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Questions on Doctrine: Then and now

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Archives / 2003 / August

 

 

Questions on Doctrine: Then and now

Woodrow W. Whidden
Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

 

Andrews University Press recently released a new edition of the groundbreaking 1957 book, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. 1 While the original turned out to be a watershed factor when it came to Seventh-day Adventist/ Evangelical relations, it also proved to be one of the most controversial publishing events in the history of Adventism.

Before we further describe the background events and controversies surrounding QOD's (Questions on Doctrine's) original publication, and assess the ongoing impact of the publication, prospective readers will be interested in a number of the helpful features included in the new edition.

Features in the new edition

First, the original text is retained. However, the book has been editorially supplemented with an introduction, annotated footnotes, and an updated bibliography by well-known Adventist historian and writer George R. Knight.

Drawing on the latest QOD research, the introduction and footnotes provide back ground on the central theological issues, key conferees, and serious reactions provoked by the book from within both the evangelical and the Adventist communities.

Second, Knight has sought to honestly and fairly review the controversial charges and countercharges the book generated between leading Adventist QOD contributors and those who took strong exception to their "answers" (especially on the atonement and the humanity of Christ).

The traditional critics of QOD will be gratified to know that Knight has pulled no punches, especially when it comes to exposing the way L. E. Froom and his colleagues were "less than transparent" about the denomination's long-held (since the 1890s) consensus on the "post-Fall" humanity of Christ. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Knight also suggests that Froom and his colleagues gave a false impression as they developed the notorious "Appendix B," entitled "Christ's Nature During the Incarnation," which consists of Ellen White statements.

Knight claims that the controversial heading, which says Christ "Took Sinless Human Nature," was "problematic in that it implied that this was Ellen White's idea when in fact she was quite emphatic in repeatedly stating that Christ took 'our sinful nature' and that 'He took upon Himself fallen, suffering human nature, degraded and defiled by sin.'" 2

Key background issues and personalities

The publication of QOD in 1957 was the culmination of a series of conversations held between conservative evangelicals and SDA leaders from March 1955 into 1956. The main evangelicals were Donald Grey Barnhouse, radio preacher and editor of Eternity, and Walter Martin, a young researcher. The Adventist conferees included noted historical theologian Leroy Edwin Froom, W. E. Read (a General Conference Field Secretary), and Roy Allan Anderson, prominent evangelist and editor of Ministry.

One of the positive results of the dialogue was that Barnhouse and Martin declared Seventh-day Adventists to be bonafide Christians who should not be considered to be cultish. This affirmative reassessment of Adventism came after these leaders became satisfied with the Adventist answers given to questions that addressed four key perceptions of Adventist teaching:

1. That Adventists did not believe that the atonement was completed at the cross;

2. That salvation is gained by faith through grace, plus works of the law;

3. That Jesus was a created being and did not co-exist with the Father from all eternity past;

4. And that Christ partook of humanity's sinful, fallen nature at the Incarnation.

The forthright answers given by the Adventist conferees on the Trinity and salvation were some of the most positive accomplishments of the dialogue. However, the QOD answers, especially those regarding Christ's human nature and atonement, proved to be seriously disturbing for many Seventh-day Adventists.

The Adventist dissent and M. L. Andreasen

The reasons for the heated reactions within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are somewhat complex, but one thing stands out clearly: the main voice of dissent belonged to M. L, Andreasen, one of Adventism's most respected theology professors and writers of the 1930s and 1940s. His distinctive views on the atonement and the humanity of Christ did seem to represent a certain consensus within Adventist thinking, as the church moved into the dialogue with the evangelicals. While Andreasen's teachings on both these issues (atonement and the human nature of Christ) had never become official, many considered his views to be solid Adventist orthodoxy.

The core of Andreasen's theology is that the atonement involved three essential phases.

The first consisted of Christ's sin less life of perfect obedience to God's law; the second was His death on the cross where "Christ finished His work as victim and sacrifice."3

While these first two atonement phases were certainly foundational to Andreasen's teaching on the atonement, it was the third that contained the essential focus of his theology, and Andreasen had laid it out in clear and unmistakable language: "In the third phase Christ demonstrates that man can do what He did, with the same help He had. This phase includes His session at the right hand of God, His high priestly ministry, and the final exhibition of His saints in their last struggle with Satan, and their glorious victory."

This third phase, Andreasen said, is now in progress in the sanctuary above and in the church below. Christ broke the power of sin in His lifework on earth. He destroyed sin and Satan by His death. He is now eliminating and destroying sin in His saints on earth. This is a part of the cleansing of the true sanctuary.4

The key theological principle that undergirded this Most Holy Place phase of the atonement was Andreasen's Christology. He firmly held that Christ had taken a sinful human nature, just like Adam's after the Fall (in other words, a sinful nature with tendencies to sin). Thus with the empowering Christ as an example to His last-generation followers, the final atonement could be effected from the heavenly sanctuary as it played out through the sinless perfected characters of the embattled saints on earth. This final atonement, final generation theology, was most clearly set forth in the chapter "The Last Generation" in Andreasen's well-known book The Sanctuary Service.5

In this chapter Andreasen stated that Satan was not definitively and conclusively defeated at the Cross. Satan's ultimate defeat would be effected through the sinless, perfect histories of the final generation. Andreasen was quick to claim that such a final victory would be achieved only through grace, which would be imparted to the saints from the Great Exemplar in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary.

