Des Ford: The Perils of Being Right


(Spectrumbot) #1

Des Ford has died and I weep. I weep for Des, my friend and brother in Christ. I weep for my church — the Adventist church — with which no reconciliation came about.

Des and I first met at Avondale College in Australia. He was an experienced minister already ordained who returned for one year to complete a baccalaureate degree; I was a young man six years his junior, training for the ministry.

We became friends, more on the intellectual level than the emotional. Des did not open himself to others. After Avondale our paths diverged: I went to India, Des remained in Australia. But we met up from time to time. We didn’t agree in all matters but we respected one another. The format for discussion was always the same: Des would say, “Let’s walk,” and we’d head for the hills, he striding out briskly, I panting to keep up. He did most of the talking. On one furlough when we visited Avondale we found Des sick as a dog. He had left strict instructions that he wanted no visitors — except Bill Johnsson.

I was there at the famous/infamous conference held at Glacier View ranch in Colorado. Three of us, professors at the Seminary — Gerhard Hasel, Fritz Guy and I — were appointed to prepare a statement summarizing the week-long discussions (Hasel, Guy, and Johnsson — a later generation found it hard to believe, but it was us. Those were the days before theologians had become polarized).

We worked closely together and prepared the statement. The council received it, debated it, and voted it overwhelmingly on the final Friday of the meeting.

Des Ford stated that he accepted the statement.

Then, only hours before the meeting closed, a new document suddenly came to the floor. I was profoundly troubled, wondering what was going on. This document was neither discussed nor put to a vote, it was simply left dangling as delegates packed their bags to head home.

In the months and years after Glacier View, it was this document, rather than the Consensus Statement that dominated discussions about Glacier View. It was this document that became the basis of removing Des from the Adventist ministry.

The process, from my admittedly limited perspective, bothered me. It still bothers me.

On the Sabbath afternoon after the Glacier View conference ended, several of us went walking together. We fell in with Des and his wife Gillian. Gill was upset, urging Des to form his own ministry where he would, she said, get the respect he deserved. Des seemed unsure what to do. Along with others in the small group, I strongly urged him to stay with the church.

Most Adventists aren’t aware that behind-the-scenes efforts to reclaim Des for the Adventist ministry continued after Glacier View. I had a small part; the chief initiatives came from W. Duncan Eva, a general vice-president of the General Conference. He conducted these efforts with the quiet approval of the president, Neal C. Wilson.

A couple years after Glacier View, a few of us from the General Conference along with Elder Eva, met with Des and a couple others in the conference room of a motel in San Francisco. The meeting was short: positions on both sides had hardened. There would be no reconciliation.

If Des had chosen to start a new church, he would, I think have attracted a large following of Adventists in the South Pacific, America, and Canada. He did not take that path. He always maintained a close relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After he left the Adventist ministry he focused on writing and public speaking. One of his books presented a strong defense of the Sabbath.

During these years and subsequently, Adventist theology underwent a major shift in emphasis. Whereas before Glacier View many — perhaps most — Adventists lacked assurance of salvation through grace alone, slowly the liberating message of the gospel permeated the church — not uniformly, but pervasively. Ironic as it seems in retrospect, these changes can be traced in large measure to Glacier View and Des’ ministry.

Des Ford is an Australian tragedy. You can’t begin to grasp the dynamics of his love-hate relationship with the Adventist church in the South Pacific without factoring in the culture. Australian culture lacks niceties, nuances, subtleties. Theology and politics reduce issues to distinctions of black and white. Australians tend to be suspicious of shades of grey. Election campaigns are a no-holds-barred, slam-bang brawl, lasting only a short time.

Des Ford was a child of the culture. By both temperament and environment his proclamation, whether oral or written, fell naturally into a debate, either/or mode. His clear proclamation of the gospel helped thousands to find peace and hope; inevitably it generated “concerned brethren” (their name) who bitterly opposed him.

Des Ford is an Adventist tragedy. This man of charisma, unmatched in debate — could not Adventism have found a place to accommodate his many gifts? As the years went by and Des passed into his 80s, I kept waiting and praying that at long last I would learn of a reconciliation. Des needed it; no less did the Adventist church, especially in Australia. He trained a generation of ministers and teachers; after he left the ministry hundreds of former students gave up on Adventism. The church in the South Pacific suffers from a deep, unhealed wound.

I need to make one thing clear: in my judgment, the blame doesn’t lie wholly with church leaders. Reconciliation requires action from both sides, from both parties. Des was so sure that he was right that he made reconciliation very difficult.

