Welcome to The GeoChristian, a blog primarily about the relationship between the Earth sciences and Christianity. My name is Kevin Nelstead, and I have been writing at geochristian.com since 2006. The most important thing about me is that I am a Christian. The passage of Scripture that opened up my eyes to the Good News about Jesus Christ was Ephesians 2:8,9, which says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
I often write about young-Earth creationism (YEC), which I believe to Biblically unnecessary and scientifically unworkable. Because of these things, I believe that YEC is an unfortunate obstacle to both evangelism and effective discipleship, especially of our youth. But I do not want The GeoChristian to be known primarily as a blog about origins issues, as there are many other areas in which Christian faith and the Earth sciences interact, such as environmental issues, energy policy, aesthetics, and natural resources.
I have an M.S. degree in Geology from Washington State University, and a B.S. degree in Earth Sciences from Montana State University. I have worked as a senior cartographer, geospatial analyst, natural resources specialist, high school and middle school science teacher in Christian schools; and missionary. You can read more about my background at https://geochristian.com/more-about-the-author/.
I am the author of Earth Science: God’s World, Our Home, a new middle school textbook for Christian students from Novare Science and Math. This book fills a critical niche in the Christian school market, providing a curriculum that is faithful to God’s Word yet doesn’t promote the young-Earth creationism and anti-environmentalism that is prevalent in materials from Christian school publishers.
Whether you are a Christian or non-Christian, scientist or non-scientist, creationist or evolutionist (or somewhere in between), I hope you find something that blesses you and points you to Christ through The GeoChristian.
“And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” – Matthew 13:3-9 (ESV)
Some people are more receptive to the Word of God and the Gospel than others. Jesus explains the meaning of the parable of the sower in verses 18-23: The seed is the Word of God, the hard path represents those with no receptivity to the gospel, and the rocky and weedy ground represents those who have only a passing or shallow interest in the gospel. The good soil represents those who receive the gospel gladly and let it put down deep, lasting roots, resulting in varying degrees of crop-bearing.
We may be discouraged when those we know and love have hearts that are hard like a well-worn path, or who turn away because of peer pressure or worldly pleasures. In these situations, be encouraged that just as God has designed the physical world so that fertile soil can develop from solid rock, so also God works in hard hearts to bring people to saving knowledge of his Son.
Pedogenesis (from the Greek pedon, meaning soil or earth, and genesis, meaning origin) is the process of forming a soil. A soil is a surface layer of unconsolidated mineral and organic matter that has been modified over time from its parent material. The concept of pedogenesis tells us that soils are dynamic features which change over time. Every soil on Earth has developed from pre-existing rocks or sediments. Some soils develop from solid rock, such as granite or limestone, and other soils develop from unconsolidated material like floodplain sand and gravel or windblown silt.
There are a wide range of types of soils on Earth, which can be broadly classified as tropical, desert, temperate grassland, temperate forest, and polar soils. Within a given region, or even within a 40-acre field, the properties of a soil change from place to place. Each distinct soil has a history, and came to be what it is now by the influence of five soil-forming factors:
Parent material – A soil formed from granite will be different than a soil formed from fine volcanic ash.
Climate – Temperature and moisture strongly influence what kind of soil will form in any given place. A tropical soil is very different from a polar soil, and a desert soil is very different from a temperate forest soil.
Relief – Soil formed on a shady slope will be different than a soil on a sunny slope, and both will be different than a soil formed in an adjacent plain.
Organisms – The development of a soil is also affected by the community of organisms that live in or on the soil: plants, animals (such as earthworms), bacteria, and fungi.
Time – Given enough time, solid rock may be weathered down to form a rich agricultural or forest soil.
I like to think of the parable of the sower in terms of the soil-forming factors of pedogenesis. Just as bare rock can develop into an agricultural soil over time, so also hearts that are hard can be transformed into receptive and crop-bearing hearts through a process of spiritual pedogenesis. I propose five spiritual soil-forming factors which can transform a person from being barren rock or weedy soil into a fruit-bearing follower of Christ:
Listening – We want to tell people about Jesus, but at the beginning we may simply need to be better listeners than talkers. Just as the starting point for a soil might be solid rock, we might need to be better at understanding the starting point of the people we are seeking to point to Christ.
Love – Love is the climate that can take a heart of granite and modify it to be a fertile mix of sand, silt, clay, and organic material that allows the seeds of the Word to germinate and grow.
Apologetics – Soils develop differently on different sides of a ridge. Apologetics is the branch of theology that provides evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity. In the physical world, soils do not move from one side of a hill to the other, but with spiritual soil development, we can help people move to a sunnier side of the hill where they may see things from a new perspective.
Community – Just as a diverse biological community of worms, roots, and soil bacteria can shape and enrich a soil, so a loving and serving Christian community can draw people in where their hearts and minds can become receptive to Jesus.
Time – Whether it takes hours or decades, God can change hearts and minds about the gospel.
