Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing? False Prophets? Comments on Bredenhof’s Position Statements on Creation and Evolution

In the Canadian Reformed churches (as in many evangelical churches) most people see evolution and creation as opposites, and evolution as automatically against Christianity. We would agree with this assessment if evolution is seen as an all-encompassing worldview which claims that God does not exist, that the universe is governed instead by random chance and is without purpose and meaning, and that humans are no different from animals. However, such a view is what we have been calling “evolutionism.” The biological theory of evolution, on the other hand, as a scientific theory simply does not make such philosophical and religious claims. Christian students ought to be guided in making careful distinctions as part of a diligent search for truth both about God’s world and God’s Word. This is especially true in our day as the biological theory is finding ever increasing lines of support from multiple angles, even as the “new atheists” get louder in their claim that science has disproven the Bible.

Faithful study of the relationship between evolution and Christianity is not encouraged when such distinctions are studiously ignored, or when those who earnestly seek the truth in the matter are vilified. Here is a case in point.

Some time ago Rev. W. Bredenhof posted a “position paper” (dramatically illustrated with a picture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing) wherein he issued a warning against “dangerous false teachings” among us. We agree that a pastor is expected to warn his sheep against wolves. It should be done, however, with proper discernment, precision, and balance, and all this was sadly lacking. Accusations were levelled at certain individuals without reference to their published work, and without allowing them to respond by means of comments to the post. [Note: On 8 April 2013, we were informed by Rev. Bredenhof that he has removed the illustration.]

Specifically, Bredenhof accused some unnamed “intellectuals and professional scientists” in the CanRC, who, he said, promulgate “false teachings pertain[ing] to the relationship between science and Scripture, more particularly with regard to creation and evolution.” Anonymity, it seemed, was assured. It takes not much detective work, however, to find out whom the “Position Statements” were in fact directed against. As is well-known, we have for some years (since April 2009) been writing on our blog about the relationship between science and Scripture, including the matter of “creation and evolution.” Bredenhof himself has more than once drawn attention to this fact in the media, warning the readers against us. Every reader will understand, therefore, that he had us in mind.

We conclude that the procedure the author followed is not in conformity with biblical guidelines as they are summarized in Lord’s Days 40 and 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism. We attempted to convince him of this by means of a visit and private correspondence, but our attempts were unsuccessful. In the end, therefore, we decided to take this opportunity to publicly respond in an attempt to set the record straight. Meanwhile we are still struggling with the question why our critics insist on condemning us unheard. How many of those who have portrayed us as apostates in the media and/or in common gossip have bothered to visit us to discuss the issues with us, or even simply agreed to correspond with us? Had proper communication indeed been the practice, which unfortunately it was not, much of the unholy bickering among us could have been avoided, to the great benefit of the church community.

The problematic “Positions Statements” are available here. We copy them here (adding numbers for ease of reference) and present portions in italics and respond to each in turn.

1. The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture

WB: “The Bible is the authoritative Word of God. It is inspired, infallible, and inerrant. It stands supreme over all human thoughts and endeavours. Historically, those who have denied the inerrancy of Scripture have done so with an agenda often linked to scientific or historical concerns or doubts.”

Our Response: No examples are given for the claim in the final sentence of this statement. In its generality this assertion is true. But in the context of this particular discussion it is a regrettable attempt to accuse us by association with whomever in the past have denied inerrancy for the specific purpose of doubting the historicity of certain Scripture passages. This is a political strategy known as declaring guilty by association which ought to have no place in honest discussions within the church community. Further, noteworthy is the fact that the CanRC and our seminary officially teach the infallibility of Scripture, not its inerrancy. The statement quoted implies an unsubstantiated accusation of Reformed theologians and other church members, past and present, who warned against the use of the term “inerrancy.” We also point out that nowhere do the Three Forms of Unity use the term inerrancy, and there have been objections to the recent inclusion of the term in a preamble to a new proposed church order.

The use of the concept of inerrancy is virtually meaningless in view of the many definitions given to it. Therefore, the assumption by Bredenhof that we are denying inerrancy is also empty. Further, the assertion by Bredenhof is such a generalization that even if he had a clear definition of inerrancy, it would still be meaningless. The use of generalizations is a problem throughout Bredenhof’s piece; apparently it serves him as a strategy that allows him to declare guilt by association without proper grounds. (For another example, see his statement under “The Gospel is at Stake,” #3 below.)

2. Science and Scripture

WB: “The Bible is not a scientific textbook, but it does provide firm foundations for every scientific endeavour. All Christian scientists should approach their calling by first fearing the LORD and humbly honouring his Word above all. Psalm 36:9b says, ‘…in your light do we see light.’ Colossians 2:3 tells us, ‘…in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ When the results of science and the clear teaching of Scripture appear to conflict, the Christian scientist is called to submit to what Scripture says and modify his scientific theories accordingly.”

