Who Are the True Heirs of the Reformation?

For the first time ever at a major conference, scholars of church history this past week brought Anabaptists into the conversation about the Reformation’s meaning for the Adventist Church. Well- and lesser-known reformers came into play every day, raising provocative questions about the church’s identity and spiritual health.

Around a table in the “Culture Barn” at beautiful Friedensau Adventist University in the former East Germany, participants considered 18 papers on the theme “Perceptions of the Protestant Reformation in Seventh-day Adventism.”  They had come together, from Germany, the United States and places as far away as the Philippines, under the auspices of the university’s Institute of Adventist Studies.  

One focus was Martin Luther, whose Ninety-five Theses appeared in 1517 in Wittenberg, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the conference site.  But beginning with the first address, on Monday evening, May 9, figures absent from or at the periphery of Ellen White’s familiar telling of the Reformation story stimulated exchanges about how a wider perspective might help not only to explain but also to enhance the Adventist faith experience.

Nicholas Miller began proceedings by putting the spotlight on two lesser-known Dutch reformers, Jacob Arminius, who argued against Calvin for the reality of free will, and his supporter Hugo Grotius, who viewed Christ’s atonement through the lens of “the moral government of God.”  Through John Milton, who was a friend of Grotius, these reformers had substantial, if indirect, influence on Ellen White, not least on her “great controversy” motif.  Miller also suggested that if God’s government is “moral,” then so ought any government to be, and said that this entails Adventist responsibility to bear a witness on matters of social justice.

On Tuesday morning Stephan Höschele, of the host university, explored the variety of ways in which early Adventists used key terms related to the Reformation.  Uses of “Protestant” and “Reformation” were at first negative; all churches, including the Protestant ones, were seen as fallen. Later, however, church writers showed more sympathy for the Reformation Churches, and in the 1870’s commendation of certain Protestant efforts began to appear.  By the early 1900s appreciation for Protestant mission agencies led church leaders of the Eastern Asian Division to declaim: “We recognize every agency that lifts up Christ…as part of the divine plan for, the evangelization of the world.”  The statement later appeared (as it still does in simplified form) in The General Conference Working Policy.  Höschele’s point was to show development, from a negative view of the Reformation Churches to the more positive view that the Reformers were 'precursors' of Adventism, and Adventism the Reformation's true 'heirs.'

Denis Kaiser, of Andrews University, explored the theme of Martin Luther as “the Protestant Reformer par excellence” in the development of Ellen White’s discourse.  Daniel Heinz, of Friedensau, argued that, although contemporary Lutheran theologians may have forgotten it, Luther regarded this world as “the devil’s child” and pointed to signs of the times from Bible prophecy as helping us prepare—in Luther’s case, joyfully—for the return of Christ.  In the afternoon, Jón Hjörleifur Stefánsson, a doctoral student at the Free University in Amsterdam, described how Luther came to identify the papacy as the Antichrist.  All these themes, the presenters pointed out, appear also in Adventism.

Two papers about scriptural authority followed these.  Christian Lutsch, a student at Friedensau, looked at Luther’s account of sola scriptura, with its objection to “the binding of scriptural interpretation to tradition.”  He noted that “Christ is the center of Luther’s hermeneutic,” or as Luther himself put it, “‘the true test by which to judge all books…’”  In reading the Bible, the point, Lutch said, interpreting Luther, is that Christ be “permitted to speak.”  Another Friedensau student, Sully Sanon, from Haiti, made a case for “dialogue” and for what he called “devotio”—fidelity to the text, sacrificing of self before the text.  These in tandem, he said, are ways of overcoming both “fixed tradition” and also the “hermeneutical chaos” created by “naïve” approaches to the Bible.

Wednesday morning a paper by Timothy J. Arena, a doctoral student at Andrews, was read in his absence, and the focus now was Philip Melanchthon, who worked alongside Luther in Wittenberg.  His concept of salvation influenced Arminius, and through him John Wesley, and this legacy, the author suggested, reached Adventism through Ellen White.  According to Melanchthon, sin gravely incapacitated the human will, but by the “forensic imputation” of Christ’s righteousness and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the person of faith receives the “gift” of reconciliation and the power to embody “the contours of the Christian obedience.”  This view, and in particular this doctrine of “forensic justification,” became, the paper argued, Ellen White’s essential outlook, and it counts today against all Adventist tendencies toward moral “perfectionism.”

