Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists
The Shaking of Adventism
Geoffrey J. Paxton
Conclusion: The Shaking of Adventism
Contemporary Adventism—especially in the 1970's—is in conflict over the nature of the gospel of Paul and the Reformers. Two contrasting elements (Protestant and Roman Catholic) have always been present in the Adventist articulation of the gospel. But in the modem period they have emerged as two full-grown, distinct theologies. The Protestant articulation of the gospel stands on the Christological and soteriological gains of the 1950's and 1960's. The Roman Catholic approach, in order to survive and grow, must sweep aside twenty years of theological development, for it looks upon the Christological and soteriological emphases of the 1950's and 1960's as inimical to its theological existence. If this latter approach triumphs within Seventh-day Adventism, then there is no doubt in this writer's mind that the movement should restate its claim. For how can one further the work of the Reformers by taking their gospel and refashioning it according to the gospel of Roman Catholicism?
If Adventism has a distinctive contribution, there is little doubt that it lies in the area of eschatology. Most Reformation scholars would be quick to agree that the Reformation stopped short of a full-blown eschatological perspective consistent with its dogmatic center. However, if the Adventist Church is going to speak seriously of furthering the Reformation, she must elucidate her eschatological contribution in a way that builds upon rather than destroys the foundation laid by the Reformers.
Looking over Adventism's history as a whole, we suspect that the initial claims to furthering the Reformation were made in a fairly general fashion. It is even probable that the Reformation was understood in terms of the theological perspective of the early pioneers. Yet the movement has grown considerably since those times, and it is difficult to see how more informed, sophisticated exponents of the Adventist faith can be as naive in their claim to stand in the Reformation stream. The burden of a more faithful representation of the Reformers rests on the present-day Adventist.
The crux of the problem in modern Adventism lies in understanding the relation of justification and sanctification. It was their proper relationship which stood at the heart of the Reformation. No doubt those Adventists who insist that righteousness by faith means justification and sanctification do so out of a sincere desire to honor the law of God and avoid the antinomian pitfall. But it is equally true that those who have included sanctification in the article of righteousness by faith have done so against the better judgment of Paul and the Reformers. Further, inclusion has resulted in fusion.
The height of this approach to righteousness by faith is found in the theology of H. E. Douglass and the Review and Herald leadership of the church. Here the gospel is equated with the believer. (Rome and much neo-Protestantism—e.g., Schleiermacher— have done the same thing.) This is the inevitable result of mixing justification and sanctification. In this theology the medium (the believer) is the message. The infinite qualitative distance between the God-man Saviour and those whom He saves is qualified so that there is only a quantitative difference. Instead of being the unique Saviour, Jesus becomes the "Model Man." Imitation of Christ swallows up faith in His God-man achievement as well as ethical conduct motivated by that achievement. Anyone with the slightest grasp of the Reformation gospel will not fail to see that Douglas' theology is more consistent with Rome than the Reformers. To speak of it as "furthering the work of the Reformation" is to change the meaning of plain words.
I repeat, we must beware of being wiser than Paul and the Reformers in this matter of righteousness by faith. More than once this author has come across the mentality which says, "Sure, that is how righteousness by faith is used in Paul, but we Adventists have chosen to use it this way [i.e., to include both justification and sanctification]." This type of approach carries great dangers:
1. The chief danger is that the distinctive Adventist use of the expression will drastically alter the Pauline-Reformation use. We believe this has happened.
2. This type of approach encourages the suspicion among evangelicals that Adventists want to stand over the Bible instead of under the Bible.
3. Even if the different use of a biblical expression did not ultimately alter its meaning, such a use should still be questioned— especially when the expression is one that lies at the heart of the biblical message. This author is reminded of all too many sermons on biblical texts. Although they may not be saying something incorrect, they are not saying what the text says. While they may state theological truth, the use of the text confuses people about what the Bible is saying. People are thus encouraged to move away from the biblical message.
In this section I wish to allow myself more liberty than I have in the course of my presentation up to now The reason is that this project has more than academic interest to me. For one thing, I do not believe that justice is done to the Adventist or his movement if I look at his position from merely a detached academic viewpoint. It is obvious that, in my examination of the central hub of Adventism, the Adventist wishes me to examine myself!
