Post 94, Adventist Studies Since 1986: Fractious Adolescent or Maturing Adult?[1]

Jesus left behind him thinkers not memorizers, disciples not reciters, people not parrots (Dominie Crossan).

The insights provided by Christ’s teaching are capable of almost infinite elaborations and explorations. The Christian matrices form a code to be translated afresh in each new situation, so that Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth—a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased undestanding (Paul Johnson).

Professor Bruce Mansfield, founding editor of The Journal of Religious History in Australia during1960, was still at the helm in the 1980s when I proposed the journal might publish an article on Seventh-day Adventist historiography. Mansfield could not have been more helpful in bringing to birth what he hoped would be “the first in a new, occasional, series” on sources for the study of religious history in Australia. One of my claims in the article was that the sources were already in hand for “substantial and accurate Seventh-day Adventist history to be written” that would “expose increasingly the inadequacies of numerous viewpoints current both within the denomination and beyond its borders.”[2] More than two decades later, it seems appropriate to revisit the burgeoning discipline of Adventist Studies and attempt analyses of its development. We shall begin with brief overviews of two recent examples of the genre, one undertaken in the United States and the other in Australia.

I. The McGraw Dissertation

A compelling PhD study by Paul McGraw of Pacific Union College offers fuller understanding of “one of the thorniest problems in Adventism”[3] and thereby strengthens the possibility that the Seventh-day Adventist Church can transcend a conflict that has engaged many adherents for half a century.[4]

 McGraw intimated the nature of his research at the Triennial Session of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians in Portland, Oregon, on 11 April 1998; now his 315 pages fulfil the high expectations that seemed latent in his project from its beginning.[5] McGraw’s dissertation became available to me for extended scrutiny only on 3 August 2006; it was so interesting that I completed a first reading of it by the next evening. Coincidentally, on August 4 the Sydney College of Divinity gave notice that a doctoral study by an Australian pastor, Rick Ferret, had received the approval of its examiners.

I almost held my breath as I re-read Ferret’s final draft in the light of McGraw’s dissertation: both plough some of the same ground. But the two studies are vastly different in methodology. McGraw writes primarily as an historian, making effective use of copious and often new primary sources. On the other hand, Ferret offers a trans-disciplinary report with a strong sociological orientation that makes fresh syntheses and applications of existing literature. Both dissertations are greatly needed by the church, not least because they demonstrate why and how two scholars working in total isolation from each other arrived at conclusions that are congruent.

 An Adventist Problem

There are a small number of issues so close to the core of Adventist identity that constrictions of understanding relating to them threaten the wellbeing of the whole church. Elsewhere I contend that it required about one hundred years for the primary sources relating to the General Conference of 1888 to be adequately gathered, focused, understood and coherently interpreted in writing.[6] However, long before the century had elapsed, indeed, by the General Conference of 1950, a new phase of the conflict over the 1888 message of Righteousness by Faith was initiated. This controversy had little chance of an effective resolution before the Palmdale Conference of 1976 and the Righteousness by Faith Consultation that began in 1979 and published its findings on 31 July 1980.

The Adventist fire that re-ignited in 1950 was fed with explosive fuel as the reality of a sustained conversation between Adventist leaders and Fundamentalist Evangelicals became known and itself began a long process of misinterpretation. While the principal alternative viewpoint was given credence by the “Great Dane” of Adventism, Milian Lauritz Andreasen (1876-1962), it relied considerably on a rapidly developing independent press in the United States paralleled in the energetic Awakening Movement that was spearheaded in Australasia by Robert Daniel Brinsmead. By the 1970s, as other issues increased the complexity of the conversation about Adventist landmarks, their history and meaning, streams of publications were flowing over the church, many of them claiming that 1957 marked the commencement (or at least accelerated the process) of Adventism’s journey toward apostasy.

Since then, the two sides in this ongoing debate have found it very difficult to talk calmly to each other. Some strategists suggest that usually a particular conflict engages between twenty and forty per cent of the constituents of a nation or an organisation.[7] In other words, the majority (up to eighty per cent) may be unknowing of the issues or indifferent toward them. To quantify the participants in any Adventist struggle may be subjective, even risky. But there is a constructive truth that can be stated with reference to 1957: the warfare that began five decades ago can now be understood effectively in terms of the primary documents from that effervescent period.

Touring the Battlefield with McGraw

Back in 1978 at a conference in Washington, D.C., my colleague James Nix kindly offered to drive this naïve Australian to the Gettysburg battlefield. I assumed that to see Gettysburg may require an hour, or even two. How wrong I was! Nix introduced me to a particular battle but also to a war that was fought in ten thousand places, a struggle that told much about its participants, their nation, its past and its future. I came from Nix’s one-person tour of Gettysburg with a sense of profound humility and awe, sorrow and hope.

McGraw’s early chapters make clear the conflict that escalated with the publication of Questions on Doctrine must be interpreted in the light of Seventh-day Adventism as it developed after 1844 and later suffered unresolved traumas, including the departure of the stalwart evangelist D.M. Canright in the 1880s and the foreign missionary E.B. Jones in the 1940s. As a movement developing its landmark ideas in a hostile environment, Adventism cherished the distinctiveness of its remnant concept, fostering separation from the wider society and even from those Christians who also held a high view of Scripture. McGraw pictures well the towering need for a new appraisal of Adventism to occur by the 1950s and he details the pioneering efforts and considerable skill of such leaders as LeRoy Edwin Froom in effecting that process.

