The engine propelling Seventh-day Adventists to organize and become the universal church was their theological vision and system.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church originated as a missionary global movement to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming in glory and majesty. This mission has led Adventists to reach the ends of the world, thus becoming universal in scope and spiritual in experience. According to General Conference president Ted Wilson’s report in his first State of the Church address, the Adventist mission remains vibrant and expanding rapidly, entering new frontiers, engaging postmoderns, and reaching the megacities of the world. Unfortunately, he also sees the church facing “some enormous challenges” that damage the spiritual life and derail the mission of the worldwide Adventist community. These challenges are: “(1) a loss of Seventh-day Adventist identity among some of our pastors and church members; (2) the growing tide of worldliness in many of our churches; (3) the danger of disunity; (4) a spiritual complacency and apathy that leads to a lack of involvement in the mission of the church.”1
Reflection on these issues suggests a sequential order guided by an inner causal relation. In other words, each point is the cause of the next one. Wilson believes the main malady affecting the church today is a lack of identity which, in turn, is caused by the “neutralization of Scripture” among “too many of our pastors and members.”2 Not surprisingly, he suggests that to deal with these challenges successfully we should return to the study of Scripture through the “historical, biblical method.”3
Destination and Itinerary
If this scenario indeed reflects reality, the question arises: How should we facilitate a global return to Scripture in Adventism at all levels of church life? How do we become anew the “people of the Bible”? Is this even feasible in an institutionalized and secularized global community involving large-scale educational and medical institutions?
It is not only possible but incumbent upon us to diligently work toward this return to Scripture if we would fulfill Christ’s mission to the world in these last days. We must become involved in the final mission to prepare ourselves and the world for the glorious coming of Christ and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.
Many contemporary Adventists incorrectly assume that the formative experience of Adventism was the Great Disappointment. In reality, the engine propelling Seventh-day Adventists to organize and become the universal church was their theological vision and system. Remembering, retrieving, embracing, expanding, using, and disseminating that vision and system is the key in our hands to foster unity and finish the global mission of the church, preparing the way for the second coming of Christ.
How Did We Get Here?
Almost 16 years ago, in an address to Adventist leaders, Jan Paulsen, former president of the General Conference, likewise perceived a loss of Adventist identity. According to Paulsen, by design or simple assimilation, Adventists were becoming more recognizable as mere “Christians” than as “Seventh-day Adventist Christians.” He stated that as Adventists we “have a very specific identity, which we lose to our own destruction.” Paulsen appropriately reminded us that our identity is directly linked to—even equivalent to—our theological thinking.4 Thus, the decline in our sense of identity as Seventh-day Adventists revealed a malfunction in the theological thought structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Very likely this is one of the factors that have paved the way to our present “neutralization” of Scripture noted by Ted Wilson. Since our identity is grounded in Scripture, a loss of identity may flow from an undetected disconnect between our theological thinking and Scripture.
Going back even earlier, Neal C. Wilson, then president of the General Conference, observed that “too many of our people are doctrinally illiterate, and as a result they have no firm convictions or commitment to this prophetic movement.”5 It is not difficult to see how doctrinal illiteracy—producing a lack of conviction and commitment to the church—may lead to a loss of identity and the neutralization of Scripture.
More than a hundred years ago, Ellen White reflected on the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference, particularly the spiritual debacle among the leadership. She was not so much concerned with the theological issues on the table as with the lack of spirituality (conversion) exhibited by the leaders. According to her, the lack of unity and power among the leaders revealed a lack of Christian spirituality stemming from the “most wonderful laziness” in personal “close, critical study of Scriptures.”6 Their spiritual life depended too much on the research and preaching of others whose views they embraced uncritically as “positive fact” while they should have been able to discern these views “to be Bible truth [or error], through their own individual research, and by the deep convictions of the Spirit of God upon their hearts and minds.”7 Using current terms, it may be said that the leadership had “head” knowledge based on tradition and not the necessary “spiritual” knowledge that transforms the heart. These brief observations from the inspired pen suggest a dynamic that has continued throughout the ensuing years, a dynamic that is silently but surely neutralizing Scripture and Christ from the life of the church.
Scriptural neutralization springs from a lack of ecclesiological identity, stemming from doctrinal illiteracy caused by a “wonderful laziness” in personal Bible study. Already in 1888, according to Ellen White, our church leadership was fast losing its spiritual ground in Scripture. Because Adventist spirituality had become dependent on listening to sermons (to the neglect of personal Bible study), the sola scriptura principle became replaced by the “tradition of the elders.” In an imperceptible but real way, Adventists began to move away from the rock of Scripture to build on the sand of human traditions.
“Neutralization” has been defined as the rendering of “(something) ineffective or harmless by applying an opposite force or effect.”8 The opposite force behind the current neutralization of Scripture is Satan and his angels. Yet Satan also operates through the visible Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:4), who early in the history of the church neutralized Scripture with human traditions and philosophy. It should therefore be no surprise if he attempts the same strategy with the eschatological remnant. He is fully aware that Scripture is the living source of power given to the church to minister to humanity.
The Way Forward
Because revival and reformation are the work of the Holy Spirit, we have, for decades, prayed for the latter rain to be poured out on our people. Thus, through various efforts, we have exhorted the church to read the Bible and pray for the latter rain. Considering that we have been doing these things, on and off, for the past 50 years or so, it may be time to consider something overlooked, something in addition to Bible reading, prayer, and missionary work that the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church must do. Perhaps, we need to move from simply seeking “head” knowledge to obtaining a “heart” of understanding. To access such an experience, we need to engage in personal critical Bible study as the necessary condition for the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and give us the much-needed “heart knowledge.”
