A Review of Understanding Genesis: Contemporary Adventist Perspectives. Edited by Brian Bull, Fritz Guy and Ervin Taylor. Adventist Today Foundation. 2006. 195 pp., paperback. $12.00? ISBN: 0-9786141-9.
God so ordered that men, beasts, and trees, many times larger than those now upon the earth, and other things [such as instruments of warfare], should be buried in the earth at the time of the flood, and there be preserved the evidence to man that the inhabitants of the old world perished by a flood. God designed that the discovery of these things in the earth should establish the faith of men in inspired history. Ellen G. White. Spiritual Gifts. Vol. 3. p. 95.
In October 1844 two substantive events occurred to shape the future of Seventh-day Adventism. The first was the irrefutable prophetic failure of Christ’s return, and the second; less known at the time, was the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which launched the modern debate on evolutionary origins. (Both issues have been in the public mind for centuries. See Jonathan Kirsch. A History of the End of Time. San Francisco, CA: Harper. 2006., and, Lynn Barber. The Heyday of Natural History 1820- 1870. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1980. John Wesley, founder of Methodism with influence into Adventism believed that the natural world could be arranged in a gradation of different organisms. His Chain of Being concept that he preached was held by a long line of thinkers from Aristotle to John Locke. Historically the Chain of Being may be viewed as a precursor to the concept of evolution. See J. W. Hass, Jr. John Wesley’s Vision of Science in the Service of Christ. American Scientific Affiliation. December, 1995. p. 234.)
Vestiges appeared anonymously and was rumored to have been written by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Finally, in 1884 it was confessed by a brother that the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers (1802-71) was the author.
An instant best seller, Vestiges attempted to explain the origin of life by natural laws arising from “chemico-electric” processes. Progressive fossils fit within an evolutionary hypothesis. Abraham Lincoln read the book straight away when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” (James A. Secord. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of Natural History of Creation. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2000. p. 38.)
By the time Charles Darwin’s, The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Adventists were prepared to reject evolution. Mrs. White had been taken in vision back to creation week and convinced the church that nature was devolving, not evolving, ever since the creation week. Mankind and animals were supposedly pristine and much larger at the beginning of creation. Then because of sin man had steadily become more degenerate, smaller and weaker in “vital force.” Sin placed mankind squarely on the track to extinction and therefore Christ had to come soon.
The origin of life and the subsequent destruction of mankind during the Noachian deluge in the Bible were taken at face value. By this account, the world was approximately six thousand years old. Adam and Eve were real people about twice the size of modern man. “Every species of animal which God had created, were preserved in the ark. The confused species which God did not create, … were destroyed by the flood.” (Spiritual Gifts. 1864. Vol. 3. p. 75.) Mrs. White may have acquired this view because geology was beginning to grow in the public mind and unfamiliar giant reptilian monsters were unearthed in greater abundance and variety. The term “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 by Richard Owen (1804-1892) for fossils of large extinct reptiles. It is not that rare today to find some Adventists who believe that dinosaurs represent White’s “confused species” which lived happily with humans at the time of creation. In this they are not alone, but find comfort with other biblical fundamentalists. (Ronald L. Numbers. Darwinism Comes to America. “Science of Satanic Origin”: Adventist Attitudes Toward Evolutionary Biology and Geology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1998. p. 92.)
Adventism continues to resist evolution in the face of an enormous body of scientific evidence. The church stands steadfast against a striking awareness of at least five major extinctions in the long history of life and its forms on the earth due to changes in climate and sea level and other natural events. Each time there was a burst of new species. Evolution theory predicted that antibacterial agents would result in the emergence of resistant strains. The theory correctly predicted that evolution from fish to amphibian would be found in Devonian strata. Mammal fossils are not found in Paleozoic strata with trilobites, crinoids and extinct corals. Dinosaurs first appeared in the fossil record “millions of years back” and disappeared abruptly, as determined by a number of dating methods. Dinosaur bones are not mixed in geological strata with humans or for that matter with any large extinct mammals such as three-toed horses, short-necked giraffes, or mammoths.
