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Immanence and Ethics, Part 1: What’s “Spiritualism” Got to Do with It?

Immanence and Ethics, Part 1: What’s “Spiritualism” Got to Do with It?


And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1]

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[2]

These passages in Genesis 2–3 have long been cited by Adventists in support of the argument that spiritualism consists of two main teachings, both of which originated with the lie that the serpent told Eve at the Tree of Knowledge. The first teaching derives from the first half of the serpent’s response to the woman: “You will not die.” The Adventist Church teaches that with this statement, the serpent, who was Satan in disguise, first introduced the idea that the disembodied spirits of the dead are still alive or conscious. The second spiritualist teaching may be found in the second half of the serpent’s response: “You will be like God.” Adventism teaches that this element of Satan’s initial deception is also foundational to spiritualism. Only God is immortal, so to claim that human beings are innately immortal is to contradict God’s condition that we can only attain immortality if we obey his commandments. As the Adventist theologian Le Roy Froom explains, “according to inspiration, absolute and inalienable immortality is characteristic of, and only belongs to, God (1 Tim. 6:16; cf. 1:17). Man’s immortality can be but relative and conditional, for it will be conferred, acquired, received.” Because “Innate Immortality cannot be an inherent quality in any created or derived being,” Froom concludes that “any creature’s arrogant claim to equality with God and His exclusive immortality is as groundless as it is presumptuous.”[3]

This claim to equality with God is, according to Froom, present in doctrines like pantheism, which he defines as “the belief or theory that God and the universe are identical” or “that there is no God but the combined forces and laws that are manifested in the existing universe as a whole.”[4] Pantheism suggests that we are not merely like God, but rather that we are God. This error, Froom argues, is similar to the claim that we are immortal, because if we are part of God, then to that extent, we have no beginning or end. Moreover, it is similar to polytheism, in that it maintains that there are multiple divine beings. He quotes the religious philosopher Charles Secrétan in support of this view: “The idea of an immortality essential to spirit substance, making it impossible to assign to the existence of the creature either beginning or end, is a very near approach to pantheism, or else to polytheism.”[5]

“Spiritualism” as Progressivism and Universal Reconciliation

Conservative Adventists have applied this interpretation of the serpent’s second lie to other doctrines or ideas. In a seminar for Secrets Unsealed in 2014, Laurel Damsteegt, a proponent of headship theology, contends that there are two types of spiritualism, based on each of the serpent’s two lies. She argues that “type two spiritualism,” based on the serpent’s statement “You will be like God,” applies not only to the idea that we are immortal like God, but to any situation in which we decide for ourselves how we ought to live. Damsteegt also refers to “type two spiritualism” as “philosophical spiritualism,” following Ellen White in The Great Controversy.[6]

Drawing on the chapter in The Great Controversy entitled “Can Our Dead Speak to Us?,” Damsteegt describes several elements of “philosophical spiritualism.” First, she argues, philosophical spiritualism endorses the idea of spiritual progress in history. She quotes White, saying, “Spiritualism teaches ‘that man is the creature of progression; that it is his destiny from his birth to progress, even to eternity, toward the Godhead.’”[7] Although White does not cite her source in this chapter, she is quoting from J. H. Waggoner’s book The Nature and Tendency of Modern Spiritualism (as Damsteegt also acknowledges). Waggoner, in turn, is quoting a work by John W. Edmonds, a New York judge and Spiritualist.

While Damsteegt regards the idea that humanity can progress towards divinity as blasphemous, Waggoner’s concern is with the implications of this idea on the doctrine of the investigative judgment. He states, “The attribute of Justice and character of Judge are entirely ignored by Spiritualism, which denies probation, and substitutes fatalism in an eternal and necessary progression.”[8] Early Adventists believed the Spiritualists’ promotion of the idea of spiritual progress in history threatened not only Christ’s unique status as God, but the doctrine of the investigative judgment, which teaches that God’s judgment of the human race is not inevitable, but rather is contingent on believers’ perfect obedience.

