"Is Genesis History?" Director Responds to False Dichotomy Charge

A lot of folks, such as at Biologos, have considered the Del Tackett film, “Is Genesis History?,” to be succumbing to the fallacy of the false dichotomy, pitting the “biblical” view of Young Earth Creationism against the “world’s” view of deep time.

In a series of video interviews between Del Tackett and the film’s director, Thomas Purifoy Jr., the film creators have responded to such criticisms. Of particular interest is one segment explicitly addressing the charge of the film promoting a false dichotomy.

Thomas Purifoy’s main response is that the film is not portraying a false dichotomy, because he believes that Christians of the 19th century simply borrowed a “deep time” narrative propagated by non-Christian thinkers, such as Comte de Buffon and Pierre Laplace. Instead of looking God’s revealed history in Scripture, 19th centuries geologists built their views on an anti-biblical history.

It looks like Purifoy is getting his narrative from AIG’s Terry Mortenson, who did his PhD work on the history of geology, on this very topic. Mortenson apparently read a paper on this at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting in 2001. A more popular version is available at Answers in Genesis.

Does anyone know of any responses to Mortensen’s work?

Everything @TedDavis has ever written.


While there may be plenty of material of Ted’s that effectively responds to these things, it may still be helpful to rehearse here for the sake of other (well … okay … for my sake) some of the specifics.

For example, I note that Mortenson mentions and emphasizes Nicalaus Steno’s apparent YECism in that time. I remember reading a book about Steno, but it was too long ago for me to remember many details. My impression, though, was that Steno was rather on a leading edge of how to interpret fossils and strata, and that as such there had been contemporaries of his (and some that preceded!) that had already arrived at conclusions that one world-wide deluge could not account for all of what was seen. Did Steno not share in the origins of that emerging conclusion? If Ted or others have specific answers already written and linkable, you could help expedite my informal research … if or when I can get to it.


On the possibility that there are variants to spelling Steno’s name, I did a B.L. wide search on ‘Steno’.

There are only 4 hits in our universe, and one of them is this thread! Here are the other three:

One (Article):

Two (Thread Only):

Three (Article):

@Mervin_Bitikofer @Clarke_Morledge This series by Ted is a great place to start: http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/series/reading-gods-two-books-early-american-perspectives.

Thanks, Brad. And even on some short perusal of Ted’s essays on the history of deep time, I am reminded of the simple chronology of discovery that would have made it anachronistic for Steno to have thought the earth to be anything but young given the period he lived in. He helped launch correct interpretations of fossil evidence and strata, but it would wait for later quantifiable evidence before deep time would make a respectable entrance into the scientific scene. So I guess I mis-remembered Steno’s place in all that (other than as giving it all some ‘genesis’ so-to-speak).

Thanks, George – indeed his name hasn’t come up too much!

Brad: Thank you for the pointers to Ted’s work here at BioLogos. Unfortunately, the focus is more on the American story, but Terry Mortenson did his PhD work in Britain, and Mortenson’s focus is more on the European story that largely predated the American one.

Purifoy and Tackett’s interest in this narrative clearly shows Mortenson’s influence in the YEC community. It would be worthwhile for someone to specifically address Mortensen’s thesis.

The common theme I keep hearing from the YEC side is that what we have in Genesis 1-2 is not so much divinely revealed science as it is divinely revealed history (that just so happens to have ramifications for science). What puzzles me is why this distinction has only been made by YECs in the 21st century, and never really emphasized until recently.

Paging @TedDavis! I know you’ve addressed Mortensen’s ideas, but I’m not sure where to start in recommending something for @Clarke_Morledge

I can address it generally, in regard to the paper that he read at the ETS in 2001. It relies upon the usual ad hominem characteristic of AIG. An example (emphasis mine):

“In contrast to the long-standing young-earth creationist view, different histories of the earth
began to be developed in the late 18th century, which were evolutionary in character. Three non-Christian
French scientists were prominent and all were either atheists or very skeptical theists. … Buffon (1708-88), a nominal Catholic, but probably a secret skeptic … Laplace (1749-1827), an open atheist … Lamarck (1744-1829), who road (sic) the fence between deism and atheism …”

It goes on like this for some time – one subhead was “Christian compromises with old-earth geological theories” – before introducing the heroes of the tale – the Scriptural Geologists, who bravely stood against the tide of evil. Mortenson sums it all up neatly (emphasis added):

"So what was the debate really about?
In spite of these significant objections against the theories of both the catastrophists and the uniformitarians, the writings of the most geologically competent Scriptural geologists were ignored or misrepresented, but never refuted. Why? … I believe that the reason they were ignored is that they were in a conflict of philosophical or religious worldviews. The Scriptural geologists were not opposed to geological facts, but to the interpretation of those facts. And they argued that old-earth interpretations were based on anti-Biblical philosophical assumptions. They did not label those assumptions with the modern term of “philosophical naturalism.” But they clearly perceived them as such. They also insisted that there was a difference between, on the one hand, the experimental scientific studies which use observations of presently occurring processes and repeatable experiments to determine how the present creation operates and, on the other hand, the historical scientific studies which use circumstantial evidence and written records to try to reconstruct the origin of the creation and its historical development to its present state. The Scriptural geologists insisted that in constructing a history of the earth geologists should not limit themselves to the circumstantial evidence of rocks and fossils, but should also carefully consult the more important eyewitness testimony of God’s Word.

So the Genesis-geology debate was really a conflict of worldviews–that is, deism, vague forms of theism and atheism joined together against Biblical Christianity. Sadly, many Christians, even clergy, absorbed many of the anti-biblical philosophical assumptions hidden in scientific writings in those days (and our days), and so they unconsciously became semi-deists, as society was enjoying the lush and seemingly boundless fruits of human reason at work in the Industrial Revolution."

