How I’ve Changed and How I’ve Remained the Same
by Larry Downing, December 25, 2016: The title of this piece is taken, without apology, from a yearly presentation delivered by a notable person at a plenary session of the annual American Academy of Religion meeting. I’ve chosen the dawn of a New Year to explore and share my response to the statement.
A significant number of us in the ‘60s, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology, went directly to the Seminary, where we pursued course studies that led to obtaining a Master of Arts and, after three years of study, a Bachelor of Divinity (BD); now the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) We were among the early pastoral wannabes not assigned to a parish upon completing a theology degree. Before our time, it had been the practice for a pastor to serve in the “field,” as parish ministry was termed, be ordained, and then, if all went well, go to the Seminary, or as many of our older peers termed it, “The Cemetery.” [Not every “seasoned” pastor welcomed the news that he was being sent to pursue further study. Older pastors considered themselves well qualified to do what they were doing. Why spend one to three years sitting under professors who knew less than they about how to pastor a church?] Our group did not, for the most part, buy this philosophy. We looked forward to our graduate work. We believed that the church, and its leaders, awaited with longing desire for the day we creative, dedicated, energetic, and well-trained men–and it was men–would take our place in a vibrant parish. We knew we had the ability and willingness to give new direction and relevance to the Adventist denomination. We needed only the opportunity to implement our dreams for a revitalized church.
Some thirty or so of us young preachers were hired to pursue our parish work in the Southern and Southeastern California Conferences. We were in close geographic proximity to one another and took advantage of this to meet several times a year in one of our houses for lunch and conversation. We talked about what was taking place in our congregations, compared notes on how we found working with supervising pastors—most of us were associate pastors—complained about what conference officials and other church administrators did, or did not do, and, on occasion, invited conference officials to join with us. Neal Wilson, then the president of the North American Division, and father of the present General Conference president, agreed to meet with us for conversation and an exchange of ideas. Reality soon replaced fantasy. We wet-behind-the-ears novices were not looked upon by those in administrative positions as the new prophets in the land. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing excited acceptance of our ideas to revitalize the church, we rated somewhere between a minus 2 and a plus 3. We also, with equal reluctance, came to accept the fact that few in our congregations were interested in the great theological truths we had learned. Parishioners who were excited to hear our thoughts on church history, Greek and Hebrew languages and other courses that turned us on, were few and far between. And few congregations qualified as vibrant.
After three or four years in a parish, and working under less than creative conference officials, newly ordained pastors began to consider other options: pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree in a field of interest was a logical and available choice that many implemented. At the end of ten years of post-seminary, a significant number of men (again, it was men) had earned PhDs and sought, and found, teaching positions in various Adventist colleges and universities.
In bull sessions with peers I discovered others shared similar questions that I puzzled over. I did not find the traditional Adventist teaching on the 2300 days, the investigative judgment, a relatively young creation (6 to 12 thousand years), worldwide flood, and other matters, convincing or satisfying. On several occasions, I cornered friends who had specialized in Old Testament studies and asked if they could defend traditional Adventist teaching related to these matters. They told me they could not. As a result of my own study, and conversations as described above, I could not, with conviction, preach these “doctrines” in the same manner as I had been taught by dedicated academy and college teachers. It became clear that that much of what these teachers taught about soteriology, church and biblical history, was off the mark. For example, a respected college Bible teacher gave us students a chart depicting the process of salvation. We are, he said, to follow incremental steps that reach upward toward a sinless life, in Christ, of course. The bottom line was clear: when one reaches the top of the chart, success. Perfection. I asked myself, “Who needs Jesus when the perfection point is attained?” I rejected this theology, and still do.
On one occasion, the conference officers where I worked invited a well-known advocate for the traditional Adventist understanding of the 2300-day prophecy to address us pastors. The seminary professor’s presentation was light on scripture, heavy on Ellen G White (EGW). He took us through a convoluted lecture that left us confused, puzzled and unsure how his methodology brought him to his conclusions. In the post-lecture Q & A I asked him why he did not submit his lecture for publication in a recognized scholarly journal, such as the Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL). His immediate response: They would ridicule what I wrote and reject it. Later, in conversations with peers, we concluded that if the traditional teachings on the 2300 days could not be given solid scriptural support, presented in a form people versed in biblical studies could accept, we are in trouble. Later, Ray Cottrell, the associate editor of the Adventist Review and an Old Testament scholar, who memorized “in Hebrew, all relevant portions of Daniel 8 to 12 for instant recall,” wrote in numerous scholarly articles that the traditional Adventist understanding of the 2300 days could be defended from EGW’s writings and not scripture. There are additional Adventist teachings that are based on our interpretation of various passages from the Apocalypse that are equally problematic: universal Sunday laws; the mark of the beast; 666—for the record: Vicarius Filii Dei is a creative process based on myth, not fact. The phrase “Vicarius Filii Dei” is not, nor is there any verifiable record that it ever was, inscribed on the papal crown. It is first found in the medieval forged Donation of Constantine.
