A critique of the Seventh-Day Adventist ChurchHistory
Within the Christian Church there has always been a strong "Adventist" trend, ie. the belief that the second "advent" of Christ is near at hand. (Christ's first advent being his birth in Bethlehem). Although this has been a basic Christian belief, there have always been times when it has been taken up with great fervor. The Seventh Day Adventist Church grew out of just such a time.
William Miller (1782-1849), an American, was converted and started studying the books of Daniel and Revelation. He concluded that Christ would come on March 21, 1844. When Jesus didn't return he reset the date to October 22, 1844. But again Jesus failed to return. By this time Miller had gained a large number of followers, but naturally many drifted away when his prophecies failed to eventuate.
In 1845 his remaining followers (Millerites) met to try and work through the problem. They concluded that Miller had set the right date, but had wrongly interpreted Daniel 8 and 9. What had actually occurred was the beginning of judgement - an investigation into the lives of all those who were in the Book of Life. When this investigation was complete, Christ would then return.
Included in the 1845 conference was Ellen White (1827-1915), a Godly woman, who was soon recognized by the group as a prophet and looked-to for guidance.
One of the major conclusions of the conference was that Christ's return was very much linked to the faithfulness of his people. Obedience would hasten the return of Jesus. Among other things, it was felt that observance of the Sabbath day (Saturday), rather than Sunday, would help toward Christ's speedy return.
The conference generally accepted Miller's Adventist theology. They determined that Christ would soon return visibly and powerfully to inaugurate a millennial age, ie. the 1000 year reign of Christ. (This is known as a pre-millennial position; Christ comes before the 1000 years). Unlike most pre-millennialists, they believed that Christians would have to remain on earth during the tribulation and not be whisked away by Jesus (the rapture).
On the major issue of forming a confession of faith, the conference all but failed.
In 1850 the group established a magazine to promote adventist views. This publication was later called the "Review and Herald". In 1855 they set up their headquarters in Michigan U.S.A., and formally became "The Seventh-day Adventist Church" in 1863. In 1903 the headquarters were moved to Washington D.C.
The church quickly established a missionary work, parochial school system, sanitariums, food-processing factories and publishing houses. These have grown to become extremely large institutions. Throughout the world village-like communities have been established around Seventh-Day Adventist enterprises. The church is governed by an elected president and executive committee, and regular central, regional and local conferences. The church exceeds 2 million members.
The local churches each have a pastor appointed by the local conference and are administered by elected lay-elders and deacons.
It is important to state at the outset that the Adventist Church is really not a sectarian organization. It is well and truly a Christian church - evangelical and protestant, but with some peculiarities.
It is also difficult to define exactly the teachings of the church. The history of the Christian faith has been one of slowly arriving at truth. Most denominations have held to false teachings of some kind, at some time. The Adventist church is like Christianity in a microcosm. When it was established it had few theologians and tended to separate itself from other Christian denominations. As a result, its early years were marked by some definitely unchristian teachings. It wasn't till the 1890's that they became settled on the doctrines of the Trinity and the full deity of Christ. The sinless human nature of Christ (ie., that he didn't inherit sinful flesh at birth) and his finished work on the cross, are still not fully accepted by some Adventist teachers. Yet generally, the Adventist church accepts the main doctrines of the Christian faith.
The Church is marked by the following theological trends.
i] They tend to be Arminian, ie. they emphasize human choice in salvation. To this they add the necessity of obedience, to hasten the day of Christ's return and to enable Christians to stand in the day of Judgement. That is, they do not hold to the doctrine of "The Perseverance of the Saints" (once saved always saved). Therefore law-keeping is stressed for all who have given their life to Jesus, eg. (a) Sabbath observance, (b) Dietary laws - not eating meat or taking stimulants. ("The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit), etc.
ii] They teach that Christ's death had the potential to save all, but is only effective to those who believe. This view is disputed by many Protestants, but is most likely sound.
iii] They teach the mortality of the soul. Immortality was man's, but it was lost through sin. When believers die they enter a state of 'Soul Sleep'. After the investigative judgement they join the 'final generation' before the return of Christ. The rest face annihilation. The notion of dead believers asleep in Christ is contentious, but has strong Biblical support.
