The Genesis Flood — 50 years on
Looking back today, one cannot help but be impressed by the courage of John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, authors of The Genesis Flood (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961).
This was a lonely time to be a creationist and there were virtually no resources to help. Yet they were prepared to swim against the tide, at potentially great cost to their academic careers and personal reputations.
Following its publication, reviews appeared in a number of periodicals, although it was mostly ignored by the secular media and mainstream scientific community.
In the Christian world, reactions ranged from fulsome praise to outright hostility. An article by the Dutch Reformed geologist J. R. van de Fliert in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation attacked the book as pseudoscience.1 But The Genesis Flood was widely read in evangelical circles and proved enormously influential.
Much to the dismay of its critics, it helped to spark a global revival of creationism, with new movements being established in many countries.2 One recent book attacking Flood geology has referred to the ‘stunning and baffling explosion’ of young-age creationism in the second half of the twentieth century.3
One of the first of the new creationist organisations was the Creation Research Society (CRS), established by Henry Morris and nine others in 1963. It was founded partly as a reaction to the perceived capitulation of the American Scientific Affiliation to theistic evolution. The CRS continues to disseminate the research of its members through a quarterly journal.4
In 1969, Morris resigned from his departmental position at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a year later helped to found Christian Heritage College (now San Diego Christian College) in Santee, California. This was to lead to the establishment of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which began as the research division of Christian Heritage College, but became independent in 1972.
Morris served as the president of ICR until his retirement in 1996. During his presidency, Henry Morris, with his biochemist colleague Dr Duane Gish, engaged evolutionists in hundreds of public debates on university campuses across the United States, and occasionally further afield.
Since its first appearance, The Genesis Flood has been reprinted 29 times and sold more than 260,000 copies in English. Translations into German, Spanish and Korean have also been undertaken.
Two sequels by John Whitcomb, The early Earth (Baker, 1972) and The world that perished (Baker, 1973), expanded on the arguments of The Genesis Flood and addressed some of the earlier published criticisms.
The pioneering work of Whitcomb and Morris also inspired a new generation of creationists to gain degrees in relevant fields and get involved in research. Steven Austin graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1979 with a PhD for his studies on a coal bed in western Kentucky.
He soon joined the staff at ICR and has become well known for his field research at Mount St Helens and in the Grand Canyon.
Kurt Wise gained his PhD in invertebrate palaeontology in 1989 from Harvard University, where he studied under the leading evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould.
He subsequently established the Centre for Origins Research at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, which has become the world’s leading hub for biological research in creationism.5
In Australia, Andrew Snelling was awarded his doctorate in geology by the University of Sydney for research on the Koongara uranium deposit in the Northern Territories. After six years working as a field and mine geologist, he entered full-time creationist ministry and currently serves as Director of Research with Answers in Genesis (USA).
Research into flood geology also continues to be supported within Adventist circles. The Geoscience Research Institute, located on the campus of Loma Linda University, was actually founded in 1958, before the publication of The Genesis Flood.
Its staff continue to study the scientific evidence concerning origins from a creationist perspective, and publish a scholarly journal, Origins, which reports research from the earth sciences and other fields.6
How should we evaluate The Genesis Flood, fifty years on? Here are a few thoughts.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way in which it carefully sets out the biblical case for the universality of the Flood. Its first chapter addresses basic arguments (the depth and duration of the Flood, the size and necessity of the ark, the testimony of the apostle Peter and the total destruction of a widely distributed human race).
Chapters two and three deal with objections to an anthropologically universal Flood and efforts to harmonise the Flood account with conventional geology (such as the local and tranquil Flood theories).
Although some of the arguments are stronger than others, 7 the overall case has stood the test of time and is one of the book’s most enduring legacies. Indeed very few have even tried to refute the points Whitcomb and Morris made.
Modern opponents of creationism often ignore the Flood,8 even though it is crucial to any assessment of the compatibility of evolution with the Bible. Today there is a need to re-emphasise the arguments set out in The Genesis Flood and to develop them further.
One area that would repay close attention is the pivotal role that the Flood plays in the overall biblical storyline as a counterpart to the Second Coming.9
The book also helpfully focuses on the geological implications of the biblical account, drawing the reader’s attention to some important scientific observations. In chapters four and five it highlights the inadequacy of the uniformitarian principle (‘the present is the key to the past’) to explain the record in the rocks.
The authors point to the extraordinary extent of the sedimentary rock layers, the pervasive evidence of catastrophism and remarkable fossil graveyards that document the death, burial and preservation of millions of fossil organisms.
These data suggest processes operating on a scale and at rates unlike those of the present day, and remain an important part of the overall scientific case for Flood geology.
But most significantly, The Genesis Flood represents an ambitious attempt to construct a comprehensive and innovative synthesis of the biblical and scientific data. Reviewing the book’s impact, Don Carson pointed out, ‘For the first time in years, creationists were not poking away at isolated problems and scoring points in narrow areas of conflict’.10
Rather, there was an effort to build a wide-ranging model that could operate as an alternative framework for interpreting the scientific data.
Of course, progress was limited at first because the right range of experts and the required research structures were not in place, but that does not take away from the fact that Whitcomb and Morris were sufficiently far sighted to recognise the need for this kind of work.
There is an important lesson for us today. Too often creationism lapses into mere anti-evolutionism; becomes negative rather than positive; tears down but fails to build up. We can learn from the vision and ambition of The Genesis Flood by focusing our efforts on building an overarching model of the Flood with robust theological and scientific foundations. Whitcomb and Morris pointed the way.
To be continued
1. ‘Fundamentalism and the fundamentals of geology’, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 21, 1969, pp.69-81.
2. Among them the UK’s Biblical Creation Society: http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk
3. D. A. Young and R. F. Stearley, The Bible, rocks and time: Geological evidence for the age of the earth, IVP Academic, 2008, p.21.
7. C. A. Clough, A calm appraisal of
The Genesis Flood, ThM thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1968.
8. For instance, Denis Alexander barely mentions the Flood in his recent book, Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?, Monarch, 2008.
9. See for instance S. Lloyd, ‘Christian theology and neo-Darwinism are incompatible: an argument from the resurrection’, in: G. Finlay, S. Lloyd, S. Pattemore and D. Swift (eds.), Debating Darwin, Paternoster, 2009, pp.1-29.
10. D. A. Carson, ‘The Genesis Flood in perspective’, Biblical creation, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1980, pp.9-20.