Science in Christian Perspective



Time and the Rock Record
Geology Department
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida 32306

From: JASA 33 (June 1981): 100-105.

The doctrine of time, a difficult one that has not been explored by any investigator, as far as I know, is not discussed here, nor is the concept of time as taught in physics. Rather, the term "time" as used in the title, refers merely to the fact that man believes that time has been passing, and continues to be passing, and that its passage can be measured or estimated in some way, so that we come out with a numerical yardstick on which we place various events in a sequence that we call history.

The rock record is not treated in detail, either. Rather an effort is made to show how the rock record and the Bible record combine (or fail to combine, if we insist on defending our ignorance). This combination, however successful as it may be in the present state of our understanding, is necessarily set against a framework of time.

The more recent the time, the less fundamental disagreement arises. The more ancient the time, especially past about 6,000 years ago, the wider the disparity in viewpoints. Because secular written eye-witness accounts do not exist for these earlier times, various inferences must be made from second-hand sources: interpretations, whether of Scripture or of nature. And when different people engage in interpretations, there is ample room for disagreement.

The earliest event we ordinarily consider is the creation of the planet, the solar system and the universe, commonly thought of as a single event or process, although this is not necessarily so. And because this takes us back as far as we think time extends, it offers the maximum opportunity for disagreement.

Many different positions are available, in connection with the creation controversy; five of them are stated here:

1. God was not directly involved in creation, which was
a purely mechanistic process.

2. God was the direct creator of the universe, but the record is mysteriously jumbled in nature, and hence only the Bible can be used to obtain a reliable history.

3. God was the direct creator of the universe, but the Bible (a poetic book) does not cast any real light on the process; hence we must turn to nature to obtain a record.

4. God created the universe, and two records are avail able for study; the Bible and nature.

5. God created the universe in a very recent moment, such as
last night, with all books, newspapers, films, carvings and memories already built in, so the concept of a record is meaningless from the historical point of view.

It is conceivable that a Christian could adopt any one of these. In the case of No. 1, a Christian might argue that the Genesis language is poetic, and that the universe is a giant machine (which belongs, in some special sense, to God) but which evolves in a mechanistic manner without divine guidance.

It is argued here, however, that one of the five is superior to the other four. No. I-no direct intervention in creation-is rejected as contrary to Bible statements. It is true that the Bible is a poetic book, but that line of argument does not provide license for any individual to substitute his own biases for biblical statements, regardless of whether the latter are poetic or not.

No. 2-the record in nature is jumbled beyond understanding-is rejected as contrary to the Bible. Paul, in Romans 1:18-20, stated that we are to learn about God from nature (rather than vice versa). This cannot be a statement that we should study nature (biology, geology, meteorology, etc.) in order to acquire spiritual truths, and therefore must teach that the study of nature tells us about God's creation. This conclusion is consonant with the entire teaching of the Bible that God operates rationally, not capriciously, whether he is dealing with spiritual or mechanistic matters.

No.3-the entire story of creation must be unravelled by the astronomer and the geologist-is rejected as contrary to the Bible, which makes specific statements about creation, in both the Old and New Testaments, that could not have been deduced by ordinary human investigation.

No. 4-both the Bible and nature shed light on the creation story-is adopted.

No. 5-instantaneous creation last night-is rejected, although it is completely self-consistent, as being contrary to the purpose of the Bible, which offers to each man a spiritual pilgrimage like those journeys taken previously by people who have gone before; the Bible does not teach that we, in 1981 (or any other year) have been placed on a special pedestal far removed from men of other times, who did not really exist.

If No. 4 is adopted (we study both nature and the Bible, to our advantage), then it behooves us to look carefully at both the Bible story and the natural record. Therefore the central part of this paper is organized as follows:

a. What do we learn from the Bible?

b. What do we
not learn from the Bible?

c. What do we learn from nature?

d. What do we
not learn from nature?

