Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin IV

As powerful as God was and is, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom in the universe were not many. What was God to do? God decided to neither rule the universe by force nor to sanction the evil that infected it (see previous blog). Instead, according to C. S. Lewis, the great British scholar and novelist, He did a number of things to gradually turn the tide away from evil and in favor of love and justice. These are outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) And He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which He sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.
Then God did the most amazing thing of all. 4) In Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem in the Middle East, a baby appeared, whose birth we celebrate every year at Christmas time. As the story goes, he was born in a manger, and visited by both shepherds and wise men. He was then forced to flee with his parents to Egypt because he was a threat to the reigning king (Matt 2:1-25; Luke 2:1-20). The reason the Christmas holiday is the high point of the year in Western countries is the conviction that this man, this single, solitary man, was the most important person who ever lived. His name was Jesus.
When Jesus reached adulthood, he went about doing good (Acts 10:38). He had an amazing ability to heal the sick (Matt 8:1-17; John 4:46-54) and, on occasion, even raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44). He brought delight to a wedding couple by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). He fed thousands with a handful of bread and a few fish (Mark 6:30-44; John 6:1-15).
He also taught some memorable things. There were great one-liners like “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other” (Matt 5:39), and “Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:35).” He told unforgettable stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), and the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23). He had memorable encounters with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) and a dead man named Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
But none of that is the reason Jesus’ life was the most important in the history of the world. It was the strange habit Jesus had of going around talking as if He were God. Others have healed people, some have even claimed to raise the dead. But Jesus went beyond that, claiming an eternal relationship with God and doing things that only God can do.
Jesus is often referred to as a good man, or even the best man who ever walked the face of the earth. But neither description is accurate. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
If Jesus were merely another prophet, a man among many, he would be a fraud for claiming to be God. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. And they are the key to explaining how a loving God, who is powerful enough to stop it, could allow so much pain and suffering in this world.

The Infinite Value of Christmas

I interrupt the series on The Problem of Evil to post some thoughts on the meaning of Christmas.

Many people in today’s world are concerned about self-esteem or self-worth. We all have a certain sense of personal value or lack of it, often grounded in childhood experiences. People can spend a lifetime searching for value and few seem to find it in ways that are both satisfying and lasting.

What does this have to do with Christmas? Christmas is not about what we think we are worth, it is about what God thought we were worth when He sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. In the words of Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” In sending Jesus to be born of a woman, God placed a high value on human existence. It was something like the architect of a church becoming a cricket or a beetle to explain to the insects in the church the meaning of their existence and environment.

There are three basic ways that people attempt to find value for themselves. First, they seek value in the things that they possess. This is expressed by the bumper sticker on the Mercedes: “He who dies with the most toys wins!” This is the bottom line approach: the more you have the more you are worth. But it doesn’t really work. The things we buy rot, rust, scratch and crash. The more you have the less value you find in things. And in any case, you can’t take it all with you when you die (although the Pharaohs really tried!). It may feel good to buy stuff, but the feeling doesn’t last. Ask any rich person.

The second way people seek value is in performance, to be the best at something, whether it is sports, business, politics, fashion or even church. “If I can be the best, then I’ll be somebody.” “If I become president, then I’ll be somebody.” And achievement really does mean something. But again, as the basis for self-esteem, it does not last. Athletes get old and decrepit, teachers get old and senile, beauty queens wrinkle and fade, and even if you are at the top of your game, you can still have a bad day, and then what?

The third way people seek value is in other people, what others think of them. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan in the eyes of a young Prince Charming. People drop names of the celebrities they have met. Parents find pride and meaning in their children. But even this method doesn’t last. The people you love may move somewhere else, change their minds, betray you or even die. And nothing is more damaging to self-esteem than divorce. Relationships are meaningful parts of the value we sense in ourselves, but they are rarely permanent enough to based one’s self worth upon.

The bottom line is this. If possessions, performance and people solved all of life’s problems, Tiger Woods would be the happiest man on earth. He is worth a billion dollars, has achieved the top all-time rank in a high-profile sport, and obviously has the attention of more beautiful women than he knows what to do with. But would any reader really want to trade places with him right now? The rich know that things don’t truly satisfy. The high-achievers know the limits of satisfaction that performance provides. The well-connected know how fragile relationships really are. The rest of us are dreaming about things that will not get us where we need to go.

It seems to me that there is only one path to genuine and lasting self-worth. And that is to find our value in relation to a unique kind of friend, someone with the following four characteristics: He or she is genuinely valuable, knows all about us, loves us just the way we are and lives forever. The love of such a friend would provide a sense of worth that would even out the emotional ups and downs of life, it would provide inner peace and stability. To be loved by such a person means it would no longer matter what other people think of us.

Such a friend lives! His name is Jesus. Is He genuinely valuable? He made the whole universe. He knows all there is to know about us, yet loves us just the way we are. Having died on the cross, He will never die again. No one can separate us from His love. To know the love of Christ is have a sense of infinite value, He would have died just for you. And no one, not even death, can take that away from you. That’s the infinite value of God did on the original Christmas day.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin III

Imagine a couple of angels in heaven having a whispered conversation just outside the pearly gates. One angel whispers to the other, “You know, I’m not so sure anymore that God is as loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be. You know what I just heard. . . .?” As the other angel leans forward to hear the juicy tidbit a lightning bolt flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the complaining angel.
Stunned, the other angel seeks out an old friend. “You won’t believe what I just saw! Charleburt was just saying some negative stuff about God and got vaporized by lightning, just like that! You know, maybe he was right. Maybe God isn’t so loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be.” And at that instant another bolt of lightning flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the second angel.
If this kind of thing were to go on for long, what would all the angels be doing? Looking for lightning bolts, worried that they will be next! It would be the end of love and the beginning of fear in their relationship with God. From that time on they would do the right thing and say the right thing, not out of love for God, but out of fear. So eliminating evil the instant it occurs was not an option for a God of love.
A second option for dealing with rebellion would be to sanction it. God could change His law and character to reflect the new realities in the universe. Everybody would be allowed to do whatever they wanted. But this too would be the end of genuine love. It would result in anarchy, “every man for himself.” Evil would become the reigning doctrine in the universe and a destructive chaos would be the result. Injustice would reach even greater proportions than what we now experience, as everyone sought to take what they could from others. Sanctioning rebellion, therefore, was not an option for a God of justice.
As powerful as God was and is, therefore, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom were not many. What was God to do? The Bible offers the answer, which we will cover in the next blog.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin II

As outlined in the previous blog, God created the world and filled it with loving gifts for the human race. He gave the original humans the gift of His love, but He also gave them the gift of freedom (Gen 1:26-28; 2:9, 16-17). He placed His loving heart in their hands to cherish it or reject it. God opened Himself to pain and suffering in order to experience the genuine love of His creation.
And, according to the Bible, things went terribly wrong. First, in heaven there was a being called Lucifer who became enraptured with his God-given abilities and position and led an insurrection against the government of God (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:13-15). Echoes of that insurrection can be found in Rev 12:7-9, NIV. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down– that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Second, Lucifer/Satan did not give up the conflict when he was cast out of heaven, instead he transferred the insurrection to earth by enlisting the support of the first members of the human race, Adam and Eve. In the primeval garden he raised doubts about the character of God and turned Adam and Eve’s trust away from God to themselves (Gen 3:1-7). In the process, their loving relationship with God was broken, and pain and suffering were introduced into the world, resulting in decay and death (Gen 3:8-24). To make it even worse, Adam and Eve’s rejection of God left them subject to the domination of Satan, who had enticed them to no longer trust in God’s love for them.
From that point on in the Bible it could be said of every human being, “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5, NIV). The world became a place of greed, exploitation, murder and chaos. From that time on the earthly evidence regarding God’s nature was a mixed bag, tokens of love mixed with portents of suffering and death. And worse yet, the Bible tells us that the world is the chief battleground of a universal civil war, and its citizens are held hostage by rebel forces. Evil does not exist in this world because God is evil, it exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory.
The question arises at this point. Why didn’t God simply put a stop to evil when it occurred? Why didn’t He stop it in heaven before it ever got to earth? Why not just eliminate evil-doers on the spot and give their squandered freedom to others more worthy?

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin

By popular demand I am re-posting a series on The Problem of Evil that was lost during the shut down of the blog site earlier this year. Hope it’s as good or better than the first time.

