Looking to the Past
“Have you, or someone you know, been burned by the hot-potato issues that Seventh-day Adventists are facing today?” That opening sentence drew me into The Reformation and the Remnant: The Reformers Speak to Today’s Church (Pacific Press, 2016), hopeful to find a path forward on some of the most controversial topics that have been polarizing Adventism. In it Nicholas Miller, Professor of Church History and director of the International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University, argues that the polarization stems largely from fundamentalist and progressive influences in the Church that tend to make a lot of noise, broadcasting their positions, yet fail to enter into fruitful dialogue with each other. However, Miller believes that the majority of the Church is rather moderate, resisting the label of either extreme, and that there is safety in remembering that “we need each other” since other believers often offer perspective and insight that we may be missing in our individual understanding of Scripture. Moreover, he emphasizes that voices removed from our immediate cultural context can reveal the prejudices and biases we bring with us to Scripture. As such, he advocates that we let the Reformers inform our thinking, modeling throughout the book how they may speak to current controversies. Of course, Miller is strategic in the lessons he draws from the Reformers, making the work not immune from his own bias, yet his strong scholarship combined with pastoral concern makes The Reformation and the Remnant an important step towards elevating the level of Adventist discourse and establishes Miller as a needed voice of clarity.
Multiple times throughout the book Miller references Ellen White’s warning: “If one should hold ideas differing in some respects from that which we have heretofore entertained—not on vital points of truth—there should not be a firm, rigid attitude assumed that all is right in every particular, all is Bible truth without a flaw, that every point we have held is without mistake or cannot be improved” (1888 Material, p.830). Miller agrees with her conviction that this is “the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people” (ibid.). As such, Miller’s goal in writing appears not to have the final word, but to set the groundwork for respectful, fruitful discussions on the most polarizing topics. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter serve this purpose well. Often, I finished a chapter still wanting Miller to address some aspect of a topic, only to see he had left it for his readers to sort through.
Miller does not hesitate, though, to call out the ditches, be it in doctrine or attitude, to both the left and right that Adventism must avoid. For instance, Miller directly identifies the ways in which theistic evolution is incompatible with Adventist theology and yet also warns against making a six-thousand year date for creation into a creedal position. I was surprised, though, that Miller affirms that “the book of nature has a valid and important place in both the church and the world”, but never discusses how Adventists can value the findings of science on origins without compromising the authority of scripture. Rather, he leaves this as a discussion question.
Adventists are also tempted by opposite extremes in our understanding of eschatology. On the one hand, there are the progressive attempts to dismiss the classical Adventist understanding of the Sabbath’s central role in the final crisis as a novel creation of 19th century thinking. Miller counters this by tracing the same end time scenario to the 17th century Seventh Day Baptist Thomas Tillam. On the other hand, there is the fundamentalist inclination to be overly concerned with the literal fulfillment of end time prophecy at the cost of forgetting the principles involved, which Miller responds to by highlighting the German Adventist praise of Hitler as he rose to power. Miller then asks the pointed question of if we might be guilty of the same today in failing to express concern over the targeting and civil rights violations of Muslim Americans–the very sort of beastly behavior Revelation condemns.
Sola, Tota, Prima Scriptura
What is to be our guide as we seek to navigate between such extremes? To answer this, the opening chapter of the book explores how one is to understand the authority, interpretation, and application of Scripture. Miller points to the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition, carefully affirming the final authoritative position of Scripture as the basis of doctrine and the Church’s understanding of truth, yet recognizing that reason, experience, and tradition all play essential roles in helping one to rightly interpret Scripture–for instance, reason and experience can help one understand what statements of the Bible were meant to be taken symbolically. Ellen White’s writings also play an especially important role, but are still subservient to that of Scripture. The trick is to recognize one’s use of these other elements–for as Miller observes, even the one who insists he is using “scripture alone” is employing reason to understand it—yet to be careful to safeguard against letting these extra-Biblical sources take an authoritative role. Since this plays such a foundational role in the book, I would have liked to see more time spent discussing how one accomplishes such a task in practice.
Also essential in Miller’s arguments is the central role of the great controversy theme as “the key to understanding Adventist theology”. Here Miller’s strength as a scholar is demonstrated as he carefully traces many element of the great controversy theme to Arminius’ free-will theology and Hugo Grotius’ moral government of God theology. This provides Miller with a framework to emphasize both: (1) the legal necessity and (2) moral influence of the Cross, warning against emphasizing only one aspect to the exclusion of the other. Moreover, it lets him argue that Ellen White “embraced and developed further a venerable, core Protestant theme.” Indeed, Ellen White’s understanding of the law of God as “a transcript of His character”, thus immutable, lacked in Grotius’ expressed view of the law as “not something internal in God”, merely “a product of his will”, and hence “relaxable” (The Satisfaction of Christ, 310b).
