Thursday, December 8, 2011

Evolution and the Bible

In connection with my recent post “Church and Modern Science,” Pastor Rob Schouten complained (in a public discussion on Facebook) that Reformed Academic “gives no evidence of grappling with the extraordinary problems of the theory of evolution,” and expressed the wish that we would “spend some time analyzing the manifest weaknesses” of that theory. This is a fair request, and in what follows I will attempt to respond to it.

I would like to begin by slightly reformulating the question. Rev. Schouten, if I understand him correctly, asks us especially to be diligent in exposing scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theories. Generally, however, we (and no doubt Rev. Schouten himself) look for these and bring them to the fore because of the religious
difficulties we as Bible-believing Christians have with evolution. Pinpointing scientific weaknesses will not, I am convinced, remove all these difficulties. Therefore, although not ignoring the existence of scientific problems, I will focus on the religious ones. The urgency of the topic was brought home to me once more by a recent publication by Reformed theologian C. John Collins (professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis), which he titled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were And Why You Should Care (Crossway, 2011).

In this blog posting I will follow that book quite closely.

Scientific weaknesses: are they conclusive?

But first a few remarks on possible scientific weaknesses of the theory of evolution. I can be brief here because, as it happens, I have earlier dealt with this issue. I did so in an essay titled “Teaching Evolution at Our Schools – Why and How,” which was posted on this blog on 30 October 2009, and can be found under my name under “Collected Papers.” Therein I listed a number of questions that must be considered in connection with evolutionary theories (see especially section 5, “How we should teach evolution (II),” and section 6, “Let’s keep in mind the nature of science”).

Since the information is available on the blog, I will not repeat my arguments, but I do want to point out, as I did in the paper, that the questions I raised are among the reasons why I personally have difficulties accepting the naturalistic, macro-evolutionary picture of development “from molecules to man.” (Other reasons are of a religious nature.) At the same time I made clear in my paper that the scientific evidence for evolution is very strong and that in all honesty we should admit this. In this connection I referred to the very pointed admission of young-earth biochemist Todd Charles Wood (who rejects evolution not on scientific but on religious grounds) that denying the very significant scientific evidence simply won’t do.

I realize that most of his fellow young-earth creationists will disagree with Wood’s estimate of the theory’s strength and will refer to the work of young-earth scientists, and perhaps even to that of “creation science.” I understand their concern. It points to the route I myself once followed. My intensive reading of both young-earth and old-earth creationists as well as that of evolutionary scientists, Christians and non-Christians (and also my recognition of the practical applications of scientific theories), convinced me that modern science, including evolutionary science, must be taken far more seriously than often happens in our circles, and that our habit of denying the evidence and replacing it with pseudo-scientific alternatives is not only wrong but also dangerous. The reasons I have given in previous posts. They include the evidence provided not just by biology but by the majority of the modern sciences, the urgent need to interact with our culture, the fact that our attitude can form a serious stumbling block for our own people, not least for ill-prepared students among us, and that it is bound to cause problems in our evangelistic efforts. The last-mentioned factor, I have suggested, is probably among the reasons why a number of outstanding orthodox theologians have publicly accepted one version or another of evolutionary creationism.

Denying the historicity of Adam and Eve

Although other religious difficulties can be mentioned, the most serious challenge Christians have to deal with are scientific findings that are claimed by scientists to make it impossible any longer to believe in the historicity of Adam and Eve (and all that this implies for our understanding of Scripture). The denial of their historicity is not a novel development. Originally it was based on the study of fossils, which appeared to give evidence of the existence of pre-Adamites and of a much earlier appearance of the human species than the biblical record seems to allow. More recently, of course, the position has been greatly strengthened by the striking advances in modern genomics.

These scientific findings, and especially the ones in genomics, have convinced even many Christians that belief in the existence of Adam and Eve can no longer be defended. Among them is well-known geneticist Francis S. Collins, one-time leader of the Human Genome Project, author of the best-selling autobiography The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), and one of the founders of the blog BioLogos. The idea is being propagated even in the Reformed camp. There was much consternation a few years ago when two Calvin College theologians, at a meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, professed their adherence to the view held by Francis Collins. At that same meeting C. John Collins presented a paper, later published under the title “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters,” wherein he outlined “the other side” of the issue. (For the relevant papers see Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 62, n. 3, September 2010.) Collins’ newly published book is an extension of the paper he gave at the ASA meeting. (Note: In the present blog posting, “Collins” refers to C. John Collins, not to Francis Collins.)

Biblical evidence

Dr. C. John Collins
Professor of Old Testament
Covenant Seminary
How does Collins deal with the challenge? He begins (in chapter 2) by describing the “shape of the biblical story,” noting that the Bible consists not of unconnected episodes dealing with topics like morality, spiritual guidance, theology, devotion, and so on (although these matters are indeed being taught), but that it takes the form of a coherent, overarching, worldview-shaping narrative. Genesis 1 forms the beginning of that redemptive-historical narrative and sets the stage for all that is to follow: Eden, the fall, the need for redemption, Christ’s position as the “second Adam,” his sacrifice, resurrection and ascension, the judgment to come, and the ultimate restoration of all things. The historicity of this narrative, which assures us that our beliefs are not the stuff of dreams but are based on reality, is of utmost importance, and Collins makes a point of affirming it, giving special attention to the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis. These chapters, he writes, are historical in the sense “that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened” (p. 34). This does not mean that Genesis 1 and following chapters are written according to modern historiographical standards, or in precise chronological order, or in complete detail. Nor does it mean that no figurative language has been used. It does mean that Genesis 1 speaks of events that actually happened.

The historicity of the first chapters of the Bible implies the historicity of Adam and Eve as the first humans. Although, as we will see, Collins is willing to go quite a distance in considering the conclusions of modern science, the historicity of Adam and Eve (or at least of “an” Adam and Eve) is for him nonnegotiable. The rest of the Bible requires it. As he points out, their actual existence as the ancestors of all humans – the fact that they were at the “headwaters” of human history – also accounts for the unity of the human race. The same historicity shows that the presence of sin in our world was not a natural “given” (which in fact would mean that God should be held responsible for it), but that it was the result of the disobedience of the first human couple, a disobedience that affects all their descendants. Only by accepting the story of a good creation which was marred by human disobedience, Collins will argue at greater length in a later chapter, are we able not only to understand the rest of the Bible but also make sense of the world in which we live.

Before turning to the latter point, he gives (in chapter 3) biblical evidence for the historicity of the first humans, listing texts in both the Old and New Testament that refer, directly or indirectly, to creation and to the existence of Adam and Eve as humanity’s first parents through whom sin entered the world. Many of these references are familiar – especially those we find in the Gospels, the Pauline Letters, and Revelation – but it is good to be given what looks like a fairly inclusive list. It affirms what we already knew, namely that the historicity of Adam and Eve – and of the record of creation in its entirety – does inform the biblical message and that questioning it raises very serious problems.

Here a difficult issue must be raised: Does such questioning necessarily imply a denial of the Bible’s authority as such, and must it therefore be qualified as unbelief? The issue is difficult because there are Christians who, while questioning the historicity of Adam and Eve, yet appear to believe with all their heart in the reality of sin and the need for salvation in Christ. Among those who have struggled with this question is Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, who accepts a version of evolutionary creationism but, like Collins, insists on the historicity of Adam and Eve. He answers as follows: “When you refuse to take a Biblical author [like Paul] literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the Biblical authority.... That doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong, vital faith yourself, but I believe such a move can be bad for the church as a whole, and it certainly can lead to confusion on the part of laypeople.” Collins, more briefly, describes any such questioning as an alternative that is “less satisfactory, and possibly even disastrous” (p. 133).

Common human experience

In the introduction to his book Collins announced as one of his goals “to argue that the traditional position on Adam and Eve, or some variation of it, does the best job of accounting not only for the Biblical materials but also for our everyday experience as human beings....” (p. 13). And therefore, he added, possible difficulties we encounter may mean that we should try making some adjustments to the traditional view, rather than discarding it altogether. Showing the link between the biblical narrative and everyday human experience is the topic of Chapter 4, which I think contains some of the most helpful material in the book, especially by arguing that science does not necessarily have the last word in determining what is true and real.

