Having considered the similarities and differences of the scriptural geologists and having shown that many of them raised the same theological and geological objections to the old-earth theories on important and debatable points, we now have a better context in which to assess the nature of the debate. To do this, we must consider why the scriptural geologists wrote on this subject, summarize the contemporary reactions to their writings, and then analyze the reasons for the reactions of their opponents.
Motivations of the Scriptural Geologists
We cannot assume that the scriptural geologists’ stated reasons for writing on geological theories were their only, or most important, motivations. There may well have been others. But it is proper historiography to assume the sincerity of a writer’s own stated motivations, unless there is strong historical evidence to the contrary.1 The following considerations would indicate that such strong contrary evidence is lacking.2
Certainly, Young, Rhind, Fairholme, and Murray demonstrated genuine interest in geological science by their purely scientific journal articles or books. In particular, Young stated in his first geology book that he hoped his geological research would contribute to more effective and profitable mining and farming and industrial applications of minerals. Especially in his second book, Fairholme was attempting also to contribute to geological knowledge by making new observations and interpretations and advancing new arguments for the Flood. Similarly, Murray was concerned about practical, applied geology, evidenced in his numerous contributions to the Mining Journal and his invention of a safety lamp. Rhind wrote several purely geological or geographical books designed to stimulate further geological research by others.
But they [Scriptural geologists] also wrote on the subject out of the conviction that the old-earth theories were leading the geologists into a bewildering labyrinth that would impede the progress of true geological knowledge, by locking observations and interpretations into a false theoretical framework, thereby blinding geologists from seeing what they might otherwise see.3
Closely related to the study of science is the teaching of it. Ure, Murray, and Rhind had strong interests and involvement in education. They believed that education in science contributed to improving man’s standard of living, sharpening the mind and deepening a person’s reverence for the Creator. By his lecturing and writing, Ure wanted to raise the level of general scientific knowledge of artisans and industrial workers. Murray was a nationally known lecturer, especially in mechanics’ institutes, and many of his pamphlets were written to help spread scientific knowledge among the general public. Similarly, Rhind lectured and wrote to contribute to the education of secondary school students as well as the general public.
Obviously, the scriptural geologists were also motivated by their Christian faith. But I see little support for Rudwick’s assertion:
. . . more was involved than simple religious and social conservatism. The geologist’s startling assertions about earth history were indeed derived from increasingly esoteric inferences that the ordinary person could no longer follow easily. Mosaic geology was, therefore, in part a cultural reaction to social and cognitive exclusion of all but self-styled experts from an area of speculation that, in the heyday of theories of the earth, had been open to all.4
As we have seen, however, the scriptural geologists were not “ordinary people.” Most (including the ones not discussed in this book) were highly educated clergymen or scientists, who were quite able to analyze the logic of inductive conclusions from the stated facts in old-earth arguments, and some of them were fully competent to engage in the geological debate of their day about the old-earth theories and the stated supporting evidence. Furthermore, some of the most influential works by old-earth geologists were not so esoteric, for they were deliberately published for a general readership and in fact gained wide circulation.5 Also, it was not “simple religious and social conservatism” which was driving the scriptural geologists, but their convictions about the divine inspiration of Scripture. Rudwick acknowledges this conviction about Scripture, but belittles it by equating “simple religious and social conservatism” with pre-critical biblical scholarship. However, from the widely known writings of T.H. Horne and others on the inspiration and authenticity of Scripture,6 evangelicals and high churchmen had well-reasoned arguments against the new critical biblical scholarship.
In light of all these considerations, it seems right to conclude that the primary motivation behind the scriptural geologists’ defense of a biblically based view of earth history was their expressed unshakeable conviction that the Scriptures were the inspired, infallible, and historically accurate Word of God. This dominating conviction was not unlike that which motivated the contemporary Clapham Sect to be such agents of social change.7
All the scriptural geologists agreed about the grave importance of the controversy. Ultimately, they saw this as a part of a cosmic spiritual conflict between Satan and God, and those who rejected the plain teaching of Scripture (which, in their thinking, included the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1–11) were unwitting enemies of the truth and of God. George Bugg, Henry Cole, and James Mellor Brown expressed their view of this spiritual conflict more explicitly than other scriptural geologists,8 but given their common conviction about the literal interpretation of Scripture, they all undoubtedly shared the same conviction that the undermining of Scripture was a part of a spiritual conflict.
They believed that with the rejection of the plain teaching of Genesis, the proper interpretation and authority of the rest of Scripture would be undermined so that faith in other important biblical doctrines, including the origin of evil, the gospel, and the second coming of Christ, would slowly be eroded. These erosions of faith in turn would have a devastating effect on the life of the Church, the social and moral condition of the nation, and the spread of the gospel at home and abroad. As well-read Christians, the scriptural geologists were aware of the skepticism pervading continental theology and biblical scholarship9 and perceived that it was slowly differing the British churches and contributing, along with old-earth geological theories, to the weakening of the Church.
Contemporary Reactions to the Scriptural Geologists
The reactions to the scriptural geologists were three-fold. Many appreciated their works and generally agreed with their view of earth history, though not necessarily accepting their conclusions on every detail. For the most part, their opponents either mischaracterized and rejected the scriptural geologists collectively as a group or, more often, completely ignored their arguments, especially of those who were the most geologically competent to criticize the old-earth theories.
Many Britons must have appreciated the writings of the scriptural geologists, judging from the fact that some of the writings went through more than one edition and many of the works received positive reviews. This was especially the case in the Christian periodicals, but also in several scientific journals.10 The expressed reasons for their appreciation generally centered on (1) the scriptural geologist’s soundness of philosophical (or logical) reasoning (though the reviewers sometimes disagreed with minor points), (2) the reviewer’s shared view of Scripture as supremely authoritative divine truth in matters of history as well as theology and morality, and (3) his shared conviction that the then-infant state of geology gave old-earth geologists no basis for dogmatism about earth history, and therefore there was no compelling reason to make Scripture harmonize with their old-earth theories.
A very common response was a general misrepresentation of the scriptural geologists as a group.
Among their opponents, a very common response was a general misrepresentation of the scriptural geologists as a group. One of the most popular forms of this misrepresentation was the frequently encountered statement to the effect that, as Phillips put it in 1838, it was “universally admitted among geologists, that the earth is of vast antiquity.”11 The clear implication, of course, was that anyone who disputed the great ages was simply not a geologist. However, by early 19th century standards, it is clear that at least Young and Rhind were geologists who did not believe in an old earth. Also, within a year of Phillips’ comment, four books appeared from geologically competent scriptural geologists (Young, Murray, Rhind, and Fairholme) and two of them (Young and Fairholme) had published their reasons for rejecting the old-earth view several years before Phillips’ generalization. This general misrepresentation of the scriptural geologists as a group was seldom followed by the mention of any specific names or the differentiation between those who were geologically ignorant (and admitted it) and those who were well informed both by reading and fieldwork. But in the minds of many, they would all have been tarred with the same brush stroke.
