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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church: Part 2 - Reflections and Becoming an Agent for Change

This is a guest-post by Terry Gray and is the fifth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Terry is the webmaster for the ASA and has written several helpful articles on the creation / evolution dialogue including Complexity--Yes! Irreducible--Maybe! Unexplainable--No! A Creationist Criticism of Irreducible Complexity.

A) Reflections on the Church Disciplinary Process

As I recounted in part 1 of this article, I was put on trial by the OPC church in the mid-1990’s for my Evolutionary Creationist (EC) views. This resulted in my suspension from the office of church elder, and I was reinstated only after admitting that I did not know how to reconcile human evolution with the uniqueness of Adam. This process did not lead to any resentment on my part. In fact, I was fully sympathetic and supportive with the disciplinary process.

Why I Support the Process that led to my Trial and Censure
In my ecclesiology the church has the right and responsibility to ensure that its leaders adhere to the church’s confessions. Also, church authority does not simply reside in the local church. Higher assemblies such as presbyteries, classes, synods, and General Assemblies have the right and responsibility to oversee decisions of churches and lower assemblies. As well, allegedly errant decisions made in lower assemblies may be appealed to higher assemblies. I believe that the church/denomination isn’t just a human institution. No doubt, it reflects the fallen, human condition, and hence is splintered into denominations, carries errant beliefs, has sinners among its membership, etc. However, none of this negates the fact that it is a divine institution.

The church faces new challenges and ideas in almost every generation. Part of what happens in the process of facing these new ideas is that the church wrestles with its own confession. This I believe is a good thing. We do not stand alone in our understanding of scripture. Confessions allow the church of past ages to speak. This is one of the ways to protect ourselves and our churches from being blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. The church represents a broad body of believers in which to test new ideas. There is an inherent conservatism to this process, however, and we must be patient with our fellow believers in working through these questions.

I hope that expressing my beliefs about the church’s role in articulating truth and enforcing church discipline explains some things that many people find difficult to understand about my experience. It explains why I would suffer through a heresy trial in the first place. Second, it explains why I think that the church should judge me rather than vice versa. And third, it explains why I’m willing to submit to decisions of the church with respect to my level of involvement in the church.

Personal Implications of the Trial
In general, I was pleased to see church discipline in action. I was happy with the treatment I received in the process. I was treated respectfully and my ideas and arguments were taken seriously. In the end my position was rejected, but hardly any of the “attacks” were personal. It turned out that while no one actually agreed with me, there were those who defended me and thought that my position should be allowed.

There was some pain in our local church. Two of my fellow elders were committed young earth creationists and before this time had been personal and family friends. During my trial they had difficulty keeping the disagreement from becoming personal. This was painful for me and for my wife and young children (at the time ages 12, 10, 7, 3, and 1). My two three-year terms as elder ran out at the end of 1992 and I was never re-elected. I did, however, continue to serve in various other leadership roles (pastoral search, new building committee, evangelism training, etc).

We moved from Michigan to Colorado about a year after the process was completed, so I never got to see the long term consequences of my views for involvement in the local church.

B) Becoming an Agent for Change in a Confessional Church

One advantage of being part of a confessional church is that there are specific processes for testing new ideas. On many issues there is also some denominational history (e.g. official church study reports, or the writings of church pastors, theologians, and other denominational leaders). So in the science / faith dialogue those of us that are conversant with science have mechanisms to change popular erroneous ideas about science which are neither scripturally nor confessionally warranted. Thus I am now taking the opportunity, with the support of my local elder board, to initiate a process to change what I believe to be an erroneous scientific conclusion contained in my Church’s position on Creation and Science.

Joining the Christian Reformed Church
We eventually joined the CRCNA church in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I became active in the life and ministry of that local church in the elder board, small group ministry, adult teaching and worship. Our switch to the CRCNA had little to do with my “problems” in the OPC, but rather figuring out which of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Fort Collins was the best fit for our family. The CRCNA is somewhat broader theologically than the OPC and PCA (for example, the denomination allows women pastors, elders, and deacons); however it remains evangelical and confessionally rooted.

Although in our particular local church faith/science issues are largely non-controversial, I did not seek to address these issues right away. I spent a few years teaching some courses on theology and the Bible and being involved in various ministries including church leadership. These activities allowed me to build credibility and trust within the local church community. Establishing yourself as a committed church member and a faithful lay Bible teacher and theologian is an important prerequisite to addressing more controversial topics (after all, the Christian faith and Christian discipleship is much broader than the faith/science debate). Only then did I take up the faith/science topic in our adult discipleship ministry. I have now taught a 15 week course covering many aspects of the faith/science area, ranging from origins to creation care to bioethics. Even establishing specific credibility in the faith/science area through that class was an important step in being able to proceed with the potentially more controversial proposal outlined next.

