Saturday, December 23, 2017

Why I Am Not An Evangelical (Book Review)

A review of Keith C. Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016).

by Ryan McIlhenny

When asked why he was not a Christian, the impenetrably erudite Bertrand Russell said it was because Christianity lacked the evidence needed for him to give his personal assent. Russell clearly demonstrated his hostility to the knowledge of God as described in Romans 1. William Connolly’s argument in Why I am not a Secularist centres on the fact that secularism had itself become a kind of intolerant religion, of which Connolly, an atheist, wanted no part. Obviously, he missed the opportunity to consider the religion-in-all-of-life thesis in the Kuyperian tradition. My answer to the question as to why I’m not an evangelical—yes, I’ve been asked—includes not only the very narrow image of Christianity constructed by Evangelicalism but also what seems to be the insurmountable problems inherent to it that go beyond doctrine. Those who feel somewhat uncomfortable with the mystique of Evangelicalism, its less-than complete picture of the richness of biblical Christianity, may find partial relief in Keith Sewell’s The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity, a book that traces the historical origins and reductionist tendencies of Evangelicalism. Sewell retired as professor of history at Dordt College in 2012.

The issue is not so much the word evangel (or evangelist), referring simply to the good news of the gospel of Christ and those who carry forth that message. The problem comes when an otherwise adequate descriptor is Jekyll-and-Hijacked into a corrupted “ism” and whether its basic content can be redeemed at all. Most “isms” are somewhat elusive, defined by a constellation of emphases. David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral of priorities”—biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism—remains the most helpful and definitive source for defining Evangelicalism. Much of Sewell’s study focuses on the biblicist aspect of Bebbington’s priorities, how different uses of the Bible came to shape the long history of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism came into being around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Those who were labeled Protestant, including the followers of Martin Luther, referred to as Evangeliche, sought to recover the authority of the one who alone made sinners right before a holy God. This required a turning away from the dictates of Rome in order to return to the authority of scripture, the only infallible source by which true faith is found.

When the accoutrements of Rome had been stripped away, believers found themselves alone with God’s word. Protestants developed three approaches to the Bible’s teachings—the corrective, the regulative, and the directive. Adherents of the corrective type proposed that any religious activity was permissible, Sewell writes, “unless it was expressly contrary to biblical teaching and example” (29). The “regulative” approach, best represented by Ulrich Zwingli, held that “whatever had no explicit warrant in Scripture had no authorized place in the doctrine and life of the church” (30). The directive perspective, inspired by the work of John Calvin, sought “to understand each passage in scripture in terms of scriptural principle distilled from the whole span of the canonical writings” (35). The “great strength of the directional outlook,” which Sewell unabashedly identifies with, “is that it exemplifies an understanding of biblical authority that makes possible the application of general biblical principles in circumstances unanticipated by the biblical writers” (36). The Bible is a compilation of various ways in which God communicates the story of salvation to his people; it is an instrument used by the Holy Spirit to shape the heart of those who come to believe, which then directs the formulations of theology proper.

An important aspect of Evangelicalism slightly muted in Sewell’s study is the place of the individual’s encounter with scripture—and hence God. Sewell notes that Bebbington’s doctrinal emphases can be boiled down even further to a subject-object relationship: the emotional experience of the believer (subject) in his or her encounter with God’s word (object). The strand of Protestantism influenced by German pietism, Wesleyan perfectionism, and the “new methods” of Finneyite revivalism, further developed the Evangelical ethos, especially in the way that it eventually drove a wedge between the head and the heart. By the nineteenth century, the scales tipped in favour of the latter over the former. The true knowledge of God that came through an intensely independent reading of scripture moved these emerging Evangelicals toward a more constricting chapter-and-verse biblicism where emotionally-charged “private interpretations” became the authority that confirmed true conversion. To say it differently, the Bible was the source of true religion, but that which confirmed true faith was the sincerity of the heart. Evangelicalism seemed to codify (and copyright) what it meant to have a true conversion experience. The consequence of the individual’s unmediated interpretation of God’s word has been to force scripture to say something that it does not, failing to understand scripture on its own terms. And, ironically, for “all the ‘battle for the Bible’ rhetoric,” Sewell says, “large portions of evangelical rank and file are surprisingly ignorant of [the Bible’s] actual content” (53).

