Christian Education and its Shortcomings: Why We Need a Fair and Balanced Approach to Origins

on December 9, 2013

Who we are

Ken Turner and I teach at Bryan College, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts college [Editor’s note: the authors no longer teach at this college]. Ken teaches a variety of classes including Old Testament, Hebrew and Greek, and I teach several biology classes including Introduction to Biology for non-majors. Ken is a homeschool father with four children under age ten. My daughter is almost two, and my wife and I are still contemplating the mode of her education.

We love what we do and where we get to do it. It is a context that prompts the response and challenge offered in this essay, but also allows us to practice and continue to learn how to provide an effective, gospel-centered teaching ministry. At Bryan, almost half of the student body has been homeschooled or attended private (usually Christian) schools. The students that are Christians come from many different denominations and educational backgrounds. Our classes contain mostly Christians but include some non-believers from the United States and many other countries. Consequently, in our classes we try to present an educational experience that is both deep and wide, but at the same time remains true to our Christian context. We try to present information so that it is relevant to a variety of perspectives. Controversial issues, whether they are ecclesiology, eschatology, environmental issues, or evolution must be handled openly and judiciously in a way that presents all perspectives accurately and fairly. To do otherwise sidelines populations of our audience, and undercuts our authority as educators. Handling controversial issues in a dogmatic or one-sided manner should not be the approach of educators or the mission of a liberal arts education.

In our experience, students generally display a lack of comprehension of science in general and of evolution in particular. When asked to describe evolution and the evidences that scientists use to support it, the question is often met with awkward silence, or at least orphaned phrases like “survival of the fittest” or “man evolved from monkeys.” One popular perspective, especially from those with backgrounds in Christian secondary education and/or conservative churches, is the idea that there exists only one way for Christians to interpret Genesis (six 24-hour days), and a lack of understanding of alternative ways that believers interpret Scripture.

If they were taught anything about evolution, students were often told that evolution is a component of an atheistic philosophy that aims to disprove God and undermine the authority of Scripture. For many, evolution was not a substantial component of their education; instead, more time and effort was spent on anti-evolution arguments. When these students are confronted with the evidence for evolution from multiple scientific disciplines, they are often shocked by the scope of evidence and react by wondering if their faith is still legitimate. They have often been taught that a Christian who holds a high view of Scripture rejects evolution, and Christians are obligated to interpret Genesis in a particular way. When they learn about evolution in a college biology classroom, they may feel their faith threatened or called in to question. If Christians want to learn about evolution, they often turn to resources about evolution prepared by non-believers who are happy to conclude that evolution has displaced God and faith. Consequently, responses such as this are not uncommon:

I was homeschooled K-12…and we used Apologia. Now I’m a college graduate, an atheist, and an evolutionist…I count being homeschooled as a very positive experience, but I regret that I wasn’t taught better about biology and some other things. My parents saw evolution as incompatible with religion; I agree, and when I decided the evidence did not support a 6-day creation, I stopped believing in God.

In our experience, this response is widespread. Young men and women walk away from the faith of their childhood in reaction to the scientific evidence for evolution. The response of some groups to this phenomenon is to double-down and teach anti-evolutionism with greater conviction. Thus, Christian young people are taught that one’s stance on origins is a gospel issue, on par with one’s stance on the resurrection of Christ. Consequently, some either dismiss science generally to keep their faith, or they reject their faith because they think that science has disproven it.

We believe that many of the standard Christian educational curricula are quite solid and useful, and our purpose is not to denigrate or dismiss them. We both look forward to the day when our children are old enough to begin learning about faith and science, and to begin reading and interpreting Scripture first hand. We worry, however, that the handling of certain subjects, such as evolutionary biology, fail to communicate the whole picture; they do not provide the modern evidences for evolution, although they do present many evidences against it. Evolution is usually presented as a philosophy that is used to combat God, not as a scientific explanation of biological change. It is appropriate to present weaknesses of evolutionary theory, but weaknesses should be expressed in context and in conjunction with its strengths.

The homeschool curriculum published by Apologia Educational Ministries is one of the most popular curricula for conservative Christians. The Apologia textbook Exploring Creation with Biology by Dr. Jay Wile and Marilyn Durnell includes a module on evolution, and it is a good example of an approach that centers on antievolutionary arguments. Here are some selected topic headings:

  • Evolution: Part Scientific Theory, Part Unconfirmed Hypothesis
  • Inconclusive Evidence: The Geological Column
  • The Details of the Fossil Record: Evidence Against Macroevolution
  • Molecular Biology: The Nail in Macroevolution’s Coffin
  • Why Do So Many Scientists Believe in Macroevolution?

While Exploring Creation does a good job presenting modern Biology in other areas, from these headings it is evident that the textbook is not attempting to present a balanced view on origins. Additionally, we would argue that it also is not an accurate view. Macroevolution is robust and has multiple lines of evidence in support of it, including the fossil record and molecular biology, and students should be introduced to the data. The reality is that evolution is not a theory teetering on the edge of collapse; there certainly is no proverbial “nail” in its coffin. For example, prominent Young Earth Creationist Todd Wood honestly admits that evolution has “gobs and gobs” of supporting evidence.

Exploring Creation also argues that most scientists accept macroevolution because they have been indoctrinated from a very young age, and those that disagree with macroevolution face ridicule and scrutiny. In our experiences, the opposite is also true: many Christians disagree with evolution because they have been indoctrinated at a very young age, and Christians that accept evolution as a component embedded within their faith often face distrust and scrutiny.

Other homeschool science curricula handle the topic of evolution in a similar fashion. In our view, it would be better for a biology curriculum to present the merits of evolution alongside the weaknesses of evolutionary theory so that students can understand evolution at face value. If the curriculum presents antievolutionary ideas, it should also present multiple Christian views and the strengths and weaknesses of each view.

Homeschool textbooks are not the only place where we are failing to educate students about evolution. A fifteen-year old from a public high school in Indiana told me that his teacher begrudgingly told the class that evolution was bunk but that he was mandated by the state to teach it. The 10th grade teacher then gave a rapid and obligatory summary of evolution before quickly moving on to something less controversial. This approach also does not adequately educate students about evolution or prepare them for college science classes.

We often ask college students about their pre-college science education, and we are consistently surprised by the frequency of stories that are similar to the one above. Students routinely say that their biology teachers glossed over the subject of evolution, often relaying some background on Darwin and his Origin of Species before moving on to a brief rundown of natural selection and inheritance.

Other students have never been exposed to evolution at all. High school teachers skipped the subject entirely, choosing instead to focus on less-controversial materials in the textbooks. Christian colleges sometimes follow this same approach. A professor we know at a Christian college avoids the subject in their Introduction to Biology class. The professor said that the topic was too complex and controversial. This is unfortunate since all college biology classes should present evolution as part of the educational experience. To do otherwise fails to fully teach modern biology and sells the students short. Let’s be fair about it, and present evolution and its evidences so that students in Christian educational systems are just as educated on the topic as students at secular colleges or universities.

Christians should be informed about evolution in order to more effectively defend their own views on origins. A healthy education will present multiple viewpoints on controversial topics, and Christians should be informed of evidences for perspectives that may differ from their own. Too many students believe in a particular viewpoint with deep passion and emotion, but are unable to articulate their own view in detail, much less any views that differ from their own. If Christian educators do not teach students multiple perspectives, then students will continue to be uninformed and underprepared.

Additionally, Christians often want equal time for Creationism in secular classrooms, or at least request evolution not be presented as a fact but as a theory. These requests are ironic when Christian classrooms do not present equal time, and instead spend most of their energy with anti-evolutionary arguments to the neglect of successfully communicating what evolution actually is and the scientific data that supports it.

Unfortunately, many secular books and textbooks adequately present the evidence for evolution, but frequently step outside of the realm of science to take cheap shots at faith and God. An example is Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution. Dr. Dawkins is a gifted writer, and his book strongly presents some of the evidences used to support evolution. However, Dr. Dawkins also uses science as a soapbox to denigrate creationism and faith in God. Consequently, polemic perspectives laced with vitriol further entrench polarizing positions. It is no wonder that Christians often believe that acceptance of evolution goes hand in hand with a rejection of faith in God and Scripture. This adds fuel to the either-or scenario that, ironically, is shared by many Christians and non-Christians alike.

As Christians learn about evolution, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory, as well as different ways that Christians synthesize their interpretations of science and Scripture. In the next post, we will outline some guidelines for Christian educators to follow when they maneuver through the origins landscape.

What we are doing

We see a need for educational material that presents the evidence for evolution and evaluates interpretations of Scripture in a way that is honest, fair, and written from the perspective of Christians. In our experience, many Christians are not familiar with basic evolutionary concepts, and they have rarely interacted with Scripture at any level other than a superficial one. Therefore, we have decided to write a curriculum that presents modern evolutionary theory and also teaches students about ways that Christians interpret science and Scripture.

We received an Evolution and Christian Faith grant from BioLogos to develop educational materials and curricula about Christianity and science, specifically focusing on evolution and the Genesis account(s) of creation. The curriculum will summarize appropriate hermeneutical strategies for reading and interpreting Genesis, focusing on the work of evangelical Old Testament scholars (rather than systematic theologians, philosophers, and popular speakers/ministries). Next, the curriculum will present a brief history of science and then begin with the origin of the universe and work through the chronology of evolution up to the appearance of humans. The curriculum will also review various perspectives (Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Evolutionary Creationism, among others) that interpret Scripture and science, and it will compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint.

While we believe this project can serve as a stand-alone reference in some contexts, we think it will likely be used as a supplemental resource to (rather than a replacement of) the standard Christian curricula. As we shared previously (in Part 1), we are pleased with much of that material and have no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Our goal is not to proselytize our readers in order that they accept or reject evolution, nor do we have an agenda to convince readers to interpret Scripture’s accounts of origins in a particular way. Rather, we strive to produce materials that will provide a resource for anyone who is curious about evolution (the evidences for it as well as evidences it has difficulty explaining), how Christians read and interpret Genesis, and the ways in which different groups synthesize (or fail to synthesize) science and faith.

How then should we educate students on this complex and politically charged topic?

Scripture

First, it is important for teachers to define concepts relevant to this discussion. Students often enter our classes with a shallow hermeneutical approach to reading Scripture. They don’t know the meaning of concepts like authority, revelation, perspicuity, inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy—let alone the differences between these terms or the possible disagreements theologians have with defining or applying any of these terms. How should the concepts of truth and error be handled when it comes to grammatical accuracy, variance in text traditions, or tensions within the Bible or in comparison with extrabiblical data related to theological, moral, historical, and scientific questions? When does a tension become a contradiction? How much flexibility of viable options is allowed in order to retain the description “evangelical”?

Most have not considered Genesis in its historical-cultural context, and they do not know what to do with ancient Near Eastern myths that parallel the creation event in Genesis 1, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3, and the Noachian deluge in Genesis 6-9. Similarly, students are unaware of the literary context of Genesis; they are unfamiliar with Hebrew terms and word plays, and in many cases they have not been exposed to exegetical difficulties in the biblical text.

For example, most students believe that on day one God created light, and separated it from the darkness. However, prior to day one the earth exists as a formless, watery mass. Students have rarely considered when God may have created the earth and its waters, and are unsure how to explain the existence of light and a day/night cycle on days one through three prior to the creation of the sun on day four. Different creationist perspectives have different interpretations and responses to these issues, but students are largely unaware of them.

We believe that in order for Christians to actively participate in discussions about origins, they should have an idea in their own minds as to how they reconcile these difficulties, among others.

Origins Perspectives

In our experience, Christian educational approaches often present only two views of origins: atheistic evolution and young earth creationism. However, the landscape of views on origins is much more robust. In the Introduction to Biology course at Bryan, students are presented with Intelligent Design, Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Evolutionary Creationism, and Scientism. The Framework Hypothesis, John Sailhamer’s Historical Creationism, and John Walton’s Functional Ontology views are also presented. These latter three views focus primarily on interpreting the Genesis 1 text and do not dwell on science. All of these views are presented as part of the educational experience of students at a Christian college. In our opinion these viewpoints are a valid (minor) component of a Christian biology class because they are such a prevalent part of Christian culture.

It is important to educate Christians about the various ways that science and Scripture are interpreted. Christian teachers should exhibit a pastoral approach to this subject that accurately represents the scientific evidences as well as the different approaches to reading Genesis. Christian curricula should strive to distill some of the conversations that are occurring in academia to a level accessible for the general public. These views should be presented honestly, warts and all. This is what we hope to accomplish with our curriculum.

Science

It is important to define science, and explain the rationale behind modern definitions. Science is currently defined as something to the effect of: the systematic study of the physical world using the scientific method. By this definition, science cannot consider that which cannot be measured empirically, i.e. the supernatural or metaphysical. Since scientific processes cannot examine the supernatural, some scientists reject the supernatural in toto. This circular reasoning, however, should be avoided in the science classroom. Teachers should remind students that science uses testable hypotheses to explain natural processes, and it is outside of the realm of secular science to comment on the supernatural. The Christian should look to synthesize science and their personal faith in order to have a more coherent worldview.

Evolution

Sometimes just the mention of evolution causes Christians to react in a way that reveals that they view evolution to be solely an atheistic philosophy that displaces God and undermines the authority of Scripture. Tim Keller differentiates evolution as a biological explanatory model from evolution as a philosophical belief system. He provides a helpful distinction when he contrasts evolution as biological processes against what he calls the “Grand Theory of Evolution.” Evolution as biological processes simply explains biological change and ancestry among organisms. Evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything posits that everything, including human nature, is the product of godless evolution, and that the supernatural, the soul, free will, good and evil are all non-existent. Evolution should be presented in science classrooms as the former to the expense of the latter.

When evolution is presented as a Grand Theory of Everything and is used to comment on the existence of God or to undermine the Bible, Christians are right to react negatively. Evolution should be presented in the science classroom as a biological process and Christians should be open to learning about it whether or not they ultimately accept it.

Conclusion

We believe wholeheartedly that Christians should be open minded, honest, and kind when they communicate contentious topics. It is embarrassing when Christians fail to accurately present a perspective they disagree with, and it is shameful to see Christians treating all evolutionists as hell-bound idiots. As fathers, it is worrisome that Christian education so often preaches dogma instead of teaching science. We need to do a better job being examples to our children, showing them that we can handle complex and controversial topics with integrity and grit. We need to do a better job educating Christians about the various ways that both evolution and Scripture are interpreted. Instead of posing the conversation as a dichotomy of creation vs. evolution, we should remember that the actual rift is between those that believe in God and those that do not.

The take-home message is that the Christian community needs to be reminded that the gospel is not at stake with this issue when it is evaluated within the confines of the Christian faith. This is an in-house debate and believers should not be disqualified based on their views of origins. Christians need to deal honestly with the scientific evidence and should read Scripture deeply. We hope that open communication about these matters in an educational setting will allow some of the hostility that is present in the modern culture wars to be replaced with a fresh breath of grace, peace, and love to the glory of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our goal is that young people don’t reject their faith; instead that they embrace it better informed, challenged, and stretched.