Monthly Archives: November 2014

Three Powerful Points

In the previous blog I set the context for this review of the book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). In this blog I want to share what I liked about the book and in the following some concerns I have about it. The book describes some dangerous types of prayer and the author’s belief that these forms of prayer are infiltrating the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His desire in this book, then, is to sound the alarm that no one might be deceived.

The book makes three powerful points that were very helpful to me. The central point of the book is summarized in a nutshell in the Author’s Preface (page viii). The key issue in prayer has to do with the purpose of meditation. In the eastern tradition the purpose of meditation is to empty the mind. Through the use of repetitive syllables, words or phrases (a so-called mantra), one banishes stray thoughts, feelings and images until one is at the “center of consciousness.” In the silence at the center one can begin to hear spirit voices that tell you things you have never heard before. You hear the voice of God within. In the biblical tradition, on the other hand, the purpose of meditation is not to empty the mind but to focus the mind on the words of truth from the Scriptures. In other words, the meditation is not directed inward toward a subjective truth but rather outward toward an objective truth. This is an extremely important distinction.

What’s wrong with the eastern approach? What if one replaces the meaningless mantras with Christian prayer words like “Jesus” or “Father?” The danger is that if one empties the mind, one has no control over which spirit voice speaks to that emptied mind. Apart from the safeguard of Scripture, it is possible to be deceived into thinking that satanic influences are truly the voice of God. The spirit world contains both angels and demons, so eastern forms of meditation can connect one with either source. It seems to me that this fundamental point is crucial. But for what it’s worth, I have never heard a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, liberal or conservative, tell people they need to empty their minds. The emphasis is always on ridding oneself of distractions so that the Bible or a devotional reading can be the full focus of one’s attention. That, I think, is a different thing than seeking a total emptying of the mind. While I think Peth could have made this point more effectively in 3-5 pages rather than a hundred, I do think his fundamental point is crucial and it is worth reading the book if one is not clear on this point.

Second, Peth makes a powerful point on page 62 where he says that God has arranged the “rules of the game” in such a way that the devil cannot force anyone to sin. Satan cannot take over a life unless at some level that person consents to it. The danger Peth sees in contemplative prayer is that a person will consent to Satan influencing or taking over his or her life thinking they are opening themselves to God. Without that consent, Satan cannot control a person’s life. But once that consent is given, it can be very difficult to extricate oneself from Satan’s clutches. The key in meditation is to keep the process of meditation under the control of reason and subject to the Scriptures. I couldn’t agree more.

Third, and this point was worth the price of the book in my opinion, Peth has pointed out one of the great misreadings of the Bible, one that I have been guilty of all these years. He points out on pages 27-29 that the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” has been grossly misused in Christian society. Most people think, and so did I before reading this book, that the phrase is all about prayer and our attitude toward God in the inner life. But in context that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you read the context of Psalm 46:10 it is all about a military attack on the fortress of God’s people (Psa 46:1-5). When enemies attack the people of God, He steps in with the mighty power of His word (46:6). The end result is the enemies’ bows are broken, their spears are splintered and their chariots are burned with fire (46:7-9). In the context of a battlefield strewn with the detritus of a defeated army, the phrase spoken to defeated enemies actually means something like, “Shut up and know who you are dealing with!” To use such a phrase in support of a questionable strategy for meditation and prayer veers wide of the exegetical mark.

So in sum, there are reasons to read this book and I am glad I did. While I knew the first two points before reading the book, the third was worth the time I took to read it. Next time, I will begin to share a few cautions about the content of the book.

