Believers and Scholars

I am interrupting my series on What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? to share some updates on the Sunday Law article I posted as blogs some time ago. I will continue the Jesus series very soon. But first I want to share some thoughts on the role of scholarship in relation to faith.

When I explore controversial topics, I come at them from two different angles, and I don’t always distinguish them clearly, which can lead to confusion. First of all, I am a believer. As a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist and a loyal son of the church, I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. I believe and teach the 28 Fundamentals of Adventist faith. I believe that God spoke to Ellen G. White in ways He does not speak to me, which gives her important authority to guide me. I have made strong personal commitments to the above, and that means my default position on the issue of Sunday laws in the final period of earth’s history is grounded in Adventist understandings of the book of Revelation and in the book The Great Controversy and its many predecessors. This is what I believe, and I am not ashamed of it.

I also come to topics like this as a scholar. My role as a scholar of faith is to test and probe what I believe on the basis of the best biblical, historical and experiential evidence available. And I do this not only for myself, but also for the church I love. I am motivated to do this by a powerful statement from the pen of Ellen G. White. “It is important that in defending the doctrines which we consider fundamental articles of faith we should never allow ourselves to employ arguments that are not wholly sound. These may avail to silence an opposer but they do not honor the truth. We should present sound arguments, that will not only silence our opponents, but will bear the closest and most searching scrutiny.” Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 708. This is my goal in the following. I do not write this to trouble the saints, but to strengthen and clarify what the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy teach. On the other hand, the saints sometimes need a little troubling, and I’ll leave the outcome in God’s hands.

An example of how good scholarship can clarify and strengthen faith happened in the Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference, which met from 1981-1992. As the youngest member of that committee, I am in a good position to tell the story. When we came to Revelation 13 (from 1988-1991) we noticed that Uriah Smith saw parts of Revelation 13 as historical (occurring during the Middle Ages primarily) and parts of it as eschatological (occurring at the very End). But it was not clear that this distinction could be based on the text itself, it seemed more intuitive than exegetical. As we looked at the chapter carefully in the original Greek, I believe God guided us to look carefully at the main verb tenses in the chapter. We discovered that Revelation 13:1-7 and 13:11 were all in past tenses, while 13:8-10 and 13:12-18 were all in present and future tenses. These tenses coincided with the divisions Smith had made on theological grounds. The parts of chapter 13 Smith had placed in the Middle Ages were all in past tenses in the Greek! And the parts he had placed in the future were all in present and future tenses in the Greek. None of us would probably have noticed this shift alone, but studying together, we were able to greatly strengthen an important Adventist understanding. What Adventists had earlier taught and Great Controversy had affirmed, proved to be supported by careful Greek exegesis.

In addition to the Greek tenses, we also came to notice that when John (or Jesus) introduced a new character into a vision, he usually gave a visual description of that character and also a summary of that character’s history or back story before continuing the vision. When the beast is seen coming up out of the sea, there is a visual description (Rev 13:1-2), followed by the beast’s previous history (13:3-7). Then the beast acts in the context of the vision itself (13:8-10). After this a beast from the earth arises. There is a brief visual description and back story (13:11). Then comes a vision of that beast’s collaboration with the first beast in the final crisis (13:12-18). If you will check the previous paragraph, this distinction tracks exactly with the tense shifts in the passage. This is exegetically compelling and gives strong support to the way Uriah Smith and other Adventists have read Revelation 13 in the past, even if they did not based their understandings on exegesis of the original text.

So godly scholarship, while testing, probing and sometimes challenging what we have believed, is done in service to the church. When such scholarship supports what the church has always believed and taught, such scholars can become quite popular. On the other hand, when the basis for a teaching proves not as strong as we had hoped, the scholar who points that out is often vilified as an unbeliever. Yet both processes are necessary if we are to “honor the truth”. Misuse of Scripture has a major reason many become atheists. Misuse of Ellen White is a major reason people reject her ministry. Godly scholarship can help protect church from underplaying things that are actually solid or overplaying things that are not. Either way, the process is necessary and important.

2 thoughts on “Believers and Scholars

  1. Hansen

    In certain respects, scholarship in Adventism has done a lot of damage to the denomination. There is an emphasis on proper footnoting and bibliographic citations instead of bringing people to the cross for salvation. In a couple of informal surveys conducted in a major metropolitan area with numerous SDA churches, the average number of people baptized in a year by each pastor was 8. That included the children of existing members. When the number of ordained ministers working a conference was divided into the number of baptisms, the number was also about 8. A degree in theology is not necessary to share Christ with people. It may actually remove a person too far from the intellectual milieu of the people he is trying to reach. Admittedly, I’m not much of a soul winner but I’m not being paid to do that. Talking to people about the 7 trumpets, the mark of the beast, the state of the dead had little to do with being used by God to convince people of their sinfulness and need of a Saviour. Character perfection is hardly impacted by academic qualifications [I have neither]. At Glacier View, for example, there were more than a dozen participants who had either verbally or through correspondence signaled their agreement with Dr. Ford , yet not one of these individuals spoke up in favor of his views or protested, at the time, the way he was handled. What does that say about Christian character, when the best scholars in the denomination are cowed into silence by administrators? Apparently Jack Provonsha was the only person who spoke up for Dr. Ford; however, recently, it has been reported by actual participants that they were “uncomfortable,” “reluctant,” “going to resign” brought to tears by the goings on, yet they did/said nothing. One participant apparently privately told Neal Wilson that he agreed with Dr. Ford. The response was, “That’s fine. Just don’t go public.” Larry Geraty reported in a recent Spectrum interview that when the Sanctuary doctrine was being reviewed/prepared for inclusion in the fundamental beliefs, not one scholar in the room thought that it was believable; nevertheless, the statement was voted because the administration wanted it. GV didn’t require a split second decision, neither did the meeting to which Dr. Geraty referred. How is it that SDA can talk about being martyred, tortured, seeing their spouses buried alive or burned to death or drowned over the Sabbath when we can’t take a stand for the gospel if it risks losing our health insurance, gas allowance or employment?

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  2. DeWayne Buther

    With the change in tenses of the verb. Would the past tenses apply to Uriah Smith’s time or to John the Revelator’s time?

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