Friday, September 18, 2020

Hijacking John Calvin – More Pro Rege Polemics

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.

Brief Recap

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.”

Other conservative Reformed academics, including myself, can testify to this.

Questioning Plain Reading

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 astronomy.

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 are.

Zwart concludes:

“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."

Would 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 earth: 

“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 even further:

“[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 Guichelaar, “Creation, 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.” 

Guichelaar concludes:

"…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, Calvin’s theory of accommodation set a dangerous precedent that is easily abused.

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. 

Doing Science Properly

So, how should Christians do science? 

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.



Jim Pemberton said...

It is a matter of history in the modern church that Christian universities who have pursued acceptance among the secular academy have generally liberalized.

This is related here in an interesting way to the principles behind different Christian apologetical schools of thought, in particular evidentialism and presuupositionalism. The governing impulse behind evidentialism focuses on epistemology as primary to knowing truth and evidence as primary to epistemology. Therefore, scientific and other academic engagement can be seen as authoritative as the Scriptures they bear witness to. This is where the "two book" principle comes into play. They will acknowledge the theoretical pursuits of classical apologetics and ethical aspects of presuppositionalism, but count knowledge of these things through evidence as primary.

Presuppositionalism recognizes a controlled revelational epistemology, both through the Scriptures as well as inherent in human understanding, just as Romans 1-3 acknowledges. What is also taught there is the noetic effects of sin. Therefore, our ethical commitments affect our understanding. That's why I hold that presuppositionalism is focused primarily on ethical concerns. Presuppositionalists will acknowledge the benefits of evidence, noting their use in the Scriptures, and often form arguments after the manner of classical apologists, where the pursuit of biblical metaphysical truths are pursued philosophically.

Indeed, the use of evidence is biblical and beneficial, and scientific discovery is necessary. However, it's not primary. It is contingent on our ethical convictions which inform our scientific presuppositions. You can even demonstrate philosophically that scientific analysis of evidence is epistemologically limited, and even some unbelieving philosophers have done so, but no one will fully accept that limitation without properly coming to terms with their own sin.

john byl said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for your comments. You make some very interesting observations regarding evidential versus pre-suppositional apologetics and how these relate to epistemology and ethics.