Category Archives: Science and faith
There’s lots of buzz today on Facebook and elsewhere over an article published by The Banner. In this article, retired CRC minister Edwin Walhout explains how the established fact of evolution “will bring vigorous theological revision for generations to come.” Because evolution is so obviously true, he writes, many Christians doctrines will need to undergo revision in the coming years, including our doctrine of salvation.
I can’t say that I’m surprised to read this in The Banner. Views along this trajectory have found a home in the Christian Reformed Church for about two decades already. Walhout just sees things through to their logical conclusion. He can be commended for his honesty and his desire to be consistent. Toss out Adam and Eve as the direct handiwork of God (created out of the dust of the earth) and Walhout’s views are where you ought to end up. Not everyone does, mind you, but they should, just for the sake of consistency.
These views are at home in the Christian Reformed Church. My conviction is that they have no place in the Canadian Reformed Churches and I will do everything in my power “to oppose, refute and help prevent such errors” — this I have promised to do. As I have said before, let no one kid you about how the acceptance of theistic evolution leads consistently to an overhaul of Reformed theology and ultimately to a denial of the biblical gospel. Walhout mentions creation, the fall into sin, original sin, salvation, and eschatology. He hints that he could have said more.
Cornelius Van Til, himself a son of the old school Christian Reformed Church, often wrote about epistemological self-consciousness. This was a technical term that Van Til used to describe the person who becomes aware of their theory of knowledges, the limitations it imposes, and its full implications. The epistemologically self-conscious person has a light-bulb moment. One of my favourite examples is from Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin is writing a math test. Faced with an impossible question like 3 x 5, he answers, “I cannot answer this question because of my religious beliefs.” Indeed, on his own principles, the unbeliever should not be able to do math and answer simple questions. Rev. Walhout has reached a moment of epistemological self-consciousness. He recognizes that, with his evolutionary presuppositions, Reformed theology cannot remain tied to its Reformation confessional roots. A revolution is necessary. Walhout gets it. I’m sure the CRC will continue to be happy to have him as an emeritus minister in good standing.
I was recently asked to watch and provide some feedback on Dr. John Walton’s lecture, “Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes.” Walton was recently in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia giving this same lecture and I understand that several Canadian Reformed people were in attendance. There is some interest in Walton’s approach to Genesis 1. Some find his arguments compelling. That being the case, and since the question of origins is being debated in our churches, I thought it worthwhile to watch the lecture and share some thoughts. I’m not going to interact with everything he said, but simply touch on some key points of concern.
First of all, who is Dr. John Walton? He is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He is taught at Wheaton since 2001. He’s written many books and articles including The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Furthermore, he is on the Board of Advisors for BioLogos. In case you’re unfamiliar with this organization, you can read their beliefs here. BioLogos actively holds to and promotes theistic evolution: “We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years…We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent.”
This lecture deals with Genesis 1. At the very beginning, Walton said that he is not a scientist and would not be pushing any science. His goal is simply to read the Bible well. This is a commendable goal. We all want to read the Bible well. The question: does Walton succeed in reading Genesis 1 well? As I mentioned, what I’m offering here is not a point-by-point review of the lecture. I will not rehearse everything here. What I just want to do is isolate three major problems.
The first problem is a subtle one. That has to do with the starting point. Let me first state what our starting point ought to be when we deal with questions of how to read the Bible. Simply put: we have to start with the Bible. We go to the Bible to learn how to read the Bible well. There are some points related to this. Because Scripture has God as its author, the Bible possesses an intrinsic unity. Because the Bible has this unity, we can and must use the entire Bible to understand the Bible. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we should draw our principles of interpretation from the Bible itself. Now when we do that, we are reminded that God is the primary author (2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:21), but God did bring his word through human beings. Yet we must insist that the divine stands over the human when it comes to the Bible. To keep this from being overly long, I won’t expand on a biblical method of biblical interpretation any more than this. Those want to pursue that further should begin with this summary of Dr. Seakle Greijdanus’ Scripture Principles for Scripture Interpretation. For a book-length approach in English, I would recommend Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the approach of Walton. His first slide in the lecture and the associated comments lead me to that conclusion. One of the bullet points on the slide is “Authority is vested in the author.” When I first saw that, I thought that this was an orthodox statement. If God is the author of Scripture, then certainly authority is vested in the author. But Walton said, “The authority of Scripture is vested in the human authors.” Where does the Bible teach this about itself? This is not a good place to start. Throughout the rest of the lecture that follows, Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 is to essentially treat it as any other Ancient Near Eastern text. He treats it as a human text that carries a divine message, rather than looking at as a text first of all inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired all of Scripture. As a consequence, Walton gives no attention to the New Testament and its approach to Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is mentioned by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:4 and also by Paul in 1 Timothy 2. How is Genesis 1 regarded in those passages? Should we not allow Scripture to interpret Scripture? Instead, it seems to me that Walton takes a humanistic approach to the Bible. Such an approach is dangerous and will inevitably lead to wrong conclusions.
My second point builds on the first. Reformed theology teaches that Scripture possesses several properties. One of these is its clarity. Some have spoken of the perspicuity of Scripture. Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130). The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies or the Hebrew language. In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not. Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.
Walton’s approach compromises the clarity of Scripture. With this proposal, Christians today need a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1. In fact, with Walton’s approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark. There is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light. Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16. However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage. Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it. It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.
My third point interacts more directly with Walton’s proposed reading of Genesis 1. Walton thinks that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology. He argues that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, things comes into existence by reason of their function. Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use.
I respond by first of all noting the false dilemma Walton seems to present between material and functional. Though I picked this up on my own, with some research I noticed that I’m not the first one to identify this as a problem. Why can’t there be both in Genesis 1? In fact, I think if we have to take the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might be our conclusion. I don’t see how recognizing the functionality of what’s described in Genesis 1 rules out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days. Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession. God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”
Related to the foregoing false dilemma, Walton overstates his case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’. He argues that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature. He says, “Nothing material is going on with bara’.” However, even on the slide discussing this verb, there were things material in nature. For instance, people male and female. People have a material nature and they were created out of material: dust. But readers do not have to take it on my authority. This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:
Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13). More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18; 51:10; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.). (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).
In fact, NIDOTTE states that Walton’s view is “somewhat misleading.”
There is much more that I could say. However, I think anything else I would say has probably been said by others and better. Let me conclude by saying that Walton’s view falls along the same lines as the Framework Hypothesis approach to Genesis 1 and 2. I recently reviewed ERQ pastor Paulin Bédard’s book In Six Days God Created (you can find my review here and order the book here). He tackles a lot of these other issues that I haven’t touched on, though he doesn’t directly discuss Walton. I highly recommend this book. Unlike John Walton, Paul Bédard takes the Bible seriously on its own terms — that’s how we read the Bible well.
It’s happened many times in church history. The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection. But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history. Another theologian insists that he believes in election. But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.
I’ve been reading Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism this week. He discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening. Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place. But Finney believed nothing of the sort. His language was deceptive. He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.
This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too. People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God. It sounds orthodox on the surface. But we need to dig deeper: what do you mean by human being? Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast? Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life? Did she have grandparents? What do you mean “created in the image of God”? What does “created” mean in that sentence? You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth. Great! But what do you mean when you say that? Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem. In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions. It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words. Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.
Dr. Willis De Boer was a professor of religion and theology at Calvin College from 1962-1988. He was also a minister in the Christian Reformed Church; retired now since 1988. Nearly a decade into his time at Calvin, questions began to arise in the CRC over De Boer’s views on Genesis 1-11. These questions came particularly from the Central Avenue CRC in Holland, Michigan. Rev. Thomas Vanden Heuvel and the rest of the Central Avenue consistory were concerned that Dr. De Boer was fudging on the historicity of the first chapters of the Bible.
In 1970, the Central Avenue consistory began correspondence with Dr. De Boer about their concerns. On July 30, 1970 they sent a letter to De Boer with a series of questions. They submitted them to the professor with the hope that he would answer them in writing and then visit with the consistory to discuss the answers given.
Dr. De Boer sent a response on September 18, 1970 and then a meeting was held on September 21. Some of the questions and answers are worth sharing. In the answers, one must pay special attention not only to what is said, but also to what is left unsaid or unanswered.
Central Avenue CRC: 2. Was the first man created as a unique man from the dust of the earth and not from a primordial being?
Dr. De Boer: Scripture uses the phrase ‘dust of the earth.’ The question is what does it mean to say by this phrase. Is it scientifically and literally describing the material God used in His forming of man and the condition of that material before God went to work on it? Isn’t the truth here being conveyed not some clue as to the form of the stuff from which man was made, but rather the fact that man shares with the rest of creation the same basic stuff? Notice that even as a living man he is still dust (Genesis 3:19).
Central Avenue CRC: 3. Was the first man the Adam of Genesis?
Dr. De Boer: Yes.
Central Avenue CRC: 5. In the account of the fall, we read the Satan came to Eve in the form of a serpent. Does this mean a literal serpent?
Dr. De Boer: Technically, I don’t read about Satan in the account of the fall. All I read about is the most subtle of all beasts. Here it seems that it is helpful to note how ancient near-eastern literature was repeatedly using the serpent symbol to personify the forces of evil. In Genesis 3 we once again have a picture most exquisitely drawn. It is a picture of a fact — man’s fall. But I do not think we must press for a literal serpent speaking human language. Rather I would propose the serpent can recognized by all of us who have had strange, sinister, shocking thoughts arising within us from nowhere — thoughts that have a pull to them; we toy with them, tease ourselves with them, and sometimes even make rash quick actions on the basis of them. It strikes me that puzzling over the literalness of the snake is not a helpful way to placing oneself open to the powerful word of God at work in this account. It’s an eye-opener on what man is — and on what I am. It’s a painting of a fall that once happened and affected us all. But it also keeps happening over again in each one of us.
Central Avenue CRC: 14. How do you interpret Paul’s usage of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13,14, ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.’ Did Paul consider Adam and Eve to be historical in every sense of that term?
Dr. De Boer: I find it hard to understand just how Paul is using Scripture here and how his use of this Scripture really makes the point that women ought to be in subjection to men and not speak in public gatherings. I suspect Paul is here making use of some rabbinic exegetical method in which he was trained in his earlier life. I confess I don’t understand the passage very well. Paul views Adam and Eve as the first man and the first woman. He appears to view the details of the temptation story as giving some kind of information on basic relationships between men and women. I do not detect that Paul was aware of the modern observations regarding the nature of this early Genesis material, or that he gives us much help on this score. He is using Genesis material in a way that was acceptable and effective in making his point in the Jewish community of his day.
Central Avenue CRC: What is the relationship between general and special revelation?
Dr. De Boer: These two revelations are basically one revelation, for they both reveal the same God. Hence ultimately they must agree. Where they don’t appear to us to agree, we must be misreading either or both of them.
In this and other correspondence, Dr. De Boer insisted that he accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God. But answers like the above didn’t exactly inspire confidence with the Central Avenue consistory. Dr. De Boer had evaded the second question about Adam having ancestors. Despite Scripture’s clear teaching elsewhere about the serpent in Genesis 3 (Rev. 20:2, 2 Cor. 11:3), and despite the assertions of the Reformed confessions (BC 14, CD 3/4.1, HC QA 9), De Boer did not want to insist on a literal snake. It turned out that De Boer believed Paul was lacking important “modern observations” about Genesis when he made his statements in 1 Timothy 2. Here De Boer betrayed his imbalanced view of Scripture — he affirms it as the Word of God, but in practice the human aspect dominates. In the last question, he was given an opportunity to affirm that special revelation is the means by which we properly understand general revelation, but instead he put them on the same level.
The concerns of the Central Avenue consistory were not allayed. They continued correspondence with Dr. De Boer and became more concerned about his views. In the meeting following the letter, for instance, he acknowledged that his views opened the way to a denial of the virgin birth. Central Avenue submitted an appeal to CRC Synod 1972 to investigate Dr. De Boer. The material in the appeal was withheld from the full body of the Synod, despite the request of the Central Avenue CRC to the contrary. Instead, an advisory committee looked at the matter and made a recommendation to the Synod to clear Dr. De Boer of the charges since he “indicates his belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture” and the Central Avenue CRC had failed to show that he was in conflict with the confessions. This recommendation was adopted merely on the say-so of the advisory committee.
In 1975 an attempt was made to reopen the matter. Baldwin Street CRC of Jenison, Michigan submitted an overture to CRC Synod 1975 to have another look at the case. They argued that the full body of the Synod should have the opportunity to hear both sides of the matter. The case had never really been heard. The decision of 1972 was made blindly. However, Synod 1975 denied this overture as well. Dr. Willis De Boer went on to complete his teaching career at Calvin College. This episode was another nail in the coffin of orthodoxy in the CRC.