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Beyond Foundationalist Models of Theology: the Adventist Witness to Present Truth


As an Adventist doctoral student of philosopher Nancey Murphy at the tail end of the last century, I sought to redress in various ways the “discontents” accompanying modern foundationalist philosophical assumptions that shaped Adventist theology from its emergence in the nineteenth century.  Still on this quest today, I was grateful to be able to re-engage Murphy’s work at the last meeting of the Society of Adventist Philosophers. My short response to her presentation at this meeting (a version of which follows) only gestures toward ways her characterization of foundationalist and non-foundationalist philosophies might help Adventists to witness faithfully to Adventist truths in our postmodern world.  Yet I hope sharing these gestures will in some way spur on further reflection on the challenge and value of engaging in this kind of critical and constructive theological work by thinkers and leaders within the church.

Adventist theology emerged in a culture that was highly optimistic about scientific rationalism’s ability to provide for certainty, including in theological domains.[i]  As with many charismatic spiritual leaders of his age, William Miller looked for a way to demonstrate the certainty of his interpretations. After his disorienting experience serving in the war of 1812, Miller, who had been raised in a pious Baptist home, turned away from his courting of deism as a young adult, and returned to the bible to reaffirm the possibility of Divine Providence and the truth of a plan of salvation “perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world.” Yet Miller was taunted by his deist friends who rejected such ideas. So Miller determined to harmonize any apparent contradiction he found in the bible or “remain a deist.”  As he systematically studied the bible, Miller began to follow Christian thinkers who advocated the widely popular historicist approach to biblical and prophetic interpretation in which historical events were seen as confirming the truth of the bible’s prophecies.  Miller’s confidence in this methodology and God’s divine activity would eventually lead Miller to write, “There is a general connection through the whole [Bible]; like a well regulated community, [the biblical prophets] all move in union. . . observing the same rules, so that a bible reader may almost with propriety suppose that he is reading the same prophet.” For Miller, the Bible was “a system of revealed truths, so clearly and simply given, that the ‘wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.”

Miller had indeed adopted a rational-empiricist (or a kind of scientific) approach to seeking biblical truth that had wide appeal in his cultural context, a context quite unlike postmodern contexts of our time. His approach to biblical interpretation appealed particularly to those who saw the early optimism among Post-millenialists as waning due to lack of social and spiritual progress in their culture. For such Christians, Miller’s biblicist version of historicism, set in a context of pre-millenialism, provided hope in the face of the social and moral degradation they sawin society. Since Miller’s method for interpreting prophecy appeared similar to empirical methodologies used in science, Miller’s hearers, confident in the predictability science had made possible, could extend such confidence to his interpretations of biblical prophecies. Equipped with Miller’s hermeneutical approach, they could trust the coming fulfillment of their pietistic hopes for the in-breaking of the final reign of God’s kingdom.

The founding theologians of the SDA church would adopt a similar historicist approach and a “harmony test” to validate Scriptural truths, pointing to the seamless, “inter-locking” nature of Adventist doctrines arrived at with this method. Ellen White’s visions would further validate the believer’s confidence in these truths. In generations to come Adventist teachers and evangelists would launch evangelistic work with the assumption that any individual, in any context, who applied him or herself to systematic bible study, could find the propositions of the end time message in Scripture, given careful study of Daniel and Revelation.

Yet throughout the history of the SDA church, I believe, there has been a sense that the truth the “nations” respond to in Adventism extends beyond its method of prophetic interpretations.  It could be argued that Ellen White’s Spirit-led influence, along with a fervent, shared bible-reading practice, significantly contributed to the development of the “thick” form of life among Adventists. This form of life in turn would become a powerful witness to the world of the love, service, and healing ministry of Jesus, even in contemporary secular and post-modern contexts. 

In providing non-foundational models for knowledge Nancey Murphy has carefully articulated the truth-bearing nature of wholes that depend on but are not determined by individual testimonies or propositional formulations delivered to individuals. I believe Murphy’s philosophical work can therefore shine a light on the importance of the corporate witness of Adventist forms of life.[ii] Further, Murphy’s assessment of modern foundationalism may assist the Adventist church to witness more fully to a central message of our pioneers—viz., the message of God providing “present truth” for those living in the end times.[iii]

Following Murphy I want to argue that both fundamentalist and liberal philosophical assumptions hinder such assistance. Traditional historicist methodologies lead conservatives to characterize “present truth” exclusively in terms of “biblically-revealed facts.”  Here they rely on a referential theory of language wedded to a foundationalist epistemology. Similarly, liberal Adventists retain a modern referential theory of language in which non-material realities must be spoken of metaphorically, since they do not qualify as empirically-verifiable facts. They concede to the assumption that religious metaphors merely express the individual believer’s attitudes, feelings, and dispositions, etc. This leads many liberals to refrain from interpreting even “distinctive” Adventist doctrines as factual propositions, for instance, the Sanctuary doctrine. Instead, they might characterize this doctrine as expressing or as symbolizing the need for individuals to have trust in God’s gracious judgment and provision for salvation.

