Keller: If biological evolution is true, are we just animals driven by our genes?

Keller’s white paper asks a second “layperson” question, one that really gets at a problem: “If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?” Keller’s provides this short answer, “No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.”

Two senses of “evolution”: EBP & GTE

In explaining this question and his response, Keller distinguishes evolution in two senses. The first is the teaching that “human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes” (he gives the acronym EBP for this), and the second is evolution “as the explanation for every aspect of human nature,” which he calls the “Grand Theory of Everything” and refers to as “GTE” (6). We might call this evolution as a worldview. Similarly, some Canadian Reformed authors have argued for the distinction between “evolution” and “evolutionism.”[1]

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The problem Keller is addressing is that self-described “evolutionary creationists”—such as those at Biologos tend to be—end up hearing the same critique from both creationists and evolutionists: both argue that you can’t hold the theory of biological evolution without at the same time endorsing atheistic evolution as a whole. Essentially both critics assert that evolution is a package, a worldview, a big-picture perspective, and you can’t just isolate one part of it.

Keller suggests to his fellow Biologos members that most Christian laypeople have a difficult time distinguishing EBP from GTE. They have a hard time understanding that it is possible to limit one’s commitment to evolution to “the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating processes” (6, Keller quoting David Atkinson). “How can we help them?” Keller asks, for “this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.” He simply states that Christian pastors, theologians and scientists need to keep emphasizing that they are not endorsing evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything.

Keller’s helpful critique of evolution as the GTE

To support this, Keller provides a brief but helpful analysis, showing that evolution as the GTE is self-refuting. I’ll explain his point with the help of an online video where he elaborates a bit more. Basically, according to those who hold to evolution as the GTE, religion came about only because it somehow must have helped our ancestors survive (survival of the fittest). In fact, they say, we all know there’s no God, no heaven, no divine revelation. Such things are false beliefs. But if that is the case, argues Keller, then natural selection has led our minds to believe false things for the sake of survival. Further, if human minds have almost universally had some kind of belief in God, performed religious practices, and held moral absolutes, and if it’s all actually false, then we can’t be sure about anything our minds tell us, including evolution as the grand theory of everything. Thus, with reference to itself, evolution as the GTE is absurd.

In the online video that I used to supplement the explanation here, Keller is dealing with the problem that opponents of Christianity and of religion generally try to “explain it away.” He states, “C. S. Lewis put it this way some years ago, “You can’t go on explaining everything away forever or you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.”

Keller, following Lewis, illustrates “explaining away” with “seeing through” things: A window lets you see through it to something else that is opaque. But if all we had were windows—a wholly transparent world—all would be invisible and in the end you wouldn’t see anything at all. “To see through everything is not to see at all.”

How does that apply? Keller asks. He then shows that many universal claims are self-refuting.

If, as Nietzsche says, all truth claims are really just power grabs, then so is his, so why listen to him? If, as Freud says, all views of God are really just psychological projections to deal with our guilt and insecurity, then so is his view of God, so why listen to him? If, as the evolutionary scientists say, that what my brain tells me about morality and God is not real—it’s just chemical reactions designed to pass on my genetic code—then so is what their brains tell them about the world, so why listen to them? In the end to see through everything is not to see.[2]

As usual, Keller is an insightful apologist for the Christian faith. He helps us oppose evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything. Just the same, I heard another prominent evolutionary creationist, Denis Alexander, answering questions at a recent conference (2016) and musing about our lack of knowledge as to when “religiosity” first evolved among our ancestors. So, Keller’s helpful critique notwithstanding, at least one of his co-members at Biologos appears to think that religiosity is an evolved trait (or at least allows for this view).

 

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But not GTE

But Keller doesn’t prove that EBP doesn’t lead to GTE

Although I’ve highlighted something helpful in Keller’s white paper, the main point he needed to do was to prove that one’s commitment to the theory of evolutionary biological ancestry for humans (and all other living things) does not entail holding to evolution as the grand theory of everything. He didn’t do this because the setting in which he spoke was Biologos, an organization which is committed to EBP but wants to avoid GTE because the members are Christians. They’ve already crossed that first bridge. Nevertheless, this is the real point at issue.

Can and will Christians be able to hold to EBP without moving to GTE?

I seriously doubt that Christians can or will be successful in adopting evolution as EBP while avoiding the trajectory that moves toward evolution as GTE. Here’s why, in short.

