This is a guest-post by biologist Stephen Matheson, and is the sixth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Stephen publishes the blog Quintessence of Dust which explores issues of science and faith.
At Calvin College, we describe our institution as "a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity." Our college is owned by – and is an official ministry of – the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Like all pastors and officers of the CRC, Calvin faculty are required to formally affirm three Reformed "forms of unity": the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Furthermore, Calvin faculty are required to attend a Reformed church, choosing from a list that excludes prominent Reformed denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), such that only the CRC and its sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), are workable choices.
The point of the foregoing is this: Calvin College is an outgrowth of the CRC, an ethnically Dutch Reformed denomination with some distinctive characteristics. (One of those characteristics is a tendency toward deliberate action and careful documentation of such action, as we'll see below.) And so, when considering the history of controversy over evolutionary science at Calvin, it is important to start with the CRC.
Evolution and the CRC
The CRC has an official position on "Creation and Science." The summary statement begins as follows:
All of life, including scientific endeavor, must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word. Therefore, Christian scholarship that integrates faith and learning is to be encouraged. The church does not impose an authorized interpretation of specific passages in Scripture; nor does it canonize certain scientific hypotheses. Instead, it insists that all theological interpretations and all scientific theories be subject to Scripture and the confessions.In my opinion, there is much to commend here, although the "insistence" that scientific theories "be subject to Scripture and the confessions" does give me pause: competing understandings of this conviction led to the painful struggle I will describe shortly. The statement then turns to human origins:
Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution which deny the creative activity of God are rejected.I don't know any Christian who would disagree with that. But there's more.
The clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions rules out holding views that support the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race.This blunt disavowal of human common ancestry with non-human species is, it would seem, completely unambiguous, committing the CRC to an unqualified rejection of entire fields of scientific inquiry.
More to the point of this post, those who know me should be worried. I am fond of exploring genetic and genomic findings that are best explained by common descent, and in various public forums I teach students (and others) that the human genome is overrun with features that point quite unmistakably to our kinship with other organisms on earth. How can a Calvin professor get away with this? Well, consider the final sentence of the CRC's statement.
But further investigation or discussion regarding the origin of humanity should not be limited.This final declaration is the reason I can be a professor at Calvin College. Without it, I wouldn't even consider being a part of the faculty or of the denomination.
So how did this enigmatic statement come to be?
Evolution and Creation at Calvin College: Initial Controversy 1984-1988
The statement, which summarizes a report approved by Synod(1) in 1991, represents the culmination of a controversy that rocked both church and college for several years. According to Harry Boonstra, author of Our School, a nice little history of Calvin published in 2001, "the creation-evolution debate became the most critical controversy in the history of Calvin College." It came at a time of simmering conflict over issues of women in church office and other concerns (hermeneutics, secular politics) that loosely characterize recent struggles in Christian churches and denominations of many kinds. Dark threats of "secession" were already being uttered in the early 1980's, and by the mid-1990's, dissatisfaction with CRC decisions on creation and on women in office had driven thousands of people – and scores of congregations – out of the denomination, birthing one new denomination in the process. It would be a mistake to underestimate the intensity of the conflict. The CRC's current position on the matters at hand is the fruit of that conflict, and it all started at Calvin College.