It is assumed that the discussion is limited to the creation

The catastrophist grabs for a few spectacular events-and there are a few-and ignores the tens of millions of cubic miles of strata which were laid down under more-or-less average conditions.

story. It is further assumed that a rational basis for investigation must exist, otherwise there is no point in making a study of any kind. And it must be kept clearly in mind that, in the light of statements such as those in Ro. 1: 18-20 and Col. 1:16-17, we may not return to the medieval position that observations of nature reveal tricks of the devil, placed there specifically to confuse and distract the spiritually unwary.

What Do We Learn From the Bible?

The first lesson is, in the words of the title of a recently published book for children, "God did it." An unequivocal statement of this kind can be obtained from no other source. From nature we can deduce the concept that a creation must have a creator, but plenty of students of nature have found this deduction foreign and repulsive. Only in the Bible can we find an authoritative assertion, without modifiers or qualifications, that our mechanistic universe is the handwork of God.

The second lesson is that creation was a rational procedure. This is clearly taught in the first chapter of Genesis, regardless of the extent to which one thinks this passage is poetical. Genesis I is a methodical account of a systematic process which required detailed advance planning. The entire operation developed from the basic and the general, to the derivative and the specific. Even though the account is told in seven simple steps, the actual world is infinitely complicated, and the planning involved defies our comprehension.

The third lesson is that creation was an orderly procedure. It is obviously possible to be rational (that is, to think clearly), without being orderly in the execution. Underneath the poetry in Genesis 1, if individual words and phrases have meaning, is a substrate of accountancy: the report of a comptroller, who certifies that the books do indeed balance as planned, that all equipment and personnel are accounted for, that each operation was carried out in a prescribed manner.

The fourth lesson is that the progression, from general to specific, involved moving past the inanimate to the animate, past the animal to the spiritual, past purposelessness to purpose, past emptiness to fulness, past loneliness to companionship. If these five statements are recombined in a different way, we can say that Genesis teaches that man, the culmination of creation, is a self-directed spiritual creature who has a future potentially enriched with the fellowship of God.

The fifth lesson is that man has been given a management function, including responsibility as well as opportunity and authority. This is sometimes referred to as a stewardship statement, but it is necessary to keep in mind several points outside the purview of the word "stewardship": authority and responsibility over the planet are at the very heart of science, engineering, economics and such currently popular activities as environmental protection.

The sixth lesson is that man operates, in large measure, in a voluntary system. Even though circumscribed by the socalled laws of nature (such as gravity), which he can circumvent if he is able and willing to pay the price, he nevertheless exercises innumerable easy choices, the results of which in turn modify the framework so that tomorrow the available spectrum of options is different.

The seventh lesson is that the creation itself is evidence of God's power and majesty and glory and should be so viewed. The simple retelling of the creation story is, as seen in the Bible, an act of worship.

The eighth lesson is that those aspects of creation which have been omitted-and these are innumerable-are of relatively little importance in the spiritual sphere, and therefore are left to be investigated as man, following the admonition of the Bible, contemplates the handwork of the Lord. Do you use the word "contemplate" correctly? It means "to examine with continued attention, to ponder." We have been told to examine the creation with continued attention. Examining the creation story, although a worthwhile exercise, is not the same thing as examining the creation itself.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Bible, many of them derivative from those stated above. For example, if man has a future potentially enriched with the fellowship of God, then human life must have a unique valuation. However, these eight are enough to show how the basic teachings of the Bible can be selected for further study.

What Do We Not Learn From the Bible?

We do not learn the schedule on which God operated. Bishop Ussher developed a date for creation, based on his particular biases, the most important of which is the nonbiblical assumption that no moment in time has been omitted from the Bible account. Actually we have no information in the Bible as to the extent to which all days of all time have been recorded there. An equally rational-and probably equally bad-procedure would be to substitute some finite positive number, in place of the zero adopted by Ussher, for the missing days which may have been present. In fact, the first few verses of Genesis describe a situation in which the concept of time, itself, is probably meaningless. Time is apparently, a function of mass, and hence a tenuous proto-universe would operate according to what would appear to us to be an uncertain clock.

