Seventh-Day Adventists have a very big problem.
To imply that there is only one (very big) problem might be stretching the truth somewhat, so perhaps I need to suggest that of the many problems that SDAs face (including those found in all religious communities), there might be one in particular that really hurts the work and mission of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. For the first time in a public written forum, I’m going to stand side-by-side with those who contend that it is deeply unfortunate that the Seventh-Day Adventist church has stopped being a ‘movement’ and is now a ‘church.’ While understandings (and definitions) of both ‘movement’ and ‘church’ vary widely, one may generally safely assume that at the heart of this assertion is the concept of ongoing development (and indeed, growth) that would befit a movement who have refused to enmesh their core doctrinal distinctives in the forms of ‘creeds’ (which are effectively set in stone) – instead, opting for (in our case at least) ‘Fundamental Beliefs.’
So what’s that got to do with the price of potatoes? [aka Christmas]?!
Let’s start with this link, in which Ellen White writes about the role that Christmas can play in the life and witness of a Seventh-Day Adventist.
Assuming you’ve read that – or other passages like it – then you would be clear on the fact that our most important founding pioneer saw the benefit and value of celebrating Christmas. Or to put it another way, Christmas does not have to be eviscerated from the SDA Christian life. So everyone can now make their own decisions about whether or not to have a Christmas tree without being judged by anyone else…surely?!
Newsflash: nothing is ever that straightforward when it comes to people and religion! And much of the discourse that takes place in global Seventh-Day Adventism is simply not as rigorous as would be ideal (for the record, this includes our technical discourse in areas such as systematic theology where our default setting tends to be to appropriate theological systems rather than build them). In the 21st century, the SDA church is in the vice-like grip of an anti-intellectual pandemic. As such, much of what passes for ‘thought’ is often nothing more than ‘feeling’ and what passes for knowledge is little more than selective data. And it is this particular reality which speaks to the heart of the issues which we now face regarding our whole conception of Christmas.
A post-modern type would now be reasonably expected to argue that the very idea that there is but one Seventh-Day Adventist concept of Christmas is self-aggrandising and fallacious. And in turn, this is itself a self-aggrandising and fallacious idea because it is simply not a given that the possibility of a plurality of perspectives within a given context co-existing) would automatically mean that plurality itself becomes the dominant factor for all ‘truth-conditions’ that could obtain to the questions at hand (sorry, that is a bit technical – philosophical – but hopefully you get my drift). The question becomes: who has the final say on whether or not there is supposed to be just one ‘Seventh-Day Adventist position’ on Christmas as opposed to there being room for multiple perspectives (which may or may not be diametrically opposed) within Seventh-Day Adventism regarding the meaning and importance (or otherwise) of Christmas?
The Seventh-Day Adventist church has a number of ‘evangelism training schools’ and a popular model for these schools is a four-month field course in evangelism including an intensive introduction to our core doctrines (AFCOE, ARISE and PEACE are three examples). In these programmes words like ‘hermeneutics’ are bandied around freely and students learn soundbites such as ‘a text without a context is a pretext’. There is an understanding that one is supposed to use the Bible’s own principles of ascertaining biblical truth in order to understand biblical truth. Of course, that sounds good. It’s what many SDAs are taught very early on. However, if (for example) you look at 3ABN for long enough (which does a wonderful job in so many ways), you will find that often opportunities for people to make biblical commitments are set up in ‘leading’ ways that a more sceptical Anglo-European mind would find enormously difficult. Britons who have drunk deeply at such wells seem to think that this style of thought and approach is what is needed…but the effect of this shoe-horning of church members to declare that the Bible is their ultimate authority actually results in teaching, preaching, evangelism and study (both corporate and individual) that is terrifyingly intellectually, ethically and spiritually bankrupt. These are very strong words. Allow me to explain.
In the first institution in which I studied theology, one of my fellow students was an Anglican priest who had previously been a lawyer. During one seminar this student described their experience of the process of theological research as ‘stirring paint with my eyelids’ and when asked to explain what they meant, they stated that in their previous legal career research essentially meant that they were only looking for anything and everything that would help make the case for what had already been decided. As such, this person was now having a really hard time reading and thinking in a context where certain things could be very clear at the start of a reading session, only to have become a lot less clear ninety minutes later – with no obvious answers to the new questions and no easy answers to the old questions. There is no greater mystery than God and His truth and far from being a means to wield power over others, the work of theology – to which each and every believer has been called – shows us how little we really know and brings us to our knees before the Creator of the universe and the God of our salvation (“…the goal of theology is doxology” – John Packer).
