Seventh-day Adventists and the World Council

Since 1965 regular informal conversations have been taking place between Seventh-day Adventists and representatives of the World Council of Churches. From the very beginning it was made patently clear that there is no plan for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to become a member of the World Council. . .

Paul Schwarzenau is a Lutheran, and in 1971 was appointed professor of religion at the German State Technical University of Dortmund.

Since 1965 regular informal conversations have been taking place between Seventh-day Adventists and representatives of the World Council of Churches. From the very beginning it was made patently clear that there is no plan for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to become a member of the World Council. However, various areas of mutual interest have been explored. Subjects discussed have included religious liberty, proselytism, Sabbath and Sunday, apocalyptic prophecy, revelation and inspiration, and the social responsibility of the church. The discussions have been beneficial. They have helped to place in clearer re lief agreements and disagreements. Dr. Paul Schwarzenau's paper that we are publishing sheds light on the areas of doctrinal consonance. This article has already been published in the Ecumenical Review and the German Oekumenische Rundschau.

In 1957 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists sponsored a careful and representative exposition of their church's doctrine that was published under the title, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. That study simplifies the task of this paper to show where they agree doctrinally with the churches and communions belonging to the World Council of Churches.

On the other hand, we have to face the difficulty that the ecumenical movement is not itself a church but a fellowship of churches holding different doctrinal positions and traditions that are, moreover, subject to divergent theological interpretations even within the individual churches themselves. It would hardly be ecumenical to restrict our attention here to those doctrines which are common to all the churches in the ecumenical movement. Often, then, we shall be able to speak only of agreement with some (many or few) churches and theological trends. In many instances, agreement is only with the substance of a doctrinal position or with a doctrinal tendency, while in other respects there are still undeniable differences in the respective doctrinal formulations.

In addition, it must not be over looked that in many ways the whole of a church's doctrine is an inseparable entity, and thus, dividing it into constituent parts is somewhat problematic.

Basic Agreements

To begin with, it would appear that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not in disagreement with the theological basis of the World Council of Churches, as voted at New Delhi in 1961: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The member churches of the World Council of Churches and Seventh-day Adventists are in agreement on the fundamental articles of the Christian faith as set forth in the three ancient church symbols Apostolicum, Nicaeno-Constantinopolitum, Athenasium. This agreement finds expression in unqualified acceptance of the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures.

Seventh-day Adventism arose largely in a Protestant setting, and, thus, historically speaking, it is quite natural that Adventists show considerable affinity with the churches issuing from the Reformation. This does not mean that Adventism shows no doctrinal affinity with other religious traditions, for example, Eastern Orthodoxy. However, due to lack of historico-theological contact (separation was enhanced by official religious intolerance vis-a-vis Adventists in countries where Orthodoxy was the state religion) such agreement has not been so apparent. Seventh-day Adventists fully agree with the Protestant Scripture principle (sola scriptura) and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (sola fide, sola gratia per Christum). They also share the Protestant linking of justification and sanctification. Good works are not the means of justification, but its fruit.

Revelation and Inspiration

In accordance with the Protestant view, acceptance of these doctrines takes place not on the authority of the church, but on the basis of Holy Scripture as the rule of faith. This also applies to the respect in which the writings of eminent doctors of the church are held. Such writings are only authoritative to the extent that they are in agreement with the Scriptures. There is, nevertheless, progress in the understanding of Scripture. In this sense, certain doctors of the church and certain events in the history of the church acquire an increasing significance. Many aspects of the biblical revelation can only be clearly understood and given precise formulation as church doctrine at certain historical junctures. The doctrinal traditions which come within this category do not, however, constitute any addition to the canon, but are the historical development of the truth contained in Scripture. There are within World Council of Churches ranks various views regarding revelation and the inspiration of the Bible. Many Christians in the World Council of Churches member churches hold views very similar to those presented by Adventists.

Seventh-day Adventists express considerable agreement with conservative evangelical Christians and with the historic confessions of Protestantism. Specific mention should be made here of the following doctrines: the inspiration of Holy Scripture, the virgin birth, the atoning death, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, the literal view of the return of Christ, of the resurrection or "taking up" of the saints, and of the general judgment, the work of the Holy Spirit, the church as the body of Christ. There is also, however, in some sense an affinity with modern theologians, too. Modern Protestant theologians do not, in fact, intend to deny the statements of biblical interpretation and of the historic creeds of the ancient church and of the Reformation, but rather to re-interpret them, (recognizing that every credal statement is historically conditioned). This applies particularly to the common belief in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Since God speaks through the words of men, diverse views arise regarding the role played by man and his history in the biblical writings and in the final redaction of these writings into a single whole.

Seventh-day Adventists for the most part see the connection between the Old and New Testaments (especially in reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system) in typological terms (type and antitype). Many non-Seventh-day Adventist theologians are equally fully committed to a typological exegesis of the Old Testament, in opposition to an allegorical interpretation.

Nature of Christ

In agreement with the main doctrinal tradition of Christianity, Seventh-day Adventists under stand the Son of Man as the Incarnate Son of God. Over against this view is that of modern exegesis that sees the Son of Man primarily as the pre-existent prototype of mankind and of the people of God, to whom as such the judgment of the world has been committed. But Adventist theology to a large extent embraces this circle of ideas by its interpretation of the term 'Archangel Michael' as a christological title (cf. Dan. 10:5, 6, 13, with Rev. 1:13-15). Seventh-day Adventists understand the resurrection of Jesus as resurrection in a glorified corporeality. The earthly Jesus and the risen Jesus are one and the same. The member churches of the World Council of Churches hold officially the same view.

Seventh-day Adventists reject the doctrine of double predestination traditionally held in some churches. Adventists stress the conditional character of divine promises and warnings. Man is gifted with a free will to choose or to reject. Yet a rapprochement is taking place, because in many churches that hold the doctrine of predestination, the view is gaining ground that this doctrine is not to be interpreted in the sense of a naked determinism or of an absolute decree. It has, therefore, been reinterpreted in various ways, allowing more room for genuine human decision, and has even been rejected by some as contrary to the Gospel and as positing a conflict of wills in the Godhead. Modern exegesis of the teaching of the prophets has, in particular, brought out the conditional character of the divine promises and warnings. Man's freedom is important for God too; but that freedom does not make it impossible for God to achieve His purpose of redemption, even if it means that He does so in ever new ways that take human decision seriously into account. God remains the author of the conditions of ultimate salvation and its surety. It may, there fore, be said that there is here a convergence of standpoints.

The Ten Commandments

The Seventh-day Adventist Church regards the Decalogue to be a permanent and unchanging divine standard of life. Segments in Protestantism are engaged in a discussion of the absolute claim of the Ten Commandments on the Christian. Along with the Law has not the Decalogue been abrogated by Christ? Statements tending in this direction are found not merely in the works of modern theologians but even in Luther. On the other hand, it has been Protestant doctrine, at least since Melanchthon (with Luther's as sent), that in the Ten Commandments God reaffirmed and expressly emphasized the lex naturae established in and with creation. In connection with this doctrine, a distinction has been made in Protestantism since Melanchthon, between the Decalogue which is permanently valid, and the ceremonial law which has been abrogated. Discussion is far from being closed on this issue, and it should not be prematurely broken off, since both positions are concerned to affirm the Gospel on the basis of the testimony of Scripture.

Baptism and Foot Washing

In the Adventist view baptism is to be administered by single immersion; it needs faith on the part of the candidate. In harmony with other followers of the Baptist tradition, Seventh-day Adventists thus reject infant baptism, believing that there is no Biblical warrant for this custom. Although many churches defend infant baptism as scriptural, it is impossible to ignore the lively debate that has opened up in these churches on this subject. It will, moreover, be readily acknowledged that the total immersion of the baptismal candidate is strongly attested to both in the Bible and in early Christian practice. Few would deny that the Christian's baptism, in accordance with Adventist teaching, into the once-for-all death, the once-for-all burial, the once-for-all resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6) is more clearly represented by a once-for-all immersion, than by a threefold dipping, sprinkling, or pouring with a Trinitarian reference. Difference in baptismal practice, however, does not exclude a consensus so far as the theological affirmation made by Adventist practice is concerned.

The same may be said of the Adventist association of the foot washing (ordinance of humility) and the Lord's Supper. This is Biblically defensible, even if there is still a difference of view as to whether we are dealing here with a command and institution of Christ which has to be strictly observed. At least there is agreement about the substantial point that Jesus' sacrifice and service for us finds its true continuance in brotherly love and humility (John 13:15).

Nature of Man

Seventh-day Adventists believe in the conditional immortality of man and reject Immortal Soulism (i.e. that the soul has a separate, innate, indefeasibly immortal existence from the body). As a sinful creature, man is subject to death and will rest in the tomb until the resurrection day. Eternal life is available only in Christ. The unjust will be destroyed forever. It is interesting to note that the Biblical view that the human soul possesses no innate immortality is gaining ground in the churches. Similarly, the insight is also being accepted, if slowly, that the threat of eternal death is not to be equated with the threat of everlasting torments in hell.

Prophecy

There is a broad tradition of doctrinal agreement in the interpretation of Biblical prophecy, and of apocalyptic in particular. Historical criticism has, however, often produced divergent findings and these deserve attention. But preoccupation with the interpretation of prophecy in terms of its contemporary historical setting can easily lead us to forget the total context of prophecy on which traditional interpretation rested.

Despite differences in detailed interpretation, we share the conviction that God speaks to us even about our own times and about the future, sometimes in an indirect symbolic way through prophecy. The full truth of prophecy will only be clearly unveiled to us, of course, as history unfolds itself. But prophecy in any case sharpens our awareness of the imminent parousia of Christ, however well or badly the fulfillment of prophecy may have been understood in fact since the early days of Christianity. Christian faith is vivified by belief that the day of the Lord is at hand. It is thus a forerunner and a sign pointing to the future of Christ. Whenever such a prophetically inspired faith appears in Christendom, it is always a prophetic sign for the whole church. A vigorous advent hope is an essential mark of Christian faith.

Although complete abstention from alcohol and tobacco and adherence to a specific health program, as advocated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, would hardly be endorsed by the majority of other churches, there must certainly be respect for an entire church that assumes a responsibility that in other churches is shouldered only by special societies (e.g. the Blue Cross movement*). All the more so, since the Adventist Church does not adopt an exclusive attitude to other churches and does not make adherence to a health program a condition of salvation. Here again, however, there is an underlying common ground, namely, that the Christian in his service of God has responsibility for his health.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that religious liberty and the interests of both church and state are best preserved and served when each operates in its domain (see Matt. 22:21) under the policy of what is generally called separation of church and state.

However, even in churches which still have a more or less close connection with the state, the call for the separation of church and state is growing. For many Christians today, what Marx called "the removal of the Church from the State into society," includes the mighty relevance of their faith to contemporary society. Service of the world "God so loved the world" (John 3:16) by no means implies an empty secularization, but rather applying the gospel of salvation to the needs of mankind.

 


 

* This refers to the Blue Cross movement that exists in several European countries (e.g. Germany, Switzerland) and is essentially a temperance (abstinence from alcohol) movement.

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Paul Schwarzenau is a Lutheran, and in 1971 was appointed professor of religion at the German State Technical University of Dortmund.

February 1973

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