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The Peculiar Character of Seventh-day Adventists

“Blameless and upright.” According to scripture (Job 1:8), Job was known as a person of good moral character. Of course, one can always argue about “the good,” character, and associated virtues. Norms of morality ebb and flow through the years, so the character of Job and/or his friends may be somewhat foreign to us. Nonetheless, in three stages, roughly chronological, let us explore character through the story of Job.

Chapter one, verse eight goes on to say that Job “fears” God and “turns away from evil.” But why? Apparently, “Satan” leveled a charge that cut right to the heart of the matter: Job’s motivation. Did Job fear God and avoid evil in order to receive blessings from God and his community? Or did Job fear God and avoid evil because of his inner disposition toward good? The distinction between internal, God-inspired good character and external, goal-inspired good character is an essential one. Through the history of Western thought on ethics and morality, this distinction is pervasive even if heuristic. Maintaining this distinction serves the purpose of critical analysis and self-orientation toward the moral life. Both virtue ethics (internal) and command ethics (external) have levels of complexity that confound simple characterization. But the differences in approach are instructive and revealing. 

Divine Command Ethics

In a command-based ethic, such as that noted in many passages within the Pentateuch (e.g. Dt. 28.15, 58-68; Dt. 30.15-16) if one does what is commanded, it really does not matter if one’s heart is God-inspired and oriented toward a loving relationship with Him. If one does what is commanded, all is good. In a command ethic, the human task is to discover God’s will and then do it. If one asks what is morally appropriate in any given situation, the answer must come from God. A vertical orientation between oneself (and maybe one’s community) and God is the only legitimate place for an answer to emerge. Capturing the core of this line of thinking is this sentence: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” In its strongest form, it is a type of Theological Voluntarism or a Deontological ethic called “divine-command” theory. Human reason is irrelevant in this view because the answer to moral issues comes from God, not humans. If reason is to be used, it only serves to lead us to God’s revelation. Once God’s will is discovered in scripture, reason is entirely subjugated to revelation. One’s actions emerge from this certainty.

Virtue Ethics

In a virtue ethic, it is not the act that matters most. Personal character rises to prominence in this theory. What sort of person are you when you act in such and such a manner? The person, not the act, is at the core of the question of what is morally appropriate. The character, the virtues, are of utmost concern. In a Christian virtue ethic, one inspired by a heart transformed by Christ’s love, doing the right thing is a secondary concern that flows from the devoted heart. It is not that the act does not matter at all; of course it does, but the orientation of the heart matters first and foremost. This is a distinction that comes with the transformational reality of Jesus as our savior and role model. A virtue ethic, one focused on character, must have a role model and in Christianity, Jesus provides this.

Two additional texts from the OT demonstrate a movement toward a relational or virtue ethic. Micah 6.8 notes both orientations, ending with the character trait of humility. Humility is an internal disposition, a virtue. Ezekiel’s story of the surgical transformation provided by God (Ez. 36.24-27) is a dramatic example of what I mean here. One can live a life of obedience to commands, calculating positive outcomes and blessings, while concealing a stone-cold heart. Persons of this sort may still act in all the right ways. But God would have our hearts be of “flesh” not “stone.” It is because of Him putting His Spirit within us that we subsequently walk in his statutes and follow his commands.  

The either/or distinction here is the heuristic, the teaching tool, since one can respond positively to God’s commands from a heart of flesh transformed by Christ. The approach of ethics can be a both/and breakdown rather than an either/or analysis. The passage in Dt. 30 does note what happens when the people’s hearts turn away. God has always desired his people to have hearts of flesh and not stone. God has always desired his people to be like Job, “honest inside and out” (1:1 Message).

Christ himself blended a command (external) orientation with a virtue (internal) orientation when he said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn. 13:34). As humans, we find this blend particularly difficult to understand. Imagine, for instance one side of a marital relationship saying to the other, “This I command you, love me.” Turning virtues into commands, character traits into duties is usually understood to be either impossible or extraordinarily difficult.

The apostle Paul takes the Christian understanding of the moral life to an entirely new level, in part because he was engaged with and shaped by his society, his culture.[1] Paul sets out his emphasis on the character of those who follow Christ by listing virtues and vices. This was a common method within classical Greek philosophical schools. Colossians chapter three is characteristic. “The old nature with its practices,” says Paul, includes vices like “slander, foul talk, anger, impurity, covetousness,” and lying. When one accepts Christ, he/she puts on the “new nature,” virtues like “compassion, kindness, meekness, forbearance, forgiveness,” which mark the character of His people.

