In San Antonio a few weeks ago, Church delegates voted modifications to the wording of Fundamental Belief #6 having to do with the Genesis story of creation. The innocent sounding word "recent" was added, declaring that the creation was recent. While there were other words added that probably deserve attention also, brevity requires that I keep the discussion to this one word. The silence from the Church at large is probably some indication that most members are either supportive or indifferent to this vote, yet for me as someone who would like to see the best interest of the Church advanced, it is difficult to envision how staking out a position that runs directly against an abundance of physical evidence will have a positive outcome for the Church. As we analyze the credibility of changes to this belief, it will be important to keep in mind the “what” and the “how” elements that pertain to all knowing. What do we know? How do we know it? And specifically, how do we know creation was recent?
These are not trite questions as some of the brightest minds on earth spend their lives studying the critical role “process” plays in the acquisition of knowledge. In my use of the word “knowledge” I am referring to understandings that have some correspondence to reality, assuring that the idea will stand the test of time. But it is the process itself that gets us there—the “how” in knowing that is critically important.
Unfortunately, many people today are inclined to push aside attention to process, for we live in a postmodern culture that is focused primarily on the “what.” The trend for many is to not be burdened with the detail, all that is wanted is the end conclusion. This is painfully obvious on talk radio and some of the cable news channels that spout all kinds of things without offering up any supporting data—or tangential at best. As a procedural matter, the “how” must be discussed first if the “what” is to have genuine credibility, otherwise we are left with nothing but more than cheap opinion.
If length were not a consideration it would be worth reviewing the reign of superstition and credulity down through history, as there are lessons to be learned. But as Enlightenment values gained currency, the undeniable power of sense and reason led to a paradigm shift. Central to this shift was the discovery that the world was governed by regularities that could be distilled to laws and principles. The power of this approach is now on full display by way of our modern technological world.
Yet, in spite of this, there are still voices who question the value of the Enlightenment thinking on issues where scriptural interpretations intersect with science. So, let’s spend a few moments reflecting on each of these values, and start by considering the role of the senses in human knowing. Most of the time we take them for granted, and it is not until we lose one or more of them that we discover their real importance. Most of us know people who have lost at least one of their senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch or smell. But what if a person lost all of their senses? What then?
Think about it, if we were to lose all of our five senses at once, we would be completely isolated from the rest of the world. We would have no sensory inputs, no sensor feedback mechanism. It would be the ultimate prison—merely an isolated mind in a sea of seeming nothingness. This, then is the point: whatever the limitations of the senses, they are extremely powerful, and we diminish their importance to our detriment.
Those who give reflection to the quest for knowledge and how it is acquired in any formal sort of way often put religious dogma in the category of mythology. Not infrequently religious people can be quite offended by this designation, and partly this is a function of not fully understanding the definitional usage. In common parlance the term “myth” references an idea or story that is not real. But as more formally used in academic circles, it refers to the tentative. When used in this broader way it becomes easier to see that myths can be profoundly true, but they can also be profoundly off base. Mythology often addresses purpose and meaning, and talks about what is ultimately real without the ability to deliver proof in the same way that empirical knowledge can. This is the reason why ethereal matters should hold a more tentative place in our thinking. It perhaps offers a clue as to why on those occasion when the ethereal has the capacity to be informed by sense data, there is wisdom in paying attention.
Let me provide a pragmatic example of real world problem religion in general faces. Consider the universe of religions that exist in the world today that offers up some explanation of reality. Objectively it would be a daunting task to evaluate all of them, particularly if we want to drill into the “how do we know” aspect of these master narratives. Even if such an inquiry were to be limited to just Christianity, there are still an estimated 40,000 or so permutations. Each offers a view of reality that differs in some respect from the others, with some of these formulations even being mutually exclusive. For this reason alone we know they can’t all be right. But which one is right and how would we know?
This brings us to Adventism. Most readers familiar with Adventist history will be aware that the Church was founded by individuals with a high interest in “right belief.” Adventists, from the beginning, wanted to put together a formulation of reality that had integrity. This involved a lot of study and debate, with the process extending over a period of many decades. During those earlier times “truth” was understood as a dynamic process and was often referred to as “present truth,” meaning, this is how the founders understood things at that time, with it being subject to new evidence affording a more mature and informed understanding at some later date.
