Denominational managers at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists have proposed a process of “endorsement” for higher education religion teachers. The process would be executed by Boards of Ministerial and Theological Education at the division level, all of which would be overseen by the International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE), a General Conference entity. Conceived as an endeavor to assure the integrity of the mission and message of the church, the process would actually be a stunning betrayal of Adventist identity.
As presently described in the IBMTE Manual, religion teachers would be required to submit in writing a willingness “to be supportive of and work within” the guidelines articulated in five denominational statements as follows: 1) “28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists,” 2) “Pastoral Ethics,” 3) “Code of Ethics for Seventh-day Adventist Educators,” 4) “Academic and Theological Freedom and Accountability,” and 5) “Methods of Bible Study.” Together these documents compose 35 pages of text. In addition, teachers would be required to submit copies of all of their publications for review, presumably to insure that they contain nothing that would constitute evidence that they could not support and work within the statements’ guidelines.
On September 16, 2016, the Presidents of Adventist Colleges and Universities in North America, in an unprecedented act, unanimously voted a statement saying they are “fundamentally unable to support the proposed IBMTE endorsement process.” The resolution is accompanied with two pages of reasons for this inability. The resolution also notes that the North American Division Association of Adventist Academic Administrators, the North American Division Ministerial Association, and the North American Division administration do not support the process.
In October, the IBMTE Board met and made some changes to the process, such as having the process start at the academic institutions rather than at the IBMTE.
All of that notwithstanding, at the subsequent meeting of the General Conference Higher Education Cabinet, the presidents of Adventist colleges and universities in North America agreed to develop an alternative process. However, that alternative process is to be governed by the IBMTE even though it will, as suggested, commence at the level of each academic institution under the administration of its dean.
Finally, at the recent gathering of Adventist religion teachers in San Antonio, the chairs of religion departments attending the meeting expressed their own dissatisfaction with the proposed process and agreed to seek a conversation with church officials to address the concerns held by religion faculty at their various institutions.
As may be noted from this necessarily cursory recital of developments, most objections to the proposal have to do with the process. They pass over in silence the content of the documents that would be central to that process. Moreover, the situation is fluid at the time of this writing. The alternative process devised for North America may render the content of the five Statements irrelevant to the actual procedures followed in granting denominational endorsement. If that turns out to be the solution to what is generally considered a serious problem facing the church and its religion scholars, integrity would be better served by simply abandoning the proposal to “endorse” faculty. It should not escape notice that being hired and continued in employment as a teacher of religion is an act of institutional endorsement on behalf of the denomination.
Focusing on the process—who does what, where, and under what authority—seems to be obscuring the fact that the content of the documents that will establish faculty legitimacy is the much more important dimension of the proposed process. One may be able to appreciate that by noting the existence of two differing organizations of Adventist religion teachers. The organizations arose out of differences regarding “Methods of Bible Study.” Those differences were deemed to be irreconcilable and hence the emergence of the Adventist Theological Society. They are more pronounced today than they were when the Adventist Theological Society split from the majority body of Adventist religion teachers now known as the Adventist Society for Religious Studies. The two societies are about equal in membership today.
When careful attention is given to the IBMTE Manual and the five “Statements” teachers must support and abide by in their classrooms, their malignant defects are unmistakable.
1. The statements are self-contradictory
At the very outset of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the well-worn assertion that the Bible is “our only creed” appears and is immediately contradicted by the adumbration of the 28 Beliefs. If the Bible were our only creed, it would be unnecessary to compose a creed to assure the correct understanding of our only creed.
The Preamble to “Methods of Bible Study” declares, “In recent decades the most prominent method in biblical studies has been known as the historical-critical method….Even a modified use of this method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists….In contrast with the historical-critical method and presuppositions, we believe it to be helpful to set forth principles of Bible study that are consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures themselves….”
Subsequently, in a clear case that “subordinates the Bible to human reason,” the statement instructs its readers that, "in order not to misconstrue certain kinds of statements, it is important to recognize that they were addressed to peoples of Eastern cultures and expressed in their thought patterns.” One such expression that must not be misconstrued is found in Exodus 9:12 which reveals that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That biblical statement finds endorsement by Paul in Romans 9.
But “Methods of Bible Study” knows better. The statement asserts, “the inspired writers of the Scriptures commonly credit God with doing actively that which in Western thought we would say He permits or does not prevent from happening, for example, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” So Western thought controls what Moses and Paul actually meant since they said something the Westerners composing “Methods of Bible Study” do not now wish to say. Clearly, even modified use of the historical-critical method is “unacceptable to Adventists”—unless using it authorizes desirable divergence from plain Scriptural declarations.
2. The Ecclesiastical Authoritarianism of the Statements is Utterly Alien to the Soul of Adventism.
The most remarkable assertion of the five Statements is to be found in the one concerning “Academic and Theological Freedom and Accountability.” That assertion is, not coincidentally, reflective of the freedom the authors of these documents exhibit in their dictation of what Moses and Paul actually meant (but did not say) regarding God’s actions upon Pharaoh.
Under the heading “The Church and Its Institutions” the reader is informed, “It is consistent with Adventist administrative practice to recognize the worker’s privilege to study the Bible for himself ... .” No Adventist religion teacher, indeed no Adventist at all, can fail to be thoroughly shocked to learn that study of the Bible for herself is a privilege established by Adventist administrative practice.
The authoritarianism permeating the five documents reaches its apogee in the claim that “Freedom for the individual Christian grows out of his belonging to the community of Christ….One person may stimulate the community to study a question, but only God’s people and church as a whole can decide what is or is not true in the light of Scripture. No member or worker can ever serve as an infallible interpreter for anyone else” (emphasis mine).
