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—My name is Ken Keathley, I direct the Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. And I am very privileged and glad to be able to take part in these conversations as they’ve been going on. In fact, what I’d like to do is start by asking Deborah Haarsma and Hugh Ross if they would briefly tell us about the origin, mission, and core beliefs of the respective organizations. I suspect that most people here will know what the differences are, but just in case, would you go ahead, Hugh, and just talk about what is Reasons to Believe, what are your core beliefs, and what do you understand your mission to be. And I think you’ll see at the very beginning there are a different focus and different emphases in both organizations, and that could be helpful to understand that.
Hugh Ross—I’ll begin. When I was a radio astronomer on the faculty at CalTech [California Institute of Technology] and the church I was attending noticed that I was bringing these atheist astronomers to faith in Christ and at the same time was training truck drivers who were brand-new Christians how to use science to bring people to faith in Christ. They invited me to join the pastoral staff, and so I served for a decade as a minister of evangelism in that church. And it’s an unusual church in that we’re sandwiched between CalTech, JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], Fuller Seminary, and the headquarters of The Skeptic Society. And so, kind of a science state, the exchange was very fruitful in seeing people come to Christ there. And after I’d been serving in that church for ten years, the church said, “We don’t want you to be our minister of evangelism any more—we want to help you launch an organization.” And that was the birth of Reasons to Believe, twenty-nine years ago. The focus of the organization is that God has given us two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Scripture tells us to use the Book of Nature as a way to bring people to God and the Book of Scripture.
Now, evangelism is different today than it was back then. Fifty years ago, people believed that there was a God that exists that has good things in life for people that follow him; to paraphrase Hebrews 11:6. Today, most Americans don’t believe Hebrews 11:6. Our mission is basically to take the latest findings in the Book of Nature, basically developing new reasons to believe from the Book of Nature, so that people would realize there is a God that exists, and it’s a God that will reward those who earnestly seek him, and using that as a step to bring people to faith in Christ.
We do hold to strict biblical inerrancy in all areas, including not just faith in private, but science, history, and geography. And to follow the principle, the more we study the Book of Nature, the more evidence we’re going to find for the handiwork of God. So we write books, we do DVDs, we engage in debates and dialogue, with the goal at all academic levels and lay levels to use the Book of Nature to bring people to the Book of Scripture and God. We’ve been in effect now for over twenty-nine years.
KK—Hugh, you are an astrophysicist, didn’t you say?
KK—And, Deborah, you’re an astrophysicist also. Deborah Haarsma is the president of BioLogos. So Deborah, I’m going to ask you the same question. Tell us about the organization’s origin, mission, and core beliefs.
Deborah Haarsma—It’s great to be here today. BioLogos was founded about six years ago by Francis Collins. You may not know that name, but he is one of the world’s leading biologists: he’s the director of the National Institutes of Health, and he led the Human Genome Project. Francis Collins wrote a best-selling book called The Language of God in which he gave his testimony about how he became a Christian as a doctor early in his career by reading the works of C.S. Lewis, through reading Mere Christianity. And for many secular scientists reading Collins’ book, it was startling to hear that such a leading scientist would claim an evangelical faith. And for many Evangelicals, it was startling to hear that an evangelical Christian would explain and affirm the evidence for evolution. BioLogos was founded in response to the many questions that came to Francis Collins.
We now have a website that has hundreds of articles on it addressing many aspects where science and faith intersect, and we host online forums and dialogues. We also have conferences for pastors and teachers and scholars. We promote research through a grants program where we support scholars investigating questions at the intersection of science and Christian faith, particularly questions of concern to Evangelicals.
Like Reasons to Believe, we love the “Two Books” of God’s revelation in nature and Scripture. We love looking at the natural world to discover how God went about making it and see all the glories that God has revealed there. We love God’s Word and looking at it to understand what his message is for us, to dig deep into it.
Our mission is to invite the church and the world to see the harmony between science and Christian faith. There are so many in our culture today that see these to be at war and don’t see how they could fit together—Christians who compartmentalize their faith that they practice on Sunday from the science they practice during the week, many people in the secular world who feel that they would have to give up their science in order to become a Christian.
BioLogos is also interested in evangelism; a lot of people write to us about how they didn’t feel they could become a Christian until they could see how science could fit with that Christian belief. We also hear from many people who we’ve helped to keep in church who would have left the church over science issues without seeing that they can fit together.
