by Ervin Taylor, March 18, 2015: I’m not sure how the Amazing Facts (AF) organization of Doug Batchelor obtained my mailing address. I have my suspicions, but that’s for another day. However this happened, I, along with thousands of other Adventists, received the AF January 2015 Historic Prophecy Headlines.
Upon reading the title, “The Rapid Progression of Papal Power,” I instantly recalled reading something similar, but dated in the 1930s. It was a broadside that promoted an Adventist evangelistic meeting on the topic of “We Know the End Is Near! Will You Be Ready?” How did those Adventists living in the 1930s know that the “End Is Near”? They had two ways of knowing this. First, they believed that they had an infallible prophet who confirmed that Adventism had the one, and only, correct interpretation of the apocalyptic visions of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. And second, they knew that the Roman Catholic Church was active in attempting to bring peace to Europe. We know how that effort turned out.
Fast forward to 2015. Is it possible that the brand of Adventism represented by the AF organization has learned nothing over the last almost-80 years? This obviously is a rhetorical question since the obvious answer is, “No, nothing has been learned.”
A few years ago, I published a book review of George Knight’s The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism. The central thesis of this volume is that “if Adventism loses its apocalyptic vision, it has lost its reason for existing as either a church or a system of education.” The author was convinced that “if Adventism’s apocalyptic big picture isn’t valid, the most sensible thing is to shut up shop, go home, and do something meaningful with our lives.” In another section, he argues that “Adventism became strong by proclaiming that it had a prophetic message for our time.”
The book begins with the question, “Why be Adventist?” The author says that some “can’t help it” because they were “born that way.” For others it is “an addiction.” He informs his readers that he was neither born Adventist nor is he addicted to it. For him, “[t]here have to be good reasons . . . to be an Adventist—or even remain one” (p. 7). To the author, being born an Adventist is neither a “good reason” to be an Adventist nor to remain one.
He continues by asking: “Why have a Seventh-day Adventist Church? What function or use does it have? Is it important or even necessary? Is it merely another denomination that turns out to be a bit stranger than some of the others because of its ‘hang-up’ with the seventh day and certain dietary issues?”
Dr. Knight sees three types of Adventists. At one end of a continuum are “Adventist Adventists,” who view everything taught by the church as being uniquely Adventist. In the middle are “Christian Adventists” who find “meaning in the evangelical framework that we share with other Christians.” At what he calls the other “extreme end” are Adventist “Christian Christians” who are “overjoyed to be evangelical and shy away from Ellen White, the eschatological implications of the Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, and so on.”
The author suggests that “Adventism in the early twenty-first century, especially in developed nations, has largely moved beyond such ‘primitive’ and unsophisticated ideas … Rich and increased with politically correct assumptions, [first world Adventism has] lost that sanctified arrogance that made us believe that we had a message that the whole world must hear” (p. 15). The result, he argues, is “[s]hrinkage in the [non-immigrant segments of the] North American Division (and other developed world sectors of the church).” Later he notes “shrinkage among born-in American members…in the North American Division” as well as the aging of these populations (p. 54). Part of the reason for this, he argues, is that “Adventism has to a large extent lost the apocalyptic foundation of its message” (p. 15).
To illustrate his point, he relates an experience at a “symposium of Seventh-day Adventist religion scholars who were addressing the issue of why they personally were Seventh-day Adventists.” Despite testimonies “from across the theological spectrum,” all of the presentations, Knight thinks, “shot wide of the mark.” Why was this? To Dr. Knight, it was because “the reasons largely centered on cultural and relationship issues…a lot of warm fuzzies of religion.” For “insiders,” he suggests, this approach is “O.K.” But “as an outsider to the club of the born-in-the-church community, I saw absolutely no reason to become Seventh-day Adventist from what I heard…” If Adventism is just a bunch of “warm fuzzies” then, he argues, “there is no really good reason to be an Adventist unless you were born that way or are so socially and culturally impoverished that you lack other satisfying alternatives” (p. 16).
