Thursday, May 6, 2010

Reviewing Adventist Today

Spring 2010
Vol. 18, No. 2

I live in hope that the next issue of AT will be brilliant. I’m still hoping. This issue is only marginally better than the last, but the copyediting is sloppy; (Authors deserve better help.) theological arguments are, for the most part, irrational, esoteric, poorly organized, and unconvincing; and the issues discussed have little relevance to an Adventist world on the brink of a General Conference. Finally, editors, why is Desmond Ford getting so many pages?

The title of J. David Newman’s editorial, CHURCH INSTITUTIONS ARE NOT NECESSARILY CHRISTIAN. The title should read, Are Adventist Institutions Christian Enough? Newman argues that the Gospel commission is not just to do good, i.e. “heal the sick, feed the poor, comfort the afflicted”. The Gospel commission “was to preach ‘the good news of the kingdom’, and part of [Christ’s] method was ‘healing every disease and sickness among the people’”(Matt. 4:23, NIV).

Newman believes that unselfish benevolence is an entering wedge, “a means to a greater goal”. Is it? Or is unselfish benevolence itself a proclamation of the Gospel?

The question, IS GOD IMMORAL? Bedevils every Christian theologian who assumes that the god of the Old Testament is really the God revealed in the New. They go to great irrational, convoluted, horrifying lengths to make the god of Numbers 31, the one that ordered the murder of boys and encouraged to the Israelite army to rape and murder girls and women*, Jesus himself. “If you have seen me, you have seen the father,” doesn’t seem to compute for these folks. Desmond Ford is no exception. He quotes Thomas Scott to support his position.

“The sword of war should spare women and children, as incapable of resisting; but the sword of justice knows no distinction, except that of guilty or not guilty, and more or less guilty. This was the execution of a righteous sentence upon a guilty nation, in which the women were the principal criminals; and perhaps particular instructions had been given on this head: therefore Moses was angry, when he found that the women had been spared. If those concerned in the detestable project of Balaam had been preserved as captives, they would have been a constant temptation to the people and they could not be known from the rest except by miracle.

“Orders were therefore given to put all the women to death, and the male children, and only to spare the female children who could not be supposed to have been culpable; and who, being brought up among the Israelites, would not tempt them to idolatry. It has been groundlessly asserted that Moses authorized the Israelites to make concubines of the whole number of female children, or even promiscuously to debauch them; and a formidable objection against his writings have been grounded on this strange supposition. But the whole tenor of the law and especially a statute hereafter to be considered proves the contrary (Deut. 21:10-14).

“They were merely permitted to possess them as female slaves; while all the laws concerning marriage and concubinage, and against fornication and whoredom, were in full force, in this, as well as in other cases. But what shall we say of the execution of all the male infants who could not personally be guilty in this matter? … Had they lived, they might have conspired to avenge the death of their parents on Israel: and the example was thus rendered more tremendous, warning parents not to imitate the guilt of the Midianites, lest they should involve their beloved offspring in destruction. … It should also be remembered that children are constantly involved in the desolations occasioned by famines, pestilences and earthquakes.” (Thomas Scott, Commentary on the Holy Bible)

Ford also claims to speak for all philosophers when he asserts, “Philosophers are agreed that evil itself would be no problem if there were no God. All moral outrage is irrational unless the background premise of thought is the existence of Deity. So it is belief in God that creates evil in all its forms.” Really? Belief in God creates evil?

Ford also has difficulty differentiating the difference between literary allusion and reality except when Jesus alludes to a hell Ford doesn’t believe in.

“But there is absolutely nothing in the Old Testament so horrifying as our Lord’s words recorded in Mark 9:42-49: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. … And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. … And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For every one will be salted with fire” (RSV).

Finally, Desmond Ford should be reminded that God was unable to explain evil to Job. He could only remind his suffering servant that He existed.

* Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. (Numbers 31: 17, 18)

THE CANVASBACK CONSPIRACY: A TRIBUTE TO SYDNEY ALLEN authored by his son Edward, had the potential to be at least a cautionary history lesson involving Adventist politics at and around Loma Linda University. Instead, his tribute became entangled in his father’s famous insider fable and became a morass of explanations about which animals were who, rather than a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man. (Editors, get your thumbs out!)

Once again, PROPHECY AND SCARE TACTICS by T. Joe Willey had the potential to great. Unfortunately, editorial guidance was lacking. Fortunately, the following story justifies the read (perhaps even the issue), which includes an evangelist’s take on prophecy’s role in evangelism and the church.

Joe discovered his dad’s rolled up evangelistic posters when he was cleaning out his garage, and invited his him over to comment on what he’d found.

“The [largest] poster read: The Devil Boycotts These Meetings!!! Standing there, my curiosity sprang up—the temptation too much—and I broke into his thoughts. “How did you use this poster, Pops?” He continued standing in silence, gathering up bits of strewn memory, and then he cocked his head to one side like a raven that has just seen its image in a mirror.

“We rented a bright-red devil suit with horns and a long, curved tail from a Halloween costume store downtown,” he said. “The deacon in the church put on The devil suit and walked back and forth in front of the tent, carrying this sign over his shoulder. He had a pitchfork in his other hand. People would drive by, slow down, gawk, then speed away like misfortune was about to strike. At first the deacon got to jumping up and down on the sidewalk, shaking his fist, and
frightening people away. So we had to subdue his ardor as a pretend devil. Some came in out of curiosity. If they listened to 10 sermons, we gave them a free Bible.”

“We continued talking about how an evangelist in his day gathered precious souls for the kingdom of God using shifting prophetic headlines. After a time I jokingly asked him, “Pops, I know you never meant to scare anyone using fictitious prophecies, but have you ever thought about taking out a full-page ad in Newsweek or Time magazine? You could apologize to the general public for frightening them with false and troublesome prophecies that were so readily replaced by new canvases of eschatological artworks after the war.”

“The kind of man who enjoys a ribbing, my dad put his hands in his pockets and looked at me firmly with his jaw set. ‘I need to explain something to you, young man,” he said, using a quaint Scandinavian accent he liked to mimic. “Prophecy cannot fail and does not fail for the committed! Prophecy is used to show that the world is governed by Providence. The bows and arrows found in Ezekiel are changed in modern times to tanks, rockets, and atom bombs. When people start believing that prophecy fails or they lose their prophetic enthusiasm, their convictions soften and they are likely to stay in the church simply because the church becomes institutionalized with many layers of management and security. Viewed this way, such an institution likes long-term commitments from the congregants, but not the prospect of imminent danger or the end of the world.’”

CHANGING THE WORLD by Shawn Brace deserves to be a backup piece to be shortened and included only at the last moment if, due to miscalculation, it is discovered that one more page is needed for the folio. The moral is, “Pastors, don’t neglect your families in your attempts to change the world.” To make maters worse, the copyediting is abysmal. It’s too painful to document every instance, but I offer just one sentence fragment as an example. “I can remember a few months ago when I flew across the country for a speaking engagement.”

OPEN COMMUNION? WHY NOT THE KIDS by James Coffin is another backup piece. The title says it all. It certainly doesn’t deserve the full page, very cool graphic that accompanies it.

What is obvious to any but the most uninformed, would appear to require no further research. However, DEATH BEFORE SIN is Ole C. Olsen’s attempt to discover “whether or not one could remain rooted in the Bible and still believe that death came before Adam’s sin”. Could this idea be supported from the Bible or Ellen White? After an extensive search, Olsen could come up with only a few “distinctly minority interpretations” that just might support the idea. If these unlikely interpretations were accepted as plausible:

“Creation week” could easily cease to be a six-day event, even though clearly written with that viewpoint in mind.

“The Garden of Eden could be seen as an outpost, a heavenly beachhead on a planet already filled with life and death (but not second death)—a promise of what the whole world could become under Adam’s dominion. (Note the strong parallel to Adventist expectations that the Holy City, New Jerusalem, will
arrive on earth, surrounded by Satan’s final rebellion, at the end of the Millennium.)

“The “death” brought by Adam’s (and Eve’s) sin could be seen as that of “second death”—accountability before our Creator— rather than “temporal death, for all must suffer this.”

“The origins of death and fossils could predate Adam and Eve.

“Any such pre-Adam, “temporal” death could be seen as originating on earth after the fall of Lucifer; hence, after sin— just not Adam’s sin.

“The atonement of Jesus as the Messiah could then be focused on Adam and Eve and their descendents as well as a world that still agonizes for “the Creator’s glorious plan” to be fulfilled.

“Finally, sharing the good news of the gospel could need to include admitting that God somehow tolerated eons of adaptation, predation, disease and extinction, before initiating his plan for eternal life in the Garden of Eden.

“We could feel forced to become “agnostic” (if not evolutionary) as to the origins of “natural” life that predated Adam.”

“In summary, there appears to be a little “wiggle room” for a longer story than I like. It appears to me that a believer can still treasure the Bible and value Ellen White even though one is convinced that there was life on earth millions of years ago. Many who attended my Sabbath School class expressed their appreciation that I had opened that possibility.” Whew!

GENERAL CONFERECE: LIVING IN HOPE is a call to account, even if “we don’t have a prophetic messenger”. Alden Thompson assures us that “we [Adventists] know what we have to do” when we get together, but his only admonition is to maintain “the rules of courtesy and Christian deportment” and pray when we get home, as counseled by Ellen White in 1901. Is that asking too much? Is that enough?

James Coffin reviews The Greatest of All the Prophets by Russell R., and Colin D. Standish, (Rapidan, VA: Hartland Publications, 2004), 411 pages.

The review is titled a BLAST FROM THE PAST, and it most certainly is. Why the editors decided that this book warranted a three page review is a mystery to me. The authors of The Greatest of All the Prophets defend Ellen G. White’s inerrant prophetic role and denounce “those who’ve sought to paint a more human and fallible picture of her prophetic ministry.”

Coffin continues, “While I find the overall spirit of The Greatest of All the Prophets objectionable, I sympathize with the authors on several points. The theology the Standishes espouse is the theology with which I grew up. The triumphalism, legalism, perfectionism, judgmentalism, exclusivism, and isolationism—that’s my perception, at least—were all part of my spiritual instruction. The book Questions on Doctrine was anathematized in my home church.”

“Perhaps surprisingly, I’d recommend that people who are interested in either Adventist theology or Adventist history read it—despite its excesses. . .My guess is that a lot of younger Adventists, even pastors, have never encountered the theology defended by the Standishes. If for no other reason, they should examine it because it is part of our denomination’s history.” In addition, it might help them better understand the publications of the Adventist Theological Society and the Biblical Research Institute.

7 QUSTIONS FOR HERB DOUGLASS is the first interview by Marcel Schwantes that is a waste of time. Marcel seems satisfied with Douglass’ tired clichés randomly inserted in meaningless blather.

ADVENTIST MAN is his usual irreverent self as he comments on resumes, salvation, the last days, and pacts with the devil. Once again, the caped crusader soars above an issue of Adventist Today that breaks my heart.

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