Saturday, May 17, 2014

Van Bekkum Responds to Canadian Critics

Koert van Bekkum
In recent years, Synods from the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches (Australia), as well as popular writings in our church papers, have often expressed concern with the writings of one particular professor at the Theological University in Kampen, namely Koert van Bekkum, objecting to his approach to Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Dr. van Bekkum has written a response to the ecclesiastical concerns, which can be found here. Although at Reformed Academic, it has not been our focus to interact with developments in and with respect to the Netherlands, we appreciate his response, and find ourselves in much of what he says.

Part of the background of his 13-page piece includes the fact that this past January, the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS) hosted a conference on hermeneutics, which included presentations and responses across the Atlantic. The blog of CRTS student Jeremy de Haan featured some “Thoughts and Stories from the Conference”, and, after some discussion there, van Bekkum introduced his response today as follows:
Dear Jeremy (and other brothers and sisters in Canada),

After the conference of last January I had a chat with prof. Van Dam and Rev. De Gelder about my thesis, which had (on purpose) not been the subject of discussion during the CRTS-conference. We shortly discussed the fact that I am not happy with the misconceptions of my views in the Report of the CanRC-subcommittee for the relations with the RCN and in the decisions of the General Synod of Carman 2013. Both brothers invited me to write a reaction in which I offer my response to the ecclesiastical and ecumenical criticism of my thesis. This suggestion was later approved by the Dutch deputies of BBK. Accordingly, I wrote a response.

So for everyone who might be interested: hereby my response: http://www.tukampen.nl/responsekvanbekkum. Just in case we will have some further conversation about biblical hermeneutics in the future.

Blessings,

Koert
In that spirit, we too look forward to continued academic, ecumenical, and ecclesiastical conversations as we seek to engage God's world in faithfulness to his word.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Science and Secularization

(Harvard UP, 2007)
Science and Secularization are two words often uttered in the same breath with the assumption that science is responsible for secularization. This misunderstanding had been exposed some time ago by historians of science such as John Hedley Brooke [“Science and Secularization,” in: The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2010, pp. 103-120]. In 2007, Charles Taylor gave us a book-length evaluation of this assumption from a social and broad cultural perspective. His conclusion: secularization is the result of many developments which converged on giving people the freedom to accept or reject the Christian faith. When people turn away from God this shows in everything they do, including science.

If science has anything to do with secularization, it is that science has been and continues to be used illegitimately as a stick to beat what some consider the dead horse of religion. Here is a recent review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age by David Brooks from the New York Times.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Does Evolution Require New Theology?

Edwin Walhout
A recently retired Christian Reformed minister has published an article in his denomination’s magazine The Banner, entitled “Tomorrow’s Theology.” Edwin Walhout says on his e-book publishing site, “Being retired from professional life, I am now free to explore theology without the constraints of ecclesiastical loyalties.” His piece suggests vast changes are needed to Christian doctrine as a result of the “established fact” of evolution. The quick response from several in our Canadian Reformed community was to reiterate their warnings against those in our churches who, they say, promote the dangerous idea of “theistic evolution” and advocate the re-interpretation of Scripture on the basis of modern science. After all, they say, this is where those ideas necessarily lead, namely to the questioning, if not outright denial, of the truth of Adam and Eve’s being created in the image of God, originally without sin, subsequently falling into sin, and being expelled from the garden, as well as the denial of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, his virgin birth, his sacrifice, death, resurrection, ascension, and his imminent Second Coming.

When some of our critics see Walhout in The Banner, they see Reformed Academic. This is understandable, as we also have been talking about evolution, but also disappointing, since we have (we hope) been clear in our support of all Christian doctrines and of the Reformed confessions. Unlike Walhout, we do not argue for the re-interpretation of Scripture (or Christian doctrines) on the basis of science. Rather we call for the interpretation of Scripture with Scripture, central to Reformed Biblical hermeneutics. 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. We do think it is important to discuss the scientific claims; it will not do to simply dismiss them a priori as invalid. However, we also continue to point out the limits of science, in particular the inability of science to explain the origins of the cosmos, of life, of humanity, of individual humans. (In a March 2012 post, Arnold Sikkema pointed out the validity of historical science, and also distinguished “origin” and “history.” Jitse van der Meer followed this in more detail in a subsequent post.) Four years ago we wrote:
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.
This Walhout finds outdated, but we have no reason to make any adjustments. Nothing we have written is similar to the questions and denials of Walhout.

R. Scott Clark
In dismantling Walhout’s article, R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, rightly points out (in an article entitled “Of False Dichotomies, Science, and Progress in Theology”) the false dichotomy in the notion that one must either accept a young-earth creationist position (à la Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis) or discard (or at least question) basic Christian doctrines. This dichotomy, incidentally, is one on which popular atheist Richard Dawkins, Walhout, Ken Ham and some CanRC leaders agree. Clark explains that there are several positions which do not require this polarization, identifying a number of other viable alternatives within Christian (even Reformed) orthodoxy which do not take Scripture to require us to take the young-earth view.

The theological problems in Walhout’s piece are self-evident. Let us identify also a few serious scientific errors Walhout makes. For it appears to us he has engaged in significant extrapolation beyond what the actual claims of modern science are.

Walhout seems to have conflated evolution and evolutionism (a distinction we have long attempted to point out but which continues to be studiously ignored by many). On the one hand there is a biological theory of evolution, while on the other hand there is a philosophical / religious worldview of evolutionism. Evolutionism assumes (incorrectly) that humanity is fully explained by science within a naturalistic theory of biological evolution. This is said to include human psychology, sociology, reason, morality, and religion. There is no place within this worldview for anything special about humans, such as their being created in God’s image, their covenantal relationship with God, their being recipients of divine revelation; there is no place for spiritual realities, sin, grace, purpose, etc. It is vital to realize that the biological theory of evolution does not settle, or even begin to address, questions of the origin or character of humanity as humanity. Nor does it touch upon the origin or history of the physical cosmos, or the origin of life itself. It can only touch on the biology of organisms including humans. But surely the Christian worldview recognizes that being human is more than having a certain biology. There are indeed scholars who work on evolutionary psychology and evolutionary morality, but human psychology and morality are clearly areas where other forms of knowledge besides the scientific are required. Especially for the Christian, the doctrines of imago Dei and sin are clearly not amenable to scientific studies; these are theological doctrines, which have huge ramifications for human psychology. One also cannot hope to explain all aspects of the human psyche without reference to the clear Biblical teachings regarding the unique position of humans among all creatures on earth, especially in terms of imago Dei, creation, fall, and redemption.

Walhout seems also to have adopted scientism, the idea that no statement of any sort can be affirmed unless it is scientifically supported. This connects with his thinking that questions regarding human psychology and human morality are fully amenable to scientific inquiry. He suggests that the historicity of the Garden and Fall is doubtful, asking, “Where is the scientific and historical evidence of a pristine origin and expulsion from that Garden?” It apparently fails to occur to him that science and history do not have the epistemological prowess to handle every question. We cannot expect each individual event or person from the distant past to leave physical or biological traces for our current study. And even if they did, science and history still cannot handle every question about these events or persons.

