Part 1: Background
Many are familiar with Ellen White’s statement, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (1). The famed observation of George Santayana also comes to mind: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Unfortunately, a few contemporary Adventists in the conservative theological camp are seeking to revive a heresy many today probably don’t remember—the teachings of Robert Brinsmead during the 1960s, which attempted to marry the doctrine of original sin, as taught by many of the Protestant Reformers, to the classic Adventist doctrine of a perfected final generation hastening the return of Jesus.
The doctrine of original sin, for those who may not know, is the belief that because of Adam’s sin, all human beings since—with the exception of Christ—have been born sinners. We will review this concept in greater depth in the next installment of this series. For now, we will consider the decisive role this particular theory played in the teachings and spiritual journey of one of the most notorious dissidents in Seventh-day Adventist history.
In 1955, a 22-year-old Australian farmer by the name of Robert Brinsmead decided to go to Avondale College to study theology (2). During his childhood, Brinsmead’s parents had been closely associated with the German Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement. Though the parents rejoined the regular Adventist Church when Robert was ten years old, a negative and suspicious attitude toward church leadership persisted in their home (3). Brinsmead acknowledged this in a 1984 interview, in which he stated:
Although I took the visions, the pioneers, and Early Writings seriously, I never had an inordinate respect . . . for the Adventist hierarchy or the institutional church (4).
Brinsmead’s journey away from classic Adventist teachings began with his embrace of the doctrine of original sin, whose roots trace to Saint Augustine of Hippo and the magisterial Protestant Reformers (5). Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton, a theological ally and confidant of Brinsmead during the 1970s, affirms both the pivotal role this doctrine played in Brinsmead’s thinking and its origin from outside Seventh-day Adventist thought. Writing of pre-1950 Adventism, Paxton states: “The doctrine of original sin has been conspicuous by its absence” (6). Consequently, Paxton goes on to say: “Brinsmead could find little help within Adventist theology on the subject of original sin. . . . Brinsmead therefore turned to the Reformers for guidance” (7).
Brinsmead’s 1960s Theology
Paxton later states that “the awareness of original sin caused Brinsmead to reject the whole idea of reaching a state of perfection in order to be ready for the judgment” (8). However, Paxton writes that “Brinsmead was at this time too steeped in [M.L.] Andreasen’s concept of the final generation to deny that those who live in the ‘time of trouble’ would be altogether without sin” (9). In Brinsmead’s own words, cited by Paxton:
Yet at the same time we did not, could not reject the hereditary Adventist idea of being sinless in order to live without Christ’s mediation after the close of probation. As far as we were concerned, that part still remained “fundamental Adventism.” We concluded that this final “unattainable” experience would be a gift of our Judge’s gracious mercy, i.e. effected in God’s people by the “final atonement” and latter rain (10).
Elsewhere Brinsmead wrote:
The old Awakening emphasis (Brinsmead’s 1960s theology) denied a here-and-now perfectionism, but taught that it would take place by means of the eschatological “final atonement” or “latter rain” experience (11).
Brinsmead’s 1960s view of perfection gave a new twist to the Biblical, classic Adventist doctrine of the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. According to Brinsmead, the cleansing of the human heart which would accompany the final cleansing of the sanctuary in heaven would take place in the following manner:
Because of imparted and imputed righteousness God performs a miracle and erases all sinful thoughts and emotions within us. A person will have had to give up every sin for this to be effective and for it to occur (12).
A modern Adventist historian summarizes as follows Brinsmead’s view of the final perfecting of the saints:
Brinsmead drew an analogy between the soul temple and the ancient tabernacle, with its two apartments. The holy place he likened to the conscious mind, to be purged of known sin through sanctification. The most holy place was equated with the subconscious mind, to be cleansed of original sin, and all memory of sin, at the time an individual’s case was decided favorably in the investigative judgment. It was upon individuals so perfected that the latter rain would fall (13).
This same historian goes on to write:
In reality Brinsmead’s beliefs were an intellectual counterpart to the Holy Flesh movement of sixty years earlier. Some of his followers even suggested that those who had been cleansed of sin would be perfected physically as well as spiritually—they would have no more illness, not even a common cold, but were ready for translation (14).
Oil and Water
We need to pause a moment and consider the meaning of the word “perfectionism.” This term can be confusing for those who have seen it in the writings of Ellen White, where it refers, not to the possibility of sinless living through God’s power here on earth, but to the presumption that one’s feelings could become pure beyond the possibility of error, as well as the claim that belief only—without obedience—is all that is needed for salvation (15). Too many, however, in modern and contemporary Adventism, have labeled as “perfectionism” what in fact Scripture and the writings of Ellen White teach regarding the expulsion of sin from the Christian life in the earthly experience of sanctification.
Robert Brinsmead, when speaking negatively of “perfectionism” in the statements cited in this article, is unfortunately referring to the Biblical, classic Adventist doctrine of sinless obedience here on earth, made possible through conversion and daily divine empowerment. We have seen already that Brinsmead rejected very early in his spiritual journey what he called “here-and-now-perfectionism”—the Biblical, classic Adventist belief confirmed so often in the writings of Ellen White, that Christians through heaven’s power can live sin-free lives (16). Brinsmead put it this way:
Back in the 1950s, I came to the settled conviction that this general view of reaching perfection was impossible and futile, whether one looked at certain statements of Inspiration or history, or experience. Because of this doctrine which was still being taught when I went to college in 1955, very few people that I questioned had any real buoyant hope of being able to pass the scrutiny of the soon-coming judgment of the living. It is no exaggeration to say that most lived in real fear and dread of the judgment, having no way of knowing how to be ready except to “try harder by God’s grace” and to hope that such judgment would not come too soon. . . We therefore utterly rejected any here-and-now perfectionism (17).
