Former Adventist pastor, theologian and professor Dr. Desmond Ford has released a new book in which he documents the events that led to his dismissal from denominational employment in 1980. The events in Ford’s retrospective, entitled “Seventh-day Adventism, The Investigative Judgment and the Everlasting Gospel,” are more than 35 years old, but they continue to provide insights into the ways ecclesiastical authority has been determinative for both theology and employment with the Adventist denomination.
A convert from Anglicanism to Seventh-day Adventism, Ford has had a longstanding preoccupation with the assurance of Salvation. That preoccupation motivated the release of the book, and played a crucial part in its central conceit—Ford’s critique of the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment or Pre-Advent Judgment, often referred to simply as the Sanctuary Doctrine.
Ford saw the fear caused by the notion of a heavenly investigation into the deeds of every human being, preceding the close of probation and the Second Advent. The doctrine, Ford observed, caused many Adventists to question their standing with God, and to doubt whether they were fit to be saved. For Ford, this uncertainty was incompatible with the Gospel. For decades, Ford tried to point out the problem. Page 42 of the book describes the situation this way:
“Dr. Ford traces his concern with the sanctuary doctrine back to 1945. Since then, he has sought unsuccessfully in papers, articles and books to persuade church leaders to face up to what he regards as serious non sequiturs in the traditional Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8:14 and Hebrews 9. From 1962 to 1966, the select General Conference Committee on Problems in the Book of Daniel had given protracted attention to these problems without being able to reach a consensus with respect to them. The 1970s witnessed implementation of a policy that reserved decisions in theological matters primarily to administrators, which made it impossible to resolve a growing tension about the sanctuary through normal scholarly study and deliberation.”
The preceding paragraph reveals that, in addition to Ford’s objections to the Adventist understanding of the Investigative Judgment, he took issue with the imbalance of power between administrators and theologians, which set up bureaucrats (most of whom were not theologians by training) as the gatekeepers of Adventist doctrine, and thus of Adventist orthodoxy.
Ford had been a professor at Avondale College in Australia, but prior to the events discussed in this book, he transferred to Pacific Union College in the United States, where he served as a visiting lecturer.
In 1979, Ford’s impasse with the Adventist Church over the Sanctuary Doctrine came to a head. Ford framed the events of that October as a turning point for the church. From the book’s preface:
“October 27, 1979 was a pivotal date for Seventh-day Adventism. On that day Desmond Ford, responding to an invitation from the PUC (Pacific Union College) Forum, spoke to over 1000 people on “The Investigative Judgment: Theological Milestone or Historical Necessity.” Dr. Eric Syme responded, expressing his substantial agreement with Ford’s presentation. Then followed a lengthy Q&A session.”
Ford considers the events of 1979 and 1980 to be of continuing importance for the Adventist Church for two reasons:
1. Ford’s objections to the Sanctuary Doctrine and his subsequent dismissal cut to the heart of Seventh-day Adventist teaching.
2. An incorrect understanding of God’s judgment, he said, can only lead to an incorrect understanding of the Gospel.
On one level, Ford’s critique of the Sanctuary Doctrine was pragmatic and pastoral—the teaching caused people to doubt their salvation. On another level, his critique was scholarly.
The book details his objections to official the Adventist understanding of the Heavenly Sanctuary and the Investigative Judgement by means of a transcript of Ford’s October 1979 presentation.
One key issue, Ford stated, had to do with the word “cleanse.”
Unto 2300 days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” On the basis of that word, our pioneers linked this prophecy with Leviticus 16, but the word isn’t there. You say, “Of course it’s there.” No, it’s not there. The KJV is a mistranslation. The word translated “cleanse” there is not found in Leviticus 16. It’s a different word altogether. That’s why almost all modern translations do not use “cleanse,” and therefore, from all other translations, you are crippled as a way of getting back to Leviticus 16” (pg. 12).
Ford argued vigorously against literalistic interpretations of apocalyptic texts:
“Apocalyptic visions are not to be taken as graphical, literal representations of the unseen, my friends. They are sketches within the experience and culture of the contemporary prophet to teach them something. It’s very important to understand that” (pg. 15).
Ford also contended, contra the official teaching of the Adventist Church, that the End of the Age should, for all intents and purposes, have followed Jesus’ life and death:
“My friends, it’s as plain as the nose on your face that the New Testament teaches that the end was meant to come just after the First Advent. If the church had seized hold of the gospel, understood the good news, and in the exuberance of joy and the great gift of God, gone out to spread it to the whole world—because Jesus cannot come until the whole world has heard the gospel. And the only thing that holds up the Second Advent is that people understand the gospel” (pg. 18).
