(This is an article that I am currently preparing for publication that still needs some work but needed to have it here for easy access so others can provide feedback)
Some 60 years ago, the Adventist church was shaken up by the publication of a book called Questions on Doctrine (QOD). The book was intended to be a presentation of Adventist doctrine in language that the Evangelical world could better understand. And, while for the most part the book presented a typical exposition of Adventist beliefs, leading theologian M.L. Andreasen felt the book departed from traditional Adventism in regards to the Atonement and the Nature of Christ. The subsequent conflict between M.L. Andreasen and church leaders created a rift in Adventism that hasn’t healed until this day.
In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book, Andrews University held a QOD Symposium where Adventist speakers on both sides of the issue, as well as interested non-Adventists, were invited to share their perspectives on the topic after five decades of reflection. The symposium was successful in that the participants exhibited a spirit of mutual respect and a desire to heal the wounds of the past. However, no clear path forward was proposed.
Why it Matters
While the Adventist church has always encouraged open dialog on matters of disagreement, QOD was the first time an actual rift was created in the church. Adventists who otherwise agreed on all the doctrines which the world church had considered fundamental, were unable to come to an agreement on the QOD issues. Many church members became suspicious of theologians and administrators and lost trust in the organization. Independent and self-supporting ministries were created to preach the ‘Theologically Pure’ Adventism that the organized church was no longer willing to promote.
The church has suffered several consequences because of this rift. A large class of Adventism, unable to wrap their minds around the deep theological issues under debate, checked out of the theological process of the church. The inability to work together has kept the church from more effectively reaching the world with our message. Moreover, the rift between those who agreed with the church’s fundamental beliefs has made it possible for those who disagreed with one or more of these beliefs to gain far more influence in the church then they would have if mainstream Adventists had remained united.
For the church to move forward and effectively confront those elements that are trying to transform the very DNA of Adventism, we need to find a path forward that the two faction in this debate can unite on. I believe such a path forward does exist, as will be outlined in the rest of this paper. I don’t expect that the main Advocates of the two sides will necessarily see value in what I will be presenting here, but I believe that a new generation of Adventists who are more open minded and have a stronger desire to see Christ return, will appreciate this work. And, I believe this approach will help the dialog with Evangelicals as well.
The material in this paper will be fairly advanced. The paper is written for people who are very familiar with the issues surrounding QOD. If the reader is not as familiar, it is recommended that he look over the following materials:
Over the decades, several issues emerged as essential to the QOD debate:
1) Whether the Atonement was completed at the cross.
2) Whether Christ took Adam’s nature before or after the fall.
3) Whether sin constitutes willful action only or is our very nature sin as well.
4) Whether sinless perfection is possible.
5) Whether the church has delayed Christ’s coming.
6) The Authority of Ellen White
When paramedics show up on an accident scene, they are trained to differentiate between victims in critical condition (ex. obstructed airway, profuse bleeding) and people with serious but less critical injuries, like broken bones etc.
During the decades since QOD as well as at the QOD Symposium, the various topics listed above were discussed as if of equal weight. I would purpose that one of the topics, which isn’t typically discussed as much, is in fact far more critical than the others combined and also significantly impacts the rest of the discussion: Andreasen’s Three-Part Atonement.
A Tag-Team Atonement
In the early twentieth century, after the death of Ellen White, ML Andreasen became conscious of the fact that Jesus was taking longer to return than Adventists had anticipated. He began toying with the idea that Christ’s coming could be hastened or delayed and that in fact, it had been delayed by the church.
This was supported by Ellen White passages such as the following:
“For forty years did unbelief, murmuring, and rebellion shut out ancient Israel from the land of Canaan. The same sins have delayed the entrance of modern Israel into the heavenly Canaan. In neither case were the promises of God at fault. It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord’s professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years” (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 67-69). (see link for additional passages)
Moreover, Andreasen came across other passages that seemed to provide an explanation for this delay:
“Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69).
This led him to the conclusion that character perfection was the causal factor in this delay.
With this in mind he began formulating the theory that Jesus could not return until a substantial number of people (144k to be exact) gained a complete victory over sin and Satan and thus vindicated God’s law in the great controversy.
Thus, to Andreasen, the Atonement consisted of three parts:
1) Christ’s sinless life,
2) Christ’s substitutionary death, and,
3) The last generation perfectly obeying God’s law and thus defeating sin and Satan.
The accusation that Satan had brought against God was that His law could not be kept. To prove him wrong, Jesus came and lived a perfect life in human flesh. But, Andreasen explained, Satan still pointed out that Jesus had an advantage over others; that He wasn’t exactly like us. To settle the matter, God needed a final generation of overcomes who would demonstrate that even the weakest of the weak, if sufficiently surrendered, could claim the same victory that Jesus claimed. Without such a tag-team victory, it would be impossible to fully defeat Satan and ensure that sin would never rise up again a second time, over the boundless ages of eternity.