 McGraw’s history is not a partisan one; it is irenic, even-handed. He has listened to the confusing sounds of battle so well that he can interpret their meaning faithfully. He avoids the impulse to engage in “right-on-our-side” apologetics and the violent polemics that has often paraded as history. Like Nix at Gettysburg, McGraw’s tour leaves me with a profound sense of humility in view of documented human actions versus the way God appears to lead His people, with awe at what was actually achieved by Adventist and Fundamentalist/Evangelical leaders, with sorrow at the way in which both people and processes were misunderstood, and with hope that all of us who are members of the Adventist family can better value each other as we focus more intelligently on our identity and mission.

 A Brief Summation of McGraw, for Now

We are less than honest if we fail to admit that currently a deep rift exists in the Seventh-day Adventist church that derives in considerable measure from events that occurred between the initial representations by Robert Wieland and Donald Short to the General Conference (1950) and the death of M.L. Andreasen (1876-1962).[8] McGraw’s journey through the disputed terrain introduces us to the participants in the struggle with honesty yet empathy. His account makes sense in terms of the existing studies by those who have particular axes to grind as well as the responsible analyses offered by George Knight and others. Therefore, McGraw’s dissertation offers a potential capstone for the arch of understanding that has been built by others with diligence despite buffeting crosswinds. The builders have demonstrated enthusiasm and yet often they have encountered the need for demolition and redirection of effort.

McGraw also helps us interpret the theological climate of Reuben Figuhr’s presidency (1954-1966), the altered ethos in the era of Robert Pierson and his colleagues (1966-1979) and the far-sighted church councils fostered by Neal Wilson (1979-1990). He provides us with a way to begin to understand the nature and mission of both the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society. After taking McGraw’s tour, we can better appreciate who Adventists are, why conflicting maps of their journey since 1957 abound, and how the Adventist future may be more promising as we choose to learn from our past.

Such a limited review as this can only intimate some of the strengths of McGraw’s study, it cannot express or evaluate them adequately. McGraw’s dissertation illumines two related matters: Adventist identity and the relationship between Adventists and other Christians. His concluding paragraph illustrates something of the significance of his message:

Because of the fact that even in 2003 there continue to be individuals on both sides of the debate who hold to opinions which mirror those held by both sides prior to the Evangelical Conferences of 1955-56, this work is important. Just as the conferees on both sides realized that the issue which most deeply divided them was that of terminology, it is equally important for those who still see an insurmountable divide to look at the complete story in which at least some individuals on both sides tried to reach out the hand of fellowship and bridge the divide created in the minds of many by a simple word, “cult.”

That “complete story” has dynamic potential for the Adventist future. Internal unity is crucial for our mission as Seventh-day Adventists, as are mature relationships with other Christians.

II. Another Case Study: The Ferret Dissertation

For the past seven years Richard Ferret has juggled the demands of employment while undertaking a doctoral program with the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD). Earlier this year when Ferret completed his dissertation, the SCD appointed three examiners to assess it and provided them with fifteen criteria to apply in the process of evaluation. On Friday, 4 August 2006, the SCD advised Ferret that the reports were in hand: all three examiners rated Ferret’s work in Category A, accepting it as meeting the requirements for a PhD degree without change of argument or content. The comments of one typify the general tone of all: “the research is particularly thorough, academically responsible, historically accurate and complete, balanced, its conclusions credible, and expressed with a suitable academic precision.”

The two examiners in the United States and the one in Australia share long experience in higher education with particular expertise in history, theology and sociology; they were chosen by the SCD as matching well the historical substance of the dissertation, its theological content and its sociological orientation. “Charisma, Sectarianism and Institutionalisation: Identity Issues in Seventh-day Adventism” developed from Ferret’s long years of struggle with the history of his church since 1844, including its teachings and its controversies. A comparison of his text and bibliography (pages 384-416) indicates Ferret has a thorough grasp of the diverse literature.

Ferret suggests “Seventh-day Adventism has proved immensely successful in terms of both evangelism and institutionalisation.” He also states:

The proliferation of SDA institutions throughout the world suggests, however, that Adventism remains embroiled in tensions between imminence and occupancy; between apocalyptic ideals and modern realities, between what it teaches and what it actually does (361-2).

Light on the Dilemma

Ferret retains some of the patience and active listening skills fostered by his initial training as a nurse, to which he has added the insights of tertiary teacher, chaplain and pastor. To read his dissertation is to note the effective way that he incorporates published studies of Adventism like those of Rolf Pöhler (1999, 2001) and Douglas Morgan (2001).[9] Pöhler’s dissertation at Andrews University investigated the nature, extent and direction of Adventist doctrinal developments in the light of the religious background of the church and the sociological forces at work in it, analysing the Adventist response to doctrinal adjustments and discussing Ellen White’s involvement in and conception of doctrinal change. Based on Pöhler’s work, Ferret argues that Adventist teachings have been significantly affected by theological and hermeneutical developments under the impact of sociological forces that have tended to move the denomination closer towards evangelical Protestantism. Ferret also finds Morgan’s dissertation written at the University of Chicago particularly illuminating in the way it traces continuity and change in Adventist apocalypticism within American society.

However, Ferret also draws upon the insights of many other major researchers. He cites Michael Chamberlain’s trans-disciplinary study (2001) of Adventist education at Avondale College with its special interest in socio-cultural change and the associated need to develop a thoroughly informed hermeneutic for Ellen White’s writings.[10] Ferret is clearly appreciative of Bruce Manners’ dissertation (2004) and its implication that Adventist publishing is at its finest when it is frank. However, although Ferret drinks from many deep wells, he provides his own cup: an interpretive model that (he claims) fits the church’s need.