It seems to me that as soon as one adopts EBP, the following positions come to be accepted (whether as hypotheses, theories, or firm positions):

  1. Adam and Eve had biological ancestors, from whom they evolved (some sort of chimp-like creatures).
  2. These “chimps” in turn had other biological ancestors and relatives, as do all creatures.
  3. In fact, there is an entire phylogenetic tree or chain of evolutionary development that begins with the Big Bang. All living things have common ancestry in the simplest living things, such as plants. At some point before that the transition was made from non-living things to the first living cell (some evolutionary creationists assert that God did something supernatural to make the transition from non-living things to living).[3]
  4. Evolving requires deep time. “Multiple lines of converging evidence” apparently tell us the universe is 14.7 billion years old; the earth is about 4.7 billion, life is about 3 billion, and human life is probably about 400,000 years old (these numbers may vary; I happen to think 6-10 thousand is rather ancient as it is!).
  5. Humans do not have souls; they are simply material beings. This is being promoted by Biologos and other theologians and philosophers.[4] Not all evolutionary creationists would agree; some say God gave a soul when he “made” man in his image, others that the soul “emerged” from higher-order brain processes at some point in the evolutionary history.
  6. The world is on a continual trajectory from chaos to increasing order, or from bad to good to better to best. This creates great difficulties for one’s doctrine of the fall, redemption in Christ, and the radical transition into the new creation.
  7. The earth, as long as it has had animal life, has been filled with violence. Keller admits in his paper how critical this is: “The process of evolution, however, understands violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops” (2). This presents enormous difficulty for one’s doctrines of the good initial creation, and the fall into sin.
  8. The universe’s order arises mainly due to the unfolding of the inherent powers and structures God must have embedded in that initial singularity called the Big Bang. There is a movement toward Deism inherent in the theory.
  9. Much of what the Bible ascribes to God’s creating power and wisdom actually belongs to his providential guidance, which itself was probably a rather hands-off thing.
  10. God’s nature—particularly his goodness—needs to be understood differently if creation was “red in tooth and claw” from the beginning.[5]
  11. The authority of God’s Word falls under the axe due to the exegetical gymnastics required to accommodate EBP. Scripture apparently no longer means what it appears to mean. This opens up the reinterpretation of everything in the Bible.

Conclusion

In sum, Keller provides a helpful critique of evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything, but fails to demonstrate that holding to evolutionary biological processes does not in itself, very much open one up to evolution as the GTE, and may in fact ultimately make it impossible to avoid more and more of evolution as the GTE. This is surely because for the most part evolution as such depends upon atheistic presuppositions. And in fact, it’s actually quite hard to determine just where the line is between evolution as EBP and GTE. I’m afraid that’s a sliding scale, depending upon which scientist or theologian presents his views. Once the camel’s nose is in the tent . . . you know the rest.

The academic and religious trajectories of scholars who were once orthodox and Reformed show how hard it is to maintain evolution as EBP only. I’m thinking of such men as Howard Van Till (who is now more of a “free thinker”),[6]  Peter Enns (who now only holds to the Apostles’ Creed and treats the Bible as arising from the Israelites, not from God),[7] and Edwin Walhout (who advocated rewriting the doctrines of creation, sin, salvation, and providence).[8] There are whole swaths of theologians and scientists associated with Biologos, the Faraday Institute, and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation who are trying valiantly to hold together their Christian faith with evolutionary science, and the money of the Templeton Foundation will ensure that pamphlets, presentations, conferences, and books, will bring these views to the Christian public. Holding to Dooyeweerdian philosophy’s sphere sovereignty may help some of these Christians compartmentalize their biology, geology, and their faith, but that philosophical school has been subject to severe criticism in our tradition, and on precisely this point.[9] I fear that the dissonance of EBP itself with the historic, creedal Christian faith will prove to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to keep their faith and EBP together. I also doubt that one can very easily maintain evolution as EBP only.

 

[1] See, for instance, http://reformedacademic.blogspot.ca/2010/03/response-to-clarion-s-ten-reasons.html. Accessed 24 Feb 2016.

[2] See http://veritas.org/talks/clip-explain-away-religion-tim-keller-argues-we-cant/?ccm_paging_p=6. Accessed 24 Feb, 2016.

[3] As an example of an evolutionary creationist attempting to defend the evolutionary link from egg-laying reproduction to placenta-supported reproduction, see Dennis Venema’s recent essays on vitellogenin and common ancestry at Biologos. See http://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess/vitellogenin-and-common-ancestry-does-biologos-have-egg-on-its-face. Accessed 25 Feb 2016.

