Conclusions about John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

In this fourth and final post in my series reviewing John John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One (the series begins here), I will address some remaining concerns and then draw some conclusions.

To pick up where I left off last time, considerations such as the ones I discussed in my last post suggest that when Genesis speaks of God “creating” (bara‘), it does indeed envision things being brought into existence materially. This conclusion is reinforced by the creation account’s use of another verb, ‘asa, typically translated as “make.”

Walton acknowledges that “this verb can be used for a material process,” but he observes that it actually “covers the whole range, not only of ‘making’ but also of ‘doing’” (64). This is quite true, as examples throughout the Bible attest; in this sense, ‘asa is like verbs in other languages that can mean either “make” or “do” (for example, faire in French). However, this flexibility of connotation simply requires that we determine the verb’s meaning from its context. As a general rule, such verbs mean “make” when their direct object is a thing, and “do” when their direct object is an activity. For example, “I did some baking and I made a batch of cookies.” As we read through the Genesis creation account, it’s certainly more sensible to translate ‘asa as “made” rather than “did”: “God made two great lights,” not “God did two great lights.”

However, Walton tries to support an interpretation of ‘asa as meaning “do” rather than “make” in this account by appealing to the Sabbath commandment in Exodus, which he translates as, “In six days shall you do all your work . . . for in six days the Lord did the heavens and the earth” (64). But it seems to make more sense to see a parallel being drawn there between the Israelites’ “six days,” in which they are to “do” their work, and God’s “six days,” in which he “made” the heavens and the earth, rather than between  the Israelites “doing work” and God “doing the heavens and the earth.”

Genesis itself uses ‘asa (“made”) as a poetic synonym for bara‘ (“created”) shortly after the creation account: “In the day that God created man, in the image of God he made him; male and female he created them. And he blessed them and he called their name ‘adam, in the day they were created.”

The two verbs are actually used this same way, as synonyms, in the opening creation account: God says, “Let us make mankind in our own image,” and the account then reports, “God created mankind in his own image.” So not only should we understand asa’ as meaning “make,” we should understand the creation of humanity, and the rest of the cosmos, as a material creation.

So I do have some significant concerns about Walton’s overall interpretation of the Genesis account and his use of specific features within it to support that interpretation. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this series of posts, I find that we are ultimately on the same side of the debate about the respective roles of religion and science.

Walton specifies that he did not develop his interpretation as a way of resolving the conflict that can arise between religion and science when Genesis is taken as an authoritative literal description of God creating the world in a short time very recently. He explains that his interpretation comes instead from his research into ancient Near Eastern culture and his careful examination of the biblical text. Nevertheless, Walton finds that his interpretation does have implications for the “origins debate”: “If the seven days . . . concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. . . . If there is no biblical information concerning the age of the material cosmos, then, as people who take the Bible seriously, we have nothing to defend on that count and can consider the options that science has to offer” (94–95).

I would say much the same thing, except on different grounds. In the understanding that my co-author and I explain in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, the opening creation account in Genesis does describe the material origins of the universe, however, it does so from an observational perspective. And this is true not just of the cosmology in the account, but also of the chronology in the account. As we say in our book, creation is a product that looks compellingly like “six days’ work” to an earthbound observer operating within an ancient cosmology: “Three divisions: day and night, sky and sea, then the land. Three populations: of day and night, of sky and sea, and then of the land.” But there is also a seventh day of rest and worship, showing that there is meaning and purpose in this ordered creation. Specifically, it is the handiwork of God.

So our commitment in Paradigms on Pilgrimage is much the same as Walton’s commitment in The Lost World of Genesis One: We seek to read and understand the text the way its ancient original audience would have. Because this necessarily involves viewing the creation from the perspective of an earthbound observer, it eliminates any rivalry between the Genesis account and objective scientific descriptions.

John H. Walton

There remain differences between the way we interpret the text from this vantage point in our book and the way Walton does in his book. Resolving these is a matter of appealing to the literary and linguistic data, as I hope I’ve done responsibly in this series of posts. But both his conclusions and ours grant those who hold a biblical faith in God as creator the freedom to explore the creation with all the scientific tools and analyses at our disposal.

Does the Hebrew verb bara‘ mean “assign a function” rather than “create”?

