Put simply, Ty Gibson's article "The Old Covenant Brood" seeks to view present controversies in the Seventh-day Adventist Church through the lenses of what the author holds to be the 1888 message of righteousness by faith, and considers the rejection of that message over a century ago to be the genesis of the present theological divide in the denomination.
Today’s conservative Adventists, in the author’s view, are the spiritual heirs of those like George I. Butler and Uriah Smith, who rejected the message of salvation by grace through faith at the Minneapolis General Conference of 1888, as presented by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner. The article contends that these “old covenant” conservatives seek to illegitimately control the beliefs and actions of fellow members because they (the conservatives) supposedly lack the appreciation for others’ liberty which only the gospel can bring.
The article insists that much of today’s liberal Adventism is a reaction against this alleged “old covenant” conservatism, and implies that the greatest problem in the contemporary church is in fact this “legalistic,” “works-oriented” religion which supposedly deprecates the gospel. Because those holding to this religion presumably believe their doctrinal and moral convictions can “purchase” salvation, the article claims this to be the reason those holding to this view won’t allow freedom of choice in the church on a wide range of issues (e.g. “culture and style,” “methods of evangelism,” “qualifications for ministry”).
Cocktail of Platitudes
The biggest problem with this article is its persistent vagueness. Platitudes abound, with little if any definition. The very title, “Old Covenant Brood,” is used repeatedly without a clear explanation as to how—according to Scripture and Ellen White—the old and new covenants differ. Such phrases as “salvation by faith alone,” “God’s justifying grace,” “God’s free grace,” “legal religion,” “icy hearts,” “Phariseeism,” are interspersed throughout the essay without any substantive clarification as to what they mean.
Reading the article under review, the thoughtful reader is constrained to ask such questions as the following, among others:
- Can one truly say, looking at today’s Adventist Church (at least in the developed world), that the greatest peril presently afflicting the denomination is too much emphasis on doctrine, law, and obedience, with too little emphasis on love, acceptance, grace, and forgiveness?
- Which aspects of the 1888 message of righteousness by faith—as preached by A.T. Jones, E.J. Waggoner, and Ellen White—are being rejected by today’s conservative Adventists?
- Can precise documentation be found for the article’s very serious accusation that a significant number of contemporary (presumably conservative) Adventists hold that correct belief and proper lifestyle carry “purchasing power” for salvation? Yes, Scripture is clear that accepting truth and practicing obedience are conditions of salvation (e.g. Hosea 4:6; Matt. 7:21; 19:16-17; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; II Thess. 2:13; Heb. 5:9). But the fact remains that God, not human devising, is the Source of both the truths of Scripture and the sanctifying grace which make obedience—and therefore salvation—possible. But to speak of “purchasing” salvation is patently absurd, as human beings possess nothing within themselves which can be exchanged for something belonging to God. Both aspects of Jesus’ righteousness—both justification and sanctification—are gifts of God. Neither originates with humanity, and neither is depicted in Scripture or the writings of Ellen White as inferior or superior to the other.
- In what way, specifically, are today’s conservative Adventists preaching obedience and victory over sin as a “mandate” rather than a “promise,” as the article claims?
- How does this article help the church distinguish, on the one hand, the legalism, Phariseeism, and inordinate control of others we should rightly avoid, from—on the other hand—the rightful summons to strict Biblical faithfulness and avoidance of culture-driven compromise, so far as the church’s faith and practice are concerned?
While the article dutifully notes and rebukes the extremism of those liberals who would discard certain of our doctrines and standards in the name of “love” and “grace,” no clarity is offered as to how one should distinguish the “grace-oriented” approach to doctrine advocated in the article from the acknowledged perils of theological and moral liberalism. One could easily read this article and come away with the notion that God’s free grace, in practical terms, means adjudicating present controversies in such a manner as to bring back the days of Israel’s judges, when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Statement like, “our hearts will enlarge toward one another” if we accept the author’s understanding of the gospel, that a true appreciation of justification by faith will “allow our brothers and sisters to differ from us in their service for the Lord,” offer little guidance as to how the church should respond when Bible truth is denied and error embraced.
One could be forgiven for concluding, in light of this article, that the author really doesn’t consider contemporary controversies over ordination and numerous other issues as sufficiently important to merit a firm, uncompromising stand. It doesn’t help to simply quote the old Reformation slogan, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” without offering an objective measure by which to discern between these categories. That objective measure is the written counsel of God. And it is the denial of that written counsel that is causing the great rift in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today, regarding all the issues noted in this article’s final paragraph.
But the supreme authority of God’s written Word is not the burden of the article under review. It would seem the author is convinced that knowing the true gospel of grace, as he perceives it, is more important than strict faithfulness to the written Word. Perhaps he doesn’t intend to convey this impression, but again, clear definitions are sorely lacking. And without these, the perceived implications of his thoughts will serve to confuse rather than clarify.
