This article is the third and final report on the series of presentations made in Atlanta, Georgia, under the auspices of the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) during the 59th Session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It covers all eleven presentations that were given in English during the lunch and supper time slots between June 30 and July 2, 2010. (The report on the presentation made by newly-elected GC President Ted Wilson during this time appeared separately as Part II.)
Two presentations were made by knowledgeable non-specialists; four, by GRI staff scientists; two, by scientists teaching in Adventist higher education, and two, by popular conservative theologians associated with the General Conference.
Stan Hudson, a pastor who is widely read in science and archaeology, spoke on a topic of his special interest and experience, “How to Share Creation in Outreach on Secular Campuses.” Among the concepts that he enunciated was the reminder that data are separate from interpretation. He recommended getting invitations to speak through established channels, not to debate, but rather to share helpful perspectives on debated topics, such as the history of science and religion, humanism, the polarity in American thought and the reasons why, Darwin, hell, origins, and the Big Bang. He reminded speakers that they should be open to diverse views, be unfailingly kind, never bashing, always respectful, and never to wear a tie in a campus setting! He urged speakers not to be entirely data driven but to come across spiritually as well. He concluded by recommending useful resources available from GRI but also two good books: Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (he said she was the best evangelical writer in this field) and Subodh K. Pandit, Come Search With Me (a very thoughtful, clear thinking book).
Bethania Siviero, a graduate student in geology at Loma Linda University, shared “The Faith Journey of an Adventist Geologist.” It was a testimony of how God has led her from Brazil to the United States, and to various field opportunities where she has learned many “mysteries” which she considers to be “signposts to strengthen faith.”
Most of the presentations by the four GRI staff scientists were thoughtful and helpful. Ben Clausen, in “Belief in Spite of Uncertainty: The Ongoing Faith Journey of a Scientist,” shared first his life experiences – Revelation in stories and texts; Nature; Relating Revelation and Science, “there are no short chronology scientific models;” and People. In each context her shared lessons learned. In Revelation he learned respect, the importance of interpretation, and its limitations. In Nature/Science he learned the same lessons of respect, interpretation, and limitations. In Relating Revelation and Science, he learned that it had been Christianity that had nurtured modern science and the importance of respect for God’s revelation in both Scripture and nature along with the expositors in each of the two arenas (People). It is not really science vs. the Bible but rather there are really two sides within our hearts: faith and understanding contrasted with distrust or blind acceptance. Clausen sees the Sabbath as symbolizing what Anselm said about “faith seeking understanding.” In conclusion he urged us to place our faith in the Bible because there is not enough support from science. He reminded us of the statement in Desire of Ages, page 330:
In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish, and a plan path before their feet.
Ronny Nalin, who does sedimentological research in Italy, chose to address a similar theme: “Dealing with Uncertainty.” He answered four key questions:
- Have I found the synthesis between the Bible and geology? No, just more unresolved issues.
- Should we downplay geology? No, the rocks have a story to tell.
- Should we give up our faith when there is conflict? No, faith is not based on empirical evidence (Hebrews 11:1, 2 Corinthians 5:7).
- Why is there a conflict? Incomplete understanding is part of the human condition; our God is bigger than we are. The answer lies in knowledge we do not see. Jacob’s struggle and conflict is a good illustration. Genesis 32:31 (NIV) says: “The sun rose above him” even though he was limping. It was a sign of symbolic life after struggle.
In response to the question, “Please explain dating,” he said, “Radiometric dating is our only method; there is no alternative.” The follow up question was “Then explain six literal days.” His response, ”I feel comfortable because I have a larger world view though it cannot be reconciled with science. There is no shame in having problems.” Another question: “Is there room for believers who think differently in the church?” Response: “Yes, how would you deal with someone who had a mythical experience? No, forget the word ‘mythical’! The main point to realize is that you can’t use Genesis to form a scientific model. If you’re an advocate for other views, be humble, accept the fact that you may not have followers.” Last question: “Are there presuppositions in geology?” Answer: “Yes, the assumptions are reasonable and intrinsically connected with the laws of nature. When it comes to things that are supernatural, you can’t fully understand them, you can just speculate.”
The presentation by Jim Gibson, Director of GRI, responded to the question, “Do Millions of Years Solve the Problem?” In a nutshell, his answer was “no,” but he carefully spelled out the reasons as follows.
