Karl, Thanks, but No Thanks

Karl W. Giberson is a respected contributor to the faith/science (evolution/creation) dialogue. His contributions have been valuable, and I have learned from Karl. However, as a scientist myself with great interest in these issues and as a member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I have to take some issue with his commentary about the CRC in The Daily Beast. The piece is a good reminder that the broader church and even the whole world is watching what happens when the denomination acts (or doesn’t act). But, honestly, to have Karl Giberson complain about actions of the CRC is like Bill Clinton complaining about what happens at the Republican National Convention.

There are several parts of The Daily Beast piece that warrant comment:

1) The CRC takes a strong stand on science, even on this issue of human evolution. Despite the controversy of the 80’s and 90’s concerning Howard Van Till, Clarence Menninga, and Davis Young, Calvin College (the denominational liberal arts college) and the CRC never flinched. The Synod 1991 report fully embraced an old universe, and old earth, and the evolutionary development of life on earth. (To be clear, “embrace” does not mean “adopt”–it would be inappropriate for Synod to make declarations about scientific matters–it is only qualified to address Biblical and theological questions. “Embrace” here means to say that there is no necessary inconsistency between the claims of science and the church’s views.) See the full 1991 report.

Synod 1991, however, did include “Declaration F” which more or less ruled out human evolution. Many thought this was a misstep and that Synod went further than necessary to safeguard its theological position (namely, a historical Adam and Eve–more on that below). However, in 2010 Synod declared that the restriction completely ruling out any notion of human evolution was no longer valid. See “Overture 18: Remove Declaration F of the 1991 Decision on Creation and Science” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2010_agenda.pdf, pp. 697-700). I was the primary author of that overture. The gist of the matter is that there are ways of allowing for animal ancestry of human beings that do not necessarily conflict with a historical Adam, the theological point that the church desired to preserve.

The key point for Karl Giberson to hear is that the church has stood up for science. It has not closed the door on any aspect of the commonly accepted understanding of the history of the universe, the earth, life on earth, or even human origins.

Admittedly, these are difficult questions. I have had my own trials with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church prior to my joining the CRC. See this long after-the-fact-reflection on that experience. This is not to say that there are not continued struggles. But the gist of the Dan Harlow and John Schneider controversy at Calvin College and in the church has little to do with science. The CRC has not put up barriers to studying, teaching, researching, accepting science. Harlow and Schneider are theologians (not scientists) and were proposing significant changes in the church’s theological formulations–largely unnecessary given the CRC’s attitude toward the science.

2) Giberson makes it sound like Howard Van Till left the CRC over these faith/science issues. It may well be the case that the controversy precipitated Van Till’s departure, but it wasn’t over science questions. You can find Van Till’s own telling of his story in the Foreward to David Ray Griffin’s book, Two Great Truth: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Amazon.com link). So let’s get the facts straight.

3) Giberson does not seem to understand how a doctrinal confession works in a conservative confessional church such as the CRC. He rightly quotes the Canons of Dort, a 17th century document, that together with the Belgic Confession (16th century) and the Heidelberg Catechism (16th century) and the ecumenical creeds of the early church summarize the beliefs of members of the CRC. A confessional church such as the CRC believes that its creeds, confessions, and catechisms summarize the teachings of scripture. Officers in the church (pastors, elders, and deacons) and professors in the denominational college and seminary (Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary) declare in the Covenant for Office-Bearers (formerly known as the Form of Subscription) of these creeds, confessions, and catechisms that their “doctrines fully agree with the Word of God”. I taught chemistry and biochemistry at Calvin College, have been an elder in a local CRC church, and a delegate to Synod 2010 and 2012–in all three cases I reaffirmed the Covenant for Office-Bearers. Perhaps, John Schneider and Dan Harlow meant something other than what the Form of Subscription says, but not because there is any ambiguity about it. The way it is supposed to work is that people become pastors in the CRC and professors at Calvin College because they agree with the denomination’s theological views (not vice versa).

Giberson claims that evangelical theologians have said that Christianity can survive the “loss” of Adam and Eve. Sure, he may find some will say that. Less conservative theologians have been saying that since the late 1800’s. Giberson seems to be asking the CRC to join that crowd. This is where he seems like Bill Clinton at the Republican convention. CRC theologians and the Synod as a whole, as well as other conservative theologians in the Reformed world, have not been willing to say such a thing. According to them, a historical Adam is a key part of the Biblical story and changing that story cannot happen unless one changes his or her fundamental approach to the Bible and to theology. There are many conservative scholars (inside and outside the CRC) who don’t see that option as being viable.

So what to do? Interestingly, the CRC is willing to let the science take its course. We stand up for science just fine in the CRC. As far as I know, the Calvin College biology department teaches the standard fare on human origins. Perhaps Giberson insists on saying that if you hold to the standard fare, you can’t embrace a historical Adam. I don’t think that, nor do I think the CRC Synod thinks that. (It could be that Harlow and Schneider think that.) See my own suggestions here for some ideas.

