The terms “Seventh-day” and “Adventist” provide a healthy tension for the church.
By Jacques Doukhan
Many of us have struggled with the name “Seventh-day Adventist.” I still vividly remember a funny incident when I was in the army. The military clerk asked me one day, “What is your religion?” I said, “Seventh-day Adventist.”
To my amazement, the clerk wrote down “dentist.” Many have experienced some kind of awkwardness in regard to this name. To that natural embarrassment, which has essentially to do with ignorance, another difficulty could be added. So far the name has been understood as a mere description of our theological identity. The additional difficulty is that our name, while objectively describing the components of our faith, carries also a tension that is in fact the essence of our identity.
Two Irreconcilable Worlds
Our name is made of a tension between two irreconcilable worlds. This tension hits us on a primary level: Our name is made of two opposite entities. The phrase “Seventh-day” is made of a number (7), which puts us immediately in the concrete realm of figures, the tangible reality of the accountant. It is also made of the word day, which places us into time, into our present life. Through this phrase we are precisely connected to the time of the week and to the time of history. Through this phrase we are confronted with existence, and we belong to the course of history.
The word Adventist, on the other hand, is an abstract word whose meaning is not immediately clear. It is a word that is generally not translated in other languages. While we translate the phrase “seventh day” in other languages, we normally leave the word Adventist intact and loaded with mysterious and intriguing meaning. While the phrase “seventh day” connects us with earthly existence and human history, the wordAdventist takes us to the future of history, what comes after human history and belongs to the prophetic domain, pointing to the heavenly order. While the phrase “seventh day” confronts us with the present reality of the earthly city and makes us breathe with the rhythm of time “under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1),1 the word Adventist takes us away from here and makes us dream and pray and hope for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and strengthens in our heart the sense of “eternity” (vs. 11).
Interestingly, Abraham Heschel had in mind the same kind of tension when, in his own categories and his own terms, he pondered the following: “Citizens of two realms, we all sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another, between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.”2
The seventh-day Sabbath is more than “not Sunday.” It is more than the reclamation of one day versus the other day; being that, the seventh-day Sabbath carries profound and significant theological perspectives. It is first of all the denial of the medieval contemptus mundi (“contempt of the world”); it is the affirmation of our connection with this creation, with this time and with this history.
Contrary to Marcion and many of his Christian followers who embraced Sunday (which they saw as the day of resurrection, and hence of the deliverance from the physical body), in order to deny the value of material creation including our human body and to exalt instead the spiritual realities such as the soul, the seventh-day Sabbath celebrates God’s gift of creation. This means that seventh-day Sabbath keepers ought to affirm the value of their body. What we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe, the way we treat our body, our attention to our physical reality is a part of our attention to the seventh-day Sabbath.
For seventh-day keepers, religion is a concrete matter that implies the physical reality of flesh. This also means that seventh-day keepers should not have a problem with involving the reality of their money and their physical blessings in their religious expression. Giving tithes is like Sabbath, another affirmation of our faith in creation and hence the recognition that all belongs to the Creator (Lev. 27:30; Ps. 24:2; Gen. 14:19–21). The “yes” to creation that is contained in seventh-day observance implies also an attention to the reality of this world. Ecological concerns and care for the problems of environment as well as sensitivity to the beauty of creation and sensual enjoyment of creation are direct applications to that attention.
The “yes” to creation is also a “yes” to the joy of life. The seventh-day Sabbath connects us with the human reality of this world, with our family (Lev. 19:3), but also with our servants and our employees and with the foreigner (Ex. 20:10), as well as with the animals of creation (vs. 10). The ministries of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and of religious liberty are not just social expressions of our Christian love. They are not some kind of PR ornaments to impress and seduce the secular world, or just a strategic foreword preparing for the rest of our religious message. They are an inherent part of our religious message: they are rooted in the seventh-day Sabbath, which calls for that responsibility.
The seventh-day Sabbath should also mark our connection with human history. It is not only the reminder of God’s act of creation (Ex. 20:11), it is also the sign of God’s work in history (Deut. 5:15); it conveys the message of Immanuel “God with us” and is the mark of His incarnation, not only in the historical person of Jesus Christ but also in His Word, the canonical Scriptures. It contains, therefore, a powerful affirmation of the value of learning and searching the human expressions of the prophetic voice. It is an appeal to the use of our mind and our intelligence in the quest for truth and in the construction of our religious life and thinking.
The seventh-day Sabbath takes us into the heart of the Law (see its structural centrality in the Decalogue), which commands us to incarnate our piety into the facts of life. It reminds us that religion is not just made of prayers and spiritual meditation; it is essentially an obedience that governs our daily life, in our relationships with ourselves, the world and our neighbor (Prov. 15:9; 21:3). In a nutshell, the “seventh-day Sabbath” component is what makes us human, real, and present in this world, a dimension that was emphasized by Jesus: “‘the Sabbath was made for man’” (Mark 2:27).
