Marcus Ross at ETS

CORRECTIONS:  Next year's panel discussion at ETS is on the role of ancient near eastern literature in biblical interpretation, not the historical Adam as indicated.  Also I've  informed that Gregg Davidson is not a fellow of BioLogos.

Marcus Ross (Liberty University paleontologist) attended last week's meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, where there was a debate about young-earth vs. old-earth.  Since this debate greatly interested me, I asked him to write up a summary for my blog.  So here's Marcus:

Fossils, Rocks, and Plate Tectonics: I must be at ETS!
Marcus Ross

I’m a fossils and rocks guy, so when I go to professional meetings, I usually go to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.  But instead of being at GSA, this year I’m at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I’m sitting in on a 3-hour long debate between two geologists. 


And I mean that sincerely.  This was a very good debate over young-Earth and old-Earth evidences and interpretations by two well-trained geologists who are both accustomed to presenting to non-science audiences, and who each robustly affirm their faith in Jesus Christ.  Old-Earth proponent Gregg Davidson is a Professor of Geology at University of Mississippi, author of When Faith and Science Collide and a Biologos fellow.  Andrew Snelling is a young-Earth geologist and the Director of Research at Answers in Genesis, and author of the 2-volume set Earth’s Catastrophic Past. The moderator was Richard Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

The format of the debate consisted of four, 40-minute sessions: each presenter is given 40 minutes for their presentation.  After that, they engage in 40 minutes of Q&A with each other, then a final 40 minutes of Q&A from the audience.  The result was a well-structured, even-paced, and substantive dialogue.  And it was well-attended, with 120 or more (150?) parked long-term in the audience for the first 3 sessions.  Outside of the plenaries, this was probably the best-attended session of the meeting.

Gregg Davidson was up first to present “A Biblical Worldview and an Ancient Earth”. He was quick to point out that he holds to an historical Adam, fall, and Flood (though the latter is not global). The goals of Davidson’s talk was to show that an old-Earth view is biblical, scientifically justified, and that “scientism” does not trump Scriptural authority by either YECs or OEs.

Davidson spent the first part of his talk trying to show that if we apply a consistently “literal” hermeneutic to Scripture and combine this with a view that Scripture gives us scientifically accurate information, there are parts of the Bible that don’t make sense and/or are untrue.  Familiar examples from Genesis followed (1 and 2 don’t match, light before the sun, etc.), and the problem that, in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed out there. The latter was a favorite for Davidson, as he came back to it during Q&A, and I really don’t know why. For the life of me, I can’t see how a one-off statement by Jesus in a parable (hyperbole, anyone?) has any bearing on the continuous, superlative statements (“all the high hills”, “every creature”, said over and over again) in the structured historical narrative of the Flood account. No creationist follows this kind of “literal” hermeneutic, and pretending that they do (or should) is a clumsy straw man argument at best.

Next, Davidson engaged in an analogy of how he saw how YECs vs. OEs piece together information.  On the screen was a torn-up and scattered photo of an elephant.  While one group (YECs), based on “authority”  already know that this is a collection of separate pictures from many sources, and interprets each piece separately and ridiculously (an upside down leg in grass looks like a tree, the tusk like a bovine horn…).  The other group (OEs) “gets to work” putting the pictures into a coherent whole, which looks like an elephant photo with some pieces missing.  Honestly, I found this analogy quite condescending, but it was effective. Many in the audience chuckled approvingly.

Lastly, two brief geological examples were picked to show how YECs have a bunch of disparate expectations from OEs, and of course the OEs win in each case.  The examples were plate tectonic movements and rates, which correlate well between radiometric date-based velocities and modern GPS velocity measurements.  The YEC has to argue for both faster decay and faster plate motion, which are independent of each other, and hence an inelegant argument at the least. Likewise, Davidson’s applied YEC expectations about coral reef development on the Hawaiian Islands and associated submarine volcanos.  Like the previous example, YEC expectations are not confirmed by the structure, form, age, and species composition of the reefs: they look like they developed over a long period of time.

Bonus audience reaction note: One of the attendees behind me (whom I don’t know and didn’t speak with later) remarked: “Ok, that was a good talk, I never heard anything about Scripture?”  The tone of his statement was a bit sarcastic/snarky.  He didn’t appreciate Davidson’s complete dodge of any Genesis verses.  He had a very few of New Testament and Psalms, but absolutely nothing from the book we’re all there to consider.  I doubt the gent behind me was the only one to notice.

Andrew Snelling was up next with “A Biblical and Geological Defense of a Young Earth and the Global Flood”. In contrast with Davidson’s talk, Snelling’s was front-loaded with lots of Scripture. He linked NT passages in 2 Peter and Genesis rather well, arguing that in 2 Peter the creation, flood, and return of Christ are all paralleled. Both creation and the return are both global in scope, as is the flood. Combine that with Genesis 7’s superlative statements of global rain and global death, it should be global.  Why else would birds be put on the ark, unless the flood was global?

