures with limits, and God in his infinity can do whatever he wants for his own glory.

When God was ready to create man, he created a garden, which OEC’s see as a special place of protection, separate from the rest of the world which he called them to “fill” and “subdue” (some argue there would have been no need to subdue the rest of the world if it was “perfect”).

The Old Earth View of the Fall

But when Adam and Eve sinned, they had to leave that garden. God told them the ground outside the garden would produce thorns and thistles “for you,” but that doesn’t mean the outside world didn’t already have them. The Bible doesn’t say God created anything new. It doesn’t say the garments God made for Adam and Eve came from the first animal to die. (It actually doesn’t say an animal died at all, though it’s a reasonable inference from the theology of blood sacrifice.)

Maybe the state of the outside world had something to do with the fact that evil already existed – Satan had already fallen and even made it into the garden somehow. Maybe Adam’s sin did cause the world’s entropic state but it somehow ricocheted backward through history just as Christ’s death covered the future sins of people not yet born. Maybe God had simply designated the universe to be “subject to decay” (Romans 8) from its physical laws from the very beginning as part of his almighty perfect plan. Whatever the source, OEC’s argue the Bible does not say the Curse introduced a new world of animal suffering and death. It simply says that Adam and Eve, instead of subduing that world as they were originally called to do, were now forced to toil and struggle within it, and yet even so, it still also contained goodness, sustained by God, who was still working his ultimate plan to reconcile all things to himself.

Final Remarks

I have not covered every Scripture passage YEC’s use to defend their position or OEC’s interpretations of them. I have not covered the all-important discussion of the Genesis “days” themselves. I have not delved into the variety of approaches within OEC theology and their differing views on “concordism,” or OEC views on Noah’s flood, or J. Gene White’s unique translation and his exemplar hypothesis. However, I have endeavored to show that the OEC approach to the Bible, whether it is right or wrong, is at least as serious as the YEC approach, in some cases taking some verses more literally, or at least not assuming they say things they literally do not say. If you found any of this interesting, feel free to further explore the articles, books, or podcasts below.

Resources For Further Investigation

Old-Earth Creationism: a Heretical Belief?” at Reasons.org (article)

Peril in Paradise by Mark Whorton (book)

Seven Days That Divide The World by John Lennox (book)

Dr. William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcast series on “Doctrine of Creation” and “Creation and Evolution” (podcast)

The Religion of Geology by Edward Hitchcock (1851) (summary of book with link to text)

The Mineral and Mosaical Geologies by Grannville Penn (1822)

Grannville Penn was one of the leading 19th century scriptural geologists. His 1822 book A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (available free on Google Books) defended a young Earth and literal 6-day creation against the unfolding claims of geology, arguing that everything could be explained by the revolutions and intervening years of God’s initial creation and Noah’s global flood. (Note: I read the first edition before learning there was a second.) Penn was well-versed in his opponent’s arguments and remarkably confident in his own views of a literal interpretation of Scripture, which include some surprising deviations from modern young-earth orthodoxy.

Part I

Ch. 1. Penn opens with a confident declaration that the “the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies” are “directly contradictory to each other; so contradictory, indeed, that whichever of them be true, the other must of necessity be absolutely and fundamentally false.” He condemns the “schemes of accommodation, to effect a reconciliation between them” as “undue compromise and concession” doomed to “ultimate failure.” He declares his intention to apply the principles of Bacon and Netwon to both geologies.

Ch. 2. Quotes Cuvier to define mineral geology as consisting of “the knowledge of the mineral masses”, “every thing which relates to the mode of their first formation”, and “the changes which they have undergone”. Penn see the first as descriptive science but second two as “pretensions.”

Ch 3-5. Discusses theories of the Earth’s origin. Criticizes geologists for claiming to follow Newton’s scientific principles in their hypotheses about the planet’s “original fluidity” when Newton rejected the idea “that it might rise out of a CHAOS by the mere laws of Nature.”

Ch 6-10. Develops an Appearance of Age argument for the Earth’s “original” granite rocks. Adam “was created, by the will and immediate power of God, in the same form, and with the same structure; which, after him, was to be produced only by the operation of those laws.”

How old did Adam appear? “Whatever be the standard of age in correspondence to which we may suppose that first man to have been created, it must correspond to some period of the human life subsequent to the birth. It is of little consequence to the argument, what that age may be ; but it is most consistent with the notion of an Intelligent Agent, and therefore most philosophical, to suppose, that He created that first man with the perfection of mind and body, which most conduced to the end for which He formed him.”

If one of Adam’s bones were examined with other bones by an “anatomist”, “if he were unapprised of its true origin, his mind would see nothing in its sensible phenomena but the laws of ossification,” just as mineral geologists see the effects of “degrees” over time in the rocks.

Again, “let us consider the first created tree…. Its wood, therefore, was not formed by degrees, but suddenly.” “The science of physics” has an  “absolute incompetence to determine anything at all, by phenomena alone, concerning the mode of the first formations of the first individuals composing either the animal or vegetable kingdoms of matter.”

Now “let us consider the first created rock,” which has a “notable difference”: “the animal and vegetable structures were formed to continue only for short durations of time… whereas, the first formed mineral masses of this earth… still subsist… When we discover no evidence whatever of re-composition of divided parts, but a simple homogeneous mineral substance, incapable of production by any known secondary cause, then we see a true first formation. Such are the granite masses which we survey, which were coeval with created man.”

Penn rejects a common objection to the Appearance of Age argument: “has God introduced appearances into His works, to mislead and to deceive His moral and intellectual creatures? …God forbid!… Those phenomena cannot mislead, deceive, or seduce any one, who faithfully and diligently exercises his moral and intellectual faculties by the rule which God has supplied for their governance…”

Penn says deep time “would tend to lessen our sense, either of the divine wisdom or power… The vast length of time, which this sinistrous choice is necessarily obliged to call in for its own defence, could only be requisite to the Creator for overcoming difficulties obstructing the perfecting process.”

Penn distinguishes between created rocks and altered rocks: “the whole order of first mineral formations, or simple primitive rocks and earths, together with all their strata and all their varieties, are withdrawn from the speculations of the mineral geology, respecting the mode of their production ; so that it may only exercise those speculations, philosophically, upon that remaining order of minerals, which, by bearing incontestable evidence of alteration, either by decomposition, recomposition, or mechanical action, prove themselves to be distinct in circumstance from the former.”

Part 2

Part 2 features Penn’s interpretation of the “sacred record” of the Genesis creation story.

