A few months ago,
in my post Pro
Rege Polemics, I discussed a dispute about science and the Bible
in Pro Rege, a Dordt University publication. Since then two more
contributions continue the debate.
The exchange was initiated by an
article by Dr Sacha Walicord and Ben Hayes contending that, since science is
worldview dependent, Christian scientists
should work from a Bible-based Christian worldview. They lamented
that many Christian scientists use the same naturalistic, anti-Biblical
presuppositions as secular scientists, with a corresponding rejection of the
plain reading of Scripture.
In response, Dr Arnold Sikkema
denied there is a "plain
reading of Scripture", a notion he deemed to be the main cause of
science and faith controversies.
To this, Dr. Jurgen-Burkhard Klautke noted that the disputed portion is
primarily Gen.1-11, which, Scripture itself always takes it in its plain,
literal sense. This was the dominant view of most Christians, including the
Church Fathers and the Reformers.
Defending Plain Reading
In the June issue of Pro Rege, Dr
Walicord responds to
Dr Sikkema’s letter. He observes that, for meaningful communication, any text
must have a “plain meaning”, even Sikkema’s own letter.
Of course, let me add, everyone
interprets the Bible in terms of exegetical presuppositions. But these should
honor the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. The Reformers stressed that (1) we
should take the most obvious, literal sense unless internal Biblical evidence
indicates otherwise, and (2) Scripture should interpret Scripture. Applying
such principles, we get the “plain reading” of Scripture. At dispute is whether
we should add a further principle: (3) Scripture should not contradict alleged "well-established scientific facts".
Walicord views Sikkema’s letter as
symptomatic of a serious widespread problem within the Reformed community with
its ever-increasing liberal and anti-biblical bias. He cautions:
“I am afraid that we, as historically Reformed institutions of higher learning, are in the process of falling victim to a mindset that has a very low view of the Word of God and a very high view of man...”
“A related and alarming occurrence is that anybody who even begins to challenge this theologically liberal mindset will immediately be attacked, ridiculed, and have his reputation tarnished, if not destroyed. This has repeatedly been my own experience…
“Dr. Sikkema’s ad hominem attack is a microcosm of the atmosphere that I fear proves that academic freedom and respectful discourse have been for a large part deserted in our colleges.”
conservative Reformed academics, including myself, can testify to this.
In the latest (September) issue of
Pro Rege, Dr John Zwart, emeritus professor of physics at Dordt, defends
Sikkema. He wonders how well Walicord & Hayes’ methodology for Reformed
science works out in practice. How should we handle a discrepancy between the
plain words of Scripture and science?
Rather than dealing directly with
creation/evolution issues of Gen.1-11, Zwart appeals to historical precedents
for letting science change our reading of Scripture.
First, there was the Copernican
challenge to geocentricity. Zwart notes that the plain words of Scripture are
geocentric rather than heliocentric. Yet most Christians, even creationists,
now interpret those Scriptural passages non-literally, due to scientific
evidence of the earth’s motion.
Second, Zwart suggests we look to
John Calvin for Reformed guiding principles regarding science and Scripture.
Calvin accepted the science of his day. When that science contradicted with the
plain sense of Scripture Calvin held that Moses accommodated his
teaching to the limited understanding of his readers, used popular phenomenal
language rather than scientific terminology; Moses did not intend to teach
For example, Scripture refers to
the moon as a “great
light” (Gen. 1:15), whereas astronomers know that Saturn is intrinsically
brighter than the moon. Thus, Calvin held that Moses merely used common
language of how things appear to humans on earth, rather than how they really
“The plain words of Scripture are not necessarily the literal words of Scripture. We need to humbly recognize that we interpret Scripture and can use our God-given insights into the structure of the creation, including those from the sciences, to understand parts of it. That does not mean that we simply ignore Scripture’s words when we have a conflict, nor do we only consider the literal words of Scripture, but rather that we need to carefully, prayerfully, and thoughtfully look for what God wants us to understand."
Calvin be a theistic evolutionist?
So what is Zwart’s take-home
message? How should we reconcile Gen.1-11 with current
science? The implication is that, as Calvin interpreted the Bible to harmonize
with the science of his day, we should likewise update the “plain sense” of
Scripture to accommodate evolutionary science.
Notably, Zwart ignores Calvin’s actual interpretation of Genesis: a literal 6-day creation, at about 4000 BC, the direct creation of Adam from literal dust, natural evil as a result of Adam’s Fall, a global Flood, etc. Is all this to be dismissed as mere reflection of Calvin’s naive acceptance of the erroneous historical science of his day? Are we to presume that Moses did not intend to teach history either?