Our Response: Lacking here are (1) an explanation of how the Bible provides foundations for every scientific endeavour without being degraded to a scientific textbook, (2) a definition of “the clear teaching of Scripture,” and (3) a proper reference to the history of the relations between faith and science in the Christian church. As to the first point, how does Rev. Bredenhof suggest the Bible provides foundations for research into the hormonal control of growth, or the synthesis of plastics, or the quantum structure of matter? Just asking these few questions shows how little one can do with empty generalizations. Regarding the second point, readers should be reminded or made aware of matters such as different biblical genres, and also of what John Calvin and others have called the principle of accommodation. Various examples can be given of biblical statements that, if taken literally, do appear to conflict with what science says but can be and have been harmonized. The acceptance of the heliocentric theory can serve as one example among many. Let us also keep in mind John Calvin’s advice: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” (commentary on Genesis 1:6 in Calvin’s Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis).

And as to the third point, historically, when scientists and others noted apparent conflicts and sought for a means of reconciling Scripture and science, the Christian church has accepted such attempts. In fact, from the beginning of the Christian church, scientists and other thinkers have been allowed to reserve judgment on the precise interpretation of a Scriptural passage while looking for harmonization. Such an attitude has never been considered unbelief. Nor should it today be considered as such. Exegesis is not infallible.

Furthermore, reference to historical development will show that in all the debates in the Christian church on the relationship between theology and science, “science has taken the lead in provoking theologians to reconsider their exegesis. The quest for harmonization with science has led theologians and pastors to reject the theories of a lucid moon and a solid raqi’a, and adopt theories of the four elements, a spherical earth, heliocentrism, and Day-Age and Gap theories of the creation days. In none of these cases did the transformation begin with exegetical work. Exegetical arguments have invariably followed from philosophical and scientific arguments that caused the church to reconsider her traditional exegesis.” [Peter J. Wallace, “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church”, available here or in our “Collected Papers”.]

That having been said, we agree that proper biblical hermeneutical principles ought to be followed; scientific advances do not provide a new interpretation but only identify the necessity for it, especially if a prior interpretation was constructed in view of an older scientific idea which has now been displaced. Every exegete who respects Scripture as the Word of God affirms the principle that extra-biblical knowledge can provide the occasion for a different interpretation of texts in Scripture, but that Scripture must provide the justification.

3. The Gospel is at Stake

WB: “Theistic evolution in its various forms teaches that God used evolutionary processes to bring about the creatures that are described in Genesis 1 and 2, including man. Theistic evolution is a serious error in conflict with God’s Word. It requires a radical reinterpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 to explain away certain aspects and make room for science. Historically, the same hermeneutic has been employed to deny the virgin conception and physical and historical resurrection of Jesus. The hermeneutic which allows for theistic evolution opens the door to a denial of the gospel. This is why I say that we are being assailed by a dangerous false teaching.”

Our Response: We deal with the use of the term “theistic evolution” under #5, below. But in connection with this argument the following points must be raised. (1) The interpretation of Biblical passages has been corrected and improved in response to promptings by science. Some of them were mentioned above (the rejection of theories of a lucid moon, a solid firmament, a non-spherical earth, and geocentrism) — and these reinterpretations have been fully accepted by the church and have not had the dire effect suggested in the position statement. (2) The Bible makes it very clear that there is no salvation for those who deny the incarnation, virgin conception, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Nowhere, however, does the Bible make similar statements with respect to such theories as heliocentrism or to non-literalistic interpretations of the creation account. For that reason orthodox Christianity has always allowed interpretations inspired by such theories. (3) Bredenhof’s argument assumes that a correct hermeneutic necessarily produces a correct interpretation of Scripture. As every biblical scholar knows, this is not the case. The particularity of a pericope with its contexts throws a wrench into any general methodological impositions of this kind. Generalizations of this nature are a convenient strategy for declarations of guilt by association with a particular hermeneutical approach, but such declarations are empty.

4. Genesis 2:7

WB: “The plain reading of this passage categorically rules out any notion of hominid ancestors for Adam. God formed Adam, not from some pre-existing creature, but from the dust of the earth. “Man became a living creature” at this point – that implies that he was not a living creature prior to this moment. To reinterpret these words to accommodate any theory of evolution is unbelief. It is sin against the first commandment. It is a refusal to accept God’s Word and a form of idolatry.”

