Protology and the Seventh-day Adventist Church: A Brief Historical Survey

The Adventist Church emerged during a historical period of great epistemological turmoil, especially relating to protology (i.e., the study of beginning––creation, the day of rest, and flood––Gen 1-11).[i] Since its establishment in 1863, Adventism has believed in biblical protology, but valued both the positive outcomes of the Enlightenment and Scriptural authority. The purpose of this essay is to trace how Adventists have maintained their belief in biblical protology since the inception of the church.[ii] Methodologically, I have chosen to create this short historical survey from the perspective of a dialogue between mainstream science and theology instead of approaching the subject from the perspective of warfare between mainstream science and theology.[iii]

A Brief Historical Background

In the years following the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the works of some key Enlightenment thinkers[iv] helped to unsettle the notion that the Christian church had the final word on which sources of knowledge were authoritative and should be embraced by society. First throughout Europe and subsequently in America, liberalism contributed to the spreading of the principles of the Enlightenment (i.e., rationalism and empiricism). Human reason and empirical data in a naturalistic framework became the norm to determine what should be considered true knowledge about protology.

In theology, liberalism facilitated the rejection of theological foundationalism in order to promote the principles of Enlightenment.[v] Thus, while the proponents of theological foundationalism insisted that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) should be considered the moderator source to evaluate knowledge about protology, the proponents of liberalism insisted that human reason should have priority over Scripture as the source of true knowledge. Feeling the pressure that came from the proponents of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher­­ suggested that the only way to preserve the significance of theology in epistemology was to accommodate the interpretation of Scripture to the findings of modern science.[vi] The theological world followed his lead.

According to Ronald Numbers, “by the late nineteenth century even [some of] the most conservative Christian apologists readily conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient earth and pre-Edenic life.”[vii] By the year 1870, after American scientists accepted “the broad outlines of organic evolution,” Christian thinkers in America grew divided in relation to these issues,[viii] and by the end of the nineteenth century, three groups of Christians coalesced: the “liberal proponents of evolution” (LPE), who chose to embrace evolutionary theory;[ix] the “conservative opponents of evolution”[x] (COE); and the “conservative proponents of evolution” (CPE), who followed Charles Hodge’s advice to interpret Scripture in the light of modern science.[xi] With this context in mind, I consider this question: how did Adventists maintain their belief in biblical protology?

The Adventist Response

Adventism entered the scene of American religious life during a period of epistemological turmoil in the mid-nineteenth century when foundational beliefs about Scripture were under heavy attack. In relation to protology, German higher criticism helped to accelerate the spreading of Darwinism among Protestants and non-Protestants, and the biblical worldview of origins fell out of favor.[xii] Adventism, however, grew strong and sought to develop an epistemological understanding that embraced the acquisition of knowledge through reason while upholding Scriptural authority. Instead of adopting a method of accommodating the interpretation of Scripture to the interpretation of nature, or simply dismissing mainstream science as incompatible with the biblical view of creation, like fundamentalists did,[xiii] Adventism sought to embrace mainstream science and theology as complementary enterprises. Adventists perceive both nature and Scripture as God’s revelations to humankind, and believe that since both issued from the same author, they should agree.[xiv]

How did Adventists sought to embrace mainstream science and theology as complementary enterprises? On the one hand, Adventists have insisted repeatedly on the need for theology to be built upon the sola-tota-prima Scriptura principles, emphasizing that Scripture should be the rule of the Christian faith. Expressing her views on this subject, Ellen White wrote, “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice.”[xv] For mainline Adventists, it is through Scripture alone that knowledge about the relationship of the natural and the supernatural realms coalesces intelligibly. And when addressing the question of how Christians should interpret the biblical account of creation, White said, “But the infidel supposition, that the events of the first week required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain.”[xvi] Ellen White believed that the biblical account of creation should be read and interpreted literally.

