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Thinking about Fritz Guy, the Adventist Christian

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On July 25, at age 93, Fritz Guy died. His life was so closely tied to the Association of Adventist Forums and Spectrum that our loss of him has implications for our journal’s masthead. In addition to his significant awards—a doctor of divinity degree, honoris causa, and Alumnus of the Year from La Sierra University; a Weniger Award for Excellence in Adventism; and an Association of Adventist Women’s Champion of Justice award—Fritz Guy holds a Spectrum world record. 

Before he became the first president of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the first president of the reformed La Sierra University, Guy was committed to the publishing ministry. Out of graduate school, he worked as assistant editor of The Youth’s Instructor from 1957 to 1960. But it’s Spectrum’s masthead that reveals his dogged commitment to seriously thinking about being Adventist. In the first issue of Spectrum, published in 1969, Fritz Guy is listed as the assistant editor. Five years later, he was the associate editor. Over the decades, the editors’ names changed; Fritz Guy remained. Later grouped with the consulting editors or on the editorial board, after 54 years, Fritz Guy holds the distinction of being the only person on the masthead of every single issue of the journal. 

His commitment to public theology went beyond periodicals to books. His most recent works were a trilogy with his late friend, Dr. Brian Bull. Together, as scientist and theologian, they co-wrote God, Sky & Land: Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It (2011)then God, Land, and the Great Flood: Hearing the Story with 21st-Century Christian Ears (2017)and finallyGod, Genesis, and Good News (2019). Throughout this series, Bull and Guy focused their analytical and explanatory gifts on helping readers “hear” the meaning in Genesis like the Bible’s original audience did. The story goes that they worked so closely together that during edits, they couldn’t tell who had written which parts. In honor of their wishes, their work is being released soon by Spectrum as a re-edited, full-color single volume. In the video below talking about their work, Guy is in classic form as he makes the point that he and Bull are protesting through their books. What are they protesting? The reduction of Genesis to (pseudoscientific) fact at the cost of understanding its spiritual meaning. 

In the mid-1980s, Guy contributed chapters to a couple of books published by Spectrum/the Association of Adventist Forums. These volumes were edited by Roy Branson. In the Festival of the Sabbath (1985), Guy’s chapter on “The Presence of Ultimacy” weaves together concepts from the Bible, Paul Tillich, Ellen White, and Abraham J. Heschel. He shows his philosophical grounding, defining “ultimacy” as the fact that God is not only the “supreme reality and value, but also the kind of reality and value beyond which nothing can even be conceptualized.” But then he makes it practical and seems to want his Adventist reader to know that keeping the Sabbath is not a sign of obedience to God but rather something more profound: a way to participate in divine being. “An indication of this ultimacy of God may be seen in the fact that the Sabbath is a temporal symbol,” he writes. 

“Time is the material of human existence,” Guy adds. “When ‘time is up,’ life is over, and human being is no more. And when I give my time to something—a person, perhaps, or an endeavor—I am making an irrevocable investment; I am giving myself. A holy day is therefore an effective means by which to affirm the ultimacy of the eternal God. He is the origin of all time and the course of my own time.” 

Moving from the seventh day to the advent, Fritz Guy also features in Branson’s Pilgrimage of Hope (1986). His chapter, “Dynamics of the Advent Hope,” de-Millerizes the meaning of the second coming of Christ. Guy systematically explores subthemes of knowing and the unknown, eagerness, and patience, and explores the tensions in mystery and assurance. “The so-called delay is a problem only to the extent the nature of the advent hope is misunderstood,” Guy states. He concludes his chapter on this hopeful note: “True hope, hope that is secure in the knowledge that makes it reasonable, does not need to make predictions. True hope is to live a parable of the coming fulfillment of God’s intention for humanity; it is to hear the melody of the future and have the assurance to dance to it now.” 

For Guy, to hope beyond the signs of the times opened Adventist faith to profound metaphors that connected the here and the wider hereafter. His thinking zoomed out his theological lens to the larger Christian tradition, with a focus on its gospel. Guy repeatedly urged Seventh-day Adventists to consider themselves Christians first and then adjectively Adventist. 

This distinctive ecumenical emphasis is reflected in the subtitle of his masterful opus, Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith, published in 1999 by Andrews University Press. Roy Adams, then associate editor of the Adventist Review, called it “a work of art.” 

“Each idea, as it develops, gives evidence of a mind intolerant of loose ends,” Adams continues “And one’s pencil comes out often, to highlight yet another brilliant turn of phrase, yet another arresting thought worth returning to.” While serious about Christian history and theology, Guy centrally grounds adjectival Adventism in the present. In his final chapter, in a clear distillation of his thought, he explains tripolar theological thinking:

The Christian gospel, our spiritual center;

our cultural context, where we live, worship, witness, and serve;

and our Adventist heritage, the foundation of our theological identity.

