Acceptance Of An Ancient Earth Among Christians Of The Victorian Era (The Age of the Earth Part 4)

(Part One)(Part Two)(Part Three)

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.40 questions creation evolution

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.)

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The Enlightenment And The Rise Of Naturalistic Theories (The Age of the Earth Part 3)

(Part One) (Part Two)

The Impact of Newtonian Physics: With the rise of Newtonian physics came the reappearance of eternalism. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) formulated the laws of gravity, physics, and mathematics that successfully described the planetary orbits of the solar system. It would be difficult to overstate the impact his achievements had on the scientific revolution and how western culture viewed the world. Newton’s law of gravity stated that each object in the universe exerts an attraction on all other objects. The gravitational force between any two objects is directly proportional to their size and inversely proportional to the distance between them. The law of gravity, thus stated, brings up a problem that was immediately recognized in Newton’s day. If there is a universal attraction, why is not everything crunched together? Newton answered that the cosmos must be infinite in extent and content, thus there is no central location to which everything can gather. An infinite universe implies that it has an infinite age. Newton was a devout theist, but the deists of his day argued that his model of the universe seemed to require eternalism. This model would become known as “the steady state cosmology.” Later, during the Victorian era, eternalism will play a crucial role in the acceptance of evolution. 40 questions creation evolution

The Impact of Modern Geology: Most historians of science consider James Hutton’s (1726-1797) publication of The Theory of the Earth (1795) to be the birth of modern geology. Hutton argued that nature exhibits the “principle of uniformity,” that is, all geological history can be explained by the very same natural, gradual processes we witness today. Hutton proposed uniformitarianism as an alternative to catastrophism (the view that most of the geological record is the result of catastrophic events, the main event being Noah’s flood). Mountains, canyons, and the geological column were formed over great expanses of time. Hutton argued for a theory of the “eternal present,” when he declared, “In nature we find no vestige of a beginning, —no prospect of an end.” The deists of the Enlightenment will use Hutton’s position as further evidence for eternalism.

Geologists who followed Hutton also argued for a “deep history of time.” None were more significant than Charles Lyell (1797-1875), whose writings would have a great impact on Charles Darwin. In his three volume work, Principles of Geology (1830-33), Lyell persuasively argued that the geologic column demonstrates that the earth was very old and had changed its form slowly, mainly from conditions such as erosion. His method of dating the ages of rocks by using fossils embedded in the stone as time indicators became the standard practice for geologists. From 1860 to 1914, using various sediment accumulation methods, over 20 different estimates for the age of the earth were published by geologists. The estimates ranged from 3 million years to 1.5 billion years. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.)

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Creation Vs Eternalism: (The Age of the Earth Part 1)

Historically, the debate has not been between creation and evolution, but creation and eternalism. During the apostolic and patristic eras, the pagans did not argue simply for an ancient earth, they contended that the universe was eternal. Even though Aristotle believed that the world was caused by God, he did not believe that God created the world, in time, in the usual understanding of the word “create.” God, as the perfect, unchangeable being, did not act in time. Since he is the eternal source of the world, Aristotle reasoned, the cosmos and its elements must also be eternal. Such a view is called eternalism. During the first centuries of the church, neo-Platonic philosophers would use Aristotle’s arguments to attack the Christian doctrine of creation. For example, in his book, On the Eternity of the World, Proclus gives 18 arguments against creation in favor of an everlasting universe. From biblical times up through the medieval era, the greatest challenge to the doctrine of creation was eternalism. 40 questions creation evolution

Eternalism, by its very nature, is fatalistic. The ancient pagans believed that the world operated within an eternal framework of oscillating and recurring cycles. The early cultures—Sumerian, Indian, and Chinese—universally held to the notion of never-ending, repeating, cyclic time. The Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks all held to 36,000 year cycles while the Hindus believed that the cycles were as long as 4.3 million years. The Mayans taught that the world had been created, destroyed, and re-created at least four times, with the last re-creation occurring on February 5, 3112 BC. The pagans understood time as a circle rather than an arrow.

Early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Augustine responded to the threat of eternalism by demonstrating that the Bible taught that God created in time, and that He created the world ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing). John Philoponus, a 6th century Christian philosopher, exposed the internal inconsistencies of Aristotle’s arguments, and demonstrated that the notion of a world created in time is more logically tenable than belief in an eternal universe. By the end of the patristic period the doctrine of creation had won the day. However, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries will be accompanied by the resurgence of eternalism. This needs to be kept in mind as we survey the attempts to ascertain the universe’s age. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution)

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