by Robert T. Johnston | 21 June 2021 |
Over the weekend of June 11-12, 2021, I attended (via YouTube livestream and recordings) the Sydney Adventist Forum’s conference on the “Age of Life on Earth.” It featured excellent presentations by well-qualified presenters, most with PhDs in relevant disciplines. Lynden Rogers and the other organizers arranged a diverse program covering key topics relevant to the question of how long life has existed on earth. While some Adventists, including General Conference President Ted N.C. Wilson, are Young Earth Creationists (YECs), many Adventists believe the earth is old but life has only been upon it for about 6000 years since a recent literal 6-day creation (SDA Fundamental Belief #6). Thus, the key dispute that both Adventist YECs and Young Life Creationists (YLCs) have with conventional science is not the age of the earth but how long life has been upon it. The conference reviewed scientific data and discussed theological implications of life originating in deep time.
The conference was held at The Church in the Trees in Morisset, New South Wales. From Q&A comments about the off-Avondale location and the predominance of retirees over active denominational employees as presenters, I inferred that even in the enlightened antipodes, the Adventist church has difficulty discussing this important subject in ways that may threaten fundamentalist orthodoxy. The conference itself evidenced a group of committed Adventists who believe the church must honestly engage with scientific and theological data if it is to be relevant to large segments of contemporary society. Sydney Adventist Forum is to be commended for hosting this conference and making it available online for the benefit of the global church community.
Several of the conference organizers and speakers were involved in an Avondale mini-conference in 2016 that resulted in the recent publication of Lynden J. Rogers, ed., The Biblical Flood, Avondale Academic Press, 2020. The organizers of this conference plan to publish a book of proceedings as well.
The conference comprised 10 presentations and a Sabbath afternoon Q&A session. Two of the presentations were prerecorded because the speaker, Rudy Van Moere, was unable to attend. Van Moere’s presentations were a tour de force of the Genesis 1:1-2:4a creation narrative, comprising four parts:
- An in-depth reading exercise that revealed the numerous structural elements including 3-, 7- and 10-fold repeated phrases; its linear ascending structure; and revelations about man made in God’s image, the Sabbath, and God’s central role. Van Moere concluded, “The first creation narrative shows a large literary unit where everything in it appears to be connected with everything.”
- Examining the genre, Van Moere noted its role as a compact stepping-stone within the entire book whose central theme is Israel’s fertility and increasing population. It is the first of five narrative acts including Adam, Noah, Abram, Jacob, and Joseph, which end with Israel having completed the command to be fruitful and multiply. “The literary presentation of the Abram narratives demonstrates unmistakably that Israel’s creation is in quite a few aspects tightly connected with the first creation narrative. Both creations are not the result of a natural process but of effective creation works of Israel’s god Adonai. The creation narrative therefore functions as blueprint to understand Israel’s origin and existence.”
- The context of Gen. 1:1-2:4a within the realm of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature showed many parallels but also distinct differences, including monotheism; absence of mythical and contradictory elements; a democratic creation of man in God’s image instead of viewing only the king as made in their god’s image; man created for freedom instead of slavery to the gods or king; a God who may be served in time (Sabbath) rather than a set place (temple). In short, “The narrator of the creation narrative, which acts as an introduction to the Genesis scroll, offers his people a completely different view of the world, God and humanity.” Whereas I have previously heard Gen. 1 described as a polemic against polytheism, Van Moere insightfully observed, “The way in which the narrator does this commands admiration. He neither ridicules nor criticizes the ancient Egyptian or Babylonian gods. He does not argue with their believers or their priests, nor does he set up any evidence to dissuade his countrymen from adopting the Egyptian or Babylonian faith. The Judean narrator simply presents his people with a sober creation narrative.”
- In the fourth and final part, Van Moere described the context of the creative narrative within the nine scrolls ending in Kings. After affirming the exilic context of the preparation of these scrolls, Van Moere noted the many issues demanding explanation by traumatized exiles whose god has seemingly been subdued by Marduk of Babylon. “The narratives in the nine scrolls…represent the product of pastors, teachers, and educators. These priests and sages pursue much the same goal as that of the priestly prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and have much the same effect,” calling the exiles to trust in YHWH; connect to their past; strengthen their identity by the Sabbath, circumcision, study of Torah, and purity laws; and be proud of who they are among the Babylonians. “Since the first narrative of the creation of the world and the narratives of Israel’s origins are closely linked, they should therefore absolutely be read together. Concentrating chiefly on the creation narrative does injustice to the narratives concerning Israel’s creations. It also leads to an inadequate and even contrary interpretation of the first creation narrative.”
