During the past few years individuals and groups that
have reacted strongly to a range of questions facing the Seventh-day
Adventist Church have used the expression "historic Adventism"
to identify their particular understanding of these issues. The issues
in question include the atonement, the humanity of Christ,
2 the emphasis
on justification by faith, 1888 and its meaning, the Desmond Ford crisis
(and other threats to the sanctuary doctrine), Walter Rea and challenges
to the authority and integrity of Ellen White, styles of worship, and
Adventist lifestyle concerns. They use "historic Adventism" to
imply strongly that the "historical" interpretation is the
"orthodox" and "traditional" brand of standard
The comments in this chapter dealing with historic Adventism's claims
regarding Adventist doctrinal orthodoxy will largely be restricted to
the nature of Christ, especially His humanity. But before we begin our
examination of the relationship of the nature of Christ to the central
truths that have historically defined Adventist theology, I would first
of all like to confess my convictions regarding the absolute centrality
Adventist theology has confessed Christ's full divinity (as the
second person of the divine Trinity) and His full humanity. The issue
that has divided the church, especially in the past 40 years, has to do
with just how closely Christ "identified" with humanity.
The so-called historic Adventists have wanted to elevate their
distinctive views on the humanity of Christ to the level
of a "pillar" or plank in the "platform of present
truth." Is there evidence from Ellen White and the Adventist
history of doctrinal development to support such a claim?
Certainly confessing the full humanity of Christ has
become a part of the Adventist doctrinal heritage and absolutely central
to a full understanding of how God goes about redeeming the lost. But
can we raise the particular understandings and teachings of the "historics"
(or any Adventists) to the same status?
Clarification of Terminology
Instead of "historic" or "traditional
Adventism," I would suggest the following: "Christian, or
eternal, verities" for basic doctrines embraced by Adventists and
held by most other Christians,
Adventism" for that which is distinctively Adventist, "processive
Adventism" for those issues that are important but still unsettled,
and "nonessential Adventism"5
to describe that which is
interesting, but not central to Adventist self-understanding.
In view of the terms I have suggested as the
framework for the discussion to follow, I would suggest that we see the
confession of Christ's full deity and humanity as a part of the
"Christian, or eternal, verities"
that Adventism confesses with the larger Christian
tradition. As to the issue of just how identical His full humanity is to
our sinful nature, I would tentatively suggest that we place this
question in the category of "processive
Adventism" rather than "essential Adventism." Is there
evidence from both Ellen White and Adventist history to support the
classifications I have suggested? Before answering this question, let's
take a closer look at the expression "historic Adventism."
Historic Adventism: The Perplexing History
In addition to the divisive and polemical
connotations of such expressions as "historic Adventism," I
would suggest some historical reasons for regarding the term as of
questionable value in Adventist theological discussion and development.
One does not have to study very far into Adventist
history before discovering numerous theological wrecks lying on the
Adventist doctrinal highway. They certainly qualify as historic, but
they have not stood the test of time and theological scrutiny.
6 The semi-Arianism
of many of our most prominent pioneers is a theological dead letter
today (Schwarz 167, 168, 395ff.).7
I have not met an
Adventist Arian in my lifetime! Yet Arianism is part of Adventist
history and could qualify historically as
historic Adventism! We could say the same of early views about when the
Sabbath should begin, early understandings of Systematic Benevolence,
the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the shut door. Could it be that
some views presently held as very near and dear to historic (and other)
Adventists will go the way of Arianism?
We should also mention that such issues as the human
nature of Christ, the interpretation of 1888, and the meaning of
Christian perfection have always had differing interpretations in the
Adventist doctrinal tradition. It is becoming clearer to this writer, a
self-confessed former post-Fall perfectionist, that advancing research
suggests that the so-called historic Adventists have no corner on any
orthodox understanding of these issues.
