Hermeneutics and the Creation Wars

You have heard by now of the worship wars, i.e., the contest between the competing claims about how we ought to worship. There is another battle stirring in our churches, over the proper interpretation of Genesis 1. One of the most frequently sung battle hymns concerns hermeneutics. This is a very important term but one which often goes undefined. Louis Berkhof, defined hermeneutics as the “science that teaches the principles, laws and methods of interpretation” Hermeneutics is a science, but as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, hermeneutics is both a science and an art. It is science because it does involve a body of accumulated learning but it is also involves art, i.e., the practiced, skilled and even intuitive application of principles. If it did not, theologians and ministers would have much less work to do.

A Reformed hermeneutic requires the skilled application of a set of principles which accounts for the following:

  • The original setting (author and audience);
  •  The original language (vocabulary), grammar and style;
  •  The original intention of the human and divine authors;
  •  The narrower (immediate) and broader (canonical) context of a passage.

Thus we believe that the clearer passages help us to interpret the less clear and the newer passages teach us how to interpret the older (this is the analogy of Scripture). Christian interpretations of Scripture must fall within the confines of our “catholic, undoubted Christian faith,” which we call the analogy of faith (HC 22).

So there are objective principles on which we have agreed to operate. The business of interpretation is not completely subjective — sitting in a small group asking one another “what does this passage mean to you?” is a good example of a poor hermeneutic.

Though we should learn from unbelieving interpreters of Scripture, there is a difference between believing and unbelieving Bible interpretation. Those who rightly understand and accept the Bible’s testimony about itself are more likely to pay attention to what Scripture says elsewhere. Christians, having been redeemed by grace alone and united to Christ through faith alone, are given the Holy Spirit who helps us understand the Word of God.

Some, however, seem to think that the practice of hermeneutics is mechanical, as if one drops a penny into a machine and out comes the correct interpretation. Bible interpretation simply does not work this way, because all Bible interpreters are sinful. Further, since no one reads Scripture without preconceptions or without a theology, there is a subjective element to Biblical hermeneutics. The good news is that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear (perspicuous) about the essentials of the faith and, they are God’s Word written, so that they change us, rather than the reverse (Hebrews 4:12). Yet, Scripture itself (2 Peter 3:16) teaches us that, as Westminster Confession 1.7 says, “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

This brings us to sola Scriptura. Sometimes this great slogan is quoted as if to mean, “I believe in sola Scriptura, this is my interpretation, therefore if you disagree, you are denying Scripture.” To disagree with an interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily the same thing as disagreeing with Scripture itself. To be sure, it is possible to deny Scripture; this is why we have a Confession and Consistories, to prevent and correct mistakes in Biblical interpretation. It does not follow, however, that because one believes in the unique and primary authority of Scripture, that therefore one’s interpretation of a given passage is necessarily correct.

By sola Scriptura our Reformed fathers meant to teach that Scripture alone is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, not the traditions of men or even the Church. Scripture is that “norm which norms all other norms.” We confess that the Scripture forms the church, not the reverse. We must then reject those radical Bible interpreters who teach that the Bible has no fixed meaning or that the reader controls the meaning of the text.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we do not look at any other books than Scripture when interpreting it. We need history books and grammars to teach us the background, culture and language in which the Scriptures were originally given.

There is another book which we must learn in order to interpret the Scriptures properly. Indeed our Confession teaches that God’s creation “is before our eyes as a most elegant book” (Art. 2). We cannot ignore “the book of nature” when interpreting the book of Scripture. This was Calvin’s practice. In his commentary on Genesis (1554), he recognized that the Bible uses observational language. He acknowledged that though “Moses makes two great luminaries” (the sun and moon) astronomers “prove” that Saturn is greater than the moon. He resolved the tension by teaching that Moses wrote in a “popular” not technical style. The study of general revelation is “not to be reprobated” nor is this “science to be condemned” simply because “some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.”

