Friday, March 4, 2011

“Calvin and Science” by Don Petcher (Ch. 8)

This review, written by Gerrit Bos, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

Don Petcher, professor of physics at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and co-author with Tim Morris of Science & Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences (Crossway, 2006), makes the case that science is a wonderful enterprise for a scientist in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin’s worldview gives a high or special place to the Scriptures, but leaves much freedom for science. Petcher rejects the warfare hypothesis (science and religion are at war) and advocates a return to Calvin, setting the stage for a common sense approach to and a rich understanding of science. Petcher rightly points out the centrality in Calvin’s theology of God’s sovereignty over all creation. He figures God’s providence fits within His sovereignty and within that yet again, God’s “radical sustenance,” which includes all creation, not just supernatural events. This helps us to understand how to view laws of nature. Petcher then works with writings of Davis A. Young, William J. Bouwsma, R. Hooykaas, James Orr and others to describe Calvin’s principle of accommodation. God accommodates limited human understanding by using everyday understandable language. E.g. Calvin explains that Moses referred to ‘greater’ and ‘lesser lights’ on the basis of their appearance to us, and does not address the fact that Saturn is larger than the moon. Petcher and the other authors consider the accommodation principle a doctrine, and build approvingly on it to include the Big Bang theory, long age of the earth and non-literal six days of creation. After mentioning some recent scientific discoveries, and a short critique of the Intelligent Design movement, as well as Young Earth Creationism, Petcher concludes by saying: “Thank God for the wonderful grace of the scientific enterprise.”

This chapter presents quite a few things which can be readily agreed to such as Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty, his worldview which sets the stage for a rich understanding of science, and God’s occasional accommodation of our limited understanding by using everyday language. But as Petcher extends the occasional accommodation into a principle, and then a doctrine, it seems to acquire an overriding role in his understanding. Instead of God accommodating our limited understanding, the doctrine increasingly takes on a meaning of God’s Word accommodating changing scientific understanding. Thus Petcher’s final position of a long-age of the earth contradicts Calvin’s explicit writing that the earth is no more than 6000 years old (e.g. Institutes 1.14.1). And while Calvin nowhere explicitly denies the possibility of extended-length creation days, it is beyond doubt that he understood the creation days to be normal days. I base this conclusion on his discussions of whether the first day began with evening or morning (Commentary on Gen. 1:5), creation accomplished in six days, not in one moment (e.g. Institutes 1.14.2), God creating the world in six days, resting on the seventh, manifests His works and creates a model for us to imitate (Commentary on Fourth commandment – Ex. 20:8) and even his discussion on whether the seventh month might have been the first month, the month of creation (Commentary on Fourth commandment – Lev. 23:24). Calvin likewise criticizes those who “reconcile the doctrine of Scriptures with the dogmas of philosophy” to “avoid teaching anything which the majority of mankind might deem absurd.” (Institutes 2.2.4) These contradictions seem irreconcilable.

What to do with these things as a reformed academic? Well, take heart; science is indeed a wonderful vocation, and a Calvinist, reformed world-view allows it to flourish, rather than be still-born as in many other world-views. God’s creation has infinite areas to research, use, steward, and understand. Follow these with all your hearth, thought, and mind. Avoid thinking more highly of yourself than you ought, and eschew human precepts which would lead to pride. Live the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation, and use scriptural understanding to determine the object of your scientific enterprise, as well as the methods employed in it. Rejoice and give thanks for it, but continue to see its place subordinate to God’s and Scripture’s authority. Read literature like what is reviewed here with discernment; retain that which is good, discard that which is not.

Gerrit Bos graduated from the University of Guelph with a BSc in Engineering in 1987, and is currently the Information Technology Security Officer there, member of Emmanuel CanRC in Guelph, and chairman of the board of Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.


Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I have hesitated for a day or two to comment on Gerrit Bos’s review. The cause of my reluctance is that a discussion on these particular issues so easily becomes a war of words with each party attempting to score points, and I am getting a bit tired of that enterprise. An additional negative is that we don’t seem to get closer to each other. In the end, however, I decided that Gerrit’s efforts deserve a response (and indeed require one), and so I am giving it a try.

To begin on a positive note, I agree with a number of the points he makes. Specifically, he is correct in saying:
(1) that Calvin’s concept of accommodation can be and probably has been abused. We certainly mustn’t apply it to suggest Calvin’s approval of the Big Bang theory or of various other insights of modern science (which is of course not to say that he would necessarily have rejected all of them had he lived today );
(2) that Calvin believed the earth to be approximately 6000 years old; and
(3) that he warns us against reconciling “the doctrine of Scripture with the dogmas of philosophy” in an attempt to “avoid teaching anything which the majority of mankind might deem absurd….”

