Similarities of the Scriptural Geologists
Like most Christians in previous church history and in the early 19th century, all the scriptural geologists believed that Genesis 1–11 provided a divinely inspired and historically accurate account of the origin and early history of the world.1 This was in contrast to the emerging view that Genesis was a semi-historical, poetical, or mythical theological treatise written by pre-scientific and primitive people, like the cosmologies of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Hindus, and others.2 In contrast to their old-earth opponents, many of whom also believed in the inspiration, infallibility, and historicity of Genesis 1–11, the scriptural geologists held to a literal six-day creation approximately 6,000 years ago. None of them, however, contended strictly for Ussher’s date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world. Certainly they believed that the early chapters of Genesis were more than just a record of historical events; they indeed taught theological truths. But in their minds these chapters were not less than historical. On the contrary, they believed, the theological truths depended on the literal historicity of the accounts. As a historical account, Genesis 1–11 could no more be rejected or ignored in reconstructing the history of the creation than the writings of Roman historians could be ignored, while only the ancient monuments and artifacts were studied, in reconstructing the history of the Roman empire.
As a result, they all explicitly or implicitly criticized their opponents for what they considered to be a superficial handling of Scriptures relevant to the debate, for making theoretical generalizations based on inadequate geological knowledge, for closing their minds to evidence contrary to their theory, and for faulty logic in reasoning from the geological phenomena they had accurately described. While the scriptural geologists may have been in error in some of their geological facts and theoretical interpretations, one thing is clear: none of them was opposed to the study of science in general or geology in particular, nor did they rely on ad hominem attacks in place of reasoned arguments. Most were respectful as they strongly disagreed with their opponents.
Virtually all of the scriptural geologists were repeatedly explicit that they opposed old-earth geological theories of the earth.Virtually all of the scriptural geologists were repeatedly explicit that they opposed old-earth geological theories of the earth, rather than geological facts or even geological theorizing about secondary causes of the observed effects.3 In fact, most of them theorized about the physical causes and time of geological effects. They generally accepted the geological facts as described by the leading geologists, but challenged the old-earth inferences made from the observed phenomena. Such inferences, they believed, were often erroneously termed “facts” by old-earth geologists, when in reality they were theory-laden interpretations of some of the facts. This, contended some of the scriptural geologists, was in contrast to the old-earth geologists’ frequent assertion about themselves that they were just unbiased observers allowing the facts to speak for themselves.4
Those who particularly addressed the question of the origin of life and biological change (Bugg and Rhind) were opposed to the idea of evolution (unlimited transmutation) between the original, created kinds. (Given that Bugg [non-scientist] and Rhind [scientist] agreed on this point, it is virtually certain that the other scriptural geologists shared their view of variation only within the original created kinds.) Though they did not attempt to define a “kind” precisely, they clearly believed it was a larger biological classification than “species.” They did not believe in the fixity of the species, but considered that the potential for species variation (due to various environmental factors), though limited, was greater than many of their old-earth opponents believed. In this regard, by excluding a third option such as Bugg and Rhind suggested, old-earth scientist and philosopher William Whewell created a false dichotomy when he wrote:
The dilemma then presents itself to us anew—either we must accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, and must suppose that the organized species of one geological epoch were transmuted into those of another by some long-continued agency of natural causes; or else, we must believe in many successive acts of creation and extinction of species, out of the common course of nature; acts which, therefore, we may properly call miraculous.5
None of the scriptural geologists appeared to believe that anyone could properly (or should even attempt to) develop a whole “system of natural science” from the Bible. They were certainly not trying to do so, as their critics so often stated or implied.6 Two of the non-scientists, Bugg and Penn, emphasized this explicitly and repeatedly. Ure, Murray, and Rhind gave no indication in any of their writings that they looked to the Bible as the source of an outline or system for chemistry, physics, botany, medicine, or even practical geology (e.g., mining). Based on what they wrote, this was presumably because they believed the Bible gave no such system or outline for these fields of science. Rather, to advance knowledge in these areas they advocated and participated in experimental and observational scientific research. In their opinion, geology was another matter, however. All the scriptural geologists were convinced that Genesis 1–11 did give an infallible7 historical outline or framework for developing a history of the earth. Within this outline they believed there was much room, and need, for geological research and speculation, and biblical analysis. Just as their opponents were unanimous about a general outline of earth history but argued over the finer points, so the scriptural geologists differed in their interpretation of some of the minor details of the scriptural account and of the geological evidence, as will be noted shortly, while agreeing on the major points of the outline.
