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Hardening of the Categories: Why Theologians Have Opposed “New Knowledge”

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Prefatory Remarks: The following essay is taken from a larger work to be published by Zondervan in 2002, tentatively entitled, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology. The purpose of the book is to explore the various aspects of Theological Introduction, looking at the study of theology, from epistemological, methodological, and systematic perspective.

He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment. If he does, he will have torn the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. No, new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’”

While Jesus spoke these words with reference to his bringing God’s more complete revelation of himself and the salvation he was about to accomplish, the final statement of the parable embodies a profound truth about human nature and existence. Human existence is essentially conservative. While at the onset of the new millennium this statement may seem out of date as eyes are focused upon the future, it is nonetheless still true. Humanity is basically conservative in its outlook on life. The very existence of culture is a conservative force, keeping humans in touch with their heritage. Culture gives a sense of identity, belonging and stability. When the question revolves around God and things divine, when the question involves potential eternal destinies the conservative bent is all the stronger. This basic conservatism pulls against the call to bring all areas of knowledge under the Lordship of Christ.

Michael Bauman has vividly described the state that many (perhaps most) theologians fall into in their quest to lay hold of the whole counsel of God.

Some theologians, however, being either unable or unwilling to pursue their quarry any further, become entrenched.... They learn to tolerate unremedied paradox when unremedied paradox should be shunned. Perhaps they do so because to them the prospect of going back (perhaps even to the beginning) is too unsettling and too daunting. Rather than striking out in a new direction, or pioneering uncharted territories in search of the doctrinal Northwest Passage they hunker down and plant settlements in comfortable valleys, having decided at last that they will never reach the sea, or even continue to try. They have forgotten that, in this case, it is better to travel hopefully and never to arrive than to settle prematurely. To that extent, then, their theological settlements are a failure of nerve. Fatigue and uncertainty have made it seem more desirable to plant roots than to look around one more doctrinal bend or to climb up and peer over one more theological hill. The spirit of pioneering thus gives way to the spirit of dogmatism.

Once a pioneer becomes a settler, he starts to build fences. Fences are soon replaced by walls and walls by forts. The pilgrimage has become a settlement, and those within the walls become suspicious of those without. Outsiders think differently, talk differently, act differently. To justify their suspicions, settlement theologians begin to think that they belong in doctrinal fortresses. They develop what I call the "Ebenezer doctrine." "Was it not the map of God—our Bibles—that led us here?" they ask. In one sense, of course, they are right. The Bible did in fact lead them this far. But not the Bible only. Their misreading of it is what led them into the valley of paradox. Their lack of strength and their insecurity led them to settle there and to build a fort. In despair of ever finding their way to the sea, and discouraged by the prospect of going back, they traded their theological tents for creedal tenements and their doctrinal backpacks for dogmatic bungalows. Traveling mercies were exchanged for staying mercies. That is because fortress theologians interpret the intellectual security they have erected for themselves as the blessing of God. The perceived blessing of God becomes to them the perceived will of God. "Hitherto the Lord has led us" becomes not only their reason for staying, but also for fighting. They become the victims of a besieged mentality nurtured on autointoxication. Those who settle elsewhere or not at all are perceived to militate against the truth of God. They must be stopped, the fortress dwellers believe. If the settlers had their way, none of us would reach the golden sea. Only there, on that distant shore, should we plant our flag, with an entire continent of theological exploration behind us and the ocean of infinity throwing waves at our feet. Only after we've seen the sun setting beyond a watery horizon, only after we've awoken to the smell of salt air and the sight and sound of sea otters playing on wet rocks, can we cease our theological quest, Lewis and Clark did not gain fame for quitting in St. Louis. Columbus did not turn back at the Canary Islands. Theologians who settle in the valley of paradox do not deserve acclaim. 1

The situation described by Bauman is repeated over and over again in the history of theology. One of the three major Christian Communions, Eastern Orthodoxy, is as it were, frozen in time. It has admitted no theological development since the death of John of Damascus in the seventh century. To attend an Orthodox service today is to be transported back in time nearly a millennium and one half. The liturgy is likely the same liturgy produced by John Chrysostom in the fifth century. In the minds of the Eastern Orthodox, “If it is new, it is heretical.” There can be no such thing as doctrinal development. All that is left is to preserve the faith once delivered to the saints. All who would advocate anything more than has been stated are regarded as heretics.

Catholicism & Copernicus & Galileo

The struggle between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church are legendary and form the foundation for the reputation of hostility between theology and science. Galileo’s condemnation has been called the most notorious incident the long history of the interaction between science and theology.2

During the lifetime of Galileo, Italy was in tumult. Rome had been sacked, the republic of Florence had collapsed and Spain dominated most of the Italian peninsula. The popular mind had responded to this loss of faith in the institutions by transferring their faith to the authority of the princes. During this period the reigning theology was that of Thomas Aquinas, who had in the thirteenth century produced the medieval synthesis, self-consciously utilizing the philosophy of Aristotle to answer the pressing questions of the day. The then dominant but decaying Augustinian synthesis was replaced by the new paradigm that incorporated elements of Augustine (with the accompanying neo-Platonism), but also employing the perspective of Aristotle to answer questions heretofore not even imagined.

The council of Trent (1545-1563) had formally adopted Thomism as the official position of the Church. The newly adopted synthesis breathed life into the Counter-Reformation, which sought to meet the Protestant challenge. The Inquisition had published the Index of books banned in Catholic lands and authority was firmly in the hands of the Church. The Inquisition spawned by the Counter Reformation sought to control the thought of Catholic Europe. The early 1600s saw produced a wave of ideological condemnation. “individuals and governors were considered subject to a single eternal system of justice based ultimately on eternal and divine law, of which the Catholic Church was the sole guardian and interpreter.”3

In such an environment innovation in any field was automatically suspect as being a threat to the system, unless it could be shown to be otherwise. Galileo understood this and made every attempt to show that his discoveries were not contrary to the scriptures or a threat to the powers that be.

