From a Great Disappointment to ecstatic visions, from corn-flakes to flaky fanatics in Waco, Texas, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and their associated spinoffs, have shown themselves to be a peculiar movement, as we have discussed in the previous posts in this series (#1 and #2). In a less peculiar sense, Seventh-Day Adventists have championed the cause of religious liberty, the promotion of good diet and health reform, and a growing network of schools, hospitals, and other humanitarian missions, themes that have permeated the wider culture around them. Yet, in many ways, there are dramatic shifts going on within Seventh-Day Adventism that raise questions about the future.
Some Seventh-Day Adventists today are basically like any other Protestant evangelical Christians, except that they go to church on Saturdays. Others are very much into the whole Seventh-Day Adventist package of beliefs and practices, that have set the movement apart from the rest of Christianity. It really depends on the congregation, and even within congregations. That being the case, how should other Christians view the Seventh-Day Adventist movement, and where it is headed?
The Seventh-Day Adventist Movement Today: Its Influence and Prospects
Call it peculiar, but the movement that traces its origins to a “Great Disappointment” of 1844 is still vibrant. There are some 18 million or more Seventh-Day Adventists today, all over the world. USA Today reported in 2011 that the Seventh-Day Adventist movement is the fastest growing church in the United States today. However, in a Pew Research report from 2014, the growth claims are more modest, noting that the percentage share of Adventists in the United States has remained the same over the previous 7 years, while the share of Christians in general, over that same time, has actually decreased. Furthermore, Seventh-Day Adventism is probably one of the most racially and ethnically diverse movements in America today, a characteristic that puts most evangelical churches to shame.
The attraction to the movement today is complex, but a primary factor is the desire to get “back to the basics” in a manner that takes the Bible from cover-to-cover seriously. The movement seeks to recover a pure form of Christian belief, free from what has been perceived to be adulterous compromises detected within other forms of Christianity. This kind of “primitivist” impulse is not unique to Adventism, as such Adventist-style primitivism has found its way into the larger streams of evangelical Christianity, at times independent of any overt Seventh-Day Adventist involvement.
The contemporary Young Earth Creationism movement, as an example, that has grown steadily within the mainstream of evangelical Christianity since the early 1960s, has an interesting Seventh-Day Adventist connection. Much of evangelical Christianity since the 19th century has embraced some sort of “old-earth” approach to the age of the earth question. But in the early 20th century, Seventh-Day Adventist George McCready Price received his inspiration for the global “flood geology” theory from the writings of Ellen G. White. This “flood geology” theory is still employed by popular ministries like Answers In Genesis today, in an effort to oppose the claimed compromises within mainstream evangelicalism. In other words, Young Earth Creationism today remains intellectually indebted, at least partly, to this particular aspect of Seventh-Day Adventism (see Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 13).
In many mainstream evangelical churches today, the depth of Bible teaching can sometimes be rather light, avoiding talk about difficult parts of the Bible, including the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. Seventh-Day Adventists, in contrast, try to bring the message of all of the Bible back into the church… of course, as Adventists understand it! But for folks who want to go deeper, the attraction is understandable. The contemporary emphasis on all things practical, such as how to have a better marriage, how God can help you in your business or personal life, how to fix your kids, etc. can seem rather shallow to folks who want more meat in their devotional diet… and Adventists are all too happy to dish out more hearty servings! (Most will pass on the physical meat, though).
For Adventists, discussion of Bible prophecy, the recovery of the Jewish food laws as the basis for a healthy, modern diet, and the change from Sunday to the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) for worship, are all attempts to reverse the apostatizing trends within the larger Christian traditions that have lost their way in the surrounding culture. The growing interest in the Sabbath and other Jewish traditions, associated with the Hebrew Roots Movement, though not really a part of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, is nevertheless an indicator of a trend towards reclaiming a more biblically grounded faith, among other churches that downplay Jewish roots. Adventist Bible teachers, like Stephen Wohlberg (White Horse Media) and Doug Batchelor (Amazing Facts ministry) have been gaining followers within the rank and file of mainstream evangelicals. In the realm of systematic theology, a number of evangelical theologians are increasingly open towards a Seventh-Day Adventist approach to conditional immortality, or annihilation, as an orthodox option for understanding hell.
Nevertheless, the peculiarity of historical Seventh-Day Adventism has also been its greatest downfall. There is a price to pay for the Seventh-Day Adventist desire, and its related offshoots, to be that faithful “remnant” that holds to a pure, ancient vision of the biblical people of God, in contrast to the apostatizing tendencies Adventists see going on in other churches around them. It is very easy to see the flaws among other Christians and fail to identify the flaws within yourself.
Critics of the Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of the “investigative judgment” argue that this is merely a cloak over a “salvation by works” orientation to Christianity. From the diet restrictions to other quirks of Seventh-Day Adventist practices, the movement has been characterized by excessive legalism. Even former influential teachers within Seventh-Day Adventism, such as Desmond Ford, have criticized the movement for undercutting the grace of God in the message of salvation. Furthermore, former Seventh-Day Adventist Ronald L. Numbers has written a ground-breaking, academic biography of Ellen G. White, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White, that challenges the received wisdom within the Seventh-Day Adventist movement regarding White’s visionary and prophetic gifts.
There is a certain hubris involved, where despite the mutual agreement over core doctrines of faith, a movement seeks to define itself in contrast with other believers in relatively non-essential matters of faith. Seventh-Day Adventists hold to orthodox views of Scripture, the nature of God, and the person and work of Christ, for example. But among their 28 Fundamental Beliefs, despite minor revisions over the years, the Adventists still distinguish themselves in other doctrines and practices that the general body of historically orthodox Christians deem to be lesser and inherently divisive.
For example, if you were gathering a bunch of Christian friends from different churches to pray together on a Sunday after local church services, for the purpose of promoting Christian unity, you would have a problem. Would your Seventh-Day Adventist friends come and join you, or would they only join you if you agreed to meet on Saturday instead?!
Do you want to have a hamburger cookout, and you want to invite some strict Adventists? Well, you will probably have to change the menu.
It is no wonder then, that a number of evangelicals still stick with the late Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema’s assessment that Adventism is one of the four major American cults, right up there with Mormons, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it appears that some attitudes have been changing. The late Baptist theologian Walter Martin reversed his view towards Seventh-Day Adventism in the 1950s, largely because of conversations he had with Seventh-Day Adventist leaders. After initially viewing the Adventists as being heretical, these conversations convinced him that the movement, though not without some problems, was actually more orthodox in their theology than evangelicals had previously thought
Inside the Seventh-Day Adventist church today, there are movements to loosen up the “old” legalisms that originally distinguished the Seventh-Day Adventists from others. A Seventh-Day Adventist church in Huntsville, Alabama recently announced the addition of a Sunday worship service, as a form of outreach to the wider community. A popular Republican presidential candidate, who is a Seventh-Day Adventist, laments the denomination’s recent refusal to ordain women and rejects Ellen G.White’s negative, wholesale critique of Roman Catholicism, while still embracing other peculiarities of the Adventist message (see this very interesting YouTube collection of film clips). No matter how you understand these particular issues in view of the teaching of Scripture, the fact that a very public and faithful member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church would be so candid in his criticisms of his own church, known for its self-conscious quirkiness, is quite remarkable.
Movement Within the Adventist Movement?
It is difficult to know how deep seated these self-criticisms of Seventh-Day Adventist distinctions really go. Will such critical self-examination of Seventh-Day Adventism’s beliefs lead to any substantial change to the movement’s doctrine and practices? Is Seventh-Day Adventism moving more towards the mainstream of evangelicalism?
