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Moral Autonomy, Divine Command, and the Intrinsic Value of Human Existence

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

In his Systematic Theology, the theologian Paul Tillich describes a tension between free moral reasoning and the revelation of divine commands, a tension which also happens to be at the heart of Adventist theology. In our existential situation, he observes, “the structural elements of reason move against each other.” The limitations of human reason make it necessary for believers to receive a divine revelation of God’s will, but an adequate understanding of revelation requires carefully reconciling the tension between autonomy and heteronomy, loosely the law of reason and the law from outside or above.[1] This, I contend, Adventist theology fails to do by disparaging the former in favor of the latter, which is especially evident in the key selections from the 28 Fundamental Beliefs that I examine in this essay.

First, I review Tillich’s definitions of these two terms in the context of his discussion of human reason. Second, I discuss several fundamental beliefs in which the church’s preference for heteronomy over autonomy is visible. Finally, I argue that Tillich’s conception of theonomy, which reconciles autonomy and heteronomy, can offer a solution to an important issue raised by these fundamental beliefs, namely how to defend the intrinsic value of human existence.

Autonomy and Heteronomy

Tillich begins his discussion of autonomy and heteronomy by arguing that although it is important to acknowledge the limitations of human reason, an analysis of its inner conflicts “must replace the popular religious or theological attacks on the weakness or blindness of reason”—attacks he calls “inarticulate and often merely emotional.” Rather than positing an irreconcilable dichotomy between reason and revelation, Tillich maintains that reason itself validates the necessity of revelation—provided that we have a correct conception of revelation—by recognizing its own limits.[2]

Tillich explains the rational process by which we may come to recognize the inadequacy of our reason. On one hand, he states, our reason is necessarily finite. Tillich notes that the Kantian rational “categories” by which our minds impose order on our perceptions of the world “are categories of finitude.” He explains that these categories “do not enable human reason to grasp reality-in-itself; but they do enable man to grasp his world, the totality of the phenomena which appear to him and which constitute his actual experience.” Among these is time. To be finite is precisely for our understanding of the world to be limited by this particular structure. Because human reason is subject to the constraints of our temporal experience, it is thus unable “to grasp its own infinite ground,” namely God, whom Tillich identifies as the ground of being.[3]

On the other hand, “in recognizing this situation, man is at the same time aware of the infinite which is present in everything finite, though infinitely transcending it.” Tillich explains that “by analyzing the categorical structure of reason, man discovers the finitude in which he is imprisoned.” Nonetheless, although “Reason cannot break through the limits of temporality and reach the eternal,” it desires to escape this bondage. Throughout the history of Western philosophy and theology, various thinkers have proposed means by which they imagine this escape to be possible. The philosopher Benedict de Spinoza hoped, for instance, that by cultivating his intuition he could recognize God as the necessary cause of everything that exists, see from the “vantage of eternity,” and thereby attain blessedness or an intellectual salvation. By contrast, Kant maintained that “the only point at which the prison of finitude is open is the realm of moral experience, because in it something unconditional”—namely, the categorical imperative—“breaks into the whole of temporal and causal conditions.” However, for Tillich, both these philosophical attempts to break through the limitations of human reason failed because “the self-elevation to divine dignity brought on dethronement and contempt of reason” itself, resulting in the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment.[4]

Here, then, is the root of the psychological and religious conflict between autonomy and heteronomy, according to Tillich: this “polarity of structure and depth within reason,” in which the mind is torn between a recognition of the categories that structure its understanding of the world and a desire to transcend the limitations that this structure imposes on it. He defines autonomy as “the obedience of the individual to the law of reason, which he finds in himself as a rational being.” It “does not mean the freedom of the individual to be a law to himself, as theological writers often have asserted, establishing in this way an easy scapegoat for their attacks on an independent culture.” Neither is autonomy the same as willfulness. In fact, autonomy is opposed to willfulness insofar as “it is obedience to its own essential structure, the law of reason which is the law of nature within mind and reality,” regardless of what one might will to be the case. Rather, Tillich identifies this law of reason and nature as “divine law, rooted in the ground of being itself.”[5]

