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Our Great Leap Backward

The great irony is that the Bible suffered a defeat.

So did the legacy of Ellen White. So did the Holy Spirit, or as Paul says (Romans 8), the living Christ.

Sabbath morning 60,000 or more worshippers at the Georgia Dome heard a reflection on Israel’s escape from Pharaoh. In the story, the people panic at the sight of the Egyptian army bearing down on them, and God, pointing to the looming sea, says to Moses: “‘Tell the children of Israel to go forward.’”

From start to finish, that was the repeated refrain on Sabbath morning: Go forward. The story in Exodus 14 crackles with danger and fear, yet pulls the reader into the sheer adventure that typifies Holy Scripture all the way through. The theme itself could not have been more appropriate, more compelling, more energizing. We do live in a harrowing time, and we do need new courage and new hope.

But our new leader, Ted Wilson, chose not to impart new courage and new hope. He chose instead to focus on his fears about the quality of faith inside the Adventist tent. He repudiated “liberal” interpretations of Scripture and what he called “confusing pagan” approaches to music and worship. He repudiated “fanatical or loose theology,” “ecumenism” “the emergent church” and even “contemplative” and “centering” prayer.

Attempting to de-legitimize all metaphorical readings of the beginning of Genesis, he told Adventist parishioners to “hold your leaders, pastors, local churches, educators, institutions, and administrative organizations accountable to the highest standards of belief based on a literal understanding of Scripture.”

All that he fears deserves our ongoing theological reflection. In Matthew 18 and elsewhere, the disciples of Christ are bidden to constant conversation about the faithfulness not only of their actions but also of their convictions. But the tragic flaw in the message Sabbath was our new leader’s invocation of the “unchanging Word of God!” It is of true, of course, that the written words of Scripture remain, essentially unchanged and unchangeable. It is also true that the Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

But the Bible is unmistakable in its claim that the living word of God—the actual message of God to actual human beings—does change. The prophets say, repeatedly, that God will tell us “new things.” According to John, Jesus himself declared that the Holy Spirit—his living presence in the church—would one day say what is today too hard to bear. The condemnation of slavery is, for me, the classic example. It was nowhere condemned in Scripture, yet under the pioneering influence of Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, church leaders came, if all too gradually, to condemn it. The living presence of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, told them so.

So the sermon’s call—or demand—to return to some settled version of Adventism simply contradicts the spirit of Scripture. And it ignores, too, the truth of Ellen White, whose life story embodied the spiritual dynamism we associate with Scripture: she grew, she made mistakes, she changed her mind, she embraced adventure.

It is not clear that we will be allowed to share that part of her experience.

The fact is that when Ellen White died, her dynamism came under the threat of death. Cautious Adventist leaders began to narrow down the boundaries of Adventism. Statements of belief became longer and more suitable for locating heresies at the further margins of belief. We became titans of suspicion, and lurched, almost as if drunk, into mutual distrust.

It has been that way for a long time now, and it hacks away at the energy and hope that makes a community thrive. But there have been pockets of church life where dynamism flourishes, and there still will be. So, as God grants us the strength, we ourselves must say Yes to the living word of God. I doubt, after this morning, that it will be easy. But it wasn’t easy for the prophets in their day, nor for Jesus in his.

Photo by Josef Kissinger/ANN

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