Review of the recent book written by Enno Wolthuis. Published by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1963. 121 pages. Price $2.50.
I assume that most of our readers know that the author of this book, Dr. Wolthuis, is professor of chemistry at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. He received the bachelor’s degree from Calvin College, the master’s degree from the University of Michigan, and the doctorate (Ph.D.) from the University of Illinois. Dr. Wolthuis is an elder in a Christian Reformed Church, and the readers of TORCH AND TRUMPET have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with him through his valuable contributions in this periodical on the Heidelberg Catechism.
The purpose which Dr. Wolthuis had in mind in writing this volume is clearly stated. “This book,” so he writes, “sets forth our view of the way in which one can profess the Christian faith and at the same time welcome and pro· mote scientific progress” (p. 4). In another context he explains, “More specifically, we wish to face the question whether science and religion merely supplement, or actually modify each other. Still more concretely, we expect to consider the question, What should be the attitude of the Protestant Christian toward the sciences and scientific activity?” (p. 6). Near the end of the book Dr. Wolthuis expresses himself in retrospect and states, “Our intention has been to show that only the Christian view of life is able to give dignity to the scientific enterprise and make sense of it” (p.117).
In reading and reviewing this book due consideration should be given to the readers whom the author had in mind. He describes these as follows:
“It [the book] is written particularly for the youth, for those who are thoughtful enough to seek answers to some of the basic questions of life. It presumes no extensive knowledge of the natural sciences nor of theology. Rather, this book is intended primarily as a guide to those who have never had the privilege of receiving a systematic education in religious matters” (p.4).
Chapters I and II (pp. 11–35) are devoted to a brief, but valuable description of the history of science. The author carries us from ancient times, through the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the Sixteenth Century Reformation, the so-called Scientific Revolution, to the present times. To appreciate the present we must learn to understand the past with its shifts in emphases as well as its changes in methods and purposes. For that reason these chapters should not be neglected. After the account of the history of science, the author discusses a number of features of his subject.
At the outset I feel prompted to express my appreciation of this work of Dr. Wolthuis. It is admirable that he has succeeded in condensing so much in such a small space and that he did it so well. Moreover, it is a matter of considerable satisfaction to me that I find myself in agreement with the basic principles of this Christian scholar. There may be points of difference, but I consider it altogether possible to discuss such differences with Dr. WoIthuis upon the basis of the jointly confessed principles of God’s Word.
Allow me to state further, by way of introduction, that the writing of a review should be delicate and conscientious work. One must be fair to the author and truthful to the book itself. I shall strive after those ideals and shall, to that end, quote copiously. But I hope that this review will not be considered a substitute for the book itself. If anything, it intends to serve as an incentive for all to read this valuable publication. It treats an important. subject – important especially in our day.
THE MODERN MIND
Dr. Wolthuis is fully aware of the present spiritual or mental atmosphere in which not only scientists and scholars; but all men move. He understands the view or philosophy of life which influences men and women everywhere. He states,
“…while in former times faith in God as Creator sparked some to activity in the sciences, today the tables are turned, and God, or some supreme power, is brought in only if necessary to explain what seems to lie beyond reason” (p. 38).
And again, the “prevailing thought” today,
“…is a philosophy of life which is content to limit its interests to this world. It seeks to explain all we know, including man himself, in terms of physical processes which obey natural laws discovered by the inductive, experimental sciences. What is real, it says, is that which we can describe scientifically; all else, if other there be, is forever unknown to us, so why bother about it” (p. 40).
And also, that the modern mind has completely succumbed to the fascinations of the scientific method (p. 41).
For want of a better term Dr. Wolthuis calls this prevailing thought of today “Naturalism.” One might also call it “Secularism.” However one desires to designate it, I think we are agreed that this mind or this course of think· ing is based on the conSciously or unconSciously accepted premise that God and all religious considerations are to be ignored and excluded from one’s view of life and from all scientific endeavor. Dr. Wolthuis certainly did well in calling attention to this evil, for the unbelieving world often speaks of tolerance, but it is intolerant itself and denies the Lord our God as well as his truth. We should not allow the antithesis to be dimmed. God is to be acknowledged in all our ways and, therefore, also in the laboratories of scientists.