Our Response: Here we have again the severely problematic and simplistic notion of a “plain reading.” What is forgotten is that the plain reading of a passage is not necessarily the correct reading. An added complication is that what is plain to one person is often not plain to another, and what is plain in one age can well be different from what is plain in another. What ought to be “plain” is that Scripture is to be interpreted according to hermeneutical methods which actually are adopted by Reformed theologians and ministers. It is quite mysterious to us why somehow Bredenhof and some other CanRC people wish to apply “plain reading” strategies to just Genesis 1 & 2 and not to Amos, Jeremiah, Daniel, Revelation, etc. Many Reformed theologians for many years have offered Biblical interpretations of Genesis 2:7 which do not require a “plain sense reading.” We have offered a response as well:
Thought must be given as to what “dust” means. Considering Psalm 103:14, we know that even we today are created from dust. (See also Genesis 18:27; I Kings 16:2; Job 10:9; Job 34:15; Psalm 90:3.) Thus, comparing Scripture with Scripture, we see that Adam’s creation from “dust” does not necessarily mean that God pushed around some mud and formed a humanoid shape. Instead, “dust” has a range of acceptable interpretations including “the material Adam is made of,” “the humble status of Adam,” and “the clay used by the divine potter to fashion Adam.” Contrary to this, many other religions assume humanity was formed out of divine substance.
Bredenhof does not offer a response to our suggestion; instead, he simply narrows this possible range of meanings to just one, attempts to impose it on others, and thinks this is the “clear teaching” of Scripture.

Let us also be clear on another point. Closing one’s eyes to what Scripture is revealing in other places, as Bredenhof does, makes it impossible to interpret Scripture. Further, we are trying to understand Scripture with our eyes open to other truths which God has placed in our path. All truth is God’s truth, regardless of its origin. It has been a standard of good exegesis to use extra-biblical sources with the understanding that Scripture provides the justification for its own interpretation. Bredenhof’s problem is that he simply ignores all scientific findings, something that was not done by earlier theologians.

5. History

WB: “In the past there have been Reformed theologians who have held various positions on the age of the earth. This does not say anything about whether such positions are true or false. Such positions may have been tolerated, but this could have been because of a lack of foresight as to where such positions might lead.” [continued further below]

Our Response: First, the results of research should never be assessed on the basis of fears about what others might do with it in the future. A knife can be used for a beneficial operation or for murder. Second, another and perhaps a better explanation is that such positions were held and accepted (and not just tolerated) throughout Reformed church history because with few exceptions Reformed Christians followed the example of men like Augustine and John Calvin who (1) took secular science and other secular scholarship seriously (Calvin gratefully accepted science as God’s gift and confessed that “human competence in art and science…derives from the Spirit of God” — Institutes, II.ii.16), and (2) therefore also admitted the responsibility of Christians to take secular learning seriously. Well-known is Augustine’s warning to fellow Christians:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]

For the history of the relationship between faith and science in the Christian church see further the comments under #1 and #2 above.

At this point we want to ask Rev. Bredenhof and those who agree with him if they really want a church that makes acceptance of young-earth creationism a condition for membership. If that is indeed what they desire, what will they and their followers do with the heritage of the Reformed theologians, philosophers, and other scholars of the past who defended a non-literalistic interpretation of the creation account? More importantly, how will they justify this before the Head of the church?

WB: “The Canadian Reformed Churches have expressed concerns to the United Reformed Churches about the toleration of the Framework Hypothesis. The Framework Hypothesis leaves the door open for seeing the earth as millions or billions of years old rather than thousands or tens of thousands. This in turn more easily accommodates theistic evolution. Still, no URC ministers are known to be promulgating theistic evolution. No Reformed theologians in the Canadian Reformed Churches have promulgated theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is now what is being promulgated by various intellectuals and scientists. This is what must be addressed and refuted.”

Our Response: The Framework Hypothesis (FH) should be assessed on its own merits, not on how others might use the FH. The history of scholarship makes it clear that on many occasions a hypothesis has been used in support of any number of agendas not actually implied by the hypothesis itself. Further, the notion that an old earth makes it easy to accommodate theistic evolution is no argument against an old earth. In both cases Bredenhof uses political strategies where scholarly argument is called for. This is unfortunate, as we are engaged not in a power struggle but in attempts to find truth.

It remains undeniable that in the longer history of the CanRC various interpretations of passages like those in Genesis 1 have been respected. Nothing in the Reformed confessions (or in the Scriptures themselves) binds us to the adoption of particular interpretations (e.g. “six 24-hour ordinary days about 6000 years ago”), and we are grateful for the heritage of our Canadian Reformed churches for not adopting such statements but respecting ‘vrijheid van exegese’ (freedom of exegesis), as explained in van Genderen & Velema’s widely used Reformed systematic theology textbook.

Bredenhof’s claim that we promulgate theistic evolution is misleading. For “theistic evolution” is a problematic term with no single agreed-upon definition. If he means a combination of belief in God with an acknowledgement that the biological theory of evolution has considerable evidential support, although some aspects are still under debate, then indeed we are guilty as charged — as also is the young-earth creationist Todd Wood. If Bredenhof means that we affirm that non-life produced life and that animal life produced human life, we reject these notions, instead affirming that God created life where there was none before, and that God acted in a special way to create human life. But it appears that Bredenhof simply wishes to employ a rhetorical strategy, to instill fear and grave concern in the minds of his followers who are not aware of these nuances.

We reject the notion that evolution is to be seen as simply a natural process running on its own, into which God has to intervene from time to time to guide it along. God is the creator and sustainer of all things; he created and governs all things by the word of his power.

