Tag: Exploring Creation with General Science

Chauncey Who?

Chauncey E. Sanders is anything but a common household name. However for many Evangelicals Sanders is rather well known for having established three tests that demonstrate the “historical reliability” of the Bible.[1] Sermons, religious websites, and other publications celebrate his three tests, often plagiarizing each other in a sort of intellectual incest.[2]

More surprisingly, perhaps, Sanders and his three tests of “historic reliability” play a significant role in the homeschooling “science” curriculum. Through Apologia’s Exploring Creation with General Science, a textbook[3] for 7th- and 8th-grade students, Sanders’s three tests support treating the Bible as a scientific text and turn up on a number of “general science” online flashcards.

Screenshot of general science flashcards
Chauncey Sanders’s three tests for authenticity have worked their way into the “general science” homeschool curriculum.

Who was this Chauncey Sanders? And how did he become fixture in the Evangelical community and a cornerstone of homeschooling “science” curriculum?

Chauncey Sanders seems to have attended Miami University of Ohio.[4] He graduated in 1921, went on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago in English in 1926, and then moved to the English department at IU Bloomington. Over the next two decades (he was on leave during World War II) Sanders offered courses on, inter alia, methods in literary research and contributed a number of essays on the history of the university to the Indiana Alumni Magazine.[5] He resigned in 1946 to take a position in Washington DC with the Air Force Historical Division. As one of the many scholars working there at the time, he wrote number of reports for the U.S. Army Air Forces, e.g., 7B, 11, 14, 16B, 22 of the Numbered USAF Historical Studies. Sometime around 1950 when the entire office was transferred to Maxwell Field Air Force Base in Alabama, he became an “Associate Professor of Military History” at the recently established “Air University.” In 1952, while at The Air University, Sanders published his only book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History, an undergraduate and early graduate textbook on basic methodological practices in English literary history. He seems to have remained with the USAF Historical Division for the remainder of his career. He died in 1962 gravestone.

Photo of Chauncey Sanders’s tombstone
Chauncey Sanders’s rather simple tombstone.

A decade after Sanders died, the Evangelical Josh McDowell discovered this literary scholar turned obscure government official and extracted from Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History one small portion for use in McDowell’s own Christian apologetics.

In 1972 McDowell published his Evidence that Demands a Verdict, in which he tried to show the “reliability” of the New Testament by assembling piles of circumstantial historical facts that, in his presentation, seemed to support claims made in the Bible. Sanders makes his appearance in chapter four, “The Reliability of the Bible,” where McDowell mentioned Sanders and the “three basic principles of historiography…the bibliographic test, the internal test and the external evidence test.” In this early work Sanders and his tests are lost in a multitude of paraphrases of and quotations from other authors. McDowell’s strange, quasi-outline structure masquerades as a coherent and logical list of scholarly authorities that demonstrate the truth of the Bible.

Although McDowell’s early book was apparently popular,[6] his 1977 book, More Than a Carpenter, catapulted Sanders and his three tests into the vernacular of Evangelical Christian apologists. Particularly concerned to reply to skeptical or hostile readers (e.g., history professors) who dismiss the truth of the New Testament, McDowell spends more time and effort explaining Sanders[7] three tests that can be “appl[ied] to any piece of literature of history to determine if it’s accurate or reliable:”

  • Bibliographic test—“an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us.” For McDowell, this reduces to how many copies of a text survive and how long is the gap between when the text was first written and our earliest copies. For the New Testament, he claims there more than 20,000.[8]
  • Internal evidence test—“determine[s] whether [a] written record is credible and to what extent.” Here McDowell claims that because the New Testament was written by men who witnessed the events and because their accounts circulated during Christ’s lifetime, the New Testament’s account must be accurate (by which he means “true”). Otherwise contemporaries would have pointed out the errors.[9]
  • External evidence test—“whether other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents themselves.” McDowell gestures first textual evidence from contemporary bishops (not unproblematic sources) and then to archaeological evidence, which has confirmed certain aspects of the New Testament.

McDowell’s assertions raise a number of problems, but those issues are really just details that accept the validity of his version of Sanders’s three tests. More problematically, he and all the Evangelical apologists following him have misunderstood Sanders’s tests.

Sanders was not interested in demonstrating the truth or falsity of any given document. Sanders didn’t seek to demonstrate the “reliability,” historical or otherwise, of the content of any given historical text. He was, rather, interested in finding a way to demonstrate that a particular document is or is not from the period it purports to be from and, to a lesser extent, was or was not written by the person who purportedly wrote it:

[A]uthenticity demands an affirmative answer to three questions: “Was this work written by the person who is purported to have written it? Was it written at the time alleged to be the date of composition? Was it written under the circumstances and for the purposes alleged?”

