Science and Theology as Uncompromising Methodologies
Modern science is a strictly all-or-nothing approach to human knowledge. Science follows a particular methodology and only that which is learned through following this methodology is considered legitimate science. You cannot force science to arrive at conclusions you desire to be true a priori. You cannot seek a middle ground between science and some other authority source and still consider your position scientific.
Theology, on the other hand, is usually far more flexible. The entire history of Christian theology can be viewed as an attempt to develop a synthesis between sources of theological authority and other forms of authority (ex. philosophy, science, culture, etc.). Because these latter authorities have been constantly updating with the passing of time, theology has had to constantly adapt as well.
There are some forms of theology, however, that are inherently incompatible with such synthesis. Attempts to adapt to an outside authority jeopardize the very integrity of the models at the most basic level. By their very nature, such models are just as uncompromising as science is.
Two forms of Sola Scriptura theology emerged out of the Protestant Reformation. The first, promoted by the Magisterial Reformers (ex. Luther, Calvin, etc.) made some space for outside sources of authority by giving the writings of the early church fathers a macro-hermeneutical role. The second, promoted by the Radical Reformers (ex. Anabaptists,) rejected all outside sources and insisted on a strict Sola Scriptura approach. By its very nature, then, a strict Sola Scriptura approach to theology must be uncompromising in its methodology or else fail at the very thing that sets it apart.
Historically, while the Magisterial Reformers had opportunity to develop various theological systems built on their version of Sola Scriptura, the Radical Reformers, being persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike, never had the chance to build a working True-Sola Scriptura model. Future attempts at developing such a model did not prove very successful either, to the point where many theologians today question whether a true Sola Scriptura theology is even possible. Adventists, however, have uncovered some keys that show promise towards developing such a model.
Because the focus of this essay is elsewhere, it should suffice to say that three keys introduced by Adventist theology have opened up this new theological pathway:
1) Limited Errancy – the realization that Biblical Inerrancy is not necessary for Sola Scriptura theology, as long as a certain threshold of error is not passed. The whole Canon then becomes the body of data from which theology follows the data tends and ignores the anomalies.
2) Biblical Metaphysics – the realization that metaphysics inevitably plays a macro-hermeneutical role and therefore, a true Sola Scriptura theology must reject both classical and modern metaphysical systems and develop its metaphysics from scripture itself.
3) Macro-narrative – since a true Sola Scriptura theology cannot rely on external interpretative frameworks and since, without an interpretative framework, Biblical interpretation can end up in a thousand different places, an overarching narrative needs to be deciphered in Scripture to rein in interpretation. The Cosmic Conflict Narrative is the one most compatible with the Biblical data from all the available options.
These three foundational assumptions of Adventist theology make it possible to come closer to a true Sola Scriptura theology than ever before. But, as mentioned, this accomplishment also carries with it the responsibility to protect the integrity of the model by rejecting any form of illegitimate compromise. So the question is, how close can we come to the current scientific position on origins, without compromising the model?
To address this, we need to consider the spectrum of possible positions on origins. At one extreme of the spectrum we have the atheistic/naturalistic version of evolution. At the other extreme we have a complete creation ex-nihilo some six thousand years ago of all that exists besides God Himself. In between these two extremes we have evolutionary creation, theistic evolution, intelligent design, young life creationism, young earth creationism and young universe creationism, moving from the naturalistic evolution extreme to the complete creation extreme.
From a purely exegetical standpoint, it’s likely the furthest we can go is young life creationism. From a systematic standpoint, however, we can possibly go a bit further than that to a generally unrecognized position: Young Advanced-Life Creationism. In other words, some death could have occurred before the fall without being theologically problematic, given that various organisms inevitably die as part of the normal workings of nature: plant cells die when fruit are eaten, we ingest bacteria when we breathe, etc. The idea is that some organisms can be seen as highly complex machines and therefore, no moral principle is being violated in their demise.
But while the young advanced-life position can potentially make peace with close to 90% of the evolutionary timeline, the remaining 10% still places the true Sola Scriptura approach at significant odds with modern science. Some have tried to propose that, within the context of the Cosmic Conflict, Satan could have taken over and introduced death in this world much earlier than the creation of Adam and Eve, but that is already jeopardizing the integrity of the model because the priority seems to be appeasing the demands of science rather than faithfulness to the Biblical data.
In summary of everything covered so far, Adventism has a unique theological model, this model is the first successful attempt at a true Sola Scriptura theology, this theology is uncompromising by its very nature, and the furthest it can be stretched is Young Advanced-Life Creationism, which is still at considerable odds with modern science. I would propose that this is something Adventist theologians more or less need to make peace with, as there isn’t much left that’s up for debate here.
The question we should be asking instead, is whether this model is worth holding on to in spite of its conflict with science. Here are some reasons why I think it is:
1) In every other respect, Adventist theology is more compatible with science than most other theological models, because it is built on a physicalist metaphysic. We are therefore naturally inclined to have a high regard for science and can respect the process even in the one area where there is conflict.
2) People have been trying to crack the Sola Scriptura puzzle since the Reformation, so it is significant that a viable model finally exists.
3) There is a very limited number of possible theological models, so if a unique model exists, it must be taken seriously.
4) The value of a theological model must be judged on more than just its compatibility with science. Science is a pathway to knowledge that focuses strictly on the material aspect of reality. Theology, on the other hand, addresses all aspects of reality and human existence. The Adventist approach to theology has solved numerous problems in Christian theology.
5) Judging a theological model, therefore, should be done based on how it compares with other models of reality, given all models have their strengths and weaknesses. Some might be more compatible with evolution but fail in other respects.
6) There is a practical component to the evaluation of a theological model and all the other models have had their chance to display the practical effects of their theoretical outlook. Adventism, though almost two centuries old now, has been so overrun by fundamentalist, evangelical and progressive thought patterns that it’s nearly impossible to tell what the practical effects of a pure Sola Scriptura theology are.
7) There should be at least one body of people on the earth who make the Scriptures alone the basis of all creed and practice.
I would say, therefore, that every Adventist, especially the scholars, have a decision to make. Either they prioritize the value of the model and make peace with operating within a state of tension with modern science, or, they prioritize science and abandon the model. There is no judgment here, as this is a very difficult decision. But the latter group should respect the fact that, as a denomination, we must continue to uphold this model for at least the reasons mentioned above.
I believe this is the most that can be said on the topic from the position of a theologian. In part two of this essay, more will be said that will take the conversation further. But it will be said (out of respect for the uncompromising nature of science) from a position of complete neutrality. There will be no regard for the Bible, Christianity, Adventism or religion in general but the scientific process will be examined from a purely rational standpoint.