Perspicuity, Exegetical Populism, and Tolerance: A Reply to G. I. Williamson

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Let me begin by saying that I greatly value my friend G. I. Williamson's lengthy legacy of faithful parish ministry and service to the broader church.  One of the happier memories of my years of involvement in NAPARC was chairing a committee that oversaw the translation into Spanish and publication of his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith.  That being said, for a while now G. I. has been beating the drum for literal six-day, young-earth creationism.  The substance and implications of his most recent post on the topic ("Is the Bible Really Perspicuous") are disturbing and prompt this response.

 

First we need a bit of context.  In 2001 I wrote an article that noted the following: "Seventy-five years ago the issue of whether the first chapter of Genesis should be interpreted 'literally' was not much of an issue in conservative Reformed circles.  Most knowledgeable Reformed conservatives agreed that the 'days' of creation were not 'literal' 24-hour days, and that the earth was very old indeed.  The so-called 'Day-Age' theory held sway, and the interpretive insights comprising what has come to be known as the 'Literary-Framework Hypothesis' were taking shape.  A consensus emerged that a range of interpretations were to be viewed as theologically acceptable, a consensus reflected as recently as 1995 in the notes of the New Geneva Study Bible [later the Reformation Study Bible] on the days of creation." Later in the same article I observed: "Now many churches are torn over this very issue.  Young-earth, literal 24-hour creationism has become a touchstone of orthodoxy for some" (William B. Evans, "The NAPARC Community and the Peculiar Challenges of our Time," Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 27/1 (2001): 9-10). 

 

In his brief recent article Williamson contends that if we are serious about the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture we will reject the "tyranny of theological experts" and read Scripture as the average person does.  This in turn will lead us to adopt a literal, 24-hour, young-earth interpretation of the days of creation in Genesis 1, and to exclude other interpretations of the text from the pale of orthodoxy.  Three aspects of Williamson's argument deserve careful scrutiny.  At each point we will see that, while Williamson's contentions may have some rhetorical appeal, there are serious problems. 

 

The Perspicuity of Scripture

 

First, there is the question of what we mean by the "perspicuity" of Scripture.  Williamson seems to assume that the doctrine means that all passages of Scripture are going to be easily accessible to "God's simple people," to "older saints," and to "ordinary people."  But the historic Protestant doctrine manifestly does not mean that all portions of Scripture are equally understandable or accessible to all (see WCF I.7).  The Scriptural writers themselves were aware that some passages are "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16), and the history of interpretation demonstrates that the interpretive challenges and disagreements are especially pronounced in the areas of protology and eschatology (we will return to this issue below).  Rather, by the "perspicuity of Scripture" we mean that the central story-line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ are abundantly clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, and that God's people are therefore to be encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves. 

 

Williamson contends that Genesis 1 is intended "to reveal the truth about creation."  So far so good.  He then assumes that this "truth about creation" involves a literal, journalistic account of how God accomplished that creation.  Others, however, will argue that the "truth about creation" taught in Genesis 1 has to do with the fact that God is the creator of all that exists, that that creation is good, that it is orderly, and that human beings created in the image and likeness of God are to in some sense mirror God's creative activity in their own patterns of labor.  Certainly it is these latter "truths of creation" that figure much more prominently in the rest of Scripture than the mechanism of creation as it is depicted (whether literally or figuratively) in Genesis 1.   Furthermore, such truths of creation are apparent no matter what view of the "days" of creation one may have.  That sounds like perspicuity to me!

 

Exegetical Populism

 

Throughout his piece Williamson champions the hermeneutic of "God's simple people," the "vast majority of Bible-believing people," and the "ordinary people."  On the other hand, he repeatedly bemoans the baneful influence and "tyranny" of the "theological experts." But, we may ask, why this privileging of a hermeneutic of the unlearned?   When did naïveté become a prerequisite for proper exegesis? 

 

On the face of it, it would seem that such exegetical populism runs some distinct risks.  For example, it risks the reading of modern concerns and issues into the text.  Reading between the lines, it seems that Williamson's main concern with the Day-Age theory, the Framework Hypothesis, and the Analogical Days view is that they "were invented to accommodate some of the supposedly certain teachings of modern science as to the age of the earth (and the age of the universe)."  In other words, they allow the possibility of an old earth, which in turn would allow for theories of biological evolution.  Let me interject at this point that I share the concerns that many conservative Christians have about the increasing pervasiveness of an evolutionary worldview and of the theological and anthropological implications of doctrinaire evolutionary naturalism.   That being said, Williamson's insistence on reading the text in such a way as to exclude evolution may skew things, especially when we begin to see that the formal polemic in Genesis 1 is not against modern theories of evolution but against ANE polytheism. 

 

The Question of Tolerance

 

Given the fact that he bemoans the tolerance of "several views of creation . . . in conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Churches" at both the beginning and the end of his article, it is clear that Williamson views such tolerance as a problem.  His goal, apparently, is to exclude these other interpretations from groups such as the OPC and the PCA.  Here we cannot help but note the irony as Williamson begins his piece with a reference to J. Gresham Machen, who along with most of the other Old Princetonians was a Day-Ager. 

 

But here some pressing questions must be asked.  Why this impulse to exclude people whose views have been held acceptable in conservative Reformed circles for decades and even centuries?   Do we really want Reformed churches that would, in principle, exclude B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, Meredith Kline, and a host of others? 

 

In this context the parallel of protology (the doctrine of creation) and eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is potentially important.  In the Reformed community we have learned to accept considerable eschatological diversity within certain limits (what does this suggest about Williamson's view of perspicuity?).  Historic Premillennialism, Amillenialism, and Postmillennialism all seem to be more or less accepted in the NAPARC churches.  Premillennialism is acceptable as long as it doesn't lapse into Dispensationalism, and Postmillennialism is acceptable as long as it doesn't veer into hyperpreterism.   A similar point can be made with regard to protology and its history of interpretation, and the reasons for this are not difficult to discern.  As is often pointed out, when the biblical writers describe realities further and further removed from their audience's experience, their language becomes of necessity more and more figurative and metaphorical.  Thus it is not surprising in the least that the biblical language of protology and eschatology would be particularly challenging to the interpreter, and that interpretive leeway is thus needful especially in these areas. 

 

We do well to heed these observations of Herman Bavinck: "It is nevertheless remarkable that not a single confession made a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum, and that in theology as well a variety of interpretations were allowed to exist side by side.  Augustine already urged believers not too quickly to consider a theory to be in conflict with Scripture, to enter into discussion on these difficult subjects only after serious study, and not to make themselves ridiculous by their ignorance in the eyes of unbelieving science.  This warning has not always been faithfully taken to heart by theologians" (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II:495-496). 

 

Posted September 23, 2011 @ 5:42 PM by William B. Evans
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