The Missing Clarity
Contrary to the article’s stated assumption, no one in contemporary Adventism—to my knowledge—is saying we don’t need to preach love or the cross, focusing instead on our distinctive doctrines. Ironically, the very dichotomy the author claims to protest is the one he seems to be promoting—the idea that preaching the gospel of grace is somehow different from preaching a fully Biblical perspective on any and all of our distinctive doctrines and lifestyle imperatives. It was, in fact, Ellen White who declared during the 1888 era, after saying we had “preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa,” that “we must preach Christ in the law” (RH March 3, 1890).
Who, may we ask, among today’s conservative Adventists, is neglecting to “preach Christ in the law”? Who among those urging the church not to compromise Biblical authority regarding gender roles, sexuality, origins, and many other questions, is neglecting to give Christ His rightful place? If any of these are not, exactly how are they failing to do this?
Equally important to clarify is the yawning gap between the righteousness by faith controversy during the 1888 era and the righteousness by faith controversies of today. Other than the fact that righteousness by faith was and is the focus of both controversies, there is little resemblance between the two. The only substantive doctrinal difference between such as Butler and Smith on the one hand and Jones and Waggoner on the other, was the scope of the law in the book of Galatians. Was that law, as Butler and Smith claimed, the ceremonial law alone, or—as Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White stated—did it also include the moral law of Ten Commandments?
This issue has been conclusively settled by Ellen White’s testimony as found in volume 1 of Selected Messages, pp. 233-235, which declares the law in Galatians to include both moral and ceremonial laws. To my knowledge, this testimony has effectively ended that particular discussion in Adventist circles, a dispute which appears not to have vexed the church at any time since.
One thing is certain: If the author’s understanding of the gospel and the 1888 message constrains him to urge the allowance of differences in the contemporary church regarding such pivotal issues as gender roles in ministry, sexuality, origins, or other questions of similar gravity, he is advocating a false gospel.
The Most Important Difference
It is dangerous to take a particular event in history such as the 1888 crisis, however important it may be, and proceed to view every subsequent crisis in the church’s history through the unique colors of that event. This is especially crucial when comparing the 1888 era with the present doctrinal and spiritual crisis in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For not only were the gospel issues of that time decidedly different from the gospel issues in today’s Adventism; the fundamental, foundational issue of Biblical authority we presently face in the church did not exist during that period of Adventist history.
Both sides in the 1888 controversy held a high, supremely authoritative view of Holy Scripture. That is not the case in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. Present controversies in the church over salvation, the sanctuary, ordination, sexuality, and the origin of life on earth involve widely different perspectives on the authority and continuing relevance of the Bible—differences which would have appalled beyond words both camps at Minneapolis. One seriously doubts that any Adventist in that era, certainly not one in a responsible position, held the slightest affinity for the historical-critical method of Bible study, an approach commonly used among advocates of the liberal position on each of the above issues. The author of the article in question cannot write off the use of this method in the contemporary church as the brainchild of a few extremists. After all, the North American Division Study Committee report on women’s ordination declared the Bible to be “culturally and historically conditioned” (2), and another prominent scholar—this one from Europe—declared but recently to the Adventist Society of Religious Studies that women’s ordination advocates view the Bible as including both “contamination” and “human baggage” (3).
Such notions would have been utterly unthinkable for participants on either side of the Minneapolis debate over the law in Galatians. The present crisis in Seventh-day Adventism is vastly more serious than what the church confronted in 1888. To indiscriminately apply Ellen White’s admonitions for caution, forbearance, and the allowance of varying perspectives to our present circumstances, is to violate in the extreme the context of her counsel. All denominational controversies are not created equal.
Without question, all in contemporary Adventism who promote the present call to revival and reformation through a return to our distinctive message, need the fresh infilling of divine grace and power on a daily basis. I am perhaps more in need of this than most. But to refer to such persons in the church as an “old covenant brood” is unwarranted and uncalled for. The author of this essay has no way of knowing who—in old covenant fashion—is trusting to his own strength for victory and the subduing of destructive forces in the church, as distinct from who is trusting to God’s grace and power for success in these battles. God alone knows the heart (I Kings 8:39), and legalism is essentially a matter of the heart, not of outward deeds.
All of us must strive, in concert with the heroes of Hebrews 11, to blend most fully the imparted strength of the Lord with our natural powers of perseverance and the prosecution of the struggle both for the personal conquest of sin and the corporate triumph of God’s end-time church.
- Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report (Seventh-day Adventist Church: North American Division, 2013), p. 28.
- Jan Barna, “Ordination of Women and the Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical,” (presented to the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, Nov. 21, 2013), p. 4.