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Dr. Herold Weiss: "You Can Be a Christian Without Being a Fundamentalist."

As a student at Andrews University at the end of the 1970s, I heard the names Vick, Weiss, and Hilgert mentioned, almost in a whisper, but they had been so effectively airbrushed out of the institutional history that I never learned why they were no longer there. Then Spectrum went online with its blog, and there was Dr. Herold Weiss, first in Spanish, then in English. I began reading his essays and studies in 2008 out of curiosity, and I was immediately fascinated by his ability to drill down to the exegetical bedrock of the biblical texts so that they could speak freely, unconstrained by the fundamentalist mandate that they speak with one voice in support of creed and tradition.

In an essay that I wrote some time back for Spectrum ("Tell Me Why I Should Become a Christian"), I asked the readers if it is possible to come up with a contemporary restatement of Christianity that might resonate with people searching for a meaningful faith, a faith that goes beyond the known facts without requiring you to believe against established facts. Dr. Weiss comes as close to doing that as I think anybody could. Faith to him is a way of living in obedience to the call of God in Christ, not a treasure chest of doctrines.

Dr. Weiss, you have argued that the library of texts we call the Bible is not “historical reports by the most trustworthy reporters, who depended on heavenly dictation for what they reported.” How would you describe the Bible?

The contents of the Bible make clear that they were written at a particular time by people who were children of their surroundings. To claim that the contents of the Bible were dictated from heaven to secretaries who recorded what they were dictated or shown is demonstrably wrongheaded.

Any claim to the inspiration of the Bible must take the whole Bible into account. Explanations of inspiration that are not applicable to large portions of the texts are unconvincing. It is quite clear that significant portions of the Bible are based on oral traditions that at times run in contradicting parallel courses and at other times are obviously literarily dependent on earlier written source. The Old Testament contains the struggles of a people who advanced theologically to the conviction that there is only one God who is to be worshipped by a way of life that is guided by justice, concern for the weak, and loyalty to the commitment to the One God rather than by cultic sacrificial practices. Of course the battle field of that struggle is full of the debris left by the participants in it. This means that the O.T. is a witness to the way in which the people of Israel during turbulent historical ups and downs under divine guidance and continuous self-criticism came to understand themselves as a people under God, and with ever new understandings of what God required of them, proclaimed the faithfulness of God towards them.  

The New Testament contains the documents that served to provide meaning to the experience of those who became the followers of Jesus before and after his crucifixion. They record the way in which these followers came to understand that Jesus’ life and death was an act of God that established a new way of life. The New Testament books make clear that from the very beginning Jesus’ followers found different ways to explain the significance of what had taken place among them. The N.T. testifies to the development of a theological consensus toward the end of the first century as the Movement about Jesus transformed itself into the Christian Church with an ecclesiastical structure that claimed authority over the Jesus tradition. The Bible, then, contains various visions of what people of faith understood to be God’s activity on their behalf. These writings become the Word of God to the faithful readers when the same Spirit who inspired the writers inspires the reader.

In your study of the creation motif in the Bible that ran on this website in 2010 and 2011 and which was later adapted into your book, Creation in Scripture (2012), you showed that Genesis is part of a wider web of biblical perspectives on creation. To what extent do they form a consistent view? And to follow up, what conclusion do you draw from your findings?

As you say, in my book I describe nine different ways in which biblical authors, or the writers of a particular literary school, conceive the creation. Each one has a significant thing to say about creation and the God who brought it about, but they work within different cultural matrixes. It is unreasonable to say that there is a language that is not culturally conditioned since language is nothing but a cultural tool. I think that any one reading these texts cannot ignore the significance of their differences. What they all have in common is their freedom to speak about creation in their own terms while confessing their faith in the Creator. Just as each one of these writers was free to express his faith in the Creator by casting it in terms of his culture, I am also free to express my faith in the Creator in terms of my culture, while fully aware that my understanding of creation is just as dated as each one of those used by the biblical writers also were. To absolutize one of these culturally conditioned understandings of creation, at the expense of all the others, is to do violence to the integrity of the biblical canon.

