The ultimate measure of truth and error for classic Seventh-day Adventism is found in such Bible verses as the following:
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:20).
These (the Bereans) were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:11).
Sincerity, no matter how devout, is no indicator of spiritual truthfulness. The Bible tells us that “there is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:11). Merely because people argue on different sides of a doctrinal or moral viewpoint with what appears to be equal sincerity, proves nothing so far as truth and error are concerned.
Exclusive trust in the written counsel of God as our supreme spiritual authority is the cornerstone of Seventh-day Adventist faith and practice. Though the Bible comes first in classic Adventist doctrinal reckoning, the writings of Ellen White—often called the Spirit of Prophecy (Rev. 12:17; 19:10)—also possess authority in the articulation and clarification of doctrinal and moral issues. This is why Ellen White makes such statements in her writings as the following:
God has, in that Word (the Bible), promised to give visions in the last days, not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth (1).
The Lord has given me much light that I want the people to have; for there is instruction that the Lord has given me for His people. It is light that they should have, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. This is now to come before the people, because it has been given to correct specious errors, and to specify what is truth (2).
Additional truth is not brought out, but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given (3).
Departure from strict reliance on the written counsel of God in matters of doctrine and behavior can take a variety of forms. What follows are a number of the forms this departure can take, which can be seen in a number of doctrinal disputes in contemporary Adventism across the theological spectrum.
Telltale Signs of Doctrinal Error
1. Appeals to uninspired sources of authority. In nearly all theological, moral, and ecclesiastical controversies in contemporary Adventism, one side of the controversy appeals solely to the self-interpreting counsel of Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, while one or more contrary perspectives appeal to uninspired human sources as a means of approaching and settling issues or understanding inspired counsel.
Among those of an evangelical or liberal theological bent, this involves appealing to professionally trained scholars, whose insights regarding Biblical and theological subjects are given considerable authority in guiding the perspective and understanding of those who read the inspired writings. Among those of a more conservative theological leaning, some of whom may find themselves attracted to theories in the opposite direction (e.g. anti-Trinitarianism), one may find copious and frequent appeals to the opinions of certain Adventist pioneers.
But while helpful insights may be gained from professional scholars, and while the Adventist pioneers can rightly be called the most stellar collection of spiritual giants in the Christian world since the New Testament apostles, only the written counsel of God can define the difference between truth and error. Only one Adventist pioneer was inspired, and her name was Ellen G. White. Not even her husband, great and godly though he was, possessed the gift of inspiration.
2. Appeals to human experience. A popular path to error in the continuing controversy among some Adventists over the doctrine of salvation is the argument that goes, regarding an opposing viewpoint: “I tried that theology, but it didn’t work for me.”
The reason such testimonies are so unhelpful is because none of us knows the heart of another (I Kings 8:39). The negative experiences and false perceptions that can obstruct one’s awareness of a particular Bible truth may be known only to God, who thankfully is the ultimate Judge of everyone’s eternal destiny. This is why it is especially important to simply rely on the written Word, with its self-interpreting clarity (II Peter 1:20-21; I Cor. 2:12-14), to determine what we believe, how we worship, and how we live.
The following sober warnings are offered by Ellen White with regard to experience-driven spirituality:
The plainest facts may be presented, the clearest truths, sustained by the word of God, may be brought before the mind, but the ear and heart are closed, and the all-convincing argument is, “my experience.” Some will say, “The Lord has blessed me in believing and doing as I have; therefore I cannot be in error.” “My experience” is clung to, and the most elevating, sanctifying truths of the Bible are rejected for what they are pleased to style experience (4).
Eve was beguiled by the serpent and made to believe that God would not do as He had said. She ate, and, thinking she felt the sensation of a new and more exalted life, she bore the fruit to her husband. The serpent had said that she should not die, and she felt no ill effects from eating the fruit, nothing which could be interpreted to mean death, but, instead, a pleasurable sensation, which she imagined was as the angels felt. Her experience stood arrayed against the positive command of Jehovah, yet Adam permitted himself to be seduced by it (5).
