Keller’s advice to fellow Biologos members

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A theological orthodoxy as well-aligned as that of Timothy Keller is hard to find among the increasing numbers of scientists, theologians, and organizations currently urging evangelical Christians to accept biological evolution. He is the pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) and is well-known through his writings on apologetics, church planting, and preaching. His 13 page white paper, hosted by Biologos and entitled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” has been referenced favourably by scientists and theologians in conservative Reformed churches.[1] For example, when Frieda Oosterhoff introduced Keller’s paper some years ago on the Reformed Academic website, she stated,

(Readers of this blog, incidentally, will notice that our blog partner Dr. Jitse van der Meer sees eye to eye with Dr. Kidner in the matter of human evolution, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the descent of all humans from Adam, and that he affirms the same tentative approach as Kidner and Keller.)[2]

In his paper Keller entertains the real questions of concerned Christians and offers answers as to how to help them integrate evolution with their faith. We have intended to interact with his arguments for some time.

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It’s important to situate accurately our debate with Keller. The debate between us is not whether the Christian faith and current science (or what is claimed to be science) are irreconcilable, for we all agree that in many respects they are reconcilable while in some respects they are not. The debate, rather, is in what particular respects they are and are not able to be reconciled.

The debate between us is not whether evolution is a defensible worldview that gives us the basis of our views on religion, ethics, human nature, etc. We all agree that it is not the “grand theory/explanation of everything.” We all agree that there is a God and he is the God of the Bible—Triune, sovereign, covenant-making, gracious, atonement-providing, and bringing about a new creation. Nor am I debating whether Keller is an old-earth creationist aka progressive creationist or an evolutionary creationist or a theistic evolutionist. His own position is a bit unclear so I will simply deal with what he has published in this paper.[3]

The debate between us is not whether matter is eternal; whether the universe’s order is by sheer chance; whether humans have no purpose but to propagate their own genes; whether humans are material only; whether human life is no more valuable than bovine, canine, or any other life; whether upon death all personal existence ceases; or whether ethics is at root about the survival of the fittest. We all agree that none of these things are the case—Scripture teaches differently. We are not debating these points.

Our differences emerge in the compatibility of Scripture with biological evolution, namely, whether Scripture has room for the view that humans—insofar as they are material beings—have a biological ancestry that precedes Adam and Eve. Is this a permissible view?

The first thing to realize as one reads Keller’s paper is its context and purpose: Delivered at the first Biologos “Theology of Celebration” workshop in 2009, Keller lays out 3 (at first 4) concerns that “Christian laypeople” typically express when they are told that God created Adam and Eve by evolutionary biological processes. Keller advances strategies to help fellow Biologos members allay these fears of Christian laypeople. The context thus is that biological evolution is a permissible view; the scholars just need to figure out how to make it more widely accepted.

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Keller deals with the following “three questions of Christian laypeople.”

  1. If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?
  2. If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?
  3. If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

These are excellent questions! Keller provides summary answers and longer explanations for each question. His short answers to the first two questions seem solid enough on the surface of things, yet his longer explanations deserve careful examination. His short answer to the third question is something we have directly contested on creationwithoutcompromise.com more than once, from the standpoint of Scripture. Here are his three summary answers. You can correlate them with the questions above.

  1. The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.
  2. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.
  3. Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

With this introduction in place, we can now interact with Keller’s advice to his fellow Biologos members in his longer explanations of each of these summary answers.

[1] Keller’s paper can be found online at http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/series/creation-evolution-and-christian-laypeople. Accessed 22 Feb 2016.

[2] See http://reformedacademic.blogspot.ca/2010/03/tim-keller-on-evolution-and-bible.html. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

[3] For this debate see https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/is-dr-tim-keller-a-progressive-creationist/. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

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.

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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.”

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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]

Conclusion

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.

Knocking Down Straw Men is Too Easy

Straw-ManIt has been some time since we have heard from the bloggers at Reformed Academic. Last week, however, a post finally appeared from Dr. Freda Oosterhoff. In this post, she is interacting with an article in Clarion written by Rev. Klaas Stam. She claims that Clarion refused to publish her response and so it now appears on Reformed Academic. The focus of her article is a critique of Henry Morris. Certainly some of what Morris writes is worthy of critique and my goal here is not to defend Morris. Instead, I want to interact with the last of her conclusions.

