Thoughts on the republished Questions on Doctrine

An alternative view on the human nature of Christ expressed from a theological-historical perspective.

Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

Editor's note: Last August Ministry published an article by Woodrow Whidden announcing and commenting upon Andrews University Press' republication of the book Questions on Doctrine. In the same issue Ministry declared itself on one side of the most divisive aspect of the book when, in the editorial, we affirmed the sinless human nature of fesus, and attached a reprint of an insert that Ministry had published in 1970. Besides this, as part of our ongoing doctrinal series, expressing the Seventh-day Adventist faith in Christocentric terms, we published Roy Naden's article in our June 2003 issue.

As part of" Ministry's coverage of these topics, we are pleased to publish the ascendant alternative Adventist view on the nature of Christ. Herbert Douglass, one who was intimately involved in the 1950s and 1960s struggles over Questions on Doctrine, agreed to express this alternative perspective. For further study on this subject we recommend that our readers visit <biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org>, click on the "Documents" button, and click on "What human nature did Jesus take? Fallen," and "What human nature did Jesus take? Unfallen." Also, don't miss BRI's recently presented comments on the republished Questions on Doctrine found on page 30 of this issue.

Late in 2003, Questions on Doctrine (QOD) was republished by the Andrews University Press with historical notes and a theological introduction by George R. Knight. Originally published in 1957, this book, as Knight observes, "easily qualifies as the most divisive book in Seventh-day Adventist history. A book published largely to help bring peace between Adventism and conservative Protestantism, its release brought prolonged alienation and separation to the Adventist factions that grew up around it."1

Historical concerns

Knight's Introduction provides the back ground for the early conversations between Adventist spokesmen and Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, Walter Martin, and others of the Calvinistic wing of Evangelicalism. Some would say it was the Fundamentalist wing.

The mystery to many of us in Washington during the 1950s was T. E. Unruh's (president, East Pennsylvania Conference) letter to Barnhouse wherein he complimented Barnhouse's radio program on "righteousness by faith." This letter started the strange chain of events that led to the publishing of QOD.

Walter Martin, a young specialist in Christian cults, visited Washington in March 1955 to hear from Adventist leaders exactly what they believed regarding certain doctrines that Martin had said were cultic.

Knowing that Martin was in the process of preparing another book entitled, The Rise of the Cults, Leroy E. Froom, W. E. Read, and R. A. Anderson thought it best to head off a negative bombshell by responding with irenic deference; a lofty goal for any leader!2

Of course there were many topics that Martin and Barnhouse would concede as interesting and different but not necessarily cultic. The four items they finally left on the table and in contention were (1) that the atonement of Christ was not completed upon the cross; (2) that salvation is the result of grace plus the works of the law; (3) that the Lord Jesus was a created being, not from all eternity; and (4) that He partook of man's sinful fallen nature at the Incarnation.3

The associate editors of The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary had the privilege of watching QOD being processed, edited, rewritten, and rewritten again. Our Commentary office was on the same floor with Merwin Thurber, the seasoned Review and Herald Publishing Association book editor. Whenever he had a theological problem of whatever nature, he would come to our office for counsel. Week after week this would be the routine as Thurber tried to edit the QOD manuscript.

Finally, Elder Froom said, "No more editing. We're going with what we have." At that point, the manuscript had been reduced significantly. The authors recognized, of course, that "no statement of Seventh-day Adventist belief can be considered official unless it is adopted by the General Conference in quadrennial session." But perception often overrules. You can imagine our astonishment when we began to see the galleys of the forth coming book with comments such as this one on pages 8, 9: "The replies were prepared by a group of recognized leaders, in close counsel with Bible teachers, editors, and administrators. . . . These answers represent the position of our denomination in the area of church doctrine and prophetic interpretation. . . . Hence this volume can be viewed as truly representative of the faith and beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church."

But as far as we and some others were concerned, these statements did not represent the reality surrounding the production of QOD. Many were troubled by the direction of the book and told the authors so.

Milton L. Andreasen, "the denomination's most influential theologian and theological writer in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, had been left out of the process in both the formulation of the answers and the critiquing of them, even though he had been generally viewed as an authority on several of the disputed points."4

This omission was not apparent until QOD was published. Be that as it may, what we did not expect was the crescendo of Ministry editorials and articles, and workers' meetings throughout North America from 1957 on. The new president of the General Conference, R. R. Figuhr, was impressed by the fact that Walter Martin had been headed off again from including Adventists in his next book on cults in America.

