Dear Editors and readers of The Outlook:
Imagine my surprise when I discovered an eight-page article on The Fourth Day in the March issue of The Outlook. The number eight and the month of March were especially significant to me in this context because it was eight years ago, in March of 1986, that I held the first published copy of the book in my hands. I am complimented that even now, eight years later, you consider the book important enough to give it this level of attention.
From the substance of Mrs. Groenendyk’s article it is clear that she and I have quite different judgments regarding the acceptability, within the Reformed community, of the approach to the biblical text that I presented in The Fourth Day. Nonetheless, although I could offer a mild protest concerning the tone of her critique for its frequent lapses into polemical excess, I believe that Mrs. Groenendyk has served her readers well by identifying an issue of utmost importance to all of us as we consider the future of an authentically Reformed Christian influence in North America. But she is, quite obviously, neither the first nor the only person to address this issue on the pages of The Outlook.
Broadly stated, the issue is our concept of Scripture. Although both you and I accept God’s Word as authoritative for our faith and our practice, we appear to mean different things when we confess that the Bible is God’s Word. The principal question that seems to divide us is: Exactly what is the relationship between the biblical text and the Word of God? Your concern, as I understand it, is primarily with the danger on the left: If the two (text and Word) are not equated, then the authority of Scripture seems undermined and we would appear to be left without a sure foundation for either our doctrine or our practice. And when an ecclesiastical community is left without an unassailable authority in matters of faith, it is in danger of floundering on the whimsical waves of personal opinion. Hence your strong emphasis on divine authorship of the biblical text and on the doctrine of textual inerrancy. As Laurie Vanden Heuvel is quoted, “If it is God [who wrote the Bible], then to suggest that He breathed error is blasphemy.”
Although I do share some of your concern with this danger from the left, my experience of observing, as a scientifically-trained Christian, the rise of “creation-science” within the ranks of North American fundamentalism over the past three decades has led me to be more acutely concerned with a danger from the right. That danger, in my judgment, is the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to transform the biblical text, or a set of human assertions regarding the text, into an object of worship—biblicism bordering on bibliolatry.
As I see it, the doctrine of textual inerrancy has been stretched by fundamentalism beyond the limits of credibility into matters entirely foreign to the Bible’s own agenda, such as the particulars of modern scientific theorizing. This stretching of the concept of inerrancy to include questions that the biblical writers didn’t even have the conceptual vocabulary to ask, coupled with the supposition that it is actually possible to practice a consistent literalistic hermeneutic in the reading of early Genesis, has provided the occasion for all manner of dubious claims regarding what Christians know by divine revelation about the particulars of the Creation’s formative history. And woe to those scientifically-trained Christians who dare to say that the Creation itself seems not to conform to many of those questionable claims!
Is it not possible that the conservative portion of the Reformed community needs to be more concerned about this danger, in spite of all intentions to the contrary, of idolizing the Bible? The danger is, I believe, both real and serious. And once this idolization of the text takes hold, it ordinarily follows that greater effort will be spent in the frigid defense of statements about the text than in the fervent endeavor to grow in the knowledge of the God who continues to speak to us, not only through that ancient and rightly revered text, but also in the present experiences of his redemptive, creative, providential and revelatory presence.
Both you and I are eager to represent and promote Reformed orthodoxy—straight believing by the standards of the Reformed heritage. But there seem to be two vastly differing concepts of Reformed orthodoxy within our community. One is essentially static: Reformed orthodoxy is a matter of keeping our doctrinal and ecclesiastical cars parked straight between the lines drawn on a sixteenth-century theological parking lot (on which some lines may have been redrawn, without our noticing it, by contemporary North American fundamentalism), The other concept is dynamic: Reformed orthodoxy is a matter of driving straight on the road to growth in our knowledge of God and his works. Parking in the sixteenth century is out of the question; driving straight on the historical road of fruitful life in God’s world is mandatory, This is the vision of Reformed orthodoxy given to me by my parents, by several of my teachers, and by a particularly influential pastor. This is the vision of Reformed orthodoxy that I seek to represent and promote.
I hope that these remarks will help you to understand what I am about. I have spoken rather candidly, not for the purpose of being needlessly provocative or of promoting some radically new perspective in defiance of my Reformed heritage, but because I believe that what I wrote in The Fourth Day does, contrary to the protestations of Mrs. Groenendyk and other critics of my writing, represent a faithful and dynamic extension of Reformed orthodoxy into the late twentieth century. Consequently, I heartily invite the readers of The Outlook to study that book for themselves and to see whether or not it represents straight driving, in line with historic Christian thought, on the road toward growth in the knowledge of God and of his marvelous works in the world that is his Creation.
In order to gain a sense of what historic Christian thought regarding the biblical message is, especially what the early chapters of Genesis tell us about God and about his Creation, I have found it very instructive to go back to early Christian writings, like Basil’s Hexaemeron (a series of homilies on the opening chapters of Genesis) and Augustine’s commentary, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. I have published the results of this study in Christian Scholar’s Review in an essay entitled, “Is Special Creationism a Heresy?” I will enclose a copy for your perusal. Note especially the two summary statements near the end. I think that these conclusions are very important and must be given serious consideration in our continuing discussion regarding both the character of the Creation that God has brought into being and the scientific study of its formative history.
It is no secret to me or to you that there are substantive differences of judgment between us concerning what constitutes a faithful expression of historic Christian belief in the context of twentieth-century, scientifically informed, Western culture. We have the same goal—to grow in the knowledge of God and his works, and to use that knowledge in our faithful service of God—but different understandings of how to achieve it. These differences will not be settled by the publication of strident personal denunciations; but some progress in mutual understanding could be made possible by our choosing to engage in candid, yet still respectful, dialogue on the issues that concern us all. To that end I have written this letter to you and to the readers of The Outlook.
Your brother in the historic Christian faith,
Howard J. Van Till, Chair Department of Physics Calvin College