On this note, Sewell’s study could have been aided by a brief discussion on the doctrine of divine revelation. God reveals his specific plan of salvation to the people he has called out of the world. This is known as “special” or “particular” revelation. At the same time, God reveals himself generally in all of creation to all of humanity. Evangelicals often fail to see the relationship between these two modes of communication, neglecting what could be a richer understanding of God and his magnificent work of redemption. In particular, they fail to see what is common to both—namely, God’s revelation of himself. The pious Evangelical who willfully restricts the knowledge of God to personal salvation not only relegates or devalues God’s self-revelation in creation but also neglects creation itself, minimizing the good that remains in creation and losing sight of the promise of cosmic redemption and the place that God has for believers—as God wills through them—in their role as agents of reconciliation. The reduction of biblical Christianity to personal salvation, ignoring the mysteries in creation to be uncovered, tends toward a kind of intellectual separatism. The Evangelical mind has rarely been able to sustain a robust intellectual response to the challenges of modern thought, especially, as Sewell points out, higher criticism or naturalistic evolution. Not even the more intellectually engaged Neo-Evangelical has been able to do this.

Sewell points out that the directional approach to the Bible allows for an integral understand of the role of the gospel in all of life and challenges dualistic thinking in which an aspect of the created order either stands on an equal level to God or above him. It challenges assumptions not guided by a radically biblical motive. Evangelicals seem to engage studies outside of scripture strictly for apologetic purposes, not to explore the depths of the knowledge of God, failing thereby to understand creation in its proper place. Creation can never be severed from the Creator. The meaning that humans derive as they interact with creation is relationally dependent on the Creator. The biologist, for instance, who looks at the biotic aspect life, cannot reduce the entirety of the cosmos to that single way of being, since all the ways of being that make up the cosmos are creationally interdependent and ultimately dependent on a transcendent Creator. Even the discipline of theology, Sewell writes, as part of creational cultivation—i.e., doctrinal formations made by biblical scholars—is done in submission to the Creator.

While I would agree with Sewell’s assessment, I think he needs to go a bit further. For instance, if, as Sewell claims, the knowledge of scripture is lacking, wouldn’t an understanding of the doctrine of salvation be equally deficient? Would the average Evangelical be able to articulate what is meant by justification by faith alone? What is a reduction, if one doesn’t know much about the thing being reduced? It seems that Evangelicalism’s focus is not so much on the doctrinal tenets of true faith, but on the sincerity of an emotional experience, which determines the meaning of scripture. Furthermore, I am a bit unclear as to whether Sewell’s alternatives—including reforming corporate worship, biblical scholarship, and the Christian’s role in public life—to the crisis of Evangelicalism are offered to save it or send it to the theological dustbin. In other words, would it continue as Evangelicalism if Sewell’s more consistently Calvinistic alternative were to be employed? An answer to this question would require examining Evangelicalism from a different angle.

Sewell is right to say that Bebbington has certainly provided a very helpful definition for understanding Evangelicalism. But I would add that it does not include the corresponding social and cultural features—individualism, separatism, and consumerism—that have likewise contributed to both the mood and identity of Evangelicalism. These tenets have been largely overlooked by Christian intellectuals. What gives life to the biblicism, activism, and conversionism, in particular (not so much the crucicentrism, other than the emotive nature of it), is the hyper-individualism or hyper-democratization shaped by the consumerism of the modern world. This is not to say that tools of consumerism (e.g., methods of communication, from Gutenberg’s printing press to Facebook and Twitter) should be abandoned. Martin Luther’s success came in large part because of his use of the newly invented printing press, although not in a market context. The great revivalist George Whitefield utilized the innovations in print culture to reach a wider audience at a time when the modern economy was in its infancy. Radio preachers and later televangelists used more modern forms of communication for similar ends. These modes of communication have been the foundational infrastructure of a commercial-based society. Used appropriately, such technologies, regardless of their role in creating an integrated economy, can be very helpful. Thus I argue that the development of Evangelicalism has been intertwined with the development of modern capitalism.

