Adventist Religion Scholars Convene in the Midwest
by AT News Team
The division between the conservative and moderate wings of Adventist religion scholars was evident as they convened for several days of annual meetings in Milwaukee and Chicago just prior to Thanksgiving. But there was ongoing conversation and more interchange than in the years immediately following the 1989 departure of the conservative Adventist Theological Society (ATS) from the Adventist Society of Religious Studies (ASRS), which predated ATS for decades.
Following its usual procedure, ATS met as an adjunct to the larger, interdenominational Evangelical Theological Society that met this year in Milwaukee. ATS again produced its own papers on the ETS topic for the year—“Creation” in 2012.
Also following established practice, ASRS met as an adjunct to the Society of Biblical Literature that convened at the huge McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. ASRS scholars met for a day and a half focusing on ordination. Adventist theologians are nearly unanimous in supporting ordination for women clergy in divisions of the world church that so choose. One panel was devoted to the “Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary’s Statement on Ordination” and all the papers presented were pro-ordination. Some of the titles were “Divided Anthropology: An Ontological Look at the Vatican’s Rejection of Women’s Ordination” by Kessia Reyne Bennett of Andrews University (AU) and “The Case for Women’s Ordination: the Trajectory of an Egalitarian Ethic in the Pauline Letters” by Leo Ranzolin, Jr., of Pacific Union College.
A busload of graduate students from the seminary at Andrews University traveled to Milwaukee for a day of sessions with ATS and then on to Chicago to attend a day’s meetings with ASRS, culminating in a joint Friday night dinner at a downtown Chicago hotel where some 175 scholars heard the two society’s presidential lectures—one on the creation theme and the other on ordination. Other than bacon chips adorning the salad and largely eaten before red-faced organizers made an oblique apology, the ATS and ASRS presidential lectures were followed by a polite question-and-answer session.
On Sabbath morning the two societies met in separate Adventist churches, with the seminary bus taking the students to the ATS venue. Tom Shepherd, director of a program that includes nearly 100 religion PhD students at AU, has raised $60,000 from AU, Loma Linda University (LLU), the General Conference and an anonymous donor for his students to attend these annual religion meetings.
“It’s healthy for conservatives and liberals to meet together, and it’s happening,” said Shepherd. In an interview with Adventist Today, Shepherd also stated that many scholars hold dual memberships, that a spectrum of theological views are found in both societies, and that the two groups exist because scholars want to be honest.
In a discussion of these meetings at LLU’s School of Religion, Dave Larson observed that the major reason for ATS’s original formation was the ASRS refusal to be more inclusive of conservative viewpoints. Woody Whidden, recently retired AU professor of religion and a leading conservative voice, told Adventist Today that he joins with the “progressive Adventist theologians on almost all social justice issues, but I worry about the direction of their theology regarding the core of Seventh-day Adventism—the Investigative Judgment, Second Coming, and blood atonement. I personally am for real, historic Adventism, with an evangelical twist.”
If ATS is theologically conservative, there is an ultra conservative group that identifies themselves as possessing Last Generation Theology. Herbert Douglass, Doug Bachelor, and Kevin Paulsen represent this emphasis. Among current AU seminary professors, perhaps only Fernando Canale is in this camp, according to knowlegeable sources. However, several doctoral students at AU are understandably in this waning school of perfectionist thinking in Adventism.
While the most conservative thinking may be in decline among Adventist theologians, a group of dedicated Adventist thinkers from Europe and America have recently formed a new scholarly group—the Society of Adventist Philosophers (SAP), and have just concluded their third annual daylong session. On the day that ATS met in Milwaukee, this new group of about 30 Adventist scholars met in a lecture hall at Chicago’s DePaul University, where they heard papers on the theme “Foundationalism and its Discontents.” Postmodern themes were freely discussed in an open and unapologetically Adventist framework.
Professor Nancey Murphy, a philosophical theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary, delivered a keynote address, “Modern Epistemology and the Possibility of Theology.” Several young Adventists graduate students and recent graduates, many of whom are studying or teaching at non-Adventist colleges or universities, formed the SAP three years ago. The quality of the presentations has significantly improved each year, and now equals those given at ASRS sessions.
The three Adventist scholarly societies purposely meet during the two days prior to the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion that convenes 10,000 to 12,000 religion scholars during the week prior to Thanksgiving each year. Their presence in this largest gathering of religion scholars continues to be important both for Adventists and the larger academic community.