A Guide to the Debate on Revision of the Doctrine of Creation: Pro/Con Views, Definitions
By Ervin Taylor, July 6, 2015: Debate begins today on a proposed revision of paragraph 6 in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs on the doctrine of creation. Currently it reads as follows:
Creation: God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity. In six days the Lord made “the heaven and the earth” and all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His created work. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was “very good,’’ declaring the glory of God. (Gen. 1; 2; Ex. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Heb. 11:3.)
The proposal for the revised text is as follows with the bold type indicating the changes proposed:
Creation: God is the Creator of all things. He has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical perpetual memorial of His completed creative work. The first man and woman were made in the account of His creative activity. In a recent six day creation, the Lord made “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” and rested on the seventh day. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His creative work, performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it When the world was finished it was “very good,” declaring the glory of God (Gen. 1-2; 5, 11; Ex. 20:8-11, Ps. 19:1-6; 33.:6, 9; 104. Isa. 45:12; Acts 17:24; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11.3: Rev. 10:6; 14:7).
The current text of paragraph 6 was adopted at the 1980 General Conference session. Previously, no statement of Adventist beliefs had included a statement specifically addressing the topic of Creation. Since 1980, various conservative para-church organizations—most prominently, the Adventist Theological Society (ATS)–have been forcefully advocating that the 1980 statement did not go far enough in expressing what these organizations viewed as the “traditional” Adventist position on creationism. Many of the additions advocated by the ATS have been incorporated into the proposed revision. It has also been noted that attempts to add language advocated by the ATS to paragraph 6 were materially advanced when the recently reelected General Conference President assumed power 5 years ago.
Arguments of those supporting the revision of the current statement:
It appears that some Adventists believe that the current text of paragraph 6 is not specific enough; more details should be added. They believe that Young Earth and/or Young Life Creationism (See definitions below) correctly teach what Genesis is presenting. These individuals are concerned that some Adventists understand the term “six days” expression to refer to six periods of time, not to six literal days. In the view of those supporting the revision in wording, the current statement also fails to address the question of how long ago the creation took place. Supporters of the revision are concerned that some Adventists believe that the Creation took place over a period much longer than a few thousand years. They seem to be concerned that some Adventists are comfortable with creation taking tens of thousands of years, and that others talk about millions and billions of years.
Those Adventists who have adopted these views characterize themselves as, or are sometimes referred to as, Progressive Creationists or Theistic Evolutionists (See definitions below). Those supporting the revision protest that such a belief destroys the reason for Sabbath worship, pointing out that the writings of Ellen G. White indicate that she believed in a very recent Creation week of six literal days. They believe that the views of White concerning the creation narratives should be made part of paragraph 6. They believe that not believing in a literal, recent creation about 6,000 years ago (to quote White’s statements) undermines the entire world-view contained in what some Adventists view as White’s Magnum opus, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan.
Arguments of those opposing the revision of the current statement:
The majority of Adventists opposing the adoption of the proposed change appear to see no reason to add language that is not contained in the Bible. These individuals are creationists (See definition below). However, they do not agree that Young Earth and/or Young Life Creationism (See definitions below) correctly interprets what Genesis is teaching. Some fear that such an addition would further advance a Fundamentalist (See definition below) ethos in the Adventist denomination. In their view, the addition of the term “recent” introduces a modern, extra biblical interpretation of the text.
Some of those individuals identify themselves as Progressive Creationists or Theistic Evolutionists (See definitions below). Those who oppose the revision sometimes point out that the Creation narratives were not intended to present specific details about how or when Creation occurred. In their view, using the genealogies of Genesis in an attempt to calculate the date of creation imposes a modern, extra biblical point of view on the text. In addition, those opposing the change note that adding “recent” does not solve the concerns of some Adventists because of various interpretations of what “recent” means. Also, since the Adventist denomination states that it does not believe in the inerrancy of theological opinions of White, it is the view of those opposing the revision that her statements must be placed in appropriate context in terms of the period during which they were written as well as the purposes for which they were originally written.
In the strict sense of the term, it would seem that one could reasonably assume that all Christian theists would agree that the Christian God is the ultimate creator of everything that is good in the universe. However, among several billion Christians, including among Adventist Christians, there is a wide array of views with regard to the details. Because of this, to communicate effectively, it is necessary to define several types of “creationists” and “creationisms.”
Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
Some creationists are “Young Earth Creationists” (YEC). These creationists take the view that the text of Genesis teaches that the earth was created by the Christian God in the “recent” past based on what is considered a “common sense” reading of the Genesis text. Some would call this type of reading of a biblical text to be a “literalistic” approach. Differences among YEC adherents exist due to the variability in what they think “recent” means. Traditionally, for those whose English translation of the Bible was the King James Version (KJV), the Creation was placed about 6,000 years ago.
Until the 20th century, the figure of 4004 BC (i.e. about 6,000 years) ago, was printed in the Genesis, Chapter 1 margins of the KJV. There appears to have been a tendency for some to have assumed that these numbers were part of the biblical text and thus the 4004 BC figure was “inspired.” In fact, these figures were placed in the margin by an unknown editor during the reprinting of the KJV text about 50 years after the original publication. Within the Adventist tradition, some have suggested that the denomination’s prophetic co-founder, Ellen G. White, assumed that this figure was part of the biblical text, as did many of her 19th century conservative Protestant contemporaries. According to this view, this misunderstanding is the source of her view about the age of the Creation.
Other YEC supporters, including some Adventist YEC adherents who consider themselves theologically orthodox, do not accept the “about 6,000 year” figure. Some of these would extend the time of the creation of the earth to 10,000 years, some to as much as 50,000 years, and figures of several 100,000s of years are even cited, although very rarely. However, no YEC adherent will accept millions and billions of year for the age of the earth. Some YEC believers also insist that not only is the age of the earth “recent” but the entire universe—e.g., all of the stars—were also created in the “recent” past.
Young Life Creationism (YLC)
Some creationists are adherents of “Young Life Creationism” (YLC). These individuals are concerned with the age of life on planet earth. Those who adhere to this position believe that Christians may accept the view that earth, solar system, and universe are multiple billions of years old in line with the current scientific evidence. However, for YLC believers, those who “believe in the Bible” must take the view that the created life forms on earth must be “recent.” As with those that adhere to the YEC position, what “recent” means is defined in different ways by different groups of YEC adherents. It ranges from the traditional “about 6,000” years to as much as several hundreds of thousands of years.
We might observe that all YEC adherents are also YLC believers, but some YLC believers reject YEC interpretations. An example of those who reject YEC arguments, but support the YLC position includes the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Because of this position of the GRI, other non-Adventist Creationist activist organizations which support of the YEC position assert that the GRI holds to a “liberal” position on this topic.
Some Christians, including some Adventist Christian creationists, reject both the YEC and YLC positions. Many of these individuals state that they take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Some of these individuals argue that YEC and YLC adherents do not understand the original religious, historical, and cultural contexts that formed the reasons why the original Hebrew creation narratives contained in the Bible were composed using “days” as the means of expressing how the Hebrew deity created.
Some of those holding to non-YEC/YLC positions view themselves as adhering to in some form what sometimes is referred to as “Progressive Creation.” Although details differ, the main perspective of such adherents expresses the view that God’s creative activity unfolded over the long geological ages that have been discovered by modern scientific methods. There is a great diversity in the details, but these individuals continue to view divine action as operating over billions of years to form slowly (“slowly” from the human point of view) the life forms that have appeared on earth.