The second characteristic of philosophical spiritualism, according to Damsteegt, is the idea that God’s law is immanent within us, which Damsteegt considers no different than the claim that we are above God’s law and that therefore all behaviors are permissible. Again, she quotes White: “[The spiritualist] declares, through the spirits that ‘true knowledge places man above all law;’ that ‘whatever is, is right;’ that ‘God doth not condemn;’ and ‘that all sins which are committed are innocent.’”[9] These excerpts were also compiled by Waggoner, who criticizes the Spiritualists for denying God’s law and trusting “intuition” or “mental views for which they are not dependent.” [10] He states, “The difference between them and the teachings of the Bible is this: The Bible presents to us a system or code of morality as emanating from God, the Supreme moral Governor; that it is of course of absolute authority; that man is subject to it in his actions, and subject to a penalty (punishment) for its violation.”[11] By contrast, he argues, the Spiritualists’ claims about God’s laws “are ultra-pantheistic. So, though they speak of laws, they rob them of every characteristic of laws: of authority, the first great essential of law; of penalty, without which a law is mere advice; besides this, they deny free-agency, or probation, without which a law is a nullity, though in itself possessed of every essential attribute.”[12] Waggoner’s comment indicates another set of concerns that Spiritualism presented to Adventism, namely that its pantheistic conception of God, which entailed the immanence of his law, contradicted the Adventist emphasis on God’s transcendence and the heteronomy of his law.[13]

Waggoner’s own conception of God is highly relevant to this issue since he consistently resisted the idea of God’s immanence. He rejected Trinitarianism because, in his view, it undermines the Adventist doctrine of the atonement, which involves a wholly transcendent conception of God’s law. According to Denis Fortin, Waggoner argued in a series of articles for the Review and Herald that “atonement is more than a sacrifice and involves more than the salvation of mankind; it ‘is a vindication of justice by an offering to a broken law.’” Jesus’ death itself did not constitute the atonement but was rather the precondition for the atonement, which Waggoner argued was now taking place in the heavenly sanctuary. As Fortin notes, Waggoner “feared that confusing Christ’s substitutionary death on Calvary with a completed atonement would lead irrevocably to antinomianism, immorality, and universalism. If the atonement is complete at the cross, [he] argued, then Christ died for all men and their sins have been atoned for, so consequently, all will be saved. Such a view leads to a depreciation of the law of God and to immorality.” The only alternative to this conclusion, in Waggoner’s view, was to believe that God had only predestined some to be saved, as in Calvinism.[14]

To avoid antinomianism and universalism, Waggoner found it necessary to reject Trinitarianism by suggesting that the faith of both Unitarianism and Trinitarianism amount to a form of Socinianism, a doctrine named after the sixteenth-century theologian Faustus Socinus which rejected the pre-existence of Christ. Waggoner argued that the Trinitarian distinction between the divine and human natures of Christ results in the position that it was only the human nature of Christ that suffered and died. This undermines the doctrine of the incarnation (and thus Christ’s pre-existence) because Jesus’ divine nature plays no part in the atonement. Consequently, he argued, Trinitarians are left with no way to distinguish between the Father and the Son, since the Son can only be distinguished from the Father because he was incarnated. Waggoner maintained that Jesus’ sacrifice could only atone for our sins if the entirety of the Godhead was involved in his suffering and death; otherwise, Jesus was merely human, and his death was no different than that of others.[15]

Of course, Waggoner’s conclusions can be avoided by accepting that rather than Christ’s sacrifice being the prerequisite for atonement, atonement was inherent in his sacrifice. Then there would be no need for Trinitarianism to account for which of Christ’s two “natures” suffered death. Christ, as the unity of divinity and humanity, suffered death to overcome our existential alienation from our essential goodness. He could not have accomplished this as a human being alone; rather, only because his human will was identical with his divine will could he absorb temptation and death entirely within himself without succumbing to it.[16] But to accept this understanding of the atonement and the corresponding notion of the Trinity would have required Waggoner to abandon the legalistic conception of the atonement, in which the purpose of atonement was to vindicate God’s law, which he regarded as entirely heteronomous.

