“Most of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism would not be able to join the church today if they had to agree to the denomination’s ‘27 Fundamental Beliefs’.” With those provocative words, Adventist historian George Knight opens a scintillating book about the development of the church’s beliefs and the long quest to understand Adventist identity.1
Knight’s volume was recommended reading for over 160 attendees at the conference on Adventist identity convened by the South Pacific Division (SPD) at Avondale College, January 30 to February 2, 2006. Entitled “Past, Present and Future: Who is the Seventh-day Adventist?” Bible Congress 2006 drew participants from entities and churches throughout Australia, New Zealand, and the SPD mission territories.2
Major questions were listed “to permeate all presentations” and guide discussion. What is the Seventh-day Adventist as a Christian? What are our beliefs as compared with other Christian denominations, or even, other religions and worldviews? What is it necessary to believe in order to maintain an identity as a Seventh-day Adventist? What is the core of our beliefs? How do we relate to changes in theological emphases or theological content? What is our divine mission as a church to present to the world?
Dr Paul Petersen, at the time SPD field secretary and secretary of the Biblical Research Committee, bore major responsibility for planning the event. The congress was billed as a beginning “at this early stage of the quinquennium in order to inspire strategies and action plans in a number of areas at various levels of the Church.”
Presenters and Presentations
While this brief report cannot relay the content of the congress in detail, it will give a list of the presenters and their themes to facilitate some understanding of the perspectives offered.
Three presenters came from the Northern Hemisphere. Niels-Erik Andreasen, president of Andrews University, focused on “The Vision: Where Are We Going?”
He identified 21st Century trends, challenges and opportunities in the Adventist Church and its theology, in Adventist education, and “in our Advent hope, the cornerstone of our theology.” Roy Gane, an Old Testament professor at the SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University, explored the doctrine of the sanctuary from Leviticus and then discussed Righteousness by Faith. Gunnar Pedersen, a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Newbold College, examined “Justification and Judgment” in four dimensions: “The Dogmatic Challenge,” “The Divine Provision,” “The Redemptive Outcome,” and “The Redemptive Participation.”
SPD specialists augmented the contribution of the overseas guests. Petersen gave two presentations: his first dealt with the challenge to remain aware of “the central theological pillars of our faith and to reflect on how to present them to church members and the world in a Christ-centred manner”; his second session examined an issue currently under discussion worldwide, “The Trinity and SDA Identity.” Two Avondale College Research Fellows presented: Bryan Ball spoke on “The Heart of an Authentic Adventist Identity”; Norman Young defended the integrity of the Sabbath against claims about Sunday observance in the New Testament. In addition to Petersen and Pedersen, other PhD graduates of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University participated: Ray Roennfeldt, the dean of the Faculty o Theology at Avondale College, presented a paper on the Second Coming; Ross Cole’s title was “The Who and What of the Remnant”; Darius Jankiewicz explored the “Sacraments in Seventh-day Adventist Theology and Practise.” Grenville Kent, a pastor in Sydney and a PhD candidate at Manchester University teamed with Philip Rodionoff, a medical doctor and M.Phil candidate at the University of Queensland; their topic was “The Wholism Debate in Systematics and Biblical Studies.” Barry Oliver, yet another PhD graduate of Andrews University (Adventist history) and at the time SPD secretary participated in the conference, as did Laurie Evans as the serving SPD president.
Therefore Bible Congress 2006 should be evaluated initially in terms of three considerations: its announced theme, its assigned topics, its presenters. The topics selected, viewed in relation to the roles and qualifications of the presenters, suggest that the leadership of the SPD envisages Seventh-day Adventist identity as an issue of profound importance but considerable complexity.
Back to Adventist Origins
Only one of the presenters is primarily a church historian, but all of them in some way implied Adventist identity is illumined by the study of Christian history and Adventist heritage. The fact that such an array of specialists was assembled to address the theme of Adventist identity indicates powerfully that SPD Adventism is serious about coming to terms with the way in which evidence challenges and sustains faith in the modern world. The congress highlighted selected theological issues, all of them crucial to its theme. But “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed,” according to the voted preamble to our Fundamental Beliefs. Therefore, only Scripture in its entirety expresses Adventist identity; to encapsulate that is a task far too large for any particular conference. Hence, Bible Congress 2006 may be viewed as offering useful case studies on how to explore Adventist identity.
Christianity was founded by a carpenter who communicated effectively with “common people”; fishermen, a tax agent, a medical doctor, and a teacher were among its earliest exponents. But history demonstrates that Christianity offers intellectual challenges to all humans, from the unlearned to the highly educated.