But an interesting transformation took place as the community of believers gelled on understandings, the dynamic that started as “present truth” tended to fossilize—both formally and informally—into rigid dogma that was referred to as “the truth.” Colloquial language is now often sprinkled with expressions that suggest the unchanging nature of human understanding of the sacred—expressions such as, “being born into the truth,” “converting to the truth,” “having the truth,” and “sharing the truth.” Such phrasings tend to trivialize what humans know, particularly the ethereal realm of religious dogma, and they also treat doctrine inflexibly. When flexibility of understanding diminishes the less it can be counted as something dynamic.
In reflecting on this trend, it seems to me that perhaps the key to understanding the tendency towards rigid and inflexible beliefs and the diminishment of a dynamic truth is a latent tendency to elevate tradition, with it often acting as the gatekeeper. There is a bit of irony in all of this given the Church’s founders vehement opposition to both creeds and undue reliance upon tradition.
But when tradition is in control, the first level of analysis for a new idea goes to the question of whether it is compatible with the traditional understanding. It often becomes an obstacle in the way of serious analysis, but if a process is to be credible, tradition cannot just be the gatekeeper, it must also be a part of the analysis. In today’s Adventist Church, this does not seem to be happening.
Perhaps the most recent example of this new way of doing business was the Faith and Science Conference last year in St. George, Utah. In an open and honest inquiry it would have been expected that all of the leading scientists within the denomination (including those that have challenged the traditional Adventist interpretation on Genesis) would have been called in to dialogue with the theologians, with no preconceived end-result other than to find a way to elevate the best Adventist understanding of reality regarding Genesis. It is realistic to assume that optimal framing could only have occurred through a dynamic, rather than a closed, process.
By taking a hermeneutically narrow approach, Adventist dogma on Creation has done a number of things: 1) it has elevated an informal belief to a formal status; 2) in the process it has made doctrine in this area less open and flexible (the dynamic has been neutered); 3) it has declared by its action that the human senses contribute nothing of value; 4) by formally adopting this narrow interpretation, the Church now has a Fundamental Belief that is unaccountable to the senses—one of the elements most central to human knowing; 5) finally, it would appear that tradition has been the most important driver in arriving at the word “recent,” it being a stand-in term for the Adventist traditional understanding of Creation having occurred around 6000 years ago. While there are a few apologists for this view who are practicing scientists and perhaps argue that science is misinterpreting the data, it is important to remember that science is not practiced as a partisan sport, nor are the views of individual scientists considered dispositive—as the science disciplines are practiced by peer review. So the burden of proof is on the outliers. The end result is a Fundamental Belief that runs decisively against consensus science, with tradition apparently being the tail that wags the dog.
As a 4th generation Adventist, my own worldview was shaped early by the traditional Adventist interpretation of Genesis that purported to address the age of the earth. Yet we do not live in a vacuum, and we have been forced to confront some very inconvenient facts represented in nature. So much so that one of the Church’s leading scientists from the Geoscience Research Institute is quoted as saying: “We have no working ‘short creation’ [scientific] model and probably shouldn’t expect one.” Left unspoken was the fact that there is a working scientific model that fits a long chronology and it is based on multiple streams of data that are quite consistent.
The historic framework for the Adventist view that Creation was “recent” is quite well known among its members. While the term itself is ambiguous, Adventist history in this regard is not, given the numerous Ellen White citations that this event occurred about 6000 years ago. The point here is this, the word “recent” for Adventists is not a relative term. It is, in fact, quite specific.
If we were to trace this idea back, it appears to have come from Bishop James Ussher, a 16th century Anglican, who developed a biblical chronology that involved stringing the ages of the biblical Patriarchs end-to-end, and from that, deducing that creation occurred around 4004 BCE. This idea gained wide currency in earlier generations and probably partly as a result of it appearing in the margins of most King James Bibles printed up through the end of the nineteenth century. In addressing this methodology the late Siegfried Horn, a well-regarded professor at Andrews University, explained the folly of relying upon such methodologies.1 The Bible was simply not written to provide humans with an answer to the question of when creation occurred.