[4] See my essay entitled, “In Between and Intermediate: My Soul in Heaven’s Glory,” in As You See the Day Approaching: Reformed Perspectives on the Last Things, ed. Theodore G. Van Raalte (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 70–111.

[5] See https://sixteenseasons.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/evolution-and-the-gallery-of-glory/. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.

[6] See https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/howard-van-tills-lightbulb-moment/. Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[7] See his book, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2012), ix–xx, 26–34.

[8] See https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/walhout-gets-it/. Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[9] For example, see J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1981).

Keller: Can we take Genesis 1 literally, if we hold that God used evolution to create?

As I explained in the last blog entry, Keller entertains the real questions Christians ask when they are told that biological evolution is compatible with the Bible. The first “layperson” question considered by Keller is, “If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?” Keller’s short answer is, “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.”

At first glance this is a solid answer—the Bible has authority! But I’ll have more to say about that below.

Genre and intent

Keller expands upon his answer first by delving into the genre of Genesis 1 because “the way to discern how an author wants to be read is to distinguish what genre the writer is using” (3). “How an author wants to be read” is a bit ambiguous, but I’ll take it to refer to authorial intent (Keller’s point is going to be whether or not the author wants us to read Genesis 1 literally and chronologically). The link he proposes between genre and authorial intent, however, is not straightforward. Consider this example: If I use poetry to communicate to my wife how much I love her, my intentions are just the same as if I had written it out prosaically. Even if I used a syllogism, “All my life I have loved you; today is a day of my life; therefore I love you today,” my intentions would still be the same (though she’d call it a silly-gism). It’s true that in poetry I’m more likely to use figures of speech but those as such don’t remove historicity from the poetry. See Psalm 78 for a good example of poetry replete with historical truth.

Genre of Genesis 1

Keller next asks what genre Genesis 1 is and starts his answer with the conservative Presbyterian theologian Edward J. Young (1907–1968) who, he says, “admits that Genesis 1 is written in ‘exalted, semi-poetical language.’” Keller correctly notes the absence of the telltale signs of Hebrew poetry. Yet he also points out the refrains in Genesis 1 such as, “and God saw that it was good,” “God said,” “let there be,” and “and it was so,” and then adds, “Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened” (4). He completes this part of the arguments with a quotation from John Collins that the genre of Genesis 1 is “what we may call exalted prose narrative . . . by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text” (4). Thus this argument is now complete: the genre of Genesis 1 prohibits us from reading it literally.

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Misleading appeal to E. J. Young

However, if we follow the trail via Keller’s footnote to E. J. Young’s, Studies in Genesis One, we discover that Keller sidestepped Young’s real point. Here’s the fuller quote, “Genesis one is written in exalted, semi-poetical language; nevertheless, it is not poetry” (italics added). Young continued by pointing out what elements of Hebrew poetry are lacking and by urging the reader to compare Job 38:8–11 and Psalm 104:5–9 to Genesis 1 in order to see the obvious differences between a poetic and non-poetic account of the creation. Prior to this paragraph Young had written,

Genesis one is a document sui generis [entirely of its own kind]; its like or equal is not to be found anywhere in the literature of antiquity. And the reason for this is obvious. Genesis one is divine revelation to man concerning the creation of heaven and earth. It does not contain the cosmology of the Hebrews or of Moses. Whatever that cosmology may have been, we do not know . . . Israel, however, was favoured of God in that he gave to her a revelation concerning the creation of heaven and earth, and Genesis one is that revelation (82).

 In note 80 of the same page Young elaborates further,

For this reason we cannot properly speak of the literary genre of Genesis one. It is not a cosmogony, as though it were simply one among many. In the nature of the case a true cosmogony must be a divine revelation. The so-called cosmogonies of the various peoples of antiquity are in reality deformations of the originally revealed truth of creation. There is only one genuine cosmogony, namely, Genesis one, and this account alone gives reliable information as to the origin of the earth (82n80).

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With these words of Young guiding our hearts, we turn back to Keller’s statement that it is “obvious” that someone would not compose an account in the exalted style of Genesis 1 “in response to a simple request to tell what happened.” But what if the things therein described happened exactly in that exalted way? Of course we are reading “exalted prose”—precisely because the things described are so wonderful! The literary style not only fits but even reflects the miraculous events. God is glorified repeatedly, all the more because it is literally true.

