Faith and Science in Two Divergent Adventist Traditions: A Historical Dilemma

Ervin Taylor

The Denver International Faith and Science Conference was, in part, the culmination of a three year odyssey of a church institution in search of a way out of a historical dilemma.

A dilemma is a situation that requires one to choose between two equally, or nearly equally, unpleasant alternatives. At the beginning of the 21st century, the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is faced with the collision of two characteristic but increasingly conflicted intellectual traditions within contemporary Adventism in the developed world. Both traditions are strongly associated with the Adventist education system, and both have their roots in the 19th century American culture within which the Adventist church formulated its traditional core theological system.

The first half of the 19th century was a period of very rapid cultural change in the United States. The nation was roiled by major strains in the fabric of its norms and values. An influx of “foreign” populations and ideas along with industrialization and the growth of urban centers challenged many traditional American ways of thinking and living. At mid-century, the nation would be engulfed in a bloody civil war. Classical, sectarian Seventh-day Adventism was one of several major American religious sects which emerged during this period offering assurance and answers in the face of social and political turmoil.

The first intellectual tradition of Adventism derives from a 19th century American variant of a “Bible Only” fundamentalism—a conviction that all important truth can be derived from a purported “plain-sense reading” of the Bible. The classic SDA development of this tradition was closely associated with the visionary experiences of one of its founders, Ellen G. White, an emotionally highly sensitive, charismatic possessing a vivid and highly creative religious imagination. Reared within the Holiness tradition of Methodism, she emphasized that the prayerful reading of the Bible would lead one to “Present Truth,” the Bible truth especially relevant to “God’s people” at a particular point in time. The focus of her religious “vision” was personal holiness in the light of the approaching end of time. The “Present Truth” she endorsed on the basis of her early visions included the distinctive elements of Adventist theology, above all its eschatology, to which was added other concepts such as Seventh-day Sabbath-keeping.

Her views regarding earth history, e.g., a literal 6-day, 6000-year-old creation and a subsequent world-wide flood, reflected the dominant views of her immediate religious environment. These views were a relatively minor part of the platform she assumed as she mapped out her understanding of God’s plan for ending sin and suffering. Her understandings with regard to the details contained in the opening chapters of Genesis were essentially a background element of her overall understanding of what the Bible taught. However, this background element became embedded or absorbed within the fabric of the master Adventist narrative or religious world view--the "Great Controversy"----for which White was largely responsible. By the time of her death in 1915, classical Adventism—both officially and in its popular or folk manifestations—was seen by its adherents as a tightly integrated, interlocking system of not just “Present Truth” but “Truth.”

The “Bible Only” tradition in Adventism was a major stimulant for the creation of a separate Adventist educational system. Our founders wanted our young people to be protected from the corrupting influence of “worldly” education. They wanted them in an educational environment that would strengthen their confidence in the teachings of the SDA church about the Bible. This early Adventist ethos would have readily and firmly aligned the small Adventist Church with American Protestant Fundamentalists in the late 19th and early 20th century, except for several anomalous factors unique to the Adventist variant of American evangelical Christianity. One of these elements had an important, long-term impact on how the Adventist tradition approached a study of the natural world. This unique Adventist historical factor resulted from the pursuit of accreditation for a denominationally-affiliated medical school. This introduces another major intellectual stream in Adventism: a strong commitment to science because of its connection with health care.

In creating colleges, Adventism followed in the pattern of many other American denominations. In the decades on either side of 1900 America was dotted with small, church-sponsored colleges. However, the one unusual aspect of the SDA system was its focus on health and medically-oriented education. In part, this grew out of the health reformist components of early Adventism although the personal medical history of Ellen White was probably also an important factor. Adventist health work provided a political and economic counter-balance in the church to the dominance of the professional clergy. This was first played out in the controversial career of John Harvey Kellogg, a protégé of White, and in the battle for the control of Battle Creek Sanitarium and Hospital. In this conflict, the emergent clerical party controlling the denominational administrative and publishing apparatus asserted their dominance over the emergent professional class of physicians controlling SDA medical institutions.

At the opening of the 20th century, the church reestablished a denominationally-sponsored medical school, this time in California, the College of Medical Evangelists (now the School of Medicine, Loma Linda University). The development of other medical institutions and a network of medical professionals began to create alternative institutional power bases within Adventism. These medical centers had the potential for again challenging the dominance of the clergy in the SDA church and the development of medical education inescapably led to church members who possessed not only economic independence but also a deeply-rooted regard for science in the context of the adoption of the ethos of modern “scientific medicine.”

These two traditions within American Adventism were launched on an institutional collision course by a decision in the second decade of the 20th century to pursue accreditation for the church’s medical school. In 1908, the Flexner Report had set into motion an expectation and then requirement that medical schools accept applicants only from accredited colleges. Ellen White had consistently urged the church not to settle for anything less than the highest possible credentials for the school and its graduating physicians. In doing this, she did not envision several unanticipated consequences. Across the country, urged on by the requirements of medical college accreditation, Adventist undergraduate colleges also began to pursue accreditation. One outgrowth of this process was that Adventist faculty began to obtain advanced academic degrees from non-SDA universities in a wide variety of academic disciplines. This process was well underway by the late 1940s and rapidly escalated in the 1960s.

As a result of this process, SDA “Bible teachers” began to give way to SDA “theologians” and “Biblical scholars.” At the same time, many Adventist scientists acquired expertise in the study of the natural world. Some became acquainted with the empirical basis for conventional theories in geology, paleontology, and evolution. A number of these individuals, once responsible only for “teaching science,” became “scientists” in their own right. As these Adventist academics pursued their studies, they became aware of compelling data and theories that appeared to contradict classical teachings of the church in a number of areas, especially in the area of earth history.

I propose that the root cause of the contemporary problem that confronts the institutional SDA church in the developed world with regard to its conventional teachings having implications about early earth and human history is largely a direct outgrowth of a tension between these two traditions within Adventist education—a conflict between a purported “Bible Only” sectarian theology and a commitment to science and science education. These two traditions are uncomfortably intermingled in the contemporary SDA system of higher education in the developed world. Different elements of these two components are expressed in varying combinations at different North American SDA collages and universities and account, in part, for the “liberal” and “conservative” labels attached to these institutions.

The two international SDA Faith & Science Conferences and the North American Division Faith & Science Conference were showcases exemplifying the effects of placing the conceptual products of these two traditions in juxtaposition. With regard to the specific issues taken up at these conferences, the two traditions appear to have two very different understandings of what is the most accurate method of finding out what really happened in the past.

It should be emphasized that, with respect to the SDA academic community, this is not a conflict between faith/religion/theology and science or between Adventist theologians and scientists. It is clear from the three year series of conferences that both Adventist scientists and Adventist theologians profoundly differ among themselves as to what approach yields the “real truth” about geology and early human history.

Most members of both traditions insist that they value both the evidence from the Bible and from scientific research. However, those committed to what they insist is a “Bible Only” viewpoint insist that concepts derived from a conventional Adventist interpretation of the Biblical narratives must be privileged in any apparent conflict of understanding. The stated reason for this is that human perception and reasoning has been damaged as the result of sin. An unstated reason, to quote an advocate of such a view, is that there is the fear that any deviation from a traditional Adventist understanding of earth and human history will “undermine the integrity of the Seventh-day Adventist message and mission.” In part, I would further propose that this view derives from a fear that the credibility and thus authority of Ellen White in the contemporary SDA church in the developed world would be fatally compromised if any element, however small, of her vision of what constitutes “Biblical truth” is contradicted.

On the other side, members of the “respect for science” tradition respond that evidence from the Biblical narratives and from scientific research should be given equal weight since “rightly understood” they are not in conflict. They further argue that any damage to human cognition caused by sin would impact not only the human understanding of science-based data but our interpretations of the Biblical narratives as well. Some of the theologians in this group also argue that the purported “Bible only” position is highly selective about the portions of the Bible that are emphasized and that, in fact, a straight-forward reading of the Genesis narratives and a understanding of the original Hebrew worldview underlying the statements contained in these narratives do not lead to a support for the classical Adventist understandings of earth and human history.

Some might ask: Where is God in all of this? I can do no better to answer this than to quote a comment make by Dr. Jan Paulsen, the president of the General Conference at the Denver conference: "Knowing and understanding may not always be comfortable on this walk, but this is faith's world; it is a world of mysteries--it is the world of God's moving and doing.”

The current dilemma facing church administrators is how to navigate between these highly divergent---even polarized--- views without doing serious damage to one or both of these two historic elements that are in tension within the contemporary Adventist academy in the developed world. As educational levels rise among members in the developing world, this tension will arise there also.

No one should underestimate the difficulties that church leaders face in attempting to reconcile these opposing forces and the damage that can be done if the “solutions” are handled badly. Perhaps the best approach is to do nothing. As Dr. Paulsen recently suggested, perhaps we will just have to “live with” the tension.

Postscript: It should be noted that this evaluation comes from the perspective of only one individual. Adventist Today would be happy to publish expressions of other perspectives.