Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Review of Deep Church: A Third Way Between Emerging and Traditional

We are living in a time of profound cultural change. Postmodernism has made its imprint on our society’s worldview, and its effects are noticeable practically everywhere. The church is not exempted. Many are the complaints the “traditional” church hears about its perceived shortcomings, such as its modernistic intellectualism, its individualism, tribalism, tardiness in interacting with the prevailing culture, tendency to fragment, and intolerance of the views of outsiders. In the evangelical world the discontent has given rise to a separate movement, that of the emerging (or emergent) church. That movement, which is steeped in the postmodern worldview, is spreading widely and is affecting not only evangelicalism but other churches as well. That is not surprising, since it is in accord with the prevailing climate of opinion. Some authors therefore predict that its features will become the “new normal” of the Christian church in the West. Is that disturbing? If so, what should be our response? Should the entire movement be rejected as apostate, as conservative commentators tend to think, or are some of its aspects worthwhile?

Jim Belcher, pastor of a PCA church in California, proposes a “conservative” answer to these questions. A one-time member of the movement, Belcher believes that the emerging church asks some legitimate questions that deserve the traditional church’s positive attention. He also, however, enumerates its shortcomings and relates that in the end, because of what he calls his “Calvinist misgivings,” he left the movement. He describes the weak and strong points of the emerging church in a recently published book, entitled Deep Church: A Third Way Between Emerging and Traditional (IVP, 2009), which is written as the record of his spiritual journey from a traditional evangelical church (Southern Baptist) via the emerging movement to his work as a PCA church planter and pastor. My review of this balanced and informative book can be found in our “Collected Papers” (see the sidebar); a direct link is here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Lost World of Genesis One: A Book Review by C. John Collins

John Walton, Professor Old Testament at Wheaton College, published The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009), which has as its main thesis that Genesis 1 can be read as a liturgical inauguration ceremony of the cosmic temple. We are grateful that C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, was found willing to review the book for us, as Collins has contributed significantly to the consideration of Genesis 1-4 from a Reformed perspective. His review is provided in our “collected papers” (see the sidebar); a direct link is here.

An online public lecture by Walton includes much of the book’s content. We welcome your responses to Walton’s book as well as to Collins’s critical review.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Teaching Evolution At Our Schools - Why And How

On more than one occasion teachers have spoken with me about the way we are to teach evolution at our Reformed schools. The ministry of education makes evolution an obligatory subject, but there is more than one way of complying with the demand. Evolution can be taught and evaluated in a straightforward manner as a well-established biological theory that has weaknesses as well as strengths. It can also be taught and then explained away – and I am afraid this is done at some of our schools – as lie and deception, the devil’s own work. Related to this second approach is enlisting the help of certain videos and other material provided by young-earth-creationism. As one principal told me, these “creation-science” products are quite popular in our schools. Indeed, young-earth creationism is widely upheld as “Reformed doctrine.” Often, the principal wrote, schools use the material to make evolution look “stupid,” something we can chuckle about; which of course does little, he added, to prepare our students for what they will meet in their studies at secular institutions.

So far there had been little public discussion of the matter. On October 29, however, it was the topic of a workshop I gave at the annual convention of the Canadian Reformed Teachers Association Ontario, held in Fergus on October 29, 2009. In this workshop I recommended the first of the three approaches mentioned above. I made clear that I am not a Darwinist; that for me there are not only theological, but also scientific reasons to question the theory, and that I would give these reasons. At the same time I pointed out that there is strong evidence in favour of evolution and common descent and that we have to deal honestly with that evidence. It is the only way not only to understand the theory, but also to be able to criticize it (wherever such criticism is called for) in an honest, intelligent, and convincing manner.

The paper on which I based my workshop presentation can be found on this blog under “Collected Papers” (see side bar; direct link here). After a brief introduction as to WHY we should teach evolution in the manner suggested and after some remarks about the way we should read Genesis 1, I deal with the question HOW evolution should be taught. I begin here with an account of the scientific evidence for neo-Darwinism and then proceed with some of the questions that can be raised in connection with that evidence. Some final remarks deal with the nature of science, the subjective element in science, but also with the fact of science’s impressive track record.

In both the introduction and the conclusion of my paper I make clear that evolution ought to be taught only in the senior grades, but that in all grades we should cease condemning modern science (which indeed has had negative consequences but which in God’s providence has also brought us very many blessings) as the work of the powers of darkness. Instead our students should, from grade 1 onward, hear from us the central message of Genesis 1, namely that God is the all-powerful creator, that He was and is involved in every aspect of creation, and that His handiwork proclaims his glory. I further emphasize that our task is not completed by teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism. We must also give attention to the use that is being made of this theory as a basis for an overall evolutionist and anti-Christian worldview. This implies, among other things, the urgent need to organize courses in apologetics or philosophy for our older students. Here they must be taught about ‘scientific’ atheism, about the social and economic abuse of evolutionary theories, and about the reductionism to which materialistic science has led.

I am well aware of the challenge we as Christians face is in connection with the theory of evolution. As again became clear during the discussion at the workshop, Christian teachers, pastors, and parents must make time to discuss the implications and repercussions of teaching evolution, and do so in a serious manner, in much detail, and with a willingness to listen to each other. I hope and pray that the workshop and the accompanying paper may initiate such discussions. In my opinion it is high time.

I should add that the paper is followed by a lengthy glossary, which should enable also those who are not acquainted with some of the scientific terms related to evolution and evolutionism to participate in the discussion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Biblical Inerrancy

Biblical inerrancy (the idea of an absolutely errorless Bible) found many adherents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the North-American evangelical movement. The renewed stress on inerrancy at that time was largely a result of the spread of biblical criticism, the rise of secular science (including the theory of Darwinism), and the rapid secularization of American society. Although the belief in inerrancy was strongest among the conservative branches of North-American evangelicalism, which would soon form the so-called fundamentalist movement, the idea gained followers also among Reformed theologians, within and outside North America.

Dutch theologian Dr. Ad de Bruijne has pointed out (in Woord op Schrift, pp. 185f.), that among Reformed theologians in the Netherlands there have been two approaches to the issue in the past century or so. One group held, with American fundamentalism, that the Bible as the Word of God is by definition without errors in all its details. If errors or discrepancies are found, they must be blamed on the copyists; the original manuscripts (which we no longer possess!) were absolutely faultless. Other Reformed theologians criticized this theory as impossible of proof. They also asked why God would have allowed the perfect original manuscripts to disappear while preserving the imperfect copies with the discrepancies. These theologians continued to speak of biblical infallibility, a term that is not easy to define, but that has generally been interpreted as implying not factual inerrancy, but the Bible’s absolute trustworthiness in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals.

Although there were exceptions, the Reformed community as a whole has long continued to speak of an infallible Bible, rather than an inerrant one. This was true not only in Holland but also in Canada. In recent years, however, inerrantism is being affirmed by some Canadian Reformed churches and church leaders. We can read about this development in a paper by Tyler Vandergaag, titled “Inerrancy: A Reformed Doctrine?” (see under “collected papers” in the sidebar; direct link here). Tyler is a graduate student at Trinity Western University, where he is working on an M.A. in Biblical Studies, focusing specifically on Justin Martyr’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Currently, he teaches a Catechism class at the Langley Canadian Reformed Church, where he, his wife Keri and their son Jayden are members. In his paper Tyler analyzes the doctrine of inerrancy, summarizes its history, and comes with a variety of arguments to show that we would do well to abandon the term. Inerrantism, as he points out, leads to exegetical problems and is in conflict with the Reformed tradition about the place and function of Holy Scripture. Nowhere do the Reformed confessions use the word inerrancy.

Tyler’s paper is well-researched and very readable. In view of the doctrine’s spread among us, it is also timely. As Tyler points out, the term even occurs in the draft of an official church paper, namely in the preamble to the Proposed Joint Church Order (of the CanRC and the URC) that will be submitted to the Canadian Reformed Synod of 2010. It is time for a serious discussion on the matter. Tyler’s paper can serve as an excellent starting point.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ken Ham and Reformed Perspective

Many of our readers also read Reformed Perspective or are at least aware of it. It is a monthly magazine to which many members of the Canadian Reformed churches look to for guidance and leadership on matters of Christianity and culture. The following is a Letter to the Editor I submitted after receiving the September issue.

