A Betrayal of Adventism

A Betrayal of Adventism

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Published:
August 28, 2017

In the following, Charles Scriven and Daryll Ward reflect on a General-Conference-sponsored initiative to radically restrict freedom of conversation among Adventist teachers of religion. They offer these reflections out of a desire to speak the truth in reliance on Jesus’ promise that the truth liberates us from sin. Scriven has taught theology and served as an Adventist college president. Ward is currently professor of religion at Kettering College in Ohio.

CS: I have repeatedly tried, so far without success, to engage General Conference personnel in public conversation regarding the General Conference Education Department’s “Endorsement Process.” This initiative, officially an expression of the International Board of Ministerial Training and Education (IBMTE), is an effort to control scholarly thought. It rankles most Adventist religion teachers and needs to be re-addressed. But so far, Daryll, you are the only theologian who has published an analysis of the entire 35 pages of text that religion teachers would be required, by personal signature, to support. You argued that “the endorsement initiative is illegitimate because of profound defects in the statements to be used to judge teachers.” Briefly, why does it fall short?

DW: The first problem with the statements is that they are self-contradictory, and the contradiction is not mere intellectual carelessness. Teachers are supposed to “support and work within” a claim that “the Bible is our only creed,” and then they are required to assent to 35 pages of creedal statements. Clearly, the Bible is insufficiently precise and detailed to allow reliance on it as the standard of denominational orthodoxy.

Second, this glaring defect is compounded with the astonishing claim (which also denies that the Bible is our only creed) that “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.” It takes one's breath away to notice that “the church as a whole” can serve as “an infallible interpreter” for others. The naked ecclesiastical authoritarianism of this conceit is surely alien to the history and spirit of Adventism.

Third, besides making assertions that are contradictory and alien to the Adventist soul, the statements are hopelessly vague. Fundamental Belief #4 seeks to express a conviction about the nature of Christ but is so vague as to allow for any number of incompatible understandings regarding the identity of Jesus.

Fourth, the corrupt, because obviously false, claim that the Bible is Adventists’ only creed combined with the other spiritual and intellectual failures of the statements cannot help but corrupt teachers who will be required to assent to them. They will sign what many, many of them do not believe. In a word, the endorsement initiative is a terrible betrayal of Adventist identity. Would you not agree?

CS: The pioneers—among them James and Ellen White and J. N. Loughborough—resisted creed-like statements of belief or statements meant to assure uniformity in Adventist belief. When church leaders finally produced a document on “Fundamental Principles” in 1872, the purpose was to “meet inquiries” about the faith and to correct “erroneous impressions” of it. It was not meant, the document’s own preamble said, to have “any authority” with church members nor “to secure uniformity among them, as a system of faith.”

To overturn a conviction so firmly believed and expressed requires overwhelming scriptural support, but in scripture epistemological humility is a recurring and unmistakable theme. God’s “thoughts” and “ways” are “higher” than ours (Isaiah 55:8,9). We who live on earth “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV). This is a warning, surely, against ascribing so much authority to any human summary of doctrine. And it is why one theology department chair dismayed by the IBMTE endorsement initiative told me early this summer: “They’re changing Adventism.” Concerning his younger teachers, he added: “This is not what they signed up for.”

Certainly, the pioneers, if they could see what is now going on, would identify with Paul, who at the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, exclaimed: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel . . . .”

DW: I cannot imagine anyone making a successful argument that the elaborate specification of acceptable thought and behavior for Adventist religion teachers spelled out in the IBMTE “statements” is anything but bald-faced abandonment of the founding convictions of the pioneers regarding creeds. So I think you have it exactly right. The statements and the process are anti-Adventist.

Nevertheless, I think we can acknowledge genuine communal challenges when we consider why “endorsement” of religion teachers just will not seem to go away.

Concern with educators points up a distinction between what the pioneers opposed and what the IBMTE is intending. The board’s “statements” are not, after all, convictions to be required of rank and file members of the denomination. The “statements” express required convictions for religion teachers. Is there any legitimate and genuinely Adventist possibility of demanding some confession or other from religion teachers?

