INTRO BY TED: Almost forty years ago, I made one of the most important decisions of my life. I joined the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), the oldest organization of Christian scientists in North America and publisher of the academic journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Through the ASA, either directly or indirectly, I’ve met dozens of top scientists and scholars who served as role models for my own career as a Christian scholar—including Deb Haarsma and her predecessor at BioLogos, Darrel Falk. Countless articles from the ASA journal have introduced me to many of the ideas I now embrace myself and pass on to my students and readers of BioLogos.
This July, Azusa Pacific University will host the seventy-first annual ASA meeting. Members will celebrate the ASA’s seventy-fifth anniversary (there were no meetings in the first few years) with a conference devoted to “Brain, Mind, and Faith.” Neuroscience will be the focus, but (as always) papers on many other topics related to Christianity and science will compete for places on the program. There is simply no better place for scientists to network with fellow Christians, while learning new answers to age-old questions, and no better place for lay Christians to upgrade their understanding of current thinking about science and faith. I hope to see many of you in California this summer!
Participants at the 2002 ASA meeting gather for a meal on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. The growth of the ASA since 1941 is self-evident, and the gender and ethnic diversity of the group seated at the table in the foreground contrasts sharply with that of the five white men who founded the organization. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
I first learned about the ASA when I was teaching science and mathematics at a Christian school in Philadelphia. A terrific science teacher at another Christian school, the late Frank Roberts, took me to a regional meeting of the ASA, where I met a great group of like-minded inquirers. I’ve never looked back.
Plenary speakers and others involved with the 2002 ASA meeting. Left to right: historian Ted Davis of Messiah College (program co-chair), nuclear physicist Ian Hutchinson of MIT (speaker), astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich of Harvard (speaker), astronomer Jennifer Wiseman of NASA (speaker), historian Sara Miles of Eastern University (program co-chair), geneticist Francis Collins of the NIH (speaker), and biologist Dorothy Chappell of Wheaton College (ASA Council member). Missing from this photograph was another speaker, physicist Charles Townes of UC-Berkeley, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on masers (which led to lasers). Photograph courtesy of Edward B. Davis.
By facilitating deep conversations among Christians, the ASA has been a major player in the story of American religion and science. As a postlude to my series on the Antebellum period, I’m bringing you a short history of the ASA, written by molecular biologist Terry Gray, a longtime ASA member (see his autobiography at the end of this column). Terry wrote an excellent chapter about evolution and biochemistry (partly responding to claims from ID proponents) in one of the very best books about Evolutionary Creation; he also co-authored (with biophysicist Loren Haarsma) a second chapter on “Complexity and Self-Organization.” When BioLogos awarded the ASA an ECF grant a couple years ago, it was Terry’s job (working with Emily Ruppel) to “make available on the internet those videos, audio files, and papers that best help demonstrate the viability of evolution as a Christian worldview.” The main outcome of the ECF project is the web site Resources on Science and Christian Faith. Along the way, he wrote the history we are now presenting.
The next words you read are his.
The Early Years of the American Scientific Affiliation
Evangelical Christians have responded in various ways to developments in modern science since the nineteenth century, when geologists started advocating an old earth and Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and others who created the Princeton Theology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries forged somewhat of a peace with science, as documented in David Livingstone’s book, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders. Evangelicals with more fundamentalist roots have been slower to do so and have been wrestling with science ever since. Both of these groups played major roles in the history of the ASA.
The ASA began in 1941 as “a group of Christian scientific men devoting themselves to the task of reviewing, preparing, and distributing information on the authenticity, historicity, and scientific aspects of the Holy Scriptures in order that the faith of many in the Lord Jesus Christ may be firmly established.” Today, with a similar but somewhat broader purpose, ASA seeks “to investigate any area relating Christian faith and science and to make known the results of such investigations for comment and criticism by the Christian community and by the scientific community.” ASA has a seventy-five-year history of dialogue and discussion about faith-science issues with much of that discussion focused on evolution.
Working with Van Kampen Press of Wheaton, in 1948 the ASA published 5,000 copies of its first major publication, Modern Science and Christian Faith, containing eleven chapters written by ASA members in several different disciplines. It sold for $3.00. A second, “enlarged” edition appeared two years later.
