Viewpoint: Does Speaking Christian Still Mean Something?

“Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God.”--1st Peter 4:11

I was in San Antonio during this year’s General Conference Session. Although I was not able to observe the business meetings as much as I would have liked because of other duties, I was struck by a phenomenon that made me uncomfortable. It is a phenomenon shared by many other Protestant denominations whose church meetings I have guest-attended. I noticed that the arguments made for or against any position were almost always devoid of theological content.

Some might find my last statement odd. After all, did not people regularly refer to the Bible, God, and other similar theological categories? While it is no doubt true that people spoke like Christians by appealing to Christian theological categories, few were able to do so in a theologically consistent manner and in keeping with some recognizable standard of Christian speech.

For instance, I heard a lot of people “proof-texting,” that is, using scriptural passages to buttress particular positions without regard for the exegetical context or the narrative shape of the Christian gospel. I heard others appealing to secular norms of justice, tolerance, and “progress,” but without any explanation as to how secular norms are to relate to confessing Christians and why they should be normative for Christians. Still others engage in anti-Catholic rhetoric as if the fact that something smells like Catholicism is enough to reject it.

I found myself asking, more often than I liked, “What does this argument have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ?” We seem to have lost the grammar of Christianity. That is, a coherent way to talk about our faith and, since every language is embedded in a way of life, how we should live as Christians. We have somehow acquired the habit of bypassing rigorous theological argumentation. How did the church become this way? I would to make some suggestions.

Whenever Christians are confronted by a reified ecclesial institution and intransigent dogmatism, one very tempting response is to turn inward and retreat into a personal religiosity. This makes tremendous sense. Hegel observes in the Phenomenology of Spirit that external pressures and limitations often force our consciousness to withdraw into itself (e.g., stoicism, scepticism) in order to gain some degree of freedom. In Christianity’s case, this turn enabled Christians to explore and experiment with neglected dimensions of their faith.

Pietism was such a response to rigid Lutheran scholasticism. Its emphasis on personal piety, according to its proponents, enlivened Christian faith and yielded ecclesial practices that many Adventists still cherish today. For instance, we must thank pietism for institutionalizing the priesthood of all believers and for challenging a kind of rigid clericalism that was present in both Protestant and Catholic traditions at the time. However, this inward turn is also risky when taken to the extreme.

Pietism prepared the way for both theological fundamentalism and liberalism. Needless to say, both traditions are very much alive today. Though very different, they share a basic similarity: that religiosity is primarily about the individual. What the two traditions disagree on is what should be taken as normative by the individual. For the fundamentalist, it is a particular understanding of “the plain reading” of the biblical text, independent of interpretive mediation by tradition or other authority. For the liberal, it is experience, reason, desire, and so on. A shallow form of liberalism today is largely relativistic. Its proponents say things like, “I think Christianity should teach that...” or “Jesus Christ is my Lord, but that doesn’t have to apply to everyone.”

Of course, what both perspectives miss is the fact that the private and the personal are always already colored by our social existence: by our cultural, political, and economic life. Texts are always interpreted, as are reason and personal experiences. Alasdair MacIntyre points out that reason is always rooted in particular traditions that define the parameters of what is thinkable. More importantly, the reverse is also true: our personal beliefs and confessions also imply a particular view of social life, even if this social life is defined by individualistic norms.

This is why in a modern liberal society--in the non-pejorative sense of political liberalism--it is quite easy to subordinate the content of the Christian faith to the dominant social norms or hysterias of our time. That is, it is easy to privatize religion. By hiding behind the abyss of their individuality, both fundamentalists and liberals render their very “personal” faith immune to criticism. Any criticism of their spirituality, then, amounts to an attack on their personality. Fundamentalism and liberalism both give rise to their own rigid forms of spirituality.

It is, therefore, not accidental that Adventists particularly and Christians more generally have rarely encountered a Christianity that could stand radically opposed to the presupposed values of the day. For example, today there are more people willing to die for their nation than for their faith. We have assumed for far too long that we can preach and listen to the gospel without moral transformation.

When we hear things like, “Christianity (or religion) is just about being a good person,” the underlying assumption is nearly always that the common sense view of goodness is to be taken for granted. Here we are to heed the warnings of Karl Barth. Barth dedicated his entire career to warning against the dangers of a Christianity that stands impotent before the principalities and powers. After all, he saw the same sophisticated liberals become belligerent nationalists during the First World War and join the Nazi Party before the Second World War.

Many viewed and continue to view Barth as a reactionary. I certainly thought so when I first read him. But this is mistaken. Whatever we might say about him, he is right about one thing: a Christianity that is grounded in our arbitrary wants and needs is not really worth our time. We have two options. Either there is a Christian gospel that is capable of confronting us when we go astray or there is Feuerbachian projectionism--the projection of our deepest wishes into, for lack of a better word, an idol.

But if the Christian gospel is something objective, then we must discover again the grammar of Christianity. In other words, we must learn anew what it means to encounter and bear witness to the one who lived, died, and rose again. This is surely a dying art in Adventism, as the last General Conference Session made clear. As a result, we are just as confused about the proper shape of Christian life as we are about the meaning of that city which has our true citizenship, the church.

It is not a simple task. It requires that we listen to and debate with one another, and attend faithfully to the long tradition of witnesses and thinkers who came before us, whose voices should hold us intellectually accountable. It requires us to engage in serious conversations about the terms of the conversation. After all, this is what it means to, borrowing a phrase from Paul, build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). Are we not called to embody, for the sake of the salvation of the world, a peace that only Christ can give (John 14:27)?

Yi Shen Ma is a Ph.D. student in Claremont School of Theology. He is the Development Director of Adventist Peace Fellowship. Prior to his service in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist, he worked as a young adult pastor. He blogs with Matt Burdette and Shane Akerman at Interlocutors.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7173
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Adventist Christology is dead! And where it is alive, there is a fuss of legalism and eschatological anti-catholicism mingled in. But at least we must all come to a point to understand that the more we learn and preach about Christ, the more we sense our true christian nature. My thoughts all these while! Thank you Yi Shen Ma!

I want to applaud Yi Shen for his effort in initiating a conversation about this, which is badly needed, not only among Adventists, but in all of the churches that have come out of the Reformation. Yi Shen, you’ve raised several important issues here, and the call to return to careful study of Christian tradition and the way that Christian faith has been understood is warmly welcome.

The options before us will no longer do. Christianity in the West is in decline, and neither the embrace of liberal cultural values nor ahistorical, sectarian biblicism will suffice any longer. But rather than issuing a call for something new, you’ve wisely pointed us back to our roots, and exposed the “winds of doctrine” as the new thing that we need to demythologize. Thank you.

If the Christian church, and the Adventist denomination, intend to proclaim the gospel to the world, we had better get a better handle on what exactly the gospel is, and what it says about God.

Thank you, Yi Shen!

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Thank you, Yi Shen Ma.

English being my second language from the age of 10, I have had to pay attention to words, idiomatic expressions, and the varied meaning of words more particularly; and I find that a lot of people can’t really read very well - which results in sloppy writing, and very sloppy thinking.

When it comes to religion and religious writing it all gets even worse. We use expressions out of cultural habit, not knowing the actual meaning of what we’re saying. When pinned down, we struggle with placing those expressions into our own words. This was driven home to me in a very comical way when I was teaching high school English. A student had copied a research paper straight off the computer; and when I told she needed to put her research into her own words, she thought that meant using similar, but different words, and changed the wording, using the thesaurus, which became a comedy of errors, of course. In a more serious vane, when teaching SS classes, I would occasionally ask for a definition of “gospel”. I was usually met with silence; and/or a conglomeration of church ideology and cultural interpretations.

This sloppy thinking comes out of an assumption that we all have the same definitions and applications of religious language. Denominationally that’s probably true, to the point that there’s been a numbing down of the average church membership - at the same time when a lot of “study” and deliberations are taking place. This, in turn, has to do with the insistence, actual or implied, by the church, that we read only denominational publications. This is so very apparent when perusing the book shelves at any ABC. This doesn’t apply to our university libraries; however, by the time a student reaches that library, those idioms and patterns of thought are well ingrained. A blank slate is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In this respect, the well respected practice of text memorization may actually be a disadvantage to understanding scripture - especially when learned as a subjective flow chart.

  • but, religious denominations aren’t really interested in creating a membership well-versed in Biblical hermeneutics; but rather, a growing membership and denominationally adhesive faith base. The best way to do that is to keep that membership limited in some respects.

“How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?” - Thus you have - Ryan Bell and other non-SDA’s dis-invited, if someone dared to crack the window a bit; and the old technique of book burning.

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There have been are are Christain thought leaders within Adventism. I will list a few as I encountered them. Pastor Burman, Edward Heppenstall, C. B. Haynes, Graham Maxwell, Wilber Alexander, Paul Heubach, Sumts, Des Ford, Aldon Thompson, Edwin Zackerison. Fritz Guy, David Larson, Rick Rice. Then there are the suits. It seems the suits have won for the day. If they win one more battle that will be the end of Adventism. Tom Z

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If you were given two minutes to argue your case at the General Conference, could you possibly articulate your position in a theologically coherent manner? Ask Dr Geraty.

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read the interview between Jesus and Nicodemus Tom Z

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Isn’t the relationship of the SDA corporate leaders to EGW writings enough evidence that “Feuerbachian projectionism” is alive and well within our church?

Just how is it possible to debate in a public forum with a “OneGate” comment?

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Don’t tell me you’re a Christian. Live with respect and kindness toward others, be responsible for your actions, be honest in all that you do, show compassion especially to those who need it, be willing to cooperate and accept your responsibilities as a civic duty, be courageous in standing for rights for the disenfranchised.

Never claim to be a Christian if you are unable to live it, not seeking approbation but humility. Let your actions speak, and not your words.

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I think Yi Shen’s article is an urgent and much needed call for the SDA community to hear. As people who claim to be Christians, is our grammar consistent with and informed by the Gospel or do we retreat to our individualism as the norm for our discourse? To choose the latter, as has been the predominant case, would be to untether ourselves from the Christian tradition/proclamation. Moreover, I appreciated his call for us to pay close attention to the Christian thinkers of the past in an effort to rediscover this Christian grammar. This article is much needed and I intend to share this with my church members. Thank you, Yi Shen.

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This is a timely and relevant article and well worth the read. Thank you Yi Shen Ma. I look forward to another article that explores the cause of this problem and offers more suggestions on how to shift the evangelistic focus to Jesus. Many are worshipping the fundamental beliefs and the 7th day instead of Jesus our Saviour. I highly recommend the book of sermons “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” and the book of sermons “Setting Our Affections on Glory: Nine Sermons on the Gospel and the Church” by Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones. Yes, the style is old fashioned and I usually work with more contemporary material, but you will find Jesus there and some inspired advice for worshipping and witnessing. Blessings from Rene Gale (my husband Ken sends his regards).

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I think most people have never heard of this word and if they heard or read it would not look up the meaning in a dictionary.

With this sentence, using reified, Yi offers a crucial insight into a major weakness of Adventist sermons/teaching/dialog.

“What we have here, is a failure to communicate”

and thus…
2 Timothy 2:14 Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.

So Paul told Timothy…

2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

The experienced and enlightened Jews after the Babylonian captivity initiated better teaching approaches because of the same issue.
Nehemiah 8:8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.

Adventists suffer from proof text teaching approaches and so do not know what bible verses really mean. This is why there is also a new interest in hermeneutics.

Example…
ask several scholars and/or pastors what the gospel is/means. The responses might have some similarities but expect responses all over the map. How often do you hear the call to share the gospel? Do you hear the person ever explain what you are supposed to share?

Most Adventist pastors/SS teachers do not teach verse by verse or explain words in bible verses. They have a topic and /or agenda to present.