An old canard: Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2

Keller’s second reason—and strongest, he says—why he thinks the author of Genesis 1 didn’t want to be taken literally is based on “a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2” (4). This argument is a bit more complicated and deserves closer scrutiny than I will give it here. But the basic point is that Genesis 2:5 apparently speaks about God not putting any vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere or rain or a man to till the ground. This, says Keller, is the natural order. Genesis 1 is the unnatural order, so it’s not literal. His argument is an old canard, but really it is a lame duck.

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Let’s examine it: Keller says that Genesis 1 has an unnatural order because light (day 1) came before light sources (day 4) and vegetation (day 3) came before an atmosphere and rain (day 4). However, he reads the text too quickly here, for the separation of waters above and below occurs on day 2, allowing rain before vegetation. On day 4 God set the light sources in the firmament that was already there on day 2. Further, the old light vs light bearers problem is far from sufficient to jettison the chronological order of the creation events in Genesis 1. And, finally, a normal day without light or water wouldn’t kill these plants anyway.

To continue: the order of events in Genesis 2, especially verse 5, is not in the least contrary to Genesis 1. Rather, whereas Genesis 1:1–2:3 refers only to “God” and focuses on the awesome Creator preparing and adorning the earth for man, Genesis 2:4–25 focus on this God as “Yahweh” who lovingly and tenderly creates the man and the woman, prepares a beautiful garden for them, and who thereupon enters into a loving relationship with them. Each chapter makes its own contribution to the story, with chapter 2 doubling back in order to more fully explain the events of the sixth day. This is a common occurrence in Hebrew prose. Further, we can easily fit 2:4–25 chronologically in between 1:26, “Let us make man in our image” and 1:27, “So God created man in his image . . . male [Adam] and female [Eve] he created them.”

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Finally, Genesis 2:4 begins the first “toledoth” or “generations of” statement, which after this becomes a structural divider in Genesis, occurring nine more times. Young argues that we should translate “toledoth” as “those things which are begotten” (59). If we follow this suggestion, we see that Genesis 2:4ff tell us about the things begotten of the heavens and the earth, such as the man, who is both earthly (his body) and heavenly (his spirit), or the garden, which is earthly, yet planted by God. When Genesis 2:5 states that “no shrub of the field” had yet grown and “no plant of the field” had yet sprouted, it portrays a barrenness which sets the stage for the fruitful garden (2:8–14) and the fruitful wife (2:18–25). Further, the “shrubs” and “plants” of the field likely point to cultivated plants that require human tending. Adam will be a farmer. If so, the point of 2:5 is not the lack of vegetation altogether, but the lack of certain man-tended kinds, such as those Yahweh God would plant in the Garden of Eden.

Therefore, we ought to conclude the very opposite of Keller. Whereas he argues that we cannot read both chapter 1 and chapter 2 as “straightforward accounts of historical events” and that chapter 2 rather than chapter 1 provides the “natural order” (5), we most certainly can read both as historical and literal.

Keller pulls together both the genre and the chronology arguments and concludes,

So what does this mean? It means Genesis 1 does not teach us that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. Of course, it doesn’t teach evolution either . . . However, it does not preclude the possibility of the earth being extremely old (5).

However, both of Keller’s grounds for not taking Genesis 1 literally have been exposed as weak at best.[1] In contrast, E. J. Young’s strong arguments for the literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, a few of which we reviewed here, remain firmly in place. Exalted prose indeed, and true!

Whose authority?

Finally, a word about the authority of the text: Keller states that we must “respect the authority of the Biblical writers.” His wording is similar to John Walton’s in his speeches at a conference I attended in September 2015.[2] Walton frequently spoke of “the authority of the text” and stated that it rested in the original meaning “as understood by the people who first received it.” But missing from both Keller and Walton is the recognition that all Scripture is breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16) and that therefore the primary author is the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). We are not called just to respect the authority of human writers or of the text, but of God himself! There are passages of Scripture for which the first intention of the human writer—as far as we can discern it—does not reach as far as the divine intention (for example, certain Messianic Psalms such as 2 & 110, or the injunction about the ox not wearing a muzzle as it treads out the grain (Deut 25:4; cf. 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18). In fact, Peter tells us that the Old Testament prophets searched with great care to find out the time and circumstances of the things they prophesied about Christ—implying that the prophecies went beyond the knowledge of the prophets themselves. He adds that these are things into which even angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10–12). Thus, it’s clear that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit and that the authority of the text resides in his intentions first of all. This is why one of the primary rules of interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture. This book alone is God’s Word!

Let us take great care in handling the Word of God, greater care than Keller does on this point. And let us conclude that the text of Genesis 1 itself clearly indicates it is to be read literally, historically, and chronologically (Keller, at least, has not proven otherwise).

[1] In addition, Keller’s note 17 on page 14, linked to a different section of his paper, asserts that prose can use figurative speech and poetry can use literal speech. It appears, then, that he undercuts his own argument.

[2] See my blog entry at https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/2016/02/03/the-lost-world/.

Keller’s advice to fellow Biologos members

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A theological orthodoxy as well-aligned as that of Timothy Keller is hard to find among the increasing numbers of scientists, theologians, and organizations currently urging evangelical Christians to accept biological evolution. He is the pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) and is well-known through his writings on apologetics, church planting, and preaching. His 13 page white paper, hosted by Biologos and entitled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” has been referenced favourably by scientists and theologians in conservative Reformed churches.[1] For example, when Frieda Oosterhoff introduced Keller’s paper some years ago on the Reformed Academic website, she stated,

(Readers of this blog, incidentally, will notice that our blog partner Dr. Jitse van der Meer sees eye to eye with Dr. Kidner in the matter of human evolution, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the descent of all humans from Adam, and that he affirms the same tentative approach as Kidner and Keller.)[2]

In his paper Keller entertains the real questions of concerned Christians and offers answers as to how to help them integrate evolution with their faith. We have intended to interact with his arguments for some time.

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It’s important to situate accurately our debate with Keller. The debate between us is not whether the Christian faith and current science (or what is claimed to be science) are irreconcilable, for we all agree that in many respects they are reconcilable while in some respects they are not. The debate, rather, is in what particular respects they are and are not able to be reconciled.

The debate between us is not whether evolution is a defensible worldview that gives us the basis of our views on religion, ethics, human nature, etc. We all agree that it is not the “grand theory/explanation of everything.” We all agree that there is a God and he is the God of the Bible—Triune, sovereign, covenant-making, gracious, atonement-providing, and bringing about a new creation. Nor am I debating whether Keller is an old-earth creationist aka progressive creationist or an evolutionary creationist or a theistic evolutionist. His own position is a bit unclear so I will simply deal with what he has published in this paper.[3]

The debate between us is not whether matter is eternal; whether the universe’s order is by sheer chance; whether humans have no purpose but to propagate their own genes; whether humans are material only; whether human life is no more valuable than bovine, canine, or any other life; whether upon death all personal existence ceases; or whether ethics is at root about the survival of the fittest. We all agree that none of these things are the case—Scripture teaches differently. We are not debating these points.

Our differences emerge in the compatibility of Scripture with biological evolution, namely, whether Scripture has room for the view that humans—insofar as they are material beings—have a biological ancestry that precedes Adam and Eve. Is this a permissible view?

The first thing to realize as one reads Keller’s paper is its context and purpose: Delivered at the first Biologos “Theology of Celebration” workshop in 2009, Keller lays out 3 (at first 4) concerns that “Christian laypeople” typically express when they are told that God created Adam and Eve by evolutionary biological processes. Keller advances strategies to help fellow Biologos members allay these fears of Christian laypeople. The context thus is that biological evolution is a permissible view; the scholars just need to figure out how to make it more widely accepted.

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Keller deals with the following “three questions of Christian laypeople.”

  1. If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?
  2. If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?
  3. If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

These are excellent questions! Keller provides summary answers and longer explanations for each question. His short answers to the first two questions seem solid enough on the surface of things, yet his longer explanations deserve careful examination. His short answer to the third question is something we have directly contested on creationwithoutcompromise.com more than once, from the standpoint of Scripture. Here are his three summary answers. You can correlate them with the questions above.

  1. The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.
  2. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.
  3. Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

With this introduction in place, we can now interact with Keller’s advice to his fellow Biologos members in his longer explanations of each of these summary answers.

[1] Keller’s paper can be found online at http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/series/creation-evolution-and-christian-laypeople. Accessed 22 Feb 2016.

[2] See http://reformedacademic.blogspot.ca/2010/03/tim-keller-on-evolution-and-bible.html. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

[3] For this debate see https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/is-dr-tim-keller-a-progressive-creationist/. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

The Lost Wor(l)d

William Van Doodewaard, author of The Quest for the Historical Adam (RHB, 2015), has written a critical review over at Reformation21 of another book published in 2015 by John Walton. We highly recommend that you read the review.