What is left unsaid by Zwart is
explicitly affirmed by the two Calvin scholars he cites. Zwart recommends Davis
A. Young’s John
Calvin and the Natural World. Young waves aside Calvin's belief in a young
“Calvin’s contemporaries believed the traditional views. Should he have been any different? ... In his day, of course, there was no recognition by natural philosophers of the geological evidence that is available to us today that compels acceptance of an extremely ancient Earth.” (p. 159)
Presumably, were Calvin alive today, he would have read Genesis differently. Young appeals to Calvin’s
accommodation theory to justify non-literal views of Genesis:
"… it seems to me that the appropriate time to consider invoking the principle [of accommodation] is where Scripture includes a statement about the natural world that is clearly contrary to firmly established and empirically verified knowledge…. If the Bible really seems to suggest that the Earth is young, then it may be that Scripture has merely accommodated itself to that belief. In my judgment judicious application of Calvin’s principle of accommodation would go a long way toward solving some of the problems concerning the relation of science to the Bible.” (p. 230)
Zwart’s other source, Alister E.
McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin, goes
“[For Calvin, the] emancipation of scientific observation and theory from crudely literalist interpretations of scripture took place… in the insistence upon the accommodated character of biblical language…. The biblical stories of the creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) are accommodated to the abilities and horizons of a relatively simply and unsophisticated people; they are not intended to be taken as literal representations of reality. (pp. 255- 257)
Thus Calvin’s theory of accommodation,
applied by Calvin in a very limited fashion, leads to a wholesale rejection of
the historicity of Gen.1-11. McGrath seems to think that, were Calvin alive
today, he would be an evolutionary theist, like McGrath.
A detailed rebuttal of Young and
McGrath’s gross distortion of Calvin’s high view of Scripture is given by Rev. Erik
Providence and Divine Accommodation: John Calvin and Modern Theories of
Evolution”. Guichelaar disparages Young and McGrath’s attempt to elicit
Calvin’s blessing on their evolutionary rewrite of Genesis:
“Rather than humbly accepting as truth what the Bible clearly sets forth, and submitting to it, these men, and others who follow their teachings, are more concerned with making the Bible amenable to modern, so-called scientific theories, and compliant with the speculations and philosophies of man-centered, God-denying academia. And these men want to associate Calvin, the great Reformer and defender of the truth of God’s holy Word, with themselves. One can be sure, however, that Calvin was not such a man as to entertain such thoughts, nor would he be if he were alive today.”
"…Calvin would certainly have rejected as heretical and repulsive the theories of evolution which we as Reformed believers are faced with today. His doctrine of creation allows nothing but a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. His understanding of divine providence emphasizes that everything that occurs is governed by God’s fatherly hand, so that nothing can happen by chance or accident. And his notion of divine accommodation can be understood only as maintaining and defending the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 as historical fact."
Rev. Angus Stewart, in “Calvin
versus Darwin,” offers a similar assessment.
In his book-long study Divinity Compromised: A
study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin (2006), Jon
Balserak finds that Calvin's accommodation involved no error, and no erosion of biblical authority (pp. 163-168). Calvin never considered the Bible to be
accommodated to erroneous science or historical traditions. Nevertheless,
Interestingly, in the preface to
his Commentary on Genesis, Calvin warns of those who “turn and twist the
Scripture to their purpose, and make of it a nose of wax”, which might be aptly applied to McGrath, Young, and their ilk.
So, how should Christians
Let’s consider Zwart’s examples. Regarding
the Moon as a “great light” (Gen.1:15), this concerns its assigned function “to
give light upon the earth”
(Gen. 1:17). The plain meaning suffices: no need to resort to accommodation or
popular language. Genesis 1 is written from God’s perspective: “God saw…”.
Even so, popular,
phenomenal language is no less true than scientific terminology. Perhaps it is
even more true, since science must conform to observations, which remain valid
while scientific theories change.
Nor is there any need to explain away Biblical geocentricity. Science deals only with relative motion, so that any absolute standard of rest must be based on extra-scientific philosophical or theological factors. See my post A Moving Earth?
Reformed theologians such as Gijsbert Voet (1588-1676) and Francis Turretin (1623-1687) rejected Copernicus because they realized capitulation would render Scripture hostage to science, nulling Scriptural authority. Their forebodings were proven valid, for the church's 17th century surrender to "science" on Copernicanism is persistently used to induce its similar 21st century submission to evolution.
Back to the main issue of
creation/evolution. This is primarily a question of history. In science, observations are basic,
whereas theories, devised to explain the observations, are secondary. Scientists cannot directly observe the distant past. Hence, especially in the historical sciences, reliable eye-witness
accounts always trump scientific theorizing. Since the Bible is God’s inerrant
Word, shouldn’t its historical accounts count as impeccable eye-witness
statements? Surely, then, any viable history
or historical science must submit to the Biblical givens.
What about God’s revelation through
nature? Our knowledge of that is limited to what we can presently observe of
nature. Such knowledge tells us nothing about the distant past, including
Biblical history. Indeed, challenges to Biblical history come from mainstream (i.e., Bible-denying)
scientific theorizing, which is not to be mistaken for divine revelation.
In sum, Walicord, Hayes, and
Klautke rightly assert that historical science should give due weight to what the Bible
plainly says about history, constructing its theories accordingly. That, I
maintain, is the genuine Reformed approach to science, rather than altering the
Biblical witness to fit current mainstream science.