[Rambling, personal post alert.]
Periodically I talk a bit about growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist and my education in church related schools. I do this for two reasons. The first is to explain why I am no longer a member of the church I grew up in, and the second is to explain to people why I am nonetheless not hostile to the SDA church. It seems that it is fairly common to assume one can’t be neutral about the SDA church, or disagree in a friendly way. One must be either loyal or hostile.
I was reminded of this on Sunday morning when I watched part of an episode of the Amazing Facts broadcast, an SDA evangelistic program. They were playing parts of a DVD about the end times that was clearly based on Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy. It’s a sort of fear based approach, suggesting to people that they might be too late in making the right decision, and get caught.
I would note that while I am not a universalist by any means I don’t think salvation is going to be subject to accident. Though I certainly don’t claim that God must do things in a way that pleases me, as I read scripture, God has things under better control than that.
But it isn’t primarily my objection to the form of evangelism that struck me. I noticed that in presenting the final scenes, they skipped a section of Ellen White’s description of the events. To get the context, realize that Adventists hold to a premillenial second coming, followed by the millenium during which the earth is desolate, in turn followed by the second resurrection at which the wicked dead are raised and brought to judgment. This is, of course, a judgment in which all are found guilty.
There is a point at which God portrays to everyone the reason they’re on the outside looking in and eventually they all bow down to God and acknowledge that he is right. This fulfills “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” (Phil. 2:11).
In Ellen White’s description, it is explicitly noted that while Satan confesses this unwillingly he remains rebellious and tries to convince the wicked to join him in one last attack on God, but they all fall to fighting against him. At this point fire falls from heaven, and the wicked are destroyed. For those who are unaware, I note that Adventists do not believe in an eternally burning hell. Hell is more of an event in which the wicked are destroyed, and it no longer exists when its work is complete.
In the DVD, the “rebellious heart” part is skipped, and one goes from all the wicked facing the Holy City, bowing to the ground and confessing that God was right directly to the flames coming down on the. This may seem a small matter, especially to those for whom the entire scenario seems odd, but to me it indicates an insensitivity to the nuances of the unique SDA doctrines.
In any case, this reminded me that the major issue on which I would find I could not be an SDA would simply be prophetic interpretation. For me it started with the continual trips to various evangelistic meetings which almost without exception involved some preacher explaining how the book of Revelation meant that the world was about to end. The nations involved and the history charts changed, but the message was always the same: The world is coming to and end so you better repent before it’s too late.
I also was a voracious reader, and thus read many earlier statements, so I knew how much these things changed over time. This made me feel quite uncomfortable. But it wasn’t the general approach to prophecy so much as one specific prophecy that drove me away. That was the so-called 2300 day prophecy of Daniel 8:14, which formed such a central part of SDA history.
Some might think a belief in the seventh day Sabbath would be more of a problem, but despite the fact that I don’t believe the Sabbath is a requirement for gentile Christians, I’m actually quite attracted to having a protected day each week. The state of the dead doctrine, or soul sleep is also a peculiar doctrine, but bluntly I figure that in either case if I die it’s one breath her and the next with Jesus, so who cares what happens between?
But Daniel 8:14 and the hermeneutical contortions required to stick with it presents more of a challenge. I won’t go into detail here, though perhaps I should write something about it at some point. But the basics are that the evenings and mornings of Daniel 8:14 are interpreted as prophetic days, representing years, the beginning is kind of arbitrarily placed at 457 BC, bring the end to 1843 or 1844.
Early Adventists thought that the sanctuary being “cleansed” (KJV) referred to the second coming, and thus expected the second coming first in 1843 and then on October 22, 1844. This did not happen, of course. A later interpretation viewed this date as beginning a new phase of the ministry of Jesus as our High Priest in heaven, the “investigative judgment.”
This is a doctrine that I can’t accept, and seeing that I don’t have other reasons to remain with the SDA church, that was enough. (Note that after completing my MA at Andrews University, I left not only the SDA church but any church for nearly 12 years before returning to active church membership in a United Methodist congregation.)
So if I reject several major doctrines including part of the core of SDA history, why would I not be hostile? The answer is in a number of very positive things that the SDA church has done and in the fact that I do believe one can simultaneously be an SDA and an orthodox Christian.
Amongst those very positive things is a strong emphasis on education. Seventh-day Adventists have a substantially higher proportion of college graduates than the general population (see here). SDAs also engaged in a great deal of medical ministry, which is what my parents did.
