By Colleen Tinker
Recently Adventist leadership revealed that Adventism has never been a fundamentalist church. Even more, they admitted that Adventism has never believed Scripture is intrinsically reliable. General Conference president Ted Wilson conveniently illustrated this admission in his carefully-worded New Year’s greeting to his members published to the worldwide church on New Year’s Eve.
On December 31, 2017, Adventist News Network published Ted Wilson’s New Year’s message for his Adventist members. He quotes Philippians 3:12–14 and Hebrews 12:1,2 and says, “Notice how both texts point us to Jesus—the author and finisher of our faith. It is by looking to Him that we are able to set aside every weight, leave the past behind, and move ahead with confidence and endurance.”
A Christian reading these words would have no alarm; they sound like “normal Christianity”. Then Wilson takes his readers down the “Adventist path” that they all know but which few could explain to an “outsider”. He moves straight into the great controversy paradigm by saying, “Nothing illustrates this [Jesus-focus] more clearly than the beautiful sanctuary service outlined so clearly for us in the book of Hebrews,” and then he quotes Hebrews 9:11–14 where Jesus is described as the High Priest who entered heaven once for all with His own blood.
Again, Christians would never catch the problem with Wilson’s reference as it is stated. He goes on, however, to say that “the sanctuary message is so central to understanding our relationship with the Lord…the sanctuary points us to God’s saving power and reminds us of what Christ has done for us in the past and what He is doing for us now. Repentance, forgiveness, revival, a new start, outreach, mission—all of this is found in the sanctuary service, and by studying it we can gain valuable insights.”
The Wilson drives home his point: “Through inspiration we are urged to study this very important truth. In The Great Controversy, p. 488, we read:
The precious hours instead of being given to pleasure, to display, or to gain seeking, should be devoted to an earnest, prayerful study of the word of truth. The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment should be clearly understood by the people of God. All need a knowledge for themselves of the position and work of their great High Priest. Otherwise it will be impossible for them to exercise the faith which is essential at this time or to occupy the position which God designs them to fill.…The sanctuary in heaven is the very center of Christ’s work in behalf of men.
And there is the interpretive key to Wilson’s “Jesus-centered” message. The Jesus whom Wilson wants people to study is the one found in Adventist “inspiration”—Ellen G. White’s writings. This Adventist Jesus is the one supposedly conducting the investigative judgment in the heavenly sanctuary. The Adventist High Priest is applying his blood to the confessed sins of those who profess belief in the Adventist Jesus and keep the Ten Commandments, especially the fourth.
The Jesus of Hebrews is very different from the Jesus of the great controversy. Even though Wilson quotes passages from Hebrews, he uses them inside his great controversy paradigm, and he completely misses the fact that the Jesus who entered heaven once for all is NOT a savior who rewards law-keeping with salvation. Rather, He is the One who inaugurated a new covenant because the old one was flawed (Heb. 8), and because of His perfect, eternal, once-for-all sacrifice for sins, we can “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). We can already enter the presence of God through the new, living way that is His body, being washed clean and purified of our evil consciences (Heb. 10:19–22). Salvation is a gift, not a reward, and it is obtained through trust in the One who is our Sacrifice for sin.
How does Wilson—indeed, how does Adventism—defend such egregious misuse of Scripture? How does Adventism miss the shocking gift of the Jesus revealed in Hebrews who is better than everything? How does Adventism reduce Jesus to one who putters around in the Holy Place without entering His Father’s presence until 1844? How does Adventism use Hebrews to defend its heretical “sanctuary service”?
Seminary professor states Adventism is “a different religious stream”
On Monday of this week, January 8, the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians (ASDAH) met together for two days of meetings sponsored by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) and Washington Adventist University (WAU) where the meetings were held. The title of the meetings was, “Situating Adventist History”.
The speaker for the first plenary session was church history professor Nicholas Miller from Andrews University. In his talk entitled “Adventism, Fundamentalism, and the Bible”, Miller candidly admitted what most of us who have been Adventists know but which we could seldom document easily.
