Why the Seventh-day Adventist Church Changed

Not long ago, a friend gave me a book written by veteran Adventist critic Vance Ferrell. I do not know Mr. Ferrell, but I admire both his persistence and his output—76 book listings on Amazon.com. Our Evangelical Earthquake takes on a story with which at least some readers of Spectrum will be familiar: the origin of the book Questions on Doctrine.

In the schematic, Mr. Ferrell’s telling of the story is accurate. In the 1950s a group of Takoma Park-based Adventist scholars entered into formal talks with some Evangelical Christian leaders about what, exactly, it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. On their side, the leader was Eternity magazine editor Donald Gray Barnhouse. Barnhouse brought into his corner (and ultimately shoved forward as the primary pugilist) Walter Martin, who called himself a Christian apologist and historian, but had a personality like a prosecuting attorney, arrogant and intimidating. Martin was, to put it bluntly, a bully. His mode of operation was to define the word “cult” as any group that didn’t believe as he did, and then paste it on them and watch them writhe. In these Seventh-day Adventist scholars he found someone willing to negotiate his blackmail.

LeRoy Froom and Roy Allan Anderson were among the first Seventh-day Adventists to read widely from other Christians, and in Froom’s case to become recognized outside the church for his scholarship. It is a measure of how much these men wanted the Christian world to see past our unusual beliefs to our Christian core, that they were willing to enter into these talks entirely on the defensive. The Eternity magazine bunch did not come to listen and learn, but to accuse: “We say you Seventh-day Adventists are a cult. Just try to prove otherwise.” There was little give and lots of take. Vance Ferrell and I have common ground if the point is how demeaning this was. Although I know my church at its best isn’t a cult, and wish everyone else knew it too, I can’t escape the feeling that the approval of Walter Martin wasn’t worth whatever I’d have to give for it.

How much Froom and friends gave for it is a point of contention. Farrell says it was almost everything of importance. While they did give the Evangelicals enough to get a rather limp hand of fellowship—“OK, I guess we won’t say you’re a cult, though you sure still seem like one”[1]—from my reading of Questions on Doctrine I don’t feel the same alarm that Ferrell does.

There’s a certain kind of Adventist writing that betrays itself first in typography: lots of bolds, italics, underlines, sometimes whole passages in capital letters. It’s as though the author senses the kind of oral bombast his audience responds to, and tries to reproduce it in print. The rhetoric of these books matches their design: it is overreaching, unmodulated, going beyond a good lesson or two (and there are surely several in the QOD story) to show every event calamitous, every change catastrophic, every agent the very minion of Satan[2]. In this book there’s even a bit of cloak-and-dagger—Ferrell sneaking around the GC building at night when he was a young theology student working as a janitor.

But QOD didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a context, history, trends. Froom and company weren’t enemy agents who suddenly appeared in order to destroy the church from the inside. They were up against the same thing that a lot of us once-traditional Seventh-day Adventists come up against: finding ourselves unable to invest in technical defenses of exclusionary theological notions when confronted and overwhelmed with the mission and message of Jesus. Whether defensible or not, some of these unique doctrines begin to seem beside the point.

You may argue that we should, but how many Seventh-day Adventists care about the talmudic distinctions of the QOD debates? Who needs to contemplate the sinless vs. sinful nature of Christ to know that Jesus has saved her? Who today finds it reassuring to contemplate an atonement that wasn’t completed at the cross, that remains unfinished waiting for a secret heavenly event? Who hasn’t realized, on the basis of real-life experience that people don’t become perfectly sinless through their own self-disciplined efforts?

Ferrell and his ilk are trying to resurrect theological corpses that didn’t have much to offer when they were alive. Please note something interesting about these “essential” doctrines that were said to be compromised by QOD: all are about the uncertainty of salvation. The nature-of-Christ discussion was about the necessity of behavioral perfection, something no human being has ever achieved, or ever will before glorification. The rejection of righteousness by faith was about defending an impossible, rigid legalism. The incomplete atonement meant never being able to feel confident that you are saved. These doctrines kept Seventh-day Adventists off balance, doubtful, and dependent upon the church rather than on Christ. Why should we want to hold on to such unBiblical ideas?

