Herb Douglass, A Fork in the Road

I’m reading Herb Douglass’ new book, A Fork in the Road, about the 1957 publication of Questions on Doctrine and its aftermath. It’s an expanded version of the paper he presented at the 50th Anniversary QOD conference this past October (PDF, mp3). So having read his paper and having heard him give the talk, there’s a certain sense of déjà vu as I make my way through it–but more the sense of hearing a good story told again by an old friend. Now, I just met him for the first time this past fall, but his was a name from my youth–he was Associate Editor of the Review and Herald in my early teen years, then a book editor for Pacific Press. The first Adult Sabbath School Quarterly I recall was Jesus, the Model Man.

But don’t mistake my point–this isn’t a nostalgic volume. It’s his attempt to lay out the history behind the publication of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, as he experienced it as the junior member of the editorial team of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. To his own recollections are added documentary evidence brought to light by Julius Nam and George Knight, which prove once and for all that M. L. Andreasen was by no means a lone voice criticizing QOD, but was representative of many more leading Adventists who were alarmed by the book’s reformulation of Adventist theology. Yet these historical revelations also compound the tragedy of Andreasen’s story–all these others left him to be hung out to dry. They voiced their concerns in private letters, only recently discovered in archives, instead of joining him in public outcry. Douglass was asked about this at Andrews and confessed that they were all “company men,” committed to a show of unity even when they were–quite literally–washing their hands of it in private.

The further tragedy is that some want to portray the “Andreasen position” as a minority position that belongs in the historical trash heap. They see it as an embarrassment, as did Froom, Read, and Anderson. And yet, Douglass argues, that’s far from the truth. Andreasen’s position was the Adventist position, he maintains; it remains embedded in the section on the Book of Hebrews in the SDA Bible Commentary, which he wrote. Andreasen’s books continue to be sold at Adventist Book Centers. It is the position that was featured consistently in the pages of the Review and Herald when he was on the editorial staff. It was supported by General Conference presidents, including W. H . Branson and Robert H. Pierson. It’s a theological package he calls the GCT–the Great Controversy Theme–which he sees as giving systematic consistency to Adventist Christology, Soteriology, and Eschatology.

The problem as Douglass identifies it is that this package, and the Arminianism that is part of it, clashed in 1957 with an Augustinian/Calvinistic package, as presented to Adventist leaders by Donald Barnhouse and Walter Martin. These two systematic theologies are like tectonic plates, and their clash has produced the various theological controversies within Adventism these past 50 years. (To this one might add the clash of another tectonic plate, inclusive of process theologies and the moral influence theory of the atonement, which has been having more impact in certain Adventist circles since the 1970s.)

Together with the work of George Knight and Julius Nam, Douglass’ book is essential reading for understanding what happened fifty years ago. It will be up to other theologians, pastors, and administrators to determine what shall be done.

2 thoughts on “Herb Douglass, A Fork in the Road

  1. Amazing how Bill Cork, my new young friend, could capture in a few words the intent of what I tried to do in a 160 pages. Bill is correct in his refocus on a veteran, major- league theologian, M. L. Andreasen. The issues in THE FORK are far more than a historic-theologic study–they have much to do with what God expects to accomplish in His plan of salvation. Revisiting 1957 and the essential issues that subsequently caused great unrest in the Adventist Church would be the highest priority on that church’s agenda.

  2. Just finished reading Douglass’s book, and I thought it was one of the most concise – yet profound – explanations of the tensions between classic Adventist theology and evangelical/calvinist theology. I plan on writing a short review on my blog.

    Interestingly, and I was just about to e-mail Douglass about this, perhaps the reason you felt like reading the book was deja-vu is because he literally repeats himself in it. Chapters 4 and 8 are the exact, same chapters. As I read through chapter 8, I was thinking, “Man, this sounds really familiar. Did I skip ahead a few weeks ago and read this chapter already?” And then I realized what had happened.

    Quite a blunder!

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