For example, in 1834, after Ure, Young, Murray, and Fairholme had published on the subject, Sedgwick made the sweeping generalization that the scriptural geologists were controlled by “bigotry and ignorance” and that they believed “the pursuits of natural science are hostile to religion.”12 Two years later, Buckland implied that they were among those who “regard with jealousy and suspicion the study of any natural phenomena” and who “look for a detailed account of geological phenomena in the Bible.”13 In 1839, Mantell, in his brief comments on geology and Scripture, wrote that they had a “prejudice against the study of geology” and were authors who “falsely styling themselves as geologists” had attempted to “found a system of natural philosophy on the inspired record.”14 Certainly, none of the men I considered here or in my thesis fit this description, and especially not George Young, whose 1828 Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast was undoubtedly known to Mantell, since his wife had purchased a copy.15 Whewell similarly charged that they sought “a geological narrative in a theological record.”16 The prominent evangelical Scottish Presbyterian theologian, Thomas Chalmers, was very influential in the popularization of the gap theory, and yet like many scriptural geologists had no geological experience or qualifications. He wrote in 1835 (and was quoted in 1837) that he regretted “that Penn, or Gisborne, or any other of our scriptural geologists, should have entered upon this controversy without sufficient preparation of natural science.”17 It seems difficult to believe that Chalmers was ignorant of the writings of Young, Ure, and Fairholme prior to this statement, given the high visibility of their writings and the fact that Young and Fairholme were also Scottish evangelical Presbyterians.
Two years later (1839), an old-earth geologist, who nevertheless identified himself as a “scriptural geologist,” said that “the opponents of geology have not grappled with the actual phenomena, and shewn how they can reconcile them with their interpretations of Scripture.” In particular, he criticized the author of A Portrait of Geology. Although he admitted that he had not even read the book, he confidently asserted that the anonymous author (who, he evidently did not know, was John Murray) “has not advanced one syllable of argument to refute” the old-earth geologists, “much less shewn how he can reconcile facts and Scripture,” and that the author did not really know much about the geological facts.18 It seems doubtful that, had he actually read Murray’s book first, his criticism would have been so scathing.
This misrepresentation of the scriptural geologists continued after they had laid down their pens (on this subject) in The Testimony of the Rocks (1857), written by Hugh Miller, one of the leading Scottish geologists and an influential evangelical. He had accepted Chalmers’ gap theory for much of his life, but geological fieldwork in the upper secondary and tertiary formations in the years 1847–56 had convinced him that this view was no longer tenable, and so he changed to the day-age theory as the preferred harmonization of geology with Scripture.19 In this book, Miller devoted a chapter to “the geology of the antigeologists,” in which he exposed the geological “errors and nonsense” of “our modern decriers of scientific fact and inference.”20 In harmony with the approach of other old-earth Christian geologists, Miller criticized seven writers, most of whose views were not representative of the scriptural geologists considered in this book and none of whom was geologically competent.
Besides a general and serious misrepresentation of the scriptural geologists as a group, most of their opponents ignored the more geologically competent writers, even though their works were referred to or reviewed in many Christian and secular periodicals and a number of them wrote many scientific journal articles. For example, in 1825 Sedgwick mentioned that most objectors to Buckland’s Reliquiae Diluvianae appeared “entirely ignorant of the very elements of geology.” He only referred to one exception to this general criticism: John Fleming, a leading Scottish clergyman and zoologist who accepted the great antiquity of the earth. Of him, Sedgwick wrote, “Yet I willingly allow that his arguments are adduced with a sincere love of truth, and that his facts and inferences are entitled to a candid examination.”21 Sedgwick never extended the same allowance to Young, even though Young was also known as a sincere lover of truth, Young was geologically more qualified than Fleming to raise objections to Buckland’s theory, and Sedgwick surely knew of Young’s objections.22 In his Discourse on the University (in both the 1834 and the greatly revised 1850 editions) Sedgwick referred by name only to Bugg, Penn, Nolan, and Forman, none of whom was a competent geologist.23 He made no mention of Young, even though he had praised Young’s 1822 work on Yorkshire geology, probably knew Young personally from his stop in Whitby on his own study of the Yorkshire coast, and reportedly gave a rebuttal at the BAAS meeting in 1838 when an abstract of the first part of Young’s Scriptural Geology (1838) was read.24
Similarly, Buckland ignored Young’s work on the Yorkshire coast, even though Buckland had purchased six copies of the first edition in which Young presented reasons for rejecting Buckland’s interpretation of Kirkdale cave.25 Young wrote two scientific journal articles on the same subject, and he and Buckland exchanged correspondence on their personal investigations of the cave. Neither Buckland’s 1836 Bridgewater Treatise nor the 1858 edition made any explicit reference to any particular scriptural geologists, though Buckland discussed the relation of geology and Genesis, as well as human fossils and polystrate fossil trees, two key issues for the scriptural geologists, as already noted. Ironically, in the only instance where Buckland named a scriptural geologist, he vaguely remarked on the “geological errors” in Gisborne’s Testimony of Natural Theology (1818).26 For the details of these errors, however, Buckland, a geologist writing in a geological work, referred the reader to a review in a non-scientific journal written by an anonymous author, who was not a geologist and who did not cite one explicit geological error.27 Buckland’s ignoring of opponents, regardless of their geological competence, was apparently intentional. A contemporary said of him, clearly with scriptural geologists in view, that “he very wisely determines not to attempt to reason with those who shut their eyes and say that the geologists invent facts.”28
Although Fairholme, who was reasonably well known through his several scientific journal articles, invited a geologist’s response to his journal articles on the important issues of coal, polystrate fossil trees, and human fossils in Köstritz, Germany, no geologist replied.29 In an 1834 issue of the Christian Observer,30 Conybeare answered an anonymous layman, who favored the scriptural geologists’ view and made no claims to geological knowledge, but neither Conybeare nor any other old-earth geologist made any response to Fairholme on Köstritz the next year. In 1842, Lyell wrote on Niagara Falls. But although Lyell’s view on how the falls were formed was similar to Fairholme’s and Lyell referred to Henry Rogers’ article, who wrote in response to Fairholme’s article and had a different interpretation of the falls from that of Lyell and Fairholme, Lyell made no mention of Fairholme’s article.31
Lyell was very concerned to sever the connection between Scripture and geology and he did not completely hide his opposition to orthodox Christianity.32 Evidently, after his scathing but general remarks about the scriptural geologists in his 1827 review of Scrope’s work on the geology of France,33 he felt that the best way to oppose them was to ignore them. Furthermore, when only an abstract of the first part of George Young’s essay on the antiquity of organic remains34 was read in the geological section of the 1838 BAAS meeting in Newcastle, the official reason was that too many other long essays were submitted to the section.35 It seems at least questionable, however, whether Lyell, who was president of the section, and Buckland, who was vice-president, had a reason other than quantity in view in the selection of essays.
This disregard of the objections of the scriptural geologists, especially those who were most geologically competent, cannot have been because of an abrasive writing style, for most of them wrote respectfully.36 Nor was it because of excessive geological errors in their writings, for it has been shown that in many cases the accusation of error was false or too vague to be validated.37 Furthermore, their opponents sometimes accused each other of being very ignorant of the relevant facts and of erroneously interpreting the facts, yet they nevertheless engaged in respectful debate.38 Finally, Buckland, Sedgwick, and Greenough all recanted previous geological interpretations (related to the Flood), and De la Beche excused his own inevitable mistakes in his work, by saying that even erroneous ideas serve to advance science as they are exposed and corrected.39
Sedgwick said that even if all that the scriptural geologists had done was to point out old-earth geologists’ errors of logic and fallacious inductions they “might, perhaps, have done us some service.”40 Since even some of the criticisms that Bugg, one of the least geologically informed scriptural geologists, made of Cuvier’s logic and inferences were shared by Lyell and Fleming, it seems contrary to the evidence to conclude that all the scriptural geologists, even the most geologically competent, utterly failed even in this regard, as Sedgwick’s statement implied.
Marginalization: Contributing Factors
Why then were the scriptural geologists misrepresented and ignored by their opponents? Earlier discussion has shown that the scriptural geologists were not just challenging minor debatable points, but rather points that were critical to the defense of the old-earth theories. These included the theological issues of the origin of evil and biblical interpretation and the geological issues of insensible transitions between strata, polystrate fossils, using shells to date rocks, fossil humans, and the infant state of geology. This marginalization by their opponents, therefore, was not because the scriptural geologists’ arguments completely lacked any geological or theological substance, nor was it the result of a reasoned critique of their most geologically informed arguments.
