Interpreting Earth History
by Stuart E. Nevins, M.S.
Historical geology is the field of study which seeks to decipher the clues and records bearing on the earth's history. Since the historical geologist cannot observe the history he attempts to interpret (he cannot relive ancient times), scientific methods involving repeatable observation and experimentation cannot be utilized. The method relied upon is much like that used by a detective as he seeks to unravel the many evidences and furnish a tentative description of a crime. The conclusions reached by the historical geologist, as those of the detective, rely on numerous assumptions and much fragmentary evidence making scientific proof impossible. The conclusions made in any type of historical investigation—no matter how "scientific" they are claimed to be—depend largely on the basic conceptual framework (values, beliefs, and methodology) used by the investigator.
In the seventeenth century great scientific and technological discoveries were made by the English scientists Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. These discoveries were fostered by empiricism, a philosophical theory of knowledge stressing the importance of the scientific methods of hypothesis, observation, and experimentation. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704) were the early advocates of the empirical method, stressing the importance of sense experience above reasoning procedures to understand the natural causes in the physical world.
In keeping with the early success of empiricism in physics and chemistry, an attempt was made to apply the method to other fields of inquiry. If empiricism could explain natural events solely in terms of physical causes or laws, must not this apply also to the origin of religion, the writing of the Bible, and the life of Jesus Christ? Must not the action of present processes and laws also explain the origin and present configuration of the earth? It is, therefore, not surprising that a framework for historical geology based primarily on observation of present types of processes (called uniformitarianism) first appeared late in the eighteenth century in Britain and Scotland.
James Hutton (1726-1797), a Scottish doctor, agriculturalist, and member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was one of the first advocates of the uniformitarian framework for interpreting earth history. To Hutton the earth was a giant machine composed of solid earth, oceans, and atmosphere. Understanding the present operation of the three-part system could be used by analogy to decipher the earth's history. The present was used as the key to the past.1
The essence of the Huttonian theory and his uniformitarianism was belief in the constancy of the laws of nature, and belief that geologic processes were cyclic and dynamic, operating at essentially the same rates as observed today. This prevailing uniformity and slowness of geologic processes which Hutton imagined allowed for almost unlimited amounts of time for earth history. Although Hutton credited the present operations of nature as worthy of divine wisdom, his empirical approach did not allow for an original creation or divine suspensions of the laws of nature. The earth has always existed in a state more or less like it exists today.
Charles Lyell (1797-1875), a British lawyer, was responsible for popularizing the uniformitarian framework through his published work titled Principles of Geology. Lyell claimed that the progress of geology had been hindered by Christian views suggesting a limited time span for earth history, catastrophes such as Noah's Flood as important geologic events, and supernatural interference in the normal course of nature. To controvert the popular catastrophist view of the early nineteenth century, Lyell proposed an empirical framework assuming both uniformity of natural laws in space and time, and uniformity of process rates or material conditions.2
Not only did he maintain that natural laws were invariant through time, but he believed that the earth was essentially a balanced and steady-state system with the forces tending to produce processes with a faster rate restrained constantly by forces tending to produce processes of slower rate. Like Hutton, Lyell envisioned essentially unlimited geologic time and considered it fruitless to speculate on the origin or future destruction of the earth.3
Although the interpretive frameworks of Hutton and Lyell relied somewhat on rationalism to extrapolate observed rates and laws into the unseen past, their frameworks were based primarily on empiricism. We notice that Hutton and Lyell were very reluctant to speculate on the origin of geologic phenomena unless their origin could be observed in the present. Thus, one of Hutton's works was titled, "Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe". We learn that Lyell's major work had an empirical slant from its full title, Principles of Geology; Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.
Lyell failed to adequately refute catastrophism and his extreme view soon became inconsistent with geological evidence. Study of the differences between modern oceanic sediments and ancient marine sedimentary rocks led geologists to recognize that different regimes of climate and sedimentation existed in the past. Lava flows in the ancient rock record reveal tremendous volcanic episodes dwarfing any of modern times. Meteorite impact craters in the earth's crust up to 50 miles in diameter have been well documented.
