All posts by Weiers Coetser

An Alternative View of Church Unity

Weiers Coetser

An Alternative View of Church Unity

This article was first published by Adventist Today in June 2017.

 


Midway through 2017 we find ourselves, for better or worse, on the rutted and pothole-filled road of “church unity.” The landscape that this road tries to navigate has been defined by some as justice. But it’s all very complicated, and here I’m going to try to give you a better lay of the land.

“The beat of justice resonates within you,” said Dan Jackson warmly and reassuringly shortly after the October 2016 Annual Council decision to accept the draft Church Unity document. He was addressing those in the North American Division who felt disillusioned by the Church’s persistent unwillingness to deal equitably and fairly with all its members and clergy—male or female.

But will things take on a different nuance if we look back at our past? Commentators have observed our tendency to co-opt, and collude uncritically, with the dominant socio-political realities of our time. A bird’s-eye view back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in order. We bought into the great American dream. We shaped our global expansion on the same lines. We did it with the same inexorable drive as the most august institutions of colonialism and global capitalism.

The Historical Path

Here are some connections between Adventist history and the history of colonialism:

In 1863, when the Seventh-day Adventist church was beginning to take official shape, David Livingstone was still exploring the Zambezi. Much of the African continent had not even been charted. The West was enthralled by stories of adventure purveyed by newspapers who sponsored exploratory journeys through the “dark continent.”

As the Seventh-day Adventist church put down its roots in America, and as the civil war was being fought around the issue of slavery, colonialism was far from a retreating force. Significant swathes of the world were still up for grabs by exploitative entrepreneurs and nation-states. The conditions that the colonial drive created over the next few decades were truly horrifying. Between 1860 and 1910 more than 10 million people would die in the Congo alone.

The Seventh-day Adventist church’s first missionary drive into Africa and the Orient coincided with the height of colonial optimism. Diamonds, gold, and rubber all drew prospectors and businesses to this new frontier to amass a fortune without regard to the welfare of the local nations.

Along with them went our church’s first missionaries on their own project of global expansion.

Along the way, it would be safe to argue, we Adventists bought into the worldview that underpinned colonialism. We exported an American product to the world, laced with the language of a peculiar kind of exceptionalism. In return we were buoyed by the accomplishment of our great commission as the world was transformed by this American/European vision of reality. Seldom did the Church show a deep-seated interest to engage with the cultures that it encountered, to risk being transformed, or to acknowledge the potential for diversity. Additionally, our inspired organisational structure allowed for strong centralised control.

The extent to which the Adventist church mirrored the colonial project deserves to be explored in more depth, but the evidence shows that we cannot claim that we were immune to the ideologies that undermined the fabric of society. The South African church, for example, simply mirrored South African Apartheid. We’ve been slow at setting up centres of leadership and learning in the countries we entered, relying much more heavily on a retainer class of church administrators and thought leaders who had studied in the United States, such as in the halls of Andrews University.

Colonialism insidiously undermined the fabric of the historic communities where we drew our members from. Many argue that patriarchy was a rarity in earlier indigenous societies and was a result of colonial exploitation. Women bore the brunt of the economic and physical violence perpetrated by the colonial project. Think of a system where men are forced to become migrant laborers, in cities that are designed to exploit labour but destroy family bonds. They would return only occasionally to rural areas to bring money and HIV/AIDS infections to the women and girls at home. Did we preach headship theology historically? Perhaps this was a tacit endorsement, validating violent systems of patriarchy.

Colonialism eventually collapsed, giving rise to anarchic political situations in the countries that were under the grip of Western powers for many decades. The West’s exploitation, however, did not end there. Now the international market economy took over, creating the dependencies (sometimes by propping up deeply flawed dictators, or loaning excessive amounts of money to weak nations leaving them forever indebted) and the opportunities for great multinational companies to exploit every bit of wealth that might still be present in these parts of the world.

Turning of the tide

In recent decades, however, the instability that culminated from centuries of exploitation without building healthy societies has begun to bite back. Perhaps the most telling example is the current migrant crisis where Europe and the West is being overrun by the same people whose natural resources and labour they have benefited from over the last five centuries of slavery, colonialism, and globalisation.

“Postcolonial” migrants are now coming with huge needs and stringent expectations. Europe’s response is to be completely perturbed. The European states seem inept in engaging with the crisis in any way other than to protect self-interest. Fences are being erected (literally and figuratively). The response is mostly defensive, trying to find ways to define how the situation should be managed. But the rest of the world now seems unwilling to play according to the Western rules. They keep piling in by the droves. In boat after boat they arrive to claim some of the perceived wealth and stability that Europe and America had benefited from for hundreds of years—at their expense.

Unsurprisingly it seems a parallel phenomenon is happening with Adventism. The global product of American evangelical fundamentalism that we exported to the rest of the world is coming home. I would suggest that this global picture of justice, (or the historic lack thereof) is what shapes the landscape that presents itself on the floors of the General Conference and the Annual Council.

As I listened to the October Annual Council debate last autumn, I sensed that the church still has a long way to go to deal with its colonial legacy.

  • In gathering of global church leadership we are still having problems pronouncing the names of international speakers while those of many North-American speakers pose little problem. To what extent is the notion of a global, international church just a veneer even at the level of the highest most global of executive committees? Is this perhaps a marker that we have some way to go to develop the necessary relationships and skills to deal with the intricacies of being a global church?
  • The overwhelming majority of responses were from American and Europeans. Whether opposing or supporting the motion (having to do with a document to bring North American unions that ordain women into line with the General Conference) one wonders who the real intended audience of these entreaties were. Was it the small group that drafted the report? Was it top level administration? How successful were they in addressing the global church?
  • Almost every African member that spoke (there were very few) seemed to demonstrate a completely incommensurate view of the world.  I perceived little or no interest to engage in any of the clever or intricate arguments made by the North American and European speakers. They defined the issues differently and they too were unapologetic about their point of departure.

It was like two ships sailing past each other at night. The one was largely silent. The other was full of sound and fury, but the occupants of this ship did not seem to recognise how radically power has shifted in the church. In the battle for the correct view of justice, meaningful relationships seem to have fallen on the wayside.

What about Ted Wilson?

Those in favour of women’s ordination see Ted Wilson as the one who embodies the fundamentalist drive to enforce unity. If they can make him out to be the pariah, they can still believe that they are busy with an internal theological debate within a Western church with a range of Western theological perspectives.

One commentator recently asked if Ted Wilson does not merely have his finger on the pulse of the church and knows where the power lies and the energy flows. I think that Elder Wilson embodies the challenges that face the church. His leadership has become the focal point of tensions brought about by our colonial legacy. Our real failure seems to lie in our incapability to meet in meaningful engagement across the divisions created by our legacy.

What lies ahead?

There is a danger that the church will become more fragmented. The Western church could easily dissolve in the face of the results of its own historic legacy, and become invisible. It could continue to insist on its right and ability to define the terms of engagement, erecting more robust boundaries, leaving the rest of the global church poorer. Administrative decisions by Annual Councils and General Conference sessions could become punitive, even more quickly weakening the Western church.

Or we could choose a more hopeful route. We could acknowledge the complexity of the situation and open ourselves up to learn a new set of skills to pursue justice on a broader level. The clarion call of the Gospel will never go away: for us to be big hearted and generous as we encounter the strangers at our gates.

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Blogging through “The White Elephant” No. 6

Weiers Coetser, co-editor of Adventist Soapbox
Weiers Coetser

A Response to Brian Neumann

In a sport like football or rugby, an ultimate fear for any player is scoring an own goal. This fear also exists within the world of critical conversations or debates. This is exactly what Brian Neumann says I have done.

I wrote a blog engaging with the first chapter of Brian Neumann’s new book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism. I raised a question about the method that Brian employed in quoting verses from Scripture to establish a standard by which one should test a prophet. His proof-text approach seemed arbitrary to me, even though Brian presented it to be hard-coded into Scripture.

Brian’s response was that I have misrepresented his project, and furthermore, that my approach undermined the faith tradition that I represent in the very same breath.

In this blog, I suggest that when it comes to reading one another’s perspectives, the danger that is bigger than scoring an own goal, is that we end up misreading each other and that we essentially seem to be on the same field, but that we are playing different games altogether.

In his response, Brian made a few comments that I take to mean that if I had read his chapter with an open mind, I would not have critiqued the way that he came to his conclusions. I therefore went back and read Brian’s chapter again, along with the material that he submitted afterwards. Here is what I understand him to say.

  • Firstly, his main interest in the chapter is to make the point that he wants to use a scriptural standard as a means to evaluate the life, teaching, and work of a prophet (but not only a prophet – Scripture is his standard for measuring anything.)

This is his main argument.  And as such I think that I have misread him. I struggled quite a bit to extract a template or a list of proofs or tests by which he wants to evaluate the work of Ellen White. He does mention a number of these tests in his chapter, but every time I read the chapter looking for a coherent list, I struggled to distil exactly which elements are important to him. The eventual list that I thought he had come up with was: 1.) Does her life and teachings conform to the Bible? 2.) Did her predictions come true (except if there were clear conditional elements.) 3.) Does her visionary experiences conform to the visionary experiences of Biblical prophets?  But subtly throughout the chapter he states that he is not convinced by this third test, and his second chapter confirms that he rejects this element as a proof.

