January 25, 2011
Some people have raised concerns about articles published this fall by Professors Dan Harlow and John Schneider. In response, the President's Cabinet has put together the following FAQ.
- What is the history of the articles written by Dan Harlow and John Schneider?
Calvin College is committed to being a deeply Christian, thoughtfully Reformed, and academically excellent place of higher learning. The college’s vocation is to understand and contribute to the best in scholarship and learning. One important area of scholarship and discovery today is in the area of human origins and human nature. This area of academic work has broad implications for understanding human health and disease, cultural studies, and many other areas of contemporary importance.
In the academic world there is currently an extensive and lively dialogue between scientists who study evolutionary theory and theologians and biblical scholars who interpret biblical themes. Some of this dialogue simply dismisses the real scientific evidence for evolutionary theory; some dismisses the role of God as creator. Calvin College plays a vital leadership role in this dialogue, because Calvin is known as an institution that is bound by the authority of the Word of God and also accepts God’s revelation through the serious study of creation.
Scientists, philosophers, and theologians at Calvin College have been respected contributors to this important area of science-faith conversation. (See, for example, the book Origins by Deborah and Loren Haarsma, published by the Christian Reformed Church, and The Battle of Beginnings by Del Ratzsch, published by InterVarsity Press.)
In 2009 two religion professors, Dan Harlow and John Schneider, were invited by their colleagues (a network of Christians in science) to address “the biblical and theological issues involved if Adam and Eve are understood as literary theological figures rather than historical beings.” Drs. Harlow and Schneider participated in a set of plenary lectures on Adam and Eve at the annual American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) meeting at Baylor University.
The ASA is “a fellowship of men and women of science and disciplines that can relate to science who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science.” Founded in 1941, the ASA’s stated purpose is “to investigate any area relating Christian faith and science” and “to make known the results of such investigations for comment and criticism by the Christian community and by the scientific community.” Calvin College has long played a leadership role in the ASA.
The lectures were published in the fall 2010 issue of the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.
- What is the general thrust of the two papers and the subsequent articles in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith?
Both Drs. Harlow and Schneider describe their articles as conjectures—proposals describing the theological questions that must be considered, if, in fact, God used the process of evolution to create human beings. These theological questions examine the pre-fall condition of humanity, the nature of the fall itself, the meaning of original sin, the nature of evil, and the nature of the atonement.
The questions that Drs. Harlow and Schneider raise, and some of the possible solutions that they offer, are not new in Christian theology. But there are important and acknowledged questions about how well these possible solutions fit with scripture as interpreted in the Reformed confessions that guide the work at Calvin College.
The dialogue between evolutionary biology and Christian faith is difficult for many Christians. Both scientists and theologians enter this arena carefully. Drs. Harlow and Schneider have tried to address these difficult topics, knowing that the results would be controversial and possibly misconstrued.
- Were the authors of these articles working under the authority of the College?
Given the framing of this issue in the Banner and subsequent online comments to the Banner article, it is clear that this question is important to the Banner readership and one that can easily yield contradictory statements. Professor Harlow’s statement in the Banner is correct: “I had circulated drafts of my articles to numerous faculty members [and] to our provost and academic deans.” Professor Schneider’s sabbatical proposal was reviewed by a faculty committee and recommended for approval. This recommendation received routine approval by another college committee and the board of trustees. This approval did not constitute approval of the ideas themselves or of the subsequent article.
Although the college did not approve or endorse the ideas in the published articles, it does endorse the importance of asking questions and prayerfully and humbly seeking answers. Much like new ideas or diagrams on a whiteboard, these articles are attempts to engage new scientific, historical, and hermeneutical understandings and their connection to core doctrines. In retrospect, it would have been advisable for Drs. Harlow and Schneider to more strongly emphasize the provisional nature of their work and to raise the direct confessional issues differently. (The Form of Subscription describes a process for raising confessional issues.) In retrospect, the internal review processes used by the authors and the college should have been tighter. (The new practices, addressed below, to revitalize the role of the confessions, will promote more thorough review processes going forward.) Professors Harlow and Schneider have expressed regret and think the articles read more definitively than they intended.
- What does Calvin College teach about evolutionary biology?
Calvin affirms that the one true God is the creator and designer of the universe.
The Calvin College Biology Department also clearly maintains that God, as the creator and designer of the universe, brought the world into being. With this as a firm foundation, the department also accepts the biological theory of evolution (descent with modification over time) to be the best explanation for understanding the commonality and diversity seen among all living creatures on earth. The department’s Statement on Evolution can be found at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/biology/why/evolution-statement10May2010.pdf.
