Skip to main content

WheatonOK, I think I might be figuring out this whole Wheaton debacle.

Well. . . not me actually, but one of my readers who emailed me, the gist of which basically goes like this:

“Dear Pete. I read your blog and your books regularly, and I think the sun rises and sets on everything you say. But I am also a Wheaton grad, have read your posts on the Hawkins matter, and I can’t believe how dimwitted you are to have missed the obvious—but I mean that in a nice way.”

My reader then proceeded to explain to me something I have indeed missed completely: Hawkins tied her public “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” business to biological evolution. The following is an excerpt from Hawkins’s offending Facebook post, which was published in major news outlets like The Atlantic.

I don’t love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.

I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind–a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014. . . .

Hawkins, it would appear, thinks biological evolution accounts for human origins.  The problem is that Wheaton does not. Wheaton’s faith statement says:

WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.

Now let me say that I know or have met a good number of Wheaton faculty over the years. I’m even related to one by marriage (and he is currently in the witness protection program). The faculty I know have found ways of adhering to Wheaton’s faith statement while still acknowledging biological evolution in a manner that is either acceptable to Wheaton’s culture or flies under the radar.

I hardly think Hawkins’s comment is unique among her colleagues. But they didn’t write about it and they certainly didn’t post it on social media.

What might have made matters even more difficult for Hawkins is that Wheaton’s president since 2010, Phil Ryken, is an ordained clergyman in the Presbyterian Church in America, which adheres strictly to a 17th century Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) doctrinal statement that both assumes the special (not evolutionary) creation of Adam and the absolute necessity of this first human’s fall into sin for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have any meaning (search here and here). Ryken expressed this view with clarity and passion here.

Consider, too, that according to Ryken, “. . . what happens at Wheaton shapes what the evangelical church is like in the United States.” Wheaton’s influence in shaping evangelicalism, as Ryken sees it, would seem to encourage vigilance in maintaining evangelical boundaries, and certainly explains at least in part Wheaton’s reaction to Hawkins’s public comments.

It would seem that publicly assuming the evolutionary narrative for human origins in her expression of human solidarity with Muslims plays a role in Wheaton’s response to Hawkins’s public comments.

Wheaton has a history of tangling with faculty and evolution. One incident occurred in 2002 and involved Alex Bolyanatz, a popular and respected assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton, who, despite his repeated affirmations of the Wheaton’s doctrinal statement, did not get tenure. His dismissal was written up in a 2002 article by Beth McMurtrie called “Do Professors Lose Academic Freedom by Signing Statements of Faith?” (Chronicle of Higher Education: Vol. 48, Issue 37).

That article is available only to CHE subscribers, though it is also available on EBSCOhost (with login through your academic institution). Here is the relevant part. McMurtie writes,

“The spring of 2000 was a happy time in the professional life of Alex Bolyanatz, an assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, in Illinois.

He received a glowing review from the chairman of his department. The Faculty Personnel Committee unanimously recommended that his contract be renewed, and he was popular with students and well liked by colleagues.

So he was stunned when a letter that December from the provost, Stanton L. Jones, said that he was recommending against the professor’s reappointment.

“During your term at Wheaton College,” Mr. Jones wrote, “you have failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting.” (…)

Mr. Bolyanatz and his supporters think he was tripped up by unwritten rules. A firm believer in evolution, he gave little credence to creationism during his lectures on human origins. But, he says, he never felt that he was violating Wheaton’s religious ethos. “I would say, ‘Faith does not discount the evolutionary model. The evolutionary model does not discount faith.'”

At Wheaton, however, the faith statement holds that “God directly created Adam and Eve.” After sitting in on several of the professor’s lectures, Mr. Jones, the provost, wrote him a scathing memorandum stating that while he was not required to advocate creationism, Mr. Bolyanatz was expected to treat it with respect.

Mr. Jones declines to comment on the specifics of the Bolyanatz case, but says his complaint about creationism wasEvolution of Adam just part of a larger concern that the former professor had undermined the “thoughtful engagement of theology” in his classroom. He rejects the campus talk that Mr. Bolyanatz’s firing shows that teaching is being judged there by an ever-stricter orthodoxy. “There was never a moment in my discussion with him that I doubted his sincerity in subscribing to our statement of faith,” he says.”

[Readers might also find interesting this candid article on SOMA by Andrew Chignell, which assesses Wheaton’s future at the end of former president Duane Liftin’s 17-year presidency. The Bolyanatz case is mentioned as well as general anxieties about evolution.]

The curious back and forth in the Bolyanatz case is clearly of the Hawkins case.

It is truly hard to maintain historic, mainstream evangelical borders in a world where Muslims are our neighbors rather than “foreigners,” and where evolution is accepted as the compelling scientific model of human origins. And in this case, I think the two are connected.

In a way, Wheaton’s leadership cannot help but react as it has—and that is the problem.

[Addendum: It has been brought to my attention that, in a list of “significant concerns” brought to Dr. Hawkins by Provost Jones, item IV (“Other Issues”) asks Hawkins to  “clarify” her “view on human origins.”]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.