In a recent issue of The Banner (12/8/86) the Q & A department carried a question from an Indiana reader as follows: “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?”

This question was referred by Q & A Editor Rev. W.D. Buursma to Calvin College, and an answer was furnished by Dr. Howard J. Van Till of the department of physics and astronomy. Dr. Van Till is the author of the recently published book The Fourth Day, which was sent to us for review. When I wrote my brief review of this book, I suggested that I might have more to say on this subject later. The question raised in The Banner stimulated that “more.”

In The Banner Dr. Van Till furnished the following answer:

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. 

(*In a later issue of The Banner it was noted that this statement should be: “The question to which you have invited a response is not trivial.” It was also noted that Dr. Van Till’s response was editorially condensed.)

Now I do not know whether the Indiana questioner inThe Banner was satisfied by Dr. Van Till’s answer; I certainly would not have been. Why not? For the simple reason that the questions were not answered. The first question, “Why?” was certainly not answered. Instead, allusion is made to “misapprehension”—presumably on the part of the questioner. And the second question evidently fell away in the mind of the respondent.

However, the questions demand an answer.

It is true that Christian Renewal, a rather interesting “conservative” paper under the editorship of John Hultink, dealt with this subject at length in more than one issue and also succeeded in ruffling the feathers of some Calvin College professors. Apparently, however, even Christian Renewal had no real answer to the question, “What can be done about this?” And for the time being the discussion (and debate?) seems to have died down.

Frankly, I am rather surprised by the fact that there is any fuss whatsoever made about the teaching of evolution at Calvin College. Why? Because, in my opinion, complaining about evolutionism at Calvin College is like beating a dead horse.

The evolution-issue at Calvin College (and in the Christian Reformed Church officially) is a dead issue. It was settled long ago. Evolutionism has been accepted—if not by positive decision, then by default. I suppose from time to time some hackles are raised when a book such as that of Dr. Van Till is published or when a college professor expresses himself in the columns of The Banner. And I can sympathize with people who are disturbed by it. But the issue as such is dead. It would not be possible, I dare say, to eradicate evolutionism from Calvin College.

When I read Dr. Van Till’s book, and later the article in Q &A, my thoughts went back some twenty years to the mid-1960s, when I delivered a series of three lectures on the subject of creation and evolution at First Church, Grand Rapids, and wrote my little book, In The Beginning God . . . . ” (now out of print). At that time there was concern about the teaching of evolution at Calvin College, and there was considerable discussion of the matter. Actually, however, the problem goes back farther than that. The late Dr. John DeVries (author of Beyond The Atom) had as one of his avowed goals in his teaching at Calvin to cure pre-seminarians, all of whom had to take some science courses, of holding to the doctrine of six-day creation. About the same time, Dr. Edwin Monsma (of the biology department) was sometimes mocked for adhering strictly to the truth of creation and for opposing evolutionism. The problem of evolutionistic teachings goes back, therefore, as far as the late 1940s. In fact, in my own high school days the period theory was being introduced already as a rather subtly suggested option.

However, just because books like that of Dr. Van Till continue to come from the press, and just because the doctrine of creation and the Creator is wrested and denied, and just because our people in general, but our young people in particular, and more specifically some of our young people who attend institutions of higher learning, are exposed to evolutionistic teachings and to various attempts to debunk clear the teachings of Scripture, I wish to re-emphasize certain truths concerning Scripture and creation, but also to expose the fallacy of these evolutionistic teachings and especially the attempts to achieve a kind of alleged synthesis of evolution and creation. It is the latter attempts, perhaps, which constitute the biggest danger to covenant young people. The out-and-out evolutionist is not such a great threat; he is a professed unbeliever and can be readily recognized as such—and rejected. But when a synthesis is attempted, and when that synthesis is presented as both scientifically valid and Scripturally compatible, then there is temptation to deviate from the faith. That temptation should not be underestimated. And we should be equipped to overcome it.

As to my method, I shall not attempt to parade as a scientist. I am not a scientist, and I freely acknowledge that in a scientific battle of wits I would go down to ignominious defeat. In fact, there are passages in Dr. Van Till’s book that are far over my head.

I will base my fundamental argument in this discussion strictly on Scripture and our Reformed creeds. And I will insist that any Christian and Reformed science must function on that basis and within those bounds.

—HCH