This week’s theme is “Thinking new thoughts”; however, this seems to be a bit of a misnomer. The theme of the quarter, after all, is revival—that means renovation, rather than innovation. This is explicit in Romans 12:2, one of the scriptures set for study in this week’s lesson, which urges us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. It is not so much new thoughts that are a necessity for Christians who stand in need of revival, but rather a greater currency of the older thoughts that were associated with our first conversion. This is also the import of Christ’s message to the allegorical Church of Ephesus in Revelation: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…” (Rev. 2:4-5a).
There is a risk in emphasizing innovation—a danger that we will end up endlessly seeking for a different experience, different emotions, different patterns of thought, different doctrines, even. Against this, though, is an equal danger: that if we become too set on preserving a status quo, or seek too strongly to safeguard against unhealthy transformation, we sink instead into ossification and petrification. The danger is that if we are not dynamic then we are static. And while as Seventh-day Adventists we have much that we need to be careful to protect, none of us can imagine that our current status is satisfactory in God’s eyes. We ought constantly be seeking to improve and that applies not only to each of us as individuals, seeking rejuvenation of our saving relationship with Jesus (which is what the Sabbath School lesson and church leaders would describe as “revival”), but also to the denomination as a whole, whether in terms of ecclesiastical structures or even our doctrines (this being “reformation”). For our traditional understanding of truth, as Seventh-day Adventists, is that it is “progressive”—that there is always the possibility of greater light and enhanced understanding.
It seems to me that much of Christian life is about negotiating the twin perils of too much dynamism and too little—of steering safely between the Scylla of a static spiritual life, which can stultify the essential process of sanctification, and the Charybdis of an evanescent approach, in which fundamentals can be lost sight of, even sacrificed, due to the transient thrill of the new. We need to walk a fine line between these two poles. However, it also seems to me that currently, in much of Western Adventism, the peril of pointless, repeated innovation is greater than the risk of stagnation—both should be avoided, but if we are worried about falling to one side or the other of that fine line, it is on the line of tradition that we ought to fall.
Ellen White wrote eloquently about “landmark” beliefs and practices, “pillars” of Adventism as she called them. Now, to be sure, she was pretty clear that these absolutely core, key doctrines were limited in number. Thus, in practice, there may well be room for innovation, even experimentation, in a number of areas. But we must not lose sight of the fact that there are some areas which are non-negotiable. This is part of revival and reformation: identifying and returning to the essentials—getting “back to basics”, as some would say. Some of these are fundamental points of Christian doctrine, but ones that Adventists, for various reasons, have unfortunately often verged on being heretical about. SDAs still have a problem, collectively, with the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—and this is true of people who are otherwise both on the left and right, theologically. Many Adventists do not, I think, have an assurance of salvation, based on a full understanding of righteousness by faith. If this tends to be a problem more of the right than of the left, it also probably is found across a pretty broad spectrum of Seventh-day Adventists.
But in addition, on the traditional, landmark, distinctive Adventist doctrines of the state of the dead, the Sanctuary, and the Spirit of Prophecy, there has really been a falling away. These are not trendy subjects among habitués of the Spectrum website, but they are important pieces of Seventh-day Adventist belief and practice. I’m not clear, myself, that we have fully understood the significance of Christ’s high-priestly ministry—the Investigative Judgment probably does not do justice to it. But without that belief, that Christ ministers for us in the heavenly sanctuary, our pioneers of the late 1840s-50s would probably never have reached a correct view of the state of the dead, and might not have abandoned belief in the so-called “shut door” theory. But who today realizes the historical centrality of the Sanctuary, not just to adjusting to the failure of Christ to return on October 22, 1844, but to what became the whole package of distinctive Adventist doctrines? And while fewer and fewer members of mainline Protestant denominations, in North America at least, believe that God endlessly torments sinners in eternal hellfire, the widespread belief that the spirits of the dead can see and speak to their surviving family members and friends—this is becoming more widespread in Adventist circles.
There is, in sum, something to be said for erring on the side of tradition. The most important innovation was that of Jesus Christ: it is thanks to the “new and living way which He consecrated for us” that we can “have boldness to enter” the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 10: 19-20), stepping even into the sacred presence of the Holy God, and doing so with assurance that we will be welcomed. Let us hold fast to this “anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19). “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). Let us rediscover our first love, our first thoughts, and renew our relationship with our Redeemer.