Listen carefully to the next sermon or SS class and pick out the many/several ambiguous, abstract, obscure, cliché phrases and think about what they really mean.

“Ask Jesus to come into your heart” Uh…means what??

“Let go and let God” Uh…means what?

"Lift up Jesus "…means what??

The SDA denomination is still into old wine skins and thus still Laodicean with its cliché religio speak.

The denomination trends weekly toward churchianity and institutionalism.

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You may choose to: (1) break the one-comment-per-article rule, (2) wait for the primary author to respond (which could take forever or never), or (3) “… go to the Lounge.” Sigh.

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  1. Keep adding Edits. LOL.
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I am comforted–but hardly comfortable–that my church, at least in northeastern North America, put itself in the midst of anti-slavery, post-Civil War reconstruction, active roles for women in both local churches and administration, seeking ways for families to beget and bear only the number of children they could afford (which morphed into our health message). These were, and continue to be, social movements that grow from the gospel mandate of Isaiah and echoed by Jesus (interesting how those names are essentially the same!). There is so much more gospel we Seventh-day Adventists can dust off and embrace as our only God-given occupation until Jesus comes.

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Because of the Great Disapointment, Adventism has made Daniel and Revelation proprietary to their hurt. To this layman, Revelation tells the following story–following the messages to the seven Church’s of reproach, counsel, and encouragement; the scene changes to heaven–John’s view now turns to the power and love of God in Christ.

Chapter four closes with the anthem of God’s creative power. The central theme of Chspter five is the sacrificial love of God for His fallen creation.,

these two themes are the anchors to to the prediction of terror to come in the final stages of the Great Controversy that began with war in heaven.

We have to advance to Chspter 14 to hear the proclamation of the three Angels. This issue was, is, and shall be, the Everlasting Gospel.,Even though fallen “Babylon” makes. A strong last desperate act to carry away the even the the every elect.

Some see the final test of when to worship, while the entire theme of Scripture and particularly of Revelaton is Who,alone is worthy of worship and why. why–of course b cause of God’s creative power and redemptive love.

The Gospel is being contested. the essential issue is one of trust, even unto death.

what is the Gospel? Why it is the historical fact that the One Who created us, loved us enough to die to redeem us. to Him alone is our allegiance, come what may.

what the Caesars’ did the earthly powers will do again in force.

the issue is, can the Everlasting Gospel create and sustain faith in the love of God in the face of vindictitive nature of man,prompted by the power of darkness

the issue of when, how, or where to worship is only secondary to the prime issue–Who alone is worthy of Worship. Addendum – John uses Babylon rather than Rome for two obvious reasons. 1. To not needlessly to provoke Ceasar, 2. The Church would face the same choice as did the three worthies of Daniels day.Tom Z

:neutral_face:Cesar

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I agree entirely. Thank you for bringing this up. Not having enough time to debate important issues is certainty part of the problem. However, I am not merely referring to the time set aside for public statements during the business meetings. Conversations that took place before and after the meetings, in hotels, exhibition halls, and restaurants point to the larger problem that I spoke of. Consequently, I doubt that even if we were given more time during the business meetings, we would have produced a more theologically coherent debate. Partly, it is because we no longer agree on the terms of the conversation. Although we appear to be talking about the same issues, each of us appeal to radically different norms and standards of judgment, none of which are self-evident.

Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. You really hit the nail on the head. I am indeed a critic of the kind of church platitudes that you mentioned. We need to have a more articulate way of talking about our faith. This, as you rightly suggested, requires discipline, patience, and serious intellectual engagement. Otherwise, we risk not having anything meaningful to say to the world.

Thank you, YiShen, for replying to my post. I happen to teach an adult, as well as a junior, English Sabbath School class in our Loma Linda Chinese SDA Church. Occasionally. When I’m invited. As far as I’m concerned, optimum learning in our situation means conversation among class members instead of multiple, brief monologues by the one assigned to lead. Needless to say, with the little time allotted (30 minutes of class time), I’m far from successfully sharing my own frame of reference, theological or otherwise. That said, I understand what you’re saying:

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