One of the greatest breakthroughs of the Protestant Reformation had been an understanding of the Primacy of Jesus. They were coming out of a church where priests had the right to forgive sins, where monks lived extra righteous lives in order to procure merits that could be shared with others, where dead saints interceded with Christ on our behalf and Mary was co-redemptrix, where indulgences could be purchased with money, where merits could be earned through pilgrimages and alms, where, if all else failed, there was always purgatory to cleanse away any remaining sin.
The reformers recognized instead that Christ was everything; His sacrifice sufficient, His merits perfect. They rejected any form of creature merit; rejected the idea that any created being could contribute anything to our salvation.
The likelihood is high that Andreasen never perceived the full implications of his own theology. He never realized that he was doing with the last generation what Catholics had done with priests, monks, saints and Mary. Sure, he wasn’t specifically referring to the salvation of man from sin but to the vindication of God’s character in the great controversy. But, the end result was still the same: the Last Generation was made into a co-redeemer not only of mankind but of the entire universe.
At this point, many Andreasen supporters will be quick to point out that the victory of the last generation is accomplished through Christ’s strength and not their own. But unfortunately this cannot resolve the problem because Andreasen tied the success of the last generation with the delay of Christ. By saying that the victory is accomplished by Christ they are inadvertently blaming God for the delay. The fact that so many generations of Adventists have failed in ushering in the second coming this far, but that one generation eventually will, can mean either that God will do a work in the future that He has failed to do in the past or that a generation of people will accomplish something no one else previously could.
Consider for a second what would have happened if Christ had failed in His mission to save humanity. People like Moses, Elijah and Enoch, who had already been taken to heaven, would need to return to this earth and die. The consequences would logically be just as tragic if the Last Generation fails. Consequently, their victory would deserve as much praise as Christ’s victory; throughout eternity the universe would be as indebted to them as they are to Christ.
The Crux of the Debate
I would propose that Adventists on both sides of the QOD debate need to set aside other matters of discussion (nature of Christ, nature of sin, perfection etc.) and tackle this topic first. Many who agree with Andreasen regarding the nature of Christ etc. are not aware of his unique views concerning the Atonement. Others tend to minimize this facet of the conversation and concentrate instead on everything else.
But the idea that a group of human beings can, by their righteousness, contribute to the salvation of humanity, is a claim that is altogether different and more consequential than anything else in this debate. And, without questioning Andersen’s sincerity, we have to recognize that this teaching is as vile a heresy as anything the Roman church has ever been able to concoct. Everything else pales in comparison to this.
There are credentialed Adventist ministers today that are still preaching what can rightly only be labeled heresy. And, the time is way past due for this to stop. Those who continue to promote a three part atonement should have their credentials revoked or be banned from Adventist pulpits, not just in the states but globally.
Theology seldom affects people only at the abstract level. Church members that fully bought into the idea that Christ’s return was being delayed by their inability to reach sinless perfection, were thrown into a vicious cycle of despair. They worked hard to be more perfect only to see Christ continue to delay His coming.
Moreover, if character was at the center of the delay, then it made sense to separate from Adventists that seemed less concerned with holiness and congregate instead with people who made this their priority. It made sense to live in places that were most conducive to character development.
The preoccupation with self and the tendency towards separationism, eventually produced a backlash in the church with people going to the other extreme. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that Desmond Ford would have had the impact he had in the church were it not for Adventists being so fed up with Andreasenism.
Thus, ironically, the individual most concerned with hastening Christ’s coming, has very likely significantly contributed to its delay. This should be a warning to all of us not to take undue license in our theological innovations and to submit to the wisdom of the collective mind before promoting new ideas.
Impact on the debate
It is important to recognize also that every other feature of the QOD debate is affected by Andreasen’s stand here. Andreasen’s theology necessitates that Christ have a sinful nature, that sin be voluntary action only and that perfection is possible. Thus his theology here biases the rest of the debate. (This article does not take a pre or post-fall view)
If we can begin our discussion of QOD by first coming to an agreement that Andreasen was wrong here, we have a much better chance of reaching consensus everywhere else. As Adventists, we should be able to fully agree that Christ’s sacrifice was more than sufficient both for purchasing our salvation and for winning the great controversy. We should be able to agree that human merit will never add anything to the righteousness of Christ.
Many people have held on to not only Andreasen’s theology but also to hurt feelings regarding how Andersen was treated by the denomination. And, we freely confess that Froom et al could have handled the situation so much better.
But if we can come to agree that Andreasen was mistaken on this one point, we will better be able to sympathize with our brethren who recognized the problems with Andreasen’s theology but did not know how to go against someone with so much influence over the church. Seeing things in this context makes forgiveness of past failures much easier. In part II of this article, we will take a look at the other issues that often come up in this debate.
