Adventists have sought to base their faith at the intersection of Scripture and science
By Sergio Silva
The Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged during a historical period of great theological turmoil, especially relating to the study of origins. After the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, the search for a foundation of knowledge intensified, causing many to renounce their belief that Scripture is a reliable source and a foundation of knowledge. This debate over whether Scripture or science should be considered the ultimate source of knowledge caused doubt and debate during the mid-19th century.
Since the establishment of the denomination in 1863, Seventh-day Adventists have believed in the biblical representation of the origins of the world and humankind, but valued both the positive outcomes of the Enlightenment and scriptural authority. Since the inception of the church, Adventists have maintained their belief in biblical origins.
A Brief Historical Background
In the years following the 18th century, the works of some key Enlightenment thinkers led to skepticism that the Christian Church had the final word on which sources of knowledge were authoritative and should be embraced by society. First throughout Europe and subsequently in America, liberalism contributed to the spreading of rationalism and empiricism. Human reason and empirical data in a naturalistic framework became the norm to determine what should be considered true knowledge about origins.
In theology, Liberalism facilitated the rejection of theological foundationalism to promote these principles of the Enlightenment. Thus, while the proponents of theological foundationalism insisted that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) should be considered the moderator source to evaluate knowledge about origins, the proponents of Liberalism insisted that human reason should hold priority over Scripture as the source of true knowledge. Feeling the pressure that came from the proponents of Liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher suggested that the only way to preserve the significance of theology in the nature of knowledge was to accommodate the interpretation of Scripture to the findings of modern science. The Christian theological world followed his lead.
According to Ronald Numbers, “By the late nineteenth century even [some of] the most conservative Christian apologists readily conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient earth and pre-Edenic life.”1 By the year 1870, after American scientists accepted “the broad outlines of organic evolution,” Christian thinkers in America diverged in relation to these issues.2
By the end of the 19th century, three groups of Christians emerged:
● The “liberal proponents of evolution” (LPE) chose to embrace evolutionary theory. These are individuals who choose to adopt “higher criticism” as part of their hermeneutical method to read and interpret the Bible, which implies that their theology is subjected to the propositions of science (as commonly understood). In this sense, the early chapters of Genesis, the biblical accounts of miracles, and the incarnation of Christ and His resurrection, were viewed as the product of Jewish culture instead of the product of inspired revelation.
● The “conservative opponents of evolution” (COE) chose to accept a simple, literal reading of the biblical account of Creation. In this sense, when the text says, “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth” (Ex. 20:11, KJV), a COE understands that the Creation week described in Genesis 1:3-2:4 occurred sometime 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, in a period of six literal, consecutive, 24-hour days. The conclusion of a short period of time since Creation (6,000 to 10,000 years) is based on the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11.
● The “conservative proponents of evolution” (CPE) followed Charles Hodge’s advice to interpret Scripture in the light of modern science. This term refers to those who accept Darwinian evolutionary theory and claim to read the Bible in a literal fashion, but who choose to accommodate their views to whatever challenges that science may bring to the literal reading of the biblical text. Thus, when the text says “in six days,” if the letter of the text conflicts with geological assumptions, for example, a CPE understands the word “day” to render the meaning of a long age, accommodating the biblical text to geological assumptions.
With this context in mind, how did Adventists maintain their belief in biblical origins?
An Adventist Response
Adventism entered the scene of American religious life during a period of theological turmoil in the mid-19th century when foundational beliefs about Scripture were under heavy attack. In relation to origins, German higher criticism helped to accelerate the spreading of Darwinism among Protestants and non-Protestants, and the biblical worldview of origins fell out of favor.
Adventism, however, grew strong and sought to develop an understanding that embraced the acquisition of knowledge through reason while upholding scriptural authority. Instead of adopting a method of accommodating the interpretation of Scripture to the interpretation of nature, or simply dismissing mainstream science as incompatible with the biblical view of Creation, as fundamentalists did, Adventism sought to embrace mainstream science and theology as complementary enterprises. Adventists perceive both nature and Scripture as God’s revelations to humankind, and believe that since both issued from the same Author, they should agree.
