Tuesday, November 13, 2012

More about Origin and Operation Science: A Response by Jitse van der Meer

On 15 August 2012, Herman van Barneveld responded to my “More about Operation and Origin Science” (24 March 2012). He wrote that “Herman Bavinck would be rolling around in his grave…if he found out how Jitse VanderMeer has used this statement (about the Bible not being a Science textbook) against his own strongly held beliefs.” He then offered three quotations from Bavinck’s “Creation or Development” (1901) to establish Bavinck’s strongly held belief that the theory of biological evolution should be rejected.

Herman van Barneveld took me to use Bavinck in support of what he believes is my acceptance of the theory of biological evolution. However, I quoted Bavinck on the intent of Scripture in order to show my agreement with his view that the Bible was not written to serve as a source of information for the natural sciences. I wrote: “I refuse to use Scripture that way because it was not intended to provide information that satisfies the requirements of modern scholarship whether for history or for the natural sciences. This should not be misunderstood as rejecting its historicity. The crucial distinction was made by Dr. Herman Bavinck who stated:
Holy Scripture has a purpose that is religious-ethical through and through. It is not designed to be a manual for various sciences. It is the first foundation (principium) only of theology and desires that we will read and study it theologically. In all the disciplines that are grouped around Scripture, our aim must be the saving knowledge of God. For that purpose Scripture offers us all the data needed. In that sense it is completely adequate and complete. But those who would infer from Scripture a history of Israel, a biography of Jesus, a history of Israel’s or early Christian literature, etc. will in each case end up disappointed. They will encounter lacunae that can be filled only with conjectures…. Scripture does not satisfy the demand for exact knowledge in the way we demand it in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, etc. This is a standard that may not be applied to it.[1]
This crucial distinction refers back to my distinction between history as a scholarly discipline and history as presented in Scripture. That is the distinction Bavinck makes. I did not address the question whether Bavinck accepted the theory of biological evolution. I could leave it at that, but Herman van Barneveld uses the occasion to paint a one-sided picture of Bavinck’s views on science and faith. So, allow me to add a few observations.

Herman van Barneveld refers to Bavinck’s “Creation or Development” (1901). But Bavinck wrote additional works on faith and scholarship. They include: H. Bavinck (1887) “Dualism in Theology” De Vrije Kerk 13: 11-39, reprinted in Kennis en Leven. Opstellen en Artikelen uit Vroegere Jaren Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1922, pp. 145-64; H. Bavinck (1887) “Christianity and the Natural Sciences” De Vrije Kerk 13: 169-195, reprinted in Kennis en Leven. Opstellen en Artikelen uit Vroegere Jaren. Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1922, pp. 184-202;
Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics
H. Bavinck (2006 [1907]) “Evolution” In: Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (J. Bolt ed.) tr. H. Boonstra and G. Sheeres, Grand Rapids. Baker Academic, pp. 105-118. Bavinck also wrote about the relationship of faith and knowledge in Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. A balanced overview of Bavinck’s views on faith and scholarship has been offered by Wolters (1996) and Oosterhoff (2002). See: Al Wolters, “Bavinck on Faith and Science” In: Jitse M. van der Meer (ed.) Facets of Faith and Science, Vol. 2: The role of beliefs in mathematics and the natural sciences: an Augustinian perspective. The Pascal Centre, Redeemer College, Ancaster / University Press of America, Lanham: 1996, pp. 33-52. What follows is a summary of some points made by Wolters (1996) and selected for their relevance to the issue at hand. This is supplemented by excellent background information offered in Freda Oosterhoff: “Faith and Science in the Reformed Tradition”, Clarion 51 (5): 105-108.

Facets of Faith & Science, v. 2
The main point Wolters makes and Oosterhoff confirms is that Bavinck failed to solve the problems associated with the engagement of Scripture and science. On the one hand, Bavinck held that the Bible is not intended to teach science (by ‘science’ Bavinck meant all scholarly disciplines, not just the natural sciences). On the other hand, the Bible does not separate itself from the concerns of theology and from those of the other scholarly disciplines. For Bavinck, the Bible speaks with authority on certain topics within the purview of science. But he never directly reveals the criteria he uses to decide which biblical statements have binding authority in scholarship.

Al Wolters
Wolters distinguishes in Bavinck a direct and an indirect bearing of Scripture on scholarship. The direct bearing of Scripture includes, for instance, its teaching on the origin of the universe and of humanity, the rise of the Christian church, and the future destiny of all things. According to Wolters, the indirect bearing of Scripture on scholarship is equally important and is mediated by philosophical categories or worldviews. Scholarship is bound to guiding ideas provided by worldviews and these in turn are bound to Scripture.