Sanders devotes the chapter to explaining his three tests and showing how they can be used to argue that a document is or is not from the period generally ascribed to it. Sanders does not wonder if the content of the document is true or corresponds to historical events. In fact, many of his examples are fiction—stories, plays, etc.—that aren’t true or false in any simple way and are often not true at all, e.g., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

McDowell and his followers have consistently and fundamentally misunderstood (misread ?) Sanders’s text.[10] Seems somehow ironic that book written to teach people historical methods and techniques for analyzing texts is so consistently misread.

Screenshot of an Amazon review.
Apologists give Sanders’s book good reviews, even if they don’t understand it.

  1. By “historical reliability” they typically mean something like the veracity or accuracy or truth of the text in the Bible (and by “Bible” they most commonly mean the New Testament).  ↩

  2. For example:

    This search will give you more, if you’re interested, but I can’t really recommend that you waste your time.  ↩

  3. I spent a summer reading this textbook in an effort to understand and take seriously the arguments in it. In a series of posts I recounted my engagement with those arguments, which were superficial and repetitive. See these posts. In the end, I concluded that there was little benefit from posting about each of the modules, which added no nuance or sophistication to Wile’s position.  ↩

  4. He distinguished himself as part of the “intellectual aristocracy” by earning all A’s and B’s in his first year. Grade inflation does not yet appear to have been a problem at Miami University of Ohio in 1917, where grades of B or better granted you admission to “one of the most exclusive parties of the year.” Five students had received all A’s. Another 14 had A’s and B’s. See the report in The Miami Student (Jan. 11, 1917). You can find more of his articles and articles about him from the Miami University archive.  ↩

  5. On Sanders’s time at IU Bloomington, see The Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, 1868–1970. 87–102.  ↩

  6. At least according to the Josh McDowell Wikipedia page, his Evidence that Demands a Verdict is his best-known book. I am skeptical.  ↩

  7. For McDowell and other Evangelical apologists, Sanders’s identity is of the utmost importance. They never fail to mention that Sanders is a “Military historian.” A “military historian,” they tell us, he has no vested interest in or desire to defend the Scriptures. A military historian is, they imply, free from the taint of Evangelical, apologist zeal. Sanders does identify himself on the title page of his book as “Associate Professor of Military History” at “The Air University.” But given his graduate training in English literature, it seems as valid to call him an English literary scholar. But I doubt McDowell and the other apologists have bothered to find out anything about Sanders and his scholarly training.  ↩

  8. I am not interested in checking McDowell’s numbers or analyzing them or distinguishing between the authority of different copies of the New Testament. We might wonder, for example, how many of 20,000 are early copies, how many copies are derivative, how many variations there are between them, and how we decide which of those variations are valid. What value, in other words, do each of these manuscripts have?  ↩

  9. The assumptions that undergird this logic and the logic itself are labyrinths of confusion and obfuscation. I’ll just move on.  ↩

  10. I doubt that (m)any of the Evangelical apologists have read Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History, given the cite only page 143 (at least McDowell cited p. 143 ff.) and their insistence on misconstruing his tests.  ↩

Wile Fatigue: A Final Post on Exploring Creation

In a series of posts on Exploring Creation with General Science I have tried to take Dr. Jay Wile’s young-earth creationist arguments seriously. The effort has revealed a funhouse-esque edifice of intellectual trick mirrors and shifting floors. Far from being irrational, however, Wile’s creationist arguments are exhaustingly hyper-rational and, consequently, completely unreasonable.[1] I had hoped to work through Wile’s text, reading each module generously and evaluating his claims against his own stated position and broader scientific consensus. Unfortunately, “Wile Fatigue” has exhausted me,[2] so instead I offer this summary post by way of conclusion.

Despite its title, the first 200 pages of Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science has little to do with general science. Instead, they are an extended effort to inculcate a particular kind of skepticism by holding scientific findings and scientists to unreasonably strict standards. For example, aspects of science that are often lauded—e.g., the way that scientists adjust and emend theories to take into account new evidence—are presented as evidence that science and scientists can’t be trusted because they have got it wrong in the past and so must have it wrong today and probably will get it wrong in the future.[3] Wile’s obvious but unstated goal is to undermine scientific consensus.[4] At the same time, Wile strives to present himself as a trustworthy authority by admitting his own bias. He claims repeatedly that “all scientists are biased,” admits he is biased, but then asserts that “in his scientific opinion” some theory or other, e.g., catastrophism or ID, more accurately and completely explains problematic evidence. Watching him summarize a prevalent theory (which he often does reasonably accurately and succinctly), concoct problematic evidence (usually taken from a standard set of imagined problematic evidence), and fabricate “better” explanations (which are always more complicated and ad hoc) would be amusing if this weren’t a textbook for home-schooling parents.

