ANE and Creation One More Time, with a Concluding Plea

But in the South, due in part to the influence of Robert L. Dabney, literal approaches continued to have a sizeable constituency. Here I would observe that the southern Presbyterians really did not engage the issues of faith and science in the same depth that some of their northern colleagues did (e.g., there was no real southern counterpart to The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review as a venue for such discussions).

My posts on the interpretation of the creation narratives continue to provoke discussion, most recently by my friend Dr. Bill VanDoodewaard and by the Rev. Carlton Wynne. This discussion is timely, and these spirited and forthright posts have served to illuminate some of the underlying issues.

VanDoodewaard’s post is significant in that it highlights two important issues—the question of geographical affinity (i.e., north vs. south) and the role of Peter Enns in the larger discussion. Bill rightly notes that conservative northern Presbyterians have been more open to non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 (more on this below).

He also asserts that the controversial work of Peter Enns represents a “consistent” application of a hermeneutic that finds a place for extra-biblical data in the interpretive process, and that this provides compelling reasons to eschew such a hermeneutic. Here it is worth noting that many of us have reservations, not so much about the use of ANE materials per se, but rather about Enns’ implementation of this approach and the methodological problems evident in his book Inspiration and Incarnation. I have explored these issues here.

Wynne’s last response basically reiterates the concerns he expressed earlier, and he also suggests that I may be losing my grip on the orthodox doctrine of Scripture.

Regarding the latter, while it is true that I have stuck my neck out repeatedly in defense of the church’s historic doctrine of inerrancy (e.g., here and here and here and here) we must also be vigilant on this matter and hold one another accountable. Wynne has given me occasion to search my own heart, and for that I am grateful.

Two Views of Inerrancy

An alternative explanation for our differences, which I think correct, is that there are and have been for some time within the conservative Reformed community at least two competing understandings of the doctrine of inerrancy—one that achieved mature expression during the 19th century (especially though not exclusively at Old Princeton) in dependence upon and in continuity with the great Christian consensus regarding Scripture (we may call this Inerrancy #1), and the other which was codified on more rationalistic and “common-sense” grounds in the context of twentieth-century American evangelicalism/fundamentalism (Inerrancy #2).

The first, articulated in short compass in the 1881 article “Inspiration” by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, is more hermeneutically sophisticated and sensitive to the human dimension of Scripture. The second, modeled by Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1976), is more easily communicated to the laity (and, I might add, to seminary students!).

As far as I can tell, everything I have said in these posts coheres well with Inerrancy #1, but I have serious reservations about Inerrancy #2, not least because it risks the imposition of alien standards upon Scripture and thus it undermines the full and final authority of Scripture.

On balance, I seem to have read Wynne correctly. His position, first of all, is that Scripture does not “contain error” of any sort. While I honor his intention to affirm the full reliability of God’s Word, this formulation is too vague. It fails to address crucial questions of what might constitute an error and on what grounds we would identify such error. It is more appropriate and helpful to say, with the Old Princeton theologians, that Scripture does not “teach” or “affirm” error when the text is properly ascertained and interpreted.

In this they were simply following the historic Christian consensus. For example, in his “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean” (XI.5), Augustine wrote: “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”

Augustine also clearly believed that extra-biblical knowledge could be of great help in the interpretation of Scripture and, as Bavinck notes, he warned Christians not to “make themselves ridiculous” in the eyes of the world by prematurely pitting science against Scripture without careful study of the issues (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II.496).

Wynne’s position, which I will concede is increasingly popular in some circles today, has the effect of minimizing both the human dimension of Scripture and the interpretive dimension of our appropriation of Scripture, and it can lead to the sort of “exegetical populism” that I earlier described. It is precisely because of these issues that the church to which I am accountable (the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) has affirmed that “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches.”