Collins begins with the biblical teaching that God made humankind in his image. That image can be interpreted in three ways, namely as resemblance (humans resemble God in some ways, such as the possession of intelligence, the ability to communicate by means of language, a sense of morality, a sense of beauty, and so on), as representation (Adam and Eve were appointed God’s vice-regents and given dominion), and as relational (humans were made to live in community with God and with their fellows). Collins admits the validity of all three explanations but focuses on the resemblance aspect, pointing out that the specific characteristics and capacities associated with the divine image are unique to humans and also that they are universal. Unless they can be proven to be the result of natural selection alone – a possibility which Collins says even some evolutionists question – the image serves as an argument for both humankind’s special creation and for the unity of the human race, a unity that various scientists are questioning. (Collins does believe, I should add, that scientific evidence points to an early date for the creation of Adam and Eve – he suggests a date before 40,000 B.C. – p. 117).

For a scientific theory to be acceptable, Collins writes, it must account “for the whole range of evidence,” and therefore also for the whole range of human experience, including the deep-seated desires, fears, and intuitions that all humans, both Christians and non-Christians, share. For example, there is, and there always has been, also in ancient pagan societies, a craving for human community governed by love and justice, just as there has always been a yearning for God, for redemption, forgiveness, moral transformation, for immortality and a blessed afterlife. These human cravings and experiences point to a dissonance between life as we experience it and as we feel it should be, and they help explain the profound sense of loss which is felt by all humans, and to which poets throughout the ages have borne witness. The universality of these experiences and longings, Collins writes, was traditionally held as stemming from a common origin. Its only satisfactory explanation is found in the story of Genesis 1 to 3.

In short, Collins reminds us here that there are “non-scientific,” historical, experiential, and even common sense reasons to believe in the uniqueness of humanity, its special creation, its unity, and also in the biblical message of its fall. While reading the chapter I thought that reference could also be made to Art. 5 of the Belgic Confession, which states that we believe in the divine origin of the books of the Bible first and foremost “because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence of this in themselves; for even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.” This type of argument is applicable when we are resisting other assaults upon the faith, such as the denial of God’s very existence. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s fine essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” wherein he speaks of knowledge of God “by acquaintance”: God is willing to make himself known to his people, also through the experiences of their lives as believers, as “the increasingly knowable Lord” (emphasis added).

Scientific aspects

Finally, in chapter 5, Collins gives some attention to the relevant science. I have to admit that I did not find this the clearest part of the book and I hope that I present his arguments fairly. In any case, he questions the widely accepted scientific claim that DNA evidence necessarily points to a population of several thousand from which humanity descended. He adds, however, that even if there should have been more than two ancestors, we still don’t “necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve” (p. 120). One possibility is that Adam was the chieftain of a tribe, serving as its “federal” head and representative, and that therefore his trespass affected all those connected with him. While not, as far as I can tell, openly challenging the widely accepted idea of a transition from pre-Adamite hominid to human, Collins makes a point of rejecting the idea that such a transition could have taken place by natural means. If it indeed happened, then a special divine “refurbishing” of the pre-existing hominid must have taken place. That is, the image of God must have been bestowed on him. Humans are a special creation and, alone among all creatures, are made in God’s image, an image that was bestowed on them at creation.

What are we to do?

I expect that many among us will question Collins’ suggestions on a number of these points, insisting that he goes “way too far” in his willingness to consider scientific theories. It is possible that he does. He is, however, not alone among believers to take scientific findings seriously: there are other Christian thinkers who have drawn similar conclusions. Among them are apologist C.S. Lewis, Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner, and theologian John Stott. Collins in fact discusses the position of these men. Another well-known theologian who could have been mentioned in this connection is Tim Keller, who a few years ago published a paper explaining his position (similar, on various points, to that of Collins, Lewis, Kidner, and Stott) in considerable detail. That paper, which he titled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” can be found on this blog under Collected Papers.

I expect that some readers will also ask why we even pay attention to a book whose author, although affirming the historicity of the first chapters of the Bible, is nevertheless willing to consider the feasibility of scientific theories that are in conflict with the way in which we have traditionally interpreted these chapters. In answering this question I repeat what I have argued before, which is that the only responsible way of dealing with the religious difficulties posed by modern science is to face these difficulties squarely, study the issues carefully and honestly, and (not in the last place) acquaint ourselves with the way in which orthodox, well-informed Christian thinkers – scientists, theologians, and others – are attempting to meet them. For this, surely, is one of the matters that must be tackled “together with all the saints.” Ignoring the problems, while understandable, will not resolve them. Nor is it (if I take our tradition as at all normative) the course we ought to follow as Christians. Where would we be today if our ancestors had simply ignored/denied scientific challenges and forced us to live with unnecessary disconnects between the Bible and a universally accepted scientific conclusion, such as, for example, the heliocentric theory?

By saying this I am not attempting to diminish the difficulties we are facing today. They are daunting. Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote a century ago that not even “a generation or an age” may be able to resolve all the questions that arise in connection with modern learning; it is God who in the course of history must bring light into the darkness. We may have no choice but to live for now with a disconnect – as many a faithful Christian is in fact doing. (In this vein, it may be that some “evolutionary creationists” are too confident about their resolution of the problems, and Todd Wood’s request of them to say “I don’t know” is worth affirming.) But thanks to God and the work of his Spirit, there is no reason for despair. As Art. 5 of the Belgic Confession teaches, and as Collins reminded us, our confidence in the truth of Scripture and of all it reveals does not depend on our ability to reconcile modern science with the Bible. I believe that if we keep this in mind we can be far less fearful when continuing to deal (as indeed we must) with the challenges raised by modern science.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Church and Modern Science

This post is inspired by a recently published report of the Barna Research Group that contains some alarming news about the number of young Christians who leave their churches. The research for the report, which is titled “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” appears to have focused primarily on North American evangelical churches and groups, but the findings have relevance for other churches, including our own.

This is not to say that we are in the same position as the churches which the Barna Group investigated. According to the Barna Report, “nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.” Our federation does not keep records of the number of people who leave and therefore, unfortunately, I cannot back up my conclusion with statistics, but it seems very unlikely to me that the number of young people leaving the CanRC comes even close to that mentioned by the Barna Group. Nor do I see evidence of the same pervasive criticism of our church by its younger members that seem to plague the churches on which the Barna Group focuses. Yes, some young adults leave – often, I believe, to join another church. But as I discussed in an earlier post on this blog (“Are We Too Isolationist?”) many others are actively involved in the church and its projects. Instead of a decrease in church- and evangelistic activity by our younger members, there has, in the last few decades, been a very significant increase.

The need for cultural involvement

Even so, we are not immune to the negative developments the Barna Group reports. Rather than assuming that it has “arrived,” a Reformed church must always be reforming. That means, among other things, that as church community we are to be fully aware of the challenges of an evolving and ever-changing culture and of our own position within that culture. Such awareness is necessary for the sake of our culture itself. In order to fulfill its task with respect to the world – that is, in order to be a salt and light – the church must know its society, interact with it, be able to deal with the questions it raises and, not in the last place, be acquainted with its needs. The church’s awareness of the surrounding culture is also necessary for the sake of the church members, not least the younger ones. Their level of education and their intense use of modern means of communication ensure that, far more than any generation before them, they are constantly involved in the world around them and exposed to the spiritual challenges it poses. In order to understand and help those in their charge, pastors, teachers, and other leaders must be sure to know the nature and the challenges of today’s culture in its widest sense.

In that respect there is room for self-examination. As the Barna Report again makes clear, by demonizing facets of our culture without further ado – that is, without proper knowledge and honest evaluation – we alienate those “in the know.” Our blog, as its readers know, has long been concerned with one such case of demonizing in our own circles, namely our church community’s negative view and sometimes actual maligning of modern science. In what follows I will focus on that issue. I am doing this with reference to Reason #3 of the Barna Report (“Churches come across as antagonistic to science”). Because to a large extent the prevailing attitude among us is inspired by the desire to protect Christians from spiritual dangers, I will give some attention also to Reason #1 (“Churches seem overprotective”). I will not, however, go into the various aspects of the church’s perceived over-protectiveness that the Report mentions. Perhaps we can return to those on another occasion, or perhaps a reader wants to comment on them. Indeed, on any of the items in the Report, and on the present essay, reader-input is most welcome.

