Although support for the “substitutionary” interpretation of the execution of Jesus of was always close at hand, on Friday, April 19, the presenters at “The Cross: A Symposium on the Atonement” addressed a wide range of topics. They did so under the heading of “Historical and Theological Studies on Atonement” at the Loma Linda University Campus Hill Church.
The meetings ran a full twelve hours, from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm with a 90-minute break for lunch and 105 minutes for supper. The 30 or so participants throughout the day were told that these meals were “on your own.” A greater number attended the evening meeting.
After a devotional by Clinton Wahlen, Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Ed Zinke offered a critique of human arrogance. He warned against giving more authority to human reason than to divine revelation. He also informed the audience that God does need human reason when it comes to running the universe and reconciling its estranged citizens. An independent theologian and businessman, Zinke represented the Adventist Review.
Denis Kaiser, a doctoral candidate in Adventist Studies at Andrews University, offered a detailed analysis of the writings of Abelard, a medieval philosopher and theologian who is often accused of rejecting the idea of substitutionary atonement. Kaiser demonstrated that the “father of moral influence theory of the atonement” actually didn’t sire it. Rather, out of what Abelard took to be either ignorance or malice, even during his lifetime others falsely accused him of teaching it.
Kelvin Onongha, a doctoral student in missions at Andrews University, contrasted the differences between the individualism of many Western societies and the more communal ways of life elsewhere. He also differentiated between modern societies that emphasize “guilt” and others all over the world that stress “shame.” He contended that in some ways Biblical societies were more communal and shame-based, and that keeping this in mind can help in understanding the Old and New Testaments, particularly its ideas of bloody sacrifices. On the other hand, these differences often make it difficult for representatives of Christianity to be understood. Hence missionaries must listen as well as speak.
John Jovan Markovic, a professor of history at Andrews University who has special interests in the relations between Jews and Christians and current religious trends, presented an analysis of the contemporary emergence movement among Christians. According to the accounts of some of its most influential leaders, Teilhard Chardin is its philosophical resource as Aristotle was for Thomas Aquinas and Plato, or Neoplatonism, was for Augustine. As an expression of theistic evolution, the emergence movement has no need of any theory of atonement and it is often hostile to all of them. In a subsequent conversation, Markovic reported that it often endorses the kind of mysticism that most Jews, Christians and Muslims have long rejected because it fosters the “emptying” of the self.
Greg Howell, a pastor in the Washington Conference, presented a comparison of the published writings of Joseph Bates, a 19th century follower of William Miller and one of the earliest Seventh-day Adventist leaders, and the notes he wrote in the margins of his personal Bible. Although these marginal notes differed theologically in some respects, in others they reinforce what Bates said and wrote in public. Among other things, Bates found, in the seven drops of blood the priests of Leviticus 16 liturgically offered in the traveling tabernacle of ancient Israel, seven additional years that stretched his expectation of the second coming of Jesus an extra seven years, from 1844-1851. James and Ellen disapproved of setting new dates and, when the second coming again did not occur when Bates had calculated it, he stopped as well. In a personal exchange, Larry Christoffel, one of the pastors of the Campus Hill Church, observed that the Whites gave up “shut door theology,” the ideas that only those who had gone through the Millerite movement could be part of their community of faith, in 1852. He wondered if the failure of Bates’ erroneous recalculation of the second coming of Jesus for 1851 was at all related. In any case, Bates’ thinking about the atonement was interwoven with his understanding of Biblical prophecy.
Adelina Alexe, a doctoral student in systematic theology at Andrews University, presented a narrative analysis of the prayers of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. By reviewing such things as the place, time, movements, words and characters depicted in Matthew 26: 36-56, as well as the one prop, which was the “cup” from which Jesus did not want to drink, she highlighted the intense struggle through which Jesus passed. Although she viewed the freedom and safety of the Garden, which was probably circled by a strong wall, as the last and decisive moments of his pre-execution life, she acknowledged in response to a question that it might have been the first step of Jesus toward His execution.
Larry Lichtenwalter, who serves as Dean of the School of Theology at Middle Eastern College, identified the personal and cosmological interpretations of the last book of the Bible. The first is that the theme of book is human sin and how God saves people from it. The second is that the book is about an attack on God’s character and about how the unending and longsuffering God is victorious ever it. Although he affirmed them both, Lichtenwalter argued that the personal, interpretation, which in his view includes a substitutionary interpretation of the execution of Jesus, is primary and that the cosmological one should be understood through it. When asked what difference it makes whether one starts with the personal or cosmological interpretation, providing that in the end one includes both, Lichtenwalter gave two answers. The first was that the Bible starts with the personal and so should we. The second was that, if we start from the cosmological one, we might never get to the personal one. This would mean that we would forfeit the forgiving and transforming gifts of God’s love.
Richard Davidson, J. N. Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Andrews University, offered the assurance of salvation to contemporary Seventh-day Adventists who are fearful of what will happen when their names come up in the Investigative or Pre-Advent Judgment that is now going on in heaven. Confessing that he was also once very anxious about this, he emphasized that the Bible portrays Jesus Christ as the sinner’s substitute, lawyer, star witness, judge, purifier and vindicator. In addition, he stated, that this process is also about God vindicating God’s own character. In view of these seven considerations, one need not fear the currently ongoing heavenly judgment. With that he led the audience in the singing of a hymn that celebrates the assurance of salvation. Tom Shepherd, the President of the Adventist Theological Society, offered the benediction and the day, which had long since died in the West was over.