On the Antiquity of the Earth:

Episodes from the History of Science That Have Shaped People’s Perceptions of the Earth’s Age

By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Presented to the Tenth Annual Theological Symposium, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 22 Sept. 1999, with minor corrections and revisions, 2005.


I want to discuss what historian Paolo Rossi calls “the discovery of time.”1 Let me offer you a historical overview of people’s perceptions of the earth’s age from Descartes to Darwin, and also highlight some widely divergent opinions from the twentieth century. By tracing questions, answers, and methods of seeking answers, for so perennial a curiosity as the earth’s age, I aim to illustrate the bearing one’s worldview can have upon how one pursues certain questions and decides whether to accept particular answers as credible. I also suggest that some aspects of one’s worldview—a commitment to Scripture, for example—not only shape, but also are shaped by, other aspects of one’s worldview, such as a confidence in science.

Rather than arguing for a particular age of the earth, or claiming that some historical persons were closer to the truth than others, I instead hope to reveal that the players cannot so easily be separated into the small number of teams whose names generally are invoked in contemporary debates over the earth’s age or in historical discussions of past debates. Although labels like “biblical literalist,” “evolutionist,” and “young-earth creationist” are not devoid of meaning, neither are they precise enough to describe the full diversity of opinions regarding the earth’s age.


General Background

Let me begin with some background. In thirteenth-century Paris, Bishop Tempier condemned 219 theses from Aristotle’s works, including 27 statements that claimed the earth to be eternal.2 Late-medieval Christians rejected Aristotle’s eternal earth in favor of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, which describe God’s six-day work of creating the heavens, the earth, and its inhabitants, and Old Testament genealogies that place this creation at about 4000 years before Christ. The precise biblical age of the earth depended upon which manuscripts one regarded as most accurate, as the Church Fathers already had noted.3

The person most famous for studying these manuscripts was the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher. By carefully collating the Bible’s genealogies and also contemplating astronomical factors, such as whether the creation was more likely to commence with the spring or autumnal equinox, Ussher dated the creation to October 23, 4004 B.C. He published this conclusion in his influential work of 1650, Annales veteris testamenti.  By 1738, over 200 different biblical chronologies were known, placing the creation anywhere between 6984 B.C.4 and 3483 B.C.  In any case, no Old Testament manuscript, nor many Christian chronologers prior to the seventeenth-century, suggested the earth to be much older than several millennia. “Literal statements in Scripture,” explains  historian Francis C. Haber, were “empirical facts to the seventeenth-century mind.”5 The status of Scripture as fact and the belief in a recently created earth would, however, soon be challenged.


Theories of the Earth in the Age of Descartes

From the seventeenth century onward, these challenges were presented in the works of certain natural philosophers who did not regard the Bible as pertinent to their pursuits of natural knowledge, as well as in works in natural theology that were intended to reveal agreement between God’s Word and His works. An example of the former approach can be found in René Descartes’s Principia Philosophiae (1644), which included a speculative alternative to the biblical origin of the earth.6 Though offered only as a conjecture of how the laws of Cartesian mechanics could account for the transformation of a hot fire ball into the inhabitable planet earth, Descartes’s cosmogony influenced others to develop similar theories. Some of these theorists presented their accounts as realistic explanations rather than fanciful conjectures.

Thomas Burnet, for example, wrote in his Sacred Theory of the Earth (1st ed., 1681) that Genesis should be understood as a simplification of Cartesian mechanics. The idea was that Moses had adapted the true origin of the earth into the language of less informed readers. Burnet borrowed from Descartes a notion that the earth at one time was shelled by a smooth, solid crust atop massive oceans. This Edenic state was then transformed into the earth’s present form by the Noachian flood. Perhaps influenced by the millennialist thinking surrounding Britain’s Glorious Revolution, he concluded that the earth would come to a fiery end within 1500 years, when God fashions a New Heaven and a New Earth in its place. This eschaton would follow the creation by precisely 6000 years. But, because no one knew the exact date of creation, so also the final day and hour remain unknown. Burnet also drew support from empirical evidence, such as the earth’s population being too small to have been growing for more than a few thousand years.7

