Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Recovering the Reformed Confession: A Book Review by David DeJong

At Reformed Academic, we are interested in discussing topics in any area of academic study from a Reformed Christian perspective. Thus we here present an essay review on a recent significant volume in theology.

R. Scott Clark, professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, published Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). We thank David DeJong, a graduate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary and currently a theology doctoral student at Notre Dame, for writing the review, which can be found in our “Collected Papers” (see the sidebar); a direct link is here.

We welcome your responses to Clark’s book as well as to DeJong’s critical review.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Should We “Harmonize” Science and Revelation?

Dr. Peter J. Wallace, a minister in the OPC and pastor of a PCA congregation in South Bend, Indiana, tries to answer this question by means of a historical survey of Christian harmonization attempts. The essay is entitled “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church” and can be found here.

Wallace reminds us that while much of the present discussion focuses on the interpretation of the creation account, this is only one incident in the history of the church’s interaction with science, and a recent one at that. It did not begin until about 1800 when geologists, many of them Christians, concluded that the earth must be older than the generally accepted 6000 years. Before that time the length of the days had not really been “an issue” among Christians. What had long been an issue was to what extent science should affect biblical exegesis, not just in Genesis 1 but also elsewhere. And that question, Wallace observes, has been debated ever since the early Christian centuries. He places the present discussion within that larger context and shows that an acquaintance with the past can help us understand and evaluate positions on the issue that are held today.

As Wallace points out, Christians have traditionally followed two approaches with respect to science and revelation, namely conservatism (the church hesitates to accept the science of the day), and concordism (the church attempts to interpret the Bible in terms of the current scientific paradigm). He gives several examples. Among them is the initial rejection and ultimate acceptance of scientific arguments against a flat, four-cornered earth, of a solid, dome-like heavenly structure (Hebrew raqi’a) that prevents the waters above from flooding the earth, and of a moving sun, a stable earth, and an earth-centred universe. In none of these cases did the church justify its decisions on exegetical grounds. Scientific ones were decisive.

Wallace does not believe that we can eliminate the need for concordism. His concern is with the hazards of a concordist approach that tries to interpret the Bible as teaching the current scientific paradigm. Firstly, he observes, this constantly places the church a step behind the science of the day and has more than once led it to back the “wrong” science. Secondly, it threatens to interfere with a careful reading of the biblical message, and therefore with a proper exegesis. Attempts at harmonization, he believes, should never precede the exegetical work of ascertaining what the biblical text is in effect saying. If they do, i.e. if we try to harmonize our exegesis with the current scientific paradigm, we may well miss the theological meaning of the passage. Indeed, “harmonization at the level of exegesis is potentially fatal to a true understanding of the text.”

And therefore, to quote the conclusion of his essay, “If we find that the scripture portrays the sun as going around the earth, we should not seek to repress this but acknowledge that this was the scientific model of the biblical authors – which accurately expresses not only the ordinary observation of humanity, but the biblical teaching that the earth is the centre of God’s purpose in the universe. Likewise, if we determine that the raqi’a is portrayed in scripture as a solid dome or tent, then we should acknowledge that this was the common observation of ancient thinkers, and that it expresses the biblical teaching that the world was formed as a tabernacle where God is worshiped [see, inter alia, Isaiah 40:22, Psalm 78:69, Psalm 150:1]. In the same way, if we discover that the days of creation are portrayed as ordinary days, we should acknowledge that this expresses the biblical teaching that God’s pattern of six days of work and one of rest forms the pattern for our labors. We should not seek to harmonize our exegesis with modern science.”

A similar point has been made by the Dutch theologian A. L. Th. de Bruijne (in C. Trimp., ed., Woord op Schrift, 2002); see on this my article “How Do We Read The Bible?”(Part 3) (under “Collected Papers”; direct link here). De Bruijne deals with the biblical account of Christ’s ascension. In the ancient world that account caused no problems. According to the biblical world picture the earth was below the heavens, and therefore Christ indeed “ascended” – that is, he literally moved to a higher place. In the modern picture of the universe, however, space is boundless, the earth is no longer at the centre, and there no longer is an up and down, an above and below. Some therefore suggest that we are justified in changing the biblical presentation of the ascension with one that describes Christ not as ascending, but as moving to another dimension. De Bruijne disagrees and insists that we read the text as it comes to us. Not to do so, he says, is to misjudge the uniqueness of the language God uses in revelation. The presentation of a literal ascension, for example, involves associations and incorporates meanings that will be lost when we replace it with a modern one. The association of heaven with height is found throughout the Bible, already in the O.T., and again in the New. Jesus receives the highest place; he rises above sin and misery; we can lift up our eyes to heaven; from heaven he looks down to oversee and govern all things; he will come down from heaven to take us to himself, and so on. The fact that God presents the ascension as he does means that this presentation has a particular fitness to be a vehicle of revelation, a fitness that our substitutes lack. Of course, after the text has been explained we can, De Bruijne says, supplement the biblical presentation with a modern one, such as that of a multi-dimensional universe. We should at all times be careful, however, not to absolutize our modern world picture. The Bible should be understood on its own terms.