Ch 1. Says “it is wisely observed by Mr. Kirwan” that attempts to deduce a complete knowledge of “past geological facts” exclusively by their “subsisting consequences” would be as “absurd” as deducing the history of “Ancient Rome solely from the medals or other monuments of antiquity it still exhibits.” “Now, the voucher that could establish the fact, respecting the true mode of first formations, must have been a witness of that mode; but the only witness of the mode of first formations, or creations, was the Creator Himself,” who “imparted” this history through the “ministry of Moses.”

Claims “the mode by which they were actually first formed, must have been in direct contradiction to the apparent indications of those phenomena.” “That the things which are seen, were not ‘made of things which do appear,’ is therefore not only the first principle of faith, but the first principle of philosophy.”

Ch 2. “In order to obtain a true and precise apprehension” of “this Sacred Record,” we must exercise “the most scrupulous caution and circumspection” with the “resources of sound learning and sound criticism.”  “Methods of exposition have been devised, diversified, and applied, so various, and in a great proportion so absurd, that whoever considers them all, and compares them all together, will be in greater perplexity than he was before.”

Penn takes some “principles” from other writers, despite their being “drawn” by “mineral geology” “into some concessions militating, in certain particulars, against the plain import of the record.”

“The rules which constitute the canons of this interpretation…. 1. That the style of the first chapter, as of the whole book of Genesis, is strictly historical; and that it betrays no vestige whatever of allegorical or figurative description. 2. That, since this history was adapted to the comprehension of the commonest capacity, Moses speaks, according to optical, not physical, truth:… That is, he describes the effects of creation, optically, or as they would have appeared to the eye; and without any assignment of physical causes… by which means, the mind is enabled to receive a clear and distinct impression of those appearances, and thus to reduce them to their proper causes, and to draw from them such conclusions as they are qualified to yield….”

“A great part of interpreters have wandered so far into error, as to imagine they have detected the systems of modern physics in the recital of Moses ; and have perverted and tortured his language, into an adaptation to their own preconceived opinions.”

Ch 3. Day One

Penn’s unique translation of Gen 1:2-3:

….but the earth was invisible, and unfurnished; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Therefore the Spirit of God went forth upon the face of the waters, and God said, let there be light!

Says “true interpretation” depends on a “very important grammatical and critical question” of “the Hebrew conjunction vau,” which he argues should be rendered but instead of and, “which carries a contrary implication, and excites an expectation of that which immediately follows; namely, the formation of light, by means of which the invisibility of the earth was to be remedied” …

“tohu vabohu… which our version, conforming to the later translators, has rendered, ” without form, and void;” is rendered by the oldest Jewish interpreters,… unapparent or invisible, and unfurnished or unprovided.”

Argues that the spirit was not the Holy Spirit but being the word for wind or air, and being connected to the following phrase, means “the spirit, or breath of God, went forth upon the face of the waters, and God said…” “This interpretation is undeniably more natural, more intelligible, more congenial to the Scriptural style, and more consonant to the recorded impressions of the early Scriptural writers ; than either the action of a violent wind, before physical agents existed, or the incubation of the divine person of the Holy Spirit, which conveys no real sense to the mind.”

Thus “the body of this globe” was “producted ‘at the beginning’ (as Newton speaks) and ‘in one moment of time’ (as Bacon speaks) … created entire and complete…. enveloped by a separate marine fluid … flowing over every part of its compacted surface, which formed for a very short time, the bed or bottom of an universal sea… That solid body was concealed by the cloak of waters… so that the spheroid, speaking relatively and optically, was invisible… The historian relates that God first produced the effect of light…”

“As he describes optically.. .his description is confined to effects, but it is for the common knowledge and experience of his readers, to refer those effects to their plain and obvious causes. And so his ancient Hebrew readers referred them; who needed not that he should tell them, that the light of which he spoke, proceeded from the same physical cause from which they derived their daily light; and they accordingly understood, as of course, that it proceeded from the solar fountain of light, though not expressly named.”

In the first creation of ” the heaven and the earth,” therefore, not the planetary orbs only, but the solar orb itself, was created in darkness;… When then the Almighty Word, in commanding light, commanded the first illumination of the solar atmosphere, its new light was immediately caught, and reflected throughout space, by all the members of the planetary system.”

Says the sun’s heat “necessarily exhaled an universal vapour, enveloping the whole globe” in “dense fogs” revealing only “effects, of light and of the alternation of darkness and light,” “in this first day of creation, both the solar fountain of light was opened in the heavens, and this earth received its first impulse of rotation, on its axis and in its orbit.” …

since we perceive by.. the clauses in this article… that all these great transactions were included within that first day, or first entire revolution of the new globe, we perceive also, that time, which only exists by reference to that revolution, began with the creation of the globe, and the commencement of its revolution, in darkness ; and, that the creation of light succeeded at that ‘proportion of distance in time, which was thenceforth to constitute the perpetual diurnal divisions of the two.

(So according to Penn, God created the Earth and the Sun simultaneously in darkness, and started light 12 hours later within the first day! And that’s why Hebrew days measure evening before morning!)

As to objections: “An unlearned question has been raised… with respect to the sense in which we are to understand the word day,” it has been suggested to their minds, not by any real obscurity in the record, but merely by the opposition of the terms of the record to certain preconceived notions and speculations into which they have drawn their own judgments… Their theories, oblige them to seek for much larger measures of time than the historian supplies

He criticizes a writer for suggesting that “and” in v.1-3 could be replaced with “afterwards” to denote more time. “By this method of interpretation, the true and intimate connexion and articulation of the clauses, which has been shown, is violently destroyed”

He also objects to a long “chaos” where “things were so digested and made ready” before the six days: “Was it, that the First Cause could not act, until secondary causes had made the subject matter ready” for Him?”

Ch 4. Day Two

Penn interprets “firmament” as a “firm and permanent support” to sustain “a part of the waters” as a “canopy above the globe.” (He does not provide any details about his thoughts on those “waters,” nor does he attempt to connect the “waters” or “canopy” to the Flood in any way.)

the effect of light was alone apparent ; for, congregated clouds had succeeded to terrestrial mist, and continued to render the cause of that effect non-apparent, and therefore, optically non-existent: as we ourselves experience, during the prevalence of similar weather.

Ch 5. Day Three

Penn interprets the separation of land as “a violent and turbulent” operation where the ocean “drained off” “into a new and deeper bed,” carrying materials and soils down with it, so that “the shell of the earth received its various successive primitive strata, apparently, but not really, indicative of such succession… the sea bed thus constructed, and consisting of the fractured, and apparently ruined surface, of a portion of the globe.”

He says this is the event “the great poet of the Hebrews” is describing in Psalm 104: “the waters stood above the mountains. At Thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of Thy thunders they hasted away; they went over the mountains, they went down by the valleys, unto the place which thou didst found for them…”

It please God to… invest it, at once, with an universal covering of vegetation.” Seeing “maturity of vegetation” in the passage’s reference to “the TREE,” Penn says “the appearance alone would be no indication of the reality of the process.”

