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Earnest Quest in Sunny San Diego


I have good memories from San Diego, some of them memories of an earnest quest.

Earnest Quest in the Past

Memory is imprecise, but I believe my first visit happened in 1975. Along with some friends, I attended a seminar held by Jay Adams, a pastor, counselor, and teacher of biblical languages at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I had read his book Competent to Counsel and many other of his books. By the time of his seminar, it was said that Competent to Counsel had sold 400,000 copies. It is still in print, and now in its 30th printing.

The seminar had a big impact on me for reasons I cannot share here. But I will share one episode that happened during a break. My fellow students from Loma Linda University and I had a brief personal conversation with Adams. He found out that we were Adventists. Then he said — I believe just to our small group, “Adventists are not Protestants.” He elaborated, saying something like this: “Protestants believe that the Bible and the Bible alone is their authority in matters of faith and doctrine. Adventists believe that the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White are their authority.” At this point we demurred, but Adams continued: “It does not help to say that Ellen G. White is not equal to the Bible if she is normative for the way you read it.”

He seemed to have done some homework on the subject, taking us by surprise. “Do you believe that Ellen G. White’s writings are an inspired commentary on the Bible?” he asked. We had to think for a minute: his statement sounded like something we might believe and even something we felt that we ought to believe. Adams continued: “F. D. Nichol says that Ellen G. White is an inspired commentary.”

This put us in a bind because we knew that F. D. Nichol was an important voice in our church. “If she is an inspired commentary, and if her inspiration is equal to that of the Bible writers, she is the final word on how to read the Bible, isn’t she?” Adams was not going to let us get away. We were stymied.

Adams had one more thing up his sleeve. He said that he had written to the Review & Herald, asking for the whole nine-volume set of Testimonies for the Church. The Review office wrote back, saying that they had other books by Ellen G. White that he might like. Adams wrote back, insisting that he wanted the Testimonies. Again, a letter came back, advising him to select other titles. At that point he thought, as he put it: “What are these people trying to hide?” As I recall, he eventually got a whole set of the Testimonies. I don’t remember what he said after that.

A year or so later, Jay Adams was a featured speaker at the annual alumni convention of the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University. After his presentation, I realized that I knew of his fame better than many others in attendance. I had the audacity to invite him for supper in our modest home on Richmont Road in Loma Linda (north of Barton). He graciously accepted. During our conversation, he dropped one more bomb. “Adventists are not Christians because they understand the Day of Atonement ritual in such a way that Satan becomes their Savior.”

Wow! I thought about it for a minute. Adams understood Adventists to be saying that the two goats in the Day of Atonement ritual function in the same way, whether “the Goat for the Lord or “the Goat for Azazel.” You may recall that “the Goat for the Lord” is a sin offering, and it is killed upon selection. “Sin offering” is generally given a substitutionary meaning: the goat is a symbol of Christ, who dies for the sins of the people. This is “the Goat for the Lord.” The other goat, the “live goat” or “the Goat for Azazel” is then brought out. Aaron, the first one to do this, was to confess the sins of the people on the head of the live goat. Leviticus says that “the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:22 NRS).

I knew my “Adventist belief” on this point, and I shared it with Adams. “You see,” I said, ‘the Goat for Azazel’ does not die for my sins. He dies for his own sins. It relates to me only in the sense that he has had a share in my sins; he has incited and participated in them. But the share that comes back on him, is his own. The rest is on me — or on ‘the Goat for the Lord.’”

It is curious to remember this now because I am working on a chapter I call “The Devil’s Share,” a post-Holocaust perspective on theology that has nothing to do with my conversation with Jay Adams many years ago. That conversation ended well. Adams said that he had misunderstood the Adventist view. He reached out his hand, the right hand of fellowship. In the course of the evening, I had said something that made him accept a Seventh-day Adventist (and Adventists) as a fellow Christian. The good tone continued when I drove him to Ontario Airport the next morning. I don’t know if he ever changed his mind regarding Adventists and Protestants, that is, the idea that Adventists hold a view of the writings of Ellen G. White that puts their Protestantism in doubt.

What else? San Diego is associated with lesser quests, too.