As the debate developed Galileo was attacked on both scientific and theological grounds. With trouble already brewing, Galileo in 1615 wrote A Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina setting forth his view of the relationship between science and theology. He had three essential points

    1. The Issue had been brought before the Roman Church based on faulty premises.

    2. Astronomical theories were not properly matters of faith.

    3. The new cosmology was indeed in harmony with the Bible if the bible were interpreted according to ordinary exegetical principles long employed by the church, even though these principles were at variance with Trent’s literal emphasis.

Galileo insists that his opponents argue fallaciously appealing to the authority of the Bible, but never understanding his arguments. He insists that “The Holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.”4 But the meaning is not always to be found in a simple literal surface reading of the text. The Bible uses figures of speech to communicate truth and the Holy Spirit inspired such language “in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, rude and unlearned as they are.”5 He boldly appeals to the “book of nature” as a revelation of God stating, “The Holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the Divine Word. . . God is known . . .by nature in His works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.”6 Since nature is a genuine revelation of God discussion of the physical universe ought to begin with experience of the universe and experiments drawn from nature, rather than from exegetical conclusions from scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not scientific but salvific therefore one would not expect the bible to speak at length on physical or astronomical themes. Galileo’s oft quoted aphorism, that The Bible was given to teach us how to go to heaven not how the heavens go, was in fact a paraphrase of a statement by Cardinal Baronius! Galileo quotes Augustine who warned against setting the authority of Scripture against clear and evident reason. He argues that the job of the exegete is to interpret the text of scripture in its true sense that will ultimately be in accord with physical reality

With reference to the language of scripture he at one point argues that the biblical writers employ what would later be called phenomenological language. Conversely he also argues that the scientist must provide “conclusive demonstration” of a position before the theologian must ask whether to interpret a scripture in a non-literal fashion. But because of the different realm addressed Scripture cannot be used against scientific statements demonstrated by the methods of science.

Despite this carefully reasoned position Galileo his argument was rejected. He was tried and convicted of heresy for claiming that the earth moved around the sun. The tribunal declared that the Copernican system that Galileo employed and the assumption of the motion of the earth “stupid and absurd philosophy.” He was forbidden to teach the Copernican system as true.

Galileo had a brilliant and insightful mind. He tried to keep within the strictures laid upon him by the Church. However, he had accumulated numerous enemies in the academic establishment over the years who had been stung by his conclusions. As Galileo again began publishing his enemies took advantage of the works and twisted their meaning before the Inquisition. His later work, once approved for publication was placed on the Index. He was again charged with heresy and eventually condemned and sentenced to prison. This sentence was eventually commuted to house arrest.7 The Church had made an authoritative pronouncement on science that would haunt it for over three hundred years.8

Galileo’s crusade was not simply for the Copernican system, but also to keep the church from making disputed scientific conclusions matters of faith. His goal was to keep science free from both theology and philosophy.

While much more could be said here with reference to Galileo, the point is that an interpretative community, in this case the Roman Catholic Church had constructed a worldview that allowed no new insight. That worldview, constructed in measure from Aristotelian philosophy, was wedded to divine revelation and the authority of the Bible and the Church. But, they did not realize what they were doing. The theological construct was seen simply as Truth to be believed and defended at all costs.

Warfield, Princetonians and the Westminster Confession on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration

During the late nineteenth century profound theological battles were taking place within American Presbyterianism. For over two hundred years the Westminster Confession had stood as the touchstone of orthodoxy for those in the English speaking Calvinistic/ Reformed tradition. But during the last quarter century of the nineteenth century there was increasing pressure to revisit the formulations of Westminster in light of the newly discovered insights into the nature of the Bible arising from higher critical methodology, as well as insights into the nature of the created order because of discoveries in the natural sciences, particularly the biological sciences in the wake of Darwin. This impetus was met with profound opposition from the conservative forces within the denomination who were convinced that truth was one and it was unchanging. The conservative forces were led by the Princetonians.

Princeton Seminary had a proud tradition as an untiring defender of historic Reformation orthodoxy, which it equated with biblical orthodoxy. At the fifty-year celebration of Charles Hodge’s tenure at as a professor at Princeton Hodge made the claim that “a new idea never originated at Princeton.” While contemporary ears this would hardly hear this claim as a ground of boasting, to the faithful within the Presbyterian tradition it was an affirmation that Princeton held solidly to the faith with which it had been entrusted. And despite the fact that these words were uttered over 125 years ago, they still provoke a hearty “Amen” to a significant minority of those who in the new millennium identify themselves with the historic Calvinistic tradition.

To the Princeton mind, truth was objective and inviolable. There was no pressing need to discover new truths, since by and large the Princetonians believed that this is what the Reformation and the 200 year tradition of Reformed scholasticism was all about - the rediscovery of the biblical gospel and its subsequent elaboration in the Reformed creeds and scholastic dogmatic systems. The Princetonians saw their task not as discovering "new truths" but the constant application of existing truth to the specific new situations.9

As a result of the push for a new simpler creed, battle lines were drawn. The conservative contingent was led by the Princetonians, particularly the massive and indefatigable figure of B.B. Warfield, arguable the greatest theologian produced in America since Jonathan Edwards. The fact that Warfield never himself produced a systematic theology stands as testimony to his view of truth and its unchanging nature. Warfield stood convinced that the Systematic Theology recently produced by his late mentor Charles Hodge was an unparalleled exposition of Reformed orthodoxy to which he could add nothing of substance. Instead he turned his great knowledge and intellect to the defense of the received faith and during his lifetime produced ten volumes of material that endure to this day as a monument to his great breadth and depth as a scholar and a theologian. For Warfield, Westminster represented the apex, the pinnacle of all theological knowledge. It would broach no improvement. All other systems of theology were inferior and threatened the truth codified by Westminster. Hence all other systems were fair targets of his criticism, whether those systems be the historic enemy of Reformed theology, Arminianism, or the newer idealistic theology of Schleiermacher and his followers, or some hybrid that attenuated the Calvinistic understanding of the nature of man and sin as did so many of the “perfectionistic” teachings on the Christian Life that sprang up in the nineteenth century.