In the meantime, the clouded atmosphere still continuing, light continued to exist only as an effect unconnected with its cause. Its course, however, still proceeding, the evening and the morning completed the Third Day.

Ch 6. Day Four

Interpreting the account as referring to the lights created on Day One, Penn translates the verse as “Let the lights in the firmament of Heaven, for dividing the day from the ” night, be for signs….”

if any one, who is conversant with the genius of the Hebrew, and free from any previous bias of his judgment, will read the words of this article in their natural connexion, he will immediately perceive, that they import the direction, or determination of the heavenly bodies, to certain uses which they were to supply to the earth. The words are not to be separated from the rest, or to be rendered, fiant luminaria, — let there be lights ; i. e. let lights be made ; but rather, let lights be, that is, serve, in the expanse of Heaven…

Upon this day, therefore, the clouds, which had hitherto loaded the atmosphere, and which had excluded the heavenly luminaries, were, for the first time, to be dispelled ; and those splendid bodies were to acquire their first optical existence, with relation to this earth… The historian speaks according to optical, not physical truth ; nor is ” it surprising, since the common mass of mankind look no higher; and the history is ” adapted to their apprehension.”

Penn saw this as so specific that he says “we may, logically and philosophically, further infer” the sun and moon were initially created in “inferior conjunction” so that “the new moon, being thus in the third day of its revolution…, that is, of its first quarter, it would necessarily appear at the setting of the sun, and would thus be ready… to begin, lead on, and so, rule the night.”

He shows little respect for views that the sun was actually created on Day 4:

The light, which caused the first three days, and the light, which caused the last three days… being thus easily and naturally referrible to one and the same cause, it is unphilosophical, unreasonable, and un learned, to assign them to distinct and different causes. It is unphilosophical, because it is contrary to those rules of universal science… Not to admit more causes of natural things than are sufficient to explain their phenomena… It is unreasonable, because we know of no other light in the creation, besides that of the sun, to which we can ascribe the light of day ; and because we are not any where informed, that God has caused to cease any mode of light which He had previously ordained. And it is, moreover, unlearned, because it betrays an ignorance of that which moderate learning would have imparted ; that the supposition, of two different causes of light, was a late unskilful hypothesis, unknown to the fellow-countrymen of the historian, who understood him to record, only one cause…

it is more ‘probable that the light of the first day was derived from the same identical cause as the light of the fourth day, than that it was a latent chemical principle, (as he would suggest,) unknown to all mankind until the reformed chemistry of the eighteenth Christian century found it in a laboratory at Paris…

Penn actually saw the view of the sun’s creation on Day 4 as lending support to heretical views. He criticizes De Luc for arguing that the sun’s creation on day 4 proves that the days are “periods of undetermined length,” which he vociferously rejected:

“By such a mode of interpretation, any thing may be converted into every thing; and it would therefore be far more reasonable to deny the record, than thus to compel it to falsify itself….

To conciliate unbelievers… by a surrender of any particle of truth, to modify or change it… is a breach of trust of the same kind, as to bid our master s debtor take his bill, and write down fifty measures of wheat, when an hundred measures’is the just amount of the score. We are not in trusted with any latitude, or discretion, for thus negotiating the good will of infidelity, in the article of revealed truth. We must take care, to present it pure and genuine ; and unbelievers must then take it as it is, or they must leave it ; but, those who attempt a compromise, by any unauthorized concession, are not the champions, but the betrayers of that truth…

Ch 7. Day Five

Penn refers to Appearance of Age yet again on the fifth day, discussing the creation of “every kind of marine and winged animal,” “though the bones of the first whales unquestionably bore the appearance of an ossifying process, as the textures of the first rock and of the first tree severally bore the appearances of a crystallizing and of a lignifying process; yet, that appearance was no indication to reason, that they were produced by such a process”

Ch 8. Day Six

Penn argues against the claim that it is astonishing to believe that “man, occupying so small a place both in space and time” is “the sole end of the creation and of the universe.” He argues it is “nonsense” to say that giants are more significant than smaller men, and thus size does not correlate with significance. He argues for a different measuring stick “infinitely surpassing in importance… Such a scale is that, by which the intelligent, moral, and immortal nature of man is to be measured, and which the sacred historian calls, a formation after the image and likeness of God – a scale, so little taken into the contemplation of the science of mere physics.”

Ch 9. Day Seven

Penn suggests the seven-day week pattern is evidence of divine origin, since it does not coincide with the sun/moon ratios of other time measurements which are more easily attributable to natural explanations.

Part 3

The final section discusses The Flood and addresses many objections to the event as an explanation of geological evidence.

Chapter 2 argues that Noah’s flood was “universal.” Penn says God used it to “destroy” the whole earth, referencing Gen 6 and 9, and Peter’s analogy of the coming destruction by fire. He argues that it fulfilled the Gen 3 curse on the earth, and that God created a “second earth” by “similar causes” of the “first earth,” where the former continents and ocean beds essentially switched places (“a violent disruption and subsidence of the solid surface of one portion of the subaqueous globe, produced at first a bed, or basin, to receive the diffusive waters….”)

Chapter 4 talks about volcanoes. Penn claims “the general result of the researches of the mineral geology, seems to coincide exactly with the declarations of the record, respecting the primeval history of this earth; and establishes, conformably to that record, two great revolutions of its substance, subsequent to its first perfect formation : the first, anterior to the production of animal or vegetable matter ; the second, posterior to the production of both.”

In Chapter 5 Penn claims all of mineral geology can be explained by first creation on Day 1, the separation of land on Day 3, the 1656 year period between creation and the flood, and the flood itself. He claims geologists admit evidence of that order of things but instead of accepting two violent revolutions they invent many more.

Chapter 6 discusses fossils of “torrid zone” creatures in the “most northerly latitudes.” Penn argues they were “transported” there by the flood and argues against assumptions that they “died where they are found” and thus “lived where they are found.” He claims animals are “jumbled together” “indiscriminately.”

(Hugh Miller addresses this argument in Lecture Eight, ex. On the Great Irish Elk “it is not credible that all the solid shed antlers of such species of deer could be carried by the same cause to the same distance; or that any of them could be rolled for a short distance, with other heavy debris of a mighty torrent, without fracture and signs of friction”)

Chapter 7 answers the objection that “no human bones are ever found” with animals that are said to have lived in older eras. Penn claims humans with more intelligence would not have been swept away at the beginning but would have avoided the waters until the last bit of land when they were “suddenly and simultaneously immersed in the centre of the new sea, as the last term of their destruction ; where their exuvia must remain forever, uninvestigable by man.”

