Adventists: heading for schism?

Christianity Today reports that theological differences are moving Seventh-day Adventists closer to a split MINISTRY points out some errors of fact and gives its view of what the issues really are.

J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

Some of our readers may have seen a news item in the March 18 issue of Christianity Today headlined: "Adventist Teachers Are Forced Out in a Doctrinal Dispute." The subtitle suggested the church is moving closer to schism.

We normally try, in print, to ignore such reports—not because we have nothing to say, but because no matter what one says, it appears defensive. It's the old "Have you stopped beating your wife?" kind of situation. However, we felt that this particular piece was sufficiently one-sided and contained enough errors of fact (in a periodical usually given to fair coverage of issues) that it deserved some sort of response. We realize complete objectivity may be too much to expect of reporters, religious or secular. But frankly, our knowledge of the situation is at such variance with this reporting of it that we have begun to wonder how much one should believe of anything he reads!

Obviously, there are two sides to every story. Since the article in question presents the viewpoint of dissidents within the Adventist Church, we thought it only fair to provide a brief look from the other perspective. Both sides may be considered to be biased, of course, but surely not one more than the other. Without trying to set every item straight, we would simply point out a few errors of fact and then describe a bit of our view of what the actual issues are.

Some errors in the report: Current theological controversies do not swirl about "one of the church's basic doctrines—the investigative judgment of Christ." Current theological controversy has to do with much more than a single doctrine; it involves basic hermeneutics of Bible prophecy and the entire self-understanding of the Adventist Church.

The church does not believe that this doctrine "was revealed to prophetess Ellen White in 1844." Rather it originated from the Bible study of three individuals—Edson, Crosier, and Hahn—who published their views in April, 1845 and February, 1846. After further study, the doctrine was accepted by those who would later compose the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As a final step, Ellen White (who, incidentally, never claimed the title "prophetess") received a vision in 1846 endorsing the view as "true light." Hiram Edson never asserted that he had received a vision as the article states; nor were the minutes of a 1919 Bible conference "suppressed." Actually, the transcript was placed in the vault following the meeting and forgotten through the years. It was discovered after the church's Archives Department was established in the 1970s.

"Numerous SDA ministers have had to take loyalty oaths on the investigative judgment issue," the article declares, "with some sending in manuscripts and cassettes of sermons to be checked." If questions have arisen about a particular presentation, some may have been asked for copies of a sermon in order to determine what was actually presented. But I know of no one who has had to take a "loyalty oath" on any doctrine. We want to be fair, and so I invite any of you who have had such experiences to please correspond with me and give me the details.

More troublesome than the factual errors, however, is the impression left by the article that the church is on the brink of rupture and doctrinal chaos. That there is certain theological dissension within the Adventist Church is beyond question; that the church is widely rent or nearing schism is an exaggeration far beyond reality. In fact, two of the most visible and measurable signs of church health—membership and finances— seem to indicate that the church is far from schism.

The January 7, 1983, issue of Christianity Today reported that Seventh-day Adventists were the fourth-fastest growing denomination in North America for the decade 1970-1980. For the fourth quarter of 1982, accessions to the church (baptisms and professions of faith) numbered 107,726 worldwide. This is more than 1,000 per day, a goal recently set by the church, and is the highest single quarter in the church's history. The February 4, 1983, issue of that same journal pointed out that Seventh-day Adventists in North America have the second-highest giving record among 45 denominations surveyed by the National Council of Churches—an annual per capita average of $732.20. (The survey average was $239.71.) Of course such figures alone do not indicate that the church is completely problem free. But neither do they suggest a church that is hopelessly divided.

The article quotes an estimate that 150 pastors and teachers have either been fired or forced to resign recently for their theological views. (It does admit that a church official puts the number at far less.) Even if the 150 figure were accurate, it would hardly qualify as serious schism. The Adventist Church currently employs approximately 15,000 ordained and licensed ministers. Thus the 150 figure is exactly 1 percent of the total. The 150 loss is said to cover a two-and one-half-year period beginning in the summer of 1980. The annual rate of loss would be 0.4 percent. It seems inconceivable that such a percentage could be labeled "schism"! The other side of the picture is that some who actually have left teaching or preaching positions because of theological differences are returning in doctrinal harmony.

Now just a word about what we see as the real issues in this situation. The theological differences do not involve merely a single doctrine—the investigative judgment, or any other doctrine alone. The basic theological differences within the Adventist Church today have to do with how we shall understand and interpret Bible prophecy. This question affects many foundational areas of church doctrine, as well as the church's view of itself, its mission, and reason for existence. Those who are taking theological issue with the church today are asking it not merely to reexamine a single doctrine, or even several doctrines. They are asking the church to redefine its basic understanding of the prophetic portions of Scripture and thus to alter radically the very nature of the church itself. It is not, as the article implies, simply a matter of fine-tuning certain doctrinal concepts in order to bring them into greater harmony with Scripture. If that were the case, there would be little disagreement. Rather, it is a question of taking a view of hermeneutics fundamentally different from, and at odds with, that which the church has previously held. The dis agreement, therefore, goes far beyond any specific doctrine.

The Adventist Church has always held to a historicist position in which apocalyptic prophecy was seen to be linear and predictive of events from the time of the Bible writer until the end of the world. Its prophetic and eschatological understandings are built on such a view. Those challenging this position have taken essentially a preterist stance (with some futurism included, as well) and find a contemporary fulfillment in the time of the writer for all Bible prophecies. Thus they deny that prophecy was ever intended to give us any specific information about the future or end-time events. Seventh-day Adventists cannot accept such a view without surrendering that which makes them Seventh-day Adventists.

The article indicates that those who are opposed theologically are "not antagonistic to the church. . . . We just want to see it come into full harmony with Scripture." We believe that the church's historic position on how to interpret Bible prophecy and the doctrines based on that method of interpretation are in full harmony with Scripture. Careful investigation reveals that our historicist position regarding the interpretation of Bible prophecy, although heard less and less in these modern times of Babylonian confusion and conflicting winds of doctrine, is the position taken by the majority of serious Bible students of the past from the early church on—the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Puritan writers, the great conservative scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is not we, but those who have abandoned these positions, who have left Scripture.

The Adventist Church is said to believe that although "sins are forgiven at the Cross, they must be blotted out by Christ before man can enter heaven.... Thus salvation is never secure." In actuality, we believe that our salvation is as secure as Jesus Christ Himself. We have no fears on that point. We do believe, along with many other Christians, that our security in Christ is not irrevocable; that we can turn from our saved condition and choose to be lost. We believe Bible prophecy indicates a judgment prior to Christ's coming in which He will differentiate tares from wheat for all time. Such a judgment does not tell us that we cannot be sure of salvation; it tells us that heaven will ratify each man's decision and that those who, by the grace of God, endure to the end will be saved. (Matt. 24:13; Heb. 3:14.)

It is unfortunate that the Christianity Today article continues the often repeated charge that such doctrines as the investigative judgment and other positions held by the Adventist Church are not scriptural and have been derived from extra-Biblical visionary sources. This is simply not true. We feel we owe it to those within Adventism who disagree theologically with the church and to our readers representing a wide spectrum of faiths and doctrines, to set forth, succinctly and clearly, how we view Bible prophecy and its interpretation, the doctrines that emerge from our under standing of prophecy, and what role we believe God has assigned us to fill in these days just prior to His Son's return. The July issue will carry an examination of the doctrine of a pre-Advent or investigative judgment. We are content to let each reader make up his own mind whether or not these positions are scriptural.—J .R. S.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

May 1983

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