by Charles Scriven | 9 June 2022 |
Let’s allow first that the word “progressive” is both a problem and a solution. In media culture the word is synonymous with the leftward stream of American politics, and in the best thinking—including that, say, of Desmond Tutu—Christian independence from particular political parties remains important. Connection with particular policy perspectives may, on the other hand, reflect basic Christian conviction, and so be necessary: Tutu’s anti-apartheid perspective is an example; Adventist pioneer support for abolition is another.
But when we acknowledge the New Testament doctrine of the Holy Spirit, “progressive” seems quite to the point. The Spirit’s testimony to and for Jesus is meant precisely to inspire and correct: being finite, we human beings may be unable or unwilling to see more deeply and to change our minds. In his farewell discourse with the disciples, Jesus (John 16:12-15) squarely addressed this: Just do be ready to see more deeply! Though it may be hard, just do be ready to change your minds!
So in the church’s older strongholds—North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—where are we? A critical mass of members—though far less, no doubt, than a majority—has growing doubts about what they’ve been taught. These Adventists know or suspect that leadership insistence on all parts of all 28 Adventist “fundamental” beliefs is wrong, even delusional. Some beliefs that qualify for this description: (effectively) infallibilist views of both Ellen White and Scripture; creationist literalism; escapist / determinist readings of eschatology; claims to exclusive possession of the truth.
Resistance on any of these points is officially unacceptable; but for those who read and think, resistance to them all is simple honesty. So, we have a problem, and the problem is that many of our most knowledgeable and creative members in the older strongholds don’t believe what top administrators insist they believe: we are trapped in official delusion. This is hard to say, even harder to repair. But unless there is a pathway toward meaningful repair, official delusion, and our complicity in it, will choke out Adventism. Not immediately, but sooner or later; not entirely, but to the point of leaving us as irrelevant as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So-called “progressive” Adventism maintains a hold on a substantial number who persist in church life while already knowing everything I have just said. That this hold persists doubtless reflects the appeal (despite all of the above) of world-wide Adventist community, along with the pull of the Sabbath, the indispensability of health and hope, and (less positively) the many jobs in education and healthcare that require identification with Adventism. Progressive members support not only local congregations but also the infrastructure that sustains education, scholarship and other forms of Adventist creative enterprise.
Except that on the intellectual side, creative effort remains lopsidedly negative: a matter of tearing down or ignoring rather than of building up or replacing. The crying need, still largely unmet, is for the renewing of worn-out vision with fresh, with something that can better withstand critique and better motivate a biblically seriously way of life. Preoccupation with criticism is just the beginning of necessary change. Yet questions about Ellen White’s integrity or the church’s 1919 turn to fundamentalism still seem more interesting than construction of something new.
So in this light let me turn now to the other question: What will give us new life? I will here explore one indispensable part of the answer. It is member re-engagement in shared study and conversation. Here you may well declare me naïve. The wider culture is an entertainment culture; younger people are drawn to compellingly devised distractions. And many of us may put up with loneliness on Sabbath mornings because we don’t like the responsibility that goes along with connection and engagement. And there is another thing: Who likes the Quarterly?
These obstacles are daunting. But true hope persists against obstacles. And the last obstacle is something we can begin to fix.
It’s time for progressive Adventism to move further, and very quickly, into the production of books and study guides that are readily available alternatives to the Sabbath School Quarterly. The quarterly is controlled by guardians’ official perspective, and thus functions as a bulwark against truthful study and fresh thought. (This is something we already know, or we wouldn’t be attending this class.) An on-line library of study curricula—some meant for a single session, some for several sessions—could equip Sabbath School teachers across the world to break with the quarterly now and then, or perhaps always. Booklists—books whose chapters include discussion questions and suggested Bible passages touching on chapter themes—could similarly liberate Adventist teachers to re-invent the Sabbath morning study experience. These curricula would be accessible but not imposed. The Quarterly itself would be and remain, presumably, the preference of many.
Given that already many Sabbath School classes either ignore the quarterly or keep it in the background, Bible study independent of the quarterly has already-existing plausibility. Still, some pastors and laypeople frown on breaking with expected practice. We need to make a case, then, that will convince (or at least mollify) the many Adventists who lean to institutional obeisance yet may also long for more satisfying shared study.
Here is such a case, put simply and briefly. It is meant to persuade without needless provocation. I hope you will be ready to evaluate it and suggest improvements. A question for any study group is this: Are we here just to be reminded of important information, or are here to find new insight and perhaps to correct our understanding?
The biblical answer is that the point is new insight. Two crucial Gospel passages underscore this. The first, mentioned at the start, is John 16:12-15. It contains words Jesus offered the disciples in his long farewell remarks to them. In the NRSV:
The Work of the Spirit
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate] will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Let me stop here: can anyone see any reading of these words that would underscore conservatism in Bible study? The one limiting criteria is—the glory of Christ.
The second crucial passage is Matthew 18. Let’s pay close attention to this long section from the chapter:
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me….
Reproving Another Who Sins
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How is all this related to the point I am making?
Ask now, Does anything in Matthew 18 suggest that we be overly sure of our current understanding? Does anything here suggest that we may consult some non-biblical authority to settle our differences? Does anything here suggest (really!) that any answer can be the final answer? The premise is that differences arise, and that every time the proper response is congregational conversation. The conversation leads, ideally, to fresh consensus, but the implication is ongoing, or constant, conversation. Does Peter’s question about forgiveness imply final resolution of our questions and differences? Surely not.
Perhaps it is best now to return to John 16 for another backbone-building encounter with Jesus. And then to ask (since we can’t be satisfied with proof-texting), Do any (other) parts of Scripture come to mind as evidence against the conclusion that deeply Christian shared Bible study aims at more than instilling information? Can any biblical perspective count against the value of aiming, too, for correction of mistakes and acquisition of new insight?
Putting this another way, we may say the aim is to get past mere criticism to construction of new vision.
If all this is so, adventurous study curricula actually fulfill the spirit of genuine Christian existence. Again, when we are Christians, the criterion to be upheld when we talk together is not tradition alone, nor is it some official point of view. It is the glory of Christ, whose story Scripture tells.
Charles Scriven, now retired in Tennessee, taught at Walla Walla, served as pastor at Sligo in Takoma Park, and was president of Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) and, later, of Kettering College. For about 13 years, he was chair of the board of the Adventist Forum. His publications (besides many journal articles) include The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics after H. Richard Niebuhr and The Promise of Peace, the latter church-published (Pacific Press).