Non-specialists founded the Advent Movement, including two farmers (William Miller, Hiram Edson), a teenage girl (Ellen Harmon), a retired mariner (Joseph Bates), and a schoolteacher with 29 weeks of formal education/training (James White). Profound respect is indicated for these pioneers in that five biblical landmarks they perceived remain crucial after almost seventeen decades: Second Coming, Sabbath, Sanctuary, State of the Dead, Spiritual Gifts. In no way do Adventists denigrate the church’s health message when they consult a medical specialist. Nor does the present church detract from the sterling significance of its pioneers when it consults specialists in a range of relevant disciplines. However, a substantial proportion of Adventist members seem to assume that an important Protestant doctrine, the Priesthood of All Believers, means everyone is well equipped to marshal and assess all the biblical and other evidences that relate to Adventist faith.
The presentations by Roy Gane on Leviticus, that by Grenville Kent on I Samuel 28, like the lectures of Gunnar Pedersen on Romans, indicated that if Adventism is to reliably express and credibly present its message in Western culture, it must understand thoroughly every facet of human knowledge that illumines the biblical text. Farmers and mariners are able to understand and apply this evidence; they cannot be expected to invest the years required to master it or to write the books that present it. Thus Adventism must foster “the dialogue and dialectic of a living community” along the lines that Fritz Guy enjoins so cogently.3 In no way do such realities diminish the responsibility of “every rational being to learn from the Scriptures what is truth, and then to walk in the light and encourage others to follow his example.”4 Rather, they call all of us to be humble learners in the school of Christ.
Potential for Conflict Resolution
The twentieth century in Adventism, according to the textbook commonly used in university classrooms, witnessed effervescent debate over Adventist fundamentals.5 A recent doctoral study identifies one of these debates as a crucial factor in “the most rapid and massive exit of Adventist pastors” in the church’s history.6 The evidence is compelling: events like Bible Congress 2006 may be expected to have a constructive role in offsetting such outcomes.
In fact, the 2006 event must be seen as part of a concerted, ongoing initiative in the SPD. It was similar in style to a theological conference held in 2003 and the Ellen White Summit convened in 2004. Together, these three events demonstrate an informed awareness of issues facing the church and a genuine commitment toward the difficult task of offering coherent leadership in a volatile context.
The life and writings of Ellen White were only in soft focus during Bible Congress 2006, no doubt because they were in prime focus at the 2004 event. The strident criticisms levelled at the church leaders who convened the Ellen White Summit have not caused them to withdraw from a coherent strategy formulated in 1999 and revised carefully for the new quinquennium. Graeme Bradford’s slim volume on Ellen White was launched at the 2004 Summit; the same publisher will launch Bradford’s sequel to that book during March 2006. A cluster of such initiatives bodes well for the future of Adventism in the SPD.7
All this does not mean the immediate future of Adventism may not be fraught with challenges, especially if Neils-Erik Andreasen’s analyses are realistic. The content of Bible Congress 2006 appeared to put some participants under uncomfortable pressure. What of the far greater number of ministers and teachers who could not even attend? How can the vaster body of evidence relevant to SDA faith, not even mentioned at the conference, be understood by ministers, teachers and members, and communicated effectively? How can we all embrace this complexity and yet rejoice in the essential simplicity of the Adventist message so that we can share our faith winsomely? And what will occur when the crises of faith that have impacted Western culture impact the young, rapidly-growing church within developing nations?
As an attendee at the three conferences mentioned above, by the close of Bible Conference 2006 I had a long list of burning questions scribbled down or jostling one another in my mind. But one matter was beyond question: the laudable wisdom of the church leaders who envisaged these events and are leading the church from the centre. Addressing the crucial issue of Adventist identity is not a simple task, nor is it an easy one. The process is imperative, however, if the church is to nurture its members effectively and witness to its world coherently in Century 21.
1 George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000), 17.
2 See Nathan Brown, “Conference explores Adventist identity,” “Leaders reflect on identity issues,” Record, 18 and 25 February 2006, for reports in the “Official Paper of the South Pacific Division,” available on-line with related material at www.adventist.org.au.
3 See Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1999.)
4 Cf. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1911), 598.
5 Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2000), 627-647.
6 Peter H. Ballis, Leaving the Adventist Ministry: A Study of the Process of Exiting (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, Peter 1999), 27.
7 I reviewed five related books by six authors in “Prophets Are Human! Are Humans Prophets?” Spectrum 33, no. 2 (Spring 2005), 71-72.
Arthur Patrick, 16 March 2012
A note for the reader: I scripted this blog on 8 March 2006 and revised it for posting six years later. Some Adventist conferences are best understood decades after they occur; cases in point are Minneapolis (1888) and the most-historic-ever conversations between administrators, Bible and history teachers (1919). The subject of the 2006 conference remains crucial as we experience the challenges posed for us by the 21st Century’s second decade.