Friday, September 1, 2017

Dutch Reformed Theologians Debate Evolution

Can orthodox Reformed theology be reconciled with Darwinian evolution? 

In the last few months this question has been much discussed within Reformed circles in The Netherlands, following the recent publication of  Prof. Dr. Gijsbert van den Brink's book, "En de Aarde bracht voort: Christelijke geloof en evolutie" ("And the earth brought forth: Christian faith and evolution", June 2017, Boekencentrum). An English version, entitled "Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory", is to be published by Eerdmans in 2018.

Dr. van den Brink is a theologian at the Free University in Amsterdam. He is a member of the Gereformeerde Bond (GB, Reformed Alliance), the conservative wing of the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN, Protestant Church in the Netherlands). Members of the GB are generally quite orthodox, embracing the traditional reading of Genesis. Indeed, van den Brink did so himself, 15 years ago. But now, influenced by his colleagues in biology, he has come to accept evolution. In his book he claims that one can accept evolution and still uphold orthodox Reformed theology.

According to van den Brink, God created all life via evolution. The apparent randomness of evolution does not rule out God's providential guidance of all details at a deeper level. Death and suffering existed from the start, even among humans, and are thus part of God's "very good" creation.

Evolving humans behaved sinfully (they needed to be self-centered to survive and evolve), but were not held accountable because they as yet knew no law. Then, about 45,000 years ago, when there were already a few thousand humans, God chose to reveal Himself to Adam and Eve, who were heads of a clan. God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to attain immortality, by obeying His commands. They failed the test. Thereafter they were held accountable for their sins. Adam and Eve contaminated the rest of the group, so that eventually all humans became accountable as sinners, also those not descended from Adam.

How does van den Brink justify this scenario, which is quite different from what we read in Genesis? He claims to takes both theology and science seriously; the two should complement each other. However, van den Brink insists that theology should not say things that are scientifically false. Thus, he argues, we can no longer take the story of Adam literally, but must “recontextualize” it within an evolutionary context. In short, he adapts the Bible to fit mainstream science.

Dutch Discussion
The last few decades have seen a drastic shift among Dutch Reformed churches towards acceptance of theistic evolution. Organizations such as Evangelische Omroep (Evangelical Broadcasting) and Evangelische Hogeschool (Evangelical College), which were set up in the 1970's to promote orthodox Christianity, have both since rejected creationism and now promote theistic evolution. Likewise, Nederlands Dagblad, a Christian daily, long associated with the Liberated Reformed Church, now also pushes evolution. A new organization, called ForumC, supported by Biologos (the American organization promoting theistic evolution among churches) is also active in advancing the evolutionary cause.

Defending the traditional Biblical view are the Logos Instituut, which has a useful website, the popular scientific monthly magazine Weet, and the orthodox Reformed daily, Reformatorische Dagblad (all in Dutch). These all have deeper discussions regarding van den Brink's book (LogosReformatorische Dagblad, Weet).

Further, it is noteworthy that yesterday marked the publication of a new book by Prof. Dr. Mart-Jan Paul, "Oorspronkelijk. Overwegingen bij schepping en evolutie" ("Originally: Considerations regarding creation and evolution", Labarum Academic, Apeldoorn, 2017). Dr. Paul, also a member of the PKN, is a theologian at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium. His book is a detailed defense of the orthodox Reformed position, a worthy counter to Dr. van den Brink.  It gives an excellent overview of the various issues involved in the matter of origins, the history of the discussion, and recent developments in Europe and America. Here is a review (in Dutch). Hopefully an English edition will soon be published.

Reformed Confessions and Evolution
How well do Dr. van den Brink's views accord with the Reformed confessions? Not very well. Consider the following clashes:

 Claim: We must recontextualize Genesis in terms of mainstream science
Reformed Confessions: Sola Scriptura.  "Everything God reveals in his word is true…" (Heidelberg Catechism  QA 20) and "we are to believe without doubt all things contained in the Bible" (Belgic Confession Art.5). The Belgic Confession acknowledges revelation through nature, but this knowledge (1) concerns God’s attributes and (2) is less clear and full than Biblical revelation (BC Art.2). Furthermore, since scientific theories are human constructs, they must bow before Scripture (BC Art. 7). A Reformed epistemology should thus judge scientific theories in the light of Scripture, not vice versa.

 Claim: Adam was created via evolution.
Reformed Confessions: “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground” (BC Art. 14).

●  Claim: Adam was initially sinful, due to his evolutionary heritage.
Reformed Confessions: “God created man good and in His image, that is in true righteousness and holiness” (HC QA 6; BC Art.14). Adam was entirely responsible for his depraved nature (HC QA 7).

● Claim: Not all humans are descended from Adam and Eve.
Reformed Confessions: “our first parents, Adam & Eve, became so corrupt that we are all conceived in sin” (HC QA 7). Original sin is an “hereditary evil” (BC,Art.15), so that “the entire offspring of Adam plunged into perdition” (BC Art.16; Canons of Dort 3-4: 1-3).

●. Claim: Physical death is not a punishment for sin.
Reformed Confessions: “man thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death (BC Art.17).

●.Evolution entails that man has no immaterial soul that survives physical death.
Reformed Confessions: At death our soul goes to Christ, later to be re-united to our resurrected bodies (HC QA 57; BC Art.37).
(Note: I am not sure whether Dr. van den Brink actually discusses this point, but it is pertinent)

In short, Dr. van den Brink's epistemology and hermeneutics are clearly un-Reformed, and his proposed "recontextualization" of Adam directly contradicts the Reformed Confessions at a number of points.

Half a century ago Prof. Harry Kuitert, another Reformed theologian at the same Free University in Amsterdam, also believed evolution to be true, and also "recontextualized" the Adam story. Subsequently, he followed his evolution-based theology to its logical conclusion, and rejected the entire Christian faith. Dr. van den Brink should be careful not to follow that same trajectory. 

1 comment:

Steve Drake said...

'Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert...' (Acts 20: 28-31)