What confused me was that he mentioned some other aspects of prophets that never featured in this final list, for example, the variety of ways in which they received messages from God, and the fact that prophets were not always exemplary in their lives and witness. He also stated that he is not trying to do an in depth, systematic study of the prophetic gift in the Bible. He also completely overlooked key New Testament passages about the gift of prophecy. This left me with the feeling that everything is just a bit too arbitrary – especially if he is trying to set a strict “legal standard” and a direct scriptural pattern by which to evaluate the work of a prophet. I was looking for a systematic study of the phenomenon of biblical prophets, but I never really found that.

It is in this context that I noticed that he strings (what seems to me to be unrelated and, at times, even spurious) Bible verses together to make his argument about the need for a prophet to conform to the whole of Scripture. I chose to call that out. I still stand by my view that there are better ways to make an argument for employing Scripture. But having read Brian’s responses carefully, I am quite willing to admit that I got out of the starting block too quickly to make generalisations about his approach. I don’t think that my critique undermines his argument that we should use Scripture as the final standard to evaluate the spiritual impact and truth claims of a prophetic life and message in general.

The lack of a systematic study of Biblical prophets at the beginning, does however mean that he will have to work harder in future chapters to show that he is in fact employing his scriptural standard wholistically, consistently and with fairness. I am quite happy to give Brian the benefit of the doubt to see where he will go with the standard. I look forward to see how he will do it. In my Blog number 4 I tried to outline some of the elements of prophetic ministry that I would like to be on the lookout for.

I hope that this response will satisfy Brian. I also hope that Brian will be willing to read my comments as a token of friendship. We live in a world in which it is very difficult to get people to really stop and pay attention to each other. Often we struggle with ideas in isolation. Writing can be a lonely process. It’s a pleasure to be able to take time to really engage.

Own Goal?

Let me address the question about the own goal. Brian is keen to point out that my interpretation of Isaiah 8 places me at odds with Ellen White, and the scriptural tradition that I come from.  He quotes sources at length to prove this. I can see that Brian feels that he is justified in using Isaiah 8:20 to make his argument. I agree that, based on a long tradition of reading scripture, this is defendable. (I have far bigger objections to the other verses that he employed in his argument.)

He might find it strange that I do not yet feel the compulsion to change my perspective on Isaiah 8. I have set out the method by which I have approached the text, which I believe is defensible and faithful to the standards that one should use when one takes Scripture seriously. I also reject the notion that there is any attempt to obfuscate Scripture in any way.

I would suggest to Brian that it is a misreading to conclude that I am therefore disregarding my heritage and my faith.  I don’t believe I am less committed than Brian, or any Seventh-day Adventist for that matter, to give an accurate account of what Scripture teaches, or to hold it as the highest standard. My critique was never intended to undermine this principle. Perhaps the best way to show a commitment to Scripture is to put one’s best efforts into reading it. This is in my DNA as an Adventist.

I am also committed to the heritage that has brought Seventh-day Adventism to where it is today. In my teaching and in my ministry, I always set out to help support and nurture those who I have the privilege to encounter, to affirm and grow in their understanding of Bible fundamentals and Adventist beliefs.

Adventism is however a big tent and there is constant debate and conversation about how to interpret Scripture and history. Just this week (19 February 2017) I received a newsletter of the Adventist Theological Society announcing plans to publish several new Bible commentaries before the General Conference Session of 2020. These new commentaries contain some of the latest Bible scholarship, and new discoveries that have been made in biblical archaeology and the biblical text.

There is room for new perspectives around Scripture. While I am not going to presume that Ellen White would agree with my conclusion on Isaiah 8, I at least know that she would not be offended. She was a proponent of independent study of Scripture. Take this statement as an example:

“When no new questions are started by investigation of the scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.” Testimonies 5. p.707. (1889).

There are also new perspectives that develop around Ellen White and around the views of our church pioneers. There are even disagreements. It is simply impossible to paint an ideal historical picture of what a true Seventh-day Adventist should be and then expect that to remain the same for always and forever.

This creative tension between continuity and discontinuity is not confined to Seventh-day Adventism, or even to faith traditions in general. At the time of this conversation there is considerable public debate around the appointment of a new supreme court justice in the United States of America. One of the core issues that is being fiercely contested is how one should give proper account to the original principles of the United States constitution. Some choose a fundamentalist reading which try to retain the original core principles of the constitution independent of context, while others argue that the original principles of the constitution require that it be reinterpreted in the context of present day society. Both camps remain fundamentally American in their thinking even though they take different approaches.

In the process of trying to distil my thoughts for this article, I read the last chapter of The White Elephant. In that chapter, Brian also sets the requirement for every Seventh-day Adventist who wants to stand by the prophetic ministry of Ellen White to fit into a very specific mould that he thinks adherence to Ellen White would require and to be consistent with every truth claim, scriptural interpretation, and lifestyle standard that she proposed.

When I look at Brian’s interaction with me, and I read the testimony of Kamy in the context of this last chapter, I sense that Brian does not accept that there is room for pluralism in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. He sees anything other than a full commitment to a certain version of historical Adventism as fundamentally dishonest. Brian’s arguments against Ellen White works very well if he can convince his readers that there is only one legitimate way to read Ellen White. He can then point out the inconsistencies and this then gives him significant authority to force readers into an “either you are in or you are out” approach.

When a pastor or a reader of Ellen White chooses to make accommodations for faults or weaknesses in the way that our faith tradition has been shaped, or even in the life of Ellen White…if a re-interpretation is suggested… this is regarded as dishonest, double dealing, and portraying a lack of integrity. For Brian the only option is to either accept everything lock stock and barrel, or to reject it. He would even argue that this is intrinsically part of the fundamentals of Adventist belief and that Ellen White herself demands this. The ferocity of Brian’s attack against those who disagree with his version of historic Adventism suggests to me that his arguments against Ellen White stand or fall on this narrow binary view.

My intuition is that this will ultimately prove to be the biggest weakness of Brian’s argument. Such an inflexible monolithic view of a system of faith, and how adherents to a system of faith function, simply does not conform to reality.

The life of every human being consists of a mixture of passions, commitments to truth, personal failures, weaknesses and contradictions. This is true of Biblical writers as much as it is of modern people. We are all also products of our culture and our environment and we cannot escape this. There is no person who does not lose their way from time to time. Everybody, at all times, have many forces acting on them. Our lives also do not remain static, but follow trajectories in which change happen for good and bad. When you combine many such lives and individuals into a community, or into an institution the complexity becomes even greater.

The amazing thing about the testimony of Scripture is that God really works through these human factors – often despite these human factors.

It is for this reason that grace becomes such a prominent theme in Scripture. As Christians wend their way through the inevitable difficulties of the human condition, some of the Bible’s most salient bits of advice is to be patient, generous, longsuffering, slow to find fault… to treat people as you would like them to treat you. There is nothing dishonest about doing this. God did this for us. I would urge that this is the biblical standard by which we should also evaluate anybody whom we encounter in our lives.

By all means! — Let us be honest about the history and the true nature of how we, and our pioneers live our lives and interact with our world. I think this is the strongest contribution that Brian makes in his book. It is wrong to try to suppress or hide what is true. Unfortunately, many of these details have been slow to emerge.

But a hermeneutic that does not make allowances for the human condition, as well as factors such as interpersonal and broader historical context, while insisting on being the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong, is in my opinion unbiblical and needs to be approached with some suspicion and care.

What is your response to the concepts discussed in this blog? Please leave a comment below or take part in the dialogue on Facebook.
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Blogging Through “The White Elephant” No. 5

Author of the four gospels
Ps. Weiers Coetser
Devil's Advocate
Devil’s Advocate

 

Paul Coetser, co-editor and Devil’s Advocate

 

 

 

We’re blogging our way through Brian Neumann’s book The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism. We are now at Chapter 2, which has the title “In Vision. Applying the Standard — part: one” (pp. 59-68.)


Neumann states up-front in chapter two that: “Nowhere in the Bible does God say that some physical phenomena, manifested by the prophet when in vision, should be used to prove if a prophet is true or false” (p.60).

He shows, I think convincingly, how attempts to construe Biblical accounts of prophets in vision into a checklist of physical criteria that can be applied to check a prophet’s authenticity does not constitute conclusive evidence.

In developing his argument, Neumann submits three accounts from different historical sources of Ellen White’s visions and shows how these accounts were employed by early Seventh-day Adventists to “prove” Ellen White’s authenticity as a prophet (p.62-65).

He, however, also quotes a contradictory statement by Arthur G. Daniels (General Conference President), who said at a 1919 Conference on the Spirit of Prophecy:

Now with reference to the evidences [physical signs]: I differ with some of the brethren who have put together proofs of evidences of the genuineness of this gift, in this respect, — I believe that the strongest proof is found in the fruits of this gift to the church, not in physical and outward demonstrations…. 1

Included in the quote by Daniels, is his seeming uncertainty about the truthfulness of the stories about Ellen White’s superhuman strength, such as holding the family Bible, while in vision.


Critical Reflection:

Here is a fun fact: In 1906 C.C. Chrisler conducted an interview with Ellen White where she recalled stories from the early days of the Adventist movement. In a recollection she tells how she once exposed the deceit of a certain fanatical woman. She says:

One woman — she was holy, tall, dignified, but she was one of the fanatical ones — would go right into a vision and tell them what they must do. They sent for me and I came up. Said I, ‘What is it?’ They said what she was doing. She was in vision, and she said they must do so and so. The poor woman did not know what spirit she was of. ‘But, Sister Howland,’ said I, as though I was whispering, ‘get a pitcher of cold water, good cold water, and throw it right in her face; that will bring her out of it the quickest of anything you can do.’ She started to get the water, but before she got there, [the woman] had come out. She was deceiving them in this way. 2

I can imagine the glint in the 76 year old Ellen White’s eyes as she remembered that story. Perhaps we should add throwing a pitcher of cold water into the face, as one of the tests for a Biblical prophet!…

The societal and religious context in which the advent movement originated

But on a more serious note.  I think Ellen White’s recollection in this interview highlights something about the context in which Ellen White’s visions took place, particularly in the early years. Seventh-day Adventists today are a pretty restrained lot. There is little that is charismatic, exuberant, or ecstatic about our worship practices today. Not so in the early days of the Adventist movement.

The Adventist movement in the 1840’s was part of a bigger movement that swept over America at the time in which there was great exuberance, ecstasy, emotional meetings, people falling around chaotically, uttering cries, groans, and shouts, including visions and prophecy.

Early Adventists, including the youthful Ellen Harmon (she married in 1846),  had to navigate their way through this landscape buzzing with new experiences and ideas, including the doctrinal minefields that would face any group that had just thrown out many of the standard Christian traditions and denominational allegiances. 

There were also many inside and outside the movement who were critical of the “movement” in general, and of Ellen White specifically.3

The fact that Ellen White emerged from this period and social environment as one who was regarded as a leader with spiritual authority says something about her character and the quality of her spiritual leadership.  In the same interview referenced above, she shared how others were sometimes puzzled about how she could have an influence over them, whereas they could never influence her to receive and accept their testimonies.

In hindsight, we know today that the pioneers of this new movement did not always get things quite right. This is evident from the theological and interpersonal controversies that erupted over the years. Early Adventism was in a state of development. 4 My feeling is therefore that it would not be surprising if the pioneers got other aspects of the movement’s witness and apologetics – such as placing undue emphasis on physical signs – wrong as well.

Development of Ellen White’s visionary experiences

A second observation, highlighted (amongst others) by Ronald Graybill, is that Ellen White’s ecstatic visionary experiences lasted from 1844 to 1870 and reduced in frequency over this period in tandem with the decline of other forms of enthusiastic worship. The evidence and the stories recounted to support the Biblical nature of these phenomena came from this early time.

After 1870, “vivid dreams, often called ‘visions of the night,’ became her main revelatory experience.”5 Thus at least 45 years of her ministry (1870 -1915) did not involve any of these “public daytime” visions. The bulk of her writings did not rely on visionary experiences at all. 

This underscores for me that it is probably wise to suspend judgement a little in favour of developing a holistic picture of Ellen White’s lifelong ministry and impact.

Development of how we use and evaluate historical evidence

A final observation is that the way that we use and evaluate evidence also changed and developed over time. Brian mentions in his book that John Loughborough, a staunch supporter of Ellen White, wrote a book in 1892 6 which outlined the history of the early Adventist movement.  Historiography has progressed significantly since then. Today there are at least some who regard Loughborough more as a “hagiographer than historian…” He is said to have “often proved unreliable in the latter role.”7.

We could probably take a leaf out of the book of dispassionate historians, who, when historical realities seem odd, or incoherent to them, regard it as a signal to be careful not to rush into a judgement and take a stance of an inquisitive investigator. Over years this approach has done much to advance our understanding of the time. Certainly, there is room for hard questions. There might however be more nuance in the picture that emerges than we initially would imagine.

The way forward with Ellen White

As reflected in the previous blog, I’d say that we have at least two options of what to do with all of the above.

  1. If we chose to apply a narrow set of standards of what constitutes the ultimate truth about Ellen White’s authority or authenticity, we might classify Ellen White as a false prophet. Or,
  2. we can take a broader view, and look at the overall picture of a “prophet” who had a defining impact on the development of a world-wide movement that seeks to interpret the Bible faithfully.

Within the framework of the second option it is possible to admit that the movement – and the prophet’s initial approaches were flawed in some ways and no longer cuts mustard. This admission, however, does not imply a total rejection of the movement and its prophet.

From the platform of such an admission we can develop, and transform our explanations of historical phenomena into something that is more mature and authentic for the time that we live in.

Ellen White Devil's Advocate
Devil’s Advocate

Weiers, it is early days and there are still a few hundred pages of Brian’s research that must be studied and digested. But it seems to me that your arguments are moving in the direction whereby one recognizes that Ellen White’s prophetic ministry has had a determining influence on the formation of the Adventist Church as it manifests itself today. Further, that her ministry is still relevant for modern day Adventists provided that one accommodates the fact that she is not the ‘saint on a pedestal’ that traditional Adventism had made her out to be.

 


What is your response to the concepts discussed in this blog? Please leave a comment below or take part in the dialogue on Facebook.
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Blogging Through “The White Elephant” No. 4

What do prophets do in the Bible?

Author of the four gospels

Ps. Weiers Coetser.


In the previous post of this series of blogs relating to Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism 1 I raised some concerns about the particular standard that the author sets by which all who claim to be prophets should be tested. I suggested that it would be worth developing a more complete picture (or a theology) of the function of prophets in Scripture.

Brian Neumann himself points in this direction but then narrows the focus to:

  1. the prophet’s consistency with Biblical truth,
  2. the visionary experience of the prophet, and
  3. the accuracy of a prophet’s predictions.

Brian’s discussion of these “criteria” is clear and is supported with excellent material from Scripture and from early Adventist church history.

My objection is that these “tests” are too reductionistic and fail to capture a holistic biblical view of how prophets function and how they establish their authority.

Here I outline a few broad characteristics of prophetic function that I feel are deserving of further investigation.

  1. Prophets are almost always disruptors in a religious or socio-political system which has become stuck or lost its way. They are perceived to be anti-establishment. Their messages frequently contradict what the religious and political powers of the day peddle to their complacent followers.
  2. Prophets are often challenged with regard to their authority. Because they threaten the established religious sensibilities of their time, one could even say that they are “unbiblical.” The religious establishment in the Old Testament was keen to preach the biblical traditions of God’s blessing, exclusivity and prosperity. Prophets, on the other hand, came with threats of future instability and condemnation of unjust practices. Imagine being a devout Israelite and hearing your prophet say that a foreign, idol worshiping ruler has now become God’s servant! In the long-run the value and consistency and biblical base of the prophetic message might become clear, but one should expect that a prophet will ruffle some feathers and be seen as a danger, rather than a blessing to the community.
  3. Prophets frequently used unorthodox methods of communication. Both Hosea and Isaiah produced children and gave them “horrendous” names. When Ezekiel’s wife died, he was refused permission to mourn her death. They employed a variety of actions and symbols to get their message across. What eventually gave them authority was their sheer spirit and determination to convey a message from God.
  4. Prophets were often flawed individuals who suffered from depression and bouts of frustration. Being human, their style and messages also changed over time.
  5. The majority of prophetic messages were not primarily concerned with predicting the future, but were more focused on practical issues of religious and societal change.
  6.   While visionary experiences feature in some prophecies, this is not the only mode by which prophets receive messages from God.

Marks of the prophetic gift are therefore:

  1. Complete, authentic, and passionate engagement with the realities of the day.
  2. A constant desire to see the designs of God realized in practical terms in society and within the religious community.
  3. Regular calls for reform, deeper engagement, and staying focused on God’s  desire for the community; and
  4. A strong sense of justice.

How would one evaluate the claims of a prophet?

My personal opinion is that one should look at the overall picture of a prophet’s ministry and impact. The following are broad suggestions:

  1. Is there internal consistency and authentic selfless desire to do God’s bidding?
  2. Is the cumulative result of a prophet’s work over time edifying to the community in which the work is manifested?
  3. The disruptive nature of the prophetic gift means that there will be times of tension between prophet and community. Following the principles laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, the eventual result of the prophetic gift needs to be a symbiotic relationship that energises and builds both prophet and community.
  4. Like all people, prophets are human with personal flaws. Is the general direction of their life a movement towards grace, and Christian maturity. Perhaps a comparison with the fruits of the Spirit would be relevant as opposed to the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18-26).

