Posted by: paulgarner | April 22, 2010

My book: a response to Michael Roberts

On 21 April, Michael Roberts posted a critical review of one chapter of my book, The New Creationism, on the Premier Community forum. Roberts is an Anglican clergyman with a track record of anti-creationism. His critique focuses upon my fifth chapter, ‘Is the present the key to the past?’, which deals with the rise of uniformitarianism, the need to rethink earth history from a biblical perspective and the geological evidence for the catastrophic formation of the earth’s sedimentary rock layers. In this response, I will work through each of Roberts’ comments in turn. When citing him, the page numbers denote his quotations from my book.

In 2009 Paul Garner published The New Creationism as a serious popular work. This has been given accolades by many evangelicals as he seeks to present a popular and authoritative case for Young Earth Creationism.

I am pleased to say that my book has been positively reviewed in many Christian periodicals, including Evangelical Times, Evangelicals Now, Future First, The Banner of Truth Magazine, the Creation Research Society Quarterly, Grace Magazine and The Bible League Quarterly.

It would take many pages to dissect the poor arguments throughout the book so I shall consider his treatment of geology in Chapter 5 Is the Present the key to the Past? This is a central part of his argument and as it is very wrong indeed one can conclude the rest of the book is similarly wrong. Given enough time, which I haven’t got, I could do the same for the rest of the book, especially where it touches on geology. Anyone who relies on this book will be seriously misled.

Lots of sweeping assertions, but let’s see.

P75. “until well into the 17th century most educated people in Western Europe believed that God had created the Earth in 6 days only a few thousand years ago.” That is not so, as many, even before any geology, allowed more “time” on exegetical grounds. Consider Mersenne, Grotius, Des Cartes and others. Granted ALL did not accept vast geological time but then most educated did not accepted heliocentricity, the the circulation of the blood, existence of sperm and ova, caterpillars giving butterflies , or all chemistry.

Roberts seems to think that he has shown my general statement to be incorrect by giving a handful of exceptions, but in fact he has offered us only an argumentum ad nihilum. What I wrote is perfectly true: most educated people in Western Europe did accept a recent creation until well into the seventeenth century. Even those that reject the young-age creationist position acknowledge this fact, such as Davis Young and Ralph Stearley in their book The Bible, Rocks and Time, published by IVP in 2008. Young and Stearley provide a very helpful historical survey of views, which is summed up on page 46 in these words:

“With the exception of occasional ideas about Genesis 1 that departed from the rigidly literal interpretation, the almost universal view of the Christian world from its beginnings through the seventeenth century was that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.”

P76 Neither Burnet nor Woodward ( or the many not mentioned) went for a 6/24 creation. They accepted rather more time than that. That was the common view of the educated by 1700. It is simply not the case that these scholars “held to a short biblical timescale” as Garner claims as nearly all went beyond a 6/24 creation but did not define the actual time (see my The Genesis of John Ray and his successors , Evangelical Quarterly 2002 vol LXXIV p 143-64)

Firstly, when Roberts says that neither Burnet nor Woodward “went for a 6/24 creation”, he seems to be objecting to something I didn’t actually say. Nowhere in my book will the reader find such a claim. However, I did refer to them as scholars that reserved a central place in their geological thinking for the Noachian flood. I am sure that even Roberts would not want to deny that fact. As for whether they held to a short biblical timescale, Burnet certainly did when he wrote his Sacred Theory of the Earth. In it he says: “all these things arose and had their first existence or production not six thousand years ago”. Burnet may have modified his opinion later on, and, if so, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge it. But it makes no real difference to the overall thesis of my book. Likewise with Woodward, the main point I make about him is that he took the biblical record of a global flood seriously and appealed to it as an explanation for the rock layers and their enclosed fossils. I trust that Roberts will not want to deny that either.

P78=9 The rise of uniformitarianism . On these pages Garner deals with Hutton and Lyell and fails to mention all the other (more important ) geologists of the period 1780 to 1830. He gives the old simple and inaccurate story about them. All geologists of that period (or rather 99% or more) had been convinced by a long time scale even though most rejected uniformitarianism. By 1800 most accepted the earth was millions of years old and a quick reading of Rudwick (a Christian) would confirm this (see his Bursting the Limits of Time and Worlds before Adam). No mention is made of William Smith who worked out stratigraphy from 1795, initially accepting a young earth and then an old earth. He was assisted by two Anglican clergy , Richardson and the evangelical Townsend. The Geological Column was effectively worked out during this period with major contributions from English Christians, notably the Anglican clergy-geologists Henslow, Buckland Conybeare, Lewis and Sedgwick who from 1815 to 1845 made the major contribution to the Geological Column for the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian Devonian and Carboniferous periods to give the names of today. Buckland introduced ideas of an Ice Age to Britain. All were catastrophist rather than Uniformitarian and totally anti-evolution. Garner’s history is deficient and misleading.

