If science conflicts with theology, what should give way?
In the past, the church excommunicated the likes of Copernicus and Galileo for their findings which differed with the prevailing theology of the day. And this was based, it was argued, on Scriptural grounds. Of course, later the church had to admit it was wrong, and theology had to adapt to science.
This continues to play out today over the issue of creation and evolution. Are the two ‘theories’ truly at odds? Could God have been involved in creating over long periods of time through evolution, or does evolution necessarily imply there is no God? Or perhaps could evolution show that God, and even we ourselves, are different than we’ve thought?
Two religion professors at Calvin College, the Christian Reformed church’s official college, are asking hard questions about evolutionary science and Reformed theology (much of this blogpost comes from Roxanne Van Farowe’s article in the latest issue of The Banner).
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.”
It appears the two are coming under some heavy fire, because their teaching conflicts with the historic confessions of the church.
The articles in question were approved by the college, yet 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.)
But should theology really trump science?
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.
Here’s what others are saying in reaction:
- “Let’s be honest here. There are ulterior motives to all the theories, exegetical mythology, and redefinitions. That would be that people want their human reasoning to usurp God. They want to be their own god and determine their own truth. They also want the Bible to be open to reinterpretation because then it will excuse any and all ungodly behavior. People support evolution and strive to make science their “God” because they love themselves and their sin.”
- “Forget their jobs; they should be excommunicated. Such heresy and conformism to the rhetoric of today’s dogmatic worldly “thinkers” is intolerable. Without an Adam, who needs a second Adam?”
- “Harlow is making an argument for his position that Adam and Eve were simply literary figures. That is the main point of the article. Instead of creating humanity “very good” as scripture says, Harlow sees original sin as part of the evolutionary and original genetic make-up of humanity (proto-humanity). It is very different from an Augustinian view. In Harlow’s view of original sin (quoting and agreeing with others) original sin was something humanity was intrinsically created with but only came to realize later in time after the process of evolution took its effect.”
- “The point of the article is seen when Harlow clearly says that “In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, five basic scenarios are on offer,” and then proceeds to list them. He then says that the last one, the literary theory, is “a view that is largely unknown in evangelical circles,” and then he goes on to explain that theory and the appeal of it. He does seem to be siding with the literary theory, but the paper is nonetheless clearly presented as one option only out of many acceptable ones.”
- “How exactly does a literary idea of creation eliminate the possibility of a personal God? And didn’t God not send Jesus until about 2000 years ago? Doesn’t that leave a lot of humanity missing out on a crucial piece of revelation? The Christian faith, after all, is a faith that happened at a certain point in history, with some coming before and some after. How would this view of creation be different?”
- “It is crucial to read and think about the Bible. But if you take everything at face value, don’t bother applying the considerable resources and discoveries humanity has at its disposal, and refuse to accept things that are nearly irrefutable and that don’t present any sort of danger to the Bible or Christianity, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, all those around you, and God.”
Here is the comment I posted on the article’s page:
- As a pastor I can understand being held to teach in conformity with the form of subscription, even if I don’t prefer it. But does it really make sense to force professors in the sciences such as the Haarsmas to be bound in their teaching by late-medieval theological documents?Additionally, Wolters’ argument that “the issue of the historical Fall is a cornerstone of Christian beliefs, shared by all major branches of Christendom” is not really an argument that supports that the historical fall actually took place. It merely underlines the fact that it is an historically important doctrine. Just because we’ve always thought “X”, does not provide evidence that “X” is actually the case.Not that I am disagreeing with him, and I know he would say more given the space, I just think we have to use better language than saying, “Well this is just too important to change.”
People also thought slavery was pretty important (economically) and also thought it was important that the earth was the center of the universe (theologically).
We’ve since thought otherwise.
What do you think? Post a comment to continue the discussion.