by Ervin Taylor

It is interesting reading statements which are posted on ultra conservative Adventist blogs such as EducateTruth (sic) or even in articles published in the Adventist Review and, in some cases, in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, dealing with the so-called evolution-creationism controversy currently raging in First World Adventism. From these one might get the impression that individuals opposing the contemporary scientific understanding of earth history among Adventists are uniformly uninformed, uneducated, and intellectually challenged. This is simply factually incorrect. Many are, but there are also a few detailed philosophical and theologically complex approaches whose aim is to defend the traditional Adventist Young Life Creationism (YLC) position. However, these efforts generally do not gain a wide audience in more popular Adventist media. In this blog, I seek to rectify that.

Let us consider a work of Dr. Fernando Canale, professor of theology and Christian philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Theological Seminary at Andrews University. In his Creation, Evolution, and Theology: The Role of Method in Theological Accommodation, published in 2005, Dr. Canale advances a very sophisticated and densely-argued apologetic for the Adventist version of the YLC position. In Part I of this discussion, I would first like to present a summary of the arguments presented in this book. These comments have been taken from a review article I published in the Andrews University Seminary Studies in 2008 (Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 83-90).  In Part II, I will offer my response to Dr. Canale’s propositions.

In contrast to the apologetic agenda of the SDA General Conference-sponsored Geoscience Research Institute (GRI), this book does not affirm the YLC position by using a form of ‘scientific creationism.’ Scientific creationism disputes the interpretation of the empirical data supporting the standard scientific understanding of earth history, geochronology, and evolutionary biology.  Dr. Canale does not do that. Rather, he seeks to dispute the philosophical basis on which the entire modern scientific enterprise operates when dealing with these topics. He clearly distances himself from the simplistic fundamentalist apologetic approach to science typically exemplified in popular young earth and/or young life creationist works such as most of those produced by the Answers in Genesis or Institute for Creation Research organizations.
The centerpiece of his approach is to argue for a postmodern rather than modern understanding of how best to understand the natural world and all of physical reality.  He states that science builds on a form of modernist understanding of knowledge. By contrast, in his view, a postmodern “philosophy of science showed that all knowledge results from contributions made by both the object and the subject…[T]o know is to interpret.”

To Dr. Canale, this means it is necessary to reinterpret ‘the meaning of objectivity.’ Modern thought, he insists, assumes the existence of an “absolute universal truth” independent from the subject’s contribution.  A postmodern approach, he says “…allows for conflicting interpretations of knowledge.” and “places [the creation-evolution debate] on a different footing” (p. 9-10).

Continuing this line of thought, the author notes it is “through sensory perception that natural and historical entities are revealed to human reason (p. 20). “Scientists…believe that their information derives from ‘real’ rather than ‘imaginary’ things…They assume that real things are only those that can be ascertained through sensory perception and/or technological enhancement…Scientists implicitly presuppose an understanding of what ‘real’ means” (p. 21)

Dr. Canale insists the development of postmodern philosophical views “mean that a theology based on the principal of sola Scripture is not irrational. What scientists call speculation or guesswork, in creating and building a comprehensive evolutionary worldview, Scripture calls divine inspiration. Evolution stands as the rational explanation produced by the scientific community in the Western world, while biblical inspiration stands as the rational explanation of the community of faith received from God by way of divine revelation and inspiration.” (p. 50-51)

“We are forced to choose and in practice accept one of the competing theories [evolution or creation] as absolutely true. This acceptance is not based on reason or method, but on faith or the relative confidence we personally have on the theory we adopt as being the most persuasive explanation of reality” (p. 74).

To reiterate this important point, Canale emphasizes the source of data on which evolutionary views are based come from a study of the natural world. In contrast, he insists creationist views “springs from divine revelation, God’s summary account of his handiwork” (p. 74). The “scientific method works from empirical data. Christian theology, on the other hand, works from data believed to be supernaturally revealed.” (p. 91)

Based on this line of argument, the author insists that “[C]reationists have a broader index of reality than evolutionists. The former includes God and his revelation, while the latter excludes them. This divergence about the index of reality becomes the leading macro-hermeneutical difference between the two conflicting metanarratives. Creation and evolution are not only competing in the scientific attempt to interpret the history of our planet, but, as they elicit our assent, they become metanarratives we accept by faith and use to build our understanding of the world and of Christian theology” (pp.74-75). He later elaborates that view by suggesting “[s]cientific data originates from sensory-perception experiences.  Theological data originates from divine revelation and inspiration.  For this reason, complementarity is not possible.” (p. 102)]

The author posits that “The truth is that each [evolution and creation] is an equally persuasive account of reality as a whole. The conflict between them…will never be solved rationally, only eschatologically” (p. 75). In a footnote, Dr. Canale explains this statement by suggesting, “the creation theory will be corroborated and verified” only when God manifests himself “in space and time at the end of human history” (footnote 84, p. 85). 

Since its origins, Adventism “worked from a specific macro-hermeneutical perspective that E.G. White called the ‘pillars’ of Adventist faith…the Sanctuary, the “Three Angels’ Messages, the Sabbath, and the non-immortality of the soul.” (p. 107). Because of this, the question Dr. Canale says is, “not merely whether evolution is compatible with the Genesis account of creation, but whether evolution is coherent with the Adventist theological system of beliefs” (p. 136). He admits “Adventist theology arose from the naïve assumption that Scripture reveals things as they really are…[The] “doctrine of the Sanctuary, a pillar of Adventist theology, opened to view a complete system of theology and philosophy.” (p. 137). This ‘complete system of theology and philosophy’ is better known to Adventists as the “Great Controversy” or as Dr. Canale would characterize it the “Great Controversy metanarrative.”

In a summary comment, Dr. Canale, suggests that, “evolutionary theory challenges much more than the deep historical-theological meaning of Gen[esis] 1-2. It calls for a wholesale deconstruction and reinterpretation of the fundamental principles of Adventist theology and the rejection of the historical understanding of salvation as presented in Scripture. Accommodation to evolutionary history implies rejecting and replacing the theological revolution from which Adventism originated. In turn, the community will lose the uniqueness that is its reason for existing.” (p. 139)

Part II of this blog will comment on the propositions Dr. Canale advances in this work.