We do not learn the physical and chemical patterns which underlie the mechanistic universe. The Bible has nothing to say about molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, the other 80 or so micro-beasties that now inhabit the menagerie of sub-atomic particles, and the still smaller and even more elusive entities that in turn may underlie them. These are things that we investigate when we contemplate the handwork of the Lord.

We do not learn chemical and physical processes, which we do not fully understand even in the world of science, but which we dress in the respectable clothing of carefully defined terminology such as gravitation, vorticity, surface tension, melting, crystallization, magnetization and radioactive decay.

We do not learn the memory devices, developed by man to help him record and recall some of the complicated facts which he discovers by contemplation of nature: things like the periodic table, Linnaean nomenclature, the stratigraphic sequence, tables of integrals, chemical formulae, diagrams of organic molecules and the encoding of meteorological observations.

The rock record presents a consistent and detailed history of a planet that has changed, over incredibly long periods of time, by slow and ordinary processes.

We do not learn that the seven days of Genesis were consecutive. Rational and orderly, yes, but not necessarily consecutive. The Genesis account of creation is more like the eye-witness description of a three-ring circus: much more nearly sequential than the circus itself.

We do not learn that the seven days of Genesis consisted of 24 hours each. Psalm 90 says that one day on God's time-table is like a thousand years to us, and many commentators feel that the expression, "one thousand," is poetic shorthand for a much larger number. The argument that the word "day" necessarily means 24 hours simply doesn't stand up. The Hebrew word "yom," which appears about 1185 times in the Old Testament, like the English equivalent, had many uses. Prophecies and historical recapitulations, referring to events spread over considerable time, are commonly referred to by the expression "that day" (Isa. 52:6 and Jer, 11:7 are examples). Other places where "yom" (=day) refers to an extended or indefinite period of time are: Job 38:23; Psalm 2:7, 50:15; 77:2; 137:7; Eccl. 7:14 (twice), 12:3; Jet. 50:27; Obad. 11, 12; Zech. 12:3, 12:11, 12:12, 14:6-9. The English language preserves the same flexibility, which we exploit when we make statements such as "In Jesus' day there was no TV."

There are other facts, concepts and patterns which we do not learn from the Bible, and which are proper areas of investigation and study. These facts and concepts are the byproducts of contemplating the handwork of the Lord. We have every reason to think that tomorrow (and I do not limit myself to 24 hours) men who worship God, either consciously or otherwise in that pursuit we call research, will add significantly to our store of such facts, concepts and patterns.

What Do We Learn From Nature?

The first thing we learn from nature is a set of methods of operating, sometimes wrapped up in the expression "scientific method." It is the "way to do things" in the world of research. Ever since man learned that simple operations-such as adding and subtracting-are repeatable, we have been expanding our methods so that more and more of nature is now open to contemplation. Today, methods are so highly-developed that no one person knows or appreciates any large fraction of them. Except for momentary aberrations and detours, which are themselves corrected by the application of appropriate methods, the basic process has many centuries of solid replicable achievement behind it.

The second thing we learn from nature is a body of facts, some obvious, and some not so obvious but nevertheless subject to testing. Many of these are trivial, which can also be said of the bricks and wires and pipes and tiles out of which houses and buildings are made.

The third thing we learn from nature is that facts can be combined in patterns which in themselves provide new insight. It is elementary that there is a ratio between the altitude and base of a right triangle. The concept of the trigonometric function known as the tangent, however, is much broader than the simple ratio on which it is based. E = mc2 is a commonplace which on the face of it contains only a simple statement, yet it has opened an entire new world, the full extent of which has not been seen yet. The three Eddington numbers are ordinary efforts to summarize the basic physical properties of the universe, but when set equal to each other they have implications so profound that only a few of the consequences have been examined yet, and these in only a cursory fashion.

The fourth thing we learn in our contemplation of nature is that patterns are the bases for hypotheses, some of which will be confirmed, and many of which will be falsified. Those that we essentially confirm are given the name "theory," and, in a few select cases, "law." Because we do not know everything, we cannot be sure at all points concerning theories and laws. However, precisely the same difficulty applies to our interpretation of the Bible. It should be obvious that God has revealed himself in two ways-his Word and his world-and that men make mistakes in interpreting both.