In academy and college we were taught the traditional views that are part of the typical Adventist Daniel and Revelation presentations. We memorized the seven churches and the dates of the seven ages in the development that we were told the seven churches represented. White horse? Simple: pure church. Ephesus: first-century church. Undefiled. My study of ancient history and the writings of Paul brought me to question what we had been taught. The people in the first-century Christian church were no different from us. There was, in those long past times, a hodgepodge of people, some of whom were more consistent with the powers of darkness than of light. I also began to read Adventist church history: biographies of the pioneers, and the early Adventist Reviews and Sabbath Heralds. They provided an interesting read. Church historians who reported on undiscovered sources provided additional well-researched information to guide the reader to consider a wider context than had been known.
I grew up in a family and around people who had slang expressions for persons and groups who were different from them. Hispanic, Black, Asian, gay – each group was referenced by an expression associated with that culture, race, ethnicity or religion. When I was assigned to my first solo pastorate, I learned more from them than they did from me. I had three congregations, all members of the same congregation, and I was their pastor: Samoan, Japanese, and English – and the English group was racially and ethnically diverse. These people became trusted friends. They forever changed me. My world changed! This transformation was not limited to racial or ethnic matters alone. It affected my attitudes toward the gay community, in helpful ways, I hope! It is doubtful I can ever sublimate the memories and words that were part of my early years, but I can deny them and refuse to allow them to define my present behavior and actions. I owe more than I can repay to those people in the Gardena Adventist Church, and to the numerous gay men and women I have known. It is still a journey in progress, but I’m still in the game.
Pastors, church members and church administrators spoke of joining the Adventist church as “coming to the truth.” The Adventist church was God’s “true” church. No doubt about that! But doubt came. Gardena, California, in the mid-1900s had the largest Japanese population in America. Many were Buddhists, whom I came to know and respect. It began to seep into my thick skull that hey, who am I to say I have more “truth” than they do? Who are we to say we are religiously superior to those who follow an alternative path from ours? Who gave me, or anyone, authority to damn the non-Christian to hell? How dare one take control over what is God’s prerogative? I became more circumspect when discussing “truth.”
In the mix of this theological and ecclesiological turmoil, the question of Ellen White and her role and function within the Adventist church demanded attention. I read Walter Rea’s material. (I first met Walter when he and Ernest Perry, in about 1946 or ’47, conducted an evangelistic series in the Arroyo Grande High School gymnasium. I later, as a young pastor, got to know Walter well. He was one of the few “seasoned” (favorite term for preachers who had been long in “the way”) pastors who gave the time of day to us young bucks. I also read the transcripts from the 1919 Bible Conference that were rediscovered and published in SPECTRUM in 1972. Two of the Conference participants, Elder Benjamin House and Dr. William Wirth, I had known. Elder House was my wife’s grandfather. I had spent hours talking with each of them. Neither ever mentioned the conference or alluded to the subjects under discussion. They both died prior to 1972. My loss!
In college religion classes and the Seminary, Ellen White had an authoritative voice. If she was not placed superior to scripture, then she was equal—despite strong denials to the contrary! Church administrators made it clear in their declarations that there was little, if any, toleration for those who questioned EGW’s teaching, or what she advocated. She was the test for what teachings or interpretations were accepted by the church, and what ones were rejected. Walter Rea was one of the strongest EGW proponents. He had memorized pages of her writings and produced large compilations taken from her writings. He told us young preachers that we could toss out our theology books and read only Ellen White. Pastors, as Walter advocated, copied her quotes on flash cards, put them in boxes, and carried them around like a pet cat. In meetings they could be seen, and heard, shuffling the cards as they memorized the quotes. Several of the most advanced memorizers later denied and rejected the Adventist church and the writings of Ellen White. As for myself, I have no difficulty in stating that Ellen White was a prophet—with the caveat: prophet is interpreted to be “…one who speaks on behalf of another and is accepted as an authoritative voice.” When I tell my son to tell his sister, “Dad said to come in for supper,” the child who delivers the message is my prophet—speaking in my behalf, and with my authority.
