Pluralism and the Adventist Church

Gerhard Pfandl

Pluralism and the Adventist Church

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had survived the tensions of the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, and its theology was considered settled. For the next 50 years, the church concentrated on mission, and it grew from 75,000 to about 500,000 members. During this time its theology changed very little. There were a few dissenters like A. F. Ballenger in America, W. W. Fletcher in Australia, and L. R. Conradi in Europe, but, on the whole, administrators and theologians travelled the same theological road.

But things began to change in the 1950s with the publication of the book Questions on Doctrine.1 Suddenly, one of the foremost Adventist theologians, M. L. Andreasen, challenged the theology of the leadership. He disagreed with the book’s teaching on the nature of Christ and on the atonement, and when he received no hearing at the General Conference, he went public with his Letters to the Churches.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the gulf between administrators and theologians began to widen. Theologians themselves experienced a split between conservative and liberal Bible teachers. More and more alternative views surfaced, and over the past 40 years, different theological streams have appeared within Adventism.

A number of Seventh-day Adventist theologians have begun to use certain aspects of the historical-critical method; others are impressed by scientific theories, and when Scripture and science seem to clash they follow science rather than Scripture. In this way they are not regarded as outdated and sectarian by current scholarship.

In 1994, R. F. Cottrell, former associate editor of the Adventist Review, presented four different streams of Adventist theology in his magazine Adventist Today.2 He asked representatives of the various views to write the articles. Each of these views claims to represent true Adventism.


A. Evangelical Adventists

In the article “Evangelical Adventism: Clinging to the Cross,” written by M. Rader, D. van Denburgh, and L. Christoffel,3 the first sentence reads, “Evangelical Adventism is authentic Adventism, Adventism as God meant it to be.”4

The origin of Evangelical Adventism goes back to the Desmond Ford crisis and the paper Evangelica, which existed for a few years after the Glacier View Conference in 1980. Their focus is the gospel—with an emphasis on justification. The distinctive Adventist doctrines are not considered important, and they do not recognize Ellen White’s prophetic authority. “Neither do evangelical Adventists give their ultimate allegiance to church tradition or fundamental belief statements, which are merely the current thinking of the majority of the members at the time a particular statement is composed.”5 


B. Progressive Adventism

Progressive Adventists believe that “felt needs” produce doctrines, that present truth must be recycled, and that different interpretations in the church are good since revelation is progressive. No one has the right to dictate the only correct and acceptable belief system anyway. Madelynn Jones-Haldeman, who at that time taught at La Sierra University, wrote an article on Progressive Adventism entitled “Dragging the Church Forward.” In it, she denied the unity of the Bible and claimed that “There is enough internal evidence, as scholars have shown, to suggest that as one reads through the Bible, a loving monotheistic God emerges from the pantheon of warlike gods. The progressive Adventist believes that the picture of God blotting out populations either by the sword of man, or by fires, earthquakes, catastrophic storms and volcanic eruption, demonstrates that man has indeed made God in his own image. It is appropriate to think, ask questions, weigh material and not be intimidated by the words; it’s inspired. No leap of faith is wide enough to bridge the chasm of these contradictory pictures of God.”6 

This is in harmony with the concepts of the History of Religion or Comparative Religion School but not with the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Scripture.


C. Historic Adventism

“Historic Adventism, as its name implies,” says Ralph Larson, “is where Adventism began. It is the benchmark from which all other Adventisms measure off their degrees of difference.”7 Historic Adventists, represented by such well-known names as Robert Wieland, Colin and Russell Standish, and Ron Spear, see themselves as the true successors of our pioneers. They claim that the belief system of the pioneers has successfully resisted all assaults from inside and outside of the church and that it alone provides a solid foundation for faith that will endure until the end.

The origin of Historic Adventism goes back to the controversy concerning the book Questions on Doctrine. It received further impetus through the Ford/Rea/Davenport8 crisis in the early 1980s, as well as through the steady increase of liberal lifestyle and worship practices in the church in recent decades.


