Calvin College Religion Profs in the News; One Alleges College Is Being Dishonest

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Two Calvin College religion professors, John Schneider and Daniel Harlow, were in the news again recently when a story on National Public Radio quoted their views on interpreting the early chapters of Genesis. 

Both professors came under fire from the college’s president this past year after publishing articles in The American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith questioning the existence of Adam and Eve, whether there was a literal fall into sin, and suggesting that the historic Reformed confessions are in conflict with recent scientific discoveries and biblical studies. (See “Evolution Evidence Conflicts with Confessions.”)

Their views also raised the ire of some members of the Christian Reformed Church, which owns the Grand Rapids-based liberal arts school.

Daniel Harlow (left) and John Schneider (right)

Schneider has now left the employ of Calvin College. A joint statement signed by both Schneider and the college administration states that Schneider requested an early retirement and the college granted it.

When The Banner asked Schneider about his departure from Calvin, he would refer only to that public statement.  Cheryl Brandsen, academic dean for social sciences and contextual disciplines at Calvin College, also referred to that statement and said the report on NPR that Schneider was pressured to resign was a factual error. “Professor Schneider chose to request retirement on terms that reflected his love and respect for the college,” she wrote in an email to The Banner.

That was when Harlow spoke out publicly. He told The Banner that statements to the media and the college’s constituents about how the departure took place are dishonest and misleading. “John was pressured to leave,” Harlow said. “He was pressured by the president, and to avoid a lawsuit and negative publicity, the college cut a deal with John’s lawyer.”

Harlow said he understands the concerns with the substance of their articles and the administration’s need to protect the college from negative publicity. “But now the truth of what happened has taken a backseat,” he said. “At a Christian college, very concerned about its Reformed identity, its reputation as a truth-telling college has been damaged. Personnel matters can be kept confidential without stating falsehoods.”

Academic Freedom at Risk?

That may not be the only part of Calvin’s reputation at risk. Others are concerned that academic freedom at the school is suffering.

Both Harlow and Schneider have previously stated that before their articles were published, they followed proper and extensive vetting procedures within the college.

But after the articles were published, college president Gaylen Byker (who was on sabbatical while the articles were vetted) publicly stated at a faculty senate meeting that the two professors had violated the CRC’s Form of Subscription (which requires Calvin College faculty to teach and write in accordance with Reformed confessions.) That, according to Harlow and others, was a violation of due process at the college.

Harlow stated that he has received many expressions of concern about the deterioration of academic freedom at the school. “People outside the college, alumni, former students, academics, and ministers tell me ‘we’re worried that Calvin will be forced to become a conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical college where faculty won’t have freedom to explore these sensitive issues.’’

An article in quoted an unnamed Calvin biology professor as saying that colleagues across the sciences are worried. “This has had an effect on academic freedom as a whole,” he’s quoted as saying. “We all feel less secure.”

Loren Haarsma, associate professor of physics and astronomy and co-author of the book Origins, said the question of academic freedom is larger than the college’s administration, extending to the constituency and the church. Indeed, the issue of those articles by Harlow and Schneider came under discussion at Synod 2011, the annual leadership meeting of the Christian Reformed Church.

“Certainly the college and the constituency are comfortable with academic freedom where a professor can publish an article on a controversial topic, if that article examines multiple viewpoints, some of which are within our tradition and some of which aren't. Even if it is a challenging article, if it takes the tone of examining pros and cons of multiple views, that's okay,” he said.

“But are the college and constituency comfortable with another kind of academic freedom in which a professor, in a scholarly article, does not examine multiple viewpoints but advocates for a minority view that pushes the church a bit?

“This is not to say ‘anything goes;’ I mean a view which the professor believes is compatible with the core teachings of Reformed doctrines, but the professor knows this is a minority opinion and is pushing the majority to rethink its position. Do the church and the college want to support that kind of scholarship? There is a difference of opinion in the church and the college whether that kind of scholarship ought to be allowed, and some professors find that chilling.”

Harlow is about to go on sabbatical until the end of January. When he returns, he won’t be doing any of that exploring or writing on those sensitive issues.

“I will no longer be writing and publishing in this area,” he said. “At this point in Calvin College’s history, it cannot handle that and the CRC in its current climate cannot handle that. I cannot handle that. It’s taken a heavy physical and emotional toll on me.”

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (12)


"Academic freedom" is being raised to some sort of over-arching, all-consuming good to which all other goods must be subsumed. Maybe at a secular, public institution that's a good thing - though I doubt it.

But Calvin and its tenured profs have always been bound by the Form of Subscription to the creeds and confessions of the Church. Just because an article was peer-reviewed doesn't mean it is in accord with that Form of Subscription, nor does it absolve the author of his or her responsibility to the document signed upon acceptance of tenure.

If the boundaries of the Form of Subscription are that troublesome, don't sign it and find employment elsewhere.

This, by the way, is entirely separate from the question of whether or not Harlow & Schneider in fact DID violate the Form of Subscription.

By the way, you might want to see John Wilson's take on this controversy in the Wall Street Journal - I thought him rather fair in his comments. (

Isn't "academic freedom" at the expense of truth, slavery?

