Richard Rice and the Question of Eschatology– Part III

In my two previous columns (here and here) I pointed out that Richard Rice’s latest book The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities, reminds us that our understanding of God is pivotal for determining the way we live, more than we usually believe. Our theological premises concerning God, in an implicit and structural way (i.e. unconsciously), model and drastically determine what we are and do. But between our theological premises and our concrete life there is not simply a one-way street. There exists a dynamic reciprocity. Starting from the opposite perspective we could also affirm that our way of life progressively models and implicitly transforms both our awareness and theological premises. Theological premises are not so monolithic, autonomous and static as we usually believe they are. For this reason we need, on one side, to pay attention to how we apply our beliefs and make sure that what we believe materializes concretely in behaviors and actions. But on the other side, and for the same reason, we need to filter and assess the effects that practice has on our theological premises. This is what was described in a previous column as “Bottom Up,” which affects how our practice feeds back into theological premises. It’s a mechanism we need continually to keep in mind. But we must also realize that the parallel and more explicit “Top Down” approach affects every theological model as well, and then alters religious practices.

But pressure on our theological premises doesn’t come uniquely from religious practice. It comes from our specific doctrines and concrete theological declarations too. So we need to assess the kind of pressure our confessional doctrines exert on our idea of God, the main theological premise of any religious system. We can’t pretend that our confessional idea of God is God himself. And to check that we need to continually assess this reciprocity, verifying both the influence coming from our theological premises to our confessional doctrines, and also the effects of our confessional doctrines upon our theological premises of God. And here the analysis is instructive – not of the contents (the doctrines) but the trend of our eschatology. Our eschatology is dynamic but not necessarily consistent and balanced. We have a strong “missionary” and “last-days-events” focus. They have become two obsessions that easily make our best theology unilateral. Not only in the sense of making it partial though efficient, but above all in the sense of tightening it up and, by doing so, taking away its natural internal dynamism. 

Thus, in order to correctly enforce the “mission” and prepare ourselves for “last-days-events” (our two privileged eschatological categories), we need to have a clear idea of God. We can’t allow ourselves to be uncertain, provisional or too experimental. We use the eschatological perspective then to close and validate a classical view of God instead of taking advantage of this frame to renew our understanding of him. Ours is a technical biblical confirmation of our idea of God, very much influenced and monopolized by our exegetes who try to behave as theologians while they are not such in this specific sense. We end up having a theology without theology. A theological eschatology without a renewed idea of God. That is, for instance, what happened with recent Adventist commentaries on Daniel and Revelation. Even when these commentaries are partially innovative they don’t help us to reconfigure our understanding of God. So we have become a fervent church of last-days-events without a real theology, without a propulsive understanding of God. Daniel and Revelation are deep theological books for building-up a renewed understanding of God. Instead we have reduced them to a bunch of dates, prophecies and temporal schemes – reinforcing a purist, exclusive and restrictive understanding of God. In reality these two books are tremendous theological experiments to rethink, enlarge, reshape and rearticulate a dynamic and life-oriented understanding of God. Not an ecclesio-centric and restrictive one.

The question remains whether Rice’s Open Theism allows and fosters a true renewing of our Adventist idea of God, starting from our eschatology agenda, or does his view instead tend to leave our eschatology as it fundamentally is. Rice does succeed in going from the main Idea of God as expressed in Open Theism, to positively influence the eschatological agenda, giving it an important dynamism. But the opposite movement, from eschatology to renewing our idea of God, is almost absent. The centrifugal-applicative direction in his theology is privileged above the centripetal-corrective one. So much so that his Open Theist understanding of God is dynamic in some aspects but stuck in others.

So let’s consider these two theological movements.

