Is the apparent “Protestantization” of Adventism real? If so, how did it come to exist? Should Adventists be concerned about it? Do church leaders recognize its existence? Should we affirm and promote this long-held Adventist tradition, or should we deconstruct and overcome it? What is the role of theologians, pastors, and professors preparing new generations of leaders in Adventist seminaries and universities around the world?
Adventist leadership is experiencing a conflict of self-understanding. Officially, Adventist leaders continue to affirm biblical doctrines with their brains, while evangelical theologies and practices progressively shape their hearts and actions. This growing ambiguity represents a stark turnabout from the experience of early Adventist pioneers who, dissatisfied with traditional Protestant theologies, decided to follow their own understanding of scriptural truth and abandoned their evangelical denominations to become the remnant church.
A Working Definition of Protestantism
In this article, the word Protestantism is used to describe the theological system and ministerial paradigm of the segment of Christianity that in the 16th century broke away for the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification by faith based on the sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide principles. Protestantism centers on the doctrine of justification by faith, the article on which the church stands or falls.
The way in which Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jacobus Arminius understood these principles and theological center produced a worldview that differs slightly from that of Roman Catholicism. Yet, as Catholic leadership predicted, the Protestant system of theology spun a multiplicity of incompatible theological projects (Denominationalism). Within this general context, I use the word Evangelicalism to refer to the coalition of American denominations that in spite of their doctrinal differences agree on the principles and center of the Magisterial Reformation, and with the Roman Catholic interpretation of the ontological and metaphysical conditions of the principle of theological hermeneutics.
Protestantization of Adventism and Theological Method
The Protestantization of Adventism is a phenomenon that springs from the theological methodology used by Adventist leaders. Theology seeks the “understanding of God.” Theological method is the process through which one seeks to understand God. Method requires a material to work with, a pattern to process the material, and an end to provide it with direction and purpose. In theological parlance, the material condition of method corresponds with the issue of revelation-inspiration. The formal condition of method corresponds with hermeneutics. And the final condition of method corresponds with the subject matter of theology.
The material condition refers to the revealed sources of theology. The material principle of Protestant and American evangelical theological methodology (classical, modernist, and postmodern) is not the sola, tota, and prima scriptura principle, but the principle of multiple revealed sources that they received uncritically from the Roman Catholic theological system.
Emerging from the profound dissatisfaction of American believers with the conflicting doctrines of traditional Protestant denominations, Seventh-day Adventist pioneers adopted the sola, tota, and prima scriptura principle as the material principle of their theological methodology. Consequently, they were critical of tradition (deconstruction) and thought doctrine from scriptural foundations. We should notice that they inherited this belief (Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief 1) not from the Magisterial Reformers but from the English Connection.
In theological methodology, the formal condition stands next to and depends upon the material condition. The formal condition consists of the macro-hermeneutical principles necessary to interpret Scripture and to construct the system of Christian theology (ontology, cosmology, and metaphysics). Evangelicals have never used Scripture to define their macro-hermeneutical principles. Instead, they have implicitly assumed the philosophical principles of Plato and Aristotle as retrieved by Augustine and Aquinas. Unbeknown to most Protestant and evangelical believers, these ontological principles condition and permeate the Protestant-evangelical system of theology. They determine the evangelical understanding of the doctrines of justification, grace, and faith.
Radically departing from evangelicals, early Adventist pioneers used Scripture to interpret the macro-hermeneutical principles necessary to understand Scripture and construct the system of Christian theology. Ellen White identified as foundational to Adventist doctrine the sanctuary, the Law of God, the Sabbath, the non-immortality of the soul, and the three angels’ messages.
In various levels and ways, the biblical pillars of the Adventist faith work as the hermeneutical conditions of its theological methodology. Ellen White reveals the hermeneutical role of the sanctuary doctrine 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 More specifically, “The correct understanding of the ministration in the heavenly sanctuary is the foundation of our faith.”2
These simple observations on evangelical and Adventist theological methodologies may help Adventists to understand two pivotal points involved in their relations with evangelicals. First, Luther’s revolutionary insights on justification, Calvin’s systematic construction, Arminius’ slight modifications to Calvin’s system (divine foreknowledge and human free will), and Wesley’s inclusion of sanctification still stand on the basis of Roman Catholic interpretation of the material and hermeneutical conditions of theological methodology. Second, Protestant theologians have never applied the sola scriptura principle to the hermeneutical principles of their theological method. Consequently, Protestantism has never produced a sola scriptura systematic theology.
