Can Adventist “Progressives” Overcome a Fatal Tendency?

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Published:
October 4, 2022

Given the Good News of the Holy Spirit, “progressive” is an apt description of Adventism’s non-fundamentalist wing. The word suggests self-congratulation, an unfortunate downside, but “progressive Adventism” has caught on, and in one respect it is exactly right. The Holy Spirit’s testimony concerning Jesus is meant precisely to correct and expand Christian understanding. We humans may naturally resist changing our minds, but in his farewell remarks to the disciples (John 16:12-15), Jesus, the Spirit in mind, declared unmistakably: just do look for fresh interpretation of my life and work; just do be ready to change your minds; just do embrace perennial reformation—in thought as well as life!

In that light, I myself identify (as best I can) with the progressive spirit. No Bible teaching identifies God with any status quo or any self-satisfied perspective. Scripture assumes and affirms human fallibility. Still, Adventist fundamentalists continue to speak as if they had the God’s-eye view: we, and we only, comprehend Holy Writ; we, and we only, grasp the settled truth. As yet another of Gilbert Valentine’s many gifts to Adventist self-understanding, Ostriches and Canaries: Coping with Change in Adventism, 1966-1979, offers a detailed narration of one episode of conflict between progressive and majority-fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventists. The book’s focus is Robert Pierson, a General Conference president who found searching for “new truth” alarming and subversive, took Ellen White to have the final say-so on every Bible passage she considered, demanded support for a recent creation date, thought pursuit of earthly justice a distraction, and wanted the General Conference to control theological discussion. Valentine tells how the Pierson administration tried to impose this perspective on Adventist scholars just when they were questioning it with new vigor. Some lost their jobs.

Given fundamentalism’s dominance, and its tragic instantiation under Pierson, the slack-jawed reader of this book can only marvel that any thoughtful person would identify with a people whose leaders were so caught up in closed-mindedness and self-deception. It does not help that the church’s current president so nearly reflects the Pierson point of view. Nor does it help—and this is what I want to spell out here, as carefully as I can—that in Valentine’s telling, progressive energy between 1966 and 1979 went overwhelmingly to struggle against certain fundamentalist priorities. Anti-fundamentalism truly is important, but it’s not a movement-making mission. It asks only that we throw off arrogance, settled opinion, and—what mattered especially for progressives—undiscerning obeisance to written authority. The struggle against fundamentalism was primarily a struggle against the ascription of “inerrancy” to the Bible, or even to the writings of Ellen White. But such a struggle displays very little, by itself, in the way of positive vision. It addresses the question, “What’s wrong with us?” It does not, in and of itself, consider what’s worth saving or improving. It does not ask, “Why does Adventism even matter?”

Adventism may not matter. A thought like this is the elephant in the room when any enterprise or community sets about honest self-assessment. Valentine’s perspective would certainly bear on self-assessment in Adventism. He declares that our church was fundamentalist “at its core and in its essence” right from the start. Some may think of the 1919 Bible Conference as a turn toward extreme fundamentalism, but actually, Valentine contends, it was a new expression of what had always been the case. He does attribute a certain open-mindedness to Reuben Figuhr, General Conference president during the 1950s and early ’60s, but still says that it was only in the later 1960s and thereafter that “a genuinely ‘new’ Adventism” began to emerge.” In contrast with fundamentalism, he writes, the “progressive” outlook was “uncomfortable with the inadequacies of a rigid orthodoxy” and “willing to accommodate new information and change where necessary.” But except for a line or so here and there, Valentine says almost nothing of what else progressives stood for. One exception is the better part of a page devoted to Jonathan Butler’s revisionary interpretation of Ellen White’s eschatology. Another is several sentences on the substance of Jack Provonsha’s God is with us, a book (disliked by church fundamentalists) that addressed difficulties for faith occasioned by modern skepticism. It may be that “what else” is, at least for the most part, outside the scope of the book. Still, insofar as (non-fundamentalist) corrective thinking was also emerging in 1966–79, that development was itself a crucial pivot. Valentine might at least have remarked at greater length on that pivot, even if he could not give it detailed attention in a book that was already lengthening out to its eventual 450-plus pages. His account, as it is, leaves largely intact a flawed, even fatal, tendency in the “progressive” frame of mind. The tendency, though by no means exceptionless, is dangerous.

