In my view, Des Ford was the star performer at Avondale, the one man who attempted to rescue us from the terror of shut doors, secret Investigative Judgments, and the world’s end. Des was an ice-cool bloke in his forties with a genius for phrasing. Positive thinking cascaded out of him in waves. Des influenced our collective imaginations. His vision was as fresh as Adam’s on the first day. His short, exegetical studies were like mind-altering crystals, each one a miniature masterpiece of the sub-conscious, a hedge maze that toyed with our apocalyptic fantasies. He could summarise a thousand years of theological thought in fifteen minutes. His words could undo words. Nobody could arrange the twenty-six letters of the alphabet like Des.
Des had a reputation for being productive — one of those scholars who didn't misuse a second of his God-given time. You could see dedication and purpose in his every step. His life was suffused with higher-order excellence. Where the rest of us heard a full-bodied, triumphant affirmation of Adventist prophecy, he sensed a void behind the boisterous positivity. His focus was on Christ’s death and resurrection. In his view, Adventists had overlooked the focal point of scripture as articulated by Luther, Wesley, Calvin, and Zwingli and the big-ticket preachers of the nineteenth century such as Charles Spurgeon. To my way of thinking, he was the most morally dignified and inspiring lecturer of the time.
Des worked the students with overpowering energy and unimpeachable knowledge. He was a kind of divine intervention. Students lionised him. He stood at the centre of an experiment in “Righteousness by Faith.” He broke through the harsh and unyielding constraints of a culture of earning salvation through merit. His emphasis led to the flowering of a spiritual renaissance at the College. The success of his message cannot be grasped without a full sense of the ingrained, fear-driven, stifling forces intended to prevent such an emergence from happening. His presentations made the labours of the overweening Church administrators seem dawdling, nerveless. His every word was a challenge to their excesses. What Des revealed to me was more significant than any signs that the end of the world was imminent or that I faced the terrifying prospect of a final judgment.
We work from the Judgment, not to it, he would say. There is an eschatological judgment, but its purpose is to ratify the decision I made when I heard the Gospel. Great news for a self-loathing acrobat imprisoned in a coffin with the gnawing rat of guilt. Until this moment, I’d been living with a self that couldn’t be forgiven. I couldn’t imagine forgiveness. Even with my life-changing appearances I was, at my core, legalistic and sterile.
Des Ford’s words enveloped me like a meteor shower of amazing grace — split my reality wide open. What more perfect a redemption could I have designed? My world flamed into life. I walked home from his classes in a trance. I’d been hit by a cosmic ejaculation, beheld another universe, become another man — no longer under the Commandments as a “method” of salvation. From that moment on, Des occupied a sort of future tense. He became the reason I hurried to classes. His every word an electrifying Morse code vibrating in my psyche.
Students related to him in a mode of anticipation. When he preached in the College chapel, he’d have them on side before he’d uttered a word. No Old Testament scare quotes, no Stanley verbiage, no encrusted deposits of cliché, no tuts and clucks. He was a kind of magician who knew his way around a paradox. Provided he was there, no problem was insurmountable. He was an interdisciplinary cosmonaut, a charismatic culture-god and a lodestar for anti-legalists. This kind of hero worship went beyond irony. That Seventh-day Adventism would continue without him was unheard of, but that’s what happened. His detractors tagged him as a Christian anarchist, a proponent of Antinomianism — the belief that there are no moral laws God expects Christians to obey. Not content with that, they ridiculed his public persona, casting him as a false messiah. It seems to have incensed them that his message was becoming part of Adventist culture. For hundreds of us, his departure would seem like a cruel trick of fate. Suffice to say, I’m sure if he was an Adventist today, thousands who left would still be in there. His personality and intelligence shone brighter than that of his contemporaries. In my case, he offered me a vision of the world in which my actions were determined by a greater design.
Des Ford became, over time, the critical conscience at the centre of Adventist scholarship, uniting smaller worlds, I was told, like no one else had ever done. His lectures and sermons resonated like a pistol shot in the middle of evening prayers. He was a rival sovereign, an alternative to the Church’s global hierarchy. One man against the College of Cardinals and yet the balance was in his favour. As a person, he was a mix of epic dignity, brilliance, drive, and decency. He brought a lucid clarity to complicated debates. Whatever subjects he discussed, his comments reflected the benefit of researched evidence. I believe that approach supplies the helium that will keep his work in the air for years.
No man ever quite believes in any other man, but I believed in Des.
Dr. W. John Hackwell is a former student from Avondale, a minister in New Zealand and Australia, and a missionary in Papua New Guinea.
Image courtesy of Good News Unlimited.
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