On the other hand, this literal interpretation of biblical protology did not mean that Adventists were alienated or unaware of the positive outcomes of the Enlightenment, or that mainstream science had brought new challenges for the students of Scripture. As a matter of fact, Adventist theologians noticed the importance of showing that the correct interpretation of Scripture through theology and of nature through science would show that Scripture and nature were in harmony.[xvii] Ellen White says:

God is the foundation of everything. All true science is in harmony with His works; all true education leads to obedience to His government. Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high, and explores new depths; but she brings nothing from her research that conflicts with divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by appeals to science, but the book of nature and the written word shed light upon each other.[xviii]

Building on this premise, George McCready Price[xix] recognized the challenges of the scientific evidence coming from geology, and proposed a two-stage biblical creation in an attempt to show how the biblical account of origin and the data collected from nature could be brought into harmony. In spite of rejecting the alleged sequence of the fossil record as proof for ancient life on earth and conclusive evidence for macroevolution,[xx] Price thought that the age of the rocks surrounding the fossils could be brought into harmony with a biblical concept of young life on earth. Price suggested in his theory of two-stage biblical creation that God had created the entire universe first (Gen 1:1), and then after eons had returned to give shape to the earth and to create life on earth.[xxi] Price explains:

And it may be well to remember that the record in Genesis has not put the least direct limit upon our imaginations in accounting for the manner of our world’s formation. It only says: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” This, be it clearly understood, and as other writers have so clearly pointed out, was before the six days of our world’s creation proper began. The six literal days of creation, or peopling our world with life forms, begin with verse 3. . . . How long it had been formed before this we are not told, and whether by a slow or rapid process we have no information.[xxii]

In essence, while most conservative Christians had accepted that the Bible allowed for ancient inorganic matter and pre-Edenic life on earth,[xxiii] Adventists like Price insisted on preserving the integrity of the biblical text, and accepted only ancient inorganic matter on earth (not life). Price’s approach to biblical protology gave rise to what became known in America as “creation science.”[xxiv]

After Price, many Adventist scientists gained prominence among the COE. Among these scientists we find Harold W. Clark, Frank L. Marsh, Harold G. Coffin, Ariel A. Roth, L. James Gibson, and Arthur V. Chadwick. Due to space constraints, only some of the contributions made by Clark, Marsh, and Coffin will be described further.

Harold W. Clark (1891-1986) was the first SDA to earn a graduate degree in biology.[xxv] After spending time “studying glaciation in the mountains of the West,” Clark became convinced that “ice had once covered large portions of North America, perhaps for as long as fifteen hundred years after the flood.”[xxvi] Then, Clark introduced the theory of “ecological zonation,” arguing that this interpretation could work as “a substitute for the commonly accepted theory of geological ages. In other words, an ‘age’ of time would be replaced by a ‘stage’ of Flood action.”[xxvii] Ecological zonation proposes that whatever sequence there is in the fossil record “is due to the burial of ancient life zones or habitats that lived contemporaneously, and not to the succession of life throughout long ages of time.”[xxviii]

Besides introducing glaciation to Adventist views, Clark also thought that microevolution was compatible with biblical protology. Clark said, “When one considers these problems in relation to science and religion, he faces a perplexing situation.” On the one hand, there is “a voluminous literature assuming that . . . all change means evolution. This attitude is so generally accepted that anyone who dares deny the validity of the conclusions is branded as ignorant and uncultured.” And, on the other hand, there are those who let their antievolutionary convictions blind them to a point where they unjustifiably ignore most––if not all––“scientific data that one almost wonders if the accusations of the evolutionists against creationists might not be true.”[xxix] As a solution to the impasse, Clark pointed out how microevolution was a well-documented fact in hybridization, and that some were suggesting “it is possibly the only way new species are ever formed.”[xxx] Clark asks, “Should we believe that they [i.e., the different types of rabbits, sparrows, etc.] were all created just as they are now? No, it is rather easy to understand how variation within the Genesis ‘kind’ could have resulted in all these different species.”[xxxi]

Following in the footsteps of Clark, Frank Lewis Marsh (1899-1992) joined “in advocating post-Edenic speciation.”[xxxii] According to Numbers, Marsh “became the first Adventist to earn a doctoral degree in biology.”[xxxiii] Throughout his career, Marsh wrote about post-Edenic speciation and pled with his “‘brother fundamentalists’ not to equate limited variation with evolution.” Reviewing Marsh’s Evolution, Creation, and Science, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) wrote in the American Naturalist that “Marsh had written what he had previously thought to be impossible: a sensibly argued defense of special creation.”[xxxiv]

Another Adventist, Harold G. Coffin, made a great contribution with studies that ended up favoring a recent catastrophic event as the mechanism that shaped the earth’s surface. A paleontologist with a PhD from the University of Southern California, Coffin uncovered evidence in different parts of North America, Europe, and Asia that supported the biblical account of a global flood (Gen 6-8) a few thousand years ago.

