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The Identity of the “Real” Seventh-day Adventist

There are a number of ways to describe a Seventh-day Adventist. This is a person who finds special meaning in the seventh day of the week, observes a practice of rest on that day, and has a special hope for the future. A Seventh-day Adventist is likely a vegetarian and adopts other healthy lifestyle habits. Adventists are generally known for fostering their own sub-culture, operating church-affiliated schools and universities, defending creation as an event that occurred in seven literal days, and, in the past, registering for noncombatant status in the military.

But what is a real Adventist? In the beginning of the denomination, one meaning of being an Adventist was to share a vision of hope and expectation for the future. Some people believe that Millerites and early Adventists were uniform in their beliefs. However, it appears that there was more of an acceptance of theological diversity before the death of Ellen White than there is acceptable theological diversity now. I think that at least one difference between then and now is that Adventist didn’t have the same kind of institutional structure to craft formal beliefs in the mid to late nineteenth century. But Adventists were univocal in their belief about the future and shared the urge to tell others about their prophetic news.

Some people are inclined to see Adventist theology as a series of shifts from uniformity to diversity. As I stated in the above paragraph, what was actually the case is that there has always been theological diversity in practice, but the question is always what kind of diversity of views is officially acceptable. It is certainly one thing to say that there is theological diversity now and another thing to say that there is acceptable theological diversity. There are internal and external factors that influence the degree of acceptable theological diversity. But the point is that theological diversity has always occurred, the degree of which and the degree of acceptability is what varies.

There is a lot of interest right now among church members and administrators to define what it means to be an Adventist. For some people this means defining what a “real” Adventist is and measuring the import of marginal ideas. A sermon by the upcoming General Conference president, Ted Wilson, exacerbated the dividing line between the “safe” Adventist and those whose beliefs are considered dangerously wrong. The implicit urge within this thinking is to retain one understanding of Adventism’s distinct profile and resist significant change from this perceived original sense.

One way that some may conceive of change and difference in Adventism is to demarcate the difference between form and content, or form and substance. The form delineates the structure that resists change and specifies what ought to be characteristic of Adventist belief and practice. The form has a normative function. The content or substance conforms itself to the structure provided by the form. In Plato’s explanation, the forms were more real than the phenomena perceived through the forms. This is like saying that the idea of a normative Adventist is more real in our minds that the diversity of individual instances of being Adventist. On contrast, other philosophical accounts would argue that only the individual experiences of Adventists or Adventism are real.

Consider the possibility that being Adventist is not a fulfillment or return to a category in a natural and original state. If we avoid understanding Adventist as a designated category and try to understand it is as the re/formation of a category, then to speak about individuals as instances of “Adventist” is really to speak about movements between the many instances of this designation. As this designation alters and changes historically, so do the multiple possibilities assume different characteristics. If one looks at historical instances of being Adventist they find that “Adventist” as a collective noun has undergone its changes and, once again, no original and neutral way of being a real Adventist lies there like a base behind the larger framework of the denomination. Some changing of the characteristics is constantly in play.

Is Adventist an eternally compromised noun? My aim is to point out the inherent instability of the category Adventist and multiply the ways we perceive of a “real” Adventist. Some people may incorrectly believe that I’m trying to argue that there is, then, no such thing as an Adventist; that all accounts of the category are forward looking and strictly constructed as it sheds its past. There must be some measure of group identity that remains, perhaps a moving back and forth between the past and future possibilities. What I think occurs is the immediate past and further history of Adventist practices and beliefs provides a framework and point of reference for the church to move forward. There is always a creative tension between the framework provided by the past and what will be in the present-future.

A full account of being Adventist is impossible because a full narration cannot be captured since the formative history remains irrecoverable by reflection. There are historians who do the much-needed work of studying Adventist history. But because the full narrative is irrecoverable we can’t assume to know a universal experience or universal meaning of being Adventist. Much less are we able to gather the thoughts and experiences of every member of the worldwide church of Seventh-day Adventists in the present.