CS: I understand the particular responsibility of teachers. I could accept requiring the teachers of our children to state their support for a simple pledge of commitment such as organizers adopted at the founding of the Michigan Conference. It was 1861, some seventeen years or so after the Great Disappointment. Adventism was still a fledging movement. Church members were reading scripture with an eye to deeper insight and were enjoying constructive give-and-take about what they were learning. Now it seemed wise to band together as a legal association.

Delegates to the meeting were all, of course, Adventist pioneers, and they declined to vote a creed-like statement of belief as a means of defining themselves. The reason, James White said, was their conviction that a creed would block “new light” and stand in “direct opposition” to the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine actually embracing the gift of the Holy Spirit! At the same time, however, the delegates did endorse a simple pledge: “We, the undersigned,” they said, “hereby associate ourselves together as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.” That pledge puts words from Revelation 14, our best-known signature passage, right at the forefront and makes discipleship, not mere head-knowledge, our deepest calling. Knowing what we have emphasized as a church and what we have sometimes missed, we might now revise this to declare: “In gratitude for God’s grace, and for Sabbath rest and burninghope, we covenant together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”

If I were teaching, I would sign that in a minute. Everything that matters is implicit in it. It would neither block new light nor defy the teaching function of the Spirit, and it would uphold, not contradict, the vision of the pioneers. When I think about it, of course, such a pledge would be appropriate for all Adventists, not only for teachers.

DW: I would sign your statement with alacrity as well. You are right that “everything that matters is implicit in it.” That is its strength and its weakness in so far as we are willing to deal with the really hard problem raised by the IBMTE, which is how can the church foster authentic faith? I fault the IBMTE statements for their vagueness. I fear that problem afflicts your formula as well.

Consider this. A religion teacher who has abandoned hope for salvation and who has concluded that life as we know it now is the only life we will ever have could sign your statement. The “burning hope” they have is for an increase of justice, a decrease of suffering, some expansion of joy, all noble things, the best of life. But, of course, it is not the “hope that burns within our hearts” of Wayne Hooper’s hymn.

So my quandary is this. There is no way to eliminate vagueness. And even more significantly, ambiguity is necessary in confessional formulas in order to embrace inevitable diversity in apprehensions of the mystery of holiness.

Your proposed confession has the advantage of being manifestly Adventist. But given the inevitability of ambiguity, I would opt for a scriptural quotation that expresses the one essential thing for all Christians. My proposal would be, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Everything that matters is implicit in these words as well.

One more thought on the really hard problem, how to foster authentic Adventist Christian faith. If we consider the left-leaning political convictions of the vast majority of academics working in American higher education, we must conclude that a powerful uniformity prevails. That uniformity has been produced without any creedal demands. Hiring processes and committees and tenure judgments all carried out in fiercely independent institutions nevertheless produce this ideological conformity. The same dynamics are at work in the Adventist church, and they suggest that the whole IBMTE process is unnecessary along with being the betrayal of our heritage that it is.

Your statement is excellent. I prefer mine. But if promoting theological conformity is IBMTE’s purpose, and I am quite certain it is, history shows no such creedal standards are necessary. People with hiring and retention power are quite capable of replicating themselves without the benefit of creedal standards.

CS: Those fine words from John—so brief and so clearly straight from Scripture—would get my support. Still, I would argue—let me emphasize this—for a pledge of commitment. A simple pledge, or promise, would honor both the pioneers and the spirit of the Bible, where the point of doctrinal theory is always—just consider Mathew 25—to undergird practice or discipleship. As for the “religion teacher who has abandoned hope for salvation” and who could sign the commitment pledge I proposed, I am just doubtful. I doubt that his sense of things fully reflected what Revelation 14 calls the “faith of Jesus.”