Scripture and science

Our main concern for now is with the relationship between faith and modern science. Here follows the Barna Report’s summary of the complaints in this area:
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
At least in this respect the situation in evangelical churches is quite similar to that in the CanRC. The nature of the conflicts among us is well known. On the one hand there are the proponents of what is called Young-Earth Creationism (YEC), and on the other those who believe science clearly indicates that the earth is much older than a literal reading of Genesis 1 suggests. The latter position, incidentally, was until quite recently considered lawful in Reformed circles but is now widely censored, even considered heretical. Of course, the disagreements do not stop here. In addition to the old-earthers, there are Reformed Christians, scientists and others, who conclude that the evidence for evolution is significant and accept to varying degrees one or other version of what is often called theistic evolution. They realize the problems involved in such a position but believe they cannot deny the evidence and pray that one day God will lighten their and our darkness in this respect.

Christian scientists are of course not the only Christians to consider the possibility of a divinely guided process of evolution. Their position is shared by an increasing number of orthodox theologians and apologists who adopt it not just for scientific, but also, and especially, for evangelistic and pastoral reasons. Names that come to mind are those of Tim Keller, John Stott, Bruce Waltke, and N.T. Wright. Among the theologians who have publicly explained their position on the issue is Tim Keller, whose “apologia” has been announced and posted on our blog (“Tim Keller on Evolution and the Bible”). Keller’s position is tentative; he admits the difficulties evolution poses for Bible-believing Christians and insists that under all circumstances the Bible, properly interpreted, must have the last word. Meanwhile he looks for possibilities of reconciling Scripture and modern science, and in the introduction to his paper he shows the necessity of such a reconciliation for the sake both of believing Christians and of unbelievers we seek to draw to the church. To quote from his introduction:
Many believers…see the medical and technological advances achieved through science and are grateful for them. They have a very positive view of science. How then can they reconcile what science seems to tell them about evolution with their theological beliefs? Seekers and inquirers about Christianity can be even more perplexed. They may be drawn to many things about the Christian faith, but, they say, ‘I don’t see how I can believe the Bible if that means I have to reject science.’
Keller’s arguments warrant our attention. We are usually told that upholding the YEC position is necessary to protect our youth. Letting go of a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1, we are warned, means establishing a slippery slope: all of Scripture may then be interpreted symbolically. That risk indeed exists, especially if no theological help is forthcoming for those who struggle with the problem (and if the work of Christians who do try to find an answer is being censored, as happens far too often among us). On the other hand, we hardly ever hear of the opposite danger, as described by Tim Keller and as noted in the Barna Report. Also worthy of notice is the negative implication our present position has for evangelism. This is true not only when we are bringing the gospel to intellectuals. I have met the same objection when involved in evangelism in a downtown area where the level of education is very low. It does not surprise me that evangelists and apologists are in the forefront of those who work at bridging the perceived chasm between science and Scripture.

Of course, the challenges of modern science must not be underestimated. They come not only from biology (especially genetics), but also from other areas such as paleontology, geology, astronomy, and nuclear physics. We should not forget, however, that orthodox Christians have faced serious conflicts between Scripture and science before and have, to the best of their ability, resolved them. As a result, Christian scientists in the past could pursue their vocation with their church’s blessing. It is time for us to do what we can to follow that example. This means that with Augustine, Calvin, and their numberless followers we stop rejecting science and prayerfully support Christian scientists who attempt to do their work as part of the cultural mandate, and at the same time try to resolve the problems to which we referred. And of course, we should learn from the work of other Christian scholars involved in this area, such as theologians, philosophers, and apologists – including those belonging to other churches. After all, we do not have to resolve these difficulties on our own; we may and should do it “together with all the saints.” Reconciling faith and science is not an easy job, but if other Christians are attempting it, and if our ancestors were willing to tackle it, so should we. If we don’t, I fear that we will succumb to sectarianism and lose all possibilities of properly interacting with our culture.

Getting to know modern science

In brief, I suggest that instead of maligning science we learn to see it, as our Reformed ancestors did, as a gift of God and give thanks for it. It is true that God’s gifts can be and often are abused, and our attitude toward science (and especially to the ideologies to which it has given rise) must always be a critical one. But we should be sure that we know what we are criticizing, and why we do it, which means that we must do our utmost to know what modern science is really about.

How are we to effect a change in our attitude toward science? A first step for Reformed Christians may well be to consult the past and get acquainted with the history of both Young-Earth Creationism and of the much older Christian (and Reformed) tradition on the relation between science and Scripture. In the latter tradition, as I already mentioned, science was taken seriously. Realizing that many of its findings could not be gainsaid, the majority of orthodox theologians and other scholars accepted these findings and helped believers to deal with them. A case in point is the theory of a non-central and moving earth in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the apparent problems connected with geological and other evidence of an ancient earth some 200 or 300 years later.

Such, then, was the attitude to science in the Reformed past. It was only later that young-earth creationism with its rejection of modern science appeared on the scene, presented itself as providing the only acceptable biblical approach to science, and was accepted as true not just in adventist and other fundamentalist churches (although there first of all) but even in some Reformed circles. Some years ago I wrote about these developments in a paper titled “Young-Earth Creationism: A History.” The story is instructive and I suggest you read it. The paper was introduced via this blog posting, and you can find it on our blog under our “Collected Papers”.

A second step is to get acquainted with the work not just of Young-Earth Creationists, but also of other scientists – especially Christian ones, including theistic evolutionists. Please note: I recommend this not because I endorse the point of view of every possible Christian scientist, which I don’t, but because it may help to ensure a sorely needed informed discussion on the matter in question. Young-Earth Creationism and even “creation science” are widely proclaimed in our church media, and occasionally even from our pulpits, as the one and only orthodox position, while a serious discussion on their background and validity is lacking. Opposite opinions are routinely censored, and the “official” position is in fact established by what amounts to majority vote. One of the saddest incidents in this area happened when a few years ago non-YEC positions that had been discussed on an academic blog run by church members were officially attacked in our church magazine, and when that magazine refused to publish a response by the “accused,” while continuing to open its pages to further attacks on them. Such things ought not to happen among us, and I believe they can be avoided if spiritual leaders and church members at large are willing to study the issue from both sides. This includes, as I suggested, acquainting themselves with the arguments of Christian non-YEC scholars. A good number of them have described their work in a way that is accessible to the lay reader. I am thinking of authors like Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief), Owen Gingerich (God’s Universe), and Davis A. Young (Christianity and the Age of the Earth), to mention only a few.

And then there are of course the blogs. Many in our churches are well acquainted with Young-Earth Creationist Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (at least one church even promotes it publicly). It should indeed be consulted, but so should blogs by Christians that present a non-YEC position. The blog of an OPC church member and geologist, Questioning Answers in Genesis, and Biologos are examples, as is our blog, Reformed Academic. Not in the last place, we should give attention to explanations given by the contemporary pastors and evangelists who consider the possibility of theistic evolution. We may well disagree with them, but rather than rejecting their work out of hand, we should listen to their arguments, be aware of the reasons they give for their choice, realize the difficulties they are contending with, and (not in the last place!) join them in thinking about possible solutions. We need each other’s help. And within our church community we should be allowed, openly and publicly, to extend that help.

To conclude: my request is for a less fearful, more honest, and more open approach to the issue in question, and therefore for the intellectual freedom that we enjoyed in the past. This would mean that young-earth creationism is tolerated and discussed, but that the public discussion of other views is also tolerated – and indeed facilitated. The present situation smacks of censorship and entails dangers that we cannot afford to ignore any longer. It tends to sectarianism, alienates many of our students, creates serious difficulties for our scientists and for others who cannot accept the established Creationist view, makes it hard for us to interact with our culture, separates us from much of both Christian and secular scholarship, and can be a serious stumbling block in our evangelistic efforts. If the Barna Report helps convince our church community of the need to rethink its position and policies in the area of science, then it has served us well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Scientists and their Place in the Church

Andy Crouch has been mentioned on this blog a couple of times in the past year, in the context of literature and the arts. Today we commend to you this excellent piece entitled “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About…The Life of a Scientist”. I have written briefly about some aspects of this a decade ago, in a piece entitled “Science: A Cultural Activity”, but this new article represents a much more thorough and insightful presentation on the life of a scientist, and how congregations and pastors can positively interact with their scientist members.

