The landscape of science and faith discussions within conservative evangelical Christianity has shifted noticeably over the past 20 years. Vigorous debates over the meaning of the day of creation in Genesis 1 were common in the 1990s, resulting in study committee reports from conservative denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America, “Report of the Creation Study Committee” (2000) and Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation (2004). Last November I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The ETS is a Biblical inerrancy-affirming society that described itself as “a professional, academic society of Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others involved in evangelical scholarship. We serve Jesus Christ and his church by fostering conservative, evangelical biblical scholarship.”
So this is a good place to get the pulse of what conservative evangelical scholars, leaders, and future leaders are thinking and talking about. I was attending as a vendor (Solid Rock Lectures) and so I spent a good portion of my time in the vendor area meeting and conversing with conference participants. However, I was able to get away from the booth to attend a number of sessions.
I have been involved with science and faith discussions within the evangelical Christian community for 25 years. In particular I come from a reformed theology background and it is that segment of the ETS community that I am most interested . It is within this context that most of my observations and reflections (Part II next week) are made.
An Overview of ETS Sessions on Origins
There were three sessions at ETS that were of special interest to me with respect to the interplay of science and faith and the subject of origins in particular. I was able to attend two of them and I bought mp3 recordings of the third. Here is an overview of those sessions followed by some brief observations. I will provide additional analysis of the current state of the origins debate within the church and among academic evangelicals in particular in part II.
A Conversation on Origins: BioLogos, Reasons to Believe (RTB), and Southern Baptists: A three-hour panel discussion between three representatives from each group. These included Dr. Haarsma (President, BioLogos), Dr. Ross (President, Reasons to Believe) and Dr. Ken Keathley (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary)
This was a continuation of a dialogue that was begun at the 2013 ETS meeting. The dialogue at ETS between Biologos and RTB was a way of showing how such a dialogue can proceed among Christians who have significant interpretive differences.
The session was held in a medium-sized room and it was well-attended. There were conference participants standing around the edges of the room for most of the session. I estimated there were 120 chairs in the room.
As an aside, President of Biologos, Deb Haarsma, recently offered to have dinner with Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis) and Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe). Ken Ham quickly and publicly refused the offer and took the opportunity to label both BioLogos and RTB as compromisers from whom he had nothing to learn and thus no reason to interact. I will explore this division further in the forthcoming Part II of this series.
The dialogue didn’t disappoint. It was both gracious and informative. The contingent of Southern Baptists did an excellent job of framing the discussion by presenting challenging questions for the panelists. Both sides had an opportunity to discuss their own origins, what their purpose is and how they saw themselves as different from the other. It was the exploration of those differences that I found especially helpful.
Biologos and RTB differ partly due to different missions and target audiences but the hermeneutical and scientific differences are not insignificant. At times it was very clear that BioLogos and RTB interpreted the data from science very differently. The didn’t always disagree about the facts but they clearly had a different interpretation of their meaning.
Risking oversimplification I will say that one theme presented itself multiple times and really struck me like it hasn’t before: BioLogos generally follows a presuppositional approach to understanding nature while RTB is clearly evidentialist in its apologetic. By this I mean that BioLogos accepts the modern consensus view of evolution as an explanation for God’s means of creating biological life on earth including the physical body of man and presuppose that scientists are generally describing the God’s method of creation accurately, albeit without the correct attribution. RTB are seeking evidence of God’s action in the world which can be used to “support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible.” They believe that providing evidence of God’s direct action in creation and/or fine-tuning of events and conditions of God’s second book can independently demonstrate the existence of God to the non-believer thus bringing that unbeliever to the truth of the God of Scriptures. These approaches directly contribute to or are the result of their respective approaches to scripture. The former generally being non-concordist and the latter being clearly concordist.
I asked a question of the panelists about the status of Neanderthals. I thought the answers illustrated the differences between the two groups very well and I will explore that question further in a follow-up post.
Creation, the Fall and the Problem of Natural and Moral Evil: Dr. Ingrid Faro (Scandinavian School of Theology), Dr. Terry Mortenson (Answers in Genesis) and Dr. Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe).
In addition to three talks there was a panel discussion at the end. I was unable to attend this session in person but I purchased the recordings and have been able to listen to several of the talks and some of the discussion but have not listened to it all. The first two speakers affirmed animal death before Adam’s sin while Terry Mortenson (Answers in Genesis) took the view that Adam’s sin brought physical death to the animals in addition to man. The discussion here involved the how to define life, death, suffering, and the nature of moral and natural evil.
Hermeneutics Section: Hermeneutics and the Historicity of Adam: A panel discussion by the four primary authors (Drs. Barrick, Collins, Walton, and Lamoureux ) of the book Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan). The specific theme of the panel was hermeneutics so it began with each author spending 10 minutes outlining their view of how Scripture should be read. This was followed by a short discussion of how their views were shaped by these hermeneutical methods and then some questions about how each position on a historical Adam differed. Of the four panelists three held the view that there was a physical Adam and Eve in time and space. Of these, one panelist (Barrick) supported a recent (eg. <10,000 years) origin of mankind. Two affirmed a physical Adam and Eve without an acknowledgement of when they would actually be found in history with one of them open to the possibility of a physical Adam and Even being a representative couple. The fourth panelist, Dennis Lamoureux, defended the non-historical view. I highly recommend obtaining the mp3 recordings of each of these speakers available at worldmp3.com.
Another packed room with some of the session standing room only. For me it was very refreshing to see many angles on a divisive issue receiving serious attention. Each of the panelists was well prepared, articulate and made important points. The complexity of the topic was clearly evident with biblical, theological and scientific difficulties all on display.
