Is Science Adventist? – St. George/Utah 2

(system) #1

This title apparently sounds like a useless and weird question. In fact nobody would answer it affirmatively. That would be too naive and pretentious. But also the negative answers should awaken suspicion and concern. Because what would be the real value of a theological apparatus that so easily gives up the scientific implications of its own theological declarations and beliefs? The SDA church has to deal here with structural tension, as would any other church, between remaining faithful to the Biblical view of origins and the necessity of listening to what our contemporary Science tells us. On one side we don't want to be anti-scientific. That, we sense, would be anti-Biblical. For this reason we teach science in our universities or have created some scientific institutions. But on the other side we don't want to make modern science our new Bible. Nobody will ever be able to dissolve this tension without risking destroying theology and the Bible itself.

But, what happened at Bible & Science meeting in St. George, Utah last August, is not encouraging because it seems that our leaders and the general church are determined to dismantle this structural tension instead of learning to work humbly and patiently within it. It may be the excessively pragmatic accent of our theology and ethics that pushes us to look for immediate and definitive answers. We are allergic to paradoxes, heterogeneity, complexity or long cycles of thought and life, in science as well as in theology. In order to focus on a better way we need to understand and accept the relationship between Adventism and Science.

Let's consider the topic from two different perspectives.

1. Adventism and Science

The relationship between Adventism and Science, as with any religion, is not an easy one. This is due to various factors. One, that transcends culture, is that both entities are comprehensive, not sectarian, enterprises. Both aspire to tell the ultimate truth about reality and human destiny. A second, more specific to our contemporary culture and precisely what Adventism is too easily neglecting, is that Science today is the philosophy of our time. We can't say that we respect contemporary people in order to bring them the Gospel without also taking their Science seriously. What philosophy, ethics or religion represented for other past historical periods, in delineating the “Weltanschauung” and the “Geist” of communities and groups, is done today by contemporary Science.

All this should mandate more careful and open-minded searching and dialogue. We surely don't show respect for contemporary Science just by teaching it in our colleges or by having some scientific institutions (e.g. the Geoscience Research Institute). We tend to use Science to reinforce our own theological agenda. And, the fact that every religious group and secular society usually does the same can't be an alibi for us. To relate correctly to Science shouldn't be an administrative or evangelistic strategy but rather a theological necessity. Because nature, which we call Creation, is never given to us in an immediate form. It is always mediated by Science, and the imperfect scientific categories of our own culture that we use in the street and the marketplace. We cannot say that we love Creation but hate Science. Both, at this level, are synonyms. To respect Science is to respect Creation.

True respect for today’s Science is shown by some more consistent attitudes that represent a real challenge for us. I’ll mention just two of them. The first is respect for Science's autonomy. God's intention concerning the relation between him and his creation (nature and humans) was not intended to be forced by either side. God is in dialogue with his creatures but is not dependent on them. As much as humans and nature are dependent but not determined by God. But while we better understand the category of “human relative autonomy” as a prerequisite of our relation to God, the category of “nature relative autonomy” (the starting point and the sine qua non condition of scientific inquiry) instead is very often overlooked.

The second required attitude is maintenance of a difficult but confident dialogue. Since Christian theology claims to believe in a God who is king, not only of the human soul but also of the universe, we can't deliver a speech on nature – and particularly on nature's foundation, origins and destiny – only within scientific discourse. But in trying to formulate this discourse we are not alone. Science is also there. And we need to understand and take seriously that the relationship between Science and Religion is not merely complementary. It implies also a structural and irreversible tension we can't overlook, dismantle or condemn. We can't use Science only when it supports our religious agenda. This difficult dialogue belongs to the very core and task of theological reasoning. And, instead of becoming immediately apologetic and defensive, we should learn to live in structural tension with Science without losing either our critical capacity or confidence in scientific inquiry.

2. Bible and Science

Science is never static. We observe in history the continuous shift of scientific paradigms. But the same phenomenon actually happens also within the Bible with the description and the understanding of nature. The Biblical message of creation is not given in a monolithic way. There are in the Bible, notwithstanding the cosmocentric view typical of pre-modern times, a diversity of understandings of nature. In fact, we find in the Bible theocentric, anthropocentric and soteriological narratives of creation. Then, what is legitimate inside the Bible becomes also legitimate outside the Bible. There is not just one way of understanding nature either inside or outside the Bible. But the particularity of the Biblical understanding doesn't stop here. It emerges also in processing the two above mentioned attitudes we should have in face of Science: respect for Science's autonomy and maintenance of a confident dialogue.

