The Adventist Identity Crisis
The Adventist church is facing an identity crisis because its understanding of its eschatological mission has become disconnected from the contemporary social situation. Rather than engaging in the task of apologetic theology, which is to apply the Christian message or kerygma to the needs of contemporary society, the Adventist church engages in what Mark Dunbar calls “identity tethering.” This is when those in power within a political order establish a symbolic connection between the behaviors practiced by a majority of their constituents and the collective identity of the order, causing the constituents to identify their interests with those of the leaders. Although Dunbar describes the ways in which people tether their identities to political or economic orders, I believe that identity tethering also frequently occurs within ecclesiastical orders, including the Adventist church. Regardless of their motives, which in many cases are based on sincere religious belief, those in power within a church hierarchy are interested in preserving the established authority of the church. To maintain church members’ support, they persuade them to identify with the church hierarchy’s interests by defining Adventist identity or orthodoxy as consisting of behaviors already practiced by a substantial number of members. Identity tethering often has a conservative influence on the church because many of the behaviors that its leaders associate with Adventist identity reflect its traditional positions on various topics.
Moreover, identity tethering enables the constituents of a particular order to easily distinguish themselves from those who do not belong to the group. The group’s members recognize each other by their observance of the behaviors that constitute the group’s collective identity. Outsiders are those who do not practice these behaviors. Additionally, identity tethering enables a group’s members to portray those who affiliate with the group but do not observe all its behaviors as impostors. These nonconformists blur the distinction between insiders and outsiders and are therefore perceived as a threat. Because the group’s members have tethered their interests to its identity, any threat to that identity also becomes a threat to the individuals’ interests. The reason Adventist conservatives are often quick to attack those who have dissenting views is that they have tethered their interests to a traditional conception of Adventist identity. To these conservatives, liberal members’ views appear not only as threats to the church’s ecclesiastical structure and orthodoxy, but to their own personal beliefs and interests.
As Dunbar discusses, identity tethering results in what Hannah Arendt calls “the substitution of behavior for action.” Rather than committing to meaningful action, which according to Arendt involves an act of self-disclosure that enables mutual understanding between individuals and encourages pluralism, people distinguish themselves from others by committing to exclusionary behaviors that facilitate segregation. Arendt considers this behaviorism to be a consequence of mass society. She states, “The unfortunate truth about behaviorism and the validity of its ‘laws’ is that the more people there are, the more likely they are to behave and the less likely to tolerate non-behavior.” This intolerance of non-behavior—which leads to an intolerance of action—“lends itself to statistical determination,” allowing the bureaucrats who administer a particular order “to introduce the ‘communistic fiction,’ that is, to assume that there is one interest of society as a whole which with ‘an invisible hand’ guides the behavior of men and produces the harmony of their conflicting interests.”
Although Arendt is describing political and economic orders (the “invisible hand” is a reference to the economist Adam Smith, who advocated an economy in which the free market would theoretically generate consensus among competing interests), the “communistic fiction” is also an appropriate description of the idea that the church’s identity is best expressed in the will of the majority of its members or delegates. This fiction is a bureaucratic convenience more than it is a democratic institution. It enables church leaders to suggest that the decisions of the church’s administrative sessions reflect the will of its members, even in cases where a large minority of people hold dissenting views. The church’s communistic fiction conceals the reality of valid dissent; it undermines action and pluralism. As such, it has an illiberal influence on church governance. History shows that there is a correlation between conservative identity tethering and bureaucratization. As Kevin M. Burton discusses, the widespread support for Fundamentalism in Adventism during the first half of the twentieth century coincided with the bureaucratization of many American churches, including the Adventist church as it transitioned from being a sect to a denomination. He shows that, ironically, church leaders’ interest in tethering Adventism to a Fundamentalist identity resulted in the loss of a feature that distinguished Adventism from other mainstream churches, the fact that it permitted women, including Ellen White, to serve as ordained leaders and pastors.
The tethering of Adventist identity to American fundamentalism is one reason the church’s self-perception has become estranged from its social responsibility. It is the result of a top-heavy administration needing to justify its religious authority to an increasingly diverse constituency. However, Adventist identity tethering cannot be attributed solely to political expediency. There are deeper philosophical and theological causes worth considering.