When conservative Adventists like Damsteegt characterize the idea of God’s immanence as an element of philosophical spiritualism, they are implicitly attacking the notion of universal reconciliation that results from this view. Like Waggoner, they believe that people cannot be induced to obey God’s law without the threat of punishment in hell. They reject the doctrine of universal reconciliation because, in their view, it undermines the law’s ability to induce people to obedience.

“Spiritualism” as Higher Criticism and Moral Autonomy

The two remaining elements of philosophical spiritualism that Damsteegt identifies in The Great Controversy are also related to the issue of divine authority and law. The third element of philosophical spiritualism, according to Damsteegt, is that it “voids scriptural authority” by using critical methods of interpreting the Bible. She argues that higher criticism aims to cause doubt by attempting to explain the Bible according to its original cultural context, rather than as “the voice of God with universal norms that transcends all cultures.” She states, “If we read the plain Scripture and make it read something completely opposite to what it really says, because of interpretation, tradition, or cultural background—or for whatever reason—we have made of none effect the Word of God.”[17]

In other words, Damsteegt considers higher criticism an element of philosophical spiritualism because, in her view, it instills doubt in traditional ways of interpreting the Bible. Specifically, higher criticism threatens what Damsteegt recognizes as the basis of Advenist authority: the method of interpretation that yields the church’s traditional understanding of God’s law and the investigative judgment. This amounts to philosophical spiritualism because it substitutes human reason for God’s will, which in her view is perfectly articulated in Adventist doctrine.

The final element of philosophical spiritualism, according to Damsteegt, is that “it fosters the seeds of rebellion” by promoting moral autonomy. It is on this basis that she associates feminism with Spiritualism. She misleadingly alleges that just as Lucifer desired supremacy over Christ, which led to his rebellion against God, so feminists desire supremacy over men, which is also effectively rebellion against God. (In fact, what the early feminists desired was not supremacy over men, but autonomy over themselves. Unfortunately, Damsteegt regards these as one and the same.) Damsteegt draws on Waggoner to support her view that early feminism was identical to Spiritualism. Quoting his description of a speech delivered by the early feminist and Spiritualist Victoria C. Woodhull, she states, “After having blasphemed religion, laughed at the decencies of social life, scoffed at marriage, and advocated universal prostitution, this notorious woman concluded by stating that it was the sublime mission of spiritualism to free the human race from the thralldom of matrimony and to establish social emancipation.”[18] For Damsteegt and Waggoner, Woodhull’s criticism of traditional gender and sexual norms reflects the rebellious attitude endorsed by philosophical spiritualism.

None of the elements of “philosophical spiritualism” that Damsteegt outlines in her presentation—the idea of spiritual progress; the conception of God’s law as immanent; critical methods of scriptural interpretation; and moral autonomy—necessarily entail the belief that it is possible to communicate with dead spirits. However, conservative Adventists must portray these ideas as part of the serpent’s original lie at the Tree of Knowledge because they recognize that they threaten the unique eschatological status of the church as the vindicator of God’s law. Unless Satan, in the form of the serpent, had called God’s law into question from the outset of temptation, there is little reason for Adventists to suppose that the law is what is at stake in the Great Controversy, and that Adventists are the special remnant who will vindicate God by keeping his law.

Conservative Adventists reject the idea of spiritual progress in history because they do not believe that history has any inherent value. The Great Controversy doctrine (Fundamental Belief 8) teaches that history is simply “the arena of the universal conflict, out of which the God of love will ultimately be vindicated.” God’s vindication is history’s only purpose, after which the earth will be discarded and a new earth created.[19] Ultimately, the Great Controversy doctrine treats human history and life with indifference by stating that disposing of the earth and the lives of many people was necessary for God to demonstrate that he is loving, which would have been impossible unless he had created Lucifer with the ability to cause suffering.

Additionally, conservative Adventists reject the other ideas they associate with philosophical spiritualism because they threaten the church’s moral and religious authority. They argue that if people are permitted the autonomy to decide their moral responsibilities for themselves, such as by utilizing critical hermeneutical methods, then there is no need for them to defer to an extrinsic law like the Ten Commandments. Damsteegt and her colleagues reject the idea that God makes our moral responsibilities known to us through his immanent self-revelation in history because they insist that those responsibilities are already fully revealed in the Ten Commandments. Consequently, they find it necessary to defame this understanding of God as “philosophical spiritualism,” although Spiritualists were by no means the first to appropriate it and although it has nothing to do with believing that spirits remain conscious after death.

Interpreting the Knowledge of Good and Evil

The traditional Adventist interpretation of the serpent’s statement “You will be like God” consistently fails to consider its full context. The serpent’s statement does not end at “you will be like God.” Instead, it is followed by a qualifier: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This phrase indicates that what it means to be “like God” is not to be immortal like God, as Froom suggests, nor does it mean to assert one’s moral autonomy, as Damsteegt suggests. Rather, to be “like God” is to have a certain kind of knowledge concerning good and evil. The correct interpretation of these verses therefore depends on our understanding of what the knowledge of good and evil is.

In Western tradition, the knowledge of good and evil has been interpreted as meaning the knowledge of evil and imperfection resulting from our corruption by sin. According to this interpretation, Adam and Eve did not know evil prior to the fall, and because they had nothing with which to contrast it, they also did not know good. The world as they knew it was perfect. Only by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was this perfection disrupted. This is the interpretation endorsed in the seventh Fundamental Belief.[20]

However, there are other possible interpretations of this account. One view, promoted by the Hebrew scholar Ziony Zevit, maintains that the knowledge of good and bad refers specifically to carnal knowledge, an interpretation for which there is ample support in the text. Zevit argues that the story is structured around Adam and Eve’s knowledge of their nakedness. Prior to their consumption of the fruit, they were naked, but they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). After eating the fruit, they saw their nakedness and fashioned clothes for themselves out of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). Then, when God confronted Adam, he told God that he hid because he was naked (Genesis 3:10). Zevit suggests that the carnal knowledge to which Adam and Eve were awakened after eating the fruit was not merely a deceptive substitute for the knowledge that the serpent had promised them, but it was the promised knowledge itself. This knowledge was good insofar as it initiated the process by which Adam and Eve became civilized beings, starting with their invention of clothing. However, this knowledge was bad because it caused shame.[21]

According to Zevit, although the second part of the serpent’s statement, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” involved a deception, it was not strictly a lie. Genesis teaches that God had created human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27), so that Adam and Eve were already “like God.”[22] Moreover, God himself had given the tree of knowledge of good and evil its name (Genesis 2:17), so it was not wrong for the serpent to suggest that the first couple would gain knowledge from eating its fruit. Rather, the serpent’s sophistry consisted of his convincing Eve that God’s prohibition against eating the fruit applied only to Adam acting alone.

As Zevit explains, the serpent (who is never identified as Satan) began his conversation with Eve by insinuating that God had prohibited consumption of the fruit from every tree in the garden. Eve then corrects him by stating that God had only prohibited their consumption of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. However, in her response to the serpent, she modified God’s command in two significant ways. First, she changed the Hebrew word for “you” in God’s command—“You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree”—from its singular to its plural form, a nuance that is not easily translated into English due to its lack of a second-person plural pronoun. When God commanded Adam not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, he addressed Adam using a singular “you,” because Eve had not yet been formed (see Genesis 2:16–18). However, Eve portrayed God’s command as having been addressed to herself, as well. Second, she embellished God’s command by emphasizing the certainty of the death that would result from disobedience. Rather than correctly quoting God as saying, “You shall die,” she states, “You shall surely die.” This additional emphasis occurred when Eve added a suffix to the Hebrew word for “die” that was missing from God’s original command.

