Age of the Earth

age of the earth icon

This is the fifth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of the Age of the Earth.

Using radiometric dating modern science has concluded that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. Geologists since the 18th and 19th centuries began to understand that the earth has a vast age (measured in millions and billions of years rather than thousands of years). The 17th century bishop, James Ussher, using dates of historically known events and assuming literal and gapless Biblical genealogies and an ordinary (six, twenty-four hour day) Creation week in Genesis 1, concluded that God created the world around six thousand years ago. Today’s young-earth creationists (YEC) continue to follow Ussher’s basic interpretative procedure. Others (old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists, some Old Testament scholars) believe that there are approaches to understanding Genesis 1 in particular that do not require a conclusion that is in conflict with modern science. (See the “Reading Genesis” section for various perspectives.)

Most ASA members accept the consensus scientific view on the age of the earth. Already in 1949 based on radiometric dating techniques, ASA member Laurence Kulp said, “One of the most probable facts in geology, I believe, is that the earth is close to two billion years old…” Kulp’s early paper supporting the old earth position and criticizing YEC is featured in the collection below. A paper written for the ASA web site, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” by physicist Roger Wiens has proved to be one of the most popular in terms of electronic downloads. Many of the resources here simply review the scientific claims for an old earth and then seek to understand that great age in light of what the Bible says. YEC have brought forward critiques of the various dating methods and conclusions drawn from them. Because ASA members have tended to accept the consensus view, the articles here summarize and engage the YEC criticisms. ASA members may disagree with the YEC position but acknowledge those who hold that view as fellow believers and worthy of respectful engagement. Randy Isaac’s review of the YEC RATE project and subsequent dialog with its authors illustrates this respectful engagement.

Many Christians today, especially those in conservative, evangelical churches, remain persuaded of the YEC viewpoint. Yet there are evangelical traditions and theologians who have long accepted old earth arguments. ASA members throughout its history have sought to convince the former group that the scientific arguments for an old earth are quite sound, rooted in the same science that has given us progress in medicine and technology. Largely evangelical themselves, these ASA members have also attempted to formulate ways of approaching this question that take seriously the Bible and evangelical Christian theology.

The last group of papers deals with the idea of apparent age. Here, the earth/universe looks old, i.e. old age is the conclusion you would draw from the scientific data. Even Isaac, in his discussion of the RATE project, seems to allow this view as one with scientific integrity because it admits to the consensus view. Many reject the view because it undermines the idea that we can draw reliable conclusions from our observations or even trust God’s revelation to us in creation. Nonetheless, apparent age is a method of reconciling the scientific data with the perceived need for a young earth.

Anyone interested in tackling the scientific arguments for the vast age of the earth or the related theological questions is encouraged to study these papers and talks.

Questions

1. What have you been taught about the age of the earth in your family, church, or school?

2. Which scientific arguments for an old earth do you know?

 

Reading Genesis

reading genesis icon

This is the fourth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of Reading Genesis.

For some the Bible-Science conflict starts with the opening chapter of Genesis. If one assumes that the account is straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence then you end up with a fully formed Creation that was made in the space of six (twenty-four hour) days. If you tie such a view to a historical dating of the David/Solomonic kingdom around 1000 BC and an arithmetic (rather than symbolic) approach to the genealogies of the Bible, you end up with a recent Creation, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This is how many evangelicals read Genesis today and is the origin of such young-earth creationist (YEC) organizations as the Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, Answers in Genesis, etc. In this view the Bible teaches a recent Creation. All other approaches to knowledge (science, history, etc.) must conform to this Biblical teaching.

This YEC viewpoint seems at odds with the conclusions of modern science. Modern cosmology teaches that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, that life originated on earth 3.85 billion years ago, that modern plants and animals developed through an evolutionary process around 500 million years ago, that dinosaurs lived on the earth 230 million to 70 million years ago, that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, and that worldwide migrations of humans occurred 60,000 to 15,000 years ago. This long history embodies cosmological, geological, and biological processes that occurred over time-scales in the thousands, millions, and billions of years, not six, twenty-four hour days.

