PMW 2020-071 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is the second in a three-part series on the creation statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Six-day creation is an embarrassment to many evangelical and Reformed theologians. It is such an embarrassment that some will even re-interpret historic Reformed statements on the matter. One such re-working of the meaning of the Confession has been attempted by Reformed theological writer Lee Irons. Let’s continue my critique of his effort.
Irons opens his actual response to Hall’s research in the writings of the Westminster divines with this rather surprising comment, a comment that exposes a fundamental flaw in Irons’ effort:
Hall does not seem to have asked himself a pertinent hermeneutical question. Can we assume that these views of these theologians is [sic] ultimately determinative for how we ought to interpret what the Confession itself actually says and does not say? In other words, just because many of the divines held a particular view of the days, does that necessarily imply that the Confession affirms a particular view of the days?
Shortly thereafter he argues: “Studies of intellectual context are only of limited value with respect to the politics of confessional subscription.”
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When anyone compares WCF 4:1 with the Framework Interpretation of Genesis 1, it becomes immediately obvious why Irons would want to question Hall’s historical research: the views of the Confession’s framers are incompatible with the Framework Interpretation but perfectly fit the Six-Day Creationist perspective. Irons’ statement here at the very opening of his critique is remarkable in several respects:
(1) By this opening maneuver Irons effectively discounts the scholarly practice of historical exegesis. Yet in order to understand any historical document we must seek to discern the original intent of the author(s). Otherwise the whole interpretive enterprise becomes an exercise in eisegesis, leaving the document at the mercy of future fads and fashions. Hall’s research analyzes the published writings of the framers (and others in their era) to discover their fuller thoughts on the matter before us. Their creedal formulation does not appear out of the blue, but within a particular intellectual context. Irons himself admits Hall “has assisted us in placing the Confession in its intellectual context” and that “Hall has provided many quotes useful for determining original intent” (Irons, 1).
(2) Such historical research as Hall provides us becomes absolutely indispensable in situations like those currently before us. Long after the framing of the Confession’s article on creation, an entirely new view of the whole creation process has arisen. This new view directly contravenes the very clear and historically recognized language of the Confession. The Framework Interpretation informs us that the days of Genesis do not instruct us on the passing of time as we now experience it. Rather Genesis speaks of something altogether different. In fact, rather than creation transpiring “in the space of six days,” the Framework Interpretation urges that “with respect to both the duration and sequence of events, the scientist is left free of biblical constraints in hypothesizing about cosmic origins.” Irons is correct in noting that “the Confession is what is binding, not the views of individual authors” (2). The problem arises in that through Irons’ sleight-of-hand, the Confession is being evacuated of its original intent. Such a maneuver demands that we research the wider body of literature produced by the divines to discover what they meant. The necessity of Hall’s research, then, becomes all the more urgent due to the re-interpretive process necessary to make room for the Framework Interpretation.
(3) This historical research becomes especially necessary in that the document in question is a creedal document. As the Latin etymology of “creed” instructs us and as creedalism has historically operated, a creed is a statement of belief, a pronouncement of commitment to a particular theological position. The whole purpose of a creed is to “lock-in” a particular theological viewpoint, to stand against the eroding tides of shifting fashion. Consequently, a creed must be understood in terms of its original intent or else it fails of its purpose, in that it does not secure a particular theological construct as a “platform for unity” (Irons, 2). The Six-Day Creation Interpretation vigorously and unashamedly proclaims that God created the universe “in the space of six days,” just as does the Confession; the Framework Interpretation argues that God most definitely did not create in such a compacted time frame, due to God’s use of natural providence in the creation process (based on insights derived from Gen. 2:5).
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(4) Furthermore, despite Irons’ assertion, Hall’s research does not “assume” the views of the framers of the Confession: it documents them. And it documents them in the light of the specific and clear statement within the Confession they framed. In various places in Irons’ paper we find that certain of the views of the Westminster divines do not appear in creedal form in the Confession of Faith: the young earth, the date of the creation, the season of the creation. Yet in 4:1 we do discover their view on the time-frame of the creational activity of God.
(5) Ironically, Irons himself allows historical exegesis to demonstrate that “the Westminster divines specifically rejected the Augustinian view. . . . There can be no doubt that ‘in the space of six days,’ both in Calvin and the Confession, was intended to rule out the instantaneous creation view”5. Though he complains of Hall’s “selective” use of historical argument (see the next point), it seems that Irons himself is selective in his denouncing the use of historical exegesis.
(6) A little later in his paper Irons makes a startling statement that as seriously misrepresents Hall’s research as it does misconstrue the nature of the historical exegetical enterprise:
Hall’s appeal to the weight of church history is arbitrary. On the one hand, he wants us to avoid the hubris of the modern mindset which rejects the ancient in favor of the new, and which always assumes that newer is better. But on the other hand, he selectively decides which ecclesiastical traditions are allowed to count. The traditions of 19th century American Presbyterianism and Old Princeton are dismissed as being too recent. But by what authority does Hall determine the cut-off point of legitimate ‘old’ traditions?”
This remarkable error cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed. Note that:
(a) Hall’s appeal to church history is not in the least “arbitrary.” Hall is engaged in historical exegesis for the purpose of determining original intent. Consequently, he cites from the “intellectual context” (to use Irons’ own phrase, 1) in which the Confession was framed. The problem before us is that later observations and re-interpretations of the Confession have evacuated the Confessional statement of its historical meaning. Perhaps diachronically mapping out the development of Confessional interpretations would prove an interesting study, but this is not the issue before us.
(b) Contrary to Irons’ assertion Hall is not interested in the least with “old” v. “new,” but with original intent v. contemporary re-interpretation. The two concerns (old/new v. original/contemporary) are not equatable in the least. At times in Irons’ paper he seems to understand this, but then he appears to forget the matter when drawing conclusions.
Returning to the same paragraph on Irons’ page 1 (regarding “the pertinent hermeneutical question”), Irons continues his assault upon historical exegesis of the Confession: “Just because many of the divines held a particular view of the days, does that necessarily imply that the Confession affirms a particular view of the days?” In response let us note the following:
(1) Irons admits that “many of the divines” hold the natural day view of Genesis 1. He confesses that Hall “has located a large number of quotes from the 17th century Reformed theologians which indicate the possible presence of a consensus on several points relative to the days of creation” (1). In point of fact, Hall not only provided us a large array of evidence in this direction in his original paper, but he has since added several new references from the divines: the body of evidence is growing.5 How can we dismiss the divines’ convictions on the Genesis creation account when interpreting their Confession? Especially when a proposed interpretation counters those convictions?
(2) Irons does not offer even one countervailing assertion by a Westminster divine. There appears to be no dispute among the divines as to the nature of the creation days. The dispute is a modern cavil that has suspiciously arisen since the appearance of scientific evolutionism and its demand for enormous time-frames (not that Irons, Kline, or their associates are sympathetic to evolution).
(3) The extra-Confessional statements of the divines do not imply that the Confession “affirms a particular view of the days.” Rather the Confession itself (as we shall see in a little more detail shortly) affirms God created “in the space of six days,” thereby fitting perfectly with the framers’ other writings.
To be continued!
Tagged: six day creation