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Avondale College Church, September 2002

Mapping the Past: Exploring the Development of Adventist Theology

by Fritz Guy, Ph.D.

"When you visit the altars of the past," somebody once said, "bring back the fire, not the ashes."1

When we Adventists think of our past, we are likely to think of the year 1844; and when we think of 1844, we are likely to think of October 22, the day of "great disappointment" for William Miller and the Adventist believers. This association of 1844 with October 22 and "the great disappointment" is understandable and probably inevitable, but it is also unfortunate. The day in 1844 we should remember most vividly is not Tuesday, October 22, the day of disappointment, but Wednesday, October 23, the day of a new beginning.

A personal recollection of those two days, written by Hiram Edson many years later and perhaps embellished, still rings in our ears and moves our hearts:

Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God—no heaven—no golden home city—no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hopes and expectation of these things?

And thus we had something to grieve and weep over, if all our fond hopes were lost. As I said, we wept till the day dawn.2

This is a powerful story, but it is the ashes after the fire. The more important, though perhaps less dramatic, part was yet to come: when the fire was rekindled. Early Wednesday morning, most of the little group of believers in Hiram Edson's farmhouse went home. To the few who stayed, Edson said, "Let's go out to the barn and pray." They went out to a granary that was almost empty because the corn hadn't been brought in. They shut the door behind them and knelt to pray. They prayed until they felt the witness of the Spirit that their prayers where heard, that they would be given new light, and that their disappointment would be explained.

Later, after breakfast, Edson said to a friend, "Let's go out to comfort the brethren with this assurance." Perhaps because it was s short cut to their first destination, or perhaps because they wanted to avoid the road where they might be seen, they set out through the farm, crossing a field where the corn was still in shocks. Halfway across the field Edson stopped and looked up at the sky. Suddenly he realized that the prophecy of Daniel 7 did not say that "one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven" to the earth, as the Adventists had all supposed, but that he came "to the Ancient of days."3 As he recalled the experience later, he wrote, "I saw4 distinctly and clearly that instead of our High Priest coming out of the Most Holy to come to the earth . . . He for the first time entered on that day the second apartment of that sanctuary; and that He had a work to perform in the Most Holy before coming to this earth."

Edson's companion was not aware that he had stopped, and so he went on across the field. At the fence he turned and saw Edson still in the middle of the field. He called out, "Brother Edson, what are you stopping for?"

Edson replied, "The Lord was answering our morning prayer."5

This now-familiar story is worth retelling because it is part of our own story. As a story of the Adventist past it helps us understand the Adventist present, and it may point the way to the Adventist future.

To belong to a nation or a family or a church means, among other things, to adopt a particular story—or set of stories—as one's own.6 For me to be part of the Guy family, for example, means having in my past the story of a Swiss watchmaker named Fritz Gygi, some of whose relatives had begun keeping the Sabbath in 1868,7 six years before the arrival of J. N. Andrews. Living in a French-speaking part of Switzerland, he changed his surname from the old German Gygi to the French Guy; and when he emigrated to the United States in 1885 the name acquired its present English pronunciation. For you to be Australian means having in your collective past the story of the arrival of the British fleet in Botany Bay with its cargo of convicts in 1788. For us to be Adventist means having in our past the stories of William Miller, Hiram Edson, Joseph Bates, Ellen Harmon, and James White, and stories of events at New Bedford, Battle Creek , Minneapolis, and Avondale.

To recall stories like these is to "visit the altars of the past," and this exercise is essential if we want to discover who we are and determine where we should be going. And when we do visit the altars of the past, we should be sure to "bring back the fire, not the ashes." In 1844 the ashes were the unfulfilled hopes, the mistaken expectations, the failed predictions that constituted the "great disappointment." The ashes also included the faulty interpretations of Scripture that led to the disappointment. The fire of 1844 was the spirit of theological discovery and the vision of an exciting future.