There are others who embrace the scientific account and then conclude that the Bible and the religions that use the Bible as their authoritative text are hopelessly wrong. For them Biblical faith is akin to believing in fairies and leprechauns. While coming from totally opposite perspectives YEC and atheistic evolutionists have a fundamental agreement: Biblical faith and modern science are incompatible. Yet, there are some, represented by the American Scientific Affiliation and the BioLogos Foundation, the developers and hosts of the perspectives presented here, who disagree. By and large those who disagree do not reject the conclusions of modern science. Thus, the chronology of modern science stated above is accepted as well as the idea that naturally occurring processes can explain the historical development of the cosmos from Big Bang to present. Accepting the conclusions of modern science can be done from Christian theistic framework. God remains the Creator, Sustainer, Governor, and Provider of the universe.

Those who adopt this middle path claim that it is possible to understand the Bible in a way that does not result in a conflict with modern science. Many wonder whether this is being faithful to scripture. This question is addressed in all of the papers and presentations listed below. While it is certainly true that those who accept the authority of the Bible should not always adjust their interpretation of scripture to fit the results of the latest science, it must always be remembered that our traditional interpretations may be wrong. If a conflict with science arises, there is nothing wrong with using that occasion to revisit our traditional interpretation of scripture to see if we have it right. Most everyone would admit that if the traditional interpretation is not the correct interpretation then we should change our view, and that changing our view is being more faithful to scripture.

Listed below are key papers from the ASA journal (JASA, PSCF) or presentations given at ASA meetings or other works by individuals associated with the ASA that address the proper way of reading Genesis 1. Not all of the authors agree with each other. But there is somewhat a common theme that Genesis 1 must be understood in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context and that reading it in that context may mean that our 21st century questions may not be answered.

Questions

1. How were you brought up to understand Genesis 1? What did you learn at home, in Sunday School, in church, at school, in college? Is challenging the “traditional” reading of Genesis 1 troubling to you?

2. How does your current Christian community–your church, your Christian school, your Christian college–deal with these issues?

3. How well do you understand modern science and its claims about the origin of the universe, the earth, life on earth, and humanity?

4. Have you ever changed your understanding of scripture based on extra-Biblical information (archaeology, understanding Biblical customs, etc.)? Why did you change your view?

5. How might it be possible to reject Genesis as straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence and not reject it being revelation from God and having some kind of authority?

 

Adam and Eve and Human Origins

This is the third of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of Adam and Eve and Human Origins.

The Adam and Eve account of human origins in Genesis 2 and 3 has been challenged by scientific theories since the days of Darwin. The Genesis account portrays Adam as being formed by God from inanimate earth and then animated to become a living creature via the divine inbreathing. Eve was created later from the side of Adam as he was found to be alone and in need of a suitable helper. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden in communion with God, created in His image. They succumbed to the temptation of the serpent and disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As a consequence they were separated from God, cursed, and doomed to die. Adam is seen as the first human being with several Biblical genealogies originating with him. All human beings appear to be descended from Adam and Eve. The Genesis account is set in the Neolithic period at the beginnings of modern human civilization between 10,000 and 5,000 BC. Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49 not only see Adam as the first man, but as one who uniquely represents the whole human race and through whom human sin and death comes into the world.

Modern science sees human beings as having evolved from primate and hominid ancestors. Anatomically modern humans have been around for 150,000-200,000 years and all currently living human beings are thought to have descended from an evolving population of about 5,000-10,000 individuals living in Africa. The genetic arguments for this perspective can be explored in some of the ASA resources on this topic. (See the papers and presentations of Francis Collins or Dennis Venema, for example). While all other human or hominid species have gone extinct, there is some genetic evidence that modern humans interbred with Neanderthal and Denisovian hominids. While there is recognition of human uniqueness compared to other animals and extant primates, this is attributed to various biological features such as bipedalism, opposing thumbs, and brain capacity. There is also a recognition of a transition about 10,000 BC with the rise of agriculture, metallurgy, and other uniquely human cultural expressions as human beings transitioned from a hunter-gatherer mode of existence to one of localized farming that ultimately gave rise to towns and cities. Human psychology and behavior seem to have a continuity with primate and other animal behavior in both its altruistic components and in less socially desirable behaviors. In other words, deviant behavior (sin) is not the consequence of a Fall from some state of innocence, but is part of the evolutionary process. Death was not brought into the world by one man’s sin, but has been part of the process from the beginning.