In the weeks after ETS, Rev. Lee Irons, who attended this session, wrote a series of posts on his blog, The Upper Register, surveying the landscape of thought about historical Adam within confessional evangelicalism. I highly recommend the following links to Christians with a high view of scripture who wish to explore the current conversation about Adam. Parts 4 and 9 are particularly helpful in providing an overview of the questions and viewpoints:
Adam and Evolution, Part 1: Introduction
Adam and Evolution, Part 2: My Attitudinal Approach
Adam and Evolution, Part 3: What’s Driving Adam Revisionism?
Adam and Evolution, Part 4: Five Clusters of Questions
Adam and Evolution, Part 5: Seven Options (1-2)
Adam and Evolution, Part 6: Seven Options (3-5)
Adam and Evolution, Part 7: Seven Options (6-7)
Adam and Evolution, Part 8: Table of Seven Options
Adam and Evolution, Part 9: Where’s the Sea Wall?
ETS Vendor Showcase Area
Amongst many publishing and software companies, colleges and seminary booths and numerous non-profit organizations there were a few booths that represented organizations devoted to the exploration of science and faith issues. These included booths for the young earth apologetics organization, Answers in Genesis; the old earth creation group, Reasons to Believe; the science education group, Solid Rock Lectures; and the evolutionary creationist group, BioLogos.
Answers in Genesis (AiG) has been participating at ETS for many years. I don’t know how it is decided where vendor’s booths will be located but AiG was in a back corner on an outer row. It wasn’t the worst position in the entire vendor area but certainly less than ideal. Biologos, participating at ETS for the first time, was on the opposite back corner even more removed from foot traffic. Reasons to Believe (RTB) who has participated before was in a good central location.
Solid Rock Lectures, which I represented, was participating for the fourth time at ETS. Our booth was just one booth removed from Reasons to Believe (RTB) in a high traffic area. I spent some time engaged in conversation at the other three booths. I walked past AiG many times to gauge the amount of interest in their materials. My overall impression was that the interest in AiG was very limited. Little discussion was occurring and mostly their materials were being perused. RTB attracted by far the most attention. There was a consistent volume of visitors engaged in what appeared to be meaningful discussion. The overall reception to our booth was very positive but I recognize that our interactions are over represented by those sympathetic to our mission and not necessarily reflective of the average meeting participant.
Coming up in Part II
Reflections on the significance of the discussions at ETS and the ongoing creation debate in confessional conservative churches and the evangelical community at large.
Addendum: Dead Sea Sediments at ETS
I squeezed in one short talk at the very end of the last day. This was by well-known creation scientists and geologist, Dr. Steven Austin. Austin, who is associated with Cedarville University and Logos Research Associates, gave a presentation entitled, Jerusalem Earthquake of 33 A.D.: Evidence within Laminated Mud of the Dead Sea: I really enjoyed this talk. Austin brought samples of sediment cores from the Dead Sea which he passed around to the audience. He showed images of his work in the Dead Sea and was genuinely funny. I was especially interested because I have written a series of articles the origins of the Dead Sea and the significance of the sedimentary record formed by this large lake. One of those articles (Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Seismic History of the Dead Sea: Support for Biblical History – Yes! Support for a Young Earth – No!) was dedicated to reviewing Austin’s article using Dead Sea sediments as evidence of earthquakes recorded in the Bible.
Professor, thanks very much for posting this summary of the Origins-related talks at ETS. This is a timely topic indeed for Evangelicals who embrace historic Christian doctrine and who also embrace the scientific enterprise as the best way to find out what the Creation has to tell us about itself. It is heartening to see irenic discussion of the issues by people like those on the panel. I look forward to the next installation as well – thanks for taking the time to write up an organized synopsis of the discussions. Warm Advent greetings and all the very best for the New Year.
Thank you. I am still working on the follow-up post and will post early in the new year.
I have much to say but am on phone. Will comment more layer but I did want to say RTB was at ETS in 2012 with a booth. I know because I went to it.
Thanks for that correction. I thought I had heard it was their first time but obviously I was wrong. I have corrected that mistake.
I am wondering about the attribution of presuppositional apologetics to BioLogos. It seems to me the distinction you’re making is not so much an apologetics-oriented one as it is a theology oriented one. That is, it is not presuppositional vs. evidential apologetics but concordism vs. non-concordism. I would be greatly surprised if BioLogos was actively presuppositional in apologetic style, which tends to be the style of young earth creationists like AiG.
I have written several posts on presuppositional apologetics, but my best summary is probably this one on Cornelius Van Til, the grandfather of the method: http://jwwartick.com/2012/07/09/van-til-presup/
If BioLogos were presuppositional, they would not agree on facts with any non-Christian scientist, because the presuppositional method argues that there can be no neutral ground on which we can analyze such facts and so BioLogos would view its fellow evolutionists as clearly mistaken even on points related to biology.
I just thought I’d comment on this point from the perspective of an apologist who is really interested in method! So sorry to belabor it but this is just an area of interest of mine. I think the distinction you’re seeing is probably that of concordism vs. non-concordism in how we should read the Bible/nature more than one of specific apologetic method.
Thanks for the clarification. Yeah, I should have talked about concordism, that would have been more appropriate and I will change that soon. I suppose I have a looser definition of presuppositional apologetics than I should. Being more of a presuppositionalist myself I think I shouldn’t have attached the term apologetics because I see now that means something more specific than I had in mind. I mean here that Biologos, in my experience, isn’t looking to science to provide them with evidence of their faith but assumes God and is asking how he did it. RTB is looking for evidence of God’s action in nature.