President Wilson's opening and closing addresses to the ten-day August 2014 “Bible and Science Conference” in St. George, Utah, were the most revelatory and surprising presentations in otherwise rather flat, predictable, repetitive and at times monotonous meetings on Creation. Our president always manages to exceed himself in theological superficiality and recklessness. The opening address was bold and full of strong, personal convictions and at times even theologically insolent and arrogant. But the closing address was completely anonymous because the mosaic of heterogeneous and poorly assembled biblical and E.G.White quotations which served to sublimate the lack of a deep, meaningful and personal reflection on the topic. But nobody is completely monolithic. Our president can, in fact, be kind, pastoral and socially open while at the same time be theologically polarizing, radical and presumptuous. This variety of attitudes could eventually represent a resource to be used in various challenging situations the church has to deal with. But it lacks the wisdom of reading the seasons and contexts, the different actors and needs. The SDA presidency has chosen the monotonic, repetitive note of theological affirmation as a panacea. It becomes the unique remedy in the church's medical box to eradicate all the various challenges, miseries and discomforts of the Adventist soul. But this way of acting, speaking and leading the church doesn't facilitate but rather gives extra-work to the Holy Spirit to maintain the church united, healthy and whole.
Does the church have the President it deserves or is the President fashioning the church to his own image? Whatever the answer may be, what comes out from St. George is a tautological Adventist theology. A theology of multiple forms, strategies and speeches that doesn’t add meaning. But the problem is both ours and the president's. And, beyond Creationism, what is at stake here is our relationship to the Bible. It is presumption to think that our Biblical methodology is already definitive. Let’s consider now two dimensions of this approach, in the context of the St. George meeting on “Bible and Science”.
1. Bible and Creationism
A first important theological issue is to properly correlate Creationism and the Bible. They are not synonyms or perfectly interchangeable. The relationship is more complex than what our leaders and GC president believe and want us to believe. In the St. George meetings, official speakers – scientists and theologians – indiscriminately used that term Creationism. This may be the norm in the U.S. cultural and religious context but that's not the case in Europe. There are many serious and committed European Adventist believers who firmly adhere to the doctrine of Creation but are still reluctant to call themselves Creationists. Creationism is not a Biblical term. It rightfully starts with some real and basic Biblical ideas on Creation but ends as an ideologically radical, reactionary and typical modern “ism”. The fact that the official SDA church identifies itself with Creationism – as was clearly expressed in St. George – has a doubly negative collateral effect.
On one side it divides the church from within, hardening and polarizing differences that should coexist and learn to dialogue together. This theological choice tends to over-emphasize a reductive Creationist reading and stigmatize and depreciate other eventually more balanced readings of the Biblical Creation narrative. Personally I believe that the common ground, to all Adventists and Adventisms, should be a strong belief in Creation. But it should be Creation, not Creationism that unites us all. Creationist views and positions nevertheless should be tolerated and protected but not idealized, much less divinised. A mature understanding of unity should allow us to respect internal plurality in understanding Creation. Instead the official church keeps on clinging to a childish and reductive understanding of unity. This idea of theological unity presupposes and keeps our communities at an overly simple stage, asking from them only obedience and loyalty. Personal and critical thinking, creativity, passion and other basic attitudes that make an engaged community – are just banished, then substituted with a mechanical and impersonal ideological thinking.
On the other side, this official stand on Creationism impoverishes our relation to the Bible. This shows our incapacity for abstract thinking. A diffuse and unexpressed conviction among us is the following: if we Adventists are Biblical then the Bible itself must be Adventist. But actually the two affirmations don't necessarily coincide. There is a convergence but also a tension. Being Biblical means to keep alive this convergence and tension. At St. George we clearly showed our incapacity to affirm both truths together: our doctrine on Creation is based on the Bible but the Biblical perspective itself is not reducible to what we say on Creation. And, against all appearances, this position is the daughter of a weak identity that tries to compensate its own uncertainty with an absolute claim to the Biblical record by totally identifying it with our own position. What is really sacred is the Biblical record on Creation, not the various readings we can make of it. A Creationist reading may have legitimacy due to external factors that still need to be debated (contextual, ecclesiastical, pedagogical etc.) but not as a totalizing account of the Biblical witness itself.
2. Bible and Evolution
A second important theological question is that of reflecting dispassionately on the eventual relationship between Evolution and the Bible. We unwisely and naively have rejected up until now the opportunity of considering this relation as possible. To enter into dialog with Evolutionary scientists is not easy but it is certainly worse to ignore them and delude ourselves into believing we are the uniquely sane people on earth. This attitude could eventually be called a “delusional communitarian theological Schizophrenia” or could configure itself as a perverse dissociative disorder that pushes us to believe that Others don't exist and that we can arbitrarily organize the world and knowledge only after Adventist rules and standards. But the unsolved problems come back to us when some Evolutionistic ideas are incarnated now, not in isolated and perverse heretics but in devoted, intelligent and honest Adventists who love God and this community. Here the GC president's proposal: “they should resign”, or the unhappy words: “they shouldn't exist”, just makes the situation worse, albeit covered by the euphoria of eager and zealous calls for doctrinal purity and radical orthodoxy.
A central characteristic of the Bible is to be exclusive and inclusive at the same time. We cannot ignore one of these two central traits without denaturing the Bible's own profile. This represents the wonderful Biblical tension that unfortunately our doctrinaire Adventist declarations don't succeed in imitating. And, instead of improving it, we are just headed toward making it more exclusive by reformulating Fundamental Belief #6 (based on the St. George reductive declaration) next year in San Antonio. The Bible witness on Creation is clear and precise but at the same time open, general and flexible. This allows all cultures and communities to find inspiration in it and bring to that narrative different accents and peculiarities. The Biblical narrative allows various interpretations. The superiority of one interpretation (that of Adventism for instance) cannot be imposed by decree on the others but only through persuasion and witness in a continuous and critical dialogue. And that's exactly what we are avoiding.
A healthier, more relevant and balanced formulation of the doctrine of Creation can be achieved only by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. And that doesn't occur only through the sacred and omnipresent theological triumvirate: Andrews – ATS – BRI/GRI. In the choice of speakers at St. George neither scientific nor even spiritual criteria prevailed but rather poor economic and familial strategies. If we put away some external and internal alternative thinking we will be destined to disappear, if not physically then surely theologically.
We can affirm today, not from the Adventist perspective but from a general Christian perspective, that a certain Evolutionistic reading of the Creation narrative is not only possible but also compatible with the Biblical witness. We cannot today pretend that Adventists are the unique people who read Genesis rightly. Other Christian readings of Genesis have more merit than we usually attribute to them and not all of what we say on origins is sound or provable. We have overestimated Creationism and underestimated Evolution. And the fact that we now have to deal with Evolution, not outside the church but inside, is not at all a bad thing that we need to escape from. Rather it is a tremendous opportunity to learn together, with the various voices and sensibilities we represent, more about this important issue that also represents a central part of our identity.
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 http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6245