Margit Heppenstall, wife of Dr. Edward Heppenstall, Des’ mentor, shared a revealing vignette with Noelene and me when we visited them in their retirement home at Carmel, California. She related a conversation that went as follows when Des and Gill stayed at their home:

Margit: “The trouble with you, Des, is that you are always right.”

Des: “No, I am not always right — except in matters of theology!”

Always right — it’s a peculiarly Adventist thing. We think that if we can only dot all the theological “i’s” and cross all the “t’s,” we have it made, in this life and the next. Somehow we’ve never taken the Apostle Paul’s words to heart: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). We profess salvation by grace, but practice salvation by knowledge.

Toward the end of Des’ life, his daughter, Ele’nne, tried hard to broker the needed reconciliation. Ele’nne, a brilliant barrister, who as a side ministry intervenes in church disputes to try to bring healing on Christian principles, solicited my help. Although I was retired and no longer part of the power structure of the Adventist church, I was a “neutral” party, a friend of Des and also known and respected in the South Pacific.

I made the trip to Australia, Des and I met in Brisbane, close to where Des and Gill lived in retirement. We sat in the sunshine, on a bench surrounded by flowers in full bloom, then went inside to a small café and ate together. A reconciliation meeting had been planned. Low key, of course, without publicity.

It didn’t happen. Plans fell apart, tangled in ecclesiastical red tape.

When will we Adventists ever learn? Ever learn that theology, important as it indeed is, cannot be allowed to become the be all and end all of our Christianity? Ever learn that at best we know in part and understand in part?

I weep for Des Ford.

I weep for my church.

Further Reading:

Reflections on My Time at Avondale under Des Ford by W. John Hackwell

Dr. Desmond Ford Passes to His Rest by Alisa Williams

William G. Johnsson is the retired Editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, and the author of numerous books including Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio (2017) and Authentic Adventism (2018).

Image courtesy of Avondale College of Higher Education.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9480

(Patrick Travis) #2

Bill, the perils of the 3 worthies “being right” in Babylon. They would have had great difficulty living with a decision to bow to the idol. Des would have also had difficulty living with himself bowing to SDA’S 1844 IJ idol.
Just a thought. Luther was considered stubborn for his view on JBF. Some things are worth being “stubborn about.” God bless him!


(Andrew) #3

Well written and moving as always Bill.


(Elmer Cupino) #4

When did “ecclesiastical red tape” become a part of reconciliation? I teach my patients to call and say only three words, “I am sorry.” Of course the heart of the matter lies in convincing both parties that reconciliation will benefit both. Apparently one party felt less validated to enter into a reconciliation. So sad for an opportunity to have slipped away. In this case, both parties are left wounded.


(Charles Scriven) #5

Des Ford was, I believe, substantially right; his vision clearly renewed many spiritual lives. Still, he should have, for the sake of the community, shown more humility. Insofar as administrators, on the other hand, were trying to shore up traditional views, they were substantially wrong–and, on top of that, unable themselves to exhibit the humility needed for genuine Christian community.

Such humility might, among other things, have helped administrators to be less afraid. Des Ford was the most brilliant Adventist speaker of his generation, but had the church figured out how to let the conversation continue, exchanges would have demonstrated that Ford’s own thought (like everyone else’s) was imperfect. The “new paradigm” in Pauline studies undermines, for example, the sheer individualism of the type of evangelical theology he championed, and over time fruitful interaction among Adventist scholars might have led us all to revise our thinking, achieve deeper understanding and shift toward more agreement.

Chuck


(Cfowler) #6

Can you expound a bit on this comment? Particularly, The “new paradigm” in Pauline studies undermines, for example, the sheer individualism of the type of evangelical theology he championed,

Thanks.


(Herold Weiss) #7

Whether Des Ford was right or wrong his mistake was to launch an attack on the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment and its date. He failed to realize that long held doctrines never die with their boots on. He would have been wiser if he had just preached his gospel of grace ignoring what tradition or orthodoxy says. Doctrines never die on the battle field; the battle field only gives them adrenaline with which to carry on the fight for survival. Doctrines die in cheap nursing homes with minimal daily care and abandoned by all living relatives. They die from irrelevancy and lack of credibility in their remaining supporters.


(Lincoln Dunstan) #8

I don’t believe Bill Johnson has said anything more than to affirm his position on the Left! He may have liked dabbling with the Right but a mortgage and power wouldn’t let him!! Too late to “cry” now!! My membership with SDA is tentative at the very best. Bad things happen when good men do nothing!! And don’t I hate myself for that!!!


