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In trying to understand Dr. Howard Van Till’s The Fourth Day, it is difficult to figure out which came first in this case, the chicken or the egg. That is, was his view of Scripture first? And did this view of Scripture make room for his evolutionist scientific theory? Or was his evolutionism first, and did this necessitate his view of Scripture? I suspect it was the latter, even though in his book he deals first with his view of Scripture.

However that may be, when one reads The Fourth Day he comes increasingly under the impression that Van Till’s view of Scripture is that of unbelieving higher criticism. This is true not only with respect to the Genesis narrative, as we shall see; but it is true with respect to the whole of Scripture. According to him, Scripture is culturally conditioned; and the cultural conditioning of the Old Testament Scriptures comes from Israel’s neighbors in the world of the Old Testament. The ghost of Dr. Ralph Janssen, who was deposed in 1922 for his higher critical views, stalks the halls of learning at Calvin College.

All of this becomes abundantly clear long before Dr. Van Till gets rid of the historical account of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and specifically of the creation account. The latter does not come until Chapter 5. But his higher critical views become clear already in Chapter 2, “The View From Palestine.” How does this take place?

First of all, after mentioning the fact that one’s vantage point in viewing the starry heavens is important, so that it makes a difference, for example, whether one views the stars from London or from Lima, in December or in July, he introduces the notion of cultural conditioning as follows:

But there is another very important way in which vantage point controls what we perceive in an upward gaze: our cultural heritage and historical context influence how we mentally interpret or understand what we visually discern. Because of our particular training, we twentieth-century Westerners assign a meaning to astral objects and celestial phenomena quite different from the meaning given to those same objects and phenomena by people who lived in Palestine three thousand years ago. 

In light of this, if we truly wish to discover what we might (or might not) learn about celestial luminaries from the Bible, we must spend some time in preparation. Just as vigorous athletic activity should be preceded by stretching and warm-up exercises, so also serious Bible study ought to be preceded by mental exercises that stretch our awareness and warm up our intellectual curiosity. In preparation for viewing the celestial sphere through the lens of Scripture, we should take a few moments to familiarize ourselves with the historical and cultural context in which the Bible was written, particularly the context in which the Old Testament teaching concerning the stars as God’s Creation was formulated. [pp. 20, 21)

What do we get from this approach?

Things like the following:

—On the basis of archeological evidence, the region of Jericho was occupied as long ago as 8000 B.C.

—”Culture and technology experienced very significant development during this period. The Sumerians (in Mesopotamia) developed writing even before 3000 B.C. And ancient Mesopotamians made tools and decorative objects of bronze and copper with great skill.” But see Genesis 4:19-22 (about the time of Enoch, “the seventh from Adam”) and Genesis 11:1-9.

—”The Bible, drawing from the memory of the Hebrews as it was preserved primarily in oral tradition . . . is far more concerned with providing religious history and with presenting a testimony to the reality of divine action and leading.”

—An ignoring of the 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon (I Kings 6:1) and a placing of the Exodus at 1280 B.C. and Solomon at 960 B.C.

—A Hebrew concept of the heavens which can be understood only in the light of concepts held by Israel’s neighbors in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine.

But Dr. Van Till’s higher critical view of Scripture and his preference for relying upon historical data other than Scripture and upon the “practical astronomy” of ancient nations with respect to “celestial timekeepers” comes out most clearly in the next section of this chapter. This is most clear in the following paragraph, pp. 25, 26:

The one time period in common use today that has a less obvious astronomical basis is the week of seven days. For the purposes of establishing and regulating cyclic periods of labor, commerce, or religious ritual, most cultures appear to have adopted a period of time between the day and the month. Beginning in the third millennium B.C., the Egyptian civil calendar was based on a year of 365 days—twelve months of thirty days each, plus five additional days. The month was further divided into three “decades” of ten days each. But evidence suggests that the Egyptians also divided the lunar month into periods of seven or eight days. The old Assyrian calendar may have divided the month into five periods of six days each. Various Mesopotamian calendars placed special emphasis on those days marking each quarter of a month. To this day we take note of the lunar cycle of phases at each quarter of the period: new moon, first quarter moon, full moon, and third quarter moon. To the nearest whole number, these phases are separated by seven days, suggesting that the convention of the seven-day week is tied to observation of the moon. Some scholars, however, hold that it is more likely that the choice of a seven-day calendric unit was based on a symbolic meaning assigned to the number seven than on a lunar cycle. In Israel, the liturgical calendar was firmly based on a strict seven-day cycle. The fact that such a cycle periodically gets out of synchronization with the lunar phases was considered a matter of little consequence. Perhaps Israel wished openly to defy association with the numerous pagan astral religions practiced by its neighbors, a matter we will touch on later in this chapter.

This is what happens when one ignores and does away with Scripture!

Does not Genesis 1 teach us concerning the various astronomical cycles? God created the lights to divide the day from the night and to be “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” God created the sun and the moon to rule the day and the night. He also created the week of seven days. But Dr. Van Till does not want to accept Genesis 1, as he makes clear in a later chapter.

But nowhere does he more blatantly manifest his higher critical view than in the last sentence quoted above: “Perhaps Israel wished openly to defy association with the numerous pagan astral religions practiced by its neighbors . . . .” No Reformed Christian should ever allow a statement like that to come from his pen! Israel wished to defy association with the numerous pagan astral religions? What is the source of Israel’s religion? Israel or Jehovah? From whom did all the regulations of the Levitical law, regulations which involved days and weeks and months and years, come? Israel or Jehovah? From whom did defiance (if that is the term to be used) of the “pagan astral religions” come? Israel or Jehovah? Besides, how unrealistic is Van Till’s view in the light of the history of Israel! If there is anything that becomes plain from that history, it is this: Israel, if left to themselves, would never “defy pagan astral religions”! On the contrary, if left to themselves, they were always ready to worship all the host of heaven and to outdo the heathen in their idolatry. In other words, Van Till is wrong here—and in defiance of Scripture—on two counts: the origin of Israel’s religion and the history of Israel’s religious practice.

—HCH