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The Adventist Church Needs a Martin Luther

Many of us living through October 2017 could not but dwell on the significance of what happened exactly 500 years ago when Martin Luther decided to open up a conversation about the appropriateness of the selling of indulgences to shorten the time the souls of the dead spend in Purgatory. The selling of indulgences was a financial transaction that greatly benefited an ecclesiastical hierarchy that was in constant need of more money to sustain its lavish living style and monumental building projects.

These exorbitant demonstrations of wealth and power had been under attack for some time. Many had spoken against the abuses that were going on and had stated that the ecclesiastical structure of the Christian Church of the West was in urgent need of reform. These prophetic voices had been silenced, however, by even further abuses of power. Memory of the struggles between popes sitting on different seats anathematizing each other, and the popular knowledge of the prevailing nepotism and simony in the appointment of higher clergy provided strong arguments for the demands of serious structural reforms in the church.

Martin Luther surprised everyone by focusing his arguments not on the ecclesiastical abuses of power but on the theological foundations of the selling of indulgences. He did not propose to defend the need for a different organizational structure that would no longer depend on the selling of indulgences. He proposed to defend in an open forum 95 propositions that debunked the theology that supported the selling of indulgences and other abusing church practices. He claimed to be upholding a biblically based theology that gave God and God's Grace, rather than fear of Purgatory, the central role in the divine/human economy. In the process, Luther took away from the ecclesiastical authorities their claim to be the only authorized channel through which the Holy Spirit could flow.

Luther's decision to post the 95 propositions he was willing to publicly defend on a biblical basis, without recourse to the dictamens of the Church Fathers, did not take place in a vacuum. He was the product of the advances achieved by an already flourishing recovery of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. The isolation of monasteries and the artificial world of chivalry had given place to the tensions with the world of Islam that was on the verge of engulfing Vienna as its stronghold in Europe. It was no longer a matter of Crusades to the Holy Land but of expulsing the Turks from Europe itself. Popes and princes were calling for war with the invaders while Erasmus of Rotterdam was the lonely one calling for sanity and peace. Also changing the European panorama even more significantly was that, having expelled the Muslims from its territories, Spain had opened a new continent to European exploitation. The riches of America were already transforming the European economy and providing an outlet to those seeking new horizons.

The ferment of the Renaissance of a classical past was brewing effectively, producing a new vision of the human person. It was restoring to each individual human being the glory of having been created in the image of God. On that basis, the connection between God and his creatures came to be understood as direct, as most beautifully represented by Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It was in this culturally rich and expanding European civilization, where universities rather than armies provided the means for the transformation of young people into adults, that Martin Luther developed, reconsidered, and ultimately decided to speak out in defense of what, after much careful reading of the Bible in its original languages, he had come to understand as the Gospel.

Reflecting on Luther's desire to open up a conversation with fellow Christians that would recover the message of the Gospel, I cannot but think that the parallels between his situation and the one which quite a few of us face within the current Adventist Church are unnerving.

For some time already, several voices have been calling for a reconsideration of the ecclesiastical structure of our church and of the way in which it functions. The lack of transparency, the manipulation of agendas, the withholding of access to documents from those who are asked to vote on them, the misappropriation of monies, the attempts to bring about uniformity in matters of lifestyle and thought, the ostracizing of brothers and sisters on prejudicial grounds, the defense of a patriarchal social order,  the instances of nepotism have been identified repeatedly in the past as evidence for the need of radical structural revisions and as factors posing the danger of a breaking-up of the church. The church, let it be understood, cannot be a democracy. Her ruler is not the people but the Lord Jesus Christ. The ecclesiastical structure of the church, however, cannot be an oligarchy or a dictatorship. Those who exercise ecclesiastical leadership, as Jesus said, cannot be masters but must be servants of all, not of their superiors. In our church, as in Luther's church, reforms of a dysfunctional ecclesiastical hierarchy have been called for by many and are urgently needed.