Nobody will doubt today that the science as understood by the patriarchs was at an embryonic stage. That scientific vision, partially based on the ancient Middle Eastern understanding of the cosmos, was in fact also contaminated with some social superstitions and with some deforming anthropological mechanisms typical of that period. God could have said that that scientific understanding was imperfect and unfit to transmit the message of Creation. But He actually used it, allowing it to communicate the message of Creation in that limited and imperfect scientific perspective. By doing this He affirmed two important facts. On one side He considered that vision as suitable to transmit the essentials of Creation and on the other side this fact didn't legitimize or represent an endorsement of the anomalies and short-circuits of that limited scientific vision.

Concerning the second attitude – that of maintaining an honest and confident dialogue with Science in whatever historical stages –the Bible didn't abandon or declare any scientific period or culture unfit to transmit the message of Creation. Notwithstanding the evident imperfections, God engaged with them in a confident – sometimes direct, sometimes indirect – dialogue in order to communicate to them the essentials of Creation. If the Bible did so in the Biblical times it likewise does the same today. Our scientific version of reality, with all its hypothetical stands and short-circuits, is not less fitted to communicate the essentials of Creation. This fact nevertheless doesn't represent an endorsement of today’s scientific anomalies and mistakes. This is the Biblical base for also maintaining an honest and open dialogue with the evolution-centered science of today. As much as the social anomalies of ancient Israel (e.g. polygamy) were tolerated but not endorsed, also some elements of the patriarchs' scientific vision were tolerated but not endorsed. These Biblical era elements, social or scientific, are surely not mandatory for us today. And the only way of knowing better which elements are or are not mandatory is to engage in an honest and continuous dialogue with current Science.

Following the same Biblical pattern we can't expect today’s Science to be perfect or to become religious before initiating a true dialogue with it. That would be petty, short-sighted and finally anti-Biblical. It's true that current Science has a strong naturalistic character that is visible in the defense of radical Evolutionism. But should this represent an insurmountable obstacle to start a true dialogue with Science? No. If that happens outside with Science, synchronically it will happen also inside with Adventism. We will start looking with suspicion and antipathy to Adventist evolutionists, as we already do with Adventist gays and lesbians or with Adventist women ordained pastors. And that is a deplorable condition that becomes more destructive and alienating to the excluders than to the excluded themselves.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

the issue is not a tension between the Bible and science. science is a method that makes use of various tools. Those tools are inadequate to the task of Origins. They can be of limited use in determination of age, if the hypothesis of uniformity holds true. dogmatism of YEC and Evolution are an embarrassment. The recent conference is no exception. Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #3

The statements of certainty was the first conviction of Adventists: Predicting precisely the date for Christ’s coming. Even though it was erroneous, a new explanation was given; again with absolute certainty,

New converts believed in absolutes; this was the raison de etre for those who became Adventists from its beginning and today. People who feel secure with the certainty of having full knowledge of the Bible will not be eager to accept the ambiguity of scientific methods which are constantly changing with newer discoveries, especially when they threaten the literal interpretation of the entire foundation of the Bible as well as their emotional foundation. This will continue to be a difficult conversation and the young, well-educated members who understand the methods of science will feel more and more isolated from their church home.

(Bill Garber) #4

–In response to, “We are allergic to paradoxes, heterogeneity, complexity or long cycles of thought and life, in science as well as in theology.”

It was not always so.

That said, the allergy had already begun to express itself by the late 19th Century in the Seventh-day Adventist church. Writing from Australia, the 65-year-old Ellen White called for a return by the church to the pre-denominational period ‘forty years ago’ during which the community of faith resisted doctrinal efforts at every turn in deference to the presence of the Holy Spirit that was undeniably binding together people of highly divergent scriptural interpretations and personal views.

The lengthy quote from her article in the July 26, 1892, Review and Herald is linked to it here. Just check for the date citation for the quote.