Here is what I mean. On the theological front, members who consider themselves “progressive” tend to be preoccupied with deconstruction of the fundamentalist perspective. Ellen White figures centrally for fundamentalists, and so her flawed humanity—especially with respect to the production of publications—draws progressive attention again and again. Progressives return again and again to rebuttals of a “recent” creation date, and to disproofs of infallibilist theories of biblical inspiration. But hardly a one could say who sounded—during (!) the period Valentine writes about—Anabaptist, or Radical Reformation, notes toward construction of a new vision. Only a few, likely insiders of advanced age, could name the author of Mission: Possible, surely one of the best works of theology ever to come out of the church’s seminary at Andrews University. Not many who identify as progressive and show up for progressive Sabbath school discussions have digested the arguments of Fritz Guy and the late Brian Bull concerning the deep positive meaning of Genesis 1–11 or have invited Adventists of student age to consider them.

Theological construction is the practice of saying anew what we intend to teach. If the old view of written authority is mistaken, what should we teach instead? If our usual speech about God produces legalism, how shall we revise it? If customary eschatology seems irresponsible, or focus on Sabbath arithmetic somehow shallow and inadequate, what view of these matters would be better? Similar questions can arise about atonement, ecclesiology, evangelism, and mission—about all, in fact, of what we teach. Human perspective is finite—fallible and incomplete. That is why the Holy Spirit invites us into perennial reformation.

Widespread inattention to positive substance in the progressive outlook no doubt reflects the generally lackluster attention given to the matter by Adventist scholars themselves. They know that, long after the period Valentine documents, danger goes along with effort toward revision and refreshment of our vision. This is especially so, no doubt, for seminary teachers. Under Pierson, losses occurred. The sense of being monitored by General Conference leaders grew ever sharper. The General Conference president’s influence eventuated, indeed, in the installation (in 1981, after a period in charge of doctoral programs that began in 1976) of a seminary dean the faculty did not want and could not trust. The effect of all this took long-term hold as worry and caution among the faculty. The premise for constructive effort—correctible error, addressed in Holy Spirit light—was taboo under Pierson. That taboo remains in play, affecting Adventist religion teachers everywhere, not just at the seminary. It likewise affects students and younger scholars who hope for secure jobs in Adventist religion departments. But the safe course overlooks the corrective function of the Holy Spirit and thus continues to constrain—tragically constrain—effort toward construction of fresh vision in Adventism. This can only leave us hapless against a hostile or indifferent contemporary culture, not to mention our own self-deceptions. In time, the safe course can only assure, moreover, that we forget how some Adventist progressives have actually put forth reparative proposals.

Consider, then, what was going on just before, as well as during, the period of Valentine’s investigation:

Prior to 1966, at least two prominent pastors, Arthur Bietz, at White Memorial and later Glendale City Churches in California, and William Loveless, at Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, were challenging conventional thought as they built up their congregations. A religion teacher, J. Paul Grove, at Walla Walla College, was requiring his theology majors to read and interpret the Gospel of Matthew without consulting any commentator, including Ellen White. Atlantic Union College’s Ottilie Stafford was urging students to appreciate the Bible with the aid of literary criticism. In widely influential Sabbath school classes at Loma Linda University, A. Graham Maxwell and Jack Provonsha were forging fresh interpretation of old themes like the doctrine of the atonement.

As for the period Valentine’s book actually covers, constructive effort, not just anti-fundamentalist deconstruction, was plain to see. In 1968, Edward W. H. Vick, who would become a victim of the seminary purge under Pierson, published a book-length essay on grace. In 1970, in the Review and Herald, Roy Branson came out with a three-part series on Ellen White and race relations, advancing a case for witness to justice that Adventist fundamentalists were overlooking or disparaging. He, too, would become part of the Pierson purge. In 1972, Gottfried Oosterwal brought out Mission: Possible, arguing, among other things, that assigning hierarchical superiority to an ordained “clergy” betrays New Testament vision. In remarks on the laity as “salt of the earth,” he said further that church members should be “penetrating the world as its servants and priests.” A chapter titled “The World My Destination” again advanced the case for human responsibility on earth. With Pierson at the helm, he, too, according to Valentine, came under suspicion, although he did remain at Andrews, highly valued for his work in preparing Adventist missionaries. Late in the 1970s, Sakae Kubo published God Meets Man: A Theology of the Sabbath and Second Advent. The book again connected Adventist life with human responsibility on earth. It was a theme that would be visible in most progressive writing of the period. Kubo, too, was a victim: against his will, he had been moved from teaching to the seminary library in 1968. Eventually, he left Andrews altogether.

