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


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