Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controverisal for Adventists?—Summer Reading Group VII

Chapter 6 of Collins and Giberson’s book, “Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controversial?,” unfortunately proved to be terribly misnamed.  There are clearly good reasons why many believers have held grave reservations about the theory of evolution, including the seeming banishment of any divine purpose from natural history and the moral hazards posed by the extension of Darwin’s logic to questions of human origins, nature, and society (an extension begun by Darwin himself in the Descent of Man). When I volunteered to review this chapter I had hoped from its title to discover what the authors have to say about these problems associated with “strict” or “ultra” Darwinism, ones that have been vigorously critiqued by other theistic evolutionists or process creationists.  Instead, I found myself trying to make sense of a somewhat disjointed series of notes divided into three parts:

  1. a historical account of how Seventh-day Adventists largely inspired modern day creationism;
  2. discussion of whether or not the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolutionary theory;
  3. discussion of whether or not purely naturalistic causes are capable of producing life.

In reverse order, in response to the question of the origins of life, the authors note that no adequate scientific hypothesis has yet been found despite some intriguing speculative theories, but they caution against leaping to a “God of the gaps” explanation since a convincing and even testable scientific account might appear within the next 50 years.  Believers should not “wager their faith” on scientific mysteries, they declare, nor should they think of God as a kind of supernatural Cosmic Engineer jumpstarting the process of evolution.  It is far better to accept that “God’s sustaining creative presence undergirds all of life’s history from the beginning to the present.”  There is no radical break, in this way of thinking, between God’s ongoing or continuous creation moment by moment, in and through observable processes of birth and change, and his creation in the beginning.  It is all part of a single unfolding divine act.

In response to the question of the second law of thermodynamics, Giberson and Collins point out that the law has frequently been misstated or misunderstood by creationists.  According to the law, the disorder or “entropy” of a closed system is bound to increase over time.  Cars turn to rust.  Rust never spontaneously organizes itself into a car.  Evolution appears to be the opposite of entropy, with life forms growing more diverse, complex, and ordered through time rather than winding down.  Some believers have thus asserted that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.  The authors convincingly dispense with this argument, however, by pointing out that it is based upon faulty logic and a poor grasp of what the law actually states.  While the total order in the universe might indeed be decreasing, what is true of an entire system does not necessarily apply to any of its particular parts at any particular time.  The earth is not a closed system and as long as it is receiving energy inputs from the sun, the formation of complex molecules is possible without any violation of the law of entropy.

Most interesting for many readers on this site, however, will be Giberson and Collins’ discussion of the historical sources of creationism.  Darwin’s Origin of Species was at first welcomed by conservative Christians, many of whom had long accepted the idea of organic evolution.  His theory soon raised concern among these believers, however, not for its evolutionism but rather for its seeming implication—aggressively championed by many of Darwin’s supporters—that species might have evolved through a process that was “undirected, purposeless and, by implication, without meaning.”  Still, at the end of the 19th century, virtually “nobody was arguing directly in favor of a young earth with an age of less than ten thousand years.” 

Princeton theologian and biblical inerrantist B. B. Warfield declared there was nothing in Genesis that “need be opposed to evolution.”  Even the founders of “fundamentalism” were friendly to evolutionary ideas.  In his commentary on evolution written for the The Fundamentals (1910-1915) George Wright endorsed a day-age theory of creation, placing no emphasis on Noah’s flood to explain geological data.  “Enthusiasm for [young earth creationism and flood geology],” Giberson and Collins claim, “was largely confined to the Seventh-day Adventists, who followed the writings of their founder Ellen G. White, considered a prophet by the Adventists.”  They continue:

In one passage, White described a vision she had of the creation of the earth.  In another vision God revealed to her that Noah’s flood produced the fossil record.  Early Adventists could thus reconcile the geological data found in the early nineteenth century with a literal reading of the flood story of Genesis 6-8, by assuming that Noah’s flood did all the work.  White’s vision was destined to grow dramatically in its influence, however, as it was embraced first by rank and file fundamentalists and then by most evangelicals.

