Seven Considerations for Productive Conversation About the History of Life on Planet Earth

This was first published here in 2009. I'm republishing Fritz Guy's thoughts in light of the discussions this week at the Adventist Forum Conference. The comments include posts from Charles Scriven and David Larson. -Alexander Carpenter

1. Science education at Adventist universities is called to be truly university-quality education, not indoctrination. This means that students must be taught:

(a) to know and understand the most important current scientific theories;
(b) to think for them¬selves, considering evidence and coming to their own conclusions;
(c) to recognize the possibility of better understandings of both God and nature;
(d) to respect differing views and the people who advocate them.

Persons who have not had the benefit of this kind of education are at a major disadvantage in the conversation about the history of life on Earth, because they are often not aware of the scientific data, and thus have no adequate basis on which to evaluate the relevant evidence.

2. The present conversation is not about the reality of God, or about God’s involvement in the history of life on Earth. So the old dichotomy, “God or evolution?” is not valid, and the opinions of militant atheists (such as Richard Dawkins) on this point are completely irrelevant.

3. For the conversation to be productive, four issues must be clearly differentiated:

(a) probable age of life on Earth;
(b) apparent changes in forms of life on Earth;
(c) known mechanisms of “micro-evolutionary” changes in nature and genetic engineering;
(d) adequacy of “micro-evolutionary” changes to account for “macro-evolutionary” changes.

The resolution of one or more of these issues does not necessarily determine the best resolution of another. For example, regarding the above items, (a) plus (b) plus (c) does not equal (d); on the other hand the negation of (d) does not equal the negation of (a), (b), or (c).

4. As is the case with many other topics (vegetarianism, miracles, same-sex marriage, military service, etc.), there is no single “Seventh-day Adventist Church position” regarding the history of life on Earth. Individual Adventists —scientists, theologians, pastors, and others— hold widely differing views regarding the age of the universe, of the planet Earth, and of life on Earth. The only “official position” of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is stated in Fundamental Belief #6, where the language is deliberately Biblical, and broad enough to accommodate various views about Earth’s natural history. Indeed, it was just this breadth that motivated an unsuccessful effort (at the International Conference on Faith and Science in Denver in 2004) toward a more restrictive statement, specifying “literal 24-hour, consecutive, contiguous days.” [It did not pass.]

5. The historic Adventist openness to theological development is substantiated by several considerations. For one thing, the founders of Adventism could not be members of the church today if they had to accept the current statement of Fundamental Beliefs (see George Knight, A Search for Identity, p. 1). For another thing, Ellen White insisted, “There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 35). For a third thing, the preamble to the current statement of Fundamental Beliefs observes, “Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God's Holy Word.”

6. In the past 50 years the scholarly Seventh-day Adventist consensus about the age of the universe has changed significantly—from approximately 6,000 years to 13.7 billion years, in spite of Ellen White statements to the contrary (see, for example, Education, p. 128). Some Adventist theologians insert 13.7 billion years between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, in spite of the evident reading of Scripture (Genesis 2:1-4a; Exodus 20:11a, 31:17).

7. Everyone needs to acknowledge that every reading of Scripture is an interpretation, that a literal interpretation is nevertheless an interpretation, and that no interpretation is self-evidently the “true” one. A literal interpretation needs to be justified as much as any other interpretation. An interpretation of Scripture that accommodates widely recognized empirical data is preferable to one that doesn’t—which explains why most educated Seventh-day Adventists believe, in spite of the actual Hebrew text of Genesis 1, that Earth goes around the sun, that the sun existed before Earth, and that the earth is not covered by a solid dome.
The ongoing Adventist conversation about the history of life on Earth will be productive to the extent that these and similar considerations are taken seriously.

A former asst. editor at the Youth's Instructor, Fritz Guy is Research Professor for Philosophical Theology at La Sierra University. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith.

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Sat, 05/10/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Monique Vincent, PhD candidate, University of Chicago

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