10 Jan

WHAT IS TRUTH FOR?

By Mic Thurber — One of the most often quoted questions from Scripture came from pagan lips: “What is truth?” Pilate really wanted to know, but when confronted with the truth as embodied in Jesus as He stood before him, he wasn’t willing to let truth change him.

As Seventh-day Adventists, we highly value truth. We even speak of those who join our fellowship as those “who come into the truth.” And if someone asks a long-time church member how long they’ve belonged, they might say some- thing like: “I’ve been in the truth for 45 years…”

We esteem truth because, well, we want to be right—right about important things. But I wonder sometimes if our emphasis on “the truth” makes us forget what Jesus said about Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

After all, we don’t believe in righteousness by information— we believe in righteousness through faith in Jesus and His marvelous grace.

Truth’s best advantage comes in helping us understand our great God and His plan for our lives. It is not a tool for us to wield on someone who has less truth than we might have. It’s not to be used to show superiority, or draw battle lines, but to draw us ever closer to the heart of a great God that invites us to get to know Him.

I’ve been thinking about a way to describe how careful we need to be in handling truth, both within our fellowship and when we interface with people not of our belief system.

In western North Carolina near where I went to academy is a mountain after which our school was named. Mt Pisgah could be seen from various spots on campus. It could also be seen for miles around in virtually every direction in that part of the state.

The thing that struck me is this: though the mountain was always the same, its shape and profile varied—sometimes quite a bit—depending on the vantage point of the viewer.

So, if you tried to explain what it looked like to someone from a given spot, the description would only match the mountain if the two of you were standing at the same spot. It would not match the view of another person just a few miles down the road. Same mountain. Different views. It depends on the ground upon which the viewer stands.

Over my life and ministry, I’ve noticed that while truth never changed, my perspective on it would often change and grow according to where I was at the time. Some things that I was once very sure about would take on different shades of meaning once I reached other places in my life or spiritual journey. Sort of like driving on a road for miles with Mt. Pisgah in view. Same truth. Different views. It depended on where I was standing at the time.

That’s one very important reason why we need to be more respectful of truth than we sometimes are.

Truth is much bigger than we are. And we should be loath to pronounce that we have, hold, and know the full truth. We need to be willing to admit that we have more to learn. And we should allow for the reality that each of us are in different places in our spiritual journey. So, things could well look different to each of us depending on where we are at any given moment.

Perhaps it’s less important to “win” in an argument over truth than it is to encourage one another on our journey toward the Kingdom. This allows the truth we do see at any given moment to spur us on toward Jesus. That might help us answer a question Pilate didn’t ask but perhaps should have: “What is truth for?”

–Mic Thurber is the RMC president. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH

By Gary Patterson — In an ironic twist of the legal process, one of Scripture’s most significant questions is asked by a man who did not comprehend the implications of his inquiry nor wait for the answer in the one place he might have found it. Jesus stands before Pilate who is struggling over a decision whether to punish a man he does not believe to be guilty or to free him and risk a riot among the people he is supposed to be able to rule. It is not an easy decision. Principle and pragmatism are often not easy bedfellows.

In response to Pilate’s interrogation, Jesus states, “I came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 18:37 NIV). Pilate, in his well-trained skepticism, is accustomed to hearing opposing testimonies both purporting to be the truth. And he asks, with somewhat of a sneer, I imagine, “What is truth?”

It is a good question, one we all too seldom ponder. What is truth? Is it my perception of the way things are? Is it the perception of the church? Is it the word of the teacher or the will of society? Is it the consensus of some authoritative group? Is there somewhere an absolute pure crystalline truth which we may reach—or at least reach out to? Is it the words of Scripture, or the words of Ellen White, or the words of the General Conference in session? And if it is any of these, whose ensuing interpretation of this truth is correct?

Christians share a common source of truth, the “Scriptures.” And prime among texts supporting this stance are the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” How do we know that? This may seem to be an impertinent question, given our long-standing acceptance of the idea. But it is not impertinent. Indeed, it is an honest, even a needful, question to ask. Do we accept Scripture as truth on the basis of such claims in the text?

Or do we accept it as truth because someone told us it was the truth? When faced with the full reality of these questions, we often opt for a third declarative possibility. It is true because I believe it. Yet any of these three notions taken alone, and to extreme, is dangerous.

To accept the authenticity of a sacred text on the basis of its internal claim to Divine origin would force us to accept any document which purports such credentials, regardless of its content. Such would be an incredibly contradictory and polytheistic position. Yet accepting the authenticity of a sacred text on the word of another is to become a papist.

It matters not what “father” has told us—biological father, father church, or other father figures we might choose as our authority—for when we abandon individual responsibility for such decisions, we give ourselves over to papism.

Further, to accept or reject a sacred text on the basis of our own personal judgment—having checked it out by and for ourselves—is to become an existentialist. Accepting only what we perceive and experience on our own exposes us to limited horizons and helical reasoning. Before we go further, we should attempt a working definition of a “sacred text.” For the purpose of this investigation, let us say that a sacred text is a collection of documents, sayings, or instructions held in respect and taken as of Divine authority and origin within a community of believers or adherents.

With this definition, we recognize that there are many “sacred texts.” There are sayings of Confucius, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Pentateuch, the Holy Bible, the Testimonies—we could go on at length. These are taken as being of Divine origin and are given authority in a community of believers. They serve in varying degree as the source of authoritative principles for their adherents. It must be observed, however, that authority is not universally inherent in these texts by themselves. This is evident in the fact that one community does not accept the authority of another community’s sacred text. Rather, the authority of the text is a derivative, granted by a community of believers and adherents who accept them.

But how is this authority derived? There are two primary methods by which such authority is established. These are reason and force. Reason appeals to logic and truth. It invites rational examination of the facts. It calls for intelligent decisions. Force, on the other hand, resorts to strength over weakness, the granting of favors or the denial of needs. It seeks to buy allegiance through the manipulation of one’s response to pleasure or pain.

There is a tendency to assume that truth is the derivative of authority. But this is the case in the “force” model which is not acceptable as a Christian viewpoint. It does not present a valid image of God who appeals to reason among free-willed individuals. Authority is a derivative of truth. And when authority deviates from truth, it is no longer reliable as an authority. That is how we know not to trust it. The truths of the Bible are not true because the Bible is the authority. Rather, the Bible is the authority because it speaks the truth. God’s words are not authority because He spoke them. Rather, since He always speaks the truth, He is the authority. Indeed, He is the very source of truth.

In this setting, it is significant to contrast the rational approach of Jesus with the authoritative mentality of the priests. While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, they came to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23 NIV). No appeal to reason or truth is in their words, only to power.

Jesus easily confounds this approach with a reasonable question regarding the work of John the Baptist. “Was his baptism of God or of man?” The priests are in a dilemma. If they say of God, they support both the work of John and Jesus; if they say of man, they risk the ire of the people. It is again the conundrum of principle and pragmatism. So, they refuse to answer. Instead, “they looked for a way to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that He was a prophet” (Matthew 21:46 NIV). They sought to exercise authority not by reason, but by force.

As noted at the outset, it was His comment about truth and His purpose in life which occasioned the inquiry of Pilate. He said, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV). For Jesus, authority is established by a rational appeal to truth, not by force.

Merely to claim godly origin does not make a sacred text. If the claim alone were to establish the veracity of a given message, then we would be obliged to accept every self-appointed prophet who came along. In fact, Scripture warns us that many false “christs” and false prophets will come. It will be necessary for the Christian community to exercise a judgment factor in every claim to Divine authority. We are to “try the spirits.” It is to be done according to “the law and the testimony.” Reason and truth are to prevail.

Misuse of revelation takes many forms—the false prophet, the misguided charismatic, the individual who refuses to reason because, as they say, “I have prayed about this and God has shown me . . . .” There is no reasoning with such as these. When one assumes to have received the direct word of God on a given matter, it is no longer possible to enter into meaningful dialogue with them in which we attempt to test the validity of the revelation.

