Do We Really Want A New Reformation?

What we need is another rebellion against the cult of the experts

In the 17th century there was a great assembly of highly educated men. They met in the Jerusalem chamber of the Westminster Abbey in London to set down in words the attainments of the Reformation. And they agreed with the common people—the Bible really does say that the work of creation was God’s making “all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.”

 

But the question is: do we really want one?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard (or read the words of) people who say “we need a new reformation.” I agree. What I don’t hear them say is an increasing concern to me. I don’t hear them say that what we need is another rebellion against the cult of the experts. But I am convinced that this is exactly what we need.

When Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th Century he was immediately subjected to the tyranny of the experts. Who was this upstart priest to challenge the whole company of entrenched scholars who were in places of higher wisdom and authority? All Luther had on his side was a faithful reading of Scripture—and the courage to say ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’ And we all know what happened. God’s little people (the non-experts) rallied to his side. Why? Because he put in words what they had already instinctively known. The Bible did not teach what the church was then teaching and they sensed it, but also needed someone like Luther with the courage and ability to openly and clearly express it.

I think the church today—and I am thinking primarily of the church of Presbyterian and Reformed inheritance—has become not unlike the pre-reformation church in the time of Luther. It is dominated today by a special class of people who have ‘higher’ learning.

I recently wrote a brief essay expressing my conviction that it is time to get back to the stand of our Reformation Fathers on the doctrine of creation. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response from God’s ordinary people (I mean those who are not experts). They have known all along that the Bible is clear in what it says about creation. It was an awesome event that happened during the first six days of world-history, a few thousand years ago. Adam and Eve were there in that beginning (Mark 10:6), and there was no death in the world until our first parents sinned (Romans 5:12).

In the 17th century there was a great assembly of highly educated men. They met in the Jerusalem chamber of the Westminster Abbey in London to set down in words the attainments of the Reformation. And they agreed with the common people—the Bible really does say that the work of creation was God’s making “all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.”

But before I say more I want to make it clear that when I speak of ‘the tyranny of the experts’ I do not have in mind an intentional tyranny. Not at all. What I mean has been described by others as ‘group think.’ That might be a better term.

But in any case I believe it is a fact, and it is something I came to see already as a seminary student more than sixty years ago. I was a student at the Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary of the old United Presbyterian Church of North America (a church that began its existence in 1858 and terminated its existence in 1958 by uniting with the Liberal Presbyterian Church in the USA).

At the time I was becoming more and more alarmed by what I saw in both the World and National Councils of Churches. In fact I became so concerned that I asked Professor Addison Leitch if he did not think (as I did) that we should not belong to such an organization. Well, Dr. Leitch said words like this: “I am concerned and have reservations about this organization, but one of our greatest missionaries (I will call him X, since I do not recall his name accurately enough to reproduce it here) supports our membership in these organizations.”

Not long after that this very missionary spoke at the New Wilmington Missionary conference so I had an opportunity to speak to him about this. He spoke very much the same thing that Dr. Leitch had spoken. “I have my reservations, but Dr. Y (a highly respected official who, as I recall, was then stated clerk of the General Assembly) supports our membership in these councils.” So, I went to see Dr. Y. And you’ve probably already guessed what he said to me! He said, “I have serious reservations about these councils, but Dr. Leitch is fine with our membership in them, and you know what a fine conservative he is.” And on that he was right. Dr. Leitch was a fine conservative. I learned much from him and would never want to speak evil of him. Without even realizing it these men seemed to me to be in an unintentional bondage. But I concluded then and there that more is required of us than these men were displaying.