- When looking at the fossil record one realizes that Genesis cannot be a condensed version of time.
- How about the suggestion that the fossil record could precede the “special creation” of Genesis? This so-called “gap theory” of the Scofield Bible does not work because there is no point in the fossil record where living organisms appear together.
- What about putting the six literal days of creation millions of years ago? This won’t work because of the way the fossils are “sorted” in the record. Faith has to be the key because “there is not enough evidence to resolve the tension between science and the Bible; one has to believe the Bible without the support of science.” “Science works well when tests can be repeated; history is not testable in that way.” “Science is a closed system governed by physical laws so tension [with the Bible] has to be expected.”
- Could we consider a fourth way for long ages? Maybe God guided the process of theistic evolution. This view was unacceptable to Darwin himself. Otherwise you would have God guiding in birth defects, etc., so “a God of the gaps” approach does not seem helpful.
In summary, “we can enjoy the benefits of both faith and science but we choose by faith, we are not compelled to choose.”
There were several questions following this presentation.
- Since there are 300,000 beetles alone, how many different animals were given to Adam to name? (The implication being that there may have been too many to name in one day!) The multiplication of animals we have today are the results of predation and disease; that would not be expected in a world declared to be good. Originally there might have been as many as 300 families of land animals.
- If there had been a universal flood, wouldn’t all the fossils be thoroughly mixed up in the record? “There are things about the flood that are outside our experience; it is a real problem, there is no good answer. If organisms were distributed before the flood, then sorting had to happen during the flood.” “It is important to know that we have questions we cannot answer.” “The fossil record is enigmatic; I know of no model to explain it—there just is not enough information.”
- What about the old earth, young life theory? Many Adventists are comfortable with this.
- Will we ever see harmony between science and Scripture? No, Ellen White in Evangelism, page 593, suggests there will always be conflict.
- Is evolution scientific? In the book In Search of Deep Time, Henry Gee says no historical question can be considered science. (Read a review of it here.)
I found these three GRI scientists to be forthright and helpful in their presentations — a refreshing change from some of their predecessors. The fourth scientist, Tim Standish, the organizer of the Yes, Creation! schedule, spoke on “Creation and Evolution: A Brief History.” For those who are familiar with this history, there was nothing that was new. He did, however, in response to several private criticisms from the audience, show his gracious side by apologizing for not treating all questioners with love and respect; he admitted he had been irritated with some of them. After reviewing some of the high points of the history of evolutionary thought, going back to the time of David (Psalm 53:1), he concluded that assertions and truth-claims that are made today are not really data-driven but based on philosophy. In contrast, he asserted the important unity that exists in Adventist doctrine.
The two presentations from scientists teaching in Adventist higher education were by Suzanne Phillips, chair of the biology department at Southwestern Adventist University, and Danilo Boskovic, a professor in Loma Linda University’s graduate program. Phillips shared “Compelling Evidence for Design in Nature.” Of all the presentations, hers was the most like a classroom lecture, effectively using power point slides mixed with video clips in explaining the complexity within a simple cell, suggesting that there “no way it could have happened by itself.” The amazing complexity in a single cell is something Darwin didn’t know about; the implication was that had he known what we know, he would have realized there just isn’t enough time for such complexity to evolve. After her presentation, she was asked about punctuated equilibrium. She responded that it was a good model but did not have enough evidence to support it, “similar to creation.” The final question asked if mutations improve organisms. Her response: “Bacteria that become resistant to medicine used to be the example shared but now we know the cells already have those genes.”
Boskovic’s topic was “Preservation of Ancient Biomolecules.” It took him awhile to really get into his presentation and then he had to rush. It was far too technical to be helpful to most in his audience. But his humor along the way yielded some worthwhile gems: “Can evolution be proved wrong and creation proved correct? I’d like to be part of such a project!” “People say I’m opinionated; of course, I take the best opinions!” “It is popular to have open minds; but really, they are empty minds! There is no problem with having opinions.” “How is it that people sitting side by side can be so different? The more science I learn, the more I believe in God (though some have the opposite result). Why is there this difference? It is not based on smartness. Maybe it is what is put first. I always put God first.” “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still. No evidence can convince someone who does not wish to believe. I’ve embraced God—to me, God is dear. He says, ‘Take my yoke upon you . . .’ The only thing we are in charge of is our choice.” Boskovic said biomolecular degradation happens to everything but some special event happened to produce fossils with their DNA structure. Unfortunately, there are obstacles to protein longevity. Nevertheless, bone collagen provides structure just like rebar in cement, and ancient collagen has been found in fossil material. He has found that apparently age does not correlate with the extent of degradation. How can that be true? There are many examples in fossils, one being the GRI research being carried out in Pisco, Peru, where samples contained protein. Looking at their pattern of fragmentation gives sequencing of patterns of protein. What this tells us is that we have extractable protein from high energy molecules that theoretically should not have been preserved for long ages. Adequate explanations are needed for this phenomenon and presuppositions will control our answers. The two take aways from this presentation were 1. There is conflict between what we are observing and what can be expected to be preserved, and 2. Continued scientific research is necessary within the Adventist church.
As might be expected, the most controversial presentations were those made by Ed Zinke, a businessman with theological training at the Catholic University of America who is close to and influential with the General Conference officers, and Cliff Goldstein who is responsible for the world church’s Sabbath School Lesson Study Guides but relishes the reputation of a theological gadfly through numerous columns, interviews, and oral presentations in denomination media.
Introduced as a knowledgeable layman, Zinke’s topic was “Theistic Evolution and the End of Adventism.” His leading point was that Adventists are different from most Christians because all of their 28 fundamental beliefs are integrated and interrelated. How so?
- God has revealed Himself to us. The issue in the great controversy is: Will we live by the Word of God or choose independent resources?
- We believe God has acted in history (creation, flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, exodus, a babe in Bethlehem, resurrection)—all in fulfillment of prophecy.
- The ethics of education—the solemn responsibility we have to raise our children in harmony with God’s Word. Theistic evolution comes out of different thinking where Freedom has become their god. God provides an umbrella large enough to cover every people group (Jews, Gentiles, educated or not) but some are asking the church to be an umbrella large enough to cover all gods which saps the church of resources.
- Adventists use methods that are different from their predecessors in the early church (reality imposed meaning on the minds of men), middle ages (the formula for truth was Bible AND tradition), and Protestant Reformation (the Bible alone). In our day we face Modernism (science provides the lenses for reality and truth), Biblical Criticism (the natural world provides the context for study of Scripture), and Post-Modernism (no absolute truth, many lenses and answers). The SDA Church goes back and is built on the Protestant Reformation.
- Theistic evolution impacts every area of SDA doctrine. Does it matter what we think of God? Which God represents the God of the Bible? There are no tools to answer that question if we start with the natural world. Who do we worship? The God of the Red Sea or the Reed Sea? Those who drafted the 27 Fundamental Beliefs “were protecting theistic evolution; this is demonstrated by the absence of any reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” (This is refuted here.) “You have to play the game either on one field or another. Adventism will cease to exist if it rejects a literal interpretation of Scripture. Today we must choose to obey God or the designer gods of the age.”
There were two questions asked after this presentation.
- Then do we have to accept either science or the Bible? Yes, there is a problem trying to marry the two when the church reinterprets Scripture.
- Would you say that [after this week at the GC Session] we are closer to having a Statement of Beliefs reflective of where the Church stands, such as on the bodily resurrection of Christ? Yes, we are closer today.
Goldstein’s topic was “Seventh-day Darwinians.” (Incidentally, I heard some ask whether the GC legal department might ask him to “cease and desist” misusing the denomination’s name as it has done with the producers of the film-in-production named Seventh-Gay Adventists: A film about love, sex, and eternal life.) Goldstein said it grew out of his Adventist Review column in 2003 by that name where he stated a “no brainer”: Darwinism is completely incompatible with Adventism. He said he was simply advocating taking its premises to their logical conclusion. Even though Adventism’s position has “always been a literal creation week,” Goldstein said he had become the object of scorn and ridicule by a small minority. He said those who would interpret otherwise “have the slight problem of the Genesis text itself.” When one reads it, it is very clear about two things: nothing was left to chance, and no common ancestry for the kinds created. Yet the two essentials of evolution are randomness and common ancestry! Goldstein said it just doesn’t make sense that through the whole Israelite period and down into the 19th century God kept the world in the dark until He raised up Darwin! Why would God inspire an account of creation if these two key points are not accepted? Why trust God for anything if this is not true? Goldstein referred to the research of Angel Rodriguez for the evidence that evolution, materialism, and atheism goes back at least to the time of Lucretius (died c. 50 BC). Goldstein asked, “How can death be an enemy if God used it to create man?” Then there is the Fall, the strong over the weak — is that really how God uses it? Finally there is the point of Eschatology: God will make a new heaven and a new earth. Is it fiat or the survival of the fittest? If He is going to do that now, why couldn’t He have done it before? He concluded that the Adventist Church has staked out a clear position: take the creation account literally. From that it cannot budge.
