With the passing of time, however, some Adventists have become more hesitant about their identity as the remnant. Although they are aware of the identifying marks of the remnant, they find it increasingly difficult to understand what makes them the remnant and to explain it to other Protestant Christians. To them a simple exegetical exposition of the identifying marks of the remnant in Scripture does not suffice. After all, other Protestant Christians interpret these texts differently. Moreover, how could the keeping of the Sabbath, having a manifestation of the gift of prophecy in the writings of Ellen White, and preaching the gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages make Adventism the only true visible expression of God’s church on the planet? After all, other Protestant Christians keep the commandments, even the seventh‑day Sabbath. They also have manifestations of the prophetic gift, persevere in the faith of Christ, and preach the gospel. If Adventists and Evangelicals preach the same gospel, other Christian denominations also should belong to the visible church as the body of Christ, and therefore, to the remnant.
Protestants generally consider the “church” as the spiritual, invisible, interdenominational body of Christ. From this perspective, they must find the idea that one denomination claiming to be the true, visible church of Christ is odd, misguided, unbiblical, and perhaps presumptuous. Clearly, a simple declaration that Adventism is the remnant church because it fits the identifying marks of the remnant presented in the Book of Revelation is insufficient both for church members and for fellow Christians.
The Remnant Church
In Scripture the nature and existence of the remnant is embedded in the history of salvation and becomes a synonym for the people of God, both as Israel and the church. Paul clearly conceived the Christian Church as the remnant of Israel (Rom. 11:16‑26). He saw the emerging Christian Church as “grafted,” “nourished” (vs. 17), and “supported” (vs. 18) by faith in God’s covenant with Israel. As Israel, the church stands on its faith in God’s Word and covenant with Abraham. As branches, both belong to the same cultivated olive tree, and receive by faith their nourishment from its “holy root” (vss. 16, 17). The church is a “cultivated tree” that stems from a “holy root.” This strongly states that God has not rejected Israel (vs. 1) and suggests that the “cultivated tree” is the concrete remnant of Israel, chosen by God’s grace (vs. 5) and constituted by the faith response of part of Israel (vs. 23). In this way, Paul described the emerging Christian Church to which he belonged (vs. 1) as the remnant of Israel, God’s tenderly cultivated olive tree. Paul’s view suggests that the eschatological remnant described by John in Revelation 12:17 is not to be understood as an entity different from the church but as the church itself, the historical‑spiritual continuation of the church as remnant of Israel.
The biblical anticipation of the emergence of an end-time remnant and the description of its identifying marks alert Christians to its appearance and mission. The remnant, however, should not be thought of as an entity that will come into existence only at the end time before the second coming of Christ. Instead, the remnant should be thought of as a biblical designation applied to the historical and spiritual development of God’s people, both Israel and the church, throughout the history of salvation. The remnant, then, is a qualifier describing the historical‑spiritual reality of God’s church throughout the history of redemption. In fact, there is an end-times remnant because the historical nature of God, His covenant, and the history of salvation require and open up the future for His faithful people, the church.
The Essence of the Remnant
Because of their historical nature, the people of God always existed as a remnant, that is, as the rest, residue, or last ones to join the long history of believers who no longer exist. Additionally, because their commitment to God is always under attack by the forces of evil (Eph. 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 12:16, 17) it can survive only by holding fast through faith to God’s Word and covenantal promises (Eph. 6:13‑19). These facts help to understand why in Scripture the word remnant not only names the eschatological church but also and mainly describes the essence of the church as historical and faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture.
Within the broad context of the history of salvation, covenant, and divine election, two essential characteristics of the people of God (Israel, church, and eschatological remnant) are faithfulness and mission. The remnant church was, is, and will be the community faithful to God’s call. The existence of the church depends and stands on her faithfulness to God’s Word (Ps. 78:8; Acts 11:21‑23; 16:5). Without faith in God’s Word in Scripture, the church becomes a human organization.
The origin of the Christian Church took place because the God of the Old Testament fulfilled His covenantal promise to the world (Gen. 3:15) and to Abraham (12:3) by revealing His being and character in Jesus Christ’s life and death on the cross (Matt. 16:16‑18; John 14:8‑10). More precisely, the Christian Church emerged as a faithful remnant of God’s people who by faith embraced God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and Christ’s revelation in the New Testament (Heb. 1:1, 2). Thus, the church is the historical‑spiritual community that gathers around, coheres in, stands on, and testifies of Jesus. The church exists because of her faith in Christ and her witnessing Christ to the world. In the most real sense, the church exists in Christ. Her existence is spiritual. It takes place as a historical, communal relationship of faith in His Word and His mission as revealed through the history of salvation and recorded in Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In the history of salvation, then, the eschatological remnant is not something new but rather is the continuation of the Christian Church as remnant of Israel. Her nature and existence revolve around her spiritual faithfulness to Christ’s Word and mission. Consequently, to move beyond only the claim of being the end-times remnant on the basis of its identifying marks to actually being the remnant that God will use in the end time, Adventists should examine their faithfulness to Christ’s Word and His mission.
The Emergence of Tradition
Soon after the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the revelation of God in Jesus Christ among them in the New Testament writings, Christians began to use them not only as rule of faith but also as spiritual food. Together with the revelations God gave previously during Old Testament times, these writings became the theological and spiritual ground for the Christian Church.
