The Carson Option: Viable for Evangelicals?

fuchs_studious_fox_public_domain_1460_modified_by_piouseye_copyright_2015I just read an interesting document, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and General Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s 2001 “Report of the International Theological Dialogue between the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches” (hereafter, the Dialog Report). As was the case with the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, some evangelicals have (well, at least one evangelical has) seen the Seventh-Day Adventist faith of Ben Carson as disqualifying, though many more will say that Seventh-Day Adventism is not a “cult” than would say that Mormonism is not. When it comes to voting, this sort of thing has never been my focus. My view is that the compatibility with biblical principles of candidates’ values, particularly as those values have been shown in past political behavior and personal conduct, should be Bible believers’ focus when voting, not candidates’ formal religious affiliation; after all, our current president, whose pro-abortion credentials are unsurpassed and who celebrated the Supreme Court’s imposition of nonsensical “gay marriage” on all states with rainbow lighting across the White House, has never abandoned his “I’m a devout Christian” claim. Still, a suggestion by someone on Twitter that evangelicals should vote for Ted Cruz rather than Ben Carson because of the latter’s Seventh-Day Adventism did make me curious to know just what is so bad about Seventh-Day Adventism. Though online resources detailing all that Bible believers should find troubling about Seventh-Day Adventism abound, the central “Is it a cult?” question seems best and most concisely answered by point eight in the Dialog Report, in which dialog participants assert the following shared convictions:

We accept the Bible as the rule of faith and practice, the supreme witness to God’s saving grace in Christ.

We believe in the triune God.

We believe that God became truly human in Jesus Christ.

We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God reconciles the whole created order to himself. By the work of Christ, God’s holiness is honoured and our sins forgiven.

We believe that God calls all people to a new and better life.

We believe that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to all people.

We believe that Christ calls us to work to bring hope, healing, and deliverance from spiritual and economic poverty.

We believe we stand in the succession of those who, through the ages, have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.

We believe that the [Lord’s] Supper is integral to the [Church’s] worship and witness.

We acknowledge our debt to the Reformation with its biblical emphasis upon salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus).

We welcome conversations with other Christian churches concerning doctrine and mission.

Admittedly, the “We acknowledge our debt to the Reformation with its biblical emphasis upon…” does not quite equal “We endorse the Reformation’s biblical emphasis upon…,” but the phrasing does admit that the emphasis is indeed biblical. As well, point thirteen of the Dialog Report states forthrightly that “Adventists hold to the Reformation principle of grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.” On balance, it is difficult to see how a group that affirms all these assertions could merit the “cult” label, at least in its common pejorative (“this isn’t true Christian faith”) sense. (Formal anthropological use of the term “cult” can specify any smaller religious group distinguishable in doctrine or practice from the majority or mainline. This parallels the formal use of “myth” for any “sacred narrative,” whether or not one grants that it might be true.)

Dialog Report point twelve adds that “Adventists believe that the death of Christ on the cross provided the once-for-all atonement for sins, all-sufficient in its efficacy,” asserting that “Their distinctive view of the high priestly ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary teaches that he is applying the ongoing benefits of his atonement, not adding any value to it.” Bible believers, particularly those who respect the “common faith” of Spirit-indwelt believers over time and so view skeptically doctrines that are new and distinctive, may find Seventh-Day Adventists views defective and troubling, but it at least seems that those views do not reach the point of denying the True Faith.

Point fourteen also merits reflection. It states that “Adventists believe that the biblical gift of prophecy was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White.” While we Reformed Bible believers find such a claim disturbing and unscriptural, it has to be admitted that many whom we consider Christian brethren and would not be inclined to call “cultists,” Pentecostals and charismatics, make similar claims for people in their groups. The point continues by noting that Adventists “regard her writings highly as providing ongoing counsel, devotional material, and biblical reflection.” Ditto Pentecostals and charismatics concerning present-day “revelations” by those in their midst. Point fourteen’s key and closing point adds this clarification: “However, they hold firmly to the principle of sola scriptura, teaching that the Bible is the rule of faith and practice that tests all other writings, including those of Ellen White.” Pentecostals and charismatics, at least those who have not fallen in with troubling fringe movements, grant the same supremacy and finality to the Bible. Pentecostal, charismatic, and Seventh-Day Adventist theologies may make us Reformed Bible believers cringe or bristle, or at least give us what-is-wrong-with-these-people headaches, but accusing them all of being in “cults” is not something most of us are inclined to do.