Recently, Reformed Perspective has been recommending books by Ken Ham. The latest is Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. According to Sarah Meerstra [“Nota Bene: News worth noting”, v. 28, n. 11 (September 2009), p. 5, under “Why young people leave the church”], it claims that “When children are taught to doubt the historical truth of the Genesis account...the entire authority of Scripture is questioned [and] young people come to question the truth of the Bible and its relevance for their lives.” Of course, Ham (a charismatic and dynamic young-earth creationist [YEC] evangelist) is referring to the notion that one must defend at all costs the YEC agenda which claims that Genesis 1 must be regarded as teaching the technical chronological details of our material origins. The standard rhetoric includes a reference to Psalm 11:3: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The implication is that if we doubt their approach to Genesis 1, we might as well toss out the whole Bible.

It is well known in Christian higher education circles that creationism can indeed lead to a crisis in a young person’s life. However, YEC itself is the problem. Many who grow up with YEC and then in their college and university education begin to see its all-too-clear failures to grapple with the scientific evidences of an ancient creation are ill equipped to handle the tension, and dispense with YEC and along with it Biblical faith in its entirety, because YEC requires of its followers a particular interpretation of Genesis 1. There are even tragic cases of suicide triggered by this tension.

It should not be, though, that the truth of the Bible is questioned when scientific evidence is considered; it is instead the authority of leadership who promote YEC which should be questioned. Must we really tie ourselves to a particular way of linking Genesis 1 and science? Must we seek scientific evidence for what we think are the scientific details of the Genesis record? Why does the YEC approach have so much draw, even in our own Canadian Reformed circles, when we have instead a rich heritage of pursuing the careful analysis of the historical, textual, and cultural context of Scripture (including Genesis 1), relying on the redemptive historical hermeneutic approach, and letting Scripture interpret Scripture? Thankfully, many Reformed academics have written excellent books from a Reformed perspective which can help restore intellectual, scientific, and theological vitality, including C. John Collins, Vern Poythress, David Snoke, Tim Morris & Don Petcher, W. Robert Godfrey. It is to these that we must turn, not to authors like Ken Ham.

Friday, August 21, 2009

John Calvin and the Natural World

Those of us who have the privilege of teaching science in a Christian college or university have to work hard at helping students see science from a Christian perspective. In this book review essay Dordt College physics professor Dr. John Zwart describes these experiences in working with students in his non-majors physical science class.

In addition to describing his work with scientifically uninitiated students, John also discusses Calvin’s knowledge of and thoughts about science. He reviews Davis Young’s recent book John Calvin and the Natural World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), which examines what Calvin wrote about science.

Note added later: This essay appeared in the September 2009 issue (v. 38, n. 1, pp. 27-31) of the Dordt College publication Pro Rege. We had been given permission to post it ahead of time since it is relevant to our discussions and a helpful summary of Calvin's views.

Parting ways with Calvin?

At last! A substantive critique of my paper on Creation Science and Scripture! Dr. John Byl, in his cleverly named blog, Bylogos (not to be confused with the website Biologos, which was set up by Francis Collins and which argues for theistic evolution), claims that I have misinterpreted the concept of the organic inspiration of Scripture and that I have misinterpreted Calvin. I have responded a bit to the first part on his blog but want to address his (and my) comments on Calvin on our own blog.

I’d like to thank John for pointing out Calvin’s comments on the goodness of creation in his commentary on Genesis 2:2, which I hadn’t noticed earlier. Here Calvin says, referring to the fact that the world was very good before the Fall but not anymore,

“It is subsequently that we shall find God saying, Let the earth bring forth thorns and briers, by which he intimates that the appearance of the earth should be different from what it had been in the beginning. But the explanation is at hand; many things which are now seen in the world are rather corruptions of it than any part of its proper furniture. For ever since man declined from his high original, it became necessary that the world should gradually degenerate from its nature. We must come to this conclusion respecting the existence of fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects. In all these, I say, there is some deformity of the world, which ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God. Truly these things were created by God, but by God as an avenger. In this place, however, Moses is not considering God as armed for the punishment of the sins of men; but as the Artificer, the Architect, the bountiful Father of a family, who has omitted nothing essential to the perfection of his edifice. At the present time, when we look upon the world corrupted, and as if degenerated from its original creation, let that expression of Paul recur to our mind, that the creature is liable to vanity, not willingly, but through our fault (Romans 8:20), and thus let us mourn, being admonished of our just condemnation.”

Clearly Calvin thinks that the nonhuman creation has fundamentally changed (deformed) from its original created state and that this change is due to man’s sin. The evidence for this change is “the existence of fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects.” While I sympathize with his view of fleas, which must have been much more of a pest in his day, I wouldn’t say the same about caterpillars, whose adult forms perform vital ecological functions in pollination. This raises the question of Calvin’s knowledge about science and the natural world. Davis Young has written a book about just that question (John Calvin and the Natural World (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), which is reviewed by J.W. Haas (in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith v. 59, n. 4 (2007), pp. 307-9 available online here) and by Dordt College physics professor Dr. John Zwart here.

I haven’t read the book yet but I understand that Calvin’s knowledge of biology was considerably less than of astronomy (which itself was largely Aristotelian). I think it’s safe to say though, that his view of the effects of the Fall on creation differ from mine, including the existence of carnivory before the Fall, which I affirm but Calvin denies.

When I look at the depictions of carnivory and predation in Scripture, I see no indication that this is a result of the Fall. Psalm 104:21 is an obvious example but so are the depictions of the fierceness of many creatures in Job 39-41. Nowhere do we read that such behavior is sinful, in fact the message to Job is that these are God’s works and we should not question him on things we do not understand.

Thus I do part ways with Calvin on his understanding of the effects of the Fall on creation, but I suspect his views would have been different if he were able to take a course in ecology, to see the importance of the food chain (or web), including carnivory, for the stability of ecosystems.

But how does Calvin respond when there is an apparent contradiction between science and Scripture? Since his knowledge of astronomy was better than that of biology, he saw the contradiction between the depiction of the firmament in Genesis 1 and what was known about the sky in his day and his response was that Genesis does not teach astronomy. I suspect his comments about the effects of the fall would be different and a little less simplistic if he had a better knowledge of biology.

But what does Paul mean in Romans 8:22 when he says that the whole creation groans awaiting redemption? A look around at our society and what we’ve done to our environment should make that clear. Genesis 3 shows how all of Adam’s relationships - with God, with Eve and with the ground - have been marred by the Fall. Adam had a sort of “reverse Midas touch” - everything he did (and everything we do) was marred with sin. So while the creation is not inherently defective as a result of the Fall, it certainly suffers from our sin.

Thus while I disagree with Calvin on the effects of the Fall, I don’t blame him for his lack of knowledge and consequent simplistic statements. In the same way God doesn’t blame us for our lack of knowledge when he reveals himself to us, but “lisps to us as little children” (Calvin’s words).

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Global Warming Primer

Among members of the general public, and also in many corners of Christianity (including both evangelicalism broadly as well as the Canadian Reformed churches) there is much skepticism about global warming. This might be due to the democratization of knowledge, in which everyone has (or thinks they have) access to all the same information, and in which one can find apparently eminent proponents of every possible point of view. Scientists, specifically, are viewed by the public in a curiously bipolar way: awe and amazement on the one hand and disdain and dismissal on the other. Medical science, with its knowledge and techniques, is held in high esteem especially by those in need of diagnosis or treatment for themselves or their loved ones. Simultaneously, public immunization programmes (or sunscreen) are vilified by many as being conspiratorial, socialistic, and dangerous, especially if one can find a website authored by a “PhD” or “MD” highlighting the risks.

On global warming, everyone is an expert. One says, “Al Gore sure is smart; we’re doomed!” The other counters, “It was cold this summer; global warming is a hoax.” Instead of joining either bandwagon, the reformed academic ought to weigh evidence carefully. Even within our community there are scientists whose expertise we can tap, brothers and sisters whom we can trust, who are familiar with the scientific literature and who do not rely on the popular press. We are not all experts on every topic, but just as we expect ministers to know the most about Scripture, and farmers about agriculture, electricians about household wiring, practicing scientists can give leadership in interpreting scientific discoveries.

Since global warming is a culturally important topic, touching on issues from personal lifestyle to global politics, we present an article written for Reformed Academic by Rick Baartman, a physicist working at TRIUMF in Vancouver and a member of Maranatha Canadian Reformed Church in Surrey, BC. Rick served on the Brazil Mission Board (1992-1998), is a board member of the prison ministry M2W2, and also board member of the Geneva Society for Reformational Worldview Studies. He and his wife Sara have five adult children and three grandchildren. Rick has reviewed the primary scientific literature on global warming, and has put together a valuable popular piece which we invite our readers to engage fruitfully. It is available in our “collected articles” in the sidebar, entitled “A Global Warming Primer”. A direct link is here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cicada killers and the Fall

The flower bed between our driveway and our home appears to be an attractive place for cicada-killers to make their burrows and this summer is no exception. For those people unfamiliar with cicada-killers, these are really large wasps which find a cicada in a tree, paralyze it by stinging, then carry it back to their underground burrows, where they lay an egg on it, which feeds upon the cicada as it grows and develops. If you’re interested in learning more about these wasps, check out this page.