White’s visions were given scientific form by “a self-taught but quite convincing amateur geologist named George MacCready Price,” whose now thoroughly discredited ideas about geology were used by William Jennings Bryan in the (in)famous Scopes “Monkey Trial.”  They later inspired Whitcomb and Morris’s highly influential 1960s book, The Genesis Flood, which by the 1970s had captured the imaginations of millions of evangelicals in America and led to the rise of organizations like Answers in Genesis and The Institute for Creation Research.  The word “creationism had been reduced and redefined to encompass a set of ideas that included elements from Ellen White’s visions,” Giberson and Collins lament.  Challengers to Darwin’s theory “have now acquired the upper hand in many parts of the United States.”

A number of questions arose to my mind from this reading, some of which I would like to ask the authors, but many more of which I think Adventists need to ask themselves.  I will simply pose one, which requires a somewhat lengthy introduction.

A Question of Principles for Adventists

Many Adventists have appealed to Ellen White’s visions as the final trump card against any view of origins other than young earth creationism.  However, for the vast majority of Christians it is clear that this is a dubious appeal to extra-biblical authority that weakens rather than strengthens the creationist position and places Adventists well outside of the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura.  Giberson and Collins focus attention on White because they want to show other conservative Christians that their beliefs about creation have a historical genealogy that is not based upon Scripture alone but upon a very distinctive tradition.  For anyone other than already committed “historic” Adventists, citing Ellen White makes literalism less convincing rather than more.  Adventists claim to follow Scripture alone as their guide to doctrinal truth yet cannot deny the strong role played by White in shaping as well as constraining the theological horizons of the Adventist community.  Indeed, at times it appears as though biblical interpretations are offered not in order to uphold the authority of Scripture so much as the authority of White as the foundation of Adventist identity and Adventist belief.  Adventists often reason in circles about the relationship between White and the Bible: Her words must be tested using Scripture—but Scripture must itself be interpreted in conformity with White’s words.

We must observe, though, that many highly conservative Adventists today have, in fact, quietly abandoned White’s chronology, even as they vigorously criticize others for not following White’s plain words.  White made dozens of statements (by my count possibly more than a hundred expressed in a variety of ways) about the age of the earth being approximately 6,000 years old.  And in their original 1988 constitution, the Adventist Theological Society (ATS) required that all members affirm this belief.  Article 3, Sec.2, Point D of the 1988 document reads as follows:

The Society affirms the literal reading and meaning of Genesis 1-11 as an objective, factual account of earth’s origin and early history; that the world was created in six literal, consecutive, contiguous 24-hour days; that the earth was subsequently devastated by a literal global flood, and that the time elapsed since creation week is to be measured in terms of a short chronology of ‘about 6,000 years.’

But if one visits the ATS website today one finds that the language of the article has been changed.  Instead of requiring members to affirm belief in a chronology of “about 6,000 years” as Ellen White declared, the document now states that ATS members must accept a chronology of “a few thousand years.”  Gone are the quotation marks indicating White as the source of ATS views. 

I therefore recently wrote to the ATS explaining that I was preparing an article and asking for clarification on what a maximum acceptable range for “a few thousand years” for the ATS might be.  President Stephen Bauer generously responded to my note, writing “I would venture to guess that few [ATS members] would push the limit past 20,000 years and I think most would cap things in the 10-15 thousand year range.”  While some ATS members believe the creation occurred in its entirety in six days in the recent past, Bauer continued, others distinguish between the creation in Genesis and the creation of “non-living material structures” such as water and rocks in an “initial event [that] could be much older.”  “We want to leave openness for scholarly discussion in a non-judgmental atmosphere,” Bauer explained, “while affirming a short chronology, especially for life forms.”

It is hard to know what to make of this candid statement in light of the most traditional Adventist beliefs concerning Ellen White’s authority and the age of the earth.  White's most widely quoted “I was shown” statement about the literalness of Genesis was first published in 1864 (in Spiritual Gifts, Volume 3, p.92).  In it, she declares that she was “carried back to the creation” and saw that it unfolded exactly as a plain reading of Genesis would suggest.  She goes on to warn of the dangers of “infidel geology,” which she was “shown…can prove nothing” apart from Scripture. 