The way Walhout narrates scientific theory and fact further demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the nature and character of science. He refers to the theory of evolution as “established fact,” and calls for an approach which “embraces scientific insights.” This does not even begin to do justice to how theories function in science. The scientific enterprise is a search for truths regarding created reality; therefore, appealing to “theory as fact” (and speaking of “embracing” it as such) is unscientific, being instead rhetorical or political in nature. True, there are some dogmatic high-priests of scientism, such as Richard Dawkins, who attempt to brow-beat opponents of scientific theories into submission by raucous claims that evolution, or the big bang theory, are proven fact. This only demonstrates our point; such bully tactics are power struggles, not the humble calls for examination of evidence in support of (or opposition to) theories which characterize the true nature of science. If one considers the theory of evolution as simply a “fact,” one has actually displaced and underestimated it. A theory is a vast network of ideas which have moved beyond a preliminary hypothesis to being widely supported from multiple independent lines of evidence. Theories play a role in the recognition of patterns in collected observations, and in organizing and explaining disparate observations, often subsuming theories of more limited scope. Theories also allow for the prediction of future observations and contribute to a broader coherence among a collection of related theories. Similar to this misuse of “fact” is the failed attempt by some to refer to evolution (or the big bang, or heliocentrism) as “only a theory.”

Walhout speaks of “embracing” a theory (and there is even a book entitled Should Christians Embrace Evolution?). But in fact, scientists do not embrace, or even “believe (in)” theories. Instead, science speaks of considering the evidence for (and against) a theory, and acknowledging the strength of multiple converging lines of evidence. This assessment of scientific theories is a key task of the scientific community as a whole, and cannot be done by ecclesiastical assemblies. This task is open to every scientist regardless of their religious, political, ethnic, geographic, employment, or social context.

Walhout suggests much of Christian doctrine is in need of overhaul due to what he says is the fact of evolution (which as we have described he extends far beyond the biological theory). We would say that instead of revising theology on the basis of modern science, theology has to focus on what the Scriptures do teach, and this includes recognising and excising whatever science (or pseudo- or folk-science, or philosophy) theology has taken on, whether its origin is Aristotle, Plato, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Morris, or Ham. Theologians in the past have, on the basis of the science of their day, made illegitimate adjustments to what the Scriptures were claiming. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most notorious, for he incorporated Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics into Christian doctrine. As a result, at the time of Galileo it was common knowledge that while in our experience there are only the terrestrial elements (earth, water, air, fire), the moon and all the heavenly bodies are perfect spheres made of quintessence. It was further “well known” that the Bible clearly teaches such matters. Calvin, incidentally, took on this Aristotelian view as well in some instances. The story of Galileo and the church has very many aspects, but one was this problematic integration into Scripture of contemporary science. And so removing scientific ideas from our interpretation of Scripture is what ought to be done.

Much of the way in which many North American evangelicals, including Canadian Reformed believers, see “the creation story” has been significantly influenced by the modern scientific mindset and pseudo-scientific ideas of the creation-science community. This includes a fixation on timing, duration, ages, sequences, and processes.

Our desire at Reformed Academic is not to create confusion or fear, or to push evolution or old-earth thinking, or to replace the Reformed confessions or historic Christian doctrines. It is to educate and inform and to encourage respectful brotherly dialogue on the connections between academics and the Reformed faith, including (but not limited to) matters of science as they touch on cosmic and life history. And part of this may involve a recognition that some of what we thought the Bible clearly teaches has in fact been a previous scientific or “scientific” idea which we have allowed to creep into our hermeneutical process. The net result should then be a better understanding both of God’s Word and God’s world, which is central to the calling of the Reformed academic, and indeed to that of every believer. Theologians cannot answer every question, and neither can scientists. But praise God that we have both, that they can coexist and sharpen each other in a common quest for understanding and for the advancement of the Kingdom.

Monday, May 20, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics, Defender of the Faith

“The more I think about his work, the more I tend to see two C.S. Lewises, who often appear together in the same book and article. One is the Christian rationalist whose arguments are frequently valuable, and who has helped many fellow-Christians and many agnostics to overcome intellectual doubts, but who has to be read critically. The other is the humble Christian believer who subjected his own insights to the authority of the Scriptures, realizing that unless we become like children we cannot enter the Kingdom. But also in his rationalist guise Lewis confessed Christ as his Saviour, and throughout his life he struggled to fulfil the commandment to love God and the neighbour, and to promote the gospel by whatever means he had at his disposal.”
This quote is from an article I wrote fifteen years ago, in connection with the 100th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s birth (Clarion, July 10, 1998). I still stand behind that evaluation and am using the quote as a kind of synopsis of the present article, which is written to remember the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death. In a sense this article serves as an extension of the review I posted a few weeks ago of a recent Lewis biography by British theologian Alister McGrath. In that review I focused on some of the reasons for Lewis’s continuing popularity as a Christian writer and apologist but said little about his actual message. I will now attempt to fill that gap, at least as far as is possible in a brief essay. My focus will be on straightforward apologetic and religious works, rather than on worldview issues or on Lewis’s imaginative writings. I hope to turn to those topics on yet another occasion. Although the present essay is not intended as another review of McGrath’s bibliography, I will more than once mention it, but I will refer to Lewis’s own work as well.

The question of orthodoxy

Lewis has been lauded by many evangelicals and other Christians as a defender of “mere Christianity,” that is, of “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This assessment is confirmed by most of his writings. There are exceptions, however. The most disturbing, in my view, is his attitude toward the Old Testament. While he appears to accept the infallibility of the New Testament and constantly defends it, his explanation of parts of the Old Testament is at times reminiscent of that of the so-called “higher critics.” Best known perhaps is his “symbolic” explanation of the fall into sin (in chapter V of The Problem of Pain, 1940) and of the creation account itself. He accepted a version of evolution, although he did not really like it. But he insisted that he had no religious problems with the theory; his real concern was that it contributed to the “chronological snobbery” of the modern age —namely the belief in constant evolutionary progress, so that the past is necessarily inferior to the present. Lewis’s critical attitude is also evident in his Reflections on the Psalms (1958). Particularly the first few chapters, which deal with judgment and cursing (imprecations) in the psalms, raise questions about his orthodoxy. Strangely enough, much of the rest of the book comes across as orthodox and is both instructive and edifying. Yet another issue that raises objections is Lewis’s belief in purgatory. (He does make clear that he rejects the medieval view and does not see purgatory as punishment for sin but only as a means of purification.)