The charismatic no longer sees need to reason the Scriptures because their perception of the “truth” has been confirmed to them in supernatural manifestations. Even the impressions of the one who has “prayed” about their concerns become a blockade to Scriptural reasoning. Such spurious “revelations” result in the rejection of reason. Supernatural revelation cannot be the authority by which truth is judged. Rather, it is just the opposite. Truth is the authority by which revelation is judged. Indeed, our scriptural canon of sacred texts was determined by councils of the church. It came to its present accepted makeup about the end of the fourth century A.D. at the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).

How were such decisions made? We can only guess, for no record of the process is extant. But one assumes that the process would not be significantly different than that which we would employ in similar circumstances. Not all the books if of the Bible are the message of “inspired prophets.” Some indeed are, such as Daniel and Isaiah, for example. Others are historical material. Some, such as Luke, even indicate that they are compilations of other recorded accounts. Still, other books are collections of songs, poems, or personal stories, and some are even private letters to individuals.

The source of all godly inspiration is the same. Source is not the issue. The issue is the purpose of the message, and the breadth of the intended audience. Some inspired works are of a passing and transitory nature. Others are for a wider audience and longer duration. Thus, we ask the wrong question when we seek to establish authority on the basis of inspiration. It can only be judged by the people to whom it is addressed in the full light of truth and reason.

Canon is the work of the people of a given community. God may or may not be part of such work. We, as Christians, would agree that He was an active force in the establishment of our “Holy Bible”. But we would question that He was involved with the Koran, for example. Yet in the Muslim community, the Koran is taken as the word of God (Allah). Canon is the work of a community, and the option available to the individual is choosing or rejecting a community which adheres to a given canon, unless we wish to establish our own canon individually.

Peter observes that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (1 Peter 1:20). His reference is to the work of the Holy Spirit on the prophets of old. But the same principle may apply to the use of Scripture within the Christian community. It is not of private interpretation. That same Holy Spirit is operative within the community today, saving us from the folly of our own narrowness. This principal applies, not only to prophetic messages, but to scriptural interpretations as well.

Ultimate truth does exist in God, but individual perceptions of it are affected by the perceptual filters through which it is observed. All human instruments—including the writers and communicators of sacred texts—do their work in the setting of such perspectives and viewpoints.

Of this fact Ellen White observes, “The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language…The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen… The words receive the impress of the individual mind… The mind is not cramped, as if forced into a certain mold.” (Excerpted from 1 SM pp. 19-22).

In the Seventh-day Adventist Church community, the Christian canon is set and accepted. And in this context, we have been fond of the Lutheresque phrase, sola scriptura, as a description of our attitude toward the Bible. Yet even Luther, with his fond protestations otherwise, did not practice such an extreme position. If indeed this were to be our position, then there would be no place for church and community authority. Every individual would be required to make all judgments privately without the aid of Christian community.

Rather, the church has practiced prima scriptura in its relation to the Bible and its communicants. Indeed, Scripture is the primary and first authority of the church, but it is not the only authority. All other authorities must be derived from and checked by Scripture.

But we do not recognize reality if we seek to deny that other authorities exist. If it were not for church authority, there would be no means of reaching consensus and no establishment of accepted doctrine. Anyone could believe and practice anything they chose. Such a situation would be chaotic. The community defines and interprets Scripture in such a way that individuals are either drawn together or separated by variant views. Thus, the individual chooses one given community of faith and rejects others.

There is a place for the church fathers and mothers, both past and present. They do not supersede the Scripture. They are not equal to it. They are judged by it. But again, it is the community which makes judgments which establish or discontinue such leadership and authority. It is not a given. It is a derivative.

It is in this setting that we must also evaluate the ministry of Ellen White whose writings have become a de facto sacred text of the Seventh-day Adventist community. Our fondness for the phrase sola scriptura has placed us in a bind. A strict interpretation of it either rules out her writings as a sacred text, or we are obliged to elevate her works to the level of scriptural canon–a move which places us squarely in the camp of the cults. Yet a broader understanding of sacred texts saves us from these two extreme positions.

Unfortunately, we have not always related to the works of Ellen White as properly as our doctrinal positions have stated. Our doctrinal statement has clearly defined the position for years. She does not supersede, supplant, or even equal the scriptural canon. But we have not always behaved in keeping with our correct statement of position. Thus, based on our own inconsistencies, we deserve some of the criticism we face.

Yet there is validity in the authority of the community to determine a sacred text. With the model of prima scriptura, such texts will always be tested by and subordinated to the Scripture. This was ever Ellen White’s wish and instruction as again and again she indicated that her works were to be a “lesser light” to lead to the “greater light.”

These writings are not a sacred text for the Adventist community because she said so or because anyone person said so. She is a sacred text of the Seventh-day Adventist Church because the appeal of truth in her works have made her so among our people. It is an authority derived among the people out of the appeal of truth in her works. This is frightening, I recognize. But it must be so, or our accep- tance of such writings are subject either to our own isolated judgment or to the judgment of someone to whom we have surrendered our judgment responsibility.

How then should we relate to our sacred texts? We must come to recognize the distinction between actual truth (what is) and perceived truth (what is knowable to myself). It is easy to forget the humanness of all we have and perceive. Not only is the Bible given to us through the “impress of the individual mind” but that which is perceived in the community, as well as the individual, also comes through the perceptual filters of human experience. Thus, we may be on the road to truth, but we must always recognize the humanness of our perceptions. The problem is not with our sacred texts, but with how we use and perceive them.

We need not fear to examine the truth; it will always lead us to God. A Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel once counseled his fellow leaders with words wise in our search for truth. If the “purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38, 39 NIV).

–Gary B. Patterson is a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor and leader. Members of Boulder Adventist Church, Gary and his wife, Rachel, live in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

KNOWING WHAT TO BELIEVE AND DO

By Ray Roennfeldt — How can we know what the will of God is for us; or, to put it more personally, how can I know what the will of God is for me? To sharpen the issue just a bit, what am I to do when I face a personal dilemma where both of the options are less than ideal? Not only have I found that there are no easy answers to discerning God’s will for my own life, but also in knowing the will of God for the church and church institutions. Having had the responsibility of leading a Christian higher education provider for more than a de- cade, I’ve not always found it easy to determine either the optimal strategic direction or how to deal with personnel issues from a Christian perspective.

I’ve observed that Christian believers have followed a number of strategies in order to find answers to these questions. The most common—especially for conservative Christians like Seventh-day Adventists—is to ask, “What does the Bible say?” This is a good place to start, but it can also be confusing. For instance, the Bible does not always speak with one voice on a particular issue. Why? The short answer is that while I very firmly believe that the Scriptures are God’s Word for all of us for all time, the Biblical writers are clearly speaking to particular circumstances at specific times.

Added to this is the fact that God, in his grace, appears to accommodate his revelation to the situation in which he finds his people.

The most extreme version of the “What does the Bible say?” approach involves the individual praying, opening the Bible randomly, and pointing to a particular text which will provide the necessary information. For me, the odds of getting the right information are probably less than my chances of winning with a single ticket in Australia’s $80 million Powerball lottery!

Just to underline the fact that the Bible is not always unambiguous in regard to the path that we should take, even in a church community sincere and well-meaning Christians do not see eye to eye on the interpretation of Scripture. A “simple” illustration of this is seen in well-educated Adventist church members, pastors, and theologians seemingly unable to agree on the matter of the ordination of women to gospel ministry. Even our church leaders are not able to agree. Why? It is probably partly because we all come to the text of Scripture from different backgrounds,1 and also maybe because we have divergent views of what the Bible is and what it is designed to reveal to us.2 Of course, there is also the inclination to be selective in regard to what we see in Scripture. For example, I have to confess that I am somewhat fascinated by the preaching of some televangelists who assure their followers that God wants them to prosper financially and all one has to do is to “claim” God’s promises. Have these preachers not read of Job’s troubles?

