An Exhaustive Exegetical Extravaganza

In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2, Cornelis Van Dam.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Dr. C. Van Dam begins his latest book by explicitly laying out his presuppositions.  He’s upfront about his non-negotiable assumptions and biases.  As I review his book, it’s appropriate that I share mine too.  I share his presuppositions about Scripture as the trustworthy Word of God, but I also bring a personal bias to the table.  Back in the day, Van Dam was my Old Testament professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  I had an affectionate nickname for him in view of his ability to put the smack-down on unbelieving or shoddy scholarship:  “Wham-Bam-Van-Dam.”  This was always said with the greatest admiration for Dr. Van Dam.  As a seminary professor he was nothing if not thorough and careful.

This new book exhibits that same kind of comprehensive and precise approach to the two opening chapters of Scripture.  Van Dam leaves no stone unturned.  In the Beginning is an exhaustive treatment not only of the meaning of these two chapters, but also the various challenges that have been raised in Old Testament scholarship regarding them.  What you’re looking at here is not just a commentary on Genesis 1-2, but far more.

Over the last decade or so John Walton has become well-known for his views on the early chapters of Genesis.  Walton argues that we often misunderstand Genesis 1-2 because we don’t take into account the ancient Near Eastern context of these chapters.  Once we do that, says Walton, then we can see that Genesis 1-2 was never meant to be taken literally as history.  The history can then be filled in with what science teaches us, including what science says about human origins.  In chapter 2 of In the Beginning, Van Dam discusses Walton’s views at length and explains how and where they fail to do justice to the character of Scripture as the Word of God.  In my view this is the most important chapter of the book. 

To whet your appetite further, let me share a selection of questions that Dr. Van Dam answers elsewhere in the book:

  • Can new scientific data be regarded as general revelation given by God?
  • What is the relationship of Scripture to science?  Is Scripture a scientific textbook?
  • Can geology give us a history of creation?
  • Was Herman Dooyeweerd faithful to Scripture in his view of origins?
  • How are we to evaluate Meredith Kline’s Framework Hypothesis?
  • Did the ancient Israelites believe that heaven was a solid vault above us?
  • Why is there no mention of evening and morning with the seventh day in Genesis 1?
  • What does Scripture mean when it says that God created through his Son?
  • Can the breath of life in Genesis 2:7 be equated with the Holy Spirit?
  • Was there animal death before the fall into sin?
  • Why did God create everything with an appearance of age?  Was he being deceptive in so doing?

Those are just a few of the questions answered.  There are far more.  What I appreciate about Van Dam’s answers is that he bases them on what Scripture says.  He doesn’t want to go beyond Scripture and so he’ll sometimes say, “Scripture doesn’t say more than this – this is as far as we can go.”

If I would venture some respectful disagreement, it would be in the final chapter where the author briefly discusses whether there’s a need for new confessional formulations to address the challenges of evolution.  In 2014-15, I was involved with an effort to add some clarification to article 14 of the Belgic Confession in the Canadian Reformed Church.  That effort was ultimately unsuccessful.  I don’t regret having made the effort, nor do I think it unnecessary to this day. 

Van Dam argues that Scripture is clear and our “confessions faithfully reflect that testimony” (p.300).  However, that fails to account for those who have argued that the Three Forms of Unity provide the latitude needed to hold to forms of theistic macro-evolution.  Their arguments have persuaded some.  This wiggle-room ought to be addressed, especially if there is openness to theistic macro-evolution in your churches.

Van Dam also posits that “A difficulty with preparing a new formulation asserting the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 is the temptation to go beyond what Scripture says, in other words, to provide specifics about that which Scripture gives no additional detail” (pp.300-301).  The proposal to add clarification to BC 14 was to state what Scripture states:  that Adam was created from dust (Gen.2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).  As a consequence:  “They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans.  There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.”  If one thinks that this infringes upon the freedom of exegesis, then one is willing to grant the latitude for theistic evolutionary accounts of human (and other) origins.    