In view of the above it may seem strange that most orthodox Christians continue to see Lewis as a reliable defender of the biblical faith. One reason for this attitude is that, unlike the theological “liberals” of his day, Lewis believed in the divine origin of the Bible message, including that of the Old Testament. Another reason, of course, was his valiant and unceasing battle against the opponents of the Christian gospel and the help he thereby gives to those who struggle with conflicts and doubts. His view of the New Testament is orthodox. Ever since his conversion he defended its historicity against biblical critics, and ever since his conversion he proclaimed it to be the gospel of salvation, which had to be believed in all its details. Lewis was a thorough-going supernaturalist. As a critical commentator writes (Richard B. Cunningham, in C.S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith), the gospel that Lewis taught was:
The old story of creation, redemption, and consummation; of incarnation, cross, resurrection, and ascension; of faith, hope, and love; of angels and heaven and devils and hell; of the urgency of decision and the eternal finality of temporal choice. Here [Lewis says] is the good news, the gift that is absolute demand, the answer to the problems of existence. Accept it and live; reject it and die! There is no third way!
There is yet another element, the one to which McGrath draws attention. Trying to explain Lewis’s continuing appeal to successive evangelical generations, he writes,
Lewis is seen to enrich and extend faith, without diluting it. In other words, evangelicals tend to see Lewis as a catalyst, who opens up a deeper vision of the Christian faith, engaging the mind, the feelings, and the imagination, without challenging fundamental distinctives…. While this involves a selective reading of Lewis, this does not seem to cause any fundamental concern. Lewis is grafted on to evangelical essentials, engaging weaknesses without compromising strengths.
Apparently, then, these evangelicals manage to ignore the unorthodox elements in Lewis’s teachings and to focus on the biblical ones. No doubt, many other Christians follow that approach as well. (Surprisingly, even most of Lewis’s atheistic critics do the same.) We will now look at some of the ways in which Lewis opened up “a deeper vision of the Christian faith.”

A Christian rationalist

Lewis has been called an “apostle to the sceptics,” and that description is to the point. He himself had been a religious doubter and his autobiography (Surprised by Joy, 1955) shows the extent to which his conversion was influenced by intellectual concerns. Having subscribed to various philosophies and worldviews in attempts to make sense of life and the world, he finally concluded that only Christianity can properly and fully explain the various aspects of human experience. Ever since his conversion in the early 1930s he made it his task to convince others of this truth.


He does so, for example, in the “Broadcast Talks” and Mere Christianity. What is interesting here, as McGrath points out, is that Lewis does not begin with Christian doctrine or with aspects of Christianity that people fail to understand or that cause them problems. Rather, he begins with human experience and moves from there to the question of the existence of God. In the first chapters of Mere Christianity, for example, he shows how the common human idea of right and wrong, and the common experience of guilt in the case of wrong-doing, can best be explained with reference to the existence of a higher power who is both lawgiver and judge. He gives similar explanations of other experiences, such as desire and longing, arguing that natural desires have a corresponding object, and that God is the ultimate object of the human search for happiness. As he writes in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” It is reminiscent of Augustine’s remarks in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” Christianity, then, explains why the world and humankind are the way they are. There is a “fit” between doctrine and life; if one accepts the Christian gospel as true then everything else “falls into place.”

Lewis uses that argument elsewhere, for example in his paper “Is Theology Poetry?” (1944). Here he specifically compares the worldview of scientific naturalism with Christianity, showing again that the latter alone accounts for what we observe and learn and experience. Christian theology, he argues, can account for science, art, morality and the sub-Christian religions. The naturalistic point of view cannot explain any of these things, not even the phenomenon of science itself. He concludes the paper with the well-known words, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

Another argument Lewis frequently uses against naturalists and other atheists (for example in Chapter 3 of his book Miracles, 1947) is that naturalists base their arguments on the power of human reason but that according to these same naturalists human reason is nothing but the chance product of mindless matter. How then can it be reliable? A similar question had already plagued Charles Darwin, who spoke of the “horrid doubt” that arose in him when considering “whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one,” he asked, “trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In Miracles, Lewis illustrates the problem by quoting the atheistic evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” Lewis calls this “the cardinal difficulty of naturalism.”

Divine initiative

Lewis relished defending the faith with the help of rational arguments. To call him a Christian rationalist is not to suggest, however, that for him the defence of that faith, and belief itself, were simply matters of external evidence or speculation or logic. Nor did he believe that the initiative in conversion lay with the human being, or that it had been his own reasoning that had brought him to God. It was God who had called him to repentance. Lewis writes about this at large in his autobiography. A central theme in the story of his conversion to theism (which anticipated his return to Christianity by about a year) is that that conversion was not the result of his search for God, but of God’s relentless and compassionate search for him. He had been “compelled to enter.”

At the same time Lewis shows that an opposite explanation must also be rejected — namely that his turning to God was a matter of wish-fulfilment. That was how Sigmund Freud and other atheists explained the appeal of religion, portraying belief in God as the search for a father figure, and God himself, in McGrath’s words, as a “consoling dream for life’s losers, a spiritual crutch for the inadequate and needy.” It is true, Lewis came to see that God is the ultimate object of the human search for fulfilment, but that insight came after his conversion. For years the existence of a personal God had implied for him not the beginning of personal happiness but the end of his cherished independence, and he fought long and hard to continue “calling his soul his own.” When he finally submitted he was, he writes, very much a dejected and reluctant convert.

Knowledge by acquaintance

Lewis teaches that if conversion is a gift of grace, so is perseverance in the faith. This is the topic of his lecture “On Obstinacy in Belief” (1955). The central message is that Christian belief is not just a matter of rationality (although it is that too) but also, and especially, of relationship. He refers to Augustine’s distinction between credere Deum esse — to believe that God exists — and credere in Deum — to believe in (or to have faith in) God, that is, in the God who reveals himself. “Believing that God exists” can still be the topic of philosophy and speculative thought; “believing in God” speaks of a personal relationship. It is no longer a matter of argument, but of acquaintance.

Lewis begins this lecture by saying that critics of Christianity like to contrast the scientific attitude toward evidence with the Christian one. Whereas scientists proportion the strength of their conviction to the evidence, Christians, these critics claim, think it is meritorious to ignore the need for evidence; indeed, to persevere in their belief even in spite of contrary evidence. Scientific knowledge is therefore considered far more secure than the knowledge of faith.* In answering this charge, Lewis remarks that, contrary to the critics’ opinion, evidence plays an important role in a person’s initial conversion. Converts will refer to natural or philosophical evidence, or to the evidence of history, of religious experience, of authority, or to all of them combined. For authority, he adds, is a kind of evidence. “All of our historical beliefs, most of our geographical beliefs, many of our beliefs about matters that concern us in daily life, are accepted on the authority of other human beings, whether we are Christians, Atheists, Scientists, or Men-in-the-Street.”

But if for new converts external evidence does play an important role, the situation changes, Lewis says, for mature believers. Then the charge that Christians stick to their faith in the teeth of what appears to be contrary evidence is harder to contradict. But Lewis argues that this does not really count against Christianity. An attitude of perseverance in spite of contrary evidence may be objectionable in science, but is appropriate and even indispensable in Christianity. For Christians believe in a personal God whose knowledge of the needs of his creatures far surpasses their own. It therefore is to be expected that the way in which he directs their lives may well be different from what they themselves would desire. Moreover, God establishes a relationship with his people, makes himself known to them and asks them to trust him. Trust is essential in personal relationships and can only grow in situations where there is also room for doubt. It therefore will be tested. And so the Bible in various places reminds readers to expect and indeed give thanks for the trials and temptations they meet. Lewis concludes as follows:
Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportional to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what our assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes…. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord.