Having cleared away some of the supposed and frequently stated reasons why the writings of at least the geologically competent scriptural geologists were not considered in the geological debates, we are now prepared to consider what I believe were the real reasons.
In the light of religious controversy and frequently attending violence, especially in Europe during the previous centuries, religious tolerance was becoming a highly important value. Technological advancement, a rising general standard of living, and political reformation (especially in the wake of the French revolution) toward more representative democracy all contributed to a sense of progress. Yet at the same time, industrialization and urbanization were also stimulating economic deprivation, crime, and other unrest.
Science was increasingly viewed as a social and political peacemaker and stabilizer, as well as the means of successful industrialization.41 The founding of the Geological Society was motivated in part by a desire to maintain a civil society.42 As noted earlier, the mechanics’ institutes generally avoided controversial subjects (such as geology) in their teaching of science. The BAAS was very influential in this regard as it consciously sought to be politically and religiously neutral and tolerant of all views.43
Many felt the necessity of avoiding all needless controversy that might contribute to political and social instability in Britain. The old-earth leaders of the scientific establishment obviously believed that the age-of-the-earth debate was a needless controversy, and so marginalized the scriptural geologists. The biblical convictions of the scriptural geologists would doubtless have led them to agree with efforts to avoid needless controversy. But the perceived threat of the old-earth geological theories to the Christian faith and biblical authority absolutely required their opposition. It was not a needless controversy in their estimation. They gave no evidence of desiring to use political or ecclesiastical power to stop what they viewed as dangerous ideas. Instead, they sought to fight with reasoned arguments in the marketplace of ideas.
The scriptural geologists were also probably ignored, in part, because they evidently acted as lone individuals rather than banding together to speak with a united voice.44 Had they formed a society of some kind to share their ideas and to strategize about how to influence others they might have received more attention, but this would have only delayed their marginalization, given the reasons discussed below. That they did not join together is surprising, given the facts that none of them was a social recluse and several of them (for example, Ure, Young, Murray, and Rhind) were members of scientific societies. Also, the influential Anglican theologian/pastor and scriptural geologist Thomas Gisborne knew from his association with the evangelical “Clapham Sect” the power of collective action. This lack of collaboration could reflect an excessive individualism. But this does not seem to fit the character of these men, as revealed in their writings and the reputation they had among their contemporaries. Alternatively, it could indicate merely that their other responsibilities and interests, and in some cases poor health, along with difficulties in travel and communication in those days between such a few men so widely scattered geographically,45 prevented them from contributing any more to the defense of their beliefs than the books they were able to write.
Furthermore, although Rupke has shown that the process of university reform (i.e., the movement away from the study of classics and history toward that of natural science) had a strong influence on some of the old-earth geologists, the evidence in this book indicates that he goes too far in saying that the Genesis-geology debate was first and foremost a chapter in the history of university reform.46 Certainly, one general result of the focus on the study of the present by the methods of experimental science was the growing disregard of the writings of antiquity. With technological advancement came the notion that the ancients were pre-scientific and therefore primitive and bound by superstition. This undoubtedly differed many people’s view of Scripture and other ancient writings such as non-biblical testimonies to a great Flood. Since from the very early 1800s university geology courses were all taught within the old-earth paradigm, and by the late 1830s geology was rapidly on its way to becoming a full-time vocation and institutionally trained profession,47 it is little wonder that, as far as I could ascertain, no new geologically competent scriptural geologist arose in the 1840s and 1850s to continue to defend the view after the most geologically informed defenders died48 or were focused on other fields of study.49 Some men did write in opposition to old-earth theories, but they were clergymen, laymen, or scientists in non-geological fields.50
Finally, the ignoring of the geologically competent scriptural geologists, especially in the 1830s, was probably also influenced by the dominance of Charles Lyell. He was largely responsible for moving Sedgwick, Buckland, Conybeare, Greenough, and others away from catastrophism and from any connection between the Bible and geology. This had a tremendous effect on what was deemed acceptable in geological research, journal publications, and scientific societies.51 Sedgwick was president of the Geological Society from 1829 to 1831, Greenough from 1833–35, and Lyell from 1835–37. Lyell was also president of the geological section of the BAAS in 1838. Yet the years 1837–38 were when the most geologically competent scriptural geologists presented their most seasoned thoughts on the subject.
World View Conflict
These social and political factors, however, were only symptomatic of what I believe was a more fundamental reason for ignoring and rejecting the arguments of the scriptural geologists. It was primarily a conflict of philosophical paradigms or world views, which included assumptions about the nature of science (especially geology), the nature of Scripture and the nature of God’s relationship to His creation.52 It was not a conflict between science and religion, or scientific facts and religious obscurantism, but between the scientific theories of one religious group and the scientific theories of another, or alternatively said, between the religious convictions of one group of scientists and non-scientists and the religious convictions of another group of scientists and non-scientists. But this conflict was not defined by denomination or church party, for there were both Anglicans and non-Anglicans, and evangelicals and high churchmen on both sides.
The growing scientific establishment in early 19th century Britain was controlled by an elite group of men who either embraced or in varying degrees were influenced by the theologically liberal, “Broad Church” view of Christianity. This group of scientists, which included the leading geologists, comprised the dominant influence in the BAAS and the Geological Society, two of the most powerful scientific bodies at the time.53 The BAAS was becoming the new “Church of Science” and its elite “gentlemen of science” were the new clerisy, who perceived themselves to be “the anointed interpreters of God’s truth about the natural, and hence the moral, world.”54 Brooke has argued that Morrell and Thackray make an exaggerated claim when they say that the liberal Anglicans in the BAAS worshiped at the shrine of science rather than truly worshiping the biblical God. But he did admit that there “was undoubtedly a tendency” of this kind in the BAAS, even though some (such as Whewell) were opposed to it.55
The BAAS’s theology was influenced by deistic thinking, in part as a result of the influence of skeptical German biblical criticism, which as we have seen was slowly penetrating the British church through the “Cambridge Network” and others, reaching its full expression in the seven articles in Essays and Reviews (1860) published the year after Darwin’s Origin of Species.56 This is not to say that all these scientists were deists. Many no doubt were deists, unitarians, agnostics, or atheists, even if covertly so because of the social stigma attached to such “faiths” in early 19th century Christian Britain. On the other hand, some of these elite scientists were quite orthodox in their beliefs. Brooke has shown from Whewell’s sermons that he was far more evangelical in his theology than has been previously supposed, and that in an 1827 sermon he expressed his concern about the irreligious sentiments prevalent among many men of science.57 Likewise, Hilton has noted that Vernon Harcourt, the first president of the BAAS, had a “moderate evangelical eschatology.”58 In the fifth edition of his Discourse on the University, Sedgwick expressed a very evangelical view of salvation and spoke out against the pantheistic rationalism of Life of Jesus, written by the German radical theologian, David Strauss.59 But the compromise of orthodoxy is generally gradual and subtle, and in such a changing environment there are always new possibilities for perceived unorthodoxy. For example, Whewell’s connection with the Cambridge network led him to believe that “German biblical scholarship could lead to a deeper understanding of how God spoke to men than was enshrined in the newly conventional notion of verbal inerrancy.”60
In this connection, what constitutes faithfulness to “orthodox Christianity” or “evangelicalism” is very frequently open to debate since the beliefs of individuals, churches, or other groups within the Church often change and orthodoxy has to be constantly redefined, clarified, and defended.
