What's with Adventist theology?

Insights into how Adventists function theologically and what they may do to improve

Roland R. Hegstad is the editor of Perspective Digest, and a former editor of Liberty.

Why does a word that ^ ym / points upward send so many Christians plunging downward? Why the squabbles over issues of alleged "conservatism" or "liberalism"? Is it possible for us to avoid theological paranoia and heresy hunts without at the same time compromising truth or sacrificing fellowship?

Ministry magazine, long on my reading list, regularly runs articles on theology. Conceded: Often these articles major on distinctive Adventist doctrine; but occasionally they seek to give readers a close-up view of God who He is, what He is, and how He relates to humanity. Truth be told, even attaining real knowledge of the whos and whats and whys is a daunting task. In fact, an unattainable task, if one buys Earth's definition of God as the "utterly other."

Go to the dictionary, look up theologian, and you'll find that a theologian is one who is learned in theology! That's like saying that a theoretician is one who is learned in theory! I asked my seven-year-old granddaughter to tell me what a theologian is or does. Her answer: "I think a theologian. ... I think a theologian. ... I think. ... I don't know." To get on with definitions: "Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious truth, rational inquiry into religious questions" (which questions, as all theologians know, are often themselves irrational). Another equally unhelpful definition: "A course of specialized religious study usually at a college or a seminary."

Now, I can be helpful to you in the search for a meaningful definition because I went to a seminary. I found the Adventist Theological Seminary to be a challenging long step up from my college courses. I went there in the midst of a fresh and humbling encounter with Christ. And such an encounter, I submit, is the prerequisite to any theological study worthy of the name. You can study Shakespeare with out a momentous encounter with his work, though a knowledge (as distinguished from information) of Medieval and Modern English is a requisite. And, admittedly, in both disciplines some intelligence does help.

Station identification

I assume that about now your questions are: Where is this writer going? Just what does he intend to accomplish? So before going further, let's pause for station identification. Here's what I'm after, 1, 2, 3:

1. I want us to come to the subject of theology and its oft times divisive impact with a prayer and/or at least a chuckle, neither of which can easily coexist with rancor, contentiousness, anger, virulence, wrath, irascibility, and any of the other vicissitudes that plague scholars who (even in the Adventist Church) spend too long in the rarified atmosphere of academia's assumed verities.

Let's look upon one another with compassion. Let's not join the critics who play a game in which they seek to fit theologians into grouchy little categories ranging from conservative on the right to liberal on the left. Depending on the critic's orientation or intention, conservative may mean either someone "faithful-to-Scripture-and-Adventist-verities," or "a stuck-in-a-rut-legalist." Liberal may be used to describe someone who's "theologically astute, forward-looking, open, and in tune with reality," or someone who's "a standards coffing, pseudo-intellectual possessing a dubious loyalty to Scripture." Sadly, the victims of the negative applications of these epitaphs may themselves lash back, usually with veiled emotions and in coded language (because it's not wise or pastoral to let the laity know we're fighting).

In all this, I'm glad to tell you that the majority of theologians I've come to know are both scholarly and gracious. They love to share insights into God's love of sinners. They respond to internecine differences with prayers and chuckles, each of which has its place in defusing volatile charges and enhancing relationships.

2. I want us to feel friendly toward theology, which has its focus on a very friendly God, who is much hap pier when we approach Him with a smile rather than a frown. Shame on stodginess, stuffiness, and ill-humor! The Jesus who came down to demonstrate what the Father is like took children on His knee and smiled at them, laughed with them, and won their hearts.

3. I want you to finish this article with (a) an enhanced respect for theology and theologians; (b) a more peacemaking attitude toward differing theological views (within limits); and (c) my name still on your Christian list. In pursuing these objectives, I'll introduce you to two evangelical theologians who have achieved what some have not.

Meet the scholars

I met the two evangelicals thanks to a Christianity Today review.1 Their names: Alan P. F. Sell and Michael Jinkins. Both have credentials: professors in seminaries, authors of theology texts. Both are influential in shaping, or at least reflecting, evangelical thought. Sell is a British Reformed scholar; Jinkins, a "moderate Reformed theologian," as reviewer Roger E. Olson describes him.

Sell is one who "strives to bridge the differences between competing theologies," but he "is not interested in heresy hunts or watering Christian belief down to the lowest common denominator."

What impressed me most about the two, however, was that though they differ on points of theology important to them, they do so with out rancor. Olson sees them rooted in a warmhearted and peace-loving Christianity that holds to the motto, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

The two men, says Olson, sub scribe to the Apostles' Creed, which serves "as a guiding norm [under Scripture] for their theological reflections. As their books show, they avoid condemning Christians who hold differing views on secondary matters of belief." (I've sometimes wondered whether "non-essentials" or "secondary matters" reflect concepts alive and well in Adventism.)

Both Sell and Jinkins communicate theology devotionally and practically. Says Sell: "It is a cardinal principle of good theology that it should build upon what God has seen fit to make known to us, and not upon what He has not.... My anchor is God's revelation in Christ."