Because traditional Adventist theology is obsessed with defending the uniqueness of the church’s eschatological role, it has undermined the meaning of faith. This, in turn, has far-reaching implications for Adventist teachings on salvation, the nature of Christ, and the mission of the church. This is not an original observation; conservatives as well as liberals have argued that the church’s misunderstanding of faith has had significant consequences on theology. For instance, some who support the Last Generation Theology maintain that the reason for the delay in Christ’s second coming is that the church rejected a correct understanding of righteousness by faith at the 1888 General Conference session. To the contrary, I believe that rather than promoting a correct understanding of faith, the adherents of the Last Generation Theology are distorting its meaning by reducing it to belief in traditional doctrines and lifestyle practices. Faith is not belief in the right doctrines, nor is it the observance of certain behaviors. Insofar as Adventist traditionalists have promoted the idea that the main purpose of faith is to enable certain behaviors, like obedience to God’s law, they have never had a correct understanding of faith.
Faith consists of a commitment to action rather than to behavior. As an individual commitment, faith yields a plurality of relationships between God and those who believe in him. As the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard explains, faith is different from conformity to the behavioral norms of one’s social group. It is inappropriate to speak of the “Adventist faith” if by this term, one means belief in Adventist doctrine or obedience to the Ten Commandments. To the contrary, faith is a private endeavor that might involve the suspension of one’s ethical obligations in fulfillment of a higher calling. Faith cannot be a collective phenomenon, and as a result no collective experience of faith, such as the perfection of a final generation, can hasten the second coming. Moreover, faith is not an objective relation to the truth, whether that truth is expressed in Adventist tradition or in the Bible. Faith is a subjective relation to the truth requiring individual commitment to action.
Faith and Its Distortions
The Meaning of Faith
In his writings, Kierkegaard provides two definitions of faith that are relevant to this discussion. The first comes from Concluding Unscientific Postscript. There, Kierkegaard defines faith as “objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness,” which is an equivalent definition for truth. The elements of this definition are worth emphasizing.
First, faith is a relation to an objective uncertainty. As Kierkegaard explains elsewhere, the tenets of Christian faith cannot be guaranteed with absolute objective certainty. For instance, it cannot be proven from history that Christ was God; “to ‘prove’ is to demonstrate something to be the rational reality it is,” but a person cannot “demonstrate that to be a rational reality which is at variance with reason[.]” That Christ performed miracles and was resurrected are beliefs “which history in all eternity cannot establish.” Only faith, by subjectively appropriating these objectively uncertain claims, can validate them—but this valuation will nonetheless be subjective.
The second element of Kierkegaard’s definition is that faith consists of a subjective appropriation-process. He contrasts this with the objective approximation-process, in which we approach the knowledge of God using “an objective way of approximation, for example, by the contemplation of nature and human history, and so forth.” This approach is deceptive. The teachings of Christianity are, according to Kierkegaard, rationally absurd. “The absurd is—that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, has come into being precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.” From the Jewish viewpoint, this belief is idolatry; it is hardly distinguishable from paganism. Any attempt to approach the truth of the absurd objectively might make it seem “increasingly probable,” even “extremely and emphatically probable.” We might say that we “almost know” it; however, as Kierkegaard argues, it remains “impossible to believe” that we know the truth of the absurd objectively. Only a subjective appropriation-process, rather than an approximation-process, can offer knowledge of the absurd: “the absurd is the object of faith, and the only object that can be believed.”
Finally, faith involves the most passionate inwardness. Kierkegaard states that the objective uncertainty of truth “increases the tension of that infinite passion which constitutes [one’s] inwardness.” Truth appears as a paradox to finite individuals because it is eternal. Because people are finite, any objective relationship they have to the truth is only approximate. We cannot actively arrive at the truth through objective reasoning; we can only exist in a passionate relationship to the truth. This relationship is necessarily subjective; it is inward because we cannot relate it outwardly to that which is uncertain. However, this relationship is infinite because it relates us to that which is infinite.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard offers another definition of faith. In considering the story of the binding of Isaac, Kierkegaard asks whether Abraham had a duty to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son despite the ethical prohibition against murder. Kierkegaard directed his argument against the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, a German philosopher who argued that the aim or telos of history is the progressive realization of our ethical obligations through the dialectical process. Although Kierkegaard concedes that Hegel is right when describing the relationship of a person to the ethical norms of their society as the subordination of the particular to the demands of the universal, he argues that such a conception of the ethical should not be confused with faith. If Hegel’s view of the meaning of faith is correct, Kierkegaard argues, then “Hegel is wrong for speaking of faith, wrong because he does not volubly and clearly protest against Abraham being honored and lauded as the father of faith, whereas Abraham ought to be sent back to a lower court and exposed as a murderer.” Kierkegaard continues,
Faith … is this paradox: that the single individual is higher than the universal, though, note well, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that therefore, after having been in the universal, then, as the single individual, he isolates himself as higher than the universal. If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world simply because it has always existed. For if the ethical—i.e. social morality—is what is highest, and nothing incommensurable remains in a person in any other way than this incommensurability being what is evil (i.e., the singularity of the individual who must be expressed in the universal), then we need no categories other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be logically derived from those categories.
