The fundamental features of geological study, namely, field work, collection, and theory construction, were not developed until the 16th to 18th centuries. Previously, back to ancient Greek times, many scholars believed that fossils were the remains of former living things and many Christians (including Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Augustine) attributed them to the Noachian flood. But other scholars rejected these ideas and regarded fossils as either jokes of nature, the products of rocks endowed with life in some sense, the creative works of God, or perhaps even the deceptions of Satan. In the 16th and 17th centuries the debate among naturalists intensified. One of the prominent opponents of the organic origin of fossils was Martin Lister (1638–1712). John Ray (1627–1705) favored organic origin although he respected Lister’s objections. But from his microscopic analysis of fossil wood, Robert Hooke (1635–1703) confirmed that fossils had once lived. However, he did not believe they were the result of Noah’s flood.
Prior to 1750, one of the most important thinkers was Niels Steensen (1638–86), or Steno, a Danish anatomist and geologist who established the principle of superposition: sedimentary rock layers are deposited in a successive, essentially horizontal fashion, so that a lower stratum is older than the one above it. In his Forerunner (1669) he expressed belief in a 6,000-year-old earth and that organic fossils and the rock strata were laid down by the Flood.1 Shortly after Steno, Thomas Burnet (1635–1715), a theologian, published his influential Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) in which he argued from Scripture, rather than geology, for a global Flood. He made no mention of fossils and though he believed in a young earth, he took each day in Genesis 1 to be a year or longer. Following him, the physician and geologist John Woodward (1665–1722) invoked the Flood to explain stratification and fossilization, in An Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695). In A New Theory of the Earth (1696) William Whiston (1667–1752), Newton’s successor at Cambridge in mathematics, shared similar views to the above. But he offered a cometary explanation of the mechanism of the Flood and he added six years to Archbishop Ussher’s date of creation by his argument that each day of Genesis 1 was one year in duration. Some of his points were later used by those who favored the day-age theory for Genesis 1. In his Treatise on the Deluge (1768) the geologist Alexander Catcott (1725–79) used geological arguments to defend the Genesis account of a recent creation and global Flood which produced the geological record. On the other hand, another geologist, John Whitehurst (1713–88), contended in his Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778) that the earth was much older than man and, although the Noachian flood was a global catastrophe, it was not responsible for most of the geological record. On the continent, Johann Lehmann (d. 1767) studied German mountain strata and believed the primary, non-fossil-bearing rocks were from creation week, whereas the secondary fossiliferous rocks were attributed to the Flood. Other geologists like Jean Elienne Guettard (1715–86), Nicholas Desmarest (1735–1815) and Giovanne Arduino (1714–95) denied the Flood and advocated a much older earth.2
In France, three prominent writers developed philosophically naturalistic explanations related to earth history (i.e., explaining the origin of everything by the present laws of nature). In his Epochs of Nature (1778), Comte de Buffon (1708–88) espoused the theory that the earth had originated from a collision of a comet and the sun. Extrapolating from experiments involving the cooling of various hot materials, he postulated that in about 78,000 years the earth had passed through seven epochs to reach its present state. He believed in spontaneous generation, rather than evolution, to explain the origin of living species. In an apparent attempt to avert religious opposition, he interpreted the days of Genesis 1 to be long ages, an idea which became popular among some 19th century British Christians. The astronomer Pierre Laplace (1749–1827) was strongly motivated by his atheism to eliminate the idea of design or purpose from scientific investigations. As a precursor to modern cosmic evolution, he proposed the nebular hypothesis to explain why the planets revolve around the sun in the same direction and in roughly the same plane. According to this theory, published in his Exposition of the System of the Universe (1796), prior to the present state there was a solar atmosphere which by purely natural progressive condensation had produced rings, like Saturn’s, which eventually coalesced to form planets. This theory made the age of creation even greater than that which Buffon had suggested. Jean Lamarck (1744–1829) was a naturalist specializing in the study of fossil and living shells. Riding the fence between deism and atheism, he had a strong aversion to any notion of global catastrophe. In Zoological Philosophy (1809) he attempted to explain the similarities and differences between living and fossil creatures by four laws of gradual evolutionary transformation commonly summarized as the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He believed in spontaneous generation, rejected the notion of extinctions, and became a fierce opponent of the catastrophist Georges Cuvier.3
So by the latter part of the 18th century, a number of factors were preparing the ground for the geological revolution of the coming century. Though most Christians believed in a straightforward literal reading of the creation and Flood narratives, some were suggesting that the earth was much older than Ussher had calculated. In addition, the deists and atheists were proposing alternative cosmologies to the one found in Genesis. The idea of an initially fully functioning creation, much like today’s, was beginning to be replaced by the notion of created or uncreated, initially simple matter, which gradually, by the laws of nature operating over untold ages, was transformed into the present state of the universe. A major shift in worldview, involving the existence and nature of God, the nature of His relationship to the creation, and the nature of the relationship of science to biblical interpretation, was underway.
