Geology and the scientific method

The following item was originally posted in February 2007. I have added it to my blog recycling program. Because I have new readers of The GeoChristian, I will occasionally go back and re-use some of my favorite blog entries (sometimes with a little editing).

We often hear about “the scientific method.” It would be better to talk about “scientific methods,” because not all scientific problems can be approached in the same way.

Here’s a quote from geologist John D. Winter on how geologists think as they go about their scientific investigations:

Geology is often plagued by the problem of inaccessibility. Geological observers really see only a tiny fraction of the rocks that compose the Earth. Uplift and erosion exposes some deep-seated rocks, whereas others are delivered as xenoliths in magma, but their exact place of origin is vague at best. As a result, a large proportion of our information about the Earth is indirect, coming from melts of subsurface material, geophysical studies, or experiments conducted at elevated temperatures and pressures.

The problem of inaccessibility has a temporal aspect as well. Most Earth processes are exceedingly slow. As a result, we seldom are blessed with the opportunity of observing even surface processes at rates that lend themselves to ready interpretation (volcanism is a rare exception for petrologists). In most other sciences, theories can be tested by experiment. In geology, as a rule, our experiment has run to its present state and is impossible to reproduce. Our common technique is to observe the results and infer what the experiment was. Most of our work is thus inferential and deductive. Rather than being repulsed by this aspect of our work, I believe most geologists are attracted by it.

Winter, J.D., 2001, An Introduction to Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, p. xvii. (bold emphasis added)

My thoughts:

  • There is not just one “scientific method.” Even in the experimental sciences, not everything is done in the strict order of Observation — Hypothesis — Experiment — Conclusion. Geologists do experiments, but these are done to give insights into how the world works so we can better understand both the past and the present.
  • The scientific method as practiced by geologists is often more like the work done by a forensic detective, trial lawyer, or historian. We have pieces of evidence, and we try to put together a coherent story about what has happened in the past.
  • This does not mean that geologists aren’t scientists. It just means that there are different sets of rules when one is investigating past, non-repeatable occurrences.
  • Almost all high school science textbooks have a section about the “scientific method” in the introductory chapter, presenting the standard Observation — Hypothesis — Experiment — Conclusion outline. This might be acceptable (though not completely accurate) in a chemistry or physics book, but it is downright misleading in an earth science textbook. I have not seen a single high school earth science textbook that points out these important differences in methodology.
  • This distinction comes into play in discussions about origins. When one is talking about earth history, evolution, or the origin of life, much of the discussion revolves around questions that can only be addressed by the historical scientific method rather than the experimental scientific method. This doesn’t make origins studies less scientific.

Grace and Peace


An atheist writer has an entry on her blog today about The GeoChristian (see Skepchick: Genesis and Geology). She obviously has more readers than I do, and she has sent them in droves to click on “Myth” on my Understanding Genesis 1 poll.

Skepchick started her blog entry by saying some nice things about me (she also encourages her readers to not post “mean comments” on my blog, which I appreciate very much):

One of the geoblogs that I have started reading- casually- is a blog called The GeoChristian. The blog is written by a liberal Christian with some science (especially geology) background. In many ways, I admire this blog and the blogger. The author tries to improve the science education of very conservative Christians, including the Young Earthers. This is a noble effort, and I really hope that the blogger is successful. The blogger accepts an old Earth, which I find comforting.

Not everything nice that people say about me is true, and this is no exception. Here are a few clarifications:

  • I am not a liberal Christian (“liberal” meaning one who denies the authority of the Bible and/or core Christian doctrines). I am quite conservative in my theological views, including my view of the Bible.
  • I have a Master of Science degree in geology, which is a bit more than “some science.”

It was good of her to start with nice things (I try to do the same), but obviously as an atheist there are things about The GeoChristian that she doesn’t like.

However, when the author of the GeoChristian blog tries to reconcile events in The Bible with geological science, my blood starts boiling. For instance, I just noticed that the GeoChristian has put up a poll titled Understanding Genesis One. This poll asks “What is your preferred interpretation of Genesis One?” and gives a number of options– including a Young Earth Creationist option (6,000 years) and several options trying to re-interpret the text in The Bible in order to make it compatible with the old age of the Earth.

I’m sorry that I got her blood boiling, but I think that once again she at least somewhat misunderstands what I am getting at on The GeoChristian. I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to “reconcile events in The Bible with geological science.” I actually spend a lot more time trying to counter the arguments of Christians who stretch science (usually young-Earth creationists) to fit what they think the Bible requires (for example, my Six bad arguments from Answers in Genesis series).

