Reflections on the QOD Conference–1

I’m home. I pulled into my driveway after midnight last night, ending a journey that took me through five states in one day (from Michigan, through Indiana, to MDW in Illinois, a short stop in St. Louis, Missouri, and home to Texas). I’m exhausted, and the experiences of the past week will take a long time to unpack and sort through.

I went to Andrews University for a conference on the 50th anniversary of the book, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. It was a time for me to catch up on theological conversations, as well as to reconnect with old friends. I saw a former professor, a former fellow student, fellow AUC alumni, an old friend of my wife, some blog readers, a current church member, some other Houstonians, and folks whose writings I first read thirty years ago.

I’ll have a lengthier post about the content of the weekend (that might not be for a few days). The highlights of the conference were first, that it happened. Two young scholars, Julius Nam and Michael Campbell, succeeded at something that an older generation never attempted: bringing together a wide diversity of protagonists to talk face to face with one another about subjects they have spent years writing about (often very emotionally). The background to this includes Julius Nam’s 2005 Ph.D. dissertation (Reactions to the Seventh-day Adventist Evangelical Conferences and Questions on Doctrine, 1955-1971), and the publishing in 2003 of the annotated edition of QOD (through the efforts of Ron Knott, Director of Andrews University Press, and George Knight, recently retired from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary). It was evident throughout the conference that all the participants benefited from the historical research done by Julius and George, which has given us a common understanding of what happened 50 years ago, and what mistakes were made by people of all sides.

This was a week of prayer. Each day began with prayer, and messages urging us to unity, humility, and Christian brotherhood. The conference ended Sabbath morning with footwashing, communion, and a sermon by Angel Rodriguez urging us to step back from arguing to stand in awe and wonder at the foot of the manger–before taking up again that debate. This was a conference of scholars. Scholars do debate. But we can’t forget that mysteries ultimately need to be wondered at, not explained. Theology must begin and end in doxology.

That these diverse viewpoints and differing personalities were able to come together in the hoped-for spirit of prayer and Christian dialogue reflects well on the planners, the sponsors, and the participants. Perhaps (as is usually the case at academic conferences) the times of breaking of bread (in the cafeteria and in homes) were as significant as the papers read and discussed. I engaged in table talk with Russell and Colin Standish, David Larson, Herb Douglass, and countless others. Getting to know one another, getting a sense of the real person and not just the writer, is an essential step toward understanding. All debaters have a tendency to get caught up in the argument and to forget the flesh and blood people who are represented by footnotes and strawmen. Conversation about family and friends, sorrows and joys, can help to overcome that.

All issues were not resolved. Strong opinions remain. But some issues were raised and some insights obtained that will generate further reflection and study.

It was a great week–but I’m happy to be home.

Part two (Which I’m now reposting here for your convenience).

Some further reflection on the questions discussed at the recent conference at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the 50th Anniversary of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine.

Adventists leaders published the book in response to conversations with Donald G. Barnhouse and Walter Martin; these answers satisfied the evangelicals, but caused multiple controversies within Adventism over the years. An annotated edition of the book with a very helpful historical introduction by George Knight was republished in 2003; the original edition can be read on-line.

Reflecting on this from the perspective of having been away from Adventism for over two decades, having studied at Lutheran and Catholic institutions of higher education, it seems to me that the different parties have more in common than I think they realize or want to admit. All agree Christ was fully human and fully divine, and that his humanity was affected by heredity, and was the weakened, mortal flesh we share. All agree he is substitute and example. All agree as a high priest he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. They all agree he could have sinned (something Catholic and most Protestant theologians would deny), but never wavered. All agree that while we are born separated from God, his relationship with the Father and the Spirit was never broken. All agree that Seventh-day Adventists are fully Arminian. All agree that Jesus is coming and that there will be a time of trouble and that those who live through it will have a very intense experience that will require them to cling closely to Christ. All agree, I think, that the Holy Spirit will continue to uphold them.

