Controlling Metaphors: Are Adventist Scholars Breaking the Eighth Commandment?

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We live by controlling metaphors. The stories, images, analogies, and allusions we use to talk about ourselves—and about others—are windows into our deepest values and assumptions about life. Take, for example, the trope one hears with surprising frequency from those who wish to make literalistic readings of Genesis a test for Adventist church hire, if not church fellowship. The narrative goes something like this. If you work for a corporation such as Nike but spend your office hours promoting Reebok as the better shoemaker, you are in fact stealing from your employer. Ergo, persons who teach at Adventist colleges and universities and so earn their livings from the tithe dollars of the fideles yet fail to subscribe to a strict young earth creationism are breaking the eighth commandment: Thou shalt not steal. They are, as one Adventist pastor recently declared, “falling under the condemnation of God.”

This verdict assumes, of course, that biblical literalism and young earth creationism are settled criterion for being an Adventist in good and regular standing. This is not the case. It is in fact the most strident biblical literalists who themselves have deviated most clearly from the language of official Adventist belief and who stand in need of correction by church leaders. Further, the charge of commandment-breaking that has now been leveled against those who hold non-traditional views betrays the assumption that the best way of thinking about Christian community is by way of analogy to the world of corporate power and control and the truisms of “business ethics.” But why, we must ask, should metaphors of corporate efficiency, profit-maximization, and hierarchical control be the ones by which Adventist educators orient their moral, intellectual, and spiritual compasses? It is a question I will explore below. To begin, however, we need to recall what the Adventist fundamental belief on creation actually says.

In Praise of the Adventist Fundamental Belief on Creation

According to church’s fundamental belief on creation, “God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity.” The statement then simply quotes, without interpretation, the language of the biblical text itself. “In six days the Lord made ‘the heaven and the earth’ and all living things.” “Authentic” does not mean “literal” or “inerrant,” however. The fundamental belief on creation therefore clearly—and wisely—leaves open the door to diverse interpretations as long as they affirm the central authority of the Genesis account. There is nothing here that would exclude from Adventist fellowship or employment a believer whose thinking on Genesis was close to that of Karl Barth, or C.S. Lewis, or Jacques Ellul, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer—none of whom were young earth creationists or biblical “literalists” in sense that word has come to mean.

The preamble to the fundamental beliefs is also of great importance in understanding their role for the church: “These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”

There are two striking facts about this statement. One is that the purpose of the fundamental beliefs is to clarify the church’s consensus understanding in the present, but without any language of disciplinary control over the lives and thoughts of individual members. What the preamble does not say is: “In order to be a faithful Adventist, individual members within the church must fully accept and publicly declaim each of these beliefs in their entirety and precisely as worded here without question or dissent.”

The second striking fact about the preamble is that revisions to the fundamental beliefs not only might occur but “may be expected” to occur as the church gains new truth or “finds better language” to express biblical teachings. The official Adventist position on questions of doctrine can therefore be read as a warm invitation to all Adventists to vigorously engage with the biblical text and to explore new interpretations without fear that they will be punished or excluded from Adventist community for doing so.

It is time, then, for those who have sought to use the church’s official belief statements as tools of moral condemnation and theological exclusion—in fact, as creedal documents that they alone somehow have proprietary ownership of—to repent and to return to the life of Adventist faith. Adventism is a non-creedal movement committed to a progressive understanding of truth. How otherwise could a community arrive at new truth if the only things Adventist lay members and scholars were permitted to say or think about some of the deepest riddles of life amounted to unquestioning endorsements of whatever language had been voted upon by officials sitting on committees behind closed doors?

"Conviction Without Experience Makes For Harshness"

Let us imagine, though, that at some point in the future church officials seek to narrowly restrict interpretations of Genesis by re-writing the fundamental belief statement on creation (or passing a resolution of some kind to the same effect). In 2004, the Organizing Committee of the International Faith and Science Conference delivered a document to the General Conference Executive Committee that recommended precisely this. It noted with distress that the fundamental belief statement on creation “provides room for other explanations of creation to be accommodated in the text” and urged that more restrictive language be adopted, as well as that tools be put into place to “assess and monitor” Adventist institutions for conformity to the view that the creation “was accomplished in a literal and historical week.”

So far the church has not voted or acted on these recommendations. But if the official belief statement was someday revised to declare with wooden resolve that the days of Genesis can only possibly refer to “literal, contiguous 24-hour periods,” would this not then turn all non-literalist scholars teaching at Adventist colleges and universities into the morally craven thieves some individuals remarkably tell us they already are?

Allowing for the sake of argument that a vocabulary of corporate power and control offers the best way of thinking about the role of Adventist educators, the charge of “stealing” quickly breaks down on its own terms. For one thing, it is not church officials but in fact Adventist lay members—and especially the parents who continue to send their children to Adventist colleges and universities—who in a very real sense have paid the salaries of Adventist professors.

I am thinking now of people like my grandparents, both of whom graduated from La Sierra University, who later served as missionaries in the Middle East, and who then worked for many decades at the General Conference. My grandparents were deeply committed to Adventist education and sacrificed to send their children as well as grandchildren to Adventist colleges. They were also people of great tolerance, openness, generosity, gentleness, and civility, who in the early 1970s allowed several young Adventists to use their basement as the office for a fledgling periodical committed to addressing difficult questions with intellectual and theological integrity. They received, as a gesture of gratitude from the editors, a free lifetime membership to Spectrum Magazine.

My grandparents were traditional and self-described conservative Adventists who would nevertheless be appalled at the tactics and tone of many of today’s new self-described “traditional” Adventists, so anxious to define others in or out of the church. I suspect they might also have noted that many of these individuals are in fact young people or recent converts to Adventism, and that, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”

If we must persist in drawing analogies to the world of corporate capitalism, then, it is certainly true that employees may not undercut the profit margins or defy the orders of their managers. But it is also the case that the managers and executive officers of a corporation must periodically give an account of themselves to their shareholders. And it is far from clear that the “shareholders” in Adventist education—people like my grandparents and the parents now sending their children to Adventists institutions for advanced degrees—desire to see biblical literalism on Genesis used as a litmus test for church loyalty or fitness to teach in Adventist institutions of higher learning.

In Praise of Faithful Dissent

But why, we must ask, have we assumed to begin with that the body of Christ is best thought of as multinational corporation aimed at maximizing profits for investors, with “truth” now treated as a kind of brand loyalty in a world of zero-sum competition for souls as currency or capital? What sorts of hidden values, priorities, and assumptions are at work when the rules of corporate capitalism provide the controlling metaphors and moral framework for thinking about Adventist institutional integrity, if not Christian discipleship? It may be that wealthy Adventist lay members have long been able to set institutional agendas in powerful ways. But have they begun to also shape Adventist self-understandings, imaginative horizons, and even beliefs, so that it now makes perfect sense in the minds of many people to talk about commandment-keeping and the responsibility of educators as a duty to the logic of the bottom line?

Let us consider an alternative controlling metaphor or analogy that might offer better ways of thinking about the purpose of an Adventist college or university concerned with cultivating in its students a serious discipleship of the mind. Instead of taking our cues from corporate America, what if we think about Adventist educational institutions, doctrinal disagreements, and the role of the fundamental belief statements by way of loose analogy to the United States Supreme Court (recognizing that at some level all analogies are going to break down).

The Supreme Court’s rulings represent the majority opinion of the nine judges and as such determine the binding laws of the land. Yet unanimous Supreme Court rulings are rare. Practically every Supreme Court ruling on every major issue includes one or more dissenting opinions. These dissenting opinions are clearly and publicly articulated, and they might in the future influence the overturning of an earlier decision. The health of a democratic polity that is oriented toward questions of truth and justice rather than simply profit margins or managerial control from above, the framers of the American legal system understood, depends not only on consensus but also on dissent. A dissenting judge is therefore not being “unpatriotic” or acting in defiance of the law by disagreeing with the majority opinion, but is in fact upholding the deepest meaning of the law in the very act of raising principled objections to it.

So how might this help Adventists to think about disagreements within the body of believers on the interpretation of Genesis and questions of academic as well as religious integrity? The health of a religious community that is concerned with truth as well as justice must also surely include room for dissent on a whole range of issues. Adventists, as members of a dissenting minority expression of Christianity who were historically marginalized and branded as “unchristian” and “heretics” by other believers for their unorthodox thinking, should understand this better than anyone else. Instead of the controlling metaphor of the corporation, it would be far better for Adventist educational institutions, then, to look to the Supreme Court as a model and metaphor for the accommodation of loyal doctrinal dissent. Students should understand the consensus beliefs of the Adventist community and their determinative, authoritative role in the development of Adventist corporate identity. But students should also understand why some believers have arrived at very different conclusions on any number of doctrinal questions within a framework of faithful seeking for truth. The alternative is not Adventism as successful, commandment-keeping “corporation.” It is Adventism as purblind authoritarian regime.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at