What rekindled the fire on October 23, was the same spirit of theological discovery, which led to a new beginning. It enabled disappointed Adventists to admit that they had been wrong about some things8 and to move on toward the better understandings they knew would come. These progressive Adventists took as their motto and mandate the message to John the Revelator, "You must prophesy again" (Rev. 10:11); and the theological discoveries that followed are indeed impressive in variety and scope:

  • the ministry of Christ in heaven in behalf of his people on earth;
  • the continuing meaning and value of the seventh day as holy time;
  • the role of a contemporary prophetic ministry,
  • the wholeness of human personhood, which first of all eliminated the traditional notion of an ever-burning hell,9 and secondly established the religious significance of healthful living;
  • the idea of "systematic benevolence" as the beginning of religious stewardship; and
  • the sense of a global mission.

This openness to new understandings was accompanied by a willingness to abandon views that proved to be inadequate. These two attitudes are, of course, two sides of the same coin: an eagerness to learn entails a willingness to admit that we don't have all the answers. This became evident again and again—for example, in the rejection of the idea of the "shut door."10

The spirit of theological discovery was expressed in the name of the first Adventist periodical: Present Truth. The name was taken from the King James Version of 2 Peter 1:12, and James White explained it in the first issue:" In Peter's time there was present truth, or truth applicable to that present time. The Church [has] ever had a present truth. The present truth now, is that which shows present duty."11 This was Adventism with theological realism, integrity, insight, and creativity; Adventism that was truly on the way to the future.

The ashes of 1844 were the "great disappointment" and the misunderstandings of scripture that led to it. The fire of 1844 was the spirit of discovery and the determination to make a new beginning.


In the 158 years since the new beginning of Adventist thinking in 1844, some of the theological developments carry special importance in mapping our Adventist past:

  • discovering a world mission;
  • incorporating the gospel;
  • moving toward fundamentalism;
  • increasing Biblical literacy;
  • humanizing Ellen White; and
  • thinking more theologically.

An early development was discovering a mission to the whole world. Adventists had always had a sense of mission, symbolized by the imagery of three angels flying across the sky with messages for "every nation and race and language and people" (Rev. 14:6-12). But in the beginning, "it did not seem possible to the first Seventh-day Adventists that they should personally carry their message to the far quarters of the earth. No long-drawn-out century stretched before their vision: the Lord was coming—would it be in a year? Five years? Ten?" Besides, "they were few; they were poor; they were despised." So "they took comfort in the reports they had received in the 1844 movement that there were voices in other parts of the worldGreat Britain, the Continent, far lands of Asia and Africa . . . ; thereby, they trusted, the prophecy had been fulfilled. . . . In America [they met] representatives of every race and every nation. How good the Lord [was] to bring to [their] land Jew and Gentile, Anglo-Saxon, Teuton, Latin, Slav, Indian, Negro, Mongolian!" The Adventists could reach them here and thus fulfill their mission. "Even though there [were] only ten Chinese, three Hindus, and one Malay, let them but hear a sermon on the coming [of Christ] , or read a tract on the Sabbath, and the message has gone to their nations."12

Not until thirty years after the "new beginning" in 1844 was an Adventist missionary officially sent overseas from America. And the initiative for that venture came not from the American Adventists but from a group of Sabbatarian Adventists in Switzerland who had accidentally learned of Seventh-day Adventists in America in 1868. Year after year they asked the General Conference for help, and they always received the same reply: there is no one to send. Finally, in 1874, J. N. Andrews was asked to go, and he agreed. Later Ellen White told the European believers, "We sent you the best man among us."13

That was the first formal Seventh-day Adventist activity outside North America, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Taking a worldwide mission seriously means thinking in worldwide terms, theologically as well as administratively; and this raises some difficult and delicate issues. For just as people are not all alike, we Adventists are not all alike, and so Adventist theology is not all exactly alike. It can't be, and we shouldn't imagine that it can.

