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.