The word Adventist takes us in the opposite direction; it separates us from this world and this time and fuels our eschatological thinking. The traditional evangelical and existential theologies emphasize the spiritual kingdom of God in our present relationship with God and insist on the present salvation through immediate access to the heavenly paradise by the soul. In the word Adventist, Seventh-day Adventists fundamentally proclaim an event that belongs to the “not yet” and pertains to the heavenly order: the future coming of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven and the restoration of the heavenly kingdom.
For us, the actual event of salvation is not subjective, a sentimental or an existential encounter, or an individual translation at our death. Salvation is cosmic by nature and has not yet occurred, although it has been anticipated and guaranteed through the event of the Cross. Although God is intensely present in our lives through His blessings and our religious experiences, we have understood that salvation originates in heaven in God’s grace and does not depend on human endeavor or tradition. We believe in the spatial reality of a heavenly sanctuary in which the process of salvation is being decided and shaped. We meditate over the meaning of the heavenly Day of Atonement, which characterizes our time of the end and affects our prophetic identity as people of the last days.
We hope in the future resurrection of the dead and the creation of a new and “glorious” body with the gift of eternal life. We also hope in the future creation of new heavens and earth, where we will live forever and in perfect peace in the actual Presence of the Lord. All these circumstances may be deemed as utopic because they pertain to realities and concepts that are totally foreign to our human experience. They are not, however, the product of our poetic imagination; they are not mere science fiction.
These are things that we could not even imagine, things “‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him’” (1 Cor. 2:9). We came to believe in the unbelievable through revelation (vs. 10). It is that “Adventist” component of openness to the supernatural that inspires our view of Scripture and affects our hermeneutic, obliging to a careful and respectful approach to the inspired Word. We cannot believe in the second coming of Christ with all it implies of breaking through the natural channels of human history and still practice the historical-critical method that is an affirmation of the contrary. In a nutshell, the “Adventist” component is what makes us holy and different in this world, pointing to the transcendent, and what justifies our role as witnesses to the other city.
These descriptions have not been dramatically new, and everyone could comfortably identify with this picture, except perhaps for the implied tension in the contrast between the two worlds. Our identity is not made of only the two components, distinctively and separately; but it is an identity of tension. The two dimensions are brought out together, in tension with each other and in connection to each other, but also inside of each other: the “seventh-day” is present in the eschatological “Adventist” thinking; and conversely the eschatological thinking should invade our existence.
“Seventh-day” with “Adventist.” The canonical integration of the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Seventh-day Adventist appropriation of Scriptures—supported by the theological recognition of the same degree of inspiration between the two Testaments—is a fundamental principle for our church. It is unclear, however, to what extent this principle has been well assimilated and well applied in the life of the church and the personal religious life of the Seventh-day Adventist person.
One of the most immediate applications of this tension is the association of “the law and the Gospel,” which Ellen White uses to explain our “distinctive” name.3 It is also significant that it is on the basis of this tension that the name “Seventh-day Adventist” has been legally adopted to found the historical creation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: “We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.”4 Obviously, this confession of faith was based on the apocalyptic text of Revelation interpreted as a prophetic reference to the last-day witnesses of biblical truth (14:12). We also believe that it is that tension that would reconcile “the Law of Moses” and the coming of “the day of the Lord,” which should characterize the message of the eschatological Elijah (Mal. 4:4-6; Rev. 11:3–6).
“Seventh-day” in “Adventist.” The connection to time and to history that constitutes the essence of the “seventh-day” is also an integral part of our eschatology. This means that our eschatology is not an ethereal dream outside of the reality of flesh and of history. Paradoxically, the very fact that salvation is a cosmic event objectively located in the future and not just an emotional and “spiritual” experience gives to that event of salvation all its historical evidence. Also, it is because the event of salvation is really historical that it implies the demands of judgment and the need for righteousness.
It is because the heavenly kingdom is a historical reality that we cannot enter that holy space the way we are. God’s justice, with all it implies of absolute eradication of evil is what makes the event of salvation a real historical event and not just a theological concept or a nice pious feeling. Significantly, the event of the eschatological Judgment has been situated within the course of human history in connection with the event of the Cross; they belong to the same prophetic line and are both submitted to the same rigor of numbers, from the 70-weeks prophecy to the 2,300 evenings and mornings (Daniel 8 and 9). These two theological ideas, namely, the future cosmic dimension of salvation and the eschatological judgment, are the most important theological contributions Seventh-day Adventists have brought to the world. They are also the most unpopular ones; more than any other idea, they make salvation a real event and not just a vague theological concept we may play with.
“Adventist” in “Seventh-day.” Our eschatology should not stay aloof and disconnected from the reality of our existence. Our eschatology should be a part of our present life. An illustration of this principle is the manner in which Daniel uses the phrase that encapsulates the most eschatological hope “‘the end of the days’” (Dan. 12:13), to mark a specific moment in his life (vs. 8), a linguistic indication that his life has been invaded and affected by his eschatological hope.