A final similarity among the scriptural geologists is that all of them appeared to believe in the general uniformity of the operation of the laws of nature, which were an expression of God’s providence. They believed in the miracles recorded in Scripture, which were rare, local exceptions to the general uniformity of nature. But apart from the initial creation period and the Flood, times when, they believed, the Bible indicated that supernatural power was being exercised on a global scale, they did not invoke miraculous causes for physical phenomena, but rather sought to argue by analogy from present-day processes. They did not explicitly discuss the notion of God’s continual, providential control and maintenance of the physical creation, but without a doubt they all believed in it, for the idea of divine providence was part of their world view as traditional orthodox Christians, and was not an issue of debate between them and their opponents.
So, it becomes quite clear that George P. Scrope, who was a budding uniformitarian and a close friend of Lyell, projected a false dichotomy when comparing his view of earth history with all others. In 1825 he said that the whole geological record of the earth is attributable to three primary modes of production: aqueous chemical precipitation, aqueous mechanical deposition, and volcanic uplift of either solid or liquid rocky matter. He claimed that this three-part theory of geological formation had “one immense advantage over most, perhaps over all, of the hypotheses that have as yet been brought forward to explain the same appearances; and which speaks volumes in [its] favor; and this is, that [these modes of production] are still in operation—with diminished energy, it is true.”8
It should be clear from this study that apart from the initial supernatural creation of the earth with its primary rocks, the scriptural geologists (as well as the catastrophists) used the same three modes of production to explain the geological features of the earth. They only differed on the degree or rate of change in the energy, extent, and frequency of these processes in the past.9
Differences Between the Scriptural Geologists
The scriptural geologists we have studied were an eclectic group. Young, Fairholme, and Murray were Presbyterians and members of the Church of Scotland. Though I could not discover it, Rhind may have been also. The others were probably all members of the Church of England, though I am not sure about Ure, Penn, and de Johnsone. Fairholme, Murray, Young, Rhind, and Ure were Scottish; the rest were Englishmen. Fairholme, Murray, Ure, Rhind, and Penn were laymen; the rest were clergymen. Three (Murray, Ure, and Rhind) earned their livelihood from their scientific work; for the others it was an avocation, though in the case of Fairholme and Young, and to a lesser extent Gisborne, the study of nature consumed a very large portion of their time. Fairholme, Best, and Cockburn were wealthy, some were middle class, while others (Bugg and Cole) had quite limited financial resources.
Within the framework of a recent six-day creation and global Flood, they had many differences of opinion about the interpretation of some of the minor details of the geological and biblical records, and in a few instances openly disagreed with each other. For example, regarding geology, they did not all agree on the climatic, geographical, and geological effects of the Flood. Penn, Fairholme (in 1833), and Gisborne rejected the idea of a drastic global climatic change and Bugg was not sure, whereas Ure, Young, Murray, and Rhind all believed the pre-Flood world was generally tropical. Penn, Ure, and Fairholme (in 1833) attributed much of the secondary formations to the processes of nature operating during the roughly 1,600 years between creation and the Flood. On the other hand, Bugg, Young, Murray, Gisborne, Rhind, and Fairholme (in 1837) attributed most of the secondary and tertiary formations to the work of the Flood. Similarly, Penn, Bugg, Fairholme, and Young all rejected Buckland’s theory of Kirkdale Cave, whereas Ure accepted it. Also, while most of the scriptural geologists were absolutely convinced of the recency of creation (i.e., approximately 6,000 years ago), Rhind and Best were somewhat hesitant in expressing that belief.
Although there was much overlap, they did not cover precisely the same ground in their arguments against the old-earth theories. Rather, many of them focused on different aspects of the debate, though it does not appear that they consciously collaborated to any significant extent. They differed, too, on their interpretation of some of the details of Genesis; for example, whether the Septuagint or Hebrew Old Testament gives the correct chronology from Adam to Abraham, or whether the sun, moon, and stars were created on day 4 of creation week or on day 1 and only became visible on day 4. Further, they disagreed about whether Genesis 2:10–14 was a textual gloss, whether a new creation of plants, and even animals, after the Deluge was suggested by the text, or whether there had ever been rain and rainbows before the Flood. Also, some gave fairly detailed discussions of the creation and flood accounts, while others did not.
They also differed greatly in their geological competence and writing style, as illustrated in the graphs on the following page. I have added the names of the less important scriptural geologists on page 195, all of whom were clergy, in order to give a more representative view of this group of writers.
It is not surprising that these scriptural geologists, who with one accord believed the traditional literal interpretation of the six-day creation, Noah’s flood, and the Genesis genealogies, would have some different ideas about how precisely this view could be reconciled with the strata of the geological record (e.g., where in the secondary formations was the pre-Flood/Flood boundary). Given the complex nature of the subject and the limits of any one individual’s knowledge, as well as the relatively small amount of collective geological knowledge at the time and the strong debates going on between the catastrophists and uniformitarians in the late 1820s and 1830s, such an imprecision of the scriptural geologists’ theories is perfectly understandable. We should therefore not expect them to be any more monolithic in the details of their views than were their catastrophist or uniformitarian opponents, whether deist or Christian.