In 1980, we were in San Diego to attend a Billy Graham crusade in the stadium of the San Diego Padres. On the way going, I listened to the electrifying speech of senator Edward Kennedy, who was running against a sitting president of his own party, Jimmy Carter. Kennedy’s charisma easily outshone Carter’s, but he lost the nomination, and Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan. Some years later, I took the Internal Medicine Board Exam in San Diego. I stayed in a Motel 6. After my morning run around the entire Mission Bay, I stood in the bathtub for my shower. There was a short circuit in the room, and it gave me a terrifying electric jolt. (It may also have helped my board score, which was excellent, at the 96th percentile). We have been in San Diego to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo with our children more than once, and we have seen the Museum several times. I have even traveled there from Norway to attend the Annual Convention of the American Diabetes Association.

Earnest Quest in the Present

This year, I came again to San Diego to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, held jointly with the American Academy of Religion. It was my third time in San Diego for these meetings (the other years 2007 and 2014). I have attended almost every Annual Meeting since 2004, the year I completed my PhD in Biblical Studies. The meetings are invariably a great learning experience. They are linked to the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (a few days earlier), the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the two Adventist societies, Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) and the Adventist Theological Society (ETS). For the last ten years, there has also been the annual meeting of the Society of Adventist Philosophers (SAP).

My quest this year started with the sessions of the Society of Adventist Philosophers. I am not a philosopher, but I pay my dues to the society. In the main, I am fascinated by the earnestness and ideas of the young scholars that had a hand in its creation, like Zane Yi, Abigail Doukhan, and Ron Osborn. I wondered what they were up to this time, especially given the topic, “What Is Truth?” All the presentations were outstanding; all deserve a published afterlife. In the morning, Ante Jerončić from the Seminary at Andrews University presented a challenging paper with the title, “On Not Being a Schwein: Kitsch, Sentimentality, and Epistemic Vice.”  For those of us more familiar with other types of vice, “epistemic vice” has something to do with knowing. If our attitude to knowing is casual and haphazard, it might even be considered a vice. Ante’s emphasis was not only whether truth is knowable but also the problem of “not wanting to know, not caring to know.” He connected this problem to the work of the philosopher Henry Frankfurt, whose little book On Bullshit I used in my commentary on Romans, especially for the hostility to truth depicted in Romans 3. Frankfurt distinguishes between lies and bullshit and between the liar and the bullshitter (I know that this word is offensive in English, but this is the word in use). To the liar, there is awareness of the truth, and there might even be respect even as the liar tries to subvert it. The bullshitter, by contrast, could not care less. He or she is not interested in the truth; “he pays no attention to it at all.” On this logic, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Added to this comes the attitude of the person who is addressed by falsehood, whether as lies or as bullshit. If the possibility of truth is not only a question of its availability but also of receptivity, truth-seeking becomes a crucial element in the equation. In a society that has bullshit on the menu, we could be in deep trouble if bullshit is what we like to eat.

Kendra Haloviak Valentine, professor of biblical studies at La Sierra University, spoke on “Truth and Power in the Fourth Gospel.” She began by highlighting the lawsuit motif in the Gospel and how this motif is present throughout. Toward the end, Jesus is on trial before Pilate, but the Gospel’s aspiration goes beyond the earthly trial. Indeed, even in the earthly trial, the tables are turned. We see Jesus tried before the Roman magistrate, but suddenly it looks like Pilate is on trial before Jesus. It is as though “truth” has come to him and for him; it is as though the critical issue is not the availability of truth but its reception. The two aspects are linked in Jesus’s words, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37 NRS). Pilate’s half-inquisitive, half-evasive, “What is truth?” suggests that he plans to renege on the reception-side, aligning himself with the proud tradition that believes that the question of truth relates mostly to its availability.

Kendra’s most subtle and enticing point, however, had to do with the second level of the lawsuit motif in this Gospel. Jesus is on trial before Pilate, we see, but God is also on trial in a cosmic sense. In this trial, Jesus appears as the one who will win the trial for God. Pilate’s grasp of the second level did not amount to much, but it is evident to the readers of the Gospel. They (we) know that Jesus is going head to head with “the father of the lie” (John 8:44). It is the truth in relation to “the lie” that grounds Jesus’ claim, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world” (John 18:37). This was an exquisite paper, a biblical follow-through on Ante’s earlier theme, and a subtle example of the tenor of the conference — that there is a relationship between truth and beauty. The Fourth Gospel is beautiful, and so was Kendra’s presentation. An academic presentation at a conference of philosophers almost turned into a revival meeting. 

