A Fork in the Road: Questions on Doctrine: The Historic Adventist Divide of 1957 by Herbert Edgar Douglass (Remnant Publications, 2008)
A Fork in the Road, by Dr. Herbert E. Douglass, a highly respected Seventh-day Adventist scholar, provides an insider’s perspective of the turbulent era when Adventist leaders persuaded cult expert Walter Martin to recognize SDAs as evangelicals. Martin’s endorsement led many Christians to accept Adventists into the fellowship of believers—a step which the conservative Douglass somewhat regrets because of the compromises that were necessary to win Martin’s qualified approval.
To understand Douglass’s stature within Adventism, it is important to recognize that he has published more books in defense of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry than any other Adventist author. At the time of this review, his most recent publication is a highly regarded exposition of Ellen White’s theology entitled The Heartbeat of Adventism (2011). Because A Fork in the Road paints an unflattering picture of several prominent Adventist leaders from past decades, it was not published by the SDA Church. However, one shouldn’t dismiss A Fork in the Road because of its roundabout path to SDA bookstores. The publisher is a conservative SDA group whose books and audio products are widely sold through official Adventist channels. In addition, A Fork in the Road is recommended by several prominent Adventist scholars and leaders, so the book shouldn’t be dismissed as mere conservative bellyaching. It is a reputable analysis of a vital period of SDA history. Douglass’s conclusions are controversial and shocking, but they are certainly worthy of careful consideration.
A Fork in the Road challenges Adventism to reverse the doctrinal changes that were introduced in Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957), a book that was published at Martin’s insistence to document his interactions with the SDA leadership. Questions on Doctrine, commonly abbreviated QOD, is the most controversial Adventist book ever published (90). It won evangelical recognition for the SDA Church, but it created theological fissures in the Adventist Church. The most divisive doctrinal changes of QOD appear to undermine the authority of Ellen G. White, the SDA prophetess. A Fork in the Road argues that Adventist leaders weren’t honest with either Walter Martin or rank-and-file church members regarding the teachings of QOD (57). In light of the “fraud” and “misrepresentation” charged by Douglass, we believe that Martin’s qualified approval of Adventism should be reconsidered.
Background to the Discussions with Walter Martin
For the first hundred years of Seventh-day Adventist history, most evangelicals considered Adventism a cult. In 1949, the first hints of a thaw in the SDA relationship to evangelicals occurred when T. E. Unruh, an SDA official, sent a gracious letter to Donald Barnhouse, editor of Eternity magazine. Unruh thanked Barnhouse for a radio presentation on righteousness by faith, and the evangelical leader was stunned that an Adventist would apparently endorse the Protestant understanding of this vital doctrine. Through subsequent letters, Unruh attempted to modify Barnhouse’s view of Adventism, but Barnhouse remained convinced that Adventists were guilty of heresy. However, a seed of dialogue had been sown (16).
Several years later, Dr. Walter Martin, a cult expert on the editorial staff of Eternity, read the Barnhouse-Unruh letters and requested a meeting with Adventist leaders to clarify certain doctrinal questions. A series of meetings ensued, with the primary figures being Martin and three SDA leaders: LeRoy Froom, Walter Read, and Roy Allan Anderson (17-18). The Adventists hoped Martin could help them escape the cult designation that had dogged the SDAs for so many years, and Martin was willing to open the cult “doghouse” if SDA leaders demonstrated flexibility regarding certain key doctrines. In particular, Martin objected to SDA statements indicating that Christ took the sinful nature of man at the incarnation, and he disputed the SDA view of an ongoing atonement that wasn’t finished at the cross. He also sought clarification regarding the authority of Ellen White versus the Bible, among other issues.
Martin probably hoped that Adventists would be more open to change if they could be welcomed into the evangelical community, but he needed to see evidence of change before staking his reputation on the rehabilitation of Adventism. Thus, Martin insisted that the Adventist Church publish Questions on Doctrine to document the answers he was given. He didn’t want SDA leaders to ever deny the conclusions from their discussions with him. In a very real sense, the Adventists were negotiating for recognition into the evangelical family, while Martin was negotiating for theological concessions that could permanently change the SDA Church. Adventism faced a huge fork in the road.
