Nicholas P. Miller, The Reformation and the Remnant: The Reformers Speak to Today’s Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2016)
Kevin D. Paulson
The book in question, penned by a lawyer-turned-theologian currently serving as a professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, seeks to address a cluster of contemporary Adventist issues both from the perspective of Protestant Reformation history and a focus on ideological positioning so far as various convictions in the contemporary church are concerned. References to “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” and “centrists” abound throughout the book with regard to different ideas and their alleged place on contemporary Adventism’s spectrum of thought (pp. 9,16,17,19,20,32,50,51, 53,54,109,115, 123,139).
Many in the church, of course, first became familiar with the author through his advocacy of what has come to be known as the “third option” in the women’s ordination controversy (1). Some might call the message of the book in question relative to a number of current issues in the denomination as a case of the Third Option Writ Large. Though the book traces valuable, even rare historical antecedents to key Adventist doctrines, and includes a number of commendable insights, its effort to find and maintain a middle posture between tendencies whose premises and content make them fundamentally irreconcilable, dooms its objective from the start.
The Supremacy of Inspired Authority
While upholding the supreme authority of Scripture in doctrinal and spiritual matters (pp. 25-27), as well as the authority of Ellen White’s prophetic gift over human reason, formal scholarship, and personal experience (pp. 30-31), the book spends comparatively little time viewing current denominational issues in the light of inspired counsel, and far more time placing these issues in what the author holds to be their rightful historical perspective, as well as positioning various convictions regarding these issues on what he believes to be the “left-center-right” continuum. Without question, this is the book’s greatest shortcoming. While it acknowledges the final say of the inspired writings in matters spiritual, significant portions of those writings offering decisive clarity relative to the issues considered by the book are left largely if not entirely unmentioned.
Adventists and Other Christians
Those Adventists labeled by the author as “conservative” or “fundamentalist” tend to receive by far the majority of the book’s slings and arrows, as is frequently the case with arguments crafted by self-styled “moderates” in contemporary Adventism. One of a number of such examples is the book’s treatment of the ecumenical issue, in which the alleged “insularity” of Adventists relative to other Christians (pp. 102,140) is rebuked with little or no mention of the extensive borrowing by Adventists in recent decades of non-SDA theological concepts, Bible study methods, and church growth techniques. Many thoughtful contemporary Adventists, at least in Western countries, will find it truly difficult to deem credible the claim that their fellow church members suffer from too little exposure to worldly thought patterns—religious or otherwise.
Adventists and the Creation Controversy
The book’s treatment of the creation controversy is mixed at best. While the author upholds the literal six-day creation account taught in Scripture (p. 58) and the literal nature of the Genesis Flood (p. 55), he seems to set aside his earlier support for Ellen White’s authority over that of uninspired scholars in his apparent disputing of Ellen White’s oft-repeated statement that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old (pp. 53,54,62) (2). The book then wanders into strange and utterly untenable logic in seeking to connect what it calls “conservative creedalism” on the creation issue with racist ideologies (p. 62)—a connection easily exploded by a plain reading of the Biblical text and the totality of the Biblical message regarding the equal standing of all races in God’s plan of salvation (Gen. 12:3; 22:18; Isa. 56:7; 60:1-3; 66:12,18-21; Matt. 8:11; 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 10:34-35; 17:26).
Adventists, Civil Government, and the Legislation of Consensual Morality
The book collides both with theological liberals in the church as well as many theological conservatives in its support for civil legislation against gay marriage and similar solutions relative to other issues of consensual morality—a discussion to which the author devotes two entire chapters (pp. 65-88). The book’s contention that all six of the commandments on the second table of the Decalogue lie within the rightful purview of the secular state (pp. 69-71) is questionable for a number of reasons, not only because the inspired pen does not ascribe such authority to non-theocratic governments, but also because issues involving intimate relationships between adults are as much the domain of the individual conscience as questions of worship, such as those covered by the first four of the Ten Commandments. Ellen White repeatedly states that coercing the conscience regarding religious observances—and for most, marriage is certainly one of these—is not within the right of secular authorities (3).
What is perhaps most disturbing about the book’s approach to the homosexual issue is what seems to be the author’s far greater enthusiasm for Christian activism on this question in the secular political arena than for the church demanding accountability from its own employees and members with regard to Biblical sexual standards. Only two passing references are made by the author to the growing acceptance of homosexual practice in contemporary Adventism (pp. 50.72), yet no strong appeal to curtail and eliminate this misbegotten spirit of “tolerance” is found in the book’s pages. Why the author seems to consider it more important for the church to force its convictions on an unbelieving world than to require accountability for Biblical faithfulness from its own members, we are permitted to guess.
