The latest volley in the controversy came in a statement recently released by the Michigan Conference. The statement revealed that the executive committee had removed LSU from the approved list of Adventist colleges to which the Michigan Conference would apply conference employee education benefits.
The conference leadership warned its members of “apostasy” at the California university, and advised them not to send their children to LSU for study. The reason for this was that the conference leaders did not believe that “La Sierra can currently be trusted to be supportive of Seventh-day Adventist spiritual values especially in reference to faith in the biblical understanding of creation, and thus the authority of Scripture in the life and practice of the believer."
Reaction to the Michigan Conference action has been swift and predictably mixed. Some have applauded it as a strong stand for truth. Others have attacked the decision as “shocking,” “insulting” and a “basic denial of educational options."
On his blog, Advent Hope, Pastor Bill Cork agrees with the Michigan Conference’s basic concerns, but questions whether a public statement is the appropriate response. He also raises the question as to whether there is any historical precedent for church leaders publicly criticizing an institution that was considered to be straying from church teaching.
This is a good question to consider on a church history blog. History cannot provide precise parallels. (History never entirely repeats itself.) But a number of incidents surrounding Battle Creek College offer some insights into the question. Ironically, the story also involves the Michigan Conference, this time on the receiving end of concern.
1881 Battle Creek Curriculum Crisis
Established in 1874, Battle Creek College had undergone some challenges in its leadership. In 1881, a new president was installed who was new to the Adventist church. A greater emphasis was placed on the study of both the classics and the sciences—to the detriment of Biblical instruction.
During the summer of 1881, Ellen White wrote a testimony regarding the College to be publicly read at the Michigan Conference camp-meeting. Instead, the testimony was read at the even more public venue of the General Conference session in December of that year. Relevant portions of that testimony can be read at my earlier posted quote. (The full message can be found at Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, pp. 21-36.)
A main concern of Ellen White was the emphasis on the sciences at the expense of the Bible. She showed a special interest in maintaining a clear teaching on creation. “In God’s word alone,” she asserted, “we find an authentic account of creation” (5 Test., 25). She displayed a willingness to both publicly rebuke the leadership of the college and to warn church members of the problems at the College. “We can give,” she memorably warned, “no encouragement to parents to send their children to Battle Creek College” (5 Test., 21). She proposed that if the College was not returned to the Biblical-centered model, that the church should “sell it out to worldlings” and “establish another school” upon the “plan which God has specified” (5 Test., 25-26).
In light of the problems and the publicity regarding them, the College closed the following year. It was re-opened, however, on firmer scriptural foundations the following year. It flourished for a couple of decades, until once again it encountered problems with the handling of science in relation to the Bible.
This time it was John Harvey Kellogg’s “scientific” speculations about pantheism that were causing trouble. Again, Ellen White made it clear where she stood on the issue. In a series of public testimonies, including articles in the Review and Herald, Ellen White warned Adventist members about the activities and teaching at Battle Creek.
In one memorable passage from 1904, which has resonance today, she said: “I was bidden to warn our people on no account to send their children to Battle Creek to receive an education, because . . . delusive, scientific theories would be presented in the most seducing forms.—MS 64, 1904.” (Cited in Arthur White, The Later Elmshaven Years, 58).
She repeated her warnings again the next year, publicly reading testimonies at the General Conference session in Washington D.C. She urged that youth be kept away from Battle Creek, and took exception to the misuse of her testimonies by some to support the teachings at the College (Ibid. 58-59).
The Recent La Sierra Evolution Crisis
Some might argue that a prophet has special insights into the internal problems of an institution, and can publicly rebuke where other humans cannot. This indeed can be true. But the facts about what has been taught about origins at La Sierra are well known to anyone willing to make even a casual investigation. One long-time teacher in the LSU Biology Department has been quoted in a secular journal of education describing Adventist believers in a recent creation of life on earth as representing the “lunatic fringe” of the Church.
Another LSU biology Professor has publicly advocated, including in Adventist churches, theistic evolution as the correct model of earth history. He openly belittles notions of special creation, and even intelligent design. I know this because not long ago I was asked to respond to one of his lectures in a Berrien Springs-area Adventist church.
LSU course syllabi and student testimony reveal that these two faculty members have had central roles in the department in teaching classes dealing with origins. Prophetic insight is not required to know that theistic evolution is believed and has been promoted by LSU biology faculty, both publicly and inside the classroom.
Some would take the tack that the details of Biblical creation are not important, and the Adventist church should be flexible enough to allow for deviation from a literal, six-day, recent model of creation in its institutions. Others go as far as to imply, rather incredibly, that Ellen White’s commitment to freedom in education, as influenced by John Milton, would cause her to support LSU’s foray into evolutionary commitments.
Infidelity in Disguise
We do not have to make historical guesses as to how Ellen White would respond to these claims about creation and her alleged willingness to tolerate a diversity of views on the topic. She herself confronted the claims of theistic evolution, leaving no doubt as to her inspired views on the subject:
I was then 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. The great God in His days of creation and day of rest, measured off the first cycle as a sample for successive weeks till the close of time . . . . The weekly cycle of seven literal days, six for labor, and the seventh for rest, which has been preserved and brought down through Bible history, originated in the great facts of the first seven days (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, 90).
And how would she view attempts by Christians to re-interpret Genesis to allow for vast periods of time in creation? Again, she leaves no doubt:
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 is the worst kind of infidelity; for with many who profess to believe the record of creation, it is infidelity in disguise. It charges God with commanding men to observe the week of seven literal days in commemoration of seven indefinite periods, which is unlike his dealing with mortals, and is an impeachment of his wisdom (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, 91).
“It is the worst kind of infidelity . . .” In light of this remark and the above statements, can there be any meaningful doubt about what Ellen White would have publicly said about issues at La Sierra University were she alive today? The real question should not be why the Michigan Conference has spoken to this situation, but why have not other church entities and leaders expressed themselves as well and as directly?
To be clear, statements critical of church institutions across jurisdictional lines should not be a usual practice, as church unity and harmony would suffer. Such critiques should be reserved for persistent, public, and serious problems where standard oversight seems not to be functioning as it should.
Indeed, if those more directly responsible for oversight of LSU had involved themselves more vigorously and publicly in events, Michigan’s statement would not have been needed. But after years of problems at LSU, and in the absence of others willing to carefully apply our prophetic heritage to these issues, we cannot be too quick to censure the Michigan conference, or the Adventist Review, for seeking to shepherd their sheep with meaningful and timely notices of concern.