Key Objections of the Scriptural Geologists
The fact that the scriptural geologists did not present a compelling alternative explanation to every old-earth claim in the early 19th century does not necessarily imply that they raised no significant objections or made no philosophical contributions to geological reasoning worthy of consideration. In spite of their many differences in argumentation, there were a number of major objections which several or many of the scriptural geologists raised. These objections fell into two categories: theological and geological. A consideration of these shows that these men were not quibbling over insignificant details or dead issues long before resolved, but were raising objections on important points of debate.
The Ignoring of Scripture
All the scriptural geologists explicitly or implicitly complained about the old-earth geologists’ superficial treatment or complete ignoring of relevant Scripture, particularly the Flood account in Genesis and the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8–11, even when they (e.g., Buckland, Cuvier, Sedgwick) were clearly attempting to defend the Scriptures or were asserting that Scripture and old-earth geological theory were not incompatible. The scriptural geologists believed that a local Flood or a tranquil universal Flood, which left little (only the superficial diluvial deposits) or no geological effects, was inconsistent with biblical indications of the violence and global extent of the Flood. They also were convinced that the Bible clearly taught that the Flood was unique in its duration, extent, and divine purpose (to destroy not only almost all people, but also most plants and animals as well as the surface of the whole earth), rather than being one of a number of rare floods occurring in the natural course of earth history, as many of their geological opponents interpreted it to have been. While old-earth geologists may have thought the Flood was penal in some sense, they did not emphasize this fact, as the scriptural geologists did. Sedgwick’s vague allusion to the Flood was typical of the old-earth geologists’ view: “And what has happened, again and again, from the most ancient, up to the most modern periods in the natural history of the earth, may have happened once during the few thousand years that man has been living on its surface.”11 Furthermore, nearly all the scriptural geologists contended that the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 severely militated against both the day-age theory and the gap theory, but this text was almost universally ignored by their opponents.
Regardless of the correctness of their own interpretations of relevant Scriptures, their criticisms were valid that their geological opponents completely ignored or superficially interpreted the relevant Scriptures when asserting the harmony between Genesis and geology. For example, in none of the editions of Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth did he deal with the biblical text in any direct way, although he did refer to Scripture generally and defended the post-Flood biblical chronology against the exaggerated Hindu chronology. Likewise, Cuvier’s Scottish commentator, Robert Jameson, did not refer to any scriptural texts in either his preface or his appendix to the English editions, even though he used Cuvier’s theory in general support of the truth of Genesis.
Buckland, an ordained Anglican clergyman and Oxford geologist, only vaguely referred to Genesis 1–11 in discussing the Flood in his Vindiciae Geologicae (1820) and although briefly mentioning the gap theory and day-age theory he did not discuss Exodus 20:11.12 In his Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823) he made virtually no mention of Scripture as he defended the Flood. Similarly, although he devoted the first chapter of volume one of his 1836 Bridgewater Treatise to the relation of geology to Scripture, he dismissed the Flood as geologically insignificant in just two separate paragraphs and without any reference to Scripture. In a paragraph treatment of Exodus 20:11 he discussed the meaning of asah (the Hebrew word for “made”) but did not address the verse with reference to the meaning of “day” in Genesis 1, as virtually all the scriptural geologists did.13
In 1825, Sedgwick (also an ordained Anglican geologist) “carefully abstained from any allusion to the sacred records” when arguing that geological evidence of worldwide diluvial detritus demonstrated that a recent global Flood had engulfed the earth.14 In his recantation of this view (after his conversion to Lyell’s uniformitarianism) six years later, he likewise made no reference to scriptural texts.15 Nor did he discuss the Genesis record in the geological section of his 1834 sermon with explanatory notes, Discourse on the University, where he discussed biblical issues and made some negative remarks about scriptural geologists. The same is true of the 1850 edition. In fact, Marston observed that during his entire lifetime Sedgwick never clearly explained his view of how geology could be harmonized with Genesis, though he was obviously confident that it did.16
Conybeare (yet another Anglican cleric and geologist) discussed the relation of geology to scriptural revelation in the introduction to Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales (1822), but he did not cite a single scriptural passage either in the text or the footnotes.17 In his 1834 response in the Christian Observer to an anonymous layman who was defending the scriptural geology view, he likewise made no references to any particular biblical texts, all the while insisting that geology did not contradict Scripture.18
