“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

What I Learned From My Dutch Reformed Brethren

14In the Canadian Reformed Churches the question has come up, “Can we change our confessions?” and many assume the answer must be and emphatic “No!”
because the confessions must be unchangeable. But as this post, by Rev.Williamson, shows, that is not how the earlier Presbyterian churches viewed their confession.

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It was my privilege to serve as a pastor for nearly two decades with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (or RCNZ). And it was during this time that they adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as one of the doctrinal standards of their Churches having authority equal to that of the Three Forms of Unity. And what has impressed me more and more over the years is not only the fact that these Dutch immigrants did this rather remarkable thing, but also showed quite clearly by their actions the integrity of that adoption.

It was not long after the WCF was adopted that one of the pastors who came from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands lodged what they called a gravamen against Chapter 2
1:7-8 of the WCF. The pastor who brought that gravamen to his Session, then Presbytery, and finally Synod, was a man of integrity. He did not start publicly preaching or teaching ‘his’ view of the Lord’s Day/Sabbath. No, he had too much respect for the integrity of Confessional Subscription.

What he wanted was either the removal of 21:7-8, or a newly written replacement for that section of the WCF. So he sought it by refraining from publicly teaching or writing anything contrary to the Church’s adopted Confessional Standards, while working within the assemblies of the elders of the Churches to effect a change that he could agree with. I was opposed to his gravamen, but I respected very much the way that he dealt with this matter. We remained good friends during the time when this was adjudicated – and also after he left New Zealand to serve in a different Confessional context in Australia.

One of the things that left a deep impression on me was the fact that even though this was an issue that could have become a serious source of conflict, it did not. The reason was that an orderly course had been followed. And when the Synod (or what I would call the broadest assembly of the elders of the RCNZ) determined that the churches wished to uphold WCF 21:7-8, my friend did not even want to publicly teach or preach what was contrary to this. He sought, instead, a place in a church that had not adopted the WCF as the RCNZ had. And it is my conviction that we Presbyterians would profit by learning from this example.

In our earlier history, as I understand it, we Presbyterians had a similar concept and conviction. Let me give two examples:

  1. The original text of the WCF 25:6 said “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” I hope that everyone who reads this will understand that I am in complete agreement with the first part of this section of the WCF. But I am also thankful that the part which I have underlined, above, has been changed.I certainly believe that what the Scriptures say about the Antichrist has a valid application to the false claims of the Papacy. I also believe what II Thessalonians says about “the man of sin [or lawlessness]” can be applied—by the principle of analogy—against the Papacy. But I do not believe (as the authors of the WCF did) that the Papacy is what the apostles Paul and John specifically intended us to understand their words to mean. I am therefore in complete agreement with the deletion of the underlined words in the OPC and PCA version.
  2. The original text of WCF 25:4b said “The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred, nearer in blood than he may of his own: not the woman her husband’s kindred, nearer in blood than of her own.” It is my recollection that Professor John Murray defended this original section of the WCF. But my interest here is to point out that in earlier times Presbyterians saw it as important to either agree with their Confession or change it so that it says in plain, understandable words, what the church actually believes. When they no longer held this view it too was deleted. And it is this integrity that I wish we could recover.

I have noted several instances, lately, in which the great Herman Bavinck has been cited in support of the assertion that no creed has as yet made six-day creation a confessional doctrine. And it is true that Dr. Bavinck not only admitted that historically “Christian theology, with only a few exceptions, continued to hold onto the literal historical view of the creation story” but then went on to say “not a single confession made a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum…” I have the highest respect for Herman Bavinck and am thankful, at last, to have my hands on his great work of Dogmatics in English. But even great men make mistakes. And the fact is that on this he was not correct. The Westminster Assembly of Divines did make a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum. They said in the WCF, and again in both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, that God—by the word of his power—created “all things visible and invisible, in the space of six days.” And that they intended this to mean what our children take it to mean when they learn the shorter catechism, has been clearly demonstrated by Dr. David Hall.

