The Shape of Progressive Orthodoxy: Part 1 of 7

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This is the first of a seven-part series in which I will discuss the theological underpinnings of an expression of Christianity (and, in it, Adventism) that I call Progressive Orthodoxy. What is posted here on Spectrum will be a (slightly) modified and abridged version of a longer, more academic articulation that will be posted on my own blog, Constructing Adventist Theology. The idea to write this was born as I and friends struggled to answer the question: who may rightfully call themselves and their ideas ‘Adventist’? I presume to answer the question because others are also answering it and are defining Adventism in such a way that too many are being excluded. I believe that those voices who are defining Adventism so narrowly are actually being unfaithful to the Adventist tradition and, more significantly, to the gospel of Jesus.

You may read this in two ways, both of which reflect my intentions. First, this is a proposed way of thinking about theology in order to discern between better theologies and worse theologies, and to conceive of Adventist identity and theology more consistently and faithfully. Second, this is a description of a way of being Adventist. I am not creating something; this expression of Adventism already exists, has yet to be articulated. Therefore, what follows is not only the product of study and prayer, but also of observation and dialogue with many Adventists who, like me, feel compelled to this ‘third’ way beyond the liberal and conservative positions. I intend to articulate this third way that has emerged, and my hope is that this articulation will itself be persuasive, and serve as a call to this expression of Adventist Christianity.

In the context of a pluralistic North America in which fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians, it is becoming increasingly difficult to leave assumptions about Christian identity and theology unquestioned.[1] It must not be ignored that this pluralist challenge to American Christianity has deeply problematized parochialism; more than ever before, Christians must now give an account of why the church is divided. In the current North American context, Adventists must provide a sufficient reason for their strong stance of particularity among Christians if they are to acknowledge that other traditions are indeed Christian. If Adventists do not provide that sufficient reason, they will be admitting to taking an unchristian stance.

This is not at all to suggest that Adventists should abandon their particularity. I am a believer in the power of this tradition, which lies in its uniqueness. However, its particularity must serve a purpose, otherwise the tradition will degenerate and experience a loss of identity in unhealthy exclusivity.[2] There is a kind of healthy exclusivity, which is inevitable if we are going to be particular. To define what one is, is to also define what one is not. Thus, Adventism may well be particular and even exclusive, but its particularity must be for Christianity, never a defense against it.

It is the implicit denial of this fact of ‘necessary exclusivity’ that has ultimately weakened progressive Adventism, and destroyed its credibility among other Adventists. Whereas both Traditional and so-called ‘Historic Adventists’[3] have been concerned with preserving an authentically Adventist doctrinal system as the basis for Adventist identity, and ‘Evangelical’ Adventists have concerned themselves with integrating their doctrinal commitments into broader evangelicalism, Progressive Adventists have often devoted themselves to fighting cultural battles. That is, many progressives have abandoned the task of progressive theology, and instead work towards reshaping the culture of the Adventist community, ignoring the theological basis of Adventist identity. This has been a grave mistake.

I am in essential agreement with the progressive’s critiques of the other expressions of Adventism, but I am generally dissatisfied with what progressives have offered as an alternative. Progressives have too often failed to see the difference between conservative concerns and conservative theology and doctrine. One need not dismiss their concerns because one disagrees with their conclusions.

It appears that too many progressives, fearing the abuses of conservatism, have been hesitant to do constructive theological work that satisfies the need for robust doctrine and an adequate object of theology, that respects the significance of the Bible, fidelity to the gospel of Jesus, and continuity with tradition.

Underlying the ideas in these discussions is the belief that those theological concerns are most appropriately described as a concern for orthodoxy. My usage of this (admittedly problematic) term is threefold: more than the majority (and/or politically powerful) “consensus of a faith community,”[4] and certainly other than a list of supposedly correct and unchanging doctrines, by orthodoxy I mean:

  • ‘Right glory’ – God’s revelation in the creation, covenant and Christ Event (right because it is not one of the gods; glorious because it is God), and its implications (which must be constantly explored and wrestle with); the Truth, which is God
  • ‘Right worship’ – the living response that is appropriate to (1), which is inseparable from orthopraxis, ‘right practice’
  • ‘Right thinking’ – the theological articulation of what the church has historically understood and most currently understands of (1) that respects the integrity of both (1) and (2); should develop, be corrected and changed because of loyalty to and study of (1) and the experience of (2) as God continues to lead and reveal

I believe that these three are the actual concerns that conservatives tend to express in the form of specific doctrinal concerns. By looking past the doctrinal debates to the underlying concern for orthodoxy, we are able to create space for real theological diversity within the church—with real space for strongly disagreeing voices across the theological spectrum—without falling into a kind of “theological minimalism.”[5] The call to orthodoxy in these three forms calls the church to the constant, rigorous task of constructing theology without allowing for arrogant totalizing. Thus, a person may hold convictions firmly, and may explore them unapologetically, but may never do so in such a way that Truth becomes an object to be known in such a way that it can be fully grasped and controlled; this is a call for the humble recognition that there is mystery in revelation, and that the Truth is made known in and through fellowship;[6] no one “has the Truth.”

This stance towards knowledge of God is not some foreign, quasi post-modern concept imported into theological work in order to curb conservatism; rather, it takes seriously the implications of God’s revelation in history: God continues to be mysterious even in revelation, and we may expect continued revelation. It is a challenge to the arrogant conservatism that believes that it has “arrived;” it is a challenge to the liberalism which seeks to deny that God has definitively revealed anything at all. There is knowledge to be gained; not final or absolute, nor out of reach or impossible. We can and must discern good theology from bad theology, but maintain that no theology is final. It is from this dialectal tension that a new paradigm has emerged, calling for commitment to progress as a commitment to orthodoxy, and for us to recognize that commitment to orthodoxy demands a commitment to progress. This is the essence of Progressive Orthodoxy.

I have proposed six theses that outline Progressive Orthodoxy as I understand it. They are outlined below, each with a footnote to an abbreviated version of the statement. The rest of this paper will be an unpacking of these six theses. They will be referred to in their abbreviated form. The reader should take note that, in my explanations, I have in mind the unabbreviated version of each statement. The first five theses are interdependent, dealing with theological methodology and theological commitments; only the sixth deals specifically with Adventism, and it has no direct bearing on the first five dealing with method and commitments. It will be noted that I have defined Adventism by its mission, and not by any of its doctrinal positions. The reason for this should become evident throughout the paper, but I will nevertheless attempt to provide rationale for this when exploring the sixth thesis.

Six Theses
1. God’s unique glory is revealed in God’s unique, decisive act in the Christ Event, which was proleptically anticipated in God’s covenant with Israel and God’s act of creation. The formative texts of the Old and New Testaments bear witness to God’s revelation in the creation, covenant and Christ Event, in which we recognize that God’s glory is God, who lives and loves in Trinity, and who calls us all to appropriately respond by:[7]

  • discipleship
  • mission
  • ethics
  • theology
  • worship

2. The gospel is God’s universal claim for all creation, summarized in the announcement of Jesus’ life, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection.[8]

3. The claim made in the gospel of Jesus is an ontological claim; the ethical demands of the gospel cannot be separated from this ontological claim, because those demands are necessarily derived from it. The ethical demands are not in themselves the gospel. There is no Christian ethics without Christian ontology, nor Christian ontology without the implicit and explicit demand of Christian ethics.[9]

4. ‘Orthodoxy’ must be conceived of in at least two ways—‘right opinion’ and ‘right glory/right worship’. The former is derived from, subject to, and works towards the latter:[10]

  • Derivation: orthodoxy as ‘right opinion’ and orthopraxis are derived from the ‘right glory’, which is primarily the revelation of God in the creation, covenant and Christ Event;
  • Subjection: the revelation of God, its implications, and the integrity of the appropriate responses to it are the ultimate standards by which theology and practice are critiqued;
  • Projection: those appropriate responses to God’s revelation seek continued revelation from the living God who continues to lead us and will one day be finally revealed in the coming of Jesus.

5. Orthodoxy is progressive; progress is made when those ideas that were and are considered the ‘right opinions’ and ‘right practices’ are critiqued and changed in order to be more faithful to ‘right glory’—God’s revelation and Christian worship. As such, theological diversity is necessary for the church’s health and progress towards orthodoxy.[11]

6. Within Christianity, Adventism is distinct in its commitment to its mission of proclaiming the three angels’ messages found in Revelation 14:6-12 to all Christians and to the world; Adventism is committed to being a prophetic voice among churches both for their sake and for the sake of the world, whose goal is God’s glory in Jesus Christ, who is the beginning and goal of all creation.[12]

[1] For a brief, accessible discussion of this, see Robert Wuthnow, "Responding to the New Religious Pluralism," Cross Currents 58, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 43-50.

[2] I find Moltmann’s discussion of parochial Christianity insightful: Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 20.

[3] For a helpful look these terms/expressions, “Mainstream/Traditional,” “Historic,” “Evangelical,” and “Progressive” Adventism, see articles in the January-February 1993 and Spring 2009 issues of Adventist Today.

[4] This is Fritz Guy’s usage of ‘orthodoxy’ in his book Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1999), p. 23.

[5] See Jeff Mirus, "Escape from Theological Minimalism," February 26, 2010, http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/articles.cfm?id=431 (accessed March 4, 2010).

[6] See the brief, important discussion in Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 9:

In the pragmatic thinking of the modern world, knowing something always means dominating something: ‘Knowledge is power.’ Through our scientific knowledge, we acquire power over objects and can appropriate them. Modern thinking has made reason operational…. In several European languages, understanding a thing means ‘grasping’ it. We grasp a thing when ‘we’ve got it’. If we have grasped something, we take it into our possession. If we possess something we can do with it what we want. The motive that impels modern reason to know must be described as the desire to conquer and to dominate. For the Greek philosophers and the Fathers of the church, knowing meant something different: it meant knowing in wonder. By knowing or perceiving one participates in the life of the other. Here knowing does not transform the counterpart into the property of the knower; the knower does not appropriate what he knows. On the contrary, he is transformed through sympathy, becoming a participator in what he perceived. Knowledge confers fellowship.

[7] God is revealed in history, as witnessed to in scripture; this revelation calls for an appropriate response.

[8] The gospel is God’s universal claim for all creation.

[9] Christian ethics and Christian ontological claims cannot be separated.

[10] ‘Orthodoxy’ is primarily ‘right glory’, from which its second definition, ‘right opinion’ is derived.

[11] Orthodoxy must be progressive to remain orthodox.

[12] Adventism is distinct in its mission– the proclamation of the three angels’ messages in Revelation 14:6-12.

Art: Ad Reinhardt, Red, 1950

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Sat, 09/13/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Terrie Dopp Aamodt, PhD

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