Fundamentalists, for lack of a better word, insist that there must be a one-to-one relationship between text and what it describes to qualify as “inspired” and worthy of faith. They argue that anything else is “fideism”—faith in faith—and ridicule those who believe, with Rudolf Bultmann, in the resurrection of the Christ of faith while denying that the historical Jesus rose bodily from his grave. What is your perspective on this issue?

As I have already said, to ask that faith be dependent on the ability to give a one-to-one correspondence between a biblical text and what it describes is theologically nonsense because it places the cart before the horse. As I understand it, Christian faith is not faith in the Bible. It is faith in God’s action in the Risen Christ. As Rudolf Bultmann insisted, to make the Bible the stumbling block on which faith is tested is the rational, rather than the cultic, version of “salvation by works.” Fundamentalists are twisting Bultmann’s writings when they say that Bultmann denied that Jesus rose from the dead. Bultmann repeatedly confessed “that” God raised Christ from the dead while following the apostle Paul’s notion that the resurrection does not bring out from the grave the perishable material body that had been buried. The glorified resurrection body is a spiritual body. He also said that he could not describe “how” God raised him from the dead. I am in full agreement with that.

To say that those Christians who deny that one’s faith is to be placed on the Bible have faith in faith is another fundamentalist scarecrow. The biblical authors expressed their faith in God. I identify myself as a member of their faith tradition who also wishes to express my faith in God, even as I, instructed by their writings, conceive God in terms of my own culture fully aware that all human understandings of God are wide of the mark (as the Book of Job magisterially argues). To say that I place my faith in the faith of others is absurd. This is specially the case when faith is understood correctly as obedience to God’s call. Fundamentalists misrepresent Christianity by making it the depository of “superior” knowledge. Christianity is not a way of knowing what is only available to the select few. It is a way of being in God’s world as an answer to God’s call.

Many educated Adventists—and Christians in general—struggle with the same biblical issues that you were forced to deal with early in your career and which led you to pursue your scholarly work outside the Adventist church. In your 2010 book, Finding My Way in Christianity, you describe how you resolved this conflict in favor of faith. What advice do you have for those who find themselves today where you were fifty years ago? And let me add, how do you remain part of a faith community whose approach to theology differs from your own?

My book is an attempt to make the point that, contrary to what Fundamentalists say, it is not necessary to be a fundamentalist in order to be a Christian. In fact, outside of that ideology one can be a healthier Christian. I dressed my argument in the story of my spiritual pilgrimage only because I thought it would be more palatable to the post-modern generation. Unfortunately, I think that these days the Adventist Church is going through a period of testing more severe than the one I faced in the mid-sixties. The ecclesiastical authorities are doubling down on an anti-scientific cosmology, a patriarchal social order, and a concentration of political power. These developments can only produce much uncalled-for pain and suffering. At the moment the future of the Adventist church does not look bright on account of the myopia at the governing structures.

The task of theology is to relate God, the world, and the human family in a way that makes sense. Christians do that using the Bible as the model text. To claim that theology is built on nonsense is absurd. The ecclesiastical authorities are doing precisely that by pretending that the Bible is not culturally conditioned and doubling down on it. Educated Adventists find this nonsensical because they can read the Bible for themselves. As a result, they are leaving the church as if it were a sinking ship. That is true also of those graduating from Adventist universities.

My advice to them is to recognize that the community of faith is not sustained by doctrines but by a serious desire to do God’s will. The Gospel is not about knowledge but about power, and the power of the Spirit that blows from whichever direction it wishes is the agent that energizes the life of Christians. Christianity is the religion of the power of the Spirit that pours God’s love in human hearts so that they may love one another in community. It is not the religion of a book even if a book plays a most important role in it. If those who walk together have the same way of seeing things, they will have a very boring walk. They only have to agree to walk together in the same direction. In the process, they may come to learn from each as to how to read the book.