I liked Jinkins' paradox: "God's power is most visible in the helpless and broken figure of Jesus of Nazareth hanging and dying on the cross."

Of paradox and elephants

I'm comfortable with paradox and mystery. Some time ago in Perspective Digest, which I edit, I expressed my conviction that God is fundamental ly holy, and from that essence springs love and justice and all His other attributes. A writer challenged me to explain why I saw the holiness of God to be elemental and didn't hold to the traditional Adventist view that God is fundamentally love.

I had already mentioned that the cherubim about the throne of God sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy," rather than "Love, Love, Love." But I didn't argue the point further. Why? Because I don't recall that Jesus, who came to show us the Father, ever delivered a systematic theology of His Father's essence. I also didn't argue further because God is infinitely more than I am capable of imagining, let alone describing, especially when I remember the descriptions the three blind men gave about what an elephant is like, after each of them felt it once.

How often theological endeavor is like those blind men when they pontificate about the nature of God. Which reminds me that on several early trips to a theologically sophisticated Adventist community somewhere, the litmus test of my orthodoxy, among several interrogators, depended on my answer to the question: "Where do you stand on the nature of Christ?" My answer: "I hold that the ultimate blasphemy of which Christians are capable is to divide the church over the nature of One who prayed, 'Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name ... so that they may be one as we are one'" (John 17:11). Beware of those who, in one way or another, profess to have the ultimate answers when it comes to the mysteries buried in the very nature of the infinite!

As Sell says, "If we do not begin from the holy love of God made known to us in Christ, we shall find ourselves in difficulties when we come to fill out our understanding of God." Both theologians, Olson observes, "apply the Christocentric approach even to the doctrine of God's nature, attributes, and character."

Things are changing

I find it interesting that Sell, a Reformed theologian with unassailable Calvinist credentials, affirms "freedom of will and repudiates divine determinism." Both theologians, says Olson, "express significant dissatisfaction with post-Calvin Reformed thinking that goes beyond what Scripture and early Christian tradition had to say about God's sovereignty."

Here's one example from Sell: "There is no New Testament justification for the view that God from eternity predestined some to damnation. Christians do not know, worship, and serve a God of sheer arbitrariness. God's omnipotence . . . is not sheer unconditioned might. Nor is it such as to violate the freedom He has given us. ... He will go to a Cross before He will remove that which makes us human."

At this point I hope you're contemplating this contemporary Calvinist's viewpoint and determining not to tag persons by the church company they keep! Things are changing out there in the evangelical world, as well as in the Adventist world. No, neither Adventist theologians nor I would endorse all the theology of either Sell or Jinkins. But I hope you along with my theologian colleagues will respect them as men of God.

Of creeds and caveats

In a past issue of Perspective Digest I suggested that the pacifist position taken by several groups in wartime should be extended to cover internecine conflicts over theology. In support of this view, I pointed to inspired counsel that had guided me as editor of Liberty. I believe my suggestion to be in harmony with the attitude of most, if not all, Adventist theologians.

What to do, then, with theological concepts circulating that are not to be found among the 27 doctrines listed in Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines'?2 We might begin by examining the book's introduction, which emphasizes the noncreedal nature of that volume. A sampling:

"We have written this book with the guidance of a clear directive continually reminding us that 'if you search the Scriptures to vindicate your own opinions, you will never reach the truth. Search in order to learn what the Lord says. If conviction comes as you search, if you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the truth, do not misinterpret the truth in order to suit your own belief, but accept the light given. . . .'" (Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons [Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900], 112).3

Good counsel! But don't miss this: "We have not written this book to serve as a creed a statement of beliefs set in theological concrete. Adventists have but one creed: 'The Bible, and the Bible alone.'"4

I know these caveats well: At the request of the book's editor, Robert Spangler, I wrote the first draft of the introduction. Understand me: I subscribe to the 27 doctrines listed, but I surely would reword at least one of them No. 21, titled "Christian Behavior," which spends ten pages on everything from fresh air, rest, and nutrition, to how to dress all good, mind you; but in contrast here is the sum total expressed about our responsibility to minister to humanity: "A major reason Christians live as they do is to save lost men and women. Said Paul: 'I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:33, NIV; cf. Matt. 20:28).'"5 Yes, the chapter "The Remnant and Its Mission" says we are to call people out of apostasy and prepare them for Christ's return,6 but that's about all it says!

In terms of volume at least, such matters claim an emphasis far beyond that of the essential issue of Christian ministry in the world. In my estimation, in two critical areas the book majors on minors (gracefully, to be sure) while missing the greater dimensions of witness. I, for one, would revise chapter 21 to include examples from Scripture of how Christ represented the love of the Father through His ministry to humanity.

Why my sensitivity on the book's priorities? Because I have a painful confession to make. I was a certified pagan when God reached out to me. My grandmother had died soon after I graduated from high school. I went to a gracious Adventist aunt and asked two questions: "What happens when you die? and Is there really a God?" That wise aunt didn't give me the answers; instead she suggested I go to Walla Walla College for "just one year" to find the answers.