In this series of posts, I’ve been reviewing John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. After summarizing his interpretation of the Bible’s opening creation account in my first post, and discussing some concerns that his interpretation raises in my second post, I’d now like to address the issue that led a reader of Paradigms on Pilgrimage to call attention to Walton’s book in the first place. What precisely does the Hebrew verb bara‘ signify?

The word is usually translated “create” in English. However, one of Walton’s crucial arguments to support the idea that Genesis presents an account of “functional origins” rather than “material origins” is that this word actually means to give something a function, rather than to bring something into existence materially.

To support this claim, he surveys all fifty occurrences of bara‘ in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that “no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous” (41). That is, in his view, many instances could describe either bringing about material existence or assigning a function. He adds in a footnote that “in a large percentage of the cases where the usage is ambiguous, a further explanation is offered that indicates a functional interest” (175–176). However, giving something a material existence out of functional interest, that is, so that it can fulfill a function, nevertheless constitutes a material creation. It’s not the same thing as assigning a function to an already-existing entity, which is the meaning required by Walton’s interpretation of Genesis as describing “days that concern origins of functions not material” (94).

I personally find that many of the uses of bara’ that Walton lists fit the meaning of material creation quite well. For example, Psalm 104 describes how animals “die and return to dust,” but it then says to God, “You send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” This is certainly not a case of previously existing animals being assigned the function of renewing the ground, because the previous animals have died and decayed. So new animals are being brought into existence materially. And it’s not precisely their function to renew the ground; rather, this is a function that God fulfills by making them.

But whatever the significance of bara‘ throughout the Bible (and the verb could indeed cover a range of meanings), we need to be most concerned with what it means in the Genesis account. As he makes his argument for a functional connotation there, Walton addresses the cases where it appears that things are being brought into existence materially. However, it seems to me that to do this, he actually departs from his commitment to read the text through the eyes of the ancient audience it was composed for.

Walton acknowledges, for example, that “day two has a potentially material component,” the firmament (raqi‘a), that is, the dome of the sky. But, he argues, “No one believes there is actually something material there . . . If the account is material as well as functional then we find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist” (93). Actually, everyone acknowledges that there is something material there: Earth has an atmosphere. While it’s gaseous, it’s still composed of matter (and so “material” in that sense), and it indeed provides a habitation for life on earth, by contrast with other planets that lack atmospheres. The fact that Genesis regards the sky as solid rather than gaseous can be attributed to its observational perspective.

Walton grants that “raqi‘a had a meaning to Israelites as referring to a very specific object in their cosmic geography.” But he insists that “in the functional approach, this component of Old World science addresses the function of weather, described in terms that they would understand” (93–94). It seems to me that he actually slips into a “concordist” approach here: A detail that would have meant one thing to the original audience (the solid dome) is taken to represent something different from a modern scientific perspective (weather), and that is said to be its true meaning. I think it would be more consistent to say that when understood from the perspective of the original readers, the creation of the raqi‘a would indeed have constituted bringing something into existence materially. That being the case, Genesis was not for them strictly an account of functional origins.

The same issue arises with Walton’s treatment of the creation of light on the first day. Noting that the text says that “God separated the light from the darkness,” he insists that “this statement does not make any sense if light and/or darkness are viewed as material objects . . . because by definition they cannot exist together in any meaningful scientific or material way” (54). However, the issue once again is not what sense the statement makes from a scientific perspective. We may well expect that an ancient reader could imagine all the light God made being “gathered together into one place” (or perhaps, more accurately, into one time), just as the waters were gathered together into one place on the next day.

Walton encounters a similar problem with the creation of humans. He acknowledges that their creation appears to be material because the material from which they are made is actually specified—the dust of the earth. To address this difficulty, he draws a distinction between a “prototype” (“an original item that serves as a model for later production”) and an “archetype” (“a representative for all others in the class”). He then argues that “the fact that the ancient Near East uses the same sorts of materials to describe all of humanity indicates that the materials have archetypal significance.” Specifically in the case of Genesis, being made of dust “is an archetypal feature that describes us all.” It “therefore cannot be viewed as a material ingredient. It is indicative of human destiny and mortality, and therefore is a functional comment, not a material one” (69). Once more a pre-scientific detail of the text is being given a representative meaning.

