The mission of Adventist higher education
A few years ago, Prudence and I flew to São Paulo, Brazil, to speak at a South American Division workers’ meeting. On the last day of our trip we visited the JK Iguatemi Mall to pick up some souvenirs. We began by consulting the ever-present mall map. Three simple words, written in English, provided our orientation. “You are here,” said the map in red letters.
Lost, but Not Alone
Our newly created foreparents stand with a handful of half-eaten fruit before God, the serpent, and a tree they should never have touched. They shiver in fear and shame in the garden called Eden as Satan gleefully declares, “Adam, Eve, you are here, here with me, lost, lonely, and alienated from God.” Genesis 3 represents the darkest day in human history, and we have experienced many dark days in our recent history.
It was a dark day that November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I distinctly remember my elementary school teacher sitting at her desk before our second-grade class, balling her eyes out. “They killed him, they killed him,” she sobbed.
It was a dark day that April 4, 1968, right after 6:00 p.m., the CBS newsflash appeared and Walter Cronkite announced, “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.”
It was a dark day on September 11, 2001, when three airplanes were commandeered and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We can never forget how our then President George W. Bush announced, “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom, came under attack.”
But the darkest day in human history occurred 6,000 years ago, when across the universe sad news flashed from Eden: “The humans died today.” In sadness, angels of light hung their heads in sorrow at the fall of our first parents.
Dark was the day when the adversary of souls, in wicked glee, rejoiced over Adam and Eve’s betrayal of their Creator. Dark was the day when the light of God’s joy dimmed to near darkness and the image of God was corrupted by disobedience. Dark was the day when all hope withered. Dark was the day when the destroyer thought that he had cornered the Creator of the universe and destroyed His precious creation by bringing sin, sickness, and suffering upon the human family.
Satan fully expected that God would immediately destroy Adam and Eve, or he, Satan, could use them as human shields. He reminded them, “You are here, Adam, Eve, right here with me, lost and without hope.”
But what Satan did not know was that the Creator of the universe could not be cornered. Ellen White wrote: “Sickness, suffering, and death are work of an antagonistic power. Satan is the destroyer; God is the restorer.”1
That day in Eden the destroyer rejoiced, until the Restorer appeared and cried, “Adam and Eve, you are here! But I am here too.” In this God-appointed encounter, grace came looking to reclaim and restore our fallen parents (see Gen. 3:15).
From Past to Future
We can summarize the mission and message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in one word: restoration. In fact, we can see this restoration within the two bookends of Scripture: Genesis and Revelation. Everything lost in Genesis is restored in Revelation!
God’s garden was lost in Genesis (Gen. 3:1-7); God’s garden is restored in Revelation. Access to the tree of life was lost in Genesis; access to the tree of life is restored in Revelation. In Genesis access to the garden is lost; in Revelation access to the garden is restored. In Genesis a curse replaced a blessing; in Revelation, a blessing replaces the curse. In Genesis our title deed to Planet Earth was lost, but in Revelation the title deed is restored. In Genesis hope is lost; in Revelation hope is restored. In Genesis face-to-face communion is lost; in Revelation face-to-face fellowship is restored.
We Seventh-day Adventists are called to a ministry of restoration. Hear this promise and assignment: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isa. 58:12). Look at four of the Edenic institutions we are called to restore.
We are called to restore God’s Sabbath sanctity. Forty centuries after the Fall, the Edenic Sabbath was lost. But in 1844 God raised up people called to restore it. Every Sabbath reminds us of our history: “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Sabbath reminds us of our history and instructs us concerning our destiny.
We were created in the image of God with rationality, relationality, responsibility, aesthetic sensitivity, and a host of other image-of-God qualities hinted at in Genesis 1 and 2.
We are called to restore healthful living. After the Fall, the Edenic lifestyle—wholistic health, which includes a plant-based diet—was sacrificed. Our Healthy Campus 2020 initiative is intended to transform our students’ lifestyle choices through education and exposure to God’s laws of health.
