Monday, May 29, 2023

How to Use Digital Bibles

The Word of God has been recorded in a variety of media: tablets (Exodus 32:15–16), scrolls (Deuteronomy 17:18), papyrus sheets (2 John 12), and, last but not least, human memory (Psalm 119:11). The codex—pages made from sheets that have been bound together, in other words, the object we think of when we think of a book—was adopted soon after the last Bible books were written. More than a thousand years later, the printing press made it possible to mass-produce books, spurring the Protestant Reformation.

Likewise, in our time five-hundred years after the Reformation, the electronic digital medium (through which you are reading these words) has changed the way we record, study, and distribute God's Word.

By electronic, I mean Bibles that are recorded on a media device that requires a source of electric power to access. And by digital, I mean Bibles that are recorded in a numeric code that makes their words subject to computer manipulation, as opposed to, say, the popular Gospel According to Matthew film (though speech-to-text technology is changing that).

One advantage of studying the Bible digitally is that the code allows easy access to the original languages. Similar to how I have linked the following text to a website, Blue Letter Bible and similar websites link the original Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek words of the biblical text to the English words that are used to translate them. No more lugging around heavy interlinear Bibles and concordances!

This also means that there is no excuse for relying on English dictionaries for the meaning of Bible words when at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger we have free access to lexicons—dictionaries of the original languages of the Bible—along with all the occurrences of a given word in Scripture. My favorite website for this sort of study is the Bible Study Tools interlinear Bible search.

But beware: The meaning of a word is not determined by its dictionary definition but by the textual and historical settings in which it is used. Unless you have studied the grammar and syntax of the original languages and the historical backgrounds of the Bible, a list of lexical possibilities can take you only so far towards the meaning. So always consult translations and commentaries, which are only a click or tap away in many digital Bibles, to get a sense of which sector of a word's semantic range is being selected by the text in its context.

Also, beware that certain free Bible apps and websites are known to sell information about your searches and other activity to internet advertisers. Even publishers of digital Bibles have to pay the bills. And on the internet, as the saying goes, if you're not a paying customer, you're likely the product being sold.

There are many free Bible apps available for smartphones and tablets, but I prefer those that download the Bible to my device for offline use. Again, Blue Letter Bible has a quality app, and I have successfully used Olive Tree and e-Sword in the past, as well. Beware of apps that ask for unnecessary permissions like contacts or location (if you're not the customer, ...).

These days I use only paid Bible study platforms. They are more or less expensive depending on the resources you want to get with them but are only worth it if you are prepared to use their extra features. Prices range from just over a hundred to thousands of dollars for a full library of resources. Accordance has the fastest and most powerful searches, but they charge you for the software in addition to the resource packages. Logos is slower but free and has the most resources available. Both platforms have resources specifically for Seventh-day Adventists.

The great, irreplaceable advantage of digital Bibles is that you can quickly find what you are looking for along with lots of other information about it. The inevitable disadvantage that goes along with that: Easy come; easy go. The human mind, which is where God's Word ultimately needs to be written (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 8:10, 10:16), is best activated by sustained bodily contact with physical objects. We remember best what we have a sensory experience with.

So how will we know what to search for in our digital Bibles in the first place? By regularly interacting with our good, old codex Bibles.

If you're wondering How to Read the Whole Bible for the First Time, click here. 

Wondering What Bible Should I Read? See my recommendations here.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

What Bible Should I Read?

Short answer: Any Bible that you read is the right Bible for you to read.

All Bibles—regardless of which translation or what supplementary notes—convey the written Word of God. The Gospel is a translated message from its inception (Acts 2:6) and therefore always comes to us as an already interpreted message. This means that there is no one-and-only, given-for-all-time version of the Bible. To have a Bible that you regularly read is what matters most.

On the other hand, we are blessed with so wide a variety of English translations and study Bibles that many people don't know where to start or how to build a well-rounded collection for personal or family use.

The English Bible most first-time readers consider is the

King James Version (KJV or Authorized Version, AV): Authorized by King James in 1611, what set this Bible apart from previously published English translations was the fact that it did not come with interpretive notes in the margins. So, it was able to be used in churches of all doctrinal persuasions. The KJV is also an artistic achievement whose beautiful language, along with that of the works of Shakespeare, standardized Modern English.

A linguistic quirk of the KJV is its thee-s and thou-s. These second-person pronouns had already fallen out of ordinary use, but the translation committee brought them back from Middle English because they took a word-for-word approach to translation. Even if the point is lost on most readers, the KJV makes the same distinction between singular (thee/thou) and plural (ye/you) found in the original Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament and New Testament Greek.

While the KJV's spelling has been revised many times, some words have changed in meaning over the last 400 years, which can result in misunderstandings. Over that time, our knowledge of the original languages has also significantly improved, so I do not recommend the KJV for in-depth Bible study.

New King James Version (NKJV): It retains the KJV's commitment to word-for-word translation and elegance of language, but uses words according to their current meanings and incorporates discoveries about the original languages made up to the early 1980s. This results in a formal-sounding translation that, while understandable, has some difficult turns of phrase that do not always clearly convey the intent of the original.

Because the NKJV sounds the way many English speakers feel that a Bible should, I like to use it for preaching.

Andrews Study Bible (NKJV/New International Version, NIV): For notes to help you understand difficult passages in the NKJV and clarify many points of interpretation from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective, I recommend the Andrews Study Bible.

It is also available in the NIV, another popular translation that attempts to balance word-for-word translation with a thought-for-thought approach, which affords an easier and often clearer reading experience. But thought-for-thought translations make it harder to understand how they translated English expressions from the original languages, and sometimes clarify things wrongly.

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: (NIV/NKJV/New Revised Standard Version, NRSV): For a study Bible from a broader Christian perspective, I recommend the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. It has a wealth of notes and illustrations that will give you the latest scholarly understandings of the historical contexts of the biblical texts (not that I would endorse all of them). I recommend this Bible for in-depth study.

It is also available in the NRSV, which leans more toward a word-for-word approach than the NIV, but with less regard for harmonizing the texts of the Bible.

New English Translation: (NET): As its acronym suggests, this translation was meant to be presented on the internet as well as in hard copy.

The NET has a full complement of translation and study notes that explain almost every interpretive decision in detail. These notes can be clicked and expanded when reading online, so they don't take up too much space on the page. But they are also available in the thick, hardcopy Full Notes Edition of the NET.

The notes lean toward Reformed Evangelical interpretation but typically give both sides of the various arguments. I recommend this Bible for in-depth study.

ESV Reader's Bible (English Standard Version): The visual opposite of study Bibles, reader's editions remove even the chapter and verse numbers, leaving only the biblical text on the page just as you would find it in any other book. It is a liberating way to read the Bible, and I recommend it to other experienced readers.

The most affordable reader's edition uses the ESV, a good word-for-word translation, but one that is controversial for translating certain passages as excluding women from church leadership in a time when it was well understood that the original pronouns could have referred to both men and women.

Bibliotheca (American Literary Version): This is a more expensive, but, in my opinion, better reader's edition. It began as a solo, passion project that received so much support on the crowd-investment platform, Kickstarter, that the founder was able to form a committee of scholars to revise the American Standard Version, resulting in an elegant, word-for-word translation that incorporates current insights into the original languages.

The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter: While translation committees guard against individual idiosyncrasies, they also tend to make the biblical books all sound the same. But the biblical authors wrote with distinct voices. Individual translators have proven more willing to take risks in translation that allow the style of the different books to come through.

I don't endorse everything he says in his notes, but Robert Alter's literary sensitivity is second to none, and his translation of the Old Testament highlights the strange beauty of ancient expression without being impenetrable.

The Kingdom New Testament by N. T. Wright: The New Testament books were not written in the elevated Greek of the Homeric epics but in the simplified Greek spoken on the streets by people who had often learned it as their second language.

In his translation, which does reflect his theological interpretations, N. T. Wright moves away from elegant, formal-sounding English and instead uses plain-spoken, simple English to better give a sense of how accessible the original language of the New Testament was.

Common English Bible (CEB): For a translation that even young children can understand, I recommend the CEB. It will also challenge experienced readers to overcome clichés with its thought-for-thought translations of common biblical expressions (like "Human One" for "Son of Man"). Also, it is the only Bible I know of that had Seventh-day Adventist scholars working on its translation committee.

Final Thought: The farther I have gone in biblical studies—especially of the original languages—the less opinionated I have become about translations. Translation is really hard. And even where I disagree with a translation decision, I have learned not to criticize until I understand the case that can be made for it. Translators have their reasons, and they usually illuminate something in the text.

If you're wondering How to Read the Whole Bible for the First Time, click here.

If you want to know How to Use Digital Bibles, click here.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

How to Read the Whole Bible for the First Time


The Bible can be intimidating if you've never read something like it before. It's very long, and some of its texts are more easily understood—or misunderstood!—than others.

It's become a cliché that many who attempt to read the Bible straight through crash out around Leviticus.

I recommend the following sequence of biblical books for your first read-through:

  1. Mark. The shortest account of the life of Jesus (New Testament).

  2. Genesis. The first book of instruction, which is the account of origins (Old Testament).

  3. John and Matthew. The last of account of the life of Jesus and then another that is more similar to Mark (NT).

  4. Luke and Acts. A two-part account, first of Jesus's life and then of how God founded his church (NT).

  5. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The other books of instruction, which are the account of how God founded his nation, Israel (OT).

  6. Hebrews. A letter to the church about how the instruction relates to Jesus (NT).

  7. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The history God's nation, Israel, and stories of people who played a part in it (OT).

  8. Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Letters to the church about how Jesus helps us (NT).

  9. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom about how to deal with evil and suffering (OT).

  10. 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Letters to the church about the end times and life together (NT).

  11. Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations. A love poem and then longer writings warning and encouraging Israel along with some accounts of visions from God (OT).

  12. James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. Letters to the church about how to follow Jesus (NT).

  13. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Shorter writings warning and encouraging Israel along with some accounts of visions from God (OT).

  14. 1, 2 & 3 John. Letters to the church about God's love (NT).

  15. Ezekiel and Daniel. Accounts of visions about God's plans for history and the end times along with some stories about how to deal with powerful people (OT).

  16. Revelation. A letter warning and encouraging the church along with accounts of visions about God's plans for history and the end times (NT).


  1. Set a consistent time for reading the Bible every day and set up reminders for yourself.

  2. Plan to read for a minimum of five to ten minutes at a time and increase it as your attention span grows.

  3. Pray before you start; ask God's Spirit to help you find something that lets you know Jesus better.

  4. The Bible rewards a lifetime of reading, so don't try to understand everything the first time.

  5. When you feel like you don't understand all of what you're reading, keep reading until you find something you do understand.

  6. If you get bored with what you are reading, you can either pray and try again, skim ahead until you find something more interesting, or stop and come back to it tomorrow.

  7. If you feel like you understood less than half of what you read or didn't understand anything at all, ask someone more experienced to help you with its meaning.

  8. Wondering What Bible Should I Read? See my recommendations here.

    If you want to know How to Use Digital Bibles, click here. 

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Annual Observances for Seventh-day Adventists

In Seventh-day Adventism, some families and communities feel called to observe something like a festal or liturgical year to rehearse the story of salvation rather than enjoy merely secular holidays or take the extreme position of observing none at all. Ellen G. White also recognized that there are certain times of the year that, like Christmas Day, may be observed as a "sacred event" (Review and Herald, 17 Dec 1889), yet one on which, unlike Sabbath, "there is no divine sanctity resting" (Review and Herald, 9 Dec 1884). Therefore, we have the Christian liberty to observe them or not as is most meaningful to us. But Ellen White counsels us to not neglect the opportunity to make much of Christ on occasions when people, especially young people, expect a celebration (9 Dec 1884).


What follows is a framework within which Seventh-day Adventists can develop a rhythm of annual observances for individual, familial, or communal devotional practice. I do not present it as a program to which nothing may be added and from which nothing may be subtracted; the Sabbath is the only day we are to keep holy without exception.

This annual cycle incorporates observances from Adventism's deep Jewish, broadly Christian, and specifically Protestant backgrounds:

  • Three festivals that Gentiles can celebrate with Jews—the Feast of Lots (Esth 9:27), Passover (Exod 12:48, Num 9:14), and the Festival of Tabernacles (Deut 16:13–14, Zech 14:16
  • The Five Evangelical Feasts recognized by Reformed Christian communions—Good Friday, Resurrection Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Christmas—along with two Western Christian seasons included in the mainline Protestants' Revised Common Lectionary—Advent and Christmastide
  • Reformation Day
  • Three holidays recommended by Ellen White—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's
These combine to present the story of Jesus Christ and his church:

The Five Spring Observances tell the story of Christ's death, burial, resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–4), and ascension to Heaven (Acts 2:33–35) and heavenly sanctuary ministry (Eph 4:7–8) in the context of the great controversy.

The Five Autumn Observances tell the story of the end-time events in Revelation 13–14 in the context of Christ's Second Coming, concluding with the hope of Immanuel, God with us, at "the restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21) when the great controversy is resolved (Rev 21:1–22:5).

Spring Observances 

1. Feast of Lots
Old Testament feast day commemorating the victory of the Jews over Haman's plot
Date: (movable) February 26–March 26
Salvation Story Theme: the great controversy between Christ and Satan
Suggested Activity and Scripture Reading: Put on an Esther play while reading the Book of Esther.
Suggested Scripture Reading: Job 1–2
Suggested Psalms: The Lord's My Shepherd, Send Out Your Light, Psalm 46, Psalm 121

2. Passover
Old Testament feast day commemorating Israel's exodus out of Egypt
Date: (movable) March 28–April 25
Salvation Story Theme: Christ's sacrificial death
Suggested Activity: Hold a Passover feast with traditions that Jesus followed.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Exodus 11–12; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:6–8, 10:1–13
Suggested Psalms: God Be Merciful to Me, Psalm 51, Psalm 130, Psalm 136

3. Easter
Evangelical feast days, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, commemorating Christ's death and resurrection
Date of Good Friday: (movable) March 25–April 25
Salvation Story Theme: Christ's burial and resurrection
Suggested Activities: Have a sundown worship service (Good Friday); have a sunrise worship service (Resurrection Day).
Suggested Scripture Readings: Matthew 26–27, Mark 14–15, Luke 22-23, John 18–19 (Good Friday); Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20 (Resurrection Day)
Suggested Hymns: He Never Said a Mumblin' Word, Lead Me to Calvary, In Christ Alone, God Rested (Good Friday); Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Now the Green Blade Rises, Because He Lives, Easter Song (Resurrection Day)

4. Ascension Day
Evangelical feast day commemorating Christ's ascension
Date: (movable) May 3–June 3
Salvation Story Theme: Christ's ascension to the right hand of the Father and the inauguration of the heavenly sanctuary
Suggested Activity: Feast on food that rises like fluffy pastries or (plant-based) poultry.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Acts 1; Ephesians 1:20–21, 4:7–8; Revelation 4–5
Suggested Hymns: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing, Alleluia! Sing to Jesus, Arise, My Soul, Arise, Is He Worthy?

5. Pentecost
Evangelical feast day commemorating the beginning of the church
Date: (movable) May 13–June 9
Salvation Story Theme: Christ's heavenly sanctuary ministry and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit
Suggested Activity: Feast on first fruits and/or food that looks like or is cooked with fire.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Joel 2:28–29, John 14:15–31, Acts 2, Galatians 5:13–26
Suggested Hymns: O for That Flame of Living Fire, Baptize Us Anew, Come Holy Spirit, Build Your Kingdom Here

Autumn Observances

6. Festival of Tabernacles
Old Testament seven-day harvest festival
Date of the first day: (movable) September 21–October 19
Salvation Story Theme: Christ's Second Coming as the ingathering of God's harvest
Suggested Activity: Sleep in an outdoor shelter or as if you were in one.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Matthew 13, Matthew 24–25, Revelation 14.
Suggested Psalms: Psalm 34, All People That on Earth Do Dwell, Flourishing, Psalm 126

7. Reformation Day
Protestant commemoration celebrating Reformation heritage (Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on All Saints' Eve) and memorializing martyrs on All Saints' Eve and/or All Saints' Day
Date of All Saints' Eve: (fixed) October 31
Salvation Story Theme: the beast from the sea and the Protestant Reformation
Suggested Activities: Dress up like reformers; post the 95 Theses on a door; read the testimonies of martyrs.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Daniel 7; Revelation 6:9–11, chs. 12–13
Suggested Hymns: Faith of Our Fathers, For All the Saints, When the Saints Go Marchin' In, By Faith

8. Thanksgiving Day
American holiday instituted during the US Civil War and recommended by Ellen White
Date: (movable) third Thursday in November (USA) or second Monday in October (Canada)
Salvation Story Theme: the beast from the land and religious liberty
Suggested Activities: Share testimonies of gratitude and feast on locally harvested food.
Suggested Scripture Readings: Psalm 95, Psalm 100, John 18:36, Revelation 13:11–15
Suggested Hymns: Now Thank We All Our God, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Thank You Lord, 10,000 Reasons

9. Advent
Christian season that anticipates the coming of Christ
Dates: (movable) November 27–December 3 to (fixed) December 24
Salvation Story Theme: preparation for the Second Coming and the Three Angels' Messages
Suggested Activities: Give Advent calendar treats; have an Advent theme for family or group worship every week: the second coming (1), the messianic prophecies (2), John the Baptist (3), Mary and Joseph (4).
Suggested Scripture Readings: John 14:1–14 (1), Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (2), Luke 3:1–20 (3), and Luke 1 (4)
Suggested Hymns: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1), Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming (2), On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry (3), Magnificat (4)

10. Christmastide
Christian season that includes (1) Christmas Day, an evangelical feast day commemorating the birth of Christ, which Ellen White recommended, and (2a) New Years Day, another holiday that Ellen White recommended as a time of reflection and re-commitment, and which coincides with (2b) the commemoration of Christ's circumcision eight days after his birth; and concludes at (3) the commemoration of the visit of the Magi (Epiphany)
Dates: (fixed) December 25 to January 6
Salvation Story Theme: God dwelling with us and the great controversy ended
Suggested Activities: Give gifts to those in need (Christmas); renew your covenant with God (New Year's); sing Christmas carols during the twelve days of Christmastide (December 25 to January 5); and give gifts to the needy (Epiphany).
Suggested Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1–21 (Christmas); Psalm 139, Luke 2:22–40 (New Year's); Isaiah 60, Matthew 2, Romans 9:30–11:36, Revelation 21–22 (Epiphany)
Suggested Hymns: Once in Royal David's City, Go Tell It on the Mountain (Christmas); Lord God, Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace, Wake the Song (New Year's); We Three Kings (Epiphany)


Traditional elements for this cycle of annual observances may be found in the Scriptures and the other foundational texts of the background traditions, or in their popular interpreters. If unfamiliar, Google, Wikipedia, and your local library can resolve that.

"Tradition is an argument extended through time" (Alasdair MacIntyre), but enter into these arguments with due regard for the faith in God expressed by the contemporary practitioners of Adventism's background traditions. Jewish-Christian relations are fraught with a history of persecution by Christians aimed at erasing Jewish identity. Thus, many Jews take offense at Christians observing their traditions, including Shabbat rituals for keeping the seventh day.

Because we should use our Christian liberty to serve others (Gal 5:13) and not to cause them offense (1 Cor 8:9), I recommend the following limits for non-Jewish Adventists who choose to observe Old Testament festivals: Don't hold public-facing meetings involving extra-biblical Jewish traditions and make it clear to participants that you are observing such events only insofar as they build up faith in Jesus and not attempting to keep them for the sake of the covenant God made with Israel. People who convert to Christianity offer certain of their traditions to other Christians so that all believers can better express faith in Jesus, and so, out of respect for the integrity of Christian and Jewish identity, seek out resources that are offered by Jewish Christians to other Christians for the purpose of building up Christian faith. Just because it is something most Jews do does not necessarily mean it is beneficial for a Seventh-day Adventist to do it.

Regardless of the background tradition involved, these observances require Adventists to interpret or modify these elements of the contemporary expressions of the background traditions in ways that accord with our faith. Where expedient, we can also create new elements that make them more meaningful for our families or communities. This may include moving the dates of observances to coincide with Sabbath, achieve the desired order in the cycle, or align with a minority calendar, like that of the Karaite Jews or Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Even for those who had to keep feasts and festivals, God clarified making adjustments based on circumstances and limitations was preferable to not receiving the benefit of them at all (Num 9:10–11). These observances have benefited me spiritually whether I, my family, or my small group did a lot or a little. Do not let others judge which, if any, annual observances are beneficial to you, nor how maximally or minimally you observe them (Col 2:16).

Monday, November 08, 2021

My Associationalist Manifesto

People sometimes ask me how I identify politically. In recent years I haven't had a ready answer, but I think that now I am prepared to take on at least one political label. I am an associationalist.

What I mean by that is I think would be better off if Americans were to take the energy we expend on winning the culture wars and invest it in revitalizing civil society and empowering it to do in a pluralistic way what we currently rely on big business, big government, and big charity to do for us in a one-size-fits-all way. The latter approach is making it impossible to live and let live together with others who aspire to different visions of the good life.

Relying more on smaller free associations would get us something else we need to get along with material benefits but can't get from organizations to which we are numbers, not people: affirmation of our way of life from those we respect. The generation of wealth for a common pursuit of the good life makes people feel they are free to flourish; the provision of wealth for its own sake is meaningless to most people. So to attain that sense of meaning as things currently stand, we are offering empower and expand those governments, businesses, and charities that are supposed to benefit all kinds of people, on the condition that they embrace our discrete values and exclude those who don't share them.

Trying to sweep into the dustbin of history those whose ways of life we can't support yet ought to be able to tolerate, and who likewise can tolerate but can't support us, will result in insincere recognition for the victors at best (see Hegel's master-slave dialectic and Havel's greengrocer illustration) or the destruction of the nation at worst. The challenge of liberty for twentieth-century America was making the material benefits of the industrial revolution through big business, big charity, and big government available to all and not just the wealthy, white men who control them. The challenge of liberty for twenty-first-century America will be providing those same material benefits in ways that are meaningful to all and not just whichever group of populists or elites win the culture war for a given slice of the American pie.

Evade, resist, and escape zero-sum competitions that aren't games; in real life, seek the win-win.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Different Kind of Beast: Evaluating America in View of the Kingdom of God

September 11 happened for me on September 12, 2001. I had taken a year off from college to serve as a volunteer youth pastor in Melbourne, Australia, so, in my time zone, the attacks occurred during the late-night hours of Tuesday, the 11th, and the early morning of Wednesday, the 12th. Instead of letting me sleep in (as youth pastors are wont to do), the father of my host family knocked on my door sometime before 6:00 a.m. As I opened my bedroom door, he told me, “They brought down the Twin Towers!”

All my sleep-deprived brain could muster was: “They finally did it.”

I was a relatively well-informed young adult, and my mind immediately went to the previous attempt on the Twin Towers and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the event shook me emotionally. I spent the day watching the replays of events resembling the fantastic climax to Tom Clancy’s thriller, Debt of Honor, which I had read as a teenager. I have never been so grateful to turn off the TV and go to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

A Mixed Record

Many of the youth I served were the children of Central and South Americans who were forced to relocate to Australia due to the political instability and human rights abuses of the Cold War. Some apparently had socialist associations and had to flee right-wing governments that would ‘disappear’ such people. Others may have had connections to rural land ownership that made them a target of communist guerillas.

As it became clear the United States would invade Afghanistan, the reactions of my Latin American co-religionists to me as a young Anglo-American abroad who shared their passion for discussing current events shifted from sympathy to concern bordering on outrage. To them, the United States was not the country I grew up in that had brought religious freedom to Eastern Europe without firing a shot and ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait. It was the United States that trained the death squads of right-wing dictators but nevertheless was unable to end the communist insurgencies that terrorized the countryside.

It would be easy to attribute their skepticism of the ability of American power to remake Afghanistan to having observed failures of the same in its own hemisphere. The US military’s botched withdrawal from Kabul weeks before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 can be taken as a vindication of those predictions that my country’s valor was about to exceed its discretion. But that was not the only perspective informing their reluctance to welcome, in the words of President George W. Bush, “this crusade, this war on terrorism.”

A Prophetic Perspective

I remember one older gentleman, who had likely come to Australia when his country was ruled by a ruthless, CIA-installed dictator. He asked me how American Adventists could justify serving their country’s armed forces, given the Seventh-day Adventist historic teaching that the United States would become an eschatological enemy of God’s people. I told him about the conscientious cooperation of men like my grandfather and Desmond Doss. I explained that American Adventists had come to see that the US military could do some good in the world and had left the matter of killing in war to conscience. But he wasn’t convinced. To him, the United States was still the land beast of Revelation 13. “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).

Despite the rise of China, the United States of America remains the pre-eminent geopolitical power on earth. Like the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων; lit., “Kingdom of the Romans”) in the time of Christ, it competes for our affections and threatens to eclipse our quest for the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33; Greek: βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ; also, “empire of God”). And like the Roman Empire, it can distract us by seeming to be a powerful enemy we must overthrow to prepare the way for the kingdom of God (John 6:15, compare with 18:36 and 19:15).

I submit that the identification of the United States of America as the beast of Revelation 13:11 that “had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon” can give us a prophetic perspective that we need to arrive at an evaluation of America in the twenty-first century that is consistent with full commitment to the kingdom of God. I will do so by explaining how that interpretation allowed Ellen G. White, the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to arrive at such an evaluation in the nineteenth century. (I will not address the exegetical and historical basis for this interpretation.) For the political challenges of that time were not qualitatively different than those we face today.

Ellen G. White’s Evaluation of America

Ellen White believed that the United States is a blessed nation because God had raised it up to provide and protect religious liberty as expressed in the democratic-republican and dissenting Protestant ideals written into the US Constitution. The freedom of the believer’s conscience before God taught by (1) Protestantism and the protection of civil liberties afforded by the limited government of (2) republicanism were the two horns that constituted the lamb-like nature of the United States: the political upshot of the self-sacrificing lamb of God, whose kingdom is not of this world, who draws with love rather than coercing by force (John 18:36). Ellen White believed that God had granted the US its material advantages because it had realized more religious freedom than any other nation.

She also believed that the US had not been faithful to God's purposes from its inception when the Puritans, who came to America seeking religious freedom, enforced worship and doctrinal conformity in Plymouth colony. She believed that the Civil War was God's judgment on America for denying liberty to African-Americans. These are the dragon-speech: the legislative expressions that “give the lie to those liberal and peaceful principles which it has put forth as the foundation of its policy” (Great Controversy, 442)

This seems to me to be a clear-eyed view of the character of the United States that holds up in broad-strokes and even seems prescient today. America is a different kind of beast. No other power represented in Revelation combines the character of the lamb, Christ, with that of the dragon, Satan. As the largest of the world's wealthy, free nations and the guarantor of their security, it is a nation of extremes: at once extremely good and extremely bad. Its boosters and its critics are both generally correct, and many of the best and the worst things that people believe about the United States are true at the same time. But it takes a theological perspective that regards America in light of a broader divine purpose to see that one doesn't have to take a side on the question of American greatness to evaluate its contradictory character.

Evaluating America on September 12, 2021

On September 12, 2001, members of the US Congress stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” The following Sunday, the future President Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright recited a litany of American atrocities and declared that “America's chickens are coming home to roost. On April 13, 2003, he preached a sermon with a similar point in which he proclaimed, “Not God Bless America. God damn America.”