As a professor in the Adventist classroom, I saw it as my duty to be true to the Bible, not to any denominational doctrine. When I realized that seeing my role in this way made my life in the classroom very unsatisfying because I did not have the support that an institution of higher learning must give to its professors, I resigned and sought employment where I could fulfill my vocation to be a professor of Scripture. I must confess that I was extremely fortunate to find employment immediately. If the Bible turns out not to be what fundamentalists claim, that is not a reason for throwing out the window the baby with the bath water. The Bible is still a witness to the way in which the faith of Abraham in the promise of God was expressed by a long series of followers. The list of those people of faith found in Hebrews 11 includes people and identifies activities that I find offensive. Is that a good reason for me to abandon my faith in God? Not at all. Why? Because I know for a fact that my faith is also quite contaminated by my narrow vision and weak will. These days we are going through a most significant cosmological shift, as I suggested in my book. This only means that we must find new ways to give expression to our faith in out Creator, and live, as the apostle Paul advises us, “discerning what is the will of God” for our times (Rom. 12: 2).  I am able to remain an Adventist because I think that Christianity is lived in community and I do not see any point in changing denominations.  Adventism is in my blood, and I feel I understand what makes my fellow Adventists tick.

You have written—and that was an eye-opener to me—that the Old Testament lacks the Christian concept of the “Fall” and its corollary doctrine of original sin. If I understand you correctly, the story of Adam and Eve is about the consequences of disobedience rather than the need for moral redemption and that the chosen people’s ability—as opposed to their willingness—to obey the will of God is not questioned. Those who read the Hebrew Scriptures from a Christian perspective would beg to differ and point to the Jewish sacrificial system as an indication that the Hebrews were anticipating a Savior from sin and not only forgiveness for sins. Do you see Jewish redemption and Christian salvation as overlapping concepts, and if not, what is the difference?

The long list of the type of sacrifices to be offered makes it quite clear that the sacrificial system was for the remission of actual sins. Also to be noted in this connection is that there is no sacrifice prescribed for the breaking of the Ten Commandments or for moral sins. The paradigmatic sin in the Old Testament is the rebellion of the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai when they worshipped the golden calf. The prophets repeatedly refer to this sin as the beginning of all that is wrong with Israel. Other than the story in Genesis 2, there is no mention of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. The notion of a cosmic Fall of creation only comes with the rise of apocalypticism in the intertestamental period. This development also introduced the notion of a resurrection from the dead.

The prophets, beginning with Amos around 750 B.C.E., introduced the notion of the Day of the Lord as a new beginning within historical existence. The different references to a Messiah (Anointed) who would restore Israel to its historical vocation portray him as primarily a political figure. The apocalyptic versions of Messiah expand his role to priestly functions, but primarily he remains a warrior who eventually rules over his kingdom. This apocalyptic vision informs Paul’s projection that the Risen Christ must fight and subject all the cosmic powers of evil before he can rule over all things and become able to raise the righteous to be glorified in spiritual bodies. This description, as well as the ones in the Book of Revelation, does presuppose that salvation is from the “Fall.” In the O.T., salvation is living in peace and prosperity in the Promised Land where everyone is obedient because, as Jeremiah says, God has written the Law in their hearts.

That there is something wrong in the human make-up which makes it difficult, maybe impossible, for human beings to do what they have been created to do (according to Genesis1, they were created to oversee the creation for an absent God; according to Genesis 2, they were created to obey God) is taken for granted by all the prophets. The degree to which this impaired condition affects human life is conceived differently by different authors. The Wisdom Literature affirms God’s absolute control over all of creation and considers human beings fully capable of doing the right thing. Jeremiah, the most introspective of the prophets, laments the inability of humans to do the good and envisions the reception of a new heart to correct the situation. Isaiah declares that all have sinned. Through the O.T. “life, salvation, wellbeing” is not a personal hope  but a national hope. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the late Psalms begin to make individual applications of the national hope. They do not, however, envision a cosmic restoration from the effects of a Fall about which they knew nothing. Neither does the sacrificial system of the O.T. envision a Savior from the Fall. Sacrifices were prescribed primarily for the remission of the guilt attached to cultic transgressions of purity laws.