Note: There are other important questions that also need to be explored in connection with the work of prophets. In my pastoral experience I’ve come to realise that most Seventh-day Adventists style their ideas of what prophets should do after the apocalyptic prophets and prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. There is therefore a strong emphasis on visions and predictions of the future.

I think this is only a small part of the picture. Most prophets function on a more mundane level in a particular time and place, casting vision for how things will be when God’s kingdom is realised.  Should we perhaps take a leaf out of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), that does not group Daniel into the prophets (nevi’im), but groups the book with a section of scripture known as the writings (ketuvim)?

More importantly, one needs to ask: How universally applicable are prophetic manifestations? Is it not better to evaluate the work of a prophet within a specific time and a place with regard to a specific community? Do we set ourselves up for problems when we try to universalize the import of a prophetic ministry for all times and for all people?

Deviil's advocate
Devil’s Advocate

Weiers, are you suggesting that a prophet is only of significance within a specific time and place? If this were true Ellen G. White would hold no relevance for us today. Neither would any of the Biblical prophets!

Perhaps as I progress with Brian Neumann’s book, he will deal with elements that form this broader vision of prophecy.

For now, at the end of Chapter One, my critical feeling is that I want to resist an attempt to reduce the tests of a prophet to three or four (somewhat arbitrary) criteria. I would be a little more circumspect about setting up a series of tests for a prophet. If this vision of the prophetic gift, presented in broad outline here, is taken into account, we should judge prophets in a similar way to how we judge ourselves — the Biblical principle of “Do to others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).

The authority and impact of a prophet is often a negotiation between a community and the prophet. And one would hope  the relationship results in a maturing and thriving community of faith.

Deviil's advocate

Weiers, are you sure about this last sentence where you claim that the authority and impact of a prophet is the result of negotiation between a prophet and the community where he lives? I thought a prophet is best depicted as a “lone voice” in the wilderness calling the community to repentance regardless of their own feelings and opinions. The prophet is only interested in proclaiming the will and messages of God!

But I am ready to continue reading the book. The standards (tests) that Brian propose are relevant, if only because Adventists have often used these same arguments to defend the prophetic work of Ellen G. White.

Deviil's advocate
   Devil’s Advocate

Weiers, do I detect some ambiguity here? Earlier you took issue with the “reductionistic nature” of the “tests”,  but here you say that they “are relevant”. And, the reason for their relevance: “because Adventists have often used them in the past.”

I am inquisitive to see what his conclusions are going to be and how he will get there. If Brian successfully argues that we have misapplied these standards, it could be reason for the Seventh-day Adventist church to think of new, more up to date approaches to establish and affirm the authority of Ellen White.


Possible further reading to develop a strong biblical theology of prophets: Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination.

I probably could not describe the work of biblical prophets more succinctly and movingly than Michael Card does with his song, “The Prophet.”

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Blogging Through “The White Elephant” No.3

Rethinking standards for testing prophets

Author of the four gospels
Ps. Weiers Coetser
Devil's Advocate
Devil’s Advocate

 

 

Paul Coetser: Co-editor and Devil’s Advocate

 

 

 

Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.


We’re blogging our way through Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Adventism. In a previous post, Weiers was pondering the bigger interpretive context of the debate. Today he asks some questions about the assumptions that underlie Brian Neumann’s standards for testing prophets in Chapter One: The Standard, (pages 37 to 58).


Brian spent many years of his life as an Adventist evangelist. Chapter One: The Standard, brings out his evangelistic colors beautifully. I can see him standing on a stage, hardly taking a breath before he launches into his presentation with gusto and persuasive power.

The task that he sets out to accomplish is to establish a standard by which one could evaluate the work of any extra-biblical prophet. It comes as no surprise that he expects any prophetic claim to be measured by the strictest Scriptural standard.  

He lists four of these standards:

“[1]The aspects of the physical signs while in vision; [2] the example of the prophet’s life (integrity etc.), [3] whether their teaching is in accord with the ‘law and the testimony’/the scriptures (Isaiah 8:20) and [4] whether their work truly edified and brought about unity of faith, all need to be examined.”

He invites his readers to study these prophets in depth in order to establish how the prophetic gift manifests itself. After discussing the prophetic ministry of a number of Biblical prophets, he refers to the fact that prophets could lose their way with God (p.40), and he states: “No doubt for this very reason, God gave specific tests that the calling and labour of those who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf could be verified and tested.” He goes on to state that these tests would apply to all who profess to be a prophet, including modern day prophets.

A statement like this always makes me sit upright and pay attention. It comes across as very authoritative and clear cut. The implication is that the Bible has been written and put together with the purpose of helping us make a decision on the veracity or authenticity of any prophet, and especially Ellen White, a 19th century prophet who lived nearly 2000 years later.

I do not object to applying Biblical principles, to evaluate a prophetic ministry, but I do want to challenge the way in which Brian chooses these principles and attempts to make it appear that it was hard coded into the Bible from the beginning.

Let’s look at the texts that he quotes one after another to make his argument:

  • Isaiah 8:20 in the KJV says “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

This is the main text that Brian repeatedly refers to as a key text to evaluate the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. I want to evaluate if this text is really such a sound text to use for this purpose.

There is an important principle in Biblical interpretation that demands that we should always interpret a text within the larger textual context that it appears in.

The context of this text (the whole of Isaiah Chapter 8) is that Isaiah was bringing a message that was quite unpopular to his audience at the time. It was a radical message of judgement and destruction. At the beginning of the chapter, the Lord tells Isaiah to write his prophecy in a large scroll (vs 1). Isaiah takes two witnesses and he begins to write the prophecy of doom (vs 2).

It might have taken some time to write this prophecy. In the process Isaiah even conceived a child with his wife and gave the child a name that conveyed this judgement, saying that before the child could call his father’s name, the destruction would have arrived upon Israel (vs 3,4). (John Calvin’s commentary on this text speculates that it did not really happen, but that the birth of the child and the naming of the child might have been a vision that God had given to Isaiah for illustrative purposes.)

The prophecy continues with several more warnings and pronouncements.

In verse Isaiah 8:16, Isaiah then commands that this prophecy that has now been written on a scroll needs to be sealed up: “ Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples” (KJV).  Isaiah repeats the fact that he and his child are the signs of what God’s plans are for Israel (vs 18.).

He then warns against consulting false gods and spirits who might bring alternative soothing messages. (Isaiah 8:19). The translation of these verses are quite difficult because at least one of the words in these verses don’t appear in its particular form anywhere else in the Bible.

Modern translations of the Bible, like the New Revised Standard version actually says:

19 Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, 20 for teaching and for instruction?” surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! .

The King James translation says “20 To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

It seems clear to me that Isaiah is saying in this text that it is his message, his testimony, that is authoritative, and it would be wrong to follow any alternative prophecy. His prophecy comes from God. Whichever translation one chooses to use, it is doubtful that this verse sets up a test that is relevant for all prophets and that this test refers to the whole of scripture.

I think we do the text a disservice if we pull it out of its original context and then apply it for our own purposes in an argument that the original text never envisioned. It also makes the case that we are trying to build a little less secure.

I would challenge Brian and his readers to also re-study the other texts that he lists in that same section.

  • Brian refers to Luke 24:44 to show that Jesus advocated adherence to the writings of the Old Testament as a test for the authenticity of a prophet. But when we read Luke 24:44 in context it becomes clear that Jesus is merely saying that He (Jesus) is the the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. There is no suggestion that he implies in his words a standard for testing a prophet.
  • Isaiah 28:10 is quoted to prove that a prophet needs to be true to the whole Bible. 

“For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (KJV)

 But when one studies the chapter carefully and reads the commentaries one finds that most everybody agrees that Isaiah 28:9 and 10 is in fact a mocking mimicry of the people of Ephraim upon whom a judgement is being spoken. Adventist apologists have for years mistakenly used this verse out of context to prove that the Bible needs to be read as a whole.

  • Deuteronomy 19:15 is the next verse in Brian’s arsenal of proof texts. This verse demands that there must be three witnesses to bring evidence against an accused in order for him to be found guilty. Brian once again takes this verse out of its context to prove what he wants it to say. In the way Brian uses it, it is no longer a person who witnesses in a trial, but Scripture that must become proof or evidence for a prophet’s claims.

I think there are sufficient grounds here to step back and re-evaluate whether we agree with where Brian might be heading. If his proofs for a prophet are based on inadequate evidence, they become assumptions and there is a very real danger that he might come to the wrong conclusion when he begins to evaluate a prophet’s work based on these assumptions.

In this first chapter, Brian rightly argues that those who supported Ellen White’s ministry from the start used many of these same tests for a prophet to defend her ministry.

As the chapter continues Brian modifies his list of tests for a prophet slightly (compared to the first list). He wants a prophet to:

  1. Agree with Scripture, be
  2. Accurate in predictions, and
  3. The physical phenomena associated with receiving visions should be similar to the experiences of Biblical prophets. (He does seem to give a hint that he disagrees with this test, but this is not yet explicitly clear in this chapter. He uses eight pages to explore what the Bible says about prophets’ experiences in vision.)