The keynote address for the SAP conference was given by David Bentley Hart. I sat too far back to hear him well, and I came to his address with a few prejudices that I will keep to myself. My concerns were mostly allayed: let his linkage of truth and beauty stand, given that he emphasized that there is a certain kind of beauty in the one “who had no beauty.”

Next, we changed venue for the start of the meetings of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies. The theme for this year was the Bible Conference of 1919 at its centennial mark. This was also the topic of the presidential address, given by Denis Fortin, formerly the Dean of the Theological Seminary at Andrews University and professor of historical theology at that institution. His title was a quotation from W. W. Prescott, one of the most prominent participants at the 1919 conference, “I had to adjust my view of things.” As a subtitle, Denis put “Lessons from the 1919 Conference.”

In retrospect, the title of the paper is not only meant descriptively. It is also prescriptive for the need to adjust our view of things in the present. The conference in 1919 took place against a global horizon that is largely unseen — the end of World War I and the catastrophic Versailles Treaty. More important to the participants was the passing of Ellen G. White in 1915, how to view her writings, and the nature of inspiration in general. On the former question, how were Ellen White’s books put together? Do we see inspiration at work in her writings that is verbal, a form of thought inspiration, or something else? She used amanuenses, calling one of them her “book maker.” Does it matter? One party at the 1919 conference had seen her working method up close. The other party had not — and worried that things might be said that would weaken her authority in the church. At the end, it was decided not to publish the minutes, to file them away so thoroughly that their discovery many years later was akin to the rediscovery of the law in 2 Kings (2 Kings 22:8). In other words, a shock.

Denis tackled the 1919 record and its aftermath with two telling concepts. On the one hand, we have the case for continuity and normativity. On the other hand, we have the need for discontinuities and relativity. Or do we? Will the whole discussion and its aftermath boil down to rigid, undeviating continuity and unquestioning normativity? This is largely what happened. Here, in my own words, let us picture David going into battle with the armor of Saul (1 Sam 17:38-39). It was not a good idea; David could not do it. The armor gave him rigidity where there should be agility; it confined him; it locked him up within strictures unsuited to the task and to his own character. He must fight with the sling and his handpicked stones; he must have freedom to adapt and improvise. There was little doubt that Denis — under the title “I had to adjust my view of things” — advocated the need for similar adjustment, long overdue one hundred years later.

We got more on the subject the next day, and some things I had not heard before. Michael Campbell, now at Southwestern Adventist University and a prolific writer on Adventist history, spoke on “The Haunting of Adventism: The Ghosts of the 1919 Bible Conference.” Ghosts are scary beings, whether they play in the imagination or make cameo appearances in the shadows. The scary ghosts in Michael’s presentation were the rise of the Fundamentalist movement, its stark view of verbal inspiration, and the attendant rise of an inerrant and infallible Ellen White. He said that these forces “radically changed Adventism in terms of race, gender, lifestyle, and created the crucible for the formation of Last Generation Theology.” In other words, the Adventism for which many fight today is the Adventism that changed and sclerosed in the aftermath of 1919. Again, in my own words, Adventists adopted the rigid armor of Saul instead of the agile armor of David. The biggest surprise in this interpretation was the connection between Fundamentalism and racism, a connection that persisted in the Adventist community. Michael left little doubt that the Adventist drift toward Fundamentalism was a historic mistake. If I misheard him, please correct me.

As noted above, the commotion in the world outside Adventism is not easily perceived through the peeking hole into the 1919 Bible Conference. That world had seen the atrocity of World War I, and it set the stage for World War II with the calamitous peace treaty in Versailles.

I have just received John Maynard Keynes’ book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes was a vociferous critic of the harsh and unsustainable terms of the treaty, virtually predicting the next war. I plan to use his book as an example of 1) warped views of “justice” that have a Christian reference point and 2) warped views of “retribution” that also have innumerable Christian reference points.