Goldstein did add an addendum: We do have to acknowledge that there are problems so we must make sure that the church is a safe place for people who are honestly struggling with the evidence. But if you’ve already made up your mind that Darwin has the answers, you need to go somewhere else.
Several questions followed this presentation:
- Was the universe created during creation week? I have no problem with the Big Bang. The universe has been here for millions of years. It is a bit bizarre to have the universe created 6,000 years ago!
- What happened on the 4th day of creation? That’s a difficult question; we can’t give a definitive answer. Perhaps Genesis is a phenomenological approach.
- Ron Osborn, a University of Southern California doctoral candidate, remarked that in orthodox Judaism, they have long had a non-literal interpretation for creation week and that has never been a problem for Sabbath observance; why should it be for us? Goldstein responded that the Sabbath is not the only problem; there is also the Fall, redemption, etc. Are they not all literal? I’m waiting for someone to show an alternative to a literal reading that isn’t deep time Darwinism and then I’d be willing to listen to it. Remember that among orthodox Jews, tradition trumps Scripture. I, too, asked an orthodox Jew one time about the meaning of “day” and he claimed it referred to a 24-hour literal day. You know the saying that if you have two Jews, you have three opinions!
- Did Time originate on the 1st day or the 4th day of creation? I can’t give a clear cut answer to that question which is admittedly difficult. It is a valid question and we have to struggle with an answer; just don’t let it lead to evolution!
- If time is eternal, how did we get from an infinite past to the present? “Let’s end with something that Jim Gibson said in his lecture: No matter what model you choose, you run into insoluable problems. So why not pick a model that aligns itself closest to the Word of God?”
After attending virtually all of the Yes, Creation! presentations, let me close with a few observations of my own:
- Thanks are in order to Tim Standish and the GRI for a very helpful series of pertinent talks. I could have hoped for more diversity of Adventist views such as took place at the Denver Science and Religion Conferences in 2002-2004, but instead most conclusions were not unexpectedly traditional; and certainly a church entity has a right to promote its views. By and large, speakers treated the evidence honestly and respectfully and that is important if they are to be credible.
- Since most conclusions were that there are no scientific models helpful to a literal reading of Scripture and that traditional Adventists should not expect any help from science in their search for truth, this raises the issue of the role of GRI, especially in the new Wilson administration, who made clear in his various presentations during the week that all the truth we need we already have in a literalistic interpretation of the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White. I would suggest that since most human beings, even Adventists, are presumably rational in their thinking, just the presence of GRI is an appropriate church attempt to support rationality. And that can certainly be defended!
- The concerted attempt during the week to bolster a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 by setting in motion a process to change the biblical language in Fundamental Belief #6 to an extra-biblical literalistic interpretation of that language with the apparent motivation to rid the church of anyone with a different interpretation cast a pall on those thinkers in the church who are attempting to follow Ellen White’s counsel that both books of God’s revelation, Scripture and Nature, should shed light on each other. It left us wondering what has happened to the traditional denominational commitment to the concept of “present truth.” Again, we are contra Ellen G. White who has told us there is still more to learn!
- Finally, what is the role of Adventist higher education? Among other goals, I thought it was to help our young people develop their critical faculties so they could stand on their own in any situation and not be merely the “reflectors of the thoughts of others.” This requires helping students to look at all the evidence and current interpretations and paradigms, including their pros and cons, their strengths and weaknesses, so students can make up their own minds, guided by the Spirit in a context which is loyal to the church and its teachings. I’m sorry to say I didn’t hear anything like that during any of the meetings of the recent General Conference Session. I may be among those consigned to “wandering in the wilderness” for a generation till God can raise up a generation following mine that will take His people into the Promised Land.
Larry Geraty earned his Ph.D., in archeology from Harvard University and is president emeritus of La Sierra University.