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Creation debate roils Bryan College

Education | A conservative Christian university takes a tumultuous stand on origins

In 1925, William Jennings Bryan defended a biblical account of the origins of life at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn. This year, a statement on the origins of life has triggered a crisis at the lawyer’s namesake, Bryan College, an 84-year-old evangelical, nondenominational institution.

Students and faculty at Bryan are upset at a move last month by the school’s board of trustees to “clarify” that the college believes Adam and Eve were historical figures created directly by God. The board says the clarification does not change the school’s historical position on origins. But some at Bryan believe the board’s action was intended to force out professors who may be sympathetic to evolution, and think it was unfair to do so at a time when faculty contracts are due for renewal.

Last week the situation culminated in a faculty no-confidence vote for school President Stephen Livesay, and a petition drive that gathered more than 300 student signatures.

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Bryan College’s Statement of Belief is an eight-point doctrinal statement adopted at the time of the school’s founding in 1930. According to the school’s charter, the belief statement cannot be amended or changed, and trustees, officers, faculty, and staff must affirm it once a year. The fourth point in the statement says the school believes “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death.”

Last month, the board of trustees adopted the following “clarification” statement: “We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

Board Chairman John Haynes told me the clarification is not an amendment to the Statement of Belief, which may not be altered. “We are clarifying one point in the Statement of Belief, which has to do with the creation of Adam and Eve,” he said. “We’re saying this is the intent of that statement.”

Asked why the board felt it was necessary to make such a clarification at this time, Haynes simply said, “There seems to be some question as to the intent of the Statement of Belief. That’s the bottom line.”

An English professor at the school, Whit Jones, said the timing of the clarification had been a “puzzle” to many on faculty, but might have been sparked by recent writings from two of his colleagues: Kenneth Turner, a Bible professor, and Brian Eisenback, an associate professor of biology who graduated from Bryan College in 2002. Together, Turner and Eisenback are writing science education materials under a grant from The BioLogos Foundation, an organization in Grand Rapids, Mich., that promotes theistic evolution. 

Theistic evolution, also called “evolutionary creation,” posits God used evolution to create biological life, including humans. Bryan’s original belief statement would seem to preclude theistic evolution for humans because it says mankind’s sin “incurred physical … death”—death being a necessary component for evolution.

Though some proponents of creationism or intelligent design would argue the case for evolution is flimsy, Turner and Eisenback wrote otherwise in a two-part article that appeared on the BioLogos website in December: “Macroevolution is robust and has multiple lines of evidence in support of it, including the fossil record and molecular biology. … The reality is that evolution is not a theory teetering on the edge of collapse.

“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.”

Turner and Eisenback planned to develop a curriculum that would present “the origin of the universe and work through the chronology of evolution up to the appearance of humans,” and overview the various Christian interpretations of science and the Bible, with a focus on the Genesis account. The curriculum would “compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint.”

“In the Introduction to Biology course at Bryan, students are presented with intelligent design, young Earth creationism, progressive creationism, evolutionary creationism, and scientism,” they continued. “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.”

Eisenback declined to comment for this story. Turner declined to answer questions, but said Livesay had already been considering clarifying Bryan’s position on origins before the BioLogos article appeared.

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