1. The centrifugal-applicative theological movement

Essentially Rice’s Open Theism proposes three main ideas for dynamizing our eschatology.

a. The primacy of “divine love”

The main affirmation of Open Theism is that God’s essential nature is love. It’s by love that God created humanity, endowing us with the capacity of loving him in return. And this very same personal character of God pushes him to enter into relationship with humans – in both directions. So God is genuinely affected by human actions and decisions. He is not only subject and protagonist in world history but also receptor of human initiatives. For this reason love will continue at the end to be the main parameter by which God concludes the history of this world. The final eschatological manifestation of God is not based then on power but on reciprocal love. Just as history has been guided by God’s love, the final events will be directed by that same love.

b. The centrality of “libertarian freedom”

God’s purposes don’t exclude human voluntary participation. He is open to the world, and the world is open to God. This central mechanism of reciprocity intervenes at the end, eschatologically. God’s final purpose then can’t be accomplished by a divine fiat but involves the voluntary participation of God’s people. This implies risk, but the idea that God takes risk doesn’t mean God is careless. Humanity will not be a passive observer of what God does at the end. Humanity’s voice, attitudes, emotions and reactions will influence God in his final eschatological decisions and actions.

c. The “temporal nature” of reality

While recognizing the important contributions of Bultmann, Cullmann or Pannenberg to eschatology today, Rice criticizes them, particularly Pannenberg, for swallowing up time into eternity. He underlines Pannenberg’s contribution in reminding us that history becomes a totality only when it ends, so the future becomes essential to give meaning to everything that has existed before. But he also expresses disappointment with that conclusion because it makes all the moments in history simultaneous. The End becomes a “timeless moment” that dissolves time into eternity. For Open Theism time and eternity are not opposed, but are perfectly compatible, though in tension. This vision gives eschatology a particular dynamism all the way through.

2. The centripetal-corrective theological movement

The above three ideas elaborated by Open Theism certainly give dynamism to our eschatology, but do they really renew our understanding of God? Consider now three brief criticisms of what Rice tends to overlook by paying too much attention to openness and dynamism as main characteristics of Christian eschatology.

a. The apocalyptic-messianic tension

More than by dynamism, biblical eschatology is characterized by the tension between “Apocalyptic” as an eschatology based on “judgement,” and “Messianism” as an eschatology based on “Fullness.” A balanced eschatology is that which maintains both. For instance, Isaiah 2 combines an “apocalyptic metaphor” and, immediately linked with it in a permanent structural tension, a “messianic metaphor.” Where both forms of eschatology exist and are linked together, propulsive movement forward to the future yields to slowness and complexity in the experience of time and of God himself. God is Judge and Fulfiller, Demander and Expander, Mover and Moved, Dynamic and Still. This structural tension in God himself, as a non-monolithic being, is underscored by this important eschatological tension.

b. Inclusive universalism

Adventism’s strong apocalypticism pushes us to have a very tight understanding of what a believer is. Every believer, as much as every new convert, must be an open “militant” of the kingdom. Someone who lives an intense and radical faith experience beyond doubt and questions. This religious earnestness becomes the only valid sign of true fellowship. We hardly consider the intensity and seriousness of other human experiences as being sufficient enough to allow people to be included in God’s Kingdom. But this understanding and conviction is not tenable – either by biblical perspective or common sense. End-time mission is important but certainly should not be anxiety or stress-inducing. In the Bible we find differentiated profiles of people who called themselves God’s followers. Elijah was certainly more radical and militant than Elisha. And Nazirites like Samson were more ascetic and involved than the common Israelites. But these common Israelites were also God’s children who were able to enter actively into God’s covenant by practicing a less radical, albeit fully engaged, religious experience. And this inclusive universalism of the Kingdom is based on God’s heterogenous being. He is not only Savior, but also Creator and Father of all humans and Fulfiller of every human soul. He is the hidden desired aspiration of every human being.

c. A kenotic church

The crushing of our eschatology on the “rock” of Apocalypticism leads us to implicitly identify Adventism with God’s kingdom. This assimilation is biblically unwarranted, theologically unjustified and pushes us to a missiological disproportion. The result is that mission becomes an attempt to make everybody Adventist. If not physically, because that’s impossible, at least theologically. This, because of an understanding that only those who “think Adventist” can enter God’s Kingdom. Consequently we end up preaching, not God’s kingdom, but Adventism.  And assigning ourselves an unbearable burden that no church could really stand. Adventist mission is very important but it’s only one part of God’s global mission for bringing his Kingdom down to us. There are other missions, religious and secular, that contribute to advance God’s kingdom and we need to acknowledge, respect and appreciate them if we want to avoid unnecessary stress and destructive obsessions. The Adventist church, like any other church, is only part of God’s Kingdom.  And for this reason God’s Kingdom, more than being dynamic, is characterized by being inclusive.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

