How Healthy is Adventist Eschatology? A Missiological Imbalance (Part 6)

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As we have been considering in previous columns, Adventist Eschatology is modulated and recognizable by some typical traits. First, by the priority of Apocalypticism over Messianism; second, by the earnest and fervent defense of prophecy and prediction rather than by a contingent and open future; and third, by the radicalization of its pre-millenialist ethos over and against our surrounding secularized more post-millenialist socio-cultural context. All this ultimately has a consistent impact on the way we understand the church, human beings and finally our own end-time mission.

It’s not a theological fault in itself to be an apocalyptic or pre-millenialist church but it can become one if we forget two important theological mechanisms. First, that ours is not inherently “the biblical” position but an interpretation of biblical eschatology. For pedagogical reasons we are allowed to say that ours is a biblical eschatology because it’s based in the Bible. But at a certain point we are obliged to differentiate between what “is the Bible” and what “is based on the Bible”. Our eschatology is not "the Bible”, it is only based on the Bible. We will never be able, and this is valid for every church, to overcome the structural distance between our derived interpretations and the Bible itself. In other words we’ll never become identical with the Bible. In this sense we’ll never be completely “biblical”. Ours will always be a biblical derivation. Important, serious, coherent and persuasive – but still a derivation. “Hands off the Bible”, is a primary rule of any healthy Christian hermeneutics. There is not an interpretation, even if inspired, which alone could express the richness, complexity and balance of biblical eschatology. Every interpretation is structurally unilateral and limited. For this reason it has a short life span. And for this same reason it must continually go back to the Bible, not to reaffirm what it has initially found, but rather to balance and complete it with new elements which were overlooked in the original, primordial interpretation. Adventist Eschatology is certainly biblical because it’s based on the Bible but at the same time is not biblical, and it will never be such, because it doesn’t express the totality of the biblical complexity and richness. To be truly biblical, doesn’t mean "getting it right” but rather the opposite. It means to confess that we always have a precarious, insufficient and unilateral understanding of the Bible.

Second, what we get from the Bible as current interpretation is not automatically relevant for our present situation. For this reason we need to try to find a more complete message. And, in the same measure, we also need to better understand our own human situation to which the Bible is speaking. We have here a double challenge: understanding biblical eschatology in its complexity, and comprehending our current time as thoroughly and accurately as possible. None of these two elements are negotiable. Both must coexist in tension in order to understand what a “biblical eschatology” is and means today. This strong bond of attention and duty of understanding our own human situation is not external to the Bible, as it apparently may appear. It derives from inside the Bible. In fact the Bible is only such when it becomes Present Truth, an updated word of God, as its general meaning becomes particular. This is why the “Sola Scriptura” principle could lead us, if understood improperly, to become paradoxically “unbiblical”. External reality, or what we could call the “reality principle”, is indispensable, not only to prove the validity of the claims advanced by the Bible, but also because without this external reality the Bible can’t produce Present Truth – its specific message for us today.

So on one hand our current Adventist interpretation will never be as complete and rich as the Bible itself, and on the other hand it will not necessarily take from the Bible what is best for us today. And this double shortcoming can happen while we are perfectly biblical in the sense of repeating verbally what the Bible says. Being biblical then, in the primary sense of reproducing what the Bible says, unfortunately still doesn’t mean or guarantee to be biblical relevance. And this double eschatological shortcoming is unfortunately also visible in understanding our end-time mission. This is what I call the “missiological imbalance” of our eschatology that I will briefly try to describe in three passages.

1. The assimilation between “God’s kingdom” and “Church”

The reduction of our eschatology into apocalypticism leads us to implicitly identify Adventism with God’s kingdom. This assimilation is biblically and theologically unjustified and moves us toward missiological distortion. The result is that mission then becomes the goal of trying to make everybody Adventist. If not physically, because that’s impossible, at least theologically. By this understanding only those who "think Adventist” can enter God’s Kingdom. So we end up preaching, not God’s kingdom, but Adventism, and assigning ourselves an unbearable burden that no church could really stand. Adventist mission is very important but it’s only one little part of God’s global mission for bringing his Kingdom down to us. There are other missions, religious and secular, that contribute to advance God’s kingdom and we need to acknowledge, respect and appreciate them if we want to avoid unnecessary stress and destructive obsessions. We Adventists have a precious mission but that is only a part of a bigger plan based in the enormous inclusive capacity of God’s kingdom extended to all humankind. This includes categories, experiences, situations and profiles that we Adventists are unable to reach and maintain. We will certainly baptize into our church all who chose our religious way, but those who won’t are not necessarily perverse, insensitive or excluded from God’s kingdom. Thankfully, God has other means, strategies and missions to which people who don’t become Adventists can respond to.

2. The assimilation between “Believer” and “Militant”

Our strong apocalypticism also pushes us toward a very tight understanding of what a believer is. Every believer as much as every new convert must be a “militant”. Somebody who lives an intense and radical faith experience. This religious earnestness becomes the only valid sign of a true fellowship. We don’t consider the intensity and seriousness of other human experiences as being sufficient enough to allow people to be included in God’s Kingdom. But neither by biblical perspective or common sense is this understanding and conviction tenable. End-time mission is serious but certainly should not overwhelm us with anxiety and stress. In the Bible we find differentiated profiles of people who called themselves God’s followers. Elijah was certainly more radical and militant than Elisha. And Nazirites like Samson were more ascetic and involved than common Israelites. But these common Israelites were also God’s children who were able to enter actively into God’s covenant, albeit by practicing a less radical, though full engaged religious experience.

The larger a religious group the more differentiated its internal profile becomes. And this is happening in Adventism. By size and historical duration our church has become a heterogeneous group that can’t be lead or assessed via monolithic and homogeneous standards. And here I would like to plead for a sober defense of a “Cultural Adventism”. We have precious and rich human experiences incarnated in some Adventists who don’t fit any more into the narrow mould of militant Adventism. Yet we sometimes exclude and expel them from our ranks because we are unable to have a larger understanding of what Adventist belonging and mission can really mean.

3. The assimilation between “to Witness” and “to Baptize”

Our eschatological imbalances push us often to assimilate two modalities of mission that are related but need also to be differentiated. Nobody would deny the place and value of baptism in a coherent theology of mission. Baptism gives the convert and the hosting church a sense of completeness that is indispensable to experience Christian belonging. But when mission is reduced to baptism both end up deformed and impoverished. Then “Mission” unnaturally becomes compulsive proselytism and “Baptism” an administrative cataloguing. Christian witnessing has two particular traits we need to keep in mind. First, Christian witnessing only indirectly concentrates on the witnessing church. It rather longs for God’s Kingdom as the final goal and target. Witnessing always points beyond the witnessing agent. Second, Christian witnessing is a qualitative event which only tangentially stops to consider the relevance of quantitative results, because it knows that a real conversion experience doesn't occur in short and mechanical cycles but in long and unpredictable ones. And in this longer context the witnessing church might be just the final recipient of  what other actions have begun or just the initial input whose full development the church will never be able to see.

Adventist eschatology is certainly a biblical one but this fact unfortunately still doesn’t guarantee us   biblical or historical relevance. In order to make our eschatology relevant and persuasive we need to humbly accept the fact that we don’t automatically possess a complete understanding of the Bible or  a guaranteed accurate picture of what’s happening in our current time. Because every Christian theology as much as every Christian eschatology is in fact “Theologia viatorum”, a religious experience on the way. Always correcting itself, always reorienting its priorities after an updated reading of God’s Word and after a careful interpretations of our human context.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Ellen G White Estate

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