We moved to a new city last year, and recently became members of a church in the Presbyterian Church in America. We are delighted to be a part of this local church, with its commitment to the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures, excellent preaching, worship that is rooted in the Bible and the liturgical traditions of the church; and involvement in the community and the world. I don’t yet think of myself as “Presbyterian;” perhaps that will come with time.
As is true in many theologically conservative denominations, the issue of the age of the Earth has been controversial within the PCA. Some place it up there with the doctrines of the trinity and justification by grace through faith as something that must be believed. Others, including many professors at the denomination’s Covenant Theological Seminary, rightly see the Scriptures as ambiguous on the topic.
In 1998, the PCA set up a Creation Study Committee to examine the question. Like many other panels made up of Evangelical Bible scholars, they were not able to come to a consensus on the matter. They did, however, conclude that acceptance of a young Earth is not an essential Christian doctrine, and that one could hold fully to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture while also holding to a universe that is billions of years old.
The report of the committee stated that they expected that the matter would clear up over time once scientists had sufficient data to tip the scales one way or the other. Most Christian geologists are convinced that the data is already in, and has been for a long time. In order to state this case, six geologists, all members of PCA churches, wrote the article “PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth“, which was published in Modern Reformation magazine in 2010.
The authors did not intend to make a Biblical case for the age of the Earth; their starting point was that the PCA Creation Study Committee had already concluded that Bible-believing Reformed scholars were on both sides of that debate. Instead, they laid out geological evidence that they believed would convince the average Modern Reformation reader—a strong majority of whom hold to an inerrant Bible—that the geological evidence we already have points unambiguously to an old Earth.
In their introductory paragraphs, they drew parallels between the modern debate within the church over the age of the Earth, and the geocentric/heliocentric debate that coincided with the Reformation time period. In the battle over geocentrism, otherwise sound Biblical scholars such as Martin Luther failed to dig deeply into the Scriptures to discern what the Bible said and didn’t say about the issue. Granted, in Luther’s day most scientists were against geocentrism as well, but that should not have excused him from doing the hard work of exegesis, which he failed to do.
The authors’ evidence for an old Earth can be summarized as follows:
- Tens of thousands of geologists worldwide are in virtually complete agreement about the age of the Earth. Even more significantly, their old-Earth interpretations are used successfully in exploration for oil and minerals. If young-Earth flood geologists were able to make predictions that would lead to the discovery of mineral and petroleum reserves, then you can be sure that natural resource companies would be paying top dollar for YEC geologists. They aren’t.
- Old-Earth geology is not based on naturalism/materialism. It is based on observations of the Earth, and many of the early advocates of an old Earth were devout Christians.
- The Earth tells a story, and this story is often incredibly complex. But even within this complexity, there are independent means of determining the antiquity of geological events. The authors wrote about Lake Suigetsu in Japan; they could have selected numerous other sites for their first example. Lake Suigetsu contains thin layers of sediment called varves that are usually interpreted to be annual layers, recording a record of accumulation much like tree rings give a record of a tree’s growth. If you count the varves, you can tell how many years of sediment accumulation have occurred. YECs often counter such arguments by pointing to examples where there is evidence that more than one varve has been deposited per year. But the beauty of the Lake Suigetsu varves is that C-14 dates from organic material in the varves correlate very well with C-14 dates from tree rings from the region. A varve that is 2000 layers deep has the same C-14 date as 2000-year old tree rings. In order for the YEC interpretation of these varves to be correct, there would have to be some amazing coincidences. Suppose that the YECs are right, and lets say that twenty varves formed in one year. If this happened, then twenty tree rings would have had to have formed in roughly the same year, and the rate of either C-14 production in the atmosphere or the rate of C-14 decay would have had to adjust by just the right amount as well in order to deceive modern geologists into thinking the varves and tree rings were both annual records.
- The authors wrote more about Lake Suigetsu, as well as about plate tectonics. Go ahead and read the article for more details.
The authors conclude with a warning that echoes a common theme here at The GeoChristian:
“If the earth is old and Christians insist it is young, we risk becoming a tragic obstacle to faith for those both inside and outside the church. Non-Christians who logically understand geology conclude that the path to Christ requires belief in an intentionally deceptive god and choose to place their faith elsewhere. Covenant children who are raised with the impression that a young earth is integral to Christianity have their faith needlessly undermined when they are later confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the earth’s antiquity, and many leave the faith. It is our prayer that no Christian would be such an obstacle!”
The eight PCA geologists are David Campbell, Lyle Campbell, Chip Cates, Gregg Davidson, Keith Long, Richard Mercer, Kent Ratajeski, and Davis Young.
Grace and Peace
P.S. Dr John Reed, a YEC geologist and PCA member, has written a short response and long response to the Modern Reformation piece. I have read both and plan to review them soon.