Kierkegaard calls this placement of the individual above the universal the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” If Abraham had been a tragic hero, then perhaps he could have remained within the ethical if he had sacrificed his son for a greater earthly cause like saving his country. But this is not what happened. As Kierkegaard explains,
With Abraham, things are different. By his act he transgressed the boundary of the entire realm of the ethical; he had a higher telos outside the ethical, in relation to which he suspended it…. Abraham did not do it to save a nation, nor to vindicate the idea of the state, nor to appease angry gods…. Therefore, while a tragic hero is great because of his ethical virtue, Abraham is great because of purely personal virtue. There is no higher expression of the ethical in Abraham’s life than this: that a father is to love his son.
Abraham violated this expression of the ethical to fulfill what he believed to be a higher purpose. “He does it for God’s sake because God requires this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can provide the proof.” This reason cannot be mediated by universal moral imperatives because it cannot be expressed in a way that is morally intelligible to others. Kierkegaard states, “the moment Abraham wants to express himself in the universal, he must say that his situation is one of spiritual trial, for he has no higher expression of the universal that is superior to the universal he is transgressing.”
Kierkegaard asks how we can distinguish a person’s faith from sin, if they can potentially claim that an action is a teleological suspension of the ethical and not simply an ethical violation. His answer is, quite simply, that we cannot: “whether the single individual is actually undergoing a spiritual trial [i.e., a temptation] or is a knight of faith is something that can be decided only by the individual himself.” Nonetheless, Kierkegaard identifies an important characteristic of the “knight of faith” that might distinguish them from a mere sinner:
The true knight of faith is always someone absolutely isolated; the false knight is a member of a sect, which is an attempt to escape the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a bargain price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it…. The knight of faith, by contrast, is the paradox; he is the single individual, absolutely and solely the single individual, devoid of all connections and complications.
The knight of faith does not deny that they have universal ethical responsibilities; it is a reality with which they must constantly contend. The knight of faith must “concentrate in one single moment the entirety of the ethical that he is violating, so that he can give himself the assurance that he really loves Isaac with all his soul,” and simultaneously “summon up the whole of his conviction” to do that which violates the ethical. Unless they can do both at once, their conviction is nothing other than a temptation. “The knight of faith is referred solely to himself, he feels the pain of being unable to make himself understood by others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others.” The impostor, by contrast, “easily betrays his true identity by this mastery, which he has acquired in an instant.” False knights are inclined to lead others into a violation of the ethical for the sake of having comradery, but true knights stand alone, as individuals suspending the ethical to achieve a higher aim.
The Distortions of Faith
Church leaders’ insistence on correct doctrine reflects their view that faith consists of affirming certain theological claims as having objective certainty. According to them, faith affirms these claims as true and, in absence of complete certainty that they are correct, makes a supplementary decision to continue believing in them despite the lack of evidence. However, as Paul Tillich, an existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian, states, “[s]uch an attitude is an expression not of faith but of the confusion of faith with belief.” Tillich identifies two common distortions of the meaning of faith. The first is the intellectualistic distortion, in which faith is confused with intellectual affirmation. The intellectualistic distortion conflicts with Kierkegaard’s view that faith is possible only in the presence of objective uncertainty. Tillich explains,
The knowledge of reality has never the certitude of complete evidence. The process of knowing is infinite…. Every knowledge of reality by the human mind has the character of higher or lower probability. The certitude about a physical law, a historical fact, or a psychological structure can be so high that, for all practical purposes, it is certain. But theoretically the incomplete certitude of belief remains and can be undercut at any moment by criticism and new experience. The certitude of faith has not this character. Neither has it the character of formal evidence. The certitude of faith is “existential,” meaning that the whole existence of man is involved…. Faith is not belief and it is not knowledge with a low degree of probability. Its certitude is not the uncertain certitude of a theoretical judgment.
