Martin Luther on Creation (II)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527The ancient Hebrew cosmology, we’re told repeatedly, included an understanding that there is a hard shell over the earth, known as the “firmament.” We’ve addressed this misunderstanding here before, but once again, Martin Luther has something to teach us on this subject.

I’m returning to the first volume of Luther’s Works, and specifically what he had to say about the firmament in Genesis 1:6.  Why? Because Luther is correct here, when he explains the meaning of the Hebrew word “raqia” (“expanse,” or “firmament”). Luther writes:

“The Hebrew word “raqia” denotes ‘something spread out,’ from the verb ‘raqa,’ which means ‘to expand’ or ‘to fold out.’ The heaven was made in this manner, that the unformed mass extended itself outward as the bladder of a pig extends itself outward in circular form when it is inflated – if I may be permitted to make use of a coarse comparison in order to make the process clear.”

But what about Job 37:18? That verse says:

“Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?” 

Isn’t it clear from this verse, found in one of the earliest books of the Old Testament, that the ancient cosmology did in fact include a hard shell above the earth? So goes the argument; the creation account reflects the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and as such does not describe in “literal” terms the makeup of the universe.

Luther responds:

“This pertains not to the material but to the Word, which makes very strong even that which is very soft by nature. What is softer than water, what is thinner and finer than air? Yet because these very fine and soft substances were created by the Word, they preserve their form and motion most perfectly and firmly. But even if the heaven had been constructed of steel or of an infinitely harder material, it would break and melt because of its swift, long, and continuous motion. The sun, too, would melt one day as a result of its swift motion, even if it consisted of the hardest material. For motion produces great heat; in fact, Aristotle declares that the lead on an arrow melts on account of its swift motion.” 

Luther’s explanation of the nature of the firmament is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, he debunks the “solid dome” idea in a few words, and does so by doing the work of exegesis using the text of Scripture itself in the first place. He goes on to add:

“Among the Hebrews the firmament got its name from the expanding. Thus in Psalm 104 the comparison with skins and camp tents, taken from military life, cleverly alludes to the word. The expression is: ‘Stretching out the heaven like a tent curtain’ (Ps. 104:2). ‘For just as a folded-up tent is unfolded and pitched in a field,’ the psalm says,’ so Thou dost spread out and, as it were, unroll by Thy Word the unformed heaven, where Thou dost sit invisibly in the whole of creation, just as in a sphere, within all things and outside all things.’”

In the second place, Luther interacted with the scientific knowledge that he had available to him – in this case, the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and later the conclusions of contemporary philosophers. But he does so not in order to re-interpret Scripture to conform with the philosophers’ conclusions. Rather, this knowledge leads him to glorify God and the power of his creative and providential Word. This philosophical (or scientific, to use the modern term) knowledge is limited and provisional. It is always subject to revision. It’s useful, Luther says, but it’s useful within its limits:

“It would… be the height of stupidity to sneer at these ideas [those of the philosophers or scientists of the day], as some do, because they are not so definite that they could not be otherwise. They contribute toward teaching the arts, and this is sufficient.”

But in the end, writes Luther:

“We Christians must… be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding. We must pay attention to the expression of Holy Scripture and abide by the words of the Holy Spirit, whom it pleases to distribute His creatures in this way…”

These are words to live by! We must acknowledge our limitations, the creaturely limitations that are inherent to our very being (the fact that we are limited creatures, and not the Creator), and the additional limitations and distortions of our understanding which were caused by the fall into sin. 

Martin Luther on Creation (I)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527I recently acquired a copy of  Luther’s Works, Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis 1-5. It’s always enjoyable to read Luther, and his typically “earthy” style is in evidence in this volume, even though these are transcriptions of Luther’s original lectures, with the occasional addition made by a later writer. As the editor of this volume says, “The hands are sometimes the hands of the editors, but the voice is nevertheless the voice of Luther.”

These lectures were originally delivered nearly five hundred years ago. But despite their age, and despite the fact that Luther seeks to correct errors that were then common, but which have now been replaced by others, there is much here that is very applicable to current discussions on the Biblical account of creation. “Everything old is new again,” as the song says. Or even better, “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes.

