Adventists and Doctrinal Change

This is a condensed version of a talk given at a seminary chapel program, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Raoul Dederen is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


OUR AGE has been one of earthshaking change. This climate of change has deeply affected our theological way of thinking. New points of view, less easily identifiable with established pat terns, have been clamoring for recognition. All the Christian churches, without exception, have been confronted by anxious questioning.

Perhaps it can be said that this doctrinal crisis has been especially acute within Roman Catholicism, a body that has in the past maintained a high degree of certainty on a wide spectrum of issues. In the past decade, especially since the end of Vatican II, the time-tested uniformity of Roman Catholicism has shown signs of disintegration. Priests are leaving the ministry for the sake of matrimony, notwithstanding the efforts of pope and bishops to enforce the rule of celibacy. Large numbers of sisters are leaving the convent. A great many lay members are confused by the new liturgical forms, and others are paying less and less attention to the voice of authority of their bishops.

This climate of change has also left a mark on Protestant churches, cutting across denominational lines and affecting both conservative and liberal churches. Some of the most fundamental theological principles and categories have been subjected to radical challenge not just from outsiders but also from some who stand within the mainstream of the Christian heritage. The history of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, is a clear case in point. We Adventists find ourselves facing the same issue and challenge of change, confronted as we are with the presuppositions, concerns, thought forms, life-styles, and technical possibilities offered by the contemporary world. But how shall we react to the call for modernization?

I am not concerned here with finding specific answers to particular questions, but rather with establishing some guidelines, articulating a context in which such questions might be fruit fully approached. My aim is to foster a clearer understanding of the interpenetration between stability and change, fidelity and initiative, in the areas of faith and religious truth.

Although I cannot here discuss the total problem of religious truth and its expression, certain presuppositions need to be set forth. I assume, for instance, that God exists and that He has chosen to reveal Himself "in many and various ways ... by the prophets," and preeminently in Jesus Christ, His Son, through whom He also created the world (Heb. 1:1, 2, R.S.V.). I also take for granted that revelation necessarily has to do with the salvation or redemption of mankind and of the world. The true content of revelation cannot possibly be merely historical or scientific information considered in itself. I presuppose moreover, that when a prophet communicates that which God has revealed to him, he necessarily has to use concepts and terms drawn from his personal experience. The saving mysteries revealed by God are communicated with the help of ideas and terminology supplied by the culture in which the inspired human instrument lives.

Thus Ellen White remarks, "The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect." 1 More explicitly she states, "The Lord gave His word in just the way He wanted it to come. He gave it through different writers, each having his own individuality, though going over the same history." 2 Of these Biblical writers she adds, "Each dwells on particular points which his constitution and education have fitted him to appreciate." 3

In other words, when we go to the Scriptures to discover God's revealed will we are confronted with statements that are marked by the historical con text and concrete situation from which the prophet wrote, and in which God's people lived. He used the literary conventions and figures of speech that were employed in his concrete situation. It is therefore necessary for us to discover the full connotation of the terms as they are employed by the Biblical writers in conveying the mysteries revealed to them. What questions were in their minds when they thus prophesied, and how do such questions differ from those that confront us today?

This emphasis may seem excessively negative, but my intention is to clear the way for a more positive appreciation of the Biblical heritage. To acknowledge the shortcomings of historical statements is not to fall prey to relativism, but rather to escape imprisonment within the historical dimensions of any one cultural period. Each prophetic expression of the truth must reach us through human formulas, for otherwise it could not reach us where we are.

As we take up the task of restating the Christian message to contemporary man, we face, at least schematically, three main positions. On the right are the archaists, those who see no reason for reconsidering and restudying the doctrines we have preached for the last hundred and some years. On the left are the evolutionists, who maintain that any and every doctrine is always reformable since the church is continually confronted with new environments and is always approaching the Scriptures with new tools. In the center are those who hold that there is such a thing as the genuineness of the faith committed to the saints, but wish to make room for the possibility of re-examination and restudy of the doctrines we hold, and this in a spirit of faithfulness to the Adventist heritage.

