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Adventist Theological Society – Origins and Biblical Authority

I thoroughly enjoyed the "Creation, Evolution and Biblical Authority" seminar sponsored by the Adventist Theological Society (ATS), presented at Southwestern Adventist University, Keene, Texas, April 15-17. Over two and half days, sixteen papers were presented. Each presentation will be available at the ATS website.

Eric Anderson, President of Southwestern, welcomed the group, reminding us that Adventists are not a “cult” but a body of Christian believers with roots extending to the first century AD. Adventists are grounded in the beliefs of a risen Christ, the second coming of Jesus and the “peace, prayer, and good fellowship” of the Sabbath – initiated at creation.

Before giving a synopsis of several papers, a weakness of the seminar was the conspicuous absence of a paper giving the strengths of competing Genesis creation models. For example, why would Christian and scientist Francis Collins, MD, past head of the Genome Project, now head of the National Institutions of Health, and author of The Language of God, believe in Theistic Evolution? Or why would astrophysicist and Christian Hugh Ross, author of More than a Theory, believe in a Genesis creation model where God intervenes in special creative acts at specific time points over millions of years instead of seven literal days? The allegorical, metaphorical and symbolic interpretations of Genesis 1-11 were criticized during the seminar without those competing interpretations ever being reviewed.

It will not be good enough for Adventist colleges to teach students “what to think;" college students need to learn “how to think" critically. Graduating students who simply regurgitate Adventist doctrine will not be as satisfying as graduating students with skills necessary to critically analyze scripture in a market place of competing ideas – the ability for critical inquiry also makes Bible study and faith an exciting and life long journey.

The ATS scholars presented many sound arguments in favor of a literal seven day creation week; however, for students later to be surprised with competing creation models without the tools to dissect their strengths and weaknesses could result in disaffection.

John Peckham began the weekend with "Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community to Determine the Canon." In it he defended God's ultimate role in establishing the 66 books of the Bible. If that is the case then the ultimate interpretation of scripture also resides within God. No religious institution or community will have all the theological answers. Religious communities must humbly come before God with room for revision and open dialogue as they interpret scripture.

Michael Campbell presented a "Historical Overview of Adventist Views on Creation Science (1844-1948)." This paper reviewed the writings of early Adventist leaders; leaders, who mostly expounded a literal 7 day creation story of the "entire" universe 6000 years ago. However, it was interesting to later learn a seven day literal creation of the "entire" universe and planet earth, 6000 years ago, is not generally taught at Andrews University Theological Seminary or believed by many ATS members or supported by several of Ellen White statements.

Creation day one in Genesis 1:1-5 does not give the age of the universe or planet earth. There could be a considerable "time gap” between the creation of the universe and planet earth – which was an empty desolate wasteland (tohu and bohu) – on the first day of creation and the six following creation days needed to create an appropriate ecosystem for plant life, human life and the Sabbath, believed by literal Genesis creationists, to occur thousands of years ago in six literal days.

It would go a long way if the Adventist global church conceded this time gap. Such a concession would also parallel Edwin Hubble's “red shift” discovery and now the Hubble Space telescope observations that the universe is expanding and galaxies and pre-biotic earth are more than 6,000 years old and probably millions if not billions of years old.

Tim Standish, Ph.D., Geoscience Institute, reviewed "Why Beliefs Matter: Even in a Post Modern World." Standish noted human actions emerge primarily from one's beliefs. If our ideas and beliefs integrate a gracious and forgiving God such beliefs will positively inform our treatment of other humans created in God's image. One area I would have liked expanded was not only a recognition of the importance of beliefs but the importance of how one holds and portrays those beliefs. For example, can Adventists afford to be dogmatic in the public square or can we present our arguments winsomely while equally being passionate Adventists?

As a physician, two of my favorite papers were by molecular biologist Suzanne Phillips, Ph.D., "Compelling Evidence for Design in Nature" and Bernard Brandstater, MD, "The Centrality of Creation in Adventist Thought." Both contended science and biology are becoming religion's greatest allies in supporting special creation and intelligent design. Phillips showed three dimensional videos of DNA replication and other cellular protein machinery all exceeding the precision and function of our most complicated computers and machines. Brandstater reported intelligent design is not only the domain of the religious right but now of atheists. Growing number of atheists and non-believing scientists are now convinced the statistical odds of life spontaneously occurring now exceeds the length of time the universe could have existed. Atheists are now employing theories of panspermia where microbial life came from other places in the universe – of course that begs the question of how did that life arise? Darwinian natural selection is being challenged on all fronts from Antony Flew’s – There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind to geneticist Dr. John Sanford’s Genome Entropy who rules out Darwin’s natural or random selection as a viable mechanism for speciation and evolution. Adventists should be trumpeting the complexities of nature discovered in the last 15 years, “it is time to leave defeatism behind and switch to bold proclamation.”

Ed Zinke in “Why Doctrine? Creation and the Doctrine of Salvation” and Dr. Stephen Bauer's, “Why Creation Matters”, both emphasized the strengths of a literal six day creation model verses theistic evolution. For example, if ethics and morality developed over eons of time how could there be the fall, and without the fall, why would humans need a savior? If God did not create with specific design, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? If God creates over eons of time how can God be personal and immanent and would God’s Seventh-day Sabbath rest still have personal meaning? What do you do with Paul’s statement that death came into the world after Adam and Eve sinned, if evolution and death were present for millions of years before Adam and Eve were created? What do you do with Jesus’ affirmation of the creation story and Noah? Zinke and Bauer emphasized what is at stake is not only the creation account, but the "integrity and authority of the whole bible, even the words of Jesus himself." They contended, the further you go away from the literal Genesis creation story the more theological problems arise.

A good piece of detective work was Lucinda Spencer, MD, “Evolution, Spiritualism and the Authority of Scripture.” Spontaneous creation of nature from nature, self-deification and the belief in the immortality of the soul are as old as the mystery religions of ancient Egypt and Greece – many of those beliefs later found their way into Freemasonry. Such beliefs are also as old as the serpent's temptation in the Garden of Eden – for humans and nature to become as Gods with eternal life. Dr. Spencer presented the writings and religious philosophy of Freemason Erasmus Darwin, Grandfather of Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin’s early speculation about spontaneous evolution appeared heavily influenced by his Freemason's beliefs. It appears Charles Darwin took the ancient story of spontaneous generation of life from nature and cast it in scientific terms. I noted, in the question and answer time, one needs to look no further than Dan Brown’s recent novel, The Lost Symbol, to see a similar syncretistic blend of the ancient mystery religions, Freemasonry, self-deification, and the immortality of the soul as Robert Langdon tracks down the meaning of the lost Masonic pyramidal capstone.

The weekend ended with the Saxon Lecture Series in Science and Religion by retired Adventist biologist Earl Aagaard, Ph.D., who presented ‘Why there is No Battle Between “Creation” and “Evolution”.’ The real battle is between creation and Darwinian materialism or naturalism. Aagaard noted most Adventists believe in a form of evolution called “micro-evolution” where empirical or experimental science has demonstrated progressive variation or evolution within species. For example, we agree with Darwin's conclusions about micro-evolution or the progressive variations within finch species found on the Galapagos Islands.

However, Aargaard pointed out the mechanism for “macro-evolution” or spontaneous generation of life from molecules has never been demonstrated with empirical or experimental evidence. Both creation and macro-evolution lie within the realm of “historical science”. Historical science being defined as a theory or story built around a series of observed facts or data, such as the presence of biological life with similar building blocks of DNA and proteins. Put differently, both macro-evolution and creation are statements of faith. Both macro-evolution and creation are religions. We have incorrectly allowed creation to be viewed as religion and macro-evolution to be viewed as science. What we really have is a church of Darwinism where nature is God and a church of creation where God is God.

Being retired emboldens Adventist's professors. Aagaard bluntly stated there are significant problems in the geological column that are unexplainable with a literal seven day creation week and global flood – just as the geological column presents problems for Darwinian naturalists. We should be able to tell our college students, "We do not know." Even though Aagaard would prefer theistic evolutionists not teach in Adventist schools, our battle is primarily not with theistic evolutionists [such as Francis Collins], our real battle is with Darwinian materialists or naturalists where God is absent at any point in cosmic history.

As with any seminar some of the best conversations and dialogue occurred after the lectures in fellowship around food. There I found ATS is not a monolithic group of Adventist Christians of singular thought. Lively discussion was had over a variety of topics, with contrasting opinions, including women’s ordination. I look forward to studying and worshiping with ATS members again, members who are committed to embodying the word and Spirit of Jesus Christ.


Ron Reece is a physician and fourth generation Adventist, recently completing a Diploma of Christian Studies at Regent College, British Columbia. Ron's "Twenty-first Century Challenges to God in His Created Cosmos" was recently printed in Spectrum.

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