PhDs in astrophysics are simply not required to understand that if a person undertakes a project that is supposed to (in some way at least) constitute ‘research’ then it would usually follow that they don’t actually know the answer and the research is being conducted in order to find out a) the answer; b) an answer or c) if indeed any sort of ‘answer’ is in any way possible! So this idea that something is honest research but at the outset you already know the answer is in fact anathema to the very concept of research itself. Science has progressed on a continuum in which various ideas that have been understood as truth have then been ruthlessly interrogated with great ferocity and (in a number of cases) found wanting. My point? If you have decided – prior to investigation – that what you think is the truth really is the truth, then it is not possible for you to discover that something other than what you have already thought is in fact the truth without feeling some pain. And given that people (and especially adults) generally don’t enjoy feeling pain (and adult Adventists are often terrified of being wrong and being judged), it becomes easier to stick closely to what you have already decided is the truth – which might have come from some other source (as opposed to from your own mind) that you have decided to take as an authority.
[ Just for the record, this is why in all Christian thinking communities, it is understood that the first question that must be established with regards to the articles of faith and belief for that given community is the question of authority. On what authority are one’s faith concept and practice going to stand? It’s really nice that thinkers across denominations can agree on that particular point.]
This is, of course, a difficult question for many Seventh Day Adventists because our tactic for several generations has been to make one set of ‘learned’ statements about authority (as in: we believe in the Bible) – only then to actually live out something that is often really quite different. And the question of inspiration is also at the heart of this discourse regarding Seventh-Day Adventists and Christmas because it will explain why some people within the Seventh-Day Adventist Church have decided that – despite having said yes to the doctrines and teachings of the Seventh Day Adventist church – they are themselves the final authority on what is and what is not inspired. They might do a bit of actual research before drawing conclusions. They might not do any. But they are the authority on what is right and what is not.
It is interesting that the staunchest adherents to the (ever increasingly discredited) 2520 time prophecy were not busily lampooning Ellen G. White’s writings in general. However, despite her own clear statement that the 2300 day prophecy is the longest time prophecy in Scripture, they clearly knew better.
Not dissimilarly, many of the more ultra-conservative types (which includes several stripes of Adventist personage who would not dream of self-defining as ultra-conservative – because that sounds a bit fundamentalist and no one wants to be one of those these days!) demonstrate how to be a conservative Adventist in ways that are in fact nothing to do with theological positions and everything to do with pseudo-politicised sociocultural notions of what is and what is not acceptable. An example? The school of thought in global Adventism that believes it is of the highest importance that one wears a tie when in an Adventist pulpit as a sign of respect. This is a wonderful example of our collective folly in that we have taken a secular gold standard that is increasingly defunct and archaic and held it up as a standard-bearer within the arena in which we are already supposed to have some sort of bona fide authority – i.e. the Bible!
And we have done the same thing with Christmas. The very first comment in the link that I have cited above regarding Ellen White’s statements on Christmas is from somebody whose starts off by saying that Ellen White was a fallible woman and that it made them angry that the church was using her as a standard because clearly the origins of Christmas are pagan and we should have nothing to do with it. Of course, if they have actually read EGW on this subject they would know that she is aware of those pagan origins (indeed, the origins of the church organ are even more pagan than those of the poor maligned ‘African drum’) but she sees a bigger picture…and of course, she says that her writings are not supposed to be used as a test of faith for baptism. So you can, of course, disagree with her if you choose, but the question then becomes: on whose authority are you standing when you say that you know more and better than she does? Is there a Biblical argument for castigating other SDA Christians for choosing to be aware of Christmas given the counsels of Paul in 1 Corinthians that relate to ways in which we can interact with the world without collapsing our identity and integrity as Seventh-Day Adventists – and also, given the very specific points the EGW outlines regarding the function of the Christmas season?
We’re not a movement anymore. We’re a brand, and brands have to be managed. Our uniqueness needs to be preserved with a constant awareness of what others are doing and why we should not do what they do because of our pathological need to be different – when our actual message is what makes us unique – not our brand management action points (e.g. wear the right clothes, carry the approved Bible versions, eat the right foods, learn the right one-liners, avoid all semblance of similarity to other churches…)… Oh sorry, did I say ‘brand?!’ I meant church, yes of course. We’re not a movement, we’re a ‘church…’
This is a long read. I know that. Please do not waste your time messaging me to tell me that I need to write shorter blog posts so that people can get what I’m saying without any real mental effort. For the very first time in my life I know with unparalleled certainty that that I write is not for everybody. To all those who have made it to this point: if you had an idea of what I was saying and you got this far, then hopefully this journey has made some sense to you. If you didn’t know where this blog post was going and you’ve gotten this far I’m really happy that you’ve done so. Because in the end, this really isn’t about the fact that there are some Seventh-Day Adventists who think that they know better than Ellen White. We have Seventh-Day Adventists who sincerely believe that they know better than the Bible itself, so in a sense, the whole question of Seventh-Day Adventism and Christmas is a question of authority which itself is linked to the question of inspiration. So to the folks who believe that theology is unnecessary and all you need is your Bible: congratulations, you’re already doing theology and if you didn’t know that you were doing theology then you clearly have the gift of doing something without knowing you are doing it. You might just be a genius.