The Apologetics of Disparagement
By Loren Seibold | 13 August 2021 |
In the past year a number of Seventh-day Adventists, including me, have raised questions about whether Adventist eschatological details, such as Sunday laws or the close of probation or predictions of imminent persecution, are the necessary interpretations of Bible prophecy. We have suggested that you cannot come up with our church’s prophetic expectations unless Ellen White provides them for you.
In June the Adventist Review published a column by Cliff Goldstein where, in apparent response to these observations, he defends our peculiar Seventh-day Adventist time-of-the-end scenario.
Cliff Goldstein is perhaps the most popular apologist in our church right now, and for good reason. He is a skilled wordsmith, and at his best he has done great good. He is also intelligent and analytical—far smarter than the doctrinal straitjacket he has cinched himself into shows him to be.
All of us work within the constrictions of our beliefs, experiences, and personalities, of course. In some cases, it’s the limitations that make our art powerful. But not if we dig ourselves into dead-end tunnels we can’t back out of. Even sincere beliefs can become mere propaganda if never submitted to scrutiny.
Cliff, for all his admirable abilities, comes to us with an unusually narrow exposure to the church: he has worked his entire Seventh-day Adventist life in an office in the General Conference building. He became a Seventh-day Adventist as a young man after starting out in a self-supporting school. He married into a conservative Adventist family. Because of his obvious talent, he landed upstairs with The Brethren in Silver Spring, and has never left. He evinces little interest in the larger Adventist community and culture; his single passion appears to be the veracity of Adventist beliefs.
This is all fine, as far as it goes. But in Cliff’s case, it has resulted in his being not just an apologist, but an irritable apologist. Cliff doesn’t just defend our doctrines; he attacks the very idea of asking questions about our doctrines. He is contemptuous of critics—yet surprisingly touchy should anyone criticize him.
For all my respect for Cliff’s abilities, this is his personal blind spot. He seems to have so much of himself invested in the perfection of our doctrines that he can’t listen sympathetically to those who think them less than perfect.
It is this way of thinking (hardly confined to Cliff Goldstein, but practiced by him) that I address here. Though our pioneers were creative, exploratory thinkers, we are now in a phase of denominational life when creative thinking—even asking questions—is threatening to the church’s identity. Now, the church finds it easier to discredit questioners than to address their honest questions.
I had an experience of this when I was a young pastor, only about six months into my ministry. A group of us had been invited to the home of the most senior pastor in the district. It had been advertised as a time when we pastors could relax, visit, discuss issues, and let our hair down. In the course of the after-lunch discussion, one of the pastors (not me) raised the question of the Adventist clean-unclean meat rules, noting how odd it was that we ignore all the levitical rules in the Torah except that set in Leviticus 11.
This most senior pastor, in whose home we were dining, did not receive it well. I still picture him leveraging himself up on his orthopedic oxfords and literally stomping through the room, shouting about how it had to be true because it was in the Bible. My friend pointed out that this wasn’t an especially nuanced view. The most senior pastor abandoned the Bible at this point and moved on to Ellen White who, he asserted, embraced the clean-unclean distinction “somewhere,” and then to the teachings of the church. He ended by shouting in my friend’s face, “How can you call yourself a pastor with questions like that? Are you even a Seventh-day Adventist? I don’t think you are.”
The meeting broke up shortly thereafter. All of us made excuses the next time another such a gathering was suggested. I learned a lesson that day: never believe the churchman who says, “With me, you can be honest and let your hair down.”
The Adventist Apologetic
There are several components to the Adventist apologetic, and this most senior of the pastors demonstrated them.
The first is to assert what you believe loudly and at length, and repeat it over and over again. You needn’t rethink your view or even refine it; you need only to respond insistently. Practitioners more skilled than our most senior pastor will put on a stony face of personal offense, suppressing anger like a boiler filled with steam and about to blow. At a certain point, though, the steam starts to escape, and you may feel justified in shouting and stomping.
You can’t stomp and shout in writing, but you can exclaim, “Isn’t this obvious?” The reader who finds a new viewpoint threatening will cling to this like a drowning person to a life ring. “Yes! Clearly, it is obvious! We needn’t think a moment longer about this!” In his essay Cliff says,
So, unless the critics can identify another major power that arises after ancient Greece, that persecuted God’s people, that thought ‘to change times and laws,’ and that endures to our day—the Adventist position on Rome remains the only viable option.
The only viable option? Well… hardly. There are hundreds of viable interpretations, which is why there are tens of thousands of books on eschatology out there, some with better history and hermeneutics than Uriah Smith’s and Ellen White’s. One rather obvious viable option is that Daniel and John were writing about events that were happening to God-followers in their own time and place—instructive to us but not about us. The gap of almost 2000 years between the prophecies that described old Rome and today might be your first clue that those prophecies aren’t about today’s emasculated Vatican.
As for changing “times and laws,” that could mean lots of things other than changing the Sabbath to Sunday. It could just mean that whoever this character in the prophecy was, he was an overturner of the civic order. In favor of this is that now, in the supposed time of the end, Blue Laws have almost disappeared and there’s not the slightest whiff of outlawing Saturday worship.
The second is to selectively draw on extra-biblical authority. The mark of the beast, says Cliff, is
an integral part of the Three Angels’ Messages and the “everlasting gospel” to be proclaimed by God’s end-time people… We can’t, without warning about the events that precede it, faithfully proclaim the Second Coming of Jesus.
The church’s message partakes of a bit of circular reasoning here. The mark of the beast is featured in the Three Angels’ Messages, and the Three Angels’ Messages show the importance of the mark of the beast. We anticipate persecution about Sabbath because we are God’s end-time people, and we are God’s end-time people because we believe in going to church on Saturday rather than Sunday, which promises to earn us persecution.
As for not being able to preach the everlasting gospel without scaring the hell out of people: why is it necessary to insist we’re about to be persecuted for a reason that no one cares about anymore—at least not enough to persecute anyone for it? While we can never know with certainty what turn things could take, the likelihood of outlawing Saturday worship has diminished to near zero.
For my part, I’m going to stick to believing that being a faithful Jesus-follower is probably sufficient preparation for the end times, whenever they occur.
The Bible and
Cliff adds, in a vinegary aside, that he’s proving this all without quoting Ellen White. Yet his every interpretation is straight from Ellen White.
Let me clarify a point here, which some seem to have difficulty understanding. Many Adventists say they go by the Reformation principle of the Bible and the Bible alone. But they also want to let Ellen White control the Bible’s message. You can’t do both. If you restrict the Bible to one interpretation then you’re not, technically speaking, studying the Bible, but finding in it what you were told to find.
And furthermore, you don’t need to play this game. Because in this denomination it is acceptable to let Ellen White interpret the Bible for you. Just admit that The Great Controversy tells you what the prophetic passages mean, and I’ll say, “OK, I don’t agree, but I see where you’re coming from.” I personally believe that Ellen White’s are not the only allowable interpretations of these prophetic passages. Even our own respected Adventist scholars have advanced alternatives. Ellen White’s is one way to read them, but not the only way.
But if you hold Ellen White to have authority over all prophetic interpretation, you are in the company of millions of others. All I ask is that you admit that you don’t find our whole complex, improbable, end-time narrative in Daniel and Revelation—that you are actually using Ellen’s and Uriah’s anachronistic notions, and looking for their specific fulfillment.
You aren’t really an Adventist!
The coup de grâce in much Adventist apologetics is what I call the apologetics of disparagement. It is when you diminish your opponent for being in some sense deficient—spiritually, intellectually, in terms of loyalty to the organization—because she doesn’t see it your way.
This is not uncommon, of course. Politicians do it all the time. So do journalists. And, it turns out, preachers and church leaders are very good at it. If you make an argument that leads to a point of view different from mine, and I cannot or prefer not to give a good answer to it, I say it’s because you’re a moron, or hatefully rebellious, or intentionally perverse, or even a scion of Satan.
Organized religion, by its nature, tends to elicit this response. A church starts out in discovery, but as it grows it values certainty, not theological adventuring. It hires apologists such as Cliff—who has done precisely what he was hired to do, with commendable skill and enthusiasm.
And what Cliff says is that we’re just whiners and critics engaging in “anti-Adventist eschatology.” He adds, with a rhetorical smirk,
It’s one thing for our end-time message to be attacked from without. But from within? We’d be naïve to expect otherwise. Unfortunately.
Who’s attacking whom?
I suppose we questioners could say something similar about Cliff and his comrades in Silver Spring: we out here would be naïve to expect them to listen—indeed, to do anything but disparage questions and questioners.
This is the old story of churches and culture: the world moves on, while the church stays rooted. When it is asked to rethink something, it asserts its teachings more stridently, as though volume and repetition will make them relevant. It comes to hate those “bearers of evil tidings” who point out that some of the orthodoxies are biblically insupportable, those traditional methodologies practically moribund.
Yet this may be the only method remaining to defend a biblical eschatology that is as full of holes as a prairie dog town. This is the age of the angry defense of the indefensible, when one’s truth relies more on volume than evidence; when, if you didn’t win your election, you can storm the headquarters and beat people with fire extinguishers in Jesus’ name.
Many feel Cliff has done the church a great deal of good, and I would agree with them. But it still puzzles me that wise leaders such as (Adventist Review editor) Bill Knott don’t gently pull back on the reins of this kind of disparaging apologetics in their publications. How lovely it would be to hear from anyone in Silver Spring, “You raise some good questions. I don’t agree with you, but I see your point of view. And there’s room for you in the church, too.”
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today