I (and other six-day creation people) have been accused of wanting to excommunicate Hodge, Warfield and Machen because of their willingness to tolerate views such as the day-age view. This is a false charge. Did Luther and Calvin want to excommunicate Augustine because they found error in his teaching? Wasn’t the Reformation itself a liberation from blind obedience to false tradition—even if that false tradition was sometimes embraced by truly great men? I therefore refuse to be silenced by this sort of tyranny, and insist on my right to say that a serious mistake was made in the way this issue was handled by some truly great men. I think it should have been handled in the same way the two examples cited above [1 and 2] were handled.

Men who did not hold to the six-day view (so clearly expressed in the three Westminster Standards) should have been required to refrain from public teaching or preaching their different views unless and until those sections of the WCF and Catechisms were either removed or rewritten. I say this because I think it is a serious failure on the part of the eldership of the church to teach our children one thing (in the catechism) while the preacher teaches another thing. Had this restraint been required those who do not agree with six-day creation would have seen it as their duty to remain silent (in public utterance and writing on the subject) while they made diligent study in order (in private) to formulate what they had come to believe to be the truth in order to bring it before their Session, Presbytery and General Assembly, seeking a change in the Westminster Standards.

Had this been done it is possible that the church would have finally been persuaded that one or another of the various views was correct. Then the doctrinal standards could have been changed to clearly state the other view. Or at least it might have resulted in the church simply removing the sections of the WCF and Catechisms that say God created the world “in the space of six-days.”

As it is at present we have, in effect, taken on a new method of Confessional revision. We no longer insist that our Confession and Catechisms unambiguously state what we as a church unitedly believe, so that the words of our confession themselves are subordinately authoritative (meaning that while they can be changed when appropriate, as Scripture cannot, they nevertheless must be adhered to unless changed by due process). Now the doctrinal authority seems more and more to reside in whatever the majority is willing to allow, rather than in the words of the Confessions and Catechisms taken according to their intended and long-received meaning.

I think the brethren who brought the Dutch Reformed heritage to New Zealand exhibited something better than ‘our way’ of dealing with our subordinate standards, and we would do well to learn from their example.

G. I. Williamson is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, living in the Orange City, Iowa area. He is the author of study guides on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism. This article was first published on The Aquila Report, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Alternatives to Changing the Belgic Confession?

14Theistic evolution is a significant doctrinal challenge facing the Canadian Reformed Churches. When I say “theistic evolution” I mean such ideas as the biblical Adam and Eve sharing an ancestry with primates. I mean such ideas as God bringing Adam and Eve into existence in the wombs of hominid (human-like creatures) females, instead of through immediate creation with physical dust of the earth. These ideas exist in the Canadian Reformed Churches and to allow them to continue will spell the death of biblical orthodoxy for us.

There is a proposal circulating at the moment which targets this false teaching. The proposal seeks to do that by having General Synod 2016 make a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This change would explicitly rule out the ideas mentioned above, making clear that these notions have no place in Reformed churches which submit to God’s Word.

It is fair to say that a majority of Canadian Reformed members would agree that this teaching is wrong and dangerous. Were a survey to be conducted, I am confident that most of our people would agree that theistic evolution should have no place in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Yet, as the proposal illustrates, we have this situation where it currently does have a place. We have a problem in that this teaching has been allowed to go on and consequently more people are being confused or led astray by it. But how do we deal with this serious issue? For whatever reason, there is some reluctance to change the Belgic Confession. We would rather pursue other alternatives first before doing something as momentous as what this overture is proposing. In this post, I want to briefly explore four of the most commonly mentioned alternatives. At the end, it will be clear that, realistically speaking, there is no other choice.

Discipline?

Some have argued that a change to the Belgic Confession should not be necessary. Instead, what needs to happen is that those who are teaching theistic evolution should be placed under discipline. The confessions are clear enough as they are and it’s obvious that this teaching is unorthodox. Churches just need to muster the courage to discipline the members who are denying what we confess. This argument was made by Irish pastor Martyn McGeown in a recent issue of the Protestant Reformed magazine, The Standard Bearer, as he commented on the BC 14 proposal adopted by Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015. It’s easy for Rev. McGeown to stand on the sidelines across the pond and make this argument. Rev. McGeown isn’t Canadian Reformed and doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves here. I doubt any outsider can comment responsibly on what we’re facing.

