Condordism, Literalism and the Age of the Earth – 1

The Earth and the known universe are ancient at 4.6 billion and 13.8 billion years respectively.1 This is sufficient to invalidate young earth creationism which asserts that the universe was created over six consecutive days six thousand years ago. While young earth creationists damn other Christians who accept the antiquity of the Earth as “compromisers”2 well before Darwin published his landmark book “On the Origin of Species”, geologists had uncovered enough evidence to show that the Earth was much older than 6000 years, and the sedimentary deposits could not have been deposited by a global flood. Contemporary special creationists not only play down the fact that mainstream Christianity had accepted the great age of the Earth well before Darwin’s thesis was accepted, but appear to be ignorant of the history of geology which would have shown them that the ideas they advance today were dismissed well before Darwin’s thesis. The evangelical geologist Davis Young observes:

The speculations of modern creationism, like those of seventeenth century diluvialism, know no bounds. While seventeenth and eighteenth century cosmogonists can be pardoned as children of their times who had little empirical data to constrain the bounds of speculation, current scientific creationist ideas are puzzling in view of the abundance of empirical data that invalidate them. Although today’s literalism presents a semblance of scientific sophistication, it has largely ignored the vast wealth of empirical geological data that have come to light during the past 300 years that rule out a global deluge and a recent creation. There is no way that the literalistic approach to Genesis 1–11 can be sustained without appealing to miracle at every point at which scientific data conflict with a literal rendering of the biblical text.3

Arguments against young earth creationism predate Darwin’s theory of evolution, so it is somewhat inaccurate for young earth creationists to allege that strong consensus among educated 19th century Christians arguing for an ancient earth and against flood geology was a craven capitulation to atheism. What motivated this abandonment of young earth creationism was the weight of evidence against a literal reading of Genesis.

This did not mean that 19th century Christians abandoned the idea that the sequence of creative events in Genesis 1 could be harmonised with the geological record. Ideas such as diluvianism (flood geology) and neptunism (the belief that the Earth was covered by the sea, and that eventually dry land emerged) could not be reconciled with what a careful examination of the Earth showed. Young notes that:

Numerous discoveries pointed toward a long, complex, dynamic earth history that was totally incompatible with a global flood, and newer studies in the early nineteenth century indicated that rocks formerly interpreted as chemical precipitates from a universal ocean had cooled from intensely hot liquids injected into the overlying fossil-bearing strata.”  Stratigraphic evidence also made it clear that the ocean had repeatedly advanced on and retreated from the landmasses: it had not simply retreated uniformly. Moreover, successive advances and retreats had been accompanied by significant extinctions of large quadrupeds. Neptunism, like diluvialism, rightly fell by the wayside. Although both diluvialism and neptunism had temporarily provided useful frameworks for integrating theories of earth history with the meager data available at the time and had served as stimuli to further geological research, the time had come for them to be discarded. Diluvialism and neptunism could no longer adequately account for the wealth of geological data that were known by the early nineteenth century.

The recognition of the earth’s vast antiquity caused little alarm among leading British and American Christian geologists of the early nineteenth century. Many of the great geologists of that era were devout and enthusiastic Christian believers who were fully committed to the infallibility of Scripture. Thus, even though Scripture played a diminishing role in professional technical geology, many geologists developed popular treatments of ways in which the results of geology could be related to biblical teaching. Many of these geologists sought to demonstrate how Scripture was fully compatible with the latest discoveries of geology. The golden age of concordism had arrived.4

Two popular concordist approaches were the day-age theory and the gap theory. Put simply, the day-age theory argued that the days of Genesis were actually long periods of time, while the gap theory argued that Gen 1:1 referred to an initial creation of heaven and earth, with an indefinite length of passing from that initial creation to the events in Gen 1:2 and onwards. Both approaches allowed Christians to attempt a reconciliation of the facts of geology with a reading of Genesis which viewed the events described as corresponding to periods of the Earth’s history.

Both approaches are unsustainable however, and have largely been abandoned by serious Christian scholars. The problem with the gap theory is that there is no evidence in the geological record that the earth was subjected to a global devastation that made it ‘without form and void’. The day-age theory suffers from the fact that it is hard to imagine how plants could be created on the third ‘day-age’ and survive untold years without pollination from the bees and birds created on the fifth ‘day-age’. Many people forget that life does not exist in isolation, but as part of a complex ecosystem which could not be created in piecemeal fashion.

There are also strong Biblical arguments against interpreting Genesis 1 as a consecutive sequence of creation events (day or age) and that is that this results in a flat-out contradiction with the sequence of creation in Genesis 2

  1. Dalrymple GB “The Age of the Earth” 1991, Stanford University Press []
  2.  []
  3. Young DA “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part 1)” Westminster Theological Journal (1987a) 49(1):31-34 []
  4. Young DA “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part 2)” Westminster Theological Journal (1987b) 49(2):257:304 []

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