Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evolution of Calvin College

The September issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith features two articles by Dr. Daniel Harlow and Dr. John Schneider, Bible and Theology professors at Calvin College, on the theological implications of embracing evolution. They propose that Adam and Eve are purely symbolic litearary figures, that there was no historical fall into sin, and that the doctrines of original sin, Christ's atonement, election and eternal punishment need major revision.

Some Background
Evolution has been promoted at Calvin College for some time. A statement from its biology department (May 7, 2010) asserts, “We teach evolutionary theory as the best scientific explanation for the dynamic diversity of life on Earth. . . . We teach biology from an evolutionary paradigm.

Evolution, it appears, is the only theory of origins taught by Calvin's biology department.

Until recently, there was one restriction. In 1991 the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which controls Calvin, asserted:
The church declares, moreover, that the clear teaching of Scripture and of our confessions on the uniqueness of human beings as imagebearers of God rules out the espousing of all theorizing that posits the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race.”

Nevertheless, the qualification, "But further investigation or discussion regarding the origin of humanity should not be limited" did not prohibit the consideration of considering human evolution as a hypothetical possibility.

On June 16 2010 the CRC Synod removed this ambiguous restraint on human origins, thereby opening the door for the full-scale promotion of evolution.

Now, only months later, the theological consequences are hitting home.

Theological implications of human evolution
Following mainstream science, Drs. Harlow and Schneider presume that humans did not originate from a single pair 6000 years ago but, rather, from a population of about 10,000 interbreeding individuals living in Africa about 150,000 years ago.

Consequently, Dr. Harlow (and Dr. Schneider) favour the view that "Adam and Eve are strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach primarily theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity."

Drs. Harlow and Schneider both grant that Paul and Luke regarded Adam as a historical person. However, Harlow asserts, "Paul had little reason not to regard Adam as a historical figure, whereas today we have many reasons for recognizing him as a strictly literary one”. Dr. Schneider concedes that denying an historical Adam and his fall means rejecting biblical inerrancy.

Drs. Harlow and Schneider also both conclude that, if humans evolved, they could not have been originally upright. Thus, our sinfulness cannot be due to an historical fall. Rather, all humans are united in sin because our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to selfishness and sin. The doctrine of original sin must therefore be reformulated accordingly.

This has implications also for Christ's atonement. Harlow asserts:
Once the doctrine of original sin is reformulated, the doctrine of the atonement may likewise be deepened. But the new understanding of sin requires that we now favor theories of the atonement like the Christus victor model or the moral influence theory, instead of the theory of a ransom paid to the Devil or a satisfaction paid to God’s honor.

In other words, the Reformed notion of Christ's atonement as a payment for human sin is no longer viable.

Dr. Schneider, who seems to be inclined towards a similar revision of Christ's atonement, goes one step further. He writes, "These intuitions about grace have very important implications for Christian thinking on the matter of eternal damnation, which is very hard to integrate well into theology as integrated with evolutionary science, and is also very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain within successful Christian theodicy." He seems to favour a universalism in which all humans will be saved.

Is Calvin College Reformed?
Clearly, the above reformulations are far removed from genuine Reformed theology, contradicting the Reformed Confessions at numerous points. Harlow himself notes that the Reformed Confessions consider Adam to be historical and created upright (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, LD 3; Belgic Confession 14). Further, original sin is viewed as an hereditary disease stemming from Adam (BC 15). Christ's atonement is a payment for our sins (Belgic Confession 20-23). Only some are saved (BC 16), others suffer eternal torment (BC 37). Moreover, we are to believe without doubt all things contained in the Bible (BC 3,5,7).

How, one might wonder, does this square with Calvin College's rule that faculty members are "required to subscribe to three historic Reformed forms of unity--The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort--and pledge to teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions"?

On this issue Harlow remarks in a footnote,
"As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I look to the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession for valuable guidance in grasping the essential truths of Scripture. Both of these documents forthrightly affirm an Augustinian-Calvinist understanding of the Fall and original sin, and both assume the historicity of Adam and Eve (esp. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Belgic Confession, Articles 14, 15). In this article, my purpose has not been to undermine the Reformed confessions. Taking them seriously but not uncritically requires engagement with literary, historical, and scientific issues that were unknown to their framers."