Initiating the Process to Change CRCNA Statements against Animal Ancestry of Humans
As a denomination the CRCNA issued a Creation and Science report in 1991 in the aftermath of controversies involving the teachings of some science professors at Calvin College. In general, this report, while cautious about the influence of secularism and atheism in modern science, was pro-science, recognizing the possibility of an old earth and universe and an evolutionary history for life on earth. Declarations B & C emphasize the freedom of exegesis and the freedom of science, respectively, although within the bounds of the teaching of Scripture and the confessions. These bounds were most clearly expressed in the emphasis on the “event character” (i.e. the historicity) of Adam and the Fall. Declaration F of this report (recommended by a minority of the study committee and adopted by Synod) made strong statements against animal ancestry of humans with some provisos allowing for further study.

At my request our elder board has requested that the Synod rescind Declaration F from the 1991 report. This request is currently making its way through the denominational procedures and may be taken up in the 2010 Synod. We think that Declaration F expresses a discordant note from the rest of the report, which generally is quite pro-science. It also turns out that Declaration F is lifted up as a significant part of the view of the CRCNA on the topic of Creation and Science in some denominational publications. We think this is most unfortunate. We think that the rest of the report adequately expresses a Biblical and confessional perspective on the issues involved without virtually forbidding someone from holding a view that there is some kind of evolutionary relationship between human beings and other living creatures (which is what Declaration F currently does).

An Opportunity to Work Together as the Body of Christ
While re-opening this discussion may be uncomfortable and controversial, it allows us to again ask the relevant Biblical and theological questions in community. In my opinion there are not any confessional issues at stake here. Questions about the historicity of Adam and the Fall would bring up confession issues, but our request is somewhat limited and does not ask the church to address those questions. We believe that the church mistakenly adopted a Declaration on this subject that was narrower than Scripture or the confessions and we are asking the church to correct that mistake.

What the outcome will be remains to be seen, but this current situation illustrates ways in which ECs can work within the church to effect change. This involves studying together, discussing together, and sometimes participating in formal decision-making processes where denominational positions are forged. In short, it is an opportunity to work together as the Body of Christ.

17 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Terry: Below is posted for a CRC friend of mine.

=================

I take my hat off to anyone who is able to go through an ecclesiastical judicial process that last 6 years and talk about it without bitterness or resentment. In the end, it seemed all parties involved agreed to disagree.

“My recantation was not a denial of primate ancestry, but rather an admission that I did not know how to hold my views about human evolution together with the uniqueness of Adam as taught in the Confessions and in Scripture.”

Does this mean young Christian scientists will now be able to express their evolutionary views with confidence, knowing that they ‘can get away with it’ as long as they admit they don’t have all the answers in terms of reconciling those views with the confessions?
Nandy

Steve Martin said...

Hi Terry,
Re: the inherent conservatism in the process & need to be patient, I do agree with this … many of us (myself included) are often too impatient with our Christian family. Of course, this has to be balanced with the need to speak up at times because being silent can be more damaging (per Dennis’s post).

Question: Regarding the confessions and your point that:

We do not stand alone in our understanding of scripture. Confessions allow the church of past ages to speak.

I agree heartily that this “conversation through the ages” is essential. However, must the conversation be only one way? Are there scenarios where the confessions can be revisited and maybe even, after much prayer and careful thought, be updated? What if on reflection, we determine that some parts of the confessions are not scripturally warranted? Sorry if this is a naive question - and I am really not trying to offend my (many) reformed friends, but I’m assuming that no confessional tradition would extend the infallibility of scripture to their confession. Is this correct?

Irenicum said...

Terry, first of all, I'm very impressed with your gracious attitude after the challenge of an ecclesial trial. Just by your words I see the fruit of the spirit in what you've said. I grew up without much church involvement but "officially" attached to the RCA. As an adult I became more involved, both as a deacon and then as an elder. In more recent years I've been a member of an OPC church, also in Michigan. My membership still resides there even though I currently am involved with an Anglican communion in the Boston area. As a fellow ECer, I understand all to well the tensions that exists for those like us who decide to affiliate with such a theologically conservative church. I do think that it's a matter of time that EC views will predominate. But in the mean time, a lot of unlearning from YEC ideas needs to occur. Thanks for the work you're doing. And many blessings to you and your family. Being an evangelical Christian and a firm believer in the validity of the scientific method can be a tough road to hoe. But it's a journey well worth the trek.

Terry M. Gray said...

