Edwin Walhout, a retired CRC minister, has published a provocative essay in The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. In this essay he imagines how our orthodoxy will be viewed 1000 years from now. In order to set up the contrast between the backward “now” and the presumably more enlightened “then” he characterizes some positions that he finds backward and then posits what the future should be. He argues that the theory of evolution, which, he argues began as an hypothesis in 1859, became a theory thereafter, is now an established and immutable fact that will necessarily “shake our systematic theology to its foundations when we better understand its implications.” As a consequence, he argues, we will likely find that “some of the doctrines that form the essential structure of our creeds and confessions miss the mark.” These putatively errant formulations will be, he says, replaced by “[n]ew insights and new doctrinal formulations….”
Walhout is so certain that evolution (which version, he does not say) is true that it is axiomatic, i.e., it need not be argued. He writes, “I accept that the findings of modern science are reliable and must be taken as established fact. I also accept that the Bible’s basic teachings are just as definitive as those of science.”
How to resolve the apparent tensions? He posits that the traditional view of Genesis 1, which he describes as the view that “God created the world as we know it today in seven literal 24-hour days” This view must go the way of the flat earth and geocentrism. He cites as proof the fact of the antiquity of the earth. From there he moves, predictably, to Adam and Eve about which he declares “sustaining this doctrine is extremely difficult when we take seriously the human race as we know it today sharing ancestry with other primates such as chimpanzees.” The doctrine of original sin must also go: “if we take the discoveries of historical science seriously, where could we fit that story in?” This leads to a reconsideration of the doctrine of salvation: “if the doctrine of original sin needs to be revisited, theologians need to consider whether our understanding of Jesus also needs to be revised. Does the theory of evolution have any implications for how we understand Jesus’ ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension?….” He even leverages Christian eschatology with the doctrine of evolution: “What does God want the human race to become? What is our future over the long reach of time? Traditionally we have talked about an end of the world. But if we take evolution seriously—that is, the 15 billion years that already have passed—what are we to think about what the world will look like a billion years from now, or even a mere million?…Major changes may well be in store for our eschatological doctrines. ”
Well, it’s clear what has happened here. Having found a place to stand (macro evolution), to shift metaphors, Walhout has taken a hoe to the entire system of the catholic faith, not just distinctively Reformed convictions, and turned them over in the service of “progress.” What should we make of his new garden? First, we might ask, why has he skipped the doctrine of Scripture and the Trinity or the two natures of Christ? Given his account of evolution as an undoubted doctrine, a datum, how can mysteries such as the Trinity stand as they have been received? After all, is it reasonable to expect enlightened people to believe that God is one in three persons and perpetually so? After all, doesn’t nature teach us that things develop? Modern, enlightened theologians have taught us for decades that the natural process of development (evolution) we see in creation mirrors the development that exists within God himself. We can no longer say “God is.” We must now, with the process theologians and Open Theism (in different ways) say that God is “becoming”, that he is in process of realizing his own potential.
It’s easy to imagine the outcome in the doctrine of Christ: the catholic dogma of one person, two natures must give way to a more credible account of Jesus. The Virgin Birth is, of course, impossible. If original sin is gone, then who needs a holy, supernatural conception any way? It will turn out that the two natures formula was a pre-modern, pre-enlightened way to account for Jesus evolved God consciousness, with which we, in the evolutionary process are catching up. Obviously Walhout did not reach these conclusions in his essay but that’s where his logic leads. We don’t need to imagine outrageous conclusions. He offers them freely and willingly.
The feet of clay in this piece is his foundational assumption: that we all know that whatever generic version of evolution he assumes is true, in the way that he assumes it. Ironically, and typically, just as the CRC reaches the end of its own evolution through broad evangelicalism to broad mainline liberalism, this pastor is behind the curve when it comes to the theory of evolution and modern science. Take but one example. Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher of science, isn’t nearly as dogmatic about the orthodoxy of evolution as Walhout. Is Nagel a backward fundamentalist? If he is, we should have to redefine those terms. In fact, there are thoughtful philosophers and historians of science (e.g., Michael Polanyi) who paint a much more complicated picture of the nature of science, who would have us think that scientific conclusions are far more tentative than he assumes.