iv] They are Pre-Millenialists without a rapture. In the last day the saints will have to live through the tribulation. At the moment there is an "investigative judgement" underway for believers. Those who are worthy will receive a 'seal' of protection so that they will be able to stand firm during the tribulation.
v] Although protestant, they are not reformed with regard to their teaching on justification by faith. Their position is as follows:
"Justification" is both:
a legal act whereby past sins are forgiven on the basis of Jesus' sacrificial death and
an inward work involving a change in the character of the person justified - ie. a making righteous, an infusion of righteousness. "Far from being merely a forensic (legal) act of God, justification involves the most direct and transforming divine intervention in the life of the Christian believer." Erwin Gane.
"Faith" is the means of appropriating this work of Christ on our behalf:
initially in our conversion and;
then in our life of faith.
"grace" is the application of God's power to the believer to:
destroy the carnal nature (wipe away original sin?) - this is regenerative power - and;
make acceptable obedience a possibility - this is the transforming power of the indwelling Christ (New Birth).
The "righteousness of God" is the goodness of Jesus in us appropriated by faith, infused by grace. Those who duplicate Christ's sinless character in their lives will be part of the "final generation" ..... "God can change men and women into his likeness if they would make him Lord of their lives". Review and Herald.
This understanding of "the means of grace" leads to the view that acceptance in the final judgement is really on the basis of an inner/character renewal. Only those who allow Christ to reign in their lives, only those whose lives align with the indwelling Christ, can share in heaven. "Man need not remain a sinner; man may attain a sinless, righteous experience by the same faith that Jesus exercised, that is, righteousness by faith. The Adventist invitation to the world is to 'come and see'" Douglas. This doctrinal view is called "Perfectionism" - it stimulates legalism ..... a striving to achieve an unattainable righteousness. There is also little assurance of salvation in such a position.
In simple terms, this understanding of justification by grace through faith is influenced by a sanctification by works approach and is therefore unreformed.
None of the above teaching is unchristian. Most Seventh-day Adventist teaching is held by other Christian denominations, but on some points their stance is "peculiar" and on salvation it is unreformed.
The Adventist claim
They believe they stand in a special place in the sight of God. They are called to carry forward the message of the Reformation in such a way as no other Christian or Christian body is able to do. Only the Adventist church can carry on the work of the Reformation to the end time. In the last days "latter rain" power will be poured out on the Adventist church, which will give forth the "loud cry" (Rev.14:7) of a powerful gospel presentation. In that day people will be forced to accept or reject Christ. So, they see themselves as God's "special remnant" people commissioned to proclaim the gospel and so usher in the return of Christ.
Interestingly, the church has been extremely concerned by the failure of the "loud cry" to eventuate. The general Conference of 1888 is seen by many Adventists as the key to this failure. "In reviewing the history of the 1888 era, we are led to the conclusion that it was a time of unparalleled opportunity for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The Lord actually gave his people the "beginning" of the "latter rain" and the "loud cry" in the "revelation of the righteousness of Christ, the sin- pardoning Redeemer". The attitudes and spirit manifested by too many at that time made it necessary for God to withdraw this special blessing." Palmdale Statement 1976.
It is generally agreed that an opportunity was missed in 1888 thus it is viewed with great sadness and "beating of the breast". The difficulty is to define actually what went wrong.
Today, a vocal, but small section of the church, claims that it was a failure to understand, accept and proclaim the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, as articulated by the Reformers - Luther etc. They claim that E.J. Waggoner told the 1888 conference that at the centre of the gospel was the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This was prophetically supported by Ellen White, but their message was not generally accepted.
The issue has caused deep divisions. Those who now accept the reformers' view of justification have had to recognize that many other protestants hold, and have always held, a similar view. This has naturally threatened the exclusive claims of Adventists, especially when they see that many other churches have remained true to the reformation - in fact have never wavered on the doctrine of justification. It is therefore hard for Adventists to continue to call the protestant churches "apostate protestants."
Although a "peculiar" church, Adventists are:
i] Strongly evangelical - they love the gospel of salvation in Jesus,
ii] Obedient - they love God's law, and;
iii] Humanitarian - they love their neighbor.
On the negative side they are:
i] Isolationist. They have cut themselves off from their fellow Christians in the belief that only they are God's "remnant" community. Naturally this is destructive of fellowship and promotes error.
ii] Arrogant. Their "remnant" mentality promotes an unloving attitude toward other believers - "Babylonian" protestants, and an unwillingness to recognize past or present error within the church - only they have the truth therefore how could they be in error?
iii] Legalistic. Their unwillingness to accept the reformed doctrine of justification by faith has led to legalism. They hold that at conversion only our past sins are forgiven and that in cooperation with the indwelling Christ we can go on to live a righteous life. The believer's keeping of the law will then enable them to stand in the last judgement. Such a view can only promote the idea that the believer's observance of the law gains acceptance in God's sight. The reformers taught, from the clear teachings of scripture, that in Christ the legal demands of sin (ie. punishment for our guilt), past, present and future, have been fully met by Christ's death on the cross. We have a status of righteousness in God's sight, now and forever, on the basis of Christ's death for us. It is only when we see this that we are really free to obey God's law. It must be admitted that this heresy is found in most protestant denominations and is not just an Adventist problem.
iv] Extra Biblical. They tend to put too much weight on their prophets. From the beginning they allowed themselves to be locked into a "second coming" theology which was devised by a man with little Biblical training and who was subsequently proved to be wrong. According to Deuteronomy, such a person should be stoned to death, not followed. Ellen White is similarly used as though her writings were inspired, but she herself said "The Bible is to be presented as the Word of the infinite God, as the end of all controversy and the foundation of all faith."
A church in schism
From the time the church was founded, there was always concern over the writings of Ellen White and especially her prophecy concerning the "Investigative Judgement". She claimed that what actually happened in 1844 was that Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary to make atonement for sin. Christ's death on the cross only dealt with past sins prior to conversion (ie. sins forgiven). In the investigative judgement Jesus is involved in assessing the lives of believers and "blotting out" the sins of those who are worthy. Such an idea strikes at the very heart of justification and leads to perfectionism.
At different times in the history of the Adventist church, concern has been expressed with this unreformed, unbiblical understanding. The 1888 Minneapolis Conference expressed concern. At the leadership Bible Conference of 1919 it was stated, "We are not taught the truth, and have put (Mrs. White's) "Testimonies" on a place where she says they do not stand". In 1950 L.E. Froom contended strongly for the finished/completed work of Christ on the cross. In the 1960's Robert Brinsmead, an Australian, caused a minor sensation with his "awakening message" a curious combination of the doctrine of justification and an Adventist understanding of the pre-advent judgement. Another Australian, Dr. Desmond Ford, of Avondale College, was even more in line with a reformed understanding of the doctrine of justification and lead Brinsmead and his colleagues to a reformed position in the early 1970's. By 1975 the Church was divided on the issue. The church leadership stood its ground.
In 1976 Ronald Numbers published a critical work on Ellen White indicating her health ideas were in many ways ridiculous, eg. the wearing of wigs could lead to insanity. In 1980 Walter Rae published a book showing how Ellen White had actually plagiarized up to 90% of some chapters in her works. Rae was sacked from his pastorate. Concern continued to grow.
In 1980 Ford announced to a forum at the Pacific Union College that there was no Biblical support for the investigative judgement. He was asked to give a defence for his position after which he was sacked from his teaching position at Pacific Union.
By this time the majority of Adventist theologians, faculty members and a large number of pastors were aligned with Ford. Over the next two years more than 150 pastors were forced to resign as well as two college presidents. Many were forced to take loyalty oaths on the investigative judgement and submit sermons to be checked.
In January 1983, the President of the Adventist Church, Neal Wilson, and his advisers placed before Desmond Ford a charge of "heresy, apostasy and rebellion." Ford responded by presenting 80 "implicit" teachings on the investigative judgement, which he claimed were not Biblical. He claimed that no apocalyptic date, let alone 1844, could be found in Daniel or Revelation. The investigative judgement is non-biblical and detrimental to a proper understanding of the doctrine of justification. Also that Ellen White should not be regarded as an authoritative source of theology.
Following the meeting, the Church leadership revoked the ordination of Ford and two of his colleagues, Van Rooyen and Mason.
The Ford faction published a magazine entitled "Good News" which was edited by Calvin Edwards. The debate, of course , continued.
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