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Scripture and Geologists
(Westminster Theological Journal 50:143-152, 1989)
John Byl, Ph.D.
In a recent pair of articles in WTJ under the title "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists,"1 Davis Young discusses the question as to how to relate Scripture and science or, more specifically, Genesis and geology.
He examines in detail two approaches among geologists that have been popular over the last 300 years. The first of these is "literalism," which insists that the early chapters of Genesis are literal narratives that report a succession of historical events and that scientific reconstructions of cosmic history should not be at variance with the literal interpretation of the biblical text (p. 4). The second approach is that of "concordism," which--while also treating Genesis 1-11 as historical narrative--has harmonized Genesis with scientific findings "by adopting a variety of figurative, symbolic, or broad interpretations of the text" (p. 4). Young concludes that both these approaches are inadequate and that they should be abandoned for a newer approach that does not try to answer technical scientific questions with biblical data: "I suggest that we will be on the right track if we stop treating Genesis 1 and the flood story as scientific and historical reports" (p. 303).
The purpose of this paper is to examine Young's analysis of the earlier approaches, to point out a number of difficulties with Young's proposed solution, and to suggest an alternative that is more in line with the traditional view of Scripture.
2. The Preferred Interpretation of Genesis 1-11
The basic thesis of Young's article is that, given the wide range of interpretation by Christian geologists of the details of the biblical account of creation and the flood, we must conclude that the biblical text doesn't give us information of a scientific nature. In his historical sketch Young describes various attempts to explain such events as the flood and its geological consequences in terms of rational secondary causes. As he shows, numerous mechanisms have been proposed. These have involved many ingenious interpretations of such details as the "deep" (Gen 1:2), the "waters above the firmament" (Gen 1:7), and the "fountains of the deep" (Gen 7:11).
I concur with Young's conclusion that the Bible does not provide us with a scientifically verifiable mechanism for the flood. Nor does it yield scientific answers to many other questions we may have regarding details of creation and the flood. However, I question whether the geologists' lack of consensus regarding rational mechanisms compels us to doubt the historicity of portions of Genesis 1-11: our inability to find scientific explanations for the biblical account can always be attributed to either our limited scientific understanding or to the occurrence of miraculous divine activity.
Furthermore, as Young states (p. 7), the literalists were agreed upon the general features of Genesis 1-11, such as a recent creation in six ordinary days and a global flood. The lack of agreement upon the interpretation of certain details should not, in itself, constitute sufficient grounds for questioning the historicity of the entire Scripture portion. Also, as is evident from Young's account, the variance is due at least partly to the fact that the interpretation of details has often been stretched to lend maximum support to the particular scientific explanation being promoted.
It is noteworthy that Young does not question that, leaving aside extrabiblical sources, the literal interpretation of Genesis is the exegetically preferred one (cf. p. 33). His main objection to literalism is not that it misrepresents the biblical text, but that it allegedly distorts the empirical data to fit the biblical text. He goes on to proclaim that "in contrast, all the variations of the concordist theme give us a Bible that is constantly held hostage to the latest scientific theorizing…texts are twisted, pulled, poked, stretched, and prodded to 'agree' with scientific conclusions so that concordism today undermines honest, Christian exegesis" (p. 6). This is a significant assertion from one who, as Young himself remarks, was previously an ardent concordist. Among the concordist devices that Young cites are the treatment of the Genesis days as long periods of time, the postulation of gaps in the Genesis genealogies, and the notion that the Flood was universal only from the point of view of one going through the Flood (p. 5).
Young argues that we are compelled by empirical data to conclude that there has been no global flood and that the world is extremely old (p. 297). Thus the crucial question is whether the geological evidence is indeed as unambiguous as Young assesses it to be.
3. The Distinction between Data and Theory
The literal interpretation of Genesis is variously contrasted with the "conclusions of the scientific enterprise" (p. 5), "empirical data" (p. 6), "geological evidence" (p. 26), "knowledge about the earth" (p. 26), "empirical geological data" (p. 31), "geology" (p. 291), the "results of empirical geological study" (p. 292), "geological knowledge" (p. 293), etc. Regrettably, Young does not present a clear line of demarcation between empirical data and theory, or between genuine knowledge and mere speculation. In science we must always be very careful to distinguish between observations and theories that are devised to explain or extend these observations. The actual empirical geological data (e.g. fossils, geological formations, isotope ratios, etc.) yield direct information only about the present state of affairs. To infer from these what has occurred in the past we must rely upon various theoretical assumptions regarding the relative completeness of our present knowledge of natural processes, the constancy and applicability of these in the past; the absence of miracles, etc.
