An Overview and Analysis of the Affirming Creation Conference
By Jim Hamstra, August 27, 2017: In July I attended the 8-day “Affirming Creation” conference sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s Faith and Science Committee and the North American Division Office of Education. The conference included about 50 presentations by 25 different presenters, in St. George, Utah, as well as on the buses to and from field trips to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks.
The primary target audiences were Adventist pastors and school teachers; however the attendees included a variety of others interested in the subject, from academia and church administrators and a handful of individuals who are not employees of the denomination, including a few presenters and guests who are not Adventists, as well as myself and a few other Adventist church members interested in the topic.
As you might expect, most of the presentations focused on various Biblical and scientific topics, with a few regarding other topics of interest to educators and students. You can find more information about the conference here, and some of the presentation materials and brief video summaries by some of the presenters here. Unfortunately many of the presentation materials have yet to appear online.
The presentations were organized into half-hour time-slots which meant that serious consideration of any topic involved multiple time slots which were usually not consecutive. The overall effect was continual hopscotch from one topic to another. A common complaint among attendees was the disadvantages of this schedule for the listeners, many finding it difficult to be constantly switching their attention between unrelated topics.
One advantage of sitting in a back corner of a room with several hundred people ahead of me, is seeing how different people react to different presentations. Many if not most of the attendees were avid multi-taskers. At times during presentations they would be chatting with their neighbors or chatting online, reading emails, writing papers, sorting pictures, etc. When an interesting slide appeared on the screen, a hundred cell-phones would rise almost in unison to photograph the content for future use. The audience “voted” with their cell-phones far more often during some presentations than others, typically more often during the scientific presentations than the theological. How much of this reflected the biases of the audience vs the relevance of the presentations is a matter for speculation.
In my own informal polling of the attendees, presentations that were more meaningful and informative to some, were less so to others. Most attendees said they had learned a lot from at least some of the presentations. So there was virtue in covering a range of topics in multiple different ways.
One of my strongest and most pleasant impressions from many conversations outside the meetings, is the amount of energy and enthusiasm and commitment that seemed to ooze-out in every manner, from the younger generation of Adventist pastors, teachers and administrators. They were aware of and engaged with the topics being discussed and in many cases, the topics not being discussed. To the extent that they are representative of the next generation of Adventist denominational employees in North America, the future of our church will be in very capable hands.
Senior Adventist theological and scientific thought leaders from my own generation (eligible to draw Social Security), seem to be aware on the one hand of the need to “pass the baton” to the next generation, yet somewhat reluctant to step aside and let the latter run with it. Not to discount the contributions of our generation, but none of us last forever in this life. Shall we seek to avoid what may happen after our departure, or should we grant ourselves leave to affirm our successors and bid them Godspeed as they continue our collective journey?
What about the content of the conference? As the organizers announced during the opening session, the purposes of this conference did not include debating differing points of view.
There were no formal discussions scheduled. Those of us who have attended many conferences anticipated that the most interesting discussions would be outside the meetings and we were not disappointed. The presenters and the other attendees freely mingled in the corridors, on the trails and around the meal tables, pools and hot tubs. And there was vigorous, stimulating discussion regarding the conference itself and other topics of mutual interest.
There were a few Q&A sessions where the written questions were screened. The panelists selected some questions to answer and ignored the remainder. Several attendees complained outside the meetings that their questions were never answered. However the panelists did address some of the tougher questions.
There were several excellent theological presentations. Their collective message was probably not what any one presenter might have intended. Simply summarized and probably over-simplified:
1. We cannot trust human reasoning or human senses. Empirically derived knowledge is potentially dangerous. We must rely upon Divine Revelation as embodied in Scripture.
2. Scripture can and/or must be understood by following carefully constructed processes of exegesis and hermeneutics.
3. Though nobody actually said this, one could easily conclude that those trained in the original languages, and in the formal processes of exegesis and hermeneutics, are best able to understand Scripture (the latent corollary being that those who are not properly trained in understanding Scripture should trust trained theologians to explain things to us).
After the conference one lay person asked “What is the role of the Holy Spirit?” I do not recall this topic being addressed, but I may have missed it.
