My Thoughts on “The Blessed Hope Catechism”
I first want to say, “Thank You.” I know this is not how most book reviews begin, but I must say it. Thank you authors Michael Alix, Nicholas Foss, Matthew Larkin, Corey McLaughlin, and Andrew Rice for writing; thank you Justin Nash for your work in editing. It is so easy to take books for granted, but our appreciation is renewed when we recognize the scarcity of Advent Christian publications in the 21st century as compared to the deluge of writings put forth in the 19th century. These men are not professional writers or academics who have the luxury of devoting most of their time to these sorts of writing projects- they are pastors and denominational ministers who took what little time they had and gave it to a project, a catechism for Advent Christians. They undoubtedly hoped that in doing so they might bless our churches, and this desire was able to overcome whatever doubts may have haunted them that their work would in the end be nothing more than words cast to the wind. Their dedication is commendable, and I give praise and thanks to God for them.
I imagine the best review of “The Blessed Hope Catechism” would draw it into comparison with past Advent Christian catechisms. Unfortunately, I do not have ready access to those catechisms and so this review will fall short of the best imaginable. However, I forgo the best in order to draw timely attention to this catechism, attention that it richly deserves. I will give a brief sketch of the manner of writing and the various features of the book, highlight some of the distinct Advent Christian notes sounded out in the catechism, and close with some reflection on negotiating theological differences.
The Nature of “The Blessed Hope Catechism”
I must say that upon reading, The Blessed Hope Catechism (henceforth BHC), I was most impressed by the introductory pages of the book and the introductions featured for each section of the catechism. Frankly, I had only imagined pages upon pages of questions and answers. Instead, the catechism starts with fourteen pages explaining the purpose of catechisms, a helpful summary of the Gospel, and some concise categorical statements on items such as the persons of the Trinity, the Church, Resurrection, etc. This broad introduction is followed up with helpful introductory summaries for each section of the catechism, featuring references to various questions found in that section. Without these, it would be easy for the lay reader to get lost in the questions. The sections of the BHC are as follows: God; Creation; Sin; Savior and Salvation; Christ and Covenant; Spirit, Sanctification, and Scripture; Community and Kingdom Living; Resurrection; New Heaven and New Earth. Included with each section’s introduction is a recommended list of books for further reading in the given subject, a helpful reminder that the BHC is not intended to offer an exhaustive treatment of these subjects.
The questions themselves are succinctly posed and answered. Each answer is accompanied by one quoted Scripture verse, along with a list of other Scripture references. Advent Christians have always emphasized the importance of the biblical basis for beliefs and that tradition is clearly continued by using this format. Select terms used throughout the catechism are followed up in a glossary at the end of the book offering further definitions, and having read through the glossary, I can say that it is well worth reading in and of itself. At the end of the BHC the authors offer guidance on how to utilize this catechism in the home and in the local church. These sections are not rigorously or exhaustively prescriptive, but they supply enough guiding examples to encourage putting the catechism into practice. Finally, the BHC also includes the Advent Christian Declaration of Principles and the Advent Christian Statement of Faith, the latter making its first book appearance, which should help promote a consciousness of both that is generally lacking.
Advent Christian Tone
Throughout this catechism, one picks up on an Advent Christian accent and at certain decisive points, these beliefs come completely out into the open. Shuffling through these instances categorically, one early appearance we find is question 4.66 which goes:
4.66 What is the Gospel?
The good news of Jesus- his life, death, resurrection and his coming kingdom.
While this may escape the notice of many, the inclusion of “and his coming kingdom” is a particularly Adventist note that has tended to be absent in many popular evangelical definitions of the Gospel/Good News. It is of course the case, and thankfully so, that Advent Christians are not alone in this affirmation, but it is worth highlighting if only to note the continued thread of confession between past and present Advent Christians. This is teased out further by question 8.146 which goes:
8.146 Where will you be in relationship with Christ for all eternity?
In the new heaven and new earth.
Again, this confession does not belong exclusively to Advent Christians, but it is certainly a distinct mark of emphasis that has tended to escape much of evangelicalism. Elsewhere, conditionalism comes clearly to the fore in questions like the following:
2.24 Did God create Adam and Eve with immortality?
No, God alone has immortality.