All the while, persons outside of, as well as within, Pierson’s reach were attempting to amplify and enhance the Adventist vision. Many attempts were appearing in Insight, a new magazine aimed then at college-aged young adult readers. Similar work was appearing in Spectrum and in books. In Insight early on, Reo Christenson, a politics professor at Miami University of Ohio, argued that Adventists should bear witness concerning public policy. Charles D. Brooks, the noted evangelist, decried “moral blandness” with respect to racial injustice and called for a recovery of early Adventism’s moral passion. In the same year, and again a year later, Ron Graybill, himself a contributor to Insight, published book-length studies of Adventist race relations, with similar practical implications. Corrective work in Insight continued: Joseph Battistone on prayer, Richard Rice on the problem of evil and the meaning of Christian love, David Larson on the life-changing import of the Sabbath. In several articles on Adventist doctrine, Jonathan Butler focused on Adventism’s here-and-now significance. In one, he connected the practice of adult baptism with 16th-century Anabaptists, radical advocates of Christian discipleship. By immersive adult baptism, he said, “materialism and racism and war and intemperance are drowned in baptismal water.” He was thereby evoking the Radical Reformation as a possible resource for Adventist renewal.

The first issue of Spectrum, in 1969, offered three reflections (by Emanuel Fenz, Donald McAdams, and me) on Adventism and war. Soon after, Charles Teel Jr. considered the Mennonite perspective on social responsibility, implying the same Radical Reformation potential for Adventist self-understanding as Jonathan Butler did in Insight a bit afterward. Brenda Butka attended to implications of feminism for church life. In 1977, to take a later example, a cluster of articles, from writers like Fritz Guy, Gerald Winslow, and Ottilie Stafford, appeared under the heading “Festival of the Sabbath.” Spectrum, it turns out, was publishing constructive reflection during Pierson’s presidency, and such reflection was also happening in books and at scholarly meetings. I myself wrote The Demons Have Had It, a lightly revisionary account—no to “penal substitution,” for example—of several themes central to Adventism. The aforementioned God is with us by Jack Provonsha appeared. In 1975, Provonsha addressed a Loma Linda Division of Religion retreat on Adventist remnant theology. Reaching for both humility and relevance, his remarks, published later as “The Church as Prophetic Minority,” offered a revision of Adventism’s very sense of itself. In 1978, Niels-Erik Andreasen’s Rest and Redemption, a scholarly refreshment of Sabbath belief and practice, appeared. Other examples abound.

Evidence invoked here suggests greater breadth in “progressive” thinking between 1966 and 1979 than comes through in Ostriches and Canaries: if that thinking was about dismantling fundamentalist perspective on written authority, it was also about doctrinal renewal on other fronts. And we may also, at this point, ask whether, from the start, Adventism was fundamentalist “at the core.” If it was literalist, what Valentine emphasizes, was it also, as in fundamentalism proper, authoritarian, static, and individualistic? Historical analysis in the study of religious texts—particularly, the writings of Ellen White—did come to the fore during the period the book covers and did confront inerrantist-leaning literalism. But substantially before that, Adventists were attempting “progress” in doctrinal understanding, and the necessary premise of their effort was refusal of rigid orthodoxy. If we shift attention to the pioneer period, it becomes clear that opposition to convictional rigidity was deeply felt then, at least by some. Key Adventist pioneers opposed creeds precisely for their potency against the emergence of “new light.” 

Consider the beginning of organized Adventism in 1861. That is when a group of Michigan congregations banded together as a legal association, or conference. The still fledgling movement had been shaping its vision for nearly 20 years. Meeting delegates had no interest, however, in expressing a creed-like statement of belief. A creed, said James White, would block “new light” and thereby stand in “direct opposition” to the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit. The delegates did, however, embrace a simple pledge: “We, the undersigned,” they said, “hereby associate ourselves together as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.” Here was no set-in-concrete doctrinal fussiness; the pledge was instead a Scripture-based commitment to faithful practice, more redolent of Anabaptist discipleship than of (yet-to-be-invented) fundamentalism. Early Adventist involvement with abolition underscores the concern with practice and evokes, too, a sense of the Gospel that transcends the individualistic, or merely “personal.”

Or consider 1872. That was the year church leaders produced a Statement of Adventist Belief that began by rejecting the goal of “uniformity” in doctrinal conviction: exploration, and the implication of ongoing change, would continue. In all of this, my point is not to deny early resemblances to fundamentalism. But it is to say that a progressive, or Holy-Spirit-welcoming, frame of mind did appear at the beginning of Adventist life. After 1919, it would practically disappear, but the knowledge of it nevertheless remains as a motivation for renewal. And Ellen White herself was someone who gave clear (if not perfectly consistent) testimony against a static sensibility and for corrective work under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It was a point I myself, citing her, underscored in “The Case for Renewal in Adventist Theology,” again published in Spectrum during the period Valentine describes. This record—of openness toward constructive innovation—is one reason why, despite fundamentalist closed-mindedness and self-deception, a progressive minority still wishes to identify with Adventism. 