Spiritual Formation and Contemplative Prayer

Over the last couple of years people have become aware of controversy over things like “spiritual formation,” “contemplative prayer” and “the emerging church.” Voices such as that of the General Conference President (Ted Wilson) have been raised in caution regarding the dangers to be found in these domains. What Wilson probably did not know, at the time he gave this sermon in July of 2010, is how frequently these terms were used at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, though not, I suspect, in the ways that he meant by these terms. As one who taught at the Seminary from 1982-2007, I am quite familiar with what was going on there during that time and I found it to be a place that was deeply grounded in Scripture and loyal to the church almost to a fault. So my initial reaction was like that of others. What is so bad about Spiritual Formation? What can be so bad about thoughtful prayer? What other kind of prayer is there? And while the authors promoting the Emerging Church were certainly offering challenging ideas, they had always struck me as rather prophetic in the Old Testament sense, challenging the comfortable ways in which many Christians have adopted western culture and practices without serious biblical critique. So what was going on here? Shouldn’t everyone spend “a thoughtful hour each day contemplating the life of Christ?” (Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, page 83)

Did the Seminary teach Spiritual Formation while I was there? Yes, depending on what you mean by that term. I remember how in the mid-1980s our practics professors introduced us to the concept and asked all Seminary faculty to team up with local pastors to create “spiritual formation groups” of 10-12 seminary students each who would engage with local churches on weekends and then reflect on their experiences on Monday mornings. I have to confess I was never a huge enthusiast about this development. It sounded like a lot of work outside the areas of my interest and expertise. But I kept my lack of enthusiasm to myself. After all, what could be bad about helping young pastors find a closer walk with God? I certainly didn’t want to speak out against that!

And that is exactly what spiritual formation, in the forms that I encountered it at the Seminary, was all about. It was the process of encouraging young pastors at the Seminary to not simply exercise their minds, but also their hearts, while in school. It was seeking a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual. It was all about teaching young pastors to have a closer walk with God on a day to day basis. This has to be a good thing in principle. If there would be any dangers in such as process, it could be dealt with in the “multitude of counselors” that the group process required. On the whole I thought the process of thinking and worshiping together each week had a positive impact on me and the students I served, as well as a number of different pastors through the years.

The high point of such spiritual training, in my experience, occurred in the 1990s. I taught a first-quarter class called Salvation in which I plumbed the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, discovering the various ways people got right with God and how they also stayed right with God. As students confronted the claims of the biblical text there were many conversions (I would estimate 15-20) each year among pastors! This is not to imply that most pastors are not converted, but that the clarity of the Bible led these students into an entirely new walk with God, one that they themselves experienced as true conversion. I still have pastors contact me about their experience as students in that class and the profound effect it had on them.

What was especially exciting was that the first-quarter’s students were also taking a class in Spiritual Formation at the same time. In this class they explored how study, prayer and witness combines to develop a deeper and deeper relationship with God. Being deeply exposed to the biblical material (in my class) at the same time they were learning how to talk and listen to God at a deeper level provided both a stimulus and a safeguard to their walk with God. So when more recently people started talking negatively about Spiritual Formation and by implication the Seminary, I was puzzled and quite defensive for my former colleagues. Over 25 years I had not detected one trace of spiritualism or demonic danger at the Seminary. Surely people were confused in their use of these terms.

So I was deeply interested when a book arrived on my desk entitled The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth. The book was published by Pacific Press and Hart Research Center, both entities that I trusted. It came to me without charge and a letter of endorsement from the president of Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries, an entity that encourages Seventh-day Adventist lay people to integrate their faith and their professions, something that I could certainly endorse. The letter suggested that spiritual formation, contemplative prayer and the emerging church could be tools to bring satanic spiritualistic ideas into the church (quoting the prediction of Ellen White, The Great Controversy, page 588). So I took it the book projected these three elements as steps to the great end-time deception I had often written about in my books. So I determined to read the book at my first convenience. What I found there will be reviewed in future blogs.

Stages of Surrender, Part 14

Do the stages of faith and surrender imply some subtle or sophisticated system of righteousness by works? I have never thought so. In a real sense the stages of surrender are simply learning how to exercise faith, trust in God, at each stage of one’s life experience.

A recent re-reading of the book Steps to Christ, by Ellen G. White, confirmed my impression. Steps to Christ is one of the clearest places in all literature (along with C. S. Lewis, Dante and Milton) where the human struggle to understand God is set in the larger context of a cosmic conflict regarding the character of God (the first two or three chapters in particular). Suffering and misapprehension of God’s character are the result of rebellion against God, not any flaw in God’s character or actions. God graciously limits Himself so His creatures can be free to live and to love. That freedom also opens up the possibility of rebellion with all its consequences. Any solution to the problem of sin must include a change of attitude and an exercise of will within human hearts. This change on our part is not the cause of the atonement, but the outcome of it. We are won back to God on account of the revelation of His character in the person of Jesus Christ.

While there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, we are invited to trust in the gracious, loving God that we have come to know in Christ. That trust is not works-righteousness, it is a whole-bodied response to who God is, including our thoughts, our choices, our will and our actions. We see this delicate balance in Scriptures like James 2:14-26 and Matthew 18:21-35.

So I was delighted to see the stages of surrender reflected in other words in Steps to Christ, pages 95-99. The author writes: “There are certain conditions upon which we may expect that God will hear and answer our prayers.” (SC 95) These conditions are described as: 1) Feeling our need of help from God, 2) Turning away from any known sin, 3) The exercise of faith as trusting that God will fulfill what He has promised, 4) Coming to God helpless and dependent, in humble, trusting faith, rather than paying attention to our doubts and fears or trying to solve our problems apart from faith, 5) Having a spirit of love and forgiveness in our hearts, 6) Persevering in prayer, being found in places where prayer tends to happen, 7) Above all, not neglecting secret prayer, and 8) Taking God’s presence with us throughout the day and the life. These eight “conditions” for answered prayer are all found in pages 95-99 of the book Steps to Christ. So in this book Ellen White does not see human effort as necessarily acting in contradiction to a focus on the gracious character of God as manifested in the context of the cosmic conflict.

Hopefully these thoughts will be helpful to those seeking to apply the stages of faith and surrender to their own walk with God.

Stages of Surrender, Part 13

I have been challenged in regard to stages of faith and surrender, and that challenge is worthy of some attention at the close here. It is suggested that the stages of faith and surrender leave God out of the picture and may even imply some sort of sophisticated system of righteousness by works. That thought never occurred to me as I had always seen these stages as stages in relationship with God. Rather than focusing more and more on ourselves, we come to focus more and more on God and His unique purpose for our lives. As we focus on God we become more and more like Him. But since the stages of surrender can be heard in a legalistic way, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the relationship between the stages of surrender and both a gracious God and the righteousness which can be obtained only by faith. Are these stages of surrender an alternative to faith or do they simply describe practical ways in which we can exercise our faith (which I define as our trust in God)? Can we truly surrender to God if we do not trust in Him?

Let me begin with the first concern. Do the stages of faith and surrender leave God out of the picture or do they actually tell us some important things about God? I am convinced they have a lot to do with God. First of all, the stages of faith and surrender are grounded in a God who is not static, but relates to us in a developmental way. That is why He created the universe and the human race. He is a relational being and desires relationship with other free beings. That is why the concept of a trinity is important. If God were “one” in the isolated sense, love would not be essential to His character, but something He came to exercise only after creation. But if God is not only one but three, it tells us that love is inherent in God’s nature. From eternity God was love in a relationship of three. Creation then became a way to extend God’s love in ever-expanding circles. Relationships are never static, there is always growth and development. The very possibility of relationship within the godhead, therefore, must arise from a God who is not static. Instead, through creation He desires the further growth in experience that expanded relationships provide.

Furthermore, if God is affected by relationship, then the way that human beings respond to God matters to Him. Human beings make a difference, not only in relation to each other, but also in relation to God. The choices we make affect God; our trusting responses please Him, our rebellion brings Him pain. God will never be static in the way He relates to us. Eternity will not be boring. Their will always be new heights to surmount, new challenges to overcome, new delights to sample. A God who relates to His creation in a developmental way is a God we will delight to know and who will find delight in us throughout eternity. So the stages of faith and surrender echo a beautiful picture of God.

A related picture of God that I see in the stages of faith and surrender is of Someone who at the core of His being is self-sacrifice. The stages of faith and surrender take us on a path to becoming more and more like God in our renunciation of pride and our willingness to sacrifice for others. Surrendered husbands will love their wives the way Christ loves the church. The wives of such husbands will glimpse a picture of God in the self-sacrificing love of their husbands. It is the picture of a self-sacrificing God that evokes our trust in Him and motivates us to surrender. It is safe to put God in control of our lives because of who we have come to know Him to be.

Finally, the stages of faith and surrender highlight a God who graciously gives His creatures freedom. We can surrender to God or we can choose not to. While the freedom is a gift from Him, it is very real. In that very gift of freedom we catch a glimpse of a God who loves His creatures so much that He gives up some of His own freedom to act in order that we might be free. While we see the self-sacrificing love of God clearly portrayed in the cross, it was very much there also at creation. Creation itself was an act of self-sacrifice in which God yielded up His own freedom of action so that His creatures could be truly free and free to love.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the stages of faith and surrender offer up a beautiful picture of God.

Reflections on Annual Council: Fundamental Belief 6

A number of changes in Fundamental number 6 (Creation) have been recommended by the Annual Council. This was in response to the action at the General Conference in 2010 to revise FB6 in light of the Affirmation of Creation document produces at the Science and Creation Conference of 2004 (Glacier View, Colorado). Among the changes is the adjective “recent” in relation to the creation of “the heavens and the earth.” The chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 were added to the list of Scriptures because they offer the only basis for calculation of ancient biblical dates.

The new statement itself seems to me to support so-called young earth creationism (everything, including the rocks, was created in recent times), which is popular with some protestants outside the SDA Church. This is different from the “young life” position (earth may be billions of years old but life was a fairly recent creation) I generally heard in my years at the Seminary (Andrews University). The chair explained that the statement was intended to leave both options open. In his view, this was done by referencing Exodus 20 in the statement instead of Genesis 1. Exodus 20 does not refer to “in the beginning” but has to do with the creation of this earth only.

This stimulated a vigorous discussion in the Biblical Research Institute Committee (BRICOM). Many members are clearly uncomfortable with the “young earth” position. They note that the Institute for Creation Research (evangelical operation) goes so far as to state a “young universe” position (the entire universe, including galaxies, was created a few thousand years ago). The SDA statement must be worded in such a way that people don’t think it advocates young-earth or young-universe positions.

The chair of the FB committee (Angel Rodriguez) responded that the statement begins with “God created the cosmos,”and no reference to six days or recent history is made. Then the “six days” are brought in and Exodus 20 is quoted. The statement, to Rodriguez, is deliberately ambiguous on the creation of the universe and the physical planet earth. Room is left for theologians to discuss the details.

But some committee members were not satisfied. They noted that Exodus 20 is merely quoting Genesis 1 and that most readers of FB6 are likely to read “heavens” in Exodus 20 as the entire cosmos. Unless the statement is more nuanced, literalistic readers are like to attach the Seminary and other educational institutions simply for teaching what most Adventist creationists have believed for years.

This discussion was most interesting. Even in a group that is firmly committed to SDA beliefs and traditional readings of Scripture and science, there was considerable disagreement on just how FB6 ought to be worded. It was then reported that when the 27 Fundamentals were written up in 1980, not one of the original fundamentals was voted unanimously by the committee. The fundamentals should be understood as a statement of what most Adventists believe, rather than what all believe or should believe.

That raised the question of the purpose of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. In legal terms, are they prescriptive (indicating what everyone “should” believe) or descriptive (describing what most Adventists believe). The Preamble of the Fundamentals suggests they are descriptive. They are intended as a helpful resource for explaining what Adventists believe and inviting others to consider and embrace those beliefs. But more and more voices are treating the Fundamentals as prescriptive, spelling out exactly what people must believe. It seems to me that this is a dangerous turn, one that the early pioneers of the Church would have vigorously opposed.

The fact that the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists can be changed suggests that they are not a creed. But it is a strange thing to have changeable fundamentals and then enforce them. That suggests that early pioneers like James White and J. N. Andrews could be disfellowshipped today for not believing everything that is now present in the fundamentals. Are we moving toward a fixed creed that all must subscribe to? Or is it still true, as our pioneers said, that the Bible is our only creed? Do we submit our understanding to the Bible, or to our understanding of the Bible. There is an important difference. If the “biblical view” is not what is contained in the Bible, but is now what we think the Bible says, we have made a significant shift. In a very subtle way tradition begins to supplant Scripture. I hope we don’t go there.