Helpful though portions of it might be for putting to rest one’s worries that Seventh-Day Adventism is a false-gospel cult, the Dialog Report does not qualify as a good representation of either Reformed doctrine or of a thoroughly Bible-believing approach to Scripture. For instance, after a paragraph rather nicely pointing out the important distinction between “predestination” as a religious term and “determinism” as a general or philosophical term (point seventeen) (I generally prefer to speak of “foreordination” rather than “predestination,” perhaps because it avoids the “determinism”-reminiscent “d” sound), the report enters into an exploration of “the perplexity caused by ‘double predestination’” that concludes by claiming that among the Reformed there now exists “a broad consensus to the effect that God’s electing grace is not to be construed fatalistically, but in the context of God’s undiscriminating love whereby all are called to salvation, to which call they may make their own, enabled, response.” One can construe this statement more than one way, I suppose, but the point of “their own, enabled, response” seems to be that all persons without exception are enabled by God to respond to the Gospel based on “their own” personal decisions on the matter. This sound like individual human sovereignty in salvation, Arminianism, not like divine sovereignty in salvation, Reformed faith, where God has mercy upon or hardens whom he will (Romans 9:18) for sometimes inscrutable reasons about which we mere mortals have no right to inquire (Romans 9:20). Saying that God’s love is “undiscriminating” also seems incompatible with Bible-believing Reformed faith. I’m willing to grant, in disagreement with some Reformed people, that saying “God loves everyone,” even those who will always be his enemies and will reside eternally in Hell, is justifiable: he at least “loves” all persons he has created in the sense that he so values them that he chooses to maintain their existence forever rather than annihilate them. (If one rejects the eternality of created persons, as do Seventh-Day Adventists and growing numbers of evangelicals, one can’t make this argument, of course. The common faith of traditional Bible believers has always held to such eternality, however.) One needn’t be Arminian to tell someone who might never become a Christian, “God loves you.” But to suggest that God’s general love toward everyone and everything he has made is the same as his special love for his elect, all those who have been or ever will be saved, to say that his love is “undiscriminating,” is pure nonsense from a Bible-believing Reformed perspective.

The Dialog Report also fails to qualify as a Bible-believing document by asserting as dogma positions questionable on biblical grounds and not clearly in accord with the common faith. For instance, it asserts that “The New Testament…teaches that women are equal recipients of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and should therefore exercise leadership roles in the church’s ministry.” It then notes that “Reformed representatives [participating in the dialog] emphasise that this includes the ordination of women to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament” (point forty). While there are indeed many today who identify Scripture as their supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and practice who also take this stance, this extreme egalitarian position has been most long and readily accepted by persons whose views of Scripture do not well comport with Bible-believing Reformed faith. (This doesn’t disprove the position, but does suggest viewing it with skepticism and approaching it with caution.) Does Scripture teach that God’s gifting of his elect through the Holy Spirit is “undiscriminating” as to gender (to borrow point seventeen’s wording), that every potential gift without exception might be assigned with equal likelihood to any believer regardless of gender? Though a fundamental equality between men and women, as between Jews and non-Jews, is evident in God’s view of his elect (Galatians 3:28), this suggests neither a necessary sameness in inherent natures or most appropriate functions, nor an equal freedom to take on various roles and responsibilities in one’s church and family. As naturally and traditionally interpreted, I Timothy 2:12-14 and Colossians 3:18,19, for example, do not comport well with the Dialog Report’s egalitarianism. Arguments interpreting these and other verses in a way that fits with such egalitarianism are plentiful, some even seeming to take seriously the idea that Scripture is the supreme and final authority in such matters, but the existence of such arguments hardly justifies the Dialog Report’s egalitarian dogmatism.

Persons tending leftward on the political spectrum have long sought to co-opt the Faith in service of their political agenda, even getting traction for their ideas in books from respected evangelical publishers, so prevalence of leftward-tending “social justice” concerns in the Dialog Report isn’t entirely surprising. (Whether those tending rightward have attempted similar co-opting, or have in fact set forth the political implication of scriptural principles fairly and accurately, is a question not relevant to review of the Dialog Report, since any leanings it expresses are leftward.) That leaders of whole large religious communions are willing to stake out positions on issues about which sincere believers within their communions disagree, while not entirely surprising, is disconcerting. Without doubt, sincere Bible believers will oppose all true “injustices,” will oppose any “ecological destruction” that humans can prevent by means that do not themselves risk causing greater harm than the problems they’re meant to correct, and will consider unacceptable all “racial, ethnic, [and] gender…discrimination” (in the sense of “discriminating against,” not in the sense of “discriminating” by recognizing differences and distinctions) (point 22). (The Dialog Report also condemns “religious discrimination,” but this is potentially problematic. Should the Christian hiring for a Christ-centered organization consider it wrong to discriminate against applicants who identify themselves as Satanists?) But must every true believer accept that “use of fossil fuels” is invariably bad, or that “global warming” is both a real and a human-caused phenomenon? (As an advocate of a majority-nuclear energy economy, I’m open to believing either or both of these ideas should the evidence warrant, but I don’t see belief in them as something leaders of any faith group should be asserting dogmatically. They are subjects for scientific and economic debate, not for dogmatizing by religious leaders or for demagoguing by political leaders.)

So, then, Bible-believing conservatives who realize Donald Trump must be opposed needn’t fear that selecting Carson as their candidate would mean legitimizing a false-gospel cult, even if they do believe (as I do not) that voting for people for political office means legitimizing their religious beliefs (it only means legitimizing their values). Though my own preference for a combination of government executive experience and true conservatism leaves me unexcited about the Carson option, when polls suggest no one with more experience than freshman Senators will be considered by most Republican primary voters, the Carson option gains some appeal.

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