There is clearly something wrong with this world. Between acts of genocide, suicide bombers, widespread pollution, random street muggings, sexual abuse and smart bombs that stupidly kill children, we can all tell that some sort of pervasive evil has twisted the minds and hearts of human beings. We long to believe that the world and those who live in it are basically good, but the most of the everyday evidence seems to run in the opposite direction. Can God be good and yet allow so much pain and suffering into the world? Is there any reason to hope that something better lies beneath the surface of what we see and experience?
The Bible tells us that things were not always this way. According to the Bible, before there was an Earth, before there even was a universe, there was an Eternal Lover, a Being whose very nature was and is love. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” this Being declares (Jer 31:3). Before there was an earth or any human being, this loving God envisioned what it would be like to have a universe full of creatures that could love and be loved. Like a woman who falls in love with a baby before it is born, God loved the creation before it was created. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
The Bible goes on to tell us that God prepared the way for the creation by filling it with innumerable tokens of His love. There are the flowers, almost infinite in variety, with hundreds of shades of every imaginable color, with incredible perfumes running from light and delicate to rich and dusky. There are the fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables, with their infinite variety of smells and tastes (Gen 1:11-12; 2:8-9). There are the animals ranging from the awesome and magnificent, like the lion, the tiger and the bull elk, to the unbearably cute, like the koala, the kiwi, the chipmunk and the meerkat (Gen 2:19-20).
The incredible delight one finds in the plants and the animals is not a necessary feature of existence. We could live without a variety of colors and tastes. We could live without animals. But life would not be nearly as enjoyable. We could also live without the songs of birds, but who would want to (excepting perhaps the annoying screech of the sulphur-crested cockatoo)? And that is only the beginning of God’s gifts.
I could speak about mountains and lakes, beautiful sunsets over the ocean, the smell of fresh-cut grass and many other delights. The Bible tells us that these unnecessary but enchanting features of our world are the gifts of an extravagant Lover, who wants to fill the lives of those He loves with exquisite joy (Eccl 3:13; 5:19; Jam 1:17). And in spite of the evil we experience in the world today, these tokens of God’s love are still there to be noticed and enjoyed. But if God’s intentions were so good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the midst of this beauty?
It all goes back to a choice that God made. When it came time to create beings, God had to decide whether these beings would be controlled by Him or whether they would be truly free. One wonders at times whether it would be better if human beings did not have free will. As “robots” we could be programmed to be good and kind and to function in a way that enhances the good of the whole creation. In a world of such beings things would never go wrong.
But there is a problem. Full robotic control leaves no room for love. Imagine your spouse were a robot with a computer for a brain. Imagine you could program him or her to have the perfect body and to respond with loving words and actions in all circumstances. While this may sound like the perfect partner at first blush, the delight in such an arrangement would quickly wear off.
“I love you so much,” you say to your favorite robot.
“I love you with all my silicon,” the robot responds.
When you realize the response isn’t free, the words rapidly become empty. Genuine love requires free will. Genuine love is only meaningful when it is chosen and given as a gift to the other. Genuine love occurs only when someone is also free not to love, or to love someone else. But when someone else is free to love you they are also free to hurt you and reject you. The possibility of love requires the possibility of evil. Freedom is the greatest of all risks.
The bottom line is that love and freedom go together. In order to have one you have to have the other. So when the God who is love, who is the Eternal Lover, decided to create, He also decided to make Himself vulnerable to the choices of His creatures. He made all things good (Gen 1:31), but he also allowed His creatures the freedom not to love, the freedom to reject Him. Ultimately, evil exists not because God is a tyrant, but because He is committed to openness and freedom. Evil exists in this world not because God is powerless, but because He wanted human beings to be powerful in ways that mirrored His own freedom of action.

Final Reflections on the Spiritual Formation Debate

Going beyond spiritual formation and the review of Peth’s book, let me briefly address what I consider a significant and perhaps dangerous misunderstanding in Adventist (and much evangelical) thinking. There is, rightly, a great concern about and fear of ecumenism. What is widely thought of as ecumenism is a process of unifying religious institutions for political advantage. When religion and politics get together bad things happen, especially to faithful believers who have captured the deeper spiritual heart of faith and rejected the political agendas of so many religious institutions. But there is another type of “ecumenism” and that is recognizing God’s call to many individuals in every religious institution on the globe (Rev 18:4). Among the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. are many people who are genuinely seeking truth and have experienced some acquaintance with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God has been in every place before the missionaries ever got there. I have found kindred spirits of genuine faith in many places that I would not have expected.

Peth has focused on the dangers of learning from others, and rightly so. I would wish that he had done so in a more reasoned and academic fashion, but I fully agree that there is a huge danger in opening oneself freely to the ideas of others without a strong grounding in the biblical world view. One can enter a slippery slope in which one gradually morphs from a biblical Jesus-follower to a self-focused eclectic. But there is an equal and opposite danger that Peth’s book does not address. And that is to allow ourselves to be so consumed with the dangers of ecumenism that we close ourselves off spiritually from neighbors, friends and family who think and live differently. God’s end-time remnant will be drawn from every nation, tribe, language and people, and yes, also religion (Rev 14:6; 18:1-4). My fear is that books like the one by Peth may cause us to see demons behind every bush and inspire suspicion of others that closes ourselves off from others at just the time when God is seeking to draw His faithful ones together.

There is an often unwritten thread in Adventist (and evangelical) thought that suggests that our religion has the truth and others are messed up. At the end of time people will abandon the mess-up religions and join ours, making up the end-time remnant (or whatever evangelicals may call it). What this thread does not take seriously is evidence that all religious institutions are messed-up, including our own, whichever that may be. All religious institutions are human attempts to bear witness to a perception of God’s action in the world. This is a good thing. We should honor the acts of God in our midst and call them to the attention of the world. But over time, religious institutions become more and more focused on self-preservation and less and less focused on the original mission. This is why reformations are needed in every faith. At the end of time all religious institutions will be split between those who want to preserve a human shell and those who have maintained or recaptured the original spirit and mission of the faith. The faithful remnant of every religion will in the end prove to have more in common with each other than with colleagues in their own religion. The final proclamations of the gospel and its counterfeit (Rev 14:6-12; 16:13-16– see the Armageddon Trilogy on the main page of the web site) will expose the human (and often satanic) side to institutional religion. God’s faithful ones will find each other in strange and surprising places. The final outcome is drawn in broad strokes in Revelation, but the details will probably surprise us all.

What I have outlined here is messier and will for many be less satisfying than a black and white treatise. But truth is often a tension between two poles (two examples: the divine and the human in Jesus Christ, and the role of faith and works in Christian experience). Finding a balance between the ditch of ecumenism and the ditch of self-important exclusivism is rarely easy. To be open and accepting of people at the same time one is discerning truth and error is challenging in practice. I hope that readers can learn the latter from Peth’s book without developing the mind and attitude of a Pharisee toward those who are sincerely seeking God in the only way they know how to seek Him. One thing Howard Peth and I certainly have in common, although we haven’t met, we both have a lot to learn.

Either/Or Thinking

Another challenge I find in Howard Peth’s book on comtemplative prayer is either/or thinking, which is inadequate to the depth of a subject like this. On pages ix and x (see also pages 54 and 55) this is reflected in three either/or dilemmas. 1) Pastors can “try anything once” or they can uphold the Word of God. But can we not learn from experience at the same time we are learning from the Word? 2) You can have a “seeker-friendly” church or you can have a church built on biblical principles. Wouldn’t it be good to do both as far as possible? 3) You can give people what they want or you can follow the Bible. But are these always mutually exclusive? Doesn’t the gospel strike with the most power when it meets people at points of felt need and common associations (1 Cor 9:19-23)? Perhaps Professor Peth would agree with me on the above once I have worded things in this way, but the book itself often fails to nuance things like this in a helpful way. When a case is weak one tends to overstate it.

On page 17 and other places the author laments that eastern mysticism is “infiltrating” the western Christian church. I don’t doubt that this is the case, and some or much of that deserves concern. But I see little recognition of the fact that the Bible itself is an eastern book and that Western Christianity has often distorted the biblical message by reading it through the filter of western culture and philosophy. We don’t even notice that we are doing this, because that culture and philosophy is ingrained in who we are. To make this an “either/or” is not helpful. To read the Bible with western eyes inevitably distorts some things and some aspects of eastern thinking do bring us back a little closer to the biblical world view.

In discussing specific individuals a major method of Peth’s book is the ad hominem (“against the man”) argument. This involves the use of emotive words and pejorative language (such as “brainwash,” “proclamation of another gospel,” “liberal, loose and free-thinking pastors” “not Bible doctrine but babbling dialogue,” “watered-down gospel”) to create a sense in the reader that the people being described are not trustworthy or even dangerous. This is a tactic often used when a person realizes that an argument is weak. I once teased a friend that his arguments were 50% logic and 50% ridicule. The weaker the logic, the greater the tendency to use emotive and pejorative language to carry an audience that would not otherwise buy the argument. But such methods actually signal the weakness rather than the strength of an argument.

