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The Ear: Theologian at Work


What are Adventist theologians up to, and why?

Beginning this week, The Ear will present occasional interviews with practitioners of the theological vocation, some long established and others newer to their work.  The interviews will involve persons seen as conservative and those seen as not so conservative.  In every case, interview subjects will be passionate about interpreting Adventism for a community facing the ever-new challenges of faith lived out the world of today.

This interview is with Alden Thompson, who is among the best known of contemporary Adventist theologians.  Briefly a pastor in California, he began teaching at Walla Walla University in 1970, and, starting in 1988, published a series of books bearing on Scripture, Ellen White and the Adventist struggle to resolve disagreement and march forward in shared mission.  The first of these, intended for readers both outside and inside of Adventism and several times re-printed, was Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?  His book Inspiration: Hard Question, Honest Answers, came out in 1991.  A work on Ellen White, Escape from the Flames, followed in 2005, and in 2009 he published Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and conservatives Need Each Other.  He continues to write a column for Adventist Today.

Thompson studied at Walla Walla, at Andrews University and at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a doctorate in Old Testament studies.  His perspective follows:

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical.  How do you connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Thompson: My own interests focus on the tension between the life of faith and the world of scholarly analysis. The tension is greater, I suspect, than most academics want to admit out loud. As an academic, I am called to master the material; as a believer I am called to bow in worship before my Master.  Either of those two goals may become inappropriately dominant. In the end, however, my goal is to serve the life of faith. I don’t ever want to impose information on a student that could jeopardize his or her relationship with God.

As for bridging the gulf between academia and real life, the raw materials for that task come from my interaction with real people. I teach undergraduate students and I read all the student papers myself. That means that my resources for practical applications are constantly being expanded and renewed.

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work.  How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic—on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter? What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today?

Thompson: My task is greatly simplified by the words and work of Jesus, whom I see as the clearest revelation of God (cf. Heb. 1:1-3). I could not do what I do if I did not see Jesus as the God’s best and ultimate revelation. In the Gospels Jesus clearly teaches that some things are more important than others: Love to God is the first command, love to others is the second; everything “hangs” on these two commands (Matt. 22:37-40). But elsewhere Jesus is even more concise, summarizing God’s word in terms of the second command rather than the first: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV).

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 4:13-14 offers another organizing principle, namely, that the Decalogue has a higher degree of applicability than all the rest of the Mosaic legislation. And Deuteronomy 31:26 visually reinforces that conclusion: The Decalogue goes inside the ark, the rest of the law goes in a book beside the ark.

As the essential framework for doing theology, then, one can construct a law pyramid: Love is the greatest principle (“love is the fulfillment of the law,” Rom. 14:10, NIV); love is further applied in the two (love to God, love to others); the Ten Commandments further apply the One and the Two. Beyond the Ten, all the rest of Scripture illustrates and applies the essential elements of the One-Two-Ten framework. That approach allows me to see the rest of Scripture as a “casebook,” not just as a “codebook.” That idea frightens many, for it seemingly allows reason to trump revelation. But as I see it, we have no choice but to use our reason. The crucial question is, however, whether our reason is in submission to the Spirit. Ellen White would talk about “sanctified” reason.

Recently I have adopted more gentle language based on 1 Cor. 10:11: Scripture provides us with “examples” to guide us. Thus the Bible is a book full of examples from which I must choose, guided by the Spirit, in making applications to people living in our day and age.

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is. Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

I would like for the church to break the shackles of Fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the shackles of Enlightenment rationalism on the other, though I am convinced that Fundamentalism is just another form of rationalism.

I believe that Ellen White can help guide us to a wholesome model that would allow us to be wholehearted in our worship and wholehearted in our thinking. But to do that, we must recognize the diverse nature of the human family and the diverse nature of Adventism.  And we need a model that would enable us to be in lively conversations with each other without too hastily using the label “heresy.” We still have lots of learn on that front.

In the end, I would love for us to put the original 1860 Adventist covenant at the head of our current statement of beliefs. That would make it clear that our present statement is simply commentary on that which all Adventists hold in common, most notably, Sabbath and Advent. This is a covenant that I would gladly sign:

We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ (Rev. 14:12).

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church; perhaps you were born into a churchmember’s family.  But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason?

Thompson: I continue to be an Adventist because I believe Adventism offers the best possible way for being faithful to God, to Scripture, and to the needs of people. Scripture and Adventist history provide plenty of evidence to show that God’s people have never had their act together for more than a few minutes at a time. So let’s not give up too easily.

But as I watch people leave Adventism on the left, usually with a diminished hope for a better world, and on the right, often with no clear way of addressing scholarly issues or the diverse needs of the human family, I am convinced that Adventism is a very good home. Yet it is not my final home. I like to dream dreams of Isaiah’s vegetarian kingdom, a kingdom where no one eats anyone else, where the wolf lives with the lamb. The final line in Isaiah’s vision nurtures my hope: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). No one has ever seen a world like that. But we can live in hope that God can and will make a better world than the one we now know.

Read a Spectrum interview with Alden Thompson from 2008.

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