(Herold Weiss) #9

I should have added in my previous comment that I thank Bill Johnsson for pointing out that as one formed by the Australian culture Ford was raised in a world of black and white. It was difficult for him to concentrate on the white and ignore the black. Yes, indeed, we are very much children of our cultures.


(ROBIN VANDERMOLEN) #10

The whole charade / burlesque / travesty / fiasco called “ Glacier View “ was masterminded by Neil Wilson, the father of the current GC president.

Thank you Doctor William J Johnson, for revealing a hiterto unknown fact ( at least to the laity ) that “ A NEW DOCUMENT SUDDENLY CAME TO THE FLOOR “ and it was this document neither discussed nor voted upon, that dominated future events after Glacier View. You do not state it but the implication is that this fake document was generated by Neil Wilson.

Sounds suspiciously like a document secretly prepared and suddenly sprung on delegates at a recent Autumn Council!

Apparently the apple does not fall far from the tree.

This whole seedy, shady, shabby shenanigans is worthy of a banana republic, not an upstanding denomination which would prefer not to be labelled a cult!


(Frankmer7) #11

The New Perspectives on Paul began in the 60’s…not really so new, Carol. The first time the phrase was used was in a paper by Krister Stendahl, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” E.P. Sanders then broke things open in the 70s with his work examining Paul’s letters from the vantage point of second temple Judaism. Following were the writings of James Dunn and N.T. Wright and others.

Much of what I’m familiar with is the New Perspectives reaction against the western reformational reading of Paul, that places the salvation and justification of the individual as the focal point of his gospel, his letters, and his thinking. IOW, the question of how the guilty individual can find justification by a gracious God is viewed more as Luther’s and the reformers’ concern, and thus their reading of Paul, rather than what Paul’s actual main concern was.

Paul’s main practical concern whenever he spoke of justification by faith was that Gentiles were to be accepted on an equal basis with Jews, apart from the Torah/Sinai covenant, by faith/joining up with Christ alone. IOW, Paul’s concern was about people groups, their equal acceptance before God, their equal belonging to his covenant people regardless of their relationship to the Law, and the unity in the gospel that was to characterize the people/new creation of God in the Messiah.

While the justification and salvation of the individual was included in this, it wasn’t the biggest part of the picture. In fact, justification is mentioned by Paul always within the wider context of covenant community and belonging. How God justified people, Jews and Gentiles, and reconciled the world to himself, and even the very nature of the kingdom of God, was to be truly seen in how he united former enemies around the same table in Christ. This was the bigger picture of Paul’s gospel, and why he argued so vociferously against the imposition of circumcision and Torah observance as required for full belonging to God and his people. It created disunity, division, and inequality, diminished the fullness of Christ, and the sufficiency of faith in him, and stymied the power of His Spirit to birth and sustain the community of believers as one body.

The emphasis of Desmond Ford was clearly more in the vein of the reformational gospel, the assurance of individual salvation, forgiveness, justification, and acceptance. This is particularly relevant to Adventists because of the traditional lack of these things in its theology, and the spiritual neurosis and emotional fallout it created for many. He was a man surely called for his time.

But, the New Perspective brings up a whole different host of issues, that are also relevant. They cluster more around how does one identify the community of God. Does a community have the right in the gospel to make Law, specifically food laws and holy time, requirements for full belonging to the people and kingdom of God? What does this all say about the remnant claims of Adventism over against all other denominations? What does it say about the divisions and denominationalism in Christianity in general? What does it say about ecumenism, clearly a dirty word in many SDA circles? What does such an ethos built around Law do to the work of the Spirit in forming and sustaining Christian community?

I feel that Paul’s gospel and his concerns about justification, read in context, speak more centrally to these collective issues. They link unity and love and the work of the Spirit in the Christian church more directly and powerfully with justification by faith, than if one treats justification as primarily or solely about ones individual salvation.

This individual emphasis almost makes salvation a private issue, and can cause things like Christian unity, equality, and even matters such as gender and racial inequality in the church to be treated as lesser/non-salvational issues. Just look at how so many are calling for the Adventist church to go proclaim the gospel and finish the work, while saying that the controversy over WO is just a distraction. It means that they view the gospel as all about individual salvation, and not about equality in the community of faith. They entirely miss the bigger picture of Paul’s gospel.

I find that very difficult to swallow when reading Paul’s letters in the context to which the New Perspectives have called attention. Forgive me for jumping in, Carol.

