Theological Feet of Clay
by Andy Hanson
The June 24, 2010 Adventist Review lists 24 General Conference Departments and 9 General Conference institutions. The accomplishments of these entities are remarkable. However, this impressive organizational edifice has theological feet of clay.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was begun as a progressive movement, idealistic in its belief in present truth and committed to fearlessly following theological truth wherever it led. Hence the emphasis on Bible study and an abhorrence of creedal statements.
Initially, Advent believers believed that the Heavenly portals had been closed to nonbelievers. Consequently, personal preparation for translation was doctrine. Then the Great Disappointment of 1844 required that that doctrinal teaching be revised.
These revised beliefs were hammered into Adventist theology by our church fathers in 23 sessions in which ideas of a number of religious denominations were discussed and incorporated into a systematic dogma that became the statement of beliefs upon which the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded in 1863. (It is important to note that, by choice, Ellen White was not a member of this group.)
These early Seventh-day Adventist believers believed, taught, and preached that the Second Coming was imminent and would be preceded by the Great Tribulation described in Revelation. Consequently, Ellen White, along with church leaders, believed that two years of religious education beyond high school was all that was required to prepare believers to become effective evangelists.
Talk of secular college or university training was discouraged because time was short. The notion of educational accreditation, along with buying things on long-term credit, demonstrated a lack of faith. The saving message of Present Truth was uncomplicated, and the biblical support for that message was based on authoritative key texts that were easy to memorize and present. Believe it, act according to that belief, and prepare to meet Jesus in the air.
World War One was the Apocalypse. Poison gas, tanks, airplanes, and the machine gun were the ultimate weapons of war and clearly signaled the approaching End of Time. When Jesus didn't arrive after the war ended, it was time to again revise Adventist theology.
The 20th century was the century of missionaries and mission fields. Even World War II didn't seriously renew the apocalyptic language of the previous World War. "Once burned, twice shy." The Adventist Church had discovered the "world field,” and there was work to be done. The guiding theological idea became, "Jesus will come again when the Adventist brand of the Gospel has been preached to all the world".
Along with the discovery of the "world field" and stubborn heathen religious practices, came the realization that the "medical work" and education were effective "entering wedges" for Adventist mission work. And since Adventists had been preaching the Health Message for 30 years and Ellen White had given the go-ahead for the creation of an accredited School of Medicine in Loma Linda, California, it was no longer seen as exhibiting a "lack of faith" if Adventist parents wanted their kids to have a college education that would equip them to quickly and efficiently "finish the work" as preachers, medical professionals, teachers, and conference workers.
And if Adventist parents were footing the bill, they wanted this tertiary education to be in Adventist colleges. It was also important that these colleges be officially recognized as legitimate institutions of higher learning in the states in which they existed. That meant accreditation. That meant at least a foundational liberal arts curriculum. That meant that the Adventist students attending these schools would be exposed to at least a smattering of secular literature, science, philosophy, and history.
"Katie, bar the door!"
Up until this time, only lip service had been paid to Ellen White's statements about the value of critical thinking as opposed to "thinking other men's thoughts". Now, Adventists were developing a taste for biblical scholarship and scientific research in fields like geology and biology and physics and anthropology. When this happened, it became apparent to a few shrewd Adventist leaders that it was again time to revise Adventist theology.
An attempt was made, but it was crushed. Before 1980, Adventist beliefs were informally "summarized" in 1889 and again in 1914. In 1980, 27 official statements of belief were defended as The Truth, not withstanding the words of the authors that they had not written Seventh-day Adventist Believe "to serve as a creed a statement of beliefs set in theological concrete". (A 28th statement of belief was added in 2005.) Although it became apparent that some of these beliefs could not be supported either by existing biblical scholarship or scientific inquiry, Adventist leaders decided that evidence could be discovered that would vindicate church dogma.
What was needed was literary and historical proof that the book of Daniel was not a historical novel; scientific proof that the earth was created about 6 to 10 thousand years ago in six literal 24 hour days, and that Noah's flood was a factual account of a universal event that destroyed all but eight humans and every animal not on board a wooden boat 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. To accomplish this task, the Biblical Research Institute and the Geoscience Research Institute were commissioned.
Responsible theologians and scientists quit or were fired for raising legitimate questions about the impossibility of their task. Those who chose to remain employed learned not to speak truth to power. In the case of the theologians employed by the Biblical Research Institute, no attempt has been made to equip church members to deal with questions concerning the literal interpretation of key doctrinal passages of the Bible, particularly those found in the Old Testament. The scientists employed by the Geoscience Institute continue to equivocate about the age of Earth; a literal six-day creation that involved the sun, moon, and stars; the universal flood; the geologic column; dinosaurs; tectonic plates; microbial and parasitic life; and an ancient ecological cycle based on death and regeneration.
This failure to confront the issues raised by modern biblical scholarship and scientific inquiry has left the Adventist Church in a precarious situation. The progressive institution founded by the fathers and mother of the Church, whose personal integrity was a test of leadership and that an educated, rational defense of biblically based Truth was expected of every Adventist preacher, has found itself in a situation where the integrity of its leadership and the rationality of its theology have been seriously undermined.
Because of the Adventist Church's dogmatic position regarding some selective literal interpretations of biblical events and admonitions, educated Adventist young people, particularly graduates from Adventist colleges and universities, are leaving the Church in droves. Currently, the Institutes of Biblical Research and Geological Research do not assist Adventists in understanding the issues raised by modern scientific inquiry. Today, asking educated Adventists to support a religious organization that requires religious beliefs that fly in the face of reason and common sense is suicidal.
Let’s treasure our 28 doctrines. In their clumsy way they have prepared us to love, heal, and educate worldwide. This Gospel that Jesus lived and died to make real is the solid foundation upon which Christian Adventists can light up the world and glorify the Great God of the Universe. Let’s treasure the 28 as traditional beliefs, not distracting, petty, legalistic, and dogmatic assertions.