That is a good statement which I affirm wholeheartedly. Moreover, it allows us to recognize that the Scriptural writers could utilize a variety of literary approaches as they taught inerrant divine truth and use some of the conventional ideas of their day in communicating that divine truth without necessarily teaching those ideas as normative (for an insightful and apposite treatment of these issues, see Moises Silva, “Old Princeton, Westminster, and Inerrancy,” WTJ 50 [1988]: 65-80). To be sure, this is a matter of some complexity, but it is a necessary complexity if we seek to do justice to the depth and richness of the Scriptural witness. Life, after all, is complicated. For these and other reasons I must side with Hodge and Warfield.

Second, Wynne insists that nothing extra-biblical can play a determinative role in our interpretation of Scripture. In short, he argues for a consistently intra-biblical hermeneutic. To this I would ask whether the Greek and Hebrew lexicons on his shelf, with their wealth of extra-biblical data, fall into this verboten category. The Westminster divines rightly say that “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (WCF 1.9), and they do so in opposition to the Roman Catholic notions of authoritative church tradition and an authoritative magisterium challenging the primacy of Scripture.

But this statement must be balanced by the equally important recognition of the divines that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7), and by the fact that Christian exegesis—Reformed and otherwise—has consistently found a place for extra-biblical information in the interpretive process. Thus, I don’t think that Wynne is on firm confessional ground in his exclusion of extra-biblical considerations from an important role in the exegetical process. In addition, he advocates something that is, practically speaking, impossible.

The results of this exclusion, however, are sobering. The net effect is to privilege a naïve modern reading of the text, and to shut down legitimate scholarly discussion of interpretive issues and alternatives. That, in turn, is not good for the church. Just as tragically, this approach suggests a refusal to engage science and history. J. Gresham Machen, in his classic work Christianity and Liberalism, presented two major objections to the religious liberalism of his day—that it was both unscientific and unchristian! Machen was right, and we need to engage unbelief on both levels.

Some Historical Perspective

One of the problems that I see in this larger conversation about Genesis 1 that is taking place in our portion of the church is the lack of historical context for it. In the interests of discussion I offer the following observations. Note that these are “off the cuff” and each point could be greatly expanded.

1. The history of interpretation on this issue demonstrates that the church has manifestly failed, both before and after the Reformation, to reach a settled consensus on the exact meaning of the days of creation in Genesis 1. We see a similar phenomenon in connection with eschatology and the millennium, hence the parallel I drew earlier between protology and eschatology. Again I argue that it behooves us to allow some interpretive leeway in both of these areas.

2. Among Reformed exegetes, the earlier tendency was to view the days of creation as more-or-less literal (see e.g., Calvin and Turretin, the latter holding that while creation took place over six literal days, the creative activity for each day was accomplished in a single moment!), but by the early to mid-nineteenth century this consensus had largely broken down. The non-literal Day-Age theory prevailed in many quarters as scientists in general agreed that the earth is much older than previously thought. A presupposition here was that science and historical study have something important to say about how the Bible should be interpreted.

Charles Hodge, for example, not only affirmed the Day-Age theory but he also saw no problem with the ancient Israelite authors depicting the heavens as a solid dome (Systematic Theology, I:569-570). Herman Bavinck makes a similar point about the “firmament” language (Reformed Dogmatics, II: 480-81), and both regarded this language as phenomenological (as do I). W. G. T. Shedd advocates the Day-Age theory at some length, and non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 became the norm for northern Presbyterians.

But in the South, due in part to the influence of Robert L. Dabney, literal approaches continued to have a sizeable constituency. Here I would observe that the southern Presbyterians really did not engage the issues of faith and science in the same depth that some of their northern colleagues did (e.g., there was no real southern counterpart to The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review as a venue for such discussions). As a native of the Carolinas, I’m also inclined to give the southerners a pass on this; after all, they had other fish to fry in the wake of the “war of the northern aggression” and reconstruction.

3. The first half of the twentieth century was dominated by the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and the fallout from those battles as many conservatives left churches and institutions to form new ones. Interestingly, this cauldron of ecclesiastical conflict (in which debate over the doctrine of Scripture was central!) did not lead to an upsurge of literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Westminster Theological Seminary for the most part followed Old Princeton, and by the late 1950s the framework hypothesis was being advocated there by Meredith Kline.