Ellen White's evaluation of the United States can be appealed to in half by both ‘God-bless-‘ and ‘God-damn-America’ Christians to support their views on how to maintain/attain God's blessing on the nation. This divide has been exacerbated by the first US president to practice the politics of demagoguery that the founders and framers feared would come and past presidents have sought to avoid because of what they read in the histories of the classical and medieval European republics. I have observed that this kind of politics drives Christians to seek shelter in their cultural identity group by sending increasingly extreme signals of ideological loyalty. For the God-bless-America Christians, this escalating loyalty signaling fosters hyper-patriotism—American traditions, in general, are necessary to achieve the highest human goods—and Christian nationalism—what is good for America brings about God's good purposes for the world. And among the God-damn-America Christians there are corresponding extremes of anti-Americanism—American traditions, in general, must be overturned to achieve the highest human goods—and cosmopolitan internationalism—an open-border federation of the nations is necessary to bring about economic justice.

Apart from more specific critiques, what Ellen White might have to teach both groups is that their contest over the meaning of America is not the quest for the kingdom of God. Contrary to prevailing opinion in nineteenth-century American Protestantism, Ellen White believed that the United States was not God's agent to usher in the millennium of worldwide peace and prosperity, according to their interpretation of Revelation. Rather, America would finally succumb to its hypocritical nature, revoke religious liberty in favor of an explicitly Christian national identity, and provoke an end-time crisis over the Sabbath that would result in a thousand years of worldwide desolation before the re-creation of the New Earth. In Ellen White's telling, America's continued probation as a recipient of God's blessings was dependent on a national willingness to humbly bracket questions of ultimate human destiny relative to human governance in favor of working for social reforms (abolition and later temperance) that would allow individuals and groups freedom to pursue those questions for themselves without being burdened by various forms of coercion, exploitation, sickness, and death.

Again, it seems to me that this is a prudent interpretation of prophecy and politics. The American experiment with liberty is not so exceptional that it will not fail, like all human attempts at government before it. Therefore, in the way we evaluate the United States, Christians should seek to center the meaning of the Kingdom of God as something qualitatively beyond what we achieve in this age.

God is not waiting for us to bring about the reign of America over the earth or the reformation America from all its sins before he can usher in everlasting righteousness. The United States is a different kind of beast, but it is still a beast, a man-made geopolitical power. It is a steward that will turn usurper and be put to death at the return of the King. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the blessings we receive through it while working to reform it where we can, for both point us and others to the realities that will be fully manifest in the eternal kingdom of God.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Objection and Cooperation: An Adventist Ethic for Responsible Religious Liberty

In his opening remarks of an episode on conscience and COVID-19 vaccination, one of the Quick to Listen podcast hosts talked about how during World War II "there were still obligations put on people who cited their conscience." While exempt from taking life in war, American conscientious objectors were expected to perform non-violent public service. He then went on to suggest, by comparison, that an obligation to do something like wearing a mask rests on those who claim a conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccination (or, by the same reasoning, on those who don't want to wear a mask to get vaccinated). Claiming a problem isn't so bad or that we should do nothing about it because we object to all the proposed solutions is a kind of irresponsibility that makes freedom of conscience unworkable.

I agreed with that stance not only as a Christian but as a Seventh-day Adventist. During the world wars, instead of conscientious objection, Adventists taught their young men conscientious cooperation: Don't just have the courage to stand up for your convictions; also have the courage to heal in harshest conditions of war. As the story of Desmond Doss demonstrates, conscience is compelling when certified by service.

It seems to me that an ethic of conscientious cooperation would serve us well if applied to the full range of social issues where our convictions do not allow us to participate in something that our societies maintain as good and necessary. Speaking now for Adventists,

1. When we must object to working on Sabbath, we should also cooperate with employers to minimize inconvenience and not seek positions that require Sabbath work to sustain the enterprise.

2. When we must object to profiting from addictive substances and behaviors, we should also cooperate with ministries that treat addicts as victims instead of getting them incarcerated as criminals.

3. When we must object to policing that is disproportionate and discriminatory, we should also cooperate with the police to keep the peace.

4. When we must object to providing abortion as a form of birth control, we should also cooperate with programs to reduce unwanted pregnancies and place babies with adoptive parents.

5. When we must object to performing same-sex marriages, we should also cooperate with efforts to improve the health and well-being of gay people.

That list could be revised, expanded, and contextualized. But it should be sufficient to exemplify the rule of thumb that conscientious objections go along with opportunities to cooperate with unobjectionable attempts to address the common concern that made sense of the objectionable practice in the first place. Thus, conscientious cooperation is a way of obeying Jesus's command to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17).

Under post-war, American individualism (now running on the new and improved self-validation systems called social media), we have tended to focus on identity-based objections to either the status quo or social change (claims of conscience now being another source of group identity). Religious liberty, with its conscience protections, is perceived as an all-or-nothing legal shield or sword, depending on one's perspective on a given issue. Instead of a broadly attractive social witness to the good news of God's kingdom, we find ourselves either paralyzed by or leaning into mutual distrust between various groups asserting their rights in competition with others.

We have something to learn from the example set by our grandparents and great-grandparents. They understood that religious liberty is a source not merely of distinct protections for minority groups but also distinct responsibilities that such groups have because of their protected status. Our situation may be more complicated than theirs, but if God could give them the courage they needed, he can also give us the wisdom. When our conscience compels us to object, may it also compel us to cooperate.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Know Their Lane

Here's a fact most pastors won't tell you: We can be doing amazing things for God in one area of our ministry and wandering in the wilderness when it comes to another. That is true for all church leaders, including myself.

It was true of Peter when in one breath he made the first confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and with the next said that which was rebuked by Jesus as satanic (Matthew 16:16, 23). And if you study church history, you will see that pattern happening over and over again.

No church leader is the savior of the world; that is Jesus Christ alone. And by his Spirit, he has given the rest of us lanes that we need to stay in (1 Corinthians 12).

While that doesn't excuse defects of character and abusive systems, it does mean that a pastor can have profound insights about evangelism and also be out of their depth when it comes to conflict ministry, for example.

Pastors and church members alike need to learn to recognize when we, or someone else, has drifted out of their lane. Spiritual giftedness, expertise, and track records do not confer infallibility, but they indicate a divine calling to leadership in that area of ministry.

I suspect many Christians who have been in church for a while have figured out how to recognize leaders who think they are better at something than they actually are. But I am writing about this now because I need to say this: Choosing whom to listen to is also vital when it comes to hot-button issues like the ethics of vaccination. We all have limited time to study these issues, and socio-political controversy introduces identity-driven biases that distort our judgment.

If you respect and are inclined to agree with a Christian leader who is going to present on a contested question, first consider whether their life evidences a divine calling in that area. Then see if they have done the preparation necessary to understand the subject from all sides instead of selectively using the sources to bolster their preconceived opinions. Are they accountable to anyone for what they teach, and do they receive feedback from peers? Finally, consider whether their calling and preparation are commensurate with the size of the audience they reach, or if they have attracted a following by scratching itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3). If these criteria are not met, either proceed with caution or, better yet, find another teacher.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Pandemic Worship and Religious Liberty

The question of pandemic worship and religious liberty has arrived in my city—its exurbs, to be precise. GraceLife Church of Edmonton in Parkland County has been practising civil disobedience of Alberta's 15%-of-fire-code-occupancy cap on indoor public gatherings ever since the government announced stronger pandemic-related restrictions in December.

