Report: Adventist Society for Religious Studies, San Diego 2019

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Report: Adventist Society for Religious Studies, San Diego 2019

The Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) is an academic community that aims to provide a context for scholarly dialogue and fellowship. The society has been holding meetings in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) since 1979, first under the name of Andrews Society for Religious Studies and subsequently as The Adventist Society for Religious Studies. The list of recent presidents includes Olive Hemmings (2017), Teresa Reeve (2016), Mark Carr (2015), Ranko Stefanovic (2014), Carl Cosaert (2013), Don Walter Leatherman (2012), John Reeve (2011), and Bonnie Dwyer (2010).

ASRS usually begins their meetings on Thursday evening with a presidential address. At the last conference, which was held in San Diego in November 2019, the address was given by Denis Fortin, professor of Historical Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. The conference continues Friday through Saturday morning with papers presented in 20-minute slots and a 10-minute Q&A following every two papers.

 

Last meeting’s presentations included the following topics and presenters:

 

  • “Closing the Door: The Fundamental Narrative and Its Impact on Adventism” (Katrina Blue, Pacific Union College)
  • “The Haunting of Adventism: Ghosts from the 1919 Bible Conference” (Michael Campbell, Southwestern Adventist University)
  • “Adventist Reactions to Women’s Suffrage, 1912-1922” (Heidi Campbell, Baylor University)
  • “Exiting the General Conference Presidency: Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy and Issues of Unity”(Gilbert M. Valentine, LaSierra University)
  • “Facing Finitude: Barthian Light on Adventism’s Long Struggle with the Humanity of Inspired Writers” (Charles Scriven)
  • “Bombshells in the Playground”: 1919 Paradigm Shifts on Hermeneutics” (John Webster, LaSierra University)
  • “Antiochus Epiphanes in 1919: Ellen White, Daniel and the Books of Maccabees” (Matthew J. Korpman, Yale Divinity School)
  • “Apocalypse When? Seventh-day Adventist Eschatological Pessimism in the Aftermath of World War I” (Jeffrey Gang, Loma Linda University)
  • “The Bankruptcy of Christian Fundamentalism’s Rule-Based Morality: Case Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics”(Aleksandar Santrac, Chesapeake Conference)
  • “Fundamentalism and Mission: The Seventh-day Adventist Case” (Cristian Dumitrescu, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies)
  • “Adventist Quest for Truth: A New Methodological Opportunity”(Tihomir Lazic, Newbold College)
  • “Looking Westward, Narrating Eastward”(Michel Sun Lee, University of Texas)
  • “The Social Gospel Movement and Adventism in Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century in the United States” (Michelet William, Andrews University)

 

​The afternoon session concludes with brief concurrent sectional meetings where participants can attend a group focused on Christian Theology and History, New Testament, Old Testament, Philosophy and Ethics, Practical Theology, World Religions/Missiology, Black Theology Group, or Women in Theology Group. As of recent years, Saturday morning has opened up with a book panel discussion.

 

Last November the conversation centered on the recently published Ellen White’s Afterlife by George Knight (a review of this book can be seen here) and featured Olive Hemmings (Washington Adventist University), Alden Thompson (Walla Walla University), Martin Hannah (Andrews University), Merlin Burt (Andrews University), Michael Campbell (Southwestern Adventist University), and Katrina Blue (Pacific Union College). A sermon concludes the ASRS meetings, last November given by Ella Simmons, General Conference Vice-President.

 

To give our readers a picture of the ASRS presentations I asked a few speakers to share about their papers in reply to three questions. Their responses are below.

 

Michael Campbell, Southwestern Adventist University— “The Haunting of Adventism: Ghosts from the 1919 Bible Conference” (You can read a book review of this title here)

 

  1. What are some of the motivations behind this particular study?

Since this particular ASRS meeting was focused on the 1919 Bible Conference (a topic I proposed last year and the subject of my dissertation!) I was excited to see the wide variety of paper topics, but I personally chose to focus, rather than on the actual conference, on the impact of this event upon Adventism afterward.

 

  1. What methodology did you use in your research?

My methodology was really quite simple: to look at documentary sources. And the evidence is overwhelming when you look at the descriptions by church leaders from that time period—both how they viewed Fundamentalism as well as the material they borrowed (such as re-printing articles or quoting Fundamentalist leaders) as a model for Adventism. In effect, Adventism developed its own version of Fundamentalism, an Adventist Fundamentalism that reflected both the uniqueness of Adventism while incorporating these larger trends. After all, both Adventists and the wider historical Fundamentalist movement had a common enemy.

 

  1. Could you share some key ideas and/or aspects of special relevance to SDA Christians today?

I basically argue that Adventism radically changed in terms of race, gender, lifestyle, and it set the stage for the formation of Last Generation Theology. If I were to add a fifth “ghost” it would be Adventist anti-intellectualism. In each of these areas, Adventism modeled itself after the wider historical Fundamentalist movement. In doing so there were some positive aspects, such as affirming the historicity and validity of the Bible, but there was also some baggage. For example, Adventism went from being a movement in the nineteenth-century that was abolitionist and inclusive of women in ministry/leadership (and thereby socially progressive) to become a movement that was so racist that by the early twentieth-century we had to have separate black and white conferences, and women were largely pushed to the margins of the denomination.

 

Perhaps the most startling piece of research I shared was how some Adventists (just like some Fundamentalists) went so far as to embrace the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s and 1930s! (the KKK was pro-private Christian education, strongly encouraged Protestantism against the evils of Catholicism, and stood for religious liberty, all things that some Adventists found admirable). While this may come as a surprise to some people today, it does show the extent of just how far the broader culture impacted Adventism during this time period.

 

It is also helpful to note that within both the Fundamentalism movement and the Adventist version of Fundamentalism there was some fluidity—some who were more progressive versus those who were much more traditionalist with many on a continuum in-between. Yet to deny that Adventism was not influenced by the Fundamentalist movement is like trying to say that the holocaust didn’t exist! For me, and what I’ve been trying to do, is to look in broad historical strokes at what this historical evidence means. The struggles of the 1919 Bible Conference a century ago continue to be the same kinds of struggles our church faces today. While the specific battles and personalities are long gone, the underlying hermeneutical and epistemological challenges remain with Adventism today.

Michelet William, PhD Student, Andrews University

Paper Title: “The Social Gospel Movement and Adventism in Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century in the United States”

  1. What are some of the motivations behind this particular study?

Adventist thinkers and leaders have been grappling for a long time with the question of whether the church should maintain an essentially evangelistic approach to mission or become more engaged in social justice advocacy as a significant element in its outreach to the world. As a contribution to the ongoing debate, my doctoral dissertation will attempt to propose a biblical and missiological framework for an approach to social advocacy that integrates core Adventist beliefs regarding eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. My research methodology includes a literature review and critique of two major Christian theologians that had significantly influenced Christian theology and praxis pertaining to systemic injustice in society: Walter Rauschenbusch (Social Gospel, the United States) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Liberation Theology, Latin America).

 

  1. What methodology did you use in your research?

My paper offered a historical overview of the Social Gospel movement, outlining the major influences on its emergence and its basic theological presuppositions with regards to soteriology, and eschatology, as laid down in Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959). Furthermore, the paper presented an Adventist contrast and critique to the Social Gospel, unveiling the cause of the reticence of the Adventist Church to embrace the movement.

 

  1. Could you share some key ideas and/or aspects of special relevance to SDA Christians today?

My conclusion is that the Social Gospel is a religious social-reform movement prominent in the United States from about 1870 to 1920. The Social Gospel is rooted in American Protestant liberalism, which was largely influenced by the ideologies of the Progressive Era during late nineteenth century. Regarding soteriology and ecclesiology, the Social Gospel contends that the sin needing the attention of the church is not what theology defines as rebellion of a man against God. In fact, the Genesis narrative on the introduction of sin in the world is discarded as pure speculation in the social gospel discourses. According to Rauschenbusch, the gospel, or the mission of the church, should rather focus on public morality, on wrongs done by whole classes or professions of men.

 

Regarding eschatology, Rauschenbusch sees the coming of the Kingdom of God in all ethical and spiritual progress of humankind. He urges Christians to shift from “catastrophe to development” terminology when evoking the apocalyptic millennium. The Seventh-day Adventist Church contrasted and distanced itself from the Social Gospel on the basis of its soteriological, ecclesiological, and eschatological presuppositions. Yet, the Adventist Church had tackled social issues during the years between 1870 to 1920 by implementing a form of social welfare programs as part of the biblical gospel rather than replacing it. Adventists’ primary focus had been on the salvation of the soul of individuals, drawing on the belief that total social redemption will be a reality only at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

 

Cristian Dumitrescu, Ph.D., Professor of Intercultural Studies, Missiology, and Research at AIIAS and Journal of Asian Adventist Seminary (JAAS) Editor

Paper Title: “Fundamentalism and Mission: The Seventh-day Adventist Case” 

  1. What are some of the motivations behind this particular study?

 

I am a professor of missiology and intercultural studies at AIIAS and also a pastor of a local church in Cavite Mission, Luzon. The advantage of pastoring besides teaching is that you can see the real church life and test your teaching theory on the ground. The research was triggered by the realization that Asia as a field suffers from chronic issues after more than a hundred years of mission. My observations regarding membership recording and reporting, theological statements, and church life showed that there was something beyond cultural influence that impacted all these religious aspects. Most Asian cultures are polite, welcoming, accommodating, and friendly. But Adventist churches have a slightly different approach. There is a welcoming atmosphere as long as you agree or at least are interested in what the church has to offer. There is a strong expectation that you embrace an Adventist tradition based on a hermeneutic of certainty. There is an aspect of remnant theology that makes one think Adventists are the only ones that will be saved because their doctrine is infallible.

 

The assumption is that the Adventist reading and interpretation of the Scripture has no match because it is based on Sola Scriptura (and Ellen White, of course). These are the two issues that lay at the basis of fundamentalism the way it was experienced by evangelical Christianity, and we do not seem to be far beyond our friends except we came late on the scene. A brief survey of Adventist mission during the past century reveals that Adventists were much more willing to learn and adapt to different contexts, to reorganize if necessary and even to revisit their doctrinal understanding before 1919 than after that bible conference. The emphasis on the need for clear fundamentals, although positive in itself, led to a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture with some undesirable effects on Adventist mission. My main concern is that the text is read without understanding the original context and that doctrinal beliefs and church life often ignore the local cultural context and worldview. And this, unfortunately, applies not only to Asia but to the rest of the world.

 

  1. What methodology did you use in your research?

My methodology was historical research combined with personal observation and interviews with local leaders and fellow missionaries and missiologists serving in different countries. A synthesis of data from these three sources led to formulating ten points I presented in my paper during the ASRS meetings in San Diego.

 

  1. Could you share some key ideas and/or aspects of special relevance to SDA Christians today?

 

Firstly, as Adventists, we should be aware of our history. There are important lessons to be learned in terms of our identity and mission, based on how we read the text and interpret it. The reality of functional sacramentalism or syncretism is a result of fundamentalist hermeneutic. A lack of contextualization led to what I call the “boomerang effect” of having to face missionaries from the rest of the world preaching an understanding of the gospel that has no relevance for the West or even for the local culture. As a result, we have confusing approaches when it comes to polygamy, prostitution, power encounters, or dealing with ancestors and spirit worship.

 

Secondly, there is no secret today that our total membership is based on inflated reporting. Almost everywhere you go, Adventists, culturally, have the tendency to report increasing membership. For most, it means to lose face if you report loss and to cause your leaders to also lose face with higher administrative levels. One never does that without social consequences. It is part of peoples’ worldview and an unspoken moral obligation. Unfortunately, this led to an emphasis on quantity and to a lack of quality. There is more interest in the number of people baptized than in the quality of discipleship. This explains why almost 40 % of our baptized members leave the church.

 

Thirdly, we need to learn and teach our members how to exegete people, not only the text. People exegesis will force us to find answers that go beyond simply reciting 28 fundamental beliefs. People exegesis and contextualization is what Ellen White and bible prophets did every time they had to communicate a message from the Lord. This is also what Jesus did, and people were attracted to listen to him because it made sense for their daily life. If the Adventist church wants to be relevant, it needs to rediscover the importance of understanding peoples’ worldview and contextualize the valuable truth so it becomes appropriate to them.

Note: More information about ASRS, including membership and call for papers can be found at https://www.adventistsocietyforreligiousstudies.com/. The membership ($50 for regular members, $20 for student members, and $10 for special international members) covers conference attendance and access to the papers archive hosted on the society’s website.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.