Right now I am not taking issue with these items. However, I am skeptical of a methodology that is based on a proof text method.

I think that item one: “Agreeing with Scripture” needs to be developed on a more careful and nuanced Biblical foundation. It seems to me that we need a more complete theology of the function and role of Biblical prophets rather than to reduce their work to prediction of the future, or seeing visions, or even holding them to a narrow view of how to interpret scripture.

I therefore ask the question: At the end of this chapter – has Brian really succeeded in defining trustworthy and dependable standards for testing prophets by which we can or should evaluate the prophetic ministry of Ellen White? 

I am also concerned with what might be left out of the list, that should possibly also be included.

I hope to explore this concern further  in a future blog.


Commenting on standards for testing a prophet
Devil’s Advocate

Weiers, I agree essentially with your assessment of Brian’s arguments. One should keep in mind that this is the introductory chapter of a book in which Brian sets out to “prove” that Ellen White is a false prophet. Brian claims here that he will be ‘objective’ and that he will apply his standards for testing a prophet strictly according to Scriptural principles. I am troubled, however, by his ‘hermeneutic’. It seems quite evident to me that at the foundation of his arguments lies a very ‘verbal’ view of Biblical inspiration. This, in my opinion, does not build confidence with regard to ‘evidences’ that he may present in future chapters. Let me point the reader to another blog on this website where the same topic is being discussed but with a much ‘healthier’ foundational hermeneutic.


Update:

Brian Neumann wrote a response to this blog post. When he published it, we had already started work on Blog 4 and 5. We will however soon reflect on Brian’s response.

In the meantime we link to the document below:

Response to No. 3 by brianneumann on Scribd


We invite you to share your views on this topic in the ‘comments’ block below or on our Facebook page. Please remember to “like” our page and to share this article with any of your friends who may also be interested in an review and assessment of Brian Neumann’s “The White Elephant”.

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Blogging through “The White Elephant”No.2

What are we leaving behind?

Author of the four gospels
Weiers Coetser
Devil's advocate
Devil’s Advocate

 

 

Paul Coetser: Co-editor and Devil’s Advocate

 

 

 

Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.

We (the editors of the Adventist Soapbox) have embarked on a quest to pen some of our thoughts as we engage with Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day AdventismThis blog focuses on the introductory section (pages 1-36).

What Are We Leaving Behind?

Brian Neumann devotes much of the introductory 36 pages of his book to recounting the story of his, and his wife, Kamy’s journey of research and discovery about Ellen White.

As pastor I could imagine myself in Kamy’s sitting-room as she discussed her questions and objections about Ellen White after submitting her resignation letter to the Church, first with the older Pastor Z, and then with the young Pastor A. I’ve been in such conversations over a variety of issues, even if they were not all conducted in “terminal” situations like these. At times the interactions were cordial and friendly, and even affirming, regardless of differences or a lack of one clear answer. At other times they were filled with frustration or barely hidden animosity.

The contrast between Pastor Z – a traditional Adventist who admitted his own misgivings about the role of Ellen White in the Church but still defended her – and Pastor A – a representative of the progressive wing of the church who showed a greater readiness to consign her to history – also resonated with me. Brian’s important point is to illustrate the fact that the urgent question of Ellen White’s authority and role in the Church spans across the various divisions that one might encounter in the church.

I salute Brian and Kamy’s spirit of integrity and willingness to go where the evidence leads. I also know that the factors that impact on our spiritual journeys and decision making are complex and often multi-layered. At one point (p.28), Kamy describes one transition from being faithful to a “cause” to being faithful to Christ. This again touches my heart strings. I think that is one of the most important moves that anyone can make.

I think that it was on the basis of this move to “faith maturity” that  Pastor A, a pastor representing The One Project felt that he could present to her his cause: a Seventh-day Adventist denomination that does not rely so heavily on the writings of Ellen White. This was also not a viable option for Kamy.

Brian and Kamy’s story is a story of “moving on”.

By way of analysis I wonder if it would be worth wondering what they are leaving behind? What are the essential features of the Adventist world that they inhabited? Why was Pastor A‘s solution, for example, not an option?

Devil's Advocate
         Devil’s Advocate

Weiers, your questions are thought-provoking, May I suggest that the Adventist believer who is confronted with “evidence” that long held beliefs – such as the prophetic calling and inspiration of White – are simply not sustainably true, can follow one  of three paths: “rejection” (pretend that the evidence is false), “revision” (give up all belief and possibly leave the Church) or “transform” (accept the new reality and accommodate it constructively in life and practice within the Church). 1

The question why one outcome was chosen over others is not simply a psychological question. I think it is useful to think about the bigger context in which decisions happen. How do our prior commitments and experience impact on how we make our choices?  I think it also goes to questions of theology, and the decisions that we make about how we know what is true (epistemology).

From my analysis the reality of the Adventist world today is one where various epistemologies often come in conflict with each other. Some Adventists, believe strongly that truth is clearly visible in the Bible. You just need to open its pages and it will jump out at you. Others work from the assumption that one often works with different layers of understanding and that the Bible and our interpretation is inevitably a product of cultural conditioning.

Different epistemologies also lead into a variety of possible approaches in evaluating Ellen White. Brian outlines several choices that are vying for acceptance in the Church today.

I wonder if one could argue that these choices boil down to one of two fundamental decisions that one must make about the influence and authority of Ellen White. Does accepting Ellen White as prophet mean that she is perfect in every way and conforms fully to a set of strict requirements? Or can one take a more nuanced view of Ellen White as prophet and a human being, fallible like the rest of us, but who still made an impact on the Church for the good.

These questions became quite pertinent after Ellen White’s death. At that time the church decided on an idealistic, high view of Ellen White. This view has however come under pressure in recent years as information have become more widely available that call into question how prophetic inspiration works.  How one responds to this new information depends to a large extent on which perspective one takes on these fundamental decisions about Ellen White.

Perhaps another way of asking the question is: How do some of the assumptions that we make about reality and how it is knitted together, determine the conclusions that we come to? An even more challenging question could be: How stable are the foundations that we build the decisions of our life upon?

These questions are not judgmental. They come to mind as I read the compelling stories of Brian and Kamy. As we continue reading the book, some of these issues might become more clear. My own hunch is that faith is a rather fragile thing and faith development is not a simple linear trajectory. Foundations may not always be as stable as they seem, and when they shift, they can do so in unexpected ways.

Deviil's advocate
Devil’s advocate

Weiers, is faith really “fragile”? Did the Apostle Paul not point out that “faith and hope”, apart from “love” are the strongest motivators of all. By the way, What do you mean by “faith”? Is it belief in God as a Person, or is it faith (belief) in a set of doctrines (beliefs)?

I hope to explore one element of this line of questioning in  more depth in the next blog post on “Chapter 1.”

 


Note: The White Elephant in the Seventh-day Adventist Church contains and presents many new perspectives on the life of Ellen White. The book would be worth purchasing just for the spirit and the passion that is contained in Brian and Kamy’s personal stories found at the beginning of the book.

Read article one in this series.

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Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for 14 January 2017

Every Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists from around the world meet to study the Bible with the aid of specially prepared lesson studies. This quarter, the lesson study focuses on the topic of the Holy Spirit.

These notes to the Sabbath School lesson have been prepared by Shevanthi Bastiam Pillai – a member of Belfast Seventh-day Adventist church in Northern Ireland. Shevanthi’s prayer is that these notes will offer additional insight and understanding into the topic of study for this week.


THE HOLY SPIRIT: WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES

 

“He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” John 16:14

 

The Holy Spirit does not draw attention to Himself; He uplifts Christ. From the beginning of the Bible story we find Him actively working behind the scenes to fulfil the plans of the Godhead.

 

The Elusiveness of the Spirit

 

The Holy Spirit is likened to the wind in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. We do not see the wind; we are only aware of its effects and of its power. The power of the Holy Spirit is so great that He can resurrect the person dead in trespasses and sins to new life.

 

The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones.  Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.”  Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Ezekiel 37:1-5

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8

While the wind is itself invisible, it produces effects that are seen and felt. So the work of the Spirit upon the soul will reveal itself in every act of him who has felt its saving power. When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to God. Then that power which no human eye can see creates a new being in the image of God. Desire of Ages: pp 173

 

The Holy Spirit at Creation

 

The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Genesis 1:2 The word ‘hover’ in this verse means ‘to cherish, with tender love’.

 

We know that the 3 Persons of the Godhead were involved in Creation.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God 1:1

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. John 1:1-3

 

For by Him (Jesus Christ) all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. Colossians 1:16, 17

 

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. Hebrews 1:1, 2

 

The Holy Spirit too was involved in Creation:

 

By His Spirit He adorned the heavens…Job 26:13

 

The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. Job 33:4

You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth. Psalm 104:30

 

The Holy Spirit and the Sanctuary

 

“And let them make Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” Exodus 25:8

 

In Old Testament times God had His people build a visible sanctuary in the midst of the camp, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem. His purpose was to dwell among His people and His glory dwelt in the Most Holy place where no-one could enter except the High Priest once a year.

