Jerry Gladson on the Battle Between Text and Tradition

Jerry Gladson arrived at Southern Adventist University in the fall of 1972, the year before I did. He had just started his doctoral program in Old Testament studies at Vanderbilt University and what he learned there he shared with us. Instead of trying to trip us up with deceptively phrased multiple choice questions, he insisted we write essays to show him what we actually knew.

Gladson was a scholar of strong Adventist conviction, but no propagandist. His aim was to understand what a text actually said, not what Adventist tradition dictated that it say, and he insisted that a scholar be able to use the best tools available to do that. From then on until he was “banished” from Adventist academia in 1987, he was suspected of thought crimes against the Adventist creed by denominational leaders.

After years of being mauled by the hounds of heresy, Dr. Gladson rebuilt his life and his career within mainstream Christianity. Now retired from pastoral life, but continuing to teach at Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta, Jerry and his wife, Laura, make their home in Kennesaw, Georgia. In a completely re-written account of these events,1 Gladson describes in grim detail how cruel and un-Christian fundamentalists can be in defense of tradition and creed but also how warm and embracing Christians from other and more inclusive traditions can be.

Dr. Gladson, in your book you recount a contentious meeting in the mid-1980s with the Southern Adventist University president in which he told you, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of our finest professors. What we need at Southern, however, is not excellence, but solid, conservative orthodoxy. Mediocrity in teaching doesn’t matter so long as one is perceived as orthodox.” Why is it that fundamentalists tend to be more attached to their creed than to the Bible and are willing to destroy people who are perceived to be a threat to the status quo?

Gladson: You use the word “fundamentalist” with a small “f” rather than a capital “F.” Fundamentalism (capital F) refers to movement within Christianity that formally began in the 1910s as a reaction to the liberal theology prevalent at the time. It was expressed in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals that apologetically covered a whole range of traditional Christian teachings. These teachings were considered to be the final and absolutely necessary interpretation of Scripture. The fundamentals were thus regarded as permanent and unchanging. This gives Fundamentalism and fundamentalist faith communities a certain creedal rigidity when it comes to doctrine.

Adventists were not a part of the Fundamentalist movement, although they were strongly influenced by it, particularly in the area of science and religion. Adventism, however, has tended to act in a fundamentalist manner when it comes to its doctrines, especially those that distinguish Adventism from other denominations. Instead of remaining open to new insights, based on new or reinterpretations of scriptural passages, Adventism has tended to “freeze” doctrine — just as Fundamentalists do — and in effect substitute doctrinal formulations for the actual dynamic, broad and variegated teaching of Scripture. Like many Fundamentalists, they read the Scripture through the lens of the doctrine rather than the other way round. This frozen doctrinal formulation, considered to be identical to the scriptural witness, then becomes inviolate, incapable of alteration.

This is especially true when Ellen White has endorsed an Adventist doctrine. Thus, when someone criticizes an Adventist doctrine, or suggests modifications, this is regarded as an attack on the entire denomination. The controversy in the 1980s over Desmond Ford’s reformulation of the Investigative Judgment doctrine and his subsequent exile from Adventist academia is a tragic example of how this works. The critic has to be silenced, no matter the means, lest the entire church be infected.

Is it possible, in your opinion, to exercise true biblical scholarship in a fundamentalist setting, given the fact that you will typically be viewed as a rebel against God and his church if your conclusions challenge creed and tradition?

If you mean by “true biblical scholarship” scholarship that follows the text with all its permutations, while remaining aware of the origins and development of the text, and of its ambiguity and indeterminacy, no, I don’t think such scholarship is possible, except to a limited degree, in a genuine fundamentalist setting. A fundamentalist biblical scholar has to begin with a pretty rigid cluster of assumptions about the text (e.g., it is inerrant, accurate in all details) and with firm expectations of what the final interpretation is going to be. The biblical text, I’m convinced, doesn’t support some of these fundamentalist assumptions, so to impose them on the text at the outset of a scholarly investigation seriously compromises the analysis. But these assumptions are not open to question, so a fundamentalist biblical scholar has to accept and try to work within them. That severely limits the range of biblical scholarship.