The remainder of the book introduces “life science” as a vehicle for an assortment of simplified ID, creationist, and young-earth creationist claims. For example, in module 9, “What is Life?” Wile characterizes DNA as a set of instructions for building living organisms and compares it to instructions for constructing a bicycle. The instructions for building a bike could not have occurred by chance, he says. Those instructions had to have a maker. Obviously since DNA is so much more complicated than the instructions for building a bike, Wile concludes, DNA could not have occurred by chance but had to have a creator, one that is infinitely smarter than any human. Such sophomoric arguments do not deserve more of my time.


  1. There’s nothing necessarily irrational about creationism. See, for example, John S. Wilkins’s “Are Creationists Rational” post (and article if you have access). Rational and reasonable are not, however, synonymous.  ↩

  2. The gap between those posts and this one was caused by acute WF. Trying to take Wile’s arguments seriously is exhausting because, A) it requires wading through endless quagmires of self-citing and self-plagiarizing material (more on the self-plagiarizing claim in a future post) that carefully but often idiosyncratically defines terms and refers to obscure and surprising data but rarely provides a full and useful citation; B) it takes so much energy to disentangle and unravel the convoluted logic, which can make sense at the level of a particular clause but becomes absurd when evaluated on a larger scale; C) it takes forever to cite the volumes of scholarship and literature that undermine each of his claims.  ↩

  3. The first module is a history of scientists having gotten it wrong.  ↩

  4. Much of Wile’s approach calls to mind Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.  ↩

Geology, Fossils, and the Flood

In “The Fossil Record,” module seven of Jay Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science, we learn that most fossils were hard-shelled animals and were incredibly similar to living animals, that “environmentalists” lie about current rates of extinction, and that catastrophism makes more sense than uniformitarianism. Or, in other words, the earth was covered by a massive flood, evolution does not occur, and “environmentalists” are hysterical, lying, alarmists.

After a brief survey of how fossils form, Wile highlights particular features of the fossil record and draws conclusions from them. First, the fossil record supports the idea of a universal flood since the vast majority of fossils are hard-shelled marine animals. Second, the fossil record shows that evolution does not occur. Wile explains that “many, many fossils” have living counterparts. The living animal and the fossil are incredibly similar. “Based on the fossil evidence,” Wile tells us, “we can conclude that organisms … experience little change,“ certainly not enough change to become a different species. Third, scientists are not to be trusted. They have wrongly concluded that some species were extinct simply because they have not found a living specimen. But we can’t know for sure that living individual isn’t hiding in some rainforest or dark, unexplored corner of the world.[1]

Then, as a purely political aside, Wile discusses rates of extinction. Citing numbers that seem to have come from a World Conservation Monitoring Center report ca. 1992, Wile claims that since 1600 only 484 animals and 654 plants have become extinct.[2] Perhaps he misread the report (or perhaps his source misread the report), leading him to assert that some of these extinctions “were the result of the natural ebb and flow of creation“ and only some due to human activity. The report[3] seems, rather, to blame human action for causing these extinctions above and beyond the background extinction rates. Wile also ignores the tentative nature of these numbers, which by the early 1990s scientists were using them as a sort of minimum approximation. Instead, he boldly claims that in the last 400 years just over 1,100 species have gone extinct and accuses “environmentalists” of “outright lies” when they suggest larger numbers. His use of the slur, “environmentalist,” serves to deny climate change and indirect human responsibility for the extinction of species.[4]

As a sort of preview for the next module, Wile concludes “The Fossil Record” by contrasting once again uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Uniformitarianism with its modest assumptions—geological processes remain largely the same throughout history and the earth is really, really old—and tidy explanations of geological features is somehow deficient. Wile prefers a Rube Goldberg-esque catastrophism.[5] He denies the consistency and regularity of natural processes.[6] Instead, he adopts a framework divided by the Biblical Flood—he devotes an entire page making the case for the universal deluge, sprinkled with a few choice quotations from Genesis 7. The antediluvian period is entombed below John Wesley Powell’s Great Unconformity.[7] Here Wile sketches the basic contours of a flood geology. Slippery uses of terms like evidence, speculate, article of faith, relevant data, and scientific allow him to conclude: “In the end, then, both uniformitarians and catastrophists must speculate. … Neither framework is any more “scientific” than the other.” Despite Wile’s claim, his possibly coherent and certainly labyrinthine exposition of catastrophism doesn’t make catastrophism scientific.


