Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Third Way: Is Genesis 1 Like a Story for Kids?

Is Genesis 1 historically accurate, or is it more like a story for kids?

How should one reconcile Genesis with evolutionary science? One way is to accept the plain reading of Genesis, and to modify one's science accordingly. A second way is to accept evolutionary science, and to re-interpret Genesis. Some claim to accept both as true, as we saw in a previous post,  but this entails an untenable state of cognitive dissonance.

Is there a viable "third way" between the plain reading of Genesis and evolutionary science?

1. Rev. Vonk's Third Way
One example of a "third way" is presented in the recently translated (2013) commentary on Genesis by Rev. Cornelis Vonk (1904-1993), a pastor of the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken.

Rev. Vonk views the creation days as normal days (p.98). Nevertheless, he sees no conflict with mainstream science, giving the following analogy (pp.100-101):
....we might well ask whether there really was a genuine conflict between Scripture and science, and whether the search for solutions to such questions has perhaps been superfluous. Was the creation story being properly understood? Or might we at this point properly apply an analogy that we once heard someone use in connection with a discussion of these matters?
Imagine a great industrialist, someone like Henry Ford, sitting in his old age among a group of his grandchildren, who are ten or twelve years old. They ask their grandfather how he managed to build up such an enormous industrial empire... 
He begins to tell them stories, speaking to them not as his equals but as children. Limiting himself to their capacity to understand, he tells them a few things about his company with which they are also familiar, giving them some understanding of the company as an international automobile maker.
But imagine now that two of these grandchildren later attend university and study economics and related sciences. Armed with this scientific background they plunge into their grandfather’s enormous business archives. One of them might well come across material that gives him a different impression of the company’s history than the stories his grandfather told him when they were ten or twelve, and he might then come to doubt his grandfather’s word. The other might look for all sorts of explanations to make the whole picture fit together so that he can still protect his grandfather’s honor. But is all this argument really necessary? Did the grandfather tell these stories on a child’s level with an eye to later having these stories subjected to the critique of economists?
It has pleased God our Father to tell us something about the origin of the great things that we see with our eyes, things that lead us to glorify his name.
The point of the analogy is clear. Genesis 1 is addressed to simple Israelites (i.e., the naive 10-12 year-olds) to convey, in terms they could comprehend, that God created everything. For an accurate report of what really happened we should defer to mainstream science (i.e., the mature, university-trained adults). Both accounts are then "true", but only in terms of their intended purpose and audience.

2. Reformed Academic's Third Way
It is noteworthy that Drs A. Sikkema and J. van der Meer, two members of the pro-evolution Reformed Academic blog, have both commented favorably on Vonk's approach. Indeed, Dr van der Meer goes so far to judge Vonk's analogy to be "by far the best explanation" of the "third way". It is certainly in line with Dr  van der Meer's earlier claim that the Bible "is NOT intended to provide information about nature and history that satisfies the requirements of contemporary scholarly study of nature and history." Evidently, the "third way" can easily be applied beyond merely Genesis 1.

Dr van der Meer's endorsement of Vonk's analogy was in response to a positive comment on the Reformed Academic blog by Dr Nelson Kloosterman, where Dr Kloosterman commended Reformed Academic for a post promoting "a 'third way' between fundamentalism and evolutionism." (Dr Kloosterman was formerly a professor at the Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and is now a member of the Presbyterian Church in America).

Interestingly, Dr Kloosterman was one of the translators of Rev. Vonk's book. Supporting it on his own blog, Dr Kloosterman deems it to be a "wonderful volume", with a "very helpful" discussion about the relationship between Genesis and science. 

Given such sentiments, it is perhaps not surprising that Dr Kloosterman has been very defensive of Drs Sikkema and van der Meer, and highly critical of a recent Canadian Reformed overture to modify the Belgic Confession so as to rule out human evolution (the overture cites Drs Sikkema and van der Meer as promoting evolution within the Canadian Reformed Church).

3. TUK's Third Way
There was much talk of a "third way" also at last year's Hermeneutics Conference, in Hamilton, by speakers from the Theological University of Kampen (TUK) of the Gereformeerde Kerken Vrijgemaakt (GKV), the Dutch sister-church of the Canadian Reformed Church.

