The first major item of business before the 59th General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, meeting in Atlanta, was to select a new president, who will lead the 16 million member church for the next five years. The GC has a unique method for selecting a leader. A nominating committee is selected, with members from each Division; they caucus in private (no cell phones allowed), and then present one name to the floor. The delegates then vote. There are no speeches, no video presentations, no reading of the resumes.
The new president is Ted N. C. Wilson, a general vice president of the church (and thus well known); his father, Neal C. Wilson, was president in the 1980s. Like his father, Ted is known to be a conservative. He believes in the fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist church. He accepts a six day creation of a young earth; he has a high regard for the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White; he does not believe in ordination of women as pastors–or even as local church elders.
And this has some people nervous. His father is remembered for the way he responded to dissenters such as Desmond Ford, and some wonder whether new Glacier Views will be in store for those with differing views.
Immediately after the news was announced, someone suggested that I write an article comparing the election of Ted Wilson to the election of Benedict XVI. I puzzled about it somewhat; I mentioned it on Facebook, and some insisted there was no comparison to be made. Upon further reflection, I think there is.
Let me begin by recalling the circumstances in which Joseph Ratzinger assumed the papal throne. It was five years ago (April 19, 2005) that these words were proclaimed from the Vatican balcony:
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Josephum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedictum XVI.
I was working for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston at the time, as Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry. All the employees of the chancery at St. Dominic’s Center were gathered into a conference room to watch the announcement on the big screen. The announcement caused some few in the room to rejoice. There were looks of shock–even horror–on other faces. In the hours to come, I would hear chancery directors and associate directors say things like, “We can pray for another 33 day papacy,” and, “The Episcopal Church is looking better every day.”
The reason for the fear was that while many chancery bureaucrats are liberals, Ratzinger had a reputation as a conservative. He was compared to a theological pitbull, especially because of his many years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this role he was John Paul II’s doctrinal enforcer, and he was particularly remembered for reining in Liberation Theologians such as Leonardo Boff, and liberals such as Charles Curran. This was seen by many as ironic, for at the time of the Second Vatican Council he had a reputation as a young, liberal theologian. The story goes that he backed away from the progressives as the 60s wore on, and student revolutionaries went to extremes. But his writings at the time of the council show some concerns that would perdure in his writings. He had some misgivings about the accent of some conciliar documents; he opined that Gaudium et Spes, for instance, would have been better to adopt Luther’s Augustinian dialectical view of the church and the world instead of Teilhard’s evolutionary perspective in which God’s kingdom gradually unfolds in the world.
In the years that followed the Second Vatican Council, a tsunami of change engulfed the Catholic church; John XXIII’s aggiornamento merged with the Zeitgeist of the 60s, especially in Europe and America, and liberals optimistically supposed that the “Spirit of Vatican 2” would bring even greater changes. They fought for ordination of women, abandonment of traditional sexual norms, and identification of the gospel’s message of liberation with Marxist-inspired dreams of social liberation.
The spirit of revolutionary change reigned supreme for two decades after the Council. Religious education shifted from memorizing the Baltimore Catechism to making collages of pictures cut out from Life and Newsweek and reflecting on pop music (I have many examples of textbooks from the period).
The liturgical life of the church was hit hard. With a vengeance similar to that which tore through some Protestant areas in the 16th century, communion rails were ripped out, statues and altars smashed, chant and organs gave way to guitars and folk music, chapel veils were replaced by torn blue jeans. Those who knelt for communion were scolded by priests. Liturgists ridiculed traditional devotions like the rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978 as Pope John Paul II started a chain of events that slowed the pace of change and eventually began to check the extremism. He was one of the architects of the Vatican 2 documents on the church in the world. He had lived under Nazism and Communism, and resisted both. He was a campus chaplain, and loved to spend time with students and young adults; as a philosopher, he sought ways to make traditional Christian morality make sense in light of their real life struggles. He had traditional Marian and Eucharistic piety. He called for a “new evangelization” to bring the gospel afresh to cultures that had once been Christian but had been weakened by the forces of Modernism and Socialism.
In 1985 John Paul II called for an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to reassess the impact of Vatican 2. He felt that the “spirit” of Vatican 2 went far beyond what the documents actually said; the problem was how to properly interpret Vatican 2, the documents of which had insisted that that the Council retained the substance of Catholic teaching while presenting it in a new way to respond to a changing world. The bishops there assembled called for a new universal catechism, which would bring together conciliar teaching and historic Catholic teaching and show how it was an integrated whole. It was Bernard Law of Boston who made the proposal. Against the critics who said that people of different cultures needed different presentations of Christian teaching, he said,
Juvenes Bostoniensis, Leningradiensis, et Sancti Jacobi in Chile induti sunt Blue Jeans et audiunt et saltant eandem musicam.
That is, the youth of Boston, Leningrad, and Santiago, Chile, wear the same blue jeans, and listen and dance to the same music. Surely they can learn the faith from the same catechism.
This fervent desire to root Vatican 2 in tradition, and to present the ancient Catholic faith as a coherent whole to contemporary searchers was Joseph Ratzinger’s driving concern, as well. He spoke of a “hermeneutic of continuity,” by which he meant that the Vatican 2 documents should be understood not as a new constitution ignoring what came before, but as assuming a continuity with the teachings and traditions of the Catholic church of all ages.
The election of Joseph Ratzinger to succeed Wojtyla showed that the cardinals agreed with this approach. The path through the modern and postmodern miasma cannot be through a repudiation of the past, but must begin with an affirmation of the past; the people can be led forward only by affirming their past, and that which they cherish, that which gives them meaning, that which gives them identity. Too many church leaders had attempted to lead by personal authority alone; they had demanded the faithful obey them because of their role, and had ripped from them their traditions and beliefs and practices and hopes. Ratzinger believed that the teachers of the church must be rooted in tradition, and serve from humility–servants of both the tradition and the Christian faithful.
Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, has done much to try to make amends with those who were used and abused by such arrogant and authoritarian potentates. He, like John Paul II, has apologized for crimes committed by church leaders. It is the tradition that guides him. It is the tradition that must take precedence over the frail human guardians of that tradition. He has given all priests freedom to celebrate the mass according to the ancient rite–they no longer need to be dependent upon the whims of bishops who may have other agendas. He, like John Paul II, has encouraged Marian and Eucharistic devotion–again, protecting the tradition from those who use their positions of influence and power to denigrate it and disparage it and water it down. He has even (in his coat of arms) re-appropriated the symbol of the triregnum–perhaps one day he will reassume the crown itself.
The Seventh-day Adventist church has looked on the struggles of the Catholic church from the outside. And yet we are part of the same human community; we have been affected by many of the same cultural crosswinds. We have charted our course amidst tensions–between evangelism and health care, between “standing by the landmarks” and openness to “present truth,” between New England roots and global mission, between humble-footwashing and temptations to “kingly power” on the part of administrators.
In more recent years, the scientists who have taught in our colleges and universities (essential persons in a church that places emphasis on medical research and education) have felt torn between their scientific and Christian vocations. Contemporary science is grounded in an evolutionary perspective, emphasizing random variation, natural selection, and deep time. As a church, we have emphasized the reliability of the Bible, including the historicity of the Genesis account of origins (including a recent six day creation and a global flood). This is tied to both our observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, as a memorial of creation, and our eschatological orientation which sees our church as called to give the Three Angels’ Messages, the first of which is to “Worship the Creator.”
It is at this juncture that the delegates to the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference have called upon Ted N. C. Wilson to lead us. In the days after his election those delegates went on to make their own the Affirmation of Creation that was approved by the church’s executive committee in 2004. That statement concludes with these affirmations:
- We affirm the primacy of Scripture in the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of origins.
- We affirm the historic Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Genesis 1 that life on earth was created in six literal days and is of recent origin.
- We affirm the biblical account of the Fall resulting in death and evil.
- We affirm the biblical account of a catastrophic Flood, an act of God’s judgment that affected the whole planet, as an important key to understanding earth history.
- We affirm that our limited understanding of origins calls for humility and that further exploration into these questions brings us closer to deep and wonderful mysteries.
- We affirm the interlocking nature of the doctrine of creation with other Seventh-day Adventist doctrines.
- We affirm that in spite of its fallenness nature is a witness to the Creator.
- We affirm Seventh-day Adventist scientists in their endeavors to understand the Creator’s handiwork through the methodologies of their disciplines.
- We affirm Seventh-day Adventist theologians in their efforts to explore and articulate the content of revelation.
- We affirm Seventh-day Adventist educators in their pivotal ministry to the children and youth of the church.
- We affirm that the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church identified in Revelation 14:6, 7 includes a call to worship God as Creator of all.
I think it can be said that Ted Wilson does stand in a similar historical position to that occupied by Benedict XVI. Both have been called to lead their churches in times of confusion about mission and identity. Both have been called to lead with an eye on the past, making the historic teachings of their church speak in new ways to a changing world. There are differences, of course. Benedict looks to Catholic tradition, and the teachings of its popes and councils; Wilson pledges himself to the Bible and the Bible alone, while open to the leadings of the Spirit who continues to guide the church through the Gift of Prophecy.
Elder Wilson no doubt recalls Ellen White’s first vision, which called the Advent people not to abandon the light of the past:
While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world. I turned to look for the Advent people in the world, but could not find them, when a voice said to me, “Look again, and look a little higher.” At this I raised my eyes, and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the city, which was at the farther end of the path. They had a bright light set up behind them at the beginning of the path, which an angel told me was the midnight cry. This light shone all along the path and gave light for their feet so that they might not stumble. If they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, who was just before them, leading them to the city, they were safe. But soon some grew weary, and said the city was a great way off, and they expected to have entered it before. Then Jesus would encourage them by raising His glorious right arm, and from His arm came a light which waved over the Advent band, and they shouted, “Alleluia!” Others rashly denied the light behind them and said that it was not God that had led them out so far. The light behind them went out, leaving their feet in perfect darkness, and they stumbled and lost sight of the mark and of Jesus, and fell off the path down into the dark and wicked world below. EW 14-15.
He no doubt also recalls her statement that “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (LS 196).
Some “progressives” in Adventism justify abandoning the past in the name of “present truth.” They allege that “present truth” means we should be open to new teachings, and new emphases, which may contradict what we believed in the past. They say this is historic Adventist thought. But that’s not how the pioneers used the term. Consider this from Ellen White (GC 143):
Opposition is the lot of all whom God employs to present truths specially applicable to their time. There was a present truth in the days of Luther,–a truth at that time of special importance; there is a present truth for the church today.
Here we see that “present truth” is truth that is “specially applicable” to a particular time, “a truth at that time of special importance.”
J. N. Loughborough quotes 2 Peter 1:12:
In Peter’s time there was present truth, or truth applicable to that present time. The Church have ever had a present truth. The present truth now, is that which shows present duty, and the right position for us who are about to witness the time of trouble, such as never was. Present truth must be oft repeated, even to those who are established in it. This was needful in the Apostles day, and it certainly is no less important for us, who are living just before the close of time. (Great Second Advent Movement, 277)
Early Adventists sometimes spoke of “dispensational truth,” meaning truths that had relevance for particular eras. Thus the warning of the flood was “present truth” to Noah–but not to us (RH May 8, 1866, p. 178).
E. J. Waggoner located “present truth” in Jesus, who is the truth, who is always present to us (and who, in this context, is unchangeable):
In 2 Peter i. 12 we read, “Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth.” What is present truth? It is truth that is with us; and the revisers have given an exact rendering of the original in these words, “Wherefore I shall be ready always to put you in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and are established in the truth which is with you.” To whom is this addressed? “To them that have obtained a like precious faith with us in the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” That is, to all Christians in every age. What is this present truth, or this truth which is with us? Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” John xiv. 6. Moreover, He is always with us, for He says, “Lo, I am with you all way, even unto the end of the world.” Matt. xxviii. 20. And He is always the same, for we read again, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.” Heb. xiii. 8. This, then, is the present truth, the truth that is ever present with us. (EJW, Present Truth, December 1, 1892)
And present truth will always be unpopular, as William Gage points out:
By present truth we understand that which has its peculiar force and application at the time then being. Thus, eighteen centuries ago that which was unpopular and involved a cross was to acknowledge that Christ was the Son of God; the very thing necessary for his people in that time; but now almost everybody is willing to acknowledge that, for it is no longer unpopular. We may therefore expect that those doctrines of God’s word which have their peculiar application at the present time will be unpopular and be rejected by the masses. And what can be more properly denominated present truth than those portions of Scripture which tell us of our awful proximity to the stupendous events connected with the coming of the Son of man. Oh that the slumbering world might awake to the importance of the subject, and be led to prepare for the coming kingdom. (RH July 25, 1865)
If anything qualified as “present truth” under these definitions, it would be the doctrine of creation–especially since 1844. That was the year Darwin published one of his first drafts of Origin of Species. That was the year we believe that God providentially raised up a people to worship the Creator in preparation for the soon return of Christ, and to honor that Creator by keeping the memorial of his creative activity, the Sabbath. This truth is despised by the world; some within the church, too, say it is only a symbol that we need not regard literally. But this is one of the key truths we were called to proclaim as present truth, as truth with special relevance in our day. It is a truth upon which others are built. It is a keystone truth, and to pull it out would cause the structure to collapse.
So perhaps it is providential that in these changing times, when the past is deemed irrelevant, where people within and without the churches are saying we should abandon that which made us distinctive, leaders in various communities are being raised up specifically for the purpose of reminding them where they have come from, and what they stand for. When some are saying Roman Catholicism has changed, a leader is raised up who insists it has not–it cannot. When some are saying Adventism must change, and give up “literalism,” a leader is raised up who insists that God’s word is true–it can be believed–it must be believed.
In these things perhaps we can detect signs of a coming clarification of the issues upon which human destiny turns.