The statement also says that humans come to know the one Creator God through two means: general revelation of creation and special revelation of scripture. In the statement, the faculty of the Biology Department affirm “As scientists who work within the framework of Christian faith, we humbly strive to integrate our faith into all aspects of our scholarship. We do not avoid the difficult questions that may present themselves, but proceed with careful confidence because we believe that these two revelations make known the one true God.”
- Wouldn't it be better for Calvin College to ignore evolutionary theory altogether? Why do professors do work in areas of controversy? And how does Calvin draw a line between controversial and theologically unacceptable ideas?
The college’s mission includes engaging culture, which means that faculty must be equipped—and must equip students—to confront hard questions that naturally arise in today’s world (i.e., how do Christians respond to scientific evidence for climate change? evolutionary origins? food insecurity? global health inequities?). Calvin faculty are called to understand and contribute Reformed thinking to these conversations and to equip students to think critically about important questions. If faculty simply ignore these issues, they are not providing the leadership that students need, and Calvin College is not fulfilling its vocation as a college of the church.
Because faculty must get involved in these scholarly arenas, they are given academic freedom to explore areas that might be controversial. This academic freedom is to be exercised within the framework of scripture and the Reformed confessions, but the line between acceptable, controversial, and theologically unacceptable can be difficult to define. Last year, the faculty and board of trustees worked together to develop and approve a set of practices that promote extensive internal review and theological reflection on scholarly work. The aim of these practices is to provide both theological boundaries for faculty and scholarly resources for the broader community.
Calvin College, as an academic community, takes its adherence to the traditional Reformed confessions very seriously. In fact, it was this serious adherence, and the college’s desire to revitalize the role of the confessions, that prompted the practices adopted last year. (For more information about these practices, see http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/documents/special-reports.html.)
- What are the Reformed Confessions?
As a college that stems from the Reformed branch of Christianity, the bulk of what we believe is held in common with the Christian church around the world and throughout the ages. Three confessions adopted by Reformed Protestants centuries ago summarize important tenets of the Reformed faith: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. College faculty members are required to sign a Christian Reformed Church synodically-approved Form of Subscription in which they affirm these three forms of unity. Faculty pledge to teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions.
The confessions are documents that belong to the church. For the ongoing life and work of the CRC and its agencies and educational institutions, the authority to make binding judgments about the meaning and implications of the confessions is assigned to Synod, the governing body of the CRC, and its agencies. Under the authority of Synod, the church assigns authority for the work of the college to the board of trustees (BOT). In turn, the BOT, assigns authority within the college’s governance system: decisions about personnel and confessional interpretation are assigned to the Professional Status Committee (PSC). The BOT always has the authority to accept or reject recommendations brought through the college’s stated process. Once the process is complete, all parties, including members of the faculty are required to honor any decisions made.
- What is Calvin College’s view of scripture?
The college operates under the conviction that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, containing all that people in any age need to know for their salvation. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks through this book. The college Mission Statement says: "Calvin College is a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity. Through our learning, we seek to be agents of renewal in the academy, church, and society. We pledge fidelity to Jesus Christ, offering our hearts and lives to do God's work in God's world.” Calvin College always seeks to carry out its mission in fidelity to the Word of God as interpreted in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions. This is the foundational context upon which the entire Calvin learning community operates.
- What does all that mean for those concerned about the articles and Calvin College?
Since the publication of the articles in Perspectives, there has been an internal discussion at the college related to how the theological themes in the articles are related to the theological positions of the Reformed confessions. The Professional Status Committee (PSC), which is made up of both faculty and administrators, has identified theological issues related to evolutionary science as issues that need careful proactive review, and has initiated such a review. So the theological themes proposed in these articles are being considered carefully and in light of Calvin College’s adherence to scripture and the Reformed confessions. This exploration takes time, demands trust, and requires patience. The desired end point of these deliberations will be a provisional determination of the confessional limitations on science/faith assertions. It may be that some of the theological themes explored by Drs. Harlow and Schneider will be determined to be in conflict with current understandings of the confessions; even this, it is hoped, will be helpful for the church and college. In any interpretations of the Reformed confessions, the PSC is responsible to the board of trustees, which in turn is subject to the decisions of Synod.
So the work of Drs. Harlow and Schneider is in the process of careful review. In due time, the PSC will present a report and recommendations to the board of trustees.
- What is the timetable for an outcome of this process?
This process will take time to implement. Using the meeting dates of the board of trustees as process milestones, it is likely the members will be able to review a report from the PSC at their May meeting.
- What is and may be taught in the classroom throughout this process?
All faculty members, including Drs. Harlow and Schneider, are committed to upholding the Reformed creeds and confessions in the classroom even while new discoveries bring difficult questions.