Christ's Humanity: A Brief Interpretive History
While Ralph Larson has demonstrated (in The
Word Was Made Flesh) that a rather strong consensus on a
post-Fall view existed until the middle 1950s, George Knight has also
shown that there was provocative
opposition to the post-Fall view of none other than A.
T. Jones in the mid-1890s (Knight 132-150).
with advancing research (Knight 36ff.). While it is true that Jones
and Waggoner were strong proponents of the post-Fall view of Christ's
humanity and perfection, one searches the 1888 comments of Ellen White
in vain for any statements that emphasize the humanity of Christ and
perfection as major Minneapolis issues.8
To the contrary, it is becoming
I would also submit that the interpretation of 1888
that holds that the key emphases generated by that crisis were the
post-Fall view of Christ's humanity and the issue of perfection is
becoming more suspect
clearer that 1888 represented a theological crisis
and was, in the thinking of Ellen White, primarily a crisis brought on
by a misunderstanding of justification by faith and a lack of charity in
"Essential Adventism" Further Clarified
As mentioned above, I am proposing the expression
a more inclusive, workable term in seeking to resolve what we mean by
distinctive Adventism. I am suggesting that it would
include doctrines and issues that have (1) achieved
wide consensus and (2) given Adventism its distinctive theological and
practical flavor, as opposed to what I have called "processive"
Consider a few of the following historical precedents
and some of the implications they suggest:
1. Adventism and CreedsAdventism has always taken a rather
dim view of creeds, and it
seems as though the persons who use such expressions as historic
Adventism would very much like to see Adventism go a strongly creedal
route-the implication being that if you don't see it our way, you are
not a sound Adventist and are opening up a Pandora's box of compromise,
sin, and degenerate apostasy. Such attitudes do not seem to fit the mold
of the anticreedal, broader Adventist theological framework.
2. The Tension Between the "Pillars" and "New Light"A
tension has always existed between the "pillars" of present
truth and "new light." An essential conservatism in Adventist
theological formation has always pulled back when new light has been
proposed, but there has also been a clear understanding that "we
have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn" (CWE 37;
also see Schwarz 393, 394).
So while we have things to conserve, we also have
things to let go of and new things to pick up on. If we get too tight
and too specific, we may frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in
bringing forth fresh insights from the Word of God.
Adventism's "Essential" Doctrinal Framework
What should be the Christian and "essential"
framework of Adventist theological discourse?
First the broadly Christian. Adventism is primarily
Christian in the sense of upholding the great verities of the faith. We
strongly affirm such doctrines as the full deity of Christ, the Trinity,
the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the bodily resurrection of Christ,
and the Lord's Supper.
In a more focused way, we are thoroughly Protestant in
that we take biblical authority as the court of last resort in matters
of faith and practice (as opposed to tradition, ecclesiastical
authority, and even postbiblical prophets or revelations) and emphasize
justification by faith, not human works, as the basis of salvation.
I would further suggest that we have appropriated
important strands from (1) Wesleyanism/Arminianism, especially in our
form of church governance, God's respect for the integrity of human
choice, and emphasis on the importance of sanctification; (2)
Restorationism, with its emphasis on seeking to restore the primitive
simplicity of the New Testament church, building "the old waste
places," repairing "the breach," and restoring
"paths to dwell in" (Isa. 58:12); and (3) the Baptist
tradition, with its emphasis on believers' baptism by immersion and
We are thus broadly in agreement with the basic
orthodoxy of the Christian tradition and we are thoroughly Protestant.
All of this is certainly essential to our Christian self-understanding.
Adventism, how ever, has a more distinctive, essential cast that goes
beyond the great eternal verities of our Christian and Protestant
Before we venture a suggestion as to what the
distinctive essentials of Adventism might be, we should first ask what
constitutes the theological essentials of a given tradition. It seems
that theological essentials consist of doctrines and practices that a
tradition could not do without and still retain its unique identity.
Such a tradition might share numerous theological commonalities with
other traditions, but such distinctive essentials would be what give it
its special identity.
