More than 360 Seventh-day Adventist theologians, college and university professors and church administrators have convened in Rome, Italy from June 11-21, for the fourth International Bible Conference (IBC). The gathering, which takes place every few years, seeks to explore a chosen theme associated with theological studies through the presentation of papers, discussion panels and professional networking.
The event is organized by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), which exists to “promote the study and practice of Adventist theology and lifestyle as understood by the world church,” by providing research-based theological resources and by “facilitating dialogue within the Adventist theological community.”
In Rome, the chosen theme is eschatology, a word that literally means “the teaching of the last things” and describes the study of last day events and associated subjects. The choice of location, partnered with the theme is meaningful, explains BRI director Elias Brasil de Souza. Depicted as the legs of iron in Nebuchadnezzr’s epic dream, Rome—representing both a secular and a religious power—plays a significant role in the prophetic narrative. “It is not without significance that we gather precisely here to attend a conference on eschatology,” wrote Brasil de Souza in the event’s program booklet.
As part of introductory remarks, Ted Wilson, president of the Adventist Church, greeted the scholars, sharing his deep interest in the subject. “The thing that drives me, animates me, keeps me moving toward the goal is Jesus’ soon coming,” said Wilson. “I believe that this is going to be an extraordinary time, focusing on an extraordinary topic.”
What is Adventist Eschatology?
Plenary presentations began with Ángel Rodríguez, former BRI director, providing insight into the intersection of Adventist theology and eschatology in general. Rodríguezprovided a seven-part analysis of Adventist eschatology, emphasizing the Bible’s central role. “Since the divine plan has been preserved in the Scriptures as the depository of God’s special revelation, the Scriptures are our only canonical source of information about apocalyptic eschatology,” explained Rodríguez. “Any Adventist discussion about eschatology must be grounded and flow from the biblical text.”
Rodríguez added that “it is true that we also have the writings of Ellen White, which in many cases flesh out some of the biblical information—particularly with respect to the historical fulfillment of the prophecies—and provide significant theological insights on the topic, but this information only enriches the biblical data and should never take its place.”
Among other points, Rodríguezalso explained that Adventist eschatology should be “understood as hope in the sense of waiting for or expecting the arrival of the good from the Lord.” Further points elaborated on this, emphasizing that “eschatology and the future it announces is the exclusive work of God on behalf of His creation and not the result of human ingenuity manifested through social, scientific, and technological progress, or the use of self-improvement technics.”
Rodríguezcontinued his description of Adventist eschatology by clearly stating that it is Christ-centered, and that it emphasizes “the saving power of the cross” as well as “[Christ’s] mediation in the heavenly temple and His return in glory.” This Christological view of the eschatology, said Rodríguez, is not only concerned with the future, but impacts the present. He introduced the concept of eschatological ethics, which he defined as “a Christian way of life determined by the presence and coming of God’s kingdom.” Rodriquez concluded that “the expectation of a future world free from pain, suffering, and death is to be embodied in a deep concern for those who suffer.”
Rodríguezalso explained some current challenges to Adventist eschatology. Among them, divine love and the extermination of the wicked, the seeming delay of the Second Coming, and the increasingly challenging relationship between science and eschatology. He concluded on a hopeful note, saying that “while hope waits for its full realization, we seek to live a holy life and to express this hope in service to others and to God in the fulfillment of the mission of the church.”
Eschatology and Hermeneutics
An equally foundational plenary presentation dealing with eschatology and hermeneutics was given by Frank Hasel, BRI associate director. In general, hermeneutics is defined as a set of principles for and approaches to interpreting the biblical text.
Hasel outlined several key biblical doctrines and teachings—such as salvation, the nature of God, the nature of sin, and the state of the dead—and suggested that each of these themes is significantly connected to eschatology. He emphasized that as the linkages become increasingly evident, “we see more clearly that our understanding of eschatology and the hermeneutics we employ with it will affect a wide range of theological subjects.”
On that note, Hasel turned to challenges in the area of hermeneutics and eschatology, a primary one involving a clash of worldviews. Adventists have espoused a biblical apocalyptic worldview, explained Hasel, in which the end time is near, with several eschatological elements and events already developing. This imminent timeline of God’s impending action, culminating in the destruction of evil emphasizes “the dire nature and emergency of the current state of affairs.”
By contrast the modern worldview, rooted in science, reason and progress champions a natural and evolutionary process which leaves God and his actions out of the picture, said Hasel. “If God does not supernaturally act, he cannot create the world in a very short time,” he explained regarding the modern worldview. “And then, of course, he cannot bring this world’s history to a supernatural end as the Bible describes it.”
Hasel made the case that this naturalistic worldview has and continues to affect biblical hermeneutics—and more specifically eschatology—by encouraging a reinterpretation of Scripture in order to somehow reconcile the worldviews. This has lead, in part, to models such as theistic evolution.
As a consequence, theology began making room for the idea that humanity’s future would be dependent on a better humanity, Hasel continued, and that somehow, with time, the Kingdom of God could be established on earth. Thus, eschatology became increasingly disconnected from the specific biblical and cosmic statements and was reframed as an idealized and personal ongoing experience.
Hasel also discussed other challenges, including Dispensationalism and what he termed hermeneutical sensationalism. “There is a strange fascination with current events and even a feverish desire to find some new light, when it comes to the interpretation of our prophetic message,” explained Hasel. He warned that such sensationalism—reading the Bible and the newspaper together—could lead to some “strange flowers.”
Hasel finished by touching on eschatology and our ethical conduct, concluding that “the eschatological teachings of the Bible summon us to courageous and faithful living in which there is an expectancy because we love Him who promised to come back, because we trust Him, who holds the future in His hands and because all future would be blank without Him.”
Eschatology and Science
In a third plenary session, BRI associate director Kwabena Donkor further unpacked the concept of theistic evolution and it implications for Adventist eschatology. “Conversation between Christian theology and science is an increasingly important theological topic,” challenged Donkor in his introduction.
Those who espouse theistic evolution, explained Donkor, have reconciled science with faith by postulating that while God does exist, he created the world using natural and purposeful— also referred to as teleological—processes, including evolutionary processes such as natural selection.
Implications of this approach certainly affect concepts of origins; however, Donkor’s main point was that theistic evolution equally impacts eschatology. This is due to evolution’s view of the future. In general, those who hold evolutionary views teach a concept called “emergence” which is defined as “the appearance in natural history of more and more intricately organized physical and living systems over the course of time.” In other words, the world continues to develop—and and even seemingly re-create itself—over time.
Theistic evolutionists, added Donkor, adopt this view of the future, suggesting that God will not interrupt history with a universal, visible event, but that he will use a natural process to “transform” the world for the better over time. Adventist eschatology, on the other hand, teaches that God “acts directly and supernaturally in the eschaton, for the purposeof resolving the problem of the creation’s futility in a new creation,” shared Donkor.
Throughout his presentation, Donkor shared several clear distinctions between theistic evolution and Adventist eschatology.
He concluded that “while theistic evolution’s commitment to evolutionary science inclines it to adopt a developmental…approach to eschatology, Adventists’ commitment to historicism sees eschatology as the active work of God in a God-ordained prophetic history. The two approaches are clearly incompatible.”
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