My Seventh-day Adventist education, from home school time while we were overseas to college and graduate school has had a substantial formative influence, and of course stays with me even now.
It started with parents who taught me to read the Bible and take memorization and study seriously. I complete elementary school in an SDA related, though not church sponsored school where we were required to do substantial memorization and to read through the Bible multiple times as part of the program.
Memorization involved learning a passage to the point where I could write it out with correct punctuation (KJV), and then record it on tape. The longest single passage with Psalm 119, but we also memorized the entire sermon on the mount.
I acquired both knowledge of numerous texts and my great aversion to the proof text method as we were required to memorize various lists of four texts on some topic, such as four texts on the Sabbath, four texts on the state of the dead, and so forth. Obviously these were chosen to support distinctive SDA doctrines.
At the same time, however, I acquired a good working knowledge of what was in the Bible and where it was. (We had to memorize a title for each chapter as well.) One thing that often disturbs me is the way that people will take critical views of the Bible or defend it when they don’t actually know what’s there.
Since I basically skipped high school, and have never regretted the fact, I’d simply like to mention some folks from the SDA educational system who have helped shape my life and theology. It is partially because of these people that I am not hostile towards my former church.
Though I never formally studied under him, I must mention my uncle, Don F. Neufeld, associate editor of the Review and Herald for some years, as well as associate editor of the SDA Bible Commentary and Editor of the SDA Bible Dictionary, Source Book, and Encyclopedia. He got me interested in Biblical languages, and helped me with my self study of my first year of Hebrew via Ham Radio (he was W3ZS). And yes, I started formal study of Hebrew with the second year.
Lucille Knapp, Greek instructor at Walla Wala College (now Walla Walla University), who not only taught Greek as a joy, but got me started memorizing Greek.
Dr. Malcolm Maxwell, from whom I took Exegesis of Romans in Greek. Dr. Maxwell was a proponent of the “moral influence” theory of atonement, and kept trying to teach it from Romans, but we still learned a great deal.
Dr. Sakae Kubo, who taught Greek exegesis classes for 3rd and later years.
J. Paul Grove, from whom I took Hebrew prophets. He challenged my thinking on Bible prophecy and gave me a new view of Isaiah and Jeremiah especially. At the time I wasn’t really ready for what he said, but it stuck with me and was useful later.
Dr. John Brunt, who introduced me to gospel parallels. Again, it didn’t fascinate me immediately, but was very important later.
Dr. Alden Thompson who taught my second and third years of Hebrew and helped me over any number of difficulties with Biblical inspiration. (I now publish his book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?)
Dr. Leona Running, my MA advisor. She took me individually through the introductory courses in Akkadian and Middle Egyptian. I audited her Syriac II course after pushing myself through the Syriac I material. I know that many students have been blessed by her ministry and teaching.
Dr. Larry Geraty, from whom I only took one course, Psalms in Hebrew, but what a valuable course that was.
Dr. Bill Shea, again for Hebrew reading, who was a constant education just to work with.
Dr. Johann Erbes, who was the strictest teacher I had for either Aramaic or Hebrew. He expected you to not only know the forms that occurred, but to be able to produce any other form he might desire on the spot. He also introduced me to reading the unpointed text. His view, correct I think, was that you had not mastered a Hebrew or Aramaic text until you could take it unpointed and correctly point it. On the other hand he was a very traditional interpreter and didn’t really like the direction I was going. There was tension but great learning.
Dr. Douglas Waterhouse, who was never my teacher, but who provided me with fascinating notes. He taught at the undergraduate level. I would use him as the poster child for parallelomania. He found parallels everywhere and heavily reinterpreted Daniel and Revelation based on these ancient near eastern parallels. While I would disagree with a high percentage of his suggested parallels, he was brilliant often enough that it was still worth working through his notes.
Because of these and many other Seventh-day Adventist teachers I have a slightly different view of education. I lived with relatively conservative teachers who nonetheless often pushed the edges of SDA doctrine. Even when they were pushing the boundaries of SDA doctrine, however, they were often quite conservative by the standards of other communions.
Despite the fact that my undergraduate and graduate schools are not famous, I consider them both tremendously high quality and high value and I am glad I had the privilege of studying there.
That I disagree with many doctrines that these same teachers hold dear does not diminish my respect for the quality education they provided.
Henry Neufeld runs Energion Publications and blogs at Participatory Bible Study Blog.