Perhaps we can best illustrate this distinctiveness by a
brief comparison of Adventism with Confessional Lutheranism.
Adventists want to affirm justification by faith and the
"presence" of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
has not been comfortable with the Confessional
Lutheran emphasis on "faith alone" that has tended to exclude
an emphasis on sanctification. Neither have we accepted the liturgical,
literalistic understanding of "presence" in the Lord's Supper.
As Adventists we have tended to see the elements as more symbolic, while
affirming the spiritual power and effects of the ceremony. Yet it is
this more rigorous "faith alone" understanding of
justification and the literal presence of Jesus in the Lord's Supper
that give Lutheranism its distinctiveness (Dayton and Johnston,
"Adventist Essentials" Identified—What gives
Adventism its special, distinctive flavor? What are those essentials
that, if one took them away, would leave Adventism theologically
emasculated? What are those doctrines that, taken together, have given
us our theological identity?
I would suggest the following: the second coming of
Jesus as literal, visible, cataclysmic, imminent, posttribulation, and
premillennial; the millennium as a distinct period coming between the
Second Coming and the final executionary judgment of the wicked and the
setting up of the everlasting earthly kingdom; the application of
"historicist" as opposed to "preterist" and
"futurist" principles of prophetic interpretation (especially
in the study of the books of Daniel and Revelation); the eternal and
universal authority of the law of God; the seventh-day Sabbath as a
moral requirement for New Testament Christians and the eschatological
sign of trusting and obedient Christians in the last days; the sanctuary
and pre-Advent judgment teaching, with its emphasis on Christ as our
high priestly advocate, judge, justifier, and sanctifier; the
understanding of human nature, especially as this interpretation points
to the importance of physical health, the conditional nature of
immortality, and the utter annihilation of the wicked; and the
theological influence of Ellen White as an
authoritative prophet of God. These, I would suggest, are the
distinctive essentials of Adventism.
They are the truths that have stood the test of time and
been expounded with a strong consensus in our journals and books, have
been proclaimed by our pastors and evangelists, and are supported by
Ellen White and the Essentials
In reference to Ellen White, I would suggest that she
supported all of the above-listed essentials. She, however, advocated an
even more limited listing of the essentials, or landmarks.
In the crisis-laden atmosphere of 1888, facing the
charge that the new emphasis on justification by faith would do away
with the landmarks, Ellen White gave a rather terse definition of
distinctive Adventism. Referring to "the cleansing of the sanctuary
in heaven," its "decided relation to God's people on the
earth," and the three angels' messages, she declared that "one
of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His
truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God.
The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong
rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God's law. The
nonimmortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind
nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks. All this
cry about changing the old landmarks is all imaginary" (CWE 30,
I find it instructive that when Ellen White found
herself in a crisis atmosphere regarding the issues of righteousness by
faith, facing charges that the justificationist emphasis was endangering
the pillars and the landmarks, she could in response only suggest a few
issues that were the distinctive essentials of Adventism. She was even
more succinct in her listing of landmarks than I have been in suggesting
The Implications for Historic Adventism
Would it be fair to conclude that when we get into
disagreements about righteousness by faith (and closely related issues
such as the humanity of Christ), we need to be cautious about
questioning the legitimacy of the Adventist credentials of any person
who might have a differing perspective?
Taken as a whole, these essentials have given Adventism a clearly
identifiable theological cast that is uniquely its own. Some of these
points we share with others, some are quite uniquely our own, but taken
together they make Seventh-day Adventism "essentially"
Is it asking too much to agree that all who affirm these essentials
can be called Adventist despite differing perspectives on issues related
to righteousness by faith and the more distinctive understandings of
Christ's humanity? I would suggest that within this
suggested framework of essential Adventism, standing on the platform of
the great eternal verities that we share with most Bible-affirming
Christians (especially Protestants), we have plenty of room to move and
develop theologically without having to engage in divisive doctrinal
If one affirms these essentials, it would seem that
there ought to be room enough to discuss, even vigorously dialogue
about, controverted "processive" issues.
The Humanity of Christ: A Suggested Approach
How, then, should we approach such an issue as the
humanity of Christ?
I would suggest that we should begin with a realistic
hope that the issue can be resolved! With the history of how we have
come to clarity over the Arian issue, the time to commence the Sabbath,
the "law in Galatians," and Systematic Benevolence, we can
be at least moderately optimistic about finding resolution on this
processive issue. Such resolution will not come, though, unless we are
willing to grant some breathing room within the framework of essential
Before offering some questions about and tentative
solutions to the issues of Christology, I would like to remind us of
some simple procedural methods that should prove helpful in resolving
Procedural MethodsFirst, we need to cultivate a
prayerful, humble, and teachable spirit; be willing to give up a
cherished opinion, esteeming others better than ourselves; and have a
spirit of openness to God's unfolding light.
Second, we should listen carefully and charitably to
what our partners in theological dialogue are saying.
Third, we should state any position clearly, but
humbly, seeking to give partners in dialogue every respect for their
And last, partners in theological dialogue should find
agreement on as many points as possible. Let's seek the common ground
before moving into controverted quicksand.
Basic Suggestions and Questions to Ponder—What I
am suggesting in the following paragraphs is a preliminary theological
agenda for earnest dialogue aimed at reconciling some of the divisions
within Adventism. It is not meant to be an exhaustive or final treatment
of the issues themselves. Clearly Christology and perfection (and their
deep interrelatedness) are the undergirding issues that drive most
doctrinal discussions that deeply concern historic Adventists. Essential
Adventists of every hue should affirm historic Adventism's desire to
exalt the humanity of Jesus and its emphasis on His identity with fallen
sinners. Historic Adventists have been correct in giving this aspect of
Christology an emphasis it so richly deserves and in recognizing that
both the Bible and Ellen White give this theme due attention, attention
often sadly lacking in the Christian tradition. We can heartily affirm
that Jesus has a profound identity with our fallen humanity and has
certainly experienced our "infirmities."
Other sincere Adventists, however, have had some deep
reservations about the so-called post-Fall position because it has
raised some troubling questions in their minds.
Some Questions for "Historics" to Ponder—In
all of the zeal to emphasize His identity, has there not been a
tendency to seek simplistic and dogmatic expressions of mysteries that
have challenged Christian thinkers for 2,000 years? Has there not been a
tendency to neglect the understanding that, from birth, Jesus had to be
sinless in nature as well as in actions if He is to be both a victorious
helper and a fully sinless and effective substitute? Can Jesus really be
our justifying substitute if He is just like us in nature? Could Jesus,
who never sinned once, be exactly like us, when we have engaged in all
sorts of "habitual" sin? Does not repetitive sin deepen its
hold on us to a greater extent than it does over a person who has never
Could it be that the view of sin espoused by the
post-Fall advocates is too superficial? Is not sin more than just bad
actions and poor choices? Isn't it also the fruit of a profoundly
deranged nature steeped in a selfishness that "is inwrought in our
very being" and that
"has come to us as
an inheritance" (HS 138, 139)? If Jesus was just
like us, are we prepared to declare that He was "naturally
depraved" and "born with inherent propensities of
disobedience," both expressions Ellen White applies to sinners but
never to Jesus (IHP 163; 5BC 1128)? Again I ask: Could Jesus really be
just like us in nature and still be our sinless substitute?
What of the epochal Baker letter? Are we really to
believe that when Ellen White says that we are never to "leave the
slightest impression upon human minds that a taint of, or inclination
to, corruption rested
upon Christ" (QOD 652) she means only that He
did not give in to temptation? What does she mean when she admonishes
that "every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ
altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be" (ibid.)?
Has there not been a tendency to ignore, even twist, the
obvious meaning of contrary evidence from the writings of Ellen White?
In the light of such evidence from the Bible and the
pen of Ellen White that appears problematic to the post-Fall position,
would it be possible for one to hold a post-Fall view as a matter of
processive opinion and not absolutely essential Adventist orthodoxy?
Could we all apply the following to ourselves?
"God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who
think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have
occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold
to our own ideas
and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have
the unity for which Christ prayed" (CWE 37).
Nobody is asking anyone to give up any views because
of coercion, but could they be held as sincere personal opinion without
being divisive and judgmental?
Would it be enough to profess something like the
Jesus was sufficiently like us in nature (a deep identity)
to really be able to identify with our struggles in
temptation and give us every victory needed to make it through to the
kingdom, and yet also is sufficiently unlike us (a profound uniqueness)
be sinless enough in nature and performance to be our fully
satisfactory, sinless substitute.
Again, I must emphasize that I have not attempted to
be thorough or comprehensive in addressing the nature of Christ, but
this is the type of questioning dialogue that I would suggest could help
us out of the present impasse. We should say much more about issues that
trouble sincere historic Adventists, but I trust that we have only just
How Shall We Proceed?
First, I would urge that we start with all charity
and patience by seeking to be as affirming of one another as we possibly
can. With firmness of conviction, tempered with much listening and deep
sympathy, progress can be made.
Second, I would urge that the expression
"historic Adventism" has become so controversial that we need
new expressions and a more inclusive theological framework and
atmosphere if we are to find some resolution to the present, divisive
I would therefore urge that we lay aside such phrases
as "historic Adventism," "traditional Adventism,"
and anew theology"
13as divisive buzzwords and needless red
flags that bring neither constructive doctrinal resolution nor accurate
Is it possible to lay aside such derogatory
expressions now, seek the common ground of essential Adventism, and
proceed with all humility, charity, and honesty to the dialogue on
processive Adventism? One of my deepest longings is that historic Adventists will
answer my appeal affirmatively and that believers who do not share their
particular burdens will be open, charitable, accepting, and patient in
Christian respect. In the grace of Jesus I am optimistic that this
impasse can be broken and that the Advent movement can more efficiently
and unitedly get on with its mission!
This chapter is an edited version of an article that
appeared in the October 1993 Ministry entitled "Essential Adventism
or Historic Adventism?"[back] [top]
These persons especially see the treatment of these
issues in the publication of Questions on Doctrine as taking a
tragically sinister and compromising direction.
For a recent example of the
use of such terminology, see Our Firm Foundation 7, No. 3 (1992): 2-7.
See Questions on Doctrine, pp. 21-25
See Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 169-175.
Because of the limited space and their relative lack of importance, 1
will not include a discussion of nonessentials.
For more background on Adventist doctrinal
development, see Schwarz's Light Bearers to the Remnant,
especially pp. 166-182.
Professor C. Mervyn Maxwell also has an
excellent discussion of Adventist Arianism in A. V. Wallenkampf and W. Richard Lesher's
The Sanctuary and the Atonement, pp. 530-533.
The reader is urged [o ponder carefully the wonderful
facsimile collection of Ellen White's comments on
1888 in the four volumes of The Ellen White 1888 Materials
For further background and discussion
of this issue, see Whidden, Ellen White on Salvation, pp. 87-98.
I am indebted to Richard Schwarz for these terms.
See his discussion in Light Bearers, pp.
I am using the expression "formative"
quite technically in relationship to the more final and authoritative
technical expression "normative." Adventism has always held to
the Bible and the Bible alone as the ultimate normative standard of
faith and practice, but it has also affirmed that Ellen White's counsels
and theological insights have pointed the way and confirmed biblical truth. Yet we
have always held that her definitions must ultimately be subject to
biblical evidence. This use of Ellen White is in marked contrast to the
Mormon altitude toward the writings of Joseph Smith or Christian
Science's use of Mary Baker Eddy.
See Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 29-54, for the
basic source of the following suggestions.
In a quick look at the published writings of
Ellen G. White on compact disc, I was unable to locate a single instance
in which she employed them as terms.