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Monday, 2 June 2008

The Evolution Controversy at Calvin College: Historical Perspective

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.


Dennis Venema said...

thanks for this, Steve. I recently read the Haarsma's new book, and noted the official CRC position (included in an appendix). My immediate question was to wonder how you handled it! That qualifying phrase seems a slender branch to perch on...

Do you think that the evolution flap at Calvin over Van Till is a benefit for you /the Haarsmas now in that there is a sense of "been there, done that" which might deter others from taking up the pitchforks?

Gordon J. Glover said...

Stephen, very interesting post. I'm curious why membership at a PCA church does not fufill the requirement of Reformed church membership? Just curious.


Stephen Matheson said...

As I'll state in the second half of the story, yes, I think that Calvin today was importantly shaped by the conflict and its resolution. It's not just "been there, done that," though. I've been told more than once that one reason we don't have to worry as much about evolution as before is that the people who would raise Cain have left the denomination and their kids go to other colleges. You're right that it's a slender branch, but as I'll discuss in the second half, it appears to be quite strong.

The current controversy at Calvin surrounds our faculty requirements, which I and others consider to be an embarrassment. (The requirements are ostensibly to maintain the "Reformed" character of the college, but their narrowness leads me to conclude that they maintain a "Christian Reformed" character. Don't get me started on the Christian school requirement, which doesn't have anything at all to do with being Reformed.) The exclusion of the PCA is a ludicrous result of a historical trajectory that didn't intend that outcome. Basically, decades ago the college asked the church for guidance on how to define and enforce a (Reformed) church attendance requirement. The CRC provided the list of churches with which it was in "ecclesiastical fellowship." At the time, I'm told, this was a list of solid Reformed denominations, and it included the PCA. But ten years ago, the PCA terminated that relationship and expelled the CRC from NAPARC, due to the CRC's position on women in church office. As a result, the PCA is not on the list, and the list is now a joke when used as a measurement of Reformed commitment at Calvin.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Very interesting. I constantly struggle with whether or not to keep flying that flag (Reformed) since it appears more and more to represent a "period" in church history rather than an attitude of continuous theological and ecclesiastical reflection (reformed vs reforming?).

Like labor unions, the entire thing may have served its purpose, outlived the very reasons that spawned its existence, and become something that it was never intended.

Jon said...

"I've been told more than once that one reason we don't have to worry as much about evolution as before is that the people who would raise Cain have left the denomination and their kids go to other colleges."

Not while I was there, although the denomination was still fragmenting at the time (has Classis Alberta tried to get Grand Rapids East thrown out of the denomination lately?) There were still plenty of PR kids around (not to knock them...just very conservative background), and in my Physics 123 class of ten or so, I was the only old-Earther (not counting Prof. van Baak.)

I suppose those willing to destroy the denomination or the College have moved on, but the anti-science, anti-rationality current in the student body was very strong during my time. The powerful committment from the faculty to do their best intellectual work, "as unto the Lord," was particularly inspiring in that environment.

(BA Phys 2000, BS CompSci 2002)

Steve Martin said...

My family was part of the CRC community for about a decade starting in the early 90’s so this controversy was pretty well over by the time I joined and I never really understood it. Thanks for the overview – that was really helpful.

However, I was always under the impression that the support / antagonism within the CR community was not really that heavily weighted against evolution. Ie. It was probably the least antagonistic to evolution of all the evangelical churches.

But two points I came across today made me wonder if I’ve got it wrong. The first was Jon’s remarks about his experience at Calvin claiming that the student body as a whole was “anti-science” – (eg. he’s the only student that was not a young-earther in a physics class???). The second was this quote from Gary Chiang’s (biology prof at Redeemer University in Hamilton, ON) blog http://gchiang.blogspot.com/) .

“I have been teaching first year university-level biology at Redeemer University College for over 15 years. In the last 7 years I have taken a poll (by secret ballot) of the first year biology students to see if they believe in evolution, the theory supported by almost all scientists in academia, or in some form of creationism. This year, 2% believe in some form of evolution, but 98% believe in some form of creationism. Of this 98%, an overwhelming majority believe in a young earth.”

Question: From your perspective, would a majority of students entering Calvin have a very negative view of evolution? Discount it out of hand as impossible to reconcile with their faith? Would a majority actually come from a YEC background?

Second Question: (I asked the same thing of Dennis). Not sure if you saw the December 2007 PSCF which had an article on “Theories of Origins: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Course for Undergraduates at Wheaton College”. Does Calvin have something similar?

Stephen Matheson said...

Thanks for providing the perspective of a student, and while I've never (knowingly) been in a classroom environment quite that slanted away from science, I'm not surprised to hear your story. I'll have a little more on the current climate in the upcoming post. For now, suffice it to say that yes, we have lots of creationists at Calvin, especially among students, but the attitude toward evolution is mostly quite healthy.

Answer to first question: my sense is that about 1/4 of our students come in with an openness toward evolution, but it could be a lot less than that. We do have many YEC students, and many who arrive "inoculated" against evolution and the ancient earth. Source: unscientific (but anonymous) polls conducted in my non-majors biology courses. It would certainly be interesting to study this more carefully. Being generally a glass-half-full kind of guy, I see our abundant YEC population as a field ripe for harvest. :-) Seriously, it's very rewarding to watch students grow, and of course I don't just mean that it's fun to see them change their minds when they realize that they haven't been told the truth.

I think you're right that the CRC is currently a much more friendly place for evolutionary creation than most (or nearly all) strongly evangelical denominations, partly due to the exodus of the 90's and partly due, I think, to some distinctives of the Dutch Reformed mindset.

Answer to second question: yes, I've seen that work, first at the 2006 ASA meeting if I'm not mistaken. We do have a course in evolutionary biology, upper-division, taught during our January interim term, and we're working to make it more permanent. The Wheaton course is more of an origins survey, and while we don't have a regular course like that, there are some January term courses that tackle related questions.

Anonymous said...

Jesus only used the term hypocrite when he referred to the religious leaders of the day. I wonder if he came back today, if he would make the same comparison?

Jimpithecus said...

Very interesting post. To those of us who have been on the outside looking in (if even that aware), Calvin is known by its researchers. That the college was undergoing so much turmoil was unknown to me. I wonder about the cognitive dissonance of the two different positions in the CRC and whether or not that will prove to be an ongoing problem. It is a shame.

Stephen Matheson said...

I think the next installment, due up today, will make you feel better.

Joel Alsum said...

As a student at Calvin College, I would have estimated that a little less than 1/2 of incoming students could be put into the category that I would have put myself into. One that affirms the universe as God's workmanship yet also does not know to what extent they should believe in an old earth evolution as the process used in the creation of human beings. I would expect that if pressed, most students would admit that their only concern with evolution is that it seems to narrow God's involvement in the process of the development of life, especially when it concerns human life. What I mean to point out by this is that I tend to see our student population as being relatively open-minded, even when just entering.

I am studying mathematics and chemistry at Calvin and so am still influenced more by people in the scientific circles more than others and so may not have quite the full picture on this even as a student.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Joel,
Thanks for the comment. Calvin certainly has some pretty good resources for students examining the science / faith interface eg. the Christian Perspectives in Science Seminar series