Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is the Traditional View of Genesis Reformed?

In his article "Is Creation Science Reformed?" Dr Jelsma opposes the notion that Genesis teaches creation in six historical days, a Fall that had any significant effects on animals, and an anthropologically universal flood. He asserts that such a reading of Scripture is contrary to Reformed principles of interpretation; it was not inherited from our spiritual forefathers in the Netherlands. On the contrary, he contends, such views are to be attributed to Creation Science, which allegedly has its roots in Seventh Day Adventism.

Is this true? Let's examine the evidence Dr Jelsma presents for his case.

The Reformed View of the Inspiration of Scripture

Dr Jelsma argues that the Reformed view of inspiration is not mechanical (where the Holy Spirit dictates Scripture word for word) but organic. Here Dr Jelsma refers to P.Y. DeJong's book Witness to the World. According to Dr Jelsma, "in this view the Holy Spirit guides the authors of Scripture, so that what is written is infallible in what it intends to communicate, yet retains the author's personality, context and even limited knowledge". This suggests that the infallible message the Holy Spirit intends to communicate may be marred with errors due to the human author's limited knowledge.

This, however, is certainly NOT the view of organic inspiration that DeJong defends. DeJong states that, while the authors may have different styles, education and vocabularies, "the human authors were completely controlled and guided by the Holy Spirit even in their choice of words" (p.102). DeJong affirms that the Bible teaches verbal inspiration, where every single word of the Bible is divinely inspired. DeJong writes, "The Bible, as a holy book written by men for men, abounds in popular forms of speech. Yet these do not detract in the least from the accuracy, the inerrancy of what is therein revealed to us" (p.163).

Furthermore, DeJong notes, "an assured faith acknowledges the historical accuracy of the Scriptures. If the Bible is not a true and trustworthy account of God's deeds, on what substantial grounds can we argue that it is a dependable record of his will for our lives?" The Bible is not be a textbook for ancient history, geography and culture, but orthodox Christianity confesses that "the Bible in speaking on these matters is accurate and authoritative" (p.155-156).

In short, P.Y. DeJong affirms that the Reformed view of Scripture is that it is fully authoritative and that every single word is divinely inspired.


The Reformed Tradition on Genesis
(a) Calvin


What is the Reformed tradition regarding Genesis? Dr Jelsma, contends that God accommodated Genesis to the (erroneous) cosmological understanding of that time. Here he appeals to Calvin's theory of accommodation.

It is noteworthy, however, that Calvin himself appealed to accommodation only at a few minor points in Genesis. Calvin insisted that Genesis should be taken as actual, reliable history. In his Commentary on Genesis, and elsewhere, Calvin affirms that creation occurred in six historical days (Commentary Gen.1:5), about six thousand years ago (Institutes I:XIV:I), that man's fall caused major changes in creation (e.g., natural disasters, thorns, animals that had been vegetarian became carnivorous) (Commentary 1:30; 2:2; 9:2, etc), that Noah's Flood was worldwide and caused major changes in the earth (Commentary 7:17), and so on. (Luther, we might add, had very similar views).

Unhappily, although Dr Jelsma does refer to Calvin's Commentary on Genesis, he mentions none of these points, all of which he wants to dismiss as "non-Reformed".

(b) Bavinck, Kuyper and Schilder

Finally, Dr Jelsma asserts that non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 were held by Bavinck, Kuyper and Schilder. Here he refers to an article by M. Rogland (Westminster Theological Journal 63(2001):211-233).

But this article, on the contrary, concludes that these theologians all held to a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis 1 (p.228). They did not doubt that creation occurred in six days, as defined by periods of light and darkness. Although they held that Days 1-3, before the creation of the Sun, may have been extraordinary days of unspecified duration, they did maintain that days 4-6 were solar days.

Bavinck thought that the length of the solar day may have been longer before the Fall or the Flood (In the Beginning, 125). He believed that the Flood was universal and brought about immense changes in the entire state of the earth (131).

Also Kuyper consistently supported the plain, historical interpretation of Genesis. Thus, in his last work, Van de Voleinding, Kuyper takes a literal view of the creation days, specifically rejecting their interpretation as long geological periods (p.388), he counts 1656 years from Adam to the Flood (p.389), which was world-wide (p.297). Kuyper believed in the direct creation of Adam from dust (p.396), in full-grown form (p.474). On the basis of Gen.1:30 Kuyper, like Calvin, believed that before the Fall all animals were vegetarian (See Dictaten Dogmatiek II, p.91).