The opposition was centered at Union Seminary New York. Union Seminary had been founded in the 1840’s as a “New School” institution in response to Princeton’s “Old School” theology, and had been theologically avant garde since its inception. Many Union professors studied in Germany where they drank of the well of idealism and of higher critical thought. It would be a mistake to think of Union Seminary as liberal in the formal sense of the term as defined in the chapter in this work on Liberalism. They were liberal in spirit and outlook, not necessarily theology. They did not hold rigidly and defensively to the Westminster Confession as did the Princetonians. They tended to be open minded and willing to examine the new theological currents flowing and incorporate what they saw as valid into their own perspectives. Particularly, higher critical thought took root at Union Seminary, and one of its most ardent propagators was Old Testament Professor, Charles Augustus Briggs. For nearly fifteen years there was an uneasy truce between Princeton and Union. During the 1880’s there was even a joint publication, The Presbyterian Review edited by a Representative from Princeton, first A. A. Hodge, and finally B. B. Warfield, and a representative from Union, Charles Briggs. While the journal had been envisioned as an undertaking to promote understanding between the antagonistic faculties, the history proved something very different. Early in the life of the journal Hodge recognized that the question of biblical criticism and the doctrine of Inerrancy were at the center of the denomination’s theological attention. Hodge and Briggs agreed to a series of articles on the subject of biblical criticism with each article being penned alternately by a representative of the Princeton and then the Union faculty. The first article in this series, “Inspiration” was jointly written by A .A. Hodge and B.B Warfield. This article became the foundation for the twentieth century understanding of the doctrine of Inerrancy. Briggs responded in the following issue with an article entitled "Critical Theories of Sacred Scriptures in Relation to Their Inspiration,"10 . It is significant that despite the acrimony of the parties in the debate over the nature of inspiration and inerrancy, even A. A. Hodge admitted to Briggs that the question of errorlessness in the modern scientific sense of the term was not before the minds of the Westminster divines, and that while the language as a whole in his opinion favored errorlessness, it did "not explicitly and in terms exclude the other view--so that the view which admits errors cannot be proved to be excluded from the Confession . . ."11

Briggs remained a thorn in the side of the conservatives and tensions between the two parties increased. A decade later Briggs was transferred to the chair newly endowed Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary. Briggs inaugural address became the focal point of conservative attention and consternation. The tone of the address was one of a declaration of war on the conservative forces, and the conservative forces responded with charges of heresy.12 There were six charges, drawn up by Warfield himself. All but one involved biblical inspiration and authority. The New York Presbytery twice dismissed the charges. The denomination insisted Briggs be tried. As a result Briggs was tried for heresy and acquitted. The prosecution then appealed the verdict to the General Assembly in 1893, which convicted Briggs and defrocked him.

For the purposes of this discussion, there are several observations that need to be made. The issue at hand is not whether Briggs’ position was heretical or not. Rather the issue is the mindset of the conservatives. During the controversy there was significant doctrinal definition and tightening going on within the conservative camp. As noted above, a decade before the heresy trial A. A. Hodge, one of the architects of the modern doctrine of inerrancy, indicated that while he disagreed with Briggs’ position on biblical infallibility, he recognized that Briggs position fell within the scope of the wording of the Westminster Confession. This notwithstanding, the doctrine of Inerrancy was conceived as so central to the Christian faith and historic Reformed orthodoxy that in 1893, the PCUSA (the northern Presbyterian Church) adopted the “Portland Deliverance” which became the official interpretation of the Westminster Confession’s statement on biblical authority, and insisted that all ordained into the Presbyterian ministry agree to the new tighter terms of subscription.13

The conviction of Briggs was followed by the conviction of several others on heresy charges, while others still rather than stand trial withdrew from the denomination. In the short run, it appeared that the conservative forces had staved off theological liberalism within the denomination. But the reality was something else again. The issues that drove the non-traditionalists did not go away. In 1909 the Auburn Affirmation was adopted. It was a theological manifesto by the non-conservative forces, by now far to the left theologically of those convicted of heresy in the 1890s. The demands for change were again clamoring within the denomination. Ultimately the conservatives forces led by Princeton lost the battle as it was overwhelmed by the rising tide of new perspectives and the Northern Presbyterian Church drifted from its Reformed roots.

Scientific Creationism

The mid to late twentieth century has the rise of a situation that in many ways parallels the Catholic Church’s confrontation with Galileo in the seventeenth century. This time however the antagonist in this controversy is not a long established tradition with official church sanction at some council. Rather it is a position that is out of harmony with historic Protestantism and propagated by those of essentially fundamentalist persuasion. That issue is Scientific Creationism. As the term is used by its adherents, “Scientific Creationism” does not have reference to God as the ultimate creator of all who may have used various means and methods to accomplish his creative activity. Rather, as normally employed the term refers to a literal surface reading of the text of Genesis 1 through the eyes of Baconian inductivism to conclude that the earth was created recently (on the scale of thousands of years ago) and in six literal twenty-four hour days rather than in the ancient past, (billions of years ago). While having no formal authority, those espousing the “scientific creationist” position have marshaled a popular publication and PR campaign that has spread their doctrine as the only orthodox Christian position. Within the pews of a majority of evangelical churches the average layman has no idea that any other position is held by evangelical scholars and theologians.


