The problems with SDA Doctrines are long standing. Now, is a good time to consider what to do about them. For years now, Adventists have had to face the troubling factors associated with our doctrine. Unfortunately, for some, these issues with SDA doctrines lead them away from the Church.
Forty years ago, while working on my doctorate, I was with a group of students in the student lounge at the University of Edinburgh discussing apocalyptic literature. An Australian Ph.D. student, familiar with SDAs in Australia, made a not-too-complimentary comment about our peculiar apocalyptic take on the future and on the Doctrine of the Sanctuary based on our interpretation of Daniel 8:14.
Problems of Interpretation
The conversation turned to discussing Seventh-day Adventists from the earliest critically uninformed interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation to our present-day exclusive understanding of SDAs as the Remnant awaiting salvation at the apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ.
Excluding myself, the Australian was obviously the best informed about Adventism, and the most curious, even though there were several denominations represented by the students in the group. I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with his remarks and questions. Everyone there was knowledgeable on apocalyptic literature and quickly saw the problems a historical critical understanding of those books posed to an interpretation made by a minimally educated New England farmer who was expecting the end of the world and standing at the beginning of a movement that eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Transformation of Doctrine
How does a denomination, developing theology from within a literalist view of the Bible and adopting a method of sola scriptura, come to terms with historical critical views on Daniel and Revelation and still retain a doctrine based on a pre-critical understanding of their messages?
Perhaps in desperation, I said something spontaneously that everyone seemed to have no problem with:
- “It doesn’t matter where you start out, it’s where you end up.”
I had faith that the church would eventually accommodate a critical perspective and adjust its theology accordingly. That did not mean scraping its doctrines, at least not the major ones, no matter how they were informed, but identifying the existential concerns embodied in the doctrines, then translating them into contemporary religious, social, and political existential expressions.
It is doubtful that any group, despite its claims to the contrary, ever approached the Bible as a repository of truth without being influenced by social and historical contexts in discovering what belief and practice should be. Rather, the Bible is approached to discover what it says about present issues religious communities face. That is why it seems to be a repository of knowledge on everything: the Papacy and Soviet Union, they are there in prophecy; Capitalism and Social Security, they are there, etc.
The theological understanding of nineteenth century Adventists was formed by a precritical mythical world view and expressed in the language of Scripture. Now, I argued, that expression had to be transformed into language informed by historical critical methodology; it had to be understood within a new world view. But it did not mean completely abandoning the language of those identifying what the church believed.
My Understanding on SDA Doctrine
To me it meant transforming doctrine, in this case the Doctrine of the Sanctuary, into an Adventist philosophy of history, a history in which Christians, and in this case, Adventists in particular, proclaimed their understanding of the Gospel which would move history in the direction of God’s purpose.
Although today, I would revise some of it, basically it emphasized bringing the world into moral judgment by preaching the Gospel, in particular the message of the third angel, with which Adventists identified. It meant confronting the world with the moral failures (sins) of the past and present and offering the forgiveness of God. Read my ideas on theology to see what I mean.
Everyone involved in that discussion in the student lounge recognized the dangers of identifying what God’s purpose might involve. My idea might encourage religio-political tyranny by divine right. But we also knew that sooner or later, every critical thinker has to admit to a measure of ignorance in the construction of every system of knowledge. Also, it was assumed that sooner or later, if the rational operation of the human mind is a requisite property for understanding the world, regardless of limitations, every non-critical system of knowledge, if it is to remain viable, will have to surrender and comply with rationality and critical investigation.
So far, the SDA church has not conformed. Read about Why the SDA Church Needs to Change.
Key Factors of SDA Doctrines
Over the next several weeks, I will explore the exclusive understanding of SDAs as the Remnant awaiting salvation at the apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ as related to the following:
- Religious Language as Sign and Symbol
- Faith and Adjustments to the Doctrine of God
- The Value of Human Beings Basic to Doctrinal Adjustment
- Creation and the End of the World
- Creation, Evolution, and Integrity
- Creation, Evolution, and Medical Ethics
- Creation, Evolution, and Other Moral Issues
- Historical Criticism, The Biblical God, and Morality
- Reworking Doctrines
- Faith and Suffering
Tune in to our next post for a discussion on Religious Language as Sign and Symbol