Do We Really Know our Doctrines?

In the mythology of Adventism it is told that Adventists were once called people of the Book. Alegedly, during this time, you could pull just about any member aside and ask that one for a text that teaches the Adventist understanding of the Sabbath, State of the Dead, or Sanctuary and any could give that to you. I am not sure if this day really ever existed or if it is simply something that seeped into our collective memory without really having any basis in fact.

At any rate, I was listening to a few preachers who seems to buy this idea totally. They not only believe that it was true at some point in the past, but they also believe that it is true right now. One preacher literally said that today you could grab any Second Advent believer and that one could still recite a text to defend 1844, Sabbath, state of the Dead, or any other doctrine. The preacher further stated that Adventists spend too much time worrying about and thinking about the doctrines of the church. They said that Adventists can quote the text, but do not know the author of the text. The preacher then concluded that we need to know Jesus more than we need to know the doctrines.

Really I wonder where these people are living. I doubt you could find many people who could explain these doctrines even without texts. I mean who can tell you what the Sabbath is for? Certainly they may tell you something about the 7th day, but then they are out of ideas. Is that knowing too much doctrine? How many Adventists really could explain anything at all about the Sanctuary? Whether you agree with the Adventist understanding or not, we all would agree that very few could tell you more than a vague notion that something happened in 1844 that they can’t explain the relevance.

While I do not know every Adventist, I doubt very seriously that you could go into many Adventist churches in America and get just about any to tell you why they believe what they claim to believe. It is true that Jesus needs to be the center of all our doctrinal teaching. But these preachers have given a missed diagnoses of the problem for the days of Biblical literacy in and outside of our church are gone, if they ever really existed. So what can we do?

Steps to Biblical Literacy

Preachers need to preach from the Bible. I think that the common preaching type that we have learned from our “evangelistic sermons” is to jump all around the Bible. We read a text here and a text there. Certainly this can be good and needed, but do not use too many texts. What happens is that the people leave without a solid understanding of any one of the texts. Take one text, explain it, use a few texts to help explain the major text.

I was reading somewhere where more and more churches are emphasizing the reading of the scripture. One way to combat the illiteracy is to read and explain the texts. We need solid preaching, but we need more than sermonizing. In addition to sermonizing we need teaching. Wednesday night can become an evening of prayer and study. Sabbath School can become a real learning experience rather than a way for novice preachers to preach to a captive audience.

You know, One of the great components of the Black Preaching Tradition is that it has a tendency to preach the great stories of the Bible. Our White brothers and sisters are more inclined to use the didactic portions. The nice thing about the stories is that they go deep into your head.

Stop The False Diagnoses

As long as we continue stating what is not true, we can never deal with the true ailment. Adventists do not know the doctrines at the expense of our relationship with the Master. Adventists need a closer relationship with the Master as well as need more knowledge of doctrines and the Bible. Maybe then we can have substantial conversations about the Sanctuary. Maybe then we can start talking about the Sabbath beyond simply saying it is the Seventh-day.

Simply put, we are like everybody else. We don’t know the Bible, we can’t find texts, and even quite conservative Adventists can’t explain the doctrine of 1844 let alone calculate it from the scriptures. Yet for some reason we think we know what we don’t know…and preachers who promote this mythology almost obliterate the reality that we don’t know squat. Yes we need to know Jesus, but how many of us have any idea of what the Bible says about him? In short, we don’t know…we think we know…and nobody is helping us to know. Now that is a recipe for disaster…

The Adventist Basics In Adventist Preaching

You know those who play Jazz music know of a concept of “standards.” These are the basic songs that you must know if you are to be an acceptable musician. They consist of old tried and true songs that have been passed down from generation to generation of musicians. Musicians don’t have to play it in exactly the same way, but they must know the “tunes” and be able to play them when called upon.

The last few months, I have been looking at some old sermon material that my father has showed me. Specifically they are the very old book Public Evangelism by J. L. Shuler published in 1939. In addition there is the book Evangelistic Methods: Step by Step by Fordyce Datamore published in 1957. And then there is God Made An Evangelist by E. E. Cleveland published in 1994.

These books primarily are “Evangelistic” sermons and methods for doing evangelism. Many of the principles are still being used, although modified, by evangelists today. There are a lot of things of interest in these materials to me, a seminary trained homilititian, and we will discuss these over time on the website.

Basic Sermons Passed Down

But one thing that was striking is the consistency of the sermons in the books. There were a number of basic sermons that seemed to be passed down from generation to generation of Adventist Evangelist. There were a few new sermons or different sermons, but in general they were the same sermons with only a change in sermon title and/or illustrations. Shuler even suggests that the great Adventist Evangelist should be always on the lookout to have modern and appropriate titles to “speak on the old-time truths of the message.”

Shuler’s Daniel 2 sermon was titled The Fate of Europe. This became simply titled “Daniel 2” by Datamore. Finally Cleveland gave it “The Great Prophetic Metal Man. Does He Live Today?” Shuler added other possible titles as “Seven Words That Changed History.” Those words were “They shall not cleave one to another.” And so on with other sermons like the Second Coming, Millennium, and State of the Dead.

Of particular interest was the Sabbath. Here evangelists would use titles like “What Day Should Christian’s Keep” and “The Missing Text” which goes through all the texts that refer to Sunday in the Bible. These sermons took on titles like Mary’s Mother’s Birthday and “The Father Didn’t, The Son Wouldn’t, The Apostles Couldn’t. Who Did.”

What is interesting though is that while the titles changed, the basic idea behind each of these sermon/lectures was a number of texts that would be presented to prove the validity of the claims of the Evangelist. These basic sermons were the “standards” or the “Adventist Basics” of the Adventist Evangelist. (note: Instead of using the term “standards” which has a specific meaning among Adventists, I will use the term “Adventist Basics” for understanding.)

Listen Over And Over Again

Daniel 2 had to be preached under whatever title. Daniel 7 had to be preached as well. The history of the papacy had to be preached. Revelation 12, 13, and 14 as well. These were the “Adventist Basics.”

And just like a jazz audience who have heard the standards over and over again, they never tire of hearing them. So the Adventist audience who have heard Daniel 2 wonder how the preacher will present it this time.

But the “standards” or “Adventist Basics” did not just include the books of Daniel and Revelation. In the 16 week meeting the preacher had to preach why the preacher accepts the Bible as the Word of God. There were also sermons on Family life like Cleveland’s “Marriage-The Secret to a Happy Home Life.” In addition, all of them had sermons on “confession, repentance, and forgiveness.”

Building The Framework of Adventism

These basic building block sermons were a solid part of the preaching in tents. They gave a solid foundational understanding of the framework of Adventism. However, in today’s world, 16 weeks 6 nights a week will not work. There are just too many nights. That meeting has been truncated to 5 weeks 4 nights a week. And thus many sermons had to be removed. Some of them were the standards. And thus now we are in an interesting position where these sermons that everyone had heard. Whether they agreed with the position or not, they at least have heard them. Now we have generations of Adventists who don’t know the “Adventist Basics.” They don’t know the basic Adventist argumentation. Now these “Adventist Basics” are hidden away in theological texts. Books like “1844 Made Simple” is simply an expansion of a Bible study that every Adventist had heard in the evangelistic meetings. It was an “Adventist Preaching Standard.”

I do not think that we can simply go back to the past. Neither do I think that we can or should attempt a 16 week, 6 night a week meeting in 2010, but we have to find a replacement for that meeting that will pass on the “Adventist Basics” to another generation.