Like in Luther's time, we also live in a fermenting and expanding cultural moment. Scientific explorations both in the micro and in the macro cosmos are continually changing what not too long ago was believed to be the case. Just this week a meteorite from another solar system has been discovered after it had been traveling in space for millions of years before entering our solar system. While to some these discoveries are reasons for excitement and signs of progress, to others they are sources of great discomfort and evidence of decadence. The expansion of rising social and economic expectations among the peoples of China, India, and Southeast Asia have brought about their reduction among the masses in the First World. The transportation boom is making the preservation of ethnically-defined nations problematic. The rumblings of wars are welcomed by some but are a source of fear to others. The threat posed by the existence of nuclear power is making its control and the definition of its purpose more urgent and difficult. Most significantly, our time is benefiting from the opening of a new continent. It is not America but Cyberspace. The riches of this continent are revolutionizing societal behaviors and upsetting the economic landscape. These developments have been transforming the way in which people see themselves in the world, and they call for a convincing reformulation of the Gospel. Facing this challenge, our church has been a prisoner of formulas of the nineteenth century that prevent her to be a witness of the power of the Gospel.

Faith is not a way of thinking but a way of being in the world in which one has the privilege of living. As members of the body of Christ, Christians are called to make him present in the world. He was true to God in his world. We must be true to God in ours, just as Luther was true to God in his. He lived in a church in dire need of structural reforms, but rather than deal with them directly, he addressed the proclamation of a gospel that was no Gospel. Now that the Adventist Church is in need of a serious reconsideration of how it functions, what is called for is a theological reconsideration of her gospel.

Even though Luther remained a child of his age in his autocratic ways, his bellicose spirit, and his racial prejudices, he did learn from Paul that a gospel that does not bring about freedom is no Gospel at all. Christians are not meant to live in fear, particularly fear of a sinful past, of a judgmental present, or of the “strong” who enforce their judgments, but to live free in Christ. Luther's short tract “On the Freedom of the Christian” is a magisterial exposition of what must characterize a Christian's life in his/her everyday endeavors, thus demonstrating the power of the Gospel.

In this tract, Luther takes up two statements of Paul to demonstrate the connection between “spiritual liberty and servitude”: “Though I be free from all men, yet I have made myself servant of all” (1 Corinthians 9:19) and “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Romans 12:8). From these declarations of Paul, Luther derives two propositions that seem to contradict each other but which, he cogently argues, belong together: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” He ends the tract giving a concrete example of the spiritual liberty and the servitude of a Christian when facing two types of persons. Dealing with a “hardened and obstinate ceremonialist” (read, bound to the traditions of his church) . . . “who refuses to listen to the truth of liberty,” a Christian must “resist, do just the contrary of what they do, and be bold to give them offence.” On the other hand, dealing with “the simple minded and ignorant person, weak in the faith, as the Apostle calls them, who are yet unable to apprehend the liberty of faith, even if willing to do so,” Luther says, “these we must spare, less they should be offended. We must bear with their infirmity.” Freedom and service are not contradictory.  They are complementing aspects of the true Christian life, one that owes every one love.

Today the Adventist Church needs prophetic voices that will convict her of her obsession with obedience to the Law of Moses and her enchantment with herself and her “Truth.” Just as Luther measured the gospel of his church against the writings of Paul, so now it is necessary to measure what our church is teaching against the writings of Paul. She is negating the centrality of the God who raised Christ from the dead and paying homage to the Jesus who lived in complete obedience to the Law. Supposedly, it is on this basis that he is able to impart the righteousness he attained from the Law to those who believe in him. This is a denial of the Gospel. Jesus, as Paul makes absolutely clear, was not recognized by God for his keeping of the 10 Commandments but by his faith. The “obedience of faith,” as Paul does not tire to emphasize, is not related to the 10 Commandments but to a way of being in the world as a creature who lives by the power of the Creator. As such, it is something totally beyond the requirements of commandments. The obedience of faith is exhibited by what Paul designates as the fruit of the Spirit, against which, Paul affirms, there is no Law. He did not think he needed to specify that neither is it the product of obedience to the Law.

Unlike the New Testament scholars who fifty years ago were prone to affirm that Jesus was a Christian who abolished the Law, New Testament scholars these days are more likely to affirm that Jesus was a law-observant Jew. This only says that, like all Jews before the Resurrection, Jesus lived “under the law,” as Paul explicitly states. What needs to be noticed is that, as Paul also says, no Christian, whether Jew of Gentile, lives “under the law.” Making a fetish of the 10 Commandments as eternal (even though Paul also says that they did not exist before Moses), and of the Bible as “the written word” of God (even though the Word of God has always been a spoken word), is preventing the Adventist Church from making the reforms needed before she can accomplish her role as the agent of freedom from sin and eschatological death. These days, when the end of history can be accomplished without God's intervention, the need to place faith in God as Creator is crucial.

As Paul explicitly points out, Christians have as a model the faith of Jesus, which had its type in the faith of Abraham. Reflecting on the experience of Abraham, Paul brings up that he complained to God for not having kept his promise of descendants while Sarah and he still had fertile bodies. In response, God reassured Abraham that Ishmael — his son by a slave in his household — would not inherit him. He was going to have a son born in freedom from his legitimate wife. Paul finds quite remarkable that Abraham believed God. Knowing that all the natural avenues for the birth of such a son were closed, Abraham had faith in the God who, as Paul says, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17, RSV, or “names the things that are not, as well as the things that are,” my translation). Paul's God is the God who raised Christ from the dead and has control over the frontier that separates non-existence from existence. Faith in this God is the faith that gives a person freedom to live not just out of the past (actuality) but also out of the future (potentiality), thus making the present a life with God.

For the Adventist Church to have a future, it must also have faith in the God who has control over the frontier between non-being and being, between potentiality and actuality, and who as such is the Only One with Ultimate Freedom and the source of all true freedom. She must cease living entrenched and fearful, always in need of an enemy to justify its existence. This makes her one more organization structured according to the standards of the capitalist world of the survival of the fittest, always in need to quantify her success. It must let God free her from the restraints of her insecurity and fear. Now that the future of the world more than ever seems to be in human hands, faith in the God who raised Christ from the dead rather than the Jesus who obeyed the Law is of the essence. But the only way to be open to God's future is by being free from the fear that the Law imposes on those who live “under” it.

We need a Martin Luther who will challenge the Adventist Church not in terms of her policies and their manipulation by ecclesiastical authorities but by openly and plainly confronting her with the Gospel of the God who raised Christ from the dead. The Gospel is power to impart life. On this account, it is the demonstration of God's righteousness, not that of believers. The power of the Gospel gives life to those who with Christ die to the world and are raised, like Christ was, by the power of the Spirit. The Gospel is not about a legal sleight of hand that declares sinners righteous. It is the power to give life to all those who no longer live just in the world of Adam but who have been made alive and are new creations in the world of the Second Adam.

Adventist theology is not to be found in the writings of Edward Heppenstall, Fritz Guy, or Richard Rice. It is found in the Sabbath School Quarterly lessons that come out these days as expressions of the official Adventist Church. When for two quarters in a row the Sabbath School lessons purporting to be dealing with the letters of Paul To the Galatians and To the Romans instead of presenting Paul's teaching inculcate an Adventist ideology about obedience to an eternal law and that Jesus is the Second Adam, it is undeniable that the ecclesiastical authorities that control the Sabbath School Quarterly lessons are in dire need of having the Gospel preached to them. Paul makes absolutely clear that believers are not declared righteous by Jesus' works of law. Rather, the righteousness of God is manifest vis a vis the faith of Jesus and is effective in all those who have been made alive by the power of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead. This is the Gospel that a world drunk with the power in its hands needs to hear to come to terms with God's purpose to give life to all God's children.

 

Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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