KK—Well, let’s continue on. I’m going to ask this of both of you. Would you want to talk just a little bit about organizational culture? In what ways are the two organizations similar and in what ways are they different?
DH—Well, BioLogos is a lot younger. I was thinking how much more mature an organization Reasons to Believe is. They have a bigger staff, a more focused mission. In a lot of ways, we’re still scrambling around, figuring out where we’re at on the bigger issues; what’s our focus. That’s one difference.
KK—Reasons to Believe is an old-Earth creationist organization, and BioLogos is an evolutionary creationist organization. Now you use the expression “evolutionary creationist” rather than “theistic evolutionist.” Would you just want to go ahead and briefly explain the motivation for why you do that?
DH—Okay, sure. So, theistic evolution is a term that’s been used for much longer, for several decades. It contains quite a range of perspectives within theistic evolution, and it puts the emphasis on the noun “evolution,” with just a mere adjective “theistic.” That’s not even an explicitly Christian adjective. So we’ve chosen instead the term “evolutionary creation,” emphasizing that we believe in God as the creator, and “evolutionary” is just a description of how and when God created, not the who and why of creation.
KK—So there are areas of discussion and disagreement between Reasons to Believe and BioLogos. How did you first begin your dialogue? Tell us how that first came about.
Darrel Falk—I think it was Hugh that contacted us first. After BioLogos went public in April 2009, Hugh contacted Francis and indicated that he’d be interested in some conversations that would seek to clarify some similarities and differences between the two organizations. This led to a set of meetings of various sorts over two to three times a year, pretty informal meetings that took place; I remember the next one took place about four months later. I live not far from Hugh’s office, just a few hours, so I drove up and was treated royally by them for a nice lunch and had a wonderful time being part of the community.
I went into that meeting wanting to be sure that they knew just how different we were scientifically. I had just finished reading and reviewing the book Only A Theory by Reasons to Believe. I had real concerns about it, and I just wanted to be sure that we were being very frank right from the beginning. So I went up and specifically laid out the various concerns that we had about some of their biological issues. And as time went by, what happened as much as anything, I think, was that we just drew closer and closer together as friends. The next meeting, after that August 2009 meeting, was in Francis Collins’ home, sitting around the dining room table and in their living room, and it was a wonderful time of fellowship. Again, we were able to speak fairly frankly about our differences over the various talks that took place. Those sorts of meetings took place about two to three times a year as we explored similarities and differences and how we can work together.
A key thing took place in September 2010. BioLogos was now a year and a half old, Francis had moved on to NIH director a year or so earlier and was no longer directly associated with BioLogos. So Hugh and several others, Ken, and Fuz, and Jeff Schloss, and I were there, and he expressed some real concerns about the direction BioLogos seemed to be moving and was almost wondering if we could continue our conversations because we sense that BioLogos is becoming somewhat unorthodox with respect to evangelical Christianity. I really appreciated that, I appreciated the admonition—we wanted to continue the conversation. That was an extremely important event to me.
Another important event to me in terms of the interaction between the two organizations was where Hugh and I, together with a young-earth creationist person, were together at a conference or something like that in Hong Kong at a school, and it was wonderful to sit down together over meals, the three of us together with the sponsors of the meeting. Again, friendship grew, and so we ate together and talked together, always focusing on our differences as well, but growing in friendship, worshipping together, growing in the love of the Lord together. The way I thought, back in 2009, was gradually changing, because of the warmth and Christian fellowship that was a part of getting together.
HR—Another component of that was a concern from BioLogos that Reasons to Believe had to really understand these scientific issues. We expressed similar concerns about BioLogos. I think that benefitted both organizations and we began to appreciate that we have a really great responsibility to integrate across all the disciplines that make up God’s Book of Nature, and we both benefitted from getting better educated in areas that are pertinent to our similarities and, especially, our differences.
KK—You know, when you hear a scientist say, “I wonder if the other scientist really understands the scientific issue,” we might forgive a layperson for being bewildered. Whenever we realize that even scientists have difficulty understanding the concepts and the arguments made by the other side. This, I think, kind of segues into how in the world the Southern Baptists got involved in this conversation.
