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Still a Dream

How could an aspect of Adventism be central in its early days and seemingly irrelevant today? The question is not easily answered, but the aspect I have in mind is easily identified. Temperance, once described by Adventist pioneer Ellen G. White as “my favorite topic,” is so passé now that the word itself is seldom used—and when it is, we are most likely to confuse it with concepts of moderation in diet and the quirks of nineteenth-century enthusiasts like J.H. Kellogg.

In 1874 Ellen White penned a dream in which all the church leaders were assembled in the open air (You can read the entire narrative in Temperance, pp. 200-2.). Sitting near the chairman of the meeting was “a tall young man I have often seen in my dreams, when important matters are under consideration,” she wrote. He asked the leaders to sign their names to a temperance pledge. The first two leaders and twenty or thirty others demurred with a variation of “I gave at the office.” The young man had a “sad, grieved look” at this. “Your eternal destiny depends upon the decision you now make,” the young man told them. “Again he presented the paper and in an authoritative manner said, ‘Sign this paper or resign your position….As God’s messenger I come to you and demand your names…. When the plagues of God shall be all around you, you will then see the principles of health reform and strict temperance in all things,––that temperance alone is the foundation of all the graces that come from God, the foundation of all the victories to be gained.”

Here divine guidance and temperance are linked as the vital element in surviving the plagues and growing in grace. Clearly temperance is a little more than saying no to another serving of vege-loaf or ice cream.

For me the penny dropped a few decades ago in Australia, in the midst of a doctrinal crisis that started out as a discussion of sanctification and grace and ended up largely tilted towards an “I’m all right, you’re all right, because God loves us” conclusion. Right in the middle of these times of discovery my father introduced me to an Ellen White book strangely unknown by most Adventists. It’s a little 96-page red paperback; written as a book—not a compilation—under the title of Confrontation, or as originally published in 1878, The Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. I could not believe the plain nature of the statements regarding the issues involved with the fall of man, and how we are to be reinstated into our original, divinely planned status.

Confrontation has an interesting parallel in a great work of English literature—Paradise Regained, by John Milton, poet and pamphleteer for Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan cause in the mid-seventeenth century. His landmark Paradise Lost had clearly set out the great controversy model in explaining the rebellion in heaven and the fall of man.“ In Paradise Regained, as in Confrontation, the point is that what was lost is now regained by the Jesus in the wilderness. For Ellen White it was very clear: man fell on the point of appetite and Jesus overcame on that same point; not only vicariously for us, but also to empower us to emulate that victory.

Far be it from me to try to dissect the entire book here, but a few quotations should indicate the far-reaching importance author White gives to “temperance” in our day. “Were all the sins, which have brought the wrath of God upon cities and nations, fully understood, “ she wrote, “their woes and calamities would be found to be the results of uncontrolled appetites and passions.” [p. 73]

Of course there are Biblical examples to buttress the prophet’s line of logic. She quotes from the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron destroyed by the Lord for offering strange fire. As Ellen White points out, it was their benumbed, intoxicated state of mind that led them to disregard the commands of God. Therefore we must have clear minds to attain to Godly obedience. There is also a clear parallel to the Nazarite abstinence from strong drink and rich food—not for show, but to clarify the sense of commitment.

Confrontation implies the ongoing battle with the flesh and the man of sin: “[Satan] well knows that it is impossible for man to discharge his obligations to God and his fellowmen while he impairs the facilities which God has given him. The brain is the capital of the body. If the perceptive faculties become benumbed through intemperance of any kind, eternal things are not discerned.” [p. 57]

Coming back to what the young man in Ellen White’s dream said about the importance of temperance is this sober warning, given as an adjunct to the necessity of overcoming appetite:

“And it is a certainty that unless we do overcome as Christ overcame we cannot have a seat with Him upon His throne. Those who in the face of light and truth destroy mental, moral, and physical health by indulgence of any kind will lose heaven.” [p. 79]

Doubtless some readers will carp that this reverie has majored in Ellen White and not lingered enough on proof texts. My point is to remind us of an Adventist heritage, and a distinctive approach to Temperance that went way beyond the Prohibition model of the era. It was by no means unconcerned with social ills and problems, but it additionally had everything to do with personal sanctification and the preparing of a people to meet a soon-coming Lord. Of course the Bible is full of exhortations to “temperance”—after all, it is one of the fruit of the Spirit, according to Paul. Temperance—a controlling of the fallen cravings that benumb spiritual sensibilities—is the subtext to Levitical diet and behavior rules; the moral to the many stories of lives out of control; the meaning behind the Nazarite vows; the logic underlying Paul’s repeated calls to suppress the flesh and live Godly lives. And as both Milton and Ellen White put forth in their magisterial works, what was lost in the opening rounds of the great controversy is regained in the desert of self denial.

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