 

Since Jesus died and rose to Heaven, He has anointed the Heavenly sanctuary of which He is High Priest. Everyone who accepts Him becomes a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and God dwells in the hearts of His people instead of just dwelling among them.

 

“…the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” John 14:17

 

The Spirit was active in the building of the sanctuary. The Bible makes it clear that those who are gifted in the arts if they will surrender their talents to God will be inspired by the Spirit.

 

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze,  in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship. Exodus 31:1-5.

 

The Holy Spirit in Glorifying Jesus Christ

 

The Holy Spirit works to glorify Christ in many ways.

 

“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” John 15:26

 

He convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgement (John 16:8-11). He points mankind to Christ who is the answer for sin, righteousness and judgment.

 

He illuminates us when we read the Scriptures.

 

“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” John 16:13, 14

 

But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. 1 John 2:27

 

He baptises us into the unity of the body of Christ.

 

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:12, 13

 

He produces the character of Christ in us – the fruit of the Spirit, so that we are restored to the image of God and bring Him glory.

 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Galatians 5:22, 23

 

By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit. John 15:8

 

He gives us gifts for service that the church may be built up, that we can reach out in mission and that God may be glorified.

 

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:  for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

 

The Holy Spirit and Christ

 

The Holy Spirit was active in the incarnation of Christ.

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”  And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:34, 35

The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus for His mission on earth.

When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21, 22

The Holy Spirit was with Jesus through His temptations.

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. Mark 1:12

 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1

 

Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Luke 4:1

 

Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time. Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. Luke 4:13, 14.

 

The Spirit enabled Jesus to fulfil His mission on earth.

 

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Luke 4:18, 19

 

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…Acts 10:38

 

Conclusion:

 

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – Romans 8:9, 1 Peter 1:11.

 

“It is expedient for you that I go away.” John 16:7

 

Jesus went away that the Comforter might come. “It is expedient that I go away. I will depart and send the

Comforter. There will be no summons of sorrow which He will not be able to answer. He will abide with men forever. Everywhere He will come and go. He will be like the noiseless invisible wind, blowing all over the world wherever He wishes.”

 

The doctrine of the Holy Ghost is very simple. Men stumble over it because they imagine it to be something very mysterious and unintelligible. But the whole matter lies here. Our text is the key to it. The Holy Spirit is just what Christ would have been had He been here. He ministers comfort just as Christ would have done—only without the inconveniences of circumstance, without the restriction of space, without the limitations of time. More: we need a

personal Christ, but we cannot get Him, at least we cannot each get Him. So the only alternative is a spiritual Christ,—a Holy Spirit, and then we can all get Him. He reproves the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Christ had to go away to make room for a Person of the Trinity who could deal with the world. He Himself could only reprove the individual of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. But work on a larger scale is done now that He is gone. This is what He refers to when He said, “Greater works than these shall ye do.” And yet Christ did not go away that the Spirit might take His place. Christ is with us Himself. He is with us and yet He is not with us, that is, He is with us by His Spirit. The Spirit does not reveal the Spirit. He speaks not of Himself, He reveals Christ. He is the nexus, the connection between the absent Christ and the world—a spiritual presence which can penetrate where the present Christ in His human body could not go.

 

Christ ought to be as near to us as if He were still here. Nothing so simplifies the whole religious life as this thought. A present, personal Christ solves every difficulty, and meets every requirement of Christian experience. Henry Drummond: Why Christ Must Depart.

 

                                                            ——————————–

 

Immanence

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
Not borne on morning wings
Of majesty, but I have set my feet
Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat
That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod.
There do I dwell in weakness and in power;
Not broken or divided, saith our God!
Is your strait garden plot I come to flower:
About your porch my vine
Meek, fruitful, doth entwine;
Waits, at the threshold, Love’s appointed hour.

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
Yes! on the glancing wings
Of eager birds, the softly pattering feet
Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes
That peep from out the brake, I stand confessed.
On every nest
Where feathery patience is content to brood
And leaves her pleasure for the high emprise
Of motherhood—
There doth my Godhead rest.

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
My starry wings
I do forsake,
Love’s highway of humility to take:
Meekly I fit my stature to your need.
In beggar’s part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead—
As man, to speak with man—
Till by such art
I shall achieve my immemorial plan,
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.

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SS Lesson Notes : 7 Jan 2017

Every Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists from around the world meet to study the Bible with the aid of specially prepared lesson studies. This quarter, the lesson study focuses on the topic of the Holy Spirit.

These notes to the Sabbath School lesson have been prepared by Shevanthi Bastiam Pillai – a member of Belfast Seventh-day Adventist church in Northern Ireland. Shevanthi’s prayer is that these notes will offer additional insight and understanding into the topic of study for this week.


THE HOLY SPIRIT AND SPIRITUALITY: INTRODUCTION

January –March 2017

This quarter we study the Person and work of the Holy Spirit.

And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper (Comforter), that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. John 14:16-18

 

The ‘parakletos’ – helper, succourer, aider, ‘one called to the side of… to one’s aid’; the Holy Spirit destined to take His place with believers after Christ had risen to the Father; to lead them to closer understanding of gospel truth as found in Jesus; to give them divine strength to enable to undergo suffering, trials and persecution which come to all believers in Christ; to give them power to proclaim the gospel and to produce the fruit of the gospel (the righteousness of God) in all believers.  From: Thayer’s Greek Lexicon.

 

The Holy Spirit is the name of the Third Person in the Trinity, sometimes called the Holy Ghost. Jesus promised His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit after His crucifixionresurrection and ascension.

 

Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21, 22

 

Henceforth the Holy Spirit would be Christ’s Representative on earth. He would carry on the work of Christ as Comforter, Teacher, Helper, Counsellor and Friend.

 

“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”John 14:18. This promise of Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9) and the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20). Because He has risen to the right hand of God the Father in a human body, Jesus cannot be universally present Himself. Therefore He has sent His Spirit to earth, to be universally present in His church and to in-dwell all who believe in His Name.

Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as having divine attributes and divine authority.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19

The Helper…whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father…John 15:26

Other passages that refer to the divinity of the Holy Spirit are: At creation…And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters Genesis 1:1, 2. ‘The eternal Spirit…’ Hebrews 9:14. Lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God…Acts 5:3, 4. The Omnipresent Spirit: Psalm 139:7.

 

The Holy Spirit is a Person… He Loves…Romans 15:30, He grieves…Isaiah 63:10, Ephesians 4:30, He has a mind…Romans 8:27, He speaks…2 Sam 23:2, Acts 8:29, 1 Timothy 4:1, Hebrews 3:7, 8; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:17…He is a Witness…Acts 5:32, He can be resisted…Acts 7:51.

 

‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.’

 

All three Persons of the Godhead are involved in our salvation.

 

‘The love of God is the source of all spiritual blessing; the grace of the Lord Jesus has made it possible for that spiritual wealth to become ours; and the communion of the Holy Ghost is the means whereby it is imparted to us. Love is something hidden in the heart of God; grace is that love expressed and made available in the Son; communion is the impartation of that grace by the Spirit.’

 

“God the eternal Spirit was active with the Father and the Son in Creation, incarnation, and redemption. He is as much a person as are the Father and the Son. He inspired the writers of Scripture. He filled Christ’s life with power. He draws and convicts human beings; and those who respond He renews and transforms into the image of God. Sent by the Father and the Son to be always with His children, He extends spiritual gifts to the church, empowers it to bear witness to Christ, and in harmony with the Scriptures leads it into all truth.”

 

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07.01.2017 THE SPIRIT AND THE WORD

 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” 2 Timothy 3:16, 17

 Our God is an infinite God. In His infinity, He stands apart from mankind and the natural world, for they are finite.

But God is also a personal God. Between the 3 persons of the Godhead there is perfect love and communication.

God created man in love and gave him personhood and personality, so that man could reflect the Divine will and share in God’s glory.

In the area of personality and personhood, man stands apart from the rest of the creation (animal and plant life) on planet earth. He is able to communicate with other human beings in verbal language and he has free-will.

But more importantly (infinitely so), God communicates with mankind – the creatures He has made with personality and personhood. As many commentators state:  ‘God is not only the God who exists; He is the God who speaks’. And it is mankind’s privilege to communicate with the God who speaks.

How does God speak to man? He speaks by revelation. He reveals Himself to man. Man would have no knowledge of God, if God had not made Himself known. He speaks through nature (general revelation) and through His Word (special revelation) – the written Word, the Bible and the Living Word, Jesus Christ.

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16, 17

‘…the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…’ 1 Peter 1:10-12

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. Hebrews 1:1, 2 (see also John 1:1).

The Holy Spirit and Revelation

 

Revelation may be defined as that process by which God imparts to man truths which he otherwise could not know.

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His… He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him.” Daniel 2:19-23

Examples of this are:

  • Genesis chapters 1 and 2. We could not know the events occurring prior to the creation of man (on the 6th day) unless it was revealed to Moses.
  • Jesus is the Son of God. This comes to every man and woman as a revelation from God. Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:16, 17

 God communicates with man in many different ways. He spoke to the human authors of the Bible in their own language. He spoke through angels and He spoke through dreams and visions.

