Perplexing Patterns in Adventist Higher Education that Hint of Creeping Secularization

November 9, 2013
T. Joe Willey, PhD


The SDA Church in North America sponsors twelve post-secondary institutions.  Three are “colleges” and the others have advanced to “university” status — although some observers say there is little difference between the two groups.  Embedded in these institutions are undergraduate and graduate professional health schools.  Andrews University has an affiliated theological seminary devoted to ministerial training.  These institutions represent a major investment on the part of the Church (~ $35 million) and depend to a significant extent on government grants and scholarships (~ $170 million).  Overall, parents and students collectively spend nearly half-a-billion dollars annually to attend the schools, often going into considerable debt.

A conservative element in the church appears to be ambivalent toward secular accreditation of the schools.  They also deem naturalistic (science) education as dangerous and are apprehensive about too much academic freedom in these institutions.  Secular accreditation (required to qualify for government funds) is designed to assist our schools in graduating successful mainstream Americans and allows the government to provide major funding from the national treasury.  In this context, many assume that the more control the church has over its institutions, the more faithful to the church the colleges will be.  Undoubtedly this explains why Adventist post-secondary institutions have remained remarkably true to the Christian vision of their founders.  But all of these institutions face secularizing challenges in various ways.

Along with other Protestants, Adventists embrace the ideal of free and open inquiry.  The proponents of this idea recognize the importance of harmonizing science and revelation as a way of grounding theological doctrines and teachings.  However, the ideal promoted by the self-appointed staunch guardians of Adventist education has created profound social and cultural tension between church leaders and educators.  It does not take a sharp eye to discern the thinly disguised religious concerns over science, theology, philosophy and other aspects of higher education in these schools.  The noble desire to educate rather than indoctrinate can be found in a range of voices from liberal to conservative to fundamentalist.  It is important to remember that Adventists are part of “the world at large” and not just visitors, while awaiting the second coming.

Questions to ponder:

1.       What is the relationship between “true religion” and modern science?

2.       Is the term “Adventist University” an oxymoron?

3.       Can truth reveal itself equally in different doctrines, even if they contradict one another?

4.       Does the fundamentalist option risk becoming another form of ongoing individuation of religious identity?

5.       Is education at an Adventist college designed to serve as an alternative to other available programs?

6.       What is the effect of demonizing scientific biology and claiming insufficient orthodoxy on young energetic university students preparing for healthcare professions?

7.       Can church leadership make sufficient truth claims using religious freedom to shore up authority and unity in the Church?

8.       What happens when religious fundamentalism hardens its religious boundaries?  Can scholars track these patterns in other traditions?

9.       What could be the possible effect on secular accreditation if the present arguments prevail in the lawsuit involving three La Sierra University professors?

T. Joe Willey, PhD

T. Joe Willey received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley.  After graduation he joined the faculty at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine where he taught and conducted research for fifteen years.  During this time he was a fellow at New York University in Buffalo with Sir John Eccles, a Nobel Prize winner, and had a joint appointment at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA.  He has also taught at both Walla Walla University and La Sierra University.  Dr. Willey has contributed a number of articles on accreditation to Spectrum and Adventist Today and Reports to the National Center on Science Education.

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