Although personal experience and the institutions of the church are different in nature and purpose, they exist in intimate relation to one another. While the institutions influence our experiences, we individually impact what the institutions do. Thus, changes must occur simultaneously, both in the individual and in the institutions of the church. For prompt worldwide reach, the leadership of the church should embrace and facilitate serious Bible study and the application of biblical teachings and principles to the everyday operations and policies at all levels of administration. This is necessary for the sustained work of revival and reformation until our Lord’s return.
There must be a move away from a culture of tradition and institution building to that of revelation and obedience. The church must think, feel, and act in the light of Scripture through the leadership of Christ our Lord who is the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23).
Institutional resources. At the present time, the church is enjoying the rich blessings of God in many ways. Besides the basic organization of our church—General Conference, divisions, union conferences, and conferences—educational and medical institutions have played a leading role in the development and growth of Adventism since its formative years. These institutions were created under Christ’s direct guidance through His servant, Ellen G. White, with clear and explicit spiritual and missionary goals. Arguably, the present and future of Adventism is forged in the silent but faithful work of dedicated Adventist educators throughout the world. Since leaders are oriented and formed by their educational experience, it is easy to see the importance of our educational institutions. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.
Consequently, changes in education will directly and rapidly affect what happens in other fields and determine the direction of the church. In the past 30 years, there has been an explosion in the creation and growth of Adventist higher education. Presently, the Adventist church operates more than one hundred universities and colleges around the world. They are a solid resource, essential to the preservation of spiritual unity, advancement of the vision, and fulfillment of the mission of the church. However, when disconnected from one another and working from the dynamic of human tradition, they become a major hindrance to the work of God and, if left unchecked, will change the foundations of the church.
Educational institutions—elementary, secondary, and tertiary—are resources that shape the mind and heart of human beings when they are young, thereby determining their usefulness for the church. They pass on the experience of one generation to the next, thus crafting the shape of the future. As in worship, the decisive resources in educational institutions are not material but human. In the church, the decisive qualifications for human resources are the theological and spiritual convictions and commitments of staff, faculty, and administration. At all the educational and administrative levels within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, first and undivided allegiance must be given to Christ and Scripture (sola scriptura).
Human resources. With the passing of time, Adventists have lost not only their “first love” (Rev. 2:4) but also, and more importantly, the formative pioneers’ experience that moved them to create and organize what is now known as the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The human resources of the church are its members, leaders, and laity. All are needed for ministry and mission. However, usefulness for ministry and mission depends on actions, which are determined by spiritual union with Christ. Spiritual oneness with Christ, in turn, hinges on theology (doctrinal understanding), and the fountainhead from which all theology flows can be only one of two: tradition or Scripture. The success of the church, then, depends on the spiritual quality of its human resources, not on the material excellence and number of its institutions. As such, each believer’s spiritual union with Christ is at the center. When Adventist institutions foster and facilitate this spiritual dimension in all their members, they will naturally embrace the vision, maximize their resources, and achieve their mission.
Getting the Vision
The word vision has a variety of meanings. For the purpose of this article, the word vision does not refer to its prophetic sense of anticipating the future and receiving information supernaturally. Instead, vision will be defined as (1) the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom, and (2) a mode of seeing or conceiving. Using the word vision in reference to Adventism here will refer to the ability to think with wisdom the deep things of God around which the church gathers and exists.
This ability is grounded in a mode that fosters understanding of the truth of Christ in Scripture. In this way, vision has a hermeneutical function: It works as a set of principles or ideas guiding the process of interpretation and understanding. Vision, in this sense, includes hermeneutical principles or ideas necessary to interpret and understand Scripture and reality as a whole. The word vision will always have a hermeneutical function. And adding the adjective Adventist to vision signals intent to discover what the vision means in Adventism and the role it plays in the life and mission of the church.
From where? If Adventists have had a vision propelling them forward, it did not arise out of nothing. From where did it come? The Adventist vision arose from the sanctuary. Moreover, the sanctuary message did not come to Adventism by direct divine revelation but through Bible study because all believers were united in an impassioned commitment to the sola scriptura principle. They had received this principle as a treasured inheritance from the Protestant Reformation but were the first to understand and apply it fully and consistently.
Though the Reformers correctly placed the authority of Scripture over tradition, they implicitly continued using tradition as a hermeneutical guide to interpret Scripture. This was not so, however, among the leaders of the Advent movement. They intentionally drew their hermeneutical—interpretive—principles from Scripture, thereby departing further from the authority of tradition. According to William Miller’s rules of interpretation, they had come to believe that the hermeneutical principles for interpretation of Scripture must come from within Scripture itself. Briefly put, Scripture interprets itself. Also, for them, scriptura meant “the whole of Scripture,” including both Testaments, not only the New.
Since they were intentionally seeking to build their whole understanding of Christianity on Scripture alone, interpreted by itself, sooner or later their vision was bound to spring exclusively from Scripture. They were moving in the right direction.
What is it? Based on the sola scriptura principle thus understood, how does it affect the Adventist vision? Consider the “formative” vision that compelled Adventists to become the global eschatological remnant of Christ’s church, motivating them to global mission.