In asserting that creation was a continuing process lasting at least 600,000 years and that the Bible’s plain language indicated a global tranquil Flood, Macculloch did not refer to a single verse of Scripture, even though the full title of his two-volume work on geology said that he would give an explanation of geology’s connection with Scripture.19
Mantell had an anonymous Anglican clergyman write the 13-page introduction to his Fossils of the South Downs: Geology of Sussex (1822) to deal with the relation of geological theory and Genesis. But it referred only to some of the verses in Genesis 1, as he argued for a mixture of the day-age and gap theories, ignoring completely the Flood account and Exodus 20:8–11. Mantell devoted only three pages in The Wonders of Geology (1839) to the topic of the harmony of geology and Scripture and made no reference to Genesis.20
So the scriptural geologists were accurate in their complaint that their opponents, and especially those who professed to defend the idea of a global Flood and/or to harmonize geology and Scripture, generally failed to engage explicitly with the biblical text. Their opponents probably avoided this, at least in part, because of their conviction (to which most of them referred) that they were heeding the lessons of the Galileo affair and following the “two books” methodology advocated by Francis Bacon (i.e., to keep the study of the natural world separate from that of scriptural revelation). It is more likely that they avoided the text because they had no idea how to make the text fit their theories. Nevertheless, it was still inconsistent for them to tell their readers that their old-earth theories did not conflict with Scripture, when they never carefully looked at what the relevant Scripture passages said. While some Christian old-earth geologists may have thought (as Sedgwick definitely did) that it was too early to try to put scriptural truth together with geological theory, the scriptural geologists felt that because of the infant state of geology (to be discussed shortly) it was premature and, in fact, philosophically unsound to pull geology and Scripture apart in the first place.
The Problem of Evil
A second important and recurring theological objection to old-earth theories related to the problem of evil. The scriptural geologists believed that according to Scripture the whole creation was originally perfect, but then was cursed by God at the fall of man and judged again at the Flood. In their view, the notion of millions of years of revolutions and animal extinctions before the fall in sin (and even before the creation of man) was in direct contradiction to this plain teaching of Scripture.21 Closely related to this, several scriptural geologists22 also argued that a long process of gradual creation or creation followed by sporadic catastrophes with new acts of creation over the course of millions of years was contrary to the nature of God revealed in Scripture. If God created in such manners over long ages, it would reflect very poorly on His wisdom, power, and goodness, they contended.23
Their opponents did not address this problem of evil in the non-human creation until the late 1830s (if they discussed it at all), long after the old-earth view had become dominant in geology and in the Church. Buckland first addressed it in his Bridgewater Treatise (1836), attributing the death (even mass extinction) of animals to God’s wise plan of creation (i.e., a long series of revolutions, renovations, and creations).24 Actually, he focused his discussion on the role of carnivores in maintaining the balance of nature and, by the elimination of the weak and sick, increasing animal enjoyment (of the survivors, that is). In defense of his view he made no mention of the Fall or of Scripture generally. Three years later, in response to the criticisms of scriptural geologists,25 he preached a sermon at Oxford University in which he argued that there was no foundation in Scripture for believing that animals were included in the sentence of death at the Fall.26 He defended this by proposing alternative interpretations to the passages most often cited by his opponents. He argued that Romans 5:12–18, 1 Corinthians 15:21, Romans 8:19–23 and Colossians 1:23 referred only to the death and suffering of man, and Genesis 3:17–19 referred only to man and plants. He interpreted Isaiah 11:6–9 figuratively, which in any case, he said, referred to the future and so was irrelevant to our understanding of the past.
In the same year, John Pye Smith responded to scriptural geologists on this topic. He primarily used philosophical arguments about the necessity of carnivores and animal death for the perpetuation of the present biological system. But he also gave some scriptural arguments similar to those of Buckland.27
With respect to how this death in the animal world over millions of years was consistent with the nature of God, the few old-earth proponents who even dealt with the issue focused on how the design features of the carnivores revealed the creative intelligence of God, but they ignored the ethical issues.28
So, the scriptural geologists were raising serious biblical and theological objections to the old-earth views, but these objections were largely ignored by those who insisted that there was no conflict between old-earth theories and the Bible.
The geologically informed scriptural geologists also similarly cited several geological phenomena which, they argued, militated against the old-earth theories and supported their view that the stratigraphical record was consistent with a recent creation and global catastrophic Noachian flood. It is important to understand their interpretations of the geological evidence, if their role in the history of science is to be accurately assessed. However, to correctly understand why their young-earth arguments were ignored or rejected by their contemporaries, we need to see these key objections in the historical context of the geological understanding and debate at the time.
