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An Adventist Radical Reformation: What Would James White Say?

On a recent Friday a friend from Collegedale alerted me to the Angel Rodriguez review of Alden Thompson’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other.  My friend was alarmed.

I went to the Biblical Research Institute’s newsletter, “Reflections,” where Rodriguez begins with Thompson’s theme: the book, he says, is about how “liberal” and “conservative” Adventists can “co-exist” in a “harmonious way.”  After the example of the Adventist pioneers, Thompson would simplify Adventist doctrine, the reviewer tells us, and would also countenance a greater degree of theological diversity. 

Rodriguez, who is employed at the General Conference Biblical Research Institute to defend official church teaching, writes that the tone of the book is “pastoral” and “irenic.” 

But it’s not long until the gloves come off.  Thompson’s approach to doctrine is “minimalist.”  His vision is one “the church unquestionably will not embrace.”  And considering that Thompson’s (already familiar) views have not yet “seriously impacted the world church,” the Adventist publisher has perhaps betrayed its “mission” in giving them yet another hearing.

Rodriguez goes on to call the book “outdated” for assuming a conservative-liberal divide.  What conservatives face now, he tells us, are “radicals.”  Radicals are engaged in an “open attack” against aspects of our “message and mission” that the “world church” has determined to be true.  What is more, these radicals try to “entice” other Adventists to “support them.”

The review does not define “world church.”  But the natural interpretation is that the phrase refers to some official, or authoritative, body, because the review goes on to say that “only the world church has the authority to define” what we believe and live for.  This claim on the reviewer’s part clearly contradicts the spirit of one of Alden Thompson’s heroes, the pioneer leader James White.  As Rodriguez well knows, White, like other Adventist pioneers, was vigorously opposed to creeds, or officially sanctioned statements of belief.  Instead, as at the meeting to organize the Michigan Conference in 1861, the pioneers stood for openness to “new light” and for focus on the practice of the faith.  

It may be, indeed, that the real divide, just now, is between those who cling to the post-Ellen-White obsession with official theology and those who celebrate the more open and adventurous spirit of the Adventist pioneers.  This is, at least, worth pondering.

In any case, the morning after I read the review my wife and I attended a Sabbath School class we both love and I get to all too rarely.  The teacher was a woman, and she “set the table”—a favorite phrase in the class—by drawing our attention to Genesis 50.  This is where Joseph assured his brothers, who had wronged him deeply, that he bore no malice against them.  “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today,” he said.

What then ensued was a conversation, rich emotionally as well as intellectually, about God and the experience of evil.  How, participants wondered, can you sustain faith amid pain and hurt?  Does God really plan, or “intend,” evil so as to achieve some good thing by means of it?  Or does God simply make the best of evil when it happens?

The circle of twenty or so included people older than I am, and a couple in their twenties.  Some spoke English as a second language.  Two were twin brothers, one visiting from Mexico City and the other from Bangkok, in order to see their 94-year-old mother, whose health had taken a scary turn and brought all her five children together.

We heard the twins’ story, so one thing the class confronted was death—the way it hurts, the care it inspires, the perspective it bestows upon those yet alive.  One person, a woman, told the visitors, “I love your mom”—it was part of a longer comment—and those words seemed to exemplify the spirit of grace and solidarity that attends a truly faithful response to human pain.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that one thing everyone in this circle would agree on is that women are at least as capable of spiritual leadership as men.  Not one person in that circle, I expect, would agree with opposition to the ordination of women for ministry.  A woman had set up an unforgettable discussion.  A woman had said something that the two visiting brothers would take comfort in and would share with their mom that afternoon.  We had thought, near the conversation’s end, about how God was present in Joseph in something like the way God was present in Christ.  Everyone in the group, I thought, would have assumed divine presence was no respecter of genders.

The “world church,” however, continues to rank women lower than men with respect to ordained ministerial leadership: women are excluded from it.  This class would disagree, and would certainly hope to “entice” other Adventists to join them.  Would Rodriguez dismiss the members as complicit in some reckless “attack”? 

No one supports recklessness, or no one should.  But some Adventists do agree with the pioneer spirit, and with the church’s early suspicion of creeds that stifle the Spirit’s work and close the window on new light.  I am one of them.  Still, it’s worth asking how you avoid reckless disagreement.  How do you tell new light from new darkness?

One Radical Reformer—in words that clearly resonate with John 16:12-15—said true faith honors “God the almighty in Christ his Son” (my italics).  It turns out that the Bible story read from the standpoint of Christ—from the standpoint of his life and words and Resurrection authority—is the criterion of true light.  That criterion tells why recklessness in thought and action must be resisted, but it also demolishes the thought that official, or bureaucratic, theology can be the last word. 

The only last word is Christ, and the truth of Christ continues, through the Spirit, to unfold.  This unfolding truth does not contradict Christ, but it does advance our comprehension.  It takes us beyond our comfort zone (see John 16:12); it demands growth.  Paul got this even though many church leaders don’t: in Christ (Galatians 3) there is neither male nor female, period.  In church life—in the sphere of discipleship—gender-based barriers to participation crumble.  That point, of course, throws open the door to equality in ministry.  And if you dismiss this argument, you cannot stand, on biblical grounds, even for the abolition of slavery.

Seeing all this is one way of putting us in touch with our roots—with Scripture, that is, and with our own background and early history.  And it is roots, so the dictionaries say, that the word “radical” points to—our roots, our origin, our true basis.  It thus makes little sense to put the label “conservative” into service against the idea of radical Adventism.  If our roots are the pioneers, the Radical Reformers and, most crucially, the risen Christ, then Radical Adventism is our only legitimate aspiration.  If we embraced it, we would gain openness to the Spirit’s leading, a refusal of creeds as final authority, and a courageous and full-hearted embrace of discipleship, or the practice of faith.  Doctrinal rigidity would cease to be, as it is now, a weapon of exclusion and discord.

Strangely, our leaders are rebelling against all of this, rebelling against what we should be conserving.  You and I should want to be a Radical Adventists.  Angel Rodriguez (and the official theologians he represents) should want the same thing.

Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is the president of Kettering College of Medical Arts and the chair of the Adventist Forum.

Image: Pavel Petrovich Svinin, A Philadelphia Anabaptist Immersion during a Storm, 1811.

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