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Ted Wilson’s Faith/Science Dead-end

Some months back I had occasion to review the events comprising the General Conference’s August 2014 International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation, held in St. George, Utah. Among the articles I read or re-read was GC President Ted Wilson’s keynote address, the complete text of which can be found here. But this time I took more careful note of the details. This column will revisit that speech and highlight some serious concerns I have—and believe all thoughtful Adventists should also have—about the views Wilson expressed and the arguments he used for supporting them.

Speech Summary

Wilson began by labeling the position the attendees would (exclusively) encounter at the upcoming conference as “Biblical Creation.” He stated that “we all share a common belief in God’s authoritative voice as the Creator. We believe that the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 was a literal event that took place in six literal, consecutive days recently as opposed to deep time” (paragraph 3). He thus equated Young Earth Creationism (YEC) as identical to Biblical Creation even though there are other interpretations held by conscientious Christians.

Next, he proposed that failure to adhere to a literal six-day creation chronology undermined the whole gospel (par. 6) and then undergirded his position with two E.G. White quotes (par. 7, par. 11) in which she deprecates evolution and affirms a recent six-day creation sequence. Thus, Wilson clearly established his concordance with Ellen White. He stated (par. 8): “the Spirit of Prophecy provides tremendous counsel and light on this subject. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy are absolutely trustworthy and accurate.”  Such phraseology suggests that Wilson holds an inerrant view of Ellen White (more on this later).

He told his audience that the purpose of the conference is to “affirm your belief in a loving Creator” (par. 10), and presumably, this would be done by providing evidence and arguments in favor of a recent six-day creation week. It appears that Wilson links the two—“belief in a loving Creator” with YEC.

Wilson then doubled down by proposing that people who do not hold this YEC position are not true Adventists and that the Sabbath doctrine would fall without it (par. 13). The Sabbath “has come under fierce attack by unbelieving secularists and humanists and is even being dismissed by some who claim to be Seventh-day Adventists“(par. 20).

Adventists should not preach or teach evolution (par. 24), and you should be “loyal” and “believe it with all your heart”. Otherwise, if you are an employee, you should resign (par. 25).

The errors in Biblical interpretation are because of Higher Criticism, which is our deadly enemy as it “puts an individual above the plain approach of the Scriptures and gives inappropriate license to decide what he or she perceives as truth based on the resources and education of the critic” (par. 26). This approach is “inspired by the devil” (par. 27).

He concluded with an exhortation to hold fast to the truth and proclaim it. “The church and the Lord are depending on you” (par. 31).

Some Questionable Assumptions and Inferences

1.       Assuming what must ultimately be proven—“Biblical Creation” (par. 2):  Wilson used this term to describe the position he espouses, which is the historically orthodox SDA view of origins. He exclaimed that we should “[t]hank God for loyal . . . presenters who have faith in God’s Word.”  But the YEC position is an interpretation that, however orthodox it may seem to many Adventists, ultimately needs to be proven, not merely assumed. And, characterizing presenters who will represent this view as having “faith in God’s word” can be viewed as contrasting them with questionably faithful people who do not hold to this orthodoxy. The problem here is far more complex than space allows, but there is a widespread assumption among conservative Christians (not just SDAs) that there actually exists a so-called plain reading that “allows the Bible to interpret itself” (par. 26). But the Bible is inanimate and thus does not interpret anything. People interpret. What this phrase intends is to declare that there is a self-evident interpretation (plain reading) that any careful, honest reader will come to. But this is also a conclusion and itself needs careful investigation. People will generally read material from within the confines of their world-view and then assume that view is synonymous with absolute reality[1]. This is far from true.

2.       Without YEC, the Sabbath and 2nd-coming doctrines would be meaningless (par. 13):  This is stated as a reason why believing YEC is necessary. But it is also a conclusion that needs examination and is far from universally accepted across Christendom. Why is it that those believers do not find Wilson’s linkage mandatory?

3.       “Evolution is not a science, it is a false form of religion and part of spiritualism” (par. 21): This is a widely-held belief within Adventism, but it should not go unchallenged. Wilson’s assertion that “evolution is not a science” reveals his unfamiliarity with the philosophy of science. Indeed, nothing in this speech suggests any scientific literacy or rationale. He privileges his interpretation of scripture, thus begging the problem of humans interpreting revelation.

Ellen White, an Inerrant Authority?

