Should all religious communities be periodically assessed? Should they be only assessed in their practice or also in their founding principles? Are the claimed founding principles of a community always biblical or rather are they already an interpretation of the bible, mixed with some cultural conditioning elements? Are these cultural conditioning elements necessarily negative? Are they absolute? How should intrinsic and extrinsic evaluative perspectives be combined? Are continuous evaluations necessarily heterogeneous? Should a community be assessed only in its anomalies or also in its major virtues? Are sociological, developmental, psychological or cultural assessments always theologically irrelevant? Can a yearning call to “Sola Scriptura” or Evangelism skip such questions? Is a community identity definitive and always monolithic? Is a community identity secondary or irrelevant to its practice and mission?
All these questions, although stated in modern terms, are biblical questions. And we Adventists can claim to be biblical only if we take them seriously. We don’t become automatically biblical by distributing the Bible, superficially reading it or jealously defending the “Sola Scriptura” principle. And, in this sense, President Wilson’s “State of the Church” address paradoxically can hardly qualify as biblical even though he may abundantly reference and quote it.
All the previous critical questions are not only biblical, they are also Adventist. And, in this second sense, the president’s “State of the Church” address can hardly qualify as Adventist either, even though he abundantly references E.G. White. But responsibility is not only personal, it’s also institutional. The psychodrama of a heroic president becomes the sociodrama of a diligent and pragmatic church unable to ask these fundamental questions.
Why might the presidential address hardly qualify as Adventist? Because the same critical questions listed above are introduced and articulated, even though in different language and often implicitly, by the prototypical Adventist book, “The Great Controversy”. We don’t become automatically Adventists by distributing or mechanically quoting it. Beyond keeping the licit Adventist forms and rituality, to be Adventist is rather a matter of keeping the original intentions, the original Spirit and above all, of asking the fundamental questions. This is the soul of Adventism.
In this sense “The Great Controversy”, notwithstanding its difficult language, is a great book. A book that masterfully puts in perspective events, experiences, profiles or processes that would be otherwise either under or over-evaluated. And, what surely makes this book great is not its distribution by millions, or the militant but often superficial reading done by its adherents. Rather it is an intelligent and contextual interpretation of it. Reading is more important than distributing, and interpreting is always more relevant than mere reading.
As an example we will consider here a short and overlooked part of the book: the three introductory chapters. In these three chapters it elaborates both a descriptive phenomenology and a theological-cultural assessment of three main religious entities: Judaism, Christianity and the Papacy. This it does similarly to Franz Rosenzweig, in his difficult and demanding book “Der Stern der Erlosung” (The Star of Redemption). Let’s examine just two elements of this phenomenological description that are important also for Adventism today.
The first important structural lesson of this section is the assessment of all religious and cultural entities in face of both “God’s Word” and “Human History”. Although only three religious entities are addressed in the first part of the book this doesn’t mean that all those not mentioned can escape assessment. Just the opposite. All present and future religious communities need to undergo the same process, Adventism included. In this sense the “Great Controversy” can’t become a book to just analyse other faith traditions. It’s also a book to analyse ourselves. The boasted “one hundred fifty million copies” distributed by the Adventist church through the years doesn’t only address others but also Adventism. And that is precisely what we are overlooking, distracted by distribution numbers.
The second important lesson of this section is that religious communities, as the three presented here, often fail and fall not by their anomalies but rather by their virtues. Judaism had a very long history of inattention to the “Torah”, even though the “Torah” represented the very core of their religion. When they finally learned to pay attention to it after suffering the exile, this very virtue conditioned and even pushed them to make a far worse mistake – overlooking, then rejecting the Messiah. This is what could be called the paradox of a virtue. Even virtues are not absolute in this sense. They must be assessed and judged by their results. But that is what virtues hate the most. Virtuous communities can easily become more dangerous than others because they can claim the perfect alibi to avoid correction.
