What about the Theories of Modern Natural Sciences?
Bavinck’s discussion of the issue of the older Ptolemaic-Aristotelian worldview and its relation to the Christian understanding of the cosmos serves as an occasion for an extended discussion of the theories of modern natural sciences. In the modern era, a considerable amount of conflict has emerged between the historic Christian understanding of creation and a number of scientific theories regarding the world and human origins. The conflict has created the impression that Christian theology and science are inevitably at odds with each other. It has also provoked a number of theologians to adopt different views of the creation account in Genesis to “harmonize” the biblical view with modern scientific theories. Recognizing the importance of these debates, Bavinck spends considerable time with the theories of modern natural science that have obvious implications for our understanding of the biblical account of creation.
Bavinck introduces his survey of the theories of modern natural science with those theories that express what is best termed “evolutionary naturalism.” Evolutionary naturalism encompasses a wide variety of theories, including Darwinism, that seek to account for the world’s origin and development solely in terms of a lengthy process of development from an original, primitive state to the present state of complexity and diversity of life forms. In theses theories, the existence of the world in an original state of relative formlessness and simplicity is assumed. According to evolutionary naturalism, through a random and “purposeless movement of atoms,” an original chaotic state, absent any forms of organic life, slowly evolved in an incremental process into the present state of the world with its remarkable complexity and rich diversity of living beings, including the human species (RD 2:486).
In Bavinck’s assessment of evolutionary naturalism, several significant problems are identified.
First, all of the theories of evolutionary naturalism start from the assumption of some kind of original, formless state that is nothing more than an unscientific postulate. No scientist can identify or prove the actual existence of such an original state and, therefore, the assumption itself exceeds the boundaries of legitimate scientific understanding, which is always limited to the world as it actually exists.
Second, even the most elaborate theory of evolutionary naturalism cannot touch the fundamental question of the origin of what is assumed to have been the “original” state of things. What accounts for the origin and existence of the “stuff” from which the world is said to have evolved? No science or scientist can answer this question. The most basic question that the biblical doctrine of creation answers cannot be addressed within the limits of legitimate scientific inquiry.
And third, the theories of evolutionary naturalism appeal to various mechanisms to explain the origin of the world as it actually now exists (for example, Darwin’s principle of “natural selection” or, more popularly put, the “survival of the fittest”). But these mechanisms explain nothing. Rather than explain “how” the world evolved into its present state of complexity, these mechanisms simply declare that the world as it exists is a complex one, with many different kinds of inanimate and animate entities. Without a sovereign and infinitely wise Creator, who exhibits his own being and attributes in the world that he created and ordered, no science can provide a satisfactory account of the world as it actually exists. As Bavinck asks,
How could an unconscious, purposeless movement of atoms result in the formation of the universe? The chance of such an ordered whole originating from such a chaotic state is highly improbable and actually quite impossible. ‘It is just as simple to regard the creation as a playful vagary of chance as to explain a Beethoven symphony from marks and dots that have accidentally appeared on a piece of paper’ (RD 2:486).1
In addition to various forms of evolutionary theory, Bavinck also addresses how the biblical account of creation faces a significant challenge from the theories of the modern science of geology. Since geology as a science has a particular interest in the history of the formation of the present state of the earth, it has obvious implications for the understanding of Genesis 1, which describes the formation of the earth from an original state of formlessness to its present state.
In Bavinck’s rehearsal of the consensus opinions of geologists at the time of the writing of his Reformed Dogmatics, two particular challenges clearly emerge for the interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis 1 (RD 2:489). First, the science of geology posits time periods for the successive ages of the earth’s history and formation that seem inescapably at odds with the biblical record. While Christian theologians have appealed to the biblical account of creation and its subsequent history to argue for an age of the earth in the range of four to six thousand years duration, geologists have estimated the age of the earth to be from twenty million to as many as two thousand million years. And second, the “order” or sequence in which the creation was formed and various creatures originated is represented differently within modern geology than in the Genesis account. To mention one example, whereas geology represents the solar system as the source of light and the necessary condition for luxuriant plant life, the Genesis account does not speak of the creation of the solar system until the fourth day after the emergence of such life on the second and third days of the creation week. Acquaintance with the science of geology and its theories regarding the earth’s formation seems to require the conclusion that there “are clear differences between Scripture and science” (RD 2:490).
