Category Archives: Science and faith

Book Review: The Quest for the Historical Adam

The Quest for the Historical Adam

The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, William VanDoodewaard. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Hardcover, 400 pages, $37.85.

Once in a very rare while I come across a book which brings me to think, “If I had the means, I would get a copy of this into every single Canadian Reformed home.” This is one of those books. If I couldn’t get it into every single CanRC home, I would settle for getting it into the hands of every single minister, elder, and deacon. The Quest for the Historical Adam is not only relevant, but crucially important for these days in which a biblical view of origins is under pressure. This volume could do a world of good if it would only receive the careful attention it deserves.

The author, William VanDoodewaard, is a church history professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a minister of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). For those unfamiliar with this church, the ARP is a long-time member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Alongside his seminary teaching, Dr. VanDoodewaard is also an ARP church planter in Grand Rapids. Apart from his doctoral dissertation, this is his first published book.

The title of this volume plays off a much earlier book by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In that book, Schweitzer examined how historical conceptions of Jesus led to a variety of Jesuses. While his book had some value, unfortunately, Schweitzer did not honour the authority of Scripture, so his conclusions were necessarily flawed. However, VanDoodewaard has the highest view of Scripture as he traces out how people have variously conceived of Adam. The author points that contemporary debates over origins are often afflicted with what he calls “historical amnesia.” This volume seeks to recover our collective memory of how ages past have written about, preached about, and thought about our first parents and their origins.

The first chapter provides a general overview of what Scripture says about Adam. From this overview, the author reaches this conclusion, “…there is no inherent ground to posit anything aside from a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans on the sixth day of creation” (18). The following five chapters trace out the post-biblical history of how Christians have looked at the early chapters of Genesis. If anything is clear from these chapters, it is that there has been a consensus view for millennia. The consensus is that the first chapters of Genesis must be taken seriously as a historical record. When it comes to human origins, the vast majority of Christian interpreters have understood Scripture to teach a special or immediate creation of Adam and Eve, a creation which allows for no prior biological ancestry of any sort. The Quest for the Historical Adam concludes with a chapter entitled, “What Difference Does It Make?” In this chapter, the author lays out ten areas of doctrine that are affected by how one views the origin of Adam. He convincingly makes the case that no one can soundly argue that one’s view of origins can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of one’s theology. Even taking an agnostic view or allowing for latitude in the matter will invariably have some impact.

The heart of the book is the historical overview. Let me mention five highlights that are worth sharing. There are many more highlights that I could mention, but I hope these five will whet your appetite and motivate you to buy the book.

Today we sometimes encounter the idea of pre-Adamites – human beings or human-like creatures (hominids) who lived before and beside Adam. One of the first to promote a form of this idea was a Frenchman named Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676). While he worked with the text of Genesis in his book Men Before Adam, he did so in a rather revisionist way. He argued that only the Jews were descended from Adam and Genesis 2 only described where the Jews came from. Everyone else came from other groups of human beings who had existed long before Adam. What motivated La Peyrère to develop this theory? He wanted to make Genesis more reasonable so that unbelievers would be more receptive to the Christian faith (143). Does this sound familiar?

La Peyrère developed a small following in Europe. His ideas were widely discussed, but uniformly rejected by Reformed theologians. His ideas were also rejected by Roman Catholic figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Following what Scripture taught on this matter, Pascal held to a young earth of about 6000 years age and “was also explicitly critical of pre-Adamite thought” (122).

Another valuable contribution of VanDoodewaard is his critique of historian Ronald Numbers. Numbers wrote an influential 1992 book entitled The Creationists in which he argued that a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis only exists in our modern day because of the influence of American creation scientists, and particularly through the writing of a Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price. “However,” writes VanDoodewaard, “more thorough scholarship reveals significant evidence of a strong stream of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that remained firmly in the millennia old tradition of a literal hermeneutic” (157). What Numbers and others have failed to see is that, entirely apart from twentieth-century creation science, theologians and clergymen have for centuries maintained a literal reading of Genesis, reaching their conclusions based on the text alone. Our author gives several good examples with Dutch-American Reformed theologians like Geerhardus Vos, William Heyns, Foppe Ten Hoor, and Louis Berkhof.

An important part of the work of a historian is discerning patterns. The Quest for the Historical Adam reveals an important pattern in thinking about origins. It starts with sources outside of Scripture and Christian theology pressuring an alternative explanation – these sources could be philosophical, scientific, literary, or archaeological. Under that pressure, interpreters begin to make allowances for alternative explanations. Other generations eventually arise which take things a step further and assert these alternative explanations more stridently, also following through on their logical consequences. This pattern is evident throughout the book.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. VanDoodewaard is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. It is not surprising then to find his church and its struggles with this question mentioned. He notes that the ARP adopted a synodical teaching statement in 2012 that affirmed the clear biblical teaching on origins. He contrasts that with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He notes that efforts were made to have the PCA clearly rule out aberrant teachings on origins. A 2012 effort to have the PCA General Assembly make a teaching statement on this matter floundered. Why? There was a convergence of two broad camps. VanDoodewaard writes:

Some argued that the confessional standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms provided sufficient clarity on the topic – positing that if there were concerns, they ought to be pursued through the means of church discipline. Other delegates held that belief in evolutionary biological processes in human origins, as circumscribed by Collins, Keller, or others, was harmonious with Scripture and represented a legitimate latitude of ecclesiastical theology (248).

These two lines of argument paralyzed the PCA and prevented it from taking a stand. The result is that various forms of theistic evolution continue to have a comfortable home in the PCA and very little, if anything, can be done about it. Will we in the Canadian Reformed Churches learn from this history while the opportunity is still there?

Obviously, I have a great deal of appreciation for this book. However, there are a couple of oversights that I noticed. Chapter 3 deals with “Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Eras.” While the author does spend some time with the Westminster Standards (especially the issue of “in the space of six days”), he disregards the Three Forms of Unity or other Reformed confessions. This is important in our day when we hear it asserted by some that theistic evolution falls within the bounds of our confessions. Nevertheless, VanDoodewaard’s research certainly does support the position that in the era in which these confessions were originally written, it would have been unthinkable for forms of theistic evolution to be tolerated in Reformed churches. Chapter 6 deals with the 1950s to the present. The author has some discussion about developments in the Christian Reformed Church, but there could have been more said. For instance, it would be helpful for readers to see how the tolerance of theistic evolution in the CRC grew out of a weakened view of biblical authority starting in the 1950s, especially under the influence of the Free University of Amsterdam.

The Quest for the Historical Adam is a unique contribution to a vitally important topic. It might be a bit technical at times for some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. As intimated in my introduction, this is especially an important book for office bearers. As those who have promised to “oppose, refute, and help prevent” errors conflicting with God’s Word, we need to educate ourselves about those errors and the patterns that lead to them being accepted. This is all the more case when an error is right before us, threatening to undo us. I heartily commend Dr. VanDoodewaard for writing this valuable book and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it. May the day hasten when historians look back and say that the publication of this book was a turning point for the maintenance of orthodoxy on origins!


The Case of Dr. Edwin Walhout

Handbook of CRC Issues

Amongst my books is this volume published by the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen.  It was a gift to me from the late Gilbert Zekveld.  This book is important because it chronicles many of problems that existed in the CRC during a tumultuous decade.  For those who wish to learn from history, this is an invaluable and rare resource.

In 1976, a CRC Synod appointed Dr. Edwin Walhout as the “Editor of Adult Education.”  In this capacity, he would be responsible for the production of adult education resources for the CRC.  His appointment was not without controversy.  Why?  Because Dr. Walhout had an unorthodox and low view of Scripture.  In 1972, he had written an article for the Reformed Journal entitled “Some Theses on Biblical Authority.”  This article raised eyebrows with CRC conservatives.

Amongst other things, Walhout put forward these statements regarding the relationship between science and Scripture:

“The data that science discovers are as truly infallible as the data of the Bible, and if there should appear to be some conflict or discrepancy we ought to be willing to allow each area of God’s revelation to speak authoritatively to us.”

Walhout 1Walhout 2

It was these kinds of statements that led men like Rev. John Kruis to oppose Walhout’s appointment.  Yet the opposition was to no avail.  Already by 1976, things were too far gone in the CRC.  Men would be appointed to positions of influence even when they were blatantly breaking their vows of subscription.

Now maybe you’re wondering:  where have I heard this name of Dr. Edwin Walhout before?  That would have been right here.


Some Good News for a Change

No-Evolution

Things can often be depressing when it comes to developments in church life.  We often see things slip-sliding away.  That’s one reason why I love being to able to share some good news here, some positive developments.  For some years, the Canadian Reformed Churches have been troubled by challenges regarding the biblical and orthodox view of origins.  In response to this, the Providence Canadian Reformed Church of Hamilton developed a proposal aimed for Synod 2016.  You can find the proposal here on the Providence website (below the Welcome message).  Yesterday, a Classis Ontario West adopted this proposal and decided to forward it on to the next Regional Synod East for consideration.  The press release is here.  The proposal is now public and circulating through the churches.  I’m thankful to God for these very positive developments!  May he continue to preserve his church against these attacks on the truth of Scripture and the gospel.  Yet the battle is not over…not by far.  We have some ways to go before these false teachings are officially ruled out of bounds in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  More on this proposal perhaps some other time.


Rick Phillips: Is Evolution Biblically Acceptable?

addition-becomes-subtraction

It’s not often anymore that I post links to other blogs or websites here.  Most of the time I leave that for Facebook.  But today I’m going to make an exception.  In response to reports that BioLogos is going to be undertaking a major campaign, Rick Phillips has written the first in a series of articles on whether the Bible and evolution are compatible.  It’s very much worth a careful read.  Check it out here. 


A Special Sort of Unbelief

Recently many concerns have been expressed about the direction of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Our sister churches were entertaining a proposal regarding women in office and this caused alarm and dismay with many of us.  This proposal was only the most recent in a string of disturbing events, books, statements to media, and articles.  Many fervent prayers have been offered up for our sister churches, praying that God would lead them in the right direction.  My purpose in this article is not to comment on the Dutch situation as such.  Rather, I want us to consider where we’re at.  Sometimes our Dutch brothers and sisters can be heard saying things like, “You just wait 10 or 15 years.  Then you’ll see things our way.  The immigrant churches are always lagging behind, but they will catch up.”  Could there be some truth to this?  For example, could the seeds for something like women in office have already been planted and permitted to grow among us?

Looking Back

Back in the early 1990s, I was a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  The Gateway was the student newspaper and a prominent writer there was an up and coming law student named Ezra Levant.  Perhaps partly through his influence, The Gateway was remarkably open to publishing a variety of perspectives, including openly Christian ones.  Homosexuality was a hot topic for discussion already in those days and I wrote something for The Gateway presenting the biblical perspective.  This was published and I was not dragged before a human rights commission.

However, what I wrote did stir up a response from a group on campus, the Student Christian Movement (SCM).  The students involved with SCM were mostly affiliated with the United Church, though perhaps there were some Anglicans and others as well.  SCM wrote something for The Gateway arguing that the perspective I expressed was not representative of all Christians.  They affirmed that many Christians have no problem with homosexual behaviour and see it as a healthy form of human sexuality.  They offered a pamphlet to interested readers that would explain their position further.  I took them up on this offer.  Let me share some quotes from that pamphlet:

While the Bible obviously is familiar with homosexual relations, it seems to know little about homosexuality as such; this may be one of the reasons why homosexual acts are condemned as wilful transgressions of God’s orders for God’s people.

At best, the story of Sodom is very slim evidence for the notion that homosexuality is considered a ‘sin’ in the Bible.

Today we know a great deal more about the motives behind people’s actions than did the biblical writers.  Economics and psychology have given us insights into behaviour that Paul did not have.

…homosexuality is no ‘sin’ unless it becomes a false god…human sexuality is sinful only if it stands in the way of love and justice.

Essentially, the SCM pamphlet said, “Yes, we know what the Bible says, but we know more than the biblical writers and so we can readily accommodate homosexuality in our ethical beliefs.”

I wrote a response to this pamphlet.  I argued that the Bible itself claims to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God, not merely the religious or ethical views of human biblical writers which you can take or leave. Therefore, the Bible has to be our starting point and we have to take the Bible seriously on its own terms.  Scripture is quite clear about the sinful nature of homosexual practice.  For instance, the SCM pamphlet argued that the great evil in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was the fact that they were so inhospitable.  That position conveniently ignores the clear teaching of Scripture in Jude 7.  That leaves readers with three options:  you can accept that clear teaching, you can pervert it to fit your own agenda, or you can argue that the biblical writers were ignorant.  SCM’s approach was a blend of the latter two options, depending on what was convenient.  In the end, however, one can only say that this was a sort of unbelief when it came to the text of the Bible.

The university environment was often hostile to an acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God.   That hostility was what led me to begin studying apologetics, the defense of the faith.  Through some study of the Christian Reconstruction movement, I had come across the name of Cornelius Van Til as a teacher of Reformed apologetics.  I read his book The Defense of the Faith and it blew me away.  He argued that any defense of Christianity has to start with the Word of God.  The inerrant Word must always be our foundation and starting place.  Early in my academic career, then, I became convinced that our Reformed faith requires us to honour the Word of God by putting it first in every field of study, whether apologetics or anything else.  To do otherwise is to betray our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) – it would be a sort of unbelief.

This bit of biography illustrates where I’m coming from.  I have long been convinced that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God that must be our starting place in any endeavour.  As Proverbs 3:5,6 puts it, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  We acknowledge him by honouring his Word and giving it priority in everything!  As Psalm 36:9 says, “…in your light do we see light.”  It’s in the light of God’s Word that we find our way in any endeavour, including academic pursuits.  That has been my conviction and I have also sought to apply that conviction to issues like homosexuality.

Today

That conviction has been repeatedly challenged and it still is.  The thing that has changed is that the challenges no longer come from outside, but from within.  For example, I recently received an e-mail from a Dutch ministerial colleague.  He chided me for simply wanting to accept the plain teaching of Scripture regarding origins.  He expressed his surprise that a doctor of theology would simply urge people to believe what the Bible plainly teaches.  He argued that I need to take into account the conclusions of science as well.  After all, science has made it clear that the Bible cannot be taken at face value on questions pertaining to origins.  Moreover, many young people will not accept that answer, he told me.  They will turn away from the church if you tell them to just believe what the Bible says about this.  When I introduced him to the idea of simply believing and starting with the Word of God (as taught by Cornelius Van Til), he indicated that he had never heard of that concept before.  Sadly, he was not convinced.

Now we could say, “That’s not surprising, coming from the Netherlands.”  However, this allergy to starting with the Word of God exists among us in Canada as well and this is no secret.  We have those among us who are either open to theistic evolution or actually hold to some form of theistic evolution.  Theistic evolution is the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create human beings and other creatures.  This teaching exists among us.  It can only exist among us for the exact same reasons that the Student Christian Movement could hold that homosexual behaviour is not an abomination before God.  Either the text of Scripture is twisted to support the teaching, or the text of Scripture is dismissed as being ignorant of contemporary scientific knowledge.  Either way, what we have again is a special form of unbelief when it comes to the Word of God.  It’s a refusal to humbly come before the Word with faith and accept it at face value as the faithful and inerrant Word of our Father.  Something else is put before his Word.  This unbelief already exists among us in the Canadian Reformed Churches and it is the seed which, unless rooted up, will grow into other forms of heterodoxy.

Looking Ahead

This is my cri du coeur, my cry from the heart for the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I do not believe that what some of our Dutch brothers and sisters are sayings is necessarily true. I do not believe that it is inevitable that we will be entertaining women in office in the next decade or two.  It does not have to be that way.  But there are two very important things that need to firmly in place for such a development to be stymied.

First, we need to shore up the wide-spread conviction in our churches that the Word of God is to be our starting place in everything.  Members need to hold this conviction and grow in it.  Ministers and elders need to reinforce it among their congregations through teaching and preaching.  We need to maintain a high view of Scripture which includes a child-like faith in its plain and clear meaning, despite whatever unbelieving scholarship may introduce to shake our faith.  We must not be deceived into accepting that we are somehow intellectually lacking because we simply take the Scriptures at face value.

Second, careful vigilance is required with respect to our seminary.  At the moment, we have every reason to be confident in our seminary professors and their teaching.  We can be thankful to God for these faithful men who do have a high view of Scripture and who teach accordingly.  We need to pray that God would continue to keep them faithful.  They are only men and they need strength from above to remain steadfast.  Moreover, these particular men will not be there forever.  The time will come when they need to be replaced and they will need to be replaced with equally faithful men.  When you have a federational seminary, this is of the utmost importance.  Virtually all of our ministers take their theological training in Hamilton.  As a result, if that training is not sound, our churches will not be sound for long either.

Let me conclude with some words of Scripture my father-in-law would often quote.  We would often discuss developments in the Christian Reformed Church, especially relating to women in office and theistic evolution.  He would always say that we need to be humble and be on guard, because Scripture says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:17).  There is no getting around the clear message of that text.


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