In its second chapter the book critically assesses primitive Christianity. Christianity is the religion of universality. In contrast to Judaism, which was called to preserve and maintain purity, to protect itself from others, Christianity was called to translate, hybridize and mix itself with every people, culture and tongue. A “critical inculturation” is not only a missiological strategy but represents the very essence of Christianity. Proof of this is selection of the heathen Greek language as a vehicle to transmit the divine revelation. This infers that no language is profane for Christianity. God speaks today in Spanish or Quechua as he once spoke in Hebrew. And, pleasing or not, it is the catholic church that has better understood this. But, as much as the “Great Controversy” praises the virtues of a community, it also assesses them critically. At this point the praised virtue of “inculturation” is criticized for having become often, in Catholicism, just the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs. This finally and essentially puts aside the pretention to a “Holy Scripture” incarnated in the “Spirit of Jesus” and in the spirit of “His Law”.
The same critical analysis is done with the Papacy in the third chapter. The licit and justified “institutionalization” process every religious movement inevitably undergoes (the Papacy included) has been unduly overacted, radicalized and contaminated by the Papacy’s recourse to the “state intervention” as a way of securing its religious privileges and prerogatives. That happened in the past and, according to the “Great controversy”, will unfortunately happen also in the future. Not only with the Papacy but with whatever church or religious community that might also appropriate State, institutional, procedural or administrative power to impose its programs and to subdue people’s personal convictions and choices. Could Adventism itself survive such a radical theological-cultural assessment of its major virtues? I don’t know. I hope so. I only know that the essence of Adventism affirms this principle – no religious or cultural entity can escape this assessment, not even Adventists.
Which, then, are some characteristic Adventist virtues today? Let’s take briefly just two of them. The impressive “quantitative growth” and the recurrent defence of the “Sola Scriptura” principle.
First, quantitative growth is an inadequate measure of the strength and health of a community. This is visible, for instance, even more immediately on the economic level. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) have had years an incredible economic growth. But “growth” and “development” are not synonyms. All four of these fast growing countries are not still developed countries (Michael Porter, Daron Acemoglu), based on a metric which includes cultural, educational, security, health, work and human rights criteria. The same happens with Adventism. If we consider a “Quantitative Religious Growth” criteria, we have a positive picture of Adventism. If we take instead “Qualitative Religious Development” criteria, the picture is different, and not only in the north western countries but paradoxically also the south hemisphere countries. Some “Religious Development” criteria are: open-mindedness (Allport), inclusiveness (Fowler), awareness (Aletti), belonging (Rizzutto), creativity (May), involvement (Fromm), satisfaction (Nussbaum), Trust (Erikson), motivation (Goldman) etc.
Second, the recurrent defence of the “Sola Scriptura” principle can’t itself escape a continuing critical assessment. That is what Adventism itself teaches. Let’s consider a central chapter of the “Great Controversy”, chapter X.
“Each of these opposing elements was in its own way setting aside the Holy Scriptures and exalting human wisdom as the source of religious truth and knowledge. “Rationalism” idolizes reason and makes this the criterion for religion. “Romanism”, claiming for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable through all time, gives ample opportunity for every species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under the sanctity of the apostolic commission. The inspiration claimed by Munzer and his associates proceeded from no higher source than the vagaries of the “Imagination”, and its influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine. True Christianity receives the word of God as the great treasure house of inspired truth and the test of all inspiration.”(“The Great Controversy”, chap. X, p. 193, emphasis supplied)
There is not a unique way to contrast and nullify the message of the “Holy Scripture”. We often focus our attention and accusation only toward the “Catholic way”, manifested in the authoritarian medieval attitude of persecuting believers for reading the bible. But the opposite, anti-authoritarian, protestant way of resisting “God’s Word” is not necessarily better. According to the “Great Controversy”, this protestant approach was even worse because it didn’t depend on an arbitrary, external authority, or physically removing the Bible. Instead it was based entirely on an internal, personal and autonomous choice, typical of the individualistic modern and post-modern western societies. And such is also the case for the third phenomenon this quotation critically describes, modern rationalism.
As much as there is a catholic, protestant or post-modern way of dismantling and escaping the main biblical questions, there also exists a typical “Adventist way” of neutralizing these same questions. And no way is worse than any other. The paradox is that all this can be done while convincingly defending the priority of “Sola Scriptura” and even while reading and quoting the Bible every day. When this happens the Bible, instead of being a helper, becomes an obstacle. This must be critically assessed. The true spirit of Adventism must do this task for itself before becoming critical of others.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department, Dean of the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5746