The fifth thing we learn is the conclusion, which is derived from the facts, patterns and theories referred to above. Because the present discussion deals with the creation of the universe, and particularly with the creation of the planet Earth, it is worth while to summarize some well-established and pertinent conclusions.

a. Plant-vs-volcano successions. Such successions consist of alternating layers of volcanic material (such as lava or ash) and plant debris (such as tree trunks, in many instances in growth position). Each fossilized forest in the sequence represents the development of a soil and then a climax plant cover, and finally the growth of trees that reached advanced ages, before the next eruption. A single forest layer must indicate centuries or perhaps millenia. A stack of 25 or more forest layers means a history tens or hundreds of thousands of years long. The various stacks of forest layers known around the world have had different initiation and termination dates, as indicated by various stages of fossilization and erosion of the youngest layers. Futhermore, the total stack is many times the 25 or 30 found in single localities.

b. Varves are couplets in the sedimentary sequence: each is a pair of layers which, in almost every case, represents the two main seasons of a single year. Varve chronology has been verified very well in Canada and Europe where other methods of getting the same information are available; the famous argument led by DeGeer hinged on inferred, rather than observed, varves, and should not be cited in connection with the technique itself. Varves have been counted in such a large enough number of beds that it is clear that the entire sequence contains tens of millions. Even if there are a few errors here and there-and there undoubtedly arethey add up to only a tiny fraction of the total. This means

William F. Tanner was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1917. He holds a B.A. from Baylor University, an M.A. from Texas Technological College, and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma University, all in Geology. He has served as an Instructor at Oklahoma University, a visiting Professor of Geology at Florida State University, and Associate Professor and Professor of Geology at Florida State University. Since 1974 he has been Regents Professor. He has had geological experience in much of the U.S., mostly in the Southeast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain areas,- maritime eastern Canada and Canadian Rockies,- Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, various parts of Brazil, and Venezuela. His specialties within geology include sedimentology, sediment transport (including beach and river erosion), paleogeography and paleoclimatology, history of the atmosphere andpetroleum geology. Dr. Tanner is Editor of "Coastal Research, " Science Editor for the New Atlas of Florida, and Editor of six volumes on coastal sedimentology. He is the author of 275 technical papers.

that the part of earth history recorded in varves, which appears to be a small part of the whole, is nevertheless 10 or more millions of years long.

c. Coal beds. The tree remains found in continental peat, lignite, and coal deposits attest clearly to their origin. The total number of coal beds, in the overall stratigraphic record, is in the thousands; each one of these represents the growth of many successive forests, and hence a span of thousands or tens of thousands of years. The peat-and-coal history of the planet, which again is only a small part of the total history, easily exceeds a million years.

d. The rate of deceleration of the earth's rotation on its own axis is known rather precisely to be about 2 seconds per 100,000 years. Devonian invertebrate fossils have growth lines which show both daily and annual patterns. Careful counts of these lines indicate that there were about 405 days in the Devonian year. There is no reason to think that the year has been changing in length. With a constant year of 405 days, each day would contain about 21.7 hours. The change from a 21.7 hour day to a 24-hour-day is almost exactly 2 seconds per 100,000 years. The verification, using two different methods, places the Devonian period at very roughly 400,000,000 years ago.

e. The rivers of the world are carrying salts into the ocean each day. The amount of chlorine, carried in various compounds, is approximately 6.7 x 10" g/year. The amount of chlorine in the ocean is about 2.65 x 1011 grams. If we are examining a closed system, the present chlorinity would have been attained in about 40 million years. However, the system is not closed; tremendous quantities of NaCI and other salts have been removed from the ocean, at various times, in evaporite deposits. River deliveries necessary for the supply of known evaporites would require much more than 100 million years. Yet not all of the rock record has been explored in sufficient detail, especially at depth, for us to know what the total volume of evaporites is. The history necessary to supply the salts which have passed through the ocean system must have lasted at least hundreds of millions of years.

