The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, by George Knight (LentBooks #13)

apocalypticI read this one at the suggestion of some other people, with whom I joined in a four-way conversation that will eventually be posted at the Spectrum site (I’ll add the link  once it’s up there so you can listen if you’re interested).

George Knight is a familiar name to Seventh-day Adventist readers as a church historian and theologian.  He’s a hero of mine because I think he’s done the church a great service by putting the stories of our founders, especially Ellen G. White, into a context which counters some of the excesses of the extremely conservative “historic Adventism” movement, and in his prolific writing and speaking career he’s always kept a clear focus on grace and the gospel as central to the Adventist message.

Now Knight has issued what he sees as a warning cry against the dangers of both conservative and liberal Adventism, and a reminder that we are first and foremost an “adventist” church, i.e. a church that teaches that Jesus is coming soon.  He argues passionately in this book that the return of Jesus must remain the central focus of our teaching, otherwise we have nothing unique to offer the world and no reason to continue to exist as a denomination.

He argues that liberal and progressive Adventists risk “neutering” the Adventist message when they cease to make apocalyptic theology a key part of their message, perhaps because it is considered politically incorrect or offensive. He also says that conservative and traditional Adventists risk the same kind of “neutering” by an unhealthy emphasis on judgement without a corresponding emphasis on the gospel of grace.  Knight calls for balance, and for a focus on the traditional teachings of  Daniel and Revelation in the context of the gospel.

I respect George Knight and, as one of those liberal Adventists he’s targeting who is often uncomfortable with traditional apocalyptic preaching, I probably wouldn’t have listened to this message if it came from someone other than him.  I don’t agree with him on every point.  One of my biggest problems with Adventist apocalyptic preaching is that it relies on an extreme sense of certainty that says “We can tell you how every single verse in Daniel and Revelation is meant to be interpreted and thus, exactly how  Christ will return — not when, but how.”  I think this approach is arrogant and, while Knight cautions against it to some extent, I don’t think he does nearly enough to address this problem, which I think is at the heart of traditional Adventist apocalyptic evangelism.

The other problem I have is that many people use a focus on Jesus’ return as an excuse not to do anything about the world we’re living in now (except preach to it) — not to be involved in social justice or caring for the environment.  Again, Knight grazes against this issue when he cites Matthew 25 and says that God expects to find His people caring for the poor when He returns — but he then goes on to caution that preparing people for Jesus’ return, not feeding the hungry, should be at the centre of our life as a church.

Mostly, I guess, I have always had a problem with the argument, “We must hold on to X doctrine, or practice, because without it we lose our uniqueness as Adventists!” Being different for the sake of different, rather than genuinely examining whether this doctrine or practice is right? I’m not sure I agree with this.  But respecting George Knight and his work as I do, I am at least giving his argument some serious thought.

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9 Comments

Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

9 responses to “The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, by George Knight (LentBooks #13)

  1. Julius

    Great review. Thank you for articulating these thoughts for us!! I resonate with each paragraph.

  2. The best articulation of one of the issues you’ve raised (which I nearly included in my own review, but left out to keep it shorter) is in Jon Paulien’s What the Bible Says About the End-Time. He focuses on Revelation 13 as presenting the end-time “testing truth” for the world at large, and Matthew 25, with its service and ethical emphasis, as the testing truth for people in the church who think they’ve already got it made. A very balanced perspective, in my view.

  3. Ray Danielson

    I think the real problem facing Adventism today, as it has been for some time, is that, on one hand there are those whose “conservatism” has more to do with standards of dress, music, how to “act Adventist,” etc. In other words, how to look and act “seasoned,” a term that has mostly died out, yet it’s meaning still remains.

    “Conservatives” are truly gracious people, but whose gracious behavior remains “gracious” until the young, or newcomers from outside the denomination who represent possibly other doctrinal views than those “held” by most Adventists, are brave enough to go to Sabbath School and make their views heard.

    Because many, if not, most conservatives in the church, have spent so much of their religious lives “acting” like Adventists, they very often have not really studied the Scriptures, especially those of the “Old” Testament and it’s totally connected relationship with the “New” Testament.

    The vast majority of them have perhaps never read the first five books of the Bible. They typically scramble it all together, say that, other than the Ten Commandments, everything else was “nailed to the cross,” and simply forget how, even though we all agree that the animal sacrificial system, and the Temple rituals and priesthood all of which pointed to Christ’s first advent and His role in the heavenly Sanctuary, that the rest of “the Law” is still in place and force today.

    For example, with the annual Feast of Weeks, at the end of the last day of that festival, as in Leviticus 23 and other Old Testament Scriptures, a great meal that included all the widows, orphans, strangers, and others, would be held. Those in greatest need were to be given priority over all others. Leviticus implies that if the nation did not so conduct itself, those who refused to participate by, as an example, leaving the corners and edges of their fields ungleaned from, they were considered to be breaking the Commandment which says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

    The money that was used to provide this bounty came from a portion of the Tithe. People hold “potlucks” today, but they feed only those who attend the church services. Not the rest of the community which would, and still should be invited in to be well fed by a portion of the Tithe.

    Can you imagine how many would express an interest in learning more about Yeshua (Jesus) and His ways and days, IF only the Church practiced the Tithe the way the pre-incarnate Yeshua ordered it should be practiced at Sinai when He was there with Moses?

    And as they are drawn in, and learn of the powerful words of Deliverance, of Sanctification through learning of the humility of Yeshua, and desiring then to follow ALL of His ways and days, and how Yeshua’s first act is that of justification through forgiveness and His patience. They are then attracted to become part of His Kingdom.

    All four cups that answer all four questions, then there is also the meal, the broken bread from the Aflekomen dipped in bitter herbs to remember the suffering in the wilderness, the suffering of Yeshua (Jesus) and that which will be suffered by His followers as time draws toward the final great human tragedy, and then the Kingdom.

    How many Adventists know these things? Not many. That is why so many who are thinking people, not just poor in need, stay a little while, discover that there is the shell of the message. But, then look for the continuity with the past, which Yeshua said we should not forget because “These are My holy convocations and sabbaths which you shall keep throughout all your generations, forever.”

    The Law is not an enemy of anyone.

    Thanks

  4. I just ran across your review and am impressed to read George Knight’s previous books, since I have not.

    It is my impression that most adult Adventists are pretty familiar with the Pentateuch and that many of our Sabbath School lessons refer liberally to the books in it. As to the statement that Adventists”typically scramble it all together, say that, other than the Ten Commandments, everything else was “nailed to the cross,” and simply forget how, even though we all agree that the animal sacrificial system, and the Temple rituals and priesthood all of which pointed to Christ’s first advent and His role in the heavenly Sanctuary, that the rest of “the Law” is still in place and force today.” This to me sounds more like the impressions of Adventism that we hear from outside our denomination– those of people who belong to the Herbert Armstrong derivative denominations. It would seem to me that Adventism has a continuum of beliefs around the importance of maintaining OT legalism right through to what is found in more message-dilute “community churches”. There are, after all, millions of Adventist believers, so I believe that it is likely that there will be quite a range of “hues” of belief and stance, and I cringe when I read phrases like “vast majority”…. where’s the proof?

    God bless.

  5. Do Adventists feel the eminent return of Christ to be their unique message? I was always led to believe that the uniqueness of Adventism came from their firm grip on the Sabbath as the seal of God…seems that was what was impressed upon mt by most Adventists…if you didn’t worship on Saturday, you were out. Interestingly, I found myself sitting through many a Sabbath service as I took a two-year position as a choir pianist in a local Adventist church. Because of my history through elementary and high school, I felt as though I have understood and been very comfortable around Adventists. Perhaps the return of Christ didn’t stand out to me as a particularly Adventist belief since I believed in it firmly myself and accepted it as a matter of course. I guess that it is only as I’ve been exposed to many other “brands” of Christians that I’ve realized that many of them do NOT believe He will come in any way any time soon….

    • Hi again
      Yes, indeed, the “Adventist” part of the denominational name is an indicator of the belief in the imminent second-coming of Jesus. Do “most” Adventists believe that? Again, it is preached in our particular church and every one I have attended, and certainly figures in our prayers together, and in other conversation that I am familiar with… but do “most” believe it? I don’t know… might have to arrange for a survey? : )

  6. I just didn’t realize that Adventists thought that belief to be unique to them…or maybe I’m misinterpreting this statement in Trudy’s blog:

    “He argues passionately in this book that the return of Jesus must remain the central focus of our teaching, otherwise we have nothing unique to offer the world and no reason to continue to exist as a denomination.”

    My point is that it is not the belief in the iminent return of Christ that makes Adventists unique – it is the belief in the Sabbath as the seal of God. Many Christians do believe that he is returning soon, but choose to worship on Sunday in memorial of the resurrection and/or an interpretation of Hebrews 4 as an augmentation/transformation of the seventh-day rest to a continuous reliance and rest in the finished work of Calvary. Thus, it is only the Sabbath (and perhaps the dietary restrictions) that are truly unique to Adventists (unless there are more obscure doctrines with which I am unfamiliar).

  7. I doubt there’s any single doctrine of Adventism (or any other Christian denomination) which is completely unique … after all, we learned about Sabbathkeeping from the Seventh-day Baptists! I think that Knight’s point is that the belief in Jesus’ soon return is so central to Adventism that if we stop emphasizing it, we will be like many other mainstream denominations which used to teach that Jesus was coming soon, but have quietly dropped that emphasis over the years.

  8. Disappointing, isn’t it? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, taking the emphasis off the need to be ready for his return does water down the urgency of the gospel…Why do you think that churches stop emphasizing it? Do you think they see little evidence that it is pending? Seems that could hardly be the case, in times like these… Do you think that the ministers themselves lose confidence in that belief, and are hesitant to preach it? I’ve really spent so little time around denominational churches that sometimes the thinking is very foreign to me…

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