Finding Harmony in Controversy: The early years of the ASA
Coffee hour at last summer's annual meeting (Black Hills Photography Co.)
by Terry Gray and Emily Ruppel
The American Scientific Affiliation is one of the largest and oldest groups of academics committed to understanding the relationship between science and faith, and today its members continue to make an impact on public understanding of science and religion—and of course, on each other’s own beliefs and views. While society will have its own history of the oft-embattled affairs of Christians and scientists, including moments of public awareness and participation such as seminal debates, court battles, political movements, etc., we feel it is also important to mark and remember the discursive experiences of ASA members since its creation in 1941. By noting the climate surrounding major times of transition and institutional conflict, or how and when certain systems of belief came to dominate or be rejected by members, we construct a historical geography for how the scholars arguably most invested in reconciling science and faith—those working scientists who are also committed Christians—adjusted their religious views as the landscape of scientific understanding and public knowledge shifted around (or because of) them.
The ASA began as an organization believing that there was no ultimate conflict between science and scripture. The founding fathers of the ASA were all practicing scientists–John P. Van Haitsma, a biologist from Calvin College, Peter W. Stoner, a mathematician/astronomer from Westmont College, Russell D. Sturgis, a chemist from Ursinus College, Irving Cowperthwaite, a chemist at the Thompson Wire Company, and F. Alton Everest, an electrical engineer from Oregon State University and the Moody Institute of Science. The date of the organizing meeting was September 2-5,1941.
An early project was the writing of what ultimately became Modern Science and Christian Faith (1948, 1950). This book gave overviews of then-current scholarship in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, geology, archeology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, looking at the scientific insights of each field as well as their implications for biblical interpretation and authority; it also included a bibliography to enable pursuit of more study.
This early in the ASA the value of thoroughly discussing difficulties and not necessarily promoting a particular point of view is evident. "Students are intelligent and fully capable of arriving at constructive conclusions if full data are presented. The dangerous, insidious conviction is that based on an incomplete knowledge of the problem." The commitment to rigorous science was in the ASA from the beginning. "The statements and representations...must be able to meet the scrutiny of men unfriendly to the cause of Christ and rise unscathed. Error or misrepresentations of science would seriously impair the usefulness of the book."
The chapters on astronomy and geology recognize the immense age of the universe and the results of radiometric dating to establish that age. However, the chapter on geology promotes a day-age type harmonization. One of the important geological observations listed is the absence of transitional forms—here the authors seemed to want to distance themselves from theistic evolution as then advocated, preferring to uphold the authority of the Bible.
They write, "What the Bible does not say about science is just as important as what it does say. Many of the ancient non-biblical writings are steeped with scientific references which have proved to be incorrect. For example, the elements were often listed as air, fire, and water in early writings. But when the word ‘elements’ is used in Scripture, as in II Peter 3:10, ‘and the elements shall melt with fervent heat,’ there is no scientific error. In fact, this verse has taken on new meaning since the discovery of atomic energy. Thus, the references to science in the Scriptures are remarkably accurate."
The chapter on Chemistry by R. Laird Harris conveys a similar attitude: “In conclusion we may say that the references to chemistry in the Bible are few but are scientifically and historically accurate as we would expect in a book inspired of God. The Bible is not a textbook of science; its main message is one of salvation and spiritual life. But its science is correct as far as it is referred and the absence of chemical errors in the Bible only confirms our faith in the Holy Record.”
The chapter on biology by Lammerts and Trinkle is firmly anti-evolutionary. It includes a review of the latest genetics research, although is clearly prior to the modern molecular biology era which came to the fore in the decade after the publication of Modern Science and Christian Faith.
Interestingly, both Lammerts and Trinkle were part of the group of ten ASA members who started the Creation Research Society (CRS) in 1963. Apparently, they were not convinced of the great age of the earth and universe or the viability of the day-age view of Genesis 1 like their fellow members.
In many respects Modern Science and Christian Faith pits evolution and creation against each other, and effort is taken to show that evolution is speculative and not rooted in the facts of science. In other ways many of the approaches raised are still on the table for ASA members. One of the most remarkable characteristics is the authors' willingness to grapple with the scientific data. In many ways it is this commitment to engage that ultimately transformed the ASA from its anti-evolutionary roots to its present openness to evolution as a biological theory.
