Evangelical scholar forced out after endorsing evolution

USA Today/April 10, 2010

When it comes to incriminating videos these days, the one of Bruce K. Waltke might seem pretty tame. It shows the noted evangelical scholar of the Old Testament talking about scholarship, faith and evolution. What was incriminating? He not only endorsed evolution, but said that evangelical Christianity could face a crisis for not coming to accept science.

"If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult ... some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God's Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness," he says, according to several accounts by those who have seen the video. Those words set off a furor at the Reformed Theological Seminary, where Waltke was - until this week - a professor. (The seminary is evangelical, with ties to several denominations.)

The statements so upset officials of the seminary that Waltke had to ask the BioLogos Foundation, a group that promotes the idea that science and faith need not be incompatible, to remove it from its website (which the foundation did) and to post a clarification. The video was shot during a BioLogos workshop. But even those steps weren't enough for the seminary, which announced that it had accepted his resignation.

Waltke is a big enough name in evangelical theology that the incident is prompting considerable soul-searching. On the one hand, his public endorsement of the view that believing in evolution and being a person of faith are not incompatible was significant for those who, like the BioLogos Foundation, support such a view. Waltke's scholarly and religious credentials in Christian theology were too strong for him to be dismissed easily.

But the fact that his seminary did dismiss him is viewed as a sign of just how difficult it may be for scholars at some institutions to raise issues involving science that are not 100% consistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

"I think it's a really sad situation, even if this isn't the first time a scholar at a religious institution has been released for unorthodox views," said Michael Murray, vice president for philosophy and theology at the John Templeton Foundation, which supports BioLogos and other efforts to bridge science and religion.

Waltke could not be reached for comment on the situation. He did issue a joint statement with the head of BioLogos in which he stood behind the substance of what he said in the video, but also said that he wished he could have provided more context, particularly his view that it is possible to believe in evolution and also believe in "in the inerrancy of Scripture."

Michael Milton, president of the seminary's Charlotte campus and interim president of its Orlando campus, where Waltke taught, confirmed that the scholar had lost his job over the video. Milton said that Waltke would "undoubtedly" be considered one of the world's great Christian scholars of the Old Testament and that he was "much beloved here," with his departure causing "heartache." But he said that there was no choice.

Milton said that the seminary allows "views to vary" about creation, describing the faculty members there as having "an eight-lane highway" on which to explore various routes to understanding. Giving an example, he said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing "a framework" for some period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for "a diversity" of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn't arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life) are not allowed, he said, and faculty members know this.

Asked if this limits academic freedom, Milton said: "We are a confessional seminary. I'm a professor myself, but I do not have a freedom that would go past the boundaries of the confession. Nor do I have a freedom that would allow me to express my views in such a way to hurt or impugn someone who holds another view." Indeed he added that the problem with what Waltke said was as much his suggestion that religion will lose support over these issues as his statements about evolution itself. (The statement of faith at the seminary states: "Since the Bible is absolutely and finally authoritative as the inerrant Word of God, it is the basis for the total curriculum.")

Given Waltke's role and reputation, Milton said that his resignation wasn't accepted on the spot. But after prayer on the question, Milton said, officials accepted the resignation.

Even before word of Waltke's resignation spread, his need to ask BioLogos to remove the video worried many Christian thinkers who want more public discussion about science. In his blog, Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, wrote that he didn't agree with all of Waltke's views, but very much agreed that they deserved serious discussion.

McKnight focused his praise on a quote from Waltke in the video in which he said that "to deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death if we stopped loving God with all of our minds and thinking about it, I think it's our spiritual death."

McKnight wrote that "we do not preserve the church by drawing lines and building walls." Such a philosophy, he added, will not be easy, but may be essential. "Unfortunately growth causes growing pains - and growth brings uncertainty. People get defensive and people get hurt. We see this today and are poorer for it. It is also - my opinion, not from Waltke's comments - our spiritual death in witness to the world when we backstab, fight, condemn, and censor amongst ourselves. We are our own worst enemy," wrote McKnight.

At BeliefNet, Rod Dreher blogged that "even though I would agree that Waltke's controversial remarks were overstated, it is all but incomprehensible that in 2010, any American scholar, particularly one of his academic distinction, could be so harshly bullied for stating an opinion consonant with current scientific orthodoxy. Doesn't Waltke at least have the right to be wrong about something like this?

"Don't mistake me, I believe that any and every religion, and religious institution, has the right, and indeed the obligation, to set standards and to enforce them. But is this really the hill these Reformed folks want to die on?" (Dreher is director of publications at Templeton but stressed that his blog does not represent the foundation.)

Darrel Falk, a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University and president of BioLogos, said he was "disappointed" by what happened to Waltke, and said that it showed the need to continue to promote meaningful dialogue between those in the worlds of science and faith. He said that Waltke took "a real risk" by speaking out, and that there is going to be a danger for those who work with religious groups whose leaders and members "just don't understand science."

On the BioLogos website, Falk posted a statement Thursday called "On the Courage of Bruce Waltke." He closed the statement this way: "Decades from now, when the Evangelical Church has come to terms with the reality of evolution, we hope she will look back at those who were the pioneers on its journey toward a fuller understanding of the manner by which God has created. I could list other pioneers, a number of whom are good friends and colleagues.

"Right there alongside them will be Dr. Bruce Waltke who, in the latter phase of an extremely distinguished career, had the courage to tell the Church what it needed to hear. The fact that he did so with a remarkably gentle spirit of love will be a reminder to all that the real battles are won when we simply live the reality of the Gospel. To do this - in the face of adversity - is the ultimate in courage."

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