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Adventism I can believe in

Seventh-day Adventists are perennially concerned about identity. Who are we? What do we believe? Who gets to decide? Our anti-creedal position stands over against our ever-expanding list of Fundamental Beliefs; our belief in ‘progressive revelation’ over against our claim to have the truth.

I am one that believes this dialectic tension is good for the church and that our determination to live in that tension is generative and healthy. But there are many voices who wish to collapse all such tensions into a single pole, declaring once and for all what the “truth” of a certain issue is. This is usually accompanied by a corresponding move to define out those who do not believe in this more narrow interpretation of what counts as a “real” Adventist.

What I ultimately long for is an Adventist Christianity that is open enough, theologically, to allow God’s people to follow the movements of God’s Spirit in response to the challenges we face today.

Elder Jan Paulsen beautifully depicts an expansive Adventist theology in his recent address at the Health and Lifestyle Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on July 7, 2009. An adaptation of that address appears in the recent issue of Adventist World magazine (September 2009) under the title, “Christ’s Healing in a Changing World.”

There are four things I want to lift up about this article which I think are absolutely essential to an Adventist theology of mission. However, I highly recommend you first read the article. In fact, bookmark it. Print it and paste it on your wall. Every time I feel like Adventism doesn’t include me I will be coming back to this article.

First, Elder Paulsen rightly recognizes that our theology must be able to respond to contemporary challenges. This address was given to health professionals and so was specifically focused on health ministries. But in talking about health ministries, Paulsen shared a theology that could inform Adventist health practitioners as they address the challenges of secularization and our post-secular age, globalization and pluralism. This is theology with its feet on the ground. Notice – “We need to ask ourselves: What does a distinctively Adventist approach to health ministries look like? What does it offer that isn’t already being offered by an number of alternate providers?”

His answer to these questions are four points of theology (not techniques or strategies, notice): Theology of Connection, Theology of Human Dignity, Theology of Hope and Theology of Wholeness. Our General Conference President is modeling for all of us good theological method. His is a theology deeply attuned to the challenges and opportunities of our time, deeply rooted in a tradition, and creatively seeking out new theological ground that can bridge contemporary challenges with Biblical faith and church tradition.

Secondly, he acknowledges that theology is always a work in progress and must be worked out in the midst of mission. As he is setting up these “four strands of thought” he couches what is about to say in a tentative way.

Let’s consider briefly four strands of thought woven throughout Adventist heritage and identity that are central to the health ministries of our church and which, I hope, will continue to guide us into the future. Obviously, this is not a finite list of values, but can perhaps serve as a starting point for an ongoing conversation (emphasis mine).

Thirdly, Paulsen repeatedly says that our theology must lead us into action on behalf of God’s kingdom now. He discounts any theology that would lead people to conclude that human suffering or injustice is not the church’s problem. This is perhaps a bolder move that it appears on the surface. One of the significant challenges facing the Adventist Church is how to rethink its 165 year old eschatology in such a way that it empowers, rather than disempowers, our participation in the very thing it stands for – God’s work of renewing all creation.

Notice his statements in this regard:

So what does it mean to live in connection with others? It means that your problems are not yours alone; they are also mine. It means having a sense of solidarity with humanity that makes me vulnerable, also, to it’s hurts and pain. Living in connection with others means seeing the large problems of society as collective human problems (emphasis in original).

He even says that this “theology of connection” should lead us to form “creative partnerships with others who share our goal of relieving human suffering – be it a government agency, another faith-based organization, a local church or mosque.”

It means also that we must, at times, have the courage to ‘wade into the fray,’ to recognize and condemn structures or practices that diminish the dignity of our fellow human beings. This isn’t new territory for us. Hear the words of former General Conference president Arthur Daniels spoken about the ministry of Ellen White: ‘Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate,—these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow’ (Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 473).

And speaking of our eschatology, perhaps his most bold move:

It’s a hope that looks outward to the realities as we meet them today and asks, What then can we do to start bridging the gap between what is and what is to be?

Some have been critical, and rightly so, of an eschatological perspective that serves simply to reconcile us to current miseries—an “apocalyptic lethargy.” But for Seventh-day Adventists the renewal of all things is not just a future event in history; it’s a process of renewal that begins now. Awaiting the ‘blessed hope’ is not a passive exercise, but something that demands action in the present.

Finally, Paulsen’s theology of mission is one that faces the future with hope rather than fear. In the closing section of this article he writes, “This is where we stand today—at the edge of a new world that we can’t yet fully imagine, where the shifting plates of technology, economics, and politics are still re-creating our global landscape. What will tomorrow look like? I don’t know; but I know that it’s not to be feared.”

Our General Conference President has through the years done what I would consider to be one of the most important jobs of the GC President: set a theological course for the church as she faces the future. Our current President is uniquely gifted to do this as he is the first President to have earned a Ph.D. in theology. This article also answers a bit of trivia that’s been bothering me. Elder Pauslen’s biography states that he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Tübingen. Since preparing to meet with Jurgen Moltmann, I have wondered whether Moltmann was his teacher. As it turns out, he was. And it seems the theology he learned from Moltmann has stuck with him through the years and is now serving the Seventh-day Adventist Church so well.

I doubt whether this blog post will reach the desk of Elder Paulsen, but if it does, I would like to say “Thank you!” From one struggling pastor and his congregation on the margins of the empire trying to bear witness to Christ, Thank you for articulating an Adventism I can believe in!

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