Ford took issue with Ellen White’s use by many as an authoritative source of Adventist doctrine. He insisted that all Adventist doctrines could (and should) be argued on the basis of Scripture alone. Interestingly, the revision committee tasked with editing Adventism’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs in 2015 essentially agreed, striking the words “continuing and authoritative source of truth” with reference to Ellen White’s writings. The 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio ratified the changes, indicating a subtle but important shift in the denomination's understanding of Ellen White's role. During his remarks in 1979, Ford said, “Ellen White’s role, my friends, is pastoral, not canonical” [...] “The gift of prophecy is not the gift of omniscience” (pg. 20).
In Dr. Eric Syme’s response, for which the book also provides a transcript, Syme agreed with Ford’s rejection of Ellen White as the decider of doctrine:
“We have no business, absolutely no business in trying to shortcut the problem of research by going to statements from Ellen G. White. This is a question that will be solved by perspiration, not inspiration” (pg. 23).
Syme also agreed with Ford’s reinterpretation of the word commonly translated “cleansed" in Daniel 8.
Now, Dr. Ford, in re-translating that word in chapter 8 that is wrongly stated as ‘cleansed’ and properly stated as ‘vindicated’, is saying very emphatically that the purpose of the Investigative Judgment is the vindication of God and what God has done. Therefore, this is not heresy. It is in harmony with the finest traditions of our denomination. It breaks away, very fortunately, from that very foolish literalism that loses itself in the symbols and forgets the meaning—we’ve had plenty of that—and for that reason I welcome it and I think it’s such an excellent contribution, so lucidly and so eloquently presented that I’m going to beg off disagreeing with you on some small points.”
Following Dr. Syme’s remarks (both at the meeting and in the book) came a Q&A session, during which audience members interacted with Ford and Syme. Here is one of the recorded interactions:
Question: What happened in 1844, if anything?
Dr Ford: Something indeed happened. The Lord in His great mercy drew the attention of this people to the pattern, the figure, the symbolic lesson book of the cross—the sanctuary. The sanctuary was the best way of teaching the truths of the cross of Christ. The sanctuary showed that the law was central, that the breaking of the law meant death. That only the mercy of God and the ministry of the High Priest could bring salvation and that ultimately the whole camp of professed worshipers must be divided into two groups: one numbered with the Lord, and one with Azazel. So in 1844 the Lord drew the attention of this people to the significance of the torn veil on Calvary, but we got bogged down on the spot. And if that seems strange, may I remind you that within a few weeks after the giving of the law at Mt Sinai, the people who had heard in voices of thunder, “Thou shalt not bow down to any graven image,” were worshipping graven images.
After the Q&A section, the book provides two appendices: The first, a list of twenty-two incorrect assumptions concerning the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment, and the second, an account of the August 11–15 1980 Sanctuary Review Committee meeting at the Glacier View Ranch in Colorado, written by noted Adventist theologian Raymond F. Cottrell, and published in Volume 11, no. 2 (Nov. 1980) of Spectrum Magazine.
The Glacier View meeting proved the final showdown between church leaders and Desmond Ford.
Ford characterized the primary point of tension at Glacier View as a split between the administrators present and their methodology, and theologians and biblical scholars present and their methodology. Administrators, the book contends, adhered primarily to the proof-text method of biblical interpretation, while scholars held to the historical method, which factored in biblical languages, context, original intent, and so forth. “In the thinking of the majority at Glacier View, Adventist tradition was the norm for interpreting the Bible, rather than the Bible for tradition” (pg. 61).
Excerpts from the Glacier View transcripts, written by Cottrell:
Desmond Ford: I am sorry that I misunderstood yesterday. My response was not as positive as if I had understood. I have told the brethren many times that I am fully prepared to be quiet on the issue. I have no wish to crusade in this area. I have published many hundreds of pages on the subject over the past 23 years. I believe in our sanctuary message, but the way in which we have expressed it has not always been the best way. I am perfectly happy to accept the counsel of the brethren on this matter. Since October 27, I have refused to speak on the judgment, and I have no intention of speaking on it until the brethren have studied it. I long for the insights of my brethren. Many invitations have come to work outside the church, but I have had no wish to accept them. I cannot go against my conscience, and I am sure you do not want me to.
