This three-part article series was originally a talk given at the Questions on Doctrine 50th Anniversary Conference at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI (October 24–27, 2007).
For the last two weeks I’ve been discussing Seventh-day Adventism. Part 1 highlighted my own experiences in studying Adventism, particularly the influence of counter-cult specialist and personal friend Dr. Walter Martin and his call for Adventism to be included in the Christian body. Part 2 discussed the changes in Adventism’s theology and how they distinguish it from cults like Mormonism, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This week I’ll close with a look at the interactions between traditional evangelical theology and Seventh-day Adventism in the twentieth century—and what they mean for us in the twenty-first century.
Evangelical-Adventist Dialogues of the 1950s
It is ironic that the discussions between the evangelicals and the Adventists in the 1950s, while intending to bring unity, actually succeeded in sparking increased controversy on both sides. Some evangelical scholars on cults and new religious movements (both 50 years ago and today) are not completely persuaded by Martin’s assessment of Adventism (see part 1),1 though for the most part his position has carried the theological day among evangelicals.
Adventist historian George R. Knight explains that, within Adventism, the book Questions on Doctrine “easily qualifies as the most divisive book in Seventh-day Adventist history.”2 It appears that much of the doctrinal controversy that divided Adventists into competing “traditional” versus “evangelical” camps in the 1970s and 1980s can be traced to issues addressed in that book.
Fifty years later, the doctrinal issues raised by the evangelical-Adventist dialogues are still being debated. However, at least four positive features resulted from those historic discussions.
1. Martin and pastor and theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse set a good example for how to properly engage in Christian apologetic and doctrinal discussion with other religious bodies. Namely, go to the source. Martin could have played the role of an armchair apologist and critic of Seventh-day Adventism and written his books without any serious interaction with the Adventists. But what he did was attempt to practice what I call the golden rule of apologetics: “Treat other peoples’ beliefs and arguments the way you want yours to be treated.”
A genuine Christian theological critique of the viewpoints of others should be characterized by honesty, fair play, and by the willingness to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. This approach involves a willingness to read their statements of belief in the best and truest light possible. However, to fulfill this high scholastic calling, interaction is required. To be candid, as a non-Adventist, I sometimes struggle to understand, let alone convey, the details and subtleties of Adventist doctrine and practice. I’m therefore grateful to the numerous Adventist scholars, pastors, and administrators who have helped me better understand their views.
2. Martin and Barnhouse demonstrated rare apologetic courage in publishing their controversial assessment of Adventism when they knew it would undoubtedly create quite a stir in the conservative Protestant evangelical ranks. Martin said that when they revealed their findings in several editions of Eternity magazine, 25 percent of the magazine’s subscribers withdrew their subscriptions. How many Christian publications today would be willing to take such a risk? Evangelical Christian organizations often avoid controversial doctrinal issues lest they lose financial support.
3. The basic openness and honesty of the Adventists who met with Martin in the 1950s should be applauded. While I’m aware that some Adventist scholars today believe that “Freada” (Adventists Froom, Read, and Anderson) were less than completely candid in representing certain Adventist distinctive doctrines (for example, the fallen nature of Christ),3 I think they were engaged in a difficult task and overall represented the diversity of Adventism well. The central goal of Questions on Doctrine was to answer questions posed by evangelicals, not to necessarily set forth a systematic statement of Adventist beliefs (such as is found in the later book Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines).
As an educator, I’m impressed with the question-and-answer format represented in Questions on Doctrine. As well, I appreciate the careful summary of where Adventists agree with other conservative Christian groups and where their views are distinctly their own.
4. As an interested outsider with my nose pressed to the window, I see quite a bit of theological diversity within Seventh-day Adventism. In some ways it reminds me of present-day evangelicalism. One strand of Adventism appears quite traditional, another very liberal, and still another distinctly evangelical. There also seems to be a segment that is atheological in nature and reflects what I would call a cultural Adventism.
The strand of Adventism that Martin and I most identified with is evangelical Adventism. If the use of the word “evangelical” is too self-serving on my part, then maybe I could call it a “gospel-oriented” Adventism. The word “evangelical” comes, of course, from the Greek euangellion, which means “gospel” or “good news.”
Gospel-oriented Adventists are indeed genuine Adventists. They believe deeply that God raised the Seventh-day Adventist church up for a special purpose—to usher in the Second Coming of Christ. They also respect and honor the seventh-day Sabbath. In addition they believe that Ellen G. White possessed the spirit of prophecy. However, gospel-oriented Adventists owe their final allegiance to the authority of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). White’s writings are tested by Scripture and not the reverse.
The doctrinal feature that sets this branch of Adventism apart is its view of the gospel. Gospel-oriented Adventists believe that their right standing before God rests not in their own obedience to the Law of God, but rather they place their complete confidence in Jesus Christ and in his perfect substitutionary atonement for their sins on the cross.4 These evangelically oriented Adventists believe that salvation comes solely by grace, through faith alone, and only in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). They also believe that the Christian life is lived out passionately in gratitude to God for his precious gift of salvation (Ephesians 2:10).
Evangelical Adventists also recognize that Adventism’s important doctrinal distinctives of Sabbatarianism, the spirit of prophecy, and the belief in the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming are only made truly meaningful when a person fully embraces the gospel of grace. Evangelical Adventists insist that if God raised their church up for a special purpose, then they definitely can’t afford to get the gospel message wrong.
The roots of this robust type of Adventism go back to the nineteenth century and can be traced through the Adventist leaders who dialogued with Barnhouse and Martin. I also see it clearly articulated in the gospel presentation found in the classic Adventist source Questions on Doctrine. As the Seventh-day Adventist church continues its rapid growth in the twenty-first century, I pray that God will bless the church with an increasing number of Adventists who believe, teach, and live out this grace-oriented understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Just before he died, Martin expressed to me a few concerns about the theological state of affairs within Adventism, as he saw it. He wondered whether Adventism really stood behind the book Questions on Doctrine, and, if so, why the book had been allowed to go out of print. He also expressed concern about whether Adventism had come to view White as the infallible interpreter of Scripture. He was also perplexed by the fact that leading evangelical Adventists such as Desmond Ford and others had been fired by the church. Finally, he told me that he was planning to write a new book on Seventh-day Adventism, and he asked me to assist him on that project.
In retrospect, Walter Martin had a significant and abiding influence upon the Adventist church itself. He also greatly influenced how an entire generation of evangelical Christians came to view Seventh-day Adventism.
What do you think of the relationship between evangelicals and Adventists? Should certain branches of Adventism be considered as part of the Christian church?
1. For varying views expressed by knowledgeable evangelical scholars on Seventh-day Adventism, see Philip Johnson, “Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements: A Holistic Approach (Part Two),” Sacred Tribes Journal of Christian Missions to New Religious Movements, Summer/Fall 2002, http://www.sacredtribes.com/issue1/apolog2.htm; James Bjornstad, “Seventh-day Adventism,” Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, http://www.ankerberg.com/Articles/_PDFArchives/apologetics/AP1W0999.pdf (accessed August 4, 2007).
2. Knight, Questions on Doctrine, xiii.
3. Ibid., xv-xvii.
4. See Michelle Rader, David VanDenburgh, and Larry Christoffel, “Evangelical Adventism: Clinging to the Old Rugged Cross,” Adventist Today, January–February 1994, http://www.atoday.com/magazine/1994/01/evangelical-adventism-clinging-old-rugged-cross.