Saturday, December 4, 2010

Australia lectures: The Reformed Church & Origins

It has been some time since I last posted. This is due to a 4-week trip my wife and I took to New Zealand and Australia. In Australia I gave a number of lectures in several Free Reformed Churches. I must say that the highlights of our trip were the interactions we experienced with fellow believers. We greatly enjoyed and appreciated the hospitality received in both countries. The lectures were similar to those given here in the Fraser Valley last April. Below is a summary article, printed in Una Sancta (Vol.58:32-34, October 2010), a magazine of the Free Reformed Churches in Australia.

The Reformed Church and Origins

1. Background
Over the last year the Canadian Reformed churches faced a major challenge regarding origins. It began when a new blog [1] questioned whether the Bible really taught a young earth or a universal flood. It sought to bring the Bible more in line with modern science, including human evolution. Members of this blog claimed their approach was within the Reformed tradition. According to them, a literal interpretation of Genesis is fundamentalist, dangerous, and a hindrance to evangelism. Others in the Canadian Reformed Church objected strongly. A long exchange ensued in various church papers and blogs.

These issues are hardly new. A very similar debate took place in the Christian Reformed Church of North America in the 1980’s. Before that, in the 1960’s, in the Dutch Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) , Free University science professors Jan Lever and J.R. Van de Fliert likewise promoted theistic evolution. Subsequently, in 1968, GKN theologian H.M. Kuitert declared that there was no historical Adam and no historical fall into sin.

Currently our Dutch sister church, the Gereformeerde Kerken Vrijgemaakt (GKV), is also reconsidering Genesis. In 2000 the GKV seminary in Kampen published the book The written Word: theological reflections on biblical authority [2] arguing for a more metaphorical approach to Gen.1-11 and promoting extra-biblical sources. A recent poll (2009) in the Dutch magazine Nederlands Dagblad [3] revealed that only 10% of GKV ministers believe in literal Genesis days.

2. Implications of an old earth
Why make a fuss about Genesis 1? After all, the age of the earth hardly seems to be essential to salvation.

More is at stake, however, than first meets the eye. Accepting mainstream science on the age of the earth means accepting the reliability of its dating methods, with all the underlying assumptions.

Note, first, that this affects not only the timescale of the Genesis creation account but also its order. According to Genesis, fruit trees were created before birds, which were created before land animals. Mainstream science has exactly the reverse sequences. Genesis has the earth created before the Sun and stars; mainstream science has stars and Sun before the earth. And so on. Therefore, most commentators influenced by mainstream science take the creation days not even as long eras, but as a purely poetic literary structure. Thus Genesis 1 is left with no real historical content, other than to tell us that God created the universe.

A second consequence concerns suffering and death. According to mainstream science, these existed long before Adam’s Fall. Hence they must thus be part of God’s “very good” creation. Since many ancient fossils are similar to life today, this implies that the Fall did not have any observable effect on the earth, plants or animals. Proponents of an old earth therefore minimize the effect of Adam's fall. Yet, if the current world has not fallen from a better initial state, why should there be a need for universal restoration (cf Romans 8:19-23; Col. 1:16-20)?

Third, consider human history. The Bible says Adam and Eve were created directly by God (Gen.2) about 4000 BC (Gen.5 & 11). They were the parents of all humans (Gen.3:20). Adam was a gardner, his sons were a shepherd (Abel) and a farmer (Cain) who founded a city (Gen.4). The Flood (Gen.6-9) destroyed all humans except for Noah and his family (cf 2 Pet.2:5). Soon after, language was confused at Babel and people spread out to populate the earth (Gen.11).

Mainstream science, on the other hand, asserts that humans have existed for at least a million years, aborigines have lived in Australia continuously since 40,000 BC, and plants and sheep were first domesticated about 7500 BC. Since Adam’s sons were farmers, most theistic evolutionists place Adam no earlier than 10,000 BC. It follows that the Australian aborigines cannot be descendents of Adam and could not have been destroyed by Noah’s Flood or confused by Babel. Moreover, they suffered and died already before Adam fell, contradicting the Biblical teaching that suffering and death are punishments for sin (Rom.5:12).

Further, if humans existed long before Adam, it seems plausible that Adam (and Eve) had human ancestors.

If Adam is not the ancestor of all humans living today then the doctrine of original sin is undermined, since the confessions say original sin was propagated in a hereditary manner from Adam to all his posterity (Canons of Dordt 3&4:2-3). This, in turn, weakens the notion that Christ’s atonement is a penal substitution where Christ, as a descendent of Adam, pays for the sins of Adam’s race. Indeed, if physical death is not a punishment for Adam’s sin, why did Jesus have to die? Many of those who accept an evolutionary view of man have thus re-interpreted the work of Jesus as merely an example of love. This certainly touches the essentials of our salvation.

Finally, and most importantly, acceptance of an old earth implies that much of Gen.1-11 does not report reliable history. This destroys biblical inerrancy and undermines its authority. If we cannot believe all the Bible says, how can be sure about anything it says?

3. The Reformed Tradition
What is the Reformed tradition regarding Genesis?

John Calvin insisted that Genesis should be taken as actual, reliable history. He affirmed that creation occurred in six historical days [4], about six thousand years ago [5], that man's fall caused major changes in creation (e.g., natural disasters, thorns, animals that had been vegetarian became carnivorous) [6], that Noah's Flood was worldwide and caused major changes in the earth [7], and so on. Martin Luther had very similar views.

More recently, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder all held to a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis 1 [8]. They believed that creation occurred in six historical days, defined as periods of light and darkness. Although Days 1-3, before the creation of the Sun, may perhaps have been extraordinary days of unspecified duration, they insisted that days 4-6 were solar days.

Bavinck believed the Flood was universal and brought about immense changes in the entire state of the earth [9]. Kuyper consistently supported the plain, historical interpretation of Genesis. He took a literal view of the creation days, rejecting their interpretation as long geological periods [10]. Kuyper counted 1656 years from Adam to the Flood, which was world-wide[11]. Kuyper believed in the direct creation of Adam from dust, in full-grown form [12]. On the basis of Gen.1:30 Kuyper, like Calvin, believed that before the Fall all animals were vegetarian [13].

4. Science and the Reformed Confessions
In science we must distinguish between (1) the actual observational data and (2) theories that explain the data. Since we can’t directly observe the distant past, scientific conclusions about origins must rely on various assumptions. These will reflect worldview presuppositions. The prime question is whether our science is based on Scriptural truths or on purely naturalistic assumptions. It is not a question of Scripture versus science but, rather, of a Scriptural versus a naturalistic interpretation of the observed data.

Ultimately, the Reformed Confessions define what it is to be Reformed. Regarding knowledge, the Belgic Confession affirms that the Bible is the Word of God (Art. 3) and, hence, inerrant and fully authoritative (“believing without doubt all things contained in them,” Art. 5). It allows for revelation also through nature but this knowledge (1) concerns God’s attributes and (2) is less clear and full than Biblical revelation (Art. 2). Furthermore, since scientific theories are human constructs, they must bow before Scripture (Art. 7). One mark of a true church is its rejection of all things contrary to the pure Word of God (Art.29).

Moreover, a Reformed reading of the Bible should conform to a high view of Scripture, applying biblically sound principles. The Reformers insisted that (1) we should interpret the Bible in its obvious, natural sense unless internal evidence indicates otherwise and (2) Scripture should interpret Scripture. A Reformed hermeneutic should thus read the Bible on its own terms, letting the exegetical chips fall where they may.

The Bible itself consistently takes Gen. 1-11 in its obvious, natural sense. Reformed hermeneutics thus implies that the traditional, historical reading of Gen. 1-11 is in fact what the Bible teaches. This, as we saw, is the Reformed tradition regarding Gen. 1-11.

The Reformed confessions likewise assume Gen.1-11 is reliable history. The Heidelberg Catechism refers to Adam & Eve as our first parents (Q&A 7). The Belgic Confession asserts that man was made from dust, and made himself liable to physical, as well as spiritual death (Art.14). The Baptismal Form refers to the Flood destroying the world except for Noah’s family.

A Reformed view of science should judge theories in the light of Scripture, rather than vice versa. Regarding origins, this, entails rejecting all scientific theorizing that contradicts the plain, historical reading of Gen. 1-11. We must expose naturalist assumptions and interpret the data in terms of scientific theories that are consistent with Biblical truths.

Worldviews come as package deals. Logical consistency dictates that compromise with naturalism will ultimately end up undermining the gospel. Let us therefore consistently work out the worldview based on the sovereignty of God and the truth of His Word.

2. C. Trimp & A.L.T. deBruijne (eds) 2000. Woord op Schrift, Kampen: Kok.
3. Nederlands Dagblad (May 16, 2009).
4. John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 1:5.
5. John Calvin, Institutes I:XIV:I.
6. John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 1:30; 2:2; 9:2, etc.
7. Ibid, 7:17.
8. see M. Rogland, Westminster Theological Journal 63(2001):211-233.
9. Herman Bavinck 1999. In the Beginning, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, p.131.
10. Abraham Kuyper 1929. Van de Voleinding. Kampen: Kok, p.388.
11. ibid, p.389 and p.297.
12. ibid, p.296 and p.474.
13. Abraham Kuyper 1929. Dictaten Dogmatiek II. Kampen: Kok, p.91.


Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Just for the record, you may want to correct your reference #8 to the article by Max Rogland. The actual title of the article is "Ad Litteram: Some Dutch Reformed Theologians on the Creation Days." Unless I am misreading your post, you seem to give the impression that Rogland argues in this article that "Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder all held to a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis 1."

I wonder if that was a typo? If you read the article, it's very clear that Rogland's article says nothing of the sort. He actually states in his conclusion that if there was a predominant line amongst those Dutch Reformed theologians, it is that they held to the "extraordinary days" view (which is something like C. John Collins' "analogical days" view). But the main thesis of Rogland's article, in any case, is that the length of days was not a test of orthodoxy amongst those Dutch Reformed.

I'm sure that conclusion can be and has been contested, etc. I'm simply alerting you that you may want to choose another reference to establish the point you wanted to make.


john byl said...

Thanks for your comment, but if you read Rogland's article carefully you will see that he shows that Kuyper, Bavinck and Schilder did in fact hold to real creation days occuring in historical time:

p.213: Kuyper believed the days were real days consisting of periods of light and darkness. Days 4-7 were ordinary days. We can’t specify length of days 1-3, before the creation of the Sun, but they were not thousands of years long.

p.214-5. Bavinck takes a similar position, but he thinks that the length of the day may have been shortened due to the fall or flood.

p.223. Schilder, too, takes the position that the days were real days, not ages, and that the length of the first 3 days cannot be specified. Schilder is quoted,"The fact is... that the great pendulum, which in the world's clock measures hours for the earth, is for the first time set in motion for the earth on the fourth day. With this all certainty comes to an end concerning the day- and hour-measurement of the creation 'days.'" Thus he takes days 4-7 as real solar days.

To these theologians the creation days were "extra-ordinary" primarily in the sense that days 1-3 were non-solar days of unspecified length and that days 4-7 were solar days whose length might have been different from their current length.

This is quite different from the "analogical days" of John Collins. Collins accepts the days as real days-- but not days that actually occur in historical time. In that sense "analogical days" differs little from the "framework hypothesis" which views the days as real days used in a purely literary sense.

John van Popta said...


Recently, at the annual meeting of the Evangelic Theological Society, Bruce Waltke suggested in a paper he read that evil must be part of God's created world. He called it "surd". By it he wants to explain predatory and parasitic animals, death and suffering before the fall, and the evil that is part of the evolutionary process that God is using. You can find the main thrust of his paper here (this was posted earlier in the year, and formed, it seems, the backbone of his paper.)

It's a blog posting of a posting to BW's Facebook (with his permission ... see comments on Jones' blog.)

I suppose that the Belgic Confession 12 refutation of the Manichees is as timely today as it ever was!


John VP

john byl said...

Hi John

Thanks for the comment and link. In fairness to Waltke, the "evil" he is referring to is the "natural evil" of suffering and death among animals which he claims existed before the fall.

In fact, anyone holding to an Old Earth position must hold also that such natural evil was not due to the fall or curse, but was part of God's original "very good" creation.

Art.12 of the Belgic Confession opposes the Manichean claim that devils have always existed and were always evil. I believe that Waltke would concur with the BC on this point. He could simply argue that the devils have nothing to do with natural evil or, if they are involved, that they were indeed created good by God but fell before the creation of life on earth.

Anonymous said...

i'd be interested to see where at reformed academic you can justify the claim that "it sought to bring the bible more in line with modern science." as i read it, it appears they are claiming that the young-earth creationists have already adjusted their reading of the bible in a scientific way and that we need to get back to what the bible really says.

john byl said...

Yes, this is indeed one of their (erroneous) claims.

Reformed Academic argues that our Bible reading should take into account various alleged discoveries of science. Thus they vigorously oppose a literal 6-day creation, a global flood, etc. and urge that we allow for more latitude in interpreting Gen.1-11, so as to avoid conflict with science.

You will find ample evidence for this throughout their blog and mine.

Just two examples:

1. From Reformed Academic:
“As I read writings by ministers and theologians who have minimal scientific training, yet confidently assure us that they know the Bible teaches a literal six day creation, I wonder how they can ignore what the creation is telling us through the evidences of the stars, the rocks, radioactivity etc., that the earth is vastly older than ten thousand years old…God clearly reveals himself in the creation (Isaiah 28:23-29, Proverbs 6:6-8, BC Art. 2) so why is this ignored?”

2. From my blog []

“In a recent paper ("God,natural evil and biological evolution"), Dr Jitse vanderMeer…acknowledges that there is a conflict between Gen.1-4 and mainstream, evolutionary science. He argues that the two must agree, because God is the author of both Scripture and nature. To resolve the conflict he simply dismisses the details of Gen.1-4 on the dubious grounds that biblical scholars cannot agree on its interpretation. Moreover, he asserts, the intent of Gen.1-4 is not to satisfy the requirements of modern historical and scientific scholarship. His final conclusion is, “From an exegetical point of view we can, therefore, accept the history of life on earth as reconstructed in biology, paleontology and paleo-anthropology.”

Note the asymmetry here. According to van der Meer, there are various interpretations of the Bible, so almost anything goes, but only one valid interpretation of nature--the Grand Evolutionary Scenario, which van der Meer elevates to divine truth. It seems that Dr van der Meer is not so much interested in submitting to the Bible as in deconstructing its opposition to mainstream science.”

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john byl said...

Hello John

Welcome to my blog and thanks for your comment.

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