The Ear: Richard Rice on Affirming Faith and Challenging Distortion


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Richard Rice is a prolific and influential Adventist theologian, having written, early on, a book on The Openness of God — the gift human freedom, he argued, puts limits on divine control and thus on divine foreknowledge — that continues to provoke discussion outside as well as inside of Adventist circles.

He studied at La Sierra University, the Andrews University Theological Seminary (MDiv) and the University of Chicago Divinity School (MA; PhD). He was a pastor in the Southeastern California Conference, then a member of the religion faculty at La Sierra and is now professor of religion at Loma Linda University.

Rice has recently been addressing audiences on “Adventism, Inerrancy and Church Unity,” the title of his essay in the Winter 2014 issue of Spectrum. He contributed “Trinity, Temporality, and Open Theism” to a recent volume from Springer Publishing, God and Other Ultimate Realities. The Spring 2013 issue of Andrews University Seminary Studies carries his “Are We Really Free? A Biblically Based Response to Neurophysiological Reductionism.” His “Does Open Theism Limit God?” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal.

This year Intervarsity Academic published his book, Suffering and the Search for Meaning.

Rice has two children and several grandchildren and is married to Gayle Rice, who teaches at Loma Linda University and is a member of the Adventist Forum Board. Here is his perspective on the work of the Adventist theologian:

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical. How do you connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Answer: Theology trades on the intersection of religious faith and life. One of my theological mentors describes theology as critical reflection on the witness of faith. Its purpose is to give careful expression to the confession(s) of the believing community of Christians, with the goal of engendering and safeguarding the faith of the community. There is an interaction between the experience of faith and careful reflections on that experience. The experience gives rise to expression and then to reflection, and reflection gives shape to the experience. From time to time the church has been challenged by interpretations of the faith that would ultimately distort the experience and responded with counter-interpretations designed to correct the distortion. (As is often said, heresy is the mother of orthodoxy.) The most outstanding example of this phenomenon is the development of orthodox Christology in the fourth and fifth centuries, which responded to views of the person of Christ that would eventually, and fatally in the view of many, have damaged the central element in faith, namely, the apprehension that God was indeed in Christ.

The sense that God is truly with us, and always will be, particularly in the depths of our experience, as well as in the heights, connects the confession of faith in Jesus with everything we face, including suffering and loss.

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work. How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic — on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter? What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today?

Answer: Faithfulness to the Bible is an essential criterion of theological adequacy, to be sure, for Adventists as well as for all Christians. As the Word of God in human words, the Bible contains a number of voices and a variety of literary forms and reflects a wide range of historical contexts, all of which must be consulted in reaching conclusions on the part of the community of believers. To do so, considerations of time and place are important with respect to each passage under review, as are distinctions between enduring principles and local applications. The central theme(s) of the biblical story must be identified, which means that the Bible’s central narrative — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, including his teachings and the testimony of his closest followers, the apostles — occupies the most important place in determining how members of the church should live and what they should believe.

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge. Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is. Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: Seventh-day Adventists should approach the challenges we face, intellectually and practically, with confidence. We have rich resources of faith and life and they can sustain us in a changing world. It is helpful, I have found, to identify what is central in our experience, confirm its truth and its practical validity, and address questions, concerns, and criticisms with the assurance that such a center provides. Adventists have a lively sense of God’s reality, God’s commitment to the world God made (cf. Sabbath), God’s providential guidance in human history, and the eventual fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity and all creation (cf. return of Christ). These factors provide a solid basis and rich resources with which to deal with the challenges that changing circumstances inevitably bring.

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church; you were born into a church member’s family. But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist? In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason?

A woman sitting beside me on an airplane years ago asked me that question. She was returning to Atlanta from the Baptist World Congress in Los Angeles. I quickly ran through a mental inventory of all the things I might say in reply — from observing the seventh day Sabbath to principles of healthful living — and then I said, “Because I found Christ as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and I have never found a reason to leave it.” That still holds for me. My family went through a rather protracted crisis during my childhood — eventually my parents divorced — and we were sustained by the small Adventist church we attended. The care and support that community provided gave substance to its teachings and both the life and convictions I acquired during those critical years have provided an experiential and intellectual home for me ever since.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6038