Wouldn’t it be easier — and smarter — just to eliminate doctrine? It’s so arid and divisive and irrelevant. Actually, no. But unless we do put doctrine in its proper place, it actually will choke the life out of Adventism. The church is already gasping for breath under the weight of institutional obsession with orthodoxy.
Since late summer, I have been saying here that two facts make any remaining Adventist self-satisfaction delusional. One is widening cultural indifference — or outright hostility — to biblical Christianity; the other is our own thumbs down to doctrinal humility. If we think we “have” the truth — as many church leaders and other members still do — we deny the fact (according to Paul) that humans see “dimly.” Honesty takes a back seat, and self-deception sits at the front.
Sustained resistance to doctrinal humility can only hurt us, only leave our witness damaged or deadly, our members lifeless or aching to get out. No one could possibly refute this, but the resistance persists anyway, whether as complacency, fundamentalist jeremiads, or hope-starved resignation. Against all this, truthfulness alone stands a chance. Cynicism surely makes matters worse. Claims to truthfulness are just the cancer at issue. Attempts at truthfulness — truth-seeking seasoned, that is, by humility before God and God’s grace — is the single effective therapy.
As to Adventist doctrine, what would truthfulness reveal? Would we throw it out or try to put it in its rightful place? The latter alone is what we need.
At the first Adventist move toward formal organization, meeting delegates made the crucial point. It was 1861, and a group of Michigan congregations were banding together as a conference. Though united by shared conviction, they resolved not to express themselves in a creed-like statement of belief. That would block “new light,” said James White. They did agree on a simple pledge. They were “covenanting together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.” That was it. The delegates realized what people who are belief-obsessed may shunt aside: the whole point of the Advent hope is the practice of hope. Missing this is like haggling over the Constitution and failing to vote. As with democracy — you must put it into practice — so with the Advent hope. Words alone are pretense.
It’s often said that in Jewish religion the most important thing is what you do (orthopraxy), and in Christian religion the most important thing is what you believe (orthodoxy). If you consider developed Christian tradition (or Adventist hand-wringing over its “fundamental beliefs”) this may be convincing, but if you define Christianity by the New Testament, it is not. Here, unmistakably, Christian faith is a way of life you share with others. Bartimaeus, the once blind beggar, does not sign on to a statement of beliefs after his healing; he follows Jesus “on the way.” A new believer does not rise up from baptism spouting religious theory but walking “in newness of life.” The first Christians do not belong to an ideology but to a “Way,” what Acts calls the Way. When Paul describes the very pinnacle of all spiritual gifts, he speaks of a “more excellent way,” then relativizes knowledge and rhapsodizes “love,” which, in the company of others, is something you do.
As Jews might well say of Christians who abused and murdered them while fixating on doctrinal niceties, attentiveness to belief is a distraction when it takes center stage. It is the enemy of right practice and thus the enemy of true faithfulness. In our case, Advent hope becomes theory — a schedule of events, a forecast of “final crisis.” Hope is thus divorced from the living out of Jesus’ vision. Hitched to prognostication, it is no longer what all of Christian life should be: grateful practice — that word again — in response to divine grace.
Then why not be done with doctrine? Why not say that getting worked up on this front is a waste of time, or even a danger? Here we may distinguish between obsession, on the one hand, and proper concern, on the other.
Remember now that any human “practice” — any activity involving rules, standards, and goals — takes place against a background of shared assumptions. If, for example, I am practicing medicine, the background will be the research, colleagues, hospitals, and experiential learning I depend on. A similar background obtains if I am, say, performing on a piano or a circus trapeze. For each of these “practices,” assumptions about how to proceed and what counts as excellence come into play, not to mention even more basic assumptions about whether circumstances allow for success. I will do none of these things, for example, if I am bedridden or stuck in a prison cell or impoverished from birth.
If the Christian way is a practice — a response to grace involving rules (love your neighbor?), standards (the faith of Jesus?), and goals (salvation, heaven, peace on earth?) then, as with any practice, certain assumptions, or premises, come into play. Is reality itself hospitable to Christian practice? Is God’s grace real, or is the universe wholly indifferent to human striving? Is there a circle of support adequate to the sustaining of Christian life? Do we grasp the practical significance of its undergirding story? Do we truly get, indeed, what Christian existence means?
Here is another way to put all this: Are the premises we embrace true, and do they support discipleship? Christian beliefs are the intellectual substance behind true Christian existence; they are premises for practice. And this means that if doctrines are not the main thing, they are nevertheless indispensable. Far from being incidental beliefs, they are, at least ideally, life-shaping convictions; they form and sustain our mode of being.
Why, then, do official church doctrines so often seem burdensome — arid, divisive, irrelevant? The answer is that they feel like this when they no longer resonate, at all, with our life experience. Through flawed expression or ill-considered accretion, they acquire aridity, divisiveness, and irrelevance.
It is just here that theology comes in. Properly, the energy a religious community puts into thinking about its beliefs is energy toward self-correction. The best religious thinkers see theology as the community examining itself. Responsible theologians put a question like this to the church: Your present convictions appear to be such and such; would it not be better, for these reasons, to revise them in this way? By 2005 it had become clear, for example, that in some locales members of our church needed prominent assurance that Christ had overcome “the demonic spirits,” so in that year, with due attention to Scripture, a belief giving just such assurance was added to the official list of 27 Fundamental Beliefs.
Such revision is just what humility encourages; when we acknowledge that we see “dimly,” we look for guidance toward truer vision. But revision is also just what arrogance resists; imagining that we “have” the truth makes self-correction hard. Adding “new truth” may be painless enough, but disavowing error assaults our pride. Still, when we recall that early Adventists, including Ellen White, had to disavow the “shut door” theory (only Millerites could await the Second Coming with hope), that disavowal can be liberating today. It is permission for us, like Peter in the book of Acts, to change our minds. We need not persist in our blunders, need not shove disturbing facts under the rug.
Again, I cannot say too often or too ardently that doctrinal beliefs matter; they support (or fail to support) authentic Christian life. How, then, can beliefs lift us up, not weigh us down? By resonating with life experience, and by sustaining the existence we committed to in baptism. For a community to have beliefs like this — beliefs that help, not hurt — it must invest fearlessly in intellectual self-amendment. It must acknowledge mistakes. It must cut away distractions that generate complacency or needless conflict. Finally, in accord with the spirit of the Michigan Conference founding, it must focus on Adventism as a way of life, not as merely, or primarily, a “message.”
Does it overstate things to speak of starting over? Not if the point is to underscore our situation’s gravity. But in any case, the work remains, challenging every member, every Sabbath School class, every meeting of scholars. In our response to divine grace, we all bear responsibility for offering ourselves and others intellectual substance that can truly sustain the single thing that matters most: our discipleship.
Additional Articles in this Series:
Time to Start Over: First, Face Delusion, September 16, 2020
Time to Start Over: Christ without Christ, or, How Not to Miss the Point, October 30, 2020
Time to Start Over: Reconceiving Sabbath — a New Case for the Seventh Day, February 23, 2021
Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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