The Adventist Ordination Crisis
On the women’s ordination issue, the author leaves untouched significant portions of the Bible relative to the principle of spiritual male headship (e.g. Gen. 3:7,9; Rom. 5:12-19; I Cor. 11:3; 15:22; I Tim. 2:12-13), while promoting as before his ”third way” approach to the settling of this controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (pp. 92-99). The reader is referred to an extensive analysis of these “third option” arguments in the recent book The Adventist Ordination Crisis (to which the present writer was a contributor) (4), in addition to a longer critique of the book in question also prepared by the present writer (5).
Adventists, Sunday Laws, and Other Tests
The book devotes a chapter to the classic Adventist expectation of Sunday laws in the last days (pp. 109-114), in which the author contrasts his own confidence in the reliability of these predictions (p. 111) with the thinking of certain liberal Adventists in recent decades (p. 109). The author runs into trouble, however, with his claim that the Adventist focus on the final Sabbath/Sunday crisis has made the church less sensitive to other challenges to liberty and justice (pp. 111-113). While he is correct to fault German Adventists for their support of Hitler (p. 112) and certain contemporary Adventists for apathy regarding the mistreatment of Muslims (p. 113), the idea that some “moral monomania” about Sunday laws is the reason for this (pp. 112-113), is questionable at best. In the case of German Adventists and the Nazi experience, a stronger case might well be made that the compromise of doctrinal and moral integrity begun under Elder Conradi’s leadership during the First World War (6) may bear considerably more responsibility for Adventist attitudes toward the Nazi regime than our classic eschatology. Conradi’s widespread influence among central European Adventists in the rejection of Ellen White’s prophetic gift and other unique Adventist teachings would have more likely caused increased conformity to the surrounding culture—and thus compromise with the Nazi agenda—than an inordinate focus on distinctive Adventist end-time expectation, much of which is developed in the counsels and predictions of Ellen White’s writings. Adventist history has repeatedly demonstrated that the loss of faithfulness on the part of church members to our distinctive teachings in general and Ellen White’s counsel in particular nearly always leads to heightened susceptibility to popular cultural trends, whatever these may be.
Adventists and Conspiracy Theories
The book includes an excellent chapter on the danger of popular conspiracy speculation (pp. 115-123), though the author errs badly in assuming such thinking to be primarily a problem among the church’s theological conservatives, rather than among the liberals as well (p. 114). As in secular politics, where such theories can be found across the spectrum from Oliver Stone to the John Birch Society, allegations of hidden intrigue and mysterious manipulation can be found among theologically liberal Adventists as well as among some conservatives. For example, many theologically liberal Adventists have for years alleged “cover-up” and concealment by denominational leaders of Ellen White’s source usage and other supposed flaws in distinctive Adventist doctrines (7). More recently, a prominent “progressive” Adventist publisher floated his own “Reich of the rich” fantasy in alleging that the movement known as Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) was birthed and surreptitiously funded by a secret cabal of wealthy conservative Adventists (8).
Strong as the book’s arguments against the right-wing conspiracy mindset truly are, the author leaves out the best available arguments against it—the fact that the inspired pen depicts the Antichrist power of history and prophecy as a professedly Christian system (i.e. the papacy) rather than the secular/pagan conglomerate anticipated by most right-wing conspiracy theorists, as well as the fact that the lamblike beast of Revelation 13 (i.e. the USA) is depicted in the inspired writings as possessing decisive power over the nations of the world (Rev. 13:12-17), rather than losing its sovereignty to “globalist” forces as anticipated by most “New World Order” conspiracy models.
Unfortunately, valuable as the book’s warnings against conspiracy theories surely are, they aren’t likely to be taken seriously by those conservative Adventists whose attraction for such ideas the book places in its crosshairs. The book’s overall spirit of compromise and accommodation relative to contemporary church issues is more likely to make conservative Adventist devotees of such theories dismiss the book’s thinking as part of the larger problem in the church rather than to give its arguments the hearing they deserve.
Last Generation Theology
Most disappointing of all is the book’s treatment of the construct generally described in contemporary Adventism as Last Generation Theology (pp. 125-137)—the belief that God is waiting for a demonstration of divinely-empowered sinless obedience in believers’ lives in order for Jesus to return and God’s character to be vindicated. The book lends itself to the utterly false notion that this particular theology is based primarily on a few Ellen White statements rather than first and foremost on the Bible, as well as the equally false theory that this doctrine is primarily the preserve of “independent Adventist groups” (pp. 125-126). In reality, what has come to be known as Last Generation Theology is based on substantial Biblical evidence (e.g. Num. 14:21; Isa. 40:5; 60:1-2; Zeph. 3:13; I Thess. 5:23; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3; Rev. 3:21; 10:7; 14:5) and a vast supporting array of Ellen White evidence (9)—not just the two statements cited by the book in question (pp. 125,132) (10).
