Adventism 202, Part 1: Beyond List Theology

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Adventism 202, Part 1: Beyond List Theology
  1. I believe there is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons…

 

  1. I accept the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary as the atoning sacrifice for my sins and believe that through faith in His shed blood I am saved from sin and its penalty…

 

  1. I renounce the world and its sinful ways, and have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour believing that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven my sins and given me a new heart…

 

  1. I accept by faith the righteousness of Christ, my Intercessor in the heavenly sanctuary, and accept His promise of transforming grace and power to live a loving, Christ-centered life in my home and before the world…

 

  1. I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word, the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian. I covenant to spend time regularly in prayer and Bible study…[1]

Assuming you are a baptized member of the Seventh-day Adventist church you hopefully came across the words above and were asked to affirm them publicly before your local congregation, family, and friends before you entered the waters of baptism. I have to admit that as a former pastor one of my greatest joys was reading the baptismal vows and hearing the affirmative responses from the candidates as they took their stand for Jesus and truth and submitted to baptism.

 

But alas, the tradition of examining candidates publicly before the congregation (and in some cases, any examination whatsoever) is a practice that is falling by the way side. Some, even ministers, have expressed to me that the monotonous reading of the vows drags the service down and is too boring. Others have suggested that the vows are irrelevant as long as the candidates profess that they love Jesus. In other words, who cares whether they accept every fundamental belief of the Adventist church or not.

 

Personally, this trend baffles and saddens me at the same time. How can we have any inkling of assurance that we are being faithful to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, to “make disciples” and “teaching them to observe all things” that Jesus has commanded us if we fail to even examine proselytes? How can we, “the people of the Book,” think so lowly of doctrine that we feel it unnecessary baggage for new believers to commit to? How have certain corners of Adventism come to these conclusions and practices?

 

I believe the answer may lie ironically within the baptismal vows themselves (and to some extent to several of our most popular Bible study programs).

 

“List Theology”

 

I want to be clear, as a Seventh-day Adventist I believe in all 28 Fundamental Beliefs and I also believe in all 13 baptismal vows, which encapsulate the Fundamental Beliefs. However, I do have a problem with the way our beliefs are taught, or rather how they are not elaborated upon and reviewed in detail in a way that leads to maturity, with new converts and young people who grow up in the church.

 

What I mean is this; we like to teach theology as a bunch of lists. Lists are a good starting point for any new believer, but one’s theology should not remain simply a list of beliefs whether it is the 28 Fundamental beliefs, the Apostles Creed, or whatever list you want to adopt. List Theology is elementary, basic, juvenile, but God wants us to mature. The Apostle Paul states in Hebrews 5:12:

 

…by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!

 

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with milk (the lists) but at some point, we must wean ourselves from surface study of the Scriptures and list theology to something much more substantial and satisfying. What then, should the faith and theology of a mature Christian look like? In a word, “Systematic.”

 

From List to System

 

As stated above, we need progress from understanding the teachings of Scripture as a list and learn to see the system that is our theology. By this I mean, we need to understand the interconnectedness of our doctrines. We should be able to, in a sense, “boil down” what it is that we believe to a doctrinal core, which if understood correctly would produce the 28 Fundamental Beliefs AKA the list.

 

Let me provide an example as to why this is important. Let us say “hypothetically” that perhaps one day a movement begins in Adventism teaching that a seven-day creation week is not really essential to our theology. Or what if a group of Adventists begin to spread the belief that the Beast of Revelation 13 is not the Medieval Church in league with civil powers, and thus we should no longer teach our traditional understanding of Revelation 13 in our evangelistic campaigns. Or what if a local Adventist church decides to ordain openly practicing homosexuals and transgendered individuals as elders?

 

How would anyone possibly be able to find themselves diverging from the Scriptures and our 28 Fundamental Beliefs in these ways? The answer is a failure to understand Adventist Theology as a system as opposed to a list. For List-Theology Adventists, it is easy to peck away at their beliefs and practices because their beliefs in their minds are isolated statements—even though they are on a unified list—they are autonomous units even.

 

Thus, they can conceive of themselves as being evolutionists and yet Adventist; inheritors of the Reformation and yet ceasing to protest; restorers of the breach and yet affirming what Scripture calls abominable. When we learn to see Adventism and the teachings of Scripture as a system we will not so readily be deceived into allowing our beliefs to be corrupted because we see the systemic effects of changing a single doctrine within the interconnected system.

 

In 1889, Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, put it this way:

 

We should know for ourselves what constitutes Christianity, what is truth, what is the faith that we have received, what are the Bible rules—the rules given us from the highest authority. There are many who believe, without a reason on which to base their faith, without sufficient evidence as to the truth of the matter. If an idea is presented that harmonizes with their own preconceived opinions, they are all ready to accept it. They do not reason from cause to effect. Their faith has no genuine foundation, and in the time of trial they will find that they have built upon the sand.[2]

 

Lists can preclude us from reasoning from cause to effect; system forces us to do this very thing. A list-theology Adventist can adopt the idea that the Holy Spirit is not a person and not be able to detect how this will logically affect the rest of their understanding of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. A systematic Adventist perceives the dangers and implications of even slight divergences in new theological proposals and movements within the church.

 

But in addition to preventing falling into heresy and the final great deception of the end times, a systematic understanding of Adventist theology also helps in the adoption of an Adventist or Biblical worldview as opposed to what the Apostle James called a worldview that was “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”[3]

 

Essentially, it has the effect of inoculating us from a purely materialistic or emotive perspective of life and the world. Adages such as “if it feels good, do it” or “that is just your truth” have no place in the schema of a Systematic Adventist’s worldview.

 

“Come Let Us Reason Together”

 

How can we learn to be systematic or “Thinking Adventists?” In this series, that question will be answered by reconstructing Adventist theology’s doctrinal core in such a way that you will clearly be able to see the interconnectedness of Adventist theology. But before we go on this journey together we must first determine what our goal is, and how we are going to get there.

 

You probably guessed that our goal is to know God better and our map of how we’re going to get there is the Bible. We will take this journey together step by step in a logical fashion so that your faith will be based on reasonable evidence as opposed to “I was raised Adventist” or even “the people were just so loving so I wanted to join.”

 

We want as Ellen White mentioned above “a genuine foundation” that is not based on only emotion or some other compelling factor in your religious experience. But before we begin reconstructing the Adventist doctrinal core, we must first address the question of why should we even do theology (the study of God) since there are so many voices in our world today that deny His very existence? And this is where we will begin our journey together.

 

If you have ever wondered “Would I still be a Christian or an Adventist if I were born into another family or perhaps another country?” you are in a good company. Many years ago, I had to confront this question in my own life.

Q. “Would I still be a Seventh-day Adventist if I were not born into an Adventist family?”

Q. “If I was not exposed to Adventism as a child would I still find its theology compelling as an adult?”

Today I can honestly say that through critical thinking (reasoning from cause to effect as Ellen White put it) I could have very well become a Seventh-day Adventist regardless of my religious upbringing! It is my hope that you will come to the same conclusion at the end of this series.

 

To come to this conclusion, I first questioned why should I be Christian in the first place, let alone a Seventh-day Adventist? Why shouldn’t I practice one of the other great monotheistic faiths like Islam and Judaism since we all “worship the same God anyway?”

 

But before answering that question, I asked myself why shouldn’t I practice one of the Eastern faiths such as Buddhism or Hinduism, which are very much in vogue today? But if I were to ask that question, I suggested to myself that it would be best to ask why I should believe in any God, gods, spirituality or the supernatural at all? And that is precisely where we will begin our journey through Adventism 202.

 

In this article, I would like for us to establish that it is reasonable and rational to be a person of faith regardless of your religious persuasion and from there to argue that it is reasonable and rationale to be a Christian as opposed to practicing another faith from the perspective of risk.

 

Though some of the content I will share has been used in the past as “proofs” for the existence of God, that is not my intention here, because ultimately faith in the existence of God should not be based on purely rational and philosophical arguments, but rather on the criteria that God Himself endorses: (1) His ability to create ex nihilo and (2) His omniscience.[4] Again the purpose of this article is to assess the rationality of faith in general and the rationality of faith in Christ.

 

Truth 101

 

Before continuing with this series, I need to address the proverbial elephant in the room. First and foremost, what this series is about is a search for systematic and objective truth (specifically systematic and objective truth about God). But herein lies a problem for a postmodern audience.

In postmodern times, the search for objective truth is a futile endeavor because “everyone knows there is no ultimate truth that is true for everybody.” Thus, before we begin our search for truth we must first lay the fallacy “that there is no objective truth” and its related notions in the philosophical grave in which they belong.

Q. “Isn’t it kind of arrogant to think that anyone can know the truth?”

 

The answer to this postmodern question is an emphatic “no.” Whenever we make a statement or a claim, regardless of whether it is about objective truth, the existence of God, or the price of a gallon of milk at your local grocery store, we are making a truth claim. In other words, it is not arrogant to claim that you know the price of a gallon of milk at your local grocery store. You are simply relating your experience with the objective world to others.

 

If it is arrogant to do so, then all claims regardless of the subject matter are arrogant and thus arrogance in itself becomes nonsensical and meaningless. It becomes a basic necessity of communication. Communication is not possible without an implicit claim to truth. Otherwise, communication itself is meaningless.

 

Besides even if it is arrogant to claim to know the truth, that doesn’t make the truth any less truthful. For example, I can be very arrogant with a 5-year-old in my explanation that 2 + 2 = 4. But my arrogance in my contempt at the ignorance of a 5-year-old does not negate or lessen the truthfulness of my arithmetic. Truth should be tested on the grounds of what it claims and the evidence it provides, not the perceived attitude of the individual claiming to communicate truth.

Q. “But no one has/knows the truth!”

 

This statement sounds profound but is really illogical and self-defeating. It is amazing that it is still used today by well-meaning individuals who want to equalize all religions, faiths, and creeds in the name of harmony. Taken at face value it has the appearance of something that was produced by deep reflection but the reality in it shows a lack of depth in critical thinking. Look at the statement carefully:

 

NO ONE has/knows the truth.

People who repeat this cliché seem to fail to realize that they themselves are making a truth claim, but unfortunately, their claim excludes even themselves, which invalidates the statement they just made. The statement itself is a claim about the notion of truth; that is inescapable because of the universal nature of “no one.”

 

“No one” includes the speaker unless of course, the speaker believes that he or she is in actuality the ONLY ONE who knows the truth—but now look who is arrogant—which is that “no one has the truth.”

 

However, whether the speaker believes that they are the only ones who have the truth or they literally believe no one has the truth is irrelevant because the statement invalidates both conclusions. You must know the truth if you truthfully want to make the claim that no one has the truth, in which case your claim about truth is invalidated. Now feel free to sing a dirge or whatever funeral rites you feel comfortable with for the sad notions of Post Modernism, we will return back to Adventism 202 and the rationality of believing in God

 

To Believe or Not to Believe?

 

Now that we have addressed and hopefully laid to rest some of the most superficial mumbo-jumbos of the postmodern era in regards to truth and religion we can now move on to the task at hand—to determine the reasonableness and rationality of believing in God.

 

Christians and people of faith are often accused of being irrational or having “blind faith.” We are often made to feel inferior in the university lecture hall because we dare to believe in the unseen. But what we want to do in this article is establish that it is just as rational—if not more so—to believe in God then to not believe in God, through what I call theological risk analysis.

What I intend to present below is not a series of proofs for the existence of God, but rather logical and philosophical evidence that bolsters the validity and credibility of believing in God.

 

Is this Biblical?

 

But is it wrong to look outside the Bible for rational or logical evidence for the existence of God? The emphatic answer to that question is again “No.” When we look to reason and/or logic to establish the possibility of God we are simply engaging in what theologians have called General Revelation. Millard Erickson defines general revelation as follows:

 

General revelation refers to God’s self-manifestation through nature, history, and the inner being of the human person. It is general in two aspects: its universal availability (it is accessible to all persons at all times) and the content of the message (it is less particularized and detailed than special revelation).[5]

 

In laymen’s terms, general revelation is looking at the universe, which includes the reasoning of our own minds to ascertain signs of God’s existence and activity. General revelation is general because it is available to every human being with basic normal cognitive functions, and it is also general in that it lacks specifics about God.

 

It can tell us about the existence and power of God but it often can fail to tell us about the character of God as clearly as it is revealed in Scripture (special revelation).[6] However, in addition to the testimony of theologians, we also have the testimony of Scripture itself which points to the existence of general gevelation. Consider David’s poetic lines in Psalm 19:1-6:

 

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.[7]

 

Here we see clearly that the Scriptures support the notion that the existence of God is testified to outside the Bible. In addition to this, the Apostle Paul seems to indicate that the power of God is also attested to outside of the Scriptures:

 

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.[8]

 

 

Thus, by looking at general revelation, a source of truth outside of the Scriptures themselves, we are not engaging in an unbiblical approach to theology.[9]

 

Thinking our way into the Existence of God: Reason to Belief

 

Before we begin to look at what I believe are two compelling arguments for the existence of God, we should first review a simple principle of logic. This axiom is referred to as Ockham’s Razor.[10] Simply put, Ockham’s Razor teaches us that,

the simplest and most straightforward answer is usually the right answer [the truth].[11]

With that overarching premise let us turn our attention to one of the most famous logical arguments for the existence of God, the teleological argument.

 

The Teleological Argument for the Existence of God

 

One of the most famous illustrations of the teleological[12] argument is the mechanical pocket watch found in a forest. Imagine with me for a moment that you are walking through a forest observing the trees and forest animals when suddenly you see something shiny on the forest floor reflecting a beam of light into your field of vision. At this point you walk towards this reflective object and brushing the forest debris aside you discover a mechanical gold pocket watch. Now you are faced with questions about the origins of this pocket watch.

 

  1. If you found something complex like a gold pocket watch in the forest would it be more rational to conclude that someone put it there?
  2. Is it more rational to conclude that the watch created itself or that it has a designer?

 

These are questions that you must answer honestly for yourself. But for many people, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the pocket watch did not make itself and neither did it place itself on the forest floor and thus it has an intelligent designer.

 

Now if we think about how much more complex life and the universe is (i.e. humanity, animals, plants, and the irreducible complexity of certain organisms), it would seem more reasonable to think that the universe and its contents have a designer. That designer is whom we would call God.

 

Below is how the teleological argument can be depicted with its implication:

 

Premise 1: The universe appears to be designed

Premise 2: Anything designed must also have a designer

Conclusion: The universe must have a designer

Implication: The designer of the universe is the being that we refer to as God

 

The teleological argument is the basis of many, if not all, of the “Intelligent Design” arguments propagated today in the scientific evolution-creation debates. But the intelligent Christian should understand that this argument is not an absolute proof for the existence of God but rather it is evidence for the rationality for believing in God. The next argument we will look at is the Cosmological[13] argument.

 

The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God

 

The cosmological argument is actually my favorite argument for the existence of God. It can be conceptualized as a family tree. Below is the structure of the cosmological argument.

 

Premise 1: All beings are either dependent or independent beings

Premise 2: All beings that we encounter today are dependent beings and were produced by dependent beings

Conclusion: There must be (or there must have been) an independent being to start the chain reaction of producing dependent beings

Implication: The independent being that started the chain of the existence of dependent beings is the one we call God

 

This argument may be familiar to those who have read about Aquinas’ “Unmoved Mover,” because the argument is essentially the same.

 

The cosmological argument calls for us to decide which scenario of the two possibilities is more rational in regards to the origins of life today. We have mainly two options:

 

  1. Either life as we know it is composed of an infinite regression of dependent beings that goes on forever into eternity past,
  2. or the existence of an independent being that is the ultimate source of all other dependent beings.

 

For me, it is more compelling to believe that there was a first being that was independent than to believe in an infinite regressive chain of dependent beings running into the past. That first independent being is whom we call God.

 

Modern culture’s appeal to “science” and its challenge of the existence of God is really an opinion. It can’t be proved that God doesn’t exist (and neither can it be proved that He does exist unless He reveals Himself). But what we have seen so far is that it is absolutely reasonable and just as rational, if not more so, to believe in God and the supernatural.

However, this does not compel us to believe in God or develop a relationship with Him. What does compel us is an intellectual exercise called Pascal’s Wager,[14],[15] which we will cover in the next article.

Click here to read the rest of Ingram’s series on the Adventism 202

______

Notes.

[1] Seventh-day Adventist baptismal certificate vows.

[2] Ellen White to Elders Madison and Howard Miller, Letter 4, Battle Creek, Mich. July 23, 1889; emphasis added.

[3] “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 3:15, NIV).

[4] These “proofs” will be discussed in the next article.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Baker Publishing Group, 2001-04-01), Kindle edition, p. 42.

[6] It isn’t impossible to discern the character of God through the observation of nature if guided by the Holy Spirit, but because of the effects of sin on our environment, the human mind can obscure what was God’s design (and thus an indication of his love and care) versus what is a result of the fall (death, decay, sickness, pestilence, etc.).

[7] Emphasis added.

[8] Romans 1:18-20; emphasis added.

[9] However, this approach does have its limits in what it can accomplish. It can relate to us the existence of God and it can tell us of the eternal power of God, but what it may fail to do is tell us the character of God and the story of redemption; the latter being found in special revelation.

[10] “William of Ockham [1287-1347] was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.” (Wikipedia).

[11] As a side note, I personally believe that if Ockham’s Razor was taught and accepted more widely it would spare many Christians the heartache of falling into various heresies and conspiracies that have been spreading rapidly in the church today.

[12] Telos, the Greek root of teleological means “goal, purpose, end.”

[13] Cosmos, the Greek root of cosmological means “origins.”

[14] There are other factors that may push us to want to have a relationship with God, all of which are used by the Holy Spirit to draw us to God. For example, conviction about one’s enslavement to sin can draw us to the Savior who can liberate us.

[15] Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher (Wikipedia).

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About the author

Ingram London

Ingram London is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine.

  • Kent Kingston

    I believe many of these arguments have long ago been “dealt with” and dismissed by atheists – it would have been good to have a sense of where the discussion is up to now, rather than just re-hashing the same arguments.

    And I think postmodernism was given the strawman treatment here. Postmodernism was a response to the obvious flaws and failures of modernism – “scientific, rational, objective” approaches to issues that turned out to be just the usual human, subjective approaches. Eg, “scientific Marxism-Leninism” which is actually incredibly ideological, or the “scientific” approach to categorising ethnic groups, which led to racism and justified slavery. Postmodernism merely interrogates and deconstructs these claims to objectivity and points out the myriad of cultural filters we use to interpret reality. I think these are useful tools and shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly in favour of another round of modernist errors.

    • Ingram London

      Hi Kent, thank you for your comment. I appreciate the contributions of postmodernism that you have pointed out. In regards to the arguments for the existence of God that have been dismissed by atheists, I’m aware that not everyone subscribes to these arguments or finds them compelling but my intention was to point to the rationality of believing in God as a viable possibility. In other words, atheism shouldn’t simply be a given or the default, but other possibilities should also be considered that in my opinion are just as rational. Blessings!

      • Kent Kingston

        Thanks Ingram for your thoughtful response and thanks for taking the time to write the article in the first place. May the blessings return to you, pressed down and running over!