The International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education is a late comer to the doctrine that Biblical truth is what the church says Biblical truth is. Must we conclude that Rome has reclaimed another one of her separated Protestant brethren? Moreover, not only is this ecclesiastical authoritarianism alien to the soul of Adventism, a soul that claims the mantle of Martin Luther who, with his individual interpretation of Scripture, defied his church as a whole, it is also burdened with vagueness. Indeed, the entire collection of documents suffers from ineradicable vagueness.
3. Ineradicable vagueness afflicts the statements.
While one cannot doubt that the court theologians drafting these statements assumed that “God’s people and church as a whole” is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is fair and necessary to ask just how this people and church are expected to exercise their magisterial power over biblical teaching. The document obviously needs greater elaboration.
As is well known to readers of this website, considerable energy and political maneuvering went in to modification of #6 (Creation) of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs voted at the last General Conference Session. The promoters of those modifications might be rather startled if they were to discover that a moderately clever and modestly informed seminarian could easily and honestly affirm the conceits of that reformulated statement while at the same time affirming the general contours of the standard account of natural history. Here, too, vagueness impairs content.
Consider belief #4 regarding the Son of God. That the vagueness afflicting every creed afflicts this creed as well may be illustrated by a conversation I had during the closing moments of the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature.
Two Adventist religion teachers and I re-enacted (roughly speaking) the ancient conversation regarding the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, native of Bethlehem. Our exchange of ideas lasted less than ten minutes, and more extensive engagement might have resolved our differences, although those differences appeared very early in the history of the church and have their committed representatives to this day.
I asserted that Jesus of Nazareth is the creator and redeemer of the world. I invoked John 1:1, 14 in support of my claim. I was immediately challenged on two fronts. The New Testament exegete declared that my citation does not in fact make my claim but merely asserts that the Logos is the creator and that incarnation is a revelation of the eternal logos in the medium of flesh. According to John, so I was told, Jesus was the revealer of the creator and redeemer, not himself creator or redeemer. The theologian in our trio offered a different “defeater” of my claim, saying Jesus could not be the creator because he was not born at the time of the creation. “He had Mary’s DNA after all!” When I suggested that the whole point of the notion of individual identity through time is to allow for new developments in a single identity, my dialog partners suggested I had fallen into Platonic dualism. No Adventist, they asserted, can make a distinction between an embodied and unembodied state of a single human person and be talking about the same person.
By failing to articulate the meaning of incarnation relative to individual identity as assumed in John 1:1 and in our ordinary and theological uses of concepts of individual identity, Belief #4 admits of numerous conflicting interpretations. It cannot be otherwise.
Just how exquisitely complex and treacherous this project of insuring theological reliability is and how impossible it is to formulate rules to yield desired behavior should be clear. Not to belabor the point, but what, after all, would a religion teacher be affirming to state that she will be “supportive of and work within the guidelines” expressed by the statements? Count on a broad range of understanding by individuals finding themselves capable of signing such an assurance. The range of those understandings exposes the last defect worthy of mention.
4. The statements are corrupting because they are corrupt.
To say at the outset that our denomination has no creed other than the Bible and then produce 4,560 words exercising a magisterial right to determine what constitutes biblical truth (the 28 Fundamental Beliefs) is at best astonishingly inattentive and at worst cynically duplicitous. Corruption takes many forms. To be corrupt may be simply to be impaired by decay or disuse, inattention. More serious is the corruption of cynical deceit, saying what you know is obviously untrue.
Corruption produces corruption. Put middle-aged teachers under threat of employment termination, and they will easily outdo moderately clever graduate students in their capacity to exploit vagueness. Challenge the political prerogatives of middle managers of the church, and you will find them collaborating with teachers to defeat this ill-conceived process, resting as it does on thoroughly defective statements.
It is no accident that the 28 Fundamental Beliefs are now deemed insufficient to defend the church from deviant religion teachers, a central purpose for which they were initially composed. After all, people who devote their working hours to obeying the great commandment to love God with all their minds should be expected to come to new understandings assuming that the infinite God they love cannot be encompassed in any formula. And just how can we dare to assume that the Holy Spirit has stopped guiding the faithful into greater understanding of the mystery and beauty of holiness? More documents are always required to make sure the Spirit speaks the truth.
Long before Immanuel Kant bequeathed to seekers for integrity his profound rule to guide their endeavors, Aristotle recognized that if we want to know what excellent behavior is we should consider people who behave excellently. Faithful people understand the uses and values of rules. More importantly their faithfulness is the one assurance that rules have any value at all.
It is perfectly proper for our community of faith to insist that its religion teachers be devoted to the truth and disciplined in their investigation of it. The “one holy, catholic, apostolic church,” in which we Adventists properly claim membership, early confronted the necessity to be as clear as possible about its testimony to God’s saving act in Christ Jesus. We cannot afford to be less vigilant about our own witness.
Vigilance is not served by careless, contradictory, self-deceptive formulations applied by remote hierarchies. There is no shortage of deeply informed, rigorous Adventist thinkers whose wisdom offers real assurance for preservation of integrity in theological instruction while remaining true to the historic Adventist suspicion of creeds and their tendency to suffocate intellectual love of God. It is to be passionately hoped that these thinkers will be pressed into service to provide the church with resources for theological assessment that are distinguished by their brevity, fecundity, coherence, and erudition.
Daryll Ward attended Andrews University, Tübingen University, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his PhD) and spent many years working in the field of addiction treatment, business ethics, and pastoring. He currently serves as Professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College.
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