The author of The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism was a talented, highly motivated, and prolific Adventist writer. Even though his area of doctoral studies was neither theology nor history, Dr. Knight made major contributions to scholarship in his series of books on the development of Adventist theology, history, and identity. In this book, he paints an accurate picture of significant elements of contemporary First World Adventism which have evolved away from an interest in apocalyptic prophecy. Some, including this reviewer, would see this development as the result of a natural maturation process that should be welcomed and nurtured. In stark contrast, Knight reacts very negatively to such developments within North American and First-world Adventism elsewhere. And, we can assume, so do Doug Batchelor and the supporters of his organization.
An interesting coincidence is that both Dr. Knight and Doug Batchelor are converts to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Dr. Knight appears to be speaking primarily from the perspective and emotional experience of a convert to Adventism, though these events for him occurred many decades ago. In that context, his theological perspective might be considered to be an excellent example of where theology is primarily biography, recast in cosmic or metaphysical terms. For his part, Doug Batchelor is happy to tell us about his biography, which included stints in a cave.
To Dr. Knight, Adventists who are born into this faith community and whose identity with respect to Adventism is primarily sociological or cultural are, at best, second-class Adventists—or worse. They are, in his words, “playing at church.” To him, these Adventists “can’t help it” because either they were “born that way” or they are so “socially and culturally impoverished that [they] lack other satisfying alternatives.” He is dismissive of Adventists whose identity, to quote him, is “largely centered on cultural and relationship issues.” These reasons are to him “a lot of warm fuzzies.”
His attitude toward Adventists who do not share his views as to the basis of their adherence to Adventist Christianity is illustrated by his brief summary of a conversation he had with a “certain Adventist intellectual” some years ago: “After talking over Adventism a bit, he wondered out loud how someone as smart as I could believe all that stuff [traditional sectarian Adventist theology and particularly its eschatology]. I [Dr. Knight] responded with the suggestion that I didn’t see why someone as intelligent as he was would remain in Adventism if he didn’t believe it.”
Perhaps it is a part of Dr. Knight’s insistence on exhibiting a “proper” amount of “sanctified arrogance” (his words) that he is willing to express so openly, with such little regard (bordering on contempt) for a large group of his fellow church members in North America and other parts of the First World. He should be commended for being honest and open in his expression of opinion. This is certainly refreshing in the Adventist subculture. However, to some his attitude might be viewed, at best, as disappointing, or, at worst, simply arrogant.
Since Dr. Knight sees virtue in expressing “sanctified arrogance,” we might note that his comments might remind a reader of the types of attitudes that one would be more likely to associate with someone who was a founding member of the Adventist Theological Society or who believes that the opinions and works of Colin Standish and Russell Standish make positive contributions to the contemporary life of the Adventist Church.
On the other hand, I would think that many educated North American Adventists who were born into the church would very much agree that his question, “Why have a Seventh-day Adventist Church?” is an important question to address. It does indeed, as he says, “raise complex issues…[that] ought to stand at the center of discussion.” If a reader takes Dr. Knight literally, he appears to be arguing that the one and only valid reason for the 21st-century Adventist Church to exist is to advocate boldly, with some relatively minor exceptions, a 19th-century theological system created in the context of a uniquely American-denominated experience, built on a particular take on apocalyptic prophecy endorsed by the visions of Ellen G. White.
If a reader is interested in considering a much more hopeful and positive approach to answering the question “Why be an Adventist?,” one might begin by consulting Richard Rice’s Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church (2002). Dr. Rice’s book can be read as antidote to the retrogressive and negative tone of Dr. Knight’s book and the “ministry” of Doug Batchelor and the AF organization, Rice provides a forward-looking, progressive vision for a mature 21st-century Adventist Christian church, not the nightmare scenario of a retrogressive sect-type Adventism caught up in a 19th-century time warp.
If the Adventist Church as an institution seeks to implement the positions espoused in this book even more than they already have, it will result in consigning 21st-century Adventism to being regarded as a small, marginalized sect as far as mainstream Western civil and religious society is concerned. But that is perhaps precisely what Dr. Knight and Mr. Batchelor have in mind!