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Believing, Thinking, Worshiping


In our modern secular world, the suggestion that thinking people should also worship seems to make no sense at all. The goal of education in a secular setting is to train one’s critical capabilities, to learn how and when to ask the right questions, and to nurture one’s sense of curiosity. That stands in sharp contrast with a typical view of worship where one loses oneself in the sense of the divine presence. That religious awe may parallel what Albert Camus says of music and art:

Truly fertile Music, the only kind that will move us, that we truly appreciate, will be a Music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason.[1]

But that sense of awe is very much at risk in our modern world, for even among the devout, music is a highly contentious issue. A true worshiper wants to be overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence. But because we are all so different, different kinds of music move us quite differently, all the way from adoration to disgust! As soon as one begins to think critically about music, the sense of God’s presence vanishes.

The author of this Study Guide sees himself as a rather odd duck in “conservative” circles. As I said at the beginning of one of my books, “I’m a very devout person, but also very curious. Had I been at the burning bush where Moses met God, my shoes would have come off immediately. But then I would have been bursting with eagerness to ask a question: ‘How did you do that?’”[2]

But curiosity in worship is a puzzle for many. In attempting to address the challenges facing Adventist education in this respect, I commented in the Good Word study guide for Lesson #1: “In the university, one does not just learn information, but also grapples with facts, theories, and hypotheses. In the secular university one learns to challenge authority, not simply to acquiesce to authority. But the believer has to ask the question: Is it appropriate for believers to challenge that which has been vouchsafed to the community by ‘inspiration’?”

Pondering the right biblical material, however, can enable us to both worship and explore more wholeheartedly. But first, I want to cite Ellen White’s comment on the English reformer John Wycliffe (1328–84). Given the deep suspicion of education among many devout Adventists, it is an astonishing quote, one that set my mind on fire when I was young:

Wycliffe received a liberal education, and with him the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. He was noted at college for his fervent piety as well as for his remarkable talents and sound scholarship. In his thirst for knowledge he sought to become acquainted with every branch of learning. He was educated in the scholastic philosophy, in the canons of the church, and in the civil law, especially that of his own country. In his after labors the value of this early training was apparent. A thorough acquaintance with the speculative philosophy of his time enabled him to expose its errors; and by his study of national and ecclesiastical law he was prepared to engage in the great struggle for civil and religious liberty. While he could wield the weapons drawn from the word of God, he had acquired the intellectual discipline of the schools, and he understood the tactics of the schoolmen. The power of his genius and the extent and thoroughness of his knowledge commanded the respect of both friends and foes. His adherents saw with satisfaction that their champion stood foremost among the leading minds of the nation; and his enemies were prevented from casting contempt upon the cause of reform by exposing the ignorance or weakness of its supporter.[3]

I describe this as an “astonishing” quote because it is hardly known in Adventist circles. Ellen White herself used it only three times, and those were all in successive editions of The Great Controversy (1884, 1888, 1911). It is totally missing from any of her other published writings. In the Good Word study guide for this week’s lesson, I have included a 1989 Adventist Review article, “The Fear of Education, or Whatever Happened to John Wycliffe?” (16 Feb. 1989, 14–15).          

But a solid foundation for the Wycliffe model is found in Daniel 1 and 3, the stories of Daniel and his three companions in the court of the pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 1:4 describes these four men and their educational mandate: “. . .young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (NRSV).

No fear of education here. Could we call them the prototype for John Wycliffe? In the case of the Judean captives, they were immersed in pagan literature. The biblical report of the results of the king’s final test is emphatic:

Daniel 1:1720 (NRSV): To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams. At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, 19 and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

It is interesting to compare the pagan king’s evaluation of his Judean captives with the typical attitude of modern secularists toward believers. Daniel’s captors were not secular atheists. They were pagan polytheists, believers in many gods—over against Yahweh, the one God of Israel. And to make the contrast even more striking, Israel was conquered by the pagan Babylonians, not because Israel’s god was weaker, but because Yahweh was using the pagan Nebuchadnezzar to teach Israel a lesson. The prophet Jeremiah even had the audacity to refer to Nebuchadnezzar as Yahweh’s “servant”! (Jer. 25:9; 27:6).

In short, the whole atmosphere in Nebuchadnezzar’s court was “sacred,” teeming with gods. It was Daniel’s calling to show the pagan king that the only deity worthy of worship was Yahweh, the God of Israel!

So, let’s ponder briefly how and why the gods have disappeared from our modern world. If we start with our era, rather than at the beginning, we can point to the powerful role of reason, which the Enlightenment brought to the fore in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Representing a reaction to the authoritarian impulses of the medieval period, enlightenment thinkers had no place for “mystery.” The idea of “sacred text” was foreign to these thinkers and continues to dominate secular circles in our day.