Yet by neglecting the history of capitalism—consumer capitalism—in the overall history of Evangelicalism, scholars (including Sewell) miss another important crisis: the danger of prioritizing the tastes of consumers over the truths of the gospel. Fickle individualism is a common element in both consumerism and Evangelicalism. And the question is what feeds the capriciousness, the consumerism or the doctrinal emphases, the latter of which have no connections with ecclesiastical authority? A consumer culture is interested in what sells. It is not bound to the preservation of truth. Hipster Neo-Evangelicalism, the latest in an attempt to be culturally relevant, does not and will not move the church closer to unity since it is beholden to the rapid changes endemic to consumer capitalism. Because it is directed not by individual pietism (of whatever kind) but by individual taste, Evangelicalism will also resist consensus on the Bible’s teachings.

The question, then, is whether a theological reform can be accomplished without addressing these largely neglected social and cultural features. Would it still be Evangelicalism? But consider a different question: how devastating would it be to abandon the term all together? Perhaps it would encourage believers to remember the only name to which they are confessionally bound:
Why are you called a Christian?
Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12 (Q/A: 32)

Ryan C. McIlhenny, PhD (University of California, Irvine) is associate professor of liberal arts at Geneva College (Shanghai) and the author of Reforming the Liberal Arts (Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2017).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Christianity, Science, and Honesty (Waterloo, Monday 17 October)

We wish to note an upcoming public lecture of interest to many of our readers.

Christianity, Science, and Honesty

Monday 17 October 2016
University of Waterloo (PHY 150, Physics Building)
Refreshments will be served.

In light of modern science, atheists like Richard Dawkins accuse Christianity of being dishonest. Instead of looking at evidence, he says, religious people have their conclusions “in advance” from a “holy book.” Is this criticism valid? Is there something intellectually dishonest about Christian faith? Drawing on Thomas F. Torrance’s “modalities of reason” for different objects of inquiry, this talk argues that we may be intellectually honest toward both God and scientific inquiry: science self-critically attends to the physical world, and theology self-critically attends to the divine Word–neither gets anywhere when it becomes skeptical about the existence of its own “object” of inquiry. Christian faith is no more dishonest about God than science is dishonest about the existence of the universe. Each enterprise simply finds itself encountered by its “object” and is self-critical in view of that object.

SPEAKER: Mark McEwan lives in Surrey, BC with his wife, Krystal. He is the Project Development Officer for the CSCA’s “Local Chapters Project,” and his office is at Trinity Western University, where he is working to complete a Master’s degree in Theological Studies. He has worked at TWU as an instructor, and he teaches classes occasionally in the areas of apologetics and Christianity & culture. In addition to being a certified Electrician, Mark is qualified to teach physical sciences and mathematics at the secondary level. His academic interests include epistemology, philosophy, apologetics, and the fruitful interaction of science and theology. He feels especially called to serve Christ by encouraging responsible thinking in matters of theology, science, and especially with respect to interactions between the two.

Facebook Event Page | Event Page on CSCA website

Thursday, September 15, 2016

McGrath, “Overcoming the Faith and Science Divide”

While Reformed Academic has been quiet lately, we have remained active in thinking about our faith and science. This 18-minute Q Ideas lecture by Alister McGrath entitled “Overcoming the Faith and Science Divide” encourages Christians — office bearers in particular — to interact with scientists, recognizing the compatibility of a Christian worldview and science.

