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Monday 8 March 2010

Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church: Part 1

This is a guest-post by Terry Gray and is the fourth 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.

Evangelicalism and the Confessional Tradition
Evangelicalism is a big tent. It covers many denominations and traditions, including the more conservative end of most mainline denominations. One component of Evangelicalism is the confessional tradition, where the teachings of a church are reflected in a creed or confession. Examples include Presbyterian and Reformed churches (Westminster Standards, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort), Lutheran churches (Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord), and Anglican/Episcopal churches (Thirty-Nine Articles).

Historically these confessional traditions take their confessions very seriously. They believe that the confessions are accurate summaries of the teaching of Scripture. They are not just historically relative documents that “guide” the church, but represent the living confession of the church and are believed to be time-tested guides to the church’s teaching and ministry. As time-tested guides, these confessions stand as “tests of orthodoxy” for pastors, elders, deacons, and other church leaders.

This is different than for many evangelical churches, which sometimes claim to have “no creed but Christ” or to say that the Bible is their creed. In many evangelical churches and denominations there may be a statement of faith but it will often focus on the basic elements of the Christian faith.

The stories I recount are almost all in the context of Reformed confessional churches or denominations and are from the perspective of one who is fully supportive of the confessional viewpoint.

My Personal Background in the Science / Faith Dialogue within the Reformed Confessional Tradition
I grew up in the mainline Presbyterian denomination, but moved toward conservative Reformed denominations in my adult years. This has meant membership and/or involvement in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). I was a also a faculty member at Calvin College, owned and operated by the CRCNA, from 1986-1997. For most of my life I have been at ease with evolution as an evangelical Christian. In fact I wrote a “tract” in 7th grade for my fellow public school students explaining how to reconcile the Biblical account of Adam and Eve with modern evolutionary biology.

While doing my undergraduate studies at Purdue University, I attended an RPCNA church whose “Testimony”, a contemporary commentary on the Westminster Confession, is strongly anti-evolutionary. The pastor at this church was staunchly YEC, and, knowing that I was studying biology, tried to convince me of the young earth position. Although I neither became a member at this church, nor active in church leadership, I appreciated the preaching, teaching, and fellowship. The challenge to thinking Christianly about my specific discipline was beneficial even though the pastor and I disagreed on some of the particulars.

In graduate school in the 1980’s at the University of Oregon and during my years at Calvin College I was a member, and eventually an elder, in the OPC. I was comfortable there with my old earth views and my evolutionary science. After all, the OPC had been the home of Davis Young (Christianity and the Age of the Earth) and Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) and was the spiritual heir of B.B. Warfield who was able to see his way to reconcile evolutionary biology with the theology of the Westminster Standards. Meredith G. Kline was an Old Testament Biblical scholar in the OPC who advocated a more literary view of Genesis 1 and in the process removed some of the Biblical foundation for the young earth position. I also knew of one prominent pastor and denominational leader who would carry a small fossil in his pocket and ask prospective pastors during the theology examination for ordination how they explained such things, pressing for an old earth view of creation if they responded with a young earth creationist perspective.

Ecclesiastical Charges Resulting from my Evolutionary Creationist Views
But the harmony between my position in the OPC and my views on science and faith would not last. In 1992, while serving as an elder in the church, my EC views were challenged. That spring I wrote a review of Philip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial for the Banner, the denominational magazine of the CRCNA. In this article I applauded Johnson’s critique of atheistic naturalism but at the same time critiqued his critique of biological evolution. As an aside, I suggested that the arguments for evolution might extend to human beings. A letter from the Presbytery of Northern California soon followed urging the Presbytery of the Midwest (our church was in Grand Rapids, Michigan) to investigate my views. This began a four year long process involving our local church elders, pastors and elders from the Presbytery of the Midwest, and eventually, pastors and elders from the whole denomination. Many of the details of this process are recounted on the web.