I would also suggest that a posture of ignorance (a docta ignorantia) is possible as suggested in the 1991 report noted above. Perhaps we cannot in a fully satisfactory way put the two accounts together. We ought not twist science or our theology to make them fit. Because of its Reformed and Kuyperian roots, the CRC has a robust view of science. Christians ought to do science. We’re not afraid of it. The conclusions of science are simply human expressions of what we see God doing in Creation and Providence. Christianity is not anti-science. But we have an understanding of the Bible that is equally robust. The Bible and Reformed theologizing have been around for a long time (much longer than the sciences in question) so it is not a trivial matter to change those basic views. Our tradition is one that seeks to understand the Bible correctly as well. We don’t guard our confessions just for the sake of preserving the tradition, but because we believe the confessions rightly summarized the teaching of the Bible. Thus, the CRC has not changed its views on a historical Adam because it does not find a Biblical warrant for doing so.

Ironically, I think it could be said that Synod’s reason for inaction on this matter was a belief that the church’s position is adequate, allowing science to flourish and preserving the historical understanding of the Bible and our creeds. My own reading of “Overture 18: Establish a Study Committee to Look into Recent Theologies That Teach That the Genesis Accounts of the Creation and Fall of Humankind Are Not Historical Events and That Adam and Eve Are Literary Rather Than Historical Characters” (http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2014_agenda.pdf, pp. 408-420) is that the overture springs from a concern based on the Schneider and Harlow writings and an article from the Banner, the monthly denominational magazine, that the CRC needs to reaffirm its commitment to a historical Adam. Thus, Synod’s decision to deny the overture suggests that Giberson’s concerns are unfounded: both our theology and our commitment to do good science are being upheld by the way the issue is already being addressed by Calvin College and by the Synod.



5 comments on “Karl, Thanks, but No Thanks

  1. The blog directs us to pp 697 -700 of the Agenda Report, but the pdf. report only goes up to page 696
    The blog also directs the reader to go to http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2008/11/that-old-time-theology-revisited.html to find suggestions as to how the scientific data harmonize with a historical Adam.
    The basic suggestion is that God turned one of the Homo genus creatures into a man made in the image of God, and maybe others also. The date of this transformation is 20,000 to 10,000 BC.
    Some problems with this “solution”: The Adam in Gen 2 was made from dirt, not from a preexisting living hominid. The Adam of Gen 2 could not find a wife; and God had to create a woman from one of his ribs. That does not fit the proffered scenario. Archaeological artifacts suggest that fully human humans (image of God) began to live ca. 50,000 BP, which means they had a palaeolithic culture which does not match the neolithic culture of Gen 2. In fact, since Adam could eat from every tree that was good for food (Gen 2:9), he had domesticated fruit to eat; but domesticated fruit does not appear in the archaeological record until ca 4000 BC, at which time humans in the image of God lived all over the earth. So when did Adam live? If he is historical, he must have a place, a date, in history. But, as we see, the Adam of Gen 2 does not fit into history. I suggest that only if Adam is in some way figurative does he fit into history.

    • Paul, the link works fine for me and goes to the end. Please try it again. If that fails, I can pull out the overture for you.

      You always turn into the strict literalist when you’re trying to show that the Genesis text is wrong. I’m quite open to there being non-literal elements to the text. John Walton reads “dust” and “rib/side” quite differently than you do. Besides we both agree that we shouldn’t press the Biblical text for science (and I’d add, ancient or modern). I also don’t have a problem with the basic narrative being recast into the original author’s time and place. I don’t really need to press the text for that level of detail. Thus, a neolithic narrative of a historical paleolithic Adam is not a problem. The base history is the chief concern.

      All that being said, I don’t want to press my own proposals too hard. My point is that there are imaginable scenarios that work. I don’t need to assert that one of them is actually correct and I don’t really think there is any way of knowing it. The text is highly theologized and there is no historical or detailed scientific record of these particular events. Most importantly is the point that there was a first man who represented the human race in that original covenant. There was a time when this particular man who represented the human race had no sin. He fell, and because he represented us, we all fell. That fall occurred by a particular man at a particular point in history. Our redemption out of that fallen condition occurred through Christ, who also acted for the race at a particular point in history.

  2. Terry yes you are afraid of “it.” You are absolutely and obviously terrified of Truth. Sorry to say,

    • John, I would suggest to you that my own experience on these issues suggests otherwise. As far as I know there is nothing in biology and modern genetics that I reject. I assume that you are suggesting that just because I don’t embrace your approach (the so-called mainstream approach) to Biblical scholarship and affirm whole-heartedly the church’s confessions that I am “terrified of Truth”. It saddens me that you seem incapable of thinking that anyone who might disagree with you about those things is “terrified of Truth”. Could it actually be that I (and others) have considered the evidence and don’t find it convincing? I would suggest that you yourself stop short of what others say is the full implications of the evidence (e.g. Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins). In their mind you’re as “terrified of Truth” as you say I am.

      Perhaps more than some, I understand your experience to a certain degree because of my similar experience in the OPC. However, I always maintained that the church has a right to do what it did (and has done) and that if someone (you or I) are not in sync with the boundaries of the church’s confessions and its mutual understanding of them and we cannot convince the church that it needs to move those boundaries, then that person may need to resign their position whether pastor, elder, deacon, or professor.

      Finally, I noticed your reference in the Calvin in Common blog to Report 44. I think you raise a valid point in suggesting that the CRC’s own understanding of “historicity” is quite nuanced. Perhaps we can make some positive gains in the conversation by tackling that topic. For me that will be in a subsequent blog post here.

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