EFFECT Of SIN
Of course, it could not be expected that a complete description of the doctrine of the faIl of man and of sin be given. However, the author does not neglect this subject, but takes it into account. He writes that for a naturalist it is “entirely natural” to relegate the claims of religion to the realm of speculation instead of fact, and he states,
“…but only because of sin. The sinfulness consists in this, that man refuses [italics, mineJ to acknowledge the authority of God who speaks to him in a language other than, or besides, that of the sciences” (p.42) .
In another place he describes the sad situation.
Man, “…no longer occupies the high position of communion with God. No longer is he able to understand the creation and to use it as it was intended to be understood and used. In God’s mercy he was not reduced to the level of the animal or of inanimate objects, but retained his reasoning powers. But even his reason was darkened and distorted by his sin. In his search for the meaning of the universe he now ‘worships and serves the creature moro than the Creator’ (Rom. 1:25)” (p. 55).
Dr. Wolthuis supplies us with a rather full description of the effects of sin upon man by stating,
“Once again it is well to remind ourselves that sin has corrupted the mind and will [italics, mine] of man so that it is not natural for him to see the world as a revelation of God” (p. 105).
I have taken the liberty of underscoring some words in these quotations, since by these expressions the author distinguishes himself not only as a Christian scholar, but as a Calvinist. The uniquely Reformed doctrine of total depravity is in that way not only confessed, with its teaching of spiritual impotency and proneness to evil, but the admission is thereby also made that both the reasoning ability (the mind) as well as the volition (the will) of man have been impaired and perverted by sin. No Arminian or Roman Catholic would subscribe to that view.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Dr. Wolthuis supplies us with an enlightening description of the popular and much praised scientific method. He states that it has especially two features. The first is that since only quantitative data has universal acceptance,
“…the quantitative aspects of nature received the most attention, so much so that today when one speaks of having applied the scientific method to a problem he is taken to mean that he probably has figures to prove his point” (p. 38).
The second feature is its “objective character.”
This method “… has come to mean a thoroughly impartial, unprejudiced study of this world. It is as if one divests himself of all his preconceived notions, and his aspirations, and coldly observes nature ‘out there’ to see what it says to him through his senses” (pp. 38,39).
Now it is stated that some scholars consider this scientific method merely as a “laboratory technique,” while others insist that it includes a “philosophy of life” (p. 66). Says Wolthuis, “The average practicing scientist considers it to be, and uses it as, a technique and no more” (p. 67) , and in that way he approves of the method. A Christian in science, says he, “…may borrow its techniques [i.e. of the scientific method] which employ the gifts all men possess” (pp. 67, 68). However, there are, so he continues,
“The few philosopher-scientists [who] insist that the scientific method includes more than this [laboratory technique]. They aver that nature alone can tell us what nature is, so that one may not presuppose anything about it before he applies his technique to a study of it” (p. 67).
As could be expected, Wolthuis rejects the scientific method as a philosophy. The Christian in science, he says, “…cannot subscribe to the philosophy underlying, and sometimes considered a part of, scientific method…” (p. 68), and on the preceding page he states,
“Obviously the Christian cannot accept such a position. Instead, he starts with another presupposition, namely, that God has revealed to man, through the Scriptures, certain facts about nature which are fundamental and not learned by any other means.”
I feel thankful for this instruction of Dr. Wolthuis, and I think that the important distinction he makes between the technique and the philosophy of the scientific method will prevent us from committing the folly of casting out the babe with the bath.