An interesting revelation. However, a subscription that is "serious but not uncritical", and which thus allows one to contradict the Reformed Confessions at will, is no subscription at all. It is mere hypocrisy. The failure of Calvin College to enforce adherence to Reformed standards belies its claim to be Reformed.

The articles by Drs Harlow and Schneider demonstrate that evolution has a host of major theological ramifications. Their views strongly remind one of the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert at the Free University circa 1968. At that time Dr Kuitert, assuming the correctness of evolution, denied the historical Adam and an historical fall into sin. Later, taking his unbiblical premises to their logical conclusion, he came to deny also the divine inspiration of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, and life after death.

Why do Christian colleges become secular? William C. Ringenberg in his The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (1984) concludes, "Of the several factors influencing the transformation in the intellectual orientation of higher education from religious to secular, none caused greater controversy nor affected more sweeping change than did the gradual acceptance of Darwinian biology". Ringenberg describes how the first generation of scholars to embrace Darwinism attempted to reconcile it with the Christian faith. They believed they were saving Christianity. Yet their campaign to save Christianity by liberalizing it only helped to esablish an atmosphere congenial to secularism and relativism. Acceptance of evolution inevitably led to a decline in the belief that the Bible was divinely inspired.

This is the tragic trajectory that Calvin College is on.

The proper Reformed approach is to let the Bible speak for itself and to let its teachings set the bounds for our science--rather than vice versa.

Related posts: The demolition of Adam ; The shame of Calvin & Ruse

38 comments:

  1. Thank you, John, for this illuminating article, and for doing what you can to keep their feet to the fire. Though I did not have the privilege of growing up in a Christian home, still less a Reformed denomination, I find this kind of thing truly grievous, since, amidst many birth pangs, the Lord graciously opened my eyes to the truth, beauty, and power of Reformed Christianity. Truly, it is and, I trust, will remain, the center of gravity of the evangelical movement. I wish I knew better what one can do to "strengthen the things that remain." Certainly, pray, perhaps asking God to raise up courageous alumni, benefactors, administrators, and orthodox professors who, in the spirit of Phineas, will insist that these institutions remain faithful both to the Word of God and the creeds and confessions that are the source of their identity and integrity. Perhaps in the end the Lord will have to raise up new schools, founded, among other things, upon a "good confession" of biblical creationism. In any case, let us keep up the fight, knowing that whatever happens to the institutions, many individuals will be strengthened by our faithfulness to God's Word.

    Dean

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  2. I like your reference to the creeds and confessions, Dean. I think the heart of the matter lies in the statement “... taking them (creeds and confessions) seriously but not uncritically requires engagement with literary, historical, and scientific issues that were unknown to their framers”. These creeds provide a standard by which one can measure falsehood. They have withstood the test of time, because they are based on the Bible. If one pushes these aside, to which of the millions of opinions should one listen?

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  3. My comment is a complete literary unit and is longer than Bylogos blog permits. After hacking the post to bits, ironically when I tried to post the remainder here, Google won't process the Bylogos URL becawz the URL's too long. Go figure! Readers may wish to go to page 3 of my blog, refWrite. Now I see a yellow bar at the bottom of the comment posting page that tells me "Your comment was published." Here's hoping.

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  4. Wheaton College professors teach evolution and completely discredit strict creationism with an old earth and all. A true engagement with the science of today calls for that.

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  5. Here is Owlb's comment. On the mark.

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  6. That's what you get for letting Bo Duke teach theology.

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  7. This word of caution--it is not fair to take one quote from the Calvin College website about evolution without its affirming statement that "we believe in one Creator God who is made known to humankind through two means - general revelation of creation and special revelation of Scripture (Belgic Confession, Article 2)."

    Further, please allow the administration and Board of Trustees the time to adjudicate these matters in a fair and timely manner.

