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Describing Desmond Ford’s Faith

I heard both of Des Ford’s lectures and the extended panel discussion in the afternoon (in which Fritz Guy, Kendra Haloviak, Larry Christoffel and Jon Paulien joined Des on the platform). At the end of both sessions Des fielded questions submitted by the audience.

1. I did not hear a single word yesterday that suggested any shift in Ford’s opinions. He stuck to his theological guns, defending his version of forensic justification. Of course it’s a metaphor, he admitted, and we need the many other salvation metaphors to complete our understanding. He even credited the moral influence theory as having some validity for us, but not an adequate framework to explain the horrors of the crucifixion.

2. Ford was unfailingly kind and generous, even affectionate, in his references to the Adventist Church. This attitude of graciousness has been his hallmark despite unkind treatment he has received over the years. He still comes across as regarding himself as a faithful Adventist, simply trying to continue the process of restudying and tidying our biblical understandings after a sincere but unscholarly beginning by William Miller. He described Miller as a man led by God to wake up a spiritually dead continent and direct the world to the promised Second Coming.

3. He was dismissive of the broad historicist understanding of prophecy that has come down to us from Uriah Smith and other 19th Century pioneers. He said that the dating systems we have followed for many decades have not found support from the best evangelical scholars; he singled out the 538 AD to 1798 AD period of papal supremacy as having minimal validity. He did not dwell on the 1844 date specifically, and did not mention the 2300 days. (It’s funny now, but when I was a medical student in Australia, I once taught a passionate Sabbath School lesson in a big camp-meeting tent to 1000 people….wholly on the legitimacy of the 457 BC date, at a time when I knew almost nothing about OT chronology, but had lots of conviction.) Ford re-emphasized his view that the atonement was completed at the cross, and from that time became available to all who accept it.

4. He spoke lovingly about Ellen White, his “spiritual mother”, whose writings had deeply influenced his spiritual maturation. He specifically mentioned “Messages to Young People”, which successfully challenged him to raise his personal standards and overcome a passion for reading novels. However, he declared emphatically that he does not equate her with Scripture; she strongly advised against this, and her fallibility is evident in her mistakes in science and history. Yet Ford found her trustworthy in her pastoral writings and ministry. He quoted her from memory several times during his lectures.

5. On the subject of Glacier View, he referred to a preliminary survey of 27 (or was it 24?) Adventist theologians about the strength of biblical support for an “investigative judgment” that started in 1844. He declared or inferred there was virtually no support for this teaching from any of these scholars. He also referred to a Consensus Document that was prepared by a select group of scholars at Glacier View, towards the end of the event, on the basis of which he was invited to “recant”. But he replied there was no basis for recanting, since the Consensus Statement agreed with much that he had presented. He added that that Consensus Statement has not been made public, which showed a sad lack of openness.

6. Ford pointed to the need for continuing refinement of the Church’s understandings. (George Knight and others have documented these changes, in books such as “In Search of an Identity”. But this process necessitates that Church spokesmen be open about earlier errors. He reminded us that in recent decades the Pope has several times made a public confession of wrongdoing or being mistaken. But such a confession has never been heard from the General Conference.

7. He carefully addressed Adventist understanding of Creation. He stated that there is no question about the inspiration of Genesis 1 and 2. The issue is how to interpret those passages. He listed four approaches to interpretation. He dismissed Gap-theory, and also Day-Age theories. Ford expressed respect for an extreme literalist interpretation, but pointed out that it can lead to absurdities. (At what moment in each 24-hour period did the fiat creation occur? And what was God doing during the remaining 23 hours and 59 minutes?) And it’s absurd to think of God “resting” after six days, in the sense that we literally understand “rest”. So it’s reasonable to understand these words and the description of six literal days as having different meaning from what we mean today. (In other words, though he did not say this, he was opening the door for long time periods in early earth history. He did not touch geological realities, radioactive decay, or the inadequacies of theories for both variation and natural selection.)

8. Listing the things he thanks Adventism for, Ford gave a resounding affirmation of Adventist teachings on healthful lifestyle, without which he would have been “dead long ago”. Also, he described appreciatively our understanding of humanity after death.

9. He was particularly forceful about his regard for the Sabbath, and his forthright defense of the Sabbath in his book “The Forgotten Day”, in response to the objections raised by Robert Brinsmead. This occurred soon after Glacier View.

Bernard Brandstater is a professor of Anesthesiology at Loma Linda University

[Ed note: a short segment of Dr. Ford’s presentation has been posted to YouTube – courtesy of Adventist Today. Audio CDs and video DVDs of the afternoon presentations followed by the discussion and of the evening lecture are also available from Adventist Today. Call (800) 236-3641 to order.]

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