Last week I received notification that I had been mentioned in a publication known as the Trinity Review, a publication put out by the Trinity Foundation, a (theologically) reformed organization. While I’m glad to see that Christians (of any persuasion) are interested in the important issue of whether or not there might be extraterrestrial life, I just had to shake my head at this one. It’s terribly uninformed. Here’s the paragraph.
“Some men, such as Michael Heiser believe in an old universe (perhaps billions of years old), and claim that over such a large number of years ETs could easily have developed.13 This is mere supposition founded on faulty exegesis. First, as properly stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 9), the Bible clearly teaches that we live in a young universe (thousands of years old): “The work of creation is, God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of His power, in the space of six [24 hour] days, and all very good.” And second, it is one thing to suggest that ETs could have developed, it is another thing to say that the Bible teaches it. We are not talking about what may have occurred, we are talking about what the Bible says. And it says nothing about such ETs.”
Those who actually read my material or who have listened to one of my lectures or radio appearances are already chuckling. Where to begin with this misguided and, sadly, inept attempt at representing me and Christian theology (including reformed theology) on this issue?
For starters, I know that the idea ETs could have evolved is supposition, precisely because that’s what I say. I have never offered any “exegesis” in the text to support the idea that the Bible implies that ETs have evolved somewhere in space and are real. Logic lesson: “could have” and “did” are two different things. Yes, I believe that such evolution is possible, but the last time I checked, “possible” does not mean “probable” or even “likely,” and certainly not “did so.” What I have actually said and written is that I don’t believe there are intelligent aliens out there, and won’t believe that until science produces irrefutable evidence to that effect. If that ever happens then God, as the source of all matter, would be responsible in some way, whether by creation or an evolutionary process (or some mechanism we haven’t even imagined). One need only look as far as this blog to find my views on this. It wouldn’t take much skill or effort to get me right.
As far as the exegesis slight, I will put my exegetical skills and credentials up against the author of this newsletter any time. (Note that I’m characterized as a “man” in the paragraph — there is no mention of my credentials to be commenting on Scripture in any way; well, at least he got the gender correct). They don’t just hand out PhDs in Hebrew Bible at Wisconsin. I earned mine. But all that said, I have never attempted to produce a point (aliens evolved) from the text that isn’t in the text.
Moving on, the quotation of the shorter Westminster Shorter Catechism is somewhat misleading. It is offered as though it solves something, when it does not. The statement (Question 9) is: “What is the work of creation? The work of creation is, God’ s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.” Well, no kidding. That’s a nice summary of Genesis 1. But it says nothing about what scholars and others who work in the original text wonder about and debate. Specifically, it says nothing about the ancient cosmological background and parallels to Genesis 1 that inform the intended meaning of the text; the nature of the days; whether the Hebrew syntax allows a consecutive understanding of the first three verses, which certainly allows for aeons of time before we ever hit the days (see below on that); and any literary structuring that might suggest a linear sequence isn’t the point of the description. What I mean here is that these are all elements of the text of Genesis 1 that have led to a range of opinions held by Hebrew scholars (evangelical and otherwise) about that chapter’s meaning. Those silly old scholars! Why did they waste so much time looking at the Hebrew text when they could just have looked at Question 9 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism! How quaint — doing all that nuts and bolts analysis of the inspired text when the Shorter Catechism solves all the problems! (Is the Shorter Catechism is now considered inspired or at the level of the biblical text?)
The more important problem here is the author’s own apparent ignorance of the exegetical issues relating to Genesis 1 and his own reformed tradition.
First, the verb in Gen 1:1 (bara’) does not mean creation from nothing. We discover that from comparing Gen 1:26-27, where humankind is created (bara’), with Gen 2:7, 22-23, where the man and the woman are created from pre-existing material (the dust of the ground; the man’s “side” or flesh). If one presumes bara’ must mean creation from nothing, that creates an explicit contradiction between these passages. But there is no contradiction if one does not foist that meaning on this verb. There’s a lot more to be said about the verbs used in Genesis 1-2 and other passages in the Old Testament that speak of creation, but this is enough to make the point.
Second, the grammar and syntax of Genesis 1:1-3 does not allow a linear progression of those verses. Rather, verses 1 and 2 are a backdrop to the first creative act in 1:3 (and not 1:1). For a lay person’s introduction to the grammar and syntax of Genesis 1:1-3 in plain language, see my video lecture below.
