A Decade of Evolutionary Creation: Milestones and Signposts
Dennis Venema considers how, in the last decade, the evangelical church in North America has shifted towards a healthier view of science and how BioLogos has played a role in this shift.
This year is a significant year for me as it marks a decade since I came to accept evolution as the mechanism by which God created biodiversity on earth. (Prior to this point, I held to a form of Intelligent Design that rejected common ancestry—for those interested, I have recounted my “conversion” story elsewhere). In the last ten years, the evangelical church has come a long way on these issues, and I think that things will only continue to improve over time.
I have also had the immense privilege of serving as Fellow of Biology for BioLogos for the last seven years. While I am not the longest-serving member of the BioLogos community—that honor goes to Kathryn Applegate who preceded me by a few months—I have been a part of this community long enough to see a significant shift in how the BioLogos message is being received by Evangelicals. As I’ve traveled in the US and Canada to speak about Adam and the Genome in recent months, I’ve seen more and more signs of hope that the evangelical church is coming to a healthier view of mainstream science.
That was then
Back in 2007, things were far different than they are today. The BioLogos Foundation had just come into existence (but it would not have an online presence until 2009); Francis Collins had only recently published The Language of God, and Darrel Falk’s book, Coming to Peace with Science, was only a few years old; and one of the very few online places to discuss evolution from an evangelical perspective was the personal blog of fellow Canadian Steve Martin (no, not that Steve Martin). In some ways, Steve’s blog, An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, which he founded in the spring of 2007, was an early version of our own BioLogos Forum. (You can find the work of several later BioLogos contributors there, including current BioLogos Fellows Ted Davis and yours truly.)
Back then I distinctly remember it felt, well, risky to be a public proponent of evolution in an evangelical setting. In 2007, Richard Colling was under pressure for teaching evolution at Olivet Nazarene University, despite having taught there since the early 1980s. If this was possible for a long-time, tenured professor, what might happen to someone like me who was young and pre-tenure?
Some of my colleagues counseled me to keep a low profile in light of the events at Olivet. For better or worse, I decided to be open about my views (and I received tenure in 2009 without incident). In 2010 I began writing for BioLogos at the invitation of Darrel Falk, and in the fall the ASA published a special issue on evolution in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) that featured one of my articles.
It would not be until 2011 that an external controversy would put pressure on my administration. The Christianity Today cover story on the historical Adam, which took note of the PSCF special issue and mentioned me and my institution by name, led some to call for my termination. Thankfully I had the support of my administrators during that stressful time—and in the end it lead to a series of fruitful institution-wide conversations on science, faith and scholarship among the faculty and staff. We did not come to agree on everything, necessarily, but most of us agreed that evolutionary creation was one of the options that a faithful Christian could hold.
This is now
Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of Christian audiences in the USA and Canada—ranging from my own local church, the 2017 BioLogos conference, several Christian universities, to a conference held at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. The impetus for these events was to speak about my recent co-authored book, Adam and the Genome.
While my travels are not a perfect cross section of North American Evangelicalism, it was as good a sample as I have experienced in recent years. Some audiences were predisposed to be supportive, and others had a majority of people who did not agree with me. That said, I see huge differences in how evolutionary creation is being discussed and received now, compared to the state of affairs in 2007.
When I talk to academics at other Christian institutions, invariably they tell me that they use and appreciate BioLogos resources with their students, even if they do not hold to evolutionary creation themselves. In 2007, such resources simply did not exist in an easily-accessible web format, nor was there a Christian organization in place that promoted evolutionary creation that people could identify.
When I talk to students at Christian colleges and seminaries, most are aware and conversant with evolutionary creation as an option for faithful evangelical Christians to hold. They might not hold to it themselves, but they see it as a live option that does not require jettisoning genuine faith. This simply was not the case in 2007 at any CCCU institution of higher education, at least of which I am aware —though, some may have been ahead of the curve based on their local faculty.
When I talk to lay people in churches, they are typically not as well informed on these issues as students. Yet even in these churches, far more people who are comfortable with evolution as a means of creation than a decade ago. In 2007, such folks were rare in evangelical circles, and often were private about their views. Perhaps they had read Francis Collins or they appreciated the views of C.S. Lewis, but they kept a low profile.
Now most churches I visit have at least a few people who are familiar with, and appreciative of, BioLogos. (For example, I’ve had numerous people tell me that they’ve read the entire Evolution Basics series – and even a few who told me they’ve read everything I’ve ever written for BioLogos! That’s dedication). Such folks are also more public about their views than was typical in 2007. I recognize that churches who willingly invite a BioLogos speaker are more likely to be open to these ideas, but still, there are far more churches willing to host an evolutionary creationist in 2017 than there were in 2007—and far more people within such churches who openly hold to evolutionary creation.
When I talk to pastors, many of them are concerned about how these issues impact the young people in their flock. Often they recognize that the “evolution is against the Bible” narrative sets their young people up for an impossible (and false) choice. Now, obviously I don’t interact with a random sample of North American evangelical pastors—but it is clear to me that many more pastors are communicating positive messages about evolution and Christian faith than was the case ten years ago. At the BioLogos conference, for example, I had a brief conversation with a pastor who introduced himself to me to thank me for my part in writing the book. After we chatted for a bit, he told me that he was the teaching pastor for a church of 5,000 people—and it made my day.
I’m well aware that the plural of anecdote is not “data”, but it seems clear to me that the evangelical church in North America is shifting towards a healthier view of science—including evolution—and that BioLogos has had a significant role in that shift. It certainly does not mean that we’ve arrived, merely that we are on the way and that the trend is positive. I’m thankful that God is using BioLogos to impact the lives of his followers in very practical ways—and I expect that the next decade will see an even greater shift towards acceptance of evolutionary creation in evangelical settings.
Convincing folks that evolution is solid science is not the most important thing. Showing people that someone can be convinced of the validity of evolution and be a faithful Christian is the important thing. We’ve passed some significant milestones, and there are encouraging signposts of future change.
What have you seen in your local setting over the past decade? Does my experience resonate with yours? I’d love to hear your stories.
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