During the meetings between Martin and the “Adventist trio” (as Douglass calls the SDA negotiators), Herbert Douglass was a member of the editorial staff at the Review and Herald Publishing Association. His primary responsibility was editing the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series, but he was in an excellent position to observe behind-the-scenes debates at General Conference headquarters. From his insider perspective and his expertise as a conservative Adventist theologian, Douglass charges that the Adventist leaders who promoted QOD were guilty of “theological malfeasance” through which they “misconstrued” core SDA doctrines in their discussions with Martin (32).
Douglass believes that QOD utterly misrepresents Ellen White’s teaching that Christ took sinful human nature. Martin and Barnhouse, of course, were pushing the Adventists to acknowledge that Christ took sinless, rather than sinful, human nature (80). In their effort to gain approval from the evangelicals, Douglass asserts that the Adventists printed Ellen White quotes in QOD “that were deliberately altered with unethical use of the ellipses . . . .” (32). The misleading publication of Ellen White quotes is so serious to Douglass that he charges the responsible individuals with “scholarly fraud” (54). He states that “if the QOD trio emphasized even slightly the mass of Ellen White quotes that linked our Lord’s humanity with fallen mankind, Martin and Barnhouse would have quickly packed their bags and continued their attacks on the Adventists as cultists, in their eyes” (55).
Private letters quoted by Douglass reveal the anguish of some SDA leaders who understood that Martin and Barnhouse were being “deliberately misled” (36). For instance, in one internal communication, Raymond Cottrell wrote that SDA leaders must “take adequate measures now to clear the atmosphere before Martin’s book is published, and to set forth in [Questions on Doctrine] a clear exposition of [Adventism’s] true position.” Otherwise, Cottrell warned, Martin might later feel “double-crossed” (36). Francis D. Nichol, another prominent SDA leader, wrote that “many of us, on mature consideration, are unable to support” certain doctrinal positions taken by the Adventist trio (37). Theodore Carcich, worrying about the doctrinal purity of Adventism, quietly informed his subordinates that QOD is “a clever and subtle attempt to undermine the foundational doctrines of Seventh-day Adventists” (38). Had Martin known of the dissenting opinions quietly expressed by so many eminent Adventists, he might not have embraced Adventists as fellow evangelicals, and a great deal of confusion regarding the nature of Adventism could have been avoided.
The meetings between Martin and the SDA trio softened Barnhouse’s opposition to Adventism. In a 1957 piece, he opined that the theological differences between Adventists and evangelicals were created by a “lunatic fringe” in Adventism, and he allowed that every group has a few “wild-eyed irresponsibles” (18). According to Douglass, Froom and other SDA leaders knew from a secret poll of SDA clergy that most of them were part of the so-called “lunatic fringe” because they believed in doctrines such as the sinful nature of Christ (19). Douglass claims that many (if not most) eminent Adventists were actually part of the “lunatic fringe” (19). The vast majority of Adventists were actually Barnhousian lunatics, but the evangelical leaders were never informed of the realities within Adventism.
The most prominent lunatic was M. L. Andreasen, former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, and one of the most widely published Adventist theologians of his time. When Andreasen belatedly discovered the theological changes that were on the verge of being published, he began a campaign against QOD that eventually cost him his ministerial credentials (they were restored posthumously). At one point, Andreasen declared, “To rush into print at this time with shallow and confused ideas; to announce to the world that the theories set forth in the article under consideration is the Adventist understanding of the atonement, is unfortunate and is not true” (71).
After quietly modifying Adventist theology in order to convince Martin that Adventists are evangelicals, SDA leaders were forced to sell the changes to the unsuspecting Adventist public. As Douglass puts it, “Of course, the misrepresentation worked both ways: Calvinists [Martin and Barnhouse] were to be convinced that Adventists had changed their teachings and Adventists had to be convinced that we had not changed our teachings” (57). When QOD was introduced to the Adventist Church, General Conference President R. R. Figuhr declared in the pages of Ministry magazine,
“Probably no other book published by this denomination has been so carefully read by so large a group of responsible men of the denomination before its publication as the one under consideration. Some 250 men in American and in other countries received copies of the manuscript before it was published. The preliminary manuscript . . . had been so carefully prepared that only a minimum of suggestions of improvement were made. There was . . . a remarkable chorus of approval” (33).