Young and Fairholme especially, and to a lesser extent Gisborne,29 argued that insensible transitions between the different mineralogical formations were a dominant feature of the geological record. This characteristic of one kind of mineral deposit gradually changing into another kind, without evidence of erosion or soil at the transition line, shows that the strata were deposited in rapid succession (as expected in a year-long global flood), while the subjacent strata were still rather soft and moist. Therefore, they reasoned, the notion of long ages during deposition of a single mineralogical layer (the uniformitarian view) or between deposition of two different strata (the catastrophist view) is erroneous.
Many geological writers recorded their observations of this geological feature. William Smith alluded to this fact many times in his 1816 work on identifying strata by their fossils. The mineralogical transitions were so smooth, said Smith, that frequently the fossils provided the only means of dividing them.30 In describing the secondary formations from the transition rocks up through the Oolite found in Gloucestershire and Somerset, Thomas Weaver frequently remarked on the gradual intermingling, or “reciprocal incorporation,” of different minerals at the contact boundary of two different adjacent formations.31 Buckland and Conybeare described how the strata of the Greywacke up to the coal measures and the New Red Sandstone up to the Oolite “graduate so insensibly” into each other as to make it very difficult to assign the precise limits of each.32 In 1832 Conybeare described how frequently the tertiary formations “pass insensibly into the subjacent secondaries.”33 In tracing the strata between the Primary and Oolite formations in northern Scotland, Sedgwick and Murchison often referred to the way the different formations generally graduated into each other so that it was impossible to draw a precise line between them.34 Buckland wrote in 1836:
[The strata] are arranged under the old divisions of primary, transition, secondary, and tertiary series, more from a sense of the convenience of this long received arrangement, than from the reality of any strongly defined boundaries by which the strata, on the confines of each series, are separated from one another.35
Lyell repeatedly remarked on these insensible transitions in his discussion and rejection of Cuvier’s theory of the Paris Basin.36 Whewell noted that this was an important line of evidence used by Lyell and other uniformitarians to ridicule and reject the catastrophist theory.37
These writers, however, made few, if any, inferences from this fact about the time involved in the depositional process. In contrast, some of the geologically knowledgeable scriptural geologists were attempting to improve or correct geological understanding by highlighting this generally observed fact and showing its relevance to the theoretical question of the age of the earth.
Polystrate Fossil Trees
Young, Fairholme, and Rhind argued that fossil trees found in many places in the geological record, though most notably associated with coal formations, and generally traversing more than one stratum and often many strata, were evidence that the strata were formed by rapid deposition of transported mineral and organic debris. Since the formations where the polystrate trees were found were analogous in their alternating mineralogical content to other formations where no trees were found, the scriptural geologists saw these trees as strong evidence that most of the strata were formed by the Noachian flood, and were not the remains of successive forests that had grown where they had been gradually buried by successive submersions over many ages.
The interpretation of these polystrate fossils was much debated by naturalists and geologists in the 1820s and 1830s.38 Some favored the allochthonous theory, which said that the trees had been ripped up, transported by water, deposited in their present positions and rapidly surrounded by sediments.39 Nicholas Wood stated that most of the fossil trees found by 1831 seemed to demand this conclusion.40
Others argued for the autochthonous theory, that the trees had been buried where they grew, even as they grew.41 Some proponents of this theory, however, believed the evidence did point to rapid burial.42 Buckland stated in 1840 that the debate was still continuing and that most fossil trees showed evidence of having been transported into their present positions; in his own experience, the number of cases of fossilized trees or smaller erect plants that appeared to have grown in their native place were “very few.”43 Apart from Bakewell, I could find no other old-earth geologist who noted the fact44 that the trees often traversed many strata (even though old-earth geologists frequently included drawings showing this fact) and discussed the inferences and responded to a scriptural geologist’s argument, such as Fairholme’s in Philosophical Magazine.45 Buckland, for example, devoted 27 pages in his 1836 Bridgewater Treatise to the subject of fossil trees, without referring to this polystrate feature of the fossils.46 Mantell stated that such trees often traverse many strata, but he made no comment on any theoretical inferences regarding time.47 Ultimately, the “growth in situ” theory prevailed, though modern old-earth neocatastrophists and young-earth creationists are again arguing for the old allochthonous theory of catastrophic uprooting, transport, and rapid burial.48
Closely related to these fossil trees was coal, which the scriptural geologists, such as Young, Murray, Fairholme, and Rhind, attributed to the Flood. Although by the late 1820s the vegetable origin of coal was conclusively proven (and the scriptural geologists agreed), the mode of formation (either by buried debris which had been transported and deposited by water, or by buried peat-bogs and forests which grew in situ) was still an “obscure and difficult question” in the early 1840s, though the peat-bog theory was gaining dominance.49
Shells and Dating the Strata