 

 


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10920

Thank you for your comments about mission and the breadth of God’s kingdom. I consider that it is more difficult and more meaningful to be a mediocre Christian than a militant one. By mediocre I mean having a life infused by Christianity but without having to point that out to everyone; not so much having to change the world, but rather to be faithful to Christian ethics in the small moments.
If I understand your comments about reciprocity correctly, seeing God as responsive and not monolithic helps me to be responsive and less rigid - and vice versa.

2 Likes

Theological frameworks are bird’s eye views, and I appreciate the thoughts of Richard Rice. I do wonder about how such frameworks are arrived it, often seeming to accept, emphasize, or ignore smaller biblical units, based upon how they fit into the overall system of thought. I would think that the large scale system needs to be built from the sum of smaller units. While this is reciprocal, I think that such an approach takes seriously what each unit is saying on its own, attempting to construct a wider view from them, rather than imposing that big idea upon them.

That leads to Adventist eschatology. What if our views of Daniel and Revelation are actually not the best way to exegete and understand those particular texts? What if historicism, upon which the Adventist view is built, is simply a way of distorting our understanding, and brings distorted results and applications. This, to me, has more immediate ramifications for believers, their lives, and the shape and purpose of the entire denomination, than a big picture idea. Adventism stakes its entire uniqueness and reason for being on the way these books are interpreted. Problem #1, if its interpretations are found wanting.

Problem #1a is that a denomination would be built upon two apocalyptic books, and not on the gospel found in its different shades and colors throughout the NT. There… I’ve also articulated a bigger idea! Lol!

Frank

5 Likes

From the last statement that “The Adventist church, like any other church, is only part of God’s Kingdom. And for this reason God’s Kingdom, more than being dynamic, is characterized by being inclusive.”

This is a good statement. But I am left wondering, how inclusive? Certainly other Protestant churches. How about the Catholic church? Or the Eastern Orthodox ones? What about the various denominations of Judaism? Or, for that matter, other religions outside of the Judeo-Christian circle? In past centuries, those were geographically far enough away that we could feel safe in simply ignoring them. But in today’s world, our children have playmates of these backgrounds. And when they are a bit older, they are able to learn all about them with a few clicks on the internet. Most of them have their own eschatologies. How does our eschatology cope with this new world?

2 Likes

Adventist eschatology and everything else Adventist is hamstrung by its exclusiveness. Its origins binds itself to a very limited view of scripture and, therefore, God. Do we even dare to look at other biblical binary units. Why must Daniel be the key to opening up Revelation all the time - how about Ezekiel for example?

Of course the last paragraph is right on the mark. Adventist “mission” is about Adventism, not God’s kingdom, and very far from personal redemption.

Yes, and the “smaller units” are people and their personal experiences with God. What’s the sense of making more Adventists, just so they can go and make more Adventists? Mission is not a recruiting system to increase the numbers of an organization. Mission is to deliver “living water” to a parched, struggling soul. It’s a one-on-one exercise. Put together, it creates God’s “kingdom”.

Adventism has hitched itself to a grand, sweeping saga weaving itself into a biblical conclusion of its own making. To have the freedom of the “gospel” (defined as good news) we need to be able to exit this tightly held trajectory that hops and skips through the Bible in order to deliver a predetermined conclusion. It’s about people, not golden statues and monsters rising from the waters of “Revelation”. Those pictures are static and lifeless even while they are tumultuous. They are far from the experiences of living, breathing people. We are flesh and blood, struggling with all kinds of issues. Do we go to Daniel and Revelation for the “peace that passes understanding”? What exactly are they good for?

9 Likes

My point is Daniel needs to be read for what Daniel was saying for its time and audience and so does Revelation. In their contexts, as best we can. Like reading someone else’s mail. Then apply whatever principles we find to us today.