We are facing a situation where there is now considerable confusion about whether this teaching conflicts with the Three Forms of Unity. This uncertainty exists even amongst some who are office bearers. In my last installment, I quoted from a Canadian Reformed pastor who affirmed that we need to have ecclesiastical clarity on whether theistic evolution is outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity. At least one other pastor has publically opined that those accused of teaching this are not really teaching this at all, thus there’s no problem that needs to be addressed. How can discipline take place when there is so much confusion and uncertainty in our churches about whether the promotion of theistic evolution is happening and whether it warrants discipline? Moreover, discipline does not address others who, while themselves not amenable to theistic evolution, think it should be tolerated within our Reformed churches. Finally, the proposal itself mentions that discipline has limitations when dealing with a widespread doctrinal challenge: in our churches, discipline is typically dealt with in closed session at ecclesiastical assemblies and decisions rendered are often considered to be binding only in that particular case – after all, how can a discipline decision made in closed session be publically binding upon the whole federation? (See Van Oene, With Common Consent, pages 154 & 213). Even if one only takes into account the office bearers and their awareness of these sorts of decisions made in closed session, what happens when a discipline case is only appealed up to the classis or regional synod level? Only the office bearers in that classical or synodical region might be aware of the decision, and then only the currently serving office bearers. This approach simply does not work in our context. We need an official binding statement made in public that applies right across the federation.

A Doctrinal Statement?

Others might be inclined to say that we should have a doctrinal statement from Synod, rather than a change in the Belgic Confession. What this alternative involves is Synod issuing a statement or position paper which condemns the false teachings we’re currently faced with. One could perhaps envision Synod 2016 coming out with a point by point refutation of the errors of theistic evolution, and a corresponding point by point statement of what the Bible teaches about human origins.

All I really need to say here are two words: “Nine Points.” If those words don’t ring a bell, the Nine Points of Schererville were issued by a URCNA Synod in response to the false teachings of the Federal Vision movement. These Nine Points (followed later by Fifteen Points at the next URC Synod) created confusion and controversy in the URCNA, and consternation amongst many in our churches. Many CanRC observers thought that this “extra-confessional” statement was all too reminiscent of what happened in the Netherlands before and during the Liberation of 1944.  Extra-confessional synodical statements were made binding and this was a major cause of the Liberation.

In view of the reception of the Nine Points among us, it is really reasonable to expect a CanRC synod to issue a doctrinal statement or position paper? If that should somehow happen, would it actually bring clarity? What would be the status of such a statement? Would office bearers be expected to subscribe to it? Would it be confessional or not? If not, could it still be used to prosecute false teachers in our churches?

All of the questions asked about the Nine Points would be asked here too and we would be faced with an unhelpful quagmire. This is obviously a non-starter for our churches. We have to be realistic. Because of our history, we just don’t “do” doctrinal statements or position papers. Moreover, there are many issues that might warrant a position paper: divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, Christian education, and so on. There’s really only one issue that would truly benefit from a change to our confessions, and that’s this issue of theistic evolution.

A Footnote?

Similar to the doctrinal statement approach is the idea of a footnote added to article 14, or perhaps article 12. Rev. Clarence (a.k.a. “Klaas”) Stam floated this idea in an article in the April 20, 2015 issue of Clarion. At first glance this sounds like a fine way to avoid changing the text of the Confession while still bringing clarity to the issue at hand. However, it actually confuses things even more and raises more questions than it answers. Questions like: what would be the status of such a footnote? Does anybody know what the status of our one existing footnote is (in BC 36)? When office bearers sign the Form of Subscription, would they subscribe to this new footnote? When members of the congregation make Public Profession of Faith, do they express commitment not only to the Three Forms of Unity, but also to this proposed footnote? Can a member be placed under discipline for teaching something contrary to a footnote? If it’s proposed to make such a footnote binding in any way, wouldn’t it die under the protest of “extra-confessional binding”?

All those questions need clear answers before a footnote is a reasonable alternative. I think we can all recognize that, like a doctrinal statement, any footnote proposal is not going to be well-received in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Not only are there all those questions, but there really is no precedent for it — the one existing footnote (in BC 36) did not appear in response to a serious doctrinal challenge. There is, however, a precedent for responding to false teaching by amending the Confession. Doing this leaves absolutely no ambiguity in terms of status. It really is the only way forward for the Canadian Reformed Churches.

