Reformed Theology, Science

Natural Revelation and the Framework Hypothesis

Many, no doubt, will turn in impatience from the inquiry—all those, namely, who have settled the question in such a way that they cannot conceive of it being reopened. Such, for example, are the pietists, of whom there are still many. “What,” they say, “is the need of argument in defense of the Bible? Is it not the Word of God, and does it not carry with it an immediate certitude of its truth which could only be obscured by defence? If science comes into contradiction with the Bible, so much the worse for science!” —J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp 8,9

At the 2010 Ligonier Conference, Al Mohler claimed, “The exegetical evidence based on a Reformation understanding of Scripture leads to a natural understanding of 24-hour days in creation” (as transcribed by Tim Challies). This Southern Baptist is making quite a claim.

John MacArthur, another five-point “Calvinist”, made similar claims at the Shepherd’s Conference last year, when he spoke on “Why Every Self-Repsecting Evangelical Should Affirm Literal Six-Day Creationism.”

I place “Calvinist” in quotes here because, by embracing only the five main points of the Canons of Dordt and rejecting the complete package of Reformed theology, they are commandeering/hijacking the Reformation for their own ends, but keeping their hundred-year-old (very young in comparison to the age of the church) doctrines of fundamentalism and dispensationalism as their main foundation. Both of these normally well-respected preachers are sensationalizing the issue in their quest for illegitimate religious certainty, and they are playing the “Reformation” trump card, in an effort to convince all Calvinists to take their side.

MacArthur used the same technique to promote his eschatological views three years ago at the Shepherds’ Conference, in a speech entitled, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist Is a Premillennialist”. Speaking of eschatology, Reformed theologian Meredith Kline once said that one’s understanding of the end of Revelation is directly related to one’s understanding of the beginning of Genesis. MacArthur and Mohler would agree with him on this point–MacArthur also made the eschatological connection last year at the Shepherd’s Conference. As literal six-day creationists and premillennialists, MacArthur and Mohler are in the same vein with each other about both the beginning and the end.

Now for a couple comments:

I take issue with John MacArthur’s choice of sermon titles: Calvinists are not self-respecting; a true Calvinist considers himself a worm and gives all glory to God.

Second, their appeal to Reformed theology is unfounded. Anyone who is committed to the Reformed faith expressed in Calvin’s Institutes or the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity knows that we cannot have such a distrust of God-given natural revelation as these men are promoting.

Natural revelation
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, argues that, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity” (McNeill/Battles, 43), and, “He not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (51-2). The entire first section of the Institutes is about the knowledge of God: that he reveals himself through natural revelation, in his works of creation and providence. But this knowledge was corrupted by sin, and so we needed intervention, and so we have special revelation, given by God in ancient times through the patriarchs and later written down as the Scriptures were compiled, all leading up to the promised One, the Christ, the Second Adam, who redeems us from the corruption of sin.

The Calvinist understanding is that the special revelation given by God in Scripture is not contrary to the natural revelation given by God in creation, but is more specific. That is, both the wonders of creation and the powers of the human mind reveal that there is a God, and that he is good. But we cannot know the way of salvation without the gospel; we cannot know the rules for how to approach him in our sin unless or until he reveals those rules and the provision that he has made.

The Reformed confessions, specifically the Westminster Confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, state, “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” Therefore God ordained the Scriptures, which contain “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.”

The word “life” here is not all-encompassing, but refers to the so-called “Christian” life, or “abundant” life. As R.C. Sproul said at the 2002 conference, citing Augustine and Aquinas, “Nature does teach very important truth to us that’s not found anywhere in Scripture. So the sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that everything that’s worth knowing is found in the Scripture. God also reveals things in the scientific laboratory for our benefit… Everything you need to know in terms of your faith and your life before God–everything you need to know relative to salvation and your sanctification–that is found in sacred Scripture. It’s not going to tell you how to balance your checking account or how to work a computer…”

Scripture is a record of redemptive history, containing the message of the gospel. It is not a geometry textbook; its purpose is not to teach us astronomy or biology or mathematics or medicine or government or paleontology: for these subjects God in his Providence has left us to “the light of nature and Christian prudence.” The Catholic church in the middle ages made a grave mistake in this matter when they condemned astronomers as heretics for saying the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. They had bound the consciences of believers to something which Scripture itself does not bind us.