Public health officials quietly monitored the situation and attempted to bring the church into compliance over the intervening month. But the situation was brought into the open when police charged the pastor-teacher of the church with failure to abide by a closure order. James Coates turned himself into the police and, starting this week, is being held in remand custody for refusing to abide by conditions of bail, which apparently forbade him from doing certain activities that he deemed necessary for his calling.


My goal in this essay is not to comment on the manner in which the authorities have enforced Alberta's regulations. That situation is developing, and, as of this writing, the church is holding another gathering from which they were apparently turning people away because they would have exceeded their fire code occupancy limit.

Rather, I will briefly evaluate the theological and philosophical arguments that the church and its pastor-teacher have given for their position and argue that they are unsound from a Seventh-day Adventist and liberal-democratic perspective. I will show how certain of their errors may originate in the distinctives of Calvinist Reformed theology. Pastor Coates is a graduate of John McArthur's Master's Seminary, which is a culturally and theologically conservative expression of the Reformed tradition. (For context, note that Pastor McArthur's megachurch has also been involved in longstanding legal disputes around its refusals to follow California's pandemic rules, some of which the US Supreme Court found to have unfairly singled-out churches.) However, I will also show why not everyone who holds to some kind of reformed political theology would subscribe to any or all of Pastor Coates's or GraceLife Church's views.

Also note that while it has become a trope among certain Adventists, who are interested in recovering our Arminian theological heritage on the doctrine of salvation, to rhetorically position themselves against anything Calvinist, that is not my intent here. Adventists also have theological roots in John Calvin and the Reformed traditions, including the roots of our seventh-day Sabbatarianism! But Adventist political theology, which remains to be systematically articulated, stands among the Dissenting traditions, some of which split from the Reformed traditions. That difference is what I am primarily addressing in what follows.

Sermon Evaluation

In a sermon preached last Sunday, Pastor Coates made a theological case for why churches should continue to operate at full capacity. It rested on the following propositions, which I summarize as theses and evaluate below.

1. The government has no jurisdiction over how the church conducts its worship.

Pastor Coates asserted, without biblical reference, that God has not given the government authority to set "terms of worship" for the church. I suspect that the roots of this claim lie in Augustinian two-cities theology, which informed the Medieval system of separate church and civil legal systems that was overturned by the Reformation and Enlightenment. Contrast this with another Reformed view of church-state relations, Kuyperian "sphere sovereignty," in with the state directs churches away from actions that are destructive to public interests (see p. 12).

Seventh-day Adventists, following the Calvinist Dissenter, Roger Williams, build their church-state view, in part, on the biblical distinction between the two great commandments: the law of love for God and the law of love for neighbour. We hold that governments may legislate in the areas covered by the second table of the law (last six commandments) when such actions harm others in this life. But governments should not legislate in the areas covered by the first table of the law (first four commandments), which are strictly matters of individual conscience to be guided by the church. A.T. Jones's made this argument in his testimony before a US Senate committee against the Blair Sunday observance bill (National Sunday Law, p. 18). According to the two-tables principle, governments cannot tell us what songs to sing in worship, but they can, as long as they aren't singling out faith communities, tell us to wear masks while singing them so as not to endanger public safety. They can tell us not to sing songs the incite violence, but they cannot tell us which god(s) to sing about.

2. The church should show the government how to conduct "its God-ordained duty."

This is true as far as the temporal, second-table goals of human governance go, with the provision that a single church or civil society organization does not have a privileged role in this regard. Otherwise, we get a soft-theocracy, which is characteristic of certain Calvinist approaches to political theology that try in some way to direct governments toward eternal, first-table ends. As I argue in this essay, the problem with privileging one church's voice to the state is that it can just as easily be turned against that church when it falls out of favour and is replaced by some other church or secularized version thereof. Regardless, I suspect that Pastor Coates and I are not in disagreement on this point.

3. The dominion God gave humanity in the Garden of Eden confers "unalienable" rights, such as a right to work and to be with your family when they are dying.

The "unalienable" rights enumerated in the US Declaration of Independence are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That succinct and general expression of a philosophical orientation toward the basis of American common life required specific expression in the US Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the US Constitution to be realized. The same is true of the dominion God gave humanity at creation. The general mandate given to humanity in a nutshell in the creation account is elaborated in the books of the law and the other canonical scriptures. Identifying unalienable rights to work or be with family at death in Genesis 1 is an exercise in reading a specific interpretation of contemporary liberal-democratic norms into the biblical text.

Furthermore, specific human rights, like the right to work or be with family at death, are not unalienable but are limited by the rights of others—in this case, their right to not be exposed to diseases. In light of Leviticus 13–14, the Edenic dominion decree plausibly implies a mandate to figure out what causes the spread of infectious diseases and stop it. The biblical quarantine laws accomplish this, as do economic shutdowns, by limiting the right to be with family in some cases.

As the aphorism goes: Your rights end where my nose begins. That metaphor, originally used to make the case for prohibition, became literal during the COVID-19 pandemic. A more sophisticated way of putting it is that when the second-order effects of the free actions of individuals have the cumulative effect of threatening the bodies or property of others, the government has a reason to restrict their liberty via the least restrictive means. (For an entertaining, if somewhat lengthy, illustration of why that is the case, read this.)

Understanding the second-order, rights-end-at-nose principle applied to the second table of the law, along with the freedom of conscience principle with regard to the first, is how American Adventists in the late nineteenth century could be intellectually consistent while publicly advocating against Sunday-closing laws and for prohibition.

4. "God is sovereign over the virus." The government didn't cause it, so they aren't responsible if someone dies from it. But if someone dies from pandemic restrictions, the government is responsible for that. So the government should not restrict liberties to deal with the virus.

God intended for the principles of Israel's law to be an example to the nations (see, for example, Deuteronomy 4:5–6) and held the nations surrounding Israel to account when they violated certain principles found in Israel's law (see the Old Testament prophets' oracles against the nations). This example extends down to our time through the influence of Judaism and Christianity on the liberal-democratic political tradition, which has recognized a principle of quarantine that justifies limited governmental restrictions on individual liberty to prevent the spread of infectious disease. By interpreting Old Testament quarantine laws as a source of "Progressive Moral Wisdom" (Matthew 5:17–19), Christians should be predisposed to support quarantines and adopt new customs when they judge they will preserve life.

Statement Evaluation

The thesis expressed in Pastor Coates's sermon, that the government should not restrict liberties to restrain viruses, is expanded in the following paragraph of the statement on the church's website. I will evaluate it in this section.

That said, living life comes with risks. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we are assuming a degree of risk. We accept that risk due to the benefits of driving. Yes, though vastly overblown, there are associated risks with COVID-19, as there are with other infections. Human life, though precious, is fragile. As such, death looms over all of us. That is why we need a message of hope. One that addresses our greatest need. That message is found in Jesus Christ. It is found in Him because all of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness (Rom 3:23). To sin is to violate the holiness and righteousness of God. As our Creator, He is the one who will judge us according to our deeds and no one will stand on their own merit in that judgment. Therefore, we need a substitute. One who has both lived the life we could not and died the death we deserve.

This let's-take-our-chances philosophy is likely the political upshot of the view of providence behind Pastor Coates's reference to God's sovereignty. Calvinist views of free will (specifically, either our lack thereof or its compatibility with divine determinism) and predestination (those whom God chose choose him) can form the intuition that when a deadly disease surprises us with a novel form of risk, God in some sense sent it upon us to drive us to him for our eternal security. And if some people die from it, that should also be accepted as God's will. This can result in a quasi-fatalist quietism in the face of major social problems, like that which Cotton Mather confronted in eighteenth-century Boston when his Calvinist Puritan brothers declared that he was interfering with a divine judgment by experimenting with smallpox inoculation: We shouldn't try anything too novel in response to novel risks, because that would put us in rebellion against God's sovereignty.
Adventists differ from this political view because we believe that humans have been given free will. We believe that God acts in history in ways that we cannot stop, sometimes even executing, as I argue, judgment on contemporary nations. But Adventists also believe that Satan is ultimately the cause of sickness and death and that humans can and should choose to cooperate with God's laws of health to reduce our risk of sickness and death. And we believe that fighting sickness and death via health reform is the "right-arm" of our gospel proclamation because it is a token of eternal life.
To spread the benefits of health, Adventists have a tradition of fighting sickness and death through social reform—not just individual, family, or church reform, but legislation and social organization that restricts our liberties to the least extent necessary to prevent deadly second-order effects of individual actions. We find this tradition in the chapter on "Liquor Traffic and Prohibition" in The Ministry of Healing and in our denominational leadership organizing preventative quarantines during the 1918 Flu. (For the record, American prohibition was not the disaster that the popular historical narrative makes it out to be.) In liberal-democratic countries like Canada, where citizens have been given a say in how their society governs itself, Christians should continue to use that influence to support quarantines, including economic shutdowns, as means to fight sickness and death.

Cost-Benefit of the Shutdowns

Finally, the GraceLife Church's statement makes an extended case that the pandemic is not that bad and that the shutdowns intended to stop COVID-19 transmission have potentially done more harm than good. I don't believe that case holds up in view of the big numbers: year-over-year death certificates and confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

For example, the US, Canada, and Australia have similar cultures and share a common political tradition derived from English representative democracy and Common Law. They also have had stable death rates in the years leading up to 2020. In the US, where shutdowns were inconsistently applied, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for about two-thirds of the high rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). In Canada, where shutdowns were more strictly applied than in the US, including some lockdown-type measures, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for nearly all of the moderate rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source 1, source 2). And in Australia, which applied strict, lockdown-style shutdowns, there was no excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). Anyone who wants to persuade me that shutdowns don't save lives overall, or that they cause more people to die from other causes than would have died from COVID-19, etc. is going to have to get around those big, hard-to-distort numbers without appealing to some kind of conspiracy theory.

This is not to say that shutdowns don't have negative effects that lead to higher deaths for certain populations. So do other public health restrictions on individual liberty (such as narcotics laws). Nor is it to say that we should not attempt to ameliorate those negative second-order effects. Nor do I imply that governments should enact the strictest possible lockdowns as if extending life were the only earthly human good that matters. My point is simply that the big numbers bear out the view that a broadly pro-life response to the novel coronavirus requires of us some form of shutdown in the absence of widespread vaccination.


But the bigger point is that this argument about the cost-benefit of Alberta's shutdown is a matter of political judgment that is only tangential to a principled religious liberty argument. It seems to me that, in their statement, GraceLife Church is leveraging religious liberty to make a political point: Contrary to the majority of their neighbours and their elected officials, they believe that the shutdowns are doing more harm than good. But because they are a church, they want their beliefs about God to shield their political dissent.

In Pastor Coates's sermon, he argues for a view of religious liberty that I can't support either as an Adventist, because he doesn't understand the structure of God's law as it applies to government enforcement, or as a liberal-democrat, because he doesn't understand that our liberties can be limited when they are used in ways that have harmful second-order effects on other's bodies and/or property.

I believe Pastor Coates should have the opportunity to promote these views, practice civil-disobedience, attain good legal representation, and argue his case in court. But I also believe the government may to enforce its rules in the case of him and his church, including
, if necessary, using incarceration. I further hope and anticipate that the courts will reject the view of religious liberty for which he has become a symbol.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

From Fear to Love

Fear is a powerful but short-term motivator that responds to urgent stimuli. Love (in distinction to infatuation) is a long-term motivator that is developed by choices to acquire habits.

Seventh-day Adventists see in Scripture a cosmic conflict over the character of God: Satan claims that God ultimately wants compliance based on fear, but God really wants sacrifices motivated by love. Our view of God's character is bound up in our response to his call to love and serve him: Christians demonstrate our loyalty to God by imitating his self-giving love, thereby proclaiming our view of who God is.

When the shutdowns happened in spring, I wrote that it started a clock in people's minds that runs on fear. Eventually the fear would run out, and so would most people's desire to make sacrifices that keep our most vulnerable safe.

That prediction came to pass. The death toll is rising. We find ourselves caught in the “second wave.”

The coronavirus doesn't kill enough of us to make us afraid of it anymore. But it can put enough of us in hospital to threaten everyone's access to medical care. And if that happens, even more people are going to die from COVID-19. The premier of my province has said that if we don't stop doing two things that we are in the habit of doing—hanging out in each other's homes and going to work sick—we are headed for another shutdown in two weeks. The public health experts say by then it may be too late.

We now see how unreliable our natural fear-based response is during a protracted pandemic. Now that we have grown accustomed to the threat, we will find out whether we are a people driven by love or fear, that is, whether we can develop new habits that will allow us to carry on with work, school, church, and play and at the same time prevent us from doing the things that contribute most to the economic and physical destructiveness of the plague.

Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
     the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
     no plague come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
     to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
     lest you strike your foot against a stone
(Psalm 91:10–11, ESV, emphasis mine).

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
     “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

      “‘On their hands they will bear you up,
          lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’”
(Matthew 4:5–7, ESV).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Drummed out of Church? Evaluating Music for Adventist Worship

  • Drums are acceptable in worship as long as they don’t play certain rhythms.
  • Drums may not be seen in worship but may be played as part of a pre-recorded accompaniment track.
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but traditional African drums like bongos and djembes may be played in church
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but a wooden box rigged to sound like a drum kit (a cajón) may be played at church.
  • Drums are not to be played at all in church, but at youth events, they may be played however the youth like it.
  • Drums at church should either be contained behind a sound barrier or electronically mixed so that they don’t disturb sensitive ears.
That’s a sample of various stated and unstated customs restricting the use of drums in worship I have encountered in various Adventist churches. Given the diversity of approaches, it seems that there is no agreement on what principle or set of principles guide the use of drums in Adventist churches. In this essay, I will propose that (1) we have been looking for such principles in the wrong place and that (2) our practice is better than our theory.

Philosophical Framework: Time and Reason

To explain what I mean by that I will need to introduce two different ways of reasoning about things relative to time.