A Study Committee?

Making a substantial change to the Belgic Confession is not a light matter – it should never be done recklessly or on a whim. Adding or taking away from articles should be done soberly and with careful reflection. Consequently, some might say that this proposal is moving too quickly. Rather than make a change right now, Synod 2016 should appoint a committee (perhaps a church) to study the matter and then report to Synod 2019 with analysis and recommendations.

In response, this proposal was not developed on a whim. Those involved with producing it (myself included) have been addressing these issues for several years already. We’ve had to do that because this false teaching has been circulating in our churches for no short period of time. There is an urgent need to address this unbelief sooner rather than later. Appointing a study committee will allow yet more time for these wrong ideas to dig deeper roots in our circles. Rather than giving that time, the appropriate response is to take action now by making this well-considered change to the Confession.

Furthermore, appointing a study committee dignifies this teaching and could give the impression that it is one where Christians might legitimately disagree with one another. It could be perceived as saying that Scripture is not really clear on the matter. However, there are certain issues where the biblical lines are clear and discussion is inappropriate. An analogy might help to make this clear.

Imagine if a group of people in our churches started teaching that celibate homosexual relationships fall within the bounds of the Reformed faith. After all, there is no place in our Reformed confessions that explicitly and obviously rule out such relationships. Should we appoint a study committee to look into this? Isn’t Scripture clear that such relationships are unacceptable in the sight of God? Why would we dignify an unbelieving approach to Scripture by appointing a study committee on such a matter? This is what our Dutch sister churches did by appointing a study committee on women in office. If Scripture is clear, there is nothing to study. There is only the call to believe what God’s Word plainly says. It is as clear from God’s Word that Adam and Eve were created from literal dust (with no evolutionary history) as it is that homosexual relationships are illicit.

Conclusion

Should this proposal (or another like it) find its way to Synod 2016, it will be assigned to an advisory committee. It could happen that the advisory committee looks at this sort of proposal and decides that it is not the best answer to the problem facing us. An advisory committee could advance a different approach. However, I maintain that there is no other viable or helpful way to address the issue of theistic evolution at this stage of the debate in the Canadian Reformed Churches. What we need is a stand that is both clear and unambiguous in its status in our churches — and we need it sooner rather than later. In short, we must make this change to article 14 at Synod 2016.

Should We Change the Belgic Confession?

There is currently a proposal circulating in our churches regarding article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This proposal, aimed for the floor of Synod 2016, seeks to address theistic evolution by making a change to the opening of article 14. This change will ensure that theistic evolution is officially recognized as unbiblical by our churches. Last week, I addressed those who might instinctively recoil at the thought of changing our beloved Belgic Confession. Can we actually make any substantial changes? As we saw, not only is this permissible in principle (and even necessary at times), but in fact it has happened several times throughout the 454 year history of the Confession, even as recently as 1983. The CanRC Belgic Confession in 2015 is quite different than the Belgic Confession first written in 1561.   I concluded that the question is not “Can the Confession be changed?” The question needs to be: “Should the Confession be changed?” That’s the question I want to address in this post.

A Weighty Argument

One of the weightiest arguments against making the proposed change is that our Three Forms of Unity are already clear on the matter. For example, QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism clearly says that Adam and Eve were our first parents. In its current formulation, article 14 of the Confession says that God “created man of dust from the ground.” Some would argue that these statements, especially taken together, settle the matter once and for all. Our current confessions already rule out such notions as Adam and Eve sharing ancestry with primates. Why make a change when our existing Three Forms of Unity are already sufficient?

In ground 4, the proposal acknowledges that, taken in the right way, our existing Three Forms of Unity should rule out any notions of theistic evolution. When the Catechism was first written, we can say with confidence that “first parents” meant what it appears to mean. When the Belgic Confession was first written “dust from the ground,” it meant what Calvin understood: Adam’s “dead body was formed out of the dust of the earth.”[1] Before the moment described in Genesis 2:7, there was absolutely no man-like creature, human or hominid (some kind of biological pre-cursor to man with an evolutionary history). In Genesis 2:7, a creature was formed from literal inanimate dust, God breathed life into his nostrils, and only then he became a living being. For centuries, orthodox Reformed confessors have recognized this as the plain meaning of the first sentence of article 14.