Historians point out that on the day after October 22, 1844, Hiram Edson discovered the cause of their “Great Disappointment” experience. The Daniel 8:14 cleansing of the sanctuary prophecy did not point to Christ’s second coming but to the new phase of His redemptive work in the most holy place in the heavenly sanctuary.9 This scenario had never once crossed their minds. The idea was both novel and restorative because it explained their questions and spiritual disillusionment. It also opened to their minds new ideas and vistas to consider. Soon, they were back to studying the Scriptures, systematically attempting to see how the newfound truth fit in with other Christian doctrines. Adventist historian Arthur White describes the following six years as the “time of the development of a doctrinal structure, a time when the body of truth was being firmly fitted together, piece by piece. It was a time when those involved would have been ill-prepared to herald a message not yet understood in its fullness and its interrelationships.”10
In today’s practical, mission-minded denominational culture, it may seem that these pioneers were wasting their time. They had the truth and should have engaged in mission without delay. This may be because we have lost the passion and understanding of the vision that was moving them from the depths of their very beings.
This vision, however, was the groundbreaking yet simple truth that Christ was in heaven working out the last arrangements necessary for finishing His work of salvation. This plain biblical truth is now known as the sanctuary doctrine, one of the fundamental pillars of Adventism. While this is true, it also presents a problem. The unfortunate reality is that now, at best, the sanctuary doctrine has become just another aspect of head knowledge. As such, it is filed away under “irrelevant miscellaneous information,” but the pioneers saw it as their central theological and spiritual vision. But what difference does it make whether the sanctuary is considered doctrine or vision?
Adventist historian C. Mervyn Maxwell correctly perceived that for Adventist pioneers in this formative period (1844–1850), the fulfillment of prophecy was not simply another doctrine but a “hermeneutical tool”: “Luther and some other reformers honored the historicist interpretation of prophecy, including the year-day principle; but Seventh-day Adventists pioneers, having arrived by the same route at the conviction that the second advent movement was a fulfillment of prophecy, used that fulfillment as a hermeneutical principle in the further development of their message. Once established as scriptural, the fulfillment of prophecy in the second advent movement became a hermeneutical tool for helping establish the Sabbath, sanctuary, spiritual gift, true church, second advent doctrines, etc.”11
Ellen G. White also understood the interpretive role of the sanctuary in Christian theology and spirituality. As a historical witness among early Adventists, she identified and expanded the sanctuary doctrine’s hermeneutical role. In a summary statement 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.”12 The “system of truth” that Ellen White and the pioneers discerned is contained within the pages of Scripture and consists of “a simple and complete system of theology and philosophy.”13 Evidently, the hermeneutical function of the sanctuary guided and determined the message and the mission of Ellen White and the other Adventist pioneerse. The hermeneutical role of the sanctuary led the church to discover and formulate “the invulnerable structure of truth to present to the world.”14
What does it do? To understand what the vision will accomplish, it is incumbent, first, to recognize the doctrine of the sanctuary as “hermeneutical vision”—as “vision” means “a mode of seeing or conceiving.” According to Ellen G. White, as early Adventists studied the Bible after the Great Disappointment, the sanctuary “opened to view”15 a complete system of truth to the understanding of the pioneers. This system of truth (the message) gave them the motivation to organize and propelled them to global mission. Maxwell expressed the vision role of the sanctuary using the term “hermeneutical tool.”16 Basically, the sanctuary doctrine became the hermeneutical vision because it provided Adventists with a new understanding of the interconnected truths of the Bible and interpretation of them as a simple yet complex system of truth.
Neither the “hermeneutical vision” they used, nor the “system of theological and philosophical truth” they saw came from outside the Bible. On the contrary, both were already present and operative in the whole of Scripture. They were simply applying the sola scriptura principle inherited from Protestantism to its full potential. In so doing they became radical revolutionaries, charting a new course, and breaking new theological and philosophical ground. According to Arthur White, “All this was in ‘the scattering time,’ 1844 to 1850. Now they were prepared to enter the openings of ‘the gathering time.’ The message was clear. Doctrinal beliefs were for the most part well established. Wrote Ellen White on December 13, 1850, ‘We know that we have the truth.’”17 Although they could not fully grasp the seismic shift their discovery entailed, the beauty, inner consistency, and spiritual power of their message was felt. This new systematic understanding of the truth about Jesus Christ was already propelling them to become the emerging remnant church, eager to engage in global mission.
How does it work? Today this formative vision of Adventism is what is now called “the doctrine of the sanctuary,” when used not merely as doctrine but as the guiding hermeneutical tool. How does a hermeneutical tool work?
Reading and thinking are not simple but complex experiences that involve many components, among them a variety of interlocking contexts. The contexts are presumably hermeneutical or interpretive tools because they are the necessary presuppositions (or principles) required for a proper understanding of texts and doctrines. Readers are usually unaware of their presuppositions, but to be sure that their knowledge and understanding are guided in the right direction, they must become aware of their presuppositions through study and reflection.
In Scripture (and Adventist theology) the sanctuary plays the role of metaphysical context or presupposition. This metaphysical context is often referred to as “the big picture,” identified with the Great Controversy theme. For this reason, the Adventist vision plays the macro-hermeneutical role in the church, that is to say, it provides the first most general principle of interpretation Christian denominations have always drawn from tradition. How does the sanctuary “big picture” work as hermeneutical vision?
