Friday, October 30, 2009

Teaching Evolution At Our Schools - Why And How

On more than one occasion teachers have spoken with me about the way we are to teach evolution at our Reformed schools. The ministry of education makes evolution an obligatory subject, but there is more than one way of complying with the demand. Evolution can be taught and evaluated in a straightforward manner as a well-established biological theory that has weaknesses as well as strengths. It can also be taught and then explained away – and I am afraid this is done at some of our schools – as lie and deception, the devil’s own work. Related to this second approach is enlisting the help of certain videos and other material provided by young-earth-creationism. As one principal told me, these “creation-science” products are quite popular in our schools. Indeed, young-earth creationism is widely upheld as “Reformed doctrine.” Often, the principal wrote, schools use the material to make evolution look “stupid,” something we can chuckle about; which of course does little, he added, to prepare our students for what they will meet in their studies at secular institutions.

So far there had been little public discussion of the matter. On October 29, however, it was the topic of a workshop I gave at the annual convention of the Canadian Reformed Teachers Association Ontario, held in Fergus on October 29, 2009. In this workshop I recommended the first of the three approaches mentioned above. I made clear that I am not a Darwinist; that for me there are not only theological, but also scientific reasons to question the theory, and that I would give these reasons. At the same time I pointed out that there is strong evidence in favour of evolution and common descent and that we have to deal honestly with that evidence. It is the only way not only to understand the theory, but also to be able to criticize it (wherever such criticism is called for) in an honest, intelligent, and convincing manner.

The paper on which I based my workshop presentation can be found on this blog under “Collected Papers” (see side bar; direct link here). After a brief introduction as to WHY we should teach evolution in the manner suggested and after some remarks about the way we should read Genesis 1, I deal with the question HOW evolution should be taught. I begin here with an account of the scientific evidence for neo-Darwinism and then proceed with some of the questions that can be raised in connection with that evidence. Some final remarks deal with the nature of science, the subjective element in science, but also with the fact of science’s impressive track record.

In both the introduction and the conclusion of my paper I make clear that evolution ought to be taught only in the senior grades, but that in all grades we should cease condemning modern science (which indeed has had negative consequences but which in God’s providence has also brought us very many blessings) as the work of the powers of darkness. Instead our students should, from grade 1 onward, hear from us the central message of Genesis 1, namely that God is the all-powerful creator, that He was and is involved in every aspect of creation, and that His handiwork proclaims his glory. I further emphasize that our task is not completed by teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism. We must also give attention to the use that is being made of this theory as a basis for an overall evolutionist and anti-Christian worldview. This implies, among other things, the urgent need to organize courses in apologetics or philosophy for our older students. Here they must be taught about ‘scientific’ atheism, about the social and economic abuse of evolutionary theories, and about the reductionism to which materialistic science has led.

I am well aware of the challenge we as Christians face is in connection with the theory of evolution. As again became clear during the discussion at the workshop, Christian teachers, pastors, and parents must make time to discuss the implications and repercussions of teaching evolution, and do so in a serious manner, in much detail, and with a willingness to listen to each other. I hope and pray that the workshop and the accompanying paper may initiate such discussions. In my opinion it is high time.

I should add that the paper is followed by a lengthy glossary, which should enable also those who are not acquainted with some of the scientific terms related to evolution and evolutionism to participate in the discussion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Biblical Inerrancy

Biblical inerrancy (the idea of an absolutely errorless Bible) found many adherents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the North-American evangelical movement. The renewed stress on inerrancy at that time was largely a result of the spread of biblical criticism, the rise of secular science (including the theory of Darwinism), and the rapid secularization of American society. Although the belief in inerrancy was strongest among the conservative branches of North-American evangelicalism, which would soon form the so-called fundamentalist movement, the idea gained followers also among Reformed theologians, within and outside North America.

Dutch theologian Dr. Ad de Bruijne has pointed out (in Woord op Schrift, pp. 185f.), that among Reformed theologians in the Netherlands there have been two approaches to the issue in the past century or so. One group held, with American fundamentalism, that the Bible as the Word of God is by definition without errors in all its details. If errors or discrepancies are found, they must be blamed on the copyists; the original manuscripts (which we no longer possess!) were absolutely faultless. Other Reformed theologians criticized this theory as impossible of proof. They also asked why God would have allowed the perfect original manuscripts to disappear while preserving the imperfect copies with the discrepancies. These theologians continued to speak of biblical infallibility, a term that is not easy to define, but that has generally been interpreted as implying not factual inerrancy, but the Bible’s absolute trustworthiness in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals.

Although there were exceptions, the Reformed community as a whole has long continued to speak of an infallible Bible, rather than an inerrant one. This was true not only in Holland but also in Canada. In recent years, however, inerrantism is being affirmed by some Canadian Reformed churches and church leaders. We can read about this development in a paper by Tyler Vandergaag, titled “Inerrancy: A Reformed Doctrine?” (see under “collected papers” in the sidebar; direct link here). Tyler is a graduate student at Trinity Western University, where he is working on an M.A. in Biblical Studies, focusing specifically on Justin Martyr’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Currently, he teaches a Catechism class at the Langley Canadian Reformed Church, where he, his wife Keri and their son Jayden are members. In his paper Tyler analyzes the doctrine of inerrancy, summarizes its history, and comes with a variety of arguments to show that we would do well to abandon the term. Inerrantism, as he points out, leads to exegetical problems and is in conflict with the Reformed tradition about the place and function of Holy Scripture. Nowhere do the Reformed confessions use the word inerrancy.

Tyler’s paper is well-researched and very readable. In view of the doctrine’s spread among us, it is also timely. As Tyler points out, the term even occurs in the draft of an official church paper, namely in the preamble to the Proposed Joint Church Order (of the CanRC and the URC) that will be submitted to the Canadian Reformed Synod of 2010. It is time for a serious discussion on the matter. Tyler’s paper can serve as an excellent starting point.