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  8. I agree with you that the writing of one professor should not immediately become a reflection on the entire college. The jump in judgment was an unfair one.

    However, when a paper is published, it is put out into public, open to any scrutiny, regardless of what the administration or the Board of Trustees may desire. Since the professor is affiliated with Calvin, his writing, whether you like it or not, reflects on the institution.

    Also, the CRC invited exactly this kind of theology when it removed the already spinelessly weak clause that attempted to defend humanity as a special creation of God. The denomination cannot wash its hands of this. It has fostered the scientific theory for so long, and it was only a matter of time before someone figured out the theological ramifications of it.

    This is where I have to tip my cap to the professors--they followed the logical progression perfectly. The childish game of trying to mash Christianity and Darwinism together are at an end, and now it's time to face the real ramifications--so wonderfully spelled-out in Drs. Harlow and Schneiders' papers.

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  9. Anonymous #1 -

    1. You said:

    "it is not fair to take one quote from the Calvin College website about evolution without its affirming statement that 'we believe in one Creator God who is made known to humankind through two means - general revelation of creation and special revelation of Scripture'"

    What do you mean "not fair"?

    Sure, you can still try to tack on the obligatory "SURE we swallow Darwinian Evolution hook, line, and sinker, we STILL believe in God precisely as revealed in the scriptures and historic confessions!"

    You're not fooling anyone here.

    I'd say it's "not fair"...no, that's not the right word..."deceitful" to have professors attacking the historicity of Adam, the fall and original sin and still try to play the "NO WAIT! We STILL believe in God!" line.

    If I know Christian colleges, I imagine the complaint you make has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with maintaining donations. Many Christian Colleges survive off the donations that grey haired saints give to their faithful alma matter, and most of those donations are given in the expectation that their favorite cheque destination is still upholding historic orthodoxy.

    2. You said "Further, please allow the administration and Board of Trustees the time to adjudicate these matters in a fair and timely manner."

    Do you honestly think that Harlow and Schnieder are teaching what they teach without the knowledge of the leadership of the school?

    Do you honestly think anyone here will believe that?

    If Harlow and Schnieder were working there 5 minutes after their articles hit the presses, they aren't going to get fired for teaching against the official beliefs of the school any more than they're going to grow wings and webbed feet.

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  10. It makes me so sad that these professors actually think that their human wisdom trumps God's word. How arrogant! I will pray for these individuals!

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  11. There are still true believers in the CRC denomination, and they have been working diligently to confront what is going on at Calvin and other denomination schools. Watch for overtures to pour into Classis meetings and, Lord willing, for those church leaders to have the courage to take those overtures seriously and send them on to Synod 2011 with unanamous support. We are watching, and if our denominational leaders and schools will not stand up to all that is going on with tryng to make theistic evolution the official position of the CRC (along with all the heresy that goes along with that position), then you will begin to see a mass exodus from the denomination and schools.

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  12. Dear Anonymous, I wish you were right. But there will not be a flood of overtures and there will not be a mass exodus from the denomination. I grew up in the CRC and, though there are certainly "true believers" there, they have lost their theological back-bone and they will not leave. The vast majority of them will find a way to make peace with this.

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  13. "The vast majority of them will find a way to make peace with this" sounds like a frog sitting in a pot of water as it is slowly heated to the boiling point. They will come to regret their lack of theological backbone when the inevitable happens. That's the most amazing thing about God's truth...it's not negotiable and all warnings WILL COME TRUE!

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  14. It makes me so sad that these professors actually think that their human wisdom trumps God's word. How arrogant! I will pray for these individuals! well my blog must visit usagamezone.blogspot.com

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  15. Praise the Lord that the council of our little CRC church in the midwest voted last night to send two overtures to our classis which will confront head-on the whole issue of theistic evolution versus God's Word standing as the inerrant, infallible and authoritative Word of God! This issue...putting science above God's Word...is spreading like a virus throughout the CRC denomination. God bless each and every man in that council who voted to defend God's Word with courage and faith. May God take these overtures and fill them with His power to call people to repentance!