The serpent demonstrates his rhetorical cunning in his reply to Eve in verse 4. He does not respond by accusing God of lying when he threatened death as the consequence for disobedience. Rather, the literal translation of the serpent’s reply to Eve from the Hebrew is “No dying you [plural] shall surely die.” Rather than overtly contradicting God, he introduces a more subtle deception by correcting Eve. He effectively states, “God did not say, ‘You (in the plural) shall surely die.’” By denying that God’s command had been addressed to a plural “you” and that God had said Eve would surely die, the serpent raises the possibility that Eve, to whom the original command was not addressed, may not certainly die. In this way, the serpent convinces her to risk eating the fruit.[23]

If Zevit’s interpretation of the original Hebrew grammar is correct, then the Adventist interpretation of the serpent’s lie as the initial introduction of spiritualism is unfounded. The serpent’s deception did not consist of convincing Adam and Eve that they would never die, but in convincing Eve that she would not surely die. It was not a lie about the immortality of the soul. Moreover, when the serpent told Eve she would be “like God,” he did not mean that she would be immortal like God. Rather, he meant that she would be like God in possessing the knowledge of good and evil. This part of the serpent’s statement was not a lie because the knowledge of good and evil (in the form of carnal knowledge) is precisely what she obtained as the result of her disobedience.

But even supposing that the knowledge of good and evil refers to moral knowledge rather than carnal knowledge, what does it mean for the Tree of Knowledge to be contrasted with the Tree of Life? Does this suggest that moral knowledge is antithetical to life? If so, what does this imply concerning God’s law, which conveys moral knowledge? These are questions that the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza answers in his own interpretation of the Genesis 3 account. In his book Ethics, Spinoza interprets this story as a biblical endorsement of his view that “if human beings were born free, they would form no concept of good and bad as long as they were free.”[24]

Spinoza defines good as “that which we certainly know to be useful to us,” and bad as “that which we certainly know hinders us from becoming possessed of any good thing.”[25] In other words, good and bad involve certain or adequate knowledge. He argues that if we have adequate knowledge of how to avoid behaviors that harm ourselves and others, we will have no need for the concept of bad, and accordingly we will have no need for the concept of good. He states that this is “signified by Moses in the famous story of the first human being. For in that story . . . it is said that God prohibited the first man from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that as soon as he ate of it, he immediately feared to die rather than desired to live.”[26]

Here Spinoza contrasts the knowledge of good and evil, which produces a negative fear of what is bad, with the desire to live, which is, according to Spinoza, the ultimate good. He states, “We do not endeavor anything, we do not will anything, we do not seek or desire anything, because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor it, will it, seek it and desire it.”[27] Provided we have adequate knowledge of reality, which is perfect because it follows necessarily from God’s perfect nature, our autonomous judgment of what is good or bad is correct. We may be assured of the correctness of our judgments because adequate knowledge enables us to achieve what is beneficial to ourselves and others.[28] In other words, because our essential nature, which consists of our endeavor to persevere in existing,[29] follows necessarily from God’s infinite nature, it is perfect and good that we should engage in that endeavor.[30]

Insofar as we have adequate knowledge, we have no reason to fear. Spinoza argues that Adam and Eve began to lose their freedom when they chose negative fear over positive desire. “But,” he states, “the Patriarchs later recovered it, led by the spirit of Christ, i.e. by the idea of God, on which alone it depends that a human being is free and that he desires for other human beings the good that he desires for himself.”[31] Since notions like good and evil would be unnecessary if we had an adequate understanding of God’s perfect self-expression in reality, the moral law is unnecessary if we have the spirit of Christ, by which adequate understanding is possible.

Spinoza’s interpretation of Genesis is worth noting because he is frequently considered a pantheist, although in my view he is more accurately described as a panentheist (that is, although he believes that all things are in God and God is in all things, he does not believe that God is coterminous with his creation).[32] In defining God as the ontological substance that causes and sustains the existence of all finite things, he affirms a doctrine of creation ex Deo (out of God) over the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). He thereby avoids what I believe is a nihilistic element implicit within traditional Christian theology, which regards our this-worldly existence as deriving from a meaningless nothingness.

However, although Spinoza affirmed God’s immanence within his creation, it would be not only anachronistic but inaccurate to describe him as a Spiritualist, because he did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Rather, he believed that God had determined all finite things, including the human mind, to exist for a limited duration. The only sense in which a finite thing can be considered immortal is because its essence has always existed in God, since it follows necessarily from his infinite nature.[33] But this is consistent with the Bible’s statement that after death, the unconscious spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The possibility of the spirit “returning” to God presumes that its essence has always existed in God’s mind. But this does not mean that a human being can exist as a conscious being except as the unity of body and spirit, as Spinoza affirms.[34] This demonstrates that it is possible for a person to believe in God’s immanence without becoming a Spiritualist.

Adventists’ Anthropological Monism and Metaphysical Dualism

When conservative Adventists characterize certain ideas as “philosophical spiritualism,” they are not rejecting teachings that actually amount to Spiritualism (belief that dead spirits are conscious). Rather, they are rejecting the idea that things exist in God or that God is immanent in his creation. We have already seen this concern reflected in Waggoner’s analysis of Spiritualistic teachings. For Waggoner, the idea of God’s immanence undermines the conception of God’s law as wholly transcendent—a concern that also undergirds his rejection of Trinitarianism.

In my view, the Adventist anxiety over “spiritualism” is not merely a concern about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Many secular people in contemporary society deny that spirits remain conscious after death, since they regard this teaching to be superstitious. However, because Adventism teaches that dead spirits are actually demons in disguise, it must affirm that spiritual beings (fallen angels) exist and can interact with material beings (humans). [35]

The Adventist anxiety over spiritualism seems to reflect a deeper recognition of the inconsistency between its monist anthropology, which affirms the unity of body and spirit, and its dualist metaphysics, which maintains a distinction between the spiritual substance of our minds and the material substance of our bodies. This dualism consists of ascribing free will to the mind or spirit while acknowledging that the body is subject to causal necessity (for example, believing that eating certain foods will cause a person to become physically and spiritually unclean). The inconsistency lies in the fact that although Adventists must admit that the body is subject to internal and external conditions that cause it to act in certain ways, and although they believe that the mind is inseparable from the body, they deny that the mind or consciousness is subject to the same deterministic factors as the body. Conservative Adventists (especially those who accept Last Generation Theology) argue that if our ability to obey the Ten Commandments is limited in any way by causal necessity, then we cannot vindicate God’s law by perfect obedience. Although they insist that it is necessary to live healthy lives so that we can be receptive to the Holy Spirit, they refuse to acknowledge that sin involves a set of conditions that limit our choices because if this is the case, then God’s law either cannot be obeyed or it cannot be wholly impartial and universal in its demand. Consequently, they maintain that although previous decisions to obey God (such as eating a proper diet) can make our subsequent moral decisions easier, there is nothing that can entirely prevent a person from obeying God.

However, this implicitly supposes that the mind, which has free will, consists of a different ontological substance than the body, which is subject to causality. The neurological constitution of the brain, which is the material substance of the mind, can therefore have no effect on its ultimate choices. Rather, there must be some underlying source of consciousness, such as a spirit, that controls the brain but exists outside it. This source of consciousness might be capable of consciousness only in conjunction with the brain, but it is nonetheless a different substance than the brain. This was the position promoted by the philosopher René Descartes, who maintained that the soul controls the brain through the pineal gland. However, as Spinoza notes, this position is not only speculative but absurd.[36] He disputes the possibility of two different metaphysical substances interacting with each other, suggesting that if they have anything in common that enables interaction, then they must be the same substance.[37] Additionally, he argues that if one part of a substance is subject to causal necessity, then all parts must be subject to causal necessity, inasmuch as they are the same substance. For Spinoza, there is nothing a substance does that does not necessarily produce an effect. In other words, nothing ever happens without being caused or conditioned by something else. The only unconditioned being is God, who must be the single substance constituting all things.[38]

