I received a paper from a freshman student in Calvin College which was distributed in a religion course and which was entitled, “The Historicity of Genesis 1-3“. If there was needed any further proof that the authority of the Scriptures is being denied in Calvin, and if there is needed any additional proof that “Report 44” on the “Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority” adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has opened the door to such denial, this paper will serve that purpose with emphasis.
It is rather startling how the paper openly flouts the truth of Scriptural authority. But the frightfully poor logic of the paper leaves one wondering if every rule of logic must be thrown to the winds to make room for the unbelieving views of higher critics.
The author of the paper is Dr. David Holwerda, Associate professor of religion and theology at Calvin. The paper is evidently intended to offer a solution to what the author calls “the last hurdle in the Scripture-Science debate” which “is found in the first chapters of Genesis.” All the other “hurdles” in this debate have evidently been overcome; there remains just this one. The paper will now proceed to solve that problem, and the debate will have come to its conclusion.
But it seems as if the debate has been, for the most part, resolved in favor of science. Although there are various assertions by the author throughout the paper supporting this thesis, this point is made already in the first two paragraphs:
The present Scripture-Science debate should not force the Church to make judgments on the validity of scientific theories. Such is not her calling, and history has demonstrated that such is not within the scope of her competence. The Church must be concerned with the understanding of Scripture. Although scientific development has caused the Church to reassess its understanding of the first chapters of Genesis, scientific theory can hardly dictate the interpretation of these chapters. Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with its nature. Appropriate principles of interpretation must be developed which do justice to the uniquely revelatory character of the Scriptures.
Although the author solemnly avers that “scientific theory can hardly dictate the interpretation” of the first chapters of Genesis, nevertheless the “Church” has no right “to make judgments on the validity of scientific theories.” One wonders whether this also holds true of the theory of evolution. And, indeed, science has forced the “Church to reassess its understanding of the first chapters of Genesis.”
But Scripture, the author says, must be interpreted according to its own nature. What is the nature of Scripture? Holwerda writes:
The question at issue can be stated rather simply.
appears to be a straightforward historical narrative from creation to the call of Abraham. But what type of historical narrative is it? The events recorded are few in number and episodic in character. The genealogies appear to be schematic arrangements demonstrating historical continuity, unity of the race, death in spite of longevity, and Perhaps also the role of Israel among the nations. The events recorded antedate historical Israel by millennia and appear to be related positively or negatively in theme and symbol to stories of origins circulating in Israel’s environment. . . .
This is a remarkable paragraph. In the first place, it rather deviously admits that the first eleven chapters of Genesis appear to be straightforward historical narrative. But in the very next sentence, this assertion .is denied when the question is asked: “What type of historical narrative is it?” While this is indeed a favored ploy of many higher critics, the fact remains that a certain document is either historical narrative, or it is not. It is historical narrative when it relates history, i.e., facts which actually took place. When historical facts are not recorded, then the document ceases to be historical narrative. That is simple enough. But here we have historical narrative of a particular type; i.e., historical narrative which is not historical narrative.
In the second place, the author at this point is guilty of what in logic is called the fallacy of petitio principii. When one commits this logical fallacy, one assumes to be true the exact point that needs proving. One argues in a circle. One argues that a cow is a cow because a cow is a cow. Every statement the author makes in answer to his question is precisely a statement which needs proving. Let him prove that the genealogies are schematic arrangements proving all sorts of strange things. Let him prove that the events recorded antedate historical Israel by millennia, etc. But simply assuming these things, he goes on to destroy the historicity of Genesis 1-11.
The question now is: “How do these considerations affect our understanding of the history contained in these chapters of Genesis?” This question is answered, first of all, by discussing another question: “We shall begin with the question concerning the sources of Genesis 1-11. In order to arrive at a satisfactory answer we must first ask ourselves the more general question, how were the historical books of the Bible written?”
Here again the author makes all kinds of assumptions which are totally unproved. He assumes first of all that the historical books were written in their entirety with the use of sources. And he does this because he wants to repudiate revelation. He writes: “Revelation is apparently not one of the sources, if by revelation is meant direct impartation by God.” Where again is the proof’? What right does the author have simply to assume these things?
However, in answer to his question of how the historical books came into existence, the author repudiates various theories. He repudiates completely the idea of oral tradition. He also rejects the notion that there was “some kind of dependence of the biblical authors upon existing stories and myths.” After discussing this at length, the author adopts the theory of Prof. J. L. Koole from Kampen who describes the history in the Bible as “prophetic history”. What does this mean? The following quotes will probably make it as clear as it is possible to be made:
. . . The biblical author(s) received a special divine revelation comparable to that received by prophets. This means revelation given in terms of existing thought-patterns and existing world-view. Concepts and symbols are borrowed from the world in which the prophet lives. . . The point is that the prophet addresses his world in terms having a direct relevance for the persons addressed. The prophet is communicating facts; but in his communication, what is symbol and what is event?
. . . Koole and K. Adam reject the interpretation which reduces
to a story describing the condition of Everyman (meaningful myth). They consider it essential to retain the traditional interpretation of Adam as the first man whose historical fail involved ail humanity, but they suggest the possibility of a non-traditional interpretation of the details of the story. Is this a legitimate approach? When one appreciates the time-conditioned nature of revelation, how revelation is expressed in terms of and in reaction to cultural forms experienced by historical Israel . . . it strikes me that the approach of Koole cannot be apriorily rejected.