When I began my pastoral career, EGW’s writings were a major component of my sermonic preparation process. I’d look up Bible texts in the EGW Index, read her comments, and often include her quotes in my notes. Elder H. M. S. Richards, in one of his conversations with a group of us younger preachers, changed my practice. He said, and I did not copy the exact phrase, but this is close: “Brothers, (he always referenced us as “brothers”) when you come into the pulpit, preach the Bible.” He went on to explain that he used EGW for devotional reading, but he based his sermon on the Bible and encouraged us to follow his example. He made me a convert to his method.
Readers might well wonder why, within the context of what is related above, I count myself an Adventist and continue to be an active member of an Adventist congregation. The first answer is this: the church that holds my membership says I am an Adventist. This is the only group that can determine whether I am or am not an Adventist. I trust their judgment.
There are other reasons that explain why I remain an Adventist. I appreciate that Adventists place high value on scripture. We may not always make the best use of the texts, but we try. Our “key text” methods at times have led us down a divergent road, but we often manage to redirect ourselves and move on. I could hold my own piling key text upon key text, until I discovered that we had misused the key text about “line upon line, precept upon precept.” (The text does not address Bible study methodology.) I found that the historical-critical studies provided unique and valuable insight as one wrestles with a given passage.
The Sabbath is important. I believe that people who keep Sunday are part of God’s family and have the same opportunity as any Adventist to find their eternal home with the Lord. However, I cannot, with commitment, affirm that Sunday is the day God chose to be a reminder of his mighty acts of creation and liberation (Cf. Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). To those who may ask, Yes, I believe in a God who created heaven and earth and all that is within them! Do I understand the mysteries of God’s creative powers and how all the parts fit together? Absolutely not! It is fascinating, however, to apply imagination, study and contemplation as one considers the mystery of the Almighty and the unfolding creative process. There is room to consider life, its positives and negatives, its wellness and illnesses. And the thought above all thought is the mystery and wonder that a Supreme Being shared life with our human family. Jesus is the center! C. S. Lewis well stated that if Jesus is not who he says he is, he might as well be a poached egg. I remain certain he is who he says he is.
The Adventist community itself holds an important place in my life. Most Adventists that I know are pleasant to be around. I understand what makes Adventists tick; I know many of their hopes and fears, their foibles and mannerisms. I understand their insiders talk and can hold my own on the gossip that swirls around the organization and beyond. I enjoy visiting a congregation for the first time to discover there is someone there who knows someone I know. Is it possible to comprehend our talk and belief about resurrection, heaven, angels and other divine beings? No. But other Christians are in the same boat.
The primitive understanding I have on scientific matters opens interesting possibilities. Books on quantum mechanics/physics, cosmology and other obtuse subjects, as I contemplate the wonders of life beyond life and life in the heavenly spheres, provide fascinating ground for theological reflection. The books and articles written by world-class scientists contain theories that propose parallel universes and multi-dimensional worlds. These writings have opened an option to consider the unseen beings—they are citizens of other dimensions, universes separate from, yet part of, our own. I’m fascinated by the possibilities suggested by these studies. My Adventist background provides a yeasty setting for such thoughts.
There is more that I could write, but enough is enough. The conclusion to the whole matter is this: I have stayed the same in my commitment to continue the quest to comprehend the mystery of God’s love, the free gift of salvation that is available to all God’s family—and that includes a range far broader than most imagine! How the comprehension of that gift can impact everyday life is a never-ending quest. Within the context of what has been related above, along with others not identified, I am pleased to call myself an Adventist. It is my intention to continue to wave the Adventist flag and to welcome the gentle Spirit who generates the holy wind that keeps our hope alive.
As you can deduce, I’m comfortable around this bunch that composes the Adventist church. It’s my church home and I like that. I hope you do too. If our paths should cross, let’s get acquainted. Why not? We’re siblings. Happy New Year, bro and sis!
Lawrence (Larry) Downing, D.Min., is retired after more than 40 years as a parish minister serving Seventh-day Adventist churches on both Coasts. He was also an adjunct faculty in the School of Business and the School of Theology at La Sierra University. He is married to Arleen. Together, they have three grown children and six grandchildren. Larry and Arleen reside part time in Rancho Cordova, CA and in San Luis Obispo, CA.