Part II – The Nature of Christ, The Nature of Sin and Perfection
If the two sides of the QOD debate can come to an agreement regarding Andreasen’s three-part atonement, there is hope that further progress is possible. In fact, I would propose that progress will prove easier than most might think because both sides of this debate have been mistaken to some degree.
What I am going to argue for the remainder of this section is that both camps in Adventism have failed to account for a major factor that differentiates us from evangelicals when it comes to these topics: that we don’t believe in an immaterial/immortal soul. And, once we do account for this, we will come to a third, more ‘Adventist’ position, that both camps will be able to agree with.
Christ’s Human Nature
Adventists did not concern themselves too much with the issue of Christ’s human nature until it was brought to our attention by the evangelicals. As far as they were concerned, our position here was one of the few elements left that still placed our denomination in the ‘cult’ category. And, while some were eager to correct our stance and gain acceptance, others insisted that we remain faithful to our traditional position.
What no one thought to do however, was to stop and figure out why exactly this issue was so important to the evangelicals. From the evangelical point of view, when Adam and Eve sinned, their souls were tainted and depraved. And, this deprivation was passed down to all their descendants through the immaterial soul. Thus, attributing a fallen or sinful nature to Christ would mean that Christ was also born with a depraved immaterial soul, meaning He was born a sinner. In Adventist theology however, none of this rationale applies because we reject the Greek notion of an immaterial soul altogether.
What is Sin?
Inevitably, as debates over the nature of Christ continued in the church it became clear that an even more basic concern was how we defined sin. Was sin restricted to the voluntary actions only, such that Christ could have the same nature we have and yet still be without sin, or was human nature itself sin?
Those who argued for voluntary sin were concerned that assigning sin to human nature would immortalize it. After all, the bible teaches that only at Christ’s coming will corruption put on incorruption. If human nature is sin and this sin remains until the end, what is the point of calling people back to obedience to the law of God? It would be like trying to wash a car during a dust storm: a futile task. And, this was a legitimate concern.
The other camp saw in the Bible a description of sinful man that went way deeper than the voluntary actions. The whole head was sick; the heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. To oversimplify sin as pertaining only to the voluntary actions belittled the sin problem and consequently God’s solution. And, this as well was a legitimate concern.
Thus, the battle lines were drawn around two positions that both had elements of truth and error; a false dichotomy of sorts. So, rather than asking what sin is, let’s instead ask what can and must be condemned in man.
First, evidently, God must condemn willful acts, words and thoughts, committed as well as omitted. But, second, God must also condemn character; even aspects of the character that are not evident to the individual and thus not voluntary. From the time we are born we begin to develop patterns of behavior driven by instinct. And, these become an integral part of who we are, even if we are not aware of it.
Consider as a case study the apostle Peter. As far as he was concerned, his dedication to Christ was complete. He was certain that he would not betray Christ under any circumstances. He gave evidence of his commitment by being willing to sacrifice his life fighting alongside his master. As far as voluntary sin goes, Peter had mastered the art of being committed to Christ.
Jesus however was able to see beyond this to the character itself. It was only once God orchestrated the perfect set of circumstances that Peter’s character became evident to him and everyone else. Under the right conditions, Peter did betray his master.
I would propose that what has up to now been seen as two positions, sin as action vs. sin as nature, should instead be broken up into three positions:
1) Sin as action
2) Sin as cultivated nature (character)
3) Sin as inherited nature (material biology)
And, sin should legitimately be attributed to both action and cultivated nature (options 1 & 2) but not to inherited nature. When Peter became aware of the dark flaws in his character, he deeply repented and was transformed by the grace of God. Our biological makeup however will continue with us until Christ comes.
Back to Christ’s Nature
Most people recognize the age of accountability to begin somewhere in the teen years. And, for Christ to be fully human, this would have to apply to Him as well. But no one would be willing to claim that, prior to the age of accountability, Jesus exhibited the same rebellious traits as other children: temper tantrums, disobedience to parents, selfishness towards others etc. The rest of us, from the earliest age, exhibit sinful patterns of behavior that become deeply ingrained in us and thus an integral part of who we are. And, in this, Jesus was very different.
Thus, we have to acknowledge that Christ not only did not commit any sinful acts but also lacked a sinful Cultivated Nature. The only way this could be explained is in that we are born separated from the Holy Spirit while Christ was born fully connected with the Spirit, since, for those early years, He was not old enough to choose obedience on His own accord. But was Christ also born with a sinful Inherited Nature?
To the evangelical mind a human being’s personhood or character resides in the immaterial soul. This soul is something that is present at conception and is depraved from the very start. If therefore God judges us on character as well as actions, then, a condemnation-worthy character is already there from conception.