Against the background of the challenge of modern geology, Bavinck identifies four attempts to harmonize or reconcile the theories of geology with the biblical account of creation.
First, there is what he terms the “ideal” theory, which affirms the “idea” or “spirit” of the biblical account of creation while abandoning the “letter” of the account. On this theory, Genesis 1 is not to be read as a “historical” account of creation, but as a “poetic description of the creating acts of God” (RD 2:490). Though this attempt to harmonize the biblical account with modern science seems to be a recent development, Bavinck notes that it has antecedents in the “allegorical” method of interpretation that was sometimes employed by early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine. These church fathers taught that God created the world instantly, and that the six days of Genesis 1 are not successive periods of time but merely exhibit the interrelation and order of all things. The difference between the older and newer forms of this theory is that the older forms were not intended to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the theories of natural science.
Second, there is a “restitution” theory that posits a gap between Genesis 1:2 and 1:3. According to this theory, the language of verse 3 does not describe the beginning of the original work-week of creation but rather the beginning of God’s works of “re-creation” after the chaos and destruction that resulted from the events and phenomena described by modern geology. The restitution theory views Genesis 1:1–2 as a description of the history of the formation of the earth as it is known through the science of geology. What we find in the account of creation in Genesis 1:3ff. is an account of God’s “restoration” of the earth “from that state of destruction and the preparation of the earth as a dwelling place for humanity” (RD 2:492).
Third, there is a “concordistic” theory that endeavors to harmonize modern science with the biblical account of creation by interpreting the “days” of creation as “periods of longer duration” (RD 2:492). Advocates of this theory treat the successive days of the creation week as a way of describing the successive geological ages during which the earth was formed and ordered into its present state.
And fourth, some have sought to harmonize the biblical account of creation with modern science by means of what is sometimes called the “antigeological” theory. In this theory, the account of creation in Genesis 1 is interpreted in a literal, historical manner. However, after the original week of creation, in the period between Adam and Noah, and especially in the period of the great flood, the events in the earth’s formation that are described by modern geology occurred. Among some advocates of this theory after Newton, a “flood geology” emerged that sought to interpret the phenomena observed by modern geology in terms of the cataclysmic effects of the world-wide flood in the days of Noah.2
Bavinck on the Harmony of Scripture and Science
In his assessment of these attempts to harmonize the theories of modern science and the biblical account of creation, Bavinck offers a series of considerations that need to be borne in mind when addressing this difficult issue.
In the first place, the biblical account of creation must be granted a unique role and authority in evaluating the theories of modern science. Because Scripture is the Word of God, we must allow its light to be shed on all the sciences. Though some interpreters of the Bible may be tempted to conclude from the assertions of modern science that the biblical account of creation is a form of “saga or myth or poetic fantasy,” Christian theology must maintain that it “offers, in accordance with it own clear intent, history, the history that deserves credence and trust” (RD 2:495). There is nothing in the first chapter of Genesis, particularly when it is read within the outline of the book as a whole, that suggests it does not intend to provide an account of real history. The creation of the earth in a sequence of six successive days is the “foundation for the institution of the week and the Sabbath” and can scarcely therefore be regarded as non-historical (RD 2:499). For this reason, Bavinck rejects interpretations of Genesis 1 that deny its historical trustworthiness or view the six days of creation as successive “ages” in the formation of the present state of the earth.