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  16. A recent "Banner" article's headline--"Calvin Profs Say Evolution Evidence Conflicts with Reformed Creeds." Hmmm...seems like we missed something else--like perhaps the fact that what they're saying conflicts with the Bible and everything that makes Christianity Christianity?

    It's interesting to see, even though many would never admit to this, that the biggest worry is not that the professors are contradicting Scripture, but that they are contradicting the Creeds and Confessions. Since the Confessions remain as the primary ground on which some at Calvin believe it can claim that it belongs to the historical Reformed community, they defend them even more passionately than they can Scripture, because, apparently, the "Nature and Extent of [Confessional] Authoriy" exceed the "Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority."



    --A Student at Calvin College, and passionate defender of Biblical truth.

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  17. To be sure, I firmly stand behind the confessions as faithful summaries of Scripture, and I hold them very dear. Expanding on what Guido De bres said, I would rather offer my back to stripes, my tongue to knives, my mouth to a gag, and my whole body to the fire rather than to deny the truth expressed in all of the confessions. (He was, of course, only referring to the Belgic Confession). I felt I needed to make that clear.

    That said, the confessions only get their authority from the fact that they are faithful to Scripture. Without Scripture backing them up, they are of no more value than scrap paper. What is missing in the uproar at Calvin, I feel, is the connection between these men's disregard for the confessions and their disregard for Scripture. The confessions seem to have overshadowed Scripture in their minds, whether they would acknowledge it or not.

    --Calvin Student

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  18. I can't tell you what an encouragement it is to hear/read of 2 Calvin students who "have not bowed the knee to Baal" and are standing strong and tall in the strength of the Lord! You two are models for all of us who are striving to obey and follow Him with the help of the Spirit! The battle is getting more intense and I'm glad to be on your side! Thank you, and God bless you!

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  19. It is quite a loaded statement to say we must simply 'let the Bible speak for itself' and allow 'its teachings to set the bounds for our science'. It is not as simple as 'letting the Bible speak for itself', because as these religion professors (and many others) have noted, the Bible doesn't speak for itself. It is words on a page that we read in our own context (far removed from its original), and we import our own assumptions/preferences/readings into it.

    It is naive to just say, 'let the Bible set the bounds' - because the Bible is only meaningful for us when we interpret it, and someone is always going to be interpreting it. Therefore the power lies not in the Bible setting the bounds but those whose preferred interpretation is allowed to stand in for everyone.

    Now as a community, certainly it is not inappropriate to covenant together under a particular understanding of the Bible, but does that mean we should stick our heads in the sand as if that is the only understanding of it? Acknowledging varied interpretations is a healthy thing, because what if we actually have something to learn? Fear of alternate readings or of different theological implications is not actually a pursuit of truth, but a dogmatic presumption that we've already arrived. Truth almost becomes beside the point.

    Academics in a religious institution is always a tricky proposition, because learning results from asking questions. When questions are no longer allowed, is true learning taking place?

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  20. Dear Bryberg4

    Sorry, but I can’t make any sense of your comment. It is just words on a page that I must read in my own context, importing my own assumptions into it. It is thus open to varied interpretations and has no objective meaning.

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  21. Clever. So clever that you don't even need to bother with the points I made.

    I never said it was incoherent. Merely that it is possible we may misread it, or read into it things that aren't actually there.

    I might find your sarcasm useful if you waited 5,000 years before reading my comments, and then did so in a different language through someone else's interpretation, and it was acknowledged as fact that there are various ways honest people read the same words, which is absolutely true of how Christians approach the Bible.

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  22. My point was that your post-modern mumbo-jumbo is self-refuting. If you can communicate truth through words, why can’t God?

    Moreover, the Bible is not considered ambiguous on the point at issue. As I stated

    “Drs. Harlow and Schneider both grant that Paul and Luke regarded Adam as a historical person. However, Harlow asserts, "Paul had little reason not to regard Adam as a historical figure, whereas today we have many reasons for recognizing him as a strictly literary one”. Dr. Schneider concedes that denying an historical Adam and his fall means rejecting biblical inerrancy.”

