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The Flood, from Biblical Theme to Apologetic Device (part 1 of 2)



On January 10, 2015 Adventist geologist Gerry Bryant (PhD – University of Toronto) spoke to the Greater New York Adventist Forum, in two sessions – morning and afternoon. This article is a written version (not transcript) of his morning talk. Part 2 can be found here. – Editor.

Last summer, Seventh-day Adventist General Conference President, Ted Wilson, reiterated his administration’s intent to revise Fundamental Belief number six, dealing with Creation, paired this initiative with the importance of a “global flood” and presented these teachings as a standard for employment and even membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church:

“If one does not accept the recent six-day creation understanding then that person is actually not a ‘Seventh-day’ Adventist since the seventh-day Sabbath would become absolutely meaningless historically and theologically and most of our Biblically based doctrines centered in Christ and His authoritative voice would become meaningless as well. The person may claim to be an “Adventist,” but in reality without the clear Biblical understanding of the foundational Sabbath doctrine and God’s authority as Creator and Sovereign of the universe, it is really impossible to arrange a meaningful theological construct that would lead to or be acceptable for a belief in a literal second coming of Christ.

 . . . As teachers on the campuses of Seventh-day Adventist academies, colleges and universities, and leaders in God’s church, through God’s power, hold firmly to a literal recent creation and absolutely reject theistic and general evolutionary theory. I call on you to be champions of creation based on the Biblical account and reinforced so explicitly by the Spirit of Prophecy and as voted by the world Seventh-day Adventist Church at the 2010 General Conference Session.
Next year at the 2015 General Conference Session, we will have the opportunity to vote an even clearer wording of Fundamental Belief No. 6 about God’s authoritative voice in creation.
A church employee who teaches theistic or pure evolutionary theory should not even exist in a Seventh-day Adventist school or church pulpit.”   –  August 15, 2014

“When we indicate we are Seventh-day Adventists, we stand for a literal creation and global flood. It cannot be reinterpreted in any other appropriate way.”   – August 24, 2014
(From online editions of Adventist Review)

These announcements were made in my hometown of St George, Utah, at a conference convened to promote a Flood-based model for geology to an international assembly of Adventist educators and administrators. It came as a further development in an initiative that erupted from a multi-year cycle of international Faith/Science Conferences, a broad discussion that was terminated in 2004 when the General Conference Executive Committee, at Annual Council, voted to accept the “Affirmation of Creation” document produced by the organizing committee of those Conferences. This initiative was further advanced by recommendations from the 2010 Annual Council and General Conference sessions. The currently proposed revisions to Fundamental Belief #6 are problematic, in that they may be used to require science teachers to teach a position for which there are no available scientific models. My specific concern in today’s discussion is the propagation of Flood-based hypotheses regarding the geologic record as a supporting argument for the current initiative – and as a substitute for a functional scientific model – and the specter of future revisions embedding this apologetic into SDA doctrine. References to a global flood may seem innocuous enough; but there is an entire epistemological tradition attached to that simple term which we would do well to consider before we embrace these doctrinal innovations.

I am going to spend quite a bit of time today talking about the Biblical Flood and how it is used as an apologetic device within Adventism. I will enumerate several reasons why it is a mistake, in my opinion, to attach this rationale to our doctrinal statement. However, I’d like to start with a positive example of one way in which I do integrate the Flood account into my own belief system. I was invited to speak to you because of my expertise in sedimentary geology, which is the scientific discipline most applicable to the development of a Flood model for Earth history. But before I was a geologist, I was an elder in a small SDA church in Utah, where the elders did most of the preaching. I have since moved to another small church in Utah where the elders also preach. In fact, we are without a pastor right now and it is my responsibility to put together the preaching schedule. I take this job seriously. I don’t preach about geology. I preach about Jesus.

So, what does the Flood have to do with Jesus? 

Looking back on the first few chapters of Genesis, we see that the Flood does not appear as an isolated event, a singularity of judgment. It is part of a development, beginning with the sin of Adam and Eve, where the evil emerging in humanity is mirrored in the loss of those features of the created ecology most prized by an agricultural community. Consider those first two chapters of Genesis from the perspective of a Hebrew slave in Egypt: somebody else planted a garden that provided for every alimentary need and desire of its occupants. No hard labor, no crop failures, no dependence on the vagaries of weather, no water shortages. The sun, moon and stars were luminous calendars, marking blessed cycles of rest and worship, seedtime and harvest, not capricious gods. And the One in charge had not just your survival, or even your comfort, but your pleasure in mind. That was paradise, indeed.

Then, Adam and Eve opted to breach their own fences and suddenly they were confronted with a garden full of weeds. Later, Cain scorned God’s provisions, relying on the produce of his own labors and the might of his arm and lost the advantages of a favored soil. The Flood was the capstone in this development. Consequent to the spread of Cain’s violent arrogance, and the establishment of a more general devotion to evil, the Flood devastated the pleasant places of Earth. Eden was gone, wastelands appeared. Now, the most productive ground was confined to riparian enclaves where man, through engineering genius and hard labor (the kind performed by slaves, like those Hebrews in Egypt), could keep the fields watered and tended. Sin was bad news for everyone. Not just the kind of internal distress that gives you indigestion and robs you of sleep. It was a tangible woe in the Earth. And that appears to have been the point of God’s sequential judgments. The problem of sin was not going to just disappear into the depths of the subconscious, it was going to be dealt with by a motivated population.

Jesus built upon this thematic development in his parable of the sower and the seed, in Matthew 13:1-23. Four types of ground: good soil, the Edenic ideal; weedy soil, the curse of Adam; shallow soil, the curse of Cain; and the unproductive beaten path, the curse of the Flood. Jesus’ lesson plan was reverse engineered: Genesis asserts that these agricultural woes entered human experience because of sin, Jesus claimed that their diverse impediments represent the devastations of sin in every soul. Like Adam and Eve, we are too easily confused in our priorities. Like Cain, we want God’s approval, but on our own terms. Like the antediluvian world as a whole, we become hardened to the entreaties of the Spirit. We are prone to arrogance and lives devoid of charity. The kingdom of God seems ever more distant and obscure as we pursue self-centered interests.
This parable is not just an appeal for self-awareness, it is a statement of intent. Jesus is the farmer, the one trying to plant his word in a productive place in your life. He wants to overcome the challenges presented by your indifference, the shallowness of your spiritual experience, and the distractions of your competing priorities. For me, these stated priorities of Jesus’ ministry illuminate some of the most doctrinally difficult gospel passages. Let me illustrate by looking in some detail at Jesus’ teachings recorded in John 6.

Jesus caught the interest of those distracted by the cares and enticements of the world (thorns and thistles) by making bold, challenging statements to arrest their attention. He ministered to those of shallow commitment (rocky soil) by requiring a decision. He addressed the deep needs of the slow of heart (beaten path) by stimulating their understanding through metaphor and riddles – many of which were very long-developing, as in the case of Nicodemus (John 3).

If my own experience is any measure of yours, then this is the first time that you have heard an Adventist present the Flood in this way. Why is that? Has no one else thought of this before? I doubt that, because my own thinking along these lines, as a young man, was stimulated by reading Patriarchs and Prophets, Desire of Ages, and Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing. I am sure there are plenty of Adventist preachers with those same books in their library. Perhaps we tend to ignore the thematic richness of the Flood within the Genesis narrative because we are so intently focused on novel applications of that event. Thus the Flood isn’t about our souls and the inroads that sin has made in our hearts, it is about the distribution of particles in the cosmos and it is about our own privileged status as God’s special people. The Flood has been reduced to an apologetic device, whereby our cherished views are shielded from the challenges of outsiders and heretics. This was certainly the thrust of the conference in St. George, where even non-Adventist advocates of Flood-based geological models were invited to present, while qualified Adventist critics of this approach were excluded.

The theological rationale for favoring Flood explanations of the geologic record has been emphatically presented, on multiple occasions, by Andrews University professor (now emeritus), John Baldwin, most notably in the book he edited titled, “Creation, Catastrophe, And Calvary: Why A Global Flood Is Vital To The Doctrine Of Atonement” (2000, Review and Herald Publishing Association). I do not wish to target John with my criticisms, only to provide a clear reference for my claims of current concern within Adventism regarding the impact of mainstream geological theory for the SDA doctrine of Creation. As it happens, John and I enjoyed a two-hour conversation on the topic as we drove some lonely roads in Arizona together on the day that one of his follow-up articles appeared in the Adventist Review (October 24, 2013). John kindly presented the sermon in the Red Cliffs SDA Church that Sabbath, at my invitation, and his talk was well received. We don’t spend our time together dwelling on our points of disagreement.  John heard that I was scheduled to speak here and emailed me, yesterday, an encouragement to use the resources he has provided. He also offered a succinct summary of his current thinking, along these lines:

·         The Biblical account of a 6-day creation implies that God did not create life over millions of years through death, disease and extinction. Thus, He is a good creator, not Darwin’s cruel devil.

