What happens when evolutionary creationists (represented by BioLogos), old-earth creationists (represented by Reasons to Believe), and Southern Baptist theologians sit down publicly and talk about origins? At the 2014 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, these three groups decided to find out. This four-part series is adapted from the three-hour dialogue, entitled “A Conversation on Origins.” 2017 UPDATE: This dialogue has been published in greatly expanded form by InterVarsity Press in the new book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?.
Participants in the dialogue:
- Jim Stump (JS)—BioLogos Content Manager, Philosopher
- John Walton (JW)—BioLogos Advisory Board Member, Old Testament Scholar
- Fazale “Fuz” Rana (FR)—Vice President of Research & Apologetics at Reasons to Believe, Biochemist
- Robert Stewart—Professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Seminary
- Deborah Haarsma (DH)—BioLogos President, Astrophysicist
- Ken Keathley (KK)—Professor of Theology and Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Darrel Falk (DF)—BioLogos Senior Advisor for Dialogue, Geneticist
- Ken Samples (KS)—Senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, Philosopher and Theologian
- James K. Dew—Associate professor of the history of ideas and philosophy and dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Hugh Ross (HR)—President of Reasons to Believe, Astrophysicist
Ken Keathley—In the first session we talked more about the history of the conversation between these organizations. In this session we want to get to areas of disagreement. We’ll start with what is another area of agreement, but I’d like both sides reflect on other organizations you might disagree with. So,how would you understand the methods and approaches of some creation-science organizations to have ill-served the church? How might those methods and approaches be improved?
Hugh Ross—I’ve been in a lot of dialogue with my young-earth creationist friends, and I think the big problem is they see that they’re reading the pure word of God; everyone else is interpreting it. So, one thing I think we’re modeling here is we both have a different interpretation of God’s word, but it is an interpretation. We realize we don’t know everything, we don’t understand everything, so it’s quite possible that we are misunderstanding or misinterpreting and therefore we’re both open to seeing correction and revision to our interpretation. We don’t have a lock on what God’s word is saying. We view the scientific record the same way. So that’s where we’ve tried to take this debate: out of the realm of dogmatism where I know I’m right and everybody else is wrong and don’t confuse me with any additional facts. Let’s look at additional facts. We don’t have the entire record of nature; we don’t have the complete understanding of God’s word. There’s always more to learn. By learning, we might be able to fine-tune our models and develop something that’s even more effective in bringing an unsaved world to faith in Christ.
Deb Haarsma—In my experience, there are people at every position—Young-Earth Creation, Old-Earth Creation, Evolutionary Creation— who have that kind of dogmatic “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” attitude. It’s pretty sad. So what has been a pleasure in this dialogue with RTB is to find people who have a different position who are humbly willing to say “I might be wrong” and willing to talk about other interpretations. We have been in conversation with some Young-Earth Creationists—those have been private dialogues as well, for the most part—Young-Earth Creationists who say, “Well, this is my interpretation, which I believe is the correct interpretation.” They’re not questioning whether BioLogos accepts the Bible as authoritative.
So there’s this exclusivity that becomes the problem. If young people get the impression that they must believe the earth is young or must believe any particular view in order to be a Christian, we have added on to the Gospel and hung that millstone around their neck. Now they feel like they have to make a choice between “Do I accept this particular interpretation of the Bible, this particular scientific view, or not? If I give up on that, what about the rest of my faith?” It all becomes bundled together. I know Answers in Genesis has said publically over and over that they do not perceive this as a Gospel matter, and yet that’s just in the air. It comes across in so many ways, and so many people feel that way.
HR—You bring up an interesting point, Deb, that the church has worked for centuries on biblical creeds. The creeds are really trying to put down what are the fundamentals of Christian faith that we all need to adhere to? And what you notice is a lot of these science/faith issues that organizations are very dogmatic about are not in the creeds. What’s in the creeds is who creates and, to a lesser degree, how he creates, but not when. Therefore, I think there’s room for us to disagree on things that are “non-creedal.”
KK—Bob, Jamie: let me throw the ball over to you. How would you want to follow up?
Robert Stewart—We don’t represent the entirety of the dialogue, there are other people in the room who were involved in previous dialogues too, but one of the first questions I asked initially when I was invited to my first dialogue was: Where do your organizations stand on the authority of Scripture, inspiration, inerrancy? That was important for me to get out on the table and I think it might be important to this audience.
HR—At Reasons to Believe, we do hold to sola scriptura: the Bible was the only authoritative revelation from God. But we also put it in the context of the Reformation, that in the Reformation, authority was understood to be invested in a person. And so we see in the Bible that a revelation that comes directly from a person. We would look at the record of nature as being utterly trustworthy and reliable, but lacking authority in the context of what we understood four hundred years ago, because the record of nature is not a person. But it is no less reliable and trustworthy than the words of the Bible. So our job is to see how the two integrate. I think a good sense of that is that God gave us sixty-six books that make up the Bible. He could have given us just one. But by giving us sixty-six, he kind of forces us to integrate across those different books. Likewise, we have more than one scientific discipline. Another value of this dialogue between BioLogos and Reasons to Believe is that we’re actually pulling together many different disciplines and trying to pull together the Book of Nature with the Book of Scripture.