On this point, Tillich echoes Spinoza, who explains in his Theological-Political Treatise that “natural knowledge has as much right to be called divine as any other kind of knowledge, since it is the nature of God, so far as we share in it, and God’s decrees, that may be said to dictate it to us.” Because natural knowledge “does not differ from the knowledge which all men call divine, except that divine knowledge extends beyond its limits, and the laws of human nature considered in themselves cannot be the cause of it,” it is not “inferior to prophetic knowledge.” To the contrary, Spinoza argues that natural knowledge is more reliable than knowledge revealed by prophets, since a person “may discern and embrace what [its practitioners] teach with as much certainty and entitlement as they do themselves,”[6] whereas those who accept a prophet’s teachings “are relying solely on the authority of the prophet and the credit which he enjoys.”[7]

The contrast between natural and prophetic knowledge illustrates the distinction between autonomy and heteronomy. Tillich defines heteronomy as a “strange (heteros) law (nomos)” that “issues commands from ‘outside’” concerning “how reason should grasp and shape reality.” Importantly, he adds that heteronomous reason is not strictly “outside” reason, since “it represents, at the same time, an element within reason itself, namely, the depth of reason.” But it is easy to forget this element within reason itself because heteronomy poses “the problem of an authority which claims to represent reason, namely, the depth of reason, against its autonomous actualization.” A heteronomous authority is one that “claim[s] to speak in the name of the ground of being [i.e., God] and therefore in an unconditional and ultimate way.” Such an authority is usually proclaimed in “reaction against an autonomy which has lost its depth and has become empty and powerless.” For instance, the authority of a prophet or scripture is typically promoted as the means of deliverance for those who have been led astray by their reason, which has left them unable to distinguish between right and wrong and to answer the deepest concerns of human existence. Tillich argues, though, that “as a reaction” against autonomy, heteronomy “is destructive, denying to reason the right of autonomy and destroying its structural laws from outside.”[8]

Religion must beware of its tendency to advance itself as a heteronomous authority. Many of the distortions of the meaning of faith owe their origins to an insistence on heteronomous conceptions of morality to the exclusion of the autonomous element within faith. Among these distortions are (1) legalism, in which a divine law, conceived as wholly external and indifferent (i.e. heteronomous) to its subjects, fails to secure their salvation precisely because of its indifference to their inner experience; (2) biblicism, in which a divine revelation fails to secure its recipients’ salvation precisely because their ability to validate its internal and external consistency is denied to them; and (3) dogmatism, in which theological propositions fail to secure believers’ salvation because they are static and lifeless, and thus cannot transform the individual. If Adventism is to achieve its purported aims, it must avoid these distortions by affirming (1) that our moral responsibilities are progressively revealed to us within the confines of history; (2) that to understand the true meaning of Scripture, we must apply critical methods of interpretation to studying it; and (3) that if historically accepted doctrines can no longer withstand the scrutiny of those who, in good faith, realize their biblical, historical, or scientific inadequacies, they ought to be reformulated or superseded.[9]

As I will now demonstrate, Adventist doctrine unfortunately does not admit these possibilities and thus precludes the possibility of people cultivating a saving faith compatible with their autonomous reason.

The Contempt for Autonomy in Adventist Doctrine

I will now examine several of the Adventist church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs to demonstrate that its doctrines systematically disparage moral autonomy to advance the church’s own heteronomous authority. In each case, I will briefly suggest an alternative conception of these doctrines that could accord more importance to autonomous reason.