More than 30 years have elapsed since your banishment from Adventism. In the years since, you have pastored mainstream churches, taught Hebrew and Old Testament studies at two universities and in retirement written scholarly works within your field.2 Against this background, how do you now view the Adventist church?

I officially withdrew from the Adventist church in 1991 and joined the United Church of Christ and later also the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I now have ordained ministerial standing in both these denominations and have pastored churches in both. During this time as an adjunct faculty member I have also continued teaching, mostly at the graduate level, at various universities and seminaries.

When I withdrew I decided I would not linger around the fringes of Adventism, as so many who have been “banished” — to use your word — have done, but would try to rebuild my life and career in a new setting outside Adventism. I still have many friends in Adventism, however, and they have kept me informed as to developments within it. It has changed a bit since I was in it. There are no “witch hunts” going on now, so far as I am aware. The paranoia that seemed to grip frightened church leaders in my day has lessened.

Although sociologically and culturally the Adventist church has changed, substantially it has not. It still advocates the same theological positions that I had gradually come to question during my final years in it. So far as I can tell, the denomination has made little, if any, progress in reviewing and revising its traditional theological agenda. I still find myself in fundamental disagreement with its central claim that it is the “remnant” church, the supposed uber-church of end-times, tasked by God with bringing reformation to Christendom and the world. Most of its eschatology stems originally from a serious misinterpretation of apocalyptic literature that has led to a vast conspiracy theory — the “great controversy” motif — about the final fate of the world. None of this has changed in Adventism. Since the church’s very identity is so wrapped up with this eschatology, I don’t see it changing to any appreciable degree in the foreseeable future. I left Adventism primarily because I could no longer accept such theological ideas and their damaging effect on people. There was no longer any place for me in the denomination.

At Vanderbilt University you studied under James Crenshaw, one of the world’s leading specialists in biblical wisdom literature. What was it about him that impressed you and that led you to pursue an academic career in the same field?

Crenshaw was one of the first professors I encountered in my doctoral studies. His lectures were carefully constructed, accurate, very perceptive, and deeply interesting. He seemed to lecture without using notes — something I’ve never been able to replicate in my own teaching! I began to notice that his scholarly writings seemed to be appearing everywhere in the scholarly press, especially in the field of wisdom literature. After taking one of his seminars on the book of Ecclesiastes, I decided I wanted to specialize in Hebrew wisdom and work with Crenshaw as my doctoral mentor. That began a close friendship that lasts until this day. James Crenshaw, as they say, is a “scholar’s scholar.” Taking a look at his online biographical article in Wikipedia will give you some idea of the impact his scholarship has had on Old Testament wisdom research.

Wisdom literature was a popular genre in the Near East. Why do you think Judaism made room in its canon for this type of literature that is rather universal in nature and that makes little or no reference to Israel’s covenant status as Yahweh’s chosen people or the Torah?

Within the Old Testament biblical literature there are four books written in Hebrew and one in Greek that are considered wisdom literature: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon. The latter two are in the deuterocanonical literature (the Apocrypha). These books bear a strong resemblance to other ancient Near Eastern wisdom texts from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syro-Palestine that have come to light in the last century and a half, many of them older than our biblical wisdom examples. These ancient Near Eastern texts make it virtually certain that the Hebrew wisdom texts followed in the same wisdom tradition that was more or less universal in the ancient Near East. It also seems that Israel borrowed in some manner from some of these ancient texts, although they adapted it to their native Yahwistic traditions. Still, the result is that this biblical literature makes little or no reference to Israel’s covenant or status as Yahweh’s chosen people.

Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are exceptions to this, but they are both late compositions (second and first century BC). Why are such works in the Hebrew canon? In part, they have been preserved as constituents of the sacred text because they present a kind of “theology from beneath,” based on practical experience and observation that was deemed empirically relevant and useful for community life.