Bredenhof plays on the fact that many Christians feel that “evolution” by definition excludes God’s involvement. But if evolution is simply a description and explanation of processes taking place in the created world, due to God’s creative and sustaining power, then the difficulty disappears.

For example: We all recognize that God has knit the unborn child together in its mother’s womb (Psalm 139). This does not mean that scientists may not delve into the processes involved in conception, pregnancy, and birth. Would a Christian who focuses on the early development of the fœtus be called a “theistic embryologist”? And would he be condemned for accepting the findings of embryology?

Also, we all recognize that it is God who sends the rain and hail and snow and wind (Psalm 148); these creatures obey his will and do his bidding. But does this mean scientists may not delve into atmospheric science? Is somehow the plain sense reading of Psalm 148 at risk when as Christians we apply thermodynamics and Navier-Stokes equations to describe, explain, and predict the weather? Would a Christian studying the weather and climate be called a “theistic meteorologist”? And again, would he be condemned for accepting the findings of meteorology?

It is clear that the use of the term “theistic evolution” in the context of Bredenhof’s missive is again simply a rhetorical strategy, avoiding the proper defining and nuancing of terms and, it seems, intended to instill fear into the hearts of the faithful who look to him for leadership. Our young people, especially university students, can see right through this approach.

6. The Reformed Confessions

WB: “The Confessions are not a wax nose that can be turned any way we please. For example, Belgic Confession article 14 references Genesis 2:7, “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground…” When the Confession was first adopted by the Reformed Churches, it was understood that this meant that God literally created man from the earth. Prior to Adam, there were no “Adam-like” creatures or hominids. The first commentator on the Belgic Confession, Samuel Maresius, was familiar with the idea of pre-Adamites in his day. He wrote a lengthy refutation of the notion. Likewise, in his commentary on the Confession he indicates that the Confession means what it says. There is no room for pre-Adamites in the Belgic Confession. When the same Confession was adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches, there was the same understanding. There is no “wiggle room” in this statement. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, it may be advisable for our churches, in consultation with our sister churches and others (at ICRC and NAPARC) to add a clarifying statement in article 14 that rules out any possible notion of pre-Adamites or theistic evolution.”

Our Response: It is noteworthy that, as Bredenhof himself points out, the authors of the Belgic Confession were aware of a theory of pre-Adamites but did not refer to it in the Confession. Neither, of course, did they make any pronouncements on the age of the earth, the length of the “days,” the position of the earth in the solar system, and similar matters. Apparently the confession was, in the view of its authors, not meant to pronounce on issues of what was for them modern science. Rather, the confessions were to proclaim the infallibility of Scripture (not its inerrancy if this is interpreted in the latter-day rationalistic sense). May our churches, and the Reformed churches worldwide, take heed and be careful not to depart from the wisdom the authors of the Reformed confessions displayed. Bredenhof refers to the views of a particular commentator on the Belgic Confession. However, Calvinism never was a homogeneous movement. Individual Calvinists have held a variety of views on matters scientific, theological and otherwise. For instance, the Calvinist astronomer Nicolaus Mulerius (1564-1630) rejected heliocentrism while the Calvinist astronomer Philip Lansbergen (1561-1632) promoted it. Likewise, the geologist John William Dawson (1820-1899) rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution while the theologian James Iverach (1839-1922) accepted it. Both were Presbyterians who had studied at the University of Edinburgh, Iverach in mathematics and physics, Dawson in geology. Like them, we are not bound beyond the Confessions to also affirm the views of commentators. Nor are we bound beyond the Confessions to also affirm whatever reasons churches may have had to adopt the Confessions.

As it stands, the confessions are indeed sufficient to take care of the question of pre-Adamites. We believe that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. As such Adam and Eve were the first human beings. No creature existing before this special action of God was created in his image, and no such creature is therefore to be regarded as human. This includes those beings which used primitive tools and whose skeletal remains we have as fossils. And we affirm a robust Christian anthropology, rejecting the notion that being human is simply biological; instead, humans alone among all creatures on earth relate to God as persons. Humans alone are created in God’s image, and have the calling and responsibility to obey his command of love and to articulate his praises.

7. Mission

WB: “The question of creation and evolution is not a widespread global issue amongst Christians, whether new or more mature believers. It is more of an issue amongst North American and European academics in urban environments. One should not be tempted to reconsider the issue of theistic evolution on the basis of an argument that this is a significant concern for Christian mission.”

Our Response: Assuming for the moment that this is merely a problem for urbanites, does this mean that urbanites are not important? In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd left all his sheep to save just one. Should we not be concerned about urbanites, or is Rev. Bredenhof not interested in urban missions? Further, it is not clear what is meant by the word “reconsider.” Does it refer to the proclamation of the biological theory of evolution as gospel truth? That should of course never be done — no more than notions such as young-earth creation science should be proclaimed as gospel truths. What we (and others) who acknowledge the strength of the scientific evidences for an old earth and/or biological evolution, and who seek to understand these matters also in light of Scripture, ask is that our positions be not condemned as the work of Satan and worthy of excommunication. In short, we ask that these positions be “tolerated” and freely discussed.

