BY RICK BARKER
I have read and/or edited a number of different pastoral “reviews” of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, and I am struck by how many highly-trained evangelical theologians have not been able to see the truth about some of Adventism’s core doctrinal positions. The typical pastor or theologian is able to point out common Adventist errors such as the requirement of the seventh-day Sabbath and adherence to the levitical food laws or even to vegetarianism; these errors, though, seem relatively benign and don’t raise red flags when Christians first encounter them.
However, I am convinced that Seventh-day Adventism is more heretical than most outsiders realize. This lack of awareness is quite understandable since the Adventist church uses very evangelical language in their public descriptions of their beliefs. This public face of Adventism appears to have begun with the book Questions on Doctrine, written in response to Walter Martin’s examination of whether Adventism should be considered a cult. A number of Adventist members were opposed to this book because it did not reflect the church that they knew. In fact, the book created so much controversy that it was taken out of print for a long period of time.
Today, however, the organization’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs use evangelical language to portray Adventist beliefs, but this language doesn’t always mean the same thing within Adventism that it means to evangelicals in general.
Some of the common misconceptions that “outsiders” often conclude about Adventism after reading the Fundamental Beliefs and interviewing Adventist pastors are that Adventists affirm the same position as evangelical Christians on verbal inspiration, Scripture alone, the Trinity, and original sin. The perception that Adventists share evangelical beliefs in these areas, however, is false.
When they read the Adventists’ first fundamental belief, “The Word of God”, many evangelicals conclude that Adventists believe that Scripture is verbally inspired. This fundamental belief, however, is carefully worded to give that impression without actually saying it. Adventists actually believe in “thought inspiration”, not “verbal inspiration”, and the fundamental beliefs carefully avoid saying whether the words of Scripture or merely the ideas are inspired. They also avoid addressing whether or not Scripture might have errors. Even the official statement of the Adventist church1 regarding the Holy Bible that it appears on the organization’s website fails to discuss the inspiration of Scripture.
The fundamental beliefs and the official statements provide the public face of the Adventist church and are carefully crafted to sound as mainstream as possible. The “real” teachings on inspiration, however, can be found if you know where to look. For instance, the Adventist Review, the official magazine of the Adventist Church published for church members, published an article2 on the “Dynamics of Inspiration” that reveals far more about the real beliefs of Adventism than its public statements suggest. The article says in part:
3. Imperfect Language
Seventh-day Adventists do not believe in verbal inspiration (the idea that God dictates the exact wording to the prophet). With the exception of the Ten Commandments, all the inspired writings are the result of the combined efforts of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the prophet with a vision, an impression, a counsel, or a judgment; and the prophet, who begins to look for sentences, literary figures, and expressions to convey God’s message accurately.
God gives the prophet freedom to select the kind of language he or she wants to use. That accounts for the different styles of the Biblical writers and explains why Ellen White describes the language used by inspired writers as “imperfect” and “human.”
Because “everything that is human is imperfect,” we must accept the idea of imperfections and mistakes in both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings. This means at least two things: 1. The prophet uses his or her common, everyday language learned from childhood and improved through study, reading, and travel; there is nothing supernatural or divine in the language used.
The Adventist doctrine of inspiration is an example of an organization’s development of new doctrinal errors to help explain pre-existing errors. In other words, rather than looking to what Scripture teaches about inspiration and then evaluating Ellen G. White by that teaching, Adventism bases its doctrine on their foundational belief in their prophet’s inspiration and then evaluates Scripture according to what they believe about her inspiration. The natural conclusion of this approach is the bold statement that Scripture is imperfect and contains errors. Without Scripture as an unwavering guide, any doctrinal position or practice becomes possible. If Scripture doesn’t support a particular decision, it becomes easy enough to conclude that this is one of those cases where Scripture was imperfect and/or mistaken.
The fact that the Adventist doctrine of inspiration is built on their underlying belief in Ellen White rather than on their confidence in Scripture calls into question their claim that Scripture is the only basis for their beliefs.
Christian do not routinely address the subject of Adventists’ understanding of Biblical authority. Publicly, Adventists promote the position that Scripture is the final authority on doctrinal questions. This wording is a subtle but critical distinction from conservative Protestant teaching which views Scripture as the only authority, sola fidei regula. In principle, this detail might seem to be a small distinction; in practice it becomes considerably larger. Ellen White’s writings have been described in the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs as an authoritative source of truth (recently amended to call her a “prophetic voice”—no less authoritative). These designations are clear indications that Adventists do not rely only Scripture. Saying that Scripture and any other source are both authoritative, however, is the opposite of saying that Scripture and nothing else (Scripture alone) is authoritative.
