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A Review of “For the Sake of the Gospel” by Des Ford

For Des and Gill Ford, what is “the Baby?” It is the package of distinctive messages to the world for which, they believe, God raised up the Seventh-day Adventist church. The package includes:

  • A premillennial reading of history that shakes humans out of self-satisfied self-righteousness and makes it clear humankind is not progressing but only getting worse.
  • A doctrine of the advent that nevertheless gives eternal hope in the face of the despair of human history, a doctrine of the sabbath that mirrors the gospel rest of conscience that gospel believers have at all times.
  • A doctrine of the non-immortality of the soul that points to life only in Christ rather than innate human nature and thus points us toward the hope of the Second Advent and Resurrection of the body and away from the spiritism of the New Age.
  • The continuation of spiritual gifts in the church apparent in the prophetic ministry of Ellen White.
  • A teaching about the body as the temple of God that restrains people with temperaments like his own (he likens himself to hyperthyroid squirrel) from courting premature death.
  • A doctrine of stewardship that stands opposed to the growing gap in the world between haves and have-nots.

All these good Adventist distinctives can be grounded in the Gospel and thus help the Seventh-day Adventist church fulfill its God-given special mission to the whole world, or we can pervert them all. Indeed, we have (p. 18). Which brings us to “the Bathwater.” Chief soiler of the water is the Investigative Judgment with all its correlates, such as the year-day principle of interpreting time prophecies, the “historicist” insistence on aligning all time prophecies with specific historical events and institutions–chiefly pagan and Christian Rome, and the twisting of the book of Hebrews to support the rationalizations Adventists produced for the significance of 1844 after the Great Disappointment. Most the chapters of this book aim to dismantle the exegesis and argument that support the Investigative Judgment doctrine. The paramount reason why the church must confess the error of this doctrine and forsake it, says Des, is that it mutes the gospel and undermines assurance of salvation.

Another component of the dirt in the bathwater, however, is the institutional defensiveness and pride of power seen in SDA hierarchy and church committees as they dealt with Des and Gill and with so many other church workers and lay members before, during, and after the “lynching” at Glacier View. Lynching is my word, but it is an idea that Des clearly implies by likening Glacier View to trials of black men in the South (p. 39). Some of the most arresting material in this book is in the essays by Gill that chronicle and analyze the Glacier View conference and the events surrounding it.

Indeed the stormiest emotional moment this reviewer had was while reading Gill’s mention of the insinuation and slander against her and her marriage to Des that were contained in the rumors charging her with being a willing go-between in a nefarious collusion between Des and Robert Brinsmead. The story made me furious. My reaction requires a bit of autobiographical unpacking in the interests of honest disclosure.

Des and I arrived at Pacific Union College the same year, 1977, and I was witness to the processes that led up to Glacier View. While my own theology differed, and differs still, from both Des and his perfectionist attackers, I have always believed Des more theologically right than his enemies, and far and away more ethical and charitable than they in the conduct of the controversies of those years. I also watched mentors and friends in the PUC faculty lose their careers, and in some instances their marriages, in the maelstrom that engulfed the PUC campus. I mourn the loss of these people not simply for reasons of personal friendship, but because of lost opportunities to pursue our callings jointly in conversations that might have built up the Seventh-day Adventist church and community.

Although I have not communicated with them for years, I count Des and Gill as friends in both the personal and professional sense and regret that we have not had opportunity to pursue our own conversations. It is as colleagues and friends that I use their first names in this review, and I would have all readers understand that this usage stems from friendly regard and affection and intends no disrespect. This point is all the more important to make because I am about to dwell on some disagreements I have with my friends.

When Des and Gill call repeatedly for the church to confess its sins against its members and to make things right with the families whose lives were disrupted by the persecutions of church administrators, I can only say “So be it.” I hold back my amens, however, when Des generalizes wildly about the consequences of church persecution: “college attendances in the West have been hard to sustain (particularly the ministerial trainees),” many of our colleges have tremendous financial difficulty with PUC in particular in such dire straits as to contemplate selling its land, the church mission program is in decline, church members in the West are declining in zeal. Des grants there may be many reasons for these things, but “it is correct from a biblical viewpoint to suggest that one of these reasons is unconfessed wrongs” (p. 122).

My response? The church should apologize for Glacier View and its aftermath because it defended false exegesis, pursued dishonest and arbitrary procedures, and unnecessarily harmed people’s careers and livelihoods. It did wrong, and therefore apology and restitution are the right things to do. To suggest that doing right will somehow ameliorate institutional problems that are at best distantly related to the wrongdoing clouds ethical vision and encourages superstitious thinking about cause and effect in human affairs.

As a side note, I feel compelled to say about PUC’s proposed land sale that this kind of stewardship of resources in order to build endowment is several generations overdue. Had PUC been building endowment in the decades prior to the 1970s, it would not have been in the politically vulnerable position that forced college administration to agree to the disastrous “study leave” for Des that led to Glacier View. We would have been much better equipped to protect academic integrity in general and Des’s rights to academic freedom in particular.

