Some further reflection on the questions discussed at the recent conference at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the 50th Anniversary of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine.
Adventists leaders published the book in response to conversations with Donald G. Barnhouse and Walter Martin; these answers satisfied the evangelicals, but caused multiple controversies within Adventism over the years. An annotated edition of the book with a very helpful historical introduction by George Knight was republished in 2003; the original edition can be read on-line.
Reflecting on this from the perspective of having been away from Adventism for over two decades, having studied at Lutheran and Catholic institutions of higher education, it seems to me that the different parties have more in common than I think they realize or want to admit. All agree Christ was fully human and fully divine, and that his humanity was affected by heredity, and was the weakened, mortal flesh we share. All agree he is substitute and example. All agree as a high priest he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. They all agree he could have sinned (something Catholic and most Protestant theologians would deny), but never wavered. All agree that while we are born separated from God, his relationship with the Father and the Spirit was never broken. All agree that Seventh-day Adventists are fully Arminian. All agree that Jesus is coming and that there will be a time of trouble and that those who live through it will have a very intense experience that will require them to cling closely to Christ. All agree, I think, that the Holy Spirit will continue to uphold them.
There are issues that undergird the differences that need further exploration. Some self described “evangelicals” are comfortable using the term “original sin.” The phrase was stricken from an early draft of QOD but the idea remained. It isn’t found in earlier Adventist theology and doesn’t appear in official Adventist publications after this. Both liberals, like David Larson, and conservatives, like his recently deceased father, Ralph Larson, have problems with it. This raises a number of questions when we speak both about Christ’s inheritance and ours. What is the nature of sin? What exactly do we inherit? If sin isn’t inherited guilt (as Catholics teach), is it some sort of “substance” or “infection” that can be passed along, as some Protestants seem to suggest? Or is it better spoken of as a broken relationship and acts of the will? David Larson asked whether we might be operating with an understanding of the human person derived more from Aristotle and Plato than from the Bible.
There wasn’t much discussion of the larger Christian history of discussion about these issues. Douglass and an Evangelical scholar, Donald Dayton, pointed out that many theologians have shared a belief that Christ took our fallen nature (including Edward Irving, Karl Barth, and Colin Gunton). I think it would be good for some historians and theologians to explore their thought and how it compares with the thought of Adventists who share this perspective.
There remain strong emotions and convictions, however.
Some on the “right” still speak of “apostasy” (Larry Kirkpatrick and the Standishes, for example)–even though M. L. Andreasen himself apologized for his actions (which had led to the revocation of his ministerial credentials).
Some who would describe themselves as “liberals,” “evangelicals,” or perhaps even “centrists,” on the other hand, are convinced that the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole has rightly moved away from the teachings defended by M. L. Andreasen (the leading critic of Questions on Doctrine in the 1950s) and Herbert Douglass (who has defended the same views throughout his career of denominational employment).
To the latter group I have a question. If these ideas are to be seen as belonging to the “lunatic fringe” (a term used by Donald Barnhouse, supposedly quoting L. E. Froom), and have no place in Adventist thought, why then do books advocating them continue to be sold by Adventist Book Centers, and published by Adventist publishers? I’m thinking of books like Andreasen’s, The Sanctuary Service, the main source for his “last generation theology,” still published by the Review & Herald, and Douglass’s, Why Jesus Waits, still published by Pacific Press. Douglass said that the section on the book of Hebrews in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary was also Andreasen’s work (no word on whether this was impacted in the later revised edition).
Rather than seeking to lop off one side or the other, is it not better to acknowledge that the General Conference in session has never taken an official stand on the controverted details, and thus there is room for debate within the church? And that such debate must not divide the church, nor detract it from its mission–a concern expressed recently by GC President Jan Paulson.
Of course we can gain victory, but that will not be by settling the precise human nature of Christ; it will be by experiencing the “power of His resurrection”. It will not be by the power of His example; it will be by the “power of his resurrection”, for in that lies the power to live a new life. Let us strive in our preaching, teaching, and writing to direct the attention of our people to the Risen One, for he can work wonders in our lives.
I say to you as leaders: We have the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs. They hold together our core identity in terms of faith and doctrine. Resist any tendency to pluck out strains from any of these and make them into a separate and new doctrine which will divide the Seventh-day Adventist global community! We are in such a rapid global growth today as a church, and to me it is important that we have the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, as stated, understood and held to by all the new members who are joining us. That in itself is a monumental task. The wonderful fact that we are growing rapidly around the globe is also our great challenge, and we cannot afford to become distracted.
I think the conference at Andrews, by calling constantly for humility, by bringing us daily to our knees, by ending with us washing each others’ feet and sharing in Christ’s broken body and shed blood, showed us that while we can continue to discuss and study, the way forward is as brothers and sisters who have a shared message to tell to the world.