The two extreme positions for relating these two accounts are the rejection of one or the other. There are some who see the Genesis account of human beginnings as being the way ancient Near Eastern people in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions saw their beginnings. It is from a distant culture both in time and space. It is what they believed, but it is simply not true. And there is no reason for us to think it is true. The scientific account is true inasmuch as we can say that about scientific accounts. New data or perhaps new ideas about old data will result in our continually revising the scientific account. But, based on our understanding today, this is the way it happened. We will call this view “atheistic naturalism”. (NOTE: The “atheistic” part of this extreme is its rejection of any truth claims of the Biblical text. There are many Christians willing to accept the scientific claims described here.)

Alternatively, we could reject the modern scientific story as being completely wrong, rooted in an enterprise dedicated to denying God. The Bible is true. The people, places, times, events are real. We will call this view “Biblical fundamentalism”.

The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) has fostered discussion of this topic over its 70 year history. One of the features of the ASA discussion is its rejection of the two extremes. The ASA accepts the Bible as inspired, trustworthy, and authoritative and thus disagrees with the “atheistic naturalist” who simply disregards the Biblical teaching. The ASA also believes that scientific investigation (and its results) are legitimate because God created and preserves the universe in such a way that it has contingent order and intelligibility. The ASA discussion is among people who take both the Bible and science seriously. Thus, the outright rejection of one or the other view is not really an option.

The Adam and Eve and Human Origins resource is a compilation of articles and audio/video presentations discussing the question of human origins from many different perspectives. For each article/author there is an introductory comment and some tips for reading/listening/watching for each one. The ASA does not take a position when there is honest disagreement between Christians on an issue. It is committed to providing an open forum where controversies can be discussed without fear of unjust condemnation. Legitimate differences of opinion among Christians who have studied both the Bible and science are freely expressed within the Affiliation in a context of Christian love and concern for truth. Consequently, you will find a range of views, some which disagree strongly with the other. ASA simply hopes to help Christians work through these difficult questions.

Big questions are in this discussion. What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy? What is the correct way to read/interpret the Bible? Does the Bible teach science? What is sin and how did it enter the world? What is the image of God? Are Adam and Eve historical figures? Are there theological truths in Genesis that can be separated from actual historical events?

The Adam and Eve and Human Origins resource contains contributions by ASA members to annual meetings, articles in the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), books and blog posts written by ASA members that address the question. Nearly everyone acknowledges the basic scientific claim that human beings, at least in their biological form, descended from non-human ancestors or at least look as if they descended from non-human ancestors 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. That is in keeping with the ASA spirit of taking the science seriously. The differences and most of discussion concerns what it means to take the Biblical account seriously and how to relate traditional theological views such as the image of God, state of innocence, the Fall into sin, original sin, unity of the human race, etc. to the scientific viewpoint. Some argue that the Genesis account is just ancient Near Eastern “science” and that God accommodated his revelation to that cultural context. In that view it becomes important to distinguish the historical and scientific details of the account (which may be wrong) from the theological truths that they represent. Others seek to preserve a degree of historicity and speculate how the event character of the Genesis account might fit into the scientific story. Both viewpoints argue that they are taking the Bible seriously. The theological questions about God’s image, the role of Adam and Eve in original sin, the effect of Adam and Eve’s sin on the rest of humanity, etc. are handled in a variety of ways in either perspective. The history of theology tells us that there are differences of opinion on these theological questions quite independent of any questions of human evolution. In certain theological traditions, for example, the covenant theology as articulated in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith from the 17th century, there is a commitment to certain answers on these theological questions.

Questions

1. What is your reaction to this summary? Are you familiar with the Biblical story? Are you familiar with the modern scientific story? Was there anything new to you in either of them?

2. Our examination of this topic will continue, and we will examine different ways of thinking about the two accounts. Begin to make a list of ways to relate these two accounts.

3. What is your reaction to the two extremes as presented? Do you know of people or organizations represented by such extreme views? What critique of each can you offer?

4. Do you agree or disagree with perspective of the ASA? Why is it important to take both the Bible and science seriously?

 

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.

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.

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.