After discussing the delight & wonder, intellectual humility, frustration, collaboration, competition, risk, isolation, and specialization which characterize the life of a scientist, Crouch addresses the topic of ministering to scientists. A key sentence in his conclusion is: “If there is one thing that Christians ought to insist on when we approach questions of science and religion, it seems to me that it is the primacy of persons—the persons who practice science, and the persons who are affected by its practice.” We welcome your engagement with this inside look into the life of a scientist.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Are We To Do With N.T. Wright?

The work of N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, is the object of heated controversy among Reformed and evangelical theologians. This controversy might not have aroused the interest of most lay people, since much of it revolves around theological issues that would normally draw the attention mainly or exclusively of specialists. But as it happens, Wright is also the widely-read author of more popular religious works. These books, ranging from pastoral writings to apologetics and from ethics to doctrines of justification and salvation, have made him a leading defender of the faith for many non-theologians, including a good number of Reformed ones. His popular writings have, in fact, given him a status approaching that of another leading Anglican author and apologist, namely C.S. Lewis.

I too have found Wright’s books enlightening and have written positive reviews of a number of them (most recently of his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters). In view of the reservations about his theology, however, I think the time has come to address the question whether or not he is indeed a trustworthy guide. Some among us do not think so – every so often we read or hear of pastoral warnings that Reformed folk would do better to ignore Wright and go to Reformed guides for answers to their questions. Are these warnings justified? Or, assuming that there are indeed problems with parts of Wright’s theology, are there also aspects that deserve our positive attention? This, I may as well admit at the outset, is my conclusion, which I hope to substantiate in what follows.

For this essay I have relied on two recent publications on Wright’s views. One is a book-length critique of his work by well-known Reformed-Baptist author John Piper, a man who has long interacted with Wright’s ideas, is highly critical of several of them, but attempts to evaluate them fairly. The book in question is The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007) [freely available online]. The second is Wright’s answer to Piper and other critics, titled Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009). The two books of course contain far more information than I am able to do justice to in a brief survey. I will be able to mention only some of the points in the debate. Nevertheless, I hope that my remarks will help us at least to begin coping with the question I raised in the title of this article. Reactions are therefore invited – also from those who have studied Wright’s work in more detail and are able to add to my remarks and where necessary correct them.

The New Perspective

Wright is a scholar of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The New Perspective is not easy to define, both on account of its complexity and because there are important differences among NPP adherents. A common element, however, is that all find fault with Luther’s understanding of the nature of Paul’s controversy with the Jews. Luther’s main error, they argue, was that in attempting to explain Paul he ignored the historical context of Paul’s letters and believed that he could equate the issues at stake in the first century with those he himself had to deal with 1500 years later. Luther’s burning question, like that of many people in the late Middle Ages, was how to find a merciful God and so assure his personal salvation. Roman Catholicism at the time placed a heavy emphasis on the role of works (think of the scandal of the indulgences), rather than on the all-sufficiency of divine grace. Unable to find peace by doing the prescribed works, Luther at last found the answer to his question in the gospel of justification by faith (Romans 1:17). Lutheranism, as well as other branches of the Reformation, thereupon began to see Paul’s issue with the Judaists of his day, and also with Jewish Christian who insisted that pagan converts must become Jews (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians), as similar to the Reformers’ struggle against Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism. First-century Judaism, in short, became the mirror image of the late-medieval church and Paul was fighting the same battle in his days as the Reformers did in theirs.

It is this interpretation that Wright and other NPP scholars reject. They refer to newly discovered documents of the period and argue that first-century Judaism must be explained within its own context, which, the documents show, was very different from that of Reformation Europe. Their conclusion is that in the first-century context “works of the law” had little to do with Reformation ideas of works-righteousness. The Jews Paul was dealing with knew that membership in the covenant was not because of merit but because of God’s grace, and obedience to the laws of the covenant (Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, dietary laws, separation from Gentiles, and so on) was again not seen as meritorious, but as the prescribed means to maintain one’s status within the covenant. These “works of the law” functioned at the same time as the means that kept Jews and Gentiles separate. Paul, on the other hand, celebrates the coming together of Jews and Gentiles which, as he writes in Ephesians 3:1-7, is “the very heart of the mystery of the Messiah, the secret which had not been revealed before but now is on public display” (Wright, 173). (The most important text for the NPP, I should mention here, is Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too.”)

Wright’s covenant theology

According to this new perspective, then, the error of the first-century Jews with which Paul struggled was not their works-righteousness as the Reformers defined the term. It was Judaism’s ethnocentrism and exclusivism, its forgetting that God’s covenant with Abraham was altogether inclusive; that in Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Wright believes that Christians often have held a similar limited view; that like the Jews they have forgotten (or underemphasized) the cosmic and missional nature of the Abrahamic covenant.

All this brings him to a matter he has written about in greater detail in his work Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), which deals with the nature and scope of salvation. Many believers, he says, see salvation as “going to heaven when you die.” That answer, however, is individualistic and therefore inadequate. It suggests a spiritual geocentrism: the belief that the Sun revolves around us instead of the other way around. In the Bible salvation is not God’s rescue of individuals from the world but the rescue of the world itself, the cosmos in its entirety. Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins, but also for bringing in the Gentiles (Wright, 171). Not only the individual, but “the whole creation is to be liberated from its slavery to decay (Romans 8:21)” (Wright, 10). The covenant, Wright says, is to be explained in these terms, and the doctrine of justification must be rooted in the single biblical narrative (101). One of Wright’s major themes is: “It is central to Paul, but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new, and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centred upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (Wright, 35; italics in the original).

The acknowledgement that the Messiah fulfilled Israel’s call as its representative plays a role in Wright’s explanation of Romans 9-11. It also gives further substance to his warning that we must not de-Judaize Paul and his message (Wright, 195). As Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Wright’s reminder that there is a history of salvation is reminiscent of what Reformed people have come to know as the redemptive-historical approach. Like his emphasis on the covenant, the reminder should therefore resonate with Reformed believers.

What about personal salvation?

Although Piper rejects much of Wright’s version of the NPP, he does have praise for some of Wright’s contributions and is especially grateful for “the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham” (Piper, 15f.). He recognizes that this insight “accounts for some of [Wright’s] reactions to the individualism and pietism that mark some preaching of the gospel,” and agrees that “there simply aren’t enough preachers who show the gospel to be what it is, the magnificent announcement of the Lordship of Jesus, not only over my personal problems, but over all of history and all the nations and all the environment.” The preaching of the gospel must indeed be rescued from “myopic, individualistic limitations” (Piper, 81). All this is close to Wright’s implicit questioning of “a non-historical soteriology the long and the short of which is ‘my relationship with God’ rather than ‘what God is going to do to sort out the world and his people’” (Wright, 61).

At the same time, however, Piper fears that Wright’s strong emphasis on the covenant’s and the gospel’s global reach threatens to place other biblical teachings in jeopardy. He is concerned, for example, about Wright’s view that the gospel, being the proclamation of Christ’s lordship, is not to be equated with the message about how we are to get saved (Piper, 18). But isn’t this what the gospel is about as well? The question “How am I to be saved” is a legitimate and indeed an urgent one which, Piper rightly argues, needs to be answered more clearly than Wright does. “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring will probably have global scope to it,” Piper comments, “but will not deal personally with the human heart of sin with clear declarations of how Christ dealt with sin and how the fearful heart can find rest in the gospel of grace….” (Piper, 101). Piper admits that Wright does not ignore the relevance of the gospel for the individual life of faith and piety and the individual’s search for salvation, but fears that all this does not get the attention in Wright’s system that it receives in traditional protestant theology and in the gospel itself. “What puzzles me,” he writes elsewhere, “is that Wright seems to be able to speak of the gospel without explicitly showing what makes it good news for me” (Piper, 45, note 17).


There are other instances where Piper criticizes what he sees as one-sidedness or even errors in Wright’s presentation. Among them are Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as God’s covenant faithfulness (Piper says it is that, but also much more), Wright’s statement that justification denotes a status, namely that of being acquitted and forgiven, rather than moral transformation, and Wright’s questioning of the doctrine regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. This doctrine, based on such Bible texts as 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”), is often referred to as the “marvelous exchange” (Luther’s term), whereby Christ took our sins upon himself so that we might receive his righteousness. The doctrine of imputation has an important place in traditional Reformed teachings on justification: we confess it explicitly in Art. 22 of the Belgic Confession and Answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Wright questions it on exegetical and other grounds and argues that we are justified not because of imputation but because, having died and been raised with him, we are “in Christ.” This means that we are “summed up in him,” so that what is true of him is true of us (Wright, 104 and passim). He concludes, “To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah” (Wright, 233). I think that he is right here, but isn’t there also biblical evidence for the doctrine of imputation? Why should we not continue to accept both?