The lecture video also can be viewed on the Q Ideas site, or at this YouTube link. More of Alister McGrath’s presentations can be seen at his official site.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clarion and Creation Science

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

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

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

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

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

by Freda Oosterhoff

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

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

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

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

Morris’s use of the Bible

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

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

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

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

The extent of the Flood

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Van Bekkum Responds to Canadian Critics

In recent years, Synods from the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches (Australia), as well as popular writings in our church papers, have often expressed concern with the writings of one particular professor at the Theological University in Kampen, namely Koert van Bekkum, objecting to his approach to Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Dr. van Bekkum has written a response to the ecclesiastical concerns, which can be found here. Although at Reformed Academic, it has not been our focus to interact with developments in and with respect to the Netherlands, we appreciate his response, and find ourselves in much of what he says.

Part of the background of his 13-page piece includes the fact that this past January, the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS) hosted a conference on hermeneutics, which included presentations and responses across the Atlantic. The blog of CRTS student Jeremy de Haan featured some “Thoughts and Stories from the Conference”, and, after some discussion there, van Bekkum introduced his response today as follows:
Dear Jeremy (and other brothers and sisters in Canada),

After the conference of last January I had a chat with prof. Van Dam and Rev. De Gelder about my thesis, which had (on purpose) not been the subject of discussion during the CRTS-conference. We shortly discussed the fact that I am not happy with the misconceptions of my views in the Report of the CanRC-subcommittee for the relations with the RCN and in the decisions of the General Synod of Carman 2013. Both brothers invited me to write a reaction in which I offer my response to the ecclesiastical and ecumenical criticism of my thesis. This suggestion was later approved by the Dutch deputies of BBK. Accordingly, I wrote a response.

So for everyone who might be interested: hereby my response: Just in case we will have some further conversation about biblical hermeneutics in the future.


In that spirit, we too look forward to continued academic, ecumenical, and ecclesiastical conversations as we seek to engage God's world in faithfulness to his word.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Science and Secularization

(Harvard UP, 2007)
Science and Secularization are two words often uttered in the same breath with the assumption that science is responsible for secularization. This misunderstanding had been exposed some time ago by historians of science such as John Hedley Brooke [“Science and Secularization,” in: The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2010, pp. 103-120]. In 2007, Charles Taylor gave us a book-length evaluation of this assumption from a social and broad cultural perspective. His conclusion: secularization is the result of many developments which converged on giving people the freedom to accept or reject the Christian faith. When people turn away from God this shows in everything they do, including science.

If science has anything to do with secularization, it is that science has been and continues to be used illegitimately as a stick to beat what some consider the dead horse of religion. Here is a recent review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age by David Brooks from the New York Times.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Does Evolution Require New Theology?

Edwin Walhout
A recently retired Christian Reformed minister has published an article in his denomination’s magazine The Banner, entitled “Tomorrow’s Theology.” Edwin Walhout says on his e-book publishing site, “Being retired from professional life, I am now free to explore theology without the constraints of ecclesiastical loyalties.” His piece suggests vast changes are needed to Christian doctrine as a result of the “established fact” of evolution. The quick response from several in our Canadian Reformed community was to reiterate their warnings against those in our churches who, they say, promote the dangerous idea of “theistic evolution” and advocate the re-interpretation of Scripture on the basis of modern science. After all, they say, this is where those ideas necessarily lead, namely to the questioning, if not outright denial, of the truth of Adam and Eve’s being created in the image of God, originally without sin, subsequently falling into sin, and being expelled from the garden, as well as the denial of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, his virgin birth, his sacrifice, death, resurrection, ascension, and his imminent Second Coming.