Murphy has made clear that both liberal and conservative modern approaches elevate the individual above the historically-situated community of faith as the receiver and transmitter of doctrinal truth and faithful practice.[iv]  Such conceptualizations of “present truth” fail explicitly to recognize the holistic nature of truth, in which there is a bi-directional influence between the whole form of life of the community and the individual who participates in the Adventist web of beliefs and practices. Recognizing this, we as Adventists might learn to see more clearly, taking up again the same example, that the sanctuary doctrine’s intelligibility depends on the whole, lived form of life of our linguistic community, which is inclusive of our commitment to ardent bible-reading practices.  Murphy has shown, following J. L. Austin and her late husband James McClendon, Jr., that both referential conditions and expressive or experiential conditions are entailed in the truth-telling that happens within communities of discourse such as churches with “thick traditions,” like the SDA church.[v]  So articulating this doctrine intelligibly requires both referring to empirically-discerned facts and expressing attitudes and actions that are partially-constitutive of the truth to which community witnesses. Again, using the same example, for the Sanctuary doctrine to be true, it must refer to a God who is immanently present though beyond our comprehension, who is also a God we can trust to be deeply committed to our living in the household of God—the very God to whom biblical prophets and the historical Jesus testified. Therefore, in announcing the Sanctuary doctrine, Adventists must use linguistic conventions understandable in our present culture as we refer to the same living Jesus, with the same character and intentions as the Jesus testified to in Scripture. At the same time, there are experiential and expressive conditions for the truth of this doctrine—there needs to be a body of believers who lives from this truth, who show in their life together and express in their personal and communal attitudes, testimonies, and practices a deep experiential knowledge of God’s provision in the gracious judgment of Jesus. In such ways local and denominational Adventist bodies might testify to the truth of this doctrine in our contemporary culture, thereby participating in God’s redemption of those both within and outside our community of faith.

If we as Adventists can come to terms with the limitations of our modern foundationalist models as Murphy advocates, we might begin more intentionally to deal with the discontents of foundationalism that Adventists share with our wider modern cultures, and the harmful ways they have influenced the spiritual formation of our members. For example, despite the rich traditional practice of communal bible reading in Adventism, we often experience breakdowns in our communal discernment processes. (Think how often we follow western political practices by reverting to a majority vote rather than prayerfully engaging biblical discernment practices in making important decisions in our local and wider church bodies.[vi]) Might these breakdowns result from a lack of trust in the body, a lack that grows from a kind of individualism in our faith and practices, where we believe we can know the truth “on our own.” I believe that, if we begin to understand “present truth” in a non-foundational or holist way, Adventists will more coherently and faithfully witness to the truth of the Adventist message and its faithfulness to the Gospel.

—Anne Collier-Freed received her B.A. from Pacific Union College, an M.A. from Andrews University, and a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary. Anne lives near Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and four children. She attends Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist church.

Image: Dennis Oppenheim, Device to Root Out Evil, 1997. 

[i] For an expanded discussion on which the following overview was based, see Anne Freed, “A Feast of Reason: The Appeal of William Miller’s Way of Reading the Bible.”  Adventist Heritage: A Magazine of Adventist History, 16, no. 3 (1995): 14-21, 44.  An even longer treatment of this topic can be found in Jeff Crocombe’s dissertation, “’A Feast of Reason’: The Roots of William Miller’s Biblical Interpretation and it’s influence on the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” The University of Queensland, 2011.

[ii] For a thorough introduction to Nancey Muphy’s discussion of non-foundational epistemological models, see Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1997).

[iii] For a discussion of ways both liberal and conservative foundational epistemological models have shaped modern American theology, see Murphy, “Experience or Scripture, How Do We Know God?” in Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 11-35.

[iv] For a discussion of the inter-relationship between modern, atomistic conceptions of the individual, referential theories of language, and foundational epistemological ways of seeking truth, see Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 7-18.

[v] See Nancey Murphy’s chapter “Textual Relativism, Philosophy of Language, and the baptist Vision” in Eds. Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice & the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 245-270.

[vi] For a discussion of the biblical model of discernment within the New Testament church, see John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992).

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