David Neff Speaks at the San Diego Adventist Forum

On Saturday, February 18, David Neff spoke for one of ten annual lectures that the San Diego Adventist Forum coordinates at the Tierrasanta Seventh-day Adventist Church. Each lecture features a new speaker addressing various topics related to the Adventist Church. Neff’s lecture is the first of the 2012 series.

Neff, who earned a B.A. from La Sierra University and a Master of Divinity from Andrews University, currently serves as editor-in-chief for Christianity Today, an evangelical publication focused on Christian leadership. He has also pastored Churches in the Southeastern California Conference and at Walla Walla University.

Neff’s address, titled “A Better World: How compassion and justice can flourish alongside eschatology” posed a central question: can various end times views coexist and can they encourage the creation of a better world? 

Beginning his lecture, Neff described himself as “inescapably an eschatological Christian,” and proceeded to define eschatology as a study of the end of the world or the end of human kind. Jokingly, he also included the definition of scatology, careful to make sure that audience members didn’t confuse the terms.

Neff said that the church encouraged him to fear the end of times as a child.  The same was true for his daughters, who, looking at a blackened sky in Washington on May 18, 1980, thought the end had come.  In reality, Mount St. Helen had erupted, obscuring the sky with volcanic ash.

Neff said that fear, like the fear the end times caused him and his daughters, can motivate people, but it can also damage them. “Today, I want to talk about eschatology that does not do damage,” he said.

Neff continued, saying, “Eschatology is not optional.”  He introduced the various forms of eschatology, beginning with Martin Buber’s Prophetic and Apocalyptic taxonomy. Neff described the Prophetic category as one in which every person’s action may participate in redemption.  The Apocalyptic category, conversely, sees humans as mere tools, the fate of the world being predetermined and immovable.

Next, he included Reginald Stackhouse’s three-part eschatological taxonomy: Millennial, Pastoral, and Social.  Neff used Ellen G. White’s eschatological views as an example of the Millennial category, described the Pastoral category as a personal, individual category, and defined the Social category of the taxonomy as a view that involves human activities as integral to the end times.

Neff argued that Buber and Stackhouse’s taxonomies are compatible, offering that they are both biblical.  The challenge, however, comes in integrating them. Adventists, he argues, seem to succeed in layering these various taxonomies.  Though Adventist eschatology is essentially apocalyptic or Millennial, anticipating the second coming of Christ wholly transforming the current earth, the establishment of Adventist educational and medical institutions evidence Adventist’s contribution to a better present world. 

To investigate further the process of eschatological layering, Neff explored Jesus’ mission, which included both preaching the kingdom and healing: judicial and a compassionate actions. “Biblical eschatology is not about the end, but the goal,” Neff said, clarifying that the Greek root eschato means “outcome” rather than “end.” 

This distinction relates to a view of human activity as essential to eschatology.  Neff combined this idea with ecology, referring to a case study titled “Eschatology and Creation” that he delivered at Walla Walla University, one of many addresses he has delivered to universities on the topic.   Neff used the analogy of an engagement ring to relate the importance of the environment to eschatology.  When a man gives an engagement ring to a woman, it is merely the “carrier of promise,” not the actual marriage.  In the same way, the environment is the carrier of God’s promise; it is not the final goal, but inherently valuable and indicative of the final goal.

Neff summarized this ecological connection in terms of combining the Millennial and Social eschatological categories, thus drawing together the initial taxonomic portion of his lecture with the latter ecological discussion.  He includes seven helpful ideas that this view of eschatology provides:

  1. A lesser material earth bears the promise of a greater material earth, not an ethereal heaven.
  2. Because creation is a part of the promise, it is necessarily limited.
  3. As a gift, creation is not mere raw material.
  4. The created order is not ultimate.
  5. Eschatological vision helps us see the big picture of salvation.
  6. We save nature for God’s sake, not simply for our own benefit.
  7. Eschatological vision sees a global community no longer divided by tribal and ethnic barriers.

In summary, Neff said: providing that all humans share a common eschatological goal—people in Bangladesh and in Manhattan, the wealthy and the poor—they are part of the same community.

In the question and answer period following the lecture, an audience member asked Neff to comment on a Holocaust survivor’s statement that there can be no God after Auschwitz, the location of  heinous acts of human destruction and cruelty. Neff responded by saying “My Christian faith tells me that, even in these places, there are glimpses of divine grace,” concluding that this problem increases the importance of considering the human connection to the apocalypse and the resultant human responsibility for each other and for the environment.

Neff admitted that both choosing an eschatological category and combining multiple categories can be difficult, but we cannot ignore the process; we must engage it.

Those interested in purchasing a recording of David Neff’s address will soon be able to do so at www.sandiegoadventistforum.org/sandiego/lectures.

—Patrick Garrett York is a College Writing Instructor at La Sierra University.

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