In a review of Guy’s book, theologian Richard Rice states: “While he affirms the importance of authentic Adventism, being Adventist is a way of being Christian, not something other than or more than being Christian. And the features which we share with Christianity in general are more fundamental, more important, than the distinctives that set us apart.” An Adventist Christian, how did Guy understand his own cultural context?

A 19th-century joke was that the Unitarians have three beliefs: Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of humanity, and the neighborhood of Boston. Creating a place for faith inspired Fritz Guy. After La Sierra University split with Loma Linda University and rebirthed in 1990, Guy showed his commitment to building institutions. Not only was he its first president, but by remaining on the faculty, he supported the work of its subsequent leadership. “It was Fritz who talked me into succeeding him at La Sierra when the board made its invitation,” Larry Geraty, who followed him as president, notes. “Over the years since, his friendship and voice in so many arenas where it mattered has been profound. His church, the campus, and I mourn his loss.” For Guy, faith, without a space to practice it, was dead. “As all his friends know, [for Fritz], to be a person of faith was the right thing, and if you were going to be a person of faith, you had to be a Christian,” Geraty adds. “And if you were going to be a Christian, you had to be an Adventist. And if you were going to be an Adventist, you had to be involved at La Sierra.” 

Guy was born in Minnesota and died in Washington State. Examining his time on the East Coast, at the University of Chicago, and teaching at Andrews University reveals that he spent more than 80 percent of his adult years in Southern California in the Adventist Inland Empire. It’s no wonder that Larry Geraty calls him Mr. La Sierra. 

But the Adventist campus was no passive parochial paradise for Guy. “In spite of what people may think, practicing theology is not an ivory-tower life,” he stated in his remarks while receiving the Weniger Award for Excellence in 2009. To do theology includes being part pastor, part professor, part prophet. “As pastor, a theologian is called to nurture,” he added. “As professor, a theologian is called to educate; as prophet, a theologian is called to say things that need to be said. No theologian fulfills all of these callings equally well, but every theologian is aware of them and tries to respond to them as well as one can.”

Thinking theologically activates a prophetic voice. Guy’s Adventist Christianity expressed itself in a commitment to advocating for others. As his La Sierra University obituary states, “He was particularly committed to nurturing the professional careers of women in ministry, whose work he supported through personal engagement, through his scholarship, and as a participant in the organization of the first service ordaining women in the Southeastern California Conference in 1994.” This 2015 video of Fritz Guy (of course shot on the La Sierra campus) captures his activist Adventist Christianity as he lends his voice to a campaign to get delegates at the General Conference Session to vote for women’s ordination.

Ronald Lawson, a sociologist and longtime out gay Adventist, recalls Fritz Guy’s open-mindedness. “When we planned the first Seventh-day Adventist Kinship Kampmeeting in 1980 the big issue was whether or not God loved and accepted us at all. . . . We decided that we should invite the best Adventist biblical scholars to address that question, and since I had pressed that idea, I got the job of finding and inviting such figures. I did not know anyone suitable at that time! God led me [to] Fritz Guy, who was at the seminary at that time.” [Larry Geraty and Jim Cox also attended.] 

“None of them had ever looked into the issue I posed to them,” Lawson continues, “but they promised to do their homework in advance of the Kampmeeting, and it became clear there that they had indeed done so. All became our supporters, allies, and friends. Fritz's penchant for clear thinking theologically was really important both then and in the years since.” In 2008, Fritz Guy again lent his talents and reputation as co-editor of the pathbreaking book Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives. Thinking theologically wasn’t theoretical. With his pastoral and professorial career, Fritz Guy bravely blended in the spirit of the prophetic.

It’s been more than 40 years of the Seventh-day Adventist top denominational leaders wandering in the wilderness of these social issues. What kept Fritz Guy thinking and faithful till the end? How did he keep pressing on in the face of so much political Adventist Christianity poorly masked with platitudes and false pieties? In a Spectrum interview, conducted almost a decade ago by then board chair Charles Scriven, Guy answers his question, “Why do you remain an Adventist?”

I am an enthusiastic fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist. On the basis of the available evidence, I am convinced that for me the best spiritual and theological home is progressive Adventist Christianity, with its interest in healthful living, intellectual excellence, practical goodness, international mission, and ongoing theological discovery. As our prophet said, “There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our interpretations of Scripture are without an error” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, 35). The great Adventist idea of “present truth” means that we can be continually enriched theologically and spiritually by our Christian and Adventist past without being confined to it. What more could one want?


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Image: La Sierra University/Spectrum. 

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