The first aspect of Luther’s lectures that is worth noting is Luther’s humility before God’s Word. Luther often wrote and spoke brashly, but like John Calvin, he knew when to be silent, and he knew that the believer’s proper posture before God’s Word is one of absolute humility. And so, speaking of the eternity of God, he writes:

“He is within, without, and above all creatures; that is, He is still incomprehensible. Nothing else can be said, because our mind cannot grasp what lies outside of time.”

Writing of the creation of light on the first day, Luther reveals the same sort of humble acceptance of what God’s Word says:

“Although it is difficult to say what sort of light it was, nevertheless I do not agree that we should without reason depart from the rules of language or that we should by force read meanings into words. Moses says plainly that there was light, and he counts this day as the first of the creation. Therefore I am of the opinion that this was true light and that its motion carried it in a circle, just as sunlight moves in a circle.” 

One more example, from Luther’s comments on Genesis 1:6, shows Luther’s reverence for God’s self-revelation in his word. Regarding the separation of the “waters above” from the “waters below,” Luther explains:

“But Moses says in plain words that the waters were above and below the firmament. Here I, therefore, take my reason captive and subscribe to the Word even though I do not understand it.” 

In a subsequent post or two I’d like to get into some other important points that Luther makes about the creation week that remain very applicable in our context. But even before getting into details, it’s Luther’s approach to the Word that is very instructive, and vitally important. Interpretation of individual passages flows from this starting point: a posture of humble acceptance of God’s Word, even where we are unable to entirely explain it, even where our understanding of it isn’t where we would like it to be.

As the saying of Anselm of Canterbury puts it, “Credo ut intelligam” – “I believe so that I may understand.” 

In subsequent posts, we’ll look at Luther’s lectures on the first chapters of Genesis in some more detail, using the same starting point that Luther himself used. 

Words Can Be Slippery Things

It’s happened many times in church history.  The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection.  But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history.  Another theologian insists that he believes in election.  But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.

In his book Revival and Revivalism Iain Murray discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening.  Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place.  But Finney believed nothing of the sort.  His language was deceptive.  He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.

This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too.  People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God.  It sounds orthodox on the surface.  But we need to dig deeper:  what do you mean by human being?  Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast?  Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life?  Did she have grandparents?  What do you mean “created in the image of God”?  What does “created” mean in that sentence?  You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth.  Great!  But what do you mean when you say that?  Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem.  In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions.  It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words.  Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.

De Moor on Science and Scripture

de-moor-21

One of the reasons history is exciting is that you often find others who have dealt with similar questions to the ones you’re dealing with.  No, they’re not usually identical questions, but they are sometimes similar.  When it comes to these similar questions, it’s also interesting to compare the answers given in history to the answers we come up with today.  Here at Creation Without Compromise we’re especially interested in the questions and answers that have to do with the relationship between science and Scripture.

Today’s venture into history takes us to the late 1700s.  By and large Reformed theology had been devastated by philosophical influences associated with the Enlightenment.  There were only a few holdouts who could be described as confessionally Reformed and orthodox.  One of them was Bernhard De Moor (1709-1780).

After serving for several years as a pastor, De Moor took up a position as professor of theology at the University of Leiden.  In this capacity, De Moor lectured at length on a textbook published by his teacher and friend Johannes à Marck.  These lectures were later published in massive seven-volume set with the catchy title, Commentarius perpetuus in Johannis Marckii Compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum.  De Moor’s book is regarded as the high water-mark of Reformed orthodoxy.  It was a comprehensive overview of Reformed theology as it stood at that time.

Dr. Steven Dilday has taken on the massive task of translating De Moor’s magnum opus into English.  He has been making it freely available online here.  He began in late 2012 and, at this moment, he is currently in chapter 2.  This is obviously going to be a project that stretches over many years!

One of the topics dealt with in chapter 2 has to do with the relationship between science and Scripture.  I would like to briefly survey what De Moor writes on this.  Here we can observe a Reformed theologian from about 200 years ago dealing with questions similar to what we face today.  If you’re interested in reading the English translation of Dr. Dilday for yourself, the topic begins at this blog post.  But I think you will find my summary a little easier reading…

Broadly speaking, De Moor is dealing with Scripture in chapter 2.  In section 21, he begins by noting that the Bible does have a primary subject:  true religion.  The Bible is mainly about “the right manner of coming to know and of worshipping/serving God for the salvation of man as sinner and the glory of God…”  However, Scripture does also speak of other things related to this primary subject.  These other things include natural, historical, and genealogical matters.

 From there, section 22 of chapter 2 deals with the fact that Scripture speaks truly.  De Moor insists that God’s Word speaks truly about all things, including natural things.  This is directly connected to the fact that the One who inspired these writings is the Spirit of Truth.

Here one has to remember that De Moor is commenting or lecturing on a textbook of Johannes à Marck.  De Moor mentions that à Marck points out an alternative hypothesis, namely that “Scripture in natural matters speaks according to the erroneous opinion of the common people.”  The philosopher Baruch Spinoza advocated this position, and so did theologian Christoph Wittich.  De Moor also notes that the English theologian Thomas Burnet took this position in regards to what Scripture says about creation and the Flood.  Just prior to that, he also points out that this was the view of Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698), a Dutch theologian heavily influenced by Cartesian rationalism.

Now I want to pause here for a moment and mention something important about Bekker.  Bekker argued the hypothesis mentioned by De Moor in relation to demons.  Specifically, Bekker taught that the angels (including demons) are not real, but the good angels in Scripture merely speak metaphorically of God’s omnipotence. Bekker also taught the Eve was not tempted by a literal snake in the garden, nor was Christ literally tempted by Satan – it was merely a dream.  At issue was Bekker’s way of interpreting Scripture.  Dutch theologian Wilco Veltkamp has written a dissertation which delves into this.  In a December 2011 article in Nader Bekeken (see here), he explained the connection between the hermeneutics of Bekker and that of theistic evolutionists today.  The connection is a refusal to start with the authority of Scripture and submit to Scripture through to the end of an issue.

Going back to De Moor, this hypothesis gets several points in response, beginning with the observation that its foundation is preconceived human opinion rather than Scripture.  De Moor points that the Bible was inspired in all things by the Spirit of Truth.  Scripture calls God the God of Truth. This hypothesis makes him a liar.  Moreover, God is omniscient and he knows that of which he speaks.  He would also never deceive us or leave us in error.  If this hypothesis were true, De Moor writes, we are at liberty to interpret Scripture as we please and there would no longer be any certainty as to what it actually says.  De Moor quotes Augustine as he insists that none of the canonical writers erred.  He finishes responding to this hypothesis with a reference to article 5 of the Belgic Confession, “We believe without any doubt all things contained” in these canonical writings.

De Moor then adds some nuance to the discussion.  He notes that while the Holy Spirit “never speaks according to the errors of the common people,” he can accurately relate errors made by people.  Further, De Moor acknowledges that Scripture does sometimes speak according to external appearances.  For example, the Greek in Acts 27:27 literally says that the sailors with Paul suspected that some country was “drawing near to them.”  Of course, the land wasn’t approaching the ship, but it is common to speak in that fashion and no one errs in so speaking.

There is one more objection that De Moor addresses – this one also comes from Spinoza.  It’s one that is still trotted out today, albeit in a different form:  Scripture is not designed to teach us concerning natural matters or science.  Instead, the intent of Scripture is to make people obedient.  Today’s version usually refers to faith or salvation rather than obedience.  But certainly we do hear today as well that the Bible is not a “textbook for science” and such things.  How does De Moor respond?  He affirms again the primary purpose of Scripture is to teach true religion.  However, that primary purpose does not exclude subordinate ends such as teaching people the magnificent natural works of God.  One does not rule out the other.  Finally, it would out of place to suppose that the Holy Spirit would use errors to carry out his purposes.  He would never give anything contrary to the truth – it would be out of character for him.

De Moor concludes this section with an intriguing reference to an Order of the States of Holland and West-Friesland, dated September 30, 1656.  This order actually prohibited the interpretation of Scripture by nature, rather than the other way around.  In other words, at one point there was Dutch legislation maintaining that Scripture is to be the lens through which we interpret nature.  De Moor deems this legislation “altogether pious.”

It’s important to remember the era in which De Moor lived – it was the heyday of Enlightenment rationalism.  The Bible was under attack by those who said that it could stand in the face of reasoned scrutiny and scientific developments.  Intelligent people could not take the Bible seriously at face value.  In that milieu, De Moor stood for the absolute authority of the Word of God.  He promoted confidence in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures, also when it came to the relationship between Scripture and science.  He was not a rationalist – no, he was addressing rationalism and doing so on the basis of Scripture.  Those promoting theistic evolution today, especially in Reformed churches, need to ask themselves whether they are carrying on the heritage of theologians like De Moor or betraying it.