Laying Out the Problem

Yet here we are in 2015 dealing with this problem in our churches. And there is obviously a problem. Let me lay it out. We have a situation where some of us are saying that our confessions clearly rule out theistic evolution: as a Reformed confessor you cannot say that the creature who became Adam came into existence through the meeting of a hominid sperm and a hominid egg, nor can you say that the creature who became Eve was at one point a hominid toddler bouncing on her hominid father’s knee. You cannot say that Adam and Eve, as biological creatures, had parents or grandparents. I reckon that all this is correct and I have made similar assertions.

However, on the other hand, we have Reformed Academic saying things like this (see original source here):

We are all in agreement with all of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, including notably that Adam and Eve were real humans, in a real Eden with real trees (including a real tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and upon a real temptation by the real devil in the form of a real snake, really sinned, so there was a real Fall.

Statements like this are intended to put us all at ease. In essence, they’re saying, “Look, there’s no issue here. We believe the Reformed confessions too. We even believe in a real historical Adam who was the first human being. What’s the problem?”

The problem is outlined in the BC 14 proposal. The problem is that a CanRC scientist involved with Reformed Academic is on public record (see here) as being a supporter of evolution, by which is meant, “biologically, Homo Sapiens evolved through natural processes from ancestral forms in common with primates.”  If he is not a theistic evolutionist (as he claims), why has he never protested his inclusion on this list of “Prominent Christians Who Support Evolution”?  The problem is when another CanRC scientist argues publically that even our Lord Jesus, as a true human being, shared a common ancestry with chimpanzees (see here). The problem is that these scientists are outspoken and influential representatives of this way of thinking. They are regarded as leaders not only in their fields, but in the churches – they have even served as office bearers. The problem is when Reformed Academic and a fair number of others in our churches think that the above-mentioned views are tolerable — their voices can be heard loud and clear on social media.  The problem is further evidenced when the above-mentioned scientists refuse to answer publically five carefully worded questions posed by fellow CanRC scientist Dr. John Byl (see the bottom of this post).  If they’re not theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists, or whatever the nom du jour), why not just give clear answers to these questions and be done with it?  There is obviously a pervasive multi-faceted problem regarding origins and it is not going away. Our church federation is not helped by anyone, especially those in leadership positions, naively pretending that there is little or no problem.  We need to deal with it. The question is: what is the best way to deal with it?

Moving Forward with Eyes Wide Open

First, we need to see that proponents of theistic evolution might readily agree that Adam and Eve are our first parents, as stated in QA 7 of the Catechism. Reformed Academic says that they have zero problem with that – rather, they affirm it wholeheartedly. But we need to ask: what would they mean when they say that? A theistic evolutionist would mean that Adam and Eve were the first Homo sapiens, and that they were endowed with the image of God in some fashion. This endowment supposedly makes them our “first parents” in the sense of being the first humans (the first Homo sapiens), although they are not our first parents in a purely biological sense. This is one way that some associated with Reformed Academic and others can insist that their views fall within the bounds of the Reformed confessions in their current state.

There is also another way. Proponents of theistic evolution might readily agree that man was created from dust, as the Belgic Confession says in article 14. Reformed Academic says that they have no problem with that either. But what do they mean when they affirm what BC 14 says? They could mean that humans are material and descended from lowly origins. They are descended from earlier life-forms (hominids) who may have originally emerged from the dust or dirt of the earth. In other words, to put it technically, the current wording of article 14, “dust from the ground” could still be understood mediately, as if the dust is indeed at the most remote origins of humans, but not the immediate material cause of Adam and Eve. In this way, theistic evolutionists can claim with a straight face that they maintain the Reformed confessions all the while holding something contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Whether we like it or not, even if we insist that what they’re saying is contrary to the true meaning of the Three Forms of Unity, our existing wording is being perceived as leaving this kind of “wiggle room.” That perception accounts for the present confusion in our churches about this matter.

