Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clarion and Creation Science

Clarion describes itself as “The Canadian Reformed Magazine.” This does not mean, it is true, that it is the official denominational magazine of our churches. Nevertheless, many a reader, both at home and abroad, considers it as such. And the magazine itself admits that, “with contributions coming mostly from our own ministers, it endeavours to provide Reformed articles, aimed primarily at our Canadian/American Reformed church membership.” It is not surprising, therefore, that various readers tend to give it an official status. In other words, whatever Clarion’s editors and writers appear to stand for is, for them, what the Canadian Reformed Churches stand for.

Not all Clarion’s articles deal with theology, of course. A good deal of attention has also been devoted in recent years to such subjects as the relation between faith and science and especially to the controversy about the interpretation of Genesis 1, the age of the earth, the extent of the flood, and similar matters. As far as we know, Clarion does not have an official position on these issues, and in the past it did accept articles from various perspectives within the Reformed tradition. For the last six years or so this is no longer the case. Only articles promoting young-earth creationism are published, the rest is being censored. (It was this change in policy that led us to the establishment of our blog in 2009.)

We did not cease, however, in our attempts to publish in Clarion as well. The reputation of our churches is important to us and we want to show to the readers of Clarion that not all members of our churches are creation-scientists or approve of the questionable manner in which this issue is sometimes promoted in Clarion. More importantly, we are anxious to reach those among our church members who depend for their information largely on what is published in Clarion, and show them that the teachings in this magazine on these specific matters are often neither biblical nor in accordance with Reformed teachings. We fear, in fact, that, not least because of the policy of Clarion, our churches are more and more sliding into a literalistic, fundamentalist view of both the Bible itself and of the relationship between Scripture and modern science. Various articles to warn against such a slide have been posted on our blog, but we fear that some of the readers of Clarion may not have access to the blog, or have been taught that it cannot be trusted.

Our repeated attempts to publish letters or articles in Clarion have all been fruitless, however. The latest such attempt was made in connection with an article by the Rev. Klaas Stam, a frequent advocate of young-earth creationism, in the September 25, 2015 issue. Because we are convinced that the teachings promoted in this article give rise to some serious questions, one of us sent an article to Clarion in response. When the editor replied once again that he “must decline to publish it” and did not respond to further letters from us, we at last decided to post it on the blog. We sincerely hope that it may contribute to a serious, informed, and balanced discussion among us of the policies which Clarion — and by implication our churches? — is following. We also hope very much that the one-sided policy by Clarion will be reconsidered.

The following article was submitted to Clarion, but was refused. See above.

by Freda Oosterhoff

What follows is inspired by Rev. Klaas Stam’s article ‘Bible and Science: More than a book review’ in Clarion, September 25, 2015. Stam introduces a book here by the well-known American author Henry Morris (1918-2006). Morris is one of the fathers of scientific creationism (or creation science). With John C. Whitcomb, Jr., he wrote The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (1961) — a book that played a major role in establishing creation science as we know it. The book that Stam introduces is a different work by Morris, namely his Science and the Bible of 1986, an update of an earlier edition.

Stam speaks well of Morris and heartily recommends his book to the readers of Clarion. He admits that perhaps a question could be raised about Morris’s use of the Bible, at least in one case, but concludes that that is a theological matter which does not touch upon the essence of the book and therefore can be ignored. After all, as Morris wrote, “The purpose of this book…is to win people to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, and the Bible as the Word of God, and to help strengthen the faith of those who already believe” (from the book’s Preface, quoted by Stam). And indeed, who would not applaud such a goal?

The important thing is of course whether Morris accomplishes this purpose, and on that point there are serious questions. I am not referring now to his scientific theories, except to say that not only unbelieving scientists but also various orthodox scholars, including Reformed ones, disagree with Morris and other creation scientists on their scientific ideas. This should be well-known among us. In earlier years Clarion itself has written about it. I am sorry that Stam does not acknowledge this, but again, it is not my main concern at this time. What I do want to draw attention to is Morris’s use of the Bible and, in that connection, to serious objections that can be and indeed have been raised against that aspect of his work. In outlining some of these objections I will refer to work by the late professor Jaap Kamphuis (1921-2011), a Dutch theologian of undoubted orthodoxy who for several years taught at the theological seminary in Kampen.

