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Professor quits because he can’t Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

Friday 2 September 2011

Will Pavia New York

A professor of theology who had eaten of the tree of knowledge — in this case knowledge of evolutionary science — has been thrust out of the sanctuary of Calvin College, a Christian university in Michigan.

Professor John Schneider is the latest Christian scholar to leave his post amid a controversy that is gripping America’s evangelical community. In a country where surveys suggest that four in ten people believe in the biblical account of the origins of Man, some are calling this a “Galileo moment”, akin to the agonies suffered by the Roman Catholic Church over the suggestion in the 17th century that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

Professor Schneider and a colleague, Professor Daniel Harlow, had published papers noting that it was becoming ever harder to maintain that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve. He suggested that Christians needed to abandon the idea that the Fall was an historical event.

Uproar ensued. Readers and influential evangelicals all over America called for both men to be fired. Professor Schneider left his job. The college said that he had sought early retirement but Professor Harlow, in an interview with a Christian newspaper, said: “John was pressured to leave.”

Professor Harlow then announced that he would be taking a sabbatical and would no longer write on so controversial a subject. “At this point in Calvin College’s history, it cannot handle that,” he said. “I cannot handle that. It’s taken a heavy physical and emotional toll on me.”

Professor Harlow had noted in his paper that recent research in molecular biology could not support the idea of a “single couple living in Mesopotamia a few thousand years ago”.

“The best mathematical models suggest, rather, that the ancestors of all modern Homo sapiens were a population of about 10,000 interbreeding individuals ... members of a much larger population living in Africa about 150,000 years ago,” he wrote.

Professor Schneider had noted previous attempts to maintain that the first three chapters of Genesis contained a true historical account of the beginnings of the world. He wrote that palaeoscience “overwhelmingly proves that labour pains, the locomotion of snakes, predation, deadly diseases, mass extinction, thorn plants and weeds, and violent natural events existed for millennia before the existence of the first humans”.

This was far more radical than the idea that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe. It called into question the teachings of the Apostle Paul, who referred to Adam as an historical figure, the belief that evil and suffering were caused not by God but by human sin and the belief that Christ arrived as a “second Adam” to redeem mankind.

Karl Giberson, 54, who taught physics at Eastern Nazarene College in Boston but eventually felt pressured to leave, said: “It’s clear to more thoughtful Christian scholars that Adam and Eve simply can’t be historical figures and we have to deal with it. The donors who fund Christian colleges are not always very intellectual. Of course every biological department teaches evolution, and every religion department teaches a literary interpretation of the Bible. They just can’t own up to it.”

He wrote several books on the subject and became a “lightning rod for criticism”, he said. One of his fiercest critics was Ken Ham, 59, a co-founder of Answers in Genesis, which provides creationist educational materials for schools and colleges and has built a Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Mr Ham agrees with Dr Giberson’s assessment of attitudes in Christian colleges. “We published a book called Already Compromised, which looked at what’s being taught. The majority were teaching evolution,” Mr Ham said.

He describes scholars such as Dr Giberson as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. He said: “They are undermining the gospel. If Adam and Eve aren’t literal, Christianity is totally meaningless. You might as well throw the Bible away.”

Other conservative evangelicals allow that the Earth may be older than four or ten thousand years, but insist on the historical existence of Adam and Eve. Fazale Rana, a biochemist who is vice-president of the think-tank Reasons to Believe, said that the controversy was greater than that caused by Galileo.

“This is dealing with a core doctrine that relates to how we explain original sin, what did Jesus do when he died on the cross; the implications are pretty far-ranging,” he said.

He supports an open debate and added: “I’m uncomfortable with the idea that some of the people advocating this are persecuted. They are asking reasonable questions. I recognise that evolution is the mainstream idea even if I’m sceptical about some aspects.”

BioLogos, another Christian foundation, is trying to broker a compromise. “There is no necessary conflict,” Darrel Falk, its president, said. One way to reconcile each side would be to say that “Adam and Eve were in some way singled out; they entered into a relationship with God. There were other people on Earth at the time. That totally fits with the scientific data.”

However, this has not yet caught on. “It gets nasty pretty quick,” said Peter Enns, 50, another professor of theology forced out of a Christian college. “This has been brewing for 150 years. In 100 years people will say, ‘I can’t believe people were defending a literal Adam’.”

Dr Giberson fears that evangelicals will become ever more isolationist. His latest book, The Anointed Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, looks at “how anti-intellectuals and popular leaders are shaping American evangelical thought”.

“I’ve written book after book. There is no evidence that we are making progress. We are lonely voices in the wilderness,” he said.

The debate

Creationism God made the universe in six days

Science The universe began 14 billion years ago in an event known as the Big Bang. Our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of dust

Creationism God created all life on Earth on the sixth day of creation

Science Life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor and survival is based on competition and natural selection. The oldest fossils of single-cell organisms date from 3.5 billion years ago

Creationism Adam and Eve were the first humans; Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs

Science Humans evolved from apes. Humans and chimps shared a common relative 7-8 million years ago who lived in Africa. In 1974 Lucy, a fossil of an early humanoid, was found. She lived 3.2 million years ago

Sources: New Scientist; Natural History Museum; Nasa; BBC

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