Given the Church’s now adopted formal position that is specifically contrary to an overwhelming amount of physical data—and recognizing that the idea of the word “recent” comes directly from the views of Ellen White—likely influenced by Ussher—the elephant in the room must be confronted directly. The question that must be asked today is, "Since the Church is now staking its credibility and relevance in the world to views held by Ellen White 150 years ago, are there any examples of things Ellen White said that are unambiguously falsifiable?" If the answer is “NO” then perhaps we could conclude that the San Antonio update to Fundamental Belief 6 was reasonable. However, if the answer is “YES” then surely there is folly in what happened.
As we contemplate this question I am mindful that whatever the flaws of Ellen White, she was remarkable in many ways, and certainly deserving of respect. So what I am doing here is not so much attempting to diminish her genuine gifts, as to lay out the nature and basis of what has just taken place in San Antonio. The reality is, there are numerous examples of her having made incorrect statements, including some that come with the solemnity of “I was shown…” There is no need to dig up every example of error, as one good example should demonstrate the point I wish to make by the Church now formally positioning Ellen White against the considered wisdom of 21st century science.
Let us reflect, for example, on Ellen White’s statement regarding a conference she had attended where she said: “I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: ‘some food for worms…some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.’” See Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, and p. 131-132. This statement was made in 1856, and it should be obvious by now that no one at that conference is still alive, and therefore the statement turned out to be false.
As we consider the “what do we know” aspect of Fundamental Belief 6, it should be clear that the “how do we know it” part of the equation is critical, given this traditional view is in significant tension with physical data. We now find ourselves living in parallel worlds—one world that attempts to remain true to the fair reading of data, and the other being the world of dogma, literal readings and such. So how do we sort this all out?
For starters, this is a postmodern age. It is the age that primarily concerns itself with the “what” of belief. This is an age that allows Adventist to throw off the shackles of Enlightenment values. “How” questions for postmodernists now appear to be frivolous. Sense-based knowledge has been deemed as unimportant. No longer does God’s book of nature count as a worthwhile part of the equation.
There are a variety of postmodernist definitions, but the common thread, other than the rejection of the Enlightenment values, seems to be the tendency to hold “truth” to be relative to the holder. As Edward O. Wilson states in his book Consilience, for postmodernists, reality “is a state constructed by the mind, not perceived by it.” That’s a pretty important insight and probably bears pondering. As such, process is not terribly important to the postmodern, nor particularly sensory inputs. In such a world there may be a scientific reality, but for the postmodern Adventist, there is now an Adventist reality that doesn’t care much about the scientific reality.
There would seem to be no immediate penalties for postmodern Adventism. But those who now dismiss data will be forced to confront it at some point. First and foremost it will come up in evangelistic outreach because the targetable audience has been narrowed significantly. The present wording of Fundamental Belief 6 will be a red flag for many potential interests. How does the evangelist get around telling potential converts who reads the belief, they must put data aside if they are to make a decision for Jesus? This may not be a problem for other postmodern converts or those who suffer from an information deficit, but it will represent a barrier for the vast majority of those living in the first world. There will also eventually be a rendezvous with history, and from past history, itself, we already have a clue how this all turns out. Furthermore, the term “Adventist scientist” has now become a bit oxymoronic, and a somewhat endangered species.
Regardless of how the average member currently relates to this Fundamental Belief revision, real world data will not be going anywhere, and thus, neither will the controversy. In the meantime, those who know something about the evidentiary lay of the land will surely mourn the hermeneutical indifference shown to the sense realities. Meanwhile, we can hear echoes of “truth can be fair,” and “…we must walk in the increasing light,” and other such statements.2 Reflectively, perhaps the biggest tragedies out of San Antonio related to the disrespect shown to the Church’s founding mother in light of her attitude towards truth, but also lost opportunities for turning reachable convert interests into the unreachable.
￼1 Siegfried Horn's article first appeared in the print addition of Spectrum Vol. 10, No. 3, p. 15. It was also reprinted in the Spectrum website series, Bringing the Real World to Genesis, Apr. 30, 2014.
2 See, specifically Counsels to Writers and Editors, beginning the section around p. 33 and forward. Ellen White stated, “We must not look upon new light with suspicion; truth can be fair, but we must not think, "Well, we have all the truth, we understand the main pillars of our faith, and we may rest on this knowledge." "The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light. When God's people are at ease, and satisfied with their present enlightenment, we may be sure that He will not favor them. It is His will that they should be ever moving forward, to receive the increased and ever-increasing light which is shining for them" (Counsel to Writers and Editors p. 33; 41); "There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation," p. 35.
Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.