The Evanescence of Adventist Theology: Questions on Doctrine (QOD).3
There are traces of the ongoing Protestantization of the Adventist mind in the answer to QOD’s first question: What doctrines do Adventists share with other Christians? The authors of QOD answered that, with the exception of few doctrinal points (the existence of the heavenly sanctuary, the investigative judgment, the Spirit of Prophecy, the three angels’ messages, and the seal of God and mark of the beast), Adventists believe evangelical doctrines on God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.4 Later, Froom identified these doctrines as the “eternal verities” essential to the Christian gospel. This answer reveals that the initial step in the Protestantization of Adventist thinking had already taken place in the minds of Adventist leaders. From it, the more advanced and explicit Protestantization of Adventism at the beginning of the 21st century grew.
This answer superficially enumerates similarities in doctrinal issues, but it does not address divergent theological positions, systems, and theological methods embraced by Adventists and Protestant denominations. Thus contemporary readers may arrive at incorrect conclusions. They may infer that Adventists and evangelicals share the same theological understanding in all doctrinal points with the exception of a few minor eschatological issues. Moreover, they may also deduce that these minor divergences do not affect the understanding of the “eternal verities,” that is, most of the content of evangelical systematic theology. From this simple answer to a complex question, an increasing number of Adventists today assume their beliefs are evangelical, notably, the central doctrines of Christianity. One can see why they feel free to use evangelical books to learn their theology and ministerial paradigm.
In Movement of Destiny (MOD),5 his sequel to QOD for Adventist readership, Froom explained that the “separative” doctrines were a “distinct handicap”6 of early Adventists. These doctrines made Adventists different and distanced them from evangelicals.
The New Role of the Sanctuary Doctrine
In Movement of Destiny, Froom singles out the sanctuary as the most separative Adventist doctrine. According to him, neither the early church nor the Reformation taught this doctrine. Nonetheless, he did not suggest that Adventists should abandon their understanding of the sanctuary but sought to soften its divisiveness by ignoring its hermeneutical role.
He affirmed the doctrine but redefined its function, asserting that “any weakening or denial or submerging of the sanctuary truth is not only a serious but a crucial matter. Any deviation or dereliction therefrom strikes at the heart of Adventism, and changes its very integrity.”7 Thus, he believed in the doctrine of the sanctuary but no longer as the macro-hermeneutical principle that leads to the discovery of the biblical system of truth. Instead, he argued that the sanctuary was the light that illumined the precarious position after the Great Disappointment, and is “the all-encompassing essence of Adventism,”8 the doctrine that “embraces” or contains the complete system of Adventist beliefs, and, the broad outline of the great eschatological consummation.
In its new redefined role, according to Froom, the doctrine of the sanctuary continues to have a “central place in our distinctive identifying emphasis for this time,”9 and it continues to define our uniqueness by being the reason that justifies our existence as Christian denomination.”10 Consequently, we should proclaim the Investigative Judgment as “Present Truth.”11
Following QOD’s lead, Froom’s subtle redefinition of the sanctuary doctrine’s role from “hermeneutical key” to “distinctive doctrine” had far-reaching consequences in theological method, system, teachings, and ministerial praxis. From it, the progressive Protestantization of Adventism builds and nourishes.
Theological Tradition as New Hermeneutical Key
Froom was convinced that the sanctuary doctrine fit perfectly with Christian doctrinal tradition. The sanctuary doctrine, he explained, “is not a departure from the historic Christian faith. It is, instead, the logical completion and inevitable consummation of that faith."12 It seems that Froom was convinced that the Adventist system of theology embraced in the sanctuary is the logical and inevitable consummation of the historical Protestant evangelical faith.
Since Adventists historically understood the eternal verities of the gospel in various ways, Froom called on them to accept evangelical tradition and teachings on God, Christ, and the gospel. In his own words: “We were not at first united on certain of the saving provisions and Divine Persons of the Everlasting Gospel, in relation to the Third Angel’s Message in its final phase and culminating witness. There were variant views of the Godhead, the Deity of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and on aspects of the Atonement, as well. Yet allegiance to these saving truths—the Eternal Verities—has been the heart of the true Church’s faith in all periods of its greatest purity. This was true of the early church, the Reformation times and the Wesleyan period. And it must be for us today.”13
Thus, in many ways, Froom articulated the gospel as the new hermeneutical principle in Adventism. As we have seen above, the sanctuary doctrine continued to be an important distinctive eschatological emphasis, but leaders no longer conceived or used it as the hermeneutical key to understand all Christian doctrines, including the gospel. At least after QOD the gospel as understood by the evangelical theological tradition became the hermeneutical key to interpret all doctrines, including eschatology and the sanctuary.
This change in the understanding of the hermeneutical conditions of theological methodology requires a change in the material condition. Since evangelical theology does not build on Scripture alone, progressively Adventists no longer developed their theological understanding from Scripture alone but also from the multiplicity of theological sources used by evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians.
Facing Evangelical Theology
When, during the 1960s, more Adventists ventured into the halls of secular universities and evangelical seminaries, their Adventist experience and self-understanding became strongly influenced by the emerging Protestantization of Adventism nurtured by QOD. As they faced millennia of unfamiliar theological thinking, a sense of bewilderment overcame many young Adventists. Many found the historical-critical method convincing and employed it to find the meaning and truth of biblical texts. In response to this trend, Adventism declared officially that Bible teachers could not use the historical-critical method because of its naturalistic presuppositions. However, because Adventist scholars have not been able to replace the naturalistic assumptions they are supposed to avoid, the debate on the scholarly method of biblical exegesis stills goes on unabated, and many Adventist Bible teachers continue to use it as their tool of choice.
In some sectors of the church, the combination of the QOD/MOD switch from the sanctuary to the evangelical gospel with the progressive utilization of historical-critical methodology led to the intensification of the Protestantization of the Adventist mind and lifestyle.
Desmond Ford revealed the consequences of this methodological combination. According to him, justification by faith and historical-critical methodology leave the sanctuary doctrine groundless. Moreover, the traditional Adventist interpretation of the sanctuary doctrine contradicts the view of a complete atonement in Christ. On this basis, Ford and many after him believe Adventists should recognize their error and reject the sanctuary doctrine and the historical interpretation of apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel and Revelation.
As many Adventists become convinced that the gospel and the historical-critical method show the doctrinal distinctives of their church to be erroneous, they can no longer accept Adventism as the true remnant church. Such a claim is perceived as groundless and a sign of institutional arrogance. Adventists are considered as only one of many evangelical denominations that make up the visible body of Christ, the church.
The full Protestantization of Adventism takes place by embracing modernity and its postmodern cultural relativism in self-designated “progressive Adventist circles.” They experience the full Protestantization of Adventism as the way back from Scripture to evangelical and scientific traditions. From there, the way back to Rome is only a matter of time.
Facing Evangelical Ministry
These methodological changes away from the sanctuary and Scripture are changing the ministerial paradigm of Adventism around the world. Changes in the conditions of theological methodology necessarily bring changes in the thinking, lifestyle, administration, and mission of the church. In other words, if Adventism agrees with almost all evangelical doctrines, as QOD and MOD affirm, it is understandable why some administrators, teachers, and pastors feel free to borrow from evangelical books on theology, doctrine, and ministerial methodologies.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the supernatural power/praise paradigm of ministry of evangelicalism is replacing the Bible study/theological understanding paradigm of ministry of earlier Adventists. As a result of this mostly unrecognized phenomenon, the Protestantization of Adventism is reaching the pews around the world. According to the Protestant ministerial paradigm, God grants salvation by His supernatural decision and power. Consequently, the ministerial method becomes the proclamation of the Cross as complete atonement, justification, and the assurance of salvation. As a result, those Adventist ministers who follow the Protestant paradigm no longer see the need for Bible studies as a condition for baptism, spirituality, or salvation.