Ultimately, the softening of hearts and the conversion of souls to Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit. Pray that the Holy Spirit would be doing a work of spiritual pedogenesis in the unbelieving hearts of those around you.
Grace and Peace
This GeoScriptures essay is not meant to be an exegesis of the parable of the sower, but my own personal meditation on the text. No analogy is perfect, and I am certain that this once could be improved on.
I gave five broad categories of soils, which is what I presented in my middle-school textbook Earth Science: God’s World, Our Home. Soil scientists in the United States use a more advanced classification called Soil Taxonomy, which has twelve soil orders, with names like mollisols, ultisols, aridisols, and spodosols. These soil orders may be divided into suborders, great groups, subgroups, families, and series.
Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins is authored by five professors from Wheaton College. Wheaton is an Evangelical institution with rigorous admissions standards, and therefore has a smarter-than-usual student body. These professors have been jointly teaching a class on origins (SCI 311) at Wheaton for a number of years, giving students an overview of both biblical and scientific aspects of origins.
The book is divided into seven sections:
Getting Started on the Journey – Four chapters on biblical interpretation and the interaction between science and Christian faith. These chapters lay a foundation for the rest of the book, and introduce themes which permeate many of the scientific concepts that follow, such as the functional integrity and ministerial action of the creation.
Cosmic Origins – Six chapters covering Genesis 1, the big bang model and fine tuning in the universe. The unit ends with a chapter on “Biblical and Theological Perspectives on the Origins of the Universe” (units 3–6 end with a similar chapter).
Origin and Geologic History of Earth – Eight chapters covering the origin of the solar system, catastrophism and uniformitarianism; the interpretation of the flood account in Genesis, geologic time, and Earth history.
Origin of Life on Earth – Five chapters covering abiogenesis (the origin of life), as well as theological perspectives on the topic.
Origin of Species and the Diversity of Life – Five chapters on biological evolution.
Human Origins – Four chapters on biblical and evolutionary perspectives on the origin of humanity.
Concluding Postscript – One chapter: “Biblical and Theological Perspectives on New Creation, Creation Care, and Science Education.”
This book is not written as an unbiased overview of all the Christian perspectives on origins. In other words, it is not like the Four Views on ________ books (some of which are excellent) that are already available at Christian bookstores. Instead, the book is written from a perspective that accepts big-bang cosmology, standard old-Earth geology, and biological evolution as scientifically-valid ways of understanding God’s creation. In terms of biblical interpretation, the book is written from a perspective that views the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, but which also places a strong interpretive emphasis on the worldviews present in the ancient world. If you have read any of John Walton’s Lost World books (Such as The Lost World of Genesis One), you will have an idea what to expect in the sections on biblical interpretation (though written more for a general audience than the Lost World books). The authors, therefore, fall within the broad credal orthodoxy of “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The authors accept Adam and Eve as historical persons, as well as Noah’s flood as a historical event, but interprets these less literally than either young-Earth creationists, or old-Earth creationists such as Hugh Ross.
The chapters which examine what the Bible says about origins topics (e.g. Chapter 13, The Genesis Flood, and Chapter 29, Human Origins: Genesis 2–3) are excellent. In fact, the examination of why Noah’s flood does not, according to Genesis 6–9, have to be what we would picture as a global deluge, is one of the best I have read. This book will provide its readers with a solid foundation not only for understanding the biblical and theological side of origins topics, but will give them greater confidence in the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God.
The section on geology is the longest part of the book, and consists of the following chapters:
Chapter 11 – Origin of the Earth and Solar System
Chapter 12 – Historical Roots of Geology: Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism
Chapter 13 – The Genesis Flood
Chapter 14 – The Rock Cycle and Timescales of Geologic Processes
Chapter 15 – Rocks of Ages: Measuring Geologic Time
Chapter 16 – Plate Tectonics: A Theory for How the Earth Works
Chapter 17 – Reading Earth’s History in Rocks and Fossils
Chapter 18 – Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Earth History
In this unit, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins does not cover the same breadth of material as a complete introductory textbook on physical or historical geology would, but what it does cover, it covers in some depth. For instance, Chapter 15 not only discusses radiometric dating in a general way, but introduces more advanced topics such as concordia and isochron dating that are not found in most introductory geology textbooks. Knowledge of these techniques provides readers with greater confidence that radiometric dating works, and usually works well.
Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins offers an excellent overview of the biblical and scientific issues surrounding the origins of the universe, Earth, life, biological diversity, and human beings. It is well-written and accessible to non-scientists as well as scientists. It will be a reference work that I go to often for science topics I’m a little weaker on, as well as for biblical and theological arguments regarding origins. I recommend the book for:
Young-Earth creationists (YECs) believe that the Bible requires that almost all features of Earth’s crust are the result of Noah’s Flood about 4300 years ago. These books are, in the words of Nurre, “an attempt to present the geology of Yellowstone from a Biblical perspective,”, as opposed to the standard geological timeframe in which the history of Yellowstone goes back a few billion years to the Archean Eon. This “biblical geology” effort is misguided, however, as the Bible does not say anything about processes such as igneous intrusion, volcanism, erosion, sedimentation, metamorphism, and glaciation. This results in a serious over-reading of the biblical text, leading to erroneous conclusions about the origin of geological features in places such as Yellowstone.
As a Christian, I believe that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1), and I believe Noah’s flood was a real, historical event, though I believe it was local, not global, in extent and effect. The biblical account of Noah’s flood (Genesis 6-9) tells us nothing about how the igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks of Earth’s crust came to be, especially in places as far from biblical lands as Yellowstone. There is, therefore, no need to come up with a “biblical” explanation for Yellowstone.
Your Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton by Hergenrather et al.
This is a well-written, nicely-illustrated book. Of the four authors, Dennis Bokovoy has a MS degree in geology, which helps to ensure that the book at least uses geological terms correctly. Michael Oard is a prolific writer on a wide range of topics in the YEC movement. The other two authors are John Hergenrather and Tom Vail.
Much of the book consists of typical tourist guidebook information: what to see at Old Faithful, Mammoth, Canyon Village, and so forth. The overall premise of the book, however, is that the geologic features of Yellowstone can be better explained in a so-called biblical model, which actually goes far beyond anything the Bible says.
As in most YEC literature, the book presents the alternatives as either evolution over millions of years, or creation less than 10,000 years ago. Many who read this book, either Christian or non-Christian, will not be aware that these are not the only options. There are many highly-qualified theologians, pastors, and scientists who accept the Bible as inerrant and authoritative who reject the overly-literal young-Earth interpretation of Genesis.
The book is fairly shallow in terms of its presentation of the case for a young-Earth interpretation of Yellowstone. It is admittedly written for a general audience, but it fails to develop a convincing case that the geologic features of Yellowstone are better explained by Noah’s flood, acting just a few thousand years ago.
The Geology of Yellowstone by Nurre
The biography at the back of the book states that Patrick Nurre “has been a rock hound since childhood.” I found one site that said he was “trained in secular geology,” but it seems he does not have a degree in geology.
Early in the book, Nurre states: “Secular geology claims that the universe is 15 billion years old and the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. If this is true, then the entire Bible is a lie!” [emphasis added]. This false dichotomy of “either young-Earth creationism is true or the Bible is false” has driven countless young people out of the church, and has set up an unfortunate barrier to faith for many scientifically-literate people. When people see the only options as young-Earth creationism or rejection of Christianity, many opt for a rejection of Christianity, especially in light of the steady stream of bad science that has come out of the young-Earth movement over the past century. I believe the Bible is inerrant and trustworthy, and that all truth is God’s truth, whether revealed in Scripture or in creation. An alternative way to look at Earth history, then, is that if there seems to be a conflict between science and the Bible, then either our interpretation of science is wrong, or our interpretation of the Bible is wrong. In this case, if Earth is old, it is not that “the entire Bible is a lie,” but that it could be that the young-Earth interpretation is what is at fault. Being that there are alternative interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis held by Bible-believing Old Testament scholars, and that young-Earth geology does not work, I side with old-Earth biblical interpretations.
The errors in the book are numerous:
p. 19. Radioactive half-life is described as “the time it takes for ½ of a Carbon-14 atom to decay.” – There is no such thing as the decay of half of an atom.
p. 22. “The column in its entirety has not been found anywhere on the Earth.” – Complete geologic columns, containing rocks from all periods from the Cambrian through Quaternary, are found in a number of places on Earth, such as in the Williston Basin of northwestern North Dakota.
p. 23. In regards to uranium-lead dating methods: “We assume that the initial state of the rock started with a certain amount of uranium and no lead.” – I’m not sure that the author understands uranium-lead dating, as methods such as isochron dating and concordia methods, are based on the assumption that there was initial lead in the system.
p. 89. “Igneous Rocks – rocks geologists think were formed by fire or heat.” – This is a really bad definition of igneous rocks. They certainly were not formed by fire, which is the result of combustion reactions. Heat is also involved in the formation of metamorphic rocks, and even in the sub-metamorphic alteration of many sedimentary rocks at a few hundred degrees Celsius.
94. “Obsidian is volcanic glass: pure quartz.” – Pure quartz has a composition of crystalline SiO2 and nothing else. Obsidian is not crystalline, so it is not quartz, and obsidian contains many other elements, such as iron, magnesium, aluminum, sodium, and potassium, which pure quartz does not contain. This mistake is repeated a number of times in the book.
I could list many more, but you get the idea. Even if I were still a YEC, I would not endorse this book.
Both books give typical young-Earth creationist explanations for the rocks and other geologic features of Yellowstone. I will take a closer look at two of these, showing why it is not credible to squeeze the history of Yellowstone into the short time frame required by YECs.
The fossil forests of Yellowstone are found in the Eocene Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup, which covers an extensive area north, east, and southeast of Yellowstone National Park. These rocks were formed as the result of the eruptions of a series of large stratovolcanoes, similar to the volcanoes of the Cascade Range. Many of the rocks are interpreted to be volcanic mudflow deposits (lahars) rather than as lava flows.
The authors of both books point to the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens in Washington for an explanation for the petrified forests of the Absaroka Supergroup. Spirit Lake at Mt St Helens contains many thousands of trees that could eventually be incorporated into sedimentary rocks as a fossil forest. The young-Earth thinking is that if a single local catastrophe like Mt St Helens could create a local fossilized forest, then a much larger catastrophe (Noah’s flood) could create much larger fossilized forests such as found at Yellowstone.
It is valid to consider the deposits from contemporary volcanic eruptions, such as the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens, when seeking to interpret the formation of ancient rocks such as in the Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup. What we learn from modern eruptions is that volcanoes can produce lahars, which may contain logs and tree fragments, which will lead to layers of rock with petrified wood. It is legitimate, therefore, to conclude that the petrified forests of Yellowstone very well may have been formed in an analogous way.
The problems with the YEC interpretation of fossil forests at Yellowstone are numerous, and are not addressed in these two books:
How did a series of large stratovolcanoes form and then completely erode away in a matter of weeks, which is what would have been required in the most-common young-Earth catastrophism scenario?
All that remains of the stratovolcanoes themselves are igneous intrusions that represent the magma chambers. How did these magma chambers crystallize in a matter of days or weeks before they were exposed by floodwater erosion?
All of the sediments in these lahars (volcanic mudflow deposits) seem to be locally-derived, from the adjacent stratovolcanoes. If this happened during a global flood, why are there not non-local sediments mixed in with the local sediments?
Likewise, all of the trees seem to be part of an ecological package, ranging from subtropical species in the lowlands to colder-climate conifers higher up on the volcanic slopes. This makes perfect sense in the standard geological explanation, as lahars would originate at higher elevations and wash down to lower areas, creating a mixture of trees from different ecological zones. In the young-Earth scenario, however, there would be no time for trees to grow on the slopes of the ephemeral volcanoes, so there is no explanation of how these trees, and not some other mix of trees, ended up being preserved in the Absaroka volcanic rocks of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Caldera and Quaternary Glaciation
The Yellowstone Caldera is the result of the most recent “supervolcano” eruption at Yellowstone. The Yellowstone area has actually been the home to two supervolcano eruptions (volume > 1000 km3), several smaller caldera eruptions, and numerous smaller, though often still enormous, rhyolitic and basaltic lava flows. The present Yellowstone caldera is largely filled by these later flows. All of these eruptions occurred in what geologists refer to as the Quaternary period, which covers the past 2.6 million years of Earth history. YECs believe that this volcanism occurred at the end of Noah’s flood, or during a few centuries after the flood.
Both books refer often to the volcanism associated with the Yellowstone Caldera, without explaining how this is better explained by YEC, or acknowledging the numerous problems with trying to squeeze more than sixty distinct volcanic eruptions into a short period of time. There is abundant evidence for unconformities (erosional surfaces) between lava flows. This requires that lavas had time to completely cool between eruptions, something which takes time.
A fatal complication for the YEC explanations regarding Quaternary volcanism at Yellowstone is the evidence for alternation between volcanism and glaciation on the Yellowstone Plateau. Young-Earth creationists insist that there was only one ice age following Noah’s flood (though of course the Bible says nothing about when or how many ice ages occurred), yet at Yellowstone it is clear that a massive ice cap formed over the higher elevations more than once. For instance, volcanic ash from the final large caldera eruption (Lava Creek Tuff) is found on the Great Plains in Saskatchewan sandwiched between glacial deposits, which means there was glaciation both before and after this caldera eruption. Furthermore, a lobe of one of the final large rhyolite flows overlies glacial moraines near West Yellowstone, indicating that an ice cap had had time to form between emplacement of these later lava flows.
Here is what the Quaternary history of Yellowstone would have to look like in the young-Earth model:
Numerous smaller basalt or rhyolite lava flows, with time for erosion and deposition of sediments between at least some of the flows.
More smaller basalt and rhyolite flows, with time for erosion and sedimentation between flows.
Caldera eruption – Mesa Falls Tuff (280 km3, not large enough to be a supervolcano).
More smaller basalt and rhyolite flows, with erosion and sedimentation.
Formation of an ice cap over the Yellowstone Plateau.
Supervolcano eruption – Lava Creek Tuff (1000 km3).
More smaller basalt and rhyolite flows, with time for erosion and sedimentation between flows.
Formation of another ice cap over the Yellowstone Plateau.
At least one more massive rhyolite flow.
Formation of a final ice cap over the Yellowstone Plateau, and melting of that ice cap.
The whole thing can be summarized as “too many events, too little time.”
I would not recommend either of these books for use by Christians seeking to gain understanding of the geologic history of Yellowstone National Park. The Bible does not say anything about geologic events such as volcanism and glaciation, so YEC efforts to explain the geology of places such as Yellowstone is biblically unwarranted. Furthermore, YECs have been unsuccessful in explaining the complexity of geological features at places such as Yellowstone.
One can be a Bible-believing Christian and not hold to belief in a young Earth or global flood. A few of these alternative interpretations are presented in the Report of the Creation Study Committee of the inerrancy-affirming Presbyterian Church in America.
A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is largely a summary of the insights of the late theologian R.C. Sproul on the topic of the relationship between science and Christian faith. The author is Keith Mathison, professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Florida, and the book is available as a free Kindle book. Don’t let the zero-dollar price tag fool you; this is a great little e-book.
It is common for young-Earth creationists to ask something like, “Are you going to believe God’s infallible Word or man’s fallible science?” There are many ways that an old-Earth Christian could respond to this false distinction between science and Christian faith. I usually respond by saying that I believe that all truth is God’s truth, and that if there appears to be a conflict between the Bible and science, then either we misunderstand God’s Word, God’s world, or both.
R.C. Sproul basically said the same thing, and much more, as Mathison outlines in this book. Much of the book focuses on the topic of the age of the Earth, but it touches on other science and faith issues as well. The book has seven chapters, which I will summarize:
Chapter 1 – All Truth is God’s Truth
It is common for postmodernists to question the concept of truth, but unfortunately, it is also common for Bible-believing Christians to do the same. These otherwise theologically-orthodox Christians fear that if we consider God’s revelation in creation to be infallible or authoritative, that this will somehow detract from the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. Mathison points to the teachings not only of Sproul, but of Augustine, Calvin, and Bavinck to show that “all truth is God’s truth” is an idea that is consistent both with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and Reformed theology in general.
Chapter 2 – General and Special Revelation
Mathison distinguishes general revelation, which is available to all, and special revelation, such as the Bible, which points us to God’s work of salvation. Because God is truthful in everything he does, Mathison reminds us that “God’s revelation in creation is equally as infallible as His revelation in Scripture, because in both cases, it is God who is doing the revealing, and God is always infallible.”
Chapter 3 – Interpreting General and Special Revelation
We should not approach perceived conflicts between science and the Bible as “God’s infallible Word or man’s fallible science,” but in light of fallible human interpretations of both God’s infallible Word and God’s infallible creation. It is clear that fallible humans have misinterpreted both. Mathison explores this by reviewing the geocentrism vs. heliocentrism controversy of the 1500s and 1600s.
Chapter 4 – Luther, Calvin, and Copernicus
Both Luther and Calvin viewed Copernicus’s heliocentrism as heretical. This chapter takes a closer look at the Copernican Revolution, and what we now recognize to be faulty biblical hermeneutics by the reformers.
Chapter 5 – Earthly Things and Heavenly Things
In this chapter, the author takes a closer look at how the fall into sin affected human reasoning. Human reasoning is affected by sin, but it is not totally ruined. This is especially true in regards to general revelation. Unbelievers will get some things wrong in their understanding of the creation, but this is true for believers as well, and is also true of believers when it comes to Biblical interpretation.
Chapter 6 – When Science and Scripture Conflict
Sproul stated that if he is sure he correctly understands the Scripture, and if Scripture and science seem to conflict, that he would “stand with the Word of God a hundred times out of a hundred.” I agree with this statement. In most situations, we must be willing to take a closer look at both our scientific and Biblical interpretations. One key is to discern what Scripture actually teaches, and the failure to do this is where many science-faith conflicts come from. Mathison states that “Christians have absolutely nothing to fear ultimately from scientific research.”
Chapter 7 – The Age of the Universe and Genesis 1
Sproul, who leaned towards a young-Earth, stated that “the Bible does not give us a date of creation.” In light of this, Mathison warns us against creating false dilemmas in discussions about origins. As an example, Mathison writes, “I have also encountered Christians who have argued that any believer who is convinced that the universe is billions of years old should abandon Christianity because it would mean that the Bible is not true.” This false dichotomy is, unfortunately, common in the young-Earth movement, and it is very harmful both for discipleship and evangelism. When we teach our youth that if the Earth is millions of years old the Bible is a lie, we set them up for a fall. If we present this false dichotomy in evangelism to scientists or the scientifically-literate public, we place an unnecessary obstacle to Christian faith.
It is significant that R.C. Sproul leaned towards the young-Earth interpretation of Genesis, yet was able ultimately to say “I don’t know.” Sproul maintained a charitable relationship with those he disagreed with, which is a loving, Christ-following example for those on all sides of the origins debates within the Church.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” – Psalm 119:105 ESV
Among my most-treasured possessions are a small stack of wide-margin Bibles that I have been writing notes in for almost two decades. These Bibles contain much of what I have learned from my personal time of reading and studying God’s word, from numerous sermons and other messages I have heard, from books and articles I have read, and from interaction with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
One of my problems as a Christian is that I have forgotten far more than I remember. For instance, in the past forty years, I have listened to close to 2000 sermons on Sunday mornings. I still have notes for many of these, but I seldom go back through those notes. I know that the cumulative effect of all these sermons (and other inputs) has been significant, but there are things I have learned that I want to keep fresh in my heart and mind.
The solution God has led me to is to write notes in a wide-margin Bible. I do not keep these notes because I am smart but because I am forgetful, and need regular reminders of what God has taught me in the past. The advantage of using a wide-margin Bible instead of doing something such as a journal is that there is the potential that I will be reminded of the things God has taught me every time I read a passage. If something stood out to me, for example, in the second chapter of Ephesians back in 2001, I will conceivably see that note every time I read Ephesians 2 in that Bible. I am not downplaying the value of journals, but this is what works best for me.
I do not actually write down complete sermon notes in my wide-margin Bible. Usually on Sunday afternoon or evening, I will take a few minutes to transfer highlights from my sermon notebook into the margin of my Bible. That way there are key pieces of sermons that stick with me for the rest of my life.
Choosing a Wide-Margin Bible
There are many wide-margin Bibles (sometimes called journaling Bibles) on the market. I use the two-column wide-margin Bibles from Cambridge University Press. Here are a few of the wide-margin Bible variations that are available on the market:
Translations — A quick search at a bookstore or online reveals that most major English-language translations are available as wide-margin Bibles: ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, NLT, CSB, and more. I alternate between using the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV 1984) for my reading and study, but of course your preference may be different.
One-column or two columns — The page layout can be a make-it or break-it factor for you enjoyment of your wide-margin Bible. There are editions with two columns of text with two columns for writing, two columns of text with one column for writing, and one column of text with one column for writing. Some wide-margin enthusiasts insist on the one-column option. I really dislike the two text columns with one writing column option, as this does not allow one to write right next to the verse.
Width of blank space — My NIV Cambridge wide-margin Bible has 1.25 inches of blank space on both the left and right side, and about an inch on both the top and bottom of the page. This gives plenty of writing room on the right, left, top, and bottom of the page. There is additional space on the title page for each book of the Bible, which gives room for introductory comments. My ESV Cambridge wide-margin Bible has only one inch of blank space along the gutter, which makes it a little difficult to write notes. I would not purchase a wide-margin Bible that has blank space along the gutter that is less than one inch, as it would be too difficult to write notes.
Style of blank space — Some wide-margin Bibles are printed with faint (or not-so-faint) horizontal lines for you to write on. I would never purchase one of these, as the line spacing is not how I would naturally space my handwriting. Plus, I really don’t think I need lines to keep my writing straight for one inch! In addition, if you are going to include artwork in your margin notes, the lines might interfere with the aesthetics of your drawings.
Hard cover or leather — My wide-margin Bibles have hard covers, which are cheaper, but I’m sure less durable, than leather covers.
Red-letter or black letter — This is your preference. I choose only black-letter editions, as I think they are easier to read, and all Scripture is Scripture, not just the words of Jesus.
Paper — My Cambridge Bibles are printed with a heavier paper, which reduces bleed-through of ink.
Tools for Marking a Wide-Margin Bible
I have learned by trial and error what tools I need for marking in my wide-margin Bible.
Pen (or pens) — It is best to give some thought to the type of pen you will use in your Bible. You certainly do not want to use a pen that will bleed through the page, and in general this means a ball-point pen rather than a felt-tip pen. Before using a new kind of pen in my Bible, I make some text marks in some obscure place in the concordance or map index in the back to make sure it does not bleed through. I prefer to use a fine ball-point pen, as opposed to medium. More specifically, I use a Pilot B2P blue fine ball-point pen, and have bought a whole box of them.
Highlighters — If you do highlighting in your Bible, I recommend testing the highlighters in someplace like the concordance or map index to see how much it bleeds through the paper. Some people prefer dry Bible highlighters that can be purchased at Christian bookstores or online. My experience is that the lead breaks too easily on these, but maybe you will have a better experience.
Ruler — I use a flexible 6-inch ruler so I can underline with straight lines. This, of course, is optional.
White-out tape — If you are at all like me, you will make mistakes, such as typos, as you write in your margin. I used to use white-out liquid, which was a real pain, but now I use the correction tape dispensers, which are ideal for this sort of work (unless you buy a Bible with off-white pages).
Blotter — Ball-point pens tend to get little globs of ink accumulating near the tip while underlining, and this can result in a smudge of ink on your page. After underlining a verse, I will blot the ink off the tip of the pen with a facial tissue or paper towel that I keep with my other supplies.
This is how I do my note taking, underlining and highlighting, and other things:
Notes — I write kind of small, which allows me to put a lot of notes on the page. I write a verse number to start the note, as it is not always possible to put the note right next to the verse if I have a lot of notes on the page. My notes might be from my personal meditations, copied in part from study Bibles (such as the ESV Study Bible) or from commentaries; things I have learned from books I am reading, or from sermons. I have a lot of notes in my Bible related to apologetics and the doctrine of creation, as those are two of my deeper interests.
Underlining — I am more of an underlining guy than a highlighting guy. I underline words, verses, or longer passages that are especially meaningful to me. I use blue ink, but that is entirely your preference. You may come up with some sort of color code instead.
Highlighting — In my current wide-margin Bible, I have used a yellow highlighter to mark verses I have memorized. This makes memory review easy, as I can just flip through my Bible rather than through a stack of index cards. In previous Bibles, I have used a color-code scheme, with red or pink marking the works of Christ and benefits of salvation, green marking the attributes of God, and so forth.
Topical marks — I put one- or two-letter marks in red in my Bible to mark verses for certain topics. A few of these marks include B (baptism), C (communion, or Lord’s supper), DC (deity of Christ), P (prayer), CR (creation), EV (evangelism), M (missions, God’s heart for all nations), and W (Word of God).
I am on my fourth wide-margin Bible. The first one was sort of a trial-and-error project in which I developed my wide-margin style. I do some note-copying between these four Bibles, and I’m pretty happy with how the most recent ones are going. I am hoping that these will be a blessing to my descendants somehow until Christ returns.
I am not an artsy guy, so you will not see any drawings or sketches in my margins. I have friends who love to express their insights from the Bible as illustrations. My Bible probably looks like it was produced by an engineer to them.
The purpose of taking notes in a Bible, of course, is not just to make us smarter (or make us look smarter to impress someone) but so that we would grow in our knowledge of God, and in our service to him as workers in his kingdom. My prayer is that your markings in a wide-margin Bible would accomplish these things in and through you.
Grace and Peace
Kevin Nelstead, GeoChristian.com
The NIV 1984 Cambridge Wide-Margin Bible is out of print, but unused copies are available:
There are, of course, many additional options for purchasing a wide-margin Bible.
Back when I was in grade school through high school, an activity the first day of class was to put book covers on our textbooks to reduce wear and tear. I have started doing the same thing on my hardcover Bibles. My NIV Bible is now covered with a “Lands of the Bible Today” map from the December 1967 National Geographic magazine, and my ESV Bible is covered with a print of “The Garden of Eden” painted by Izaak van Oosten in the 1650s or 1660s.
Answers in Genesis — “The volcano that left the enormous crater at Yellowstone was far greater than anything we observe today. While modern craters measure barely 20 square miles (52 km2), the crater at Yellowstone covers about 1,500 square miles (3885 km2). You can still see the massive volcanic lava and ash beds at Specimen Ridge and other places north of the park.”
Response — The 3885 km2 caldera must refer to the 640,000 year-old Yellowstone Caldera, which produced the Lava Creek Tuff. This was the third of the three major Quaternary calderas formed at Yellowstone. The volcanic and volcaniclastic deposits at Specimen Ridge, however, are related to entirely different set of volcanoes, and have nothing to do with the Yellowstone Caldera eruptions. The rocks at Specimen ridge are part of the Eocene Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup, which was created by a series of stratovolcanoes similar to those in the Cascade Range.
Answers in Genesis — “The fact that molten rock remains hot near the earth’s surface is evidence that Yellowstone’s volcanic activity was recent—fewer than 4,500 years ago, according to the Bible´s timescale. So every one of the park’s 100,000 geysers, hot springs, and mud pots is a testimony to the recent Flood.”
Response — In other articles, Answers in Genesis admits that Yellowstone sits over a hot spot, so there is a very credible explanation for why rocks beneath Yellowstone are still hot even after hundreds of thousands of years. Heat is continually supplied from Earth’s mantle, which explains why magma exists at relatively shallow depths. The presence of heat in no way points to the young-Earth creationist timescale, and there is nothing in these volcanic rocks that points to the young-Earth creationist’s global flood.
Answers in Genesis — “If you look along the western shore of Jackson Lake, you can see the Teton Fault, which marks the boundary between where the mountains rose and the nearby land fell. The evidence indicates that most of the world’s mountain ranges rose very recently because their dazzling heights and ruggedness have not had time to erode away.”
Response — Here, Answers in Genesis seems to be assuming that Earth is a rather static world, rather than dynamic planet. If the Grand Tetons had been sitting there static for tens of millions of years, then the mountain range would now be leveled down to low hills at best. But if the Grand Tetons and other mountain ranges are actively rising (and there is abundant evidence that this is still the case) then there is no reason why they would not be majestic and rugged mountain ranges at present.
Answers in Genesis — “The fact that magma is still hot enough to drive the geysers indicates that the magma moved to this chamber very recently (at the end of the Flood, not millions of years ago).”
Response — Once again, Answers in Genesis is ignoring how Earth works. Heat from Earth’s mantle is continually supplied beneath Yellowstone, keeping the rocks hot enough to be partially molten. There is no reason to suppose that the magma moved into this chamber only 4500 years ago.
Answers in Genesis — “Notice that the stumps are stripped bare, without any signs of roots or soil.”
Response — The fact that petrified tree stumps are “stripped bare” is evidence that they were moved in debris flows (lahars), rather than being petrified in the place where they grew. There is abundant sedimentological evidence that these petrified trees are in localized debris flows. There are also tree stumps that do have roots, and some may be in their original positions.
