The Christian Reformed Church votes to support scholarship on human origins
Jeff Hardin, BioLogos board member:
Today BioLogos presents some reflections from Loren Haarsma, a recipient of a grant from its Evolution and Christian Faith program. The ECF program supports scholars in a variety of Christian denominations and academic settings, including many scholars at Christian colleges and seminaries. The ECF program is aimed at not only promoting scholarship per se, but also supporting scholars as they engage the larger church on issues surrounding biological evolution, including human origins.
Haarsma’s comments are in response to a recent article on the Daily Beast by Karl Giberson, who has done important work, some of it in association with BioLogos, on the dialogue between science and Christian faith. These include a recent book with BioLogos founder, Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (InterVarsity Press, 2011) and The Wonder of the Universe (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Giberson’s article, titled “The Christian Reformed Church Still Won’t Stand Up For Science,” addressed recent decisions at the annual gathering of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the parent denomination of Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The ECF program funds projects from several scholars at Calvin, including Haarsma, sociologist Jonathan Hill, and geologist Ralph Stearley. Although I myself am the chair of a biological science department at a major research university, I can speak with some experience about the CRC and Calvin College, as I am currently a lay leader (elder) in a CRC church near the University of Wisconsin campus. Even before my own involvement with a CRC church, I had found Calvin College to be a focus of thoughtful, helpful scholarship in areas relating to science and Christian faith, a point emphasized by Giberson in his post. More recently, since becoming more directly involved with the CRC, I have, like Haarsma, found the CRC to be open to constructive dialogue on the topic of evolution and Christian faith.
In June, Haarsma attended the CRC annual meeting, where he gave a seminar on his work. He speaks regularly to regional groups of churches in the denomination. BioLogos asked Haarsma to describe his experiences and the new growing dialogue on issues of origins in the CRC.
I was surprised to read the headline on Karl Giberson’s dailybeast.com article, “The CRC Still Won’t Stand Up For Science.” As a BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grant recipient, one of my roles is to meet with church groups and lead discussions about evolutionary creation. I was at the Christian Reformed Church 2014 Synod when it decided not to form a denominational study committee on the biblical, theological, and scientific issues around human evolution. A few hours before that vote, I had led a lunchtime workshop on those challenging topics. Over 70 delegates and advisors to Synod chose to attend that workshop, and I received a lot of positive feedback.
Instead of forming a study committee, Synod affirmed the ongoing work of its scholars at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. We saw this as a positive move by the denomination. So the headline on the article didn’t match what happened at Synod.
As I read Dr. Giberson’s article, I saw that he paid several strong compliments to the CRC and to Calvin College. I realized that my distress was less with the article’s content and more with the headline and two-sentence opening blurb, which might not have been written by Dr. Giberson. These put an extremely negative spin on the rest of the article. They played up the badly abused science-versus-religion warfare model.
Dr. Giberson’s article did not criticize the CRC’s action in 2014, but instead focused on events in the recent past: the responses to Howard VanTill’s work in the 1980’s and articles written by Dan Harlow and John Schneider in 2009. Like Dr. Giberson, I agree that the denomination and the college should have done better when dealing with the criticisms of their scholarly writings. And as Dr. Giberson notes, this is an ongoing problem in many evangelical denominations and colleges. Scholars who feel called by God to do careful work in controversial topics are sometimes not adequately protected from uncharitable condemnation, and are sometimes silenced by political power.
The CRC is a denomination of more than 200,000 individuals. Of course there is a spectrum of views within it. Many members have heard the strident voices saying that science and religion are incompatible, and since they are given an either-or choice, they choose the God they know over the science they don’t know. Many others, however, are eager to embrace modern scientific consensus, even when it challenges some of the theology they learned as children, and use it to enhance their understanding of God. Many others don’t want to believe that science and religion are incompatible, but are worried because they don’t know how to resolve the competing claims themselves. As we humbly present the findings of our scholarship in ways that address their deep concerns, it helps when we assure them that our scholarship is a work in progress, and like anyone we can make mistakes, and we appreciate their prayers of support.
The episodes which Dr. Giberson described were real and hurtful. They are, however, only part of the story. Here I will speak from personal experience, and tell you about some of the positive experiences I have had with the CRC and Calvin College as I have worked on these topics.
- Growing up, the theology of the CRC, with its emphasis on God’s sovereignty in every part of life, gave me positive encouragement to become a scientist and to study science without fear. (Many more young people today have the same experiences in the CRC.)
- I have been invited to give presentations at many CRC churches similar to the presentation I gave at Synod 2014. The responses were always welcoming, gracious, and full of good questions.
- The book which Deborah Haarsma and I wrote, Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, was published and marketed by the CRC’s own publishing ministry (Faith Alive Resources), which also publishes devotionals and Sunday School materials. That book is being used in classes at both Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
- Calvin College supports financially and logistically the grant that I received from the BioLogos ECF program to work on this topic. (Dr. Giberson’s article incorrectly stated that BioLogos is at Calvin College. BioLogos is located in Grand Rapids, a few blocks from Calvin College, but the two organizations are not affiliated.)
- Calvin College has had a series of seminars on human origins topics, more than two dozen since 2010, all recorded and available online for the CRC and the broader community.
I am not the only evangelical scholar who has felt supported in this way by denomination and college. A look at the list of BioLogos ECF grant recipients shows only some of the many more scholars supported by their institutions. Conflicts like those described by Dr. Giberson are real and hurtful and harmful. We need to do better. The book Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship, written by past Calvin College president Anthony Diekema, should be required reading for evangelical college and denomination leaders who want to minimize similar incidents. We should also celebrate the many times that our churches and colleges encourage this scholarship. I saw several delegates at Synod stand up and speak directly about the importance of supporting scholars who engage the science and religion dialogue. The recent Synod decision was a move in the right direction.