SPECIAL TOPIC: THE AGE AND FORMATION OF THE EARTH (from Genesis 1-11)
I. This area of study is biased because of the assumptions that must be made to even pursue thinking rationally about the subject. The assumptions must be the focus of an evaluation of the differing opinions expressed by cosmologists, geologists and the related sciences compared to theological understanding and interpretations. See John H. Walton, Genesis One As Ancient Cosmology.
II. For science the apparent assumptions are
A. that the rates of change (i.e., physical, chemical, and biological) recorded and measured on the earth today are constant in the past (i.e., uniformitarianism, "the present is the key to the past")
B. radiometric dating (called absolute dating), which is the chronological key to dating the earth and cosmic events, is bedeviled by several assumptions:
1. the original composition of the rocks (i.e., relation of parent and daughter elements of unstable atomic elements)
2. the exact half-life of these elements
3. the temperature also affects parent and daughter percentages in a sample (i.e., time of formation and/or volcanic magma chambers)
4. the original source and timing of the creation of radioactive elements are not certain; current theories state that the heavier elements are created by thermonuclear reactions in stars and supernovas
C. that the six assumed sequence principles of geology (called relative dating) affect paleontology:
1. the law of superposition‒in an undeformed sequence of sedimentary rocks, the bed layer above is younger and the bell layer below is older
2. the principle of original horizontality–layers of rudimentary rock were deposited in a nearly horizontal plain
3. the principle of cross-cutting relationships–when rocks are cut or offset by a fault, they must be older than the fault
4. the principle of inclusions‒rock masses adjacent to one another, one will usually have pieces of the lower one embedded in the above layer which confirms the assumption of #1
5. the principle of correlations‒rocks of similar makeup but from different areas must be matched up, when this cannot be done then similar fossils are used to show similar dates of formation
6. the principle of fossil succession‒fossil organisms succeed one another in a definite and determinable sequence:
a. widespread fossils
b. limited to a short span of geologic time
III. Some comments by scientists
A. Most scientists realize that true science is a research method which seeks to correlate all known facts and anomalies into a testable theory. Some things by their very nature are not testable.
B. Some comments from scientists about scientific assumptions in this area
1. "The doctrine (i.e., uniformitarianism) should not be taken too literally. To say that geological processes in the past were the same as those occurring today is not to suggest that they always had the same relative importance and operated at precisely the same rate" (Tarbuck and Lutgens, Earth Science, 6th ed. p. 262).
2. "It is important to realize that an accurate radiometric date can be obtained only if the mineral remains in a closed system during the period of its formation; that is, a correct date is not possible unless there was neither addition nor loss of parent or daughter isotopes" (Earth Science, 6th ed., p. 276).
3. "We hasten to stress that this uniformity is an assumption that we make about nature, so is a doctrine rather than a logically proved law" (Dott and Balten, Evolution of the Earth, 4th ed., p. 44).
4. "The decay constants that characterize radioactive decay rates, and govern the relationship between isotopic data and their corresponding radioisotopic ages are inexactly known. In consequence, the accuracy of some of the most precise dating methods, such as 40Ar/39Ar technique, may be an order of magnitude or more worse than their precision ("Progress and challenges in geochronology" by Renne, Ludwig and Karner in Science Progress , 83 , 107).
5. "People without training in science may not understand that any radiometric dating method can only be trusted for samples with ages close to the half-life of the element in question (Hugh Ross, Reasons to Believe Newsletter).
IV. Assumptions are not unique to the scientific community but obviously also exist in the religious community.
A. Humans are drawn to a unifying principle or model to correlate their sense experience and provide emotional stability. In science this unifying principle has become "evolution."
1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, "Changing man," Science, 155, 409-415, "Evolution is a process which has produced life from non-life, which has brought forth man from animals, and which may conceivably continue doing remarkable things in the future."
2. Brian J. Alters and Sandra M. Alters, Defining Evolution, p. 104, "evolution is the basic context of all biological sciences...evolution is the explanatory framework, the unifying theory. It is indispensable to the study of biology, just as the atomic theory is indispensable to the study of chemistry."
