Creation and evolution in the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition
In the Netherlands, orthodox Protestants have been well-organized since the late nineteenth century. They have their own schools, political parties, broadcasting corporation within the public broadcasting system, etc. In the course of time, a strong orthodox Protestant subculture has developed. As a result the debates within the Christian community were often more heated than those with the outside world. This is especially true within the so-called neo-Calvinist tradition, an intellectual orthodox school of thought that started with the work of the theologians Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), where the debate about creation and evolution has been fierce. Kuyper and Bavinck were opposed to the “liberal” idea that there was an inherent conflict between religion and science—the so-called “warfare thesis.” They wanted to bring the Calvinist faith “in rapport” with the modern world. In their view, Calvinists should participate in the wider society, and the orthodox Calvinist voice should be heard in science as much as elsewhere. Therefore Kuyper had founded the Calvinist Free University in Amsterdam in 1880.
Kuyper and Bavinck were positive about science and scholarship in general, but they were critical of certain aspects of 19th-century science, in particular its alleged mechanistic character. In a world that is viewed as a machine, there seemed to be no place for a providential God. This was also the focus of their critique of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which to them was inextricably linked with the mechanistic world view. Their criticism of Darwin’s theory was not exceptional around 1900 – the period has been denoted as that of the eclipse of Darwinism. They believed that it would be possible to develop evolutionary theories that were compatible with belief in a Creator and they were quite open-minded about the scientific discoveries concerning the geological past of the Earth.
The interwar years
The second generation of neo-Calvinist theologians, who were active in the 1920s and 30s, were much stricter than the founding fathers. They were inclined to reject the outcomes of scientific research and they also had stricter views about the authority of Scripture and the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. In their efforts to develop a “Christian science,” they appealed to fundamentalist writers in America, in particular George McCready Price, the father of modern young-earth creationism, and his book “The New Geology” (1923).
In this period, the notorious “Geelkerken Case” took place. The Reverend J.G. Geelkerken, a Reformed minister, had publicly doubted whether the story of the Fall (Genesis 2-3) should be taken literally or not. In 1926 the Synod of the Reformed Churches decided to suspend Geelkerken. Contemporaries compared it with the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ that had taken place in Dayton, Tennessee, one year before. At first sight, the parallel is only superficial. The Geelkerken Case was an ecclesiastical process about the interpretation of Scripture, and was not about the teaching of evolution in public schools. Nevertheless, at a deeper, cultural level, there are parallels. The Dutch Calvinists, like the American Evangelicals, were in a process of reorientation in the interwar years. On the one hand, there was a group that favored greater openness towards modern culture. Some Calvinist scientists, for example, accepted evolutionary theory to a large extent. But many church leaders tightened the reins and initiated more conservative, “fundamentalist” policies. Scientists and theologians who showed more openness to evolutionary science, were relegated to the margins or left the Calvinist fold altogether. Consequently, the relative openness towards science (including evolution and historical geology) of the turn-of-the-century founders of neo-Calvinism was replaced with a restricted, “Pricean” young-Earth belief.
In the meantime, Calvinist scientists realised that the young-earth creationist ideas of many theologians were unworkable. In their view, Price’s theories had nothing to do with science. Price had not done any fieldwork. He had conceived his ideas behind a desk. Some of the Calvinist scientists defended a form of theistic evolutionism. The theologians, however, were more influential, and as a result young-earth creationism gained a foothold in the Netherlands as early as the 1930s and became part of the neo-Calvinist tradition.
Growing openness in the 1950s and 1960s
From the 1950s onward, Calvinist scientists gradually became more influential in the neo-Calvinist subculture and a new generation of theologians was now willing to engage in discussion about the theory of evolution. This initiated a debate about creation and evolution among a wider public. One important figure in these debates was Jan Lever (1922-2010), professor of zoology at the Free University, who argued that one could accept the biological theory of evolution and at the same time believe in a providential God. His ideas, especially his bookCreation and Evolution (1956, American translation 1958) caused quite a stir among many non-academic Calvinists, but in the course of the 1960s his views gradually gained acceptance.
