The launch of a new book by an Avondale scholar has reminded Seventh-day Adventists their beliefs are based in Scripture but shaped by history. The event, hosted by Avondale Academic Press, marked the 80th birthday of the book's author, Dr. Bryan Ball, and the publication of Grounds for Assurance and Hope. The book brought together Dr. Ball's biblical and historical writings compiled over many years of scholarship.
Dr. Ball emphasised the primacy of Scripture during the book launch event in the Watson Hall Lecture Theatre on the college of higher education’s Lake Macquarie campus on Saturday, April 2. Christianity is a revealed religion, he said, revealed through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, and through Scripture, the written Word.
Ball noted the section in the book examining the Puritans, who he described as being misunderstood and misrepresented. “They merely wanted a church based completely on the Bible, with no liturgy, no robes, no saints days.” The major tenets of Seventh-day Adventism come out of England in the wake of the Reformation through Puritanism and early non-conformism, said Ball.
“If we could transport ourselves back to the late 17th century and travel across England, we would find worshipping congregations that were abstaining from unclean foods, practicing baptism by immersion, keeping the Sabbath and ardently looking for the Second Coming of Christ. They were, in embryo, Adventist congregations 200 years before there were such.”
Documenting the existence of these beliefs at such an early time in English history is a strong argument against Adventism being a 19th century North American sect, said Ball. “I still feel if only people knew this broader background they would surely view Adventism with a little more sympathy.”
Ball concluded his reflection with brief comments about two of the book’s more “provocative” chapters, “because who wants to read a book that doesn't cause people to think.” The first chapter, “The origins of Genesis reconsidered,” is a defence of the so-called tablet theory, which suggests Moses compiled Genesis from tablets handed down through Abraham and the other patriarchs. The second, “The Decline of the West: Myth, or Reason for Hope?” is an examination of the writings of contemporaries who argue we are living in the fading twilight of the West.
Ball, a former president of the Adventist Church in the South Pacific, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Avondale. Two of his colleagues, theologian Dr. Steven Thompson, a Higher Degree Research Supervisor, and historian Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud, Assistant Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the Faculty of Arts, Nursing and Theology, gave responses as part of the launch.
Thompson reflected on his year as an undergraduate at Newbold, where he would eventually work with Ball who headed theology at the college of higher education. Growing up in the Bible Belt in the south of the United States of America, Thompson says he knew Adventists “were a self-invented North American religious movement. But my year as undergraduate in England confirmed Adventists are but the current small link in a long chain of believers, Puritans, Sabbatarians, many of whom held surprisingly close beliefs to what we hold.”
These Puritans “are easy to caricature,” said Reynaud in his response, “but Bryan restores to our memory the capacity of the Puritans to think deeply, passionately, soundly and with life and vigour.” He described Ball as a rare Adventist historian for looking beyond the church’s North America tradition. “Bryan reveals the roots of Adventism go far deeper than we may have imagined.”
Deeper means beyond the Reformation, said Reynaud. “There is considerable evidence that some of the beliefs Adventists hold as distinctive were being discussed, studied and revealed even in medieval times. . . . If I’m holding a faith that has its origins in God, its greatest revelation in Jesus, it doesn’t feel very secure to know the truth of it came out in the 1800s. It feels far more secure to know the truth of it has its origins in Scriptural times and has come down through the ages.” Reynaud lauded Ball for “expanding our horizons and reminding us of our debt to those who’ve gone before.”
Reynaud also noted the quality of Ball’s scholarship—“he’s been reviewed by the best historians in the field and triumphed.” This, he said, “adds credibility to the message of the Adventist Church. I find that another ground for assurance.”
A defense of the value of historians followed—they study the past to better understand the present. “If this were not the case, historians would be out of a job, because once a history is written, it would be written. But it needs to be re-written so that it continues to address contemporary issues. Bryan has done this better than most.”
Thompson spoke highly of Ball’s emphasis “on the sufficiency of Scripture as a basis for revelation and for Christian belief. This must remain a core Adventist belief.” And he described Ball’s chapter on righteousness and redemption in the Epistles of the apostle Paul—“do I have to do anything to be saved, is it enough to believe; is it doing or being?”—as making “one of the most original and convincing contributions to this long-standing issue.”
Ball concludes the book with what Thompson calls a focus on times and seasons. “It doesn’t come easily for someone who grew up in the part of the world I grew up in to think of the decline of the West, especially that part of the West. But we believe it’s happening, and we are told by prophecy that it’s certainly happening. . . The times are changing.”
Reynaud, though, had “a quibble” with the chapter on the decline of the West. “Bryan is a wonderful historian, but I’m not as convinced he’s a good prophet.” While agreeing with Ball’s metanarrative—that the world is degenerating and headed toward a dramatic conclusion—Reynaud does not agree “that the decline of the West is a bad thing nor that the West represents exclusively Christian values.” Some of those values, particularly values originating from Greek and Roman philosophies, predate Christianity, said Reynaud.
He ended his response with a challenge to modernists. “There is something I’m learning from the generation younger than me that I think my generation probably missed. A tolerance, an acceptance and a recognition that they don’t know everything. Postmodernism says, ‘We don’t know.’ I have found one of the most reassuring things in my journey in faith over the past 20 years is the capacity to say, ‘I don’t know,’ because it then shifts my assurance from my scholarship and my wisdom and my cleverness to revealed wisdom. If I don’t know, where do I turn? I must turn back to the evidence that comes from outside of human wisdom.”
Subsequently, Ball answered questions about the book, his scholarship, and life at age 80:
How do you keep history relevant?
History is essentially an account of people’s thoughts and actions rather than an impersonal sequence of events, dates and places. It becomes relevant when we understand that these people are very much like us—they often faced challenges similar to those we face today. Their lives are part of the continuing story of human existence, a story that’s moving to a final culmination and that frequently reveals God’s dealings with individuals and with nations.
One-third of your book is about historical theology. What can we learn from it to bring more meaning to our contemporary understanding of God?
Theology is our attempt to understand God and how He relates to us. Historical theology is the study of that process as it took place at a given time in the past. Knowing how this process took place can help us understand the process today, particularly by understanding why people believed as they did and whether or not their reasons for doing so were valid.
You’ve spent a lifetime writing about Seventh-day Adventist identity. Scripture has been your primary source. What if anything still surprises you when you read your Bible?
I’m constantly reminded of two things—the relevance of the Bible to human existence in general and to me personally in particular. I’m also pleasantly surprised by its constant freshness, which comes across in most modern versions.
You’ve shared your reading and research with others, including those outside your circle of influence within the Adventist Church. Why do you write and publish?
The short answer is to help others understand the essentials of the Christian faith. I also want to help people understand correctly what Adventists believe and why they believe it.
You’re an octogenarian now. As you look back over your faith journey, what is the one piece of advice you give to a believer and to a non-believer?
To those who already believe, I say, “Take courage: what you believe has a solid foundation in Scripture and in history.” As the apostle Peter explained, “We did not follow cunningly devised fables” in arriving at our conclusions. To those who do not yet believe and who may have doubts, a word of encouragement, “Take time: find out the facts and then separate fact from fiction.” This may require time and also honesty‚ especially honesty with oneself, and that’s often notoriously difficult. But the rewards are incalculable.
Grounds for Assurance and Hope is available for $29.95 from Adventist Book Centers or the Avondale Online Store
Brenton Stacey is a Public Relations Officer at Avondale College of Higher Education.
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