  1. Wile grants that mammoths are extinct, but that’s about it. I suppose even he had difficulty accepting that somewhere in the wilds of Siberia mammoth herds roam the permafrost just waiting for scientists to discover them. But mammoths are the exception that prove his rule.  ↩

  2. One wonders, or at least I wonder, if Wile thinks that somewhere individuals from this group of 484 animals might be hiding under leaves or lurking in the shadows, evading the searching eyes of scientists.  ↩

  3. Or rather, a preponderance of other quotations purporting to be from a report by the WCMC indicate that the original report highlighted the human causes of these extinctions.  ↩

  4. Wile does say humans caused the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Robust White-eye, but these are unusual.  ↩

  5. The term “byzantine” might apply as well, if not for the farcical aspects of Wile‘s exposition. His ornate description of catastrophism seems better suited for a Monty Python sketch than a science textbook.  ↩

  6. If you are worried that Wile seems to departed from anything resembling “science,” I share that concern. How can a science of geology be constructed on a model that assumes most geological features were produced by singular, miraculous events. How can we know when a geological feature is the result of such miraculous interventions or merely the mundane result of natural processes? What criteria are there to keep “explanations” from becoming simply a matter of making up stories about interesting geological features? Wile’s touchstone is the creation story in Genesis. As a thought experiment, it might be interesting to think how Dr. Jay Wile, PhD in chemistry, would apply a similar approach to “nuclear chemistry,” his area of expertise. Suppose radioactive decay was inconsistent or catalysts randomly lowered activation energy (almost unbelievably, he does seem skeptical about rates of radioactive decay, calling them “wild extrapolation” (you will have to take my word on this since I cannot bring myself to link to his blog post)).  ↩

  7. Of the antediluvian period, Wile thinks only the first three days of the Creation week were geologically important. Despite the 1650 years between Creation and the Flood, “there probably wasn’t a lot of geologically important activity between the end of Creation week and the worldwide flood.” Wile’s position is, at the very least, internally consistent. The Biblical narrative doesn’t include any significant catastrophes between Creation and the Flood. So, accordingly, Wile doesn’t find evidence of any in the geological record. Sure, a few small, local catastrophes “contributed only a little to the geological features below the Great Unconformity,” but on the whole nothing worth noting.  ↩

An Apologist’s Version of the Foundations of Geology

The next module in Dr. Jay Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science confronts geology. Wile is a young earth creationist who has already accused scientists of loving “radiometric dating because they want to believe the earth is billions of years old.” Unsurprisingly he dismisses uniformitarian geology with its incessant and inexorable changes in favor of catastrophism, a sort of Flood geology:[1]

In my scientific opinion, the most important data support catastrophism, and the data in support of uniformitarianism are rather limited and can mostly be “explained away.”[2]

As appealing as this might be for Wile, even William Buckland might have been hard pressed to accept Wile’s catastrophism. Buckland at least tried to formulate an old earth creationist model that did not unduly privilege the Flood. For Buckland, the deluge could not have deposited all the strata in a single year. Wile doesn’t seem to see that as a problem (more on this in the next two posts).

This module focuses mostly on vocabulary, basic geology terms: types of rock, weathering and erosion, and the Grand Canyon’s Great Unconformity. The real payoff, for Wile, comes in the next two modules. There he presents his case for catastrophism.

This module along with the preceding one and especially the following two seem tangential to his main subject, which subject is basic biology. These four modules serve only to provide him with the space to undermine evidence for an ancient earth and to assert his young earth creationist ideas. Like the first couple modules, which served only to let him undermine well-established scientific findings.


  1. Melvyn Bragg and guests explored the history of catastrophism in a recent In Our Time – Catastrophism. It is worth a listen.
    Note, Wile’s catastrophism has nothing to do with comets or asteroids that might have caused the extinction of dinosaurs. As becomes clear in the next module, his singular catastrophe is the Flood.  ↩

  2. Although Dr. Jay L. Wile, PhD in chemistry, gets points for honesty, we might worry about his rhetorical stance here and its implicit argument from authority. Expertise is not fungible. A degree in chemistry doesn’t, by itself, give Dr. Wile expertise in geology. Nevertheless, in comments like this he asserts his superiority over his middle-school-aged student and their homeschooling parents (assuming the parents read their homeschooling texts carefully).  ↩

Wile on Archeology, Geology, and Paleontology

The first substantive modules in Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science promises to introduce historical sciences, archeology, geology, and paleontology as a way of introducing “life science.”[1] Wile doesn’t deliver on that promise. Instead, he offers an idiosyncratic method for evaluating historical evidence, which he then applies to the Bible, a critique of methods of dating artifacts, and finally a wildly tendentious claim that the Bible is the best source for studying the history of human life.

