George Knight on the “1888 Messsage”

George R. Knight, A User-Friendly Guide to the 1888 Message (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998).

My personal introduction to the “1888 Message” came when, as a junior at Broadview Academy in 1977, I came across some issues of The Layworker in the library, and saw an advertisement for a set of free tapes by Robert J. Wieland. Having had a pastor who was a hardcore legalist, this was the first gospel presentation to impact me with the good news of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus Christ. I went on to read “1888 Re-Examined,” Lessons on Faith, and everything by Jones and Waggoner published by Leaves of Autumn, as well as Luther’s commentaries on Romans and Galatians, and The Bondage of the Will—all before I started as a freshman theology major at Atlantic Union College a few weeks after Glacier View. By that time I’d gone on to Paxton, Ford, and Brinsmead—and within three years I left the Adventist church. I returned after two dozen years, and have been playing a game of catch up to see how discussions have changed on these issues in the time I was away. With that context, I’m grateful for Knight’s perspective on this (as I am grateful for his assessment of the QOD controversy)—he helps to separate myth from reality, and offers an interpretation that accords with the evidence (regardless of which side’s ox is gored).

The heart of the 1888 message is not all that complicated, as Knight presents it, focusing on Ellen White’s comments in Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91-93: “Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family.” He was uplifted as the sacrifice for the sins of the world; it was proclaimed that justification is through faith in him; people were invited to receive his righteousness by faith, which is manifest in obedience. (19-22; 91ff).

Adventists had become used to focusing on controversial doctrinal topics that separated them from other Christians. The approach to evangelism assumed that the hearers were Christian (23). But in focusing on distinctives, the central Christian affirmation of the gospel of Jesus Christ got shortchanged, in both preaching and in experience. “Adventists had been suffering from a Christless religion, and they needed the love of Jesus in their minds and hearts” (92).

It is of critical importance to stress that neither Ellen White, E. J. Waggoner, nor A. T. Jones imagined that they were preaching some new, uniquely Adventist message of salvation. Waggoner and White both said that it was the same gospel preached by Paul, Luther, and Wesley—if not, “we had better get rid of it as soon as we can” (82-83). They did not see it as new light but old light in a new setting, separated from error (85; 108-110). It was a bringing together of Adventist distinctives with the common Christian proclamation of Christ crucified (114).

In the light of the controversies stirred up by Wieland and Short and others, which focus in an almost Gnostic way upon obscure points, I think it well to heed the warnings of Ellen White against trying to be “more minute than is Inspiration” (93). So much ink has been spilled on arguments about universal forensic justification (99), whether the 1888 message was accepted or rejected (145ff), and the precise details of the human nature of Christ (152ff), etc., that salvation is almost seen to turn on what you know rather than who you know. Perhaps we need to recall that it isn’t denominational repentance (150) that justifies, nor gnosis, but individual repentance and faith in Christ.

The historical context is important, including the anxiety caused by the Sunday law crisis (32, 56-57; 121ff) for both sides, as well as the problem of aggressive personalities on both sides (23), some of whom “lost their Christianity” (64).

Some of the other topics debated in Minneapolis remain relevant, too. The argument over the identification of the ten horns might be said to center on the question of whether we should stay with what is familiar or whether we should always be interested in grounding our discussions of historical issues in good history (34)?

The question of the law in Galatians has undergone many interpretations and re-interpretations over the years. The earliest Adventists said it was the moral law; this shifted to the ceremonial law after 1856, in order to protect the ten commandments; Waggoner reverted to the understanding that it was the moral law (p. 38). He did so to emphasize that we are not saved by the law. As Knight notes,

He made a strategic decision not merely to debate the issue of the law in Galatians, but to raise the larger issue of salvation in terms of law and gospel, and then to discuss the book of Galatians in that context. (p. 54)

Waggoner was preaching and doing his exegesis of these passages within an Adventist context. His opponents focused on the law instead of Christ’s righteousness, and so they became the “Galatians” he had to refute. In the same way, Luther was operating within the context of late medieval Catholicism and his opponents, the advocates of the via moderna, became the “Galatians.”

Contemporary exegesis would emphasize that both were missing Paul’s context. Krister Stendahl, in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, argued we all tend to forget the questions Paul was addressing regarding Jews and Gentiles in the church. Paul was concerned with the law that separated Jew from Gentile, the whole Jewish law; his opponents said Gentiles needed to keep it if they wanted to be Christians, submitting to circumcision, etc. Paul responds by arguing that Gentiles are justified by faith apart from the law, just as Abraham was, long before the law was given. The law was added later, because of transgressions; it was a custodian for the Jews until Christ came. But Waggoner, like Luther, used the text to make a different point—that the Ten Commandments are the schoolmaster that brings us to Christ today (55); they show us our sin, so that we may turn to him in faith.

Looking at it from this perspective, I think we’d have to say that the Adventist pioneers who emphasized the “Jewish law system” were more right exegetically than Waggoner, though they, too read Galatians in light of their own concern to preserve the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, Waggoner was theologically right in stressing that the moral law does not save us, but can only show us our need of a savior.

In light of contemporary debates over the role of Ellen White it is well to point out, as Knight does, that she refused to “function as a theological police officer or an exegetical referee” (p. 59) Instead, she referred disputants of her day to “the Bible, the Bible alone” (p. 62).

Knight does a good job in pointing out some inconsistencies in the debate over the human nature of Christ. For one thing, it didn’t play a role in discussions until the 1890s, when A. T. Jones increasingly made it an issue, especially at the 1895 General Conference Session. Ellen White says nothing of this as an issue in her comments about the Minneapolis General Conference or in her praise of Jones and Waggoner—she doesn’t even make an issue of it in Steps to Christ or Desire of Ages (p. 163). And even while Jones stressed that Christ shared our fallen fleshly nature, he had to insist that his mind was not like ours; thus, while arguing that there were no differences between our humanity and his, he had to concede that there was in fact a difference (pp. 158-159). I especially appreciate Knight’s care not to misrepresent Ellen White’s teaching.

There is not the slightest doubt that Ellen White believed that Christ took upon Himself fallen, sinful human nature at the Incarnation. Whatever that nature consisted of, however, it is clear that it did not include any evil propensities to sin—those “thistles and briars” of selfishness, self-love, and so on. (p. 160, emphasis Knight’s)

Thus his focus becomes trying to understand what she meant by saying Jesus had a fallen nature, and he finds Poirier’s study of Melvill’s sermons helpful (p. 162).

I think Knight makes a strong case for his position that we shouldn’t look for new and unique understandings of the gospel in the post-1888 writings of A. T. Jones, E. J. Waggoner, and Ellen G. White. They claimed to be proclaiming the NT message  of the gospel, as also proclaimed by Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. The point of the message was that we can’t lose sight of the basics when we are arguing about our distinctive teachings–nor can we let our debates rob us of our Christianity. Good advice still relevant for today.

One thought on “George Knight on the “1888 Messsage”

  1. Bill,

    Actually, I think Knight’s challenge is that he oversimplifies the “1888 Message” – referring to it as “Adventism getting baptized,” and just a time when we were reminded to fix our eyes upon Jesus again. To say that, would lead me to believe that much of the preaching we have today on Jesus, grace, faith, etc., is the “1888 Message,” and we can just move on. But this is a very simplistic analysis of what took place.

    A few others points to consider as well:

    1. From my understanding, Jones & Waggoner didn’t necessarily simply preach about Jesus – and that’s what made their message so refreshing. They preached about Jesus within the context of the Most Holy Place message, and how Christ is to prepare a people for His return. As Ellen White goes on to say in that well-known “most precious message” quote; she says that Jones & Waggoner “invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God.” In much of our preaching on grace and love today (what many people believe is a reflection of our acceptance of the “1888 Message”), we often neglect the reality of true righteousness by faith – not only receiving God’s pardoning grace, but His empowering grace as well.

    2. To say that a lot of ink has been wasted talking about “legal justification,” “corporate repentance,” etc., because what really matters is having a relationship with Jesus, is somewhat simplifying the issues as well. I believe that preaching/teaching about “legal justification” increases a person’s chances of responding to their Savior, for example.

    While I do admit that we can often get “sidetracked” when discussing these little nuances of theology, you and I both know that these “finer points of theology” is what drives us. With the death of ideas and theology comes the death of our motivation to have a relationship with Jesus in the first place. The deeper I can go in understanding the Incarnation, salvation, theology, etc., the richer a picture of God I can give to people.

    Similarly, to say that denominational repentance is not what justifies us, but personal faith does, seems to imply that these other “side issues” are not important and not worth talking about! But we certainly wouldn’t take that attitude when it comes to the Sabbath, our understanding of the sanctuary, etc. No, knowing these intellectual concepts won’t save us, but they are definitely important.

    And denominational repentance is important (more on this on my blog in the future, I do believe).

    3. Lastly, if you have read this far: George Knight is incredibly wrong in saying that the nature of Christ was not an issue until the 1890s. This is what I had heard from others (like Knight) and assumed them to be accurate. But actually reading Waggoner tells a different story. In his original tract to Butler in 1887, “The Gospel in the Book of Galatians,” this was very much an emphasis. Notice, for example, what he writes to Butler: “You are shocked at the idea that Jesus was born under the condemnation of the law, because He never committed a sin in His life. But you admit that on the cross He was under the condemnation of the law. What! Had He then committed sin? Not by any means. Well, then, if Jesus could be under the condemnation of the law at one time in His life, and be sinless, I see no reason why He could not be under the condemnation of the law at another time, and still be sinless. And Paul declares that God did make Him to be sin for us” (p. 46).

    And then he goes on to write as well: “One of the most encouraging things in the Bible is the knowledge that Christ took on Him the nature of man; to know that His ancestors according to the flesh were sinners. When we read the record of the lives of the ancestors of Christ, and see that they had all the weaknesses and passions that we have, we find that no man has any right to excuse his sinful acts on the ground of heredity. If Christ had not been made in all things like unto His brethren, then His sinless life would be no encouragement to us. We might look at it with admiration, but it would be the admiration that would cause hopeless despair” (pp. 46, 47).

    Evidently, this was an issue already at that point. He also spends a considerable amount of time in “Christ and His Righteousness” talking about this issue, which was published soon after the Minneapolis General Conference in 1889.

    So to say that this was not a part of the “1888 Message” is to ignore the historical data.

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