Prior to tracing development of 20th and 21st century beliefs about creation time scales among church goers, we may benefit by a more extensive retrospect. Was the timescale of earth’s history always a topic of discussion among believers? Did they approach consensus? Generally, during the first sixteen centuries of the Christian era, believers embraced belief in an earth only a few thousand years old. Changes gradually came with the Scientific Revolution.
The first 200 years of the Scientific Revolution impacted Christian and secular thinking in countless ways. Substantial numbers of people in science were vibrant Christians. Their discoveries were a source of excitement for them and an occasion to glorify the God of creation more fully.
Perhaps the greatest initial contributor to the science of geology during this era was a Dane, Niels Stenson (1638-1686) who later became known as Steno, acclaimed as the father of geology. He argued persuasively that fossils were of organic origin and worked out the principles of stratigraphy: the law of original horizontality (rock layers are generally deposited horizontally), and the law of superposition (ascending layers are progressively younger). Steno noted horizontal layers resting upon tilted, truncated lower layers--evidence of past upheavals of the lower layers.
Within 200 years of Steno’s lifetime, most investigators, many of them devout Christians, came to believe in an earth of great antiquity, based on the broad flow of accumulated evidence. Christian geology professor Davis A. Young, in The Bible, Rocks and Time, states, “As the nineteenth century passed into history, no professional geologist with years of field experience would ever dream of thinking that the planet was only a few thousand years old.” Also, expounds Young, “A fair examination of the state of interaction of Christian theology with the Earth sciences in the earliest twentieth century shows that, as a rule, Christians abandoned neither Christian faith nor a belief in an infallible Bible as a result of discoveries of geology regarding the Earth’s great antiquity.”
As if to add an exclamation point to 19th century conclusions of earth’s great age, around the turn of the 20th century, famous names like Bequerel, Curie, and Rutherford began to make discoveries in radioactivity. In 1905 Ernest Rutherford proposed that radioactivity had the potential to be a geologic timekeeper, based on knowledge of radioactive elements’ decay rates in mineral specimens with elements such as uranium. Early in the century, dates derived for ages of some earth minerals were in the hundreds of millions of years. Such methods have been refined and perfected and have given very accurate absolute ages for earth materials.
As one reads the record of discoveries during the early 19th century, it is easy to discover why it was called the Golden Age of Geology. The rationale for old earth conclusions was not frivolously applied. As I researched this period and read some of the scientists’ papers and letters, I was struck with their use of reason in making their conclusions. Philosopher Kenneth Samples, in A World of Difference, proclaims, “The passionate pursuit of truth demands nothing less than a commitment to sound reasoning and honorable intellectual exchange.”
One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 1:18a: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord…” The verse speaks in the context of cleansing of our sins. Scripture exhorts us to test and reason. The use of reason should be applied to discovering spiritual principles as well as reality in our physical world.