After Evolution: 4 Reformed figures who accepted evolution and kept on moving

What follows are very brief bios of four prominent Reformed figures who have accepted evolution and gone on to accept increasingly unorthodox positions.

Peter Enns

Enns once taught at Westminster Theological Seminary (1994- 2008) from where the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) gets many of their ministerial candidates. After accepting evolution he now has a very different understanding of the Bible, claiming, “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”

Howard Van Till

Van Till taught at the Christian Reformed Calvin College (1967-1998) and was for a time one of the best-known Reformed defenders of evolution.

He no longer holds to the Reformed confessions, and, according to a 2008 piece in The Grand Rapids Press seems to have migrated to some form of pantheism, seeing “God not as a transcendent, separate creator, but an active presence within and inseparable from creation.”

Edwin Walhout

Walhout is a retired Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor, and was once the denomination’s Editor of Adult Education. In 1972 he suggested

…it may well be that science can give us insights into the way in which God created man, but it can hardly discover or disclaim that man is an image of God.

In a 2013 Banner article “Tomorrow’s Theology,” he was far more definitive, proposing that in light of evolution the CRC needs to re-examine the doctrines of Creation, Original Sin, the Fall and Salvation, as well as whether Adam and Eve were real historical people.

Deborah Haarsma

Haarsma was a professor at Calvin College from 1999 until 2012. In 2007, along with her husband, she authored a book that discussed various views on origins and, while endorsing none, treated evolution as at least credible.

She is now the president of Biologos, a think tank that aggressively promotes evolution as true and that questions Original Sin, the Flood, the Fall into Sin, and whether Adam and Eve were actually historical people.

Moving in just one direction?

Does this mean that accepting evolution always leads to liberalism? Couldn’t we counter this list by coming up with one made up of Reformed luminaries who have accepted evolution and stayed generally orthodox?

We could come up with such a list and Tim Keller might be at the top of it. But the problem is that twenty years ago Peter Enns might also have been on such a list. He didn’t reject orthodoxy immediately. Any such “counterlist” might simply be a list of evolution-believing Reformed figures who don’t reject orthodoxy yet. Only time will tell.

No, if we’re going to try to make the case that evolution and orthodoxy are a natural fit, then the better counterlist would be that of liberals who, after embracing evolution, moved in a more orthodox direction. That would be a good answer to this list.

But does that ever happen?

A Dutch version of this article can be found here.

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  1. Timothy Joseph

    April 18, 2017 at 8:00 am

    With the progression of these former stalwarts of orthodoxy to evolution and the fact that we do not see the opposite movement, as pointed out in this article, why does the vast majority of Reformed Christianity continue to elevate Keller? We have seen this before, Keller, like the 4 listed here, was an advocate of orthodox creation beliefs. He wavered in allowing that others who hold different beliefs on creation should be heard and now has written a ‘white paper’ on biblical evolution for the same site Haarsma is president, Biologos. The only difference I can see is that he, Keller, is a Pastor of a large church in a Reformed denomination and is a celebrity!


  2. Norman Prenger

    September 18, 2018 at 11:41 am

    Fear is the reason. And pride. Given the kind of witch hunts which abound in conservative Reformed circles, of course people don’t step forward and confess their orthodoxy as well as their conviction evolution is the only theory that fits with evidence-based science. Conversely, when people do takea stand, their opponents harass and argue to force them into positions more and more heterodox. That’s what happens when God’s people find themselves in the grip of fear and pride: i.e. fundamentalism.

    • Reformed Perspective

      September 18, 2018 at 12:23 pm

      I have pointed to those who have “devolved” in their orthodoxy after embracing evolution. You haven’t offered up any counter-examples, and so the challenge remains.

      • Alex Rothwell

        September 20, 2018 at 2:17 pm

        Just because a particular idea does not lead people into orthodoxy does not mean that is untrue. The purpose of theology is to learn the truth, not suppress one part of it in order to convince people to accept the rest; it is very saddening to see people who believe in Reformed Theology being willing to compromise truth for pragmatic reasons. Why do Calvinists teach that not all are chosen for salvation? Because it is true. Preaching that God loves all unconditionally will gain more followers, won’t it? It doesn’t matter, truth is truth. Why can’t this be applied to other issues. I do not intend to advocate for theistic evolution in this comment, but point out the logical problem with the article. The fact that some Reformed theistic evolutionists have left orthodoxy does not mean that evolution caused it. Correlation is not causation. It is most likely that those people had little loyalty to the word of God to begin with. I admit that most theistic evolutionists have a low view of scripture. However, that does not mean that all people who believe in evolution have a low view of scripture; there may be two Christians who both hold to inerrancy and affirm that the Bible is true in everything that it says, but disagree on how the creation narrative is to be interpreted. That is OK, they are both orthodox and hold to the basic doctrines loyally, but have come to different conclusions about the early chapters of Genesis. One may believe that it should be interpreted with strict literalism, while the other may see it as more poet and theological rather than historical. The dialogue is purely academic and does not impact central doctrines unless one person rejects the inspiration of any part of the Bible, denies the fall of man, denies the historicity of Adam and Eve or denies God’s role in creation.

        • Reformed Perspective

          September 20, 2018 at 3:54 pm

          While I will readily admit this is not the weightiest argument that could be made against theistic evolution, we are told in Matthew 7:15-20 that we can know bad trees by their bad fruit.

          So I’m pointing to some bad fruit hanging on the theistic evolution tree – four formerly orthodox Reformed figures who have departed from orthodoxy – and I am asking if there might be any examples of good fruit on this tree that I’ve missed. I’m happy to admit there are otherwise orthodox sorts who hold to theistic evolution but we have to ask, is that because evolution is compatible with orthodoxy, or because human beings often hold to completely contradictory ideas?

          If it were the former, then we would expect to see at least some folks who embrace evolution afterwards become steadily more orthodox. But if it were the latter, then we would expect to see some of the Christians who embraced evolution, if they tried to work through the contradictions, would depart from orthodoxy.

          And what is it that we see?

  3. Norman Prenger

    September 22, 2018 at 10:40 am

    As I said, hiding behind orthoxy is easy to do and likely happening all the time. Jesus seems to more interested in pursuing that sort of hypocrisy than any greek or roman who may be blending greek notions of science than holding to “orthodox” renderings of Bible verses. Abraham Kuyper was happy to embrace liberalism until a woman set him straight. But my guess is you would not be happy with every “reformed” position that Kuyper took, either.

    It’s because of the intense pressure of fundamentalism that science minded believers have either given up on any pretense to “orthodoxy”. Your article is just another exmple of that sort of pressure. Shibboleth thinking is for the vain and fearful. It certainly isn’t “reformed”. It’s a sad day when the church loses even one bright mind.

    nuff said

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