Steve, "Get away with it" is pretty loaded. I trust that we're all eager to submit our thinking to Christ and His Word. We're also called (at least in my Reformed understanding of things) to do science. Who better to struggle with these issues than a believer filled with the Holy Spirit who desires to glorify God in his or her whole life. In the Dutch Reformed tradition that's part of what "sphere sovereignty" is about. Christians in each discipline are responsible for thinking through the implications of the Christian faith for their discipline.

Also, I think it should be clear that if the church deems that a theological viewpoint held by a scientist who has come to some conclusion on these issues is unsuitable to be a pastor, an elder, a deacon, a Sunday school teacher, or whatever, so be it. The church might be wrong, but the scientist might be wrong, but we need to act with integrity with respect to our beliefs and practices. Submission to "the church" is hard and, frankly, out of vogue (you can always try to find a church that is more to your liking in our consumerist culture). And we tend to elevate our personal opinions and expect everyone else to tolerate them and accept them. My point here is simply that it's okay if "the church" limits your options--that's part of the job of church leadership.

One of the take aways of my second post was that it is possible and crucial to prove yourself faithful as a believer and as a church member and in whatever level of leadership you might have. I tend not to press my views on others and make room for viewpoints that I don't necessarily agree with. I press a bit harder for room for my view, especially if I can trace a history in the tradition or in the denomination.

With respect to the role of confessions in general, I do believe that confessions should be changed when they are found to be in error or no longer believed. At the same time, I don't believe that you need a modern view of science or any other discipline to understand what the Bible is teaching. I also think that the process of confessional change ought to be painfully slow. If we no longer believe what our predecessors in the faith believe, it's not because the Bible has changed. Especially in our modern, critical, enlightenment inspired age, we seem less willing to submit our thinking to scripture.

I never hesitate to say that the confessions are not inspired, however most attempts to change the confessions are yielding to old heresies that for whatever reason we don't regard as heresies any longer.

The confessions of the CRCNA refer to "first parents" and if pressed to require descent of all humans from these parents will be untenable in the scenarios I've suggested. However, if by "first parents" we mean the covenantal head and representative of the human race in the original test in the garden and that all humans are in their present condition by virtue of that covenantal connection, then there is no problem with the language of the confession. The Westminster standards are a bit more problematic when they refer to sin being propagated to the whole human race by "ordinary generation". This is a place where I have to wonder whether the Confession has gone beyond scripture on this point. (Where did Cain's wife come from? Who was he afraid of when banished? Etc. -- these questions, though sometimes deemed silly, hint at the existence of humans not descended from Adam and Eve.)

Terry M. Gray said...

Kudos to Steve in all of this. He works very hard (at least with me) to keep my blog posts at what he thinks is a suitable length. My verbosity required that we move to a two part post and even then, I think I was over the suggested limit. He exercises even less control as an editor in the Comments. Apologies, especially to the Twitter crowd for my long comments.

Corey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Martin said...

Corey: Please see the comment guidelines for reasons why your "Evolution is Religion" comment was deleted.

Steve Martin said...

Terry:
Re: role of confessions and if / when / how they should be changed, thanks .. that was helpful. As I’ve said to others before (and to yourself) these “iron sharpening iron” discussions are important between those of us that share a faith in Christ, a commitment to Orthodoxy, and a commitment to integrity in science. Your words of caution are well worth considering for all of us.

Re: the confessions and Adam, Pete Enns has a post on Biologos called Paul’s Adam. Paul’s Adam is probably one of the more difficult issues I grapple with (I can’t buy Lamoureux’s blunt “Adam is not historical” but nor am I completely convinced that “Adam must be historical”). Enns hints in his post (more in part 2) that: “Paul’s Adam is not a simple matter”. My question to him was re: the “WCF’s Adam” and he commented that:

You are correct. For the WCF, the historical Adam is a simple matter. WCF was written in the mid-17th century by those who, understandably and unavoidably, assumed the same explanation of human origins as past generations of Christians had done for centuries. The question, however, is whether it should be a simple matter today for those who find their theological identity in that statement.


Anyways, I’m looking forward to his part 2.

Jimpithecus said...

Terry, I am encouraged to know that you can work within your congregation and within your denomination to enact some changes to the understanding of the confession. It gives me hope that I might, one day, do the same. In our non-denominational congregation, there is no accepted avenue for such action. There are church bylaws which the congregation follows but they are short and hold pretty much to Ephesians 4:3 on paper. Within this structure, however, the dominant viewpoint is the YEC one and, while largely an educated congregation, most hold that viewpoint by default. The fact that almost all of the parents home school their kids with the standard YEC-based curriculum simply reinforces the "folk science." My action so far has been, sadly, to let sleeping dogs lie.