A man for all seasons

For orthodox Reformed believers, and for all who hold to the infallibility of Scripture, Lewis remains a bit of an enigma. He has been called an unorthodox defender of orthodoxy, and that describes him well. The biggest problem remains his critical attitude toward parts of the Old Testament. But as I hope to have made clear, he was not a “liberal” theologian in the common sense of the term. I do not believe, for example, that the ever denied that the Bible, including the Old Testament, proclaims God’s message to humanity, and he appears to have considered knowledge of the Old Testament as necessary for a proper understanding of the gospel. He did so, as he tells us in the Reflections on the Psalms, principally because Jesus himself accepted the Old Testament as revelation, teaching his followers (for example during the journey to Emmaus) that the Psalmists and prophets spoke of him. This clinched the issue for Lewis. It is true that he did not often quote from the Bible, not even from the New Testament. There is also little “proof-texting” in his work (but that, of course, is not necessarily a drawback). Yet he did know the gospel and attempted to live by the gospel message — by “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” And he was able to communicate that gospel, inspiring not only believers but also doubters and agnostics; not only lay people but also many an established theologian.

He did this, as we have seen, by showing that the gospel, and the gospel alone, makes sense of life and of the world; that it explains and satisfies our deepest desires; that it provides us with a much deeper vision of reality than we ever had before. He did it also by reminding us that the gospel is to be taken with great seriousness, that it is the gift that is at the same time “absolute demand.” To illustrate this aspect of his ministry I quote, by way of conclusion, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
It may be possible for each of us to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. (The sermon can be found in C.S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper [London, 1962.] It was preached in Oxford; the date is not given.)

Here we have another noteworthy aspect of Lewis’s ministry. Christians often struggle with the question how we are to fulfil our task here on earth. Should our main concern be with the salvation of our souls and of the souls of our neighbours, far and near? Or is that an escapist attitude and are we to concentrate instead on cultural involvement, on “reclaiming the world for Christ”? In other words, should we as Christians focus on being “other-worldly” or “this-worldly”? This was the dilemma that American evangelicals faced in the 1940s and ’50s and that led to the rise of the “new evangelicalism.” Leaders of the movement, as McGrath told us, turned to Lewis for inspiration, not least because he could show them how to escape from a sectarian other-worldliness and to function as a “salt and a light” in the society and culture of their day. But there is always a danger, of course, of making distinctions where none should exist. Perhaps another explanation of Lewis’s continuing relevance (in addition to the ones already mentioned) is his message that the two positions should go hand in hand. This, too, is part of the tradition of “mere Christianity.” As we learn from the history of the early church, it was because believers constantly kept in mind their own and their neighbours’ eternal destiny that they cared for society, helping and comforting the poor, the ill, the dying. It was their belief in heaven that changed the world. In attempting to keep the two aspects in balance, Lewis speaks to questions raised as much by today’s generation as by previous ones. He remains relevant — “a man for all seasons.”


*Modern philosophers of science would place a question mark here. A few years after Lewis delivered this lecture, American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published his influential study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), wherein he showed that scientists will stick to their paradigm despite the existence of anomalies, and that this tenacity is essential for the progress of science.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Another Look at C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
C.S. Lewis died half a century ago, in the fall of 1963. To mark this anniversary, British theologian Alister McGrath has left us a new biography of his famous compatriot.* It is of course not the first Lewis biography. Several had appeared earlier, most of them written by people who had known Lewis personally. McGrath does not belong to that generation. But if this is a drawback, it is, as he points out, also an advantage. Not only can he draw on a much larger corpus of Lewis studies than the earlier biographers, he has also available to him the collected letters of Lewis – some 3500 pages of text – which were published only recently. Moreover, his position enables him to give an account of Lewis’s continuing influence today.

The description of that influence is among the elements that gives this new biography an added value and will be the topic of the present review. On a future occasion I hope to turn also to McGrath’s treatment of Lewis’s actual “message,” and therefore of his theological and philosophical views as expressed in his apologetic books, his fiction, and often in his scholarly work. The biography sheds light on these aspects of Lewis’s work as well. Indeed, McGrath is well-qualified for the work he has undertaken. A professor of theology, ministry, and education at King’s College in London and author of several works on apologetics, theology, and related subjects, he shares several of Lewis’s interests. There are, he tells his readers, additional ties that connect him with Lewis: both grew up in Ireland, both studied and taught at Oxford, both were atheists at a certain period in their lives, and upon their conversion both rejoined the Anglican Church in which they had been baptized.

Eccentric genius

McGrath writes that his intention is not to praise or condemn Lewis but to help us understand him. This implies a consideration of both his strong and his weak points. In connection with the latter we get additional information on such matters as Lewis’s relation with his father, with Mrs. Moore, and his often condescending attitude toward women. Although the author does not hesitate to be critical, he also attempts to achieve a balance by looking at things from different angles, and on the whole his treatment is generous. Lewis is shown to have been “eccentric” not first of all because of deficiencies in his character or personal relationships, but because of what he considered his calling as a Christian academic. Contrary to accepted usage, he expressed his Christian convictions in his scholarly work and, what was worse, did not hesitate to write popular works of Christian fiction and of apologetics. According to most of his Oxford colleagues, none of this ought to be done by a reputable academic, and certainly not by an Oxford don. Although a distinguished literary scholar and critic, Lewis was considered an “outsider,” and he was more than once passed over when an Oxford professorship in English literature became available. When he finally did receive a professorship it was given not by Oxford, but by Cambridge, which in 1954 established for him a chair in Medieval and Renaissance English literature. Lewis worked there until shortly before his death on November 22, 1963 – one week before his 65th birthday.

War-time popularity

Although he gives attention to the scholarly contributions, McGrath focuses especially on Lewis’s work as an apologist and a writer of fiction. Some of these works appeared already in the 1930s, namely The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and the first volume of the space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). It was his work as a “war-time apologist,” however, that made Lewis widely known as a Christian writer. First among these books was The Problem of Pain (1940), soon followed by the even more popular Screwtape Letters (1942) and by The Abolition of Man (1943).

Lewis became also widely known through the BBC Broadcast Talks which he gave, at the request of the BBC, during the early years of the war. These talks were published between 1942 and 1944 in three separate booklets. A one-volume edited version appeared in 1952 under the title Mere Christianity, which, McGrath tells us, is now often cited as the most influential religious work of the twentieth century. It was not just war-torn England that appreciated Lewis’s Christian writings, they were also well received in North America. His popularity continued in the next decade, not least because of such works as the Narnia Chronicles (1950-1956) and Mere Christianity. Although it was diminishing, the religious interest that had been awakened during the war and had contributed to Lewis’s popularity continued during much of the 1950s.

Ebb and flow

That religious interest declined in the following decade, and Lewis’s popularity also began to dwindle in that period. Although it turned out to be only a temporary setback, it was real. Lewis himself seems to have anticipated the loss of his popularity: towards the end of his life he told his secretary that within a few years after his death his name would be forgotten. McGrath suggests various reasons for the decline. For one thing, and perhaps most importantly, the 1960s was the decade of rapid secularization, of the “death of God” movement, and of a widespread conviction that religion was disappearing from the face of the earth. Apologetic works seemed to be losing their relevance. Meanwhile the popularity of Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings began to overshadow Lewis’s imaginative works. Tolkien’s epic seemed to speak to the problems of the 1960s and ’70s, such as the Cold War and the danger of a nuclear holocaust. All in all, Lewis appeared as a man of the past whose work might have some historical interest but was no longer considered relevant.

