Science vs. the Interpretation of Scripture
by Russ Spangler | 22 February 2022 |
His name was Galileo Galilei. He was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist from Pisa, Italy. He has been called the father of observational astronomy and even the father of the scientific method and modern science.
In the year 1609 he made some improvements to an invention that would be called a telescope: he increased the magnification from about 3x to 20x, perhaps even 30x. He was able to observe the phases of the moon and the rings of Saturn. He was also credited as the first person to observe the four largest moons surrounding Jupiter.
Later, however, when he openly supported Copernicus’ theories of the earth rotating daily and revolving around the sun, the Catholic Church and the Roman Inquisition took exception! They called these theories heretical because they contradicted scripture—as they then interpreted the scriptures.
Legend has it that as Galileo left one of the final courts where his case was being adjudicated, he is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”). The church may have won the war of words, but in the end, Galileo knew, science would prevail.
And it has. Though it took the Catholic Church about 350 years (not until 1992, in fact) before Pope John II finally acknowledged officially that Galileo was right.
Please notice this: from the very beginning, this debate was not about science vs. scripture. It was science vs. an interpretation of scripture.
The church had gotten it wrong in its interpretation! Science proved that.
Slowly, some Bible students began to understand.
But not all of them. Remember what Elder Ted Wilson said, back in his inaugural sermon on July 3, 2010?
“Just this week we have affirmed in an overwhelming manner, the Seventh-day Adventist church both teaches and believes in the biblical record of Creation which took place recently; in six literal, consecutive, contiguous, 24-hour days. The Seventh-day Adventist Church will never change its stand or belief in that foundational doctrine….”
That last sentence is quite a statement. Has the Seventh-day Adventist church never changed or shifted its position on certain beliefs, since the founding fathers?
In fact, it has! George Knight observed that most of the Adventist founders would not even be able to join our church today if they had to subscribe to all the current Fundamental Beliefs. Or, what about this quotation from the “founding mother”?
“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 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 an error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.”
Yet church conservatives continue to double down. In his now infamous Sabbath sermon of October 9, 2021, at Autumn Council, Elder Wilson proclaimed again:
“The global flood, also denigrated by non-believers, is another indication of God’s power and authority to remake the world…God recently made this earth in six days and rested on the seventh day which He made holy, reminding us of His creative and redemptive power which was all done according to His Word!”
Protecting the truth
Statements like the one above are drafted because good, well-meaning Christians think that they must protect something exactly the way they think God said it. There is a belief among some that God’s choice of language in His communication to early mankind must be defended.
But it was never about God’s language. God chose to let men be His penmen, so the words in the Bible are men’s words about God, not God’s words about Himself or His actions. Sometimes, especially in the Old Testament, these words and views reflect a clear transference by the writers of human characteristics upon God—God’s apparent genocidal hatred toward Israel’s enemies, for example—rather than the truer reflection of God that Jesus would later reveal to us.
Nowhere in the Bible does God teach a science beyond the understanding of the time of those to whom He is communicating. God’s dreams or visions to His prophets had to be written down in a language understandable to the prophet and his audience at that time. If Ezekiel were written today, how do you think he would describe the chariots of fire to modern readers? If Ellen White were writing about bicycles today, would her words not be quite different?
Yes, it took the religious world a few generations to admit that Galileo and Copernicus were right and that we should make a few adaptations to our understanding of how inspiration works.
But that ship has sailed. Is it wise to come out now with dogmatic statements such as “the Seventh-day Adventist church will never change its stand or belief in (x,y,z)….”?
Many (or most?—it is difficult to say) of our denominational Ph.D. science teachers, from all disciplines, have realized that the evidence they have studied in all the geological and paleontological records does not support the traditional literal interpretation of Genesis Scripture. Bryan Ness, a biology professor at Pacific Union College, recently wrote:
“It is past time for Adventist theologians and scientists to reckon with these things and face up to the physical evidence and realize that science cannot ‘prove’ that a literal worldwide flood as described in Genesis happened…If Adventist theologians believe we must maintain a belief in a worldwide flood, then so be it, but it will have to be based on faith alone, invoking God’s miraculous interventions on multiple levels.”
The article includes some interesting quotes from Augustine in the 4th century. Even back then, Augustine was worried what the infidels would think of the Christians when they heard them “presumably giving the meaning of Scripture” but actually talking nonsense about the heavens and earth and the motion and orbit of the stars, etc.
Sound familiar? Our young people today, far more sophisticated in the language and latest scientific research than their parents and grandparents, cringe like Augustine did when they hear some of the dogmatic—and often ignorant—pronouncements from the pulpits of our churches.
The problem with dogmatism
Jack Hoehn in his excellent book Adventist Tomorrow (pp.12,13) asks, “Are you still uneasy with the idea that there can be errors in Adventism? Pardon me, but our church was founded in error…the Millerites were wrong.” He follows with headings such as “Fake Infallible Inspiration,” “Fake Sexual Sins,” Fake Perfectionism,” and “Fake Male Headship.” Under “Fake Chronology,” he says:
“There is no date for creation in the Bible. There is no date for the second coming of Christ in the Bible. Having a doctrine that Jesus will return on October 22, 1844, is just as extra-Biblical as stating that the creation was recent (say six to ten thousand years ago) and everything created happened at that time in the space of 144 hours….”
The problem, as I see it, is that if the things Elder Wilson has pronounced so confidently become church policy or inspire another rewording or addition to the Fundamental Beliefs, then it further divides and alienates a larger and larger segment of existing Seventh-day Adventist church members.
That may actually be the intent, in a way—it is hard to know. But I know that it does result in alienation. Some of my own young family relatives listened to a sermon by this same General Conference president several years ago at Andrews University, where he told the crowd that if they did not believe in a literal six-day recent creation event, then they should no longer consider themselves Seventh-day Adventists. These young relatives turned to one other and said, “I guess we are not Seventh-day Adventists anymore.”
The Huntsville (Alabama) Times reported that Elder Wilson told a gathering of high school and college science teachers on August 15, 2014, that “if they do not believe the Bible’s account of complete creation around 6,000 years ago by the God of the Earth in a literal 24/7 earthly week, they should not even call themselves ‘Adventist.’”
Old John Loughborough got it right, I’m afraid. He said that these creeds of ours would come back to haunt us. As early as 1861, Loughborough said:
“The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.”
We have already reached number four above, apparently. I don’t know if the “compliance” orders sent out to certain union conference leaders qualify for number five—commencing persecution—or not.
A recipe for division
I am convinced, however, that many of these righteous, literal interpretations of Bible truth that can only be seen one way—the dogmatic way that the leadership at the top wishes it to be interpreted—are a recipe for continued dissension. This is especially the case when they are elevated to the level of creeds, as our current Fundamental Beliefs have been.
Consider this. When the archaeologists uncovered their treasured finds in the dirt of Bible lands over the last 100 years, Christians rejoiced because so many of these discoveries verified the names, places and historical accuracy of the Bible. When the geologists and paleontologists uncover their fossil records—records that are equally clear to the scientific community—the fundamentalists of the world remain solidified (I was going to say fossilized) in their 19th-century interpretations. Why is that?
There is one more thing now, though, that must be mentioned. God had a secret, you see, one that could not be seen by the farmers and shepherds of ancient times. This secret language of God, called DNA, was only understood within the last few generations. It has been around since the dawn of time, but only in the last half century has science begun to discover the amazing depth of this latest, greatest language. It is more ancient than Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. It is the a language of the universe, the language of life, present from the very beginnings of the universe
Maybe this is the language that theologians and religions need to spend more time studying in our attempts to better understand how God has communicated with His creation from the beginning. (For an excellent, quick review of DNA and how it relates to the “Beginning,” read Jack Hoehn’s chapters in Adventist Tomorrow, pp. 194-210).
Russ Spangler has an M.A. and B.D. from Andrews University, and Ph.D in Communication from Michigan State University. He has been a pastor, a teacher, a director of admissions at Union College and a broker. He is currently retired with his wife, Ann, in Abbotsford, British Columbia