The literary connection between the historical section of the book (Daniel 1–6) and the prophetic/eschatological section of the book (Daniel 7 to 12) could also be seen as an evidence of the same pattern relating the eschatological to the existential/historical. In a more corporate perspective, the Book of Daniel describes the impact of hope on the lives and the emotions of the eschatological people: “‘Blessed is he who waits, and comes to the one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days’” (12:12).
Likewise, in the Book of Revelation, the eschatological people who proclaim the message of judgment and creation in their lives and in their words are on earth the sign of the heavenly judgment/day of atonement (Rev. 14:6; Dan. 7). Our Adventist faith should inform and control our current and historical walk in life. This means that our ethics—the way we relate to one another, the way we forgive one another, the way we eat and drink, the way we work, the way we make our choices—should be inspired and nurtured by our eschatology. The future should govern our present.
Biblical Testimonies of Seventh-day/Adventist. It is interesting to note that this tension deciphered in the name “Seventh-day Adventist” is found in the Scriptures, as the following examples testify:
● The canonical structure: The Bible begins with creation (Gen. 1:1–2:1) and ends with the coming of the Lord (Rev. 22:20). The Old Testament Scriptures attest the same canonical structure, beginning with creation and ending with the coming of the day of the Lord (Mal. 4:5) or with the hope of the return from the Babylonian exile on the sabbatical year (2 Chron. 36:21–23). The renowned Old Testament theologian, Claus Westermann, noticed this canonical coincidence and concluded its significance in its relation to the “central message” of the Bible.5
● The structural pattern in the Scriptures: It is also interesting to note that this structural pattern is attested elsewhere in the Scriptures. The Book of Genesis begins with creation and ends with the perspective of the Promised Land, the hope of the resurrection and the Garden of Eden (Gen. 50:24–26). Likewise, the Pentateuch begins with Creation and ends with the same perspective of the Promised Land and the hope of resurrection (Deut. 34:4–6).
The Book of Isaiah begins with the call of heavens and earth associated with the image of God nourishing Israel (1:2) and ends with the creation of new heavens and earth and the perspective of eternal worship of the Lord from Sabbath to Sabbath (66:22, 23).
The Book of Ecclesiastes begins with Creation (1:1–11) and ends with eschatological judgment (12:14).
The Book of Daniel begins with the food test, which alludes to Creation (1:12) and ends with the Second Coming, the day of resurrection “‘at the end of the days’” (12:13).
The Gospel of John begins with Creation (1:1–10) and ends with the promise of the Second Coming (21:22, 23).
● The definition of “faith” of Hebrews 11:1: It is significant that the only biblical definition of “faith” is based on this association of the same two poles: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (referring to the hope of the kingdom of God [vs. 40]), and “the evidence of things not seen” (referring to Creation [vs. 3]). Note that the poem begins with Creation (vs. 3) and ends with the promise of the kingdom (vs. 39).
All these examples, there may be many more, are evidence of the “seventh-day/Adventist” tension in the Scriptures. This tension is therefore not just an apologetic argument supporting the rightness of the Seventh-day Adventist message; it is not only founded on proof texts of the Scriptures; it is deeply integrated in the structure of the whole Scriptures.
One of the lessons of these two poles of the inspired Scriptures concerns the way we focus on Scriptures. Witnessing to the two poles of the Scriptures, its beginning and end, means that we should witness to the totality of Scriptures. It requires for a balanced reading of the whole Scriptures (Old Testament and New Testament). Although apocalyptic texts should retain our particular focus, because of our specific identity and mission as last-day witnesses, this attention should not overlook all the rest of biblical revelation. We should also be obliged by the imperatives of the Torah; think and ask questions with the sage of Wisdom literature; enjoy the beauty of biblical poetry; be ethical with the eighth-century prophets; be stirred by the paradoxical truths of the Sermon on the Mount; be disturbed by the urging engagements of the Epistle of James; and be challenged by the difficulties of the Pauline Epistles.
The recognition of the “Seventh-day Adventist” identity as an identity of tension implies that we should learn to think the two poles of our identity as not in conflict, not as the one against the other, or even in peace, as the one next to the other, but in tension, the one with the other. This is not to suggest a philosophical, dialectical approach resulting in some kind of synthesis between the two. Neither does it imply a political, middle way approach resulting in some kind of compromise between the two.
The two dimensions have to be carried together and totally, because they are both categories of revelation. Seventh-day Adventists who emphasize the “Adventist” at the expense of the “Seventh-day” component lean to one wing of the church and run the risk the erosion of their human and earthly connection. On the other hand, those with an emphasis on “Seventh-day” at the expense of the “Adventist” component lean to the other wing of the church and run the loss of their religious and supernatural connection. What makes the distinctive character of the Seventh-day Adventist message is that it brings the two dimensions into tension with equal emphasis. The Seventh-day Adventist church should not be defined to the right or to the left or even to the center; it should only be defined in tension, as “Seventh-day Adventist.”
Jacques Doukhan, D.Heb.Lett., Th.D., is Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Seventh‑day Adventist Theological Seminary and Director of the Institute of Jewish‑Christian Studies at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES