Sabbath School commentary for discussion on Sabbath, April 25, 2015
Across a span of 6 chapters (Luke 5 to 10), Luke describes Jesus’ call to his disciples: Peter, James, and John, summoned from their fishing nets (5:1-11), Levi Matthew from the tax booth (5:27-31), and the twelve from among a much larger group of followers (6:12-16).
In this same section of his book, Luke also tells how Jesus sent his disciples out into the world: the twelve drove out demons and healed the sick (9:1-6), going “from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere” (9:6, NIV). Jesus also sent out seventy-two others with the mandate to enter “every town and place where he was about to go” (10:1). These “returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name’” (10:17).
Notable among the successful missionaries were tax collector (Levi) Matthew (6:15) and traitor Judas (6:16). Yes, Luke does not hesitate to name Judas the betrayer as one of Jesus’ emissaries. Won’t it be remarkable to meet in the kingdom those who credit Judas Iscariot as the one who healed them or brought them to Jesus?
In short, Jesus’ missionaries were a motley bunch, drawn from a host of different backgrounds and gifted with a wide variety of talents. All of which suggests a tantalizing point of departure for this commentary on the Sabbath School lesson. Could we not learn from those who have stepped back from active involvement in the Adventist movement, but who still see themselves as whole-hearted followers of Jesus? And could we not learn from those voices from within the church which preserve crucial slivers of truth, but which are often perceived as detracting from the work of the mainstream church?
I have chosen three representative “Adventists” to make my point. I could multiply examples, but three are enough.
1. Devout Adventist, but not a formal member of the church: Desmond Ford. Ford sparked an enormous firestorm in Adventism at an Adventist Forum meeting on October 27, 1979, at Pacific Union College. Without mentioning names, he referred to a number of devout Adventist scholars who have held to the position that “there is no biblical way of proving the investigative judgment.”
Though the church removed Ford’s ministerial credentials he has remained a devout Sabbath keeper. And he retained his membership in the Pacific Union College Church until he moved back to Australia. At that point he resigned his membership rather than face the inevitable turmoil of attempting a transfer to a local church in Australia.
Ford is credited by many with restoring the doctrine of righteousness by faith to Adventism. But his approach was unique. Rather than addressing the “problem” of perfectionism by focusing directly on justification/sanctification issues, he used eschatology as his primary tool.
My own approach to the issues differs from Ford’s in key respects. Rather than reject the investigative judgment, I reinterpret it in the light of Ellen White’s later writings. Thus I see myself standing before God, not as the accused, but as a witness. I also define my relationship to the Father in terms of family, not courtroom. When asked if I am saved, I simply say that the question is not relevant since I am one of God’s children. Family provides a different kind of security than a courtroom. Both the family and the courtroom models are biblical, but we are not drawn to them in any consistent pattern.
While traditional “historic Adventists” are much troubled by Ford’s theology, those Adventists attracted to “the truth-about-God” perspective popularized at Loma Linda University by Graham Maxwell and Jack Provonsha often are also less than enthusiastic about his approach. Rooted in John 14-17 where Jesus presents the Father to us, rather than presenting us to the father as in the courtroom model, the truth-about-God theology rarely mentions substitution. Some of its adherents actually polemicize against it.
While substitutionary theology is not my “home” theology, I have grown to appreciate its insights into human nature. And it seems to me that it is unmistakable in passages like Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5. My question is: Can we not rejoice in the positive insights which Ford has brought into Adventism? Can we not affirm his strengths without attacking his weaknesses?
2. Devout Adventist, but viewed with suspicion by many in the church: Graham Maxwell.Driven by the powerful truths of John 14-17 (e.g. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”), Maxwellian theology presents a very gentle God and exerts a strong appeal to many multi-generational Adventists. It has come under fire not only because the church does not readily recognize the value of diverse theological perspectives, but also because some of the more extreme supporters of this Johannine theology actually attack substitutionary theology.
But if we can make room in the church for Ford, shouldn’t we do the same for Maxwell? Even though his theology is viewed with suspicion by many in the church, it has also been a blessing to many. Though Maxwell himself is no longer with us, his theology lives on in a handsome volume of essays edited by Dorothee Cole. Entitled Servant God: The Cosmic Conflict Over God’s Trustworthiness, it was published by Loma Linda University Press in 2013.
Having mentioned both Ford and Maxwell, I should also note that one of my good friends in Britain, a devout Adventist, is an avid supporter of both Graham Maxwell and Desmond Ford, both of whom would be unsettled at such a blend. But I suspect it happens more often than we realize, illustrating the truth of that remarkable quotation from Ellen White, “Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experiences are alike in every particular”(Ministry of Healing, 483).
3. Former Adventist: Dale Ratzlaff. I list Ratzlaff under Adventism, not because he affirms it, but because he rejects it and the Sabbath so emphatically. Through his Life Assurance Ministries Ratzlaff doggedly markets his industrial-strength ex-Adventism to his former church. The Proclamation people are devout evangelicals, to be sure, but their primary identity is ex-Adventist. They regularly sponsor conferences specifically for ex-Adventists.
While Proclamation theology simply represents a more extreme form of substitutionary theology, the same impulse that drives Ford, the Proclamation people emphasize the sovereignty of God and tenaciously affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, on both counts, preserving something that should be important for Adventists. Our hard-driving free-will perspective has led us away from a proper understanding of God’s majestic sovereignty. Maybe Ratzlaff and company could help us recover that important biblical perspective. And while I cannot support the doctrine of inerrancy, I do believe the Proclamation people preserve an important insight that we would do well to heed, namely, the danger that critical analysis can undermine faith and worship. In numerous conversations with the Proclamation people, my attempts to defend Adventism by noting parallels in the writings of Ellen White invariably triggers a stock answer: “Don’t you tear down my Bible to save Ellen White.” Intuitively they sense that the same methods they use to dismantle Ellen White’s authority could also undermine the authority of Scripture and diminish our ability to worship God.
Now in my experience, analyzing the writings and experience of Ellen White has helped preserve the authority of Scripture and I have attempted to develop a model for “inspiration” that supports a high view of Scripture without inerrancy. But such a position is a high-maintenance one, not readily accepted by non-pietists. And it is solidly rejected by the Proclamation people. Nevertheless, their resistance to the use of modern critical tools reminds me of a truth spoken by P. T. Forsyth, a well-known preacher from the early 20th century: “I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind , 38; Eerdmans reprint, 26).
I hope we can listen carefully to even our most difficult critics, for they preserve points that deserve attention. And we all put the pieces together in such different ways. If we are going to be faithful to the team-building model which Luke suggests for us, we should open the gates wide, building a tent big enough to hold as many of God’s children as possible. I suspect Jesus would be pleased.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6764