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Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology

by Claude Webster

Chapter Six


Having traversed the Christological paths of four representative Seventh-day Adventist theologians, the time has come for us to summarize and reflect on the course we have covered.

In this concluding chapter we will attempt to cover four points. Firstly, we will endeavor to contrast the primary motivation underlying the Christology of each author. Secondly, we will compare the views of our representatives in three cardinal relationships. Thirdly, we will reflect on the overall Christology of our four theologians with a view to the challenge of the future.

Finally, we will conclude with some capsule proposals in summary form. I. Underlying Motivations Contrasted In this section we wish to paint a thumbnail sketch of the contrasting motivations underlying the Christological thinking of each representative.

A. Ellen White's Concern for God's Character

Ellen White's primary concern that the entire universe become assured of the benevolent character and purpose of God, and that all understand the law of self-renouncing love to be the foundation of His government, is an essential one for her Christology. In the broad sweep of cosmic history and reality she stresses the significant role played by Christ in his entire function as Mediator, Revelator and Redeemer. Important as man and his destiny are, the larger theocentric issues dominate Ellen White's thinking and are foundational to her view of the history of this world. The stakes are so high that the function and person of Christ take on vital dimensions. In her thinking, Christ assumes the highest priority in upholding the sovereignty, honor and glory of God. This concern of Ellen White should be seen as of ultimate importance in her Christology.

We would suggest that for Ellen White sin is not the ultimate factor in the world. God's love, God's grace and God's purposes are of even greater import than the terrible tragedy of sin. We have seen in our review of Ellen White, that she pictured God's gracious plan to create man as prior to the entrance of sin in heaven. In fact, she implies that sin arose in Lucifer's heart precisely over Christ's involvement in the creation of man. God had some divine intention of love and grace in the creation of man which would also embrace divine fellowship. She saw sin arising as a temporary interlude, seeking to halt God's purposes, but in vain. In love God continued with His plan to create this world and man through Christ. Once the aberration of sin has been destroyed, she sees everyone acknowledging that God is indeed love and that His plans are gracious. For her, the cross will ever be the central theme of the science of salvation, not because sin is the greatest force in God's realm, but because here is the unsurpassable revelation of the love and holiness, the mercy and justice, and the grace and righteousness of God, that both settles the problem of sin and vindicates God's character for eternity.

B. Waggoner's Concern for the Achievement of Holiness in Man

Underlying everything in Waggoner's Christology is his concern for the way in which righteousness is to be achieved in man. In this connection let us firstly reflect on Waggoner's insistence on the divinity of Christ. We have seen how he argues for a deity of Christ in which the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. But it is crucial to note that for Waggoner this inherent divinity of Christ incorporates the concept of power. This power, moreover, is precisely that which enables man to life the righteous life. Waggoner continually carries his argument from the divinity of Christ to its implications for the life of man. We also notice that in Waggoner's emphasis on the creative and regal power of Christ, his concern is once again for the fact that this power is available for man. Because Christ has all the power of divinity in His being, He will bring this same power into the heart of man when He comes to abide there. Thus for Waggoner the divinity of Christ is essential because it guarantees power for righteous living in the life of the believer.

Waggoner's treatment of the humanity of Christ shows a similar tendency. We have noticed that he sees Christ's humanity as real in that Christ took upon Himself sinful flesh. 8ut Waggoner's main underlying concern was that if Christ could live righteously in humanity nineteen hundred years ago, then all sinful humanity can do this again through the indwelling of Christ. Thus we can see that Waggoner's view on the humanity of Christ was an extension of his basic concern for the achievement of holiness in man. We have seen how Waggoner believes that God can come into the flesh of man again and in a sense repeat the Incarnation. Sinful humanity is no hindrance for the divine Christ to take up His abode in the heart and once more grant power for righteous living. Thus, even the Incarnation is subordinate to his central concern, and in the later Waggoner the actual historical Incarnation was overshadowed by the need to stress an 'experiential' incarnation in which Christ becomes flesh again in the life.

C. Heppenstall's Concern for Objective Salvation

There can be no doubt that Heppenstall's emphasis an objective salvation in Christ has been of supreme importance at a time when many have turned to more subjective concerns. This has been highlighted in Heppenstall's counterbalance to the traditional Adventist stress on ethics and the law. There is no question that Heppenstall strongly maintains the law of "God as a standard of righteousness, but he clearly advocates the ideal intention of Adventism that the law can never be a method of salvation, because only the objective life and death of Jesus Christ is the means to salvation. Heppenstall's concern for objective salvation can be seen in his understanding of salvation by grace alone. In a particularly significant way Heppenstall has nurtured this fundamental Protestant principle within Adventism against the danger of turning obedience from fruitage into a means of salvation. This concern has motivated Heppenstall in keeping Jesus Christ and His perfection at the heart of all soteriology and eschatology.

Furthermore, Heppenstall's interest in objective salvation is marked by his use of the substitutionary model in His Christology. From every angle he approaches this objective salvation through reliance upon the substitutionary life and work of Jesus Christ. Quite clearly he cannot present either the doctrine of assurance or of salvation on the basis of man's following the example of Jesus. For him it is the sinless life of Christ that stands in place of man's sinful life; it is the objective sacrifice on the cross that saves the sinner; it is on Calvary that Christ died in the sinner's place. A further example of Heppenstall's emphasis on substitution is his insistence that the blood shed for us can never defile but only cleanse, and that the intercession of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary gives assurance instead of fear, and again, that Christ's work of judgment in the pre-advent judgment is on behalf of the saints rather than against them.

D. Douglass' Concern for Christlikeness

Underlying all of Douglass' Christology has been his main concern for Christian living based on the example of the humanity of Jesus. We have previously noted that Waggoner was likewise concerned for Christian or righteous living, but whereas he relied upon the divinity of Christ to reach this goal, in contrast, Douglass stresses the role of the humanity of Jesus in achieving a similar objective. Furthermore, whereas Waggoner found the secret of righteousness in the internal Christ dwelling and reigning in the heart, Douglass believes that the solution is found in imitating an external, historical Jesus by reliance on the Father.

We have already observed Douglass' preoccupation with Christian living. For him all Christological roads lead to the destination of successful Christian living. Whatever Christ was or had to offer would be tested on the touchstone of the Christian life. Hence Douglass' interest in the development within man of his talents, the constant search for the quality of life, the ardent desire to see people happy, healthy and friendly. The world should be able to observe the demonstration of this successful Christian living. All sinful acts or tendencies should be eradicated from the life in order to make the practical life as appealing as possible.

Because of the real and genuine humanity of Jesus, the call to perfection and Christian living is not an idle call, but a heartening challenge. Douglass has not wanted a Christ who is merely an astronaut from outer space, decked in a space suit and immune from the realities of the human situation. He has wanted a Christ who took man's sinful nature and can, therefore, meet him in his situation, his needs and his temptations. Christ's example is not an illusive target. He sees Christ's life as an attainable goal for sin-weary men and women. The humanity of Jesus is thus a constant pattern for man at all stages of his life. Douglass' entire eschatology hinges on his central concern, namely, that men and women imitate the human example of Jesus to the extent that God ill ultimately be satisfied with man's performance.

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