From my own perspective, I cannot help but be deeply interested in the mission of Adventists. I am a churchman who stands in the tradition of the Reformation. Hence, I am more than slightly interested in a movement which unashamedly informs me that it has been raised up by God to carry forward the work of the Reformation in a way that I cannot!
Once I was assured of the fundamental Christian stance of Seventh-day Adventism, I determined to execute my task in the spirit of one who is open to being taught, even if from an unexpected source. Thus, I intend to be honest and frank, for I believe that is what a true Adventist would want me to be.
1. To begin with, the Advent movement has, when all things are considered, done amazingly well. From a small, nondescript, and isolated group of refugees from the Millerite movement, it has grown into a formidable humanitarian establishment in the world. Whatever one's creed or candor, he cannot deny this fact.
2. Further, the Adventist is one who is in utter earnestness about the execution of what he believes is his special commission from God. Irrespective of what one thinks about how well the Adventist has carried out this commission, the fact that he is a highly zealous devotee cannot be gainsaid. Nor is this earnestness mere blind religious enthusiasm in many cases. In the years of my investigation into Adventism, I have encountered a zeal for the doctrine of justification by faith barely matched anywhere else. Many of the rank-and-file Adventists I have met are completely "sold" on the gospel of free justification in Christ.
3. Another aspect of Adventist consciousness deserves commendation. The Adventist is zealous for the law of God. Zeal for God's law and legalism are not synonymous, even though some who are zealous for the law would encourage us to make the equation. However, most Adventists that I have encountered are zealous for God's law as an expression of the reality of justification in the life of the believer. To state it another way, the Adventist is anxious to hold justification by grace and judgment according to works in their proper biblical tension. He believes that so much emphasis on the former has meant a detraction from the latter. This concern to hold justification by grace and judgment according to works in proper tension must be applauded by all who wish to take the biblical perspective seriously. The proper relating of law and gospel in one's daily life is important, especially in an age of flabby sentimentalism and situation ethics.
Having said all this—and in no way intending to detract from it—I wish to express some perplexing aspects of Adventism which relate to the central concern of this book:
1. The Adventist community gives considerable evidence of being isolationist. 1 This was particularly the case in the early decades of the movement; and it is still to be found today, though to a lesser degree. The early pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism tended to believe that the Holy Spirit Dove flew straight from the apostles to their own shoulders—with only occasional stop-overs in the intervening period. They blithely brushed aside virtually the whole history of doctrinal development in the Christian church.
The price the Adventist community has paid for this is that it has had to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is fascinating to observe how Adventism has re-enacted the doctrinal struggles of the church down the ages. The movement has struggled through a period of dry legalism, the Trinitarian and Christological issues, the question of the nature of the atonement, and now it is embroiled in conflict over soteriology. (It should come as a warning to Adventism that when the Christian church arrived at the soteriological issue in the sixteenth century, there was a serious split in her ranks.) Much needless struggle—and much unnecessary suspicion from other Christians—could have been avoided if the early Adventists could have conceded that the Holy Spirit had been at work well before the "remnant" community arrived on the scene.
This isolationism is still in evidence today I have come across it more than once in my research into the movement. When, in the spirit of honest inquiry, I visited the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at Washington, D.C., I found a reluctance among leaders to be honest about the church's conflict over the nature of the gospel. I met with a real effort to assure me that all was well in the remnant community—when I knew all the while that such was not the case. This publication is a refusal to allow my Adventist brothers the privilege of dealing with the matter in a corner. The reason for my refusal is that I am convinced that the struggle the Adventist Church is undergoing at present is a struggle which concerns all evangelical Christians. And my reason for believing this is what the Adventists themselves have taught me!
Look at it this way: The Adventist has gone to great pains to assure me that God has raised him up to correct my misunderstanding of the Reformation gospel and thereby to stop my slide toward Roman Catholicism. And yet Adventism is in a life-and-death struggle over the real nature of the gospel within its own ranks. Should I not be interested in that conflict? And should not all "apostate Protestants" be interested in it as well? But who is going to listen to a community about the gospel if that community itself cannot agree on what the gospel is?
I suspect that this is why the leaders of the General Conference attempted to "play down" the struggle when I visited Washington, D.C. They were doubtless afraid that knowledge of this conflict would make their stupendous claim less credible in the Protestant world. However, as I have sought to point out, it is only fair that evangelical Protestants be made aware of the shaking that is taking place within Adventism today.
