From ANN | 16 January 2018 | “Seventh-day Adventists are not fundamentalists,” said Dr. Nicholas Miller, church history professor at Andrews University, during the opening session of the annual meeting Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians last week. Dozens of scholars from Adventist and other Christian colleges and universities spent two days sharing papers on the campus of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Miller’s paper on “Adventism, Fundamentalism, and the Bible” showed that the Adventist movement throughout its history has steered clear of the Christian Fundamentalist pitfalls, adopting a more balanced approach to various issues, including the inspiration of Scripture. It is something, said Miller, that is rooted in the ideas that influenced the early history of the denomination, something that underlines the importance of research into Adventist history.
Dr. David Trim, a historian who has taught at Newbold College in England and Pacific Union College in California, welcomed the group in his official capacity as director of Archives, Statistics and Research for the denomination. He said that research in Adventist history has skyrocketed in the last few decades and it is essential to provide context to the Adventist faith.
In this regard, Miller’s presentation mentioned some of the ideas that provide background and influenced early Adventism. He specifically referred to three notions that, he believes, shaped the thinking of Adventist pioneers. “The pioneers did not believe absolute proof was needed to understand truth. They believed in the role of judgment for apprehending truth,” he said as a first point.
Miller also explained that unlike Fundamentalists, Adventist pioneers, including church co-founder Ellen G. White, believed that apprehending truth was based on God’s Word, but that it was also possible to get important insights from “the book of nature,” and “in experiencing God’s working in human lives.” It is something, he said, that allowed Adventist pioneers to arrive at different conclusions from Christian Fundamentalists on topics such as eternal punishment, women speaking in church, and slavery.
Finally, early Adventists were influenced by the notion of God’s moral government as an interpretive presupposition, which according to Miller, calls for seeing problematic Bible verses through the lens of God’s goodness. “So, for instance, when the Bible spoke about eternal fire,” said Miller, “early Adventists looked for alternative explanations, since they understood that a good God would never punish His children for eternity.”
“All of this makes Adventism a different religious stream than Fundamentalism,” he said.
Underlying the dynamic development of Adventist understanding, Miller discussed some historical Adventist tensions regarding the idea of inspiration. While Fundamentalists have usually defended the verbal inerrancy of Scripture (the idea that the Bible lacks error in every way in all matters), Seventh-day Adventists have not. “Adventists take a high view of Scripture, but do not believe in the verbal inerrancy of it,” he said. The same applies to White’s writings. She herself did not support it, said Miller.
After Ellen G. White’s death in 1915, her son William White tried to keep alive his mother’s view on inspiration, opposing movements supporting verbal inerrancy, said Miller. But the rise of liberal Christian thought encouraged many Adventist leaders to side with Fundamentalists on many topics over the next couple of decades, and the idea of verbal inerrancy infiltrated the Church. “It is something that ended up shifting the church’s approach to race and women, for instance, that up to that point had been pragmatically progressive.”
“Currently, we live in an era of growing internationalism in Adventism,” said Miller. “Against that backdrop, we have a conservative church, but time and again it has proved it is not a Fundamentalist one,” he concluded.
Dr. Alec Ryrie, a professor at the University of Durham in England, seemed to agree with Miller’s thesis. In discussing the place of the Adventist movement in Protestant history, he said that Adventists have avoided the pitfalls that sunk other movements.
“Historically, Protestant movements distrusted governments—they refused to get involved in politics, or they just ignored government altogether,” said Ryrie. “But Seventh-day Adventists chose a different way. They talked about voting and participating in government. And in the American Civil War, while opposing slavery, they spoke against both sides of the dispute.”
The same applies to apocalyptic thought, Ryrie pointed out. After Jesus did not return to Earth in 1844, Adventists avoided either choosing other dates or moving away from apocalyptic thought. “Seventh-day Adventists chose a third option,” stated Ryrie, who is not an Adventist Church member himself. “They explained the date was correct, but not the event.”
Ryrie thinks that unlike other denominations, part of the Adventist success is that it has managed to hold on to apocalyptic thought without becoming unbalanced. “Adventism is essentially pragmatic,” he said.
The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Adventist denomination. The featured photo is of the campus of Washington Adventist History.