The Holy Scriptures (Fundamental Belief 1). The first fundamental belief sets the tone for what follows by declaring, “The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of [God’s] will.” By asserting the Bible’s supremacy and infallibility, this statement denies that a person can have faith in God unless their autonomous reason ultimately aligns with its teachings. Thus, because the Bible depends for its acceptance on the authority of its authors, who “spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,”[10] the reader must accept it as a heteronomous authority unless they can personally attest to the accuracy of its authors’ reports—which is impossible without extraordinary archeological evidence of God’s supernatural activities.

Even if one accepts that the Bible’s authors are authoritative, either because of having witnessed what its authors witnessed or because its authors satisfy certain rational criteria, there still remains the problem of interpretation. Although the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures appears at the beginning of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, suggesting that what the Bible plainly says must be accepted as authoritative, it is in fact the case that the reader’s interpretation of the Bible must be measured against the church’s own interpretation of key passages, even if the plain reading contradicts the church’s view. Precisely in denying that it has misinterpreted these key passages and in asserting that those who have interpreted them otherwise are simply misguided, the church demands that its own authority be accepted on this matter. Thus in the matter of hermeneutics, the church asserts its own heteronomous authority and precludes the exercise of one’s autonomous, critical judgment.

If the church is to promote true faith, it must repudiate the biblicism I mentioned above, especially in matters of interpretation, but also in the matter of considering what properly belongs to the scriptural canon. It must not regard certain canons and interpretations as arbitrarily fixed but should recover what the religious scholar Karen Armstrong calls the “art of scripture.” Citing the theologian George Lindbeck, she states, “Our reading of scripture . . . must be innovative. In the past, . . . scriptures were altered and reinterpreted quite dramatically to meet changing conditions. Lindbeck was convinced that we should continue this tradition, but this requires intellectual skills that go against the grain of the modern academic reverence for the integrity of the original text. Yet unless scripture is made to reach out creatively to meet our current predicaments, it will fail the test of our time.”[11]

Creation (Fundamental Belief 6). The Adventist insistence on heteronomy over autonomy is also distinctly visible in the sixth fundamental belief, which states that God “created the universe . . . in a recent six-day creation.”[12] First, in echoing the traditional Western teaching of creation ex nihilo, the Adventist doctrine of creation establishes an unbridgeable gap between God as the source of positive perfection and reality, and the negative substance—nihil or “nothing”—from which we are created. It is this gap that makes our heteronomous deference to a supernatural revelation necessary, since it assumes that there is nothing positively valuable about nature and thus that we cannot trust what our autonomous reasoning tells us about our place in the world. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo implicitly denies that our lives can be anything other than nihil-istic, unless we repudiate autonomous reasoning in favor of a heteronomous deference to God’s will, as expressed through a supernatural revelation.

Second, the general thrust of the Adventist doctrine of creation is obviously concerned with defending the importance of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath: in resting on the seventh day, God “established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.”[13] Directly contradicting Jesus’s statement that “the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), the sixth fundamental belief insists that the very process of creation was intended for an extrinsic purpose, namely to induce people to obey a heteronomous commandment.

Finally, the sixth fundamental belief states, “The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it.”[14] Here heteronomy is visible in the doctrine’s emphasis on dominion as constituting the image of God. Rather than presenting human beings as existing in mutual codependency with nature, it insists on their authority over nature. This reflects the Adventist conception of God as a heteronomous or monarchical authority who wholly transcends, and is ultimately unaffected by, his creation.

If the church is to promote true faith, which demands our autonomous decision for belief in God, it must affirm that God is immanently present in the continuous process of generation by which the present world has come into being. It cannot regard us as made of a nihilistic substance entirely distinct from God, but rather it must affirm that in God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Moreover, a meaningful doctrine of creation cannot regard us as having been created for any purpose outside ourselves, since then our lives would be merely accidental to that end. Finally, a doctrine of creation through the evolutionary processes of nature places us firmly within nature and invests us with the responsibility of caring for our environment rather than exploiting it. The eighteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher noted the religious importance of a thoroughly naturalistic conception of ourselves when he said, “Religion breathes there where freedom”—that is, our tendency to posit ourselves as freely shaping the universe in our own image—“has once more become nature; it apprehends man beyond the play of his particular powers and his personality, and views him from the vantage point where he must be what he is [i.e. as a part of nature], whether he likes it or not.”[15]