I will be referring to a number of articles Kamphuis wrote on the topic in the Reformed magazine De Reformatie. He begins the series with a review of Morris’s study The Twilight of Evolution, published in 1963 (De Reformatie, Oct. 18, 1969). Admittedly this is not the book Stam refers to in Clarion, but since Morris’s views had, as far as I know, not really changed over the years, we may assume that Kamphuis’s criticisms apply to both books — at least as far as his main ideas are concerned.

Morris’s use of the Bible

Kamphuis makes clear that he of course agrees with Morris’s ultimate aim: the defence of Scripture. He further declares himself to be, again like Morris, an absolute ‘anti-evolutionist’ and he agrees with him on a number of other points. But there is criticism as well. While admitting that Morris’s respect for Scripture is not to be doubted, Kamphuis concludes that nevertheless he often uses the Bible ‘irreverently’ (oneerbiedig) — namely by mis-employing Bible texts to confirm his anti-evolutionist arguments. By doing so, Kamphuis argues, he cuts the branch on which he himself is sitting, namely the infallibility of the Bible.

For example, Morris describes the steps of the water cycle — from the evaporation of ocean waters through the process of condensation, rain, the refreshment of the earth, and then finally back to the oceans — with reference, for each step, to a specific Bible text. (To illustrate briefly: for the evaporation of the ocean water he refers to Ps. 135:7, its move to the land to Eccl. 1:6, its condensation to Prov. 8:26, its formation into water drops and clouds, to Job 26:8, and so on: 7 steps and 7 isolated Bible texts in all.) His aim? To prove, in essence, that the Bible teaches modern science and is a reliable scientific textbook. Meanwhile the true message of Scripture, Kamphuis points out, remains hidden, namely the proclamation of God’s majesty as displayed in the work of his hands, which the texts that Morris quotes in fact proclaim.

There are other and even stranger examples of Morris’s objectionable use of the Bible, such as his teaching that Satan personally discovered the evolution theory (and that he used it as a justification of his rebellion against God), as well as the statement that by divine providence verse 8 of Psalm 118 is the central verse of the Bible. (Morris does not seem to have realized that the Bible books were not originally divided into chapters and verses, or that the present sequence of the Bible books does not correspond to their original sequence.) Kamphuis calls this sort of argumentation ‘juggling’ (goochelen) and suggests that it is as harmful to the Christian faith as the theory of evolution.

But quite apart from these special cases, Morris’s entire approach, Kamphuis says, is dangerous. The Bible speaks to us about our creation, the depth of our fall into sin, and the redemption we have in Christ Jesus; this is altogether different from attempting to prove that it serves to ‘confirm natural laws which are beyond all doubt’ (Kamphuis, p. 23). They are of course only beyond all doubt, as Kamphuis adds between parentheses, until hey appear to be wrong after all! Indeed, he concludes, Morris’s type of ‘exegesis’ does nothing at all to strengthen the Christian position against evolutionism; quite the contrary. Moreover, it makes our belief in the infallibility of the Bible dependent on our ongoing success in proving that the teachings of Scripture are in agreement with modern laws of nature.

The extent of the Flood

So much for the review proper. In subsequent editions of De Reformatie (see especially those of Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, 1969) Kamphuis turns to another aspect of scientific creationism, namely its defence of the global extent of the Genesis flood. This is a major argument in supporting its belief that the earth is quite young — some 6,000 to 10,000 years in age, rather than the billions of years acknowledged by most scientists. According to creation-science most of the geological features of the entire earth have been shaped by a global Noahic flood which took place some 5,000 years ago.

Of course, the account in Genesis 7 and 8 seems at first glance to support the idea of a global flood. It states that every living thing that moved on the face of the earth was wiped out and that all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered with water. Is Morris, and creation science in general, not right in stressing the flood’s universality? Kamphuis does not think so. He points out that Abraham Kuyper already dealt with this matter and, with reference to several Bible texts from both the Old and the New Testament, showed that the expression ‘the entire world’ in the Bible very often refers simply to the world as known to the human author. For example, when it says in John 12:19 that ‘the whole world’ followed Jesus this does not mean that the inhabitants of the entire earth, including for example the Americas, knew and followed him. It simply refers to the part of the world that came into contact with Jesus. And so in the Genesis account also the expression ‘the entire earth’ may well refer to only that part of the earth that was known to Noah. (For other examples of the limited usage of this phrase in the Bible see, inter alia, Gen. 41:57, John 21:25, Lamentations 4:12, 1 Kings 4:34, Rom. 1:8, Rom. 10:18 — and there are many more.) An additional argument against the flood’s global extent is that Genesis 7 and 8 seem to suggest that Ararat was among the highest mountains, although we know of many mountains elsewhere that far exceed Ararat in height.