While it is common to assume that Darwin’s theory of biological evolution was met with immediate and implacable hostility from the conservative Christian community, such is simply not the case. Far from universally decrying Darwinism as simply atheism,14 when his theory of biological evolution was put forth, many conservative evangelical Christians, both scientists, exegetes and theologians saw the hypothesis as a viable explanation of the means that God might have used to accomplish his task in the creation of the cosmos.15

Evangelical Science during the nineteenth century followed in the footsteps of the Reformers and the Puritans. They saw two books of divine revelation, the written word, the Scriptures, and the book of nature, discovered by scientific inquiry. Since God was the author of both books it was impossible for the two to be in conflict. While the Bible provided the overarching framework to interpreting life and creation, this book of nature informed the theologians and biblical interpreters in their labors and conclusions.16 As early as 1812 Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary declared in his inaugural address, “Natural history, chemistry, and geology have sometimes been of important service assisting the Biblical student to solve difficulties contained in Scripture; or in enabling him to repel the assaults of adversaries which were made under the cover of these sciences.”17 Charles Hodge took the arguments even further in his journal the Biblical Repository and Princeton Review. In an article appearing in 1863 Joseph Clark recognized the necessity for the Christian scientist to pursue inductive conclusions without precommitments to the “teachings” thought to be found in the scriptures. He pointed out how earlier Christians had concluded that the bible taught a “flat earth” and how that interpretation had been abandoned in light of scientific discovery. Importantly, he insisted that this kind of adjustment in no way undermined the authority of the Scripture or its divine inspiration.18 While not all agreed with Clark and he came in for criticism even in the press, Hodge was even more adamant in a response to criticism of Clark’s position, he contended:

Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible; and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science. As this principle is undeniably true, it is admitted and acted on by those who, through inattention to the meaning of terms, in words deny it. When the Bible speaks of the foundations, or pillars of the earth, or of the solid heavens, or the motion of the sun, do not you and every other sane man, interpret this language by the facts of science? . . . Shall we go on to interpret the Bible so as to make it teach the falsehood that the sun moves around the earth, or shall we interpret it by science, and make the two harmonize?19

A host of evangelical scientists and theologians adopted the position advocated by Hodge. These theologians and scientists by no means agreed with one another on specific issues. In fact disagreements were often heated. These disagreements notwithstanding there was a common understanding that proper biblical interpretation and theology could not be done without input from the best scientific findings available.20

Yet with the rise of fundamentalism early in the twentieth century the presupposition of the necessity of scientific input and assistance in proper biblical interpretation was sacrificed on the altar of biblical authority. It was within the context of fundamentalism that the reformation credo of Sola Scriptura was transformed into nuda scriptura.21 In this fundamentalists betrayed their reformation and evangelical heritage and unwittingly fell into the form of Manichaeianism.22

The Rise of Scientific Creationism.

Surprisingly the roots of creation science are not to be found in evangelicalism, but in Seventh Day Adventism in the teachings of George McCready Price who in 1923 published The New Geology arguing that a simple “literal” reading of the book of Genesis revealed that God created the cosmos in six literal twenty-four days between six and eight thousand years ago. The present state of the earth was to be explained by a worldwide flood in the time of Noah. This book had little influence outside Adventist circles except in the very conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans, and among a few fundamentalists.23 In the early 1940s some “flood geologists” tried to convince the American Scientific Affiliation of their conclusions, but failed. The flood geologists continued without measurable success to advance their agenda.

However in the late 1950’s John C. Whitcomb, Old Testament Professor at Grace Seminary in Winona Lake Indiana, and Henry M. Morris, a hydraulic engineer had both reacted negatively to Bernard Ramm’s Christian View of Science and the Scriptures. In this work Ramm had confronted the fundamentalists failure to read the Scriptures in light of their historical and cultural background, and their naive Baconian hermeneutics. Whitcomb and Morris joined forces to pen The Genesis Flood (1961). In this work, Whitcomb and Morris adopted Price’s logic and argumentation wholesale but gave it a much more sophisticated theological and scientific expression. The book was an immediate success and has continued to sell well for nearly forty years. The success of the work spawned the Creation Research Society, the Institute for Creation Research and other organizations in the US and Britain committed to the position. Their public relations campaign has been so successful as to get “equal time” laws passed in Arkansas and Louisiana.

The Literal hermeneutic.

Foundational to the program of conservative evangelical and fundamental Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the commitment to the literal truth of the Bible. The particular cast of this assumption while arising out of a rejection of the enlightenment program, is paradoxically also itself a product of the enlightenment, particularly the philosophical and epistemological work of Thomas Reid and Common Sense philosophy/epistemology. While most analyses of the Enlightenment trace its development from Decartes down through Hume to Kant, few recognize that there was an intellectual bifurcation in the reaction to Hume’s skepticism. The major stream followed Kant and his phenomenology, but another smaller but still significant stream followed the Scottish Philosopher, Thomas Reid who responded to Hume with a view of reality based upon a realistic, a naively realistic epistemology which came to be known as Common Sense, or Scottish Common Sense. It was this Common Sense understanding of reality that formed the warp and woof of the fabric of the American psyche from the late 1700’s until it was overwhelmed by the changes in the world a century later. It was Common Sense that gave the American his no nonsense practical view of reality. It was also Common Sense that gave nineteenth century evangelicalism its mindset that the bible could be approached and known apart from historical and literary context. The Bible was immediately and profoundly the Word of God in a straightforward common sense manner. It was addressed directly to the contemporary hearer. It was not a book for scholars but a book for the people. R.A. Torry summed up this approach to the Scriptures, “In ninety nine out of one hundred cases the meaning that the plain man gets out of the Bible is the correct one.”24 Another aphorism concerning literal interpretation commonly heard stated, “If the plain sense makes sense seek no other sense.”

The presupposition of the literal truth of the Bible led to corollaries. Among the most important was the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.25 The doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture itself had arisen during the Reformation and the sense had always been that the salvific message of the Bible is clear, clear enough even for a child to grasp it. However, coupled with this clarity was the recognition of depth of meaning within the text, a depth that could not be plumbed even by the most learned scholar. However when applied under the influence of Common Sense, the Bible was democratized and opened for all men and women to interpret independent of any tradition, history scholarship or literary context.

When it came to the issue of Science, from the seventeenth century onward Protestant Christians had sought to show a harmony of science and the Bible and that Christianity was truly scientific. As one reads the nineteenth century apologists, one finds them operating under Baconian principles of induction from the “facts.” One might say that this was the “Joe Friday” approach to apologetics. Let the facts speak for themselves apart from any speculative theory.

