Many who observe and participate in the discussions we have on this site—and perhaps elsewhere—regarding current Adventist theological issues, may well wonder if the issues in question offer any realistic hope of resolution. With persons on the various sides apparently so convinced of their correctness, how is it ever possible for minds to change and harmony to develop?
But for those with significant experience in the work of evangelism, it is familiar terrain. And herein lies the genius of classic Seventh-day Adventism.
Some years ago I was engaged in an e-mail discussion with a well-known denominational figure regarding certain aspects of righteousness by faith. After I had shared a number of Bible verses and Ellen White statements which for most objective witnesses to the conversation would have at least raised questions about the position of the one with whom I corresponded, the latter wrote me in a rather condescending tone, “You have your inspired statements; I have mine. Which are more inspired?”
I couldn’t help wondering, in view of some of the excellent apologetic material this particular author has written on a number of controversial Adventist doctrines, how he would fare were he to use with a Sunday-keeper or natural immortality advocate the same argument he used with me regarding the differences he and I sustain over the doctrine of salvation. For as any experienced Bible worker or public evangelist knows, to merely ignore in a Bible study or similar setting those verses which seem on the surface to contradict the classic Adventist perspective, isn’t likely to persuade an inquirer to come around to the Adventist stance. One must be prepared, in such circumstances, to explain how the entire Biblical testimony fits together, including the seemingly problematic passages, and how the classic Adventist understanding of the issue in question is the only one that can reasonably account for the totality of Biblical evidence.
This is what gives such value to such seminal apologetic works in Adventism as F.D. Nichol’s Answers to Objections and Mark Finley’s Studying Together. Materials such as these help Adventist Bible students better understand how to enable study interests from other Christian backgrounds to perceive the underlying harmony of the whole of Scripture in the face of certain passages that appear at first glance to disagree with the Biblical consensus.
In two recent book reviews prepared by the present writer, addressing the discussion over Christ’s human nature in contemporary Adventism, the reader is challenged to approach internal Adventist controversies from the same perspective as an Adventist evangelist confronting objections from other Christians on such questions as the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the punishment of the wicked, law and grace, the secret rapture, and many more. Passages that on the surface appear to run counter to the majority of statements on a given subject must be examined both in context and within the setting of the larger inspired consensus.
When, for example, in a Bible study setting, a non-Adventist Christian confronts an Adventist Bible worker with Colossians 2:16, which forbids Christians to judge one another “in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days,” we simply urge the non-Adventist both to read the next verse, which describes these observances as “a shadow of things to come” (verse 17), and to consider the description of the Levitical feasts in the Old Testament as “Sabbaths” (Lev. 23:24-39) whose fulfillment indeed was met at the death of Christ. These additional verses make it clear that the sabbaths described in Colossians 2:16 refer to the ceremonial, annual sabbaths of the Jewish year which pointed forward to the Messiah and were indeed a “shadow of things to come” (verse 17), as distinct from the seventh-day Sabbath which was established in a sinless world for all humanity as an eternal memorial of God’s creation (Gen. 2:2-3; Ex. 20:11; Isa. 66:23; Mark 2:27).
The same principle is operative if that same non-Adventist Christian confronts the Adventist Bible worker with Revelation 20, verse 10, which speaks of how the wicked “shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” On the surface, this passage certainly gives credence to the theory that the lost will be tortured in hellfire throughout the ages of eternity. Yet when we place this verse alongside other passages which, for example, speak of how Sodom and Gomorrah suffered “eternal fire” (Jude 7) and yet were turned “into ashes” (II Peter 2:6), it becomes clear that the eternal nature of the punishment in question does not mean the infliction of everlasting pain.
Contemporary Adventist Controversies
The cornerstone of classic Adventist hermeneutics is the principle that inspired writings interpret themselves. All Scripture, according to the Bible, is given by inspiration of God (II Tim. 3:16; II Peter 1:20-21), and is to be understood by comparison with itself (I Cor. 2:12-14; Isa. 28:9-10). Biblical themes build upon and articulate themselves through the “repeat and enlarge” principle, one we see so clearly demonstrated in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. It is on this basis that Ellen White summarizes the principle of inspired self-interpretation in one of the clearest of her statements on this point:
The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages, given, as scripture is explained by scripture (1SM 42).