Elsewhere Young implies that he is merely following the evidence of nature, wherever it may lead.2 But the observational data by itself leads nowhere; it does not become evidence for anything until it is interpreted within a given theoretical framework. Since Genesis deals with the distant past, it can conflict not with our present geological data but only with certain theoretical extrapolations of that data.
How reliable are such theoretical explanations? In former days it was held that theories could be logically derived in an objective manner from the empirical data. During the last half century, however, a drastic shift has occurred in the philosophy of science. It has come to be generally accepted that the origin of scientific theories is largely subjective. For example, Sir Karl Popper, a prominent philosopher of science, concludes that "we must regard all laws or theories as hypothetical or conjectural; that is, as guesses";3 he sees theories as "the free creations of our minds."4 Theories are therefore not so much given to us by nature as imposed by us on nature; they are not so much the result of rational thought as the creations of our irrational intuition.
Given the subjective nature of scientific theorizing, it is possible to construct an infinite number of theories to accommodate a given set of empirical data. How, then, can we ever hope to find the correct theory? Since we can't go back into the past we can neither prove nor disprove any particular theory. We may wish to prefer those theories that explain the data in, say, the simplest manner. But how do we know that simpler theories are more likely to be true? Ultimately the choice between competing theories must be made on the basis of prior conceptions as to what the world should be like. Thus it is heavily dependent upon our philosophical and religious commitments.5
No doubt Young is well aware of the above considerations. However, it is essential that he specifically discuss these issues and present sound demonstrations of the alleged reliability of secular geological theory. The establishment of scientific truth involves more than a mere majority vote.
I believe that we can accept as "scientific fact" only the basic observational data. It may be argued that even the act of observing is a subjective one and that all data are theory-laden. Perhaps. But in general there is sufficient agreement on the background theory inherent in the observation process to leave us in practice with an undisputed common observational basis. It is when we attempt to explain and extend this data that we depart from our common starting point and enter our separate theoretical worlds, guided by religious choices and philosophical preferences.
4. Science and the Scientific Establishment
When Young states that the literal reading of Genesis is contrary to "the conclusions of the scientific enterprise" or to "the results of science" he implies that all scientists are agreed on this matter. But this is hardly the case. There are still scientists (e.g. the Creation Research Society) who are of the opposite opinion. While such scientists may constitute a very small minority, they are, nevertheless, there. Young appears to find it very difficult to acknowledge their scientific status. Furthermore, what Young refers to as "science" should more properly be denoted as "secular science," for it is based upon certain presuppositions regarding such things as the absence of the supernatural and the irrelevance of the Bible in scientific matters. Other types of science, such as creationism, may be constructed upon other basic assumptions. Perhaps Young is thinking of "the scientific establishment" in terms of such official organizations as the National Academy of Science. This organization has certainly made official pronouncements to the effect that Genesis is incompatible with the conclusions of science. However, when we consider the rationale for such decisions it is clear that this stance is based on a prior commitment to a particular philosophical position. For example, two of the main objections to creationism by the National Academy of Science are that creationism "subordinates evidence to statements based on authority and revelation" and that "it accounts for the origin of life by supernatural means."6 Such assertions illustrate that scientific theorizing is not the objective, value-free exercise that many may deem it to be.
5. Secular Geology and Creationism
The conflict between secular geology and scientific creationism can be viewed as one between competing research programs. The creationists start from the premise that scientific theories should be consistent with the literal interpretation of Genesis. Their basic rule for theory selection is that we should prefer those scientific theories that do not conflict with the biblical data. Thus they devise theories that allow for a young earth, a global flood, and the possibility of miracles. The secular camp, on the other hand, operates under the central premise that all the data is explicable in terms of natural, evolutionary processes.
Both sides attempt to explain the empirical data in terms of their own basic premise, fitting all the data into a preconceived mold. This is all part of normal scientific research activity, described by Thomas Kuhn to be "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education."7
In so doing they must devise and apply secondary theories regarding specific geological mechanisms and processes. These secondary theories, based as they are on currently observable phenomena, are open to empirical testing. Yet their possible observational falsification does not falsify the central premise, for it is always possible to save this by constructing other mechanisms that have not yet been falsified.
Young has accused the creationists of promoting false theories that are not in accord with the God-given facts.8 But such a charge is unwarranted. He may well have succeeded in pointing out various shortcomings and inconsistencies in their handling of the data or in their proposed explanations. However, such deficiencies are insufficient to falsify the central creationist thesis. They illustrate only the inadequacy of the total creationist model, with all its auxiliary assumptions and theories, in its present form. Given sufficient ingenuity the creationists could always overcome Young's objections by making suitable adjustments to their secondary theories, while still retaining their central thesis.