However the explosion of scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries placed a strain on the relationship between the Bible (interpreted through Baconian lenses) and science. The harmony seen in earlier centuries was seemingly shattered. However, many believers still held to the assumption that, contrary to prevailing opinion, science, properly done, still supported the scriptures. But this support was a one way street. Science was only valid if it supported the received interpretation of the scriptures. It was not an aid to understanding and nuancing Scriptural understanding. Scripture stood supreme over and against science and reason. When the two came into conflict, trust had to be placed in the Bible. Henry Morris made this clear in his 1946 work, That You May Believe. Morris asserted that he would accept the Bible “even against reason if need be.”26

The nature of the Bible was understood to be Truth, absolute divine Truth. That truth was not dependent upon genre or context or original audience. The Bible was to be interpreted in a common sense fashion because it “in no way does violence to common sense and intelligence.”27 Henry Morris particularly applied this common sense hermeneutic with his engineer’s mind to the scripture and found scientific truths that had lain hidden in the text for millennia. Such truths as “the stars cannot be numbered,” and the hydrological cycle were deduced from allusions in the psalms and put forth as evidence of the scripture’s scientific accuracy. The Bible’s accuracy is asserted to be of the level of precision as that of a twentieth century scientific journal. Marsden notes of this mindset, “Scholars from other (Christian) traditions might find such thinking incredible and surely to involve applying linguistic standards of one age to another. Nonetheless there can be no doubt that in our age such thinking is widely regarded as common sense.”28

Whitcomb and Morris assert “the complete divine inspiration and perspicuity of Scripture, believing that a true exegesis thereof yields determinative Truth in all matters with which it deals.”29 The Truth referenced here means the scientifically accurate facts contained in the Bible. This view of biblical authority has its roots in the Protestant scholasticism of the seventeenth century, particularly that of scholastic Lutheranism. It is no accident that in the founding of the Creation Research Society in 1963, nearly one third of the founding members were Missouri Synod Lutherans. The insistence on the divinity of the scriptures obscured any humanity involved and actually fell into a docetic attitude with reference to the bible which did not and does not recognize in any substantial measure the humanity and historical nature of the revelation given therein. The bible becomes a book of “facts” fallen out of heaven from which Truth is to be mined.

It must be noted that the intellectual ground was already prepared by the worldview Common Sense generally of fundamentalism and evangelicalism particularly for creation science to take root and flourish.30 The fundamentalist heritage of American Evangelicalism made the straightforward interpretation of the biblical text vis--vis origins an attractive option and major evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges were increasingly found to support the particular version of origins espoused by “creation science.”

    Creationist Historiography

David Livingston has observed, “The way in which any group deals with the burden of its history—whether casually dismissing it, slavishly guarding it, or capriciously manipulating it—reveals much about the way it perceives itself.”31

Some creation scientists have dealt with opponents of their position by calling into question the legitimacy of their evangelical conviction. The treatment of Asa Gray, the nineteenth century evangelical botanist and Harvard Professor at the hands of Bolton Davidheiser is instructive here. Davidheiser making the standard of evangelical Christianity a rejection of evolution, observes if Gray, “It turns out that Asa Gray is a very questionable example of an evangelical Christian. But he is a good example of a person who has a Christian testimony and who is used by the evolutionists to influence other Christians to accept the theory of evolution.”32 Davidheiser deals with the great conservative Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr similarly:

Dr. Orr had the theory of evolution thrust upon him and he had to deal with it. He seems to have been convinced that the scientists had proved evolution to be true and that he had to do the best he could with it. He should not have capitulated so easily and if he had not, he could easily have shown that the theory of evolution and the Bible are incompatible. Although the Bible gives a clear answer, we have something in addition which James Orr did not have, and that is a knowledge, based upon experience, that the espousal of the theory of evolution leads to compromises which in turn lead to liberalism, modernism and a repudiation of the gospel.33

Henry Morris goes further than Davidheiser and characterizes individuals such as Orr, B.B. Warfield, and A.H. Strong “as part a chronicle of pervasive theological apostasy.”34 He even accuses the great Augustine, father of all western theology of representing the “old compromising types of exegesis used by the early theologians.”35

On the other hand, the creation scientists have published works that celebrate Christians who were scientists. But these works have strange twists. For example, Morris’ Men of Science, men of God (1982) written with a self-confessedly “evangelistic thrust and motivation” is a chronicle of biographical sketches of scientists who professed Christianity and “believed that the universe, life, and man were directly and specially created by the transcendent God of the Bible.” What is interesting is that men whose theology is decidedly “unorthodox” by Morris’ own standards make it onto his list. He places men like theistic evolutionist James Dana, but neglects to include Asa Gray. He includes J.W. Buckland (a proponent of the day-age theory) and describes Buckland (a uniformitarian) as a “strong creationist.” He includes Virchow but fails to mention his commitment to neo-Lamarkian evolution. He also includes Louis Agassiz and Gregor Mendel, both prominent members of non-evangelical Christian Communions. The work is a strange mixture. Morris uses his sources selectively, and includes individuals whose doctrines are denounced in other creationist literature as ranging from fraudulent to Satanic. Moreover, by excluding many prominent evangelical scientists who were theistic evolutionists he is presenting a false impression of the relationship between evangelicalism and evolutionary thought.

Not only have the proponents of Creation Science have been successful in promoting their position among the conservative evangelical community, they have to a greater or lesser degree successfully rewritten history to give the impression that their version of origins is the version that has always characterized evangelicalism. In an age when historical revisionism is being undertaken at an unprecedented rate by those of a postmodern perspective who deny truth in order to promote their own agenda, it is at least troubling to see those who claim to be committed to truth playing fast and loose with the data, reshaping it not to serve Truth but to give their interpretation a false legitimacy.

    The All or Nothing Mindset

While the position of those holding to the doctrines of “creation science” does arise from a surface reading of the text apart from any other study, the response to those who do not agree with the position is very telling. While this discussion has not focused upon evolution, this is the fear at the heart of “creation science.” They perceive a dualism. Either six-day literal creation by the transcendent and Almighty God as presented in Genesis, or materialistic evolution. They perceive no other options. To admit any degree of evolution even under the direct control of God is to give away the store. So important is this doctrine that no variation in understanding can be tolerated. Those who disagree are subjected to character assassination. A common occurrence for those who do not agree is to be charged with apostasy, and/or to have the validity of their own faith challenged.