Faith and works

More could be said on this matter, but I must turn to what Piper and other critics consider as perhaps Wright’s most striking aberration, namely his remarks about the role of works in judgment and salvation. Most of these occur in chapter 7 of his book, where he deals with the Letter to the Romans. Having come to Romans 2, he quotes the words, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life….” (vv. 6, 7). He concludes that according to Paul at the judgment to come “the criterion will be, in some sense, ‘works,’ ‘deeds’ or even ‘works of the law.’” He admits that such a conclusion “has naturally been anathema to those who have been taught that…since justification is by faith, there simply cannot be a ‘final judgment according to works’” (Wright, 184). The fact remains, however, that according to Romans 2 God will indeed repay according to works, and this same message occurs elsewhere. The Bible even says that the believer’s good deeds can please the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Wright, 185-7).

Does this mean that Paul teaches legalism, Pelagianism, or synergism (the doctrine that we cooperate with God, each doing his part)? Wright answers this question in the negative and points to the work of Christ’s Spirit in the believers’ lives; it is the Spirit alone who enables them to obey, by faith. Works-righteousness is out of the question. But the Spirit’s work is effective. Humans become “genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act…in ways which reflect God’s image, which give him pleasure, which bring glory to his name, which do what the law had in mind all along…. The danger with a doctrine which says, ‘You can’t do anything and you mustn’t try’ is that it ends up with the servant who, knowing his master to be strict, hid his money in the ground” (Wright, 192f.).

Piper gives much attention to the issue. He agrees with Wright that the life we now live is not irrelevant at the final judgment. To teach otherwise is “unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself” (Piper, 116). But he objects to Wright’s occasional statement that we are justified “on the basis” of our works,” rather than “according to our works” (although he admits that Wright speaks also in more traditional terms of our works as being evidence of the authenticity of our faith) (Piper, 118f.). Nevertheless, Piper’s great concern is that Wright’s teachings may detract from the gospel’s message of justification apart from works. He points out that the rewards that are promised in the Bible do not contribute to a person’s final justification, but are for those who are justified (Piper, 167). In accordance with clear biblical teaching, the authentic Christian faith “looks away from all self-wrought or Spirit-wrought obedience in us to the blood and obedience of Jesus….” (Piper, 149, italics in the original).

Take and read

Wright remarks that in situations of controversy and turbulence people are likely to overstate the point they are trying to make. He refers especially to the protestant Reformation but, as at one point he admits, the same applies to NPP scholars and himself (Wright, pp. 46, 196). Piper has done us a service by pointing to a number of these over-statements and by attempting to correct what he sees as actual errors in Wright’s system. By doing so, and by inviting Wright’s response, he has allowed us to hear both sides of the controversy.

I have learned from Piper and recommend his book. He is right, for example, when he questions Wright’s too rosy picture of first-century Judaism, pointing out, among other things, that ethnocentrism implies reliance on oneself and is therefore indistinguishable from works-righteousness (Piper, 155-8). Also noteworthy are his pleas that the spiritual needs of the “ordinary folk,” the person in the pew, not be ignored, and his defence of the gospel of justification by faith, apart from works. We must remember, however, that Wright does not deny this gospel. Salvation according to him also is by faith alone. At the same time I am convinced that Wright is also right in drawing attention to the Bible’s strong emphasis on the importance of “works.” This truth must indeed not be ignored, and the question arises: Do we, together with Wright, have to consider the possibility that Reformation theology, rightly anxious to safeguard the gospel of justification by faith, has wrongly underemphasized this aspect? Wright reminds us of Jesus’ own words that not the smallest part of the law has been abrogated by his coming. In a time when the temptation of “cheap grace” is as strong as it has ever been, it is good to be reminded of this truth. As various Reformed scholars have argued (including Anthony Hoeksema and Richard Gaffin), mentioning of a final judgment according to works simply reinforces the notion found elsewhere in Scripture that faith must necessarily issue in works and that, though we are not saved by works, we are not saved without them either. And finally, there is of course Wright’s much-needed reminder of the historical and global sweep of the covenant and of its implications for mission. On all these points we can learn from him.

In conclusion: Yes, Wright must be read critically, and John Piper is doing us a favour not just in showing us this but also in guiding us in our reading. Of course, critical reading is required of us in any case, also in that of Piper himself. If that is kept in mind, I heartily recommend both Piper and the response of N.T. Wright (as well as Wright’s other popular books to which I referred). Whatever the shortcomings of his theology, Wright does open our eyes to aspects of the gospel and its riches that we may be in danger of forgetting. But in case there is still a suspicion that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I quote these words of commendation by John Piper himself: “I am thankful for [Wright’s] strong commitment to Scripture as his final authority, his defense and celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God, his vindication of the deity of Christ, his belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, his biblical disapproval of homosexual conduct, and the consistent way he presses us to see the big picture of God’s universal purpose for all peoples through the covenant with Abraham – and more” (Piper, pp. 15f.).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Academics and Church Membership

Thank you, Freda, for beginning an important discussion. In this post, I would like to highlight the connection between academics and church membership, by first telling my story and then giving some suggestions.

I grew up with the assumption that the world was cleanly divided into two camps: people in North America were either members of a Canadian Reformed church (CanRC) or they were heathens. How this thinking arose in me is quite unclear, as this was certainly never taught explicitly by parents, teachers, or ministers. But neither was it, as far as I recall (and my recollection is not perfect), taught against, and I have spoken with many who felt similarly, as well as many who didn’t. This remained my view until somewhere during my graduate studies in physics, just under 20 years ago. This despite attending a public school in Fergus for Grades 11-13, where many others attended who belonged to other churches, and where my geography teacher invited me to a discussion of faith & geology (which I ignored impolitely; after all, he couldn’t have been a Christian). Furthermore, as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, a number of my classmates and even the professor with whom I interacted most were Christians; their invitations to talk about Christianity were equally impolitely rejected. Of course I could not attend Redeemer College where the devil walked in slippers; in Waterloo he walked in wooden shoes. I did not get involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Fortunately, matters of faith and academics were not entirely sidelined, as I was involved with a Canadian Reformed student fellowship which met in Hamilton about once a month during the academic year and held a retreat during most years. When considering which graduate school to attend, I recalled the map of North America on which “all” the churches were plotted, and its vast USA wasteland: except for Grand Rapids, Laurel, and Lynden, there were no Christians in that heathen land.

So it appears black-and-white thinking was solidly entrenched in me, likely due not entirely to denominational influences and perhaps more due to my own immature personality.

It was not until I received from an elder in Langley CanRC a copy of an early issue of Modern Reformation (I think it might have been the issue themed “Wanted: Thinking Christians”) that I realized my false dichotomy: there were actually confessional, Reformed Christians in North America outside the CanRC. And eventually, I grew to understand that even Baptists, Pentecostals, and Mennonites (etc.) are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Around the same time, thanks to an erudite high-school teacher friend, I became aware of books such as Creation Regained by Al Wolters. And suddenly I soared into the world of academics and faith with newfound wings, and have learned to appreciate (although not without critique) the Reformational philosophy of Dooyeweerd (and his colleagues Schilder and Vollenhoven), and entered with confidence the world of InterVarsity as well as other broader networks of academics and Christians. Along the way, I have grown in my regard for the Reformed distinctives, and am committed to confessional Reformed church membership.

I believe few are today walking in my shockingly insular footsteps of some twenty years ago. But there is still more I think we could grow in, in the area of academics and church membership. We could better prepare our university-bound students to appropriately engage their classmates, their professors, their discipline, rather than stick to those they know. We should send our students into public or Christian universities with confidence, grateful for their background, and not be afraid that too much interaction will dilute their faith. We ought to encourage our students who go to university to be appropriately open to new and challenging ideas, and not just to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get a good job. We should not expect our students to simply carry on the cultural traditions and notions of their fathers, but rather to discern, develop, and deploy their talents for the glory of God and the advancement of the Kingdom in its cosmic scope.

I am encouraged by recent developments in both BC and Ontario in which a student retreat is held prior to the new academic year. But I am discouraged that these discussions are not routinely followed up in regular meetings throughout the year. I would like to encourage those organizing these retreats to set aside time to discuss matters such as those I’ve raised in the previous paragraph, and to promote ongoing conversations perhaps led by members of their own community who are experienced in academics.