Another, quite different kind of theological development was incorporating the gospel—the good news that salvation is a gift of grace, not a reward for good performance, however one might define "good performance." George Knight puts it bluntly in his brief history of Adventist thought, A Search for Identity: "By the late 1880s Adventism needed a course correction in its theology."14 He explains the reason as follows: "In the process of emphasizing what was Adventist in Adventism"—that is, the "great pillar doctrines of the Second Advent, the Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, and the state of the dead, "along with the conviction that "Adventism was a movement of prophecy"—"they had largely lost sight of the Christian aspects of their theology." The result was "a kind of separation between Adventism and basic Christianity."15

As is well known, the problem was addressed at the 1888 session of the General Conference in Minneapolis. This session is probably the most described, discussed, and debated meeting in Adventist history.16 There the "old guard" emphasized the importance of obedience, while the advocates of the "new light" emphasized salvation by grace. Unfortunately, the advocates of the priority of grace over obedience to the law did not always reflect that grace in their behavior. One of the participants has been described as "egotistic," "pompous," "confrontational," "abrasive," "cocksure"17—not the kind of person you would like to have for a friend. The result was an ecclesiastical mess—"confusion, wrangling, deterioration of Christian spirit," all of which added up to "the threat of a split which would tear the church [apart]. Never before in [Adventist] history . . . had there been an issue so [serious], in which . . . both parties, were at fault. The conservatives, crying, 'Stand by the old landmarks,' branded the new teachers as radical, subversive, undisciplined; the progressives, shouting, 'Christ is all,' declared that the church could not [survive] except on the truth they were proclaiming."18 Ellen White, as is well known, was on the side of the progressives and firmly endorsed their message in principle. But she commented later that "the terrible experience at the Minneapolis Conference is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the believers in present truth."19

Yet at least they were arguing about something that was truly important. For our understanding of the dynamics of salvation directly affects our conception of God and our sense of spiritual security. If salvation depends on our performance—in keeping the Sabbath, in praying, in reading Scripture, in loving our enemies, in doing theology, in confessing our sins—God does not love us unconditionally, and we have no basis for ultimate confidence.20

A still different development that has seldom been recognized was moving toward fundamentalism in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.21 This was an Adventist response to the fundamentalist-modernist polarization that affected and afflicted much of American Protestantism in the early decades of the twentieth century. Modernism was an essentially naturalistic view of all reality, including human existence, and religion, and it took a decidedly dim view of miracles, in the Bible as elsewhere, and cast doubt on the traditional authorship of many books of the Bible, on the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and on a literal, six-day Creation. This view was largely the result of two cultural factors: Darwinian evolutionary understandings of the origins of life and humanity, and German higher critical views of the origins of Scripture. In reaction, the fundamentalist movement developed in North America during and after World War I. It identified and affirmed several "fundamentals" of Christian faith, such as the inerrancy of scripture, the deity and virgin birth of Christ, the creation and fall of humanity, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, the personal and imminent return of Christ, and the final resurrection and assignment of all people to eternal blessedness in heaven or eternal punishment in hell. These beliefs had been set forth in a series of twelve volumes published between 1910 and 1915 and called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.22

Obviously, most of these "fundamentals" fit nicely with Adventist beliefs—the major differences being the disregard of the seventh-day Sabbath and the insistence on an everburning hell. So Adventists often claimed to be "the most fundamental of the fundamentalists"23 and, indeed, "the only true fundamentalists."24 But the first of the so-called "fundamentals" was problematic, the one that proclaimed the "inerrancy" of Scripture— which meant that there were no inaccuracies of any kind. This view was not based on a careful reading of Scripture itself, but on a line of theological syllogism: Scripture is the Word of God; God is perfect and therefore cannot be in error; therefore Scripture is inerrant.

This view of Scripture was perfectly acceptable to some Adventists, although not to all. Since the beginning of the Advent movement some, including some prominent figures, had held to verbal inspiration and inerrancy.25 And by the 1920s, many Adventists "also applied their beliefs in inerrancy and verbalism to the writings of Ellen White."26 But this was never means unanimous, the most significant dissent coming from Ellen White herself. In 1886 she wrote abut the process of inspiration that resulted in Scripture:

The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say that such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions, but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.27

And in 1888 she reiterated a realistic understanding of both the divine initiation and the human limitations of the Scripture: "Some look to us gravely and say, 'Don't you think there might have been some mistake in the copyist or in the translators?' This is all probable, . . . [but] all the mistakes will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble, that would not manufacture difficulties from the plainest revealed truth."28