From a theological perspective the literal recent creation has been elevated to a fundamental of the faith. This is not hyperbole. When in 1978 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was formed, Henry Morris was present and lobbying to have a statement of recent creationism inserted into the doctrinal statement. The founding council, rather than accede to Morris’ position polled the founding membership consisting of pastors scholars and theologians who affirmed the doctrine of Inerrancy and discovered, despite the popular acceptance of the position, the founding membership held over thirty discrete positions with reference to the interpretation of Genesis one. Only one of these positions involved a six-day recent creation.

As with the incidents discussed earlier, we see an opposition among the conservative mainstream to new discoveries, learning and knowledge. While it might be easy to cast aspersions in each case, that would not serve the current purpose. These cases have been set forth as anecdotal examples of a tendency that is present in each individual who studies theology. That tendency is to identify our own understanding of the truth with the truth itself. That understanding becomes so tightly held that there is the irrational fear that reality itself will come unraveled if we are to change our position or open our minds to new perspectives. One might even charge that with some degree of accuracy that the inability to separate our understanding of truth from TRUTH itself is a claim that we have, at least on this issue the complete understanding of God himself.

Knowledge, Orthodoxy and Obscurantism.

Bernard Ramm, in his work After Fundamentalism, observed that the Enlightenment was an intellectual watershed for theology. Liberal Theology capitulated to the Enlightenment and lost its message as anything distinctively Christian. In contrast to the Liberal acceptance of the Enlightenment program, conservative theology rejected the Enlightenment but in that objection became obscurantist.36 While the issue is a bit more complex than Ramm implies,37 the basic observation is on the whole accurate.

Obscurantism is defined as a rejection of or opposition to enlightenment. The question becomes, “Is refusal to admit new insight and perspectives in one’s understanding obscurantist?” Oxford Professor Charles A. Whittuck contends that obscurantism is a primary temptation for those of religious conviction, if for no other reason that it is found more in religion than anywhere else.38 The term was used during the Renaissance of those who opposed the new learning, and during the nineteenth century in Catholicism of those who desired to preserve the medieval Catholic Church unchanged. From a social perspective some of the extremely conservative Mennonite communities, such as the Amish could be considered obscurantist on their very face. Another example would be Muslim Fundamentalism. Other examples while not so blatantly obvious, yet can be profoundly pervasive. The adage “I know what I believe, don’t confuse me with the facts,” describes in a nutshell the obscurantist mentality.

The Enlightenment brought a profound and massive shift in the understanding of the way knowledge is obtained. The model for knowledge became the scientific method with its insistence on critical examination to verify received knowledge to see if it met the requirements of public evidence (as opposed to pretended authority, e.g. the Church, or the Bible) to be accepted of truth. The emphasis on modern knowledge does not imply that the conclusions are right, rather the focus is upon a methodology by which knowledge is obtained.39 Modern learning involves the scientific method and critical inquiry that looks for evidence rather relying on tradition and credulity.

Obscurantism involves a denial of modern learning/critical inquiry. It is the attitude that characterizes those who believe that the modern world and its methods of knowledge as well as its conclusions threaten their beliefs. In either its secular or religious form is characterized by three factors

    1. It is selective in that the obscurantist lives in a technological society that can neither be denied nor ignored. The obscurantist must select elements that he accepts in order to live in the contemporary world.

    2. It is hypocritical in that the obscurantist uses the technological discoveries and inventions to promote obscurantist beliefs.

    3. It is systematic. At any point where a contemporary understanding may undermine an obscurantist position, the modern learning is denied.40

The charge of obscurantism against fundamentalism and evangelicalism is perhaps given some legitimacy in that in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy early in the twentieth century, fundamentalists withdrew from the larger world of theology and separated themselves from the “spiritual apostasy” of the “liberals.”41 The literature produced by the fundamentalists and early evangelicals gained no hearing outside the evangelical-fundamentalist ghetto, not primarily because it espoused historic orthodox conclusions but because it did not use critical methodology to sustain its conclusions.42

Orthodoxy and Orthodoxism

Over a century ago Charles Briggs made a distinction between true and false orthodoxy. He gave the label “orthodoxism” to a form of orthodoxy that “assumes to know the truth and is unwilling to learn; it is haughty and arrogant assuming to itself the divine prerogatives of infallibility and inerrancy; it hates all truths that it unfamiliar to it and persecutes it to the uttermost.”43 By contrast he contended, “orthodoxy loves the truth. It is ever anxious to learn, for it knows how greatly the truth of God transcends human knowledge. It follows truth, as Ruth did Naomi, wherever it leads. It is meek lowly and reverent. It is full of charity an love. It does not recognize an infallible pope. It does not recognize an infallible theologian. It has one only teacher and master—the enthroned Savior, Jesus Christ—and expects to be guided by His Spirit into all truth.”44 Briggs contended that no one is totally orthodox save God alone. All human understanding involves some degree of heterodoxy.

This understanding did not however open the door for subjectivism, with each individual determining truth for himself or herself. Rather

There must be some objective standard, some comprehensive statement by which the relative orthodoxy of man may be estimated and measured. The absolute standard of human orthodoxy is the sum total of truth revealed by God. God reveals truth in several spheres; in universal nature, in the constitution of mankind, in the history of our race, and in the sacred Scriptures, but above all in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

If a man has mastered this entire revelation of the truth, all that science, philosophy, history and the sacred Scriptures and Jesus Christ can give him, then and only, he may claim to be entirely orthodox.45

Until the time that such a condition might be achieved, the orthodoxy of any individual will be partial and incomplete. The refusal to learn and accept and appropriate growing understanding from all of God’s revelation renders an individual heterodox because that individual has rejected truth gleaned from God’s revelation.