Adam said...

Do you not feel its a little premature to be jumping on the evolution bandwagon? I was listening to Hugh Ross from Reasons To Believe the other day on the radio and he had a whole list of discoveries in the last year that have spectacularly confirmed their creation model. He pointed out that skeptics and theistic evolutionists alike have made challenges to their model which have only just been refuted by recent research.

The Bible's chronology of the events has now been found to match what is known in the fossil record.

The creation model certainly explains the rapid extinctions and abrupt appearance of new life forms. As well as the well known fact that the speciation rate since modern humans appear is precisely zero. Precisely what we would expect, as God has told us that He has finished creating new life forms.

Then there is the obvious lack of a pathway for human evolution in the fossils, Neanderthal and Homo Erectus have now been ruled out as direct ancestors and are considered side branches.

Sequencing of the Neanderthal genome has shown that they underwent no evolutionary change.

Seems to me that this debate is far from over.

Dale said...

I would have to agree with Steve's friend, Terry. Your willingness to go through the ecclesiastical trial which lasted so long and write about it without rancor is a testament to your own patience and character.

I can remember reading about your ordeal for several years during my own journey of faith, which has included wrestling with a number of intellectual issues including evolution.

Since I was converted to Christianity from atheism as an adult, and having had a great deal of scientific curiosity (I started undergraduate school with a major in the physical sciences) I already was aware of evolution, but with my newfound faith I dutifully tried to embrace YEC, but when I began checking out the science, was horrified.

My best escape was avoiding the topic of evolution altogether, but in recent years the evidence of astronomy and genomics have left less wiggle room.

I'm grateful now for blogs like this one, and papers like the one linked to from here written by Tim Keller, which calls for charity toward those who accept evolution from pastors, and leaves the door open for "evolution as a biological process,".
As a ministerial candidate in another Reformed and confessional group, though, I'm afraid that openly confessing that I believe evolution is true is out of the question, at least not without considerable qualification.
At present I am seriously and prayerfully considering whether or not to withdraw my candidacy because I don't want to engage in a campaign or go through an ecclesiastical trial like the one you endured, but at the same time I don't want to engage in anything deceptive.
I can truthfully say that I affirm the truth and authority of Scripture, and I can also say that the scientific evidence for evolution looks very compelling, and evolution as a biological construct appears to have great explanatory power, and that I can see that the idea of biological evolution poses theological problems for traditional orthodox theology that I frankly don't know how to reconcile.
Through Jesus Christ, God changed my life dramatically, and I felt called to the ministry to be able to share the life-changing experience of Christ with others. The church might be willing to allow laymen to quietly entertain the idea of evolution, but not ministers.
My pastors will say, "You can withdraw your candidacy, and you're welcome to continue to worship here," but I can't help but think that such an experience could not help but to have some impact on my ability to worship in such a fellowship.
I don't know anyone else, but I'll bet there are ministers (not just candidates) facing the same set of issues. Withdrawal my candidacy would be at considerable relational and emotional cost, to be sure. For those already in ministry, the cost will be much higher. I will wager that ministers in that position are reading this blog now, and the thoughts in their heads are that they are alone and don't dare to speak to anyone.
Terry, I hope you will speak to those who are reading who can't post here. I also ask you to pray for them, and for the churches they serve.

Doug said...

Hey, Terry. Thanks for this retrospective about your evolution trial. Having your story follow mine was illuminating. There is much to be said for the buffering security of a functioning denominational structure. (Part of the problem with my recent situation was that there was no such structure; what was OK at one moment, suddenly became a problem the next moment.) I definitely agree with you that "the process of confessional change ought to be painfully slow." As you know, that's how good science works, too.

Rob Mitchell said...

Terry wrote "The Westminster standards are a bit more problematic when they refer to sin being propagated to the whole human race by "ordinary generation". This is a place where I have to wonder whether the Confession has gone beyond scripture on this point. "

I can't help but to wonder, Terry, how those of us in the Presbyterian tradition are to parse WCF VI.III, the phrase under question here. It appears to be an ambiguous formulation - is the referent of "by ordinary generation" merely referring to "all their posterity descending from them" with reference to those born in the ordinary way, as opposed to the One born in an extraordinary way? Or does it mean that guilt in sin, death in sin, and corrupted nature were conveyed by ordinary generation?

It seems to me that the divines may have had a Christological emphasis in this chapter rather than a hamartiological one. If the former, then I don't think they went further than Scripture, but if the latter, then they probably did, even to the point of embracing an almost traducianistic notion of the transmission of sin.