An Overview of Adventism

Ferret’s exploration begins with Millerism and the painful transition that birthed  Sabbatarian Adventism.[11] A long introduction (pages 9-51) introduces Weberian methodology, defines charisma, legitimation and its routinisation. Chapter 2, “American Revivalism, Millennial Dreams, Crisis and Charismatic Inauguration” prepares the way for two chapters on how Ellen White’s charisma was legitimised and Adventist identity was formulated. Chapters 4 and 5 (“The Routinisation of Charisma in Adventist Experience,” “Imminence and Delay: A Constant Impasse”) prepare the reader for two chapters that tour the sectarian controversies within Adventism from 1844 to the present. Chapter 8, “Doctrine and/or Deed: Dilemmas of Institutionalisation” summarises the main issue of the dissertation in readiness for ten pages of conclusions.

Ferret observes that the student of SDA theology “can easily recognise the themes of restorationism, perfectionism, Arminianism and revivalism that were common” in the society that birthed Adventism as one of 279 utopian communities established in the United States between 1787 and 1919. While he displays a deep commitment to the Adventist pioneers who transformed a Great Disappointment into a dynamic new movement, he wants contemporary Adventists to better implement Scripture as the church’s authority. He deems that in the controversies of the past generally, and particularly in those occurring since the Evangelical Conferences of the 1950s, too many of his fellow believers have polarised around rival extremes that may be described as reversionist or rejectionist. Ferret’s advocacy of a transformationist response to new data will resonate with those who seriously accept Ellen White as “the Lord’s messenger,” given to us as a lesser light to lead us to the greater light.

 A Subjective Interpretation

What potential is evident in Ferret’s work? It will stand the test of time and scrutiny as well as prove to have outstanding significance for the lively, ongoing discussion relating to Adventist identity. How might we compare it with other explorations of Adventism? Perhaps an illustration from history may help us at this point.

Some of my United States friends equate a difficult journey undertaken by Lewis and Clark as highly important within their culture. Before Lewis and Clark, Americans knew there was a West Coast with its Pacific Ocean. But was there a way from the Mississippi River via the Missouri and the Columbia to the Pacific? The courage, skill and effort of Lewis and Clark demonstrated that there was.

A major reason why Adventism lost so many ministers, teachers and members during the 1980s lay in our inadequate understanding of continuity and change with reference to Adventist teaching. Rolf Pöhler fills for Adventism a Lewis and Clark role, demonstrating with his Andrews University dissertation of 1995 that change was a reality and that it could be constructive if we related to it coherently.  There was a way through the Rocky Mountains of Adventist controversies; equipped with the grace and the graciousness of God the rivers could be forded and the dangerous passes negotiated.

Rick Ferret cannot be expected to redo the more pioneering explorations already undertaken by Rolf Pöhler and others. His work is that of a mapmaker for some of the road construction that is needed for the Adventist journey toward the Kingdom of God. Ferret adds to the growing evidence that historical and theological studies are crucial for our self-understanding and mission. More than that, his dissertation offers another indicator that it is time for the Adventist church to plan another baptismal service. Sociology has been in a “class ready” long enough; it has proved itself as a constructive discipline that can reliably assist the Adventist quest to understand the way the Lord has led and taught us since 1844.[12]

III. Identifying Other Pieces of the Jigsaw Puzzle

Even from such a brief overview of the dissertations by McGraw and Ferret, three comments can be made with some degree of confidence. The first of these observations presents a daunting reality: both studies demonstrate that the present is best understood in terms of the entire Adventist past, including the rise and development of the movement, its controversies, identity and mission. This reality offers an appropriate caution for those who investigate the modern period without reference to historical considerations. Secondly, as demonstrated best in McGraw’s work, there is a great need to mine thoroughly the primary sources that have become increasingly accessible since the church made an influential decision in 1972, as indicated in my 1986 article. Indeed, it is unlikely that the church can transcend controversies effectively without detailed attention being given to the specific witness of the documents that illumine its journey; this fact renders inadequate or irrelevant much of the publishing that has occurred even since the middle of the twentieth century. Thirdly, as Ferret’s work well indicates, trans-disciplinary studies are likely to offer particular rewards that are identifiable when numerous explorations are examined and compared.

Dissertations that intersect with the territory covered by McGraw and Ferret offer ways to more fully assess each of these observations. It has already been implied that

a number of studies form an effective foundation for Ferret’s overview. Some of these will be noted further due to their role as important pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is being assembled over time.

Douglas Morgan, writing at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Martin Marty developed an impressive longitudinal study of Adventism as a major apocalyptic sect in North America. Morgan’s dissertation in its published form demonstrates the comparative complexity of Adventist apocalyticism, the influence that external factors may exert on biblical interpretation, the nature of the Adventist struggle for continuity in its teachings and the actuality of change in its biblical interpretations and applications. These and related themes are illumined further by the 1995 Andrews University dissertation already mentioned, published subsequently in two volumes, that offers a masterful depiction of Adventist theological development.[13] Morgan writes in a North American context whereas Pöhler’s work is influenced by the long engagement of a European mind with research in the United States.

By contrast, Michael Chamberlain’s doctoral research (completed 2001) was undertaken at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Effective scholarship transcends any limitations inherent in its provenance; the discipline of Adventist Studies needs to be as ethnically and culturally inclusive as is the membership of the movement. It is perilous to hope that the findings of any doctoral dissertation can be adequately depicted in such cursory remarks as this presentation affords. Therefore, in the appendices to the archived copy of this presentation in the South Pacific Division Heritage Centre and in the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, reports that I have made on various studies since 1980 are available for assessment. The Foreword written for the published form of Chamberlain’s dissertation implies there are controversial aspects to both the presentation and the content of his research. However, it is likely that two strengths will be recognised as the debate continues: the substantial accuracy of the big picture Chamberlain paints and the logic this provides for concerted attention being given to the development of a coherent hermeneutic for Ellen White’s writings.