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Walton’s book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve explains his views on Genesis 2 and 3 whereas his earlier book, The Lost World of Genesis One, lays out his interpretation of Genesis 1. If you’re not familiar with Walton’s views, Van Doodewaard’s review will help as might this interview, but don’t be surprised if it feels a bit mind-bending, for Walton’s approach truly is unique.

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After reading J. Richard Middleton’s blog last September, I attended a conference on September 18–19, 2015 entitled “Genesis Recast: The War with Science is Over” where Walton gave two lengthy speeches, one representing each book. The event was hosted by an evangelical megachurch in New York State and sponsored by Biologos and other organizations. Walton opened the first evening and was first up to speak the next day. His role was to try and open the minds of the evangelical audience to the idea that perhaps we have been misunderstanding Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for centuries, if not millennia. He kept emphasizing that all he was doing was reading the text for what it is; he didn’t have an agenda to make room for evolution or some other theory. The audience could have been forgiven for doubting this, for one of the presentations that followed Walton’s was by Stephen Schaffner, a Christian physicist. He opened by asking what genetics tells us about where humans come from? His short answer: Through evolutionary biology. We were then shown branches of the evolutionary “tree of life” in which all living organisms have their place, beginning with the simplest life forms and evolving to homo sapiens over aeons of time. In Schaffner’s view the number of people on the earth has never been smaller than about 5000 and all people of European ancestry have at least 2% Neanderthal DNA.

So much for a historical, literal Adam and Eve as the one human pair from whom all humans descend.

I have neither the expertise nor the time to critique Schaffner’s presentation (you could look here, however). My point is just to make clear that Walton’s views fit into a context and are being used—whether designed for this purpose or not—to open the way for acceptance among Christians of most or all of the theory of evolution.

Schaffner ended with a quotation from the Russian Orthodox biologist Theodosius Dobzhandsky,

It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist . . . Creation is not an event that happened in 4003 BC; it is a process that began 10 billion years ago and is still underway.

Dobzhandsky is, of course, merely applying the definition of the word “evolution” to “creation.”

The conference included a special lunch reserved for persons in ministry which I attended and which allowed us to ask Walton some questions. The first question was, “How would you teach this to children in Sunday School?” Walton responded that he would emphasize the positive aspects of the account: general things like God is the Creator and the one who gives order. But children, of course, will want to know whether the things described in Genesis actually happened the way they are described. Telling them there really is a Santa Claus but adding that his handwritten note from the North Pole doesn’t mean what you think it does, will leave them puzzled, unsatisfied, and uninterested in Santa Claus.

The advertising for the conference highlighted the idea that the war with science is over; Scripture, the Christian faith, and science are all in agreement. The conference made clear that this meant a wholesale reinterpretation of Genesis with virtually no challenge asserted against modern scientific theories and interpretations. Christians are hearing this more often, and can rest assured that the message is going to be repeated frequently. Walton was on a circuit, giving his speeches at many different venues. Other organizations such as this one (as well as a few evangelical universities and seminaries) have also written successful grant proposals to the Templeton Foundation, Biologos, the Faraday Institute, etc. and will be hiring personnel, putting on local seminars, creating brochures, establishing student scholarships, etc. They are out to change the mind of the church regarding God’s miracle of creation in six days.

The work that Van Doodewaard has done in his 2015 book and in the review we’ve introduced here will truly help equip us to stand firm upon the Word of God.

Extraordinary days = support for theistic evolution?

Quote 1:

As I have pointed out some years ago, there is a striking difference on the interpretation of Genesis 1 between these North-American Reformed theologians and their Dutch colleagues – such as Kuyper, Bavinck, Honig, Aalders, Schilder . . . Are we in danger of forgetting our own Reformed tradition in favour of the American one – both in the interpretation of Genesis 1 and in the inerrancy issue?

Quote 2:

Theistic evolution is not outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity.

Comment on quotes 1 & 2: Anyone reading the first quotation on a website that includes the second quotation can be forgiven for thinking (incorrectly) that the theologians here named supported some version of theistic evolution. Arguing towards the thesis of quote two in fact provides the raison d’être for the Reformed Academic blog, from where these quotes are drawn.

Quote 3:

This [the global flood] is a major argument in supporting its [creation science’s] belief that the earth is quite young — some 6,000 to 10,000 years in age, rather than the billions of years acknowledged by most scientists. According to creation-science most of the geological features of the entire earth have been shaped by a global Noahic flood which took place some 5,000 years ago.