The Great Controversy (Fundamental Belief 8). The denigration of moral autonomy within Adventist theology is nowhere better demonstrated than in the eighth fundamental belief, which promotes the Great Controversy narrative. The dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy is implicitly invoked in every sentence of this doctrine, with the former consistently disparaged in favor of the latter.

The eighth fundamental belief opens by stating, “All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law, and His sovereignty over the universe.”[16] Because it involves everyone, no person can remain indifferent to this controversy, and yet, we are told, its ultimate concern is not something that is occurring within the domain of human events. Rather, the ultimate issue at stake in the Great Controversy is God’s law and sovereignty, both of which are conceived as heteronomous authorities. This is the first insinuation of an irreconcilable dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy in this doctrine.

This dichotomy becomes clearer in the next two sentences: “This conflict originated in heaven when a created being, endowed with freedom of choice, in self-exaltation became Satan, God’s adversary, and led into rebellion a portion of the angels. He introduced the spirit of rebellion into this world when he led Adam and Eve into sin.”[17] Here moral autonomy is introduced as the actualization of Lucifer’s freedom of choice, whereby he became God’s adversary by leading other angels into rebellion. The Great Controversy doctrine thus denigrates moral autonomy by associating it with the father of evil. Although Adventists usually claim that freedom of choice is necessary for us to reciprocate God’s love, in fact, the only time that our freedom of choice is actualized within the narrative of the Great Controversy is when we choose to disobey. It is only through disobedience that our freedom of choice becomes a real or meaningful concept, especially given that the choice to love God is presented as the initial and default scenario for both the angels and the first humans. But to exercise moral autonomy is not simply to use one’s God-given abilities of judgment in deciding how to act; rather, in this doctrine’s view, moral autonomy necessarily amounts to an act of “self-exaltation” over God. In maintaining that every autonomous action involves an exercise of one’s power over another, Adventist theology cannot seem to escape the language of heteronomous or hierarchical authority even in describing autonomous acts. (This is also the case in situations when Adventists who want to maintain the heteronomous authority of some groups over others compare the autonomous decisions of the subordinated groups to Lucifer’s rebellion—for example, when supporters of headship theology compare feminists’ views to those of Satan.)

The Great Controversy doctrine continues, “This human sin resulted in the distortion of the image of God in humanity [and] the disordering of the created world.”[18] As I have already noted, the “image of God” is conceived in authoritarian terms as human dominion over the earth. Thus, this doctrine maintains that in leading the first couple into asserting their moral autonomy, Satan undermined the basis of Adam and Eve’s delegated authority over the earth. Rather than recognizing ourselves as exercising authority over the earth, we came to see ourselves as part of nature, and thus the created world was “disordered.” This presumes, as many Adventists do, that nature is something to be reviled, and that to see ourselves as part of nature is to degenerate ourselves. This attitude towards nature can be understood as resulting from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, in which the created world is concerned to be made of “nothing,” and that to recognize ourselves as part of it is therefore to deny our own significance.

Finally, the Great Controversy doctrine states, “Observed by the whole creation, this world became the arena of the universal conflict, out of which the God of love will ultimately be vindicated.”[19] This indicates that according to Adventist theology, the ultimate aim of history is the vindication of God’s love, by which it means God’s heteronomous law and sovereignty. Importantly, nature and history have no inherent purpose apart from this extrinsic aim, and thus, once God accomplishes this aim, he intends to discard the world, along with the majority of its inhabitants, by purging it with hellfire. But contradictorily, this undermines the very claim that history is supposed to vindicate God’s love. How can it be affirmed that God loves humanity if all of human history, and many human lives, are ultimately disposable—if there is nothing inherently valuable in them for God to love? The hollowness of this conception of God’s love can easily be explained when we recognize that by “love,” Adventist theology means primarily God’s law and sovereignty, which is defined as love, and which we must be induced to obey by the extrinsic threat of punishment, since we cannot obey it through our own inherent reason.