The social or denominational framework that offers the terms to make self-recognition as an Adventist possible constrain each person in advance by deciding what will and will not be a recognizable form of being Adventist. Although the framework that delineates in advance what form recognition as an Adventist will take place, it does not fully constrain the category Adventist. As previously stated, the social denominational framework of Adventism provides the point of reference for recognition. In other words, it is only in relation to this framework that recognition of the self and others as Adventist takes place or the norms that govern being Adventist are challenged and transformed.

One should take care not to do this in a lighthearted spirit. One important point in this theory is that any relation to the framework of Adventism is always and at the same time a relation to myself. Affirming or critiquing what Adventism is ultimately entails a self-reflexive dimension. To call into question the framework of Adventism that provides the norms of being Adventist is to call into question at least one major aspect of my Self. In one sense, the entire framework of Adventism is a microcosm of the philosophical question of the one and the many. The one framework of Adventism is inseparable from the makeup of the many members that comprise the whole. Thus, if I call into question the framework of the whole, I also call into question at least one important aspect of my own experience as a person. Philosopher Judith Butler observes,

It also turns out that self-questioning of this sort involves putting oneself at risk, imperiling the very possibility of being recognized by others, since to question the norms of recognition that govern what I might be, to ask what they leave out, what they might be compelled to accommodate, is. . .to risk unrecognizability as a subject or at least to become an occasion for posing the questions of who one is (or can be) and whether or not one is recognizable (1).

Measuring oneself against the terms of identity and belonging provided by the framework of Adventist means that one risks not being recognized as an Adventist by others, insofar as the terms appear fixed for a time, even if one believes that they belong.

Adventism is never reducible to a set of beliefs or a normative experience of a “real” Adventist. It will always be—and become—a summation of the beliefs, experiences, and interpretations of each member; hence, it is always turning in on itself and subject to reinterpretation. There may be a sense of the inherited past for the present mind, even while the turning in on itself and re-creation further enlarge the larger framework.

There is a way of conceiving of truth and knowledge that exacerbates the false category of a true or real Adventist and incorrectly relates theological error with personal spiritual fault. When one is perceived as remaining in error over science, doctrine, or morality, she is sometimes blamed for lacking humility, failing to regard the counsel of other members in the Truth, and avoiding the leading of the Holy Spirit. Her quest for answers may have been marked by the best intentions and, yet, arriving at the “wrong” idea is attributed to a fault of character.

I turn now to the question of knowledge and truth for the Adventist thinker and favor, in particular, one interpretation of “present truth” in early Adventism. My intention is not to recommend that we return to the nineteenth century mindset because I’ve already argued against that possibility. Rather, I want to further deconstruct the infallibility of original ideas while at the same time using the historical framework as a point of reference, the implication being that the appropriation of nineteenth century present truth is always a re-interpretation. I turn to Ellen White and a passage from Councils to Writers and Editors that is well known among Adventists and used widely.

There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation (2).

The sense of present truth that I’m aiming at isn’t about Truth, per se, or the structure of reality such that we can elaborate on absolute Truth. Even though they are related, those questions are for a slightly different conversation. Present truth is not so much about truth in the Real or metaphysical sense, but about the way in which we come to understand doctrines, ideas, and practices. Present truth is about knowledge and how we come to understand and interpret information. It is a way of understanding, a way of knowing that also serves an important function in the corporate body; a primary function being its relationship to Adventist identity, in particular, the idea that there isn’t one universal way or experience of Adventism, but an identity that is as much in process as the ideas and beliefs of the church.


Trisha Famisaran is a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Religion, Claremont Graduate University.

The full version of this paper was prepared for the Centennial Sabbath School, Loma Linda University Church, September 25, 2010, in Loma Linda, California.

  1. See Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 23.
  2. Ellen G. White, Councils to Writers and Editors, 35.
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