In the New Testament writings, the present historical reality is seen within an apocalyptic framework. This means that redemption must undo the damage caused by the Fall. The reign of Messiah cannot be a historical reality; therefore, the Day of Christ must destroy the historical reality in which humans now live. With the exception of the Book of Daniel, that is not the case in the O.T., where there is no expectation of a resurrection.

You grew up in a Catholic country, and you spent the greater part of your academic career teaching at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. What are the greatest misunderstandings about Catholicism that you encounter among Protestants in general and Adventists in particular?

As a young person in Uruguay and Argentina, I grew up with the notion that we Adventists were firmly established on a moral platform high above what any Catholic could ever attain. Catholics, by definition, were people without morals. Since they lived in open depravity, there was no way they could be saved by God. Besides they were superstitious and idolaters. This was surely due to their dependence on the Catechism, where the day of Rest has been changed, rather than the Bible. Obviously, they were in great need to be redeemed from their sins. This view of Catholics was challenged by my friendship with a fellow student on my second year of secondary school. He had transferred to the public school from the Catholic seminary. Our fellow students decided that he and I should have an open debate for their benefit. Our debate proved my self-confidence and sense of superiority totally wrong.

In the USA, I was somewhat astonished to find out two things: One, that Catholics were the largest single denomination in the country and, two, that Catholic bashing was the most popular sport among Adventists and Evangelicals in general. There is a difference between prejudice and bashing. The prevalence of a conspiracy mentality among Adventists in the USA is a lamentable flaw. Few mental disorders are more pernicious than the conspiracy syndrome. That the Bible’s prophesies support or demand Catholic bashing can only be claimed by those who are controlled by a sick ideology rather than the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5: 14). Unfortunately, it is a recurring phenomenon in Adventist pulpits that are open to television audiences, not only the one occupied by Doug Bachelor but even the one commanded by Dwight Nelson. One does not have to be Catholic to abhor such prejudicial preaching. Obviously, we have forgotten that for some time we were just as good at Turkey bashing.

Adventists and Evangelicals seem to think that the Catholic Church is built on the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, obviously ignoring that this doctrine came into being in 1880, and is heavily curtailed by very specific canon laws. My experience at Saint Mary’s College left no doubt that Catholics have very critical attitudes toward the Pope as well as toward the authority of the Congregation for the Preservation of the Faith. The way they see the Bishop of Rome also informs the way they see their local Bishops. As to their concern for morals, I will say that there is a significant difference between North American Catholics and Latin American Catholics. In this country, Catholics are drilled on ethical conduct and are educated with the nuances of moral reasoning that no Protestant baptismal class or college I know about can match.

Also to be noted is that Catholicism is a very polymorphic phenomenon with various internal traditions. It is not a monolithic institution. The “Superior” of an Order of priests or nuns and the Bishops are the ones who set the tone of what is allowed, and the differences among the Orders and bishoprics is significant. In my experience, in the USA the Order of the Holy Cross is probably the most progressive. That is why the University of Notre Dame, owned by the Congregation of the Fathers of the Holy Cross, and Saint Mary’s College, owned by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, are, I think, the most open Catholic institutions in the USA. When some years back, the Vatican sought to make the University of Notre Dame a pontifical university, the Fathers of the Holy Cross vigorously resisted the papal embrace. Eventually, Catholic University in Washington, D.C., became the pontifical university in the USA.

The Roman Catholic Church has found it a lot easier to deal with thorny issues such as evolution than evangelical Christians. Why do you think that is? Also, before Vatican II, New Testament studies were dominated by Protestants while after the Council, the field was largely taken over by Catholic theologians. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that that is the case?

