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Arts and Sciences: A Secular Perspective in Scripture?


Let’s ask Jesus, Paul, and the Twelve to sit around a patio table to talk with us about the arts and sciences in Scripture.

Somehow, I have a hard time visualizing such a scenario. The world has changed, and a great gulf is fixed. Is that why the official study guide has picked “arts and sciences” as a theme for us to explore for a whole week? From my own perspective, I suspect that the reason why these disciplines have been singled out is that they illustrate most vividly the secularist impulse that lurks in the hallways of modern academia. The issues are not the same for the arts as they are for the sciences, but there is a link between them.

In 1994, I presented a paper at both Loma Linda University and La Sierra University entitled “The Future of Biblical Studies in Adventism.”[1] In that paper I included this comment:

I want to speak candidly to the more sophisticated members of my church, including my academic colleagues, those who rub shoulders with sophisticated people who do not believe. The dominance of science in our modern secular world has threatened to push God to the fringes for some, making it more difficult for them to believe. Interestingly enough, the natural scientists are statistically more inclined to believe than are their academic colleagues in either the humanities or the behavioral and social sciences, even though we often perceive the greatest threat to our world view as coming from the natural sciences. One survey reported that 20% of natural scientists do not believe in God, compared with 36% of humanities scholars, and 41% of the social scientists.[2] I suspect that the marvelous complexity of nature makes it more difficult for the natural scientist to believe that it all “just happened.”[3]                                   

The Arts

Devout conservatives have long seen the sciences as a threat to faith, or at least a potential threat. We’ll come to that, but let’s look first at the arts, both the literary and the visual, and both are seen as a threat. When the secularizing impulse tempts the academic to see the Bible as “literature,” rather than as “sacred text,” suspicions are aroused. Yet the Bible is a treasure house of “literature.” We don’t have to diminish its sacred status when we see it as literature. The Bible itself never makes that distinction.

The visual arts are perhaps more problematic because Scripture itself has something to say about that, indeed, right in the heart of the decalogue. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4, KJV).

Because that prohibition against “any likeness” looms large, devout believers have often resisted any visual representations in their worship. The Roman Catholic Church uses images; the Orthodox churches prohibit images but encourage the use of two-dimensional icons; some modern groups prohibit any kind of representation in worship services.

Biblical examples can help us address the question and we can start with the craftsmen Bezelel and Oholiab. The description of Bezelel’s “calling” is especially pointed:

The Lord spoke to Moses: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft” (Exod. 31:1–5 (NRSV).

Now, if Bezelel was filled with a divine spirit (thus “inspired”), do we then have a blank check for the arts as long as worship focuses on the divine rather on the works of a human creator? In describing the wilderness tabernacle, Exodus 25–28 provides a sumptuous list of artistic items: golden cherubim; almond blossoms on the candlestick; woven cherubim in curtains of blue, purple, and crimson; embroidered needlework in the court hangings; precious stones and gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn in Aaron’s vestments; golden bells and pomegranates on the hem of Aaron’s robes. That’s a solid mandate for a fine arts degree at an Adventist liberal arts university!

The description of Solomon’s temple ups the ante with olivewood cherubim, overlaid with gold; engraved carvings of cherubim, lions, palm trees, and open flowers; twelve bronze oxen; bronze pillars with pomegranates and lilies (1 Kings 6–7).

Finally, the description of the restored temple envisioned by Ezekiel maintained that opulent standard with artistic cherubim, palm trees, and lions (Ezek. 40–41).

In short, all three of the sanctuaries/temples described in the Old Testament are lavishly decorated with images from nature. And the robes of the priests were intentionally beautiful, for the “glorious adornment” of the priests (Exod. 28:40). We only worship God, but all the beauties of the earth were given for our enjoyment. For that conclusion, I hear a heart-felt amen from the author of Ecclesiastes: “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11, NLT).

All that lush beauty raises the question about the origin and extent of the self-denial and ascetic impulses in Scripture—and in Adventism. One could cite the austere examples of Elijah the Tishbite and John the Baptist. Yet Jesus explicitly contrasted his “party life” with the abstemiousness of John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard’” Matthew 11:18–19 (NRSV).

Deeply imprinted by the austere abstemiousness of Methodism, early Adventism was solidly in the John the Baptist camp, as indicated by this 1870 anecdote from Gil Valentine, a snapshot of the corporate culture of the Review and Herald Publishing Association:

In a creative attempt to continue strengthening and restoring fellowship, the publishing house was closed and Sabbath observers took a rare day off to gather for an early summer Sunday picnic out at Goguac Lake. It was a rather stiff affair, with no games or lighthearted banter allowed. A temperance talk in the morning was followed by singing and testimonies in the afternoon. Uriah Smith reported the day a success because there was a “gratifying absence of fun.” Ellen White also noted approvingly the absence of “jesting and joking.” [4]

That quote may help us understand why art and beauty have been so long neglected, indeed suppressed, among Adventists and in Adventist institutions. We have made peace with music, but only in recent years have we been able to enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake. Scripture stands solidly against both the ascetic and the hedonistic extremes. But there is no universally successful way to counter the extremes.

In the early years of Adventism, there was never any tussle between the ascetic impulse (“If it looks good, if it tastes good, if it feels good—don’t touch it!”) and the hedonistic impulse (“If it looks good, if it tastes good, if it feels good, give me more!”). All our forebears were sober ascetics.

The Sciences

Among Christians, when we turn from the arts to the sciences, we confront a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, we know that science has greatly benefitted our modern civilization. But, on the other hand, we often feel uneasy because we sense that science could also be a great threat to faith. Do we have to choose between thinking and believing? Between science and faith?

Not at all. The problem only arises because of the deeply rooted belief in “inerrancy” among believers and the devastating effect that such a belief has on those who are seeking an honest faith.

By using the example of polygamy, I will attempt to show why inerrancy is woefully inadequate for describing what we find in the Bible. Most of us would consider polygamy to be wrong. Yet in the Old Testament, polygamy was widely practiced. Abraham, Jacob, and David were all polygamists. And there is no record anywhere in Scripture that God rebuked them for it.

Now, suppose Yahweh wanted to move his people away from polygamy and back toward monogamy. If he moved in that direction too quickly, the people would likely turn to another God (perhaps Baal?), one who understood their customs and culture!

So, what does Yahweh do? Exodus 3:10–11 gives the answer: “If a man who has married a slave wife takes another wife for himself, he must not neglect the rights of the first wife to food, clothing, and sexual intimacy. If he fails in any of these three obligations, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment” (NLT).

In short, if you take a second wife, be sure you treat the first one fairly. That’s a long way from the ideal, but it is a good first step in a culture steeped in the practice of polygamy.

Another crucial factor to consider is that because science is always changing, we should not try to support the Bible by whatever “science” we think we see in Scripture. The Bible stays put, science does not. In short, the Bible is not science in the modern sense.

Yet in some conservative circles it is argued that, in the course of time, science will catch up with Bible, a hazardous conviction, in my view. Yet it is not difficult to find Adventist publications that reflect that position.

But we should first note how that approach is illustrated in popular Christian literature. And we can start with a little book entitled None of These Diseases (1967) written by S. I. McMillen,[5] an evangelical MD and missionary to Africa.

The blurb on the cover of the 1967 edition reads: “Science—4000 years behind times!” A new edition (2000) by his grandson, David Stern, also an MD, is currently published by Baker, though without the striking cover blurb.

Citing Papyrus Ebers, a medical book written in Egypt about 1552, BCE, McMillen mentions “cures” that we would find ridiculous: “To prevent the hair from turning gray, anoint it with the blood of a black calf which has been boiled in oil, or with the fat of a rattlesnake.” Or, apply “worms’ blood and asses’ dung” to embedded splinters. This is McMillen’s comment:

God proceeded to give Moses a number of commandments, which form part of our Bible today. Because these divinely given medical directions were altogether different from those in the Papyrus Ebers, God surely was not copying from the medical authorities of the day. Would Moses, trained in the royal postgraduate universities, have enough faith to accept the divine innovations without adding some of the things he had been taught? From the record we discover that Moses had so much faith in God’s regulations that he did not incorporate a single current medical misconception into the inspired instructions. If Moses had yielded to a [6]natural inclination to add even a little of his modern university training, we would be reading such prescriptions as “the heel of an Abyssinian greyhound” or “the tooth of a donkey crusted in honey,” not to mention the drugs the leading physicians were compounding out of the bacteria-laden dung of dogs, cats and flies.”[7]

In the 2000 edition of None of These Diseases, this statement appears: “Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception.”[8] But if you know your Old Testament laws, you might think of the law in Numbers 5 that outlines a test for an unfaithful wife, a law never mentioned by McMillen. According to Numbers 5, a wife accused of unfaithfulness by her husband must drink holy water mixed with dust from the sanctuary floor. If she is innocent, nothing will happen. If she is guilty, she will have a miscarriage. But whatever the outcome, the accusing husband goes unpunished!

In Adventism, the popular apologist, Rene Noorbergen, author of Ellen G.White: Prophet of Destiny (1974), entitled his fourth chapter, “Science Catches Up with a Prophet.”[9] His logic is the same as McMillen’s.

That logic has prevailed in more official Adventist circles, too. In 1963, for example, the Ellen G. White Estate published the three-volume Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White.[10] At the end of volume 3, Appendix E presented a list of twenty-one items under the heading of “Helpful Points in the Interpretation and Use of the Ellen G. White Writings.”[11] The same principles are applied to the Bible. Items 6 and 7 are particularly noteworthy:

6. Recognize the messages as timeless. The passage of the years has not invalidated the testimony counsels.”

7. Recognize that the counsels are scientifically sound. While the books are not treatises on science as such, they are scientifically accurate. Work in the fields of nutrition and medicine provides increasing scientific support for points which we formerly accepted on the authority of the inspired message alone. Have no fear about believing some things not yet demonstrated in the laboratory or by findings in archaeology. In due time scientific discovery will undoubtedly confirm many more truths God has revealed by inspiration.”

Similarly, in the two-volume publication, Our Firm Foundation, that came out of the 1952 Bible Conference, these statements appear:

Some in our ranks, while receding not a foot from the forward position of belief in all God’s Holy Word, have been a little panic-stricken at times as these ancient missiles have been hurled at them by Bible critics. . . . One of the major subjects of the Bible Conference will be archaeological evidence for Bible inspiration. (F. D. Nichol)[12]

 “The foregoing survey shows that there is much archaeological evidence at our disposal that we can use in support of the authenticity of the Biblical text and the veracity of the historical parts of the Bible. This material used in the right way can give tremendous strength to our fundamentalist position of accepting the whole Bible as God's inspired word. The years of study in the field have profoundly strengthened my confidence in the sure foundation on which our faith is built. We do not need to be afraid to proclaim Bible truths that we cannot prove yet by outside sources, as long as we remain on that sure foundation that has never failed us yet, the infallible Word of God.” (Siegfried Horn)[13]

Knowing that in his later writings Horn preferred to say that archeology “illumines” the Bible, rather than “confirms” the Bible, I was astonished to discover this confirmation of a fundamentalist perspective. When I first read it, I rushed down the hall to the office of my archeologist colleague, Doug Clark, and blurted out my question: “When did Horn change his mind?” Without hesitation Clark responded: “When he discovered that Heshbon wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

Horn did not announce from the house tops his change in perspective. He simply shifted his emphasis from “confirms” to “illumines. And he did it quietly without fanfare.

Towards a Solution

1. Observational wisdom

The book of Proverbs may help us in our dilemma. The biblical passage that appears at the head of our studies for this quarter is Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (NRSV). And in Lesson 1 we discussed the nature of the biblical wisdom books (Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs). In Proverbs we have what could be called “observational” wisdom. The words in Proverbs did not come by way of “revelation” but by the observation of a devout, Spirit-guided believer. Yet, according to Proverbs, all wisdom starts with the “fear of the Lord.” That should motivate us to see more clearly. And we shouldn’t have to deny what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

Perhaps the most helpful proverb when it comes to science is one which describes the process of observing: “Go to the ant, you lazybones: consider its ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6, NRSV).

2. Differing accounts of the same event.

Many believers worry about the effect of science on the early chapters of Genesis. We have no “observation” involved with creation, so it would have to come by way of “revelation.” And it may be that because we have no fewer than four creation accounts in Scripture (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8), Ellen White pointedly says that we know nothing about the “how” of creation:

Just how God accomplished the work of creation He has never revealed to men; human science cannot search out the secrets of the Most High. His creative power is as incomprehensible as His existence. Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), 113.

3. Non-science accounts in the Bible

One of the most striking examples of “non-science” in the Bible is the narrative of Jacob’s genetic tricks. Can one make sheep and goats bear “striped, speckled, and spotted” young by laying peeled rods in front of breeding animals? (See Genesis 30:25–43). That has nothing at all to do with the modern science of genetics. But that doesn’t mean we have to deny the reality of the biblical narrative. By God’s grace we should be able to describe what we see in the Bible and in nature. And we can praise God for what we have seen. And we can seek wholeheartedly to do good science in our modern laboratories.

At the end of the day, the believer and the secularist approach their tasks in much the same way: they describe what they see. The believer senses God’s hand at work, the secularist does not. But both should be able to describe what they see in nature and in Scripture. In other words, we can see a secularist perspective in Scripture and in nature. If we are honest in describing what we have seen, it is not impossible that secularists just might be tempted to believe. That would be good. Very good.


Notes & References:

[1]. Alden Thompson, “The Future of Biblical Studies in Adventism,” February 3, 1994, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA; February 4, 1944, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA. Published as: Chapter 13, “Bible Study,” in The Future of Adventism: Theology, Society, Experience, edited by Gary Chartier, (Ann Arbor, MI: Griffin and Lash, Publishers, 2015), 281–299.

[2]. Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America's Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 146–47, cited in David A. Fraser and Tony Compolo, Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 23.

[3]. Thompson, 295.

[4]. Gilbert Valentine, J. N. Andrews: Mission Pioneer, Evangelist, and Thought Leader (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2019), 400.

[5]. S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases, 2nd ed. (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1967); S. I. McMillen and David Stern, None of These Diseases: The Bible’s Health Secrets for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, a division of Baker Book House, 2000).

5. McMillen, 10.

6. McMillen and Stern, 11.

7. Rene Noorbergen, “Science Catches Up with a Prophet,” Ellen G. White: Prophet of Destiny (New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1972, 1974 [Pivot Edition]), 92–134.

8. Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, 3 volumes (Mt. View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assoc., 1962 [vol. 1], 1963 [vols 2 and 3]).

9. EGW Index, vol. 3, 3211–6.

10. F. D. Nichol, Review and Herald (August 28, 1952) in Our Firm Foundation, vol. 1, edited by M. Thurber (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1953), 23.

11. Siegfried Horn, “Recent Discoveries Confirm the Bible” in Our Firm Foundation, vol. 1, 61–116.


Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash


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