Regarding her own work, she had written in 1867, "Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation."29 So much for verbal inspiration. The idea of inerrancy in her writings was refuted by the simple fact that she was "more than happy to have the factual errors corrected in such books as The Great Controversy [when it was revised] in 1911."30

An additional element in the fundamentalist reaction within Adventist theology in the 1920s "was the continuing temptation to do theology from Ellen White and to make her equally authoritative with or even superior to the Bible. This approach, of course, ran against her [own] lifelong counsel. But she was now dead and various Adventists did with her writings what they felt best."31 A common idea was that the Ellen White materials were "inspired commentaries" on the Bible.32 Indeed, this idea became so dominant that "all too often Adventist laity and clergy alike used the writings of Ellen White in such a way that the 'lesser light' [as she called her writings] became the 'greater light' in practice rather than the Bible."33 Ellen White, on the other hand, never said, "Let me tell you what the Bible means." Instead, she insisted that people read the Bible for themselves. She was an agent of Scripture, urging people to read it, not its guardian, protecting it from misinterpretation.

Unfortunately the fundamentalism that became prominent in the 1920s is still very much with us.

Another development that has not received the attention it deserves was increasing Biblical literacy signaled by the publication of the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary in the 1950s.34 As Knight observes,

It is difficult for Adventists living 50 years later to grasp the revolutionary approach to Bible study in Adventism represented by the Commentary. For the first time in its history the denomination produced a document that dealt with the entire Bible in a systematic and expository manner. . . . The Commentary made extensive use of the text of the Bible in the original languages, archaeological insights that helped recreate the times in which the various Bible books originated, and a weighing of variant readings in the ancient tests. . . . More important, however, is the fact that the Commentary moved away from the central tradition of Bible study in Adventism with its apologetic purpose and proof-text method. In the place of a defensive approach to the Bible, [it] sought to let the Bible speak for itself. . . . [It] sought to set the Bible before the church not as an "answer book" for the concerns of the Adventist church but as God's word to His people across the centuries.35

Besides demonstrating the maturity and confidence of Adventist Biblical scholarship, this extraordinary undertaking accomplished several other things as well.

(1) It drove Adventist theology to examine its foundation in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. No longer would it be sufficient base a scholarly argument on an English translation, and least of all on the often-archaic language of the King James Version of 1611, although that was the text printed in the Commentary. No longer could we do theology simply by using an English concordance, as William Miller and many later preachers had done.

(2) It disclosed that in many cases there was more than one "Adventist" interpretation of the text. Adventist Biblical scholars had long been engaged in arguments about such things, but now the different views were out in the open for everyone to see.

(3) Adventist theology had to recognize various kinds of diversity in Scripture itself. In some cases there were textual variants, so that readers could not be sure exactly what the Bible writer had actually written. In other cases, there were varying accounts of the same incidents—most notably in the Gospels, but also in Kings and Chronicles. Evidently it was not important to get all the details correct all the time. In still other cases, the theology of one writer seems to be different from that of another. The cumulative impact of this diversity at various levels makes the ideas of verbal inspiration and Biblical inerrancy highly implausible. It is difficult to be a fundamentalist if you read the Bible attentively and thoughtfully.

A somewhat parallel development has been the humanizing of Ellen White. If one starts with a picture of her as a divinely inspired prophet—especially a verbally inspired and infallible one—then the more one learns about her and her work, the more problems arise and need to be solved. The surprises are almost always bad news, challenging what one has believed. What is one supposed to do with a prophet who preached vegetarianism but wrote to her daughter-in-law asking her to get her "a few cans of good oysters"?36 But if one starts with a 19th-century woman who was part of the Adventist anticipation, disappointment, and new beginning in 1844 and who married a brilliant but volatile preacher-entrepreneur then the more one learns the more impressive is her contribution to Adventist faith and life. She was involved in establishing the major institutional enterprises of the church—publishing, health care, education, and overseas missions. She was also the predominant influence in the development of both Adventist piety and Adventist theology. Literally millions of Adventists, for example, have benefited from her teaching about the nature of prayer.37

In many ways she influenced the theological agenda of the church, but she never claimed to have the last theological word. Adventist theological conversation often begins with an insight she expressed, but it never properly ends there. The role of a prophet is to encourage Bible study and theology by the church but not to do them for the church. She said, for example, "We have many lessons to learn and many, many to unlearn,"38 but she never explained which lessons were which. Here as elsewhere, she provided the challenge; it is the church's task to do the work.

