[Image source: Adventist Review]
While studying as an undergraduate at Stanford University, I found the Adventist understanding of the nature of true education gave purpose and direction to my studies, helping me to think about education in more holistic terms. Therefore, I was intrigued by a headline I saw last week: “Adventist Education Declared Worthy of Becoming Fundamental Belief No. 29”.
It has generated a good deal of commentary on social media. Many have critiqued the suggestion, asking if it is an appropriate use of the fundamental beliefs to articulate the importance of attending and supporting Adventist schools.
Indeed, the institutions of the Church exist to advance the mission of the Church, which is grounded in the doctrinal understanding of the Church. To craft our doctrinal statements simply to preserve our institutions would be a dangerous reversal of this.
We must recognize, though, that Adventist education is not synonymous with Adventist educational institutions. Rather, Adventist education refers to the broad understanding of the purpose and nature of education held by the Adventist Church. Ellen White’s book, Education, is a classic for articulating this distinctive understanding of education, firmly grounded in Biblical theology. Its opening paragraph defines “true education”:
It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come. (Education, p. 13)
Although the purpose of the Church’s educational institutions is to embody and advance this ideal, it is in no way exclusive to them.
With the majority of Adventist students attending non-Adventist schools, it is important for the church to think deeply about its commitment to ensure everyone has the opportunity to experience “true education” regardless of where they are enrolled. We need to begin to think of Adventist education as something that every member of the church, through their whole lifetime, is undergoing. We need to continue to equip our church members to understand and teach the principles of true education in their homes and communities. A strong Sabbath School curriculum and well-developed discipleship programs in the local church are an important component of this.
Modern technology opens up more possibilities. Just as websites such as Coursera and EdX have opened up to the masses a free education from the world’s top universities, Adventist institutions, colleges and universities in particular, must continue to pioneer ways to let their influence extend far beyond the boundaries of their physical campuses.
So then, do we need a new fundamental belief to express this commitment? Perhaps the fact that so many mistake Adventist education with merely what happens at Adventist educational institutions rather than a broad commitment to the restoration of the image of God is evidence that we ought to better articulate the Church’s theological understanding of education. A new fundamental belief would accomplish this, but it may not be necessary.
In a deep sense, we understand that being made in the image of God means being made to experience education—the harmonious development of mind, body, and soul for the joy of service towards God and one another. We can view education as a lens to understand redemption, a restoration of God’s image, yet we also recognize that education will continue long after the end of sin, for to experience education is an essential part of what it means to be human.
Ellen White noted in the final chapter of Education…
“Heaven is a school; its field of study, the universe; its teacher, the Infinite One. A branch of this school was established in Eden; and, the plan of redemption accomplished, education will again be taken up in the Eden school.” (Education p. 301)
The chapter goes on to explain how this picture of eternity informs our understanding of education today:
The life on earth is the beginning of the life in heaven; education on earth is an initiation into the principles of heaven; the lifework here is a training for the lifework there. What we now are, in character and holy service, is the sure foreshadowing of what we shall be. (Education p. 307)
Hence, the Adventist understanding of education is intertwined with our theology of creation, redemption, the new earth, and, fundamentally, human nature. It also connects with our understanding of health, prophecy, and a host of other subjects. As such, perhaps rather than add a new fundamental belief, the church might consider revising its statements on one or two of these other themes to emphasize how education features in them. What might this look like? Here’s how one might revise the fundamental belief on the nature of humanity to highlight the role of education:
Man and woman were made in the image of God with individuality, the power and freedom to think and to do. Though created free beings, each is an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit, dependent upon God for life and breath and all else. Created for the glory of God, they are called to love Him and one another, and to care for their environment. When our first parents disobeyed God, they denied their dependence upon Him and fell from their high position. The image of God in them was marred and they became subject to death. Their descendants share this fallen nature and its consequences. They are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil. But God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself and by His Spirit restores in penitent mortals the image of their Maker through the harmonious development of the physical, mental, and spiritual powers. Such an education today will continue into eternity, where they will forever grow in their knowledge of God’s love and experience the joy of service. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7, 15; 3; Ps. 8:4-8; 51:5, 10; 58:3; Jer. 17:9; Acts 17:24-28; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Eph. 2:3, 3:18; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 John 3:4; 4:7, 8, 11, 20; Rev. 22:3) [Bold and italicized indicates suggested additions to the fundamental belief]
Whatever direction the world church decides to go, I’m confident that a renewed understanding of “true education” will give greater clarity to the purpose of our Adventist educational institutions and better position them to serve alongside churches and homes in advancing the mission of the church.