Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book Review: It's All About Jesus

It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-Day AdventistThe latest book to critique Seventh-day Adventism comes from Edith Fairman Cooper entitled It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-day Adventist. There are a number of things about this book that make it particularly interesting and important. Firstly, there is Cooper’s personal history. It would appear that she has no "axe to grind". One of the criticisms frequently made by those within the SDA denomination is that ex-Adventists must be so critical because they have been mistreated and are expressing their anger against the church. This may or may not be the case for some, but it doesn’t appear to be the case for Cooper. From what she says, she seems to have had a very positive experience of Adventism and left it with sadness and considerable grieving. She claims that the only reason she left is because of the evidence she examined. In the preface of her book, she explicitly states that her aim is not to present her findings ’in a critical, unkind spirit that does not reflect Christ.’ Instead, she wanted to write ’with a concern and a hope that what [she] present[s] will serve as a witness to the risen Savior and will help someone understand clearly the saving grace of Christ.’ This, in fact, becomes her "compass" as she writes. Her essential thesis is that the problematic doctrines of SDAism obscure the gospel about Jesus. Secondly, Cooper has some highly relevant skills that she has brought to the task. For approximately 35 years she worked as a social science analyst for the ’...[US] Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, authoring numerous reports for Congress.’ Her journey out of her 27 years of Adventism began when a friend of hers remarked to her, ’You know what they say about Adventists.’ She didn’t know what her friend was referring to so decided to go on the internet and do some research. She came across a heading Seventh-day Adventism Reexamined. She found what to her was ’astonishing information’ but wondered whether it was the product of ’disgruntled former SDAs criticizing the church, or whether the concerns were valid.’ She decided to bring her research skills to bear on the issue and so she eventually came to her decision to leave Adventism. The third thing that is significant is that she writes with considerable balance. Not only does she critique what she understands to be non-biblical doctrines, but she surveys important denominational or individual responses to the criticisms made of the church. For example, F D Nichol’s book E G White and Her Critics is discussed. She also makes the point that much of the denomination’s official doctrines are quite orthodox, e.g., on the Trinity (despite the early history of anti-Trinitarian theology) and creationism (a literalist interpretation of Genesis consistent with fundamentalist evangelicalism). Cooper and her family continue to believe these orthodox doctrines and, to some extent, practice the lifestyle of Adventism. Fourthly, Cooper is a woman and black. This provides her with two important perspectives leading her to discuss the relationship of Adventism to race and gender over the course of its history - two areas a lot of critics overlook with their focus on doctrines. Fifthly, It’s All About Jesus contains most of the important criticisms of Adventist doctrine and lifestyle concerns in one book. Cooper has clearly used her research skills to draw together a wide range of sources and summarised the major problems with Adventism. It would be difficult to find a better general introduction to the criticisms of Adventism so clearly presented and in one place. The book also has the benefit of being heavily referenced with all sources clearly identified - a great help for those who wish to do further investigation. There are also a number of extended footnotes with extra information or discussion on various issues. Before turning to some criticisms of the book, let me indicate the overall structure. There are four main parts to the book covering the major areas of criticism. The first deals with Ellen G White, the church’s prophetess and one of the founders of the movement. In this section, Cooper argues, on the basis of Hebrews 1:1-2, that Jesus is the prophet for the last days. In contrast, SDAism teaches that Ellen White and her writings, often referred to by Adventists as the ’Spirit of Prophecy’, constitute a mark of the true church of the last days on the basis of the denomination’s interpretation of certain passages in Revelation. Cooper believes that this has resulted in a displacement of Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority for Christians. In this section, she also considers Ellen White’s plagiarism, the nature of her claimed visions, and the influence she had over almost every aspect of life - many teachings of which, it is claimed, Ellen White herself did not manage to live up to. Part 2 surveys the ’questionable’ doctrines and teachings of SDAism. These include the Cleansing of the Heavenly Sanctuary-Investigative Judgment doctrine; the Sabbath as it relates to the covenants of Scripture; the Adventist understanding of the Law; and Remnant Church theology. In Part 3, Cooper turns to some other concerns including the way that Ellen White allegedly abused her power and influence in relation to people; the way the denomination has treated individuals; and the issue of tithing. Cooper concludes with an epilogue in Part 4 where she summarises her experience and her findings, concluding that SDAism obscures Christ, the center of the gospel. At the back of the book, an Appendix contains a brief description of the ’various theological factions within Adventism’ as described by Dale Ratzlaff - another ex-Adventist critic; a discussion of the nature of man [sic] arguing for the conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection; information on Ellen White’s literary assistants; and a brief critique of the Clear Word Bible - a paraphrased version of the Bible heavily promoted by Adventist Book Centres. Now I turn to my evaluation of the book. Cooper must be complimented on her rigorous research. For anyone who has kept in touch with the controversies within SDAism, there will be few surprises. Cooper describes/summarises these well and presents them persuasively in a mostly balanced approach. The book is easy to read and the extensive footnotes are invaluable for doing further research. There is some very useful historical material included. Not only does Cooper critique the doctrines and teachings of the denomination; she also includes social history related to those who disagreed with the doctrines, e.g. Dudley M Canright, Albion Fox Ballenger, Desmond Ford, Dale Ratzlaff, and Raymond Cotrell. The book is very up-to-date. There are some "problems" with the book. Firstly, Cooper is clearly not a theologian. A good deal of her writing repeats the arguments of others. For example, in the discussion of the biblical covenants, she draws on Dale Ratzlaff’s writings. Cooper’s summaries are useful, but do not always do justice to the detail and rigour of Ratzlaff’s arguments. The reader of Cooper’s book may well wish to read further in the original sources - something the footnotes make easier to do. The fact that Cooper is not a theologian shows up most obviously, in my view, when she discusses the ’nature of man’ in the Appendix. Actually, ’discusses’ is not the right term. Cooper reproduces a lengthy excerpt from Dudley M Canright’s book Seventh-day Adventism Renounced. This is a very old publication (although it has recently returned to print) so there has been a great deal of theological discussion in the intervening years within the general Christian community on this topic. Scholars such as Clark Pinnock, and others, have increasingly come to see the SDA doctrine of annihilationism and unconsciousness of the person in the intermediate state as more consistent with the holistic view of Hebrew thought about the person. Because Cooper is not a theologian and most of her theology is, therefore, "second-hand", I would encourage readers of her book to investigate the theology in much more depth, reading arguments both for and against any particular position. The investigation of any position should include this, anyway. Overall, It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-day Adventist is an engaging, informative introduction to the problems with Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and culture which should be read with the same caution one exercises with any controversial piece of literature. The overarching thesis of the book, that ’it’s all about Jesus’ is an excellent criterion for all Christians to use when evaluating doctrine. Anything which obscures the gospel about Jesus Christ should be seen as highly suspect. Click on this link to purchase It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-Day Adventist or click on the image of the book at the start of this post. Related Links

1 comment:

  1. The problem is that it doesn't take a theologian to understand what the Bible says clearly about the state of the dead.

    Nor does it take a theologian to look at plain historical documentation like that of Josephus ( which speaks of how Jews viewed the "state of the dead" during the time of Christ.

    Additionally, it doesn't take a theologian to merely go talk to Jews today and find out what they believe is "Hebrew thought" about the state of the dead, and discover that they believe in consciousness after death today, too, just as they did in the past. (google "Judaism101" for more on this topic).

    One needn't be a theologian to learn that annihilationism and soul-sleep came from George Storrs' teaching during the Millerite movement (and ironically that Miller himself rejected both beliefs).

    One needn't be a theologian to learn that annihilationism didn't appear until the fourth century in a book from Arnobius of Sicca, and that it was condemned in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.

    The weight of Biblical evidence, historical evidence (both Christian and Jewish) spells out clearly what "Hebrew thought" is on the matter.

    Now it does take a theologian to find a way to disagree with 1) the Bible, 2) Jewish history, 3) Judaism today, and 4) all of early Christian history!