In the same period, a number of leading Calvinist theologians adopted increasingly “liberal” theological viewpoints about the authority and historicity of Scripture. They saw the debate about creation and evolution as a rearguard action and their attention shifted to other theological issues. The Free University lost its explicitly Calvinist character and became less and less distinguishable from other Dutch universities. Analogously, the neo-Calvinist ‘Reformed Churches’ had transformed from its theologically orthodox roots into an open, pluralistic denomination. Seemingly, the Darwinian theory of evolution had finally found acceptance among Dutch Calvinists.
Polarisation in the 1970s
However, several small Reformed denominations remained orthodox and denounced the Reformed Churches and the Free University for capitulating to modernism and evolutionism. In these orthodox circles, the rise of young-earth creationism in the United States – the “flood geology” that Morris and Whitcomb promoted in 1961 in their book The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications – was quickly noticed. Several orthodox Reformed leaders warned of the devastating influence of evolutionism in theology, ethics and society—personified by the ideas of Lever and his colleagues at the Free University. From 1974 onwards, original Dutch creationist publications began to appear, which often relied strongly on the work of American creationists. Although these books became quite popular, they were also criticized by some Reformed Protestants in the Netherlands. Some orthodox Reformed theologians distanced themselves on the one hand from the theistic-evolutionist views of people like Lever, but on the other hand also from the creationism of Morris and Whitcomb. For many church members, however, this middle course was all too subtle.
In the 1970s, orthodox Christians from several Reformed and Evangelical churches joined forces in newly created organizations. Although society became more and more secularized, these new organizations tried to continue the orthodox Protestant tradition in the Netherlands. Prominent spokesmen of the Evangelical-Reformed subculture fiercely criticized the changes that were taking place in traditional neo-Calvinist organizations in the 1960s and 70s. As the invasion of evolutionism was seen as a sign of secularization, the newly founded organizations embraced the strictest form of anti-evolutionism available. They made the dissemination of young-earth creationism part of their core business and on this issue they were more outspoken than Calvinist organizations had been earlier on.
Many orthodox Protestants had now definitely fallen under the spell of strict young-earth creationism, and this became the default position in the 1980s and 1990s. It was only in the early years of the twenty-first century that the debate intensified as a result of the publication of books introducing Intelligent Design (ID) in the Netherlands. The introduction of Intelligent Design had unexpected consequences. Some leading figures within the Protestant Christian community first embraced ID, but soon afterwards they made another step and accepted theistic evolution. Intelligent Design functioned as a halfway house and after a short period of fierce debate, ID almost disappeared from public debate. The front lines had moved since the heyday of young-earth creationism in the 1970s. The dividing line between young-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists now ran right across the former creationist strongholds of the 1970s.
Since 2005, young-earth creationists have again become increasingly vocal in the Netherlands, partly as a reaction to the new openness towards (first) ID and (then) theistic evolution of some leading Evangelical figures. In the year of Darwin’s bicentenary, 2009, they distributed millions of flyers door to door entitled “Evolution or Creation: What do you believe?” in which they advocated strict young-earth creationist ideas. This, and other actions, elicited some debates in society, but again, the debates within the churches were more fierce, and unfortunately, again created more heat than light.
It is in the light of these developments that, in 2013, ForumC initiated the project “From Babel to Understanding: towards a fruitful debate on evolutionary creation in the Netherlands.” The aim is to promote a balanced discussion, and preclude a re-occurrence of the polarisation that has characterized the Dutch debate in the past century. Although disagreement still exists – and probably will continue to exist – a cautious dialogue has started between the factions. Let’s hope that this dialogue will flourish and lead to a climate in which Dutch Christians together focus on core issues at the intersection of faith and modern science.