Even before Darwin published the Origin of Species, most Christian scholars and scientists had come to accept that the cosmos was ancient. Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) for example, the influential 19th century British physicist and devout Christian, calculated the cooling rate of the earth’s core to arrive at the conclusion that the planet was 20-60 million years old. In America, Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), who coined the term “biblical inerrancy,” accepted the antiquity of both the world and humanity. He argued against using the biblical genealogies to attempt to determine the age of the universe, declaring, “[N]othing can be clearer than that it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables.” Warfield concluded, “The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern.” Both Kelvin and Warfield embraced some form of theistic evolution. According to some sources, by 1850 only 50% of American Christians believed in a young earth.
Christian geologists offered a number of alternative explanations to the traditional reading of Genesis in order to allow for the longer ages the geological evidence seemed to require. The two most prominent approaches were the gap theory (also known as the ruin-restoration theory) and the day-age approach. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), a Scottish minister and amateur scientist, proposed a gap of indeterminate time between the first two verses of Genesis. Several prominent 19th century geologists such as William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick and Edward Hitchcock, became advocates of the theory. The great Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon, appealed to the gap theory in his preaching:
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.
Over the course of the 19th century Christian geologists became less enthusiastic about the gap theory and turned increasingly to the day-age theory, with Scottish geologist Hugh Miller (1802-1856) as its leading proponent. Other geologists who held to the day-age position included Princeton’s Arnold Guyot (1804-1887) and Yale’s James Dwight Dana (1813-1895).
One other significant concordist theory was developed in the 19th century. Though it received little support at the time, it has become perhaps the dominant approach among current young-earth creationists. In 1957, Philip Henry Gosse published Omphalos. The title is the Greek word for navel, and it referred to the question of whether or not Adam possessed one. Gosse argued that Adam indeed had a belly button, because he was created as a fully functioning adult male. This functionality gave Adam as appearance of age that he did not in reality have. Similarly, reasoned Gosse, the universe was created fully mature, and this quality gives the world an appearance of age. Practically all current young-earth creationist theories employ the mature creation argument in one way or another. It is worth noting that Omphalus was published two years before Darwin published Origin of Species, which demonstrates that the age of the earth had already become an issue before the challenges of evolution came to bear. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.)
Cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com