Understanding Worldviews: How Our Presuppositions Shape the Education of Adventist Youth

What are the theological issues stirring within Adventist education? Do these issues stem back to a root cause, or are there a myriad of minor doctrinal issues that each carry individual weight?

It is easy to recognize a theological issue if a professor is teaching that the seventh day of the week is not the Sabbath, or if one denies the six-day creation of life on earth by our loving God. Are these merely surface issues, and if so, what lies at the root of such issues? If there are deeper issues, is it possible to understand what is taking place in Adventist education without getting to the bottom of those issues?

This article will show that the foundational issue starts with one’s concept of the nature and acquisition of knowledge. This issue goes right back to the origin of evil in heaven: Lucifer chose his own way rather than trusting God. In Eden he tempted Adam and Eve to doubt the Word of God, leading them to make their decision based on human-centered principles instead of God’s Word.

This pattern of elevating one’s own wisdom and knowledge above that of God’s Word repeated itself in the apostasy of Israel and Judah. In the wilderness, Christ met the same temptation to build upon a human foundation, and instead responded to Satan with “It is written.”

The early Christian church rapidly adopted the contemporary Platonic concepts of knowledge, reinterpreting the Bible within that philosophical context. The church of the middle ages used Aristotle to establish the framework for the nature of truth.

Each worldview comes with its own specific methods and principles for interpretation.

For a brief period, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century attempted to return to the Bible as the sole foundational authority for understanding God and the world. The Reformation did not exclude other methods of determining truth. But it did intend to subordinate all other methods to the Bible, the Word of God alone “sola scriptura.” While the emphasis of the reformation has continued to the present, it is noteworthy that within 100 years of the Reformation, a group of Reformation theologians returned to methods that subordinated the Bible to Aristotelian methods of thinking.

Scholastic theology (Aristotelianism) fell when new discoveries were made in astronomy which called into question the cosmology of Aristotle and his followers. Philosophers and theologians then turned to new philosophies –empiricism (what we perceive with our senses is foundational to knowledge); rationalism (what we conceive in our minds); existentialism (the structure of human existence determines the foundation of knowledge); and many other systems of thought. In our contemporary period, new philosophies have arisen such as post-modernism (the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths: everything is relative to the individual). We could categorize these and other systems of thought as humanism—any system of thought that makes humanity the foundation for thought, contrasting with those systems which begin with the Bible as God’s self-revelation.

Post-modernism specifically calls into question the meaning of doctrine itself. If there is no certain truth, then there can be no certain doctrine. Why bother with it at all? Simply concentrate on relationship (as if there could be such a thing as meaningful relationships lacking all content).

Having lost the anchor of the Word of God, there is often a turn to inner spiritual experience as the foundational guide to religious experience.

These various philosophies and theologies rely on systems other than the Word of God, the Bible, as the foundation of understanding God, ourselves, and the universe within which we live. Any claims to truth in the Bible or Jesus Christ must be first verified by the foundational thought patterns inherent in these systems.

The societies in which we live, for the most part, are humanistically orientated. We are raised in that environment and unwittingly accept its norms. In one way or another, our present day “modern” thinking provides the frame, the context, for determining truth and meaning in all other systems, including religion. Secular worldviews are not in harmony with Scripture, for they place man where God should be. At their very foundation, they are built upon critical rather than Biblical thinking.

Methodological doubt lies at the very foundation of many of these philosophies. Faith, rather than being itself the substance—the evidence—and therefore coming as a gift of God through hearing His Word under the power of the Holy Spirit, is built upon methodological doubt. One doubts until he can doubt no more—until he discovers the absolute foundation that cannot be doubted. The Word of God is thereby made subject to the claims of the originating philosophy or worldview.

Thus, if the Bible claims to be the Word of God, we decide, based upon our humanistic worldview, that we will be the final authority. If the Bible claims that Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected from the dead, our systems determine if that is true. In this perspective, it does not matter what the Bible says. We decide, based upon our own philosophical systems, whether God created in six literal days a short time ago.

Being part of the environment in which we live, these humanistic philosophies can become engrained in our thinking. They determine our worldview, our way of thinking, and our religion is made to fit within those systems.

