Bryan College is having a rough time. The school is experiencing angst as it wrestles with a new policy about the origins of humanity. The leadership is insisting that members of the school community must adhere to a newly rigid position on origins. All members of the college community, it seems, will be asked to sign off on a doctrinal statement recognizing that Adam & Eve represented the real, historical ancestors of all humanity. Traditionally, faculty and students had been encouraged, or at least permitted, to embrace a relatively wide scope of Biblical opinions about the age of the earth and the historicity of Adam & Eve.
Some commentators have argued that this represents a false dilemma for Christians, or even that Bryan’s misery proves the failure of religion in the modern world. But there is a simpler explanation.
Those familiar with the history of Bryan College can’t help but note the ironies here. As I point out in my 1920s book, the founding of Bryan College was stymied by William Jennings Bryan’s unorthodox brand of conservative evangelical Protestantism. Not only did the original Bryan not embrace the notion of a young earth, but Bryan was loud and proud about his postmillennial interpretation of Scripture. For the growing fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, Bryan’s old-earth position was not remarkable or problematic. Many leading fundamentalist thinkers in the 1920s had “liberal” positions about the age of the earth. But Bryan’s postmillennial beliefs caused some worry. Could “fundamentalists” be postmillennialists? Such debates threatened to derail the funding of the new university in the 1920s.
Such arguments based on the history of Bryan College are relevant in today’s disputes. The current leadership of the school insists that their new statement of faith is really only a clarification of their traditional creed. Indeed, it would have to be, since part of that original charter stipulated that the creed could never be altered.
Faculty members at Bryan differ, however. As we’ve noted in these pages, faculty members such as Bryan Eisenback have crafted innovative school curricula that hope to teach evolution to Christians in a Christian way. As described in a recent article in Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Eisenback has been accused of teaching both evolution and creationism. As Eisenback described to the TFP,
In my view, God gave us science to learn about the physical world. When people embrace that, science is our way of understanding God’s handiwork, so to speak, then science isn’t threatening. It becomes exciting.
As usual, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education offered a sensible argument in the pages of the TFP. Bryan’s leadership, Rosenau noted, seemed to be staking out a hard-line position unnecessarily. “The evangelical position,” Rosenau argued, “doesn’t have to be an outright rejection of human evolution. There are ways to be a Bible-believing literalist without being at odds with science.”
Less convincing was the cackling triumphalism of science pundit Jerry Coyne. In the pages of The New Republic, Coyne argued that the mess at Bryan College resulted from a necessary clash between advancing science and retreating religion. “Bryan is fighting a losing battle,” Coyne crowed,
but it will be a long battle. These vestiges of superstition, and of blind adherence to it, will eventually disappear as America becomes more secular. There will always be Biblical literalism, but I’m confident it will slowly wane. But it will wane not with the changing of minds, but over the corpses of its adherents, as the older generation dies off and the younger, exposed to secularism and doubt on the internet, begins to ask questions.
I’m an avid reader of Coyne’s blog, but I don’t see how his argument makes sense. The “older generation” he refers to is many generations derived from the founders of Bryan College. A pile of the corpses of adherents to Bryan College’s conservative theology would be too high for any young people to climb over!
Corpse imagery aside, there’s a more important point to be made here. College presidents want most of all to see their institutions thrive. As the Chattanooga TFP article makes clear, the problem at Bryan College started when prominent young-earth creationist Ken Ham accused the college of falling away from Biblical orthodoxy. The leadership of Bryan College faces a worrying prospect. What if conservative evangelical parents no longer trust the orthodoxy on tap at Bryan? What if they no longer agree to send their children and their tuition dollars to the school?
More than nuances in Biblical scholarship or evolutionary theory, college presidents must consider such things. The dangers to the bottom line from the condemnation of Ken Ham are real and substantial. Unless the leadership acted to shore up the impression of orthodoxy, they must have worried that their institution would become just another failed small religious college.
Let me be clear: I have no inside knowledge of the goings-on at Bryan College. But it seems as if the simplest explanation here is probably the right one. Beyond keeping the faith true, college presidents must worry about keeping the lights on. In today’s climate, a bad review from the likes of Ken Ham could easily spell the end of any conservative evangelical school.