When some of our critics see Walhout in The Banner, they see Reformed Academic. This is understandable, as we also have been talking about evolution, but also disappointing, since we have (we hope) been clear in our support of all Christian doctrines and of the Reformed confessions. Unlike Walhout, we do not argue for the re-interpretation of Scripture (or Christian doctrines) on the basis of science. Rather we call for the interpretation of Scripture with Scripture, central to Reformed Biblical hermeneutics. With respect to the results of modern science regarding so-called “origins” questions, we do acknowledge that there are multiple converging lines of evidence in favour of an ancient cosmos and even for the common ancestry of all living things. Now, especially in the latter case we do not consider this evidence to be incontrovertible proof, and we certainly believe God did something special in creating humankind. We do think it is important to discuss the scientific claims; it will not do to simply dismiss them a priori as invalid. However, we also continue to point out the limits of science, in particular the inability of science to explain the origins of the cosmos, of life, of humanity, of individual humans. (In a March 2012 post, Arnold Sikkema pointed out the validity of historical science, and also distinguished “origin” and “history.” Jitse van der Meer followed this in more detail in a subsequent post.) Four years ago we wrote:
We are all in agreement with all of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, including notably that Adam and Eve were real humans, in a real Eden with real trees (including a real tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and upon a real temptation by the real devil in the form of a real snake, really sinned, so there was a real Fall.
This Walhout finds outdated, but we have no reason to make any adjustments. Nothing we have written is similar to the questions and denials of Walhout.

R. Scott Clark
In dismantling Walhout’s article, R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, rightly points out (in an article entitled “Of False Dichotomies, Science, and Progress in Theology”) the false dichotomy in the notion that one must either accept a young-earth creationist position (à la Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis) or discard (or at least question) basic Christian doctrines. This dichotomy, incidentally, is one on which popular atheist Richard Dawkins, Walhout, Ken Ham and some CanRC leaders agree. Clark explains that there are several positions which do not require this polarization, identifying a number of other viable alternatives within Christian (even Reformed) orthodoxy which do not take Scripture to require us to take the young-earth view.

The theological problems in Walhout’s piece are self-evident. Let us identify also a few serious scientific errors Walhout makes. For it appears to us he has engaged in significant extrapolation beyond what the actual claims of modern science are.

Walhout seems to have conflated evolution and evolutionism (a distinction we have long attempted to point out but which continues to be studiously ignored by many). On the one hand there is a biological theory of evolution, while on the other hand there is a philosophical / religious worldview of evolutionism. Evolutionism assumes (incorrectly) that humanity is fully explained by science within a naturalistic theory of biological evolution. This is said to include human psychology, sociology, reason, morality, and religion. There is no place within this worldview for anything special about humans, such as their being created in God’s image, their covenantal relationship with God, their being recipients of divine revelation; there is no place for spiritual realities, sin, grace, purpose, etc. It is vital to realize that the biological theory of evolution does not settle, or even begin to address, questions of the origin or character of humanity as humanity. Nor does it touch upon the origin or history of the physical cosmos, or the origin of life itself. It can only touch on the biology of organisms including humans. But surely the Christian worldview recognizes that being human is more than having a certain biology. There are indeed scholars who work on evolutionary psychology and evolutionary morality, but human psychology and morality are clearly areas where other forms of knowledge besides the scientific are required. Especially for the Christian, the doctrines of imago Dei and sin are clearly not amenable to scientific studies; these are theological doctrines, which have huge ramifications for human psychology. One also cannot hope to explain all aspects of the human psyche without reference to the clear Biblical teachings regarding the unique position of humans among all creatures on earth, especially in terms of imago Dei, creation, fall, and redemption.

Walhout seems also to have adopted scientism, the idea that no statement of any sort can be affirmed unless it is scientifically supported. This connects with his thinking that questions regarding human psychology and human morality are fully amenable to scientific inquiry. He suggests that the historicity of the Garden and Fall is doubtful, asking, “Where is the scientific and historical evidence of a pristine origin and expulsion from that Garden?” It apparently fails to occur to him that science and history do not have the epistemological prowess to handle every question. We cannot expect each individual event or person from the distant past to leave physical or biological traces for our current study. And even if they did, science and history still cannot handle every question about these events or persons.

