Religious traditions expect the faculty at their colleges and universities to keep them informed about the advance of knowledge—but then they fire them when they don’t like the results. Calvin College drove away Howard Van Til because conservative elements in the CRC did not want to make peace with evolution and the Big Bang. Calvin fired John Schneider and muzzled Dan Harlow because these same elements don’t want to deal with the reality that Adam and Eve were not historical figures and there was no “fall.”
The Midwest evangelical denomination declined to study its position on evolution and human origins because professors at its affiliated colleges are supposedly already producing rigorous scholarship on those issues. But in fact, the CRC allows them to be harassed, muzzled, and fired when conservatives don’t like their discoveries.
The evangelical Christian Reformed Church (CRC), an evangelical denomination centered mostly in the Midwest U.S. and Canada, voted last week not to set up a committee to examine the denomination’s theological positions involving the origins of the world and of human sin. The CRC’s 2014 Synod decided that there was no need for a six-year study of the complex issues surrounding the relationship between modern science and Christian theological beliefs because its affiliated scholars—especially at its flagship institution, Calvin College—were already conducting rigorous scholarship on the issue.
“The ongoing work of [CRC-affiliated colleges] doesn’t warrant us putting resources and money into [the study committee] for six years,” said Chris De Vos, the reporter for the synod’s advisory committee.
The trouble is, while CRC scholars have indeed been a significant force in advancing the evangelical understanding of science, their work has also been the target of reactionary attacks so intense some of them eventually left the college. In fact, the rejected proposal was born amid the fallout from a recent episode at Calvin that saw a distinguished professor dismissed for suggesting that Adam and Eve were not historical figures.
The CRC represents one of the most intellectual traditions within evangelical Christianity in North America, and sponsors several top-ranked colleges. Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is ranked by U.S. News and WorldReport as one of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the country. Calvin faculty have shaped Christian discourse in important ways since its founding in 1876. Alvin Plantinga, who Timecalled “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God,” spent most of his distinguished career at Calvin.
Calvin College scholars have long led the way in engaging contemporary scientific theories of origins from traditional biblical and theological perspectives. Former physics professor Deborah Haarsma is the president of the BioLogos Foundation, which promotes evolution to evangelicals, and BioLogos is now located at Calvin. Geologist Davis Young probably did more than anyone to help evangelicals make peace with the idea that the earth is billions of years old, not thousands, as the Bible suggests. His book Christianity and the Age of the Earth was an important counter to the young-earth creationism that has long been—and remains—the default position for evangelicals. Calvin astronomer Howard Van Til was for years the leading evangelical champion of the Big Bang Theory. His 1986 book The Fourth Day persuaded many evangelicals that the Big Bang was not just “entirely fiction,” as some influential creationists still claim.
Like at most evangelical colleges, scholarly work at Calvin is constrained by a “statement of faith,” a sort of theological manifesto that employees at many Christian institutions are required to sign and uphold. Calvin’s theology, like that of the CRC, is defined by the Canons of Dort, written at a synod in the Dutch city of Dordrecht in 1618-19. The Canons of Dort are typical of many “confessions” that define the various branches in the constantly splitting world of Protestantism. Many emerged when some disagreement could not be resolved and a faction split off, defining itself over against another group, with the confession creating and constraining the new group.
The Dort document ranges widely and covers many issues. The part dealing with human origins reads as follows:
Human beings were originally created in the image of God and were furnished in mind with a true and sound knowledge of the Creator and things spiritual, in will and heart with righteousness, and in all emotions with purity; indeed, the whole human being was holy. However, rebelling against God at the devil’s instigation and by their own free will, they deprived themselves of these outstanding gifts. Rather, in their place they brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds; perversity, defiance, and hardness in their hearts and wills; and finally impurity in all their emotions.
This statement is meant to clarify the story of Adam and Eve, specifying their original perfection and subsequent fall into sin. The statement is not metaphorical or symbolic, which would ease the pressure to believe in a factual Adam and Eve, but neither does it insist on the specific details in the Genesis story. No mention is made, for example, of where or when these events took place. The challenge for faculty at Calvin College, as an institution constrained by CRC beliefs, is to honestly pursue scholarly inquiry without pulling too hard on the Dort leash. But this pursuit is fraught with danger.