2. Another feature which I have observed within Adventism is triumphalism.2 Let me be quick to say that if anyone would be tempted to triumphalism, it would be the person who sincerely believes that he is God's latter-day special. However, triumphalism is not intrinsic to the movement, and there are enough warnings in Scripture (e.g., Mark 10:42-45) to keep the Adventist (and for that matter, all of us) on guard. Also, there are enough warnings in Ellen G. White to convince the Adventist that arrogant self-infatuation and the tendency to be a law unto oneself are contrary to the Spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19:10).
A triumphalistic church and a triumphalistic leadership will not be quick to repent and to openly acknowledge mistakes. Unqualified admission that mistakes have been made are rare in Adventism.
Take for example the period of the 1950's to the 1970's. The book, Questions on Doctrine, was a real break with past Adventist teaching on Christology, especially the matter of the sinful human nature of Christ. Yet to my knowledge there was not one open acknowledgment of this to either the rank-and-file members of the Adventist Church or to the evangelical Protestant world. Why? Why was it covered up by saying that only a few on the "lunatic fringe" held and taught what had actually been the Adventist position before that time?
At present there is evidence of a retraction of what was written in Questions on Doctrine. I have heard Adventist leaders speak of it as "damnable heresy" I have seen letters from Washington, D.C., making it plain that the present leadership of the church is much opposed to the book. Once again, there is not one open statement to this effect. Quite apart from evangelical Protestants who were led to believe that Questions on Doctrine represents the official mind of the church, many rank-and-file Adventists are in confusion about its present status among church leaders. Why all the silence? Does the Adventist leadership not wish the evangelical Protestant world to know that it has made some big mistakes?
Take also the matter of the leadership's conflict with Robert Brinsmead in the 1960's. It opposed Brinsmead and made use of Dr. Heppenstall and Dr. Ford in the process. Then, in the 1970's Brinsmead was converted to Heppenstall and Ford's position. One would expect the leaders to be overjoyed. Yet the well-nigh inexplicable fact is that the church leaders—via the Review and Herald in particular—have embraced Brinsmead's old position and, in the case of Dr. Ford at least, have brought their previous powerful instruments under pressure. The point I wish to make is this: Not one word of public acknowledgment concerning this about-face has come from the leadership of the church. There is only astounding silence about the fact that what was opposed in the 1960's is now embraced. Why the lack of candor? Is this leadership able to truly repent?
In reviewing the central thrust of Adventism, I have been intrigued to observe the striking parallels between the leadership's behavior at the time of the 1888 revival and the role of the leadership today in the current conflict. Is the present shaking 1888 redivivus? Let me cite a few examples of what I speak about.
In discussing issues with some of the church's leaders in Washington, D.C., I met with the assurance that there "isn't an Adventist in the land who doesn't know what justification by faith alone is." Did not Uriah Smith, then editor of the Review and Herald, say exactly the same thing in response to the revival that Waggoner and Jones were bringing? 3
Likewise, the great fear of Uriah Smith was that the new emphasis of Waggoner and Jones was similar to the doctrine of Protestant "Babylonians." Has not this same response been forthcoming in the present shaking? Have there not been fears expressed that the new emphasis on justification within Adventism is an adoption of "Babylonian" Protestant religion?
Furthermore, both in the 1888 crisis and in the present struggle, I have observed the call back to "Historic" Adventism by those in opposition to the revival of justification by faith.
How can the Seventh-day Adventist Church call the evangelical Protestant churches to repentance when she gives little evidence —particularly among her leadership —of knowing what real repentance actually is? Perhaps, in light of some references to repentance in recent issues of the Review and Herald, I should make clear that I am referring to repentance on central theological matters and not to window-dressing repentance on side issues. Of course, what I say to my brethren in the Adventist community I say to my own denomination and to Christians everywhere. Let us pray that we shall not be like Esau, who sought repentance and did not find it.
3. There is the Adventist fear of antinomianism. No one who wishes to take the Bible seriously should quibble at this fear. We mention it here not to criticize it as such, but rather to draw attention to the unhealthy office that it frequently holds in Adventism.
The fear of antinomianism often drives the Adventist into the opposite error of legalism. Both legalism and antinomianism are to be avoided. Both errors seek to rob God of His glory. But the Adventist must beware of thinking that legalism is the lesser of the two evils.
The attempt within Adventism to place sanctification in the article of righteousness by faith is an effort to avoid antinomianism. There is the fear that, if justification is stressed, sanctification will be given lesser stress. But this fear is not biblical. Not only is it not biblical, but excluding sanctification from the article of righteousness by faith actually ends antinomianism. The law is only honored when there is an unqualified acknowledgment that all of its demands, in their severest dimension, are met in the doing and dying of Jesus, the God-man. This is the good news! However, when it is suggested that the believer's keeping of the law constitutes a part of the good news (or the whole!), as in the theology of Douglass, then the law is dishonored. For all the efforts of the believer in this life never reach the standard of God Himself in the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Adventist community must overcome the type of reaction to antinomianism that results in legalism if it is to show the Protestant world the proper relation between the law and the gospel.
4. Finally, I wish to comment on the use of Ellen G. White in the present shaking within Adventism. When I interpret Mrs. White at her best, I I hear her calling the Adventist community back to the Bible as the final norm in all matters of controversy:
"The Bible is to be presented as the word of the infinite God, as the end of all controversy and the foundation of all faith." 4
Yet in the present shaking within Adventism, I have observed a frantic rushing to the voluminous writings of Ellen White to find statements that will score a point against the opponent. This is to say nothing of the dreaded "compilations" which wrench this saying and that saying out of context and then place them side by side to form the authoritative last word in the struggle. This type of action neither honors the Bible nor Mrs. White. It is a sad sign of a people who take another human being—however gifted and used of God— and place her above the Bible and herself.
That is not all. I mentioned that Mrs. White wrote voluminously Those writings took place over a considerable period of time. They took place in specific contexts, and they stood in a definite relationship to each other. To use those writings correctly (so as not to misrepresent them) requires a great deal more skill than is generally being exhibited. I know for a fact that some scholars within Adventism are very concerned over the superficial and childish use made of Ellen White's writings. She has a wax nose. She is turned this way, and then that way, and then this way again. If Adventists wish to bring Mrs. White to the place where she has no authority at all in their movement, let them keep using her writings as a source for point-scoring in their intra-church squabbles. The final end of being made to take all positions is to take no position at all!
I fear very deeply that the use made of Mrs. White in Seventh-day Adventism is testimony to an un-Protestant attitude toward the Bible. I fear that many Adventists have a Roman Catholic (can we even say that any more?) belief that the Bible is too difficult for rank-and-file Christians to understand. In place of the Bible, they turn to Mrs. White to tell them what God says. The leaders, theologians, and pastors of the church must accept the blame for this state of affairs. Who else has taught the laity to behave this way? Let me say clearly that, so long as this situation exists, Adventism has no hope of influencing evangelical Protestants who claim the Reformers—with their Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) —as their forefathers.
I conclude with a charge to the church's leaders, theologians, and pastors:
The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union; all who bow to this Holy Word will be in harmony Our own views and ideas must not control our efforts. Man is fallible, but God's Word is infallible. Instead of wrangling with one another, let men exalt the Lord. Let us meet all opposition as did our Master, saying, "It is written." Let us lift up the banner on which is inscribed, The Bible our rule of faith and discipline.5
1. Isolationist does not mean being a distinctive denomination but behaving as though no other denomination exists.
2. Consider the following as an example of triumphalism. At a General Conference worship, Jan. 9, 1976, Robert H. Pierson said: "When you and I joined the General Conference family something special happened to us. When we begin work in the General Conference office we become part of what inspiration describes as God's highest authority on earth. ... All of us are something special in God's sight. Our relationship to our church, to the world field, to one another, and to the work entrusted to us is unique. We are part of 'the highest authority that God has on earth.'... These three buildings are not ordinary buildings.... These buildings constitute a consecrated place where God, through His appointed servants —you, me — directs His worldwide work. ... As those of us here on the General Conference staff continue our unique service for Him, let us remember that we are daily, hourly, momentarily a part of a group of leaders that constitute the highest authority of God upon earth..." (Robert H. Pierson, The Ministry, June 1976). Pope Paul, please take note! (A thoughtful observer could not but see that this Rome-like ecclesiology springs from a soteriology of the same character.)
3. Uriah Smith, "Our Righteousness," Review and Herald, 11 June 1889; idem, "Our Righteousness Again," ibid., 2 July 1889.
4. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 39-40.
5. E.G. White, Selected Messages, 1:416.