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.
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 Insidehighered.com 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.”
After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science by Daniel C. Harlow
Silence Camouflages Suspicious Procedures by Stephen Matheson