Summary of Fernando Canale’s “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 2”

This article continues Canale’s argument that Adventism is being fundamentally altered by accepting protestant theological and ministerial paradigms without consideration for profound differences at the level of hermeneutics and source material. In short, where early Adventism was sola-tota-prima Scriptura, it has adopted a protestant framework grounded in Roman Catholic tradition and Greek philosophy. He notes that while Adventism continues to officially affirm biblical doctrines on an intellectual level, it is increasingly being filled with “Evangelical theologies and practices” at the level of heart and action. This article expands on the first by investigating three points: “(1) the Adventist engagement with scholarly research; and, (2) the ensuing move from doctrine to exegesis. Then, …the protestantization of the Adventist mind at the ministerial level, by considering (3) the move from exegesis to the Evangelical ministerial paradigm” (104). Canale closes by articulating the importance of pursuing the “Biblical/Word” paradigm over and against the “Charismatic/Evangelical/Gospel” paradigm.

Canale figures Adventist engagement with scholarly research as a losing battle. Where early Adventists focused on “Chronological studies” in order to ground their historical understanding of prophecy, upon moving into secular universities, they were forced to shift towards “exegesis and biblical studies, avoiding Systematic Theology because of its obvious non-biblical philosophical foundations” (104-5). In these universities, many Adventist scholars came to accept and employ the historical critical method of interpretation. In response, “Adventism declared officially that Bible teachers should not use the historical critical method because of its naturalistic presuppositions” (105). Unfortunately, because of Adventism’s neglect of the material and hermeneutical (process) aspects of theological methodology, scholars struggled to find a viable alternative. As a result, “while the latter [Adventist scholars] did not change their unexpressed historical temporal ontological assumption, [as] historical critical theologians [they] implicitly assume the timeless non-historical ontological assumption on which Roman Catholic and Evangelical doctrines stand” (105). Thus Adventist theology faces a dissonance between the temporal ontology of our early theological framework (preserved in our doctrines) and the timeless ontology within which much of our contemporary investigation is implicitly framed. (This issue of temporal vs timeless as ontological assumptions is the subject of Canale’s doctoral dissertation and the foundation of most of his work.) As a result of this shift in ontological foundations, “Adventist distinctive doctrines [grounded in temporality] found themselves without biblical foundations and exegetical support” (106). Adventism is losing its foundation and thus at risk of disintegration.

As Desmond Ford illustrated, accepting the foundations of historical critical methodology leaves the Sanctuary doctrine groundless (106). “Moreover, the application of the Evangelical understanding of the Gospel as the hermeneutical principle of theological method finds that the Sanctuary doctrine contradicts the view of a complete atonement in Christ” (106). In abandoning the foundations of Adventism, not only is the Sanctuary doctrine left ungrounded, it is actually contrary to the traditional Evangelical understanding of a completed “Gospel.” Thus, many Adventists (logically) reject Adventist distinctives as incompatible with Evangelical theology (and the “Gospel” hermeneutic).

This is a critical point in Canale’s work: Adventism was not simply a shift in doctrinal understanding, but a shift in foundational methodological (philosophical) understanding. Insofar as we neglect the foundational material and hermeneutical framework upon which Adventist theology was founded and replace it with the assumptions of the Roman Catholic framework inherited through the protestant tradition, our theology is left without foundation. Without its temporal foundation, the Sanctuary hermeneutic which gives Adventism its coherence and power cannot hold.

Canale observes that continued study, after Ford, has led to the development of stronger exegetical support for the “biblical doctrine of the Sanctuary” (107). Yet, he argues that we have not fully resolved the questions raised by QOD and MOD regarding “the hermeneutical role of the sanctuary doctrine” (107). He cites George Knight’s description of a post-QOD mindset which transformed Adventist thought from “a theology [into] a list of discrete doctrines” (Knight qtd. in Canale 107-8). As Canale terms it, through QOD and MOD, “the Evangelical interpretation of the Gospel (‘eternal verities of Froom’) has implicitly replaced the sanctuary Doctrine as the macro hermeneutical condition of the Adventist theological method” (110). Canale further contends that

the original theological vision of the pioneers was never finished by succeeding generations of Adventists… As a result, progressively new generations of Adventists received and transmitted a theoretical disconnected summary of denominationally sanctioned doctrines, a ‘head knowledge tradition’ without the spirit of theological understanding on which Christianity stands. (111)

Evangelistic fervour replaced the desire for understanding and reduced Adventist theology to a list of discrete doctrinal statements rather than the interconnected, wholistic Sanctuary-organized framework of early Adventism. By small steps, the foundational framework of Adventism has been more-or-less abandoned. Without this framework, Adventism has lost coherence.