LIMITATIONS OF SCIENCE
I should say that I admire and feel thankful for the scholarly honesty and balance of Dr. Wolthuis. He knows not only the point where science might turn into speculation, but he recognizes this point and refuses to allow the one to integrate itself into the other. The author devotes an entire chapter (the fourth) to the subject, “Science Has Its Limitations.” Of course, the whole chapter should be read. Allow me to give a few significant quotations. The “…experimental requirement [of science] can be met only in the present time. The past, and especially the beginning of things, lies beyond the grasp of this method, and so science can only speculate about the origin and early history of this world” (p. 50). Science, “…is limited in its judgments to things which exist in time and can be manipulated” (p. 51). “The sciences operate within predetermined limits. These limits include only the sensible, measurable characteristics of things” (p. 52). “Science is better suited to describe than to prescribe, and even when it describes it is far from infallible” (p. 53).
Moreover, the author acknowledges that scientific knowledge “…is quite a subjective body of information, in which the minds of men play a very large part. The history of science clearly shows that what is considered. scientifically true today may not be so tomorrow. Theories have come and gone” (p. 47). Again, “Many of the problems which confront us are of such a nature that they can~ not be handled by the experimental methods of the sciences” (p. 49). In addition the following is important,
“It now appears that we shall never be able completely to define the nature of the minutest details of matter, and shall have to be content with probability judgments about them. To add to the difficulty, the borderline between matter and energy seems to have vanished completely” (p. 43).
All these acknowledgements appear to confirm the contention that a separation must be made between God’s work of creation and that of His providence. Genesis 2:1–3 makes that separation by stating that creation is a “finished” work of God and that it has, therefore, come to an end, but providence continues. Creation withdraws itself from experiments, but the work of Cod’s providence can in many instances and to an extent be investigated scientifically. (Cf. pp. 85 and 86 also in this connection.)
NATURE AND SCRIPTURE
It stands to reason that Dr. Wolthuis discusses the ever recurring problem associated with the relation between nature and Scripture and the value of each, He describes the Christian position and states that,
“…this requires a respect for both nature and Scripture because both are the work of the same God, and which insists that God’s Word is normative [italics, mine] for all of living, also for scientific activity” (p.62).
In line with this he states, after having quoted Rom. 11:36, “’That being the case, His [God’s] Word certainly has priority [italics, mine] over the words of men” (p. 80); and also, “we believe God has given us His interpretation of nature, the only true one, in His Word, the Bible” (p. 82, see also pp. 58 and 99). Again the author holds.
“The Christian faith asserts the authority of God who has revealed Himself in Scripture but also in nature. It asserts, further, that science cannot construct a satisfying account of nature without taking into account what God has said about Himself and His creation in His Word” (p. 61).
On the following page Dr. Wolthuis strikes the same note,
“Either one excludes God as He has revealed Himself in His Word or he includes Him in his thinking. Either he assumes man to be the measure of all things or he accepts in faith the authority of God, also in the sciences. This authority can never be derived from nature, but transcends space and time. It is absolute and final” (p. 62).
Considering these and similar statements of the author, it surprises no one that he sets himself against Thomism, that is, against Roman Catholic views. Thomism insists,
“…that science does not need the light of Scripture to see truly and to understand nature for the revelation of God that it is. In this view, God’s revelation in the Bible is merely a supplement to, and side-by-side with, nature as a revelation of the Creator” (p. 72).
I have again underscored two words in the above quotations. I think that these are key words not only, but also describe the relation between nature and Scripture correctly as well as their value. We must adhere to that position and allow it to have its proper impact upon our thinking and work.
ARTICLE 2 – BELGIC CONFESSION
Now it may be remarked that some among us come dangerously close to this Roman Catholic or Thomistic error, or an error similar to it, by insisting that nature constitutes “another Bible” alongside of the Word of God, the Special Revelation of God. I don’t think that the author cares to join such as hold those views. However. Dr. Wolthuis borrows the language of Article 2 of the Belgic Confession of Faith and concludes, “Nature and Scripture supplement each other in revealing God to us” (p. 58). I wish that he had elucidated that expression. The Article states that God “… makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word.” True, that might create the impression as if we intend to confess by that statement that God makes himself less clearly and fully known by nature, and “more clearly and fully” in his Word. Nature would then be considered as taking us part of the way in acquiring knowledge of God, but Scripture would be considered as taking us to the end of that way. In that sense Dr. Wolthuis’s statement that the two revelations of God “supplement each other” might be understood. Yet in the light of the quotations given above, I feel sure that he does not want us to do that.