Now let us apply this principle to two contemporary Adventist doctrinal discussions—the human nature of Christ, and the possibility of character perfection in this life.
The Human Nature of Christ
Despite numerous other Biblical and Ellen White statements which point in a contrary direction, the following Ellen White statements are often used to prove that the human Christ took the sinless nature of Adam as it was before the Fall:
Be careful, exceedingly careful, as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ. Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin . . . He could have sinned, He could have fallen, but not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity (5BC 1128).
He (Christ) is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions. As the sinless one, His nature recoiled from evil (2T 201-202).
He was a mighty Petitioner, not possessing the passions of our human, fallen natures, but compassed with like infirmities, tempted in all points like as we are (2T 509).
And yet, we have such statements as the following:
Though He (Christ) had all the strength of passion of humanity, never did He yield to temptation to do one single act that was not pure and elevating and ennobling (IHP 155).
The words of Christ encourage parents to bring their little ones to Jesus. They may be wayward, and possess passions like those of humanity, but this should not deter us from bringing them to Christ. He blessed children that were possessed of passions like His own (ST April 9, 1896).
By a word Christ could have mastered the powers of Satan. But He came into the world that He might endure every test, every provocation, that it is possible for human beings to bear and yet not be provoked or impassioned, or retaliate in word, in spirit, or in action (CTr 260).
As with Scripture, such suggested contradiction forces us to look at both context and the underlying harmony of Inspiration’s collective testimony. The two sets of statements cited above constrain us to consider the inspired emphasis on two forces within human nature—the lower urges and the higher powers. Such Bible verses as Matthew 26:41 and First Corinthians 9:27 bring this structure of human nature into view, as does Ellen White when she observes, “The will is not the taste or the inclination, but it is the deciding power” (5T 513).
In view of this clarity in her writings regarding these two forces in human nature, Ellen White speaks in such statements as the following of the need to control evil passions and propensities:
The body is to be brought into subjection. The higher powers of the being are to rule. The passions are to be controlled by the will, which is itself to be under the control of God (MH 130). Our natural propensities must be controlled, or we can never overcome as Christ overcame (4T 235).
But in another set of statements she speaks of the need for evil passions and propensities to be cast out:
The only power that can create or perpetuate true peace is the grace of Christ. When this is implanted in the heart, it will cast out the evil passions that cause strife and dissension (DA 305).
But although their evil propensities may seem to them as precious as the right hand or the right eye, they must be separated from the worker, or he cannot be acceptable before God (TM 171-172).
Nonsense and amusement-loving propensities should be discarded, as out of place in the life and experience of those who are living by faith in the Son of God, eating His flesh and drinking His blood (MYP 42).
We must realize that through belief in Him it is our privilege to be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Then we are cleansed from all sin, all defects of character. We need not retain one sinful propensity.
As we partake of the divine nature, hereditary and cultivated tendencies to wrong are cut away from the character, and we are made a living power for good (7BC 943).
But from where are evil passions cast? Where are sinful propensities not to be retained? Ellen White gives the answer in two of the above statements. She speaks of evil propensities as out of place in the life and experience of the faithful, that as we partake of the divine nature, hereditary and cultivated tendencies to wrong are cut away from the character. The character is the higher nature, where choices are made.
Notice she doesn’t say these tendencies will be cut away from the lower, fleshly nature, so that we won’t feel the urge to sin any more. According to Ellen White, that change will not happen until Jesus comes:
So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained (AA 560-561).
Appetite and passion must be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. There is no end to the warfare this side of eternity (CT 20).
During the Holy Flesh controversy of the early 1900s, Ellen White wrote the following:
When human beings receive holy flesh, they will not remain on earth, but will be taken to heaven (2SM 33).
