A few weeks ago I shared information about Washington Adventist University’s Keough Lectureship—a biannual series hosted by the university’s Department of Religion. This year’s lectures focused on women’s ordination and biblical interpretation and featured WAU’s Dr. Olive Hemmings and Loma Linda University’s Dr. Richard Rice.
I had a blast!
Adventist Today’s Monte Sahlin has compiled detailed reports based on the 11 typed pages of notes I took that weekend:
- Part 1: Traditional Approach to Bible Supports Ordination for Women Says Historian
- Part 2: American “Culture War” has Infiltrated Adventist Discussion
Spectrum Magazine also posted a shorter summary from me. All weekend, I was impressed by the quality of thought and feedback from lecturers and attendees; I was also pleased to see a mix of students, professionals, men, and women clearly engaged with the material and asking quality questions at the end of each session.
We covered a lot of ground during the three lectures, but it was one of Rice’s closing thoughts that made me write a long counter-comment in my notes. Rice spoke about inerrancy, Adventist church unity, and two of the biblical interpretation modes that are most our community. Rice exudes commitment to the Adventist community and the study of scripture. He also struck me as something of a peacemaker—not one who makes peace by finding the median position, but one who seeks peace through identifying common foundations and studying with others over time.
“Nothing divides so bitterly as common convictions held with a difference.” —Gerald R. Cragg
Stating that the Bible’s central claims were “reliable” even if its pre-scientific descriptions weren’t sound, Rice concluded that “All Adventists agree that the Bible is the Word of God, the product of divine inspiration, and as such the ultimate authority in matters of faith.”
“Actually,” I scribbled furiously, “all Adventists do not agree that the Bible is the Word of God.” Some Adventists instead believe that John and Paul define Christ as “The Word of God,” not the collection of writings that were yet unwritten or the restricted canon we now call Bible. Some Adventists, in other words, do not share that initial inerrantist premise. Yet they still agree with Rice and the rest of the church that “divine revelation takes expression in the Bible through human words and thought.” They share inerrantist Adventists’ love and respect for biblical study and reflection, and they also respect the contemporary canon as the primary source on early Christians’ beliefs, community debates, and ritual practices.
They aren’t otherwise inerrantists or even necessarily text-centered Adventists in the sense Rice described. But they’re still Adventists, and the conversation about interpretation shouldn’t leave them out.
Perhaps Rice took too much for granted in his generous account of Adventist interpretative diversity. I was unable to ask the panel for their thoughts on this point because I wanted to ensure we pulled the Q&A back around to women’s ordination specifically. However, it often seems as if we frame our narratives around only two categories at a time: two kinds of inerrancy, but no non-inerrancy; heterosexuals and homosexuals, but no bisexuals, and an inaccurate gender construct to boot. But when we do this, we’re often purchasing a truncated analysis and an incomplete understanding of our community and what its constituents have to offer the others seated at the common table.
Ultimately I think most Adventists agree on quite a lot about the Bible: our differences are significant and lead individuals in varying directions, but they’re not cause for alarm and there’s no need to take an extermination mentality to those differences. For instance, I’d expect a similar percent of Adventists to agree that the Bible has a “dual nature,” that Creation is both made and an image of the Divine, and that Christ was both God and man. We could build amazingly rich relationships through these confessions.
But the internecine conflicts that we have now and have always had are rooted in disagreeing on what these confessions mean and whether there should be consequences for disagreeing about their meaning.
Today, consequences for holding an unapproved opinion or conviction about these things can range from accusations of disloyalty or deception to being disfellowshipped outright (the Adventist equivalent of excommunication). I argue that such consequences are antithetical to a healthy learning space and they undermine our capacity to listen and grow. I agree with Rice that our diversity is not in itself a problem, and that how we discuss our diversity and the stakes we’ve applied to variance are a problem. I’d characterize this problem as treatable but still quite dangerous, and worth our thoughtful attention.