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Utah Bible & Science Conference Panel Discussion II: Audience Peppers Panel With Questions


LOMA LINDA – After panelists at the discussion of the St. George, Utah International Conference on the Bible and Science finished giving opening remarks of various lengths, the panel engaged in a back-and-forth over changes in views on the Trinity and on the age of the earth within the Seventh-day Adventist community. Following that discussion, moderator Jim Walters invited questions from audience members. The following are synopses of the questions asked in order, along with responses from respective panel members.

This is part two in a two part report on the panel discussion at the Loma Linda University Damazo Amphitheater. Read part one of this report, the comments of the six panelists regarding the St. George, Utah conference: Utah Bible & Science Conference Panel Discussion: Defending and Dissecting the Conference

Direct question to Suzanne Phillips: I taught 25 years at the seminary, and it seemed to me that the consensus at the seminary was an old earth, young life position. Was Young Earth creationism sought out and presented intentionally at the St. George Bible/Science conference, or did I miss the whole discussion?

Suzanne Phillips: Those planning the conference were not related to the group working on FB #6. All those presenters at the conference who she knows about felt very comfortable with old earth, young life. But that doesn’t fix any of the challenges that creationists have because the very old rocks have fossils in them, which means there was something alive and something died. And we don’t believe that something died until The Curse, which was, “And you shall surely die.”

Paulien: So there was not a conscious effort to promote Young Earth Creationism?

Phillips: Certainly none of the conference planners or those who spoke believe that as far as I know.

Giem: I happen to be slightly in favor of Young Earth as well (Giem was a presenter at the conference), and I won’t go into the reasons here, but I didn’t get the sense that the conference was following that line.

Protestantism has a history of splitting and splitting into ever smaller groups and what’s really been striking is that it really hasn’t happening in Adventism as much as one might think given the ideological polarization we see. With that in mind, a short quote from a favorite spiritual writer of mine and a question.

“Most people assume that being in a loving relationship individuals agree with each other. Many people, for example, become scared or shaken when their partner disagrees with them. Then they compound the mistake by trying to change their partner’s mind. Yet on a personality level, two people are different in all respects and cannot be made identical in any way. There are no well-matched couples. Friendship is seeing differences, accepting difference, yet continuing to love and be happy” (Love and Courage, Hugh Prather, 50).

If we can see the point of that in our most important intimate relationships, can we not also see it in connection with the life of the community?

Richard Rice: The question really speaks for itself.

You’re trying to make the Bible a book of science, which it is not. Also a book of sociology that provides insight into how people should live in the 21st century. Think of passages in Deuteronomy which command the stoning of sons that are disobedient to their parents, or when Israelites conquered nations and took the young girls as spoils of war. This doesn’t tell us how we should live in the 21st Century. We’re trying to make the Bible fit into science here and now. Most of us don’t take Genesis 1 and 2, which tell two different stories about creation, to be science in which there is a hypothesis, an experiment and a result given. Science should be reproduce-able.

Maury Jackson: If you want to believe the Bible literally, that is fine. Just please don’t practice it that way.

Paul Giem: There is harmony internally in Scripture and with science. What science cannot do is start out by demanding that everything be explained on naturalistic basis. If you start that way, you get things like trying to explain the origins of life without any intelligent input whatsoever. Once you realize there’s that kind of bias in the way science is currently practice even though it shouldn’t be that way, then you realize we should take another look before assuming science knows what it’s talking about in those areas.

Leonard Brand: Studying history is not repeatable, yet many findings from geologic history are used by many Christians to decide their theology. New discoveries in biochemistry and other fields are putting the theory of evolution into “deeper and deeper weeds.”

I’m a scientist, and I’m offended that science is being used in a manner that it’s not designed to be used. Science has limitations. Science does not deal with questions of God. Science does not deal with the miraculous. Science does not deal with origins. A good scientist has the moral obligation to only believe the evidentiary data, they do not go beyond that. We are ruining opportunities for young people by denigrating science or by using it inappropriately. Science has a tremendous observational power, a power of evidence-gathering, and scientists have a moral obligation to believe only those things for which we have evidence.