The special revelation of God is in His written Word, the holy Bible. The Bible and the Bible only, is God’s special revelation to mankind that He is our Creator, Redeemer and Re-Creator. It reveals to us the goodness of God which leads us to repentance and conversion. It reveals to us the purpose of our salvation, that we may be transformed into the image of Christ. It leads us to Christ, the Living Word.

The Holy Spirit and Inspiration

 

The word ‘inspiration’ is found only once in the New Testament…’all scripture is given by inspiration of God’ 2 Timothy 3:16. This literally means ‘God breathed’ (Greek: theopneustic).

In Old English it meant ‘the immediate influence of God’, particularly with regard to the writings of Scripture.

Divine inspiration logically follows divine revelation. In revelation God speaks to man’s ear, while by inspiration He guides the pen to ensure that the imparted message is correctly written down.

With regard to inspiration, we believe that the right concept of inspiration is that the Holy Spirit acted on the writers of the Bible by illuminating their minds, aiding their memory, guiding their thoughts and sometimes giving them the words to speak or write (e.g. Leviticus 4:1, Joshua 1:1, Jeremiah 1:4, 9, 1 Corinthians 2:13). Another important aspect is that the Spirit restrained the influence of sin in their words.

However, they could write in their own style and language, using their own witness and experience

The Bible authors understood that their writings were guided by the Spirit of God, even as they wrote them. Peter referred to this about his own and Paul’s writings and the writers of the Old Testament.

And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:19- 21 (see also 1 Peter 1:10-12 above).

The Holy Spirit and Illumination (The Spirit as Teacher):

Illumination is the last of the 3 important steps God takes in communicating His word to us. This 3rd step is needed to provide understanding to men and women as they hear God’s revealed and inspired message. Illumination is the divine process whereby God causes the written revelation to be understood by the human heart.  This 3rd step is need because fallen man is blinded by his sinful nature and by Satan himself (1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:3, 4).

The Person behind this illumination is the Holy Spirit.

‘But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.’ John 14:26 (see also John 16:13, 14).

God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 1 Corinthians 2:10-13

 The Holy Spirit, the Word and Truthfulness of Scripture

If all Scripture is a revelation from God, has been inspired by God and is illuminated by God, it follows that all Scripture is true.

Jesus said ‘The scriptures testify of Me…’ John 5:39. He is the Word of God and all He speaks is the truth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1, 14

Jesus further said, ‘I am the Truth’ John 14:6. (Greek: alētheia) i.e. ‘I am He in whom truth is summed up; I am He who is the truth in Person; I am Reality’.

Jesus who is the Truth, who is the Word of God, speaks the truth of God. The Holy Spirit is therefore the Spirit of Truth, for He too is God and He testifies of Christ Jesus. He reveals, inspires, illuminates and teaches mankind the truth about God.

The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever. Psalm 119:160

Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him. Proverbs 30:5

 ‘…Your word is truth.’ John 17:17

 And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. John 14:16, 17

 ‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.’ John 16:13, 14

 

The opening of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. Psalm 119:130

The testimony of Jehovah is sure; making wise the simple. Psalm 19:7b

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. Psalm 119:105

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Additional Note:

“The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all ‘given by inspiration of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men. The Infinite One by His Holy Spirit has shed light into the minds and hearts of His servants. He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed, have themselves embodied the thought in human language.

“The Ten Commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They are of divine, and not human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).

“Written in different ages, by men who differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments, the books of the Bible present a wide contrast in style, as well as a diversity in the nature of the subjects unfolded. Different forms of expression are employed by different writers; often the same truth is more strikingly presented by one than by another. And as several writers present a subject under varied aspects and relations, there may appear, to the superficial, careless, or prejudiced reader, to be discrepancy or contradiction, where the thoughtful, reverent student, with clearer insight, discerns the underlying harmony.

“As presented through different individuals, the truth is brought out in its varied aspects. One writer is more strongly impressed with one phase of the subject; he grasps those points that harmonize with his experience or with his power of perception and appreciation; another seizes upon a different phase; and each, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents what is most forcibly impressed upon his own mind—a different aspect of the truth in each, but a perfect harmony through all. And the truths thus revealed unite to form a perfect whole, adapted to meet the wants of men in all the circumstances and experiences of life.

“God has been pleased to communicate His truth to the world by human agencies, and He Himself, by His Holy Spirit, qualified men and enabled them to do His work. He guided the mind in the selection of what to speak and what to write. The treasure was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, none the less, from Heaven. The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God; and the obedient, believing child of God beholds in it the glory of a divine power, full of grace and truth.” Selected Messages. Book 1: p.p. 24-26

 

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Why do we have four Gospels?

A story of unity in diversity

Author of the four gospels

Pastor Weiers Coetser

Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.

The story of the four Gospels

The Christian New Testament that we have in our Bibles today contains 27 books. The most prominent of these are the four gospels known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We seldom pause to think that the early Christian church had to wrestle with other alternatives. 

The story of how the four gospels were accepted into what we today know as the Bible, offers a captivating glimpse into the world of the early Christians, and how the early Christian church dealt with diversity.

One of the challenges in telling the story of the four-fold gospel is that there are no original manuscripts of the four  Gospels in existence today. Over the years, fragments of early versions of the Gospels have been found, but these fragments were already copies of copies of the original manuscripts.

But let us try to re-trace the story.

The development of the four-fold gospel

To the best of our knowledge it begins in the earliest days of the Christian church. The early Christian disciples were traveling around the Ancient Near East, sharing the story of Jesus’ life and teachings. We think that Peter’s recollections and sermons were the first to be written down, forming the Gospel according to Mark. This written account was useful to serve as a teaching tool and a reference aid in the fledgling Christian communities that were being established around the Roman Empire.

But the Gospel according to Mark was quite short. There were more experiences and stories about Jesus to recount and we can assume that many felt a need for a more comprehensive reference to elaborate on what was written in Mark.

It is likely that Matthew’s Gospel came next. We know that Matthew’s Gospel, and Luke’s Gospel that followed a little later, incorporated a lot of Mark’s original material, but that additional and different accounts with different emphases were added to enhance the original material. Sometimes it even seemed as though the new material contradicted the accounts that came before.

The Gospel according to John stood on its own, in that it hardly drew on any of the sources that the other three gospels had drawn on.

Churches which already had Mark’s Gospel were almost certainly keen to acquire the additional accounts of Jesus’ life; with the result that collections of the various gospel accounts began to appear among the Christian communities.

Each of these books were carefully copied by hand on sheets of papyrus that were then bound into books, known as codices. Binding books in this way was a new invention, and not yet widely practiced. Prior to this time, almost all literary material was written on papyrus scrolls that were carefully rolled up. Writing on scrolls was still a common practice even in the time of the early Christian church.

The Christian church was an early adapter of the new “communication technology” and used the codex format almost exclusively. Perhaps these codices were easier to travel with, to distribute, and to use as reference works or in worship.

In the early years, there was no immediate expectation that these books would eventually be incorporated into Scripture. They were written and distributed to address the practical need for the church’s teaching and liturgy. By the end of the first hundred years of the Christian church we know that all four the gospels that we know today were circulating among the churches. It is believed that the first compilations of these four gospels into one book came into use somewhere between 100 and 150CE.

An early naming convention was developed referring to each gospel as “The Gospel according to Mark or Luke or John.” The early church did not regard the actual book as the gospel, but the message that each of the books contained of Jesus’ life and teaching was seen as the gospel.

Questioning the number of gospels. Shouldn’t there be just one? Should there be four? Should there be more than four?

In addition to the four better known gospels there were other documents produced in the early period of the Christian church. One was the Gospel of Mary, in which Mary was regarded as a disciple, a leader of a Christian group. Another early Christian text known as the Gospel of Truth, reflects on the teachings of Jesus, but does not talk about his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas contains only sayings attributed to Jesus .

Soon questions began to arise about which of the documents were more authoritative. Most Christian churches agreed that material that originated from the disciples and apostles, who had known Jesus personally, were more authoritative.

Challenges from the enemies of the Church

There were also some challenges from the enemies of Christianity. Some of these critics of the early Christian church made fun of the fact that this religion was based on texts that do not seem to agree with each other.

One such group was known as the Valentinians.  “Each of the four books start differently,” was their main accusation and “they portray the facts in a different light, and sometimes they even contradict each other.”

A historian of the time, Celsus, tells of an antagonistic Jew who joked about the Christians acting like people who had too much to drink, because they keep changing the beginnings of their gospels.

Defending the four-fold gospel

At least two early Christian authors stepped up to defend the four gospels. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was Irenaeus who wrote around 180 CE and who became the bishop of Lyon at a time when the church was experiencing much persecution. 

Irenaeus’ defence

Irenaeus explained that these gospel books were the written records of the preaching of the Apostles. He claimed that two apostles, and two of their followers wrote these words down.