Hmmmm....Conservative, Evangelical, and Fundamentalist. If be conservative they mean literal, and by evangelical they mean one voice as a part of a greater voice of Bible believing and Bible teaching colleges, and by fundamental they mean bound by the fundamental teachings of scripture.....To that I would say sign my kids up for an education there any day. I only hope Calvin is conservative, evangelical, and fundamental. Notice I didn't say close minded, judgemental and narrow. These aren't the same as conservative, evangelical, and fundamental. One should understand what these terms really mean b/f one "hopes" their college isn't becoming this.

If, as the article reports, President Byker put the brakes on what Harlow and Schneider wrote, then I applaud him for playing this important role in holding professors at Calvin College accountable to the signatures they willingly submitted on the Form of Subscription.

Secondly, I find it disagreeable that Professor Harlow seems to have taken it upon himself the right to go against what appears to have been a private agreement between the college and Schneider by making that which was private public. It appears he is as equally guilty of going outside the proper channels as he is accusing President Byker of doing. Is he now wanting to make himself a martyr? Perhaps the Board of Trustees should let him be just that and terminate his position at the college.

Finally, it ought never to be considered "outside the proper channels" for anyone, the president of the college or any other faculty member or administrator or officebearer in the CRC, to raise a red flag about what is taught or written that so very clearly goes against the Reformed Confessions. Academic freedom does not trump fidelity to the Confessions and Scripture. And when a duly-empowered person in a position of authority in the church or college spots a blatant transgression going on, it ought to be that person's duty to try to put the brakes on that said transgression. No, not just a obligation. Bravo for President Byker!

Sounds like the biology department at Calvin took it upon themselves to tell the church and their institution what they're going to believe and teach. Here is a couple statements published by Calvin's own biology department. Dated Feb 4, 2011

"We teach evolutionary theory as the best scientific explanation for the dynamic diversity of life on earth."

"While being sensitive to the diverse faith backgrounds of our students, we teach biology from an evolutionary paradigm."

Unbelievable! This is what incoming freshman can expect to get from your church based Christian college. Undermining Biblical truth and everything you ever taught your child about the Bible. Christianity is under attack, and the battles are coming from within.

"If the foundations be destroyed. What can the righteous do? " Psalm 11:13

There is no other book in the Bible more attacked, disbelieved, allegorized and mythologized, then Genesis. And yet this is what Jesus said about the writings of Moses-"If you believed Moses you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say? " John 5:46,47

If we allow our teachers to compromise the biblical doctrines of origin, the rest of Scripture will be compromised. The whole structure of Scripture is built directly of indirectly on the foundation that Genesis is fact.

As far as I can tell, no one quoted in this story is claiming that "academic freedom" trumps commitment to the three confessions to which Calvin professors submit themselves when they sign the form of subscription. Instead, the key question is who gets to interpret what these documents mean: the faculty, provost, deans, and board, using well-established procedures for vetting controversial subjects, or a president acting unilaterally, outside of established procedures.

Each of these guys cleared their research prior to publication by following the established procedures. The collective judgment of the various experts who looked at it was that their work does not directly conflict with the confessions. But apparently the president fashions himself an expert on theology and also thinks he does not need to follow the rules of college governance. Moreover, he somehow thinks it's good leadership to publicly call into question the faith commitment of some of his faculty members. This is abuse of power, and it is also a failure of leadership.

The CRC and Calvin have never condoned a dictatorial approach to governance; the Reformed tradition includes a long history of representative self-governance. Fortunately for the college, this president is moving on after this year.

I just read Schneider's article online... It is easy to find.

It was not as 'scary' as I thought it was going to be. He makes a modest argument using scripture and the Christian tradition as his sources.

While it does challenge a few doctrines that are in the confessions, it does not set out to destroy all that is Reformed. (The confessions should contantly be under review anyway... right. They are not scripture. They need to be challenged by scripture.) If you don't like his argument, challenge his use of scripture and/or the Christian tradition.



From what I scanned of the article, I didn't think it scary, either.

The issue regarding the Form of Subscription, however, is precisely in that "While it does challenge a few doctrines that are in the confessions...." part.

The Form of Subscription is (in part) an agreement to challenge those confessions only via the assemblies of the Church. And the purpose of that agreement is precisely to avoid these kinds of public disruptions that become fodder for half-understanding, voyeuristic journalists, church members, and the like.

Instead of re-examining our confessions as you rightly say we should do, raising these issues outside of that process does little more than guarantee they won't get a proper hearing - to the detriment of both the Church and the individuals involved.

Rev. Dykstra and Prof. Schneider should start a support group.

"THe biology department at Calvin says, "We teach evolutionary theory as the best scientific explanation for the dynamic diversity of life on earth."

The claim of an evolutionist:. Consider this quote. "As an evolutionist I stand on science! Trouble is science can't test evolution... and science can't repeat evolution...and science can't show how it works! But as an evolutionist I stand on science!

As Profs. Schneider and Harlow break free from the fire, I pray that they and all those concerned/involved become purer gold as a result. A few months ago I felt led to write a three part article, "Kindergarten Evolution," to lighten the tension. I stopped halfway through the first, here it is, presented as a conversation between two people:

While worrying about the literal truth of the TWO very different stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis, perhaps the President of Calvin College might explain to me how God inspired the events below. God works through his people, including those who wrote our sacred texts, but as none of us is perfect, these text reflect the combination of God's inspiration and our own humanity rather than being the infallible word of God.

“So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up; let’s go.’ But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.” (Judges 19:25-28)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

" The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. ....Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”.... "Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”(Genesis 19