Open Letter to Elder Ted Wilson
by Robert T. Johnston, Feb. 23, 2015: I am writing to thank you and fellow denominational leaders for preserving ambiguity in the proposed revision to Fundamental Belief #6 (FB6). As a Seventh-day Adventist scientist who rejects the fundamentalist view of a literal 6-day creation of our world and life upon it approximately 6,000 years ago, followed by a world-wide flood that produced the geologic column and earth’s major geographical features as we find them today, I was initially concerned about the proposed revision (“clarification”) of FB6. However, having read what was voted at the recent Annual Council meeting, I am relieved that the church—while adding some unfortunate extra-biblical language with which I disagree—has at least retained ambiguity in one of the most critical areas, thereby supporting those Adventists who believe life has existed and developed on this planet for billions of years.
The adoption of the term “recent” instead of a more specific term such as “6,000 years” provides important clarification indeed. First, by using such an indefinite time descriptor, the church has left room for those who believe the age of the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years, the earth 4.6 billion years, and terrestrial life in its earliest forms approximately 3.6 billion years. Since we believe in an eternal God, we know that in His timescale even 13.8 billion years is indeed “recent.” Thus, we can agree with the language of this proposed revision even if careless readers might think it teaches a short chronology.
Second, by avoiding the “6,000 years” language that Ellen White used explicitly and repeatedly for the age of the earth, the church is tacitly admitting that it does not wish to be bound by White’s word on this matter. It appears that the church doesn’t agree with her writings about geology or is embarrassed by them and reluctant to subject itself to ridicule by upholding teachings that so clearly disagree with evidence from multiple scientific, historical and textual-critical sources.
This must have been a difficult concession for those who uphold a 6,000-year chronology and believe Ellen White’s words to be directly inspired by God, but it is a breakthrough for reason. We can count far more tree rings on bristlecone pines and layers in ice core samples than 6,000, and archaeological evidence points to civilizations older than 6,000 years. Avoiding Ellen White’s clear teaching on this subject not only leaves room for those of us compelled by radiochemical and fossil evidence to accept a “billions of years” chronology for life on earth, but it also clearly demonstrates how the church intends her writings to be used. That is, Ellen White’s writings are not authoritative in a final sense, but must be understood in the context of her life and times, and must be tested against other authorities such as archaeology and science. Thus, we may attribute her “6,000 years” to Ussher’s chronology written in the margin of her King James Bible, rather than direct, explicit revelation from God. Likewise, we may attribute her statements about coal-burning as the mechanism of volcanism—or the alleged discovery of human remains twice current size—to her dependence on human sources, rather than actual information communicated to her in vision. Otherwise, one might be led to question her entire body of work!
I understand that a majority of Seventh-day Adventists subscribe to a literal 6-day creation about 6,000 years ago and to a universal flood, but most Adventists have been heavily indoctrinated towards this view and have limited exposure to alternative interpretations of the biblical and natural evidence. By avoiding—after years of careful study—the “6,000 year” language of Ellen White, the church sends a message that there is room in its fellowship and institutions for pastors, teachers, theologians and scientists who, while deeply respectful of inspiration, allow natural and historical evidence to inform their interpretation of inspired writings.
Not all the new revisions are as positive as the adoption of “recent” over the specific “6,000 years” language of Ellen White. “Historical,” for example, places God’s creative activity in the past, a view more in line with Deism and not in accord with biblical evidence. Revisions to some of the other fundamental beliefs are also surprisingly poorly worded. For example, “final” in FB1 rejects Ellen White or the work of the Holy Spirit. The term “bodily” in FB9 ignores Adventism’s traditional soul = body + spirit formulation. FB20 replaces “beneficent” but in doing so substitutes a word (“grace”) with a different meaning so that now God rested the seventh day to bestow unmerited favor on man. FB21 tries to use more inclusive language but in the process introduces referential confusion (a better phrasing might be, “Stewards rejoice in the blessings their faithfulness brings to others.”).
There are several other such issues, but I won’t belabor them here. The primary purpose in writing is simply to thank you for using the term “recent” instead of the “6,000 years” language of Ellen White. It gives me hope to see the church take at least one step forward for every two steps it takes backwards.