Our situation is somewhat analogous to the situation with the Remonstrants before the Synod of Dort 1618-19. It could have been argued that the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were sufficiently clear to deal with the theology of the Remonstrants. The problem was that Arminius himself maintained that he was being faithful to the Confessions. Roger Nicole writes:

His attitude toward confessional standards was open to question, for a theologian of his caliber must have realized that there was a substantial rift between his views and the system of teaching as well as the express utterances of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless, he paraded under the flag of allegiance and under the vows of conformity from the time of his ordination to his death. He repeatedly promised not to teach anything from the pulpit or the university chair which might be out of keeping with the standards.[2]

It was eventually recognized that the language of the Catechism and the Confession were often being reinterpreted to suit Remonstrant ends. Clarification was needed – Arminianism had to be clearly ruled out. The confusion was resolved by the Synod of Dort. We see the same confusion happening in our day with those advocating for theistic evolution and its toleration. Arguments and assertions are made that our confessions can be interpreted in such a way as to accommodate theistic evolution. In this present context, we need to have an unambiguously clear statement that theistic evolution is outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy.

Despite the foregoing, even if the existing wording of our confessions is deemed sufficient, the churches need to know this officially, via some decision of an ecclesiastical assembly. In a discussion at Reformed Academic (see here), Rev. John van Popta made the same point:

I do think, however, that the teaching that Adam and therefore Jesus Christ share ancestry with “primitive parents” is a teaching that the church should examine and decide whether or not it falls within the pale of orthodoxy.

Naturally, given the widespread nature of this false teaching, it would be best to have this examination and decision come from our broadest assembly, namely a general synod. But if our broadest assembly is going to clear up the confusion in any helpful manner at all, it needs to have the matter put on its agenda in an ecclesiastical way. Whatever one might think about the idea of changing article 14, it remains that this proposal would put the matter on the agenda of a synod.  A synod could then decide the best way to deal with it for the good of our federation.

Conclusion

Indeed, the best way to tackle the issue at hand is to make the proposed change to article 14. Doing this has strong historical precedent. It is a proven way to deal with serious doctrinal errors in Reformed churches. Moreover, any other options are not presently realistic or helpful (more on that next time). Whatever we do, as Canadian Reformed Churches, we cannot let this matter rest and allow this false teaching to continue unarrested. The need for a clear message is urgent. To adapt the old adage: all it takes for false teaching to triumph is for faithful men to do nothing. It is high time for faithful men to do something bold to put the brakes on this dangerous and evil error in our midst.

[1] Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 112.

[2] Quoted by Louis Praamsma, “The Background of the Arminian Controversy,” in P. Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort 1618-19 (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008 reprint), 46.

 

Clarifying what we’ve always confessed

14On March 11, Classis Ontario West adopted an unusual proposal from Hamilton’s Providence Canadian Reformed Church: Providence wants an addition made to the Belgic Confession.

As they explain in their proposal, our confessions differ from Scripture in that they aren’t perfect or sacred…so they can be amended or edited. That has happened in the past: for instance, at the 1905 General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands a number of words were deleted from Belgic Confession Article 36 “in an effort to better conform to biblical teachings on the role of civil government.”

But why would a change need to be made now? Because “the Canadian Reformed Churches presently face a significant doctrinal challenge in the area of origins.”

What change does Providence propose? They want to replace the first line of the Belgic Confession’s Article 14 with the following to clarify “our confessional and biblical stance on human origins” (new wording is italicized):

We believe that God created the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen. 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22). They were created as the first two humans and are the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre- Adamites, whether human or hominid. God made and formed Adam after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy.

As the proposal notes, many believe that our confessions are already quite clear on this topic. However, the fact is some Canadian Reformed academics have joined together to argue that the confessions leave room for a great diversity of views on how mankind came to be. This group, Reformed Academic, includes some very prominent figures: Dr. Arnold Sikkema, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer and Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff. They have a diversity of views amongst themselves, and it can be hard to figure out just what they each believe about Man’s origins. On the group’s blog they have allowed their most outspoken (and clearest) member, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer, to outline what he considered strong evidence for the possibility that man and chimpanzees have a common ancestor.

Does that mean Dr. Van der Meer is affirming the evolution of man from some relation of chimps? Well, there is a nit that can be picked here: relating strong evidence for evolution is not necessarily the same thing as affirming evolution. As Dr. Sikkema noted in a response to the proposal, even a creationist like Dr. Todd Wood has acknowledged that there are strong evidences for evolution.