But, as Petcher makes abundantly clear, much more can and should be said on all these points. As to the first one, the concept of accommodation is valuable because it reminds us that Moses did not compose (and Calvin did not treat) Genesis 1 as a science text book. God speaks in ways that made sense to the early hearers who had no telescopes and knew nothing of modern astronomy. Moses therefore calls the moon a great light, even though, Calvin admits, Saturn is much larger (though of course not from the earth’s point of view). This is one of the many examples of Mosaic accommodation that Calvin cites. Petcher comments: “Thus, for Calvin, at the heart of God’s accommodation is his message of love; the main purpose is pedagogy, not an effort to reconcile difficult passages for the purposes of apologetics or science” (p. 168). Calvin was far more “relaxed” about possible differences between science and (a literalistic reading of) Scripture than many of his followers are today. I will come back to this.

Secondly, yes, Calvin believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. But herein he was not exceptional: it was the unquestioned interpretation of Christianity until very recently. In the early modern period attempts were even made to be quite specific. In 1650 an English bishop (James Ussher) wrote that creation had taken place in 4004 B.C., beginning on October 22 of that year. Among the sources he used were the Genesis genealogies. When later it was discovered that these genealogies contained gaps, some extended the age of the earth to 10,000 years. But it was not until the rise of geology in the 18th century that scientists (many of whom were Christians) realized that the earth had a history and must be far older than had been assumed. This scientific evidence explains why Reformed theologians like Kuyper, Bavinck, Schilder, and many others in the Netherlands began to consider the possibility that the “days” of Genesis 1 were perhaps longer than 24 hours. Around the same time some unquestionably orthodox American Presbyterian theologians considered the feasibility even of theistic evolution (Petcher, pp. 175-83).


Frederika Oosterhoff said...


Thirdly, Calvin indeed makes that point. To quote this remark only, however, entails the danger of portraying him as an obscurantist, which he most decidedly was not. In fact, he speaks very highly of the “admirable light of truth” shining in “secular writings” and warns us earnestly, emphatically, and repeatedly not to despise the knowledge of their authors “unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [i.e., despise or hold in disregard] and reproach the Spirit himself” (Institutes, II, 2, 15; see also ibid., 14, 16, 17, and Petcher, pp. 166-68 and passim.) I wonder: could we be facing that danger in our negative attitude toward modern science?

To conclude: I understand why many Reformed people today believe that allegiance to Scripture requires subscription to the arguments of the young-earth creationist movement. It’s the dominant conviction of a world-wide and very influential evangelicalism. I have been there myself. Studying Calvin was one of the reasons why I changed course. There were other reasons, some of which had to do with a growing conviction that modern science, including modern astronomy and biology, just can’t be assigned to Satan’s realm (even though one may have questions on certain issues, as I do). Yet another important motivation for me was that by promoting young-earth creationism as the only biblically acceptable stance we leave our students in the lurch. I know that some can be at peace with young-earth-creationism, but many can’t. Although they badly need it, they receive little or no official help, which should be a matter of concern. Another matter of concern is that our obvious fear and consequent misrepresentations of various scientific theories adversely affect our evangelistic appeal, something that has been realized by apologists like C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, and others.

For these and other reasons I think it is truly regrettable that our churches, which until recently were quite “Calvinistic” in their appreciation of modern science, have in recent years subscribed (if not officially, then at least semi-officially) to a movement which, as Petcher rightly observes, is not of Reformed origin “but grew initially from a ‘prophecy’ from the Seventh-Day Adventist founder Ellen G. White…and only slowly gained impetus in the twentieth century” (p. 188, note 90). The history of that movement is, unfortunately, hardly ever discussed and therefore not well known among us. Those who are interested in it may start with reading my essay “Young-Earth Creationism: A History,” posted here on this blog, which gives a compact summary of the origins, growth, and spread of young-earth creationism, the responses of Reformed opponents, and the attitudes of various contemporary churches. Knowledge of this history may, I hope, be a stimulus for us and our churches to consider returning to the position of Calvin and the great majority of his 19th- and 20th-century followers.

F.G. Oosterhoff
Hamilton, ON

Arnold Sikkema said...