She goes on to say, in the context of the above statement:
In the face of the most positive commands of God, men and women will follow their own inclinations, and then dare to pray over the matter, to prevail upon God to allow them to go contrary to His expressed will. Satan comes to the side of such persons, as he did to Eve in Eden, and impresses them. They have an exercise of mind, and this they relate as a most wonderful experience which the Lord has given them. But true experience will be in harmony with natural and divine law; false experience arrays itself against the laws of nature and the precepts of Jehovah (6).
Many in Christian circles today, including some in Adventism, seem to think the Holy Spirit can lead men and women in ways which might at times even supersede what is found in the written Word. But the following Ellen White statement warns most strongly against such thinking:
When the Savior imparts His peace to the soul, the heart will be in perfect harmony with the Word of God, for the Spirit and the Word agree. The Lord honors His Word in all His dealings with humanity. It is His own will, His own voice, that is revealed to them, and He has no new will, no new truth, aside from His Word, to unfold to His children. If you have a wonderful experience that is not in harmony with the express directions of God’s Word, you may well doubt it, for its origin is not from above. The peace of Christ comes through the knowledge of Jesus whom the Bible reveals (7).
In addition to the salvation controversy, we see this experience-driven approach in current discussions regarding gender and sexuality issues in the church. Many who advocate identical gender roles in positions of spiritual leadership insist that women have been “called” to roles identical and interchangeable with those of men, irrespective of what the inspired writings say about distinctions in these roles within the spiritual realm. Regarding sexuality issues, others claim they have “found their inner soul” or discovered great happiness by making peace with lifestyles forbidden in God’s Word.
But despite the siren call of experience and subjective spirituality, neither Biblical faithfulness nor true happiness can be found in the embrace of theology or the pursuit of roles or lifestyles contrary to the written counsel of God. Any argument which mitigates the authority of inspired counsel on the basis of personal experience is not to be trusted.
3. The “guilt by association” argument. In recent decades this argument has often been used to discredit the call to revival and reformation sounded by many theological conservatives in the church. Some, for example, have sought to marginalize the summons to greater doctrinal integrity and higher standards of worship and lifestyle because certain ones issuing this call have indulged what many believe to be a harsh, negative spirit regarding the church and its leaders.
Whenever such a spirit has in fact been displayed, of course, it has been hurtful and wrong. But the concerns such persons have voiced still need to be measured by the inspired yardstick, irrespective of the spirit that may at times attend them. Jehu’s self-focused zeal (II Kings 10:16) didn’t mean God hadn’t in fact called him to execute judgment on the house of Ahab (I Kings 19:16-17; II Kings 9:3,6-7), nor did the murderous rage of James and John against a village that refused Jesus a night’s lodging (Luke 9:54-55) mean their Master wasn’t still the Messiah.
We also hear the guilt-by-association argument from advocates of such teachings as anti-Trinitarianism. The claim is made that because Roman Catholics and other non-Adventist Christians presumably hold to the Trinity doctrine, that it must be wrong. (Roman Catholics also believe in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ, and in the wrongness of adultery, fornication, and homosexual practice.) A similar argument is often made when the spirituality of the Adventist pioneers—most of whom were non-Trinitarian—is compared with that of contemporary Adventist theologians, nearly all of whom are strongly Trinitarian. “How,” it is often asked, “could such spiritual giants as our pioneers have been so wrong on such an important subject, and contemporary Adventist theologians—with the numerous compromises so many of them have made—be right?”
But the Protestant Reformers were also spiritual giants compared to so many in our time. Some of these men even died a martyr’s death for what they believed, as did many of their followers. None of the Adventist pioneers were constrained to suffer in that fashion. Yet the Reformers also held some very dangerous errors—predestination, original sin, Sunday-sacredness, false views of the Lord’s Supper—to name just a few. Martin Luther, godly and courageous though he was, was also a beer-drinking anti-Semite, whose hatred of Jews was celebrated by the Nazis four centuries later (8).
The guilt-by-association argument is also used by anti-Trinitarians with regard to LeRoy Froom, as Froom—a leading advocate of Trinitarian theology—was also a supporter of the compromises made in the book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine with regard to such issues as the human nature of Christ. But merely because Froom was wrong regarding certain issues doesn’t mean he was wrong regarding others. A doctrine is neither true nor false because of the flaws or virtues in its advocates or in other positions they make take. Only the written counsel of God defines the difference between spiritual truth and spiritual falsehood.
