Creation Debate Heats Up
As the Presbyterian Church in America approaches her 25th anniversary, the matter of creation has generated considerable attention in the courts of the church. In October 1997, Central Carolina Presbytery overtured the General Assembly to erect a study committee on the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2. In January of this year, the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) ruled in favor of New Jersey Presbytery, which had stated that not adhering to six twenty-four days of creation is NOT an exception to the Confessional Standards. That SJC judgment will be voted on by the Assembly, in that a minority report has been filed in opposition to that opinion.
An open letter from Dr. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary, defending the school's academic freedom on the matter and setting forth an argument for tolerance, was sent throughout the denomination. Other recent developments include the adoption of a statement by Westminster Presbytery that it will not tolerate a denial of twenty-four days in anyone who wishes to be admitted to the court; and an overture from the same presbytery asking for a General Assembly study committee. Central Carolina has also overtured the Assembly for a study committee on the subject.
Printed below is a response by Pastor Grover Gunn
to Dr. Chapell's letter. The full version of this response may
be found on the internet at http://www.capo.org/cpc/gunn.htm.
It also appears in the latest issue of the Presbyterian Witness
magazine. Also appearing there is an article by Dr. Jack B. Scott,
which attacks Bryan Chapell's position; and an article by Dr.
Morton H. Smith, which details the evolution of his thinking on
the matter of creation and his present conviction that not accepting
that the six days in Genesis 1 were literal days is an exception
to the church's confessional standards.
A Response to Dr. Bryan Chapell's '98-'99 President's
Goals and Reports
Dr. Bryan Chapell has done the PCA a service by spelling out and publicizing what can be taught at
Covenant Theological Seminary on the doctrine of creation. Such forthrightness is needed for the
advancement of the peace and purity of the church. Dr. Chapell's report not only educates the
church at large but also gives an opportunity for interaction and further probing of the issues raised.
Dr. Chapell contrasts the position of Covenant Seminary with a new and surprising rigidity regarding
the doctrine of creation that has arisen in some PCA circles in recent years. He offers the following
description of this overly narrow view: "Now there are those claiming that if one does not hold their precise view of how the universe was created then he cannot be allowed to minister in our churches."
In my opinion, Dr. Chapell has here overstated the views of most who disagree with him on this
issue. As far as I know, few if any are making the claim that every detail of interpretation regarding
the creation account is a fundamental of our system of doctrine as described in the second ordination
vow. Take, for example, the candidate for ordination whose position is that the Bible does not
provide adequate information for one to know with certainty the length of the six days of creation.
Our hypothetical candidate agrees that the six days are an historical chronological sequence. He
accepts the divinely revealed order of events, with earth's vegetation being created before the sun,
moon and stars. He acknowledges that each day of creation had one evening and one morning. He
agrees that death did not enter the world until Adam's first sin. I would be surprised if any presbytery
in our denomination would take the position that this man "cannot be allowed to minister in our
churches" because of his uncertainty on the length of the six days of creation.
The more common question is how far one may deviate from our Standards' teaching on creation
and still legitimately claim to be in full agreement with them. The minutes of the 13th GA (1985)
describe an allowable exception: "As to Presbytery allowing an exception which does not undermine the system of doctrine as set forth in the WCF and does not strike at the vitals of religion, Presbytery may do so." The minutes of the 14th GA (1986) give further insight into the limitations associated with an allowable exception: "When a man is ordained with the allowance of exceptions to his full acceptance of the PCA
standards, he thereby obtains (1) approval of his suitability to function within the ordained office, and (2) liberty to believe and live in some way not fully in accord with some portion of those standards. This allowance of exceptions, however, does not warrant his teaching or preaching of that matter so as to disturb the peace and purity of the church. The court of jurisdiction must determine in each situation whether such unwarranted actions have occurred."
I believe most in the PCA would agree that a doctrine such as a lower species origin for Adam's physical body is a denial of a fundamental of our system of doctrine, even if some "giant in the faith" may have defended this doctrine in days past. The current discussion is over the confessional teaching that creation occurred "in the space of six days." Is the belief that creation took place over long ages an allowable exception to our Standards which should not be taught so as to disturb the peace and purity of the church? Or can one hold to this and be received as one in full accords with our Standards?
Dr. Chapell in his report does not explicitly mention a watershed distinction among the longer-than-144-hours views of the six days of creation. The Confession says creation occurred "in the space of six days." Some are uncertain about the length of the six days or believe that the six days were each longer than a normal 24 hour day. Others teach that the six days are not a chronological "space" at all but merely a literary device. This second view is called the literary framework hypothesis. Dr. Chapell does not mention this view by name, but he does list advocates of this viewpoint in his list of "giants of the faith." Earlier in his report, Dr. Chapell states that "there has been an informed allowance for differences among Bible-believing Presbyterians about how best to interpret these accounts, so long as they were believed to be accurate and
Does a man who believes that the six days of creation are a mere literary device believe the creation account to be "historical"? At least in one sense of the word, he does not.
This view that the six days of creation is a mere literary device is especially troubling to me. Our Standards do not teach that God created the world in an event symbolized by the space of six days. If the words "in the space of six days" mean anything, they mean that the days of creation are a chronological sequence of historical days, regardless of their length. This very language "the space of six days" is found in Calvin's commentary on Genesis 1:5 where Calvin argues against the theory of instantaneous creation, which was associated with Augustine. According to Augustine, the six days of creation are a literary device with no literal chronological significance. Men who today hold to a literary framework view of Genesis one usually believe in creation over long ages and not in instantaneous creation. Still they agree with Augustine that the days of creation are a non-literal teaching device and not six days in an historical narrative. In this sense, men who today hold to a literary framework view of Genesis one hold to the same general position which Calvin argued against using the very words "the space of six days." To allow literary framework men to say that they are in full agreement with the confession is to allow the language of the confession to encompass a form of the very position which that language, as previously used by Calvin, was meant to exclude.
Should men who believe that the six days of creation are not an historical "space" of time, be allowed to say that they are in full agreement with the Confession's teaching that God created the world "in the space of six days"? These men can defend their position by saying that they have learned "to read the Confession through the lens of Scripture, not to read Scripture through the lens of the Confession," to use Dr. Chapell's words. What is to prevent a minister from applying this same principle to other issues such as paedocommunion, hyper-preterism, dispensationalism, etc.? All a man has to do is to say, I hold to view X; I believe view X is taught in Scripture; I interpret the Confession in the light of my understanding of Scripture; therefore, I am in full agreement with the Confession as I interpret it. Though Dr. Chapell would no doubt be appalled by such a use of this principle, I do fear that this potential for abuse exists within this explanation of the relationship between the Confession and Scripture.
It is up to our church courts to determine on a case by case basis what views on creation are in full accords with our doctrinal Standards. Dr. Chapell makes a similar statement in his report. I have my own opinion on this matter. I believe any position which denies that the six days of creation are six contiguous days of the length afterwards associated with the daily cycle of evening and morning, should be declared an exception to our Standards for the sake of the integrity of the documents. Our Standards teach that "the last day of the week" was the sabbath "from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ." This implies some basic continuity between the creation week and the weeks which followed as to the nature of their days. Also, we have no reason to believe that any of the Reformers or any of the Westminster Divines held to long age views of the six days of creation.
Further, Calvin in his commentary on Genesis uses the very language "the space of six days" in his argument against a view that the six days are a mere teaching device. Also, this is an issue of hermeneutics, and the principles of interpretation are basic and critical to any system of doctrine.
Lastly I want to examine Dr. Chapell's comments on two General Assembly votes. Dr. Chapell states that "Twice (once in 1995 and 1997), the PCA General Assembly has voted not to make a 24-hour-day view of Creation a required interpretation of the PCA Standards." All I wish to do is to examine these two votes in some detail. I will have to take an educated guess as to which two votes Dr. Chapell is referring to. A vote on this issue occurred at the 1997 General Assembly during the report of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. One presbytery had approved a candidate for licensure who described Genesis one as a "poetic account." The presbytery had noted this as an exception to the Standards. The Review Committee recommended that the presbytery be cited with an exception of substance because "there was no admonition from Presbytery not to teach this view." The recommendation failed. Nothing was done to invalidate or question the presbytery's action in noting this position as an exception to the Standards. In recording this action, the published minutes at the bottom of page 206 have the following note: "NOTE: The following Exception was stricken because the General Assembly has not made a definite determination that there is only one possible interpretation of Genesis 1." I have a letter from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly dated November 24, 1997, stating that this note at the bottom of page 206 has been deleted as a correction to the minutes.
A vote on this issue also occurred at the 1995 General Assembly during the report of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. The background of this ruling was the 22nd General Assembly (1994) when a presbytery was cited with an exception of substance in its minutes because The minutes do not give adequate information regarding the examination of a TE and the exceptions to the WCF 4-1 (Creation), 28-3 & 7 (Baptism), and BCO 7-2 and 9-3.
Two of the issues involved were six day creation and the limitation of the diaconate to men. The explanation on six day creation given in response at the 23rd General Assembly (1995) was the following: Concerning WCF 4-1 (Creation), the TE believes that "It is not scientifically impossible for God to create the universe in six days since He is omnipotent. The point is that the Word of God does not set out such a scientific plan but rather emphasizes the unique power of God to create out of nothing and in accordance with His perfect will."
Concerning the office of deacon, the TE with exceptions was quoted as saying, "the Diaconate is not an office of ruling authority and therefore the PCA should discuss on a local and national level whether it is right to continue to ordain only men to that office."
The Committee on Review of Presbytery Records recommended that the 1995 General Assembly instruct the presbytery in question to re-examine the Teaching Elder "in the area of six day Creation" and "in the area of the office of deacon being limited to men." A substitute motion was made that the presbytery's response to the previous year's exception "be approved as satisfactory in that it does provide adequate information." The substitute motion became the main motion and then passed.
The man's presbytery had listed these positions as exceptions to the Standards, and the General Assembly never questioned this. Whatever relevance this vote has to alternate views of the six days of creation, it has a similar relevance to the position that women should be allowed to be deacons.
I do not believe that these facts substantiate the
claim that "Twice (once in 1995 and 1997), the PCA General
Assembly has voted not to make a 24-hour-day view of Creation
a required interpretation of the PCA Standards."