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Two religion professors at the Christian Reformed church’s official college are asking hard questions about evolutionary science and Reformed theology.

Daniel Harlow (left) and John Schneider (right)

Professors Daniel Harlow (pictured left) and John Schneider (right) of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., published scholarly articles asserting that strong evidence from both biblical studies and science creates conflicts with parts of the historic Reformed confessions and requires theological explanation.

In particular, they question whether Adam and Eve actually existed, whether there was a literal Fall, and whether we need to reinterpret the doctrine of original sin as presented in the Reformed confessions.

The papers were published in The American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith.

Harlow wrote that he was exploring from the perspective of mainstream biblical scholarship, which is 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.”

Harlow also wrote, “Genesis 3, read in its immediate context, does not depict the man and woman’s transgression as an act that infected all subsequent humanity. . . . For teaching about the Fall and original sin, then, we must wait for Paul and the church fathers.”

Schneider wrote that the traditional understanding of the Fall does not fit with current science: “[T]he narrative of human evolution makes it very hard, if not impossible, to maintain [the position that human and demonic creatures are responsible for evil]. For it seems, on this science, that not just natural evils . . . but also the disposition for human moral evils, are practically part of God’s original design.”

Harlow and Schneider were working under the authority of the college, according to Harlow: “I had circulated drafts of my articles to numerous faculty members [and] to our provost and academic deans. John Schneider had presented the bulk of his paper as part of a sabbatical proposal that was approved by our top governance committees in October of 2009 and later ratified by our board of trustees.”

Provost Claudia Beversluis did not respond to The Banner’s request to verify Harlow’s statement.

However, college president Gaylen Byker said at a faculty senate meeting that the two professors had violated the Form of Subscription, according to the college’s student newspaper, Chimes. (The Form of Subscription requires Calvin College faculty to teach and write in accordance with Reformed confessions. The same document is signed by all officebearers in the Christian Reformed Church.)

Chimes was quoting religion professor Ken Pomykala in an interview about Harlow and Schneider’s papers.

In response to Byker’s public statement, biology professor Stephen Matheson wrote in Chimes that “members of our faculty are being attacked for taking particular positions, perceiving threats against their jobs”.

In May 2010, following a controversy about discussion of homosexuality, the college adopted new rules for resolving disputes about the confessional integrity of faculty or their work. Byker told The Banner the college is following those guidelines, which require communal discussion of controversial issues.

Byker said, “It is our hope and desire that our constituency will be patient with us as we walk this deliberate path. Please be assured of our commitment to the creeds and confessions of the Christian Reformed Church.”

Calvin physics professor Loren Haarsma co-wrote a book on Christianity and evolution with his wife, Deborah Haarsma. He said that a conversation between academic disciplines about hominid/human evolution is overdue on the campus.

“The fossil evidence does not point to a single pair of ancestors for the human race,” he said. “We feel we have to ask these questions because our study of God’s world has forced us to ask these questions.”

But theologian Al Wolters, a professor emeritus at Calvin’s sister school, Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, does not agree with the two professors’ work.  

“The issue of the historical Fall is a cornerstone of Christian beliefs, shared by all major branches of Christendom,” Wolters said. “To openly explain it away as myths and literary devices to square with scientific evidence is a pretty momentous step to take.”

In 1991, synod (the CRC's annual leadership gathering) had stated that “all theorizing that posits the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race” was ruled out by Scripture and the confessions.

However, Synod 2010 removed that declaration from its position statement on creation and science.

As grounds for the removal, Synod 2010 stated, in part, that Report 28, also adopted in 1991, sufficiently safeguards the church’s confession.

Report 28 said, in part: “However stylized, literary, or symbolic the stories of Genesis may be, they are clearly meant to refer to real events. Especially in God’s acts of creation, Adam and Eve as first parents, the fall of humanity into sin, and the giving of the so-called “mother promise” (Gen. 3:15), the reality of the events described is of foundational importance for the entire history of redemption.” (Report 28, VI, J, Agenda for Synod 1991, p. 403)

The entire 2010 decision can be found in the Acts of Synod 2010, pp 872-875.

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