The basic outline, sketched by Boonstra, is as follows. In 1982, Davis Young (then professor of geology) published the now-classic (and soon-to-be-updated) Christianity and the Age of the Earth. Young specifically disclaimed human evolution, but embraced the great age of the earth and repudiated YEC claims. This surely lit some fuses, but the eruption of open conflict seems to have followed the publication (in the official church magazine, The Banner) of an interview with Clarence Menninga (then professor and chair of geology at Calvin) in which Menninga openly asserted the likelihood of an ancient earth, a lengthy span of human history, and even the possibility that Adam was a Neanderthal. Angry letters became an "avalanche" which became more of a firestorm in 1987 with the publication of The Fourth Day by Howard Van Till (then professor of physics and astronomy, and subject of a previous post at my blog). Like the geologists, Van Till did not specifically endorse human evolution (or common descent in general), and the book focuses on cosmic history without delving into biological evolution in any detail. But The Fourth Day openly explores approaches to Genesis that view it as something other than narrative history. At that point, the college empanelled a committee to examine the professors' conduct. I find Boonstra's description to be riveting:
The mandate of the committee was to determine whether these statements are in accord with the synodically adopted guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture and with the doctrinal statements of the Christian Reformed Church." [...] The committee's conclusions and report were greeted with considerable fanfare. This was probably the only committee in the history of the college that elicited a press conference.Evolution and Creation at Calvin College: Synodical Conflict 1988 - 1991
The subsequent trustees' report to Synod in 1988 was "generally supportive of the professors," but the response of the denomination was a swarm of overtures, overwhelming in their condemnation of the report. The Synod meeting saw "vigorous" debate, ending with unenthusiastic endorsement of the college's report. But Synod empanelled its own committee (it's a CRC thing), "mandated to study the relationship between general and special revelation." And 1988 saw the publication, by Van Till, Young and Menninga, of the excellent but hard-hitting Science Held Hostage, which was subtitled "What's Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism."
It was during this time that public attacks on the professors' views reached levels of slanderous vitriol that make me angry and ashamed even now. I will omit the details; suffice it to say that great harm was done to the cause of Christ and to the good name of the CRC. As Boonstra puts it, "scurrilous accusations were used as often as genuine arguments." These slanders appeared in huge advertisements in the local newspaper and in a magazine (Christian Renewal) popular with conservatives (and, later, secessionists). I'm glad I wasn't here to see it, and I'm certain I wouldn't have exhibited the restraint that Dave, Clarence and Howard showed, and continue to show, toward people who have earned the strongest of rebukes for indefensible behavior.
(It should be noted that the professors were not the only targets; college leaders and trustees were disparaged with comparable opprobrium.)
Reasoned debate and discussion occurred as well, thank God, and the best example is the exchange initiated by Alvin Plantinga which played out on the pages of Christian Scholar's Review and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.
The committee made its "lengthy and thorough" report three years later, in 1991. Again, a storm of critical overtures set the stage for protracted debate in the Synod meeting. Here's Boonstra:
This time synod debated for eight hours – much of it focused on a minority recommendation (Declaration F) that "the church declares that the clear teaching of Scripture and of our confessions on the uniqueness of human beings as image bearers of God rules out all theories that posit the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race." Synod, however, refused to accept this statement, largely on the grounds that the CRC had never made an official pronouncement on the scientific details of creation.If you're confused by this, join the club. That declaration seems not to differ in any significant sense from the statement that was adopted and is quoted in the first section of this post. Boonstra does not explain how Synod got from Declaration F to the position statement we have now, but the only real difference I can see is the all-important disclaimer, the one sentence that saved academic freedom for biologists (among others) at Calvin College.
The Conflict Subsides
Shortly thereafter, the conflagration seemed to end – not with a bang, but a whimper, according to Boonstra:
Synod 1991 still received twenty-four overtures – mostly critical of Van Till's views – but these overtures were now in competition with the thirty-eight overtures against women in ecclesiastical office. By 1992 this number was reduced to three, and two final overtures in 1994 were the last blip on the synodical screen. The church seemed to signal that the storm was over.Well, there it is: a not-so-brief overview of the most intense controversy in the 125-year history of Calvin College. In the next post, I'll offer my personal reflections on Calvin College as it is today, based on my seven years as a biologist and evolutionist at one of the finest Christian colleges in the world.
(1) The CRC is governed by a yearly assembly, a synod, composed of representatives of each classis, which is a group of congregations. A classis, or an individual congregation, can bring recommendation or complaint to Synod through the delivery of an overture.