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Iriann Hausted Reflects on “Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio” by William Johnsson


Editorial Note: The following paper was presented at the 2017 Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) during the Sabbath morning Panel Discussion on the topic of William G. Johnsson’s book Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio. Read more about the six young scholars who presented and the publishing schedule for the papers here.

In a simultaneous critique and praise to Adventism, William Johnsson opens his experienced heart to us. His fierce critique is equally juxtaposed with a robust hope in what he calls “The Promise of Adventism.” He describes it thus: “There is much to be proud of in this history, even if that history has chapters of regret and shame. Adventism has been a movement of promise. It can be again . . . Walk away? I would be the worse of ingrates. Adventism is a movement of promise” (132).

It is in this context that Johnsson addresses San Antonio, not only concerning the role of women, but concerning how it has pointed to the polarization in approaches to Scripture (2, 116).

Johnson considers two “radically different versions of Adventism” that “are competing for the future” (3). He identifies these different versions of Adventism as 1) a camp that reads Scripture in flat/literalistic fashion and as 2) a camp that reads Scripture in a principled/nuanced way, ultimately centering upon what he continuously refers as the main thing: “Christ died for our sins” (64, 66). 

According to Johnsson, one camp “tends to deny the need to interpret, to go beyond the literal meaning of the text” (123), while the other “comes to the text aware of the challenges to understanding caused by time, culture, type of literature, and so on” (123). One “centers in words,” the other in “ideas” (120).

He seems to link the flat/literalistic approach partly with William Miller’s approach to Scripture. Although he argues that Adventism in itself has historically moved towards a principled/nuanced interpretation of Scripture as the orthodox position, he also argues that, in recent decades, Adventism has particularly welcomed a flat/literalistic approach, related to fundamentalist influences and hard views of verbal inspiration.

Currently, Johnsson argues, there are challenges to Adventism’s orthodox “nuanced” approach. For example, the “flat” proponents consider this approach as “worldly.” Further on, conclusions arrived at by a “nuanced” approach to problematic texts, if non-traditional, are looked upon with suspicion on the part of the “flat” proponents. Johnsson asks, for instance: “if any book of the Bible is problematic for Adventists, shouldn’t we dig deep into it rather than avoid it?” (122).

Elsewhere he argues — and I think it applies here as well — that “we Adventists find it hard to deal with negative developments” (71). We Adventists “aren’t good at this” (confronting the truth), but “we like to hear a good report” (4).

Finally, Johnsson states that most church members are not aware of differences present today in Adventism in terms of hermeneutic approaches. “They simply come to the Bible and read it as it is, glossing over passages they don’t understand” (122).

I found myself agreeing with the main tenets Johnsson proposes, particularly with his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus present throughout the book, and his encouragement for the Church to better understand and pursue what he refers to as a “nuanced” interpretation of Scripture.

Although it is true that Johnsson might be too simplistic in describing the interpretive practices of our world denomination in terms of two camps, the flat-nuanced dichotomy is a good beginning to discuss the matter in a general fashion and in the scope of a short book. I also found myself agreeing with Johnsson’s concern that a literalistic approach has, and will continue to, damage our church community, perhaps irreparably.

My main questions related to this discussion, then, are not so much in regards to the logic, reasonableness, or content in his arguments, but have to do more with its application in the Seventh-day Adventist church at large. And this, basically, is the issue of theory versus practice. For example, how could elements related to a principled/nuanced interpretation of Scripture be communicated and discussed in terms of a worldwide church that appears to relate more to a flat/literalistic interpretation? In other words, how can the church successfully contextualize its orthodox “nuanced” understanding of interpretation to a large people group within it that does not yet completely understand that this, and not the “flat” approach, is most distinctive of Adventism?

For now, I can only come back to Johnsson’s question where are Adventists headed after San Antonio, particularly in regards to the interpretation of Scripture?


Iriann Marie Hausted is a PhD student from Puerto Rico, studying historical theology at Andrews University.

Image Credit: ASRS / Oak & Acorn Publishing


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