Prophetic history then is history which has a core of historical fact in it, but a great deal of this historical fact is narrated in such a way that it is, for purposes of interpretation, embellished with and communicated by means of a great deal of symbol and non-historical data which was necessary to get a message across to a people who lived in an entirely different culture from ours. Part of the narrative is history, part is not. Who is going to determine what is history and what is not is left, apparently to the individual. Or perhaps, Holwerda means to say that this question is left to the scientist who will tell us what is in keeping with his scientific discoveries and what is not.
But how does this all apply to Genesis 1-11?
What about the creation account itself, especially
? . . . Because of the unique character of the events described it has been suggested repeatedly that God is in some manner accommodating Himself to human understanding, and consequently
is not to be construed as a literal description of the acts of God.
was revelation first of all to Israel. How would it have been understood in that world? It appears that
would have been read as an implicit critique of the mythological views of nature existing in the ancient world. . . .
This is it then. Genesis 1 (and, presumably the other ten chapters) is only a critique of current conceptions. But how does he know? How does Holwerda know that this is the purpose of Genesis 1? Where is the proof? How did he come to this astonishing and remarkable insight? Apparently he knows better than the Holy Spirit the purpose for including these chapters in the Bible and the purpose for writing them in the way they are written.
But this is Holwerda’s position.
All this (material in
) is set down in terms of ancient cosmology. . .
The Synod of Assen (1926) suggested that to assume that Scripture contains ancient conceptions that can be dated, and are therefore “outdated,” is to assail the authority of Scripture. But why should this be so? Is this approach not rather a legitimate understanding of the historical nature of revelation and of what we have called organic inspiration?
This last is rather interesting. The individual who gave me this paper informed me that the professor of this religion class had assured the class that there were really only two positions one could take on the matter of inspiration. One could take the position that inspiration was mechanical, i.e., that the writers of Scripture simply functioned as stenographers or typewriters; or one could take the position that Scripture was organically inspired. But, he added, organic inspiration necessarily implies such a view of Scripture as presented in this paper. Apparently, this professor doesn’t have the faintest notion of what organic inspiration is all about. Or, if he does know, he deliberately refuses to explain the matter to this class.
What then is the literary form of Genesis 1?
“The literary form of this piece is something of a puzzle . . .” The best identification is to call it a liturgica1 text, elaborately composed for public recitation on a feast day, which almost surely was the new year’s feast. . . .
And so this was the Israelite equivalent of the Babylonian new year’s festival.
If then this was its purpose in Israel and the way in which it was understood, and if Scripture is what we confess it to be, are we not misreading
by attempting to garner from it a kind of loose, yet scientific, description of the “how” of creation?
Finally, Holwerda asks: “Does this approach affect adversely the authority of Scripture?” In answer to this, Holwerda quotes Ridderbos:
“Scripture has authority primarily as the proclamation of the great works of God in Christ. The apostles, as the inspired heralds of the salvation received in Christ, did not receive divine omniscience for the fulfillment of their task; neither were they commissioned to uncover the secrets of nature, the structure of the cosmos, or the problems of science. Scripture does not correct every time-conditioned concept concerning the structure of the cosmos and what is found within it, just as it does not attempt to verify quotations from the Septuagint by comparing them with the Hebrew.”
We cannot expect Scripture to answer all the questions we wish to ask, nor may we subject it to any standard of interpretation we desire. Scripture must be interpreted according to its own nature. As the proclamation of God’s redemptive activity in history, Scripture sheds its light upon all areas of life only from this perspective.
We have not paid somewhat detailed attention to this paper because the author offers his students anything basically new. What this paper contains is the same, for the most part, as has been proposed in one form or another by higher critics over the last century or more. The contribution is not original with him, and the same things have been said somewhat better by many, many others.
We have spent some time on this matter in the first place because it is a demonstration of how far Calvin College has departed from the truth concerning the authority of the Scriptures in the actual teaching given in the classroom.
But secondly, what strikes one in all this is the fact that when one fails to come to Scripture in faith to receive by faith the Bible as the infallibly inspired and authoritative record of the Word of God, one gets himself tied up in all kinds of theories and assumptions and hypotheses which almost no one can understand, and which cannot, for a moment stand the test of logical analysis. If one comes in faith to the Scriptures, the Scriptures speak the very Word of God. Anyone who comes in faith can hear that Word of God whether he be a small child to whom are told the first Bible stories or whether he be a doctor of theology. If one refuses to come in faith, comes instead in unbelief (for this is what the above paper is all about) then there are dozens of theories concerning Scripture from which one can have his pick. There is no real reason to choose one over another. Whichever one you prefer will do nicely. But be sure that all of them make Scripture so difficult to understand that you had better yourself get a degree in theology before you dare to come to Scripture and say: “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”
This is evil. If Holwerda is correct, we are back again in the days prior to the Reformation and back in the clutches of Rome, for we cannot understand the Scriptures ourselves; we need others to teach us. But, thank God, Holwerda is wrong.