by Ervin Taylor
Here are two quotes:
“Science is based on nothing more than the understanding of man. Man is flawed, and our understanding is limited . . . That's the real issue; man's theories vs. the Word of God.”
“All theological and scientific understandings are based on the understanding of humans. Humans are flawed and our understanding is limited . . . Is not the real issue: flawed human understandings about the natural world vs. flawed human understandings concerning the ‘Word of God’? We already agree that we have flawed understandings about how the real world works. What we disagree on is whether our understandings about Biblical statements also represent flawed human interpretations.”
A reader might notice that while these two paragraphs advance different perspectives, both agree on one thing: “Humans are flawed and our understanding is limited.”
I’m guessing here, but I suspect that my good friend Cliff Goldstein and I would agree on the essential validity of that statement. Might this offer a way forward beyond the obvious disagreements?
If the disagreement was just about theological opinions, ideas and concepts, the answer to that question might be “yes.” All human opinions – about both theology and science – are incomplete and subject to revision.
Traditionalists insist that they have a way around this problem – “special revelation.” The problem with this approach is that they assume that their understanding of what the “special revelation” is communicating is somehow vastly superior to the understandings of other humans whose reasoning is, of course, flawed.
Another element involved in this problem proceeds from the fact that opinions, ideas, and concepts on any topic rarely, if ever, exist in isolation from the real world of human traditions and institutions where there is a bottom line that reads “Who controls?”. Who controls the media, the institutions, and most importantly, who controls the economic resources, i.e., funding, i.e., money? This process is very easy to see in the larger secular world. Some people seem to find it difficult to see it working within institutionalized religious bodies.
May I suggest that at the heart of a large part of the disagreement about how and when God created the world within the Adventist tradition are not mere differences of opinion about theological issues as such? At the core of much of the disagreement is the issue of ecclesiastical “power” and “control.” Or more specifically, who, at the end of the day, has the power and who does not to impose its point of view within an institutional setting. It’s really not about “Truth.” It is mostly about “Authority” and “Power.”
My good friend Cliff once wrote one of his justly famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) opinion pieces published in the Adventist Review that essentially argued that it makes little difference if a point of view espoused by a religious organization is “reasonable” or “rational.” If that position has been established as a core belief, then members of that religious organization have an obligation to believe that it is true by virtue of the fact that they are members of that religious body. Many, including the present writer, found his reasoning highly flawed. But the point he made resonates with many, if not most, Adventist traditionalists, including the extremist right wing as represented by the principals at the Educate Truth (sic) web site and, to some degree, the ethos projected at the Adventist Theological Society.
Once a set of theological propositions, such as those espoused by the institutionalized orthodox Adventist tradition, become assembled into a comprehensive theological system, all of the parts assumed great importance and had to be defended, no matter how shallow or non-existent might be their Biblical or logical foundation. In the Adventist tradition, because the views published under the name of Ellen G. White have been incorporated into the orthodox theological system and have been deemed normative, one has to deal with that source as well.
As a result, the institutional church has been forced to expend a great deal of energy and resources to defend every element of the entire theological package, no matter how weak might be the arguments for one or more propositions included in the package. The only unique teaching of institutional Adventism tradition—the Investigative Judgment—immediately comes to mind along with the idea that the Adventist denomination is the “Remnant Church” of the Book of Revelation.
Now, it is correct that, early in its history, Adventism was able to jettison several important elements of its incipient theological system — namely its Shut Door and anti-Trinitarian views. But this was at a time when both its theology and political structure was still in a state of flux. Once an institutional system crystalized at the beginning of the 20th century, major modifications became very difficult to accomplish. When the writings of EGW were turned into an oracle, Adventist theology ossified. We had “The Truth.” How could Truth be changed?
Might I suggest that one positive way forward in the debate concerning origins within the Adventist tradition is if both sides seriously accept the proposition that we all are fallible human beings with limited understandings and that we are all in the same boat trying to navigate in a sea of complex issues. If some think they have a “special” understanding, then we can then anticipate that the Adventist cultural and theological wars will continue with all kinds of unanticipated consequences forthcoming.