Any man or church that refuses t accept the discoveries of science or the truths of philosophy or the facts of history, or the new light that breaks forth from the Word of God to the devout student, on the pretense that it conflicts with his orthodoxy or the orthodoxy of the standards of his church, prefers the traditions of man tot he truth of God, has become unfaithful to the calling and aims of the Christian disciple, has left the companionship of Jesus and His apostles and has joined the Pharisees, the enemies of truth. . . . A traditional attitude of mind is one of the worst foes to orthodoxy.46

It might be easy to reject Briggs assertions as the conclusions of a heretic. However the true picture is much more complex. First of all, , the words of Briggs have been echoed by numerous evangelical scholars and theologians over the past century who have no taint of heresy in their history. Secondly, within a decade of Briggs’ conviction of heresy by the Northern Presbyterian Church, members of the prosecuting committee were hailing Briggs as a defender of the faith!47 A strange situation to say the least. What in fact happened is that in the ensuing decade following Briggs’ conviction of heresy the focus of theological debate had shifted from the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy to the doctrine of Christology and the virgin birth. While Briggs rejected inerrancy, he was an ardent supporter of historic Christology and regularly defended the doctrine of the virgin birth in print and in debate.

Extra Confessional vs. Contra-Confessional belief

When we speak of Orthodoxy and Heresy we divide all theological knowledge into two camps. That which is true and that which is false. This type of division while common, is both simplistic and misleading. And in fact seriously distorts the issues under discussion.

First, we must examine the nature of orthodoxy. Simply defined it means a “right belief.” But right according to what standard? Therein lies the rub. If we are to use the word with any modicum of integrity “orthodoxy” must mean something broader than, “what I was always taught.” If this is so, what is that broader reference? Evangelicals, particularly those of a baptistic persuasion often insist that there be no creed but the Bible. But here again we fall into the same problem as referenced above. The Bible as interpreted by whom? So the standard of orthodoxy must be narrower than a general affirmation of the teachings of the Bible. It is at this point that we find ourselves looking at the historic faith of the church as some kind of a touchstone of what is genuinely Christian and therefore orthodox teaching and what is not. The place where this teaching is distilled is in the historic creeds of the Church.

Another issue arises here. That is the question of a belief that is held which has not been addressed in the historical articulation of the faith. We might call this extra-creedal, or extra confessional belief. Is it permissible for someone to hold and teach beliefs that have not been addressed in the creeds of traditional confessions? Would such a teaching not in and of itself be heretical? The answer is, “Not necessarily.” The issue involved is not the novelty of a position, that is that the teaching has never been articulated before, or at least been articulated in the form one now finds it. The issue is does the teaching conflict with the received body of truth as experssed in the consensus of the historic creeds. Under this definition much that is called heresy does not fit the formal criteria.

Another twist in this discussion is how do we apply the charge of heresy? While the definition given by the Miriam-Webster dictionary s.v.. heresy 2b “an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.” Is perhaps the operative definition for most individuals when they invoke the charge, this definition is too general to be of any value in theological discussions. The definition given under 1a “adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma.” However is relevant at this juncture. To develop this a bit further, for one to be considered a heretic one must as a member of a particular Christian communion hold a view practice or belief that is contrary to the dogma of the communion to which one belongs. The case of Charles Briggs provides a good example here. Briggs was adjudged to be a heretic in the Northern Presbyterian Church for his denial of the doctrine of inerrancy. However, after he was expelled from the Northern Presbyterian Church he joined the Episcopal Church, a communion that did not formally and officially embrace the doctrine of inerrancy. As a member of the Episcopal Church Briggs could not be considered a heretic, while the Presbyterians would regard him so.

To put this another way, heresy is an internal judgment applicable to those within a communion and based upon the doctrinal commitment of that particular communion. For a Protestant to accuse a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox Christian of heresy because of his or her understanding of the nature of the justification, is to misunderstand the nature of heresy. The Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have never subscribed to the Protestant understanding and have never dogmatically been subject to creedal statements that spell out the Protestant understanding of the justification.

Alister McGrath has suggested that ultimately heresy must involve a denial of the person and/or work of Jesus Christ.48 In fact the ancient heresies did just this. Christianity is centered around the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Any teaching that compromises either the integrity of the person of Jesus Christ in his deity or in his humanity, or a position that compromises the necessity or the possibility of the salvation of humanity is a fundamental error that left unanswered and allowed to stand would compromise the very fabric of the faith itself and reduce Christianity to little more than a philosophy rather than a faith involving divine redemption.

The Apostle commands that believers contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. However that faith was not the theology of the Protestant Reformation, Lutheran or Reformed, nor was it Baptist, nor was it Roman Catholic or Orthodox. The earliest formal systematic expression of the faith that we have is perhaps Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (C. AD 200). A quick perusal of that work reveals how simple yet sophisticated that Apostolic kerygma is. That faith was what C.S. Lewis calls Mere Christ-ianity. The form that that Christianity takes in a par-ticular place and time changes. But the substance must remain. The new need not and must not be feared if it does not compromise the essence of the faith, a faith centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy, right belief is based upon knowledge, knowledge of God, his world and his creation. As such must always remain open to learn and grow. It must be a progressive orthodoxy adapting to meet the challenges it faced, rather than a defensive orthodoxism, frozen in time and perspective no longer able to speak to the world in which it finds itself.


A dynamic of controversy has often surrounded theological change. We have seen anecdotally that the approach to new ideas and doctrines is often one of reaction and rejection based on appeal to a traditional authority structure, rather than an engagement of the issues at hand. While it is not my purpose to prove that this can’t work, I would contend that in a world where there is public access to knowledge, it simply doesn’t work. This approach may win the battle, but it will lose the war.

On the other hand another strategy has been that of marketing. This is the strategy of the Scientific Creationists. They have simplistically interpreted the scriptures and broken the argument for recent creationism down into an oppositional framework, admitting only two mutually exclusive extremes. This is naive at best. But I would argue that this strategy is motivated out of fear and involves patent intellectual dishonesty, ad hoc argumentation and intellectual special pleading that would never gain a hearing in any debate where the laws of logic and rules of evidence are applied.