Two key developments occurred during the first decade of the ASA. The first was the involvement of J. Laurence Kulp. Kulp was a physical chemist/geochemist whose research was in the area of radiometric dating. He had a Ph.D. (1945) and was a professor of geochemistry at Columbia University (1947-1965) when he was also active in the ASA.
At the third annual meeting, held at Calvin College, biologist Edwin Y. Monsma presented a paper entitled “Some Presuppositions in Evolutionary Thinking.”
Here Monsma stated: “The evolutionist believes: 1) That our knowledge of natural phenomena comes from nature alone, 2) That the fundamental similarities among living organisms can be explained only on a basis of a relationship of descent. 3) That the variations or changes that are observed in living organisms are unlimited in their scope, and 4) That the causes of such changes are operative today in the same way they have always been in the past.
Monsma emphasized the “kinds” of Genesis 1, and, while not willing to equate “the Genesis kind” with species, he argued against the evolutionist beliefs outlined in his third point. In the discussion he calls for Christian geologists to incorporate the uniqueness of the ante-Diluvian period and the cataclysm of the Genesis Flood to account for geological data. Monsma’s viewpoint is clearly in the YEC camp, and he was also one of the ten founding members of the CRS.
At this point in the transcript J. Laurence Kulp makes an extended comment (which Roger J. Voskuyl, the moderator, calls an “extra lecture”). Kulp schools the attendees in the latest geological views, which include radiometric dating, his area of specialization, and claims that “one of the most probable facts in geology, I believe, is that the earth is close to two billion years old.” At the Fourth Annual Meeting of the ASA Kulp presents the paper “Deluge Geology.” The conclusions of this paper are firmly anti-YEC.
It appears that Kulp’s viewpoint was well-received. He was elected to the Executive Council for a five-year term that very year. While YEC advocates were not unwelcome in the ASA, it is clear already in the 1950’s that the organization was not opposed to consensus-science, old-earth, old-universe views. The later decision (1963) by some in the ASA to start the Creation Research Society reflects that group’s dissatisfaction with the direction the ASA was heading.
ASA continued to be a place for dialogue as evidenced by the fact that many of those who joined together to form CSR remained members in ASA even as fewer and fewer YEC voices can be heard in the transcripts and journal articles. The critique of flood geology continued, culminating with Free University of Amsterdam geologist J. R. Van de Fliert's 1969 highly critical review of Whitcomb and Morris's The Genesis Flood entitled "Fundamentalism and the Fundamentals of Geology."
Van de Fliert writes: “With increasing astonishment, I read through the book The Genesis Flood-The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications, by Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr. If I had been told a few years ago that an apparently serious attempt would be made to reintroduce the diluvialistic theory on Biblical grounds as the only acceptable working hypothesis for the major part of the geological sciences I would not have believed it. I would have considered it just incredible that a professor of Old Testament and a professor of Civil Engineering would write it, and that the foreword would be written by a professional geologist. … It is almost incredible that such an effort, which must have cost an enormous amount of work and money, has been made for such a bad procedure as this. I have felt very reluctant to write against it, but finally agreed to do so, yielding to stress from different sides.”
Russell L. Mixter, a professor of zoology at Wheaton College, was also a key player here. Mixter authored the 1950 ASA monograph Creation and Evolution, which was based on three papers given at ASA Annual Meetings: "The Kind of Genesis and the Kind of Geology" (1946); "The Extent of Change since the Origin of Species" (1947); "The Mechanisms of Evolution" (1948).
Mixter was influential in helping the ASA (and evangelicals in general) stay informed about the latest developments in evolutionary theory and to accept evolutionary ideas as far as they were firmly established. He edited the 1959 volume Evolution and Christian Thought Today, a collection of essays by ASA scientists presenting state-of-the-art science related to origins and a reflection on it from a Christian perspective. Mixter, following evolutionary biologist, G. G. Simpson, was thoroughly convinced that evolutionary processes explained biological diversity at the taxonomic category below the order and perhaps even at the order. But in his view neither genetic mechanism nor the fossil record supported a more comprehensive evolution. He found this perceived empirical limitation consistent with the use of "kinds" in Genesis 1. Technically, that made these ASA scientists progressive creationists. However, it does not seem that they were in principle opposed to a full-blown theistic evolution (except in the case of the origin of Adam). They simply did not think that the current scientific evidence warranted the full embrace of evolutionary theory.
