Science, Faith, and Academic Freedom: notes from a conference

I was in Ohio (pronounced o-HI-o) earlier this week. I hadn’t been there since 2005 when my son and I drove out to visit Kenyon College. After the second trip we decided 8 hours was too far, and that he should go to school in Vermont, a mere 6 1/2 hours away.

Anyway, Ohio is still too far, but what drew me back was an invitation to speak at the Thelma Fordham Pruett Conference on the Academy and Religious Faith on the campus of the University of Dayton and sponsored by First Baptist Church. I flew this time–though connecting through Atlanta at the start of the air traffic controller furlough was an adventure.

I met some wonderful people–some of whom have lived (or are now living) through the conservative politics that have been on everyone’s radar screens the last couple of years. Perhaps best know of these is Michael Pahl, who was terminated less than one year after his move from Canada to Cedarville University for violating their doctrinal statement in his wonderful book The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions. Apparently, by exploring historical, literary, and theological avenues, Pahl did not hold on tightly enough to the scientific and historical accuracy of Genesis.

With those sobering echoes in the background, I had an absolutely wonderful time meeting people who have already come to peace with evolution and who were eager to explore their faith more deeply. I was also privileged to speak with some who walked away from the faith because of fundamentalist “answers” to evolution, but who may be on the way back.

I was asked to speak specifically on the tensions between religious faith and academic inquiry drawing on my own experience at Westminster Theological Seminary–especially given the parallels with nearby Cedarville University. I was more than happy to do this, not to focus on my own experiences per se, but for a chance to speak about the “culture” of WTS that I feel reflects a larger phenomenon.

Here are my main bullet points:

1. The theological tensions at WTS that I experienced–and that can be seen whenever theological differences have erupted–was not simply a matter of theological disagreement but a violation of social identity. When disagreements quickly morph to emotionally charged tensions, often at work beneath the surface is a fear of losing the narrative cohesion that group identity affords.

2. WTS’s roots are in 19th century Princeton Theological Seminary, which was both staunchly Calvinist and academically accomplished and rigorous. That harmony between Christian faith and academic inquiry was PTS’s “social identity.” The foundation of that harmony was PTS’s view of Scripture as inerrant, a position that was deemed fully compatible with intellectual and academic inquiry.

3. Well-know theological shifts toward liberalism at PTS in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which led to the founding of WTS in 1929, can be understood as a response to academic challenges to Princeton’s theology. Three of those academic challenges were: evolution, European biblical criticism, and biblical archaeology. The three converged within about 20-30 years of each other, and each was deemed intellectually compelling by mainstream scientists and biblical scholars.

4. All three of these factors quickly undermined inerrancy by casting doubt on Scripture’s historical trustworthiness. In other words, academic factors began to challenge PTS’s narrative of academic and spiritual harmony. Social identity was threatened.

5. For better or worse, PTS responded to these academic challenges by adjusting their theology, thus retaining harmony between academics and faith. For better or for worse, others responded by holding at bay (or ignoring, in the case of the archaeological evidence) these academic challenges, which led to the founding of WTS to continue the legacy of “Old” Princeton.

6. The question to ask is whether PTS or WTS was able to maintain the older harmony, and whether these two paths represent the only options available for all subsequent generations.

7. Though considered permanently settled by some, the issues mentioned above in #3 continue to come up within American Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles. The reason for this recurring questioning of allegedly settled positions is that these issues have clearly not been adequately addressed intellectually but only kept at bay so as to safeguard the narrative coherence that strong social identity provides.

8. The Princeton/Westminster saga has had a palpable effect on the Evangelical and Fundamentalist landscape, at least in America, for several generations. Attempts to address those issues with fresh eyes are not tolerated in academic or ecclesiastical communities whose social identities are connected to this history. Hence, there tends to be very little genuine discussion of intellectual/academic matters when social identity is threatened.

9. Academic inquiry and Christian faith will continue to be in tension in these types of institutions, resulting in forced and/or voluntary departures, unless there is genuine willingness to create alternate cultures where change and innovation can be discussed at length and without threat of reprisal, and where such conversations are not seen as threat to a tradition but as the very necessary means by which a tradition can be maintained and still remain vibrant and viable. This leads, though, to a deeper question–whether creating such alternate cultures is itself intolerable within the parameters of social identity of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.


All comments are welcome–pro, con, or neutral–provided they are respectful and genuinely engage the post or a comment on the thread. Badgering comments will be deleted. Grandstanding and lecturing will be tolerated to a point, but if it gets out of hand, let me suggest you start your own website like I did. Also, rest assured I read every comment that is posted. I learn something new from many of them–pro and con–as I’m sure others do, too. I wish I could respond more, and I will as time allows.


  • Nate

    I love this topic. Recently, The Jesus Blog ( has been chronicling these recent academic stories. I had my own small experience with this when I was on a committee for a biblical studies forum at a seminary and arranged a speaker with an outside perspective. Mysteriously, the speaker was rejected a few days prior to his arranged engagement (that was earlier approved).

    However, this seems to be happening at churches as well. In the movement I subscribe there is no written doctrinal beliefs, and churches do not regularly ask that you align with their set standards of beliefs until there is an issue. It seems that an open conversation for spiritual/theological growth and perspectives is not always open, much to the dismay of myself and others.

    All in all, thank you for bringing this important topic to the forefront once again.

  • Russell Roberts

    Christianity will eventually accept evolution, just as they accepted a heliocentric universe. But it won’t be this year. Maybe not this century. And if you are the hero of this story, Pete, you will be old and gray, or dead before the accolades arrive. I guess I’m becoming a cynic.

  • susan

    you question whether (theological) cultures can be open to new ideas without threat. It seems all of academia should be able and willing to support this. Sadly, I think they cannot. This does not exist even in the field of science, where the scientific method should be the sole method of obtaining new information about the world. Witness, e.g. (in my field) the evolution of thought regarding causation of Peptic Ulcer Disease. For decades, it was believed to be caused by excess acid brought on by stress, spicy foods, etc. But in 1982, two unknown physicians followed their eyes and opened their minds to the possibility of a bacteriological cause. These two were ridiculed, laughed off stage, barely published, until they proved their hypothesis (at significant personal cost – one infected himself) and it was reproduced around the world. They eventually won the Nobel in medicine, revolutionized gastrointestinal medicine, and opened our eyes to new possibilities. These guys were my heroes. Their experience in the scientific community, however, was not uncommon. When you enter the realm of ideas, how much harder is it for people to let go of pre-existing schools of thought which (usually) cannot be challenged with concrete evidence? It seems, forgive the analogy, a culture wherein micro-evolution may be tolerated, but not macro-evolution. This is your field, not mine, but my guess is that there will repeatedly exist painful division in place of open discussion, and the creation of new schools of thought (and academies to support them) until Christ appears.

    • peteenns

      Yes, the world of ideas tends to make people crazy, doesn’t it. In your example, though, the scientific method eventually won out–which in a way demonstrates something very important.

  • rvs

    I found this sentence to be especially meaningful: “there tends to be very little genuine discussion of intellectual/academic matters when social identity is threatened.” Thanks.

    PS: Juvenal–It is difficult not to write satire.

  • Trevor

    I just want to use this comment to say a massive THANK YOU, Dr. Enns, for all your brave, trail-blazing work on taking historic/orthodox Christianity past inerrancy alongside the findings of biological, biblical, and archaeological research. Your blog and your books have been a huge help to me personally in retaining faith in the word and the Word after accepting evolution last year. Thank you so much.