To what extent the issue should in fact be mentioned in missionary activity will depend on the type of mission one has in mind. If we think of mission to what are sometimes called primitive peoples, it is probably best to ignore the issue, at least until questions arise. This can also be the case in mission to Muslims, although there may well be educated Muslims who, when drawn to the Gospel, would consider the rejection of modern science as a barrier. However this may be, the church has a duty to proclaim the gospel not only to “heathens and Muslims” but also to members of what was once a Christian society. And here, in what is usually called evangelism, the outright rejection of the claims of modern science will frequently constitute an unnecessary stumbling block. It also threatens to constitute an unnecessary stumbling block to church members, especially to academics and students. They, as well as their non-Christian peers, know of the advances in medicine and technology that modern science has achieved. It will be difficult for them to believe that they can only be accepted as members of our church if they are willing to reject much of modern science.

It is unfortunate that many, including Bredenhof, continue, despite our urgings, to conflate evolution with evolutionism. That is, they fail to see the distinction between a theory of biology on the one hand and an overarching worldview or philosophy on the other. This distinction is intentionally blurred by the well-known new atheists who claim that science has proven the universe has no purpose and that God does not exist, etc. And organizations like Answers in Genesis agree with these atheists (insofar as they too conflate evolution and evolutionism) for their own purposes.

8. The Calling of Office Bearers and Consistories

WB: “All office bearers have a duty to ‘oppose, refute, and help prevent’ the errors of theistic evolutionary thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Whether in public (from the pulpit) or in private discussions, ministers have a responsibility to give clear direction from the Word of God and call those to repentance who are harbouring, tolerating, or teaching such errors. Consistories have a responsibility to use the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bring brothers and sisters who harbour, tolerate, or teach such errors to real amendment and repentance. A failure to carry out this calling will be detrimental to the spiritual health of the Canadian Reformed Churches.”

Our Response: As the above will have made clear, we are convinced that any attempt to censure and silence those who, while confessing their faith according to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of salvation, simply ask for a free and open discussion on their views regarding the relationship between faith and science, will (1) be a revolutionary innovation in any Reformed church, and (2) seriously endanger, rather than enhance, the spiritual health of such a church. Consistories should never abuse their authority and use the keys of the kingdom to safeguard their own fallible opinion on the issue under discussion.

The Way Forward

In the foregoing we have expressed our deep concern about both the tone and the contents of Rev. Bredenhof’s blog post. He leaves the impression that in our community it is perfectly acceptable to hurt each other with insensitive language and offensive pictures for the purpose of maintaining what is considered pure doctrine. As a result, however, the pure doctrine becomes invisible in a fog of impure practices. Why, we ask, doesn’t Bredenhof follow the rule of Matthew 18 and why doesn’t he agree to enter into discussion, face to face, with those he disagrees with? This requires a willingness by both parties to give an account of their views, and to do so in an attempt to understand each other. It is what Scripture calls us to do. We had therefore hoped that our repeated requests for a hearing would receive a positive answer. Unfortunately, they did not. Bredenhof stated that he is not prepared to engage in a discussion with us. He is convinced, we have to conclude, that our position is of such a dangerous nature that it must be condemned without further ado, biblical teachings notwithstanding.

We have in our response registered our objections not just to Bredenhof’s attitude and procedure with respect to us, but also to his arguments. Of course, we understand what moves him. He is convinced that the Reformed character of our churches is at risk if a non-literalistic interpretation of the creation account is allowed; indeed, that this will endanger the spiritual well-being of all the church’s members. But as we have pointed out, such a conclusion is not in agreement with the Bible and the Confessions, and it has therefore never officially been taught in the Christian church. It is an innovation, and a revolutionary one at that. As history makes clear, the approach is also dangerous, since it leads to the denial of scientific theories that are in conflict with a literalistic reading of Scripture regardless of the scientific evidence. They are portrayed as baseless and even, as happens among us today, as the work of Satan himself. But do we realize what we are saying? Many of the applications of modern science are of great benefit to us and are to be received with thanksgiving. Surely we do not want to suggest that we owe them to Satan? We reminded you in this connection of the warnings not only of Augustine (as quoted above) but also of John Calvin, who confessed that science (and he referred to secular science!) is God’s gift. He added, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God” (Institutes, II.ii.15; for similar statements see also other paragraphs in this chapter).

Although we are convinced with John Calvin that science is God’s gift, we do not deny that it presents Christians with serious challenges. Indeed, these challenges have been admitted throughout church history, but they are probably more serious in our days than they were in Augustine’s or Calvin’s. One of the reasons why we established the blog Reformed Academic was the widely felt need to deal honestly with these difficulties and to refer students and others to the work of Christian scientists, theologians, philosophers, and others, both past and present, who have wrestled with these challenges and attempt to offer us solutions. Much of our work is of an apologetic nature, that is, it focuses on the defence of the faith in a world where that faith is under constant attack, not least by those who try to use science as evidence that God does not exist. We hope to continue this work, and we urge our pastors and teachers not to reject it as anti-Christian, but rather to support it. The way to go forward for our churches is not to deny science but deal with the challenges it presents. May God bless that work!


