How old is the planet? For some creationists, it may seem like an ancient bit of Christian orthodoxy that God created the whole thing less than ten thousand years ago. But we see more proof today that the idea of a young earth is a relatively novel idea among conservative Christians.
Anyone who has done their homework knows the story. As historian Ronald L. Numbers outlined in his definitive book The Creationists, most conservative Christians believed in an ancient earth until the 1960s. Even in the hottest days of anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, fundamentalist leaders usually felt no need to believe in a young earth.
As 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley put it in 1927, there was not
an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.
As I make my way through Bradley Gundlach’s excellent book Process & Providence, I came across a similar example from the 1800s. Back then, Princeton Seminary was the redoubt of thinking creationists. In 1856, the school’s journal offered a short review of a new book by David N. Lord, Geognosy, or the Facts and Principles of Geology against Theories.
In his long book, Lord argued that mid-nineteenth-century geologists often missed the boat. Such foolish pseudo-scientists, Lord wrote, mistook the boundaries of their own science and slid into both scientific and theological error when they suggested that the earth must have existed for millions of years.
Today’s conservative creationists might think that any self-respecting creationist would applaud Lord’s work. And the guardians of orthodoxy at Princeton did, to an extent. They described Lord’s goal as “elevated and holy.” His conclusions, however, did not sit well with the Old Princetonians.
In a way that might be surprising to today’s young-earth creationist crowd, the theologians at Princeton assailed Lord’s attempt to defend Scripture by attacking emerging geological science. Why? Not because they doubted the inerrant nature of the Bible. No, the Princetonians instead refused to allow their religion to be bound and hampered by any possible scientific discovery.
They “dissent,” the reviewers wrote, from Lord’s
Fundamental position, and deny his right to embark the whole hopes of Christians in one boat, and make the salvation of men through Jesus Christ, depend on the success of his argument against geologists.
Lord had argued that the new geology threatened to disprove Genesis. It was imperative, Lord wrote, for thinking Christians to disprove geology instead. Balderdash, huffed the Princetonians: “There is not a true Christian in the world, who really believes this.”
Instead, the old-earth creationists at Princeton insisted that creation was an established fact, whichever way the scientific winds might blow. “If science,” they concluded,
Should succeed in demonstrating that the earth is millions of ages old, then we will with the utmost alacrity believe that the days of the creation were periods of indefinite duration.