The exegetical principle of which Wallace and De Bruijne remind us is not new, but it is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the controversy. It does not resolve every problem the Christian church meets in its interaction with science, but it is well to be reminded that the Bible’s message stands, independently of ever-changing scientific paradigms.

Note: Also of interest is Wallace’s study “The Archetypal Week: A Defense of the Analogical Day View” available here along with his other essays.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Antony Flew: 1923-2010

English philosopher Antony Flew was born in a Christian family (his father was a well-known Methodist preacher), attended a Christian school, and until age 15 was a believer. At that age, however, he rejected the faith – mainly because he could not square the presence of evil with the existence of an all-powerful and compassionate God. He stuck to his atheism, and during much of the second half of the 20th century he was known as the leading atheist thinker in the English-speaking world. But in 2004, at age 81, he changed his mind and announced that he had come to believe that there is a God. Having renounced his atheism, Flew did not become a Christian, however, but turned to deism, although he did make inquiries about the faith and was for some time in contact with the well-known English theologian N.T. Wright. But as far as we know he never accepted divine revelation and remained, until his death in April 2010, a deist.

What caused his renunciation of atheism? Flew himself describes the process in his book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007). This publication shows that the main reason for his change of mind was the world picture produced by modern science – such as the Big Bang theory and the rapidly accumulating evidence of the fine-tuning of the universe. These scientific discoveries convinced him that the universe must have been designed, and that therefore a supernatural Intelligence must exist. Atheism simply could not explain the universe.

As I wrote in 2008, in my review of Flew’s book [Clarion, v. 57, n. 21 (10 October 2008), pp. 530-532, online here], “Intellectual arguments cannot by themselves lead to a saving knowledge of God. That is the gift of the Holy Spirit alone. Intellectual arguments can, however, move an atheist to reconsider his beliefs and conclude that he may have been wrong. This happened to the English philosopher Antony Flew (1923).” Christians, I pointed out, can learn from Flew’s experience that science-based arguments against a godless world picture can be intellectually persuasive. They should therefore make a proper use of such arguments.

For another brief but informative account of Antony Flew’s journey from Christianity to atheism to deism, see this blog posting by Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

PCA Geologists About the Age of the Earth

Modern Reformation is a bimonthly magazine connected with White Horse Inn, and has URC minister Rev. Michael Horton as editor-in-chief and a number of regular contributors who are ministers and professors from the URC. In addition, as their web page states, “The editors make an intentional effort to include voices from across the Reformational spectrum in Modern Reformation’s pages.”

The May/June 2010 issue of Modern Reformation contains an article (vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 6-8) by eight PCA geologists on the age of the earth. (One of the eight is Davis A. Young, a Christian geologist who is well known among us.) The authors introduce their article by stating that they wish to provide their brothers and sisters in Christ with a few general observations, some clarification of a common misconception about geology, and “two specific examples that speak convincingly that God’s earthly creation has been around for a very long time.”

Having described evidence for an old earth, the authors deal with the response of some young-earth advocates who explain the geological evidence by stating that “Creation had to have the appearance of age, without deception, because Adam, mature forests, and even flowing rivers would all of necessity have the appearance of age.” The geologists respond: “This confuses maturity with history. A miraculously created tree might well appear mature, but apparent age arguments suggest that if Adam cut down several of these trees, he may have found 50 growth rings with matching patterns of variable growth and burn marks at rings 21 and 43. These data represent not just maturity or age but history—a history that never actually occurred. This is not the Creator described in Romans 1. We may not always have a complete understanding of the history revealed in the earth’s layers, but Reformed theology should insist it is a real history.”

The report concludes as follows:

“If the PCA recognizes that mature believers fall on either side of the age of the earth debate, does it ultimately make a difference which side you fall on? We suggest it does matter for two important reasons.

“The first is a greater appreciation of God’s handiwork. If creation conforms to God’s trustworthiness and looks old because it is old, we are free to marvel at each new discovery that further reveals the incredible complexity and grandeur of his creativity. If the earth is old and we insist it is young, every new discovery can be met only with distrust and disdain—disdain of his creation!

“The second reason is of perhaps greater importance. If the earth is old and Christians insist it is young, we risk becoming a tragic obstacle to faith for those both inside and outside the church. Non-Christians who logically understand geology conclude that the path to Christ requires belief in an intentionally deceptive god and choose to place their faith elsewhere. Covenant children who are raised with the impression that a young earth is integral to Christianity have their faith needlessly undermined when they are later confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the earth’s antiquity, and many leave the faith. It is our prayer that no Christian would be such an obstacle!”

The article can be found here, and is also listed in our “Collected Papers.”