How did Adventists seek to embrace mainstream science and theology as complementary enterprises? On the one hand, Adventists have insisted repeatedly on the need for theology to be built upon the sola-tota-prima Scriptura principles, emphasizing that Scripture should be the rule of the Christian faith. Expressing her views on this subject, Ellen G. White wrote, “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice.”3
For mainline Adventists, it is through Scripture alone that knowledge about the relationship of the natural and the supernatural realms coalesces intelligibly. And when addressing the question of how Christians should interpret the biblical account of Creation, Ellen White said, “The infidel supposition, that the events of the first week required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain.”4 She believed that the biblical account of Creation should be read and interpreted literally.
On the other hand, this literal interpretation of biblical origins did not mean that Adventists were alienated from or unaware of the positive outcomes of the Enlightenment, or that mainstream science had not brought new challenges for the students of Scripture. As a matter of fact, Adventist theologians asserted the importance of showing that the correct interpretation of Scripture through theology and of nature through science would show that Scripture and nature were in harmony.
Ellen White wrote that “God is the foundation of everything. All true science is in harmony with His works; all true education leads to obedience to His government. Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high, and explores new depths; but she brings nothing from her research that conflicts with divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by appeals to science, but the book of nature and the written word shed light upon each other.”5
Building on this premise, George McCready Price, considered the founder of a worldwide movement known as creation science, recognized the challenges of the scientific evidence coming from geology, and proposed a two-stage biblical Creation in an attempt to show how the biblical account of origin and the data collected from nature could be brought into harmony.6 In spite of rejecting the alleged sequence of the fossil record as proof for ancient life on earth and conclusive evidence for macroevolution, Price thought that the age of the rocks surrounding the fossils could be brought into harmony with a biblical concept of young life on Earth. Price suggested in his theory of two-stage biblical Creation that God had created the entire universe first (Gen. 1:1), and then after eons had returned to give shape to the Earth and to create life the planet.
Price explained: “It may be well to remember that the record in Genesis has not put the least direct limit upon our imaginations in accounting for the manner of our world’s formation. It only says: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’ This, be it clearly understood, and as other writers have so clearly pointed out, was before the six days of our world’s Creation proper began. The six literal days of Creation, or peopling our world with life forms, begin with verse 3. . . . How long it had been formed before this we are not told, and whether by a slow or rapid process we have no information.”7
In essence, while most conservative Christians had accepted that the Bible allowed for ancient inorganic matter and pre-Edenic life on earth, Adventists like Price insisted on preserving the integrity of the biblical text, and accepted only ancient inorganic matter on Earth (not life).
After Price, many Adventist scientists gained prominence among the COE, including are Harold W. Clark, Frank L. Marsh, Harold G. Coffin, Ariel A. Roth, L. James Gibson, and Arthur V. Chadwick.
Harold W. Clark (1891-1986) was the first Seventh-day Adventist to earn a graduate degree in biology. After spending time “studying glaciation in the mountains of the West,” Clark became convinced that “ice had once covered large portions of North America, perhaps for as long as fifteen hundred years after the flood.”8
Then Clark introduced the theory of “ecological zonation,” arguing that this interpretation could work as “a substitute for the commonly accepted theory of geological ages. In other words, an ‘age’ of time would be replaced by a ‘stage’ of Flood action.”9 Ecological zonation proposes that whatever sequence there is in the fossil record “is due to the burial of ancient life zones or habitats that lived contemporaneously, and not to the succession of life throughout long ages of time.”10
Besides introducing glaciation to Adventist views, Clark also thought that microevolution was compatible with biblical origins. Clark said, “When one considers these problems in relation to science and religion, he faces a perplexing situation.” On the one hand, there is “a voluminous literature assuming that . . . all change means evolution. This attitude is so generally accepted that anyone who dares deny the validity of the conclusions is branded as ignorant and uncultured.” And, on the other hand, there are those who let their antievolutionary convictions blind them to a point where they unjustifiably ignore most—if not all—“scientific data that one almost wonders if the accusations of the evolutionists against Creationists might not be true.”11
As a solution to the impasse, Clark pointed out how microevolution was a well-documented fact in hybridization, and that some were suggesting that “it is possibly the only way new species are ever formed.”12 Clark asked, “Should we believe that they [i.e., different types of rabbits, sparrows, etc.] were all created just as they are now? No, it is rather easy to understand how variation within the Genesis ‘kind’ could have resulted in all these different species.”13
Following in the footsteps of Clark, Frank Lewis Marsh (1899-1992) joined “in advocating post-Edenic speciation.”14 According to Numbers, Marsh “became the first Adventist to earn a doctoral degree in biology.”15Throughout his career, Marsh wrote about post-Edenic speciation and pled with fellow fundamentalists to avoid the equation of limited variation with evolution. Reviewing Marsh’s Evolution, Creation, and Science, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) wrote in the American Naturalist that “Marsh had written what he had previously thought to be impossible: a sensibly argued defense of special Creation.”16
Another Adventist, Harold G. Coffin, made a great contribution with studies that concluded in favoring a recent catastrophic event as the mechanism that shaped the Earth’s surface. A paleontologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, Coffin uncovered evidence in different parts of North America, Europe, and Asia that supported the biblical account of a global flood (Genesis 6-8) a few thousand years ago.
For example, Coffin noticed that the average rate of erosion (about one foot every 5,000 to 10,000 years) used by conventional geologists to explain the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is insufficient to explain why tall mountains still exist in many locations around the globe. He explains that when applied conservatively—one foot every 5,000 years—the average rate of erosion should be responsible for eroding about one mile of sediment from the mountains every 25 million years.
The bottom line is this: If gradual erosion is the mechanism responsible for the formation of the Earth’s surface, a period of 10 to 20 million years should have turned tall mountains into low hills; since this is not the case, another mechanism—a global cataclysm—must have affected the surface of the globe in recent years. Coffin concluded: “Tall mountains, lakes not filled with sediments, and well-preserved fossils in their original burial sites indicate that the surface of the earth is not as old as frequently claimed.”17 These observations, among others, raise questions about whether the conventional geological time scale provides the best model to explain the formation of the Earth’s surface.
Besides participating in the science and theology dialogue by presenting scientific evidence favoring a recent creation of life on earth and the recent formation of the earth’s surface through a global catastrophe, Adventists also have looked seriously at the biblical and theological evidence of the Creation and Flood. Some of the theological scholars who participated in these efforts are Richard M. Davidson, John T. Baldwin, Jacques Doukhan, Gerhard Hasel, Randal Younker, and Jiří Moskala.
As far as the biblical evidence goes, Richard M. Davidson has recently dealt with the question of the meaning of “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1 from an exegetical standpoint. Davidson explains that when dealing with the biblical account of Creation, questions have been raised in relation to the “when” of Creation. To put this in the context of the science and theology dialogue, mainline scientists have rejected the biblical account of Creation because conventional science requires deep time for the formation of inorganic matter on Earth, and this seems to be in conflict with the biblical time scale.
Davidson, however, shows exegetically the harmony that exists between Scripture and the book of nature. After a careful analysis of the Hebrew text, Davidson posits that the biblical evidence favoring the absolute beginning of the universe (including inorganic matter on Earth) sometime before the Creation week is very persuasive. The biblical evidence he presents rests on the grammatical structure of the word translated as “in the beginning,” which, Davidson concludes, is better understood as an independent clause in the absolute state. Davidson’s conclusion is remarkable, because it allows theologians and conventional scientists to agree that inorganic matter in the universe (including inorganic matter on Earth) is very old, perhaps billions of years old, without compromising the literal interpretation of the days of Creation in Genesis 1:3–2:4.
From the theological point of view, John T. Baldwin has responded to the claim that associating the biblical account of a recent, literal, seven-day Creation and a global flood with historical reality is a sacrifice of the intellect. Baldwin shows in Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary that the literal interpretation of Genesis 1–11 is far from being a sacrifice of the intellect: in fact, it is essential to maintain the unequivocal nature of the biblical metanarrative. Baldwin, who won a John Templeton Foundation prize in 1994, explains that biblical eschatology is contingent to biblical origins. He insists that the language used to describe divine action in the latter (Gen. 7:11; Ex. 20:11) is implied in the former (Rev. 14:7), which suggests the need for interpreters to preserve Scripture as an unequivocal document.18
In addition, Baldwin has shown how the use of evolutionary theory to interpret the fossil record in the geological column undermines the biblical doctrine of atonement. This is because evolution places “death for seeming millions of years prior to the first human sin.”19 If this were true, death would be no longer a consequence of sin (Rom. 5:12), but a necessary mechanism for progression. Consequently, the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross would be nothing more than a mere event in the history of Israel, without any theological meaning or value.
How can theology address this problem? Baldwin says: “The global deluge geologically establishes the needed causal connection between human sin and all death by burying animals into the geological column subsequent to Adam’s sin, thus confirming the truth of the biblical claim that all death is the wage of sin. In this fashion God’s global flood corroborates the fact that the death of Jesus constitutes the wage of sin, one that He bore salvifically for human beings.”20
The theological turmoil of the 19th and 20th centuries is not over, and there is still much work to be done. Although mainstream science and theology have improved their understanding of their objects of study (i.e., nature and Scripture), the philosophical impasse between naturalism and supernaturalism continually insists that these two disciplines should not overlap. Yet Adventists have attempted to study nature and Scripture as inseparably related.
Throughout the history of Adventism, Adventists have tried to establish a productive dialogue between mainstream science and theology. Their approach has been one that engages mainstream science and theology as companions, not as enemies, in the search for true knowledge. For this reason, Adventists have refused to join Schleiermacher in claiming that science had proven wrong the biblical teaching of Creation.
Instead, Adventists have seen in this study opportunity for both mainstream scientists and theologians to seek greater knowledge about their fields, and to see how nature and Scripture complement one another. Leonard Brand explains the mainline Adventist approach well when he says, “We establish the most constructive relationship between science and religion when we allow findings in each of these fields of knowledge to challenge us to analyze the other more carefully.” Brand concludes: “I believe that this feedback process can improve our understanding of both fields. Conflicts between the two force us to dig deeper in both as we seek for genuine resolution that does not relegate either to a secondary role.”21
Sergio Silva is a Ph.D. candidate at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, 1st ed. (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992), p. x.
2. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 180, 181.
3. Selected Messages, Book 3, p. 29.
4. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 91.
5. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 115.
6. Harold W. Clark, Crusader for Creation: The Life and Writings of George McCready Price(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1966).
7. George McCready Price, Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1902), p. 112.
8. Numbers, The Creationists, op. cit., p. 124.
9. Harold W. Clark, Fossils, Flood, and Fire (Escondido, Calif.: Outdoor Pictures, 1968), p. 58.
10. Ibid., p. 59.
11. __________, Genes and Genesis (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1940), pp. 6, 7.
12. Ibid., pp. 90, 91.
13. __________, Genesis and Science (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publication Association, 1967), p. 13.
14. Numbers, The Creationists, op cit., p. 129.
16. Ibid., p. 131.
17. Harold G. Coffin, Robert H. Brown, and L. James Gibson, Origin by Design (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2005), pp. 366, 367.
18. John T. Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000), pp. 19-23, 25-28.
19. Ibid., p. 110.
20. Ibid., p. 115.
21. Leonard Brand and David C. Jarnes, Beginnings (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2006), p. 7.