The Foundation of the Adventist Faith

Do we ground our beliefs in revelation or experience?

EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor of Christian Theology, SDA Theological Seminary

The confirming of men and women every­where in the "faith which was once de­livered unto the saints" is perhaps the chief purpose of the gospel ministry. Such a spiritual achievement solves an infinite number of difficulties that arise by way of doubt. It meets the temptations from subtle teachings and half-truths devised by the enemy whose name is legion. Some ultimate authority must make the meaning of life clear to men. It is certainly not to be found within the mortal and sinful nature of man. For Seventh-day Adventists that au­thority is the Bible, which by the power of the Holy Spirit becomes the voice of God to those who believe.

The past one hundred years have seen per­verse and corrupt uses and interpretations of the Word of God, particularly in the twentieth cen­tury. The modernist and liberal positions have denied the uniqueness of the revelation of God in the supernatural birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the Bible record. Their appeal has been to an immanent God, God within nature and in the natural processes. Such a position is purely naturalistic, not supernaturalistic.

The tragedy of two world wars in one genera­tion and the flagrancy of present-day sin have largely shown the spiritual bankruptcy of mod­ernism and liberalism. There is now a return to supernaturalism. This is to be found in the modern movement of neo-orthodoxy or neo­supernaturalism, led by such men as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Neibuhr, Gustaf Au­len, and also in the existentialism of Soren Kier­kegaard and Paul Tillich.

Modernism and liberalism made God part of the natural process. Neo-supernaturalism is a revolt against naturalism. It is fearful for the status of Christianity in a naturalistic world. Whereas for modernism and liberalism God is immanent within nature and in man, for neo­supernaturalism God is absolutely transcendent. There is no aspect or form of nature, no grasp by human reason, no formulation in human terms, that can be identified with God's revelation. Therefore they hold that any depend­ence upon reason, sanctified or otherwise, is wholly inadequate to grasp the reality of God, His revelation, and His Word. God makes Him­self known directly to the individual in a "di­vine-human encounter" apprehended only by faith.

How can we know God's will? For the neo­supernaturalist the content of God's revelation is not anything that is to be found in a book. Truth is communicated in a direct revelation from God to the individual. The Reformation view that revelation is given historically in Christ when on earth and in the Scriptures is rejected. What then of the Bible? The Bible constitutes a witness to that revelation, they say. It is a historical record of such revelation to persons. But in itself it is not the revelation of God. The human mind with its powers of rea­son and logical thought is not capable of grasp­ing the truth. Men can know truth only as God reveals Himself in the crisis of a personal en­counter. To whom then does God reveal Him­self, and how do men know they have such an experience? That is up to God, says the neo­supernaturalist. Certainly He does not reveal Himself by the Bible.

As a witness the Bible sets forth the record of men and women who have experienced this "divine-human encounter." But, according to the neo-supernatural position, it contains errors of a scientific and historical nature, and there­fore cannot be accepted on the level of reason. God reveals Himself, but not truth about Him­self. God reveals His presence as a subjective experience, but not as objective truth.

The emphasis upon an inner, personal, vital relationship with God is, without a doubt, the most vital thing about Christianity. Taken at face value, the neo-supernatural position looks very attractive. Especially is this true where there has been an overemphasis upon paper orthodoxy over against spiritual experience, formal doctrine and theoretical concepts over against experimental religion.

No one recognizes more than do Seventh-day Adventists the serious weakness of an over­emphasis upon theoretical truth. In numerous places in the writings of Ellen G. White we have been warned against a formal, theoretical reli­gion, devotion to doctrine rather than to the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. But one extreme is as bad as another. In an effort to escape formal­ity and theory, the opposite position may appear to possess a measure of attractiveness that makes neo-supernaturalism appear acceptable.

The truth is that neo-supernaturalism is much closer to the line of truth than was ever modern­ism or liberalism. But that makes it all the more subtle and dangerous. Neo-supernaturalism has very cleverly used one of the supreme Biblical concepts in the phrase "the divine-human en­counter." Apart from this it has thrown out the written Word of God. Its advocates say one thing in Biblical terminology and mean an­other.

At this point let us remind ourselves of the counsel given us in The Great Controversy, page 593:

"So closely will the counterfeit resemble the true that it will be impossible to distinguish between them except by the Holy Scriptures. By their testi­mony every statement and every miracle must be tested." (Italics supplied.)

