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The Downfall of Scriptural Geology

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Archives / 1975 / November



The Downfall of Scriptural Geology

Warren H. Johns
-an instructor in religion at Columbia Union College, is currently on study leave for graduate course work in geology at Michigan State University at the time this article was written


SURPRISING as it may seem, the majority of the geologists in early nineteenth-century England were advocates of the Biblical account of Creation and the Flood, thus earning them the title of "Scriptural geologists." Some had even switched professions from theology to geology—such as Adam Sedgwick, William Conybeare, and William Buckland. Several churchmen in the "Scriptural geology" era (1815-1860) wrote in-depth studies on geology and its connection to religion—Thomas Chalmers, Baden Powell, and John Pye Smith, as examples. Geology, at least in England and America, was cast in a scriptural mold when in its infancy.

Up until the publication of Charles Lyell's famous Principles of Geology in 1830, the Biblical Flood colored the thinking of geologists, and the majority were diluvialists or catastrophists. The thinking of this group was crystallized by their leader, William Buckland, in an 1823 work called Reliquiae Diluvianae. However, Buckland himself was mysteriously swayed in the decade of the 1830's to the opposing camp, that of the uniformitarians, who believed that all processes have continued invariably at the same rate as today.

A book published by him in 1836 conspicuously avoided any reference to the Flood. What led the stalwart general to change his mind? One historian of science focuses precisely upon the reason for Buckland's unusual reversal:

"When Buckland's Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology was published in 1836, it was evident that he had re versed himself on Diluvialism and had completely abandoned Biblical chronology in prehistory, but he had by no means given up the attempt to bring revelation and geology in harmony."1

Buckland himself admits that modifications must result from geology's findings of "the lapse of very long periods of time," in opposition to the six thousand years that minds had been so long accustomed to. The long ages of uniformitarianism were making their inroads, with the result that "Buckland was completely converted. . . . By 1850 it was difficult to distinguish a Uniformitarian from a Catastrophist." 2 Yet after Buckland's reversal of position, conflicting view points continued to clash, and "be tween 1844 and 1859, over sixty volumes appeared that could be classified as Scriptural Geology." 3

The steady stream of books by scriptural geologists stopped almost abruptly with the publication of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, in 1859. The same events that led to the downfall of scriptural geology can be correlated with the rise of Darwinian evolution. Let us piece together the historical backdrop.

Attempts to Harmonize

Scriptural geology from its very inception was a crossbreed between the uniformitarian theory of long geological ages and the Biblical view of Creation followed some centuries later by the catastrophe known as the Deluge. Catastrophism was imported into England through the writings of the famous French paleontologist, Cuvier, and served as a valuable tool in the hands of scriptural geologists. Cuvier, however, interpreted the six days of Creation week not as being literal but rather as figurative of long ages. He stretched Creation out over a vast period of time interspersed with annihilations (or catastrophes), to account for the successive fossil strata. Buckland at the start was an ardent apostle of the Cuvierian brand of catastrophism.

Scriptural geology, then, was an at tempt to harmonize the latest findings of geology and paleontology with the Sacred Record, It had many varieties of thought. One of the earliest was that of the Archbishop Sumner of Canter bury himself—the idea first set forth in 1816 "that during the Six Days of Gene sis the Creator merely 'rearranged' the wrecks and fragments of many previous worlds." 4 The entire fossil record was used to show a pre-Creation-week sequence of life. This view was advocated by another prominent churchman, Thomas Chalmers, who claimed that the language of the first two verses of Genesis seems to indicate a "gap" separating two creative episodes. He was convinced that Scripture does not point out when "the beginning" took place, and postulated that it could have been many aeons ago.

The "gap" or "interval theory" be came fused with the "ruin and restitution" theory and was quickly popularized. "This 'interval' theory rapidly became the popular, respectable, and all but standard means of reconciliation between geology and Holy Writ. It was adopted, within the next twenty-five years, by Edward Hitchcock, the Reverend W. D. Conybeare, and the future Cardinal Wiseman, then a brilliant young man in Italy; it was the refuge of Buckland when he retreated from his original diluvian orthodoxy." 5 Interestingly, although proponents of this viewpoint at first strongly taught the Noachian Flood, they eventually lost sight of that grand event in a multitude of other catastrophes.

Catastrophism was swallowed by uniformitarianism through virtually the efforts of one man, Sir Charles Lyell, the "father of uniformitarianism." One historian notes that following the publication of Lyell's Principles in 1830 "it was immediately apparent that much of Mosaic geology had been swept away by Lyell. . . . Among the leading geologists, Biblical chronology and Diluvialism were soon dropped out of prehistory." 6 Catastrophism, through the widespread acceptance of the "restitution" or "gap theory," had in effect abandoned Biblical chronology already, except to state that man was created about six thousand years ago. This was the same position that Lyell took in his early years. With these insights it is possible to understand why Buckland capitulated.

Daring Voices Oppose Trend

A few daring voices spoke in opposition to the trends that scriptural geology was taking, as well as against the in roads of uniformitarianism. Two of them, George Bugg and George Young, entitled their works Scriptual Geology, from which the name for the scripturalgeologist era was derived. Yet they were not a part of its trends. Neither was Granville Penn, whose 1822 book has been nicely summarized in these words:

"The theses of this work are simple and uncompromising: all geology is to be found in Genesis; the Six Days of Scripture were six literal days, the first of which was 'in the beginning'; all geological phenomena result from three extra-ordinary events recorded in the Bible—the separation of the land from the waters, the Deluge, and the elevation after the Deluge of parts of the ocean bed to become dry land." 7

That same year a textbook on geology was published by Conybeare and Phillips, who keenly perceived what were the issues facing scriptural geologists. In this book they state: "Two points only can be in any manner implicated in the discussions of geology: I. The Noachian Deluge. II. The Antiquity of the Earth." 8 They overlooked the one other major is sue facing scriptural geology, the idea of the six days of Creation being literal, because it had already silently slipped out of the picture. Geologists had long used the text "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years" (2 Peter 3:8) to accommodate the six days with long geological periods. One example is James Hutton, of Scotland, who gave the first presentation of uniformitarian geology.

