How can you say, “We are wise, and
the law of the LORD is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
Self-satisfaction is the assassin of Christ-centeredness, and today it looms over Adventism as surely as elsewhere. All too often, we ourselves are a self-satisfied church. Consider the evangelists, the dominant Silver Spring administrators, all those who study the Quarterly but read little else. For these Adventists, we are the final chosen: we have the truth; we are the Remnant. But they overlook — or defiantly suppress — one invincible fact: the future appearance of Christ implies limited awareness now. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we today see “dimly,” know only “in part.” On earth the faithful are fallible; our words, even our prophecies, are fallible.
But what is more persistent than the defeat of humility by arrogance? What is more commonplace than human selves (or institutions) ascending a pedestal on which Christ alone should stand?
Consider a current debate in Adventism. Thoughtful members, the conservative and less conservative alike, agree that today no church issue is more urgent than that of how to interpret the Bible. This is the question of “hermeneutics,” and here differing perspectives lead to differing views on justice and equality, science and religion, the meaning of apocalyptic consciousness, the church’s mission in the world. These are all crucial in Adventist conviction, and crucial, too, for any Christian effort to withstand strengthening secular criticism of religious faith. If we misread Scripture, we cannot give a rightful defense for the hope that is in us.
A key debate concerning the interpretation of Scripture is this: Does human participation in the authorship of the Bible have human effects, or does God erase these effects? Human authorship suggests that the Bible is a library of perspectives, each reflecting the time and place of composition. It suggests differences of outlook that amount, in their effect, to grist for a long conversation. The human factor would seem to entail, in other words, that certain limits go along with Scriptural magnificence. But not all agree.
A related issue is whether all the Bible’s parts — all its chapters, all its verses — have equal authority in Christian life. Some parts of Scripture envision a chosen people who share the same ethnicity; others, as in accounts of Isaiah and of Jesus, imagine the inclusion of all peoples. Here and there the Bible calls for genocide; elsewhere, as in accounts, again, from both Testaments, it calls for mercy and nonviolence. Other disagreements also occur. In this light some Adventists, following passages like Hebrew 1:1-3 and the Gospel stories of Transfiguration, say that the Christ who is the center of authentic Christian experience must also be the ultimate criterion for moral and spiritual conviction. Christ must be the Lord of the Bible as well as the Lord in it. But not all agree.
Our official doctrine of Scripture seems not to agree. Belief #1 in the church’s Statement of Fundamental Beliefs does not even refer to Christ, nor does it even acknowledge Scriptural limits. This makes the adequacy of that belief an issue today, and since so many are so bound to official views, debate itself — conversation itself — can come, at least for some, to feel subversive and forbidden. But if that were true, self-satisfaction, or the sense that our present knowledge is fully adequate, would be a virtue, and Paul would be a liar.
A friend writing a book-length study of Deuteronomy told me recently that the most conservative Adventists resist the idea of Christ as hermeneutical criterion because it pits parts of Scripture against other parts. He did allow that genocidal instruction in Deuteronomy makes him uncomfortable. “I don’t like it,” he said — adding that his study would devote little space to such instruction. But is “liking” or “not liking” an adequate criterion when dealing with scriptural difficulty? Don’t our present limits require a more dependable lever toward true comprehension? These seem like fair questions, and help explain why, despite official pronouncements, hermeneutical debate persists.
I am on one side of that debate, but these past few weeks what troubles me especially is ongoing evidence of denominational self-satisfaction. I have in mind leaders in Silver Spring who not only fail to engage views different from their own but also keep trying, one way or another, to screen them from view.
At the end of the current Sabbath School Quarterly, an “abbreviated” statement of the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs appears. But it omits — baldly omits — the statement’s “preamble,” which anticipates future “[r]evision” of our beliefs under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The preamble thus explicitly rejects the definitiveness of the 28 statements that follow. This is hardly something fair-minded readers would overlook or lay aside, so the omission feels both deliberate and disingenuous. It testifies, moreover, to a longstanding reluctance, or even mindset. Soon after the 1980 Statement of Fundamental Beliefs appeared, the General Conference Ministerial Association produced a book-length commentary on it — and the same omission occurred: the preamble was not even mentioned. Afterwards (and in subsequent editions) it did appear, though with minimal elaboration. There is still no chapter-length commentary on the preamble; nor does the Ministerial Association’s chapter on the fundamental belief concerning the Holy Spirit emphasize, or even express, the corrective aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Since 1980, leaders in Silver Spring have actually appealed to the preamble to justify their own proposed changes to the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs. But they persist in failing to champion the mindset of humility and self-correction in overall Adventist life, and so continue to gloss over the requirement of discipleship evidenced in Jesus’ own teaching about the Holy Spirit (John 16). The oversight all but guarantees ongoing self-satisfaction, and so all but guarantees further weakening of the humility that pervades authentic Christ-centeredness.
Now consider Holy Scripture again. In the January 2020 issue of Adventist World, the widely circulated magazine put out by the editors of the Adventist Review, a “concise primer” on “rules of biblical interpretation” appears under the title “Making Sense of the Holy.” Scripture must “be its own interpreter,” the article declares; if you want to understand a topic, read “everything the Bible includes” on that topic. But if, without taking Christ as Scripture’s final norm, you did read everything the Bible includes about, say, genocide, you would end up as puzzled as the friend of mine who is writing about Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, the author of the article does not even refer to Christ, let alone acknowledge Adventist scholarship that makes Christ the key to biblical hermeneutics. He feels that he doesn’t need to.
The January 2020 issue of the Adventist Review features the same theme, “Hermeneutics,” on its cover. Inside, several articles ask how we can “see the Scriptures clearly.” But again, the sort of difficulties that cry out for reference to Christ as Scripture’s criterion go unremarked. Christ, indeed, is hardly mentioned, and certainly not the passages like Hebrew 1:1-3 and the Transfiguration accounts that make him supremely authoritative relative to other prophets. This means — here make no mistake! — that a conversation now going on among Adventist scholars is being kept from the magazine’s readers.
Again, the debate itself is not, just now, my first concern; my first concern is lack of debate, or better, of acknowledgment that debate even exists. This is a suppression of necessary self-questioning and open-mindedness, an expression, in other words, of self-satisfaction. In light of 1 Corinthians 13, and perhaps also of Matthew 18, where Jesus himself calls the disciples to difficult conversation, we may call it, indeed, by its right name of arrogance, or catastrophic arrogance. If God is in heaven and we are on earth, recognition of this humbling distinction matters more than ever. Much of conventional Adventist doctrine developed while Christianity was overwhelmingly Eurocentric and American culture was overwhelmingly Protestant. As is becoming indisputable in the twenty-first century, neither of these is true any longer. If ever we have needed fundamental re-examination of Adventist thought, whether about Scripture or anything else, it is now; if ever we have needed to dethrone ourselves and elevate Christ, it is now.
According to Jeremiah 6:17, God raises up “sentinels” to sound the trumpet of alarm. Then follows a harrowing sentence: “But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’” It seems likely that this latter — this unseemly persistence of self-satisfaction — will remain true of us and our leaders. But it doesn’t have to.
Charles Scriven is a member of the Adventist Forum Board.
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