Bruce Manners, like Chamberlain, completed a trans-disciplinary study (2004) in an Australian setting.[14] Manners’ dissertation demonstrates even more fully than Chamberlain’s the value of sociological inquiry. The Millerite phase of Adventism signalled the potential of print for the expression and development of ideas; publishing became a core activity of Sabbatarian Adventism from the 1840s. Manners is able to offer an irenic account that, even so, supports the concept that Adventist print is at its best when it is frank. The secular “history wars” in Australia and the current debate over Exclusive Brethren teachings and activities in New Zealand and Australia illustrate the discomfort that politicians and Christians are likely to feel in the spotlight of investigative reporting. In such conflicts within Adventism, some researchers take comfort from Ellen White’s assurances that truth has nothing to fear from the closest investigation and that “truth can afford to be fair.”[15]

The studies by Pöhler, Morgan, Chamberlain, McGraw, Manners and Ferret have either been completed or have entered the discussions within South Pacific Adventism during the past five years. Hence any conclusions that are submitted here need to be stated with due caution. One way to test the likely impact such recent studies may have for Adventism is to view them in the context of previous interpretative attempts. My remarks are, undoubtedly, heavily influenced by the fact that my study, pastoral and teaching experience are limited to Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Further, while Adventist history and thought           have been the central focus for all my inquiries since 1960, I have attempted to approach these subjects with an awareness of trans-denominational considerations (especially Catholic,[16] Anglican and Wesleyan insights) and trans-disciplinary perspectives (embracing Scripture, history, theology and sociology in particular). Any such endeavour is likely to merit criticism for its shallowness, especially from those who are expert in one of the various disciplines that speak to the component issues most powerfully. It is in this context that I wish to suggest, albeit tentatively, the potential of selected older studies.

When, in 1976, I was placed in charge of the first Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre in the Southern Hemisphere, the groundbreaking discussion of Ellen White’s life and writings initiated by Spectrum in 1970 was almost unknown in Australasia. However, by 1978 the church was conscious of particular names (like Donald McAdams, Ronald Numbers, Walter Rea, Jonathan Butler, Ronald Graybill) and it slowly developed an awareness that ministers, teachers, historians and other employees in the United States and the South Pacific were being marginalised or dismissed because they were aware of new data and their attempts to interpret it coherently were deemed heretical. A cluster of biographical studies needs to be undertaken in order to illustrate the development of Adventist Studies during the difficult conflicts that became painfully evident during the 1970s and spun out of effective control in the 1980s.

If my published contentions are correct that the past half century of research relating to the life and writings of Ellen White may be characterised usefully by such words as certitude, controversy and consensus, it is likely that the church will come to value the concept that some of the people it has disciplined have contributed constructively to Adventist Studies. Mention of one example of many potential individuals must suffice as an illustration of this claim at this point. Ronald Numbers not only was excluded from participation in Adventism in terms of his profession as an historian, it was mooted that any employee who had supported his research (for instance, by facilitating access to relevant sources) must be dismissed as well. However, several observations can be offered constructively after the passage of thirty years. Numbers’ career demonstrates that historical inquiry enriches the church; that since the publication of research allows “the dialogue and dialectic of a community” to function effectively, correctives are likely to be discovered and effective balance is apt to be achieved over time. In effecting the professional martyrdom of Ronald Numbers, the church sacrificed an historian who is now eminently credible in the public sphere. Numbers could well have applied his evident talents for the continuing benefit of Adventism as well as for the enrichment of American society.[17]

Tensions can be constructive, despite the sensitivity the church has demonstrated toward them, repeatedly. For instance, Michael Pearson’s doctoral dissertation illustrates the likelihood of tension between Adventist millennialism and the church’s engagement with ethical issues. Such tensions are inevitable, essential and potentially creative within Adventism if the implications that may be drawn from Pearson’s dissertation are viewed in historical perspective.[18]

Another of the evident tensions in Adventist Studies is illustrated by the sometimes contrasting perspectives of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) and the Adventist Theological Society (ATS). Some observers suggest that the ATS may have limited its effectiveness by requiring its members to sign a statement of faith that seems to constrain their openness to genuine research as well as the publication of research findings in peer-reviewed journals. However, two considerations are important in this regard. The ATS has recently modified it confessional statement and a case-by-case analysis of the writings of ATS members is essential if this issue is to be assessed adequately. For instance, the publications of Roy Gane well illustrate the fact that an ATS member (who is concurrently an ASRS member) can relate responsibly to such perceived barriers. Gane’s doctoral research at Berkeley embraced Hebrew language and literature within the context of Ancient Near Eastern Studies (assisted by seventeen different ancient and modern languages) while maintaining a clear focus on biblical exegesis. This background has enabled Gane’s volumes on Leviticus and Numbers to achieve publication from Adventist, Evangelical and scholarly presses. Gane’s related professional roles (directing M.Th., Th.D/Ph.D. programs at the SDA Theological Seminary as well as teaching and preaching) further illustrate the challenges and rewards of Adventist scholarship that bridges what is too often a daunting chasm between academia and proclamation.

