Adventism Confronts Modernity: a review by Thomas Loghry

Adventism Confronts Modernity: a review by Thomas Loghry

by Thomas Loghry

In recent years, there has been a noticeable lack of published work offering any comment upon Advent Christian history and the important theological developments that have occurred over the years. Into this gap has stepped Robert J. Mayer with his book Adventism Confronts Modernity: An Account of the Advent Christian Controversy over the Bible’s Inspiration. Mayer’s study is thoroughly historical and poignantly contextual, as it seeks to clarify the Advent Christian debate over the Bible’s inspiration by setting it against the larger Fundamentalist-Modernist debate. Seen from another angle, he examines the Advent Christian controversy over the Bible’s inspiration as a case study of this larger debate, thus making this a helpful book for Advent Christian and non-Advent Christian alike.

In his introduction, Mayer sets out the prospective harvest one might reap from examining the Advent Christian conflict:

Studying the Advent Christian conflict over the inspiration and authority of the Bible can help us gain insight into the role and function of Scripture in a restorationist context. It helps us look at how denominations and associations of churches that combine non-creedal approaches toward Christian theology with a congregational form of church government resolve or fail to resolve important theological and organizational differences.[1]

This represents the goal of Mayer’s study. To reach it, he takes the reader through the development of the Advent Christian denomination in the larger context of American Christianity throughout the second half of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century, setting the stage for the 1964 Bible debate. Early on in his study, he describes the theological tension that has always confronted the Advent Christian denomination:

Identity for Advent Christians has traditionally been measured in terms of belief in a distinctive group of doctrines relating to individual and general eschatology. Paradoxically, Advent Christians have throughout their history maintained a non-creedal stance toward defining Christian doctrine. This orientation toward doctrinal definition has meant that while Advent Christians have defined their distinctiveness in terms of specific doctrines, at the same time they have allowed for a wide range of belief on issues[.][2] 

He plays out this tension by offering a succinct historical account of the theological origins of the denomination and the diverse voices at play in its formation. At this point, Mayer treads many of same paths earlier traveled by David Dean in his 1976 doctoral thesis, Echoes of the Midnight Cry.[3] Like Dean, he offers an account of the immense theological impact of the rationalistic approach to theology of Miles Grant, but he offers his own original insight by drawing Grant into comparison with other theologians of the day who were in the early throes of the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate. He identifies the Common Sense philosophical approach of Thomas Reid as being the shared philosophical framework of both Grant and the Princeton Theologians, but that these latter in their attempt to bridge the Fundamentalist-Modernist divide, did not supplant Scripture to reason as Grant effectively did.[4]

Moving into the 20th century and the emergence of Advent Christian educational institutions, Mayer offers a similar cross-reference account of Orrin Roe Jenks and Clyde H. Hewitt of Aurora College, describing how the theological developments found at the University of Chicago had influenced them. On the Fundamentalist-Modernist spectrum, the University of Chicago was decidedly on the Modernist end of things, and thus Mayer identifies these Aurora theologians as falling toward that end of the spectrum, thus forming what could be called the Advent Christian version of “modernists”.

On the opposite end led by J.A. Nichols and Ariel Ainsworth was the New England School of Theology, which would later become Berkshire Christian College. Nichols and Ainsworth were influenced by the thought of Cornelius Van Til who was numbered among those who left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in the midst of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Berkshire Christian College thus fell toward the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, forming the Advent Christian version of “fundamentalists”.

While Mayer does not designate these institutions in the fashion that I have done, his study lends itself to thinking in these terms, in thinking of these institutions as falling toward one end of the spectrum or the other. While this is helpful toward understanding the sources of Advent Christian theological development, it may also tempt the reader to flatten these Advent Christian theologians and to place them squarely in one camp or the other, conceiving Aurora theologians as being “liberal” and Berkshire theologians as being “conservative”. Relative to one another, this may be the case, but considered in the greater context of American Christianity, this would entirely misrepresent what is actually a significant amount of agreement between the two.

From Mayer’s account, the basic difference that appeared between Aurora and Berkshire regarding the inspiration of Scripture was their respective accounts of the extent of the authority of Scripture. This difference came down to the difference between inspired writers and inspired words. Aurora understood Scripture to be dynamically inspired, meaning that God inspired those who wrote the words of Scripture but not the words themselves. This basically allowed for the appearance of historical and scientific errors, but maintained the theological/moral authority of the text.  Conversely, Berkshire’s understanding was that of verbal plenary inspiration, meaning that God’s work of inspiration exacted upon the words themselves, such that the sorts of errors dynamic inspiration would permit could not be allowed. By this understanding, the Bible is authoritative on whatever it comments.

