|Calvin Professors Write on Origins
October 2, 2007
A new book from a pair of Calvin professors strives to bring more light and less heat to Christian discussions about the history of the universe. “Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution” is written by Deborah and Loren Haarsma, professors in the Physics & Astronomy department.
It is published by Grand Rapids based Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing house of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the denomination with which Calvin is affiliated.
The Haarsmas hope their new book, slated for release next week, will help Christians who want to better understand the often controversial issues connected with life’s origins and development.
“The issues around creation, design, and evolution are complex-and interesting,” says Loren Haarsma. But he adds, “These words mean different things to different people, and they tend to provoke arguments.”
The Haarsmas say that’s because origins issues run close to some of life’s deepest questions: does God exist, how does God relate to this universe, how did we get here, and who are we? But, they say, the culture wars often frame the argument as a false choice: believe in God or believe in science.
“If we only have two sides to choose from,” says Deborah Haarsma, “then believing in God means rejecting science, and believing what science says means rejecting God. So which do you choose: God or science? As scientists and Christians, we don’t accept this simplistic choice. In the book, we argue that God and science are not at war-rather, science is the study of God’s creation.”
Book Aims for Understanding of Other Viewpoints
The Haarsmas note that Christians today hold a range of views about creation and evolution and that they encounter that range in their own students each year.
“As Calvin professors," they say, "our goal is not to tell students which Christians are right and which are wrong. We want to expose them to the data and arguments and teach them to carefully examine the strengths and weaknesses of each position. In the same way, with this book we want Christians to better understand not only their own position, but the positions of their neighbors in the pew.”
Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution began to take shape in a 1997 adult Sunday school class that the Haarsmas taught at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston (the couple met in Boston in 1992 when Loren was working on a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard and Deborah was beginning her Ph.D. in physics at M.I.T).
In writing their book a decade later they drew on their many experiences of speaking at churches, and they had that same audience in mind for their book.
To help with the fact-checking, the Haarsmas had several scientists and theologians read early drafts of their book. But they also asked people who are not experts to read the book to make sure it was written in a way that was helpful for them.
“It’s intended for people who aren’t scientists and aren’t trained theologians,” says Deborah. “It’s for people who are interested in issues of creation, design and evolution and want to learn more about them. These issues are often in the news, but news stories are too short or too biased to explain the real issues. This book will aid parents and educators who want a Christian resource that does more than push one point of view.”
Emphasis Is on Foundation of Common Beliefs
Although the Haarsmas describe an array of opinions on origins, they emphasize a foundation of common Christian beliefs. They are resolute in their faith in a God who created and governs the universe, a God who reveals himself to humanity, a God who is a Redeemer, and a God who inspired the Bible-making it authoritative and sufficient for teaching us what we need to be saved.
Yet as scientists they also believe that God reveals himself in ways besides the Bible. They quote the CRC’s 1972 statement on the nature and extent of Biblical authority, “God reveals himself with full divine authority in the world of his making as well as in Scripture.”
“We conclude,” they write, “that God has graciously given humans the ability and the responsibility to study the natural world systematically. As with all human endeavors, we do it imperfectly. We must seek to do it as God’s image-bearers, in gratitude for God’s gifts.”
In their book they describe a number of ways in which Christians interpret the early chapters of Genesis. They note the CRC’s position on studying the world’s origins, as outlined in a 1991 report from Synod which said: “The church wishes to honor its commitment to the freedom of exegesis by not imposing upon its members an authorized interpretation of specific passages in Scripture, insisting only that such exegetical freedom be carried on within the limits of the analogy of Scripture and the confessional guidelines of its creeds. The church wishes also to respect the freedom of science by not canonizing certain hypotheses, models, or paradigms proposed by the sciences while rejecting others, insisting only that all such theorizing be subject to the teaching of Scripture and the confessions.”
Important to Know How Scripture, Creation Interact
As scientists and Christians, the Haarsmas are willing to ask difficult questions. “Is it ever appropriate for Christians to allow what they learn from the study of creation to affect how they interpret Scripture? Is it ever appropriate for Christians to allow what they learn from the study of Scripture to affect how they interpret creation?”
They believe that the answer to both questions is a qualified yes, but that these things can be done in good ways and bad ways.
The Haarsmas say that one bad way for science and theology to interact is to use one to simply reject the other. Another perilous interaction is when Christians seek to “prove God” by pointing to gaps in our scientific knowledge.
“If God is only a ‘god of the gaps,’ then God would shrink as scientific knowledge grows,” says Loren Haarsma. “In fact, many atheists and agnostics believe that the explosion of scientific knowledge over the centuries is evidence that the idea of God is irrelevant. Christians play into their hands when they argue that ‘Scientists can’t explain it all, so there must be a God’.”
A better approach, he and Deborah maintain, is to proclaim God’s design and creative hand in both the things science cannot explain and the things it can.
“God governs the regular functioning of the natural world,” says Deborah Haarsma, “whether or not science understands it yet. This approach bears truer witness to who God really is and will not become irrelevant as science advances.”
Human Geonome Project Raises Tough Questions
The Haarsmas point to recent scientific advances that raise challenging issues with which Christians must be ready to engage. One of these is the human genome project.
“Francis Collins, who heads up the project, is an evangelical Christian,” says Loren Haarsma, “and he says the data very strongly indicates that humans share common ancestry with other living things. How will we grapple with that as Christians?”
Indeed, the Haarsmas know that questions about human origins are closer to the heart of Christian theology than questions about the age of the earth. In their chapters in the book on human origins, they not only summarize the scientific data, but also look at key theological issues-the human soul, the image of God, original sin, and human mortality before the Fall.
Especially on the topic of human origins, the Haarsmas do not stake out a single view. They present several views held by fellow Christians and then discuss the theological and scientific challenges for each view.
Their approach throughout is to reject “evolutionism,” an atheistic interpretation of the scientific data. “The discovery of a scientific model for human origins,” they write, “would not eliminate God’s action. In all the views presented in this chapter, God is the Creator of humanity. The differences among the views are in how God accomplished it.”
The Haarsmas say that this foundational belief in God as the creator and sustainer is at the heart of how they do science. And their hope is that approach will ring in their new book and resonate with readers.
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