Zinke-Wilson Neo-Medieval Adventism: The Coming Assault on Adventist Higher Education. Part II – Conclusion
by Ervin Taylor, December 12, 2016: In Part I of this discussion, an article posted on the Adventist Review website by Dr. Edward Zinke entitled “Understanding Worldviews: How Our Presuppositions Shape the Education of Adventist Youth” was highlighted.
It was pointed out that Dr. Zinke is well-known to be a confidant of the current General Conference (GC) president, Ted Wilson. Zinke is also a major financial supporter of the Adventist Theological Society (ATS) and other traditionalist right-of-center Adventist causes such as the GC Faith and Science Council and the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC). Reflecting on his status within contemporary Adventism, the opinion was offered that the purpose of this essay was twofold. First, it was intended to provide an intellectualist apologetic for a traditional and retrogressive Adventism. Second, it is one more piece of evidence that there will be a renewed assault on the academic and intellectual integrity of North American Adventist higher education in the months and years to follow under the administration of Ted Wilson.
Let us in Part II first summarize the views of Dr. Zinke in his article. In brackets and italics, comments will be offered.
Zinke begins by asking, “What are the theological issues stirring within Adventist education? Do these issues stem back to a root cause, or are there a myriad of minor doctrinal issues that each carry individual weight? [We can kind of assume that he will be looking for a “root cause.”] He insists that “[i]t is easy to recognize a theological issue if a professor is teaching that the seventh day of the week is not the Sabbath, or if one denies the six-day creation of life on earth by our loving God.” [Ah, it is the “professor” who is teaching such bad things. And there is an interesting juxtaposition of theological concepts. Also, his linking of a literal six-day creation with “our loving God” is an interesting touch.]
He states that his article will show “that the foundational issue starts with one’s concept of the nature and acquisition of knowledge.” [A very reasonable statement.] He insists that “this issue goes right back to the origin of evil in heaven: Lucifer chose his own way rather than trusting God. In Eden he tempted Adam and Eve to doubt the Word of God, leading them to make their decision based on human-centered principles instead of God’s Word.” Further, he states that “. . . elevating one’s own wisdom and knowledge above that of God’s Word repeated itself in the apostasy of Israel and Judah.” [Contrasting “human-centered principles instead of God’s Word” dramatically oversimplifies the real issues involved. But he has a point of view to push, so let’s not let some minor details that don’t really compute get in the way of a good story line.]
Zinke then suggests that “[e]ach worldview comes with its own specific method and principles of interpretation.” [This is another reasonable suggestion and certainly applies to the interpretation of the Bible.] In his view, “For a brief period, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century attempted to return to the Bible as the sole foundational authority for understanding God and the world. [Ah, we note that the Reformation “attempted” to return to the Bible.] The Reformation did not exclude other methods of determining truth. But it did intend to subordinate all other methods to the Bible, the Word of God alone, ‘sola scriptura.’”
However, then he asserts that “within 100 years of the Reformation, a group of Reformation theologians returned to methods that subordinated the Bible to Aristotelian methods of thinking.” [It would have been helpful for him to identify which specific “group of Reformation theologians” he has in mind because they certainly were not a unified group.] He then comments that medieval Scholastic theology based on the works of Aristotle fell when new discoveries were made in astronomy which called into question the cosmology of Aristotle and his followers.” [This comment and the previous statement about the history of Reformation theology again greatly oversimplify what happened almost to the point of distortion, but this is a side issue.]
We now come to the set-up in approaching what views he wishes to support. He argues that with the fall of Medieval Scholasticism . . .
Philosophers and theologians then turned to new philosophies – empiricism (what we perceive with our senses is foundational to knowledge); rationalism (what we conceive in our minds [is foundational to knowledge?]); existentialism (the structure of human existence determines the foundation of knowledge), and many other systems of thought. In our contemporary period, new philosophies have arisen such as post-modernism (the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths; everything is relative to the individual). We could categorize these and other systems of thought as humanism – any system of thought that makes humanity the foundation for thought, contrasting with those systems which begin with the Bible and God’s self-revelation . . . These various philosophies and theologies rely on systems other than the Word of God, the Bible, as the foundation of understanding God, ourselves, and the universe within which we live. Any claims to truth in the Bible or Jesus Christ must be first verified by the foundational thought patterns inherent in these systems.