William Whiston challenged Burnet by writing a New Theory of the Earth in 1696. Although Whiston dedicated his work to Newton rather than Descartes, he similarly argued that Moses understood the true mechanics of creation but had simplified the account for the Hebrews. Whiston’s Newtonian earth was originally a comet that cooled down during a period well beyond the traditionally understood Mosaic time scale.8

These seventeenth-century attempts to extend natural history all the way back to the earth’s origin were encouraged by contemporary discoveries of diverse marine fossils at such odd places as mountain tops. The Welsh naturalist Edward Lhwyd (1660–1709) concluded, like a host of Renaissance scholars before him, that fossils were mineral, not organic, productions. He knew of no explanation for how a living creature could end up inside a rock. The Scandinavian anatomist Nicholas Steno (1638–1686), by contrast, argued that fossils were in fact the organic remains of creatures that had lived long ago (though still within a time scale like Ussher’s).9 As historian Paolo Rossi explains, this redefinition of fossils as organic remains contributed to the then-revolutionary idea that “Nature itself has a history and [fossils] are among the documents of that history.”10 Natural historians thenceforth could read the so-called book of nature along side, or even instead of, the Book of nature’s God (that is, the Bible) as they sought to explain, among other things, how marine organisms ended up on mountain tops.

We have seen, however, that according to both Burnet and Whiston, Moses had greatly simplified God’s wisdom when recording it in the Pentateuch for a supposedly simpleton audience. The British microscopist Robert Hooke interpreted Scripture’s chronologies much differently. Amid theories of the earth that were calling into question not only the method of creation but also its date, Hooke endorsed a traditional Mosaic time scale and refuted Chinese and Egyptian chronologies of civil history that extended beyond Ussher’s creation date.11 Already challenged by some earth theorists in Protestant Britain, those who maintained Hooke’s view were about to be challenged further by the less churchly writers of the Enlightenment.


Enlightenment Explorations into the Abyss of Time

The year 1748 saw the first publication of Benoît de Maillet’s Telliamed, which had been circulated covertly in unpublished form for years. The French author, an ambassador to Egypt, adopted the persona of an oriental philosopher named Telliamed (which was de Maillet spelled backwards). This philosopher drew upon ancient Egyptian records of the flooding of the Nile to establish an immense antiquity of the earth. The Noachian flood was completely absent from this account. De Maillet did, however, infer from records of the declining level of the sea that the earth originally had been covered with water.12

The following year an even older work finally met its publication. This was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Protogaea, which he had completed by 1692 as the preface to a family history of the House of Brunswick. He took their history much further back than human history. Like Descartes, he began with a fire-ball earth that cooled to its present temperature over eons of time. After interpreting God’s separation of light and darkness (in Genesis 1:4) as a contrast between the igneous earth and the cold, barren planets, he described a sweeping deluge on the Brunswicks’ earth. According to Leibniz, this flood redistributed fossils to mountain tops and prepared the earth for subsequent geological ages leading up to human civilization, and eventually the Brunswick family history.13

By this time, so many theories of the earth had appeared that the French naturalist Georges Leclerc, comte de Buffon, felt compelled to begin his expansive Histoire naturelle with what he entitled a “Preliminary Discourse on the [Correct] Manner of Studying and Treating Natural History” (1749). Buffon objected to those natural philosophers who spoke of hidden causes and used mathematical laws—whether Cartesian or Newtonian—to fabricate certainty in their conclusions. He advised that natural historians should examine the appearances of nature carefully, and take special notice of whichever natural events occur repeatedly. Although one can never know the causes of these phenomena, one can recognize patterns of observed effects. From these patterns, one can infer hidden causes and then build a history of nature upon that foundation. Subsequent volumes of Histoire naturelle would contain detailed descriptions of various plant and animal species, and also suggest that some species have become transformed into others. These investigations were introduced by a second preliminary essay, entitled “History and Theory of the Earth.”