The key figure under attack in Peth’s book is Richard Foster. The arguments against Foster are as follows. First, the title and contents of his book Celebration of Discipline are modeled on Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Second, Foster is a Quaker, Quakers believe such and such, therefore, Foster teaches such and such. Noting this connection can be academically useful. But when I see how Adventists are often viewed in the light of David Koresh, I am cautious in applying this insight with finality. What I missed in Peth’s book was much analysis of what Foster actually wrote in his book. The closest Peth comes to an analysis of Foster’s actual work is on page 75 where two short and very general quotes (one sentence each) are then expanded and interpreted to support Peth’s viewpoint. Third, Foster seldom quotes the Bible in his book, getting his teachings from non-Christian or non-protestant sources. This too is helpful to observe. But there is a reason for Foster’s approach. The Bible strongly encourages prayer, yet rarely says much about how to actually do it in practice. Thus a book like Foster’s inevitably will take a more scientific approach of seeing what various people have tried and evaluating what works or does not work. How well Foster does this is worthy of examination, but I don’t find it surprising that a book on the practics of spiritual life might range far afield in search of options that could be useful to Christians. Adventists, certainly, got interested in Foster’s book and others because of the sense that other Christian communities knew more about caring for spiritual life and growth than we did. Interestingly, Peth notes that Foster himself warns readers in a later book of the dangers of demonic activity (page 69), so one can wonder if Peth is drawing the distinctions between him and Foster a bit too fine.

Given the mystical sources of Foster’s book in the eastern and Catholic religions, it is well that we read with caution. But reading Peth’s book has actually encouraged me to pick up Foster’s book again and see what I may have missed the first time around. If I get the time to do that I will report what I find in this blog.

Guilt by Association

In the previous three blogs I have been setting the context for some concerns I have about Howard Peth’s book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). The book has been used to justify attacks on the Theological Seminary at Andrews University for a program I described from personal experience in the first blog. As I noted in the second blog, Peth’s book has value for those unschooled in the intricacies of spiritual growth and development. It warns the novice against the danger of emptying one’s mind to either one’s interior voices or an external influence that can be diabolical as well as benign. This is a valid point and worth making. Nevertheless, I wonder if the book will not prove in the end to do as much harm as it does good. This is certainly not the author’s intention, nor that of those who published the book. But the possibility deserves at least brief consideration here.

There are two major concerns I have about the book. First, the positive points in the book could have been made even more powerfully in 3-5 pages than in the 90 pages offered. The length of the book leads to much repetition along with examples and illustrations that often weaken the point rather than strengthen it. There is material in the book for a very good article, but over 90 pages the point is lost in questionable assumptions and illustrations. I will go into those a bit more detail below.

Second, the main purpose of the book does not seem to be the positives I mention in the previous blog but more of an attack piece on Evangelical Protestantism and its supposed selling out to the Papacy, at least in matters related to prayer and meditation. The author does not name Seventh-day Adventist authors or institutions, so the reader is left to decide whether he feels that some such have already sold out as well or whether this is merely an early warning. But he certainly names some very popular writers and speakers who have influence among Seventh-day Adventists, so if there is guilt by association (and that is a major argument in the book), the book is a subtle indictment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and many of its thought leaders (though this indictment is subtle enough that a church publishing house chose to put its name on the book). But maybe I am making too much of that point, so I’ll just leave it an open question. Perhaps the author will be willing to respond.

The primary argument in the author’s case appears to be guilt by association. If you are a Roman Catholic you practice negative forms of contemplative prayer (even though they have been condemned by the previous pope). If you have quoted a Catholic or know a Quaker you are guilty. If you know or have read Richard Foster, you are guilty. If a spiritualist likes something you have said, you are guilty. Terms like spiritual formation and contemplative prayer are used by so and so, therefore anyone who has used these terms is guilty. In careful scholarship, associations and influence are important in establishing what a person could know or believe. But by itself association is a very weak argument, assuming that a person cannot associate with another and still disagree or maintain their own integrity (as we saw in the previous blog, that argument could be made about Peth’s relationship with Oakland and Yungen as well).

What the book lacks is clear documentation that most of the people mentioned in the book actually teach and practice what the author is opposing. I, for one, read books by Foster and Willard some 20-25 years ago and never picked up the “empty your mind” concept of meditation from them. One can, perhaps, read between the lines of their books and see such a concept, but Peth’s book does not demonstrate that it is clearly taught there. Arguing guilt by association introduces suspicion toward other believers. One begins with the assumption that there is something wrong with somebody and then searches for hints and turns of phrase to demonstrate what would not be obvious in a normal reading of the text.

A good example is the comment about Beth Moore on page 26. In a 2002 comment, Beth Moore says that practicing God’s presence in her life is a number one goal. And she finds God in the “stillness.” Does this “stillness” mean a removal of distractions, or something much more sinister? That is not demonstrated in Peth’s book, it is merely alleged on the basis of the word chosen. We all struggle with distractions as we pray, so it would seem strategies that can help focus the mind on Scripture and God would be important and helpful. My wife has taken a number of classes with Beth Moore’s material and was shocked to hear that she would be accused of a negative form of prayer. When I shared Peth’s description of negative forms of contemplative prayer, she said, “I never heard anything like that from her, she is always grounded in the Bible.” For what it’s worth.

In the next blog I will address another major challenge I have in appreciating Peth’s book. Then I will draw some general reflections on the larger context of this debate.

Questionable Sources

Since writing the previous blog I have been thinking. I have decided that before getting into Howard Peth’s book directly, it may be useful to set some background to the current controversy among Seventh-day Adventists. Peth quotes from time to time from the work of Roger Oakland and Ray Yungen. While he quotes from many sources and does not express direct dependance on these men, there is much similarity in tone and substance. Their influence on him seems at least as strong if not stronger than the Quaker and Catholic influences on Richard Foster.

I mention Oakland and Yungen because they have placed themselves at the crucial intersection between evangelical and Adventist thinking on spiritual formation. They both appear to be extreme dispensationalists, a perspective on prophecy radically at odds with Adventism at its very core (although they share a similar suspicion of the Papacy). So it is to be wondered why Adventists would take their work as seriously as many in Peth’s camp seem to. It is interesting to me that Peth and his colleagues seem to feel that they can pick and choose from the work of Oakland and Yungen and remain “undefiled.” But if that is the case, why cannot other Adventists take a similar approach to the works of Foster, Willard, Warren and MacLaren? Why is guilt by association somehow valid in the latter case but not in the former? It seems like a process of selective evidence to me. In reality we are learning from others and influenced by many sources. We all have to exercise spiritual discernment in this process and make sure our own selective use of Scripture is not as deeply flawed as those we criticize.

Oakland and Yungen have been studying and reporting on issues of spiritual formation and prayer for a dozen years, naming names and institutions in the evangelical world that they feel have sold out to eastern mysticism. Then in 2007 they came across an Adventist News Network article that mentioned (positively) how spiritual formation (in the sense of developing habits of Bible study and prayer) was getting increased attention at the Andrews Seminary and many local churches. Interpreting the phrase along the lines of their previously formed opinions about spiritual formation, they assumed that Adventists were buying into all the negatives that they had seen elsewhere. They posted material lumping Adventists as part of the whole Christian world that was falling away from God into spiritualistic apostasy.

Sometime after that a few Adventists here and there read Oakland’s work and began sounding the alarm within Adventism. The warnings of John Witcombe and Rick Howard fall into this category and also the book by Howard Peth that I am reviewing. For a full, fair and kind accounting of these developments I strongly suggest everyone get hold of a copy of the article by Dave Thomas (“The Great ‘Spiritual Formation’ Kerfuffle”) in Spectrum, volume 40, issue 1, Winter, 2012, 44-49. He documents in detail the journeys of Oakland and Yungen, their influence upon Adventism, and some of the more recent developments as a result. This is valuable background to the concerns I will address in the blog(s) that follow (don’t know how many yet).

(Additional Note– 12/3/14) As many may be aware, Dave Thomas’s article has been attacked by the same people who are finding fault with Walla Walla University’s approach to spiritual development training right now. I think Walla Walla’s opponents are sincere and seem to be godly people, but Dave Thomas has huge credibility with me as a careful thinker and keen analyst of trends in the church. So while his 2012 article may not prove accurate in every detail, I am confident in its overall helpfulness to the issue.