Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Progressive and Traditional Adventists Examined

This is the full version that was shortened and appeared in the Adventist Today Magazine

 Traditional and Progressive SDA's

By Ron Corson

However one may want to believe that someone or some group has all the answers about Religion and God, we can be sure of one thing, they don't. Whether they are Traditional/Historic Seventh-day Adventists (SDA's), Progressive SDA's or Moderate SDA's, all see only part of the picture, "a poor reflection in a mirror". The question before the people of the Seventh-day Adventist church is how to pursue the knowledge and truth of God while not stepping on others personal search and convictions. Unfortunately, we cannot all be right. The history of the Christian era is filled with differences of opinions. The beginning of the SDA church is based upon differences with other Christians. Even once the SDA church became an organization there were considerable differences of opinions, even among the pioneers who formed the SDA church.

What is meant by the labels Traditional/Historic SDA's, Progressive SDA's, and Moderate SDA's? These labels are only useful for those who want to be described by the terms. If a label is used in a pejorative way it loses its value; it becomes another form of name-calling. This is often seen in the political arena but for our discussion name-calling is not what we want. We are using labels to assign certain peoples doctrinal views into simple categories for the sake of comparing or contrasting views. For this discussion the moderate views will not be highlighted since the Moderate encompasses people who in one area may agree with the Traditional/Historic view and in another area agree with the Progressive view. Generally the Moderate then is in the middle of the two categories, equally divided. While many people probably consider themselves Moderate, if they spend the time to analyze their doctrines it is likely they will fall more to one side or the other. In many peoples minds being a Moderate is the place to be. Hopefully this article and others like it will enable these people clarify for themselves their own positions.

Traditional/Historic SDA's desire to hold to and continue with the beliefs which were instituted at the foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist church, during the mid to latter 1800's. A move away from those traditions or teachings is viewed with suspicion or as error. This can be demonstrated by the resistance which occurred in the Traditional/Historic SDA's rejection of the 1957 book Questions on Doctrines. It was felt that the book was too great a departure from the historic position of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The move to use drama or contemporary Christian music in the worship service is often thought as worldly entertainment entering the church. The Historic/Traditionalist desires to hold on to several "pillars" of the SDA church. Some key doctrines would be:

  1. The Investigative Judgment, the Sanctuary doctrine. (Begun in 1844 with a judgment of the "books")
  2. The view that the SDA church is the "Remnant"
  3. Ellen G. White as the prophet to the church also known as the Spirit of Prophecy. (Straight Testimony, Present Truth).
  4. The Seventh day Sabbath with the implication that Sunday is a false day of worship. (Including concepts of Babylon, Mark of the Beast, and Seal of God.)

At the other end of the spectrum is the Progressive Seventh-day Adventists. This could be termed liberal except that the term liberal Christian is generally used of those who believe that Christ was not resurrected, miracles did not happen and other tenants which most Progressive SDA's would not agree. The liberal Christians are by this most accepted understanding, those involved in the Jesus Seminars, or people like Bishop Spong. While such liberals Christians do exist in the Seventh-day Adventist church. They would not make up a sizable portion of those who would feel comfortable with the label Progressive SDA. Of the key doctrines listed above as the "Pillars" of Traditional/Historic SDA's the Progressive SDA's would hold to significant modifications.

  1. A differing view of what the Investigative Judgment is or acknowledgment that the Investigative Judgment is not Biblical. (And as such a differing view of Christ Activities from His ascension to His Second Coming.)
  2. An inclusion of other Christians into the category termed the "Remnant".
  3. A less rigid understanding of the role of Ellen G. White, ranging from acknowledging that she was not always correct in her teaching and understanding to the denial of Prophet status.
  4. The Seventh day Sabbath is for our benefit, true Christians can and do worship on Sunday and it is not now, or latter, to become the Mark of the Beast, or the Seventh day Sabbath to be the Seal of God.

The Progressive SDA's do not feel that the church should be limited by the teachings of its founders. If errors are discovered in teachings previously held, the errors should be acknowledged and corrected. That all knowledge is built upon those who have gone before us, not only those in the SDA church, but also the many Christians outside and far before the existence of the SDA church. Knowledge is progressive. What seemed right a hundred years ago may not be right for today or tomorrow.

Certainly the above lists do not cover all the areas of contention; the lists do not cover the differing views of the Atonement, or the nature of Christ, etc. The list however provides a good method of demarcation to establish the two sides in the discussion.