Ferrell isn’t the first who would have us believe that QOD was the rudder that changed the direction of the Seventh-day Adventist church, that before QOD we knew who we were, but afterward we forgot entirely and became mere Christians. The Wikipedia entry on QOD cites several authorities who say it was the watershed moment where progressives and true believers parted company. Yet ask the average person in the pew about Questions on Doctrine, and you’ll get a blank stare. Few even know what it is. Furthermore, I’d be very surprised if you could come up with even one person who had his or her mind changed by it. Fuss all you want over it, it’s a bit of obscure church politics that can only remain important if you keep writing books about it. Like a lot of critics who try to attach stray ideas to Christianity, the QOD critics have found a reason to dissent, not a real reason for dissent.

The Seventh-day Adventist church has changed, but QOD was an effect of that, not a cause. If you want reasons, start with our pioneers’ idea that truth was progressive, that God was going to reveal more as time passed, a notion that faded after Ellen White died but never quite went away. If you want people to blame, how about A.G. Daniells, who warned about sacralizing Ellen White and canonizing and decontextualizing her writings. He was forced out of the GC presidency for saying it, but Desmond Ford, 75 years later, was heard. Blame our belief in higher education, which evolved into sending professors out into “the world” to get an education they couldn’t get inside, but who brought back a more Biblical, Christ-centered Christianity to their students.

If you need to hold someone responsible for why nowadays concepts like righteousness by faith roll off the tongues of Seventh-day Adventists, why we talk about God’s grace more than his stern judgment, why we put Jesus at the center rather than the Sabbath, dress or diet (as was the case in my childhood) you should finger Morris Venden. It was Venden who awakened my generation to the possibility that God might really be as loving and forgiving as Jesus said He was, that perfection was impossible, heaven’s forgiveness readily available, church rules and standards approximate (and sometimes trivial or even abusive) reflections of God’s will, and—best of all—showed us that we can live having a humble but real confidence that we will inherit eternal life.

But Venden wasn’t the tiller that moved the church either. He reflected what was happening already. The Seventh-day Adventist church of my childhood was so legalistic that people were gasping for any breath of hope that there was more to their faith than a lifetime of stern, joyless hypocrisy, dyed even darker with the terror of imminent eschatological collapse, and with no assurance of salvation at the end of it. The old Adventism collapsed not because of QOD, but because it had become intolerable.

Ferrell and company are nostalgic for that old sectarianism. They want to return to a religion where people don’t follow Jesus, but follow interpretations of Ellen White from people like them. They would that ours be a faith of endless demands and scoldings—Ferrell has built his entire oeuvre on that. But I’d be surprised if this is the Seventh-day Adventist church most people want to belong to. Seventh-day Adventists may not be as pious as they once were, but I believe they’re better Christians.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

[1] Martin said, “It is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ despite certain heterodox concepts,” (The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 517) though he and Barnhouse criticized nearly every particular thing about us.

[2] One of the humorous instances of this overreaching, anything-that-might-stick rhetoric is Farrell’s example of what he contends is Anderson’s perverse desire to change the church: Anderson helped to do away with the hymnals Christ in Song and Hymns and Tunes by developing a “new” (1941) hymnal. That’s right: if it were not for this bad man, we might still be singing from a hymnal published in 1869!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6338

Vance has the honor of sparking the purge at Southern. answers to Questions has a rocky history. it was the President of the Pennsylvania Conference that initiated the contact with Roy Anderson. At first the book was urged upon the membership, I bought my copy at the urging of the President of the Wisconsin Conference. later Kenneth Wood at a conference of Adventist dentists stated it was a book that never should have been published. Much later, I believe it was republished by Andrews. Yes one can find the Gospel within Adventism if one can abide the hide bound hysterics. Tom Z

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Daniells only lost the presidency; Ford was defrocked and also lost his position.

Long before QOD, many, just as you, were taught to be very fearful of their salvation and there was never assurance, even though they faithfully bathed Friday before sundown and never, ever dare to attend the movies.
Hundreds of children faced a fearful future for their innocent indiscretions.
It was not a good time to be an SdA child. Many never stayed to see a gradual change, but not by the official church.

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QOD was an effect; and not a cause? The book could not be found in any ABC for decades.

Tell Ted Wilson that truth is progressive; or, that Jesus is at the center of the Adventist faith, and not the Sabbath. Maybe more believe that but it certainly isn’t SDA theology at its core.

