By special request of General Conference (GC) president Ted N. C. Wilson, three presenters at the 2021 Annual Council shared their views on issues impacting the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Assistant to the president Mark Finley discussed Adventist identity and the role of the Bible; GC vice president Artur Stele discussed the implications of the “new hermeneutics”; and assistant to the president Michael Ryan shared why Adventists view God’s grace as expansive and overarching. Below is a summary of the three presentations. —Editors
Mark Finley: Should We Redefine Who We Are?
Is the Bible mainly culturally conditioned? Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church a religious movement raised by God to prepare a people for the coming of Jesus, or is it merely one of the many denominations in the landscape of religions? Who are we, and why do we exist?
“Seventh-day Adventists still believe the Bible is the authoritative, infallible Word of God,” Finley emphasized. “And the Bible still has authority, among others, in science, prophecy, lifestyle standards, and doctrine.”
What about the Adventist identity? Finley reminded leaders that Seventh-day Adventists are “a prophetic movement with a prophetic message and divine mission.” He asked, “Are the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation still relevant in the 21st century, or do we need to re-evaluate our prophetic understanding?” Finley strong affirmed that the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation continue to speak with power.
Another question, Finley noted, is to ask whether the first eleven chapters of Genesis are a historical account or just an allegory to explain how God did things ages ago. “Does it make any difference what one believes about the creation of the world and a worldwide flood?” He explained that a literal creation week of seven days “anchors the entire Bible and gives meaning to existence.”
He also shared his concerns about a growing movement of young Adventists who believe there is a distinction between Jesus and doctrine. Some view an emphasis on doctrine as legalistic and arbitrary, Finley explained.” He reminded church leaders and members that Jesus and His teachings are inseparable. “To fully accept Christ is to fully accept the doctrines He taught.”
Finley also addressed what he termed “Advent Fatigue,” noting that for more than 175 years, Adventists have been proclaiming the soon return of Jesus. “Do we still believe He is coming soon?” Finley asked. “Is it unbiblical to preach the nearness of Christ’s return in light of the delay of the Advent? How can we motivate a movement to prepare for the soon return of our Lord?”
Adventists still believe as Scripture teaches that the coming of Jesus is “nearer than when we first believed,” Finley said, quoting the apostle Paul (Romans 13:11). He noted that since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a growing number of voices in the scholarly community have been questioning the validity of the prophetic timelines that culminate in 1844, the year Adventists believe Jesus entered the Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary for the pre-advent judgment. The voices are becoming more open and intense, Finley acknowledged.
Many are also questioning the belief in a heavenly sanctuary. But “the pre-advent judgment and sanctuary are still at the heart of Adventist theology to prepare a people for the coming of Jesus,” Finley said.
To watch Mark Finley’s presentation, the video starts at 1:49:41.
Artur Stele: How Should We Read and Study the Bible?
Throughout history, Satan has used doubt, selective use, and a reinterpretation of Scripture to attack God’s people, Stele reminded Adventist leaders. Through the Middle Ages, the enemy was trying to keep the Word of God away from people. “The Bible was only in Latin, and only clergy could understand and explain it. One of the great blessings of the Reformation was that it gave the Bible to the people in their language,” he said.
Stele reminded leaders about presuppositions of the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible. According to this and other similar views, the Bible is not the Word of God but is said to be culturally conditioned. “It is said that the Bible shows how people saw God at the time the Bible was written,” Stele said. “So, it is not God speaking to us but how people in different cultures and times understand God and how they interpret [the biblical text].”
On the contrary, Seventh-day Adventists believe that “although the Bible is culturally and historically constituted, it is not culturally or historically conditioned.”
Stele explained that postmodern approaches to Bible study have brought a change of focus. Under this new hermeneutic, the focus changes from the actual Bible text, moving from the author’s intended meaning to the reader, who now decides what the Bible says.
He noted that under this new hermeneutic, the reader is no longer looking to understand what the author intended to say but rather looking for an encounter. “The meaning happens in the moment of an encounter between the reader and the text,” Stele shared. “Now, it doesn’t matter what the author intended to say. The text now has its own life. Whenever one word, or one example, or one story, or one text speaks to your heart, at that moment an encounter happens.”
Stele added that this approach leads to multiple meanings of the text, which can mean different things to different readers. Even to the same reader, the text can mean different things at different times. “Instead of trying to understand the objective meaning of the text within its original context, the follower of the new hermeneutics looks at the Bible and sees a collection of different words, ideas, understandings, and stories that in the moment of an ‘encounter’ can become the Word of God,” he said.
In the end, Stele emphasized, this new hermeneutic leads us from God-centeredness to self-centeredness. The historicity of biblical events plays no significant role.
Stele underlined Adventist belief that God and inspired writings encourage us to search the Scriptures diligently, using a canonical approach that makes concerted efforts to dig deep while staying true to the Bible. “Let us be faithful students of the Word of God!” he said.
To watch Artur Stele’s presentation, the video starts at 2:05:07.
Michael Ryan: How Big Is God’s Grace?
Some people accuse the Seventh-day Adventist Church of taking a narrow view of grace. They claim that the theology of the church is dark and will never be accepted by other Christian churches or the world. Thus, in their telling, the Adventist understanding of grace will never grant members the freedom granted in the Bible, which critics define as a lifestyle without boundaries.
At the core of understanding God’s grace must come the recognition that His grace permeates absolutely every corner of the Bible message, Ryan asserted. God’s Word leads us to Christ’s righteousness. “Every Bible story, prophecy, theme, doctrine; God’s law and biblical history; every Bible parable … all of that calls us to wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb.”
Throwing out what grace has provided shrinks grace, he noted. The Bible makes no room for what has become known as “hyper-grace.” The idea of hyper-grace claims that the believing heart is so saturated with grace that reform is not required. It claims Bible doctrine is nonsense, thus destroying grace. On the contrary, Seventh-day Adventists believe that embracing what grace has provided actually expands grace.
“Let us fully understand that there are those affiliated with the church who envision a hyper-grace movement,” Ryan said. He noted the theology of Adventist pioneers has become the focus of criticism. Those church members who criticize leaders claim the church’s distinctive beliefs have become a displaced ideology. They argue that those identifying beliefs are the very thing hindering the mission.
“This is not new grace,” Ryan said. “It is not the faith of Jesus. There is no new kind of grace that somehow grows while God’s message shrinks. There isn’t any such thing as this kind of grace.”
The Bible teaches, Ryan emphasized, that grace has provided everything we need. “Let the church arise and preach the road to Christ’s righteousness,” he said.
To watch Michael Ryan’s presentation, the video starts at 2:23:19.