Review of The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth

Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2008).

An issue that is very important to me, both apologetically and spiritually, is for Christian theology to be in honest conversation with scientific research, particularly as it affects our understanding of Genesis and origins. Young and Stearley have produced a hefty volume aimed at demonstrating that “several purported scientific claims advanced by young-Earth creationists do not stand up to scrutiny and fail to establish a young age for the Earth. These claims are generally based on incomplete information, wishful thinking, ignorance of real geologic solutions, selective use of data and faulty reasoning” (475). Despite this blunt assessment of young-Earth creationism, the authors’ treatment of their opponents’ views are characterized by great patience and charity. If simple dismissal of the young-Earth view were their aim, they would hardly have spent 500 pages (small font) establishing their case, nor would the authors have gone out of there way so often to strike such a wonderfully pastoral tone.

Our authors are both associated with the geology department at Calvin College, Young as Professor Emeritus and Stearley is professor of geology and department chair. Young will be particularly known by a broader Evangelical audience as the author of Christianity and the Age of the Earth (1982) and Creation and the Flood: An Alternative to Flood Geology and Theistic Evolution (1977). The present volume is a rewrite of the former, spurred on by Davis’s colleague Stearley. Young should also be known to many of us as the son of the late Westminster professor of Old Testament, E. J. Young. That connection is not superfluous, as Young’s treatment of origins from a geological point of view is fully cognizant of the theological and doctrinal issues with which Evangelicals struggle and the need to bring science and Scripture into vibrant conversation. And as I said before, the tone is pastoral: the authors have no interest in winning a rhetorical battle. Rather, their wish is to provide a thorough assessment of the available evidence, evaluate young-Earth creationism, and encourage those who hold an Evangelical faith with a paradigm for holding the two worlds together.

I first became aware of the book when, about three years ago, Young sent me the chapters on “The Bible and the Antiquity of the Earth” (chapters 6 and 7 of this seventeen chapter volume). Although their treatment of the biblical story in the ANE context is relatively brief in comparison with the book as a whole, whose focus is certainly geology, I was nevertheless very impressed at their treatment of this very important issue. More than that, the authors understood full well that the challenges of scientific research require alternate paradigms for understanding the nature of Scripture other than what is offered by young-Earth creationism. Toward that end, these two chapters rehearse the well-known position that Genesis is not a science book, but a document that spoke originally to a very ancient people. To expect a scientific model from Genesis is to misunderstand Genesis and to render incomprehensible the vast scientific data at our disposal. The authors are to be commended for moving their readers toward such a responsible synthesis.

Young and Stearley have produced a volume that not only deals a very serious blow to young-Earth creationism, but one with which Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars must reckon. The authors offer an implicit challenge to any contemporary interpreter who wishes to understand the nature of human origins in isolation from the world of scientific inquiry. If modern geology is on the right track, the age of the Earth is nearly 4.6 billion years. This challenges the young-Earth assumptions of Scripture and of the history of Judaism and Christianity until relatively recently (a topic the authors cover patiently for about 140 pages in chapters 1-5). Few Evangelicals would quibble with this, but the implications are far reaching. The scientific data, coupled with our growing knowledge of ANE literature, make a concordance model (one which reconciles science and Scripture) highly problematic to those with training in either field. Also, this seemingly innocent recognition that the actual age of the Earth does not correspond to what the Bible presents has broader implications, namely, that other portions of Genesis do not comport with scientific investigation.

From a geological point of view, the most relevant biblical episode is the Flood. Much of the book is aimed at discrediting the view that the fossil records make most sense in a catastrophic deluge model, which is the heart of a young-Earth apologetic. To speak plainly, the implication of geological investigation is that the Flood is to be understood not as a bare description of an historical event, but as an ANE story, necessarily limited in its scope, but that nevertheless tells a powerful and theologically rich story about the nature of God ands his relationship to the world. No doubt, this will not sit well with many Evangelical readers, but any counterargument will have to engage our authors on the level of evidence rather than personal preference.

Some may rejoin that such a position divorces the Bible’s theology from historical events. Yes, this is true of the Flood story, but that does not mean that all of Scripture is divorced from history. This slippery slope argument will do little good in trying to present a balanced view of the issues discussed in this book. The topic under discussion is the Flood—not the resurrection, Paul’s second missionary journey, or David’s reign in Jerusalem. The geological evidence plus the ANE texts we have at our disposal pertain only to this particular portion of Scripture; they do not affect the historicity of the Christian faith in general.

Still, the evidence does most certainly affect our understanding of the historical nature of the Flood, and this is not small thing. In brief, what remains sorely needed in my opinion is deliberate conversation between biblical scholars and scientists (not just geologists, but physicists, biologists, anthropologists, etc., etc) on the question of origins.

On the whole, I found the book to be wonderfully well organized and presented. There are charts, graphs, and a good number of photographs. It was, however, for this humble biblical scholar, quite a challenge to get through. Even though the authors go to great lengths to present the material in as accessible a manner as possible, the discussion is necessarily somewhat technical and imbued with the jargon of the discipline. I was definitely taken out of my comfort zone of Hebrew infinitive constructs and Jewish hermeneutics and dropped down into the middle of such things as faunal succession, ecological zonation, localized natural traps, long-lived regional-scale depositional environments, Lompoc diatomite mass mortality layer—you get the idea.

Still, readers with serious interest in the intersection between Bible, origins, and science (which I hope is everyone) should attack this book with great enthusiasm, as it will profit anyone, even those without a background in science. Those that might benefit the most, however, are least likely to read it, i.e., those who feel that our understanding of Scripture can proceed in blissful isolation from advances in human thought. But their refusal to enter this vital conversation is their choice, and should not determine what others do. Young and Stearley have provided a wonderful resource for those seeking to understand our world and the God who made it.