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.
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