Evangelical Reflections on Seventh-day Adventism: Yesterday and Today, Part 2 (of 3)

Evangelical Reflections on Seventh-day Adventism: Yesterday and Today, Part 2 (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 week continues my reflections on the history and theology of Seventh-day Adventism. Last week, I briefly highlighted my own involvement in studying Adventism and the viewpoint of my late boss and mentor Dr. Walter Martin, an evangelical counter-cult specialist and advocate for Adventism’s inclusion in the Christian body.

Now let’s take a look at how changes in Adventism’s theology distinguish it from heretical cults of the nineteenth century.

Adventist Theological Development

One of the most intriguing features about Seventh-day Adventism is that, unlike Mormonism, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Adventist movement has shifted toward historic Christian and biblical orthodoxy. Some contemporary Seventh-day Adventists would no doubt be aghast to discover that their church was once widely considered (at least in conservative evangelical circles) a theological cult. A liberal Adventist scholar once even scolded Martin and me for making judgments about his church’s orthodoxy.

However, theologically speaking, the Adventist pioneers made some very bold claims that according to Scripture must be tested for their compatibility with biblical faith (Galatians 1:6–9; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1–4; Jude 3). These early Adventists proclaimed to be “a special people, with a special message, for a special time!” They also declared themselves to be the “remnant church” that uniquely kept the commandments of God. In addition, they asserted that God was providing unique guidance to the early Adventists through the prophetic voice of Ellen G. White.

However, closer historical and theological examinations reveal that the beliefs that coalesced to form primitive Seventh-day Adventism, in the wake of the failed Millerite movement, were far from biblically orthodox. Their early views (though hardly unified and systematic) reflected a non- or anti-Trinitarian view of God, a semi-Arian Christology, a message of restorationism, and a strongly legalistic understanding of the gospel. From the standpoint of historic Christian or creedal orthodoxy, the primitive Adventist movement was a cultic movement or a heretical sect in its basic theology. Several present-day Adventist scholars have documented that these sub-Christian doctrinal views were present, if not prominent, at various stages within early Adventist history.1

And yet, the next century saw Adventism’s doctrinal views undergo analysis and change. White apparently played an important, if not critical, role in helping the Adventist church move toward theological orthodoxy. Adventism has ultimately embraced a fully Trinitarian theology with an orthodox understanding of the person and nature of Christ and a belief that Christ’s righteousness in the atonement is granted to the believer through faith alone.2

This movement toward historic Christianity on the part of White and Seventh-day Adventism sets them apart from the heretical sects of the nineteenth century. Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and Charles Russell were leaders of religious movements that repudiated historic Christianity. They desired to implement a heretical restorationism accompanied by a replacement prophet and often a new text of scripture.

Walter Martin saw a stark contrast between those cults and White and Adventist theology in his research of the religious movements of nineteenth century America. While he rejected White’s prophetic claims, Martin viewed her—unlike Smith, Eddy, and Russell—as a genuine Christian believer. And while I do not accept White’s claim to have the spirit of prophecy, I do believe she, at minimum, had some good biblical and theological instincts.

Martin’s conviction remains my own—that one cannot be a true Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or Christian Scientist and be a practicing Christian in the biblical sense of the word. Those sects proclaim a different God, a different Christ, and a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6–9). But it is possible to be a Seventh-day Adventist and a true follower of Jesus Christ despite certain distinctive Adventist doctrines that most evangelical Protestants respectfully consider unbiblical. I think many Adventist scholars would return the favor and say something similar about me and my conservative Reformed theological views.

Next week I’ll conclude this series on Seventh-day Adventism with a look at evangelical-Adventist dialogues of the 1950s.

  1. See the explanatory note in George R. Knight, ed., Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, annotated ed., (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003), 44–46n10; Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 69.
  2. See Richard W. Schwarz, “The Perils of Growth, 1886–1905,” in Adventism in America, ed. Gary Land (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986), 109; See also the explanatory note in Knight, Questions on Doctrine, 44–46n10.