You have recently written a fascinating two-volume critical study of Ecclesiastes.3 How do you account for the inclusion of this skeptical voice in the canon? As you point out, Qoheleth, the narrator, challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Jewish and Christian thinking.

Qoheleth, whoever he was (the word is probably a title), is certainly the “odd man out” in the Bible. His book is essentially a “deconstruction,” I would say, of Hebrew wisdom in that he takes exception to almost all the assumptions that wisdom literature makes about the world and human life. An editor has added an epilogue (12:9-14), one of the purposes of which seems to be to contextualize or mitigate some of Qoheleth’s extreme statements. This epilogue may also have saved the book from extinction because, as the rabbinical tradition says, to paraphrase, “Qoheleth begins with Torah and ends with Torah.”

So Qoheleth was included in the canon, although not without some controversy. That the book stands within the canon says something about the commitment of the wisdom tradition to debate and discussion of epistemological, theological, and legal issues, even when they challenged the tradition. That legacy still exists in contemporary Judaism, especially in rabbinical studies.

In the first Old Testament class I took from you in 1973, I remember you saying that any concept of inspiration would have to take into account inconvenient facts such as literary dependency. Your example came from Proverbs chapter 22, which consists largely of an excerpt from an Egyptian source. What do we know today about the impact that these cultures had on the Bible and Judeo-Christian rituals and institutions?

I’m impressed that you remember the class from so long ago! If I recall correctly, we were considering the fact that Proverbs 22:17-24:22 seems dependent on an Egyptian wisdom text, the Instruction of Amenemope, which is now known to antedate our text of Proverbs. The literary structure of the Amenemope (“thirty chapters”) and much of the content is virtually identical to Proverbs 22:17-24:22. Borrowing in this case seems highly likely. We had this discussion, I remember, in view of Ellen White’s borrowing, which was then only beginning to come to light.

We know from archaeological and cultural discoveries in the ancient Near East that the Hebrew religion and its institutions were largely adaptations of the same general culture. The Old Testament, in other words, was very much a part and parcel of the ancient Near East. This is not to say that there weren’t unique features in Hebrew religion and culture, but in Yahweh’s revelation to Israel as found in the Bible, there is much that is comparable to the prevailing culture. In theological terms, the divine revelation that came to Israel was a culturally accommodated one.

Finally, is there a biblical doctrine of inspiration? Or is “inspiration” merely a retroactive designation given to writings that a community of faith considers authoritative?

I think it must be emphasized that the Bible doesn’t set forth a formal doctrine of inspiration. What we think about inspiration has been unfortunately shaped by philosophical ideas of what it must mean rather than consideration of the actual phenomena of Scripture. The term “inspiration” as thus applied to the Bible comes from 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God,” or “Every scripture inspired by God,” it could be rendered. The Greek term here is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), literally “God-breathed.” What does it mean to be “God-breathed”? The text doesn’t say. This is an incidental comment, meant to reinforce the fact that the young Timothy was a devout student of the Scripture. In its context, this comment refers to the Old Testament, which was probably then (late first century CE) about to reach its final, canonical form. Christians would go on from this point also to apply the category of inspiration to the emerging New Testament writings, of which the letter of 2 Timothy would be a part. In both the Jewish and Christian tradition, as you indicate in your question, inspiration was an a posteriori discovery, not an a priori assumption.

Having personally examined carefully the actual phenomena of Scripture, it is my opinion that inspiration must apply to the long process through which the content of the Bible eventually reached its final form. Inspiration is operative from its inception in oral or written form, on to its supplementation, revision and editing, and into its scribal transmission up until the final form. It includes all the authors, tradents, editors, glosses, and revisions through the entire process of development of the Bible. In other words, inspiration applies not just to the final form of Scripture, but to the entire process that produced it — from beginning to end — in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The inspiration of the Spirit must be seen at work at all levels in this centuries-long process, and not merely at the single point of its final encoding. Such a conception of inspiration, with the Spirit subtly and providentially guiding, allows us to account for the actual manner in which Scripture was produced as a whole and in its individual parts.

