Martin Rudwick’s curious paradigm of ancient history and modern creationism

iStockphoto fossil-rock



Dr. Martin J.S. Rudwick is one of the foremost historians of geology today. His work has been enormously helpful in unmasking numerous distortions that had long plagued the history of geology.1,2,3 His perspective is helpful because he recognizes (in part) the role of Christianity in the history of science and natural history. He has little patience for those he calls “fundamentalist atheists”, but even less for creationism. Dr. Rudwick has recently attacked creationism in his new book,4 and in a recent online article for Salon magazine.5 In the article, he summarizes the book, which concluded with an appendix attacking creationism.6

His argument is distinctive, using hypotheses from his previous works. Positively, he rejects the Enlightenment meme of ‘science vs. religion’, and applauds the role of Christianity. This is illustrated by his respect for developments in biblical chronology in the 17th century, which he argues, paved the way for the geologic time scale and its old Earth. In the sense that geology was built on axioms stolen from Christian theology, he is correct. In the sense that it was a natural outgrowth of Christianity, he is not.

He uses a form of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ to: (1) position himself as a ‘moderate’ between the extremes of creationism and atheism, creating a parody of creationism, and (2) as a way to similarly position modern geohistory as the ‘mean’ between the extremes of Christianity’s young Earth and Aristotelian eternalism.

In doing so, Rudwick strays from the careful scholarship that has characterized his career, illustrating again how worldviews ultimately drive interpretation. He functions as Rose’s7 ‘liberal’—a traditional man holding the form, but not the content of Christianity. He wants the benefits of Christianity, respecting it as an institution and a historical force, but is unwilling to embrace its truth, especially that of Earth’s history.

Contrary to Rudwick’s belief, reports of creationism’s death are exaggerated. The key to understanding and refuting his case is recognizing that his framework of dichotomies, created to protect geohistory and his own ideas, is based on false dilemmas. Christianity offers an alternative framework. It has always seen history in terms of spiritual warfare between Satan and God.8 That idea better explains the voluminous historical data Rudwick has unearthed in his long, distinguished career. After examining his mischaracterization of creationism, we will look at his context for geohistory in light of these competing paradigms.

Rudwick’s straw man

Aristotle is known for defining virtue in the context of finding the best position between two extremes—commonly known as the ‘golden mean’.9 This is the basis for understanding Rudwick’s arguments. He uses a form of this idea first to position himself as the only reasonable alternative in a world of extremists. In his version of the fallacy of the argument to moderation, he positions himself between extremist atheists and extremist creationists:

Ussher’s view of world history may seem so far removed from the modern scientific picture of the Earth’s deep history that there can be no possible link between them, except as irreconcilable alternatives (which in the eyes of modern fundamentalists, both religious and atheistic, is just what they are).10

There is no denying Rudwick is a brilliant scholar, and his masterful language is usually more reserved. But the pejorative of ‘fundamentalist’ seems the ultimate insult to him. What he means by the term is seen later when he notes:

Ussher was not a religious fundamentalist in the modern mold. He was a public intellectual in the mainstream of the cultural life of his time.5
wikipedia.org ussher
James Ussher

But he is stuck with one uncomfortable fact … Ussher—the mainstream intellectual—believed the same history advocated by today’s creationists. Rudwick is forced out on the unsteady limb of relative truth when he stutters:

… once Ussher’s ideas are understood in the context of his own time, their superficial similarity to modern creationist ideas of a “Young Earth” is transformed into a stark contrast. The creationists, unlike Ussher, are out on a limb, and a precarious one at that.5

So although creationists believe the same Scripture, the same worldview, and the same history as Ussher—to the point of resurrecting his work11—that is only a “superficial similarity”. That implies that if Ussher was alive today, and held true to his faith, that he would also be a “religious fundamentalist” standing “out on a limb”. The only way to square that circle is to see truth as being relative to time and place. Thus, although Ussher was a brilliant scholar in the 17th century, he is just another extremist idiot in the 21st! Given this view of truth, one wonders how Rudwick expects his body of work to fare as time gradually changes truth again.

Rudwick also implies that biblical chronology was simply a step in the evolution of historical knowledge. But Ussher was not unique. Chronologies had been discussed and developed throughout Church history.12 The range of dates derived from chronologers (using the same text) over the past two millennia have been remarkably tight, demonstrating that the history of the Bible is both consistent and more comprehensive than commonly thought. This consistency across the centuries, followed by the abrupt shift to billions of years between 1750 and 1850, and combined with the accompanying secular philosophy of the Enlightenment, combine to argue that history is better explained by the paradigm of a worldview clash between Christianity and naturalism—a battle that continues to this day. If this is true, then creationists are not “out on a limb”; they are instead on the front lines of Christianity in the West.

Modern geohistory: anti-Christian or anti-“unmodern”?

Rudwick1 developed an interesting thesis about the origin of modern geohistory. Rather than follow the unsophisticated, yet wildly successful Enlightenment meme of the ‘war’ between ‘science and religion’, he pictures geohistory as a mean emerging from two extremes of a significant intellectual and cultural dilemma. One horn of this dilemma is the “unmodern” short biblical chronology and the other is the equally “unmodern” pagan extreme of Aristotelian eternalism. Rudwick believes that Enlightenment intellectuals, particularly Georges Cuvier, ingeniously found a ‘middle way’—a lengthy, but finite, geohistory that preceded man’s recent appearance (Figure 1).

John K. Reed horns_of_dilemma
Figure 1. Rudwick creates a false dilemma with two horns of a short biblical timescale and Aristotelian eternalism, which quite nicely sets the table for his ‘golden mean’ of geohistory being an innovative compromise.

We will now expose the problems with Rudwick’s case, but for an extended rebuttal see my article “Modern geohistory: an assault on Christianity, not an innovative compromise”.13 Rudwick is a consummate historian, but despite the multitude of data that he has so carefully investigated, he possesses philosophical bias like any other man. Those beliefs drive his interpretation, and though he has helped discredit the ‘religion vs. science’ lie, his substitute has its own weaknesses.14 He cannot accept the framework of a worldview conflict between Christianity and naturalism (Figure 2)—which is a far better explanation of the data—and so he must find an alternative that will allow him to syncretize Christianity and modern geohistory. That is why he concludes:

All of this [archeological evidence of an old Earth] was disturbing to conventional thinking: not primarily because it put the dating of Creation or the authority of the Bible in doubt, but far more because it seemed to open the door to a much more radical kind of speculation. It suggested that ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, whose ideas on other topics had long been revered in Europe, might have been right in this: they were taken to have claimed that the universe, and with it the Earth and human life, are not just extremely ancient but literally eternal, without any created beginning or final end.5

Note how he deftly deflects the problem of biblical authority, even though its centrality in the debate has been vindicated by developments over the past two centuries by the secular assault on Christianity. He turns away from the stunningly obvious in search of another answer. He thinks he finds it in Greek cosmology, which ‘explains’ the moral breakdown of culture. But his so-called solution depends on the real presence of the two ‘horns’ of his dilemma. If one or both evaporate under close investigation, his framework falls apart and his justification of geohistory does too.

John K. Reed worldview_clash
Figure 2. Secular geohistory did not appear as an innovative compromise, but as a part of the worldview clash between Christianity and Enlightenment naturalism. The internal consistency of both worldviews shows that naturalism requires an old Earth because, given its absolute uniformity, the rock record demands billions of years.

No biblical ‘horn’ …

First, the short biblical timeframe was not a theological innovation of 17th century chronologers, as he implies in his discussion of Ussher. It was the monolithic orthodox position of the Christian church until the Enlightenment and before that, of the Jews at least as far back as Moses. Second, Rudwick tries to introduce an underlying dichotomy of “modern” and “unmodern”, counting on its emotive appeal to equate “unmodern” with ‘bad’. But the Bible is not subject to his categories. As the revelation of an infinite, eternal God, it transcends time and space. It is relevant to everyone, everywhere, at every time. Even if we granted Rudwick’s false dichotomy, the Bible still could not be called “unmodern” in the sense Rudwick desires; it has proven profoundly ‘modern’ by paving the way to modern science, modern history, modern philosophy, and modern culture.15,16

The short biblical timeframe emphasized the elevated status of mankind, created in God’s image.17 It emphasized the purpose and structure of history.18 It emphasized divine providence as the foundation of uniformity and natural law.19 Furthermore, the history of Christianity in the West over the past two centuries has shown that the issue during the 18th and 19th centuries was absolutely about the authority of the Bible.20

Rudwick must make light of the long history of orthodox scholarship supporting the traditional view of Genesis. He runs through a litany of compromise positions that have all been addressed and answered by creationists:

… some scholars had pointed out that the Sun, the apparent movement of which defines ordinary days, had not been created until the fourth “day” of the Genesis story. So it had often been suggested that the seven “days” of Creation might not denote periods of twenty-four hours at all … . If so, the “week” of Creation might have been of indeterminate duration, and its starting and ending dates might be even more uncertain. In other words, this biblical text, like others, was seen to require interpretation. Its meaning could not simply be read off unambiguously, as if the plain or “literal” meaning was self-evident and beyond argument.

In a few sentences, he hits the day-age theory and the pre-sun indefinite age theory, and then desperately turns to the necessity of “interpretation” to make the text mean what he wishes. Note how he thinks that the necessity of “interpretation” implies the impossibility of understanding the text as written. In other words, the poor ignorant masses require a high priest to explain the magic words of revelation. But the Scripture is clear21 and the principles of interpretation are too.22 If Rudwick can make Genesis teach geohistory in this way, just think what a creationist could do to Lyell’s Principles of Geology using the same method of “interpretation”! Might Lyell be a closet creationist? We simply need the right “interpretation” to explain how his apparent teaching of an ancient Earth was really supporting Ussher’s chronology. Of course, that is a ridiculous argument, but no less ridiculous than Rudwick’s.

Furthermore, Rudwick himself noted that the acceptance of an old Earth preceded the geohistorical “compromise” that supposedly saved natural history:

wikipedia.org austrian-alps
The Austrian alps
In the opening sentence of his Alpine Travels (1779), Saussure claimed that it was universally accepted—he meant, of course, among savants and other educated readers—that the earth’s past revolutions or major changes had occupied “a long succession of ages” … Likewise, Werner commented in print—casually and just in passing—that the Geognostic pile of rock masses must have accumulated “in the immense time span … of our earth’s existence”; and in manuscript notes for his lectures on geognosy he estimated that the whole sequence might represent perhaps a million years. Lavoisier suggested that the “period” (in the sense of frequency) of his hypothetical oscillation of the sea level was perhaps “several hundreds of thousands of years” and since he believed there had already been several such cycles, his conception of the earth’s total timescale must certainly have run into millions … And Kant’s well-known earlier conjecture that “a series of millions of years and centuries have probably elapsed” in bringing the universe to its present state was almost a commonplace among cosmological theorists.23

And the evidence that supposedly paved the way for the early geologists—valley erosion, volcanoes, and the sedimentary record—can be readily interpreted within the biblical framework, and has since been shown wrong in its original application.24 Of course the conclusion resting on this ‘evidence’ remains, with new ‘evidence’ popping up as needed, but such is the function of naked belief.

… and no Aristotelian ‘horn’

Not only was the Bible’s short chronology not a part of Rudwick’s dilemma, but neither was Aristotle’s cosmology:

… Aristotle’s outdated cosmology was no longer relevant, and … eternalist geotheories by naturalists grew out of a post-Christian materialism, the logical outcome of a nontheistic, yet rational approach.25

Though the Church had, through its history, battled Greek cosmology, it won that fight more than a millennium before the Enlightenment,26 and the West had been inculcated in a thoroughly Christian history for many centuries. That worldview had profound consequences:

No Christian could ultimately escape the implications of the fact that Aristotle’s cosmos knew no Jehovah. Christianity taught him to see it as a divine artifact rather than as a self-contained organism. The universe was subject to God’s laws; its regularities and harmonies were … a result of providential design. The ultimate mystery resided in God rather than in Nature. … The only sort of explanation science could give must be in terms of descriptions of processes, mechanisms, interconnections of parts. Greek animism was dead. … The universe of classical physics, in which the only realities were matter and motion, could begin to take shape.27

If there was no “unmodern” biblical history to ‘threaten’ the West, and Aristotle’s cosmology had been long abandoned by both Christians and post-Christian secularists, then Rudwick’s framework for explaining the origin of geohistory dissolves. His own books document the anti-Christian attitudes of men like Buffon, Hutton, Lamarck, and their peers. If the West at the turn of the 18th century was profoundly Christian in its worldview, and if the West turned its back on that worldview for that of philosophical naturalism during the 19th century, then simple timing demands a closer examination of the link between the old Earth of the 18th century and that secular worldview. The ‘opposing worldview’ paradigm is further confirmed by trends over recent decades, with the West undergoing a shift towards postmodern nihilism, a progression predicted by Rose.7

Thus, history is against Rudwick. He must dance between the obvious anti-Christian agenda of the secularists and still maintain a shell of Christianity. So he cannot allow Scripture’s authority to be an issue. This produces a novel view of the ‘danger’ Aristotle presented. Rudwick pictures Aristotle as a barbarian, attacking ethics and morality: “It seemed to threaten the very foundations of morality and society.” But this was the highly-cultured Aristotle—the student of Plato and author of the Nicomachean Ethics, widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated and complete ethical systems outside of Christianity. Furthermore, the eternalism of the Enlightenment savants was not Aristotelian, but was materialist. It was a logical conclusion to the options presented by the Cosmological Argument; an eternal universe or a creator.28 If any comparison to Greek philosophy must be made, a better selection would have been Democritus—a position that Aristotle roundly condemned:

Those, then, who say the universe is one and posit one kind of thing as matter, and as corporeal matter which has spatial magnitude, evidently go astray in many ways. For they posit the elements of bodies only, not of incorporeal things, though there are also incorporeal things.29


Martin Rudwick lauds Archbishop Ussher while lambasting his intellectual heirs. His historical scholarship has shown him that Christianity has been the foundation of modern science, history, and culture. Yet there are those pesky parts—Creation and the Flood on a young Earth—that must be dismissed. His problem stems from the fact that they are integral to the Christian worldview. He seeks to tear them away from the Christian worldview by positing geohistory as an intellectual triumph evolving from the “unmodern” notion that Genesis was real history. But his case falls apart because the preconditions for Cuvier’s brilliant compromise exist only in Rudwick’s mind. Secular geohistory is not an innovative compromise between “unmodern” pagan and equally “unmodern” Judeo-Christian cosmologies, but was the secular assault on the Bible’s authority. It is not creationists that are “out on a limb”, but the secular West, which having experienced the initial thrill of undermining Christianity two centuries ago now realizes that it is out on its own limb—that of postmodern nihilism—and that it is cracking beneath them.

Published: 21 May 2015

References and notes

  1. Rudwick, M.J.S., Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2005. Return to text.
  2. Rudwick, M.J.S., World Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2008. Return to text.
  3. Cf., Stark, R., The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Random House, New York, 2005. Return to text.
  4. Rudwick, M.J.S., Earth’s Deep History: How it was Discovered and Why it Matters, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Rudwick, M.J.S., The destruction of creationism: How the search for the beginning of time sparked a scientific revolution: When scholars used the Bible to pinpoint the moment of creation, they actually paved the way for a radical change, Salon, January 4, 2015; salon.com Return to text.
  6. Reed, J.K., Dr. Rudwick’s Shallow Assessment: “Creationists out of Their Depth”. Return to text.
  7. Rose, E. (Fr. Seraphim), Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, St. Herman Press, Platina, CA, 2009. This book was written in the 1980s, which shows considerable prescience. His categories are summarized quite well by Wright (http://www.scifiwright.com/2013/09/the-glory-game-or-the-bitterness-of-broken-ideals/, March, 2015). Return to text.
  8. For example, see Revelation 12. Return to text.
  9. McKeon, R. (ed), The Basic Works of Aristotle, Random House Publishers, New York, 1941, pp. 957–959, (Nicomachean Ethics I-6, 1106a, 14–1107b, 26). Return to text.
  10. Rudwick, ref. 5, emphasis added. Return to text.
  11. Ussher, J., Annals of the World, revised by Larry and Marion Pierce, Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas, 2003. Return to text.
  12. Cf. Jones, F.N., Chronology of the Old Testament, Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas, 2005. Return to text.
  13. Reed, J.K., Modern geohistory: an assault on Christianity, not an innovative compromise, Creation Research Society Quarterly 46(3):201–216, 2010. Return to text.
  14. “History requires philosophy. Not only is the need for philosophy seen in the earlier difficulties and puzzles, but it is also seen, where some people do not expect it, in the very definition of history … . The definitions of history, listed above, all reflect the philosophy of their authors. Those authors who have reflected but little on philosophical problems give looser definitions. Those who have puzzled through many difficulties become more pedantic, more careful, more accurate. Implicit in their formulations are their views of man, of society, of God, and therefore of knowledge … whatever his definition and extended views of history are, there must always be an underlying and controlling philosophy. It can be ignored, but it cannot be avoided.” Clark, G., Historiography: Secular and Religious, The Trinity Foundation, Jefferson, MD, 1994, p. 21–22. Return to text.
  15. Stark, R., How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, Interstudies Collegiate Institute, Wilmington, Delaware, 2014. Return to text.
  16. Glover, W., Biblical Origins of Modern Secular Culture, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 1984. Return to text.
  17. Reed, J.K., Klevberg, P., Bennett, C.B., Froede, C.R. Jr., Akridge, A.J., and Lott, T.L., Beyond scientific creationism, Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(3):216–230, 2004. Return to text.
  18. Reed, J.K., and Klevberg, P., Battlegrounds of natural history, part III: historicism, Creation Research Society Quarterly 51:177–186, 2015. Return to text.
  19. Reed, J.K., and Williams, E.L., Battlegrounds of natural history, part II: actualism, Creation Research Society Quarterly 49(2):135–152, 2012. Return to text.
  20. Mortenson, T., Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related? The Master’s Seminary Journal 15(1):71–92, 2004. Return to text.
  21. The Westminster Confession of Faith I–VII states: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Return to text.
  22. See Mortenson, T., and Ury, T.H., (eds), Coming to Grips with Genesis, Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas, 2008, or Kulikovsky, A.S., Creation, Fall, Restoration: A Biblical Theology of Creation, Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Scotland, 2009. Return to text.
  23. Rudwick, ref. 1, p. 125. Return to text.
  24. Reed, J.K., Three early arguments for deep time, part I: time needed to erode valleys, Journal of Creation 25(2):83–91, 2011; Reed, J.K., Three early arguments for deep time, part II: volcanism, Journal of Creation 26(1):61-70, 2012; and Reed, J.K., and Oard, M.J., Three early arguments for deep time, part III: the sedimentary record, Journal of Creation 26(2):100–109, 2012. Return to text.
  25. Reed, ref. 14, p. 265. Return to text.
  26. Reed, J.K., Natural History in the Christian Worldview, Creation Research Society Books, Chino Valley, Arizona, 2001, pp. 22–23 states: “During medieval times the contrast between the Biblical and Aristotelian frameworks was developed through the Scholastic enterprise, which rigorously evaluated the compatibility of the two systems. The failure to effectively integrate the two systems is termed, ‘… the most fruitful, creative failure in the entire history of the human mind.’” Return to text.
  27. Hall, A.R., The Scientific Revolution, 1500–1800, second edition, as quoted in Glover, ref. , p. 83. Return to text.
  28. See Sproul, R.C., Gertsner, J., and Lindley, A., Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, Academie Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984. Return to text.
  29. McKeon, ref. 9, p. 703, (Metaphysics I-8, 988b, 23–26). Return to text.

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