One could hardly guess, when reading this book, that more Bible verses exist which uphold the possibility of sinless obedience through God’s power by earthly believers than can be found supporting the claims of the seventh-day Sabbath (e.g. Psalm 4:4; 34:13-14; 37:27; 119:1-3,11; Rom. 6:14; 8:3-4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; 10:4-5; Eph. 5:27; II Tim. 2:19; I Peter 2:21-22; 4:1; I John 1:7,9; 3:7; Jude 24). Ellen White is equally explicit in using the word “sinless” or comparable language to describe the Spirit-empowered character attainment of believers while on earth (11).
Far from being a marginalized product of fringe Adventist belief, evidence from denominational history reveals that Last Generation Theology is a construct deeply embedded in the doctrinal and spiritual DNA of classic Seventh-day Adventism (12). It is for this reason that Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton, in his 1977 book The Shaking of Adventism, was constrained to write:
"The doctrine of the perfecting of the final generation stands near the heart of Adventist theology" (13).
Conclusion: The Futile Quest for Neutrality
In sum, the book in question pursues what can only be called a futile quest for neutrality in the present Adventist struggle for identity and purpose. Rather than place contemporary issues under the exclusive scrutiny of inspired counsel, and then letting the proverbial “chips” fall where they may, the book seeks to fabricate a “middle ground” between the great contending forces in the church, irrespective of the lack of inspired or at times even logical support in the approach it uses. The book ignores the fact that Jesus’ prayer for unity among His followers was prefaced by His entreaty that they be sanctified by His Father’s Word of truth (John 17:17-21). Also ignored is the message of such Ellen White statements as the following:
"If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty, it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference and neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime, and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God" (14).
"We cannot purchase peace and unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God" (15).
Sadly, the book in question does not sound this clarion call. Instead, it nurtures the same indecisive spirituality which constrained the Israelites on Mount Carmel to hold their peace when God’s messenger challenged them, “If the Lord be God, follow Him, but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).
1. Nicholas Miller, “Theology of Ordination: Position No. 3,” Adventist Review, Oct. 23, 2014 http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/theology-of-ordination-position-no.-3
2. See Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 92; Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, pp. 88,93; vol. 4, p. 371; Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 51,342; The Desire of Ages, pp. 49,117,413 (twice stated),652,759; The Great Controversy, pp. vii,x,328,518,546,552-552,656,659 (twice stated), 673; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1139; Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 172; vol. 3, pp. 138,492; Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 267 (twice stated),269,280; Counsels on Health, p. 19; Review and Herald, Aug. 18, 1874.
3. The Great Controversy, pp. 201,440-442,443,445,581
4. See The Adventist Ordination Crisis: Biblical Authority or Cultural Conformity? (Roseville, CA: Amazing Facts, 2015), pp. 100-106.
5. Those desiring a copy of a longer, more in-depth critique of this book may contact the present writer via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Helmut H. Kramer, The Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement (German Reform) (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), pp. 6-8; “Louis (Ludwig) Richard Conradi,” included in Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (2nd edition) (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2013), p. 348.
7. See Robert D. Brinsmead, Judged by the Gospel: A Review of Adventism (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict Publications, 1980), pp. 134,157-159,327,330; Walter T. Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, CA: M&R Publications, 1982), pp. 45-52,82-97,262-267; Bonnie L. Casey, “Graybill’s Exit: Turning Point at the White Estate?” Spectrum, March 1984, p. 8.
9. White, The Great Controversy, p. 623; Early Writings, p. 71; Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 187,340,619; vol. 2, pp. 355,505; vol. 3, p. 472; vol. 5, pp. 214,216; Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 506-507; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 1055, 1118; Evangelism, p. 702; From the Heart, p. 44; Review and Herald, Nov. 19, 1908, etc.
10. Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69; The Great Controversy, p. 425.
11. The Desire of Ages, p. 311; Evangelism, p. 385; Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 81; Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360; Review and Herald, April 1, 1902; Sept. 27, 1906; Signs of the Times, June 17, 1903; Aug. 9, 1905; Youth’s Instructor, April 16, 1903.
12. See Herbert E. Douglass, Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Doctrine Explains the Mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1976), pp. 47-49; A Fork in the Road: Questions on Doctrine: The Historic Adventist Divide of 1957 (Coldwater, MI: Remnant Publications, 2008), p. 19; “Men of Faith: The Showcase of God’s Grace,” Perfection: The Impossible Possibility (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1975), pp. 13-56; Jesus—The Benchmark of Humanity (With Leo Van Dolson) (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1977); The End: Unique Voice of Adventists About the Return of Jesus (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1979); The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy Theme in the Writings of Ellen G. White (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2010); W.H. Branson, Drama of the Ages (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1950), pp. 155-161; C. Mervyn Maxwell, “Ready for His Appearing,” Perfection: The Impossible Possibility (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1975), pp. 141-200; Dennis E. Priebe, Face to Face With the Real Gospel (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1985); . Ralph Larson, The Word Was Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1852-1952 (Cherry Valley, CA: The Cherrystone Press, 1986); J.R. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1999).
13. Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), p. 114. See also Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 86-87.
14. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 281.
15. Historical Sketches, p. 197.