The Seventh-day Adventist position has been well stated in the chapter "The Scriptures a Safeguard" in the same book.

The neo-supernatural position jeopardizes the whole redemptive structure of the Christian faith. Historically it requires no actual redemp­tive act in Christ's incarnation, death, and res­urrection. Yet the whole scriptural position rests on the sinfulness of man owing to the historical fall of Adam, and redemption through the atonement offered once for all on the cross of Jesus Christ. If the fall of man, the incarna­tion of Christ, His death and resurrection, are not essential historical events for Christianity, then faith in Christ and in God is not faith in the revelation of God in the Scriptures at all, but in some mystical concept that cannot be tested by any objective revelation. It is known only by a subjective experience. Who then is to tell what is the truth? A "divine-human en­counter" may be received on any level. Anyone, regardless of whether he is in harmony with the Scriptures, can be said to be a believer. Then just how far may a person believe error and continue in error and still be regarded as "Chris­tian"? Such a personal encounter is therefore possible in any religion or cult. That is to be the test of truth? "Experience," we are told. But what is to test experience? There is in such a concept no objective test of truth.

The Seventh-day Adventist Position

For Seventh-day Adventists the truth and rev­elation of God in His Word does not depend for its validity and authenticity upon any man's experience. It remains independently of all men the indisputable truth of God, regardless of whether man believes it or not. Man in himself needs such an objective revelation as the Scrip­tures, because of the darkness of his mind and heart. Man is wholly incapable of experiencing truth apart from such a revelation.

The Seventh-day Adventist position is that revelation from God is mediated through Christ, through the prophets and apostles, and not through everybody in a "divine-human en­counter"; also that the presence of God is not addressed to us in the same manner in which it came to the prophets and apostles. God has spoken through His specially designated instru­ments in a way that He has not spoken to us. That revealed Word becomes authoritative for us who believe. We do not invent or produce our own Word. It is God's Word that matters, not ours. And any "divine-human encounter" that we may experience is in and through the revealed Word of God. It comes to us as we study, pray, and believe the Word. As such, God's revelation in His Word is not tran­scendent to reason. It is an appeal to sound reason, to sanctified reason, reason that is di­rected by the Holy Scriptures. A coherent and rational comprehension of God set forth in the Bible is the basis of a sound Christian experi­ence. Furthermore, God not only reveals Him­self, but He also reveals sound doctrine that is scripturally urged upon all believers. Saving faith is always faith in Christ, and in the written word of the Bible. It was this Word that Christ used so effectively to overcome the temptations of Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). It was this Word that Paul urged his associate ministers and workers to teach and to preach (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:16; 6:3­5; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:15, 16; 3:15-17; 4:1-4).

It was this same 'Word that Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin used so powerfully and effectively through Christ to effect the Reforma­tion, freedom from papal domination, and to dispel the darkness of error.

"Wycliffe accepted the Holy Scriptures with im­plicit faith as the inspired revelation of God's will. He declared the only true authority to be the voice of God speaking through His word. And he taught not only that the Bible is a perfect revelation of God's will, but that the Holy Spirit is its only inter­preter."—The Great Controversy, p. 93.

"He [Luther] firmly declared that Christians should receive no other doctrines than those which rest on the authority of the Sacred Scriptures."­Ibid., p. 126.

"He [Zwingli] submitted himself to the Bible as the word of God, the only sufficient, infallible rule. He saw that it must be its own interpreter. He dared not attempt to explain Scripture to sustain a preconceived theory or doctrine, but held it his duty to learn what is its direct and obvious teach­ing."—Ibid., p. 173.

It is this same Word that is urgent for every Christian teacher, preacher, and believer today.

"But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only as the stand­ard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms."­ibid., p. 595.

"It is the first and highest duty of every rational being to learn from the Scriptures what is truth, and then to walk in the light and encourage others to follow his example."—/bid., p. 598.

Both Revelation and Experience Necessary

We must distinguish between the objective revelation of the Scriptures and the personal response of the individual to that revelation. Both are necessary if the divine power of God is to be communicated to man. Nothing is clearer in the Bible than that there stands over against man the objective revelation of God in the spoken and the written Word that comes with a "Thus saith the Lord." That Word came through the prophets and apostles in numerous instances to wicked kings and persons who, though they heard that Word as the message of God, failed to respond to it with a life of obedi­ence.

God communicates both life and doctrine. Be­fore His death and resurrection, Christ promised His followers the presence of the Holy Spirit. He declared that the Spirit would lead them into all truth. Such truth included the written Word of God, all of it. One wonders what neo-super­naturalism would do with the great fact that God actually wrote the Ten Commandments in stone. Such a stupendous revelation is something wholly distinct from the "divine-human en­counter." Although the Ten Commandments have a spiritual depth that is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, they nevertheless con­stitute actual propositions, verbal statements, an objective revelation distinct from any re­sponse from man or experience in man.

The law of God becomes the focal point of testing. What did Christ mean when He said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15)? Such a law stands for the objective, independent standard of truth regardless of what men and women experience in their own lives. But the neo-supernatural position does not arise from within the Bible at all. It is wholly self-generated. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles set forth clear ideas about truth, doc­trinal truth, the great doctrines of redemption, resurrection, the sanctuary, the everlasting gos­pel. And revolt against such revealed truth or rejection of it is contrary to both the law and the gospel. "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20).

The issue of Seventh-day Adventists is this: The Christian experience of the "divine-human encounter" is not an alternative to conceptual truth and doctrine as revealed in the Bible. They are complementary, not mutually exclu­sive. The problem we all face is to have such con­fidence and trust in the revealed Word of God, in the Holy Scriptures, that obedience to all the requirements of God will follow. Seventh-day Adventists cannot repudiate any part of the Holy Scriptures. "We believe that the statements of truth in the Bible are entirely trustworthy. And genuine Christian experience does not in any way disparage such a revelation, nor does it occur independent of the Word of God.

The neo-supernaturalist would have us be­lieve that we cannot have both, that here are two types of knowledge—the one unnecessary and undesirable, the other the only real truth. But such a dichotomy is man made. The Bible knows nothing of two such opposing areas of knowledge. Everywhere the Holy Scriptures re­quire the full response to verbal and proposi­tional knowledge. There is no exclusion of doctrine, of the law of God, of written truth. To be sure, the Bible condemns men and women who do not bring their lives into line with the revealed Word of God. But nowhere is there repudiation of any objective truth. For there can be no true awareness of God, no har­mony with God, unless there is harmony with the written Word.

Seventh-day Adventists insist that God has spoken unto us in words and in thoughts of men's language that can be grasped and under­stood by all who read the Sacred Book. Once the written Word is considered no longer essential to a vital Christian experience, then no longer is doctrine important. And if doctrine is not im­portant, there can be no specific tests or re­quirements by which to measure conduct. What God has said and what God has written are absolutely vital. A mystical encounter can mean anything or nothing. To reject or deny that the Scriptures constitute the Word of God is actu­ally to deny that God has spoken at all.

Furthermore, the reason and mind of man are still a part of the original image of God, though of themselves incompetent to arrive at truth. There is no other way in which truth could be initially communicated to man than through the mind. The Word of God that is not understandable by reason and grasped first by reason is not truth at all.

Seventh-day Adventism sets forth two vital questions: First, do the church and the pro­fessed Christian have a sound and right theology and doctrine based upon the written Word of God? And second, does the believer have a sav­ing experience through and in what he believes? One of the great tasks of the Adventist ministry is to lead persons through clear doctrinal think­ing to an experience that is vital, valid, rele­vant, and workable.

In trying to be scholars there is always the danger of losing Christianity from life. Doctrines can become mere verbal descriptions of divine realities. Do we preach and teach our doctrines and the Word with divine authority and power to change lives? We do not suppose for a mo­ment that a small dose of reason and logic when applied to the written Word is enough. No one begins to practice the truths of the Bible on intellectual grounds alone. To stand by the Word of God means to know and believe that the Word of God is established forever in truth and in righteousness; that through its promises and revelations of the glorious activity of God on behalf of man, we may find power to live in harmony with that written Word.

The great masquerade of evil is making it increasingly difficult to know what is truth. Seventh-day Adventists must stand their ground. There must be no sacrificing of the revealed truth of God in the Holy Scriptures. Our work is to secure from men and women everywhere a whole response to Bible truth.

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EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor of Christian Theology, SDA Theological Seminary

August 1956

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