The two central tensions, as I have come to see them in Anglo-American Adventism, are between immanent and transcendent goods and between justifying and sanctifying grace (or, as I will call them when referring to grace in the immanent mode, affirming and disciplining relationships).
Their historical roots are in the 1888 crisis (justifying vs. sanctifying) and the Kellogg crisis (immanent vs. transcendent).
That makes for four possible trajectories movements which can be taken out of the center of Adventism, and I think we’ve got them all.
- Immanent/affirming = Recovery Adventism—reconciling the self to itself
- Transcendent/justifying = Evangelical Adventism—reconciling the self to God
- Immanent/disciplining = Social justice Adventism—healing the body and society
- Transcendent/sanctifying = Apocalyptic Adventism—conforming the body and church to God’s end-time purposes
Before I briefly develop each category, let me take a couple of caveats:
- I’m not going to name names because this isn’t statistically validated.
- What follows is an intuitive interpretation of my faith community based on my experience of Anglo-American Adventism in a relatively diverse church membership and ministry settings. I leave it to you to decide to what or whom these categories might apply and how valid they are in light of your own experience of the same.
- The immanent/affirming option is the last trajectory to be explored and is the most marginal. It provides an answer to the question, How can I live with myself? Its deep roots are in the Wesleyan class method, which was practiced as the “social meeting” for a short time in early Adventism.
It started again in the 1970s when Adventism first started to incorporate the techniques of therapy culture to treat drug addictions. Where it is associated with Twelve Step culture (Methodism for the spiritual but not religious), it can be properly called Recovery Adventism. But it can also have sources in therapy/coaching culture, chaplaincy ministry, and the spiritual formation movement.
Recovery Adventism aims at reconciling the self to itself with divine help via introspective practices combined with group affirmation. It is centered on areas with large numbers of Adventists where it is highly attractive to those who have failed to reconcile an affirmative sense of self to the self-denial required to practice one or more of the varieties of transcendent or sanctifying/disciplining Adventism.
- Transcendent/justifying Adventism views the relationship of God’s grace to the self as affirming and aims at reconciling the self to God. It provides an answer to the question, How can God live with me?
Its historical source in Adventism is Jones and Wagoner’s recovery of the Reformation teaching that the moral law of God is powerless to bring us into a saving relationship with him. It is acceptance of God’s unmerited favor that enables the self to transcend its sinful condition in relationship to God. The role of the moral law is primarily to show us our defects, which God forgives when we repent.
Where this movement retains the apocalyptic transcendent focused on the second coming and Adventist sectarian distinctiveness in light of that, it can be associated with the theological consensus of institutional Adventism that emerged between the Evangelical conferences (1950s) and the aftermath the Ford crisis (1980s).
Where a movement on this trajectory has a Cross-oriented transcendent vision and emphasizes Adventism as a part of the broader Christian community, it can be properly labeled evangelical Adventism. Either way, these movements often also define themselves in opposition to transcendent/sanctifying Adventism.
Social Justice Adventism
- Immanent/disciplining Adventism that excludes the other Adventisms is what Kellogg advocated in The Living Temple: the discipline of self for the purpose of cooperating with God’s restoration of creation. It continues to be centered around Adventist health and higher education institutions.
But these are no longer organized to affect a radical reform of medical practice in accordance with natural laws of health. So the focus on God’s saving work has shifted somewhat from the perfecting of the human body to perfecting of the social organism. Not that Kellogg was without his urban missions nor that Social Justice Adventism is devoid of alternative health practices. It’s a matter of emphasis.
The disciplines that were once applied to make the body whole according to laws of health have been transformed by a new set of disciplines aimed at healing the divisions of society by implementing the imperatives of justice.
Either way, they provide an answer to the question, How can we live in the world? Although less radical than its predecessor in some ways, there is enough divergence from those who don’t practice these disciplines, both within and without the church, to sustain a distinct Adventist identity around social justice.
These movements may or may not have an affinity with other Adventist movements, depending on the consonance of their goals. But Social Justice Adventism encounters pushback when those committed to transcendent expressions of Adventism believe it is reducing their faith to the concerns of this world, as with Kellogg’s panentheistic immanentizing of God.
4. Transcendent/sanctifying Adventism provides an answer to the question, How can we live with God? It has its historical roots in Joseph Bates’s Sabbatarian conversation based on the Seventh-Day Baptist interpretation of God’s moral law in Reformed theology. His subsequent theological moves held other doctrines relative to the Sabbath—including salvation, which became keeping the God’s moral law.
For Bates, this was not exclusive to health and social justice activism, but his followers left that work to Kellogg. Their view of salvation was rejected by Ellen White in 1888, and consequently most transcendent/sanctifying Adventists are at least nominally tethered to transcendent/justifying soteriology.
The sanctifying part comes in after justification, when the mode of God’s relationship to the self, demands discipline via empowering grace. The emphasis then switches to ordering ourselves and the body of Christ through wholistic spiritual practices to become the kind of people who can withstand the final crisis.
These apocalyptic movements are the most likely to view other movements as having gone beyond the limits of Adventism and often see themselves as the church’s disciplinarian.
Impact on Adventism
I think individuals or movements can be more or less inclined toward the exclusive, ideal type of each trajectory. And while some could be moving away, others could be moving closer to the center.
But, because of human finitude, movements and individuals cannot deeply pursue each combination of the good and how to achieve it simultaneously. Thus, the third axis of this analysis, not represented graphically, would be time.
On this analysis, an identity crisis hits Adventism when a major moment along one or another of the trajectories can no longer be explained as Adventist on the other groups’ terms. The immanent goods of Adventism can be pursued with more or less openness to transcendent goods (and vice versa). Likewise, discipline can take place in a context of affirmation, and affirmation can ground the disciplining relationships. Or they can be seen as diametrically opposed.
I believe the center of Adventism to be wherever movements and individuals maintain openness to the other goods/graces and to the other movements pursuing them. And I think you can read Ellen White herself as simultaneously correcting imbalances among these pursuits of the good and growing herself in her understanding and practice of how to relate them.
How These Four Exclude Each Other
While I do not take these four Adventisms to be inherently mutually exclusive, they do define four dimensions across which movements in Adventism have excluded each other in the following ways:
- Immanent/affirming Adventism’s self-affirming mode is perceived as directly undermining the sanctification required by transcendent/sanctifying Adventists, especially when it doesn’t care to explain itself in transcendent terms. Movements within Recovery Adventism can also move outside what Evangelical Adventists think of as Christianity when they start to deny transcendent dimensions to our relationship with God, like divine wrath or the need to accept Jesus as Savior in order to go to Heaven. They exclude Social Justice Adventists when they affirm those whose politics and practices are contrary to the imperatives of justice.
- Where transcendent/justifying Adventism embraces its natural affinity with the God-and-country mode of its Evangelical cousins, prioritizing a politics of piety and personal virtue, it can no longer be seen as authentically Adventist for immanent/disciplining Adventism. Where it sees no further need for the reconciliation with oneself after one has been reconciled to God, it excludes Recovery Adventism. And where it makes the center of God’s saving activity on the cross exclusive, it’s soteriology is no longer intelligible in terms of apocalyptic Adventism’s sanctuary theology.
- Evangelical Adventism cannot exchange the free pardon of God for a view of sin as the absence of peace and salvation as social reconciliation, and it fears this is often the upshot of immanent/disciplining Adventism, especially where it has lost the conversionist impulse. And while Apocalyptic Adventists and Social Justice Adventists can both advocate vegetarianism, for the former it is primarily to prepare the body to receive the Holy Spirit, and the later, where it is only to heal creation, excludes the former. Recovery Adventism parts ways with Social Justice Adventism when the imperatives of justice are seen to require overly adversarial modes of relating to others and to the self.
- The self-denial required by transcendent/sanctifying Adventism is even less intelligible on immanent/affirming terms than the self-denial required by immanent/disciplining Adventism because transcendent/sanctifying Adventism isn’t always able to offer a “this-life” explanation for why the discipline is necessary. And when Apocalyptic Adventism isn’t willing to talk about how its disciplines are consonant with being reconciled to ourselves and the world, it comes across to Recovery and Social Justice Adventism as more sanctimonious than sanctifying. Apocalyptic Adventism also excludes Evangelical Adventism when it becomes suspicious that any emphasis on the cross is an attempt to undermine a transcendent vision focused on the second coming.
I don’t at all mean to suggest that these tensions explain everything important about Adventism or everyone’s Adventist experience. I do think this analysis is grounded on profound philosophical tensions inherent in Adventist teaching and practice as it relates to the self, God, the body, and the world. Therefore, it likely explains a lot of what’s been going on, but that would have to be demonstrated with further research.
As to the question of whether the center of Adventism holds, it depends on whether we can maintain those tensions as generative of creative responses to challenges and opportunities. That would involve a number of other factors including our relationship to Scripture, Ellen White, spirituality, institutional intentionality, leadership capacity, etc.
In the meantime, I’m putting this half-baked thesis out here in the hopes it can at the least suggest some fundamental questions to bear in mind when you think about and live out what it means to be an Adventist in the twenty-first century.