It should be noted that my views would not have been scrutinized if I were not an officer in the church (i.e. had I been “just” as member). Like all elders in the OPC I had expressed adherence to the Westminster Standards – and it was charged that my views could not be reconciled with these standards. I was accused “of stating that Adam had primate ancestors–contrary to the Word of God…and the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church” and “with regard to the process and method by which God created Adam, Dr. Gray subordinates Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”

The Trial, My Censure, and Recantation
The process ended up being fairly complicated. Because I was an elder and not a pastor, the “court of original jurisdiction” was the local elder board. A preliminary hearing was held to determine whether or not the charges warranted a trial. Our local church elders determined that a trial was not warranted. However, this was appealed to the Presbytery and they overruled that decision and a trial was conducted. In the meantime, the membership of the elder board had changed, so that at the trial, I was found guilty of the first charge (stating that Adam had primate ancestors)—I admitted stating so, but denied that it was contrary to the Confessions or to the Word of God. (I was found not guilty of the second charge concerning “subordinating Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”) I appealed the guilty verdict to Presbytery, lost there, then appealed to General Assembly and lost there as well.

The censure was to suspend me indefinitely from the office of ruling elder. I remained in that state until January 1998 when I was restored after recanting of my views. 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. This small step back from my previous assertion was satisfactory to the church elders. I did not violate my conscience in this and continue to this day to have no firm idea about how to put all the pieces together.

To Be Continued
In part two of this article to be published later this week, I will reflect back on the events of my trial. I was fully sympathetic with the process, and believe I was treated fairly. This may be surprising for others (particularly those not from a confessional church background) and probably deserves some explanation. I will also outline a proposal I recently initiated to modify one section of the CRCNA Creation and Science report that was adopted in 1991.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Terry,
My wife is from a confessional background and we spent a decade in a reformed church (CRC); I certainly learned to appreciate the advantages of this tradition (eg. Intellectual leadership & integrity) but can’t say I ever really understood how broader church worked (was involved with children & youth leadership, refugee committee’s etc. but never church leadership). Your essay & the documentation of your trial have helped with that – so thanks.

Question: My understanding is that the growth of YEC ideas within the reformed church tradition is very recent (even the more conservative branches – eg. OPC) – it is almost as if some of the weaknesses of Evangelicalism are starting to taint reformed churches in the last few decades. Is that your read as well? An interesting perspective I think is shared at Reformed Academic – maybe specifically the article Is Creation Science Reformed?. Now the publishers of this site are Canadian Reformed, which in my limited understanding might be similar in conservativeness to the OPC (rather than for eg. the CRC).

Jimpithecus said...

Terry, thanks for your personal account. You mention that the elder board initially convicted you of the first charge (Adam had primate ancestry) and yet, at the end of your account, you state that the board reinstated you as an elder but did not demand that you recant of that particular viewpoint, just that you express uncertainty about how the whole package fits together. Was there a change of heart in the board, a change in the understanding of the Confessions, or was everybody just battle-weary at that point?

Terry M. Gray said...

Arnold Sikkema, an ASA member, and physics professor at Trinity Western is involved with the Reformed Academic blog. It might be interesting to get Arnold's take on all this.

I do think that the OPC in particular has changed in recent years. Some of us spoke of "Reformed fundamentalism" that we felt was creeping in. In my opinion many have joined the OPC in recent years who were not "trained up" in the OPC, i.e. at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia or Escondido). These were disgruntled CRC folks, fundamentalist who had become Calvinists in the soteriological sense, but remained fundamentalistic in their view of science. I'm sure I will take some flack for stating this. But it is the case that those who supported me (or at least felt that I was entitled to hold my view) were the "old school" Presbyterians, those who had a high view of Christian liberty, a true Confessional viewpoint, i.e. one that didn't hold people to views that the Confessions didn't address, that were sympathetic with Dutch Reformed Kuyperianism, etc. This was the OPC in which I felt comfortable with my views.

Even in my case there was no mention of problems with the days of creation, age of the earth, even evolution of non-humans. This is not to say that there weren't some with strong disagreement on those issues. Since my departure from the OPC there has been a denominational study report on creation attempting to sort out the age of the earth question and the nature of the days of Genesis 1. As I understand the outcome of that study, there is still an openness to the literary view of Meredith Kline which results in the old earth view being a matter of liberty.

However, on the issue of biological ancestors to Adam's body, there was little disagreement. John Murray's (and later Robert Strimple's) views on this more or less determined the view of all the ministers in the OPC during it's entire history. This was a conscious departure from the Old Princeton theology, especially that of A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warefield (documented in Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders.