To communicate effectively across widely different domains of discourse, someone needs to make the effort to “translate”. In this conference theologians seldom strayed from their own domain of discourse, with little mention of scientific topics. Some of the scientists did include theological topics and ideas in their presentations. Constructing a synthesis between these domains was an exercise left largely for the listeners. This is not necessarily bad because it encourages the listeners to think about the same problems in multiple different ways.
The proper role of scientific inquiry was largely avoided by the presenters, both theologians and scientists. The conference title Affirming Creation suggests that empirical observations that might Confirm our present understanding of Scripture would be welcome, whereas observations that might Correct or perhaps even Refine our present understanding of Scripture would be suspect. We can be quite certain that not all Adventists nor all Adventist theologians share this view, not even all those attending this conference. Although “affirming creation” and “affirming present Adventist understanding of creation” are not necessarily the same, at this conference they were conflated.
Theologians and philosophers have been debating the relative roles of General Revelation (eg God as revealed in nature) vs Special Revelation (eg God as revealed in sacred writings) for millennia. These issues cannot be settled here. But ignoring them can have dangerous consequences. History is replete with examples of religious elites who individually or collectively became convinced that, having attained sufficient understanding of God by whatever means, they and their followers could safely ignore any contravening evidence gained by empirical observation. The consequences of this mode of reasoning have historically been deleterious and in some cases disastrous.
Of course the same can be said of human elites who avoid, evade and/or ignore God’s revealed will. Examples of the latter (starting with Eve and Adam) were offered by several presenters, both theologians and scientists. These warnings should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, whatever Adventist consensus may exist regarding the hazards of the latter error (rebellion), does not guard us from the hazards of the former error (presumption).
I want to emphasize that I am not accusing any of the presenters or organizers of this conference of presumption. I am pointing-out the dangers of focusing almost exclusively on one side of what is not a simple problem.
A general hesitance has arisen in the present Adventist theology and science establishments to address epistemological issues from a scientific perspective. It has become simpler and safer to assert what empirical science cannot do, than to state affirmatively its valid purposes and roles in human endeavors (other than health care). To be fair, some theologians and scientists among us are willing to grapple with this problem. But their voices were absent and/or highly attenuated at this conference.
I intend to address this topic in a sequel to the present review.
There were many excellent science presentations. Several of the most interesting came from non-Adventist scientists. I encourage readers who are seriously interested to peruse the web links shown earlier. As with the theological presentations, a collective message emerged, a message overtly stated by several presenters. Simply summarized:
1. Nature shows evidence of design. This suggests divine involvement.
2. Science cannot study miracles. Science can study evidence from the past but has limited ability to assert what did occur as opposed to what appears to have occurred.
3. No model of origins escapes scientific problems. This includes conventional evolutionary models, models that interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally, and various intermediate models.
4. Careful study of the physical structures of Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments yields evidence that many or most were deposited, and in some cases eroded, relatively rapidly across broad swaths of the surface of the earth. This would support belief in a worldwide flood sometime in the past.
5. On the other hand Cenozoic sediments appear to have been deposited more locally. This is more difficult to reconcile with belief in a recent worldwide flood. For this reason, some presenters and other attendees prefer to include some or most Cenozoic sediments with the underlying Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments, in a single worldwide flood.
6. Radiometric dating of sediments is problematic for any model of a recent creation or a recent worldwide flood. Presenters were comfortable with radiometric dating being indicative of Relative age but not Absolute age.
7. The fossil record is problematic both for conventional evolutionary models and for recent creation models, albeit for different reasons.
8. Both the fossil record and the ongoing revolutionary discoveries in micro-biology, refute the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origins and development of life on earth.
As expected, far more presentation time was devoted to scientific observations that would tend to support recent creation models, than to those that do not. Nevertheless every point in my summary was stated at least once, and some of them repeatedly. Considering the acknowledged biases of the presenters, there was a reasonable attempt at “fair and balanced” reporting of the scientific topics discussed.
Finally I would like to comment on some of the most notable presentations (for me).
Most interesting Geology presentation – Catastrophic Plate Tectonics by John Baumgardner
Since discovering Dr. Baumgardner’s work a few years ago I have been anxious to meet him and hear him speak. I was not disappointed. From my childhood I have encountered a variety of rather speculative “scientific” attempts to explain the Great Deluge, nearly all of them failing to withstand careful scrutiny.
He used computer simulations based upon known physical properties of planet earth and its constituent materials. His simulations account for geophysics, hydraulics, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. Apparently missing phenomena include limestone deposition and geo-magnetism, as well as radioactive decay (if one believes decay occurred very rapidly in the past). These simulations show that a rapid series of tsunamis triggered by runaway subduction, could first erode and then deposit the enormous quantities of sediments found in the lower strata, in the kinds of patterns prevalent there.
These results do not “prove” that there was a global flood nor how nor when it occurred. But they do demonstrate the first plausible systematic scenario (that I have seen in a lifetime of looking) for the kinds of phenomena described in Genesis and those observed in the lower layers of sediments, by applying (rather than violating) known principles and properties of physical science.
Most interesting Biology presentation – The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: What It Is and Why We Should Care by David Nelson
Rather than dwelling on the failings of neo-Darwinian evolution, Dr. Nelson explored the intriguing possibility that recent advances in the micro-biology of Epigenetics, could eventually provide explanations for aspects of the fossil record that have stumped both evolutionists and Creationists. This was one of the few forward-looking scientific presentations, rather than a re-hash of existing solutions and non-solutions to long-standing problems.
Hopefully we will see more good work from this up-and-coming young scientist.
Most disappointing Cosmology presentation – Naturalistic or Biblical, How our Worldview Affects our Science by Ken Caviness
The silence regarding Cosmology at this conference was almost deafening, the notable exception being the excellent presentation by Dr. Caviness. He drew upon his own expertise in theoretical physics to illustrate the degree of imagination exercised by naturalistic scientists to evade the evidence of intentional supernatural intervention in the origins and physical properties of the universe as we observe it. His presentation intersects the Bible narrative of Genesis 1:1 but goes no further (to my disappointment).
There were competent Physicists attending this conference (Dr. Caviness and others). Yet I neither saw nor heard any model for mapping between what we observe through modern telescopes and other instruments, and the Bible narrative of Day 4. Nor did the absence of a cosmological model appear on the lists of open problems from the overview presentations. Basically the topic was ignored by all of the scientific presenters. The theologians did include a few passing references to Day 4 in their presentations with no further elaboration.
How to explain this almost deafening silence? Possibilities include (others not excluded):
1. The theological establishment may have tacitly conceded that deep space objects are more ancient than a “recent” Creation Week. This is the private belief of most Adventist physicists I know, as well as many Adventist theologians I know.
2. The theological establishment may not be willing to concede deep space objects to more ancient Divine creative activity, but unfortunately for their viewpoint no competent scientist has come forward with credible empirical data in support of their views. Some have tried, but so far their explanations have not survived careful scrutiny.
3. The theological establishment may be divided between (1) and (2) and prefer not to expose their lack of consensus in a public forum. Absent consensus regarding what to “affirm” about the creation of deep space objects, they prefer to ignore the question.
Most disappointing Geology presentation – Radioisotope Dating by Kurt Wise
Dr. Wise began by explaining the rudiments of radiometric dating, culminating with an accurate summary of the assumptions: (1) Constant observed decay rates of radioactive isotopes; (2) Amount of “parent” radioactive isotope(s) present at start; (3) Amount of “daughter” potential decay product(s) present at start; (4) Amount of “parent” added or removed by other means; and (5) Amount of “daughter” added or removed by other means.
Then he presented some examples of inconsistencies radiometric dating results, showing 20% to 25% discrepancies in apparently ancient rocks. What he failed to mention was that at very low concentrations of the isotopes being measured there will be greater relative measured variations. If all the measurements were close, we could suspect that someone had tampered with the test results. Furthermore, even the youngest measurements of these rocks yield apparent ages of millions to billions of years, which remain problematic for claims of recent formation of these rocks. He also mentioned other anomalies in the observed structure and composition of various kinds of rocks, that can affect inferences about their relative and absolute ages.