That criticism notwithstanding, In the Beginning was a delight to read – personally it brought me back to many of the OT lectures I enjoyed from Dr. Van Dam in my seminary years.  While I found it enjoyable, there may be others who will find it tough-going at times.  It’s not highly technical, but in places Van Dam does go academic.  It’s not a book you’d necessarily be giving out as gifts to those doing profession of faith.  It would, however, be a great gift for someone doing post-secondary studies, whether in the sciences or in the humanities.  And it’s definitely a recommended read for those who’ve completed such studies. 

Dooyeweerd, Scripture, and Creation

Herman DooyeweerdA while back, my fellow blogger Dr. Ted Van Raalte wrote a series of posts on Tim Keller.  In one of those posts, he mentioned (in passing) the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Dooyeweerd was the founder of a school of thought which is often termed “cosmonomic philosophy.”  As noted in that blog post, this school has been subjected to some criticism from within our Reformed tradition, most notably by Dr. J. Douma.

I just finished reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  I’ve read a number of works by Frame and this is definitely among his best.  He surveys the most influential thinkers — both those from within Christianity and those who’ve impacted Christianity.  Among those thinkers is Herman Dooyeweerd.  He gets about five pages of attention in the last chapter.

Frame’s approach in this volume is to summarize the important features of a philosopher/theologian and then provide some brief analysis and commentary.  When it comes to Dooyeweerd, Frame begins with as simple an explanation as you’ll find of the key features of cosmonomic philosophy.  Dooyeweerd distinguishes between fifteen “modal aspects” or “law spheres” in the world.  For example: faith, moral, history, biotic, energy, spatial, and numerical.  Says Frame, “Each modal sphere defines a particular science:  mathematics the science of number, physics the science of kinetics, biology the science of life, and so forth.  Theology is the science of faith” (519).  As I hinted above, this is far more complicated — I’ve only highlighted a couple of features.

When he makes his brief critique of cosmonomic thinking, Frame zeroes in on the most important problem of all.  It is a foundational problem with Dooyeweerd:  his view of Scripture.  Does Dooyeweerd do justice to what Scripture teaches about itself?  If he does not, then he has, in some measure, succumbed to the myth of human autonomy.  What Frame thinks is clear enough from this excerpt, although you may have to read it two or three times:

Though I hesitate to criticize this undoubtedly impressive intellectual structure, I have found fault with it in detail, and particularly in the doctrine of revelation that emerges from the project.  As I mentioned, for Dooyeweerd the Word of God is a supertemporal reality that speaks to the human heart in a realm beyond all theory and concept.  Scripture, however, is a temporal book.  It is directed toward the faith aspect, studied by the science of theology.  Now, Dooyeweerd might have argued (in the spirit of Kuyper) that since the faith aspect retrocipates all other spheres and all other spheres anticipate it, Scripture addresses all areas of human life, though it deals focally with faith.  Dooyeweerd chose, rather, to say that Scripture’s focus on faith is exclusive, so that Scripture may not address the concerns of other spheres.  So disciples of Dooyeweerd have argued that Scripture does not teach morality, the difference between right and wrong.  Dooyeweerd himself taught that the “days” of Genesis 1 cannot be literal, since Scripture is about only faith, not numbers.  The days of Genesis are faith numbers, not numerical numbers.

The disturbing conclusion that I reach from all of this is that for Dooyeweerd, revelation in the highest sense is a supertemporal, non-conceptual reality that transforms the heart, but does not direct the philosopher or scientist in any propositional way.  The Bible, on the other hand, contains propositional revelation in the sphere of faith (theology), but does not direct us in every area of human life… (520-521)

In that excerpt, Frame refers in a footnote back to some earlier work he has done in response to cosmonomic philosophy — you can find that helpful work here.

The bottom line:  Dooyeweerd did not have a biblical view of the Bible.  Scripture says in Psalm 36:9b, “in your light do we see light.”  And in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a lamp to my path.”  With no justification, Dooyeweerd qualifies those sorts of passages so that they refer only to the faith (pistical) sphere.  As a result, he also ran up against the biblical doctrine of creation.  This school of thought sometimes goes by the name “Reformational,” but unless it really starts and finishes with the Bible and what the Bible says about itself, it certainly cannot be called Reformed.