Josh Walker said...

Regarding point #1, I understand that you are denying the term "inerrancy", but could you outline a positive view of the Scriptures? Does the Bible contain any factual errors? Do you affirm "infallibility"? What do you understand the different to be between the concepts termed "inerrancy" and "infallibility"?

Josh Walker
Hamilton, ON

Tim Denbok said...

Thanks Reformed Academic for this. Thanks a lot. We, as CanRC churches do not need any kind of extra-confessional statements to be adopted, that's for sure. And thanks for pointing out the distinctions between evolution and evolutionism. Especially that you do not believe in animal life evolving into human life, and that you believe human life is special. And also that the reformers left scientific inquiry as a separate field. The dangers of exegesis or a particular hermeneutic proclaimed as infallible, not Scripture were also explained well.

As Donald Rumsfeld (former US Defense Secretary) said: "There are known unknowns." Indeed there are. And this is not just a post-modern statement. Except for a brief period in human history of maybe 200 years when mankind believed everything could be known (Rationalism, then Modernism), brought on indeed by advances in science and engineering, post-modernism has helped (thanks to science in part also), place man back in a less prideful biblical perspective - the crown of creation, not the king or dictator himself.

Tim Denbok
Hamilton, ON

Reformed Academic said...

Thanks, Josh, for your inquiry. Let us direct you to this piece which was posted over three years ago on the topic. We think Vandergaag's essay, along with the ensuing discussion in the comments, does a good job of answering your questions.

Bill DeJong said...

Josh, I don't think it's fair to allege that Reformed Academic affiliates deny inerrancy when their stated complaint is that the term is "virtually meaningless." The charge that they "deny inerrancy" has potential to prejudice the debate by misconstruing the argument to be about the Bible's authority rather than about a term sometimes used to defend the Bible's authority.

Moreover, let me hypothesize about the reasons why there's hesitation about the term inerrancy: (a) theologians at the federational seminary have been critical of term, (b) the term utilizes a category the Bible does not apply to itself and is itself indicative of a modern, empiricist, positivistic worldview, (c) the term is meaningless if (1) applied to original autographs which are inaccessible (2) exclusive of scribal errors, the presence of which every Reformed theologian admits.

For these reasons, and others, I much prefer the language of Scripture's "trustworthiness." This is a category the Bible uses of itself and one the continental Reformed confessions endorse. Consider article 5 of the Belgic Confession: "we believe without a doubt all things contained therein."

So rather than utilize a category so indicative of an empiricist worldview and so unhelpful, apart from numerous qualifications, why not utilize the language of Scripture and the continental Reformed confessions?

For what's it worth, when J.I. Packer (one of the authors of the Chicago statement) is asked what is meant by the inerrancy of Scripture, he apparently says: "its trustworthiness."

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Josh Walker said...


Thank you for taking the time to interact with my comment. For ease of responding, I will post your comments and then respond accordingly.

Bill: Josh, I don't think it's fair to allege that Reformed Academic affiliates deny inerrancy when their stated complaint is that the term is "virtually meaningless."

Response: Point taken. I was trying to speak with brevity, but brevity might not have been my friend. Let me ask it this way: why do they (Reformed Academic) in this post say that the term "inerrancy" is "virtually meaningless," while defining it as "the idea of an absolutely errorless Bible" (in the post they linked to above)? Can it be both? Further, the reason given for this "meaninglessness" is that there are many definitions. Why not use the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy as the definition? Also, we often use terms that have many definitions. The term "Reformed" comes to mind.

Bill: The charge that they "deny inerrancy" has potential to prejudice the debate by misconstruing the argument to be about the Bible's authority rather than about a term sometimes used to defend the Bible's authority.

Response: I, for one, do not care what term is used to describe one's view of the Bible. What matters is what is meant by a term. Further, my comments were precisely abou the Bible's authority and how those who post on RA understand it. After reading the provided link, I understand their view to be "infallibility", which "has generally been interpreted as implying not factual inerrancy, but the Bible’s absolute trustworthiness in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals." This is helpful for me as a reader to understand where RA is coming from on the issue of Biblical authority.

Bill: Moreover, let me hypothesize about the reasons why there's hesitation about the term inerrancy: (a) theologians at the federational seminary have been critical of term,

Response: Good to know. (continued...)

Josh Walker said...