This is not a far fetched idea. Consider the example of one weird, Adventist-type movement, Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. Without embracing Seventh-Day Adventism per se, Armstrong became convinced of the need to celebrate the Seventh-Day Sabbath, as part of God’s plan to restore the church and its true remnant in the coming last days, adding a few other bizarre teachings along the way. While Armstrong (1892-1986) was alive, his brand of Adventism, popularized by The Plain Truth magazine and The World Tomorrow radio program, was easily marked off as total heresy by most evangelicals. But in recent years, the church has since made a complete about-face, retracting all of Armstrong’s writings, and rejoining the mainstream of evangelicalism under the name of Grace Communion International .
(DIGRESSION: It really is a fascinating story of how this transformation from a legalistic heresy to a grace-empowering orthodox faith took place. Below is a documentary about it by Joel Kramer’s SourceFlix, or get the DVD here):
On the other hand, the movement might end up more vigorously reclaiming its historical vision of being the faithful “remnant,” clinging more tightly to their peculiarities. But for a movement that essentially begins by saying, “Okay, we were originally wrong about our Biblical interpretation of the whole October 22, 1844 thing. Jesus did not come back physically, but upon further examination of the Bible, we realized that there was a better interpretation,” you would think that Seventh-Day Adventists would be open to a full re-examination of their beliefs under the light of God’s Word.
A Challenge to Adventism
Aside from the big “we-are-of-the-remnant,-and-you-are-not” issue, there are two other issues with Adventism that also concern me. First, Adventism has tended to have a view towards biblical prophecy that favors what critics call “newspaper exegesis.” Newspaper exegesis is an approach to prophecy whereby you look at what is going on in the news (maybe we should call it “CNN exegesis” today?), and then try to relate it somehow to something we read in the Bible. The problem with newspaper exegesis is that it has a 100% failure rate in terms of getting all of the details right about biblical prophecy. That is pretty poor. What was originally perceived to be Jesus’ imminent Second Coming in 1844 has turned out to be one delay after another delay, requiring the newspaper exegete to run back to the Bible again and again to come up with some new interpretation to make sense of why earlier predictions were incorrect.
Newspaper exegesis has it all backwards. The Bible was never meant to be some type of secret decoder ring, whereby you take a current event and then try to figure out how it fits into the Bible. Instead, the Bible’s approach to prophecy is one of trying to understand what the Bible says first, grounded in its original context, as the scriptural writers and their first audience understood things, and then allowing that approach to the Bible’s message to give you a way of looking at the world around you, no matter what you read in the papers or see on CNN.
The sense of urgency of early Adventism in the William Miller years was evidently misplaced, but it does illustrate a point that every Christian should take from the Bible. We should be prepared for Christ’s Second Coming at anytime, whether that be today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. To that end, Adventism serves as a rebuke to other Christian traditions that tend to dismiss the urgency of God’s mission to the world through the church.
The other underlying issue with Adventism has to deal with Ellen G. White, her prophetic abilities, and her place within the legacy of Seventh-Day Adventism. Sure, Ellen G. White was able to package together the various doctrines and practices of Adventism in a peculiar way that galvanized the whole Seventh-Day movement. But does that really make her a “prophetess?” What does that really mean? Was she merely giving true exposition of the Bible, or had the Seventh Day Adventists made Ellen G. White into a kind of “personality cult” instead?
Evidently, there appears to be a lot of rethinking go on in the Adventist movement about Ellen White’s role. For example, Adventist historian George R. Knight has been regarded as “one of the most influential voices in the contemporary Adventist church.” While Knight clearly views Ellen White as being “inspired,” she was neither “infallible” nor “inerrant,” and Knight argues that White never made such “inerrant” claims for herself. Rather, it was the surrounding Adventist movement that lifted her to such a lofty and unrealistic status. Do Knight’s views really reflect where Adventism is going today?
Adventists make the claim that all of their teachings come straight from the Bible. The Adventist historic call to go “back to the Bible” challenges other Christian traditions that either have forgotten to read the Bible, or that tend to dismiss the Bible’s authority altogether. That being the case, here is my challenge to Seventh-Day Adventism today: I wonder if Ellen G. White were to be set aside from her exalted position within Seventh-Day Adventism, would you still have any Seventh-Day Adventist movement left?
That remains to be seen.