I think that the hamartiological emphasis of this chapter is probably the majority report in the Reformed Tradition, but I'll have to do a bit of digging to see if we are actually reading the Westminster divines fairly.

Steve Martin said...

Adam: Welcome. I agree the debate over evolution is far from over but that’s not because the data is inconclusive. Most of us here started on the “evolution ain’t true” team and through tough work came to a different conclusion. But, this post really isn’t about the evidence for evolution. If you are interested in some of the genetic evidence, you may want to check out Dennis’s videos or Stephen Matheson’s blog (search for RTB – some, provocative stuff).

Dale:
That is a tough, tough situation. And unfortunately, I’m not sure I have a great answer for you. Your situation is different than both Doug’s and Terry’s, so I’m not sure if their decisions are applicable here (although the grace they showed is applicable). I guess you may have to ask yourself if it is necessary to bring the topic up at all? Assuming that you can in good conscious agree with whichever confession your church requires, do you need to go further? Assuming that none of the other leadership in the church are for eg. Strong YEC’ers, the topic of science doesn’t really come up at the church, and there is little to no chance of things like “The Truth Project” being promoted, are your EC views even relevant?

Re: Other ministers (or ministerial candidates) in the same situation: It would certainly be interesting to get some data on this through a poll of some kind. I know there was a poll taken a few years back that asked biologists at Evangelical colleges what they thought about evolution. It would be really interesting to have a blind poll done on ministers that were part of NAE (US) and EFC (Canada) churches. But, I suspect even conducting this poll might be somewhat risky for both organizations.

Dale said...

Steve:
A confidential poll of ministers and lay leaders in NAE member organizations would be an interesting project, though it would have to be done by someone with the proper background. I wonder if the contributor to this blog Marlowe Embree would be interested in such a survey?
One person I know of in the Western US tells me that in his classis, views close to EC may be in the majority in the pew, but he's not sure about the clergy and lay members of consistories.

Terry M. Gray said...

Dale and all, sorry to have taken so long to respond to this. I don't necessarily want to give detailed counsel based on the scant background that you've given, but I'm willing to share a few thoughts. (I'm also willing to carry on a more personal conversation privately if you like.) I think that personal integrity must be uppermost. In my mind it is not an option to express adherence to some creed or confession with unexpressed mental reservations. This probably applies to the community's understanding of the creed or confession although many confessional communities see the confessions as protecting the liberty of members on matters not covered by the confession, i.e. disputable matters. That's where I thought I honestly was. I did not expect the church to be convinced of my perspective, but I thought that I affirmed (or denied) all the necessary propositions. Thus, to lay out honestly your differences/disagreements is crucial for maintaining personal integrity. It may well be that a particular community will not accept your point of view--you have to be prepared for those consequences. That being said, you don't have to set yourself up for a fight or a campaign. In fact, agreeing not to do that may play a role in your continuing to being accepted into your particular community.

I also have to confess that my job was not on the line. I was not an ordained minister nor was I desiring to be one. My job at Calvin College was not on the line because of my views. I know of folks who have lost their jobs or didn't get jobs because of their views (on evolution or other issues). I have to say that I strongly believe that it is well within the right and responsibility of the institutions (churches, denominations, seminaries, colleges, etc.) to enforce their faith statements. Churches ought to have confidence that the institutions they support are going to support their beliefs. When prospective pastors get sent away to be trained in seminary they ought to be trained in the faith of those who sent them, not someone else. When a church ordains a pastor, it has every right to expect conformity to denominational viewpoints. This is part of why I'm not bitter about my experience--disappointed perhaps, but not bitter. It is possible that personal viewpoints do disqualify us from service in particular contexts. In that case we have to see the Lord leading us in a different direction with respect to our service, i.e. a different context. Of course, we should always be willing to take on the challenge to reconsider our viewpoint.

Terry M. Gray said...

Rob, even if your point is granted, there are still two classes: those descending from them (our first parents) by ordinary generation and "the One born in an extraordinary way". You don't even have say that the Confession is addressing the Traducianist vs. Creationist debate in the origin of the soul. The confession here "confesses" that they are the "root" of all mankind and all mankind is their posterity (descending from them by ordinary generation).

Q&A 22 of the Larger Catechism answers "The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression."

Here is seems clear that "all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation" is apositive to posterity.

I'd be delighted to learn that the Westminister Standards do not actually teach this but I'm not optimistic.

What I and others have proposed is that Adam is a public person, representing others (not just his posterity). This would be similar to the way Christ now represents believers--we are not his posterity in the "descending from him by ordinary generation" sense. Is this a reasonable way to think about Adam as a "public person"?