Unfortunately for the harmony depicted by Figuhr, very few of the 250 recipients of advance copies bothered to comment, and that the comments received often raised serious questions about QOD (33).
Opposition to QOD at the Review and Herald Publishing Association, which was scheduled to publish the book, was so high that the General Conference took full editorial responsibility for the manuscript (37). Several Review editors, including Douglass, responded by gathering around a basin of water and washing their hands of all responsibility for QOD. We wonder if this gesture was any more effective than Pontius Pilate’s ablutions (37).
Questions on Doctrine was published by the SDA Church in 1957, and Martin reciprocated with The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism in 1960. While Martin’s embrace of Adventism was highly controversial at the time, evangelical opinions softened. Martin’s later book Kingdom of the Cults came to be seen as the most authoritative work on cults, and it solidified the evangelical rapprochement with Adventism. However, according to Douglass, the new assessment of Adventism was attributable to “scholarly fraud” rather than to open, careful consideration of the true teachings of Adventism (54).
View of Evangelicals
One of the most unfortunate features of A Fork in the Road is Douglass’s harsh perspective toward prominent Christian beliefs. He sets up the QOD meetings as a struggle between Calvinism and Arminianism: “Calvinism and Arminianism—two tectonic plates—were about to collide” (23). Apparently, Douglass sees Adventists as the true defenders of the Arminian understanding of free will (15, 24).
Douglass’s depiction of Calvinism is partially incorrect and needlessly offensive:
“The Calvinism [theological] tree has its roots in a partial picture of God—God only as Sovereign—but sovereign in such a way that all that happens in this world is fore-ordained or predestinated. Thus, only some men and women are elected to be saved; others are not; they go to an eternally burning hell. The idea of human responsibility is eliminated—God wills the future for everyone, because no one can possibly thwart God’s will” (23).
But we are not here to discuss or defend Reformed theology….
Calvinism has always been a threat to Adventist theology because it holds that salvation is entirely dependent on the imputed (credited) righteousness of Christ. Adventists emphasize a lifelong struggle for sanctification as an essential aspect of retaining salvation. Adventists also believe that the God of Calvinism unfairly predestines a few persons for heaven while damning everyone else—entirely in opposition to human free will. Therefore, when Douglass continually refers to Martin and Barnhouse as “the Calvinists,” he is surely predisposing his Adventist readers to recoil in horror against these men. For an Adventist, Calvinism is a pejorative term, and Douglass is well aware of this fact. Basically, he is poisoning the well against the men who reached out to Adventism on behalf of the evangelical community. For the record, Martin never asked Adventists to become Calvinists or to abandon Arminianism. He merely asked Adventists to stop teaching that the incarnation transferred a sinful human nature to Jesus Christ, to stop teaching two atonements, and to clearly elevate the Bible above the writings of Ellen White.
Douglass is also highly critical of evangelical Arminians:
“Arminians begin with their roots in the soil of freedom, out of which develops all aspects of the Great Controversy between God and Satan. . . . However, most Arminians, lacking the integrity of a coherent theology, have many viewpoints in common with Calvinists, such as total depravity, Sunday being the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, and the soul being immortal, leading to an ever-burning hell and other biblical inconsistencies” (24).
We are also not here to defend or discuss Arminianism, but Douglass’s opinion of evangelical Arminians is unfortunate, nonetheless….
We believe that the areas of unity between Calvinism and Arminianism represent the strength of evangelicalism rather than a lack of “integrity.” Adventists must be Arminians because the Adventist version of Jesus possessed free will that could have caused Him to fail as the world’s Redeemer. In addition, Adventists need Arminianism because Adventists emphasize character perfection (which requires free-will human effort) as essential for salvation. Adventists need Arminianism, but most Arminians would prefer not to have Adventists perceive themselves as the true representatives of Arminianism.