The first of these three positions—the no-examination attitude—is frequently defended on the ground that faith is knowledge and as such cannot be separated from the propositions in which it is expressed. To change even the formulation and terminology, it is argued, would inevitably change the content, and hence do away with the affirmation itself. This view overlooks the intrinsic connections not only between concepts and forms of speech but also between concepts and their time relatedness. Likewise, this attitude tends to ignore Ellen White's remark: "When God's people are at ease and satisfied with their present enlightenment, we may be sure that He [God] will not favor them. It is His will that they should be ever moving forward to receive the increased and ever-increasing light which is shining for them. The present attitude of the church is not pleasing to God. There has come in a self-confidence that has led them to feel no necessity for more truth and greater light." 4

An Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge

The second position mentioned claims on the basis of an evolutionary theory of knowledge that the notion of unconditionally binding propositions, either in Scripture or in church doctrines, is to tally unacceptable to modern man. Truths of the past, they argue, are the product of very specific and unrepeatable contingencies. They are merely relative propositions brought about by the free and personal response of God to human history.

I fully concur that propositions ex pressing the Seventh-day Adventist Church's faith ought to be the object of diligent restudy and searching, and should even be restated when not firmly founded on the Word of God. At the same time, however, I cannot see light in considering all doctrinal statements as merely pragmatic instruments enabling the believer to deal effectively with successive situations in his own experience or to keep pace with the evolution of human consciousness under the impact of various historical situations. I believe, on the contrary, that scriptural concepts, for instance, have an authentically cognitive role. They enable one to achieve conceptual insight into the realities to which they refer that otherwise would be unknowable.

When believers proclaim that Jesus is the Incarnate Word or that He rose from the dead, they do not simply seek to intensify their faith experience. On the contrary, they refer to and insist on the historical reality of the events to which their faith makes reference. There are, therefore, such things as trustworthy statements of faith, statements that could not be denied without loss of the substance of Christianity. The evolutionary theory of Christian knowledge is unsatisfactory because it does not make room for such.

Truths of Revelation

Having rejected the first and second positions, we are left with the third the position that affirms that God reveals Himself, and truths about Himself through divine revelation, and that those truths are trustworthy, yet open to reformulation if need be.

In human knowledge, even about God, there is a paradoxical combination of the absolute and relative. Man knows and understands only from a restricted point of view, on the basis of his own experiences and contacts. He cannot ex press himself or what he knows except in terms of the conceptual categories derived from his limited experience. As Ellen White explains, "The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression." 5 And again, "The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language." 6

However, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the inspired prophet transcends the objective content of his own knowledge. Guided by God in under standing and conveying that which is being revealed to him, he is conscious of the relativity and conceptual limitation of his own affirmations, circumscribed, as they must needs be, by the culture in which he lives. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that because his statements are so deeply indebted to " 'his power of perception and appreciation'" 7 they are, therefore, mere symbolic utterances expressing and communicating the prophet's subjective experience and that they do not fairly approximate the reality of that to which they refer. On the contrary, these are propositions that make definite pronouncements about definite realities, as is evident from the words of the prophets themselves.

Should Seventh-day Adventists be prepared to go back to the drawing board, take a new look at the revealed data, and seek to find out whether or not the truths we hold are firmly established on Biblical foundation? Do we need to restudy the truths that have made us a people, such as belief in an infallible Bible or in a creation week of six literal twenty-four-hour days? Ought we still to believe that there is a sanctuary in heaven?

Ellen White makes clear that God re quires of His people "continual advancement in the knowledge of the truth, and in the way of holiness," 8 that He "has precious light to come to His people at this very time," and that we should strive earnestly in our "investigations to aim at nothing less than a thorough knowledge of every point of truth." 9

"Heavenly Origin" of Message

Certainly the times in which we live demand of us that we adapt to new vistas, that we keep abreast of the fast-moving world about us, that we speak directly to the deepest concerns of our contemporaries. In this kind of context the doctrines of the church must be constantly tested by the Scriptures and thus kept open for review, revision, and, if need be, repeal. "In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation." 10 There will be new perceptions of truth to explore.

Yet, at the same time, who can forget that what has happened in our past was endowed with a supernatural and sacred quality? The message that God has given this people "is of heavenly origin" and was "searched for as for hidden treasure." 11 It has been dug out through much prayer and careful searching of the Scriptures. The great doctrines that make us a separate people will stand the test of time, and "no line of truth that has made the Seventh-day Adventist people what they are is to be weakened." 12

Unquestionably there are many implications of the original revelation that remain to be discovered by further reflection, influenced not only by the Holy Spirit but also by the new kinds of religious and secular experience and knowledge that become available as mankind enters new stages of cultural growth. This, however, does not detract from the plenitude of the original revelation on which truth is founded. On the contrary, it gives it greater and fuller value. "The old truths are all essential; new truth is not independent of the old, but an unfolding of it," comments Ellen White, who then adds, "It is only as the old truths are understood that we can comprehend the new." 13

The religious and theological renewal that God has in mind for us is not to be conceived of as an accelerated process of dissolution, but rather as a process of continual improvement, an attempt to interpret anew in a spirit of fidelity to what God has been doing for us in the past.

The Challenge of Change

It might be good also to remember that in the history of God's church ours is not the only generation that has been confronted with the challenge of change. Paul, for instance, warned early Christians against those who would "create dissensions ... in opposition to the doctrine" that they had been taught (Rom. 16:17, R.S.V.), "peddlers of God's word" (2 Cor. 2:17, R.S.V.), leading people away "from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (chap. 11:3, R.S.V.). And John, a few years later, wrote in the same vein to second and third generation Christian believers who, challenged by the predominant world views of the time, seem to have begun to lose sight of the uniqueness of the gospel in their desire to make the word of Christ more relevant to the concerns of their contemporaries. He exhorted them like wise to remain faithful to the word of God after the pattern of Christ and to keep walking in the light they already knew. (See 1 John 2:7, 8, Phillips.)

The abiding appeal of John's first Epistle consists in its declaration of the responsibilities of the life of Christian fellowship. These responsibilities are those of light and love. Once the light shines it must be obeyed wherever it leads and at whatever cost. Yet the responsibilities of this life of Christian fellowship must also be tested by love. Members of the church of God have no right to be so broad in their church fellowship as to receive men who deny Christ as He is presented in the Christian gospel and as He has accomplished His victory in the lives of men.

The implications are obvious and, in fact, clearly expressed. It is a remark able fact that in this Epistle of the apostle of love we find such stern words as to the necessity for loyalty to truth. This Epistle underscores some of the basic landmarks of the Christian faith, "always new and always true" (1 John 2:8, Phillips) 14: the cleansing power of Christ's blood, Christ's mediatorial ministry in heaven, separation from the world, love for the brethren, the Second Advent, the impeccability of the incarnate Christ, Christian growth, and the abiding claims of God's commandments. These are timeless verities.

Likewise, in God's church today there will always be peripheral areas where unanimity of opinion may not and will not be reached. We can live at peace with one another irrespective of diver gent views in such matters. But on the essentials we can only stand united, for just as in the days of John, time has not changed the old landmarks. The great fundamentals of the Advent message are "always new and always true." Ellen White observes, "The truths of redemption are capable of constant development and expansion. Though old, they are ever new, constantly revealing to the seeker for truth a greater glory and a mightier power." 15

Far from being regrettable, re-examination of the formulation and interpretation of scriptural truth is necessary to the continuity, vitality, and renewal of the Advent Movement. It is demanded by unswerving faithfulness to the truth and should be pursued in a spirit of unequivocal commitment to the Christian revelation.


1 Selected Messages, book 1,, p. 20.

2 Ibid., p. 21.

3 Ibid., p. 22.

4 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 708, 709.

5 Selected Messages, book I, p. 21.

6 Ibid., p. 19.

7 Ibid., p. 25.

8 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 345.

9 Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 32.

10 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 127.

11 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 447.

12 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 17.

13 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 127.

14 From J. B. Phillips, Letters to Young Churches, p. 216, Copyright 1947, by The Macmillan Company. Used by permission.

15 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 127.


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Raoul Dederen is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1977

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