DH—At BioLogos, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. We do not see it as a merely human book, and this is one of the reasons we made a distinction between evolutionary creation and theistic evolution. A lot of theistic evolutionists might see the Bible as a merely human book. We see it as inspired by God, and we see it as authoritative, meaning that we must take it seriously. We can’t just say, “Well, we’re going to ignore this verse because it seems to disagree with science.” No, we’re going to look at every verse, all sixty-six books, and look at them hard, take them seriously to see what’s the message that God had for the first readers, and what’s the message for us today. We see the word of God as powerful. It’s living and active and at work in our lives. It’s important for all of us in our community that the Bible is something that’s important to us in our personal walk with God.
A brief note about the word “inerrancy”: at BioLogos, our range of theological and biblical perspectives will be broader than that of the Evangelical Theological Society. But ETS members are comfortable in BioLogos. Some in BioLogos would not be comfortable with the word “inerrancy.” They don’t see it as a useful concept; it’s not how they would characterize their view of Scripture. But others would be comfortable with the Bible being inerrant in terms of what God has to teach in matters of faith and practice. Here, I feel like I’m treading on thin ice, because I’m an astronomer by training, and I’m still learning to talk about these terms in a precise, accurate way. So, I’ll turn it over to John Walton, one of our advisory council members.
John Walton—I think it’s important to understand that within BioLogos, there are people who do affirm inerrancy. Of course, I’m one of them; I’ve been a member of ETS for over thirty years and teach at a school where inerrancy is a very important thing for us to affirm, and I affirm it wholeheartedly. So there is room at BioLogos for those who choose the word “inerrancy” to define themselves. But as we all know, there are people that are evangelical in their faith who for one reason or another are uncomfortable with the term “inerrancy” and use other terms to convey the strong feelings they have about Scripture, about authority, and how they take that seriously, different ways of formulation. We may well like the inerrancy formulation better, but there are others that choose other ways.
The fact is that at BioLogos, there really wouldn’t be a place for someone who didn’t take Scripture seriously. That’s the reason we’re in this dialogue, because we do take Scripture seriously, and therefore we want to explore the ways in which it works with science. But there’s certainly plenty of room within the BioLogos framework of those who choose the word “inerrancy” and feel that it still gives room for other ways of thinking about our interpretations of Scripture. We recognize that, yes, we all are interpreting, and that “inerrantists,” even only considering those who self-identify with that word,, can sometimes come to different interpretations, yet all using what we consider sound hermeneutics and faithful interpretation. Now, that’s always been the way of it, and we recognize that. That’s why we have scholarly meetings every year, as we put forward different types of interpretation of different passages. It’s just the lay of the land. Inerrancy, or the claim of inerrancy for oneself, doesn’t solve all the questions or nail down all the answers. BioLogos has many within its orbit who are comfortable with what’s going on at BioLogos, and at the same time identify themselves as inerrantists.
HR—Reasons to Believe is more narrowly focused. What you see at BioLogos is a very broad spectrum of perspectives. Likewise, at Reasons to Believe, we have a range of perspectives, but it’s a much narrower range of perspectives than what you see at BioLogos. All of us at Reasons to Believe sign on to biblical inerrancy as it is defined by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, so we see the Bible as being inerrant in science, geography, and history. We see the Scriptures as revealing significant items that pertain to those disciplines. So we think that God did give us two books that significantly overlap and we see them both as inerrant. Again, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, you’ll see that on our website, the different affirmations and denials that we all adhere to.
Ken Samples—I’m the only non-scientist on the Reasons to Believe scholar team. To be candid, I was a little bit reluctant at the beginning of these meetings, largely because I viewed theistic evolutionists as largely being theologically liberal. I had real concern about whether or not they retain the authority of Scripture. I’m happy to say that I have been very impressed by the men and women here on the BioLogos team. The meetings have been honest. There have been times that we’ve challenged each other. I think one thing that I was very impressed with: the leaders of BioLogos, if I would express a biblical or theological concern, were very receptive to that, and yet they would also turn and challenge us. One comment on these Two Books that we talk a lot about: certainly one challenge I see in the evangelical world are people who love Scripture and yet have the tendency not to take seriously that Book of Nature. I think on the other hand, there’s also the challenge of maybe allowing science to dictate the terms to Scripture, and I think that issue also has to be looked at very carefully. I think that this opportunity gives us a chance to go back and forth. I would say, if there are young-earth creation organizations who’d like to do something like this—certainly I have great admiration for the Discovery Institute and what they do—I think we could have a great opportunity going back and forth.