Answers in Genesis — “If the Flood stripped the earth’s forests and then the trees floated on the ocean and jostled about, rubbing together before sinking, it could more easily cause many layers of stumps.”
Response — The evidence in the rocks is that these fossil forests were buried in local debris flows: gravelly muds with the consistency of liquid concrete that solidified to form conglomerates. The rocks containing these trees are all local volcanic rocks, derived from volcanoes which were a few tens of kilometers away at the most. If the trees were floating on an ocean, how did they get mixed in with the debris flows? Additionally, if the trees were floating on an ocean, why did they all deposit in one layer on top of another in the same place, rather than some being deposited in northwestern Wyoming, and some in central Nebraska, some in northern Idaho, and so forth? A global flood would have scattered the trees, not deposited them in layers one on top of another.
Answers in Genesis — “Scientists observed something similar to this happening at Spirit Lake after Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.”
Response — Young-Earth creationists love to point to Mt. St. Helens. Yes, the log deposits of Spirit lake at Mt. St. Helens can tell us some things about how petrified forests might be preserved in volcanic deposits, but that is about all they can tell us. The trees at Spirit Lake, however, will end up being preserved in a lake deposit, not in a debris flow deposit, and almost all of the Yellowstone petrified forests are found in coarse conglomerates, not in fine-grained lake deposits.
Answers in Genesis — [in a section on Grand Prismatic Spring] “What makes the dazzling colors at the park’s largest hot spring?”
Response — The picture in this section of the article is not Grand Prismatic Spring.
Answers in Genesis — [in a section on Old Faithful Geyser] “The fact that magma is still hot enough to drive the geysers indicates that the magma moved to this chamber very recently (at the end of the Flood, not millions of years ago)”
Response — The picture in this section of the article is not Old Faithful Geyser. I don’t think the author of this article is all that familiar with Yellowstone National Park. In addition, geologists do not say that the magma beneath Yellowstone National Park was intruded into Earth’s crust millions of years ago, as the most recent caldera eruption has been dated at 640,000 years, and the most recent large lava flow at Yellowstone (the Pitchstone Plateau flow) occurred about 75,000 years ago.
Answers in Genesis — “Look at those pretty colors in the pool, Daddy. But what´s that smoke? Is it hot?”
“Yes, honey. It´s very hot. In fact, springs like this are hot because super-hot, molten rocks, called magma, rose from deep in the earth during Noah´s Flood—just a few thousand years ago. The heat hasn´t had time to cool off.”
Response — Answers in Genesis managed to squeeze a lot of bad science in such a short article. For Daddy to give his child the Answers in Genesis explanation for the features in Yellowstone National Park could eventually lead to shipwrecking that child’s faith. If this child grows up and studies geology, he or she will discover that almost everything Answers in Genesis taught them about the Earth is wrong. If this bad science is coupled with the false dichotomy of “If young-Earth creationism isn’t true, then the Bible isn’t true and Jesus didn’t die for your sins,” they could easily throw out their Christianity along with their young-Earth guidebook to Yellowstone National Park.
My hope instead is that this child will grow up with foundations for their faith that are built on God’s Word, but not on the bad science of young-Earth creationism.
Grace and Peace
Copyright 2018, Kevin Nelstead, The GeoChristian
I have barely touched the surface on what I could write about why Yellowstone National Park and young-Earth creationism do not go together. Of course, the Bible is not about Yellowstone National Park.
The photograph of the real Grand Prismatic Spring at the top of this article is from Wikipedia (author: Brocken Inaglory, Creative Commons)
The web site of the young-Earth creationist documentary Is Genesis History has listed “Six Books to Understand Genesis,” all written from a young-Earth perspective. As a counterweight, here are six old-Earth books written by highly-qualified, Bible-believing, inerrancy-affirming, theologically-conservative scholars. As old-Earth Christians, these academics believe in the truthfulness of Scripture just as much as any young-Earth creationist. The issue of the age of the Earth is certainly one of biblical interpretation, not of biblical authority.
Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, edited by J Daryl Charles. This gives a rather detailed introduction to various young-Earth and old-Earth interpretations. This is better and deeper than most of the “Three views on ______” books on the market.
The ESV Study Bible. If someone believes that only “liberals” accept an ancient Earth, point them to this scholarly masterpiece. The notes on Genesis don’t “take sides” on the age of the Earth or the extent of Noah’s flood, but it is clear that the scholars don’t believe that Christians must accept the young-Earth interpretation.
Four out of my six recommendations look more at the biblical and theological side of the debate rather than the scientific side. It is my conviction that the Bible is at the heart of the matter; most young-Earth creationists will not listen to what we have to say about science until they become at least a little bit open to the biblical case for an old Earth. The two remaining books, reflecting my own background in geology, provide devastating critiques of young-Earth geological arguments.
Young-Earth creationism is not biblically necessary, nor is it scientifically credible. To insist otherwise does harm in terms of Christian discipleship, apologetics, and evangelism.