A historical review of the creation debate
Author: Gerhard Pfandl, Ph.D., associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.
Editorial Note: While this paper, now in article form, is not one that was presented at any of the Faith and Science Conferences convened over the last three years, it is one that was presented in appropriate venues during this time period and has had its influence on the dialogue. We believe that it contributes to our self-understanding as Seventh-day Adventists when it comes to the issues of creation, evolution, faith, and science. It is therefore included in our Ministry Faith and Science series.
At its 1980 world session in Dallas, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists officially voted the church's statement of faith in terms of 27 fundamental beliefs.
Belief No. 6 states: "God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity. In six days the Lord made 'the heaven and the earth' and all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His completed creative work. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was 'very good,' declaring the glory of God. (Gen. 1; 2; Ex. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Heb. 11:3)."
This statement spells out that Seventh-day Adventists believe (a) that God created heaven and earth and all that is therein in six days, and (b) that the Sabbath is a continual reminder of the six-day creation.
On the basis of biblical chronology and some statements of Ellen White, Seventh-day Adventists have tradition ally believed that this creation took place about 6000 years ago.
Traditional creation models among Adventists
Two different views in regard to the creation record of Genesis 1 have prevailed in the Adventist Church.
1. The Adventist gap theory. This view understands Genesis 1:1 as a reference to the creation of the universe including the earth in its raw state billions of years ago. Several thousand years ago the Holy Spirit hovered above the waters and the six-day creation took place. This view was predominant among Adventist pioneers. M. C. Wilcox in 1898 wrote, "When did God create, or bring into existence, the heaven and the earth? 'In the beginning.' When this 'beginning' was, how long a period it covered, it is idle to conjecture; for it is not revealed. That it was a period which antedated the six days' work is evident." 1
The same view is found among Adventists today. For example, Clyde Webster, former associate director of the Geo-Science Research Institute, in his book The Earth writes, "There is no reference in Scripture within creation week that addresses the creation of water or the mineral content of dry land. . . . The only reference made to their creation is 'in the beginning.' It seems possible then that the elementary inorganic matter is not bound by a limited age as is the living matter."2
More recently, at the 2002 General Conference-sponsored Faith and Science Conference, Richard Davidson from Andrews University stated that "[T]he biblical text of Genesis 1 leaves room for either (a) young pre-fossil rock, created as part of the seven days of creation (with apparent old age), or (b) much older pre-fossil earth rock, with a long interval between the creation of the inanimate 'raw materials' on earth described inGenesis 1:1,2 and the seven days of Creation week described in Genesis 1:3ff (which I find the preferable interpretation)." 3
Contrary to the gap or ruin-restoration theory of the Scofield Bible, Seventh-day Adventists do not believe that life existed on earth prior to Genesis 1. Only nonfossil bearing rock can be billions of years old. While this is a possibility, Genesis 1:1-3 does not indicate that there is a gap between verses 1 and 2. Furthermore, Exodus 20:11 says "For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them." This text seems to say that with in six days God created everything connected with our earth. At any rate, the gap view does not really help us when it comes to the fossil bearing geologic column, since death can have occurred only after the Fall.
2. The original Creation account. This view sees the six-day Creation week beginning in verse 1, not in verse 3. In other words, "heaven and earth" in verse 1 refers only to our planetary system or our Milky Way and not to the universe as a whole. The reason is that in Isaiah 65:17 and Revelation 21:1 "heaven and earth" do not refer to a re-creation of the universe but only to that part of the uni verse contaminated by sin.
This was J. N. Andrews's view. He believed that the universe was created on day one. "If we could be placed back some 6,000 years in the past, and from that point survey the vast abyss of space now studded with the stars of heaven,what should we behold? Blank nothing. The host of heaven did not then exist. Our earth itself had not risen into being. The vast infinity of space was literally, as job expresses it, 'the empty place,' and that which filled it was 'nothing' Job 26:7. Utter and profound darkness rested upon the great void. Even the materials which subsequently formed the worlds had no existence."4
Ellen White wrote in 1904, in connection with the pantheism crisis, "The theory that God did not create matter when He brought the world into existence is without foundation. In the formation of our world, God was not indebted to pre-existing matter." 5
While this statement can be used by both positions, in view of all her other statements on creation, I believe she held the second view. Whatever the case, both positions hold to a six-day Creation and see the Creation account as the basis for the Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20.