To be sure, Walhout is echoing what many practicing scientists (who typically have little education in the history and philosophy of science) assume: that some form of evolution is unquestionably true but to make his case he has set up a series of false dichotomies, which, had he done a little reading in the recent history of theology, he might have avoided. The Princeton theologians from Hodge to Machen engaged earlier stages of the theory of evolution and they did not accept Walhout’s careless—one might even say lazy— dichotomy between Christian orthodoxy and scientific intelligence. We might not all accept every one one of their conclusions but that they did not end up where he predicts we must and yet engaged modern science more thoughtfully than he has done (at least as evidenced in this article) suggests that his conclusions are hardly inevitable.
Walhout’s argument is not only specious, it’s lazy. For example, who actually teaches 7 twenty-four hour periods of creation? E. J. Young, whose view is probably the best representative of the 6-day view, revised his earlier position to adopt a 6-day view in the early 1960s. He argued that the nature of the first three days is indeterminate because of the absence of the sun. The second three days are solar and thus, he argued, should be accepted as twenty-four hour days. The seventh day, however, is not reported as creation day, per se, in the creation narrative and thus is not in question. If Walhout wants to serve science, he should be a little more, shall we say, scientifically precise in his representation of other views? Further, he seems utterly unaware of alternatives to the 6/7-day model, e.g., the analogical view (Godfrey) or the Framework view (Kline) that start with the premise that God’s Word is inerrant and infallibly true. In those views, the exact nature of the days is said to be indeterminate on the basis that the narrative simply does not answer 19th-century questions but neither is the Genesis account simply jettisoned. We’re talking about God’s Word here. To say the least it is irresponsible for a minister of the Word to set up a straw man and then dismiss it, and in the process, dismiss God’s Word with it. That’s not progress. That’s skepticism.
Walhout sets up another false dichotomy regarding the age of the earth. That has only been an issue since the mid-19th century and more recently since early 1960s, with the publication of the popular Morris and Whitcomb volume on the Genesis flood. So-called “flood geology” and its corollary “Young-Earth Creationism,” however, have little to do with the question of the nature of the creation days. In fact, logically, there Reformed theology has nothing at stake in the age of the earth as far as I can see. It is true that Ussher developed a chronology that has been discredited but it fell not because of “science” but because it was bad exegesis. B. B. Warfield and William Henry Green showed over a century ago that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 were never meant to be used as a way of dating the age of the earth. Such a use was always misguided because it didn’t follow authorial (both divine and human) intent.
Yes, as I’ve argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, it is true that, in the 16th and 17th centuries and following Christians revised their their views of astronomy and physics on the basis new discoveries. We realized more clearly than we had before that Scripture is not meant to be used the way we were using it. We realized that Scripture is speaking observationally when it says or implies that the sun rises. We also realized that we had baptized views taught by Ptolemy and Aristotle and simply assumed their truth. Eventually we were able to criticize them on the basis of the new discoveries and on the basis of a renewed examination of Scripture and a revision of our hermeneutic. J. Gresham Machen explained long ago that doctrinal progress is possible and it does not entail abandoning Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, one wonders if our erstwhile futurist has read this article or Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism? What Walhout is advocating is not recognizably Christian. The notion that, after withstanding Pelagius, a millennium of medieval semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Arminianism, and Modernism, the idea that the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation should simply roll over and play dead for Walhout’s doctrine of evolution is simply ridiculous.
We did not, however, do as Walhout has done. We did not adopt what can only be described as a nakedly rationalist approach to God’s Word and the catholic faith. Concluding that Scripture does not intend to teach geocentrism and criticizing hitherto accepted assumptions is not to displace holy Scripture as the principium (the starting point) of theology and the fons (source) of Christian theology. He has done just this. He is so certain that some version of evolution must be true that he is willing to run roughshod over essential Christian truths, e.g., the existence of our first parents, the fall (original sin), and even Christian eschatology.
There is an alternative to Walhout’s approach and there is an alternative to the QIRC-iness of American fundamentalism and that alternative is to read Scripture with the church as she has confessed her understanding of God’s Word on the essentials of the faith. We do not need to be obscurantist but neither need we be, well, silly. When Thomas Nagel is more critical of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy than a CRC minister, something is out of whack.
If one did not know better, one might think that the calendar said April 1 and that The Banner was having a bit of fun with us but it isn’t April Fools Day and that hasn’t stopped the The Banner from publishing foolishness. If this article is an indicator of the state of the denomination, those conservatives who have a plan to save the the S.S. Ecclesia Christiana Reformata will want to deploy emergency measures immediately.