These wasps have attracted my attention for several reasons. Firstly, they’re quite big and scary, even though they’re relatively harmless to humans. I’m told that we’re more likely to die from any chemicals we would use to try to control them than from the wasps themselves. These insects are interested in cicadas, not people. Still, any guests coming up our driveway will find it somewhat disconcerting to get out of the car amongst a dozen or so of these creatures flying around (and mating). I’m somewhat torn in deciding what to do with them. Ecologically, they do a good thing, which is to control the numbers of those noisy cicadas, but I just wish they would do their thing somewhere else besides along my driveway.

Secondly, I find their biology gruesome but fascinating. They know just where to sting the cicadas, so as not to kill them, but merely paralyze them. Dead cicadas would decay and grow mold, which is not good for the larvae. In addition, these insects are just barely strong enough to carry the cicadas back to their burrow, and it’s actually a funny sight to see them struggling with their enormous load, twice as big as they are. Female larvae grow bigger than males, so the mother needs to bury two cicadas for every female larva but just one for a male (The mother controls the sex of the offspring by deciding whether or not to fertilize the egg. Unfertilized eggs are male, just as in bees).

Thirdly, I’ve wondered about the theology of these wasps and their life cycle. If animal death is a result of the Fall, how did these creatures live beforehand? The developing larvae need a source of food, where would it have come from, if not from cicadas? Did the present system immediately evolve once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit? These are rhetorical questions of course because I believe these creatures behaved this way long before Adam and Eve ever roamed the earth.

What is the Creation Science response to the death of insects? It is generally claimed that insects are not nephesh i.e. having the breath of life, because insects lack lungs, so they could have died before the Fall (for example see the note at the bottom of this page). The fact that insects still use air, but through spiracles along the sides of their bodies, apparently doesn’t count as breathing. I find this distinction between creatures that have the breath of life and those that don’t somewhat arbitrary and have a hard time believing that someone as educated as Moses wouldn’t think that insects are alive.

Here again we see an example of Creation Science distorting the meaning of the Biblical text to suit their misconception that the Bible teaches science. On the contrary, I see cicada-killers as yet another animal that seeks its food from God (Psalm 104:21), in this case through cicadas.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Waters Above the Firmament

Below follows a guest post by Ben Vandergugten (B.A., Trinity Western; B.Ed., Simon Fraser) in which he introduces his eight-page article which we have published in our “Collected Papers” (see sidebar). Ben teaches elementary students at William of Orange Christian School in Surrey, B.C. He and his wife, Esther, with their two children, are members of the Canadian Reformed Church in Cloverdale. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

“So God made the expanse (or firmament, dome, vault) and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:7) The interpretation of this text is straightforward, right? God separated the oceans, seas and lakes from the clouds above with an expanse of atmosphere. For a long time I didn’t give this reading a second thought. After all, it was plain and obvious. But this interpretation was not the obvious one until a few hundred years ago. It requires a scientific understanding of the atmosphere, as well as the sun, moon and stars (c.f. Genesis 1:16-18). It is likely that before the 16th century the “firmament” was considered to be a solid structure by nearly all educated (and probably also uneducated) people in the West. It was certainly assumed to be solid by the Ancient Near Eastern peoples, including Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites. Since it was amongst these nations that the people of Israel grew into a nation, it would seem most probable that they would also share with them this concept of the firmament.

In an article entitled “The Waters Above the Firmament,” I argue that the “firmament” in Genesis 1 should be understood as a solid structure and that the waters above the firmament are a heavenly ocean, rather than clouds. I discuss some perceptions of the cosmos found in both Hebrew and early Christian texts that compare well with this interpretation. I also consider a small sample of Bible texts that seem to fit better with these concepts of a solid dome and a heavenly ocean. I believe this interpretation takes seriously the ancient cosmology of the day and is most consistent with the Biblical text. This article is not exhaustive, but I hope it will generate some discussion and further research. The implications for this interpretation are significant, but I leave that for you to consider and hopefully discuss on this blog. I have provided some links within the paper to aid in further research. For a more complete argument in favour of this interpretation, see the articles by Paul Seely that I have referenced in the footnotes.

I hope this paper will entice some fruitful discussion, or at least fruitful thinking.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Retreat for University and College Students

Canadian Reformed students will likely have seen notices about the “Deroche College Retreat”. In case you haven’t, here is some information from the webpage. Please note that the word “College” here is meant in the general sense: any post-secondary educational institution. Also, I’ve been told by one of the organizers that, while the retreat specifically targets students of secular campuses, those attending Christian universities are welcome as well. I also understand that the registration deadline is August 8. I would highly recommend attending this event!

Here's the invitation, copied from

Dear Prospective Student:

The Reformed Bible College and the “Deroche Retreat” Reformed Conference Society of the Fraser Valley are pleased you have expressed an interest in attending the retreat: Heart, Soul and Mind: A Retreat for College and University Students. This stimulating event begins on Monday, Aug. 31st, and ends on Friday, Sept. 4th, 2009.

As Reformed Christian students attending secular colleges and universities, your faith will come under serious attack. This attack comes not only from the strong anti-Christian opinions held by professors and students and their non-Christian assumptions of the prevailing worldview, but also from the lifestyle exemplified and promoted on campus. As one person put it, “If you don’t consciously prepare for College/University, you should probably avoid it.”

We love to see Reformed youth not merely surviving, but genuinely thriving in the sometime hostile and/or challenging environment you may find yourself in at college/university. This retreat is deliberately designed to help you develop the tools and skills you need to be an effective Christian witness as a post-secondary student.

Our primary guest speaker, Dr. Ben Faber, comes highly recommended. He teaches at Redeemer University College, and is intimately familiar with the challenges young people face in our post-modern culture. He introduces his work at our retreat this way:

Confessionally-grounded, academically-sound, apologetically-oriented. This retreat invites students at secular colleges and universities to come together for three and a half days on the beautiful Deroche Retreat, to reflect on their higher education as an opportunity to engage the world with heart, soul and mind. The Bible studies, instructional sessions, recreational activities, evening devotions, and campfire fellowship will focus our collective attention on all aspects of life in college and university, from the philosophical to the practical. Thinking critically and creatively about our vocation as students, we will see what it means to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This is your heyday, these are your glory years, and this is your retreat.

We also are pleased Rev. R. Schouten, minister of the Aldergrove Canadian Reformed Church will be leading the Bible Study lessons each morning and Mark and Jaclyn Penninga from ARPA Canada will do a session on being actively involved on campus.

We look forward to you joining us for a week of growth and fellowship; may this event help you in your desire to live your life to God’s glory.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Readers of Reformed Academic may be interested to know that I also contribute to another blog, by faculty at Trinity Western University. Below is a piece I wrote there a year ago, which is also relevant here, and so I am re-posting it here; I welcome your interaction.

One problem with blogging is that sometimes you have so much to say on a topic that you can’t reduce it to a few paragraphs… Which leads me to think about the very topic of reductionism, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. I’m not exactly sure where the following quote originates, but I’m told that one of our chemistry professors shows what reductionism is by saying, “Psychology is just biology, biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, physics is just math, and math is just…hard.” Actually, I think the last part of this quote is due to one of our math profs. Another apt description is due to Donald MacKay, author of A Clock Work Image (InterVarsity, 1974), who calls such notions “nothing-buttery”. We encounter, nearly every day, the idea that “X” is nothing but “Y”:

  • A person is nothing but a collection of protoplasm.
  • A person is nothing but a pile of atoms.
  • Beethoven’s 5th is nothing but vibrations in the air.
  • Love is nothing but chemistry.
  • A photograph is nothing but pixels on a screen.

Sometimes the words “nothing but” are left out, but the problem remains: it is supposed that “X” doesn’t really exist since science has shown that it’s actually just “Y”. Two of my main goals in teaching are to expose the problems with reductionism and to open students’ minds to the much broader perspective offered by a Christian worldview.

A few years ago, one of my students mentioned that TWU’s English Department has as its polemic motto, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” This quote due to Muriel Rukeyser unfortunately remains reductionistic, because it’s not either/or: both are true. The universe is made of atoms, and it is made of stories. Both — and more — are needed to provide anything approaching a full description and explanation. It’s important for scientists to know that there is more to any phenomenon or event than the physical compositional story.