This is obviously not an insignificant disagreement (and thus the 1964 debate and this book), but it is nevertheless significant that both sides do agree that Scripture is the authoritative basis for Christian doctrine. While Miles Grant does splinter the authority for Christian doctrine, those like Jenks, Hewitt, and Crouse do maintain Scripture’s theological authority, regardless of whether one might think that they stand upon a slippery slope. As Hewitt writes in his book Faith for Today, “No doctrine can be held as a fundamental of faith which cannot be proved by certain warranty of Scripture, and no theory can be true that is contrary to Bible statements.”[5] Reason may be beneficial, but everything must submit to Scripture. So while Hewitt did develop a “conditionalist principle”, he did not believe this principle contravened Scripture but accorded harmoniously with it. Thus despite appearances, agreement on the Bible’s basic authority remained between the two sides.

Mayer’s account is so contextual that this overarching agreement can be lost in the midst of describing the apparent differences raging at the time. However, he succeeds in transporting the reader into the world as it was for those who lived through this controversy. He offers seldom heard accounts of the Cleveland Conference (a meeting between Berkshire and Aurora theologians) and the controversy that hovered over the denomination’s Sunday School curriculum. All of this sets the stage for the decisions made at the 1964 Montreat gathering of the Advent Christian General Conference.

Perhaps what is most significant in this study is Mayer’s assessment of the decisions made in 1964. He seems to share the belief with those who were present at the time that the conversation concerning the Bible’s inspiration was cut short by the decisions made and that there ought to have been lengthier discussion.[6] Such regret might lend a word of caution to future theological discussion among Advent Christians, that an impatient desire for denominational unity should not short-circuit efforts toward theological clarity.

Consistent with the theological paradox cited earlier and seeking a resolution to the goal of his study, Mayer writes:

It was these two principles- the final authority of Scripture and the freedom of individuals to determine their Christian beliefs for themselves- came directly into conflict with each other at Montreat. No matter how vital the issue, the majority of Advent Christians was reticent to act in a way that might restrict the individual freedom of fellow Advent Christians to follow the dictates of conscience.[7]

A decision on the authority of Scripture was agreed upon, as it is now found in the Declaration of Principles when it states: “We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, being in its entirety a revelation given to man under divine inspiration and providence; that its historic statements are correct, and that it is the only divine and infallible standard of faith and practice.”[8] However, despite this agreement, it is apparent that the theological tension among Advent Christians has not been resolved. While admittedly important, one wonders just how hollow it may be to affirm the authority of Scripture without recognizing any sort of objective meaning that would command Advent Christian belief. In any case, Mayer offers a commendable route by which this tension may be worked out, which happens to also align quite nicely with the stated purposes of Advent Christian Voices. He writes,

Major theological differences continue to exist today, especially within the coalition that comprises contemporary Evangelicalism. Those differences need to be addressed, not by caricatures of opposing views and their proponents, but by the practice of sustained, patient, and constructive interaction and dialogue…This type of honest dialogue gives Christians an opportunity to practice on of the Apostle Paul’s marks of Christian maturity, the ability to ‘speak the truth in love.[9]

With this sort of encouragement, the historical insight provided, and the vistas opened for further research into Advent Christian formation and identity, Robert Mayer’s Adventism Confronts Modernity is a beneficial and important study for this moment in the life of the Advent Christian denomination. If this were not sweet enough, the cherry on top is the stock of resources he provides in the appendices, including the oldest versions of the Declaration of Principles that are not otherwise easily accessible.[10] This author recommends you dig in!

 

 

 

 

[1] Robert James Mayer and Garth Rosell, Adventism confronts modernity: an account of the Advent Christian controversy over the Bibles inspiration (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017). p. xvii

[2] ibid. p. 18

[3] David A. Dean Echoes of the Midnight Cry: The Millerite Heritage in the Apologetics of the Advent Christian Denomination, 1860-1960. Doctoral thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1976. Volumes I & II

[4] Mayer. p.21

[5] Clarence H. Hewitt, Faith for today (Boston: The Warren Press, 1941). p.65

[6] Mayer, p. 153

[7] ibid. pp.163-164

[8] see http://acgc.us/advent-christian-declaration-of-principles/

[9] Mayer, pp. 165-166

[10] For an interesting study, compare the 1881 DOP to the 1900 DOP. In his doctoral thesis, David Dean notes the shift from including the pre-existence of the Son in the 1881 version to its absence in the 1900 version, a clear sign of the influence of Miles Grant. 

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