There are other evidences which could be recounted here. Radiometric dating has not been mentioned; it gives ages that require very large numbers indeed. But the evidence reviewed here does not depend on radiometric dating. Other similar, non-radiometric information can. be adduced. The time necessary to carry various geologic processes to termination is staggering. This conclusion cannot be weakened by appealing to one or a few great catastrophes: the rock record was made in good part during long intervals in which processes operating in a small way achieved impressive results, very slowly. The evidences of true catastrophe are sparse; most of known sediments were deposited in ordinary swamps, along ordinary beaches, on ordinary deltas, in ordinary shallow-water basins. The catastrophist grabs for a few spectacular events-and there are a few-and ignores the tens of millions of cubic miles of strata which were laid down under more-or-less average conditions.

What Do We Not Learn From Nature?

We do not learn all of the answers, a truism that also applies to the Bible. This is not the year to be egotistical enough to think that we have finally learned everything, or even almost everything. In God's storehouse of knowledge there must be enough untapped riches to satisfy even the most curious, after the entire span of human history has been run.

We do not learn God's nature. We may look at the marvelous intricacies of the created world, and infer the creator, if we wish; but if we do, this tells us only that there was a master craftsman, not what he is like. His personal characteristics, especially his love and care and deep concern for us, are not to be read from rocks.

We do not learn God's purpose, which is stated plainly in the Bible. He made the earth as a place where he could plant mankind, and he made mankind to be "like himself" ("after his own image") so that a divine fellowship could be established. He sent his Son to show us not only how to attain this fellowship, but also the richness that it promises to each one who responds.

We do not learn God's wisdom as it applies to our individual lives. Even the study of mankind, from a scientific point of view, does not resolve questions in the realm of values; but God's word teaches us clearly the values which we are to bring as basics to our study of lesser questions.

And there are others which we do not learn from nature. But this is enough to complete the cycle. God has revealed himself in two ways, and we worship him when we study either revelation. The two records must be compatible, because they both reveal the same God. We worship him in a fuller way when we contemplate his wonderful work as revealed in both records (Job 37:14; Psalm 8:3; Eccl. 7:13).


The rock record is reasonably clear. The many gaps which mar it, if filled in, could have only one effect: to extend and fill out the story that is already well confirmed in its basic outline. It is much like a book from which some of the pages have been torn; replacing the missing pages does not remove any of the pages that are still present.

The rock record presents a consistent and detailed history of a planet that has changed, over incredibly long periods of time, by slow and ordinary processes: tens of millions of cubic miles of sediments that represent landscapes and seascapes like those that are familiar to us today.

The rock record, despite diligent search by many men determined to find positive evidence of a brief earth history, has not revealed any such evidence. All of the evidence cited by them has been based on simple misreading of elementary facts. The so-called Precambrian human footprints of North Carolina (which I have examined and which are neither Precambrian nor footprints), the supposed Cretaceous human fetus of Oklahoma (which is neither human nor a fetus), the reported Noachian deluge deposits of various places (which were neither simultaneous nor catastrophic): all of these are citations by persons who are willing to misstate the observable and the verifiable facts of geology in order to support what they consider to be a biblical doctrine.

But the Bible does not require a short history. The matter of the duration of geological time is really of no great importance in the Bible account, and hence the Genesis statement permits either long or short history. Furthermore, the Bible was written for men of various environments and degrees of knowledge, spread over many centuries, and no purpose would have been served by putting specific numbers on the time-intervals required by creation. This structure still holds today: facts of nature are to be obtained by us, and are not to be dictated to us, by God, through an inspired intermediary.

To state that geology requires a very long history, and that the Bible permits a very long history-possibly even longer than we have yet deduced-does not mean that we now claim to know all the answers. Keep in mind Position No. 5, that God created the entire universe last night or at some other arbitrary time, no matter how much we may dislike the idea. The simplest, best statement of fact, concerning the creation controversy, is: we do not yet know the final word, but the evidence points strongly in the direction of a torturously slow development, as God's purposes have been carried out according to the schedule of his choosing.