Professor fired from Bryan College for opposing requirement to endorse historical Adam and Eve

In the sleepy but famous town of Dayton, Tennessee, home of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” sits Bryan College, a small (about 740 students) Christian liberal arts school named after William Jennings Bryan, the victorious lawyer in that trial who died in Dayton 5 days after it ended. I’ve written about Bryan College before (here, here, and here), because although the students aren’t required to sign any Christian oaths, the board of trustees, administration, faculty and staff are. In fact, they have to take this oath annually:

We Believe:

  • that the holy Bible, composed of the Old and New Testaments, is of final and supreme authority in faith and life, and, being inspired by God, is inerrant in the original writings;
    in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, this Trinity being one God, eternally existing in three persons;
  • in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; that He was born of the virgin Mary and begotten of the Holy Spirit;
  • that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;
  • that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and are in need of a Savior for their reconciliation to God;
  • that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior, that He was crucified for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a voluntary representative and substitutionary sacrifice, and all who believe in Him and confess Him before men are justified on the grounds of His shed blood;
  • in the resurrection of the crucified body of Jesus, in His ascension into Heaven, and in “that blessed hope,” the personal return to this earth of Jesus Christ, and He shall reign forever;
  • in the bodily resurrection of all persons, judgment to come, the everlasting blessedness of the saved, and the everlasting punishment of the lost.

I’m not sure why such oaths are required, but I suppose strict Christian parents need to know that if they send their kids to a fundamentalist school, they will be exposed only to good Christian professors (and staff). Naturally, evolution isn’t taught, but you can still get a B.S. in Biology, with these courses highlighted:

I wonder what’s taught in “God’s Revelation in Biology” and “Origins”?  You can, however, take genetics, and recent population-genetic work (undoubtedly not taught in that course) shows that the population size of our own species, Homo sapiens, was never smaller than 12,500 people (we can calculate this, using conservative assumptions, from the present day degree of genetic variation in the human species and estimate of mutation rates).

That means that Adam and Eve could not have been the literal ancestors of all living humans, as we’d then observe a bottleneck of just two people some time in the past, and our species wouldn’t be nearly as genetically variable.

This has thrown Christians into somewhat of a tizzy, for it absolutely denies a fundamental part of Christian doctrine: the origin of Original Sin. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist as our only two ancestors, why are we all born as sinners?  Conservative Christians have taken a variety of routes around this, with some claiming that Adam and Eve were metaphorical, or were real people who were “symbolic” evildoers, or, in the case of the Catholic Church and Bryan College, to double down and insist that Adam and Eve were real, and that all humans have them as our ultimate ancestors.

In 2014, Bryan College thus added this “clarification: to its loyalty oath:

The President of the college affirmed this, but it was too much for some faculty and students, several of whom resigned or left the college. The disaffection has continued for three years, and yesterday Inside Higher Ed reported that a beloved math professor had been fired for making trouble about the issue:

Alumni and faculty members of Bryan College were planning to launch a petition late last week that would draw attention to what they believe is a leadership crisis at the college, a small Christian institution in Tennessee.

As they were getting ready to launch the petition, they received word that Phillip Lestmann, a tenured professor of mathematics who has taught at Bryan for 40 years, had been fired. The professor was criticized by the administration for having helped organize an “opposition group” — and that charge has many saying that disagreeing with the administration has become a firing offense, making academic freedom impossible.

That dismissal appears to have added to the push for change at Bryan, with the petition quickly gathering support among alumni.

. . . Tensions have been growing at Bryan since 2014, when the college issued a “clarification” to the college’s statement of faith, which all faculty members must endorse, asserting the historicity of Adam and Eve. While the college has long had a statement of faith stressing belief in the Bible and various core values, the detail about Adam and Eve struck many faculty members and alumni as going too far, and as a move that would limit the ability of some professors to stay (some indeed left).

In discussions among faculty members at the time, Lestmann prepared widely quoted talking points that did not take issue with the Bible but said that the new statement of faith was “pretending that a very complex issue is really very simple and straightforward” and “possibly putting the college into too small a scientific or theological box.”

Since the new statement of faith was adopted, the faculty has voted no confidence in President Stephen Livesay, and some trustees have left. Another trustee quit in May, charging that the board and the president have had conflicts of interest with regard to a recent land transfer to the college. Livesay declined to comment to local reporters about that resignation and did not respond to an email message from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment on the latest developments.

Well, I’m sympathetic with Lestmann, but what did he expect? Is the issue of Adam and Eve really that complex if you swear annually to the statement that they did exist AND that the Bible “is inerrant in the original writings” AND that “the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God”?

If you swear to these things, the issue is simple. What makes it complex is the increasing realization that fundamentalist Christian doctrine doesn’t square with the facts of science. What puzzles me about that, however, is that we already knew this from evolution, yet nobody has a problem with Bryan College teaching Biblical creationism.

I’ve always thought that what will really bring down Christianity in its battle with science is an insistence on a literal Adam and Eve. Evolution itself can, with some tortuous logic, be comported with Christianity (maybe, for instance, every species evolved save humans), but there’s no way you can call yourself a Christian unless you were born with Original Sin, and that tale is contradicted not just by evolution, but by population genetics.

You can sign the petition to remove Bryan College President Livesay if you want, but if you look at it I doubt you’ll want to add your name.

h/t: William

56 Comments

  1. Jeff Lewis
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “…there’s no way you can call yourself a Christian unless you were born with Original Sin…”

    Yes, you can very easily call yourself a Christian even if you don’t believe in Original Sin. All you have to believe is that all humans are sinners and unworthy of heaven, and that Jesus came to forgive people of their sins, not necessarily Original Sin. Most Christians are barely aware of Christian doctrine, anyway.

    Real history does very clearly contradict the more literal and fundamentalist versions of Christianity, but those aren’t the only Christians.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      The Eastern Orthodox churches prefer the term “ancestral sin” since they regard the Western viewpoint as deeply confused.

      However, most of them remain bound up with a literal Adam and Eve.

      (The Eastern notion is that people are NOT born inherently depraved by nature, but over time absorb evil into themselves through socialization. It’s a sort of Romantic Rousseau-ian vision of sin, coupled with a decidedly more traditional view of redemption.
      In the West, you have inherited guilt. In the East you do not.
      No one worried about unbaptized children until Augustine inflicted his notion of original sin onto the Western Christian consciousness.)

      The Orthodox Church of America is not committed to a literal Adam and Eve, but most of the others are. None have any official position on evolution.
      The head Greek Orthodox bishop in England, Kallistos Ware, is pro-Darwin (he is also a religion prof at Oxford).
      However, the prominent American convert Seraphim Rose, who went from being a 1950s gay Buddhist-enthusiast California beatnik to a devout Russian Orthodox of decidedly conservative tendencies is avowedly anti-Darwin.

  2. Filippo
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “God’s Revelation in Biology”

    What – the recurrent laryngeal nerve? Nipples on males?

    • Posted July 25, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      It’s a ploy. God deliberately designed living things to look as if they evolved without divine intervention as a test of faith. See how subtle God is?

      /@

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    As often happens with religious disputes, maybe the two sides will part company and we will see two smaller colleges created from one. That is the evolution of religion. One thing seems true – that BS in Biology seems to have another meaning than what we normally would think.

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted July 27, 2017 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      A Bachelor of Science degree in the UK is usually designed BSc, perhaps to avoid the obvious connotation of BS 😉

  4. Graham
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    This professor is willing to sign up to ideas such as a virgin birth [Oh come on!] and the morally questionable concept of substitutionary sacrifice yet somehow the idea of Adam and Eve is a fantasy too far? Why this one in particular?

    • nicky
      Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      If it were an actual virgin birth -improbable, but not unconceivable-, would Jesus (or any other of those many ‘demi-gods’ born to virgins) not have to have been necessarily female?

      • Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        “but not unconceivable-” pun not intended?

        • nicky
          Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

          Of course, completely unintentional, since when do nickies aspire to humour? 😊

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        A woman may be a virgin in the sense that her hymen remains intact notwithstanding that she has conceived and given birth. She may have become pregnant from heavy petting and the delivery may have been by Caeserian.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          ‘The Caesarean in the Stable’. Has quite a ring to it. And the intervention of a god would have been needed to prevent death by infection in such a situation.

          • rickflick
            Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

            “god would have been needed to prevent death by infection”

            Unless they had access to a good acupuncturist or homeopathy. 😉

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

              Ha ha! 🙂

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

              I wonder: What’s the difference between a good homeopath and a bad homeopath?

              • rickflick
                Posted July 25, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

                More water?

              • Posted July 26, 2017 at 2:20 am | Permalink

                Bad homeopaths suffer from a mild succussion.

                /@

              • Veroxitatis
                Posted July 26, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink

                .0000001% ?

          • nicky
            Posted July 25, 2017 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

            The Roman Caesarean was to cut out the still living baby when the mother had died. It was called ‘Caesarean’ because the result
            belonged to Caesar. It has not escaped our notice that this might be of some theological interest.

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted July 25, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          Even more so, since it is another myth that the vaginal corona somehow is not intact during intercourse (but birth may be more traumatic for the tissue) [ http://www.rfsu.se/Bildbank/Dokument/Praktikor/praktika-Vaginal_corona2009.pdf?epslanguage=sv ].

    • Kevin
      Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Religion has always been and always will be about selective beliefs.

  5. Tom
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    “inerrant in the original writings”?
    Compromised documentation to assert truth?
    Two versions of the creation are correct?
    Perhaps god had a bad day when he inspired some unknown man at an unknown time in the past to write a pair of stories the man himself could not have really understood for a readership that comprehended even less.

    • Posted July 25, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      But, was it inerrant prior to being written down when it was all oral transmission, a la the telephone game?

    • Craw
      Posted July 25, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      Simpler. The translations are not inerrant, only the originals. This is precisely the standard Islamic claim about the Koran.

      • Posted July 26, 2017 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        But,”in the beginning”, the so-called “originals” were oral, not written or translated. If Jesus and his disciples were Jews living in the “Holy Land”, they spoke Aramean, and didn’t read or write, so they did not produce “original” documents. The New Testament was written later (starting 45 to 60 years after the death of Jesus, if he lived) by people educated to speak and write in Greek, and for the benefit of the gentiles. Jews who followed Jesus for the most part were religious Jews and the “Christian” New Testament didn’t pertain to them. The stories were modified numerous times to fit changing beliefs of Christians and there were many different interpretations reflected in the writings. It took centuries for the Catholic Church to become “Catholic” in requiring uniformity of belief. Heretics and heretical writings were “taken care of”.

  6. Tim
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    It must be a sign of the times we live in that I actually felt relieved to see that this was a case of traditional conservative fundamentalist Christian nonsense, and not yet another example of the regressive left social justice warriors forcing out a professor for not following the dictates of their new quasi-religious ideology.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of when William Dembski got in Dutch with the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for allowing as how Noah’s Flood might not be literally true.

  8. Nell Whiteside
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Ugh! It’s all about god’s pathetic willy.

    • James Walker
      Posted July 25, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Free willy!

  9. W.Benson
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I’ll just step back and let them go at it.

  10. Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Got to say, I’m crying crocodile tears for Lestmann and Bryan college.

  11. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been trying hard to find an original sin, but all the ones I come up with have been done already. Very frustrating.

    cr

  12. busterggi
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Well they have progressed from the original oath.

  13. Historian
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    The brouhaha at Bryan College is no different than the debate as to how many angels can dance on the head of a needle.

    • Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s a “pin”, you heretic.

      • Ken Phelps
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Metaphor-wise, perhaps we should consider how many angels can ride on a camel.

        • Posted July 25, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          Or how many pins can pass through camel?

          /@

          • rickflick
            Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

            How many pins can pass through the eye of a camel? To be precise.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, well, strait it the gate, and narrow the way, that leads a camel to pins & needles, you buncha Pharisees, you.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        When Bill O’Reilly studied Thomism, he was hoping to discover how many angels can dance on a pinhead. 🙂

      • Historian
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you pinned me down on that one.

        • Craw
          Posted July 25, 2017 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

          And then he needled you.

      • Tim
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Surely any self-respecting angel should be able to dance on the pointy end of a pin (or needle). Or pass through the eye of a camel. Or something.

  14. rickflick
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    If I was forced to guess, I’d say probably more than half the faculty don’t actually believe in all(most?) the elements of the pledge. More than a few are probably not even Christians but will take the pledge for the sake of their careers. Our culture forces exposure to rational alternatives(WEIT, etc.) which eventually persuade professors, who have to have a goodly dose of curiosity about the world, to secretly drop the bullshit.

    • Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I wonder what would happen to a faculty member at Bryan (or similarly loathsome places) if it was discovered they visited -or worse- commented on WEIT.

      I can imagine them with their heads shaved and paraded through the campus with the students and staff standing by chanting; “Shame. Shame. Shame.”

      • Filippo
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        And dressed in sackcloth and ashes.

      • Posted July 26, 2017 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Probably far worse than being caught watching porn or engaging in business with a member of the oldest profession.

        • Colin McLachlan
          Posted July 27, 2017 at 7:07 am | Permalink

          Or the youngest class.

  15. Charles Sawicki
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve always thought that what will really bring down Christianity in its battle with science is an insistence on a literal Adam and Eve.” Humans are generally not adept at applying rationality to beliefs. All we can hope for is a continuing decrease in the fraction of believers in the USA, as has occurred in most of Europe.

    • Posted July 25, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      “I’ve always thought that what will really bring down Christianity in its battle with science is an insistence on a literal Adam and Eve.”

      I have often thought that if one believes in a literal Adam and Eve, no other explanation of humanities insanities are needed because we all derive from the incestuous co-mingling of Adam and Eve’s kids, forever and ever, Amen!

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    That reminds me of yet another newfound human introgression that makes up us in sub-Saharan Africa, and which speaks against the religious myth.

    The find is just one gene, and the dating is perplexing, but it seems plausible: a mucus protein gene under heavy selection for oral microbiome has a surviving allele *much more divergent than Neanderthal and Denisovan alleles*!

    The ghost species model is that it introgressed 150 kyrs ago after an African bottleneck, but not succeeding in the later Out-Of-Africa event. There is no big problem there I think, two new datings puts us as 300 kyrs old [see the paper for references].

    But the coalescent age is 4.5 Myrs [!], extraordinarily close to human-chimp coalescence at 5.5 Myrs [ https://academic.oup.com/mbe/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/molbev/msx206 }, which is Australopithecine split ages. Confusingly the university press release gives an unsupported but less amazing age of 1.5-2 Myrs, which is more like an Erectus split [ https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170721113415.htm ]. (And notably there is an earlier paper that has an East Asian ghost lineage that could be another Erectus introgression.)

    In any case, seems like our world wide ancestry is a lot more complex and age structured than religion accounts for.

  17. wiseape108
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    “…but you can still get a B.S. in Biology…” Remove the full stops and never a truer word spoken.

  18. Zachary Williams
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    A couple of points:

    Dr. Lestmann was not fired for refusing to sign the statement of belief -as far as I know he was and is a committed YEC. There were a couple of profs that were fired at the time, though it’s never been clear whether their objections were theological; the majority of criticism at the time came from people who agreed with the text of the statement of belief ‘clarification,’ but objected to it on the grounds that the statement of belief was supposed to be unchangeable.

    While the clarification was a major source of discord, I doubt it would have led to the current level of dissatisfaction without the many, many other missteps by the Livesay administration, e.g., sketchy financial dealings, covering up the arrest of a faculty member, and a number of smaller issues.

    That said, I’m far from an unbiased observer here, as I am an alumnus of the biology program. Though I’m no longer a young Earth creationist (just finished a PhD researching viral and human evolution, in fact), I have many fond memories of my time there and am pretty pissed off that most of my favorite profs have since resigned or been fired.


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