In Adventist practice, Ellen White’s additions to Scripture and her interpretations of Scriptural passages have become the standard by which the Bible is understood. As a result, Scripture is ultimately subjugated to the writings of Ellen White. Textual modifications found in The Clear Word Bible (written by an Adventist theology professor, Jack Blanco, and published by an Adventist-owned publishing house, Review and Herald) provide a vivid example of this process of explaining Scripture using Ellen White’s interpretations.3
Changing the content of Scripture should be considered an abomination by any church that upholds the infallible, inerrant Word of God. Instead, the Adventist organization publishes, advertises, and allows its leaders to endorse The Clear Word.
Even the fundamental beliefs themselves contain quotations or paraphrases from Ellen White. For example, Belief #8 states, “All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law, and His sovereignty over the universe.” Nothing in Scripture states that there is a conflict between God and Satan over the issues of the character of God or His law or His sovereignty. These claims are teachings of Ellen White that are added to what the Bible states. In fact, these concepts so strongly shape Adventist theology that they are even included in the fundamental beliefs. But these beliefs do not come from Scripture!
Another example of how Scripture is subjugated to Ellen White is the frequently repeated idea within Adventism that the Bible is too hard to understand, so God used Ellen White to explain it. I don’t know of any other Protestant Church that would promote the idea among its members that the Bible is too hard for the average person to understand. If one doubts the significance of Ellen White’s influence on Adventism’s understanding of the Bible, one only needs to compare the number of biblical quotes with the number of Ellen White quotes in the doctrinal books published for Adventist church members.
View of the Trinity
Many Christians wrongly conclude that Adventism is predominately trinitarian. In fact, whether a group is trinitarian or not is the primary factor in determining whether the term “cult” should describe that group. There is no question that many of the founders of the Adventist organization including James White, Joseph Bates, and Uriah Smith rejected trinitarian doctrine, and some of these anti-trinitarian views were incorporated into the foundational beliefs that underlie all Adventist doctrine. For instance, Adventists frequently use the word Godhead rather than Trinity because they are “more comfortable” with that word. Their reasons for using “Godhead”, however, run far deeper than preference and point back to the early days of the organization.
Adventist doctrine on this subject has progressed substantially since the time of the church founders. Despite their beginning to use the term Trinity, however, the Adventist church still applies a unique meaning to the word. Within the Adventist usage of the term, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal Persons. There are no official Adventist doctrinal writings that include the language or concept that the three persons of God are consubstantial or One in Being. Instead, God is only described as “one in purpose, mind, and character”.4
Additionally, Adventist doctrine continues to present confusion on the subject of Christ’s co-equal and co-eternal status. Some statements are perfectly clear that Jesus is fully God. Others present some doubts about whether this fact is the case. The descriptions EGW provides in Early Writings of Jesus and Satan before the fall suggest a near-equality between the two of them. The insistence on the idea that Jesus is Michael the Archangel is another example of their confusion about Jesus’ identity. The idea from the sanctuary doctrine that Jesus and Satan were represented by the two identical goats (sacrifice and scapegoat) lends further credence to the idea that Jesus and Satan are relative equals. The cherished Adventist idea that Jesus’ sacrifice might not have been sufficient, that He might have sinned and might have failed, casts doubt on the full divinity of Christ.
Each of these ideas may be small by themselves, but as they are added together, they create a schizophrenic theology. Consider that the unique doctrines of Adventism were all formed during the time when the organication’s leaders (including James White) were clearly Arian in their beliefs. As a result, it isn’t too surprising to find ideas within the doctrines (like the two identical goats representing Christ and Satan) that retain Arian elements, even when the official church position on the Trinity has advanced during that time.
The Clear Word Bible is a relatively recent publication, yet it provides some of the clearest examples of Adventism’s misapprehension of both the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. Here are just several of the many examples that can be found:5
1. John 8:58 CWB changes “before Abraham was, I AM” (eternalness and identity with God) to “I existed before Abraham” (allowing for His prior creation and not using God’s name for Jesus)
2. Col. 1:16 CWB changes “By Him all things were created” (Creator) to “through Him the Father created” (only a channel—not source of creation)
3. Col. 1:15 CWB changes “He is firstborn over all creation” (His nature) to “He has the right to be placed over all creation” (promoted authority).
This confusion is also illustrated in changes to hymn lyrics in the 1941 Seventh-Day Adventist Hymnal. Although the hymnal published in the 1980’s stepped back from some of these blatant changes, these examples do illustrate Adventist thinking well into the 20th Century. Here are two of the many examples of hymnal lyric changes that eliminate the Trinity from Adventist hymns. (Importantly, while “Holy, Holy, Holy” has been changed to the original words, the altered lyrics in “Praise Ye the Father” are still in the current edition of the Adventist Hymnal.)6
“Holy, Holy, Holy”
Original lyrics: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
Adventist revised lyrics: “God over all who rules eternity.”
