A Generous Orthodoxy

I’ve swiped the title from an author who isn’t orthodox. But I’m using it to describe a man who was both orthodox and generous–my late friend, George Vandeman. He was the founder and the host, for many years, of the pioneering telecast, “It Is Written.” He was firm in his convictions, but patient and generous with those who disagreed (including me, when I was a rebellious college student!). One of the books of his I appreciate the most is, What I Like About …. It was an accompaniment for a series of telecasts in which he accented what he liked about different religious movements, including the Lutherans, the Baptists, the Catholics, the Charismatics, the Methodists, the Jews, and others. For each episode, he interviewed someone of that faith tradition (Jewish and Catholic leaders were suspicious, and refused to appear)–folks like Demos Shakarian and Oswald Hoffman, who had been friends of his for many years. His emphasis was on what we have in common, rather than on what divides. He emphasized how the Seventh-day Adventist church has a heritage with roots in many different movements, and expressed his own gratitude to both the historical founders of those movements as well as to living representatives of those traditions who keep that legacy alive today. He noted that Adventism puts these different teachings together in a unique package, and has a distinctive message–and he preached that message without compromise or apology–but he didn’t think that was grounds for an arrogant triumphalism.

There are two kinds of Seventh-day Adventism, I think. The one looks at Adventism as Vandeman did, as the successor to various reform movements that preceded us. Leroy Froom had the same perspective, which he articulated in books like, The Prophetic Faith of Our FathersThe Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, and Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. Ellen White was of the same persuasion. When I read her book, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, I am struck by her emphasis that God had faithful people throughout history. She sees God’s hand in the work of Columba, Luther, Wesley, and many others. She sees Adventism as following in their footsteps.

But there is another Adventism. This version follows in the footsteps of the Reconstructionist movement of the 19th century, and seeks to disregard Christian history in an effort to reconstruct Christianity from the Bible and the Bible only. Those with this view look at all other Christians today as “Babylon,” and see that we can learn nothing from them. They look at the past and see only “the Dark Ages.”  These are convinced they have the truth, and see that they can learn nothing from anyone else.  Some of this perspective, as a result, have failed to learn from the mistakes of history; some have embraced ancient errors like Arianism (rejecting the Trinity as “Catholic”).

The second perspective is illustrated by a chart of history suggesting that the church, like a train entering a tunnel, went underground in the early centuries only to  reemerge in “the last days.” But the first perspective sees light in every period, and faithful, if feeble and fallible, representatives in every age and place. The first perspective sees friends where the second sees only enemies.

Thus Ellen White said things like, “We should not, upon entering a place, build up unnecessary barriers between us and other denominations, especially the Catholics, so that they think we are their avowed enemies. We should not create a prejudice in their minds unnecessarily, by making a raid upon them. There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth, and God will just as surely test and prove them as He has tested and proved us.” (Ev 144).

That same Catholic church, since Vatican 2, has expressed a similar spirit of generosity towards other denominations. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church (citing Vatican 2) says,

819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him….

I think we can embrace that perspective. After all, Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” He also emphasized, “Other sheep have I that are not of this fold.” I think that the Spirit of Jesus will lead us to affirm truth wherever it is, and to embrace as brothers and sisters all who love Jesus and share with us some measure of his truth. That’s what orthodoxy really is–a love of truth. And “perfect love casteth out fear.” This doesn’t mean we will disregard error, or pretend our differences don’t exist. But it does mean we will approach other Christians with love and humility, and recognize that God has used, and continues to use, all who are willing to be led by him.

3 thoughts on “A Generous Orthodoxy

  1. I really like what you’ve written here Bill.

    I’m passionately Adventist. But I’m first a sinner saved by grace. I’m first a Christian. Adventist is the kind of Christian I am but it is not an alternative to basic Trinitarian Christianity. That recognition of the need for me to stand before God ‘in Christ’ tempers and humbles my Adventism. A humble Adventism is one God can use whereas an arrogant Adventism is one God surely needs to discipline and rebuke before it is of real use to him.

    Vandeman is a great model and I love the E G White quotes.

    It’s interesting to think that it was a pork eating, Sunday keeping, Ellen Harmon that God appeared too and used. More challenging for me is the realization that it was a pork eating, beer drinking, invective filled, and sadly peasant crushing, anti-Semitic Luther that God used to break through the medieval salvation system. Conservative Adventists are quite generous to Luther but don’t seem to extend that to others which I think we should.

    Systems and bad theology should be exposed to the light of the Word (including any Adventist versions) but people should be treated with generosity.

    I see Adventism as drawing on and in debt to other Christians of the past and the present. This debt when acknowledged awakens an openness in those we talk to.

    What do you think of this following thought?:

    Roman Catholicism is the domain of Christianity where ‘anti-Christ’ manifested but it is not anti-Christ. So, within it is revealed the work and fruit of both truth and error.

    Unfortunately many Adventist write off everything in Catholicism (and Orthodoxy). Whereas I see much of value. I’m not naïve and do so with discernment but I don’t want to be held hostage to an Adventism which will only ever consider the Adventist pioneers, or a selective reading of Ellen White, or a very select cartel of conservative Adventist leaders.

    I’m glad you can still affirm much in your Lutheran and Catholic past. An Adventism with open ‘ears’!


  2. Hmm, not sure about all this, Bill. I admit that this whole topic is one that I have grappled with but have not come up with any concrete answers. I probably fall somewhere between the two camps you speak of at this point. And I certainly don’t think that Ellen White was as “tame” towards other Christians as you imply. The quotation you shared does not say anything about learning from Catholics, simply showing them respect and love.

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