Throughout his life, Bavinck opposed both the separation of faith and knowledge (dualism) and the use of Scripture texts as information sources in the scholarly disciplines (biblicism). But when everything is said and done, he does not offer a positive statement of his position. Wolters illustrates this with two quotations from Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck starts with a saying of Cardinal Baronius to the effect that the Scriptures do not tell us how the heavens go, but how we go to heaven. In opposition to dualism, Bavinck points out that Scripture does have authority over scholarship:
It is precisely as book of the knowledge of God that the Scriptures have a good deal to say also for the other sciences. The Scriptures are a light unto the path and a lamp unto the feet also of science and art. They lay claim to authority over every area of life…. A great deal of the content of Scripture is of fundamental significance for the other sciences as well. The Creation and Fall of man, the unity of the human race, the Flood, the rise of nations and languages, and so on, are facts that are also of the highest import for the other sciences.[2]
But in the same breath Bavinck registers his opposition to biblicism:
Yet, on the other hand there is also a great truth in the saying of Cardinal Baronius. It is true of all those facts as well that they are not communicated to us in and of themselves but with a theological purpose: that we might know God unto our salvation. Scripture never concerns itself with science as such…. The authors of the Holy Scriptures probably had no greater knowledge of all these sciences — geology, zoology, physiology, medicine, etc. — than had all their contemporaries.[3]
Wolters concludes: “Throughout this pivotal section…we see Bavinck struggling to define his own position with reference to the two opposite extremes which he wishes to avoid. Unfortunately, he is clearer about the positions he rejects than about the positive position which he himself espouses. …It is not immediately clear what principles apply in deciding when it is appropriate to appeal to the authority of Scripture over science, and when such an appeal is not appropriate. To the best of my knowledge, Bavinck nowhere explicitly addresses that question.”

Nevertheless, Wolters discerns in Bavinck two ways in which Scripture provides guidelines, namely for the special discipline of history, especially that of Israel and the ancient Near East as well as for the development of a Biblical worldview. Thus, the quotes Herman van Barneveld selected to argue that Bavinck used the Bible as a source of scientific information paint a one-sided picture of Bavinck’s views. Herman van Barneveld overlooks the fact that Bavinck did not solve the problems associated with the relationship of Scripture and science. This has contributed to the fact that the Reformed tradition was left open to polarization between extremes.

Bavinck’s article was written in 1901 when there was little empirical evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thus, Bavinck was correct in his negative assessment of the empirical evidence for Darwin’s theory at the start of the 20th century. We are living more than a century later and the empirical evidence has drastically improved. Herman van Barneveld’s comments are not relevant to my post which dealt with current science.

Despite the scarcity of empirical evidence in the early 1900s, Bavinck did not always reject biological evolution per se. For example, in his “Evolution” of 1907 Bavinck acknowledged “the important elements of truth…in the theory of evolution and descent.” He concluded, “Provided that evolution is not understood in a mechanical sense, there is, therefore, no antithesis between creation and development” (p. 117). This was a common position at the time. The ‘mechanical sense’ likely refers to the Cartesian worldview with its notion that the universe came about by the random collision of atoms. Random here means without divine guidance. This was the worldview of evolutionism to which all Christians objected and still do. Thus we see Bavinck distinguishing between the worldview of evolutionism and the theory of biological evolution.

Bavinck was correct in his critique of the philosophies of evolutionism and materialism. From the first printing of the Origin, people interpreted Darwin in terms of earlier philosophies of evolution such as those by Lamarck and Haeckel. The general population made no distinction between the theory of biological evolution and the philosophy of evolutionism. When we look at Bavinck’s response, we see him objecting to the philosophy of evolutionism or materialism as he himself indicates in the 1901 article cited by Herman van Barneveld. This, however, has little bearing on the theory of evolution which has to be justified by empirical evidence.

Finally, I referred to Bavinck not because I think he should have the last word on the relationship of Scripture and scholarship. I referred to him because I believe no one in the Reformed tradition has improved on his views in this respect. If we want to improve on his views we should start with Herman Bavinck.

[1] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, vol. 1, p. 444.

[2] See “Herman Bavinck on Scripture and Science,” tr. Al Wolters, Calvin Theological Journal 27: 91-95 (1992), p. 92. This is a translation of Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (4th ed. Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1928).

[3] Bavinck, “Scripture and Science,” pp. 92-93.