The problem is that the membership has gone ahead of the church’s official teachings. Some of the more embarrassing teachings - the very same ones that Walter Martin reacted to - may have been driven underground but they continue to peculate and resurface in every issue that comes up for votes periodically. This has divided the church, but it certainly has not changed the core beliefs of the church. It has created an Adeventist subculture. When church members come through the doors holding Starbucks cups you know things aren’t what they used to be; but, try to get women into the pulpit and we’re back into the 50’s.

We may argue that the church is its members, and on that basis it has changed; but not until those time-lines get ditched, and Ellen White is replaced by the HS as the arbiter of truth, do we have a church that has progressed out of its cultish persona, into the Christian movement it proports itself to be.

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Isn’t that also the case with Ellen G. White. Hasn’t she grown and become a better christian in her lifetime? I think Loren is right. I had never heard of QOD before I found Spectrum.
I grew up in a church where any kind of LGT was considered a heresy. I remember a sermon where someone explained that the term “remnant church” is not a biblical term and not even a logical term, since nobody is automatically a remnant christian just by belonging to a certain church and there are remnants in more than one church. 1844 was explained to me once when I was about 14 years old and after that never mentioned again in any sermon I heard. Which of course convinced me of its lesser importance.
In my youth we heard very good preachers like Morris Venden, who reminded us that wearing jeans was okay as long as we didn’t adopt the “jeans-moral”, which was then defined as a very worldly 68 attitude…
Our relationship to Jesus is what counts…that was preached over and over again. We were Adventists nevertheless. We had no problem of identity. Now we hear from some leaders, that our identity is in danger if we don’t go back to the legalistic joyless church that has obviously existed before we were born. Isn’t it time to try to find out, who really wants to support this?

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Did QOD introduce any new doctrine, or was it forced to publish what many had been previously taught? Everything seems to depend on the geographic area and timing. Those who have been in Adventist churches since the 30s were taught much differently than many in the 60s and later.
Sadly, many who were taught that the church WAS the remnant; that the Sabbath would be the final test; that minor infractions could keep us out of the kingdom, did not stick around to wait for change.

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We’ve been over these topics many times on these threads, and without question, most of us who vocally participate aren’t likely to change unless decisive new evidence is shared.

(Parenthetically, I was a bit amused by the statement the chair made during the Annual Council women’s ordination debate, about minds presumably being made up and not susceptible to change. I offer myself as an example that this assertion is false, on at least two contentious church issues—the human nature of Christ and women’s ordination. I once held on both topics an opposite perspective from the one I hold now, based on evidence from Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.)

As I have said so often, the reason I continue to engage regarding topics like the issue raised here by Loren, is because I know there are folks who listen on these threads and don’t speak up, who have informed me privately of their appreciation of the contributions my posts have brought.

It is fair to say that at least historically, Loren has correctly outlined the impact of the Questions on Doctrine controversy and its relationship to the continuing discussions in the church over salvation. Where I would differ with him in his historical survey is regarding Leroy Froom and Roy Allan Anderson, at least to some degree. When one considers their overall contribution to Adventist thought, it is quite difficult to believe they would have been happy at the later consequences of the initiative which culminated in QOD. Concerning Bible prophecy and so much more, these men were steeped in the classic Adventist worldview, and would recoil with an indignation nothing short of dramatic were they to be witnesses to the present state of so much of First World Adventism.

On the issue of the atonement, it is fair to say Questions on Doctrine didn’t truly break new ground, except to wrongly imply that Adventists had at some earlier time been unclear about the completion of the atonement at the cross. This was QOD’s principal error on this point of theology. When one reads the actual commentary in QOD on the atonement issue, it is clear the authors are speaking of a completed SACRIFICE on Calvary, and were not denying that the Biblical atonement process also includes Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and its necessary parallel in the human experience of divinely-empowered sanctification. Despite the implications of QOD, Adventists have never been in doubt that Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was finished. (When was the last time you saw an Adventist offer a lamb?) The issue some have been confused about since QOD is whether or not the atonement process goes beyond sacrifice, a point on which QOD was quite clear.

The bottom line with all the issues Loren has raised in this piece—the humanity of Christ, the atonement, righteousness by faith, and the possibility of divinely-empowered sinless obedience here on earth—is the approach one takes to the inspired documents. This, of course, is the basic issue in the ordination controversy as well, along with the origins and sexuality debates. Do we permit Inspiration, all of it, to explain itself and thus guide our choices, or do we seek to blend the themes of Inspiration with the vagaries of human opinion, human scholarship, and human experience?

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“It is impossible to eliminate human opinion, scholarship, and human experience” as you yourself has stated that yourself admit that you formerly held opposite perspectives from those you now hold.

Why study and try to eliminate human experience as those are critical for evaluation? Just as the saying: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” is how experience is the best teacher. How would we ever be able to discriminate between to opposing positions with the gift of our hard-taught experience which forms opinions?

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Exactly what I ask when I read your assertions & conclude the latter about them.

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Elaine, remember our beloved G.W. Bush’s version of the fooling saying?.. LOL

Re-read your posts and in many of them you will find a clear answer to your question.

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Elaine, my opinions were changed by the Word of God. I don’t deny I formerly held different opinions. But the Word of God was right and I was wrong. The fact that I once believed differently doesn’t change the fact that Inspiration is still an objective measure of all we believe and do.

On the issue of legalism, which Loren has again raised (and so many beside him), a few additional thoughts are in order. This word too often is one of those “umbrella” words, like grace, which is used to paint with a broad brush and “cover everything” without explanation. (One is reminded of what Lyndon Johnson said about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, which he used to obtain carte blanche authority to escalate the Vietnam War. Leaving out his more colorful analogies, Johnson assured his aides that this resolution “covers everything” without needing to specify details. As it turned out, not a good thing at all.)

At the bottom line, legalism is about motivation, not content, so far as human action as determined by the counsel of God is concerned. This principle applies to all issues of human conduct, from racial justice and other issues of social compassion to matters of personal piety such as diet, dress, and how we govern intimate relationships. And only God can know, since He alone knows the heart (I Kings 8:39), whether or not the one who feeds the homeless or observes the Sabbath is doing so because of a heart transformed by the love of God or because of mere social, cultural, or circumstantial compliance. Those doing so for the latter motives are legalists; those who obey for the former motives are actuated by the Biblical gospel of grace.

Ellen White perhaps said it best, during the post-1888 interest in righteousness by faith which she and Jones and Waggoner were encouraging. She wrote that “as a people we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa, that had neither do nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law” (RH March 11, 1890).

Notice she didn’t say, “Preach Christ, then the law,” or, “preach Christ, and the law will take care of itself.” Every divine requirement is a revelation of Jesus, which is why Ellen White says elsewhere, “The whole Bible is a manifestation of Christ” (DA 390). That includes the beasts as well as the Beatitudes, Revelation 13 as surely as First Corinthians 13, Daniel 8:14 as surely as John 3:16.

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yes Ellen but both kept their honor. Tom Z

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the two most diabolical issues within Adventism are: The sinful nature of Christ which spawned the LGT thrust, and the second is the Investigative Judgment that on the one hand generates fear, and on the other a do and don’t list of behaviors, even though police. Even a superficial,read of Paul will demonstrate his life long contest against those mind sets. Tom Z

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And here again we vigorously disagree, Tom, on Biblical grounds.

Kevin. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Soirit not by the seed of Adam. that is Biblical four square. There is no Biblical basis for a I day for a year in Dan 8:14.why in the world anyone would try to make theology out of Miller’s errors beats me. Tom Z

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Kevin there are people as honest as you who base their beliefs and yet come up with very different interpretations, resulting in opinion. Arguing about various Bible texts seem wasteful as each individual must stand before God alone for what she believes, and just as with the Jews who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, they had years of scripture they interpreted that belied that.

If we could give everyone the aid only in reading the Bible without superimposing a particular slant or interpretation, we would be giving the Holy Spirit a place to aid each individual. That has not been the method with making Adventist converts from other Christian bodies. They were introduced to particular interpretations, some which only Adventists alone, of all Christians, do not accept. Let the Holy Spirit lead to study the Bible like the Bereans so they will see FOR THEMSELVES what they should do.

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Tom, we could turn this discussion any number of ways. But I just want our listeners to know there is ample Biblical evidence in opposition to your stand. Adventism is based on the consensus of both Testaments, not on isolated New Testament verses cut off from the rest of the Bible. This is true both for the Christology issue and the sanctuary doctrine as historically taught by Seventh-day Adventists.

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This is exactly right. No doctrine could insinuate assurance & the peace of Jesus. Live in fear, die in fear. Such a focus is spiritually harmful—if not abusive—& completely unbiblical.

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Here you go George, reminisce on the good ol days :wink: