Evangelical Reflections on Seventh-day Adventism: Yesterday and Today, Part 1 (of 3)

Evangelical Reflections on Seventh-day Adventism: Yesterday and Today, Part 1 (of 3)

This three-part article series was originally a talk given at the Questions on Doctrine 50th Anniversary Conference at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI (October 24–27, 2007).

This article series presents broad reflections on the history and theology of Seventh-day Adventism, specifically focusing on issues relevant to the evangelical-Adventist dialogues of the 1950s. It also offers comments on how the theological content of those interactions still carries important lessons for today concerning the biblical gospel of grace.

The writings of the evangelical Baptist theologian and apologist Walter Ralston Martin (1928–1989) significantly shaped the way most evangelical Protestants—myself included—came to view Seventh-day Adventism. Over the decades, Dr. Martin has become the central figure in the ongoing evangelical-Adventist discussions through the decades.

An Evangelical Perspective on Adventism

Of all the religions that emerged in nineteenth century America—including the Mormonism, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witness, among others—I have found the Seventh-day Adventism to be the most intriguing. As a student and an interested observer for more than 25 years, my first studies in Adventist history and theology came about when I was an undergraduate student at Concordia University (a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod educational institution in Southern California). Enrolled in a religion course that focused on cults and new religious movements, I wrote a term paper on Seventh-day Adventism. In particular, I evaluated Martin’s controversial position on the subject. He claimed that Seventh-day Adventism should not be classified as a non-Christian cult but rather as a somewhat heterodox Christian church body.1

A few years later I had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Martin at the Christian Research Institute (CRI), an evangelical apologetics organization that specializes in the study of cults and new religious movements. My duties included assisting Martin as a research specialist on Seventh-day Adventism. With Martin’s encouragement and support, that research ultimately led to my writing an updated evangelical appraisal of Adventism in CRI’s Christian Research Journal. After Martin’s untimely death, I also wrote “The Recent Truth About Seventh-day Adventism” for Christianity Today.2 These articles led to opportunities to dialogue with Adventist scholars, pastors, and administrators at such places as Loma Linda University, La Sierra University, and Andrews University. I also interacted with the former editor of the Review and Herald and dialogued with a large number of Adventist pastors from the Southeastern California Conference.

Dr. Walter Martin

Before remarking specifically about some of the theological issues relevant to the relationship between Adventists and evangelicals, I want to provide a few personal insights about Walter Martin and his relationship to pastor and theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895–1960). I will also offer a brief qualification of Martin’s personal theological views in contrast to Barnhouse. In addition, I also want to note Martin’s view of the Adventists leaders that he met with in the 1950s and convey the significance that Martin placed on those historic meetings.

I’ve come to conclude that Walter Martin viewed Barnhouse in much the same way I view Martin. One of Martin’s early teachers in the Christian faith, Barnhouse not only served as Martin’s boss at Eternity magazine, but was also a spiritual and intellectual mentor and a supportive friend. Martin viewed Barnhouse as a courageous and insightful Christian thinker, preacher, and apologist.

Walter was one of my first teachers in the Christian faith. He was a mentor to me, as well as many other young evangelicals interested in studying new religious movements. Many consider him today to be the father of the counter-cult apologetics movement within evangelicalism. I especially admired Martin for his courage to stand up for the truth of historic Christianity.

A number of Adventist sources have identified Barnhouse and Martin as being Calvinistic in their theology as well as embracing certain dispensational doctrinal distinctives.3 While that description holds true for Barnhouse, it is not true of Martin, at least not the Martin I knew since the late 1970s.

When it came to the classic Calvinism-Arminianism theological debate, Martin was quite fond of referring to himself as a “Cal-minian.” As long as I knew him, he was always very critical of the traditional Reformed theological system. I know this because I am a card-carrying Calvinist (a member of the conservative United Reformed Churches of North America, URC) and Martin and I differed over some of the relevant theological issues. I think Martin’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the more Wesleyan-Arminian tradition within Christian history allowed him to relate more easily to Adventist theology. Martin was certainly more sympathetic to non-Calvinistic theological systems than were 1950s evangelical scholars Anthony Hoekema and J. K. Van Baalen, who were staunchly Reformed in their theology.

Martin was also quite critical of the eschatological distinctives of traditional dispensationalism. For example, he rejected dispensational premillennialism in favor of the historic premillennialism as set forth by the evangelical New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd.

Martin spoke very highly of his Adventist friends, specifically leaders such as Leroy Froom, W. E. Read, and especially R. A. Anderson. Though Martin vigorously differed with them over some important doctrinal issues, he considered these men to be genuine brothers in Christ. He respected their intellectual and spiritual integrity. Martin once said that he considered the evangelical-Adventist dialogues and his subsequent theological assessment that Seventh-day Adventism was a heterodox yet part of the Christian church body to be one of the most significant accomplishments of his career and ministry.

Next Tuesday, I’ll continue this series with a look at Adventist theological development.

  1. See Martin’s assessment in Walter R. Martin, The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960).
  2. Kenneth R. Samples, “From Controversy To Crisis: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism,” Christian Research Journal, Summer 1988, 9–14; Kenneth R. Samples, “The Recent Truth About Seventh-day Adventism,” Christianity Today, February 5, 1990, 18–21.
  3. George R. Knight, “Historical and Theological Introduction to the Annotated Edition” in Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, ed. George R. Knight, annotated ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003), xxix–xxxi.