The concepts of “remnant” and “true church” are not foreign to members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long intertwined with Adventist history and culture has been the notion of Adventism as a prophetic minority which alone has been faithful to God.
Whether all Adventists still believe this is not clear, but author Marvin Moore in his recent book, Challenges to the Remnant: Adventists, Catholics, and the ‘True Church’, certainly does: “throughout the ages, God has had a faithful remnant in the world,” he writes. The book’s target audience can no doubt assume that Seventh-day Adventists constitute that remnant.
Now that I have given away half of Moore’s plot, let me share the second half. To whom is Moore referring as challenging Adventism? Moore uses “challenge” in at least two different ways in his book. In his conclusion, he uses “challenge” neutrally in that the “great challenge to the Remnant today is the challenge to prepare to be a part of that eternal heavenly church ….” But his subtitle provides a not-so-subtle hint that he also believes the Catholic Church is a challenge, if not an affront, to Adventism. The glove has been removed and slapped across the denominational divide.
From the very first chapter – “Benedict’s Startling Announcement” – the reader is on notice that the “red meat” of Adventist theology is on the menu. Interestingly enough, however, the document Moore references is neither from Pope Benedict, nor is it startling, nor is it an announcement.
What Moore references is not a papal encyclical, nor a document approved by an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, nor a text voted on by bishops gathered for a synod. Rather, it is commentary released by a department within the Vatican. Its title, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” identifies it not as a Constitution, Decree, or Declaration.
For those not entirely familiar with the Catholic Church’s canon law, there is a hierarchy of legal documents within the Catholic Church. A Constitution, as one might imagine, would be accorded the highest status of canon law; the others function and interrelate akin to federal statutes, state constitutions, state statues, city charters, and municipal ordinances in the secular legal system. All are important, all constitute law, and all are binding. But that which is lower cannot amend or alter that which is higher.
How would a Catholic understand the document entitled “Responses to Some Questions”? Answer: precisely the same way an Adventist would understand a similarly titled document issued, for example, under the letterhead of a department of the General Conference. When Angel Rodriguez writes his column for Adventist Review, do Adventists describe that writing as “an edict of Jan Paulsen”?
No Adventist would argue that the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute, the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary, or the GC Ministerial Department, to name three examples, has the authority to change the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Yet Moore implies that commentary from a Vatican Department can override a Constitution of the Second Vatican Council.
“Responses to Some Questions,” while important and official, is not an amendment to a document of the Second Vatican Council, but commentary thereon. It does not control but in fact is controlled by the documents of Vatican II.
Perhaps the most important and in some respects the most forward-looking Vatican II document was Lumen Gentium (“Dogmatic Constitution of the Church”), which held that the Catholic Church is “linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name Christian, though they” are not Catholic Christians.
Another would be Unitatis Redintegratio (“Decree on Ecumenism”), which states that Christians who are not Catholic are nonetheless “separated brethren.” The “Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers ….” As Christians – whether Protestant or Orthodox – they have a “right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord ….” (“Brothers,” by the way, is not meant as an exclusive reference to males but as inclusive of humanity in both its genders.)
The point of these documents, and the overwhelming weight of official Catholic commentary thereon, is that one’s salvation is not dependent on affiliation with one particular Christian denomination. Cardinal Dulles, as recently as early 2008, reiterated the message of Lumen Gentium: “Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.”
Whether out of lack of understanding or lack of space, Moore’s book fails to clearly explain the Hierarchy of Truth (“different truths of faith are ‘organized’ around a center”) and the Analogy of Faith (“every individual statement of belief must be understood in the light of the Church’s whole objective body of faith”). While not as careless as Jan Marcussen’s National Sunday Law, Moore indiscriminately quotes from documents accorded varying degrees of authority within Catholic canon law and written at different times in history without identifying and explaining such. He fails to explain the Catholic distinction between truth, on the one hand, and a particular expression of that truth in a given place and time.
Catholics believe in the development of doctrine, not that truth changes, but rather that God leads his followers into greater understanding of truth or expression of that truth over time. Theology is never written in a vacuum but is often developed in response to questions posed at that time and expressed in a vocabulary and tone shaped by a historical milieu. Thus the Creeds were formulated in response to arising heresies.
Catholics believe that the truth of a doctrine is not immune to cultural or historical context, and therefore one ought to be cautious about necessarily identifying an historical articulation of that truth with the core of that truth. Indeed, they are related, but they are not necessarily identical.
