Skip to content

Utah Bible & Science Conference Panel Discussion: Defending and Dissecting the Conference


LOMA LINDA – Five participants in the August 2014 St. George, Utah International Conference on the Bible and Science discussed, debated, defended and dissected the conference in front of a scholarly audience at Loma Linda University’s Damazo Amphitheater Saturday afternoon. Jim Walters of Loma Linda University’s Center for Christian Bioethics hosted and moderated the panel discussion, and professor Richard Rice joined the five conference attendees at the table to contribute his theological perspectives to the discussion.

Walters gave each of the six conversants, Dr. Leonard Brand, Dr. Maury Jackson, Dr. Paul Giem, Dr. Kenneth Wright, Dr. Suzanne Phillips and Dr. Richard Rice, six minutes to deliver prepared remarks about the conference, followed by cross-talk amongst the panelists. Immediately afterward, audience members, most of them Adventist academics from the Loma Linda/La Sierra area, asked questions of the panel that provided some of the program’s most insightful comments.

The following summaries provide a précis of each of the panelists’ comments in the order in which they spoke. Part Two of this report includes summaries of the audience-directed question and answer portion of the program.

Dr. Walters welcomed the audience and participants to this discussion, providing a brief overview of the St George conference and noting the significance of the day’s discussion in light of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s interest in and recent actions on the topic of Creation. Walters pointed out that of the panelists, only Dr. Rice had not attended the conference. He noted that at a previous, similar panel conversation he moderated featuring Adventist politicians in the same venue, the dialogue had been less cohesive than he had hoped, and he shared his optimism that this conversation would provide an even more fruitful dialog. Walters stated that while he would moderate the conversation, he would not act as a neutral party, but would, at times, offer his perspectives as well.  He introduced each of the panelists, all of them affiliated with Loma Linda University.

Dr. Brand provided a brief overview of the intent of the Utah conference, which he helped facilitate, and at which he was a presenter. It was designed as educational experience for Seventh-day Adventist teachers, Brand said. It included representatives from all Adventist world divisions–about 460 participants in all. Of the conference’s conceptual framework, Brand asked, “What options are there for educated, intelligent people for the relationship between faith and science?” Conservative Bible believers and secular atheists occupy opposite sides of the “educated, intelligent” spectrum he said. Brand sought to frame a somewhat narrow understanding of creation as an actual broadening of the possibilities. It is actually the naturalistic scientific community that has narrowed the possibilities, he argued, by disallowing the Creation Science option. “The St. George Conference was not a free-for-all discussion of the whole range of options,” Brand said. He noted that in the early 2000’s a series of conferences brought together Adventist scientists for those purposes. The Utah conference presentations were videotaped and the videos will be released at some point in the future, Brand said. The conference was intended for Adventist teachers to prepare them for questions on science, faith and origins. “Not all interested parties were represented, nor was there room,” Brand said. He added that the conference was not an open discussion of whether or not Adventist Fundamental Belief #6 on Creation is correct. The assumption for conference organizers was that there was basic agreement over the creation belief in light of the fact that all attendees were Adventist.

During Dr. Giem’s remarks, the first moments of drama came. The audience sat in rapt attention as Giem sought to get all the panelists to go on record with their personal views on several theological questions. During Giem’s attempts to do this, Jim Walters stepped in to redirect the conversation. Audience members watched, intrigued, and even added vocal responses during the exchange. The contents of Giem’s remarks and Walters’ interjections follow.

Paul Giem: “I thought that perhaps to start out it might be worthwhile to see how much agreement there is between the various viewpoints represented here. And so what I’m going to do is I’m going to ask the panelists to raise their hands with the thumb up for yes, the thumb down for no, the thumb sideways for yes and no…partly down… whole range of answers, and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to say anything.”

Richard Rice: “I’m going to fold my hands in prayer, Paul.”

Jim Walters: “I had no idea what you’re going to be asking, but what of those who want to have a more nuanced response than what your hand signals would allow?”

Paul Giem: “You can put your hand out saying ‘That’s too simplistic.”

Jim Walters: “Is that fair, panelists? Do you agree to this?”

Rick Rice: “I didn’t know this would be a catechism. Jim, is that what you envisioned?” [Audience Laughter.]

Paul Giem: “This isn’t a catechism, this is an understanding of where everybody sees things. We’ll start with one that I think everyone will agree with, but we’ll find out for sure.”

Jim Walters: “Ken has just whispered to me, and it makes some sense: Rather than your pigeonholing people, let them speak what they want to say in their six minutes, then we’ll engage in discussion.”

Paul Giem: “The reason why is because we’re not going to get very far if we do that. I want us to talk to each other, but it has to be about something.”

[Audience murmuring, Walters appeared at a loss, thinking]

Walters: “It almost looks like you are taking over our discussion by doing this. Let’s…

Giem: “Let me give you my first question, and then you can decide if you want to squash this or not.”

Walters: “The chair says ‘let’s have one question.'”

Giem, before Walters finished speaking: “Ok, the first question is, ‘Is there a God?’”

[Silence, then nervous laughter from the crowd]

Giem: “Now I hope we can all agree on that. But I’d like to be absolutely sure before we move on.”

Giem to Walters: “Is that too nuanced?”

Walters: “Paul, let’s not get involved in this quizzing of our panelists.”

Giem: “You don’t want us to be clear on where we stand?”

Walters: “Well, I want you to be clear on where you stand, and then then we’ll talk.”

[The audience collectively said “Yes,” and began to applaud.]

Walters: “We will have time for inter-panel discussion, that’s coming. Now we would like to hear your point of view, please.”

Giem: “OK…I will put my point of view out as carefully as I can. #1, I believe that there is a God. #2, I believe that God created the universe. And #3, I believe that God is able to intervene or change His ways, or however you wish to express that. The laws of nature are not so inexorable that we can rule out things such as miracles. That being the case, it is theoretically possible to see evidence of God’s acts in nature in ways that he is not usually seen. That being the case, some kind of detection of divine activity is legitimate. Whether one agrees with Intelligent Design as a quasi-scientific, quasi-political, if you wish, point of view, the project is not illegitimate. It looks like there are places where the project has been successful, for instance, the origin of life. That being the case, the current scientific consensus which opposes Intelligent Design is simply wrong. The scientific consensus, especially in ways that are theologically important, does not have probative value. There are two important questions, one of which involves whether humans were descended from lower animals, and the second is how much time did it take, which is intimately connected with whether there was a worldwide flood or not. Most of the conference presenters, probably all of them, took the view that the timeframe for what we see in the geological record is in fact short, and that the current scientific consensus on the age of the earth is also wrong. There were a lot of scientific evidences for that point presented. I did some, some of our other panelists did some. If we’re asking the question: ‘Good science, literal Bible, what gives?’ those points are particularly important because they speak to that very issue.”

Dr. Phillips began by seeking to clarify the purpose of the Utah meeting. “I was one of the planners, so over the last three years, I had been working with the General Conference Education Department as well as the Faith and Science Council to work this conference out,” she said. “The purpose of the conference was to educate educators.” Phillips said that conference planners invited the academic dean, a chair of a science and a chair of religion from every Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher education to attend. In addition to educators, several graduate students who plan to be teachers in Seventh-day Adventist schools received invitations to attend. The purpose, Phillips said, “was to inform those there of the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the methodology for interpretation of Scripture.”  Phillips said the orginazers wanted to provide educators information about what college textbooks say and what they do not say. Phillips said a subtext of the conference was to combat materialistic science in most college texts. “Textbooks are heavily scrutinized by those who have an agenda to only teach evolution in our country.  We wanted to be fair to the science,” she said.

Phillips went on, saying, “It says over and over in the Bible that God has not left himself without a testimony. We believe that to be true. We are the most miraculous things on the planet and we are a long way from figuring out how we work.” She noted that the conference dealt with the fact that not all evidence supports creation. “There’s research that is interpreted to heavily support evolution. So we addressed those things, and in all honesty, we don’t have answers for all of them.  Part of that is the millions and millions of dollars being spent by our government to support evolutionary biology. The amount of money being spent to support the work of creationists? There’s like $100K.”