The kind of analytical overreaching to which I am reacting seems endemic to Des’s view of the world. The Lutheran reading of the Pauline gospel is the key to everything for Des. Failure to embrace and proclaim this gospel explains why the SDA church creeps along, moribund among the well-educated of the first world and winning souls primarily among the poorly educated in both first and third worlds (p. 3). Only by way of this forensic vision of justification can one be assured of God’s acceptance and thus accept both self and others. “Until I can accept myself, I am uneasy, and I am accident prone, and I’m nasty whenever it suits me” (p. 29) This theological riff on the popular psychology of self-acceptance also explains why Adventist legalism has produced a church full of people without assurance of salvation, hence without joy, and hence without real motivation to win souls for Christ (p. 34). And this failure of Adventism is just a special case of the failure of the whole of the Christian church for two millennia. Failure to preach this gospel clearly and consistently explains why humanity still waits for the establishment of the Kingdom so long after Christ’s humiliation on the cross (pp. 103-104). Failure to preach this gospel in foreign missions, furthermore, produces indoctrination rather than conversion, and failure truly to convert “the heathen” explains things like the complicity of Seventh-day Adventist Hutus in the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis (pp. 131-36).

Like the proverbial hedgehog who knows one great thing, in contrast to the fox who knows many things, Des knows one great theological thing: the forensic, penal substitutionary metaphor for the atonement. He is as nimble and creative as he is dogged and single-minded in promoting this outlook. As one whose psychology works pretty much the way Des assumes everyone’s must, I have found his preaching and teaching inspiring and indispensable. I am aware of other friends, however, whose minds and hearts worked in ways that made Des’s outlook feel extremely threatening. Des himself notes in passing that when the SDA Bible Commentary adopted positions that aligned better with the theology he favors, the then-head of the Australasian Division cried, “‘They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him’” (p. 95). This seems like a sincere cry of the heart that might prompt us to see that the Lord’s presence and grace comes to people by many avenues, including routes that are incomprehensible, even repugnant, to us. (I have recently made my own effort to make sense of Adventist perfectionist hearts and minds in a lecture invited by the Loma Linda School of Religion.)

With regard to situations like Rwanda, furthermore, I doubt that very many African Adventists confront the same kinds of problems with guilt and self-acceptance that I do as an individualistic westerner and direct heir to the culture that Luther and Calvin were so pivotal in forming. I suspect that many Rwandan SDAs heard and understood, at some level, that “one does not have to be good to be saved, but that one must be saved to be good” (p. 134). However, suspended in webs of kinship and clan whose meanings are overlaid and twisted by generations of colonial European exploitation that sought to divide and conquer, it seems apparent that they did not hear that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Hutu nor Tutsi. In short, I do not think that western individualistic models of the atonement, forensic or perfectionist, speak to the kinds of problems apparent in the Rwandan genocide. It is humbling to note, furthermore, that Muslim mosques were, on the whole, safer places for Tutsis to be during the genocide than Christian churches. It seems that in that time and place, Mohammed’s message of the Ummah, the House of Islam that transcends all tribal loyalties and brings peace by way of submission to Allah, was more effective in practice than any Christian message.

My point, not at all an original one, is that there are many ways to make sense of Christ, His life and teachings, His death and resurrection. Any of them can be a means of transforming grace, simply empty words, or worse. The absolute hegemony that Des claims for the Lutheran Pauline gospel will not, in my judgment, withstand scrutiny of scripture or history. I write these criticisms with reticence because I am loath to have Des and Gill disappointed in me and even more reluctant to cause them any pain. I write also with a rueful smile, knowing that if Des and Gill were once again my colleagues in a free atmosphere where we could carry on the conversations I have wished for, he would badger me relentlessly, with all the energy of that hyperthyroid squirrel whose temperament he says he shares, to change my mind and adopt his hedgehog’s vision of the faith. What a menagerie I’d have to cope with! Nevertheless, far better that lively, exasperating zoo than the lifeless, anxiety-filled void that haunted us for so many years in the aftermath of Glacier View.

I celebrate, therefore, the news I have learned from the Spectrum blog in the last couple of days as I have been writing this review: Des will be delivering a lecture on Saturday, September 6, at the Loma Linda Campus Hill church at 3:00 pm. You can read details as well as some “buzz” from the blogs here.

I celebrate also the fact that a group calling itself the “Good News Tour” will be at Loma Linda University Church that same week-end presenting messages based on alternative metaphors for the gospel. You can read more about it here.

Let there be civility, energy, more light than heat, and let everyone be persuaded in the integrity of their own minds.

You can purchase For the Sake of the Gospel, Throw out the Bathwater but keep the Baby here.

Greg Schneider writes from Angwin, CA where he is a professor of religion and social science at Pacific Union College.

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