The debate between science and religion is a long and contested one, often characterized in the bellicose rhetoric of conflict. At various times different scholars have claimed significant victories for science or for religion. And yet, the battle still drags wearily on. Or so it can sometimes seem.

Gijsbert van den Brink has joined the fray with a contribution from the perspective of the Reformed tradition in his monograph, Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory.Gijsbert van den Brink, Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020). I will refer to this text parenthetically in the body of the essay by page number. What may the Reformed have to say that would be of use in this discussion? Apparently, quite a lot. In fact, as books that fall under the description of ‘religion and science’ go, van den Brink’s work is a step in the right direction, as Richard Mouw points out in the Foreword.
Van den Brink is admirably qualified for the work, having a background in philosophy and theology, and previous publications in theology and the philosophy of science.See especially, Gijsbert van den Brink, Philosophy of Science for Theologians: An Introduction. Contributions to Philosophical Theology Vol. 12 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009). He also has a firm grasp on the theological particularities of the Reformed tradition, having recently co-authored a popular textbook in systematic theology, which has been published in Dutch and in English to warm reviews.Cornelis Van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

My task is to discuss the first two chapters of Professor van den Brink’s new volume, in which he sets up his task. There are two parts to this endeavor. First, his account of the nature of Reformed theology, as a distinctive stance; second, his treatment of evolutionary theory as a layered concept. I will divide my remarks into two sections, one for each of the chapters. I will then offer some reflections on the success of van den Brink’s attempt to situate his work.

Reformed Theology as a Distinctive Stance

Eerdmans, 2020

Bas van Fraassen is well-known for his characterization of the empiricist tradition as a kind of stance. On his way of thinking, a philosophical position like empiricism “can consist in a stance (attitude, commitment, approach, a cluster of such—possibly including some propositional attitudes such as belief as well).”Bas C. van Fraassen, The Empirical Stance. The Terry Lectures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 47–48. Although such a stance may include beliefs, it is not equivalent to a set of beliefs. Rather, it is a kind of connected group of commitments and attitudes held in common. In characterizing Reformed theology in the first chapter of his study, van den Brink adopts van Fraassen’s notion of a stance. For Reformed theology is, he thinks, “an intensification of some theological doctrines, commitments, and even debates (e.g., on free will) that can also be found, but less emphatically, in other parts of the universal church” (p. 21). In this way, the notion of a theological stance is to be preferred to the more commonplace idea of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance as it is often applied to particular theological traditions. The reason for this is that the family resemblance notion requires only that a group of things (like those things that fall under the description ‘game’) share some characteristics with each other. Thus, rugby and cricket are games that share things like laws and rules, two opposing teams, a ball, and so on. But then, Monopoly is also a game as is chess, though neither involves teams or a ball. The differences between these activities are significant. Yet somehow they share sufficient characteristics with each other that all of them properly fall under the description of a game. Illuminating though this may be, from van den Brink’s perspective describing Reformed theology in terms of family resemblance is insufficient. It fails to account for the interconnectedness of Reformed theology that “binds together its various characteristics” (p. 20). Thus, a stance is a preferable way of characterizing Reformed theology.

One concern motivating van den Brink’s characterization of Reformed theology is what theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw calls the polyphonic nature of Reformed theology.Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serene Jones, eds. Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), xi, cited in van den Brink, Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory, 18. Reformed thought has always tolerated a kind of theological pluralism within certain dogmatic and confessional constraints. But saying what those constraints might be is rather more challenging. In this connection, van den Brink agrees with Michael Allen over and against Brian Gerrish that Reformed theology is not just a “habit of mind” (pp. 18–19), as if the Reformed are characterized by a kind of perpetual revolutionary impulse—always reformed, always reforming! But this is itself to side with the way in which one Reformed theologian thinks about Reformed theology against another, for both sensibilities can be found within the bounds of the same tradition. The point could be generalized to the work of other Reformed divines. For instance, think of the methodological differences between, say, Charles Hodge, John Williamson Nevin, and Friedrich Schleiermacher to name but three Reformed theologians working around the same period in the nineteenth century, all of whom were deeply affected by German idealism.For useful discussion of this point, see Annette G. Aubert, The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Who gets to decide which is the truly Reformed theology, and on what basis? There is a broader point here as well, having to do with the fact that van den Brink’s use of stance-language seems rather intangible. If Reformed thought is more than a habit of mind, what is it about the Reformed “intensification of some theological doctrines, commitments, and even debates” that can be found elsewhere in the church, but which (somehow) distinguishes Reformed from other sorts of theology? Why does, say, Schleiermacher count, but not Arminius or (a more modern example) Pannenberg? Given van den Brink’s characterization, it is difficult to say.