I met Darrel Falk at a meeting of Christian scholars and scientists at Pepperdine University. I expressed to him, as a Southern Baptist theologian who is operating with a clean conscience within the Baptist faith and message, the dilemma and problems that I had with some of the things that I was reading that BioLogos was advocating—some of the things I read from certain people at that time. And so that gave me an opportunity to basically vent, just to tell him, “I’m concerned about this, I’m concerned about that. You all don’t seem to appreciate the problem of evil.” I just went through the list of things. After that, I got a message from Darrel asking if we would be willing to express all of those concerns in a dialogue online. It was called “Southern Baptist Voices.” We had six different Southern Baptists who wrote articles expressing some area of concern about what they were talking about, about what BioLogos was doing. They had a respondent who then addressed those concerns.
And that, from there, evolved into this conversation that we’re having now in which the Southern Baptists do operate, in a way, as the intended audience of the conversation. Because, they say, this roomful of scientists say that, in the end, they hope to communicate to the local church, and yet there’s an awful lot of their dialogues when they get done I say, “You lost me about two miles back. I’m not sure I really followed the argument.” One of the things that we have been able to do is operate sort of as the interested person in the pew saying, “Okay, I’m not sure I’m following you. You were a little too technical.” We do have some areas of expertise. I think that we can say something to them and speak to them in certain areas, particularly our concerns about theological issues and biblical issues, particularly about matters of interpretation. So that is how we have been involved in this. Tell us about some of the joint opportunities that you have had to speak at churches and how that’s going and what’s happened there.
HR—The thing I’ve noticed over the past decades is that when science/faith issues are discussed, that it’s a debate, it’s contentious, it tends to look more like a boxing match, and people talk past one another. So one of the things we try to do with the Reasons to Believe and BioLogos dialogue is really turn it into a dialogue. So one thing Deb and I did a few months ago was a public event in a church, where we didn’t make a presentation. We simply asked one another questions. In asking one another questions, there were follow-up questions, so we really were engaging one another on the issues rather than talking past one another. And I think, Deb, you would agree that the spirit when we conducted our dialogue—for one thing, I was finding out a lot of things I didn’t know, which made it fun. Hopefully it worked that way with you as well. But it’s like the congregation was listening in on private conversation. They couldn’t believe it was over when it was over, because they were just so excited in listening to what the two perspectives were, and also seeing how we were engaging one another—again, trying to model that spirit that we can disagree, even sharply, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love one another and cherish one another and have a commitment to serve Jesus Christ.
DH—It was a privilege to be able to pray together at the beginning of that dialogue, and pray for that congregation. It happened just a week after the Ham/Nye debate. Do you remember that from last February? Ken Ham and Bill Nye were standing up and really talking past each other. That made Hugh and me all the more committed to having a different kind of conversation. It was a bit of a sacrifice for both of us to not use PowerPoint. I mean, that’s, like, a number one crutch. To really get out of presentation mode, out of saying, “Here’s what I wanted to tell you,” and instead be listening to each other and having a conversation. Yeah, I learned a lot, too.
HR—Well, part of it, too, was the way it was set up: armchairs and a coffee table between us as opposed to a couple of podiums. That in itself established some demeanor, and I’m hoping to continue that.
KK—I would want you to address how worship has played a part in dialogues and discussions that you’ve had.
DH—As fellow believers, worship is important to us. We wanted a way to celebrate our shared Christian beliefs and to pray together, to sing together. It gives an entirely different tone to our conversations then, because you identify with one another as fellow members of the body of Christ. At a lot of our events, when it’s all Christians at the event, we worship at the beginning, at the end, in the middle, and in between our conversations.
HR—Just using the Book of Nature to show people how big and majestic God is in itself a form of worship.
KK—So, you like each other a lot. Why only the two of you? We only have Reasons to Believe and BioLogos in this conversation. I can think of a couple of other organizations: Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute. Why aren’t they part of this discussion?
HR—What’s unique about Reasons to Believe and BioLogos is we both have a model, a theological model and a scientific model. I think that’s crucial to have any kind of dialogue going on. Also, we both have a commitment that we want to give the church a different example of dialogue. So we made it a point that it’s going to be a gracious dialogue rather than a knock-out argument where one is banished and defeated. Avoiding the vindictive language, avoiding the ad hominems, and really looking at Scripture to guide how we should disagree with one another—if for no other reason than because the non-Christian world is watching us. How can they trust us if we’re not treating one another with grace and humility?