The process of receiving, appropriating, and spiritually internalizing God’s Word, however, always involves interpretation. Because of many and complex historical reasons early in her history, the Christian Church progressively adapted her teachings and liturgical forms to Greek philosophy. Christian leaders facing the world of culture, science, and reason, decided for various reasons not to reject the leading scientific culture of their days. Many historians of Christian theology label this process the “Hellenization” of Christianity. By adapting to the cultural trends of their days, early Christians progressively and radically replaced the interpretive presuppositions that New Testament writers took from the Old Testament canon. In doing so, undoubtedly Christians thought they were faithful to God and desired to advance His mission on earth. Unfortunately, they progressively neglected Isaiah’s injunction to use scriptural teachings as interpretive principles to evaluate new spiritual events (Isa. 8:20). Moreover, they also failed to follow Christ’s practice of interpretation when He used Old Testament teachings and categories as principles necessary for a proper explanation to His disciples of His salvific ministry and death on the cross (Luke 24:27).
The replacement of Old Testament interpretive principles with those derived from Greek philosophical categories led to the development, consolidation, and dominance of Christian tradition at all levels of Christianity, such as scriptural interpretation, theological constructions, ministerial practices, liturgical forms, and missionary strategies. As this situation ruled unopposed for more than a thousand years, a systematic mingling of philosophical views about God, human nature, reason, and the world permeated all levels of Christian thought, life, and action, becoming ingrained in Christianity itself. For spiritual purposes, Scripture was replaced by the sacramental system of liturgy and worship.
Although Scripture was never absent from Christian tradition, the new philosophical methods of interpretation decisively distorted its teachings and weakened its power. Eventually, it contributed to the church’s self-understanding as being the replacement of Israel rather than as being its remnant.
The Emergence of Scripture and the Anonymous Remnant
The “synthesis” between Greek interpretive principles and biblical data on which Christian tradition stands sheltered a fateful conflict that sooner or later was bound to create theological and spiritual inconsistencies. Martin Luther, for example, noticed a glaring irregularity: Clearly, the system of meritorious works did not fit experience or the clear teachings of Scripture. With a God-given conviction and staunch determination, he turned to Scripture to resist tradition and reform the church. Scripture was emerging from tradition.
With the passing of time, Luther’s and Calvin’s “turn to Scripture” intensified throughout Europe and America. In the process, mainline and radical reformations progressively rediscovered and integrated forgotten biblical teachings into the fabric of Christianity. Notably, English Puritan theologians during the 17th century and John Wesley during the 18th century used Scripture to challenge tradition. Simultaneously, the discovery of further biblical teachings produced an ever‑increasing doctrinal and theological fragmentation of Protestant Christianity.
Ironically, the “turn to Scripture” by mainline and radical reformations did not challenge but assumed and used the interpretative principles Christian tradition had drawn from Greek philosophical ideas. This little-noticed fact buried deep in the history of Protestant and Evangelical experiences may explain why the emergence of Scripture that followed in the wake of the Reformation did not produce a unified alternative to Roman Catholicism but rather an ever-increasing fragmentation of Christianity in doctrines, practices, and denominations that still goes on unabated.
Nevertheless, from an historical perspective the Protestant “turn to Scripture” involves the progressive emergence of an emerging “anonymous” remnant. It is a remnant because it springs into existence from faithfulness to Scripture rather than from tradition and philosophy. It is anonymous because, lacking the features or marks that characterize and identify the remnant, it cannot be recognized as such. Finally, it is emerging because it exists in an embryonic stage of development. Consequently, the anonymous remnant is a provisional stage in the process of the restoration of the church back to its biblical nature as the remnant of Israel.
Because the church stands on Christ as revealed in Scriptures, the Protestant turn to Scripture initiated the emergence from tradition of the biblical remnant albeit in a “stealth” or “anonymous” way. The anonymous remnant was unstable because the Protestant commitment to Scripture did not challenge the presuppositions on which Christian traditions had built their theological and ecclesiological systems. Because Protestantism still shares these basic guiding assumptions with Roman Catholicism, its turn to Scripture is partial and produces systemic and theological inconsistencies that unavoidably generated an ever‑increasing ecclesiological fragmentation. Because of this situation, Protestantism became unable to emerge fully as the biblical remnant church. Instead it became shaky and in need of theological answers and ecclesiological stability. With the passing of time this search for answers will cause the anonymous remnant to pave the way to the rise on one side of the emerging remnant, and, on the other side, of the emerging church.
The Emerging Eschatological Remnant
During the 18th century, the anonymous remnant intensified and expanded throughout the American frontier beyond the restraints imposed by tradition and established denominations. In this environment the Protestant turn to Scripture generated two revivals of practical piety among common people and shaped the culture of the times. During this period, growing grassroots dissatisfaction with doctrinal inconsistencies generated by the Protestant Reformation motivated serious Bible students to search for a way to overcome tradition and ecclesial fragmentation through a deeper and more inclusive understanding of Scriptures.
Unlike that of the Magisterial Reformers (16th century) and the English Puritans (17th century) this search did not originate with the professional clergy and theologians, but with the laity. It grew from the basic conviction that Scripture can interpret itself.
This radical view implicitly departed from the interpretive perspective of the Magisterial Reformers that set the patterns, limits, and interpretive principles of what is known today as Protestant or Evangelical theology. The refusal to use tradition as a source of theology and an interpretive guide could be traced back to the Radical Reformers’ call for a restoration of biblical, mostly New Testament, Christianity. In 18th-century America, various groups embraced this approach to Christian theology in an attempt to overcome what had gone wrong with the Catholic Church and historical churches of the Reformation.
In this environment and out of the second American revival (1800‑1830), interest in the study of the long- forgotten apocalyptic prophecies of the Old and New Testaments intensified. In consequence, attention shifted from the first to the second coming of Christ. By a careful application of the well‑established historicist method of prophetic interpretation to the study of Daniel 8 and 9, an ecumenical movement emerged mostly out of laity belonging to various Protestant denominations, predicting the visible and historical coming of Christ on October 22, 1844.