The years 1790–1820 have been called the “heroic age” of geology. During this time, geology truly became established as a separate field of scientific study. More extensive geological observations began to be made, new methods were developed for systematically arranging the rock formations, and the Geological Society of London, the first society fully devoted to geology, was born. But it was also during this period that geology became embroiled in the so-called Neptunist-Vulcanist debate.4 Neptunism was named after the Roman god of the sea and viewed water as the most important agent of geological change. Vulcanism takes its name from the Roman god of fire and saw the internal heat of the earth as the dominant factor. The founders of the two positions were, respectively, Abraham Werner (1749–1817) of Germany and James Hutton (1726–97) of Scotland.
Werner was one of the most influential geologists of his time, even though his theory was rather quickly discarded.5 As a result of intense study of the succession of strata in his home area of Saxony, which were clearly water-deposited, he developed the theory that most of the crust of the earth had been precipitated chemically or mechanically by a slowly-receding primeval global ocean. The strata were then ordered by their mineral content. Werner did acknowledge volcanic activity, but put this as the last stage of his theory, after the primeval ocean had receded to its present level.
Many objections were soon raised against his theory, but it was an attractively simple system. Furthermore, as an excellent mineralogist, Werner was an inspirational teacher for 40 years at the University of Freiberg, where he attracted the great loyalty of his students, many of whom came from foreign countries. He was not a prolific writer but recent studies of private correspondence and lecture notes have shown that he believed and taught his students that earth history lasted at least a million years. He felt that the earth’s crust provided more reliable historical information than any written documents. As a deist, he also felt no need to harmonize his theory with the Bible.6 Nevertheless, some writers, such as Richard Kirwan and André Deluc, used Werner’s theory in support of the Genesis flood.
Hutton’s geological views, published in his Theory of the Earth (1795), were significantly different from Werner’s. He did most of his geological work in and around Edinburgh, which is set on volcanic rocks, and he argued that the primary geological agent was fire, not water. Rocks were of two origins, igneous and aqueous. The latter were the result of detrital matter being slowly deposited in the ocean bottoms which was gradually transformed into rock by the earth’s internal heat.
Another characteristic of Hutton’s view was its uniformitarianism: everything in the rock record must and can be explained by present day processes of erosion, sedimentation, volcanoes, and earthquakes.7 Earth history was cyclical—a long process of denudation of the continents into the seas and the gradual raising of the sea floors (by the internal heat of the earth) to make new continents, which in turn would be eroded to the sea only to rise again later. This theory was inspired, in part at least, by his deism: God’s wise government of the rock cycle was for the benefit of all creatures.8 It obviously expanded the age of the earth almost limitlessly. In fact, Hutton denied that geology should be concerned with origins. He asserted instead that he saw “no vestige of a beginning or prospect of an end” in the geological record. His view was a clear denial of any global catastrophe, such as Noah’s flood, which was for him a geological non-event.