While Bavinck affirms the historical trustworthiness of the biblical account of the creation of the world in six days, he also cautions against undue dogmatism regarding some questions that the confessions of the Christian church have left undetermined. It is noteworthy that no confession of the church has ever made “a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum, and that in theology as well a variety of interpretations were allowed to exist side by side” (RD 2:495–96). In the history of theology, theologians as influential and highly regarded as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas warned against premature judgments in this area, especially when these judgments are rendered without adequate study or knowledge of the subject. When Christian theologians fail to address these questions in a careful and knowledgeable manner, they risk making themselves look “ridiculous by their ignorance in the eyes of unbelieving science” (RD 2:496).
For Bavinck, the danger of excessive dogmatism in this area exists for theologians on the right and the left. On the one hand, there are those who are inclined to draw premature, dogmatic conclusions regarding the proper interpretation of the biblical account of creation. Based on their adherence to these dogmatic conclusions, some theologians are unwilling to engage the claims and theories of modern science, fearing that this will undermine the trustworthiness of the biblical account. And on the other hand, some theologians are so enamored with the theories of modern science that they are willing to sacrifice the truth and authority of Scripture as the Word of God. Contrary to both of these approaches, we must proceed on the assumption that God’s Word in Scripture and the “facts” known by science must be in full harmony, when rightly interpreted.
Behind every feature in the creation story lies a world of marvels and mighty deeds of God, which geology has displayed before our eyes in a virtually endless series of phenomena. Accordingly, Scripture and theology have nothing to fear from the facts brought to light by geology and paleontology. The world, too, is a book whose pages have been inscribed by God’s almighty hand. Conflict arises only because both the text of the book of Scripture and the text of the book of nature are often so badly read and poorly understood. In this connection the theologians are not without blame since they have frequently condemned science, not in the name of Scripture but of their own incorrect views. (RD 4:496).
In his evaluation of these attempts to harmonize the account of creation with the theories of science, Bavinck also devotes some attention to the specific issue of the length of the days of the creation week. Some Christian theologians who affirm the historical trustworthiness of the Genesis 1 account and who regard the days as six successive periods of alternating darkness and light, as does Bavinck, insist that these days are like any “ordinary” day in their length or duration. Some theologians also insist, as a matter of dogmatic truth, that the Scriptures require the dogma of a young earth. While Bavinck affirms the historical trustworthiness of the account of creation in Genesis 1, he cautions against drawing hard and fast conclusions respecting the nature and length of the six days of creation. Since the original state of the “first creation” prior to the work of the first day of the creation week or “second creation” likely endured for an extended period of time, we are not in a position to speculate about the precise age of the earth.
Furthermore, there are features of the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1 that should caution against inappropriate certainty regarding their precise length. The six days of the creation week are defined as alternating periods of darkness and light. However, the first three days were alternating periods of darkness and light that were not effected or defined by the presence of the sun, which only makes its appearance on the fourth day (RD 2:499). The first three days of creation were, accordingly, “extraordinary cosmic days.” It is also instructive to note that the events that transpired on the sixth day of the creation week seem to require a more extended period of time than an ordinary solar day. When we consider that the account in Genesis “portrays to us each time with a single brushstroke without giving details,” we can hardly insist that all the creative work of God was accomplished within the time-span of the ordinary days of the subsequent history of the earth. As Bavinck puts it, “Each day’s work of creation must certainly have been much grander and more richly textured than Genesis summarily reports in its sublime narrative. For all these reasons ‘day,’ in the first chapter of the Bible, denotes the time in which God was at work creating” (RD 2:500).3
When it comes to the many questions and controversies regarding the Genesis account of creation and the theories of modern science, therefore, Bavinck maintains that theologians and scientists alike need to exercise self-discipline and humility. There is always the danger in this area of confusing our interpretations with the facts. This is as true for theologians who interpret the account of creation in Genesis 1 as it is for scientists who interpret the book of creation.
Undoubtedly, my summary of Bavinck’s interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis 1 raises a number of questions that I cannot adequately address in an article of this kind. Readers are encouraged to go to Bavinck’s chapter in the Reformed Dogmatics for a more thorough presentation of the arguments for his interpretation. However, there are several features of Bavinck’s interpretation that are of special significance and provide a helpful model for any contemporary reflection on Genesis 1.