Out of the Great Disappointment that crushed the sincere expectations of the Millerites, a small number of believers sought answers in Scriptures for their predicament. When on October 23 they turned their eyes to the reality of the heavenly sanctuary, where Christ since His resurrection and ascension had been ministering salvation to human beings, they found the explanation for their disappointment. Christ was not coming to earth in 1844 but entering in the most holy place in the heavenly sanctuary. Eventually, this discovery gave rise to the Seventh‑day Adventist Church and its claim of being the remnant church of biblical prophecy.
In turning their attention to Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, however, the group of evangelical believers that later became the Seventh‑day Adventist Church did not discover a new doctrine unknown to Christians. Rather, to the contrary, Protestant theologians had also recognized the New Testament belief that Christ, since His resurrection and ascension, sat at the right hand of His heavenly Father in the heavenly sanctuary, where He has been ministering continuously for our salvation. Adventist historians have long recognized that Adventist doctrines were known as such in earlier periods of church history and notably during the emergence of the anonymous remnant.
With the passing of years, however, new generations of Adventists concluded that early pioneers had discovered the biblical doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary and the investigative judgment prior to Christ’s second coming. If this is the case, are these “distinctive” doctrines enough to sustain the claim of being the remnant? Many Adventists and non‑Adventists correctly wonder whether the “discovery” of the sanctuary doctrine is enough to sustain the claim of being the remnant church at the end time. For them, having a few “distinctive” doctrines is not enough to back such a far‑reaching claim.
During the first six formative years that followed the Great Disappointment, early Adventist pioneers continued their search for biblical truths beyond the interpretation of prophecies and the doctrine of the sanctuary. Their genius was not to discover these truths, most of which had already been recognized and accepted by many in the anonymous remnant. Instead, they made a small step that would generate a gigantic theological revolution in Christianity: They used their newfound insights into the way in which prophecy and the sanctuary interrelate in Scripture as the hermeneutical presuppositions needed to understand the entire Bible, the whole range of Christian doctrines, and the mission of the church.
Perhaps Ellen White summarized this epoch-changing experience best when she explained, “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God's hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people.”1
In their determination to understand prophecy, the Protestant “turn to Scripture” had finally advanced from the initial phase, when new discoveries in biblical research progressively generate anomalies. Now it moved to the decisive time of “extraordinary theology,” when the old paradigm is replaced by a new one. When Adventist pioneers used their understanding of apocalyptic prophecies and the sanctuary as an interpretive paradigm, they effectively replaced the interpretive paradigm that Christian tradition had drawn from extra-biblical, philosophical ideas. This shift in interpretation made possible the emergence of the visible remnant from Scripture. The visible remnant church had finally arrived to challenge the theological and ecclesiological status quo. The Protestant “turn to Scripture” embraced by the anonymous remnant eventually had given way to the biblical interpretive turn embraced by the emerging visible remnant.
Recent developments indicate that a large portion of the anonymous remnant is becoming the Emerging Church. This “church” emerges from tradition. By embracing tradition, evangelical leaders attempt to overcome the theological contradictions and ministerial irregularities by dividing further the already fragmented Protestant tradition. By failing to apply the “turn to Scripture” to interpretive principles, and fully embracing the non‑biblical interpretation of the principles of “early” Christian tradition, the Emerging Church is returning to Rome.
Nonetheless, at this time not all the anonymous remnant is embracing the Emerging Church movement. A large sector remains wholly committed to the “turn to Scripture,” yet they still implicitly and inadvertently assume the interpretive paradigm of Christian tradition. Consequently, this sector remains unstable because it is unable to overcome the contradiction between their theological data and interpretive presuppositions. Eventually, as its members may join the Emerging Church or the emerging remnant, the anonymous remnant may vanish.
Even so, the biblical interpretive turn of early Adventist pioneers, revolutionary as it was and is, only signals the birth of the remnant, not its fully developed existence. The history of Adventism so far makes this development possible, not actual. The biblical remnant, then, exists not as a finished reality but as the ongoing process of becoming the church that Christ gathers around Him by His presence and words. In its essence, the remnant church exists and grows in its becoming and being as Christ generates its message and mission.
Christ, Interpretation, and the Remnant
One indirect way to see how the turn from tradition to Scripture relates to ecclesiology is to consider the influence of interpretive presuppositions on the doctrinal system of the church. In this approach, interpretation relates to ecclesiology by generating alternate understandings of the entire ensemble of Christian doctrines and practices, thereby producing two incompatible ways of understanding Christianity.
The incompatibility between the traditional and Adventist theological systems stems from the conflicting views assumed by Christian tradition and Adventists about the nature of reality. Christian tradition embraces the view of reality inspired and mediated by Greek philosophy. Adventists implicitly embrace the view of reality expressed and assumed by biblical writers. The former places the reality of God, His acts, and human spirituality outside the realm of time, space, and history. The latter places the reality of God, His acts, and human spirituality inside the realm of time, space, and history. These opposite views about reality become unavoidable assumptions in interpreting Scripture, understanding its doctrines, and fulfilling God’s will and mission. The difference and conflict between them could not be greater. Only one can be the actual church of Christ.
Churches based on tradition ignore and replace the views of God and reality revealed in Scripture. In so doing, they distort the biblical teachings about God, Christ, and salvation. This disqualifies them from representing the God of Scripture and the claim of being Christ’s visible church on earth. This first approach, however, deals indirectly with ecclesiology, via the doctrine and practices of the church. Yet there is a direct way in which interpretation conditions the essence of Christian ecclesiology.
In general, most Christians agree that by essence the church is the spiritual community of Christ on earth that exists because of her faith relationship with the real presence of Christ. Ecclesiological disagreements revolve around the way in which Christians interpret the real presence of Christ as the ground and center of the Christian Church. Any perception of the presence of Christ depends on one’s understanding of the nature of God, human beings, and Christ assumed by the interpreter. And these, in turn, depend on the understanding the interpreter assumes about the general nature of reality as a whole.
Roman Catholics and a large sector of mainline Protestant denominations believe that after Christ’s ascension to heaven, we have access to His real presence in or through the sacraments. Christ’s presence in the sacraments, then, is the essence, center, and foundation of the Christian Church.
This belief springs from the assumption that God’s spiritual reality and our spiritual realities are neither temporal nor material. Within this assumption, God can relate directly to separate souls (souls without a body, as the angels are, according to tradition) but not to souls incarnated in material bodies. Since human souls exist in an essential connection to a material body, God needs to use a material element to reach the soul. Thus, to become present to incarnate souls, God uses a material element to bridge the gap that exists between God’s non‑historical reality and the non‑historical reality of the human soul. In the case of Christ, His body is the material vehicle that God used to make His spiritual non‑historical nature present in the times of the disciples. After the ascension and spiritualization of Christ’s body to heaven, God used other material vehicles (wine, water, bread, etc.) to communicate the presence of Christ’s divinity and humanity to the Christian Church.
Tradition teaches, then, that Christ’s spiritual, non‑historical, divine presence becomes real to us through material signs and symbols (sacraments) that we apprehend via our bodies with our spirits. It is important to bear in mind that the divine presence mediated by the sacraments is the same that the disciples experienced through the human body of Jesus Christ. This relation takes place in the “spiritual” timeless realm outside the everyday flow of historical events. The sacraments, then, provide the material element God needs to become present to our embodied souls.
According to tradition, then, God relates to our immaterial souls without the need of the historical mediation of Christ as revealed in the New Testament. The human Christ is no longer God incarnated but the sacrament necessary for the eternal timeless God to communicate His spiritual presence directly to our souls. Thus, through the sacraments, Christian believers do not relate to the incarnated Christ ministering for them in heaven but directly to God’s own transcendent unmediated non‑historical being.
Radically departing from this view, Seventh‑day Adventism believes that since Christ’s ascension to heaven, believers experience His real historical presence in the heavenly sanctuary by faith through prayer, study, and obedience to His words.
Adventists are not the first Christians to adopt this view but are the first to take the revolutionary step of using this biblical belief as the key of the interpretive presuppositions required for the entire theological system and for the biblical understanding of the real presence of Christ, the center and ground of the church. By taking this small step, Adventists effectively rejected the understanding of the nature of being on which traditional churches stand and replaced it with a view of God in His sanctuary relating historically to historical temporal beings. In so doing, Adventists radically depart from traditional conservative and modern Protestant and Evangelical theologians. When understood historically, the resurrected and ascended Christ cannot be at the same time present in or through the sacraments and bodily in the heavenly sanctuary. To claim He is present in the sacraments involves the spiritualization of Christ.
Therefore, in Adventism the heavenly‑sanctuary‑word‑prayer‑personal relational dynamics replaces the impersonal ritualistic mechanics of the sacraments as the essence, center, and foundation of the Christian Church as the remnant of biblical history and prophecy. Believers no longer experience the presence of Christ in and through the mediation of the liturgical rituals of the church. Instead, through the understanding of Scripture and prayer, believers encounter the presence of Christ as an historical living person in heaven and mediator between God’s transcendent being and His creatures. Moreover, He is also the merciful High Priest, ministering salvation and providentially guiding believers. In this ontological context the remnant church exists and stands as the spiritual and visible community that grows out of the redemptive‑mediatory work that Christ performs in the heavenly sanctuary. By accepting His love and sovereignty in faith and obedience, the church accepts Christ’s given mission to proclaim His gospel of the kingdom of God to the world.
The acceptance of the doctrine of Christ’s historic and bodily presence in the heavenly sanctuary produces a radical change in the basic understanding of the nature of being in Christian theology and ecclesiology. The scriptural view of the nature of being definitively replaces the timeless, non‑historical view of Christian tradition. The interpretive consequences of this shift are momentous. Its consistent application by Adventists believers to the entire system of Christian theology, worship, and ministerial practices amounts to a major paradigm shift at the very foundation of Christian theology. It initiates a period of extraordinary theology and sets the stage for the emergence of the eschatological remnant of biblical prophecy.
The Bread of Life
The church as a spiritual, visible community exists because it receives its nourishment from Christ, its center and foundation. Teaching in the synagogue, Christ taught: “‘I am the bread of life. . . . The one who eats this bread will live forever’” (John 6:35, 58, NRSV). Some churches have interpreted Christ’s teachings on the “Bread of Life” in a sacramental way. They see Christ teaching that by partaking in the bread and wine, Christians actually eat His real body and soul, which are “spiritually” present “in” the bread and wine. According to this view, the soul of the believer actually “feeds” from the very substance of the transcendent God. It “feeds” from the actual power of divine life. The feeding does not take place in the realm of everyday life but in the “parallel realm” of spiritual substances (God and the soul). This transaction, therefore, is mechanical and impersonal.