Without little or no discussion of assumptions (2) through (5) in his presentation, Dr. Wise claimed that during the Creation Week and again during and shortly after the Flood Year, God miraculously accelerated the decay rates of some or all radioactive isotopes. His primary rationale for this conclusion was that these rocks are actually thousands of years old while appearing to be millions or billions of years old; therefore God must have tampered with physical constants in order to demonstrate to humans, Divine power over the fundamental forces of nature. Given that he and Dr. Giem both cited evidence for relatively high residual Carbon-14 levels in apparently ancient fossils, and given Dr. Wise’s prior citation of discrepancies between different radiometric measurements, one unstated component of this claim is that God must have miraculously tampered differently with the decay rates of different isotopes, in some cases by many orders of magnitude, for no apparent purpose beyond amazing and/or confusing humans who try to study ancient rocks and fossils.
In response to a written question, Dr. Wise admitted that he had not investigated the geological or thermodynamic consequences, ensuing from most of the radioactive decay in earth history occurring over two very short intervals of time. Biological consequences among others should be added to this list, although they were not part of the question nor of the answer. Some concrete examples of potential physical consequences that might be investigated:
1. Applying orders of magnitude more heat released by rapid large-scale radioactive decay to an enormous volume of sedimentary rocks containing radio-isotopes, we might expect to find a substantial proportion of the sediments converted to metamorphic rocks. This is not what we observe today.
2. Given that the earth’s crust is relatively cool today, the heat from “recent” large-scale radioactive decay must have dissipated quickly. The most rapid known way to dissipate heat from within the earth is volcanic activity. I live in a region where we have massive amounts of exposed igneous rock and active volcanos. This is not true of most of the planet today. Earth’s crust does contain a very large amount of “primordial” rock that is igneous, most of it buried well below the surface by overlying sediments.
3. Rapid dissipation of massive amounts of heat rising to the surface of the earth, would probably boil- away much if not most of the water on the surface and in the atmosphere. And the amount of heat dissipated into the atmosphere could conceivably boil-away a non-trivial portion of the atmosphere having this discussion.
4. To explain the abundant evidence for enormous post-flood glaciation, most “recent” flood advocates claim the surface of earth cooled dramatically immediately after the flood, and that hundreds of thousands of lamina (thin layers) of ice accumulated very rapidly. It is not clear how this could have occurred while the earth was still dissipating (by whatever means) the heat from massive radioactive decay.
One need look no further than earth’s nearest neighbors (Venus and Mars) to imagine what earth might have been or might have become, absent the present finely-tuned balance of its physical constituents and their physical and chemical properties. Fortunately for present life on earth, Peter describes the day when the “elements melt with fervent heat” as being future rather than past.
I believe that God performed a series of large-scale miracles to establish a viable biosphere – the Bible affirms this belief. I have no doubt that God could have performed an ongoing series of large-scale miracles to ameliorate the natural consequences of previous large-scale miracles, in order to sustain a viable biosphere – I know no Biblical basis to affirm that this has occurred. Some may be content to explain the present biosphere and geological column as simply “miracles all the way down”. This explanation would not be satisfying to very many scientists.
To be fair, Dr. Wise is a competent and well-trained scientist. Given more than one half-hour time slot he probably could and would have presented a stronger rationale for his conclusions. This review only examines what was presented.
Most inspiring Personal Testimony – My Experience in a World of Secular Science by Kurt Wise
Dr. Wise shared some experiences from his undergraduate studies at Chicago and his graduate studies at Harvard, as an openly confessing Christian and Creationist. I wish there was a recording because any attempt to relate the highlights will fall far short. Study his “Admonitions from Experience” slide. Each of these points was individually made by at least one other presenter. But he wove them eloquently together with amazing personal experiences.
We must understand and accept that those who differ with us, are souls created by God for whom Christ died, every bit as much as we ourselves. They are as deserving of respect and consideration and compassion as are we and those who agree with us. Christ died for every fallen and broken human including everyone who reads this review.
