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Seventh-day Adventist Education and Evolution

I recently wrote with appreciation about my Seventh-day Adventist education in Biblical studies over on my Participatory Bible Study blog. Today a friend sent me an e-mail directing me to a post on Inside Higher Ed, discussing a problem with the teaching of evolution at La Sierra University, a Seventh-day Adventist school. I didn’t attend La Sierra myself, but do have some family connections there.

In the story we see a fairly common complaint, a biology (or other science) professor teaching evolution in a Christian classroom where the school constituency does not support it. In some cases, we find a very divided constituency. In a Seventh-day Adventist school, such teaching is directly contrary to the church’s statement of belief.

From Adventist.org:

In its statement of fundamental beliefs the Seventh-day Adventist Church affirms a divine creation as described in the biblical narrative of Genesis 1.

– 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

In this case, a student asked to present a paper that included his creationist beliefs, and was permitted to do so provided he first showed a full understanding of the mainstream science involved. In the end, the professor decided that the paper did not fulfill that requirement. From an e-mail quoted in the Inside Higher Ed story:

“The paper you sent me is unacceptable in its present form,” Gary Bradley, a professor of biology, wrote to Cerna May 12. “You said you would address the geological issues presented in class, demonstrating that you understand the data and the mainstream interpretations. Only then would you attach a paragraph taking issue with that interpretation. You have not done this. You have demonstrated only superficial knowledge with what was presented in class and even that was done with clear apologetic skepticism.”

This is the sort of story that provokes mixed emotions for me. First and foremost, I am an advocate of free speech. It is a topic on which I come very close to extremes, especially for someone who calls himself a moderate, even a “passionate moderate.” But freedom of speech doesn’t require other private persons to provide one with a platform for that speech. As a publisher, I am very well aware of this. There are many things I think should be legal that I will not publish myself.

Education is similar, in my view. A teacher must obviously set some bounds on what is allowed in the classroom, and a student must work within those bounds to fulfill an assignment. While I would certainly commend any teacher for making those bounds as broad as possible, consistent with accomplishing the educational goals, I don’t think a teacher is obligated to allow free speech full reign in a classroom—certainly not by law, and I don’t think even ethically.

But here we take a step further. A church establishes a school, such as La Sierra University, and presumably expects it to serve the educational needs of its constituency. What happens if it does not do so? I remember in my days as a student at Andrews University, seeing an ad offering research grants for people who would do research to demonstrate that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago. Could those be considered scientific grants? Would the money be paid if the research proved that the earth was, in fact, 4.5 billion years old? These grants were not offered by the university, but they do demonstrate the feelings of the constituency.

Is it acceptable for a church-related educational institution to control what is taught in its classrooms? I believe this should be the case for the most part, with exceptions for accountability which I discuss below. I may disagree. I may choose not to go to that school or send my children there, but a church institution has additional accountability to the folks who created and maintain it.

I want to make clear here that I believe that the best protection for freedom of speech in education is through competition from multiple educational institutions pursuing their own policies and goals. Accreditation provides some accountability, but I would personally prefer that accreditation dealt with the minimum requirements, and not with the details of what else might be taught. (Note that La Sierra is a fully accredited school, and I would be very surprised if they did not meet, and continue to meet and exceed standards.)

At the same time I am in sympathy with the professor in this case. Your freedom of belief and freedom of speech does not give you the right to a particular grade from a particular professor. If the assignment involves understanding the way mainstream science understands the fossil record, for example, you should demonstrate such understanding. Briefly, my ideal is that a professor requires understanding but not belief, and does not penalize one for belief. (That ideal should require a great deal of definition and support, don’t you think? Well, it must wait for another post.)

Also, just to cover the bases, I am an advocate of mainstream science, and that alone, being taught in public school classrooms, both because I think we have little enough time to cover the basics in a high school education these days, and because I am tremendously unhappy with government employees, teachers in this case, getting into material that is largely religiously driven, much less actually teaching religion. (I apply the same standard to public school Bible classes. I don’t like them.)

But in this case, I’m more interested in the best way for a church group to educate its own young people. Growing up SDA I was thoroughly indoctrinated with young earth creationism. If you look back at the SDA statement of belief, I was required to memorize every single one of the scriptures–yes, whole chapters–as part of the process of making sure I understood just how God created the world. Most of this education was in what were called “self-supporting institutions” in those days, the “self-supporting” denoting that they were not financially supported by the denomination.

I learned only science that was consistent with this view. Since I dodged biology and took chemistry once I was in the regular Adventist educational system, I continued to avoid biology, geology, and related topics. To the extent that I challenged this view, it was from a biblical perspective, as I looked at the text of the early genealogies and became convinced that the earth was much more than 6,000 years old, and that this view was scripturally sound. But I was thinking maybe 100,000 or so years. Thus I left school with an MA degree without any understanding of evolution.

Again, I do not say this as an assault on Adventist education. There are plenty of other groups who struggle with the same material, and they often have similar problems. Had I attended a mainstream SDA secondary school, I would likely have encountered a bit more of evolutionary theory. As it turned out, I simply started reading material on evolution, especially in astronomy and geology, on my own. Now people will often think I was somehow brainwashed, but what struck me most in my reading was the number of cases in which my indoctrination had misstated what science intended to teach. (Hold that thought a minute.)

I recall teaching a class in Genesis, covering the prehistory (1-11) shortly after joining my first United Methodist congregation. I had no idea what the range of beliefs in the pews actually were. As it turned out, there were two ladies, one who sat at my right as we gathered around the table, and the other at my left. The lady at my right was a theistic evolutionist, thoroughly convinced that anything else was nonsense. The lady at my left was a young earth creationist, thoroughly convinced that evolution was at least the first step on the road to hell. Both were Methodists in good standing and leaders in the church. So I learned that changing denominations hadn’t changed some of the basic issues. Yes, there was no similar Methodist statement to the SDA statement, but all the viewpoints were there, and they were contentious.

So where is this leading me? I think we have a serious educational weakness in the church in general. I heard it in SDA circles–let’s just teach “the truth,” let’s use only SDA literature. Now I hear it in Methodist churches–we have the cross and flame on the sign, we need to use Methodist literature in all our classes. But it wasn’t possible to do a solid indoctrination when I was growing up and it has only become more difficult as information science progresses. Isolation from all other ideas isn’t possible.

It’s not that all Methodist literature is bad. Neither is all SDA literature. In fact, I like a great deal of both. Considering I grew up and was educated SDA and then became Methodist, I have quite a bit of both on my shelves. But we have a wonderful opportunity through Sunday School (or Sabbath School for any SDA readers!) and small groups, and I don’t believe we use it very well. We have an opportunity to really study subjects in depth, to discuss them with people holding various viewpoints and learn to truly understand opposing viewpoints. But so frequently we just rehash the list of major doctrines or major social issues without getting serious.

When should children and young people learn to understand a topic like evolution? I’d suggest it happen at the earliest opportunity. If you don’t accept the theory of evolution, you also have the time to give your reasons. Shielding them from the information, or from having to express an understanding of it, will not help you.

This little ramble was triggered over the subject of evolution, but I would add to this hermeneutics in the broadest sense. While I was required to memorize hundreds of verses of scripture, very little time was spent on how one would understand those scriptures. I had no idea how someone could come up with a different view of the scriptures than I had, because I had no idea how we had come up with our view, which in turn became my view. That is an approach that is bound to fail in the long run.

A choice made in ignorance cannot be very good, even if the choice is technically correct.

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  1. Dennis Fischer says:

    Interestingly, since Seventh-day Adventists believe that they die just like animals–becoming nonexistent–this aligns entirely with evolutionary theory. Moreover, they believe you don’t have a separate soul entity (again this is something that most strict evolutionists would agree with as well).

    Dennis Fischer
    Lincoln, Nebraska

    1. On the other hand, Seventh-day Adventists believe in the resurrection, which would seem to point the other direction!

      1. Dennis Fischer says:


        Not even God can resurrect someone who doesn’t exist. Someone who is supposedly nonexistent cannot “await” anything–much less the resurrection. In Adventism, there is not such a thing as a dead “person.” There is no continuance of his personhood. The extinction/recreation view provides no basis for a bodily resurrection–only a re-creation or cloning job. Jesus used the excellent metaphor of “sleep” for death. Importantly, one’s mind is not totally inactive during sleep, and one’s actual existence is not interrupted.

        Dennis J. Fischer
        Lincoln, Nebraska

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    . . . and you didn’t even start on politics, where, as with the important issues you did discuss, “A choice made in ignorance cannot be very good, even if the choice is technically correct.”

    1. Yes, well, I suspected I had rambled enough.

  3. Ed Deatherage, Ph.D. says:

    I am a graduate of La Sierra University (Loma Linda at the time). Enjoyed your statement. It is time for my friends (the Adventists) to evolve.

  4. Ted Frazier says:

    Within 6 years all “religious” higher education will teach evolution or simply cease to exist. Science does not have to conflict with Religion. Provided one accepts the soul is created at conception of the individual Theistic Evolution syncs with Scripture – it’s simply the method God designed and operates for His creation.

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