Additionally, about 50% of the conference dealt with theology “to affirm the historical-grammatical method of interpreting Scripture,” Phillips said. “We use this method because it’s what the biblical writers used in referencing the Scriptures. God, himself seemed to use this reference by saying things like ‘For I spoke, and it came to be.” 

Phillips closed by suggesting that where science ends, faith is needed.

“The Bible says ‘Without faith, it is impossible to please God.’ If you looked at all the evidence and it was only evidence, that is unacceptable. These things are spiritual, and spiritual things are spiritually discerned. It is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

Dr. Jackson began by telling the audience, “I take away a lot of irony from the conference.”  Jackson, an adjunct lecturer at Loma Linda University, said that on the one hand the scientific presentations protested their non-theistic colleagues who seek to “reduce the irreducible complexity of nature.”  “The oddity was,” Jackson continued, “the selected theological presenters were protesting their colleagues who would not reduce the irreducible complexity of Scripture. So on the one hand you had reductionism going on, and on the other hand a protest of reductionism. I thought that was ironic.”

Jackson said that he felt, and conferred with other conference attendees who agreed, that the small sampling of Adventist theologians from the Seminary at Andrews University who presented at the conference represented the extreme end of the Seminary’s theological spectrum. “Those presentations were not resonating as credible, and it made me question the credibility of the scientific presentations, and that’s out of my field,” Jackson said. “That was part of the challenge for me, personally.”

Jackson said that while much was said about the inappropriateness of the historical-critical method at the conference, one commenter stood up and said, “As a biblical scholar that uses the historical-critical method…” to show, Jackson suggested, that, “maybe some official body made some judgment that Adventists don’t use it, but actually, all over, Adventist scholars are using it. Everyone is using this method,” he said. Jackson thought it disingenuous that biblical-theological scholars would talk about problems with feminist and liberationist interpretations of Scripture and then turn and advocate the “biblical method.”

“It meant to me they were not self-reflective of their own social location,” Jackson said.

Jackson closed his remarks with an anecdote about a conference attendee who came from Africa.

“One of the participants told me, you know, I don’t really buy what’s being done here. But where I come from, they aren’t asking the question was nature created in six days. They’re asking ‘how can I stop nature’s gods from messing in my life. As one who comes from over in Africa, even though I don’t buy this, the per diem they gave us for the time that we’re here is $176, and that is a month’s salary from where I come.’”  As a pastor, Jackson said his overriding concern was, “How do we shepherd a discourse on something like this where we bring together voices with three criteria: to be biblically faithful, to be rationally coherent, to be empirically sound. And then let’s listen and see what the real Adventist voices sound like, and not cherry-pick a handful of people to say this is the Adventist view. There’s a difference between what somebody somewhere voted and what is actually happening on the ground.”

Dr. Wright said that in addition to having taught aspects of human anatomy at Loma Linda for some twenty years, he recently enrolled in Loma Linda’s Masters program in Religion and the Sciences to explore the contact points between faith and how it describes the world, and science, and how it describes the world. “Both ways of describing the world are important to me professionally and personally,” he said.

Wright said his starting points were reverence for the Creator and recognition of apparently long processes that science confirms through various means–the growth of stalactites and volcanic islands, ice core samples and tectonic plate movement.

He noted that there were aspects of the Utah conference that he appreciated–Southwestern Adventist University professor Art Chadwick’s lecture on Yellowstone fossil forests in particular. That lecture and others provided new information for consideration.

He also noted his discomfort with other aspects of the conference.

“I felt unsettled by the prevalent use of Ellen White’s commentaries in ways that I suspect might have made Ellen White herself uncomfortable,” he said. Wright suggested her writings were not used merely to complement Scripture, but also as an extension of Scripture, or even as a replacement for Scripture in some cases. “Numerous, extended quotations from her commentaries were often the key means of reaching conclusions on how to understand creation and the flood narrative,” he said.

Wright noted that at the 2014 Annual Council, delegates changed Fundamental Belief #18 on the Gift of Prophecy, removing the words “As the Lord’s Messenger,” and “continuing, authoritative source of truth…for the church,” referring to Ellen White and her writings, to avoid the impression that Ellen White and the Bible are equivalent sources of truth.