This brings me to an alternative approach that I’ve found helpful for both personal and Christian community life and theology.

The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience describes the approach3 that John Wesley took to religious authority. The term, although never used by Wesley himself, was coined by Wesleyan historians as they examined Wesley’s thought. The question that immediately comes to mind is in regard to how this relates to the classical Reformation formulation of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) which was espoused by no less that Martin Luther. The same Bible only ideology is found in Adventism’s affirmation in the preamble to our 28 Fundamental Beliefs: “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed . . . .” 4 It is instructive to ex- amine what sola scriptura meant for Martin Luther. While Luther wanted his theological framework to be based firmly in Scripture, he also highly valued the insights of the early church fathers, particularly those of Augustine (i.e., tradition) and the thinking of his Wittenberg colleagues (i.e., Christian experience and reason).5

The majority of our Adventist pioneers came from a Wesleyan/Methodist background, so what might the Wesleyan Quadrilateral look like for us today?

Scripture: For conservative Christians, it is obvious that the Bible holds the primary place in doctrinal and religious authority; perhaps best expressed as prima Scriptura. Passages such as 2 Timothy 3:15-17 immediately come to mind. “All Scripture is God- breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (v. 16).

Tradition: Adventists have generally been leery of allowing tradition any place of authority: however, we seem to have real difficulty in moving beyond Ellen White’s insights even in different times and situations.6 Surely, it would be beneficial to consider if we are “on our own” in terms of biblical interpretation.

Reason: It is certainly helpful for us to ask, “Does this actually make sense?” For example, does it really make sense that women can lead countries and corporations and yet their leadership cannot be acknowledged in the Christian community?7 Our reason cannot be the final arbiter of authority, but its voice is ignored to our detriment.

Experience: Place must be given to the leading of the Holy Spirit in both individual and corporate Christian life. Jesus promised that the Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12). To illustrate, surely the growth of the church in China through the ministry of ordained women pastors should cause us to think new thoughts regarding ordination!

The early church faced a huge dilemma as Barnabas and Paul began to take the good news of Jesus across the cultural and religious divide that separated Judaism from the Gentile world. Was it necessary for Gentile Christians to become Jews through circumcision before they could become Christians? This issue had the potential to divide the church or even to stall the spread of the Christian message and the solution could not be found in just a few selected OT passages or even in the explicit teachings of Jesus.

The fact is that the case for circumcision appeared to have more than adequate biblical warrant. After all, it had been declared by God to father Abraham as an “everlasting covenant” for both his natural descendants and foreigners entering his household (Gen 17:12-14). It is instructive to observe the interplay between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as the issue was argued out at the first church council in Jerusalem.

This is how it is narrated in Acts 15:

Experience: God has already made a choice to accept Gentiles into the Christian community by giving his Spirit to them (vv. 7-9)

Reason and Tradition: Why should the yoke of circumcision be placed on the necks of the Gentiles when even the ancestors could not bear it (v. 10)

Experience: The assembly were silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe the “signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (v. 13).

Scripture: James assured the council attendees that the “words of the prophets are in agreement with this” (v. 15); citing Amos 9:11-12 as general support.

Reason: James concludes his speech with these words, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (v. 19).

Tradition, Reason, Experience, and Scripture: The conclusions of the council were summed up in a letter to the Gentile Christians, explaining that ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements” (v. 28). Why the specific prohibitions of vv. 20-21 and v. 29)? The reason offered in v. 21 is that the requirements are consistent with the Mosaic scriptural tradition.

In practice, we sometimes go to Scripture first, but often science or psychology prod us with difficult questions; life experiences push us to reflect on the leading of God through his Spirit; and society and religion challenge us to rethink our traditional perspectives. Some of the questions we face as individuals do not find explicit answers in Scripture. Questions like: What vocation should I choose for myself? Who should I marry? Should I have children? And, the contemporary one: should I get vaccinated? Perhaps even more complex, are some of the questions facing the church community today: How can we foster unity while also valuing diversity? How do we truly enfold the marginalized of society into our congregations? Must we define precisely every doctrinal position and lifestyle concern? Is our identity to be found in Jesus or in Adventism?

There are no simple biblical answers to questions such as these. However, we have the framework of inspired Scripture, the tradition of those who have gone before to guide, individual and collective reason to help us sort through the options, and the leading of the Spirit as we face the future creatively.

–Professor Ray Roennfeldt, PhD, has served the church in Australia and Papua New Guinea as a nurse, pastor, ministry educator, theologian, and university administrator. He recently retired as Vice-Chancellor and President of Avondale University College (now Avondale University). He and his wife, Carmel, live in Australia. Email him at: [email protected].

1. For details of what we bring to the reading of Scripture, see my chapter “Our Story as Text,” in R. Cole and P. Peterson, eds., Hermeneutics, Intertextuality and the Contemporary Meaning of Scripture (Hindmarsh, South Australia: ATF Press, 2014), 81-88. Note that my articles are available at [email protected]

2 For a brief portrayal of the character and purpose of Scripture, see my chapter “The Bible as Text,” in Cole and Peterson, 17-25.

3 For a convenient summary of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral see Robert K. McIver and Ray Roennfeldt, “Test and Interpretation: Christian Understandings of Authoritative Texts in the Light of Social Change,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 20/3 (2009): 268-71.

4 Available at www.adventist.org/beliefs/.

5 See Egil Grislis, “Martin Luther—Cause or Cure of the Problem of Authority,” Consensus: A Canadian Lutheran Journal of Theology 14 (1988): 37.

6 This, in spite of Ellen White’s counsel: “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change and opinion, will be disappointed.” Ellen G. White, “Search the Scripture,” Review and Herald 69/30 (26 July 1892): 465.

7 For my perspective on the issue of women’s ordination and an application of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to this topic, see my chapter “Women’s Ordination: Why Not!?”in G. J. Humble and R. K. McIver, eds., South Pacific Perspectives on Ordination: Biblical, Theological and Historical Studies in an Adventist Context (Cooranbong, NSW: Avondale Academic Press, 2015), 13-25.

10 Jan

DO YOU KNOW AND FEEL WHAT YOU BELIEVE?

By Reinder Bruinsma — In the first small church which I pastored in the north of the Netherlands was a peculiar gentleman. Brother K. was a loyal member of the congregation. He was friendly and active, but he was definitely one of a kind. Soon after I met him, he told me what had attracted him in Adventism. As an accountant, he understood numbers and, lo and behold, here was a church that also appreciated numbers: 2300, 1260, 666, etc. That was the kind of religion he could relate to! It was something he could understand.

Some years later I had other assignments in the Dutch Adventist church. At that time, I was a member of a congregation in the center of the country. I soon learned to expect at regular intervals a call from Els, a mid-aged woman who truly suffered from her inability to understand the details of several Adventist doctrines. She would often be in tears as she asked me: Would I please explain something to her? And, more importantly, did I think God would accept her even though she did not grasp all the doctrinal small print in the church’s publications?

I was reminded of these two persons as I considered the topic of this article: What role does our reason–our understanding or the lack thereof—play in our spiritual life? Could there be a danger that we sometimes overemphasize the role of studying and knowing things about God and about our faith, and undervalue the importance of other aspects of a healthy spiritual life?

Entry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is by baptism through immersion upon the confession of one’s faith. This confession is meant to be more than a simple statement that the candidate has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Prior to her baptism, she is expected to “study” the Bible and, more specifically, accept the doctrines the church has distilled from the Scriptures. In many cases the process that precedes becoming a church member, and that continues after baptism, is of a highly cerebral nature, characterized by such elements as reading, thinking, studying, understanding, being convicted, and making decisions.