If the church is to promote true faith, it must reject the idea that history only exists for the purpose of vindicating God. Rather, the vindication of God must be understood in an apologetical sense, as the vindication of God’s existence to others through our own existential choices to exhibit God’s graciousness in our lives. Moreover, this vindication of God must be understood as occurring through his own activity within history through the Holy Spirit, by which he works towards the universal reconciliation of the world to himself. Only by conceiving of God’s Spirit as immanent in his creation can we avoid reducing human history to a meaningless accident to whom God is ultimately indifferent—and only in this way can we avoid encouraging a reciprocal indifference to an uncaring God.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Fundamental Belief 9). The Adventist emphasis on heteronomy over autonomy appears in a surprising way in the ninth fundamental belief. This doctrine opens with the remarkable statement, “In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin.”[20] From the outset, it introduces a severe theological problem, namely that it betrays Trinitarianism by suggesting that Christ had a distinct will from the Father, to whom he voluntarily subordinated himself, as to a heteronomous authority. The consequence of this teaching is that it implicitly affirms a tritheistic conception of God: it presents a pantheon of three deities, each with an independent will, rather than one God whose persons share a single will.

Heteronomy also appears where this doctrine suggests that the ultimate aim of atonement is to vindicate “the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character.”[21] Rather than conceiving atonement as the process by which God works within history to reconcile us to himself, Adventism removes this trace of God’s immanence by arguing that the purpose of atonement is, in fact, extrinsic to our salvation. Rather, it indicates that the purpose of atonement is to secure obedience to God’s extrinsic law. Thus, although the purpose of Christ’s life was to affirm that God is with us, Adventism redirects our attention towards the way in which God utterly transcends us, and to which our only proper response should be a deferential obedience.

This abuse of the doctrine of Christ’s life can only be reversed by reaffirming Trinitarianism, which maintains the unity of God’s will in all his functions. This would require us to abandon the idea that our atonement was secured by a voluntaristic choice to overcome sin, as though Christ could have acted at odds with the Father; rather, we must affirm that Christ’s divine and human natures are one and the same, and that in taking on a human form, God overcame the gap between humanity’s existential conditions and its essential or potential goodness. Moreover, we must affirm the Spirit’s immanent activity in the world, by which this existential gap continues to be overcome within the constraints of our historical conditions. Only if we affirm God’s passibility, or his suffering with us in our existential conditions, can we be assured that our lives are ultimately meaningful, since God is the source of meaning.

Remnant, law, and judgment (Fundamental Beliefs 13, 19, and 24). The obvious purpose of the thirteenth fundamental belief, which concerns the doctrine of the remnant, is to proclaim the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church by appealing to its own authority, which can only be accepted heteronomously. Even more so than the first fundamental belief, which proclaims the authority of the Bible, or the eighth fundamental belief, which conveys a narrative for understanding human history, it is the doctrine of the remnant that expresses the authoritative basis of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. It is this doctrine that unifies all the others, and it is by arguing that this unity is what characterizes God’s true church that it establishes the church’s authority. However, because each of the constitutive elements of the remnant doctrine depends on the acceptance of a heteronomous authority, the authority of the Adventist church cannot be supported on the basis of an appeal to people’s autonomous reason. Thus the remnant doctrine presents the church with an insurmountable self-contradiction for apologetics and proselytization.