Quote 4:

With respect to the results of modern science regarding so-called “origins” questions, we do acknowledge that there are multiple converging lines of evidence in favour of an ancient cosmos and even for the common ancestry of all living things. Now, especially in the latter case we do not consider this evidence to be incontrovertible proof, and we certainly believe God did something special in creating humankind.

Quote 5:

This includes especially the field of paleontology (studying the fossil record, including the use of radioactivity and geology) as well as astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology (these deal with stars and galaxies whose light often takes many years to reach us). These are the disciplines, after all, which have been marshalling the evidence that life has been around for about ¾ of the earth’s 4.54-billion-year history, and that the universe itself is about 13.75 billion years old. And these ages are supposed to contradict a “plain sense” or “traditional” reading of Scripture.

Comment on quotes 3, 4, and 5: Two choices are placed before the reader: either 6,000 to 10,000 years of age for the earth [and universe, I might add], or 13.75 billion years for the universe, 4.54 billion for the earth, and about 3 point something billion years for life on earth. Note: to make the contrast clear, I added the italics to these quotations from the Reformed Academic website.

My concern: For several years, as part of their argument that Reformed Christians need to make room for theistic evolution, Reformed Academic has been appealing to some key continental Reformed theologians—as listed above, Kuyper, Bavinck, Honig, Aalders, and Schilder—and their views on the length of the creation days in Genesis 1. Of course none of the authors at Reformed Academic have argued that these theologians supported theistic evolution as such. In one place, they even correctly state the opposite. Nevertheless, my concern is that by way of repeated rhetorical appeal to the latitude of these men regarding “Genesis 1”—and by using “Genesis 1” as shorthand for their views on the length of the days in Genesis 1—Reformed Academic leaves the impression that they can claim the support of these earlier theologians. I assert that these men neither supported theistic evolution, nor tolerated the deep time required for the supposed evolutionary process—the millions, let alone billions of years of the universe and the earth. Nor should we.

We can all point to a number of theologians who argued that some or all of the days of Genesis 1 were “extraordinary” in length, or that they were “God’s working days,” and “creation days.” Both Max Rogland (2001) and Frederika Oosterhoff (2003) have proved the case for this, and shown that Bavinck, Schilder, and others used primarily exegetical points from Genesis 1 to argue against being bound to the 24-hour view. But the fuller picture requires a more robust affirmation of their adherence to the literal, historical, common-sense reading of Genesis 1. I will explore only two of these figures, Bavinck and Schilder, and I shall follow them up with a quotation from one of the former professors of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary on the same point.

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921)Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 1.17.35 AM

Bavinck dealt at some length with evolution in his Reformed Dogmatics, in an essay on Evolution, and in another essay on Creation or Development and in his Our Reasonable Faith.[1] All of these are available in English. In none of them does he endorse theistic evolution, though he certainly appreciates the way in which God made creatures with the ability to adapt. On the idea that humans have biological ancestry with animals, Bavinck writes,

The descendance theory of Darwin may be an indispensable link in the doctrine of development; it finds no support in facts. Man always has and still does form a distinct species in the world of creatures. For this reason there is still room in science for the wondrously beautiful narrative which the opening chapters of the Bible contain concerning the origin of things . . .

And thus the Scripture states it. In an ascending series, covering a period of six days, by the word of his power the Almighty brings all things to appear from the unseen world of thought . . . What an insight into the origin of things! What an exalted simplicity! Here is poetry and truth and religion all in one. This is both natural science and philosophy (859–60).

After offering extensive critique of evolution for usurping the term development, Bavinck points out that the evolutionary worldview has no purpose of the individual person, for humanity as a whole, or for the earth. In this context he adds a point about the “millions of years,” calling it “child’s play,”

Endless duration together with an endless progress is inconceivable for the earth as well as for man. An end must come. To reckon with millions of years, in the past or in the present, is child’s play and unworthy of mature minds, and is at best of no greater value than the gigantic numbers of Indian mythology. All physicists teach that after some millions of years the earth shall come to an end. However rich in provisions, the earth is not inexhaustible.[2]

James Visscher, in a study on Bavinck on creation, includes part of this quote also, and adds in a note, “[Bavinck] considered the figures coming from geologists to be far-fetched. He had little use for Darwin’s ‘incalculable number of years.’ He stated, ‘As a matter of fact, there are other reasons as well why the human race cannot have existed many thousands of years before Christ.”[3]