Eric Landry wrote on the White Horse Inn blog: “Just as in the days following the Reformation, when the church could not decide between the geocentric and heliocentric views of the solar system, so today there is not unanimity regarding the age question. Ultimately, the heliocentric view won out over the geocentric view because of a vast preponderance of facts favoring it based on increasingly sophisticated observations through ever improving telescopes used by thousands of astronomers over hundreds of years.”

The Bible is the revelation of the gospel, of the way of salvation; it is not a scientific textbook. Like those Christians who came before us who were forced to recognize that Scripture is not making a scientific declaration when it says, “the sun rose”, the same elasticity is required of us today when we look at Genesis 1 in the light of what our telescopes and shovels reveal to us.

There are alternative understandings from the fundamentalist young-earth position which line up better with the Reformed confessions and natural revelation. One interpretation is called the day-age view, which states that when it says “day” it really means “eon” or “age”. But the view which I think is more tenable is called the framework interpretation, promoted by people like Henri Blocher, Lee Irons, Tim Keller, and the late Meredith Kline.

What is a day? (Genesis 1)
I’m not arguing for day-age view, because I think the framework view is the more evident reading, but I do want to address the overly literalistic interpretation of the word “day” by young-earth creationists. The Hebrew word yom does not always have to mean a 24-hour period. The prophets who look forward to the “great day of the Lord” were not looking for one 24-hour holiday in the future (the way we look forward to Christmas every year), but an eternal state (in fact, this is what the Sabbath prefigured). Furthermore, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pe 3:8, ESV). (Again, I must caution against over-literalness–this does not mean that creation actually took exactly 6,000 years: Peter is simply saying that time is no object for God.)

The reason a day on Earth is 24 hours long is because that’s how long it takes for the planet to make one rotation on its access. (On Mars, we wouldn’t say “24-hour day”, because a day there is 24 hours and 37 minutes.) The reason we know a day is 24 hours long is based on our view of lights in the sky. We can measure from sunrise to sunrise, or from noon to noon, or from sunset to sunset, and know that’s a day. In the semi-poetic language of Genesis 1 (vv. 14-19), the astronomical bodies were not created until Wednesday. This means that the definition of a “day” as a 24-hour rotation of the earth on its axis is untenable as there is no frame of reference. You can’t have “evening and morning” without a sunset and a sunrise, you can’t have a sunset and sunrise without a sun. Our coming look at Genesis 2:5 in the next section will make it apparent that God made use of “ordinary secondary means” during the creation era. So if there was a literal “evening and morning”, then there had to be a literal sun before the literal sun was created on the 4th day. Without a sun, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of the creation week were not days at all, and this makes it impossible to hold to a “six literal 24-hour days of creation” view.

The day-age view typically holds to the order of events in Genesis 1, even though it extents the time of the “days”. This is why I don’t think the day-age view is a tenable alternative, because those first three eons of creation had no sun–as if the earth existed separately from the solar system, and was just floating out in space by itself, and even had plants growing on it, before the sun was made! The framework interpretation offers a much better explanation.

Plants need water and sun (Genesis 2)
Meredith Kline, in his article, “Because It Had Not Rained,” makes an excellent argument for the framework interpretation based entirely on exegesis of Genesis 2. Kline shows that God in his providence made use of ordinary secondary means to sustain plant life (e.g. water, photosynthesis) during the era of creation. Genesis 2:5, 6 says, “And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Jehovah God had not caused it to rain upon the earth: and there was not a man to till the ground; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground” (ASV). The statement in Genesis 2:5 about the normal biological requirements of plants is in direct conflict with Genesis 1:11-12, which puts plants on earth before the creation of the sun. So the conclusion we must come to is that Genesis 1 cannot be literal; rather, is a semi-poetical framework used to present the case for the Sabbath. It is a literary preamble to Genesis 2, which begins the more literal historical record of the Fall of Man and the ancestry of the human race.

