President Ted Wilson’s November 2013 “State of the Church” address doesn't evidence only a psychological or a sociological anomaly in Adventism today, as we have commented in the two previous columns. The address itself is theologically problematic. Theological legitimacy and unquestionability are related but are still different analytical categories. Theologically questionable speeches can be legitimate in the heterogeneous and open arena of Adventist debate and theological ferment. The questionability is not because of isolated historical, biblical or conceptual inaccuracies but rather by general trend and orientation. The president’s address represents, in this sense, a legitimate speech. But it is theologically questionable due to its reductive hermeneutics, its ecclesiological superficiality, its unilateral eschatology and by the pragmatic and excesive perfectionist accent of its presupposed ethics and unbalanced soteriology. But beyond these suggested anomalies we would like to now focus on two of them that the address shares with Adventist theology in general, being at the same time an expression of, and partially a cause of it.
The first theological anomaly is related to the “substance” and very “existence” of Adventist theology itself. The question could be stated this way: Is there really any Adventist theology? This is only apparently a trivial question. Quantitatively, of course there is an Adventist theology. Qualitatively the answer is less automatic. If we understand the word “qualitatively” as the capacity to transform “raw biblical material” into “manufactured theological projects and proposals”, then the answer is disappointing and frustrating. There is not still, in this noble sense, a consistent Adventist theology today, whatever the topic. What we have is a “raw material” based theology. Just a mirror and a tautological repetition of the Bible. Instead of feeling the challenge of this lack and poverty we instead are proud, using the “Sola Scriptura” alibi as pretext for lack of theological courage and creativity. Worse, the end result is something poorer than the Bible itself. In trying to be only Biblical we end by being un-biblical. There is real theology instead only when we introduce a double theological strategy: when we dare, led by the Spirit in Biblical understanding and our historical context, “to add” and “to select” in what the Bible says. But “to add” and “to select” (not ontologically, only functionally, transitorily), has the purpose of configuring a “Present Truth” theological project. When we don't “add” anything to what the Bible says then the result is an anachronistically irrelevant theology. When we don't “select” we end with a confused and excessive theology.
Consider now three mechanisms that have led Adventists into this deplorable situation. The first is tied to a radical and unilateral defense of “Sola Scriptura”. If the church considers that only Scripture is important, then theology, understood as a serious meditation of that scripture, is automatically, structurally banished. Paradoxically, instead of pushing us to do theology, our reading of the bible is paralyzing us theologically with endless negative consequences. The second mechanism is tied to a chosen strategy for teaching theology to our pastors. We have developed a “technical theological formation program” to transmit but not create new theological knowledge. We have good “technicians” of the Bible but not creative thinkers. The third mechanism is tied to the pragmatic approach to mission which presupposes the faithful application of an already given, perfect truth. In consequence Adventist mission has become the shadowy grave of our paralysed theology. We don't facilitate theological experimentation. The end result is we have only an “application theology” not a “problem-solving theology”. We work theologically with the dogmatic presupposition that the less we touch the perfect truth the better it is. But this is fetishistic and not a Biblical understanding of truth. The end result of all these mechanisms is a very “thin” theology even though quantitatively there is a lot of affirmative theological work going on in our faculties, churches and also in the presidential address. This presidential address, notwithstanding its certainty and dynamism, works as a paralyzing tool for Adventist theology because of the implicit theological veto presuppositions it incorporates. We believe ourselves to be theologically “fat” but this is only a misperception. De facto we have only an anorexic, “thin” theology.
The second theological anomaly is formal and could be articulated in the following question: who does theology in Adventism? Who is supposed to theologize? To leave theology only to theologians is risky and could even be dangerous. But to leave theology to administrators is certainly not better. Is the GC presidency a theological or an administrative role? Is the GC president legitimated to theologize when he speaks? The Pope's infallibility dogma, formulated in 1870 in the first Vatican council, has at least the paradoxical benefit of being visible and therefore questionable. In other churches, ours included, this dogma often exists only implicitly, thus becoming almost unquestionable. The GC presidency does represent a dual role: theological and administrative. But in order to be and remain healthy theologically three mandatory conditions need to be constantly remembered. First, the presidency needs to avoid giving theological endorsement to administrative rules. Rules and policy are important but are just the result of a reversible consensus. They are tenable only “prima facie”. This temptation to give a theological (Biblical) endorsement to administrative policies is seen in the current debate on women’s ordination to ministry. Second, the presidency needs to give flexibility and relativity to his theological convictions and affirmations. The GC president's words are not “Deus ipsissima verba”. Third, the presidency needs to be advised and oriented, not by a “circle of friends”, but by a heterogeneous corpus of Adventist theologians and administrators, such as the Biblical Research Institute. But de facto the BRI is not playing this role. And this is due to the structural configuration and one-sided activities of that institution in the Adventist theological world. The necessary administrative component in our theology is not working as a dialoguing voice but rather as a controlling and limiting element. This trend is visible in the proposal to reformulate Fundamental Belief #6 about the creation, in order to proscribe different understandings of Origins beside the traditional one. And the presidential address has implicitly and explicitly a strong controlling tonality and effect on both the church and Adventist theology.
Curiously, the two paradoxical anomalies of Adventist theology: a “thin theology” and a “controlling theology” are also the parallel distinctive marks of a contemporary typical psycho-medical dysfunction: anorexia. Ludwig Binswanger, the famous psychiatrist of the Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, and pioneer in the field of existential and phenomenological psychiatry, made one of the first modern descriptions of this dysfunction in the noted case of Ellen West, a gifted young Jewish lady. According to Binswanger, Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by: low body mass, immoderate food restriction, irrational fear of gaining weight and a distorted body self-perception. Anorexia may be perpetuated by various cognitive biases which alter how affected individuals evaluate their body, food and eating habits. But there is a hidden second characteristic that Jean and Evelyn Kestemberg perceptively call the “Vertigo of Domination”. The anorexic sublimates the incapacity to control another’s love and attention by drastically, and with excessive detail, trying to control their own body. Deprivation of food is synchronized with excess of control. The Italian psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati calls particular attention to the inter-play and dependence of these two components: the “misperception of being fat” and “the strong striving for control” – which might be applied also to Adventist theology.
How can this be healed? Let's consider the inclusion of two ingredients that have always accompanied healthy theological projects in the past, as for instance that of our pioneers: Joy and Creativity. This was the main suggestion made by Juergen Moltmann in a little forgotten book entitled “Die ersten Freigelassenen der Schopfung” (The first liberated Men in Creation) where he compared theological activity with the gracious movements of the dance, such as how God graciously created the world with joy and pleasure. These two indispensable theological qualities seem to have disappeared from Adventist theology today. We should, with urgency, recover them back.
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/5813