Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
Re: Numbers Article
Warren H. Johns,
1113 University Village
East Lansing, Michigan 48823
From: JASA 27 (September 1975): 143-144.
The article in the March, 1975 issue entitled, "Science Falsely so-Called:
Evolution and Adventists in the Nineteenth Century" by Ronald Numbers is
bound to stimulate a wideranging response. What follows is a counterbalance to
many unfounded assertions.
It is obvious to anyone who has studied in the history of science that Ronald Numbers certainly did a masterful job in assembling data from a wide range of sources. It is an extremely well-documented study, and I am sure that it would be most difficult as an editor to turn down such a study . .........
Here are some of the key areas where Ronald Numbers has committed some "unpardonable" historical blunders:
(1) Seventh-day Adventists are portrayed as anti-intellectual, skeptical of education and the sciences (especially geology), and mostly uneducated themselves. Statistics are cited from the S.D.A. Encyclopedia to demonstrate this.
What the author failed to include were any comparable statistics from a single other denomination of the late 1800's as a basis of comparison. By today's standards Adventists were under-educated, but so were Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians etc. Its sole headquarters being Battle Creek in the 1800's and most of its membership being in the midwest during that period, S.D.A.'s may actually have been more highly educated than the general population of the midwest for that period. It is the mistake of reading 1975 parameters onto the period, let's say, of 1874 when the first S.D.A. college was founded, Battle Creek College, now known as Andrews University.
(2) Adventists are portrayed as eventually filling the ranks of the Fundamentalist army. Adventism is seen as a part of the proto-Fundamentalist movement.
It is a very common misidentification to class all Adventists as Fundamentalists, since there are some points in common between the two groups. But they differed on several fundamental points. Norman F. Furniss in The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 characterizes that movement in the following way: "Ignorance, then was a feature of the movement; it became a badge the orthodox often wore proudly. They believed that faith was God's only demand upon His people and that higher education was of limited value, even a handicap, in seeking the Kingdom." (p.39) Certainly Adventists who had established several institutes of higher education by the 1920's cannot be classed as Fundamentalists.
Numbers states that Adventists were active in the Fundamentalist warfare of the 1920's. Anyone who has checked through more than 40 or 50 books dating back to that controversial period will find the name of only one Adventist mentioned in connection with the controversy: the geologist, George McCready Price. I know this to be true, for I have done so. Since he was the author of 25 books advocating "deluge geology", and opposing organic evolution, his works were continually being used as ammunition in the warfare. In fact, William Jennings Bryan invited Price to appear and testify at the Scopes trial in 1925, but Price declined. Adventists did not have a part either through support or through active participation in any of the Fundamentalist organizations of that stormy decade.
(3) The impression one gains from reading the article is that since Adventists in their chief publication made extreme statements warning against the dangers and fallacies of evolution, therefore they must have been uneducated and ignorant of the facts of such areas as geology.
Again, Numbers has made the historical blunder of isolating statements out of their historical setting. Certainly, having done his dissertation in the area of the history of science dealing with this very period, the author is aware that extreme statements were being made by the public in general, both educated and uneducated, from not just the Fundamentalist or conservative wing, but even from the middle of the road churchmen of all denominations . ... Statements that may sound extreme to our 1975 ears from the pages of the Adventist Church paper may sound very mild amidst the roar of the storm caused by the publication of the Origin.
To label evolution atheistic does not make one uneducated. According to White, Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton University labeled evolution as "atheistic." (p. 100) Hodge was a theologian of no small stature in 19th century American education.
(4) The Adventist view of Scripture, especially the interpretation of Genesis, is said to be a type of strict literalistic interpretation.
If Numbers had an intimate understanding of Adventist theology he would not have characterized Adventists-either of the 1800's or of today-as being literalists. Certainly their interpretation of prophecy is not literalistic, but rather symbolic. This (6) is another point where Adventists diverge from Fundamentalism or its forerunner Millenialism . . . . Adventist belief of a premillenial advent has many elements that can be classed as a symbolic hermeneutic and not a literalistic.
In regards to viewing the six days of Creation as being literal, Adventists have consistently held to the literal view. If there were just one statement in Scripture pertaining to Creation in which it is stated that the days of Creation are symbolic, then the Adventist position would have to change.
One other area in which Adventist interpretation can be tested is in regards to the Genesis "kinds." Adventists have not held to in the past, nor do they hold to today, the medieval belief of "fixity of species." In the sense that species can and do change, Adventists can be said to accept micro-evolution. Numbers has set up a dichotomy between evolution and antievolution, which he calls proto-Fundamentalism. Since they are definitely not in the former, they must be in the latter he postulates. But he is wrong. That is because he has failed to quote from any S.D.A. scientist or science teacher. Most of the quotes are from the pages of their church paper, and one would not expect to have voiced the views of a scientific nature.
(5) The impression is conveyed that not all Adventists were of the same opinion, and some attempted though unsuccessfully to change Adventist interpretation of Genesis. One of these was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who was not looked upon with favor.
It is true that "Kellogg and the Adventists parted ways," but it was not because his interpretation of Genesis 1 was at stake. It was because he came to believe in pantheism in later years. More than this he maneuvered the Battle Creek Sanitarium out from Adventist control, putting it under his own wing. That is why he was viewed with disfavor in his views.
(6) A common historical fallacy was made by Numbers in that Seventh-day Adventists are charged with the errors of the Millerite movement, especially that of William Miller, in setting a precise date for the world's end and the coming of Christ.
Numbers could have redeemed himself here by simply stating that nowhere in church papers or official church statements have Adventists ever set a date for the return of Jesus Christ to this earth. . - - It is true that Adventists have their roots in the Millerite movement. It was simply their methodology of interpretation of prophecy that was derived from the Millerites, while many of their beliefs were not held in common by the Millerites, such as the most prominent, the seventh-day Sabbath.
It is implied that since Adventists were wrong in setting a date for the end of the world, they too might face disappointment when it comes to harmonizing Scripture with geology. Certainly today they hold in common the belief along with other evangelicals that the Bible is the all-sufficient, sole revelation of God, and of His will to mankind. Science then is not a revelation of God's will. The author implies that Adventists dismissed science as untrustworthy. What he failed to note is that Adventists did not adopt the view that there is a second reliable revelation called "natural revelation" or "natural theology" as exemplified by William Paley. Nor did they go to the extreme of certain Fundamentalists that science cannot be trusted one whit and is entirely deceptive.
What is being called into question then is the methodology which Ronald Numbers uses as a historian of science. His historical methodology leaves something to be desired on several key points:
(1) Presenting statistics without offering any basis of comparison for evaluating those statistics (other than 1975 standards).
(2) Misidentification of one movement with another because of certain points held in common while ignoring the significant differences.
(3) Failing to place certain statements in the context of the
general milieu of the 19th century reaction to Darwinism, thus giving the impression of such statements as being extreme (by today's standards).
(4) Trying to interpret theological issues with the same
methodology as one would use in interpreting scientific
(5) Failing to take into account all the possible factors
centering around a certain issue (e.g., the Kellogg controversy), but instead isolating the one which seems to fit the best.
Omitting pertinent information that supports the opposing viewpoint, information that any authority in his particular field of study would certainly be aware of: in other words, taking a very one-sided historical interpretation without even recognizing other historical alternatives.
The whole purpose of the above evaluation is to counterbalance the one-sided historical interpretation as presented quite skillfully by Numbers. What is being challenged is his historical methodology. If one's methodology is demonstrated to be faulty, then how can his conclusions be considered trustworthy?