At the time I was headed for Linfield College, a well-regarded school near Portland, Oregon, where I lived. My great ambition was to be a sports editor, and Linfield had offered me a scholarship, a journalism grant, and the sports editorship of the college paper for my freshman year. Troubles in our home and, as I now recognize, the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, led me, at the last moment, to head for Walla Walla,with none of the inducements held out by Linfield.

What a shock to find that WWC did not have even a sports page in the college paper, the Collegian; and that the cafeteria didn't serve T-bone steaks and fried chicken. (If I'd have sampled their twin abominations Nuteena and Proteena, before registering, I'd likely have gone home.) My interrogator was gracious but thorough. I was told all the things I couldn't do if permitted to enroll go to movies, dances, etc. I agreed. "Just one more thing," he said: "You'll have to take off your ring." My class ring! I would have been sent home had I not agreed to do so. Home, that is, without learning about God and death and salvation.

Is it any wonder that later, after baptism, a change in my major, and graduation, I (and far too many fellow evangelists) largely left the preaching of Christ to the "other churches" while majoring on Adventist distinctives? Is it any wonder that I raised up a church convinced of Adventist doctrine but largely bereft of the spirit of Christ?

I thank God that after agonizing nights of prayer and heart searching, my life, evangelistic emphasis, and, thank God, my church, began to change. It was then, however, that I questioned whether, indeed, God had called me to the ministry, took a leave of absence, and with my wife and three-month-old son headed for the Adventist seminary.

As in my case, few theologians come without baggage. A too strict or too lenient home; an overemphasis on nonessentials; parents rebellious against church standards. Write your own script. I've told you of my introduction to an Adventist campus hoping that you'll understand why I'm sensitized by what I perceive to be Seventh-day Adventists Believe's majoring on minors in a chapter that should reflect Christ's concern and love for burdened humanity.

I desire to bring the same under standing I seek to my theologian friends. Their sensitivities to theological aberrations often have roots in early experiences such as mine. . . .But enough. I pray that we all will battle with ourselves so that our experiences weaknesses, temptations, fears will come to condition not only in our theology but also in our relationship with fellow Adventists and others who differ with us. Which is a good place to ask, Are there limits to beliefs one can accommodate?

How much should we accommodate?

I've just said I'd like to see a couple of the 27 doctrines worked over a bit. When I was editor of Liberty, I suggested we should add a 28th doctrine: Religious Liberty. (Stay with me. In suggesting this, I'm not going to take you for a ride on my hobbyhorse!)

A few centuries ago, the good monk Beza described religious liberty as "the right of every person to go to hell in his own way!" But Beza aside, what attitude should the church take toward theologians or members who would alter the doctrines listed in Seventh-day Adventists Believe? In asking this question, keep in mind that the introduction to the first edition pointed out that the book was not endorsed by a vote of the General Conference in session and thus con tents can be changed, either to better word its expressions or to accommodate new light, as God may give it. But we're still left with the question: Are there limits to beliefs one can or should not accommodate?

As already affirmed, I, along with Sell and Jinkins, endorse the adage "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." But this always needs some clarification. When confronted by new theological concepts, I often recall Ellen White's 1890 statements: "We have only the glimmerings of the rays of the light that is yet to come to us."7 Why did our forefathers not receive more? "Their clouded, deficient comprehension made it impossible."8

These kinds of statements compel me to give new concepts a fair hearing. No new light will ever push the fundamentals of our faith into obscurity. Rather it will enhance them, as is happening with our concept of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment.

Yes, there are aberrant viewpoints that must be met, some of which owe their vitality to the theological tools brought to the study of Scripture. Foremost among them is the historical-critical method, with presuppositions about Scripture that weren't birthed in a manger.

Much of the tension between Adventist theologians today emanates from disagreement over which of these tools should or should not be utilized. At stake is the integrity of Scripture, which is the product of a holy partnership between God and humanity. While in all these matters many crucial elements are at stake, I nevertheless do not buy the proposition sometimes advanced, that using some theological research "tools" intrinsic to historical criticism, means that one must adopt all its tainted premises.

Occasionally we read of a colleague who leaves our church because of such things. I think of one, a personal friend and seminary professor, who resigned and joined another denomination, an honorable decision, though one I regret. Still, that is to be preferred over those who undermine the church from pastoral or teaching posts while professing loyalty to it. Others have sought to create their own little empires from which they seek to undermine the church usually by sabotaging church leadership.

Even here, however, we must not respond by attacking character or impugning motives. We must go about God's business, leaving Him to act in His good time and in His own way. Rarely must further action be taken. One thing is sure: Truth is not best defended by denouncing error, and especially not by denouncing those who are in error.

1 Robert E. Olson, "Theology for the Rest of Us," in Christianity Today, April 22, 2002.

2 Seventh-day Adventist Believe...A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988).

3 Ibid., vii.

4 Ibid., vii.

5 Ibid., 289

6 Ibid., 168

7 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 1.401.

8 Ibid., 403.

 

 


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Roland R. Hegstad is the editor of Perspective Digest, and a former editor of Liberty.

April 2003

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