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.
Category Archives: Science and faith
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.