After focusing on the process in which these books came to be, he stated that they form a theological unity. “They have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God.” (Adv Haer III.1.1-2)

In a later book, he added arguments that have become famous in Christian history. He found various analogies from nature and scripture to defend the number four:

  • A compass that points in four directions,
  • the fact that in nature there are four winds.
  • The Bible, speaks of the four-faced cherubim (Ezekiel 1),
  • the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7.
  • He also referred to the fourfold activity of the word of God,
  • and made a reference to four covenants between God and mankind.

Irenaus’ arguments defending the use of four gospels do not satisfy the scientific mindset of today. Many have pointed out that his reference to four covenants is plainly erroneous.

His emphasis, however, that there is a broader unity within the diversity of the four gospels, and the fact that this is desirable, is very clear.

The Muratorian fragment

An early Christian text, the Muratorian fragment, that survived (in part) from that time, also defended the unity of the four gospels. “Everything is declared in all the gospels…concerning his two comings, the first in humility when he was despised, which is past, the second, glorious in royal power, which is still in the future.”

But not everybody agreed, and from all the evidence it would seem as though the debate in the early Christian church was quite vigorous.

Alternative models: Why not have just one gospel?

Tatian’s model: The Diatessaron

Tatian was one who preferred a single text, which he set out to write. Tatians’ Gospel became known as the Diatessaron, in which he harmonized the text of the four gospels into a tighter unity.

  • He proposed his own sequence for the events of Christ’s life.
  • He also chose to leave out some of the sections of the four gospels that he could not harmonize.

Churches who felt that four different gospels would do damage to the unity of the Christian witness adopted this new work into their Scriptures. The Syrian church was a prime example. The Diatesseron became their main Gospel for almost four centuries before the four separate gospels once again replaced the Diatesseron in their Scriptures.

Other churches distributed Tatian’s gospel as a supplement to the four gospels.

Marcion’s model: A modified gospel of Luke

Marcion also preferred to “unify” the early Christian witness. His solution was to propose that the church only recognize a slightly modified version of The Gospel according to Luke, and that only the writings of Paul be used to interpret the life of Jesus. The early Christian church by and large rebuffed Marcion’s drive for “unity”.

The eventual outcome. Are there lessons to be learned?

The debate around the four gospels continued for at least two centuries but gradually a consensus emerged, ratified by various councils of the church, that they formed an integral part of the 27 books of the New Testament that we know today. 

In the end, the Christian church favored diverse witnesses to the story of Jesus above a single unitary approach.

One of the main arguments that was repeated regularly in the debate was that the four gospels, despite being different from each other in details, showed the same unity of spirit.

It is possible that these arguments for the unity of the four gospels in the face of their diversity was inspired by Paul’s plea in Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.…” The Christian church over the ages have benefited and have been enriched by the availability of the four gospels.

Could the early Christian church’s decision to favor diversity over unity, be a model for how we could approach questions of diversity and disagreement in the life of the church today?

Further Reading

If you would like to do more in depth reading on the history of the four gospels and their implications for church unity:

Graham N Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel

Larry Hurtado is a scholar who recently pointed out the implications of the acceptance of a four-fold Gospel for the way that evangelical Christians think of church unity.  “You’ve got to ‘Accentuate the Positive’: Thinking About Differences Biblically

Ellen White’s main statement about the formation of the Bible as we have it today is found in the preface of the Great Controversy.

 

 

How do you relate to the history of the Four Gospels in the Christian Bible? Could this history serve as a model or case study to deal with diversity in our Church today? Share your opinion in the comment box below. [Comments]

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The stories we tell

Adventist stories in review

Adventist stories under the spotlight

Adventist stories form the heartbeat of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Bible stories, mission stories, stories about our origins. These stories are all seen as sub-sets of the great gospel story of salvation in Jesus our Lord. And, of course, the Church has been tasked to tell this story to all the nations of the world to prepare them for the great judgement day when Jesus will come again to take His people to heaven and destroy the wicked.

Selective story telling

When we look at how we have been telling all these Adventist stories we notice that the Church has actually been very careful and selective about which stories are told and also what content are given to these stories.
 
As a general rule
 

Stories we don’t like to tell

Adventist stories reflect a long tradition of story selection. It is natural that the Church prefers to tell stories that support its view of itself and its mission. But certain stories – that are part of the Church heritage and also of its actual day-to-day reality – are frequently glossed over, or sometimes even hidden from the public eye.
 

The swinging backdoor

 
According to a recent study published by the church administration, 39.25% of all members over the last 50 years have left the Church (Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2014-2016). The number of those leaving continues to increase.
 
Each of these thousands of members who deconvert and leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church also has a story to tell. But, somehow, we are not too keen to tell these stories. We especially seem to shy away from recounting the personal elements of these stories. We tend to close our collective ears and eyes to the narratives of people who live in the shadowlands of Adventism, on the margins, or outside. Do these stories make us uncomfortable and challenge our sense of who we are and the success of our mission?
 

Research and analysis

The Church – on the more formal level of research, statistics  and analysis – has through the years made some attempts to listen to these sad tales. The “Value Genesis” study that commenced in 1989 and Dudley’s various articles and books on Youth Ministry are seminal examples of the Church trying to take note of the “swinging backdoor”.
 

More recently – In 2013 – the Center for Creative Ministry conducted an international survey of 1,053 former or inactive Seventh-day Adventists. These in-depth interviews looked at respondents’ experience with the church as a whole – from the beginning of their journey to the present. Analysis of the results of this study reveal that:

  1. Many of the respondents interviewed were not raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
  2. Only 30% were brought up in Adventist homes;
  3. The remaining 70% were converted at some point in their lives.
  4. Forty-five percent of respondents had been raised or affiliated with another church previously,
  5. While 27% reported that they claimed no religion prior to converting to the Adventist Church.

These statistics are interesting and noteworthy. They seem to indicate that members who have not had the privilege of growing up in the encircling arms of the church: Adventist parents, Sabbath School, Church and Church schools  and exposure to Adventist stories – are more prone to deconvert than those who had this opportunity.

The personal element in Adventist stories

But still the original question lingers: Where are the “personal stories” of those who left through the swinging back door? Have we stopped to listen? When we listen, do we listen with their interest at heart, or do we filter what they say through the institutional interests of the Church?

Dark stories

What about those dark stories that are part of our heritage? Those “Adventist” stories that reveal characteristics and events that are not in line with our official view of ourself and our mission? Is there a place for these stories in our arsenal of anecdotes? Could the mission of our Church actually be enhanced if these stories were dusted off and proudly displayed to our members and all others who might be interested?

Move the spotlight

The Adventist Soapbox  wants to move the spotlight:
  • Yes, it is important to tell the beautiful Adventist stories of conversion and overcoming of obstacles on the road to faith. But life tends to be complex and filled with nuances and there are many stories of people who battle with their faith, who need to face up to hurt, or who have become disgruntled. How do you forge your faith in circumstances like these? How do those in close proximity to the swinging backdoor of the church define their faith? We think it is important to give a voice to these Adventist stories as well. 
  • The research, study and analysis of demographic and membership changes that take place in our Church is valuable. However, we also believe that we must move past the statistics and the academic analyses and put ourselves into the shoes and hearts of those who find themselves on the margins of the faith, and respond to their stories with dearness and empathy.
  • All faiths draw strength and direction from their history. Our history has its own charm and convicting quality. But the world that we live in does not leave much room to overlook the “darker,” more ambivalent Adventist stories of our heritage.  We believe that the present mission of the Church can only be enhanced if we learn to sit comfortably with aspects of our past that we have tended to hide, or carefully curate – and even “wish away”.  Openness about all aspects of our heritage actually takes the winds out of the sails of those who actively seek to undermine the Church. 

It is in the light of these beliefs that we venture on the path of publishing some of these Adventist stories. We do this, not in an attempt to discredit or criticize the Church. No, our purpose is to bring these stories into the open so that we as Church, may

  • develop empathy with our hurting brothers and sisters and 
  • remain “proudly Adventist” in spite of past events that do not seem to harmonize with our present view of ourselves.

Emphasis on the personal element

Some of the narratives that are told in these pages will be the narratives of individual people who each has has a name and lives and works in a specific place. The stories will often be recounted in the first person, with limited editorial comment.

We do not endorse everything

Needless to say, as editors we don’t endorse all the views and opinions expressed in the Adventist stories that we publish. We welcome submissions that are contradictory or seek to enter into dialogue with the views that we publish. Our main purpose is to cultivate a spirit of openness and compassion towards the stories we encounter — Not to embrace their ideas, but to embrace the realities that lie behind these stories.

 We embark on this venture praying that our readers will be blessed and spiritually enriched as they share the personal elements of the Adventist Narrative.

What is your experience of story-telling in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Do you have a story to share? Let us know in the comments [comments], or contact us… Perhaps we can publish your story on the Adventist Soapbox.

 [This article was written by the Paul and Weiers Coetser]

Other stories

 
We have listed the stories we tell on the blog elsewhere, but here are a few highlights.
Deconversion stories

Stories from the Adventist Education System

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