Adventist feelings of superiority and hostility toward other Christians stem from Adventist’s self-perceived mission as God’s end-time remnant: “Adventist self-understanding involves its primary historical reason for existence—to call God’s people out of Babylon, out of churches that have fallen for Satan’s heresies, and to prepare them to live forever” (90). Therefore, evangelicals shouldn’t expect to relate to Adventists as equals, for Adventists must either evangelize other denominations or fail to fulfill their mission.
View of Evangelical Theology
The most troubling aspect of Douglass’s attacks on evangelical theology is his rejection of the cross of Christ alone as the basis for salvation. He states that “Arminians are not forced into Calvinism’s straitjacket that assumed Christ’s work on Calvary alone to be sufficient for salvation and that His work as High Priest [the second phase of the SDA atonement] had nothing to do with preparing men and women eventually to be saved” (25). Douglass takes this position because Ellen White teaches that since 1844, Christ has been conducting a work of atonement in the heavenly sanctuary—an atonement that is just as important as the atonement on Calvary. Of course, all evangelical Arminians view a second atonement as unbiblical and heretical, so Douglass’s association of Arminianism with a second atonement is most unwelcome.
Douglass comes out more explicitly in the next paragraph against the evangelical understanding of the atonement, explaining that character perfection is integral to salvation: “Calvinism’s straightjacket led to ‘forensic-only salvation,’ which has troubled the Christian church for 400 years. Forensic justification is another term for penal substitution, wherein, in some way, 1) God’s wrath is appeased in the death of Jesus, and 2) the sinner is forgiven by ‘faith’ that is denuded from any relationship to character change in the process. This unbiblical notion has confused the works of grace and the meaning of ‘righteousness by faith’” (25). According to Adventist theology, character perfection (or sanctification) requires obedience to the law of God. Therefore, salvation isn’t finished at the cross because we have “human responsibility in the redemption process” (25). We must show through our works “that we can eventually be entrusted with eternal life” (26). Douglass correctly states that the Adventist doctrine of salvation is antithetical to the evangelical understanding: “[W]hen Jesus paid the indebtedness of the repentant sinner, He did not give him or her license to continue sinning but to now live responsibly in obedience to the law. Calvinists are not able to process this fundamental thought” (43; see also 95).
Conservative SDA hostility toward the gospel of scripture is evident from the following quote: “Satan’s picture [of the gospel] runs something like this: ‘We are all sinners. We will be sinners until Jesus comes, and if we die before He returns, He will remember that we were sorry for our sins.’ And continuing, ‘Didn’t Jesus die to cover my sins, and if I ask Him to forgive me, isn’t that the good news?’ If this is all we understand as to why Jesus died, then we are believing in Satan’s ‘good news’” (133). Of course, Douglass is oversimplifying the evangelical understanding of the gospel, but he is correct about the essential features; unfortunately, he apparently rejects the essentials of salvation. In the Book of Acts, the apostles repeatedly exhorted the people to believe and be saved. Period.
“Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).
“And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).
To be saved, we must indeed recognize our need of a Savior; we must repent of our sins in an attitude of faith; and we must accept the righteousness of Christ that is freely given through God’s grace. That’s God’s gospel! We do not grow in Christ and then finally obtain the redemption we seek. We are irrevocably saved first—then and only then will we grow in Christ.
Douglass is correct to recognize that the evangelical view of the atonement poses an existential threat to Adventism, for if the atonement was complete at Calvary, then it would be heresy to insist (as Ellen White does) that the atonement is ongoing in the heavenly sanctuary. If there is no cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary (Adventists call the cleansing phase of the atonement the Investigative Judgment), then the early Adventists would have been completely incorrect about attaching any significance to October 22, 1844. If Christ didn’t begin an investigation of sins in 1844, then Ellen White’s early visions would be demonstrably false. Therefore, Adventism falls if the atonement was finished at the cross. In addition, Douglass is correct to understand that if Jesus is fully our Substitute, then Ellen White’s emphasis on Christ as an Example would be incorrect. Ellen White envisions Jesus as our Example for overcoming sin, meaning that human beings must overcome their sins even as Christ overcame the temptations of His supposed sinful nature.