Chapter 8 answers the objection of extinct animals: “the Mosaical geology… guides us to a solution of this mysterious problem… He who planned and regulated the creation of the earth, unquestionably planned and regulated also its renovation; and the extinction of certain animal species… Moral argument, can alone reach this question ; mere physical reasoning can no more attain to it…”

Penn also answers the objection of “the circumstance of their not being found in the same places, or — the same strata, with those animals whose species have been preserved.” He rejects the conclusion of “different revolutions.” Instead, “suppose that the paleotheria and elephants did not inhabit the same regions of the submerged continents… and suppose that their races perished in different subsidences of land, and at different periods of the inundation… they would not have been deposited in the same places.”

Chapter 9 addresses the objection that strata have alternating layers of land and marine animals that suggest multiple revolutions/times. Penn claims layers are “disorder and confusion” not “regularity and order”.

Of fresh-water shells, “it is impossible to fix a limit to the transport of such light and buoyant articles, in so turbulent and active a state of the ocean.”

Penn is also skeptical that “the distinction between fresh-water shells and sea shells is so certainly and securely ascertained, as to allow of a conclusive argument founded upon that distinction?””

Chapter 10 addresses the objection that “formation of valleys” requires lots of time. Penn argues that flowing water cannot create river-beds but only flow in trenches that are already there! “If the first head of those waters found no bed ready to receive and confine them, and to guide their course, they would diffuse themselves laterally, and equally, in all directions, over the horizontal surface…” He objects that “the origin of valleys and of the beds of rivers must be ascribed to one and the same cause; namely, the action of water over time.”

Penn marvels at God’s “stupendous operation” of “apparent destruction… the apparent ruin was conducted on a plan which should produce the best means of supplying the wants and accommodating the subsistence of that race … it contemplates that first revolution with amazement, when it reflects upon the providential skill which it discerns in the final results.”

Chapter 11 contains speculation of coal being of “vegetable” origin from “marine vegetation.”

Chapter 12 argues, quite seriously, that the total domestication of the Arabian camel is proof of the Flood.

Chapter 13 argues that since “the universal lodgment of the sea upon its surface, for nearly ten months, must, by those laws, have extinguished every principle of germinating life,” God must have created new vegetation after the flood for the olive branch by “divine fiat,” just as he did in the original creation and also for Jonah.

Penn also argues that God must have created new animals after the Flood in analog to the original creation. He argues, like some of his old-earth contemporaries, that the text allows for interpreting “every” living creature as being limited to “many,” but he argues that the text does not allow for similar limits to the other aspects of the Flood story. Due to the surprising deviation of this view from other young-earth views, it is worth quoting from this section at length:

there is nothing in this acceptation of the history which is not perfectly consistent with the text ; considering, that universal terms are often to be taken in Scripture with limitation, and, that the text contains nothing to define and fix the signification in the instance which we are considering : for, the words “all flesh” are here only equivalent to the words “clean, and unclean,” in the succeeding chapter. And if such is its sense, that only a numerous selected portion of the animal species were preserved in the ark ; then it would seem, that the divine purpose in that partial preservation was, first, the preservation of the progenitors of a new human race ; secondly, the preservation of a number of animal species sufficiently great to provide an impressive memorial…”

“from whence then proceeded all those other species of animals now existing upon the earth, of which none were contained in the ark? … the Creator replenished His new earth with new species, by His own divine act, after He had brought it to light … Why should it be thought a thing incredible… that God, who created once, should create more than once ? … Let the river bring forth frogs abundantly … In the case of the human race, it was essential to the moral purpose of God, that the whole race should descend from one and the same first parent … But, since that purpose did not extend to the brute species, we have no reason whatever for supposing, that it was indispensably necessary that every post diluvian brute race should descend from an ante diluvian parent; …

I conclude, therefore, 1. from the record of the deluge, that the whole animal creation, excepting only that selected portion of animal — . individuals which was preserved in the ark, perished in that catastrophe. I conclude, 2. from the innumerable fragments of extinct species which remain, that individuals of all the antediluvian animal species were not preserved in the ark. And, if there is reason to infer, either from the genius of the historian’s language, or from the dimensions of the ark which he has so carefully and minutely imparted to us, that he does not affirm, that individuals of all the post diluvian species were contained within that fabric, I then conclude, 3. and finally; that he has left us to infer from his relation of the creation, that the same Almighty Being whose operations he has therein recorded, exercised His creative power in animal, no less than in vegetable formations, in the renovation of His globe ; that ” He took away their breath, ” and they died, and returned to their dust ; that ” He sent forth His Spirit, and they were created, ” and He renewed the face of the earth

(The final sentences quote from Psalm 104, which fascinatingly enough, is the same passage Edward Hitchcock used to support his old-earth theory of progressive cycles of extinction and recreation!)

Chapter 14 argues that the Gen 2 reference to 4 rivers was a “marginal gloss” added later and thus their reference to rivers that existed after the Flood “can have no weight to affect the strong evidence which has been deduced from that history, and from the sense of the ancient Jewish and Christian churches, of the DESTRUCTION of the PRIMITIVE EARTH by the waters of the deluge.”

In conclusion,

We shall thus contemplate, compare, and reduce into their true order of time, the effects of the- two revolutions, and of the intermediate period between the two. To one or other of these, sub sequently to first formation or creation, we shall refer every revolutionary phenomenon common to the earth… Where we are absolutely unable to trace particular relations between effects and their immediate causes, we shall consider ourselves to have reached the boundary of our knowledge; but we shall never consent, much less shall we attempt, to explore beyond that boundary under the illusory and desperate guidance of anti-Mosaical theory and hypothesis.”

“The Mosaical geology… capacitates us to adapt our forward view to that revolution which still impends… which is, assuredly, an object not less worthy of philosophical contemplation… since the former, we never can witness, but the latter, we most certainly shall witness.

Penn says “theological learning” “has propounded only one universal revolution of the globe, inadequate to all the effects which are so manifestly experienced,” but since “the record” “really” points to “two revolutions”, “mineral geology” should “return from the theoretical excursions into which the insufficiency of that one revolution had driven it;” and conclude that the Mosaical account is true after all.

It only now remains for us, to determine our selection between the two ; and to decide, whether we will choose the mineral geology, with its nature and time, its chaos and chemistry; or, whether we will unite with Bacon and Newton in adhering firmly to the Mosaical Geology, founded, altogether and exclusively, upon the creative wisdom, the creative power, “and the creative fiat, of Almighty God!