University education can often lead students into thinking that their particular area alone holds the true key to final knowledge; this was true in my case, until I discovered the “liberal arts and sciences” as taught at Trinity Western. I keep reminding my students that, unlike Ernest Rutherford’s quote that “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting” (which remains hanging outside our lab as a conversation piece), each discipline considers just one aspect of the multi-faceted universe crafted by an amazing Creator as an integral whole. These aspects relate to one another in various ways, but no single discipline can claim to be the most fundamental or basic. It is both humiliating and empowering to know both that our work matters and that we need one another. Perhaps you recognize similarities with Romans 12:3-5 and I Corinthians 12!

For further reading, see my piece “A Physicist’s Reformed Critique of Nonreductive Physicalism and Emergence”, Pro Rege v. 33, n. 4 (June 2005) pp. 20-32 (available online here).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

As our introductory post indicates, this blog was set up to discuss and try to resolve difficulties that Christians may experience in their academic studies and projects. One way of meeting this goal is to draw attention to works by Christian scientists, apologists, and theologians who have addressed this kind of issue. We hope occasionally to review such books; we also intend to deal with publications that we believe Christians should be warned against. A case in point is Jitse van der Meer’s recent review of the Bible-critical work Meeting Jesus For the First Time, by Marcus Borg, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar. The book with which we are introducing this thread, namely the recent bestseller The Shack, is on a rather different level. It is popularly written and offers no academic challenges, although it does offer theological ones. In any case, its popularity and often uncritical acceptance among believers suggests that a brief analysis may be called for. Comments on the initiative are invited.

Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: When Tragedy Confronts Eternity, first appeared in 2007. The copy I have in front of me states that the book is now “The #1 New York Times Bestseller,” with over 5 million copies in print. Although widely acclaimed by many Christians, it is a controversial book among orthodox believers. Some church members I have discussed it with recommend it highly, but others reject it as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous. The description “blasphemous” has even been used. Who is right? What is the book’s message?

First something about the story. The back cover gives the following summary of the book’s contents: “Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later…Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.”

What he does find is a pleasant cottage situated in a beautiful natural landscape (symbolizing heaven? the new earth?). The cottage is inhabited by what are presented to us as human manifestations of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are a kind, motherly, beaming African-American woman (who is, paradoxically, referred to as “Papa”), a middle-aged carpenter, and a small breezy woman of Asian descent. There is some crude symbolism in this portrayal of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. One of the author’s aims is to challenge the reader’s “religious stereotypes,” and he obviously counts among these the idea that God is male and white and western (true, we are told later that He is not female either, and toward the end He is portrayed as male). Other apparent “stereotypes” are God’s holiness and transcendence. Young portrays the persons of the Trinity as ordinary human beings. In fact, we are told that with Christ’s incarnation the Father and the Spirit also “became fully human,” and even that the Father shared in the Son’s suffering and still bears the physical scars of the crucifixion. God’s humanity and humility are paramount throughout. Mack can converse with the Persons of the Trinity as their equal. He is even told that just as man must submit to God, so God submits to man, in order to draw him into the divine “circle of relationship.” And so Mack feels free to blame God for human suffering, to snap at Him, and to demand explanations. He does all this with impunity. God’s friendliness and willingness to explain Himself and to mollify His inquisitor never cease.

Much of the book’s appeal no doubt results from its political correctness, its emphasis on relationship, and its portrayal of God as non-judgmental, ever-kind, very human, non-transcendent. It is true that not all the book’s contents are of the same caliber. Good things are said about the cause of evil and of human suffering, about man’s error in insisting upon his autonomy, about human freedom and responsibility, divine grace, and forgiveness. Also biblical is the stress on the future restoration of all things – the fact that the believer’s ultimate destiny is not heaven but a renewed earth.

But these positive aspects do not make up for the negative ones. Much of the biblical message is ignored and God is portrayed as humans might like Him to be, not as He has revealed Himself. This is, I believe, a transgression of the second commandment. There are, as we have seen, additional theological errors – the portrayal of the Godhead in visible form (again a transgression of the second commandment), the teaching that the Father and the Spirit have assumed a human nature, and the ancient heresies of modalism and patripassionism (the Father’s sharing in the Son’s suffering and death). There are hints of universalism and also of Pelagianism – for example when Mack is told that God is fully reconciled to the world but that this is as much as He can do; it is up to mankind to accept the “new relationship” He offers.

More could be said, but this review is not meant to be exhaustive. I merely want to draw attention to the questionable message of a book that is widely read among Christians. For additional critical reviews I refer to one by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and especially to that of Tim Challies, who wrote a lengthy, balanced, and thoroughly biblical analysis of The Shack. I further mention a recent article by the Rev. Wes Bredenhof [“Emergent: A Brief Introduction”, Clarion v. 58, n. 13 (19 June 2009) pp. 301-3], wherein, like Tim Challies, he relates the message of The Shack to that of the emergent church movement.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


One of the goals of Reformed Academic is to discuss matters of Scripture interpretation in relation to other areas of scholarship. In the polarized climate of today this is very difficult if not impossible. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the call to give an account of what we believe and why we believe it in the context of contemporary culture. Specifically, we want to show that it is possible to combine a rigorous critique of various forms of Bible criticism with a thoughtful and open-minded consideration of Scripture interpretation in relation to various scholarly disciplines that aims to stay true to Scripture. I am offering a review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg as a contribution to this goal of Reformed Academic. For the review, see “Marcus Borg: the Tragedy of Reaction” in our “collected papers” (in the sidebar) - direct link here.

Marcus Borg (1942- ) is an influential American biblical scholar and a widely read author. He is a member of the Bible critical Jesus Seminar, and is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. His works have been translated into nine languages. Borg is among the most influential voices in progressive Christianity. The review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg is not offered because it is timely. The book appeared in 1994. Rather it is offered to make the following points.

First, the review is intended as a contribution to the goal of Reformed Academic mentioned above. It starts with what is intended as a fair and non-evaluative description of the content of the book followed by an assessment.

Second, the assessment also contains a critique of Rudolph Bultmann. This is not only an indispensable context for the work of Marcus Borg, but also because Rudolph Bultmann may be considered as representative for the final phase in the development of higher biblical criticism. Thus Bultmann offers an opportunity to show the weaknesses of his work and of higher biblical criticism in general.

Third, the assessment describes how the development of higher biblical criticism was influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant seen as a response to a deterministic interpretation of Newtonian physics. This offers an example of the complexity of the interaction between the interpretation of nature in science and the interpretation of Scripture.

Fourth, I hope it contributes to avoiding what I refer to in the title of the review as ‘the tragedy of reaction.’ The tragic nature of reaction is that it takes on precisely those features of its intended opponent that it was intended to reject.

Finally, this particular book was chosen because the writings of Marcus Borg are widely influential.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Young-Earth Creationism: A History

How do we relate science and Scripture? If modern science gives a picture of the world and its origins that differs from a literal understanding of the biblical account, must we then automatically reject it? Historically, believers have not thought so. They have realized that, to speak with Calvin, the Bible is the “book of the unlearned” - it describes things as they appear to the common observer. And so, although the Bible speaks of a four-cornered and unmoving earth, Christians have accepted the scientific evidence that the earth is spherical and moving. True, there are still some who defend an earth-centred solar system, but they are exceptions. No orthodox church community supports such a view.

In recent decades there has been one exception to the general rule. It concerns the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. Although science concludes that the earth and the universe are billions of years old, many conservative Christians hold that according to the Bible creation took place only 6,000 - 10,000 years ago. To believe otherwise, they insist, is to risk losing the entire Scripture. Meanwhile, although they reject much of modern science, many of them believe that scientific evidence in support of their position is important. They have therefore developed an alternative scientific approach, called creation science (or scientific creationism), which proves, they say, that a young-earth interpretation of Genesis is scientifically correct. This young-earth creationism has flourished mightily in the past three or four decades. Although certainly not every Christian accepts creation science, this is now the default position not only in conservative evangelical churches world-wide but also in Reformed ones.

Those who disagree are a minority, although a vocal one. The issue is rapidly becoming one of the most divisive ones among Bible-believing Christians - so much so, in fact, that church-related periodicals often prefer not to deal with it. The general impression is that arguments - whether biblical or scientific - do not convince in any case. This is probably true. But so long as young-earth creationism is assumed to be the one and only orthodox position, then consciences are bound, if not officially, then for all practical purposes. This creates a difficult climate for those who question or reject young-earth creationism. Especially vulnerable are students who are often well aware of the scientific arguments but are told that the scientific evidence, compelling as it may appear to them, must be rejected. Generally speaking discussions on the issue are not encouraged. Students often have to solve the problem on their own.