Even God, Spinoza suggests, can only be understood through the laws of causal necessity, inasmuch as he is the first cause of all things.[39] A Christian might object to this suggestion by saying that we can know about God through a supernatural intervention, such as a divine revelation or miracle. But Spinoza criticizes the idea that miracles can give us certain knowledge about God. He argues, “Since the existence of God is not known of itself, it must necessarily be deduced from concepts whose truth is so firm and unquestionable that no power capable of changing them can exist, or be conceived. . . . Therefore if we could conceive that anything in nature could be brought about by any power . . . which conflicts with nature, it would be in conflict with those primary principles and therefore would have to be rejected as absurd.” Among these axioms is the law of causal necessity, by which all things can be traced to God as its first cause. He concludes, “It is far from true, therefore, that miracles—in so far as the word is used for a phenomenon that conflicts with the order of nature—prove for us the existence of God.”[40] Even if a miracle is determined to be valid because it produces good effects, there is no guarantee that it came from God, because the conception of good involved in this judgment is purely subjective, inasmuch as it precedes any special revelation of what God deems to be good.

Spinoza’s analysis, which reflects his commitment to a thoroughly monistic metaphysics and anthropology, illuminates several difficulties with Adventist doctrine. First, the idea that we have free will introduces a metaphysical dualism between the substance of God’s infinite nature, which necessarily causes all things, including our bodies, to exist, and the substance of our free will, which enables us to act contrary to God’s will. This dualism fails to account for how it is possible for our minds to control our bodies if they are different substances. Moreover, it seems to posit the existence of a substance entirely distinct from God—namely a substance that constitutes free will—for which God could not be responsible without contradicting his own divine will, since it enables us to violate his will. This dualism resembles Manichaeism, an ancient rival to Christianity that posited an eternal struggle between light and dark.

Second, traditional Adventism denies that God’s general self-revelation in nature is a sufficient basis for knowing what is good. Because it maintains that creation is corrupted by sin, we cannot suppose, as Spinoza does, that natural reason can teach us what is ultimately good or beneficial to ourselves.[41] For this reason, Adventism teaches that it was necessary for us to receive a special revelation of God’s will. Although the apostle Paul affirms the need for a special revelation due to our tendency to idolatry in Romans 1:21–23, the view that nature inadequately expresses God’s will because it is corrupt contradicts Romans 1:19–20, where he states that “what can be known about God” is already revealed in the natural world.

Finally, traditional Adventism depends on a monarchical conception of God, who promulgates laws as a sovereign figure. It teaches that because nature is corrupt, we cannot use our natural reason to arrive at an intrinsic understanding of our moral obligations. Rather, we must rely on a transcendent law revealed to us supernaturally through a special revelation. Traditional Adventism agrees with Waggoner that the idea of obedience to God is only meaningful if God is conceived as a monarch; if his law is conceived as wholly extrinsic; and if the incentive for obedience is an external reward or punishment. Because conservative Adventists are concerned to induce people to obey traditional moral authorities and norms (specifically those of the Adventist Church), they must affirm these views even at the risk of introducing the inconsistency between their anthropological monism and their metaphysical dualism. The ethical problem with this position is that it does not seem to reflect genuine sanctification or virtue if a person can only be induced to good behavior by the threat of punishment.

If Adventism will resolve these problems, it must adopt a conception of God that affirms God’s immanence as well as his transcendence. In Part 2, I will discuss the theologian John Macquarrie’s proposal for “dialectical theism,” which attempts a synthesis of these two properties of God. I will then discuss the ethical implications of dialectical theism with the aim of resolving the tension between Adventism’s anthropological monism and metaphysical dualism.

Notes and References:

[1] Gen. 2:16–17 NRSV.

[2] Gen. 3:1–5 NRSV.

[3] Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (volume 1) (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1965a), 55.

[4] Froom (1965a), 537 (footnote 10); Froom, vol. 2 (1965b), 652.

[5] Froom (1965b), 598; quoting Charles Secrétan, “Letter,” in E. Petavel (tran. Frederick Ash Freer), The Problem of Immortality (London: Elliot Stock, 1892), ix.

[6] See Jared Wright, “Male Headship Symposium Day Two: Satan Is Behind Feminism,” Spectrum (October 2, 2014),

[7] Laurel Damsteegt, “The Impact of Spiritualism on Feminism and Gender Issues Today,” (October 2, 2014),; quoting Ellen White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), 554.

