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Dennis Priebe

Fifty Years Under Review

In October, 2007 a historic conference convened at Andrews University. It was the 50th anniversary of the printing of Questions on Doctrine. The purpose of this conference was to evaluate the impact of QOD on the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The invitees included both Adventist and non-Adventist scholars. However, this was more than just a historical analysis, because QOD had recently been republished with editorial notes. The reality is that this book and the issues it raised will not go away because they are directly related to the Adventist Church's reason for existence.

Perhaps it is important to note that this conference did not take place with the blessing of the current General Conference president. At the Annual Council meeting on October 13, 2007 Jan Paulsen said that the issue that has the most potential of dividing the church is theology. He said that he did not support another restudy of theological issues originally presented fifty years ago in Questions on Doctrine, particularly regarding the nature of Christ. "I just cannot imagine a post-modern person in Europe, a businessman in Asia or Latin America, any more than a farmer in Africa will care one iota whether Christ had the nature of man before the fall. The realities of the world in which we live have other concerns and other priorities which occupy us."

Elder Paulsen accurately understands that what has the most potential to divide Adventism is theology, not organizational issues or women's ordination or even differing worship services, because our theology determines who we are and what constitutes our reason for existence. The reason he did not encourage this restudy is because QOD began a shift in our theology which has produced a widening chasm between differing theologies in Adventism, and he is aware that it is virtually impossible to bring those theologies into harmony any more. He would rather let sleeping dogs lie to preserve the illusion of unity in the church.

Elder Paulsen is absolutely right that people in Europe or Africa won't care one iota about the nature of Christ, but neither will they care one iota about which day to go to church or whether there is a sanctuary in heaven. Because people don't understand certain issues doesn't mean that those issues are irrelevant. In fact, they may be hugely significant for future developments on planet earth. I believe that this was a very, very shortsighted and careless statement from the world leader of the Adventist Church.

Background to Conference

Late in 2003 Questions on Doctrine was republished by the Andrews University Press with historical notes and a theological introduction by George Knight. Originally published in 1957, this book, as Knight wrote, "easily qualifies as the most divisive book in Seventh-day Adventist history."

It all began when T. E. Unruh, the president of the East Pennsylvania Conference, wrote a letter to Donald Grey Barnhouse complimenting Barnhouse's radio program on righteousness by faith. This letter led Walter Martin, a young specialist in Christian cults, to visit Washington in March, 1955, so he could hear from Adventist leaders exactly what they believed regarding certain doctrines that Martin had said were cultic.

There were four basic issues which concerned Martin. He understood Adventists to teach that 1) the atonement of Christ was not completed on the cross, 2) salvation is the result of grace plus the works of the law, 3) Jesus was a created being, and 4) He partook of man's sinful fallen nature in His Incarnation.

Unfortunately, M. L. Andreasen, noted by George Knight as "the denomination's most influential theologian and theological writer in the late 1930's and throughout the 1940's, had been left out of the process in both the formulation of the answers and the critiquing of them, even though he had been generally viewed as an authority on several of the disputed points... Looking back, one can only speculate on the different course of Adventist history in Andreasen had been consulted regarding the wording of the Adventist position on the atonement."

The next event was a crescendo of Ministry editorials and articles that joined with a remarkably orchestrated public relations program in minister's meetings throughout North America from 1957 on. QOD was portrayed as a magnificent achievement, heading off Walter Martin from again including Adventists in his next book on cults in America.

When it seemed to Andreasen that the QOD authors and the General Conference president were not interested in recognizing his concerns, Andreasen wrote open letters to church members. The fact is that Andreasen agreed that most of QOD was solid Adventist thinking. He was primarily concerned with the issues of the atonement and the human nature of Christ.

We must recognize the presuppositions of Barnhouse and Martin. The human Jesus was for them "impeccable," that is, incapable of sinning. One of their theologians wrote that the possibility of Jesus "sinning and falling is an atrocious idea... For then God Himself must have been able to sin-which it is blasphemy to think." Therefore Adventist authors appeared cultic to Barnhouse and Martin.

Hovering over the theological fog that QOD generated was the denominational imprimatur that the book was getting around the Adventist world. Andreasen declared QOD to be "a betrayal in order to gain recognition from the evangelicals." George Knight observed, "Unfortunately, there does appear to be elements of a betrayal in the manipulation of the data and in the untruths that were passed on to Barnhouse and Martin... The result would spell disaster in the Adventist ranks in the years to come. Official Adventism may have gained recognition as being Christian from the evangelical world, but in the process a breach had been opened which has not healed in the last 50 years and may never heal."

Reactions to Questions on Doctrine

What seems to be an unspoken, deeper problem with QOD is what was left unsaid. Martin and Barnhouse were recognized scholars. What a perfect opportunity it would have been for Adventists to use equally trained minds to show why Adventists have a distinctive understanding of soteriology, Christology, and eschatology. Like Hezekiah, who failed to show the Babylonians his rich treasure of truth, we missed the opportunity to give inquiring men our understanding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan.

The fundamental problem in 1955-1957 was that the participants tried to merge two different theological systems that were incompatible. When Adventists try to overlay their theology on the Evangelical grid many areas simply won't fit. Reflecting on this period of Adventist history, Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart wrote, "Questions on Doctrine raised uncertainties about what Adventists actually believed that made the evangelical era that followed the most destabilizing in the church's history." (Seeking a Sanctuary, p. 106)

A group of prominent leaders in Loma Linda, CA, signed a statement charging that QOD misrepresented "certain vital fundamentals and compromised other tenets of our faith" and that "certain statements and teachings of the book will never be accepted by a considerable number of our people. In fact, it is our conviction that not since the time of J. H. Kellogg's pantheistic controversy of more than a half century ago has anything arisen to cause such disquietude, dissension and disunity among our people as the publication of this book." (Quoted in J. R. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings, p. 175)

Raymond Cottrell wrote an evaluation of QOD for General Conference leaders in 1956. He predicted, "Almost certainly, there will also arise a storm of opposition when our ministry and laity discover the real meaning of the actual terms on which we have achieved a rapproachment with Martin and other evangelicals." (Quoted in Julius Nam, Reactions to the Seventh-day Adventist Evangelical Conferences and Questions on Doctrine 1955-1971, p. 245)

North American leaders, such as R. R. Bietz, predicted a great disaster ahead, saying that "a tornado was yet to come." Theodore Carcich, president of the Central Union Conference, called QOD "a clever and subtle attempt to undermine the foundational doctrines of Seventh-day Adventists." Raymond Cottrell warned, "Let us be certain that nothing gets into the proposed book that will take us the next 50 years to live down." (Quoted in Nam, pp. 352, 347, 255)

It should have been obvious that Seventh-day Adventists would have great difficulty trying to harmonize their understanding of salvation with their Calvinist friends, no matter how much linguistic gymnastics they could muster.

Walter Martin's Four Issues

Let us look back at the four issues that concerned Martin. How should we have responded to his questions?

1) The atonement was not completed at the cross

For the evangelical mind, everything important to the plan of salvation was completed with the death of Christ. The Old Testament was largely about a failed system of salvation by works. Christ inaugurated a new covenant of salvation by grace, and nothing more needs to be accomplished except fulfilling certain Old Testament prophecies.

The Adventist answer that satisfied Martin was that the atonement was completed at the cross, and Christ has been ministering the benefits of that atonement ever since from the heavenly sanctuary. However, this is not the Adventist position at all.

Adventists have always believed that the new covenant of grace began, not at the cross, but in Eden with the promise of Christ's defeat of Satan in Genesis 3:15. This promise was ratified or made legal at Christ's death. At this time the sacrificial aspect of the atonement was completed, but the plan of atonement will not be fully completed until sin is not only forgiven but removed from the lives of Christians and from the universe.

The earthly sanctuary shows this clearly. The altar of burnt offerings was the central aspect of the daily rituals, pointing clearly to the death of Christ, but these rituals were incomplete until the Day of Atonement cleansed all sin from the sanctuary. Both aspects were necessary to complete the plan of atonement.

Adventists have always believed that the death of Christ was the first step of the atoning process, which will be completed in the last generation with the sealing of the 144,000 and the close of probation. We have called this the final atonement or the cleansing of the sanctuary. This belief is unique to Seventh-day Adventists, and it was totally unacceptable to Martin and the evangelical world. Unfortunately, we hid this emphasis from Barnhouse and Martin so that they would accept us as fellow Christians.

This progression is even seen in the three castings down of Satan. He was first cast out of heaven, which only meant exile until final determination could be made. He was then cast out at the death of Christ because he lost all credibility with unfallen beings. However, he will only be bound, which means totally defeated, at the second coming of Christ.

The issue is not about Christ ministering benefits in the Holy Place, but it is about completing the plan of atonement in the Most Holy Place. Today there is even disagreement among Adventists on this point, largely because, since the 1950's, we have deemphasized this final aspect of the atonement.

2) Salvation is grace plus works

This is quite easy to answer by showing that works never merit or earn salvation. Salvation is always the free gift of grace, but grace always works. This means that obedient acts are always the natural result of transforming grace.

This is still difficult for the evangelical mindset, for which obedient acts are not a condition of salvation and are not necessary for salvation. The conclusion is that we can be saved even while we are knowingly disobedient to God's commands.

3) Jesus was a created being

This is easy to answer by showing clear statements from Ellen White and Adventist scholars that Jesus is fully God, existing from all eternity.

The problem was that some of our early pioneers did believe that Jesus had a beginning at some point, when He was brought into existence by the Father. This position was rejected around the turn of the 20th century.

4) Jesus took man's fallen, sinful nature at the Incarnation

This was and is the single biggest point of conflict with the evangelical world and within Adventism. There is one aspect of this subject which is not often discussed. It is the simple word "grace."

Ellen White has two significant comments on this word. "We would never have learned the meaning of this word 'grace' had we not fallen. God loves the sinless angels who do His service and are obedient to all His commands, but He does not give them grace. These heavenly beings know naught of grace; they have never needed it, for they have never sinned. Grace is an attribute of God shown to undeserving human beings... God rejoices to bestow this grace on everyone who hungers for it." (My Life Today, p. 100) "It was according to the determinate counsel of God that man should be created, endowed with power to do the divine will." (God's Amazing Grace, p. 129)

Here we have learned that grace was not needed by the angels or by Adam and Eve, because they had inherent power in their natures to be obedient. Grace is needed, and in fact is our only hope, by fallen men and women because they have no power to obey in fallen nature. Grace is only necessary and is given only to those who can obey in no other way.

Two interesting letters were printed in Ministry regarding Christ and grace. The first said, "A... sinless spiritual nature that Christ possessed enabled Him to perfectly obey His Father's law,... whereas every other human being, being sinful in both natures, lives under the new covenant, being in need of grace to be saved." In other words, Christ did not need grace, because He had power in His sinless nature to be obedient, just like the angels.

The second letter said, "I have one question: Did not Jesus have to depend on grace to resist sin as do we? If He had within Him the innate power to resist sin then He would not have conquered Satan on the same ground where we live!" So the question is, did Christ need or receive grace, or not? Let us examine several statements from Ellen White.

"To the consecrated worker there is wonderful consolation in the knowledge that even Christ during His life on earth sought His Father daily for fresh supplies of needed grace;... Behold the Son of God, He strengthens His faith by prayer, and by communion with heaven gathers to Himself power to resist evil." (AA 56)

"Jesus, considered as a man, was perfect, yet He grew in grace. Luke 2:52: 'And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.'" (1 T 339-340) A better translation of the word "favor" is "grace."

"Daily He received a fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit. In the early hours of the new day the Lord awakened Him from His slumbers, and His soul and His lips were anointed with grace." (COL 139)

"He sought for strength to meet the foe, for the assurance that He would receive grace to carry out all that He had undertaken in behalf of humanity." (Letter 159, 1903) The evidence is clear that Jesus both needed and received grace.

"He has made abundant provision for every soul to have such grace and strength that he will be more than a conqueror in the warfare against sin... He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness. He desires them by practicing the principles of truth to show to the world that God's grace has power to sanctify the heart." (RH 4-1-1902)

"He expects nothing of His disciples that He is not willing to give them grace and strength to perform. He would not call upon them to be perfect if He had not at His command every perfection of grace to bestows on the ones upon whom He would confer so high and holy a privilege... Jesus revealed no qualities, and exercised no powers, that men may not have through faith in Him." (GAG 230)

From these statements, we can draw some obvious conclusions. Grace is our only hope of obeying in our fallen natures because there is no power in fallen nature to obey. Jesus exercised no powers that fallen man may not have, which means that He did not have the power of angels or Adam. The evidence is conclusive, with no possibility of misinterpretation, that Jesus needed and received grace. Since the only ones who need grace are fallen human beings, is it not crystal clear that it was Jesus' fallen, sinful nature that needed daily supplies of grace?

The Doctrine of Sin

There is one aspect of the QOD story that has never been discussed before. QOD attempted to bring original sin into the theology of Adventism. Original sin teaches that we are in a lost, condemned state because we inherit fallen nature and are the children of fallen Adam. Thus we are born in a state of sin, separated from God. I am indebted to Larry Kirkpatrick for unearthing some prepublication drafts of QOD.

The prepublication draft is very direct. "Adam's sin involved the whole human race. 'By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin' declares the apostle Paul (Rom. 5:12). The expression 'by sin' shows clearly that he is referring, not to actual individual sins, but rather to original sin-the sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. 'In Adam all die' (1 Cor. 15:22). By that original sin, 'death passed upon all men' (Rom. 5:12)." (Prepublication draft of QOD, pp. 406, 407)

The prepublication draft shows that the authors of QOD equated sinful nature with original sin. In one of the responses returned to the prepublication draft that had been sent out, Raymond Cottrell complained, "This is the first I knew that Adventists believe in 'original sin.'... This term... would require sacramental practices such as infant baptism."

Two paragraphs later in the printed book are these sentences: "From Adam we all have inherited a sinful nature. We all are 'by nature the children of wrath' (Eph. 2:3)...

Consequently, all are guilty before God." (QOD 407, 408) It is evident that the authors of QOD viewed man as guilty or condemned on the basis of his inherited birth-nature. Adam's sin, according to the QOD authors, brought not only death, but condemnation to the race, a condemnation existing apart from any personal decision to sin.

This QOD teaching had never been Adventist doctrine. The sin for which we are considered guilty or condemned had previously been viewed by Adventists in the context of free will-personal choice exercised in rebellion. Nevertheless, the new doctrine of sin was now being portrayed to evangelicals as that believed by Adventists.

If sin is built into one's inherited human nature, as taught in QOD, then there is no means for its eradication but to wait for God to change that nature at the moment of glorification.

In addition, the QOD introduction of the doctrine of original sin makes it necessary to protect the humanity of Jesus from having the same fallen nature as all other men. If we are condemned and lost because of our birth-natures, then Jesus cannot have the same nature. The doctrine of original sin destroys the brotherhood between Jesus and fallen man. So we see the imperative reason why the authors of QOD felt it so needful to bend Adventist teaching on the humanity of Christ.

Now we begin to see the reason for the major attempt in QOD and in the Ministry articles to change our position on the nature of Christ. Some of our leaders had accepted the Augustinian/Calvinist doctrine of original sin in a modified form. Thus our positions on the nature of Christ and the possibility of sinlessness in the last generation because of the final atonement had to be radically revised. Significantly, the battle over these issues has not gone away or lessened over the last fifty year period.

Some Results of QOD Conflict

An informal survey was undertaken in 1989 of pastors in the Southeastern California Conference of the church, in an attempt to learn if doctrinal positions had significantly changed at the grass roots level of church leadership. One statement read: "Some of the recently expressed objections to the traditional Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8:14 ('then shall the sanctuary be cleansed') are valid." Only 34% of the pastors disagreed with this statement. This means that 66% did not affirm the Adventist interpretation of this text.

Another statement read: "A loyal Adventist has no reason to doubt the accuracy of Ellen White statements." Only 36% agreed with this statement. A third statement read: "A person should accept the prophetic role of Ellen White before being baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist." Only 31% agreed with this statement. Most of the ministers surveyed didn't believe that a person should have to accept Mrs. White's prophetic role before becoming a Seventh-day Adventists.

The survey results convinced the survey takers that pre-QOD Adventism was not very popular among these ministers. They concluded that the majority of the answers, at least 60%, would comport well with "evangelical Adventism." ("Survey of Attitudes and Opinions," September 25, 1989, Survey Research Service, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California)

In the January/February, 1994 Adventist Today appeared an article entitled "Evangelical Adventism: Clinging to the Old Rugged Cross." The following link between evangelical Adventism and QOD was expressed: "In 1957, with the publication of Questions on Doctrine, denominational leaders clarified which theological stream represented official Seventh-day Adventism. Among the theological positions taken in Questions on Doctrine are the following:... Jesus Christ is eternally God and sinless in His human nature; the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners was finished at the cross... Evangelical Adventists consider the positions taken in Questions on Doctrine to be an expression of both authentic and evangelical Adventism."

The term "evangelical Adventism" first appeared with reference to Seventh-day Adventism with the first issue of Evangelica-A Publication for Evangelical Adventists in October, 1980. This movement was articulated by Alan Crandall, the editor. In the May, 1982 edition of Evangelica he stated that the roots of evangelical Adventism extended back to Questions on Doctrine, and that this movement had been advanced by gospel preachers during the 1960's and 1970's.

Concluding Thoughts

In a report of the 2007 QOD conference, Larry Kirkpatrick offered these significant reflections. ("Here Are They," available on

Should Adventists try to be identified with Evangelicals?

What value would there be for Adventists being identified as evangelicals?...The label comes... with a troubling set of negatives. These include a teaching of forever burning hell, a teaching of the natural immortality of the soul,... the idea of an American empire, the USA as planetary policeman, and the initiation of wars such as the invasion of Iraq by the United States. That war, whatever you think of it, is seen as an evangelically-supported war... The closer that we are identified with evangelicals, the more we would be identified with their politics. When evangelicals mix church and state, and we seek to identify ourselves as being evangelical, we lose our high ground of apolitical neutrality.

There may have been some value to us in being perceived as evangelicals in the 1950's... Be that as it may, the value of our being perceived as "evangelical" in 2008 is highly questionable. Just a small sampling of books currently available on Amazon: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience... The Great Evangelical Disaster... The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind... The Tragedy of Compromise: The Origin and Impact of the New Evangelicalism... Being an evangelical in 2008 is not exactly felt to put one into the best company... Therefore, some Adventists question the value of being too closely identified with evangelicalism.
Interestingly enough, Donald Dayton, an evangelical scholar at the 2007 conference wrote: "I would then call Adventism to explore its own sources for insights... This is certainly a higher calling than the efforts to 'assimilate' to the evangelical tradition that seem to dominate such discussions as the Questions on Doctrines. I fear that Adventism may sell its heritage for a mess of pottage."

QOD was a mistake because it erected a new Adventism when the current one had already been supplied by God... QOD was a mistake because it did not tell the truth about what Seventh-day Adventists believed. By the mid-1950's, but few in-the-pew Adventists believed as QOD claimed... Martin and Barnhouse knew that QOD did not square with the Adventism that had gone before it.

The power of Adventism is found in its two "T's"-in "termination" and "transformation."... The Seventh-day Adventist message is all about "termination"--the end of sin and sinning, the end of suffering and evil... Our message is also about the other "T," "transformation." This too is an attack on sin. The status quo is unacceptable. Strengthened by the helping grace of God, we are changed here and now... The universe sees that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation... Transformation and termination are the strengths of pre-QOD Adventism. But QOD undermined the very things it was claimed to help.

Be all that as it may be, the future of Seventh-day Adventist mission and message is bright. Although QOD obscured crucial distinctives, a vigorous, fresh wave of young people are thriving in the grass roots... Many of these energetic Adventists are motivated by an understanding very similar to that which illumined the writings of M. L. Andreasen. It is very much pre-QOD Adventism. It is alive and well... An army of young people with faith in God and a trust in the Scriptures are evangelistically primed. What's more, they uphold the full inspiration and authority of the Ellen G. White writings. They are learning. They are growing. They are formidable...

One day soon God will say, "Here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus... In the end God wins, and the Third Angel's Message, which so many have thrown overboard as a quaint relic foisted upon an ignorant church by Ellen White, turns out to be true. Victory over sin was just what the Bible said it was. The mission Heaven assigned to this community of faith was right after all... Pre-QOD Adventism today is bright with energy.