I realize that the issue is not easily resolved. I do want to propose, however, that we agree to accept the division, allow for the airing of divergent opinions, and stop labelling those who disagree with the dominant approach as heretical. I dare propose this because I have studied the history of the controversy and found that the kind of freedom I am asking for indeed existed in the past. Orthodox theologians, scientists and philosophers – Reformed, Presbyterians, and others – have defended theories of an older earth, and even some form of evolutionism, without being accused of heresy. The great divide came in the 1960s, with the rise and worldwide spread of scientific creationism. Within a few decades this initially Adventist and evangelical position replaced the traditional Reformed one, which henceforth was qualified as anti-biblical. In my article “Young-Earth Creationism: A History” (see “collected papers” in side-bar) I trace this development. I sincerely hope that the historical account will encourage a more nuanced attitude with respect to the interpretation of the creation account today. A direct link is here.

The article is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the period up to 1925 (the year of the American Scopes Trial); Part II describes the birth and worldwide spread of scientific creationism; and Part III traces the influence of creation science in Reformed churches. Special attention is given here to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated), the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the United Reformed Church of North America.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Intelligent Design

Dennis Venema asked several questions regarding Intelligent Design. Since there is still much to discuss on the theology of common ancestry, it might be better to start a separate thread. I appreciate Dennis' questions and hope we can work out where we agree and where we don't.

Dennis asks, "I'll need to know what your definition of "design" is, as well as your definition of "scientifically." "

TJ: These are good questions. All of creation is designed and we can't distinguish between what is designed and what isn't. I admit I've seen that distinction in some ID writing but disagree with it. What I mean by design is that certain features may not be explained by the "laws" of science as we know them. This is not merely an argument from ignorance or a God of the gaps explanation, but is based on what we do know from science. An example is the origin of the first cell. We know the intracellular and extracellular environments are quite different and these chemical and electrical gradients are essential for cell function. Thus the arguments against cellularization are based on knowledge, not ignorance. Same thing with the reduction in entropy that occurs in the formation of macromolecules like DNA, RNA and protein.

DV: As for your "truly random" comment - I'm not sure what you mean, to be honest. I don't think anything is "truly random, even to God" if by that you mean it is beyond God's control.

TJ: I'm glad you feel that way but many of your TE colleagues will argue that evolution is truly random, even to God. God knows the end result but not the means by which we get there. An example is Simon Conway Morris, who holds that the evolutionary process has to end up with some kind of creature that seeks a relationship with God, but the details aren't known, even to God.

DV: As for antipathy towards an "interventionist" idea of God: if evidence were present that such a "discontinuous" event had occurred, I would be happy to weigh it and consider it. It is certainly within God's purview to "intervene" (if one can really call God interacting with His creation 'intervening' in any meaningful way). Nothing in biology that I have seen thus far makes me reach for the "miracle" category as of yet. Nothing I have read in the ID literature makes me reach for that category either.

TJ: Again, I appreciate your answer. Now we can debate the evidence, rather than presuppositions. Many TE's have claimed that it's only an incompetent God who needs to tinker with the evolutionary process because it wasn't designed right in the first place.

DV: To give you some more info on how I view ID, I see it as an argument from analogy: things in biology are analogous to things we know are designed (by people or animals); ergo, the biological entity is designed. Well, the strength of that argument depends on the strength of the analogy - I have yet to see a case where, in my view, the analogy holds up.

TJ: So you agree with the argument from analogy but haven't yet found a convincing example?

DV: The other line of argumentation I see in ID (Dembski's Explanatory Filter, for example) seems to me to be an argument from ignorance. You can't use Dembski's filter unless you have perfect knowledge of all "natural" mechanisms. I have also never seen Dembski actually use his filter and publish the results. Have you?

TJ: One initial comment about publishing: the names of Behe, Wells, Dembski et al. are anathema to the scientific community. They have tried to publish but their submissions aren't even reviewed. I personally think the Expelled movie was overdone but there's a lot of truth to it. So lack of publications doesn't mean anything. Secondly, I'm not sure what you mean by needing a perfect knowledge of all "natural" mechanisms before you can claim design. Does science ever work that way? We may not invoke new concepts like emergence and self-organization to explain phenomena we can't explain.

DV: Another problem I have with the ID movement is that as it focuses on narrow examples (the flagellum, for example) it seems to dividing biology into "the miraculous bits God did" over against "the natural bits God wasn't involved in because 'Darwinism' can explain those." Well, I prefer to see God as the author and sustainer of the whole deal. In their zeal to "prove" a Designer, I think they're ignoring a big part of His design.

TJ: Agreed, but ID proper doesn't claim that some things are designed and others aren't. It merely claims that some parts cannot be explained by processes we know and understand. ID also doesn't claim to "prove" a designer. The word "proof" is only appropriate in mathematics and alcohol :-).

I hope this clears up some misconceptions so we can debate the evidence.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Studies of the Human Genome

Due to continual advances in DNA sequencing technologies, we have recently witnessed an explosion in the amount of DNA sequence data and the emergence of the field of genomics. The amount of sequence information continues to grow exponentially. Although sequencing the human genome for the first time was a monumental task, it is now much easier to obtain and compare the sequences of entire genomes.

In addition to humans, many other organisms have been sequenced, which allows comparisons with each other and with the human genome. Comparisons of the human and chimpanzee genomes have aroused special interest because it has been shown that the human and chimpanzee genomes share over 98% of their DNA sequences.

This high degree of similarity has troubling implications for those who believe that the Bible teaches that humans and chimpanzees are separate creations. Todd Wood is such a person who is trained in genomics and has examined this data closely. Wood’s paper can be seen here.
Although the paper is three years old, the story will not have changed substantially, except that the chimpanzee sequence is now more complete.

Wood treats the data honestly and candidly. Since he rejects a priori the possibility of common ancestry between chimpanzees and humans, he investigates possible ways of accounting for the high degree of similarity, none of which are well developed.

We invite you to read this paper carefully and comment on it.

If you need clarification on a point he makes, that's fine too.

How much are Wood’s suggestions for reconciling these data worth investigating?

If common ancestry is the best explanation of the data, what are the theological implications?

How would you fit Adam and Eve into such a scenario?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Against Scientific Geocentrism

In a recent comment, John van Popta cites, apparently favourably, the geocentrism of van der Kamp. I never did have the honour of meeting “Kampee” as he was apparently affectionately known. But for a short time about a dozen years ago, I was involved in what I thought was a private internet discussion on geocentrism (mostly critiquing it while seeking to understand and appreciate it), and you can actually still find what must have been the most favourable thing I said about it quoted in The Geocentric Bible (!):

“no physicist I know says that the earth in any absolute sense travels around the sun. Science today does not claim that there is an absolute reference frame in which the earth is moving.”

This is apparently the best thing any Ph.D. physicist has said which could be construed to be in favour of geocentrism, at least in terms of “reference frames”. (Unfortunately, I can no longer find my other comments from that discussion.) Einstein’s theory of general relativity allows one to show how measurements of space and time correspond between references frames which are moving (in fact accelerating) relative to one another, and eschews the concept of an absolute point or system of reference from which space and time ought to be measured. However, one should not assume that the instrumentalist view is implied by general relativity, or that geocentrism is thusly made tenable. In astronomy, one does indeed usually employ an earth-based coordinate system for reasons of history and convenience. But there are plenty of good observations which indicate that geocentrism is not the true state of affairs in the cosmos. Maintaining scientific geocentrism is possible only if we dispense with nearly every well-established physical principle: gravitation, force, mass, dynamics, energy, not to mention the other basic observations which validate heliocentrism (within the solar system) such as rotational dynamics, centre of mass, stellar parallax, Coriolis force (with its Foucault pendulum, counter-clockwise rotation of storms in the Northern hemisphere), nuclear fusion, neutrino oscillation, extra-solar planetary systems, seasonal anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background, etc., etc. Of course, one could be a philosophical antirealist, or fictionalist, and maintain that these are only appearances or useful constructs, but we have discussed – and will continue to do so, Lord willing – the problems of such a position in Reformed epistemology and ontology, with, in my view, the critical (or, as Broussard puts it, humble) realist position doing more justice to the reality of the creation and to God’s gift of rationality to His image bearers. My main point regarding reference frames is that Scripture’s speaking from the point of view of earth is not scientifically problematic, but neither is it a scientific claim any more than is our continued reference to such geocentric notions as sunsets.