But reacting to this rationalist impulse, the fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century represented a return to belief, authority, and sacred text. From Fundamentalism came the idea of inerrancy, that the Bible is without error of any kind. Modern evangelicals typically qualify their position by saying that the original “autographs” were/are without error, an absolutely safe position today since the earliest NT manuscript fragment is decades removed from its original “autograph.” Wikipedia says that “the earliest manuscript of a New Testament text is a business-card-sized fragment from the Gospel of John, Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which may be as early as the first half of the second century.” The Gospel of John is generally believed to have been written toward the end of the first century.

Adventists who believe that Ellen White was “inspired” in the same sense as the biblical writers, should awake to the wondrous treasure trove of “autographs” bequeathed to us—thousands of them.

Both evangelicals and secularists can look at the writings of Ellen White and recognize immediately that they are not “inerrant.” They see errors all over the place. But perhaps for different reasons. Secularists don’t believe in the idea of sacred text at all, but evangelicals do—just not these particular texts!

In my view, the sacred and secular ultimately merge into one, at least in some ways. Yet when two human beings look at a “sacred” text, reactions of each person are often radically different. As an Adventist, I believe we ought to seize the initiative and explore the great advantages that come to a community which believes that a text can be sacred and contain errors.

Many words could be multiplied on that theme, but I have dropped enough hints to suggest why secularists view a sacred text as a very ordinary text. And if believers want to claim that the text is inerrant in the presence of modern secularists, they should not be surprised by a chuckle or a sneer: the text is “obviously” full of ordinary human foibles!

But returning to the ideas of sacred text that shaped the world of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, we can see a great gulf fixed between their day and ours. And in our day, Adventists live in a kind of no-man’s land, for we want to see the humanity in Scripture while continuing to experience the Bible as a sacred text, at least I certainly do.

But having mentioned the idea of inerrancy, it is worth asking whether Bible writers ever discussed the idea. The answer is a flat-out no. The issue never would have occurred to them. As far as the biblical perspective is concerned, it is a moral framework that provides stability—the one great principle of love, Jesus’ two great commands, and the ten commandments. Within that framework, two different versions of the same event can easily be found with different supporting facts. But the really big issues never move. In the New Testament we have four different Gospels, not one. In the Old Testament we have two different accounts of Israel’s history, one in Samuel/Kings, the other in Chronicles. But there is not a shred of evidence in the Bible itself that people in the biblical era experienced fear, or horror at the appearance of differences between the accounts. They are assumed to be essential and helpful. It is high time that we seize the initiative and explore ways of reclaiming that mysterious blending of the sacred and the secular.

But now let’s shift gears, for “Worship in Education” involves much more than “sacred text.”

Let’s start with celebration of God’s goodness. Try Psalm 8 and Psalm 19—pure praise and adoration, without even a word condemning God’s enemies! Educators can revel in those Psalms:

Psalm 8:1 (NRSV) O Lord, our Sovereign,

 how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants

you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,

 to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

 the moon and the stars that you have established;

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

 mortals that you care for them?

5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

 and crowned them with glory and honor.

6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

 you have put all things under their feet,

7 all sheep and oxen,

 and also the beasts of the field,

8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

 whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O Lord, our Sovereign,

 how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 19: (KJV): 1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

2 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

3 There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.

4 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,

5 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

6 His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.

12 Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

So, celebration is clearly part of the Old Testament experience. What about other reactions recorded in the sacred text? Do believers living in the biblical era do anything other than celebrate? Don’t they ever have questions?

Indeed they do. The psalmists are full of questions, even doubts. But they are believers’ doubts. Almost half the psalms are complaints. Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” was not just a cry from the cross. It was a real cry of a real person in the Old Testament!

And Psalm 73 is one in which the psalmist admits that his faith in Yahweh was at risk!

The flow of the whole psalm is fascinating. It shows that one can ask pointed questions but still believe! The Bible gives us a safety net so that we can scream and shout, even rail, at God—but still believe! Psalm 73 is a long psalm, so I won’t quote it here. But check it out. It’s a remarkable piece to find in an inspired Bible!

And we must note the importance of gratitude. The nineteenth-century English poet and artist, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828–82), is credited with saying, “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” For the believer, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a wonderful gift worth celebrating. Not only did Jesus teach us about God, the New Testament writers testified that he was and is God and thus models “God” for us to see. Note this striking quotation from 1 John 1:1–4:

1 John 1:14 (NRSV): We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

Finally, and most important of all, our sacred text tells us that in Jesus Christ, God died for us. Philippians 2 tells it well.

Philippians 2:58 (NRSV):

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

 did not regard equality with God

 as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

 taking the form of a slave,

 being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself

 and became obedient to the point of death—

 even death on a cross.

In short, one of God’s most precious gifts to believers is the divine encouragement for us to add thinking and worshiping to our believing.


Notes & References:

[1] Albert Camus, “Essay on Music” (1932), from “Music” [#9] in Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, ed. by Robert Andrews, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 611.

[2] Alden Thompson, Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White Grew from Fear to Joy and Helped Me Do It Too (PPPA, 2005), 7.

[3] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (1888, 1911), 80.


Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Artwork by Domenico Fetti (c.1589–1624) (after), Moses and the Burning Bush – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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