When it seemed to Andreasen that the QOD authors plus the General Conference president were not interested in recognizing his concerns, he wrote open letters to church members.

Theological concerns

Andreasen was primarily concerned with the "troublesome" issues: the "atonement" and "the human nature of Christ."5 In looking into these theological questions, we need to look more closely at the problem that L. E. Froom and R. A. Anderson faced.

Froom took a poll of Adventist leaders and discovered that "nearly all of them" felt that Christ had our sinful nature.6 Further, the recently retired General Conference president, W. H. Branson, wrote in the 1950 edition of his Drama of the Ages that Christ in His incarnation took "upon Himself sinful flesh."7

But Froom and Anderson nevertheless affirmed in what appeared to George Knight to be a "less than trans parent" way that "the majority of the denomination has always held" the humanity of Christ "to be sinless, holy, and perfect" despite the fact that certain writers had occasionally got ten into print with contrary views. Unfortunately, this is what they told Walter Martin.

Froom and Anderson kept the new General Conference president well informed. One of Froom's letters acknowledged that in QOD "some of the statements are a bit different from what you might anticipate."8 He went on to suggest that their approach was necessary in view of the backgrounds and attitudes of the Evangelicals.

QOD's treatment of the atonement

One of Andreasen's chief com plaints was the lack of lucidity as the authors tried to pitch their answers to Martin's questions with language he could accept. He wrote private letters to the General Conference president, imploring him to look at the big picture.

For many years Adventists had believed (1) that "the conditions of the atonement had been fulfilled" on the cross (The Desire of Ages, 819) and (2) that "the intercession of Christ in man's behalf in the sanctuary above is as essential to the plan of salvation as was His death upon the cross. By His death He began that work which after His resurrection He ascended to complete in heaven" (The Great Controversy, 489).

Andreasen was concerned about the Calvinist's limited gospel where the focus of Christ's atonement ministry is on the Cross; he feared that the Adventist twin focus of Christ's atonement ministry on the cross and in the heavenly sanctuary was being muted. Many have felt that if Andreasen, with his undisputed theological experience, had been asked to participate in formulating answers to Martin's questions, theological equilibrium would have prevailed.

QOD's treatment of the Incarnation

Here again we must recognize the Calvinistic presuppositions of Barnhouse, Martin, and other confreres. For them the human Jesus was "impeccable," that is, incapable of sinning. Bavinck, one of their theological giants, wrote that the possibility of Jesus' "sinning and falling is an atrocious idea. . . . For then God Himself must have been able to sin—which it is blasphemy to think."9

Froom admitted that some Adventists had been in print emphasizing these "atrocious ideas" but such were from those in the Adventist "lunatic fringe"! Remember, Froom and Anderson were trying to find some common ground with their Calvinistic friends! They used words such as "exempt from the inherited passions and pollutions that corrupt the natural descendants of Adam."10 And, "all that Jesus took, all that He bore whether the burden and penalty of our iniquities, or the diseases and frailties of our human nature—all was taken and borne vicariously. "11

How can we summarize what Knight called "a less than transparent"12 defense of conventional Adventist thinking on the humanity of Jesus?

  • The Ellen White statements appended to QOD created "a false impression on the human nature of Christ."13
  • The authors supplied in bold face a subheading: "Took Sinless Human Nature." As Knight wrote, "that heading is problematic in that it implies that that was Ellen White's idea when in fact she was quite emphatic in repeatedly stating that Christ took our 'sinful nature.'"14
  • Curious touches of intimidation are apparent when the authors said (after spelling out their interpretation of Ellen White statements) "it is in this sense that all should understand the writings of Ellen G. White when she refers occasionally to sinful, fallen and deteriorated human nature." Further, "all these are forceful cogent statements, but surely no one would designedly attach a meaning to them which runs counter to what the same writer has given in other places in her works."15 And the implicit response to both assertions seems to be, "Of course not!"

Not only did the quotations contradict their contexts, they seem to have been arranged to foster a particular presupposition. For an example of misrepresenting the context, think of one that has been used many times since 1957: "No one, looking upon the childlike countenance, shining with animation, could say that Christ was just like other children. He was God in human flesh." Yet a few sentences earlier, White also had written: "He was not like all children. Many children are misguided and mismanaged. But Joseph, and especially Mary, kept before them the remembrance of their child's divine Fatherhood. Jesus was instructed in accordance with the sacred character of His mission.... He was an example of what all children may strive to be if parents will seek the Lord most earnestly, and if children will co-operate with their parents. In His words and actions He manifested tender sympathy for all."16 One gets the larger picture that White was painting when we look at the whole article.

In the list of reasons for Christ coming to earth, it seems that the authors of QOD omitted two of the most essential reasons: He came to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). He came to be our Example (1 Peter 2:21). It would have been more than helpful if they had listed the additional reasons Ellen White has provided us.

Radiation fallout

As Knight says, QOD "easily qualifies as the most divisive book in Seventh-day Adventist history." To document this divisiveness is easy but painful. Most, if not all, of the so called "dissident" or "independent" groups of the last 45 years are direct results of the explicit and implicit positions espoused by QOD on the atonement and the Incarnation. On two continents the reaction was immediate. Most, if not all, of these "dissidents" would not exist today if QOD had not been published.

Hovering over the theological fog that QOD generated was the "official" imprimatur that the book was getting in the Adventist world. Although the authors tried to say that QOD was not an "official" statement of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, the description of their efforts could not be hidden.17

In 1975, a representative group of us gathered in Washington in response to the Review and Herald Publishing House's call for counsel regarding the republication of QOD. The leadership of the General Conference was generally opposed to its reprinting. The more the book was examined, the firmer their denial for a reprinting became.

Theological concerns that need fresh discussion

1. Creating a straw man. Adventists have never argued that Jesus ever sinned, or inherited evil, corrupted "passions and pollutions." Arguing this way creates a straw man! The Adventist position for a century was solidly based on biblical statements such as Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 5:7- 9; Romans 1:1-3; 8:3, 4; 2 Peter 2:21; Revelation 3:21.

This biblical foundation lies at the core of Ellen White's understanding of Christ's humanity. For example: "It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man's nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life.

"Satan in heaven had hated Christ for His position in the courts of God. He hated Him the more when he him self was dethroned. He hated Him who pledged Himself to redeem a race of sinners. Yet into the world where Satan claimed dominion God permit ted His Son to come, a helpless babe, subject to the weakness of humanity. He permitted Him to meet life's peril in common with every human soul, to fight the battle as every child of humanity must fight it, at the risk of failure and eternal loss."18

Throughout White's The Desire of Ages, many such statements only add to the clarity of the above.

2. Hermeneutics. One of the main principles of interpretation is to allow the author to interpret himself or her self. Further, the author can best state his or her position in a book designed to clarify all aspects of the author's thinking.

When an author has written more than seventy years on a subject, one should not be surprised to find statements lifted from letters, diaries, and general manuscripts that may seem to be contradictory. But when the student has a grasp of the intent of a letter and has access to the entire diary or manuscript, those apparent discrepancies vanish like Jell-O (gelatin) at a picnic on a hot summer day.

In other words, The Desire of Ages should be the acid test of Ellen White's Christology by which all other statements should be judged.

3. Modus operandi. On subjects such as "The Ten Commandments," "The Sabbath and the Moral Law," "Scholarly Precedents for 1844," "The Meaning of Azazel," "The Investigative Judgment," "Condition of Man in Death," and "Champions of Conditional Immortality," the QOD authors used a host of non-Adventist writers to supplement and enhance their doctrinal positions.

An equally good supply of non- Adventist writers could be gathered, other than Calvinistic writers, to substantiate the historic Adventist position on what is meant by Christ's "sinful, fallen human nature." Why aren't books authored by Harry Johnson, Karl Earth, T. F. Torrance, Nels Ferre, C. E. Cranfield, Harold Roberts, Lesslie Newbigin, Anders Nygren, C. K. Barrett, and Oscar Cullmann, referred to, for starters?

Such scholars clearly espoused the New Testament position that Jesus who was "truly Man," became the kind of person that He came to redeem, not only in His death but throughout His life, that He inherited fallen, sinful nature that makes sin very probable but that He did not yield to that tendency (John 5:17, 18; Mark 4:36, etc.)

In other words, biblical writers and Ellen White viewed what is generally called "original sin" as the universal tendency in human nature to seek selfish interests. Jesus shared this commonality with humanity—but He remained the unsullied Example for us all (Rev. 3:21)—He remained sinless.

4. Distinguish between "propensities of sin" and "propensities to sin"; between "inherited passions" and "evil, corrupted passions"; between "lower" and "higher nature." We should let Ellen White tell us what is meant by her usage. Jesus had all the natural passions of a child, or a teenager, or an adult—for self preservation, for reasonable physical comforts, for an appreciation of the opposite sex, to be appreciated by His friends. But He never allowed these natural, God-given passions to become "evil, corrupted passions." He never permitted His will to yield to any of these natural passions so that they would have contradicted the will of His heavenly Father (Luke 22:42).19

Jesus took our inherited tendencies to evil but not our cultivated tendencies of evil—He did not choose to sin, to be corrupted.