Douglass is understandably upset by QOD’s blurring of Adventist doctrine with the finished view of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but it is unfortunate that he appears disrespectful toward evangelicals and toward crucial areas of evangelical theology. It is even more unfortunate that Douglass makes no attempt to evaluate the biblical basis for the evangelical understanding of the atonement. Instead, Douglass is repeatedly satisfied to “prove” his theology from the writings of Ellen G. White. And in Douglass’s defense, EGW’s teachings should have guided the writers of QOD—so long as they wished to insist that she is a prophet inspired by God. (For a biblical reply to Douglass’s version of the gospel, please see our review of his book The Heartbeat of Adventism).
One of the strengths of A Fork in the Road is Douglass’s recognition that the Adventist understanding of the gospel is entirely different from the evangelical gospel. Douglass describes the two theological systems as “tectonic plates” that generate earthquakes wherever they meet (23). Therefore, it would be impossible to fuse core Adventist beliefs with core evangelical beliefs and retain the integrity of both systems (15-16).
Douglass is most concerned with two alleged compromises made by the Adventist trio who wrote Questions on Doctrine. First, Douglass contends that QOD denies the historic Adventist understanding of Christ taking man’s sinful nature at the incarnation. Second, he argues that QOD distorts the Adventist teaching of a two-phase atonement. The deeper issue behind these concerns is the authority of SDA prophetess Ellen White. That is why Roy Allan Anderson, editor of Ministry, assured the faithful that Questions on Doctrine “is in complete accord with the clear statements of the Spirit of prophecy [the writings of Ellen White], which we have had in our libraries for more than half a century” (34). But was Anderson correct? According to Douglass, QOD slipped crucial changes into SDA theology.
Tectonic Issue #1: Nature of Christ’s Humanity
So what did QOD say regarding the nature of Christ, and how do the QOD statements align with the teachings of Ellen White? QOD describes Jesus as “exempt from the inherited passions and pollutions that corrupt the natural descendants of Adam” (48; QOD 383). In contrast, Ellen White consistently emphasized that Christ took sinful human nature so that He could serve as our Example for overcoming sin: “The example that He has left must be followed. He took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature that He might know how to succor those that are tempted” (55; RH Aug. 22, 1907). She adds that Christ, in His sinful nature, actually could have sinned when He was on earth: “He could not have been tempted in all points as man is tempted, had there been no possibility of his failing” (76; YI July 20, 1899). But QOD groups Ellen White’s quotes on the nature of Christ under the heading “Took Sinless Human Nature” (32; QOD 650). In light of numerous EGW quotes included by Douglass, it appears that QOD changed the teaching of Ellen White on the nature of Christ. To be clear, Ellen White held that Christ lived a perfect life, but many Christians find her emphasis on Christ’s sinful human nature shocking.
To Douglass, the nature of Christ’s humanity is of vital importance because “what one thinks about the humanity of Christ directly affects what one thinks about what our Lord expects from men and women regarding character transformation” (56). Douglass goes on to explain that Christ is our example of holy living, and that we must overcome sin even as Christ overcame it: “[Christ] did become like us ‘in every respect’ (Hebrews 2:17, RSV), yet He remained connected to the Holy Spirit by choice—even as we can—and thus also become ‘overcomers,’ even ‘as I [Jesus] overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne’ (Revelation 3:21)” (xi-xii).
