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Shaking Theology

Since I am interested in how we apply Adventist theology to tragedy, I noticed that yesterday the geoscientist who edits the Big Think: Eruptions blog tweeted the following: “This article frightens me in so many ways – it should frighten you, too.” He included a link to a Seventh-day Adventist Examiner article entitled Japan quake, Korean volcano… more upheaval ahead, say Seventh-day Adventists.” Apparently the author, who claims to have served in the communications department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, styles himself a local reporter from inside Adventism to the outside world. He writes:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church—which has members in all of these regions—warns that increased volcanism is part of the apocalyptic future; a future that may not be far off.  Their Geoscience Research Institute, located in the US, laments that ‘The frequent reports of volcanic and earthquake activity in the public news broadcasts do not include a Christian perspective.’

The Eruptions geoscientist who tweeted about the article followed up by saying: “I have no problem with people’s belief in religion, but there is no “Christian perspective” in volcanoes and EQs [earthquakes] – it’s just nature at work.”

Apparently official Adventist science is far outside the mainstream, not only about origins, but also about earthquakes and volcanos. The Geoscience Research Institute is the denomination’s official voice on geoscientific matters. The article that caught both of these writers’ attention appears in DIALOGUE, the General Conference’s official journal for students in college and university. The author, M. Elaine Kennedy, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist at GRI, mashes up a discussion of volcanoes, earthquakes, divine cause, and Ellen White geology apologetics. Dr. Kennedy begins carefully.

Thinking that we know how something works does not mean that God is not involved in the timing of the event or the process. The concept is a difficult one since we do not know the mind of God. We do not know if any or all of the events include divine intervention or if most are simply processes that occur randomly in our world. Our lack of knowledge on this topic should lead us to be cautious with our comments about end of the world events and judgments

Certainly caution is essential when theologizing contemporary events—particularly when news of disasters and rumors of wars means that our abstract meaning-making is actually connected to the real suffering of humans. But that caution seems tossed aside once the article reaches its conclusion.

The biblical interpretation of volcanoes, earthquakes, floods as judgments causes Christians to question the randomness of events. Many Christians consider most natural disasters to be random events, part of a sinful world. The biblical perspective ties these events to the end of the world, and their occurrence should strengthen our faith in the second coming of Jesus. A sudden notable increase in the frequency of natural calamities is predicted just prior to the return of Christ. Although friends and family may perish during one of these disasters, Christians have faith in the abiding, undying love of the Father for His children.

An official church geoscientist argues that the biblical perspective ties “natural calamities” to the second coming. On top of that, while friends and family (much less other humans) may suffer and die, it is the very fact that they perish that gives us faith in the Father’s undying love. Huh? It is an odd choice of words to use mass death as evidence of God’s undying love—but this is the mess that we get into when we treat human tragedies as proofs of theology. According to the author, using the textual to interpret volcanoes, earthquakes, floods leads one to question the randomness of events. So here we have a scientist prioritizing a biblical perspective—like they do with origins—and through that methodology she finds that there is a divine cause to where and when earthquakes and volcanoes happen. Or as she writes, “the timing of the event or the process.”

Ellen White celebrates nature as the second book of revelation, next to the Bible. And between GRI and the denomination’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI) we apparently have both covered. But something is tragically wrong—beyond their acronyms—BRI and GRI share something else: a method. Just as Adventist beliefs have too often relied on prooftexts—the combining of linked texts from various biblical books to create doctrinal meaning—it appears that GRI takes that approach and applies it to the natural world. By treating an earthquake here and a volcano there as events to be interpreted, GRI employs a sort of historical-grammatical scientific method as well. Or what they apparently just call the biblical perspective.

Close observers of the pedagogy of origins imbroglio will note that the General Conference has put pressure on La Sierra University to send their scientists to GRI to revive and reform their understanding of a literal, six day, 24-hour creation. But that’s only the beginning. It appears that the GRI methodology literally extends to the end.

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