“The second thing that made me feel uncomfortable was a speech made on the first day to all the attendees. We were told that unless we understand creation from within the confines of a very recent event, based on a literalistic understanding of the Bible and Ellen White’s commentary, and accepted the concept of a recent, global flood event, that we are not authentic Adventists and should resign our positions if we are teaching in an Adventist institution,” Wright said. He said he felt that the speech curtailed meaningful dialog and called into question the faith experience of all those Adventists who happen to have questions or different views on creation.

“Given the prescriptive framework of only one correct way to understand creation, it felt as though the editing and voting of a consensus statement toward the end of the conference was primarily about the validation of a pre-determined outcome,” Wright said.

 Wright said that a faith and science conference in Banff, Alberta he attended a few years ago demonstrated a more helpful model for the church by seeking to listen and presenting diverse viewpoints. He added in closing, “We should not willfully overlook the diversity of views that will continue to exist within the church, and whatever we do, we should never tell people whose views differ from ours that they should get out. It’s our diversity that makes us vibrant and helps to keep us honest.”

“I was not there, and that leaves me wondering why I am here,” Dr. Rice began.

“The questions that come up when we talk about science and religion have not been earth-shaking issues for me personally,” he said. Rice stated that the fundamental claims of Christianity presented in his youth through Adventism were so foundational that he has ever since had “a deep confidence that what Adventists have to say, and what they understand about God, the world, and all the rest of it is profoundly reliable.”

Rice said that debates over faith and science have not caused for him an existential crisis of faith.

“As a theologian, there’s a sense in which I have to stop and listen because theologians never get the first word. When it comes to interpreting the Bible we have to listen to biblical scholars who spend years acquiring the expertise to read the documents in their original language and explore their formulations,” Rice said. Likewise with science, Rice said theologians must defer to scientists trained in understanding natural phenomena. “I try to listen as carefully as I can to follow the line of reasoning–the sorts of evidence and concerns that they have. Having listened as carefully as possible, we seek, theologians, to incorporate these insights within a comprehensive and coherent interpretation of faith for our time,” he said.

“So here’s where I stick my neck out: Even though we don’t get the first word, we try to have the last word. At least an afterword about the ongoing issues that are important to the life of the community.” Rice said that as a theologian his principle object of concern is the life of the community. He argued that theology is not an abstract, ivory-tower pursuit, far removed from the demands of every-day life. “Theology is a form of ministry,” Rice said. “It’s goal is to serve the church–to contribute to the upbuilding of the community of faith ‘til we all come to the stature of Christ.”

How can people with a variety of gifts, perspectives and biblical interpretations and scientific conclusions join together in the same Christian Community? Rice wondered aloud. “How can we affirm what we share in a way that promotes mutual understanding and mutual respect, even where we have significant differences in viewpoint? Can we achieve unity in the body of Christ without insisting on uniformity?”

Rice said that he did not mean to gloss over tensions that Adventists face. The tensions Rice sees include the following:

  • Different interpretations of the Bible
  • How important agreeing on particular interpretation is to the life of the community
  • How to respond to science–to reconcile religious affirmations with conclusions of scientific investigation.
  • Agreeing upon sources of truth. Science relies on evidence. Faith stretches beyond evidence.
  • Difference between methodologies: Science shifts its conclusions and that is a sign of its strength whereas it is a weakness for religious faith.

This is an unavoidable challenge for Adventism because of our commitment to education, which grows out of our understanding of human nature. The capacity, desire and ability to understand the world in which we live.

Rice noted that on a lengthy Geological Research Institute-sponsored field study tour decades ago, the positions expressed on the age of the earth sounded very different from those Rice heard growing up. Allowance was made for the possibility that the earth is billions of years old as far as inorganic matter is concerned, with only the life on earth being young. Rice wondered whether this signalled a seachange from Young Earth Creationism to old-earth, young life creationism.

“I would see development of Adventist interpretations as an indication of openness to change,” he said.

After Richard Rice finished, the panel engaged in a somewhat disjointed discussion of the progression of Adventist views on the Trinity and the age of the earth. Following that back-and-forth, Walters called on audience members to ask their questions of the panelists. Audience questions provided additional insights and fireworks. The content of that discussion comes in part two of this report. Read that report here: Audience Peppers Panelists with Questions.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.