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Uniformity Drift: Are Adventist Ideals at Risk?

Pardon me, but it’s hard to find a new theme when we seem so vulnerable to pontifical drift. Vulnerable even when we want to seem like a Reformation movement. The theme I refer to is ecclesiology.  It won’t go away—and it had better not: we seem poised for yet another abdication of our historic ideals. The leader of the church’s “Fundamental Beliefs Review Committee,” Elder Artur Stele, said the following—I mostly paraphrase—in an interview published in the April, 2012, issue of Adventist World—NAD:

  • Our doctrines are not “engraved” in stone, so occasional revision makes sense; new language may “better express” what we’ve always believed.
  • In the revision process God “can use and speak through every member,” and he and his team want members to offer the Committee short statements of “suggested” language.
  • But the Committee does have one “special assignment,” and that is to integrate into a revised Belief No. 6 an action regarding the doctrine of Creation that was “voted by the church’s Annual Council in 2004.”
  • Without a biblical doctrine of Creation the whole structure of Adventist belief, not least the Sabbath itself, gives way.

I identify, as perhaps you do, with three of these four points.  If faith is always seeking understanding, we should expect new insight.  If Christ’s work means the priesthood of all believers, we should make sure every member has a voice.  If the Bible teaches Creation, it is because Creation is underpinning for the whole story of salvation; if the Sabbath comes in with Creation, it is a gift for all of us, whatever our ethnicity.

But the third point is scary, a theological dropping of the ball over which Stele himself, no doubt, has limited control.  The Fundamental Beliefs Review Committee must incorporate words voted by Adventist leaders—overwhelmingly Adventist clergymen—at a session of the church’s Annual Council that took place in 2004. 

At that session the number of non-ordained participants—not to mention the number of Adventist scientists—was small to the point of inconsequential. Still, the Council mandated (against the leanings, it’s fair to say, of most Adventist scientists) a literalistic reading of Belief No. 6.  The Creation story, on this view, is not a true evocation of a truth too deep for human understanding; it is instead a “literal,” almost journalistic, account.  Creation was “recent,” and happened over six “literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week.”  

The background for the Annual Council statement was a series of Faith and Science Conferences that took place between 2002 and 2004.  One conclusion conference organizers drew from their experience is that science should be affirmed but not science that conflicts with conventional Adventist interpretation.  The 2004 Annual Council action was a formal response to their report, and included a directive to Adventist educators to uphold and advocate “the church’s position [by which it meant the Annual Council’s position] on origins.” Delegates called, indeed, upon all Adventists to embrace the “church’s” position.  

But the Annual Council Statement overlooked a minor, yet unmistakable, motif from the report by organizers of the Faith and Science Conferences.  That was acknowledgment that “some among us interpret the biblical record in ways that lead to sharply different conclusions.”  As their report also said, “We recognize that there are different theological interpretations among us regarding Genesis 1-11.”

Among  ”us”—among, that is, the Adventist scientists, theologians and church leaders who participated.  Here was clear evidence of diverse opinion within the church.  Yet the 2004 Annual Council overlooked it, and expressed instead determination to rid the church of diverse opinion. Now, moreover, the people doing the voting consisted overwhelmingly of ordained Adventist clergymen.

The first thing to say is that this development reflects early Christian heresy.  In the New Testament church no privileged group exercised theological authority over the people as a whole.  But as scholars in general and Adventists like Gottfried Oosterwal, Norskov Olsen and Charles Bradford have pointed out, it wasn’t long until those “set apart” for leadership fell under the spell of hierarchy. At the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, bishops seized responsibility for authoritative definition of dogma; by then they were beginning to think of themselves as superior in thought and character to the “unordained” members of the Christian community.

But another thing to say is that this development breaks with historic Adventism.  As Charles Bradford wrote in 1995, early Adventists were “determined to expunge from their teaching and practice every trace” of authoritarian governance.  He said further that “Ellen White coined the phrase ‘kingly power’ as a warning to pastors and leaders not to abuse their authority.”

An expression of Adventist doctrine that came out during Ellen White’s lifetime underscores Bradford’s point about early Adventism.  In 1872 church leaders published a statement of Adventist belief that began with these astonishing words:

In presenting to the public this synopsis of our faith, we wish to have it distinctly understood that we have no articles of faith, creed, or discipline, aside from the Bible. We do not put forth this as having any authority with our people, nor is it designed to secure uniformity among them, as a system of faith, but is a brief statement of what is, and has been, with great unanimity, held by them.

These leaders did not think of their own perspective as being somehow the same thing as the church’s perspective.  They summarized what they took to be a wide consensus, but did not wish to stamp out diversity of opinion.  To them, uniformity was a mistake, not an aspiration.  

This is an energizing feature of nineteenth-century Adventism.  It may help to explain why Artur Stele expresses interest in the perspective of “every member.”  It may also explain his arresting reply to an e-mail I sent him the other day.  Does his call for input from members apply to questions surrounding Belief No. 6?  Is the Fundamental Beliefs Review Committee’s “assignment” to integrate language from the 2004 Annual Council statement “non-negotiable,” or is there, even here, openness to change “as a result of comment from lay people?”

Almost immediately, he replied: “O yes, feel free to send your suggestions!”

I do not know enough about the process, or about Artur Stele, to be sure what his comment may mean for the church’s conversation over the next few months and years.  But one of I would make is to leave Belief No. 6 as it is.  The present wording leaves room for a bit of nuance (and, perhaps, for all our scientists) but expresses, nevertheless, a crucial—and highly countercultural—faith in God as Maker of Heaven and Earth.

My second suggestion would be all the more important should Belief No. 6 change in the direction many Adventist leaders now seem to favor.  It is that the preamble of any new document on Adventist doctrine end as follows: “This Statement of Beliefs is to be regarded as consistent with conversations meant to advance our comprehension of biblical truth.”

That would reflect the fact that all human understanding is fallible.  It would reflect the spirit of the New Testament.  And it would reflect as well the spirit of historic Adventism, which seems always at risk, yet always stubbornly alive, even to this day.

—Charles Scriven is president of Kettering College and chairs the Adventist Forum board.

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