by Ervin Taylor
An article posted recently (July 6, 2012) on the Christianity Today (CT) web site will almost certainly resonate with many Adventist scientists who are involved on both sides of the polarizing debates about evolution and creation which have been under way within the Adventist faith community over the last 3-4 decades. This article, written by Tim Stafford, a CT senior writer, is entitled “A Tale of Two Scientists: What Really Happened 'In the Beginning.'” The subtitle was “How two evangelicals—one a young-earth creationist, the other an evolutionary creationist—have lived out their faith and professions."
Some populist Adventist writers featured in the “flagship” denominational publication have repeatedly proclaimed that you can be a “Bible-believing Christian” or be an advocate of biological evolution over long geological ages, but not both. This article profiling these two conservative Christian scientists, exposes the mistaken assumptions involved in holding to such an absolutistic either/or position. (Parenthetically, when the term “Bible-believing Christian” is used in Adventist denominational publications, it typically seems to mean “An Adventist believing the Bible the way I do.”)
Both of these scientists grew up in churches which self-describe themselves as fundamentalist. Todd Wood grew up in a small rural independent church, Northwest Baptist. Darrel Falk grew up in the Church of the Nazarene in Canada. The CT writer relates how both “grew up with absolute confidence in the Bible . . . Both of them had an unusual aptitude for mathematics and an interest in science . . . They could have followed very similar pathways, and in a sense, they did. But the controversies over evolution within the Christian community have taken the two scientists on very different journeys in a time when common ground on human origins and the Genesis narrative seems to be shrinking.”
After graduating from high school, Wood attended what is now known as Liberty University, an independent evangelical Christian educational institution founded by Jerry Falwell, an American fundamentalist Baptist pastor, television evangelist and conservative political commentator. In its science classes, Liberty University espouses young earth and young life creationism. While at Liberty University, Wood read all he could in the creationism literature and particularly he became interested in what was being characterized as “scientific creationism,” a term widely regarded as an oxymoron by most scientists.
The CT writer explained the historical background to the rise of scientific creationism: “About 30 years earlier, creation science as a movement had been born with the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood, authored by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. Whitcomb was an Old Testament professor who read Genesis literally. Morris was a professor of hydraulic engineering fascinated by questions of origins. Together they updated the writings of George Price, a Seventh-day Adventist schoolteacher and amateur geologist who believed that almost all geological formations worldwide had been laid down in Noah's flood about 4,000 years before. Price's flood geology attracted limited interest until Morris and Whitcomb popularized it for a wider audience.”
Falk attended for a year at a church Bible college and then transferred to Simon Frazer University, one of Canada’s major research universities. Wishing to be a physician, he had to take biology. He states that he had “known the beauty of Christianity. Now [in biology classes at Simon Frazer], I discovered the beauty of genetics.” After much reflection, he was impressed with the evidence that all life is related due to a common origin. As Stafford relates Falk’s perspective: “The beauty of the cell seemed [to Falk] to be evidence of God's design and providential oversight … But he had no one to help him rebuild his picture of God's creation [since] the only way he knew how to read Genesis was that creation was a six-day event.” Falk went on to complete his doctoral degree at the University of Alberta.
After completing his B.A. at Liberty University, Wood applied and was accepted as a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Virginia. The CT article relates that Wood “was not talented as an experimentalist, but his love for research and his mathematical abilities paid off in the classroom. Computational analysis was just beginning to become a significant part of biology, as decoding the genome offered reams of data that required computer analysis. Wood was at home with this. He didn't discuss his creationist beliefs; he believed that he was in graduate school to learn, not to argue. ‘I went in fully aware of the stereotype of creationists as bellicose. I didn't want to be anything like that.’ His professors, he soon realized, were hardly the enemy; they were brilliant men introducing him to a wonderful world where he knew he could thrive. The first human genome sequence was published the year that Wood began graduate school, providing strong evidence for evolution. The DNA for chimps and humans was virtually the same. Traces of common origins were everywhere: Humans even possessed a broken version of the gene that lizards and birds use to produce eggs.”
After graduation from Simon Fraser in 1968, Falk went on to postdoctoral studies at the University of British Columbia. A Christian professor at the university invited him to lunch and in discussion he offered the view that faith and learning were meant to grow together. Falk began to read books by Christians that expressed faith in a far deeper way than anything he had previously read—books by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Leo Tolstoy, and accounts of Mother Teresa.
Following a post-doctoral fellowship, Falk obtained a tenure-track position at Syracuse University. He and his wife visited several local Church of the Nazarene churches in Syracuse. One seemed delighted that he was a professor at Syracuse. Though the church certainly didn't believe in evolution, and came to know that Falk did, they never bothered about it. "That church, God's gift to us, built a bridge to us and welcomed us just as we were, gradual creation perspective and all." The pastor helped Falk as he found his way to a fuller, more robust faith, eventually asking him to teach a Sunday school class for young adults.
After finishing his doctoral dissertation, Wood took a postdoctoral position at Clemson University, part of a team that was decoding the rice genome. He lived a lifestyle that comes with large teams of scientists working under time and budget constraints. But he was not happy. He loved science when he could explore problems in his own time and in his own way. After a year at Clemson, Wood did the unthinkable: He applied for a position at tiny Bryan College, to work with Harvard-trained creationist geologist Kurt Wise. Although he knew it would end his academic career outside of the conservative Protestant world, he did it with a sense of calling. Finally, he would have time and opportunity to work at science in the way he believed in.
While at Syracuse, Falk worked to build a Christian fellowship among faculty and grad students. Working on the genetics of the fruit fly, he gained tenure. Gradually, though, he began to long to work at a Christian educational institution. Through a series of dramatic events, he first went to Mount Vernon Nazarene in Ohio for four years before moving to Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego.
Almost three decades later, both Wood and Falk continue to be concerned with how God created the world and they continue to be active members of evangelical churches. However, their understandings about when and how it happened have taken them in very different directions. Wood remains fully committed to a six-day creation since he sees no other way to read the Bible. But that doesn't keep him from recognizing that evolution has powerful scientific evidence supporting it. Falk wrote a book Coming to Peace with Science in which he lays out the evidence for an ancient earth and the gradual development of its creatures over millions of years. In recent years, Falk has found a new role through interactions with Francis Collins, the world-famous geneticist who headed the human genome project and now leads the National Institutes for Health (NIH). After publishing the bestselling book The Language of God, Collins received so many e-mailed questions that he decided to create BioLogos, a small organization to help answer them. When Collins was asked to head the NIH, Falk took over as president of BioLogos. Under Falk's leadership, BioLogos has emerged as an important group of Christians advocating "evolutionary creation."
Falk has held to his plea for Christians to love and respect each other while advocating different points of view. In bearing this out, BioLogos recently invited a number of Southern Baptist biblical scholars to publish essays critical of the BioLogos perspective on the BioLogos website, in order to foster mutual understanding. Falk wrote. "We must recognize that we will never reach the point where we all see Scripture the same way. When there is division in the church, it will be difficult for the thirsty to find their way to Jesus."