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The Shame of Calvin College

I have written before about Calvin College in Western Michigan and its troubles. I have now to tell you that things have wended their way to their expected and sad conclusion.

To give the background once again, starting with the College’s own words.

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.

Now, at one level this is all fine and dandy. Calvinists started and run the college, so that their kids can get educated in the way that they want, and it seems to me that they have every right therefore to expect the faculty to toe the line. The college wouldn’t employ me and no more should it. Obviously not all church-connected colleges insist on exact subscription to their own particular beliefs. Alvin Plantinga is a strong Calvinist, yet for many years he was a professor at the University of Notre Dame. But if a college does want exact subscription, so be it.

But equally obviously, insisting on exact subscription may bring a cost. If your religious beliefs conflict with science—deny absolutely and completely basic claims of science—and if you insist on the religion over the science, then don’t expect respect from the rest of us. Don’t expect us to think that your students are properly educated. Don’t pretend to be as good as you might like to think you are. And expect special scrutiny if ever you apply for funds from public sources, like the National Science Foundation.

The problem—and in this day and age it is embarrassing even to have to say this—is over Adam and Eve. Now let it be understood clearly and loudly. Menstruating girls are not sick. The earth is not flat. Adam and Eve, understood as literal individuals who were the first humans, created miraculously, the parents of us all, originally sinless, did not exist. Humans are part of the overall tree of life, our species may have gone through bottlenecks but we never dropped below several thousand and perhaps more, we today are descended from many co-existing ancestors, and our moral nature is part of the picture. We were not one day all nice and friendly and then the next horrid and mean.

The tenets of the Reformed faith suggest otherwise. Take the Heidelberg Catechism on the subject of original sin, the fact that although we were created perfect by a good god we are nevertheless sinful.

Q & A 7
Q. Then where does this corrupt human nature
come from?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents,
Adam and Eve, in Paradise.^1
This fall has so poisoned our nature^2
that we are born sinners—
corrupt from conception on.^3
^1 Gen. 3
^2 Rom. 5:12, 18-19
^3 Ps. 51:5

This thinking, it should be noted, is not original with Calvin, but goes back to his greatest theological influence, Saint Augustine around the beginning of the Fourth Century.

So what’s to be done? Both Augustine and Calvin offered a way forward. The essential elements of faith remain unchanged but we must recognize that new thinking, new philosophy, new science, may call for reinterpretation. Augustine was strong on this. The ancient Jews did not understand science and it would have been silly of God to have spoken to them literally. In Calvin’s words, God “accommodates” his language to the common people.

So if modern science says that a literal Adam and Eve do not exist, start thinking of ways that one can keep a good creating god, sinful humans, and the need for Jesus to die on the cross for our salvation. And this is precisely what John Schneider, until the end of last month a member of the Religion Department at Calvin, has been doing. Drawing on theology even older than Augustine, he has been speculating that perhaps we should understand human nature as something developing gradually and (from a moral viewpoint) always in need of improvement and help. He has been arguing that perhaps the coming and suffering of Jesus is not “Plan B,” a fix-it solution by God to mop up after the mistakes of Adam and Eve, but something always part of the Divine Intention.

It is this that has got him into hot water with the president of Calvin College, who thinks that Schneider has been violating the terms of his employment. You will note that I said that Schneider used to be a member of the Religion Department for he has now taken early retirement. He and the College have issued one of those po-faced statements that say everyone is concerned to work things out for the good of the group and no one is blaming anyone for anything, but goodbye and good luck.

As it happens, Schneider’s next stop is going to be Notre Dame, just down the road, where he has a year’s fellowship to explore in more detail some of the ideas that led to his early exit from Calvin. More importantly, he leaves his home with his head held high, a man of integrity who believes that being made in the image of God means using one’s abilities fearlessly wherever they lead. And Calvin College, an institution that in so many ways rightfully deserves to be considered a jewel in the crown of American higher education, is stained. Once again in America, dogmatic biblical literalism trumps modern science. The Enlightenment founders of this country, men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, must be weeping in their graves.

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