Unfortunately, the guardians of official orthodoxy—top-most administrators, the Biblical Research Institute, to some degree the Adventist Review, and (still constrained) seminary faculty—overlook or play down all of this. Some acknowledge and react to anti-fundamentalist arguments, but they generally ignore Adventist constructive witness. Of the essays and books mentioned above, few if any have been point-by-point contested in print. With respect to fresh, non-fundamentalist interpretation of our heritage, guardians of fundamentalist Adventism retreat instead into silence or dark generalizations about heresy within. Full-blooded acknowledgment of fallibility could generate prayerful conversation, improve the quality of our disagreements, and nudge us toward fresh consensus. But the sense of fallibility is fundamentalism’s enemy, so it goes largely undeveloped. Yes, historians tell stories about fundamentalism and its discontents. But theologians run a risk if they declare that some part of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs gets things wrong. So, they largely ignore the Holy Spirit’s teaching function, whether from conviction—the Fundamental Beliefs are fine just as they are—or from fear. 

Or from oversight. Or doctrinal burnout.

In late August, Loren Seibold, longtime pastor and current editor of Adventist Today, posted a compelling recollection of his summer visit to the home church of his boyhood in central North Dakota. One of his themes was the sheer beauty of well-functioning local congregations. Another was the blessedness of the pastoral role. Still another was the mentality that links the word “church” first of all with the corporatized world organization. But insofar as the first two themes fail to be exemplified in Adventist life today, blame, Seibold suggested, attaches to the third. One reason is that the corporatized world organization still desires control. That desire centers on both policy and what “we must believe,” and comes to toxic expression as if “in God’s voice.” But as always, such heavy-handedness fails to generate uniformity and instead generates discouragement and discord. This is all the more devastating because people really do feel “the need—nay, the devouring hunger”—for “a warm supportive community.” They really do long for well-functioning local congregations. 

Near the end of Seibold’s reflection comes, however, a somewhat troubling sentence, all in italics: “The place we Adventists need to grow is not in theological understanding—we have far more theology than we need already, much of it of no practical good to us—but in quality of church community.

When I expressed my concern to him, Loren emphasized that the damaging thing is the “kind of theology” local congregations have thrust upon them. The “most distinctively Adventist” theology—the “blueprint legalism,” the “Great Controversy-style eschatology”—drives “wedges into local congregations,” “sidelines” members from “gospel concerns,” “separates” them from their communities. It also “frightens their children.”

I myself am alarmed by all of this. I agree with Loren that for many thoughtful members, conventional Adventist “doctrines” now seem irrelevant or worse. Even when supportive of Adventist life, members are increasingly wearied by top-down, doctrinal bluster and self-satisfaction. But the point I want also to stress is that insofar as “theology” is the work of reparative response to nudgings from the Holy Spirit, we surely need more of it, not less. We need more questioning of self-satisfaction, more theological repentance, and then, out of love, more fresh interpretation of the church’s story, more upbuilding construction of new vision. After all, anti-fundamentalists—and their children—need to know why to be Adventist (or a reformed version of one). Insofar as we gloss over the need for “theological understanding,” we only heighten the prospect of losses among the thoughtful and the church’s eventual collapse into sheer oblivion or permanent irrelevance. Doctrines are indispensable premises for life and witness. What we desperately need, then, are doctrines restated, made better, more in tune with God’s living truth. Pastors and other church members, especially scholars at non-fundamentalist institutions, must come to the rescue.

If anti-fundamentalism summed up the story of “coping with change” during the period 1966–79, and still did so today, we could only pity those who want to be Adventist and truthful at the same time. But the coping, as Valentine himself notices but does not develop, was wider and deeper than anti-fundamentalism, and still is: Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Reinder Bruinsma, Nathan Brown, and others continue to offer fresh takes on the Adventist heritage. Again, however, their constructive work is too often ignored by fundamentalists, who bristle at the premise of a need for repair. But if Adventist historians would shine a brighter light on non-fundamentalist constructive work that has been appearing for decades, it could help us resist being mesmerized by the (necessary) deconstructive task and energize the theological renewal that seems always to struggle for a hearing.

Given the complexity of Adventist life, and the importance and difficulty of maintaining humility and basic accord, all this may be too much to ask. But after noting that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus said that “for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). The disciple way entails attempting what seems impossible.

 


Charles Scriven is the former board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by Susan Q Yin

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