When it comes to relating science & Scripture, many in our circles place significant confidence in the writings of John Byl, emeritus professor of mathematics at Trinity Western University and member of Willoughby Heights CanRC. His 2001 book, God and Cosmos, is often cited by our ecclesiastical leaders. However, C. John Collins – Reformed theologian and professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, the denominational seminary of the PCA, a Reformed denomination which like the CanRC is in NAPARC – pointed out in his review that the book has serious flaws throughout and is not a reliable guide. The review is available freely online here. Collins concludes, “A book like this, in the hands of the unwary or uninformed, could do a great deal of damage. The book does have one redeeming feature that makes it important: Byl seems to think that a Biblical literalist must resort to anti-realism in order to maintain his literalism. That someone will admit this is a great point gained; it strikes at the heart of ‘young earth creation science.’ It also strengthens the hands of those who believe that the Bible is true and who also think the Bible requires a stance of qualified realism. Maybe then the literalism is not so secure after all. The churches need help in forming a Christian mind regarding the sciences to know how to handle their apparent challenges to our faith but also to know how to think properly about them and to engage in them and claim them for the service of Christ. This book, unfortunately, fails to meet that need.”

Ben Vandergugten said...

First I would like to express appreciation to Gerrit Bos for taking on this topic. It is one that has already received much intense discussion on this blog.

Dr. Oosterhoff already noted that Calvin's acceptance of a 6,000-year-old earth was unremarkable. There simply was no evidence for an alternative at the time. The fixed position of the earth was a similar case (Galileo was in 3 months old when Calvin was promoted to glory). In his commentary of Psalm 93:1, he suggested the earth remained unmoved while the heavens moved around it. Today, however, we can determine that geocentricism, as a model for physical reality, is irredeemably flawed. Arnold and others have discussed this previously on this blog.

There is also this quote that I have come across more than once in the internet:

"Those who assert that 'the earth moves and turns'...[are] motivated by 'a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;' possessed by the devil, they aimed 'to pervert the order of nature.'"
- John Calvin, sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), A. 72

However, I have wondered about the legitimacy of it. I am hoping someone might have access to the original sources, so that it can be verified or discredited, and so that some context can be provided. I would be very appreciative.

Ben Vandergugten
Surrey B.C.

Richard Oosterhoff said...

Dear Ben,

I've wanted to better contextualize that Calvin quotation for a while myself, so I hunted up the sermon.

The context here is pastoral worry about those who are willing to say anything about how the world is in order to justify their own practices. The text is 1 Cor. 10.23ff, where the Apostle Paul decries the Corinthians' habit of saying “I have the right to do anything,” to which Paul answers not to eat sacrificed meat, for the sake of others' conscience. As Calvin argues in the previous paragraph, brothel-goers, adulterers, murders and thieves are willing to reduce God's truth to nothing to serve their interests: “and what shall it be when men go to falsify and change the order of nature, and transgress even to that extent?”*

In light of such wilfull perversness against what he sees as manifest debauchery, Calvin turns the rhetoric up a notch: “Of that we see nothing so frenzied, not only in religion, but also in order to show in everthing how they have a monstrous nature, they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which moves and turns. When we see such minds, it is rather necessary to say that the devil has possessed them, that God puts them to us like a mirror, to make us stay faithful to him. Thus all those who debate these things do so by a kind of malice, and who take no affront in shame. When one says to them “that's hot”; they'll say it's cold, one finds. When one shows them something black, they'll say that it's white, or the reverse—like him who says that the snow is black.”**

I've not quoted the whole thing, and to simplify I've taken small liberties with the early French, but you get the picture. Calvin is poking fun at nay-sayers to the commonsense realities “everyone knows” about nature in order to illustrate his theological point: sinners lie, even about obvious things, in order to defend their sin. The original quote should probably have been placed better in context, but it does reveal Calvin's gut reaction to Copernican cosmology (or perhaps the ancient Pythagoreans, with whom he was also familiar). I think he'd recognize this is not a “scientific judgment” but a sermon exemplum designed to enhance the message.

Richard Oosterhoff
Michiana Covenant PCA
South Bend, IN

Quotations from Calvini opera (Brunswick, 1892), vol. 49, coll. 676-678:
* Et que sera-ce quand les hommes viendront la falsifier, changeront l'ordre de la nature, et se desborderont iusques là? [...]
** Nous en verrons d'aucuns si frénétiques, non pas seulement en la religion, mais pour monstrer par tout qu'ils ont une nature monstrueuse, qu'ils diront que le soleil ne se bouge, et que c'est la terre qui se remue et qu'elle tourne. Quand nous voyons de tels esprits, il faut bien dire que le diable les ait possédez, et que Dieu nous les propose comme des miroirs, pour nous faire demeurer en sa crainte. Ainsi en est-il de tous ceux qui debatent par certaine malice, et ausquels il ne chaut d'être effrontez. Quand on leur dira, Cela est chaut: Et non est (diront-ils) on voit qu'il est froid: quand on leur monstrera une chose noire, ils diront qu'elle est blanche, ou au contraire:comme celuy qui disoit de la neige qu'elle estoit noire.

