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Adventism and Authority

A central part of the Adventist Bible curriculum for high school students is the authority of Scripture. However, one of the areas of weakness in the curriculum is that the course material gives little attention to what the Bible is in more matter-of-fact terms. So while the textbooks make clear that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and so is God’s written word, they tend not to talk much about the fact that the Bible is an anthology with a rich variety of literary genres, that it was almost two millennia in the making, that it was compiled by the people of Israel and the early Christians, and that there was debate about which documents should become a part of a “canon”—that is, rule.

I suspect that there is an underlying fear about all of this humanness of the Bible, a fear that telling students about it will undermine their faith in God’s involvement in its composition, that it will come to be treated as little more than a bizarre literary classic from antiquity. Indeed, for those students who have not taken much time to think about just how messily human the Bible really is, there is a real tendency to act as though the Bible just fell out of the sky one day. And for these students, it can be a little jarring to look at the facts.

This initial sense of uncertainty that students can experience has not prevented me from teaching them about the history of the composition of Bible and the Bible’s literary variety because I am convinced that conceptions of the Bible’s authority that don’t take the facts seriously are misconceptions of biblical authority. My hope is that by the end of this process, they will be able to affirm that the Bible is still of divine origin and still completely human—that they will not harbor any kind of literary Docetism that believes that the Bible is divine and only appears to be human.

In one of my classes, I am teaching the history of the Christian canon, and using a book that explores the relationship between the origin of the canon and the history of the early Christians creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Chalcedonian). This book is Robert W. Jenson’s Canon and Creed. In an early section of the book, Jenson offers a definition of scripture that I find interesting, and it raised some questions for me about the place of Scripture in Adventism. Jenson writes:

Let me propose: a religious community’s scripture is a body of literature that is fixed in some medium that preserves it…and that precisely in that fixity is necessary for the perdurance of the community (13-14).

That is, a set of writings function as authoritative—i.e., as “Scripture”—in a community when that set of writings is fixed, and when that community needs that set of writings if it is to survive as that same community. Thus, as an explicit example, the Christian community needs the Old and New Testaments if it is to survive as the Christian community, and not just an association of religious or spiritual individuals.

What I find helpful about this definition is the way that it clarifies the similarity and dissimilarity of “scripture” and “tradition”; to wit, “Scripture” is tradition, but is the kind of tradition that is indispensable to the survival of the community, and so is fixed into a “canon,” whereas those parts of tradition that, for whatever reason, are not indispensable are not canonized.

However, as a member of the Adventist community, there is something about Jenson’s definition that I find troubling. In our community, there is besides the Bible another kind of “canon,” the writings of Ellen White, which are, according to Fundamental Belief #18, “a continuing and authoritative source of truth.”

By this description, one must wonder whether these writings are “continuing” because they must continue in order for the community to continue. That is, are the writings of Ellen White “necessary for the perdurance of the community”? If so, then whether or not we are willing to equate the authority of her writings with those of the Bible, we are functionally treating her corpus as “Scripture,” and so far as they are “authoritative,” then they are a “canon.” And if not, what would Adventism look like without reference to White’s writings?

The question has a certain relevance to our moment. Currently, high-level church administration is making a renewed effort to revive interest in White’s work, and this is seen as being a part of Adventist mission—which is, incidentally, nothing other than Adventist identity. Elsewhere, not least here, the debate about evolution rages on. In this debate, the lines of argument are rarely about whether one can be a Christian and accept some version of evolution to explain the origin of life, but rather about whether or not one can be an Adventist, and whether one can still accept the authority of Ellen White, and accept evolution.

While it might seem obvious, there is a close relationship between efforts to preserve the authority of Ellen White and efforts to preserve Adventist distinctiveness. However, my sense is that both efforts are somewhat misguided. As an Adventist, I believe that the Adventist church has an important mission in the world, but I am quite unconvinced that it is about being distinct over against other sorts of Christians. Further, I think it’s obvious that God used Ellen White in shaping the Adventist church, and for that I am grateful. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly unconvinced that God’s intention was to create another denomination or sect (with an additional canon, no less).

When I consider Adventist mission—preaching the gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages—I cannot help but see that Adventists should automatically have an interest and investment in the spiritual well-being of all Christians (and all people), and I do not believe that striving after sectarian distinctiveness serves Adventist mission well.

It seems to be a regular occurrence in Adventist history that we continually struggle with (1) how we understand the Bible and its authority, and (2) how we understand the writings of Ellen White and their authority. A third might be how we understand the gospel itself. Even so, Adventism continues to change in a variety of ways, and while some fear that the authority of Scripture or Ellen White is slipping away—and with them, Adventist identity—others of us also fear the development of new kinds of ecclesial authority that are foreign to the Advent movement and are equally dangerous.

I think that recent developments have been, as my class has been for my students, jarring at times. But I like (or try) to believe that God is working in all of this, even if the process is ugly and human and characterized by endless contingencies. I have a growing sense that part of our collective conception of authority in this community is a misconception, and that it might be time to revisit more basic questions, and re-clarify more fundamental issues like the way in which the Bible is authoritative, and the way that Ellen White’s writings are. This, I think, will be far more beneficial to the community than endless debates about the distribution of The Great Controversy or the teaching of evolution.

Art: José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, detail of the Baker Library, Dartmouth College, mural cycle The Epic of American Civilization, 1932-1934.

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