    BTW you should have seen what Ken Ham was saying about that academic conference. Heretic accusations aside (sadly not joking…), his blog post makes your group-dynamics theory hold a lot of weight—“Enns Continues to Promote Heresy—Sponsored by a Baptist Church” was the title of the post, and I lol’ed at the last phrase because it’s like “*GASP* a BAPTIST church, even!!!! They’re supposed to be on ‘our’ side…one of us!” but surprise, surprise. :D

    • Mark Chennoweth

      There are many varieties of baptist churches. Some are much more liberal than I am, and some fundamentalist to core. The fundamentalist ones are the ones that attract so many members. You don’t hear about the other one’s much. American Baptists I believe. I could be wrong.

      Yeah, I basically had my mother give me a tract she received from a bible study at her church. It called any professor pastor that didn’t accept inerrancy and the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 Satan’s ministers.

      Of course, there was a lot of quoting of Ken Ham in the article she had me read. It’s incumbent upon us NOT to respond to Ken Ham’s attacks with his own medicine, I think. For one, such attacks shows the desperation of his position, but secondly, if we can show that we are Christian evolutionists but also nice people, we’re making good progress. : )

      • peteenns

        I think you are absolutely correct here, Mark. The answer to Ham, etc., is to build a positive vision.

    • James

      I love that Ken Ham included your video clip in his blog. That’s a step forward because I believe serious thinkers who watch and listen will join the conversation–just as you encourage. In general, I found Ken’s blog spiced with conversation stoppers not facilitators. So the clip was a breath of fresh air. There is indeed a Christian ‘social identity’ to cultivate, not for its own sake but for transcendent purposes we believe are rooted in Holy Scripture. No wonder then we tend to state (and overstate) our case with vigor!

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Trevor I appreciate it!

    • Derek

      It’s sad to see the heresy label being thrown around without justification. I personally never read Ken Ham and I try to be cautious and stay open so I don’t repeat the mistakes of history – both on the side of the fundamentalists and liberals.

      I really think it all boils down the to the gospel. I think we can use the heretic label when someone starts to distort the gospel.

  • Bev Mitchell

    It’s the same all over and the parallels are often exact. Susan gives a great example from her field of internal medicine, and we could wish for such a clear resolution and redemption in other areas. In evolutionary biology, there is a current serious flareup of an old battle between reductionists and more holistic thinkers. The basic issue is the relative importance of information flowing up and down the levels of organization. Extreme reductionists want to give little importance to the flow of information from the more complex levels downward. For those interested, a good summary of the conflict is given by Pigliucci et al. (2006) “Phenotypic plasticity and evolution by genetic assimilation” Journal of Experimental Biology 209, 2362-2367.

    Of course, that such conflicts exist is not really the problem – how can progress be made without them? But we do need to come up with better ways to talk with each other when confronted with serious disagreement. Sadly, solutions are extremely elusive because defending established reputations, garnering resources and power struggles always seem to take precedence. This would be a good place for Christian organizations to set better examples, but the chances of seeing this seem poor.

  • Andy

    I have greatly appreciated your voice over the years. Whilst I don’t 100% agree with absolutely every perspective (not yet anyway) – the incarnate approach to scripture has been a breath of fresh air to me. It is now my starting point for EVERY deep question about scripture (or God). The idea of going back to a flat Bible is now so foreign and bizarre.
    I would love to hear you flesh out your ideas around theological ‘re-education’ in evangelical churches and how everyday lay people can be involved in supporting this process.
    I know for me, when I first discovered the reality of a Bible that contained ‘errors’ and honestly wrestled with violence and brutality within the OT; it shook me to my very core. I’d love to explore ways of gently shepherding the Church into this deeper appreciation for the messy love within scripture.
    I’d also love to hear more about retaining and nourishing faith in an academic and sometimes secular environment where concepts such as a literal resurrection or Jesus miracles are sometimes ridiculed.

  • WB

    That last question is really the rub. The crucial question is if the next generation of leadership at evangelical educational organizations can be more open to inquiry. A real shift seems to have happened at cultural orgs like Focus on the Family. Can a similar sea change happen at Christian schools? I hope so.