The question of one’s assurance of salvation confronts most, if not all, sincere Christians at one time or another. It is an issue that faces Christians because it is the content that fills one’s spiritual vacuum, and also bears eternal weight. This has caused a series of complex historical and theological questions within the Seventh-day Adventist Church for more than six decades.
Being an Adventist minister, I have become increasingly concerned about the recurring effects that “perfectionism” has had on church members with respect to their understanding of salvation. This article, however, does not claim to settle the issues of perfection within the Adventist Church. Also, this article will not attempt to theologically expound on what is required to have the certainty of salvation because it demands a separate manuscript. It aims to guide the reader to a historical reflection on the arguments being presented so that judgment is based on concrete facts, not on speculation.
Meaning of perfectionism
“Perfectionism” assumes the possibility that a Christian can attain and maintain sinless a state in this life. This limits perfection to moral and spiritual dimensions only. The objective of this study is to answer the question: Is the Adventist Church ready to develop its soteriology as a result of theological debates from within? The doctrine of perfection was intensely debated several decades ago, even to the point of causing a deep division among its theologians, and to some extent, among its members. Interestingly, it appears that perfectionism is still an unsettled issue within the church.
This work will confine its examination of the debate from 1956 to its culmination in the Palmdale Conference in 1976. Although there are already significant studies that have been made in this area, I aim to handle the issue objectively and critically in order to offer fresh insights on the subject matter.
Historical background for the debate in the 1950s–1970s
A study of Adventist history shows that the movement had undergone five memorable periods: 1888, 1905–1950, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The church had experienced great theological debates during these times. In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Finney, an evangelical preacher who influenced some of the Adventist pioneers, promoted a soteriology that heavily emphasized perfection by means of works. These works, Finney highlighted, involved obeying the law and following the example of Jesus Christ. But revivalists E. J. Waggoner, A. T. Jones, and E. G. White maintained the balanced treatment of faith and works crucial in salvation. This conception, however, was subjected to its first trial in the Adventist Church almost half a century later.
Jones and Waggoner had taken the church by storm in proclaiming “righteousness by faith” in Christ, and not by law. Here, salvation is not merited on works but only on God’s grace. It means that Christ’s righteousness is the sole ground of humanity’s approval and right standing now in judgment. Even though White said that this message was from God, she cautioned Jones that “he should never imply that there were no conditions in a person’s receiving the righteousness of Christ” and also that “works amounted to nothing.” Such a position, in my estimation, could have advanced the Adventist standpoint on perfection, but sadly, the church at this stage was unready to seriously consider the matter. What rather transpired was almost unthinkable.
Instead of building on White’s suggestion on how the righteousness message could argue against perfectionism, the actions of the church leaders became subjective and personal. They treated Jones and Waggoner almost as heretics. In effect, the two had been unsuccessful in convincing the church with their message. The attack came directly from the General Conference (GC) president G. I. Butler, together with Uriah Smith and J. H. Morrison (authorities on doctrines), which culminated at the GC Session in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, in 1888. The issue on perfectionism was not resolved in this conference, but this did not deter Jones, Waggoner, and White from continuing to preach the righteousness message. This would permanently reshape the soteriological debate within the church.
Jones and Waggoner became increasingly influential during the post 1888 era, which inevitably dominated the scene until about 1905. They further developed the righteousness message to address the questions regarding sanctification and judgment. They too understood sanctification to be only under Christ’s righteousness, not the other way around, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By 1905, Jones endorsed the Keswick holiness in which the Spirit alone makes a person perfect, not by one’s strict obedience to the law. While this approach is sympathetic to the Reformation teaching (underscoring faith in obtaining the unmerited imputation of Christ’s righteousness), the agenda of the next century, however, had turned the church toward a new type of perfectionism. It stressed one’s achievement of perfection through the baptism of the Spirit. Here the baptized is capable of living a sinless life. This belief easily slipped into a panentheistic treatment of the Spirit’s indwelling; something that had shaken the church in the early twentieth century. The church, nonetheless, had managed to survive through the decisive intervention of White, which inevitably led to revisiting Adventist soteriology.
The debate on perfectionism subsided. This was caused by the First World War, the death of E. G. White, and the rapidly expanding world mission. Yet, the church’s stance on the relationship between faith and works remained controversial. In fact, it even reemerged in full force in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1920, then GC president A. G. Daniells’ efforts to recover White’s version of the righteousness message was inevitably eclipsed by another theological hurdle. M. L. Andreasen, one of the prominent Adventist scholars, taught that the last generation on earth must achieve absolute perfection before the Second Advent. I can say that this pulled perfectionism back to the church’s agenda in a more systematic version, which formed the background of the theological tug of war from 1956 to 1976 and beyond.