The angst felt by ASA members in the course of this early engagement with evolution is seen in the article by Irving A. Cowperthwaite "Some Implications of Evolution for ASA" and its responses, “At two recent annual conventions of our American Scientific Affiliation (at Gordon College and Divinity School, 1957, and at Iowa State College, 1958) there appeared to be a growing conviction that inexorable pressure of expanding knowledge is about to force us to accept some formulation of the theory of evolution, including the evolutionary origin of man, and that we must adjust our thinking in accordance with this eventuality.”
Historian Mark Kalthoff relates the events of this era of the ASA in "The Harmonious Dissonance of Evangelical Scientists: Rhetoric and Reality in the Early Decades of The American Scientific Affiliation." Kalthoff's take on the ASA's attitude toward flood geology is similar to what has been spelled out above. He detects less of an anti-evolutionary sentiment than suggested here.
The second key development early on is the beginning of what some considered a relaxation of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. This debate is signaled by the publication of Bernard Ramm’s book The Christian View of Science and Scripture, its critique by Arthur W. Kushke, Jr. of Westminster Theological Seminary, and a response to that critique by James O. Buswell III. Kushke complains that Ramm has offered a less strict view of inspiration than the current evangelical view.
On pages 78 and 79 Ramm sets up a distinction between the "cultural" and the "transcultural" in the Bible. "Whatever in Scripture is in direct reference to natural things is most likely in terms of the prevailing cultural concepts." But the cultural vehicle itself is not inspired: "Because the Scriptures are inspired, the truth of God is there in the cultural, but not obviously so. The truth under the cultural partakes of the binding character of inspiration, not the cultural vehicle." He contrasts "a typical religious liberal" who would "write too much off as cultural" with the orthodox Lutheran scholar Francis Pieper, who "is so strict in his view of inspiration that he makes no room for the cultural, and so makes too much of the cultural binding."
As an example of this supposedly extreme strictness Ramm quotes a statement from Pieper: "But, remember; when Scripture incidentally treats a scientific subject, it is always right, let 'science' say what it pleases; for pasa graphe theopneustos." Ramm's immediate comment is: "The truth is somewhere between the two" (that is, between Pieper and the liberal). To all this I would observe that Ramm leaves the definite impression that we ought to have a less strict view of inspiration than that held by Pieper, so as to allow that the Bible contains relative or cultural elements which, as they respect science, may not always be right.
As Richard H. Bube takes over the editorship of the JASA (Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, now PSCF: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith), he presents a paper entitled “A Perspective on Scriptural Inerrancy” where he distinguishes between “arbitrary inerrancy” (where the scriptures are considered to be verbally inspired, inerrant, and infallible in an arbitrarily absolute sense as factual information) and “revelational inerrancy” (where the scriptures are indeed verbally inspired, inerrant, and infallible as a revelation of God by himself to men). The key distinction here is that the Bible may contain “errors,” as in mistaken opinions about the natural world held by the original human authors and the original audience, as long as these are not central to the revelatory purpose of the Bible. Bube is quick to say, “This by no means implies that there are ‘errors’ of fact in the Bible, but rather that the criteria for judging fact are often either uncertain or irrelevant to the revelational purpose of the Bible.”
In the first issue of JASA with Bube as editor, an article appeared by Paul H. Seely entitled "The Three-storied Universe". Seely is unapologetic in his claim that an erroneous three-tiered universe is found in the Bible. He writes, “The Bible assumes that the universe is three-storied; but, we do not believe that Christians are bound to give assent to such a cosmology, since the purpose of the Bible is to give redemptive, not scientific truth. The relationship of science to Scripture is this: The Bible gives redemptive truth through the scientific thoughts of the times without ever intending that those scientific thoughts should be believed as inerrant. We say then that the Bible presents a three-storied universe. But, must we accept this biblical cosmology as an article of faith? We think not. ... To insist that the Bible be inerrant every time it touches on science is to insist on an a priori doctrine that has been read into the Bible. This doctrine not only leads to intellectual dishonesty about such matters as the three-storied universe and to fighting against God as He is working through men called to be scientists, but it destroys faith in Christianity by implying that only obscurantists can be Christians.”
