Too many theological societies?
Kenneth R. Samples, in his four-page, February 5, 1990, Christianity Today article titled "The Recent Truth About Seventh-day Adventism," divides us into three distinct theological categories evangelical, traditional, and liberal. Adventist readers may not agree with everything he said, but he recognizes rightly the theological divisions among us. (Fragmentation might be a better word.)
Respondents to my December 1989 report on the newly organized Adventist Theological Society (ATS) shared their concerns over our theological disunity. Several deplored the divisive nature of the establishment of ATS. One wrote, "I am quite frightened by its divisive and secretive nature, and the potential it has to split Adventist theological ranks once and for all by forcing people to make unnatural choices." Another accused ATS of being "an insulated special-interest group. The entry gate is narrow, and it is hedged about with protective barriers to keep the unwanted out, and with authority to purge the unfaithful from within." Others delineated their disagreements with the ATS statement of mission/purpose. One interesting letter stated, "Our church should be big enough to listen to all who would speak, while dispelling fear of isolation or censure." Then the writer proceeded to condemn ATS for being "harrowingly self-righteous.... Its policy of invitation only by nomination how haughtily safe ... its purpose how seemingly honorable . . . yet its potential effect on the SDA ministry/ church in North America how horribly divisive and destructive."
Some lamented the choice they were being forced to make: the ATS and the Andrews Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) the other Adventist theological society have scheduled their annual meetings for the same time. ATS and ASRS meet in conjunction with the conventions of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL). Scheduling the meetings of the Adventist societies for the weekend between the meetings of ETS and AAR/SBL allows interested Adventists to attend either or both of these larger conventions but forces them to choose between the Adventist societies.
But why are there two theological societies within Adventism?
Origins of the societies
Russell Staples, president of ASRS and a professor at the seminary at Andrews University, kindly shared with me that organization's constitution and by laws and also a brief history of its origin. According to him, it began to develop about 20 years ago. When Adventist teachers attended the annual AAR/SBL meetings, they gathered together at convenient times to get acquainted and to ascertain what their colleagues were doing. This affirmation of their common identity as Adventist academics eventually led to special sessions in which they would meet separately from AAR/SBL/ ASOR. Finally in 1978 our group was advised that space for meetings could no longer be allocated to small denominational groups unless they were organized as a society. This resulted in our group deciding to form a society with a formal name.
The first duly constituted meeting of ASRS took place in New Orleans in 1979. Eventually a constitution and by laws were developed. Article II lists objectives, goals, and purposes: "This organization shall provide intellectual and social fellowship among its members and encourage scholarly pursuits in all the religious studies disciplines, particularly with reference to the Seventh-day Adventist tradition. Means of implementing these purposes shall include the presentation of scholarly papers by members and invited guests and the preparation of society publications." Article III states that "any person interested in the organization and accepting its objectives is eligible for membership." The rest of the constitution deals with details relating to officers, elections, committees, meetings, etc. Its bylaws are quite standard for any organization.*
What led to the formation of ATS? One leader expressed it as follows: "Some of us wanted to be able to fellowship with like-minded individuals who felt about the Bible the way we did, and to have the opportunity of speaking up and saying conservative, loyal things about Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy without feeling that we would immediately be differed with." Another ATS leader pointed out that the very existence of their organization is merely a symptom of a problem that has existed for many years and is now surfacing.
When I asked why ATS has a closed membership, I was told that their intention was to make certain that their aim and objectives would be maintained as much as possible. My informant added, "We are merely following a normal practice of many academic societies that wish to maintain their identity." He further stated, "It needs to be emphasized that the ATS meetings at which papers are read are open to the public. Anyone can attend and even react to the papers during the discussion time. The only meetings that are closed are the business meetings." He added that there has been a change in membership procedures. Any one can apply, without prior endorsement of two members. The executive committee then handles the process.
A pastor's concern
One pastor expressed concern about the polarization in our church "beginning to appear with the establishment of magazines, journals, newsletters, theological societies, camp meetings, speaking tours, etc." He proposed that the General Conference initiate some reconciling, healing theological discussion groups among our scholars and concerned individuals. Subjects suggested for discussion ranged from hermeneutics to creationism.
This proposal was made to the leader ship of both groups, with responses that were less than enthusiastic. One General Conference officer pointed out that several meetings of this type have been held in the past with disappointing results.
