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The Flood and Fundamental Belief #6 (part 2 of 2)


(This article is the second in a two-part series, based on a lecture and discussion presented by Gerald Bryant at the Adventist Forum meeting in New York on January 10, 2015. It enlarges upon the six points culminating the morning lecture (first article) and is loosely based upon the afternoon discussion – editor)

1. The initiative to “clarify” FB6 has been characterized by exclusivity. I have already provided examples of this in my comments on the organization and tone of the St. George conference, drawn from primary sources. Others are better qualified to give a more complete report and I do not wish to make this the focus of our discussions, today. Nevertheless, I believe that the political manipulations associated with this doctrinal initiative should be cause for concern. They are for me. I should note that this is not a program of Ted Wilson’s design and solo execution. There is a large faction of thought leaders and private donors who set the stage for Elder Wilson’s pronouncements and, I suppose, the majority of church members around the world favor their views. I believe, however, that the conventional wisdom of our membership suffers from lack of exposure to alternate views regarding the proper role of faith in developing knowledge and, more specifically, the scientific value of the Flood hypothesis. That is why I have gone out of my way to come speak to you in New York, this Sabbath.

2. The “global” concept is extra-Biblical. “Global” is not Biblical terminology. Rather, it invokes the modern scientific construct of the Earth as a planetary sphere. In other words, it represents the transcription of Biblical statements into a foreign, anachronistic, cultural context. By this, I do not mean that the Bible is unscientific. It contains some wonderful descriptive passages providing exquisite insights into the natural order. A careful review of the observations presented in the book of Job (36:27-29), for example, could have usefully complemented Leonardo Da Vinci’s pioneering attempts to model Earth’s hydrologic cycle after the circulation of the human body. But the Biblical insights are consistently framed in a context of observable features and dynamics, like the rising and setting of the sun and the arc of the horizon on the ocean’s expanse. It is a phenomenological perspective, not a theoretical one. This is uniquely appropriate for these sacred writings because theoretical perspectives are inextricably linked to culture, whereas observational perspectives remain more accessible across cultures and through generations. We should not be disappointed, for example, to discover that the constellations referred to in the book of Job (chapters 9 and 38) are not physical subunits of our galaxy and can only be constructed from an observational perspective on Earth. God’s questioning of Job (chapter 38) references these wonders from the perspective of the creature, not the Creator. The only special knowledge this reveals is the capacity of God to share, intimately, the human perspective.

3. The “global Flood” reference validates an unsubstantiated hypothesis.This language conveys a heritage of geological reasoning that has flourished within Adventism since its introduction by George McCready Price, during the first half of the 20th century. Within this school of thought, the Bible is assumed to provide a comprehensive history of life on Earth; so all fossil-bearing rocks must have been produced during the several thousand years implied by the Biblical narrative, primarily during the great flood survived by Noah and his family. The persistent popularity of the global flood concept within Adventism derives from its apparent usefulness as an apologetic device to reconcile the thick sedimentary successions that we observe with a short geochronology, relieving theological tensions induced by evolutionary components of standard geological theory: Earth’s sedimentary and fossil records are the result of a recent, catastrophic, judgment from God, not the product of long ages of suffering and death under His authority.

This Flood concept is a legitimate scientific hypothesis. If it can be substantiated and proves useful in guiding research, opening up new insights into the sedimentary record, then it should compete with mainstream theories – not only in Christian classrooms, but in public schools as well. The problem is that no coherent sedimentological, stratigraphic, and paleontological theories of the Flood exist. This fact is poorly appreciated at all levels of engagement on this issue, within Adventism. Several years ago, a theology professor from Andrews talked to me about his archaeological work, emphasizing that he has never been disappointed in taking the cultural and historical references of the Bible at face value, and recommended that I pursue a similar pathway in my geological investigations. He maintained that the narrative is demonstrably reliable, insofar as can be determined archaeologically, and that he is able to fit all of the evidence for Middle-Eastern culture into a ten-thousand-year history. I was glad to hear this, as it supports my own views regarding the scientific validation of the historical context of the Bible. But I was also taken aback. Relative to the geologic record, archaeological evidence occupies a thin veneer at the top of a very thick pile. I thought of an illustration, used in one of my introductory courses, comparing the record of human history, relative to that of geologic history as a whole, to the height of the Empire State Building. In that analogy, the entire building is the geologic record and the archeological evidence is contained within the paint on top of the pinnacle! Yet, it takes the entire span of time suggested by Biblical references (plus a few thousand years, apparently) to account for the cultural history in one part of the world – and one year should suffice for mere geology?! My friend from Andrews did not invent this distorted perception of the challenges confronting those engaged in the development of a Flood-based model for interpreting the entire record of life on this planet. It is an inherited perspective, originating in the armchair speculations of Price and perpetuated by subsequent iterations of similar hypotheses, introduced by various non-geologists. These have challanged theologically odious interpretations of the fossil record, treating sedimentary processes as a black box that can produce just about anything, given the input of enough energy.

Sedimentology is not a black box. Observations in laboratories and modern natural environments have established that the dynamics of erosion, transport, and sedimentation respond to specific controls in predictable ways, generating products that can be identified in both recent and ancient records. Walk along a stream bank, after the water has subsided from a recent flood, and you will see stranded trains of ripples, diversely distributed deposits of coarse and fine sediments, trapped debris, and animal traces providing clear indications of the extent, force, and timing of the swollen waters. These same types of indicators are found throughout the sedimentary record; though they are generally revealed in cross-section, rather than plan view, necessitating a major adjustment in perspective. Other transformations of perspective are also required of those who wish to analyze this record. Most of our personal observational experience takes place where sediments are being produced, by erosion of the landscape, rather than in areas of net deposition, where sediments accumulate. Thus our conventional wisdom about the production of sedimentary successions may not always serve us well. One of the most persistent problems, even for advanced students, is to distinguish evidence regarding the nature of the original deposits from the more abundant richness of observational detail relating to the modern landscape. And beyond these direct observational challenges, lie the daunting tasks of assimilating fine details, like the products of streambed dynamics, into progressively larger scales of accumulation, each with a comparable degree of internal complexity as well as systematic external relationships, producing a record that is intricately ordered, at all scales.

This process-based order of the sedimentary record implies the passage of time, quite independent of radiometric dating. Physical processes of sedimentation cannot occur instantaneously. Individual particles settle out of fluids at discrete rates, influenced by viscosity, turbulence, particle shape and density. The list of demonstrably sequential (non-simultaneous) sedimentary processes with time implications is much longer than you would care to know, but it includes: rates of fluid flow through various media (groundwater flow and petroleum migration); precipitation rates of chemical sediments and cements; cooling rates of igneous rocks; travel rates and other behavioral specifications of track-making animals, etc.  Even under ideal conditions (which would necessarily include a sequential delivery of materials, since even the textural order in the succession of strata cannot be approximated by merely sending in a single pulse of mixed sediment and letting it settle out at different rates) I estimate that it would take more than a year to deposit the regional succession represented in my own backyard – even without factoring in the time implications of the chemically precipitated sediments. That stack of sedimentary rocks in the Grand Staircase is a few miles thick, no matter how I walk it! If we accept the modeling constraints imposed by the actual architecture of those deposits, time balloons exponentially. Additional time is required to account for the distribution of fossils, which are consistently ordered, but clearly not sorted hydro-dynamically. For example, there is a very detailed fossil record of ammonites (an extinct creature superficially similar to the modern Nautilus), in the succession of strata exposed in Europe, that are distinguished from one interval to the next on the basis of the suture pattern on the shell.

Up to this point, we have not worried about the origin of all the sediment that we are piling up. But when we seek to incorporate the fossils into our time-conservative model, we can no longer avoid the harsh realities of finite source areas. A short chronology lacks the time to let all of the animals live out their lives in successive ecologies, at the same location where they are entombed. So every different assemblage must be brought in from outside the region – but gently enough so that a significant percentage can live to make tracks and other signs. Only those regions not receiving sedimentation can contribute organic content, after the first layer goes down – and each of them, only once. I have seen how this ecological zonation model runs. It is not encouraging.

If we revert to a model unconstrained by modern observations and established theories, we might blur the distinctions between continental and oceanic crust and hypothesize vanished continents to provide the necessary ecological niches and source areas. Of course, then we have to find a way to disregard the abundant evidence for plate tectonic mechanisms governing crustal dynamics and that is not a desirable end for a scientific investigation. Remember, our objective is to simplify, clarify, and illuminate. If, on the other hand, we try to incorporate plate tectonics into our model, we will want to speed up the movements, currently measured at about the rate of fingernail growth. Then we run into other kinds of problems, like establishing plausible rates of heat flow, and accounting for evidence like the sequential development of the Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamounts. That’s a lot of balls to juggle.

Here is the bottom line: there is no consistent theoretical framework for Flood-based interpretations of the geologic record. Some claim that this is because not enough man-hours have been expended on its development and I am happy to give them a high degree of latitude in that regard. However, I am not willing to substitute a potpourri of ad hoc interpretations for a comprehensive theory, a provincial model for a global theory. The fundamental requirements of a useful stratigraphic model must be met: the origin of the sediments, the mechanisms responsible for producing the observed sedimentary architecture and the dynamic that produced the orderly fossil progressions within those deposits. The legitimacy of radiometric dating is a red herring in this discussion. Showing that this or that deposit may have been laid down more rapidly than previous workers had thought, or by water instead of by wind may encourage further investigation, but it does not meet the basic need. Our teachers cannot teach a scientific theory where none exists. Currently, I cannot even find a consistent, clear answer from the Young Earth Creationist camp on when the influence of the Flood is supposed to have  begun and ended in the sedimentary record. This is not an indictment of those working on these problems. It is merely an appeal for restraint in our institutional relationship to this hypothesis.

Here’s an idea. Let’s not give the task of evaluating the Flood hypothesis to academics like me, who tend to resist theoretical innovations. Let’s give it to the minerals and petroleum exploration industries. They like new perspectives that lead to hidden treasures. When Flood theory proves a useful guide to them, let’s start teaching it in our classrooms. I suspect it will be quite a wait.

4. Support for a “global Flood” apologetic derives from an obscure epistemology. Along with my friend at Andrews, most Adventists appear to believe that the Flood hypothesis, for geology, is the same as the historicity hypothesis for Biblical archaeology. That is, both are necessary in order to affirm the truth of Scripture. This is an unfortunate conflation of distinctly different circumstances. Biblical archaeology addresses historical claims made in the Bible. Flood geology addresses theoretical claims made about the Bible. These are modern extrapolations and inferences from an account written for entirely different purposes. By presenting them as essential to our doctrinal foundation, we grant them immunity to falsification within Adventism. From the point of view of Karl Popper’s philosophy, a familiar critique among scientists, this is a classic example of pseudo-science.

Many of those Adventist scientists who do embrace the Flood hypothesis have publicly declared that it is their commitment to our prophetic heritage, not the scientific evidence, which constrains their thinking (personal observation, Glacier View Faith/Science Conference, 2003). That is, it is the only position that they consider can adequately incorporate both the narrative of Scripture and the statements of Ellen White. Evaluation of the appropriateness of that position as a universal standard for our church is an exercise in epistemology that we have not undertaken as a community. Clearly, we do not all agree on how to pursue knowledge, within our human limitations, as informed both by the record of God’s creative acts in nature and that of His nurturing acts in Scripture. That is what we need to discuss. Adding scientific specifications to our doctrines only polarizes the conversation and detracts from our testimony on more important topics.

5. Adventist scholars will be disadvantaged by the new wording. Adventist education is important to me.  My first twelve years of formal education came from church schools in Oregon and California. Then I attended PUC for three years, including a year in France with ACA, before settling on an Earth Science emphasis and completing my undergraduate studies at state universities in Utah. I returned to the Adventist system for a Master’s degree in geology, from LLU and then went on to the University of Toronto for a PhD. My children studied at Andrews, Loma Linda, and Avondale. My wife completed her teacher certification coursework at Walla Walla, and then taught church school in Ogden, Utah. Her subsequent graduate studies led to a Ph.D. in education, followed by administrative and academic assignments at Dixie State University. I, too, teach at DSU and facilitate geological research through its field institute, including two current projects for graduate students at LLU.

In the eyes of conventional scientists, like me, the attachment of a Flood-based interpretation of the geologic record to our doctrinal statement represents the imposition of a pseudo-scientific position on our educational institutions. Adventist students who wish to pursue their advanced science degrees at public universities, as I did, will be limited in their selection of academic institutions and thesis advisors. Adventist scientists employed by the denomination may be severely limited in their range of options for collaboration and perhaps even in the topics open to their investigation and the methods of interpretation at their disposal. In short, this will isolate Adventist science from external influences. Who, besides those with an extraordinarily heroic view of the role of Adventism in the world, can see this as a good thing?

6. This reliance upon dogma to promote and protect faith departs from traditional Adventist values, the practice of the apostolic church, and the consistent example of Christ, as recorded in the gospels. In Jesus’ ministry, I am at a loss to identify any reliance upon doctrinal specifications to promote faith in his hearers. His commission to gospel workers, early in His ministry (Luke 9,10), is not accompanied by doctrinal guidelines, even though it becomes clear, later on in the Biblical narrative, that these disciples were confused in their Messianic expectations and other fundamental aspects of the gospel.

Formulation of a statement of normative practices was a primary topic of concern at the Jerusalem Council of the apostolic church. Paul was enjoined to teach that Gentile converts were not required to keep the ceremonial law of Moses but that they should observe minimal dietary restrictions, including avoidance of foods offered to idols and abstinence from sexual immorality (Acts 15:28,29). Though conforming to this request, Paul left no doubt that this was a matter of minimizing conflict, not constraining belief (I Corinthians 8).

The frustration of early Adventists with denominational dynamics is well documented in their writings. The aversion to dogma long delayed the formulation of an official doctrinal statement, even after formal establishment of a church organization in 1860. This caution has, until recently, remained a hallmark of Adventist thought. The preamble to our current statement of 28 fundamental beliefs upholds the principle of the Bible as our only creed, and the doctrinal statements themselves are presented as descriptive, not prescriptive. The remarks of Adventist pioneer J.N. Loughborough, which appeared in an October 8, 1861 Review and Herald article, are representative of the traditional stance:

“The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

Well, we have already gotten up a creed. Let’s stop there.


Gerald Bryant, PhD, is a sedimentary geologist specializing in ancient dune deposits and associated quicksand features. These studies provide the primary research focus for the diverse programs he is developing as director of the Colorado Plateau Field Institute at Dixie State University.

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