The Adventist Review explains that Miller showed “how Adventism, while a Conservative movement has for the most part being (sic) able to steer away from some of the fundamentalist pitfalls, adopting a more balanced approach to various issues, including the inspiration of Scripture.”
Fundamentalism vs Evangelicalism
The word “Fundamentalism” has suggested different meanings over the years. Its literal meaning, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching”. Christian Fundamentalism began as a reaction to liberal theology and cultural modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
According to Timothy Paul Jones in his book Christian History Made Easy (p. 162), Fundamentalism was defined by five fundamental beliefs: “1. Jesus was uniquely divine. 2. He was born of a virgin. 3. He died as a sacrifice for sin, and 4. He will come again. 5. The Scriptures contain no errors; the Bible is ‘inerrant.’”
By the 1940s, many Christians who held to Scriptural inerrancy began to react to Fundamentalism as standing too strongly against everything “modern”. They were united in their belief that Scripture is inerrant and authoritative, but they also believed that true Christians could disagree on secondary issues while retaining unity around the Word. Consequently, in 1941 the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded at Moody Bible Institute. Where Fundamentalism focussed on separation from error and held to certain precise standards, Evangelicalism embraced anyone who “recognized the truthfulness of Scripture and salvation by grace through faith in Jesus” (Jones, ibid. p. 176-177).
Today, however, evangelicalism has begun to accept beliefs and practices that deviate from Scripture, even including Adventists as “evangelicals” if the Adventists claim to recognize Scripture and salvation by faith through Jesus. Because of the morphing of evangelicalism, there are some Christians who are returning to the original Fundamentalist designation because clear definitions are needed in order to identify people who don’t believe the basics of Christianity and the authority of Scripture.
Adventists are not Fundamentalists
This background helps us understand Miller’s point at the ASDAH conference this week. The Fundamentalism that he denies Adventism has ever represented is the original movement that claimed to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.
Miller presented three ideas that helped shape Adventism in its formative years. First, he said, the Adventist “pioneers did not believe absolute proof was needed to understand truth. They believed in the role of judgment for apprehending truth.”
Second, reports Adventist Review, Miller “explained that unlike fundamentalists, Adventist pioneers, including church co-founder Ellen G. White, believed that apprehending truth was based on God’s Word, but that it was possible to get important insights from ‘the book nature,’ and ‘in experiencing God’s working in human lives.’ It is something, he said, that allowed Adventist pioneers to arrive at different conclusions from other Christian fundamentalists on topics such as eternal punishment, women speaking in church, and slavery, to name a few.”
Third, Miller said the founding Adventists chose to interpret troublesome Bible verses through the grid of “God’s goodness”.
“So, for instance,” Miller said, “When the Bible spoke about eternal fire, early Adventists looked for alternative explanations, since they understood that a good God would never punish His children for eternity.”
“All of this [departure from seeing Scripture as inerrant and final] makes Adventism a different religious stream than fundamentalism,” Miller said.
Fundamentalist Christians usually insist that Scripture is inerrant in its original manuscripts, that the words themselves were inspired by God through the medium of human writers. Fundamentalism also insists that the Bible does not contradict itself and can be believed to mean what it says without interpreting it using human “judgment” to alter apparent meanings.
Miller acknowledges this fundamentalist legacy within Christianity, but he explained what most Adventists know: Adventism generally has not accepted this fundamentalist view. Confusingly, Miller states, “Seventh-day Adventists take a high view of Scripture, but do not believe in the verbal inerrancy of it.” The Adventist Review further reports him as saying that “the same applies to White’s writings. She herself did not support it.”
In other words, Miller asserts the usual Adventist claim, that it takes a “high view of Scripture”. He fails to explain what that “high view” actually is, allowing its generally accepted meaning to be inferred. Within Christianity, a high view of Scripture means the words themselves are believed to be true as originally written. Within Adventism, however, “high view” means the words are NOT inerrant but contain inspired ideas which the writers were allowed to interpret as they understood them. Thus an Adventist “high view” of Scripture means the words may have errors because of the writer’s misapprehension of the inspired thoughts he received, but still Scripture must be considered.