    In short, the problem is not that the Bible is unclear--as you contend-- but that its message contradicts mainstream science.

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  23. What is interesting here is that the post-modern framework seems to only be applicable to the words written in the Bible, and not to science. Using this approach, the Bible must be interpreted in context of our "assumptions," "preferences," and "readings," and so it changes in meaning depending on who reads it, yet data gathered through science and the theories based on INTERPRETATIONS of that data somehow achieve a status of objectivity under whose authority we then read the Bible. How does that come together...?

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  24. As a former Calvin student, I applaud Profs. Harlow and Schneider for having the guts to actually learn from what God has revealed to us in the "Book of Nature" (Belgic Confession, Art. 2) and to apply that knowledge to a more faithful interpretation of Genesis. All of these comments above claiming that new interpretations of Genesis are just "post-modern" mumbo-jumbo need to actually read the professors' articles. Instead of bemoaning how we've lost our "theological backbone," why don't you take the time to actually consider the evidence for theistic evolution? AND, more importantly, actually consider the evidence for the accounts of Gen. 1-3 being powerful STORIES inspired by God, communicated in a way that pre-scientific, pre-modern humans would have understood. I think you'll be surprised at the new insights you might gain...

    Oh, and get back to me when you've figured out how to explain why we don't anymore believe that a "firmament" ("dome") has been fixed in the sky, which the sun, moon, and stars move across over a stationary earth, and through which "waters" above trickle through from time to time. If all of these assertions have been disproved by scientific findings, why do we keep insisting that the earth was made in 6 24-hour days only 6,000 years ago?

    I could go on and on about how frustrating this all is, but I will give the opportunity to those opposing the professors to actually make a good argument...

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  25. "Making a good argument" is an interesting idea. Who is it that gets to define what a good argument is? In the American legal system, we have an adversarial system where two sides make their arguments and then a judge outside of the two parties makes the decision regarding which side has the better argument. The quality and merits of an argument are not judged, thank goodness, by the opposing party. If that were so, there'd never be any peace. Neither side would ever accept the judgment of the other.

    Now here, in this case, we have (essentially) two arguments before us. Neither of the sides is willing to acknowledge the merits of the other's argument. Seems as though we're stuck, as we don't have a judge. Or do we?

    The Bible is the judge, the standard by which we test arguments. It is what rules on arguments. Where is the advantage in denying it that authority? By seeking to "reform our interpretations" of it, we submit it to our own judgment instead of submitting ourselves to its judgement.

    The only way to get around obeying the judge is to deny the judge's authority. Instead of obeying the judgment, one must seek to construe its grammar to mean something to one's own advantage, ignoring the central thrust of the order. One must ask of the judgment, "Did it really say...?" This is strangely reminiscent of the (apparently figurative) scene in the Garden.

    The central cause of the Fall of Man was man's insistence that he knew more/better than God. That sin has never died.

    --Calvin Student

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  26. I completely agree that the Bible is the judge. No honest Christian, including Harlow and Schneider would deny that. All that they are saying (and I fully agree with them) is that we have been interpreting some parts of it wrongly. That is absolutely NOT saying that we are "submitting our own judgments" over the Bible instead of "submitting ourselves to its judgment." No one has ever suggested that! By framing the argument in those terms, though, you and all those opposed to Harlow and Schneider are arrogantly claiming that all those who disagree with your interpretation are going against the Bible. Your comment is just another way to avoid defending the Genesis accounts as factual history.

    Now, again, I will ask if there is a good argument you can come up with for defending the traditional INTERPRETATION of Genesis? Or are you just going to keep insisting that all who disagree with your view are out to deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible?

