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Creation and Change: Douglas F Kelly

Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, GB;
ISBN 1 85792 283 2; Published 1997

Book Review

This review first appeared in Origins 35 in 2003.

Douglas Kelly is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. In the early 1990s, he taught a course to an adult Sunday school class. The experience of researching, teaching and responding to questions was the dominant input to this book. The result is a book that engages with numerous scholarly issues at a level appropriate for a wide range of readers.

In the author's view, “the question of origins is one of the most significant that a person ever faces: where we came from is crucial to understanding who we are and where we are going” (p.15). He gives a personal reminiscence of Francis Schaeffer speaking at L'Abri, in which Schaeffer made it clear that origins issues (creation, the image of God in man, human origins) are so important that to pass them by in vangelism is effectively to undermine the Gospel message. “Schaeffer thought that when one avoids those questions, which are deeply implanted in every human heart, and jumps immediately to salvation, one loses the major impact on those who are seeking the truth” (p.17).

How then are Christians to develop their thinking on origins? Where do we start? “The Bible is God's revelation of his Word to us and includes all we need to know concerning his will for our lives. Notice how God chose to begin this all important book. He initiated his whole revelation with a description of creation, demonstrating that it is not only primal in the historical sense, but primary for the understanding of other doctrines as well” (p.16). This emphasis pervades the book: Douglas Kelly sets out to expound, teach and discuss the text of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 regarding it as foundational for Christians.

A further emphasis in this book is that the Bible speaks to the real world and is not confined to a special “religious” domain. There is no concession to those who distinguish between “secular” and “spiritual” knowledge. “If we avoid dealing with what the Bible says about creation of the material universe, then there is a tendency for religion to be disconnected from the real world, or to change the figure, there is a tendency to put Scripture and Christianity into a stained-glass closet that does not impact the space/time realm” (p.17).

Since this book addresses numerous topics and there are so many interesting avenues of thought to explore, it is necessary in this review to focus on a few topics. I have chosen those where I think the book has much to contribute to contemporary debate.

What type of literature is Genesis 1? This is one of the most important hermeneutical questions today for Christians to answer. Kelly considers all the approaches held by contemporary scholars and concludes that the chapter is essentially historical. He recognises that Genesis 1 has an elegant literary form, but argues that there should be no dichotomy between literary form and historical, chronological fact (p.119). The most significant challenge to this (traditional) interpretation of Genesis comes from the Framework Hypothesis. This view considers that Genesis 1 brings us theological truth embedded in a literary structure intended to bring us theological truth abstracted from real history.

Kelly's evaluation of this approach is excellent and deserves to be widely read. He summarises his two reasons for rejecting the Framework Hypothesis. “First, by importing an alien interpretation procedure into Scripture (the dichotomy between form and fact), they unwittingly obscure the pure light God's Word shines into our understanding of space/time reality as well as the transcendent realm controlling it. And secondly, they do a severe disservice to naturalistic science, precisely because such an obscuring of the full light of divine truth fails to call those in darkness to a full-fledged, repentant restructuring of their whole intellectual world at the deepest level” (p.120).

A second major contribution of this book relates to understanding of the relationship between verse 1 and the rest of Genesis 1. Traditional bible translations have Genesis 1:1 as an independent statement, grammatically separate from verse 2. This translation leads directly to the “ex nihilo” understanding of creation. However, some translations have interpreted Genesis 1:1 as a temporal clause: “When God began to create”. This leads to the idea that matter existed prior to God's creating activity. Kelly's discussion of these issues is clear and helpful, concluding that the traditional understanding is correct.

Thirdly, Kelly explains helpfully the role of Genesis 2:4, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth”. Is this a superscription (or title of what follows)? Or is it a superscription (a summary of what precedes)? This verse is “important for the structure of Genesis; it stands in the Hebrew text like a great signpost on a major highway, pointing the way forward into the rest of the book” (p.46).

The conclusion, that 2:4 is a superscription, is crucial for dealing with the oft-heard view that there are two creation accounts. Some Bible translations make this mistake and encourage people to say not only that there are two creation accounts but also that they do not agree. However, “instead of constituting a contradictory repetition of Chapter 1, the material in Genesis 2:4 – 3:24 accomplishes something else in order to open the gates for the grand story of redemption; the central theme of the whole Bible” (p.47).

There is so much of value in Kelly's book that it might seem inappropriate to add some critical remarks. However, in what follows I draw attention to some deficiencies in the book that prevent if from being as useful as it could be.

Theistic evolutionists ought to be challenged by this book, but I fear they will find many “distractions” to divert their attention from the real issues. Kelly suggests that the motivation behind the theistic evolution position is accommodation. He sees their understanding of the Bible as fundamentally flawed. In the UK, I think the most likely response to this is dismissal. This will be regarded as so wide of the mark that the rest of Kelly's arguments need not be considered further. At one point (p.142), Kelly confuses progressive creationists and theistic evolutionists – and this again may trigger rejection. We desperately need literature that really understands the mind of the theistic evolutionist and interacts at that level. Kelly's book does not do this.

A second deficiency is that the Ancient Near Eastern background is not explored significantly. It is mentioned in a few footnotes, but there is no interaction with contemporary scholarship that deals with these issues. This is a weakness because scholars favouring the theistic evolution approach deem the Ancient Near Eastern context particularly important. Unless we engage with these studies, we should not be surprised if theistic evolutionists continue to regard us as naive.

My final concern is the attention given to technical issues, extensive summaries of creationist thinking on issues raised by the study of Genesis 1. As summaries, they are well done. It is refreshing to find a theologian who can grapple with the issues so well. However, these chapters and technical notes are likely to be appreciated only by those who are persuaded of the correctness of the analysis. Theistic evolutionists will simply find more ammunition here to throw at Kelly.

To end on a positive note, this excerpt is taken from the book's conclusion. “Throughout this volume, I have engaged in a running debate with the secularism of our times and its evolutionary ‘paradigm', which, I believe, keeps us from understanding either Scripture or reality. Thus, it tragically turns the gaze of our culture from both God, our Creator, Redeemer and Goal (which is our very salvation), and from a realistic assessment and development of the created realm (which is part and parcel of our ‘dominion mandate'). The bitter harvest of this wilful blindness is being reaped with increasing swiftness in our deteriorating Western society. There is only one way for massive intellectual, moral and cultural healing to occur, and it entails a revolutionary ‘paradigm shift' from mythological evolution to a Scripturally revealed and scientifically realistic paradigm of special, divine creation. The teachings of Genesis 1 and 2 are sufficiently clear to give us our general orientation in this requisite paradigm shift, and a growing chorus of voices from operational science confirm the latter, even as they deny the former” (pp.244-5).

David J. Tyler.