“The” or “An” Adventist Understanding of Biblical Creation?
by Ervin Taylor, October 27, 2015: For those interested in the current theological debates now raging inside corporate Adventism, the Adventist Review (AR) is an important source of at least one side of the various contested points of view. Currently, the editorial opinion and most stories published in the AR reflect the party line of a highly conservative-fundamentalist element now in power at the General Conference (GC). However, if one reads carefully, it is sometimes possible to gain a glimpse “behind the curtain” and view some contrasting perspectives and opinions that make it past the guardians of the gates of current Adventist hyper-orthodoxy. Also, if one reads the on-line comments on the AR web page, a much wider range of opinion is permitted to be expressed with a very light hand at censorship. Whoever is running that part of AR operations should be warmly congratulated.
As any reader of the print version of the AR will know (which, by the way, is a declining number of individuals), an area of current conflict within institutional Adventism being addressed from time to time in its pages deals with interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis. The October 2015 issue of AR carries a report on yet another book published by the controlled corporate press of Adventism on this topic. The review was written by an associate director of the principal theological apologetics and propaganda arm of the GC, the Biblical Research Institute (BRI). Parenthetically, we might note here that a staff member of the principal apologetic scientific propaganda arm of the GC, the Geoscience Research (sic) Institute (GRI), has an article in the same issue of AR arguing for the historical reality of Jonah and the factuality of his three-day sojourn in a very large fish. This fascinating story related in the Old Testament book of Jonah was understood by a number of post-Biblical Jewish biblical commentators to be a parable and certainly not to be taken literally. However, we should not be surprised that this kind of fundamentalist argumentation is still thought to be necessary in the pages of the AR.
But back to the book review in the AR on Adventist Creationism: the topic and a title of one of the two books reviewed is The Genesis Creation Account and Its Reverberations in the Old Testament, published by the Andrews University Press. A second volume, He Spoke and It Was: Divine Creation in the Old Testament, is described as “a simplified edition of the scholarly first volume.” The “simplified edition” is published by the Pacific Press.
To be fair, anyone familiar with the one-sided expressions of opinion that typically appear in the AR concerning this and many other contentious topics may be surprised that some of the statements expressed in this AR book review make some candid admissions.
For example, this review begins:
“For the past few decades, the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 has been the subject of intense discussion within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A number of theologians and scientists within the church have argued that the seven-day creation account should not be taken literally. They believe that God created life on this planet over millions of years, accommodating the basic outline of evolutionary theory.”
That there has been an “intense discussion” over the last few decades in the Adventist Church centered on “the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2” is, of course, correct. Also correct is the fact that a “number of theologians and scientists within the church have argued that the seven-day creation account should not be taken literally.” However, one would not expect someone working for the BRI to admit what two surveys of the opinions of Adventist scientists uncovered. This was that a little over half of the scientists teaching in Adventist colleges and universities who responded to two questionnaires separated by several years did not accept the view that the days of creation should be understood as literal 24-hour days or that the creation was a “recent” event. But that fact, which is apparently so uncomfortable for Adventist fundamentalists to accept, did not dissuade the faction currently controlling the GC to engineer a change in Fundamental Belief No. 6 at the last GC session in San Antonio which added non-biblical language to the statement on Creation—essentially now declaring the literal nature of those six-days.
The last sentence in that introductory paragraph of the review states that “They [the Adventist scientists and theologians] believe that God created life on this planet over millions of years, accommodating the basic outline of evolutionary theory.” While the first part of the sentence is probably correct for the majority of Adventist scientists disagreeing with the new corporate statement in the now misnamed “Fundamental Beliefs,” the last phrase, “accommodating the basic outline of evolutionary theory,” might be going too far. If by “basic outline of evolutionary theory” is meant that the fossils in the geologic column are evidence that life forms on this planet in the main developed from simple to complex over billions of years, then that may reflect the current opinion of a majority of Adventist scientists. However, until there is another survey conducted by an independent professional polling organization that can guarantee the absolute anonymity of respondents and an objective reporting of what was found from the survey, we will not know.
The remainder of the AR book review considers the important arguments of the scholarly book. For example, the book states that the “biblical cosmology [presented in the early chapters of Genesis] cannot be read through the glasses of pagan cosmologies of the ancient Near East and Egypt. The biblical worldview knows of no three-storied or triple-decked universe. That ancient Hebrews believed the heavens consisted of a solid vault resting on a flat earth is not found in Scripture and appears to have emerged for the first time in the early nineteenth century.” I’m sure that anyone familiar with the scholarly corpus of specialists in early Hebrew languages and literature will be surprised at such a strange statement. It is a reaction of fundamentalist apologists to insights of several generations of Old Testament scholars. Fundamentalists refuse to accept the fact that the ancient Hebrews believed in a flat earth that does not move with a firmament above and a dark underworld beneath.
However, what is noteworthy is that the title of the review of these books in the AR is “An Adventist Understanding of Biblical Creation.” The title is not “The Adventist Understanding of Biblical Creation.” Perhaps this is an over-interpretation of a simple editing decision. However, saying that the views expressed in this book reflect just one “Adventist understanding of Biblical Creation” implies that there are also other legitimate Adventist understandings of biblical creation narratives just as there are different Adventist understandings of many other theological topics. May I suggest that this is a very helpful way to understand what is currently going on in the Adventist theological landscape? There is no longer just one “Adventist” interpretation of the Genesis creation account. There is no such thing as “The Adventist Understanding of Biblical Creation.”
Instead, there is a range of viewpoints being expressed. All of these have been written from different reflections on the “Adventist” religious tradition—a tradition that features and is comfortable with understanding that there are theological concepts which constitute “present truth” which may not be the same as previous Adventist consensus derived from an earlier and more fundamentalist phase of the Adventism historical experience. These ideas are being expressed in the free Adventist press in the form of both magazine articles and books. Readers who are interested in some of these items can visit the Adventist Today and Spectrum web sites.