Friday, August 28, 2009

How Ellen White Is Like The Pope (And His Bishops)

In my last post I wrote about the four theological sources that an Adventist Quadrilateral has in common with Wesley's Quadrilateral. I concluded that these four sources work fine on their own, that is unless you want to have Christians united in some sort of church or denomination or movement that transcends individual disagreements over points of doctrine. In other words, I believe church history shows that if we want to be the church of Ephesians 4:13, we need to have one more source in our quadrilateral.

I have called this second-tier element, for lack of a better term, a theological mediator. A theological mediator may be a person (living or dead) or an institution. And to the best of my knowledge every church/denomination/movement in history has had one.

Generally speaking, a theological mediator unites believers by doing two things:
  1. Applying (or "mediating") Scripture in a message that is particularly applicable to their current circumstances.
  2. Demonstrating supernatural confirmation that their message is from God.
Defined in this way, all the Biblical prophets, including Jesus and the apostles, were theological mediators. If we accept that this definition of theological mediators is biblical and that the Holy Spirit is still active in the church, then we should conclude that God can use theological mediators in the church today. Adventists should be able to see that this definition of a theological mediator includes the classic Adventist understanding of the Holy Spirit's (as in, the Spirit of Prophecy) work through Ellen White--a prophet who confirms "present truth" but does not replace the need for scripture (c.f. "A Word to the Little Flock," 21).

But the definition of theological mediator must not exclude those in other churches who fulfill similar roles. For example, Protestant churches recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in generating the reformers messages, and thus Wesley functions as a theological mediator for Methodists, Calvin for Calvinists, etc. Granted, they do not recognize as strong a supernatural confermation in the experience of their reformers as Adventists see in Ellen White, and perhaps this is why their churches are less organizationally unified.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is very organizationally unified, and has developed a theological mediator with a supernatural confirmation of prophetic proportions. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Pope, when he makes certain proclamations (ex cathedra), and his bishops, when they all get together and make proclamations, are infallible in matters of doctrine and practice (Section 891). This is accomplished by means of a spiritual gift, "the charism of infallibility," and has a "prophetic" function in the church (Sections 2035-6).

So when critics of Adventism say that Ellen White is like the Pope, in a certain sense, they are correct. But if they stop there and do not acknowledge certain key differences between the way the pope functions as a theological mediator and the way Ellen White functions as a theological mediator (like their relationship to scripture), they are not doing justice to either. But the conflation of Ellen White and the Pope serves to illuminate the underlying issue with these critics ignore, which is that they prefer their theological mediators (such as Luther) on the lower end of the supernatural confirmation spectrum.

I hope by now it is clear that, on a practical level, the question is not so much whether we will have theological mediators, but who or what we will allow to occupy that position in our theology. I believe that ideally each individual should make up their own mind based on the other four elements of the quadrilateral in proper relation to each other. In reality, few Christians ever undertake such a radical questioning of their belief system of their own accord.

One final note for Adventists: I have "Spirit of Prophecy" in the chart and not "Ellen White" for a reason. If we limit the Spirit of Prophecy the institution of Ellen White's writings, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of a living prophet, and the relevance of our message will soon pass beyond the horizon of relevance in our changing world. I'm not asking us to accept every Ernie Knoll that comes along, but we must be open to the larger fulfillment of Joel 2 if we want to be the remnant of Revelation 12.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An Adventist Quadrilateral

This chart is a model of the relation between Christian theological sources as they function specifically in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It expresses an ideal, but was conceived while reflecting on how Adventists have actually done theology in the framework of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is not definitive, but rather invitation to discussion.

This Adventist Quadrilateral is intended to be presented in two stages. In stage one, the second tier, the "Spirit of Prophecy," is absent, leaving the original four sources of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Stage one is, therefore, a Christian Quadrilateral, since more or less all Christian groups use these sources, though they may differ on how the sources relate to one another.

In this model, Scripture stands alone as the most authoritative theological source, because it is understood to be the product of special Divine revelation expressed by prophets under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For the purpose of this model, tradition is understood to be the voice of the church, now and in ages past. Because the Holy Spirit is active in guiding the church into all truth, tradition is also a theological source.

The Holy Spirit is active in shaping the experience and reason of individual Christians, and therefore these must be considered theological sources. But individual reason and experience do not have normative authority because Christians are not to judge one another but submit to one another. It is this mutual submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in each other that allows the corporate Body of Christ to have normative authority.

However, the authority of the church is not absolute, but may be appealed by individuals on the basis of Scripture, which judges tradition. Yet, Scripture, the most authoritative source, must be interpreted on the basis of tradition (i.e. "How do other Christians interpret this?"), reason (i.e. "Does this interpretation make sense?"), and experience ("Does this interpretation make a positive difference?"). Therefore, this model posits a circular process of interpretation and evaluation during which theology is constantly growing.

These four sources work fine on their own, but only if you don't want to have a visible church. The model requires theology to be in a state of flux, and therefore on the basis of the four sources alone it is difficult to get individuals, much less congregations, to come together as a church with common beliefs. The model is essentially a protestant one, and protestants are the most fragmented wing of Christianity.

That's where the fifth source of an Adventist Quadrilateral, the Spirit of Prophecy comes in. The Spirit of Prophecy is the second tier source, between Scripture and the other three. Therefore, it is the Adventist iteration of what I have chosen to call a 'theological mediator,' the category that is the the topic of my next post.