Ellen White helps us to answer this question when she explains that the subject of the sanctuary was the key opening “to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious.”18 The pioneers’ understanding of the sanctuary allowed them to see how the other truths of Scripture (doctrines) fit together in perfect rational harmony and spiritual beauty. They did not find that harmony and beauty in the understanding of doctrines advanced by the churches they had left behind. That systematic vision of the whole of Christ’s teachings in the Old and New Testaments was new to them, united them in spirit, and propelled them to global mission.
The sanctuary as (macro-hermeneutical) vision provides the context necessary to connect all doctrines, teachings, biblical texts, spiritual experiences, practices, etc. The sanctuary plays this role simply because in His love God has chosen to live, abide and dwell with His people (Ex. 25:8). Because in the universe all things “hold together” (Col. 1:17)19 in Christ, who “is the head of the body, the church” (vs. 18), the sanctuary becomes the immediate context of all divine actions by which the Trinity relates with our universe and the church, from the time of its creation to today.
With the pioneers we could also see why the sanctuary should be the vision guiding our understanding of Christ’s works and, through it, the entirety of doctrines and reality. However, the sanctuary is not the ultimate, all-decisive hermeneutical presupposition (context), God is. And this culminates in God’s being (ontological context) and its relation to the sanctuary (metaphysical context).
What difference does it make? Ellen White herself experienced the practical role of the sanctuary as it works together with other “truths that are the foundation of our faith.”20 Adventists referred to these foundational truths, which included the sanctuary and the nonimmortality of the soul, as “pillars,” “landmarks” or “waymarks.” Looking back 60 years to their early experience, she could not help acknowledging that these truths “have made us as a people what we are, leading us on step by step.”21 Earlier, she highlighted their role as hermeneutical vision in the experience of “those who received the light concerning the sanctuary and the immutability of the law of God [and] were filled with joy and wonder as they saw the beauty and harmony of the system of truth that opened to their understanding.”22 Clearly, for them, the sanctuary doctrine and other “pillar truths” were essential to their understanding of Scripture, as well as the entire range of Christian doctrines and their identity as eschatological remnant church. Unbeknown to them, however, the hermeneutical vision of the sanctuary involved a much deeper and broader theological revolution. To properly appreciate the magnitude of the difference the sanctuary as hermeneutical vision makes in Adventist theology, consider its revolutionary role in some detail.
The unintended revolution. Admittedly, Seventh-day Adventism is not the first denomination to have studied and accepted the sanctuary doctrine. Among others, the English Puritans accepted and wrote about a literal heavenly sanctuary well before Seventh-day Adventism ever entered the stage.23 Because other faiths have made references to the sanctuary and other Adventist doctrines before the advent of our denomination, some feel uncomfortable embracing the remnant church claim. In their minds such a sweeping claim requires more than a few distinctive doctrines. They are absolutely right. Much more is needed. For starters, we need to understand, along with the pioneers, that the doctrines we now call “distinctive” are, in reality, a biblical “hermeneutical vision.” First, however, something should be considered that the pioneers did that implicitly required a paradigm shift in Christian theology.
When Hiram Edson realized that Daniel 8:14 pointed to the beginning of a new phase in Christ’s salvific work as High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary, the ontological assumption of Christian theology was not only rejected but implicitly replaced by its opposite. Hiram Edson unraveled the cause of the disappointment by pointing to Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. Adventists did not think of the sanctuary and pillar doctrines as merely “distinctive,” but also, and more importantly, as their guiding “hermeneutical vision.”
The sanctuary and its function is the metaphysical or articulating principle in biblical thinking. To articulate, something is needed. The something the sanctuary articulates is reality, which in technical jargon is ontology. Simply put, the sanctuary interprets (explains) the totality (metaphysics) of reality (ontology). This shows that the sanctuary as “articulating vision,” which opened to view a complete system of connected and harmonious truth, must assume realities to be articulated.
Because the sanctuary is the house where God dwells (Ex. 25:8), this dwelling/sanctuary articulates the historical relationships between Christ the Creator and His creatures. Yet, there is more. God, humanity, and the sanctuary are realities that, in some way, must interact. The sanctuary as building facilitates the articulation or relationship between Christ and His creatures and provides broad guidelines for it. For this interaction to occur in the sanctuary, however, God (ultimate reality) must be historical in nature. This runs in the face of the entire Christian tradition that views God (ultimate reality) as non-historical. In other words, while Scripture and Adventist theology (following the pioneers) assume God interacts with humans, creation, and the sanctuary historically within space and time, Christians assume that He does it outside of the historical space-time continuum. Here is where the road diverges in opposite directions. Choosing the way of divine “atemporality” and “spacelessness” leads to a vastly different destination than choosing the road that views God as engaging with humans historically in time and space. This is not a minor difference, but a massive, all-embracing assumption determining the meaning of everything in theology and practice. Understanding of creation, marriage, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, and certainly the sanctuary are intensely affected by the road chosen.
Why are Adventists the only Christian denomination holding the doctrine of the sanctuary? After all, the sanctuary as the dwelling place of God plays a large role in Scripture both in the Old and New Testaments. The cause of this nullification is traceable back to the non-historical understanding of the ontological assumption in Christian tradition. Church history shows that soon after New Testament times, Christians began to incorporate practices taken from contemporary culture and the religions of their day. With the passing of time, a tradition developed that progressively departed from biblical teachings, replacing them with pagan religious practices following a fateful pattern initiated as far back as Solomon and Jeroboam.