At the North New South Wales convention (held 6-14 October 2006), twelve presentations by Gane illustrated well his engagement with the processes of exegetical study, pedagogy and preaching. Comment by attendees suggested that Gane’s use of computer technology to support linguistic, contextual and inter-textual studies of Scripture can engage the interests of a cross-section of believers. If Seventh-day Adventists in fact have no creed but the Bible, the depth of exegetical study modelled by Gane with reference to Leviticus at the South Pacific Division theological congress (early in 2006) must be applied to the entirety of Scripture.[19]

Undoubtedly, one of the most divisive issues faced by the Seventh-day Adventist church since the 1950s concerns the doctrine of revelation/inspiration. This was evident in such debates of the 1970s as those that caused the termination of scientists and biblical scholars employed by Andrews University and the Geoscience Research Institute. The church at the time could not provide Ronald Numbers with a viable doctrine of inspiration but it deemed it was necessary to dismiss him for not applying its dynamic concept of inspiration to his historical consideration of Ellen White. Matters flagged at Consultation I and II (early in the 1980s) came into prominence with the publication of Alden Thompson’s Inspiration and the spirited rejoinder published privately by ATS. Subsequent research by Ray Roennfeldt has the potential to resolve many of the tensions, were it applied effectively to the Adventist discussion.[20] That the issues are ongoing is evident: for instance, White Estate has this year, again, made public its negative categorisation of Graeme Bradford’s attempt to recount the Ellen White story in popular language.

As early as 1980, White Estate voted a comprehensive agenda for the study of Ellen White’s life and writings and the Biblical Research Institute accepted a supportive role in the daunting task.[21] Groundwork for such objectives was creatively started by Arthur White’s papers on inspiration developed during the 1970s, Ronald Graybill’s and Robert Olson’s work that flowered at the 1982 International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, Fred Veltman’s research on The Desire of Ages and related initiatives. A coherent overview from White Estate was needed urgently and promised in the publication by Herbert Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (1998). This was a constructive step in the right direction despite a profound limitation: an effective study typically begins with an inclusive literature review. As a consensus volume, the Douglass tome did not even name some of the most important researchers, let alone analyse in any detail their explorations of the component issues.

Perceived outcomes still seem somewhat daunting in some respects: in 2006 the agenda of 1980 is largely unfulfilled (in a comprehensive way) by the combined efforts of White Estate and the Biblical Research Institute; the ATS is only haltingly supporting the church’s efforts to embrace and proclaim a viable doctrine of inspiration, the Standish brothers channel millions of Adventist dollars into alternative programs deriving from their analysis of “the ills of God’s church” or in support of a doctrine of inspiration that claims “inerrancy in the autographs” for both the writings of Ellen White and the Scriptures.[22] Meanwhile, the church in some geographical areas of the world is still losing adherents who experience unbearable cognitive dissonance with reference to the issues.[23] Even so, the church is sometimes tempted to be hesitant in fostering research, to the point that on occasion dedicated individual members working individually are the ones who break fresh ground most effectively.

This observation is illustrated well by the research of medico Donald McMahon and historian Fred Hoyt. It is my published contention that the piece McMahon has contributed to the jigsaw is the single most important one relating to Ellen White’s inspiration that has been submitted since 1970. Even less is known by the world church about the illuminating research that historian Fred Hoyt commenced in the 1970s. Bulging filing cabinets and boxes of data in Hoyt’s crowded office enable a fuller understanding of early Adventist charismatic experiences, the education of Ellen White, the influence of Wesley on Ellen White’s life and ideas, the relationship between Ellen White’s literary indebtedness and the doctrine of inspiration and a cluster of related matters. Neither McMahon nor Hoyt claim any expertise outside their respective fields of medicine and history. Their findings need to be understood by the biblical scholars, systematic theologians and pastors who are able, in turn, to interpret their significance for the church at large.[24]

This brief report cannot mention a plethora of published studies from Adventist and non-Adventists presses, not least those by Ronald Lawson, Keith Lockhart, Malcolm Bull and Kenneth Newport. Bull and Lockhart’s update of their earlier sociological investigation will probably be read by some Australians before the end of 2006, before many Adventists even know there was a first edition of it published in 1989. In other words, the church is better supplied with research data and tentative interpretations than with initiatives that incorporate responsible studies into the warp and woof of its teachings, life and mission. Since 1970 the church has incurred an increasing debt to such independent publications as Spectrum and Adventist Today for venturing interpretations that at times become normative after a decade or two of vigorous discussion.[25]

This reality is well illustrated by the issue of origins. From their earliest years, Sabbatarian Adventists have been reflecting upon the significance of creation and the relationship between biblical cosmology and the Seventh-day Sabbath. Since the mid-twentieth century, enormous progress has been made in revising the ardent creationism of stalwarts like George McCready Price in order to better represent known realities understood by scientists working in biology, physics, archaeology, anthropology and related fields. Since the late 1960s, the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Forums (demonstrated by articles in its quarterly journal, Spectrum, as well as by numerous presentations made since 1980 at its chapters in San Diego and Sydney) has at times given effective voice to the struggle by selected biblical scholars, theologians and scientists to be faithful to Scripture and honest with scientific evidence. Avondale College, not least in a series of conferences organised by the Faculty of Science and Mathematics (led by its current dean, physicist Lynden Rogers), has exemplified the fact that rigorous scientific enquiry can proceed in tandem with a deep commitment to Scripture as divinely inspired.[26] Rogers’ teaching and preaching illustrates the way faith and science can be related coherently by an Adventist scientist. That Scripture can be expounded winsomely, in the light of such understandings, for a general audience, was demonstrated at the North New South Conference convention on 14 October 2006 when, in fifteen minutes, Rogers presented a Sabbath School lesson on Genesis 1. A further indicator that profound ideas can be conveyed in popular language came to my attention from reading a recent Spectrum Sabbath School commentary.[27]