B. For many conservative Christians the unifying theory (i.e., interpretation) has become a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. This is true for young earth literalists (Creation Research Society dates the earth at about 10,000 years) and old earth literalists (Reasons to Believe dates the earth in light of modern geology at 4.6 billion years). One's interpretation of Scripture becomes a lens through which all else is viewed and evaluated. One cannot fault subjective assumption, for all human knowledge is at some level pre-suppositional. However, the evaluation of one's presuppositions is crucial for a proper evaluation of their "truth" statements.
C. Fundamental Christianity is trying to clothe itself in "scientific" argument when the central issue is a hermeneutical methodology. This is not to imply that "modern evolutionary science" is not pre-suppositional or that its conclusions are not shaped by an a priori worldview. We must be careful and analytical of both. There seems to be evidence on both sides. I must ask myself to which view am I naturally, emotionally or educationally drawn (i.e., self-fulfilling assumption)?
V. Personal conclusion
A. Since I am a theologian, not a scientist, it was crucial for me to read and assimilate as much as I could from modern uniformitarian science. I am not personally agitated by "evolution" but by "naturalism" (one definition made popular by Carl Sagan is, "the universe is all that was, all that is, and all that will be"). I realize this is a bias, but my unifying theory is supernaturalism and special creationism, however, I do not deny or feel threatened by evolution. My basic perspective is that there is a personal God Who initiated and directs the process for a purpose! For me "intelligent design" becomes a reasonable theory (cf. M. J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box and William A. Demski, ed. Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design). It is the "randomness" of evolution and the "agentlessness" of naturalism that causes me personal pain and confusion. Process is an obvious part of life. I must be sure that I do not embrace what is comfortable without evaluation. I have tried to identify my assumptions.
1. Genesis 1-3 (and for that matter, much of the book of Revelation), is not intended by its original inspired author to be taken literally. "How it all began" and "How it will all end" is veiled in literary genre.
2. Evolution is obvious at certain levels ("horizontal evolution," "micro-evolution," "evolution within species") but not the only unifying factor for life on this planet nor the development of the universe. There is mystery here! I feel personally comfortable with the Bible (i.e., special revelation) telling me the "Who" and the "why" and nature (i.e., natural revelation), that is, modern scientific research, telling me the "how" and the "when" based on developing models and theories.
3. Even the ultimate reality of "theistic evolution" would not cause me to reject any of my faith assumptions. See Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology. I do have faith assumptions (as do you)! My worldview is biblical Christianity. My world-picture is a growing and changing understanding.
B. The "real" age of the earth is not an issue in my theology except:
1. The apparent "Big Bang" concept of universal organization of matter which asserts a beginning to the universe seems to limit the possibilities of an unlimited time for evolutionary development (i.e., naturalism).
2. The starts and stops in the fossil records may imply a "punctuated equilibrium" which asserts that evolutionary chance occurs in spurts (possibly God's on-going creative acts) and not necessarily only gradual change over time.
3. An old earth and a recent special creation of humanity is a pre-suppositional model I choose to embrace until I understand more from my study of the Bible, archaeology, and modern science. The order of these shows my bias (but we all have them)!
4. Science is not an enemy to me, nor a savior! It is so exciting to live in this age of increasing knowledge! It is so comforting to be a hermeneutically informed believer! Integration of faith and reason, or the Bible and Science, with credibility, is a wonderful possibility! A new book has encouraged me in this quest – John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.
VI. Present assumptions as to the age of the earth
A. The radiometric dating of moon rocks and meteors has been consistent at 4.6 billion years. They contain the same elements as the planets of this solar system so the inference is that our sun and its associated planets, comets, and asteroids were formed at this time. The oldest earth rocks have been radiometric dated at 3.8 billion years.
B. A date for the supernatural creation of the first human pair (Homo sapiens) is a more difficult issue but it is in the tens of thousands degree range, possibly 40,000.
Time is only an issue to those of us created in a chronological sequential time frame. God is not affected by the passing of time. I believe the earth and its environment were created over time for the specific purpose of providing a "place" for God to fellowship with His highest creation, who was created by Him in His image. The only source for these beliefs is an inspired Bible. I cling to it and allow modern science to increase my understanding of the physical aspects of God's creative activity!
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