Creationist attempts to falsify evolution fare no better. Although the creationists have cited numerous observational phenomena that are apparently not readily explicable in terms of the evolutionary model, the evolutionists, too, can always come to the rescue with appropriate secondary hypotheses. In this respect Henry Morris does better than Young when he explicitly addresses the subjectivity of scientific theorizing and attempts to find a criterion by which to measure rival theories: "Of course, either model can be modified to accommodate any set of data, so that neither can be firmly proved or falsified. However, the model which fits the larger number of data with the smaller number of secondary modifications is the one more likely to be true."9 But even here one may well ask why such a model is more likely to be true. Morris certainly presents no compelling grounds for such a belief. Moreover, it is doubtful whether many evolutionists would concur with Morris' judgment that the Flood model is the theory that best fulfills this criterion. The point that is stressed here once again is the subjective nature of the origin, selection, and assessment of scientific theories. All these activities reflect our philosophical starting point.
Thus Young's appraisal of the reliability of secular geology vis-à-vis creationism is too superficial. Again, he should explicitly state--and justify--the criteria for theory selection that he is implicitly applying. These criteria should be shown to be consistent with a Christian worldview. Finally, Young should demonstrate that secular geology best fulfills these criteria.
6. Miracles and Apparent Age
Young does concede one could avoid the force of geological evidence by taking refuge in a literalism that insists on a series of purely miraculous events regarding creation and the Flood (p. 297). To this possibility he presents a number of objections. His prime concern is that of "apparent age." Young argues that then "any evidence for the elaborate history and antiquity of the earth is purely illusory" (p. 297) and that "no geologist wants to study rocks whose evidences for historical development are purely illusory" (p. 299). More importantly:
an instantaneously created, mature creation that shows only an illusory history Is also inconsistent with the nature of God and of man as God's image bearer. In the absence of an incontrovertible word from the Lord that he has created an illusion, we must conclude that God would be deceiving us by placing us within a complex world which bears myriad indications of a complicated history that did not actually happen. Mature creation is also incompatible with the character of man as one created in the image of God and given dominion over the earth…why should our intellectual tools be mismatched against an illusory past in an effort which God blessed when he told us to "subdue the earth"? [P. 300]
To this we note first of all that the apparent age and history of an object are not properties intrinsic to that object. Rather, they can be inferred only on the basis of the theoretical model that is used to interpret the observed characteristics. The illusion of a particular past history arises only when we view the data through the mirror of a particular set of theoretical premises. Since different models may yield various apparent histories, the choice as to which to accept is dependent upon our criteria for theory selection. Young has not demonstrated that it is impossible to construct theoretical models that interpret the data in a manner consistent with the traditional biblical chronology. Therefore he has not proven that the "apparent" ages are necessarily at variance with Genesis.
A second problem with Young's approach is its apparent denial of the ability of God to perform miracles. In science the presently observed characteristics of an object are explained in terms of a closed chain of postulated past natural causes and effects. Hence any such analysis, when applied to entities of a miraculous origin, must yield erroneous results.
Is God being deceptive by using supernatural means, as Young suggests? Surely not. God is free to use any means he desires. We are faced here with a limitation on human knowledge, not on divine action. God can be said to be deceiving us only if he has given his divine sanction on our theoretical assumptions. Since Young has not shown this to be the case, his argument is deficient.
One wonders, incidentally, why Young ignores the converse: the notion that the evolutionary picture of the past must be wrong else God is deceiving us in his revealed Word. While Young does grant that the impression of Genesis I is one of chronological sequence, he suggests that God is merely accommodating himself here to human understanding (p. 293). But how does Young know this to be the case? Is it not more plausible that any deficiency lies in our fallible scientific theories rather than in God's written Word?
Young does not wish to deny all miracles. He mentions in particular the case of Jesus' conversion of water into wine (John 2). However, he claims that here, unlike the situation at creation or at the Flood, the miracle is performed as a "sign" in full view of the servants, with the result that Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him (p. 300). He argues that, in contrast, there were no eyewitnesses at creation and that the flood story is not presented as a "sign."
The difficulty with Young's limitations of miracles to these two conditions is that he provides no proof that these are necessary conditions for the performance of miracles. It is easy to find other examples (e.g., the creation of Eve) where there were no eyewitnesses and which are not presented as "signs." In fact, it is precisely in the first chapters of Genesis where God is presented as performing many miraculous deeds.
7. The Proper Function of Science
A second objection raised by Young is that "any approach to creation which entails creation of illusory history ultimately undermines all scientific effort and should be rejected by the evangelical community" (p. 302). According to Young we can legitimately study (i.e., attempt to discover the processes by which they were formed) only those rocks that were not created instantaneously. Since we can't scientifically distinguish between rocks that were formed via natural processes and those that were created, geology is thus undermined.