Thomas Domanyi, a long-serving scholar and church leader from Switzerland, presented John Calvin’s legacy, showing how it is mirrored in many points of the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists.  Two claims stood out as potential provocations in the context of Adventist conversation:  One was Calvin’s rejection of Luther’s privileging of the New Testament versus the Old; another was his use of the Old Testament to justify full Christian cooperation with civil authority.

Reinder Bruinsma, the scholar and former church administrator from the Netherlands, cast his eye on Adventist church governance.  The church’s American beginnings make Adventism “utilitarian” in this regard, and here the influence of Reformation figures, whose views the author briefly sketched, has usually depended on “pragmatic” considerations.  Bruinsma endorsed this criterion for further development of institutional structure, but lamented what he saw as both lost “adaptability” and seeming diminishment of the church’s “original aversion to a strongly hierarchical system.”

The morning ended with reflections from Michael Campbell, who teaches in the Philippines.  He reviewed Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, noting, too, how Protestant hostility to Catholic conceptions has generally “deemphasized the importance of the Lord’s Supper.”  He showed that Adventists at first limited communion to committed believers, but then changed toward today’s “open communion,” speculating that this may owe, at least in part, to expanding “missiological horizons” as the church abandoned the “Shut Door” theory of the late 1840s and early 1870s began moving into foreign missions.

A turn to the Anabaptists, the still influential dissenters from Reformation coziness with civil authority, began Wednesday afternoon.  Martin Rothkegel, who teaches at a Baptist institution in Berlin, observed that the Anabaptist story contributed to “modern understandings of a free society” and has come to appear “more attractive” in the wake of the Hitler debacle in twentieth-century Germany.  In the body of his presentation, he offered detailed description of the movement’s plural origins: it was “no monolithic entity,” even with respect to non-violence.  With an eye to his audience, he described the brief outbreak of seventh-day-observing Anabaptism in the south of Moravia.  He also pointed out that Dutch Mennonites, one expression of the Anabaptism, played a key role in the introduction of believer’s baptism to separatist circles in seventeenth-century England, where the formation of “Baptist movements” would come to have influence in America.

Trevor O’Reggio, from Andrews University, argued for clear similarity between Anabaptism and Adventism. With respect to baptism, church discipline, and the Lord’s Supper,  and to separation from the world, salvation, eschatology and religious liberty, Adventist perspective suggest a substantial, if also indirect, “lineage” to this movement.  He invoked Adventist historian George Knight as backing for this claim, and noted further that some 30 percent of Millerite preachers were, like Miller himself, Baptist.  He referred, too, to the influence of Seventh-day Baptist mission Rachel Oaks.

Charles Scriven followed O’Reggio by considering “the most formidable systematic thinker” among contemporary theologians who take a “NeoAnabaptist” point of view.  His elaboration of James William McClendon’s thought focused on possible “leverage points” for Adventist self-criticism and renewal, and offered, among other things, an account of McClendon’s Anabaptist hermeneutic, or Bible-reading strategy.

The final morning was Thursday, May 12, and there was a turn to 1888 and the message of righteousness by faith.  First Woody Whidden, now retired from Andrews University, argued that Ellen and James White had more to do with the overall 1888 experience than A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner.  These latter both left the church eventually, as Whidden was at pains to point out, and in the case of Waggoner in particular, there was a sharp veering away from justification by faith and the penal substitutionary understanding of atonement.  He argued that these facets of Adventist theory regarding “righteousness by faith” became, under White’s influence, Adventist orthodoxy, as well as examples of Reformation orthodoxy.

Gilbert Valentine, of La Sierra University, told the story of the Ford Controversy during the 1960s and 70s, when again righteousness by faith was a galvanizing doctrine.  The Ford story began with Robert Brinsmead’s incessant advocacy of moral perfectionism, and became a nearly church-wide quarrel.  Desmond Ford responded with his popular preaching of the assurance of salvation, while several top leaders, including two editors of the Adventist Review and the General Conference president, swung toward the perfectionist perspective even as Brinsmead himself was suddenly renouncing it.  Martin Chemnitz, a later Reformer and hostile commentator on the Catholicism’s Council of Trent, now came into play, and discord deepened.  Ford was eventually removed from the Adventist ministry, and many others also left the ministry, or even the church, over what was going on.  The whole story illustrates, said Valentine, how one factor in Adventist disharmony over these matters is its different perceptions of the Reformation.