Also, it’s reading these smaller units that then helps us to build a bigger theological picture. If that picture does harm to people, and doesn’t build them up in love, diverse unity, mutual care, faithfulness, and hope, then something is really wrong. If it builds exclusive walls based on ancillary matters, like food laws, holy times, etc., something is wrong. If it builds an exclusively individualistic picture of salvation and escaping this world individually as the goal, something is wrong. If it steeps people in conspiracy theory thinking, something is wrong. This is not the gospel and the fruit it creates.

There, I’ve done it again! I’ve given a big picture, too!

Frank

4 Likes

To say that Adventism is “inclusive” is true up until the point where it is not.

That is, once one is baptized into the denomination, the organization has no more use for that particular individual’s contributions (except those of time and tithe) than a newly elected politician has any interest in the people who voted him into office other than that they continue to pay their taxes and contribute more to his next political campaign.

After you become a member, the issue of primary interest to the church returns to that of ensuring the future survival of the church, just as the politician’s most pressing daily concern after any election becomes perpetuation of the political party that propped him up just long enough to have her or him sworn into his position.

Further, this essential exclusivity is not unique to SDA’s and applies to all other organized religions, equally, And, on the broadest scale imaginable, the same can be said of every human institution or corporation, this for no other reason than that humans do not have, either as individuals or in groups, all the facts, nor the unbounded wisdom required to make purely rational decisions or come to any absolutely and verifiably correct conclusions.

Thus the hope that any collection of humans, or a consortium of all of them, will bring peace and harmony to the world is as futile as the expectation that the army of termites eating away at your house will one day use their “woodworking skills” to build you a new one.

The only alternative, then, to a reasonable but utterly destructive apocalypse as these groups—churches, states, military complexes, corporations et. als.—grow themselves and are forced to interact with each other is not to take the the non-nuanced, binary approach and insist “people good, groups bad” thereby abandoning rationality altogether. Rather it is possible to conceive of a planet where people put logic in its proper place, which is subservient to that which is subjective, emotional and heart felt. It is readily apparent to the point of being axiomatic, however, that such sentimentality and compassion has not and necessarily cannot be purely the result of group thinking nor the consensus of corporate committees concerned only with their own preeminence and survival.

1 Like

This discussion reminds me of the endless dialogue between the Pharisees and Sadducees of the NT, neither group knowing God personally. To know God would be to understand Him and His ways with trust and confidence. Applying Open Theism to Daniel and Revelation helps us see how our Creator knows human pride and stuboorness way better than ourselves. We would see how things predicted could be altered by faith and obedience, rarely displayed from the human side of this open relationship, hence, the predictions fullfilling themselves as foretold.
But I would nevertheless refrain from equating these two opinions upon the same plain, as the discussion of Open Theism is an extremely important viewpoint and regarded with high esteem, surviving misguided critism anf false understanding.
A problem not discussed is the question, Do Adventists really understand their own doctrine? For example, what is Babylon, that we are warned to sever ties with lest we be consumed by her plagues? Why are we told the city splits into 3 parts, and what are those parts, if important enough to be mentioned? Why in Daniel is America and the millennium excluded, expounded only in Revelation?
If the church can solve questions like these, it might impact her to wake up. Hint, the ‘free’ market enterprise, the untethered, unregulated market concept that people support, is very much described as the woman who fornicates with the kings and merchants of the earth, who says, ‘I am no widow and shall see no sorrow’.
Study this and the church may finally ‘touch not the unclean thing, and I will recieve you!’

2 Likes

Interesting concept.
Can you help me by expanding and explaining further?
I’m not looking for ammunition but edification.
Thanks.

Hello and thank you, Bob for the question.

The begin with, a haunting warning given us in the Great Controversy is the alarm that a large class of people will leave the church as the ‘storm’ approaches, ‘believers’ who have absorbed the thinking of the world. Some kind of thought process makes these people support the very things that destroy the earth (Rev 11:18) and market the ‘souls of men’, against their own best interests. (Never a minister would touch this subject, but rather speak watered down stories to the congregation lest the tithing withers.)