The Enlightenment and the rise of rationalism and the scientific study of nature posed a problem to all Christian denominations. Catholicism reacted in 1880 with the First Vatican Council and the anti- modernist movement that brought havoc to Catholic institutions of learning. Like Fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics adopted the Evangelical doctrine of Verbal Inspiration and came up with the very carefully described dogma of the infallibility of the Pope with which to confront evolution.

One of the famous cases produced by this reaction was the defrocking of Father Alfred Loisy in France, a world-famous New Testament scholar at the beginning of the XX century. In that atmosphere, Father Teilard de Chardin kept in a safe what he wrote, even while his Superior knew that he was integrating evolution into a Christian worldview. His fellow Jesuits published his writings posthumously. In the USA, however, in the 1930s, John McKenzy, Raymond E. Brown, and others began to do serious biblical research and publish scholarly studies in the Old and the New Testaments under heavy ecclesiastical pressure but with the support of their Superiors.

With the new beginnings brought about by the Second Vatican Council, when Protestants were redefined as “separated brethren” and the study of the Scriptures was given priority, Catholicism experienced a renaissance that transformed it into a full participant in the intellectual life of the times. In this new atmosphere, I was hired as a professor in a Catholic Department of Religious Studies in 1969 and after one year was made Chair of the Department. The Spirit of the Second Vatican Council that had as its aim to bring about an “aggiornamento” (bringing things up to date) also produced the official recognition of the validity of scientific methods for the study of both Nature and the Scriptures. On that account, as you say, Catholics are among the most prominent biblical scholars around the world. I would not say that Catholics have taken over the field, but they certainly have been fully involved at the higher circles of biblical studies.

Would that the Adventist Church came to realize its need for an “aggiornamento.” It would appear that biblical scholars working under very strict ideological restraints in evangelical colleges and universities find it easier to survive under the control of denominational cultures than under the demands of scholarly disciplines. There are studies that have demonstrated this. Protestant graduate students who have written very serious scholarly dissertations to earn a doctoral degree seem to be quite comfortable teaching at their denominational institutions and become defenders of Verbal Inspiration. Their dissertations do not get published. Denominational cultures seem to be more powerful than academic cultures when it comes to pastors who attended non-denominational seminaries. Catholic culture, on the other hand, is very much in favor of scholarly work. The traditions of scholarly work are firmly ingrained in the life of the Catholic Church even though at times they have faced anti-intellectual opposing currents.

You could no doubt have leveraged your personal encounter with the authoritarian side of Adventism and its fundamentalist tendencies into a highly readable attack on the denomination. Instead, you did not let a conflict with fundamentalism distract you from your work as a theologian.

Long ago I learned two rules that have served me well over the years. One, do not pass rules you cannot enforce, and, two, do not fight battles you cannot win. Nothing is gained by anyone who launches attacks against long-held doctrines. In my view, while Desmond Ford had every right to present his understanding of the Gospel, and very good reasons to defend it as forcefully as he could, he made a mistake by attacking the Adventist traditional understanding. Doctrinal changes take place over time as traditional doctrines become irrelevant and die of natural causes in abandoned fields. Doctrines do not get killed with their boots on in the battle field. Fundamentalists will not cease being fundamentalists because someone convinced them of the errors produced by such hubristic view of the Bible. Therefore, I have not been engaged in doctrinal battles. My concern is that fundamentalists who become aware on their own of the fallacy in their use of the Bible tend to give up on Christianity altogether. I wrote my book, Finding My Way in Christianity, in order to argue that it is quite legitimate and very satisfying to be a non-fundamentalist Christian. Doing biblical theology is for me a most important and most fulfilling way to live out my vocation, especially while doing it as a service to the faith community in which I was born.

 

Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond Public School system in Virginia and is a frequent participant in conversations on SpectrumMagazine.org.

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