First, the thirteenth fundamental belief states that the remnant may be distinguished because they “keep the commandments of God.”[22] This is a reference to the nineteenth fundamental belief, which states that “God’s law [is] embodied in the Ten Commandments.”[23] As I noted above, by reducing our moral obligations to a set of static ethical propositions, the church risks succumbing to legalism, which fails to account for the full diversity of situations we may encounter in which the moral demand upon our consciences may be felt. Because of its inadaptability, it cannot appeal to our autonomous reason, and thus it ultimately can only seem to us to be arbitrary and indifferent. This is perhaps best illustrated in the case of the fourth commandment, which is the commandment Adventists are most concerned to promote. Why did God create the world in seven days, as opposed to any other number of days? Unless we accept that the celebration of the Sabbath is a ritual practice that likely began as a celebration of the lunar cycle (and that the creation account is therefore an etiology whereby the origins of this practice could be explained),[24] there is no answer to this question that appeals to our autonomous reason. Thus it comes across as entirely arbitrary, something that we must obey simply because God commands it.

Second, the remnant is characterized as having “the faith of Jesus.”[25] The implications of this criterion are clear. The church teaches that the faith of Jesus is testified to by the spirit of prophecy, that is, by Ellen White (Fundamental Belief 18). Here the problem of heteronomy again comes into play. Even if White met certain rational criteria as being a prophet, her prophetic authority can only be accepted heteronomously, since no one else has received the visions that she received. There is no way for us to independently verify anything that she taught on the basis of her visions, except by comparing her claims with those in the Bible. But the same problem of authority also applies to the Bible and its interpretation, as I discussed above.

Finally, the remnant is characterized as “announc[ing] the arrival of the judgment hour.” In other words, the remnant proclaims the doctrine of the investigative judgment (Fundamental Belief 24), which teaches that in 1844, Christ (imagined as possessing a distinct will from the Father) began to decide the fates of those who accepted his atonement by “keeping the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” and “therefore, are ready for translation into His everlasting kingdom.”[26] This doctrine clearly indicates that the only ones who will be saved after 1844 are those who obey the Ten Commandments and accept the faith of Jesus (that is, the spirit of prophecy’s testimony concerning Jesus). That is, salvation does not occur through one’s inner faith, but through their outer obedience and acceptance of the church’s authority, as buttressed by Ellen White’s testimonies.

The purpose of the doctrine of the investigative judgment is to distinguish the Adventist movement as authoritative due to its privileged eschatological position. It enables the church to defend its authority, not on the basis of an appeal to the good faith reasoning of those outside the church, but on the basis of a deference to an eventual supernatural intervention, the Second Coming, which is expected to resolve the church’s apologetical challenges once and for all. Rather than encouraging believers to demonstrate their faith existentially through their beneficial contributions to society, it encourages an attitude of indifference to the needs of contemporary society while simultaneously demanding that society ought to respect the church’s religious liberties. Because of the impotence of this appeal, it is not surprising that Adventist eschatology maintains that the church will eventually be persecuted for obeying God’s commandments, which it has made no effort to promote to nonbelievers by appealing to their autonomous reason.

If the church is to demonstrate its claim to correctness and its right to be a part of society, it must do so not by appealing to a heteronomous authority which society has no reason to accept, but by demonstrating in practice their beneficial contributions to the world. But it can only do this if it repudiates the isolationist attitude encouraged by the doctrine of the remnant, which demands that church members ought to separate themselves from society. Unless believers can identify with those in society, they cannot expect to understand their needs, nor can they offer a compelling reason for those in society to accept their teachings by presenting them as the solution to those needs.

But before the Adventist church can offer its teachings as the answer to society’s needs, it must reevaluate those teachings themselves. The excessive emphasis on heteronomy present in all of its most significant teachings are inherently incapable of appealing to the autonomous reason of potential converts because they instantly reject autonomy as the highest and original evil.

