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Report on the Adventist Society for Religious Studies Meeting

This past week I had the good fortune to attend the Adventist Society for Religious Studies in Atlanta, Georgia. It was both an honor and a humbling experience to be able to share this event with such an illustrious gathering of Adventist scholars and educators.
For those of you who have never had the opportunity to attend an ASRS conference, let me briefly share the format and rubrics of the event. All sessions begin on time and follow the printed agenda with precision. Those with papers are given a set time to present, pre-chosen individuals give their critiques and the presenter answers their questions and afterward questions from the floor. Copies of the papers are distributed to the attendees so that one can follow along as the paper is read.
As this was my first time at an ASRS conference I was impressed with the high level of professionalism. The organization, conduct and content of the meetings were on a different plane than any Adventist gathering I had heretofore attended.
On Thursday evening the conference’s keynote address was given by Jacques Doukhan of Andrews University. As the theme of the conference was “The Rest is Easy: The Sabbath in Adventist Theology and Practice”, Dr. Doukhan spoke on “What Seventh-day Adventists Can Learn from Jews about the Sabbath.” He stressed that for Jews the Sabbath was for “celebrating” not merely for “keeping”. While the concept of celebrating Sabbath is not a new one in Adventist circles, the actual experience of finding Sabbath a delight is often missing.
Friday was a full day with seven papers and one book review. The morning session began with a presentation by Eliezer Gonzales from Avondale College in Australia on Sabbath and the Reign of God. According to Gonzales, Jesus was “not content to merely dispute the Pharisaic interpretations of the law,” but he “engages in a fundamental reinterpretation of Scripture itself.” Geoffrey Crowely approached Sabbath from the perspective of the meaning of the Year of Jubilee in both the Old and New Testaments and he showed how that meaning impacted the day itself. For Crowely, the Sabbath is to be symbolic of a lifestyle of self-sacrifice and justice not merely a worship requirement. Gerald Wheeler’s paper focused on the Sabbath as the essential formative element in establishing a sense of peoplehood and an element designed to be inclusive of all peoples.
Having just read Sigve Tonstad’s new book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, I was interested in how my opinions of the book would stack up with that of more learned scholars. Following Tonsted’s own review of his book, Alden Thompson, Charles Scriven and Lawrence Geraty gave their critiques as well as their personal impressions. All were moved by Tonsted’s beautiful and poetic prose style of writing, impressed with his well documented historical approach and agreed that his book was a much needed addition to the Adventist compendium of Sabbath study.
After lunch the conference featured the video, The Artificial Albatross, produced by Grenville Kent from the Wesley Institute as the first in a new video series on Creation. The video contrasted the wing of an Albatross with that of an airplane. He followed the design elements needed for human flight with the intricacies found in the wings of birds.
The papers in the afternoon session dealt with the more practical experience of Sabbath observance. Pastor John Brunt’s personal experiences of “Negotiating Sabbath Observance in the Local Church” was followed by the larger view of “Practices of Sabbath Observance in the International Seventh-day Adventist Community” presented by May Ellen Colon, Assistant Director of the General Conference Sabbath School Department. Skip McCarty from the Pioneer Memorial SDA Church answered the question “Does Isaiah 66:22-23 and Hebrews 4-9 Support the Seventh-day Sabbath in the New Earth and New Covenant Eras”. His conclusion was that these passages of classic prophecy can also be understood as apocalyptic in nature and thus used credibly in evangelism.
Lest the impression be that those who responded to the presenters and their papers were just giving polite acknowledgment and praise, the critiques often involved probing questions and dissenting viewpoints. The opportunity for attendees to actually converse with authors about their research and papers in the break times is also a part of the ASRS experience.
The late afternoon sessions were devoted to sectional meetings, allowing for the educators and scholars to visit informally with their peers in their respective disciplines. I chose to meet with the Theology and Church History section. The first item of interest in this group was a report on the recent conference on Arminianism and Adventism held at Andrews University in October. It was delightful to hear firsthand accounts from the organizers and learn about their impressions of the event.
Due to a prior commitment on Friday evening, it was with regret I missed the icing on the cake – Bonnie Dwyer’s presidential address entitled, “Sabbath with Esther, Lady Macbeth and St. Brigit.” However I left with the impression that scholarship is alive and flourishing within the Adventist theological community. The level of discourse, the quality of research and the opportunity for sharing theological insights and study provided by the Adventist Society for Religious Studies gave me reason to hope for the future of our church.

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