Hutton received harsh criticism from two prominent naturalists. Richard Kirwan was an Irish mineralogist and chemist who viewed Hutton’s views as atheistic. In Geological Essays (1799), he objected that Hutton’s theory was based on false evidence and was contrary to the literal interpretation of Genesis. André Deluc, a geologist and French-born resident of England, gave a gentler, but still negative, critique of Hutton. He took a fairly literal view of Genesis, but he was severely criticized by Kirwan for believing that the days of Genesis 1 were “periods of time” and that the universal Flood left some of the mountaintops unscathed as island refuges for vegetable and animal life.
In his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) John Playfair (1748–1819), mathematician and Scottish clergyman, republished Hutton’s ideas in a more comprehensible and less overtly deistic style. He defended Hutton against Kirwan’s charge of atheism by arguing that Hutton was just following the path of natural theology by observing the beautiful design in the systems of the earth: Hutton’s ceaseless cycles of geological processes were like Newton’s laws of regular planetary motion. Although Playfair made no attempt to harmonize Hutton with Scripture he did defend Hutton’s notion of the earth’s great antiquity by saying that the Bible only addresses the time scale of human history, which Hutton did not deny was relatively short, as a literal interpretation of the Bible indicated. Like Hutton, Playfair also argued that the Flood was tranquil, not a violent catastrophe.
Neither the Neptunists nor the Vulcanists paid much attention to the fossils. In contrast, William Smith (1769–1839), a drainage engineer and surveyor, worked on canals for transporting coal all over Britain. After many years of studying strata (revealed in the canal and road cuttings he helped design) and the fossils in those strata, he published three works from 1815 to 1817, containing the first geological map of England and Wales and explaining the order and relative chronology of the stratigraphic formations as defined by certain characteristic fossils rather than the mineralogical character of the rocks.9 He became known as the “father of English stratigraphy” because he gave geology a descriptive methodology, which became critical for the establishment of the theory of an old earth. Though Smith believed that a global flood was responsible for producing the gravelly deposits scattered over the earth’s surface, he never explicitly linked this with the Noachian flood and believed that all of the sedimentary strata were deposited many long ages before this flood by a long series of supernaturally induced catastrophic floods and recreations of new forms of life.10
Another important development at this time in Britain was the establishment of the Geological Society of London in 1807. The 13 founding members were wealthy, cultured gentlemen, who lacked much in geological knowledge but made up for it by their enthusiasm to learn. They met monthly at the Freemason’s Tavern (until the society outgrew it) and after an expensive dinner they discussed the advancements of geology. The cost of membership and the initial restriction of membership to London residents were two reasons why most practical geologists associated with mining and road and canal building, such as William Smith, John Farey, and Robert Bakewell, did not become members.11 The stated purpose of the society was to gather and disseminate geological information, help standardize geological nomenclature, and facilitate cooperative geological work, though in fact it also sought, without much success, to be a stabilizing and regenerating socio-economic influence in the face of potential and actual French-style unrest in Britain.12 From its inception, it was dominated by men who held the old-earth view (the relation of Genesis to geology was never discussed in its public communications), though it did not overtly favor either uniformitarianism or catastrophism, as its first president and influential member, George Greenough, believed, on the basis of Bacon’s principles, that in the 1810s and 1820s it was too early in the data collection process to formulate theories of the earth.
By the end of the 1820s the major divisions of the geological record were quite well defined. As Table 1 [below] shows, the primary rocks were the lowest and supposedly oldest and were mostly igneous or metamorphic rocks devoid of fossils. The secondary rocks were next and were predominantly sedimentary strata that were fossiliferous. The tertiary formations were above these, also containing many fossils, but which more closely resembled existing species. Lastly, were the most recent alluvial deposits of gravel, sands and boulders topped by the soils.
In the early 1800s Georges Cuvier (1768–1832), the famous French comparative anatomist and vertebrate paleontologist, developed his theory of catastrophism13 as expressed in his Theory of the Earth (1813). This went through several English editions over the next 20 years, with an appendix (revised in each later edition) written by Robert Jameson, the leading Scottish geologist. The son of a Lutheran soldier, Cuvier sought to show a general concordance between science and religion.14 In his Theory, he seems to have treated post-flood biblical history fairly literally, but did not interact at all with the text of the scriptural accounts of the creation and the Flood. He reacted sharply against Lamarck’s evolutionary theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics and his denial of extinctions. From his study of the fossils of large quadrupeds found in the strata of the Paris basin, Cuvier concluded that there had indeed been many extinctions, but not all at once. Rather, he theorized that in the past there had been many catastrophic floods. Like William Smith, he believed that each of the strata was characterized by wholly unique fauna. The fauna had appeared for a time and then were catastrophically destroyed and new life-forms arose. In opposing Lamarckian evolution, Cuvier presumably believed these new species were separate divine acts of special creation, but he did not explicitly explain this. He believed that earth history was very much longer than the traditional 6,000 years, but that the last flood had occurred only about 5,000 years ago. This obviously coincided with the date of Noah’s flood, but Cuvier never explicitly equated his last flood with it.15 These violent catastrophes were vast inundations of the land by the sea. But they were not necessarily global so that therefore whole species were not always eliminated in these catastrophes. According to Cuvier, man had first appeared sometime between the last two catastrophes.
William Buckland (1784–1856) was the leading geologist in England in the 1820s and followed Cuvier in making catastrophism popular. Like many scientists of his day, he was an Anglican clergyman. He obtained readerships at Oxford University in mineralogy (1813) and geology (1818), and was a very popular lecturer. Two of his students, Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, went on to become very influential geologists in the 1830s and 1840s. In his efforts to get science, and especially geology, incorporated into university education (which was designed at the time to train ministers) Buckland published Vindiciae Geologicae (1820). Here he argued that geology was consistent with Genesis, confirmed natural religion by providing evidence of creation and God’s continued providence, and proved virtually beyond refutation the fact of the global, catastrophic Noachian flood. However, the geological evidence for the Flood was, in Buckland’s view, only in the upper formations and surface features of the continents; the secondary formations of sedimentary rocks were antediluvian by untold thousands of years or longer. To harmonize his theory with Genesis he considered the possibility of the day-age theory but favored the gap theory. Like Cuvier, he held to the theory of multiple supernatural catastrophes and creations and the recency of the appearance of man and the Flood.
As a result of further field research, especially in Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire, he published in 1823 his widely read Reliquiae Diluvianae, providing a further defense of the Flood. However, the uniformitarian criticisms of John Fleming and Charles Lyell eventually led Buckland to abandon this interpretation of the geological evidence. He publicized this change of mind in his famous two-volume Bridgewater Treatise on geology in 1836, where in only two brief comments he described the Flood as tranquil and geologically insignificant.17 Buckland showed in personal correspondence in the 1820s that, for him, geological evidence had a superior quality and reliability over textual evidence (e.g., the Bible) in reconstructing the earth’s history.18 In his view, this was because written records were susceptible to deception or error, whereas the rocks were truthful and cannot be altered by man.
Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873) was Buckland’s counterpart at Cambridge, receiving the chair of geology in 1818. Through the influence of these two and others (e.g., George Greenough, William Conybeare, Roderick Murchison, and Henry De la Beche), old-earth catastrophist (or diluvial) geology was widely accepted in the 1820s by most geologists and academic theologians. For several reasons most geologists at this time believed the earth was much older than 6,000 years and the Noachian flood was not the cause of the secondary and tertiary formations.19 First, it was believed that the primitive rocks were covered by an average of at least two miles of secondary and tertiary strata, in which was seen evidence of slow gradual deposition during successive periods of calm and catastrophe. Second, some strata were clearly formed from the violent destruction of older strata. Third, different strata contained different fossils; it was especially noted that strata with apparently terrestrial and fresh-water shells alternate with those containing marine shells and that strata nearest the surface contained land animals mixed with marine creatures. Fourth, generally speaking, it appeared that the lower the strata were, the greater was the difference between fossil and living species, which to old-earth geologists implied many extinctions as a result of a series of revolutions over a long time. Fifth, the evidence that faults and dislocations occurred after the deposition and induration of many strata implied a lapse of time between the formation of the various strata. Finally, there was the fact that man was apparently only found fossilized in the most recent strata. From this evidence, the earth was believed to be tens of thousands, if not millions, of years old and the relatively recent Noachian flood was considered to be the cause only of the rounded valleys and hills carved into consolidated strata and of the loose gravels and boulders scattered worldwide over the surface of those strata.20
A massive blow to catastrophism came during the years 1830 to 1833, when Charles Lyell (1797–1875), a lawyer by training as well as a former student of Buckland, published his masterful three-volume work, Principles of Geology. Reviving the ideas of Hutton and stimulated by the writings of John Fleming, the Scottish minister and zoologist, and George Scrope, a member of Parliament and volcano expert, Lyell’s Principles set forth how he thought geology should be done. His theory was a radical uniformitarianism in which he insisted that only present-day processes at present-day rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity. The uniformity of rates was an addition to Hutton’s theory and was the essential, distinctive feature of Lyell’s view.
Although the catastrophist theory had greatly reduced the geological significance of the Noachian deluge and expanded earth history well beyond the traditional biblical view, Lyell’s work was the “coup de grace” for belief in the Flood,21 in that it explained the whole rock record by slow gradual processes (which included very localized catastrophes like volcanos and earthquakes at their present frequency of occurrence around the world), thereby reducing the Flood to a geological non-event. His theory also expanded the time of earth history even more than Cuvier or Buckland had done. Lyell saw himself as “the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses.”22
Catastrophism did not die out immediately, although by the late 1830s few old-earth catastrophists in the United Kingdom, America, or Europe believed in a geologically significant Noachian deluge.
Lyell’s uniformitarianism applied not only to geology, but to biology as well. Initially he had held to a sense of direction in the fossil record, but in 1827, after reading Lamarck’s work, he had chosen the steady-state theory that species had appeared and disappeared in a piecemeal fashion (though he did not explain how). Lamarck’s notion that man was simply a glorified orangutan was an affront to human dignity, thought Lyell. He held man alone to be a recent creation and even after finally accepting Darwinism he believed that the human mind could not be the result of natural selection.
From the mid-1820s, geology was rapidly maturing as a science. Smith’s stratigraphic methodology (using fossils to correlate the strata) was applied more widely by a growing body of geologists to produce more detailed descriptions and maps of the geological record. There was still debate over the nature and origin of granite and although Cuvier’s interpretation of the Paris basin was widely accepted, it also was being challenged. By the early 1830s all the main elements of stratigraphic geology were established, and maps and journal articles became more technical as geology was making the transition from an amateur avocation to a professional vocation. The 1830s and 1840s saw much debate about the classification of the lowest fossiliferous formations (the Cambrian to Devonian) and the glacial theory began emerging to explain what the earlier catastrophists had attributed to the Flood. By the mid-1850s, all the main strata were identified and the nomenclature was standardized. However, none of these developments added any fundamentally new reasons for believing in a very old earth. So whether the scriptural geologists were arguing against the old-earth theory before or after Lyell’s Principles of Geology, they were dealing with the same basic arguments that had been dominant since around the turn of the century.
So in the early 19th century there were three competing views of earth history.
In response to these different old-earth theories, Christians were confronted with the choice of various ways of harmonizing them with Genesis. Many of these old-earth proponents believed in the inspiration, infallibility, and historical accuracy of Genesis. But they disagreed with the scriptural geologists about the correct interpretation, in some cases even the correct literal interpretation, of the Biblical text.
Help keep these daily articles coming. Support AiG.
Discover how compromise starting in Genesis has filtered down from Christian seminaries and colleges to pastors—and finally to parents and their children. This erosive legacy is seen in generations of young people leaving the church—two-thirds of them. Get the facts, discover God’s truth, and help bring a new reformation to churches and families by helping to call them back to the authority of God’s Word.