The surprising thing is not that this dip occurred, but that it did not last, and that Lewis is even more widely read today than he was during his life time. McGrath suggests various reasons for this. Lewis had always been more influential in America than in England, and an important role in the resurgence was played by changes in the American evangelical world. Lewis’s earlier influence had been most pronounced among non-evangelical Christians in America. Most evangelicals, still under the influence of fundamentalism, had distrusted him for his lifestyle (especially his smoking and beer-drinking), for aspects of his theology, and for his openness to the world of art, literature, and culture in general. Mid-century, however, saw the rise in America of the “new evangelicalism” which questioned the isolationism and the cultural disengagement of the fundamentalist past and asked for more contact with and more concern for the modern world and modern society. Among the leaders were men like Harold Ockenga, who served several years a president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, apologist Francis Schaeffer, and evangelist Billy Graham. Fuller Seminary, established in 1947, and Christianity Today, which first appeared in 1956, played a central role in the movement. The new evangelicals, McGrath writes, sought out a number of British writers to help them show the intellectual respectability of Christianity. They first turned especially to John Stott, but by the mid-seventies C.S. Lewis had been rediscovered and was increasingly cited in Christianity Today.

A paradigm shift

There are other reasons. Among them, McGrath suggests, may well be the change in the general worldview during the second half of the century – the shift from modernism to postmodernism. For one thing, the rise of postmodernism was accompanied by a renewed interest in religion and spirituality. As during the war years, Lewis’s work again met this felt need. Even the rise of the new evangelicalism can perhaps be explained, at least in part, with reference to this shift.

Alister McGrath
There was also a new interest in non-intellectual aspects of the Christian faith. An important element in Lewis’s come-back, McGrath believes, was that he showed how literature, and especially imaginative literature, could serve the faith. Though his own conversion had, as he himself put it, been essentially “intellectual” and “philosophical,” and though he continued to stress the intellectual aspect, Lewis more and more realized that belief was also a matter of the heart and the emotions. This he made clear in imaginative works like the space trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. “Those who initially valued Lewis for his rational defence of the Christian faith,” McGrath writes, “now found themselves appreciating his appeal to the imagination and emotions. Lewis’s multilayered conception of Christianity enabled evangelicals to realise that they could enrich their faith without diluting it, and engage secular culture in ways other than through reasoned argument.”

Yet another element, McGrath believes, was what he calls “the erosion of denominationalism” in the second half of the century. This was evident not only among evangelicals, he writes, but since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s also among Roman Catholics. Lewis spoke to this trend as well. Himself a loyal Anglican, he refused to pronounce on denominational issues and divisions. His most influential apologetic work was Mere Christianity, and as he wrote in the Preface to that book, he believed that the best service he could render to his unbelieving neighbours was not to introduce them to the divisions in Christianity but “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This did not mean that he denied the importance of creeds or “denominations,” only that he was not going to tell the unbelievers he addressed which church they should join. That decision was important – Lewis stressed that for believers church membership was essential – but it was to be made later, after one had become a Christian. For the time being, then, Lewis’s stress was on “mere” Christianity. In a time of declining denominationalism this may well have added to his growing appeal. Evidence of that appeal, McGrath tells us, is that since the early 1990s Lewis’s books have been religious best-sellers.

These, then, are among the factors which, McGrath shows, have contributed to Lewis’s popularity and influence today. Of course, of overriding importance was and is the actual message he conveyed in his writings. As mentioned, some day I hope to return to McGrath’s biography to see what it tells us about that aspect of Lewis’s work.



*Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Inerrancy in the Canadian and American Reformed Churches

I have written an essay which addresses concerns expressed about the use of the term “inerrancy” in the Federation of Canadian and American Reformed Churches. In Clarion (2009) the Rev. Wes Bredenhof suggested that these objections to inerrancy were motivated by a desire for a looser interpretation of Scripture. In this essay I argue that the real reason for concern is the rationalistic distortion of inerrancy that has developed over the last decades in North America. After the introduction, I describe what the term inerrancy originally meant, how this meaning has been distorted, how this distortion shows up in the Chicago statements on the inerrancy, hermeneutics and application of the Bible, how this distortion has been evaluated, and how the distorted form of inerrancy has entered our churches. I end with a review of some of the different perspectives on inerrancy and how they issue into preferences regarding whether the term is still useful. I conclude that a continued use of the term inerrancy is a matter of strategy, not of principle provided we stick with its original meaning that Scripture is truthful and trustworthy because its Author is true and trustworthy.

The essay can be found in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing? False Prophets? Comments on Bredenhof’s Position Statements on Creation and Evolution

In the Canadian Reformed churches (as in many evangelical churches) most people see evolution and creation as opposites, and evolution as automatically against Christianity. We would agree with this assessment if evolution is seen as an all-encompassing worldview which claims that God does not exist, that the universe is governed instead by random chance and is without purpose and meaning, and that humans are no different from animals. However, such a view is what we have been calling “evolutionism.” The biological theory of evolution, on the other hand, as a scientific theory simply does not make such philosophical and religious claims. Christian students ought to be guided in making careful distinctions as part of a diligent search for truth both about God’s world and God’s Word. This is especially true in our day as the biological theory is finding ever increasing lines of support from multiple angles, even as the “new atheists” get louder in their claim that science has disproven the Bible.

Faithful study of the relationship between evolution and Christianity is not encouraged when such distinctions are studiously ignored, or when those who earnestly seek the truth in the matter are vilified. Here is a case in point.

Some time ago Rev. W. Bredenhof posted a “position paper” (dramatically illustrated with a picture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing) wherein he issued a warning against “dangerous false teachings” among us. We agree that a pastor is expected to warn his sheep against wolves. It should be done, however, with proper discernment, precision, and balance, and all this was sadly lacking. Accusations were levelled at certain individuals without reference to their published work, and without allowing them to respond by means of comments to the post. [Note: On 8 April 2013, we were informed by Rev. Bredenhof that he has removed the illustration.]

Specifically, Bredenhof accused some unnamed “intellectuals and professional scientists” in the CanRC, who, he said, promulgate “false teachings pertain[ing] to the relationship between science and Scripture, more particularly with regard to creation and evolution.” Anonymity, it seemed, was assured. It takes not much detective work, however, to find out whom the “Position Statements” were in fact directed against. As is well-known, we have for some years (since April 2009) been writing on our blog about the relationship between science and Scripture, including the matter of “creation and evolution.” Bredenhof himself has more than once drawn attention to this fact in the media, warning the readers against us. Every reader will understand, therefore, that he had us in mind.

We conclude that the procedure the author followed is not in conformity with biblical guidelines as they are summarized in Lord’s Days 40 and 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism. We attempted to convince him of this by means of a visit and private correspondence, but our attempts were unsuccessful. In the end, therefore, we decided to take this opportunity to publicly respond in an attempt to set the record straight. Meanwhile we are still struggling with the question why our critics insist on condemning us unheard. How many of those who have portrayed us as apostates in the media and/or in common gossip have bothered to visit us to discuss the issues with us, or even simply agreed to correspond with us? Had proper communication indeed been the practice, which unfortunately it was not, much of the unholy bickering among us could have been avoided, to the great benefit of the church community.

The problematic “Positions Statements” are available here. We copy them here (adding numbers for ease of reference) and present portions in italics and respond to each in turn.

1. The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture

WB: “The Bible is the authoritative Word of God. It is inspired, infallible, and inerrant. It stands supreme over all human thoughts and endeavours. Historically, those who have denied the inerrancy of Scripture have done so with an agenda often linked to scientific or historical concerns or doubts.”

