November 30, 2015: Adventist scholars in Biblical studies, theology and religion from across North America, and some from Europe, Africa and Latin America, held the annual meetings of their organizations the weekend before Thanksgiving (November 19-21) in Atlanta, one of the largest cities in the southern United States. These included the mainline Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS), the more conservative Adventist Theological Society (ATS), and the relatively new Society of Adventist Philosophers. In total, some 175 Adventist scholars participated.
The ASRS focus was “Adventism in the Public Square,” with papers covering historical, theological, biblical, institutional and ethnic perspectives. Over 25 sessions—lectures, specialty meetings, and panels—were held, with Adventist faculty well represented in the formal presentations: Loma Linda University (4), Andrews University (3), Oakwood University (2), Washington Adventist University (2) and one each from Pacific Union College and Adventist University of Health Sciences. Another half dozen presenters were retired professors or from other religious entities.
The ASRS presidential address and the Sabbath morning sermon were particularly noteworthy, reports Adventist Today contributing editor Dr. James Walters, who was present. On Friday night three busses took scholars five miles from downtown Atlanta to the Atlanta Adventist Academy campus for the annual Unity Banquet at which both the ASRS and the ATS presidents give major addresses.
ATS president Dr. Felix Cortez from Andrews University seminary, gave a well-documented textual analysis of passages from the Book of Hebrews, focusing on “I will put my trust in Him,” Jesus the faithful son. Cortez caused no controversy. Dr. Mark Carr, the ASRS president, on the other hand, was provocative.
Carr’s talk, “Adventism in the Public Square: What On Earth Are We Doing?” was a personal challenge for Adventists to begin taking ethics more seriously, especially in regard to how members treat one another. For emphasis Carr twice repeated, “How we treat each other in doctrinal debates is as important as their resolution.”
Carr lamented the polarization in contemporary American politics and society that is unfortunately mirrored in the Adventist community. He cited a pastor who is so divisive that one conference banned him as a visiting preacher, and a church leader who criticized theologian Richard Rice as portraying God as One who “doesn’t know much.”
Carr even lamented that the unity dinner at which he was speaking camouflaged significant, 30-year-old theological disunity between the two groups. Identifying himself as “an Adventist liberal,” Carr began his talk by saying it would be as personal as scholarly.
The solution to polarization, Carr argued, is for Adventist leaders and believers to prioritize personal ethics. He singled out Adventist universities, asking, “Do you require all your students to take an ethics course? Do you offer a minor in ethics?” He urged all Adventist colleges and universities to form ethics departments, and to have only qualified ethicists teach ethics courses.
In his passionate, somewhat extemporaneous speech, Carr once referred to the influential Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. He also urged that a distinctive Adventist ethics be developed. In the mostly friendly question period that followed, Carr was challenged on his advocating study of figures such as Kant since the Church has the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Carr said he didn’t see a conflict. Another questioner asked why Adventists needed a distinctive ethics. Carr quickly cited Ellen White as a source of a particular heritage for the Church.
Sabbath Sermon by William Johnsson
Dr. William Johnsson is an Adventist patriarch; retired editor of the Adventist Review, well-known author and former Bible scholar at Andrews University. He was the first president of ASRA in 1979 and spoke Sabbath morning (November 21) as more than a hundred members and friends of the group gathered for worship. He focused his homily on the theme of the meeting, “Adventists in the Public Square.” The presentation was clear, insightful, disclosive and delivered with passion and power. Although it was a sermon, given to scholars on a Sabbath morning, Johnsson received a sustained standing ovation.
Johnson began by asserting that Adventists are more like John the Baptist than Jesus. “It’s high time that Adventists go from the desert to the city’s public square.” He lamented that often “silly” things thwart Adventists from attending to major issues. Even legitimate emphases such as a vegetarian diet and the seventh-day Sabbath can deflect Adventists from more central concerns. He told the stories of three experiences from his long career in church leadership that illustrate his own ventures onto the “public square.”