At this point it is instructive to trace back the chain of events that led to the downfall of scriptural geology. Long geological ages were accepted as the first link, but these were relegated either to a pre-Creation week period (the gap theory) or to the actual six days, which were then stretched into six aeons of time (the day-age theory). The next link was made by the impact of Lyell, who removed the Flood from the picture. After all, if one has a long sequence of geological history prior to the creation of man, what need is there for the Flood to account for the fossil strata? The final link was welded with the publication of Darwin's book and the subsequent elimination of man's re cent origin and the concept of successive creations and catastrophes. Lyell, who had been a student of Buckland's for three years and who had held both to successive creations and man's recent origin while opposing Buckland's diluvialism, now became a convert to Darwinism. Meanwhile, scriptural geology had faded out of the picture.

We can take as one example of scriptural geology's demise the Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford, Baden Powell, who also taught theology there, and was an ordained clergyman. By the time he wrote his 1838 work he had be come quite critical of scriptural geology, attacking first the restitution theory, and then pointing to some defects of the day-age theory. Recognizing these positions as compromises, "he shrewdly observed that while many professed harmonizing Scripture and geology, they in fact made complete concessions on all substantial points; 'so manifest the evasions and subterfuges they exhibit, that we can only regard them as disguised allies.' " 9

However, Powell fell into the trap of compromise by conceding that the six days of Creation could very well represent vast ages of time. In his attacks on scriptural geology he went to the opposite extreme of concluding that there was no geology in Scripture whatever, and that the two should be divorced entirely from each other. Toward the end of his career he expressed the conviction that "Darwin's masterly volume on The Origin of Species . . . now substantiates on undeniable grounds the very principle so long denounced by the first naturalist,—the origination of new species by natural causes: a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favor of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature." 10 His predictions were amazingly accurate. Scriptural geology lost out, owing to the compromising away of three key creationist beliefs.

Contemporary Viewpoint

Let us notice how today's historians picture the downfall of scriptural geology, none of them appearing to be sympathetic toward its cause. Speaking of the inroads of uniformitarianism first through its founder, Hutton, then through its chief apostle, Lyell, one historian observes, "It was chiefly the Mosaic chronology that had kept men from adopting this point of view at an earlier date."11 Another notices its net effect: "The modern verdict on the major contribution of Lyellian geology to the evolution theory is that it allowed enough time to earth history for organic evolution to take place—it gave Darwin the 'gift of time,' as Loren Eiseley puts it." 12

Yet the downfall of Biblical chronology meant the downfall of Biblical geology, since they are inextricably interwoven. "As long as geological theory clung to the idea that the earth had been created 6000 years ago, catastrophic events were necessary to bring about all the changes that must have happened since then. Hutton, however, excluded catastrophic and supernatural events."13

Another prominent historian of science is in complete agreement: "Any notion that slow-acting processes might have far-reaching, cumulative effects was obviously inhibited by the belief that all the events of Earth-history had to be crammed into rather less than six thousand years." 14

If any should still question whether Biblical chronology stood as a stumbling block to the rise of uniformitarianism, that questioner would have his doubts dissipated after reading the words of Lyell himself. In volume 1 of his Principles, Lyell clearly indicated that it was impossible for anyone to reach the idea of uniformity "so long as they were under the delusion as to the age of the world, and the date of the first creation of animate beings," 15 an oblique reference to the Biblical view. Notice, too, a historian's comment on the above assertion: "When Lyell interpolated time and continuous process into the gaps, all supernatural cataclysms, including the Deluge, . . . were rendered superfluous." 16

Compromise Led to Abandonment of Belief

Scriptural geology, which should have stood on the three basic creationist beliefs—(1) the six literal days of creation, (2) Biblical chronology, and (3) a universal Flood—ended up abandoning all three. The compromise on one led to an abandonment of all. These three beliefs, like a tripod supporting the scriptural geologists' camera, were slowly weakened, while a panorama of earth's history was being filmed. The aim was to show a complete harmony between Genesis and geology. The result was a totally blurred picture.

What will be the outcome today if any one leg of this tripod of beliefs is weakened or eliminated? The history of yesteryear becomes an excellent laboratory for testing the hypotheses of today. With keen hindsight amplified by a grasp of both science and Scripture we can trace the trends of the past and predict our paths for the future.

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1. Francis C. Haber, The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), p. 221.

2. Walter F. Cannon, "Uniformitarian-Catastrophist Debate," /sis (I960), vol. 51, pp. 48, 50.

3. Milton Millhauser, Just Before Darwin (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), p. 47.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 48.

6. Haber, op. cit., pp. 218, 219.

7. Millhauser, op. cit., p. 53.

8. Quoted in Haber, op. cit., p. 213.

9. Haber, op. cit., p. 246.

10. Robert M. Young, "The Impact of Darwin on Conventional Thought," The Victorian Crisis of Faith, Anthony Symondson, ed. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1970), pp. 22, 23.

11. Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 63.

12. Url Lanham, Origins of Modern Biology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 144.

13. R. Hooykaas, The Principle of Uniformity in Geology, Biology and Theology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1963), p. 19.

14. Gordon Davies, The Earth in Decay (London: Macdonald and Co., 1968), p. 45.

15. Haber, op. cit, p. 218.

16. Ibid.

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