Oddly enough, Douglass worries that if Christ wasn’t incarnated into a sinful nature, then He would have had an advantage over human beings. Somehow, Douglass would find the plan of salvation unfair if Christ was born with the perfect attributes of God: “If Christ had such an advantage over all men and women, it would be unfair, and even unreasonable, for God to expect us to live and overcome as He did (Revelation 3:21)” (49). He adds, “[I]f Christ was tempted in all points as man is tempted but yet ‘exempt’ in some way that other humans are not, underneath the plan of salvation God was not playing fair . . . .” (76). Douglass assumes that overcoming as Christ overcame means working hard for character perfection. However, overcoming as Christ overcame means to wear the robe of Christ’s righteousness, whereby Christ’s overcoming of Satan (not His overcoming of a supposedly sinful nature) is imputed to the believer who overcomes in Christ (Rom. 4:1-8). The plan of salvation is perfect because God devised it—not because legalists can replicate Christ’s perfection!
Tectonic Issue #2: Two-Phase Atonement
Douglass is also concerned that the Adventist understanding of a dual atonement is undermined by the wordings employed by QOD. Regarding the atonement, Ellen White repeatedly made statements such as the following: “As the priest entered the most holy once a year to cleanse the earthly sanctuary, so Jesus entered the most holy of the heavenly, at the end of the 2300 days of Daniel 8, in 1844, to make a final atonement for all who could be benefitted by His mediation, and thus to cleanse the sanctuary” (63; EW 253). She also contends that the second phase of the atonement is just as important as the cross: “The intercession of Christ in man’s behalf in the sanctuary above is as essential to the plan of salvation as was His death upon the cross. By His death He began that work which after His resurrection He ascended to complete in heaven” (73; GC 489). QOD toned down Ellen White’s two-part atonement in a way that doesn’t please Adventist conservatives, and in a way that shouldn’t please evangelicals: “[T]he sacrificial atonement was made on the cross and was provided for all men, but that in the heavenly priestly ministry of Christ our Lord, this sacrificial atonement is applied to the seeking soul” (QOD 348). By proffering this compromise, the SDA trio avoided directly contradicting the testimony of Ellen White, but they quietly undermined her emphasis on a second atonement of equal importance to the atonement on Calvary. Thus, QOD is a semantic solution that makes Adventism seem a bit more evangelical without necessitating a rejection of Ellen White, Adventism’s extra-biblical source of authority.
Douglass makes clear the vital importance of two atonements for conservative Adventists by stating that “our Lord’s Cross [sic] and High Priestly ministries are two equal parts of His atonement that directly affect our human responsibility in the redemption process” (25). For Calvinists, God takes full responsibility for the redemption process; for most Arminians, God empowers human beings to choose salvation through faith, and then His grace does the rest. However, for conservative SDAs, human beings bear great “responsibility in the redemption process,” and the human aspect of responsibility is highlighted by the second atonement, or Investigative Judgment, which is taking place in heaven. Douglass states, “[The Investigative Judgment] doctrine . . . emphasizes that God promises to empower the penitent so that sins are eliminated by the inner graces of the Holy Spirit. The penitent men and women who continue to cooperate with God will truly find the peace, assurance, and divine empowerment that comes in completing the gospel plan . . . .” (44; see also 96). Most Christians understand that God alone completes the gospel plan (Eph. 2:8-9). Believers have nothing of which to boast: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:27-28).
The atonement issue is so important that Douglass states, “If Calvinists are correct in insisting that Christ’s death was the Day of Atonement, then Adventists for a century had been wrong” (71). This statement is certainly correct, but let’s take it a bit further. If Christ’s death completely fulfilled the Day of Atonement typology, then Ellen White’s visions were not from God, and the SDA Church has no particular reason to exist, unless one is enamored with the Adventist culture and traditions in isolation from the actual teachings of Adventism.
So, did Christ completely fulfill the Day of Atonement symbolism at the cross, or did He wait until 1844 to apply the benefits of His atonement? What does the Bible say?
“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:11-14).
“For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:24-26).
Hebrews 9 shows that Christ applied the benefits of His atonement to the heavenly sanctuary immediately—He didn’t wait until 1844 to begin a second phase of the atonement. We read that “once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” He presented His blood “once into the holy place,” and the early Christians were assured that He was appearing “now . . . in the presence of God.” Because evangelicals are right about Christ’s complete fulfillment of all Day of Atonement typologies, then Adventism is not only wrong—it is heretical. This issue can be resolved on the basis of scripture without appealing (as Adventism does) to any other source of authority. When we weigh the atonement issue in the balances of scripture, Adventism is found wanting…. (see Dan. 5:27).
