As I’ve written in the past, the Christian world is abuzz right now with the idea of deconstruction. Many people raised in conservative faith communities are reexamining the doctrines and beliefs they’ve inherited and finding them wanting. While some are leaving Christianity altogether, others are coming to a greater appreciation for and reliance on Christ, as they’ve discovered that many extrabiblical traditions and cultural practices crept into people’s theology and religious life.
In some ways, this deconstruction is nothing new. It just seems to be more public now, as social media has magnified the degree to which we’re aware of people’s religious angst and wrestling. We can now track in real time the religious journey people are on, through all its twists and turns.
I’d also argue that deconstruction is a good thing. In fact, I’d argue that it is, in many ways, what the great controversy is all about. “The earth was dark through misapprehension of God,” Ellen White explained in 1898. “That the gloomy shadows might be lightened, that the world might be brought back to God, Satan’s deceptive power was to be broken.”1 The history of the world ever since, indeed the history of the universe, has been one giant act of deconstruction—of tearing down the false explanations of God’s character and replacing them with the beautiful reality of His goodness, especially as seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Lest we think those false pictures exist only outside of our faith community, Ellen White made it clear that Adventism had its own deconstructing to do. A decade before she wrote the above statement, she lamented that too many Adventists had “lost sight of Jesus.”2 They had become so enamored with following the rules and being right that they had obscured the “matchless charms of Christ.”3
When two young preachers, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, rose up with a message that was meant to turn the denomination’s attention to Christ, the “old guard” dug in its heels, claiming these preachers were bringing in a “new theology” that threatened the “old landmarks.” But Ellen White, who proclaimed that “every fiber” of her heart said “amen” when she heard Waggoner’s and Jones’s preaching, applauded this act of deconstruction and said it was much needed.4 “There is no excuse for anyone taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error,” she wrote. “The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible.” Indeed, “age will not make error into truth,” she explained. “No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.”5
Historians have debated the degree to which that era’s deconstruction was successful, but that is not my main concern here. The larger point is that even granting the premise that Adventism came out the other side with a more robust vision of Jesus, the underlying principle of deconstruction still remains. “No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation,” Ellen White declared. That applies as much now as it did then, I’d argue.
After all, we’ve yet to arrive at a perfected vision of Jesus—or a perfected theology. We’ve not yet stripped our understanding of God’s character of all its error and falsehood. Indeed, “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV).
Thus, until He comes, there will be a need for ongoing deconstruction, as we pursue a richer, truer, and more beautiful picture of God.
Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his church’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1947), p. 22.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 91.
3 Ellen G. White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), p. 348.
5 Ellen G. White, “Christ Our Hope,” Review and Herald, December 20, 1892.