NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Public discussion of evolution often turns into a nasty debate between young-earth creationists on one side and atheists who believe science disproves the existence of God on the other. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Witness the gracious dialogue taking place between Southern Baptist seminary professors and evangelical scientists on the BioLogos website.
In a series of essays titled "Southern Baptist Voices," the two groups consider questions such as whether the existence of a historical Adam and Eve created in the image of God is compatible with the gradual development of humans through evolution.
While there is disagreement, the authors are quick to emphasize places where they do agree, such as the reality of the miracles described in the Bible, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And there is room for give-and-take on both sides.
The series came about after Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Academic Dean Kenneth Keathley and BioLogos President Darrel Falk met at a Christian scholars conference last year. Keathley agreed to invite seminary professors to contribute essays describing their disagreements with BioLogos, a nonprofit foundation "committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith," according to its website.
Keathley begins the first essay by noting that the Southern Baptist statement of faith is silent on how God created the universe. But he goes on to say that Southern Baptists' very literal interpretation of Scripture leads many in the denomination to hold the view that God created the world in six, 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago.
Many Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians today see parts of the Bible, such as the creation as metaphorical, but for many evangelical Christians, such a belief is untenable.
Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, a young-earth creationist, has called the attempt to reconcile evangelicals to evolution a "direct attack upon biblical authority."
Keathley, meanwhile, calls himself an old-earth creationist who accepts that the universe is billions of years old, but also believes that God directly intervened at certain points in natural history.
In an introductory essay to the series, Keathley lays out several points where he believes Southern Baptists are at odds with the BioLogos model. Among them is whether Adam and Eve were real people who experienced a real fall from grace with God that brought sin into the world. The concept is also central to the idea that Jesus saved the world from sin through his death on the cross.
Falk and two other writers respond that science tells us "there was never a time when the human population from which all modern humans descended was as small as two individuals." Instead, they suggest the possibility that "God began a covenantal relationship with a real, historical first couple who brought about spiritual death as a result of their disobedience."
Keathley also points out that for some Christians, evolution presents a problem because it implies that suffering and death have been with the world from the beginning, rather than resulting from rebellion against God.
"Young-earth creationists ask, 'What does this do to the nature of God if God created the world with pain and suffering from the beginning?'" Keathley said in an interview.
Another essayist, Bill Dembski, who is a research fellow at the Discovery Institute and one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, takes it a stretch further when he says, "In terms of strict logic, nothing takes you from natural selection to atheism, but, as a practical matter, many people find that Darwin makes atheism seem plausible."
Falk and others say in their essay that the problem of evil is a challenge, but that "Scripture does not take a universally negative view of suffering and death in the present age. Rather it is recognized as being both a tragedy and a creative force."
So far, BioLogos has published four essays and responses with three more planned. Writers on both sides say the dialogue has been useful. Keathley said the response he has heard from other Southern Baptists has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I think everybody recognizes this is an important topic and it's not going to do any good to simply yell at each other across the fence," he said. "They need to hear from us on the nature of Scripture, the nature of the fall and of salvation. And we need to hear from them on the nature of modern science."
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Falk, who teaches biology at Biology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said the dialogue has given BioLogos members a chance to clarify some of their positions.
"I don't think our differences are anywhere near as great as people might have thought," he said.
Because he teaches at a Christian college, Falk is very familiar with the types of questions evolution raises for other evangelicals, he said. But for him, the many developments he has seen in the field of evolutionary biology over the years have only strengthened his faith.
"To see how life works in all its majestic details truly is a worship experience," he said.