The main criticism here seems to concern what I did not say, rather than anything I actually said. True, I did not discuss other geologists of the period 1780 to 1830 besides Hutton and Lyell, or the work done by the pioneering geologists to work out the details of the geological column. That is because I was giving an extremely abbreviated account in a popular book, not a comprehensive academic treatise. My main concern in chapter five was to briefly describe the rise of old earth and uniformitarian thinking. A discussion of how the geological column was put together – interesting though that story is – would have been a digression from the main theme. Roberts says that my account of Hutton and Lyell is inaccurate, although he does not specify any particulars. He says that most geologists before Lyell believed in an old earth while rejecting uniformitarianism, and implies that I omitted that fact. I fear he has not read my account carefully enough, because I specifically mentioned Cuvier as an example.

P80-81. I will ignore Garner’s pious misreading of 2 Peter.

It is, of course, impossible to respond to an objection that the reviewer will not explain!

P82-4 The catastrophic formation of sedimentary rock layers. This section of Garner is woeful geology, as he gives a selective account ignoring much geological evidence. Much is supposition . He states “Many of the Earth’s sedimentary rock layers appear to have formed rapidly.” In many ways that is true but needs explanation and an acknowledgement which layers are formed slowly.

Roberts seems to have skipped the closing section of chapter five, which deals specifically with geological challenges to the creationist interpretation of the rock record, including hardgrounds, varves and in situ reefs. Of course, this section is brief and perhaps I could be criticised for not including other examples, but it is not correct to say that I ignored such challenges in my book.

He cites Turbidites as “layers deposited by fat-moving and dense underwater currents”. That has been well known since the work of Keunen in 1950. What Garner did not say is that turbidite bands , usually a few inches or feet. Often as in Palaeozoic sequence on the shore at Aberystwyth these are found as alternating bands with a fine siltstone, which were deposited very slowly indeed. Thus the thick turbidites were were deposited in a weekend and the thin silts inbetween during a very long period. Garner omits this crucial evidence.

Roberts refers to the thin laminated to homogeneous mudstones or siltstones that comprise Division E of the Bouma sequence in an idealised turbidite bed. These are usually interpreted as the product of deposition from the low-density tail of a turbidity current and/or the gradual settling of pelagic or hemipelagic particles. However, recent, ground-breaking laboratory experiments convincingly demonstrate that fine muds can be deposited rapidly as flocculating particles, so it is by no means certain that these mudstone horizons formed slowly. Roberts seems to have missed the fact that there is a revolution going on in mudstone science! See the references provided here for more information.

He argues that “ Powerful water currents would have been needed to form” conglomerates and breccias. This is pure supposition without any evidence

Conglomerates and breccias are sedimentary rocks composed of coarse grained material – pebbles, cobbles and boulders. Such coarse material has often come from very distant source areas and high energy conditions are needed to transport it. An example is the Shinarump Conglomerate of the Colorado Plateau which can be traced across 125,000 square miles and which contains quartzite pebbles that match no known local source. However, Roberts has taken my statement somewhat out of context, as this fuller extract shows: “Conglomerates and breccias are rocks made up of pebbles and boulders that have been cemented together. Some contain boulders so large that they have been called megabreccias.[Ref] Powerful water currents would have been needed to form these layers and it is thought that many were laid down during hurricanes or storms.” So, in context, I was speaking specifically of megabreccias and even cited a paper that provided more information.

He makes another inaccurate statement in that “Another sign of rapid deposition is cross bedding”. This is simply not so and one can often observe cross bedding being laid down by slow-moving rivers. I often do this on walks by rivers and sedimentologists have studied this at length.

Again, Roberts omits the rest of my words. Here they are in full: “Another sign of rapid deposition is cross-bedding. This is a type of inclined layering which is formed as sand dunes migrate across the sea floor under the influence of powerful water currents. Many of the cross-beds in the geological record are so large that they must have been formed by high-velocity water flows more powerful than those that are observed today.” The point being made that the large-scale cross-beds commonly found in the stratigraphic record, often in formations that extend laterally over vast areas of the earth’s surface, clearly require high energy conditions inconsistent with gentle stream deposition.

It would take a long time to unravel all of Garner’s geological errors here as it goes against all the sedimnetoligal work of geologists over that last 200 years. He then gives a spiel on why wide-spread layers like chalk with the implication that they were laid down catastrophically. I cannot see what he is getting at, but it would sound good to the faithful! His evidence why the time between geological layers must be short simply does not hold water. I have considered one chapter briefly and demonstrated that Garner’s arguments are worthles and best ignored.

These remaining statements are all assertions without any evidence whatsoever. If I may say so, having considered Roberts’ critique in some detail, and knowing that he would be predisposed as an outspoken anti-creationist to point out any errors present in my book, I am very encouraged that he has found so little of substance to say.

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