Being a Christian and an academic can be an isolating experience. As a member of a congregation, you may be one of only a few who take advanced studies. As a university student, you may be one of only a few Christians. But perhaps our vision is not large enough to see and engage with more of our fellow academics who are Christians, and perhaps we can do more to encourage diligent and significant scholarship.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Are We Too Isolationist?

Recently blogger Tim Challies posted an essay describing the Christian culture in which he grew up as a child and teenager. Although he does not mention this, the essay, which has as title “The Enemy Next Door,” refers to the Canadian Reformed Churches of which his family at one time were members. Challies’ evaluation of these churches is negative, the main objection being that they were ineffective at evangelism. He contrasts the CanRef track record in evangelism with that of churches of which he subsequently became a member: In the latter much more attention was given to reaching the lost, and far more outsiders came to faith and were baptized. Trying to determine why the churches he grew up in seemed so unconcerned with passing on the gospel, he believes that the underlying reason was that they “often regarded the unbeliever as the enemy.” These churches, he adds, would never openly admit this, but the attitude nevertheless “seemed to be deeply rooted.”

The attitude became evident, he writes, in the fact that children would rarely be allowed to interact with children in the neighbourhood. This prohibition was inspired by the fear of corruption. That fear even affected some of the members’ attitude toward unbelieving friends Tim’s family brought to church: They were “mocked or scorned.” But rather than saving the church’s youth, the attitude had the opposite effect. Having been kept away from the world, and never having seen “the pain and heartbreak that are the inevitable results of forsaking God,” the children in these churches “developed a fascination with the world.” The results were seen in their lifestyle. “I saw more drugs, more drinking, more disrespect and more awful behaviour,” he writes, “in the Christian schools…than I did in public schools.”

Challies then describes the different attitude of his own parents, who allowed their children “to see unbelievers acting like unbelievers” (and so to notice the horrible effects of sin); encouraged them to be friends with neighbourhood kids, and themselves attempted to give unbelieving neighbours “the opportunity to meet the Saviour through them.” He concludes with the warning that when we want to protect ourselves from what we consider the enemy next door, “we are prone to take our eyes off the real enemy; we allow him to slip by, unnoticed…. The real enemy is not next door…. The real enemy, the most dangerous enemy, is within.”


Challies’ picture of the church of his youth hit a raw spot, and readers’ comments, both on the blog and on Facebook, showed this. Most comments expressed agreement with Challies’ negative assessment. True, there were criticisms as well. They concerned the problem of using children as “missionaries,” as well as what were considered Challies’ unfair criticism of Reformed schools. These are legitimate criticisms of the essay. Another problem is that Challies’ description is dated. It may reflect the inward-looking attitude of the CanRC some twenty years ago, but since then things have changed. Various evangelism projects have come off the ground in the last decade or so, and they are supported by increasing numbers of church members – including a large contingent of young people. Think of Streetlight in Hamilton, Campfire! and Stepping Stones Bible Camps, the short-time mission trips that our young people organize, the many local evangelism endeavours, the various urban mission projects in both eastern and western Canada, the work of church members in Haiti and Mexico. On a broader level, think also of the growing political involvement, especially through ARPA (the Association for Reformed Political Action).

I believe that especially in the case of ARPA the CanRC (and other Reformed churches) fill a gap that evangelicalism all too often left unattended. The same applies to Reformed ecclesiology and the Reformed stress on the intellectual aspects of the faith. In these areas, as many a thoughtful evangelical will admit, Reformed traditions suggest much needed corrections to practices in the evangelical world.

It is true, however, that the emphasis on evangelism and other outreach is a fairly new development and that some of these activities are still in their beginning stages. The description that Challies gives, while especially applying to the earlier years of Canadian Reformed history, is to some extent still applicable today, and his warnings need to be taken to heart even now. Our churches have established themselves, we have our church buildings, our elementary and secondary schools, our seminary, our teachers college, and so on. More time and money can and should be made available to evangelism and other outreach than happened in the past. So let’s express our gratitude to Tim Challies for reminding us of the deficiencies that need our attention. As the Dutch proverb has it: “It’s a friend who shows me my failings.”

Other reasons, other means?

To benefit from the discussion I believe, however, that we have to dig a bit deeper and see if there are additional reasons for the attitude that Challies describes. There is no doubt an element of truth in the suggestion that some of us tend to keep our distance from unbelievers, and that at least one reason is fear of possible evil influences. But we are also heirs of a Reformed tradition that gives less attention to the calling to evangelize than is the case in many other churches. Perhaps it is a result of the fact that for centuries the Reformed Church in the Netherlands (and also in a country like Scotland) was for all practical purposes the privileged church, and that the majority of the citizens were assumed to be acquainted with the gospel. After all, the nation was “Christian,” and everyone knew “the way to the church.” Striking in this respect is that the Belgic Confession in describing the marks of the true church does not mention mission and evangelism, even though that was one of the last commands the resurrected Lord gave to his disciples before his ascension (Matt 28:18ff.).

There are other factors. The Canadian Reformed Churches have always stressed, and rightly so, the importance of doctrinal purity. This is a great benefit and one of the reasons why we attract at least some outsiders to our churches (including, initially, the Challies family). It also helps explain the rapidly increasing interest in Calvinism throughout the evangelical world (see on this John van Popta’s article, “Young, Restless, Reformed” in Clarion, January 1, 2011). This is a reason for gratitude. On the other hand, there is perhaps a tendency to associate our liturgical tradition (for example) too closely with purity of doctrine and therefore to hesitate to make the changes that may enable outsiders to feel more at home in our services.

Then there is the Reformed stress on the cognitive aspect of the faith. As I indicated, this is an asset. Yet is may also mean that we are hesitant in admitting the needs of the emotions. Today, however, we live in a climate that stresses the importance of feeling, and if we are ignoring that aspect we may well set up a stumbling block to outsiders. It may also mean that we put more emphasis on the need for right knowledge than for living the proper Christian life. The Christian faith is not just a matter of knowing, but also, and first of all, of being.

Yet another element may be our vision of the church. We have been taught, again rightly so and in accordance with Art. 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession, that we must join the true church. But as has been pointed out in recent years, the “ought” too easily evolved into an “is”: We are the true church and since (if the logic is relentlessly followed) there can be no more than one true church, we are the only one. Therefore we tend to be standoffish with respect to other churches and find it difficult to agree that we can learn something from them – for example from those that put the mission mandate front and centre. To suggest that they can teach us something is too easily dismissed as un-Reformed.

The same attitude, incidentally, has meant that there has been limited contact with the writings of other Christians. I still remember the time when many of us believed that the only truly acceptable literature for us was what was written by Reformed authors. Indeed, even today there is significant hesitation to recommend, without severe warnings, the work of Christians who do not belong to our churches (I am thinking of the writings of C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and various others).

The result has been a kind of isolationism that has been harmful not only to outsiders but to church members themselves as well. For is the Holy Spirit not also working among other Christian believers (1 John 4:2)? I hope that we can find ways and means to cooperate where possible with these believers in our common struggle against an increasingly secular society, in our response to atheistic attacks on the faith, and in our efforts to reach the lost. True, a critical attitude and critical reading are necessary, but that applies even to Reformed theologians and authors. Working with others therefore does not have to imply that we throw away the good things we have inherited from our Reformed ancestors. Nor should we. But again, faithfulness to Scripture and loyalty to the Canadian Reformed tradition do not forbid cooperation with other Bible-believing Christians. There are, by God’s grace, many of them.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review - Holtvlüwer’s Foundations: Sermons on Genesis 1-3

Late last year, Canadian Reformed minister Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer published a book of sermons on the first few chapters of Genesis. With respect to discussions we’ve had on our blog, it is clear that the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is very important for how we understand the doctrine of creation as well as how we frame conversations regarding Scripture and science.

And so we approached Dr. John Smith, professor of Old Testament studies at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, to undertake an academic review of Holtvlüwer’s Foundations: Sermons on Genesis 1-3. Dr. Smith received a Ph.D. in Septuagint Studies from the University of Toronto in 2005 after writing a dissertation on the Greek translation of the book of Psalms. He served as minister of the Word in Albany, Western Australia, for five years, until last year when he moved back to Canada with his wife Darlene and their three sons and two daughters. Dr. Smith retains his ministerial status with Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

We are grateful for Dr. Smith’s engagement and careful review, which you can find in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is given here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

John Piper’s Think: A Review

John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Crossway, 2010). ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-2071-6, 222 pages. Cloth $22, Paper $18. Reviewed by Frederika Oosterhoff.

