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Why the Seventh-day Adventist Church Changed


Not long ago, a friend gave me a book written by veteran Adventist critic Vance Ferrell. I do not know Mr. Ferrell, but I admire both his persistence and his output—76 book listings on Our Evangelical Earthquake takes on a story with which at least some readers of Spectrum will be familiar: the origin of the book Questions on Doctrine.

In the schematic, Mr. Ferrell’s telling of the story is accurate. In the 1950s a group of Takoma Park-based Adventist scholars entered into formal talks with some Evangelical Christian leaders about what, exactly, it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. On their side, the leader was Eternity magazine editor Donald Gray Barnhouse. Barnhouse brought into his corner (and ultimately shoved forward as the primary pugilist) Walter Martin, who called himself a Christian apologist and historian, but had a personality like a prosecuting attorney, arrogant and intimidating. Martin was, to put it bluntly, a bully. His mode of operation was to define the word “cult” as any group that didn’t believe as he did, and then paste it on them and watch them writhe. In these Seventh-day Adventist scholars he found someone willing to negotiate his blackmail.

LeRoy Froom and Roy Allan Anderson were among the first Seventh-day Adventists to read widely from other Christians, and in Froom’s case to become recognized outside the church for his scholarship. It is a measure of how much these men wanted the Christian world to see past our unusual beliefs to our Christian core, that they were willing to enter into these talks entirely on the defensive. The Eternity magazine bunch did not come to listen and learn, but to accuse: “We say you Seventh-day Adventists are a cult. Just try to prove otherwise.” There was little give and lots of take. Vance Ferrell and I have common ground if the point is how demeaning this was. Although I know my church at its best isn’t a cult, and wish everyone else knew it too, I can’t escape the feeling that the approval of Walter Martin wasn’t worth whatever I’d have to give for it.

How much Froom and friends gave for it is a point of contention. Farrell says it was almost everything of importance. While they did give the Evangelicals enough to get a rather limp hand of fellowship—“OK, I guess we won’t say you’re a cult, though you sure still seem like one”[1]—from my reading of Questions on Doctrine I don’t feel the same alarm that Ferrell does.

There’s a certain kind of Adventist writing that betrays itself first in typography: lots of bolds, italics, underlines, sometimes whole passages in capital letters. It’s as though the author senses the kind of oral bombast his audience responds to, and tries to reproduce it in print. The rhetoric of these books matches their design: it is overreaching, unmodulated, going beyond a good lesson or two (and there are surely several in the QOD story) to show every event calamitous, every change catastrophic, every agent the very minion of Satan[2]. In this book there’s even a bit of cloak-and-dagger—Ferrell sneaking around the GC building at night when he was a young theology student working as a janitor.

But QOD didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a context, history, trends. Froom and company weren’t enemy agents who suddenly appeared in order to destroy the church from the inside. They were up against the same thing that a lot of us once-traditional Seventh-day Adventists come up against: finding ourselves unable to invest in technical defenses of exclusionary theological notions when confronted and overwhelmed with the mission and message of Jesus. Whether defensible or not, some of these unique doctrines begin to seem beside the point.

You may argue that we should, but how many Seventh-day Adventists care about the talmudic distinctions of the QOD debates? Who needs to contemplate the sinless vs. sinful nature of Christ to know that Jesus has saved her? Who today finds it reassuring to contemplate an atonement that wasn’t completed at the cross, that remains unfinished waiting for a secret heavenly event? Who hasn’t realized, on the basis of real-life experience that people don’t become perfectly sinless through their own self-disciplined efforts?

Ferrell and his ilk are trying to resurrect theological corpses that didn’t have much to offer when they were alive. Please note something interesting about these “essential” doctrines that were said to be compromised by QOD: all are about the uncertainty of salvation. The nature-of-Christ discussion was about the necessity of behavioral perfection, something no human being has ever achieved, or ever will before glorification. The rejection of righteousness by faith was about defending an impossible, rigid legalism. The incomplete atonement meant never being able to feel confident that you are saved. These doctrines kept Seventh-day Adventists off balance, doubtful, and dependent upon the church rather than on Christ. Why should we want to hold on to such unBiblical ideas?

Ferrell isn’t the first who would have us believe that QOD was the rudder that changed the direction of the Seventh-day Adventist church, that before QOD we knew who we were, but afterward we forgot entirely and became mere Christians. The Wikipedia entry on QOD cites several authorities who say it was the watershed moment where progressives and true believers parted company. Yet ask the average person in the pew about Questions on Doctrine, and you’ll get a blank stare. Few even know what it is. Furthermore, I’d be very surprised if you could come up with even one person who had his or her mind changed by it. Fuss all you want over it, it’s a bit of obscure church politics that can only remain important if you keep writing books about it. Like a lot of critics who try to attach stray ideas to Christianity, the QOD critics have found a reason to dissent, not a real reason for dissent.

The Seventh-day Adventist church has changed, but QOD was an effect of that, not a cause. If you want reasons, start with our pioneers’ idea that truth was progressive, that God was going to reveal more as time passed, a notion that faded after Ellen White died but never quite went away. If you want people to blame, how about A.G. Daniells, who warned about sacralizing Ellen White and canonizing and decontextualizing her writings. He was forced out of the GC presidency for saying it, but Desmond Ford, 75 years later, was heard. Blame our belief in higher education, which evolved into sending professors out into “the world” to get an education they couldn’t get inside, but who brought back a more Biblical, Christ-centered Christianity to their students.

If you need to hold someone responsible for why nowadays concepts like righteousness by faith roll off the tongues of Seventh-day Adventists, why we talk about God’s grace more than his stern judgment, why we put Jesus at the center rather than the Sabbath, dress or diet (as was the case in my childhood) you should finger Morris Venden. It was Venden who awakened my generation to the possibility that God might really be as loving and forgiving as Jesus said He was, that perfection was impossible, heaven’s forgiveness readily available, church rules and standards approximate (and sometimes trivial or even abusive) reflections of God’s will, and—best of all—showed us that we can live having a humble but real confidence that we will inherit eternal life.

But Venden wasn’t the tiller that moved the church either. He reflected what was happening already. The Seventh-day Adventist church of my childhood was so legalistic that people were gasping for any breath of hope that there was more to their faith than a lifetime of stern, joyless hypocrisy, dyed even darker with the terror of imminent eschatological collapse, and with no assurance of salvation at the end of it. The old Adventism collapsed not because of QOD, but because it had become intolerable.

Ferrell and company are nostalgic for that old sectarianism. They want to return to a religion where people don’t follow Jesus, but follow interpretations of Ellen White from people like them. They would that ours be a faith of endless demands and scoldings—Ferrell has built his entire oeuvre on that. But I’d be surprised if this is the Seventh-day Adventist church most people want to belong to. Seventh-day Adventists may not be as pious as they once were, but I believe they’re better Christians. 


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.


[1] Martin said, “It is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ despite certain heterodox concepts,” (The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 517) though he and Barnhouse criticized nearly every particular thing about us.

[2] One of the humorous instances of this overreaching, anything-that-might-stick rhetoric is Farrell’s example of what he contends is Anderson’s perverse desire to change the church: Anderson helped to do away with the hymnals Christ in Song  and Hymns and Tunes by developing a “new” (1941) hymnal. That’s right: if it were not for this bad man, we might still be singing from a hymnal published in 1869!

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