There were responses to Seely's article by R. Laird Harris "The typical Modernistic View of Scripture" and Robert C. Newman "Infallible Inspiration Taught by Scripture Itself" with a response by Seely. Editor Richard H. Bube entered the fray with these comments at the end of the Harris response: “The implication in Dr. Harris' letter that the article, ‘The Three-Storied Universe,’ by Paul H. Seely, should never have appeared in the journal, i.e., that it should have been withheld by editorial censorship, or that at most it should have been published only with apology, is based upon a faulty conception of the function and publication policy of the journal. It is not the function of the journal to propagate a crusade for any particular interpretation of many questions in which science and Christian faith are mutually involved. Any article, judged to be consistent with the constitutionally-stated purposes and doctrine of the ASA and to exhibit sound scholarship in respect to factual basis and exercise of interpretation, is acceptable for publication in the journal. If an author is guilty of gross scientific or exegetical error, we are confident that readers will quickly set the record straight, thereby increasing general understanding of the truth. Given Dr. Harris' strong convictions, exactly what is needed is an answer’ to Mr. Seely's ‘exegesis in detail.’”
Interestingly, there does not seem to be such strong negative response to Bube's article calling for a "limited inerrancy" just two issues later.
However, there was a notable reaction in print—Harold Lindsell's 1976 The Battle for the Bible in which Bube, Seely, and JASA, itself, are all featured as examples of evangelicals who compromised scriptural inerrancy. Bube is said to have "become an articulate spokesman in support of biblical errancy.” And that, "The American Scientific Affiliation and the Evangelical Theological Society have in them people who do not believe that the Bible is free from all error in the whole and in the part."
Interestingly, it seems to be possible to maintain an inerrantist position similar to Lindsell's and to move in the direction of accepting modern science (as many in the ASA have done). For example, in Kushke's critique of Ramm he writes, "It was good to note, among other things, the desire that Christian statements on science should be informed; the views on the chronology of the earth and of man and the elasticity of the creative ‘kind;’ and the opposition to the flood view of the fossils." Apparently, Kuschke thought that the kind of inerrancy he advocated (and that Ramm was allegedly compromising) did not require these views which would set the Christian scientist against much of modern science. Others have noted that the inerrancy of the Old Princeton theologians (e.g., Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield) is perhaps a bit more nuanced than the inerrancy of Harold Lindsell.
The point here is that after two decades ASA as an organization seemed comfortable with a view of scripture or a way of interpreting scripture that removed most of the earlier perceived conflicts between the Bible and science. Issues such as the days of Genesis 1, a geologically young earth, the kinds of Genesis 1, and the extent (both geographically and anthropologically) of the Genesis flood were no longer seen to be problems. This dissolution of scriptural difficulties led to an openness to well-established modern scientific claims.
Bube's 1971 "We Believe in Creation" and "Biblical Evolutionism?" signaled the beginning of the end for the either/or attitude concerning creation and evolution. While there are certainly earlier hints of embracing evolution as God-directed means of creation, most of the earlier writings saw biological evolution as an alternative to Biblical creation.
Bube writes: “When it is implied that creation and evolution are necessarily mutually exclusive, or when the term "creation" is used as if it were primarily a scientific mechanism for origins, a profound confusion of categories is involved. The implication is given, deliberately or not, that if evolution should be the proper mechanism for the growth and development of living forms, then creation would have to be rejected. To pose such a choice is to do basic damage to the Christian position. It is to play directly into the hands of those evolutionists who argue that their understanding of evolution does away with the theological significance of Creation. If such an evolutionist is wrong to believe that his biological description does away with the need for a theological description, the Christian anti-evolutionist is wrong to believe that his theological description must make any biological description impossible.”
Thus, creation is primarily a theological concept and evolution is primarily a scientific, biological concept. One does not have to choose between the two.
Russell Mixter's response to “Biblical Evolutionism?” noted that the term "evolution" carries with it baggage that makes it difficult for some Christians to accept. He suggested the term "developmentalism." This anticipates recent suggestions to use "evolutionary creation" or "biologos" instead of "theistic evolution." Dordt College chemist Russell Maatman raised the concern that Bube's evolutionary approach does not adequately acknowledge the discontinuity between humans and non-humans in the origin of humans.