General Conference President Neal C. Wilson: The statement Des just made brings great rejoicing to me. I believe it is an answer to prayer. I accept your statement, Des, at full value. At no time has this church endeavored to control minds. It gives considerable latitude for opinions, but this carries with it an enormous sacred responsibility. It does not give latitude to create doubts, to undermine faith, or to muffle the message of this church. We cannot afford to confuse others’ minds with our personal opinions. When a person becomes a minister, he accepts a commitment to preach and teach the message this church has to give. Des, you are not only to be silent on certain things; you have a message to proclaim to the world. All I was trying to say yesterday was: Think through carefully the counsel of brethren of experience. You are teachable, yield to their judgment. I am accepting your statement at full value.
G. RALPH THOMPSON (secretary of the General Conference): We do not have all the answers to all the problems, but it is our duty to proclaim the accepted beliefs of the church when we preach. We are safe when we stay with these beliefs. Further study in groups is O.K.
[The next day, W. D. Blehm, president of the Pacific Union Conference, spoke in a similar vein]
BLEHM: I see better today than ever before that the meaning of the past is correct. I accept what I believe to be a divine communication through Ellen White. It is our privilege to improve the pillars of the faith, but not to change them. Dr. Ford’s challenge has already borne fruit in the Pacific Union—split congregations, doubts in the minds of pastors leading them to give up their credentials, divided faculties. Anything that divides this church or leads to doubt is wrong. Some of our theologians are hotbeds of doubt. Let us get our act together. We have an obligation to go back and get our churches moving for God. We need each other today as never before. We’ve got to forget our suspicion of administrators. This is where I stand.
JACK PROVONSHA (professor of ethics, Loma Linda University): As a result of higher education there is, today, a broad spectrum of thought in the church. I believe in the 2,300 days, in the heavenly sanctuary, and in the investigative judgment, but these words have a different content for me than when I was a child. I cannot accept the literalism of my father, but we can all stand on the shoulders of our fathers. They would not be happy with what I have to say. But at the same time I do believe in continuity with our fathers and with what they believed. The church is like a tree that springs from seed; as one of the branches, I belong to the roots of the tree. I believe in continuity. There are depths yet undreamed of in the sanctuary and the investigative judgment. There is a very real progression in our perception of truth.
WILSON: One further small step is needed, I think. You should add, “I stand by the position of the church; I am committed to it.” Dr. Provonsha has given us something very important; Des Ford is a man worth saving.
[Australasia Division President Keith] PARMENTER: I take my stand with Elder Blehm. Des, if you are honest, you will pass in your credentials and do so without being asked.
PROVONSHA (turning to the audience): All of you, would you do that? If you ask people in this room to turn in their credentials, not a few would have to do so on the same basis that Ford is being asked. Integrity is more important than church belief. The real question is, am I a man of integrity? If you brethren can’t think more about healing—surely there must be other ways of dealing with this. I could not sell my soul in order to be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
PARMENTER. Healing must be on a wider basis. Our churches in Australia are severely polarized. Healing must reach further than just one man.
PROVONSHA: This meeting is bigger than Des Ford. We need to find a way of keeping this broad spectrum of thought together; we need something that will keep us together.
On page 59, the book recounts Ford’s dismissal from Seventh-day Adventist employment. On September 2, 1980, President Neal C. Wilson’s Executive Advisory Committee (PREXAD) met to discuss Ford’s fate following Glacier View, and his subsequent unwillingness to publicly admit that he was in error concerning the Sanctuary Doctrine, as Ford recalls being asked to do. PREXAD recommended that Ford be given the chance to withdraw from Adventist ministry voluntarily, or if not, to be relieved of his position and credentials by the Australasian Division.
In the close of Cottrell’s Spectrum article, which chronicles the fallout from Glacier View, he writes,
Is it ethical, or even in our own interest, to blame a competent physician for an unwelcome diagnosis and for prescribing an unpleasant remedy? Or is it ethical to haul him into court for malpractice when he has sincerely exercised his best professional judgment—even if he may at times make honest mistakes of judgment—as we all do? Those who bring problems to our attention are not enemies, but friends.
The book ends with a personal letter from Raymond Cottrell to Desmond Ford, dated November 17, 1979. “Dear Des, you couldn’t be more right in what you told the forum two weeks ago...I would be hard pressed to find anything in your talk I could disagree with.”
The book is both a biographical retrospective and a cautionary tale about wresting theological agency from theologians and vesting it in administrators.
Read or download a free copy of “Seventh-Day Adventists, the Investigative Judgment and the Everlasting Gospel: A Retrospective on October 27, 1979.”
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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