To sum up, a closer examination of the evidence reveals that both the Reformed view of Scripture and the Reformed tradition on Genesis flatly contradict Dr Jelsma's rewrite of Genesis.

9 comments:

  1. Hi John,
    At last someone interacts substantively with what I have written! I will need to respond in several parts, as I have time.
    Firstly, I'd like to respond to your comment regarding what I imply by organic inspiration. You say, "This suggests that the infallible message the Holy Spirit intends to communicate may be marred with errors due to the human author's limited knowledge."
    No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that everything that the Holy Spirit inspires in a way that communicates to the readers. If the Israelites believed in a hard firmament, above which are waters and into which the celestial bodies are embedded (as it is clearly stated in Genesis 1), then the Spirit communicates using that understanding. That's not "marred with errors," it's merely "lisping" as Calvin describes it.
    Or do you also believe in a hard firmament as it's described in Genesis and Job?
    Tony Jelsma

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Tony.

    If I understand you right, your position is similar to that of Howard Van Till ("The Fourth Day", pp.14-17), who argues that we must distinguish between the infallible message and the fallible, culturally-conditioned packaging in terms of which it is communicated.

    This introduces problems for verbal inspiration and Biblical inerrancy. One obvious difficulty is how one can in practice distinguish between the infallible content and its fallible packaging. One might argue that it depends on the author's intent. However, unless that intent is clearly stated, this becomes rather speculative.

    For example, Van Till (pp.79-83) argues that Gen.1-11 is "primeval history", to be taken seriously but not literally: it is meant to tell us, not about history, but about God and his relation to us. Yet, it seems rather clear to me that one obvious of intent of Gen.1-11 is to present real history.

    As to the firmament of Gen.1, note that the Sun, moon and stars are all placed in the firmament. Since these move at different rates, of which the Israelites would have been well aware (else there would be no months, seasons or years), they could certainly not have been embedded in a hard shell. Thus I see no reason why the firmament of Gen.1 cannot simply refer to the sky or space.

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  3. Sigh, John,
    I'm trying unsuccessfully not to be annoyed at your distortions at what I say. Don't put Van Till's words in my mouth/keyboard.
    Van Till treats Genesis 1-11 as myth (how did we now come to include chapters 2-10? I was talking only about chapter 1. Another example of your literary sleight of hand). On the contrary I regard every word as divinely inspired and infallible, but in a language that accommodates to the original audience.
    Whether or not there is such a thing as a firmament, God really did make what we see up in the sky.
    If you say that the firmament refers simply to the sky or space, what happened to the waters above the firmament? Besides, according to Genesis 1:6-7, God really made something on the second day. A space isn't "something." Even Calvin recognizes that problem.

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  4. My apologies, Tony. It is certainly not my intent to distort your views. Please elaborate on your position.

    If I understand you correctly, you say that God accommodates Gen.1 to the original audience by using language accommodated to the Israelites. This language includes(erroneous) cosmological concepts with which they were familiar. The main purpose of Gen.1, you say, is given in Deut.4, which concerns God and our relations to him.

    Van Till would agree with this. I realize that you don't want to go as far as Van Till, but how does your rationale differ from Van Till's infallible message versus fallible medium? Doesn't "language accommodated to the audience" boil down to a "fallible medium"?

    However, my prime concern is not how one interprets "firmament" but the further implications that are implied.

    It seems to me that your argument runs as follows:

    1. Gen.1 places the sun, moon and stars in a hard shell
    2. This reflects an ancient cosmology that modern science has falsified
    3. Hence the intent of Gen.1 is not to teach science but to tell us about God
    4. Hence Gen.1 must be viewed as being accommodated to the culture of the initial audience.
    5. Hence, (presumably) Gen. 1 does not teach creation in 6 days.

    Since, your paper covers creation, Fall and the Flood, I presumed we were discussing Gen.1-11. If accommodation applies to Gen.1, why not also to Gen.2-11?

    Calvin says that on the second day God created an empty space about the earth, to separate that which was first mixed together. I have no problem with that. Space is not nothing. As to the waters above the firmament, Calvin thought it referred to clouds; others think it refers to the sea of crystal in heaven. I myself am not sure.

    However, we must not forget that there is more to creation than just physical things; it includes also a spiritual heaven and angels. So I would rather profess limitations to my knowledge of the full grandeur of God's creation than to dismiss portions of Genesis as mere accommodation.