This pre-occupation with the scientific accuracy and up-to-dateness of the Bible at the same time threatens to close our eyes to the truth, Kamphuis points out, that in the flood the Lord brought covenant judgment upon the earth. And also to the teaching that the flood must be seen as symbolizing baptism (1 Peter 3:21). How much do we miss when studying God’s Word by concentrating on its assumed agreement with modern science?

Where do we go from here?

Both Kuyper and Kamphuis mention further difficulties, exegetical and otherwise, to which belief in a truly global flood would give rise. They are very much worth considering and I wish I could mention them. I am in danger, however, of running out of space and still need to make some concluding remarks, so I will have to refrain. I will try to be brief in my conclusions.

Firstly. Creation science is very popular among us Canadian Reformed people today and I fully understand why. Years ago I myself turned to it when desperately looking for a defence of the biblical faith against the claims of atheistic scholarship. Arguments like those used by Kamphuis and Kuyper, as well as Bavinck, Aalders, Schilder, and many other scholars of various professions — all of them anti-evolutionists! — convinced me, however, that Morris and his allies could not help me. Study of science and of the history of science had the same effect, and so did the work of orthodox Christian scholars both outside and within our church community who valiantly tackled the religious implications of the theory of evolution itself.

Secondly. I also more and more came into contact with fellow-believers who shared my concerns, and I learned from them that scientific creationism can be as much of a danger as atheistic evolutionism. We are usually told that the teaching of evolution in our secondary schools must be avoided at all costs and that our students must be immunized against it by being taught scientific creationism. I know that this helps some, but I also know that others, those who read perhaps more critically and/or are better acquainted with actual modern science, are in danger of losing their faith when they learn that creation science, although it claims to be biblical, does not solve their problems but rather increases them. My question is: hasn’t this group been left in the lurch? I am also afraid that ‘outsiders’ who are drawn by the gospel will hesitate to join the church if they are told to believe what creation science teaches.

Thirdly. In the past, Reformed theologians tended openly to deal with the difficulties raised by a literalistic reading of Genesis. Calvin himself did so, for example with his theory of accommodation, and as I already mentioned, later theologians have followed his example. They have not necessarily solved every problem, but they have made serious attempts and shown Christian scientists that they are not alone after all. Even more importantly, they have assured them and their students that the certainty of God’s promises for us does not depend on our ability to balance biblical ‘prooftexts’ with the findings of modern science.

Fourthly. It is high time, I am convinced, to issue warnings against an inerrantist view of the Bible, one that has, unfortunately, been much promoted among us in recent years. The traditional Reformed belief has always been that the Bible is infallible, meaning that it is altogether trustworthy, containing all that we need to know ‘in this life, to his glory and our salvation’ (Belg. Conf., art. 2; see also art. 7). Inerrantism on the other hand teaches that the Bible is without any factual errors in the modern-scientific meaning of that term; that it contains no ‘mistakes’ in quotations, no ‘discrepancies’ in for example genealogies, and no ‘errors’ of memory, of grammar, of word choice, of historical and scientific information and description, and so on. According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term. Creation scientists need this to support their theories. But is such a Bible, one that is in fact first and foremost a system of ‘objective scientific truths’, the same as the Scriptures we receive as God’s covenant message to us? To ask this question is to answer it.

So let us please follow the example of our ancestors and freely and openly talk again about these matters, trying to help each other. You may ask if such a discussion is not risky? No doubt it is, but ignoring the difficulties or covering them up with fallacious arguments is, as I have been arguing, far riskier still.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Van Bekkum Responds to Canadian Critics

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: Just in case we will have some further conversation about biblical hermeneutics in the future.


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.