Also, let me briefly unveil the Copernican myth to which van der Kamp and nearly everyone else has succumbed. This is the idea that Copernicus in proposing a heliocentric system dethroned the earth from its position at the Centre of the cosmos, and that this is a threat to the Scriptural idea that humanity is central in God’s plan of salvation. Having once been considered at the Centre, the earth is now relegated to being just one planet among many, and further developments put us orbiting around just one star out of many, in one galaxy among many, etc. However, it is important to note that according to the Greeks, the earth is evil, with hell being at its centre and the heavens being the place of perfection. Thus, far from demoting the earth, Copernicus actually exalted it to join the heavenly realms! This is discussed in Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché”, American Journal of Physics, v. 69, n. 10 (Oct. 2001), pp. 1029-35. Danielson is a member of a Reformed church, and an English professor at UBC studying historical literature on the cosmos, writing here in a physics journal, and so if you can obtain the article via your university or college library, all readers of this blog should find it accessible. In fact, modern astronomy suggests that not only is the earth not at the center, but that there is no centre, much like how there is no location on the surface of the earth which could rightfully claim such an honour; I consider this to be a superb poetical analogy of how once Jews claimed they had to worship in Jerusalem, but now God’s people worship anywhere in spirit and truth (see John 4:20-24).

Incidentally, earth’s placement, environment, and attributes remain particularly special in many ways; see Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay Wesley Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004) and Peter D. Ward & Donald Brown, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus Books, 2004).

My conclusion is that scientific geocentrism is neither taught in nor implied by Scripture, and there is every reason for the Christian to acknowledge the weight of evidence against it while no reason to suppose that this means earth and humanity is any less special in God’s eyes. After all, we are created in God’s image, and the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection took place on our home planet. And we can say with even more depth of understanding, in humility and awe, with David, “When I consider your heavens, …what is man that you are mindful of him…?” (Psalm 8.3-4, NIV)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Humble Realism and Reformed Hermeneutics

Below follows a guest post by Ben Faber (B.A., McMaster; D.Phil., Oxford), who teaches Renaissance and 18th-century English literature at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He and his wife, Rita, with their five children, are members of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

In a comment on a previous entry, I noted three points of intersection between Phillip Broussard’s “Humble Realism” and a Reformed approach to hermeneutics. This is an elaboration on these connections.

“Hermeneutics” is the term used in theological, philosophical and literary contexts to “clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place” (Hans-Georg Gadamer). As such, “hermeneutics” usually refers to the assumptions which undergird the theories of interpretation that drive various practices of textual analysis—assumptions about language, reality, agency, perception, and so forth. Conflicting interpretations of Biblical or literary texts can often be traced back to the assumptions that constitute the hermeneutic behind the differing readings. One can go even further back, of course, to the worldview in which the hermeneutic arises that shapes the theory governing the practice. In the following comments I will focus on language since the nature of language continues to be the pivotal issue in hermeneutics. For further reading on these and other aspects of hermeneutics, I highly recommend Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Zondervan, 1998).

So how does a Reformed hermeneutic align in key areas with a Reformed approach to science as expressed by Dr. Broussard?

(A) Realist ontology: When Augustine in On Christian Doctrine refers to the correspondence between the two books of God’s self-revelation, he is suggesting that this correspondence also relates to the means by which God reveals Himself in world and Word. Creation declares the glory of God by natural signs (things); Scripture declares the glory of God by artificial, or conventional, signs (words). In a general sense, although artificial or conventional signs may be secondary to natural signs, they nevertheless refer to real objects, actions, states of being, observable and nonobservable phenomena, etc. Language is representative of the reality to which it refers. Radical poststructuralist literary theory, which absolutizes Derrida’s famous expression that “there is nothing outside the text”, argues that the “reality” to which language refers is inaccessible as such because it is always mediated by language itself: we cannot step outside of discourse to apprehend reality in a pure, unadulterated form. In fact, the postmodernist would add, this “reality” is not given but constructed. A Reformed literary hermeneutic responds by saying that the fact that our apprehension of reality is mediated by language does not negate the reality of that “reality”. That aspects of our understanding of reality are constructed from our being situated in time and place also does not negate that reality. The classical realist position in the sciences is similar to an unproblematic view of language (modernist), while the antirealist position sounds like an excessively bleak take on language (postmodernist). Broussard’s “Humble Realism” echoes the Reformed view that language makes reality accessible, expressible and apprehensible.

(B) Humble epistemology: For all its wonderful properties as a means of making this reality accessible, however, language is neither a neutral instrument nor a perfect vehicle. The good gifts with which God endowed Adam and Eve, including language, were desecrated by the fall into sin. The finitude of human understanding, together with the effects of sin on that understanding, leaves us with no alternative but to acknowledge that the analogy between language and truth is often shaky and fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, even while a Reformed hermeneutic recognizes the effects of sin on language, incarnation and inscripturation both point to the real possibility of a correspondence between language and truth. Postmodernist views of language suggest that we are always already caught helplessly between incommensurability and plenitude. In response, the Reformed view of language suggests that we have reasonable grounds to trust language as an analogy of reality, yet without making claims for its absolute reliability. For that we will have to wait for the return of our ascended Lord to complete the redemption of Babel that He began at Pentecost.

(C) Image-of-God anthropology: The covenantal character of the triune God is one of the key themes of Reformed theology, especially as this is expressed in the doctrines concerning the triune Godhead, creation, election, revelation, sacraments, etc. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has suggested, true human flourishing takes place when one lives in peace with God, neighbour, environment, and self. Human beings are fundamentally relational creatures—what Reformed Christians might prefer to call “covenantal creatures” to emphasize the spiritual and ethical responsibilities that accompany our relationality. Language, too, as a means of communication is intrinsically covenantal in its exchange of promise and obligation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, there is no such thing as private language. Therefore, without diminishing the importance of other aspects of being made in God’s image (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Belgic Confession, Art. 14), a Reformed literary hermeneutic would highlight the covenantal elements of speech acts in relation to imago Dei. Kevin Vanhoozer, James Smith and Anthony Thiselton do precisely this in emphasizing trust, obligation and responsiveness as the conditions of language-use.

While the foregoing observations relate to general hermeneutics, the implications for special hermeneutics are intriguing. For instance, the idea of the covenant of language portrays our mundane actions of giving and receiving meaning as an exchange grounded in trust, obligation and responsiveness. When something profoundly characteristic of the triune God (His covenantal relationships) is also intrinsic to the ordinary means (language) by which God reveals Himself, surely something significant is going on. Given the covenantal structure of language, how does the fact that God spoke creation into being affect our relationship with the natural world? What does this mean for our understanding of John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”? Is the covenantal structure of language merely a coincidental and convenient analogy for the covenantal nature of the Bible with its promise and obligation? Or does the covenantal structure of language derive from God Himself, not as an accident, but as a corollary to the nature of His creation (ontology) and as a function of our being made in His image (anthropology)? How does the covenant of language relate to the language of covenant? Perhaps a general Reformed hermeneutic may have something to contribute to our understanding of the covenantal nature of God’s revelation in His Word and world. And of preaching, prayer, praise, profession of faith, and a whole host of other covenantal acts of language in our lives as people of the Book.

Some References

James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

Anthony Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works and New Essays. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Michael Polanyi on Humble Realism

Phillip Broussard’s work on scientific knowing (see Arnold’s post) is enlightening, as is his belief that the truth of our being created in the image of God “has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation” and with our ability to achieve a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. His articles, and especially his description of “humble realism,” contain antidotes not only to naïve-realist and anti-realist interpretations in science but are applicable in a wider area. They shed light, for example, on the conflict between modernist objectivism (naïve realism) on the one hand and postmodernist subjective relativism (anti-realism) on the other. I focus on that wider context.

Among the philosophers who have dealt at some length with the errors of an anti-realist position is Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Of interest in this connection are his arguments against “cultural conditioning” – the doctrine that we hold our beliefs and convictions merely because of the culture in which we live, and that therefore they are altogether relative. Polanyi does not deny the role of cultural influences but argues that, rather than interfering with the accumulation of knowledge, they are in fact essential for our mental development. “An entirely untutored maturing of the mind would…result in a state of imbecility” (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 295). We can function as intelligent human beings only because we are part of the community, historical epoch, and civilization wherein we find ourselves. “Tacit assent and intellectual passions,” he writes, “the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework” (Ibid., p. 266).

Polanyi at the same time warns that our cultural rootedness does not deprive us of our personal responsibility. Not only are we obliged to test the traditions we inherit, we are also able to do so. Although influenced by our culture, we do not have to be its passive recipients; everyone has “some measure of direct access to the standards of truth and rightness” (Polanyi, The Study of Man, p. 30). It is true that that access is limited. The criteria by which we test the traditions of our culture depend on that same culture, so that a truly objective view of things is denied us. But does this not mean that we are the helpless victims of our environment after all? Polanyi rejects that conclusion while stressing our human limitations, which he sees as imposed by our finitude. We have no choice but to accept these limitations, since it is impossible to hold ourselves responsible beyond them. Asking how we would think if we had been raised outside a particular society is as meaningless as asking how we would think if we had been born in no particular body. “I believe, therefore,” he concludes, “that as I am called upon to live and die in this body, struggling to satisfy its desires, recording my impressions by aid of such sense organs as it is equipped with, and acting through the puny machinery of my brain, my nerves and my muscles, so I am called upon also to acquire the instruments of intelligence from my early surroundings and to use these particular instruments to fulfill the universal obligations to which I am subject” (Pers. Knowl., p. 323). Epistemic humility is required, but postmodernist agnosticism is out of the question.

Polanyi does not say it is God who called us, placed us in a particular time and culture, and assigned to us our cultural tasks. He also does not he speak of our being created in the image of God, nor does he say in so many words that our (limited) knowledge of reality is God’s gift of grace – although he seems to admit, at least by implication, human dependence. Even so, Christian believers can take to heart his “humble realism” together with his argued rejection of the doctrine of absolute social conditioning. Polanyi was not a Christian. But perhaps we may see in his philosophy the influence of what Broussard calls God’s common grace.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Replacing Fictionalism and Antirealism with Humble Realism

Do the entities found in our scientific theories exist in the real world, or are theories simply tools used to give us a helpful but ultimately false handle on our experience of the world?

My friend and colleague Phillip Broussard at Covenant College (the undergraduate liberal-arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America, a Reformed denomination which together with the CanRC is in NAPARC) wrote a couple of papers which are relevant to our discussions here regarding the age of the earth.  I encourage you to read these, and make your comments here.

He argues against what he calls a fictionalist view of scientific theories, an example of scientific antirealism, a view which suggests that there is little if any connection between the theories used in science and the created reality, and affirms the approach of critical realism, moving it forward into a Reformed Christian perspective he calls humble realism.  He describes and critiques fictionalist views which show up in the creation science community and in his students, along the lines of ‘appearance of age’.

The papers are entitled “A Reformed View of Fictionalism and Antirealism in the Sciences” (2003, PDF here) and “Is Realism Viable in the Midst of Physics and Philosophy?” (2008, PDF here).  These were written in the context of Broussard’s tenure review process at Covenant, and while they contain some “in-house” references (particularly in the first paper), such as to lectures by his colleagues, he brings up points which are valuable for us all to consider.

Here is a lengthy quote from pp. 27f. of the second paper, which you would need to read in its entirety to fully appreciate.  It does contain some wonderful technical detail for the physicists among us, but is certainly possible to comprehend without a physics background.

“Humble Realism does not accept the tenets of antirealism, in saying that theories have no connection to reality, nor would it accept a classical realist view that the objects must be consistent with our scale chauvinistic views or that if a theory is successful then it is True. Humble Realism would first of all see that the goal of science as glorifying God and enabling us to be better stewards of His creation.  In order to do that, Humble Realism would see science as attempting to discover truth about the nature of reality, but is aware that a complete understanding of even a limited part of reality is going to be beyond us. The entities and laws postulated by theories are assumed to be accurate, yet incomplete, approximations to what is present in the theory-independent world, but the mental model of those images must be informed by the problems of scale chauvinism we all struggle with. Humble Realism embraces the view of humans as limited and fallen creatures, who realize that our finitude is a gift from God, all the time acknowledging that the truth of Imago Dei has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation, including the ability to grasp a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. Humble Realism acknowledges that past theories, although shown to be incomplete and false in some ways, can still be used as well as seeing that these theories do seem to arise from more accurate theories. Humble Realism cannot do a better job on quantifying verisimilitude than the many philosophers who have tried, but it can acknowledge that we often do distinguish between competing theories and can tell which does a better job. Humble Realism must take full ownership that the issues of confirmation cannot be fully solved, and as such can never claim absolute confidence in any theory, however, as a theory is more and more successful, we can have more confidence that it applies to reality in a limited manner. Humble Realism acknowledges that it is only because of a faithful God that one can understand some aspect of reality in a limited way and that all the knowledge we have is revelation from the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:18) Finally, Humble Realism will hopefully allow one to take joy in what we learn about God’s creation.”

I’m looking forward to a fruitful discussion among readers of Broussard’s papers.  When responding, please refer to page numbers and make sure we can tell which paper you’re referring to (first paper, 2003; second paper, 2008).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Michael Polanyi

Jonathan Vanpopta asked for information about Michael Polanyi.

Michael Polanyi was a Hungarian chemist who became a philosopher after he fled to the UK in the early 1900s. He is the father of John Polanyi, the Nobel prize winning chemist of the University of Toronto. Together with Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi has been responsible for introducing into the history and philosophy of science the role of background beliefs in the natural sciences. But Polanyi is by far the more profound thinker and he is not a relativist as Thomas Kuhn has been perceived to be. Polanyi has certainly has a great deal of influence on my own thinking about science from a Christian perspective. He puts meat on the claim that presuppositions have shaped the content of scientific knowledge. A good source on Polanyi's relevance for Christian faith is:
  • Torrance, Thomas F. Belief in Science and in Christian Life: The Relevance of Michael Polanyi's Thought for Christian Faith and Life. Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1980.
Also very helpful are two small works:
  • Polanyi, M. Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1946.
  • Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1966.
A source to avoid due to misinterpretation is:
  • Polanyi, M. and Prosch, H. Meaning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1975.

Jitse M. van der Meer

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Evolutionary Explanations of the Bible

Evolutionism is not only a scientific theory. Since the nineteenth century it has also developed into an all-encompassing worldview. According to this worldview all that we see and think and believe has developed from a state of great simplicity to one of ever-increasing complexity and sophistication. All of this happened, moreover, in a natural way. The evolutionary worldview knows of no transcendence, no supernature; only nature exists. Nothing has come to us from above; all that exists has its origin here below.

In the three-part series under this heading (see “Collected Papers” in the sidebar; direct link here) I look at ways the evolutionary worldview has affected the interpretation of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament. The first instalment deals with a theory that explains the origin and development of Israel’s faith and culture in straightforward evolutionary terms (the so-called Wellhausen thesis). The second one describes attempts to explain the Old Testament religion with reference to the traditions of advanced civilizations that Israel came into contact with, such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Canaan itself. Special attention is given to the assumed influence of Babylonia. In the final instalment I turn to a Bible-critical theory that focuses on the New Testament and describes New Testament teachings and the origins of Christianity as derived from pagan traditions.

These Bible-critical schools arose in the nineteenth century. Although their conclusions have been modified since then, many of the underlying assumptions are still with us. It is therefore good to be aware not only of these theories but also of the response to them by Bible-believing scholars. Prominent among the latter was the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), a colleague of Abraham Kuyper and during the second part of his academic career a professor of dogmatology at Kuyper’s Free University. In this series I have focused on his response. As I hope will become clear, Bavinck’s “defence of the faith” against various sorts of biblical criticism is as relevant today as it was a century ago.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Theistic Evolution

Concerns have been raised about an article on this blog which appears to promote theistic evolution, i.e., an evolutionary process which took place under God’s guidance. We want our readers to know that the contributors to this blog are by no means in agreement on the scientific and theological validity of theistic evolution, and we further assure them that its promotion is not a “hidden agenda” of this blog.

Theistic evolution is accepted, however, among an increasing number of Bible-believing, orthodox Christians. For that reason we believe that we must discuss the theological and scientific issues surrounding the theory among ourselves and also on the blog. It is an issue that we may not be able to resolve adequately but that we also do not, for that reason, want to censor or “run away from.” Informed readers will be able to appreciate the difficulties faced by biologists who encounter what appears to be scientific evidence for evolution but wish to remain faithful to Scripture and the Reformed confession. We do not want to ignore this difficulty and we hope that on our blog the matter can be discussed publicly, in a brotherly way, without acrimony.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Scientific Knowledge Abstract?

As I read writings by ministers and theologians who have minimal scientific training, yet confidently assure us that they know the Bible teaches a literal six day creation, I wonder how they can ignore what the creation is telling us through the evidences of the stars, the rocks, radioactivity etc., that the earth is vastly older than ten thousand years old.

I can understand someone who recognizes their weakness in understanding science, and thus their impressions about what science claims to say are tentative. I can also understand someone whose understanding of science leads to a conflict with how they in good faith interpret Scripture. Indeed, that was my position for a couple of years, and doubtless the same for my colleagues. At least such people recognize a conflict and they regard the scientific findings with a healthy skepticism. But that’s different from someone who holds to a particular interpretation of Scripture and cares not a whit what God reveals in creation. God clearly reveals himself in the creation (Isaiah 28:23-29, Proverbs 6:6-8, BC Art. 2) so why is this ignored?