The Framework Interpretation
And so we come to the form of the framework itself. I will begin with a note on exegesis: Opponents need to be careful that they don’t accuse those who hold to the framework view of not having a literal, historico-grammatical hermeneutic. Mohler claims that “disaster ensues when the book of natural revelation is used to trump the book of special revelation.” That is not what Lee Irons, Henri Blocher, and the late Dr. Meredith Kline were doing: the framework hypothesis comes not from a liberal effort to reconcile the Bible with science, nor an effort to prove it wrong, but was developed exegetically, based on the forms of the passage and interpreting it in light of Genesis 2.

The most obvious formal component of Genesis 1 are the literary refrains

  • “And God saw that it was good.”
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the nth day.”
In addition, we can recognize poetic elements of parallelism and building towards a climax, when we separate the six days into two stanzas:
First Stanza: The Elements (vv. 3-13) Second Stanza: The “Rulers”(vv. 14-31)
Day One: Light Day Four: Sun, Moon, and Stars, as light-producers
Day Two: Air and Water Day Five: Birds and Sea Creatures, masters of sky and sea
Day Three: Earth and Plants Day Six: The Beasts, culminating in Man as the Imago Dei

Finally, Genesis 2:1-3 says God “rested” on the seventh day. This is the key to the meaning of this passage.

God is omnipotent. When he works he does not exert himself. He does not get tired and as such has no need of rest. Furthermore–as Colossians 1:17 says of the second person of the Trinity, “In him all things consist”–if God really took a holiday, then existence itself would cease. Jesus also speaks of the Triune God’s perpetual work, even on the Sabbath: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17, ESV). So what this mean when it says God rested?

We must notice that Scripture commonly uses literary devices, such as the symbolism employed in the apocalyptic sections of Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and the common devices such as allegory and anthropomorphism which are used throughout Scripture. The Bible speaks of God the Father having a hand or an arm; we know that God is spirit, and does not actually have a hand or an arm, but the imagery shows us the Father’s power and intervention. Psalm 23 says the Lord is my shepherd, but we know we are not literally sheep, and God doesn’t literally carry a rod and a staff. Yet we know this is a helpful metaphor for his providence.

What we have in Genesis 1 is an anthropomorphism: it is the Creator’s metaphorical work-week. The passage exists to teach humans–the image of God–the importance of our own creative work, and the importance of the Sabbath. God is depicted as getting up in the morning, going to work, and at the end of the day, looking upon all that he had accomplished and saying, “it is good.” His work is done for the day, and he goes home and goes to bed. We reconcile the sunless evenings and mornings of the first three days because they are the evenings and mornings of the working God’s metaphorical work-week, not actual evenings and mornings in Earth’s history.

God’s seventh-day rest from creation continues to this day, because as we can see, he’s not creating in this way anymore. New islands appear in Hawaii as the volcanoes on the ocean floor erupt, and new dog breeds are fashioned to fit into the purses of rich women, and, more impressively, new stars and galaxies are being formed on the edge of the universe. But creating new laws of nature, such as gravity, fusion, photosynthesis–these laws are not changing. God completed his creation work, and this present age is his seventh day. This is why the Bible constantly points to the creation story in support of the Fourth Commandment: God rested (and is resting), and so we must also rest every week. Despite God’s total ability to create new things, new types of life forms, new dimensions of reality, he is not doing so, and if he, the infinite, omnipotent one, took a break, then who are we to say that we don’t need to take a day off?

Why does the universe look so old? (Hint: because it is…)
The view held by many fundamentalists, and propounded most recently by Al Mohler at the Ligonier conference, seems to depict God as being deceitful, as if he put the dinosaur bones there to deliberately lead people into error. But Scripture says God tempts no one. Mohler says the laws of the universe changed because of the fall, that it merely “looks” old and hasn’t been progressing at a constant rate since the beginning. According to Mohler, when God created Adam, he created him as a grown-up, and in the same way, he created the Earth and the rest of the universe all grown up; it just appeared suddenly, fully formed…