So are we, Rolf Pöhler asked as the conference was coming to its close on Thursday morning, the true “heirs” of the Reformation?  In retirement, he still teaches systematic theology at Friedensau, and along with his successor Stephan Höschele, was one of event’s key organizers.  We understand ourselves, he continued, to be “keepers of the flame,” “restorers of early church tenets,” “revivers of neglected truth.”  But maybe these words, he suggested, are more like a mission statement than a description of settled fact.  And as for the claim to be “the ‘final remnant’ of God’s true church,” as one Adventist interpreter of the Reformation put it years ago, this, too, deserves a second thought.  Are we as committed as we should be to hearing what God is saying to us?  Is the Bible now “less bound by the shackles of ecclesiastical authority than it was in Reformations times…?”

Pöhler’s questions evoked, it appeared, the sense of humility he was looking for.  He seemed to say that aspiration is better than self-regarding claims.  One conference participant had remarked that truth “cannot be inherited, it has to be discovered,” and Pöhler now repeated the remark.

The proceedings ended with participants looking forward to an afternoon excursion to Wittenberg.  They were also weighing the thought they would go home with: Can a movement be among the Reformation’s true heirs unless it is humble through and through?


Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7459
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Thanks, Charles Scriven.

While reading, I resented what clearly, through the text, became a timeline in this conference. It starts with the Reformation…and ends with Adventism, leading up to the obvious question, in case anyone has missed it: “So, are we the true ‘heirs’ of the Reformation?” Blecch.

On the other hand, I particularly agree with these other end statements:

"Maybe these words…are more like a mission statement than a description of settled fact. And as for the claim to be ‘the ‘final remnant’ of God’s true church’…this, too, deserves a second thought."

And a third thought, and a fourth thought, and a fifth thought…and maybe a googolplexth thought. Toward that end, allow me to offer the text of my 2010 essay on remnancy for Adventist Today. It’s linked to this blog post, “Reevaluating the Remnant”:


Note that your article ends, paraphrasing Pöhler as saying, “Aspiration is better than self-regarding claims.”

And self-serving ones, I’d urge. Pöhler is correct: Remnancy is a potential state, and the Bible describes it this way.

Finally, claiming that you’re part of the remnant is like claiming that you’re incredibly sexy: It’s something always best and most credibly said by others.



Will the papers be made available online?

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Luther was an anti Semitic bigot who didn’t know squat about true Christianity.His tirades against Jews were the seeds of what Hitler tried to accomplish in the Holacaust.

Like King David of old he may be a hero to some but there is a lot of innocent blood on his hands


If you’re looking for absolute perfection, you’ll not find in among Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, or any other philosophy.

Scripture calls David a man after God’s own heart–not when he committed adultery and murder, but when he served the Lord to the best of his ability. Martin Luther was not perfect (you failed to mention his beer drinking), but he understood the concept of justification by faith and not works, and he was the catalyst that really kicked the Reformation into high gear. To judge former generations by today’s cultural norms is unfair. But it’s become fashionable, so that our brave founding fathers are denigrated as misogynistic bigoted slave owners, even though they were products of their times, and risked their lives to be free from tyranny.

Your comments seem to imply that forgiveness for past sins is not possible. David must be continually reminded of his crimes? And Martin Luther must forever pay for his alleged part in the Holocaust? I’m glad you’re not my judge.


It is planned to publish the articles as book.
Happy Sabbath from Friedensau Adventist University


The reformation was built upon Paul’s view of redemption and its consequences. More and more Adventism is buying The Brinsnead approach to perfection, both built upon the IJ. At Glacier View Adventism lost its moral authority. we see it best on Adventist campuses. Most merely vote with their feet. TZ


Judging Luther according to his view of the Jews of his time would be like judging Jesus according to the temple cleansing incident, without knowing any background of the time and place. I am not trying to justify Luther, but his insights and deeds in matters he has grasped well, greatly supersede his views in matters he did not grasp. He was a child of his time, but insides and deeds he achieved are inspiring true reformers even today!


Thank you Chuck for this excellent report on a heritage topic.

Of course, the term “heirs of the Reformation” is language proposing a particular kind of relationship. In Europe and Great Britain, much more so than in America, the tradition of the heir is heard almost every day, as the presence of the past very much dominates the present.

Did anyone speaker problematize this metaphor, or account for how it entered Adventist thinking?