When the Bible is called into question, many theories alien to Scripture follow in its train. The divine origin of the Bible is called into question. The Bible may no longer be seen as coming by the will of God, but rather, by the will of humankind. The Bible is seen as valuable—not because it is the revelation from God, but because it was written by spiritual communities and geniuses. Thus the study of their experience is helpful in guiding our relationship with “god”. The Bible is seen as the product of the historical background out of which it came, rather than the result of God’s action revealing Himself to individuals living within particular historical backgrounds. Its universal truth and origin by the Holy Spirit are thus compromised.

The denial of the revelation and inspiration of the Bible leads to the denial of the Biblical worldview. Why, it is asked, should an “ancient” worldview be accepted as the foundational authority for our understanding?

Each worldview comes with its own specific methods and principles for interpretation. When a worldview alien to Scripture itself is adopted, the methods for the study of literature (the methods which correspond to and have come out of that philosophical system) are imposed upon the Bible. For example, out of the era of the Enlightenment came the historical-critical method, which imposes human reason as the final court of appeal for determining truth. The authority of the Bible and its claim to inspiration are compromised by this humanistic philosophy. Reader response theory came out of the post-modernist movement, which declares that there is no absolute truth. Since each person is the determiner of truth for himself, the text of Scripture has as many interpretations as there are readers. The meaning of the text is controlled by the reader, rather than by the text.

Again, the Bible may be said to be interpreted from a Christological perspective: whatever fits in with one’s understanding of Christ is accepted as “truth.” Christ is defined by whatever fits contemporary culture, rather than by what Scripture has to say about Him. Thus, anything that does not fit the ideals of our culture is seen to be sub-standard, and is demoted as representing God’s Word.

To illustrate the application of these methods to Scripture, let me review a study on Isaiah 11, a Messianic prophecy, that utilizes a method called tradition criticism (a method that came out of the historical-critical method). This study begins by denying the predictive nature of prophecy. According to the author, prophecy does not foresee the future. It only speaks to the present. The study then asks, “How did the idea of the Messiah arise in Israel?” “Well,” says the study, “there were many good priests in Israel, but also many bad priests; also good prophets and bad, and good kings and bad. Somewhere in the history of Israel—we do not know when—these three streams of literature merged—priest, prophet and king—into the Messiah! Each generation hoped that the next prophet would be the Messiah. They were continually disappointed. The genius of Isaiah—no, the “inspiration” of Isaiah—is that he figured out that the next king would not be the Messiah. The Messiah will be an eschatological king, not of man’s making, but of God’s.” There is no mention that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. 

When the Bible is called into question, many theories alien to Scripture follow in its train. The divine origin of the Bible is called into question.

The nature of freedom is also redefined within the philosophical systems of the Enlightenment. We are free to determine the nature of truth while totally independent of the Creator. It is not the truth that sets us free: we are essentially free to determine the truth. Thus it is considered the responsibility of the professor to teach the “truth” independent of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And the professor, by virtue of autonomy, not only has the freedom but also the right and responsibility to teach whatever seems good, based upon his/her philosophy.

Having lost the anchor of the Word of God, there is often a turn to inner spiritual experience as the foundational guide to religious experience. The Bible is seen as one sacred text among others. Thus we will study sacred texts of many religions, including the Bible, so that we can glean the best from all religions. Christianity is not the only valid religion, in this formulation: it is simply at the peak of the evolutionary history of religions. It will be superseded by ever-evolving religions. Within this context, new styles of worship are advocated that borrow from Eastern religions and medieval monastic traditions (developed partly out of Eastern religions). 

The Gospels, say such proponents, having developed out of the traditions passed on from generation to generation, may actually contain something that Jesus said. The professor determines whether and what Jesus said, if anything. Jesus was not the Divine Son of God. He may have been a messenger in some sense come to speed up the process of evolution towards a better life. Furthermore, if Jesus was resurrected, it was not a bodily resurrection. It might have been a continuing influence or a “spirit experience.” But a bodily resurrection is out of the question on scholarly grounds for those who advocate for this approach.

Further contradictions of the Bible’s claims are introduced. God, Moses, and Sinai never crossed paths. The Ten Commandments were not written in stone by God himself. Much of their content was borrowed from the surrounding nations and evolved over time.

Similarly, reason and experience are sometimes considered equal to or above Scripture. Scripture is no longer the foundational authority. It is sometimes integrated with other philosophical systems, and its message is compromised.

The Bible is sometimes seen as an influence merely on the same level as other human influences, i.e., argumentation, philosophy, science, politics, psychology, etc. The power of human thought is celebrated; the power of the Word of God under the Holy Spirit is minimized, if not completely denied.

The Old Testament is seen as law under a fearful God, while the New Testament is seen as love under a loving Christ. The unity of the message of Scripture is denied.

The unity of the church is not seen to be based upon the Bible and our common understanding of doctrine. Our unity is based solely upon a common social gospel and the sacraments.

The mission of the church is seen to be sociologically and anthropologically based, rather than founded upon the Bible. Mission is limited to social action rather than the full restoration of humanity to its relationship with God. These constricted views of mission undermine God’s desire to bring all humankind to knowledge of the truth and an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The biblical teaching on origins and creation is similarly undermined. God did not create life on this earth in six literal days as described in Genesis 1. He did it over many millions of years. Our ancestry lies in the animal kingdom. Only recently did God come down to add a soul to parts of the animal kingdom so as to evolve a human being. This re-interpretation of Scripture is based upon contemporary philosophies of origins rather than on the Bible. Many additional questions are raised by this view, including the nature of man; sin; salvation; the judgment; the resurrection ;the literal, visible Second Coming; and a real heaven and new earth.

When philosophies change, one’s concept of God changes as well. God is perceived as not all- knowing and all-powerful. If He were, so these approaches assert, He would be responsible for the pain and suffering that is part of the process of evolution. He himself is in process: He is evolving and learning as He goes along and this enhances His ability to evolve the created world into a better place. The process of evolution will bring a better and better God, and thus, a better world.

The Trinity and the divine nature of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are denied.

The substitutionary atonement (that Christ died to cover the guilt of our sins) is denied on several bases. Philosophically, proponents assert, it is pagan for one person to die in the place of another, and it is unjust for one person to die for another. Christ came down to manifest the love of God, but not to take our place. On the other hand, those who do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus see His death as a terrible tragedy, but not as a salvific event. If God does not create as described in Genesis; if He did not bring Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea; if He did not resurrect Jesus from the dead; if He did not enter the most holy place to atone for our sins in 1844—why should we think that God used Jesus as a substitute to save us from our sins?

The entry of Christ into the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary in 1844 is denied.

According to this worldview, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is merely one church among others. It is not called as the remnant to proclaim the Three Angels Messages at the end of time. Thus its mission and purpose for existence is sabotaged.

The Second Coming as a literal event when God returns to this earth to take us home is rejected. The Second Coming may have a spiritual meaning whereby humankind brings about a better and better world, some argue, but life after death, the Creation, and the literal creation of heaven and earth is denied. We have a good life now: there is no life beyond.

Keeping the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week is a cultural thing. Its association with Revelation 14—the Three Angel’s Messages—is denied. It has no eschatological significance with those who keep the commandments of God.

Satan is seen as the “principle” of evil. Neither he nor his angels actually exist.

Since nothing actually happened in the Garden of Eden, since creation occurred over long periods of time, there is no principle that is binding upon humanity that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Homosexual relationships are advocated and other lifestyles are legitimized on the basis of “love.”

This is not a complete catalogue of the issues that exist within the frame of contemporary religious education, but it is illustrative of those issues.

There is one more issue that make the above issues both possible and troubling within Adventist contexts. It is considered moral by some to teach in a Seventh-day Adventist institution as a theistic evolutionist, agnostic, or even as an atheist because one is teaching the “truth.” Some believe it is even permissible to deny that this is taking place, because the end justifies the means. There is an urgency, a mission, on the part of some to bring the Seventh-day Adventist Church into the post-modern era.

Praise God for our faithful teachers who uphold the Word of God as their guide to thought and life. They are sometimes laboring under difficult circumstances, and they deserve our appreciation and support. 

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