But wholistic health involves more than simply not eating meat. It involves exercise, diet, work, and the rest of the eight laws of health identified in our STANDOUT initiative. Seventh-day Adventist education has been called to restore our Edenic lifestyle. Fruit, nuts, grains, and vegetables form our whole foods and earth fare.
We are called to restore the biblical marriage. After the Fall, Edenic marriage was lost. We have been called to restore it to its original sanctity. Edenic marriage is covenantal; it is monogamous; it is heterosexual. Marriage outside God’s design will never bring the God-appointed joy He designed. While we cannot reverse the legal landslide for gay marriage, we can strengthen the marriages of the people of God.
But what can we say to our nonchurched citizens when the church reflects the same rate of divorce we see in larger society? Restoring marriage means that a worldview on biblical marriage education has to be part of our curriculum. We have been called to restore marriage to its rightful state.
We are called to restore Christ-centered education. After the Fall, Edenic education was lost. Heaven was a school, and Eden was a branch campus.2 In fact, Ellen White wrote that Eden was a “model school.”3 Adam and Eve were its first pupils, God was the teacher, the garden was the classroom, and nature was the lesson book.
While we examine how we can better embed biblical foundations into our curriculum, please be reminded that Edenic education was the basis for the founding of Oakwood University. Since 1896 Oakwood has, through all its program adjustments and adaptations, consistently attempted to implement its mission in every generation. Oakwood is not simply a platform for launching careers, although career and graduate-school placement happen annually.
Oakwood is not simply a haven from large cities, although it is an environment where students can enjoy the natural beauty of north Alabama. Students from Brooklyn, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and 51 other countries are inspired by our 1,186-acre campus environment.
Oakwood’s mission is to lead students into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the principal purpose of an Adventist education. However, the second is “like unto it”: We work every day at Oakwood University to impart a worldview that equips students for success in service now, and that outfits them for service throughout eternity. Newly tooled and totally surrendered graduates leave this institution to honor God, have an impact, and serve humanity. This dual purpose—to lead students into a relationship with Jesus Christ and to effectively impart a distinctively Seventh-day Adventist world-view designed to provide the biblical foundations for moral and ethical decision-making—fulfills our educational mission.
This dual process is foundational to the curricular and cocurricular environments of our university. These purposes grant us our unique identity within the marketplace of higher education.
Big Questions, Big Answers
Today many in our world are uncertain about the grand questions of our existence. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Many are confused theologically, philosophically, and morally. So I ask: “Where are we in Adventist higher education?”
Just as signs in malls say “You are here,” “here” means we are living in the end-time. “Here” means that we stand on the cusp of some of the most spectacular events predicted in Daniel and Revelation. “Here” also means that we in Adventist higher education are swimming upstream against many popular but unbiblical values. “Here” represents a day when celebrity skeptics question the role of organized religion in our culture. These are times when scoffing talk show hosts foment against “religious discrimination” (which usually refers to practices held by those who articulate biblically supported religious convictions). These are times, forecast by biblical writers, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3). But “here” is precisely the time for Adventist higher education to stand up and be counted.
We are at a crossroads. The biggest question facing Adventist education in the twenty-first century is the question of identity. We are awash in an age of skepticism. We live in a culture of doubt, when eclectic, personalistic, philosophical systems guide public discourse and decision-making. These systems are rife with do-it-yourself epistemologies, comic-book-style metaphysics, and over-the-counter axiologies. Academic freedom (a noble virtue when balanced with missional responsibility) often advances error as truth.
We stand at a vulnerable point in Adventist education. Like Protestant universities that once were bastions of mission and religious education as recently as the 1950s, we risk losing our identities.