First, 30 years ago, Kenneth Kantzer, then editor of Christianity Today (CT), the leading Evangelical publication, contacted the Adventist church headquarters inquiring about whether denominational doctrines separated Adventists from classic Christian basics. Although the resulting meetings were never publicized, Johnsson said he thought that enough time had elapsed that these important discussions should be revealed. A series of meetings were held between the CT editors and three Adventist Bible scholars; Johnsson, Dr. William Shea from the Biblical Research Institute and Dr. Gerhard Hasel from the seminary.
The focus of these meetings was to be the Adventist fundamental beliefs, but the dialog soon turned to three topics; the role of Ellen G. White, the significance of the heavenly sanctuary, and the Sabbath. What began as guarded discussion became increasingly friendly as the CT editors came to realize that the Adventists were clear about central Christian doctrines regarding salvation.
Johnsson appreciatively recalled Kantzer and colleagues telling the Adventists, “Never give up your Sabbath. We Protestants are short on obedience. We need you.” Johnson said that the results of the meetings could not have been more positive. The CT editors found nothing that should prohibit other Christians from extending fellowship to the Adventist denomination.
Johnsson’s second story was about the dialogs Johnsson and European Adventist academics had with high-level Lutheran leaders in Germany between 1994 and 1998. What began as skeptical turned friendly as the Lutherans realized that Adventists closely paralleled Lutherans on such concepts as justification. One Adventist leader quoted Martin Luther at length on key topics in his native tongue. Finally, a consensus statement was published, although Johnsson recalls that the Lutheran participants “almost choked” on the Adventist idea of “the mark of the beast.”
Third, Johnsson told of engaging several years later with leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance. Initially the discussion was particularly cold, even hostile. Again, the role of White was at issue, with the Alliance leaders arguing that Adventists based their doctrines her writings, not the Bible. Johnsson happily recalled that the veteran Adventist ambassador, Dr. Walter Beach, in his congenial manner, countered, “Well, okay, but your Sunday is based on tradition!” The result was another consensus statement, with fellowship officially cemented with 600 million other Christians.
Fourth, and most significant, was Johnsson’s official mission to go way out of his comfort zone and talk with Muslim imams and officials in the Middle East. After his retirement, at the request of the General Conference, he spent eight years in interfaith dialog with Islam, culminating in a symposium in Amman, Jordan. Johnsson emphasized how the cross has “obliterated the separation of the sacred and the profane,” citing Hebrews 13. There Jesus, who saved the world through His own blood, is portrayed—like the common criminal—as sacrificed “outside the gate,” outside the camp.” No place is off limits for Christian witness, he stated, including the public squares in the Middle East.
The most significant project to come from Johnsson’s dialog with Islam was a plan for a book on the Second Coming, to be written jointly by Islamic imams and Adventist scholars. The volume was to be published in Arabic, English, French and German—and sold by the millions. At first there was “excitement” among Adventist General Conference leadership, but that soon gave way to “petty questions,” and at a crucial meeting in the GC president’s office the project was scuttled. Within a year of that meeting a new GC president took office, and again the book was discussed and turned down.
Johnson sadly confessed that “this decision was the biggest disappointment in my entire employment in the Adventist Church.” He believes that this venture was “too big for our church.” He concluded his sermon by challenging his church to accept the “new” and the “different” in boldly venturing onto the public square.
Pastor Ted Wilson, the president of the denomination’s General Conference, met with ATS, and ASRS members were invited to join the group for an hour of discussion with him on Sabbath afternoon (November 21), the first on-site group conversation ever held between a GC president and the Adventist societies. Dr. Jan Paulsen had done so via satellite.
Wilson took written questions, including some that were quite pointed. He fielded them with answers based, he said, only on the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, although he does have an earned PhD from New York University. Wilson was characteristically expansive in several of his responses and in good spirits. Overall, the exchange was positive and built a warm relationship, according to one observer who was present. The ATS sessions were particularly enhanced by the attendance of 50 graduate students from Andrews University whose expenses were paid by a donor.
As usual, the Adventist groups met two days prior to the national meetings of the American Academy of Religion nad the Society of Biblical Literature, the professional organizations whose members constitute the great majority of scholars in theology, Biblical studies and religion in North America. All together, some 10,000 scholars from many faith backgrounds attended these annual meetings.
Johnsson’s Sabbath sermon can be seen on video here.