The following philosophical and theological overview is based on my careful reading of Fernando Canale’s PhD dissertation: “Toward a Criticism of Theological Reason: Time and Timelessness as Primordial Presuppositions.” It is also informed by Canale’s later work on the sanctuary, most succinctly captured in his article, “Philosophical Foundations and the Biblical Sanctuary.” For an accessible summary of Canale’s dissertation see Sven Fockner’s “An Introduction to Canale’s Criticism of Theological Reason,” part of a collection of scholarly essays in honor of Canale’s work.

The first mode of reasoning in time comes from an assumption baked into the grand tradition Western philosophy since Parmenides that what is really real is what doesn’t change. Consequently, to make reliable inferences we need to find ways to think about what is in time and changes by relating it to what is outside of time and cannot change. Much of science, for example, operates on this assumption by explaining changes we observe in the world as the operation of unchanging laws of nature. I will call this the analytical mode of reasoning because analysis often means defining unchanging structures of reality in terms of their constituent parts. (Caveat lector: My definitions of analytical and phenomenological are limited to the purposes of this essay. They are not intended to describe those philosophical traditions or the other ways those terms are used in scholarly discourse.)

But what if what’s really real really does undergo change?

As a Christian, I understand God as the creator and sustainer of all that is: God is the being in whom everything else that exists holds together (Acts 17:28). While God has revealed properties of his being that are consistent through all time—for example, his character (Malachi 3:6)—he has also shown us in his sanctuary that his experience, and thus ultimate reality, is subject to change. Though the bisection of the space where God dwells—a division that demarcates a two-phase heavenly ministry of the Son before the Father—the architecture of Heaven shows us that ultimate reality involves change and time.

The biblical sanctuary further demonstrates that what’s real about where God dwells is not completely disconnected from human reality, so that we do not need to escape from our changing world into a changeless, divine reality to connect with God. Rather, we connect with God by joining our stories to God’s story, especially as told in the sanctuary and its services. This has profound and far-reaching implications for how we are to reason about the human relationship to God, but in this article, I will focus on those that relate to the evaluation of music for worship.

Joining our story to God’s story requires a mode of reasoning that makes inferences by relating past, present, and future. Such inferences seem arbitrary to those who intuitively reason analytically because no one narrates their experiences in exactly the same way. But if what’s really real is changeable, we need to have a way of reasoning about our experience, which is, after all, organized by time.

I will call this the phenomenological mode of reasoning because phenomena are aspects of reality as we experience them (as opposed to reality as we analyze it). How we experience reality is determined by (1) our habits, customs, and overall background that has been shaped by our past; (2) by our states of consciousness, bodily states, and all else that directs our attention to the present moment; and (3) by our goals, commitments, and other exercises of the will that open up new possibilities for the future. These are always changing and particular, yet not so unique that we do not share commonalities of experience connected by shared physiology, culture, and/or conviction. (In this description of the constitution of persons, I am drawing on Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, which critiques modernity as an attempt to escape the historical nature of reasoning about human experience.)

Thus, phenomenological reasoning doesn’t have to describe what is true for everyone in order to arrive at truth. Rather, it aims at conclusions that are true as far as they go or to explain why different kinds of people experience things differently. For example, biblical typology reasons from past to present and future in order to show, among other things, what changed in the experience of God’s people so that where people connected to God’s story in the past had to offer animal sacrifices, in the present they do not.

The Failure of Analytical Evaluations of Worship Music

Because music and worship are embodied in human cultural practices that change over time and have different effects on different kinds of people, I propose that phenomenological reason is the correct mode of reason for evaluating the role of drums in Adventist worship. We cannot resolve a phenomenological problem by asking an analytical question.

The failure of this analytical approach is laid bare not only by the plurality of practice in Adventism, but also by the General Conference’s disregard for what it has plainly stated in its Church Manual: “Any melody partaking of the nature of jazz, rock, or related hybrid forms … will be shunned” (p. 150). This statement is adapted from page 10 of the outdated 1972 “Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Music” guidelines voted by the General Conference Executive Committee, which also counseled against the extensive use of jazz chords (specifically, “the seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords,” p. 10). Yet when I heard the Breath of Life Quartet sing at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, they “saturated” their music with beautiful jazz chords that made it past a rigorous vetting process.

Examples could be multiplied to illustrate my point: Attempts to define the right and wrong forms of music using the analytical tools of music theory have proven unworkable in the Adventist experience. They also tend to elevate forms of music associated with white culture and denigrate forms of music associated with black culture. Yet there is a cottage industry in Adventism claiming to have discovered the timeless properties of music that are suited or unsuited to worship.

Drums are often a focus of these attempts at analysis. Such teachers may claim that because percussion instruments are not in the lists of instruments played in the sanctuary, they are not suited to Adventist worship. Or they may claim that certain rhythms always produce certain effects on human consciousness. Whatever their reasons, what these self-appointed guardians of Adventist worship have in common is a mode of reasoning that, while intuitive for many, cannot adequately account for change through time and thus also experience.

Evaluating Worship Music as Phenomena

The structure of music can be explained analytically, but its suitability for worship can only be evaluated by its effect on human consciousness (which is not to say that the technical proficiency of worship music cannot be evaluated analytically). This is similar to the biblical criteria of fruits (Matthew 7:20) or to the test of God's blessing proposed by wise Gamaliel (Acts 5:38–39). It is the reasoning “from cause to effect” that Ellen G. White counseled in a variety of situations, but is perhaps best illustrated by this counsel regarding diet in a sermon she preached in 1908:
There is no door in our stomach by which we can look in and see what is going on, so we must use our mind, and reason from cause to effect. If you feel all wrought up and everything seems to go wrong, perhaps it is because you are suffering the consequences of eating a great variety of food (Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 23, Ms. 41).

Like food, the effects of different kinds of music can vary from setting to setting and individual to individual across time and place for reasons that are hidden from us (“there is no door”). But we can aim at evaluations of worship music that are generally true for particular Adventist communities. We make those evaluations by observing the results of steps taken to improve the quality of our worship music relative to our common background and the goals of Adventist worship (“perhaps it is because …”). By repeating this process, we can tell a story about the community’s relationship with God in music and worship, a story that we can evaluate by synchronizing it with God’s story.

It turns out that this is what many Adventist communities have already done with the question of drums in worship, even if they haven’t been aware of why it works or how best to accomplish it. What appears to analytical intuitions as confusion about timeless principles turns out to have prompted the first steps toward phenomenological clarity. In 2004 the General Conference replaced its proscriptions of genres and chords with guidelines that take a phenomenological approach: laying out the goals of Adventist worship and leaving it up to individual Adventist communities how to best meet them.

For guidance on how to do that, I recommend the 2010 book, In Tune with God by Lilianne Doukhan, professor of music, emarita, at Andrews University. She is a musicologist trained to observe music as a phenomenon. Her book helpfully walks readers through the ways music affects our experience and how our experiences affect the way we individually and collectively interpret music. Based on these understandings, she gives practical guidelines for how music in worship, including the use of drums, can be evaluated.

A version of this essay was published in the September, 2020 issue of the Alberta Adventist News.