The scriptural geologists were concerned about this very issue, believing that the boundaries of orthodox Christianity were being slowly widened to include dangerously false ideas. It was their conviction that they were contending for the faith, not against total paganism so much as against a small, subtle, but polluting compromise of orthodox Christianity with potentially great consequences. They believed this compromise was being accomplished by Christian geologists and non-geologists whom they regarded as pious and orthodox in all, or most, other aspects of their faith. Quoting Psalm 11:3,61 Murray did not decry that the superstructure was completely unsound but instead was concerned that the foundations were being attacked by the old-earth theories. Penn contended that through old-earth geologists, Greek atomist philosophy was infecting the Church. Cole was convinced that old-earth geological theory had the direct and inevitable tendency to subvert the Word of God, even though he was sure that neither Sedgwick nor any other Christian geologist had that intention.62
Brown compared the situation to the fall of the city of Troy:
This affords another illustration of men who pull down the bulwark, but disclaim any intention of endangering the citadel. The Trojan horse, drawn within the walls of the devoted city by friendly hands, is a standing emblem of men acting under the unsuspecting guidance of the Evil One.63
As Cannon, Morrell, and Thackray argue, the god of the BAAS was not the God of the Bible, but the more tolerant and vaguely defined “author of nature,” a god who did not care much about doctrinal precision. In the natural theology of some of these “gentlemen of science” the focus was on a god of power, wisdom, and goodness.64 In contrast, the scriptural geologists emphasized (in addition to these other attributes) God’s holiness, justice, and wrath, attributes which their opponents seldom, if ever, mentioned in this context. The scriptural geologists drew attention to these latter attributes most notably when they emphasized that the global Flood was a unique, penal intervention of God, and that the curse at the fall of man had differed the whole physical creation, not just man.
As far as Scripture was concerned, many of the opponents of the scriptural geologists generally accepted the infallibility and authority of Scripture only in matters of theology and morality,65 but not necessarily also in historical matters. The scriptural geologists, along with a great many contemporary and earlier Christians, believed that the theology and morality of the Bible were inseparably linked to its historical accuracy and they believed that the gap and day-age theories, as well as the tranquil and local flood views were subtle ways of denying that accuracy (even though the old-earth proponents claimed to be defending it).
Relying on Francis Bacon and the experience of Galileo, the old-earth proponents also increasingly insisted on a bifurcation of the study of nature and of Scripture. By this means they hoped to avoid the errors of the Church in Galileo’s day and engage in an unbiased, objective, strictly empirical analysis of the physical world. But as we have seen, the scriptural geologists contended that this unbiased objective analysis, or “cosmological neutrality” (as Rudwick called it66), was not what actually happened. They believed their old-earth opponents were controlled by unbiblical religious and philosophical ideas which differed their selection and interpretation of the facts of geology, just as strongly as their opponents believed the scriptural geologists were biased by traditional literal interpretations of the Bible. Secord has noted:
Most significantly, recent work in cultural anthropology and the sociology of knowledge has shown that the conceptual framework that brings the natural world into a comprehensible form becomes especially evident when a scientist constructs a classification [of rock strata]. Previous experience, early training, institutional loyalties, personal temperament, and theoretical outlook are all brought to bear in defining particular boundaries as “natural.”67
It would be misleading to think that all these factors influenced all scientists to the same degree. Furthermore, a major component of anyone’s theoretical outlook is his religious world view (which could include atheism or agnosticism). I would argue that world view had a far more significant influence on the Genesis-geology debate than has previously been perceived or acknowledged. The different religious orientations, or world views, of the scriptural geologists and their opponents influenced how these scientists and non-scientists interpreted the “two books” of God: creation and Scripture.
Consider the men most influential in the development of the old-earth theory. Buffon was probably a deist or atheist.68 Laplace was an open atheist.69 Lamarek straddled the fence between deism and theism.70 Werner was a deist71 or possibly an atheist.72 Historians have concluded the same about Hutton.73 William Smith was a vague sort of theist.74 Cuvier was a nominal Lutheran, but recent research has shown that he was an irreverent deist.75 As the following quotes will suggest, Lyell was probably a deist (or Unitarian, which is essentially the same).76 Many of the other leading geologists of the 1820s and 1830s were the same. These men were hardly unbiased, objective pursuers of truth, as they would have wanted their contemporaries to believe.
Russell is generally right about scientists and non-scientists: “Men often perceive what they expect, and overlook what they do not wish to see.”77 In describing the controversy in the late 1830s over the identification of the Devonian formation, Rudwick wrote:
Furthermore, most of their recorded field observations that related to the Devonian controversy were not only more or less “theory laden,” in the straightforward sense that most scientists as well as historians and philosophers of science now accept as a matter of course, but also “controversy laden.” The particular observations made, and their immediate ordering in the field, were often manifestly directed toward finding empirical evidence that would be not merely relevant to the controversy but also persuasive. Many of the most innocently “factual” observations can be seen from their context to have been sought, selected, and recorded in order to reinforce the observer’s interpretation and to undermine the plausibility of that of his opponents.78
In his covert promotion of Scrope’s uniformitarian interpretations of the geology of central France, Lyell had similarly said in 1827, “It is almost superfluous to remind the reader that they who have a theory to establish, may easily overlook facts which bear against them, and, unconscious of their own partiality, dwell exclusively on what tends to support their opinions.”79 However, many geologists, then and now, would say that Lyell was blind to his doing precisely these things in his own geological interpretations. In fact, Lyell’s own words indict him. In a lecture at King’s College London in 1832 he stated, “I have always been strongly impressed with the weight of an observation of an excellent writer and skillful geologist who said that ‘for the sake of revelation as well as of science—of truth in every form—the physical part of geological inquiry ought to be conducted as if the Scriptures were not in existence.’ ”80 In private correspondence around the same time, Lyell revealed his consciously devious and anti-biblical agenda. He was certainly not the unbiased objective geologist that he thought and led others to think he was. In an 1829 letter to Roderick Murchison just months before the publication of the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, he candidly wrote:
I trust I shall make my sketch of the progress of geology popular. Old Fleming is frightened and thinks the age will not stand my anti-Mosaical conclusions and at least that the subject will for a time become unpopular and awkward for the clergy, but I am not afraid. I shall out with the whole but in as conciliatory a manner as possible.81
Ironically, Reverend John Fleming, a professing evangelical Scottish Presbyterian minister and tranquil Flood proponent, was more supportive of Lyell’s uniformitarianism than the truth of Genesis 1–11.
