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Academic Honesty Carries High Price for Scholar

The story is troubling from the ground up. Professor Bruce Waltke, an evangelical Old Testament scholar who has contributed strongly to the field for many years, had to resign his teaching post on the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) because – gasp! – he dared to suggest that Christian faith and the acceptance of evolutionary science can be compatible.
 

The octogenarian scholar, perhaps emboldened by age, also opined that Christians run the risk of being branded a cult if they refuse to acknowledge the evidence favoring some form of evolution.

 

Waltke made the statements during a workshop for the BioLogos Foundation, a group that promotes the belief that science and faith can be compatible. A video of the lecture was posted on the BioLogos Web site, but it upset RTS officials so much that Waltke had to ask the foundation to take it down. That did not satisfy the defenders of dogma, however. Shortly afterward, RTS announced that officials had accepted Waltke’s resignation. Michael Milton, president of the seminary’s Charlotte campus, confirmed to USA Today that the video had cost Waltke his job.

 

And what was it that upset the officials so much? According to some who had seen the video, Waltke said, “If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult … some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”

 

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Waltke went on to say, according to blogger-professor Scott McNight at Jesus Creed,

 

“… to deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death if we stopped loving God with all of our minds and thinking about it. I think it’s our spiritual death. … So I see this all as part of the growth of the church. We are much more mature by this dialog that we’re having, and I think this is how we come to the unity of the faith, is that we wrestle with these issues. We’re all in the body of Christ as one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And we may disagree with one another, but we are really interacting in a very serious way, trusting God’s truth. And that we are testing what is true and holding fast to that which is good and we are the richer for it. And if we don’t do that, we are going to die.”

 

Waltke is by most measures a very conservative scholar. Though he accepts a theistic version of evolution (acknowledging the reality of evolution while trusting that God guided the process), he also believes in an inerrant Bible and a literal Adam and Eve. But even that is too big a stretch for the most ardent inerrantists, leading to RTS’ over-the-top response.

 

A follow-up post on the BioLogos Foundation Web site points to the complexity of trying to maintain both academic freedom within the context of institutional orthodoxy:

 

“The fact that Dr. Waltke felt he was unable to leave the video in place, despite the fact that he still agrees with its contents, is an extremely important statement about the culture of fear within evangelicalism in today’s world. Leading evangelicals who support evolution are rightly fearful of personal attacks on the integrity of their faith and character. Even when they believe that scientific data must be taken seriously, and that science has revealed the ways in which God created the world, they are more willing to be associated with those who are clearly wrong about God’s truth as revealed within His world, and who are thereby also wrong about how they understand His Word. How will the Church ever come to discern truth and falsehood if academic discourse is neutered for fears of public perception?”

 

Well said.

 

I have admired Waltke for years. Several of his books are on my shelves, and the multivolume “Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,” which he helped edit, has been a particular favorite. Now freed from his school-bound obligation to speak only within the strict boundaries of a predetermined confessional position, I hope he will continue to speak the truth as he sees it – and I hope his courage will empower others to overcome the “culture of fear” and speak the truth as they see it, rather than meekly conforming to an inflexible orthodoxy.

 

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.