In the last post I talked about Identity, as being the answer to one of the three great questions: Who am I? If we are going to fashion an Adventist identity, it will have to be in the context of the other two great questions, which I have called simply, History = “Why am I here?”, and Destiny = “Where am I going?”
I’ll never forget the comment of my Jewish history professor, my first year in college. I owe this man a great deal, and have only praise for him. When he discovered I was a Seventh-day Adventist, he said, “Oh, that’s the group that made the mistake about some prophecy?”I was 17, and although I had attended public school a few of the years in elementary, this is my first real encounter with skeptical questioning in the real world. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I probably gave something like the standard answer, well, we were wrong about what was to happen but not about the date.
“So that’s how you explain it,” he said
Some years later, I took the course titled “The Ellen White Writings,” at the seminary during the summer of 1980 as I completed my Master’s degree at Andrews University. It was an interesting time to be taking that course, as in the fall of that year the church leadership met with Desmond Ford at Glacier View. Dr. Ford had some significant differences with some of the historic teachings of the church.
I do not wish to open all that up for discussion here, but simply point out that there are a number of teachings on which the church has changed its mind during the years. I used to call several of these issues “loose rugs,” as in, “Adventist theology has several loose rugs lying around, and every once in a while someone trips over one of them.”
These days, I wouldn’t call them loose rugs anymore. I would say that our understanding of some of these issues is incomplete. That is not a criticism. First of all, we believe that we will spend all eternity learning more about God. That means that our understanding of God will forever be incomplete. And that is not only necessary, it is a good thing.
It is necessary because any God that we could completely comprehend would cease to be God. For God to remain God, he must be infinite, and therefore our understanding of him will always be incomplete. It is good because eternity is a long time. Once we understood God, seems like boredom might become a danger. That wouldn’t be Paradise; eventually it would seem more like hell.
Understanding the history of God’s interaction with his people, and the history of the Adventist church, we should also realize that our understanding of almost any prophecy, or event, is incomplete until after the fact. The theologian friend of mine says, “there is no way you can predict Jesus from the Old Testament. Only after Jesus comes does it become clear what the Old Testament prophets were talking about.”
As I pointed out in an article I wrote in the Review several years ago, even John the Baptist seemed confused because Jesus did not do what he expected. There are multiple examples of this in history. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the ultimate creative genius of the universe devises plans which are beyond our comprehension, and can only be understood after we see them completed.
What we see throughout the Bible is an ongoing discovery of who God is and what he is doing. Yet somehow many of us think that with the arrival of the Adventist church, all that comes to an end. Suddenly, we understand God completely. But of course that is ridiculous, not to mention arrogant. So it should not be surprising that we will either be involved in an ongoing discovery of our own, concerning not only who God is and what he is doing, but also the role and purpose of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The only other alternative I see here is death; death of the movement.
Rather than thinking of these Adventist distinctives as “loose rugs,” which I hazards waiting to trip up the unwary, I now think of them as opportunities to re-articulate for this generation who and what we are. And again, this is both good and necessary.
It is good because it means that there are new things to discover, new things to learn. A number of years ago I was teaching how to interpret the book of Revelation at a seminary in Eastern Europe. One of the students, commenting on the tools and approaches I had shared with students, and on the faith-affirming results of using those tools, said, “So what’s left? You guys have done all the work?”
“I’m not a scholar,” I said. “I’m only sharing what I’ve learned from others. Besides,” I continued, “what I’m sharing our basic tools. There’s a lot of work yet to be done, and some of the best work, I’m sure, will be done by you those in your generation.”
If we are going to be studying the plan of salvation throughout all eternity, that it is folly to think that any “last word” will be pronounced here.
And it is necessary so that we realize we must continually search the scriptures for ourselves.
We also must realize that although God’s truth does not change, our understanding of that truth is to continually grow, and that involves change. Not only that, but the cultural context into which we must communicate God’s truth continually evolves. To put it another way, those were trying to reach, our target audience, is a moving target. Even if we have a good grip on absolute truth, how we communicate it must continually change to reach that target audience, that moving target.
Inevitably, what this means, is that all of our doctrines will have to be re-articulated every generation. The kernel of truth will remain, how it is expressed will change. The difficulty of this of course is determining what is eternal, and what is not. What is eternal cannot be changed. What is not eternal, must continually change.
The part that will change the most, necessarily, is our own understanding of the Advent movement. Those parts of the Christian faith which we share with all Christians are continually being refined not only by ourselves but by all other Christians as well. The parts we necessarily must specialize in, then, are those distinctive doctrines which make up the unique identity, purpose, and mission, of the Adventist movement.
So in these blogs, for the most part, I will concentrate on Adventist distinctives. Not because they are more important than righteousness by faith, or the deity of Christ, the least we share with the larger Christian community, but because they are what gives us our unique identity.
I hesitate to outline everything I will be covering, partially because reader comments and questions — which I welcome — may cause what appear to be detours. But in my experience, real questions not only deserve to be answered, but they often clarify those things which are most important. Another way of putting it is that questions help me to understand that focus it on my target audience. I’m not writing these blogs because I’m under the illusion that the world is just waiting for every thought that crosses my mind. I’m writing the because people have found the things I am to share helpful, and I’m looking for more people to help.
So, with that caveat, I intend to take up the daunting question that increasingly haunts our interactions with the larger Christian community, and the world beyond. What does “soon” mean?