The way Walhout narrates scientific theory and fact further demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the nature and character of science. He refers to the theory of evolution as “established fact,” and calls for an approach which “embraces scientific insights.” This does not even begin to do justice to how theories function in science. The scientific enterprise is a search for truths regarding created reality; therefore, appealing to “theory as fact” (and speaking of “embracing” it as such) is unscientific, being instead rhetorical or political in nature. True, there are some dogmatic high-priests of scientism, such as Richard Dawkins, who attempt to brow-beat opponents of scientific theories into submission by raucous claims that evolution, or the big bang theory, are proven fact. This only demonstrates our point; such bully tactics are power struggles, not the humble calls for examination of evidence in support of (or opposition to) theories which characterize the true nature of science. If one considers the theory of evolution as simply a “fact,” one has actually displaced and underestimated it. A theory is a vast network of ideas which have moved beyond a preliminary hypothesis to being widely supported from multiple independent lines of evidence. Theories play a role in the recognition of patterns in collected observations, and in organizing and explaining disparate observations, often subsuming theories of more limited scope. Theories also allow for the prediction of future observations and contribute to a broader coherence among a collection of related theories. Similar to this misuse of “fact” is the failed attempt by some to refer to evolution (or the big bang, or heliocentrism) as “only a theory.”

Walhout speaks of “embracing” a theory (and there is even a book entitled Should Christians Embrace Evolution?). But in fact, scientists do not embrace, or even “believe (in)” theories. Instead, science speaks of considering the evidence for (and against) a theory, and acknowledging the strength of multiple converging lines of evidence. This assessment of scientific theories is a key task of the scientific community as a whole, and cannot be done by ecclesiastical assemblies. This task is open to every scientist regardless of their religious, political, ethnic, geographic, employment, or social context.

Walhout suggests much of Christian doctrine is in need of overhaul due to what he says is the fact of evolution (which as we have described he extends far beyond the biological theory). We would say that instead of revising theology on the basis of modern science, theology has to focus on what the Scriptures do teach, and this includes recognising and excising whatever science (or pseudo- or folk-science, or philosophy) theology has taken on, whether its origin is Aristotle, Plato, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Morris, or Ham. Theologians in the past have, on the basis of the science of their day, made illegitimate adjustments to what the Scriptures were claiming. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most notorious, for he incorporated Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics into Christian doctrine. As a result, at the time of Galileo it was common knowledge that while in our experience there are only the terrestrial elements (earth, water, air, fire), the moon and all the heavenly bodies are perfect spheres made of quintessence. It was further “well known” that the Bible clearly teaches such matters. Calvin, incidentally, took on this Aristotelian view as well in some instances. The story of Galileo and the church has very many aspects, but one was this problematic integration into Scripture of contemporary science. And so removing scientific ideas from our interpretation of Scripture is what ought to be done.

Much of the way in which many North American evangelicals, including Canadian Reformed believers, see “the creation story” has been significantly influenced by the modern scientific mindset and pseudo-scientific ideas of the creation-science community. This includes a fixation on timing, duration, ages, sequences, and processes.

Our desire at Reformed Academic is not to create confusion or fear, or to push evolution or old-earth thinking, or to replace the Reformed confessions or historic Christian doctrines. It is to educate and inform and to encourage respectful brotherly dialogue on the connections between academics and the Reformed faith, including (but not limited to) matters of science as they touch on cosmic and life history. And part of this may involve a recognition that some of what we thought the Bible clearly teaches has in fact been a previous scientific or “scientific” idea which we have allowed to creep into our hermeneutical process. The net result should then be a better understanding both of God’s Word and God’s world, which is central to the calling of the Reformed academic, and indeed to that of every believer. Theologians cannot answer every question, and neither can scientists. But praise God that we have both, that they can coexist and sharpen each other in a common quest for understanding and for the advancement of the Kingdom.