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