Geological pioneer was a biblical creationist
Published: 11 February 2006 (GMT+10)
Nicolas Steno (1638–1686) was the pioneer of modern geology. His principles of stratigraphy have stood the test of time. They are still taught in first-year geology courses all over the world, and used every day in the field by professional geologists.
Modern geologists often don’t want to know about it. But the scientific principles of stratigraphy were first formulated by a biblical creationist. Attempts to revise history cannot escape the force of Steno’s original writings.
Most geologists do not realize that Steno was a Bible-believing creationist. That is not acknowledged when Steno is taught in geological schools. However, Steno was the first person ever to describe the geological history of any area of the earth, and he described it within a biblical geological framework. Steno’s geological framework is similar to the geological model1 I developed in 1994, starting with the assumption that the Bible describes real history.
Because Steno is such a giant of geology, modern uniformitarian geologists (who seem almost paranoid about the Bible) will not generally acknowledge Steno’s biblical beliefs. If they do, they will usually disparage them to discredit the biblical foundation for Steno’s pioneering work.
It is enlightening to examine Steno’s description of the geological history of the area where he lived, Tuscany. I quote from John Winter’s English translation of Steno’s Prodromus.2 This was Steno’s pioneering geological work that established the foundation of, and set the course for, modern geology.
It is a long quote but worth seeing how Steno interpreted the geological history of his area. (Steno’s text is indented while my comments are in black. The headings are not part of Steno’s text.)
Steno’s geological history of Tuscany
Six distinct aspects of Tuscany we therefore recognize, two when it was fluid, two when level and dry, two when it was broken; and as I prove this fact concerning Tuscany by inference from many places examined by me, so do I affirm it with reference to the entire earth, from the descriptions of different places contributed by different writers.
His two fluid phases correspond to the two occasions recorded in the Bible when the earth was entirely covered with water: the Creation Week and the Flood event. His two level-and-dry phases correspond to the first parts of the pre-Flood era and the post-Flood era. The two phases when the earth was broken correspond to other parts of the pre- and post-Flood eras, to times when Steno envisaged the mountains were pushed up and the valleys were formed. Steno makes general reference to Tuscany and places he has examined as well as to places described by other writers. Unfortunately, we do not know the precise area to which Steno was referring.
But in order that no one may be alarmed by the novelty of my view, in a few words I shall set forth the agreement of Nature with Scripture by reviewing the chief difficulties which can be urged regarding the different aspects of the earth.
Steno clearly says his ideas agree with the Bible. It is wrong to suggest that Steno discovered geological principles that were at variance with Scripture. Like all scientists, Steno began with an interpretive framework, and sought to explain the geological evidence within that framework. For Steno, as with modern creationists, his interpretive framework was biblical history. Modern uniformitarian scientists have invented a different (evolutionary) interpretive framework, which they try to use to explain the evidence.
In regard to the first aspect of the earth Scripture and Nature agree in this, that all things were covered with water; how and when this aspect began, and how long it lasted, Nature says not, Scripture relates.
From the Bible (Genesis 1) Steno knows that the earth was originally covered with water until the third day of the Creation Week when dry land first appeared. Steno acknowledges that he cannot determine how long the earth was covered with water by examining the rocks. But he can tell the length of time from the Bible. He acknowledges too that he does not know the processes involved. It needs to be emphasized that the situation concerning the age of the rocks is still the same today—the age of a rock cannot be measured independently. The age that uniformitarians quote is based on philosophical assumptions framed to give the desired answer.
That there was a watery fluid, however, at a time when animals and plants were not yet to be found, and that the fluid covered all things, is proved by the strata of the higher mountains, free from all heterogeneous material.
Steno recognized that plants and animals were not created when the earth was first covered by water. So he concluded that Creation rocks would be devoid of fossils. This same reasoning is used by modern creationists. I discuss these classification criteria in my biblical geological model. Most modern creationists would not assign the strata in the higher mountains to the Creation Week but to the Flood. However, this is simply an example of the linking problem described here. It does not mean the model is wrong.
And the form of these strata bears witness to the presence of a fluid, while the substance bears witness to the absence of heterogeneous bodies. But the similarity of matter and form in the strata of mountains which are different and distant from each other, proves that the fluid was universal.
Steno is using the scale of the strata to argue that the water covered the whole earth and was not just a local flooding. Scale is one of the classification criteria used in my geological model.
But if one say that the solids of a different kind contained in those strata were destroyed in course of time, he will by no means be able to deny that in that case a marked difference must have been noticed between the matter of the stratum and the matter which percolated through the pores of the stratum, filling up the spaces of the bodies which had been destroyed.
Steno is addressing the argument that the rocks may have contained fossils which have subsequently been destroyed. He argues that even if the fossils had been destroyed, we should still see the evidence of them with percolating fluids filling the spaces where the fossils once were.