Reformed scholars and experts in Hebrew syntax such as Bruce Waltke have written extensively on this issue.1 And Waltke is far from alone here, both within and without reformed tradition.
The bigger problem for the Trinity review though, is that the notion that “true theologians” of the reformed tradition would agree with the simplistic statement of the Shorter Catechism is demonstrably false. The best example of this is B. B. Warfield. In case there is a reformed Christian out there who hasn’t heard of Warfield, he was one of the giants of the reformed faith in the 19th and early 20th centuries — one of the founders of Westminster Seminary after leaving Princeton (he was one of the famous “Princeton Theologians” so famous for articulating reformed doctrine in that period). Warfield remains one of reformed theology’s “go to guys” for a Calvinistic and inerrantist view of the Bible. he was also, in today’s parlance, an evolutionary creationist, a believing scholar who accepted the idea of evolution and did not take Genesis 1 the same way as the Trinity Review. It isn’t hard to demonstrate this, either.
In his essay “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” Warfield wrote (emphasis supplied; see below on the meaning of the “Unity of the Human Race” phrase):
“The most important of these subsidiary questions has concerned the method of the divine procedure in creating man. Discussion of this question became acute on the publication of Charles Darwin’s treatise on the “Origin of Species” in 1859, and can never sink again into rest until it is thoroughly understood in all quarters that “evolution” cannot act as a substitute for creation, but at best can supply only a theory of the method of the divine providence. Closely connected with this discussion of the mode of origination of man, has been the discussion of two further questions, both older than the Darwinian theory, to one of which it gave, however, a new impulse, while it has well-nigh destroyed all interest in the other. These are the questions of the Antiquity of Man and the Unity of the Human Race, to both of which a large historical interest attaches, though neither of them can be said to be burning questions of to-day.
“The question of the antiquity of man has of itself no theological significance. It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on earth. It is only because of the contrast which has been drawn between the short period which seems to be allotted to human history in the Biblical narrative, and the tremendously long period which certain schools of scientific speculation have assigned to the duration of human life on earth, that theology has become interested in the topic at all. There was thus created the appearance of a conflict between the Biblical statements and the findings of scientific investigators, and it became the duty of theologians to investigate the matter. The asserted conflict proves, however, to be entirely factitious. The Bible does not assign a brief span to human history: this is done only by a particular mode of interpreting the Biblical data, which is found on examination to rest on no solid basis. Science does not demand an inordinate period for the life of human beings on earth: this is done only by a particular school of speculative theorizers, the validity of whose demands on time exact investigators are more and more chary of allowing. As the real state of the case has become better understood the problem has therefore tended to disappear from theological discussion, till now it is pretty well understood that theology as such has no interest in it.” (Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 9: Studies in Theology [(Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008], 235-36)
Warfield believed that John Calvin would have held his own position of evolutionary creationist had Calvin lived in the wake of Darwin’s theory. In his essay, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation” Warfield wrote (emphasis supplied):
“Calvin doubtless had no theory whatever of evolution; but he teaches a doctrine of evolution. He has no object in so teaching except to preserve to the creative act, properly so called, its purity as an immediate production out of nothing. All that is not immediately produced out of nothing is therefore not created—but evolved. Accordingly his doctrine of evolution is entirely unfruitful. The whole process takes place in the limits of six natural days. That the doctrine should be of use as an explanation of the mode of production of the ordered world, it was requisite that these six days should be lengthened out into six periods—six ages of the growth of the world. Had that been done Calvin would have been a precursor of the modern evolutionary theorists. As it is, he only forms a point of departure for them to this extent—that he teaches, as they teach, the modification of the original world-stuff into the varied forms which constitute the ordered world, by the instrumentality of second causes—or as a modern would put it, of its intrinsic forces.” (Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 5: Calvin and Calvinism [Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008], 305-06.