Criticizing Burnet and Whiston, Buffon argued that “it is the historian’s business to describe, not invent.” He proceeded to describe presently observed phenomena, such as the distribution of mountain ranges.14 Although initially confining himself to geological changes observed in recorded history, Buffon extrapolated those same kinds of effects into the distant past. Contemporary observations of comets nearly colliding with the sun led him to consider that the earth probably originated as a portion of the sun that was spewed forth after a comet grazed its surface. Buffon thus arrived at an earth history similar to Leibniz’s. Unlike Descartes he did not offer it as an idle speculation. In fact, he quantified the probability of his solar-comet theory, claiming that his chance of being wrong was as slim as 1 out of 7,692,624.15

This did not convince everybody. In 1751 the theological faculty of the Sorbonne banned Histoire naturelle for its unscriptural conclusions. This censoring prompted Buffon to retract several theses regarding the origin and history of the earth. By 1778, however, Buffon was ready to publish another non-traditional earth history, Les Époques de la nature. This volume demarcated the whole history of nature, from solar comet to human civilization, into seven epochs, which corresponded only superficially to the seven days mentioned in Genesis. From experiments on the cooling rates of cannon balls, he calculated the origin of his fiery earth to be nearly 3,000,000 years in the past, but for publication in the Époques he reduced that value to about 70,000 years. Significantly, Buffon abbreviated the age of the earth to tens of thousands of years for neither scientific nor theological reasons. Rather, he feared his readers would not be able to imagine the millions of years his experimental data indicated.16


Huttonian Debates

To this day, no English translation of the Époques has been published.17 Already in the 1780s, however, the unimaginable antiquity of the earth was being considered among English-speaking geologists. Scottish geologist James Hutton’s now-famous 1788 article in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh introduced the often quoted notion that geology reveals “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”18 By separating geology from miracles, such as the Noachian deluge, and replacing catastrophic floods with a steady balance of volcanic uplift and stream erosion, Hutton developed a slow, cyclical history of geological creations and destructions. He placed only the most recent of these creations within the Mosaic time scale, together with the origin of humans. Richard Kirwan, the president of the Irish Royal Academy, opposed Hutton at each point. This prompted the Scot to further defend his views in his book Theory of the Earth (1795), to which Kirwan responded in his own Geological Essay of 1797.19

As debates continued, John Playfair defended Hutton’s geological history with his own Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802). To make the claim of eternality more palatable, Playfair clarified that Hutton was merely saying that science alone provides no evidence that the earth had a beginning. This left open the possibility that the earth did have a beginning, but science simply could not detect it. Nevertheless, Playfair’s version of Huttonian geology caused additional anxiety by excluding both God and miracles.20


Nineteenth-century Time Revolutions

In the early decades of the nineteenth century many Englishmen expected science to corroborate Scripture, not to contradict or exclude it. Schooled by William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), they envisioned science as a means to reveal signs of God’s existence and to establish proofs of His goodness, wisdom, and power. Meanwhile, Ussher’s creation date of 4004 B.C. was being printed in the margins of many King James Bibles. If geology was to progress in this climate, it needed a different spokesperson than Playfair.

One possibility was “scriptural geology,” which employed the Noachian deluge as an explanation for many geological phenomena. This was not, however, the dominant approach for bringing Genesis and geology into agreement. British geologists instead took their cue from Georges Cuvier, France’s leading expert on fossil skeletons. Cuvier was not himself interested in harmonizing Scripture and science, but Robert Jameson, who translated Cuvier’s Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe (1812) into English in 1813, portrayed Cuvier as offering a peculiar compromise between Genesis and geology.21 The result was an earth history characterized by a series of catastrophic revolutions—one of which could be considered Noah’s flood—rather than a seemingly eternal earth sustained by steady-state cycles as Hutton supposed.

The “Cuvierian compromise” between  geology and Genesis was an instance in which age-of-the-earth debates could not be divided so neatly between people seeking a harmony between Scripture and science and those looking to science alone. To demonstrate this, I shall focus on the work of the Rev. William Buckland, a geology lecturer at Oxford. Buckland was the leader of what historian Nicholaas Rupke has called the era-defining “English school of geology.” By the 1820s Buckland had become the nation’s foremost scientist and “a man to be mentioned in the same breath as Cuvier.”22

Simply put, Buckland and many of his contemporaries adopted a perspective that Jameson attributed to Cuvier, namely, that the present earth and its inhabitants, including humans, were divinely created some 6000 years ago and later experienced a great flood, but that this world was preceded by other periods during which certain now-extinct, fossilized species roamed the globe. Cuvier’s emphasis of catastrophes other than the Noachian flood pushed earth history beyond Ussher’s timescale, but did so in a manner that—with Buckland’s help—was both geologically and theologically defensible.

As for geology, this thesis could be merged with a stratigraphic framework adapted from Abraham Werner’s famous classification, during the 1790s, of primary, transitional, secondary, and alluvial rock layers. Buckland expanded this scheme into his own stratigraphic tables during the 1810s. Significantly, he defined these layers of earth not in terms of spatial arrangement alone, nor even by composition, but according to ancient time periods during which the fossilized organisms found in each layer were supposed to have roamed Cuvier’s earth.23

As for theology, Buckland showed that this theory of the earth could be defended by the Bible, or at least by one Bible in particular. That is to say, in analyzing Buckland’s defense of his old-earth thesis, we are rewarded by asking not merely, What did people think the Bible was? (for example, God’s infallible word or an anthology of men’s religious myths), but also, Which book did people think was the Bible?

Already I have mentioned that Ussher’s creation date of 4004 B.C. was printed in the margins of many nineteenth-century Bibles. This, even in the hands of the more traditional school of scriptural geologists, did not prove too sturdy a stumbling block for Buckland because he cited Luther’s Bible instead. The marginal numbers in Luther’s Bible were not dates but day numbers. Buckland was proud to point out that Luther marked the first of the six creation days as beginning with Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.” This left verses 1–2 available to be interpreted as an indefinite period of time during which God created several successive worlds of the now-fossilized species. Buckland’s 1836 Bridgewater Treatise on Geology and Mineralogy, which was commissioned for a series in natural theology, began with several pages of verbose footnotes concerning Luther’s Bible and the esteemed opinion of Oxford Hebrew scholar E. B. Pusey. Though Buckland had, some fifteen years prior, abandoned “scriptural geology” and its preoccupation with the Noachian flood, his ancient-earth thesis presented itself as biblically sound as well as scientifically up-to-date. Theologically, who better than Luther and Pusey could support him? Scientifically, Buckland referred his readers to Britain’s most respected astronomer, John Herschel, who had calculated that the earth’s orbit had been decaying for some 600,000 years.24

From an American perspective, it is appropriate to have discussed Buckland’s 1836 treatise prior to Charles Lyell’s path-breaking work from earlier in the 1830s, Principles of Geology. A survey of American periodicals suggests that Lyell’s work was not broadly discussed in the U.S. until the 1840s.25 For this reason, Lyell’s work came to the American public bolstered by Buckland’s treatise, rather than vice versa. One of the most detailed American reviews of Lyell’s work, appearing in the most widely circulated quarterly of the South, referred specifically to Buckland’s use of Luther’s Bible.26 American readers were urged to regard Lyell’s uniformitarian geology, which had no room for Noah’s flood and required a very ancient earth, to be in perfect agreement with the theology of Martin Luther and the Hebrew expertise of E. B. Pusey.

I imagine that all of you know Luther’s theology better than I do, and that even I know it better than Buckland did. In a commentary on Genesis, Luther explicitly denied an age of the earth excessive of 6000 years and, responding to a Buckland-like thesis of his own day, he plainly asserted that the events of verses 1–2 are concomitant with, rather than vastly prior to, those of verse 3.27 Curiously, of the thirteen editions of Luther’s Bible that I reviewed—including the original printing of 1534—not one contains the marginal day numbers Buckland claimed. Moreover, an edition of 1767 included a time line placing the world’s creation at exactly 3947 years before Christ.28

Buckland, however, cited a 1557 edition of Luther’s Bible, which did contain a numeral 1 adjacent to verse 3.29 This editorial revision, seemingly representing Luther’s own views, graced Lyell’s geology as it came to America with its explicitly Huttonian image of immeasurable eons preceding the present day.

Lyell supported his uniformitarian geology with a methodology called “actualism,” which restricted geologists to consider for past times only the kind and degree of geological changes presently witnessed. This methodology cast the universal deluge reported in Genesis chapters 6 through 9 outside the realm of science. In the opening chapter of his Principles, Lyell called the Noachian flood “a theoretical fallacy” that “interfere[s] . . . seriously with accurate observation and . . . facts.”30 In the chapters that followed, Lyell contributed earnestly to the declining popularity of Ussher’s young earth.
I must emphasize, however, that Lyell, Buckland, and many others did maintain that human origins date only to about 4000 B.C., when God created Adam and Eve to live on an already ancient earth.

By the mid nineteenth century, scientific debates over the earth’s age had shifted from old versus young to old versus very old. Though there were still young-earth advocates in London during the latter part of the century, Darwin’s Origin of Species became engulfed in a controversy over the age of the earth not so much because his long history of evolutionary ancestors exceeded Ussher’s time scale, but because he implicitly (and explicitly in his Descent of Man) placed human origins much earlier than the circa 4000 B.C. date preserved by Buckland and Lyell. Moreover, he placed the origin of ancestral life forms not merely millions of years ago, but millions of generations ago.

Lyell himself gradually conceded to the antiquity of humans, but William Thompson, soon to be ennobled Lord Kelvin for his contributions to British science, argued throughout the 1860s that the earth could not possibly be as old as Darwin’s theory required. He reasoned that the center of the earth is hot because it has not yet cooled down as much as the earth’s crust. By methods reminiscent of Buffon’s research, Kelvin calculated no more than a few hundred million years since the entire earth had been a molten rock. (At least in the wake of Darwin’s work 100 million years seemed “few.”) Coming from Britain’s foremost physicist, his opinion was respected by many, including several prominent geologists who calculated commensurate ages by their own methods.31 As biologists adopted evolutionary theories for the origin of species, they argued with physicists over how long ago the earth originated.

The two disciplines did not approach a consensus until the early years of our own century, when considerations about radioactivity suggested a very ancient earth. The radioactive properties of uranium were discovered in 1896. By 1902, physicists recognized that radioactive substances can generate a great deal of heat. Some began to speculate that if the sun generates its heat radioactively, and the earth was originally part of the sun, then the earth would have taken far longer to cool than Lord Kelvin had supposed.32

By the 1930s, not only the earth but the entire universe was regarded as increasingly ancient. Edwin Hubble’s solution to a decades-old astronomical debate specified a mathematical proportion between a celestial body’s distance from the earth and its velocity relative to the earth. Hubble’s equation—velocity equals distance multiplied by the Hubble constant—suggested that the universe was rapidly expanding. During the 1930s other scientists extrapolated Hubble’s expanding universe backward in time to postulate a Big Bang origin of the universe. Under this model, the age of the universe is on the order of 10 billion years.


Continuing Debates in the Twentieth Century

The conflict between Darwin and Lord Kelvin completely had avoided the possibility of a 6000-year-old earth. The young-earth thesis similarly was upstaged in the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan prosecuted high school biology teacher John T. Scopes for teaching evolution, but not for teaching that the earth was ancient. In fact, when, in a circus-like atmosphere, defense attorney Clarence Darrow placed the prosecutor himself on the witness stand, Bryan admitted that he regarded the “days” of Genesis as periods of indefinite length. This old-earth reading of days as eons was not uncommon among fundamentalist creationists. Even those fundamentalists who did regard the “days” of Genesis as literal often followed Buckland’s interpretation that eons of life forms had gone extinct and become fossilized prior to the events of Genesis 1:3. However adamant fundamentalists seemed concerning creationism, they willingly conceded to evolutionists’ claims concerning the earth’s antiquity.33

Today, the young-earth thesis survives somewhat uniquely among Seventh-day Adventists, some Mormons, a fair number of evangelicals, and Midwestern-based Lutherans like ourselves.34 For these advocates of a recent origin of the earth, radioactive half-lives and the Hubble constant have been no more persuasive in the twentieth century than cooling rates and evolutionary genealogies were among young-earth advocates of the nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, not all who hold to a young earth rest their conclusions upon the same foundation. Even within a relatively small, theologically conservative church body, such the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), scientists and theologians have had significant disagreements regarding how to explain a young-earth thesis among their church members and how to defend that conclusion against old-earth proponents.

In February 1977, Martin Sponholz, a science teacher at Luther High School in Onalaska, Wisconsin, was invited to present a paper to a WELS teachers’ conference on the topic of “Teaching Creation Science.”35 Sponholz recently had abandoned a short-lived but somewhat illustrious career as a research scientist. (A mountain in Antarctica still bears his name.) He accepted the invitation but startled many of his fellow young-earth advocates by asserting

There is something wrong with a title containing “creation science.” ... [T]he inference of a hope in science, or the appeal to reason to combat evolution, defend the Bible, and confirm creation is a tragic error. If these two words, science and creation, are linked together to harmonize religious ideas with scientific research and discovery, I believe there exists a misunderstanding of both science and creation.36

A copy of this paper was circulated that spring at another teachers’ conference. One reader in particular wrote to Sponholz and to several other teachers in the synod, “I was infuriated” at Sponholz’s paper.

The distressed individual was David Golisch, a science teacher at Huron Valley Lutheran High School of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the president of the Lutheran Science Institute, an organization of WELS creation science advocates. Golisch enclosed with his letter to those teachers a critical commentary on Sponholz’s thesis, inviting further discussion of fifty-four distinct statements from throughout the paper. In opposition to Sponholz, he asserted, “We must have sound scientific theories of origins based on God’s Word as He reveals it in the Bible.”37

Significantly, Golisch, like Sponholz, interpreted this revelation in the traditional sense of God’s six-day-long work that took place in the ballpark of Ussher’s time scale. (Both were students of Luther, and it is doubtful that either had read Buckland.) Golisch’s frustration with Sponholz’s paper arose not from a different interpretation of Scripture, but from a different interpretation of science. More exactly, it arose from a different definition of the word “science.”

Sponholz defined the laws of science as “intellectual models of artistry. The laws of science are men’s laws. They are not God’s ordinances.”38 He therefore warned his fellow Lutheran teachers not to use creation science as a form of creationist apologetics among evolutionists or as proofs for creation among their high school students. Golisch and others were following creation science gurus Henry Morris and Duane Gish, who defined “science” as an endeavor that, if not corrupted by evolutionist practitioners, will discover truths that corroborate revealed truth. Sponholz, by contrast, drew his understanding of science from Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn had argued in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientific laws do not necessarily bear on truth, but merely constitute a research paradigm that, like so many before it, may soon become obsolete when scientists agree upon new laws.39 Consequently, Sponholz claimed that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which creation scientists employed to refute the possibility of progressive evolution, is nothing more than an imaginative invention of sinful humans and has no place along side the infallible Word of God.

The Sponholz-Golisch debate illustrates that two young-earth advocates within a synod that tolerates very little theological variance nevertheless differed markedly in their approaches to teaching their beliefs to the next generation of Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and explaining their young-earth worldview to those outside of their fellowship.

Though they and other sorts of young-earth advocates may feel like lone voices crying in the wilderness, the rest of the intellectual landscape is by no means populated with a single species of ancient-earth advocates. A debate regarding the age of the universe resurfaced in the pages of the journal Science as recently as last year. Challenging the widely held view that the birth of the universe occurred about 16 billion years ago, some astronomers had for the past three years been crying in their own wilderness that the Big Bang took place a mere 8 billion years ago. Among other scientists, a new consensus may be emerging in the 12-billion-year range.40 All of these values, curiously, well exceed the limits Buffon perceived for human imagination.



Today I have suggested that thinkers from Descartes to Darwin, and even those of our own day, offer diverse opinions on the age of the earth, on how the age of the earth is to be ascertained, and on how those two issues relate to other aspects of one’s life. This diversity undermines the clean categories implied by commonly used labels like “evolutionist” and “young-earth creationist.” Whatever the true age of the earth, the growing acceptance of its unimaginable antiquity has constituted a Time Revolution no less significant for the human psyche than Copernicus’s displacement of the earth from the center of the universe. Even young-earth adherents must admit that this Time Revolution has influenced their society’s culture directly and their particular subcultures indirectly.

Throughout the nearly four centuries surveyed in this essay, we have also seen that the Time Revolution has been colored by people’s reactions to another revolution, the Scientific Revolution. For Descartes science provided tools for speculating about the earth’s origin. For Buffon science provided a probable history of the earth based upon observations of present phenomena and ostensibly cautious inferences into the past. Hutton, Lyell, and others similarly extended science into the abyss of time, but Sponholz questioned whether science can ensure a true account of even the present. Taken together, these opinions suggest a spectrum of attitudes concerning whether science can provide an accurate picture the present, the past, or the grand “in the beginning” itself.

Over the centuries, this spectrum has drawn much of its color from equally diverse approaches to the Book in which that phrase, “In the beginning,” first was written.



1Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico, transl. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 36.

2Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 71, 74.

3Francis C. Haber, The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959), 1.

4Ronald Lane Reese, Steven M. Everett, and Edwin D. Craun, “‘In the Beginning…’: The Ussher Chronology and Other Renaissance Ideas Dating the Creation,” Archaeoastronomy 5, no. 1 (1982): 20–3, at 21.

5Haber, 70.

6Rossi, 46.

7Rhoda Rappaport, When Geologists Were Historians, 1665–1750 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 140–42; Peter J. Bowler, The Norton History of the Environmental Sciences, Norton History of Science series, ed. Roy Porter (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992), 119.

8Rappaport, 153–54; Rossi, 66–68.

9Bowler, 115.

10Rossi, 4.

11Rappaport, 192.

12Bowler, 121–22; Rappaport, 228–32.

13Rappaport, 195–96, 208–11.

14G. L. Leclerc, comte de Buffon, “Second Discourse: The History and Theory of the Earth,” transl. John Barr, in From Natural History to the History of Nature: Readings from Buffon and His Critics, ed. John Lyon and Phillip R. Sloan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 134–49, at 136.

15Jacques Roger, Buffon: A Life in Natural History, transl. Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 112.

16Rossi, 108.

17The Époques has recently appeared in Spanish: Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, Las épocas de la naturaleza, ed. and transl. Antonio Beltrán Marí (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1997).

18Quoted in Haber, 168.

19Bowler, 130, 135.

20Bowler, 135.

21Martin J. S. Rudwick, Goerges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 254, 257–59.

22Nicholaas A. Rupke, The Great Chain of History: William Buckland and the English School of Geology (1814–1849) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 7.

23Rupke, 122–28.

24William Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, 2 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1836). Buckland cited “Luther’s Bible (Wittenburg, 1557)” in a footnote that spanned pages 22–25 of his first volume. Regarding the varied editions of Luther’s Bible, see notes 28 and 29, below.

25This statement serves as a preliminary summary of my perusals of numerous periodicals from antebellum America, including the American Journal of Science, American Whig Review, North American Review, Methodist Quarterly Review, Princeton Review, Southern Literary Messenger, Southern Quarterly Review, and Ladies’ Repository.

26C. B. Hayden, “A Resume of Geology,” review of several geological works, Southern Literary Messenger 12, no. 11 (1846): 658–71, at 666.

27Martin Luther, In Primum Librum Mose Enarrationes, in vol. 42 of D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimarer Ausgabe) (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1883), 3–6; translated as Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1–5, vol. 1 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, transl. George V. Schick (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 4–6.

28Variously titled as Biblia, Das ist Die Heilige Schrift: Altes und Neues Testaments or Die Bibel, Das ist Die Heilige Schrift Altes und Neues Testaments, the editions of Luther’s German Bible that I have examined include: Wittemberg: Hans Lufft, 1545 (facsimile reprint Darmstadt: Wissenscheaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1972); Nurnberg: in Verlegung J. D. Endters Seel. Sohn und Erben, 1708; Basel: Bey und im Verlag Emanuel und Johann Rudolph Thurneysen, 1720; Germantown, PA: n.p. (published illegally), 1743; n.p.: n.p., 1775; Halle: Sansteinische Bibel, 1778 and also 1826; Luneburg: Sternsche Buchdruckeren, 1809; Hanover: Hahnsche Hofbuchhandlung, 1827; Heidelberg: J. E. B. Mohr, 1831; Dresden: Gachfische Bibelgesellschaft, 1836. A chronology placing Christ’s birth 3947 years after creation appears in Biblia, das ist die ganze Heilige Schift, etc. (Speyer: Ludwig Bernhard Friderich Gegel, Stadt-Buchdructern, 1767). Herb Samworth of the Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquities, in Grand Haven, Michigan, has examined a 1534 printing of Luther’s Bible on my behalf. This was the first printing of Luther’s entire translation of the two Testaments; some 430 printings of his translation for part or all of the Bible were made between 1518 and his death in 1546. See Lucien Paul Victor Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800, transl. David Gerard (London: N.L.B., 1976), 291–92.

29Luther’s German Bible was pirated into print even before the first authorized edition was published. During this time period, pirated to authorized editions of works typically ran 90 to 1. See Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 29. Thus, it is not surprising that an edition of Luther’s Bible would contain marginal “day” numbers indicative of an interpretation at odds with Luther’s own views. I thank Peter Anthony for examining on my behalf a 1557 posthumous edition at Oxford University, likely the very copy from which Buckland had read.

30Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, facsimile reprint of the 1st ed. (1830), vol. 1, with a new introduction by Martin J. S. Rudwick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 29–30.

31Bowler, 245.

32See Emilio Segrè, From X-Rays to Quarks: Modern Physicists and Their Discoveries (Berkeley: University of California, 1980), 59; and, Joe D. Burchfield, Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, with a new afterword (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), ch. 6.

33Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 187–90.

34Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 299–318.

35Letter from Robert Averbeck to Martin Sponholz, 16 Feb. 1977. Copies of this and the letters cited here subsequently were provided to me by Martin Sponholz.

36Sponholz, “Teaching Creation and Science,” paper presented to Wisconsin State Teachers’ Conference (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod), October 27 and 28, 1977, from the printed version distributed by David Golisch (see note 38, below), 1.

37Letter of David R. Golisch to numerous “Fellow Christian Science Teacher[s],” 1 October 1978.

38Sponholz, 11.

39Sponholz, personal communication.

40Andrew Watson, “The Universe Shows Its Age: A Cosmic Embarrassment Is Fading,” Science 279 (13 February 1998): 981–3.

Pin It