The radical paradigm shift in the view of the nature of being that generated the remnant church dictates a different commitment that leads to interpret Christ’s teachings on the “Bread of Life” historically and personally. According to biblical ontology, the bread of life is the real incarnated Christ who came down from heaven (John 6:33, 39). After returning to heaven (vs. 62), He now feeds us the words of life He spoke personally and through the prophets (vs. 63) and by the teaching ministry and providences of His representative the Holy Spirit.
According to Scripture, then, the feeding on Christ that generates the church does not take place mechanically in and through the sacraments as an impersonal encounter with God’s transcendent reality. Instead, the feeding on Christ that generates the remnant church takes place as a historical experience that involves the whole being in and through the words of Scripture as a personal encounter with the incarnated Christ in heaven. The spiritual feeding that Christ speaks about, then, takes place in the realm of our everyday lives within the sequence of time and the spatiality of our bodies, not in the ethereal, non‑historical, non‑spatial realm of traditional Christian spirituality. In short, a personal spirituality centered directly in Christ’s words and historical acts replaces an impersonal spirituality centered in the transcendent, non‑historical substance of the divinity mediated through human intercessors.
Precisely because according to Christ, believers feed from His words of revelation in Scripture, the spirituality of the remnant church is essentially and indissolubly connected to its message. Adventists talk much about their “message.” But a message is a communication addressed to a recipient. Clearly, the recipient is the world, but what is the content of the communication that God expects the remnant to deliver to the world? Progressively, Adventists have answered this question in various ways, generating confusion.
In speaking of sending a message to someone, it is usually understood as something short and to the point. Not surprisingly, most Adventists think about the message of the church as something brief. Some believers may find difficulty in identifying it. Others may readily identify the message of the Adventist Church with some of the so-called distinctive truths, as, for instance, the seventh‑day Sabbath, the Second Coming, health reform, the gospel, or the three angels’ messages. Is the message of our church something short that can be delivered quickly, as a postal worker may deliver mail?
According to Ellen G. White, the message God gives the remnant church essentially the same gospel commission that Christ gave to the disciples before His ascension to heaven. This being the case, one wonders about the contents of Christ’s commission to the disciples. Is the gospel commission the proclamation of divine grace? Certainly, but the proclamation of “the mysteries of the grace of God,” requires the inclusion of “the whole counsel of God,” “the saving truths of the third angel’s message,”2 and “the special truths that have separated us from the world and made us what we are.”3
The message that God gives the church is about God’s grace. But grace is not a thing or a power but an essential characteristic of God’s person, who by nature is merciful and gracious (Ex. 34:6; Deut. 4:31, Ps. 116:5). Grace, then, is revealed and experienced through divine actions. Consequently, the mission of proclaiming God’s grace requires that the church should make all of God’s acts as revealed in Scripture known to the world. The proclamation of God’s grace, then, coincides with the proclamation of His acts.
Moreover, according to Paul, the message that the church proclaims includes nothing less than “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, ESV). God’s counsel refers to the “thoughts of his heart” for all generations (Ps. 33:11, NRSV). By the free decision of His will, He predestined us for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:11). This includes, among other things, Christ’s incarnation and ministry (2 Cor. 2:7; 1:30), the goal that human beings should become holy (Eph. 1:4) and transformed in the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice (Eph. 1:7), forgiveness of sins (vs. 7), and adoption into the family of God (vs. 5). The proclamation of “the entire counsel” of God, then, coincides with the proclamation of the entire plan of salvation.
The “saving truths of the third angel’s message” include, among other things, the eternal gospel, the fear of the Lord, God’s judgment hour, the worship of God the Creator, the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus (Rev. 14: 6‑13). The proclamation of “the saving truths of the third angel’s message,” then, identifies special aspects of God’s message that His church will emphasize before His second coming.
The truths that have separated us from the world and made us what we are include issues like the sanctuary doctrine, the non‑immortality of the soul, the law of God, the Sabbath, and the three angels’ messages. These truths are special because they provide the biblical foundations to interpret, the saving truths of the third angel, the whole counsel of God, and the mysteries of God’s grace.
On the one side, this brief exploration into the contents of the message of the remnant shows that it is not something brief that can be swiftly processed and disseminated without much personal involvement. On the other side, many may find this extended notion of the message complicated, disconnected, and overwhelming.
At first glance, the message so described seems complicated, because having various parts it requires closer attention. The message seems disconnected because its many parts appear to stand as independent components detached from one another. The message seems overwhelming because its perceived intricacy and lack of connections are difficult for those with a superficial knowledge of Scripture. The message has many truths. Unfortunately, some deal with this disquieting feeling by simplifying the message and reducing it to the truth or truths with which they are more comfortable. The result is an emasculated message and the loss of the power, unity, and mission in the church.
This situation arises with the failure to perceive the way in which all the parts of the message interconnect and form a perfect, complete, and harmonious system of truth. Through Bible study and prayer, however, anyone can perceive the complete and perfect harmony of the biblical message as the pioneers did. Then its complexity will become accessible to students of the Word and lead them to experience the most rich and satisfying personal encounter with Christ.
How can one perceive the inner theological, spiritual, and experiential harmony that exists among the manifold components of the Adventist message? This may be achieved by using the “landmarks” or “pillar truths” of Adventism as interpretive tools to understand how the Bible “unfolds a simple and complete system of theology and philosophy.”4 This biblical system of theology and philosophy articulates all the contents of the remnant church’s message. The message of the remnant, then, is a complete system of theological and philosophical truths that replace the system of theological and philosophical truths of tradition. This is the reason that the remnant church stands in discontinuity to and replaces the churches of traditional Christianity.