End Notes

1. Jerry Gladson, Out of Adventism: A Theologian’s Journey (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017). The book is forthcoming, and will be available in the autumn. The first edition of the book, published in 2000, was titled A Theologian's Journey from Seventh-day Adventism to Mainstream Christianity. The new edition is much more nuanced than the first, according to Gladson, as he tries to portray the internal conflict he endured as he weighed Adventism in the scales of biblical exegesis.

2. Jerry Gladson, The Five Exotic Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible [the Scrolls of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther]: The Prominence, Literary Structure, and Liturgical Significance of the Megilloth (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009; The Strangest Books in the Bible: Preaching from the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (XLibris Press, 2010); A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ruth (Edwin Mellen Press, 2012); A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Edwin Mellen Press, 2016).

3. Critical, in this context, means going back to the original languages and the culture that gave birth to this book. It means trying to determine authorship, literary dependency (if any), its point of view (its theology), etc. The book is written for the scholarly community, but it is a treat for anybody interested in a literary and theological detective story. Gladson clarifies the text of Ecclesiastes, but concedes that there are limits to how much scholarship can say about this book with any degree of certainty. In that context, I love the quote from Rachel Naomi Bemen that Gladson has placed at the head of chapter 7 (History of Interpretation):

“Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers, but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” And Dr. Gladson is indeed good company.

Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond public school system in Virginia.

Image Credit: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Marietta Georgia

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8084
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so sad that the Church finds scholarship as a threat, and scholars as the enemy. This dialogue should continue. Spectrum walks a fine line. Thanks for this bit.

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So what is Jerry’s position on the 4th commandment/Sabbath?

Way to go Sirje. I see 6 likes, so far

EDIT:currently 15

Just ONE ardent Adventist?

I would use the word 'fanatic" (Rom 10:2) instead of “ardent”

This month, as a guest speaker, I presented a sermon…“Adventists Anonymous” challenging the typical follow the crowd, peer pressured, institutional , conventional mind set of Adventist members or the population in general.

This quarter the SS lessons are covering Galatians which deals with issues of false gospels, salvation & grace.

The senior SDA pastor at the church I attend doesn’t even know the genuine concept of the gospel…(as with most SDA members) or what is involved in salvation or even the essence of the concept of grace.

There are over 3 dozen contributors to the SDA bible commentary.
Think on this snippet from the intro to Galatians…

“The Christian keeps the Decalogue, not to gain salvation, but because he is saved. Indeed only a saved man can keep it, for Christ dwells within him.”

Anyone who shares that in a SS class might get a variety of reactions…especially if , at first, they don’t say it is a quote from the SDA bible commentary.

I remember talking with a very elderly lady handing bulletins out at church (SDA) who didn’t believe that gentiles had to observe the Sabbath. I wonder how many of the 15 likes and the regulars on Spectrum have the same persuasion.

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Jerry Gladson was my Old Testament teacher at Southern. I was privileged to take this class from him as he worked on his doctorate.

As a new Adventist, I found him to be tough but compassionate on his students. He was one of the best teachers Southern had during this time period.

How he was treated as well as many others during the 1980s was a disgrace which cannot be erased from Adventist history. The Advent Movement lost a great scholar in Jerry Gladson.

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I was an adult student at Southern [transfer student] working on completing my BSN requirements in their evening program [1982,1983]. My lab partner my last year was the wife of one of the theology professors. So I learned
a little of what was transpiring, and how many forces in the Collegedale SDA community were attempting to get ALL the Theology Dept fired.
They were able to get ALL of them fired except for Jack Blanco. It was awful. Part of what began this war on the theology professors was one female student complaining to Little Debbies that they were teaching BIBLE WITHOUT bringing in Ellen White to VERIFY what the Bible verses REALLY meant. And teaching from Ellen White comments.
It was a really sad time! And eventually, they even got the President “fired”. Even though he was well liked and had a good reputation.
THIS is what a FEW well organized Fundamentalists can do to great professors’ careers, and can even topple a president of a University.
It WILL NOT be the last.