The intellectualistic distortion of the meaning of faith commonly leads to a second mistake, the voluntaristic distortion. This view maintains that “the lack of evidence which faith has must be complemented by an act of will.” The voluntaristic distortion denies that faith involves a subjective appropriation-process rather than an objective approximation-process. Faith is not a quantitative process that allows us to achieve a more approximate measurement of the truth; it is a qualitative valuation, and as such it relies on our subjective judgment. Tillich explains the voluntaristic distortion of faith by examining the common Protestant misinterpretation of the Pauline phrase “obedience of faith”:
This term can mean two different things. It can mean the element of commitment which is implied in the state of ultimate concern. If this is meant, one simply says that in the state of ultimate concern all mental functions participate—which certainly is true. Or the term “obedience of faith” can mean subjection to the command to believe as it is given in prophetic and apostolic preaching. Certainly, if a prophetic word is accepted as prophetic, i.e., as coming from God, obedience of faith does not mean anything other than accepting a message as coming from God. But if there is doubt whether a “word” is prophetic, the term “obedience of faith” loses its meaning. It becomes an arbitrary “will to believe.”
Doubt cannot render faith ineffective or meaningless because faith only operates where doubt is present due to objective uncertainty. A person does not need faith when they know something to be objectively true; faith becomes necessary when there is a valid reason to have doubt. But faith does not respond to doubt by finding some belief to fill its place; a person cannot replace the object of their faith at will simply because a doubt is present. Faith, according to Tillich, is that which concerns a person ultimately. If a person can substitute one belief with another at will, then they demonstrate that their original belief was not an ultimate concern to them.
The intellectualistic and voluntaristic distortions of the meaning of faith are present throughout conservative Adventist theology. They are the most visible in the Last Generation Theology, which is the teaching that Christ is delaying his second coming because the present generation of Adventist believers has not yet vindicated God by obeying his law perfectly. For adherents of the Last Generation Theology, the purpose of faith is to enable people to vindicate God through their perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments. They regard faith as what supplements a person’s natural unwillingness to obey God’s law due to their sinful nature; its entire purpose is to enable obedience to the law and thereby invalidate Satan’s accusations that God’s law is unjust because it is impossible to keep. They reduce faith to an ethical attitude that precludes the possibility of a teleological suspension of the ethical. Last Generation theologians believe there is no need to suspend the ethical—obedience to God’s law—to achieve a higher purpose or telos, because obedience to the law is the telos or aim of history. History has already totally revealed humanity’s ethical obligations, in the form of the Adventist interpretation of God’s law, without any need for further explication.
On this point, the Last Generation Theology commits the same act of hubris as Hegel’s philosophy, which Kierkegaard criticizes. Both Hegel and the Last Generation Theology claim to have discovered the method by which humanity’s ethical obligations are revealed in history—Hegel in his dialectical process, the Last Generation Theology in the “plan of salvation.” Hegel believed that Spirit (German Geist) had revealed the outcome of the dialectical process in the form of his philosophy. Likewise, the Last Generation Theology suggests that the outcome of the plan of salvation was already fully revealed in the levitical laws. The apostle Paul states that Christ revealed the inadequacy of the levitical law in securing a person’s salvation, but the Last Generation Theology maintains that the law is the fullest expression of humanity’s moral responsibility. Christ’s role is relegated to reminding people of what they had forgotten—the way by which they could more faithfully obey the law, which remains the prerequisite for their salvation. Both German Idealism and the Last Generation Theology eradicate any need for faith. In these systems, there is no need for a teleological suspension of the ethical, because humanity’s telos is fully revealed in its ethical obligations. This is why the Last Generation Theology is predisposed to legalism. Once faith is considered to be coterminous with ethical duty, righteousness by faith may be easily conflated with righteousness by works.
There are three immediate consequences of the conservative Adventist distortions of the meaning of faith. The first is dogmatism, which occurs when one posits a particular religious doctrine as having complete objective certainty. No doctrine is objectively certain, because no one can prove facts about God or our duties towards him. Religious truths must be evaluated qualitatively, not as though they were quantitative mathematical propositions. Tillich considers dogmatism to be an attempt at self-salvation. Rather than acknowledging that faith comes from outside us as a gracious gift from God, the dogmatist believes that our own efforts to approximate the truth will save us.