But maybe we have just illustrated an important truth; namely, that because clear thinking about Adventism is difficult, it is probably silly to suppose that church religion teachers, or any body of leaders, could fully agree on a single, short expression of conviction, let alone a longer one. Still, it seems safe to say that official summaries of belief are unlikely to go away. So a question: Could we, despite our worries, live with such summaries provided that they incorporated the key point from the 1872 preamble? Any statement would thus reject sheer “uniformity” of belief as a goal while also continuing, like the current Statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs, to state an expectation of continuous “revision” under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Those responsible for hiring religion teachers—ultimately, institutional boards—could still, at their local level, manage the legitimate expectation that Adventist religion teachers build up the Adventist community. But there would be no top-down policing of all thought, no attempt, by a distant bureaucracy, to block “new light” or prevent teachers and their students from engaging in open-ended Bible study. Vigorous conversation would ensue. At least some of the anger and anxiety in Adventist life would subside.

“Subside,” not “go away.” Communal life is challenging. Responses to the Holy Spirit’s teaching function would vary. Disagreements would still happen and still be hard to resolve. But a fundamental aspect of Christian trust is conviction that under God and over time honest conversation can generate deeper understanding and deeper unity. To borrow language you invoked, a certain “uniformity” or agreement—by no means absolute but still clearly evident—would persist even without “creedal demands.”

We are rightfully tired of the fearful faith that clamors for control. None of his followers, Jesus said, should “lord it over others” like pagan kings.

So what do you think? How do you agree, or disagree?

DW: I am inclined to agree that we should not expect religion teachers to concur on a single short statement of conviction, especially if such a statement were constructed to hold ambiguity to a minimum. And I can support your desire for a statement of commitment, one that is weighted toward ethical conviction. But we have to admit, I believe, that both your statement and mine are suffused with ambiguity. Statements that are framed to serve as “litmus tests” and are known to conflict with views one wishes to exclude possess some clarity. But even those depend on an intellectual and political context for the degree of clarity they achieve.

As for official summaries of doctrines, everything would depend on how those summaries were to be used. The problems arise when it is assumed that statements can be formulated and demands made for all thinkers to assent to them.

Take the problem you thought my hypothetical despairing teacher would have with your commitment statement’s reference to the “faith of Jesus.” The “faith of Jesus” was, in part, the conviction that He would come into full possession of His kingdom before the death of all of His disciples, as Albert Schweitzer famously insisted more than a hundred years ago. And we must not ignore the fact that Matthew 16:27 plainly validates Schweitzer’s assertion. No Christian could hold that part of Jesus’ faith any longer once all of His auditors had died. So I must select what elements of His faith I can continue to affirm.

Clearly, that statement, “I must select what elements of [Jesus’] faith I can continue to affirm” is unacceptable to the framers of the IBMTE statements. (Still more evidence that the Bible is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, creed of the powers in Adventism.) Indeed, merely acknowledging that Jesus made a prediction that was not fulfilled requires owning the fallibility of every witness of faith.

One way to frame the challenge of sustaining meaningful community, community with discernable boundaries, is to ask if Adventists can be honest about theological and spiritual fallibility. I always try to persuade my students that while there are often several valid interpretations of any text including Scriptural ones, it is not the case that any and all interpretations are valid.

Schweitzer’s reading of Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom of God is clearly a valid interpretation; in point of fact, it is the interpretation that simply restates the plain meaning of the text. The standard claim that the transfiguration was the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction exceeds the limits of validity, but for the sake of extending communal acceptance to those who affirm it, I am willing to concede its validity.

So where does that get us? I think it underlines your hunch that it is probably foolish to think a short statement of conviction could be framed that would be wholly agreeable to religion teachers or church administrators. Are we despairing then of identifying discernable boundaries of the community? That does seem to be the upshot of our musings regarding an alternative formulation to the ones propounded at such length by the IBMTE. And it makes me think an effective response to the challenge of sustaining authentic Seventh-day Adventist faith probably should not rest on belief summaries even with a caveat regarding potential future modification.

Nevertheless, I do not think we must despair of discernable boundaries. Instead, this suggests something I find amusingly ironic given my unrepentant insistence that the greatest issue in the endorsement initiative is not the process. The real issue is the defective character of the statements.

So why not trust a process driven by discernment and not by statements? That is the process that I have watched operate for the past half century given my own desire for, and late in life participation in, the community of Adventist religion teachers. Religion departments, hiring committees, church administrators, and boards have selected individuals about whom they have very extensive knowledge and who in their judgment are suited to building up of the Adventist community of faith. What is not to like about that?

Instead of compelling religion teachers to support unsupportable statements and thereby eroding their integrity, why not recognize that a process of discernment has operated in their selection. And to give the objectors to the IBMTE process their due, this has been a local process, not a General Conference hierarchical one. Perhaps the most damning thing to be said about the IBMTE statements is that they appear to be an attempt to eliminate the necessity of discernment. That is one more reason I hope my colleagues will join me in refusing to support them.

Refusing would unfortunately produce considerable anxiety on all sides, and it would tempt the current regime of denominational management to disobey Jesus’ command not to “lord it over” one another. But if it broke the spell of lust for infallibility, it would be worth the pain. It might be the only way to get the attention of the powers that be in the church.

CS: I think the integrity of Adventist religion teachers is at stake. There is no intellectually serious backing for the endorsement initiative, and I am now pretty sure that no one even thinks there is.

Over the past several weeks I have phoned and/or emailed several people who are in a position to have influence with respect to the IBMTE endorsement initiative. I have been in touch with the former IBMTE board chair, Ben Schoun, and with the current chair, Geoffrey Mbwana. I have been in touch with Lisa Beardsley-Hardy of the General Conference Education Department. I have been in touch with Clifford Goldstein, the Sabbath School quarterly editor and Adventist Review columnist, and with Ed Zinke, the well-known adviser to the General Conference president. I have sent emails to Ekkehardt Mueller of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute and to Artur Stele, a General Conference vice president and former chair of the Biblical Research Institute. Not one of them has identified any publicly available scholarly research that backs up the endorsement initiative. Not one has named any Adventist scholar, at the Seminary or anywhere else, who would be willing, or even able, to address the objections that you, Daryll, raised in your essay.

The current U.S. Education Department Secretary is deeply partial to private education. A commentator recently noted that her “libertarian” perspective has its roots in a 1955 essay by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman on “The Role of Government in Education.” Many defenders of American public education disagree with the Secretary, but there is intellectual substance on both sides of the argument. As for the endorsement initiative that so horrifies so many Adventist educators, it lacks any intellectual backing. The endorsement initiative’s influence depends entirely on current bureaucratic whim, or as one bolder acquaintance of mine puts it, “sheer bureaucratic aggression.”

You are right, Daryll. Giving in to such a thing is out-and-out betrayal of who we are as Adventists. There may be varieties of legitimate resistance to what is going on, but resist we must. A Polish poet, the Nobel Prize-winning Wisława Szymborska, famously said: “We know ourselves only insofar as we have been tested.” The endorsement initiative—this shunting aside of the heritage God has given—is testing us right now.

DW: Yes. Yes. For the sake of the spiritual and intellectual health of the church, opposition is desperately needed. Why? Vaclav Havel made the point more effectively than we can in his history-changing essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” The essay speaks of a greengrocer who places a sign in his shop window that reads, “Workers of the world Unite.” The grocer does this because the authorities require it.

Of this practice Havel writes, “Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.”

In the present case of the endorsement initiative, the required slogan is “The Bible is our only creed.” Who can object to such a slogan? What Adventist religion teacher could not read the IBMTE statements and then reduce their ideology to that apparently unobjectionable slogan?

And what is the ideology the endorsement initiative conceals behind that slogan? It is the ideology of Rome. It is that the Scriptures do not interpret themselves and, therefore, cannot be interpreted by the faithful, but instead, they mean what church leaders say they mean. The endorsement initiative is nothing less than papal through and through. Everything in my Adventist soul recoils at this spectacle of domination and fear that despoils the truth.

It all comes down to this. Can Adventist religion teachers be hearers of the Word or must they restrict their endeavors to dictation of the denomination’s words? Adventist religion teachers are, like the greengrocer, powerless over those who control the circumstances of their lives. Nonetheless, we are truly like the greengrocer in that we have the power that arises from speaking the truth. The truth makes the powerless powerful. May God grant us the courage to speak the truth, to say, “No, we will not place the sign in our shop windows.” Jesus’ promise is trustworthy. He is the truth, and the truth will set us free. He will. To my fellow teachers I say, count on it. He will. He will.

Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

 

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.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Image Credit: Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

 

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