Snelling next walked through seven expectations of a global flood, and how geology affirms (not proves, but affirms) these expectations.  Snelling walked through these 2 at a time or so:
1) Ocean waters flooded continents
2) Rapid Burial of creatures and plants
3) Widespread, rapid-deposited strata
4) Physical features in widespread strata that indicate rapid deposition
5) Long-distance sediment transport
6) Rapid/no erosion between strata
7) Rapid succession of rock layers
Unsurprising to those familiar with Snellings work, many of the examples came from the Grand Canyon. Notable points in this list were maps of the Cambrian sandstones (equivalent to the Tapeats in the GC area) that cover all of the US. Evidence of rapid deposition included photos of ichthyosaurs giving birth when they were catastrophically buried, and fish dying with their last meal still in their mouth. His slides of knife-edge contacts between GC layers with no underlying erosional topography were good, and I think Snelling explained it well enough for the point to sink in on the non-science ETS crowd. And the images of bent GC strata made a solid impression on the attendees as well.

Andrew finished up with some discussion of radiometric dating and some of the RATE research results.  This is always a tough area for creationists, partly because we still have a difficult time explaining how radiometric dating “works” in a young-Earth, and partly because this is a very technical and specialized field. From my experience teaching about radiometric dating, it takes quite a while (a full class or two) for students to grasp the basic concepts.  Nevertheless, when the youngest lava flows in the GC (which flow over the rim and into the canyon below) give Rb-Sr ages older than the Rb-Sr ages given for the oldest lava flows in the GC sequence (Precambrian), something fishy is going on.

Snelling ended by discussing Jesus’ first miracle, the water-into-wine at the marriage at Cana.  He had brought up this passage earlier, and used it here to note that miraculous events can give the impression of a history that doesn’t exist (in this case, grapes and aging).  But because there were eyewitnesses who could have related the truth, we can know that such an history is an incorrect conclusion. The implication is that when Genesis 3:18 relates the existence of thorns directly to man’s sin in the Garden, we must reject the presence of thorns in the fossil record as a record of deep time, and instead conclude that these fossils are post-Fall.

With formal presentations over, it was now time for Q&A.  This was a very cordial back-and-forth where, say, Snelling asked Davidson a question, Davidson answered, then Davidson asked Snelling a question, and Snelling answered.  I think one improvement might have been an ask-answer-rebuttal sequence, since I’m sure both men would’ve liked to respond back in a few cases. Topics ranged from the mustard seed (again!) to varves to bending rock strata to Exodus 20 and 31.  Only in one question posed by Snelling did things get a bit testy:  Davidson has accused creationists of telling “half-truths” in his book, and ironically followed this accusation with a half-truth by Davidson about creation arguments of the Earth’s magnetic field. Davidson countered it well from a debate standpoint (“you guys do this all the time” type answer), though let’s say that such a defense is theologically impoverished.

After this, the Q&A was opened to the audience, and questioned alternated between Snelling and Davidson.  These questions were quite good, though not surprising for those who pay close attention to these issues.  Snelling was asked about radiometric dating, a “deceptive God” problem for distant starlight, and whether Gen 1 and other passages give us non-literal markers for understanding the creation account. Davidson was asked about C-14 in fossils, natural evil and death vs. the character of God, and whether you can be old-Earth and have a global flood.  Both responders handled these questions well.

Bottom line: This was a really, really close debate.  Both men made articulate cases for their positions, and held up well under the debate format.  Davidson was well-prepared for some of the YEC arguments and questions, was armed with response slides, and he thinks quickly on his feet.  On debate-point evaluations, he probably won, especially with some of his story-styled examples and analogies (e.g., the elephant pictures).  On the flip side, his lack of scripture hurt him in this venue.  From what I could gather, people wanted him to grapple more with the text, and he did not do that unless forced (and was evasive in answering some questions).  Snelling, on the other hand, understood his audience a bit better and crafted parts of his talk to produce a coherent and rational view of scripture, and I think won in this area. His presentation was bookended by scripture, and densely packed with geological examples. End result: tie.

And for the YEC crowd, a tie is probably pretty good. Many in ETS are uncertain that YEC is well-founded either scientifically or scripturally.  Many more have a view of YEC that is based firmly in the 1970s and 1980s era of vapor canopy and other misguided ideas.  So seeing an articulate and detailed defense of YEC was likely new to many who were at the meeting.

Future Watch: Tune in next year when the ETS discussion turns to a 3-person panel on “Historical Adam” the use of ANE literature in biblical interpretation.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.