The point here is not that “Warfield said it, so it’s right.” The point is that Warfield, the venerable reformed Princeton theologian, said it. An old-earth creationist view is not contradictory to the biblical text or reformed theology. To say so pits one against Warfield within that tradition. Is that really where the Trinity Review wants to go? How foolish would that be? The Trinity Review is simply uninformed and transparently biased.2
I could go much farther with Warfield and other theologians in this regard. Warfield, for instance, was also not antagonistic to the idea of human races outside of Adam. Hence his discussions on the “unity” of the human race. The history of this idea (pre-adamic or co-adamic human races) has recently been chronicled in detail in a scholarly work published by the Johns Hopkins University Press entitled, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context). It’s a dense but fascinating read. The author, David Livingstone, recently summarized his work in a lecture at (of all places for Trinity Review – don’t you just love Providence!) Calvin Theological Seminary.3 Livingstone is also the author of Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (a resource the writer of the Trinity Review piece might want to read, among other things).4 On pages 159-160 of Adam’s Ancestors Livingstone notes (notes inserted by me):
“In 1911 Warfield wrote an article for the Princeton Theological Review on the antiquity and unity of the human race.5 Because he felt that the mere age of the human race was irrelevant to theology, he moved on to discuss theories that bore on the unity and diversity or diversity of the species and to review some of the major scientific theories available. On turning to pre-adamism, he made a number of telling observations that throw much light on his own treatment of the subject. To him . . . ‘co-Adamism [was] the attribution of the descent of the several chief racial types to separate original ancestors,’ whereas ‘pre-Adamitism . . . . conceives man indeed as a single species, derived from one stock, but represents Adam not as the root of this stock, but as one of its products.’ . . . Warfield himself warmed to neither of these versions. One the one hand, he loathed polygenism [co-Adamism; MSH] in every shape and form, as well as the racial pride that typically went with it, and on the other, he believed that Christianity’s theological structure was bound up with Adam as the father of all humanity, not just the Jews. Yet he did make reference to another ‘sort of pre-Adamitism [that] has continued to be taught by a series of philosophical speculators . . . which looks upon Adam as the first real man, rising in developed humanity above the low, beastlike condition of his ancestors.’ There Warfield left the matter, but his insistence that monogenism [i.e., one line of humans leading to Adam; MSH] was ‘a necessary corollary of the evolutionary hypothesis’ already raised the suspicion that this other ‘sort’ of pre-adamism might have some validity.” 6
Again, the point is not that I agree with Warfield, only that he saw no problem — and actually some some necessity — in trying to determine if the biblical text and the new theories of science might be found congruent. That effort is certainly important.
And so to conclude the matter, I don’t believe the Bible teaches that aliens evolved on other planets. I would have no idea. If they did, that isn’t a contradiction of the Bible because the Bible doesn’t say they didn’t. The Bible is silent on the subject, like it is about all the planets of our solar system, microwaves, radiation, DNA, and toilet paper. It is utter nonsense and interpretive ineptitude to approach the Bible as though it has to mention XYZ for XYZ to be real. (I would refer readers to this blog’s online library for scholarly books on the very long history of how the broader Christian church has discussed the question of other worlds and other life forms). Further, the idea that the world could be very ancient is something that reformed theologians and other faithful Christian scholars have considered perfectly workable when it comes to the biblical text. I’m hardly alone there. It’s good that the Trinity Review wants to say something about the whole extraterrestrial life issue, but the next time the folks there want to pontificate about the issue or about what I think, they ought to do some homework.
- See for example, Waltke’s thinking here, here, and here. ↩
- For the record, I don’t identify myself with reformed theology or Warfield, though I am a fan of a lot of his work. I don’t really care much about this or that Christian tradition. When it comes to biblical theology, I care only about the biblical text. ↩
- Slides and audio of the lecture are available at the link. ↩
- Again for the record, I have no interest in defending Darwin, as I am not a Darwinist. I’m in the intelligent design camp. I really don’t care about evolution being real or not, so long as it is not purely Darwinistic in the sense that it forsakes an intelligent creator. I’m not a scientist, so I leave the discussion of evolutions merits and demerits in scientific terms to scientists. The Livingstone reference here is only to make the point that if the Trinity Review wants to pretend that the Shorter Catechism solves anything or is the final word on this issue, it’s wrong and hopelessly naive. ↩
- This article was subsequently reprinted in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 9: Studies in Theology. ↩
- B. B. Warfield, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 9: Studies in Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008), 253, as cited in Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors, pp. 159-160. ↩