Finally, I think that the more recent OPC has "fundamentalized" Cornelius Van Til. I consider myself Van Tillian in nearly every respect. A significant part of my original Banner review of Phil Johnson's book was devoted to spelling out a Reformed view of faith and science. But many have taken Van Til and his presuppositional views and argued that young-earth creationism is one of those Biblical presupposed perspectives that there can be no debate about. This is a mistaken view of Van Til who was firmly in the Dutch Reformed tradition and was Kuyperian in almost every respect. He is part of what Richard Gaffin has called the genius of the OPC, i.e. the melding of Amsterdam and Princeton. Van Til would always insist that the theology of scripture rightly interpreted are the presuppositions of our thinking about all of life.

It's interesting to me that the views of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd have been brought to American fundamentalism and popularized by people such as Francis Sheaffer. The modern Christian school movement has its roots in these Dutch ideas. But they have become Americanized and Fundamentalized and this is nowhere more apparent than in the homeschool movement. Using the Dutch Reformed ideas, only the "antithesis" is stressed, no mention is made of "common grace".

Of course, now this is back-feeding into the OPC (and conservative off-shoots from the CRC like the URC) who have drunk much more deeply from the wells of American fundamentalism than their intellectual ancestors such as B.B. Warfield, J.G. Machen, Abraham Kuyper, and Hermann Dooyeweerd.

Terry M. Gray said...

Jim, I don't think that "battle weary" is accurate nor was there a change of heart. In my recantation I say "Thus, my response is simply that I do not know how bring these two ideas together and that I am willing to remain in a state of agnosticism and cognitive dissonance on this issue. Perhaps future findings of science or future refinements of our understanding of the Genesis text will allow for resolution." This really was a step back from what I had been affirming during the prior stages of the investigation and trial where I was speaking with a lot more certainty about my views. I believe that it was this willingness to take a step back from the previous assertions that allowed them to remove the censure.

I had moved to Colorado by this time and it was clear that I would be eventually transferring my church membership. I suppose it could be suggested that they were just being nice. But I know these elders, and they are more principled than that. There was really no gain for them to accept my recantation if they didn't really believe it was sufficient.

It is my understanding that there was some continued discussion of the whole matter after I was gone that even went to the Presbytery, but in the end the decision stood. I have been unsuccessful in getting copies of minutes, correspondence, and reports dealing with all that.

gingoro said...

Terry I found what you wrote helpful to understand something about positions of various groups.

I was discussing my recent ugly experience when I tried to post on UcD with my wife. As I wrote earlier, in essence O'Leary made it clear that:
a. GOG is part of her criteria in evaluating a scientific theory, if no gap then evolution is no good
b. if the world view of the scientist is unacceptable then any theory he develops is bad, especially true for Darwin.

relevant post are at:
with a partial back up from Dembski at:

My wife's comment was that ID as represented by O'Leary must not believe in common grace which I think is very true and appropriate. As a grad of the Institute for Christian Studies she is quite familiar with the Dutch reformed thinking of Kuyper and and other Dutch reformed thinkers.

Your suggestion that the OPC have been influenced significantly by North American fundamentalism is very interesting and I think true to some extent. When we were looking for a church back in 2001 one of the options was an OPC church, however, the minister had a reputation for intellectually demolishing anyone who disagreed with his teaching even to a small extent. Now that I think about it that was also a characteristic of many ministers in fundy churches that I attended some of the time when I was young although some used their authority as ministers improperly IMO.

As an EC in a CRC church I am looking forward to your 2nd post.

Dave Wallace

Jimpithecus said...

Terry, thanks for the kind response to the question. I think what will become painfully clear in my post is that in the process of Christian growth, I did not adopt a clear theological tradition and had little to no real experience with the Reformed faith while growing up. I have, thus, done a very bad job of investigating the theological underpinnings of my understanding of God and nature. This is something that, at the insistence of my wife, is absolutely necessary if I am to convey a coherent message to those who are still seeking a reconciliation between evolution and belief in Christ. Since I also have a Ph.D. in human palaeontology, it will also help me to understand and explain what that evidence means in light of the cross.

Dennis Venema said...

