“The Historic Reformed Understanding of Genesis”

QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism -- the first German edition in 1563.
QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism — the first German edition in 1563.

Creation Without Compromise exists because of concerns about origins in our Reformed churches.  In the “About” tab on this website, we state that we are “committed to the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis.”  In the November 6, 2015 issue of Clarion, Rev. Peter Holtvluwer wrote a review of our website and under the heading of “Improvements,” he suggested we fill out the meaning of that statement.  What do we understand by “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis”?

Essentially, what we mean is the consensual understanding of the first chapters of the Bible that prevailed amongst confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches especially prior to Darwin.  In the Reformation era, our theologians agreed in emphasizing the literal understanding of Genesis as the ground for doctrine — this was coupled with an emphasis on careful methods of interpretation.  Hence, prior to Darwin, there was a definite consensus regarding how to read the first chapters of the Bible.  Occasionally there were dissenters from that consensus, but this dissent was not encouraged or tolerated.  After Darwin, we recognize that this consensus was challenged in significant ways.  Yet it must be remembered that the Reformed consensus was maintained in the church courts even after Darwin.  For example, we think of synodical decisions against Rev. J.B. Netelenbos and Dr. J.G. Geelkerken in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (1920 and 1926) and Dr. Ralph Janssen in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (1922).

What are some of the features of this historic consensus?  First and foremost would be the insistence that the first chapters of Genesis describe history in a literal and straight-forward fashion.  While they may have some literary features, these chapters are not metaphorical or mythical, but plainly historical and should be interpreted as such.  What follows from that is creation in six ordinary days.  When Genesis 1 speaks of “days,” it means days more or less as we experience them today.  Moreover, if we take Genesis at face value, Adam was created from actual, physical dust of the earth by God.  He was the first human being.  He became a living being when God breathed life into him.  He did not have a biological father or mother, human, hominid or whatever else.  The first woman Eve was created by God from Adam’s rib.  She did not have biological parents either.  Together, they were the first human beings and the parents of all human beings who have since lived.  God also created all other kinds of creatures in the six day creation period – and these were created by his Word.  More could be said about what follows in Genesis – a literal snake speaking to Eve, a fall into sin, a worldwide flood, etc. – but I trust readers get the picture.  Everything I have said up to here was the historic consensus view in Reformed theology.

Some elements of this historic consensus have found their way into the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional heritage.  On the matter of creation days, we can think of the Westminster Confession’s statement in chapter 4.1 that “it pleased God…to create or make of nothing the world…in the space of six days, and all very good.”  In article 12 of the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures, when it seemed good to him, and that he has given every creature its being, shape, and form…”  Article 14 goes on to say that “God created man of dust from the ground.”  Heidelberg Catechism QA 7 confesses that our depraved nature comes from “our first parents” Adam and Eve.  Other elements of the historic consensus are not found in our confessional heritage, arguably because they were considered to be so self-evident from Scripture as to not require such codification.  When most of the Reformed confessions were first written, the challenges that we face today regarding origins were virtually unthinkable.

Since this is just a short blog post, I’m not going to lay out all the evidence for the existence of this historic consensus.  William VanDoodewaard has done that for us at length in his excellent book The Quest for the Historical Adam (see my review here) and I refer readers to his research.  Amongst others, VanDoodewaard discusses John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Girolamo Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, William Perkins, William Ames, the Leiden Synopsis, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Bernard Pictet, Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel.  According to VanDoodewaard, figurative interpretations of Genesis existed even before Darwin, but they were found amongst Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Anabaptists.  Reformed and Presbyterian churches would not countenance such interpretations.  He writes, “Anything that contradicted or failed to cohere with the literal reading of the Genesis text was rejected as subversive to God’s revelation.” (p.86)

Now the big question is:  why do we think that “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis” is so important to maintain and defend?  It’s not because we’re conservative and just want to hold on to old-fashioned things because old-fashioned must be better.  No, it’s simply because we are convinced that the old consensus is biblical.  Old-fashioned often is better, but only when it lines up with God’s Word.  That’s where we stand.

Thus says the LORD:  ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls…’”  Jeremiah 6:16a

Symposium on Adam and Eve

Reposted from bylogos.blogspot.ca, with thanks to Dr. John Byl. We at Creation Without Compromise have with great interest been following the symposium he reviews here.