Evolution and the Adventist church
Until the 1950s Adventists on the whole accepted one or the other of the two creation models. During the last few decades, however, some Adventists have begun introducing a third creation model theistic evolution. This is an attempt to harmonize evolutionary biology with the Christian faith.
In 1957 the General Conference established the Geoscience Research Institute, located today on the campus of Loma Linda University in California. "The institute focuses mainly on the bio logical, geological, and paleontological questions regarding the origin of life and the past history of our planet in the context of the Creation account given in the book of Genesis."6
During the first two decades of its work, tensions existed among the scientists of the institute because of different views on how to interpret the past. Some took the statements of Scripture and Ellen White seriously and attempted to interpret the facts of science accordingly. Others were willing to consider seriously "evidence from radioactive time clocks that placed 'Creation Week hundreds of millions of years ago' " 7 and searched for ways to interpret Scripture in the light of this view.
In time, all the so-called progressive scientists left the institute, and around 1980, when Ariel Roth became director of the institute, only scientists who accepted the Scriptural record as it reads were on the staff. In Adventist schools and universities, however, the picture was different. A number of science teachers tended to lean more and more toward theistic evolution.
The Geoscience Research Institute organized field conferences in North America, Europe, and Australia that informed the leadership of the church, teachers, and ministers about the prob lems of the evolutionary theory and offered a solution to the geologic column on the basis of the biblical flood.
On one of these tours in 1977 the General Conference president Robert Pierson realized that some of our scientists tended toward theistic evolution. He asked the vice presidents Duncan Eva, Willis Hackett, and Richard Hammill to formulate two doctrinal points, one about inspiration and the other about creation, which the scientists and Bible teachers in our schools should accept. "Their efforts on behalf of Pierson's 'creedal statement' prompted one cam pus theologian to confess that he could see no substantive difference between the actions of the General Conference president and those of the pope."8
About the same time that Ariel Roth became director of the Geoscience Research Institute, Gerhard Hasel became dean of the theological semi nary at Andrews. Through these appointments Elder Pierson hoped to contain the pluralism among the theologians and scientists.
The progressive or more liberal thinking scholars and scientists, however, were frustrated. They turned to Richard Ritland, who had retired in 1982, and asked him to organize a field conference for the Association of Adventist Forums. The conference took place in 1985 with about 100 participants. For ten days they studied the geological formations in Utah and Wyoming and another five days were spent at a study conference in Yellowstone Park. "Conference presenters dealt with three themes: earth history, the biblical record, and responses by Christians seeking to reconcile their faith with the evidence from science."9
A report of this field conference, published in Spectrum, stated, "The conference generated some feeling of apprehension, partly because not all the familiar answers seemed adequate to explain what we saw, and because participants were concerned that the issue of origins might be divisive for the Adventist Church."10
The concern was justified. At a Geoscience field conference in 1991, which newly elected General Conference president Robert Folkenberg attended, Ariel Roth informed the participants that a number of Adventist scientists had become theistic evolutionists. Then in the year 2000, the Association of Adventist Forums published the book Creation Reconsidered, which contains the 28 lectures given at the 1985 Yellowstone conference. A number of the contributors to this volume advocate theistic evolution.
Two views in the church today
Based on recent publications of Adventist theologians and scientists in regard to creation we can say that today there are basically two views in the Adventist Church. One sees creation extending over millions of years; the other holds to a six-day Creation several thousand years ago.
Representatives of theistic evolution. Richard M. Ritland (a retired biologist who taught at Loma Linda and Andrews). At the field conference in 1985, in his lecture on the geologic column, which seems to indicate that life on earth existed millions of years ago, he traced the development and the evidences for the geologic column. He concluded by saying, "Like a clock for organizing the day, the geologic column has become like a calendar for relating and organizing the vast body of information and theories that has become the essential core to which the records of earth history relate. It has become an indispensable tool, not only for general studies but also for those special areas related to the flow of energy and life throughout time, to origins, to time, to evolutionary change all of immediate concern to those probing the meaning of life, existence, and the governance of the cosmos."11
Richard ]. Bottomley (a geophysicist at the Canadian University College). At the same conference, he dealt with the topic of dating the rocks. After explaining the radioactive dating methods, he showed that fossil-bearing rocks have a certain sequence the bottom rock must have been laid down before the younger rock on top of it. Since the dates for the individual layers are spread over hundreds of millions of years, he concluded that the layers of rock "do represent long intervals of time and that the rocks involved could not have been deposited over a short period of time,"12 as most Adventists believe happened during the Flood.
Richard L. Hammill (former president of Andrews, General Conference vice president). After his retirement, Dr. Hammill studied scientific theories (plate tectonics, fossils, radioactive dating, etc.). After nine years of study he came to the conclusion that "animals were living on the earth . . . millions of years ago before these [continental] plates separated. And, moreover, as I got to looking into the geologic col umn, I had to recognize . . . that the geologic column is valid, that some forms of life were extinct before other forms of life came into existence. . . . The steadily accumulating evidence in the natural world has forced a reevaluation in the way I look and understand and interpret parts of the Bible."13 He called himself a progressive creationist.
Fritz Guy (a theologian at La Sierra University). At the Faith and Science Conference in 2002, Dr. Guy presented a lecture, "Interpreting Genesis One in the Twenty-First Century," that was later published in Spectrum. He interprets Genesis 1 theologically, i.e., he sees Genesis 1 "not as a literalistic description of a process, but as 'a spiritual interpretation of the universe's origin, nature, and destiny.'" 14 That means "read theologically, the explanation of creation in Genesis 1 is complementary also to a sci entific explanation of the history of the cosmos, the earth, life, and humanity. Taking the two explanations together 'yields an intellectually satisfying and spiritually illuminating account of creation.'" 15 As far as Ellen White is concerned, he believes that if she were living now, knowing what we know today about natural history, "she would undoubtedly avoid making a divisive issue of the interpretation of Genesis 1 ."16
Representatives of a six-day Creation. Jim Gibson (biologist and director of the Geoscience Research Institute). In 1998, at the European Geoscience field conference Jim Gibson stated that "the long-age viewpoint makes certain unfavorable implications about the character of God and the reliability of the Bible. Since I give epistemological primacy to the Scriptures, I accept the Genesis record as a matter of faith. Having adopted that position, I am encouraged that much of the evidence claimed to support long ages can be reinterpreted in the context of a short chronology." 17
Randall Younker (archaeologist at Andrews University with a background in biology). At Andrews University, he and John Baldwin teach the course "Issues in Origin" in which they present the traditional creationist viewpoint.Younker wrote the Sabbath School quarterly on creation for the fourth quarter of 1999. In the introduction to the lesson he states, "Seventh-day Adventists take Genesis 1-11 as an accurate historical account of origins of life on earth. We accept the biblical account's straightforward testimony that the creation of life on this planet and its various habitats occurred in six literal, 24-hour days. Based on the avail able biblical data, we also believe that the period of time since the Creation has been a short chronology of a few thousand years, as opposed to millions of years required by the general theory of evolution."18
Leonard Brand (biologist at Loma Linda University). In the introduction to his book Faith, Reason, and Earth History he writes that "a central thesis of this book is that a creationist can indeed be an effective scientist."19 He champions interventionism, a view of history that recognizes the important role of intelligent intervention in history. In the chapter on faith and science he says in regard to geology, "Science has proposed a theory that fossil-bearing geologic deposits have accumulated over hundreds of millions of years.... 1 conclude that the Bible indicates that current geological theory, in certain respects, is an incorrect interpretation of the data. Our task is to go back to the research lab and develop a more correct theory." 20
Richard Davidson (theologian at Andrews University). Davidson is a proponent of the Adventist gap theory, i.e., Genesis 1:1 speaks about the creation of the universe; only from verse 3 on is the creation week in view. In regard to the interpretation of Genesis 1 he says, "Based upon the testimony of the Genesis account and later intertextual allusions to this account, I must affirm the literal, historical nature of Genesis 1 and 2, with a literal Creation week consisting of six consecutive, contiguous, creative, natural 24-hour days, followed immediately by a literal 24-hour seventh day, during which God rested, blessed, and sanctified the Sabbath as a memorial of creation."21
The view of Jack Provonsha. In the face of scientific facts, a six-day Creation a few thousand years ago is no longer acceptable to many Adventist scholars and scientists. On the other hand, conservative Adventist scholars cannot accept any view that posits death before human beings lived on the earth, because Paul in Romans 5:12 says, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (NK]V).
The Loma Linda physician and theologian Jack Provonsha, therefore, has proposed a different solution. He has suggested that Adventists consider the ruin-restoration theory as propounded by the Scofield Bible. According to this view, when Lucifer was cast out of heaven to the earth he was given a long time to work out his principles. "This included genetic experimentation resulting in the evolutionary process which ultimately led to the development of human-like apes. At some more recent time, Provonsha suggested, God stepped in and created the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve."22
Although this view combines the conservative view with the scientific data of death before Adam, it has received little support from either side.
Recent faith and science conferences
At the Annual Council in 2001 the General Conference Executive Committee organized a series of conferences on faith and science during the years 2002-2004. The first one in 2002 was an international conference in Ogden, Utah. More than 80 scientists, theologians, and church administrators from different parts of the world began dis cussing the interrelationship between faith and science. Topics ranged from the hominid fossil record to Ellen White's view of science. The conference revealed the seriousness and breadth of differences concerning questions of origin that are present in the Adventist community today.
During 2003 and the first half of 2004 most divisions held similar faith and science conferences in their territories. The formal discussions came to an end in August 2004 at the second international conference in Denver, Colorado. "The new element in this conference was a discussion on the ethics of dissent dealing with the ethical responsibility of those who differ in significant ways from the biblical position of the church on the topic of creation. The discussion was open, candid, and highly professional. It was obvious that a small number of individuals scientists and theologians did not support or felt uncomfortable with the biblical doctrine of creation in six literal, consecutive days as clearly revealed in Genesis I."23
There was no attempt on the part of church leaders to modify or change our fundamental belief on Creation. This was clearly stated by Elder Jan Paulsen, the General Conference president, before the discussions were initiated. However, such discussions cannot be avoided because the theory of evolution and the Adventist doctrine of creation represent two antagonistic and fundamentally diverse worldviews. Unfortunately, theistic evolution is one view that is being held and taught by a number of Seventh-day Adventists today.
Secondly, it is important for the church to be aware that neither evolutionists nor creationists have all the answers in the debate. These conferences provided a proper environment to discuss these questions while at the same time holding to our faith commitment.
The report of the International Faith and Science Conference Organizing Committee to the 2004 Autumn Council of the General Conference stated that while there is widespread affirmation of the Church's position on Creation, "[W]e recognize that some among us interpret the biblical record in ways that lead to sharply different conclusions."24
The Annual Council, after careful discussion, produced a response to the report in which the Council strongly endorsed the Church's historic, biblical position of belief in a literal, recent, six day creation. "We reaffirm the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the historicity of Genesis 1-11: that the seven days of the Creation account were literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week; and that the Flood was global in nature." 25 The response also called upon all boards and teachers at our schools to uphold and advocate the Church's position on origins.
The last few years have shown that there are a number of views on creation within the Adventist Church. Not all of them can be right. Should theistic evolution become more and more accept ed, we will be in danger of losing the biblical foundation for the Sabbath and our understanding of salvation.
Without the Creation week the Sabbath becomes a Jewish institution, and if death existed long before the appearance of man, there was no Fall in Eden and therefore there is no need for salvation. Then Paul was in error when he wrote: "Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Rom. 5:12).