Beyond Common Ground

Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other

A review of Alden Thompson's call to unity and understanding.

— Reviewed by Glenn Townend, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Australia.

Beyond Common Ground by Alden Thompson provides a call to understanding and unity between the various groups within the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. But it was the subtitle of this book that caught my attention and made me read it. Thompson shows his pastoral heart, passion, and vision in the gospel call to unity at the end of every chapter. Here are a couple of examples: “So let’s pay close attention to what motivates our brothers and sisters in Christ and what motivates those who do not yet know our Lord. By God’s grace, His Spirit will be able to light a fire in the hearts of His people that no earthly power can quench” (73). “In the end, therefore, the astonishing truth that emerges is that God is the greatest libertarian of all. And He made it happen by giving up His liberty, His freedom, dying on the cross so that the way of love could once again become the law of the universe. If God can die for us, then surely we should be willing to live for Him by living for all His children” (155). These are heartfelt calls for unity within the church we all could warm to.

Some may not read this book because they have already labeled the author as a liberal. Such bias would be a shame for, although the book may challenge some cherished stances, there is much to learn from it.

I have read almost all of Thompson’s previous books and have not always agreed with him—but he does make me think. Beyond Common Ground relies heavily on his previous writing; but he adds anecdotal stories and suggestions that could help build unity. For example, in his previous book, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers, he highlights from Scripture a love pyramid. Thompson asserts that conservatives are best at loving God and liberals are better at loving others. Both aspects are what Jesus requires so conservatives and liberals need each other.

The book starts with Thompson providing three frameworks on which all Adventists have common ground. The first is the historical landmarks: the Sabbath, the Advent, the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ. The next unifying factor is the law of love and the love pyramid; and the last anchor point is Jesus—God in human flesh. These are the nonnegotiables from an Adventist heritage based on Scripture. Thompson does not call for compromise but encourages strong conviction. However, people with the same foundation need to share their convictions and be complimentary rather than contradictory.

Each person will find different gems in this book. I liked the thoughts on translations. Adventists have always had those who prefer one version; but the important thing is that we understand why we like a translation—and then base our dialogue on Scripture. The chapter on the diversity of the Corinthian church shows that there are still those who followed Peter, Paul, and Apollos today, but, in our diversity, we can have a unity that is not uniformity. His call for Adventists to hold to conditional historicism when interpreting prophecy is also timely.

The book has some weaknesses. Liberals and conservatives are not defined until the middle of the book, and I agree with one of his students—the Myers-Briggs personality material complicates the definitions rather than enhances them (117–131). Thompson, a scholar, has spent most of his life in large Adventist institutions and the Adventist communities around them. Perhaps such a cloistered life led to the book’s glaring omission— Adventist mission. The author gives worldwide mission of the Adventist Church only lip service.

Despite this blind spot, I consider Beyond Common Ground a good book. It shows Thompson as a man of courage and integrity. He opens peoples’ eyes to the various options of understanding from an academic viewpoint; but he has a pastoral heart—he envisions and pleads for a church that makes open dialogue a continual habit.

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— Reviewed by Glenn Townend, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Australia.

February 2011

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