For example, Coffin notices that the average rate of erosion (about one foot every 5,000 to 10,000 years) used by conventional geologists to explain the current configuration of the earth’s surface is insufficient to explain why tall mountains still exist in many locations around the globe. He explains that when applied conservatively––one foot every 5,000 years––the average rate of erosion should be responsible for eroding about one mile of sediments from the mountains every 25 million years. The bottom line is this: if gradual erosion is the mechanism responsible for the formation of the earth’s surface, a period of 10 to 20 million years should have turned tall mountains into low hills; since this is not the case, another mechanism––a global cataclysm––must have affected the surface of the globe in recent years. Coffin concludes, “Tall mountains, lakes not filled with sediments, and well-preserved fossils in their original burial sites indicate that the surface of the earth is not as old as frequently claimed.”[xxxv] These observations, among others, raise questions about whether the conventional geological time scale provides the best model to explain the formation of the earth’s surface.

Besides participating in the science and theology dialogue by presenting scientific evidence favoring a recent creation of life on earth and the recent formation of the earth’s surface through a global catastrophe, Adventists also have looked seriously at the biblical and theological evidence of the creation and flood. Some of the scholars who participated in these efforts are Richard M. Davidson, John T. Baldwin, Jacques Doukhan, Gerhard Hasel, Randal Younker, and Jiri Moskala. Again, due to space constraints, I will mention only some of the contributions made by Davidson and Baldwin.

As far as the biblical evidence goes, Richard M. Davidson has recently dealt with the question of the meaning of berēšît (“In the beginning”) in Genesis 1:1 from an exegetical standpoint. Davidson explains that when dealing with the biblical account of creation, questions have been raised in relation to the “when” of creation. To put this in the context of the science and theology dialogue, mainline scientists have rejected the biblical account of creation because conventional science requires deep time for the formation of inorganic matter on earth, and this seems to be in conflict with the biblical time scale.

Davidson, however, shows exegetically the harmony that exists between the book of Scripture and the book of nature. After a careful analysis of the Hebrew text, Davidson concludes that the biblical evidence favoring the absolute beginning of the universe (including inorganic matter on earth) sometime before the creation week is very persuasive. The biblical evidence he presents rests on the grammatical structure of berēšît (“In the beginning”), which, Davidson concludes, is better understood as an independent clause in the absolute state.[xxxvi] Davidson’s conclusion is remarkable, because it allows theologians and conventional scientists to agree that inorganic matter in the universe (including inorganic matter on earth) is very old, perhaps billions of years old, without compromising the literal interpretation of the days of creation in Genesis 1:3-2:4a.

From the theological point of view, John T. Baldwin has responded to the claim that associating the biblical account of a recent, literal, seven-day creation and a global flood with historical reality is a sacrifice of the intellect.[xxxvii] Baldwin shows in Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary that the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is far from being a sacrifice of the intellect: in fact, it is essential to maintain the univocity of the biblical metanarrative.[xxxviii] Baldwin, who won a John Templeton Foundation prize in 1994, explains that biblical eschatology is contingent to biblical protology. He insists that the language used to describe divine action in the latter (Gen 7:11, Exod 20:11) is implied in the former (Rev 14:7),[xxxix] which suggests the need for interpreters to preserve biblical univocity.

In addition, Baldwin has shown how the use of evolutionary theory to interpret the fossil record in the geological column undermines the biblical doctrine of atonement. This is because evolution places “death for seeming millions of years prior to the first human sin.”[xl] If this were true, death would be no longer a consequence of sin (Rom 5:12), but a necessary mechanism for progression. Consequently, the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross would be nothing more than a mere event in the history of Israel, without any theological meaning or value. How can theology address this problem? Baldwin says:

The global deluge geologically establishes the needed causal connection between human sin and all death by burying animals into the geological column subsequent to Adam’s sin, thus confirming the truth of the biblical claim that all death is the wage of sin. In this fashion God’s global flood corroborates the fact that the death of Jesus constitutes the wage of sin, one that he bore salvifically for human beings.[xli]


The epistemological turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not over, and there is still much work to be done. Although mainstream science and theology have improved their understanding of their objects of study (i.e., nature and Scripture), the philosophical impasse between naturalism and supernaturalism continually insists that these two disciplines should not overlap. Yet Adventists have attempted to study nature and Scripture as overlapping magisteria.

Throughout the history of Adventism, Adventists have tried to establish a productive dialogue between mainstream science and theology. Their approach has been one that engages mainstream science and theology as companions, not as enemies, in the search for true knowledge. For this reason, Adventists have refused to join Schleiermacher in claiming that science had proven wrong the biblical teaching of creation.[xlii] Instead, Adventists saw in this epistemological turmoil an opportunity for both mainstream scientists and theologians to seek greater knowledge about their fields, and to see how nature and Scripture complement each other. I think Leonard Brand explains the mainline Adventist approach well when he says, “We establish the most constructive relationship between science and religion when we allow findings in each of these fields of knowledge to challenge us to analyze the other more carefully.” Brand concludes, “I believe that this feedback process can improve our understanding of both fields. Conflicts between the two force us to dig deeper in both as we seek for genuine resolution that does not relegate either to a secondary role.”[xliii]

Sergio L. Silva

SDA Theological Seminary (PhD Candidate)


[i] After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) the search for a foundation of knowledge intensified, causing many to renounce their belief that Scripture is a reliable source and a foundation of knowledge. This debate over whether Scripture or Science should be considered the ultimate source of knowledge is what I am delineating as the epistemological turmoil of the mid-nineteenth century.

[ii] The term “biblical protology” is a reference to the study of origins (creation, Sabbath, flood, etc.) as described in Genesis 1-11.

[iii] For information see Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols. (New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1896).

[iv] E.g., (1) In 1605 A.D. Francis Bacon proposed to remove purpose from biological studies (Francis Bacon and Thomas Markby, The Advancement of Learning (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898); (2) In 1635 A.D. in Descartes' famous turn to the subject (René Descartes and others, Discourse on Method, The Focus Philosophical Library (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2007); (3) In 1748 A.D. Hume challenged miracles in David Hume and Charles William Hendel, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1st ed., The Library of Liberal Arts 49 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational, 1955). (4) In 1771 Semler separated the concept “Word of God” from Scripture in his On the Free Investigation of the Canon Joh Salomo Semler and Heinz Scheible, Abhandlung Von Freier Untersuchung des Canon, Texte zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte, Heft 5 ((Gütersloh): Mohn, 1967).

[v] For information on this discussion see Nancey C. Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda, Rockwell Lecture Series (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 11-35.

[vi] I will use the term “modern science” and “science” interchangeably to describe science as a discipline and not as a philosophical concept. Thus, science in this essay is a reference to the achievements of various scientific fields (e.g., medicine, cosmology, physics, etc.).

[vii] Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, 1st ed. (New York, NY: A. A. Knopf, 1992), x.

[viii] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 180-181.

[ix] The “liberal proponents of evolution” (LPE) are individuals who choose to adopt “higher criticism” as part of their hermeneutical method to read and interpret the Bible. That implies that LPE’s theology is subjected to the propositions of science (as commonly understood). In this sense, the early chapters of Genesis, the biblical accounts of miracles, and the incarnation of Christ and his resurrection, were viewed as the product of Jewish culture instead of the product of inspired revelation.

[x] I use the term “conservative opponents of evolution” (COE) to refer to any individuals who choose to accept a simple, literal reading of the biblical account of creation. In this sense, when the text says, “for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth” (Exod 20:11), a COE understands that the creation week described in Genesis 1:3ff, occurred sometime six to ten thousand years ago, in a period of six literal, consecutive days, of approximately twenty-four hours. The conclusion of a short period of time since creation (6-10 thousand years) is based upon the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11.

[xi] The term “conservative proponents of evolution” (CPE) refers to any individual who accepts Darwinian evolutionary theory and claims to read the Bible on a literal fashion, but chooses to accommodate his/her views to whatever challenges science may bring to the literal reading of the biblical text. Thus, when the text says “in six days,” if the letter of the text conflicts with geological assumptions, for example, a CPE understands the word “day” (יומ) to render the meaning of a long age, accommodating the biblical text to geological assumptions.

[xii] Michael J. Oard and Tas Walker, Flood by Design: Receding Water Shapes the Earth's Surface (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), 20. Colin W. Mitchell, Creationism Revisited (Grantham: Autumn House, 1999), 17–33. Additional information on the history of the creation and evolution dialog can be found in John C. Greene, The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought, rev. ed. (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1996). For a critical view on this subject, see Norman Cohn, Noah's Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