Theonomy and the Value of Human Existence

According to Tillich, neither an exclusively autonomous reason nor an unreasonable deference to heteronomous authority are capable of resolving the ambiguities at the heart of human reason. Rather, he argues that true religion presents a third alternative, which synthesizes the positive elements in both autonomy and heteronomy. “Autonomy and heteronomy are rooted in theonomy, and each goes astray when their theonomous unity is broken.” Tillich explains,

Theonomy does not mean the acceptance of a divine law imposed on reason by a highest authority; it means autonomous reason united with its depth. In a theonomous situation reason actualizes itself in obedience to its structural laws and in the power of its own inexhaustible ground. Since God (theos) is the law (nomos) for both the structure and the ground of reason, they are united in him, and their unity is manifest in a theonomous situation.[27]

The process by which this unity becomes progressively manifest to us is history itself. As I discussed in a previous article,[28] Tillich identifies the activity of the Holy Spirit as the intra-historical giving of God’s grace to those who believe in him. It is through their subjective appropriation of God’s grace through faith, which is demonstrated in their love for their neighbor, that the ambiguities of our existential situations are resolved in time.

Among these ambiguities is the dichotomy between the “realist” and “idealist” approaches to ethics. Realist ethics identifies the good as what is beneficial to us either individually or collectively, which we tend to determine according to whether certain actions bring us joy or pleasure. By contrast, idealist ethics seeks a conception of the good that is impartial to our subjective interests or happiness and that ought to be obeyed precisely because of its rationality and universality. Adventists are accustomed by the church’s heteronomous conception of the law to conceiving of its ethical responsibilities in idealist terms, as wholly transcendent and impartial to our existential or historical limitations. This idealism is bolstered by the moral intuition or sensibility that any meaningful notion of the good should not be subject to any consideration of its convenience. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made for a realist ethics that accounts for both our ability to do what is right and the fact that no one can be persuaded of an ideal of the good that is not ultimately good for us.

We therefore must recognize the real limitations on our ability to act morally and actively pursue the amelioration of those limitations. Because our existential limitations include biological, psychological, and social factors, our ethical attention cannot be directed solely to the relentless self-promotion of our own religious authority. Rather, it must be directed to reducing and eradicating the those limiting factors that cause harm, effort which takes the form of social activism, scientific and technological knowledge, and advocacy for mental and emotional health. In each of these areas, we must apply our autonomous reason, since there is no heteronomous authority capable of identifying a priori how progress can be made in these areas.

Only through such efforts, which are the intra-historical expressions of God’s grace and providence, can we meaningfully affirm the intrinsic value of humanity as a species in the presence of individual suffering.[29] God’s grace, which is actualized in history only through the practical use of our autonomous or theonomous reason, enables us to alleviate suffering and thus provide existence with meaning beyond the reason-less, arbitrary obedience of heteronomous commands.


Notes & References:

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 1) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 83.

[2] Tillich (1951), 83.

[3] Tillich (1951), 81–82.

[4] Tillich (1951), 82.

[5] Tillich (1951), 83–84.

[6] Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 13–14.

[7] Spinoza (2007), 261.

[8] Tillich (1951), 84–85.

[9] I have argued for these positions in my previous article, ”Immanence and Ethics, Part 2: Reconciling Moral Freedom and Adventist Holism,” Spectrum.

[10] General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (GCSDA), “28 Fundamental Beliefs” (2020), 3.

[11] Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), 466.

[12] GCSDA (2020), 4.

[13] GCSDA (2020), 4.

[14] GCSDA (2020), 4.

[15] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 23.

[16] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[17] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[18] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[19] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[20] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[21] GCSDA (2020), 5.

[22] GCSDA (2020), 6.

[23] GCSDA (2020), 8.

[24] See Jacob L. Wright, “Shabbat of the Full Moon,” (March 11, 2015).

[25] GCSDA (2020), 6.

[26] GCSDA (2020), 10.

[27] Tillich (1951), 85.

[29] This question of the intrinsic value of humanity, more than whether God is good, is what seems to me to be the heart of the problem of theodicy.


William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Image Credit: Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash.

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