by Ervin Taylor
Part I of this blog presented a summary of a 2005 book entitled Creation, Evolution and Theology: The Role of Method in Theological Accommodation. The author of this book is Dr. Fernando Luis Canale, professor of theology and philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Part II will be my commentary on this book. As noted in Part I, this summary and commentary has been previously published in the Andrew University Seminary Studies.
Part I noted this book was a detailed philosophical and theological defense of traditional Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church understandings of the opening chapters of Genesis. In contrast to the apologetic agenda of the SDA General Conference-sponsored Geoscience Research Institute (GRI), this work does not affirm young–life creationism by using a form of ‘scientific creationism,’ which disputes the interpretation of the empirical data supporting the standard scientific understanding of earth history, geochronology, and evolutionary biology. Rather, the book questions the conventional understanding of the scientific evidence, primarily by focusing what he argues is a postmodern approach to knowledge formation.
This volume constitutes a comprehensive treatise that defends with complex philosophical and theological language the traditional and officially-sanctioned SDA young life creationism — where ‘young’ is generally defined as <10,000 years — understanding of earth history (geology and paleontology) and evolutionary biology. To defend this understanding, it posits as a primary assumption the classic Adventist theological system — the Sanctuary, the Three Angels Messages, the Sabbath is a, “complete system of theology and philosophy. It would appear Dr. Canale believes that to reject or modify any part of this package would cause the collapse of what he views as essential contemporary Adventism.
The purpose of this volume has a long history in the Adventist subculture — that of apologetics defending what is viewed as one or more critical components of conventional or orthodox Adventism. Its uniqueness is in the extended, philosophically complex, set of arguments it employs. As far as this reviewer is aware, there is nothing like it in Adventist literature. To understand the author’s approach requires a close and careful reading. Unpacking the arguments, at least to this reader, took close attention to detail. One has to read carefully, both the text and footnotes, to even begin to understand the basis on which the author argues his points.
Despite the dense nature of the prose, the book is a fascinating read as an outstanding exemplar of what a sophisticated apologetic should look like. Effective apologists, both ancient and modern, not only know the beliefs that must be supported and which ones must be questioned and undermined, but also they understand very clearly the end point at which they must arrive. Their task is to devise the most effective manner of demonstrating to others that what they personally believe to be true — and/or what the institution or ideology to which they owe allegiance, teaches is true or can be logically supported.
As noted earlier, this apologetic does not offer alternative or contrary interpretations of the massive corpus of scientific data indicating the earth has sustained life for multiple hundreds of millions of years. It also does not attempt to enter directly into disputes as to how one should interpret the Genesis texts. Rather, it approaches its task of defending conventional SDA theological understandings of Genesis from almost entirely a philosophical perspective, with a focus on epistemology — how one knows what one says he/she knows.
I am informed by those most familiar with this literature that, with one glaring exception, Dr. Canale does a reasonable job of unpacking the contemporary dialogue and debate between modernist and postmodernist historians and philosophers of science as to the nature of how modern science approaches its task of understanding how the world works and how it has come to its present state. He has read widely in the philosophical literature, particularly that which deals with the scientific enterprise.
However, there is a serious problem bearing on the consistency of his approach where he has been selective in his use of postmodern concepts. It is well known that postmodernists of almost every persuasion reject the meaningfulness and relevance of any grand metanarrative, whereas the core point of Dr. Canale’s apologetic is explicitly focused on a defense of the validity of Ellen White’s Great Controversy metanarrative.
In addition, it appears the author’s understanding of how science is actually pursued by practicing scientists comes only from reading and is not informed at all by any direct experience in a scientific environment. This might account for Dr. Canale’s confusion concerning the nature of the modern scientific impulse. For example, he insists scientists “dismiss supernatural revelation as an invalid source of information on which to build their views,” or that scientific methodology, “disregards the existence of God and his revelation in Scripture as fantasy” (p. 22). In point of fact, for the vast majority of scientists of whom this author is aware by personal contact or reading of their writings, it is not a matter at all of ‘dismissing’ supernatural revelation as fantasy or ‘disregarding’ the existence of God or his revelation.
The core of the scientific impulse in Western scientific thought, almost from its inception, sought to express no opinion on the subject of the supernatural — it neither rejected nor accepted the existence of God. A ‘scientific approach’ to a given topic is characterized by a set of methodological understandings — one of which is that naturalist causes are the only agents to be employed in any scientific argument. The ‘supernatural’ was defined as outside of its purview. That Dr. Canale is not aware of this simple consensus understanding suggests he either may have not read very deeply in the history of science or perhaps finds it difficult to understand this approach.
Dr. Canale is also profoundly misinformed concerning the relationship between evolutionary biology and geochronology. While it is correct that biologists utilize the geochronological framework in their efforts to understand rates of evolutionary change, the contemporary geological time scale does not depend on any assumptions about biological evolution. The core data that geochronology depends upon derives primarily from research in such diverse fields as biochemistry, geochemistry, geophysics, and above all, nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry. None of the critical data derives from evolutionary biology. It is simply totally and factually incorrect to state, as Dr. Canale does, that geochronology is structured, “by assuming biological evolution” (p. 68).
Finally, although there are some scientists who do indeed argue that, “real things are only those that can be ascertained through sensory perception and/or technological enhancement” (p. 21), the core constituencies of the mainline modern scientific community express no views about the ontological nature of reality. This is a domain of philosophy and theology. Scientists in their personal lives can and do hold and express a whole range of views — from an absolute ontological atheism, to membership and active participation in very traditional faith communities including traditional Christian faith traditions.
In my view, the most glaring and serious problematic aspect of this volume is the author’s assumption that his interpretation of the data received from his reading of the Bible comes directly from God. Creationist perspective, which a reader would assume means his view, he argues, “springs from divine revelation, God’s summary account of his handiwork…Theological data originates from divine revelation and inspiration.” It appears it is on this highly questionable foundation that Dr. Canale builds the core of his complex arguments. It would appear Dr. Canale assumes that theologians who agree with him obtain their information directly from God and thus can be trusted to provide entirely accurate information about how the world and life upon it came to be. Theologians who disagree with him, and almost all scientists, obviously do not receive their information from God and thus cannot be trusted to provide the correct answers to these questions. I will leave it to the reader to evaluate that position.
In addition, it has been pointed out to this reviewer that Dr. Canale is either not aware of or disagrees with the clear and unambiguous views of Ellen White that the “Bible…is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented…The Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech” (E.G.White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 21 (1890), 22 (1891).
It should be emphasized, the conceptual framework outlined in the pages of this volume belies the popular imagery of fundamentalists — including SDA fundamentalists — as uninformed, uneducated, or intellectually challenged. This densely-argued work of scholarship should lay that myth to its final rest. If any further evidence is required on this point, consulting many of the articles appearing in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (ATS) should provide conclusive confirmation.
Like most of the chapters in The Fundamentals (the work which became the symbol of the modern American conservative Protestant Fundamentalist movement in the early decades of the 20th Century) Dr. Canale’s work and the other scholarly works contributed by members of the ATS represent a strong intellectualist counter movement to the progressive trends in Adventist theological scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s. The late 20th to early 21st century Adventist ‘Counter Reformation’ mounted by the ATS and its allies is well served by Dr. Canale’s volume. In some respects, it represents an exemplar of an ATS apologetic scholastic treatise. One suspects the late Dr. Gerhard Hasel, the architect of the ATS ‘Counter Reformation,’ would have been very proud of this volume.
From the perspective of this reviewer, the conclusions of the author are profoundly problematic and, for Adventism, reactionary and retrogressive. Its creative and heroic arguments, expressed in complex philosophical language, are employed to defend what are viewed by some as critical elements of the Adventist master theological narrative, a narrative created within, and whose expressive symbols are rooted in, conservative 19th Century American cultural values. Dr. Canale’s arguments are conceptually complex but, at their core, they advance an essentially fundamentalist approach to Scripture and employ that approach to endorse retrogressive arguments about how 21st Century Adventist Christians should understand the Genesis creation narratives. A number of other Adventist theologians have already pointed out that a positive appreciation of the role of the Biblical Sabbath in an Adventist Christian context does not depend on or require interpretations that the Genesis Creation narratives be understood as representing actual or literal history.
Despite its philosophical sophistication, Dr. Canale’s treatise is an exemplar of an Adventist approach to a theological topic which is fatally trapped by its wholesale commitment to a historically- and culturally-particularistic American 19th century conceptual package. The Adventism of the 21st Century in North America may have a meaningful future if it can reappropriate and renew the commitment to ‘present truth’ that was exhibited in the 19th Century, when its original conceptions were formulated.
However, the general difficulty established faith communities have in reevaluating the validity and relevance of their original ‘present truth’ messages do not give us much hope this process can occur. The tragic results of the SDA Faith and Science conferences, held several years ago, provide vivid testimony of how difficult it is for religious traditions once solidified and institutionalized to come to terms with reality.
Part III of this blog will be a response from Dr. Canale to my review and commentary on his book.