First, Bavinck endeavors throughout his treatment of this question to honor the unique and unparalleled authority of Scripture as the Word of God. Whatever the challenges of modern science to the biblical account of creation, theologians must not accommodate their interpretation in a premature and irresponsible way to the “theories” (and not the “facts”) of science. Though our interpretation of Genesis 1 may not ignore the theories of modern science, and though we have an obligation to address the question of the harmony between the biblical record and what we know of the creation through science, the biblical account of creation must be handled with absolute confidence in its trustworthiness.
Second, in Bavinck’s interpretation of the account of creation, two emphases stand out. Bavinck insists on the importance of the traditional distinction between God’s work of “first creation,” the original act of God whereby all things were called into existence out of nothing and existed in a formless state (Gen. 1:1–2), and his work of “second creation,” the distinct creative works of God on the six successive days of the creation week. Though Bavinck believes there are important reasons why we should not be dogmatic regarding our understanding of the nature and duration of the “days” of the work-week of creation, he rejects “concordistic” theories that accommodate the biblical record to the theories of modern geology. For example, he rejects the view that identifies the days of creation with the “ages” identified by modern geology.
Third, while Bavinck reaches definite conclusions regarding a responsible interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis 1, he cautions against an over-reaching dogmatism regarding disputed matters that have never assumed confessional status in the history of the Christian church. There are some non-negotiable elements of the Christian understanding of creation. For example, a responsible interpretation of Genesis 1 and the doctrine of creation requires adherence to the following: 1) God created all things out of nothing by his power and wisdom; 2) evolutionary naturalism is fundamentally at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the biblical doctrine of creation; 3) the account of creation is not a piece of non-historical mythology but a sober account of actual history; and 4) the interpretation of the Scriptural account of creation may not be accommodated to the theories of science, particularly when these theories are at odds with the Bible’s teaching. But there are also differences of opinion about questions that do not touch on any fundamental dogma of the Christian church, for example, the question of the duration of the days of the week of creation.
And fourth, throughout his treatment of the biblical account of creation, Bavinck exhibits a considerable knowledge of the theories of modern science and their implications for an interpretation of Genesis 1. In his approach to the interpretation of Genesis 1, Bavinck warns against an approach that accommodates the theories of contemporary science. But he also warns against an obscurantist approach that avoids interaction with and knowledge of the discussions in modern science. Because theology and natural science are engaged in acquiring knowledge of the same created world, it is inevitable that the question arises of the harmony between their respective views. Theologians may not avoid asking how contemporary scientific theories regarding the world comport with what we know from the book of special revelation. The question of the relation between the biblical account of creation and the theories of the natural sciences is inescapable. And it is a question that requires patient, careful, and informed treatment by theologians and scientists alike.
1. Bavinck here quotes Oswald Heer, according to E. Dennert, Moses oder Darwin? 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Kielman, 1907), 50. The quote Bavinck uses here reminds me of something I read a number of years ago regarding evolutionary naturalism. The theory of evolution, as an explanation for the world that now exists, is a little like saying that a hurricane-like wind, blowing through a junkyard, produced over a long time a fully operational Boeing 747 airplane. All such analogies fail, of course, since the impossibility of the macro-evolutionary explanation of the origins of the world and its life-forms is immeasurably greater.
2. It is interesting to observe that Bavinck seems to appeal to a version of this theory toward the end of his chapter where he argues that the “cataclysmic flood … brought about immense changes in the entire state of the earth” (RD 2:505).
3. It is remarkable how similar Bavinck’s remarks about this question are to those of E. J. Young in his In the Beginning: Genesis 1 and the Authority of Scripture (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1976). Like Bavinck, Young interprets the six days as successive time periods (not ages) in which God performed his creative works and brought the creation to its original state of integrity. But he shies away from insisting that these days are “ordinary” in their length or kind. They belong to the foundational work-week of creation that is in every proper sense of the term “extraordinary.”
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.