Some Christians, including some Adventist Christians, who reject the YEC/YLC position, do not dispute the validity of the positions advanced by those identifying themselves as Progressive Creationists. Again, while there are a number of variations in the specifics of the positions held, those who identify themselves as “Theistic Evolutionists” emphasize that the means that God employed in the development of life forms on earth include biological evolutionary processes such as natural selection, as studied by those in the biological sciences. Some of the original ideas behind natural selection are associated with the career of the 19th century English naturalist, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his somewhat younger contemporary, Alfred Wallace (1823-1913). The ideas first advanced in great detail by Darwin, as modified in a number of ways by many scientists over the last 165 years, provided the basis for the unification of the life sciences to explain scientifically how the great diversity of biological forms on earth evolved over long geological ages. In the view of theistic evolutionists, God employed the mechanisms discovered by modern science to accomplish his Creation over billions of years of geological time.
Fundamentalism and Fundamentalist
The terms “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” are being used differently in the contemporary popular media and in serious theological, historical, and/or sociological discourse. In serious discussions, these terms are defined based on how they were originally coined by those who first characterized themselves as Christian “fundamentalists” in the early decades of the 20th century. The first use of “Fundamentalist” (with the first letter capitalized) in association with a religious movement has been traced to a 1922 article.
In scholarly contexts, the terms are used descriptively, with no pejorative connotations. They were introduced in a series of essays written between 1910 and 1915 that were subsequently collected into several volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Those who have studied the development of Christian fundamentalism have identified a number of sources reaching as far back as the 17th century in both England and America. The ideas and concerns that generated the earliest manifestation of this movement came together within several American Protestant denominations in the late 19th century, continuing into the early 20th century. Today, Christian Fundamentalism continues as an important force in American religious life within a number of denominations.
The rise of Fundamentalism is most directly associated with a reaction to the rise of 19th century Protestant theological liberalism and the dominance of cultural modernism in the Western world. Although the movement espoused a number of traditional orthodox Christian doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement and the literal nature of biblical accounts with particular attention to the Creation accounts in Genesis, it was the doctrine of biblical inerrancy that generated the most heated conflicts within a number of mainline American Protestant churches. Simply stated, the basic idea behind a belief in biblical inerrancy argues that there are no errors of historical or scientific fact in the Bible. To paraphrase a statement written under the name of White, she stated that “properly understood” there is no conflict between the Bible and “true science.”
One interpretation of the current effort to add more specific non-biblical language to paragraph 6 is that Adventism in 2015 is revisiting the same type of process that other Protestant bodies experienced more than 100 years ago. By the 1920s, Adventism still retained much of its 19th century cultic and sectarian ethos, to which was added its adoption of many of the theological perspectives that reflected the influence of ideas associated with how Fundamentalists interpreted Scripture. This stance reached a peak by the 1930s. Because of the need to gain accreditation for our undergraduate colleges due to the requirement that the Adventist medical school at Loma Linda could only accept students from accredited colleges, an unintended consequence of this requirement was that Adventism in North America began a process of intellectual maturation. One outgrowth of this process is that the parts of Adventism in the United States, Europe and Australia began to distance themselves from Adventism’s fundamentalist past. This process reached a peak in the decades of the 1960 and 1970s. However, this movement began to be curtailed because of pushback from traditional elements in the church. The ability of North American and other First World Adventism to influence the Adventist Church body politic as a whole was also curtailed as the result of a large influx of converts from the Third World.
The ATS (according to its founding documents) resulted from a well-organized and well-financed effort to return Adventism to its fundamentalist theological doctrines, including the substitutionary atonement and a literal reading of Genesis 1 to 11, doctrines which were involved in the origins of the Fundamentalist movement. Manifestation of the success of its efforts was the fundamentalist-oriented report which came out of the Adventist General Conference Faith and Science Conferences of a decade ago. One of the fruits of those conferences can be seen in proposed changes in paragraph 6 which will be considered at the 2015 General Conference session.
Dr. Ervin Taylor is a long-time contributor to Adventist Today. He is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church as well as the board of the Adventist Today Foundation.