4. Arguments from silence. When it comes to the inspired writings, arguments from silence are not entirely to be dismissed; sometimes the silence of the inspired pen regarding a particular subject gives evidence of God’s regard for the individual conscience regarding a particular doctrinal or moral question. For example, Ellen White says the following regarding the practice of tithing as prescribed by the Pharisees, and where the latter went wrong:
The Jewish rulers recognized the obligation of tithing, and this was right; but they did not leave the people to carry out their own convictions of duty. Arbitrary rules were laid down for every case. The requirements had become so complicated that it was impossible for them to be fulfilled. None knew when their obligations were met. As God gave it, the system was just and reasonable; but the priests and rabbis had made it a wearisome burden (9).
So the argument from silence on certain issues can in fact be an argument for the authority of the conscience, and if the inspired pen is indeed silent regarding a particular question, leeway for the conscience should rightly be acknowledged. But as used in many other settings, the argument from silence can seriously mislead. For example, anti-Trinitarians insist that because Ellen White never directly rebuked her husband and the other non-Trinitarian pioneers for their theology on this subject, that at the least the issue has to be seen as non-essential.
But the absence of a direct rebuke by Ellen White to her contemporaries on the Trinity issue is overwhelmed in importance by Ellen White’s numerous statements affirming a Godhead of three co-eternal Persons (10). Why she chose not to directly rebuke those in her circle who taught differently on this subject, we can’t know for sure. What we can in fact know is Ellen White’s unmistakable clarity on the reality of three co-eternal Members of the Godhead, heavenly trio, Trinity, or whatever term we choose to employ.
Some have alleged that the Trinity doctrine can’t be that important because we have numerous Ellen White statements which speak of how the work could have been finished in the early days of Adventism, when most were non-Trinitarian. This is comparable to the claim by certain ex-Adventists that the Sabbath can’t be that important because Sabbath-breaking is absent from all the New Testament lists of sins. But no doctrine is true, false, important, or irrelevant based on the absence of inspired declarations concerning it at a particular point in time. (Aside from one passing reference in the Psalms (Psalm 92), the Sabbath isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament from the time of Israel’s conquest of Canaan till the time of the later prophets—a period of over seven centuries—and this despite the frequent lists of sins in both Proverbs and Psalms.)
At the bottom line, only the inspired consensus—not the clarity or absence of inspired counsel at one point or another—can determine what the church believes or how the church lives. Considering the strength of Ellen White’s Trinitarian beliefs in so many of her statements, we have every reason to believe that if the church had been prepared to complete its task in the Advent movement’s early days, that the misunderstanding of this topic so many cherished during that time would have been corrected by direct divine intervention, one way or the other.
5. Making Biblical metaphors stretch too far. Adventists who support the pre-Fall view of Christ’s human nature often fall into this trap, when they claim that because Christ is identified in the inspired writings as the Second Adam, that this means He must have inherited a human nature identical to that of the sinless Adam, as distinct from the fallen nature inherited by Adam’s descendants.
This is how many conservative Christians outside Adventism get into trouble with Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which they mistake for an insight into what happens at death rather than a warning against trusting miracles as a means of establishing God’s truth beyond the pronouncements of the written Word (verse 31).
Anti-Trinitarians fall into this trap as well. They don’t seem to realize that human metaphors regarding the Godhead such as “Father” and “Son” can’t be understood in human terms. The word "son“ may imply a beginning for human beings thus identified, but the inspired pen does not allow such a perspective regarding the Second Person of the Godhead. To insist that the title “Son of God” means Jesus had a beginning at some point in eternity past is no more credible than the claim of Robert Brinsmead some years ago, when he stated regarding classic Christian theism: “God does not have a son any more than He has a wife” (11).
6. False dilemmas. Recent arguments by anti-Trinitarians have insisted that because the writings of Ellen White identify the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ and of the Father in some statements (12), that the Holy Spirit therefore can’t be a distinct, separate Person within the Godhead. But Ellen White also states, regarding the Holy Spirit:
The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, in Christ’s name. He personifies Christ, yet is a distinct personality (13).