Don Petcher said...

While most of what I might have said in response to Gerrit Bos's thoughtful review of my chapter has already been addressed well by others, I would like to make one point of clarification. I just want to assure the readers that I had no intention of "extending" Calvin's accommodation to a "principle" and then to a "doctrine". I have simply heard it referred to in both ways over the years, and used the terms interchangeably. If I have been insensitive to nuances of differences in the terms, it is undoubtedly due to my ignorance of theological discussions on the matter, and I am sorry to cause confusion.

Don Petcher
Lookout Mountain, GA

Gerrit Bos said...

Thank you, Don, for responding. I've reread back through your article, and can see you using the terms 'principle' and 'doctrine' interchangeably when it comes to 'accommodation'. So I take your point that you are not intending to extend it by your article. I apologize for writing that you did.

My main point was that from reading Calvin, he indicates that God accommodates our limited understanding, while it is often talked about, and as I think you have used it, that God's Word is re-interpreted to accommodate new scientific understanding.

I haven't read anywhere in Calvin's writing that he advocates the latter point. Thus to me a 'return to Calvin' which I can subscribe to heartily, includes the notion that God's Word has an authority in my life which exceeds that of human understanding (including the scientific enterprise), and within which science functions AND flourishes.

Regarding the other blog responses, like Freda, I have no desire to enter into a war of words, or to score points. I hope my review was as clear as it could be in 400-600 words, and I strongly attempted to stay within the subject at hand. I didn't reference other writing, creationist movements, history etc. I'm mulling over whether and how to answer some of the items, but I'd want to make sure to do that in a spirit of Romans 14, and that is hard.

Gerrit Bos
Guelph, ON

Don Petcher said...

In response to Gerritt's last post, I think there are still a couple misconceptions concerning what I was trying to say. So by way of clarification, I would like to make one more point on accommodation, and another on "human understanding".

First, as I said in my chapter, according to Calvin, when God communicates with us, he accommodates to us in our understanding in the sense that Scripture speaks in ways that are to make sense to us where we are. It is therefore not a question at all of re-interpreting God's word to accommodate recent discoveries in science as Gerrit seems to think I am advocating. As he rightly points out in his review, Calvin's accommodation does not refer to us accommodating new scientific understanding, but rather God accommodating to our lowly position and ability to comprehend, a very different thing. However, that does immediately raise the issue whether God, in His accommodation, ever intended to teach us modern science (or ancient science or medieval science...) in the texts of the Old Testament books in the first place (in the sense that many take them to mean today), or rather, whether He intended to put the message in a context familiar to the hearers while making His points. I think Calvin was sensitive to this very issue which is what gives his principle of accommodation its power in his day and still in the present day. So I would say that a 'return to Calvin' is certainly commendable if we mean by that a return to the mindset Calvin had in his high view of Scripture properly understood. However, there is no reason for insisting that a 'return to Calvin' should also entail agreeing with any anachronistic interpretations he may have held due to his times.

Following that up, Gerrit seems to make a false dichotomy between the "authority of God's Word" and "human understanding". The Reformed tradition has always held that God speaks both through His Word (special revelation) and also through His world (general revelation), and although one comes to us in words, and the other does not, there is nevertheless the need for interpretation with both. Therefore both involve a substantial amount of "human understanding"; it's not just science where our own interpretations and prejudices enter in. This gets us back to the question of "re-interpretation". For re-interpretation to be a bad thing, we must be sure that we have interpreted correctly in the first place, and that is generally by no means clear when it comes to cosmologies read from the Bible. As I stressed in the chapter, in order to understand either special or general revelation as the revelation intended, we must be taught by the Holy Spirit. And of course, since it is God Himself who speaks in both realms, as Francis Schaeffer once put it, ultimately there can be "no final conflict" between the two, when properly understood. ("No Final Conflict" is the title of a quite helpful lecture Schaeffer once gave on the issue of the Bible and science, some of which pertains to these very issues. It was subsequently published in a small pamphlet and appears in his works. Here is a website celebrating the idea.)

Don Petcher
Lookout Mountain, GA