As an incoming university student of geology I was required to take a class in Historical Geology. I can recall my professor saying, "back in the Dark Ages . . ." intelligent people actually believed the Bible, including doctrines like a few-thousand-year-old earth, a world-covering flood, and a built-in fixity to the created kinds of plants and animals. He spoke with great authority that earth's age had been measured at 4.6 billion years, the fossil record was not one of judgment but a testimony of unlimited biologic change, and that design and purpose were unscientific terms. Where did he get such authority?
Nearly ten years later I came as a trembling sinner to Christ for forgiveness and salvation. All my science was powerless to challenge the historical claims that Christ's gracious work on the cross was sufficient for my sins, that a loving God had actually created the earth in real space and time in such a way that I was accountable to Him, and that, because of history I was a fallen creature in need of a Redeemer. When I tested historical claims, I tested them against outside historic sources, and checked for internal contradiction; empirical testing was out of the question. But neither could the claims of historical geology be tested empirically! How had historical geology ever attained the status of "science"?
Before the mid-seventeenth century, the earth was viewed as eternal, and endlessly cyclical; there was little concept of a history to the earth. With the Reformation, however, the earth was seen as having a beginning and an end, and so a linear view of history emerged. Men like Steno, Hooke, and Ray began to make sense of fossils and rocks in terms of creation, Flood, and post-Flood periods, and for about 150 years was the dominant view.
With the Enlightenment, however, the ideas of men like Descartes, Hutton, and Buffon, took hold. By extrapolating present-day processes into the past, they reasoned, a purely "scientific" earth history could emerge, one which offered the hope of calibrating earth history in terms of real years. Their goal was to achieve, for the study of earth history, the kind of prestige enjoyed by the mathematical sciences like mechanics, optics, and astronomy. In those disciplines, the experimenter assumed there were no super-natural happenings inside his lab. No hobgoblins, for example, smuggled away his reagents while he was not looking. The Enlightenment thinkers simply borrowed this assumption, legitimate to empirical science, and extrapolated it into all eternity past -- to arrive at a "scientific" view of earth history. This slight of hand, in borrowing an assumption legitimate to one endeavor, and applying it to another, is the basis for the prestige of historical geology and of our countless museums of natural history.
A banner should be hung over the entrance to our museums of natural history that reads: Welcome. We assume no supernatural entity ever had a hand in earth's past. We apologize if you find our claims questionable, that life arose without the help of intelligence, and that geologic history consists of a long succession of "prehistoric ages." These are merely the best stories we can come up with, given our naturalistic starting position. Enter here if you want the "scientific" view of earth history. For truth, you will need to go back to Genesis.
*William A. Hoesch, M.S. geology, is Research Assistant in Geology.
Cite this article: Hoesch, W. 2007. The Prestige of Historical Geology. Acts & Facts. 36 (4).