Gise J. Van Baren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
The Grand Rapids Press, January 17, 1987, presented a special report in its religious section about “A controversial course”, taught by Howard Van Till at Calvin College. Van Till is an astronomy and physics professor who recently wrote a book, The Fourth Day which has generated considerable controversy. The book is doubtlessly contributing to the growing rift between the “conservatives” and “liberals” in the Christian Reformed Church. I quote some of the report in the Press:
Standing between the creationists on the one hand and the strict evolutionists on the other, Van Till tries to chart a new way for Christians to view the world.
“I believe the world should, if you study it carefully, provide reliable information,” said the 48-yearold Van Till. “It is, after all, God’s handiwork. I trust that it is characterized by good order, continuity and integrity.”
Many of his ideas are contained in The Fourth Day, a book published last year by Eerdman’s Publishing Co. The title of the book comes from the account of creation in Genesis, in which God created the heavens on the fourth day.
. . . Critics say he ignores in his new book the authority of scripture, especially when he says that he believes the first 11 chapters of the Bible are not to be read literally.
“This is a touchy area, an area in which the Christian community gets uptight,” said Van Till.
“I’m talking about some big questions. What I’m trying to do [in the book) is be challenging without being unnecessarily disturbing.”
What he believes, he said, is that the first part of Genesis should be read as a “rich, artistic” account of creation. He doesn’t read it literally.
Creationists, however, don’t like this. They say Van Till is moving too far afield in the way he combines science and theology.
“The issue for me is the doctrine of creation, not the story itself as presented in Genesis,” commented the physics professor.
But that doesn’t silence his detractors.
John Hultink, a CRC member and managing editor of a biweekly newspaper called Christian Renewal, is one of the astronomer’s harshest critics.
As editor of the conservative paper, published in Ontario, Hultink sits on the far right fringe of those challenging Van Till’s ideas. Hultink, in fact, has frequently denounced The Fourth Day as a work that is out to undermine the Christian Reformed Church.
“What Professor Van Till has done in his book is reduce all the givens of the first chapters of Genesis to one statement, and that is that he thinks God created the universe via the process of evolution,” said Hultink.
“I think this (publication of this book) is the most important thing that ever happened to our denomination,” added Hultink . . . .
“What is at stake here is the question of the authority, the authenticity, the reliability of revelation,” he commented.
The Christian Renewal, he added, is geared to preserving orthodox Christianity within the CRC. Van Till’s book, he said, is an example of how people, even at the CRC’s school, are veering farther and farther from the truth.
“What Van Till is saying is that Adam and Eve never existed, that there was no flood, no tower of Babel,” said Hultink. “He places man and his authority and insight above the insight and authority of God.”
. . . Van Till, a teacher at Calvin for nearly 20 years, noted that different readers will view his book in various ways.
“I understand why this book troubles some people, but I think the creation/evolution controversy is a discussion that has generated much more heat than light over the years,” he commented.
For his part, Van Till said he believes the first chapters of the Bible ought to be read in light of the times in which they were written.
The biblical accounts of creation, he said, should be read in view of the doctrine they describe, not the history they recount.
“I see this as a rich, artistic account of creation. I believe that different cultures have different ways of picturing how God goes about his work as creator,” he said.
What is important, he said, is the fact that God is the one who made, and continues to make, the universe. He is the entity behind the moon, stars, the earth and man.
“In the end, the doctrinal statements are the same,” said Van Till. “We and all the world are dependent on God for our existence.”
. . . It was the resurgence of the creation/evolution debate a few years ago that provided the impetus for him to write The Fourth Day. The debate itself has grown as people have become more and more unhappy with the science’s “non-theistic” answers that science provides to the ultimate questions, he said.
Van Till believes the universe is around 15 billion years old, that it was formed by God and that it has, in fact, evolved in a variety of highly complex ways over time.
“I am doing theology, but for much of my biblical research I’m relying on other experts,” he said. . . . Van Till may question the historical authenticity of the early chapters of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that he reads scripture as fiction.
“I don’t rule out miracles,” he said. “I believe these are signs and wonders, special acts of God performed in the presence of human witnesses for the purpose of revealing something important for their salvation.”
He believes in Christ’s resurrection, in the virgin birth, in the account of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.
These events, he said, were witnessed by someone who wrote them down. The events chronicled in Genesis, however, were not actually written by a person who experienced them . . . .
One can then understand the consternation of many conservatives in the CRC—especially since Van Till has been teaching these things for 20 years at Calvin College—to more than 2000 students in the past decade in his astronomy course (p. 75 of his book). Disturbing too, must be his report that “Though the majority of my students arrive familiar with the cosmic time scale and have no problems with it, there are always several in each class who have never given the matter serious consideration (assuming it, perhaps, to be mere nonsense) or who, having considered it, have very consciously rejected it in the sincere Christian belief that it is clearly contradicted by the teaching of the Bible, particularly by Genesis 1 . . . .” Concerning this traditional interpretation, and those who still believe it, Van Till states, “I have since come to the conclusion that such an interpretation is naive . . . .” (p. 76). And that most of his students come to class without any problems with the “cosmic time scale and have no problems with it” ought itself to be very disturbing.
No wonder that the anguished cry was presented in “Questions and Answers” in the Banner, Dec. 8, 1986, “Why is evolution taught at Calvin College? More than a year ago the Banner acknowledged this, and no one has ever challenged these views on the pages of our church magazine. However, Christian Renewal (Feb. 3, 1986) discussed this problem openly. What can be done about this?”
The answer, written with words which must not be easily understood by the layman, states:
It is important to know whether the charges made in the journal you cite are true. In fairness to all, I asked Calvin College for an official response. This was furnished by Dr. Howard J. Van Till of the department of physics and astronomy:
“The question to which you have invited a response is trivial. Misapprehension arises, I believe, out of an extended failure to stress the importance of certain distinctions. The biblically based doctrine of creation, which clearly informs us where we and the rest of the world stand in relationship to God, is often confused with culturally or scientifically inspired pictures of the creation’s formative history. And the scientific concept of evolutionary development, which seeks to provide a description of the processes that make up cosmic history, is often confused with naturalistic denials of the reality of God’s purposeful governance of that history.
“I am fully confident that every Calvin College professor firmly believes that we, along with the world in which we live, are God’s creation. We heartily profess our faith in God, who, as our sovereign Creator, is our Originator, our Sustainer, our Governor, and the faithful Provider of our daily needs.
“We vigorously reject the philosophy of naturalistic evolutionism because it denies God’s governance of ‘natural’ processes and because it attempts illegitimately to use the results of natural science to provide the appearance of support for an atheistic religious perspective.
“Now, as responsible stewards of God’s creation, we are called to employ the tools of competent scholarship in the investigation of its properties, its behavior, and its formative history. ‘We scientists, therefore, must meaningfully engage the concept of evolutionary development (a scientific concept with limited scope, not to be confused with the philosophical concept of naturalistic evolutionism), and we must honestly evaluate theories of development on the basis of their adequacy in accounting for the physical evidence of creation’s formative history in an orderly and consistent manner.”
So one is “naive” to believe in a literal account of creation as presented in Genesis 1. Indeed, the conservatives have great reason for concern. If I may apply some of Van Till’s own language in describingGenesis 1 to his answer above, I would be inclined to say that if one removes the “packaging” of the answer, and gets at the “content”, the substance would be: Yes, evolution is taught at Calvin College—but a “theistic” evolution.