Post 37, Ussher, Adventists and the Age of the Earth

I was a bit nervous about the blog that I posted on Australia Day (January 26). Would my readers understand it? So I sent it to one of the best-informed, young (well under thirty-years-of-age!) scientists that I know.

His reply was re-assuring. In part it says: “I read and enjoyed the Ussher blog. I like that you point out his chronology was ‘well-meaning’, and I think that it is valuable to recognise Ussher was using the best research tools and methods available to him.  The fact that we might come to a different conclusion today says more about our extra sources of information than it does about our intentions or intellect.”

What are some of those “extra sources of information” that we must take into account when we estimate the age of the earth?

First of all, the Bible. I am of the opinion that nobody who respects the authority of Scripture should presume that they are using the text of Genesis faithfully, when they claim that the earth is about six thousand years old, unless they have studied in detail Dr Colin House’s excellent doctoral dissertation. Colin is a dedicated Bible scholar, a graduate of the premier Adventist educational institution (School of Graduate Studies, Andrews University), who has used the best-available tools of biblical interpretation. It is evidence such as Colin offers that, over many years, has driven me to the conclusion that God never intended us to assume his Word tells us the age of the Earth.

Of course one PhD study, on its own, is not enough to settle such an important issue. Colin is a pioneering Adventist researcher who has spent years learning Hebrew and its related languages and studying the Bible thoroughly in its setting (the there and then) so that he can cogently express the message of Genesis for us today (that is, in the here and now). Many scholars of repute agree with the essence of his insights. As mentioned earlier, Dr Siegfried Horn wrote the significant article, way back in 1978, “Can the Bible establish the age of the Earth?” Spectrum 10:3 (1979), 15-20. Note this paragraph from page 18:

While there are numerous ‘chronological statements’ in the Bible pertaining to the periods from Abraham down through the ages, not a single ‘chronological statement’ can be found in the entire Bible which helps us date any earlier events…. For the time preceding Abraham, no events recorded in the Bible are connected with any dates, secular kings, or any other chronological peg on which we can hang the biblical stories.

If you doubt the substance of this quote, why not study the 128 articles that Dr Horn published between 1973 and his death in 1993, as indexed in the Seventh-day Adventist Periodical Index. You will quickly come to understand the development of his thinking about biblical archaeology and chronology, and the reasons why we can trust his conclusions. Note such articles as “From Bishop Ussher to Edwin R. Thiele,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 18 (Spring, 1980), 37-49, a piece that gives us cause to appreciate some of the accomplishments of both Ussher and Thiele. Dr Horn’s conclusion reads:

Some thirty-six years have passed since Thiele’s work was first published. At first there appeared to be a certain reluctance on the part of many scholars to accept a chronological scheme which seemed to demonstrate “conclusively the precise and dependable accuracy of Hebrew chronology of the times of the kingdoms,” to use the words of the prominent OT scholar William A. Irwin. Others, especially conservative students of the Bible, however, were delighted to see that some of the thorny problems of biblical studies had successfully been solved. Yet, Thiele’s chronological scheme with its logic and historical integrity has gradually been accepted by an ever-widening circle of biblical scholars of all persuasions, and I foresee the time when it may universally be adopted and used as an accurate chronological framework of the history of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, enjoying the position formerly held by the chronology of Ussher.

Balance like that is difficult to achieve, but it is a mark of the genuine scholar who weighs the evidence carefully and gives credit where credit is due.

Second, we need to carefully assess the evidence from science. Were Ussher alive today, given the diligence with which he pursued the evidence that was available in his day, undoubtedly he would offer us very different conclusions about the earth’s age. Take, for instance, what the fossil forests of Yellowstone in the United States reveal-as one graphic example.

When I first attended degree-level lectures about biblical chronology, my lecturers never once hinted that they knew anything about the remarkable forests that are so well preserved in the Yellowstone region. However, when I was at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (Andrews University) from 1970 to 1972, one of my professors spent many lectures trying to explain how these petrified forests might fit into a short time frame. Looking back, I deeply respect his sincerity and his diligence, even though further reading has convinced me that the trees are in a position of growth, and that it took many volcanic eruptions to wipe out the scores of new forests that developed, each on top of the previous one. New soil had to form after each volcanic eruption, and new trees grew to large sizes before they were wiped out by the next volcanic event. The data are clear: the Yellowstone area records the passing of a succession of long time periods.

However, Yellowstone is only one of countless places where the crust of the earth records the fact that it is a long time since “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1: 1, NIV). The Bible calls us to “Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14: 7). In the wisdom of God, to cherish the Sabbath and worship our Creator, we do not need to know in detail when he did his work of creation!

Arthur Patrick, 29 January 2012