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Thank you for this interview. I was there 1980-1983. It grieves me deeply that the denomination does not appreciate true scholarship. So pleased that Dr. Gladson journeys with a passion to contribute to the body of Christ as a pastor and scholar. We are pilgrims—

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Now there’s a good Adventist question. It speaks to the heart of the Adventist faith - a holy day, configured by the Romand calendar, ALL ELSE IS SECONDARY, including Christ. As long as you show up on the church bench Saturday morning, you’re good to go.

I say that because it’s been my experience that that is so. When a discussion went to “saved by grace; not by works” a sincere and ardent SDA responded: “So I’ve kept the Sabbath all these years for nothing?”

I’m afraid that is the position of many in the church. The definitive issue for the SDA is the Sabbath.

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Says Dr. Gladson about Adventism: “Most of its eschatology stems originally from a serious misinterpretation of apocalyptic literature that has led to a vast conspiracy theory — the ‘great controversy’ motif — about the final fate of the world. None of this has changed in Adventism**.”

Dr. Gladson calls the “great controversy” motif a “serious misinterpretation” of the Word. I wonder if the good doctor believed that way when he was taking a paycheck from the church as a theology professor at Southern, or was that a new insight gained from being part of other denominations?

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Why don’t you read his book and find out for yourself, Clifford, instead of insinuating hypocrisy? Or why don’t you ask him, seeing that he is a recognized biblical scholar in the wider Christian world? I’m sure he could and would give you a cogent, clear answer. Or would that be threatening?

I must say, the tone you take in dealing with people who come to different theological understandings than yours often lacks something central to Christianity… grace. Is it from fear? Or is it from the desire to be 100% personally and denominationally right? It just seems that attack mode is the default mechanism, not graciousness.

Thanks…

Frank

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Not knowing the exact circumstances of Dr. Gladson’s dismissal I can not state that there was no “anti-scholarship” bias.
BUT, I do want to point out that because other scholars in the church disagreed with him does NOT mean they are anti-scholarship. Exactly the opposite in fact.
The way this is SUPPOSED to work is that when someone brings forth a new interpretation of scripture, “new light,” that conflicts with our previous understanding of scripture: We get together and study it. If, after study and much prayer, the church body finds no solid biblical basis for the new interpretation of scripture, then of course, it is their duty to reject this “new light.” That isn’t anti-scholarship, that is scholarship at work!

Again, I am not claiming to know the exact circumstances of Dr. Gladson’s situation. And I am not denying that sometimes people reject new light because they don’t want to see change. What I am arguing is that the knee jerk reaction that when the church rejects a new interpretation of scripture it is ALWAYS because they are a bunch of hide-bound fundamentalists, is seriously flawed. They could have rejected it because they legitimately did not find the interpretation to be valid.

Just because people disagree with you does not necessarily mean you are being persecuted.

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Cliff, this comment is not only irrelevant to the discussion but unbecoming on a personal level.

Gladson’s story is emblematic of a time when Adventist thinker-theologians were ousted under the smallest suspicion of heterodoxy. Scholars were expected to rubber-stamp administrative decisions as if they were “the voice of God”. The text must be manipulated to fit the doctrine, the type to fit the antitype because protecting the institution is above all other concerns.

We are now reliving the past, because we failed to learn its lessons.

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Cliff, as a new Adventist, took two classes at SMC in the fall of 1981 before transferring to Freeze’s Wildwood. He was, as far as I know, part of the mob that bayed for the blood of the SMC Religion teachers. As far as I have been told–and Cliff can correct me if I am wrong–he even testified against a certain teacher who was then being hounded by the crazed fundamentalists in Collegedale. Cliff was baptized into the most paranoid period of modern SDA history and seems to have remained, for all his added scholarship, a prisoner of binary fundamentalist thinking in which you are either a hero or a heel, to borrow WWE language. I have contacted Cliff twice to get him to “sit” for a Spectrum interview–and the offer still stands–but he seems to prefer the role as attack dog when addressing people he disagrees with.

As for Dr. Gladson’s statement that the SDA church historically misunderstood apocalyptic literature, I would imagine that that is a majority viewpoint among Adventist scholars.

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It was George Orwell who wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

Since when do we base our faith on the dictates of scholars above that of the word of God? Was it not to the scholars that Jeremiah was sent to speak to of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and yet because of the “scholarly” held belief that the city could not be destroyed because God’s presence dwelt in the temple, it could not be true. The scholars were wrong. Was it not Christ who said that the temple would be destroyed and whose heaviest message of reproof was to the scholars of his day? And yet the temple was destroyed.

The track record of the “scholars” doesn’t bode well through Biblical history and I wonder if that should be any indication of what we should expect in our time.
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭4:3‬ ‭

We speak of eschatology as if it originated with a few robed men casting votes in a room for everyone else. God’s own track record has been to choose the least educated, the least recognized, the least likely in society to communicate truth, and they have always been outnumbered by the intelligencia of their day. But the lone messengers were always vindicated. Truth does not need a scholar in order to validate it. Fundamental truth is revealed, not engineered in the minds of educated men.

The scholar did, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it so well, "…decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down, and having convinced himself that he was too numerous, labored with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer. Until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keeled over–a weary, battered old brontosaurus–and became extinct.”
I’ll take my chances with the lone messenger of history. He has a better track record with present truth than any scholar has or could.

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This may be true but in general new light is judged not by scholars and peers but by administrators who do not have the time or the background to assess the evidence. Just look at the comment of Javier here if you want to see an anti-scholar bias. His comment I think reflects the sentiment of many who lack the background or capacity to properly assess scholarship.

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I didn’t think I was attacking anyone. I just asked a question, that’s all. And, no, Aage, I never testified against anyone there. In fact I personally apologized to one of them because, having been in the church only a year and a half at the time, I didn’t understand just how complicated the issues were.

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Think again.

When you try to impeach someone’s credibility, whether in a form or a question or not, that is an attack. And then when you try to split hair in a lame way as a former US president did when he said “I did not have sex with that woman” when in fact he did, that is known as a denial. Let’s hope no one buys your excuse.

If you were a paid denominational GC leader, I would say our church is in deep deep trouble.

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The infamous witch hunt at Southern has been followed by two others in recent times: at Walla Walla University (1990s)–which was less successful, but I am not well informed about–and at La Sierra University (2010s)–which targeted those who disrespected the Church’s position on biological origins and change. I would say the hunt for “evilutionists” among the Church’s institutions continues, albeit more in the shadows now after they succeeded in ousting a handful of LSU faculty and administrators.

Of greater concern, Wilson and his administration has resumed efforts–following Faulkenberg’s failure–to reign in those academics they deem to be dangerous. They are currently using the International Board for Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE) to restrict the academic freedom of religion faculty, and many expect Wilson’s administration to target social science and biology faculty next. I might add that there is a large groundswell of (often anti-academic) conservatives that would enthusiastically support such an effort.

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It is rich that a site that constantly attempts to impeach the doctrines of the church would berate a blogger for asking a question – certainly far fallen are classical rhetoric and debate techniques.

Furthermore, embracing a label is not proof of possession. Scholarship is a matter of epistemology – not a matter of popular recognition.

It is rather telling that the proof of this demise comes in that Clifford’s question of several days ago remains unanswered – even by the subject of this published interview.

As usual, Cliff attacks the messenger, and then denies having done so.

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“THIS is what a FEW well organized Fundamentalists can do to great professors’ careers, and can even topple a president of a University.”

Not to mention a FEW deep-pocketed Fundamentalists as well. Money always talks even in the SDA world and to think otherwise is very naive. Another example of this is the sad situation that occurred in the former Adventist Media Center in Simi Valley, Ca., where the ministries headquartered there competed/fought over the biggest donors. The donors had influence over quite a bit of things such as programming, etc. Things never change. Sadly.

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