The Religion of Geology by Edward Hitchcock (1851)

131px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock was an old-earth creationist from the 1800’s. A pastor as well as a geological surveyor, Hitchcock’s equal passions for theology and geology were clearly on display in his work The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (1851)a series of lectures arguing for the harmonization of “revelation” (the Bible) with recent discoveries in geology. Hitchcock had an eloquent style, clearly defining his propositions and assertions, differentiating between certainties and conjectures, and kindly acknowledging objections. He argued against both young-earth and atheistic worldviews of his day, claiming that geology reveals an old earth with miraculous creative acts that “corrects” previous interpretations of Scripture and enlarges our understanding of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” expounding on not only the creation of the world but also cosmology, eschatology, and the problem of evil.

The work is freely available in the public domain on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere (I found it on Apple’s iBooks)

Overall worldview:

Hitchcock believed the Earth’s rocks have changed form since God’s original creation, according to consistent laws and forces, by the same processes presently depositing sediment layers in lakes and seas. He believed these layers contain fossils arranged orderly like “the drawers of a well-regulated cabinet,” with four or five divisions that he interpreted as separate divine acts of creations over time, as geological processes slowly “improved” the Earth’s condition for the presence of more complex creatures, in “a vast series of operations, each successive link springing out of that before it, and becoming more and more beautiful.” He saw all this as evidence of God’s “infinite wisdom” and “infinite benevolence” (phrases which occur over fifty times in the lectures).

On the role of science in interpreting the Bible:

Hitchcock argued that we use many methods to help interpret the “natural” language of the Bible, including grammar and history, and that scientific discovery is simply another viable method. He gave examples from advances in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy that affected interpretations and argued that geology is just as qualified.

He argued that since the “object” of Scripture is the “plan of salvation,” we “ought not to expect” terms used “in their strict scientific sense,” but in their “popular acceptation.” The “earth” doesn’t necessarily mean the spherical globe proved by science, but “that part of it which was inhabited,” being all the reader would have understood. “We ought only to expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, rightly interpreted.”

Hitchcock used several examples, beginning with the setting sun as describing appearance rather than scientific accuracy. Like Miller, he quoted the older theologian Turretin as one who insisted on an unmoving central Earth, even though today the “language conveys quite a different meaning to our minds,” and no one suspects any contradiction.

Unlike previous scientific advancements, Hitchcock said some Christians had the idea that the relatively new science of geology was hostile to the Bible, and searched it not to understand but to find contradictions and attack it, resulting in “striking misapprehensions of facts and opinions, with positive and dogmatic assertions, with severe personal insinuations, great ignorance of correct reasoning in geology, and the substitution of wild and extravagant hypotheses for geological theories.” He feared they were weakening the faith, having “excited unreasonable prejudices and alarm among common Christians” against science, while awakening “disgust and even contempt among scientific men… who have inferred that a cause which resorts to such defenses must be very weak.”

While acknowledging that science has degrees of certainty, and that we should be hesitant to alter Biblical interpretation without strong reason, Hitchcock was confident that many claims of geology were solidly settled, and he discussed their connection to previous interpretations of Scripture in three main areas: the age of the earth before man, the existence of animal death before the Fall, and the extent of Noah’s flood.

On the Bible and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock believed in a literal six-day creation that occurred six thousand years ago, but he argued that Genesis 1 allows for an undefined interval between the creation of the universe out of nothing in verse 1 and the six-day creative act that followed (This sounds similar to what in the early 1900’s was called the “gap” theory, though that word does not occur in the lectures). He was “willing to admit” that “the common interpretation, which makes matter only six thousand years old, is the most natural,” but argued “the strict rules of exegesis” allow for such a gap (his defense includes a treatment of the oft-neglected Exodus 20:11 counterargument, which he argues is a simple summary that does not limit the creation of the universe itself to the six-day creating period).

Rather than describing the first creation of life, Hitchcock believed the “six days’ work” was the most recent of several creative cycles, arguing that Gen 1:2 is better translated something like “Afterwards the earth was desolate,” or “empty and vacuous,” – i.e., finally ready for the creation of man and other creatures after the extinction of the previous cycle.

(He also claimed Psalm 104 as support for this cycle view: “thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust, Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.”)

His interpretation of Genesis 1 includes discussions of “bara” (bawraw) and “asah” (awsaw) and the implications of differentiating between creating “out of nothing” and “renovation or remodeling” of previously created materials. He addressed what I believe now would be called “day-age” interpretations (see his contemporary Hugh Miller), but he thought it required too much cherry-picking to try to fit the geological record into metaphors for the six days or to have the earlier days of creation describing extinct species rather than living ones.

On science and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock declared that “no chronological dates are registered on the rocks,” unaware that radioactivity would one day be argued to provide the very thing. Yet he believed there was enough evidence to place such unknown dates far beyond six thousand years (though he placed the six-day creation, including Man, at such time.)

Hitchcock seems to have detailed the evidence behind these beliefs in his textbook-style Elemental Geology,  but he included some details here. He said man’s remains are only found in the uppermost “alluvium” of a few hundred feet, where only slight changes have been observed in recorded history. The “six or eight miles” of rocks beneath, full of animal remains, suggest a gap closer to “ten million” than “ten” years (the closest he gets to suggesting an actual age). There was “incalculable time requisite to pile up such an immense thickness of materials, and then to harden most of them into stone.”

He declared broadly that “each successive investigation discovers new evidence of changes in composition, or organic contents, or of vertical movements effected by extremely slow agencies, so as to make the whole work immeasurably long,” far beyond lumping into “a few thousand years,” with even more time required for the “decomposition, consolidation, and metamorphosis” of the “far thicker” “non-fossiliferous rocks.” He referred to vast numbers of “vegetables” required to produce “beds of coal from one to fifty feet thick, and extending over thousands of square miles, and alternating several times with sandstone in the same basin. He referred to masses of limestone that are “nearly half composed of microscopic shells,” suggesting the need for large amounts of time for such quantities to live and die and consolidate.

Far from diminishing the power or authority of the Christian God, Hitchcock was adamant that these geological discoveries greatly increased our understanding and appreciation of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” comparing the increase of time to the increase of space. Astronomy had enlarged our knowledge of the numbers of “worlds” by millions, and thus enlarged our conception of the Author’s power, wisdom, and benevolence. He saw “as much grandeur” in the “vast duration” of time as the “vast expansion” of space – in fact, even more so, due to what he saw as evidence of God’s miraculous cyclic creative interventions:

“Mechanical philosophy introduces an unbending and unvarying law between the Creator and his works; but geology unveils his providential hand, cutting asunder that law at intervals, and planting the seeds of a new economy upon a renovated world. We thus seem to be brought into near communion with the infinite mind. We are prepared to listen to his voice when it speaks in revelation. We recognize his guiding and sustaining agency at every step of our pilgrimage. And we await in confident hope and joyful anticipation those sublime manifestations of his character and plans, and those higher enjoyments which will greet the pure soul in the round of eternal ages.”

