Members of the United Reformed Churches (URC) have held a variety of views on creation since the organization of the URC as a federation of churches in 1996. The main issue is the interpretation of Genesis, especially chapters 1 and 2. Some in the URC interpret these opening chapters of the Bible literally. Others interpret these chapters figuratively. The difference centers mainly on the days of Genesis 1. Those who interpret Genesis 1 literally view the days as ordinary 24-hour days. Those who interpret the chapter figuratively view the days as long periods of time. This raises the important question, should a variety of interpretations of Genesis be allowed within a Reformed denomination?
In the September 23, 2009 issue of Christian Renewel, Rev. Doug Barnes gives an explanation for why the URC have determined to allow a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. This issue, he explains, was dealt with by the URC Synod of 2001. He writes,
Several overtures to Synod 2001 made it clear that there was concern about the disagreement our churches have concerning this issue. So, in answer, the synodical delegates summarized what we already confessed regarding creation, effectively highlighting the boundaries of orthodoxy. By means of this simple summary, it became evident that what we already confess protects us against theistic evolution, views that question Adam’s historicity, any interpretation that regards the events in the garden as allegory, and similarly dangerous views. The synod then affirmed that we, as churches, have agreed to discipline anyone who transgresses these bounds; and that we have a church orderly manner in which to do so.
Rev. Barnes’ point is that the URC does not allow just any interpretation of Genesis but only those that are in harmony with the Three Forms of Unity. The position taken by the URC Synod in 2001 is that the literal interpretation of Genesis and at least some figurative interpretations are in harmony with the confessions.
The minutes of the URC Synod 2001 demonstrate that synod deliberately determined to allow both the literal and figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.¹ According to the minutes of this meeting, synod treated this motion: “That synod affirm that the Bible teaches that God created all things good and in six historical days defined as evenings and mornings (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and Exodus 20:11).” It seems the intent of this motion was to interpret Genesis 1 and Genesis 2literally, to the exclusion of any figurative interpretation. However, a historical day defined as evening and morning is not necessarily a 24-hour day, which means that some wiggle room could possibly be found for viewing the days of Genesis as long periods of time. It seems that some delegates of synod recognized the possible ambiguity of this motion and proposed to amend it “by replacing the ‘historical’ with ‘ordinary days as we know them.'” If this amendment passed, the motion would very clearly establish the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 as the only correct interpretation. This amendment failed. Another amendment was proposed to elide the word “historical.” This amendment passed, and so did the final motion, which reads: “Synod affirms that the Bible teaches that God created all things good in six days defined as evenings and mornings (Gen. 1 and Gen. 2 andEx. 20:11).” Though the word “historical” did not necessarily exclude figurative interpretations of Genesis 1and Genesis 2 by itself, its removal does seem to be a deliberate action by synod to avoid casting a negative light on such interpretations.
Synod 2001 did not explain why it wanted to allow room for both literal and figurative interpretations ofGenesis 1 and Genesis 2. Rev. Barnes’ opinion is that synod went as far as the URC confessions (The Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt) would allow it. In Rev. Barnes’ opinion synod would have gone beyond the confessions and made an “extra confessional [statement]” had it determined that only a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is allowed.
On the surface, the argument that the confessions do not speak definitively on the literal or figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 seems plausible. The days of Genesis 1 are the main issue here, and it is true that the confessions do not make an explicit statement about those days, as they do about other issues. For example the confessions are very clear that Matthew 26:26, where Jesus says “this is my body,” cannot be interpreted as teaching the doctrine of transubstantiation, since the Heidelberg Catechism in Q/A 78 explicitly denies that doctrine by teaching that the bread and wine do not become the very body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. There is no comparable statement in the confessions that the days of Genesis 1 were 24-hour days or “ordinary days as we know them.”