In this case there is a problem as well with the proposed functional connotation itself. Genesis depicts God forming humans from the dust of the earth before they became mortal and were destined to die. Even if returning to dust is indicative of mortality, being formed from dust in the first place cannot be a reference to that. There was no function in the original creation that humans were meant to fulfill by dying.

Later in the book Walton seems to describe an actual material creation of humanity. He states that there was “substantive discontinuity” between “the creation of the historical Adam and Eve” and whatever processes brought about the elements that were already in existence when the Genesis account opens and are only assigned a function there. “Rather than cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity” (138). If that is the case, then when God says, “Let us make mankind in our image,” God is certainly bringing something new into existence materially. If we instead see this statement as describing only functional origins—“let us give an already-existing pre-human hominid the function of bearing the image of God”—we have to admit that the Genesis account is misrepresenting how God actually made image-bearing humans, because it would be suggesting that this happened in a continuous rather than a discontinuous way.

Indeed, in Walton’s final analysis, Adam and Eve appear to be much more prototypes than archetypes. He acknowledges that the Bible differs from other ancient Near Eastern texts in depicting the creation of individuals, rather than the “mass of humanity.” He observes that Adam and Eve’s identity as historic individuals is “indicated by their role in genealogies” (138). But this means that they are the actual progenitors of the human race, and so they are not just “representative of all others,” but “original items” that are not just the models but the source of “later production.”

And if that is the case, then humans, along with light and the sky, are all depicted as material creations in the Genesis account. There is no reason, therefore, not to see everything else in the account as being brought into existence materially when God “creates” (bara‘) the heavens and the earth.

In my final post in this series, I will reinforce this point by briefly examining the word ‘asa (“make”) in the Genesis account. I will then address a few remaining concerns and offer some general conclusions.

The prototype for the Corvette, created in 1953, which served as a model for all later production. Were Adam and Eve “prototypes” for humanity—the beginning of all later production? Or does Genesis describe them simply as “archetypes,” as representative examples of their class?

Is the Genesis creation account an anthropocentric “cosmic temple inauguration”?

In my last post, I summarized John Walton’s interpretation in The Lost World of Genesis One of the Bible’s opening creation account. In this post, I’d like to address some of the concerns that his interpretation raises for me.

Probably the most significant one is that the Genesis account does not say explicitly that the creation constitutes a cosmic temple for God. This is actually a marked difference between Genesis and the other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts that Walton cites. One of his foundational principles is that while we must seek to understand Genesis within the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, we should also be very alert to ways in which Genesis distinguishes itself from that culture, and this appears to be one of them.

One Akkadian text Walton cites, for example, says of the situation before creation, “No holy house, no house of the gods, no dwelling for them had been created, all the world was sea” (78). In Genesis, by contrast, the problem is not that there is no place for God to live; it’s that there’s no place for anyone or anything else to live. The earth is “formless,” that is, undifferentiated, not separated into spaces where creatures can live, and so it is also “empty,” devoid of population. It is uninhabitable and therefore uninhabited. According to the interpretation offered in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, Genesis then describes how God brought about “a place for everything,” and put “everything in its place.”

But Walton, responding to the notion that “formless” (tohu) instead means  “without material form,” argues that the term actually “describes that which is nonfunctional, having no purpose and generally unproductive in human terms” (48). He reviews the twenty occurrences of tohu in the Hebrew Bible in order to find support for this meaning. I personally feel, however, that the idea of “uninhabitable” (because not ordered in such a way as to support inhabitants) fits many of these examples quite well. Job, for instance, speaks of desert caravans wandering off their routes into a “wasteland” (tohu) where they perish for lack of water. The clearest concrete expression of this idea is found in Isaiah’s statement that when God “fashioned and made the earth . . . he did not create it to be empty (tohu), but formed it to be inhabited.” Some more metaphorical uses of the term to mean “empty” and, by extension, “worthless,” seem to derive from this concept of being uninhabited. Even the sense of “unproductive” relates to the concept of an area being arid and barren, not able to produce food, and so unfit for human habitation.

So I would argue that the problem that is solved in the creation account is not providing a house for God, but providing hospitable spaces for the teeming variety of creatures who will embody, express, and enjoy God’s goodness and creativity, existing both to reflect these divine attributes and for their own sake, to experience their “day in the sun,” as we say in our book.

Indeed, it appears to me that Genesis pointedly does not speak of a temple, specifically in order to counter any notion that God might be confined within creation (i.e. that God is immanent but not also transcendent). In that way it’s expressing the same perspective that Solomon does in his dedicatory prayer for the Jerusalem temple: “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Walton, however, says that this is one of the “passages in the Old Testament that suggest the cosmos be viewed as a temple” (83). I think he has a better case for a statement such as the one in Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” However, even the description there of God’s greatness in cosmic terms seems designed to make the same point, that God cannot be contained in any temple.

Other Scriptures support the idea that God made the cosmos as a dwelling place not for himself, but for creatures and especially humans. Psalm 115 says, “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind.” (The “highest heavens” or “heaven of heavens” are beyond the sky or firmament, and so they are not part of the creation described in the Genesis account.) Psalm 11 expresses the similar thought that God dwells in the heavens while people dwell on earth, and it adds the idea that God’s temple is to be found there above: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth.” Throughout the Bible this same understanding is expressed of God’s temple being in heaven, i.e. beyond the sky. The book of Hebrews, for example, stresses that any earthly sanctuary is only a “copy and shadow” of the “true one” in heaven. It’s only at the end of the Bible that the heavenly Jerusalem descends to earth and we hear the proclamation, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people.” This holy city has no physical temple “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”

Genesis, however, does speak of God establishing and consecrating the Sabbath, and I agree with Walton that the Sabbath reflects God’s reign, and perhaps even enthronement, as “the entire created structure pauses to acknowledge its Creator” (as we put it in our book, when I describe the views of my seminary professor Meredith Kline). However, this only leads me to conclude that the Genesis account should be seen not as a temple inauguration text but as a Sabbath inauguration text, particularly in light of the way appeals are made later in the Hebrew Bible to the account to support Sabbath observance. The Genesis account is not about a place for God to rest, but a time for God to rest. That’s why it’s structured by “days.”

I personally find the idea very appealing that the cosmos would serve as a “resting place” (or a “stopping-over place,” as some of the ancient Near Eastern texts say) for God. This affirms the dignity and worth of creation, and encourages us to be good stewards. It also stresses that God is not only transcendent but also immanent. So the metaphor of the cosmos as a temple for God is powerful and challenging. I’m just not convinced that this metaphor is being developed in the Genesis creation account. I agree it’s what Genesis would be saying if it were saying the same thing as other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, but that’s precisely the question we must investigate—whether Genesis is indeed saying the same thing.

Another concern I have about Walton’s interpretation is that in the Genesis text, the elements of creation don’t actually fulfill primarily anthropocentric functions. He says of the sun, moon, and stars, for example, “The fourfold description of functions (signs, seasons, days, years) are pertinent only to humans” (63). (He rightly observes that “seasons” here doesn’t refer to agricultural seasons but to “appointed times.”) Nevertheless, as he acknowledges, these lights in the sky also have other functions, including giving light on the earth, which would benefit all creatures, and separating the light from the darkness, that is, distinguishing the realms of day and night. The Hebrew Bible seems to consider these realms-of-time to be just as distinct habitations as realms-of-space. Psalm 104 says, for example, “You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. . . . When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” So certain animals “inhabit” the night, while humans “inhabit” the day.

Beyond this, some of the created elements don’t actually fulfill the functions that Walton describes for them. For example, he says of the raqi‘a or “firmament” of the second day, “If the Hebrew term is to be taken in its normal contextual sense, it indicates that God made a solid dome to hold up waters above the earth” (56). He argues, however, that “instead of objectifying this water barrier, we should focus on the twofold cosmic function it played. Its first role was to create the space in which people could live.” (No argument there, although the dome actually creates a habitable space for all the other sea, sky, and land creatures as well.) “The second and more significant function was to serve as a mechanism by which precipitation was controlled.” Here two concerns arise. First, Genesis does not say anything about such a purpose or function for the firmament. More importantly, Genesis does say that it did not rain at this point in the history of the world; instead, “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.” It was these streams, not “precipitation” controlled by the firmament, that made human life possible (specifically, watering the garden that God planted).

So those are some of the concerns that Walton’s overall interpretation raises for me. But we will now turn, in our next post, to the question of meaning of the Hebrew verb bara‘.

According to the Genesis creation account, just as boundaries were established between land, sea, and sky, the sun helped establish a boundary between day and night, which were also “habitations” for creatures. (Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.)

Review of John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One

In response to an earlier post from our book (“It’s typical of God to begin a new thing by starting with something that already exists”), a reader offered the following comment:

John Walton claims (and I agree) that God’s act of creating (Hebrew bara‘) consists of (in my words) starting with a pile of something and separating it into 2 piles with different functions. I see this as extremely close to the idea of speciation (where one species branches into two) in the theory of evolution.

At the time, Dr. Smith responded:

Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One was published four years after ours, so I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss it in the course of my review of various understandings of the opening creation account. I plan to do one or more posts about it once the original Paradigms on Pilgrimage finishes running. I think it does make a valuable contribution to the conversation.

Here, and in the following three posts, is that promised discussion. [References in parentheses are to page numbers in John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2009).]

John Walton does appeal to a particular understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew word bara‘ to make the case for a new interpretation of the opening creation account in Genesis. However, the sense he finds in the word is not quite that of dividing something into two and giving each part a separate function. I’ll explore his understanding of the word in a later post, but let me begin here with some general observations.

Walton’s analysis of the creation account in The Lost World overlaps in many ways with ours in Paradigms on Pilgrimage. He rejects a “concordist” approach that “seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text” (14–15). Instead, he says we should work to understand the account the way an ancient reader would have. When we do, we recognize that the creation is being described from “the perspective of the earthbound observer” (60) and that the picture in Genesis corresponds with the ancient Near Eastern cosmology in which the biblical authors were immersed: The sky is a solid dome, through which a moving sun passes above a stationary earth, etc.

Walton’s reading of Genesis is so much like ours, in fact, that he reaches many of the same conclusions we do. He insists, for example, that “by definition, empirical science is characterized by methodological naturalism, but once it begins propounding metaphysical naturalism, it has overstepped its disciplinary boundaries” (154). To argue for the valid conclusions of empirical science, he even appeals to the same “atheistic meteorology” analogy: “We believe that God controls the weather, yet we do not denounce meteorologists who produce their weather maps day to day based on the predictability of natural cause-and-effect processes. Can evolution be thought of in similar terms?” (135).

Probably the most significant similarity between Walton’s book and ours is that we are each seeking to encourage and empower believing Christians who feel called to work as scientists. Walton writes of “young people who were raised in the environment of a biblical faith” who “began to pursue education and careers in the sciences and found themselves conflicted as they tried to sort out the claims of science and the claims of the faith they had been taught.” Many felt that they were forced to choose either to believe the Bible and reject scientific discoveries, or else to reject the Bible in light of science. “The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice,” Walton reassures his readers (95). This is essentially the bottom line in our own book, and so Walton is ultimately an ally and a kindred spirit when it comes to understanding and articulating the relationship of science and faith.

That much said, however, there are significant differences between our interpretation of the Genesis creation account and his. Walton argues that this account is actually not a depiction of the material creation of the heavens and the earth. He does state, “I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins” (42), but, he insists, “Genesis 1 is not that story” (95). Rather, “our affirmation of God’s creation of the material cosmos is supported by theological logic as well as by occasional New Testament references” (96). The Genesis account, by contrast, describes functional origins. Specifically, it recounts how things that were already in existence were given a particular function.

Before the events described in Genesis, Walton says, “the material phase . . . could have been under development for long eras . . . There would be no reason to think that the sun had not been shining, plants had not been growing, or animals had not been present” (96–97). But, he writes, “These were like the rehearsals leading up to the performance of a play. The rehearsals are preparatory and necessary, but they are not the play. They find their meaning only when the audience is present.” (97).

The “audience” that Walton has in mind is specifically human beings who have been “granted the image of God” and who can therefore serve him as “vice regents in the world that has been made for them” and as “priests” installed in the cosmos-as-temple so that God can be worshiped there. In other words, the “functional creation” that Walton sees depicted in Genesis is as follows: (1) specific elements are assigned the function of making human life possible (for example, the sun, moon, and stars mark off time); (2) humans receive the “image of God”; (3) God is enthroned in the temple of the cosmos. Walton therefore suggests that the whole account may be understood as a “cosmic temple inauguration” ceremony (86–87).

However, he specifies that “in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity—an anthropocentric view” (68). He asserts that the elements are assigned “human-oriented functions” (63) because the stage is being set specifically for humans to be given the function of bearing God’s image. This is essentially “what happens” in the creation account: Things that already exist materially are purposed to support that function. Walton speculates that “animal life, primates, and even pre-human hominids” (138) might already have developed through “evolutionary processes,” but he insists that before the action described in Genesis, “humanity in God’s image” was still “lacking” (96). God then brought about fully human people, “though it remains difficult to articulate how God accomplished this” (138).

Walton suggests that the Genesis creation account may actually have been used in worship, “as a liturgy to reenact (annually?) the inauguration of the cosmic temple” (98), and that if so, it may simply be offering a review of the arrangements that had already been made to support image-bearing humans, rather than a depiction of how these were first put in place. “The observer in Genesis 1 would see day by day that everything was ready to do for people what it had been designed to do. It would be like taking a campus tour just before the students were ready to arrive to see all the preparations that had been made and how everything had been designed, organized, and constructed to serve students” (98).

In a later post I will explore the meaning of the Hebrew verb bara‘, because one of Walton’s crucial arguments for seeing Genesis as an account of “functional origins” rather than of “material origins” is that this word means to give something a function. However, before examining the case he makes for that meaning, in my next post I will investigate some concerns and questions that his overall interpretation raises.

Fossils in life position (Part 3)

Young-Earth creationists are forced to claim that the overwhelming majority of fossils that appear to have been preserved in life position were actually not formed that way; they only appear to have been, as a serendipitous result of the vicissitudes of catastrophic burial during Noah’s Flood. That is a remarkable burden to bear.

At the onset of the flood (one can only imagine, since there are no natural mechanisms with which to work), organisms in life position would have been scoured and picked up by the catastrophe in order to populate all the sediments that were created and subsequently deposited by the flood. (Presumably sediments that might have existed prior to the flood would have been devoid of fossils.) Any organic remains deposited during the flood could not be in life position, since the rate of sedimentary accumulation needed to satisfy the creationist claim that the vast majority of global sediments were laid down in one year is vastly too rapid for organisms to establish themselves in life position.

For Noah’s Flood to have resulted in the formation of the fossil record, the only fossils that could be in life position would be those on the very bottom of the pile, or those at the very top, which would have reestablished themselves following the Deluge. (Creationists have not identified any such layers.) However, if you find just one fossil in life position (and all it takes is one) within a pile of sedimentary rock, what you then know is that the rate of sedimentation was slow enough (or no sediments were being deposited) so as not to interfere with that sessile organism for however long it lived at that level within the strata.

Seeing fossils like the oysters I’ve described preserved in life position is a very simple yet powerful way to refute the claim made by young-Earth creationists that the fossil record is the result of a global Noah’s Flood. What these fossils prove instead is that there must have been a period of time, at a minimum equal to the age of the oyster reef, during which sedimentation rates were very low. That period of time during which those oysters were living in this one place far exceeds the total duration of Noah’s Flood as described by young-Earth creationists. Add to the age of the reef the age of all the other fossils in the cliffs that are found in life position and one quickly realizes that the Earth must be much much older than 6,000 years.

Fossil clam shells of the genus Glossus sp., preserved in the sediments in which they lived. These clams occur just slightly above the fossil Pycnodonte oyster reef. Just like in modern marine environments, these clams lived in great numbers in this exact place for as long as environmental conditions were suitable. Any one of these clams lived here longer than the purported duration of Noah’s Flood.

You too can know that the Earth is ancient just by knowing about fossils in life position, without having to understand the technical aspects of radiometric dating. (And, by the way, creationists should actually not acknowledge the existence of fossils at all, since by definition a fossil has to be at least 10,000 years old. Whenever creationists refer to fossils, they do so by changing the definition of the word, since according to them Noah’s Flood happened only about 5,000 years ago.)

But an ancient Earth doesn’t “disprove” the Bible. Descriptions of nature and the “cosmos” in the Bible were adequate at that time to make the spiritual points, if any, for which they were called into service. However, biblical cosmology is no longer adequate today if taken to stand on its own, divorced from its contextual origin. Some would argue that because the cosmology of the Bible is out of date, so too is its spiritual validity. Its cosmology roots the composition of the Bible in a time and place; so yes, it is out of date in its descriptions of the Universe. But I don’t know that justice, mercy, forgiveness, hope, and love have been replaced with something better. An emphasis on these could not wait until humans had figured out the exact nature of reality (we’d still be waiting). The Bible never makes the claim that its descriptions of the physical universe are good for all peoples for all time, whereas it does make certain pronouncements about being a guide to whoever has an interest in being right with God.

Dr. L. Ward (Virginia Museum of Natural History) provided great assistance with some of the geological features described in this series of posts.

Fossils in life position (Part 2)

One valve (half-shell) of a typical Miocene Pycnodonte oyster from Bed 4 of the Calvert Formation, Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. An old individual showing many growth lines that was collected from the reef shown in the previous post.

The presence of the fossil oysters that I described and illustrated in my previous post demonstrates several things.

• Like living oysters, they formed reefs—vast concentrations of individuals belonging to the same species.

• Before the oyster reef formed, about 2600 feet of sediment had already been deposited in this place.

• This prehistoric reef began when, at some point in time, environmental and substrate conditions were just right for baby oysters (larvae) to settle to the sea floor and begin growing shells. The oysters began to grow on blue marl, i.e., a clay layer that had been previously compacted and then extensively burrowed by marine invertebrates (mostly crustaceans). They did not begin to grow here during Noah’s Flood, which, as characterized by young-Earth creationists, was global and catastrophic, during which sediments that were tens to hundreds to thousands of feet thick were being deposited daily; sessile organisms (or any organisms for that matter) do not live in those kinds of conditions. None of the sediments along Calvert Cliffs show any evidence of having come about through catastrophic flood-like conditions.

• Once baby oysters begin growing on the sea floor, they are incapable of moving from that spot for the rest of their life (their shell is just too heavy).

• These large and thick-shelled oysters lived for many years in the same spot (or within inches) in which they are now preserved. One of the ways that you can know that these oysters lived here is that they are so well preserved with many shells preserving both valves intact. This is an observation that Thomas Say made back in 1824 of other fossil clams from Maryland. He wrote: “Many of these shells appear to the eye nearly perfect, in every respect, with the exception of color, as the recent ones of the coast, and not a few of the bivalves have both bivalves attached . . . circumstances which indicate an undisturbed deposition in the waters in which they lived.”

• And so these oysters did not live somewhere else on Earth and then were moved to this new spot as a result of Noah’s Flood. We know this because there are so many heavy shells of the same species present in one place. After 2600 feet of sediment had already been deposited in this place, Noah’s Flood could not have picked up these oysters from another intact oyster reef hundreds or thousands of miles away, transporting them together to then be dropped here, giving every indication that this is where multiple generations of shells spent all of their post-larval life. Nothing about these oysters lends any support to the suggestion that they never lived here but were only deposited here during Noah’s Flood.

• This oyster reef survived for at least as long as the age of its oldest member. That would be the minimum age for the age of this reef. Knowing exactly how long this reef survived here is not as important as recognizing that the individual filter-feeding oysters lived here for a length of time much longer than the duration of Noah’s Flood. Consequently, neither the sediments above or below these oysters could have come about as a result of this purported deluge. If these oysters represent a reef that existed prior to Noah’s Flood, then one must explain the origin of all the fossils in the 2600 feet of sediment below the reef. Alternatively, if this reef formed after Noah’s Flood, one has the burden of explaining when and how the 70 feet of sediments that now cover these oysters were deposited. There has been neither enough time nor the existence of environmental conditions suitable to accumulate the sediments lying above the reef (not to mention that all the other fossils above the oyster reef that are also in life position; they too demand slow rates of sediment accumulation).

• Oysters cannot survive if they are buried by sediment, so they were not living while buried in the sediment that now covers this extinct reef. Oysters don’t have long siphons (a fleshy tube allowing them to become buried in sediment and yet reach up through it to draw in water from the ocean bottom) and therefore don’t tolerate burial. Indeed, sediments were being laid down during the time that the oysters lived here; it’s just that the rate of accumulation was so slow that it did not interfere with the long life of these heavy-shelled oysters.

• This reef persisted at this precise stratigraphic level and in this exact geographic location for as long as environmental conditions were favorable for the growth and reproduction of the oysters. That the layer of fossil oysters is not really thick is clear indication that at some point, environmental conditions changed sufficiently to make it impossible for the reef to survive. Just like any other marine setting, environmental conditions did not remain the same forever, and eventually the water became too deep, which spelled doom for this reef.

• Sediments continued to accumulate slowly around the shells until they were completely buried.

I’ll conclude this series by discussing in my next post what implications  these facts about the oyster reef have for the claims of creationism and flood geology.

Fossils in life position (Part 1)

One reader of this blog asked how our beliefs might have changed or developed in the twelve years since our book was published. One answer is that if we were writing the book today, Dr. Stephen Godfrey would include additional material about fossils found in life position, which he feels provide a compelling counter-example to the claims of creationist flood geology. In this series of posts, he explains this phenomenon.

As Curator of Paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum, I collect fossils in all kinds of settings. I see how and where they are preserved. I find that, remarkably, as I shall explain, they inform not only our understanding of nature, but also of the Bible, to the extent to which these understandings intersect.

A fossil is said to be in “life position” if it is found in sedimentary rocks in the same spatial orientation and geographic and vertical position within the strata as where it lived and died. The most obvious fossils preserved in life position are those from “sessile” organisms, that is, ones that could not move from where they were living because they were anchored in one spot. A few examples of such organisms include trees, oysters growing in an oyster reef, barnacles, stromatolites, sea lilies, and coral reefs. In addition to strictly sessile organisms found in life position, other kinds of organisms such as burrowing clams and brachiopods can also be found in life position, buried where they lived their life as filter-feeders.

Becoming aware that certain kinds of fossils are often preserved in a life position had a profound impact on my understanding that the sediments in which they are buried could not have been deposited during Noah’s Flood (described by young-Earth creationism as a global catastrophe). Recognizing this phenomenon is also one of the easiest ways to know that the Earth is much older than young-Earth creationists believe. It is also one of the fundamental characteristics of the fossil record.

To be clear, there are many more examples of fossils, like sharks’ teeth, that are not found in life position. There are no permanently sessile sharks. Throughout their life, sharks move about, shedding teeth periodically. When a shark tooth is found in sedimentary rock, we rightly conclude that that tooth did not form and exist onlyright where it was found; rather, it came to rest there and was buried after it fell from a shark’s mouth (or the shark died and was buried in the vicinity of where the tooth was recovered).

However, there are other large categories of fossils preserved right where they were made by the living animal. These include fossilized footprints and burrows, which could not have been moved by Flood waters to their final resting place. Prehistoric burrows into sediments are also preserved right where they were made and did not settle out of Flood waters. Both of these kinds of fossil types are found at countless levels within the global record of sedimentary rocks.

There are many examples of burrows and fossils preserved in life position along Calvert Cliffs. There are literally trillions preserved in the geologic formations that make up the naturally eroding sea cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay.

A view of Calvert Cliffs just south of Bay Front Park, Calvert County, Maryland, U.S.A. Notice the person in the lower right-hand side of this photo standing at the base of the cliff. Immediately above the clay sediments on which this person is standing is a fossilized oyster reef, which is shown in greater detail in the two pictures below. (Photo by S. Godfrey.)

As impressive as these sea cliffs are, they represent only the top 3.5% (about 80 feet) of a much thicker (2700-foot) pile of sediments hidden underground. What’s even more impressive is that this depth of sediment is only the narrow end of a vast wedge of sediment that thickens increasingly to the east, out under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the continental slope, where the pile is 10-14 km thick! These sediments, consisting of a mixture of sand and clay, eroded from the Piedmont and Appalachian mountains. The fossils found along Calvert Cliffs include the remains of over 600 different kinds of mostly marine organisms; these include a great variety of seashells (clams, oysters, and snails), sharks’ teeth, and whale and dolphin bones.

Fossil seashells, some forming thick layers, occur throughout most of the sediments that comprise Calvert Cliffs. At the northern end of Calvert Cliffs is a layer of heavy-shelled extinct oysters. In the next picture, notice the prominent layer of oyster shells at the base of the cliff, to which the individual in the distance is pointing. These oysters are among the most obvious and easily accessible examples of fossils preserved in life position along Calvert Cliffs (although there are many others). These shells are from an extinct kind of oyster, Pycnodonte percrassa.

A view along the oyster reef at the base of the cliff seen in the picture above. At this spot the Pycnodonte oyster reef formed on a heavily burrowed blue marl (clay layer).
Close-up view of the heavy Pycnodonte oyster shells. Fingers for scale.

In my next post, I’ll explain what we can conclude about the formation of these fossils from their occurrence in life position.