Is there really any need for someone to specifically address this thesis? Looks like the same old, same old to me.


Several years ago I read David Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood. It is a worthwhile overview of the history of geology. I don’t own a copy of the book to refer back to, but one of the main storylines I recall is that in geology’s early decades (roughly late 18th century) many were looking to find confirmation of the great deluge, not to disprove it. As they uncovered more and more evidence, the story of an unimaginably old earth shaped predominantly by consistent processes became inescapable. I don’t know enough about Mortensen’s positions to address them directly, but this certainly sounds like a far different narrative than the “godless scientists leading Christians astray” one that Mortensen is promoting.

The review in Books and Culture through which I first learned of the book is still available.

I am currently reading The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester. I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, but I’ll let you know if I learn something to add to the discussion. Winchester makes brief mention of Steno, but not enough to add to what’s already been said here. I glanced at Mortensen’s piece on AiG’s site and noted that he mentions Smith, but I don’t have time to read that and am not sure that I will. After I finish the book I’ll try to at least go over the section that discusses Smith and write up some comparisons and contrasts.


In other words, Mortensen is simply not getting his facts straight.

That’s the real issue. YEC claims are riddled with shortcuts, factual inaccuracies, falsehoods, and fudged and cherry-picked data, and that’s what needs to be confronted. The debate needs to be framed in terms of insisting that they get their facts straight and that they meet the same standards of quality control as everybody else.

As it stands, they’re trying to frame the debate in terms of one set of presuppositions or worldviews against another, and in the process sweep the quality control issue under the carpet. All too often I see people — even evangelical Christians — responding on that basis, complaining about them introducing religious presuppositions into science. To be quite honest, this just proves their point and gives them a free pass to claim discrimination, compromise, or whatever.


The transition for YEC terminology begins to coalesce as Science started to fill in the gaps for how the Earth, and the life on it, could have been produced through lawful natural processes.

It’s not too surprising I think.

What is surprising is the amount of resistance some religious affiliations have for the idea that God doesn’t just perform miracles, but also operates in many ways, providentially or not, through lawful processes!

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Jay: You pretty well summed up Terry Mortenson’s argument. As to a response, the reason why I think a specific one is needed is because Mortensen is pretty much the “go to” guy now in the YEC community, for this type of apologetic. He gets out in front of a lot of people, and with the release of “Is Genesis History?”, which has a very winsome quality to it, Mortenson’s narrative has captivated Thomas Purifoy Jr. and Del Tackett.

For Purifoy, the fundamental issue is not about science, necessarily. Rather, it is about history. As he puts it, we have “two competing histories.” He did the film “from the perspective of Genesis as history. It is the basis of everything.

Despite the flaws in “Is Genesis History?,” it really is a brilliant PR strategy. Given the choice between the arrogant-sounding “scientists,” who interact with a rather ungodly bunch, and some really nice guys, like Mortenson, Purifoy, and Tackett, who simply tell you about the history, given in Genesis, who are you going to trust?

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Bruce, I thank you for your response. I look forward to your reflections on the William Smith book.

I think this is a killer insight. The longer I’ve been in the origins debate, the more I realize the truth of this. I would actually put this way: The origins debate is just as much about understanding the present as the past. In other words, the appeal of young-earth creationism is that it makes sense of the cultural moment that people find themselves in, by identifying a universal boogeyman (millions of years/evolutionary thinking) that “explains” the negative trends that people are concerned about. It reinforces and fits neatly inside existing narratives of white Christian resentment over loss of cultural and political power in the West. And that’s ultimately why people subscribe to it, not because of biblical interpretation or fossil evidence or whatever.

Also, pointing out Mortenson’s bad arguments has very little effect with those who agree with AiG, because of what he represents.

I’m reminded of a recent article that The Gospel Coalition published about David Barton, who has been shown repeatedly to be a pseudo-academic charlatan who has no qualms about misrepresenting history to fit his agenda.

So here’s the second-most-liked comment under the Facebook post for the article:

We need more common men like David Barton looking into history. The problem is relegating it to “academics” who want us to believe that this country was founded by (at best) deists who would be happy to see homosexuality, “transgenderism”, abortion, and all kinds of immorality running rampant in the streets. The only “red flags” about David Barton and Wall Builders is that they go against the BS that the liberal media and academia want to shove down our throats!

Replace David Barton with Terry Mortenson and Wall Builders with AiG, and this comment could easily be a defense of young-earth creationist views of history.

Moderator Hat :tophat:: this is not an invitation to discuss any of the specific political/cultural issues in this comment.

I often wonder if BioLogos will not have broad success unless we can help Christians re-imagine where they fit in the story of the modern world. The trick is to do this while still staying true to our mission and values.


That is truly interesting, @BradKramer. It will take some pondering, but my first reaction is that you hit the nail right on the head and this could very well be a highly meaningful insight.

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This can also be seen as a wider populist trend to distrust establishment-credentialed experts, be they politicians or scientists. They are all “insiders” and as such are suspect at best. In some respects populists want to find and push a ‘reset’ button – a cultural / educational equivalent for ‘drain the swamp’. It very quickly brings on self-inflicted wounds when pressed farther and farther down that trajectory, but when a population goes into a survival mode of operation, we easily talk ourselves into tolerating pain (especially other people’s, but even perhaps some of our own).


Good insight. What I find fascinating is the role of “experts” in communities built around distrust of experts. Why does AiG make such a big deal about the PhD credentials of their experts while simultaneously spreading distrust about the very institutions where these individuals earned the degrees?


I get the feeling that they relish the role of “rising above” their scientific education and coming to a a heightened level of insight that few have been able to manage. That way, they can argue the same knowledge base the “establishment” possesses.