Thus, already by 1971 the broad outlines of the evolution discussion in the ASA are present. There is little objection to evolution as a biological theory based on the Bible, other than with regard to the question of human origins and, in particular, how the account of Adam and Eve can be reconciled with the evolutionary story. Since ASA members believed in a Creator who, in principle, could operate miraculously and supernaturally, they could freely acknowledge the limits of evolutionary thinking. Thus, some in the ASA continued to critique evolution on scientific grounds. These ASA members would self-identify as old earth creationists (OEC). They would link arms later with Hugh Ross's Reasons to Believe organization and the Intelligent Design movement as it gained momentum in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
1971 also saw the publication in JASA of "The Protein Clock." This article was the transcript of a popular science radio broadcast presenting the comparative molecular data for evolution (amino acid sequences of proteins and, now, in the past two decades, similar results for DNA). While the then-paucity of transitional forms made progressive creationism more credible than evolution, especially from a Christian perspective, the molecular data provided independent evidence for Darwin's tree of life and convinced many that even major taxonomic groups were related. At the molecular level there really seemed to be no gaps. (Even so, dissenting voices could be heard: ASA member and CRS member Duane Gish presented in an accompanying article the flaws of this whole line of research, and over the next 30 years University of Texas Medical Branch biochemist Gordon Mills published several articles in JASA and PSCF presenting a sustained critique of the evolutionary conclusions being drawn from the various developments in molecular biology and biochemistry.)
As noted earlier, the ASA has always been willing to entertain controversial questions and to provide a forum for their discussion within the Christian community. Bube's response to Harris cited above is a typical example during the Bube era. He started his article "We Believe in Creation" with, "It should be well known to readers of the Journal of the ASA that the ASA does not take an official position on controversial questions. Creation is not a controversial question. I have no hesitancy in affirming, ‘We believe in creation,’ for every ASA member."
1978 saw the publication of a special issue entitled Origins and Change: Selected Readings from the JASA. This special issue brought together several key articles on origins issues previously printed in JASA and represented the full spectrum of ASA members’ views. This collection is a good snapshot of the ASA in 1978. Since evolutionary biology was the most prominent point of debate in the ASA at this time, origin of life discussions were not particularly prominent. While the issue included voices unsympathetic to evolutionary biology, the overall impression given is that old earth geology, biological evolution, and Christianity can co-exist. I (Terry Gray) was an undergraduate in biology at Purdue University in 1978 and first encountered the ASA through Origins and Change. I was already a convinced theistic evolutionist at the time but was appreciative of the assurance that there were others who had a similar perspective to my own.
About this same time, former ASA President Claude E. Stipe wrote an editorial for JASA titled, "Does the ASA Take a ‘Position’ on Controversial Issues?" Stipe was responding to complaints that ASA had become a theistic evolutionist organization. He denied it and sought to prove it by rehearsing the history of the ASA particularly with respect to the question of its taking sides. It is clear that already by the late 1960's and early 1970's that ASA welcomed theistic evolutionists in its highest ranks, but it's also clear that other voices were at the table. There continue to be YEC, OEC, and Intelligent Design advocates associated with the ASA even to the present day.
In many ways little has changed in the ASA since that time. ASA continues to be a place where significant criticisms of evolutionary biology can be heard. This can be seen in the degree to which the ASA engaged and continues to engage the Intelligent Design movement, even though the majority of ASA members seem to gravitate toward the theistic evolution or evolutionary creation position. The question of the historicity of Adam and Eve continues to cause vexation among members, but there has been significant embracing of the results of modern molecular biology and molecular genetics even as it impacts our understanding of human origins.
This historical overview points to two broad trajectories for the ASA since its inception. First, the ASA takes Christian theology and the Christian worldview seriously, but it has moved away from a view that finds in the Bible detailed scientific claims relevant to modern scientific theories. Second, the ASA is now less suspicious of modern science, including evolutionary biology and cosmology. One place where the ASA has been unmoved and on-message throughout its history is where these two threads come together—regardless of the success and prominence of modern science in our culture, science does not eliminate human religious experience nor does it diminish our belief in a creative and providential God.
(For those who would like to read a longer, preliminary version of this article, with links and references embedded, courtesy of Terry Gray, please visit: http://www.asa3.org/gray/ASA-ECF-ASAHistory-short.html)