We need to notice carefully what these statements say, and what they don’t say. They aren’t saying that complete victory over sin is unattainable this side of eternity. They are simply saying that war with the flesh will not cease this side of eternity, which means the fleshly urges will still be present in the lower natures of believers. Continuous warfare doesn’t necessarily mean occasional defeat. (The Russians learned this during World War II, when they experienced hard-fought but consistently victorious warfare against the Germans in the two years between the aftermath of Stalingrad and the conquest of Berlin.) Complete victory over the fleshly nature is promised to the Christian in this life (Rom. 8:4,13; II Cor. 7:1). But while complete victory does mean the absence of failure, it does not mean the absence of conflict until our earthly life is past.
In short, Jesus had sinful passions and evil propensities in His lower nature, where He kept them under the control of a sanctified will—as indeed we may, through His power. But He did not have these passions and propensities in His higher nature, where we need not retain them either.
Another statement by Ellen White regarding Christ and sinful propensities helps us understand this point more clearly:
We must not become in our ideas common and earthly, and in our perverted ideas we must not think that the liability of Christ to Satan’s temptations degraded His humanity and that He possessed the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man (16MR 182).
We might reach the wrong conclusion if we stopped there. But in the very next paragraph she explains what she means:
Christ took our nature, fallen but not corrupted, and would not be corrupted unless He received the words of Satan in place of the words of God (16MR 182, italics supplied).
So what does she mean when she says Jesus never had the same corrupt propensities we have? Simple. She means He never chose to sin, and thus never acquired a taste for sin. Notice she doesn’t say His nature wouldn’t be corrupted unless He was born with the same fallen nature other humans are born with. Rather, the corruption here described would occur only if He received the words of Satan in place of the words of God. Choice, not birth, is the source of the corruption here described.
We see this same principle further illustrated in the more than 200 statements where Ellen White speaks of hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil. These are Ellen White’s terms for what we hear today regarding the difference between nature and nurture in human development. Ellen White is clear that Jesus took our fallen hereditary tendencies, since she writes “He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life” (DA 49). In other words, His heredity would be a source of temptation to Himself, as it is to us. But very clearly, Jesus didn’t take our fallen cultivated tendencies to evil, since to do this would have required Him to sin.
For those interested in a deeper study of the distinction between lower and higher forces in human nature and its relation to the contemporary Adventist Christology debate, see my paper titled “The Lower and Higher Natures: The Key to Resolving the Adventist Christology Debate.”
Perfection in This Life
This same principle—permitting Inspiration to explain itself, in context as well as in its collective testimony—enables us to see the underlying harmony among inspired statements on the subject of character perfection this side of heaven.
One Ellen White statement often quoted to prove the alleged impossibility of sinless obedience here on earth is the following:
He is a perfect and holy example, given for us to imitate. We cannot equal the pattern; but we shall not be approved of God if we do not copy it, and, according to the ability which God has given, resemble it (2T 549).
But the context of this statement shows what the pattern is which she says we can't equal:
He [Christ] laid aside His glory, His dominion, His riches, and sought after those who were perishing in sin. He humbled Himself to our necessities, that He might exalt us to heaven. Sacrifice, self-denial, and disinterested benevolence characterized His life. He is our pattern (2T 549).
The Ellen White CD-ROM lists at least eight references that use this or similar language. The context of them all is similar if not identical. Earlier in volume 2 of the Testimonies, from which the above statement is taken, we find the following:
Our Lord and Saviour laid aside His dominion, His riches and glory, and sought after us, that He might save us from misery, and make us like Himself. He humbled Himself and took our nature that we might be able to learn of Him, and, imitating His life of benevolence and self-denial, follow Him step by step to heaven. You cannot equal the copy, but you can resemble it, and according to your ability do likewise (2T 170).
Later in the same volume we find similar words:
He laid aside His glory, His high command, His honor, and His riches, and humbled Himself to our necessities. We cannot equal the example, but we should copy it (2T 628).
A comparable point is made in another such passage:
We shall never be called upon to suffer as Christ suffered; for the sins not of one, but the sins of the whole world were laid upon Christ. He endured humiliation, reproach, suffering, and death, that we by following His example might inherit all things.
Christ is our pattern, the perfect and holy example that has been given us to follow. We can never equal the pattern; but we may imitate it and resemble it according to our ability (RH Feb. 5, 1895).