Because the evangelical understanding of the gospel continues to play the macro-hermeneutical role in theological method, Adventists feel free to drink from evangelical theological reflection and ministerial practices. In this way, evangelical theologies and ministerial practices will shape Adventist thinking and lifestyle for years to come.
The limited and partial phenomenological analysis of selected evidence leads only to initial conclusions calling for further research and verification. The Protestantization of the Adventist mind and lifestyle is real, ongoing, broad-reaching, and intensifying. Disconnected from the doctrinal formulations of the church, the Protestantization phenomenon takes place at the existential level of thinking, feeling, and acting.
The Protestantization of Adventism came into existence by way of a progressive forgetfulness of the biblical system of theology from which it came. Like the Reformers, Adventists have become distracted with church business and neglected their emerging theological thought. With the passing of time, they have forgotten the hermeneutical role of the doctrine of the sanctuary in its theological methodology and replaced it with the evangelical hermeneutical principle of justification by faith. Moreover, like the Reformers, Adventists have overlooked the sola, tota, prima scriptura principle, and embraced the plurality of theological sources on which the Roman Catholic theological system stands. QOD’s superficial affirmation that Adventism shares most Protestant doctrines opened the gates to the global dissemination and progressive intensification of the Protestantization of Adventism.
Adventists should be concerned about this because it is transforming the very essence and identity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its mission. Adventists could reverse this process by becoming the perpetuators of the Protestant Reformation of the church that ended too soon. In other words, the way out of the Protestantization of the church is to complete the theological revolution initiated by the Protestant Reformation (sola scriptura) and articulated by the Adventist reformation when early Adventist pioneers implicitly discovered in the sanctuary doctrine the biblical interpretation of the hermeneutical principles of theological methodology.
Adventists need to understand that the sanctuary doctrine is not the invention of Ellen White, nor does it result from superficial exegetical or theological thought. All to the contrary, the hermeneutical role of the sanctuary doctrine is central to Christian theology, as Old Testament scholar Roberto Ouro argues: “Christ in the Sanctuary is the theological center both of the [Old Testament] and [New Testament].”14
Yet the further theological discovery of the Adventist pioneers is not complete. To overcome the Protestantization of Adventism, contemporary Adventists must complete the restoration of truth left incomplete by the Protestant Reformers and early Adventist pioneers. Adventists must develop the sola scriptura systematic theology project at the scholarly level. This requires a shared understanding of the conditions of theological methodology and a solid commitment to scholarly research that challenges the strong houses of Christian theology to establish Christianity upon an eternal basis. This project should include the development of Adventist theology in neglected scholarly disciplines, such as fundamental, biblical, systematic, and ministerial theologies.
In a time when Protestant leaders are going back to Rome, Adventist leaders, administrators, pastors, and scholars should be going back to Scripture and using the sanctuary doctrine as the hermeneutical key to understand the complete and harmonious system of biblical truth. When the inner logic of God’s Word, through the educational ministry of the Holy Spirit, penetrates our hearts and we treasure it in the inner recesses of our spirits, we will no longer experience doctrine as “brain” knowledge but as the transforming and saving power of God through the Holy Spirit. Then the church will be of one mind, and Adventism will fulfill its God-given final mission.
Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. The Great Controversy, p. 423.
2. Counsels for the Church, p. 347.
3. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1957).
4. Representative group of Seventh-day Adventist Leaders, Bible Teachers, and Editors, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine: Annotated Edition. George King, ed., Adventist Classical Library (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2003), pp. 23, 24.
5. Leroy Edwin Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1971).
6. Ibid., p. 35.
7. Ibid., p. 542.
12. Ibid., pp. 542, 543.
13. Ibid., p. 35.
14. Roberto Ouro, Old Testament Theology: The Canonical Key, Vol. 1 Pentateuch/Torah (Zaragoza, Spain: Lusar Reprográficas S.L., 2008), p. 18.