The second consequence of distorting the meaning of faith is literalism. Literalism occurs when finite religious symbols are regarded as fixed, eternal truths. Those who have fallen for the intellectualistic distortion of faith often find that their faith is inadequate, because for them it has become a never-ending approximation-process that provides no certainty for what they believe. Even though they may supplement this uncertainty with a voluntaristic will to believe, they find the truths conveyed by religious symbols to be inaccessible, because they must be subjectively appropriated to be recognized as true. Instead of recognizing the mythical character of religious symbols, they conclude that the religious symbols themselves constitute what is true. But despite fundamentalists’ efforts to prove that their interpretation of scripture is the only correct one, their literalistic understanding of religious symbols only makes their beliefs vulnerable to historical and scientific criticism. Literalism cannot compete with those who are unbiased in their quantitative approach to objective truth. It can only corrupt the meaning of faith. As Tillich explains,
Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of his majesty. It draws him down to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite and conditional. In the last analysis it is not rational criticism of the myth which is decisive but the inner religious criticism. Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate. Faith, conscious of the symbolic character of its symbols, gives God the honor which is due him.
The third consequence of the Adventist distortion of faith is legalism, which results from the voluntaristic distortion of the meaning of faith. Legalism confuses faith with a will to obey. As an appropriation-process, faith necessarily involves a subjective response to one’s beliefs. However, as Kierkegaard emphasizes, this appropriation-process is not manifested outwardly in obedience, which corresponds to the ethical sphere. Rather, it is experienced as passionate intensity. When faith is understood as the paradox in which the individual is higher than the universal, then no universal law can comprehend the individual’s responsibility to God.
Legalism insists that the entirety of a person’s duty to God is comprehended by the law. The legalist deems any individual divergence from the law to be faithlessness. Of course, as Kierkegaard argues, there is no objective way to determine whether a person is a “knight of faith” or an impostor. As a result, any time we act in faith as individuals placing ourselves higher than the universal, we expose ourselves to criticism by those who wish to enforce heteronomous ethical norms. Nevertheless, any theology that does not account for faith as the teleological suspension of the ethical inevitably becomes legalistic. Conservative Adventism is the most distilled variety of legalistic religion because of its vehement insistence on obeying God’s law.
Tillich considers legalism, like dogmatism, to be an attempt at self-salvation. Although the law is a gift in that it reveals the nature of our essential being, it is also a temptation to hubris because it can lead us to believe that we can overcome our estranged condition despite our finitude. Tillich states, “In all forms of legalism, something which is good, namely, in agreement with man’s essential nature, becomes distorted…. Their distortion is their claim to overcome the state of estrangement by their serious obedience to the commanding law.”
If the Adventist church will move beyond the distortions of faith and their consequences, it must reject any doctrines that perpetuate these wrong assumptions. This means it must repudiate the Last Generation Theology in favor of a doctrine of sin and salvation that recognizes faith as an individual, subjective relation to God.
Notes & References:
 See my article “Inspiration and Humanism,” Spectrum (May 16, 2022), https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2022/inspiration-and-humanism.
 Mark Dunbar, “Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture (summer 2021), 43–4.
 Dunbar, 44; see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (second ed.) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 45.
 See Arendt, 178–80.
 Arendt, 43–4.
 Kevin M. Burton, “God’s Last Choice: Overcoming Ellen White’s Gender and Women in Ministry During the Fundamentalist Era Part 2,” Spectrum (June 15, 2017), https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/06/15/god%25E2%2580%2599s-last-choice-overcoming-ellen-white%25E2%2580%2599s-gender-and-women-ministry-during-funda.
 Donald Short and Robert Wieland promoted this view in their book 1888 Re-examined.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in Robert Bretall (ed.), A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 214–5.
 Søren Kierkegaard (tr. Walter Lowrie), Training in Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 29.
 Kierkegaard (1946), 220–1.
 Kierkegaard (1946), 214.
 Søren Kierkegaard (tr. Bruce H. Kirmmse), Fear and Trembling (New York: Liveright, 2022), 66–7.
 Kierkegaard (2022), 71–2.
 Kierkegaard (2022), 72–3.
 Kierkegaard (2022), 96.
 Kierkegaard (2022), 94–5.
 Kierkegaard (2022), 97.
 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001 ), 40–1.
 Tillich (2001), 43.
 Tillich (2001), 1.
 See David West, Continental Philosophy: An Introduction (second edition) (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 43.
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 2) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 85.
 Tillich (2001), 60.
 Tillich (1957), 81.
William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.
Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash.com
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