In a society where young adherents often face challenges to their beliefs, the top world authorities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have reaffirmed the faith’s insistence that fidelity to the Bible requires belief in “a literal, recent, six-day creation,” no matter what conventional science says.
Recent means that life on Earth began over the relatively short time period suggested by a strictly literal reading of the Bible, “probably 7,000 to 10,000 years,” though some Adventists think the planet itself could be billions of years old, explains Angel Rodriguez, director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute.
And six days means just that – “literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week,” the Adventist decree says.
The church’s statement came last month, after three years of special conferences on the issue of creation. It was approved at a meeting of the Adventists’ 293-member Executive Committee at the Silver Spring, Md., headquarters of the church. The faith has 13.6 million members internationally and 936,000 in the United States.
The church’s Geoscience Research Institute – which develops materials to support Genesis literalism – inaugurated the conferences, but no particular event sparked it, Rodriguez said. Rather, church leaders are aware that increasing numbers of Adventists worldwide face questions at college and “need to know how we deal with these complex issues.” The statement is meant to stand as a definitive directive.
It follows decades of debate over Darwin’s evolution theory in American churches and schools – and certainly won’t be the last word.
Skeptics and liberals see Genesis as outright myth, while many religionists meld the Bible’s account with Darwinism. The creationist movement, launched by Adventists and others in the 1960s, champions the “young earth” timescale. Other critics of Darwin consider creationism an implausible distraction scientifically, and pursue evidence for an “intelligent design” in nature that implies a divine cause.
The Adventist church’s very name proclaims its strict observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, which is fused with a literalism on creation. That, in turn, “interlocks with other doctrines” – as the new statement puts it – creating the foundation for Adventist belief.
Editor Bonnie Dwyer of Spectrum, an independent Adventist magazine, calls it a doctrinal domino theory that hinges on creationism.
Why is this one belief so particularly strong for Adventists?
The answer stems from the faith’s special belief that founder Ellen G. White was a modern prophet who correctly interpreted the Bible. White (1827-1915) was a native of Maine and prolific writer who reported some 2,000 divinely given visions and dreams. In one, White wrote in 1864, she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.”
Ronald L. Numbers, a University of Wisconsin science historian who was raised Adventist, notes that even in the 19th century, White’s position was at odds with prevailing science. Early in the 1800s, experts had agreed upon a vast age for the Earth and for life forms found in fossils, later reinforced by techniques like radiometric dating. In Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” published five years before White’s writing, the hugely ancient earth allowed time for natural selection.
Many conservative Christians were shocked by evolutionary theory, but had little trouble accommodating an old earth with biblical faith. In 1909, both the Vatican and the “Scofield Reference Bible,” hugely influential among fundamentalists and evangelicals, said Genesis is literal history – but without requiring a young earth or 24-hour days.
Today, there are few young earth creationists among the 1,800 evangelical scientists in the American Scientific Affiliation, a non-denominational group that believes in God as creator and “the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.”
ASA President Martin Price reasons that God revealed himself both through the Bible and “through the creation which he made. Correctly understood, these can’t be in conflict.” So, if science has solid evidence against 10,000 years or six days, such interpretations of Genesis need reconsideration, he suggests.
But the Adventists are not alone. Besides independent creationist ministries, the 403,000-member Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church believes that “the creation happened in the course of six consecutive days of normal length.” The 2.5 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod defends a strictly literal reading of Genesis history.
Yet at Adventist colleges, according to a 1994 survey of 121 science teachers, only 43 percent agreed with the church’s view that “God created live organisms during six days less than 10,000 years ago.”
Nonetheless, the new policy states that the church expects “all boards and educators at Seventh-day Adventist institutions at all levels to continue upholding and advocating the Church’s position on origins.”
Rodriguez says teachers might harbor private questions but “still support the church in the classroom.” Adventism “is not beginning a witch hunt,” he adds, and lets teachers decide on their own whether they’re comfortable with church policy.