Since shells made up the vast majority of fossils, they had a great, if not singular, importance for old-earth geologists in working out their history of the earth. For example, William Smith, the “Father of English stratigraphy,” based his depiction of the geological column primarily on shells.50 In 1828, Lyell worked out his interpretation of the tertiary (on which the first and later editions of his Principles of Geology depended) solely on the basis of shells.51 Buckland stated that fossil shells were “of vast importance in investigating the records of the changes that have occurred upon the surface of our globe” and that “in fact without these [organic remains], the proofs of the lapse of such long periods as geology shows to have been occupied in the formation of the strata of the earth, would have been comparatively few and indecisive.”52 Geologist James Smith said in 1838 that judging the age of a deposit purely on conchological considerations was a sound rule of geological reasoning.53 These so-called index fossils then, as now,54 were of critical importance as evidence for the old-earth theories.55
To this use of fossil shells in dating the strata, Bugg, Young, Rhind, and Penn raised objections regarding both the uncertainties in taxonomic classification of shells and the ambiguities about the geological distribution of the shells. But they were not the only objectors. In both the 1812 and the 1831 editions of his Theory of the Earth, Cuvier rejected the use of shells as a means of reconstructing earth history, because differences in fossil species in the strata may have been the result of slight changes in salinity or temperature of the water or some other accidental causes, and testaceous animals were still too little known to confidently claim that some were extinct.56 From 1808 to 1813, Beudant (to whose work George Young referred) had experimentally shown that marine shell creatures could adjust to life in fresh water and, similarly, freshwater shellfish could become accustomed to life in the sea if the change in salinity was gradual as in the brackish waters of river deltas.57 Macculloch referred to this and other observations about fish and shell creatures when in 1824 he cautioned geologists about the use of these fossils to distinguish freshwater geological formations from those of marine origin.58 Six years later, Macculloch said that the use of fossils to identify, correlate and date strata from different locations was “groundless” and “nearly, if not entirely, useless.”59
In 1819, Greenough, then president of the Geological Society, conceived Cuvier’s theory of the Paris Basin to be open to “insurmountable objections,” one of which was the difficulty of confidently distinguishing fresh-water and marine shells.60
Charpentier, one of the leading geologists in Europe, argued in 1825 that only the relative position of strata could indicate the relative ages of the rocks, because knowledge of fossils and their distribution in the strata were not sufficiently precise to use them as an index for dating.61 Also, in 1825 the conchologist William Wood decried the “extreme multiplication of the genera, rather to increase than remove the difficulty of determining the species.”62 In an article on mollusca in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (1830), John Fleming remarked on the persisting difficulties in classifications of shell creatures into species, genera, and even the correct orders.63 The next year, De la Beche expressed strong caution in using shells to date strata, because of the considerable errors and confusion in the catalogs of fossil shells.64
In 1833, John Gray (1800–75), a leading conchologist at the British Museum, recorded the many difficulties and errors that had been made in classifying shell creatures based on the features of the shells, which far too often resulted in the creation of many different species and even genus names to identify what in nature was a single species.65 Two years later, his further published observations were explicitly applied to geology. He stated that geologists had built their theories on much fallacious information about the species and genera of testaceous mollusca and he seriously called into question the propriety of using shells to distinguish and date strata.66
In the five editions of his Introduction to Geology, published and revised between 1815 and 1838, the respected geologist Robert Bakewell67 repeatedly expressed his conviction that many of his fellow geologists relied too much on shells in their interpretations of the rocks; both in identifying distant, non-contiguous formations and in distinguishing fresh-water from marine deposits. This he deemed unwise because of the still too-limited knowledge of shell creatures and the continuing evidence of much erroneous classification of them, especially the multiplication of different species and genera.68 One reviewer of Bakewell’s 1828 third edition apparently agreed with him about the dangers in applying conchological knowledge to stratigraphy.69
So, the scriptural geologists were raising a serious objection against old-earth theories when they contested the use of shells to date the rocks, either in the catastrophist or uniformitarian view.
A significant reason that the majority of geologists believed that most of the geological record was deposited long before the creation of man was their conviction that no fossil human bones had been found except in recently formed deposits, and never with extinct animals.70 Buckland said that “no conclusion is more fully established than the important fact of the total absence of any vestiges of the human species throughout the entire series of geological formations.”71
Fairholme, Murray, Young, Penn, and Bugg argued that there were several instances which refuted this generally accepted opinion and therefore militated against the old-earth theory. Those instances were fossil human bones found in Guadaloupe; in Kent’s Hole (near Torquay, England); near Köstritz (Germany); near Bize, Pondre, Souvignargues, and several other places in France; and near Liège (Belgium). The scriptural geologists reasoned that if fossil man was found with any extinct creatures, it would falsify the idea that any other extinct fossil creatures were necessarily in existence and became extinct before the creation of man.
