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Leading Question: Why are the Arts and Sciences a focus of special attention in these lessons?

I must admit that I became increasingly intrigued as I began working on the study guide for this lesson. Our situation today with the “Arts and Sciences” is quite different from that of the biblical era. But we should address the question of why these two disciplines are a special focal point and also, what the Bible might have to say about them.

From my own perspective, I suspect that the reason why these disciplines have been singled out, is that they easily represent the secularist impulse that lurks so very near in educational institutions in our age. The issues are not the same for the arts as they are for the sciences, but there is a link between them.

In 1994 I presented a paper at both Loma Linda University and La Sierra University entitled, “The Future of Biblical Studies in Adventism.” It was part of a larger series organized by Paul Landa. In that paper I included this comment:

. . . I want to speak candidly to the more sophisticated members of my church, including my academic colleagues, those who rub shoulders with sophisticated people who do not believe. The dominance of science in our modern secular world has threatened to push God to the fringes for some, making it more difficult for them to believe. Interestingly enough, the natural scientists are statistically more inclined to believe than are their academic colleagues in either the humanities or the behavioral and social sciences, even though we often perceive the greatest threat to our world view as coming from the natural sciences. One survey reported that 20% of natural scientists do not believe in God, compared with 36% of humanities scholars, and 41% of the social scientists. [Cited in David A. Fraser and Tony Compolo, Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p. 23, from Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 146-47.] I suspect that the marvelous complexity of nature makes it more difficult for the natural scientist to believe that it all “just happened.”

Looking first at the arts, I would suggest that the secularizing impulse tempts the academic to look at the “Bible as Literature” rather than as “Sacred Text,” putting some distance between the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God and modern culture.

As for the sciences, devout conservatives have long seen the sciences as a threat to faith, or at least a potential threat. So let’s address each area in turn.

The Arts

Under this heading we can consider both visual and literary arts. The Bible itself is witness to the presence of “literary” art within the Judeo-Christian tradition. We don’t have to diminish its sacred status when we see it as literature. The Bible itself never makes that distinction.

But because the shadow of the decalogue looms large, devout believers have sometimes resisted any visual representations in their worship: “any likeness” is seen as a clear prohibition.

Exodus 20:4 (KJV): Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The Roman Catholic Church uses images; the Orthodox churches prohibit images but encourage the use of one-dimension icons. Some modern groups prohibit any kind of representation in worship services.

So let’s look at some examples from the Bible, starting with the “inspired” work of the craftsmen Bezelel and Oholiab.

The description of Bezelel’s “calling” is especially pointed:

Exod. 31:1-5 (NRSV): 1The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 and I have filled him with divine spirit,[a] with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.

Question: Doesn’t this passage sound like a blank check for the arts – as long as one worships the divine rather the created works of a human creator?

Sanctuary artistry: from Exodus:

25:18: two golden cherubim over the ark
25:33-35: almond blossoms on the candlestick
26:31: curtain in blue, curtain, and crimson, with in-woven cherubim
26:36: blue, purple, and crimson screen, with embroidered needlework
27:16: blue, purple, and crimson court hangings with embroidered needlework
28:2: Aaron’s vestments for his “glorious adornment”
28:5: priestly vestments with gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen
28:15-20: breastplate with 12 precious stones
28:33: hem of Aaron’s robe: golden bells and pomegranates of blue, purple, crimson yarn
28:40: tunics, sashes, and headdresses for the “glorious adornment” of Aaron’s sons

Solomon’s temple artistry: from 1 Kings

6:23-28: two olivewood cherubim, overlaid with gold, over the ark
6:29, 32, 35: engraved carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers
7:13-51: Products of Hiram the Bronzworker
7:18, 20,42: pomegranates
7:19, 22, 26: lily-work and lilies
7:25, 44: twelve oxen for the molten sea
7:36, cherubim, lions, palm trees

Ezekiel’s temple artistry: from Ezekiel 40-48

40:22, 26, 31, 34, 37 palm trees
41:18, 20,25: cherubim and palm trees
41:19: cherubim, palm, young lion

Summary: All three of the sanctuaries/temples which are described in the Old Testament are lavishly decorated with images from nature. And the robes of the priests were intentionally beautiful, for the “glorious adornment” of the priests. In short, God is the only One we should worship. But all the beauties of the earth are given for our enjoyment.

Question: What is the origin of the ascetic impulse in Israel? The old proverb: “If it looks good, tastes good, feels good, don’t touch it stands in stark contrast to the hedonistic proverb: “If it looks good, tastes good, feels good, give me more.” Scripture stands against both extremes. But how can we counter the extremes?

The Sciences

If one considers the Bible as a source of absolutely correct information, then any “discovery” which differs from what is in the Bible is deemed a threat to faith. The deeply-rooted impulse to “inerrancy” is the root of the problem. On the university campus, the books that are most quickly outdated are the science textbooks.

In some conservative circles it is argued that in the course of time, science will catch up with Bible. Adventist publications reflect that position. But we should first note how that approach is illustrated in popular Christian literature.

In the 1960s, Fleming H. Revell published None of These Diseases by S. I McMillen, an evangelical physician and missionary to Africa. The blurb on the cover of the 1967 edition reads: “Science – 4000 years behind times!” A new edition (2000) by his grandson, David Stern, also an MD, is currently published by Baker, though without the striking cover blurb.

Citing Papyrus Ebers, a medical written in Egypt about 1552, BCE, McMillen mentions “cures” that we would find ridiculous: “To prevent the hair from turning gray, anoint it with the blood of a black calf which has been boiled in oil, or with the fat of a rattlesnake.” Or, apply “worms’ blood and asses’ dung” to embedded splinters.

This is McMillen’s comment:

“God proceeded to give Moses a number of commandments, which form part of our Bible today. Because these divinely given medical directions were altogether different from those in the Papyrus Ebers, God surely was not copying from the medical authorities of the day. Would Moses, trained in the royal postgraduate universities, have enough faith to accept the divine innovations without adding some of the things he had been taught? From the record we discover that Moses had so much faith in God’s regulations that he did not incorporate a single current medical misconception into the inspired instructions. If Moses had yielded to a natural inclination to add even a little of his modern university training, we would be reading such prescriptions as “the heel of an Abyssinian greyhound” or “the tooth of a donkey crusted in honey,” not to mention the drugs the leading physicians were compounding out of the bacteria-laden dung of dogs, cats and flies.” (McMillen [1963], 10)

Most biblical laws can certainly be beneficial – but note the word “most.” When seeking to bring people to a higher level, God has to be highly selective. And McMillen does not refer to such laws as the test for an unfaithful wife in Numbers 5. The accused woman must drink holy water mixed with dust from the sanctuary floor. If she is guilty of unfaithfulness nothing will happen – but the accusing husband goes unpunished. If she is guilty, she will have a miscarriage.

In the 2000 edition of None of These Diseases, this statement appears: “Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception.” – Stern (2000), p. 11.

In Adventism, the popular apologist, Rene Noorbergen, author of Ellen G. White: Prophet of Destiny (1974), entitled his fourth chapter, “Science Catches Up with a Prophet.” His logic is the same as McMillen’s.

That logic has prevailed in more official Adventist circles, too. In 1963, for example, the Ellen G. White Estate published the three-volume Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White. At the end of volume 3, Appendix E presented a list of 21 items under the heading of “Helpful Points in the Interpretation and Use of the Ellen G. White Writings” pp 3211-16. The same principles are applied to the Bible. Items 6 and 7 are particularly noteworthy:

“6. Recognize the messages as timeless. The passage of the years has not invalidated the testimony counsels.”

“7. Recognize that the counsels are scientifically sound. While the books are not treatises on science as such, they are scientifically accurate. Work in the fields of nutrition and medicine provides increasing scientific support for points which we formerly accepted on the authority of the inspired message alone. Have no fear about believing some things not yet demonstrated in the laboratory or by findings in archaeology. In due time scientific discovery will undoubtedly confirm many more truths God has revealed by inspiration.”

Similarly, in the two-volume publication that came out of the 1952 Bible Conference, these statements appear.

F. D. Nichol: “Some in our ranks, while receding not a foot from the forward position of belief in all God’s Holy Word, have been a little panic-stricken at times as these ancient missiles have been hurled at them by Bible critics…. One of the major subjects of the Bible Conference will be archaeological evidence for Bible inspiration” (F. D. Nichol, Review and Herald, 8/28/52, in Our Firm Foundation 1:23 [1952]).

Siegfried Horn: “The foregoing survey shows that there is much archaeological evidence at our disposal that we can use in support of the authenticity of the Biblical text and the veracity of the historical parts of the Bible. This material used in the right way can give tremendous strength to our fundamentalist position of accepting the whole Bible as God’s inspired word. The years of study in the field have profoundly strengthened my confidence in the sure foundation on which our faith is built. We do not need to be afraid to proclaim Bible truths that we cannot prove yet by outside sources, as long as we remain on that sure foundation that has never failed us yet, the infallible Word of God” (Siegfried Horn, “Recent Discoveries Confirm the Bible,” pp. 61-116 in Our Firm Foundation 1:116 [1952]).

Knowing that in his later writings Horn preferred to say that archeology “illumines” the Bible, rather than “confirms” the Bible, I was astonished to discover this confirmation of a fundamentalist perspective. When I first read it, I rushed down the hall to the office of my archeologist colleague, Doug Clark, and blurted out my question: “When did Horn change his mind?” Without hesitation Clark responded: “When he discovered that Heshbon wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

Horn did not announce from the house tops his change in perspective. He simply shifted his emphasis from “confirms” to “illumines. And he did it quietly without fanfare.

Towards a Solution

1. Observational wisdom. The book of Proverbs may help us in our dilemma. The biblical passage that appears at the head of our studies for this quarter is Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (NRSV). And in Lesson 1 we discussed the nature the biblical wisdom books (Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs). In Proverbs we have what could be called “observational” wisdom. The words in Proverbs did not come by way of “revelation” but by the observation of a devout Spirit-guided believer. Yet, according to Proverbs, all wisdom starts with the “fear of the Lord.” That should motivate us to see more clearly. And we shouldn’t have to deny what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

Perhaps the most helpful proverb when it comes to science is one which describes the process of observing: “Go to the ant, you lazybones: consider its ways, and be wise” – Prov. 6:6 (NRSV).

2. Differing accounts of the same event. Many believers worry about the effect of science on the early chapters of Genesis. We have no “observation” involved with creation, so it would have to come by way of “revelation.” And it may be that because we have no fewer than four creation accounts in Scripture (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8), Ellen White pointedly says that we know nothing about the “how” of creation:

“Just how God accomplished the work of creation He has never revealed to men; human science cannot search out the secrets of the Most High. His creative power is as incomprehensible as His existence” Patriarchs and Prophet 113 [1890].

3. Non-science accounts in the Bible. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of “non-science” in the Bible is the narrative of Jacob’s genetic tricks. Can one make sheep and goats bear “striped, speckled, and spotted” young by laying peeled rods in front of breeding animals? (See Genesis 30:25-43). That has nothing at all to do with the modern science of genetics. But that doesn’t mean we have to deny the reality of the biblical narrative. By God’s grace we should be able to describe what we see in the Bible and in nature. And we can praise God for what we have seen. And we can seek wholeheartedly to do good science in our modern laboratories.

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