Writing in 1831 to fellow old-earther, Gideon Mantall, Lyell revealed:
My dear Mantell—I have been within this last week talked of and invited to be professor of geology at King’s College [London], an appointment in the hands entirely of the Bishop of London, Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of Llandaff, and two strictly orthodox doctors [of theology], D’Oyley and Lonsdale. Llandaff alone demurred, but as Conybeare sent him (volunteered) a declaration most warm and cordial in favor of me, as safe and orthodox, he must give in, or be in a minority of one. The prelates declared “that they considered some of my doctrines startling enough, but could not find that they were come by otherwise than in a straightforward manner, and (as I appeared to think) logically deducible from the facts, so that whether the facts were true or not, or my conclusions logical or otherwise, there was no reason to infer that I had made my theory from any hostile feeling towards revelation.” Such were nearly their words, yet Featherstonhaugh tells Murchison in a letter, that in the United States he should hardly dare in a review to approve of my doctrines, such a storm would the orthodox raise against him!82
Lyell must have been relishing this lack of spiritual and doctrinal discernment exhibited by leading churchmen. He wrote the previous June 14 (1830) to another good friend, fellow uniformitarian, and member of Parliament, George Poulett Scrope:
I am sure you may get into Q.R. [Quarterly Review] what will free the science [of geology] from Moses, for if treated seriously, the [church] party are quite prepared for it. A bishop, Buckland ascertained (we suppose Sumner), gave Ure a dressing in the “British Critic and Theological Review.” They see at last the mischief and scandal brought on them by Mosaic systems. . . . Probably there was a beginning—it is a metaphysical question, worthy of a theologian—probably there will be an end. Species, as you say, have begun and ended—but the analogy is faint and distant. Perhaps it is an analogy, but all I say is, there are, as Hutton said, “no signs of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Herschel thought the nebulae became worlds. Davy said in his last book, “It is always more probable that the new stars become visible and then invisible, and pre-existed, than that they are created and extinguished.” So I think. All I ask is, that at any given period of the past, don’t stop inquiry when puzzled by refuge to a “beginning,” which is all one with “another state of nature,” as it appears to me. But there is no harm in your attacking me, provided you point out that it is the proof I deny, not the probability of a beginning. . . . I was afraid to point the moral, as much as you can do in the Q.R. about Moses. Perhaps I should have been tenderer about the Koran. Don’t meddle much with that, if at all. If we don’t irritate, which I fear that we may (though mere history), we shall carry all with us. If you don’t triumph over them, but compliment the liberality and candor of the present age, the bishops and enlightened saints will join us in despising both the ancient and modern physico-theologians. It is just the time to strike, so rejoice that, sinner as you are, the Q.R. is open to you. P.S. . . . I conceived the idea five or six years ago [1824–25], that if ever the Mosaic geology could be set down without giving offense, it would be in an historical sketch, and you must abstract mine, in order to have as little to say as possible yourself. Let them feel it, and point the moral.83
James Hutton similarly had a philosophically naturalistic world view that was hostile to the Genesis account of creation and the Flood. He insisted in 1785, “The past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now. . . . No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”84 Obviously, this axiom of geological interpretation ruled out a priori any consideration of the biblical testimony to earth history and especially God’s judgments at the Fall and the Flood.
So, the influence of world view on the observation, selection, and interpretation of the facts was considerable, especially given the limited knowledge of people individually and collectively in the still infant stage of early 19th century geology. As Kuhn has noted:
Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternatives.85
Just as the catastrophist felt irresistibly driven by the “obvious” evidence to believe in great regional or global catastrophes separated by long ages of time, so the uniformitarian “saw” equally undeniable evidence that they had never happened. In the same way, scriptural geologists, like a Cole (with virtually no geological knowledge) or a Young (with a very high level of geological competence), felt that all the opposing geologists were “blind” to the plain evidences for a recent supernatural creation and a unique global Flood.86
One example of the influence of world view on the selection and interpretation of the facts is the case of polystrate fossils. The fact that trees were often found fossilized in an upright position in the rocks was agreed by all. The old-earth geologists overlooked or minimized the additional fact, and the theoretical implications of that fact, that the trees very often cut through several different strata. On the other hand, the scriptural geologists seized on this additional fact as one strong piece of evidence that much, if not most, of the geological record was very rapidly deposited during the year-long Noachian flood.
So the scriptural geologists were fighting against a major paradigm shift transpiring in both theology and geology (and generally in science and society) during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Another way this new world view was expressed was in the increasing insistence both by liberal theologians and scientists that all things must be explained only by the laws of nature. This meant that miraculous interruptions of the normal course of nature were ruled out a priori. Miraculous activities in Scripture were then seen as mythical (i.e., historically untrue or inaccurate) accounts of events which occurred according to the laws of nature but which pre-scientific people did not understand. From such a deistic world view it was only a short step to atheistic naturalism. All that was necessary was to show philosophically that the apparent intelligent design in nature is an illusion—the accidents of a purposeless non-created cosmos.
Clearly, as the century progressed toward the acceptance of Darwin’s theory, scientists were increasingly embracing this naturalistic world view, though certainly many old-earth geologists (e.g., Sedgwick, Buckland, Conybeare) and non-geologists (Whewell, Sumner, Pye Smith, Chalmers, etc.) firmly rejected it as a world view. Nevertheless, the controlling paradigm in science was shifting in this direction and many church opponents of naturalism were knowingly or unknowingly imbibing some of the naturalist presuppositions. The scriptural geologists felt that these Christian men were abetting that world view shift, in spite of their sincere intentions to the contrary.
The scriptural geologists’ assumptions about the nature of Scripture (especially the early chapters of Genesis) and about the relationship of God to His creation and the “laws of nature” (i.e., the definition and relation of miracles and providence) were contrary to the assumptions of their opponents. The geologically competent scriptural geologists were observing the rocks with an eye for evidences that confirmed what they assumed (because of belief in the inspiration of Scripture) to be the historically accurate biblical account of the origin and early history of the earth. They also clearly had the philosophical assumption that the Word of God, the Bible, was more perspicuous, and therefore easier to interpret correctly than were the works of God, the physical creation. Their opponents, whether uniformitarian or catastrophist, were likewise looking for evidences of their theories of earth history. Their theories contained the assumptions that the Bible was not relevant to their science and they operated from the philosophical assumption that the works of God were more perspicuous and easier to interpret than was the Word of God.
The Problematic Nature of Geological Science
So what about the Galileon/Baconian dictum that the study of nature and of Scripture should be kept strictly separate, or the corollary that science should interpret Scripture but Scripture should never be allowed to interpret the natural world or judge scientific theories? This question is an important element in one’s world view, but it is an issue which needs to be elaborated. The old-earth proponents insisted that maintaining this separation was the only way to do true science, especially geology, and the only way to avoid a repeat of the Galileo affair, which was deemed to have been detrimental to science and Christianity.
Most of the scriptural geologists did not develop an explicit and thorough answer to this Baconian-Galileon bifurcation, and surely this was another significant reason that they were marginalized. But Penn argued at some length (and other scriptural geologists apparently agreed) that the old-earth geologists had a faulty definition of what it meant to be Baconian, because they did not take into account Bacon’s distinction between the supernatural initial creation of a perfect, fully functioning cosmos suitable for man and the subsequent commencement (on the seventh day of creation or after the fall of man) of the presently operative laws of nature.87 Bugg, Rhind, Brown, and Murray referred to the Galileo affair, but their responses were brief and shallow. They objected that while the reinterpretations of the biblical texts relevant to the Copernican theory were exegetically convincing and in harmony with the rest of the teaching of Scripture, the old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis were exegetically unconvincing and contradicted (or undermined) other important teachings of Scripture. They believed also that the Copernican view had been tested and confirmed over a long time, whereas geology was still in its infancy and frequently was changing its interpretations of the geological data, thereby disqualifying it as a solid basis for reinterpreting Scripture. In any case, most of the scriptural geologists clearly believed there was a difference between scientific explanations about the origin and history of the earth, on the one hand, and scientific explanations about the present state and operation of the creation, on the other. Rudwick remarked on this different character of geological science when he wrote:
Even at the opening of its “heroic age” [ca. 1790–1830], geology was recognized as belonging to an altogether new kind of science, which posed problems of a kind that had never arisen before. It was the first science to be concerned with the reconstruction of the past development of the natural world, rather than the description and analysis of its present condition. The tools of the other sciences were therefore inadequate. The processes that shaped the world in the past were beyond either experiment or simple observation. Observation revealed only their end-products; experimental results could only be applied to them analogically. Somehow the past had to be interpreted in terms of the present. The main conceptual tool in that task was, and is, the principle of uniformity.88
We have seen, however, that the scriptural geologists argued analogically on the basis of the principle of uniformity, just as much as their opponents did.89 An important difference between the scriptural geologists and their opponents then seems to have related to this distinction between sciences dealing with the origin and history of the creation and those dealing with its present condition and functioning.