On death before the Fall:

Unlike the book I read by Hugh Miller, which merely mentioned in passing his view that death before the Fall was an obvious reality, Hitchcock devoted an entire lecture (Lecture 3) to exploring this theology. Noting the common interpretation of animal death originating in the “apostasy” of our “first parents,” he argued that the 1 Corinthians passage (“Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead”) clearly does not include animals, and the Romans passage  (“By one man sin entered into the world, and the curse by sin”) doesn’t indicate whether animals are included or not.

If Romans allows for either possibility, and if geology is permitted to help us interpret it, Hitchcock argued that the answer is clear: while man is only found at the very top of fossil layers, animals are found in miles of rocks, many species of which could not live in current climates. Many were clearly carnivorous, as indicated by fossils of other animals inside their bodies, as part of God’s plan to keep animal populations balanced.

Hitchcock developed a theological theme of a cycle of death and resurrection: “Dead organic matter is essential to the support and nourishment of living beings.” He argued that without death there would be no nutrients to support new plant life, and animals would eventually exhaust all available food. “To exclude death… would require an entirely different system.” The carnivorous teeth, muscles for chasing prey, digestive systems for eating it, etc, would have required so much change that it must have “amounted to a new creation,” which in Hitchcock’s view surely would not have “passed unnoticed by the sacred writer.”

Hitchcock addressed the “common” view that Genesis 3 indicates “thorns and thistles” springing from the curse, arguing that this interpretation may have been influenced by Milton’s writings and that the passage could simply indicate the result of man leaving the perfect garden to tend the less fertile soil that was already there. Addressing the view that the curse on the serpent suggests effects on animals, Hitchcock argued this curse was a spiritual reference to the devil only, noting that serpents do not literally “eat dust,” and that while it was “cursed above all cattle,” modern snakes “appear as happy as other animals.”

Hitchcock argued that a “system of death” is a necessary counterpart to a “system of reproduction,” without which the fruitfully multiplying creation would soon have the world “overstocked.” While this may not seem benevolent, he argued that death is not as bad for animals as it is for intelligent, psychological men, and that total animal suffering would be worse without it (animal utilitarianism?). Without the aggravating effects of sin, he actually saw animal death as evidence of “infinite benevolence and wisdom.”

(Hitchcock devoted two additional lectures – 6 and 7 – to expanding this point. He acknowledged that a history full of “desolation and death” would seem “the very place where the objector would find arguments to prove the malevolence, certainly the vindictive justice, of the Deity.” He argued geology offers evidence of the infinite “divine benevolence” not only throughout sinless history but also in the present fallen world, harmonizing “infinite and perfect benevolence in God with the existence of evil on earth,” which he called “the grand problem of theology.”)

Hitchcock argued that man would not have understood the penalty of death if he had not seen it in animals. He also discussed a more speculative theory that historical animal death could have been caused by man’s apostasy even before the apostasy occurred as part of God’s foreknowledge and plan.

Hitchcock seemed open to the question of whether or not sinless man was immortal, suggesting that if not, the tree of life may have preserved against natural decay, and that without sin man may still have “translated” to a higher existence without “death,” like Enoch, Elijah, and the same change that “shall pass upon multitudes” when “we shall all be changed.” In this view, sin changed “not the going out of the world, but the manner of going.”

On Noah’s flood:

Hitchcock believed that ascribing all the fossil layers to a global flood was “absurd.” He argued that Genesis supports a limited regional flood, noting places in the Bible where the phrase “all the earth” only refers to known or inhabited land, not the entire globe, and noting logistical problems with holding all the animals on the Ark and dispersing them afterwards (Hugh Miller’s work went into more detail on this).

He said the Flood cannot explain the geological order of a “well-regulated cabinet,” nor the prevalence of extinct species: “with the exception of a few species near the top of the series, the fossil species are wholly unlike those now alive,” with “at least five distinct races of animals and plants,” many of a “tropical character” that could not have been “contemporaries” with living species.

Hitchcock noted that rivers mentioned in Genesis before the Flood suggest there was not a major reshaping of the land:

This theory requires us to admit, that in three hundred and eighty days the waters of the deluge deposited rocks at least six miles in thickness, over half or two thirds of our existing continents; and these rocks made up of hundreds of thick beds, exceedingly unlike one another in composition and organic contents.

He claimed to have no theological problems resorting to miracle to explain things if necessary, but if history showed not only difficulties, but irreconcilable contradictions, and if a limited flood was consistent with the text and removed the difficulties, then he saw history as revealing a limited flood to be the correct interpretation.

On evolution:

Hitchcock argued in Lecture 9 against the Lamarckian “theory of development” which claimed to show how “all the higher families” “may have been evolved.” He saw this “hypothesis of creation by law” as an attempt to explain “how animals and plants may be produced without any special exercise of creating power on the part of the Deity.” Spontaneous generation was said to support the natural emergence of life “without parentage,” but Hitchcock argued that improvements in science were ruling out more and more claims of such abiogenesis. He correctly predicted that “more scrutinizing observation” would reveal the last remaining footholds of tiny creatures to follow the same pattern of “descending from parents” observed in larger animals.

He argued against claims that the “mammalian embryo” evolves as it forms, literally beginning life as an insect, and becoming a fish, etc, believing (perhaps presciently, in a pre-DNA paradigm) “the human condition results from laws as fixed as those that regulate the movements of the heavenly bodies.”

He noted that hybrid species are generally infertile, and uncommon in the wild, declaring that there seem to be “strong barriers around species.” He claimed animals described in the “catacombs of Egypt” “three thousand years ago” “are precisely like the living species.”

He admitted that the “general” view of geology seems to support the theory of “development” but claims “the tables are turned when we descend to particulars.” He claimed the first members of each epoch are “higher,” not “lower,” and even show signs of “degradation,” not progression, as time unfolds.  He said strata are marked by “sudden changes” with “entirely different” species “of a higher grade than those that preceded them, but could not have sprung from them.” He explained his theory that as the earth slowly changed and improved, old groups “died out” as it become “unsuited” to them, and the Creator brought in new “more complicated and perfect” groups better adapted to the new conditions.

He said vertebrates “become more and more complex as we rise on the scale of the rocks,” but there “does not appear to have been much advance” of invertebrate classes, except in numbers and variety. Similarly, flowering plants have gradually advanced and now “predominate,” but flowerless plants “seem to have been as perfect at first as they now are.”

He said the “doctrine of development by law” cannot explain the “wonderful adaptation” of animals and plants to the conditions of the world without making the law as intelligent as the Deity himself. He concluded that the idea “corresponds only in a loose and general way to the facts, and cannot be reconciled to the details. If that hypothesis cannot get a better foothold somewhere else, it will soon find its way into the limbo of things abortive and forgotten.” (Fascinatingly, it was only ten years later that Darwin changed the course of history by presenting such a foothold.)