Presuppositions of the Message
The biblical message of the remnant church stands on three major methodological principles of theology and the practice of ministry. The first fundamental principle makes Scripture the only source of knowledge of God, the sola, tota, prima Scriptura principle. Its application leads to the second and third principles. The second principle is that of reality. According to this principle, ultimate reality is historical rather than timeless, spaceless, and non‑historical, as tradition assumes. The third principle is that of articulation. This principle deals with the way in which the manifold components of historical reality interconnect, forming a whole. The historical Christ “connects” the whole of reality historically, thereby replacing the “chain of being,” “order of being,” or “pyramid of being” that tradition uses to articulate biblical contents and spiritual realities. The consistent application of the second and third principles helps the remnant church to go beyond the theological and ecclesial fragmentation that followed the Protestant “turn to Scripture” and its failure to overcome the hermeneutical rule of Christian tradition.
The conviction that the Bible is the only source from which the community can derive its knowledge of God is clearly stated in the first Fundamental Belief of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church. Scholars refer to this principle under the label of the sola and tota Scriptura principles. These principles replace the multiplicity of sources of Christian tradition and unleash the two principles of method that give rise to the remnant church. Meanwhile, the leading sector of the anonymous remnant still grounds its interpretive principles on tradition.
At this point, a question arises: Does Adventism have a principle of reality and a principle of articulation? The answer to this question is Yes, though Adventist theologians have not explicitly identified and formulated them as such. Though Adventists are not used to thinking about the reality and articulation of their message, they have since early days operated assuming biblically defined notions about them. These pre-understandings arose from the pioneers’ hope of Christ’s personal historical second coming, and, after the Great Disappointment, by relying on His priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary.
Adventists assume that reality is historical both for human beings and for God. They also presuppose implicitly that the whole of reality is the common history of God with His creatures. By understanding reality as existing in one single historical level where God and humans as spiritual beings interact, Adventists effectually rejected and replaced the Greek cosmological dichotomy between the realms of spirit (heaven) and history (creation). Finally, Adventists have always assumed that the historical, incarnated, resurrected, and ascended Christ is the principle of articulation of all realities in the vast universe from past to future eternity.
Message as System
By using these principles, Adventist pioneers discovered a “complete system of truth, connected and harmonious.”5 The remnant came to existence not because they came to a correct understanding of prophecy but because the sheer beauty and power of the complete system of connected and harmonious truth they discovered in Scripture left them no other option before God.
The system brings all the teachings of Scripture together into a harmonious whole, centered and articulated by the living historical person of incarnated Christ, who died, rose again, ascended to heaven, ministers for our salvation, and will come to take us home forever. Adventists know this system as the “Great Controversy” theme. Yet the Great Controversy is much more than a biblical theme or motif. The Great Controversy is the gospel‑message‑system, because it unfolds the history of God’s love for the world and the universe.
Adventists preach essentially the same gospel that the disciples proclaimed after the resurrection. “They had a gospel to preach—Christ in human form, a Man of sorrows; Christ in humiliation, taken by wicked hands and crucified; Christ resurrected, and ascended to heaven, into the presence of God, to be man’s Advocate; Christ to come again with power and great glory in the clouds of heaven.”6 The incarnated Christ, then, “His character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth. He is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked. In Him is found the complete system of truth.”7 Within the “golden chain” of Christ, historical acts from predestination before Creation to the consummation of salvation in the restoration of the new earth, the Cross is the great central truth around which cluster: (1) all biblical truths, (2) Christ’s work of atonement in the soul of the believer, and (3) the history of the church in heaven and earth. In short, the historical resurrected Christ Himself “The Son of God is the center of the great plan of redemption which covers all dispensations.”8 He is the center of all doctrines. The completeness of the system of truth revealed in Scriptures includes everything Christians need to know in faith and practice.
Moreover, the system of which Christ is the center includes not only the intellectual level of doctrines but through them also the spiritual level of the soul’s union with Him on which the biblical church stands and exists. The biblical system of truths Christ articulates into a harmonious whole is the spiritual bread that nourishes and unites the soul with Christ, thereby generating the existence of the church. In other words, through the teaching ministry and providences of the Holy Spirit, the complete system of divine living truths centered in Christ penetrate, cleanse, and sanctify the soul. In this way the church gathers around Christ “the center of all love and light.”9
The History of God’s Love
Adventists have a history to tell to the world. The biblical history of God’s love is their message. By living this message in everyday life, they become part of God’s history of salvation as the eschatological biblical remnant. They are God’s visible remnant church because they experience spiritually and proclaim this history to the world. This history is the complete harmonious system of biblical truths centered in the historical acts of Christ from before the creation of the world to the unending ages of future eternity. As noted earlier, Adventists refer to this history as the “Great Controversy between Christ and Satan.”
Many Christian denominations have neglected, forgotten, or rejected this history because interpretive assumptions have led them to spiritualize it. Christian tradition assumes that there is no place for God to act historically as an agent among other historical agents, as Christ did during His life and ministry in Palestine. Thus, the Great Controversy became spiritualized as the story of Christ’s “descending” from the Father (incarnation) and “ascending back” to the Father (“decarnation”). The history of God became a mere story.
In this story, the personal historical relationship of Christ with His disciples when He lived on earth is replaced by the platonic idea of communion as participation. Since the Resurrection, believers are thought to relate directly with God. Tradition understands “participation” as a “sharing‑in‑being,” “mutual indwelling,” and “mutual interpenetration” of the timeless non-historical reality of God with the soul. Participation, then, defines communion as the relationship of the soul with the timeless God through the ascended Christ. Thus understood, communion with God frees human souls from their present association with matter and historical events and unites them with the timeless realm of the Trinitarian life. Clearly, participation in the being of God replaces the biblical personal, social, spiritual, face‑to‑face, fellowship (“communion”) with the incarnated historical Christ that lies at the foundation of the Great Controversy.