Dr. Oosterhoff writes, “It is high time, I am convinced, to issue warnings against an inerrantist view of the Bible, one that has, unfortunately, been much promoted among us in recent years.” Naturally, as one of those who has been promoting biblical inerrancy, I take note of her burden to warn against this. Dr. Oosterhoff and I will agree on this point: biblical inerrancy is at the heart of the present controversy in the Canadian Reformed Churches over whether there should be room for those who wish to hold to an explanation of man’s origins that might or does include biological evolution. Deny biblical inerrancy and the room is more likely to be created. Affirm biblical inerrancy and the room is not likely to be there for creation compromisers. Find out where someone stands on inerrancy and you can predict where they will likely fall on what can be taught or tolerated in terms of origins. This is obviously a vitally important issue.

Another point where I can agree is Dr. Oosterhoff’s last sentence in her article. She states there that we should not ignore the difficulties in this discussion nor cover them up with fallacious arguments. To do so is dangerous – and I absolutely agree. Because we are united to Jesus Christ (who is the Truth, John 14:6), it is incumbent on us to conscientiously avoid fallacious reasoning.

The irony is that Dr. Oosterhoff’s warning against “inerrantism” (as she calls it) employs a common informal fallacy: the fallacy of the straw man. She offers an extreme and uncharitable portrayal of inerrancy and then knocks it down with the “the traditional Reformed belief” in a Bible that is infallible (but not inerrant). She even says that infallibility is what “the traditional Reformed belief has always been,” implying that inerrancy has never featured in traditional Reformed theology. This is the way she defines the problem she is warning against:

Inerrantism on the other hand teaches the Bible is without any factual errors in the modern-scientific meaning of that term; that it contains no ‘mistakes’ in quotations, no ‘discrepancies’ in for example genealogies, and no ‘errors’ of memory, of grammar, of word choice, of historical information and description, and so on. According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term.

Dr. Oosterhoff provides no source for that description. She refers to no specific “inerrantist.” There are no footnotes to support these claims. She appears to be providing her own description of what proponents of inerrancy believe.

Now perhaps Dr. Oosterhoff can find some example of someone defining inerrancy in the sloppy way she described. However, I’m sure that Dr. Oosterhoff is aware of the Chicago Statement produced in 1978 and signed by over 200 theologians, including several from the CanRC. The Chicago Statement is still widely-recognized as the most precise and helpful definition of biblical inerrancy. In view of Dr. Oosterhoff’s portrayal of inerrancy, it is worthwhile to read carefully Article XIII of the Chicago Statement:

We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of materials, variant selections of material in parallel accounts or the use of free citations.

Dr. Oosterhoff’s portrayal of “inerrantism” simply does not line up with this – in fact, I would expect her to be able to agree to what the Chicago Statement says here about Scripture. Moreover, if you are compelled to warn people against inerrancy, you need a good definition of inerrancy, and what better place to find one than in the Chicago Statement?

But there is not only a problem with her portrayal of inerrancy. There’s also a problem on the other side of the equation, with her portrayal of “the traditional Reformed belief.” She says that our traditional belief is infallibility, and not inerrancy. Now I could multiply historical examples to prove that she is wrong. However, let me only refer to a highly-respected Reformed theological textbook from the seventeenth century, the Leiden Synopsis. The first volume of this has recently appeared in English translation, so readers can check it for themselves. We find Antonius Walaeus writing, “It is made clear to us that the authority of Holy Scripture is much greater than that of the Church by the fact that the Church is capable of erring while Scripture cannot” (71). Sometimes it is claimed that biblical inspiration or inerrancy only extends to doctrines. In other words, the core teachings of Scripture are inspired and even inerrant, but this does not apply to “peripheral” matters.  This notion existed in the days of the Leiden Synopsis already and Walaeus had a ready answer in thesis 28:

And here one ought not to pay heed to Socinus and several other Christians who grant that Holy Scripture is divinely-originated in issues of special importance, but that its authors in situations and circumstances of lesser importance were abandoned by the Holy Spirit and could have erred. Because this opinion paves the way for contempt, and expressly contradicts Scripture which testifies that “everything that was written was written for our instruction (Romans 15:4), and “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). Likewise, “no Scripture is of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20); indeed, “not even one iota will disappear from the Law” (Matthew 5:18). “And it is not permitted for any man to add or to remove from it” (Deuteronomy 4[:2], Revelation 22[:18-19].” (69)

In a footnote, the editors of the Synopsis point out that besides Faustus Socinus, Walaeus noted elsewhere that Erasmus displayed “the same pernicious view.” We can do away with the flawed notion that biblical inerrancy has been smuggled into Reformed theology from fundamentalism. The traditional Reformed belief has long been an inerrant Bible. Yes, yes, I know about Rogers and McKim and their efforts to say otherwise. Their flawed research has been quite adequately answered by Richard Muller (in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) and many others (see here for a bibliography).

This response has already become too long, but I need to raise one more point. Dr. Oosterhoff says that “According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term.” Here she paints with a broad brush. To which specific inerrantists is she referring? All of them? Some of them? Which ones? Certainly, I would grant that there are proponents of inerrancy who take such an approach, but they would generally not be Reformed. Reformed proponents of inerrancy like Dr. Greg Bahnsen have argued for a presuppositional approach. We do not prove the Bible to be accurate, but we believe it to be accurate because this is the way God himself describes it to us, it is the self-attestation of Scripture. Inerrancy is never a matter of proof, but of faith. It is not a matter of a conclusion reached by our reason, but a matter of faith accepting what God’s Word says about itself as our starting point. As I have pointed out before, even some Lutheran theologians have taken this approach to biblical inerrancy. Dr. Oosterhoff does not acknowledge that this presuppositional approach even exists and that again puts inerrancy in the worst possible light.

If Dr. Oosterhoff and her colleagues at Reformed Academic feel a burden to warn the Canadian Reformed Churches against biblical inerrancy, they will need to at least become familiar with the best arguments for biblical inerrancy, especially from Reformed theologians. Taking the weakest and sloppiest statements of inerrancy and demolishing them is easy and it scores points with sympathizers. However, we are those who are to “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and certainly that means we have to forsake all fallacious reasoning.

It’s all in the definition

Reblogged from Keep Ablaze, the website of Pastor Rob Schouten

A person mentioned in an overture recently adopted by Classis Ontario West feels that he has been grossly misrepresented in this decision. I am genuinely open to that possibility but so far have not been convinced. Central to this feeling of being misrepresented is the question of the meaning of “theistic evolution.” One of the persons mentioned in this overture states forcefully that he is not a “theistic evolutionist.” While there is no universally accepted definition of theistic evolution, here are a couple from credible Christian proponents of this idea:

  • “Theistic evolution is the proposition that God is in charge of the biological process called evolution. God directs and guides the unfolding of life forms over millions of years. Theistic evolution contends that there is no conflict between science and the Biblical book of Genesis.”
  • “The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, “theistic evolution,” so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans.”

I think the above definitions capture what most people mean by “theistic evolution.” The main idea is that evolution is God’s way of creating new life forms in the history of the world. Typically, theistic evolution advocates acknowledge that God directly created some original form of life and also that at some point in history, God created human beings by placing his image upon some pre-existing creature.

Do we have reason to think that the persons mentioned in the overture of Classis Ontario West embrace or want to make room for theistic evolution as a way of understanding the origin of species, including homo sapiens?

First of all, should it be difficult to ascertain a person’s belief in this regard? I have read a lot over the years in relation to this topic and it’s usually not hard to figure out an author’s orientation.

Secondly, have the persons in question sufficiently profiled themselves for readers to formulate an opinion about their orientation and direction in regard to the issue of evolution? I think they have. In their writings at Reformed Academic and elsewhere, these men have indicated that evolution is, at the very least, a highly credible theory that deserves the utmost respect from all serious-minded people. It’s just as credible as the prevailing theory of gravity, one of them writes.

A reader would therefore be within his rights to consider that these brothers accept  that life probably began about 4 billion years ago and from that point developed through mutations and natural selection into the millions of species we see on planet earth today. At the same time, they are members of Christian churches which confess “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

In short, evolution happened and yet God created. Putting those two ideas together in the same mind and on the same page understandably leads readers to the term “theistic evolution.” This is a term with a considerable history and has been freely used by Christian scholars who seem to have the same view of creation as do the brothers mentioned in this overture. Is it slander to use this term in regard to these men? I don’t think that would be a fair ethical assessment of the overture adopted in Classis Ontario West.