Our Response: No examples are given for the claim in the final sentence of this statement. In its generality this assertion is true. But in the context of this particular discussion it is a regrettable attempt to accuse us by association with whomever in the past have denied inerrancy for the specific purpose of doubting the historicity of certain Scripture passages. This is a political strategy known as declaring guilty by association which ought to have no place in honest discussions within the church community. Further, noteworthy is the fact that the CanRC and our seminary officially teach the infallibility of Scripture, not its inerrancy. The statement quoted implies an unsubstantiated accusation of Reformed theologians and other church members, past and present, who warned against the use of the term “inerrancy.” We also point out that nowhere do the Three Forms of Unity use the term inerrancy, and there have been objections to the recent inclusion of the term in a preamble to a new proposed church order.

The use of the concept of inerrancy is virtually meaningless in view of the many definitions given to it. Therefore, the assumption by Bredenhof that we are denying inerrancy is also empty. Further, the assertion by Bredenhof is such a generalization that even if he had a clear definition of inerrancy, it would still be meaningless. The use of generalizations is a problem throughout Bredenhof’s piece; apparently it serves him as a strategy that allows him to declare guilt by association without proper grounds. (For another example, see his statement under “The Gospel is at Stake,” #3 below.)

2. Science and Scripture

WB: “The Bible is not a scientific textbook, but it does provide firm foundations for every scientific endeavour. All Christian scientists should approach their calling by first fearing the LORD and humbly honouring his Word above all. Psalm 36:9b says, ‘…in your light do we see light.’ Colossians 2:3 tells us, ‘…in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ When the results of science and the clear teaching of Scripture appear to conflict, the Christian scientist is called to submit to what Scripture says and modify his scientific theories accordingly.”

Our Response: Lacking here are (1) an explanation of how the Bible provides foundations for every scientific endeavour without being degraded to a scientific textbook, (2) a definition of “the clear teaching of Scripture,” and (3) a proper reference to the history of the relations between faith and science in the Christian church. As to the first point, how does Rev. Bredenhof suggest the Bible provides foundations for research into the hormonal control of growth, or the synthesis of plastics, or the quantum structure of matter? Just asking these few questions shows how little one can do with empty generalizations. Regarding the second point, readers should be reminded or made aware of matters such as different biblical genres, and also of what John Calvin and others have called the principle of accommodation. Various examples can be given of biblical statements that, if taken literally, do appear to conflict with what science says but can be and have been harmonized. The acceptance of the heliocentric theory can serve as one example among many. Let us also keep in mind John Calvin’s advice: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” (commentary on Genesis 1:6 in Calvin’s Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis).

And as to the third point, historically, when scientists and others noted apparent conflicts and sought for a means of reconciling Scripture and science, the Christian church has accepted such attempts. In fact, from the beginning of the Christian church, scientists and other thinkers have been allowed to reserve judgment on the precise interpretation of a Scriptural passage while looking for harmonization. Such an attitude has never been considered unbelief. Nor should it today be considered as such. Exegesis is not infallible.

Furthermore, reference to historical development will show that in all the debates in the Christian church on the relationship between theology and science, “science has taken the lead in provoking theologians to reconsider their exegesis. The quest for harmonization with science has led theologians and pastors to reject the theories of a lucid moon and a solid raqi’a, and adopt theories of the four elements, a spherical earth, heliocentrism, and Day-Age and Gap theories of the creation days. In none of these cases did the transformation begin with exegetical work. Exegetical arguments have invariably followed from philosophical and scientific arguments that caused the church to reconsider her traditional exegesis.” [Peter J. Wallace, “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church”, available here or in our “Collected Papers”.]

That having been said, we agree that proper biblical hermeneutical principles ought to be followed; scientific advances do not provide a new interpretation but only identify the necessity for it, especially if a prior interpretation was constructed in view of an older scientific idea which has now been displaced. Every exegete who respects Scripture as the Word of God affirms the principle that extra-biblical knowledge can provide the occasion for a different interpretation of texts in Scripture, but that Scripture must provide the justification.

3. The Gospel is at Stake

WB: “Theistic evolution in its various forms teaches that God used evolutionary processes to bring about the creatures that are described in Genesis 1 and 2, including man. Theistic evolution is a serious error in conflict with God’s Word. It requires a radical reinterpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 to explain away certain aspects and make room for science. Historically, the same hermeneutic has been employed to deny the virgin conception and physical and historical resurrection of Jesus. The hermeneutic which allows for theistic evolution opens the door to a denial of the gospel. This is why I say that we are being assailed by a dangerous false teaching.”

Our Response: We deal with the use of the term “theistic evolution” under #5, below. But in connection with this argument the following points must be raised. (1) The interpretation of Biblical passages has been corrected and improved in response to promptings by science. Some of them were mentioned above (the rejection of theories of a lucid moon, a solid firmament, a non-spherical earth, and geocentrism) — and these reinterpretations have been fully accepted by the church and have not had the dire effect suggested in the position statement. (2) The Bible makes it very clear that there is no salvation for those who deny the incarnation, virgin conception, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Nowhere, however, does the Bible make similar statements with respect to such theories as heliocentrism or to non-literalistic interpretations of the creation account. For that reason orthodox Christianity has always allowed interpretations inspired by such theories. (3) Bredenhof’s argument assumes that a correct hermeneutic necessarily produces a correct interpretation of Scripture. As every biblical scholar knows, this is not the case. The particularity of a pericope with its contexts throws a wrench into any general methodological impositions of this kind. Generalizations of this nature are a convenient strategy for declarations of guilt by association with a particular hermeneutical approach, but such declarations are empty.

4. Genesis 2:7

WB: “The plain reading of this passage categorically rules out any notion of hominid ancestors for Adam. God formed Adam, not from some pre-existing creature, but from the dust of the earth. “Man became a living creature” at this point – that implies that he was not a living creature prior to this moment. To reinterpret these words to accommodate any theory of evolution is unbelief. It is sin against the first commandment. It is a refusal to accept God’s Word and a form of idolatry.”

Our Response: Here we have again the severely problematic and simplistic notion of a “plain reading.” What is forgotten is that the plain reading of a passage is not necessarily the correct reading. An added complication is that what is plain to one person is often not plain to another, and what is plain in one age can well be different from what is plain in another. What ought to be “plain” is that Scripture is to be interpreted according to hermeneutical methods which actually are adopted by Reformed theologians and ministers. It is quite mysterious to us why somehow Bredenhof and some other CanRC people wish to apply “plain reading” strategies to just Genesis 1 & 2 and not to Amos, Jeremiah, Daniel, Revelation, etc. Many Reformed theologians for many years have offered Biblical interpretations of Genesis 2:7 which do not require a “plain sense reading.” We have offered a response as well:
Thought must be given as to what “dust” means. Considering Psalm 103:14, we know that even we today are created from dust. (See also Genesis 18:27; I Kings 16:2; Job 10:9; Job 34:15; Psalm 90:3.) Thus, comparing Scripture with Scripture, we see that Adam’s creation from “dust” does not necessarily mean that God pushed around some mud and formed a humanoid shape. Instead, “dust” has a range of acceptable interpretations including “the material Adam is made of,” “the humble status of Adam,” and “the clay used by the divine potter to fashion Adam.” Contrary to this, many other religions assume humanity was formed out of divine substance.
Bredenhof does not offer a response to our suggestion; instead, he simply narrows this possible range of meanings to just one, attempts to impose it on others, and thinks this is the “clear teaching” of Scripture.