In other words, this faithful remnant would develop sinless characters that would replicate the sinless perfect life that Christ had wrought out in the very same fallen, sinful human nature. It is this nature that the final generation would overcome. Thus Christ, through the remnant's victory, will defeat Satan, vindicate God's demand for perfect obedience, and this vindication of God will finally enable Christ to come.6

What is to be made of this under standing of the atonement in relationship to the answers given by the Seventh-day Adventist respondents in QOD?

Where are we now?

When all the dust has settled, we can clearly affirm the following. Neither the authors of QOD nor Andreasen really disagreed about Phases One and Two. There were, however, two disagreements over Phase Three:

The first disagreement had more to do with terminology than substance: The term "completed atonement" that QOD used was fully consistent with Andreasen in the following sense: The atoning work of Christ on the cross was completed in that full provision had been made there to save all. But it was not complete in that the "completed act of atonement on the cross is valueless to any soul unless, and until, it is applied by Christ our High Priest to, and appropriated by, the individual recipient."7

It is clear that Froom and Roy Allan Anderson were not doing away with a Most Holy Place phase of atonement. They consistently used the language of "atonement provided" at the Cross and "atonement applied" in Christ's heavenly ministry during the day of atonement antitypes in the Most Holy Place.

However, the second disagreement over Phase Three was much more substantive and significant: The QOD respondents were not enthused about Andreasen's vision of the people of the "final generation" being the agents through which Christ would effect the final atonement. While it appears that they did not directly attack Andreasen's final-generation atonement, they did disagree with the Christology that undergirded it.

Therefore, it is safe to say that the two most controversial and ongoing legacies of QOD are that it sparked new discussions of what Adventists mean by the following:

1. The expressions "final atonement," and

2. The "fallen, sinful human nature of Christ."

While the purpose of this article is not to enter into a debate over these contentious issues, I would like to close with some perspective and suggestions for further study.

Perspectives for further study

"Final Atonement." While there are still those who advocate Andreasen's last-generation version of "final atonement" (through the sinless perfection of the remnant), I would like to raise the following questions:

Where in Scripture or in the writings of Ellen White do we find this theology explicitly laid out?

Do Scripture and Ellen White clearly teach that God has made the ultimate success of Christ's atoning work dependent upon the perfecting experience of the "remnant"?

Is there not solid Bible and Ellen White evidence for the claim that Christ has fully vindicated God's demand for perfect obedience by His own life and work?

Would it not be more appropriate to suggest that Christ vindicates His Father in the Most Holy Place phase of the "great controversy" by demonstrating that the Trinity has been completely consistent with its nature of infinite love in the disposition of the cases of every human being?8

Furthermore, could it be that we are all wrestling with a more foundational issue:

What is the role of human effort and accomplishment in the great plan of salvation? How dependent is God on the successes of His professed followers for His own vindication?

In the final analysis, the most controversial outcome of the QOD debates flows from the issues surrounding "The Humanity of Christ."9 Without Andreasen's undergirding "post-Fall" view of Christ's human nature, Andreasen's version of the perfecting of the final generation and its role in God's vindication is called into serious question. Here too is the most important legacy of QOD.

While there is hardly anyone today who would agree with the particular version of "pre-Fall" Christology that the QOD authors put forth (that Christ did not take a "fallen, sinful nature," but only had it "imputed" to Him), they did spark further reflection, which has spawned two clearly articulated interpretations of what is meant by the expression "sinful human nature of Christ."

These positions are:

1. The classic "post-Fall" position of Andreasen, and

2. The "alternative Christology," which was pioneered by the late Edward Heppenstall and propounded by his successors at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary to this day.

The "alternative Christology" acknowledges Ellen White's "post- Fall" statements, but suggests that these refer not to any "infection" of sin in Christ's humanity but only to the way that sin "affected" Him.

Where do we go from here?

Hopefully, the publication of this new edition of QOD will contribute to further clarification of these important questions.

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1 Seventh-day Advcntists Answei Questions on Doctihle (Review and  Herald Pub Assn., 19571; henceforth referred to as QO13.

2 The expressions in quotations are Knight's taken from his "Introduction" to the new edition of QOD.

3 M. L Andreasen, '1'he Book of Hebrews (Washington. Review and Herald Pub. Assn.. 1948), 53.

4 Ibid., 59, 60.

5 Andreasen, The Samtimry Service (Washington: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1937, 1947).

6 Ibid., 299-301.

7 L. E. Froom, " The Priestly Application of the Atoning Act," Ministry, February 1957, 10; compare QOD, 349-355.

8 The following publications lay out the "pros" and "cons." On the "pro" side, see Herbert Douglass, Tile En,l (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Pub Assn , 1979) and Why Jews WaiK (Washington, D.C.. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976). On the "con" side, see Eric C. Webster, Crosscurrents m Adi'entist Christology (New York; Peter Lang, 1984; Republishcd, Bernen Springs, Mich Andrews University Press, 1992), 396-428; and Woodrow W. Wlndden, "The Vindication of God and the Harvest Principle," Ministry, October 1994, 44-47.

9 For an excellent review of the- Adventist debate over the humanity of Christ and a classic defense of the traditional "post-Fall" view, sec J. R. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings (Hageistown, Md.. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1999). for a defense of the "alternative" or the "pre-Fall" position, see Seventh-day Ailvenlrsts Believe . A Biblical /^position of fum'fiuiedfdf Doctrines (Hagerstown, Md : Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988), 45-52; and Woodrow Whidden, Ellen While on the Humanity of Chnst (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1997).

 

 

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