Often people who first connect with Adventism, have very little or no knowledge of the Bible. They may have some vague sense that there is a God, and as they are searching for more meaning for their lives, they may wonder whether having a faith and belonging to a church will help them along that path. Usually, from the first, the contact with them has a predominantly intellectual character. Evangelistic sermons and individual Bible studies about key church doctrines tend to be the main spiritual diet that must prepare them for their migration into the Adventist world. Others are already Christians before they discover Adventism. They are expected to compare the teachings of the faith community they are about to leave with those of the “remnant” church, and to conclude from what they “learn” in their Bible “studies” that the Adventist Church has “the Truth” or is, at least, closer to “the Truth” than other denominations. Studying, understanding, and knowing seem to be some of the key words.

As the centuries went by, the Christian Church defined its doctrines in ever greater detail. We see this same pattern in the history of most denominations. Remarkably, in its earliest phase, the Adventist Church was reluctant to develop a body of doctrines to which all members had to sub- scribe, but over time, that reluctance dissolved completely. When I was baptized in the 1950s, I gave my assent to 22 Fundamental Beliefs. Since then, the number of Fundamental Beliefs has increased to 28, and some of them have been much further refined.

In addition, we recently discern a tendency in our church to emphasize full doctrinal purity even stronger than before. We may wonder whether this is a wholesome trend. Regardless of how we want to answer that question, let us not too quickly jump to the conclusion that doctrines are actually not very important for our spiritual well-being.

What is this God like? What has He done in the past? What is He currently doing for us, and what can we ex- pect Him to do in the future. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins and that He is coming a second time? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Etcetera.

We need doctrinal language to structure our beliefs and to be able to talk with others about our faith. Doctrine may be compared to the role of grammar. Grammar is not the same as language. But we can only use language effectively if we employ grammar in such a way that our language gets structure. This enables us to think and talk about things. Likewise, in order to give words to our faith, we must have a doctrinal framework. It is, so to speak, the grammar of our faith language. But let’s not think that doctrine and faith are identical. Doctrine is primarily just a tool to think and talk about our faith.

Having said that, we must stress another important point. Doctrine is never perfect; it is and remains a human project. Moreover, doctrines are always constructed from a particular perspective and inevitably reflect the time in which they are formulated. We must, therefore, never forget that, as soon as we think we understand the tenets of our faith, we ought, in humility, to take a step back, realizing that our knowledge and insights will always remain partial. Our understanding will always remain tentative. As the apostle Paul says: “For now we see only reflections as in a mirror!” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Thank God that we have brains and that we can serve God with our intellectual capacities. But let’s also thank God that we are more than our brains, and that we cannot only think and argue and (to some extent) understand, but that we also have feelings and emotions. All that we have and are should be involved in our walk with God. God wants us to serve Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind’ (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5).

Doctrines can easily remain mere theory—interesting constructs, but little more than that. Some academics defend the idea that one can study theology without being a believer. I refuse to believe that. Faith (and theology, doctrine) has to do with my entire being. How can I think about God’s gracious gift of salvation without being emotionally touched? How can I meditate on the love and sacrifice of Christ without feeling? Moreover, what good will it do me that I have doctrinal knowledge if it does not personally affect me?

When Christ referred to himself with the term “Truth”, He did not emphasize that He has “the Truth”, but that He is the Truth (John 14:6). In other words: divine Truth does not just have to do with intellectual knowledge but is relational in its very nature. And link this to another core concept. The divine Truth, Christ stated, “will set you free” (John 8:32). This means that the truth will not just satisfy our curiosity and provide us with intellectual knowledge, but it will do something for and in us. It will change us and make us new, better and happier, people. As this happens, we acquire a unique kind of knowledge— perhaps better referred to as total inner certainty: “We know that we are children of God!” (1 John 3:2).

This new, inexplicable certainty is not totally detached from our intellectual knowledge. But it goes beyond some- thing we can prove. Even as we do not find a firm intel- lectual foundation for everything, we can rest assured that there is enough for us to build on as we seek answers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard (1813-1855) was, I believe, right when he wrote that we can never prove that God exists by purely intellectual proofs. In the end, we become fully convinced that God is there, and that He is there for us, and that we are His children, in our worship.

As we worship our Lord with all aspects of our being, we do not only gain a better understanding of God’s dealing with the world, and with us individually, but we also experience relief of guilt, because we “know” that our sins have been dealt with. We also experience inner peace and find comfort in times of distress and difficulties. Our faith provides us not only with doctrinal information, but also, with power and moral courage, and with perseverance.

Serving God with our heart, soul and mind means worshipping Him in a balanced way, with our intellectual knowledge supporting our sense of security and peace, and our love for God ensuring that our study of the Bible and our intellectual pursuit of theological knowledge has the right motivation. The heart and the brain must never be played off against each other. When the balance is impaired, our faith loses much of its spiritual power. As Adventists, we sometimes suggest that feeling plays too prominent a role in the life of particular religious groups. That may be so, but Adventists easily run the risk of letting the intellectual aspect—knowledge and the doctrinal element of their faith—obscure other elements that are just as precious.

Surely, we must continue to ask, “What is truth and to mine the Scriptures for the things that God “has revealed to us and to our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29). But let us not only ask the question: “Is it true”, but also: “Does it give me peace” and: Does it strengthen my inner certainty that I am a child of God?

In conclusion, I suggest you ask yourself: Do I not only know what I believe but also feel what I believe?

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. His latest book is He Comes. Why, When, and How Jesus Will Return (Autumn House Publications). Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

DON’T LEAVE YOUR BRAIN AT THE CHURCH DOOR

By Zdravko Plantak – “What is truth?” asked a cynical governor, not waiting for an answer.1 In his eyes he didn’t need to, because as supreme leader, he was the one who defined truth. Truth was what he said it was.

As commander of the Roman occupying power, he certainly didn’t need to be told what the truth was by some Jewish prisoner brought to be condemned by religious leaders who had also defined what truth was. He, Pontius Pilatus, even had the ultimate power of life and death over everyone in the province. His question was a rhetorical disregard for knowing “what is truth.?”

The Bible has much to say about truth. God’s word is truth (John 17:17). We differentiate truth and falsehood through our response to God (1 John 4:6). Jesus says he is the truth (John 14:6).The Spirit guides into all truth (John 16:13). The truth sets us free (John 8:32). Yet there are many varieties of “truth” out there, even among Christians.

So, the real question for us is how we determine “what is truth?” especially in a world of conspiracy theories, “fake news,” and vaccine misinformation.

Many have suggested ways by which we discover the truth. Of course, there are even different levels of truth. The factual (e.g. water is a liquid), the experiential (you fall as a result of gravity), the abstract (most aspects of religion, etc.). But across subjects and disciplines, there are some generally accepted ways of determining what is true. So, let’s look at them and see how they relate, especially to fundamental aspects of “truth knowing” that are philosophical and religious.

Just a fancy word to say, “Does it fit all the facts?” In other words, if you take everything you know about some subject, what concept brings those ideas together and makes sense of it all? It’s a bit like the scientific method which assembles all the known facts about an object or a process, develops a hypothesis that fits all that, and then designs an experiment to test the hypothesis.

Sometimes, such a process is not possible, so then we have to go back to a general coherence of what we know (That is a limitation of this aspect of determining truth. We rarely have “all the facts”). However, we can ask, “Is it more likely or more unlikely that something is true?”

Take for example, the resurrection of Jesus. We weren’t there to observe for ourselves. So, we have to examine the evidence that we have in order to draw our conclusion as to whether it is true. Certainly, those companions of Jesus believed it, and the resurrection is coherent with the rest of Christian belief. In fact, as Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless,” (1 Cor. 15:14 NLT).

This aspect really relates to the world we all observe. We could even say this approach to truth is saying “It’s obvious!” We may accept certain propositions as true without even thinking about them. Water gets you wet. Hot stove tops can burn you. Gravity pulls everything downward. Such a consensus of truth is based on common experience. We can also apply consensus to abstract ideas such as love and goodness, and their opposites, though there will always be arguments about how they are defined. For Christians, some examples of consensus would be “There is a God”; “The Bible is his Word”; “Jesus came to save us.”

Paul uses a kind of consensus argument when he says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Some, of course, may disagree with such a consensus statement, and the different Christian denominations are proof that consensus is hard to achieve, despite the attempts of ecumenism. In the words of Woodrow Kroll, “Truth can’t be judged on the basis of popularity.”2

While you could separate these out, they all follow similar logic, and all have the same problematic issues when it comes to determining truth. Sometimes we say that a proposition of truth has “stood the test of time.” In other words, if people have believed something is true over a long time period, it must necessarily be true, for if it were not, it would have been discarded. It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that even if a belief has been around for a long time, that doesn’t make it true. The same applies to custom and tradition. Custom says, “We’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.” Clearly not necessarily true.

Similarly with tradition. From a Christian perspective, appeal is often made to the “tradition of the church fathers.” While their experience should be considered, just because it was their belief doesn’t necessarily make it true. In fact, some beliefs and practices that are seen as true because of tradition may be at variance with what the Bible says. As Jesus told the religionists of his day, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9 NIV).

Many appeals to truth are done with reference to some authority. In other words, because someone famous (or even a divine figure) says something is true, then it surely must be. The question to be raised first is, “What is the reason this person is given the status of an authority figure?” (It may be because of previous statements that have been accepted, or lifestyle, or claims). We do this frequently today by appealing to “experts,” or to powerful leaders. However, once again, claims to truth do not necessarily make things true. In religion, appeals to the authority of church leaders are made as a way to determine truth or otherwise. Thomas a Kempis wisely observed, “Do not be influenced by the importance of the writer, and whether his learning be great or small, but let the love of pure truth draw you to read. Do not inquire, who said this? but pay attention to what is said.” 3

Yet we must admit we are all fallible, and sometimes those in power may have other reasons for asserting “truth” other than the fact that it is true. Jesus had to deal with questions of authority in terms of his truth-telling. The religious leaders came to Jesus. “‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’” (Mark 11:28 NIV). Authority in and of itself doesn’t determine truth.

This aspect is often used to say something is “always true.” In mathematics for example, strict logic applies. Two and two always makes four. That statement is always true. Or in logic we can say that “A” is not “non-A.” That is invariably true. In religion, the equivalent statement of consistency is “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV). Jesus is consistent, and this is taken as a baseline of truth. Appealing to the importance of logic, hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote, “It was a saying of the ancients, ‘Truth lies in a well;’ and to carry on this metaphor, we may justly say that logic does supply us with steps, whereby we may go down to reach the water.” 4

“I just feel it’s true.” Such a statement cannot be tested or verified, and so is not a means to determine truth. People have different feelings about many subjects, and they cannot all be true. Yet this is frequently the most common attempt to define what the person believes to be true.

We cannot trust what we feel. Francis Schaeffer observes, “We must stress that the basis for our faith is neither experience nor emotion but the truth as God has given it in verbalized, prepositional form in the Scripture and which we first of all apprehend with our minds.” 5 Similarly Jeremiah: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV).

Just like the previous aspect, instinct and intuition cannot be seen as reliable guides to discovering what is true. While we may “instinctively” know that we need to drink when we’re thirsty, and while it may be true that we have a “spiritual thirst,” the fact that we come to different conclusions as to what to do and where to go indicates that this is not a reliable way of finding truth. Intuition, similarly, leads people in different directions.

And yet, Ellen White admonished believers that “we must sink the shaft deep in the mine of truth. You may question matters with yourselves and with one another if you only do it in the right spirit; but too often self is large, and as soon as investigation begins, an unchristian spirit is manifested. This is just what Satan delights in, but we should come with a humble heart to know for ourselves what is truth.” 6

So, having examined these different aspects, how do we, in fact, discover truth? First, it’s clear we need to use our minds! God gave them to us so we could separate right from wrong, to differentiate between truth and error. Don’t listen to people who tell you to leave your brain at the church door!

Then examine the evidence. Ask yourself, does it make sense? Read the Bible and ask what it tells you about God and the way he relates to human beings. Most of all, look at the life of Jesus who said so clearly, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9 NIV). Look for some of those aspects mentioned above—logic, consistency, coherence and so on.

Also, admit that you have to make some assumptions. Like, there is a God. That he’s involved with this planet. That he cares for us. And so on. But then ask yourself, “What kind of God is represented here?” For that’s the most important aspect of discovering truth.

Pilate didn’t wait for an answer to his question. But Jesus had already answered it beforehand, when he told Pilate, “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” (John 18:37 NIV). Discover the truth as it is in Jesus!

— Zdravko (Zack) Plantak, PhD, is a professor of religion and ethics at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Email him at: zpl[email protected]

1 https://www.thoughtco.com/of-truth-by-francis-bacon-1690073

2 https://www.pvariel.com/dr-woodrow-krolls-quotes-from-giants-of-the-old-testament-part-iv/

3 https://www.christianquotes.info/quotes-by-topic/quotes-about-truth/

4 https://www.bartleby.com/349/302.html

5 https://www.christianquotes.info/quotes-by-author/francis-schaeffer-quotes/

6 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writer and Editors, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc, 1946), p. 42.

10 Jan

THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF KNOWING

By John Skrzypaszek — In a stimulating article titled “Knowing God or Knowing the Idea of God,” Connie J. French, a former Seventh-day Adventist, raised a thought-provoking question related to the spiritual journey of knowing God. She argues, “God cannot be explained or identified by religious teaching. No matter how well-intended, religious teaching is (usually) the communication of ideas.” 1 Raised in the milieu of distinctive Adventist beliefs, which were presented to her as the truth, she began to search for a deeper understanding of God. In this context, she referred to the “well-intended, religious teachings” as a blockage of her ability to discern God’s presence in real-life experience. She mused, “What I was taught about God blocked my ears from hearing God telling me the truth that would make me free.” 2

Her story begs the question of whether, in a world of rapid changes, the current resurgence of a dogmatic defense of Adventism’s established doctrines and prophetic interpretations responds adequately to people’s concerns regarding the reality of God’s presence in day-to-day struggles.

About ten years ago, Michael Pearson identified the polarizing impact caused by the volte-face to the safe haven of traditional beliefs to re-establish the primary identity of3 Adventism. This named reversion to traditional beliefs, communicated through the lense of propositional terminologies, breeds a dogmatic and a distant view of God.

Eugene Peterson offers relevant advice. He warns against a static descriptive rationalization of God’s story as our story about God, our doctrines, our moral codes and our life of ministry. He maintains that such rationalization takes one “out of God’s presence and activity.” He calls instead for “continuous re-immersion in the story itself”—the gospel story—the story of God’s presence in the reality of human life.

Margaret Guenther describes life with all its challenges as a journey on which it is difficult for travelers to endure a lengthy voyage in comfort without hospitality. She writes, “However prudent their planning and abundant in their supplies, if the journey goes on long enough, they will need the care of a host, someone who offers a temporary home, as a place of rest and refreshment.” 4 The search for secure, life-refreshing space of hospitality, the search for knowing and understanding God in the space of such rest opens the human mind to discover God, not as a remote Being but as a Host who offers weary travelers, life-transforming hospitality in Jesus.

Even if expressed in the most sublime language, conjectural descriptions of God fail to convey the gravity of His communicative, redemptive and hope-inspiring self-revelation through Jesus (Hebrews 1:1–3). In Jesus, God touched the dirt of human life. This was not to define himself in terms of human logic but in revealing instead the full measure of His incomprehensible and unconditional love.

Jesus’ life corroborates God’s propinquity to and empathy for human struggles, fears, and unrest caused by ambiguous and unexpected circumstances. While the ensuing feelings and challenges generate a void space of uncertainty, doubt and insecurity, at the same time, the voice that once called “where are you?” to the fear-stricken hearts (Genesis 3:8–9) delineated a stirring definition of knowing: “Now this is life eternal that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Jesus made even clearer the pathway to knowing God. “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (John 14:6–7). Jesus is identified as the conduit to a more profound and meaningful understanding of God which interweaves the journey of knowing with an interactive, dynamic and faith-oriented intimacy with Jesus. Moreover, as Leon Morris asserts, “To know God means more than knowing the way to life.” To know God means much more than a technical elucidation of specific elements of faith. He maintains, “It is life.” In the light of Christ’s definition, to know “does not mean to know fully but to learn to know.” It means to know intimately and relationally. The journey of coming to know God involves an “ever-increasing knowledge, not something given in its completeness once and for all.” 5 Paul exclaims that our knowledge is just a poor reflection but one day we will see and know in full. (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The relational experience of knowing God is progressive, subject to the patient discernment of His voice as it speaks through Scripture and life experience. Speaking from the depth of her own search for knowing God, Ellen White wrote, “Everyone needs to have a personal experience in obtaining a knowledge of the will of God. We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness, we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. He bids us, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:1).” 6 It is evident that the process of knowing requires attentive listening and full immersion in the metanarrative of God’s saving and redemptive acts. It also leads to the discernment of His guiding presence in the flow of life events.7 As expressed by Morris, “To know Him transforms a man and introduces him to a different quality of life.” 8 The effects of such relational intimacy are transformational and life-changing.

The Living God—the Creator, Communicator, Saviour and Healer—cannot be locked in a cage of dogmatic statements. Bertil Wiklander asserts, “The vision of the ultimacy of God must transcend any written expression of doctrinal position.” 9 As argued by Sterling, it is dangerous to reduce the process of knowing God to the level of an intellectual exercise: “By its very nature, the conceptualized format of theological expressions form a kind of intellectual cathedral, an open target for a kind of intellectual guerrilla warfare and a criteria based on rationality.” 10 In the space of the intellectual quest to know the truth, it is easy to set aside the vision of God’s truth as revealed in Jesus.11

Jesus engraved in the domain of human life a memorial of God’s presence, prompting us to remember that in the space of God’s love, “there is no fear” (1 John 4:18). This assurance offers courage to embrace the trustworthiness of God’s unfailing promises and a space to rediscover identity, purpose and hope, nested in the framework of God’s inspirational and visionary self-revelation of truth in Jesus.

The spiritual journey of knowing anchors the development of Christian identity in the hands of the Potter. At the level of relational and faith-oriented experience of knowing the formation of identity moves beyond the exercise of propositional definitions. Robert Mullholand explains this process as “being conformed into the image of Christ, a journey into becoming persons of compassion, persons who forgive, who care deeply for others and the world, persons who offer themselves to God to become agents of divine grace in the lives of others and their world—in brief, persons who love and serve as Jesus did.” 12 Christian identity matures in response to the outflow of God’s creative and redemptive expression of His love in Jesus. It is a vibrant, transformational process, a metamorphosis of values, feelings and emotions.

Theological assertions and formulated doctrines, significant as they are, do not constitute the quintessence of Christian identity. Erikson observes that man’s identity finds its locus in God—“the fact that God created Him.” 13 Such a stance encompasses much more than a well-defined construct of doctrinal beliefs, for it links with God’s life-transforming hub. Here, individuals rediscover personal worth, uniqueness and potential, which are the supporting and consequential spokes of Christian identity designed by God’s redemptive work through Jesus. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are. Dear Friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1,3). Anchored in a secure space of God’s hospitality in Jesus, Christian identity reflects the heartbeat of Christ’s attitude by amplifying the spirit of unity rather than conformity. It empowers believers to act and serve as Jesus served.

Ellen White described Christ’s attitude so adequately. “He [Jesus] made no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. That which appealed to His heart was a soul thirsting for the water of life. He passed no human being as worthless but sought to apply the healing remedy to every soul.” 14 In the space of His encounter with people, who struggled with the common issues and challenges of everyday life, Jesus provided a temporary home as a spiritual place for rest and refreshment—a place of knowing God.

As for Connie French, her spiritual journey of knowing God matured in the wilderness of personal real-life experience—the place which helped her discover that the “truth of God is a relational truth.” 15 In Jesus, one finds the essence of the spiritual journey of knowing.

–John Skrzypaszek, DMin, has recently retired as the director of the Ellen White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, and is an adjunct senior lecturer at Avondale University College, Coranboong, NSW, Australia. Polish by birth, John takes a keen interest in heritage, spirituality, and identity studies. He is married to Brenda and has two sons Raphael and Luke. Email him at: [email protected]

1 Janet French, Knowing God or Knowing the Idea of God https://atoday.org/ what-sort-of-truth-is-the-truth-of-knowing-god/

2 Ibid.

3 Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

4 Margaret Guenter, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1992), 9.

5 Leo Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1971), 719.

6 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1940), 363.

7 Petersen, Subversive Spirituality, 5.

8 Morris, The Gospel According to John 719–720.

9 Bertil Wiklander, “The Truth as it is in Jesus” https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1996/02/the-truth-as-it-is-in-jesus

10 David Sterling, “Not a Wisdom of This Age,” in Theology and the Future, eds. Trevor Cairney and David Starling (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 83.

11 Wiklander.

12 M. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (Downers, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 25.

13 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology(GrandRapids:BakerBook,1985),488.

14 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1905), 93.

15 French.

10 Jan

WHATSOEVER THINGS ARE TRUE

By Shawn Brace — Recently, while visiting the leader of a church plant that our church sponsors, a gentleman walked into the café that this church plant has started and struck up a conversation with the leader and myself. I’ve known this fellow for almost a decade now, and he’s always eager to talk about the latest conspiracy theory. He’s a nice guy, but one of these precious souls that doesn’t seem to pick up on social cues and remains stubbornly committed to strange ideas.

On this particular day, he wanted to talk about COVID, passionately pressing me on whether I knew that the US government has deliberately and intentionally prevented Americans from utilizing treatments that could cure the disease. “They don’t want us to have this stuff,” he insisted. “They are just trying to make as much money as they can on all of this.”

Of course, his perspective is, whether right or wrong, not all that unique these days. Though the giant social media outlets have, at least in theory, tried to curb the dissemination of such theories about COVID on their platforms, there is a lot of information swirling about that may or may not reflect reality. And it’s not just COVID: we are continuously bombarded with theories and ideas and messaging that offers all manner of perspectives on elections and religion and end-time scenarios. One can’t go on Facebook without reading long diatribes from self-styled experts on an infinite number of topics. The term #fakenews has become an influential force in our vocabulary and thinking.

What is one to do in response to such an onslaught of various theories and perspectives? How do we make sense of the diverse opinions that are all competing for our acceptance and allegiance? If the apostle Paul encourages us to think about those things which are “true” (see Philippians 4:8), how can we first know what things are true in order to think about them?

Philosophers use a big fancy term to describe such an exercise. It’s called epistemology. This is essentially the study of knowledge—of how we know what we know. It’s the process by which we make sense of the world around us, the filters through which we determine what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s the sources of authority we judge ideas against to decide if those ideas are true or not.

When someone shares information with me, whether I accept that information or not is based largely on whether I trust the source of that information or not. That’s because I am a fallible human being who is limited in my ability to know things. My knowledge and expertise are not exhaustive and I therefore have to outsource my decisions to other trusted sources. I am but one person and I have to place my confidence in people other than myself—people who have proven themselves trustworthy in the past.

