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A Dynamic Theology


One of the benefits of studying church history is that it helps you see how much change there has been in Christian teachings through the years. By “church” I mean not just this denomination, but the whole sweep of Christianity that Ellen White reviews in The Great Controversy. In each era there are the faithful and the enemies of the faithful—and of course the whole point of that book is that in the end, the enemies lose and the faithful get their reward.

But what’s surprising is that if you study the faithful, you find them quite different from one another. A Venn diagram of the major Christian traditions would show only a small common area, but in that overlapping zone is what we Christians should agree is most important: the infinite attributes of God, his interaction with us in human history, the Bible as the source of spiritual truth, Jesus Christ as the key to our salvation, moral behavior, the importance of the church in acting out God’s goodness and faithfulness, and eternal reward.

But beyond that, there’s a lot we wouldn’t understand about one another. I’ve met people who seem to think that if they could use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to visit Christians in earlier eras, they’d find little groups of Seventh-day Adventists singing hymns just like ours, sounding like us, eating like us, looking like us, organizing church the same way.

But beyond a few central teachings (and even settling on those was a stormy process) we’d have a hard time feeling entirely comfortable with those ancient believers. I doubt we’d enjoy attending church with them. We know from Paul that early worship was louder and less reverent than most of us would enjoy, their Sabbath School discussions drifted into things like gnosticism, and their music, liturgy and dress would simply puzzle us. And most of us wouldn’t eat what they served at potluck.

But, some say, that all changed when Seventh-day Adventists came along. We are the final step of that ladder of doctrinal development. They all contributed something, but we’ve finally got it all right, thus stabilizing Christian doctrine once and for all before Jesus comes.

I will only say this: that in the process of our maturing, we’ve changed, too, in matters both small and great.

I thought of this recently when I picked up Uriah Smith’s Daniel and the Revelation, a book that Ellen White endorsed.[1] Much of it would be familiar to Seventh-day Adventists today. But there are other items there that have nearly disappeared from church discussion.

In Uriah’s time, and as late as 75 years ago, Turkey was a country frequently mentioned in our discussions of Bible prophecy. When’s the last time you heard Turkey come up in a sermon or Sabbath School discussion? Changes in boundaries and power structures have brought new Middle Eastern countries into the news (if not into prophetic interpretation), but no one still fears Turkey as the King of the North.

Back then, people would have massive debates over who was meant by Gog and Magog, the actual identity of a countable 144,000 Seventh-day Adventists, and who precisely were the seven heads and ten horns of the beast of Revelation 13. Heard much about that lately? My father once told me that when he was a child, a staple of time-of-the-end sermons was that Israel would never again be a nation. For obvious reasons, our preachers have said very little about that since 1948.

One of the bigger changes has happened during my lifetime—and it happens to have been a belief of my church of which I was especially proud. I remember going with my father to the Selective Service Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, where I filled out some papers and received my Selective Service ID card. It classified me as 1-A-0—a conscientious objector to combat, but available for alternative military service. It was granted without question when I identified myself as a Seventh-day Adventist. (Conscription ended before I was called up.) I’d received a pamphlet from the General Conference that, as I recall, told me that I must register this way and then wait to be drafted (I must never enlist) if I were to have any religious rights as a soldier. The military was depicted as a place where navigating through with your faith and the Ten Commandments intact was nearly impossible, and you should take any advantage your denomination could provide you.

Virtually all of my Adventist friends asked for the same classification. It was understood back then that Seventh-day Adventists did not carry guns or fight wars. While our non-combatancy wasn’t exactly pacifism, it faced in that direction: we intended to follow the commandments, including that sixth one, which meant we didn’t like the situation war put us in.

When’s the last time you heard a sermon about non-combatancy? Or read an article about it in the church press? The last time I preached a sermon against war, citing passages from Jesus that have always seemed to me pretty clearly pacifistic, a few church members told me I was being political in the pulpit and to cut it out.

We hear folks bemoaning the loss of certain Seventh-day Adventist teachings and practices that we wish would come back, such as conservatism in dress and worship, better Sabbath standards, daily family worship, sending our children to church schools. But it’s interesting what we’ve let go, mostly unremarked.

Some, like demoting Turkey from its place in our Bible prophecy schema, are an example of keeping truth “present”. But are we really better off for having abandoned that one bit of investment we had in pacifism? I don’t think so.

You can probably think of other examples. In any case, it will be interesting to see (should time last that long) what Seventh-day Adventism will look like another 50 years hence.

[1] Colporteur Ministry, p.123

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