From the start, the ASA was dedicated to the belief that there is no ultimate conflict between the true facts of science (vs. speculative theories built on those facts) and Scripture. The five founders were all practicing scientists. An early project was the book, Modern Science and Christian Faith (1948). Already the value of thoroughly discussing difficulties and not necessarily promoting a particular point of view is evident. In a brochure soliciting contributions, chemist Irving Cowperthwaite (a founding member) wrote,
It is felt that such a frank airing of both sides of the question will appeal to the student and will receive a consideration when other more sensational approaches will not. Students are intelligent and fully capable of arriving at constructive conclusions if full data are presented. The dangerous, insidious conviction is that based on an incomplete knowledge of the problem... The statements and representations...must be able to meet the scrutiny of men unfriendly to the cause of Christ and rise unscathed. Error or misrepresentations of science would seriously impair the usefulness of the book.
The commitment to rigorous science was present in the ASA from the beginning.
The chapters on astronomy (by Peter W. Stoner of Pasadena City College) and geology (by Edwin K. Gedney of Gordon College) recognized the immense age of the universe and the results of radiometric dating to establish that age. One important geological observation is the absence of transitional forms, a relatively uncontested claim in the 1950s. Consequently, the authors distanced themselves from theistic evolution and tended toward a progressive creationist view. While the statements of Scripture were seen to be consonant with the latest findings of science, the authors recognized that the Bible is not a scientific textbook and is perhaps pre-scientific, noting that “its main message is one of salvation and spiritual life.” The chapter on “Biology and Creation” was firmly anti-evolutionary. It reviewed the latest genetics research, although was clearly written prior to the modern molecular biology era. Significantly, the authors of this chapter, William J. Tinkle of Taylor University and consulting horticulturalist Walter E. Lammerts, were part of the group of ten ASA members who in 1963 started the Creation Research Society, a group committed to the tenets of young-earth creationism. Apparently, they were not convinced of the great age of the earth and universe or the viability of the day-age view of Genesis 1. The second edition included a very long chapter on anthropology (by William A. Smalley and Marie Fetzer) covering race, cultural development, linguistics, and fossil hominids. The authors sought to correlate the scientific data concerning human origins with Scripture. Manifesting some prescience, this early article laid out the options on human evolution and Christian faith that ASA members continue to explore to this day.
Overall, however, Modern Science and Christian Faith was resistant to evolutionary science and committed to a fairly literalistic reading of the Bible. Evolution and creation are pitted against each other, and effort is taken to show that evolution is speculative and not rooted in the facts of science. On the other hand the authors grappled with the scientific data. This commitment to engage science ultimately transformed the ASA from its anti-evolutionary roots to its present attitude of openness to evolution as a biological theory, as members increasingly came to recognize that biological evolution was compelling science.
The ultimate source for ASA history is this memoir by the first president, the distinguished acoustical engineer F. Alton Everest. The author described his book as “more an assemblage of facts than a historical analysis of those facts, although a certain amount of analysis from the viewpoint of a participant is included” (p. ix).
When Gray’s series continues next week, we’ll see how an increasing respect for the findings of mainstream science led many ASA members to reject the idea that the Bible is a source of scientific information.
Who Is Terry Gray?
Terry M. Gray has been an evolutionary creationist as far back as he can remember. In Junior High he wrote a “tract” for his fundamentalist public school mates reconciling evolution with the Adam and Eve story. His academic degrees are in Molecular Biology (Purdue University, B.S., 1980; University of Oregon, Ph.D., 1985). He has taught chemistry, biochemistry, and biology at Calvin College (1986-1997) and at Colorado State University and Front Range Community College (2011-present). From 1997 to 2011 he provided computer support for the CSU Chemistry Department. His first involvement in the ASA was a 1994 “debate” about ID with Michael Behe. His engagement with ID came after reviewing Philip Johnson’s book, Darwin on Trial, in The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Those pro-evolutionary creation contributions led to controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, where his views on evolution came under fire. In addition to his two chapters in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (see above), he has written (with Anthony K. Rappé) two eTextbooks, Energy: What the World Needs Now and Molecules of Life with a Chemistry Bootcamp (about to be published). With Jack Haas, Terry developed and maintained the ASA web site and continues to maintain the journal/newsletter/annual meeting AV archives. Terry and his wife Shari have five grown children and two grandchildren. He still proudly remembers the day when his oldest, then four years old, asked why God would create the dinosaurs on the fifth day of creation and then let them go extinct before the sixth day when he created people. He then proceeded to discuss the Framework View of Genesis 1.