Bill: (b) the term utilizes a category the Bible does not apply to itself and is itself indicative of a modern, empiricist, positivistic worldview,

Response: Could you please elaborate on what you mean by this? Of course the Bible does not use the term "inerrancy", but it does not use plunty of other terms that we think are proper to use (i.e. "trinity", which it could be argued is an Aristotelian category because it distinguishes between essence and person). However, those who hold to inerrancy argue that what they mean by inerrancy is the same thing that the BIble means when it says trustworthy. Again, the term, as we both argue is irrelevant, it is what is meant by the term. Thus, by my questions, I was trying to ascertain what RA's view are on the authority of the Bible.

Bill: (c) the term is meaningless if (1) applied to original autographs which are inaccessible (2) exclusive of scribal errors, the presence of which every Reformed theologian admits.

Response: Is the term trustworthy meaningless? Does it apply to the original autographs? If not, in what sense are the manuscripts "trustworthy" if they contain whole chapters of the Bible that are not in the originals? Further, those who refer to the autographs as inerrant are not so much commenting about an autograph we possess, but rather they are commenting about the nature of the God who inspired the autographs.

Bill: For these reasons, and others, I much prefer the language of Scripture's "trustworthiness." This is a category the Bible uses of itself and one the continental Reformed confessions endorse. Consider article 5 of the Belgic Confession: "we believe without a doubt all things contained therein."

Response: The term to prefer is "trustworthiness" because this is the continental Reformed view. To prove this you cite the BC article 5. However, this article says nothing about the Bible being trustworthy (i.e. the term is not used). Could not someone who holds to inerrancy agree with this article? Further, is the article referring to the autographs or the manuscript tradition? Surely, it is not referring to the longer ending of Mark, is it?

Bill: So rather than utilize a category so indicative of an empiricist worldview and so unhelpful, apart from numerous qualifications, why not utilize the language of Scripture and the continental Reformed confessions?

Response: The term "unhelpful" here is a bit confusing. Do you mean unhelpful to you? I am sure that the authors of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy find the term helpful. Further, why does the term "inerrancy" stem from an "empiricist worldview"? Even RA in defining the term "infallible" uses the concept of inerrancy (albeit in the negative). Either way is not an "empiricist worldview" in play? Further, even if it can be show (which it has not been yet) that the concept of inerrancy stems from an "empiricist worldview", why is this a bad thing? Again, we use terms and concepts from the whole history of thought. Why is the time period in which a concept or term arises automatically problematic?

Once again, thank you for the interaction. I hope, if nothing else, the views held by RA are brought out clearer so that everyone understands what is being affirmed and denied.

Josh Walker
Hamilton, ON

Bill DeJong said...

Thanks for engaging me in such amicable fashion, Josh. I don't want this to become a prolonged debate, but permit me several brief responses.

1. When I critique the term "inerrancy" on the grounds that we should speak of the Bible in terms of its own approach, my objection is not to a word not found in the Bible (as you recognize), but to a way of thinking (i.e., a category) that I believe isn't sufficiently grounded in Scripture (more about this below). I would argue that "trinity" as a way of thinking is sufficiently grounded in Scripture.

2. I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that the term "inerrancy" is more advantageous than the term "trustworthiness." I'm appealing to the Belgic Confession, and you to the Chicago Statement. It seems the former has priority.

3. At one point you questioned whether my citation from the Belgic Confession ("we believe without a doubt all things contained therein") proves my point about the confessional preference for the concept of trustworthiness. But what does it mean "to believe without a doubt," but to trust and to trust fully? Put negatively, if I don't trust, I doubt.

4. At issue here is the nature of Scripture as God's revelation which I understand to be deeply covenantal. If the best institutional analogy for covenant is marriage, then the words of God to the church are analogous to the loving words of a husband to his wife. A wife doesn't think of her husband's pledges (primarily at least) in terms of possible errors, but in terms of fidelity and trustworthiness.

5. Put yet differently and perhaps more helpfully, the language of "error" evokes for me the realm of mathematical equations and scientific precision while the language of "trustworthiness" suggests marital fidelity. This is why I allege that the term "inerrancy" is indicative of empiricism and positivism, where certainty is associated with facts and acquired through methods and equations.

6. Thus, an emphasis on inerrancy has real potential to derail a faithful reception of God's Word by making one of the objectives of Bible interpretation the demonstration of inerrancy. Only in this paradigm is Jesus allegation about the mustard seed as the smallest seed problematic. I reach the same conclusion about the mustard seed as the inerrantists (and the inerrantists, because of their paradigm, are forced to say something about it). The difference is that Jesus' statement never struck me as problematic in the first place.

7. One byproduct of a commitment to inerrancy as a category for understanding biblical revelation is forced harmonizations. There are, of course, many natural harmonizations to apparent discrepancies in the Bible. In other cases, however, there are discrepancies for which there is no natural harmonization and for which I feel no particular burden to harmonize. I suppose I'm content with some real (and perceived) discrepancies in areas where contentment is impossible for an inerrantist.

8. The issue, ultimately, is: what kind of text is Scripture? Because it is a covenantal text, the concept of "trustworthiness" best describes its character.

This turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, and I hope my remarks are helpful, illuminating, and not as random as I perceive they might be.