In the latter part of the 1950s, another proclamation on absolute perfection had rocked the church. Robert Brinsmead, a disciple of Andreasen, concluded that believers would be made perfect at the end of the “investigative” or “pre-advent judgment.” This is achievable by the latter outpouring of the Spirit. Despite the fervor and sincerity that came with this proclamation, it also failed to get the support of church leadership. W. H. Branson, who was GC president at the time, accused Brinsmead of placing perfection at far too late a stage relative to the pre-advent judgment. Branson argued that perfection is possible at any given time, not in some distant future. We can see here the resurfacing of the concept of perfectionism with renewed urgency. Consequently, Brinsmead tried to recalibrate his view to marry it with Branson’s timing of perfection. But instead of dealing with perfectionism in depth, Brinsmead had been attracted to the imputation and impartation of Christ’s righteousness — an outcome of his study of Reformation theology. Brinsmead asserted that God could make a believer righteous “at once.” With this in mind, he again sought for approval, but to no avail. This time, he was under fire for denying wholesale the idea of perfection. Brinsmead’s teaching, nevertheless, gained traction with some church members.
In the 1960s, the GC appointed Edward Heppenstall, a well-respected systematic theologian, with his apprentice Desmond Ford, to counter Brinsmead’s assertion. They approached Brinsmead’s denial of perfection by expositing what the bestowal of Christ’s righteousness implies. Heppenstall and Ford eventually failed to convince Brinsmead to reconsider his view. In fact, Brinsmead became more active in preaching against any human works of perfection because of humanity’s impotence in view of sanctification, which he believes, is also a divine gift. This means that it is only by faith in Christ alone that a person can be justified and sanctified, hence saved. It was seemingly a revival of the original righteousness message as presented by Waggoner and Jones in 1888, as if the wheel of fate within the church had turned full circle. With this twist of events, I posit that prior to the wake of the 1970s, the issue on “righteousness by faith,” once again gained center stage. The key players that shook the church in the next decade, however, were no longer Jones and Waggoner, but remarkably, Brinsmead and Ford.
Theological fluctuation was apparent at the outset of the 1970s. In Ford’s effort to defend the church’s position against the theological blows of Brinsmead, he went deeper into investigating his challenger’s propositions. But instead of rebutting this challenger, he ended up siding with Brinsmead, especially in revisiting the Reformation doctrine on righteousness. Such inclination had risked Ford’s career at Avondale Theological Seminary because he was suspected of advocating a problematic soteriology, i.e., accentuating Christ’s righteousness in a believer by undermining the quest for sinless perfection. It seems strange to me that a brilliant “then-known defender” of the church turned out to be a “suspected foe.”
But what happened to the church’s stand during the 1960s? Herbert Douglass, editor of Review and Herald Publishing, had played a major role in attempting to craft an official church position on perfectionism. Surprisingly, GC president R. H. Pierson, in collaboration with Douglass, revived Andreasen’s conception of total sanctification and perfection. By now, the church had undergone a roller coaster experience that exposed its weak theological foundation concerning perfectionism. In effect, reviving Andreasen’s version of perfectionism, I think, did more harm than good to the church.
The events of the 1970s gave birth to another theological forum, mainly to settle the disturbing issues at hand, and also to examine Ford’s teaching. Held in April 1976 in California, this forum became known as the Palmdale Conference. Although the foci of the arguments were principally on the human nature of Christ, righteousness by faith, and original sin, the delegates discussed the idea of perfection as well. Unfortunately, they had been unfruitful in striking a consensus, albeit the forum disclosed Ford’s deviation from mainstream Adventist beliefs. Rolf Pohler writes, “Passionately fighting against perfectionism in any form, he [Ford] was criticised for weakening the biblical doctrine of sanctification and discarding the traditional Adventist notion of an eschatological perfection of believers.” It soon became apparent that the issue of perfection remained unsettled. So the debate continued on because, in my observation, the church had failed to create a united stand on perfectionism. Despite the ongoing theological imbalance, the delegates somehow agreed on salvation by grace through Christ alone. This agreement, I suppose, was overshadowed by divergent and seemingly irreconcilable views on what truly gives a person the assurance of salvation.
Considering the various theological debates, it seems to me that the Adventist Church had experienced both growth and setbacks from 1888 to 1976. Adventists generally believed that we could be saved through our faith in Christ and works wrought by the Spirit. What is not clear is how to keep the intricate balance between the two in addressing the concern on perfectionism. Although there was a strong leaning on the righteousness message toward the latter part of the twentieth century, some leading figures reinvigorated the works of sanctification in support of perfectionism. Why? The problem partly lies in the church’s uneasiness to meet the righteousness message of Jones, Waggoner, and White head on. May this be a lesson to the church not to shy away from such conversation; a healthy dialogue creates new opportunities for intellectual and spiritual advancement.
If we are ready to build on the theologies of our predecessors, then by implication, we are also open to seriously considering presuppositions that would further dialogue; hence, to move forward is to look back. I offer my thoughts on two aspects, which could potentially foster rational reflection on where the church made unintentional mistakes, and where the church needs to intentionally make amends.