In each of these statements, and in similar ones, the pattern we are told we can't equal is that of Christ's infinite humiliation, suffering, and sacrifice for our sins, not the pattern of sinless obedience. We can't equal the pattern in question because we don't have the throne of God to give up. Nor have the sins of all mankind been laid upon us. The sinless angels can't equal this pattern either.
Another such statement speaks of Christ’s infinite goodness as the pattern we cannot equal but must strive to follow:
What efforts are we putting forth as the believers of unpopular truth, in self-denial, in self-sacrifice? We can never equal the Pattern, because it is infinite goodness practiced in His human nature, yet we should make determined efforts with all the powers of our being to follow His example (16MR 199).
What is the pattern we can’t equal? Christ’s “infinite goodness.” Again, even the sinless angels can’t equal that. Only God is capable of infinite goodness, and Jesus demonstrated that goodness by coming to earth as the sacrifice for our sins. But in no way is this or any comparable passage saying our Lord’s sinless obedience is a pattern fallen beings cannot equal, even through heaven’s power.
As in our evangelistic endeavors with the larger Christian world, our study of contemporary Adventist theological issues must demonstrate the underlying harmony between all inspired passages addressing a given subject. But just as some will never be convinced by the Biblical evidence regarding such issues as the Sabbath, the unconscious state of the dead, the perpetuity of the Ten Commandment law, the conditional nature of salvation and the visible manner of Christ’s second coming, so some will refuse to be persuaded by the collective testimony of both Scripture and Ellen White regarding any number of continuing controversies in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
If one takes the position that because certain ones—especially if they are family, close friends, or colleagues in ministry—cannot be persuaded by the collective weight of inspired evidence on various contemporary Adventist issues, that we should simply “call a truce” and allow for differences in the Adventist community, one is—perhaps unwittingly—left equally vulnerable to the suggestion that Adventists should stop trying to convince other equally sincere, equally Christ-loving Christians outside our faith regarding the Sabbath and similar issues, as such insistence on our part hinders Christian unity and disrupts countless lives in the process. One of the books on the humanity of Christ noted earlier, reviewed by the present writer, makes the following observation regarding this particular controversy within Adventism:
Both sides reveal honest, sincere, conscientious Christians who love the Lord and His truth. It seems inconceivable to either A or B that both A and B could be correct. And so, the contention continues, dividing families, churches, and friends (James Rafferty, How Jesus Was Like Us).
But then, the doctrines we as Adventists proclaim to the world in our public efforts also divide families, churches, and friends. Jesus predicted no less as the result of preaching and accepting the gospel (Matt. 10:34-37). Such division is always regrettable and often heart-wrenching. But it is also inevitable when the issue in question leads to major variances in one’s spiritual outlook and practical choices. Such, without question, is the case with the continuing Adventist controversy over such issues as sin, salvation, the humanity of Christ, the possibility of sinless obedience in this life, and a host of others.
During my service on the Theology of Ordination Study Committee of the General Conference, our chairman at one point voiced his concern that few if any minds were likely to change as a result of our deliberations. I subsequently rose to the microphone and informed the chairman and the Committee that not too many years before, I found myself very much on the opposite side from where I presently stand in the ordination controversy. It was the plain words of Scripture, I noted, that had changed my mind. And I hastened to add that if the inspired evidence could change my mind, anyone’s mind could be!
The same holds true, I firmly believe, for every theological and spiritual disagreement among us as Seventh-day Adventists. Recovering the genius of our faith—our classic confidence in the underlying harmony of Inspiration and its ability to explain itself, so articulately spelled out in our evangelistic initiatives—can yet settle a multitude of controversies within our ranks.
Finally, we must always beware of assuming that our words are wasted merely because persons of a contrary viewpoint don’t cry “Uncle!” when faced with convincing evidence against their position. Could the martyred Stephen have ever imagined, in the absence of divine revelation that the one holding the coats of his murderers would end up writing half the New Testament? Most assuredly there comes a time to simply let the stated evidence rest with the minds and hearts of hearers. But merely because resistance is encountered should never persuade us that our efforts are in vain.