Howard Van Till’s Lightbulb Moment

Howard Van Till

I was reading an old issue of Calvin Theological Journal and I came across a review of a book entitled Three Views on Creation and Evolution (eds. J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds).  Since I’m preaching some sermons on Genesis as of late, this caught my attention.  The reviewer, Clarence Menninga, goes through each of the views.  Theistic evolution is represented by Howard Van Till, now an emeritus professor from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.  Menninga noted the following:

…Van Till objects vigorously to being tagged with the label theistic evolution, and he suggests that his view be called the fully gifted creation in order to put the emphasis on God’s creating activity and to avoid the godless connotation that the word evolution evokes.  However, even after Van Till presents his perspective on creation and evolution, some of the respondents insist on calling his view theistic evolution, as do the editors.  Van Till, justifiably, comments in his reply that he is personally insulted by their pigeon-holing him.

This book was published in 1999 and the review appeared in the April 2001 issue of CTJ.

In 2006 Van Till made a presentation for the West Michigan Freethought Association.  What does this association stand for?  Their website tells us:

The purpose of Center for Inquiry | Michigan is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The title of his presentation was “From Calvinism to Freethought” and you can find it online here.  In this presentation, Van Till outlines the struggles he faced at Calvin over his views.  He had signed the CRC Form of Subscription, but was faced with accusations that he was being unfaithful to his vows.  He writes:

Yes, I did sign the Form of Subscription, but at that time in my life I was naively unaware that I would ever encounter a need to challenge any tenet of the belief system that it represented.

Take note of his honesty.  He eventually came to realize that he was butting up against the confessional standards of the CRC.  Eventually he started to question why Calvin faculty members should even be required to sign the Form of Subscription.  However, the Board of Trustees wanted to keep Van Till at Calvin.  They drafted a document which he could sign, a document which said that he was in agreement with the confessions as they had come to be understood by the CRC and applied to academia.  Van Till concludes his narrative of this period with this observation:

Most of the difficulties that I experienced were generated by a small but vocal minority of members of the Christian Reformed Church, individuals whose worldview had little room for scientific discoveries made after the 17th century, persons who were allowed to have ecclesiastical influence radically out of proportion to their feeble grasp of responsible scholarship.

Notice the subtle “ad hominem” argument in the preceding quote.  This condescending attitude is found elsewhere in the paper.

So where is Howard Van Till today?  This is how he concludes the presentation/paper:

I must move on in my own personal journey. My goal is to craft my new Portrait of Reality as consciously and intentionally as I am able. In order to do so I must often admit that I don’t “know” nearly as much as I once did. The kind of certainty I once professed — authority-derived and institutionally-enforced — is now gone. In its place I find deep satisfaction in “giving it my best shot” each day and taking responsibility for bringing my professed Portrait of Reality in line with my operative Portrait of Reality. The journey of life is good.

I know this is all old news.  But I thought it worth mentioning because the trajectory is instructive.  At one point he objected to having his view described as “evolution” because the word had a connotation of godlessness.  Later, speaking to a crowd of secular humanist freethinkers, he admits that he’d had a friendly attitude towards the word “evolution.”  He went from signing the Form of Subscription, to willfully disregarding the Form, to throwing out Calvinism altogether.  While one certainly wishes that Van Till had his lightbulb moment earlier, we can commend his honesty at this point.  He came to a moment of self-consciousness, finally recognizing where his allegiance truly rests:  “My goal is to craft my new Portrait of Reality…”

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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