Seventh-day Adventist Apologetics

The following message was delivered to students attending the Andrews University Extension School at Newbold College in England, July 15 to August 17, 1972.

-A general field secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at the time this article was written

APOLOGETICS means "defense." So what do we propose to defend? God's messages to mankind. The eternal gospel in the setting of God's judgment hour. The next natural step would be to outline in detail the tenets of the Advent faith. We could summarize them in twenty-five to thirty points of doctrine as we do when addressing baptismal candidates. But the Advent faith is much broader than a list of beliefs; it embraces God's revelations to mankind through Scripture, the Christ, history, true science, and divine providence. The latter includes a profound dimension in salvation called guidance. This implies trust as well as belief and points to obedience.

More precisely (and possibly more significantly), the Advent faith involves what Ellen G. White calls the "landmarks." Not one landmark fixed by God's Word can be allowed to be moved, shifted, or ignored. We quote: "No line of truth that has made the Seventh-day Adventist people what they are is to be weakened. We have the old landmarks of truth, experience, and duty, and we are to stand firmly in defense of our principles, in full view of the world." --Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 17.

To be sure, this is quite an order; for the old landmarks pertain to "truth, experience, and duty." In the area of truth they are the beliefs and teachings that have made the Seventh-day Adventist Church what it is and are basic to the everlasting gospel: The judgment hour messages, the temple of God in heaven and the ark containing God's law, the light of the Sabbath commandment along with the others, the cleansing of the Sanctuary in heaven, the nature of man in sin and redemption. These truths have "withstood test and trial." "The lapse of time has not lessened their value." --Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 52.

But the landmarks also embrace ethical principles of dedication and commitment, values such as world vision and accountability to God and church institutions and organization.

A Challenging Task

Indeed, Seventh-day Adventist apologetics has a challenging task. It must be accomplished with honesty (likewise a land mark). There will (and should) be areas of personal understanding and emphasis. Our unity and freedom in the Lord Jesus Christ allows many personal opinions held in apparent consistency with "the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all" (Jude 3, N.E.B.).* However, Seventh-day Adventist apologetics must not be marshaled to the defense of personal beliefs. We defend the Advent faith, not personal opinions. Should a minister find it necessary to mention his personal opinions he should make quite clear the difference between them and the Advent faith. Paul gave us the model when writing to the Corinthians. On a certain point he has "no commandment of the Lord" but gives his "judgment" (1 Cor. 7:25). No one is left in doubt as to the difference of status implied.

Now, this matter of honesty is very important; it gives the apologist a great tactical advantage. A very great difficulty today is to get people to realize that a minister is preaching solely and simply be cause he happens to believe his message is true; they most always suppose he is preaching because he likes what he is saying or thinks it is good for the listeners. A clear distinction between what a man might like to say, or wish had been said, or may find helpful and probable, and what the Advent faith really is, forces an audience to realize that the speaker is tied to his data and his sources just as the scientist is tied to the results of his experiments. The matter in hand is objective fact not subjective opinion. When the fire of personal conviction is added, the battle is more easily won.

The Study Life

An important aspect of Seventh-day Adventist apologetics is the apologist's personal study life.

The minister must resist implacably the temptation to skip, slur, or ignore what he finds difficult, obscure, or disagreeable. He who does yield will never progress in knowledge. As in science, the phenomenon that is trouble some, which doesn't fit into cur rent knowledge, is the phenomenon that compels reconsideration and leads to further knowledge. One can never progress by running away from difficult problems, or by sweeping them under the rug. Only a so-called liberal can feel free to alter the faith when the faith looks perplexing.

A corollary here is the apologist's reading. Three questions are basic:

1. Have I been keeping up with Seventh-day Adventist thinking and writing? Denominational journals (including university publications) are available for this, as are the university and college extension schools.

2. Have I been keeping abreast of recent movements in theology and science and in world events?

3. Have I stood firm amidst the winds of doctrine (Eph. 4:14) and the chain reactions or revaluation that affect all structures of society and religion?

Let me say emphatically that however important questions one and two, number three is the one to watch. The whole atmosphere of the world we live in makes it certain that our main temptation will be to slip moorings, shift emphasis, and yield to winds of doctrine. The age is not conducive to becoming hidebound. Rather, people today are slaves of fashion. The standard of permanent Christianity and the "old landmarks" must be kept clear in our minds, and it is against that standard that all contemporary or other thought must be tested. Seventh-day Adventists serve One who said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35).

Science is an item that probably deserves special mention. Not that we propose to solve scientific problems. That is for others. Seventh-day Adventist apologists should exercise special care. Current scientific attitudes to Christianity, not those of even twenty-five years ago, are what need answers. Science is in constant change; apologists must be cautious of snatching at any scientific theory that appears momentarily to favor or disprove our Seventh-day Adventist views. If we mention such things, it should be without any claim of finality. Sentences starting out with "Science has now proved," or "Science now accepts," or "Science this or that" should be avoided. Yes, be careful. For just when you have put the finishing touches to your contention, science, like the proverbial blonde, will have changed its mind!