I did not receive any direct response to my recent essay on six-day creation from such experts, but I did read comments that some of them made about six-day creation. What they said, in effect, was that they were much too highly educated to accept (or go along with) the view of non-expert people. It sounded to me as equivalent to saying that that would undermine their status as experts, and that preserving that is very important. Experts must have academic freedom; freedom to think, and speak, beyond the bounds of the catechisms and confessions. And now we have reached the place where some of these experts even issue warnings about the harm we do to our children if we insist on teaching them the old six-day creation view of our fathers. We even hear of lectures provided at the time of a General Assembly to persuade non-experts that it is unwise to believe—and especially to teach—that the universe was created in six calendar days, around six thousand years ago.

It is time, as I see it, for the non-expert people of God to rise up against this kind of abuse. In the better days of our history this abuse would not have been tolerated. Teachings that contradicted the official creed of the church would have resulted in immediate deposition. Everybody had the right in those better times (and rightly had the right) to prove the creeds to be wrong if they were able to do so. But until that happened they were not allowed to teach this, that and the other thing (like day-age, framework and analogical views of creation). What many today consider a wonderful thing (tolerating these contradictory views of creation) our fathers would have considered a deadly evil. We know this because churches then required faithful adherence “to all the articles and points of doctrine” set forth in the Confessions and Catechisms. That is why they required all office-bearers in the church to promise that they would remain within confessional boundaries “without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by…public teaching or writing” (not even through anything like an internet blog)!

We like to think that the church (that is, we ourselves) have advanced in the direction of truth and understanding as compared to the time of the Reformation sparked by Luther. And I think there is some truth in this view of church history. Every era of church history has something to contribute to the ultimate outcome. But we certainly have not advanced in our ethics. We are not as faithful as our Reformation Fathers were to their oaths of office. With them the public Confession of the Church was to be respected and not publicly contradicted. It was always open to correction, of course, but for that there was a constitutional process. No public teaching of another view was allowed until the assembly of the pastors and elders of the church were fully persuaded—persuaded enough to modify with great care the Church’s clear statement of what it believes. When things were like this God‘s “little people” were wonderfully protected from false teaching.

What we have today is the very much like it was in the Roman Catholic Church in the time of Luther, the thing that was “protected” at all costs was the privileged position and authority of the experts (the priestly order). It is much the same, today, with our elite company of scholars—and the greatest need now, as then, is for God to raise someone up to give leadership in terminating this tyranny of the experts.

I already know what some “experts” will say: they’ll say I’m anti-intellectual, that I am retreating from the world just like those awful fundamentalists. But that would be a false charge. The truth is that there are some very intellectual people who still believe in six-day creation. ‘Experts who think they know so much should read some of the fine material in defense of the doctrine of creation as stated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, by men like John Byl and Jonathan Sarfati. It has always been necessary for all of us ‘little’ people, in the end, to choose our favorite intellectuals. And since I cannot claim to be an ‘expert’ I believe the only safe thing for me is to choose the intellectuals who are most faithful to the clear teaching of the Bible. Isn’t that what we’ve always said as Reformed Christians? The apostle John told the non-experts of his day that they were supposed to test even those who claimed to be apostles, by the inerrant Scriptures (1 John 4:1).  I believe we present-day non-experts are required to do the same. Since the fall of man no one can be automatically trusted, no matter how “expert” he (or she) may be. For the Bible says “If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).

In the good providence of God there are times when even the experts ‘let the cat out of the bag’ so to speak. Professor James Barr was

An outspoken critic of conservative evangelicalism, which he attacked in his 1977 book Fundamentalism. In particular he criticized evangelical scholars such as J. I. Packer affirming the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error.

But here is what he said about the first eleven chapters of Genesis:

So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the ‘days’ of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.

Every time I read something like this—from the pen of one of these learned experts—I am all the more convinced that John was right when he said (in effect) that it is up to us to test the experts.

The Reformation came when God’s ‘little people’ recovered sufficient leadership and courage to reinstitute this practice. It is my hope and prayer that the time will soon come when God’s ‘little’ people will again refuse to submit any longer to ‘the tyranny of the experts.’

G. I. Williamson is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, living in the Orange City, Iowa area. He is the author of study guides on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism.



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