“Praise Ye the Father”
Original lyrics: “Praise ye the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Praise ye the Triune God.”
Adventist revised lyrics: “Praise ye the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Praise the Eternal Three.
Many Christians wrongly conclude that the Adventist Church affirms the doctrine of original sin. In reality, the Augustinian concept of original sin is a very contentious doctrine within Adventism. There are certainly Adventist theologians and pastors who believe and teach this doctrine, but there are probably an equal number that reject the doctrine. In fact, original sin is not a belief or an affirmation of the Adventist organization. Adventists consistently conclude that the results of sin have weakened man, but many would not accept the idea that humans are born blind to God’s truth and dead in sin. Moreover, this doctrine is muddied in Adventism because of the organization’s disbelief that man has an immaterial spirit which must be born again.
Much of Adventist teaching is semi-Pelegain and perhaps even outright Pelegian in its understanding of man’s nature. The book Questions on Doctrine published in 1957 was perhaps the first time that any Adventist theologian had published the idea that Christ did not take on the fallen nature of man. In the traditional/historical Adventist view, Jesus was born with the very nature that you and I have. His resulting life without sin is the proof and the example that we can also live a life without sin. This understanding is still taught in Adventism.
The Adventist theologian Gerhard Pfandl provides an extensive review of the question7 of original sin and the Adventist views of the doctrine. His conclusions are decidedly more evangelical-sounding than are those of many Adventist authors, but he doesn’t shy away from writing about the variety of Adventist viewpoints on the subject and identifying the most prevailing view within Adventism:
The Augustinian theory of original sin, which to a large extent has become Roman Catholic doctrine, includes the idea that Adam’s guilt is inherited by every newborn. Babies, therefore, must be baptised to wash away this inherited guilt. Adventists generally deny that we inherit Adam’s guilt. The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia states: “SDAs believe that man inherited a sinful nature with a propensity to sin, and their writings either reject or fail to stress the idea that men inherit the guilt of Adam’s transgression.”
It was actually the debate on original sin and the nature of Jesus incarnate that was a major eye-opener in my rejection of Adventist theology. This is a topic, therefore, near and dear to my heart.
Finally, any look at Adventist doctrine can’t be separated from the doctrine of the Great Controversy. This doctrine, based on the visions of Ellen White, forms the foundation of all other Adventist doctrine.
The Great Controversy
This is the glue in the Adventist theological system, and the understanding of this doctrine is critical to begin grasping the other pieces of doctrine. The Great Controversy pre-dates the fall of man and begins with Satan in heaven. According to Adventist doctrine, Satan challenged God’s right to govern the universe because God was unfair and had made a law (the 10 Commandments) that could not be kept. As a result, God must vindicate Himself from these charges in front of the whole universe. This need for God’s vindication is why Christ had to come as a fallen human and keep the law of God; He had to prove that Satan was false. Jesus’ success in obeying the law, however, would not be enough; a group of people (probably 144,000 of them) must also demonstrate that God’s law can be perfectly kept by following the example of Jesus. Thus, the reason that Jesus has not returned yet is that the church has failed to produce such a group.
The Great Controversy doctrine and EGW’s words themselves teach that Satan’s lie about God is that the law cannot be kept. Therefore, according to their theology, anyone teaching that man cannot keep God’s law is perpetuating the lie of Satan.
The conclusion that the Law can be kept leads to the doctrine of perfectionism which is the Adventist litmus test of truly following God. Anyone opposing the teaching of perfectionism, therefore, is, according to Adventist doctrine and EGW’s writings, promoting Satan over God.
According to this view, the evangelical teaching of the gospel—that we all rely upon Christ’s righteousness credited to us on the basis of belief in His death, burial, and resurrection (instead of relying on the righteousness we attain through God’s power)—is, within the context of the Great Controversy, a doctrine of demons.
Adventism is not, as many Christians believe, a Christian denomination with a few heterodox beliefs. Rather, its doctrines undermine the identity and nature of God and man and also of His living and eternal word. It cannot be classified as an evangelical church.
- Seventh-day Adventist Church Official Statements: Holy Scripture, July 29, 1995 found on www.adventist.org
- Viera, Juan Carlos. The Dynamics of Inspiration A Close Look at the Message of Ellen White. Adventist Review, May 30, 1996, p. 22-28.
- Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1988) Seventh-day Adventists Believe…A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines. Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, ID. p. 30.
- http://www.lifeassuranceministries.org/Proclamation2007_MayJun.pdf, “Discovering the Adventist Jesus”, p. 10.
- http://www.lifeassuranceministries.org/Proclamation2005_JanFeb.pdf,”Tell Me the Old, Old Story”, p. 8.
- Pfandl, Gerhardt. “Some Thoughts on Original Sin”. www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org accessed 10/19/2017.