Let us also be clear on another point. Closing one’s eyes to what Scripture is revealing in other places, as Bredenhof does, makes it impossible to interpret Scripture. Further, we are trying to understand Scripture with our eyes open to other truths which God has placed in our path. All truth is God’s truth, regardless of its origin. It has been a standard of good exegesis to use extra-biblical sources with the understanding that Scripture provides the justification for its own interpretation. Bredenhof’s problem is that he simply ignores all scientific findings, something that was not done by earlier theologians.

5. History

WB: “In the past there have been Reformed theologians who have held various positions on the age of the earth. This does not say anything about whether such positions are true or false. Such positions may have been tolerated, but this could have been because of a lack of foresight as to where such positions might lead.” [continued further below]

Our Response: First, the results of research should never be assessed on the basis of fears about what others might do with it in the future. A knife can be used for a beneficial operation or for murder. Second, another and perhaps a better explanation is that such positions were held and accepted (and not just tolerated) throughout Reformed church history because with few exceptions Reformed Christians followed the example of men like Augustine and John Calvin who (1) took secular science and other secular scholarship seriously (Calvin gratefully accepted science as God’s gift and confessed that “human competence in art and science…derives from the Spirit of God” — Institutes, II.ii.16), and (2) therefore also admitted the responsibility of Christians to take secular learning seriously. Well-known is Augustine’s warning to fellow Christians:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]

For the history of the relationship between faith and science in the Christian church see further the comments under #1 and #2 above.

At this point we want to ask Rev. Bredenhof and those who agree with him if they really want a church that makes acceptance of young-earth creationism a condition for membership. If that is indeed what they desire, what will they and their followers do with the heritage of the Reformed theologians, philosophers, and other scholars of the past who defended a non-literalistic interpretation of the creation account? More importantly, how will they justify this before the Head of the church?

WB: “The Canadian Reformed Churches have expressed concerns to the United Reformed Churches about the toleration of the Framework Hypothesis. The Framework Hypothesis leaves the door open for seeing the earth as millions or billions of years old rather than thousands or tens of thousands. This in turn more easily accommodates theistic evolution. Still, no URC ministers are known to be promulgating theistic evolution. No Reformed theologians in the Canadian Reformed Churches have promulgated theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is now what is being promulgated by various intellectuals and scientists. This is what must be addressed and refuted.”

Our Response: The Framework Hypothesis (FH) should be assessed on its own merits, not on how others might use the FH. The history of scholarship makes it clear that on many occasions a hypothesis has been used in support of any number of agendas not actually implied by the hypothesis itself. Further, the notion that an old earth makes it easy to accommodate theistic evolution is no argument against an old earth. In both cases Bredenhof uses political strategies where scholarly argument is called for. This is unfortunate, as we are engaged not in a power struggle but in attempts to find truth.

It remains undeniable that in the longer history of the CanRC various interpretations of passages like those in Genesis 1 have been respected. Nothing in the Reformed confessions (or in the Scriptures themselves) binds us to the adoption of particular interpretations (e.g. “six 24-hour ordinary days about 6000 years ago”), and we are grateful for the heritage of our Canadian Reformed churches for not adopting such statements but respecting ‘vrijheid van exegese’ (freedom of exegesis), as explained in van Genderen & Velema’s widely used Reformed systematic theology textbook.

Bredenhof’s claim that we promulgate theistic evolution is misleading. For “theistic evolution” is a problematic term with no single agreed-upon definition. If he means a combination of belief in God with an acknowledgement that the biological theory of evolution has considerable evidential support, although some aspects are still under debate, then indeed we are guilty as charged — as also is the young-earth creationist Todd Wood. If Bredenhof means that we affirm that non-life produced life and that animal life produced human life, we reject these notions, instead affirming that God created life where there was none before, and that God acted in a special way to create human life. But it appears that Bredenhof simply wishes to employ a rhetorical strategy, to instill fear and grave concern in the minds of his followers who are not aware of these nuances.

We reject the notion that evolution is to be seen as simply a natural process running on its own, into which God has to intervene from time to time to guide it along. God is the creator and sustainer of all things; he created and governs all things by the word of his power.

Bredenhof plays on the fact that many Christians feel that “evolution” by definition excludes God’s involvement. But if evolution is simply a description and explanation of processes taking place in the created world, due to God’s creative and sustaining power, then the difficulty disappears.

For example: We all recognize that God has knit the unborn child together in its mother’s womb (Psalm 139). This does not mean that scientists may not delve into the processes involved in conception, pregnancy, and birth. Would a Christian who focuses on the early development of the fœtus be called a “theistic embryologist”? And would he be condemned for accepting the findings of embryology?

Also, we all recognize that it is God who sends the rain and hail and snow and wind (Psalm 148); these creatures obey his will and do his bidding. But does this mean scientists may not delve into atmospheric science? Is somehow the plain sense reading of Psalm 148 at risk when as Christians we apply thermodynamics and Navier-Stokes equations to describe, explain, and predict the weather? Would a Christian studying the weather and climate be called a “theistic meteorologist”? And again, would he be condemned for accepting the findings of meteorology?

It is clear that the use of the term “theistic evolution” in the context of Bredenhof’s missive is again simply a rhetorical strategy, avoiding the proper defining and nuancing of terms and, it seems, intended to instill fear into the hearts of the faithful who look to him for leadership. Our young people, especially university students, can see right through this approach.

6. The Reformed Confessions

WB: “The Confessions are not a wax nose that can be turned any way we please. For example, Belgic Confession article 14 references Genesis 2:7, “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground…” When the Confession was first adopted by the Reformed Churches, it was understood that this meant that God literally created man from the earth. Prior to Adam, there were no “Adam-like” creatures or hominids. The first commentator on the Belgic Confession, Samuel Maresius, was familiar with the idea of pre-Adamites in his day. He wrote a lengthy refutation of the notion. Likewise, in his commentary on the Confession he indicates that the Confession means what it says. There is no room for pre-Adamites in the Belgic Confession. When the same Confession was adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches, there was the same understanding. There is no “wiggle room” in this statement. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, it may be advisable for our churches, in consultation with our sister churches and others (at ICRC and NAPARC) to add a clarifying statement in article 14 that rules out any possible notion of pre-Adamites or theistic evolution.”

Our Response: It is noteworthy that, as Bredenhof himself points out, the authors of the Belgic Confession were aware of a theory of pre-Adamites but did not refer to it in the Confession. Neither, of course, did they make any pronouncements on the age of the earth, the length of the “days,” the position of the earth in the solar system, and similar matters. Apparently the confession was, in the view of its authors, not meant to pronounce on issues of what was for them modern science. Rather, the confessions were to proclaim the infallibility of Scripture (not its inerrancy if this is interpreted in the latter-day rationalistic sense). May our churches, and the Reformed churches worldwide, take heed and be careful not to depart from the wisdom the authors of the Reformed confessions displayed. Bredenhof refers to the views of a particular commentator on the Belgic Confession. However, Calvinism never was a homogeneous movement. Individual Calvinists have held a variety of views on matters scientific, theological and otherwise. For instance, the Calvinist astronomer Nicolaus Mulerius (1564-1630) rejected heliocentrism while the Calvinist astronomer Philip Lansbergen (1561-1632) promoted it. Likewise, the geologist John William Dawson (1820-1899) rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution while the theologian James Iverach (1839-1922) accepted it. Both were Presbyterians who had studied at the University of Edinburgh, Iverach in mathematics and physics, Dawson in geology. Like them, we are not bound beyond the Confessions to also affirm the views of commentators. Nor are we bound beyond the Confessions to also affirm whatever reasons churches may have had to adopt the Confessions.

