Erskine College, the small Christian liberal arts college in Due West, will continue to teach evolution and prepare its students for careers in medicine and science despite passage of a resolution by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church that affirms the “special creation” of Adam and Eve and appears to challenge the theory of scientific evolution.
The resolution, or memorial as it is called in church parlance, was adopted June 7 at the 208th meeting of the General Synod of the ARP church at the behest of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery, which represents ARP churches in Missouri, Arkansas, western Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.
“In terms of what we teach, I don’t think it has any direct bearing on our science faculty or our curriculum,” Cliff Smith, communications director for the ARP-supported school, said recently. Erskine’s president also had reassured the faculty the college will not change its classical approach to the sciences, he said, including the teaching of Charles Darwin’s commonly held theory of evolution.
The four-paragraph memorial affirms that the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation is historical and noted: “We deny any theory that teaches that Adam and Eve descended from other biological life forms and that such a theory can be reasonably reconciled with either the Standards of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church or Holy Scripture.”
It was designed to put an “amen” on the church’s long-held theological belief that creationism trumps evolution, said the Rev. Charles “Chuck” Wilson, a retired Seneca pastor and denomination provocateur who writes a blog called ARPTalk.
“It is reinforcing who we are. It is affirming what is,” he said. “It is not changing anything. It is an amen.”
Erskine Theological Seminary professor Mark E. Ross, a former pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, said the resolution, patterned after a similar stand taken by a majority of the evangelical Presyterian Church in America denomination, was crafted narrowly to focus on the historical reality of Adam and Eve.
“The ARP has not had a controversy on this issue,” Ross, who directs the seminary’s Institute for Reformed Worship, wrote in an email. “To my knowledge, we do not have, for example, any minister who has denied the historicity of Adam and Eve and got into trouble over that view.”
Ross said the issue of an historical, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve is important in the ARP denomination because of two key passages in the Bible, Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:20, which brings together Adam, who ushers sin and death into the world, and Christ, who offers life and salvation.
If Adam is a symbolic figure meant, as many evolution adherrents believe, to represent God’s creation over millions of years, it “turns this part of the Bible into a myth, and the ARP Church is committed to the Bible as the Word of God.”
Most mainline Protestants, including the largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, as well as Episcopalians, Lutherans and United Methodists, have endorsed positions that see no conflict between scientific evolution and faith.
These denominations view the Genesis accounts of creation as written to affirm a theological truth apart from historical or scientific truth and meant to serve as a theological prologue to the rest of the Old Testament.
Whether the ARP’s memorial may trigger another volley in the theological battle at Erskine is anybody’s guess.
Two years ago, the ARP synod tried to dismiss the board of trustees, saying the school had strayed from its mission and faith. Questions of mission and governance still linger, although the synod did vote in June to provide $451,000 in funding to Erskine after some debate.
Although Wilson and others said the resolution was not passed with Erskine in mind, he believes it could create problems for the school.
“To say this doesn’t widen the gap between the ARP church and Erskine College, would be mistaken,” Wilson said. “They will absolutely disagree with what we say about Adam and Eve.”
The memorial has generated uneasy questions at Erskine from alumni and students, officials said, but Mary Lang Edwards, chair of the biology department, said last month “things in the classroom at Erskine are as they always have been.”
“The ARP church may adopt position statements but it does not dictate what we teach at Erskine,” Edwards said in an email. “I have never been told what I can teach and I have always been encouraged to teach real science, including evolution. Since this position statement about Adam and Eve was adopted, the president of Erskine and the incoming chairman of the Board of Trustees have told me (and all of the Biology faculty) to continue teaching as we have always done.”
Ross and others do not believe the Synod’s action last month will generate much discussion in the pew.
The Rev. David Setzer, pastor of Centennial ARP Presbyterian Church in Columbia, said he does not expect the resolution will resonate much with his parishioners, who likely hold a spectrum of views on how science and faith intersect.
“I don’t think, with the people that I’ve talked to in my congregation, that this is going to be the kind of thing they will obsess on,” said Setzer, a graduate of Erskine Theological Seminary. “They are more interested in their personal faith, in missions, in what we can do to attract people to the congregation and how we can reach them with the Gospel.”
Setzer said he and his congregants focus on their relationship to Jesus Christ, not the question of whether Adam was formed in a day.
“How God created things is important,” Setzer said. “God is God, and however he did it, it pleased Him. God is the author and finisher of all things, including the world and our faith.”
The ARP denomination, a small conservative evangelical denomination, has roots in the Reformation and is grounded in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Its 290 congregations are located mainly in the Southeast, but the denomination has expanded to include congregations in other states and Canada. The denomination in June elected its first Canadian, the Rev. Jeff Kingwood, as moderator.
In Columbia, First Presbyterian Church, whose members include former Attorney General Henry McMaster, is the flagship ARP church of the Midlands.
McMaster said he had never even heard of the resolution and doubted if it had been debated at all by ordinary parishioners in the pew. He declined to offer his thoughts on the impact of the resolution or what he stood on the evolution/creation issue.