Calvin, arguably the leading systematic thinker of the anonymous remnant, also spiritualized the history of God’s Great Controversy with Satan by translating it into Neoplatonic categories. This becomes apparent, for instance, in that Calvin spiritualized the obvious historical meaning of communion with Christ in Scripture by embracing the traditional notion of participation. Communion with Christ, according to Calvin, cannot be understood in terms of fellowship or society basic to the Great Controversy but rather as the “unity by which the Son of God engrafts us into His body, so that He communicates to us all that He is. We so draw life from His flesh and His blood, that they are not improperly called our food.”10 The invisible remnant’s strong and unremitting dependence on Calvin’s theological system prevents it from embracing the biblical history of God’s love and, therefore, from becoming the visible remnant of biblical prophecy.
However, more conservative and biblically minded Evangelical denominations do still think historically and have not surrendered completely to the spiritualization of God’s history of love. Yet the influence of traditional ideas of interpretation still operates in the background of these denominations, leading them to reduce the history of God chiefly to the history of Christ’s incarnation on earth. In the practice of spirituality, the history of God’s love is reduced to Christmas and Easter. And even this history is understood as a symbol of a non‑historical spiritual reality that transcends and leaves behind human history.
As the opposite of tradition, the history of God’s love takes place within the temporal, spatial, and material realm of creation. Spiritual communion with God occurs as a historical-social relationship between creatures with the ascended, incarnated, historical Christ ministering from the heavenly sanctuary. Christ is the center of human reality, and therefore, of human and cosmic history. Ellen G. White’s five-volume theological commentary on Scripture, The Conflict of the Ages series, begins and ends with the words “‘God is love.’” God’s history reveals His loving merciful being and character.
According to Scripture, the history of God’s love in creation and redemption is an extension of the eternal history of love of the three persons of the Godhead. We can trace the origins of this history back to the time before the beginning of Creation when through divine infinite wisdom, the three persons of the Trinity planned the design of the universe. From love and through love They thought to share Their life by opening Themselves to their creatures.
Before the beginning when God created the universe, Christ was appointed to be the great center of creation (Prov. 8:22, 23), to play the role of Mediator between the Trinity and the creatures to be. According to God’s design, all things in the universe will hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17). In other words, Christ was appointed to be the center of the system of reality that God was about to create. God’s love prompted Him to relate directly with His creatures through the mediatory presence of Christ in their future life and history. God’s love is direct, personal, and historical. Through Christ’s mediation, God’s wisdom and law will become the basis of spiritual order among free beings created in the image of God.
Also, before the creation of the world, God knew in detail what would take place after He created the universe. He knew His creatures would rebel against the spiritual order centered in Christ. God also knew about the suffering and death that would follow as a consequence of the new spiritual order their creatures would generate by rejecting Christ’s mediatory role in creation. Yet God created the universe anyway. Many Christians who question God’s love forget that God allowed for the provision that Christ, the center around which all things cohere in the universe, should become a human being and die in the place of His rebellious creatures. God’s love in Christ’s incarnation and death was the way to respond to His creatures’ challenge to Christ’s sovereignty and restore the spiritual harmony in the universe.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth even though He did not need to do so. Yet, in love, He did. When God created the historical reality of the universe, perfect spiritual harmony existed until controversy arose in heaven and on earth. In love He allowed the “other-than-Himself” to exist to the point of challenging His love and sovereignty. Only a God of love could create a universe that would cause Him infinite suffering while still pursuing the wellbeing of His creation. Through the rebellion of His creatures, the history of God’s love became the history of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan.
Ever since the rebellion against God’s government by spiritual creatures in heaven and on earth, the history of God’s love carried on with the aim to restore creation to its original spiritual harmony articulated through His law and eternal love. Beginning with Satan’s rebellion in heaven and its expansion to the Garden of Eden, Christ has continued to be the heart around which all things cohere.
Christ is the historical agent of the great acts of God’s covenant of salvation. The preaching of the gospel before the Flood, the call to Abraham, Christ’s presence and revelation at Sinai, His incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly ministry are some of the actions in history of the second Person of the Godhead to achieve full restoration of the perfect spiritual harmony that existed in the beginning of creation.
The history of the universe thus revealed in Scripture and articulated in the person and work of Jesus Christ helped the biblical visible remnant to understand the long and deep history of God’s love for His creatures. It integrates all the teachings of the Scriptures and doctrines of Christianity into a comprehensive and harmonious whole.
Understanding this history has profound implications for Christian theology because it refutes the perspective that tradition draws from classical and modern metaphysics or postmodern metanarratives and metahistories. As a biblical historical metanarrative, the history of God’s love enlarges and reinforces the “biblical interpretive turn” that helped Adventist pioneers to free themselves from the dominion of Christian tradition and overcome the inconsistencies and ambiguities generated by the anonymous remnant’s “turn to Scripture.” With the passing of time, the theological and spiritual strength of the historical metanarrative of the Great Controversy brought about the emergence of the biblical visible remnant church. This ensures faithfulness to the gospel of Christ.
The Mission of the Remnant Church
When through faith and obedience believers accept Christ’s message and fellowship with Him in everyday life, they become His disciples (John 8:31) and through adoption (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:4) share in the history of God’s family (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 3:15) and its mission (Matt. 28:19, 20). Thus, in the spiritual relation of the believer with Christ, His message and mission belong together and are essential to the existence of the church. Without this message, the mission of the church is powerless. Without this mission, the message of the church is fruitless. The church as a spiritual entity exists, then, when believers unite around Christ by experiencing in their lives His message and mission.
