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 However, in 2010 Synod declared that the restriction completely ruling out any notion of human evolution was no longer valid.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.

 

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