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Charles Scriven: The State of Our Union—Good, Beautiful, and Threatened

Charles Scriven needs no introduction to most readers of Spectrum. For more than 50 years, he has been thinking and writing about the interaction of life and religion. He has been a pastor, an editor, a professor, and college president. He belongs to that interesting group of people whose pursuit of truth is not driven by concerns of career and ambition. He is a lifelong Adventist who believes that loving your church does not mean that it is a good idea to seek to preserve it in dogmatic amber.

Question: The Adventist church was built on the premise that God had commissioned it to build an Ark of solid biblical timber to function as a lifeboat for God’s people during the Apocalypse to come, a ship of truth that would discharge its passengers safely into the Kingdom of God. Is this still a viable concept?

Answer: The image of God’s followers in a boat that keeps them safe from storms has New Testament support (Mark 4:35-41; 1 Peter 3:20-2).  The evangelist Billy Sunday famously suggested, however, that the church is a lifeboat and the world a shipwreck to escape from. This image is misleading for its implied slander on what God has made, and that slander is always a temptation for communities, like ours, that steep themselves in apocalyptic thought while forgetting that God’s creation is good. 

Popular Adventism veers toward Billy Sunday and is wrong. Thoughtful members know this and are working on a fix, which is to say, an affirmation of the doctrine of creation, not just the arithmetic.  

Your 2009 book, The Promise of Peace is a well-written, radical restatement of Christian—and Adventist—faith. And yet it seems to have come and gone without meeting with either great support or great opposition. I have always been of the opinion that unless you spell out what you oppose, most people will try to merge new ideas with their old ones, and if that does not work, they will discard what is new in favor of the old. Luther started the Reformation by being controversial. In general, do you think you could have accomplished more if you had been willing to state your case in terms that would have invited controversy?

A writer who doesn’t get much notice gets defensive. I am that guy.

Now I’ve said it, and no one else has to.

I fall flat on the campmeeting circuit and never appear on 3ABN or the Hope Channel. Bad news for book sales or impact.  When I was a pastor and administrator, I usually (not always) told myself: “Affirm, don’t debunk”; preach Revelation in a new key, for example, but don’t attack Uriah Smith. But controversialists get more attention. What’s more, The Promise of Peace is an appreciative, if also fresh, take on the whole Adventist vision; it’s not an attack on anyone’s claims about hot-button topics like the sanctuary or the age of the earth. That means people who read when they’re angry just don’t have enough to get angry about.  

A few theologians and young reviewers took notice anyway. Chris Blake’s honors class at Union College calls me up. My words appear in a liturgy used at the La Sierra University Church. Still, the official Adventist press ignored The Promise of Peace, as did the Seminary, as far as I know.

Maybe Adventists readers just are conflict-motivated. Or maybe just bored. I shudder at both thoughts as also at this final one: maybe I am boring.

One of your startling statements in The Promise of Peace occurs in the chapter titled “Jesus Saves.”  You write: “No one in the New Testament breathes a sigh of relief at Jesus’ death. No one declares that if He “has not been executed, you are still in your sins.” It is all about the Resurrection. You point out that it took 400 years before the cross even began to be used as a symbol in Christian art. Please explain.

You remind me: atonement theory raises hackles. When three young reviewers discussed the book at a meeting of Adventist scholars several years ago, an associate editor of Adventist Review stood up to say: “Once I got to the chapter on Jesus, I was so angry I couldn’t finish the rest of the book.”  

I think that’s because I don’t see penal substitutionary atonement theory in the New Testament. Jesus paid the price for human sin, but that doesn’t mean the Father had to arrange his Son’s murder to legitimatize divine grace. As mothers don’t send their sons to war just so they can be killed, the Father didn’t send his son to earth just so he could be killed. God knew the mission entrusted to Jesus was lethally dangerous, but the mission was to bear witness, reveal truth, destroy the works of the devil. Jesus did not have an abusive parent.

It’s not Jesus’ crucifixion that declares his mission a success. It’s the resurrection; what followed was his faithfulness unto death.  Just look at the start of Romans 1, as well as what your question alludes to: namely, 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.

Do you think Adventism can survive in the developed world if it holds on to its 19th-century America-centered theology and refuses to move into the 21st century? 

There’s a difference between compromise of the message and adjustment based on better understanding of the Gospel and deeper awareness of human need. The trick is to aim for the latter, but traditionalists aim for nothing but what they’ve always believed. That’s a posture of irrelevance and, sooner or later, certain defeat. It puts our whole Movement at risk.  

You have taken a great deal of interest in the ideas of the Radical Reformation: the Anabaptist movements that focused on ethics and sought to change the moral character of society without resorting to the coercive power of the state. Since Adventists traditionally have seen the church’s apocalyptic message as too important to justify spending time on perceived side issues such as social justice and ethics—issues that will take care of themselves once Christ has returned—can you explain your interest in these movements? And as an Adventist, how do you derive a social justice mandate from the Bible?

Your question takes us back to Billy Sunday’s “shipwreck” metaphor.  It’s a terrible mistake in light of the creation doctrine, and the mistake is equally terrible in light of the whole Old Testament story. Abraham’s family, said God, would bless the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Only a people who “establish justice in the gate”—even if they pride themselves in thinking they are the remnant—escape God’s condemnation, said Amos (5:10-15).  Even expatriates should seek the “peace”—the well-being of all—where they live, said Jeremiah (29:7).  God’s covenant is a “covenant of peace”—a promise of security, freedom and prosperity—said Ezekiel (34:25-31). Then Jesus came quoting the prophets and saying he’d bring “justice to victory” and put “peacemaking” at the center of disciple mission (Matthew 12:15f.; 5:9).