Terry, I'm interested in what you think has changed as far as the (a) evidence for human evolution and (b) Biblical studies on Genesis since the time of your trial. Have any of the advances helped? Hindered? (you can probably guess that I'm thinking about the hominid population size at speciation data here). Are you still in a place where you can't square the population size evidence with your view of what Genesis says?



Brent said...

Great post, Terry. Looking forward to part deux.

I'd like to push Dennis' question even farther, if I might be so bold.

Let's assume you do reach a point where you can reconcile the two just fine (which, of course, many ECers at least seem to think is possible). What then? Re-open the can of worms? Find a different church tradition?

Or are you willing (and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever) to maintain your agnosticism indefinitely in order to avoid further difficulties like this one? That isn't mean to have any negative implication whatsoever - in my opinion, answering 'yes' to that question would be a perfectly legitimate and honest position to take. Just wondering what your thoughts on that have been.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Dave,
Touche to your wife for her comment on common grace! You seem to have quite a lot of patience to wade into the UcD minefield time and time again. Really, I’m all for dialogue but from my random sampling of conversations there, there does not seem to be any hint of a desire for dialogue or even Christian charity for that matter.

Jim: I must say that although I no longer attend a reformed church, I really do appreciate the theological and intellectual integrity of that tradition within Evangelicalism. It is no fluke that “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” came from someone in the reformed tradition.

Bryan Dik said...

Terry, thank you for your very thoughtful post. Readers may be interested to know that each summer I interview you in my Psychology of Religion course at Colorado State University, during our exploration of topics related to the relationship of religion and science. Students love the build-up given that the topic is entitled "Conversation with a Modern-Day Heretic." I always lead with my introduction of you in which I note that I first heard of you in an NPR story on heresy (then realized that we had been attending the same church in Fort Collins!). They are always shocked (and probably disappointed, as seemed the Chicago Tribune columnist) that you have such respectful, warm views of the church, even defending the responsibility of the church to hold heresy trials. Never the reaction they suspect. It's one of the things I respect you so deeply for.

Terry M. Gray said...

Responding in part to Dennis and Brent. To be honest I don't think that the evidence for human evolution has changed a lot in the past 20 years. In my mind the new findings (whole genome and comparative genome studies primarily) have only continued to confirmed what the genetic and biochemical evidence was saying in the 1990's. The speciation bottleneck population size estimates was already known then. The multiregional vs. out of Africa debate seems to be subsiding with the victory going to the out of Africa side (at least that my reading of where things are today). The geographic distribution of Homo sapiens with approximate dates seems to be holding up. As a whole there is nothing in the scientific data that would lead us to be be suspicious of the general picture being painted in human evolutionary studies. The picture seems to be an original human population in the 5000-10,000 range dated to 100,000 to 200,000 years ago in Africa. Migrations out of Africa into all parts of the Europe, Asia, and Australia happening in the 70,000-40,000 years ago and in to the Americas 20,000-15,000 years ago. Agriculture first rises in the Middle East about 15,000-10,000 years ago. Cities after that.

I have already speculated in a blog post last year on this blog on how a historical Adam might fit into that scenario.

That scenario allows one to keep a historical Adam who is the first Divine image-bearer and who represented the human race in the original probation described in Genesis 2 and who represented the human race in the Fall. That scenario does give up the notion that the entire human race descended from one initial pair. That particular speculation accepts the neolithic setting of the Genesis account. By this time human beings were spread across the globe. Thus, the divine image and the consequences of Adam's sin would be bestowed on a humanity that was already on every continent. Biological unity still exists but not by virtue of a descent from a neolithic pair.

Because it is possible to adhere to the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis and at the same time recognize the symbolic and theologized character of the account, one might argue that the neolithic setting is a historical "incidental" and that the geography is "incidental." The theological context is given by the history of Israel, but the actual historical event actually occurs, say when the human population was smaller and in Africa. This perspective preserves the event character of Adam, the first probation, the Fall, etc.

All of my scenarios are highly speculative and merely examples of how one might bring the scientific account and the Biblical account together. For me this is no naive concordism and I'm not wedded to any particular solution. However, I'm convinced that the Bible and the theology derived from scripture require a historical Adam and a historical Fall.