Naturally, the next big question is: what about human beings? Are we also the result of a process of evolution? Are we biologically related to prehistoric hominoids and presently-living primates? Do Adam and Eve have a pre-history? Like many other proponents of theistic evolution, the brothers mentioned in the overture adopted by Classis Ontario West clearly and repeatedly affirm that human beings are the result of a special act of creation by God.

I’m very happy for that affirmation. However, the questions remain: did God create Adam as Genesis records that he did? Did God make Adam from the “dust of the ground,” that is, from inanimate matter?  To ask the same question differently, was Adam biologically related to pre-existing creatures? Was he made directly or was he born from pre-existing hominoids only to be subsequently and supernaturally endowed with the image of God? Was Eve made directly form his side? Are Adam and Eve the ancestors of all presently living human beings?

If those who are named in the overture of Classis Ontario West seek to dissociate themselves from the label “theistic evolution” and thus quell the sort of concerns evident in this overture, they could do so quite readily by answering questions such as these, as they have been invited to do in another blog by a concerned and well-informed author.

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.

 

A Retracted Statement?

A proposal is going to Regional Synod East in November which puts forward a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This proposal is designed to clear up the confusion that currently exists in the Canadian Reformed Churches regarding origins. We have those who claim that the Three Forms of Unity in their existing state rule out any notion of human evolutionary origins. On the other hand, we have Reformed Academic asserting, and I quote, “Theistic evolution is not outside the boundaries of the Three Forms of Unity.” There are a fair number who agree with Reformed Academic. Who is right? Our churches urgently need clarity on this question.

The proposal quotes from two outspoken scientists in our churches. They are quoted partly as representatives of the view that theistic evolution should be tolerated – after all, they are founding editors of Reformed Academic, men who stand behind the quote above. One of those scientists is Dr. Jitse Van der Meer. He proceeds beyond the view that theistic evolution should be tolerated. He is quoted in the proposal as writing, among other things, the following:

Fourthly, there is the irreversible hierarchical structure of the classification of living things. If animals living today would have been created by fiat creation rather than by evolutionary creation, there would have been no hierarchical branching pattern unless the Creator would have wanted those who investigate such matters to believe there had been a history which never actually occurred. Since the Creator does not deceive us I am led to the conclusion that He created animals by means of an evolutionary process thereby giving us a real evolutionary history.

Dr. Van der Meer made this statement in a public online discussion with one of the Providence office bearers. You can find the original context here at Reformed Academic – the quotation can be found in the comments of Dr. Van der Meer on January 2.

The use of this quote in the proposal has been disputed. In this blog post, Rev. Bill DeJong alleges that this statement was retracted. Moreover, he claims (under point 9), that this retraction was done publically and the drafters of the proposal completely ignored this. Of course, this calls into question the integrity of the drafters and the credibility of the proposal. Regrettably, others have echoed these claims. These claims therefore deserve some further investigation.

I have searched on Reformed Academic for Dr. Van der Meer’s public retraction of this statement made in response to Providence deacon Herman van Barneveld. I have not been able to find it. Dr. Van der Meer did not retract this statement in the following comments under that blog post, nor did he issue a retraction of that statement in any subsequent blog post on Reformed Academic. One would think that this blog would be the natural place to issue such a public retraction. Moreover, if it was publically retracted, why is the statement still out there on the blog as if it continues to be Dr. Van der Meer’s position? It’s still there, still sowing confusion. If I had made a statement and later learned that I was in error, I would want to make an effort to correct my error. If it was a public error, I would want to make the correction publically and remove the error.

Readers should notice that Rev. DeJong and others have supplied no reference to support their claim. I want to ask Rev. DeJong: where, exactly, did Dr. Van der Meer publically retract that statement made in the context of his response to Herman van Barneveld? Rev. DeJong needs to provide the evidence to support his claim. And then a follow-up question: if Dr. Van der Meer perhaps retracted a similar statement used in a different context, where did he retract that and exactly why? Did he perhaps change his mind? Or was it merely a matter of proof-reading/editing with no real change in his position?

Now I know that my colleague Rev. DeJong wants to promote justice and truth – and I respect him for that. However, these same virtues also behoove him to share with his readers the whole story behind this “retraction.”  Once the entire body of evidence is considered in context, I believe it will be clear that the drafters and adopters of this proposal acted honestly and with the integrity expected of office bearers in Christ’s church.

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