If the Anabaptist point is that Christian effort should not rely on the state’s coercive power, that does not mean we can dispense with our moral responsibilities.  It just means that we must embrace them creatively, without violent (and futile) shortcuts. Jesus is our example (1 Peter 2:21). 

All of the above is plain as a peacock. But the “shipwreck” metaphor—escapist eschatology—blinds us to it. Almost none of what I’ve been talking about belongs to the popular sense of Adventist mission. Even when we bring up the Gospel Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), we usually reduce it to a ministry of words. Sermons on mission call us to preach; they don’t call us to peacemaking, which is also what disciples do. 

Ironically (for a Sabbath-celebrating people), we overlook key Old Testament themes even when they appear prominently in the New Testament. Is it inattention, or is it defiance of God’s will? We should be asking that question.

Your doctoral dissertation came out under the title The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics after H. Richard Niebuhr (1988). When people today hear the name Niebuhr, they usually have in mind Reinhold Niebuhr, the hugely influential theologian and public intellectual who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama and a host of other political intellectuals. You chose to focus on the lesser known brother. Why? 

H. Richard Niebuhr’s most famous book, Christ and Culture, teased out, from the whole of Christian history, five main types of church involvement with society. His analysis was unsympathetic to the Radical Reformation (Anabaptist) point of view, which he associated with withdrawal from cultural life instead of active effort to transform it.  Although his brother was more famous generally, H. Richard had tremendous influence on Christian ethicists, so I found flaws in his (very impressive) account that enabled me to argue that the Anabaptist way is the best way to change culture for the better. 

The book got positive journal reviews, but it advances what is still very much a minority thesis. 

In the early 1970s, I was given a stack of old Ministry magazines. One included a brochure that blasted Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th- century Danish Christian philosopher, as being responsible for the theological evils lurking on the periphery of Adventist academia back then, i.e. existentialism and Barthian neo-orthodoxy. I imagine attitudes must have changed since then and that Adventists today read Kierkegaard, but you are still the first one that I have come across to write about Kierkegaard in positive terms. What do you see as valuable in his thinking?

He wrote (about the time of very early Adventism) in a culture of complacent Christianity, and at a point when the West was veering toward the secular humanism that has been gaining ground ever since. His analysis of what he saw as the four stages, or levels, of moral existence provides leverage for assessment of various expressions of the secular point of view. And what matters just as much, he sheds light on the life-changing implications of Christian faith deeply understood. He was formally Lutheran, but he broke with Luther in affirming the Letter of James: Christians are doers of the Word. In that respect, his views align with those of the Radical Reformation. 

Existentialism? Kierkegaard was the founding influence on that movement, but others took it in a secular direction. He didn’t say enough, I think, about the shared life of believers, but he was still thoroughly Christian. 

You spent 21 years as president of Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) and later Kettering College. What did it teach you about leadership?

I got into these jobs without knowing what I was doing. Luckily, that never changed.  I was always trying to figure it out. Now I might say: Leaders express a vision, energize a workforce, execute a plan. But did I mention humility? Nothing matters more, and I apologize to anyone who worked with me for not getting that point when I should have.

All academic institutions, from the most prestigious to the humblest, are at times forced to clamp down on views that run counter to their values and ideology. When it comes to Adventist institutions of higher learning, it seems to me that administrators of these schools have been far more tolerant than the community at large, and that calls for intervention almost always come from outside academia. What is your perspective on this?

Unalloyed academic freedom is pretty much a superstition. Neither white supremacists nor young-earth creationists go far in the Ivy League. But freedom to think—to suggest corrections, to advance new ideas—is as basic as bread, not just in academic institutions but in any sustainable community. I’ve had administrative experience, and I understand that limits matter. I understand how a certain ambiguity creeps in, some of it necessary. But top-down effort to stifle thought is poison, and poison kills. People who don’t get this are a menace.

Finally, were you to give Adventism’s State of the Denomination address, what would you say?

Right now top church officials are afraid of the challenges religion is facing; they are afraid of what we ourselves, with our own specific history, need to deal with. So, along with a substantial part of the membership, they are careening into authoritarian fundamentalism. They fuss over orthodoxy, obstruct Bible study, anathematize honest conversation. It is tragic and scary all at once, and whether we can emerge stronger from this period is, for any thoughtful Adventist, a genuine concern.

Still, if I could be a church leader, I would acknowledge, but certainly not focus on, the dark possibilities. I would focus instead on the fact that we are an amazing, worldwide community. Centers of energy abound, whether conservative or progressive. Adventist-laymen’s Services & Industries (ASI) is flourishing, so is Loma Linda University, and so are the congregations that surround it. We are still winning converts and, incredibly, we are expanding our ministry of medical education in just the sorts of places that need it.

I would focus, too, on the rudiments of the message: on the conviction of God’s kindness, on hope, on the Sabbath, and on the sense of indispensable, electrifying, mission. 

And I would point constantly to the exemplars of Adventism at its best: to physicians in the world’s remote corners, to pastors (of both genders) in China, to lay members bearing witness not only in the developing world but also in embattled contexts like Western Europe. Here someone like Herbert Blomstedt comes to mind. He’s a deep-down Adventist of the thoughtful stripe, and as he approaches his 90th birthday, he’s still conducting the world’s major symphony orchestras some 60 times a year and still bearing witness, in interviews that appear in major newspapers, to his faith, his health-building lifestyle, and his beloved practice of Sabbath rest.

So much good is going on. Like anything good and beautiful, it’s threatened.  But it’s still going on.  And it’s wonderful.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond public school system in Virginia.

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