The TUK hermeneutic was said to be a "third way", between the traditional approach ("foundationalism") and rejecting the Bible altogether ("relativism"). Rev. C. Bouwman, who attended the conference, remarked:
This speech about the ‘third way’ helped clarify for me why the Kampen professors could say what they did about Genesis 1 and 1 Timothy 2.  They were seeking to listen to Scripture as well as to what our culture and science, etc, were saying, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sought to come to the will of the Lord for today’s questions.  To insist that Genesis 1 is God’s description about how we got here (creation by divine fiat) leads to conclusions that fly in the face of today’s science and/or evolutionary thinking – and so we must be asking the wrong questions about Genesis 1; it’s not about how we got here…. 
This sounds very much like Rev. Vonk. However, TUK professors have now extended the third way to encompass also various events recorded in the Bible books of Exodus and Joshua. That, of course, is the problem: once we reduce some parts of the Bible to stories for the unenlightened, where do we stop?

Instead of adapting science in light of the traditional reading of Genesis (the first way), or re-interpreting Genesis in light of mainstream science (the second way), the "third way" seeks to avoid conflict by denying that Genesis is intended to provide any information relevant to science or history. Such an unwarranted reduction in the scope of Biblical authority is really just another variation of the anti-biblical second way. The third way, in accommodating modern science and culture, is a gross distortion of common grace that ignores the great anti-thesis between the Bible and worldly knowledge, falsely so-called (1 Tim.6:20).

The genuine Reformed way, following the Reformed confessions, is to accept everything revealed in the Bible as undoubtedly true, as historical events that really happened as described. This means defending the first way, even though that might be derided by some as "fundamentalism" or "foundationalism".

Objecting to the "third way" hermeneutic by various TUK professors, the Canadian Reformed Synod 2013 admonished the GKV "to be resolute in refuting opinion and scholarship which does not honour the infallibility, clarity, and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures (Article 7, Belgic Confession)." (Acts 2013, p.214)

This is sound advice. However, the Canadian Reformed Church would do well to put its own house in order, by refuting similar trends within our midst. The proposed addition to the Belgic Confession is one possible step in that direction.


JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:
I thank you for pointing out that evolution (called a "paradigm" by Dr. Jelsma, btw) cannot be called knowledge: even by atheists' standards, I would add. Everyone still has to work in the intellectual atmosphere of whether a scientific assertion is objective or not. Without objectivity the very definition of true science disappears: to deny the possibility of objectivity is a denial of the ability of ascertaining factuality. When we speak of general revelation the intent is that it refers to the unchangeably true facts of nature, which the evolution paradigm does not claim to be. Thus it is a misrepresentation to equate the evolution paradigm to knowledge: it plainly is not knowledge. If it is represented as knowledge it is done so falsely: it is supposition, not knowledge.

My second observation is this: the authors at Reformed Academic have no difficulty in bringing down our confessional standard to the level of being falsely called knowledge: they regard confessional "knowledge" as being on the same level as evolution being called "knowledge". That is, RA implies that evolution can be called science, and our confessions can be deemed as only our "interpretation" of the Bible, not the truth of the Bible itself, not the true interpretation of the Bible. To infer that our confessions summarize the actual teaching of God's Word, which includes what the Heidelberg Catechism says about original sin and Adam, is to falsely call it knowledge: it is supposition, not knowledge, according to Reformed Academic's authors.

I suggest that this is why they have no difficulty placing these two on the same level of authority: neither of them represents true knowledge, and both represent man's changeable interpretation. And that is why they refuse to be pinned down to any "belief".

To my way of thinking, only true knowledge can claim to be scientific, and only true knowledge can claim confessional standing. My study in science began with insistence upon objectivity, nothing less. And the Reformers, during and immediately following the Reformation, understood "interpretation" in this way: there is only one interpretation, and the question is whether the church interpreted God's Word or not. Only that which is true interpretation could be assumed into the confessions of the church; anything less was illegitimate. Our confessions remain correctable on that basis: whatever appears smudged with man's influence upon it must be removed, changed, or amended, so that the members of the church may confidently affirm that what is taught in the confessions are a summary of "the true and complete doctrine of salvation" as taught in God's Word: nothing less than that.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Dr. Byl for standing firm on the truthfulness of the Bible. Thank you for your commitment to taking the Bible at face value and for believing what the Bible says in Genesis. You are an encouragement to me.