Are not ALL Protestant Churches HEIRS? of the Reformation Movement?
The Reformation Movement of the 1300, 1400, 1500, 1600’s had many bright and shining participants.
They tended to build on each other in many ways. And in some ways FOUGHT with each other.
There was even the pre-Catholic era of Great Britain and Ireland who received their Christ religion directly from Palestine, and not by Rome or Europe. John Wycliffe would have been aware of these persons.
Protestantism was based on the Merits of Christ through His life and death on the Cross and His ministration in Heaven that brings Salvation to the individual. Works of the individual by keeping the commandments, by penance, or any other works are of no value, and was taught to the people. We do works because we LOVE God, not to obtain God’s Love. He loved us while sinning, and that love does not increase when we stop.
Many persons contributed thoughts and ideas to Protestant thought. There were many who held truths that we SDAs hold today, but not one person actually held ALL of them. There were a few Saturday keepers through the Centuries, but wasnt cast as a HUGE item in the Belief of Things. A number kept Sabbath quietly. Sir Isaac Newton was one.
If you want a good book to read on the topic of Seventh day Adventists being HEIRS obtain the new book by Bryan W. Ball that he just published on the event of his 80th birthday. “Grounds For Assurance And Hope”. Can obtain by Amazon.
There are some Beliefs that are peculiar to ONLY Seventh day Adventist millerites. And we have to be OK with that. And beyond that, there are Beliefs peculiar ONLY to us because of Ellen White and her writings such as the Great Controversy and other printed materials.

So to say we are HEIRS, I guess we would have to decide WHO our religious parentage comes from in addition to Anabaptists, John and Charles Wesley, and William Miller.
PS-- We are indebted to Mystics such as Meister Eckhart for giving us Martin Luther. It was some of his writings that Martin discovered and read that put him on the path to October 31, 1517, 95 Theses.


That’s something of a strange conclusion to draw (the last few paragraphs of the article) from the previous description of the conference. What exactly is not ‘humble’ about believing that SDA theology is the end goal that God was aiming at, when bringing the succession of reformers on the scene? It’s what every other denomination believes as well or else they would have changed their theology.

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There seems to be a widespread assumption that the Reformation inaugurated the single most important facet of the gospel message; viz., the “mechanism” by which we are individually saved (is it forensic, moral, or something else?). This became a rushing, even turbulent stream of theological thought, which, in Adventist thinking, culminated in the investigative judgment/Great Controversy insights coupled with a “renewed” focus ala Wesley on the fruits of the Spirit. Somehow, this focus shifted what God has done for us to what we must do for God. He needs our faithfulness, even perfection, to accomplish his purposes in the world (even the universe).

These theological trends were accompanied by an insistence on the authority of the Scriptures for the church, as opposed to the authority of the church for the Scriptures. This Reformed principle of how we create and evaluate our beliefs, coupled with a massive amount of research into the Bible’s origins, canonization, archaeological and historical context, has produced an earthquake in theology which has, to my way of thinking, profoundly deepened, clarified and distinguished the truly important in theology/doctrine from the lesser important. New themes and insights have emerged to complement what we thought was the fullness of the biblical message in the demand of the prophets for social justice, the revolutionary (and “political”) implications of Jesus’ emphasis on the kingdom of God which welcomes outsiders (sinners, children, the poor) and warns “insiders” (think antonyms). One could go on and on.

And, we must rethink the basis for the authority of the Scriptures, a subject that may be addressed in a future article in Spectrum.


It should be obvious that our understanding of Revelation 2-3 as stated in the SDA Bible Commentary points to our self-realization as the heirs of the Reformation. The Reformation churches constitute Sardis; the Adventist church constitutes Philadelphia and Laodicea.

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Any efforts to place SDAs in the direct line of Luther seems to me to be names-dropping, trying to big-note ourselves by linkages to a well known religion. I don’t think the Lutherans themselves would be pleased with the association. Any similarities we picked up from more direct sources.
In my opinion the Anabaptist link is more on the money. I’m glad at least one paper was devoted to this link.
It is also true that the earliest Adventists were closely tied to the sub-groups of dissenters like the Quakers, Rogerenes, Friends, and Shakers. Hundreds of them fled European persecution and kept a low profile in the valleys of upper NY State and further north and west, gathering for worship in their homes, intermarrying among themselves and maintaining connections through itinerant preachers. In the New England States these groups, I believe, had a powerful influence on James and EGW and other pioneers. Among these dissenters were believers in angel visitations and the use of phrases such as “I was shown” and “the angel said to me,” etc. Many of their surnames are found among the early Adventists. I am just scratching the surface. The full extent of the similarities is significant.


SDA = Heir to the reformation of any sort?
No matter what is inherited, there will be no end to the call, by leadership, for revival and reformation and the label by SDA conference officials, pastors and SS teachers identifying members as lukewarm Laodiceans.

SDA members, for the most part, have never read the whole bible or even the new testament for that matter. They have never read Steps to Christ, Desire of Ages or Great Controversy. (Prove me wrong with any significant sample size survey) Check to see what percentage are even reading the gospel of Matthew in your church for this quarter.

The SDA institution is so obsessed with a few pet doctrines…Sabbath, state of dead, eschatology …that they don’t have a basic understanding of soteriology.(gospel, grace, saved)

More and more pastors & SS teachers are promoting a warped assurance of salvation approach to counter the desperation and guilt trips of members.
Using 1 JN 5:13 , out of context, is an example.

Thank you Chuck for a very nice rendering of the conference and the many issues it sought to clarify, if not at least acknowledge. But, the topic leaves me somewhat mystified. The notion of an “heir” recalls the writings of Hebrews that show how Christ is an heir with a direct line from God, greater than the angels, and greater than Melchizedek, Moses and the Israeli priestly line. In secular thought the heir traces his (almost always male) lineage directly back to the founding monarch or ruler. In the case of the Reformation, there were several streams of thought, making heirship not direct but more conceptual.

Of which Reformation thought are Adventists the heir? Luther? Calvin? Zwingli? Each of these Reformers produced a hermeneutic that started with _sola scriptura _ but deviated in many ways on the matter of theological rationalism. This theological rationalism eventually adopted reason and science as part of any presupposition on Biblical authority. The later reformations of the Wesleys and the Anabaptist were modification on such rationalism and included hints of perfectionism. Given this, what is the basis for claiming that Adventists, who have rejected the basic sola scriptura of the reformers and interposed Ellen White as the final interpreter of Scripture. The greatest example of this is the rewording of Fundamental Belief # 6, in which the Church voted to make Ellen White’s statements on the age of the earth that are not Biblical and not-scientific. So, the Church officially rejects any part of scientific thought that is not consistent with the elevation of Ellen White’s writings. In so doing, the Church elevated extra-Biblical authority above that of the Bible.

How then do we as Adventist become so smug to proclaim ourselves heirs of the Reformation, when we reject the Reformation’s most basic tenet?


i’m not so sure we have all that much in common with martin luther, who advocated drinking for depression, and adultery in the case of impotence:


it is true that many adventists haven’t really embraced any of luther’s main theological tenets, including original sin and forensic justification…and given luther’s low view of the books of hebrews and revelation, it’s hard to see how our signature sanctuary doctrine can owe any thanks to him…

I read your article on the remnant. It confirmed what I long believed. As a young SDA believer, now past 50, this teaching of the church never sat well with me. I always questioned it. It just seemed way to exclusive too me. Thank you for adding to my understanding.

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I don’t find it strange. Paul said, " We do not preach ourselves, but we preach Christ Jesus, and ourselves your servants for his sake."

The priorities are in order. We are not to trumpet our supposed organizational remnant status, a totally unscriptural teaching in and of itself, nor tout our heirship to the reformation, as if that does anything for anyone other than tie them into institutional exclusivity. We are to preach Christ alone, and offer ourselves as his servants to others… the latter giving real guts to our preaching.

People doing this, are bearers of the good news. I would imagine that God is looking for this, rather than an ecclesiastical institution that is constantly taking pains to prove its own exceptionalism, or place in salvation history.




Hi, Jeremy ! Well, maybe pay respect to Luthers time and environment. Whatelse for depression could he advocate ? sixty years ago - befor ethe first antidepressants were on the market, Morphine was the recommenden therapy - or ECT (Electro convulsive therapy) and locking the patient up to prevent his suicide and just wait. (Viktor Frankel). And - as US guests mostly are embarrassed - of course they had plenty of beer in Luthers household - since Wittenberg in the lowlands had no mountain creeks at the back door, but only contaminated deep fountains. So only drink something first boiled ! The advice of adultery I am interested in - this seem for me to be an outcome of later mediaeval society and the RCC possibility to annulate the foregoing marriage in case of impotence. and the meaning of having offsprings, like Tamar or Sarah / Hagar !

Of course WE are fully independent from our environments possibilities, requirements and values today !

I am more concerned about “Sola sriptura” : For example “to obey” has a very different meaning in the NT than we now imagine when hearing this word - in German and in English ! We read what our language has told us.