Books & Culture has recently published a symposium on Adam and Eve. John Wilson, the B&C editor, interviews Karl Giberson about his new book Saving the Original Sinner (2015) Then follows two rounds of contributions from eight scholars. Here is the outline of the symposium, with links to all the papers.

Saving the Original Sinner [interview with Karl Giberson]

Round 1:
Round 2:
John Wilson, Adam’s Ancestors [brief wrap-up]

This symposium gives a useful overview of the current debate. The brief summaries of the views of the various participants saves one the tedious work of reading lengthy books and essays.

Unhappily, only two of the participants (VanDoodewaard and Madueme) affirm the Biblical position on Adam and Eve. The rest have all accepted evolution. Consequently, Enns, Giberson, Lamoureux, and Schneider all view Adam and Eve as purely symbolic. Walton and Poe do leave room for a modified view of Adam and Eve, but heavily adapted so as to fit within the evolutionary framework.

For those defending the plain meaning of Genesis, the contributions of Madueme and VanDoodewaard are thus particularly worth reading.

Dr Hans Madueme is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Here are a few pertinent quotes, one from each paper:

Obviously, if you agree with scientists that a historical Adam is impossible, then devising fresh hermeneutical strategies to resolve the tension with Scripture is a logical move. In fact, however, the Bible does very clearly depict a historical Adam; such revisionist exegesis goes against the grain of the text, driven by scientific pre-judgments that set epistemic limits on what the Bible can say. That’s a mistake; Scripture unshackled—not science—is the self-authenticating authority.

Turning to the scientific “facts,” let me call into question any commitment to methodological naturalism, the notion that we can only appeal to natural phenomena when doing genuine science. Methodological naturalism is the status quo among scientists and enshrined in the scientific perspectives that conflict with the Adamic events of Scripture. Theologically speaking, methodological naturalism strikes me as deeply problematic. To use Alvin Plantinga’s language, it yields a truncated science; it does not appeal to the full evidence base—an evidence base that, I would argue, includes divine revelation and all the glorious realities to which it attests. Once we reject methodological naturalism, we will have a truer and richer appraisal of the biblical witness and the world it signifies. An appropriately expanded understanding of biblical reality includes Adam’s historicity and its vital theological implications; for those of us who find those implications compelling, any scientific opinion that rules out Adam will fail to convince. (Death of God by Poison)

Scientific plausibility is the key; can we still believe doctrines that are implausible by the lights of current science? We can invert the question: If scientific plausibility should guide the expectations we bring to Scripture, then why would we be Christians? Why would we believe that the Son of God became a man? That he died and rose again after three days? That he ascended into heaven? These fundamental Christian beliefs contradict everything we know from mainstream science. If we can no longer believe Adam was historical, then why should we believe in the resurrection? In The Evolution of Adam, Peter Enns answers this way: “For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is the central and climactic present-day event in the Jewish drama—and of the world. One could say that Paul was wrong, deluded, stupid, creative, whatever; nevertheless, the resurrection is something that Paul believed to have happened in his time, not primordial time.” That misses the point. We’re told that we can’t affirm a historical Adam because it’s scientifically unbelievable, but why trust Paul on the resurrection when that, too, is scientifically unbelievable? Or, to flip the script, if we believe the resurrection, then a historical Adam is no biggie. (Demythologizing Adam)

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the author of The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (2015). Here is a sampling from his symposium contributions:

I stand with the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy believing the literal tradition, including the creation of Adam and Eve, from dirt and a rib on the sixth day, a day of ordinary duration. There are numerous reasons for the endurance of this view, despite varied efforts to the contrary of a minority stream of individuals from the patristic era to the present. First, the literal understanding of creation, including human origins, is remarkably viable exegetically. It is also hermeneutically consistent with the whole Genesis text. Second, it coheres seamlessly with the rest of Scripture’s teaching on creation, man, and redemption. The literal tradition on origins is cohesive with a full-orbed exegetically derived Christian theology.

The most substantive challenge to the literal tradition is posed by mainstream dating methods, particularly in relation to fossils. Even here, an understanding of a mature creation, the fall, curse, and ensuing natural processes interspersed with episodes of catastrophism along the way, gives cogent answers to satisfy issues of geological age and subsequent biological adaptation. The literal tradition has exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological coherence with Scripture, historical endurance beyond all other interpretive models, as well as extensive ecclesial and confessional support. There is good reason to believe that it stands as an example of the Holy Spirit’s fulfillment of Christ’s promise to guide of the church in the truth of the Word. (The First Man and Woman)

There is a certain clear and compelling logic to the post-Adam/no Adam viewpoint of Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, and others participating in this roundtable. Where we grant that an ancient earth requires an alternate, “non-literal” approach to time in Genesis 1 and 2, we are left with little (if any) exegetical ground to argue against wide-ranging evolutionary hypotheses. If we accept an adjusted hermeneutic and allow for mainstream evolutionary biology, there is no longer exegetical ground to maintain a historical Adam and Eve, created specially by God in a brief span of time, from the dust of the earth and Adam’s rib, respectively. If we have actually adopted a new hermeneutic for Genesis 1-2 and maintain that Scripture teaches a unity of truth, then we ought to revisit and work towards reinterpreting New Testament passages on Adam.

I believe that the “middle ground” of an evolutionary Adam is just as untenable and ad hoc as Giberson and Enns note it is. But instead of creating agreement, this logic is ample reason to go back to what the mainstream of the Christian church has held to for millennia. The exegetically, hermeneutically, and theologically compelling position is that God created Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman, without progenitors, disorder, or sin. It was this Adam and Eve, the only existing humans, who fell into sin in the Garden, bringing the curse on themselves and all creation. (No Adam, No Original Sin, No Christ)

Note that both authors make a strong case for consistency. Granting an ancient earth, and therefore adopting a non-literal approach to Gen.1-2, undermines the exegetical case for an historical Adam. Likewise, if we can’t believe in the Biblical Adam because it is scientifically implausible, why should we believe in an equally scientifically implausible resurrection from the dead?

What’s at Stake? The Gospel Is at Stake (Tim Challies)

Tim Challies recently interviewed Dr. William Van Doodewaard about his new book The Quest for the Historical Adam.  With his kind permission, we are republishing it here on Creation Without Compromise.  The original post on Challies.com can be found here.

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There is always one truth or another that is being disputed. There is always some doctrine or another that is under attack. And speaking personally, I find it hard to keep up. Sometimes it is best to recruit some help, and I did that very thing recently. I keep hearing about differing views on the historical Adam, with more and more people moving away from a strictly literal understanding that Adam was divinely created by God on the sixth day of creation. Knowing that William Vandoodewaard had just written a book on the subject (The Quest for the Historical Adam), I asked if he would help me sort it all out. He did that in this brief but helpful Q&A.

MeCan you briefly (and as objectively as possible) lay out the different options when it comes to the historical Adam? What are the predominant views?

WilliamThere are really five possible views:

  1. Adam was specially created by God on the sixth day, as understood by the literal interpretation of the Genesis text. Adam is created without ancestry, apart from any evolutionary processes. He is the first human.
  2. Adam was specially created in the manner that Genesis describes (out of the dust, life breathed into him), but without the time frame of six days of ordinary duration—it occurred at some unknown point in the ancient past. Adam is created without ancestry, and apart from any evolutionary processes. He is the first human.
  3. Adam was created through a combination of natural processes and supernatural, divine intervention at some unknown point in the ancient past. Evolutionary processes played a part in Adam’s creation, he had animal ancestry, but God intervened, doing something special in his conception, or making him human after birth, even though his biological parents were not. Some argue that God’s intervention included changing Adam’s physical constitution; others argue that it was only God’s gift of a spiritual constitution or soul that set Adam apart from his animal ancestors.
  4. Adam developed the same way as in #3, but he was simply an individual whom God entered into relationship with, making Adam religious. The immediate change that made Adam “human” was relational, not constitutional.
  5. There was no Adam. Adam is simply a figure or type for early humanity as a category.

While these are the five main categories, it is helpful to be aware of their place and proportion. The historic, mainstream understanding of the Christian church is view #1. Despite continuing efforts to the contrary it remains the predominant view among evangelical Christians. By contrast, view #2, rooted in post-Enlightenment geological theories, is actually a minority stream. Views #3–5, while trendy, very vocal, and on the evangelical edge (where broad evangelicalism merges into theological liberalism), actually represent an even smaller fringe than view #2.