The apostle Peter urged the importance of this relational, virtue-oriented life when he wrote, “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.” In orienting our life along these lines, Peter says that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.3-7). Ethics within Orthodox Christianity takes this integrative rather than simply cooperative approach so seriously as to use a special term for it, “theosis.” “Theosis is the theological concept through which Orthodox theology has explained the progress of the person toward divine similitude. Theanthropic life is the vocation which was given to Adam at Creation and denied at the Fall, but it was followed to perfection by Jesus Christ.”[2]

Alasdair MacIntyre argues, in his book After Virtue, that within a pluralistic society one is hard pressed to find consensus on the idea of what counts as virtue and vice. Virtue, in MacIntyre’s view, is a quality “necessary to achieve the goods internal to practices” which contribute “to the good of a whole life…elaborated and possessed within an ongoing social tradition.”[3] Given the ongoing social tradition of the global Seventh-day Adventist Church presently roiled by matters of conscience and culture, I doubt the possibility of consensus on what counts as good character. The present debates on gender justice, the role of science, and structural polity seem so divisive as to make the idea of continued structural unity and common good unlikely. The virtues being lived out internal to the Seventh-day Adventism are all over the board. When a former GC President is booed on the floor of the world session and no one from the podium responds to quell such behavior, what are we to make of our character? When a duly elected President of the largest tithe-generating Conference in the entire Church is not even formally recognized by our GC, what are we to make of our character? I could go on. What is the character of Seventh-day Adventism today?

Blending ethical orientation

Perhaps it is a good thing that God blended a command and relational orientation. As observers, we cannot tell whether others are behaving ethically for utilitarian reasons or from authentic reasons of the heart transformed by Christ.  For instance, some may attend church services throughout their lives with little more than a calculating gambit to get into heaven. Such a person may cling to her heart of stone while appearing to us (as external observers) to be someone of high moral character. Under her breath, Sabbath by Sabbath, she may well curse others and God while appearing faithful and of Church office.

Alternatively, a Christian relational orientation to the moral life emerges from an internal desire, from a heart transformed by God’s grace. When such a person attends church services, he does so out of a sense of joy and worship. It is not his duty to go to Church; it is his pleasure. He is not calculating his chances for heaven over hell as a related outcome of his Church attendance. His compassion for others is an authentic, thoroughgoing expression of internal disposition. Again, those of us observing cannot know from whence the motivation comes. As scripture says, only God can discern the human heart. Truth be told, I suspect most of us are a complex blend of both virtue and duty when it comes to our moral life. Indeed, we may be psychologically incapable of sufficient self-reflective skills to even understand our own motivations.

Reading Job, one receives the impression that his motivation was internal. His challenging response to his friends strikes me as an authentic expression of honesty (a virtue). When he curses the day he was born, I think it was an honest response to suffering. Alternatively, he might have completely covered his grief and said things to win favor with his friends. For instance, he might have modified his comments to ingratiate himself to them. Indeed, how many of us look around to our neighbors when pondering difficult responses of personal faith just to see how our words and expressions might be taken? When we mask our deeply held convictions to remain in the graces of our friends, family, and colleagues, we run the risk of internal rupture to our sense of self. Job’s honesty with God and his neighbors may have cost his high reputation among friends. While honesty is a virtue, the expression of it is a delicate matter. Character is the result of both internal and external motivations, and humans are rightly pushed, pulled, and prodded along both lines.

Growth of character is a complex blend of personal, familial, and societal influences, none of which is outside the possibility of God’s inspiration. Regardless of composition, our families teach us many things about character, as does our society, both positively and negatively. The older I get the less convinced I am that growth in character is possible. But the flip side of this is that I am more and more dependent upon Christ for any growth that might occur. Nonetheless, if I do not try, really hard, to be a decent person, then all the prayers and entreaties to God fall flat. If I hope to be a person of decent character, I must decide and act in a decent manner; that is my work, not yours, not God’s, not even the Spirit’s. Remaining open to his influence and help, I must be kind to someone, compassionate to someone, honest and dependable toward someone, and so on.

Mind you, none of this has anything whatsoever to do with salvation, not Job’s, not mine, yours or anyone else’s. None of my comments here have any direct relation to a theology of salvation. Aside from the fact that humans are lost, salvation is not about human character, it is about God’s character. Human character surely does go through changes in the presence of God and his community of faith. Jesus’ presence does transform the human heart. Job’s character (mine and yours) is changed through relationship with God. But my thoughts here regard the character we build in our human to human relationships. In the context of the Sabbath School lesson, I am talking about Job’s personal character traits, his virtues and vices. And in the context of our lives today, I long for our reputation to be like Job’s. Above all else, I long for people in my community to say of Adventists, “Those are decent folk!”

In a day and age when traditional virtues like honesty and decency seem to have gone by the wayside, it strikes me that the most dramatic way for God’s remnant to be “peculiar” is to be persons of high moral character. Like Job, being peculiar for us means we will be persons who are inclined toward good. As Peter urged, we can reflect a Christ-like character because he has transformed our hearts and we have put away our calculating, stone-hearted approach to winning the favor of God. Oddly, decency and love for others flows from our hearts of flesh. We do not have to try to be peculiar by engaging in behaviors that draw attention to ourselves as a calculating means to make a point.



[1] There is a good deal of biblical scholarship which examines Paul’s thought and theology as he interacts with common societal/philosophical ideas. Two useful books in this stream of scholarship include: Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics. T&T Clark (Westminster John Knox); Louisville, KY. 2000; John D. Caputo, Paul Among the Philosophers. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Indiana University Press; Bloomington, Indiana, 2009.

[2] Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1987, p. 14.

[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, A Study of Moral Theory, 2nd ed., University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 1984, p. 273. 

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Sat, 06/03/2017
Dr Carole Ferch-Johnson

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