Summary of Fernando Canale’s “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 1”

Fernando Canale has long been one of my favourite theologians for his careful attention to the question of philosophical presuppositions and the way that impacts our entire worldview.  That topic is rarely addressed, especially in Adventist circles, so I have deeply appreciated his clear, though technical, explorations and explanations.  Unfortunately, many have commented that his work is difficult to understand.

This article is my attempt to briefly explain the ideas Canale explores in the first of this pair of articles.  I have attempted to explain a few of his central ideas and mention a few relevant sources, but my goal has been to produce a careful, point-by-point explanation of his argument.  Any missteps are my own.  I plan to follow up shortly with Part II.  I am happy to answer any questions about the ideas expressed in this article.

(Although in this series Canale is particularly concerned with the Seventh-day Adventist church, the argument itself has significance for the larger Christian tradition and raises the question of its adherence to a truly Biblical foundation).

In this article, Canale contends that “[t]he emergence of a new generation of Charismatic ecumenical Adventism is underway. Although using Scripture functionally, as a means to receive the Spirit, this generation will not think or act biblically” (135). This shift is neither deliberate nor obvious. It proceeds from an uncritical adoption of theology and practices from sources which claim to be grounded on sola-prima-tota Scriptura, but are not. Canale sees this paradigm shift as central to many of the conflicts and changes happening in contemporary Adventism.

He explains that his purpose in these articles is “to trace some signposts of the eclipse of Scripture in recent Adventist experience. Slowly, throughout time, the eclipse of Scripture has been taking place not in the official statements of the church but in the minds and actions of leaders and believers” (137). This eclipse or protestantization results from two faulty assumptions: first, that Adventist theology is merely an additive to an essentially correct “Evangelical theology” and second, that Evangelical theology is consistently grounded in sola-tota-prima Scriptura (the Bible only, totally and first) (138). In the articles that follows, he does not so much defend these assumptions, as demonstrate their working Adventist history.

Canale’s method is highly technical, but actually rather simple. Understanding it is vital to understanding his overall project. Referencing his previous work, he explains that “[m]ethod ‘requires a material to work with, a pattern to process the material, and an end to provide it with direction and purpose’” (143). In concrete terms, this means that weaving cloth requires a source of material (wool, cotton, etc), a way of processing that material (carding, spinning, weaving, etc) and a goal (a piece of fabric or article of clothing). In theological terms, the material is revelation (the Bible and./or other sources), the hermeneutic process (presuppositions about the nature of reality and revelation), and the teleology or goal (the reason we study). For his analysis, Canale focuses upon the first two aspects (data source and method of interpretation) in order to test the compatibility of Adventist and Evangelical theologies.

Importantly, any analysis of hermeneutics requires attention to the often un-stated philosophical presuppositions which inform the process. In simple terms, this analysis must attend to differences of meaning based upon previous experience and worldview. For example, this means that my interpretation of a police encounter (and even the outcome) will depend to a large degree on whether I expect the police to be helpful or harmful, as a result of my assumptions about the police, usually grounded in learned behaviours, narratives and previous experience. Much of Canale’s work involves unearthing those often unstated operative assumptions in competing systems of theology and addressing whether or not those assumptions are Biblical. These articles are no exception.

In order to examine the “protestantization” of Adventism, Canale establishes a working definition of “Protestantism.” While recognizing an incredible diversity of denominations, traditions and beliefs, he focuses on “the theological system and ministerial paradigm” following from the Reformation era (141). He focuses on those common elements which connect most modern denominations and beliefs to a common root which, in turn, extends into the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Of particular interest is contemporary American “Evangelicalism” which finds common ground in Reformation theology (centered around justification by faith) and the hermeneutical presuppositions (the second aspect of method) received from the Roman Catholic Church (142).

Canale contrasts the material of Protestant theology, grounded in a multiplicity of sources (eg. Scripture, reason, tradition) “uncritically received from the Roman Catholic theological system” (143) with the early Adventists’ return to sola-tota-prima Scriptura. This return led to a critical response to (deconstruction of) theological tradition.