Some of their old-earth opponents alluded to this difference also. For example, in his 1830 response to Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Conybeare distinguished between “descriptive geology” and “theoretical geology,” preferring to work at the former for the present because the data to support a theoretical system was then insufficient.90 John Herschel observed that astronomy was quite mature in explaining how the present heavens operate, but that “the researches of physical astronomy are confessedly incompetent to carry us back to the origin of our system, or to a period when its state was, in any great essential, different from what it is at present.”91 These statements indicate that in his mind there was a distinction between astronomical theories about the past origins and astronomical knowledge of the present operations of the celestial bodies.
However, by far the most thorough discussion of this distinction between the origin and operation of the physical world came from the leading philosopher and historian of science of that time, William Whewell, who devoted 70 pages to the philosophy of that branch of science for which he coined the term “palaetiology.”92 This branch of science attempts to identify the causes of past historical events whose effects we observe in the present, or, “to trace back the history and discover the origin of the present state of things.”93 These historical sciences, Whewell said, are notably different from the experimental sciences that deal with present causes and effects (or with “the general relations which permanently prevail and constantly recur among the objects around us”).94 He devoted attention to three examples of palaetiological science: geology (the history of the earth), comparative philology (the history of languages), and comparative archaeology (the history of arts). Before any of these sciences is prepared to erect a theory of the actual facts, said Whewell, it requires a systematic description of the facts (which he called “phenomenology”) and a rigorous analysis of the causes (which he called “aetiology”). He argued that no sound palaetiological theory (in any of these three sciences) was yet extant, and concluded in 1840 that:
. . . geological theory has not advanced beyond a few conjectures, and that its cultivators are at present mainly occupied with a controversy in which the two extreme hypotheses95 which first offer themselves to men’s minds are opposed to each other. And if we have no theoretical history of the earth which merits any confidence, still less have we any theoretical history of language, or of the arts, which we can consider as satisfactory. The theoretical history of the vegetable and animal kingdoms is closely connected with that of the earth on which they subsist, and must follow the fortunes of geology. And thus we may venture to say that no palaetiological science, as yet possesses all its three members. Indeed most of them are very far from having completed and systematized their phenomenology: in all, the cultivation of aetiology is but just begun, or is not begun; in all, the theory must reward the exertions of future, probably of distant, generations.96
The irony of this conclusion is that while Whewell insisted that geology was very far from being ready to erect a theory of the earth, he appeared certain that the two mainstream old-earth theories were the only options. The scriptural geologists’ view of a 6,000-year-old earth was eliminated from consideration, even though Whewell did not explicitly name any scriptural geologists, gave no evidence of having read their most geologically informed books (most of which were published in the three years leading up to Whewell’s book),97 and provided no examples of erroneous arguments for a recent creation.98 Yet nowhere in this 70-page discussion, or anywhere else in these two volumes, or in his discussion of geology in The History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) did he summarize or refer to the evidence that to him ruled out a recent creation and global Flood.
This inconsistent conclusion led to others when later Whewell addressed the relation of these palaetiological sciences to Scripture. For example, he repeatedly used the Galileo affair (which dealt with the present operation, not the origin and history, of the heavens) in order to essentially sever Genesis from the development of a palaetiological theory of the earth. And this was after saying that the current leading theory of the origin of the solar system, the nebular hypothesis (which he classified as part of “cosmical palaetiology”),99 was “many ages of observation and thought” away from verification.100 It would appear that his somewhat liberal views of Scripture and the contradictions in his thinking about palaetiological sciences predisposed him against considering the arguments of the most competent scriptural geologists, who wrote their best works on the subject just prior to Whewell publishing his thoughts on palaetiology.
Nevertheless, he did argue that because the palaetiological sciences were concerned with reconstructing past events, human historical records (including the Scriptures) “must have an important bearing upon these sciences,” and that with respect to geology in particular, these records “have the strongest claim to our respect.” 101 Furthermore, like many other old-earth proponents, he believed that Genesis was crystal clear and literal in meaning when it explained the supernatural and recent creation of man.102
In the end, however, Whewell asserted (without reference to any particular texts of Scripture) that Genesis was too obscure in meaning to be relevant to geological theory.103 But that was a theological and exegetical (not scientific or geological) conclusion, which the scriptural geologists disputed. Nevertheless, sounding very much like the scriptural geologist Granville Penn 15 years earlier, Whewell said:
Thus we are led by our reasonings to this view, that the present order of things was commenced by an act of creative power entirely different to any agency which has been exerted since. None of the influences which have modified the present races of animals and plants since they were placed in their habitations on the earth’s surface can have had any efficacy in producing them at first.104
With regard to the nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system, he continued, “Here again, therefore, we are led to regard the present order of the world as pointing towards an origin altogether of a different kind from anything which our material science can grasp.”105 Three years earlier Whewell had written similarly:
Geology and astronomy are, of themselves, incapable of giving us any distinct and satisfactory account of the origin of the universe, or of its parts. We need not wonder, then, at any particular instance of this incapacity; as for example, that of which we have been speaking, the impossibility of accounting by any natural means for the production of all the successive tribes of plants and animals which have peopled the world in the various stages of its progress, as geology teaches us . . . but when we inquire when they came into this our world, geology is silent. The mystery of creation is not within the range of her legitimate territory; she says nothing, but she points upward.106
So although the scriptural geologists never worked out a philosophical defense of their methodology, their conviction that geology was different from other sciences, because it dealt with history and origins, and their insistence that Genesis should not be severed from the interpretation of geological phenomena were philosophically and methodologically sound, according to Whewell’s reasoning.
A statement which well conveys a sense of both the conflict of world views and the confusion about the nature of experimental sciences (or operation sciences) compared to palaetiological sciences (or origin sciences) is one made by Sedgwick to the Geological Society as he was introducing his scathing criticism of Ure’s New System of Geology (1829). Sedgwick wrote:
Laws for the government of intellectual beings, and laws by which material things are held together, have not one common element to connect them. And to seek for an exposition of the phenomena of the natural world among the records of the moral destinies of mankind, would be as unwise as to look for rules of moral government among the laws of chemical combination. From the unnatural union of things so utterly incongruous, there has from time to time sprung up in this country a deformed progeny of heretical and fantastical conclusions, by which sober philosophy has been put to open shame, and sometimes even the charities of life have been exposed to violation.107
Contrary to what Sedgwick implied in this statement, no scriptural geologist (including Ure, the chemist, whom Sedgwick was criticizing) argued that the Bible teaches or was intended to teach what operation science is to discover, namely, in Sedgwick’s words, 1) “the laws by which material things are held together,” 2) “an exposition of the phenomena of the natural world,” and 3) “the laws of chemical combination.” Rather, as I have repeatedly stated for emphasis, they argued that the Bible gave an outline of the origin and early history of the creation.
None of Sedgwick’s phrases above dealt with the origin of the world or any rare divine interruption of the normal course of nature (i.e., the Fall or the Noachian flood), unless those phrases contained a built-in philosophical/theological assumption that the laws of nature describe the only way God has ever worked in the world. But that would have been assuming one of the very points of debate. So in this passage, Sedgwick was attacking a straw-man opponent. He was implying that Ure and the other scriptural geologists believed that the Bible taught how the world operates (i.e., the laws of nature), but they did not. They believed that scientific research should be done to figure that out, and Ure, Murray, Fairholme, Rhind, and several other scriptural geologists were very involved in that kind of scientific research.