Historically speaking, 1920 could have been a pivotal year for the church in handling the complication involved in considering faith with works, but the church failed to appreciate the veracity of Elder Daniells’ efforts, which paved the way for the resurgence of the concept of perfectionism. The devastating result is obvious, and unfortunately, the most affected were ordinary church members. Nevertheless, the righteousness theme kept resurrecting too, as if it is something the church cannot afford to miss, or even avoid. Its evidence finds consummation in the 1970s, but again sadly, the significance of Christ’s righteousness in speaking of salvation is still yet to be a major concern for Adventists.
Theologically speaking, the tension between faith and works somewhat originates from the ambiguity of the role of Christ’s righteousness in one’s assurance of salvation. This is so because of the misplaced raison d'être in articulating the Adventist soteriology. For example, if a Christian is already in a state of righteousness (through Christ) then the question of perfection by works, even if the Holy Spirit aids it, might not be entertained, let alone be a topic of debate. Moreover, if the thought of perfection is entertained, it signifies that the crux of the argument is missed. Thus, aiming perfection, I presume, most often than not, could direct a person to look at oneself (regression) instead of focusing on what Jesus Christ has given (progression). By taking the latter, the church would be spared from flip-flop positions on perfectionism.
More importantly, any talk of perfectionism is quite distasteful. I concur with Karl Barth in suggesting, “God is not forced by an ism.” If this is true, then why do we allow ourselves to be forced to affirm or deny perfectionism? I would rather be drawn to Jesus Christ — the source of righteousness, the “Perfect” representative of humankind. By being diverted elsewhere, i.e., the possibility of present sinless life, the result is either a muted Christ in soteriology or a Christ-less theology. And since it has become evident in this study that the Adventist Church had struggled to articulate an article of faith on perfection, it had also displayed a deficient Christology in view of the Christian life. In other words, the church, even until now, appears to lack a firm stance on the viability of perfectionism in soteriological discussion; it is especially so if salvation is taken to be purely of Christ and in Christ alone (sola Christus). If I am wrong with my observation, then it is good because I can rejoice that the Church is unlikely to repeat its errors; hence the Church has learned from its rich history.
And finally, it is time to answer the following: Is the present Church in a position to settle the issue posed by the concept of perfectionism? I am convinced that it is still yet to happen. Are we ready to develop our soteriology as a result of the theological debates within the church? I am also convinced that we are.
Notes & References:
 Dale Coulter, “The Rise of Protestant Perfectionism,” First Things (July 2014), accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/07/the-rise-of-protestant-perfectionism.
 Historical facts about the controversy on perfectionism within the Adventist church will be laid out shortly.
 Rex Matthews, “John Wesley’s Idea of Christian Perfection Reconsidered,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 50:2 (Fall, 2015): 31.
 George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing, 2011), 9.
 George Knight, Angry Saints: Tensions and Possibilities in the Adventist Struggle over Righteousness by Faith (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing, 1989), 32–37.
 Investigative judgment means God’s judgment before the Second Coming, later known as pre-Advent judgment. See Seventh-day Adventists Believe. . . (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing), 361–62.
 For additional insights on Brinsmead’s stand, read George Knight, In Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing, 2000).
 The General Conference, in the fall of 1952, appointed a standing committee for Biblical Study and Research (now Biblical Research Institute) to ensure that “new teachings” would only “confirm and not destroy the light already given.” W. H. Branson, “Objectives of the Bible Conference,” Review and Herald 129 (September, 1952): 4.
 Condolences to the bereaved family of Prof. Desmond Ford, who passed to his rest on March 11, 2019 in Queensland, Australia.
 Heppenstall and Ford put forward the “forensic view” of justification wherein the believer is vindicated solely on account of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Edward Heppenstall, “Your turn in court,” These Times 86 (September, 1977): 14–16. For further insight, read his devotional book In Touch with God (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing, 1975).
 Christ alone had enough righteousness to pass the final judgment. Brinsmead exclaims, “... it was the most sweet and joyful news that many had ever heard.” Robert Brinsmead, A Review of the Awakening Message (Jackson: Present Truth, 1972), 4.
 Read Milton Hook, Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist (Milton Freewater: Adventist Today, 2008). Presently named Avondale University College of Higher Education.
 See Herbert Douglass, Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Message Explains the Delay in the Second Coming (Nampa: Pacific Press Publishing, 2002).
 Rolf Pohler, Change in Seventh-day Adventist Theology: A Study of the Problem of Doctrinal Development (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1995), 343
 For Palmdale Conference’s summary of consensus beliefs, see J. R. Zurcher, Touched with Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing, 1999), 190.
Nixon de Vera is an ordained Adventist minister and is currently an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Divinity (Melbourne, Australia). He is the author of The Suffering of God in the Eternal Decree (Pickwick, 2020) and Constructing Eschatology (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming).
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