That said, I am sympathetic to van den Brink’s broader concern here. I agree with him that Reformed theology is not synonymous with Calvinism (pp. 12–13), is not defined by some spurious central dogma (pp. 14–15), and cannot be identified with one particular strand of Reformed thought (pp. 17–18). ‘Barthian’ theology is not the only strand of Reformed theology; but then, neither is the theology of Westminster Calvinism.Even if we concede that there is no (or almost no) exclusively Reformed doctrine, there are emphases that are characteristic of much Reformed theology. There are doctrinal emphases or preoccupations that are characteristic of much, though not all, Reformed thought. Predestination is often cited as one such doctrine (though some Reformed divines, like John Williamson Nevin, seem embarrassed by it, and largely ignore it). Van den Brink claims at one point that the spiritual presence doctrine of the Eucharist is the only really distinctive Reformed contribution to theology (p. 19). That may be true, even if it is not a doctrine owned by all Reformed theologians.

Van den Brink is not the first Reformed theologian to characterize Reformed theology in this way, though he may be the first to use van Fraassen’s language of a stance. It is a helpful concept. For, as van den Brink points out, it does not commit the Reformed to particular doctrines, particular thinkers, or a kind of eccentric, backwater theology that is narrowly focused on strange ideas that are not shared with the wider catholic church (p. 21). Perhaps more could be said about the interconnectedness of Reformed thought, though. Even if we concede that there is no (or almost no) exclusively Reformed doctrine, there are emphases that are characteristic of much Reformed theology. And there are ways of thinking about the practice of theology, and its ecclesiastical connection that can quickly be identified as Reformed even if they aren’t owned by all Reformed thinkers. Elsewhere I have suggested we distinguish between something akin to bounded and centered theological ‘sets.’See Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014). A bounded group, like a bounded set, distinguishes its members as those within a particular boundary (whether theological, philosophical, or whatever). Centered groups, like centered sets, distinguish their members by focusing instead on a kind of common core of commitments, beliefs, practices, and so on—in some ways rather like van Fraassen’s notion of a stance. But the benefit of the centered set/group metaphor is that it better illuminates the interconnectedness issue. Some people share more common commitments nearer the core of Reformed theology, whereas others share less and are further from the center as a consequence. However, this raises the issue of what it is that connects the different Reformed thinkers once more. What relates members of a centered group? Presumably a complex of different doctrines, beliefs, attitudes, worldview, and so on. But for different members of such a group there may be different points of connection just as there are in, say, political groups that are centered in this way. (Think of the centered set of political conservatism, for example.)

But perhaps that is where we must end up: with an approach to Reformed theology that relies on ostension rather than denotation, so to speak. By that I mean, an approach that points to particular divines, churches, studies, confessions, liturgies, and the like, and says “that is what I mean. That is a clear example of Reformed theology.” The desire to provide a clear and neat set of necessary and sufficient conditions for Reformed theology, which is the denotation route, seems a forlorn enterprise—a point made clearly and repeatedly by van den Brink, and with which I am entirely in agreement.

