Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where the Fault Lies

The popular expression “Looking at things from 30,000 feet” implies the handicaps of missing the broad perspective. Another way to express the same thought would be “Looking at the big picture…” In the matter of Israel’s geologic features, we must back away from earth even more than 30,000 feet, perhaps by a factor of ten, to see what has transpired over the ages in the area of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea.

One of the most extraordinary geological features on Planet Earth runs the length of Israel’s eastern borders. This feature is the northern extension of the Great African Rift Valley. It is also called the Syrian-African rift. The northern section in Israel is called the Dead Sea Transform fault. On satellite photos this feature can be seen running the length of Israel. Over vast geologic time, our earth’s long-term crustal plate movements have resulted in changes barely noticeable over several decades, but enormously significant over the geologic long term. The changes result from slow convection currents in the upper mantle which have moved and reassembled the plates. We might regard this phenomenon as a divine recycling and reformation project.

In Africa and the mid-east, movements of the African plate and the Arabian plate have resulted in a variety of surface manifestations. In the Jordan Valley the plates are grinding past one another. Both are moving northward, but the Arabian plate is moving faster. These plate movements began in the Miocene epoch, several million years ago, and continue today. When the sudden release of enormous stresses in rocks at the plate boundaries causes an infrequent large movement, major earthquakes occur, such as one that struck in 749 AD. In the United States a similar boundary occurs at California’s San Andreas fault. Displacement there ranges from 160 to 350 miles along the horizontal plane. Over extended time frames (millions of years), the yearly movement averages 0.5 cm or less along both faults. At very widely spaced time intervals, great stress-relieving earthquakes have been known to displace plates horizontally up to 10 meters. Scientists fear both fault zones may be due for “the big one.”

In the case of the Dead Sea transform fault, there has been a displacement of 66 miles along the plate boundary. This can be seen clearly in satellite photographs along the boundary. Geologists have used their skills to detail events and time frames along this fault and describe the land’s resulting morphology. The subsidence of the Jordan Valley/Dead Sea area to far below sea level is also related to events along the rift. Displacements along the transform fault can only be explained in terms of time frames of millions of years.

What do we say, then, about the insistence of many people who claim the earth and its features are explained only in terms of a recent creation six to ten thousand years ago? Did God plant hundreds of “appearance of age” features on the earth just to make the earth look very old when it is really very young? Such a proposal does not seem reasonable. Many people in our congregations say it is a matter of doctrinal purity. I must emphatically object and state that truth is at stake, but doctrinal orthodoxy is not. There are many fine Christian theologians and Christian science scholars whose studies reveal the shortcomings of holding our Bible and our beliefs hostage to a young earth way of thinking.

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, a distinguished group of evangelical theologians, met in three summit conferences from 1977 to 1986. Their statements on this matter provide an important perspective for those wrestling with these issues:

It is sometimes argued that our exegesis should not be influenced by scientific observations. We believe this view is mistaken. While the Bible clearly gives more specific information about our relationship to God than one can possibly deduce from natural revelation, it does not necessarily follow that our understanding of the physical world, its origin, etc., will also be more clearly deduced from God’s revelation in His word than his revelation in His world. Since both are revelations from God, and therefore, give a unified story, it seems quite permissible to consider all of the evidence (scientific as well as biblical) to be significant to the degree that each revelation can be clearly interpreted.

We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extra-biblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extra-biblical data have value for clarifying what scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations. We deny that extra-biblical views ever disprove the teaching of scripture or hold priority over it.

My personal prayer for the readers of this blog, and for all who have a vision of the triune God as Creator and the source of TRUTH, is that our personal beliefs will be congruent with what is TRUE.