In conversation with one of our scholars, I asked if there really is a deep theological difference among us and if so, how deep. In reply he shared his perception of what some Adventist scholars believe to day: Creation, yes—creation by increment over long periods of time. A flood, yes—many floods that destroyed portions of the earth. Ellen G. White, yes—for devotions only. Second Coming, yes—but without signs, and nobody has any idea when. 1844, yes—but mostly on the earth; not too sure what went on in heaven, if anything. Sabbath, yes—to celebrate, but not to keep holy, and not to keep very carefully, and certainly not to be made a memorial of an ex nihilo six-day Creation, or connected with eschatology.
Of course, there are varying degrees of belief on the continuum. And this man's perceptions should not be taken as indicating what the majority of Seventh-day Adventists or of Seventh-day Adventist scholars believe. Neither do they represent the position of either of the theological societies nor necessarily of any of the members of either society.
I continued my inquiry by asking him if it really made any difference whether we believed that the eschatological Sabbath is a memorial of a literal seven-day Creation week and a sign of God's remnant in the end-time as long as we recognized the Sabbath as a definite command of God. I felt his answer worth sharing with our readers. He stated, "It seems to me that it's the children or the students of the revisionists you have to look out for, because they go beyond their teacher. A person who has been brought up to have spiritual habits of Sabbath-keeping will often continue these habits even though the rationale has been re moved. But their students, without the rationale, may never develop these spiritual habits. So we see people termed liberal [whatever it means to be a liberal Adventist] who are very conservative in their lifestyle vegetarians, Sabbath-keepers, no wedding rings but their students and their families are far from being conservative themselves. When you take away the rationale, then the fruit of the rationale is likely to wither within a generation."
Points to ponder
As I reviewed the letters on this subject, I picked up points that need specific answers. I trust the following will help.
1. Ministry is not endorsing ATS or ASRS. Note carefully that my article was printed under the heading Ministry Reports. It was not an editorial, and though it was a positive appraisal, it does not constitute an endorsement.
2. Neither society is a church-sponsored organization. This should not be interpreted either negatively or positively. Even though the name "Andrews" is used in ASRS, it is not sponsored by Andrews University. And even though the name "Adventist" is used in ATS, it is not sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some complained about the word "Adventist" being used in their name, since this can be misinterpreted by some as to mean ATS represents our church in theological beliefs. It was pointed out that the word "Adventist" is used by several nonsponsored church groups, such as the Association of Adventist Women (AAW), the National Association of Seventh-day Adventist Dentists (NASDAD), and the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Nurses (ASDAN).
3. No one is forced to join either society, and neither society is involved in the hiring or firing of any teachers or employees, nor do they have anything to do with a person's church membership.
4. Both groups are organized for the express purpose of presenting and dis cussing various theological papers.
Hope for unity
A few months ago I attended the sixty-eighth anniversary performance of the United States Army Band (Pershing's own). It was delightful to hear music per formed with such precision and harmony by capable musicians. As I listened to the invigorating sounds of diverse instruments playing harmoniously together, my mind turned toward the church. Christ's prayer in John 17 came to my mind. He pleaded with His Father: "Let them all be one. Just as you, Father, are in union with me and I am with you, let them be in union with us" (verse 21, Goodspeed). He was praying not only for the unity of His disciples, but for their witness to the world, "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." One of the most powerful witnesses to the authenticity of Christianity is to see a worldwide movement of dedicated, ear nest, loving, lovable people sharing in a joyful way the tremendous message that God has given the Adventist movement. This type of witness brings despair to Satan's soul, but deep joy to the heart of our Lord.
As I continued listening to the band, the thought occurred repeatedly to my mind that there was no uniformity as to the individuals and their musical instruments. But one thing was certain: they all followed the leader in perfect unison. They were supportive of one another in their musical presentation. Would to God that all of us would search our hearts with the intent of being, first of all, in harmony with the will of our Lord, and then in harmony with our brothers and sisters in love and doctrine.
I challenge both groups, as well as any other independent organization that claims to be Seventh-day Adventist, to produce articles that ring with the authority of Scripture. Let us do away with fragmentation and unprofitable arguments, and begin sensing the great mes sage that the Lord has given us. Ring the Bible bell, and the saints as well as the world will know it's time for a spiritual feast!
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* For further information or to join, write to Andrews Society for Religious Studies, c/o Russell Staples, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104.