An even more vexed issue (than that of origins) relates to whether or not the church can invite back to its fellowship at least some of the ministers, teachers and members who lost their professions and their membership in Australasia during the 1980s. To further this endeavour, I made a presentation along with others at the Sydney Adventist Forum on 22 October 2005; my script for that occasion has gone worldwide electronically and been published in summary and other forms.[28] Reactions have in the main been affirmative, although they vary from naming the presentation as “a masterpiece of concission and moderation” to further evidence that I can no longer call myself a Seventh-day Adventist. When time permits, it would be helpful to review the attempt made by Avondale College early in the troubled 1980s to ready itself for a visit by the accreditors of Pacific Union College, represented in a document on “Academic Freedom and Academic Responsibility.”[29]

IV. Assembling Pieces into a Picture

As one examines the individual pieces of information derived from the efforts of the many who have engaged in Adventist Studies since 1986, it is apparent that these can be considered to be fragments of a larger whole. In other words, they may be characterised as jigsaw pieces that suggest relationships, indicating it may be possible to assemble them into a coherent picture. Selected pieces may be identified in terms of the following observations.

1. The church has invested enormously since 1972 to implement its decision to enable research by enhancing access to primary and other sources that relate to Seventh-day Adventism. By establishing a worldwide chain of Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centres (or equivalent heritage entities) to serve the various geographical sections of the world, effective research relating to Adventist history and thought as well as the life and writings of Ellen White has been facilitated.

2. It is evident that during the past two decades, trans-disciplinary research has flourished as individuals have crossed boundaries between component modes of inquiry that focus on Scripture, history, theology, pedagogy, education and an array of sciences (including the physical, biological, social, health and other sciences).

3. Such processes are enhancing the comparative study of Adventism, not least with their trans-denominational qualities. It is, for instance unlikely that the Adventist struggles over the human nature of Christ can be solved without reference to both the Christological controversies of the early Christian centuries and the specific input of Adventists who have joined the discussion since 1844. This principle can be extrapolated to every aspect of Adventist thinking and doing. It is best illumined by studies that investigate Adventism as an organic entity in terms of its antecedents, founding and development from 1844 to the present.

4. There is much to be gained from the processes that focus diverse minds on Adventist Studies, including believer-participants, researchers in Adventist and non-Adventist settings and those who do not identify with the church as adherents. In other words, the “prayer” of Robbie Burns is helpful: we need to see ourselves as others see us.[30]

5. Apologetics is a valid enterprise but it often presents particular perils.[31] The Adventist past is littered with casualties of credibility; it could be that these are diminishing in number as better research methods are adopted.

6. The church is increasingly moving to interpret data rather than seeking to control information. The advent of the mimeograph machine began to change the ethos of Adventist Studies; the ham radio and the photocopier accelerated the change; computer technology has completely democratised the process. Technology in its electronic and other forms means the church now functions in an increasingly different way.

7. This combination of realities means the church is aware of new issues, including those of justice and gender equality. The costly and demanding processes that have developed far-sighted approaches to Christian service (for example, ADRA), responses to the issues of sexual and domestic abuse (well illustrated by Adventist Support and its 2006 publications), also mean that the church’s employment practices are more transparent. It is unlikely that control of Adventist Studies will again be exercised in the mode of the 1980s.

8. The indicators suggest that in both the administrative and the scholarly spheres, the church will attempt to maintain a healthy marriage between academic freedom and academic responsibility. The self-correcting nature of effective scholarship, the ongoing dissemination of research through print and electronic publishing (including the checks and balances provided by the independent press on both the church’s right and left) will tend to maintain balance in this regard.

9. A major conclusion from the past two decades is that doctrinal development in Christianity and Adventism is a reality that may be destructive or constructive. It is a major responsibility of those individuals who engage in Adventist Studies to contribute toward constructive outcomes.

10. Further, the church is moving steadily toward fostering more effectively “the dialogue and dialectic of a community” rather than employing disciplinary measures to control research. At a time of particular concern in 2001, a substantial number of members in the College Church expressed a desire to better understand the issues that had proven unmanageable in Australasia two or three decades ago and seemed to be re-emerging in a new form. One of the initiatives spawned by this perception was the Adventist Studies series undertaken for a period of five years. In hindsight, Fritz Guy demonstrated the fruitfulness of a focus on Adventist heritage and the processes that created the church’s Fundamental Beliefs (2002). William Johnsson (2003) and Alden Thompson (2004) offered assurance that Adventists can faithfully interpret Hebrews and Daniel and live in community with each other. Kendra Haloviak (2005) enriched faith by presenting John as “the gospel of grace and glory.” Charles Scriven (2006) invited his hearers to perceive Adventism as a journey of transformation. Together these presenters gave a constructive, forward-looking vision of Adventist thought as focused on Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture and cherished by a last-day movement since 1844.[32]

Conclusion

If this survey bears any relation to reality, it tends to support suggestions by Fritz Guy that Adventism benefits markedly from “the dialogue and dialectic of a community” and its theological development can be both a coherent and an illuminating process.[33] Long ago Robert Johnston contended compellingly that Adventism’s “most striking characteristic” is its quest for truth.[34] The past twenty years of Adventist Studies indicates progress is being made in terms of the perspectives offered by Guy and Johnston. Indeed, it is not unbridled optimism to contend that Adventist Studies is an emerging discipline that is on a very steep and mostly constructive learning curve. Indications are that, in 2006, Adventist Studies may be characterised less as a fractious adolescent than as maturing adult.[35]

Arthur Nelson Patrick, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College. Script for a Faculty Colloquium, 26 October 2006; draft dated 26 October 2006.


