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By James LondisIn 1980 I was selected for the first time to be a delegate to the General Conference Session in Dallas, Texas. Imagine my surprise when Elder Neal Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, announced my name among several others to serve on a committee to prepare a draft of Seventh-day Adventist fundamental beliefs. They would be presented to the floor for a vote sometime before the week’s end.
Two vice-presidents coordinated our efforts: Elder Duncan Eva and Dr. Richard Hammill, both experienced church administrators. We were counseled to agree on this strategy for the document: when dealing with a potentially divisive belief, we would use language directly from the Bible or Ellen White. It was hoped that this approach would minimize, if not eliminate, objections from the floor which might collapse the entire effort.
As anticipated, when an objection came from the floor to a specific formulation, Elder Eva pointed out it was a direct quote from Ellen White or scripture and gave the reference. The objector quietly sat down.
Since then I have realized that the statements which flow from any church “council,” including the earliest councils of the patristic church, must be “politically” astute if schismatic-level conflict is to be avoided. Prior to the Council of Nicea, 325 CE, convened by Emperor Constantine to settle disputes over Arian theology, great theological diversity characterized the Christian community. Scattered throughout the Roman Empire, the church grew steadily not because its’ doctrines were precise but because its’ communal life was dynamic and faithful to Jesus the Christ. Theological and ethical decision-making was left largely to local cultures and communities as long as the core of the Christian faith was affirmed. Such diversity of doctrine was not seen as especially problematic for over three hundred years.
Emperor Constantine’s Council did in fact resolve the dispute for a time by siding with the majority against Arius. Later, he reversed his decision and supported Arius. This would not be the last time that a dispute of this magnitude would end up splitting the Church. For millennia, even down to our own pioneers, Arian thinking has had its adherents. It illustrates how futile the use of sheer power and authority can be when settling theological differences. Why does the church through its “bishops” not trust the process of study and prayer to bring the community to a working consensus or to charitably agree to disagree?
Why We Should Not Rewrite with Greater Specificity Fundamental Belief #6:
1. I fear that reframing #6 with a specificity not found in Genesis 1-3 has the potential to cause unprecedented divisiveness in the Seventh-day Adventist church. Number 6 has been the church’s stated position for the past three decades for good reason. Why do we now need a revision? What purpose would it serve? If we want our teachers to make clear that the church position on creation is in tension with evolutionary theories about origins, we do not need a fundamental belief revision for that to happen. If we wish to make clear that we should be cautious about dogmatic scientific statements concerning the mystery of how the world began, we should be equally cautious about dogmatic interpretations of Genesis. We need to adopt a “hermeneutics of suspicion” with both of them. We must leave room for both science and theology to unfold as we learn more. (No one I know would be upset if we found unusually large human fossils which indicated phenomenal longevity and minimal disease, neither Adventists nor scientists.)
In the middle 1960s a group of graduate students met regularly in the Braun Room at Harvard Divinity School to discuss the intellectual and spiritual challenges they faced in their studies. That group eventually led to the establishment of the Association of Adventist Forums. Dr. Alvin Kwiram arranged for Professor Ernst Mayr of the Harvard Biology department to meet with us and discuss evolutionary theory and the science behind it. At the conclusion of his presentation, Elder Lowell Bock, then president of the Southern New England Conference (later a general vice-president of the General Conference), commented that creationists are at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis evolutionists. There are hundreds of scientists “trying to prove” evolution, Bock said, while there are very few scientists trying to prove “creation.”
Mayr responded respectfully: “Every biologist in the world would love to be the scientist who disproved evolution. They would be world-famous overnight, assured of a Nobel Prize.” Since that episode I have learned that while scientists cling to their theories even when they are surpassed by better ones (think Einstein and the theory of relativity), they also are compelled by the scientific method to follow the evidence wherever it takes them, even to the point of overthrowing their pet understandings.
2. It seems ominously clear to me that the agenda for this change is to demand that professors and pastors not only teach that the church’s position is at odds with evolutionary theory, but that they should subscribe to the church position without qualification. The change being suggested would assert that God’s twin gifts to us of scientific research and Biblical interpretation are at impossible cross-purposes on this issue. Therefore, we must choose between them now. The message appears to be that suddenly “we cannot wait!” I ask: What evidence is there that we have come to such an either/or moment in our history? What rationale can be given for asserting to the world and to our members that the Seventh-day Adventist church is so certain about an issue that divides even the conservative evangelical world at present? Is not this kind of certainty idolatrous in that it presumes to tell us explicitly what God’s word in Genesis does not tell us? How do we know that our interpretation of the text is the true one?
In conclusion: Do we really wish to make committed Adventist pastors and teachers who believe the church should wait before taking such a drastic step persona non grata? Are we so certain that neither biblical nor scientific scholarship will, in time, clarify and possibly resolve this conflict? For too many, the revision appears less an effort to clarify doctrine or unify the church, than a troubling effort to demonize scientific research, critical thinking, and those who respect both as divine gifts. It seems that the devotion and orthodoxy of our teachers and pastors will be determined by their unwavering allegiance to this new formulation rather than by their patient passion to find the truth (which passion is itself an Adventist “doctrine” omitted from the original Fundamentals and hastily added from the floor in Dallas). As the church thinks about this step, I suggest that prudence and humility require we be cautious and circumspect, for we cannot foresee the unintended (or God forbid the “intended”) consequences of what we plan to do.
—James Londis, Ph.D., is director of ethics and corporate integrity at the Kettering Medical Center Network in Ohio.
This article appeared on SpectrumMagazine.org Sept. 25, 2011.