But, of course, there is acknowledging and there is acknowledging. While both Reformed Academic and Dr. Wood acknowledge the evidence for evolution only Dr. Wood acknowledges that God created Man over six literal days and not via a process that involved pre-Adamites and millennia upon millennia of death, disease, and disaster, which He thereafter declared “good.” Context is key.

In his response to the proposal Dr. Sikkema argued that Providence Church had misrepresented him in supporting materials by labeling him a “theistic evolutionist”:

I don’t “believe in evolution.” It’s not about belief. I don’t believe in Einstein’s theory of gravity either, but I do believe in a good, loving, and covenantally faithful Triune God…

Dr. Sikkema uses the term “belief” here in the sense of “place my hope in.” In that sense he believes in God, but not evolution or Einstein’s theory of gravity. However, no Christian anywhere “places their hope” in evolution, so if that is what it means to “believe in evolution” it is not surprising Dr. Sikkema rejects the label “theistic evolutionist.” As he has redefined the term it can’t be applied to anyone at all.

But what if we give the term a more reasonable definition? What if we say a theistic evolutionist is “someone who argues that God-directed evolution is a legitimate possibility”? Then the term applies. In a joint blog post (responding to the charge that, “evolution falls outside the tent of the Reformed confessions” Dr. Sikkema and the other members of Reformed Academic wrote:

…God-directed evolution does not exclude the direct creation of Adam, because everything that happens is under God’s direct control. Therefore, theistic evolution is not outside the boundaries of the Three Forms of Unity [i.e. the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belgic Confession].

Other objections have already been raised, some of note (an edit will be needed to acknowledge that Eve, too, was made in God’s image), but very few of which wrestle with what is at stake here. To paraphrase Douglas Wilson, did Adam bring death into the world (Romans 5:12) or did millions of years of death and dying bring Adam into the world? Providence’s proposal specifically and clearly rejects the latter and calls upon our churches to do the same.

The proposal’s critics are going to fall into one of two camps. There will be:

  1. Those who argue it isn’t necessary because they believe the Confession already rules out pre-Adamites.
  2. Those who argue it isn’t necessary but who won’t rule out pre-Adamites.

If the critics all fall into the first camp, Providence’s proposed addition isn’t needed. Conversely, if there are any who fall into the second camp, that will highlight why we need to clarify our Confession.

There will also be some who make a show of being in the first camp with carefully parsed statements such as, “it could be argued that the Confession already rules out evolution.” While that sounds very first camp-ish, it can be a clever way of saying, “some people – not necessarily me, mind you – could argue…” We should view such critics who won’t be clear as strengthening the case for Providence’s clarifying proposal.

Lots of work, research, and thought has gone into Providence’s proposal, and you should read it for yourself. Along with the supporting appendices, you can find it here.

A version of this post originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Reformed Perspective.

Response to Dr. J. Visscher

Our purpose at Creation Without Compromise is to provide Reformed church members with resources to defend and promote the biblical teaching on origins.  We also aim to provide tools to office bearers to fulfill their subscription vows.  In that light, the CWC team is convinced that the proposal to add some words to article 14 of the Belgic Confession is worthy of careful consideration by all Canadian Reformed office bearers.  This is why you can find the proposal on our website.  The issues need to be studied and weighed carefully.  Objections have been expressed against this proposal.  Most recently, Clarion (June 5, 2015) featured an editorial by Dr. J. Visscher expressing his disagreement with the proposal.  To assist our readers in making a responsible judgment, over the next while we will post several articles related to the proposal.  We begin today with a response to Dr. Visscher.

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I would like to thank Dr. James Visscher for his response to the proposal to make a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This provides an opportunity to address both his concerns and similar ones that have recently been expressed by others. Since most of his concerns are actually dealt with in the proposal itself and its supporting appendices, I will try to be succinct.

There is first an apparent ethical issue: names are named without any apparent due process. In response, the proposal is not about these individuals as such – indeed, they are only mentioned in the first ground of ten to prove that a certain problematic way of thinking exists in our churches. The individuals mentioned have publically written myriads of words. They are outspoken representatives of a way of thinking that either holds theistic evolution as credible, or at least wants to leave room for theistic evolution in our churches. If one pays attention to social media, one soon hears a fair number of these voices in our churches. Moreover, those involved with drafting and adopting this proposal have in fact at various times and places interacted with these brothers. To suggest that anyone has been condemned “rashly and unheard” is hardly, if at all, credible.