Regarding an understanding of atonement, for example—how the death of Christ accomplishes human salvation—her views point Adventist thinking beyond a simple penal-substitutionary theory:39 "Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice,—one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. He pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them. It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men. The Son of God came from heaven to make manifest the Father." In other words, "The Father loves us, not because of the great propitiation, but He provided the propitiation because He loves us."40 But she never spelled out the particulars of a more adequate theory.

So the perennial questions are no longer disturbing. Was she infallible? About this she was perfectly clear: "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it. God alone is infallible."41 The various authors who have provided specific examples of her fallibility42 and have perhaps given the church a valuable service, because it is always a temptation to deify and absolutize a highly-valued resource for faith. Did she use human sources? Of course. This is obvious, understandable, and inevitable. She was keenly aware of her lack of formal schooling, and she relied heavily on the help of others—on her husband James until his death, and then on her son Willie and various editorial assistants. Did she exaggerate her independence from human influences? Perhaps so. But this too is understandable in view of the criticism that she was too heavily influenced by church officials. When human beings feel on the defensive, they—that is, we—sometimes claim more than the facts strictly warrant.

The upshot of the whole matter is this: if we welcome Ellen White to the human race and not claim for her either intellectual or moral perfection, if we look at her limitations along with her contributions to Adventist faith, mission, and life, the bottom line is enormously impressive.43 I am saddened by the fact that both her idolizers and her critics have lessened her influence at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The final development to note here is thinking more theologically, which involves two things in particular. Theological thinking probes the implications as well as the Biblical basis of beliefs, asking and answering the questions, So what? What difference does it make?44 And theological thinking also probes the interrelationships among various beliefs. How, for example, is what we believe about the Sabbath related to what we believe about the character of God?45 This is in contrast to the predominantly exegetical and polemical thinking that characterized Adventist thinking for its first hundred years. It is also in contrast in contrast to our traditional practice of separating various doctrines from one another. This practice was enshrined in the book Bible Readings for the Home,46 and in countless secondary and tertiary courses in Bible doctrines,47 and in our various statements of fundamental beliefs.

Like the other developments, this one didn't suddenly emerge full-grown, but it became more prominent about the middle of the twentieth century. A convenient event to symbolize this development was the 1952 Bible Conference in Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington. The proceedings of the conference were published in the two volumes entitled Our Firm Foundation48 (not to be confused with the more recent periodical of the same name). We still don't have a full-blown Adventist systematic theology, although there have been some good preliminary steps in this direction.49

An example of both emphases I have included here in the notion of thinking more theologically is some of the discussion in the 1970s and 1980s regarding the traditional Adventist doctrine of the pre-Advent, "investigative" judgment. The issues involved not only the proper exegesis of Daniel 8:14, but also the implications of the idea of investigative judgment for the doctrines of God and salvation. Furthermore, there was serious concern about the experiential, spiritual consequences of the doctrine. However one views the substance of these discussions, the issues reflected genuine theological concerns that deserved to be taken seriously and were reflected in the consensus statement, "Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary" that emerged at the Glacier View meeting of the Sanctuary Review Committee.50

We have noted here several developments in the history of Adventist thinking: making a new beginning, discovering a world mission, incorporating the gospel, moving toward fundamentalism, increasing Biblical literacy, humanizing Ellen White, and thinking more theologically. Other observers of the Adventist past would identify other developments as well; but these are surely worth considering.


If we stand back now and look at the history of Adventist thinking, is there anything we can say about general patterns and principles? I think so, and here is a threefold characterization: change, diversity, and enlargement.

First, the most prominent pattern and in Adventist thinking is change. Knight begins his account of "the development of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs" with this observation: "Most of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism would not be able to join the church today if they had to agree to the denomination's '27 Fundamental Beliefs'."51 This is hardly a surprise, given the developments we have noticed this evening. The idea of "present truth" points to the fact that "each generation must in some ways be a first generation all over again."52

Each generation is called to live in the spirit of discovery. It can—and should—build on the foundation of the past, but it is called to build, not just preserve. It is called to build with realism and integrity, with insight and creativity. Here as elsewhere Ellen White saw the situation clearly: "Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His Word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end."53 Our Adventist theological tradition is not a stockade to imprison our thinking, but a platform on which to build. Authentic, thoroughgoing, truly historic Adventism is progressive Adventism. It was that way in 1844, and it has been that way ever since, as Adventists have been responsive to new facts, new circumstances, new needs. This was the motivation for the very important preamble to the 1980 statement of "Fundamental Beliefs."54

A second, and closely related, pattern that is visible in the history of Adventist thinking is diversity. The history of Adventist thinking is a history of family arguments—arguments about the relation of obedience to salvation and the relation of Christ to God, about the nature of inspiration and the role of Ellen White, about the battle of Armageddon, about the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary, about the influence of scientific knowledge on our reading of the Bible.

As change is inevitable, so is theological diversity. There always has been, and always will be, dissent. Because people are different, they hink differently and hear God's word differently. What to some members of the community is obvious, inescapable, and logically necessary, to others is mistaken, unwarranted, and absurd. And there has been, and always will be, dissent about the significance of dissent. in regard to a particular issue. When a dissenting voice is heard, almost always someone responds by saying that the dissenting view is—or will result in—the complete abandonment of Adventist belief. This happened in the nineteenth century; it happened in the twentieth century; and it is happening already in the twenty-first century.

But we needn't be frightened by the specter of "pluralism." There has always been a plurality of views. To the end of his life, Uriah Smith held an unorthodox view of the nature of Christ—in spite of Ellen White's statements to the contrary—but he was neither ostracized nor vilified, much less expelled from the community or its ordained ministry.

Theological diversity is not only inevitable and tolerable; it is also potentially valuable. So far from being a liability, it can be an asset. It is often through dissent, discussion, and dialogue that the church comes to a more adequate understanding of truth. As Ellen White advised us long ago, "When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves, to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition, and worship they know not what."55 Of course, dissent is not always a move in the right direction. An idea or insight that is new is not necessarily true. A dissenting opinion must make a case for itself.

A third pattern in the history of Adventist thinking is a general movement toward enlargement, toward broader, more comprehensive views. This kind of movement appears in various aspects of our thinking. In reading Scripture, for example, the focus has moved away from individual verses and toward larger units—paragraphs, chapters, books, and even the Bible as a whole. There has been a tendency to take context more seriously in understanding what a particular sentence of Scripture is saying to us.56 Even a whole book of the Bible may not be the last word on a subject. To understand the relationship between trusting God's love and doing God's will, we need the New Testament letters of both James and Paul, and the Gospels as well. It is the larger whole of Scripture, not a sentence here or there, that is theologically authoritative as "the rule of faith and practice."

In the outcome of our thinking, there has been movement from details and particularities to larger theological understanding. There are "larger views" of the sanctuary, of the atonement, the Sabbath, the "mark of the beast," the mission of the church, and other traditional ideas and activities. And in regard to our theological conversation partners, we have moved from talking and listening exclusively to ourselves—that is, to like-minded Adventists—to interacting with the larger Christian community. So the reality of change in our theological heritage has resulted in diversity and enlargement of our Adventist thinking.


"When you visit the altars of the past, bring back the fire, not the ashes." We have seen some ashes. From 1844 onward, the history of Adventist thinking, like every other human enterprise, is not entirely positive. It is not a smooth advancement into more and more truth; there have been some blind alleys, and some stumbling along the way.

But we have also seen the fire. And it is the kind of fire that needs to be rekindled now by the same combination of ingredients—an enthusiastic sense of mission, a spirit of theological discovery, and a vision of an exciting future. It will not be exactly the same fire, but it will be fire just the same. It will be the authentic Adventist fire for the twenty-first century.

End Notes

1 This quotation from an anonymous source is an adaptation of a sentence from the French political philosopher Jean Jaures (1859-1914): "Take from the altars of the past the fire, not the ashes."

2 Hiram Edson, undated manuscript, quoted in George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World (Boise: Pacific Press, 1993), 218.

3 See C. Mervyn Maxwell, Tell It to the World: The Story of Seventh-day Adventists, rev. ed. (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1977), 51-54.

4 See Maxwell, 51-52: "Did Hiram Edson, as some suggest, have a prophetic vision in the cornfield? He may have. He does not, however, state that he actually saw Jesus enter the most holy place. Instead, in his best-known account, he says that he was 'that' Jesus entered it on October 22. In a different account he says nothing about 'seeing' anything, but recalls instead that he heard a voice speaking to him. Possibly he himself did not know exactly how his valuable insights came to him."

5 Arthur W. Spalding, Captains of the Host: The First Volume of a History of Seventh-day Adventists Covering the Years 1845-1900 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1949), 94.

6 For a highly influential exposition of the role of historical story in personal identity, see H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 43-90, “The Story of Our Life."

7 Evidently in response to the activities of the self-appointed missionary M. B. Czechowski. See Spalding, 512-14; Maxwell, 158-64; Knight, 280.

8 See for example Joseph Marsh in Voice of Truth, Nov. 7, 1844, 166, quoted by Knight, 230-31: "We cheerfully admit that we have been mistaken in the nature of the event we expected would occur on the tenth [day] of the seventh month. . . ."

9 See Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1915), 48-50.

10 See for example, P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 149-64; Knight, 313-14.

11 James White, untitled introductory note, The Present Truth, 1/1 (July 1849): 1.

12 Spalding, 507-8.

13 Ibid., 517.

14 George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2000), 91. This book which is essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in our Adventist theological heritage.

15 Ibid., 90, 91.

16 On the meeting and the issues, see for example E. J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1890; Arthur G. Daniells, Christ Our Righteousness: A Study of the Principles of Righteousness by Faith as Set Forth in the Word of God and the Writings of the Spirit of Prophecy Washington, D.C.: Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, 1926); Norval F. Pease, By Faith Alone (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1962); A. V. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory, 1888-1901: From the Minneapolis Meeting to the Reorganization of the General Conference (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1966 Norval F. Pease, The Faith That Saves (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1969); Robert J. Wieland, The 1888 Message: An Introduction (Nashville: Southern, 1980); Robert J. Wieland and Donald K. Short, 1888 Re-Examined, rev. ed. (Meadow Vista, Calif.: The 1888 Message Study Committee, 1987); George R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A. T. Jones (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1987); A. T. Jones: The Man and the Message: A Book Review (Uniontown, Ohio: The 1888 Message Study Committee, 1988).

17 Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy, 12, 35, 53, 63.

18 Spalding, 593.

19 Ellen G. White letter 179, 1902, quoted by Spalding, 593.

20 Reference not yet available.

21 The only discussion I have encountered is Knight, Search for Identity, 128-59.

22 See Harold B. Kuhn, 'Fundamentalism,' in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F. Harrison (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1960), 233-34; C. T. McIntire, "Fundamentalism" and “Fundamentals, The,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 433-36: Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), 54.

23 I heard this as a young minister in the 1950s.

24 Knight, Search for Identity,133.

25 On the views and influence of W. W. Prescott and S. N. Haskell, see W. C. White letter to L. E. Froom, Jan. 8, 1928, in Selected Messages from the Writings of Ellen G. White, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1954-80), 3:454.

26 Knight, Search for Identity, 134.

27 Ellen G. White ms. 24, 1886, in Selected Messages, 1:21.

28 Ellen G. White ms. 16, 1888, in Selected Messages, 1:16.

29 Ellen G. White, in "Questions and Answers," Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 8 Oct. 1867, 260; reprinted in Selected Messages, 1:37. This frequently-quoted sentence was part of her response to a question about “the proper distance from the bottom of the dress to the floor.”

30 Knight, Search for Identity, 135. See also George R. Knight, Reading Ellen White: How to Understand and Apply Her Writings (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1997), 105-12.

31 Knight, Search for Identity, 138-39.

32 See for example F. M. Wilcox, “The Testimony of Jesus: A Morning Devotional Study [at the forty-fifth session of the General Conference, Takoma Park, Md., June 5-15, 1946,” Review and Herald, June 9, 1946, 62: “The writings of Ellen G. White constitute a great commentary on the Scriptures. . . . They are inspired commentaries, motivated by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and this places them in a separate and distinct class, far above all other commentaries.”

33 Knight, Search for Identity, 141. For the “lesser light”/”greater light” metaphor, see Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1953), 125.

34 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol et al., 7 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1953-57).

35 Knight, Search for Identity, 163.

36 See Ronald D. Graybill, “The Development of Adventist Thinking on Clean and Unclean Meats” (Apr. 27, 1981), Ellen G. White Estate Manuscript Release 852, 2; Roger W. Coon, Ellen White and Vegetarianism: Did She Practice What She Preached? (Boise, Id.: Pacific Press, 1986), 19; Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Id.: Pacific Press, 1998), 315-16.

37 See especially Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (repr. Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1956), 93-104: idem, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1903), 253-61.

38 Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 26, 1892, 465; repr. Counsels to Writers and Editors, 37; and Selected Messages from the Writings of Ellen G. White, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958-80), 1:37.

39 This does not ignore Ellen White's frequent use of penal-substitutionary language, as for example in The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898), 753: “Upon Christ as our substitute and surety was laid the iniquity of us all. He was counted a transgressor, that He might redeem us form the condemnation of the law. The guilt of every descendent of Adam was pressing upon His heart. . . . It was the sense of sin, bringing the Father's wrath upon Him as man's substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke the heart of the Son of God.”

This kind of language led Woodrow W. Whidden II, Ellen White on Salvation: A Chronological Study (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1995), 54, to conclude that her understanding of atonement “was centered in the concepts of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction.” But my point here is just that she expands the idea of atonement beyond “penalty, substitution, and satisfaction.”

40 White, Steps to Christ, 11, 13. For an elaboration of these ideas into a theory of atonement, see Jack Provonsha, You Can Go Home Again (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982).

41 Ellen G. White letter 10, 1895, in Selected Messages,1:37.

42 See for example Ronald L. Numbers et al., Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Walter T. Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, Calif.: M & R Publications, 1982).

43 See "Ellen White: Yesterday, Today. . ." by Arthur Patrick.

44 See for example two slender volumes edited by Roy Branson, and published by the Association of Adventist Forums in Takoma Park, Md.: Festival of the Sabbath (1985); Pilgrimage of Hope (1986).

45 See for example three slender books: Edward W. H. Vick, Let Me Assure You: Of Grace, of Faith, of Forgiveness, of Freedom, of Fellowship, of Hope (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1968); Jack W. Provonsha, God Is With Us (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1974); Charles Scriven, The Demons Have Had It: A Theological ABC (Nashville: Southern, 1976). A more extensive work is the college textbook by Richard Rice, The Reign of God: An Introduction to Christian Theology from a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1985; 2nd ed., 1997). Unfortunately none of these books or their authors is mentioned by Knight [in], Search for Identity.

46 Bible Readings for the Home: A Study of 200 Vital Scripture Topics in Question-and-Answer From Contributed by a Large Number of Bible Scholars, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1949).

47 Rice's college textbook is a significant exception.

48 Our Firm Foundation: A Report of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Conference Held September 1-13, 1952, in the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, Takoma Park, Maryland, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1953).

49 See the references in notes 41 and 43.

50 Published in Adventist Review, 157/41 (4 Sept. 1980): 12-15; Ministry, 53/10 (Oct. 1980): 16-19.

51 Knight, Search for Identity, 17.

52 Jack W. Provonsha, A Remnant in Crisis (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1993), 13.

53 Ellen G. White, "The Mysteries of the Bible a Proof of Its Inspiration," Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), 5:706 (1889).

54 See Uncovering the Origin of the Statement of Twenty-seven Fundamental Beliefs

55 White, "Mysteries of the Bible," 707.

56 The typographical practice of treating each verse as if it were a separate paragraph has unfortunately encouraged the mistake of using the Bible as a sort of dictionary of inspired quotations that can be lifted out of their contexts and applied universally.

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