Kenneth Wright: “One of the big dangers I see on both sides of the debate is that often the conclusion is decided before the data are analyzed. In other words, we already know what we think is truth, so therefore we have to make the data fit our concept of origins or development or whatever it happens to be. It is dishonest not to let data speak for themselves and instead say “This is what the data have to say…” I’m not saying scientists on either side of the debate do that, but we all come to science with certain assumptions, and if we’re not careful, we can impose our assumptions on the way we interpret our data.

Coming out of the conference and coming out of the Annual Council, there was a statement that Fundamental Belief #6 will be changed with the word “recent” inserted. Professor Brand and Dr. Giem, I wonder if you could tell us what, in your view, “recent” means. I have heard rumors that both of you have said it could mean hundreds of thousands of years. What do you define “recent” to be?

Leonard Brand: I’d suggest the real issue is a creation in which God created Adam and Eve and they fell and that brought sin into the world. Is it that, or is it a long process of evolution and death making God responsible for death and evil. Those are the choices.

Paul Giem: There’s a difference between what I believe and what I think is reasonable in terms of interpreting the biblical record. If you were asking me to place a bet, I would place one less than 6,000 years, which means I’m more conservative than Ussher in that respect. (Bishop James Ussher set date of creation at Oct 23, 4004 BCE.) If you were to ask me could I be wrong? Ya! Maybe we’re looking at 6,200, maybe 7,500 years… maybe 10,000 years… When you get to 100,000 years, I think you’re really stretching it a bit.

I’m a pastor, so my concern is how we relate in community with each other. I have a question, not hypothetical, but real question for all panelists. I held evangelistic meetings at the Sligo Church. A scientist from the Smithsonian attended. He was interested in being baptised into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and his family had been attending services for a while. He filled out all the decision cards positively. He kept Sabbath and even quit a consulting job to keep Sabbath. His kids were enrolled in Adventist schools. He said “I believe in creator, but I just can’t believe life hasn’t been around on this earth for a long, long time.” What would your advice have been?

Leonard Brand: “I’m not a pastor, so I don’t have to make that call. I have dear friends in similar situations, and I don’t have to argue about details if it won’t help them.”

Maury Jackson: As a pastor rule was that, if I wasn’t going to put a member out of the church for not believing a certain thing, then wouldn’t prevent someone with same view from joining the church. So I would ask, “do I have members that actually believe that?” And if so, fine.

Paul Giem: My reaction to him would be, “You’re joining a church where majority of members–outside of certain areas–believe conservatively, that life is only a few thousand years old. If this is the community you wish to join, and you wish to learn more as I hope we all do, then I’m ready for you to have a commitment of that kind. Saying that, I’m not sure I would immediately hire him at the local college to teach biology.

Kenneth Wright: “When Phillip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, I doubt very seriously that he asked him how old he thought the earth was.” Baptism is not joining the club, it is making a commitment to God. If you’re committed to God, who’s to tell you that you can’t be baptized?

Suzanne Phillips: “I feel very strongly…Christ says ‘judge not that ye be not judged,’ and hopefully everyone knows that I don’t want to judge anyone. The only reason I take a stand on these issues is because I believe the Bible and I care very deeply about what is taught at our schools because young people are young and impressionable. So how you believe is between you and God. If this person confesses Jesus Christ, that was the prerequisite. Repent, and be baptized.

Richard Rice: I’ve talked with John Brunt about this before. I heard a recently-retired General Conference official say “I think we need a creed.” As a theologian, I thought that’s exactly what we don’t need, and coming from him, I was surprised. What he meant was in contrast to long statement of Fundamental Beliefs, which is moving in the direction of seeking more and more specificity, maybe we could find a way of articulating our deepest convictions in terms of what we have in common rather than interpretations likely to divide us.

Jim Walters: It looks to me like we are unanimous in saying, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, “Yes.”

Related a story of not being equipped by Adventist education for the rigors of scientific community and exposure to evolutionary thought. Question: What if evidence continues to mount for longer and longer chronology. That might raise questions about literal, seven-day creation. People have many reasons for Sabbath keeping. Why can’t we have a big enough tent to allow people who hold to a long chronology and still value Sabbath?

Leonard Brand: My belief in the Sabbath is not based on science, but what I understand from the Bible does help me in my science. Most scientists know only one point of view based on long chronology and naturalism. Scientists who hold to a conservative view understand both points of view–the short chronological view and the long chronology. I discover things in my research in geology that others simply have not noticed. Evidence in favor of a short chronology is increasing, despite what most published scientific literature would suggest.

Suzanne Phillips: Evidence is going the way of shorter chronology and toward catastrophic events.

Maury Jackson: I like to point out to people that the 10 Commandments are given at least twice. The Deuteronomy version gives as basis and goal of Sabbath keeping liberation from slavery and oppression, specifically mentioning the Exodus from Egypt. The tent is big enough. I have pastored long enough to know that there are people in congregations all over that believe in long age creationism and keep the Sabbath in small Adventist faith communities.

 I’ve given my career to the educational mission of the church. I’m very concerned that the young people in our colleges today will leave in droves if the current leadership of church insists on a recent, young age, including a worldwide flood. I am an archaeologist… leaving aside geological problems. Dr. Wood, for whom the Archaeology museum at Southern Adventist University is named, established the earliest fixed date in human history, which still stands–the date of 1991 BC for the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt. That means there are still twelve dynasties that are older than 1991 BC. A recent 6,000 year creation of the earth and dating of the Flood leaves 500 years at the most for a worldwide flood having occurred and you have to squeeze in all of earth’s history that we have written documents for. We have languages. We have astronomical events that have been observed. We know how to date these things. There is not room to accommodate a short, recent history based on the archeological and historical evidence we have alone. Our young people are smart enough to know these things and to read about them. Does anyone on our panel join me in worrying about a mass exodus of millennials from our church if we keep going the direction we’re going?

Leonard Brand: I worry about a mass exodus, but I suggest there are reasons very different from the one you presented that might cause this.

Paul Giem: That is one of the reasons I try not to say that my opinion should be fixed in stone. First of all, I could be wrong. Second, even if I am right, there is enough evidence for some of the other positions that I don’t think it is fair to expect everyone to come up to my opinion. That’s assuming that it’s “coming up” to my opinion. That’s why when people are careful, they don’t usually say 6,000 years ago, they say “a few thousand years ago” and that leaves room to put some of those events back further. I agree that if the Middle Kingdom is securely dated at 1991 BC, you have a major problem and you are probably going to have to go to at least Septuagint numbers to get all of the civilizations in. I want to make the point that that is in fact separable from the question of “do we have to go to millions of years?”

Richard Rice: We need to be careful about only one solution or only one way of arguing for a solution.  Even if we argue for and find compelling evidence for a conservative interpretation of things, we should be open as Paul has indicated to presenting evidence for another position as well so that students are aware that it’s not as cut-and-dried as some believe it might be.

I teach embryology. I’m a scientist in developmental biology. I’ve taken Dr. Brand’s course. If the church has made a decision for me on where we need to be looking as far as evolution and creation, is there a need for scientists that are studying this topic about evolution and creation? Do we need to have scientists? Are we trying to create the next generation of scientists to even know about evolution? It seems as though, if we’ve been told the truth, we no longer need to be seekers of truth.

Leonard Brand: I teach a class here on the philosophy of science and origins, and in that class, they have to know everything that science has to say and to understand other ways of looking at things. I tell them that I hope you come out thinking like I do, but I don’t want you to come there because I say it. They need to be thinkers and learn how to interpret evidence. We need scientists because their are approaches to these questions that most of science is not thinking about because they start with the bias of naturalism.

Attended the St. George conference and was disappointed that they didn’t speak about the young people in terms of applying James Fowler’s stages of faith development. Students are frustrated when they have questions and are told that their questions are not really open to discussion. Another issue is that we tow the line and then our young people are the ones who suffer because they feel they can’t say what they think. Students get shut down and told “No, we don’t speak about that.” I have that concern, Joseph said. As we have these debates, our young people are leaving out the back doors, Joseph worried. “I invite us to consider our young people.”

Jared Wright is the managing editor of the Spectrum website.

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