In conjunction with other related shifts in Adventist culture and practice, the emphasis on doctrinal statements (and a “Gospel” orientation) rather than Biblical inquiry (and the “Sanctuary” hermeneutic) has effected a profound methodological change. By changing the materials and processes (material and hermeneutic conditions of theological methodology), a new purpose or goal (teleological condition of theological methodology) has become dominant in Adventism. This has in turn altered “the thinking, lifestyle, administration, and mission of the Church” (112). Insofar as Adventist thought is consider merely a variation on the basics of Evangelical theology, Adventist leaders may “freely borrow” techniques and practices from other denominations. These methods are not “theologically neutral” but retrospectively alter the material and hermeneutic conditions of theological methodology. A focus on different goals or outcomes, has led to a change of processes and even materials, strengthening the cycle of protestantization. Canale characterizes this shift of goal or purpose as “transforming the ministerial practices of the Church from a Biblical to a Charismatic paradigm” (112). The rest of the article focuses on the differences between these two paradigms.

Canale opposes the “Charismatic paradigm” dominant in Evangelical churches to the “Word paradigm” of early Adventism and the Reformation (114). (Presumably the latter corresponds to the “Biblical paradigm.”) He briefly characterizes the Charismatic paradigm as grounded in “proclamation of the cross as complete atonement, justification, and the assurance of salvation” (115). In this model, salvation is the singular act of God and requires little more than passive acquiescence–certainly not knowledge or theological understanding (115). Baptism is expressive of “faith” in the “proclamation.” Thus the speaker of the (”Gospel”) story becomes the actor through which God bestows salvation. “Discipleship” and/or “spiritual formation” are merely optional activities to fill time while waiting for the Second Coming, rather than critical aspects of Christian life (115). In contrast, he characterizes the “Word” paradigm in terms of “theological/spiritual understanding that may lead to faith, personal conviction of sins, repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins” (120). This is a learning-based approach grounded in active, Holy Spirit-informed Bible study. Discipleship and spiritual formation are the very core of this paradigm.

Insofar as the Charismatic paradigm is operative in Adventism, it reduces our theology to a collection of relics which are simply handed forward without serious consideration of their meaning or power (116). Canale’s great (and not unwarranted) fear is that “the adoption of this ministerial paradigm will produce the rapid abandonment of personal and communal search for biblical truth from Adventist ministry and experience” (116). If theological understanding is irrelevant to the Christian life (as salvation), the pursuit of it becomes little more than a diversion.

The Charismatic paradigm also entails a Charismatic understanding of worship practices as “material containers of divine grace and presence”—as the means of connecting with God’s grace. The choice of container is important only insofar as it is meaningful to particular people; thus, worship styles matter only insofar as they enable diverse people to connect with God’s grace. Canale quotes Robert Webber’s description of this shift to a Charismatic “worship” paradigm as a return to the Catholic “Sacramental” paradigm in opposition to the Reformation “Word” paradigm (qtd. in Canale 116-7). In part, this “return” is due to the incomplete development of the Word paradigm within the Protestant tradition, which has allowed remnants from the Sacramental paradigm. Evangelical leaders have reinvigorated these remnants in order to navigate profound cultural changes (118). This has effected an “eclipse of Scripture” in Evangelical Christianity which Adventism has begun to embrace with scarcely more critical awareness (119).

Canale boldly asserts that the Word paradigm “will revive/reform the church, change the world, and hasten Christ’s Second Coming” (120). It not only allows room for growth and discovery, but figures this process as central to theology, worship and Christian living.

To ground his argument, Canale quotes Paul’s assertion that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Furthermore, this “faith is not a mere mental assent, but the obedience of faith”—the experiential application of understanding (120). “Thus, biblical revelation and its understanding becomes central to the experience of Salvation” (120). Cognitive and experiential aspects of faith are integrated into a wholistic model. On this basis, Canale contends, Ellen White could argue that “in the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one” (qtd. in Canale 121). (This must be understood in relation to her other comments about education as the “harmonious development” of all aspects of a person and as training “thinkers.” This model of education is an active, involved, wholistic pursuit, rather than the passive, impersonal, intellectual “proclamation” of the Charismatic paradigm and the conventional model of education.) Canale laments that because of a failure to apprehend this basic relationship between education and redemption, “Adventists connect education with primary teaching and school activities rather than with pastoral and church ministries. This momentous neglect may be the most significant methodological blunder in modern Adventism” (121, emphasis mine)–the abandonment of education through personal Bible study as a central Christian practice has led to the abandonment of the Bible as theological foundation.

Canale suggests that because of the worship or proclamation model, Adventist leaders uncritically borrow from diverse sources, as opposed to carefully, thoughtfully crafting solid learning opportunities (121). In contrast, (and in line with Ellen White’s injunction), leaders should both model and enable being “thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (White qtd. in Canale 121). A return to the Word paradigm would transform our entire church system, from the local church, through our evangelistic approaches, through our educational institutions, to our very highest leadership. This is the return to Scripture Canale is passionately pursuing.

To clarify, I believe that Canale is arguing for a Christian paradigm which focuses on personal and communal wholistic Biblical inquiry at all levels of the church. Sabbath school provides an excellent model for this, though it must be reclaimed as a space and time for communal learning and discovery rather than the reception of theological proclamations. It must also serve as a foundation for active personal and communal ministry. The sermon (and worship service) would, in turn, take a secondary role to inquiry—offering less in the way of final answers and more in the way of opportunities and modelling for thoughtful inquiry and growth. Likewise, evangelism would focus on cultivating learners rather than effecting baptisms. Unfortunately, Canale does not here explore the practical consequences of a return to the “Word” paradigm—yet I consider this one of his most valuable ideas.

In summary, Canale reiterates that the protestantization of Adventism is operative less at the level of doctrinal formulations and more “at the existential level of thinking, feeling, and acting” (122). Although this change has, to some degree, been operative since the time of Ellen White (in spite of her vocal resistance), it is not yet complete. However, faced with increasing cultural changes and challenges, Adventism is shifting rapidly toward a Charismatic paradigm and abandoning the Word paradigm and its sola-tota-prima Scriptura foundation. This is by no means a necessary shift, and it may yet be resisted with a re-invigoration of the Sanctuary hermeneutic and a return to Bible study as a learning process, instead of a means of mystical encounter with God.

Unfortunately, “a growing number of Adventist leaders and church members are ignorant of Biblical thinking and doctrinally illiterate” (125). Bible study and understanding is commonly perceived as “the unnecessary indulgence of ivory tower professors” (125)—detached from salvation or personal Christian experience. This change, this “protestantization,” while not deliberate, is widely accepted, partially as a result of QOD and MOD. As a result, Adventism is slowly losing its distinctive worldview and identity and fading into the landscape of Evangelicalism–for, if Evangelicalism is every bit as Biblical as Adventism, we have little to offer beyond our particular, more-or-less optional emphasis on Sabbath (and its role in end times).

To illustrate, Canale shares his struggles as a young seminary student negotiating the line between Evangelical and Adventist theologies in his pursuit of Biblical understanding. He recognizes the difficulty of shifting paradigms when the differences are not particularly clear. He even admits that his current understanding may not hold. Yet, he suggests that we must ask the question—”Does Evangelical theology stand on the sola-tota-prima Scripture principle?” (127). (Additionally, we must each ask this of our personal Biblical understandings).

How we negotiate this current situation will continue to have a profound impact on the unity, strength, identity and function of the Adventist church as a whole. Without critical evaluation, we stand to be swept up in the return to a theological methodology founded in Greek philosophy rather than the Bible—the foundation long-established by the Roman Catholic church. As long as we continue to reiterate our old doctrinal formulations, there remains a tension within Adventism; nonetheless, this “protestantization” is intensifying. While some are raising the alarm, few have been able to propose any viable alternative. Canale offers three suggestions for constructing such an alternative:

  • First, Adventism must move beyond exegesis to a complete and systematic understanding of Biblical theology which will bring all aspects into harmony (129).
  • Second, Adventism must return to Biblical philosophical presuppositions—for Canale, this is the Sanctuary. This is not a pursuit of balance, but of inner harmony (129-30).
  • Third, this harmonious theology must permeate the life and actions of the church. The Word paradigm must become active and dominant in all aspects of the church and its members lives (132).

Only as we pursue a life grounded in a harmonious, Biblically-grounded, wholistic theological understanding can Adventists find unity and complete the mission of the church.

Canale, Fernando.  “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 2.”  Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, vol. 22, no. 1, 2011, pp. 102-133.

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