Grasping the Nettle

Now, if the nineteenth century geologists were right and the age of rock strata sequences could be measured in terms of thousands or millions of years, there would be good reason to re-examine the original understanding of the age of rocks. This understanding was quite simply that the earth’s fossil bearing rocks were formed by the erosion of countless millions of tons of sediments at the time of the Great Flood. All land air-breathing living things were drowned and buried in the sediments. This event calculated from the biblical genealogies would have occurred around 4,500 years before the present, at the latest. If it could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these rock formations built up over enormous epochs of time, the traditional teaching on Creation and the Flood, handed down from Moses to the nineteenth century geologists, would have to be seriously questioned. For such a radical step to be taken, however, very clear proof would have to be provided. It seems that in the rush to accommodate the “long ages” the reliability of the new geological hypothesis was never questioned.

Belief in “day ages” quickly merged with a belief in biological evolution. The latter depended on fossils and Lyell’s interpretation of very “old” rock strata in which they are found. Once again recourse to empirical proof was not thought necessary. The materialists, unopposed, thus found an excellent way of showing the Church’s teaching to be not only fallible, but quite wrong. Intimidated by the practical power of science in an increasingly technical world, instead of challenging the premises of the exegetical revolution, most theologians embraced the new synthesis of creation and evolution. In these conditions naturalism driven by evolution theory began being taught in the classroom. It explained the origin of things by natural scientific laws.  Instant creation of each living essence by divine fiat was replaced by the concept of a gradual process of evolution. Within this paradigm, the omnipotence of God was less in evidence, and little lay in the way for it to be discarded altogether.

One reason for the apparent lack of interest on the part of Churchmen in testing the truth of the great ages attributed to rocks was the widely held belief that the age of the earth had no bearing upon the Church’s doctrinal teaching. However, the writings of nineteenth century theologians, like Fr. Vacant, showed that the age of the rocks was the primary factor behind the abandonment of the traditional theology of creation.  For instance instead of upholding the traditional doctrine that man was created on the sixth day of the hexameron, Fr. Vacant observes that the rocks show man to have appeared after a long line of previous inhabitants: Geology has also established that man is the last being to appear on the earth, and that it had been prepared to serve him as domain by a long series of other inhabitants.[1]

In geological terms, whether the Earth is young or not depends upon the age of its constituent parts. The age of these parts is determined by the reliability of the dating methods applied to them. This subject will be examined in more detail later in this article. What should really interest human beings, however, is whether the geological date of the origin of biological life, including man, converges with the Church’s teaching. In short, a comprehensive evaluation of the complaint can be made under three headings: 1. geological data; 2. implication of belief in long ages upon the Church’s teaching; 3. Scriptural evidence.

1. Geological Data.

According to the theory of evolution the first trace of living cells was in the early Cambrian period around 540 million years ago (International Stratigraphic Chart – International Commission of Stratigraphy – January 2013). The progress of single celled life through the various stages of evolution to the living types found on earth today, including man, is claimed to have been documented by means of the fossil record. The fossils are dated directly from the age of the rock strata in which they are found, and indirectly by radiometric dating of lava tuffs in the vicinity of the fossil.  In case of conflict between the two dates, it is the stratigraphic date which takes precedence.

On the assumption that the stratigraphic principles proving great ages for rock formations are correct, the case for a slow and relentless biological evolution of living matter is without question. It has been studied by the leading biologists, geneticists, anatomists, paleontologists and geologists of our time and declared foolproof. The evidence is taught in all places of learning including seminaries as virtually established fact. Inevitably, after decades of propaganda by the communications media, the public and the clergy have been convinced. Logically, the evidence leaves no scientific alternative to a long drawn out process of evolution. Those who disagree, yet believe in the great ages of rock strata really have no scientific or intellectual grounds on which to do so. The age of the rocks and the fossils in them provides the unassailable proof. So, when people contend that belief in the long ages of the rocks can be separated from belief in evolution one has to assume they have not studied sufficiently the facts presented by all sectors of the scientific community.

As with most scientific theories, however, in stratigraphy a solidly constructed superstructure is founded upon an infrastructure containing one or more assumptions. Providentially,  20 years or so ago, an experimenter discovered that the basic principles upon which sedimentary strata are dated had never been tested in the laboratory since their publication in the seventeenth century by a Danish naturalist Nicolas Steno. Over three centuries later, Guy Berthault and colleagues at the Colorado State University undertook flume experiments which showed that in a water current, strata do not form successively and vertically one on top of the other as proposed by Steno. Their report was peer-reviewed and published by the French Geological Society. Subsequent field research confirming and completing the Colorado State experiments was published in 2002 and 2004 by the Russian Academy of Sciences in its journal Lithology and Mineral Resources. When applied to geological formations supposed to have taken hundreds of millions of years to form (e.g. the Tonto Group in the Grand Canyon in the Cambrian period) experimental data and paleohydraulic analysis set the duration of their formation at a maximum of several weeks. The geological time scale and dating of the fossil record have thus been invalidated by observation tested by meticulous laboratory experiment. The protests from geologists and evolutionists are bitter and ad hominem attacks on the experimenter are numerous. However, no experimentally supported argument against the laboratory and field evidence has been produced. In any case the experiments which have been checked by professional referees are the kind of empirical evidence upon which science develops. It can be observed, repeated and remains unchanged for all future generations to ponder.[2]

Although the method of assigning long ages to rocks was proposed well before radiometric dating methods were introduced, the latter have been used to confirm the stratigraphic dates and the age of fossils found in the rocks. Correspondence between the two has been claimed. However the assumptions upon which dating by radio-isotopes are based invariably include the acceptance of long ages. In fact, some methods, e.g. potassium/argon (the most popular fossil-dating method), are considered unsuitable where the rock samples are known to be of a recent date. They are only applied to rocks assumed to be very old. This is not the place to discuss the physical processes involved in radiometry, but suffice it to say where there is a conflict between the two, stratigraphic dates are considered the more reliable.

2 . Implication of Belief in Long ages upon the Church’s Teaching

We have seen the Church’s teaching on ex nihilo creation and its principal tenets were formulated in 1215 by Lateran IV, centuries before geological speculations on long ages. Both Lateran IV and Vatican I, which repeated the same teaching on creation in 1870, were occupied with pantheism in one form or another. The thirteenth century Council was directed against inter alia the Albigensians and Waldensians, and Vatican I against materialists and pantheists per se. Pantheism denies that:

…the world, and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing (Vatican I – canon 5)

It is incompatible with the first words of the summary of Catholic belief, the Credo, professed at Mass:

I believe in God the Father almighty creator of heaven and earth

The signification of the words “heaven and earth” is given in the Catholic Catechism:

The Apostles Creed professes that God is “Creator of Heaven and earth.”  The Nicene Creed makes it explicit that this profession includes “all that is seen and unseen.” (CCC 325)

The Scriptural expression “heaven and earth” means all that exists in its entirety. (CCC 326)

In the words of theologian Fr. Peter Fehlner:

The creedal formula for creation, seen against its scriptural backdrop, quite explicitly contains the following points:

1. The One and only God, utterly incomparable, is the Creator of all else; the entire cosmos for this reason has a beginning in time. It is not eternal-infinite.

2. Not only is the Creator solely responsible for the existence of the world, but it is His distinctive action principally that gives order to the world in establishing the distinct natures or species in their essence and in establishing the laws or structures governing the subsequent activities of created agents (emphasis added).[3]

As, according to Lateran IV, all things were created at the beginning (CCC 327)  and the term “created” means instant production of a thing from nothing in all its parts (Vatican I “in its whole substance”), the postulate that God programmed matter from the beginning to transform from one essence to a new one is excluded.

Theistic evolutionists hold that the species found on earth today are the result of a continuous evolutionary process guided by God. In doing so, they contradict the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas who showed that no creature can participate in the creation of another creature.  According to St. Thomas:

But such a thing cannot be, because the secondary instrumental cause does not participate in the action of the superior cause, except inasmuch as by something proper to itself it acts dispositively to the effect of the principal agent. If therefore it effects nothing, according to what is proper to itself, it is used to no purpose; nor would there be any need of certain instruments for certain actions . . . Now the proper effect of God creating is what is presupposed to all other effects, and that is absolute being. Hence nothing else can act dispositively and instrumentally to this effect, since creation is not from anything presupposed, which can be disposed by the action of the instrumental agent. So therefore it is impossible for any creature to create, either by its own power or instrumentally–that is, ministerially.[4]

Theistic evolutionists cannot believe that each kind of living being in its whole substance was created immediately by God quite distinct from other kinds of living beings. They cannot believe that all the kinds of living things were created separately and distinctly from nothing. They believe, ipso facto, that living things created originally by God can combine either by the power of God or by the force of nature with other created things to form a different essence from the originally created thing. However, the idea that God endowed created essences with the ability to create new kinds of essences is pure pantheism.

In practical terms, the proposed evolutionary progress of living things is through the agency of genetic mutation. A gene, coding for one or more protein functions, mutates and causes a change in the organism. If the change were beneficial to the organism it could be kept with other beneficial mutations until sufficient new information were available to create a new type of organism. Although experimental research has yet to produce a single example of an information-adding mutation that has led to the production of a new organ or function, theistic evolution claims that God indirectly causes transformation of species by giving mutated genes the power to effect such changes.[5]

The connection between theistic evolution and pantheism was noted by Franciscan dogmatic theologian Fr. Peter Fehlner, former lecturer at the Seraphicum College in Rome, as follows:

The operation of a created agent presupposes the prior existence of the world and of the species and cannot extend beyond these limits. The operation of the Creator does not. Any refusal to recognize the radical inadequacy of natural processes as an explanation for the origin of the world and the distinction of species must logically lead to a failure (Pantheism) to perceive the distinction between God and His creation. Pantheism clothed in the terminology of Christian theology becomes a particularly insidious form of Syncretism.[6]

3. Scriptural Evidence

Long ages are not even hinted at in the Bible. The first eleven chapters of Genesis give no suggestion of a million years or so elapsing between the creation of Adam and the mention of Abraham. The genealogies in the early chapters of Genesis show continuity. Why suddenly, during a few years around 1860, should the history of Adam and his descendants, including the Deluge have been jettisoned as an allegory? A history accepted first by the Hebrew people and then by Christians without question describes a period of over several thousand years. Is it possible that the Patriarchs, Apostles, Church Fathers, Doctors and Popes, not having the benefit of the nineteenth century geological hypothesis of long ages, were allowed by God to teach error for centuries? Might it not be more likely that the Church representatives were right and the geologists wrong?

Is it not significant that Jesus Christ Himself taught that the creation account and the Deluge were historical?

From the beginning of creation “God made them male and female” (Mk. 10:6)

As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying…until the day Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away. (Matt. 24-37:39)


[1] Fr. A. Vacant, Etudes Théologiques sur les Constitutions du Vatican d’après les actes du Concile, Art, section 208.

[2] Guy Berthault’s research can be examined at www.sedimentology.fr

[3] Fr. Peter D. Fehlner, op. cit., p. 12.

[4] ST, I, Q 45, a 5.

[5] In the words of Pierre-Paul Grassé, former president of the French Academy of Sciences, “No matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution” (Pierre-Paul Grassé, Evolution of Living Organisms, Academic Press, New York, 1977), p. 88.

[6] Fr. Peter D. Fehlner, In the Beginning, p. 45.

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