Evolutionary Theory as Layered Concept

Turning now to his views on evolution, van den Brink distinguishes between evolutionary theory, and evolutionism. Whereas evolutionary theory is a part of natural science, evolutionism is a worldview that is not entailed by evolutionary theory. According to evolutionism “processes of biological, cultural, and social evolution are sufficient to explain what goes on in the biosphere, so that these processes rule out the existence of God and other supernatural beings” (p. 33). Evolutionary theory has to do with modern Darwinism (p. 36), that is, the idea that biological adaptation and speciation obtain by means of natural selection (pp. 36–37). Following Fowler and Kuebler,Thomas B. Fowler and Daniel Kuebler, The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2007). van den Brink distinguishes historical evolution, common descent, and strong Darwinian evolution as three tiers or ‘layers’ of evolutionary theory that are often unhelpfully conflated. Historical evolution has to do with the great timespans posited by its proponents in order to explain various diachronic developments in biology and geology. Common descent implies a single “tree of life” that encompasses all living things, and presumes a common source. Strong Darwinian evolution posits natural selection as the process that winnows and ‘selects’ species over time (pp. 36–37).Whereas evolutionary theory is a part of natural science, evolutionism is a worldview that is not entailed by evolutionary theory.

Van den Brink then attempts to explicate these three tiers of evolutionary explanation, bringing them to bear on hoary old theological worries about things like young earth creationism, the flood, the fossil record, and so on. He presumes a fairly metaphysically lite interpretation of these three tiers. That is, on his way of thinking the different tiers admit of more than one metaphysical explanation—which ameliorates some of the theological concerns they may raise.

For instance, he avers that historical evolution does not necessarily prejudice one’s reading of the biblical text unless one wants to be a ‘literalist’ (as he puts it) about things like the Primeval Prologue in Genesis 1–3. Moreover, language of common descent does not necessarily imply a conflict between evolution and theology because, like Benjamin Warfield, van den Brink maintains creation and evolution are two distinct concepts answering different questions (p. 56). This is not to say that common descent poses no serious theological challenge, however. Van den Brink recognizes the problemsIf natural selection implies random mutation without teleology this undercuts central claims of Christian theism. it raises for theological anthropology, but postpones discussion of that to a later chapter. (In a nutshell: how humans develop raises important issues for our understanding of the special creation of humans, the notion of sin and original sin, and the view of the incarnation and atonement of Christ that we adopt—all significant theological concerns.)

In the case of natural selection, van den Brink is more circumspect. The presumption of randomness in chance biological mutation, and the denial of teleology (pp. 68–69) that are built into it do seem to present serious problems for theology, and especially Reformed theology with its high premium on divine sovereignty and providence.Later in the book van den Brink engages what I think is the most sophisticated treatment of these matters from a Reformed perspective, namely, Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). If this is also applied to human culture, as with the cognitive science of religion (CSR), then there is an additional area of concern that theologians will need to address here as well, having to do with the cultural and moral artefacts of human civilization. To my mind, natural selection is the most serious worry for contemporary theology. Although van den Brink shows an admirable sympathy for theologically conservative Christians with concerns about historical evolution and common descent, it is natural selection that poses the only truly substantive defeater for Christian belief. For if natural selection implies random mutation without teleology this undercuts central claims of Christian theism. It is difficult to see how one can have both this sort of biological explanation and a traditional theological understanding of the development of biological life.

Final Reflections

Reformed theological concerns may represent a distinct centered theological set or group, or a particular stance. Evolutionary theory does indeed seem to be a layered concept of a sort. Bringing these two into conversation rather than conflict is the real conceptual challenge, which van den Brink addresses in the rest of his study. I found myself wondering about a number of the proposed ‘solutions’ later in the volume. But what is commendable about the way he sets things up is the manner in which he seeks to save the appearances—in this case, the appearance of complexity in both domains to which he addresses himself. He resists the kind of trite oversimplification that sometimes bedevils such discussion, maintaining an evenhanded approach. That is surely the right way to begin. But, as I have tried to indicate, it is just the first step toward the real task of addressing the hard conceptual questions that remain.