Holy Wars

07.19.15 4:01 AM ET

Creationists Take Down Another Top Professor

Bethel College in Indiana is just the latest battlefield between evangelicals and evolution. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

Another evangelical denomination has voted Darwin and his champions off the island.

In a story becoming all too familiar, another pro-evolution faculty member has been forced to leave his evangelical institution. Jim Stump, longtime professor of philosophy, productive scholar, and popular, award-winning teacher at Bethel College in Indiana, resigned his position in June because of pressures put on the college by its sponsoring denomination, the Missionary Church.

The issue, once again, was evolution. Most members of the Missionary Church reject Darwin’s theory of evolution in favor of a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. But many faculty members at Bethel College accept evolution and consider it part of their “teaching ministry” to help their students do the same, within the context of their faith. Such divergences exist in most evangelical denominations that sponsor liberal arts colleges but as long as faculty members are clearly evangelical in their faith the tensions are often manageable and an uneasy peace can be maintained. 

The Articles of Faith and Practice of the Missionary Church, however, clearly reject evolution and affirm the reality of a historical Adam: “We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution.” In contrast, Bethel faculty members have historically affirmed a much broader statement on origins, which says simply “God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things.” This statement is compatible with a wide range of positions on human origins, from a belief in the literal story in Genesis in which God creates everything in six days, to the belief that God created all life—including humans—through the process of Darwinian evolution over billions of years.

Darwin and his theory, however, even when cast in a theological context, remain unwelcome in most evangelical communities. Many in the Missionary Church objected to the teaching and public promotion of evolution by Bethel faculty in an institution created to reflect their beliefs. The president of the Missionary Church, Steve Jones, spoke frankly in an email approved for public distribution: “Genesis,” he wrote, “specifically and intentionally describes the creation of Adam and Eve—not all life—as a special creative act of God separate from all the rest of his creation, rather than as a process of evolution.” And, although Jones was clear that the denomination he leads does not want to “take over” the college, or even “get anyone fired,” he was also clear that “we don’t want Bethel professors advocating for a view that humankind arose through a process of evolution, because God said otherwise.”

The tension between Bethel College and the Missionary Church illustrates the ongoing and insoluble problem that American evangelicals have with evolution. Jones is the president of a denomination in which most members reject evolution, and affirm the creation story in Genesis, especially the historicity of Adam and Eve. This is an important article of their faith, at the heart of how they understand sin, salvation, and the meaning of Jesus. Jesus saves people from sin they inherited from Adam, who was created perfect by God but chose to disobey. 

The Missionary Church sponsors a college it influences through the Board of Trustees, which it controls. Members of the Missionary Church support the college financially. They send their children to Bethel College, expecting that the faculty there will support the beliefs taught to children in their homes and churches. The curriculum is intended to bring depth and breadth to this faith, as well as prepare young people for careers. But what happens when the scholarly pursuits of the faculty lead them into positions rejected by the denomination—positions perceived as corrosive and even hostile to faith?

Evolution moved onto the front burner for many in the Missionary Church in the wake of the national publicity that attended the creation-evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  In that widely watched confrontation, the biblical story of creation was defended by a Bible-believing Christian with whom many in the Missionary Church could identify. Evolution was defended by a well-known atheist.

Concerns arose that Bethel faculty were aligned with Bill Nye rather than Ken Ham on the question of origins. So, after considerable discussion—30 meetings with more than 200 constituents over 2½ years, according to the Bethel president—and some failed efforts to find common ground, the Bethel Board of Trustees on June 9 of this year approved a new policy specifying that college faculty must affirm the same position on Adam and Eve as the Missionary Church, namely that Adam “was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution.” The new policy further specifies that Bethel faculty should advocate this as the “official, meritorious, and theologically responsible position of the College, without disparagement.”

The new policy “permits faculty to participate in academic communities which might be at variance with the Position Statement.” This would allow a faculty member to be a member, for example, of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. However, faculty are “not to advocate for, nor hold leadership positions for, nor sustain a contractual relationship with an academic community which may be at variance with the Statement.”

The last part of the document created particular problems for Jim Stump. Stump was the content manager for the website at BioLogos, a Christian organization founded by NIH President Francis Collins to promote evolution to evangelicals. And, BioLogos is not committed to the belief that Adam was a historical figure. (Disclosure: I helped Francis Collins start BioLogos and was vice president and then president for a while.) Both Stump’s position at BioLogos and his publications were incompatible with the document. In fact, Rev. Ryan Yazel, a Bethel graduate, former student of Stump, and pastor of a Missionary Church congregation near the college, told me he thinks the June 9 document was “intentionally targeting BioLogos.”

Stump—a Bethel alum, tenured professor with 17 years at the college and the 2003 “professor of the year”—chose to leave rather than create tensions between the college and the denomination.  

On June 26, Gregg Chenoweth, Bethel’s president, and Stump penned letters to the Bethel College community. Stump wrote: “I decided to resign from my position at Bethel in order to pursue alternate work, rather than remain under the new Statement and bring tension to the Bethel community.” Chenoweth affirmed Jim’s teaching and professionalism and noted that many in the larger Bethel community “name Jim as one star in the constellation of their Bethel experience.”  

Deborah Haarsma, the president of BioLogos, describes the organization she leads as “disheartened” by developments that put Stump “in the painful situation of having to choose between the scholarship to which he feels called and the academic community to which he has belonged for decades.”  

The Bethel incident is sobering because it is a story without villains and thus provides the deepest possible insight into the depth of American evangelicalism’s problem with evolution. A few weeks ago I reported the story of Tom Oord, who was terminated from a college very similar to Bethel. But Oord’s termination was engineered by a heavy-handed and unpopular president—who has since resigned in scandal. Another president might have responded differently and that led to hope that peace with evolution could be possible when cooler heads prevail. But the Bethel College incident suggests otherwise. No individual went after Jim Stump, most certainly not Bethel president Chenoweth, who by all reports accepted Stump’s resignation reluctantly. Stump was squeezed out by the incompatibility of evolutionary science and the theology of the Missionary Church—a theology formally shared with many other denominations and informally embraced by tens of millions of Americans. As I explain in my recent book, Saving the Original Sinner, evangelicals will never make peace with any scientific theory that challenges the historicity of Adam and Eve.

The evolution wars are here to stay and heads will continue to roll.