The Real Adventist Tectonic Plate
Ellen White is the real Adventist tectonic plate, and her ministry simply cannot be reconciled to the evangelical Protestant respect for the Bible and the Bible only. Douglass actually admits that Ellen White added to the teachings of scripture—a point usually denied by SDA writers: “The Bible and Ellen White, expanding on the biblical understanding, should robustly have been used to show that the Cross [sic] and the heavenly sanctuary are two phases of the Atonement . . . .” (62-63, emphasis supplied). Please note how the statement is worded: “The Bible and Ellen White, expanding on the biblical understanding . . . .” Can the Bible expand on the biblical understanding? No. Therefore, Douglass seems to be saying that Ellen White expands on the biblical understanding, which may be seen as a healthy admission that Adventist doctrines are based upon more than just the Bible.
The dilemma of the Adventist trio is clear. How do you change prophecy—IF Ellen White is a prophet? They desperately wanted evangelical recognition, but they were forced into semantic changes because Ellen White’s inspiration couldn’t be openly challenged within the SDA Church.
Are Adventists Evangelicals?
Both Martin and the SDA trio dodged the fundamental and intractable difference between Adventism and Protestant evangelicals: the inspiration and authority of Ellen G. White. Fundamentally, Adventists have an extra-biblical source of authority for which they claim divine inspiration, and so long as this authority exists, Adventists cannot be said to believe in the Bible and the Bible only. Martin and Barnhouse satisfied themselves by compelling SDA leaders to modify two of Ellen White’s core teachings, hoping that this would ultimately force her writings to be downgraded from inspired to merely devotional. By ignoring the fact that the Adventist worldview derives from the tectonic plate of Ellen White’s inspiration, the evangelicals made a fundamental error. The same Adventist Book Centers that carried QOD also sold the Ellen White writings that contradict QOD. Both QOD and the Spirit of Prophecy (writings of Ellen White) were advertised as truth, but the Spirit of Prophecy was promoted as inspired truth. Thus, any perceived discrepancies between QOD and the SOP would be resolved by conservatives in favor of the latter. Questions on Doctrine introduced semantic changes that failed to modify the underlying authority of Ellen White. Ironically, the semantic changes in QOD have merely served to obscure the fundamental differences between Adventists and evangelicals; both are using the same terms, but with different meanings….
The priority of Ellen White in Adventism—and her basic equality with scripture—is highlighted by Douglass. Referencing Stephen Hawking’s hypothetical “theory of everything” that would, in Hawking’s words, enable human beings to “truly know the mind of God” (105), Douglass observes, “Seventh-day Adventists have been given just that—the ‘theory of everything,’ that truly introduces us to the ‘mind of God.’ We didn’t discover it—it was given to us. We call it the Great Controversy Theme [i.e., the teachings of Ellen White] . . . .” (105).
In the opinion of Sabbatismos, QOD’s change brings Adventism closer to the biblical understanding of the incarnation, but unfortunately, these changes were made without actually admitting that Ellen White had been incorrect and adjusting her status accordingly. She is a false prophet, and her errors must be exposed in the light of scripture. It is no longer acceptable for the Adventist Church to quietly change her teachings on the one hand, while on the other hand continuing to insist that she is a prophet possessing the same degree of inspiration as scripture. So long as Adventists cling to the inspiration of Ellen White, they should not be considered evangelical. Ellen White’s inspiration versus the authority of scripture is the real fork in the Adventist road. And had the QOD trio made the teachings of Ellen White and the magnitude of her authority clear to Walter Martin in the late 1950s, the true nature of Adventism might currently be unambiguous—both for Adventists and evangelicals.
Joseph Rector, June 20, 2011
Scroll down the linked page for a 5-part series from The John Ankerberg Show in which Dr. Walter Martin and SDA William Johnsson discuss the Adventist Church's doctrinal positions nearly 30 years after the publication of Questions on Doctrine.