Last November, Carl Cosaert, a professor of religious studies at Walla Walla College, was named president of the Adventist Theological Society. If you're wondering why this is newsworthy--something that should be of interest to conservative Adventists--read on, my friend.
The original scholarly society in the Adventist Church was the Andrews Society for Religious Studies, first organized in 1979, and now known as the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS). But the ASRS came to be dominated by liberal scholars whose critical methods of scholarship were little different than those of liberal religious scholars in so many seminaries and universities. Mainstays of the ASRS included Fritz Guy and Larry Geraty, both of whom served as presidents of La Sierra while it was becoming . . . well, what it became. In 2010, the president of the ASRS was Bonnie Dwyer, long-time editor of Spectrum Magazine.
Conservative scholars saw a need for a society whose members would approach their scholarship from a standpoint of basic belief in the inspiration of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. In 1988, at Southern Adventist University, the conservative scholars broke off from the ASRS and formed the Adventist Theological Society (ATS). It was designed to be the conservative, believing, orthodox alternative to the ASRS. The first president of the Adventist Theological Society was Jack Blanco, a professor at Southern and the author of The Clear Word, a paraphrase of the Bible. In 1990, the ATS began to publish the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society.
The ATS planned to retain its conservative character by requiring that all contributors to the Journal subscribe to the following points of faith:
1. The substitutionary atonement,
2. Scripture is inspired and infallible,
3. Historical-grammatical method of Bible study, not criticism of Scripture
4. A literal six-day creation, Flood geology and a young earth,
5. The investigative judgment, historicism in prophecy, and the day-year principle,
6. Ellen White a prophet,
These seem like core principles of the Adventist faith, and not too much to ask of a religious scholar holding himself out as an Adventist. For obvious reasons, the ATS has been more popular with lay Adventists than the ASRS.
So why is it significant that Carl Cosaert was named president of the ATS? Because only three years ago, in 2013, Cosaert had been president of the ASRS. That's like Donna Brazile serving as chairwoman of the DNC and then, three years later, serving as chair of the RNC. Apparently, as of last year there isn't enough ideological difference between the "liberal" ASRS and the "conservative" ATS to prevent the president of one from also serving as president of the other three years later. (And, yes, this is the first time the president of one of the associations has later served as president of the other.)
What has apparently liberalized the ATS is the issue of female ordination. In order to keep the peace, the ATS and the JATS have stayed away from the topic, but most of their scholars are pro-female ordination, which means they have much in common with the scholars of the ASRS. Carl Cosaert himself is pro-female ordination and was on the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. He must have drawn the short straw, because he was given the unenviable task of explaining away the key text against female elders: 1 Tim. 2:11-15. His approach was to argue that there were domineering female teachers at the church in Ephesus, and hence Paul's directive, despite his appeal to the order of creation and the history of the Fall, was of local significance only. I leave the reader to judge how well Cosaert succeeded in explaining away such a clear and unequivocal passage of Scripture.
A few years ago, one of the founders of the ATS was relating some of the history of that organization to several listeners, including Gerry Wagoner and me. He related a conversation he had with one of the liberal scholars, who was arguing the pointlessness of founding the ATS. The liberal said something like this, "it doesn't matter what you do, what creeds you require people to sign in order to join your society; we [liberals] will eventually take it over." And it seems they have at last.