DH—I hope that this conversation could expand going forward. But we’ve found that it has to start with a lot of time. As Darrel described, it’s taken years, with lots of in-person, informal meetings to get to know one another. We might be able to build towards that with other organizations as well, and I hope to do that down the road.
HR—We’re not looking at this dialogue just being the end-all.
KK— It’s more than simply that the two of you initiated the conversation. There are reasons why it stayed, so far, just the two of you. But you do see opportunities, perhaps, hopefulness that there will be others involved and engaged in this conversation? You do have your disagreements. Can you go ahead and delineate why and how and where. In other words, let’s go ahead and talk a little bit about those now in terms of where you hope to go moving forward here. For example, let me just go ahead and throw out one of the things for Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe accepts the scientific consensus concerning the age of the universe, the findings of astronomy and geology. Yet Reasons to Believe holds to a view about biological origins that doesn’t fit with the consensus. Would that be an accurate description?
HR—Yes, that is an accurate assessment. We hold that the closer you get to humanity, the more likely you’re going to get pushback from scientists who are not followers of Jesus Christ, so it’s no big surprise to us that we don’t have ninety-percent consensus, say, on human origins or the history of life or the origin of life. Whereas we do have it on the origins of the universe and the design of the universe for life, because that puts God far enough away from the deep personal issues. That does explain why we see a gradation in scientific support from, say, the origin of the universe up through the origin of humanity. On the other hand, we think it’s a problem if you don’t have any scientific support for your position, because the Bible tells us that there will always be a significant minority that will hear the truth and submit to the truth, so we do insist that we have a significant minority support on all these scientific issues. But we argue we shouldn’t expect to find majority support on the issues that really hit close to home and our rebellion against our creator.
Fazale Rana—I would add to what Hugh says by making a point that when it does come to origin-of-life issues, there is a scientific consensus that there’s not an explanation for the origin of life from an evolutionary standpoint. So our skepticism about chemical evolution is actually in line with the scientific community. Now, our explanation for how life originates is in disagreement with the mainstream scientific view, but the fact that we’re pointing out issues with it is in line with mainstream science. I would also argue that when it comes to the history of life on Earth, we do align with the fact that there is a history of life on Earth that’s reflected in the fossil record. We would take the view that there is such a thing as human uniqueness, which I believe is a growing consensus among anthropologists. And where we do disagree with the scientific community, let’s say on the evidence for common descent, we’re not disagreeing with the data, but we’re offering an alternate interpretation. So, I’m not so sure we’re that far away from the biological mainstream in terms of how we stake out some of our positions. Even the idea of design: I don’t think any biologist would disagree that there’s an appearance of design in biological systems. The question becomes how do you explain that design? That’s where we would depart from the mainstream scientific view.
KK—I was going to ask Darrell and Deb the very same question. You accept astronomy, geology, and biology, for the most part, in terms of the findings of mainstream scientific consensus. You accept the Darwinian hypothesis of common descent, yet you distance yourself from militant Darwinists. Explain how you do that and differentiate yourself from Reasons to Believe and the nihilistic Darwinists.
DF—Fuz and I might disagree a little bit on how close to the mainstream Reasons to Believe’s views on biology are. Reasons to Believe does not believe in common descent, and in mainstream biology, there’s really nothing more fundamental than common descent. So compared to the Young Earth Creation view, yes, it’s closer to mainstream. But from a biological perspective, they’re a long ways away, because common descent is just so fundamental to mainstream biology. Secondly, we hold the view that God made the evolutionary process and all of life has common ancestry. The process that evolutionary biologists have been describing is God’s process. This is God’s work and we, in a very real sense, worship as we look at the history of life and see God’s hand in the history of life.
So this is totally different than the views of somebody like Richard Dawkins and the many other New Atheists that have become so vocal. They are using science to advance their particular philosophy. Their views are coming primarily from a philosophical point of view, philosophical naturalism. They are using science, in a sense, to justify something which is coming, not from science, but rather from philosophy. So the absence of God, the selfish gene, the fact that we are machines, the fact that it’s all just an accident—that cannot be further removed from the BioLogos evolutionary creation view, which is that this is all God’s process. God intended us from the beginning, God had us in mind, and God continues to work down through the process of creation in an ongoing basis, and does that through common descent and natural selection.