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Josh Walker said...


For sake of brevity, I will not respond point by point because I agree with about 94.765% of you last comment. I am still left, however, with this lingering question: do you, and those who post on Reformed Academic, believe that this idea of trustworthiness applies to the entire Bible ( i. e., everything contained in the original autographs)?

Bill DeJong said...

Josh, that was both positive and positivistic of you to say you agree with me 94.765%. You evidently are one for scientific precision and in this sense the text of your post is unlike the text of Scripture! Part of my burden is to shift the debate from the TEXT with all of its attendant issues (variants, text traditions, scribal errors, translations, etc.,) to the absolute trustworthiness of its AUTHOR. Put differently, I'm trying to show that Scripture for Christians is unlike the Koran for Muslims (for whom the category of inerrancy seems to fit better).

Thus, even though our Bible versions (NIV, ESV, etc.) are mere and sometimes poor translations of Greek and Hebrew texts, some of whose manuscript pedigree is uncertain, God is completely trustworthy. Let's endeavour, for the glory of God, to locate the best text and produce the best translation, but let's not reduce God's trustworthiness to our fallible decisions about text choice, variants, or translations.

Lastly, the best and most convincing presentation of the Bible's authority is made, not with sophisticated argumentation, but in the lives of those who submit to it, who accept the script because they find the divine playwright trustworthy and readily participate in the drama it narrates.

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Josh Walker said...


So is that a 'yes' or a 'no'?

You said, "Part of my burden is to shift the debate from the TEXT with all of its attendant issues (variants, text traditions, scribal errors, translations, etc.,) to the absolute trustworthiness of its AUTHOR."

I could not agree more. That is why I was very careful in my last question to include the following: "everything contained in the original autographs." The original autographs do not contain "variants, text traditions, scribal errors, translations, etc."

So, let me ask this again, but this time in your categorize. Do you think that every aspect of every text that the divine author creates is trustworthy?

Josh Walker
Hamilton, ON

Reformed Academic said...


On March 13, you wrote: “I was trying to ascertain what RA’s views are on the authority of the Bible.” Since your question was not only directed to Bill DeJong, but also to us, our short answer is that we agree with Rev. DeJong. We couldn’t have said it any better. Here is our longer response. We consider the notions of infallibility and inerrancy to be derived from that of the authority of Scripture which in turn is derived from that of the Author of Scripture. Since the Author of Scripture is trustworthy and speaks truth, therefore Scripture whether in its autographs or in what we have now is truthful and trustworthy. This is what we believe was originally meant by infallibility and inerrancy. Unfortunately, the term inerrancy has come to be associated with a modern mindset that places too much trust in reason and science and has moved away from the importance of the work of the Holy Spirit. So we have a choice. We can try to return to the original meaning of the term inerrancy or abandon it. As we see it this choice is a matter of strategy, not of principle because we all accept Scripture as truthful and trustworthy.

We think this choice should be determined by the needs of believers, particularly the need for clear communication and the need to build each other up in the faith. If we were to return to the original meaning of inerrancy we would have to make every effort to take distance from its abuses. This would include communicating the view outlined above to the members of NAPARC with whom the Canadian Reformed Churches are apparently committed to inerrancy. This is a communications nightmare because inerrancy has far too many definitions, is a highly controversial term, and will require that the community be educated and agreed on its meaning.

On the other hand, we can try to distance ourselves from the abuses of inerrancy and stick with the terms truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. As we see it, this will communicate clearly and in a simple way what is intended by the authority of Scripture because these terms point to the authority of its Author. It will contribute to building each other up in the faith because it will avoid bringing the discussion about inerrancy into the church where it will create unnecessary confusion.

We see no point in referring to the original autographs. You take the reference to the original autographs as a reference to the trustworthiness of God. We think this is an unusual way of referring to God which we would not use. We also think the focus on autographs is another manifestation of what Rev. Bill DeJong refers to as a positivistic attitude that betrays too much confidence in science.

The Reformed Academic Team

Josh Walker said...

To The Reformed Academic Team,

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

In it you say, "We consider the notions of infallibility and inerrancy to be derived from that of the authority of Scripture which in turn is derived from that of the Author of Scripture. Since the Author of Scripture is trustworthy and speaks truth, therefore Scripture whether in its autographs or in what we have now is truthful and trustworthy."

Just for clarification, does this truthfulness and trustworthiness extend to every part of the Bible or only certain parts, say doctrine?

Josh Walker
Hamilton, ON

P.S. Am I to assume that something that is posted by the handle "Reformed Academic" represents and is endorsed by all the contributors to this blog?

Bill DeJong said...

Josh, you asked: "Do you think that every aspect of every text that the divine author creates is trustworthy?"

Answer: Yes.

Thanks for the exchange!

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Reformed Academic said...

We are making no distinctions. What we said applies to all of Scripture.

The Reformed Academic Team (Tony Jelsma, Freda Oosterhoff, Arnold Sikkema, and Jitse van der Meer)