Monday, December 10, 2012

Snopsing Chalmers on the "Gap Theory"

It is often asserted that the Scottish reformer, educator, and pastor, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), was one of the originators of the so-called "Genesis Gap Theory" as a part of his effort to harmonize the ideas of evolution and creation. Scan the internet and you'll see this claim repeated again and again. Even many of the most reputable Intelligent Design or Creation Science sites perpetuate this peculiar notion.

It has no real substance however. Indeed, it is an "urban myth."

The actual origin of the "ruin-reconstruction" view of Creation comes from the writings of late 19th century writers like Hugh Miller, G.H. Pember, and I.T. Taylor. It was then popularized by early 20th century dispensationalists such as A.C. Dixon, A.J. Gordon, and H.A. Ironside. And it was particularly propounded in the best-selling study Bibles of Finis Dake and C.I. Scolfield. The theory asserts that some indeterminate amount of time elapsed between the first two verses of the Genesis narrative--this "gap" could then account for millions of years of geologic time or the fall of Satan or any number of other perceived textual difficulties.

There is no record of Chalmers endorsing this view--or anything like it. The notion that somehow he did comes from a single statement in a single lecture out of the more than fifty volumes of his writings.

This is what Chalmers actually said: “The detailed history of creation in the first chapter of Genesis begins at the middle of the second verse.”

Clearly, Chalmers posited no gap, no ruin and reconstruction, and no attempt to reconcile evolution and creation here. At most, he made a simple exegetical observation that Genesis 1:1 declares God's ex nihilo creation; Genesis 1:2a introduces the Spirit's moving amidst the material void; And Genesis 1:2b begins to unfold the details of that glorious moving and its resultant redolence.

Regardless, debates about the age of the earth and possible conflict with the historicity of the Bible would actually not come into common discourse until well after the death of Chalmers. Indeed, he made his isolated comment in 1816--long before Darwin ignited the controversy with the publication of "Origin of Species" in 1859.

Thomas Chalmers most assuredly wrestled with ways to find a common ground for scientists and theologians--his Astronomical Discourses (1817) were particularly effective examples of his apologetic methodology. But never would he compromise the integrity of Biblical truth for the sake of supposed scientific accommodation.


Ben Manring said...

I'm sorry to say that the otherwise esteemed Dr. Chalmers did, in fact, endorse the "gap" theory (he did not invent it), lent his influence to it throughout his life, and was critical of the identified group of theologians and geologists who defended the orthodox view. You may read the well-documented account in Terry Mortenson, The Great Turning Point: The Church's Catastrophic Mistake on Geology--Before Darwin, (Master Books, 2004). Or, you may read it in Chalmers's Works themselves. Here is a sample from vol. 12, in his 1814 review of Georges Cuvier's Theory of the Earth:

"Should the phenomena compel us to assign a greater antiquity to the globe than to that work of days detailed in the book of Genesis, there is still one way of saving the credit of the literal history. The first creation of the earth and the heavens may have formed no part of that work. This took place at the beginning, and is described in the first verse of Genesis. It is not said when this beginning was. We know the general impression to be that it was on the earlier part of the first day, and that the first act of creation formed part the same day's work with the formation of light. We ask our readers to turn to that chapter and to the first five verses of it. Is there any forcing in the supposition, that the first verse describes the primary act of creation, and leaves us at liberty to place it as far back as we may; that the first half of the second verse describes the state of the earth (which may already have existed for ages, and been the theatre of geological revolutions) at the point time anterior to the detailed operations of this chapter; and that the motion of the spirit of God, described in the second clause of the second verse, was the commencement of these operations? In this case the creation of the light may have been the great and leading event of the first day; and Moses may be supposed to give us not a history of the first formation of things, but of the formation of the present system; and as we have already proved the necessity of direct exercises of creative power to keep up the generations of living creatures; so Moses may for any thing we know be giving us the full history of the last great interposition, and be describing the successive steps by which the mischiefs of the last catastrophe were repaired" (pp. 369-70).

What is more, Chalmers is aware that Cuvier's theory includes the death of animals in the supposedly earlier epochs of earth's history: "Enough for us the fact that each catastrophe has the chance of destroying, or does in fact destroy, a certain number of genera" (p. 364). He goes so far as to say, "It is evident, however, that if the earth had been at some former period the fair residence of life, she had now become void and formless; and if the sun and moon and stars at some former period had given light, that light had been extinguished. It is not our part to assign the cause of a catastrophe which carried so extensive a destruction along with it; but he were a bold theorist indeed who could assert that in the wide chambers of immensity no such cause is to be found" (p. 372). So he admits of death before the fall, a serious theological error in addition to the hermeneutical compromise, and all for the sake of being consistent with ephemeral contemporary science.

George Grant said...

Ben: Read each of these very conditional statements in their full context (as I did just this evening). Chalmers is summarizing various theories and possibilities, not endorsing them (notice, his constant refrain of "if"). Indeed, he asserts at the beginning of the essay that his purpose is to protect the integrity and veracity of the "Mosaical history." And, he avers to the fact that he is not a geologist and therefore is not positing a theory but only proposing that any number of solutions to apparent contradictions might yet be possible. This is hardly the articulation or popularization of a theory!