But we have seen already that Brinsmead chose not to give up the idea of a perfect final generation—not yet at least. Because he had embraced the doctrine of original sin, he believed that the only way the last-generation saints could be perfect would be for God to somehow, before Jesus returned, take original sin out of them. Hence he developed the theory he articulated in one of the statements quoted above:
Because of imparted and imputed righteousness God performs a miracle and erases all sinful thoughts and emotions within us. A person will have had to give up every sin for this to be effective and for it to occur (18).
Please understand that the doctrine of original sin teaches that the mere presence of sinful thoughts and emotions within us, even if resisted by the will, constitutes sin. This is why Desmond Ford, whose outright denial of perfection in this life Brinsmead would soon endorse, would later declare: “There is guilt in evil desires, even when resisted by the will” (19). This is why Brinsmead’s 1960s theology, which embraced both original sin and Last Generation Theology, had to find a way by which the saints before probation’s close would not only cease to sin, but cease to wrestle with sinful thoughts and emotions as well.
In our next installment we will see from the inspired pen how erroneous Brinsmead’s and Ford’s doctrine of sin was—and is. But it wasn’t long before Brinsmead recognized that mixing the doctrine of original sin with Last Generation Theology was like trying to mix oil and water. In 1970, in a review of his 1960s theology, Brinsmead noted this tension and how he resolved it:
Herein lay the paradox of Awakening teaching. To some it was dangerous because it was anti-perfectionistic. To others it was dangerous because it was perfectionistic. For the first few years, most of those who opposed the Awakening did so because they contended for perfectionism within probationary time. They chided us for postponing this perfectionism to an eschatological event. . . . Dr. Edward Heppenstall was the first to clearly and decisively take a new tack. He said that the Awakening expectation was wrong because God’s people would not experience a condition of sinlessness prior to the second coming of Christ. . . . It will come as a surprise to some, and quite a shock to others, that I now state in the plainest possible language: Dr. Heppenstall was correct on this point (20).
The Downward March
Thus Brinsmead abandoned Last Generation Theology altogether, fully embracing the “gospel” that would come to be known as the New Theology—original sin, the unfallen human nature of Christ, salvation by justification alone, and the imperfectability of Christian character (21). It wouldn’t be his last big change. A decade later he would abandon the doctrine of the investigative judgment as well (22), together with the authority of Ellen White in doctrinal matters (23), the remnant church theology (24), the Sabbath (25), and the binding claims of the Ten Commandments (26). By 1999 he had become an agnostic, with no religion to speak of (27). What he now is, believes, or claims to be, I am not certain.
Looking at Brinsmead’s spiritual journey, one cannot but recall the following Ellen White statement:
It is Satan’s plan to weaken the faith of God’s people in the Testimonies. Satan knows how to make his attacks. He works upon minds to excite jealousy and dissatisfaction toward those at the head of the work. The gifts are next questioned; then, of course, they have but little weight, and instruction given through visions is disregarded. Next follows skepticism in regard to the vital points of our faith, the pillars of our position, then doubt as to the Holy Scriptures, and then the downward march to perdition (28).
1. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches, p. 196.
2. Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), p. 98.
3. Richard W. Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1979), p. 456.
4. “Currents Interview: Robert D. Brinsmead,” Adventist Currents, February 1984, p. 18.
5. Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: MJF Books, 1939), pp. 68-69; Ralph Larson, The Word Was Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1850-1950 (Cherry Valley, CA: The Cherrystone Press, 1986), pp. 330-350.
6. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, p. 98.
7. Ibid, p. 99.
8. Ibid, p. 100.
9. Ibid, p. 101.
10. Brinsmead, A Review of the Awakening Message, Part 1, p. 4; quoted by Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, pp. 101-102.
11. An Answer to “Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (Sydney, Australia: Wittenberg Steam Press Publishing Assn, 1976), p. 89.
12. Quoted by Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, p. 458.
13. Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, p. 458.
15. White, Life Sketches, pp. 83-84; The Sanctified Life, pp. 7-17; Review and Herald, June 6, 1878.
16. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, p. 100; An Answer to “Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (Sydney, Australia: Wittenberg Steam Press Publishing Assn, 1976), p. 89.
17. Brinsmead, A Review of the Awakening Message, Part 1, p. 4.
18. Quoted by Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, p. 458.
19. Desmond Ford, “The Relationship Between the Incarnation and Righteousness by Faith,” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith (Goodlettsville, TN: Jack D. Walker, Publisher, 1976), p. 28.
20. Brinsmead, A Review of the Awakening Message, Part 1, p. 5 (emphasis original).
21. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, pp. 103-104,121-124.
22. Brinsmead, Judged by the Gospel: A Review of Adventism (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict Publications, 1980), pp. 33-116.
23. Ibid, pp. 119-200.
24. Ibid, pp. 281-287,309-311.
25. “Sabbatarianism Re-Examined,” Verdict, June 1981, pp. 6-66.
26. “Jesus and the Law,” Verdict, October 1981, pp. 5-30.
27. Larry Pahl, “Where is Robert Brinsmead?” Adventist Today, May-June 1999, pp. 14-15.
28. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 672.