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Ron Numbers Lectures at LLU on the Adventist Origins of Scientific Creationism

On Friday, December 4, the School of Religion of Loma Linda University hosted Ronald Numbers for their Adventism and the World Lecture Series. Numbers, a former Adventist and former Christian (he describes himself as an “agnostic”), is Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of several scholarly works, including Prophetess of Health, a significant book on Ellen White.

Numbers’ lecture was entitled “The Adventist Origins of Scientific Creationism,” and it was followed by a response by Geoscience Research Institute’s Senior Research Scientist Ben Clausen, and a short discussion with the audience.

(Ron Numbers and Ben Clausen, right, respond to questions.)

Numbers, opened saying, “Something tells me that this is not to be a celebration of Charles Darwin,” half-jokingly noting Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. He spent the rest of his time outlining the historical development of what is now known as ‘scientific creationism’ or ‘creation science’.

According to Numbers, Seventh-day Adventism emerged during a time when Evangelical Christians were coming to a consensus regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1-2. In light of the evidence found in the geologic column, Christians at this time recognized that it was untenable to maintain that other life (and death) did not predate the appearance of human beings. Whereas at one time Christians believed that the geologic column could be explained by Noah’s Flood, by the mid-nineteenth century they realized that no human fossils were found in the geological column, thus making nonsense of ‘flood geology’. (Numbers later pointed out that the growing number of species being discovered was too large to fit into Noah’s Ark, and that they could not have evolved in so short a time-span from various “kinds” of animals, as was suggested by Frank Lewis Marsh.)

Many of the geologists at this time were, according to Numbers, “Bible believing Christians” who sought not to call the Bible into question, but rather to preserve its authority through their research. In light of their findings, two dominant interpretations of the Genesis creations accounts emerged:

The first interpretation was the “day-age theory.” This interpretation recognized that the Bible had in other places suggested that days can represent other, longer periods of time; it said that a day is like a thousand years to God; and prophetic interpretation allowed for great ambiguity with periods of time. Thus, it did not seem unreasonable to say that the periods of time spoken of in the creation accounts were also figurative.

The second interpretation was the “gap theory,” which said that there was a gap of time (anywhere from thousands to millions of years) between the time when God created the universe (and earth) and the time when God created human life. During that time, God must have created various kinds of animal life, which we find the evidence of in the geologic column.

The Adventist community was faced with these same interpretive questions. Ellen White was, according to Numbers, reluctant to accept a day-age theory because she believe that it made nonsense of the seventh-day Sabbath. White allegedly then received a vision from God in which she witnessed the creation, and saw that the creation did in fact take only six twenty-four hour days, and that the fossil record was to be attributed to the Flood.

Because of the nature of White’s assertion (i.e. having received a revelation from God), there was little room in the Adventist church for disagreement with her on this issue, and so Adventists “stood virtually alone” in “rejecting the antiquity of life on earth” and embracing a cataclysmic flood to account for the fossil record.

In the 1920s, a Canadian Adventist who was not a geologist, George McCready Price, set out to defend White’s views and to fight against evolutionary theory. He was considered the “leading scientific authority in the Fundamentalist community.” It was he and those associated with him who first co-opted the phrase ‘young earth creationism’.

The intellectual descendants of Price, far removed from Adventism by the 1940s, persuaded Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to abandon the day-age and gap theories, as they were too compromised with the evolutionists. It was at this time that the term ‘creationism’ came to refer strictly to young-earth creationism associated with Flood geology. Thus, contemporary creationism originated with Price, and his commitment to defending the views of Ellen White and Seventh-day Adventism.

Numbers concluded his lecture by noting that virtually no Adventists are a part of the Intelligent Design movement. His final words were, “Where Adventists once led, they now seem to be followers.”

As an Adventist, and particularly as a student of theology, I am left with a few questions for reflection:

  • Might Ellen White have changed her mind or had a contradictory vision if she had been exposed to current scientific data?
  • To what degree is the Adventist community bound to Ellen White’s interpretation of the Bible?
  • What is the contribution that Adventists will have made in fifty years based on current debates?
  • What will it take for Adventism to embrace (or just allow) more than one interpretation of Genesis?

Photos courtesy of Jared Wright.

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