Our perception deficit with respect to 1919 was greatly helped by John Webster’s paper, “‘Bombshells in the Playground’: What Might Karl Barth (Romans 1919) Have Contributed to the 1919 Bible Conference.” John is a professor of theology at La Sierra University and the denomination’s foremost expert on Barth. He showed how Barth’s monumental commentary on Romans — also 1919 — was a response not only to World War I but to the theological collapse of the liberal theology preceding the war. That is, theology that did not resist the drift toward war but aided and abetted it. There was near-perfect symmetry between John’s paper and Jeff Gang’s Adventist perspective on the historical situation, “Apocalypse When? Seventh-day Adventist Eschatological Pessimism in the Wake of World War I.” (Jeff teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.) Barth’s commentary resonates better when we understand the setting of the post-war bewilderment. And yet there is a difference between the responses. In my view, Barth’s response is robust and intensely constructive. The Adventist response, by contrast, is largely pessimistic and defensive.

More good things happened at the ASRS meetings, but I will move on to mention three things from the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.

First, I found myself in the company of Kendra Haloviak Valentine at a session in honor of the late Gail O’Day. She was a professor of New Testament at Emory University, a specialist on the Gospel of John, and a former long-time editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Her premature death has shaken the community of Johannine scholars. I have collected O’Day’s scholarly papers on John, and there is not one that is not worth reading. I say the same for her books. Her most distinctive contribution is the claim that form and content go hand in hand in John: you cannot appreciate or appropriate the message if its form languishes relative to content. On the terms so prominent at the SAP conference (Adventist Philosophers), this means that there is a connection between truth and beauty. Composition matters; language matters; details matter; cadence matters. We have barely scratched the surface in such matters. Then, as an item new to me, one of the presenters said that Gail O’Day was at work on Revelation with the same focus: the connection between form and message. To her, the only book where this connection is stronger than in John is Revelation. When the presenter said this, Kendra and I looked at each other and smiled. We believe the same thing.

Second, one of the sessions was devoted to my commentary, The Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists. This was a great honor, to put it mildly. I have presented at SBL meetings in the past on ecological concerns, Revelation, the Gospel of John, and Romans. To have my book featured in the crowded field of Pauline studies was heart-warming in the extreme. The four scholars who reviewed my book were all very positive — and positive on two points that matter a lot. One goal has been to write for a non-expert audience — to give an up-to-date introduction to Paul and take advantage of the new perspectives on Paul. The other goal has been to let Paul’s theology carry the ecological message, that is, to prioritize the letter’s primary errand. The verdict that I succeeded on both counts means a lot.

Third, on the way out the door on November 26, the last day of the conference, I attended a session on animal voices in the Bible. That’s right — animal voices. They are there although we rarely hear them. I now have the paper I liked the most, graciously sent to me by Suzanna Millar from the University of Edinburgh. She spoke on “Job’s Dehumanizing Rhetoric.” This is a study on how animals are featured in Job. Job speaks of them condescendingly, as marginal creatures, and he uses his depiction of animals to dehumanize humans. God, by contrast, speaks respectfully of the animals; God gives them standing. Their role in God’s speech has the effect of de-centering Job. I left full of admiration for such exquisite work.

Ongoing Quest

In closing, two reflections on the Adventist part of the conference. First, unless there is a reset in Adventist theology that is more accepting of novelty and discontinuity, we will continue the mistake made after 1919. We will be stuck in the mud; we will chafe and flail within the armor of Saul; we will not have the agility we need or be ready to take advantage of opportunities that beckon. Continuity and normativity, as Denis Fortin put it, cannot be the whole story — it cannot be a valid prescription.

Second, I could not help but think of the fact that we have two Adventist theological societies that reflect post-1919 divisions. For a small denomination like ours, to have two societies divided along ideological lines does not seem like a good idea, strategically speaking or for reasons of a common cause. I have wondered about this since I started attending these meetings fifteen years ago. I wondered again when I was reminded that Adventists post-1919 aligned with Fundamentalism and that a significant group of Adventist scholars now align with evangelicalism (ETS). These seem to me to be alignments with sentiments with which we have the least in common.

As I left San Diego, thinking mostly about the Adventist part of the meetings, I recalled my encounter with Jay Adams and his comment on the normative status of the writings of Ellen G. White in 1975. And I caught myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash


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