Extraordinary days = support for theistic evolution?

Quote 1:

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

Quote 2:

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

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

Quote 3:

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

Quote 4:

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

Quote 5:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack DeJong (1949–)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Change the Belgic Confession?

Original Belgic Confession -- not exactly your CanRC BC!
Original 1561 Belgic Confession — not exactly today’s CanRC BC.

There is an overture circulating in the Canadian Reformed Churches which proposes a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession (you can find it here). The change is intended to address theistic evolution. The hope is that this overture will find its way to the table of General Synod 2016. My purpose in this article is not to defend the overture as such. Instead, I want to tackle the broader question of whether the Belgic Confession may be changed. Upon first reading this overture, some readers will instinctively recoil at the idea. To address that reaction, in this article I will review some of the substantial changes that have already taken place in the 454 year history of the Confession. We’ll briefly consider some of the differences that currently exist between the CanRC edition of the Belgic Confession and the editions used by other Reformed Churches. Finally, we will hear some voices from the past about the possibility or desirability of making changes to our confessions.

Changes Prior to 1944

When the Belgic Confession was first written in 1561 it still needed a lot of refining. The Reformed churches of the Low Countries had put much effort into producing their confession, but the atmosphere of persecution meant that initial collaboration was minimal. The original format of the Confession was rough and in need of some editorial work. A synod was held in Antwerp in 1566. This synod made many changes to the Belgic Confession. Some of the changes were merely editorial – the synod pared down some of the original wordiness of the Confession and also deleted at least one witty remark from Guido de Brès.[1] But there were also several substantial changes made.

For example, Synod Antwerp 1566 revised article 5 to add a third function of Scripture: “confirming of our faith.” “Proceeding from the Father and the Son” was added to article 8. In article 16, the statement “the fall into which they had fallen” was replaced with “the fall into which they had thrown themselves.” Article 36 saw many changes at this Synod and one of the most substantial was the addition of an explicit renunciation of the Anabaptists.[2]

For the next 53 years, the text of the Confession remained relatively static. However, with the Synod of Dort of 1618-19 we again see some substantial changes. We often associate the Synod of Dort only with the Canons of Dort. The reality is that this Synod also made some significant changes to the Belgic Confession.

As a result of objections made by the Arminians, changes were made to many of the articles, many either cosmetic in nature or related to formulations.[3] However, there were also more weighty changes. For example, the attribute “almighty” was added to article 1. God’s preservation was added to article 2, as were the words “more clearly and fully.” One of the most significant revisions was made in article 22 in response to a theological controversy over the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. In Reformed orthodoxy, we believe that when Jesus Christ was obedient to God’s law when he lived on this earth, he did it in our place. His obedience is credited to our accounts before God. The German theologian Johannes Piscator had denied this. His teaching on this point had already been condemned and ruled unorthodox by the French Reformed churches and the English. The Synod of Dort followed suit by adding these words (in bold ) to article 22, “…and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”[4] This change made it clear that the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was (and is) the doctrine of the Reformed churches. One is not permitted to deny this doctrine.

Finally, we should note a substantial change made in more recent times. At the Synod of Utrecht 1905, a group of theologians (including Abraham Kuyper) proposed a change to article 36 so that this article would better conform to biblical teaching about the civil government. As a result, these words were deleted: “all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.” Since then these words have often been relegated to a footnote in most editions of the Belgic Confession, including ours.

CanRC Changes

At Synod 1983, a new English edition of the Belgic Confession was adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches. This edition featured many departures from previous editions. As in previous times, some of the changes were merely cosmetic, fixing up the wording here, or a formulation there. However, there were also several changes made that were more substantial. In fact, Synod 1983 considered these changes to be of such a weight that “the churches abroad” should be informed. Let’s briefly note just three of those changes.

In article 1, the words “which we call God” were deleted since it was felt that we do not call him “God” on our own initiative. Paul was no longer to be recognized as the author of Hebrews in article 4 and the book of Lamentations in that same article was to be mentioned as a separate book (previously it was included as part of Jeremiah). Article 9 saw several changes, including “always been maintained in” becoming “always been maintained and preserved.”

As a result of Synod 1983, the Canadian Reformed Churches have a faithful and elegant rendition of the Belgic Confession, but one that differs substantially in several places from editions used in other churches.

Other Reformed Changes

Our churches are not the only ones who have made changes to the Belgic Confession over the years. There are several significant differences that exist in the editions of the Belgic Confession held by our sister churches and others.   Let me give two examples.

The first is with what the RCUS did with article 15. Our edition says regarding original sin: “It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.” However, the edition of the RCUS says (bold added): “Nor is it altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by regeneration; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain…” “Baptism” has been replaced by “regeneration.” It is not immediately clear why this change was made. The change has no basis in the original 1561 text, in the French or Dutch texts adopted by the Synod of Dort, or in the Latin text commissioned by Dort.