More than 20 years ago, George Marsden wrote an intriguing article, “What Can Catholic Universities Learn From ProtestantExamples?” in which he researched and identified the pressures that separated such institutions as Northwestern, Duke, Boston University, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and the University of Southern California from their confessional Protestant roots. When Christian colleges were founded in the 1800s following the First Great Awakening, most followed the Oxford-Cambridge model: residential campuses created a protective environment; faculty hiring was limited to a believing faculty that focused mostly on ministerial training. As late as 1930 many of these presidents spoke openly of their Christian heritage and mission.
However, in reflecting on the pressures to move away from the confessional purposes of their sponsoring churches, Marsden wrote: “Even a partial list of such pressures suggests how formidable they are: pressures for separation of church and state; pressures for greater academic freedom; [pressures for the] ideals of pluralism and diversity; demands for technological excellence; pressures to meet standards of professionalism defined as excluding religion; faculty and departmental demands for autonomy (especially in hiring); reactions to fears of external control; aspirations for recognition of excellence (How will the U.S. News and World Report ratings be affected?); pressures from accrediting agencies; pressures of the market to broaden the base of students and contributors; resulting pressures from increasingly diverse faculty, contributors, students, and alumni; changing student mores.”4
Another researcher, Gary K. House, wrote an article titled “Evangelical Higher Education: History, Mission, Identity, and Future,”inwhich he warned evangelical institutions and universities such as ours with the following words: “Christian institutions that have received government assistance have often sacrificed mandatory chapel, religious course requirements, denominational relationships, and their Christian identity. . . . Unless these institutions remain true to their original intent and purpose in mission and ethos they face an uncertain future.”5 [See “Teach Them to Your Children” by Clifford Goldstein, a special online commentary at: www.adventistreview.org/teach-them-to-your-children.]
A Prophetic Posture
Whatever challenges we face in Adventist higher education, the compromise of our mission is not the way forward. When we face uncertainty, we must go back to our map. The people of God have been given an inspired map that says “You are here.”
We can go to the map in Genesis 1 and 2, and we hear a voice from heaven saying, “You are here,” for “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). We begin our educational mission with an understanding of God and a unique understanding of humankind. Listen to how our human beginnings began, the locus classicus for any biblical anthropology: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image.’. . . So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God created he them; male and female he created them” (verses 26, 27). We cannot know the purpose for human existence, or the purposes of God, unless we begin our analysis with this foundational statement of origins. We were created by God, through God, and for God.
The purpose of Christ-centered education is to restore in our students the image of God. To forget this redemptive purpose is to lose our students in various -isms: existentialism, humanism, rationalism, racialism, patriotism, and et cetera-ism. I illustrate such disorienting lostness with a familiar story (whether true or apocryphal, I cannot tell) about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
He was sitting alone one day, all disheveled, on a German park bench. He was greeted by a cheerful passerby, who asked in a cordial but generic greeting, “Hi, how are you?”
To which Schopenhauer sadly replied, “I wish to God I knew.”
Such aimless despair always attends those who know not their origins. Genesis 1 orients humanity to who it is, and to whose it is! It reminds us that we are neither the top of an evolutionary pyramid, nor are we simply bio-organic machines.
The doctrine of imago dei, reminds us that we are something more than robots. We are formed, created, and designed in the “image of God.” Genesis 1 and 2 affirms the dignity of the human person. Ellen White commented: “Shall we, for the privilege of tracing our descent from germs and mollusks and apes, consent to cast away that statement of Holy Writ, so grand in its simplicity, ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him’? Genesis 1:27.”6
To believe that Adam and Eve were created in His image is to assert that Adam and Eve were endowed with the nature of God’s agape love. Any discussion of the image of God must account for the clearest statement of God’s essence and nature as found in the New Testament: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s nature is agape.
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve naturally served God and reflexively served each other. They were oriented away from self toward God and each other. This was the law of God in heaven and His law in Eden. It was also the love most clearly revealed on the cross. “In the light from Calvary it will be seen that the law of self-renouncing love is the law of life for earth and heaven.”7
Love to God and love to others is the reflexive nature of Adam and Eve before the Fall. It is the foundation upon which all other elements of God’s image—intelligence, language, responsibility, service, etc.—are grounded.
But the Fall of Genesis 3 separated God and humanity. It created a gulf that cannot be bridged. Humans fall under the dominion of Satan. They are banished from Eden, but not without hope. The prophecy of Genesis 3:15, with its seed theology, signals radical intervention. Can anyone rescue and redeem them?
Fallen human nature faced two major dilemmas: (1) helplessness to break free from the grip of evil; (2) powerlessness to live for God. Thus the human family tries everything: religion to placate angry gods and earn freedom in the afterlife; works of goodness on one hand and self-mutilation on the other to demonstrate our sincerity; culture and the arts to refine ourselves into circumspection; education to amass knowledge that yields personal understanding; self-discipline, self-purging, self-reflection, self-esteem, self-mastery, self-control, and self-expression. And still we are not free. Can anyone help us?
Sacrifice to Victory
Revelation 5 pictures the first vision of the Lamb of salvation. John the revelator establishes the Lamb’s worthiness to redeem and oversee the plan of salvation.
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals’ ” (Rev. 5:1-5).
Stop weeping, John—the Restorer has come. Some say He’s the Lily of the valley; others say He’s the Bright and Morning Star; some say He’s fairer than ten thousand.
Revelation’s presentation of impotent humanity answers the serpent’s contention in Genesis that humanity can find freedom by exercising its moral autonomy apart from God. The question raised by the serpent in Genesis 3 is finally answered by the presentation of humanity in the Apocalypse: no human can free us from our fallen condition, “no one was found who was worthy.” In the Apocalypse, humans are either under the power of the Lamb or under the control of the enemy.
Thank God that in following Him we commit ourselves to His ministry of reclamati on and restoration. We stand for what He stands for. As Ellen White wrote: “The greatest want of the world is the want of [men and women] . . . who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.” To see the good that’s salvageable in our students is to be restorers, to raise up foundations of many generations.
The image of God will be restored in God’s people. But that restoration is accomplished by the indomitable weakness of the Lamb. Revelation 5 establishes a new way for Him to conquer evil: by sacrificing His way to victory.
The surprise of the Apocalypse is that the ironic weakness of the apocalyptic lamb is the sacrifice leading to victory. He is nothing like He appears. He is announced by the elder of Revelation 5:4 as a roaring lion, but He appears as a wounded though standing Lamb in verse 6. The power of the Lamb arose from His sacrifice. Restoration is purchased by His sacrifice.
The gospel story reminds us that there was Someone who gave all, who was scorned and ridiculed. But He loved us more than He loved Himself. He gave His eyes that the lost might see. He gave His heart that the lost might love. He gave His hands that the lost might serve. He gave his blood that lost humanity might live. In the words of Isaiah the prophet: “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
May we be blessed to see the day of full restoration of the imago dei in the students we serve. The day is coming soon when salvation is consummated, suffering is eradicated, the Lamb is inaugurated, the new earth is repopulated, the Father is venerated, the Son is elevated, the Spirit is congratulated, Adam is reinstated, God’s law is vindicated, the dead resuscitated, death is eliminated, evil is terminated, Eden is re-created, and, according to the final paragraph of The Great Controversy, the love of God is eternally celebrated.
- Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 168.
- Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 547.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 20.
- George Marsden, The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, ed. Theodore M. Hesburgh (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 6. The article can also can be found at www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/offices/mission/pdf1/ra11.pdf.
- Gary House, “Evangelical Higher Education: History, Mission, Identity, and Future,” Journal of Catholic Education 6, no. 4 (2003): 6. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ce/vol6/iss4/6.
- White, Education, p. 130.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 20.
- White, Education, p. 57.
Leslie N. Pollard, Ph.D., D.Min., M.B.A., is president of Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. This article is taken from remarks given at the Inaugural Faculty Development Institute at Oakwood University.