Alden Thompson Reflects on Changes in Adventism

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Alden Thompson, professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University, is a prolific writer, frequent speaker and long-time contributor to Spectrum. Here he talks to Spectrum about how he sees the Adventist church changing, and the conflict between liberal and conservative Adventism.

Question: You have been at the Walla Walla University School of Theology since 1970. What changes have you seen in Adventist thinking and Adventist theology in the last four decades?

Answer: The first issue of Spectrum is dated Winter, 1969, just months before I became a faculty member at Walla Walla. Since then Adventism has been grappling mightily with three interlocking tensions, all of which can be described in terms of a “liberal-conservative” divide. One is more sociological, one more intellectual, and one more experiential.

1. The Sociological Question:
How will Adventism relate to the allure of mainstream culture?

Even though Adventism was born as a counter-cultural sectarian movement, the educational vision that was intended to serve the church and world has had the unintended consequence of pushing us into the midst of mainstream cultural influences.

Thus we are at the crossroads: Will we succumb to “liberal” secularizing impulses on the left, becoming more like mainstream Protestantism with its diminished sense of God’s presence in the world? Or will we identify more fully with the “conservative” impulses on the right, making common cause with that other American mainstream, the Evangelical-Fundamentalist movement with its ambivalence toward intellectual exploration?

If the appearance of Questions on Doctrine in 1957 marked the temptation on the right, the publication of Spectrum in 1969 signaled the temptation on the left. The emergence of the Adventist Theological Society in the late 1980s represented an effort to address both threats.

2. The Intellectual Question: Can Adventism be “liberal” enough to explore the world with the inquiring minds on the left and “conservative” enough to worship with the devout pietists on the right?

Ever since the fundamentalist crisis divided American culture in the early 20th century, the crucial question that lurks behind every bush and tree is whether it is possible in our day and age to think and believe at the same time. Can the critical and the devotional impulses live together inside the same skin? I hope so. But Adventism continues to struggle with that question.

3. The Experiential Question: Will our sense of God’s personal presence in the world survive the onslaught of the rational impulses so characteristic of our modern secular world?

When Nancy Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary spoke at the 2006 Association of Adventist Forums retreat in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a quiet but audible gasp rippled through the audience when she said she believed in “answered” prayer. That’s a revealing symptom.

With reference to religious experience, Adventism’s orientation has always been conservative and I fervently hope that will continue to be the case. But it only reluctantly welcomes that more distant kind of experience represented by the book of Ecclesiastes. “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). If Adventism demands an impossible fervor from its Ecclesiastes people, their more distant God could disappear entirely. That can and does happen and is always a great sadness for me when it does. But it is an ever-present hazard of our modern world.

Question: How have your beliefs been shaped or changed since you first started your career?

Answer: I am now much more enthusiastic about recognizing change and diversity within our belief structure - two ideas that are often difficult for devout conservatives to recognize. Experiences in Scotland and Germany have enhanced my interest in the effects of culture, temperament, and personality on matters of faith.

A major challenge that continues to intrigue me stems from the pervasive tenacity of verbal inspiration in human thinking. I am committed to propagating an alternative view that makes it safe to see the human in Scripture without putting the divine at risk.

Question: What books or which people have had the greatest influence on your theological thinking?

Answer: From my undergraduate days, I am profoundly grateful for the influence of J. Paul Grove and Richard Litke, both teachers at Walla Walla College (now University).

In my early teaching years, Malcolm Maxwell was a wonderful colleague and mentor; and my former colleague, Ernie Bursey, continues to be a source of strength and encouragement.

Authors who have been influential include Ellen White, C. S. Lewis, and Brevard Childs.

Ellen White gave me the courage to see things in the Bible I thought I wasn’t supposed to see. Her classic statements on inspiration (the “Introduction” to The Great Controversy and Selected Messages 1:15-23) are a precious gift to Adventism.

Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, the story of his pilgrimage to faith, was very encouraging at an early stage of my intellectual and spiritual development.

Childs’ commentary on the book of Exodus in the Old Testament Library is a wonderful illustration of how one can look at a biblical book from a variety of illuminating perspectives. Childs was also instrumental in popularizing what is known as “canonical criticism,” a stance that grants proper weight to the finished canonical form of the biblical traditions, rather than focusing on the pre-history of the text with its preoccupation with sources and theories of origin.

Question: What Biblical concepts or issues have you found the most challenging and wrestled with the most?

Answer: I am still gripped by the mysterious challenge of that divine/human Word we call Scripture.

Another interest of mine focuses on theodicy: In the face of innocent suffering, how does one justify the existence of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good? I am appalled by the sufferings of innocent people in our world and deeply troubled by the prevalence of violence in the Bible and in our modern world. Much of my study, thinking, and writing focuses on those issues.

Question: Your book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers has been very influential, and has caused waves in some circles. How do you feel about the book now close to 20 years on, and would you do anything differently if you were writing it now?

Answer: The response to Inspiration has been astonishing. I would change very little in the book. But I am exploring ways to refine and popularize the material in two chapters that were withdrawn from Inspiration at a very early stage. The most volatile chapter was the one on eschatology (“Eschatology: The Angels Always Say the Time Is Short”). The other one explores the three dominant strands of Adventist theology (“The Adventist Church at Corinth”).

Question: What changes have you seen in theology students during your time at Walla Walla?

Answer: For the most part, today’s theology students come to our campus knowing very little about the Bible and even less about Ellen White. They are much more open and expressive experientially, but care very little for the disciplined side of spirituality. Their commitment to the institutional church is fragile. And, like the rest of this generation of students, they read less and seldom take notes in class. We have made them handout dependent. But if we could blend the structure of my generation with the openness of the new generation, exciting things could happen in and through the church.

Question: What advice do you give Adventist young people just going into the ministry, or who are considering becoming a minister?

Answer: Stay in touch with the full range of Adventist experience. Get plenty of hands-on experience in ministry and evangelism. Read widely. Write. Pray.

Question: Where do you see the Adventist church going in the next 20 years?

Answer: In every direction at once. That’s both exciting and scary.

One of the most troubling things right now is the way in which conservative Adventism is abandoning even the pretense of education. In that respect, the closing of Weimar College is an ominous sign. In some parts of the church three months or six months evangelistic training is considered enough to qualify for ministry.

That’s a dramatic and painful departure from Ellen White’s educational vision, a vision illustrated by her characterization of John Wycliffe, a man of deep religious conviction who “sought to become acquainted with every branch of learning” (GC 80).

Question: What do you do when you are not teaching or writing or speaking?

Answer: My email correspondence is extensive. I continue to do all I can to nudge both liberals and conservatives to value each other and work together. I play racquetball to keep my body in shape and I play in the garden to renew my mind and soul.

An ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alden Thompson is a graduate of Walla Walla College (BA 1965) and Andrews University (MA 1966; BD 1967). Before joining the faculty at Walla Walla College, he pastored in Southeastern California (1967-1970). In 1974 he received his PhD in Old Testament and Judaic Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His dissertation was published by Scholars Press in 1977.

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