Creation debate roils Bryan College

Education | A conservative Christian university takes a tumultuous stand on origins
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 3/07/14, 10:45 am

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.

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.

The clarification as worded would not seem to bar teaching Bryan students about evolution as a theory. But it would preclude any professor or staff member from believing Adam and Eve evolved from earlier hominids, or teaching such a position as fact.

“I think the college has been concerned that Bryan looked publicly too liberal,” Jones said. He noted that Ken Ham, president of the young-Earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis, has made critical statements about the school in the past. Jones said he felt comfortable signing the new clarification himself, but he and others on faculty believe it was pushed forward too quickly. 

“We feel like the clarification has been ramrodded through in very great haste,” he said. “It’s been unloving to the Christian body here.”

Randall Hollingsworth, a professor of communications at the college, said he and his colleagues received an unusual email around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 16—a Sunday morning. It contained a revised agenda for a scheduled Monday morning faculty meeting in which, the email said, the board of trustees would present a clarification statement.

At the Monday meeting, the board gave a 20-minute presentation introducing the new clarification. They said it would apply immediately to new faculty contracts, which are due to be signed by March 28 for the upcoming school year. The board then opened the meeting to questions.  

“It didn’t take long before people were standing and expressing their concerns,” said Hollingsworth, who described the meeting as “emotional” and “impassioned.” 

“Why did it have to happen immediately?” he asked.

Hollingsworth and Jones said the faculty was concerned that a rush to push through the origins clarification on short notice was unfair to members who might not be able to sign it with a clear conscience. Professors who do not affirm the clarification statement, will lose their jobs at the close of this semester. “They have mortgages here in Dayton,” Jones said. “They have families to support. And they have no jobs.”

Some faculty members have requested the contract requirement be delayed a year. The board has so far declined.

The board also formed a steering committee, made of board members, that will produce a “position paper” to clarify further Bryan’s position on origins. Though the board said it welcomed faculty input, it asked such input to go through standard department channels. “There was a lack of communication,” said Hollingsworth. “There was a lack of discussion.”

Frustration culminated in a special 50-minute meeting on Feb. 25, during which faculty members held a confidence vote for Livesay, who has led the school since 2003, including through recent years of budget cuts and declining enrollment. Thirty professors voted no confidence, two voted confidence, and six abstained. Hollingsworth, who is also chair of the humanities division, said the vote resulted from Livesay’s leadership style, not simply the recent origins statement.

In a story posted Thursday, the school’s student news website, The Triangle, quoted Livesay telling students after the confidence vote, “It [the opposition to the clarification] kind of surprises me a little bit, because this is pretty basic stuff. I would say for the majority of students, faculty and staff, the vast, vast majority, this is right on target, this is what we believe, who we are.” The Triangle also reported that Livesay told faculty and staff in a March 3 email not to talk to students about the current problems.

Livesay did not return an interview request for this story, but provided a school statement also posted to Bryan College’s website Friday morning. “The Board adopted on Feb. 27 a resolution fully supporting the leadership of Dr. Livesay and expressing their appreciation for the progress made by the college during his tenure as president,” the statement read. It quoted Livesay as saying, “My goal is to continue working alongside our faculty and staff to enhance Bryan’s mission of educating our students to become servants of Christ to make a difference in today’s world.”

A day after the confidence vote, the school’s Student Government Association circulated a petition to express its “strong opposition to the measure to clarify Bryan College’s statement of faith,” and its concern the measure was disregarding faculty input and disrupting “spiritual unity.”

“We could not in good faith recommend this school to potential students or faculty should our mentors and teachers continue to be disregarded and marginalized,” the petition stated.

Student body Vice President Allison Baker said that during a 48-hour window, 303 students signed the petition, nearly half the campus population. She and student body President Joseph Murphy had discussed the clarification effort with Livesay four or five times since early February, she said, but ultimately felt the administration wasn’t taking faculty and student input seriously.

“I think we sense a lot of factions rising and people taking sides,” Baker, a 21-year-old senior, said. “We want unity.”

Haynes denied the board had timed the clarification to coincide with contract renewals. “It’s obviously amplified by that, but [faculty and staff] have signed this Statement of Belief every year.”

Asked what would happen to faculty who could not sign the clarified statement this month, Haynes said, “I’m confident that there will be some very serious discussion with them about whether they should be teaching at Bryan College.” He said he did not think the clarification required faculty to affirm a young Earth.

“You’ve got to stand on the Word of God and judge science by that,” Haynes said. “You can’t stand on science and judge the Word of God.”

The clarification has already provoked at least one resignation. Former Trustee Mark Trail, a Bryan graduate, stepped down from the board Feb. 17. He said in his resignation letter he could “not ascribe” to the board’s interpretation of the Statement of Belief. “I believe we don’t know exactly how God did it,” Trail told me by email, adding there were “many unanswered questions about our genetic similarities with Neanderthals and Chimpanzees, for example, that I think demand remaining open to testing various hypothesis.”

Hollingsworth said he personally believes in six-day creation, and was not surprised that Bryan would affirm a created Adam and Eve. “I didn’t have a problem with the clarification,” he said. “It was just the rush. I know that my president is a man of integrity. … I feel confident that he believes he is doing the right thing. … It’s just the way he’s gone about it is a little disconcerting.”

Haynes said ultimately, the clarification doesn’t change the college’s position.

“The dilemma is we’re responding to people trying to chip away at the Statement of Faith,” he said. “The timing is unfortunate. But this is where Bryan College stands. We did not move. Somebody else did.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

Read more from this writer
ADVERTISEMENT