In each case presented there has been a precommitment to a philosophical system that has led to an unrecognized and unacknowledged contextualization of the message. In the case of Galileo, that contextualization came through the melding of the Bible and Christianity with Aristotelian philosophy, In the case of the Northern Presbyterians (in their opposition to Briggs) and the Scientific Creationists that contextualization involved an uncritical acceptance of Baconian inductivism and Scottish Common sense as a the basis of their worldview. In each case the combination of an uncritical philosophical/ epistemological precommitment blinded the members of the community to other possibilities, and threatened the very existence of the community as it perceived itself.

A key quality that any good theologian must develop is an ability to recognize a disjuncture between Truth, and “my understanding” of that truth. The theologian must become self-critical and critically aware of his or her own presuppositions. The failure to recognize this simple fact has led to no end of mischief and brought great shame and dishonor on the church of Jesus Christ as battles have been waged not over the truth itself but over parochial understandings of truth.

1 Michael Bauman, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 20-21.

2 Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), 103. Much of the following discussion is drawn from Hummel , 103ff.

3 William R Shea, “Galileo and the Church,” in Lindburg and Numbers, God and Nature, chapt.4. quoted by Hummel.

4 105.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 To see a good summary of the debate and the eventual condemnation of Galileo see Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986) 103-125.

8 It was not until the 1960’s that the Catholic Church formally issued an apology to Galileo!

9 Kim Riddlebarger, Fire & Water, A Princeton apologist still helps us see why Calvinism and Arminianism simply don't mix

10 The Presbyterian Review 2 (1881):550-79.

11 B. T., A. A. Hodge to CAB, vol. 6, p. 18.

12 For a full account of Briggs life see Max Gray Rogers, “Charles Augustus Briggs: Conservative Heretic” Ph.D. dissertation, Colombia University, 1965. University Microfilms.

13 This practice had been employed at least once before, after the Civil War. At that time Charles Hodge had vociferously objected to the illegality and immorality of the practice of after the fact changing of the rules of subscription. He moreover denied that a general assembly had the power to tighten the terms of subscription to the received creed. The Rights of Presbyteries Not to be Annulled by Any Assumed Authority of the General Assembly: Their Relations to Each Other Defined by Dr. Hodge in the Princeton Review, New York: Anson D.F. Randolf & Co, 1896 (reprint of the original article appearing in the Princeton Review, July 1865)

14 This was the conclusion of Charles Hodge, from a philosophical perspective, but his successors at Princeton, particularly B.B. Warfield, the architect of the modern doctrine of inerrancy disagreed and saw evolution as a means by which God had brought creation to its present state.

15 David Livingston’s Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) is an admirable study documenting the support for Darwin’s theory among even the Princetonians, including Warfield himself, the architect of modern inerrancy teaching.

16 Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 182.

17 Ibid.

18 Hodge defended the position taken by Clark saying that it was all but self-evident that the tested conclusions of the scientific enterprise should be brought to bear in the interpretation of Scripture.

19 Noll, 183-4.

20 Noll, 185

21 Sola Scriptura had from its inception meant that the Bible was the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Fundamentalism, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly made scripture the only authority. And in some cases taught that the Bible was over and against all human authorities and wisdom, especially the pronouncements of science.

22 Noll, 188.

23 Ibid., 190.

24 Cited by Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 165.

25 See glossary.

26 quoted by Marsden 163.

27 Morris cited by Marsden 163

28 Marsden 165.

29 The Genesis Flood, xx.

30 See Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (123-145) for an excellent description of the intellectual character of Evangelicalism..

31 David N. Livingston, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 170. Much of the following discussion is drawn from Livingston.

32 Ibid., 170

33 Bolton Davidheiser, Evolution and the Christian Faith (Nutley N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), 38-39.

34 Morris, History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Book publishers, 1984), 39.

35 Ibid., 37.

36 As the intellectual ethos of society has moved into the postmodern era, the Enlightenment has become an intellectual whipping boy, in much the same manner as the medieval era was for the Renaissance. Yet, for all the faults and hubris of the Enlightenment agenda, it’s program also advanced human knowledge of the world in a manner heretofore unimagined. The Enlightenment agenda set the stage for the Modern world, and even the advent of Postmodernism has not nullified its legitimate insights.

37 Nancey Murphy (Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism) has observed that there was a split in the Enlightenment tradition following David Hume. The major portion of intellectual development followed Immanuel Kant’s phenomenology, while a significant but smaller stream followed Thomas Reid’s Common Sense. So from an epistemological perspective conservative theology also fell under the influence of enlightenment ways of thought.

38 Charles A. Whittuck, “Obscurantism, ”Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol.9, 442-443. Cited by Ramm After Fundamentalism, 19.

39 The emphasis on modern learning does not imply that the conclusions are right, but the focus is upon a methodology by which knowledge is obtained. Basically this involves the scientific method and critical inquiry that looks for evidence rather relying on tradition and credulity.

40 Ramm, After Fundamentalism, 19.

41 These terms are in quotation here because the situation was actually much more complex than the fundamentalist theologians and preachers perceived. There was in fact a large contingent of theologians who accepted the critical methodology flowing out of the enlightenment but remained essentially conservative and orthodox in the broader historical sense in their theological outlook. The Fundamentalists saw this group as simply liberal since they rejected (on supposed evidence) the traditional definition of biblical authority arising out of Protestant scholasticism.

42 Mark Noll had chronicled the evangelical abandonment of serious intellectual work in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Here Noll laments the fact that evangelicalism excused itself from the world of intellectual pursuits and abandoned that world to the liberal and secular communities. The fundamentalist and evangelical communities adopted wholesale an anti-intellectual mindset that still characterizes it as a movement. (see particularly 122-145).

43 Charles Augustus Briggs, Whither? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889) 7

44 Charles Augustus Briggs, Whither? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889) 7.

45 Ibid., 8.

46 Ibid., 9.

47 See, M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (New York: Mellen University Research Press, 1994)

48 See Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 467-472.

Related Topics: Introduction to Theology, History

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