Zinke then makes a series of assertions – some reasonable, some questionable, and some simply absurd – all mixed together in a kind of theological conceptual goulash. Here is a selected list, again with a few comments of this writer in brackets and italics:
Modern societies, he says, are “humanistically orientated . . . Secular worldviews are not in harmony with Scripture, for they place man where God should be. At their very foundation, they are built upon critical rather than Biblical thinking . . . Faith, rather than being itself the substance – the evidence – . . . is built upon methodological doubt . . . [Faith should be used as evidence? Whose faith and evidence about what?] When the Bible is called into question, many theories alien to Scripture follow in its train . . . The Bible is seen as the product of the historical background out of which it came, rather than the result of God’s action revealing Himself to individuals living with particular historical backgrounds. Its universal truth and origin by the Holy Spirit are thus compromised . . . We decide, based upon our own philosophical systems, whether God created in six literal days a short time ago.” [Zinke seems particularly obsessed with the “six literal days a short time ago” thing.]
He then turns specifically to an academic setting. “The nature of freedom [what kind of freedom? Could he have “academic freedom” in mind?] is . . . redefined within the philosophical systems of the Enlightenment. We are free to determine the nature of truth while totally independent of the Creator. It is not the truth that sets us free: we are essentially free to determine the truth. Thus it is considered the responsibility of the professor [Aha. Is this the real target of this piece?] to teach “truth” independent of the Way, the Truth, and Life. And the professor, by virtue of autonomy, not only has the freedom but also the right and responsibility to teach whatever seems good, based upon his/her philosophy.”
When I first read the Zinke piece, certain phrases and the types of arguments employed in it recalled works of two authors. The first is someone with whom I had recently become interested because of his association with the history of the beginnings of Protestant Fundamentalism in the United States in the 19th century. That individual was Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge was a Presbyterian theologian who was one of the principal authors of what was called the Princeton Theology, a strictly orthodox Calvinist theological tradition influential within very conservative Protestant circles in the early 19th-century America. (The “Princeton” reference for this theology refers to the Princeton Theological Seminary where Hodge spent his entire career. The Princeton Theological Seminary was established in 1812 by the Presbyterian Church as a completely independent institution separate from Princeton University because of the perception that the University was departing from religious orthodoxy.)
Hodge is best known as an archconservative Calvinist and for his scholarly arguments supporting the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible and thus the Bible’s authority. He is sometimes referred to as the intellectual godfather of early 20th-century Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism since many of the arguments that he advocated were taken up by those organizing the Fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century.
Hodge’s best known publication on a topic outside of his theological works was What is Darwinism? It seems that he was not opposed to biological evolution as such, i.e., change over time in living forms on earth. But, he claimed that Darwinian evolution was, in essence, atheism. He argued that in advancing the view that organisms evolved by natural selection and not through any design of God, Darwin eliminated the need for God in nature. Like many future and contemporary Protestant Fundamentalists, including Adventist Fundamentalists, Hodge could not, would not, or was not able to distinguish between methodological naturalism which had become the hallmark of modern science and metaphysical naturalism, which is a philosophical position and unrelated to any scientific pursuit.
A work of another individual also came to mind. He was responsible for issuing a famous or infamous document, depending on your point of view. It was proclaimed by a 19th-century Roman Catholic Pope, Pius IX (1792-1878), who was pope from 1846-1878 . It is usually referred as the “Syllabus of Errors.” It was appended to an encyclical known as Quanta cura, issued in 1864. In this Syllabus, Pius declared his unalterable opposition to a number of fundamental beliefs and understandings that members of the modern Western world now take for granted. For example, Pius opposed freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state.
However, for our purposes, some of the other items Pius condemned are of relevance to the views promulgated by Dr. Zinke and those who surround the current General Conference president. Some of the important ideas that were condemned by Pius (translated from Latin) include: (1) that “human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil,” (2) that “All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason; hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind,” and (3) that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”
The specific political and historical contexts and immediate situations which motivated Hodge, Pius IX and Dr. Zinke to express their views were, of course, very diverse. However, it is the view of this writer that they exhibit a similar general spirit which has the effect of opposing the expression of freedom of thought within organized religious institutions with reference to what Hodge, Pius and Zinke assume are “God-ordained” views. To this writer, this is one of the main points at issue. In the modern world the question is, how much freedom to express ideas which are in opposition to those of the dominant political office holders who temporarily control particular organized religious tradition will be permitted in the academic institutions of that faith traditions?