As it stands, the confessions are indeed sufficient to take care of the question of pre-Adamites. We believe that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. As such Adam and Eve were the first human beings. No creature existing before this special action of God was created in his image, and no such creature is therefore to be regarded as human. This includes those beings which used primitive tools and whose skeletal remains we have as fossils. And we affirm a robust Christian anthropology, rejecting the notion that being human is simply biological; instead, humans alone among all creatures on earth relate to God as persons. Humans alone are created in God’s image, and have the calling and responsibility to obey his command of love and to articulate his praises.

7. Mission

WB: “The question of creation and evolution is not a widespread global issue amongst Christians, whether new or more mature believers. It is more of an issue amongst North American and European academics in urban environments. One should not be tempted to reconsider the issue of theistic evolution on the basis of an argument that this is a significant concern for Christian mission.”

Our Response: Assuming for the moment that this is merely a problem for urbanites, does this mean that urbanites are not important? In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd left all his sheep to save just one. Should we not be concerned about urbanites, or is Rev. Bredenhof not interested in urban missions? Further, it is not clear what is meant by the word “reconsider.” Does it refer to the proclamation of the biological theory of evolution as gospel truth? That should of course never be done — no more than notions such as young-earth creation science should be proclaimed as gospel truths. What we (and others) who acknowledge the strength of the scientific evidences for an old earth and/or biological evolution, and who seek to understand these matters also in light of Scripture, ask is that our positions be not condemned as the work of Satan and worthy of excommunication. In short, we ask that these positions be “tolerated” and freely discussed.

To what extent the issue should in fact be mentioned in missionary activity will depend on the type of mission one has in mind. If we think of mission to what are sometimes called primitive peoples, it is probably best to ignore the issue, at least until questions arise. This can also be the case in mission to Muslims, although there may well be educated Muslims who, when drawn to the Gospel, would consider the rejection of modern science as a barrier. However this may be, the church has a duty to proclaim the gospel not only to “heathens and Muslims” but also to members of what was once a Christian society. And here, in what is usually called evangelism, the outright rejection of the claims of modern science will frequently constitute an unnecessary stumbling block. It also threatens to constitute an unnecessary stumbling block to church members, especially to academics and students. They, as well as their non-Christian peers, know of the advances in medicine and technology that modern science has achieved. It will be difficult for them to believe that they can only be accepted as members of our church if they are willing to reject much of modern science.

It is unfortunate that many, including Bredenhof, continue, despite our urgings, to conflate evolution with evolutionism. That is, they fail to see the distinction between a theory of biology on the one hand and an overarching worldview or philosophy on the other. This distinction is intentionally blurred by the well-known new atheists who claim that science has proven the universe has no purpose and that God does not exist, etc. And organizations like Answers in Genesis agree with these atheists (insofar as they too conflate evolution and evolutionism) for their own purposes.

8. The Calling of Office Bearers and Consistories

WB: “All office bearers have a duty to ‘oppose, refute, and help prevent’ the errors of theistic evolutionary thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Whether in public (from the pulpit) or in private discussions, ministers have a responsibility to give clear direction from the Word of God and call those to repentance who are harbouring, tolerating, or teaching such errors. Consistories have a responsibility to use the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bring brothers and sisters who harbour, tolerate, or teach such errors to real amendment and repentance. A failure to carry out this calling will be detrimental to the spiritual health of the Canadian Reformed Churches.”

Our Response: As the above will have made clear, we are convinced that any attempt to censure and silence those who, while confessing their faith according to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of salvation, simply ask for a free and open discussion on their views regarding the relationship between faith and science, will (1) be a revolutionary innovation in any Reformed church, and (2) seriously endanger, rather than enhance, the spiritual health of such a church. Consistories should never abuse their authority and use the keys of the kingdom to safeguard their own fallible opinion on the issue under discussion.

The Way Forward

In the foregoing we have expressed our deep concern about both the tone and the contents of Rev. Bredenhof’s blog post. He leaves the impression that in our community it is perfectly acceptable to hurt each other with insensitive language and offensive pictures for the purpose of maintaining what is considered pure doctrine. As a result, however, the pure doctrine becomes invisible in a fog of impure practices. Why, we ask, doesn’t Bredenhof follow the rule of Matthew 18 and why doesn’t he agree to enter into discussion, face to face, with those he disagrees with? This requires a willingness by both parties to give an account of their views, and to do so in an attempt to understand each other. It is what Scripture calls us to do. We had therefore hoped that our repeated requests for a hearing would receive a positive answer. Unfortunately, they did not. Bredenhof stated that he is not prepared to engage in a discussion with us. He is convinced, we have to conclude, that our position is of such a dangerous nature that it must be condemned without further ado, biblical teachings notwithstanding.

We have in our response registered our objections not just to Bredenhof’s attitude and procedure with respect to us, but also to his arguments. Of course, we understand what moves him. He is convinced that the Reformed character of our churches is at risk if a non-literalistic interpretation of the creation account is allowed; indeed, that this will endanger the spiritual well-being of all the church’s members. But as we have pointed out, such a conclusion is not in agreement with the Bible and the Confessions, and it has therefore never officially been taught in the Christian church. It is an innovation, and a revolutionary one at that. As history makes clear, the approach is also dangerous, since it leads to the denial of scientific theories that are in conflict with a literalistic reading of Scripture regardless of the scientific evidence. They are portrayed as baseless and even, as happens among us today, as the work of Satan himself. But do we realize what we are saying? Many of the applications of modern science are of great benefit to us and are to be received with thanksgiving. Surely we do not want to suggest that we owe them to Satan? We reminded you in this connection of the warnings not only of Augustine (as quoted above) but also of John Calvin, who confessed that science (and he referred to secular science!) is God’s gift. He added, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God” (Institutes, II.ii.15; for similar statements see also other paragraphs in this chapter).

Although we are convinced with John Calvin that science is God’s gift, we do not deny that it presents Christians with serious challenges. Indeed, these challenges have been admitted throughout church history, but they are probably more serious in our days than they were in Augustine’s or Calvin’s. One of the reasons why we established the blog Reformed Academic was the widely felt need to deal honestly with these difficulties and to refer students and others to the work of Christian scientists, theologians, philosophers, and others, both past and present, who have wrestled with these challenges and attempt to offer us solutions. Much of our work is of an apologetic nature, that is, it focuses on the defence of the faith in a world where that faith is under constant attack, not least by those who try to use science as evidence that God does not exist. We hope to continue this work, and we urge our pastors and teachers not to reject it as anti-Christian, but rather to support it. The way to go forward for our churches is not to deny science but deal with the challenges it presents. May God bless that work!