Christ's higher nature, as ours, included choice and will and thus character. His lower nature embraced normal human passions that seek selfish, indulgent ends. The difference between Jesus and us is that He always chose not to be defiled. He was uncorrupted.

5. Areas of concern that may still require open discussion are found in the extended notes on pages 516-529 of the new republished edition of QOD. The author of the notes framed in gray is correct: "The logic that flowed from that belief was that if Christ was just like us, yet had lived a sinless life, then so must other human beings— especially those of the last generation. . . . [This teaching] became the belief of the majority of Seventh-day Adventists in the first half of the twentieth century. That teaching was so widely accepted that it no longer needed to be argued in Adventist literature. It was accepted as a fact. It was upon that teaching that M. L. Andreasen would build his final generation theology."20

The suggestion that Ellen White's understanding of Christ's humanity was derived from her reading of Henry Melville is interesting but far off the mark. This connection does not occur to those who spend a few moments noting how White herself used the words propensities, passions, infirmities, etc.

The suggestion that since the 1890s there have been "two quite distinct Adventist understandings on the human nature of Christ in Adventism" (pre-Fall Adam versus post-Fall Adam) needs substantiation. To suggest that all other writers except Ellen White were in both camps and Ellen White was in a third, the "invisible" camp, seems to be a strange observation. The immediate examples of that "position" follow exactly the pattern of the 1957 QOD's mistreatment of Ellen White's writings.

The "last-generation" (the one that waits expectantly for Christ's return, cooperating with Him to be entrusted with His sealing—Revelation 7) concept seems to be the distinctive feature of Ellen White's eschatology.

6. The second topic that has severely divided the Adventist Church since the late 1950s was the issue of righteousness by faith. Evangelical media observed that by the 1970s the church was divided between "Traditional Adventists"—those who defended positions that were "accepted facts" before QOD, and "Evangelical Adventists" who emphasized the Reformation understanding of righteousness by faith.21

Implied in this "evangelical" understanding was (1) a rejection of Adventism's distinctive view of a pre-Advent judgment and (2) the connection between the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary and the cleansing of habits and choices culminating in the close of probation.

In minimizing the "essential" aspects of the atonement that are embedded in the heavenly sanctuary doctrine, the spotlight attention focused on the Cross. When this double focus is lost, the biblical concept of righteousness by faith is greatly damaged. Everything is connected to everything else on the genuine gospel tree; when one aspect of gospel truth is compromised, many other doctrines become tainted!

7. Part of the fallout since 1957 is the cavalier treatment of Ellen White's ministry. Such a view of Mrs. White's ministry became the modus operand! for many pastors and teachers who seemed to get the impression that she has a "wax nose." In recent years, Ellen White has been viewed by some as a devotional writer but not a theological guide.

A deeper lesson to be learned

What seems to be an unspoken, deeper problem with QOD is what was left unsaid.

Martin and Barnhouse were recognized scholars though listening to a different drummer. But they could think theologically. What a perfect opportunity it would have been for Adventists to use equally trained minds to show why Adventists have a distinctive understanding of soteriology, Christology, and eschatology.

1 Questions on Doctrine (Andrew U. edition), xiii.

2 Ibid., xiv.

3 Ibid., xiv.

4 Ibid., xviii.

5 Ibid., xv.

6 QOD (Andrews), xv.

7 Ibid. In 1953, Branson changed slightly his "sinful flesh" statement to keep the peace, still knowing that Ellen White used this phrase many times.

8 Ibid.

9 G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mictv. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), 259.

10 QOD, 383 (1957).

11 Ibid., 61, 62, 59.

12 Ibid., xvi (Andrews University edition).

13 Ibid., xxx.

14 Ibid., xvi.

15 QOD, 60 (1957).

16 QOD (1957), 650; Youth's Instructor, September 8, 1898.

17 QOD (1957), 8.

18 The Desire of Ag«, 49.

19 See Manuscript Vol. 16, 182, 183 for a clear distinction between "corrupted propensities" and "fallen but not
corrupted."

20 QOD (Andrews edition), 518, 519.

21 Kenneth R. Samples, "From Controversy to Crisis: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism," Christian Research journal, Summer, 1988, 9.

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Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

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