In an issue of the science magazine Discover from a year ago an incident is recounted about a parasitic wasp and a cockroach. While pruning a tree a man noticed this rather docile cockroach that was right under his nose as he sawed on the tree. Wondering about the strange behavior of the cockroach he saw that instead of its normal long whip-like antennae there were only blunt stubs of antennae. At some point the wasp had cut the antennae of the cockroach making it docile and willing to be lead around by the wasp. The wasp then would lay her eggs in the cockroach and the larvae would grow eating upon their living host.

We also are dependent upon outside stimuli to understand the world around us and the God who calls us. We do not want to be docile and herded about at someone else's whim. Neither Traditional/Historic SDA's or Progressive SDA's would want that type of Religion. But to protect ourselves from such an experience we must ask questions, we must seek answers, and we must analyze data. We must use our God given powers of reason. This is not merely man's reason, for God asks use to reason with Him. Christ while here on earth did not just ask people to do what he said; He revealed to them in His teachings and stories the why of things. Some He knew would not understand, most likely because they refused to try and understand, others might not understand because they had created a box for God and assumed they knew all they needed to know. But there were always those people who would search the teachings, taking time to reason the message out and draw conclusions that in the end lead them closer to God. In the time of the apostle Paul the Bereans were considered noble for their decision to search things out and reason together in search of the truth. In fact for us as human beings finding out the truth about God should be one of our highest goals. What is God like, what does He want from each of us, how should we relate to Him and our fellow human beings. This is our calling, our mission, to search for God and relate God to others around us, as ambassadors for God; we call others to pursue a relationship with God.

It is perhaps here, how each of the two groups search for truth where the root of the division really lies. Both the Traditional/Historic SDA's and the Progressive SDA's would certainly agree that each is searching for the truth about God. But both views are vastly different in what they see as truth, and both are different in what methods they use to arrive at their view of truth.

Churches are built upon commonality of beliefs, the proliferation of denominations is ample evidence of people forming together under certain belief systems. Similarly, groups may be bound together by common history or common values. A Baptist and a Seventh-day Adventist have many beliefs in common, many values in common, and often a common history. It is however, the differences that cause division, they may be worshipping the same God, yet one may look at the other as an apostate. Inside the Seventh-day Adventist denomination the same dynamics occur. The division is here already, it has been here for many years. Some may read this and claim that it is the "Omega" of prophecy, it is not, it is actually an attempt to re-establish a Bible based Seventh-day Adventist church.

Continued in part 2 "Truth, Progressive or Traditional?"


Truth, Progressive or Traditional?

If you were going to explain to someone how you arrive at "truth", which would you say is the best method? Is it to base you understanding of truth upon the tradition of your fathers or would it be arrived at by examining your previous beliefs and adjusting them as necessary to arrive at the most reasonable conclusions. Because we as a church once believed in something does not make that belief true. It does not make that belief false either, however it is important to analyze our positions to see whether they can stand up to objections or differing perspectives. If they stand, and if they have a good foundation to them we can feel confident in claiming them as our beliefs, as the best explanation of truth we currently have.

The Christian church has for many centuries used the Bible as our standard for revealed truth about God. The Scriptures which have been inspired by God, for our edification, instruction, correction and encouragement. True the Bible was not handed down to us by God, it was brought together by men who searched the writings of Religious people both of the Jewish and Christian perspective. Through the application of reason and logic and consistency the church fathers arrived at conclusions which have become our Bible. Not everyone agreed on all the books placed in the Bible yet there was substantial agreement on all but a few books. Even among believers in Christ today there are still those who accept some books and reject others. The Roman Catholic accepts the Apocrypha while most Protestants do not. In most cases these variations in accepted books does not change much in the area of doctrine. Usually the variations come from differing interpretations of texts, which are accepted by Christians. One notable exception is eschatology, an area where more differences occur then perhaps any other.

When reviewing the list of beliefs which Traditional/Historic SDA's hold as pillars there is a striking similarity. The similarity is that they are not Biblically supportable positions. For instance there is no Biblical verses teaching an Investigative Judgment or its origin in 1844. There is no mention of the SDA church in the Bible to cause one to render it as the Remnant; even the concept of the Remnant is not indicative of its popular use in many churches. The Bible speaks nothing about Ellen White as the "Spirit of Prophecy" or a prophet. The Spirit of Prophecy in the Bible is used of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says nothing of a Sunday law. The Bible does not teach the Sabbath as the seal of God, again it is the Holy Spirit that is the seal of God.

So the question should arise in most people's minds, just how do those doctrines become "pillars" of the Traditional/Historic SDA's? The answer is found in the label Traditional/Historic, These were the doctrines incorporated into the SDA church therefore they must be true and accepted. The Progressive SDA's see those doctrines as history, but not as truth. They must be tested to ascertain if they are indeed true, if they should be used as doctrines in the SDA church at all.