Before passing to another problem, let me promote a personal idea based on a growing conviction. In my opinion, what Seventh-day Adventist apologetics needs is authors capable of writing books on other subjects than Adventism as such. This can do more ofttimes than apologetic works. We must not only have more publications about Adventists, but more publications by Seventh-day Adventists about other subjects in which the author's Adventism is latent.

The advantages of such procedure must be evident. Think of it in reverse: A Christian's faith would not likely be shaken by a book on some oriental religion such as, let's say, Hinduism. But if, whenever Christians were to read books on geology, botany, astronomy, history, or social problems, they were exposed to Hindu implications, that would tell with force and would have greater chance to convince. Is it the books written in direct defense of materialism that have made modern men materialists? No. It is the materialistic assumptions in the countless other books. Adventism must be latent and explicit in such publications. And it must be totally authentic and honest.

Theology and Politics

Now to theology and politics. The lure of politics seems to have been a major pitfall for church leaders. Basically, I suppose this is the attraction of the temporal, the "present age" (2 Tim. 4:10, margin). In the new Testament, the worldling who settles for the "present age" is a captive of immediacy, is identified with the"care of this world" (Matt. 13:22): while the man of Cod has "tasted . . . the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4, 5, margin). Cod's man, says the apostle Paul, will be "eager to do good" (Titus 2:14, N.E.B.). All right. But he ever will recognize the precedence of the "eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). When a minister of the gospel, he will proclaim that which is timeless "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8). To be sure, the timeless will be clothed in the particular language of the age: God's messages must be understood.

But right here the unskilled (misinformed) minister can make a serious mistake. Instead of clothing God's eternal ideas in the language of his time, he may take the ideas of his day and trick them out somehow in the language of the Scriptures. Thus, for example, he may have in mind some current economic panacea for a worldwide redistribution of wealth and verbalize on the coming of the kingdom. The care of his thought is worldly; only the superficies is Biblical. This is not evangelical. The teaching must be timeless at its heart and wear a modern, contemporary dress.

What precedes is introductory to the question of theology and politics. Someone has said that "never the twain shall meet." Granted! But how shall we draw a line of separation?

Perhaps the nearest one can get to a settlement of the frontier problem between them is this: Theology teaches us what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, while politics deals with what means are effective and their implementation. Theology teaches man's origin and destiny, his dignity as a human being, his redemption from the slavery of sin; politics tells by what political means society may improve its lot and ensure an orderly existence through government. Theology teaches that all are equal in God's sight, deserve commensurate remuneration; politics determines by what means this is most likely to be attained. Theology speaks on divine justice and charity for all; temporal ways and means are in the hands of political authority recognized as servants of God.

On the political question, guidance comes not from revelation but from natural prudence, knowledge of complicated facts, and experience. Thus, many sometimes very different political systems are adopted as instruments of social order. Theology derives from revelation. These oracles of God are entrusted to His church; there fore, the church as God's divine institution will proclaim theology and leave politics to those (hope fully Christians) who feel called to minister to the people through government. When ministers transgress this rule and deliver political sermons, about all they teach the congregation is what newspapers or magazines they subscribe to and wherein lie their unredeemed prejudices.

The problem will largely be solved when the politician re members he must get elected and the minister remembers he must gather in the elect!

Now, a number of suggestions in view of today's language and mental habits:

1. On the question of language, the apologist needs to give earnest attention to a growing list of words.

Atonement is recognized as a religious word, but is rarely understood. Thus, the need to para phrase and explain this central theme of salvation.

Denominational names should be handled with sympathy and understanding. To use such names in association with the word "church," or "Christian body" obviates misunderstanding and prejudice in an age of so-called ecumenism.

Church usually is a sacred building or the clergy in the popular mind. More explicative terms are better for the communion of believers.

Dogma or doctrines usually have a pejorative sense: "An unproved assertion set forth in an arrogant manner."

Primitive means "crude," "clumsy," "unfinished," "inefficient." Primitive Christianity, thus, needs appropriate development or it will not mean to the public what the minister has in mind.

Theology must be translated into the idiom of today the vernacular. The power to make such a translation is the test of really having understood what one is talking about.

2. People's historical sense has changed. The present appears to most of us as one section of a huge continuous process. But to the modern mind (rather immature perhaps) the present occupies almost the whole visual field. Beyond it, isolated from it, are the "old days." Then beyond that appears a picture of "primitive man." He is science, not history, therefore, much more real and certain. Such people (they are the moderns) believe the prehistoric more completely than the historic.

3. A widespread mental hangup today is this: "Now that we know how huge the universe is and how insignificant the earth, it is ridiculous to believe that God could take special interest in one person."

To start, this requires a correction of error on the fact that the insignificance of earth in relation to the universe is not a modern discovery except as human ignorance took the place of knowledge. Nearly 2,000 years ago Ptolemy (Almagest, book 1, ch. 5) said that in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, earth must be thought of as "a mathematical point with out magnitude."

Holy Scripture only says what God has done for fallen man; it doesn't pretend to know what God has or has not done for other parts of the universe.

Furthermore, how about Christ's parable of the one lost sheep (Matt. 18:11-14; Luke 15:4-7)? God's plans for earth prove chiefly that it strayed.

Moreover, can size be equated with importance? Is an elephant more important than a man? Or a man's leg than his brain?

4. Another difficulty arises in the popular attitude to miracles. "People believed in miracles," it is suggested, "because they didn't know miracles were contrary to the laws of nature."

But people did know. Possibly their knowledge did not extend to so many areas of natural law. How ever, Joseph of Nazareth certainly knew a virgin birth was not the normal origin of babies; or why did he think, on learning of Mary's pregnancy, to put her away (Matt. 1:19)? Obviously, no event would be recorded as miraculous unless the recorder understood the natural order and recognized this as an exception. The very idea of miracle presupposed knowledge of nature's laws: There can be no idea of an exception without the idea of a rule.

5. A sense of sin is often totally lacking. We face a world that believes whatever goes wrong is someone else's fault the capitalists', the socialists', the government's, the establishment's, the youth's, the oldsters' you name it! Such want to know, not whether they can be acquitted of sin, but whether God can be acquitted for creating the world and the people on it.

To change this, it is useless to bear down on our murderous, adulterous generation. Better to forget crime, public degeneracy, and this evil world, and send down shafts of love into the network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness, and conceit that constitute the web of everyday life among "decent people" like all of us.

Many other problems are current today; occasionally the should be dealt with. Let us not forget that Seventh-day Adventist apologists no longer address themselves even chiefly to Bible-belt, believing Christians; the very existence of God, the historicity of Scripture are challenged consistently. America, Scandinavia, England, Germany, France, like far-away non-Christian lands, are populated by so-called pagans. This situation must be taken into account lest we answer questions people aren't asking, or solve problems people don't have! So many subcultures have disrupted normal mental attitudes.

Adventist Apologetic Strategy

But we must, finally, get to Seventh-day Adventist apologetic strategy. Here, among so many possibilities, are suggestions I consider fundamental:

a. The question of truth should be kept constantly before people. This requires constant alertness on the part of the apologist, for the listener (or the reader) will always try to escape the issue, true or false. He will find refuge in the issue, good or bad. He will persist in assuming we recommend the Advent faith because it is good. It is; but this viewpoint allows him to take exception in a multitude of areas: Ecclesiastical mistakes through the centuries, faulty planning, excess of zeal without knowledge, substitution of legalism for righteousness by faith, imperfect Christians, superior morality of many non-believers, et cetera. One must constantly point out that Adventism is either true or false. If false, it has no importance; if true, the consequences are in finite and must be met.

The true or false dilemma will dissipate another refuge for in decision: The cry of sectarianism.

We must be sure that we are not sectarian, legalist in our outlook and approach. Holy Scripture does say that only in the name of Christ can men be saved (Acts 4:12). Salvation does not result from man's performance; the Seventh-day Adventist's performance results from salvation in Christ.

b. We should be clear on a further point: Salvation is in Christ alone, but it must not be concluded that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him. Nor does this mean that we pronounce all other religions to tally false. What we do say is that in Christ whatever is true (or so seems) is consummated and perfected.

Of course, the idea that mutually exclusive ideas about God can be true is purely nonsensical. The same can be said for any at tempt to water down the Advent faith by adjustment, relevancy, or by the elimination of so-called repellent ideas of prophecies. The result would be confusion, in effectiveness, and dishonesty all of which are unpardonable for the true Adventist, let alone the Seventh-day Adventist apologist.

c. The Seventh-day Adventist approach and strategy should be at the same time intellectual and emotional. By this I mean, the Seventh-day Adventist apologist should argue and preach, and in that order. Solid facts and argument are necessary to undermine prejudice and to teach the truth. Uneducated people are not necessarily irrational. Some illiterates have been extremely wise and logical.

But emphatically, truth's shafts must pierce the heart. To lift up Jesus will draw all men unto Him (John 3:14). He must be able to say to all, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28, 29).

Such is the evangelical way and it succeeds as the Master promised.

In conclusion, the Seventh-day Adventist apologist must take heed unto himself. The apostle Paul emphasizes this thought: "For my part," he says, "I run with a clear goal before me; ... for fear that after preaching to others I should find myself rejected" (1 Cor. 9:26, 27, N.E.B.).*

Many times discouragement will beset the Seventh-day Adventist apologist for lack of apparent results. Then he will wish he could present his defense again, for he would, with God's help, do better. This sometimes will be granted. But the real test is not failure, but rather when he succeeds. Then he must fall back from the bright web of his arguments, the stirring language of his appeal into Christ Himself his own personal salvation.

* Texts credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Used by permission.

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-A general field secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at the time this article was written

March 1973

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