This is really the underlying dynamic in this age of disinformation and #fakenews. We so often get into arguments about the specifics of people’s claims when the divide is on a much more fundamental level relating to the sources of that information. In the case of COVID, when people try to engage me on various theories and ideas, I don’t even bother trying to rebut their ideas—whether good or bad. I just throw up my hands and admit that I am not a scientist or the son of a scientist. I am, therefore, in no position to break down the arguments of aYouTuber or an epidemiologist from Harvard. Thus, no matter how well-argued and seemingly scientific a person’s perspective might be, I’m simply unable to figure out the truth or falseness of it. I simply defer to others I trust on the topic, following their lead, trusting that God will honor my simple faith.

And yet there is an even more fundamental reality going on than epistemology. As I’ve said often over the past few years: when we find ourselves arguing with people, we are very rarely actually arguing with their ideas. We are much more often arguing with their trauma.

As much as we’re sometimes tempted to think otherwise, we’re not exclusively rational beings. None of us makes decisions based solely on intellectual grounds. We are creatures who not only think rationally; we also think emotionally, spiritually, socially, relationally. We are the sum total of our experiences and the degree to which an idea makes sense to us is largely determined by the sum total of those experiences.

Psychologists have thus understood that a person’s ability to succeed in life is much more dependent on their EQ than on their IQ—that is, their emotional intelligence, rather than their intellectual intelligence. Our ability to navigate relationships, to understand the fundamental principles of human behavior and emotion, is a lot more of a significant factor in how we travel through life than our level of education (this is partially why highly educated people can latch on to some extremely crazy ideas). If we are thus relatively emotionally well-adjusted people, we will be more likely to gravitate to and trust sources of information that more accurately reflect reality. On the other hand, if we have significant emotional deficits, we will have a harder time with reality, and making sense of reality—which is the sum total of all human experiences.

Put another way: emotionally unhealthy people will latch on to and believe unhealthy ideas. We have to further understand that it’s not the untruths or the conspiracy theories themselves that are necessarily attractive to people; it’s the sense of belonging and community they bring to people who have felt wounded by traditional sources of authority and society as a whole. When one has significant emotional wounds, they feel like an outsider and there is thus a certain sense of belonging that comes by accepting the views of and joining with other outsiders.

In other words, what a conspiracy theorist usually needs is not a good argument to rebut their views, but some good therapy to heal their souls. Christ, when He invited people to embrace the truth, invited them to embrace Him. When we accept Christ as the Truth, we are not simply accepting Him as a provable idea that does or doesn’t make intellectual sense. To be sure, there is intellectual content about Christ, but that is just one aspect of who He is. We are thus not simply invited to accept ideas about Christ, but to place our trust in Him. When we embrace Him in all His beauty and love, He heals us and sets us free.

But I would add this: embracing Christ isn’t a wand that magically causes our emotional deficits to automatically disappear. God has gifted other humans to help us with the hard work of identifying, processing, and healing our wounds. We are embodied creatures who need other embodied creatures to help us become whole. Just as Jesus doesn’t cause our hunger to go away when we pray to Him, but points us to physical food, so Jesus places other humans in our lives to help us heal from our wounds. So, as I say to all my church members quite frequently: everyone needs therapy.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to figuring out how to make sense of what is true and what isn’t true among the myriad of voices that are peddling me information at a hundred miles an hour, the most important thing for me is to pursue the healing heart of Jesus, often through the empathic and therapeutic ministry of others God has gifted. The more grounded I can become in the gospel, and the healthier I can become emotionally, the more easily I can sift through the various sources of information as I try to make sense of the world.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com

10 Jan

A CUP OF TRUTH

By Barry Casey — These are perplexing times. You and I might be perplexed about different things, but I’m fairly sure that both of us— at least some of the time—are lost in the maze. On the other hand, should you find yourself absolutely certain about any number of things such as reality, the existence and the nature of God, the mystery of evil, and the resurrection of Christ, your spiritual life might appear to be blissfully tranquil. But a word of caution: Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” still reverberates like a gong struck in the night.

We are living in a time of alternative facts, an oxymoron which has achieved a certain likeness to truth, mostly because many people have accepted it at face value. This means that people have assigned value to facts, some having more value than others and some having no value at all because the facts clash with their personal worldview.

This is the tail wagging the dog or the effect producing the cause or any other analogy that puts the cart before the horse. When we try to apply the facts, we are simply trying to arrive at an accurate description of a set of affairs. The accuracy is based on certain natural laws or the logic of syllogisms or on distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless or good from evil.

When we try to determine what is true about the Jesus story, we find ourselves in puzzles from the start. Are the Gospels subject to the methods of verification we are used to in historical accounts? Are they biographies? Or are they the subjective narratives of four individuals who differ, sometimes widely, on the details of Jesus’ life?

Most readers of this essay will have some notions about taking the context of a text into account when reading and studying it. That would be the minimum benefit of an historical and critical approach to the Bible. Biblical scholarship about language, about textual and literary typologies, about sociological, archeological, and ultimately, theological ways to read the Bible have added immensely to our knowledge of Scripture. They help us to realize that our context, the way we read the Scriptures, is part of the long history of Scripture study in the life of the Church.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about where we situate the Bible in our lives and what affects us as we read it. We thought of the visual metaphor of transparent domes within which we ‘live and move and have our being.’ These domes intersect and overlap one another, so that we are able to distinguish one from another while still moving freely within all of them. For us, they are sociology, psychology, physics, neuroscience, art, literature, music, religion, ethics, philosophy, and theology. They all contain valuable resources for life and each of them is part of our search for meaning. Every one of them has an opening to the sky as a means of continuous refreshing of knowledge and understanding.

Our description might be the shared experience of many Christians today, as we understand every facet of life to be open to the search for truth. But we also agreed that the most important dome was at the center of this complex, that it tied all of them together, and that its opening to the sky was both the widest and the freshest. It is the dome of our experience with God through Jesus as channeled by the Spirit.

To bend this metaphor (perhaps to the breaking point), let us say that we are beings whose life force relies on exposure to light and, while every dome is open to the sky, the best place to be for the light is under the dome of the God experience. We are free to wander between all the domes, but we wish to be closest to the experience of God in our lives.

Like all metaphors, this one falls apart when pushed too far. But it expresses right now how I understand the interplay between God-in-Christ and myself with regard to “truth.” For me, truth is that which both fully represents what it means to be a human being and that which opens us to the transcendent—that which goes beyond the human. This includes both Job’s experience and 1 Corinthians 13; the grim reality of the Holocaust and the sublimity of Rilke’s poetry, Bach’s sacred cantatas, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.

I will venture to say there is nothing under the sun that is not in some way revelatory of ‘the light that lightens everyone who comes into the world.’ But as anyone knows who has read the Gospels, this is the paradoxical way of life. Jesus’ yoke is easy, but the way is hard. He himself is the Truth, but he is often hidden. The Truth will set us free, but we must see it first—and we’re all naked and blind and lame.

Most of all, this takes humility. Thomas Merton said, “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.” Humility should also remind us that when we come up against the limits of reason in trying to understand the mysteries of God and God’s action in this world, we can at least admit that we have understood only a cupful of the showers of truth we receive from God.

There’s a certain liberation in realizing that faith acts in order to understand. That in entering the maze of life with the Spirit of Jesus, we are entering into the life of Christ here and now. In fact, we are entering a new reality. As The Unvarnished Gospel puts it from the Gospel of John: “But whoever accepts his testimony has signed his name to the reality of God.”

— Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

HOW DO WE HEAR THE HOLY SPIRIT?

By Shawn Nowlan — The Seventh-day Adventist Church traces its particular origins to the 1830s when a certain prosperous Baptist lay preacher and farmer in Upstate New York, William Miller, began studying the question of when the world might come to an end—focusing particularly on the book of Daniel.

William Miller would have remained relatively obscure, except that over time—beginning in the 1830s—a group of like-minded Christian individuals became convinced of what he found in his study. They felt that the world needed to hear these conclusions. On February 28, 1840, an experienced pastor and publisher established the Signs of the Times to bring this community into focus and to share with the world that community’s conviction of what was about to occur. Millerism was born, and it took on a life of its own (independent even of William Miller himself).

We are examining how we discern the working of the Holy Spirit—and in the story of the Millerites’ origins, I see something absolutely necessary to the work of the Holy Spirit. That something is a like-minded and open community of believers, in which the Holy Spirit can work and inspire us, humans, to discern what we, in a Seventh-day Adventist worldview, call “Progressive Revelation.”

This focus on community is shot through the entire New Testament. I begin in the Book of Acts, where we read about an earlier open community where this same fertile ground gave the Holy Spirit room to work:

Paul and Silas in Beroea: That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them, therefore, believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. (Acts 17:10-12 NRSV).

We, as Seventh-day Adventists, often focus on the Bereans’ searching of Scripture. By contrast, I want to focus our notice on the characteristics of the Berean community; they were open and receptive to the Holy Spirit as a community. As the early Millerite community was open and receptive, so were the Bereans.

I started with the Bereans to point out their community, yet once we see their community, then we can also notice that community is even more archetypically present in the Acts of the Apostles’ account of Pentecost—the birthday of the Church itself: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2 NRSV).

It’s easy with all the following spectacular events (i.e. the Holy Spirit descending and the fire, and the spectacular speaking in tongues) to overlook what gave the day its power, to begin with. The believers were already all physically together in one place. They had already formed the community on which the Holy Spirit then descended.

I am choosing these very famous examples from the Book of Acts because they illustrate vividly that the church has always been a community. If you read the greetings in each of Paul’s Epistles, he is almost invariably addressing an already-formed community of believers (even when Paul is specifically addressing individuals, i.e. Titus, Philemon, and Timothy, he sees them as the leaders of a community).

Whether Paul is addressing an individual or a community, he invariably discusses the community’s common life together, bound by the Holy Spirit and in Christ. To Paul, the church is fully present only in community. His attitude is perfectly captured in the Book of Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25 NRSV).

Paul’s attitude toward community reflects that of Jesus Christ Himself. When He was praying for his future disciples, He also characterizes them as a community: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21 NRSV).

The New Testament is so shot through with the idea that Christians should live together in community under Christ and the Holy Spirit, that the idea almost disappears under the individual details of each book. Yet from Christ to Paul to Luke, the importance of the community of the believers is everywhere in the New Testament.

I write this because I think that we, as Seventh-day Adventists, need to recover that sense of the importance of the community of believers as we work to discern what is “true” among the competing narratives that demand our attention and allegiances.

Jesus gave us our community to help us work with the Holy Spirit to discern truth. And in every case from the New Testament, it was the community acting as a whole community that channeled the Holy Spirit in that discernment process. This was also true among our own pioneers and those of the Millerites as well. Christianity works best in community. We are all connected. Christ is the vine and we are the branch- es living together. It takes all of us living together, working to discern what the Holy Spirit has to teach the church at this time in history

–Shawn P. Nowlan is a lifelong member of the Boulder Adventist Church—who sometimes reminds people he was born at Boulder Memorial Hospital in the shadow of Mt. Sanitas. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW, YOU KNOW?

By Tony Hunter — Humans like to confuse their words.

We conflate terms and then don’t correct them, and then everyone starts interchanging the terms and suddenly we aren’t saying what we think we are saying—good vs. well. We interchange these all the time. Except, “good” is about being righteous, and “well” is about how you are feeling and your general state of being.

Or Factoid. We use this regularly when speaking of some little tidbit of information. A small piece of truth. When the truth is, it was a term created by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe information that has been printed and disseminated so many times that people believe it is true, when in fact, it is not. #Fakenews.

Imagine rules and doctrine being formed around this practice.

Let’s take truth and knowing. There is truth and there is what we know. On a good day, these things overlap. But considering how much information there is in reality vs. how accurate our perceptions are, that overlap might not be as large as we’d like.

A hypothetical scenario. You walk into a room and there is a dead man on the floor with another man standing over him with a bloody knife. There is a terrified child hiding behind his terrified mother. What do we know?

We know the man is dead. And… well that’s about it. We know that the child and mother look terrified, but of what? We know a man is holding a bloody knife, but why? Did he kill the man, or did he pick up the knife that someone else left there? Was the dead man an aggressor? Or was he the father/husband? If he was the father/husband does that mean he wasn’t the aggressor?

Is the standing man the husband/father? Is the husband/ father even in the room? Was the dead man an aggressor and the standing man the savior, or was the dead man trying to be the savior and the standing man the aggressor? Are the family terrified of the standing man or the dead man?

Truth exists in absence of my knowing. Some truth exists within my knowing. Most exists outside of it, and not everything I know, is true.

So, what is truth? What do we know?

Some people know the world is round. Others know that it is flat. Both of those things can’t be true. Or what color is a color? Do we all perceive the same color the same way? Is blue actually blue? The sky is blue, except it sort of isn’t because it only appears blue based on the angle of light shining through it and the amount of atmosphere the light has to travel through and the make-up of the atmosphere at the angle of viewing, which is why, sometimes, the sky looks red/orange. So, which is it?

How much of what we know is true, and how much of what we know is perception bias? Or experience bias? Or desire bias? Can accurate knowing even take place at all until one let’s go of all their bias? Can truth and knowing overlap at all if there is even a little bias?

I mean, we think we know a person, but do we really know them?

The Adventist denomination has put a lot of focus on “knowing the truth”. But how do we know that what we know is true? Because a bunch of people agreed on it? Does that make it true? (See my Factoid about Factoids above. See what I did there?)

Let’s talk exegesis. Exegesis is a word that means “to bring out”, or “to read out”. It’s the term used in biblical scholasticism for how we hope to interpret the meaning of things. It’s about bringing the meaning out of the text.

Now let’s talk eisegesis. Eisegesis is a word that means “to put in” or “to read into”. It’s what biblical scholars hope to not do when trying to interpret the meaning of things. It’s about putting the meaning into the text.

But the question is, because of all of our different biases and inaccuracies in what we think we know and how we see the world, can we ever truly do accurate exegesis? Or will we still be doing eisegesis no matter how hard we try? The odds of me meeting an author from 2000 or 3000 years ago when studying today seem slim. And short of that, any interpretation I make of that author’s writing will be biased by my own perceptions either in subtle or large ways simply because I cannot know his/her mind. I can never completely know or understand the context within which they wrote or spoke. I can know some, but not all. And therefore, any conclusions I come to will be questionable in some way.

Jesus spoke about truth in John 16:13. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all truth…” Jesus is suggesting that, because we are all fallible and untrusting, that the Spirit will do all the convicting and convincing in regard to truth.

Well, that makes it easy, right? Just listen to the Spirit, then you can know.

Uh, huh.

How many sincere, dedicated, devoted, seekers and followers of Christ have studied, prayed, begged, and listened for the Spirit, and come to different conclusions about, well, everything? And that’s just within Adventism. Go beyond that and the differences become even more dramatic.

So, how do we know anything? How can we know what we don’t know? Well, just because people come to different conclusions about that which we perceive differently doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying, and that we don’t keep seeking God’s help.

But I am going to suggest something else. Are you ready?

Knowing is not the point. We are so focused on knowing things from a religious/theological standpoint, that we completely miss the fact that we are not judged by our knowing. We are not saved by our knowing. Nor are we condemned by our lack of it.

As long as we are imperfect, we will always know imperfectly. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul states that we see as though through a dark glass. Imperfectly. Unclear.

This is important for us to accept because while it is good for us to continue always seeking and learning and growing, we will never know it all, and we will constantly be incorrect.

And that’s OK. It’s OK to be incorrect. Jesus didn’t die for us because we know it all or are correct in everything, or even anything. He did it because He loves us. Our knowing didn’t even come into play one way or the other.

We should stop trying to be known by our knowing, because to be a disciple of Jesus is to be known by our love.

So, love each other and love God. The rest will take care of itself.

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a Hospice Chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]