Of course, this difficulty arises as soon as we allow for the possibility of even a single miracle to have occurred in the past. Since a miracle puts into being a new chain of physical causes and effects, any scientific analysis of that chain will lead to faulty extrapolations into the past beyond the miracle. Therefore, not knowing what may have been effected by past miracles, we can't determine which objects we can legitimately study.
But the evangelical community can hardly be expected to reject the miraculous merely in order to guarantee the legitimacy of scientific extrapolations into the past. Surely it would prefer to safeguard its articles of faith by affirming miracles and attributing any conflict between Genesis and geology to faulty secular presuppositions.
Rather than modifying the contents of Scripture, a better approach would be to base our science on biblically valid presuppositions. For example, we could specify that a prime criterion for theory selection be conformity with Scripture. This is essentially the creationist position. Even then we have a problem: there are an infinite number of possible theories compatible with Scripture. Without adequate criteria for theory selection we still have no guarantee that, once we venture beyond the observational and biblical data, we are on the right track. Furthermore, we are still faced with the above difficulty of extrapolating beyond a possible miracle.
Another possibility would be to drop the notion that science can acquire knowledge about origins, or for that matter, the unobserved world. We could adopt an instrumentalist view of science10 and restrict the cognitive function of science. This approach treats science as being concerned primarily with practical results, with getting from one set of observations to another. It considers scientific theories as merely useful fictions: the scaffolding that enables technological transitions. No judgments need then be made as to their possible veracity, in recognition of our human inability to know that part of reality lying beyond the observational realm.
Note in this regard that the command to "subdue the earth" (Gen 1:28), which Young cites, is more concerned with practical application than with theoretical speculation. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the limitations of human thought: Job 38-41 stresses man's ignorance regarding origins and deeper questions of nature; 1 Tim 6:20 warns us to avoid the oppositions of science--or knowledge--falsely so called, etc. Certain texts (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1) do state that God reveals himself through nature. However, such revelation is made manifest primarily via our direct observations of nature rather than through our fallible theoretical speculations, and the knowledge thus revealed is of God's attributes rather than of origins.
8. Further Implications
It may seem that little harm is done in permitting secular geology to modify our reading of the creation and flood account. Yet such concessions can have far-reaching consequences. For example, we may well ask whether, upon denying the historicity of certain parts of Genesis 1-11 we can be sure of other portions, such as, say, the creation and fall of Adam and Eve.
Furthermore, our approval of secular geology involves also the tacit acceptance of its underlying assumptions. I have already pointed out that it in essence denies the possibility of miracles. And we have seen that, at its heart, the "scientific establishment" as represented by the National Academy rejects the notion that the Bible has any bearing on the physical universe.
If we must accept the conclusions of secular geology, then why not also those of secular biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology? If the Bible is to capitulate to secular man in the field of geology, why not also in other areas of human reason? Where do we draw the line?
Rudolph Bultmann, in his concern to bring Scripture in line with modern science, insisted that all miracles were to be demythologized.11 Young's reinterpretation of Genesis I as a "royal prologue"12 may still be far removed from Bultmann's reinterpretation of the cross as a symbol of man's self-mastery over his passions.13 Yet both positions were motivated by the same source: a desire to make our reading of the Bible consistent with "scientific facts." Since Young presents us with no definite and justified criteria as to how to determine "scientific facts," the choice is left an arbitrary one. Hence we have no effective means of distinguishing Young's stance from that of Bultmann.
In summary, Young's analysis of the conflict between the traditional reading of Genesis and secular geology has significant shortcomings. It fails to adequately distinguish between observation and theory. Nor does it sufficiently address the subjective and speculative nature of scientific theorizing. Young's resolution of the conflict is unacceptable to the evangelical community because its accommodation to secular science compromises the confessed infallibility of Scripture.
My plea is that the proponents of the various approaches to the relationship between science and Scripture will carefully scrutinize their epistemological and methodological assumptions, hidden as these often are. Let them examine these in the light of Scripture and modify them accordingly. They must establish and justify biblically valid criteria not only for distinguishing between scientific "fact" and speculation but also for determining the preferred (i.e., the intended) interpretation of Scripture.
My prime concern is that we continue to acknowledge and apply the epistemological supremacy of God's written Word: let us ensure that our human reason is subjected to the authority of Scripture, rather than vice versa.
Department of Mathematical Sciences
1 Davis A. Young, "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists," WTJ 49
(1987) 1-34 and 257-304.