As wonderfully reasoned as this article is, and it surely is well reasoned, what we are seeing today and what Ellen White was responding to in 1892, is that reason alone is not only weak, it tends toward divisiveness. The power of personal testimony is what binds members of the community of faith in which the Holy Spirit is so obviously dwelling. Starting from the security of such a community, we are free to safely explore, to engage, to imagine, to study.

However, seeking to use the results of our exploration, engagement, imagination and study to bind us together only separates us. And that is what the church already faced only a few decades after its formation. Today we are advised to go back, not forty years, but 162 years if we are to escape continuing to ‘enfeeble’ the church if we believe as Ellen White believed from her vantage point in Australia.

(Ole Edvin Utaker) #5

This is the classical conflict - scientific truths vs. religious convictions. As if religious beliefs and the biblical texts should be prosessed through the lens of a Western-centric-Enlightenment-rationality, only, to be properly understood? As if the sacred text is to the theologian what nature is to scientists - epistemic facts? As if the biblical writers represents the primitive minds, while we (post)moderns the enlightened minds - we who have “grown up and come of age”?

I believe this is at the core of what this classical conflict is about. And, in my view, it is a false dichotomy resulting from an impossible hermeneutics of a strong metaphysical theology, inspired by Cartesian rationality. If a solution to this conflict is to be sought along these lines, it will never be resolved. The winner in this (language)game is science. However, a solution must imply that we are willing to accept that religious truths are different from truths produced by instrumental and reductive reason.

This does not mean that religion is irrational, but that its wisdom is better expressed by the poetics of parables and narratives, than by a logic of heavyweight causality, because religion is about the meaning and moral grounding of human existence. Therefore, contrary to the author, I believe it is possible to dissolve this conflict!

(Jan Long) #6

Based on how the “Bible and Science Conference” at St. George was choreographed it appears the cake may already be in the oven.

But for those who may be overjoyed at that prospect, it is important to mention what is on the line–apart from the Church’s capacity to intellectually engage the world. What is at stake is the Church’s continuing commitment to the “Present Truth” tradition. It simply is not possible to maintain that tradition while at the same time showing complete disrespect for mainstream peer reviewed science.

Living by faith in a way that includes an important role for ambiguity not only keeps that tradition alive, it also acknowledges the essential quality of faith itself.

(Ole Edvin Utaker) #7

This is a beautiful notion of contextualized truth, but when Fundamentalism took hold of the Church in the early 1920’s it sucked the life-blood out of this concept. This was further reinforced by the “Question of Doctrine-project” in the 1960’s, and its attempt to assimilate to Evangelical Christianity.

I therefore think that this notion has been long lost for the Church, and that mainstream Adventism in a global perspective doesn’t seem to subscribe to it, except for pockets of more progressives/postmoderns in the U.S. and Europe. Hopefully, the younger generations will be able to reclaim it. Likewise, by bringing women into leadership positions. Some claim that the Arab Spring will not succed until women are allowed full equality. I think the same goes for the SDA Church.

(Steve Mga) #8

The intellectual sense of “Doubt” is what forces the Intellect to keep searching for more. When the Intellectual Mind senses there is no more “Doubt” it ceases to search, ceases to explore, ceases to learn.
By ceasing to explore and learn it can miss a whole Universe of new ideas, new knowledge, bigger concepts about God.
The mind becomes a Fundamental thinking brain. No more truths to explore. Becomes rigid about knowledge, knowledge about the Bible, knowledge about God’s Will, knowledge about God’s Universe.

(Jan Long) #9

Ole, unfortunately I tend to agree with your assessment. I use the word “unfortunately” because the idea of a living, breathing theology seems to me to be the most superior part of Adventism.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #10

without a doubt, the St George Conference was neither fish nor fowl. Yet measuring age by Carbon 14, and/or any radioactive substance gives merely the rate of decay . the assumption is made as to the initial quantity, a steady state, to arrive at age. it does nothing as to formation or precursors. Peer view only assures the reader that the writer has passed orthodoxy in his/her field. What we have observed is a profound ability of organisms to adapt. The issue of origins remains a faith issue regardless the view one takes. Tom Z

(Jan Long) #11

Tom, the process of age-dating is not quite as Lucy-goosey as you suggest, and given your science background I am surprised you would cast it this way. On the completely separate question of “origins” I suspect we are not too far apart.

The larger point, however, goes way beyond such issues to the larger question of how the Church can claim any sort of commitment to truth should it decide to ignore real world data. Let’s assume you and I are on the same page and have theological reasons to be skeptical of a given scientific conclusion. In such case is it ever appropriate or wise to simply ignore data (or multiple streams of data), or for that matter to issue official statements that contradict data? If the answer is “yes” then welcome to the world of superstition.

The Church currently has a well-crafted and nuanced articulation of beginnings, so why the compunction to mess with it a way that would diminish the Church’s credibility? Is there to be no space for ambiguity and mystery in our understandings?

(Thomas J Zwemer) #12

I have minimum high regard for classic YEC. Yet I see no merit in dating exercised as confirming origins. So the issue not between the Bible and science, it is between men of determined wills with apposing world views. Tom Z

(Thomas J Zwemer) #13

My son had a chemistry assignment with his three parnters to identify a chemical unknown… He came home and said, dad we tested the sample and it tested positive for almost everything in the lab…I asked for a new sample. he said that will cost us one grade level. I said, give me the sample and I will have it tested in our lab. we found that he was right, it tested positive for every ion in a Highschool lab. but one ion was slightly stronger than the rest. I reported, you need a fresh sample. which they got. in this sample one crystal didn’t desolve. so the team went through all the chemistry inventory and found a crystal that matched. they got C grade. it was later learned that the chemistry teacher and football Coach had used tap water from a deep hard water well and had used as a sample chemicals that students had contaminated by multiple extractions with contaminated spatulas. my son went on to his doctorate but he also reads very carefully. Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #14

A good scientist will always check his findings: once, twice, and more before reaching a conclusion; if there’s the slightest doubt he will check with his colleagues (pathologists follow this pattern).

(John Alfke) #15

but science does not confirm the literal reading of the Bibles story about origins… certainly not the “YOUNG” part… ancient rugose corals have been radio dated to some 300 MILLION yrs ago, AND their daily growth patterns show a shorter day… which is confirmed by astro physics of the earth moon system… three separate systems of "dating’ which confirm that the earth and life on it are far, far older than the Genesis story allows if it is read literally. scroll down to #20 more info here:

(Thomas J Zwemer) #16

you totally missed my point. science can not confirm origins as described by the Bible or by Neo-Darwinians. It is obvious that the planet earth is part of the solar system which is part of the Milky Way which is part of the universe, which is very very old. According to the Biblical account life forms are much more recent.How recent we have no solid evidence except a chronology, which is seriously suspect. My point is one cannot use inert earth substances to determine origins. Of life forms., Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #17

What about the life forms of dinosaurs that date far beyond the creation of the other animals. Who created those animals which were not contemporary with humans? Were man and other animals created long after? Doesn’t that also raise the question of death before sin–sin as defined by Adam’s sin??

(Thomas J Zwemer) #18

Elaine that is an open question on many levels. I don’t pretent’to give a definitive answer. but I suspect the dating is in error. Tom Z

(Bille) #19

Tom, the “dating” is no where nearly so much in error as is the selective reading of Genesis which bonds “In the beginning God created” with the “in six days” organizational outline of chapter one, with the list of patriarchs and their ages given in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This means that “origins” are not looked at in the ultimate sense… even though only the two “ultimate” ways… that of blind chance or of God as the ultimate Origin… are often given as though the “God option” HAD to include a short chronology… even in spite of the witness of nature itself.

Along the way there are texts that are simply ignored … some of which would shed a lot of light on the question of life forms that lived and died millennia before men appeared on the scene.

If one sticks firmly to the Doctrine of Creation… that is that it is GOD who is the ultimate cause of all that there is… the questions of time can be handled one at a time and with constantly improved instruments. And no one needs to be branded as an “infidel” or “unbeliever” just because they don’t accept the short chronology of Bishop Ussher.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #20

Bille I put no stock in Usher or White’s dating. i do believe that the earth without form and void of life existed for millions prior to the story of creation.

yes in early days I had input to the selection and we were given two young pastors one from down under and one from jolly old England that were tops. after Davenport, I had friendly conversations with several conference presidents but no impact. my stand on Glacier view had its impact. Tom Z