The second example is found not only with the RCUS, but also with the URCNA, FRCNA and others. In article 29, our CanRC edition reads regarding the true church, “It practices the pure preaching of the gospel…” Most other English editions read (bold added), “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…” The word “therein” did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792. It has remained with most English versions ever since.[5] Why or how it was originally added is unclear. What is clear is that this word became a substantial issue later on in debates about the missionary relevance of the Belgic Confession in the Christian Reformed Church.[6] Some argued that this word gives the impression that the preaching of the gospel is only meant for inside the church.

Our Forefathers

What have those who have gone before us said about this matter of changing the confessions? Above we already noted Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s involvement in making a substantial change to article 36. From his involvement in that endeavour, we can draw the conclusion that he was not averse to making changes he thought were necessary. However, Kuyper is often portrayed as a villain in our tellings of church history, so perhaps some would not be so impressed with his take on this. Then let’s turn to one often portrayed as a hero in our tellings of church history: Dr. Klaas Schilder. He said, “Every confession is capable of being revised. Of course, not every three years. It is a sign of impotence that we are still unable to do that. We have clung too much to traditions and had too little opportunity for study.”[7] For Schilder too, revision of the Confession, whether by addition or subtraction, could not be automatically ruled out. In fact, remarkably, he described the inability to do it as impotence.

As for Canadian Reformed theologians, we could turn to the late Dr. Jelle Faber. Dr. Faber was a student of Schilder and perhaps had learned something from him on this. In a 1979 Clarion article, Faber discussed article 36 of the Confession. He concluded (bold added), “Let us not return to 1561; let us also not undo the decision of 1905 – as some of our Dutch brothers propose – but let us rewrite the entire third passage of Article 36 of our Belgic Confession.”[8] Some twenty years later, Faber was speaking along similar lines: “The Canadian Reformed Churches have modernized the English text and in the course of this process they have even made some changes in the content of the confessions.”[9] Of course Faber would say this – he was personally involved with making all of those changes. He was on the committee that produced the revised Belgic Confession for Synod 1983. Therefore, we can conclude that also the esteemed Dr. Faber was not opposed in principle or practice to making changes to the Belgic Confession.


The case is solid that Reformed churches and theologians have never regarded the Belgic Confession to be an historical document that may never be changed. In fact, many changes have been made for several reasons, including as a response to serious doctrinal error. The Confession has never been a static document. What we call the Belgic Confession in our Book of Praise is not exactly the Belgic Confession that was written by Guido de Brès in 1561. It is not even a translation of the 1561 Confession – rather, it is what we call an edition. Like it or not, the fact is that we already have a Canadian Reformed edition of the Belgic Confession.

Moreover, we have sister churches who have their own different editions of the Confession. They have either made their own changes or not followed the changes we made. This has never proven to be any difficulty in our relationship with these churches – we can be confident that changing article 14 would not break this pattern. In fact, given the strong stand of some of our sister churches (RCUS and URCNA) on the issue of origins, we might expect that this proposed change would rather be encouraged and welcomed. At Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015, fraternal delegates from the OPC, URCNA, and RCUS actually encouraged our churches to take this kind of action against the doctrinal error we’re facing.

We have always said that only the Word of God is infallible, inerrant, and unchangeable. In principle, we have always maintained that the confessions are man-made documents bearing ecclesiastical authority. The confessions of the church need to reflect the teaching of the Word of God in ways that are relevant to the life of the church today. If there is an obvious need to make a change, the change can and must be made.

So the question is not: can we make any changes to the Belgic Confession? History is full of instances where changes have been made, both by ourselves and others. History provides instances where our theologians have argued for changes. The question really becomes: is a particular issue of such weight and significance that a change should or even must be made to the Confession? That is the question our churches need to be considering today as they discuss this particular proposal.


[1] In article 34 on baptism, de Brès wrote of how it profits us not just once, but through our whole life. The original Belgic Confession added, “otherwise we would always need to have our heads in the water.”

[2] For documentation of all these changes and more, see Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 122-131.

[3] Gootjes, The Belgic Confession, 153-158.

[4] Gootjes, The Belgic Confession, 151-152.

[5] For some discussion of this change, see Wes Bredenhof, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: the Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 26-28.

[6] Wes Bredenhof, For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media & Press, 2011), 238.

[7] Quoted by J. Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1996), 69.

[8] J. Faber, “The Civil Government in Article 36 B.C.,” Clarion 28.24 (December 1, 1979): 512.

[9] J. Faber, “The Confessional History of the Canadian Reformed Churches,” Clarion 48.4 (February 19, 1999): 80.