Here is the conflict between the Progressive and Traditional/Historic SDA's. The Progressives desire to hold to a Biblical standard, whereby all doctrines we preach should be clearly demonstrated from the Bible. This method retains a commonality with other Christians outside the SDA church, as well as showing our esteem of the Biblical source of truth. We certainly understand that the Bible cannot be taken literally in all places, that poetry, symbolism, and apocalyptic literary forms are present in the Bible. Nor does it mean that we must view the Bible as inerrant. God is inerrant, He alone is infallible the Bible while inspired does not contain all the attributes of God, errors are present, much of the Bible is man's attempts at representing God and as such man's suppositions can color his view of God. This is why Progressive's SDA's encourage looking at the Bible as a whole complete volume. Allowing the more comprehensive New Testament authors to help explain the Old Testament.

Not that the Traditional/Historic SDA's have less authoritative view of the Bible. They do view it as authoritative often inerrant and maybe infallible. Here as in the rest of Christianity there is a difference of opinion about the Bible. Still some will acknowledge that the Bible has errors but they assert that the original manuscripts did not have the errors. Of course we do not have the originals so what does such and assumption prove? In any case the errors in the Bible are mostly inconsequential to any important doctrinal material. The Traditional/Historic SDA's also have a second source of truth which has from the beginning of the SDA church been used to support it's teachings.

The works of Ellen G. White are often taken by the Traditional/Historic SDA's as equal authority with the Bible. Too often her works are used in place of the Bible, even though many Traditional/Historic SDA's would say that such should never be the case. Perhaps as troublesome as giving her works equality with the Bible is her use as an "inspired commentator" on the Bible. As Morris Vendon wrote in his book "The Pillars": "The gift of prophecy is not an authority over the Bible, but it is an authority on the Bible. Some people have trouble with the phrase, evidently coined by F.D. Nichol, 'inspired commentary.' But if you accept the inspiration of the gift of prophecy and realize the fact that it is also a commentary on the Bible, and then put the two together, you have an inspired commentary." (page 104). While this may sound innocuous enough it is not, such a system of thought gives Ellen White's interpretation over and above everything else. In a very real sense it is placing her interpretation above that expressed in the context of the Bible itself. If a person were to hold such a view then her incorrect use of a verse such as Acts 3:19: to assign the blotting out of sins to some distant time, has to be accepted, even though such an interpretation was based upon the King James translation. Hardly any other translation would lead to such an interpretation nor would the original Greek. To call her an "inspired commentator" is to place her above the book she is commenting on. Fortunately as Vendon noted there are those in the SDA church who have trouble with such a phrase, Progressive SDA's.

Often the Traditional/Historic SDA's object to the difference in views of the works of Ellen White by stating that to reject the counsel of Ellen White is to reject God's counsel. This is based upon the traditional view of Ellen White as a prophet. If she were not a prophet then it would be accepted to reject her views, if they seemed to vary from the Bible. So here we are once again at the crux of the problem. The Progressive SDA's look at many of these doctrines and see them differently based upon their reasoning from the Scriptures. Since the Scriptures seem to point to a different interpretation it becomes necessary to re-evaluate the interpretation delivered or endorsed by Ellen White.

Is there an answer to such division? Either the Progressives can accept Ellen White as a "continuing and authoritative source of truth", as the Traditional/Historic SDA's do. Or the Traditional/Historic SDA's can accept the Scriptures as "the authoritative revealer of doctrines". Since both sides are in agreement about the Bible as the ultimate source of truth about God, this would seem an obvious solution. The hard part of course is that it requires the Traditional/Historic SDA's to allow for differences of interpretation. No longer can they use Ellen White as an unquestioned authority or inspired commentator. Can they be satisfied to view her work as commentary, like other commentators? It is possible that they could be satisfied with such a view, it is well known by now that much of her work was borrowed from other commentators. If the Traditional/Historic SDA's cannot accept such a view the other option is for the Progressives to accept Ellen White. We have seen over the years many leave the SDA church over the authority of Ellen White, the Investigative Judgment etc. Will history repeat itself? Ellen White should not be used as a test for fellowship in the SDA church. Neither should the rejection of Ellen White be seen as a rejection of God. Many times we have heard SDA's say that Ellen White did not claim to be a prophet. Maybe we should not be making her out as a prophet and go back to the Bible that, we all can agree upon is our source of divine instruction. Progress often requires a re-examination of beliefs, some stay, some go.

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