Connecting this alarm warning of a large class leaving the church with the prevalant concept that the untethered market must be allowed, without any regulations or government intrusion on behalf of environmental or worker’s rights concerns, to operate with support of governments in tax breaks and subsidies, is described in Revelation 18 as a woman, a city, committing ungodly acts with the world leaders. We are taught and some believe that this market can self regulate, through a theory of supply and demand. However, this mindless ‘entity’ is better described as a driverless car operating without brakes. Next, God’s people are told to come out of this system and not partake of her sins. Notice come the plagues, perhaps self inflicted by this unregulated market and apparently related to the climate; the sun given power to scorch men with heat, every living soul dies in the oceans. Never before has this planet reached the 417 ppm CO2 levels in its history. Never before have the coral reefs, the foundations of ocean life, reached such a massive bleaching scale.
However, these plagues will be blamed for something other than the real causes, other than human activity. The apostates will blame God for the plagues on social sins. Applying Open Theism, we can conclude that blaming God for some plague He did not send is blasphemy. Being self inflicted, the plagues are a result of man’s own folly, as we are told in Proverbs.

Hope this makes sense, not expressed in collegiate tone or dark phrases, just plain speak.

1 Like

This kind of stuff is where Adventism and Adventists start to read their own ideas into the scriptures. It is the legacy of William Miller and the historicist method, which he took to its logical extreme.

The unfaithful woman is a rich series of images throughout the OT, which John, the writer of Revelation continues to draw from. Hint… it has nothing to do with American or modern free market capitalism. It had everything to do with unfaithful Israel. How would free market capitalism have even made any sense to its original recipients, the seven churches in 1st c. Asia, to whom it was written?

The players in conflict in Revelation are the empire, second temple Judaism, and the church… not America, not modern Protestantism, not the papacy. Locating things in their context helps to make much more sense of the book, and leads to better application of its message to us today, rather than trying to piece together a time line of events and modern speculative ideas read into the text.

Thanks…

Frank

1 Like

Makes absolute sense to me.

Don’t forget and always remember, a large class are misled, decieved, blinded by scales over their eyes who depart from the faith. Study like your life depends on it. The core of Adventism is the belief that evangelical protestanism in the new world will mimic apostate catholism in the Old world, and this same apostate christian nationalism, the fascist party, and unlimited wealth will lead the world into destruction.

I know the Adventist prophetic message, Herbie. I don’t agree with the way it is arrived at through the use of biblical apocalyptic texts. There are other ways of handing and interpreting them that lead to relevant applications without the puzzle piece and newspaper eisegesis that I think the denomination has traditionally engaged in.

Thanks…

Frank

inclusivity inevitably leads to ecumenism, which is a euphemism for no-one believing anything in particular…as adventists, we cannot prosecute or complete our mission under such a misguided circumstance any more than ancient israel could have prosecuted and completed its mission by assimilating with the egyptians, canaanites, philistines and babylonians…

No church, as a whole, is part of God’s kingdom. Only people are part of God’s kingdom. We are not saved based on membership to any church - even the SDA church.

8 Likes

The fact that you keep comparing the Adventist church to ancient Israel is very telling. Somehow, salvation history for you stopped in the old covenant. The fact that you equate the Adventist church with the kingdom of God reveals an idolatrous view of the denomination. The fact that you compare other Christians to Babylonians, Egyptians, Philistines, etc., is just plain offensive. It also smacks of pharisaism… the separated ones, who based their distinctive remnant status on their fidelity to the Torah/law.

Nothing new under the sun. What Adventism taken to its logical extent produces.

Frank

7 Likes

i agree…in OT times, many people born into israel were lost…there were notable additions to israel who were saved…

the OC and the NC are fundamentally the same…in fact we understand the NC by studying the OC…god doesn’t change, even though times and culture obviously have…

These discussions seem to be cyclical, so here we go again…

You’re right, the original covenant was made with Abraham’s “seed” which is unchangable (Gal. 3). An addendum was added until Christ, the seed, appeared and removed the “addendum” - reinstated the original covenant.

1 Like