Thanks…

Frank


(Phillip Brantley) #12

I enjoy reading old dissertations written by Seventh-day Adventist luminaries and discovering what they studied to earn their doctoral degrees. Most Seventh-day Adventists do not understand what a biblical scholar is. Of the 115 or so attendees at Glacier View, the biblical scholars who were present could have comfortably fit in a small bathroom.

Seventh-day Adventist administrators are not biblical scholars, even though they lead and govern. The famous evangelists we all love and revere are not biblical scholars. The pastor who has worked hard to earn an M.Div or a doctorate in church ministry is not a biblical scholar. Samuele Bacchiocchi dominated Seventh-day Adventist thought for about two decades and was widely read and admired inside and outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but he was a church historian, not a biblical scholar. As a young boy, I was told that Hans LaRondelle was the leading theologian at the Seminary at Andrews University. But he was not a biblical scholar but a systematic theologian. Edward Heppenstall and Ted Wilson have one remarkable thing in common. Heppenstall was not and Wilson is not a biblical scholar; instead, their terminal degrees are in religious education. Archaeologists are not biblical scholars. Hermeneutists are not biblical scholars. There are many kinds of terminal degrees in religious studies you can earn without ever becoming credentialed as a biblical scholar.

A great cause of confusion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been people pontificating about what the biblical text means, even though they are not qualified to do so. Whenever I am asked about my interpretation of a particular biblical text, I disclose that the limited expertise I think I can offer is on hermeneutics but I am not a biblical scholar or exegete.

Desmond Ford was a biblical scholar. But notice this: He was a NT scholar. A NT scholar today would not make the kind of bold and grand claims about the OT text that Ford attempted forty years ago. By the way, if anyone has his dissertation that offers a rhetorical analysis of Paul’s writings, please post a link. I can’t find it online.


(David R Larson) #14

Doctrines never die on the battle field; the battle field only gives them adrenaline with which to carry on the fight for survival. Doctrines die in cheap nursing homes with minimal daily care and abandoned by all living relatives. They die from irrelevancy and lack of credibility in their remaining supporters.

Yes! Never have I heard this expressed so well. My teacher still teaches me!


(David R Larson) #15

Biblical scholars tell us what the text meant way back then, We need them plus historians, philosophers, scientists, artists and many others, including religious educators, to help us figure out what the text might mean here and now.


#16

I now understand why the belief that the world was created ‘recently’ (around 6000-12000 yrs ago and not 4.5 billion years ago), was added to the 6th SDA fundamental beliefs.

6. God has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical account of His creative activity. He created the universe, and in a recent six-day creation the Lord made “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” and rested on the seventh day. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.


(Gillian Ford) #17

Look, Bill, I appreciate what you have written. A couple of things. I was blamed for a number of things at Glacier View, most of which were completely fictional—such as my collaboration with Bob Brinsmead. Never happened. The source and background of the accusations were never revealed to us. But I found out what had happened eight years later. None of it true, but useful for firing Des.

Bill, Des would never be foolish enough to take serious notice of me. He made his own mind up. And he often told me where I was wrong in attitude and ideas. I was another daughter not a matriarch pushing him this way and that. Thanks for adding to the rumours that if Gwen was alive this would never have happened and that somehow I was a bad influence. As to saying I was upset at Glacier View over the way Des was treated. Yep, I admit to that.

Re: the comments of Margit Heppenstall, when Des said he was only right in theology, that was a joke between friends. Heppenstall disagreed with Des about the year-day principle, but otherwise understood the problems with the sanctuary. I could say more about that, but won’t. We remained friends and Heppenstall in his interchanges at Glacier View was only trying to save Des. But Des could not lie.

On another point, Des was rarely allowed to preach in an Adventist venue afterwards. Would you seriously expect that he would be satisfied to sit in the pew and not speak for Christ? We were offered the option of GNU while at Glacier View, and I made the comment you mention on that basis.

I lived with Des for 48 years and knew him all the years Gwen was sick. She said to me near her death that Des possessed layer upon layer of goodness underneath. I have found him consistently as described to me by Gwen. As his mental and physical powers were withdrawn in recent weeks, and after several really difficult years of problems caused by accidents, the jewel of his nature shone through. All those who cared for him noted the rare beauty of his character—his politeness, his kindness, his gentleness. They could see he had been with Christ.

Chuck: He was not arrogant, and I resent the suggestion. Many people have lifted themselves up by putting down Des. If it makes them feel better, great. But he spoke with certainty. If you find the earth is oval, you can never go back to saying it was flat. You can’t say it’s sort of oval, maybe roundish, but on the whole flat. Or that it’s flattish, but has rather large bumps. For forty years since, many ministers have not believed in the investigative judgment, but they can’t say it because they would be fired. When, oh when, will the denomination be honest? Des brought nothing new to the table. Many good man were shot down before he was.

In the Friday afternoon at Glacier View, Des was judged by the ten-point statement that so troubles you. He was asked what he thought of the consensus statements and he said they went towards his position in 7–12 areas (which Larry Geraty agreed with in a letter to the Review and Herald after Glacier View). The men in PREXAD and the Australasian Division present there could not believe what he said, and the Ministry, Sept 1980 went to the trouble of pointing out that this was all in Des’s mind. I remember particularly Elder Bradford saying Des must bend to the brethren. Mmm! The notes of Spangler about the Friday afternoon were written from their viewpoint, but he includes the beautiful attitude of Des towards the brethren. Neal Wilson said he behaved like a Christian gentleman at Glacier View. It cannot be denied because Des has been a humble gentleman all his life.

Des’s fate was decided before Glacier View. If you go careful through the witness statements, leaders from GC were saying this clearly ahead of time. Glen Parmenter told a group here in Australia a week before Glacier View that his father was going over to fire Des. In 1983 in the meetings you attended, Bob Spangler and Duncan Eva said the same. Parmenter insisted that Des must be dealt with that week. Otherwise the brethren would have had more meetings.

It’s true that there was a plan for Des to go to the New Gallery in London after Glacier View. Des would have done it, and I would have happily followed. But the plans were scotched, not by Des and me, but by the group that met several weeks later to make recommendations for firing Des. The committee was loaded with Des’s opponents, and the comment was made that Des was too much of a heretic to be sent anywhere.

Herold Weiss: about Des’s mistake in launching an attack on the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment and its date. He was ASKED to do this by the Adventist Forum at PUC because of the publication of Bob Brinsmead’s book 1844 Re-Examined. He said it would cause trouble and was assured that he would be safe expressing it within the Forum.

Philip Brantley: you may be able to find Des’s thesis in a religious library. Though it was a NT degree, he went through all the uses of the phrase abomination of desolation in the OT. Adventists routinely try to make out Des to be a poor scholar, but the schools where he both did his PhDs highly commended his work. Find Des on FB or through Messenger, and I may be able to find you a copy. But they are rare.

By the time of Glacier View, promises made to Des by the Division under Keith Parmenter had been revoked. Des realised he would not be teaching and he was very, very tired. He had nothing to lose by going to Glacier View.

When Des died he was entirely at peace over what happened to him. He said he was born to go to Glacier View. So, don’t worry about him. He forgave all those who despitedly used him. He was a master of forgiveness because he saw it as very central to the gospel. We have been forgiven much, and he said to me we must, WE MUST forgive each other. Vale Des. The great heart-pump of this house has stopped.


(Patrick Travis) #18

Gill, I see a lot of little men taking cheap shots at a man most of them could not give an answer to in his prime.
Perhaps there is an underlying issue of shame they need to justify for their cowardice while attempting to make that cowardice look noble.
God bless you and your family. God bless Des who gave other 4th+ generation SDA’S there first biblical exposure To the peace found only in Christ alone apart from works. JBF alone.
His works, preaching of Christ and courage shall indeed follow him.
Regards,
Pat


(Patrick Travis) #19

C,
The “new paradigm” is a view held by some biblical scholars. There remains no legitimate exegesis of the word Justification that means “make a part of covenant community.” Now the individual does become a part indeed of the community of twice born.
Indeed the “old rugged cross” remains the answer for the individual and answers the Spirit quickened conscience of the jailers question,
“What must I do to be saved?”
Regards,
Pat


(Elias Rowlandson) #20

it just seems too soon for articles like this.

they are good and have a use in time, this soon it seems like guilt alleviation. the experiment of the church is more than about who’s who in the church, out of the church, in a perfect world or church, there is room for differences with fear of the unknown or just differences. it should happen that the sorry saga will lead some to rethink how to handle unity, uniformity and diversity.


#21

You make it sound like if a person doesn’t fit your idea of a “Biblical scholar” then they are not a reliable source of Biblical truth. None of the twelve disciples may have fit into your definition but they changed the whole world with the Good News of the gospel. If Desmond Ford fits your description of a Biblical scholar with his mixture of truth with error, then I would rather consider the teachings and counsel from some other source.