Wilson, as is his habit, quotes Ellen White far in excess of the Bible—approximately three times as much (per word count) in this speech. And the Biblical quotes used are much more generic. It is Ellen White’s words he essentially rests his position upon, using the declaration (noted above) that she is “absolutely reliable” and, along with the Bible of course, should be “the basis of your understanding of origins” (par. 9). But this “high” view of Ellen White is not a mandated test of fellowship in Adventism. Many Adventists believe as Wilson does, but I think many more reject EGW inerrancy. And some do not even affirm her to be a prophet. Fundamental Belief #18 states this, somewhat equivocally: “Her writings speak with prophetic authority and provide comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church.” You do not need to read the idea of inerrancy into these words although some, presumably including Wilson, want to. Thus, the question of doctrinal grounding—as evidenced in Wilson’s address—seems to me to rest substantially on Ellen White. And make no mistake, her position is pro-YEC and anti-evolution as Wilson's EGW quotes indicate. Here are some of the most salient quotes in his address:

"The assumption that the events of the first week required thousands upon thousands of years . . . is infidelity in its most insidious and hence most dangerous form; . . . The Bible recognizes no long ages in which the Earth was slowly evolved from chaos. Of each successive day of creation, the sacred record declares that it consisted of the evening and the morning, like all other days that have followed." (par. 7)

“Human philosophy declares that an indefinite period of time was taken in the creation of the world. Does God state the matter thus? No; . . . Yet . . . those who claim to preach the word present the suppositions of human minds, the maxims and commandments of men. They make void the law of God by their traditions. The sophistry in regard to the world’s being created in an indefinite period of time is one of Satan’s falsehoods. God speaks to the human family in language they can comprehend. He does not leave the matter so indefinite that human begins can handle it according to their theories. When the Lord declares that He made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, He means the day of 24 hours, which He has marked off by the rising and setting of the sun.” (par. 11)

Strong words. So, does an Adventist have the freedom to disagree with Ellen White here? I think, in theory, yes. But, in practice, it varies widely. The church is in a tough spot if it wants an inerrant EGW because that pushes us perilously close to cult status. Yet, if someone disagrees with her—and I have qualified disagreements with her above statements—then I think it is quite difficult to avoid being charged as a reprobate SDA. But inerrancy is a very fragile position to argue for. One wrong statement collapses the position as inerrancy is all or nothing.

A Closed Authoritarianism

After stating his position based on Ellen White’s authority, Wilson then declares that audience members need to align themselves with YEC—enthusiastically and unequivocally. If they cannot, they should do the decent thing and resign. Alternate views are characterized as sophistic, unreliable, inspired by the devil, and spiritualism. The climate Wilson projects with such word choice is hardly an open one where “come let us reason together” applies. The assumption is that, if you disagree, you are not on God’s side. But how can Wilson reconcile this “take-no-prisoners” stand with Luke’s commendation to the Bereans in Acts 17:11? While the context there was Biblical correctness, Christians have always understood such commendation as affirming truth-seeking. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5 KJV). And Adventism has always held this as a core-value. But for Wilson, the prophet has spoken, and there is nothing more to consider. One needs only to obey. This is a profoundly un-Protestant posture. It also has the chilling effect of stifling discussion—at least among church employees. There are limited career moves for a pastor or administrator who runs afoul of powerful organizational superiors. And while teachers do have somewhat more flexibility—they can teach outside the denominational system—many have no desire to do so or have put in many years of service and have deep roots.

Consequences and the Dead-end

The core problem is that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth is very old—estimated at about 4.5 billion years. But Ellen White’s statements are categorical. She accepted the common understanding of around 6,000 years. Wilson appears to believe Ellen White speaks for God—without error. And we recognize that science is probabilistic, so it can and does revise theories over time. For many, then, the choice simplifies to God vs. man. And obviously, we who are believers ought to align with God. What is very poorly recognized among Christians (especially fundamentalists) is that both ways of knowledge acquisition—via human investigation and via revelation—are fallible. The fallibility in the revelatory path is due to two things: 1) believing material to be inspired when it is not, and 2) misreading inspired material.

In considering Ellen White’s position on the age of the earth, it is hard to misread her. She is YEC, full stop. But I have no qualms, in this case, saying that I think she is wrong. I reject her inerrancy and accept the scientific consensus. Why? Because I have extensively investigated the geology in support of the conventional position. Not only are the individual lines of evidence overwhelming, but they correlate. That is, multiple independent measurements agree. I seriously doubt that many, if any, of our church leaders—starting with President Wilson—have much scientific literacy or have done any personal investigation of the relevant data and arguments. They lean on organizations like the Geoscience Research Institute to manufacture apologetic support, exactly like the broader evangelical community uses groups like AIG or ICR. And many likely do not think this is a problem because they also cannot imagine how they could be mistaken regarding their revelatory sources. And God trumps man. Q.E.D.

But, for Adventists, what if Ellen White is wrong? The church hierarchy presently, by not only adopting YEC but by stifling conversation, has thus positioned itself as anti-science. While this may be acceptable to scientifically undereducated believers, scientific literacy is slowly gaining ground in the world (climate deniers notwithstanding). And due to its long history of success, science has very high credibility among a populace Adventists would presumably like to evangelize. But we are unlikely to get much traction with such a public while the church is positioned this way. The day needs to come—and soon—when the church takes an open look at the issue of Ellen White’s inerrancy. We are paying a high price, and it will only get higher in the future.

 


[1]For an insightful, yet possibly disturbing investigation of this world-view problem, I would refer you to the book: “God, Sky and Land” by Fritz Guy and Brian Bull.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Image Credit: L. Blackmer, Adventist Review

 

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