A little dust has settled. So, let me lay out at least a few of the points that led me, after nine years and much success in a ministry that has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life, to begin looking anew at Adventism. This is not a systematic review, nor is it an apologetic. It’s just an outline of some of the paths my reflection took.
Despite having left, I could never pull away from Adventist influence completely. My wife, my kids, and my in-laws are Adventist—I’ve gone to campmeeting with them in Maine on vacation. My parents and some of my siblings are Adventist, as are many friends. I’ve stayed in touch with old professors and a year or so ago got on Sam Bacchiocchi’s e-mail list.
In 2004 I went to New England intending to go to BloggerCon conference at Harvard; it was also Atlantic Union College alumni weekend, and my 20th reunion, so I decided to do both, and stayed in the home of a former professor, Myron Wehtje. I ended up skipping the conference entirely to attend the events at AUC. Some were very surprised to see me—many others were very welcoming.
In 2005 I thought about writing a book about Adventism. I had begun the process of re-evaluating it years before, after being asked in a seminary evaluation, “What can you say positively about your wife’s Adventist faith?” I reflected on some of these themes in my D.Min. project, and in a chapter I contributed to a friend’s book, When Only One Converts (published by Our Sunday Visitor). And as I began to write in 2005, I saw even more clearly that my years in Catholicism had led me to a different place, where I could now look at Adventism differently than when I was caught up in the excitement and anger of the late 70s and early 80s.
On the Gospel: I have a better appreciation not only of the good news of God’s forgiveness and justification, but of the call to holiness. And I have looked back and had to confess that my break with Adventism did not improve my spiritual life. Positive experiences that I have had with spiritual direction have recalled things that I knew as an Adventist. On the other hand, I was naive about the ecumenical agreements on justification; the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was much talk, no action. Merit still occupies a key role in Catholic soteriology, and “justification,” a key word in the New Testament, is a meaningless term to many Catholics.
On Ellen White: I have a better appreciation for the role that private revelations (as Catholic call them) have played through history, how they help God’s people to live faithfully at particular times, and how they invite us back to Scripture; and of the critical role that Ellen White played in maintaining the unity of the fledgling church, of keeping it evangelical and Trinitarian, of guarding it from extremes within. I have a historian’s understanding of her sources, but more of an appreciation for what she did with those sources to meet the pastoral needs. If I read Steps to Christ and Desire of Ages, the spirit of Christian gentleness emanating from those pages still speaks softly to my heart.
On the Sabbath: Adventists wonder how any one can leave this experience? It’s hard. Sunday just isn’t the same. My work in Jewish-Christian relations has also focused my historical studies on the point that Bacchiocchi raised of the importance of the crisis in the time of Hadrian which led many early Christians, particularly in Rome, to seek to distance themselves from Judaism. As a result, while other places had observed the Sunday Eucharist, Rome took the lead in urging people to abandon the Sabbath, and to shift observance of Pesach/Easter from Nisan 14 to Sunday. This latter finally became a universal mandate at Nicea in 325, and Constantine’s letter to those who couldn’t attend underscores the anti-Jewish reasons for the Sunday Easter (of which the weekly Sunday is a reflection). I asked myself, how can decisions made for such hate-filled motives have been inspired by the Spirit of God?
On the human person: John Paul II’s writings on the “theology of the body” and Ratzinger’s book on eschatology have given me a renewed appreciation of the Adventist understanding of the question of the soul, of death, and of diet. God created us as whole people. He wants to restore us to that wholeness. Catholic practices of fasting, of abstinence, and the vegetarianism of religious orders such as the Trappists showed me that these are not extreme teachings but have been common to renewal and penitential movements throughout history. And in a day when we hear so much of illnesses related to food, of the allure of the New Age movement and “Near Death Experiences,” as some Catholic leaders wrestle with the extremes of superstition in devotion to the saints while others, even conservatives like Hans Urs von Balthasar, dabble in the occult, the Adventist teachings emerge as all the more prophetic and grounded in Scripture.
On the priestly ministry of Christ: Too many debates in the 70s and 80s focused on issues of heavenly geography. The better question is perhaps, what does it mean for Christ to intercede for us? I’ve seen that no Christians really talk about these things that are so important in Hebrews. Our hope is located “within the veil,” where he intercedes for us, one who has been made like us in every respect, been tempted like we are, yet without sin. I’ve tried to keep up with the writings of Adventist theologians and I see things are phrased in different ways today than they were 25 years ago. But clearly Adventists are alone in lifting up what Christ is doing now, and what the implications of that might be for his return.
On the return of Christ: Catholics pray for it every day, but never preach about it. My hope in his return has never wavered. The Advent season of the church year reminds me of it each year (that’s a season not only of preparation for Christmas, but of looking beyond his first advent to his second). And much of the Adventist scenario has always made more sense to me than the liberal reinterpretations of Lutheranism, the dispensationalism of the evangelicals, or the various things one might read in Catholic visionaries.
On the Catholic Church in history: Newman pointed out the critical issue of Church authority. If you accept that, everything else falls in place. If you accept Church authority, you will listen to her teachings and seek to conform yourself to them. Many Catholic teachings hinge on this: purgatory (also here and here), Marian dogmas, saints, the developed papacy, etc. As in Luther’s day, you’re asked to let the Church interpret Scripture; and the Gospel and the Scripture are not to be used to criticize the Church and her teachings.
The message is always: Trust us. This can sometimes be positive—it was not just Scripture, but the continuity of tradition, that led me to see that Catholicism’s stand for a moral perspective is needed in a world of relativism and rethinking of issues such as gay marriage. And yet sometimes it has a darker edge to it, as in the anti-Judaism that was involved in the enshrinement of Sunday and Easter, in the justification of crusades and executions, in the stifling of criticism of abuse in the Middle Ages and in the attempt to stifle criticism of abusive priests in the 20th century.
This focus on authority results in what I’ve called “magisterial positivism,” in which truth is what the Church teaches. If it appears it taught something else, such an apparent contradiction lies only in your perception. In fact, what this means is that Church teaching can flip-flop from age to age and lay people are yanked back and forth and always expected to respond with “docility” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 87). Thus the church could tell the state in one era, “You must execute,” and in another era, “You must not execute.” It commands kneeling to one generation and forbids it for another. It rejects religious liberty and proclaims religious liberty. It excommunicates people of one era for wanting mass in the vernacular and in another era excommunicates them for wanting it in Latin. It claims the ability to create laws binding in conscience and to remit even divine laws, and to do so without providing explanation or justification.
This creates in laity and clergy alike the state of docility which is complete reliance upon the Magisterium–and this docility was taken advantage of by both abusive priests, the bishops who transferred them and covered up their crimes (and who were sometimes complicit in them), and the system whereby bishops were unable and unwilling to criticize or to seek the removal of their peers.
Such ecclesiastical hubris is what led Protestant exegetes to identify the Roman Catholic Church with the Babylonian harlot on the seven-headed-beast. Catholics are outraged by this, but as von Balthasar has shown, many respected Catholic theologians have also seen the Church as a whore.
Contrary to such authoritarianism and demand for blind trust we see the teaching of the apostles. St. Paul commended the Bereans for searching the scriptures to test what he said. He could rebuke Peter in public for clearly being in the wrong. And John could see churches whose candle stands are removed, and speaks of a remnant that will persevere.
Much that is in Catholicism helped me to take another look at Adventism with kinder eyes. And doing so made me take another look at Catholicism and ask, “How did I get here?”