In answer to Brent's further question about indefinite agnosticism, I will say that I am willing to remain there if necessary. In my opinion nothing has changed in the past 20 or 30 years of discussion this issue to "solve" the problem.

The sorts of hermeneutical moves taken by Denis Lamoureaux and others in this discussion to "solve" the problem are not new in my opinion. They are virtually the same moves taken by the "higher critics" through the past century among liberal, neo-orthodox, and neo-evangelical scholars. Evangelicals historically have not been willing to make those moves. This is especially true of the more conservative Reformed confessional Evangelicals. A recent example is the white paper on the Biologos web site by Tim Keller. He is uncompromising in his commitment to a historical Adam and a historical Fall because he thinks this is what scripture teaches.

Mairnéalach said...

Terry, this has been a very interesting thread. I have long wanted to understand more about your story.

I too am in confessional church and I share your strong leaning that a historical Adam is both necessary and also completely consistent with modern biology and archaeology.

My prime question to you: as one who has no doubt spent much time studying the history and theology of the reformed churches, in your opinion-- would B.B. Warfield be able to serve as elder in a reformed church in the year 2010?

Terry M. Gray said...

Mairnéalach, Warfield would be fine in the CRCNA. I think he even advocated women deacons. I appealed much to Warfield in my trial to no avail. The Murray exegesis (which was largely aimed at refuting Warfield in my opinion) completely dominated. For the most part I identify entirely with Warfield, although I think we know much more about genetics and evolution and paleontology than he did. The conservative Reformed folks who like Warfield argue 1) that his evolutionary views were part of the demise of Old Princeton and 2) that if he were alive today he would see the error of his ways and be a young earth creationist. ;-)

I think that it's ironic for OPC folks especially that that not even J.G. Machen departed from Warfield on this issue. I don't know that there's lots to go on but there are some very interesting comments in The Christian Faith in the Modern World on the subject of human evolution. It's my understanding that he was asked to testify at the Scopes trial but refused. Both Machen and Warfield are prime examples that there was a huge difference between conservative Reformed thinkers and Fundamentalists as we normally think about them.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your statement about being unable to find certainty about the biological origin of humans.

For what it's worth, Billy Graham is on record as being willing to accept the possibility that God used an evolutionary process to create humans.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The problem here is defining "human". If you use the macroevolutionary language humans are recent and all human-like specimens before 100,000 years ago are not modern humans. So what are they? Many fossil remains are found with evidence of tools, fire-building, communal meals. There is also erect posture and human dentition, so why not call these human?

Adam need not be historical. When we recognize the African origin of Genesis 2-3 we find many parallels that give us a clue as to how we are to understand Adam and Eve. Consider the story of Gikuyu and Mumbi.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) said...

>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.

I reply: Why is it so hard to believe Adam was a real person and the Father of the human race whose fall tainted us all?

Regardless if you believe he literally was made supernaturally & directly from dust on the ground or indirectly & providentially from God supernaturally creating a soul & infusing it in a pre-human hominid. Adam was a real person.

Get over it.

Even if we don’t take Genesis “literally” & hold it to be a Divinely Inspired stylized symbolic allegorical tale doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain real history. This stupid "Either you believe in a literal Adam or Evolution" meme is one of the reasons why Evangelicals will never accept Theistic Evolution. Enough already!(Of course I'm Catholic so it's no skin off my nose but seriously).

I see no logic in either extreme & as a Catholic Christian I reject both errors.

>Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve.

I reply: Right on brother!

Garyuuchin said...

In Brief: a personal ongoing evaluation.
・ After Adam was created, he was taken from Earth to Eden.
・ Jewish beliefs have Eden as the abode of the righteous dead.
・ From Biblical accounts, it would seem that Eden still exists.
ergo, Eden is not on Earth.

・ There is no reason to believe that any step of creation was completed on the day it was started.
With regard to days 4-6
・ Creation of plants and animals occurred in Eden, nothing said about events on Earth.
・ there is good reason to believe that the steps were not completed on the day of initiation. (LXX interpretation in particular)
・ No record of the amount of time that elapsed between creation of Eve (in the garden of Eden) and the fall.

Hypothesis: (still being tested).
In a repeat of the "flat Earth" declared by Scripture nonsense, conflicts between evolution and Genesis may simply be the result of careless reading of Genesis.