Moreover, we should realize that Article 2 of the Confession does not permit that sort of an interpretation. In the first place. it certainly requires no special argumentation to assert that the reformers, who produced the Confession, though the Church adopted it, disagreed definitely with the Roman Catholic conception of the relationship between nature and Scripture. Everybody knows that But, in the second place, we must remind ourselves of the fact that Article 2 is part of the confession of our faith in God and His W ord and that it is not philosophy. For that reason this Second Article does not intend to say that if an UJlbeliever approaches both revelations of God, he will discern that God makes himself more clearly and fully known in the one than in the other. The fact is that an unbeliever does not recognize the God of the Scriptures in either. But the position of the belicvCT in God’s Word is presupposed in the Article. From that point of view it is stated. that to him, to the believer~ the Word reveals God “more clearly and fully” than does nature. In that sense, that is to the believer, it may be said that Scripture “supplements” nature, and, I assume, that Dr. Wolthuis wants us to take the expression in that way. Otherwise the statement might lead in the direction of Thomism, to say the least.
EVOLUTION AND GENESIS 1
At present one is especially interested in the attitude assumed toward the evolutionary hypothesis as well as toward the .first chapter of Genesis. Dr. Wolthuis expresses himself plainly in this respect. Says he. “…we must reject all thought of an eternally developing universe as is implied in much evolutionary thinking today·” (p. 90). On page 99 he states that he does not “…accept the evolutionary theory as a fact.” Though he states that he is “…inclined to allow for a considerable difference of opinion with regard to the details of the creative narrative,” yet he writes,
“In Our estimation we are not dealing here with myth or fiction, however. We read the first chapter of Genesis as an historical account. But it seems to us that God is here telling men in rather general language how He brought this world into being, and in what order He introduced the various creatures which inhabit it. That is to say, God created this world and all that is in it. and He tells us that He did so by an historical succession of supernatural acts” (p. 100).
Dr. Wolthuis expresses himself still more positively,
“We feel sure that each successive step was by a creative act of God. For example. it appears to us that the appearance of plants, or of animals, and certainly of man, was not by gradual development from a lower order. It is not even respectable science to say that a living thing such as a plant evolved from an inanimate object such as, for example, a mineral…There are orders, or levels, among God’s creatures, and the things of one order are not derived from a lower order…We find it difficult, yes impossible, to understand how anyone can bridge the radical difference between man and animal by a process of gradual development” (pp. 101, 102).
These quotations are plain. Dr. Wolthuis rejects the so-called theory of descent and, therefore, also the theory of evolution. Yet he states, “History clearly shows that men have supplied the details of interpretation in the light of the knowledge of their day,” and he reminds us “…that we have in the creation story an account which must not be taken as being detailed or as stated in scientific language” (p. 100). He points to some examples by which he intends to substantiate this claim. For that reason, I suppose, he also speaks of “rather general language” in this connection.
These are, of course, problems of hermeneutics (the science and art of the interpretation of the Bible ), which have in this day been accentuated by a greater emphasis upon the requirements of semantics—the exact meaning of words in their historical development and in a given context. These techniques are difficult to handle, because they get out of hand so easily and may create the anxieties of skepticism. One may become disturbed by wondering whether any language can be understood and whether communication is possible. For that reason it is well to remark that the Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture still stands (cf. Ps. 119:105, 130; John 5:39; Acts 17:11). Such important discoveries as the Greek papyri and the Dead Sea Scrolls have not upset that doctrine. Moreover, though the remarks of Dr. Wolthuis concerning the words used in Gen. 1 deserve consideration, yet no matter how these words are explained they will not, I trust, change his views of the creation narrative. Again, it should be emphasized that the interpretation of no chapter or text is an isolated undertaking. Since Scripture is an organic entity, all of Scripture, also Genesis 1, must be explained in the light of the rest. Hence the references of Jesus and of his apostles to this chapter must be taken into account. Moreover, think of such passages as Exodus 20:11; Matthew 19:4; Romans 5:14; I Corinthians 15:45; II Corinthains 11:3; and I Timothy 2:13, 14.
