A clash between faith and science is taking center stage at a Baptist college in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention recently authorized an investigation into what is being taught at the state’s three Baptist colleges. That came after a student at Carson-Newman College took the floor to say professors at the school in Jefferson City, Tenn., teach the Bible contains errors and contradictions.
The student, Brady Tarr, earlier wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper criticizing Carson-Newman’s biology department for not teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution.
“Every teacher in the biology department is a theistic evolutionist,” Tarr charged. “They do not believe that God created the heavens, the earth and every living thing the way the Bible says He did in Genesis. They believe that the first chapters of Genesis are figurative and are not literally how God created everything. The teachers say that God used evolution to create life, which is clearly not what the Bible says!”
“Theistic” evolution holds that both creation and evolution are true. It affirms that God created life on earth through evolution over eons, rather than directly in six days less than 10,000 years ago.
While the view is widely held and taught in many Christian colleges, some say it doesn’t square with a literal reading of the Bible. For example, Scripture says that death entered the world because of the fall of Adam. If that is true, they ask, how could dinosaurs have perished millions of years before the first human appeared?
“I believe it is very dangerous for those teachers to trust science over the word of God,” continued Tarr, a chemistry major set to graduate in December.
Tarr is a member of the Carson-Newman tennis team and grandson of one of the school’s most generous donors. Two buildings on campus bear the family name. These days he is best known, however, for rallying conservative pastors in East Tennessee over concerns that the Baptist college promotes liberalism.
Todd Stinnett, a 2001 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on an Internet message board that he met Tarr shortly after becoming pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., in February 2003. A college student at Stinnett’s church introduced Tarr, who wanted to share with a local pastor concerns about what he had been taught about the Bible, creation and God’s foreknowledge during his time at Carson-Newman.
“I listened to what Brady was saying, and I decided that if things were really as bad as he said they were, then I needed to go on campus to find out what was happening,” Stinnett wrote. “For the past year and a half, that is exactly what I have done.”
Stinnett described his last on-campus experience as “the clincher.” Charles Kimball, head of the religion department at Wake Forest University and author of the book When Religion Becomes Evil, lectured and preached a chapel sermon Sept. 13-14.
During a question-and-answer session, Stinnett said he asked Kimball whether all religions worship the same God. Kimball responded: “Young man, that’s a very difficult question, and one I don’t think I can answer with a yes or no.”
In his book, Kimball warns against the danger of “absolute truth claims” and makes a case for “inclusivism,” the concept that while Jesus Christ represents the fullest revelation of God, God’s saving presence is found in other faith traditions as well.
Critics say inviting Kimball to speak amounted to endorsement of his views, which some fear might lead impressionable students astray. Further, some wonder if a majority of faculty secretly believe the same way.
In his letter to the editor, Tarr alleged that every full-time teacher in the religion department except one believes that the Bible contains errors and/or contradictions. He said there should be more inerrantist professors, so students would have an equal opportunity to be taught by people who believe the Bible is literally true.
Carson-Newman President James Netherton said at the state convention that the college “doesn’t teach the Bible has errors,” according to the Baptist & Reflector, but that “If you treat the Bible with great honesty, a number of things must be read and placed in proper perspective.”
A number of critics, however, say the figurative reading of the Bible held by most of the religion faculty is out of step with what many Tennessee Baptists believe.
Tarr’s mother, Deidre Tarr, defended her son in a widely circulated open letter that criticized not only Kimball’s chapel message but also an earlier profanity-laden lecture by Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas.
“Do Baptist preachers, members of their congregations and individual Christians know this is the kind of chapel program that they are paying for their children to hear?” she wrote. “To offer this heresy and not allow a professor from Southern Seminary to come on campus last year to speak about the Bible being true does not seem to be open intellectual inquiry.”
Others defend Carson-Newman’s reputation for both academic excellence and Christian commitment and fear a witch hunt is underway on campus.
Prior to the recent presidential election, a story circulated about a student being kicked out of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Carson-Newman because he intended to vote for John Kerry. The student reportedly declined subsequent reinstatement.
Brady Tarr was identified as one of the students leading the effort to remove the student. Neither he nor other students identified by sources as being involved in the dispute responded to e-mail requests for comment.
FCA official Joshua Sonoga said the dispute had nothing to do with politics but centered on theological issues. He declined to elaborate.
A faculty source told EthicsDaily.com, however, that one of the fundamentalist students involved admitted that political views were at least part of the reason the Kerry-voting student was removed from the FCA leadership team.
David Nowell, vice president for advancement, said in an e-mail that the administration was aware of the incident and was looking into it.
Baptist schools in other states have severed ties with sponsoring state conventions to avoid fundamentalist takeover. Observers believe Belmont University in Nashville would do the same if the study turns into a showdown between moderates and conservatives. Union University in Jackson, meanwhile, is a fundamentalist school and expects to receive a clean bill of health. Carson-Newman, viewed as the middle-of-the-road of the three colleges, would be most vulnerable in an outright power struggle between factions of the right and left.
While the teaching of evolution in Baptist colleges hasn’t been a major focus in other state conventions, there is precedent in the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC Peace Committee Report in 1987 found that most Southern Baptists believe in the “direct” creation of mankind and that Adam and Eve were real persons. The report called on SBC schools to “build their professional staffs and faculties from those who clearly reflect such dominant convictions and beliefs held by Southern Baptists at large.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.