Perhaps people think science is a fundamentally different way of thinking than “regular” thinking or that scientific knowledge is somehow different from "regular" knowledge. Once concepts become difficult, do they become abstract and can thus be ignored?

When time permits (and Dordt’s semester extends well into May) I would like to post short articles explaining some of the concepts that address issues like evolution, age of the earth/universe etc., hopefully in an accessible way. Stay tuned.

Posting Comments Now Fixed

Today we fixed a problem (thanks, John!) which may have affected you. (We know it affects Mac Firefox users, for example.)

If you have submitted a comment, but it hasn't appeared, be assured it's not because of censorship. Please re-submit your comments (remembering to use your real first and last name of course). We want to encourage an open and honest discussion. We welcome all feedback, although we can't promise to answer all questions immediately. We will post questions and comments even if we can't answer them. You may also E-mail questions to us if you don't want to post a specific comment on an existing post. (Maybe you have a question about a topic we haven't covered, like philosophy of education, or mass communication.)

Three of us are currently busy marking papers and exams as the semester wraps up. Thanks for your feedback and your patience!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reformed Views On Creation And Flood

In various Reformed churches, including the CanRC, it is widely held that the first chapters of Genesis are best explained by the teachings of Young-Earth Creationism, according to which the earth is 6-10,000 years old, the days of creation were literal 24-hours days, and the layers of the earth's crust with the fossils they contain were deposited by a universal flood.

Although it is by now almost universally accepted among us, the idea that the interpretation of Young-Earth Creationism is the only acceptable one is comparatively recent. It owes much to the influence of North-American Evangelicalism but differs from the view held on the issue by well-known Reformed theologians of the fairly recent past, both in North America and the Netherlands.  I gave a brief description of this Reformed tradition in my two-part series "Klaas Schilder on Creation and Flood" (see sidebar, "collected papers"; a direct link is here). In that series I do not attempt to "prove" the correctness or incorrectness of either interpretation. My concern is, rather, to remind Reformed readers of their history, and to invite them to compare the two views.

As it happens, Schilder himself also refrained from taking a position on the issue. In fact, he relativized it, concluding that it was not really worth fighting over. But in view of the fact that already in his day young-earth advocates accused Reformed scholars promoting an older earth of "assailing the authority of Scripture," he defended the opinion of these scholars. He further marshaled a variety of biblical arguments in defence of Abraham Kuyper's suggestion that the Flood may well have been a regional one.

Genesis 1 In Context

How do we read the first chapter of Genesis? First of all as a scientific treatise, one that may help us reconcile the claims of modern science with Scripture?  This is frequently the position Christians take in our days, and in a sense it is understandable, given the cultural situation wherein we find ourselves.  But if understandable, it is also regrettable. Reading the first book of Scripture primarily for what is considered its scientific information threatens to hide from us the fact that the book is part of God's redemptive-historical revelation, his message of his dealings with his people and with the world; indeed, his message of salvation. As one Reformed theologian rightly said, Genesis 1 is ultimately a revelation of Jesus Christ. A single-minded concentration on the age of the earth and the length of the days of creation has very little to do with this central message. We must learn again to read Genesis 1 from the proper perspective.

I have suggested one way of doing so in the three-part series "Genesis 1 in Context" (see under "collected papers" in the sidebar, direct link here). Herein we look at Moses' account as the divine proclamation that the God who redeemed Israel from Egypt is also the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. Israel, which is ready to enter the promised land, must learn to trust in Him alone and to ignore the gods of the surrounding nations. These gods are in focus, however. In the series I argue that Genesis 1 is at least in part a polemic against the religions of Babylonia, Egypt, and Canaan.  The first of these is described in some detail in Part 1. Part 2 focuses on such elements as the symbolic meaning of the number seven (in Genesis 1 and throughout Scripture) and the principle of separation (which again we frequently meet in both Genesis 1 and elsewhere in the Bible). Part 3 returns to the Babylonian creation story and provides further evidence of the polemic nature of Genesis 1. It focuses, among other things, on the creation of sun, moon, and stars, the role of the "creatures of the deep," and the differences between the nature of humanity according to Genesis 1 and the Babylonian account of creation respectively.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

History of nature

On April 17, 2009 Herman van Barneveld included this question in a comment on Tony's article:

"Is it within the realm of science to speak authoritatively on historical matters? (especially when it contradicts the Word through which God "...makes Himself more clearly and fully known as far as neccessary His glory (Belgic Confession Art. 2)) Science can try to speak on history, but it can't do so without saying 'maybe' or 'we think' and make numerous assumptions."

Thank you, Herman, for your question. You do not explain what you mean by history. I shall take you to ask whether science can speak authoritatively on the history of nature because that is what science deals with. I know that some natural scientists include religion and morality under their conception of nature. This would make the history of religion and morality part of the natural sciences - a very controversial move indeed. For now I shall answer the former question.

First, three areas of the natural sciences that deal with history are the history of the cosmos in astronomy, the history of the earth in geology, and the history of life in biology. All can speak on history. Since I am a biologist, I will give you a biological example. Perhaps someone else can contribute one from astronomy.

One of the implications of continental drift is that South America, the Antarctic and Australia were once connected. Fossil studies show that pouched mammals (Marsupials) lived in both Australia and S. America before these three continents broke up. The prediction was made that there should be fossils of pouched mammals in the Antarctic. They were found in 1982. For the original publication, see . For a recent confirmation, see . For a popular rendition, see . This shows that in biology theories about historical events (continental drift, biogeographical distribution) can be used to make predictions which can be tested and accepted or rejected. For an animation of continental drift showing the distribution of fossils see .

A second example concerns cladograms (binary phylogenetic trees). The procedure of making a cladogram works exclusively with extant animals or plants. Specific DNA sequences are compared say between living fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and the number of differences in nucleotides counted. The more differences the longer the organisms concerned have been separately accumulating mutations. That is, the longer ago it is that they had a common ancestor. This information is used to construct a cladogram which shows the theoretical sequence in which the various groups compared separated from the ancestral line. In other words, this cladogram is a hypothesis which is then used to predict the sequence in which fossil representatives should be found. Again this shows that a theory (the tree) leads to predictions which can be empirically tested and rejected or accepted. For more background see .

Assumptions are made as you say. The assumptions of scientific knowledge do not set it apart because all human knowledge makes assumptions. This compels us to be humble about knowledge claims.

Made from the dust of the ground

We received the following question from George van Popta on 15 April.

I have a question about Jitse's CC interview. [Here George refers to Bick (2009) in our 'collected papers'; direct link here.] If I understand it well, Jitse is reported as having suggested that man and chimpanzees may have had a common ancestor. My question is: How does that square with Article 14 of the Belgic Confession where we say, 'We believe that God created man of dust from the ground'?

Here is my response:

Article 14 of the Belgic Confession reads: “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground and He made and formed him after His own image and likeness, etc.” Commentaries reveal that the meaning of ‘dust’ ranges from dust to earth, to clay. As a minimum the meaning for the original audience as well as for us includes (1) and (2):

(1) Plants, animals and man are made of the same stuff because all of them are said to have been created from the ‘dust’ or from the ‘earth.’

Gen. 1:11: “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees”

Gen. 1:24: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”

Gen. 2:7: “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”

Gen. 3:19: “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air”

To be sure, one cannot appeal to the fact that plants, animals and people were made from the same stuff in support of any form of biological evolution. That would be a clear distortion of the meaning of the text and, therefore, out of line with the intent of the Author not to give scientific information.

(2) Plants, animals and man are not divine as surrounding pagan creation stories had it.

Comparison with creation stories from the surrounding pagan cultures reveals the polemical intent of the creation story in Genesis. Whereas in pagan stories man is made from something divine, in the biblical story man is made of dust from the ground, meaning that man is not divine. That is, in Genesis 1 and 2 the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature is revealed.

I am not sure why you think there is something to square between Article 14 and the idea of a common ancestor for chimpanzees and humans, but let me make a guess. Some have taken Gen. 2:7 to mean that God acted like a potter. If you take that literally you might see a contradiction with the idea that chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor. But other biblical scholars reject the literal ‘potter’ interpretation because they see this as coming close to disrespect: Did God fashion the liver, the lungs of clay? My conclusion is that the text neither justifies nor excludes the possibility that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor for the obvious reason that it is not a scientific text. Therefore, there is no need to square it with Article 14 of the Belgic Confession.