In other words, just because the dodo bird is now extinct (becoming so in the 18th century) does not mean that dodo birds became extinct before man was created.
At the time, these objections were ignored or dismissed on the contention that the above-mentioned fossils had been erroneously interpreted by the men who discovered them (or by the scriptural geologists who read their published reports).
However, not many years later Lyell argued, in the cases of Kent’s Hole and Liège (just as Phillips asserted in the cases of Bize, Durfort, Pondres, and Souvignargues), that the original discoverers (whom the scriptural geologists cited) had indeed been correct about man living, dying, and being buried contemporaneously with now extinct animals.72 Lyell and Phillips used the evidence of the contemporaneity of man and extinct creatures to prove the great antiquity of man (beyond the biblical chronology), an idea many old-earth proponents in the first half of the century had strenuously resisted.73 In contrast, the scriptural geologists had used the same evidence earlier to argue against the antiquity of the earth. Lyell was not able to examine all of the physical evidence which had been reported three decades earlier because some of the sites had been destroyed by quarrying. But what he did investigate convinced him that the original investigators had provided “ample evidence” for their conclusions. He explained that the reason geologists back then (including himself ) had not been willing to believe the conclusions was that the discoveries “contradict[ed] the general tenor of previous investigations.”74 The scriptural geologists, however, had contended that the reason for unbelief was that the findings contradicted the old-earth theories.
In addition, several scriptural geologists (Ure, Rhind, Gisborne75) emphasized that the argument for the non-existence of man (or indeed any other creatures) in earlier times, based on the absence of fossil evidence, was philosophically unsound. For one thing, they argued that since all contemporary creatures do not live in the same ecological habitat, it is unreasonable to expect them to be buried together. Also, geologists had only examined a very small portion of the earth’s strata. Furthermore, if during the Flood much of the antediluvian continents had been submerged to become post-diluvian ocean bottoms, most humans would have been buried out of the reach of geological investigation.
But some old-earth geologists also found the argument for non-existence of creatures based on the absence of fossil evidence to be problematic. Phillips said it led to erroneous conclusions about the history of birds.76 Smith remarked that it would result in false inferences about the history of man in the British Isles.77 Lyell argued that erroneous conclusions about the history of fishes were produced by such reasoning, and in 1855 he provided a table documenting the previous 100-year history of the gradual discovery of different classes of fossil vertebrates in lower (i.e., older) formations than had been previously expected. He ended the discussion by saying:
In conclusion, I shall simply express my own conviction that we are still on the mere threshold of our inquiries; and that, as in the last fifty years, so in the next half-century, we shall be called upon repeatedly to modify our first opinions respecting the range in time of the various classes of fossil vertebrata. It would therefore be premature to generalize at the present on the non-existence, or even on the scarcity of vertebrata, whether terrestrial or aquatic, at periods of high antiquity, such as the Silurian or Cambrian.78
This is a significant revelation given Buckland’s confident assertion in 1836:
The deeper we descend into the strata of the earth, the higher do we ascend into the archaeological history of past ages of creation. We find successive stages marked by varying forms of animal and vegetable life, and these generally differ more and more widely from existing species, as we go further downwards into the receptacles of the wreck of more ancient creations. When we discover a constant and regular assemblage of organic remains, commencing with one series of strata, and ending with another, which contains a different assemblage, we have herein the surest grounds where on to establish those divisions which are called geological formations, and we find many such divisions succeeding one another, when we investigate the mineral deposits on the surface of the earth.79
Lyell’s observation seems to be confirmed on a regular basis in our own time. For example, recently paleontologists digging in China and Mongolia have unearthed literally thousands of well-preserved salamanders in rocks supposedly 165 million years old, although previously the earliest they had been found was in rocks estimated to be 65 million years. And they resemble salamanders found today in North America and Asia.80 Many other such examples could be cited of living creatures with essentially identical fossil counterparts being found lower in the rocks than previously thought.
Infant State of Geology
Lyell’s remark above leads us lastly to consider an important contention of many scriptural geologists (e.g., Young, Gisborne,81 Murray, Bugg, Rhind), namely, that geological knowledge was far too limited in the early 19th century to justify a theory of the earth based solely on the geological data. As we have repeatedly seen, they also had a theory of earth history, but the difference was that it was founded on Scripture, which, they believed, provided the infallible historical framework or outline for geology and was well corroborated by many geological facts and indisputably contradicted by none. Although only Penn and Ure discussed Bacon’s ideas in any detail, a few others expressed agreement with Penn’s argument on first formations, where he dealt with Bacon’s ideas. Also, the scriptural geologists contended for Bacon’s methodology with respect to the need for a wealth of observational particulars as an inductive basis for sound theoretical generalizations.82 They felt that the observational data of geology were still exceedingly insufficient.
Again, however, they were not the only ones who were saying that geological science was too young to confidently advance a particular theory of the earth. Many people who were not scriptural geologists remarked on this in the 1820s and 1830s.83 Conybeare said in his report to the geological section of the BAAS in 1832:
The great branches of the comparative geology, and comparative palaeontology (or study of fossil remains) of distant countries, much as they have recently advanced, have as yet even a still wider interval to pass over than that which they may have already accomplished, before they shall have obtained that degree of completeness which alone can qualify them to serve as sound bases in any geological theory.
First, as to comparative geology. The very introductory question is yet inadequately answered, Is there or is there not anything like such a general uniformity of type in the series of rock formations in distant countries, that we must conceive them to have resulted from general causes, of almost universal prevalence at the same geological aeras? . . . Two conditions obviously enter into this problem—first, the contemporaneous prevalence and extent of similar geological causes; and secondly, how far these causes, even where active, may have been modified by varying local circumstances. Now, at present, our materials for answering these questions accurately are confined to Europe.84
Five years later, in his discussion of the history of geology, the leading historian and philosopher of science in the early 19th century and old-earth creationist, William Whewell, wrote (and was quoted by Rhind):
While so large a portion of the globe is geologically unexplored—while all the general views which are to extend our classifications satisfactorily, from one hemisphere to another, from one zone to another, are still unformed—while the organic fossils of the tropics are almost unknown, and their general relations to the existing state of things has not even been conjectured, how can we expect to speculate rightly and securely respecting the history of the whole of our globe? And if geological classification and description are thus imperfect, the knowledge of geological causes is still more so. As we have seen, the necessity and the method of constructing a science of such causes are only just beginning to be perceived. Here, then, is the point where the labors of geologists may be usefully applied, and not in premature attempts to decide the wisest and abstrusest questions which the human mind can propose to itself.
It has been stated, that when the Geological Society of London was formed, their professed object was to multiply and record observations, and patiently to await the result at some future time: and their favorite maxim was, it is added, that the time was not yet come for a general system of geology. This was a wise and philosophical temper, and a due appreciation of their position. And even now their task is not yet finished—their mission is not yet accomplished: they have still much to do in the way of collecting facts, and in entering upon the exact estimation of causes—they have only just thrown open the door of a vast labyrinth which it may employ many generations to traverse, but which they must needs explore before they can penetrate to the oracular chamber of Truth.85
In 1863, Lyell, commenting on the “imperfections of the geological record,” also sounded remarkably like the scriptural geologists three decades earlier. Then, as a uniformitarian evolutionist, Lyell wrote:
When we reflect, therefore on the fractional state of the annals which are handed down to us, and how little even these have as yet been studied, we may wonder that so many geologists would attribute every break in the series of strata, and every gap in the past history of the organic world, to catastrophes and convulsions of the earth’s crust, or to leaps made by the creational force from species to species, or from class to class.86
So, this fact of the still infant state of geology, which in 1863 was useful to Lyell as a repudiation of catastrophism and defense of the antiquity and evolution of man, was essentially denied by the leading geologists in the 1820s and 1830s when the fact was used by virtually all the scriptural geologists as an objection to theories about the great antiquity of the earth.
In this regard, while the old-earth geologists may have been Baconian in separating Scripture from their geological investigations, the scriptural geologists believed their opponents were not following Bacon in a different respect. Bacon argued that sound scientific theories could only be established after an accumulation of vast amounts of data comparable to the scope of the theory which was designed to give a generalized interpretation of those data. In the case of geology, a sound theory of the earth would, in the opinion of the scriptural geologists, need to be based on a thorough study of all areas of the earth’s surface, which in the early 19th century was far from accomplishment. Of course, we now know that Bacon’s strictly inductive approach is not the way science and theory development often works, but that was the stated assumption of the Geological Society and others in the 1820s and 1830s.
This review of the historical context of the biblical and geological objections of the scriptural geologists does not prove that their view of a relatively recent beginning of creation and global Flood was correct. But it does show that all of their major objections were substantive and important and therefore worthy of a response from their opponents. They were not scientific or geological ignoramuses raising petty irrelevant objections as their antagonists charged. So we must conclude that the reason that the criticisms of the most well-informed scriptural geologists were ignored was elsewhere to be found. To the important question of the true nature of the debate we now turn.