Yet the “infidel geologists” White referred to are, remarkably, not those who believe in a world millions or even hundreds of thousands of years old, as many scientists of her day already accepted.  Rather, “infidel geologists,” according to White, are those who believe that “the world has existed tens of thousands of years” and who question “that the world is now only about six thousand years old”—a seemingly stern warning to ATS members who allow for an earth, with or without life, anywhere from 12,000 to as much as 20,000 years old.  What is more, White makes clear, quoting directly from Scripture, the creation of “the heavens and of the earth” in their entirety—not organic life alone—occurred in six literal days.  Why, then, are even highly conservative Adventist scholars today willing to limit the days of Genesis to the creation of life and to double or triple the age of the earth beyond White’s plain words about what she saw in vision?

The answer, I would venture, is new scientific evidence.

In 1980, ATS co-founder Gerhard Hasel argued in an article in the journal Origins that Noah's flood can be dated, at most, to about 3400 BCE based on biblical chronologies in the Septuagint, though he doesn't rule out the traditional Masoritic text which would give us a flood date close to Usher’s, i.e., 2400 BCE. “[W]henever biblical information impinges on matters of history, age of the earth, origins, etc.,” Hasel asserts, “the data observed must be interpreted and reconstructed in view of this superior divine revelation which is supremely embodied in the Bible.”

Hasel’s statement is entirely consistent with the “plain” reading approach set forth by White in her 1864 warnings against “infidel geologists.”  “Relics found in the earth do give evidence of a state of things differing in many respects from the present,” White wrote, “But the time of their existence, and how long a period these things have been in the earth, are only to be understood by Bible history.” Farewell infidel radiocarbon dating.  Farewell infidel tree ring counting.

Based on these principles, White made repeated references to Noah’s flood being approximately 2,000 years after Adam’s fall and 2,000 years before Christ.  Yet the overwhelming weight of historical, scientific, and archeological evidence indicates that the first pyramids of Egypt were already built in 2400 BCE.  A well-preserved leather shoe discovered in a cave in Armenia, laces intact, has been dated to approximately 3500 BCE.  By 5000 BCE, archeologists agree, there was already a highly developed Neolithic Chinese culture that left behind exquisite pottery.  There is compelling evidence, archeologists tell us, of settled communities in the Near East as early as 7000 BCE.  Tools dating to approximately 10,000 BCE have been found in Texas and other parts of the Americas.

Following White’s statements about biblical chronology and the “infidelity” of questioning “that the world is now only about six thousand years old,” all of these findings must now somehow be dated to after approximately 2400 BCE—unless creationists assert that the catastrophic global upheaval of Noah’s flood that is said to have divided the continents and carved the Grand Canyon also left behind exquisite pottery in China and unburied leather shoes in Armenian caves.

Southern Adventist University, however, no longer accepts White’s statements on biblical chronology as authoritative.  The University reports on its website that it possesses in its Lynn H. Wood Archeology Museum early Bronze Age artifacts dating from 3200 BC and the “dawn of urbanism” in the Near East.  Following the most generous stretching of the biblical timeframe permitted by Hasel, this would mean SAU has in its possession the oldest human artifacts in existence (and that there are no earlier archeological periods than the Bronze Age).  Following Ellen White’s chronology and flood dating, this would mean SAU has in its possession pre-flood artifacts.

It is very hard not to conclude that the Biblical chronologies and genealogies have been stretched or relaxed or very loosely interpreted by ATS members and other conservative Adventists not as a result of any new evidence internal to Scripture itself but rather from a strong desire to ease the scientific and archeological difficulties of following Scripture and Ellen White at their plain words.

If this surmise is correct, the question one is left with is: if it is acceptable for even ATS members to now disregard or historically contextualize White’s statements about the creation occurring “about 6,000 years ago,” and if the quiet abandonment of these traditional and historic Adventist beliefs has been motivated by concerns about evidences outside of the Biblical text rather than any new discoveries within it, then are the epistemologies of conservative or “historic” Adventists really so different from that Giberson and Collins, after all?  And if it is the case that one can be a card-carrying “conservative” Adventist who modifies one’s readings of Scripture and of Ellen White to better accommodate the weight of historical and archeological evidence, is there any clear hermeneutical reason why Adventists should not be open to the weight of geological and biological evidence as well?

—Ron Osborn is a third generation Adventist missionary kid and a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California.

This is the seventh essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? The second. The third. The forth. The fifth. The sixth.

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