It will be understood that we are dealing with a comprehensive subject here. It requires considerable elucidation. It is not possible to enlarge on it in this review. Allow me to ask the question, however, whether it would not be better to speak of the language of Genesis 1 as being nontechnical, rather than of being non-scientific or general. I think all will agree that not only the language of Gen. I, but the language of all of Scripture is non-technical. We must, for instance, be careful in imposing the technical language and nomenclature of dogmatics upon Scripture. All definitions of dogmatics are not necessarily acceptable in every instance in which the terms are used in Scripture. Nevertheless, the Synod of Assen of the Netherlands (1926) spoke of the “klaarblijkelijke” (obvious or evident) meaning of Scripture. I think we should continue doing that. The doctrine of the regula fidei (rule of faith) also demands this. I have no doubt that Dr. Wolthuis agrees.
ADMISSION OF IGNORANCE
I am happy to say that the reading of this volume has given me great respect for the author as a scientist and scholar. He is honest and does not hesitate to restrict himself to well-established facts. He states that one does well to be cautious in deliverances on many matters pertaining to Genesis 1, and to say without hesitation “I do not know” (p. 99). That position surely demands more respect than the statement of someone like Dr. J. Veltkamp of the Netherlands, who asserts boldly, “Evolution is an established fact” (Bezinning, 1962, No. 1, p. 19), whereas he full-well knows that there are unabridged gaps in the existence of things.
However, it seems to me something should be added to one’s admission of ignorance. For such an admission does not throw the field wide open for unbridled speculation and fanciful hypotheses. Though one may not be able to speak positively and to say just what a thing is and what an act implies, yet he may be able to speak negatively and say what these do not imply. Dr. Wolthuis is, for instance, convinced that the things in one order of existence are not derived from a lower order (p. 102). Such a negative statement is significant, because it excludes the hypothesis of continuity Or of descent and, therefore, of evolution. I wonder whether we should not accept the rule that only such hypotheses are legitimate as are not in conflict with the obvious teachings of the Bible. We may, for instance, not meddle with a hypothesis which is contrary to the Scriptures and/or atheistic in character.
CHANGE IN NATURAL LAWS
Finally I should like to ask Dr. Wolthuis for an elaboration of a statement he makes on p. 94. He avers, “To say that natural laws may have been changed is equivalent to saying that we know nothing at all about the things which existed before such a change. On that basis the events mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis also defy identification.” I just wonder how in the light of this “uniformitarian” statement such places as Genesis 3:14, 16–19; 8:21,22; 9:13, 17 are to be interpreted. Surely the tragedy of sin and the catastrophe of the deluge brought about changes in the moral order of things. Why could these events not have brought about changes in the physical order of things and in natural laws? I do not wish to speak apodictically on this point, yet it seems to me that not only Scripture causes questions to arise in regard to Dr. Wolthuis’s thesis, but there is also “external evidence.” I understand, for instance, that Admiral Byrd found fossils of tropical plants in the frigid regions around the South Pole, and that frozen and well-preserved carcasses of animals, whose habitat is now in the tropics, are discovered in the tundras of the arctic regions of Siberia. These frozen animals give evidence of a very sudden death. I wonder whether this does not indicate a change in physical conditions and in natural laws. I know that explanations have been offered of these phenomena, yet I feel compelled to state, though I am a “layman,” that none of these theories, which have come to my knowledge, appear plausible to me.
The book of Dr. Wolthuis is, therefore, thought-provoking and should be read widely. I thank him for writing, as well as the Baker Book House for publishing it.