If this is so, then it would mean that ordinary secondary means involving the properties and speed of light were not in place: the photons of light belonging to stars millions of light years away were already only 10,000 light years away the instant the universe was spoken into existence, though the light sources were on the other side of the galaxy. It would also mean that ordinary secondary means regarding decay and fossilization were not in place: the dinosaur fossils which “only appear” hundreds of thousands of years older than the oldest human fossils were put in place only 10,000 years ago. They were in the dirt already on the third day, pre-aged to throw off the atheists, so the fundamentalists would claim. In other words, dinosaurs never existed; they were only ever bones. The fossilized nests where paleontologists learn how certain dinosaur mothers cared for their young represent not actual paleontological history in which a certain female dinosaur was taking care of its offspring a very long time ago: she never did; she never existed. It’s an illusion. If young-earth creationists really believe the earth is only 10,000 years old, this is the conclusion they must come to.

All the evidence points to an old earth.

Scientists can get an approximation of the universe’s age by using telescopes and measuring the frequencies of light. When a car is about to drive by with a loud muffler or honking its horn, the sound waves rise in pitch and then suddenly drop lower when it passes. The sound waves are bunched closer together when coming at you, and spread out when going away. It’s the same with light waves: the frequency varies with speed. This is called Doppler Shift. Using Hubble’s Law, astronomers can tell how far away stars and galaxies are, and at which speed they are moving, based on color, the “red shift”. Using their God-given powers of observation, they can look back over time to the very instant when God said, “Let there be light.” And it was much longer than 10,000 years ago.

The fact that billions drive to work everyday in vehicles powered by fossil fuels and have done so for over a hundred years–and that people have used coal as a fuel since prehistoric times–is evidence enough for the earth’s age. It takes a lot of dead algae, trees and dinosaurs to make all that oil and coal, living over thousands of generations. Modern science can be used to date fossils, and it can be used presumably to figure out how much time it takes to make a fossil into oil. Let me tell you, it’s a very long time, much more than 10,000 years. (Or are they claiming that the earth came pre-packaged with its fossil fuels?)

If they think God put this evidence into place even though the earth is only 10,000 years old, then they are making God out to be a liar, and he is not. If he were, he would cease to be God, for God is good. If God were not good, he would cease to exist, and therefore young-earth creationists are actually joining the side of the atheists by helping to kill God themselves.

John MacArthur recently stated: “Here’s the Christian view: ‘The Bible is the key to the past, present, and future.’ Taking God at His Word allows true scientific inquiry to take place because it provides the preconditions for rational thought.” Mohler and MacArthur’s view of inerrancy is different from the church’s historical position. It’s as if, for them, if the Bible said 2 and 2 is 5, or that the sky is purple, they would believe it, “because the Bible says so,” even though every other person in the world would think them to be buffoons, and they would probably be institutionalized: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Jesus said the smallest seed was the mustard seed. But it’s not. He was making a point using illustrations with plants simple peasant farmers would be familiar with. Yet, for these literalists to be consistent in their view of inerrancy, when someone shows them a seed that’s smaller than mustard, they’d have to say, “No, that’s not a seed, it can’t be, by definition. Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest seed, and that’s smaller than a mustard seed, so it can’t be a seed!” Honestly, these men need to answer for why they don’t believe the earth is flat, and square, with “four corners” like a map, and why they don’t believe the sun orbits around the earth. Their views on literal interpretation and the requirements for inerrancy necessitate these conclusions, if they take their method of interpreting Genesis 1 and apply it to the rest of Scripture.

The relationship of science to religion
Science does not trump Scripture; it proves it. It helps us classify Jesus’ miracles as miracles, because we know they don’t happen ordinarily, and we can’t replicate them in a laboratory, and yet we have so many witnesses. Science also shows us where we need to change our hermeneutic. Just as the church eventually got over the whole heliocentrism thing, as finally persuaded by the facts of science, so fundamentalists today need to get over their view of the universe being only 10,000 years old.

