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Why Can’t I Own Canadians?: Grace, the Holy Spirit, and the Threat of Fundamentalism

When radio commentator Laura Schlessinger recently backed up a contentious claim with a key-text argument—Leviticus says so; that settles it—a college teacher from Virginia responded with mock gratitude, and then asked for further advice.

According to Leviticus 25:44, he wrote, I may “possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?”

Perhaps no fundamentalist would say that Bible-believers can own Canadians, or any slaves at all. But why not? The passage from Leviticus is in the Bible and the Bible is from God. So why not let these words—“it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and females slaves”—settle the question? Why not let any passage from the Bible resolve any argument it pertains to?

With these thoughts in mind, I am going to reflect, over the next three weekends, on just how to read Scripture and assess current Christian teaching, Adventist or otherwise. In doing so, I will attempt to look through two lenses: that, most fundamentally, of grace, and that, in particular, of the Holy Spirit.

Although we cannot be sure how Ted Wilson, the new General Conference President, will follow through on his inaugural sermon, he did express worries about what he called “loose” theology, and in that context did invoke what he called the “unchanging Word of God.” Here and there, this has provoked worry about a further resurgence of Adventist fundamentalism. The worry may be premature, but it is nonetheless timely to state the biblical case concerning all of this. Elder Wilson admonished listeners to “hold your leaders, pastors, local churches, educators, institutions, and administrative organizations accountable to the highest standards of [scripture-based] belief,” so it makes sense, right now, to gain clarity concerning what scripture actually says about how to relate to inherited conviction.

If there is no such thing as “new light,” why is that so? But if there is such a thing as (genuine) “new light,” how do we decide on what it is?

Let me, in this first essay, simply describe fundamentalism. I hope the conversation that ensues—please chime in if I mischaracterize fundamentalism—will enable us to refine our sense of what this very loaded term actually refers to.

So here, I propose, are the three key tendencies of (Christian) fundamentalism:

First is the tendency toward a flat, mechanical reading of the Bible.

According to fundamentalist theory, every part of Holy Writ—every book, every text—has equal sway over Christian thought and life. The whole Bible is inspired, so you cannot have (as one commonplace puts it) a canon within the canon; either it’s all God’s truth in all its parts, or none of it is.

One count against this view is that it cannot be upheld consistently: few fundamentalists, for example, consider the sun to revolve around the earth, or condone slavery or punishments by stoning. Another, more important, count against this view is its failure to see that the Bible story ascends toward Jesus, who, according the Bible itself, is the final “Word” of God and the final authority for thought and life.

The failure, moreover, to notice the subtleties of the story plays out in the additional failure to notice the subtleties of the poetry, of the images that point beyond themselves to still deeper realities. Fundamentalists read the Bible with erratic, or capricious, literalism, and although this is meant to protect the Christian message, it can instead divert attention from it. Fundamentalism’s focus on the arithmetic of the creation story, for example, all too often goes hand in hand with negative (and essentially pagan) feelings about the material world that God has made.

The potential for such failure of insight is no doubt why Jesus himself, though committed to the realism of God’s message, resisted literalism. When he saw Nicodemus and then the Woman at the Well missing the truth he told because they literalized his poetic images, he nudged them gently toward more imaginative—and more redemptive—understanding.

Second is fundamentalism’s tendency toward rigidity and arrogance with regard to customary understanding.

For fundamentalists, the knowledge of God’s will and way is not so much a quest as an accomplished state, and the Bible not so much a life-changing story as a catalogue of proof texts: it does not challenge present thinking but only validates it. The object of study is to learn a sacrosanct (as opposed to sacred) tradition or to fend off criticism of that tradition, rather than to open the heart and mind to a God who is always ahead of us and always inviting us to take the next step of the journey.

For believers at Pentecost, the “common life in Christ,” as theologian James McClendon remarked, “was by nature adventure, daily discovered, daily risked.” Fundamentalism shies away from the ethos of Pentecost, afraid of the openness, courage and passion for learning that are basic to genuine spiritual growth. All too often, the result is the blinkered outlook of hyperorthodoxy: limited, unaware, self-satisfied, and eager to track down and penalize every effort at constructive innovation.

One irony here is that in its guardianship of inherited belief systems, fundamentalism sacrifices the quality of shared life that Christian belief systems are meant to support: doctrinal over-fussiness wins out over forgiveness and love.

Third is the tendency toward reactive, inward-looking separatism.

Fundamentalism began as a reaction to perceived evil in the wider society. Fundamentalist communities still define themselves as enclaves of right organized against a world of wrong. They see their antagonists as hostile, and tend to regard “separation” from these antagonists as their main reason for existing.

There is much right, of course, about the sense of being a “separate,” or alternative, community: it reflects the biblical tradition, the biblical sense of how God’s people, by refusing to be ordinary, can be a blessing to the wider world. The trouble is preoccupation with difference to the neglect of substance.

Fundamentalists tend to focus on distinctives—in language, customs and behavior—that mark them off from others. But all too often, these markers—sometimes highly contestable, often merely external—have little to do with the mind of Christ and the soul of discipleship. Fundamentalist communities tend, for example, to digress into the legalism, and to attend more to possibilities for impurity and defilement than to possibilities for compassion and justice. They rend their garments easily, their hearts less easily.

Authentic Christian separation is rooted in the core meaning of the Gospel and is meant to transform surrounding culture. But in fundamentalism separation devolves into mere separatism, and becomes demonic for refusing to learn from other voices, and self-deceived for thinking that intellectual isolation will prevent drift into unfaithfulness. (Ask yourself how many Christian snake-handlers stood with Martin Luther King in the battle against American racism.)

That’s it—my account of fundamentalism’s defining features. What have I missed? What have I over- or under-stated?

In Part II, next weekend, I will characterize the teaching function of the Holy Spirit, and show how fundamentalism resists grace and stands at cross-purposes with Christian teaching about the Trinity. My Holy-Spirit-affirming perspective will describe how dynamic, Christ-centered communities should relate to proposed shifts from inherited belief. Said another way, it will offer a theological basis for thinking about “new light.”


The chair of the Adventist Forum board (publisher of Spectrum), Charles Scriven, PhD, is president of Kettering College of Medical Arts and author of The Promise of Peace: Dare to Experience the Advent Hope.

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