The mission of the church is to share Christ’s message to the world. The message of Christ includes the history of His love from before Creation, through the history of sin, to the restoration of the original harmony in love among all creatures and God. Adventists discovered this message through a series of historical experiences that they saw reflected and announced in the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14.
This philosophical and systematic achievement became the message that originated the existence of the remnant church. Arthur White characterized the few formative years of Adventist thinking after the Great Disappointment as a “scattering time” (1845‑1850) when “the invulnerable structure of truth to present to the word” was discovered by way of “thorough Bible study and the confirming work of the Spirit.”11 By the end of this period, when everything in experience and biblical understanding fit together, Ellen White confidently wrote: “We know that we have the truth.”12 Adventist pioneers referred to this system of truth under the label of “present truth,” the “three angels’ messages,” and the “platform of truth.”
Because of the present development of Adventism in the world of scholarship, this question must be answered at the level of theological and scientific scholarship. This task involves all sectors and levels in Adventism and calls for a renewed commitment to (1) the sola, tota, and prima Scriptura principles (the turn to Scripture away from tradition and culture), and toward (2) the interpretive role of the Adventist pillar doctrines (the biblical interpretive turn) embraced by Adventist pioneers. Moreover, it requires that Adventist scholars, pastors, administrators, and laypersons recognize the philosophical nature of the biblical hermeneutical turn and the systematic nature of the “invulnerable structure of truth”15 discovered by the pioneers. This aspect of the task implies a substantial broadening of current theological practices to include the as-yet-untested areas of biblical philosophy and biblical systematic theology. Simultaneously, current ministerial and missionary practices also need substantial broadening to include the areas of education and discipleship.
The mission of the remnant consists in sharing the message and spiritual experience that grounds its existence as the visible community of Christ. Mission cannot exist without message, and message cannot exist without mission. While the mission describes the experience of the message, the message outlines the nature and contents of the spiritual experience of union with Christ. The summary and essence of the message‑mission experience of the remnant centers in the entire biblical system of theology and philosophy that the pioneers labeled under the rubrics of the “three angels’ message,” “present truth,” and the “platform of truth.”
Mission is not merely the sharing of doctrines but also of the spiritual historical experience articulated by them. Thus, God’s peopleunderstand and live in their daily lives the message they share and proclaim. Moreover, they understand their experience of being the remnant as part of the actual history of God’s love in the Great Controversy.
Adventists claim to be the visible remnant church of Christ because they see themselves fulfilling the identifying marks of the remnant included in the Book of Revelation. Yet, the church exists in Christ. Her existence is spiritual because of her faith in Christ’s words and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, her engaging in Christ’s mission to the world as recorded in Scripture.
Moreover, Scripture applies the “remnant” designation to the historical and spiritual development of God’s people, both Israel and the church, throughout the history of salvation. Consequently, the eschatological remnant described by John in Revelation 12:17 is not different from the church but is the church herself, the continuation of the New Testament Church as the remnant of Israel. The nature and existence of the remnant church, therefore, is grounded on her spiritual faithfulness to Christ’s Word and mission as recorded in Scripture.
Further, it led Christian tradition to replace Christ’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary with the liturgy and sacraments of the church. In this way, the church chose to stand on a new alien spiritual ground thereby rejecting the biblical spiritual ground on which the New Testament Church as the remnant of Israel stood. Although Scripture was never absent from Christian tradition, the new philosophical interpretation decisively distorted its teachings and weakened its power. Eventually, it contributed to the church’s self-understanding as being the replacement of Israel rather than as being its remnant, to ground its existence on the sacraments, and to the claim of apostolic succession.
Although the mainline and radical reformations’ “turn to Scripture” led to the discovery of forgotten biblical teachings, they stopped short from challenging the interpretive principles of Christian tradition. This fact prevented the churches of the Reformation from becoming a unified theological and ecclesiological alternative to Roman Catholicism. Instead, the Protestant “turn to Scripture” fragmented the Christian Church into an increasing number of denominations.
Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, the discovery of biblical truth and emphasis on the biblical Christ brought about by the Protestant “turn to Scripture” generated an “anonymous remnant.” In other words, disseminated among the denominational fragmentation of Christian tradition the remnant church began to gather around the Christ of Scripture anonymously and without a physical presence.
Following the pattern of scientific and theological development outlined by Thomas Kuhn and Hans Küng, the anonymous remnant’s “turn to Scripture” intensified leading to the unavoidable paradigm shift generated by early Adventist pioneers. Seventh‑day Adventist identity as the remnant church, then, does not stand on the scriptural marks of the remnant, or the teaching of isolated Christian doctrines, such as the seventh‑day Sabbath, the manifestation of the gift of prophecy, the sanctuary, or the three angels’ messages. Instead it stands on Scripture, alone (sola), completely (tota), and interpretively (prima). According to Scripture, the remnant exists in spiritual union with Christ. This union flows from the discovery, acceptance, and spiritual internalization of the complete and harmonious biblical system of theology and philosophy that the biblical interpretive turn opened to view.
The challenges facing the remnant are epochal. Being the remnant is not easy, but Christ brings it about through His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the providential work of the Holy Spirit. Being the biblical remnant is not a possession or badge of honor to boast of, but responsibility, service, and mission. Believers do not inherit the church but bring it into existence through faithfulness to the Christ of Scripture and His salvific mission. The remnant exists as the unfinished process of reviving and reforming of the Christian Church out of the wilderness of human traditions.
Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES