Ages of the Earth and Mankind: No Answers in Genesis or Ellen White, Part II
by Ervin Taylor, June 6, 2016: In Part I, we noted that in 2015, the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church, in General Conference assembled, adopted a “fundamental” position that declared that the creation of life on this planet occurred “recently,” that it was accomplished in six, literal, 24-hour days, and that a recent, literal, world-wide flood occurred.
In Part II, I would like to begin to provide a historical background to the most important causes of the current theological polarization within First World Adventism concerning the nature of the creation narratives in Genesis. This position clearly contradicts what is known on the basis of scientific evidence about the physical history of our planet and life upon it. This fact may raise the question: If a faith tradition can be so mistaken about such a well-established scientific understanding, what does that say about its theology?
We earlier asked: “Why does corporate Adventism believe that, on this point, it is correct?” To address that question, we suggested in Part I where early Adventism obtained the key elements of its understanding of the Genesis creation narratives. We identified the two most important elements as being statements contained in the corpus of the writings of Ellen White and the influence of American Fundamentalism.
For those who would argue that contemporary Adventism received its information directly from God uninfluenced by the opinions and presuppositions of a long list of various humans and human institutions, there will be little point in continuing to read this discussion. Such a position suggests that they have already accepted one of the basic propositions of Fundamentalism.
If you would like to look at the evidence that those propositions are misplaced, you might wish to get a copy of the most recent print issue of Adventist Today (Spring 2016), which is focused on “The Plain Reading [of the Bible]? Another important source you might wish to consult is Part I, the “History of Adventist Theology,” in the 2nd edition of Malcom Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
As one of the co-founders of the Sabbatarian branch of post-Great Disappointment Adventism, Ellen White’s major initial function was as an oracle for the group’s early leaders and adherents when differences of opinion arose about some theological point or organizational topic. In colloquial terms, she became the “go-to” individual to provide authoritative statements about what should be done when disputes arose. The key role she played was to reduce the chances that early Sabbatarian Adventism would fragment before it could create some stable institutions that could transmit the ethos of the original movement into a second generation of believers and beyond.
Her charisma and thus authority within the group was derived primarily as the result of their acceptance of the view that the information that Ellen propounded came directly from an angel, from Jesus, or from God during one of Ellen’s visionary states. The written record of these early visions was edited initially by her husband, James White, who served Ellen White and the early Adventist movement in the capacity of business agent and publisher. He then served as the principal church administrator when the leaders of the movement determined that it needed to be formally organized and adopt a specific name.
While James was alive, he was able to provide much of the editorial work that communicated Ellen’s visions to the “Little Flock.” When he died in 1881, Ellen acquired several individuals and then a larger group of what she variously called “book makers” and “helpers” that assisted in assembling from various sources what came to be a large corpus of written materials published under her name.
The views that she included in her early writings concerning what we would today refer to as earth and early human history were consistent with the conventional understandings of the most conservative Protestant religious environment of her time, as expanded upon in several of her out-of-body experiences. For example, in one case, she stated that in vision she was taken back to the Creation described in Genesis and was able to witness what had occurred at that time. In writing about her visionary experiences and in other more general discussions, she, on a number of occasions, referred to “about 6000 years” to designate the time she believed that had elapsed since the time of the Genesis Creation. These largely incidental comments became normative doctrinal positions for traditional Adventism.
It is suggested that the most important element that motivated Ellen White in her views on the biblical creation was the consequence of her adoption of Saturday from the Seventh-day Baptists as the required Sabbath day of worship for Christians. The most obvious biblical basis for holding this position was that in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was said to be a perpetual memorial of the six-day creation. To confirm that determination, Ellen White reported that, in a vision, she saw the fourth commandment highlighted. That in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was a memorial of the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt apparently did not cause any question to be raised about the linkage of the Sabbath with a literal interpretation of the “days” in the creation narratives.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, Fundamentalism arose in opposition to what was referred to as “Modernists” within the liberal wings of several major American Protestant denominations. One of the propositions which it propounded was that all statements in the Bible should be regarded as inerrant, i.e., not communicating any factual errors even in the areas of history or science. That point of view was one of the contributing factors that led Fundamentalists to later adopt a position that came to be called Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and/or Young Life Creationism (YLC). The YLC position is essentially the position that in 2015 the institutional Seventh-day Adventist Church adopted.
When American Fundamentalism became prominent among most conservative Evangelical American Protestants, Ellen White’s understanding of the topics we are considering was essentially compatible with most of the Fundamentalist agenda. While there were certainly obvious contrasts with regard to a series of other theological topics, with respect to evolution and the age of the life and especially human life on earth Adventism could be considered to have become almost completely aligned with Fundamentalism.
It is important to note that how Ellen interpreted the opening chapters of Genesis became embedded as part of a background treatment into the fabric of her master Adventist narrative or religious world view: “The Great Controversy.” Her views on creation were reworked and expanded several times over three decades in her writings before being assembled as a background element in the final treatment by her and her editors and collaborators. The major thrust of the “Great Controversy” theme systematized another major theological element that characterized Sabbatarian Adventism from its inception. This was the focus on a unique brand of Adventist eschatology that emphasized the key role that the Sabbath-keeping Adventists would play in the “End Times.”
EGW died in 1915 and between that event and the late 1940s, classical Adventism was consolidated into a tightly integrated, interlocking theological and organizational system with a strong focus on its eschatology and an active evangelistic orientation. Several Adventist church leaders continued to insist that Adventism clearly belonged within the Fundamentalist camp and, with few exceptions, that aspect of Adventism continued to be emphasized in the traditional versions of its public evangelism and official pronouncements well into the 1960s. In sociological terms, American Adventism, like the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses traditions, had evolved into an institutionalized sect. It, like they, had successfully passed on its unique brand of religious ideology inherited from the founding group to successive generations of believers.
It was in the late 1950s that the first public manifestation of objections to the traditional Adventist interpretations of the Genesis creation narratives began to emerge within the North American Adventist church. Some of these objections occurred within elements of the denomination which had renewed concerns about the appropriate role of Ellen White’s views on a number of topics within corporate Adventism. These objections renewed a major fault line that had appeared early in the 20th Century within Adventism that pitted elements of the Adventist physician class led by John Harvey Kellogg against the then-dominant professional clergy class. Even though Kellogg had once been a protégé of Ellen and James White, with James deceased, Ellen sided with the clergy and transferred her trust to one of her sons, William, aka “Willie” White.
Kellogg was banished and the church’s clerical establishment survived that challenge to its domination of corporate church operations. Following Ellen’s death in 1915, there ensued several decades where a tightly controlled Adventist orthodoxy was able to be enforced by a centralized bureaucratized church structure dominated by a professional clergy. With several notable exceptions, this control was moderately successful up until the immediate post-World War II generation of Adventist believers.
In the 1950s, an attempt by a self-appointed group of Adventist leaders to make certain key elements of traditional Adventist theology more acceptable to some conservative Protestant evangelicals was initiated. The outgrowth of these efforts resulted in the production of a book entitled Questions on Doctrine. This book attempted to reconfigure certain traditional Adventist theological constructs to make their expression more palatable to both Fundamentalist Protestants and non-Fundamentalist but conservative evangelical Protestants. The objections to this attempt within certain parts of Adventism created a theological and organizational firestorm as severe as that which had occurred at the beginning of the century for which Kellogg and his supporters were responsible.
The debates over this issue occupied the attention of many elements in the church for more than a decade even though these disputations, similarly to the subject of an earlier 1888 dispute, were considered by a number of Adventists to be tantamount to arguing that mythic medieval question about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.
The debate over Question on Doctrine dominated much of North American Adventism in the decade of the 1950s and had a lingering effect that was, in part, responsible for the rise of “independent ministries.” The earliest questions concerning the traditional Adventist teachings on creation began to appear in such pioneering independent Adventist journals as the Claremont Dialogue and Burbank Church Perspective, as well as in early issues of Spectrum.
To answer the questions we posed at the beginning of this segment, in Part III we will consider the thesis that the ultimate source of the development in progressive Adventist thought on this topic may be traced back ultimately to a set of unintended consequences of the movement of Adventism into the field of health and medicine. Specifically, we will consider the effects that the need to accredit Adventist colleges (so that the accreditation of the Adventist medical school at Loma Linda, California, could be accomplished) had on the vitality and credibility of the Adventist Fundamentalist ethos, especially on its officially proclaimed views on earth and human history.
This will provide the background to a discussion of the current theological polarization within First World Adventism concerning the nature of the Genesis creation narratives. The principal elements of this debate concern the validity of biological evolution, objections to a belief in a recent worldwide flood, and the length of time that all living forms, including mankind, have existed on Earth.
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