However, what the confessions allow cannot be determined only on the basis of explicit confessional statements; for there are things the confessions teach by clear implication if not by explicit statements. Synod 2001 and Rev. Barnes do not deny that the deeper implications must be considered, but with regard to the interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 it seems there was an unwillingness to go beyond the explicit statements of the confessions. The question is, do the confessions, by what they explicitly teach, demand (by implication) a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2? This question can be answered in light of the handy summary of what the confessions teach adopted by the URC Synod of 2001. I will not quote the summary in full but here are some of the relevant points:
Synod affirms that Scripture teaches, as summarized by the Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity:
* The authority and perspicuity of Scripture (Belgic Confession VII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII)
* The necessity and sufficiency of Scripture (Belgic Confession VII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII) . . .
* The Father created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day IX)
* God gave every creature its shape and being (Belgic Confession XII)
* The creation and fall of man. “God made man of the dust of the earth; man gave ear to the devil” (Belgic Confession XIV)…
* The historicity of Adam (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII, 20; Canons of Dordt III, IV. 1)The first two points establish the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture. The confessions bind Reformed believers to accept Scripture’s account of how God created the heavens and the earth. While the confessions do not explicitly state “Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 must be interpreted literally,” this is the necessary implication of the fact that the confessions assume that many of the events recorded in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are historical events. God literally created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. God literally created each creature. God literally made Adam from the dust of the ground. In fact, the synod even goes so far as to establish as fact that God created in “six days defined as evenings and mornings.” Were these literal days—24-hour days? Since the confessions clearly interpret Genesis as literal history, the necessary implication is that the days of Genesis 1 are 24-hour days.
What the confessions say or imply about the doctrine of creation is not the only important issue. What the confessions have to say about Scripture is also important. The URC Synod recognized the importance of this issue as is evidenced by its two statements (quoted above) on Scripture. God’s work of creation is a miracle, as recorded in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. God’s act of creating all things out of nothing is a miracle. God’s act of making all creatures in six 24-hour days is a miracle. The confessions bind us to believe all the miracles of Scripture, including the miracle of God’s creation of the world in six 24-hour days, because the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. The question is, do not figurative interpretations that deny that God created all things in six 24-hour days, cast doubt on one of the miracles recorded in Scripture and thereby deny the Reformed doctrine of Scripture? In his September 23 article, Rev. Barnes explains that he does not believe that figurative interpretations of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are necessarily a denial of Scripture’s inspiration and infallibility.
I myself hold to a literal (six-day) view of creation. It is exegetically clear to me…that this is the conclusion Scripture teaches. However, there are a couple of other views which can be exegetically defended in a way that is responsible. I heartily disagree with them and believe their conclusions are flawed—but I do respect the care with which they handle God’s Word and their intention to take that Word seriously.
However, when responding to more questions about creation in the January 13, 2010 issue of Christian Renewal, Rev. Barnes indicates that it is not so easy for him to respect the views of those who interpretGenesis 1 and Genesis 2 figuratively (especially the views of those who hold to the Framework Hypothesis). Rev. Barnes was asked by a reader to provide details about the Framework Hypothesis. Rev. Barnes is very critical of this figurative method of interpreting Genesis. He is especially critical of Meredith G. Kline, one of the earliest proponents of the Framework Hypothesis (whose views have been adopted by many in the URC). He criticizes one of Kline’s arguments for why Genesis 1 cannot be taken literally as “flawed.” He also ridicules Kline’s explanation of the days of Genesis 1as absurdly difficult writing, “Kline…alleges that the days of Genesis 1 reflect the passage of time in ‘upper register’ days. If you want to try understanding that idea…well, have fun—but you are on your own!” At the end of this article Rev. Barnes lands one last blow against the Framework Hypothesis, telling the questioner, “I encourage you to ask those who advocate a non-literal view to explain why they hold their belief. Perhaps they can explain why God made the start of His revelation so complex that it took until the mid-1900s to figure it out.” In this last statement Rev. Barnes is not simply referring to Dr. Kline, but he is consciously referring to and ridiculing the views of United Reformed men, colleagues of his in the ministry, who hold to non-literal views of Genesis 1 and 2. If Rev. Barnes truly believes there can be unity between those who hold to different interpretations ofGenesis 1 and 2, it would seem he owes some of his colleagues an apology for holding their views up to public ridicule. The actual course to be followed is for Rev. Barnes and the URC to recognize that figurative interpretations of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are inherently an attack on the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and repudiate them.