One more point needs to be made in this regard. Although old-earth geologists generally insisted on keeping the Bible and geology separate, some of them, in fact, did not do this all the time. For example, Sedgwick stated, “The Bible instructs us that man, and other living things, have been placed but a few years upon the earth; and the physical monuments of the world bear witness to the same truth.”108 So Sedgwick started with the biblical teaching about the origin of man and believed he had found confirmation of this in geology. 109 Methodologically, this was precisely what the scriptural geologists did, when they believed they had found geological evidence in support of the biblical teaching on the Flood and a supernatural creation week. Sedgwick was taking the genealogies of Genesis quite literally, but he did not explain here or anywhere else on what basis he was correct to take this part of Genesis literally but the scriptural geologists were wrong to take the rest of Genesis 1–11 literally. Other old-earth proponents, who reasoned from the Bible and geology about the recency of man, just as Sedgwick did, included Conybeare, Mantell, Harcourt, and Babbage.110 But they never gave criteria to distinguish when it was permissible (even desirable) to keep the Bible and science together and when we must separate them. So the old-earth proponents had a very arbitrary methodology.
The scriptural geologists insisted that Genesis had a direct bearing on the development of a geological theory of the earth; in fact, they said, it should be used as a framework in which to interpret the geological phenomena, just as ancient historical documents should be used to interpret the monuments and artifacts of an ancient nation. But their opponents increasingly severed the connection of Scripture to geology, except with regard to the recent creation of man, or insisted that geology should always determine the correct interpretation of related Scriptures. This historical nature of geology was linked to a theological perspective on how God began the creation, as well as how He has related to His creation over the course of time, which had a profound influence on the interpretation of geological phenomena and significantly contributed to confusion and misunderstanding in the debate between the scriptural geologists and their opponents.
From a closer examination of the historical evidence, several weaknesses in previous scholarly analysis of the early 19th century Genesis-geology debate have been exposed. This research has demonstrated that the scriptural geologists have been misrepresented both by their contemporaries and most later historians.
First, some scriptural geologists were admittedly geologically ignorant, but even many of these were generally well-read and obviously capable of interacting with serious minds over the validity of logical arguments (i.e., whether conclusions drawn from stated premises were logically valid). Others were very competent in geology, demonstrated especially in the case of two well-known men (Young and Fairholme) and two others who have been virtually unknown to historians (Murray and Rhind). These writers raised important geological objections to the old-earth theories and did so in a respectful manner.
Second, the frequent assertion that the scriptural geologists were “anti-geology” is very inaccurate and therefore misleading in our attempts to understand the debate. The great majority of them strongly advocated the study of science in general, and of geology in particular. If there is any sense that the scriptural geologists could be regarded as “anti-geology,” it would only be in the sense in which geology was defined by their opponents, namely that geology as a science included the assumption that the earth was of very great age, and therefore any challenge to the age of the earth was ipso facto opposition to the science of geology. All the scriptural geologists opposed the old-earth interpretations of the geological phenomena, primarily on biblical grounds. But the geologically competent and well-informed writers also presented important geological reasons for rejecting the old-earth theories of earth history and accepting the biblical account of a relatively young earth.
Third, contrary to the accusation of most of their contemporary opponents, the scriptural geologists were not trying to construct a “whole system of natural philosophy” from the Bible in place of doing scientific research, but only insisted on using the Bible as a framework for developing a geological theory of earth history (and also cosmic history). By equating these two different categories of scientific investigation (origin science and operation science), opponents and later historians have obscured the true nature of the debate.
Furthermore, the evidence indicates that their firm biblical convictions (rather than a vague “social conservatism” or “rigid obscurantist traditionalism”) and genuine concern for the advancement of true scientific knowledge were far more important as motivations for their writing on geology than has previously been recognized. Though in some cases there were other motivations (e.g., socio-political, financial, educational, or professional), the scriptural geologists’ political, social, financial, vocational, and denominational diversity, coupled with their unity of opinion about earth history, indicates that these other motivations were not the primary ones, or even very significant.
But why did these and other scriptural geologists almost explode onto the scene of British history and then vanish nearly as quickly?111 Some probable reasons are as follows. These men wrote at a time of great turbulence in British society. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the economy, the use of natural resources, the production of goods and services, the distribution of the population, the structure of the family, the availability and curriculum of schools, and the standard of living of everyone. These changes, coupled with the abolition of slavery, challenges to the establishment of the Church of England, and the horrifying results of the French Revolution were threatening social and political stability.
Added to this, atheism, deism, and other anti-biblical philosophies of the Enlightenment were gaining in popularity all over Europe and penetrating the Church with ideas rooted in the supreme authority of human reason. Such rationalism insisted on explaining everything (including not only the present function of the creation but also its original state and subsequent history) by the supposedly inviolable laws of nature, which was a view often accompanied by a total denial of miracles. It also insisted on a completely natural (i.e., only human), rather than supernatural-natural (i.e., divine-human) origin of the Scriptures. This in turn differed how the Scriptures were interpreted. The Bible was believed by some to contain either historical errors or only theological and moral truths conveyed through myth or some other symbolic literary genre, just as other ancient religious literature contained.
Certainly, very many of the opponents of the scriptural geologists did not absorb all these ideas. In fact, a number of them opposed many of these unorthodox ideas. But the changing views of Scripture in general and Genesis in particular form an important background to the controversy. The scriptural geologists did not reject these ideas out of ignorance, but were well-read in the writings of contemporary orthodox biblical scholarship in Britain, where many of the skeptical objections of continental biblical critics were answered.
Also, increasingly in the 19th century, science was being viewed as the dominant (and, in many minds, the only) source of truth, and thus the teaching of science could promote social stability. Since the early 19th century also saw the rapid rise in the number of scientific journals and magazines, books and pamphlets on scientific topics, public scientific lectures, and scientific associations and educational institutions (such as philosophical societies and the mechanics’ instititutes), this view of science was permeating all classes of the general public.
All of this was contributing to a gradual, but profound, shift in world view in society and a radical redefinition of Christianity in many parts of the Church in Europe and America. Up to this point in history, seldom, if ever, had there been so much simultaneous change, and the scriptural geologists were very conscious of these revolutions.
Unlike the European continent, Britain (along with America) was still experiencing the effects of the 18th century evangelical awakenings. As a result, it was the strongest center of orthodox biblical Christianity and produced many intellectually rigorous and devout people who sought to be influential in society (e.g., the evangelical Clapham Sect who led the fight against slavery and other social problems). Added to this was the long tradition of English writers who sought to relate the study of geological phenomena to the Genesis flood112 and the early 19th century tradition of writings on natural theology,113 in which science was seen as an ally in defending orthodox Christianity.
Finally, in the period 1820 to 1845, the scriptural geologists were writing toward the end of a debate among geologists about the physical effects of Noah’s flood. Some, such as Hutton and Lyell, were saying that it was geologically irrelevant. Others, such as Cuvier, Buckland, Sedgwick, and Jameson, were insisting for a time that the Flood was responsible for at least some of the geological phenomena. The scriptural geologists’ most intense reaction came in the wake of the recantations (of belief in the Flood) of Buckland, Sedgwick, and others, and the publication of Lyell’s Principles of Geology.