Machen wrote about this necessary dependency of religion on science:

For example, if any simple Christian of one hundred years ago, or even of today, were asked what would become of his religion if history should prove indubitably that no man called Jesus ever lived and died in the first century of our era, he would undoubtedly answer that his religion would fall away. Yet the investigation of events in the first century in Judea, just as much as in Italy or in Greece, belongs to the sphere of scientific history. (Christianity and Liberalism, p 5)

The apostle Paul also explained why it is necessary for our faith that the facts of things line up with Scripture:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, ESV)

Our only hope is in the fact that Christ was actually raised from the dead (which, though a miracle contrary to the laws of nature, is attested by eyewitness testimony to the fact that the tomb was empty and a lot of people saw him alive and healthy). If someone found his body, and by DNA evidence proved that the bones were his, the conclusion we would have to come to is that “we are of all people most to be pitied!” Contra MacArthur, Paul does not acknowledge Scripture as the precondition for rational thought; rather, Scripture presupposes rational thought and science.

This is the Reformed view: the confessions state that special revelation presupposes natural revelation. And the confessional faith also teaches us about God’s providential use of ordinary secondary means to accomplish his sovereign will in the universe.

The renowned Reformed Old Testament scholar Dr. Bruce Waltke, who served on the translation committees of the NASB and the NIV, recently said, “If the data [were] overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality [would] make us a cult…some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we [would] not [be] using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.” This post is not about evolution, but about the fight between young-earth creationism and old-earth creationism (though old-earth creationism includes a sub-group of theistic evolutionists). But even if you exclude the part on evolution from this statement, Waltke’s remaining point is very important: To deny reality makes you not a Christian, but a cultist, because the Christian faith is grounded in fact.

In conclusion, churches should not make the literalistic approach to Genesis 1 a requirement for believers, as it binds Christians’ consciences in a way that Scripture itself does not require. We should not be more specific on this matter than Scripture is, and we should be careful to protect our own orthodoxy by not holding to strange beliefs that are not true. Such things hinder our evangelistic fruitfulness, and dim our light in the world, helping to relegate the church to a state of irrelevance in our culture. We must think about the eternal consequences: Jesus warned about causing people to stumble, and there are probably a lot of God’s elect who have stumbled over the fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 1. Let’s preach the gospel and avoid drowning out the message with the noise we’ve been making over young earth creationism.

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4 thoughts on “Natural Revelation and the Framework Hypothesis

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just wanted to comment on your mentioning of dinosaurs being already in the earth on the third day, and that they were only ever bones. I can't speak for Mohler, though I believe that dinosaurs were created a living creatures at the beginning of the Earth, and simply went extinct later on.
    Many dinosaurs would have been trapped during Noah's flood, and hundreds of bones would have been buried in layers of sand that would normally take hundreds of years to build up. However, due to the catastrophic nature of the flood, this would have been easily accomplished in a matter of days.
    Also, time and time again, carbon dating has been shown to be reliable. Still, people tend to take a scientist's word for it.
    Finally, fossils do not need millions of years to form. Fossilized boots and hats have been found that are only a couple hundred years old. In fact, soft tissue has been found in some dinosaur bones that could not possibly have lasted millions of years. In fact, thinking of them lasting a few thousand is incredible.

    That concludes my comment. Just thought I would share my views on the subject.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, just wanted to correct my previous posting.

    “Also, time and time again, carbon dating has been shown to be UNreliable. Still, people tend to take a scientist's word for it.”

  3. Dear “Anonymous”: I inferred what you meant based on the context. But I want to warn you that the statements you are presenting are fallacious, likely regurgitated from some answers-in-genesis young-earth fundamentalist type who is fighting the culture war so hard he has no desire to listen to reason.

    As I presented in my post, carbon dating has been verified time and again, and I presented the case of the mid-atlantic ridge. The methods used to supposedly disqualify carbon dating are known as the “Achilles' heal fallacy”, using isolated incidents to invalidate the entire technology rather than admitting the particular experiments which were wrong had errors in them.

    To rely on the falsehood of carbon-dating as the ground and basis of your faith makes you a weed swayed by the wind. If some other technology, like a time machine, can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that you're wrong, you'll have a real crisis of faith. Recognize the possibility that God may be bigger than you think.

  4. Pingback: Historic Confessions vs. the Contemporary Statement of Faith | I must follow, if I can

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