Ice cores from the Antarctica and Greenland show four successive series of evenly distributed alternating warm and cold spells going back as far as 440,000 years and no evidence of a world-wide flood. The cold-warm cycles are driven by the complex circular and elliptical earth orbit around the sun. Hominid fossils are not large and show increasing stature and brain size, tool development and evidence in cave art and artifacts going back beyond forty thousand years. Over 98.5 percent of the human genome shows gene similarities to chimpanzees but both apparently split away from a common ancestor approximately eight-million years ago. (Jerry D. Korsmeyer. Evolution and Eden: Balancing Original Sin and Contemporary Science. NY: Paulist Press. 1998. p. 71.) There doesn’t seem to be any way that Adventism can accept this corpora of scientific findings and still teach its historic and foundational positions about a supernatural creation, short earth chronology, original sin, and a global flood. (Frank M. Hasel. Ellen G. White and Creationism: How to Deal with Her Statements on Creation and Evolution: Implications and Prospects. J. Adventist Theological Society. 2006. 17(1): 229-244.)
The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recognized these issues and invited theologians and scientists, along with the leadership of the church, to a series of faith and science conferences. (Seventh-day Adventist Church. An Affirmation of Creation) The purpose was to review the “contributions and limitations that both faith and science bring to our understanding of origins.” Contrary to some liberal ambitions the conference was “not called to modify the Church’s long-held position on creation. (Ibid. p. 3. One significant recommendation called for; “Increased opportunity be provided for interdisciplinary dialog and research, in a safe environment, among Seventh-day Adventist scholars from around the world.” This was poised by the recommendation that church leaders were “encouraged to assess and monitor the effectiveness of teaching “a biblical understanding of origins and an awareness of the challenges facing young people attending Adventist and non-Adventist schools.”)
Adventists, along with other Protestants, pride themselves as coming out of The Enlightenment which advocated observation and reason to establishing objective truth about the universe. This raises concerns. Traditionally Adventist have long been known to be literalistic when reading the Bible. Only on occasion will a text be read allegorically. When it comes to evolution Adventists follow the advice of Mrs. White who warned; “Again and again we shall be called to meet the influence of men who are studying science of satanic origin, through which Satan is working to make a nonentity of God and of Christ.” (See Ronald L. Numbers. p. 92.)
Two defining groups emerged during the conference. One continued to hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God for the basis of scientific foundations. The other group sponsored the idea that revealed religion might be expected to move over and make room for scientific commonsense since neither biblical nor Mrs. White’s writings claim scientific authority. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth-century had already started the ball rolling in creating two separate authorities for interpreting the world. The two groups at the Adventist conference seemed to be polarized over their fundamental differences—and as to who was the “most faithful to Adventist doctrines.”
In the book, Understanding Genesis: Contemporary Adventist Perspectives, a selected group of conference contributors marshal the case for the scientific enlightenment and present a centrist or the more moderate viewpoint. These contributions were gathered up by the Adventist Today Foundation and published as a Festschrift dedicated to the memory of the brilliant scientist Peter Edgar Hare (1933-2006). Early in his career Hare became troubled by the results of his ground breaking amino acid age-dating methods that revealed explicit “deep history” for geologic dates. Richard M. Ritland wrote the tribute.
There are ten contributors represented by trained scientists, theologians and archeologists, from Loma Linda and La Sierra Universities. The two exceptions are chapters by Richard Bottomley, a physics professor at Canadian University, and Ervin Taylor, an anthropologist from the University of California in Riverside.
Theologians Richard Rice, Dalton D. Baldwin, Ivan T. Blazen, and Fritz Guy focus on topics dealing with theistic evolution, process theodicy, problems of pain and predation, symbolic and exegetical representation, implication of miracles, the truth about God in Genesis, and the biblical genealogies as time markers. Warren Johns presents a different view of Noah’s Flood and explains why the Genesis account rids the earth of moral pollution. He draws the argument that not all species of animals were in the ark when the door was closed. Allegory has always been linked to an understanding of this Noah’s Flood narrative. Above all the theologians characterize God as kind, loving, forgiving and will never abandon what “God has created.” There is a place in this logic when this argument appears to fall apart during the flood story. God unleashed his temper and ordered Noah to build an ark. Then He sent a great Deluge that covered the earth and killed every thing that moved.