8.142 Is there any consciousness in death?
No, the dead know nothing.
8.144 What is everlasting destruction?
God’s just judgment in the lake of fire leading to complete annihilation.
These questions, as with the previous questions noted above, receive further treatment in the section introductions and glossary, thereby pulling together a sweeping narrative of Advent Christian belief.
While reading the BHC, I picked up on some possible points of theological difference. I highlight some of them here to set up an honest conversation about negotiating theological differences and to also point out the diligence exerted by the authors to be fair, even if the reader may justifiably desire a more neutral rendering. I think it would be wrong to suggest a theological conspiracy on the part of the authors to sway the denomination to certain theological positions. The authors likely hold particular beliefs that not all Advent Christians share and this undoubtedly colors their rendering. Nevertheless, I believe their efforts to be utterly sincere and well-intended. I will demonstrate my own sincerity in saying this when I share my own difference of opinion on a particular point.
In the third section dealing with sin, we see this question put forward:
3.41 What is the effect of original sin?
I am born guilty and with a sinful nature.
The answer given is completely valid and for many readers it is completely correct. For my own part, I think it is an essential Christian confession that humans are born with a sinful nature. However, where I and possibly others would take pause is on the first point, that humans are “born guilty.” Is the meaning here one’s inclusion in the corporate guilt attached to humanity as a whole (all humans die) or is personal guilt meant? If the latter, what does this mean for infants that die? Should we be baptizing babies? If not, why not and what would initiate one’s culpability for the personal guilt with which one is born? I suspect the answer would have something to do with an age of moral accountability, but if that is the case would it not suffice to say that humans are born with a sinful nature that unavoidably leads them to sin and that personal guilt emerges from the very point of moral consciousness? Death before this point is a clear indication that all humans beings are corporately guilty because of Adam and Eve (and frankly all the fathers and mothers who followed after), and yet this Death is clearly differentiated from the Second Death which deals finally with personal guilt.
I thought the section introduction did an excellent job explaining the sinful nature of human beings, but the answer to the question above seems to only prompt more questions. Of course, this is not the worst thing- as demonstrated above, at least two different answers are possible. However, it may have been best if this ambiguity was avoided altogether with a different rendering.
Elect and Chosen?
When it was learned the BHC was being produced, I suspect that many of you began wondering how the authors would negotiate the Calvinism/Arminianism divide. I was curious about this myself, and in the course of reading I picked up on at least a couple points that seemed to hint affection for the Calvinist predestination. In section four, question 49 we read:
4.49 Did God leave all humanity under his wrath and the curse of sin?
No, he provided the way of salvation for his elect.
Similarly, the introduction to section 9 says, “Those chosen by God and adopted into his family will ‘become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).” If there was any suspicion of a Calvinist persuasion based on question 49, this latter comment seems to confirm the suspicion. However, to be duly diligent, one is compelled to refer to the glossary wherein greater definition is provided. There were find this statement from the authors:
The controversial aspect of God’s election lies in how and in what manner God chooses those who will be saved. Namely, does he look down the corridor of time and see who respond faithfully to his call and then elects them, or does he elect them before they have done anything good or bad? Either way, the vocabulary of “elect” and “chosen” is biblical.” (For more on this, see Why I Am Not an Arminian by Robert Peterson and Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Jerry L. Walls.)
They make no call one way or the other and they provide resources for the reader to work it out for herself. The selections above could admittedly be read through an Arminian or Calvinist lens, but some readers may feel, and I would agree, that the way “chosen” is grammatically positioned in section 9 tends to bring to mind a predestinarian schema. This is biblical language and I can already hear my Calvinist brothers chortling in response to this complaint, “Naturally so!” Nevertheless, I do think a more neutral rendering is possible that would more likely avoid complaint .
Now I completely recognize that the work of a critic is the easiest work of all. The harder work would be to put forward rewordings that sidestep the above concerns. I am tempted to do that, but I refrain because I respect the work of these authors and recognize their sincere attempts at producing a catechism that would serve this theologically diverse denomination of ours. I have raised these possible points of disagreements to stage a particular admonition that will follow my own definitive disagreement with the catechism on a particular point.