There is little doubt about how the books of Scripture and nature should be ordered in our study. We may discover wonderful things in the book of nature, but Scripture (special revelation) must have the priority over general or natural revelation. It is Scripture which interprets nature for us and teaches us what those discoveries mean. Psalm 19:1 declares that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” So do the seas, and all that is under them (Ps. 148:7). Romans 1:19-20 teaches that God has revealed himself in nature so that no man is without excuse. In this way natural revelation is Law, not Gospel. So, the Bible alone teaches us the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and the Gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

The history of science, however, is replete with examples showing how students of the natural world have changed their minds in fundamental ways. They too come to God’s book of nature with presuppositions. Many approach it rebelliously, intent on denying God’s authorship or repudiating the Christian faith. Anyone who reads a book this way, whether nature or Scripture, is wasting our time. The Christian faith has not fundamentally changed since the close of the Biblical canon. Though our understanding of Biblical teaching has developed, we still affirm the catholic creeds and the cardinal doctrines as we did in the 2nd century.

For both sides in the creation wars, there is no doubt that it was the triune God of Scripture, who created “from nothing” (ex nihilo) by the power of his Word. There is no doubt that our God made Adam from the dust of the earth, and Eve from his side, as real historical persons, “in righteousness and true holiness;” (Catechism Q. 6) that God made Adam to be the federal head of all humanity, that God entered into a covenant of works with Adam (Hosea 6:7) which he failed, depriving himself and all his posterity (Catechism Q. 9) of the blessings he would have earned by his obedience. We all agree that the same God who made Adam and the covenant of works, also made a covenant of grace, a gospel promise (Genesis 3:14-16) to send a second Adam, a Redeemer who would keep covenant for his people and triumph over Satan (Romans 5:12-21).

We also agree on the moral implications of the creation account. We agree that God has instituted a work-rest pattern, in which we are to work for six days and rest for one; that there are creational laws, patterns and structures to which all humans are bound, e.g., that the family is a basic human structure, that worship of our Creator and Redeemer is basic to human existence, that human beings are significant and human life sacred because we are made in God’s image.

Even applying the hermeneutical principles on which we all agree, it is harder to see that Moses, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended to teach us the exact length or nature of the days of creation. Certainly we are to think in terms of days, but does God’s Word intend to teach us that each of the days was twenty-four hours? When we ask this question of Genesis 1, are we asking a question which arises from the text itself, or are we asking a question Scripture never intended to answer? This seems likely to me.

Though some argue that the “obvious” or “plain” or “simple” meaning of Genesis 1 is that God created the world in six twenty-four days, these are not tests which Reformed interpreters of Scripture have historically used. In the 16th century, the Socinians argued that it was obvious to anyone with sense that the plain and simple meaning of Scripture is that God is one person, not three.

Others have proposed that we interpret Genesis 1 the way any child might. This would not seem to be a very sound path since we could not use this hermeneutic elsewhere in Scripture without jeopardizing the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and justification.

Early in my Christian life I was taught that the obvious, simple and plain meaning of Scripture required that we believe that God’s plan in history was not first of all the redemption of his people, but the formation of a national people (Israel), that Jesus came to offer them a kingdom, that they rejected him, that, as a result he was crucified. I was further taught that the plain teaching of Scripture is that one day Jesus will return secretly to rapture his people, institute a seven-year tribulation, followed by an earthly reign for 1000 years, during which priests will offer sacrifices before the Lamb of God.

As I matured, I learned that, based on the principles sketched above, this most complicated scheme (it apparently requires films to explain it) is not the right understanding of Scripture, precisely because it uses a wrong hermeneutic. We reject the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture because it does not pay attention to the history, context, grammar and literature in which Scripture was originally given, therefore it misunderstands the theology of much of the Bible. Therefore, the “obvious, simple and plain” approach failed to produce good results.

So how do we bring the creation wars to a peaceful resolution? Surely careful application of our principles of interpretation is a good first step. Listening carefully and charitably to those who affirm our Confession with whom we disagree is another necessary step. A third step is to bring the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 88 to bear on this debate. The Catechism defines conversion (sanctification) as the “dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.” The work of Bible interpretation, perhaps more than any other vocation, calls for dying to self and the renewing work of God’s Spirit through the Gospel. We must not ask ourselves what we want a passage to teach, but what the passage wants to teach us. In the spirit of Q. 88, we must commit ourselves to work together, to bring our own minds and wills into submission to the teaching and intention of the text of Scripture at hand. There is a great deal at stake in the creation wars; such good works will repay us well.