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  27. We don't have to defend the interpretation of the Genesis account as factual history. It is, end of discussion! God told us what actually happened at the beginning when he "inscribed by the finger of God" the ten commandments that He gave to Moses. Those words include..."For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them..." So any puny human who thinks they have the self-imagined power/right to reinterpret/rewrite what God has written, well, it is laughable and silly to put it mildly. Stop trying to tell us who defend the traditional interpretation that you demand that we defend it. Who are you? Your pitiful views are as irrational as a lump of clay trying to order the potter as to what it wants to be and what processes need to be used to get it there. We appeal to a higher, all powerful, all knowing infallible source...and that would be our God, our Creator!

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  28. My views are irrational? You won't even defend yours! Again, there's the same arrogance of assuming that your view is exactly what God intended, no questions asked. Have you ever considered that the interpretation of Gen. 1-2 might apply to that verse from Exodus 20:11 additionally? Or that "inscribed with the finger of God" might be a simple case of anthropomorphic language? Much like the language of God having a "back" that Moses saw, or like God "walking" in the Garden of Eden?

    Again, I am not trying to rewrite what God has written. I am seeking to more faithfully understand his Word, realizing that it was communicated to a time and culture of people who would never have understood things like evolutionary science. That's part of what "inspired by God" means - not that God dictated every word of the Bible to humans acting as secretaries, but that he used their limitations, perspectives, personalities, etc. to nevertheless communicate truth.

    And that truth, of course, is that God created everything. I am seeking to honor that biblical truth by also using my God-given mind to understand HOW, scientifically speaking, God created everything. Like I said earlier, this is what the Belgic Confession describes as honoring the "Two Books of Revelation," which do not conflict. The only things that DO conflict are our interpretations of the Books. So if we have massive evidence to suggest that life evolved over billions of years, who am I to judge if that's how God chose to create? Who are YOU to judge?

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  29. According to whose paradigm is he/she supposed to defend these beliefs?

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  30. As a Calvin grad who spent a lot of time in the science department, I can say I was never forced to believe in "theistic evolution". I do, however, believe in a few things. 1.) The scientific process currently shows us that the world appears to be created through the means of natural selection and evolution. There is a ton of evidence to that effect 2.) God created the world within a time frame of 7 "days". 3.) Scripture has saved me my soul, but never taught me physics.
    The first person who can "prove" to me how the world was created gets a trophy. Science can only prove a null hypothesis (there are only white swans... until there's a black one in Australia), and Scripture is taken on faith. Theories abound, and anyone who claims to know the answer is merely making a claim. Even Stephen Hawking must believe in "infinite universes" to account for the mathematical improbability of creation.
    Evolution, contrary to popular opinion, would not jeopardize my soul or faith because I have not hung my hat on the fact that God only exists if the world was created in 24 hour increments.
    To demonize two Christian men who are attempting to widen our understanding undermines Christian academics, theology, and unity. Do not berate them; debate them. Oh, and pray.

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  31. Do not debate or berate; rebuke and separate from is the biblical admonition.

    Sounds like Marx has influenced Cal Coll as much as Darwin.

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  32. I actually did not say "Do not debate or berate" I said "do not berate; debate." (note the use of a semicolon) They SHOULD be debated, not just berated.
    However, "rebuke and separate" is Bibically used for ungodly heresies. Heresies are matters of salvation and should be cast from the church, effectively damning the soul you are casting out. Is this on par with damnation? I thought this fell into the widely debated categories of our time like infant baptism, women in office, or if you want a throwback debate, circumcision.
    Marxism relied on uniformity. I would like to think this is the opposite of that. This is true debate and reaching for a better understanding of God. Marx would actually hate this.

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  33. "Who is stupid enough to think that like a farmer God planted a garden in Eden to the east and in the garden made a tree of life, visible and perceptible to the senses, of such a kind that he who ate its fruit with his physical teeth would receive life?"
    These are not some modern atheist's words, but Origen's. Presumably he, too, would have trouble fitting in at Calvin College. Well, he _was_ anathematized by the 5th Ecumenical Council...

    May I also remind you that Galileo, too, was criticized and ultimately condemned for having presented the heliocentric system as more than a purely mathematical hypothesis.

    Angelos TSIRIMOKOS, Brussels

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  34. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  35. Nice article.Giving me more information.Thanks.

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