Editor’s note: This is the fifth part of a five-part series in which Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, reviews the steps that led him away from fundamentalism.
Once I graduated from high school, I had a choice to make about the kind of education that I would pursue to prepare for the ministry.
Independent Baptists encouraged me to go to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo. Jerry Falwell was that school’s most famous alumnus. The college, however, was not accredited. That meant that a degree from that institution was worthless for anything but ministry in a fundamental Baptist church. That held no allure for me.
The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Study to show yourself approved unto God.” (2 Timothy 2:15) I presumed that meant that I should expect to meet and exceed the highest standards set by the world. Graduate study at a seminary was already fixed in my mind, and I knew I would need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution to get in the door.
I enrolled at the University of Albuquerque, a small private Catholic school, and moved my membership to a Southern Baptist church. I thought life in Southern Baptist churches would be more congenial than in those of independent fundamental Baptists. For a time, it was.
The most noteworthy difference between the two kinds of Baptists regarded literature. At that time, independent Baptists produced none while Southern Baptists produced some literature of fairly high quality. My favorite was Student Magazine, which was geared toward college students.
Somewhere in its pages, I learned about a series of pamphlets written by Southern Baptist educators that addressed the intellectual challenges that college students face. I ordered some of the pamphlets and read the one on faith and science because it dealt with the issue of evolution.
I don’t remember the author’s name and I misplaced the pamphlet long ago, but it offered a fresh perspective about God and science that made a lasting impression on me. The earliest version of talks I have given about evolution and faith were based on perspectives that I first learned about from that booklet.
Evolution has always been a burning issue among fundamentalists. There is no way to reconcile the Bible and evolution as long as you insist on interpreting the opening chapters of the book of Genesis literally. All the fundamental Baptists that I knew interpreted the creation accounts very literally. For them, the world was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago.
Though the Bible itself says that with the Lord “a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8), they refused to entertain any suggestion that references to the time of creation might be symbolic. “Creation science” was the only kind of science palatable to them, and I already knew that that was pseudo-science.
Young earth creationism is hopelessly inadequate for anyone who understands science and closely examines the mountains of factual evidence against it. Even modern fundamentalists have conceded this point. This concession is just about the only thing that distinguishes the modern proponents of “intelligent design” from the old “creation scientists.”
On evolution, my step away from fundamentalism came when I realized that I needed to let God be God and stop trying to limit him. God is free to create any way he wants. There is no requirement that God create human beings in a way that completely distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creation. The question is not whether God could do so. He could do it that way if he wanted to, but he is not bound to do it that way.
Science indicates that we share most of our genetic structure with primates. What violence does that do to the Christian understanding of man? God is not an organism. He does not have a genetic structure. God is Spirit.
The image of God in man does not refer to our physical form or body; it refers to our spirit. Our uniqueness is in our spiritual capacity to enter a loving relationship with a God who loves us.
Ultimately, it makes no difference whether God decided to form our physical bodies through long stages of biological development or by a special creative act.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.