Once again, Wile begins reasonably enough, pointing out that we can use archeology to supplement the historical record.[2] But then he goes a step further, characterizing archeology as scarcely more than a handmaiden to history:

archeology’s main strength lies in uncovering and clarifying the history of civilizations for which we do have historical records.

In Wile’s model, archeology confirms or contradict historical evidence, i.e., documents. But it is only one of the ways documents are evaluated. Wile here introduces three tests that “historical science” applies to any document: the internal test, the external test (the domain of archeology), and the bibliographic test. The internal test looks for internal contradictions. The external test evaluates a document against other historical facts, drawn from other historical documents and archeology. The bibliographic test tries to determine if the document is a faithful copy of an eye-witness account or of a reliable report of an eye-witness account. To illustrate these three tests, Wile applies them to the Bible and finds. He explains away contradictions to ensure that the Bible passes the internal test. He cherrypicks archeological evidence that confirms Biblical passages. Finally, he claims that the text of today’s Bible differs little (and only trivially) from the ancient Old and New Testaments and is, therefore, “faithful to the original eyewitness accounts.” All this leads him “to the scientific conclusion that the stories and account in the Bible are more trustworthy than any of the other accounts we have about the Roman Empire and other facets of ancient life!” We might wonder about Wile’s definition of “scientific” here—his three tests from the “historical sciences” come from an old introduction to English literary history and folklore.[3]

Along with illuminating historical documents, archeology helps us learn about humans’ prehistory. But here, Wile cautions, we have to be careful because we have no good way of learning the age of an artifact. Spoiler alert: Wile is a young-earth creationist. The two methods archeologist use to date artifacts—dendrochronology and radiometric dating—are fraught with problems of accuracy and precision. Dendrochronology can be accurate only back to ca. 6600 B.C. Carbon–14 techniques are less reliable, and all but unreliable if the artifact is older than 3,000 years. Yet, Wile concludes:

many scientists love to use radiometric dating because they want to believe that the earth is billions of years old and that man has been living on earth for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.

It’s fascinating to see Wile whose faith drives his analysis charge scientists of being dogmatic. At a minimum, Wile opens himself to the charge of being blind to his own prejudices. More severely, he reveals his own hypocrisy.[4]

Wile’s three tests, his “scientific” analysis of the Bible, and his rejection of radiometric dating all serve his broader point: the Bible is the best source for understanding all human history on the planet.

Module #5 is a fascinating example of selective logic, vague definitions, non-sequiturs, and unintentionally funny assertions—such as when Wile writes: “If you start deciding to reject parts of biblical history, you have really departed from the science of history and are more or less making up the rules as you go.” The module’s implicit goal reinforces that of the first two modules: distort uncertainties to undermine scientific techniques in an effort foster doubt in and suspicion of scientific results.[5]


  1. “Life science” is Wile’s term for basic human anatomy and physiology.  ↩

  2. Geology and paleontology receive a passing mention and potted definition at this point. The next two modules focus in turn on these two sciences.  ↩

  3. I had never heard of these tests before reading Wile’s book, or at least I had never heard of them labeled “internal,” “external,” and “bibliographic.” Wile does not cite any source for these tests. Some digging around reveals that sometime in the 1970s, an popular apologist extracted them from some obscure book published in 1952 by a scholar who worked for the U.S. Air Force. They have become a set piece in reformed Christian apologetics over the last 50 or so years.
    Wile is like so many other apologists who have used “science” to demonstrate the truth of the Biblical account. Its success depends on a bloated definition of science as well as a selective application of that “science” to the Bible.  ↩

  4. In his history of science survey he accused them of being swayed by arguments from authority. Here again, he perverts a perfectly reasonable warning into something absurd.  ↩

  5. For example, radiometric dating. Yes, radiometric dating is uncertain, sometimes millions of years off. But when it dates objects to billions of years old, the uncertainties are insignificant. Similarly, radiocarbon dating has a degree of uncertainty, but that uncertainty is small compared to the age of the object.  ↩