The Challenge of Secularization for Seventh-day Adventists

MANY people think of secularization in its negative sense. For instance, a secularized world as a world that is not interested in God, a secularized church as one that has lost its identity as a dwelling place for God, or a secularized idea as a concept (such as Marxism) that has been completely separated from its religious origin. . .

-Bible teacher at Shenandoah Valley Academy, New Market, Virginia, at the time this article was written.

MANY people think of secularization in its negative sense. For instance, a secularized world as a world that is not interested in God, a secularized church as one that has lost its identity as a dwelling place for God, or a secularized idea as a concept (such as Marxism) that has been completely separated from its religious origin. 1

However, in recent years a number of continental theologians, including Dr. F. Gogarten, have introduced a positive concept of secularization that is of special interest to Seventh-day Adventists. They insist that "scientific knowledge is a fruit of freedom which is given to men in the gospel." 2 Today nature is not regarded with superstitious awe. The Christian as a free man can see the handiwork of God in nature. True science has helped him in this area. Thus, secularism is a denial of God, but secularization is the assertion of a freedom that God has given man in the world. Stephen Neill prefers to call the latter "desacralization."

Dr. Arend Theodoor van Leeuwen carries this theme through his book Christianity in World History. He frequently refers to the governments of ancient civilizations of both old and new worlds as "ontocratic states." The kings were considered as gods or as sons of the gods. The masses were ruled with an iron hand by a god-king who controlled a superstitious people in the name of cosmic powers. Under these circumstances, the Bible is considered a secular Book, whose purpose is to free the people from the ontocratic state and give freedom under the kingship of the Lord. In this way old fears and superstitions disappear. The Bible consistently emphasizes practical religion in contrast to senseless ceremonies and high places dedicated to cosmic powers.

The Myth of Cosmic Power and Beyond

Van Leeuwen traces the struggle through the centuries of the Christian Era. The Roman emperors, the popes, and the European kings continued the myth of a cosmic throne. In the West there were a series of revolutions the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and so on which have tended to break the control of the god-kings and their cosmic superstitions. Modern youth find a new freedom from ancient superstitions. They are at the crossroads. Will they take the broad road of libertinism, Marxism, or some other philosophy of God forgetfulness? Or will they take the narrow way upward, which leads to life and freedom in Christ?

Dr. Lesslie Newbigin, Bishop of Madras of the Church of South India, tells of the effect of the teachings of mission schools in the Third World. "Their teaching and practice has the effects of dis integrating the sacral bonds that have traditionally held society together," and as a result the younger generation is "bound to call the old religious order into question." 3 This is a process of secularization in the positive sense of the word. Modern youth is scrutinizing all the traditional beliefs. Because man is innately religious he searches for a reasonable faith when old traditions are swept away. Few people will willingly and deliberately choose an atheistic way of life, yet many find traditional beliefs such as innate immortality and an ever-burning hell quite unacceptable. But human nature hates a vacuum, so the individual moves on. Will he find freedom in Christ? This is where Adventists have an opportunity.

A New Freedom in Christ

At the conference on the Christian World Mission held by the World Council of Churches in Mexico City in December, 1963, study was made of the negative and positive aspects of secularization.4 It was recognized that ancient sacral structures that have controlled men's minds have been broken down and great new powers for controlling the world have been placed in the hands of modern man. Now he must choose between greater freedom or new enslavement, declared the delegates to the conference.

A Christian must recognize in all these changes the hand of God at work. In countries where the political system has secularized the masses to the point where be lief in God is no longer valid, we have and will continue to have opportunities to step in and fill the vacuum with a full presentation of the gospel. It is our privilege as Christians (and especially as Adventists) to call men everywhere into a new freedom that accepts Christ as Lord. By the process of secularization, asserts Newbigin, men have been pried loose from the control of traditional beliefs and are compelled to make new decisions.5

The Christian has no desire to re-establish the absolutes that have been dethroned by the process of secularization, the bishop continues farther on in his book.6 But it is impossible to live without guidance from accepted patterns of conduct. There is one absolute in Christ and the Christian's love to God and his neighbor. We must have an anchor for the soul.

The Adventist Answers

From their origin Adventists have been considered rebels against the establishment, or the mainstream religious organizations. Bryan Wilson calls Adventists "revolutionary sects." 7 Such doctrines as conditional immortality, the second coming of Christ, the cataclysmic end of the world, the Sabbath, vegetarianism, and the like cut right across the traditional beliefs of all the mainstream churches. We can enter into the revolutionary spirit of the age and present new and Biblical answers to old problems. Revolution is needed, but let it be of the right kind, one that will lead us back to the Bible and sane temperate living.

We as Adventists can heartily agree with the concept of the church as a missionary community. We respond to the invitation of Christ, "Come unto Me," and also accept the call, "Go and I am with you." 8 It is our privilege and responsibility to represent our God before our fellow men. We are a pilgrim people and should ever be first to lift up Christ to the world. We invite people every where to find new liberty in Him. We have deep social concern as revealed in our medical, educational, welfare, and temperance work. But we know very well that social problems will never be completely solved until Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, comes to reign over a redeemed remnant of earth.


1. Stephen Neill, et. al., Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission, p. 564.
2. Ibid.
3. Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man, p. 18.
4. Ibid., p. 136.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 140.
7. Bryan Wilson, Religion in Secular Society, pp. 224, 225.
8. Newbigin, op. cit., pp. 104, 101.

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-Bible teacher at Shenandoah Valley Academy, New Market, Virginia, at the time this article was written.

March 1973

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