D. Mainstream Adventism

The Article “The Mother of Us All: Mainstream Adventism” was written by Kenneth Wood, the former editor of the Adventist Review.9 Mainstream Adventism by definition is the major or prevailing trend in Adventism. Mainstream is the middle of the stream, where the current is the strongest—the most productive and active part of the church. Theologically, Mainstream Adventism is represented by the booksSeventh-day Adventists Believe10 and the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology.11 They are conservative in nature, avoid extremes, and represent a consensus of the world field.

One of the major reasons for the pluralism in our church is the use of different approaches in reading Scripture. For example, the cultural approach to Scripture presupposes that much of the Bible is time- and culture-conditioned and many of its statements, therefore, have no universal or timeless validity. The result of this thinking is a de-emphasis on doctrine; since we cannot know for certain what is true, it is best not to emphasize any one interpretation.

This, of course, fits in well with another reason for pluralism in our church: the ecumenical spirit, which is gaining more and more ground in certain parts of the church. Steve Daily, former chaplain at La Sierra University, castigated the church for its opposition to ecumenism and said, “There is a new ecumenism sweeping through much of the Christian Church today, that Adventism cannot afford to ignore.” He referred to Francis Frangipane and wrote, “In his spiritually-anointed book, The House of the Lord, Francis Frangipane calls upon all Christians, including Adventists, to quit debating their differences and to focus on the essentials of Christ, the Holy Spirit, intercessory prayer, and a shared love for their cities and communities.”12 

The Seventh-day Adventist self-understanding as the remnant church of Revelation 12:17 and the investigative judgment teaching are a stumbling block to ecumenically minded Adventists. A number of Seventh-day Adventist theologians, therefore, are quite willing to dispense with them or change them to something less offensive for other Christians.

George Knight, former professor of church history at Andrews University, in his book The Fat Lady and the Kingdom has highlighted the consequences of this trend. Instead of de-emphasising our unique doctrines, he says, we should re-emphasize them, “Just as a kite flies against the wind, so there is a dynamic in religious movements that is vitalised by differences and even opposition. Being different gives individuals and social groups meaning. And being different develops commitment to a cause, especially when it entails bridge-burning as one joins a religious subculture.”13 

Pluralism is here to stay—this we must admit. Yet, at the same time, the church at large has to ensure that this pluralism does not destroy or split the church. Parameters have to be set, and the voice of the church, as expressed in our world gatherings, the General Conference, must have the final say. Otherwise the church will disintegrate. I do not believe it will disintegrate. This church is the remnant church of prophecy. Jesus is at the helm; and as long as He is at the helm, the ship “church” will not sink. As Ellen White wrote, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”14



1. Questions on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1957).


2. Adventist Today (Jan./Feb., 1994), pp. 4-15.


3. At the time of writing, David van Denburgh and Larry Christoffel were pastors at the Loma Linda (California) Campus Hill church.


4. “Evangelical Adventism: Clinging to the Cross,” Adventist Today (Jan./Feb., 1994), p. 6.


5. Ibid., p. 8.


6. “Dragging the Church Forward,” Adventist Today (Jan./Feb. 1994), p. 11.


7. Ralph Larson, “Historic Adventism: Remembering to Trust and Obey,” Adventist Today (Jan./Feb., 1994), p. 12.


8. Desmond Ford denied the investigative judgment, Walter Rea claimed Ellen White was a false prophet, and Donald Davenport offered high returns on investments and millions of dollars were lost to the church.


9. Kenneth Wood, “The Mother of Us All: Mainstream Adventism,” Adventist Today (Jan./Feb., 1994), pp. 4, 5.


10. Seventh-day Adventists Believe (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005).


11. Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000).


12. Steve Daily, Adventism for a New Generation (Portland, Ore.: Better Living Publishers, 1993), pp. 312, 314.


13. George Knight, The Fat Lady and the Kingdom (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1994), p. 135.


14. Life Sketches of Ellen White, p. 196.