Davis Young seeks in his work, The Biblical Flood, to inform readers about the broad scope of church thought on the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood. The book’s subtitle is apt and sums up the content of the work: “A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence.”
Young, a Christian geologist, provides a detailed overview of the Church’s theological and scientific musings on the Flood. He develops this overview chronologically, beginning with early Jewish thought. The focus within the entirety of his book is directly centered upon how extrabiblical evidence was used to shape theology and vice versa. The relation should not be understood as binary. Throughout history, there was a spectrum of approaches to the extrabiblical evidence which included resistance (not infrequently forged by ignorance) as well as integration. Here, I will survey only the broadest outline of Young’s discussion.
Early Flood Views
Early Christians were aware of Pagan stories of floods but made little or no appeal to them as evidence for a universal flood, and in fact some argued that these other stories were clearly differentiated from the Biblical account because they were local as opposed to global. There was much speculation over the location of the Ark as well as the notion that fossils were the result of this universal deluge.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Medieval thought regarding the Flood was steeped in the “ahistorical view of creation” found at the time. That is, the science of the time thought of creation as deductible from the character and nature of God. However, the discovery of the New World brought up many challenges to a universal deluge theory, which challenges began to get recognition. These included the vast number of species which would have had to fit onto the Ark and the discovery of people across the world. During this period, the discovery of flood stories in various cultures began to be viewed as evidence for a universal deluge (37).
The New World continued to present challenges to the universal deluge theory. One of the foremost among these was animal migration. Entirely new and distinct species were discovered in the New World which did not exist in Europe. How did these animals get to these distant lands? More importantly, how did they get there without leaving any traces of themselves behind if they all only came from one location: the Ark? These challenges continue to vex those who hold to a universal deluge (60ff).
The notion of a universal flood has contributed much to the development of geology as a science. The Christian worldview finally presented a picture of the universe which humans could explore in order to learn truths about reality. The Flood itself presented a theory about how to account for the geological features of the earth (65ff). Various features of the natural world were attributed to the flood, including the discovery of marine fossils on mountains and geological features like valleys. These early geologists were committed to an following the evidence where it led.
Diluvialism and Catastrophism
Various theories were put forward to explain the features of the earth. These included varied catastrophic notions, wherein the geological features were explained by a global, catastrophic flood. Such theories are repeated into today.
Geological Evidence Mounts into the Twentieth Century
Young establishes that the evidence against catastrophic diluvialism became weighty fairly early into the investigations of geologists (109ff). New discoveries related to mammoths and the way they died (over a period of time by a variety of causes rather than all at once) were greatly important, as the issue of these mammoths was found throughout the speculation about the flood. New dating methods were developed which were more accurate. Archaeological finds showed floods in areas of the Mesopotamia, but they were dated at different times. The discovery that humanity was widely spread over the earth and that there was no major extinction event throughout this spread raises a significant challenge for Flood Geologists (233). Other major challenges to Flood Geology include (but are by no means limited to): the dating of igneous formations, the cooling of the earth, metamorphism, and continental drift.
Throughout this period of discovery, theologians were not inert. Indeed, many theologians were at the front lines, actually participating in the discoveries themselves. Near Eastern Studies have revealed parallels with the Flood account which some have suggested show derivation. Others, however, argue these other flood stories merely show the perpetuity of such events and how ingrained they became on the human consciousness (236ff).
More recently, Flood Geologists have come into being once more. Their arguments parallel almost exactly those found spread in the early days of geology. Yet these arguments have been refuted by the evidence from the earth itself. Some continue to make false statements about the mammoths’ deaths, the formation of sedimentation, dating methods, and more. Young argues that this is largely due to the specialization of studies found within various fields like theology and geology. Theologians are rarely acquainted with the geological evidence, while geologists are rarely versed in theological language.
Theologians who were versed in geology began to see how interpretations of the text, rather than the text itself, had shaped the Christian response to geological evidence. People like Hugh Miller appealed to extrabiblical data in support of their intepretations of the Flood narrative (147ff).
Miller professed puzzlement that learned, respectable theologians would accept “any amount of unrecorded miracle” rather than admit a partial deluge. Could they not see that the controversy was not between Moses and the naturalists but between the readings of different theologians? (151)
More recently, many and varied theories of the flood as local have been developed and defended. The reaction from Flood Geologists has been vigorous, but theories of a global flood include a multitude of quotes from various scientists which would support competing theories of rock formation, sedimentation, and more. That is, Catastrophic Flood views present mutually exclusive theories for how the geological (and other) evidence came to be.
The book is capped off with a discussion of “arkeology”: the search for Noah’s Ark. Young notes the array of locations which have been given as well as the mutually contradictory accounts of those who claim to have seen the Ark or evidence of the Ark. He warns Christians to remain cautious of any such claims.
I believe that a good way to summarize the content of the book would be to view it as a challenge Young is issuing to those who allege that catastrophic theories are the only possible way to interpret the text and geological evidence. He himself writes, “If conservative and orthodox theology is to remain vital and relevant to a world in need of the Christian gospel… theologians will have to abandon their flirtation with flood geology and other forms of pseudo-science, reacquaint themselves with genuine scientific knowledge, and incorporate that knowledge into their thinking, secure in the realization that genuine insight into God’s creation… is still a gift of God to be treasured” (215).
Young’s book can be viewed through this lens. He shows how scientific knowledge challenged traditional readings of the text, but also how many theologians and Christian geologists alike interacted with this in order to gain “genuine insight” into God’s word and creation.
The Biblical Flood is a vitally important work. Young demonstrates that throughout history, Christianity has been largely willing to have a kind of interplay between extrabiblical evidence and theology. Unfortunately, in our time, many are ignorant of this long history and development of thought and science surrounding geology and the Flood. Theories have been developed which stand in the face of evidence from multiple, independent sources and angles.
I do not claim to have touched upon even all the major points found in Young’s work. The book is full of voluminous amounts of historical details which reveal interesting scientific and theological notions. The theory of a global flood was the one of the first major proposals for how the earth’s geological history was formed. As geological discoveries mounted, this theory was falsified. Moreover, theologians who interacted with the extrabiblical evidence had a wide array of responses, from downright rejection of the evidence or reinterpretation of it to attempt to fit a global flood to concordist views in which the extrabiblical evidence informed interpretation of the text. Which direction should we go? Young has presented a major challenge to those wishing to maintain a notion of the global flood. He presents mountains of evidence to challenge catastrophism, while also showing how, historically, thought on the Noahic Flood has comfortably incorporated the extrabiblical evidence without any necessary compromise of the text or faith. I commend the book to the reader without reservation.
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Davis Young, The Biblical Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
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