“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

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.