[1] This document began its life as a script for a staff colloquium presented at Avondale College on 26 October 2006. It has been reused as an adjunct to oral presentations on the Avondale campus for students who have immediate access to the Avondale College Library, its Adventist Heritage Centre, the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre, the 1987 article referenced in footnote 2, the document entitled Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students (May 2006) and its updated form as A Brief, Annotated Introduction to the Field of Adventist Studies for Higher Degree Students (Avondale College, 2009), and a plethora of other such materials. There is, therefore, no attempt herein to reference relevant studies comprehensively, since students are invited to ask questions about sources orally in the class discussion periods or to use the electronic and other indices that are readily available to them.. If other persons who read this script need help in identifying any particular information, they are invited to e-mail me: arthur.patrick@bigpond.com.

[2] See Arthur N. Patrick, “Seventh-day Adventist History in the South Pacific: A Review of Sources,” The Journal of Religious History 14, no. 3 (June 1987), 307-326. The article consumed eighteen months of part-time endeavour between two larger projects: “Ellen Gould White and the Australian Woman” (M.Litt. thesis: University of New England, 1984) and “Christianity and Culture in Colonial Australia: Selected Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist Perspectives, 1891-1900” (Ph.D. dissertation: University of Newcastle, 1991, published in a limited edition, 1993). Because the journal article was completed for presentation to the editor in 1986, that date provides a boundary for this presentation.

[3] See George R. Knight, “Historical and Theological Introduction to the Annotated Edition,” Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Berrien Springs, MI.: Andrews University Press, 2003), xiii-xxxvi.

[4] For an earlier report on a constructive effort by Leroy Moore and the names of significant other researchers, consult my review entitled “Moore’s Light on An Adventist Trouble,” Adventist Today 14, no. 3 ( May/June 2006), 22, 23 20.

[5]Paul Ernest McGraw, “Born in Zion?: The Margins of Fundamentalism and the Definition of Seventh-day Adventism” (PhD dissertation: The George Washington University, 2004). Directed by Dewey D. Wallace, Professor of Religion, The George Washington University, it is available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hopefully, all Adventist institutional libraries will accession it in the near future.

[6] See Arthur Ferch (editor), Towards Righteousness by Faith: 1888 in Retrospect (Wahroonga: South Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists, 1989) as interpreted in a series of four articles in Good News for Adventists during 2006.

[7] See, for instance, David Brubaker, “Church fights and the ‘third voice’ middle,” Ministry, November 2001, 20-21.

[8] See sdanet.org/atissue for the biography of Andreasen by Virginia Steinweg, originally published as Without Fear or Favour (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1979).

[9] Note archival documents that relate to this theme, including my review of Morgan.

[10] See the archived Foreword that I have written for the published form of Chamberlain’s dissertation.

[11] This era is now much better understood since a perceptive and thorough dissertation by Merlin Burt (2002) explored the years 1844-1849.

[12] In a recent article I argue that we should “baptise this illuminating social science … without further delay.” See “Beyond Richard Ferret: Should Adventists Baptise Sociology, Now?”

[13] Cf. Arthur Patrick, unpublished review of Morgan (2002) and “Doctrinal Development Studied,” Record, 15 March 2003, 10.

[14] See Arthur Patrick, “Studying Record,” Record, 27 November 2006, 11.

[15] See, for instance, Counsels to Writers and Editors, 35.

[16] Reinder Bruinsma’s University of London dissertation offers the best single study of Catholicism in the setting of Adventist thought.

[17] See Jonathan M. Butler, “Introduction: The Historian as Heretic” in Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992), xxv-lxviii), within the context of various of my publications, including those on sdanet.org/atissue.

[18]Note Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and contemporary ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Earlier this month Pearson referred me to a trilogy by Harry Williams in the Contemporary Christian Insights series published by Continuum International Publishing Group and distributed in Australia by Allen and Unwin. The 2001 volume by Williams entitled Tensions offers a bold agenda: “Tension is inherent in the universe, the smallest particle gets it dynamism from an internal relationship of positive and negative. This work describes some of the healthy, life-giving conflicts in which we are involved as moral and spiritual beings.” The conclusions that arise from Pearson’s dissertation are further illumined by Rick Ferret’s more recent doctoral study.

[19] See Arthur Patrick, “Exploring Adventist Identity: ‘Who is the Seventh-day Adventist?’ Report on Bible Congress 2006: a Conference in the South Pacific Division,” Adventist Today 14, no. 3 (May/June 2006), 8, 9, 6.

[20] Those who find Roennfeldt’s doctoral dissertation daunting may better enjoy his report, “God has not put Himself … on trial in the Bible,” Newsletter (Avondale College: Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre), October 2006.

[21] For the list of topics (literary, historical, scientific, theological, hermeneutical, methodological) agreed upon and the context of the endeavour, see my paper “The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982,” 5-6.

[22] Cf. my review of five books in “Prophets Are Human! Are Humans Prophets?” Spectrum 33, no. 2 (Spring 2005), 73-74.

[23] The strategy document relating to the life and writings of Ellen White, developed by the South Pacific Division late in the 1990s (the decade in which effective consensus started to develop) and recently updated, is the most constructive document of its type ever produced by an Adventist entity on this subject. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the chairperson of the Biblical Research Committee of the South Pacific Division (who is also general secretary of the Division) earned a doctorate in the historical study of Adventism at Andrews University.

[24] Gilbert Valentine has recently published an illuminating account of efforts by White Estate to fulfil its mission respecting Ellen White’s writings: The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage: Issues in the conflict for control of the Ellen G. White publications 1930-1939 (Muak Lek, Thailand: Institute Press, 2006). In a volume now being researched and written, Valentine offers perceptive analyses of Ellen White’s relationships with General Conference presidents during her lifetime of ministry. Early drafts of the forthcoming Ellen White encyclopedia indicate that the projected volume (number13 in the Commentary Reference Series that commenced in 1954) will meet a real need. Another long-term enterprise by a Newbold scholar will describe the people to whom Ellen White addressed letters.