In closing, this is an important work for Seventh-day Adventist Christians to read. I recommend it. I say this not because this is the only perspective on the Roman Catholic Church which sincere Adventists may consider. Rather, it is a classic perspective on the Roman Catholic Church, one with which Adventists must honestly grapple.
While Moore is less combative in his choice of words than Ellen G. White was in the 19th century, one is to expect such “toning down” over time. The tenor of all documents issued by the various Christian communities, including that of the Roman Catholic Church, has softened over the centuries, becoming more sensitive, inclusive, and more gracious in spirit. Compare modern 21st century Lutheran Church documents with those, say, of Martin Luther penned in the 16th century against the Jews or the peasant uprising.
This book provides an occasion for Adventists to wrestle with whether this classic perspective on Catholicism is essential to Adventism. Does the belief that the Catholic Church is the beast of prophecy serve as the mark of authentic Adventism? If so, why didn’t Jesus preach a single sermon on this topic?
Closer to home, why is this belief not expressly among the 28 Fundamental Beliefs? Is it because this understanding is so foundational that its truth is without contestation and can be presumed by all Adventists? If so, are there other foundational yet unwritten Fundamental Beliefs of Adventism?
Or is this belief excluded from the 28 Fundamental Beliefs precisely because it is not fundamental to Adventism? How should conscientious Adventists interpret this intentional silence?
While I believe this book to be worthwhile reading, there are many ideas, in addition to Moore’s view on Catholic Christianity, with which I respectfully disagree. Three further examples suffice.
First, Moore writes that the “mission of God’s Remnant will be to explain that these disasters are a result of the world’s refusal to honor the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment.” Taking Moore’s choice of words at face value, God caused the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Tsunami off of the coast of Thailand and Indonesia, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and their attendant suffering and countless deaths. What of the pre-Sinai natural disasters? Were those also sent by God to punish those who failed to keep the seventh-day Sabbath? Surely Adventism does not believe this. God does not send natural disasters to punish non-Adventists!
Second, Moore asserts that the “explosive growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” validates its status as God’s Remnant and that salvation at some point will depend on one’s observing the Seventh-day Sabbath. This raises a question of demographic importance: In 1908 there were about 1.7 billion non-Adventists in the world, today in 2008 there are over 6 billion non-Adventists, and by 2108 there will be well in excess of 7 billion non-Adventists, even if we assume the membership of the Adventist Church grows by a billion or two in the next century. If salvation is dependent on what day individuals attend church, Moore’s “explosive growth” is not quite explosive enough. Either Adventists need to work much harder, or God in his mercy needs to come a lot sooner!
Third, Moore takes exception to the fact that in one Catholic document the word “communion” rather than church is used in reference to Protestant denominations. He reads into that choice of words a slur, a slight, and a pejorative. None should be taken. One of the most cherished expressions of Catholics is “the communion of saints.” It is in this gracious sense that “communion” is employed. Furthermore, a noted Adventist publication (Questions on Doctrine, Question #20, p. 187) uses “communion” without any negative implication intended or inference drawn. As Moore sees it, Adventists can use the word communion, but when Catholics use it they intend to insult.
Catholic theologian William H. Shannon describes what Catholics mean by communion: “In heaven the ecumenical goal is fully realized. No longer are there Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists. Those are earthly ways to think of humanity. Of course there are persons, unique in their own individuality. Yet unique though they are, they are now perfectly one with God.”
But perhaps James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake put it most succinctly: “catholic means ‘here comes everybody.’”
Some may read this review and suggest that its critique cannot be taken seriously because it is the work of one who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. My response would be three-fold: (1) I make no claim to absolute objectivity, only that objectivity remains an ideal to which I am committed but which may not be achievable in this lifetime; (2) I did not leave one “remnant” to join another “remnant”; rather, I abandoned altogether the belief in classifying Christian denominations as being remnant or non-remnant; and (3) Christian faith is more about leaving unanswerable mysteries in the hands of a loving God than it is about having winning dogmatic answers for theological debates.
When comparing God’s Infinite Majesty, Mystery, and Mercy with humanity’s finiteness, fallenness, and frailty, one can only pray that God forgive us our sins and perhaps forgive us our theology most of all.
David A. Pendleton, former legislator and policy advisor to Hawaii’s Governor and a former Adventist minister, is an administrative law judge in Honolulu, Hawaii. Although he now is a practicing Catholic, he says he still has “a lot of aloha for the Adventist church.” (You can read his interview with Adventist Today here.)
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