Ages of the Earth, Life and Humans: No Answers in Genesis or Ellen White–Part IV
by Ervin Taylor, September 5, 2016: The question posed at the beginning of this series was “Why would the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist (Adventist) denomination at the General Conference (GC) level insist on supporting a fundamentalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives?” A related question that was later posed was “What historical factors are involved in creating the strong opposition among many Adventist scientists and others to Young Life Creationism, a point of view which had been added to the text of the Corporate Adventist Fundamental Belief No. 6 in 2015?”
In this discussion, the nature of the conflict will be reiterated and the implications of the existence of that conflict highlighted. Part V will conclude this series of commentaries with one set of answers to the questions posed above as we explore the effects on Adventism in North America as its colleges moved forward to obtain accreditation to permit their graduates to attend medical school at the College of Medical Evangelists, now the School of Medicine of Loma University.
Current Conflict and Its Implications
As the result of an action taken at the 2015 GC session orchestrated by current GC administration, a fully fundamentalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives has now been encoded into the “official” Adventist Fundamental Beliefs (FB). FB 6 now says that the Creation of all life forms occurred “recently,” i.e., several thousands of years ago, and was accomplished in six literal, 24-hour days. By this action, what is generally known as “Young Life Creationism” (YLC) has been inserted into the current version of the Adventist Creed.
For the purpose of our discussions, we have focused our attention on the most obvious area of conflict between the revised wording of official Adventist FB 6 and the contemporary scientific understanding of the nature of the time frame of the development of life upon our planet. The title of this commentary reflects this focus: “Ages of the Earth, Life and Humans . . .” The reason for this focus is that an understanding of the geological (rocks), paleontological (fossils) and archaeological (human artifacts) time frames has become even more scientifically secure over the last half century as more and more evidence has accumulated.
One interesting, but possibly confusing, aspect of this topic is that, in most Fundamentalist circles, a belief in standard doctrinaire Creationism (with a capital “C”) typically includes not only adherence to Young Life Creationism but also to Young Earth Creationism (YEC). YEC is the view that the inorganic constituents of Earth are also “young.” Thus, not only is life young but, according to this interpretation of Genesis, the fossil-bearing rocks on Earth must also be “young.”
Below we will mention the efforts of the Adventist General Conference Geoscience Research Institute (GRI). If you carefully scrutinize GRI publications, you will discover that they do not–repeat not–dispute that the earth itself is billions of years old. (Perhaps they don’t want to advertise this to the ordinary church member.) In terms of chronology issues, their efforts are focused on theological apologetics with some highly selected scientific data which they argue supports Young Life Creationism.
One problem, among many, with that approach is that many very old rocks contain fossils. Some of these rocks have been dated in the range of hundreds of millions of years or more, so how do the fossils which are supposed to be “young” get into the rocks? Among other things, the GRI is supported by the Adventist Church to provide answers to such questions. The best explanation that they have been able to come up with so far is insisting that there is scientific evidence for a Recent World-Wide Flood (RWWF).
This RWWF, which is equated with the flood story related in Genesis, is invoked to accomplish the burial of fossils in what the geochronological data indicate are hundreds of millions of years or more old. This means that the validity of all the isotopic dating methods used to establish these ages must be questioned. By their own admission, they are having a difficult time doing that.
The main problem with the RWWF explanation is very simple. It is that there is a highly embarrassing lack of scientific evidence that such an event occurred on a world-wide scale in the recent past. It needs to be quickly added that there have been many local and regional floods recorded in the geological record—some of them of major proportions– but they are widely separated in time. Despite decades of effort and millions of dollars spent by the GRI to come up with convincing evidence of the reality of the mythic RWWF event, the scientific results are, at best, meager. But, in the absence of reasonable evidence, some Adventist religious authorities will fall back on a statement that such an event is, in the end, something you should take on “faith.” These types of statements are often mimicked by writers of articles in Adventist magazines.
One reads in contemporary Adventist church-based or Adventist-dominated journals or books recently published by Adventist presses that “many notable scientists” today question the scientific consensus concerning the age of life on earth or write that just a “little more” new scientific data will demonstrate that life on earth is young. If authors of these articles or books make these kind of statements, they are either grossly ignorant — willingly or unwillingly– of the state of the scientific consensus on this topic or have chosen to communicate a glaring falsehood for what they may feel is required for apologetic purposes.
