The big problem is not biblical literalism, not hostility to scholarship, not laziness of mind. At the church’s hierarchical top, the big problem is fear of conversation, or better, contempt for it. The attitude is unmitigated, self-deceived, and lethally routine. It qualifies, moreover, as sin—persistent, unrepented sin—against the Holy Spirit. Official, or General Conference, Adventism is now dead to God’s teaching, or corrective, presence, and that threatens to deaden us all, make us dead to renewal, dead to discipleship, dead to any prospect of a faithful, enlivening future. The Advent movement—the church as challenger of indifference and vessel of hope—is gravely at risk.
Consider this: Decade after decade of thoughtful Adventist reflection has shown that the so-called “plain reading” of Scripture—reading unnuanced, unquestioning, inattentive to the ultimate authority of Christ—is both oblivious and dangerous, in substance indistinguishable, indeed, from fundamentalism. The “plain reading” grants no advantage of understanding; it can only buttress ignorance and give license to evil. But again, all this, bad as it is, is not the problem. The problem is refusal to engage in good-faith conversation, either about the interpretation of Scripture or about other challenges to Adventist convention.
Does Silver Spring celebrate Jesus’s promise, in John 16, to correct and deepen disciple perspective through the Holy Spirit? Does headquarters support the forthright give-and-take upheld in Matthew 18? Do top leaders struggle—at all—with questions long-standing members constantly ask about the relevance and viability of our heritage? If they do, where is the evidence? Willful ignorance, on the other hand, is on constant display, and so is effort—consider intimidation of Adventist religion teachers—to control church conversation. Some of this may be innocent, perhaps unintended, but not all. And all of it is a cancer on the body of Christ.
The July issue of the Adventist Review puts long-lived refusal of the Holy Spirit’s teaching function on proud display. But that same issue—let me stress this—contains a saving irony, and in that light it “may be” (I borrow startling language from Amos 5) that God can yet be gracious to the church.
First, the part that would be alarming were it not so commonplace. Without evidence of worry about, or even awareness of, widely published differing perspective, the July lead editorial repeats the cliché that Adventist mission is essentially “prediction.” We are a “prophetic movement,” and our “unique mission” concerns information. It is information derived primarily from Daniel and Revelation, books said to reveal (uniquely to us) details in the predetermined story of civilization in the European West. These details give us our “bearings” and “message.” In a proof of self-deception, the editorial takes up mission without making reference to Christ. Later in the issue, an article on the prophecies of Daniel does take “Jesus” to be the center of that book, but refers to the “investigative judgment” as if late-twentieth-century conversation about that doctrine’s plausibility had never occurred. Still another article underscores how our “historicist” reading of Daniel gives us an outline of “world history in advance.” Here again “prophecy” is information, and again it is information premised on divine determinism. But the idea of a frozen future excludes urgency in all manner of moral issues, and that point has been made in published Adventist sources for decades. Still, this seems not to matter at the top. Although no one can expect reflection on disagreements at the point of every biblical reference, official Adventism acts, again and again, as if only its reading is worthy of mention. Refusal even of good-faith engagement of competing perspective constitutes truly egregious sin against the Holy Spirit. Again, that is the basic problem in Adventism.
But now the saving irony. In the same July issue of the Adventist Review four lawyers invoke familiar verses in Daniel and Revelation to speak prophetically—prophetically in the moral sense—about a presently urgent issue in America. Allen Reinach, Stephen Allred, Amy Sheppard Ratsara, and Bettina Krause all address Christian nationalism, or the idea that the United States is ordained to be the special instrument of God’s will. On this view our country is, and must see itself to be, the political expression the Christian heritage. But Daniel’s image (chapter 2) of a God-wrought “stone” demolishing a statue to imperial ambition calls into question divine sponsorship of particular political regimes. Christian power is truthful witness, not political compulsion; it forbids sheer partnership of the church with any state. Not even fear of secularism can justify “drift” into a Christian nationalist point of view.
These four perspectives exhibit genuine apocalyptic insight—moral, not dubiously predictive, insight. On the matter here addressed much of popular Christianity is now failing. The journal of official Adventism, on the other hand, is able to resist one of the signal temptations of the age. I earlier called evidence of this a “saving irony.” That is because official clarity about Christian nationalism comes across, given so much tired convention, as something of a welcome surprise. High administrative resistance to truthful conversation feels like aggressive spiritual indifference, and feeds both resentment and cynicism. Yet in embracing the apocalyptic elements of Scripture, our heritage motivates even official Adventism to say what needs to be said. This is surely evidence for thinking basic Adventist convictions can be pressed into genuinely prophetic—morally prophetic—service. As with the Sabbath, apocalyptic vision can be affirmed for moral and spiritual depth, and for connection with the grace of Christ. These and other aspects of Adventist life can help us be, once more, a difference-making movement.
If we affirm them truthfully.
Exactly as John 16 suggests, we embrace the Holy Spirit—we embody truthfulness—just when we say Yes to correctivethinking. The Adventist pioneers sided with the anti-slavery movement even though, from a “plain reading” standpoint, the case for slavery is entirely plausible. Corrupted by “plain reading” ideology, top leaders today fail to see how the Christocentric thinking that brought down slavery must also bring down male “headship” and superiority. That frame of mind gives license to evil, and is, I repeat, refusal of the Holy Spirit’s teaching function.
What any of us has to say falls short of theological perfection; a healthy church—all its members; all its administrators—is eager for new light, not resistant to it. But all this is more complicated, of course, than I have let on so far. The journey to deeper understanding is enlivening—and hard, for some harder than for others. Communities are fragile; great care is required, great sensitivity and patience. Great humility, too; as I hope I myself understand, we are each fallible and morally flawed. The practice of truth requires, too, awareness that the church’s true mission is moral and spiritual; information is important only to the degree that it fuels the love of God and neighbor. When speculative and distracting, or proud and pompous, or held up as the essence of church mission, information gets in the way.
But let me make the point about corrective thinking the way I began. The big problem is neither mistakes about the Bible nor hostility to scholarship. The big problem is official fear of, even contempt for, honest conversation. (No top administrator, nor any theologian subject to General Conference oversight, will reply to my remarks here, nor likely even read them.) But steadfast refusal to engage in conversation can only be sin against the Holy Spirit. All of us, our top leaders most of all, need to repent—and repent utterly—of the sin that makes us dead to renewal, dead to discipleship, and dead to any prospect of a faithful, enlivening future.
Charles Scriven is the former board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
Title photo by Brent Hardinge, Adventist Media Exchange (CC 4.0 license).
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