Figurative interpretations are an attack on Genesis 1 andGenesis 2, and the danger is that, if Genesis 1 and Genesis 2can be attacked, soon other passages of Scripture that record miracles will also be attacked. The reality of this danger in the URC was revealed in the January 27 issue of Christian Renewal. In response to Rev. Barnes’ January 13, 2010 column, Professor Tony Jelsma, a biology professor at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, took issue with Rev. Barnes’ dismissal of the Framework Hypothesis. Professor Jelsma explains that he is “not a proponent of the Framework Interpretation.” However, he proceeds to defend the Framework Hypothesis. Proponents of the literal interpretation of Genesis, especially those in the URC, need to take note that Prof. Jelsma asserted he can tolerate and defend the Framework Hypothesis but attacks the literal interpretation of Genesis as “neither warranted from Scripture nor…supported by science.” Prof. Jelsma is prepared to allow the Framework Hypothesis as biblically defensible but utterly rejects as unbiblical the traditional interpretation of Genesis. Perhaps Prof. Jelsma has no intention of seeking the censure of those who hold what he calls an unbiblical position, but this is what he would do if he were consistent. At the very least, by calling the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 unbiblical he shows that he believes that only one view should really be allowed in the church, the non-literal view of Genesis.
But the main significance of Prof. Jelsma’s letter is that he admits to denying that the flood in Noah’s day was a worldwide flood. While Prof. Jelsma does not himself make a connection between his denial of a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and his denial of a literal interpretation of Genesis 7 (especially verses 19-20), it is not hard to see the connection. If the miraculous work of God in creating in six 24-hour days can be explained away, then His miraculous work of destroying the whole world with a flood can be explained away too. Professor Jelsma is a prime example of what critics of figurative interpretations have warned about for a long time: a denial of Genesis 1and Genesis 2 as history will soon lead to a denial of historical facts recorded in other parts of Scripture. Soon the floodgates will be opened, and many other miracles recorded as historical facts in the Bible will be denied.
This is all significant because Prof. Jelsma is a member of the URC. It will be interesting to see if the URC will argue that, just as it can tolerate different views on creation, it can also tolerate different views on the flood. Will Prof. Jelsma’s unbelieving attitude toward the Bible be rejected, or will he, like those who hold to figurative views of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, be defended as “within the bounds” of the confessions?
Prof. Jelsma has laid down the challenge for action to be taken against him. He did not appreciate Rev. Barnes’ response to his first letter. Rev. Barnes noted Prof. Jelsma’s position at Dordt and wrote, “We all should become well-aware of how ‘Reformed’ colleges today are teaching our children to interpret the Bible that we might direct our support and our students accordingly.” Prof. Jelsma wrote a second letter (Christian Renewal, February 24) complaining that Rev. Barnes did not deal with his arguments and suggests Rev. Barnes should perhaps “warn the Sioux Center URC (which is well aware of my position) to prevent me from leading its Adult Sunday School, which I have done since the church’s inception.”
It certainly would be appropriate to prevent Prof. Jelsma from teaching any class in a church as long as he holds to his Scripture-denying views. But more must be done. The root of the problem must be addressed. The figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 must be seen for what it is—an attack upon the confessional view of creation and upon the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Therefore, the figurative interpretation of Genesis must be rejected. If this heresy is allowed to coexist with the simple truth of Scripture, it will not rest until it has rooted the truth out of the church and finally opened up the dam to a multitude of errors. We must insist upon one interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 —the literal interpretation. By faith we must embrace and confess the truth of Scripture and the confessions that God created all things in six 24-hour days.
¹ See the “Minutes of the Fourth Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America”:http://www.covenant-urc.org/urcna/SynodMinutes04.pdf.