This short summary hardly does justice to Van Moere’s two densely packed lectures, but I have room to share only a few of his many conclusions, so here are those that most appealed to me:
- First, the austerity and didactic nature of the creation narrative in the context of the Judean exiles means that it cannot be characterized or degraded to a religious myth from a nebulous past, nor to a childish representation of the beginning of world history. The ingenious narrative-telling style and structure also invalidates the idea that it should be read literally, as if things went exactly like that in the very beginning.
- The creation narrative should not be approached by using scientific tools, nomenclature, and concepts, since it is absolutely a text that has no scientific pretensions and it does not present mechanisms through which God created.
- Science and the Hebrew text Bible belong to two completely different spheres. They have nothing in common and should therefore not get merged. The purpose of science is to understand the natural world. The Hebrew Bible is in general, and the creation narrative in particular, to get acquainted with the inspired message addressed to the deported Judeans and all those who identified themselves with them.
- The Hebrew Bible should not be approached by scientific questions, nor the fields of sciences by the biblical texts.
Kevin de Berg introduced the “live” portion of the conference on Friday evening. (Friday morning to me; an oddity of a virtual conference with Australians is that had I been quicker with the keyboard, I could have written this before the starting time of the conference)! I felt an immediate connection to de Berg when I learned he was a physical chemist; his co-author was Ewan Ward, a biochemist. De Berg reviewed the history of scientific and philosophical thinking on origins, with design arguments and counterarguments, and with the past half-century of scientists—both Christian and atheist—recognizing the fact that the universe is finely tuned. He discussed cosmological fine-tuning, using as one example the combination of three helium atoms to form carbon, releasing energy that is perfectly matched to one of carbon’s quantized energy levels; were this not true, carbon, and thus organic life, would not exist. He also reviewed the complexity and amazing functionality of basic biomolecules, none of which scientists can yet explain the origin of. De Berg cautioned, however, that while this amazing machinery works for good, it also produces macabre results like a fungus that is perfectly adapted to a receptor in the brain of ants, so that the fungus grows within an ant’s brain and emerges from its eyes to emit spores. De Berg reviewed how Christians have responded to the cosmological timescale, including those not troubled by it or even encouraged (“it reveals more details of God’s handiwork”), while others, including Adventist Leonard Brand, view it as “the major challenge to Adventist understanding of origins,” so that Brand encourages students to study radioactive decay to discover flaws in deep time chronology. Scientists like Brand believe in a short chronology based on their faith in what they see as the biblical account.
More of Ward’s part of the presentation will appear in the forthcoming book. De Berg noted that it would describe the various strands of Christianity attracted to the intelligent design (ID) movement. A criticism of this movement revolves around a statement made by Oxford’s Charles Coulson in the mid-20th-century: “We should look for God’s footprints in what science has revealed, or what we know, rather than what we don’t know. What we do know is sufficient to confirm our faith in the essentials. What we don’t know is sufficient to humble us in our claims and to provide the energy necessary to advance our science towards further discoveries.” [For readers who don’t know, ID proponents argue against methodological naturalism, a cornerstone of science that keeps it searching for natural explanations rather than attributing unknown processes to a designer.] De Berg concluded that “Scientific study of nature reveals precision…and the fine-tuning of the universe…and diversity at the biological level with positive and negative outcomes….We may not be comfortable with every aspect of the design that follows this process….But we would have to marvel at the creative expression observed and the free will that is granted in the process.”
Brian Timms discussed the dating of Quaternary time. While that is “shallow time” on the timescale of conventional science, it is too long for young life creationists, exposing the full range of issues that deep time presents. Among methods discussed were dendrochronology; soil profiles; river deltas (creationists argue from the Mississippi Delta for short timescales, believing it formed within 4 or 5000 years. But they make a big mistake: beneath the superficial lobes of sediment are another 23 million years of additional deposits!); old deep lakes (they have the most speciation); speciation in proximal yet physically separated Australian pan gnammas (weathering pits); core samples from lake varves that reveal numerous cyclic depositions that align with dated historical events such as volcanic eruptions, and extend to older eruptions, arrival of fire/charcoal, and glaciation/pollen variation. I found Timms’s presentation especially interesting because he is an expert on speciation, having found numerous previously undiscovered species in Australia and elsewhere, and because by focusing on “shallow time,” much of his evidence bypassed the most common challenges YECs have directed at radiometric dating. Timms concluded that there is ample evidence that life on earth is much older than 6000 years.
Robert T. Johnston is a retired R&D chemist for Dow Chemical. He and his wife live in Lake Jackson, Texas, where he enjoys year-round outdoor pursuits and researching the historical roots of Adventist creationism. In his spare time, he is camp chef for Talking Rocks Tours, where his passion is to facilitate memorable dinner conversations about geology, faith, and life.