In this context, the scriptural geologists felt compelled to write. They believed that the old-earth theories and the resulting reinterpretations of Scripture would have long-term catastrophic effects on the theological and spiritual health of the Church and her evangelistic mission and subsequently on the social and political life of the nation. But this was precisely because they believed these issues were related to a person’s response to the inspired and infallible Word of God. As Cole put it:
Many reverend geologists, however, would evince their reverence for the divine Revelation by making a distinction between its historical and its moral portions; and maintaining, that the latter only is inspired and absolute Truth; but that the former is not so; and therefore is open to any latitude of philosophic and scientific interpretation, modification or denial! . . . According to these impious and infidel modifiers and separators, there is not one-third of the Word of God that is inspired; for not more, nor perhaps so much, of that Word, is occupied in abstract moral revelation, instruction, and precept. The other two-thirds, therefore, are open to any scientific modification and interpretation; or (if scientifically required) to a total denial! It may, however, be safely asserted, that whoever professedly, before men, disbelieves the inspiration of any part of Revelation, disbelieves, in the sight of God, its inspiration altogether. If such principles were permitted of the most High to proceed to their ultimate drifts and tendencies, how long would they be sweeping all faith in revealed and inspired veracity from off the face of the earth? . . . What the consequences of such things must be to a revelation-possessing land, time will rapidly and awfully unfold in its opening pages of national skepticism, infidelity, and apostacy [sic], and of God’s righteous vengeance on the same!114
Subsequent developments in the church and society in Britain (and in other so-called Christian lands of Europe and North America) over the last 170 years has confirmed the scriptural geologists’ worst fears.
So it was the undermining of the Scriptures, far more than the undermining of the political and social status quo or their own personal positions in society, that was their shared concern. Also, as scientific knowledge was rapidly expanding and leading geologists and other scientists were claiming massive evidence in favor of an old earth, the scriptural geologists felt compelled to defend the traditional interpretation of Genesis, in part by attempting to show that much of what was being claimed as “evidences” of an old earth were really theory-laden inferences from the geological facts, with the theory being rooted in anti-biblical philosophical assumptions.
Having suggested some of the probable reasons for the sudden rise of the scriptural geologists, the following seem to be some of the reasons for their abrupt decline. From at least the 1810s, the control of the most influential scientific and educational institutions and scientific journals was held either by liberal Christians or moderate evangelicals or, as the century progressed, by men who were subtly or openly hostile to Christianity altogether. This inhibited the development of a new generation of geologically competent scriptural geologists. Closely related to this was the fact that in the 1830s and 1840s, geology was rapidly changing from a gentleman’s avocation into a specialized profession. This specialization made full-time geologists sensitive to what they perceived as intrusions into their private domain by part-time geologists, such as some of the scriptural geologists. If the scriptural geologists had collaborated more and first published when they were in their twenties, they might have fought longer and succeeded in encouraging younger men to join them. Also, if they had held some prominent positions in the power centers of education and science, they might not have been ignored and rejected by their contemporary opponents without much, if any, serious engagement with their arguments. Furthermore, semi-deistic, liberal theology was gradually replacing orthodox theology as the dominating influence in the Church. All of these factors contributed to the marginalization and rapid near-extinction of the young-earth proponents.
Finally, the scriptural geologists and their opponents also collided in their views on the very nature of geology. It was not an experimental science, such as chemistry or physics, seeking to discover how the present creation operates, but a science concerned with the historical question of origins. All of the scriptural geologists recognized, and some of their opponents attempted to articulate, this special characteristic of geological science. But the ambiguous definition of this historical nature of geology at its early stage of development added to the confusion and hindered the serious consideration of the best arguments of the scriptural geologists by their geological opponents. As the 19th century progressed, the question of origins (astronomical, geological, and biological) was moving rapidly away from assumptions rooted in Christianity to a semi-deistic, agnostic, or atheistic framework. The rear-guard action of the scriptural geologists was too little and too late to stop this cultural shift in world view.
By the publication of Darwin’s book in 1859 the Scriptural geologists had almost become an “extinct species” of the human race. Lyell’s uniformitarianism had conquered geology. In addition, virtually the whole church had accepted the idea of millions of years. Many otherwise godly and biblically faithful men contributed to this. For example, the Baptist “prince of preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, said in a sermon in 1855,
“Can any man tell me when the beginning was? Years ago we thought the beginning of this world was when Adam came upon it; but we have discovered that thousands of years before that God was preparing chaotic matter to make it a fit abode for man, putting races of creatures upon it, who might die and leave behind the marks of his handiwork and marvelous skill, before he tried his hand on man.”115
The great Presbyterian theologian at Princeton Seminary, Charles Hodge, also accepted the millions of years. Initially, Hodge favored the gap theory. But by 1860 he turned to the day-age theory as the best way to harmonize the Bible with the claims of the geologists. He told the church in 1871, “It is of course admitted that, taking this account [Genesis 1] by itself, it would be most natural to understand the word [day] in its ordinary sense; but if that sense brings the Mosaic account into conflict with [scientific] facts, and another sense avoids such conflict, then it is obligatory on us to adopt that other. …”116
Through his highly influential study Bible published in 1909, C.I. Scofield told millions of Christians around the world in the margins of Genesis 1:2, “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages. … Relegate fossils to the primitive creation, and no conflict of science with the Genesis cosmogony remains.”117
The Fundamentals, edited by R.A. Torrey (first president of what became Moody Bible Institute) were published in four volumes in 1910 and sent out free of charge to pastors, missionaries, and other Christian leaders all over the English-speaking world. The nationally and denominationally diverse contributing authors of the 68 articles in The Fundamentals were defending the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith. But the four articles dealing with science all compromised with the idea of millions of years.
At the famous 1925 “Scopes Evolution Trial” in Dayton, TN, William Jennings Bryan valiantly and intelligently argued against evolution, but conceded the millions of years as he embraced the day-age view. Many other influential theologians, Old Testament scholars and other Christian leaders over the past 150 years have persuaded Christians that no harm is done by accepting millions of years (and even evolution). But, just as the Scriptural geologists feared, it has contributed to an erosion of faith in the Scriptures and submission to their authority, both in the church and in the wider culture of nations that were once so influenced by the teachings of the Bible.
In light of these developments, no one would have predicted that by the 1970s Lyell’s dogma would be significantly challenged by “neocatastrophism.” A number of books have appeared on this matter, such as Derek Ager’s The New Catastrophism (1993), which lists others.118 Still more surprising (and distressing to evolutionists and many Christian leaders and scholars) has been the development of “young-earth creationism” in the last half of the 20th century. It will be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the literature of this contemporary movement that their interpretations of the geological and biblical records regarding creation, the Flood, and the age of the earth are essentially identical on the main points (though much expanded in detail) with those of the scriptural geologists.119 This might seem surprising, since there is no historical, literary link between the modern creationists and the scriptural geologists. In fact, based on the writings of young-earth creationists that I have read, the scriptural geologists were generally unknown before my research started to be published. But given their identical commitments to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, and their common view of Genesis as literal history, it is understandable that their interpretations of the fossils and rocks would be in such close agreement.
Unlike the scriptural geologists, the young-earth creationist movement is growing stronger with the passage of time. It is now worldwide in extent with literally thousands of Ph.D. scientists involved.120 The movement has published technical research journals and popular-level magazines (with global distribution) for several decades121 as well as hundreds of books, tapes, and videos in many languages.122 With the growth of this movement, the “intelligent design” movement,123 and the debate about evolution in many countries, it seems likely that the controversy that began at the time of scriptural geologists will intensify in the years ahead. Those interested in learning more should visit the various creationist websites and their online bookstores, e.g., www.icr.org, www.answersingenesis.org, and www.creationresearch.org.
The early nineteenth century was a great turning point for the church. Christians made a catastrophic mistake of abandoning belief in the Bible’s teaching about six-day Creation, the global Flood, and the age of the earth. That compromise has severely damaged the church’s spiritual life and her witness in the world. The church needs another great turning point—a return to complete trust in and submission to the Word of God, from the very first verse.124