What Zinke and others agreeing with him seem to wish readers to completely ignore is that every statement that they make, based on their reading of a biblical text, is their interpretation of that text. Except for the most trivial matters, there are few substantive issues involving the interpretation of a biblical text which is interpretation-free. Now we know that Pius convened the first Vatican Council in 1870 and was able to have it declare that the pope when he speaks ex cathedra is infallible. Thus our conservative Catholic friends can, at least, point to a specific statement in Catholic belief that says that a pope can indeed proclaim “God-ordained” truths and he is not to be questioned. We can be glad that Adventist conservatives will never be able to get that idea endorsed for the GC President at a General Conference session. (Except that they were able to pass the infamous wording of Fundamental Belief No. 6 inserting a literal, six-day Creation statement into an Adventist belief. So, anything might happened at GC sessions.)
Adventist traditionalists and those supporting the attempts of the current Advenitst ecclesiastical hierarchy to stifle and control freedom of expression among faculty members at denominationally affiliated colleges and universities seek to push the view that they are simply adopting and enforcing the “plain word of Scripture,” which, of course, can be equated with “God-ordained” truths. What they are actually doing is seeking to foist on and then enforce their opinions as to what the Bible texts are saying on what they hope is a gullible laity that will not think through what is going on. That might have been possible in Adventism in the absence of an educated laity in the 19th and early 20th century. At least in North America and Europe, it is no longer possible without creating major dissent and organized opposition.
Let us recall that the original title of the Zinke essay raised the issue of contrasting and conflicted world views. In Part I of our discussion, we defined world view using the definition of religion advanced by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. From his perspective, religion, and by extension, a world view, can be conceived as “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the modes and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
We noted that a good aspect of the Zinke essay is that it might stimulate some of his readers to examine their own world view and the presuppositions that go with it. We also said that a further positive aspect of his essay is that we now have a context in which we can examine Zinke’s own theological presuppositions and, since his views generally coincide with the leadership at the top of the current GC administration, those held by Wilson and the group around him.
As far as this writer is able to discern, Dr. Zinke’s main thesis is that traditional Seventh-day Adventist theology is essentially incompatible with a number of the core ideas that created the intellectual life of the modern Western world. He is arguing that the essential parts of standard Adventist theology are basically pre-Modern in orientation. It appears that, in his view, conventional Adventist theology is most compatible with a number of the elements that were part of the Medieval world view. In this instance, this writer would suggest that Dr. Zinke’s main thesis seems to be correct.
The problem is that he believes that having the Adventist Church operate according to a belief system compatible with many elements of a Medieval world view is a good thing. He believes that the best thing about traditional Adventist theology is that it calls into question the intellectual assumptions and world view of the Modern world.
Some readers may not be clear on what exactly constitutes the core concepts that distinguish Medieval from Modern world views. This was stated in Part I and will here be repeated.
A Medieval world view was reflected in what is sometimes termed the “Age of Faith” in the West. But that “Faith” is a special type. It is what is sometimes called an “Otherworldly” oriented Faith. That system of thought emerged during the late Classic period in the West as a fusion of certain elements of the cultures of the Classic Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian worlds.
From a Medieval perspective, the world in which we currently live is to be almost entirely devalued; it is the afterlife in the next world that is important. And to make it to the next world, a “believer” must accept certain theological propositions and perform certain acts. Although these beliefs and behaviors were said to be based on Christian values, it was a particular type of Christianity that was being used as the ostensible source of these items. In fact, there was quite a bit of the specific elements of the Medieval world view that was not derived from New Testament Christianity.
For example, the idea of what is called the “Great Chain of Being” permeated formal Medieval thinking. As refined and interpreted by Medieval theologians, this “Chain” defined whom God has placed in charge of human affairs and justified why those at the top were entitled to exercise authority over other individuals existing at lower levels of the chain. At the top was the Christian God; further down the chain existed those leading the Christian Church on earth which has been founded by Jesus and who carried out the will of God and Jesus on earth, and still further down were the “ordinary people” who were expected to accept the authority of those above on the Great Chain because God and Jesus willed it so.
In contrast, a modern world view refers to a way of thinking born out of the 16th-century European Renaissance which was then refocused during the period of 18th-century European Enlightenment. To a large degree, the Enlightenment refocus was the result of almost a century of bloody religious and political turmoil in Europe − The “Wars of Religion.” These wars were, in part, occasioned by forces unleashed largely as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to the collapse of the religious and cultural hegemony which it had enjoyed in much of Europe during most of the High Middle Ages and late Medieval period. Clearly, these so-called religious wars rapidly also became enmeshed within the power politics of that era, as well as economic issues.