·         Such a conclusion seems to be fatally undermined by conventional geology’s conclusion of deep time, in which the fossil record accumulated gradually.

·         One of God’s purposes for including the flood story in the Bible is to offer the geologic community an alternative, rapid model of formation for the geologic column, thus validating a literal 6 days of good creation and representing death as judgment, not design.

·         This Creation/Flood story is clearly articulated in Genesis, and then referenced throughout the Bible.

·         The reference in Revelation 14:7 may specifically invoke the Flood, as “fountains of waters”, emphasizing both the reality of divine judgment and the significance of the Flood event for geological interpretation.

I share John’s concerns. I see no simple way to reconcile an extensive pre-history of predation and extinction with the designs of the gracious God revealed in Jesus – just as there is no obvious testimony to the goodness of God in the modern experience of suffering, calamity, and death. However, as we will discuss this afternoon, I do not believe that the Flood event, as presently conceived, provides a viable resolution to the tension between the just claims of science and our treasured heritage of Biblical interpretation.  Flood geology sounds good to the faithful but in fact it belies the very values that it has been constructed to defend. Let me highlight this claim by way of analogy to the experience of Abraham. You remember how God promised that he would father many nations and how that promise was long unfulfilled. Proactively, Abraham fathered a child by a family servant – Hagar, as prompted by his wife. This was not defiance of God, nor was it an extraordinary measure, by contemporary standards, but it was outside God’s providence. God had specific plans to fulfill His own promise and he did not need heroic measures from Abraham to do so. He was looking for trust and patience – qualities that a more mature Abraham was to display abundantly, a bit later on. My point is that Abraham chafed under the chronic tension between his beliefs and his experience, which he resolved to the best of his own ability, and those actions resulted in dire consequences for his genetic legacy, throughout their generations, and a diminished witness among his contemporaries. I maintain that the institutionalization of Flood geology within Adventism is just such a mistake. It is a Hagar solution, a sincere but inappropriate attempt to fulfill prophetic destiny, glorify the Creator, oppose the godlessness of the current age, and promote true beliefs. 

In my discussions with John Baldwin, the concept of “propositional truth” has been a prominent feature in his advocacy of the authority of Scripture in organizing our perceptions of the natural world. I have heard others tout “a plain reading of Scripture” and, more recently, “the Biblical perspective”, as though our enlightened application of the historical/grammatical method of exegesis provides unique solutions and utterly reliable interpretations of the Genesis narrative. Some have even claimed that the doctrinal stance advocated in the current initiative is merely a return to the view held by Christians, generally, before science made its inroads into theology during the last two centuries. However, Augustine, writing around the turn of the century – the fifth century – had this to say, along with some very pointed remarks about the difficulties involved in the literal interpretation of Genesis:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men …. Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by these who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”  (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor, 1982, p.42-43)

This resonates with me, as a scientist. Not just because I see it happening all around me, but because I too am indicted, from ignorant and careless claims that I have made as a developing Sabbath School teacher. If nothing else, the discipline of science has made me a more careful expositor of Scripture. If there is hope for me, there is hope for all of us. From this perspective, I present a summary list of my reasons to oppose the attachment of “global flood” terminology to our doctrinal confession. These points are ordered for convenience of presentation, not priority of importance:

1. The initiative to “clarify” FB6 has been characterized by exclusivity. 
2. The “global” concept is extra-Biblical.
3. The “global Flood” reference validates an unsubstantiated hypothesis.
4. Support for a “global Flood” apologetic derives from an obscure epistemology.
5. Adventist scholars will be disadvantaged by the new wording.
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.

[End of morning talk. An exposition of each of these 6 points is the substance of Gerry’s afternoon talk. That article will be posted in a few days – editor ]

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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