Adventists are familiar with this unfortunate trend in church history and feel called to complete the Reformation movement initiated by the Protestant embrace of the sola scriptura principle. As a denomination, however, we have not yet realized that the inner engine working and directing the development of Christian tradition is the non-historical understanding of ultimate reality (ontological context). In the years after Christ’s earthly ministry, the acceptance of a non-historical interpretation of reality began to take root as the mindset of the early church leaders increasingly reflected Greek philosophy, particularly from the teachings of Plato.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have held that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle spell out the wisdom of God’s natural revelation, while Scripture expresses God’s special revelation. As such, they believed that to get an accurate picture of God, it was necessary to draw from both sources. Following this strategy, Christians have applied Plato’s and Aristotle’s non-historical view of reality (Greek ontology) to God, using it as a hermeneutical tool to interpret Scripture and thereby construct their Christian doctrines. So, while philosophers speak about the “timelessness” of God, theologians prefer to talk about His “eternity” and “Spirit,” yet these terms refer to the same timeless reality, which is incompatible with time and history. Because God is eternal and unchanging, Christianity has assumed that in nature and life, God cannot experience the past-present-future sequence that time and history require. Furthermore, since space presupposes time, to conceive of God’s reality as non-historical also demands His spacelessness. In other words, according to Christian tradition, God’s reality is void of and incompatible with both time and space.
These teachings are the intellectual catalyst that led early Christianity to progressively depart from Scripture and follow human traditions. When Christians uncritically embrace the non-historical, spaceless view of God, they cannot but interpret Scripture’s language about God and His redemptive acts in history as mere metaphor and symbol. They do that because logic demands that if God is outside of time and space, He cannot act in a temporal sequence. In this simple but sweeping way, these macro-hermeneutical ontological presuppositions prevent understanding the reality of God’s biblical acts of salvation as a sequence that actually took place in created temporal history.
Adventists, however, assume that the sanctuary doctrine describes a real sequence of events taking place in space and time. Moreover, there is no doubt that God Himself (the whole Trinity) engages and experiences a sequential series of real divine actions, including the Cross and Christ’s heavenly high priestly ministry. Most scholarly and educated Christians, however, find this view risible, childish—a result of sheer ignorance. Without further thought, they dismiss it. For them the thought that God should act historically in time and space is as ludicrous as proposing the possibility of living without breathing. It contradicts their view of reality and natural law. So, while all Christians agree that the sanctuary speaks about reality, they assume it is a spiritual—not historical—reality. By and large, Christian leaders view the Adventist sanctuary doctrine as nonsense.
But the sanctuary provides a macro-paradigmatic shift as a hermeneutical tool for theology and practice. This difference springs from the ontological, macro-hermeneutical presupposition operating from within the sanctuary. The Adventist vision entails a macro-paradigmatic revolution involving the entire reinterpretation of Scripture, now read through the light coming from the sanctuary. This hermeneutical light promises to shed greater understanding on Christian doctrine, life, and mission.
Losing the Vision
No doubt the sanctuary hermeneutical vision nested in the inner spiritual being of each early Adventist. This vision clarified their doubts, illuminated current issues, and promised a brighter future. It made them sit with God in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). “Now in the holy of holies they again beheld Him, their compassionate High Priest, soon to appear as their king and deliverer. Light from the sanctuary illumined the past, the present, and the future . . . and as they should by faith follow their High Priest in His ministration there, new duties would be revealed.”24
Perhaps because it was such a delight to them to think and experience life from this blessed hermeneutical perspective, they assumed their treasured view of the sanctuary would naturally be passed along to future generations who would continue the revolution initiated by this vision. Sadly, that was not the case. Already by the 1888 conference, the move from Scripture to tradition was subtly taking place. As full appreciation and commitment to the origin of the sanctuary vision weakened, so did its understanding and use among Adventists. If left unchecked, this process would lead to the fading and evaporation of the biblical sanctuary as the hermeneutical vision of Adventism.
Growing pains: averting the demise of the Adventist vision. By the inception of the 20th century, Adventism was facing an unprecedented theological crisis of seismic proportions threatening to replace its foundational hermeneutical vision. Adventism had faced attacks on the sanctuary doctrine before. In 1904, Ellen White reported that in the previous 50 years, the sanctuary doctrine had been attacked from inside Adventism. A year later, she ominously warned this trend would continue in the future. According to her, the pillars and sanctuary doctrine would be challenged from various sources including scientific theories,25 theories on the Word and on God,26 wrong interpretations of Scripture,27 special light “from God,”28 and, of course, Christ’s archenemy, Satan.29 She was writing in the wake of the Kellogg pantheism controversy.
Although John Harvey Kellogg had been harboring pantheistic ideas for some time, the crisis took General Conference leaders by surprise. They felt blind-sided and apparently unaware of the incipient storm brewing within the medical and educational institutions in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg and other leaders were seeking to accomplish a “great reformation” among Seventh-day Adventists by “giving up. . . the pillars of our faith, and engaging in a process of reorganization.”30
Pantheism radically reinterprets the ontological principle of the Adventist vision. When followed to its logical conclusions, this philosophical conception of God sweeps away the Great Controversy (atonement as history of salvation), and disfigures the real biblical “Christ” beyond recognition. During a Sabbath afternoon visit to Kellogg’s home in the summer of 1902, W. A. Spicer (later to become president of the General Conference) learned, to his astonishment, of the doctor’s entrenched position. He correctly understood that pantheism and the Adventist sanctuary vision are incompatible—mutually exclusive.