If, however, other strata which are filled with different bodies are, in certain places found above the strata of the first fluid, from this fact nothing would follow excepting that above the strata of the first fluid new strata were deposited by another fluid, whose matter could likewise have refilled the wastes of the strata left by the first fluid.
Steno is using his Principle of Superposition here to show that the separate strata speak of two inundations of the globe, and to determine which strata are older.
Thus we must always come back to the fact that at the time when those strata of matter unmixed, and evident in all mountains, were being formed, the rest of the strata did not yet exist, but that all things were covered by a fluid free from plants and animals and other solids. Now since no one can deny that these strata are of a kind which could have been produced directly by the First Cause, we recognize in them the evident agreement of Scripture with Nature.
Steno is arguing that there were no plants or animals on the earth when the strata in the mountains were formed by the First Cause. He is arguing that these strata were deposited during Creation Week.
Concerning the time and manner of the second aspect of the earth, which was a plane and dry, Nature is likewise silent, Scripture speaks. As for the rest Nature, asserting that such an aspect did at one time exist, is confirmed by Scripture, which teaches us that the waters welling from a single source over-flowed the whole earth.
Steno is referring here to the period part-way through Creation Week and after when the dry land appeared. Again he makes it clear that he cannot determine the time from the rocks, but he can determine the time from Scripture. I assume his waters welling up from a single source refer to the springs in Genesis 2:5–6 or to the rivers in Genesis 2:10–14. It is clear from Steno’s diagrams that his description of the earth as a plane refers to its shape locally. His ‘waters welling’ here do not refer to a global inundation. He makes it clear that only two of the six phases he refers to were fluid. He discussed the first phase at the beginning, and discusses the second phase later.
When the third aspect of the earth, which is determined to have been rough, began, neither Scripture nor Nature makes plain. Nature proves that the unevenness was great, while Scripture makes mention of mountains at the time of the flood. But when those mountains, of which Scripture in this connection makes mention, were formed, whether they were identical with mountains of the present day, whether at the beginning of the deluge there was the same depth of valleys as there is today, or whether new breaks in the strata opened new chasms to lower the surface of the rising waters, neither Scripture nor Nature declares.
Download your own wall chartsGeological model #1
Geological model #2
Steno is speaking of the mountains that existed before the Flood. He cannot determine, either from the rocks or from Scripture, when those mountains formed. But he recognizes that the Bible speaks of mountains at that time. He does not say whether the mountains of today are the same as the mountains that existed before the Flood (but later on he says they are different). Modern creationists would say that the mountains that existed before the Flood were destroyed by the Flood, and that today’s mountains were pushed up toward the end of the Flood. Modern geomorphologists recognize that mountain-building is a geologically recent event.
The Flood event
The fourth aspect, when all things were sea, seems to cause more difficulty, although in truth nothing difficult is here presented.
We will see that Steno recognizes this fourth aspect as the global Flood of Noah. In the next paragraphs he shows that there is much geological evidence that supports the global Flood described in the Bible. In these paragraphs we see that Steno is not able to formulate a physical mechanism for how the Flood could have been caused. But he does make some large-scale suggestions.
The formation of hills from the deposit of the sea bears witness to the fact that the sea was higher than it is now, that too not only in Tuscany but in very many places distant enough from the sea, from which the waters flow toward the Mediterranean; nay, even in those places from which the waters flow down into the ocean. Nature does not oppose Scripture in determining how great that height of the sea was, seeing that:
1. Definite traces of the sea remain in places raised several hundreds of feet above the level of the sea.
Yes, fossils of sea creatures in the mountains are consistent with the biblical record of the Flood.
2. It cannot be denied that as all the solids of the earth were once, in the beginning of things, covered by a watery fluid, so they could have been covered by a watery fluid a second time, since the changing of the things of Nature is indeed constant, but in Nature there is no reduction of anything to nothing. But who has searched into the formation of the innermost parts of the earth, so that he dare deny that huge caverns may exist there, filled sometimes with a watery fluid, sometimes with a fluid akin to air?
Steno’s ‘in Nature there is no reduction of anything to nothing’ is a statement of the conservation of matter. Steno suggests caverns inside the earth filled with fluid as the source of the water for the Flood. Steno is probably referring to the fact that the Bible describes the fountains of the deep breaking up (Genesis 7:11) as the source of the floodwaters. Geologists recognize today that there is much water still stored in the mantle (enough to fill the oceans some 20 times over) and that water has come out of the mantle (differentiated) in the past. See Drowned from below.
3. It is wholly uncertain what the depth of valleys at the beginning of the deluge was; reason, however, may urge that in the first ages of the world smaller cavities had been eaten out by water and fire, and that in consequence not so deep breaks of strata followed from this cause; while the highest mountains of which Scripture speaks were the highest of those mountains which were in existence at that time, not of those which we see today.
Steno clearly recognizes that the mountains we see today are not the same as the mountains that existed before the Flood.
4. If the movement of a living being can bring it to pass that places which have been overwhelmed with waters are arbitrarily made dry, and are again overwhelmed with waters, why should we not voluntarily grant the same freedom and the same powers to the First Cause of all things?
Steno is not discounting a supernatural cause for the Flood, and many modern creationists would agree.
In regard to the time of the universal deluge, secular history is not at variance with sacred history, which relates all things in detail. The ancient cities of Tuscany, of which some were built on hills formed by the sea, put back their birthdays beyond three thousand years; in Lydia, moreover, we come nearer to four thousand years: so that it is possible thence to infer that the time at which the earth was left by the sea agrees with the time of which Scripture speaks.
Steno clearly agrees with the Bible that the Flood was about 4,000 years before his time. Steno shows that his current knowledge of human occupation agrees with the biblical chronology.
As regards the manner of the rising waters, we could bring forward various agreements with the laws of Nature. But if some one say that in the earth the centre of gravity does not always coincide with the centre of the figure, but recedes now on one side, and now on the other, in proportion as subterranean cavities have formed in different places, it is possible to assign a simple reason why the fluid, which in the beginning covered all things, left certain places dry, and returned again to occupy them.
Steno is here speculating on a physical mechanism for the Flood. Just because we may not be able to fully explain the mechanism does not mean the Flood did not occur. Interestingly, continental drift was originally rejected by the geological community because there was no plausible mechanism. Now most geologists accept continental drift (plate tectonics) but there is still no agreed plausible mechanism for it.
The universal deluge may be explained with the same ease if a sphere of water, or at least huge reservoirs, be conceived around a fire in the middle of the earth; thence, without the movement of the centre, the pouring forth of the pent-up water could be derived. But the following method also seems to me to be very simple, whereby both a lesser depth of the valleys and a sufficient amount of water are obtained without taking into account the centre, or figure, or gravity. For if we shall have conceded (1) That by the slipping of fragments of certain strata, the passages were stopped through which the sea penetrating into hollow places of the earth sends forth the water to bubbling springs; (2) That the water undoubtedly enclosed in the bowels of the earth, was, by the force of the known subterranean fire in part driven toward springs, and in part forced up into the air through the pores of the ground which had not yet been covered with water; that, moreover, the water which not only is always present in the air but also was mixed with it in the manner previously described, fell in the form of rain; (3) That the bottom of the sea was raised through the enlarging of subterranean caverns; (4) That the cavities remaining on the surface of the earth were filled with earthy matter washed from the higher places by the constant falling of rains; (5) That the very surface of the earth was less uneven, because nearer to its beginning – if we shall have granted all this, we shall have admitted nothing opposed to Scripture, or reason, or daily experience.
Steno’s speculations about the possible mechanism for the Flood, include internal heat, slipping of strata, water enclosed in subterranean cavities welling up, and the bottom of the sea being raised up, making the surface of the earth less uneven. Creationists recognize today that if the surface of the earth were flattened out, there is enough water to cover the globe to a depth of nearly 3 km.
What happened on the surface of the earth while it was covered with water, neither Scripture nor Nature makes clear; this only can we assert from Nature, that deep valleys were formed at that time. This is (1) because the cavities, made larger by the force of subterranean fires, furnished room for greater downfalls; (2) because a return passage had to be opened for the waters into the deeper parts of the earth; (3) because today, in places far from the sea are seen deep valleys filled with many marine deposits.
Steno postulates underground cavities that collapsed to form valleys at the time of the Flood. Most modern creationists do not use such ideas (although a few still do). Most would agree that the landscapes, including the gorges and valleys, were generally carved by the receding waters of the Flood.
The post-Flood era
As for the fifth aspect, which revealed huge plains after the earth had again become dry, Nature proves that those plains existed, and Scripture does not gainsay it. For the rest, whether the entire sea presently receded, or whether, indeed, in the course of ages new chasms opening afforded opportunity for disclosing new regions, it is possible to determine nothing with certainty, since Scripture is silent, and the history of nations regarding the first ages after the deluge is doubtful in the view of the nations themselves, and thought to be full of myths. This, indeed, is certain, that a great amount of earth was carried down every year into the sea (as is easily clear to one who considers the size of rivers, and their long courses through inland regions, and the countless number of mountain streams, in short, all the sloping places of the earth), and that the earth thus carried down by rivers, and added day by day to the shore, left new lands suited for new habitations.
It seems that Steno is speaking of post-Flood processes such as the erosion of the continents, the carrying of sediment to the ocean, and increasing the area of land. Steno is not clear about how much post-Flood sedimentation occurred. His description of the erosion by rivers is vivid and he clearly understands erosion well before James Hutton extended these processes into an unimaginable abyss of deep time in the past.
This is in fact confirmed by the belief of the ancients, in accordance with which they called whole regions the gifts of rivers of like name, as also by the traditions of the Greeks, since they relate that men, descending little by little from the mountains, inhabited places bordering on the sea that were sterile by reason of excessive moisture, but in course of time became fertile.
Steno is referring to records of people settling the land after the Flood. His comment about land fertility is an interesting one.
The sixth aspect of the earth is evident to the senses; herein the plains left by the waters, especially by reason of erosion, and at times through the burning of fires, passed over into various channels, valleys, and steep places. And it is not to be wondered at that in the historians there is no account as to when any given change took place. For the history of the first ages after the deluge is confused and doubtful in secular writers; as the ages passed, moreover, they felt constrained to celebrate the deeds of distinguished men, not the wonders of Nature. Nevertheless the records, which ancient writers mention, of those who wrote the history of the changes which occurred in various places, we do not possess. But since the authors whose writings have been preserved report as marvels almost every year, earthquakes, fires bursting forth from the earth, overflowings of rivers and seas, it is easily apparent that in four thousand years many and various changes have taken place.
Steno again makes it clear that he accepts the biblical chronology of 4,000 years since the deluge. Again he is discussing the amount of geological work that has been done since the Flood. This is an issue among modern creationists. Some say that much geological activity has occurred since the Flood, and others say not much. Most would agree that there was one Ice Age that began immediately after the Flood and continued for some 700 years. However, the geological effects of this were small when compared with the geological effects of the Flood. Many creationists would argue that the basic landforms (valleys, mountains) were formed by receding floodwaters in the second half of the Flood.
Far astray, therefore, do they wander, who criticize the many errors in the writings of the ancients, because they find there various things inconsistent with the geography of today. I should be unwilling to put credence in the mythical accounts of the ancients; but there are in them also many things to which I would not gainsay belief. For in those accounts I find many things of which the falsity rather than the truth seems doubtful to me. Such are the separation of the Mediterranean Sea from the western ocean; the passage from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea; and the submersion of the island Atlantis. The description of various places in the journeys of Bacchus, Triptolemus, Ulysses, Aeneas, and of others, may be true, although it does not correspond with present day facts. Of the many changes which have taken place over the whole extent of Tuscany embraced between the Arno and Tiber, I shall adduce evident proofs in the Dissertation itself; and although the time, in which the individual changes occurred, cannot be determined, I shall nevertheless adduce those arguments from the history of Italy, in order that no doubt may be left in the mind of anyone.
Steno makes a good point here. We should not arbitrarily dismiss the writings of the ancients because they do not agree with our ideas. That dragons probably refer to living dinosaurs is a case in point. And uniformitarians take note of the father of modern geology: ‘Far astray, therefore, do you wander’, who do not accept ‘the writings of the ancients’. In particular, the writings of Moses regarding Creation and the Flood, which Steno is upholding, because Moses records the true history of the earth.
And this is the succinct, not to say disordered, account of the principal things which I had decided to set forth in the Dissertation, not only with greater clearness but also with greater fullness, adding a description of the places where I have observed each thing.
Steno here concludes the first description of the geological history of any portion of the earth, and he presents it within a biblical framework.
This extended quote from Steno shatters the myth that geological discoveries demanded a far longer history for the earth than the roughly six thousand years recorded in the Bible. Steno and many other geological pioneers were Bible believing creationists. They saw no conflict between the field evidence and the history of the world set out by Scripture.
The problem began in the late 1700s, early 1800s when people such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell championed a new philosophy into geology—uniformitarianism. In Lyell’s words, it was ‘an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation’. Nowhere did they show the biblical framework was faulty. Rather, they completely ignored the Bible and the deluge (2 Peter 3:3–7). However, in recent decades geologists have been saying that the gradualistic uniformitarianism of Charles Lyell does not match the evidence.
The time is ripe for a return to a geological framework that is faithful to the Bible. The downloadable charts (see box above) provide a simple model that will be a useful tool for understanding the world in this way.
References and notes
- Walker, T., A biblical geological model; in: Walsh, R.E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 581–592, 1994. <www.biblicalgeology.net>. Return to text.
- Nicholaus Steno (1631–1686), translated by Winter, J.G., The Prodromus of Nicholaus Steno’s Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body Enclosed by Process of Nature Within a Solid, An English Version with an introduction and explanatory notes, Hafner Publishing Company, Inc., New York, pp. 263–269, 1968. Return to text.