What some fail to consider is that the Holy Spirit can in fact be both the Spirit of Christ and the Father, as well as being a distinct divine Person. It isn’t a question of either/or, in other words, both of both/and.
7. Reliance on unproved, often outlandish theories. Conspiracy speculation can be found on both ends of the ideological spectrum, whether in the sacred or the secular realm. (A recent article in The New Republic spoke at length of the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories among political liberals (14).) Such theories, often advanced without verifiable proof, tend to inflict notable harm on the credibility of any cause with which they are associated.
Certain promoters of anti-Trinitarianism have cited as support for their case the allegation that Trinitarian theology entered the Seventh-day Adventist Church through LeRoy Froom. One such individual recently claimed in an online discussion that “the trinity first appeared [in Adventism] in 1931” (15). But the one making this claim appeared quite surprised when it was demonstrated that Francis M. Wilcox, in the Review and Herald, had listed belief “in the divine Trinity” as first among Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs as early as 1913 (16).
Even more absurd is the claim advanced by some that Froom was probably a Jesuit or a Freemason because his grave is presumably located in a Jesuit cemetery. This is like saying the present writer’s younger brother is a Jesuit because he happened to graduate from a Jesuit law school in southern California. Any argument which relies on such outlandish suppositions for support is nearly guaranteed to be fallacious.
8. Bending beliefs and standards for the purpose of outreach. The adjustment of doctrinal or lifestyle imperatives by the church as a means of reaching one or another group outside or on the edge of the church, has been around for some time. Many who have promoted contemporary methods of music and worship have done so with the intent of reaching the unchurched or reclaiming former members. Still others have insisted at times that unless Adventists either change or marginalize such teachings as the sanctuary, the Spirit of Prophecy, or the need for a perfected final generation of believers in preparation for Christ’s return, that certain segments of the Christian world will call us a cult.
Remarkably perhaps, we even see this approach at times on the opposite end of the Adventist spectrum. Certain anti-Trinitarian Adventists have claimed that the Trinity doctrine places a major impediment in the way of evangelizing Jews and Muslims, and thus urge an adjustment of our doctrinal position as a denomination on this point. But even such commendable reasons as the desire to reach the lost cannot justify the twisting or denial of inspired statements on any subject. Ironically, the history of recent decades has demonstrated that those religious communities who cling most tenaciously to their orthodox, even peculiar beliefs, are those which have experienced the most sustained growth, in contrast to those religious bodies who have compromised for reasons of presumed “relevance” (17).
The following declaration by the modern prophet must remain the ultimate measure of doctrinal, moral, and ecclesiastical integrity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church:
Before accepting any doctrine or precept we should demand a plain “thus saith the Lord” in its support (18).
Neither personal experience, pronouncements by historical or contemporary figures, nor any other claims, arguments, or theories, can negate the written Word. In all things spiritual, that Word must remain supreme. May our eyes be open and our discernment sensitive to the telltale signs of doctrinal and spiritual error.
1. Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 78.
2. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 32.
3. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 665.
4. Ibid, vol. 3, p. 71.
5. ----Counsels on Health, pp. 108-109.
6. Ibid, p. 109.
7. ----From the Heart, p. 299.
8. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 91,236.
9. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 616-617.
10. See Kevin Paulson, “Three Co-Eternal Persons,” ADvindicate, May 7, 2017
11. Quoted by Larry Pahl, “Where is Robert Brinsmead?” Adventist Today, May-June 1999, p. 14.
12. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 131; Acts of the Apostles, pp. 50-51; Christian Service, pp. 250, 252, etc.
13. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, p. 324.
14. Colin Dickey, “The New Paranoia,” The New Republic, July 2017, pp. 22-31.
16. Francis M. Wilcox, “The Message for Today,” Review and Herald, Oct. 9, 1913, p. 21.
17. See Paulson, “Why Conservative Denominations Are Still Growing,” ADvindicate, Feb. 2, 2017
18. White, The Great Controversy, p. 595.