Ellen White also understood this incompatibility, though with much greater theological precision. She comprehended that the incompatibility between these two visions lay at the level of their ontological presuppositions. This is so because, as we noted earlier, the sanctuary assumes God as a historical being, while pantheism assumes God’s personal reality is spiritual; that is, it exists in a timeless and spaceless dimension. Ellen White realized this view implied exactly the same “spiritualizing” of Christ that many advent believers had used to explain the Great Disappointment 50 years earlier, many of them stating that Christ’s coming had been spiritual. The spiritualization of Christ is an expression of the classical timeless-spaceless Greek ontology assumed in Christian theology since early times.
The effects of accepting pantheism would have had enormous repercussions as to vision. Far more than mere “reform,” this change of vision would have required a complete “redoing” of Adventism from scratch. Such a redoing would have replaced the principles of truth on which Adventism stood with a new philosophical foundation built on human traditions. Essentially, the acceptance of Kellogg’s views would have transformed Adventism into just another Protestant denomination, with an appearance of virtue but devoid of the truth. The biblical, theological, and spiritual revolution unleashed by early formative Adventist thinkers would have been aborted before having had the chance to fulfill its God-given mission of establishing “Christianity upon an eternal basis.”31
Ground zero: Adventist institutions. As noted earlier, educational and medical institutions play a decisive formative role in the life and mission of the church. Leaders and laity, however, have come to think about them as mere tools designed to provide skills to future leaders. While this is true, it needs to be recognized that they play a much deeper and pivotal role in the life and mission of the church. Something much more profound is taking place in Seventh-day Adventist educational and medical institutions: the shaping of the Adventist mind and spirit.
Adventist institutions are “ground zero” in God’s work in its derivative sense as the center of rapid activity or change. Since the spiritual center of the Christian church is Christ’s work of redemption, and “the work of education and the work of redemption are one,”32 it is easy to understand why Seventh-day Adventist institutions are the source of its theological, spiritual and missionary development. They are the place where the biblical remnant church equips her leaders spiritually as disciples, theologians, and missionaries. The church of the future flows from the educational system of the present.
This fact and the Battle Creek/Kellogg pantheistic crisis described earlier underline the influential role our institutions play in God’s remnant church. Though Adventism averted the mega hermeneutical crisis implicit in the pantheistic reinterpretation of God’s personality, the sanctuary doctrine as the hermeneutical vision of early Adventism continued to fade away, slowly but surely, throughout the first half of the 20th century. While Seventh-day Adventism grew in members and institutions, successive generations of leaders no longer used the sanctuary as a hermeneutical vision. In fact, by the 1950s, Seventh-day Adventists used the sanctuary mostly as a doctrinal “badge” to distinguish themselves from other Protestant churches.
From grounding vision, the sanctuary had become merely a “distinctive” doctrine. Imperceptibly, the vision of Adventism was fading away. Seventh-day Adventist leaders were progressively losing this vision not because they were rejecting or reinterpreting biblical teachings on the sanctuary but rather because they were no longer using it as such.
Thus, the problem threatening unsuspecting Seventh-day Adventist leaders was no longer heresy but the even more dangerous fact that Seventh-day Adventism was rapidly losing its biblical vision, a necessary tool to discern the difference between heresy and truth. This problem was aggravated in the 1960s, when leading educational institutions, now coming of age, became full-fledged research universities. Since then, they have been playing in the major theological and ecclesiological leagues without a clearly outlined strategy (vision) from which to organize our global spiritual and missionary game plan. A systemic disconnect between administrative, ministry, missional, educational, and medical branches of the church followed, and progressively has become the modus operandiamong Seventh-day Adventist leadership. This systemic disconnect, demanded by the high specialization and diversification of knowledge taking place during the 20th century, intensified and accelerated the unavoidable consequences of earlier generations’ neglect and forgetfulness of the Adventist vision.
Why should we care? We must be aware that different visions tend to create divisions. If strength is found in unity, it is far wiser to embrace a common unifying vision. But do we then use your vision or mine? What would be our criteria to decide? Would it be practicality, reason, science, Scripture? There is only one foundation that will stand the test of time and accomplish God’s mission: the rock of God’s Word. To avoid further divisions, even splintering into various organizations, we must recover the biblical vision and make it operative in all our churches and institutions.
If the vision that originated, united, and organized Adventism into a worldwide movement exists only in the books of history but not in daily operation, another vision—or visions—must be operating among us. No one, neither believers nor the Christian Church at large, can function without a vision. Every person interprets knowledge based on some vision, most often an unconsciously adopted one. If we are not using the biblical sanctuary vision, then the vision or visions we are using have been drawn, consciously or not, from our human culture. As such, there is the risk of disintegration from within. Division is evident not only in the various fields of specialization, but also, and more importantly, in the way we think, interpret the Bible, worship, and understand spirituality.