My Difference on Atonement
When it comes to Christ’s atonement, the BHC offers a definition in keeping with the penal substitutionary model, a model that has been traditionally popular among evangelicals. To put it simply, the penal substitutionary model maintains that Christ’s work of atonement pivotally turns on Christ receiving our punishment; divine justice calls for the punishment of sin and so a punishment must be handed down. Adherents of this viewpoint are typically willing to accept that there are other aspects of atonement, but when the basic necessity of atonement is considered, it usually boils down to the penal requirements of justice. We see this particular understanding emerge in question 55 of the catechism and the subsequent glossary definition:
4.55 How did Jesus satisfy the wrath of God due for your sin?
He became my substitute and made atonement for my sins by his suffering and death.
“Jesus died in our place, however, paying the penalty for our sins. (Rom. 6:23), and in doing so, he satisfied the wrath of God (i.e., propitiation).”
This is a perfectly orthodox understanding of atonement, held by most Advent Christians, and one that I shared not long ago. I am not surprised that the PSA model shaped the definitions found in the BHC and I do not at all fault the authors for defining Christ’s atonement in this way. Nevertheless, I do disagree with it.
I completely agree that true atonement is solely and completely the work of Christ, that Christ’s work of atonement is the only way of salvation, that in absolutely no way can we earn our salvation by good works, and that our sin is entirely due God’s wrath and punishment. My difference concerns how Christ atones on our behalf. Punishment is certainly one means of satisfying justice, but when we consider atonement, I believe we are speaking of an alternative, restorative means of satisfying justice. To cut a very long line of reasoning short, I believe that the costly offering of Christ’s perfectly obedient life to the Father provides true and complete cleansing of sin, and that this is sufficient to satisfy divine justice. It is an understanding that I believe better represents the actual function of Old Testament atonement sacrifices and one which I look forward to expounding in the future. Presently, I refer to this model as, “Vital Substitutionary Atonement”, which in part recalls the model put forward by Advent Christian professor Clarence H. Hewitt in his book,Vital Atonement.
Moving Forward Together
At this point, I remind you that the purpose of the preceding critiques has not been to disparage the BHC , but to supply illustration. I identified some points of critique that you and I may share, as well as an instance of my own personal disagreement; I’m sure there is some other dastardly “misstep” I missed that you caught. In light of all that, I now ask you, “What shall we do?”
Well, we could just shun this catechism altogether and realize the authors’ fear that their work would be all for naught. Indeed, if we did that, no other Advent Christian(s) in their right mind would ever try to write a catechism again for such an ungrateful lot. It would be the last catechism ever written for Advent Christians, and instead of being opened at the family table or in a church membership class, it would be stuffed into the Adventual library to gather dust.
Alternatively, perhaps white-out is an option? We could go through line by line, eliminating the parts we don’t like. After all, why should we honor three years of hard work these pastors put into the BHC? They just need to get hobbies.
I am tempted to continue along these lines, but I’ll speak plainly and practically now: The Blessed Hope Catechism is a work worth honoring by putting it to use in the home and in the local church. For myself, I plan on using it with my family as my son gets older and I would like to at least introduce it for use among families in my church. In doing so, I have no intent of whiting-out anything these authors have written. They have put in the hard work and they deserve to be heard. What I may do, and which I believe is entirely appropriate, is include an addendum that offers some expansion/clarification on some of the items cited above. There are enough blank pages at the end of this book to attach something of the sort. This would obviously be labor-intensive, but some of you in your teaching ministries may feel called to do something like this.
If we are going to move forward together, we must practice this sort of tolerance. Advent Christians have always prided themselves on being people of the Bible. If that is the case, then we should not fear orthodox interpretations that differ from our own. Instead, we should view such differences as offering occasions to exercise the Berean spirit, to dig into the Scriptures so that we may come to a closer understanding of the truth. Even if one’s disagreement remains, he or she will still find herself rewarded for having studied God’s Word. For those of us who teach, we can utilize these points to encourage those we disciple to practice this sort of fervent study of the Word. The greatest commendation of the BHC is that it readily supplies the verse references to begin just that sort of study. If you doubt their word, take up God’s Word! You might see things in a new light.
The Blessed Hope Catechism, p. 56
ibid., p. 108
ibid., p.32, see also pp.141-42
ibid., p. 107, also pp.143-44
ibid., p. 50
ibid., p. 138
ibid., p.52, but p.68