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Revisioning Adventism

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In the current issue (Fall 2007) of Spectrum magazine Chuck Scriven reports on the Adventist Forum Conference in an editorial titled “Who Will Reinvent Adventism”. In his conclusion he writes:

“Let us now lay down the welcome mat for visionaries. Let pastors and older members and church leaders lay it down. Let the welcome extend to every kind and color of Adventist. Let it extend to anyone who cares enough about the Church to venture forth with a fresh idea. Let doctrinal hairsplitting, together with distrust and suspicion, come to a halt.”

I couldn’t agree more with the goal but wish to probe the boundaries of this invitation. Using the word reinvent in the title already reveals a qualifier. It assumes that reinvention is both needed and legitimate. But that is an assumption likely to be axiomatic only to one aligned with the perspective loosely labeled: Progressive Adventism. Yet, if you were to ask Historic Adventists, they might accept reinvention of method but likely not of content. Any reinventing of Adventist content would be seen as departing from the ‘faith which was once delivered to the saints’. And there would also be significant differences between liberal and conservative in defining just what core Adventist content ought to be.

The above invitation also supposedly extends to ‘anyone who cares enough about the Church’. But the parameters include concepts like ‘fresh ideas’, no ‘doctrinal hairsplitting’ no ‘distrust and suspicion’. All this might seem non-controversial, but will terms like ‘fresh ideas’ or ‘hairsplitting’ have universally agreed-upon definitions? Unlikely.

One of the core differences between liberal and conservative – in any context – is where the line between style and substance gets drawn. There is a grey area where what a liberal thinks is style/methodology a conservative thinks is substance/content. Then distrust, which Chuck wants banished, can easily occur when the liberal wants to reinvent what the conservative wants to retain. This re prefix exemplifies the dilemma nicely. Revision, or re-vision? Revision means to revise and that is anathema to anyone who believes a pillar is thereby being dislodged. But re-vision can mean correcting poor ‘eyesight’ to let us focus more clearly on the original purpose. So we can take the same word and place it into service for different agendas.

Here we find Adventism – at least in North America and socio-culturally similar environments. We’ve become like Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu, the antelope-like creature with a head at each end of its body. When it tries to move the heads lurch in opposite directions. These ‘heads’ are driven by conflicting priorities generated by incompatible presuppositions.

Now ‘incompatible’ is a very strong word. But, to exemplify the problem, consider this extended quotation from conservative Adventist pastor, Larry Kirkpatrick:

“While finishing my degree at Southern Adventist College (now Southern Adventist University) in Tennessee in 1992-1994 I met Robert Francis. ... he told me about a meeting he had had with several theology teachers some years previous. The question at hand had been how to relate what scholarship produced with what had been laid down in the Spirit of Prophecy writings. According to Dr. Francis, at one point he told the group of his peers, "Here is where we differ. You are putting the Bible first, then the scholars, and only then Ellen White. What we should do is put the Bible first, and then Ellen White, and then the scholars. There are fundamentally two different classes of writings: inspired and uninspired. The Bible and the writings of EGW are in one class; yours and mine are in the other."

His point was plain. No matter how brilliant the scholarship, unless the scholar is also a prophet, his writings are uninspired. Inspiration is a supernatural phenomenon specific to prophets. Under inspiration, writings are guarded by the Holy Spirit and may be said to be infallible. When you or I write or speak, even with the influence of the Holy Spirit upon us, we experience what theologians have called "illumination."
Illumination is a special influence by the Holy Spirit under which we receive insight, for example as we study, but there is no supernatural guardianship that prevents us from erring. ... Anyone may have illumination if God gives it, but this is a fundamentally different phenomenon than inspiration. Pastors and scholars and church leaders must not forget this distinction.”

- excerpted from the web article: Shall Any Teach God Knowledge (http://www.greatcontroversy.org/gco/ser/kir-cop2.php)

The suggested authoritative hierarchy is: 1) Bible, 2) Ellen White, 3) scholars. I would contend that conservative Adventists are comfortable with this position (although perhaps not with use of the word infallible) while liberal Adventists are not comfortable. And, while of course he should speak for himself, I seriously doubt whether Chuck Scriven would wish to see Adventism ‘reinvented’ following Kirkpatrick’s guidelines. But I contend we cannot make much headway toward Chuck’s goal without first dealing with this watershed problem.

So what is this problem? Don’t we all as Adventists hold to the inspiration of the Bible? And, with some dissonance, to Ellen White as well? And isn’t inspiration better than mere illumination? Yes, but first, Kirkpatrick’s above argument has the hidden premise of ‘all or nothing’. He assumes Ellen White is inerrant - i.e. she cannot both be inspired yet write some things we should reject. Then second, by creating such a 1-2-3 hierarchy, it becomes an invalid move for the ‘lesser’ to examine the ‘greater’. This creates a teflon Bible/EGW. And third, such a position is not universalizable. To see this, merely change context from Adventism to Mormonism. Substitute Joseph Smith for Ellen White and reverse the authoritative order between #1 & #2 (as in practice, LDS subordinate the Bible to Joseph Smith & his successors). Now I would ask, under this 1-2-3 hierarchy, how we might persuade a good LDS to abandon Mormonism for Adventism?

So I fear Chuck’s invitation will die stillborn unless the church can address such foundational issues. And reflecting on Adventist history I am not terribly optimistic. Our struggles predate even the 1919 Bible Conference. Will we ‘celebrate’ its centennial with little movement? Certainly an already notable exception to this pessimism is the recently concluded Questions on Doctrine Conference. While apparently little consensus evolved on the doctrinal issues, it also appears from the reports we have finally learned how to collegially work on our differences – differences embodied in fallible yet deeply committed people.

Last night I re-watched the wonderful 1981 film The Chosen, having read the Spectrum article earlier in the afternoon and with these issues rattling around in my head. For those unfamiliar, The Chosen is the film version of the Chaim Potok novel, set near the end of World War II in New York City. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship of two Jewish teenage boys, one the son of a somewhat liberal Talmudic scholar, the other the son of a Hassidic rabbi. Both experience culture shock as they tentatively and ambivalently experience the other’s world. Based on upbringing and temperament alone there would be little reason for their relationship to survive. And they have multiple struggles. But, at bottom, they truly like and trust each other. The differences are at least partially transcended because they become friends. The last narrative words of the movie, quoting the Talmud, are: “return as far as you can and I will come to you the rest of the way.” Perhaps in those words there is a prescription of hope whereby Chuck’s invitation can become a reality.

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