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  5. John, I think we're hung up on the word "fallibility." Scripture is infallible in what it intends to teach. Just as Psalm 58 doesn't teach that snakes can hear (they can't), so Genesis 1 is not teaching cosmology. But that doesn't make it fallible, we're just asking the wrong questions from Scripture.
    I think you agree with me that God's general revelation is infallible and that the human activity of science is fallible. What I think you forget is that although God's special revelation is infallible, the human activity of interpretation of that revelation (theology) is also fallible, just like science. Sometimes science makes us revisit our "traditional" interpretation of Scripture to show us we had it wrong in the first place. Like firmaments, like snakes with ears, like geocentrism, like the days of creation. But that doesn't undermine the infallibility of Scripture.
    I'll comment on Calvin's science on our own blog.

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  6. Actually, your science is out of date: it is now thought that snakes can hear (see http://www.anapsid.org/torrey.html) ;<)

    The Reformed position, as described by P.Y. De Jong, whom you cite, is that the Bible is accurate and authoritative on any matter on which it speaks. How can you be so sure that Scripture does not intend to teach us about history? Gen.1-11 is clearly intended to be historical. That is how the New Testament writers took it.

    As to general revelation, the Bible tells us that what God intends to reveal through nature is knowledge about Himself, not knowledge of origins. So you are asking the wrong questions from general revelation.

    Regarding questions of interpreting Bible and nature, see my post "Is Reformed Academic Reformed?"

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  7. Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure reading your interaction.

    Dr. Jelsma, I was wondering if you could comment on Dr. Byl's observations and conclusions re: Calvin's, Luther's, Kuyper's, and Bavinck's views on creation.
    It seems that he provides evidence that the assertion that 'non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 were held by Bavinck, Kuyper, and Schilder' is quite untrue.

    Thanks,
    Chris deBoer

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  8. Hello gentlemen,

    Although this discussion took place earlier in August, I must add two observations: When God accommodates himself to man than he will try to say something that the hearers will find easier to understand than if he had revealed himself without accommodation. Right? So why would he want to confuse the Israelites then - on purpose - by saying that he created the earth in 6 days when he could have said "long periods of time". It seems to me that Tony's reasoning of how God uses accommodation should point to exactly the opposite conclusion, namely that, because God accommodates himself to make himself more understandable, the language of Genesis 1 is intended to be quite straightforward. And that brings me to my second point.

    2. There are some parts of Genesis 1 that are hard to understand. But sometimes there is a very simple explanation for that. Take the difficulty of the word 'firmament'. John McArthur writes the following in his book "The Battle for the Beginning" on page 89: "The word firmament is the Hebrew word raqiya. It speaks of something that is spread out. It is derived from a verb that means
    'to spread an overlay'. A verb form of the same word is used, for example, in Exodus 39:3 to speak of the hammering of gold into thin sheets. Gold when hammered easily flattens and spreads out into a plate, and that is how gold plates were made to overlay the ark and other fixtures in the temple. So the imagery of Genesis 1:6 is that of a vast expanse, a protective layer that overlays the earth and divides the waters below (the sea of water that covered the earth) from the waters above (which could refer to atmospheric water, clouds, and water vapor; or it might describe some kind of ice-crystal or water-vapor canopy that encircled the antediluvian world). In other words, the expanse in-between - the firmament - includes the earth's breathable atmosphere."

    I am not saying that this is the only possible explanation, but that a difficult part of scripture that God describes could have a simple explanation that makes sense to the Israelites and to us. We shouldn't conclude that, whenever God is explaining something pertaining to Science (like when he explains how he created everything), that we are allowed to dismiss it as outdated, simplistic, or in a mysterious sense on the basis of the fact that it touches the area of science. We may simply accept what he says exactly because he accommodates himself.

    I hope that this clearly explains my view.

    Herman van Barneveld

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  9. Thanks, Herman, for your worthwhile points. The notion of accommodation is a rather slippery issue that certainly needs further scrutiny. Nowadays it is applied much wider than Calvin ever used it, used to justify a major re-write of Genesis 1-11.

    It is noteworthy that Calvin thought that the creation itself was an accommodation by God to teach us about Himself. Regarding the creation days, Calvin argues against Augustine's notion that the creation occurred instantly but was described as happening over six days to accommodate the Israelites. Calvin asserts (Commentary on Genesis 1:5): "For it is too violent a cavil to contend that that Moses distributes the work that God perfected at once into six days for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men."

    Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God sometimes says something which is false, simply to accommodate Himself to human understanding. There is something presumptuous about the theory of accommodation, for it implies that there exists a higher standard of truth (scientific theorizing or philosophical speculation) that enables us to detect which biblical passages are not true. Yet, in actuality, it is modern man who is accommodating the Bible so as to harmonize with worldly thought.

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