Amendments to the Belgic Confession?
Permit me to use my blog to comment on an issue that has arisen within the small federation of churches among which I pastor.
This past week, a church assembly to which I was delegated (called a classis; similar to a presbytery), adopted an overture to General Synod (similar to a general assembly) recommending a modification of article 14 of the Belgic Confession (a doctrinal standard to which we adhere). The modification, in an attempt to exclude theistic evolution, identifies Adam and Eve as "the biological ancestors of all other humans" and insists that "there were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid." This overture was well-intentioned and presented with a lot of fervor, but is flawed in several ways, obscures facts, and sadly misrepresents people.
Here, in random order, are a few of my concerns.
1. The Belgic Confession is not ours to modify, but belongs to Reformed churches all over the world. It is true that the Belgic Confession was modified before, but most substantial modifications were made at a time when its reach and function were very limited, geographically and otherwise. If we modify the Belgic confession substantially now we need to rename it "the Canadian-Belgic Confession." Other Reformed churches, now all over the world, would need to know that "our" Belgic Confession is not "their" Belgic Confession. If this is an issue which requires synodical pronouncement, it is best done via a footnote to the confession, an appendix to the confession, or through a separate statement.
2. It could easily be argued that the Three Forms of Unity already exclude the notion of theistic evolution (Consider, among others, Belgic Confession, arts.13,14,15,16, 23, Heidelberg Catechism, answers 6,14,20,26,27 and Canons of Dort 1:3-4).
3. The overture offers no satisfactory definition of theistic evolution. On p.1, we read, "By theistic evolution, we mean the teaching that God created the world and all organisms over billions of years." Such a definition implies that those who hold to an old earth are evolutionists and thus fails to distinguish between old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Reformed churches, historically, have wisely resisted making judgments on the age of earth and have generally regarded this issue to be the least threatening component of the evolutionary theory.
4. Relatedly, the overture fails to distinguish the various dimensions of the evolutionary theory, including old earth, but also random mutation, natural selection, and common ancestry. Are each of these parts equally threatening, and if so, how so? Moreover, there is no engagement with the data that supports one or all these parts, and no recommendation for how Christians might interpret such data from a theologically sound perspective. One could argue that this is beyond the purview of pastors and theologians (and I would be willing to entertain that thesis), but when the church decides to insert a scientific statement (note the word 'biological' in the amendment) into a confessional document, it must do so with some scientific credibility. To say otherwise is to demean science and scientists and to embrace a kind of fideism.
5. The overture does not grapple with the possibility that one can affirm a young earth and a six-day creation and some form of evolution. Ken Ham, the world's most well-known young earth, six day creationist, believes that on the ark there were single pairs of felines, canines, and elephants which then diversified (i.e., evolved) into all the feline, canine, and elephant species we see today. In other words, the pair of canines on the ark diversified over time into foxes, wolves, coyotes, dogs, etc., in a kind of accelerated evolution. Similarly, Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, in his book The Genesis Enigma, argues that the commonly accepted sequence of evolutionary history generally coheres with the sequence of creation acts in Genesis 1, enabling someone to argue for an accelerated evolution and a literal interpretation of the days of Genesis 1. Does the term "theistic evolution" include those young earth creationists like Ken Ham and others who accept some kind of evolution but reject the notion that God superintends evolution by means of natural processes?
6. The overture doesn't support what it claims--namely, that the Can Ref churches face a "significant doctrinal challenge in the area of origins." We do read quotations from two professional scientists, one a member of a Burlington church and one a member in Langley, both of whom are members in good standing in their churches. The overture, in other words, exaggerates the problem as if the Can Ref churches are overrun by theistic evolutionists.
7. The overture fails to discern the nuances of the positions of these two scientists by failing to distinguish between postulations and convictions. Scientists are in the business of making postulations and hypotheses about which they sometimes have no settled conviction. The overture seems to imply that it is illegitimate for a scientist even to consider multiple theories of origins. Similarily the overture seems to imply that is contradictory for a scientist to accept the strength of an argument for evolution without finding the argument cogent. The two scientists who are alleged to embrace theistic evolution clearly do not, but the nuances of their positions have entirely escaped the drafters of the overture. The oddity of this all is that the two scientists who have had their names dragged through the mud might themselves not be so troubled by the amendment!!!
8. The overture is riddled with errors and unfounded conjectures. At several points, the overture cites labels others have given the scientists in question without contemplating the possibility that the scientists themselves would object to these labels, as I know they do. Similarly, it is alleged that one of the scientists belongs to an organization (the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation) that is officially committed to evolution when the organization in fact has no such policy.
9. The overture cites scientists, but doesn't give them opportunity to interact or explain or reject or qualify their statements. This is why error, real or perceived, is best addressed by consistories, failing which, classes, failing which, synods. It seems to violate the basic principles of Reformed church polity for a classis to intrude uninvited into the jurisdictions of local congregations. More importantly, there is at least one statement made by a scientist which has been retracted and this retraction, though publicizied, was completely ignored by the drafters of the overture.
10. The overture disrespects the consistories of the churches to which these scientists belong by alleging that there is within the federation "an atmosphere of tolerance" (phrase used at classis) towards theistic evolution without engaging these consistories who, as far as I know, are showing faithful pastoral leadership to these scientists.