[8] J. H. Waggoner, The Nature and Tendency of Modern Spiritualism (4th ed.) (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1872), 43.

[9] Damsteegt (2014); quoting White (1911), 555.

[10] See Waggoner (1872), 63, 75, 70, 146. The first and third excerpts in White’s quotation are from Charles Linton’s “Healing of the Nations.” The second excerpt is from A.P. Combs. The fourth excerpt is from A.B. Child’s Banner of Light, 175.

[11] Waggoner (1872), 62.

[12] Waggoner (1872), 62–3.

[13] For my use of the word “heteronomy,” which I have borrowed from Paul Tillich, see my article “Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity” (part 3), Spectrum (December 10, 2022),

[14] Denis Fortin, “The Cross of Christ: Theological Differences Between Joseph H. Waggoner and Ellen G. White,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14:2 (autumn 2003), 131–40, available online at; quoting J.H. Waggoner, The Atonement: An Examination of a Remedial System in the Light of Nature and Revelation (Oakland: Pacific Press, 1884), 180.

[15] Waggoner (1884), 165–74.

[16] I explain this further in my article, “Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity” (part 3).

[17] Damsteegt (2014). Damsteegt makes a similar remark at the beginning of her article “Headship Matters,” Adventist Review (May 20, 2022),

[18] J. H. Waggoner, “Present Standing of Spiritualism,” Review and Herald (November 18, 1893); as quoted by Damsteegt (2014).

[19] Seventh-day Adventist Church, “What Adventists Believe About the Great Controversy” (n.d.),


[20] Seventh-day Adventist Church, “What Adventists Believe About the Nature of Humanity” (n.d.),


[21] Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 173.

[22] Of course, the documentary hypothesis states that the creation account of Genesis 2–3 was composed by a different author (the Elohist) than the creation account of Genesis 1 (which was written by the Yahwist), meaning that it might have been the Elohist’s intention to suggest that human beings were already like God. Nonetheless, in my view, there can be no doubt that the redactor of Genesis would have recognized that Adam and Eve were already like God, and that the serpent was denying this by suggesting that God had withheld the knowledge of good and evil from them.

[23] Zevit (2013), 166–8.

[24] Benedict de Spinoza (ed. Matthew J. Kisner, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Matthew J. Kisner), Ethics Proved in Geometrical Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)., 210 (ch. 4, proposition 68).

[25] Spinoza (2018), 160 (ch. 4, definitions 2 and 3).

[26] Spinoza (2018), 210 (ch. 4, scholium of proposition 68).

[27] Spinoza (2018), 103 (ch. 3, scholium of proposition 9).

[28] Spinoza (2018), 44 (ch. 2, definition 6) and 158–9 (ch. 4, preface).

[29] Spinoza (2018), 102 (ch. 3, proposition 7).

[30] Spinoza (2018), 175 (ch. 4, proposition 22).

[31] Spinoza (2018), 210 (ch. 4, scholium of proposition 68).

[32] See Clare Carlisle, Spinoza’s Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 62–70.

[33] See Spinoza (2018), 26–8 (ch. 1, propositions 28 and 29).

[34] See Spinoza (2018), 55 (ch. 2, scholium of proposition 13).

[35] See the eleventh Fundamental Belief at Seventh-day Adventist Church, “What Adventists Believe about Growing in Christ” (n.d.),

[36] Spinoza (2018), 222–4 (ch. 5, preface).

[37] Spinoza (2018), 5 (ch. 1, proposition 5).

[38] Spinoza (2018), 4, 26 (ch. 1, axiom 3 and proposition 26).

[39] See Spinoza (2018), 18 (ch. 1, proposition 16 and its third corollary).

[40] Benedict de Spinoza (ed. Jonathan Israel, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel), Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 84–5.

[41] See Spinoza (2018), 102 (ch. 3, proposition 7).

William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Image Credit: Revival of the Second Great Awakening, c. 1840s. Library of Congress.

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