[25] This observation is based on my impression of ninety articles about Ellen White published by Spectrum.

[26] Lawrence Turner may be one of the most balanced Adventist exegetes of Genesis; one of the useful interpretive publications produced by the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Forums is entitled Creation Reconsidered; next month the Adventist Today Foundation will publish a volume by well-informed authors under the title Understanding Genesis: Contemporary Adventist Perspectives; Lynden Rogers has participated in organising conferences about such matters as cell death, origins, old universe/young life, design and other issues related to creationism. Rogers hopes to develop a conference that will focus on brain function. Extensive publications from the Geoscience Research Institute help to provide a context for such discussions within Adventism.

[27] A recent e-mail to a friend in Europe refers to this matter as follows: “Rolf, this morning (4 October 2006) I woke up thinking about the presentation that I’m writing for delivery on October 26, ‘Adventist Studies Since 1986: Fractious Adolescent or Maturing Adult.’ When Adventism in the early decades of the last century was surrounded by war between Fundamentalists and Modernists, our people saw clearly the problems with Modernism and retreated into the Fundamentalist camp. We don’t belong there, either. For instance, Nichol in his Ellen G. White and Her Critics made a sincere and strenuous effort to defend Fundamentalist concepts and apply them to Ellen White. But the wall he built in 1951 was already crumbling by 1970; it is now in ruins. The reason why the issues of the 1970s so de-stabilised us is that by then we were realising Fundamentalism was decreasingly viable and already Post-Modernism was pressing us to better understand the human quest for meaning. So we had the issues of Modernism to deal with belatedly (essentially, the demand to ask how evidence relates to faith) as well as pressure on the existential issues. Your commentary [spectrummagazine.org] on this week’s lesson is aware of all these pressures but wisely does not mention them. It simply opts for some of the clear evidence that the Book of Genesis is “true” and suggests what it actually means. Thanks, Rolf, for doing this so winsomely. One of the finest things Spectrum has done (since its founding) for the church we love is submit this type of response to the Revelation/Inspiration issue, offering a more effective road toward a brighter future. I’ll send a copy of this to Leigh (another of my Adventist heroes). I’ve already sent it to a PhD friend who got churned up in the cogs of controversy but is again searching for meaning in the life of faith.”

[28] “Twenty-five Years After Glacier View: Using the Lantern of History, Anticipating a Brighter Future.” This may be read in the wider context provided by my “Visioning and Re-Visioning Seventh-day Adventist Tertiary Education in Australia: A Centennial Assessment of Avondale College,” The Inaugural Murdoch Lecture, 1997.

[29] Recently Graeme Bradford drew my attention to a stimulating article by Edward Heppenstall, “Academic Freedom and the Quest for Truth,” Spectrum (Winter 1972), 34-41.

[30] Observe the way that the 1970s changed the understanding of history in the United States.  Religious history that had been “replete with apologetical positions,” “a poor stepchild to historical scholarship,” tending “toward anecdotal, often uncritical celebrations,” was “transformed.” Marilyn Westerkamp, “Religion,” in Daniel Vickers (editor), Companion to Colonial America (Malden, Maine: Blackwell, 2006), 366-388.

[31] This matter, illumined by both the experience and the writings of Fred Hoyt, is aptly canvassed in the paper Hoyt is developing on Francis D. Nichol.

[32] Every Adventist needs to apply all such insights in the formulation of a personal expression of faith. See, for instance, Douglas Martin’s “Church Foundation” document that is under discussion at present.

[33] Fritz Guy, “The Future of Adventist Theology: A Personal View” (1980) and “The Theological Task of the Church: Observations on the Role of Theology and Theologians in the Church” (1980) expanded and contextualised in Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1999). Compare the thought of Alden Thompson, best reviewed with the help of his website at Walla Walla University and explicable in terms of the attitudes intimated in his article, “Conversations with the other side,” Spectrum 31, no. 4 (Fall 2003), 54-9.

[34] See Robert Johnston, “A Search for Truth,” Adventist Review 160, no. 37 (15 September 1983), 6-8; cf. George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Belief (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000), 28.

[35] A principal concern that troubled me as I reviewed this script before its presentation (beyond its likely need for more sub-editing!) resided in its “density” and its failure to adequately cover the wide range of issues in Adventist Studies that have assumed importance since 1986. This presentation is limited to what might be expected to be achievable in a single colloquium. Dr Ervin Taylor has proposed (in an e-mail on 19 October 2006) that an attempt should be made to review the progress of Adventist Studies annually. Should this excellent concept be implemented, it would be much more realistic than any single attempt to comment about Adventist Studies over a longer period (such as two decades in the present case). It may be that Taylor’s suggestion could incorporate an annual presentation on the topic given at an Avondale College colloquium each October and similar reflections offered elsewhere, particularly in the United States and Europe. A raft of ideas comes readily to mind as worthy of exploration for such an annual process. A focus on selected Adventist scholars and their writings (as suggested in a seminar at La Sierra University in 2003) might provide a starting point for a round table discussion of suitable options. Various research fellows might be requested to present on successive occasions, as might individuals who have completed M.A. or Ph.D. research projects. Currently, Kevin Riley, Mark Pearce, Peter Harper, Jeff Crocombe, Eric Livingston, David Thiele and others are undertaking such research under the auspices of Australian universities. Avondale students engaged in such studies could also give work-in-progress presentations on an annual basis. Avondale presentations might be published (in print or electronic form) along with similar endeavours made in other locations.

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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