Dr. Visscher further notes that one of those mentioned in the proposal has publically claimed that he is not a “theistic evolutionist.” Why did he then allow his name to be included and remain on an online list of evangelical Christians who believe that evolution is true? Readers should further remember that, to his dying day, Jacob Arminius claimed to be faithful to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. More to the point, in the 1990s in the CRC, Dr. Howard Van Till also claimed that he was not a theistic evolutionist.

Finally under the heading of ethical concerns, Dr. Visscher mentions a case brought before a Regional Synod East. This discipline matter was dealt with in closed session and I fail to see how it can be discussed publically without the consent of all parties involved. What if one of the parties plans to appeal to General Synod? Moreover, if we are going to publically comment on decisions made in closed session by a Regional Synod, why not go all the way and actually share with readers the full text of the decision? As it stands, readers are only hearing one side of the story (see Prov. 18:13 & 17).

Dr. Visscher’s next set of concerns are about whether doctrinal issues should be addressed by a change to the Confession. He disagrees with the proposal’s approach. In response, I would ask Dr. Visscher how serious and widespread a theological error would have to be before the church federation rises to some kind of action and then, what action should she take? Dr. Visscher is long on critique and short on a constructive alternative. Moreover, in ground 2, the proposal proves that the error being addressed is not only unbiblical, but also an attack on the very gospel itself. As is documented in Appendix 3, the Reformed churches have in the past responded to these types of grave challenges with confessional additions (the Canons of Dort) or amendments (Belgic Confession art. 22). There are precedents. Finally, Dr. Visscher anecdotally mentions some of his professors who warned against “tampering” with the confessions. Again, I would direct readers to Appendix 3 for published quotes to the contrary from some of our theological forefathers, including Dr. J. Faber and Dr. K. Schilder. These men committed themselves in writing to the very opposite view that Dr. Visscher mentions. Why doesn’t he interact with this material?

Then there is “the textual issue.” Dr. Visscher feels that the existing confessions address the problem of theistic evolution quite adequately. This is precisely the point at issue. Reformed Academic asserts, and I quote, “Theistic evolution is not outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity.” Dr. Visscher and others say that it is; Reformed Academic claims that it isn’t and they have others who agree with them. Who is right? This is the question this proposal has been drafted to answer as it (hopefully) is discussed at General Synod 2016.

The last issue Dr. Visscher raises is about our sister-church relationships, especially those with whom we share the Belgic Confession. It should first be noted that the Canadian Reformed Churches already have their own unique edition of the Confession – again, readers should refer to Appendix 3 for the evidence. The Belgic Confession we have in our Book of Praise is not the Belgic Confession as originally written by Guido de Brès in 1561, nor is it the exact Confession of, say, the RCUS or URC. This has never been an issue. Moreover, at Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015 there were fraternal delegates from the OPC, URC, and RCUS present as this proposal was discussed. They contributed to the discussion and all encouraged us to proceed in this direction. Contrary to the belief of Dr. Visscher (and others who share his opinion), we should expect that our faithful sister churches would be more concerned about our tolerating theistic evolution than about us making a change to the Belgic Confession to address theistic evolution. They would be far more concerned about us taking no action than taking this action. Finally, the proposal does leave the door open for Synod to decide that this is a substantial change (requiring discussion with sister churches) rather than a clarification (see Process, point 5).

Reactions like that of my colleague give the impression of being conservative. However, this type of reaction will end up sacrificing biblical orthodoxy on the altar of maintaining a human document as an immutable historical artifact. This is a “conservatism” that does not serve the ongoing defence and maintenance of biblical truth. Our confessions need to be living documents, expressing the biblical faith of the church and also, where necessary, responding to the most egregious errors of our day.

In conclusion, I urge readers to study the proposal for themselves — you can find it by clicking here. Also, please study carefully the three appendices (find them here) – these contain important supporting material. All of this is available online right here at creationwithoutcompromise.com