Perhaps these individuals share the view that to admit a glaring defect in one area of an Adventist theological tradition (and it is a tradition) would call the entire theological structure of Adventism into question. They may believe that if you take out one theological brick in the edifice of Adventism, the entire structure will collapse. Perhaps they feel that they can’t take that risk and, for what they feel is the greater good, do not communicate the truth. Many years ago, this approach was criticized in a journal article and later as the title of a book: Telling Lies for God. Their motivations may be entirely honorable, but what in fact they are doing is deciding to advance a falsehood in the name of maintaining a religious tradition. Traditional Adventism has been critical of the Roman Catholic Church for doing exactly the same thing.
As mentioned earlier, the principal General Conference Adventist organization engaged in apologetics in promoting the YLC position within Adventism is the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI). However, it was recently determined by Adventist conservative activists, with the active support of the current GC administration, that the GRI was not doing enough in the way of effective fundamentalist Adventist apologetics on the subject of the history of life on our planet. Thus a new propaganda initiative of the current GC administration, the Faith & Science Council, was organized. Taken together, these two organizations currently spend on the order of $1.5 million per year of Adventist-contributed church funds to spread the Adventist version of Young Life Creationism to an unsuspecting Adventist laity on a world-wide basis.
Summary of Parts I-III
In the first three parts of this discussion, a brief summary of the history of the Adventist approaches to understanding the nature of the early history of Earth and of life on this planet was presented. This survey was done in the context of development of the dominant theological themes that evolved within Adventism from the middle of the 19th Century until early in the 20th Century.
In Parts I and II, important background elements of this topic were reviewed. It was noted that from the middle of the 19th Century into the early 20th Century, many conservative Christian bodies had accepted the view that the Genesis “days” were understood to be symbolic representations of long geological periods. Noah’s flood was interpreted as affecting only the ancestors of the individuals about whom the biblical narratives were concerned. A “world-wide flood” would be a flood that affected their world. No individual living in the ancient world of the Bible had any idea of the size of the earth.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, the general acceptance of these ideas within many Christian bodies was directly challenged with the emergence of a major reactionary religious movement which had its roots in the United States at the end of the 19th Century. This movement within American Protestantism became known as Fundamentalism, based on the title of a 12-volume work which appeared between 1917 and 1919.
Fundamentalism arose in opposition to what were referred to as “Modernists” within several American Protestant denominations. One of the elements of this reactionary development which was particularly highlighted was the Fundamentalist view which posited 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. With regard to the Genesis account, there was also the tendency to interpret various statements literally and to assume that the writer of Genesis used terms that had meanings as they would be interpreted by modern readers, not by an ancient Hebrew listener or reader.
During the middle- to late-19th century, while the early developments were occurring, the Sabbatarian Adventist movement was coalescing into yet another American Protestant denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although all but one of the doctrinal positions that it adopted had been held by one or more existing Christian bodies, the initial formulations of several of its unique doctrines and doctrinal emphases were profoundly influenced and confirmed by the views and experiences of one of its co-founders, Ellen Gould Harmon-White.
The understandings that she included in her early writings concerning what we would today refer to as earth and early human history were taken largely from conventional understandings of her conservative religious upbringing and environment. These views were supplemented in some cases by imagery that she obtained from her own vivid out-of-body experiences most often referred to as “visions.” She sincerely believed that these visions were supernatural in origin and came directly from God, although some of them, she said, were mediated by angels and, in one case, she reported that Jesus appeared to her. In reporting the substance of some of these visions in writing, she often employed some version of the phrase “I was shown . . .”, presumably by God or angels.
For example, as we have previously noted, in one of her visions, she stated that 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 6,000 years” to designate the time that she believed had elapsed since the time of the Genesis Creation.
Presumably, that figure was derived by her from the margins of the King James English translation of the Bible. It is possible that, at least in her early experiences, she was not aware that these figures were not part of the biblical text, but that they had been added during the last quarter of the 17th Century. In this connection, we should note that there is no explicit statement in any biblical text that addresses the age of the universe or our solar system (the nature of which, of course, the ancient Hebrews and early Christians had no knowledge), or of the part of the planet of which the ancient Hebrews were aware, or the life forms present in that region of the planet with which they were familiar. The “about 6,000 years” expression derives from the calculations of scholars such as James Ussher whose dates were the ones included, until recently, in the margins of the King James English version of the bible.
It is important to note that how she interpreted the opening chapters of Genesis was a relatively minor background element that became embedded in the fabric of her evolving master Adventist narrative or religious world view “The Great Controversy.” This theme was reworked several times over three decades in her writings before being assembled into a single treatment by her and her collaborators/editors.
White died in 1915, and between that event and the late 1940s, it was noted that classical Adventism solidified into a tightly integrated, interlocking theological system. Meanwhile, schisms within several major Protestant churches had split them into separate Liberal and Fundamentalist segments. During this period, several Adventist church leaders proclaimed that Adventism clearly was aligned with those denominations in the Fundamentalist camp and, with several important exceptions, conventional Adventism continued to emphasize many Fundamentalist elements in its public evangelism and official pronouncements well into the 1960s.
At about this time, a number of conservative Protestants preferred to call themselves “Evangelicals” since, among other objections, they took issue with the Fundamentalists’ refusal to participate with other Christians in various outreach and evangelistic enterprises. For example, Billy Graham identified himself as an Evangelical but not a Fundamentalist, even though much of his basic theology had many Fundamentalist elements.
As was typical with a number of both Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant denominations during the first three decades of the 20th Century, Adventists created a number of colleges as a means of protecting their youth from what were considered the baleful influences of secular colleges and universities. Other important functions included providing an environment so that Adventist youth could meet and marry other Adventist youth, and providing its clergy with a year or two of post-secondary education. At first, all of these Adventist institutions were not accredited and could be accurately described essentially as Bible colleges. For example, the purpose of many of these institutions was clearly reflected in their names, which included the word “Missionary.”
Role of Adventist Health Emphasis
It is suggested that, except for one element in its development, it is probable that Seventh-day Adventism to this day would have remained characterized as a totally Fundamentalist faith community where internal dissent would not be permitted. We can see this situation currently operating in both the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Society) and Mormon communities. This one element set in motion a set of unanticipated set of consequences that appeared in organized Adventism early in its history. Without the existence of this emphasis, it is likely that Adventism would have neither begun the process of losing its cult-like characteristics nor developed any sizable group which would begin to call for a reexamination of the traditional Adventist understandings of a number of theological and scientific topics in light of scientific, historical and theological scholarship.
It was the emphasis on physical wellness which, in turn, resulted in the development of Adventist-sponsored health institutions that set into motion a process and immediate context which we will be outlining in this discussion. As the research of the distinguished American historian of science Ronald Numbers presented in his seminal volume Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White has detailed, the views of Ellen White and the Adventist emphasis on health and wellness were certainly not unique, since initiatives advancing “health reform” were widespread in the United States during the 19th Century. We should also note that both the physical and psychological problems that plagued Ellen White through most of her life also may have played a part in the development of this emphasis within the Adventist tradition.
As is well-known, Adventism developed its first major health/medical operation in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was known initially as the Western Health Reform Institute which was opened in 1866. Under the leadership of John Harvey Kellogg MD, it was expanded within a few decades into a widely known, major American health institution and spa, the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Although Kellogg had originally been a protégé of James and Ellen White, following the death of James in 1881, Ellen began to become estranged from Kellogg. The role of her son, William (“Willie”) White, in causing his mother to begin to harbor doubts about Kellogg’s orthodoxy has not, as yet, been completely unpacked on the basis of the historical record. However, what is clear is that, for the first but not only time, the Adventist medical and clerical establishments became at loggerheads over which group should exercise dominance in terms of deciding the direction that the church should take in its relationship with the secular world outside of Adventist enclaves.
The centerpiece in Kellogg’s Adventist medical empire was the Battle Creek Sanitarium. A suspicious fire in 1902 essentially destroyed the property. At that time, Ellen White proclaimed that God had “permitted” the fire so that Adventists would disperse from Battle Creek and build much smaller institutions. Kellogg ignored her. Ellen White interpreted his actions as providing evidence that he was under the control of Satan. The structure was rebuilt and much enlarged. In the meantime, the headquarters of the Adventist Church was moved from Battle Creek to a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was widely suspected at the time that this shift was largely designed to distance corporate Adventism from the influence of Kellogg and his supporters in Battle Creek.
Beyond this, it was thought necessary to accomplish the vilification of Kellogg in the eyes of the Adventist laity, in part to make sure that “good Adventists” would not be tempted to continue to support Battle Creek with their donations. Rather, these donations should be directed to the corporate Adventist Church. To accomplish that goal, his detractors in the Adventist clerical establishment charged him with advocating pantheism and Ellen White contributed “testimonies” supporting that charge. This has been widely viewed as a smokescreen to hide the actual reason for removing him.
In fact, what was at stake was nothing less than who would control the future direction of the Adventist church. In the view of a prolific writer on Adventist history and apologist for apocalyptic Adventism, Dr. George Knight, the Kellogg-White dispute was about “whether the main focus of the [Adventist] movement should be on welfare work for the poor and marginalized [as Kellogg advocated] or whether the focus should be on evangelistic preaching and the seeking of conversions,” the latter being the main thrust of the ministerial class supported by Ellen White. Obviously, inside the corporate Adventist Church, Kellogg lost that battle and White and her clerical supporters won. The influence of the outcome of this dispute has continued down to the present.
Following Kellogg’s excommunication, a large segment of medical professionals at the Battle Creek Sanitarium followed his lead. Despite this loss or perhaps in response to it, the church leadership continued to see the value of maintaining the Adventist corporate presence in the medical field as part of the vision that Adventist clinics and health-related institutions could serve as the “entering wedge” for Adventist evangelism. With the urging of Ellen White, the church leadership agreed that it was necessary to as quickly as possible establish an institution for the training of “loyal” Adventist physicians. After some preliminary developments there, such an institution was founded in Loma Linda, California, in 1906 as the College of Medical Evangelists (CME).
Readers to this point might wonder what a recitation of all of this history of Adventist medical work has to do with our topic. How does it relate to a process which would ultimately result in the rise of a segment within Adventism which would begin to call publicly for a reexamination of the traditional Adventist understandings of a number of traditional Adventist theological and scientific understandings? That, in turn, will provide a perspective on why the current GC leadership has determined to “double down” on its attempts to force the Adventist Church to accept a Fundamentalist position on earth history.
The Road to Accreditation of Adventist Colleges
The College of Medical Evangelists (CME), now the School of Medicine of Loma Linda University, was chartered in 1909 by the State of California to train physicians. The early history of CME turns out to have been a very rocky one. It faced its first and greatest existential crisis one year after it began operations.
The crisis for CME was created by the publication in 1910 of what is generally referred to as the Flexner Report. In 1904, because of a concern for the quality of the education of physicians in the United States, the American Medical Association had created the Council on Medical Education. That body quickly adopted two standards for medical education. The first was concerned with the minimum pre-medical education required for admission to a medical school and the second defined a medical education as two years of the teaching of basic medical science and two years of clinical study at a teaching hospital. In 1908, that body asked the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to do a survey of how U.S. physicians were being trained. The individual chosen to undertake the survey and write a report was Abraham Flexner.
In 1910 the Flexner Report, officially known as the Carnegie Foundation Bulletin Number Four, was issued. There were a number of recommendations whose purpose was to increase in the United States both the quality of the pre-medical scientific education of those admitted to medical schools and the quality of the medical education that medical students received. The most dramatic effect of the Flexner Report was that there were 155 medical schools operating in the United States when the report appeared, but within a decade all but 31 of those schools had closed. The College of Medical Evangelists barely survived, initially receiving the lowest rating possible for a medical school to receive and remain open.
A reader may again ask what all of this has to do with the current disagreements within Seventh-day Adventism over interpretations concerning the age of life on earth based on an interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives.
The answer to this question has to do primarily not with what happened to the College of Medical Evangelists. Rather, it was an unanticipated effect imposed on Adventist colleges: specifically, the new requirements concerning their status as post-secondary educational institutions and specifically having the resources necessary to mount an adequate pre-medical educational program. The critical element was that within a decade of the publication of the Flexner Report, there was a push for medical students to achieve a four-year B.A. degree before being considered ready to attend a medical school. And for that B.A. degree to be recognized for that purpose, the undergraduate institution that conferred it had to be appropriately accredited.
In Part V, the concluding segment of this discussion, the effects on the theological and intellectual ethos of North American Adventism will be examined as, one by one, Adventist colleges in North America resisted the obstructionist efforts of church functionaries and pursued accreditation so that their qualified graduates could be admitted to medical school at an accredited College of Medical Evangelists.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.