To Hitchcock, the evidence against such ideas was so “overwhelming” that he speculated that its advocates simply “do not like the idea of a personal, present, overruling Deity.”

On intelligent design:

With remarkable similarity to modern discussions on “intelligent design,” Hitchcock came close to using the very phrase when he referred to “the evidences of high intelligence and unity of design” in Lecture 8 (which even opens with a brief discussion of “the human eye”!)

Hitchcock described creation as “a series of harmonies, wheel within wheel, in countless variety, yet all forming one vast and perfect machine.” He argued that this harmony pervades the entire history of the planet, and that the same laws of physics and chemistry applied throughout (he refers to “the distinct impressions of rain-drops” in red sandstone layers as evidence that “meteorology” has been consistent).

“The present and past conditions of this world are only parts of one and the same great system of infinite wisdom and benevolence.” From biology to chemistry, “one golden chain of harmony links all together, and identifies all as the work of the same infinite mind.” Quoting William Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, he said there is so much uniformity of construction and adaptation “that we can scarcely fail to acknowledge in all these facts a demonstration of the unity of the intelligence in which such transcendent harmony originated.”

He also spoke in Lecture 5 of the “argument from design.” “When geology shows us, not the commencement of matter, but of organism, and presents us with full systems of animals and plants springing out of inorganic elements, where is the law that exhibits even a tendency to such results? Nothing can explain them but the law of miracles; that is, creation by divine interposition.”

He argued that this natural evidence for miraculous intervention supported the Christian idea that God would also intervene in history by giving us his Word.

On atheism:

Hitchcock also had some interesting comments on atheism, which he saw the evolutionary hypothesis as tending towards (or, at best, towards a hands-off theism that was still “dangerous,” as it “may swing off into utter irreligion”). He argued against two common arguments that were used to support atheism, which today have been largely forgotten. Hitchcock was remarkably accurate in predicting the demise of both arguments. The first, as referenced above, was that spontaneous generation proved there was no need of a creator to specifically create life.

The second was the idea that the universe was eternal, having always existed and thus needing no creator to kick things off, contra Genesis 1:1. It is often now forgotten that this was a common belief before the Big Bang of the twentieth century. Hitchcock argued that, regardless of the eternity of matter itself, the Earth at least must have had a beginning, and that geology shows modifications of matter only explained by a Deity. He said natural laws may turn a ball of fire into sea and land, but only God could populate the chaos or void with life, initially as well as after each major extinction. “To prove that any organic system shows a tendency to ruin is to show that it had a beginning.” From this he conjectured that if earth and life had beginnings, surely all matter did also? Correctly anticipating the coming overturn of cosmology, he said, “Science has not yet placed within the reach of man the means of proving its non-eternity.”

Conclusion:

In hindsight, some of Hitchcock’s work seems more eccentric than brilliant. For instance, he speculated about a very materialistic “new heaven and new Earth” as a final cycle of destruction and re-creation, conjecturing about resurrected bodies made of “ether” that could survive while a new crust cools from the fiery destruction!

Overall, however, given the scientific context of the time, it is remarkable how well most of these lectures hold up over one hundred and fifty years late. Many of Hitchcock’s predictions came true, and many other concepts that have been refined still contain relevant principles. From philosophical bantering about the relation of scripture and science, to exegetical delving into the days of creation, to the “Cambrian explosion” as an example of miraculous creative intervention, many of the same sorts of ideas are still discussed today (often with folks completely unaware that someone two centuries prior thoughtfully engaged the points they bring up).

Hitchcock’s love for both the Bible and natural science shine throughout these engaging lectures. He marveled how the “disturbance and dislocation” of long, slow geological processes could create beautiful scenery, from Niagara to the Alps, that “so intensely gratified” the soul; he saw this as evidence of the “predominance of benevolence” of a Creator who “delights in the happiness of his creatures.” He developed a philosophy of miracles to explain the interaction of natural laws and supernatural intervention, including answers to prayer. He bemoaned that “a large proportion” of the church had “yielded” to skepticism and forsaken the “fasting and prayer” of their forefathers, and wished they would be “led back to the Bible doctrine.”

Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of his geological views, it cannot be said that he held them in ignorance of the Bible’s teachings, or out of a desire to accommodate evolutionary or atheistic ideas, which he argued against as forcefully as any young-earth creationist of his time or ours. By contrast, he believed geology, “rightly understood,” strengthened the case for a personal loving God of “infinite wisdom and benevolence.” May his work be a comfort to anyone struggling with such issues today.

 

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.

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”

Exemplar Creation: A Stunning New Interpretation of Genesis

“Prior to writing this book I was a young-Earth creationist.”

So writes J. Gene White in his book The Real Genesis Creation Story as he builds his audacious case that the earliest chapters of the Bible have been mistranslated for over two thousand years. White is a Christian who became increasingly troubled by traditional evangelical explanations for the scientific evidence of an old Earth, yet he was also troubled by attempts to accommodate this evidence by interpreting the Creation account more metaphorically.

Feeling that there should be a “plausible explanation” to the apparent conflict between special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (the created universe), White returned to the original Hebrew text to study the choices scholars made in translating the work into English. He came away convinced that the correct interpretation of Genesis describes a literal, recent six-day period where God reviewed, named, and blessed everything he had created over the last several billion years!

Clever, yes, but my first impression was that it was a little too clever, a little too convenient, a forced harmonization of modern science and a literal, inspired Bible – surely one or the other must be wrong. Surely one man could not so easily overturn thousands of years of Biblical scholarship.

But I kept reading. I was stunned as White presented a compelling case that not only was his “exemplar creation” a viable option for interpreting Genesis, but that in fact it was the traditional young-Eearth interpretation that has been forced into the text! Here is my attempt to summarize the points White makes in favor of this argument throughout his book.

The Argument For Exemplar Creation

First, White notes the inherent ambiguity involved in translating the original Hebrew (which contains less than 9,000 words) into English (which contains at least 200,000). “A single word in Hebrew may be capable of being translated into two, three, or more English words having a specific meaning.” Sometimes context makes a word choice clear, but, crucially, sometimes it does not. Additionally, the original Hebrew text has no accents, vowels, or punctuation, and the grammar of Hebrew verbs does not use tenses in the same way many Western languages do.

Second, White says “the Old Testament we have today is translated from the Masoretic Text,” produced by Hebrew scribes who, over 500 years after Christ, added “vowel points and accent points” that are “uninspired.” White says the choices the scribes made subtly reflected their existing biases and “helped embed young-Earth theology into the Biblical text.” Even worse, he says, is the more ancient Greek Septuagint, which also influences modern translations and reflects similar biases, along with outright flaws and sloppy scholarship.

Third, White notes that the traditional interpretation has many problems that run even deeper than the curiosity of a mysterious Light that apparently sustains plants for a day before the Sun arrives. For instance, the six-day chronicle begins in verse 3, leaving the question of the potentially much older chronology of verses 1 and 2. If verse 1 is simply a summary of the details that follow, as some argue, why do the details include God creating “the heavens” on day 4 but never actually creating “the Earth,” which is already there in verse 2? If the main idea of the story is that God speaks creation into existence, why does it mention him speaking everything but Earth itself?

Fourth – and this is where it got really interesting and mind-blowing – White argues that a faithful interpretation of the original Hebrew does not support interpreting Genesis 1 as God giving commands that led to spontaneous creation. White says the verbs express declarative statements; the simplest translation of Genesis 1:3 is “And say God be light and be light.” Scholars appeal to a Hebrew verb form called the “jussive” to translate the first be as let there be, but White claims this is an arbitrary designation that is not even applied consistently within Genesis 1, and he essentially accuses scholars of making up rules of Hebrew grammar so they can appeal to those rules to justify interpreting those verbs as commands, even though those grammar rules do not clearly exist anywhere outside the first chapters of Genesis! By contrast, White’s exemplar translation reads, “And God said, There is light, and light exists.”

Think that sounds like a stretch? White says this fundamental error has forced other words into more glaring mistranslations. For example, Genesis 1:9 is traditionally translated something like, “And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together.” The Hebrew word qâvåh, translated here as an active verb “gathered,” is translated as the passive verb “wait” in every one of its other forty-five uses in the Old Testament (except for an ambiguous 46th use in Jeremiah that White argues is also mistranslated due to the Genesis mistranslation)! Furthermore, there are 5 other Hebrew words for “gather” that could have been used if that was the actual intention. White’s translation describes water and land that was formed long ago: “And God said, The waters under the sky wait in one place….” White makes similar appeals regarding a few other activity-implying words that he says are translated inconsistently in Genesis 1 compared to the rest of the Bible.

Finally, White underscores the magnitude of his ideas by presenting compelling evidence that Earth is much older than a few thousand years, including details about ice core and lake sediment layers that were new to me, accompanied by a compelling argument that “apparent age” is an unsatisfying explanation due to the lack of differentiation between essential and non-essential aging. He also deals with several implications of these ideas for those coming (as he did) from a young-Earth perspective, such as casting reasonable doubt on what I used to consider the ironclad notion that a straightforward reading of the Bible did not allow animal death before the Fall (I can go into more details if there is interest, but it starts with Romans 5 specifically mentioning that sin caused death to spread to all “men”).

Some Thoughts In Response

I have no idea how viable White’s translation actually is. He details the references and software he used to compare existing translations and conduct his own, and many of the details should be easy to verify, though I wonder what advanced Hebrew scholars would say about his claims regarding the command verbs. I asked a close friend with a Bible degree what he thought of the possibility of a self-taught theologian overturning centuries of scholarship, and to my surprise he thought it very plausible that an outsider’s fresh perspective could uncover issues with the ingrained groupthink assumptions of the academia. At the very least, White’s overall argument is both revolutionary and compelling enough that I feel it merits more of a response than it seems to have gotten; I only stumbled on White’s independent work through a mutual friend, and my Amazon review is the book’s first.

The rest of the Internet has not yet found it. Searches about jussive verbs led me to critiques of gap theories (which might be exemplar creation’s closest yet very distinct cousins), but White’s translation accounted for the objections I found. I have only found one direct critique, which accuses White of using some of the same poor translation techniques he ascribes to his predecessors, though that does not make the predecessors superior, and there may arguably be semantic differences. The critic takes issue with the theological implications of White’s translation on the six-day work week, though I can think of a response that arguably makes White’s position stronger. Notably, the critic says nothing to weaken White’s fundamental claims about the jussive syntax or inconsistently translated action words. If there are no deal-breaking errors, even if some of White’s interpretive details reflect a surface-level misunderstanding of the complexities of Hebrew grammar, so that instead of being the strongest viable option it is simply about as viable as the traditional interpretation, it would still be extremely compelling due to its greater harmonization with general revelation.

Now young-Earth creationists tend to deny that there is any conflict with general revelation, pointing out assumptions and positing endless variations of pre-aging and other speculations (my favorite might be that the gravity of God’s presence caused a wormhole effect that made the rest of the universe age at a different rate). I certainly agree – to a point – that God can do anything he wants and it is foolish to limit his infinity with our finite thinking; I am always hesitant to definitively rule anything out. But when there is no evidence for such speculations either in science or Scripture, and the only reason such speculations are even proposed is to explain evidence that seems to conflict with the Bible, perhaps that unfalsifiable skepticism that is applied to the evidence should also be applied to our translated interpretations of that Bible – surely God could have done whatever he wanted regarding the uncertainties of one just as well as the other.

I should note at this point that while White believes there is firm scientific evidence for old life on an old Earth, he does not believe there is firm scientific evidence for evolution, and he envisions God creating a slowly unfolding array of “product line extensions” (e.g. Cambrian explosion) to populate the Earth over hundreds of millions of years. It is interesting to think about how much of the stated evidence for evolution (ex. fossil order) would overlap with a theory of animals existing for hundreds of millions of years but not evolving, per se. I am almost certain that evolutionists would have many objections, pointing to evidence of inherited genetic mutations across species, for instance, but I wonder if the distinctions of such classes of evidence and their relative strengths have been seriously evaluated from any angle.

I confess I have an emotional reaction of not liking the idea of animals tearing each other to pieces before the Fall, as it seems odd for a “very good” (though perhaps not perfect?) creation and also seems to break the nice parallels of an eschatological Edenic regeneration with lovable lions and lambs. But I am no longer convinced it is a black-and-white case on the logical/theological grounds to which emotions much accede. (Besides, if evangelicals are already comfortable with the classic question of “how can a loving God send people to hell,” then “how can a loving God send zebras to crocodiles” is surely a far less troubling issue.)

This post is getting long. I wanted to provide a fair summary of White’s ideas to elicit feedback and critique, both to prevent myself from falling for potential errors and to try to promote the ideas to a larger audience. If I have at all piqued your interest, I highly recommend reading White’s book; it is a bit long-winded with some amount of tangents and repetition, and the organization at times feels disjointed, but it was clearly diligently prepared by someone with a love for the Scriptures, and it is full of intriguing nuggets (perhaps God could have literally formed man from the ‘dust’ because all the elements in our body are present in the Earth’s crust). There are many things I mentioned above that could be explored in more detail in future posts, if there is sufficient interest. And if you happen to know any advanced Hebrew scholars, feel free to invite them to stop by…