Re-Creating the Debate: A Reply to Goldstein

In the March 15, 2012 issue of the Adventist Review, Clifford Goldstein argues that opponents of Young Earth Creationism are resorting to “false” tactics in an attempt to “change the debate”. He says that “[t]hose fighting Darwinism as a viable interpretation of Genesis are now deemed as narrow, parochial, and closed-minded.” This change according to Goldstein is from a debate of substance to one of psychobiography, of the “If-you-don’t-agree-with-me-something-is-wrong-with-you” type. The article is redolent of the same acidic remarks we have seen from Goldstein in the past which have always been jarring to me as a creationist.

A False Sense of Purity

Goldstein contends that the tension between YEC and progressives is due to an “attempt to incorporate a radically alien theology into Adventism.” I believe his objection arises out of the notion that Adventism is presently absolutely pure in terms of doctrine; conversely, doctrinal purity is crucial for the survival of Adventism. I do not find that conclusion compelling. Historically, absolute doctrinal purity is not the mark of successful Christian movements. Without the error of predestination, we could all be in Pelagius’s salvation by works camp today. The Protestant Reformation was plagued by what Adventists would call “heresies” and “alien theologies”. And yet we could scarcely envision Christianity without those “heretical” reformers.

By allowing diverse readings and more room for inquisitive minds, I’m not defending “alien theologies” necessarily. On the other hand, one will be hard pressed to describe Adventists as monolithic in their doctrinal positions. I can think of at least a couple of “alien theologies” believed by millions of Adventists. Ever heard of perfectionism and last generation theology? Yeah, it’s not part of the “official” theology but is “alien” to the Gospel as can be, in my opinion. (This is especially true of at least one certain southern Division where a large segment of the church still believes in perfectionism, probably due to recent fundamentalist theological leadership.)

Honestly, I’m troubled by the dogged defense of Creationism, which seems more preoccupied with protecting our own “shtick”, i.e., the Sabbath, than keeping the debate God-centered. We’ve made it all about “us”. While we are barking up this tree, other “alien theologies” continue to fester and, alas, be published by Adventist publishing houses [1]. Why are those alien theologies in matters of soteriology less strange than divergent views on Genesis and Creation? Why don’t get our big guns whenever the ‘alien theology’ of perfectionism rears its ugly head in our midst? Is perfectionism more socially desirable than theistic evolution? Is a correct understanding of the Gospel less important than absolute unanimity of opinion on how God accomplished creation? What is wrong with that picture?

Scripture is Science?

Goldstein continues: Meanwhile, I often hear the argument that Genesis was never meant to be a “scientific” explanation of origins. Who says? Maybe Genesis 1 and 2 are so scientific that science hasn’t caught up yet. I do not find this argument convincing. Germane to this issue is the question: Did the original readers of the Hebrew Scriptures read Genesis as a “scientific” work (whatever they understood as “science”)? I don’t think so. A scientific explanation should have been framed in scientific terms and be understood as such by the original readers of Genesis, not by us. Creationists will not get very far by trying to make the Bible what it’s not, a scientific compendium. Neither do I believe we should swing to the other extreme and start allegorizing everything in it.

Ellen White offers a helpful solution to this question when she says that the Bible “was given for practical purposes” (1 SM 20). So I suggest that “science” is not what we find in Genesis, or in any part of Scriptures for that matter. In Genesis, God said, “Let there be light” and I accept that as a theological statement, because God as Creator is at the center of the statement, not light itself. (Just as the statement “My newborn daughter looks just like me!” is not a statement on biology or genetics, it’s centered on paternal love.) There’s no attempt in Genesis to describe the mass of protons or how the speed of light is important for the maintenance of the earthly and cosmic orders. The statement “Let there be light” is laconic for a reason and, as far as I’m concerned, needs to be taken at face value.

Despite the clear need to fill in the gaps in Genesis with pure faith, I find it puzzling that my fellow Creationists always need to have the latest “scientific” argument for Creation and intelligent design. (Yes, evidences are important, but they’re more like icing on the ‘cake of faith’). But that’s not how the Bible approaches Creation. The author of Hebrews places the confidence on a Creator God on “faith”, not evidence: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Heb 11:3). Perhaps a much-needed change in the debate would be to discuss how pure, raw faith impacts our worldview?

On Death

Even though by nature I’m open to novel ideas, I find very problematic the view that death occured for millions of years before God intervened. Thus, I concur with many Adventist theologians that such a view necessitates rewriting pivotal statements of Scriptures. We pay a high theological price if we accept that the relationship between sin and death is more tenuous than Scriptures clearly make it (Rom 5:12; 6:23). Worse, the meaning of the cross of Christ is obliterated if death is not so bad after all, or was even instrumental in God’s creative process.  I’d rather keep the importance of the death of Christ in my spiritual life as the emblem of freedom from death than replace it with the exact meaning of the death of dinosaurs. Is this a simplistic statement? Yes. Is it academically unappealing? Yes. Is it scientifically daft? Probably. Is this the emphasis God would have Christians place on the meaning of life? I think so. So I agree with Goldstein that Theistic Evolution is an oxymoron, if there ever was one.

At the same time, I don’t believe that being overly confident on precisely how God accomplished creation is a productive, tenable approach. Genesis 1 is beautiful and forceful in its Hebrew simplicity and characteristic frugality of words. Thus, I see a certain presumption in both the fundamentalist camp, which attempts to add to it (“contiguous days”) and the progressive, which attempts to diminish it (“It’s all a metaphor.”) Indeed, humility and less assertiveness on how we think God created would be an even more crucial change in the debate.

A Poor Tone

I disagree with Goldstein’s trenchant apologetic style and find his impatient, sarcastic tone unattractive and counterproductive. Moreover, he seems to suffer from a tendency to spell out every sine qua non of his position before people have a chance to digest his argument. That can only lead to antagonistic encounters with people who may disagree with his reading, but who might have been attracted to it were it not so “stiff”. I call on creationists everywhere to rethink this approach. Let’s not turn creationism into a silver bullet to be shot at our opponent’s heart. We can accomplish more for our cause if we show the same equanimity that the Creator displayed in pacing his creative efforts in 7 days, not one!

Living in the South, I’m often confronted with the bumper-sticker theology of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. Though it may sound pious, this ubiquitous aphorism does not work well in Christian relations and it is much less conducive to conviviality in academic circles. My confidence in the biblical record should not signal the end of the debate, it should help initiate and direct it. Granted, questioning the authority of the Genesis as a historical record may stand as the Rubicon for theistic evolutionists, but I still believe collegial debate is possible and should be pursued.

Goldstein characterizes his opponents’ opinions as “laughable”. This is hardly the best way to promote dialogue in such a volatile climate. Even though I cannot possibly agree with the Theistic Evolution present in some Adventist academic circles, I have learned to allow people to express their doubts (some of which could be extreme from my standpoint) and raise questions. That is a major progress for someone like me reared in the fundamentalist Adventism of Brazil in 80’s and 90’s. Accepting questions and the expression of doubt by people who are searching for truth but who do not think as I do has helped me respect divergent views and has fostered humility in my approach to theology. I think that is the best way to value unity in diversity.

I believe the way out of this whirlpool is for Adventist creationists to continue to focus on the positive terms of our belief in Creation. Negative political ads are based on the tried and true principle that if your opponent has to constantly explain him/herself, they’re losing. The same is true of theological debates; if creationists keep focusing on how wrong the other side is to think that “we” are wrong, we are playing on the negative and we’re losing. Defensiveness always distracts from the issues and places the spotlight on how “silly” we look. It gets personal. Straw men work so well as distractions because they always frame the debate by an opponent’s distorted view of the other’s. We should be framing Creationism in its positive light instead of allowing our opponents to frame it for us.

Groupthink as Defense?

I understand I may be opening a can of worms by jumping into the debate with little time and space to articulate a viable approach for Creationism apologetics. But I can live with the notion that we will not all agree. I think the only solution for our disagreements is not an abstract scientific fact, it is a person, however pedestrian and formulaic this may sound to rationalistic minds. Ultimately, I find security in the fact that we’re not saved by how much we know, but by whom we know, Jesus Christ and him crucified. So I suggest we change the theological debate from a pseudo-scientific one to a discussion framed by cross of Christ.

Goldstein ends his article saying: “My narrow view of Genesis? Yeah, right. Mine and millions of other Seventh-day Adventists as well.”

This statement is emblematic of the groupthink mentality which plagues the debate. The argument of the “majority” would be a good one, were it not based on a fallacy. Just because “millions of other Seventh-day Adventists” believe something, does not make it correct or desirable necessarily. And being an Adventist does not require that I subscribe to every “Adventist” worldview out there.

The notion that we should all agree in every single point of Scripture is not realistic. Here again Ellen White is helpful:

“If a man makes a mistake in his interpretation of some portion of the Scripture, shall this cause diversity and disunion? God forbid. We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light. The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement.” (MR 11, 266).

I urge you to read the whole context of the passage, it’s a gem, and a surprising one coming from the rigid Ellen White some of us have created. No matter on which side of the debate one may be we do not have all the answers and we all need to be more humble, more understanding of people’s journeys, be they fundamentalists or progressives. The challenge moving forward will be, of course, maintaining a firm credo while allowing divergent readings, preferably those which stay within the “cross” framework.

As a creationist myself, I do not think that the chest-thumping, self-assertive way Goldstein and others like to express their position on Creationism is the way forward. Indeed, changing the debate would not be a bad idea for Goldstein himself. If he’s out to simply win arguments, I’m turned off. As a staunch believer I’d like to have Goldstein in my camp, but at this juncture, I’m afraid he does not speak for this creationist.

—André Reis has a B.A. in Theology from the Adventist University in São Paulo, Brazil, an M.A. in Music from Longy School of Music and is currently pursuing a PhD in New Testament. He is a member of the Florida Hospital SDA Church where he is active in the music ministry.

[1] Cf. Herbert Douglass, Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Message Explains the Delay in the Second Coming (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2002).

 

 





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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