By way of example, consider the present controversy over women’s ordination. Committees were appointed, papers were written, and leaders met requesting the direction of the Holy Spirit over their deliberations. Yet, at the end of the day, we still understand the scriptural teachings on women’s ordination in diverse ways. Is the Spirit not present and guiding? Why are we still not of one mind and spirit on this issue? Perhaps the Spirit wants us to realize we have a methodological/hermeneutical problem that affects not only this current disagreement but everything we are and do. God wants us to learn something far greater and important than the relatively small issue of women’s ordination. Some of those involved in the discussions are individually arriving at this obvious conclusion. Might our present disagreement on women’s ordination be related to the systemic forgetfulness of the Adventist vision? What if engaging our churches, administration, and institutions in the process of retrieving the Adventist vision would help us solve this potentially divisive issue and prevent many more that will no doubt press the church in the future, diverting time, energy, and funds from our real task of preaching the message to the world?
Thinking the Vision and the Mission
Reflections on the causal relationship that exists between vision and mission (as seen in the table below) follow two main coordinates, one diachronic (through time) and the other synchronic (simultaneously occurring in all historical periods). The order of the diachronic sequence reflects the statements by global leaders discussed earlier. Their privileged roles in the church allowed them the best vantage point to witness the global mindset in a way not available to most of their contemporaries.
“Most wonderful laziness.” Ellen White’s strong conviction that at Minneapolis the doctrinal problems stemmed directly from the absence of biblical spirituality and the presence of formalism among the leaders suggests that up to that point in time most leaders embraced and applied the Adventist vision. Embracing the Adventist vision led them to the discovery of the complete and harmonious system of biblical theology, which in turn produced strong personal spiritual experiences of union with Christ, which generated an undivided engagement in the mission of the church by all leaders and church members.
Ellen White’s comments on the Minneapolis Conference also suggest that something new—something detrimental to the life of the church—was forming in the church, reaching even the leadership. A new period had already begun. Something had changed from earlier years. The only explicit difference between the “formative years” and the period of “most wonderful laziness” appears under the “church unity” as a change from spiritual to doctrinal unity. As Adventists, however, began to rely on the teaching of their leaders rather than on personal Bible study, an imperceptible change in the “Adventist vision” from an explicit embracing and application to an implicit awareness may have been taking place. The major visible difference, then, was not theological (Scripture, vision, system) but spiritual. To use a now-familiar term among Seventh-day Adventists, head knowledge/experience was replacing spiritual knowledge/experience.
Ellen White saw clearly that to move forward they had to overcome the spiritual situation of the church. This is the reason for her almost solitary advocacy for the message of justification by faith proclaimed by Waggoner and Jones. Only when biblical spirituality had been restored could the church agree doctrinally and methodologically. But how could the church get the experience of justification by faith? What was the divine prescription to experience such spirituality among the leadership?
Ellen White’s answer to this question was clear and simple: personal Bible study received with prayer and applied to daily life. Only through the personal discovery of divine truth as presented in Scripture can the Holy Spirit produce the righteousness/justification experience. This requires an individual, time-intensive work. But Adventists had stopped receiving their spiritual food from Scripture. They were replacing the more painstaking made-from-scratch personal Bible study with the far easier fast-food teaching of the leadership. In so doing, something new and dangerous was entering the church: tradition. It should be noted that this situation (that of depending on the teaching of men instead of individual study) has continued to operate in the church ever since, providing the basis for other (more visible) negative changes in the mindset and practice of Seventh-day Adventists.
Doctrinal illiteracy. Resulting from this gradual spiritual change, a very different church emerged a century later. By then the church and its institutions had grown in number and quality. The third row of the table, “Doctrinal Illiteracy,” indicates subtle changes. Apparently, the unity of the early formative years no longer permeated the whole church. Neal Wilson’s pointed observation regarding “doctrinal illiteracy” indicates that church unity did not stand either on spiritual or doctrinal ground, but merely by force of the institutional organization. Moreover, if Adventists were ignorant of their doctrinal beliefs, they were likewise ignorant of the biblical system of truth, the Adventist vision and the sola scriptura principle. Yet, the absence of these essential guiding principles in the minds of leaders and church members indicates that they had started to use their own sources, vision, and system of thinking. In the vacuum of a solid biblical ground a new “Adventist” mind frame was quickly emerging from non-biblical sources. From within the everyday life of the church and its institutions, tradition was replacing Scripture.
Since what happens in the mind directs the actions (Prov. 23:7), the results of this mind change directly affect the life of the church. Church fragmentation was happening from within. The unity that was perceived was not spiritual or doctrinal, but institutionally grounded. Church mission and church growth were slow and uneven. Evangelization began to be directed only to the “unchurched,” implying that we need not evangelize and convert Christians of other denominations. This is a serious modification in the previous understanding of the global mission of Adventism (three angels’ messages). Emerging from a mindset of tradition, another vision was silently replacing the original biblical vision in the mind of Seventh-day Adventist leaders. The vision dictates how we interpret reality and therefore affects everything we think and do. If this trend continues, gigantic changes of “biblical” proportions will be advanced from within Seventh-day Adventism in the near future.
Loss of identity. In the next period, the main characteristic, according to former General Conference president Jan Paulsen, is the loss of Adventist identity. By the turn of the 21st century, many who had grown up during the eclipse of Scripture became leaders in church administration and educational institutions. This new generation developed a new conception of Adventism. Their relation to the church was not grounded in the transformation of mind and spirit (Rom. 12:1, 2) motivated by heart-searching Bible study (Matt. 7:24–28), but in a cultural attachment to community. Naturally, this group conceives of Adventism as a culturally evolving institution. Accordingly, they can no longer accept the early pioneers’ avowed identity of being the remnant church. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Adventist administrative and educational leaders are no longer convinced that Seventh-day Adventism is the only true visible church of God. Articulated and empowered through the global Adventist educational system and disseminated by the global media ministries, these ideas are quickly permeating all levels of the administrative and educational systems in the global church.