“The Historic Reformed Understanding of Genesis”

QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism -- the first German edition in 1563.
QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism — the first German edition in 1563.

Creation Without Compromise exists because of concerns about origins in our Reformed churches.  In the “About” tab on this website, we state that we are “committed to the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis.”  In the November 6, 2015 issue of Clarion, Rev. Peter Holtvluwer wrote a review of our website and under the heading of “Improvements,” he suggested we fill out the meaning of that statement.  What do we understand by “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis”?

Essentially, what we mean is the consensual understanding of the first chapters of the Bible that prevailed amongst confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches especially prior to Darwin.  In the Reformation era, our theologians agreed in emphasizing the literal understanding of Genesis as the ground for doctrine — this was coupled with an emphasis on careful methods of interpretation.  Hence, prior to Darwin, there was a definite consensus regarding how to read the first chapters of the Bible.  Occasionally there were dissenters from that consensus, but this dissent was not encouraged or tolerated.  After Darwin, we recognize that this consensus was challenged in significant ways.  Yet it must be remembered that the Reformed consensus was maintained in the church courts even after Darwin.  For example, we think of synodical decisions against Rev. J.B. Netelenbos and Dr. J.G. Geelkerken in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (1920 and 1926) and Dr. Ralph Janssen in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (1922).

What are some of the features of this historic consensus?  First and foremost would be the insistence that the first chapters of Genesis describe history in a literal and straight-forward fashion.  While they may have some literary features, these chapters are not metaphorical or mythical, but plainly historical and should be interpreted as such.  What follows from that is creation in six ordinary days.  When Genesis 1 speaks of “days,” it means days more or less as we experience them today.  Moreover, if we take Genesis at face value, Adam was created from actual, physical dust of the earth by God.  He was the first human being.  He became a living being when God breathed life into him.  He did not have a biological father or mother, human, hominid or whatever else.  The first woman Eve was created by God from Adam’s rib.  She did not have biological parents either.  Together, they were the first human beings and the parents of all human beings who have since lived.  God also created all other kinds of creatures in the six day creation period – and these were created by his Word.  More could be said about what follows in Genesis – a literal snake speaking to Eve, a fall into sin, a worldwide flood, etc. – but I trust readers get the picture.  Everything I have said up to here was the historic consensus view in Reformed theology.

Some elements of this historic consensus have found their way into the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional heritage.  On the matter of creation days, we can think of the Westminster Confession’s statement in chapter 4.1 that “it pleased God…to create or make of nothing the world…in the space of six days, and all very good.”  In article 12 of the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures, when it seemed good to him, and that he has given every creature its being, shape, and form…”  Article 14 goes on to say that “God created man of dust from the ground.”  Heidelberg Catechism QA 7 confesses that our depraved nature comes from “our first parents” Adam and Eve.  Other elements of the historic consensus are not found in our confessional heritage, arguably because they were considered to be so self-evident from Scripture as to not require such codification.  When most of the Reformed confessions were first written, the challenges that we face today regarding origins were virtually unthinkable.

Since this is just a short blog post, I’m not going to lay out all the evidence for the existence of this historic consensus.  William VanDoodewaard has done that for us at length in his excellent book The Quest for the Historical Adam (see my review here) and I refer readers to his research.  Amongst others, VanDoodewaard discusses John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Girolamo Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, William Perkins, William Ames, the Leiden Synopsis, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Bernard Pictet, Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel.  According to VanDoodewaard, figurative interpretations of Genesis existed even before Darwin, but they were found amongst Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Anabaptists.  Reformed and Presbyterian churches would not countenance such interpretations.  He writes, “Anything that contradicted or failed to cohere with the literal reading of the Genesis text was rejected as subversive to God’s revelation.” (p.86)

Now the big question is:  why do we think that “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis” is so important to maintain and defend?  It’s not because we’re conservative and just want to hold on to old-fashioned things because old-fashioned must be better.  No, it’s simply because we are convinced that the old consensus is biblical.  Old-fashioned often is better, but only when it lines up with God’s Word.  That’s where we stand.

Thus says the LORD:  ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls…’”  Jeremiah 6:16a