“The chief end of man,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” A question that is often asked today concerns the relative role of the heart and of the mind in glorifying and enjoying God. Some Christians place much stress on the mind, on thinking and reasoning and logic. Concerned about attacks upon the Bible by unbelieving scientists and other secular trend-setters, they defend the faith by means of arguments. This approach, which is widely followed also in Reformed circles, falls within the category of apologetics (the reasoned defence of the faith) and worldview analysis.

The approach has biblical warrant. We are to love God with our mind (Matt. 22:37) and must be prepared to give the reasons for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15). When they are in discussion with unbelieving intellectuals, Christians should be able to debate with them on their ground. They owe this not only to the unbelievers themselves, but also to fellow-believers. In this tradition there is, however, the danger of intellectualism: of concentrating on the head and forgetting about the role of the heart. In view of this danger, other Christians downplay the role of thinking and instead stress the absolute pre-eminence of the affections, of feeling, doing, and experiencing — in short, of the heart. Although an important correction, this type of thinking runs the danger of anti-intellectualism.

Well-known evangelical author John Piper disagrees with these alternatives. In his new book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (2010), Piper rejects “either-or” approaches in the matter of head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith. For him it is a matter of “both-and.” While convinced of the dangers of intellectualism, he just as strongly rejects anti-intellectualism, pointing out that the use of the mind is essential in the life of faith and discipleship. Rigorous thinking is “a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God” and provides “the kindling for the fires of the heart.”Such thinking does not of course allow for neutrality and intellectual pride. The gospel demands God-centred, biblical, non-autonomous thinking, the sort of thinking that seeks reasons to treasure and desire God above all things.

The Christian mind

Piper is the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and has authored several books, including such bestsellers as Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (3rd ed. 2003), and Don’t Waste Your Life (2003). A Calvinist evangelical and a staunch believer in biblical infallibility, he is widely read also in Reformed circles.

The book now under review has a foreword by historian Mark A. Noll, a long-time friend of Piper and a fellow-evangelical. Noll himself has written about the need for deep, rigorous Christian thinking, most famously so in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). His concern there was with the weaknesses in evangelical thinking in the realms of “high culture,” such as philosophy, politics, economic theory, historical inquiry, linguistics, literary theory, the history of science, social theory, and the arts; in short, all the disciplines within the range of advanced, specialized, first-order modern scholarship. Quoting a Lebanese Christian scholar, Noll reminded his readers that “at the heart of the crisis in Western civilization lies the state of the mind and the spirit of the universities.” And therefore, “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence” (The Scandal, pp. 25f.). (Noll tells us in the Preface to Piper’s book that he is preparing a sequel to The Scandal. Entitled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, it is scheduled to appear later this summer. We hope to review it in due time.)

Whether or not Piper agrees with Noll’s message, his book is not about Noll’s type of high-level academic thinking. Unlike Noll, he also does not deal with controversial topics such as the debate on Genesis 1. But neither does he express distrust of modern learning and modern science. His message is of a different nature and applies to all believers, to non-academics as much as to academics. Even though he stresses the importance of thinking, his intention is at no point, as he assures us in the Introduction, to prove the superiority of intellectuals and establish the need for degrees. Nor is it to encourage intellectual endeavours like apologetics or worldview analysis. His concern is with the need for Spirit-enabled thinking in understanding the gospel, and that need is shared by learned and unlearned alike. Such thinking is a means (and an indispensable one at that) which God has given to all those who seek Him, no matter the level of their education.

With respect to the head versus heart controversy, Piper admits that the mind, while indispensable, is the servant of the heart. We are to worship and love God and to enjoy him, and this is first of all a matter of the heart. But empty emotionalism threatens if such love and joy are not awakened by true knowledge of who God really is. Though factual knowledge does not save, it is indispensable. Believers must know and study the contents of the Bible, for how can they believe and love a God they don’t know; a God whose revelation they do not bother to read and try to understand?


Piper gives a good deal of attention to the prevailing anti-intellectualism in the history of American evangelicalism. He quotes the remark by the early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday (who expressed the feelings, he believes, of many evangelical Christians): “If I had a million dollars I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education.” What was widely believed in Sunday’s time is still widely believed today. Postmodern relativism and pragmatism in fact underscore the message that knowledge and study and serious thinking have little or nothing to do with true faith.

In this connection Piper mentions some Bible texts that are often used as “pillars of anti-intellectualism.” Among them are Luke 10:21, where Jesus gives thanks that God has “hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children,” and 1 Corinthians 1:19,20, where Paul reminds his readers that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise” and has “made foolish the wisdom of this world.” There are similar warnings about “knowledge” and “the wisdom of this world” elsewhere in the Bible — for example in 1 Corinthians 3:19, Colossians 2:8, and Romans 1:28.

Nevertheless, as Piper concludes, the overwhelming message of the Bible is that knowing the truth is crucial. This demands a diligent use of the mind, always with the realization that proper understanding is God’s gift. After all, Satan also believes the facts of the Bible and trembles. The use of the mind is necessary and indispensable, but it is not decisive. Decisive is the work of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power. That alone gives certainty. Piper reminds us at the same time that the “wise and learned” of Luke 10 are not necessarily the educated, but the self-reliant and proud. And pride is no respecter of persons; the uneducated are not immune to it. And conversely, highly educated Christians can be found among the “little children” — namely among those who know that they have nothing to contribute to their salvation and are utterly dependent on the cross.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review – Hawking’s The Grand Design

“Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time remains a top seller after 22 years, paralleling his surprising longevity with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This new book, written with Mlodinow (also a theoretical physicist and trade-book author), despite its grand claim says little new, except for providing a surface-level update on the speculative M-theory as well as joining the fashionable ‘Ditchkinses’ in providing naïve jabs at religion….

“Hawking & Mlodinow approach deep spiritual, metaphysical, ontological, and existential questions, but instead of seriously engaging them, they apply superficial physical-reductionistic answers. This is not surprising, given Hawking’s habit of ridiculing religion as outmoded myth, but it is sad nevertheless; I had hoped that he and Mlodinow would have learned from both atheist and Christian critiques of Dawkins and Hitchens. Apparently there remains a significant market for sloppy dismissal of anything to do with faith….

“Hawking and Mlodinow display extreme philosophical and theological naïveté, beginning with their announcement that ‘philosophy is dead’….

“The goal of the book was to answer ‘the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,’ which they state as: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?’ (p. 10). These are good questions, but scientists and the general public, Christian or otherwise, will not receive reliable answers in this failed attempt by Hawking and Mlodinow.”

The above are snippets of my review of The Grand Design, which has been published in the June 2011 issue of Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith; read the entire review here or here, it is also listed in our “Collected Papers”.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review - Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

The influence of the King James Bible upon the English language and culture is immense. This year, a number of books have been produced to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version. We have found Tim DeJong, a doctoral student of English, willing and able to review Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which originated as the 2008 Spencer Trask Lectures at Princeton University. Alter is currently a professor in Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. He is the author of numerous books and articles and a recognized expert in ancient Hebrew. In 2007 he published an English translation of the Psalms.

DeJong, who previously reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind for Reformed Academic, introduces and critiques Alter’s study, which reflects on how the KJV’s distinctive prose and themes have influenced the work of some of America’s great writers, including Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway. We invite you to engage with DeJong’s review, which is listed in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Children of God: The Imago Dei in John Calvin and His Context – A Review

Human beings, we read in Genesis 1, are created in God’s image and likeness. Throughout the centuries theologians have struggled with these terms, trying to ascertain their precise meaning. Some have concluded that they refer to the fact that humans, unlike other creatures, have the ability to reason and so to communicate with God. Others believe that they point to the human ability to establish relationships, and still others that they must be interpreted in a functional sense, referring to the fact that human beings were appointed as God’s vice-regents with the specific task of ruling the rest of creation.