In challenging the identity of Adventism as the remnant church, this new trend is likewise rejecting the Adventist vision and the sola scriptura principle from whence it comes. As anticipated by Ellen White, this challenge comes from science and takes the form of theistic evolution. Because the understanding of the universe plays a vision role in human thinking, theistic evolution is not confined to the halls of academia but permeates the whole system of church teachings and practice. Challenges to the vision lead to challenging the harmonious theological system the sanctuary opens to view.
These challenges, embraced by a sector of Adventist scholars and teachers, have belittled the sola scriptura principle, vision, and system of Adventism resulting in negative outcomes for the life of the church. When educators read them, they lose confidence in the biblical teachings of the church and feel motivated to change the contents of their teaching and preaching. Consequently, these new teachings affect the mind of the students who, in time, become the leaders of the Adventist community. Out of these processes emerges a church doctrinally divided and spiritually dead.
When the unity of the church is damaged, her mission is severely weakened, possibly even mutated, through extreme cultural contextualization, both abroad and in American culture. Church outreach slowly but certainly morphs from outreach to ecumenical dialogue as we sit at the same table and pews with other Christian denominations (and non-Christian religions) to learn from and worship with them. If universally embraced and followed to its ultimate conclusions, this trend will put a complete end to church growth. The church will die or be absorbed into the ongoing Roman-Catholic-led ecumenical movement.
The neutralization of Scripture. The next period described in the table describes the present situation. In his 2013 status of the church address mentioned earlier, Ted Wilson directed the attention of Seventh-day Adventists to serious issues facing the global church: loss of identity, worldliness (secularization), disunity, and, spiritual complacency. He identified the logistical origin of these maladies: the neutralization of Scripture. Though this is a serious, even potentially terminal, diagnosis, the good news is that God has the power to reverse it, and we have the key to His power through Bible study and prayer.
In the table above, “Periods and Vision Correlation,” Adventists today are facing the future that, as the church, is being built today. All the main characteristics of each preceding period are present and working within us. At the same time, we witness all around us a clear and continuing departure from the Adventist vision and even from Scripture whence the vision comes.
The logical consequences of allowing the neutralization of Scripture to continue unchallenged are not difficult to see. A process of “replacement” will follow the previous periods of “neglecting” and “challenging.” Scripture will be replaced by Christian tradition. The Adventist vision will be replaced by the panentheistic evolutionary vision—the updated and improved version of pantheism. The “complete and harmonious system” of biblical philosophy and theology will be replaced by the complete and harmonious system of deep ecumenical theology.
The life of the church will be impacted in like manner. The bond uniting Adventists will no longer be that of the historical Christ ascended to heaven and soon returning, but instead, the uncertain ground of ever-changing regional traditions. Adventism will repudiate the three angels’ mission, and, embracing the ecumenical mission, church growth will be sparse at best and institutionally driven. In the long run, Seventh-day Adventism as a denomination would cease to exist, most likely merging into the deep ecumenical embrace structured, organized, and led by the Roman Catholic Church.
Back to Scripture all over again? The good news is that the future is open. We can choose to do something different to redirect the destiny of the church. If to neutralize means “to make ineffective” then to de-neutralize would mean, “to make effective.” If Ted Wilson’s diagnosis is correct, it can be expected that once the global church removes the obstacles hindering Bible effectiveness, its power for salvation (by means of the Holy Spirit) will be unleashed throughout the world. The full power of the Word of God must be unleashed in Seventh-day Adventism. What Adventism began to lose at Minneapolis must be reclaimed: the spiritual appropriation and application of Scripture in the personal life first, and then to all levels and activities of the worldwide church. To upgrade Bible study must be intentionally organized from head knowledge to a spiritual heart understanding that transforms lives personally, communally, and institutionally. Returning to Scripture (sola scriptura) then is the only option open to the church to help her achieve spiritual unity and accomplish the final mission. Going back to Scripture will produce the revival and reformation that has been long sought.
The church has sought revival and reformation, but the results have been mixed, at best. It is wrongly assumed that God will send the latter rain only by our asking. In so assuming, God’s oft-repeated prediction is forgotten: “Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me” (Prov. 1:28). Why would a loving God not answer the requests of His children? God explains, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices” (vss. 29–31). Later, we find the same pattern taking place in Hosea’s time as God explained to them, “‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me’” (Hosea 4:6). Does this somber message apply to us? Could this pattern be recurring at the present time?
To finish the mission, we must engage God personally and heed all His counsels and reproofs, listening attentively to the voice of God found only in the sacred pages of Scripture. The only way to change the direction of the church and finish God’s mission is through a personal and corporate return to Scripture, characterized by humbleness of mind and heart.
A divided church cannot fulfill her mission. In an attempt to overcome theological and spiritual divisions, Adventism must strengthen its mission through the biblical content of the Adventist vision and its determinative role in creating theological unity and passion for mission. To better understand the way in which the vision operates within the community, we examined its methodological function with special focus on its nature, mode of operation, and expected outcomes. The way to unity and total mission engagement requires that Adventist leadership (corporation) and laity should go back to Scripture to retrieve anew its vision and embrace its mission. But how can the inertia of many years of forgetfulness be reversed? This will be the challenge addressed in the final article of this series.
Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES