Event Character and the Early Chapters of Genesis

The debate about the historicity of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Flood, the Genealogies, the Tower of Babel continues. Faith/science and faith/history discussions are where the discussion seems to be the most pressing. Are these stories in the first chapters of Genesis in any way historical? Some of them, such as the Adam and Eve account and the Fall account in Genesis 2 & 3 are deeply embedded in the confessional documents of certain traditions–namely Reformed and Presbyterian 16th and 17th century confessions and perhaps others. Unless one moves to a very loose confessionalism, these expressions of the Christian faith are committed to historicity if they are committed to their confessional documents.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) is a denomination that has struggled (and continues to struggle) with how to maintain the historicity of certain events in redemptive history (Adam and Eve’s creation in a state of innocence and their subsequent Fall and the effect of that Fall on the rest of humankind) especially in light of the findings of modern biology, paleontology, and anthropology concerning the origin of human beings which is largely regarded as being full legitimate.

In this post I provide an extended quote from the denomination’s 1991 report on Creation and Science that illustrates what the CRCNA refers to as event character. The point here to to illustrate that the CRCNA affirms some aspect of historicity, but does not claim to locate it precisely in ordinary history. Historicity is deemed to be an important part of what the text is claiming, but any attempt to identify the event with any particular ordinary historical event is doomed to failure because the historical account has been so stylized and adapted to serve an extraordinary redemptive historical purpose.  An earlier report from 1972 on The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority initially developed the idea in the CRCNA.

What precisely is the character of the Bible’s account of the earliest history of the world and humankind? This question constitutes the nub of the problem we are dealing with, and at present there is no consensus among evangelical biblical scholars. The best we can do is to present an example which we believe does justice to what is known about pre-Abrahamic history, to what Report 44 says about the necessity of distinguishing between an event and the way it is reported even while maintaining the event character of biblical historical narrative, and to the revelational significance of the historical account.

The example is the Tower of Babel story. The traditional interpretation of this account in Genesis 11 seems to conflict with the findings of historical linguistics, for there is a great deal of evidence that the diversity of languages precedes Babylonian culture. Since babel in Hebrew is the standard word for Babylon and since the Tower of Babel very probably refers to a characteristic institution of Babylonian culture, the temple tower (or “ziggurat”), the biblical narrative refers to a civilization which already knew a diversity of languages, such as Akkadian, Sumerian, and Egyptian, to mention only three well-known languages from the Ancient Near East. According to linguistic evidence available today, it would seem that the diversification of language must have taken place long before the rise of the Old Babylonian culture.

Because of this conflict some propose to read the story as a parable illustrating human pride but not as a historical narrative related to an event or to a series of events. But “parable” seems not to do justice to the overall tenor and context of the story, which functions as a part of the broad historical prologue to God’s call of Abraham and the history of God’s chosen people. Thus various other interpretations have been proposed. One suggests that, while the story does indeed concern Babylon, the judgment of God refers not to the origin of languages but to a breakdown in communication. The word translated as ‘language” can refer to “talk” or to “speech” in a more general sense. Then the whole episode speaks of the religious pride of the Old Babylonian empire, centered in the ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk in the City of Babylon, and of God’s judgment on this proud manifestation of pagan culture. Ultimately it was a breakdown of communication, of mutual understanding, which brought disaster upon the first great empire of recorded history. Others, however, think it necessary to retain the reference to languages and then suggest either that Genesis 11 as a historical event must be assumed to be prior to the table of nations in Genesis 10 or that Genesis 11 should be understood as a history that compresses into a single event a process that elapsed over a period of time. In all of these interpretations connecting Genesis 11 to Babylon, the interpreter is assuming that an extensive and complex historical tableau is being described in a highly stylized manner and from a perspective that compresses history into a single focus to serve the purposes of the history of salvation. In addition, by its use of this history, however stylized the shape of its report, the Bible intends to illumine the basic nature of human history when it is divorced from the God who is Creator and Redeemer. Hence, Babylon continues to serve, even in the book of Revelation, as a symbol of the cities and empires which humanity erects in opposition to God. Beginning with the story of the Tower of Babel, Babylon is both a historical city and, in Augustine’s terms, a symbol of the City of This World in rebellion against the City of God.

Without placing a stamp of approval upon any single interpretation, we suggest that the approaches mentioned above satisfy the requirements of Reformed hermeneutics. Our increased knowledge of early human history has underscored the highly stylized and compressed nature of the biblical account and cautions us against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention of the account. In such historiography the Bible does not intend to present the entire history in which the narrative is rooted, and the stylized character of the account prevents us from inferring what the total historical picture may have been. In spite of these limitations imposed on us by the nature of these biblical narratives, the function of the historical narrative concerning the Tower of Babel in the unfolding history of redemption remains clear. In general we can say that the primary intention of the historical narratives in Genesis 1-11 is to serve the understanding of the unfolding history of redemption, not to present us with a detailed history of pre-Abrahamic times.

Notice particularly the last paragraph. There is a recognition that the account is “highly stylized and compressed.” We are cautioned “against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention.” We acknowledge that the Biblical account does not “present the entire history” and that we can’t even “infer what the total historical picture may have been.” Nonetheless, the historical character, the event character, of the account remains.

Theologically speaking, there is little difference with so-called non-literal, ahistorical, or symbolic treatments of the text. But the CRCNA insists on the event character (a nuanced historicity) because of the narrative functions in the overarching history of redemption (as summarized by its confessions).

Perhaps this approach is a way forward on some of these issues. Historicity is preserved but there is no expectation that the historical narrative of the early chapters of Genesis can be readily connected with the history of our history books in any precise way.

Karl, Thanks, but No Thanks

Karl W. Giberson is a respected contributor to the faith/science (evolution/creation) dialogue. His contributions have been valuable, and I have learned from Karl. However, as a scientist myself with great interest in these issues and as a member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I have to take some issue with his commentary about the CRC in The Daily Beast. The piece is a good reminder that the broader church and even the whole world is watching what happens when the denomination acts (or doesn’t act). But, honestly, to have Karl Giberson complain about actions of the CRC is like Bill Clinton complaining about what happens at the Republican National Convention.

There are several parts of The Daily Beast piece that warrant comment:

1) The CRC takes a strong stand on science, even on this issue of human evolution. Despite the controversy of the 80’s and 90’s concerning Howard Van Till, Clarence Menninga, and Davis Young, Calvin College (the denominational liberal arts college) and the CRC never flinched. The Synod 1991 report fully embraced an old universe, and old earth, and the evolutionary development of life on earth. (To be clear, “embrace” does not mean “adopt”–it would be inappropriate for Synod to make declarations about scientific matters–it is only qualified to address Biblical and theological questions. “Embrace” here means to say that there is no necessary inconsistency between the claims of science and the church’s views.) See the full 1991 report.

Synod 1991, however, did include “Declaration F” which more or less ruled out human evolution. Many thought this was a misstep and that Synod went further than necessary to safeguard its theological position (namely, a historical Adam and Eve–more on that below). However, in 2010 Synod declared that the restriction completely ruling out any notion of human evolution was no longer valid. See “Overture 18: Remove Declaration F of the 1991 Decision on Creation and Science” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2010_agenda.pdf, pp. 697-700). I was the primary author of that overture. The gist of the matter is that there are ways of allowing for animal ancestry of human beings that do not necessarily conflict with a historical Adam, the theological point that the church desired to preserve.

The key point for Karl Giberson to hear is that the church has stood up for science. It has not closed the door on any aspect of the commonly accepted understanding of the history of the universe, the earth, life on earth, or even human origins.

Admittedly, these are difficult questions. I have had my own trials with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church prior to my joining the CRC. See this long after-the-fact-reflection on that experience. This is not to say that there are not continued struggles. But the gist of the Dan Harlow and John Schneider controversy at Calvin College and in the church has little to do with science. The CRC has not put up barriers to studying, teaching, researching, accepting science. Harlow and Schneider are theologians (not scientists) and were proposing significant changes in the church’s theological formulations–largely unnecessary given the CRC’s attitude toward the science.

2) Giberson makes it sound like Howard Van Till left the CRC over these faith/science issues. It may well be the case that the controversy precipitated Van Till’s departure, but it wasn’t over science questions. You can find Van Till’s own telling of his story in the Foreward to David Ray Griffin’s book, Two Great Truth: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Amazon.com link). So let’s get the facts straight.

3) Giberson does not seem to understand how a doctrinal confession works in a conservative confessional church such as the CRC. He rightly quotes the Canons of Dort, a 17th century document, that together with the Belgic Confession (16th century) and the Heidelberg Catechism (16th century) and the ecumenical creeds of the early church summarize the beliefs of members of the CRC. A confessional church such as the CRC believes that its creeds, confessions, and catechisms summarize the teachings of scripture. Officers in the church (pastors, elders, and deacons) and professors in the denominational college and seminary (Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary) declare in the Covenant for Office-Bearers (formerly known as the Form of Subscription) of these creeds, confessions, and catechisms that their “doctrines fully agree with the Word of God”. I taught chemistry and biochemistry at Calvin College, have been an elder in a local CRC church, and a delegate to Synod 2010 and 2012–in all three cases I reaffirmed the Covenant for Office-Bearers. Perhaps, John Schneider and Dan Harlow meant something other than what the Form of Subscription says, but not because there is any ambiguity about it. The way it is supposed to work is that people become pastors in the CRC and professors at Calvin College because they agree with the denomination’s theological views (not vice versa).

Giberson claims that evangelical theologians have said that Christianity can survive the “loss” of Adam and Eve. Sure, he may find some will say that. Less conservative theologians have been saying that since the late 1800’s. Giberson seems to be asking the CRC to join that crowd. This is where he seems like Bill Clinton at the Republican convention. CRC theologians and the Synod as a whole, as well as other conservative theologians in the Reformed world, have not been willing to say such a thing. According to them, a historical Adam is a key part of the Biblical story and changing that story cannot happen unless one changes his or her fundamental approach to the Bible and to theology. There are many conservative scholars (inside and outside the CRC) who don’t see that option as being viable.

So what to do? Interestingly, the CRC is willing to let the science take its course. We stand up for science just fine in the CRC. As far as I know, the Calvin College biology department teaches the standard fare on human origins. Perhaps Giberson insists on saying that if you hold to the standard fare, you can’t embrace a historical Adam. I don’t think that, nor do I think the CRC Synod thinks that. (It could be that Harlow and Schneider think that.) See my own suggestions here for some ideas.

I would also suggest that a posture of ignorance (a docta ignorantia) is possible as suggested in the 1991 report noted above. Perhaps we cannot in a fully satisfactory way put the two accounts together. We ought not twist science or our theology to make them fit. Because of its Reformed and Kuyperian roots, the CRC has a robust view of science. Christians ought to do science. We’re not afraid of it. The conclusions of science are simply human expressions of what we see God doing in Creation and Providence. Christianity is not anti-science. But we have an understanding of the Bible that is equally robust. The Bible and Reformed theologizing have been around for a long time (much longer than the sciences in question) so it is not a trivial matter to change those basic views. Our tradition is one that seeks to understand the Bible correctly as well. We don’t guard our confessions just for the sake of preserving the tradition, but because we believe the confessions rightly summarized the teaching of the Bible. Thus, the CRC has not changed its views on a historical Adam because it does not find a Biblical warrant for doing so.

Ironically, I think it could be said that Synod’s reason for inaction on this matter was a belief that the church’s position is adequate, allowing science to flourish and preserving the historical understanding of the Bible and our creeds. My own reading of “Overture 18: Establish a Study Committee to Look into Recent Theologies That Teach That the Genesis Accounts of the Creation and Fall of Humankind Are Not Historical Events and That Adam and Eve Are Literary Rather Than Historical Characters” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2014_agenda.pdf, pp. 408-420) is that the overture springs from a concern based on the Schneider and Harlow writings and an article from the Banner, the monthly denominational magazine, that the CRC needs to reaffirm its commitment to a historical Adam. Thus, Synod’s decision to deny the overture suggests that Giberson’s concerns are unfounded: both our theology and our commitment to do good science are being upheld by the way the issue is already being addressed by Calvin College and by the Synod.

 

Thoughts on Synod 2012

I was a delegate from Classis Rocky Mountain to the 2012 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. It met from June 8-14 at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. Several major items were before Synod this year: the Belhar Confession, a new Covenant for Officebearers to replace the old Form of Subscription, and the report of the Creation Stewardship Study Committee. I’ll comment on each of these and a few other issues that were before synod.

While Synod 2012 had many potentially contentious issues before it, it is remarkable that there was not a single minority report from any of the advisory committees. Apparently, the advisory committees reflected the composition of the synod and they worked hard to tweak the recommendations that originally came from the various standing committees, special committee, and task forces so that there could be one largely united voice from synod. This resulted in significant changes made to all the major reports, but in the end Synod 2012 followed the advisory committees’ advice.

The Belhar Confession

Synod 2009 had proposed adoption of the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession equal to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort to be voted upon at Synod 2012. The Ecumenicity and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) helped the church study the Belhar in the intervening years and advocated for its adoption. The Belhar Confession arises out of the Reformed churches in South  Africa in the context of divisions in the church on the basis of racial and ethnic differences caused by apartheid. The Belhar focuses on themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice. Interestingly, the anticipated vote on whether to make the Belhar Confession a fourth confession for the CRC generated a near record number of overtures from the classes and from individual church councils. Overwhelmingly, the overtures came in opposed to adopting the Belhar as a fourth confession and many calling for its adoption as a testimony (something official, but less binding than a confession).

So, what were the criticisms of the Belhar? One criticism was that it was too narrow in scope to have the status of a confession. It does not contain a comprehensive summary of the Christian faith or of the gospel of Jesus Christ like the other three confessions/catechisms. Also, it is very much rooted in the South African situation. While it is clear that it is their confession, it was not so clear that it would be our confession even though we fully support the general themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice. There were also some questions about some particular sentences/phrases in the Belhar. One statement causing some concern was “…we reject any doctrine which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.” This statement in the Belhar has been used by one of the authors of the document to promote the acceptance of practicing homosexuals and same gender marriages in the church. Synod 2009 disavowed this application by saying “the Belhar Confession does not negate the biblically derived statements of synod on homosexuality, including those of 1973 and 1996.” But the concern remained. Other statements causing some concern was “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged” and that “the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” To some these statement sounded like Liberation Theology which interprets the Christian faith “in terms of liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions” (Wikipedia). Most theologians in the CRCNA would regard Liberation Theology as a theological error.

In the end the Advisory Committee sensed that if Synod 2012 were to take a vote on whether or not to adopt the Belhar as a fourth confession that it would fail. But they also sensed that Synod 2012 wanted to endorse the Belhar in some manner, so they took up one of the recommendations that came in one of the overtures, that the Belhar Confession be adopted as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, a newly created official category. This would be similar, although not identical to the status of the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” — adopted by synod as a faith statement but less than a confession to which officebearers must agree. Synod 2012 adopted the Advisory Committee’s recommendations, creating the Ecumenical Faith Declaration category and adopting the Belhar Confession as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration. Interestingly, while some of the materials that were to accompany the Belhar Confession if adopted as a confession (according to the original EIRC recommendation) accompany it as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, the prefatory sentences

Synod further observes that, as a faithful witness to Scripture, the Belhar Confession does not negate the biblically derived statements of synod on homosexuality, including those of 1973 and 1996. Finally, synod recognizes that injustice and enmity between peoples are two dimensions of all-pervasive human sinfulness, for which every human being needs Jesus Christ as Savior.

are now not included.

The Advisory Committee also recommended that Synod form a Task Force to study exactly what we mean when we adopt something as a confession to report in 2015 at which time we would reconsider the Belhar Confession in light the findings of the Task Force. That recommendation was not adopted by Synod 2012.

Covenant for Officebearers

The current Form of Subscription that officebearers (ministers, ministry associates, now commissioned pastors, elders, deacons) in the CRC sign has been unchanged for nearly 400 years. Several years ago the church determined to update the language so this document would be taken more seriously and would be more useful to the churches. Two major revision committees, several synods where there was intense debate on the revision committees’ recommendations, and discussion in the classes and in the churches have now resulted in a new Covenant for Officebearers finally being adopted by Synod 2012. The second revision committee came back with a proposal in 2011 that was very similar to the original form of subscription but in modern, more celebratory language and much more pastoral toward those officers who have some disagreements with the confessions of the church. Synod 2011 asked that the new Covenant for Officebearers demonstrate even more commitment to the creeds and confessions of the church.  The revision committee made some of the suggested changes but not all, the Advisory Committee put in the remaining changes suggested by Synod 2012. The new Covenant for Officebears as adopted by Synod 2012 now contains a very strong commitment to the creeds and confessions.

The Form of Subscription Revision Committee II made a few changes at the request of Synod 2011. These were incorporated into the final adopted document:

which proclaims the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things in him.

in the opening sentence was replaced by

which proclaims the good news of God’s creation and redemption through Jesus Christ.

because the former was thought to suggest universalism.

Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.

in the fourth paragraph was changed to include the stronger language

Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them. We heartily believe and will promote their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.

The Advisory Committee made a few additional changes all of which were incorporated in the final adopted version.

The phrase

whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God

was added after the list of the three Reformed confessions (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).

The statement

We heartily believe and will promote their doctrines…

was changed to

We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines…

The word “affirm” was changed to “recognize” in reference to Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony slightly weakening the commitment there.

In the sixth paragraph that talks about what to do when an office bearer disagrees with one of the doctrines of the confessions

is irreconcilable with God’s Word…

was changed to

is not the teaching of God’s Word…

Finally, the sentence

If the church asks, we will give a full explanation of our views.

was added as new penultimate sentence in the sixth paragraph.

Remarkably, one amendment was made from the floor of synod upon the advice of one of the young adult representatives and one of the faculty advisors. The opening sentence that declares our commitment to scripture

We believe the inspired Word of God as received in the Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture

was thought to be open to liberal and neo-orthodox interpretations. It was changed to

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God.

In the end the new Covenant for Officebearers passed unanimously. It seems to me that the changes that were made make the new Covenant for Officebearers quite similar to the old Form of Subscription in regard to the degree that office bearers are bound to the church’s confessions.

Creation Stewardship Task Force

In response to the Board of Trustees’ adoption of the Micah Network’s “Declaration on Creation Stewardship and Climate Change” Synod 2010 asked for a Creation Stewardship Task Force to report to Synod 2012 with a mandate

to identify a biblical and Reformed perspective of our position on creation stewardship, including climate change, applicable to this millennium, for congregations, society, and our global gospel partners.

In part the issue was raised out of a concern that the Board of Trustees ought not adopt statements on matters outside the expertise of synod delegates. One of the grounds was

There is an urgent need to focus on the biblical and Reformed perspective so that we may unify our community around common ground and enable the formulation of concrete positive action strategies.

The recommendations of the Creation Stewardship Task Force were somewhat controversial with there being five overtures leaning against the recommendations (with one overture asking for adoption). Synod’s Advisory Committee modified the original recommendations to make them less controversial. Even with these modifications, the recommendation stirred up much debate requiring an entire evening session and some time the next morning. In the end the recommendations as presented by the Advisory Committee passed. The Task Force report included a 27 page appendix entitled “A Climate Change Primer” that spelled out the current scientific consensus among climatologists concerning the matter of human-induced climate change. Interestingly, I could have used that document as the textbook for the greenhouse gases and energy units of my Chemistry 103 “Chemistry in Context” course for non-science majors that I taught this past spring at Colorado State University. It was somewhat surprising to see such a scientific treatise in the Agenda for Synod.

The Advisory Committee changed the order of the original recommendations of the Task Force so that the first recommendation was an affirmation of Biblical and theological principles. Synod 2012 adopted the following:

That synod re-affirm biblical principles of responsible dominion, care, and stewardship of creation as articulated in Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony and referenced in section IV, A of the Creation Stewardship Task Force report (Agenda for Synod 2012, pp. 295-301; Contemporary Testimony Pars. 7-10, 13, 15, 18, 23-25, 43, 44, 50, 51, 55-58, also paragraph 16).

The original Creation Stewardship Task Force asked Synod to state the following:

That synod declare that both Scripture and continually emerging scientific knowledge are necessary and valid ways of knowing that should guide our response to creation stewardship issues, including climate change.

Many regarded this as putting science and the Bible on equal ground. The Advisory Committee’s recommendation was adopted instead after a small amendment from the floor of synod:

That synod reaffirm that continually emerging science is a valid and necessary source for knowledge about God’s world and should therefore guide us, along with scripture, in our love of God and neighbors, including care for the creation (cf. Par. 50 of the Contemporary Testimony).

Then we got to the crucial recommendation where the Task Force asked Synod to

Affirm the following findings concerning climate change and that it commend them to the churches as guides to prayer, discussion, direct action, and advocacy:

  1. Climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity.
  2. Human-induced climate change is a moral, ethical, and religious issue.
  3. Human-induced climate change poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.
  4. Human-induced climate change poses a significant challenge to us all.
  5. Urgent action is required to address climate change. This includes actions at the personal, community, and political levels toward reducing human causes of climate change and mobilizing ourselves to urgent assistance of those who are forced to adapt to its negative effects.

Many delegates, including me, appeared to be concerned that Synod was being asked to make scientific and political statements concerning the question of human-induced climate change. Is this really the task of the church? Is it really an ecclesiastical matter (as the Church Order restricts Synods to considering)? (See the discussion later about Church as institute vs. Church as organism.) Even if human-induced climate change is true and will wreak havoc with the world’s economic and political systems, is it the work of the church to make such scientific, economic, and political declarations? Some delegates were global warming skeptics and even more alarmed at the recommendations of the Task Force. Thankfully, the Advisory Committee had members that shared some of these concerns and tweaked the original recommendations in such a way as to make them more acceptable to delegates that had concerns. The Advisory Committee recommendations were adopted by Synod. The Synod “recognized” that there was a “near-consensus of the international scientific community” concerning human-induced climate change “recognized that human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue, and that the “precautionary principle compels us” to take action. The precautionary principle is the idea that even though there are uncertainties involved that it is wise to take action in light of the potentially catastrophic consequences. Then Synod adopted a series of recommendations calling the churches and members to action promoting stewardship, protecting the poor and vulnerable, protecting future generations, and reducing our carbon emissions, and educating our churches and members on the issue.

While I personally am not a climate change skeptic (I taught a lot of the science that was in the report to my Colorado State University Chemistry 103 class) and I am grateful for the Advisory Committee’s adjustments, I still question whether or not the church should be making these sorts of recommendations. I don’t question that Christians who are scientists, climatologists, environmentalists, economists, politicians, and relief workers ought to be active in this area. Of course, they should be–as we should be in all areas of life, bringing the truths of God’s Word to a broken world. But the church as church has no expertise in these areas. It was clear that very few of the ministers and elders voting on this had any competence to judge the merits of the science or the economic policies presented. It was also clear that there was disagreement on the science, the economics, and the politics. We can agree on the need for Creation care. We can agree on the need for the church to do good deeds in the name of Christ to help the poor and vulnerable. Beyond that requires special expertise that the church does not have. Individual Christians do have such expertise and need to wield that expertise in Christ’s name in their vocation.

At one point a speaker argued that Synod’s decision in 2010 about human evolutionary ancestors was an example that should make it clear that the church makes these sorts of declarations all the time. Since I was involved in that matter directly I would suggest that that is not at all the lesson one should take away. Declaration F from Synod 1991 which said that there could be no evolutionary ancestors was an example of the church making a scientific declaration outside of its expertise and authority as church. There are ways, for example, for the church to maintain the Biblical and confessional witness for a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall, and allow for some kind of evolutionary ancestry. Synod 2010 rightly undid the error of 1991 by keeping the church’s declarations on appropriate matters, i.e. interpretation and application of scripture and theology. In no way did Synod’s decision declare that any particular scientific view was correct.

A speech I wish I had given at Synod but only conceived of after the fact was along the same lines. What if the Task Force, the Advisory Committee, and Synod had been populated by a majority of climate change skeptics? What if the final word would have been that all the concern about climate change is based on a hoax? What if there had been declarations that the economic and political concerns were really about leftists’ attempts to regulate our lives, restrict our freedoms, and redistribute wealth? I guarantee to you that many of the scientists in our denomination would have been outraged. The church has made mistaken scientific pronouncements before (i.e. Declaration F from 1991). It’s not the church’s place to make such pronouncements. It is the church’s place to call us to Creation care (whether human-induced climate change is true or not), to call us to care for the poor and vulnerable (no matter what is the cause of their need), and to call us to work for justice, especially in the church, but also in society at large.

Despite my misgivings, the Primer on Climate Change is a good survey of the issues written by practicing scientists with Christian and Reformed perspectives on their work as scientists. The precautionary principle leads us on a very wise course on this issue. We all need to be reminded of moderation in our life-style especially when we live in a society of extravagance, over-abundance, and waste. Finally, loving our neighbor, especially in the modern globalized context that we find ourselves, means that we use our abundance to help those in need.

Church As Institute vs. Church As Organism

The Report of the Creation Stewardship Task Force (and the situation which prompted it) and perceived implications of the Belhar Confession have potentially non-ecclesiastical (i.e. scientific, economic, political, etc.) aspects. The CRC Office of Social Justice tackles all sorts of similar topics (immigration, abortion, poverty, fair trade, millennium development goals, Middle East conflict, etc.). Some question whether or not the church should be involved in these matters (again, without questioning whether or not Christians should be involved in these matters). See my article “Whatever Happened to Sphere Sovereignty?” ( http://network.crcna.org/forums/discussion-networks/synodical-reports/whatever-happened-sphere-sovereignty ) written about a year ago. Two overtures came to Synod expressing concern about the increasing tendency for the church to address these alleged non-ecclesiastical matters. One of the overtures asked for a study committee to study the distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism. Synod declined to create a study committee, but in response to the overture adopted the following recommendation

That synod instruct the Executive Director to draft a pastoral letter:

  1. Urging the church on all levels (congregations, classes, and denominational agencies and officers) to reflect on the issues and concerns that Overture 3 raises.
  2. Urging the church on all levels (congregations, classes, and denominational agencies, and officers) to take note of the full range of ethical positions that the CRC has adopted through the years (readily available on the CRC’s website).
  3. Admonishing all those who speak on behalf of the church to speak with discernment as to how their words will be received by those on whose behalf they speak.
  4. Admonishing all members to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19), seeking the unity in Christ, which is both the gift and calling of the church, and the love by which, according to Jesus, all people will know that we are his disciples.

with grounds

  1. Discernment is better found through continued respectful conversation, rather than through attempting to formulate prescriptions as to how the church speaks on issues of the day.
  2. Out of these multiple conversations, the church may find various ways to address the concerns raised in the overture, and move toward greater unity in its witness to the world.

I plan to do some reading and research in the coming year on this issue to give heed to Synod’s advice. Interestingly, the preliminary report of the Office of Deacon Task Force ( http://www.crcna.org/pages/diakonia_index.cfm ) addresses some of these issues, although in a matter that actually expands the work of the institutional church rather than narrowing it as many would like to see.

Lift Up Your Heart Hymnal

The new hymnal from Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the CRCNA, is nearly finished. Faith Alive asked synod to endorse the new hymnal for use in the churches, which it did. The only controversy here was that neither Synod nor one of its Advisory Committees had actually reviewed in detail every hymn. This concern was dispelled by reminding Synod that it was not a replacement for the Psalter Hymnal and that it was a project of Faith Alive and not the Synod (like other songbooks and secondary hymnals in the past) and that Faith Alive had a thorough review process involving musical review and theological review. Songs from the new hymnal were used in all of synod’s worship services and a special hymn sing on Sunday night. Marketing research by Faith Alive shows that there is still a significant number of churches in the CRCNA and in the RCA that use hymnals rather than projection systems in their worship. There will be numerous electronic resources with the new hymnal that will be valuable even for those congregations that use projection systems primarily.

Name Changes

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012. Synod approved a request from CRWRC that its name be changed to World Renew with a tag line of “Living Justice Loving Mercy Serving Christ”. Some questioned the removal the word “Christian” or the identification with “Christian Reformed” but these concerns did not carry the day. CRWRC’s ministry has moved beyond relief which is only about half of what it does–community development is another significant aspect of its ministry. Also, having the word “Christian” in the name makes it impossible to serve in some parts of the world. Canadian Director, Ida Kaastra-Mutoigo said “We don’t lose our Christian faith by what we are called. Once we gain entry, we continue to live out our values as a Christian ministry.”

The term “Ministry Associate” was changed to “Commissioned Pastor”. Ministry Associates are pastors, church planters, youth pastors, worship pastors, campus pastors, etc. that are called to serve in full-time church work in local congregations. Ordinarily, these individuals do not have a seminary degree and have not been approved for service by the seminary or the Synod for service across the denomination. Yet they are gifted and called by God to serve in their churches in full-time staff ministry. This category of ordained officer in the CRC used to be called “Evangelist”. The term “Commissioned Pastor” was regarded as being a more accurate descriptor for what many of these people do, especially those involved in pastoring churches.

Calvin College Matter

Concern about some writings of Calvin College religion department professors on Adam and Eve had been expressed at Synod 2011. One of Synod’s advisory committees met with Calvin College representatives on this matter receiving a progress report of sorts. The advisory committee made the following recommendation

That synod take note that Advisory Committee 3 received an update from representatives of Calvin College on the progress of their study on “the limits of academic freedom within the bounds of confessional fidelity” which Synod 2011 asked them to submit upon completion of the study (cf. Article 49, D.2 in the 2011 Acts of Synod). They indicated that they will continue their conversation with further input from other Reformed colleagues, and could, if requested, have a report ready for Synod 2014. They have an interim report entitled, “Evolution, Human Origins, and Confessional Parameters,” available on the Calvin web site ( http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/seminars/human-origins.html ), which they encourage people to read and provide feedback.

and

That synod request Calvin College to submit to Synod 2014 a report on the study about academic freedom and the confessions referenced in the Acts of Synod 2011 (Article 49, D.2).

Doctrine of Discovery

Included in the Report of the Creation Stewardship Task Force was a discussion of the notion of “dominion” which is part of the Biblical teaching on Creation Care (Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:6-8). In a discussion of the misappropriate of dominion the Task Force considered the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was the basis of European and Western domination of indigenous peoples during the “Age of Exploration” often for the cause of Christian missions. This resulted in indigenous peoples having their land taken away, being relocated to reservations, having lands and resources taken by the explorers, etc. In the USA and Canada, children of native Americans and First Nations peoples were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were educated with total disregard of their native culture. In light of this the Synod adopted the following recommendation (which was a reworked version of one of the recommendations of the Creation Stewardship Task Force):

That synod affirm the necessity for the CRC to examine, better understand, and respond to the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related legal instruments—particularly in their origins, their historical effects, and their continuing effects on indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. To that end synod instructs the Board of Trustees to form a small task force with a clear mandate, process, and time frame composed of knowledgeable CRC staff, board members, and appropriate resource persons. The task force will be expected to keep the church informed throughout its work and to conclude its work with a summary report of its findings and, if appropriate, recommendations to the Board of Trustees and synod for further action.

Ground: This responds appropriately to the Creation Stewardship Task Force report’s conclusions that, although a deeper understanding of the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related legal instruments could be very helpful in clarifying our cultural attitudes toward caring for creation, the issues raised by the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related instruments cut deeply across the entire spectrum of the church’s life and ministry in Canadian and U.S. society and, therefore, merit a separate effort.

Certainly, injustices were carried out against indigenous peoples by western Europeans, Americans, and Canadians as they explored the rest of the world and took control of many parts of the world in many cases making it their own in disregard of the original inhabitants. What appropriate restitution looks like is a vexing question in light of the unfolding of modern history. Often these injustices were performed by Christians more influenced by the spirit of the age rather than a Biblical sense of justice. As obvious as these things are I am still left with some nagging questions. In the mystery of his providence God has used this mindset to evangelize the nations. The modern missions movement followed on the heals of western colonialism with the result that the church was brought to the nations and peoples of the world. Often this has been done with a blatant disregard of the indigenous culture–it’s unsettling to hear Chinese Christians in China singing “This Is My Father’s World”–at least they are singing in Mandarin. Nonetheless, Christ has been made known to the nations and the nations are now worshiping the triune God. In addition, those who have come to Christ have turned from their idols and false religions to worship the true and living God. While much in these cultures is to be celebrated and preserved, part of turning to Christ is turning away from cultural practices that are contrary to God’s ways. God has used our foolishness and our injustice to further his kingdom. In retrospect we can confess these things and set them right, especially in the church. One other question is that about our fundamental identity. The dividing wall has been broken down and our fundamental identity is our identity in Christ as the one people of God. Racial, ethnic, national identity are all subservient to that new identity in Christ. Again, this does not mean that we ignore our cultural heritages, but it does mean that they take second place to our common cultural heritage in Christ. His story is our story. His ways are our ways. His kingdom is our kingdom. His work in the world is our work in the world.

Joys of Synod

Worship at Synod was a treat. The Lord’s Prayer was used to structure our worship times and we were led in song by members of the new hymnal committee. It’s fantastic to see and hear the diversity and worldwide presence of God’s people. Prayers in many languages. Greetings from ecumenical delegates from all over the world. Renewing old friendships, making new ones, amazing conversations are all part of the unofficial synod business. Having the joint worship and prayer time with the young adults conference was a great experience. I wanted to hear more of what they were doing. We heard educational and inspiring interviews with the incoming Calvin College president, Dr. Michael Le Roy, and a new Calvin Seminary professor, Michael Goheen. We heard the reflections of outgoing Calvin College president Galen Byker. We heard greetings and challenges from Tom DeVries, the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Although we started meetings at 8 am every day and worked till 9 or even later on a couple of nights, there was good food at meal times and breaks mid-morning and afternoon with refreshments. This was my second CRCNA synod and it was a delight to see the church at work once again.

Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?

The theory of biological evolution is widely acknowledged in the scientific community as the great unifying theory in biology. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr writes:

The theory of evolution is quite rightly called the greatest unifying theory in biology. The diversity of organisms, similarities and differences between kinds of organisms, patterns of distribution and behavior, adaptation and interaction, all this was merely a bewildering chaos of facts until given meaning by the evolutionary theory. There is no area of biology in which that theory has not served as an ordering principle (Animal Species and Evolution).

The neo-Darwinian synthesis, the version of evolutionary theory that arose in the 1940’s, brought together taxonomists, ecologists, and geneticists with the recognition of the importance of geography and population biology in evolutionary change. Consequently, among all branches of biology evolutionary theory commands nearly universal acceptance. Not only does evolutionary theory organize the various branches of biology, but each of them contribute somewhat independently to a unified coherent theory. Paleontology, classical and molecular genetics, population biology, sociobiology, taxonomy, developmental biology and biochemistry have joined together to contribute to the grand universally accepted synthesis. This is not to say that these contributors do not argue among themselves concerning the relative weight and interpretation of their respective contributions, but these are in-house discussions. Among professional biologists evolutionary theory is considered not only the best explanation of the available data, but a very good explanation of that data.

Of course, universal acceptance of a theory does not necessarily mean that it is correct or even that those who accept it accept it on the basis of the empirical evidence. Critics of evolutionary theory often claim that a deeply rooted religious commitment to atheistic naturalism drives most of the scientific community to accept evolution. In other words, evolution (together with big bang theory, chemical evolution, plate tectonics and other geological theories) is part of a “religious” origins account for the atheistic naturalist. Recent criticisms along these lines include those by Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial) and Alvin Plantinga (Christian Scholar’s Review, Special Issue: Creation/Evolution and Faith, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible” and responses). There is no doubt that some evolutionists, especially those who write for a more general audience, have used evolutionary theory to support their atheistic views. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this is the widely quoted statement of Richard Dawkins (author of The Blind Watchmaker) “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Plantinga claims that given atheism, evolution is a warranted theory, but that given theism (which all Christian would admit), the empirical evidence for evolution is not compelling and that some sort of special creationism seems more likely. Plantinga seems ready to admit to some of the evolutionary claims, but believes that at key junctures in the theory (e.g. origin of life, the pre-Cambrian explosion, origin of human beings, and perhaps other sudden appearances of new forms) that a more warranted explanation, given theism, is to call upon some act of special creation.

In principle, I sympathize with the claims of Plantinga and Johnson. Certainly, some evolutionists use this biological theory to buttress their atheistic worldview and Christian scholars are called upon to point out this use of evolutionary theory. Also, the atheist, who has no origins alternative, has much at stake, morally and existentially, in denying God a role in creation. Christian scientists must be cognizant of these non-scientific factors at work in the theorizing that occurs in the professional community. However, having said this, I do not agree with Plantinga in his claim that, given theism, the warrant for evolution is weak. It is my judgment, as a biologist and as a theist, that the evidence for evolution is strong and that it something that the Christian community needs to wrestle with. It is interesting to note, without getting into all the historical nuances, that Darwin left England on the Beagleas a theist with special creationist leanings (like most of his contemporaries) and that it was his observations of the natural world, especially in the tropics, that led him to his evolutionary views.

The theory of biological evolution does not necessarily imply the atheistic worldview described above. In fact at several key junctures I must disagree with many of the advocates of evolution. In doing so they may even claim that I am not an evolutionist at all, but that is a conclusion that they and not one that I make. The heart of this disavowal has to do with the claim that although I accept evolution as a biological theory, I am still a Creationist. The biological theory is our human formulation (subject to on-going refinement) of God-governed “natural” processes whereby God created the vast array of living things. The word “natural” is used not in the sense of “autonomous” but in the sense of “regular” or “ordinary”. The notion of secondary cause captures the idea. God is the ultimate governor, yet He choose to govern process via regular cause and effect relations that can be understood as we observe the world. This can and should be said of every natural occurring process that can be described by science.

There are several implications of this theistic view of evolution. Since the term “theistic evolution” seems to be suspect for some reason, perhaps we should call it an “evolutionary creation”. This semantic shift makes creation the noun rather than evolution, perhaps for the better. The evolution that I hold to is not random in any ultimate sense, nor is it purposeless, nor is it without design. These are all claims that some evolutionists make. But these are metaphysical and theological claims, not scientific claims. There is a certain sense in which I believe that chance or random processes are involved in mutation or chromosome rearrangements or in recombination or chromosome pairing during meiosis or gamete fusion. These processes are empirically known to follow the laws of statistics, just as coin flipping, card drawing, or sex determination does. But this is not to say that these processes are chance or random in any ultimate sense. Since God is the ultimate governor of whatsoever comes to pass, each coin flip, card draw, or mutation is determined by his all-wise and all-holy counsel. There is even a Proverb (16:33) that says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Design and purpose can be discussed in the same way. Just because adaptations (the excellent fit between an organism’s structure and function or environment) can be accounted for by natural selection, does not mean that there is not a divine design or purpose. That claim is fundamentally religious and atheistic. There is no necessary incompatibility between evolution by natural selection and divine design and purpose.

I can think of no better way to support my point here than by quoting from A.A. Hodge, the Old Princeton theologian whose commitment to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and to the Reformed faith is beyond question. Hodge wrote the following in the Introduction to Theism and Evolution by Joseph S. Van Dyke and reprinted in The Princeton Theology 1812-1921 edited and compiled by Mark Noll (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983):

Evolution considered as the plan of an infinitely wise Person and executed under the control of His everywhere present energies can never be irreligious; can never exclude design, providence, grace, or miracles. Hence we repeat that what Christians have cause to consider with apprehension is not evolution as a working hypothesis of science dealing with facts, but evolution as a philosophical speculation professing to account for the origin, causes, and end of all things.

Hodge’s colleague and contemporary at Princeton, B. B. Warfield, wrote the following in his unpublished “Lectures on Anthropology” (Dec. 1888) (cited in Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, p. 119):

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

The lengthy citation of Abraham Kuyper (cited in Creation and Evolution by Jan Lever) is worth repeating here to express the notion that evolutionary theory is not necessarily antagonistic to the Christian faith if design and
purpose are not excluded.

An entirely different problem is that so often discussed in England whether religion permits, as such, the spontaneous evolvement of the species in the organic world from one single primary cell. That question, of course, without reservation, must be answered in the affirmative. We should not impose our style upon the Chief Architect of the universe. (emphasis mine) Provided he remains, not in appearance, but in essence, the Architect, he is also in the choice of his style of architecture the Omnipotent. If it thus had pleased the Lord not to create the species as such, but to have one species arise from the other, by designing the preceding species in such a way that it could produce the next higher, the creation would have been just as wonderful. But this never would have been the evolution of Darwinism because the predetermined plan would not then have been excluded, but would have been all predominating, and not the world had then built itself up mechanically, but God by means of elements which He himself prepared for that purpose. The contrast shows itself most clearly from an illustration selected by Haeckel. In order to remove the objection that is inherent in the mechanical explanation of a complex organism, he asks whether a Zulu Negro, who at Lorenzo Marquez sees an English armored battleship enter, would not certainly view this colossus as an organic monster, while we, of course, know very well that it has been riveted together mechanically. Everyone naturally agrees with this. But Haeckel overlooked the fact that in the shipyard the steel plates did not place themselves in the proper position, but that they have been put together by a skillful architect according to a previously prepared plan. And that same difference would differentiate such a divine evolutionistic creation from the system of the Darwinists. Evolutionistic creation presupposes a God who has first made the plan and then executes it omnipotently. Darwinism teaches the mechanical origin of things that excludes all plan or purpose or draft. The acceptance of evolutionary theory by Christians must be seen as mediate Creation, whereby God called some things into existence using pre-existing materials and ordinary means. As indicated by the above citations, these orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed theologians, found no reason to disagree with evolutionary theory as long as the certain essential characteristics were not disregarded: the dependence of the Creation on God, His design and purpose, the Creation of human beings in God’s image, and God’s freedom to act miraculously in his Creation.

An additional issue is whether or not evolutionary theory comports with specific teachings of scripture concerning the creation of all things. The days of Genesis 1 and the specific account of the creation of Adam and Eve have been particular sources of difficulty. In the orthodox Reformed tradition dating from at least the middle of the 19th century, the days of Genesis 1 have been regarded as long periods of time or as a literary framework for the execution of God’s creative decrees. My own view is the latter. Reconciling evolutionary theory with the specifics of the Genesis 2 account of the creation of Adam and Eve is much more difficult. The text of Genesis 2:7 does not appear to allow for the view that the body of Adam derived from animal ancestors. How this squares away with evidence from the created world suggesting others is still an unanswered question in my mind. Clearly, the creation of Adam as a whole human being, body and soul, in the image of God, was the result of a special miraculous act. Also, the creation of Eve as derivative from Adam was the result of a special miraculous act. This conclusion about the origin of man derives primarily from the text itself. If the text were silent on this matter, I would have no problems with a Divinely guided evolutionary origin of the first human beings.

The Similarity of the Christian’s and Non-Christian’s Science

Modern Christianity struggles with how to relate our Biblical perspective on reality with present-day science. Science has been very successful in explaining many aspects of our world, and the fruit of science and technology is all around us. This struggle is even more pointed when we see science linked to the anti-Christian and anti-theistic agenda of Evolutionary Naturalists. Christians who are also practitioners and students of science see that much of the scientific enterprise can be conducted without reference to God. This has led some to suggest that science is religiously neutral or that science is category of description of the world that is largely independent from and complementary to a religious description. Thus, it is suggested that, as long as non Christian scientists do not step outside of the domain of science, i.e. as long as they only deal with properties, behavior, and the formative history of physical entities, that the fruit of their science can be incorporated into a Christian framework.

Practically speaking, it is probably the case that this approach to science/faith issues works most of the time, however, it seems to me that this strikes at the heart of a Biblical and Reformed view of knowledge. In the work of Cornelius Van Til there is a sustained critique of this way of thinking about science. Van Til argues that the fundamental starting point for all knowledge is the knowledge of God and the proper creaturely response to that knowledge. Every fact of science is either interpreted rightly, acknowledging God as creator, or wrongly, denying God as creator. In other words, “there are no brute facts”. Consequently, when the unbelieving scientist (or any unbeliever, for that matter) claims some knowledge, because it denies the most fundamental aspect of that creaturely knowledge, the knowledge of God, Van Til would say that it is not true knowledge. He writes in A Survey of Christian Epistemology:

The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove that if one is not a Christian theist he knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything. The difference is not that all men alike know certain things about the finite universe and that some claim some additional knowledge, while the others do not. On the contrary, the Christian theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God. He does this in no spirit of conceit, because it is a gift of God’s grace. Nor does he deny that there is knowledge after a fashion that enables the non-theist to get along after a fashion in the world. This is the gift of God’s common grace, and therefore does not change the absoluteness of the distinction made about the knowledge and ignorance of the theist and the non-theist respectively.

There are three things to notice in this passage. First, the Christian theist alone has true knowledge about science. (Van Til talks about cows and chickens, but we could substitute chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, etc. for cows and chickens.) This is an extraordinary claim and one for which Van Til has received much criticism. The idea is that apart from the knowledge of God as Creator and Sustainer that any knowledge falls short of true knowledge. Thus, only believers, who by the grace of God confess the true God, can have true knowledge. Another aspect of this claim is a moral one; the unbeliever “knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything”. Van Til is not saying that the unbeliever knows nothing. But, since all knowledge carries with it a religious and moral imperative to worship and serve the Creator, and since unbelievers disobey that imperative, their knowledge falls short of true knowledge.

The second thing to notice is that while Van Til denies that unbelievers have true knowledge, he does admit that they have “knowledge after a fashion”. Unbelievers can know chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, etc “after a fashion”. Van Til’s critics want to call this “knowledge after a fashion” true knowledge, Van Til wants to reserve the term “true knowledge” to knowledge that recognizes the knowledge of God and includes the proper religious/moral response. Thus, the unbeliever’s knowledge of “brute facts” is only “knowledge after a fashion” that allows the unbeliever to get along in the world. For example, the unbelieving chemist can mix salicylic acid and acetic anhydride to synthesize aspirin that can be used to treat a headache. The chemistry and the pharmacology works just as it does for the believing chemist. But, for the unbeliever, this is merely “knowledge after a fashion” and not “true knowledge”.

The final thing to notice is that Van Til appeals to common grace as the basis for this “knowledge after a fashion” that the unbeliever has. Despite their rebellion and as part of the free offer of the gospel, God allows unbelievers to live in this world that he has created, He has made them in his image with the capacity to have “dominion over the creatures”, and he has endowed them with gifts to learn about the world “after a fashion”. Such a gracious posture on the part of God will not endure forever. If they persist in their unbelief and refuse to worship and serve the Creator, the judgment day will come and the very things that were manifestations of God’s grace toward them will be used as evidence against them and they will receive their eternal punishment.

The Scientist’s Mandate

When God created Adam and Eve he gave them mandates to subdue and rule the earth (Gen. 1:26) and to cultivate and keep it (Gen. 2:15). This mandate is reiterated to Noah in Genesis 9. These are mandates to know God’s creation, to preserve
God’s creation, and to use God’s creation for the service of others and for His glory. The natural sciences, including chemistry and biochemistry, are a means of fulfilling these mandates and thus are legitimate and even desirable
vocations for Christians.

The work of the Christian scientist also comes under the broader kingdom efforts of bringing all aspects of creational reality under the dominion of Christ who is already their rightful Lord. With the apostle we are to take "every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). This work has a positive dimension in that we attempt to understand all that we learn about the world in relationship to God and his sovereign rule. It also has a negative dimension in that we are called to expose systems of thought and interpretative frameworks that are contrary to the kingdom of God that have been established by unbelievers. Prominent false systems of thought found in the sciences at the present moment are: materialistic reductionism, a view claiming that all things can be reduced to the physical-chemical nature and that denies the reality of any spiritual realm; evolutionary naturalism, a view that sees the entire development of the cosmos as the result of natural forces and which denies any involvement of God as Creator, Governor, or Designer.

Finally, as with all believers, scientists are called to do whatever they do to the glory of God and in the name of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). Our work as scientists is to be an act of worship to the Lord. Especially as we study the marvelous wonders that He has made we bow in adoration of the One who made them.

God’s Interaction with the World

“We believe that the same good God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment” (Belgic Confession, Article XIII). Although origination is usually the first thing we think of when we speak of God as Creator, the Scriptures have a much richer notion of “creator” that includes the notions of sustenance, governance, and providence. In Reformed systematic theologies, these concepts are often treated under the heading of Divine Providence.

To call God Creator is to call Him the Sustainer. God not only originated the world, but he sustains it moment by moment. The existence of the world continues to be radically dependent on Him. Scripture verses in support of this relationship between God and his Creation are the following: “for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28); “He (Christ)…sustains all things by his power” (Heb. 1:3); “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Were God to remove this sustenance, the creation would cease to exist. This is no pantheistic doctrine that makes the creation out to be God. Nor is it a doctrine of continuous creation whereby God re-creates the universe moment by moment.

To call God Creator is to call Him the Governor. God not only governs by law and ordinances as described earlier, but He is intimately involved in its moment by moment workings. “He sends forth springs…He causes the grass to grow…Thou dost give them (animals) their food…Thou dost open Thy hand” (Ps. 104 passim.). “He causes the vapors to ascend…makes lightnings for the rain…brings forth the wind” (Ps. 135:5-7). “He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes. He casts forth His ice as fragments” (Ps. 147:16,17).

“Who gives the sun for light by day…who stirs up the sea” (Jer. 31:35). See also Job 38, 39 passim. God’s rule in the Creation is attested to by all the Reformed creeds. The Belgic Confession (Article XIII) says that he “did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter V, Section 1) says that he “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least”. This governance extends to chance events (Prov. 16:33). The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter V, Section 2) while acknowledging God as the “first Cause” affirms that “he ordereth them (all things) to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. It also recognizes that “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means” (Chapter V, Section 3).

To call God Creator is to call Him the Provider. Often in Scripture and in the Confessions, this Divine Governance is set in the context of God Providence. “They all wait for Thee, to give them their food in due season. Thou dost give to them, they gather it up; Thou dost open Thy hand, they are satisfied with good” (Ps. 104:27, 28). “Who covers the heavens with clouds, who provides rain for the earth, who makes grass to grow on the mountains. He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry” (Ps. 147:8, 9). “But if God so arrays the grass of the field…will he not much more do so for you?” (Matt. 6:30). The Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 27 says: “What do you understand by the providence of God? Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty– all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

These doctrines of sustenance, governance, and providence are foundational for understanding the relationship between God’s role in creation and providence and the fruit of an investigation of the world using the tools of science. Order and regularity in the operation of the world, features of the world presupposed by practioners of science, result from God’s lawful creation and his regular governance. The Scriptures go one step further and recognize that regularity in the functioning of the universe is a manifestation of the faithfulness of God. God has made a covenant and governs in a manner consistent with that covenant (Jer. 31:35,36; 33:20-26).

God’s governance structures the created world, and God is free to govern how He pleases. This provides the underpinning for the empirical nature of modern science. We may not presuppose how the world is or how God has chosen to govern it. We have to investigate the world to discern patterns and regularities that exist as a result of God’s governance. It may be the case that there are certain boundaries that we simply accept as givens. These boundaries, however, are conditions that we run into as we explore the creation and are empirically derived not imposed on our study of creation by some philosophical system. Examples of such boundaries may be life/non-life, sensory/non-sensory, human/non-human, etc. Of course, if scripture reveals such a boundary, then we must accept it. In my reading scripture emphasizes only one such distinction, human/non-human, i.e. only human beings were created in the image of God.

An additional consequence of these doctrines is that there is no natural/supernatural distinction. In one sense all of creation is “supernatural”, i.e. God is always actively involved. At times I think that we ought to dispense with this natural/supernatural language because it gives the impression that normally things occur according to their “natures” apart from the Divine governance. The distinction ought to be between ordinary/extraordinary or regular/irregular. Ordinary events are no less acts of God than miracles. In the miracle God does not act contrary to natural laws (for there are no such things), but contrary to his normal manner of governance. “Miracles” everyday would conflict with God’s covenant faithfulness described above. It seems that the miraculous is to shock us into listening to God and His spokesman at key events in redemptive history. This is due in part to the fact that in our sinful state we no longer see God at work in the ordinary events of life.

The Role of the Bible in the Scientist’s Work

The Bible is authoritative in the life and work of the scientist as it is in all of life. The authority of the Bible depends not on the testimony of any man, or church, but wholly upon God, its author (Westminster Confession of Faith, I, 4). The Bible reveals all things necessary for God’s own glory, our salvation, faith and life (WCF, I, 6 and Belgic Confession, Article 2). Because it is the Word of God, and God can neither err nor lie, the Bible is infallible and inerrant in all that it teaches. Christian doctrine and the key elements of the Christian worldview are derived from the Bible. Scripture is our fundamental starting point as we think about God, humanity, the material world, sin, and how all these things interrelate. This view of reality derived from Scripture is the interpretative framework in which Christian scientists and other Christian scholars do their work.

The “all things necessary” (WCF) or “as much as we need in this life” (Belgic Confession) clearly is somewhat limited in scope. To say this is not to limit the authority of Scripture in any way, but simply to recognize that the purpose of God’s special revelation to us in the Bible is not to provide a textbook for biology, geology, history, or any technical discipline. All knowledge is not revealed to us in Scripture; our calling to subdue the earth includes the mandate to discover truth about God’s world that is not revealed to us in Scripture (see “The Scientist’s Mandate”); however, we do not need such knowledge for our salvation, faith and life. Without necessarily denying that the Bible may speak in other areas of life, it must be emphasized that the essential nature of Scripture is to reveal in a historically progressive manner God’s work of redemption. Because God’s redemptive work recorded for us in the Scripture takes place in space and time, it will intersect with the world as studied by scientists, historians, and other scholars. Where the Bible speaks in these areas, either in general principle or in a specific text, the Christian scholar must receive its teaching as coming from God himself and allow it to govern his or her thinking. This is not to follow some blind Biblical literalism, because proper rules of interpretation must be followed, rules that recognize differences in literary form, redemptive-historical context, and revelatory purpose.

Because of sin it is impossible for fallen humanity to rightly perceive the world except by the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. Even reason is affected by the Fall. Hence, God’s special revelation in redemptive history and in the Bible gives us glasses through which we can now see the world aright. This implies that we must submit our fallen reasoning to the Scripture and doing so enables us to interpret the world aright. This does not guarantee error-free scholarship nor does it imply that our reasoning or the reasoning of unbelievers is automatically erroneous (see “The Similarity of the Christian’s and the Non-Christian’s Science”). Rather it means that we must constantly examine our thinking to see that it accords with Scripture. In our modern context where there is great animosity toward the Christian faith among scientists and other scholars, Christian scientists must be on their guard to prevent non-Christian modes of thinking about the world from entering their own thinking.

Even with the above outlined principles it is still possible to have a conflict between science and the Christian faith. At the outset the Christian scholar must maintain that such a conflict is due to the human interpretation of the revelatory Word and works of God. There can be no ultimate conflict between Creation and Scripture. God is the author of both. Conflict comes as a result of our interpretation of Creation (the human endeavor called science) or in our interpretation of Scripture (the human endeavor called hermeneutics, exegesis and theology) or both. We ought to strive to eliminate such conflicts whenever they appear, however, we should recognize that in our limitations and fallibility we may not succeed. (See “Creationism, Evangelism, and Apologetics” in Christianity and the Age of the Earth by Davis A. Young.) In dealing with such conflicts the authority of the Biblical text must be preserved, however, I think that it is perfectly acceptable to allow the findings of science that are in conflict with a received interpretation of a particular passage of scripture to occasion the revisiting of the text to look for another possible interpretation that eliminates the conflict. This is simply to say that our interpretation of Scripture may be in error. Such a re-examination of the text must be done with great caution since the temptation is always present to twist scripture to make it conform to the latest scientific theory.

God As Creator: The Starting Point for the Christian Scientist

John Calvin opens the Institutes of the Christian Religion with an excellent discussion on whether the knowledge of God is prior to knowledge of self or vice versa. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying and perhaps even missing Calvin’s point, I will say at the outset of this essay that recognition of God as our Creator and ourselves as His creatures is the fundamental starting point for a right understanding of God, ourselves, and the world that
we study. The Scriptures themselves speak of a General Revelation which points even unregenerate men and women to this truth. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech. And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world.” (Ps. 19:1-4) “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:19,20)

However, sinful humans suppress this truth deny God and worship idols. “They did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations…Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Rom. 1:21-25) Thus, the knowledge of God as Creator comes to us by God’s special grace whereby he convinces us that what the Scriptures teach is true.

Belief that the world was created by God is a faith confession. “It is by faith that we know that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.” (Heb. 11:3) See also Gen.1:1; Neh.9:6; Job 9:7-10; Ps.33:6-9; 148:3-6; Is.40:26; 45:12,18,19; Jn.1:3; Col.1:15-17. We confess this doctrine in our creeds and confessions: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” See also Belgic Confession, Article XII, Heidelberg Catechism, Question 26, and Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter IV.

A primary meaning of Creator is Originator. All that we see around us has been called into being by His Word and is structured by His Word. All things are “created by the Word of the Lord” (Heb. 11:3). “And God said, let there be…” (Gen. 1). “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps.33:6). “For he commanded and they were created” (Ps. 148:5). “He (Christ) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). The scriptures sometimes speak of God as calling things into existence together with the rules or laws by which they operate: ordinance; dominion (Job 38:33; Jer. 33:35), fixed order (Jer. 31), command (Job 37:15; Ps. 148:5; Ps. 147:15), decree (Job 28:26), mete, measure (Job 28:25), set bounds (Ps. 104:9; Ps. 148:6), appointment (Ps. 119:91).

In its origination, creation is ultimately ex nihilo (Heb. 11:3). That is to say, before God’s original act of creation there was nothing. However, an ex nihilo creation does not rule out the notion of God’s creating some things using pre-existing material (e.g. Gen. 1:11,12,24).

An implication of the Creator/creature distinction is that Creation cannot be exhaustively fathomed by us who are part of that creation. Arie Leegwater in an unpublished outline entitled “Christian Perspectives in Physics and Chemistry” writes: “For the Christian scientist no creaturely event or thing can be reduced to its scientific explanation. No scientific account can grasp or encompass the radical character of the creature’s dependence on the Creator. There is always a sense in which the very structures themselves defy analysis and explanation. Their individuality and uniqueness harbor the mystery of creation: the divine origin and continued sustenance of all things.”

The Creator/creature distinction also points us to the human dimension of the scientific enterprise. Even the best of our theories are tentative; new data or new insights into old data may upset the most established of the scientific status quo. We would be naive historically to think that our theories and models are the last word. It might be helpful to think of the Creator/creature distinction in terms of law. From God’s perspective His law is prescriptive; from our perspective scientific laws are descriptive. It may be the case that our descriptions begin to approximate the divine prescription in the course of the history of science, but due to the incomprehensibility of the Creator, His Creation also bears that same ultimate mystery. This is the message of Job 38 and 39.

It is the doctrine of Creation that is most abused by unbelieving science. Philosophical Materialism, Evolutionary Naturalism, and Pantheism, as worldviews, deny the existence of a transcendent Creator God. There is nothing beyond the universe and its inherent properties. Such perspectives are exactly what Paul spoke of in Romans 1:25. “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

Hell-o, Rob Bell-o

Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to contribute to the publisher’s or the author’s coffers, I felt as if I had to read Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins if I was going to be a credible critic. At least I bought the less expensive iBook. (My wife did remind me that I could have checked it out from the library.) In some ways the book is easy to critique. Rob Bell relies on broad strokes that are flawed. The details of the argument simply crumble in such cases.

First, two words of praise. Chapter 2 on heaven is excellent. Bell provides the Biblical foundations for an “earthy” heaven, a new heavens and a new earth, that the future is a renewed and restored creation, a place where God’s original intent for creation and its full eschatological unfolding is seen. Bell rightly draws on the Old Testament prophets for these Biblical foundations. This is a welcome discussion, especially in light of some of the more ethereal popular conceptions of heaven and in light of some recent rumblings in some Reformed quarters of an apparent creation-denying eschatology that understands “otherworldliness” in ethereal terms rather than in earthy terms. See for example, Van Drunen’s Living in Light of God’s Two Kingdoms or the ravings at the Old Life Theological Society blog (http://oldlife.org/2011/03/24/hello-rob-bell/). As good as Chapter 2 is, I’m not sure it’s worth the price of the book. Also, I have a bit of personal angst that I agree so much with Bell on heaven, but disagree with him on hell.

Praise number two is in regard to Bell’s belief that in the end God gets what God wants. This kind of talk warms the heart of all Calvinists and all who believe in the sovereignty of God over all things. End of praise.

The trouble with Rob Bell is that he is confused about what God wants. The controlling Bible verse for Bell is 1 Timothy 2:4 that says that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Bell’s entire argument that eventually everyone will be saved seems to rest on these two ideas. God gets what God wants and God wants everyone to be saved. Those who die before they are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth get a second chance. Those who die shaking their fists at God will eventually be overcome by his patience, his goodness, the hell they make for themselves because of their rebellion. Love wins!

Bell’s selective reading of scripture is the chief problem. What about a verse like this: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:22-23). If God gets what God wants then we should expect some to be saved and some not–some objects of mercy, some objects of wrath–some in heaven, some in hell. Following Bell’s rhetorical style, he would ask, “Which is it?” Good question. But not a new question. Theologians have long distinguished between various forms of God’s will–in particular his secret, decretive will and his revealed, prescriptive will. God gets what God wants only in God’s decretive will, which invariably comes to pass. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says “the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Indeed, God gets what God wants. But Rob Bell has an overly simplistic view of what God wants..

The other broad stroke for Rob Bell is libertarian free will. Most theologians believe in free will. But there are two kinds: libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. The latter is compatible with the sovereignty of God, i.e. we make our choices uncoerced but they are made according to God’s predetermined plan. Libertarian free will says that God in no way determines the outcome. At best he can only know what we will choose because he can know the future. (And God’s knowing the future is even denied by open theists.) A common expression of this is in the libertarian free will understanding of love. Love, by its very nature, is freedom, says Bell. And when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules as the rest of us. If our love for God comes as a result of God overriding, co-opting, or hijacking the human heart, then it’s not really love. As far as I can tell this definition of free will and this definition of love doesn’t really come from the Bible but is a philosophical principle by which the Bible is interpreted. Anything that violates this principle just can’t be right.

Indeed, the Bible seems to teach exactly the opposite. The Bible uses images of the dead being awakened, being born again, having stoney hearts turned to flesh, even getting new hearts. These things are all God’s doing. Furthermore, the scriptures teach that apart from such meddling with the human heart that no one would turn to God because of our fallen, sinful condition. I for one am grateful that God hijacked my rebellious heart and allowed me to see the truth of the gospel. This free will principle is pushed to the point where not only are the gates of the heavenly city left open so that those who died enemies of God can finally enter in, but also those in the city apparently can check out at any time. (Never mind the idea that the gates are left open because there are no enemies; all is shalom.)

It’s very interesting to me to see folks with evangelicals roots pushing libertarian free will to its logical conclusions (which is just Arminianism as a theological system taken to its logical conclusion). We get the low view of scripture as articulated by Clark Pinnock in The Scripture Principle. (God can’t determine the outcome of someone’s writing in such a way that what’s written is fully God’s word, because that would violate that person’s libertarian free will.) We get open theism where God not only doesn’t control the future but also he also doesn’t even know the future. And now we get universalism. It seems to me that we’re giving up a lot of seemingly clear Biblical teaching in the interest of this philosophical principle.

In my mind those two broad strokes are enough to do in Bell’s argument.

Here are a couple more criticisms though. Bell seems to have a view of scripture where the Bible is the human response to the writers’ encounter with Jesus and his love. Thus, the various descriptions of what happened on the cross (atoning sacrifice, reconciliation, justification, etc.) were not God’s revealed descriptions/interpretations, but merely the attempt of the human being experiencing God’s love through the death of Jesus to explain it using metaphors that the contemporary audience would understand. So for Rob Bell, those of us who experience God’s love need to explain it to those around us in contemporary terms that have meaning for them. Using pictures from the ancient world just won’t cut it.

The Old Testament system, it seems, according to Bell, was nothing special. It was just like all the other ancient religions where something needed to die to placate the angry gods and you were never really sure if you had satisfied them. This is precisely backwards. The Old Testament system, the Law, Israel as a nation, etc. were instituted by God to provide the necessary background for understanding Christ’s work.

Another place that Bell gets it backwards is in his discussion of Christ as the rock from which the Israelites got water as they wondered in the wilderness. He seems surprised that Paul would see Christ in the rock since it doesn’t seem that Moses or the Israelites knew he was there. He wonders where else Christ has been when those experiencing him might not have known he was there. I take this to be a tip of the hat to other religions and other religious experiences that Christ is in them as well without them knowing it and that they are one of the many paths to the same goal. Again there is a startling suggestion that the Old Testament people were no different from any other non-Christian religion. Also, there seems to be a failure to see in the Old Testament a special anticipation of the promised Messiah/Savior. It’s as if Jesus could have been walking on the road to Emmaus with some Hindu disciples and taught them all the ways the Bhagavad Gita spoke of him.