Brian Bull and Fritz Guy unpack the aura of mystery surrounding the question of miracles. They give a couple of good examples how science might conciliate Biblical miracles. The miracle debate with science has a long history. Two nineteenth-century scholars launched such a debate over cultural or church authority and the nature of the physical world. John Tyndall (a nineteenth-century physicist) attacked the traditional claims of miracles in the Scriptures and James B. Mozley (a divine) offered a defense. Tyndall excused science from the question of providential when he argued; “Even if an account of a ‘miraculous’ event (such as walking on water) could be incontestably attested, how could a scientist ever know that it was caused by a supernatural being?” (Robert Bruce Mullin. “Science, Miracles, and the Prayer-Gauge Debate.” In David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. (eds.). When Science and Christianity Meet. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 2003. p. 208.) Bull and Guy present a similar view, although they do not take the argument as far as Tyndall. Their paradigm allows the shame for evil in Bible stories to switch from “supernatural” to a “natural default” position, and the “good things” remain over on God’s ledger. Some readers may wonder what evidence Bull and Guy provide to favor the view that when a miracle occurs, such as the Deluge, one cannot be so sure it is a “combination of natural order and randomness.”
The archaeologist Lawrence T. Geraty compare other flood stories (Gilgamesh Epic, Atrahasis, Sumerian Flood texts, etal.) with the Genesis story. Geraty convincingly argues that the “Bible has a context in history and literature … and the context can be ignored only to one’s peril.” Geraty concludes that as of now, there is no evidence of a world-wide flood, but in effect the telling supports Israel’s laws. In another chapter archaeologist Douglas R. Clark’s discusses, “The Bible: Isn’t it about Time?” Clark agrees with Adventist scholars that the interval of time between Creation and Abraham can be assigned “any length … that may otherwise appear reasonable.” In other words, move over 6,000 years, but don’t expect millions of years to have elapsed since the creation of life.
The age of the earth is a dominating theme in this book. And the physicist Richard Bottomley and anthropologist Ervin Taylor discuss radiometric dating methodology. Both agree with “deep time” prehistory and give remarkable scientific analysis how this is so. Bottomley writes with a stiff upper lip. “I believe we need to learn to state our theology and beliefs in a way that is not wholly dependent on the literal veracity of a young-earth model to be relevant—if not for every believer perhaps, then as a parallel path to understanding the Adventist message. The current idea that if we do not support a young-earth/deluge model we cannot be Adventist Christians seems to be pathological theology.”
Missing in this book are the profound advances being achieved on the nature of man revealed in neuroscience, genetics, molecular biology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc. (Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. NY: Viking. 2002.) Suppose pre-Adam creation is pushed back to millions of years and one accepts predation, bacterial infections, and tumors in the dinosaur fossils. How will the church sustain its argument on the goodness of God over such a long time period of suffering and on such a massive scale? Theologian Rice offers a solution. “In matters of ultimate significance, we must commit ourselves to intellectual honesty, weigh all the available evidence, trust God to guide us to a clearer understanding of his ways and his purposes, and realize that our knowledge will never be perfect until we know as we are known.”
Actually, scientists themselves don’t expect perfection of knowledge and feel morally bound to relinquish belief in any theory as understanding progresses that is contradicted by empirical evidence—no matter how much was attached to that theory. They shun hypothetical arguments and avoid evidence obtained dishonestly. “If one had no evidence, he might still have a right to speak but no longer a right to be heard.” (Mott T. Greene. “Genesis and Geology Revisited: The Order of Nature and the Nature of Order in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” In David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. (eds.). When Science and Christianity Meet. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2003. p. 149.)