[xiii] Raymond A. Eve and Francis B. Harrold, The Creationist Movement in Modern America (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 49. In relation to biblical protology, fundamentalists actively participate in the Young Earth Creationism movement (YEC). Independently of mainstream science providing reliable evidences in favor of an old universe, fundamentalists insist that because the genealogies in Scripture seem to account for the beginning of human life on earth some six to ten thousand years ago, that the entire galactic universe was created about the same time in six literal days. A good example of this theologically fundamentalist understanding is found in the belief statement of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Principles of Scientific Creationism. It says: “The record of earth history, as preserved in the earth's crust, especially in the rocks and fossil deposits, is primarily a record of catastrophic intensities of natural processes, operating largely within uniform natural laws, rather than one of gradualism and relatively uniform process rates. There are many scientific evidences for a relatively recent creation of the earth and the universe, in addition to strong scientific evidence that most of the earth’s fossiliferous sedimentary rocks were formed in an even more recent global hydraulic cataclysm.” Institute for Creation Research, “Principles of Scientific Creationism,” Institute for Creation Research," class="redactor-linkify-object"> (accessed April 10, 2012). Emphasis supplied. See also Institute for Creation Research, “Principles of Biblical Creationism,” Institute for Creation Research, tenets/ (accessed April 10, 2012).

[xiv] Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Prolegomena (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003), 191.

[xv] Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, 3 vols. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 3:28.

[xvi] Ellen G. White, The Spiritual Gifts, 4 vols. (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1858), 3:191.

[xvii] Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1890), 114.

[xviii] White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 115. See also Gulley, Prolegomena, 192.

[xix] George McCready Price is the author of more than twenty books and dozens of articles. He is considered the founder of a worldwide movement known as creation science. For more information see Numbers, The Creationists, 72-101; Harold W. Clark, Crusader for Creation: The Life and Writings of George Mccready Price, A Destiny Book, D-110 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1966).

[xx] Macroevolution in the context of Darwinian evolutionary theory, suggests that simple life forms changed into complex life forms through a process of natural selection during millions of years.

[xxi] Thomas P. Arnold has compiled into one creation theory––entitled Two-stage Biblical Creation––that which he regards as the biblically supported arguments given by some ten theories (i.e., model) of creation. He has failed, however, to recognize the works and contributions made by Price as a key proponent and precursor of biblical creation in two stages. For more information see Thomas P. Arnold, Two Stage Biblical Creation: Uniting Biblical Insights Uncovered by Ten Notable Creation Theories (Arlington Heights, IL: Thomas Arnold Publishing, 2008), 339-426.

[xxii] George McCready Price, Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1902), 112. See also Richard M. Davidson, “The Biblical Account of Origins,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14, no. 1 (2003). For a revised version of this article see Richard M. Davidson, “Genesis Account of Origins,” in UNKNOWN, (Silver Springs, MD: Biblical Research Institute, Forthcoming).

[xxiii] Numbers, The Creationists, x.

[xxiv] Numbers, The Creationists, xi. See also Margaret Wertheim, “Does the Bible Allow for Martians?,” The New York Times (1996). weekinreview/does-the-bible-allow-for-martians.html (accessed 08/12/2013).

[xxv] Numbers, The Creationists, 123.

[xxvi] Numbers, The Creationists, 124.

[xxvii] Harold W. Clark, Fossils, Flood, and Fire (Escondido, CA: Outdoor Pictures, 1968), 58. For explanations on Clarks’ ecological zonation see, Clark, Fossils, Flood, and Fire, 51-60.

[xxviii] Clark, Fossils, Flood, and Fire, 59.

[xxix] Harold W. Clark, Genes and Genesis (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1940), 6-7.

[xxx] Clark, Genes and Genesis, 90, 91.

[xxxi] Harold W. Clark, Genesis and Science (Nashville, TN: Southern Publication Association, 1967), 13. See also Clark, Genes and Genesis, 60-106.

[xxxii] Numbers, The Creationists, 129.

[xxxiii] Numbers, The Creationists, 129.

[xxxiv] Numbers, The Creationists, 131.

[xxxv] Harold G. Coffin, Robert H Brown and L. James Gibson, Origin by Design, Revised ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2005), 366-367.

[xxxvi] Others have claim that berēšît is a dependent clause in the construct state, and that it should be translated as “In the beginning, when. . . .” For more information see Richard M. Davidson, “Back to the Beginning: Genesis 1–3 and the Theological Center of Scripture,” in Christ, Salvation, and the Eschaton, ed. Daniel Heinz, Jirí Moskala and Peter M. van Bemmelen, (Berrien Springs, MI: Old Testament Publications, 2009), Footnote #8, 9.

[xxxvii] John T. Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 9.

[xxxviii] Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement, 22-25.

[xxxix] Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement, 19-23, 25-28.

[xl] Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement, 110.

[xli] Baldwin, Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood Is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement, 115.

[xlii] Friedrich Schleiermacher and Friedrich Lücke, On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), 61.

[xliii] Leonard Brand and David C. Jarnes, Beginnings (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2006), 7.