My overall approach to questions of science and Scripture is borrowed from Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who reminded Christians that “all truth is God’s truth.” As a Christian, I believe that if there is a conflict between the Bible and science, then either we don’t understand the Bible correctly, or we don’t understand science correctly (or both). In the end, if we were to correctly understand both, there would be no conflict. When Biblical scholars propose things like the “analogical days interpretation” or “framework hypothesis” (see the poll questions), they are doing one part of that effort: taking a closer look at Genesis and seeing what it really does say, and weeding out what it doesn’t say.

I do believe that there is an overlap between the Bible and Earth history. On one level, I expect that Noah’s flood, which I believe to be a localized event (click here) to have left some sort of geological record (as Skepchick alludes to at the end of her post). On another level, both the Bible and science give an explanation for the origin of the universe, the Earth, and life. Old-Earth creationists of the day-age variety seek correlations between the days of Genesis 1 and the events of Earth history, and they have come up with some interesting insights. They may be correct, but I’m not placing my money on their harmonizations. Some of the other options on the “Understanding Genesis 1” poll don’t require  attempts at harmonization between Genesis and geology.

When Christians visit my blog (which normally means about 90% of my readers), my hope is to give them sound Biblical and scientific reasoning in regards to the interface between science and Christian faith. Sometimes this is in regards to questions about origins, such as the age of the Earth or the extent and work of Noah’s flood. I also put a lot of effort into writing about issues surrounding the environment.

When non-Christians visit my blog, my hope and prayer is that they will see that one doesn’t have to commit intellectual suicide in order to be (or become) a Christian. Often these non-Christian visitors have misconceptions about Christianity or the Bible, and I aim to help clear up those misconceptions (some examples: a Bible contradiction, unicorns in the Bible). I am unashamed and unapologetic about my faith in Jesus Christ and my belief that Christianity is true.

Grace and Peace

YEC college scores #1 in academics

A week ago I blogged about the possible link between creationism, home-schooling, and apostasy. I am the first to admit that my hypothesis that there is a link between creationism and apostasy (falling away from the faith) was anecdotal, and I am pleased that there are many home-schooled kids raised on young-Earth materials come out of that with their faith intact (as always, by the grace of God).

Patrick Henry College is a classical, Christian, liberal arts university in Virginia, with a student body that consists mostly of students who were home-schooled. The school recently scored highest in the nation on the ETS Proficiency Profile. Gene Edward Veith, provost of Patrick Henry (and author of the blog Cranach, which is one of a handful of blogs that I read on a daily basis) boasts about his school:

On the ETS Proficiency Profile, a recognized and widely-used standardized test of academic proficiency in higher education, Patrick Henry College students posted the highest average scores of all institutions that took the test. Those 261 schools taking the test included liberal arts colleges and large research, doctoral-granting universities. Among those taking that test, PHC’s academic performance is #1.

The school is unabashedly young-Earth creationist, as stated in its catalog:

Any biology, Bible, or other courses at PHC dealing with creation will teach creation from the understanding of Scripture that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days. All faculty for such courses will be chosen on the basis of their personal adherence to this view. PHC expects its faculty in these courses, as in all courses, to expose students to alternate theories and the data, if any, which support those theories. In this context, PHC in particular expects its biology faculty to provide a full exposition of the claims of the theory of Darwinian evolution, intelligent design, and other major theories while, in the end, to teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.

Of course I would disagree with most of that statement, including the conclusion. Young-Earth creationism is biblically unnecessary and a poor fit to observed data, especially in the field of geology. But that is not my main point for now.

Patrick Henry College scored first in all categories, including Natural Science. This is despite the fact that the college catalog only lists five science courses: Biology, Biology Laboratory, Physics, Physics Laboratory, and Origins.

Do you have any speculations as to how a young-Earth creationist college that places almost no emphasis on science can score #1 in Natural Science?

I’ve got a few ideas:

  • High admission standards
  • An emphasis on writing
  • An emphasis on logic and reasoning
  • The breadth provided by a liberal education (as opposed to the narrow specialization of many university degrees)
  • The test might not have a sufficiently comprehensive science section

One additional thought: PHC has the highest average score in Natural Science. That does not mean that they had an unusually high number of students who scored high on the Natural Science section.

Grace and Peace

(P.S. I write this as one who has been both a home-school parent and a science teacher in a classical Christian school)


Video: star size comparison

From Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 22, 2001: Star Size Comparisons

The video ends with the statement, “No, you are not the center of the universe!”