In addition to this divergent source material, he contends that “Evangelicals never used Scripture to define their macro hermeneutical principles”—their philosophical presuppositions (processes) (144). Rather, following established (Catholic) church tradition, “they implicitly assumed the philosophical principles of Plato and Aristotle as retrieved by Augustine and Aquinas” (144). (Walter Kaufmann provides an excellent historical and philosophical outline of this retrieval in chapter 5 of Critique of Religion and Philosophy.) Admittedly, “most Protestant and Evangelical believers” (I would add Adventists) do not recognize or understand the degree to which their most foundational theology (justification, grace, and faith) is informed by Greek philosophy rather than the Bible (144).

Next, Canale argues that “Adventist leaders and Ellen White experienced the theological revolution of the early formative years in different ways” (145). On the one hand, the leadership saw that revolution as a matter of creating a new product (a more-or-less complete and finished theological package) and failed to recognize the profound methodological shift it entailed (145). The resultant system was “theologically underdeveloped and left unexplained methodologically” (145). Adventist leadership failed to attend fully to questions of process and materials (hermeneutics and revelation-inspiration) and thus failed to recognize the significant shifts Adventism entailed. On the other hand, Ellen White “understood the initial doctrinal agreement of the early formative years hermeneutically” (146). What she termed the “pillars of the faith” was a set of processes or philosophical presuppositions which were to undergird and continue to shape all of Adventist theological inquiry—especially the Sanctuary Doctrine (146). This contrast, between Ellen White’s consideration of the “pillars” as processes and the leaderships consideration of them as products, is critical (and parallels Tim Ingold’s distinction between “wayfaring” and “transport” in Lines).

Two observations follow from this analysis of theological methodologies. First, Reformation theology (via Luther, Calvin, Arminius and Wesley) is built on the materials and processes of Roman Catholicism, including Greek philosophy (147). Second, (and consequently) Protestantism has never been truly sola Scriptura (147). To the degree that Adventism has neglected questions of material and process (revelation-inspiration and hermeneutics), it has likewise struggled to develop its theology as sola-tota-prima Scriptura.

The section titled “Coming Out of Protestantism” is central to this essay. In it, Canale states that “Adventism originated as an ecumenical movement unified through Bible study and theological discovery” (147). Early Adventists came together because they pursued a Biblically grounded theology and found traditional theology unsatisfactory in this regard. Although this was not a new development (Luther stood on this ground), they were “more consistent” in it (147). This consistency of process had “all-embracing theological and practical consequences” (147). Thus, the Adventist message was for other Christians, as well as the world in general, with the aim of “presenting the real Christ of Scripture” and “helping other Christians to move from a tradition based understanding of Christianity to a fully Biblically grounded personal relation with Christ” (148). Unfortunately, Adventism quickly abandoned its revolutionary methodology:

By overemphasizing the concrete achievement of the teleological condition of Adventist theology (the mission of the Church to the world), Adventist leaders unintentionally shifted from a theological to a practical mindset. As theological understanding became progressively less important, Adventists soon abandoned the critical deconstructive first methodological step early pioneers applied when reading theological materials. The conviction that Evangelical theologians can be trusted simply because they claim they ground their doctrines firmly on Scripture replaced critical analysis of the Evangelical theological tradition (148-9).

Effectively, the emphasis on creating Adventist converts overrode theological concerns. Effective “sales” depended on a consistent final product, rather than continuing innovation. (Indeed, this very point was raised at the 2015 GC when considering the possibility of women’s ordination—How can I win converts when my church does not have a final, uniform answer to this question?) As theological inquiry thus became less important, Adventists stopped reading Evangelical materials with critical attention to their theological methods and began to simply accept at face value claims of “sola Scriptura.” In this way, Evangelical theology has come to be understood as resting on the same material and procedural (hermeneutical) grounds as Adventist theology when it does not.

After this brief summary, Canale explores three specific ways Adventism has been “protestantized.”  First, Canale argues, “[s]ometime after the early formative years of Adventism, passion for missions progressively replaced the original spiritual passion for understanding God from Scripture” (150). Innovation was replaced with quality control—a focus on predictability and consistency of product. Instead of personal conviction based upon Bible study, the community became focused around assent to doctrinal propositions (150). Bible study came to be seen primarily as a means of gaining and maintaining membership, rather than a means of personal learning, discovery and growth. Progressively, “[v]oided of a biblical theological understanding, Doctrines became empty shells that reached the brain but failed to touch and transform the inner spirit” (150-1). In turn, Adventists began to speak of possessing “the truth” and theological inquiry came to be seen as an unnecessary distraction from evangelism; pastors and speakers began to focus on winning debates around pre-established statements, rather than seeking deeper theological understanding. In this way, “doctrines… replaced theology and spirituality” (151). This led to a split Adventist identity, which, on the one hand, preached early Adventist doctrine (without understanding its theological impetus) and, on the other hand, copied materials and processes from evangelical traditions. Because theology was seen as irrelevant, it vanished (151). What Adventism has retained is a tangled collection of competing theologies (Bull and Lockhart 99-100).

Second, Canale points to Questions on Doctrine (QOD) as a significant progression in the protestantization of Adventism (152). Although he agrees with George Knight that QOD is largely composed of “Adventist theology” restated in terms more intelligible to non-Adventists (Canale 153), he points to the book’s clear affirmation that apart from a few particular points, Adventists agree with Evangelical theology. Thus, concluding that Adventist and Evangelical theologies agree in all major points, Adventists felt free to learn theology and ministry from Evangelical resources.

Third, Canale points to LeRoy Froom as the “pivotal thinker in the new Adventist evangelicalism” who, in Movement of Destiny (MOD), articulates “a new view on the Sanctuary” (155). In that book, “Froom singles out the doctrine of the Sanctuary as the most separative Adventist doctrine” (156). However, rather than abandoning the Sanctuary doctrine, Froom “redefined its function” (157) from “hermeneutical key” to “distinctive doctrine” (158). Following, in a fashion, the early Adventist leadership (contra Ellen White), the Sanctuary became a distinctive product (termed “Present Truth”) rather than a movement-defining process. Instead of understanding the Bible through the Sanctuary (as hermeneutical key), the Sanctuary became a (distinctive) doctrinal container which contained all other Adventist doctrines (which were essentially the same as Evangelical doctrines). This shift had profound implications for church thought and practice.

Froom effected this shift by positioning the Sanctuary not as a departure from Christian doctrinal tradition, but as the consummation of it—thus absorbing, in a sense the Evangelical tradition of which early Adventists were so critical (158-9). To settle ongoing internal debates about “the Gospel,” Froom called for an acceptance of Evangelical tradition regarding “the Gospel.” Thus, “the Gospel” replaced the Sanctuary as the hermeneutic key in Adventism.theology. As Evangelical theology “does not build on Scripture alone,” this shift in process (hermeneutics) required a shift in materials (159). In turn, Adventists began to develop their theological understanding on a “multiplicity of theological source patters” rather than sola-tota-prima Scriptura (159)..

However, Canale notes that “Froom and some conservative Biblical Adventists did not surrender to Evangelical traditions all the way” (160). Instead of spiritualizing the Sanctuary (and thus God) in a timeless mode, they continued to affirm its “spatial-temporal reality” (160). This marks a significant inconsistency with the Evangelical “Gospel” which adopts a timeless Platonic ontology. For Canale, the protestantization of Adventism will be complete when this final inconsistency is surrendered to Evangelical theology.

To conclude, Canale states that “sola-tota-prima Scripture is the ground on which Christ’s Remnant Church stands or falls” (161). Early Adventism developed from a whole-hearted commitment to this principle. However, as the church has developed, the role of the Sanctuary as Biblical hermeneutic has been surrendered to the Evangelical “Gospel” and thus the sola-tota-prima Scripture principle has been eclipsed. In spite of reiterating “orthodox” Adventist positions, this “unintentional and imperceptible macro hermeneutical shift” has had a profound impact on Adventist theology and practice (161). There remains a significant tension between the Sanctuary doctrine and the theology Adventism has adopted from Evangelical tradition, but unfortunately, the Sanctuary is predominantly approached as a “brain” issue which has little impact on “hermeneutics, spirituality (way of thinking and acting), or mission” (162). In turn, Adventist is slowly merging into larger Evangelical culture and tradition and losing any sense of identity as a distinctive remnant.

Canale, Fernando.  “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 1.”  Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, vol. 21, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 133-165.

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