There are issues that undergird the differences that need further exploration. Some self described “evangelicals” are comfortable using the term “original sin.” The phrase was stricken from an early draft of QOD but the idea remained. It isn’t found in earlier Adventist theology and doesn’t appear in official Adventist publications after this. Both liberals, like David Larson, and conservatives, like his recently deceased father, Ralph Larson, have problems with it. This raises a number of questions when we speak both about Christ’s inheritance and ours. What is the nature of sin? What exactly do we inherit? If sin isn’t inherited guilt (as Catholics teach), is it some sort of “substance” or “infection” that can be passed along, as some Protestants seem to suggest? Or is it better spoken of as a broken relationship and acts of the will? David Larson asked whether we might be operating with an understanding of the human person derived more from Aristotle and Plato than from the Bible.

There wasn’t much discussion of the larger Christian history of discussion about these issues. Douglass and an Evangelical scholar, Donald Dayton, pointed out that many theologians have shared a belief that Christ took our fallen nature (including Edward Irving, Karl Barth, and Colin Gunton). I think it would be good for some historians and theologians to explore their thought and how it compares with the thought of Adventists who share this perspective.

There remain strong emotions and convictions, however.

Some on the “right” still speak of “apostasy” (Larry Kirkpatrick and the Standishes, for example)–even though M. L. Andreasen himself apologized for his actions (which had led to the revocation of his ministerial credentials).

Some who would describe themselves as “liberals,” “evangelicals,” or perhaps even “centrists,” on the other hand, are convinced that the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole has rightly moved away from the teachings defended by M. L. Andreasen (the leading critic of Questions on Doctrine in the 1950s) and Herbert Douglass (who has defended the same views throughout his career of denominational employment).

To the latter group I have a question. If these ideas are to be seen as belonging to the “lunatic fringe” (a term used by Donald Barnhouse, supposedly quoting L. E. Froom), and have no place in Adventist thought, why then do books advocating them continue to be sold by Adventist Book Centers, and published by Adventist publishers? I’m thinking of books like Andreasen’s, The Sanctuary Service, the main source for his “last generation theology,” still published by the Review & Herald, and Douglass’s, Why Jesus Waits, still published by Pacific Press. Douglass said that the section on the book of Hebrews in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary was also Andreasen’s work (no word on whether this was impacted in the later revised edition).

Rather than seeking to lop off one side or the other, is it not better to acknowledge that the General Conference in session has never taken an official stand on the controverted details, and thus there is room for debate within the church? And that such debate must not divide the church, nor detract it from its mission–a concern expressed recently by GC President Jan Paulson.

Of course we can gain victory, but that will not be by settling the precise human nature of Christ; it will be by experiencing the “power of His resurrection”. It will not be by the power of His example; it will be by the “power of his resurrection”, for in that lies the power to live a new life. Let us strive in our preaching, teaching, and writing to direct the attention of our people to the Risen One, for he can work wonders in our lives.

I say to you as leaders: We have the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs. They hold together our core identity in terms of faith and doctrine. Resist any tendency to pluck out strains from any of these and make them into a separate and new doctrine which will divide the Seventh-day Adventist global community! We are in such a rapid global growth today as a church, and to me it is important that we have the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, as stated, understood and held to by all the new members who are joining us. That in itself is a monumental task. The wonderful fact that we are growing rapidly around the globe is also our great challenge, and we cannot afford to become distracted.

I think the conference at Andrews, by calling constantly for humility, by bringing us daily to our knees, by ending with us washing each others’ feet and sharing in Christ’s broken body and shed blood, showed us that while we can continue to discuss and study, the way forward is as brothers and sisters who have a shared message to tell to the world.

One thought on “Reflections on the QOD Conference–1

  1. Thank you for putting into words about these challenges what I believe. Our family was practically ‘split’ because of some of these issues. But thank God the Holy Spirit has been able to break through at least part of those ‘walls’ and bring reconciliation at least with some of us.
    My father had become – what seemed to me – to be bitter. Even though he had read his Bible through for many years he had imbibed of the spirit of controversy on points you mentioned. One day he had a stroke. After the stroke he could no longer read. Mom still read the Bible to him but she didn’t have time for the ‘other papers’. After about 2-3 months Dad’s whole attitude had changed. He mellowed and even told me he was sorry about his former attitude. There is so much more but I thank you for your report and pray God continues His unifying in love.

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