Sanctuary message vs. Ballenger

Do you suppose that careful Bible study will preserve you from doctrinal apostasy? Albion F. Ballenger did. He was having doubts about the harmony between the Adventist message he had been preaching and the book of Hebrews. To be particular, he thought he found abundant evidence in Hebrews 6-10 to show that Jesus had entered the Most Holy Place when he ascended to heaven two thousand years ago.

What he found in Hebrews was that Jesus had entered “that [place] within the veil” or, as the ESV creatively renders the passage, “into the inner place behind the curtain.”

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

When he did a word study on the phrase “within the vail” he found abundant evidence that this phrase meant the Most Holy Place. In view of this exhaustive study of a score of passages, Ballenger reasoned, the Bible plainly interprets Hebrews 6:19-20 to say that Jesus entered the Holy of Holies long before 1844.

He found further confirmation in the fact that Jesus is pictured in the New Testament as being at the Father’s “right hand.” And finally, his survey of Old Testament prophecies showed that Jesus was in the Sanctuary long before his incarnation. When Isaiah sees Jesus, for example, He is in the temple even in Isaiah’s day. And that, to Ballenger’s mind, explained why there could be forgiveness for sin even in the time of Moses.

These ideas, taken together, developed into Ballenger’s main thesis: Jesus was in the Holy Place before the cross and has been in the Most Holy Place since that time.

To summarize neatly the previous five paragraphs, Ballenger tested the Adventist doctrine of the sanctuary using the tried and true method of comparing Scripture with Scripture. And he concluded painfully (he said) that the Adventist church was wrong on this point. But that also meant that Ellen White was a false prophet. And that also meant a lot of other things, you see.

You can’t well-summarize the arguments and reasonings of an intelligent man so concisely without leaving out some substantive material. But the arguments presented here seem to have been Ballenger’s strongest, even to his own mind.

One Adventist Review editor opined in an editorial many years ago (I couldn’t make the archive feature of the Review work well enough for me to find it) that no one had ever made a decent reply to Ballenger’s arguments.

Ouch. If that was true when it was written, and if it is even true today, let’s just make of it fiction right now.

But first, don’t miss the main moral of this narrative: Bible study may lead one person out of the church just as it leads others in. And if you are to retain the truth, you will need something that the evangelist Ballenger didn’t possess. But what was it that set him up to misunderstand? Was it the Bible itself? No, it was his character. Heresies are a fruit of the flesh. They help show who are and who are not reliable teachers (Galatians 5:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:19).

Whatever the spiritual causes might have been, Ballenger erred gravely in refusing correction from his ministerial brethren. That was the deadly mistake. And here are a few of the technical mistakes that contributed to his conclusions.

First, the tense of prophecies often fails to correspond to the time when the prophecy was given. Many Old Testament prophecies, for example, of future events are written in present tense. Even when Isaiah 53 speaks of the incarnated Jesus, He is pictured as being already “wounded” for our transgressions. And Psalm 22 anticipates Jesus’ words on the cross, but in present tense more than a 1000 years early. So if prophecies of future events are often worded in present tense, Ballenger made a mistake in gathering from Isaiah and Ezekiel that Jesus was already ministering in the heavenly sanctuary before the cross.

Second, Christ’s throne, and that of the Father, are mobile according to both Daniel and Ezekiel. The former even wrote of his wheels! (Daniel 7:9) So the fact that Jesus is at the Father’s right hand, while significant in many ways, does not tell you where in the sanctuary they are. Their thrones move. So Ballenger, by reading “Most Holy Place” into “Right Hand”, erred sadly.

Finally, Ballenger’s word study failed him. (And if you are a very careful user of word studies, you might have noticed that Hebrews uses “veil” while Moses uses “vail.”) But to understand how his study left him in the dark, you need to know a bit more than he did.

Within the Vail

The sanctuary had two vails. (Ballenger knew this, of course. He had personally made a miniature replica of the sanctuary.) But in the Old Testament, only the second one is called a “vail.” The first one, by contrast, is called a “door.” And both of them are called “hangings” or “curtains.”

So in Old Testament passages, the first “curtain” was the “door” and the second “curtain” was the “vail.”

Looking at those two facts, if you find the phrase “within the curtain” it would be more-or-less ambiguous. But if you saw the phrase “within the vail” it would be certain that you intended the Most Holy Place.

In the book of Hebrews the equivalent of the Old Testament “curtain” (“hanging” in the KJV) is “veil.” The spelling with an “e” shows that a curtain is intended. The spelling “vail” denotes, by contrast, the fabric covering that guarded the Most Holy Place.

So when Hebrews 6 says that Jesus “entered” the sanctuary, and says He did so through the curtain (“veil”) we should know very well which curtain it was. Jesus went it by the door.

And when Hebrews 9 talks about the “second” curtain (“veil”) it should be obvious that the previous reference must have been to the first curtain.

So yes, Ballenger was wrong. His word study compared apples and oranges (vails and veils). His study of tenses was misguided. And his observations regarding Christ at the Father’s right hand had nothing to do with where in the sanctuary Christ and the Father might be at any particular time. In fact, Jesus is represented as being at the “right hand” of power even when He will return to earth in the clouds (Matthew 26:64).

"If the theories that Brother Ballenger presents were received, they would lead many to depart from the faith. They would counterwork the truths upon which the people of God have stood for the past fifty years. I am bidden to say in the name of the Lord that Elder Ballenger is following a false light. The Lord has not given him the message that he is bearing regarding the sanctuary service." (Manuscript Releases 760, p. 10).

Our Instructor spoke words to Brother Ballenger: "You are bringing in confusion and perplexity by your interpretation of the Scriptures. You think that you have been given new light, but your light will become darkness to those who receive it" (Manuscript Releases 760, p. 10).

More could be written about Ballenger’s woes. More could be said in favor of our doctrine of the sanctuary. But let it be sufficient to say that though I know many persons personally who have abandoned our historic teachings on the sanctuary, not one seems to be of a higher grade than was Ballenger. And I am not complementing him.

If you lend your attention to one or more of the most skillful and charismatic of Adventism’s detractors, you ought in fairness to yourself to give its most skillful defenders equal time.

Few theological foundations have proved as sturdy as the one built by our pioneers. Brother Ballenger, even with his perceived discoveries of Bible facts, wasn’t wise to step off it. Yes, he was confronted with the “moving throne” truth. He mentions it early in his book. Yes, he was confronted with other weaknesses in his teaching. But as his book belittled the answers that could have helped him, he simultaneously craved for men to refute his views.

That was cunning. But it wasn’t wise. And when your Bible study, brother or sister, tends to undermine the truths of Adventism, I hope you will be wiser.

And I hope you will be less cunning.