Although many modern historical geologists give lip service to the empirical framework of Lyell, few geologists are willing to accept his static, steady-state view. Most modern geologists have a dynamic, evolutionary view of earth history which is quite different from that originally proposed by Lyell.
Three types of research led to the demise of the classical uniformitarian framework. These are: (1) evidences for a finite age to the earth rather than an earth eternally old, (2) evidences for unique and catastrophic processes during geologic history, and (3) theories suggesting evolution of the solid earth. Because of these, Lyell's empirical framework was significantly modified late in the nineteenth century to form an evolutionary-uniformitarian framework. Thus, the earth's history under the new approach was to be interpreted by analogy to modern laws and processes and also after an evolutionary model postulating an historical (not static), step-by-step development of the earth.
The evolutionary approach was based, to a large degree, on rationalism, a philosophy suggesting that the employment of certain procedures of reasoning would lead to historical knowledge about the earth. Under the philosophy of rationalism the principal measure of a good geologic theory was not necessarily how well it accorded with present process rates and natural laws, but how well it formed a logical portion of an entire conceptual history.
It is not surprising that the first of the modern rationalist philosophers, René Descartes (1596-1650), a French mathematician, was also the first since classical times to propose a plausible secular theory utilizing the innate natural processes of gaseous condensation and gravitational attraction to form the earth. This theory was modified to form the famous "nebular hypothesis" by the German rationalist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant influenced Georg Hegel (1770-1831) to found a rationalist school in Germany called "higher criticism". These rationalists later systematically discounted the supernatural elements of the Bible as products of mythology.
The French rationalist G.L. Buffon (1707-1788) was one of the first scientists to question the account of the six days of Creation in the Book of Genesis. Buffon imagined that the earth originated through detachment of a hot portion of the sun during a near collision with a great comet. He allowed a great interval of time for the earth to cool to its present temperature.
Rationalist criticism of the Biblical account of creation was greatly promoted by Charles Darwin's book Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Darwin's observation that natural selection was an inherent process in the biological world led him to propose a rationalistic, evolutionary theory supposing that all the species had developed from a few separate stocks.
Geology of the present century has been dominated by rationalistic, evolutionary theories. Geologists have recently labored with models for the evolution of the earth's crust suggesting that a single supercontinent broke apart with fragments drifting to their present locations. For several years geologists have attempted to construct a plausible physical and chemical environment under which life could have spontaneously appeared from inorganic substances. One's mind is stretched to imagine how processes operating with extreme slowness over millions of years could cause significant changes to occur.
The evolutionary-uniformitarian synthesis of the empirical and rationalistic frameworks of earth history appeared late in the nineteenth century and is presently the popular framework among modern geologists. The popular framework is evolutionary because it visualizes an unfolding, unidirectional development of the earth through time. The popular framework is also uniformitarian because of its distaste for catastrophes and need for gradually acting processes over vast periods of time. However, Lyellian uniformitarianism has little place. The empirical uniformity is in vogue only to the extent that it helps promote the rationalistic, evolutionary view.
"Faith", as the author of Hebrews says, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith forms a valid means of perceiving earth history for "through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God" (Hebrews 11:3). As an alternate path to the perilous way of the empiricist, who trusts in his ability to observe the regularity of nature, or the rationalist, who trusts in his ability to frame a plausible conceptual history from basic immanent characteristics of matter, the Bible-believing Christian recognizes that his unaided mind and faculties of observation cannot solve the basic problems dealing with earth history. The Christian trusts in a revealed record from God, Himself, providing a basic framework within which the data of historical geology must be interpreted. Such a revealed history from a credible observer is the only way man can have absolute knowledge about the earth's history.
The basic framework which the Christian is to accept by faith is the one plainly taught in Scripture. This framework is Biblical Catastrophism. The Bible-believing Christian accepts three great events which form a framework into which the data of geology are to be interpreted. First is the special creation of the universe by the spoken word of God (Genesis 1:1-31; Psalm 33:6,9; Hebrews 11:3). Second is the Fall, subsequent curse, and entrance of death into the world due to man's sin (Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12; 8:19-22; I Corinthians 15:21). Third is the worldwide Noachian Flood (Genesis 6-9; Psalm 104:6-9; II Peter 3:5,6). Thus, the Bible is the Christian's vital key to the past.
Among Bible-believing Christians there should be little disagreement about the status of the empirical, uniformitarian framework and the rationalistic, evolutionary framework. Both are untrue. Thus, the Apostle Peter specifically warned that scoffers of the faith would come in the last days denying the imminent and personal return of Christ, the great Flood, and the miraculous creation of the cosmos by the spoken word of God (II Peter 3:3-6). Peter warned that these scoffers would propose an empirical, uniformitarian framework supposing that "all things continue as from the beginning of the creation" (II Peter 3:4). The Apostle Paul denied the empirical philosophy when he said, "We walk by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7).
The rationalistic approach epitomized by the evolutionary model is merely an exercise of man's wisdom, being an attempt to explain earth history by a conceptual scheme derived from the basic rudimentary and elementary characteristics inherent in nature. This system denies God from the outset. The Apostle Paul, who was well educated in the rationalism of the Greeks, gave a stern reprimand of this thinking when he admonished Christians to beware of philosophy "according to the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world" (Colossians 2:8) which does not follow Christ. In contrast to the rationalistic approach, the truth which Paul proclaimed to the Greek Christians at Corinth was not "words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth" (I Corinthians 2:13).
The Proverbs warn us, "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man" (Proverbs 16:25). Each of us is admonished to "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5).
The previous comments do not imply that the Christian denies the validity of sense experience or reasoning procedures. Sense perception and reason were given to man by God. The problem occurs when man separates from God and attempts to place reason or perception on a higher level than the Word of God.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MAN
Each of the three approaches to interpreting earth history leads to a different view of man's condition. The empirical, uniformitarian framework supposes that everything can be explained by the interaction of the immutable laws of nature. Man in this view becomes trapped in the deterministic machine of nature. He is a helpless pawn powerless to choose his own destiny. If God exists, He is certainly unable to help man because everything continues in the same fashion under the autonomous, eternally operating system.
The rationalistic, evolutionary framework attempts to explain the origin of everything without need for a supernatural power by a naturally operating, integrative process. Man in this view is a cosmic accident, the product of the impersonal evolutionary process operating by blind chance over vast eons. On the basis of reason there is no meaning, purpose, or significance to man's existence. There is only pessimism concerning man. His condition must continue to be improved by struggle and death or his species will face extinction. A philosophy of despair is also the rational outcome of the evolutionary framework.
Not all evolutionists are pessimists. There is presently a popular movement known as "optimistic evolutionary humanism" which believes that a glorious future is ahead for man. The leaders of this philosophy insist that man's normal evolutionary method (a cruel and immoral process of struggle and death leading to the survival of the fittest) must be eliminated in the future by the acceptance of a new evolutionary mystique stressing more virtuous behavior. Thus, according to the leaders of optimistic evolutionary humanism, society will function better by believing in the existence of a god, even though no god is actually present. The philosophy involves a non-rationalistic leap of faith, for in order to be optimistic and benevolent, man must believe and function upon what his reason tells him is a lie.
In the Christian view man is created in the image of God. Although man is deliberately sinful, he continues to be God's image-bearer and is of great value to God, who made atonement through Christ for man's sin. Each person by trusting Christ as Saviour is restored to fellowship with God and given purpose and reward for all eternity. There is no reason for man to despair, for he has been given a position of dignity in God's creation. Christianity is not a nebulous set of experiences or an irrational leap in the dark, but a faith which has substantial basis in valid experience and a rational groundwork in real evidence (Hebrews 11:1).
1. James Hutton, Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations: Facsimile reprint, Hafner Pub. Co., New York, Vol. 1, 1959, p. 19.
2. K.M. Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell: London, John Murray, Vol. 1, 1881, p. 234.
3. William B.N. Berry, Growth of a Prehistoric Time Scale Based on Organic Evolution: San Francisco, W.H. Freeman, 1968, pp. 12, 13.
* Stuart E. Nevins has B.S. and M.S. degrees in geology and is Assistant Professor of Geology at Christian Heritage College.