Most inspiring Theology presentation – Non-biblical Hermeneutics by Richard Choi
I have remarked on the deafening silence at this conference regarding Day 4 of Creation. The same cannot be said for Day 4 of the conference itself. To many attendees the agenda (you can see it on the web site) appeared unremarkable; indeed quite a few chose that afternoon to be elsewhere, thereby missing some of the best stuff that came-out all week. I could have been tempted to join those who voted prematurely with their feet, except I had come to hear Baumgardner and his Part II was sandwiched between Choi I and Choi II. Still I might have ditched the “wrapper”, except at lunch my own son introduced me to Dr. Choi and predicted that he would be well worth hearing. Indeed, the half was not told unto me.
This one has earned a place on my personal Life List of great presentations. It triggered vigorous discussion around the hot tub. Elsewhere some said they found it confusing or had missed it entirely. (Different strokes for different folks?) Unfortunately Dr. Choi’s slides are not on the web site so I hope I have reconstructed this correctly from memory (my apologies for any errors in my summary).
Dr.Choi began with some very apt humor. “Why am I wearing this suit?” he asked a very casually-dressed audience. “Because I brought it with me.” (score one) “Why am I giving this presentation?” he asked an audience who collectively felt little interest in the assigned topic. “Because I brought it with me.” (score two) Having captured the attention of those still present and awake, he launched into a proper recital of inter- testamental hermeneutical blunders, spawned by imposing Hellenistic modes of reasoning on today’s Old Testament. He summarized by suggesting that these blunders were actually examples of two underlying errors – hermeneutics of Pride (we must have an explanation) and Impatience (we must have it now). Then he gave way to Baumgardner II.
When Dr Choi returned, he announced that “we are all Greeks”. Then he presented a brilliant multi-faceted, multi-dimensional structural model for approaching issues in Biblical hermeneutics. This was a blast of fresh air after a steady dose of presentations by others and most recently himself, regarding how NOT to interpret science and how not to interpret the Bible. As with children so with adults, far more can be gained by teaching people what TO do rather than relentlessly reciting what not to do. For too many attendees this fresh approach was lost because by this point they had mentally if not physically tuned-out the ongoing presentations regarding “fallacies and errors”.
Most scientists are not accustomed to analyzing problems using non-trivial abstract structures (theoretical physicists being a notable exception). Nor are theologians (even “systematic” theologians). As my son explained to me later, “most theologians do not like to draw diagrams, except for syntactic structures”. Apparently I am not wired like most scientists or theologians. I immediately began to visualize an amazing variety of permutations of hermeneutical applications. Confusion for others was epiphany for Yours Truly.
Dr. Choi then presented a concrete application of his structure to a New Testament hermeneutical problem, but the relevance was lost on much of his audience because they could not connect the pieces in their minds (as I discovered in later conversations). This deserved more than a half-hour of explanation (hopefully a copy of his slides will become available).
Another assertion was (in my opinion) spot-on yet triggered intense off-line discussion. The Crucifixion is the Big Bang of Christianity (or for my theologically-trained friends, the Cross is the crux of the great global chiastic structure of the entire Bible). Everything else in Scripture refers forward and/or backward to this singular event, and must be interpreted in this context. This includes the other notable singularities associated with Creation as well as the Restoration yet to come. (Though it was not mentioned in his presentation and largely ignored in the other theological presentations, the Biblical meaning of the Sabbath is anchored in all three of these singularities, whereas the primary focus of this conference was on Creation.)
Dr. Choi concluded by urging all of us to embrace the hermeneutics of Patience (willing to wait for answers until they come) and Humility (willing to admit that we do not have and need not expect all the answers). This is excellent admonition for all vocations and avocations (including theology and science).
Raised in Michigan, Jim Hamstra attended Adventist schools from 1957 to 1971. He is the founder of StanaTek, an electronics technology consulting firm. He has spent more than 40 years leading technology initiatives in the computer and communications industry. He has 28 issued U.S. patents. For most of his adult life Jim has held various church offices and has spent far too much time serving on church and conference boards and committees. Currently he leads a Sabbath School class and the finance team at Sunset Christian Fellowship. Jim lives in Oregon with his wife Renae, who teaches Kindergarten at an Adventist school. They have three married sons and four grandchildren.