Importantly, Miller’s talk revealed this Adventist foundational belief: Ellen White did not believe in biblical inerrancy, so Adventism does not, either.
Moreover, since Adventists believe that Ellen White was inspired in the same way the Bible writers were inspired, and Ellen White’s writings are not inerrant, the Bible cannot be inerrant, either. Based on this Adventist assumption, Miller explained two reasons why Adventists reject inerrancy: Ellen White and the Bible are equally flawed because the writers’ inspiration was the same, and Ellen White said the Bible was not verbally inspired.
The Adventist Review further reported Miller’s explanation that Ellen White’s son William tried, after her death, to “keep alive his mother’s view on inspiration, opposing movements supporting verbal inerrancy. But the rise of liberal Christian thought encouraged Adventist leaders to side with fundamentalists on many topics over the next couple of decades, and the idea of verbal inerrancy infiltrated in the church. ‘It is something that ended up shifting the church’s approach to race and women, for instance, that to that point had been pragmatically progressive,’” Miller said.
Miller concluded by pointing out that Adventism is increasingly international. “Against that backdrop, we have a Conservative church, but time and again it has proved it is not a fundamentalist one.”
According to the Adventist Review, Alec Ryrie from the University of Durham in England and a professor and author, said that “Adventism avoided the pitfalls that sunk other movements.” Instead of opposing government, they tended to talk about participating and voting, and during the Civil War, Adventism spoke “against both sides of the dispute”. Ryrie said that Adventists were similar when it came to apocalyptic ideas. When Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Adventists came up with a new option: keeping their failed date but redefining the expected event. Ryrie said he believes that Adventism has kept its apocalyptic focus without becoming “unbalanced”, and concludes that “Adventism is essentially pragmatic.”
The ASDAH meetings this week have served to illumine the fact that when Ted Wilson sends out a New Year’s message to his members and quotes Hebrews extensively to make his point, he is not intending to send a Christian message. He is, rather, using Hebrews in the way Adventists have always used Scripture: interpreting it not according to the literal meaning of the words and context but according to their own “judgment”. Wilson doesn’t even have to explain the details of the investigative judgment in his message; he simply has to refer to the “sanctuary service”, and every Adventist will know he is referring to the supposed work Jesus began in the literal sanctuary building in heaven when he entered the Most Holy Place in 1844.
In spite of their attempts to blend in with Christians, to become involved with Christian theologians and humanitarian causes, Adventists do not hold to biblical Christian doctrines, and they openly disavow fundamentalism. In spite of their talk about holding a high view of Scripture and basing their doctrines on the Bible alone, they do not stand under the Bible.
Importantly, Miller’s talk confirmed what Adventists seldom say publicly but which Adventists generally implicitly “know”: the Bible is not their only source of truth. They also look to nature—what Adventist children learn is “God’s second book”—and to personal experience. Thus, Adventists have no trouble accepting Ellen White’s writings as equally authoritative—despite public denials of this fact—to that of Scripture.
Because Adventists have never, from the earliest days, accepted the “problematic Bible verses” such as Jesus’ statements about eternal punishment, they have always reserved the right to use their own judgment and their perception of God’s goodness to shape how they interpret those passages. In other words, Adventists use their own human analysis shaped by Ellen White’s definitions to determine what an eternal, omniscient God really meant in the words He claims are His own.
The ASDAH meetings this week have confirmed what we have known: Adventism is not a fundamentalist Christian religion. It does not embrace the historic tradition of Christian evangelical thought and belief that has been passed down to us through God’s word from the days of the apostles. Instead, it is from a different stream, and it bases its beliefs and practices not on Scripture alone, in spite of what it claims, but on human reasoning and interpretation.
Adventism is a clever deception. When Adventists cite proof texts and claim the Bible as their only source of doctrine, the public needs to understand that they are using those texts with a hidden but consistent private interpretation. The Bible is their authority only to the extent that Ellen White interprets it. On the bottom line, Ellen White and human reason have the last word.
- Jones, Timothy Paul, Christian History Made Easy, Rose Publishing, 2009, p. 162, 176-77.