That is true, but I like what John Piper has said about this fact in his book Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ:

Sometimes people stumble over this vastness in relation to the apparent insignificance of man. It does seem to make us infinitesimally small. But the meaning of this magnitude is not mainly about us. It’s about God… The reason for ‘wasting’ so much space on a universe to house a speck of humanity is to make a point about our maker, not us.

Grace and Peace

Video credit: morn1415

John MacArthur on the age of the Earth and theistic evolution

Influential Reformed blogger Tim Challies recently interviewed the popular pastor and radio Bible teacher John MacArthur (5 More Questions with John MacArthur). One of the questions had to do with creation, evolution, and the age of the Earth:

One pressing issue in the church today is that of creation and evolution. Do you believe that a person can be genuinely saved and believe in some kind of theistic evolution? How serious a theological error is it to reject a literal 6-day creation?

In his response, MacArthur grudgingly admits that one could possibly be a real Christian and believe and in an old Earth, and perhaps even believe in evolution:

It’s a very serious error in my estimation, because it attacks the authority of Scripture at the Bible’s very starting point. It employs a special hermeneutic in order to make the Bible mean quite the opposite of what it plainly states. And once you open that door, absolutely nothing is safe from the assaults of rationalism, skepticism, and rank unbelief.

I watch the propaganda being published by organizations like Biologos, and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that many of the people who are involved in that project don’t seem to be believers at all, given the large portions of Scripture they regularly have to explain away in order to justify their convoluted worldview.

As a matter of fact, the history of modernist rationalism is littered with vivid examples of why it is unsafe and spiritually destructive to subject Scripture to naturalistic presuppositions. I wrote on this topic in detail at the very beginning of my book The Battle for the Beginning.

But in answer to your specific question: I do think it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth. (It is certainly possible for believers to be inconsistent in their beliefs—to hold all kinds of errors in varying degrees. That’s called cognitive dissonance.)

Well-meaning evangelicals have experimented with several ways to reconcile old-earth theories with Scripture. One of the more popular ideas (until Henry Morris exploded it) was that there’s a gap in the white space between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2, and (so the theory goes) that silent gap might accommodate countless ages of change and chaos in the universe. Spurgeon held to a version of the gap theory, and the original Scofield Bible embraced both the gap theory and old-earth cosmology with blithe enthusiasm. Of course we would not consign everyone who ever held such an opinion to the ranks of unbelief.

Nevertheless, as evolutionary theory has developed and devolved into untouchable dogma—a favorite weapon for the current generation of angry atheists—I don’t see how any sober-minded, well-grounded, fully-committed Christian who truly believes what the Bible teaches can long maintain faith in the various and ever-changing theories evolutionary scientists keep proposing. Biblical cosmology, the Genesis account of how the human race was created and subsequently fell, and the important parallels between Adam and Christ in the story of redemption—these are essential beliefs of Christianity; they have never changed; and they are diametrically opposed to every purely naturalistic theory about life’s origins.

Anyone who takes seriously the authority of Scripture must ultimately set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says. The earlier we do that, the better. Frankly, I have never understood why someone who believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ would balk at believing all of Scripture, starting with Genesis 1:1.

I have a lot of respect for John MacArthur (and use some of his New Testament commentaries to aid in my study of the Scriptures), but I have a number of issues, of course, with what he had to say in this interview.

  • Acceptance of an old Earth does not attack the authority of Scripture. Like many Evangelicals who accept an old Earth, I believe in the inerrancy of Scriptures, and in all of the core theological truths of the Christian faith.
  • Acceptance of an old Earth does not necessarily employ a special hermeneutic that twists the words of the Bible. It would be wrong force scripture to conform to science, but that is not necessarily what old-Earth theologians have done. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians were confronted with scientific evidence that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Some dug in their heels, but others looked at the Scriptures more closely to see what they really said and didn’t say on the topic. There was no “special hermeneutic” required, only a more careful application of the hermeneutic tools they already possessed. Conservative Bible scholars of the past two hundred years have been forced to do the same, and many have come to the conclusion that the Bible does not put constraints on the age of the Earth. They have done this not by somehow forcing the Bible to say something it doesn’t say, but by looking closely at the Hebrew text, letting Scripture interpret Scripture, and gaining a better understanding of the world the ancient Hebrews lived in.
  • It may be equally wrong to force science to fit Scripture as it is to force Scripture to fit science. The young-Earth creationists have published an incredible amount of bad science over the years, and held this forth to the church and world as an unanswerable apologetic argument.
  • Acceptance of an old Earth is not the same as subjecting the Scriptures to naturalistic presuppositions. It involves acceptance of the idea that “all truth is God’s truth.” Let the rocks speak for themselves and let the Bible speak for itself (but make sure we read them both correctly).
  • I agree that “it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth.” Most of the confusion, however, comes from the young-Earth creationist side of the debate. Whether it be the older YEC arguments about moon dust and vapor canopies, or more recent ones about accelerated nuclear decay or hyper-rapid speciation after the flood, the YEC movement has produced a steady stream of poor scientific arguments that non-scientists (such as Dr. MacArthur) readily accept.
  • Dr. MacArthur mentions Charles Spurgeon and C.I. Scofield as well-meaning Evangelicals who “experimented” with ways to reconcile the Bible with an old Earth. I guess MacArthur “interprets” while those who disagree with his interpretation only “experiment.” The other possiblity is that they (and many others) have looked closely at what the Bible actually says and have come to the conclusion that perhaps the YECs are over-reading the text.
  • The theory of evolution changes over time, but so does the “scientific” story coming out of young-Earth creationism.
  • Many forms of old-Earth creationism (e.g. the day-age theory as presented by Hugh Ross or the analogical days interpretation of C. John Collins) retain everything Dr. MacArthur is concerned about: creation from nothing, a real Adam, Adam’s fall into sin. One does not have to be a YEC to be thoroughly orthodox in their theology.
  • I’m not convinced that the Bible has much to say about biological evolution, except about the origin of humans. To reject a scientific theory because of a brief mention of kinds reproducing after their own kinds is reading a whole lot into the Bible. If there are limits on biological change, then the Bible doesn’t tell us what they are.
  • MacArthur asks those of us who take the Bible’s authority seriously to “set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says.” I do believe the Bible and take its authority seriously. I just don’t trust everything that comes out of Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research.

It is common for YECs to assert that if the Earth is billions of years old then the Bible isn’t true; that certainly seems to be what Dr. MacArthur is saying here. This is a false dichotomy, and it sets up believers—especially our young people—for a fall. If what the YECs say doesn’t work scientifically (and it doesn’t), and if we insist that a 6000-year old Earth is the only way to read Genesis, then many of them will walk away from the church. And whose fault will it be, the “wicked evilutionists” or well-meaning Christians who fed them a bad apologetic?

I am not asking Dr. MacArthur to abandon his belief that the young-Earth creationist interpretation is correct. What I would hope for, instead, is less of a my-way-or-the-highway approach to this divisive issue.

Grace and Peace

An example of the difference Christianity makes in the world

From by Steve Addison: India

Christianity made it to India during or soon after the apostolic age. There is good reason to believe it was the Apostle Thomas who brought it there. There have been followers of Jesus in India for 2,000 years. Today Christians account for less than 3% of the population, but they are directly involved in 20% of primary education; 25% of care for widows and orphans; 30% of work with the handicapped, AIDs patients and lepers.

Grace and Peace

HT: Glenn, who blogs at Be Bold, Be Gentle

The doctrine of creation before Westminster and before Darwin

Young-Earth creationists commonly assert that until the 1700s, the almost universal interpretation of Genesis 1 was six consecutive literal 24-hour days about 6000 years ago. They say that the only reason that Christian scholars since then have suggested alternative interpretations was because they have sought to impose science on Scripture.

Justin Taylor, on his Between Two Worlds blog, summarizes an article that appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1999. Taylor’s blog post is How Did the Church Interpret the Days of Creation before Darwin? and the WTJ article is “In the Space of Six Days”: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly.

My summary of the main points of Taylor’s summary is

  1. There were a variety of interpretations of the text down through the centuries before modern geology.
  2. Augustine, Calvin, and Jerome all warned about the difficulty of interpreting Genesis 1.
  3. Interpreters throughout Church history have taken what they knew of science and philosophy into account when they interpreted Genesis 1.
  4. The exact meaning of the days of creation was not nearly as important to sixteenth century Reformed scholars as the fact that creation was an ex nihilo (i.e. creation from nothing) work of the Triune God.
  5. The Puritans at the time of the Westminster Assembly made no serious attempt to dig deeply into Genesis 1.

In other words, the standard YEC interpretation of Genesis 1 has not always been and should not now be considered as a standard of Christian orthodoxy.

Grace and Peace

HT: Glenn (Be Bold, Be Gentle)