Ongoing round-tables and “four views on Genesis and origins” type books produced by parts of evangelical academia are misleading. They give the impression that the literal understanding of origins is a minority when it actually remains an overwhelming majority commitment, much to the chagrin of its opponents.

MeWhat is really at stake here? What does the church stand to lose if we widely accept an alternate view of the historical Adam?

WilliamThe teaching of God’s Word is at stake here. God’s character is at stake. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. Accepting an Adam with evolutionary origins immediately impacts what it means to be human, created by God in His image. It opens a Pandora’s box of theological problems—from Adam’s relationship with his animal parents and surrounding community, to the doctrine of sin and the fall, to God’s holiness, goodness, and justice. It immediately impacts the doctrine of Christ as the One by whom all things were created, as well as His incarnation and work of salvation. It’s an issue that touches so many others: from soteriology to race relations to sexual ethics to the new creation at the second coming. Those who take the logically consistent step beyond an evolutionary Adam to a figurative Adam join a line of thinkers including Voltaire and Kant.

MeDo you think there is an inevitability here? Do you think that those who deny a historical Adam are necessarily on a slope to full-out theological liberalism?

WilliamThe denial of a historical Adam is already theological liberalism, beyond the bounds not only of evangelicalism, but also historic Christianity. There is an inevitability of further decline, not always in the case of the individual who departs further from Christian orthodoxy, but almost always in the next generation, and in any institution or church that allows this. The underlying problem is the capitulation to reading Scripture through the lens of this world’s culture and thought, rather than reading culture and thought through the lens of Scripture.

MeAre all 4 of the alternatives to the literal reading of Genesis 1 equally dangerous? Or do you think there is room within Christian orthodoxy for some or all of them?

WilliamI don’t believe that we should ever say there is room in Christian orthodoxy for “lesser” error: if something is unscriptural we should not give it a pass. Christian orthodoxy should not be viewed as the “core concepts” of biblical Christianity; orthodoxy is the whole counsel of God’s Word. Our job is to be committed to being conformed to Christ, to the Word, in all things. This should be our passion and joy, pursued in love for Christ, His church, and a world in desperate need of the complete gospel.

But Christians are at various points in their spiritual growth, so, as one theologian said, “a man may be in error, and yet not be a heretic.” Someone may hold to an error at some point and still be a Christian. Understood this way, the first alternative view on human origins is the least problematic: you can hold to view #2 and retain an orthodox view of Adam, but it is nonetheless error requiring correction because it requires hermeneutical choices which set the stage for worse alternative views, in Genesis and elsewhere. Views #3 and #4 move significantly further into error. #5, with its flat out denial of Adam, brings one into the realm of heresy. The Quest for the Historical Adam details the historical realities and theological consequences of each of these in contrast to the coherence and orthodoxy of the literal understanding of our origins.

MeShould the average Christian church-goer get informed about this issue, or is it one where we can allow the scholars to work it out?

WilliamAverage Christian church-goers cannot afford to ignore this issue. Its erosive impact is continuing, if not gathering steam, in American evangelicalism. It may impact you directly through the minister you call or the elders you ordain: discernment here is essential for the church’s life and future.

Our children are likely to face the denial of the historical Adam at many Christian colleges—under the guise of Christian education. The issue is not just for us, but for our children’s future in the faith and for the continued expansion of the kingdom of Christ. Despite the naysayers who say “there is no slippery slope,” church history shows over and over that those who buy into alternate views of human origins are getting on the road that leads to complete abandonment of biblical Christianity.

I believe the best way to be informed is not found in immersing ourselves in books that present various views of the creation account, but by understanding Scripture’s richness, beauty, and cohesiveness on our origin, taught by faithful expositors and theologians for millennia. We must begin recapturing the marvelous reality of the literal understanding of our origin, all it entails, and how it applies to our lives. This was a key part of my aim in The Quest for the Historical Adam. When we understand the reality of what God has said and done, we will not trade our birthright for a pot of stew. We will worship our Creator and Redeemer.

WilliamYes, I would recommend two recent books: Richard Gaffin’s No Adam, No Gospel (P&R, 2015), and the collected essays in the volume God, Adam and You (P&R, 2015).