Enlightenment authors formulated “Modern” ideas which finally coalesced together as the dominant pattern of thought by the late 17th century among leading European intellectuals. This modern world view is currently what most individuals formally educated in the West assume is a set of givens about how society should function and what beliefs and behaviors should be valued.
In Part I, we noted that, in general, an individual adhering to a “Modern” Western world view accepts the following ideas as foundational. First, modern societies and nation states should be secular. They should operate independent of any type of religiously-based or sectarian authority. They should not be allied with or against any particular religion. In a modern society and state, religion is a private matter and its free exercise protected. All publicly-supported institutions should be secular. Public education should be secular. The political system should be secular.
As an example, we pointed to the United States Constitution as a secular document written largely by 18th-century Deists. From such a perspective was derived the concept of the separation of church and state, although there continues to be much legal and political debate about exactly the nature of the “Wall” of separation and where the “Wall” should be placed. Finally, in the modern world, reason and rationality are highly valued, as is the pursuit and application of scientific knowledge. Other elements of the modern world include the concept of progress, specifically that through the application of science and technology, human societies, over the long run, will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
Let us apply the contrast between the Medieval and Modern world-views to the topic at issue in this discussion. We first have a Medieval-like world view of Dr. Zinke and his current supporters. Just as their Medieval predecessors believed, “Freedom” consists of accepting the “Truth” as interpreted by those to whom, they believe, “God has given the Church” to rule. (In the Middle Ages, the “Church” was “Holy Mother Church in Communion with Rome.” In the orthodox Adventist version, it would be the “Adventist Church in Agreement and Communion with the Silver Spring Headquarters.”) Their orthodox Adventist “Chain of Being” would begin with God at the top, giving “God-ordained Truth” to those who currently hold the reins of authority in the Adventist church and controlling the means of mass communication. These God-appointed individuals and groups in turn give that “Truth” to us ordinary laypersons with the stipulation that all of the Holy Dictates, otherwise known as the Fundamental Beliefs — now numbered at 28 — are to be believed and followed without any question.
Somehow these God-appointed individuals are assumed to possess a superior understanding of God’s will because they believe what the Bible says without any interpretation produced by “human reason.” Those who oppose them, to quote, Zinke, “undermine God’s desire to bring all human kind to knowledge of the truth . . .” In that sentence, he forget to insert “our interpretation of Adventist” between “the” and “truth.”
To contrast with the Zinke-Wilson version of Neo-Medieval Adventism, we do not have to deny the modern world and its thought processes. “Human reason” is not rejected wholesale since it is recognized that there is many conclusions and points of view which have been produced by “human reason” over many centuries. Some of these ideas are very positive and some of them need to be rejected. Just as some ideas created by religious institutions — orthodox Adventism included — are very positive, others need to be rejected.
The criteria that we use to determine which is to be accepted and which is to be rejected depend on how each individual looking honestly at the evidence determines what will produce positive results and what will produce negative results. Even those of good will can disagree on these criteria and will need to dialogue. That is something the local Adventist church community can host and facilitate — namely, to provide a safe environment in which all those of good will can assemble from time to time to exchange perspectives and points of view about ultimate issues. Beyond this mandate, the members of each local Adventist Church may determine for themselves, what and how they wish to collectively assist their local communities in increasing their health and happiness. They also can collectively determine how many, if any, resources they may wish to contribute to the bureaucratic entities of the world-wide Adventist institutional Church.
If anyone desires a descriptive label for this approach to Adventism, it might be something like Evolving Adventism. This term emphasizes that this type of Adventism is never stagnant; it is always moving forward, hopefully in a positive direction. It focuses on the reality that no one individual is empowered to define any other individual’s Adventism. That is the right and privilege of every individual. This type of Adventism also espouses a real “Present Truth.” Since this “Truth” is “Present,” it may be constantly changing as we individually and collectively obtain better and better understandings and appreciation of how God works in the world. However, the label is not important. It is suggested that it is the Spirit behind what ideas and commitments are associated with the label that needs to be emphasized.
In conclusion, it might be helpful to note that in the current world of First World Adventism there is no longer one monolithic Adventism. There is a broad spectrum of Adventisms representing many different types of concerns and foci. In short, contemporary First World Adventism is a “Big Tent” in which many types — perfectionist, traditional, institutional, conservative, historic, pentecostal, evangelical, progressive and even evolving Adventism can exist and are co-existing. This is the reality despite the efforts of a current GC administration and their supporters to proclaim that there is only one “True” Adventism.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.