Benjamin Warfield, in a review of Bavinck’s essay, spoke with great admiration,

[Bavinck] uncovers with great skill the inconsistencies of the evolutionary philosophy and exposes its vast assumptions; and sets over against it the creationism or supernaturalism of the Biblical world-conception. The address divides itself into three parts, in which are contrasted the two views of the world successively with reference to the questions of the origin, nature, and end of things, the result being to show that the evolutionary scheme stands helplessly before each of the three problems. It is a very thorough and very telling exposure of the essential atheism of evolutionism, considered as a philosophy of being.[4]

Perhaps Warfield was more open to the millions of years hypothesis than was Bavinck, for he doesn’t mention that as part of Bavinck’s critique of evolution as a philosophy of being, he also called its appeal to millions—let alone billions!—of years, “child’s play.”

Klaas Schilder (1890–1952)Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 1.17.00 AM

We needn’t comment extensively on Schilder’s views, as Frederika Oosterhoff has already done this work and I haven’t time to pursue this research deeply. However, the comments of Jacob Kamphuis are helpful, in his study on Schilder on heaven. He writes,

Without compromise Schilder makes his starting point the faith in Scripture, specifically in the historical trustworthiness of the history related in Genesis 2 and 3, dealing with the original state of righteousness and the fall into sin. In this book Schilder does not refer even once to the decisions of the Synod of Assen of 1926 [though he had earlier written much about it] regarding the historical trustworthiness of the narrative in Genesis 2 and 3. Nevertheless, Berkhouwer’s words are strikingly applicable to What is Heaven? “I know of no theologian within the circle of Refomred theology for whom the decision of Assen was of more material significance than it was for Schilder.” Schilder reminds us repeatedly of his position, “With resepect to the beginning of the world we must accept the historicity of the narrative of Genesis 1–3.” This is the starting point.[5]

Jack DeJong (1949–)

One of the professors of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, now retired and sadly incapable of entering this debate, commented in Clarion some years ago on the length of the creation days. Like Schilder, whom he studied for his dissertation, DeJong argued that we should not be bound to an exact length of 24 hours for our view of the creation days. Not everyone appreciated his position. However, that he in no way intended to make room for millions of years or for theistic evolution is clear from a brief comment he made in a published work for instruction in pre-confession classes, where he wrote,

The world was created in six days, according to the following pattern . . . [he lists the six days]. The theory of evolution says that all present things evolved from original cells through a process spanning millions of years. Although we cannot deny the process of limited change and micro-evolution, we must rule out the possibility of a change from one species to another (macro-evolution). While we cannot accurately determine the age of the earth, an evolutionary process of billions of years does not accord with the testimony of Genesis 1–3 and its relation to the rest of Scripture.[6]

Conclusion

Let’s not be misled to think that the Reformed theologians here mentioned intended to make room within the Reformed faith for millions or even billions of years of prior existence of the universe, earth, and life. All of them did argue that the days of Genesis 1 (the first three days, or even all six of them) should be called “extraordinary days,” “God’s working days,” and “creation days,” because they thought that these days were not necessarily identical in time with our 24-hour days. But they never suggested that their views allowed room for the deep time advocated by evolutionists.[7]

[1] All of these are easily found, but one: Herman Bavinck, “Creation or Development,” The Methodist Review (1901), transl. Hendrik De Vries, 849–74. See  https://archive.org/details/methodistreview8351unse. Accessed November 9, 2015.

[2] I thank Anthon Souman for drawing this quotation to my attention. I have since noticed that Herman Van Barneveld has also raised it in dialogue with Reformed Academic.

[3] James Visscher, “Bavinck on Creation,” Living Waters from Ancient Springs , ed. Jason Van Vliet (Wipf&Stock, 2011), 145, n. 44.

[4] From the Presbyterian and Reformed Review 12 (1901), 507, as quoted in Eric D. Bristley, Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck (RHB, 2008), 75. Checking the original source, I note that Warfield was reviewing the Dutch original, not the translation.

[5] Jacob Kamphuis, “Schilder on Heaven,” Always Obedient, ed. J. Geertsema (P&R, 1995), 102.

[6] Jack DeJong, Credo (Premier Publishing, 1997, etc.), 28–29.

[7] Finally, as a bit of an aside, readers of Reformed Academic’s blogs also repeatedly encounter one or two quotations from John Calvin to the effect that we are to learn astronomy and other disciplines from the scientific experts and not from the Bible. Creation Ministries International replied to this trope some time ago, with a much more wholesome account of Calvin’s views.