Likewise, Old Princeton set the agenda for the Allan MacRae/Laird Harris tradition of Old Testament interpretation which informed Faith Theological Seminary and its offshoots Covenant Theological Seminary and Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA (here I am talking about “old Biblical” rather than the new emergent-church Biblical). Another in this camp, J. Oliver Buswell who taught at Wheaton College, Faith Theological Seminary, and Covenant College/Seminary, provided an extensive defense of the Day-Age theory. The point here should be clear: non-literal approaches to Genesis 1 prevailed for the most part among even the most conservative of American Presbyterians.

4. More recently, however, there has been an upsurge in literal six-day young-earth creationism, to the point where this position has become a touchstone of orthodoxy for some. Reasons for this upsurge are complicated, but social and cultural factors have clearly been important and even decisive. The evolutionary worldview of secular naturalistic science has been corrosive of the church’s belief system and of traditional structures of social and personal morality. This is a tremendous problem today, and I heartily agree that the antithesis between believing and unbelieving thought must be recognized and affirmed (but not, I would add, at the expense of our doctrine of common grace). With the shift to a post-Christian broader culture (with Darwinian evolution as its “creation myth”), overt and even strident opposition to the Christian belief system has increased greatly.

Sensing this, many conservative Christians have looked for a theological position that will exclude Darwinian evolution outright, and literal six-day young-earth creationism seemed to fit the bill. As Christian Reconstructionist Gary North likes to say, “you can’t beat something with nothing.” One result of this is that notions of the great antiquity of the earth, long regarded as acceptable, suddenly came to be seen as problematic. In addition, the position has been ably popularized by organizations such as the Creation Research Institute, Answers in Genesis, and the like. Thus a broad coalition of fundamentalists, evangelicals, conservative Presbyterians, and theonomists has found the position attractive.

A further catalyst for such thinking was the recent controversy involving Dr. Peter Enns at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His extensive appeals to ANE material, and particularly his (in my judgment misguided and imprecise) identification of the ANE cosmology as “mythical” have provoked an impulse in the other direction—a reactionary tendency that is now evident in a variety of institutional and church contexts. The danger here, of course, is that the helpful and valid insights of generations of conservative Reformed scholars will be cast aside, and the ecclesiastical lines will drawn so narrowly as to exclude many of our fathers in the faith!


But attractive and popular are not the same as exegetically and theologically adequate. Evidence continues to roll in that a “like it or lump it” approach to the relationship of faith and science that majors on the antithesis without a corresponding recognition of common grace is having a tragic impact on our young people. As a conservative Reformed community we need to think carefully about these issues. And in order to think carefully about them we need to be able to discuss them without hurling anathemas at one another.

That being said, I am quite confident that literal six-day advocates, Day-Agers, framework hypothesis proponents, and analogical days theorists can join hands together in affirming that God is the creator of all, that God’s creation is good and orderly, that human beings are created in the image of God, and that as human beings created in God’s image we are called to pattern our behavior, in a very real though perhaps analogical sense, after God’s own creative work. That is substantial agreement, and I rejoice in it.

I conclude with this wise and important caution from J. Oliver Buswell regarding discussions of Genesis 1:

As in many other portions of the Scriptures and of the great system of doctrine taught therein, we should have no patience with ourselves if we are found ignoring or distorting or suppressing what the Scripture actually says, even its smallest detail. But, and this is a warning too often unheeded, we should make a great distinction between our impatience with ourselves if we find ourselves erring, and our attitude toward brethren who do not see what seems to us perfectly plain and clear and simple; provided that (1) they do accept what they honestly believe the Bible says, and (2) provided that they are clear in the system of great outstanding doctrines on which our eternal salvation depends (J. Oliver Buswell, Systematic Theology, I:139).

William B. Evans is a Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church and serves as the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College.