Standing in stark contrast to the careful study of history and informed reading of scripture that Miller is calling for are those who combine the Bible’s authentic prophetic messages with poorly researched historical claims and overly symbolic readings of the text to obtain conspiracy theories detailing how an elite group of individuals–say, Jesuits or the Illuminati–are secretly controlling the world’s religious and political systems. As such, I greatly appreciated Miller’s chapter that outlined a list of principles for how to “distinguish the spurious from the genuine” to help the reader avoid getting caught up in such theorizing.
Between the many opposing ditches and pitfalls that Miller identifies, one gets the sense that their stands a “narrow road”, yet still wide enough for us to dialogue and learn from one another as we follow the Spirit’s leading into a more faithful understanding of Scripture. Beyond warning against the extremes, Miller also takes this opportunity to advance positions that he seems particularly passionate about.
Essential or Negotiable
For instance, Miller wishes to see the Church take a more active role in addressing social matters including the matter of the State’s recognition of same-sex marriage. He makes a distinction based on the two tables of the Ten Commandments, arguing that we should continue to resist any attempt to legislate matters related to the first table (commandments one through four, dealing with matters of belief and worship), but through public moral philosophy we may argue for matters related to the second table (commandments five through ten dealing with how to act towards one another). This is in contrast to some early reformers who sought the State to legislate both tables. Even in Miller’s model, though, he is careful to add the nuance that the second table is to be regulated only so far as it has an interest to the well-being of the state and its citizens. For instance, “Issues of sexuality may be a second table matter, but criminalizing sexual behavior between consenting adults does seem to go beyond the State’s genuine interest in the matter and to reflect a kind of religious penalty.” Nevertheless, Miller raises a number of arguments that he believes should give the State pause before embracing same-sex marriage and child custody. On such matters, I find myself sympathetic to both Miller’s plea and the concern of the reader resistant towards the Church taking such a political posture.
Miller also echoes his arguments and position from his work on the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, believing the global church should recognize the freedom modeled in Scripture that allows for some deviation in non-vital matters of organization for the sake of missional effectiveness. I wonder if choosing to include this chapter may alienate some readers who favored another position in the impassioned debate or believed it to be more than a “minor” issue, but Miller seems committed to articulating the lessons he believes the Church should have learned from the debate and suggests “the Church may vote on this issue again”. Whatever the case, he certainly offers a timely warning by citing how the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli on the nature of the Lord’s Supper led to division in the Protestant movement, despite widespread theological agreement in other areas, opening the way for further schisms and multiplying the number of Protestant churches.
For the reader who disagrees with Miller’s classification of a particular issue as either a vital or non-vital point of truth and is tempted, therefore, to write him off, perhaps this is a test: Will one still be willing to listen to and let one’s views be challenged by those of another?
I’m glad I did. Reading through The Reformation and the Remnant I was consistently impressed with the spiritual maturity and informed yet gracious conviction Miller brought to a host of topics. Perhaps the most challenging of these is the final subject he treats: perfection and the last generation. He proceeds with care, tracing the lineage of Protestant thought on sanctification, victory over sin, and perfection, which allows Miller to highlight the significant ways in which Ellen White agreed and disagreed with others passionate about holy living, such as John Wesley. Here Miller emphasizes that perfection is not at odds with present assurance of salvation, but is chiefly concerned with love as the motive for obedience, and results in concrete social action. Although he does not directly challenge the term “sinless perfection”, he states Wesley’s objection to it and seems to prefer the expression “perfection of love”, noting, “Once perfection is seen in its positive context of love and relationship with God and others, those pursuing it cannot continue taking a rigid, narrow, and critical approach toward their fellow believers.” He also emphasizes the centrality of joy in both Scripture’s and Ellen White’s view of the Christian life.
Miller concludes the book with a much too brief scene of the Remnant entering into eternity, united in both a knowledge of God’s character and songs of praise. This gives an important context to all that came before; there is a purpose to our careful study, distrust of personal bias, and respectful dialogue with one another. We’re seeking to know God better that we may praise Him more fully. Our study ought to result in song. Concluding Miller’s book, I am hopeful that this vision will continue to unite and lead the Remnant into eternity.