Prominent among Reformed contributors to the discussion is the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin, and it is his views that form the topic of the book now under discussion. The author, Dr. Jason Van Vliet, originally wrote it as a doctoral dissertation for the Theological University at Apeldoorn, The Netherlands (2009). A graduate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, ON (1996), he now serves at that seminary in the department of dogmatology. Van Vliet shows that Calvin dealt with the question of the divine image throughout his professional life and that his views developed over time. Calvin’s most important contribution, Van Vliet concludes, lay in his description of the image as referring to the relationship between a Father and his children (as also reflected in the title).

Books by theologians are usually reviewed by theologians. Since Van Vliet’s topic falls within the category of historical theology, however, it was also possible to assign the work of reviewing it to a historian. That is what we did when we asked Richard Oosterhoff to take up the challenge. As the review shows, we made the proper choice. Not only historians, but also theologians (as well as the interested lay person) will appreciate both the contextual framework our reviewer has provided and his informative, extensive, and balanced description and analysis of Van Vliet’s book.

Richard Oosterhoff is a native of southern Ontario and received his B.Sc., with double majors in Biology and Religion and Theology, from Redeemer University College (2005). Now a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame, he is writing a dissertation on how a group of Renaissance professors at the University of Paris, some of whom became French reformers, joined their passion for Christ and their piety with deep love of the liberal arts, especially the mathematical arts of the quadrivium. (If you wonder what the quadrivium is, just ask him – but be prepared to endure enthusiasm!) Richard was pleased to spend much of this winter researching in rare book libraries in Paris and southern California, but now that spring has brought daffodils to the Midwest he is very happy to be back in South Bend, Indiana, where he can again enjoy the warm fellowship of Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA), which he, his wife Elora, and their two little girls had greatly missed during their travels.

The review is found in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Passionate Intellect – A Book Review

In The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind, Alister McGrath positions the themes of religion and science as fields that should be integral, not separate. He believes that personal faith adds greatly to the conversations within and among vocations. In this collection of essays, flowing from his past teaching and presentations, McGrath seeks to inform the reader that faith is both a source of life and a matter of intellectual rigour, while at the same time he positions arguments around the new atheism, its agenda, and the opportunity it possibly provides for serious academic debate.

The reviewer of this book is Christina Belcher, Associate Professor of Education at Redeemer University College, who together with her husband Paul attends Stone Ridge Bible Chapel in Hamilton, ON. Former work in faculties of education at Trinity Western University, BC and in Australia and New Zealand, informs her writing and practice. With publications in the area of children’s literature, worldview, and higher education, she seeks in her work to unify a past, present and future view of historical reference prior to proposing hope and reconciliation in matters of an educational nature. As a co-author, she believes that interdisciplinary peer collaboration is helpful in any field in that it prevents what she refers to as a tunnel vision leading to hardening of the categories in our attempts to see worldview perspectives as significant to all of life. She therefore has written articles with peers from other disciplines, and considers learning to be one of the highlights of life.

In the present review, then, McGrath’s book is seen through the lens of an educational practitioner who desires to stimulate greater conversation both within specific disciplines and among different disciplines. We thank Prof. Belcher for her review, posted in our “Collected Papers” (direct link here), and welcome your engagement.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Character Education: Theory and Practice

As stated in my review of N.T. Wright’s book on character education which was posted on this blog on 29 November 2010, that same topic was also dealt with at last year’s International Conference for Reformed Education, held in Lunteren, the Netherlands. The subject was introduced by Dr. Pieter Vos, who chairs the lectorate Moral Education at the Reformed University of Applied Sciences (the Gereformeerde Hogeschool) in Zwolle and is also a lecturer in Ethics at the Protestant Theological University in Kampen.

Dr. Vos has kindly allowed us to post a slightly adapted version of his lecture, which gives information on the theory and history of character education. For those who are interested also in the practical application of virtue education and in its methodology: Last year two books were published in the Netherlands dealing with these aspects. For details see the conclusion of Dr. Vos’s lecture under our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

“Calvin as Journalist” by Warren Smith (Ch. 12)

This review, written by Glenda Mathes, completes 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.

Calvin and Culture’s editors Hall and Padgett may have placed “Calvin as Journalist” in its penultimate position because the connection initially seems almost surreal. Author Warren Cole Smith acknowledges the obscurity of the correlation, particularly compared to Calvin’s influence on church polity:

“There is a straight and heavy line that connects Calvin to, for example, the forms of church governance and discipline used by many denominations today. But the line between Calvin and modern journalism is not quite so firmly etched. It requires the connecting of dots, both historically and intellectually” (p. 277).

Few people are more qualified than Smith to connect the dots between Calvin and journalism; he is the associate publisher of WORLD Magazine with over 20 years of professional experience, including a stint as the publisher and editor of the Evangelical Press News Service, and the author of the intriguingly titled A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (Authentic, 2009).

Before Smith pinpoints ideas of John Calvin and links them to aspects of modern journalism, he relates a brief history of journalism that frequently cites Marvin Olasky, Rodney Stark, and others. Although the advent of the printing press is widely recognized as the technological impetus that accelerated journalism’s growth as well as the Reformation’s momentum, Smith emphasizes the courage of printers in addition to the convenience of the printing press. While famous Reformers could (and often did) flee for their lives, Reformed printers frequently risked their lives and livelihood, especially when Protestant areas came under Roman Catholic control.

I’ve often thought that anyone who characterizes Calvin as heartless or obtuse has never read his Institutes of the Christian Religion. As Smith details how Calvin became a man of letters, he points out that the Institutes especially “show us a writer who was journalistic in style and argumentation” and “drew praise, even in Calvin’s day, for a lively and readable style” (p. 282). These comments established Smith as a reliable narrator in my mind.

Calvin “built the foundation for modern journalism,” according to Smith, by devoting his life not only to “speaking truth to power but also to giving language and opportunity to millions of others who could and did speak truth to power” (pp. 283 & 284). Smith notes that this “notion of the reporter as prophet, as one who speaks truth to power” is “deeply rooted in the ethos of modern journalism” (p. 283) and remains true today.

Smith shows how the Reformation concept of God’s sovereignty unleashed the natural inquisitiveness of humankind and what he calls the “peculiar curiosity” of the journalist (p. 285). That natural and legitimate curiosity about all aspects of creation has degenerated in modern times to an often prurient interest that creates tension “between man’s God-given curiosity about the world and man’s tendency to overreach — to ‘become as God’ ” (pp. 286 & 287). Smith contrasts modern journalistic excess with the early “propriety” of The New York Times, established in 1851 by a “Bible-believing Presbyterian” (p. 288).

In his section on “The Rise of the Fourth Estate” (journalism), Smith draws parallels between Calvin’s influence on governing institutions (the Consistory, in particular) and the establishment of an American government with its provision for a free press. As Calvin became more powerful, his Consistory became “increasingly intrusive” (p. 290). Recognizing the “will to power” in himself, Calvin developed the Presbyterian system of church governance, which “distributes power rather than centralizes it” (pp. 290 & 291). This system came to secular expression in the federal system of checks and balances with three branches of government.

Admitting that Calvin “certainly did not invent or practice journalism,” Smith quickly adds “while Calvin may not have been the first modern journalist, his ideas and the institutions that came into being as a result of his ideas made modern journalism possible” (p. 291). Smith concludes that Calvin expressed the biblical promise about the truth setting us free in the famous opening line of his Institutes: “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves” (p. 292). Smith’s last dot pricks the parchment as well as journalism’s collective conscience: “The truly great journalism of the past five hundred years has passionately pursued knowledge of both God and man. The extent that journalism can recover these twin pursuits clearly put before us by Calvin is the extent to which journalism can be great again” (p. 292).

Some of the lines Smith draws between these dots are heavier than others (the line in “The Peculiar Curiosity of the Journalist” seems heaviest, while the line in “The Rise of the Fourth Estate” seems most faint); however, Smith smoothly transitions from each topic to the next and clearly delineates each connection.

Smith enables Reformed readers, who easily visualize the lines between Calvin and modern theology or church polity, to open their eyes wider and discern previously unconsidered connections. His conclusion reminds Reformed writers and all curious Christians of journalism’s noble past and calls us to work toward a righteous future.

As an older, non-traditional student, Glenda Mathes graduated from the University of Iowa in 2006 with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree. She has reported news for Christian Renewal since 2001 and has been the Managing or Contributing Editor for Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s newsletter, the Messenger, since 2003. She freelance writes and edits from her home near Pella, Iowa, where she and her husband, David, are members of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA). She regularly blogs at Ascribelog.