But can it also be said that we are born with a condemnation-worthy character apart from a belief in an immaterial soul? I would propose that the weakened biology we are born with cannot properly be called ‘sin’ because it cannot properly be called ‘character.’ And, only character or willful action can be considered legally culpable. We wouldn’t, for example, say that a rock, a tree, or even a beast of prey, is morally guilty for breaking a window, falling on a car, or slaying a rabbit respectively. Why then would we say that the sequence of molecules that come together at conception carries any inherent condemnation, apart from belief in an immaterial soul?
Moreover, if we do away with the immaterial soul, the question of mankind’s sinful condition becomes purely a question of biology and genetics. Consider that Adam and Eve were created physically perfect with perfect genetics. They sinned and this sinful condition somehow came upon the entire race. How would a biologist/geneticist explain this sinful inheritance?
Based on our current understanding of genetics, it cannot be explained through biology alone. We are left with only one other possible explanation for human depravity: that, unlike Adam and Eve, all other human beings are born separated from the Holy Spirit and this is what leads to the development of a sinful character even prior to the age of accountability. Without the fall, the Holy Spirit would have had full control of the individual from conception until mature enough to make sound decisions. Instead, without the Holy Spirit, we are mostly driven by instincts and outside influences throughout our developmental years. Even people whom the Bible says were filled with the Spirit from birth, like Samson or John the Baptist, were not completely under the Spirit’s control as we would have been had Adam and Eve never sinned.
– Only willful action and depraved character (not fallen biology) can be considered legally culpable and therefore, can properly be called sin.
– Only if human beings consist of a physical body and an immaterial soul can character be present from conception. Without a soul, what we have at conception cannot be called character and therefore cannot be called sin.
– Jesus therefore had the same fallen biology we do but, like Adam, was born connected with the Holy Spirit. Thus, He never developed a sinful character from infancy like we do.
– By not taking into account that, as Adventists, we reject the doctrine of the immortal soul, and, by not differentiating between Birth Nature and Cultivated Nature, we have allowed an unnecessary debate to split Adventism for decades.
In Andreasen’s Tag-Team Atonement theology, it was absolutely essential for the last generation to reach sinless perfection. The entire great controversy rested on this one factor. This created a major problem for Adventist understanding of salvation by grace through faith, since, such a mode of salvation seemed to more sensibly apply to previous generations, not the last one. But, having rejected this theology as erroneous, we can approach the subject of perfection without the Andreasenist bias.
Second, we’ve also mentioned that other Christians understand human nature as consisting not only of a physical body but of a depraved soul as well. This soul retains its depravity until the second coming and therefore, such theology cannot accommodate sinless perfection. But as Adventists, we don’t have that problem.
Third, we’ve also talked about our fallen biology, with its urges and drives, persisting to the end. But here also I’ve argued that our biology cannot properly be called sin. But neither can sin be limited to voluntary actions only but must include our cultivated nature or character as well.
So, given all these factors, what do we do with the idea of Perfection?
1) Peter was able to overcome defects in his character that he was previously unaware of. Unlike our fallen biology which will not change until the end, our cultivated nature can be changed. Thus, if sin can only be applied to action and cultivated nature, perfection is theoretically possible.
2) But, considering that we don’t know our characters in their entirety, it is not possible for us to ever know that perfection was actually reached.
3) Given that we don’t need to reach perfection to win the great controversy, like Andreasen claimed, attaining to sinless perfection is beneficial but not necessary, ever. We are always saved by grace through faith.
It is only in heaven that God will one day tell us certain people reached perfection here on earth. In the meantime, God will be able to glory in the perfection of His people while they themselves will continue to see themselves as vile sinners.
Therefore, it does us no good while on earth to preoccupy ourselves with our own perfection. The one exception to this is that we should never allow ourselves to excuse known sin by thinking that perfection isn’t possible. We should keep perfection before us as an ideal without judging ourselves based on whether we’re getting close to attaining it or not. Moreover, we should always remember that perfection as God sees it places far more priority on how we treat others than on whether or not we’ve succumbed to chocolate or cheese.
“Love is the basis of godliness. Whatever the profession, no man has pure love to God unless he has unselfish love for his brother. . . . When self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously. The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within–when the sunshine of heaven fills the heart and is revealed in the countenance. . . .” Maranatha p. 102
Part III – The Atonement
Once we discard Andreasen’s views of the Atonement, any other differences between us and evangelicals on this point are purely semantical. Because different groups use terminology differently, we have to ask what exactly do Evangelicals mean by the word ‘Atonement?’
And, most will tell you they want to know the following:
1) Was Jesus’s sacrifice sufficient or does He need to die again and again to pay for our sins? (ex. Catholic mass)
2) Were the merits of His life and death sufficient or does God need my own merits to add to what Jesus did in order to save me? (i.e. salvation by grace + works)
3) Were the merits of His life and death sufficient or does God need someone else’s merits to add to Christ’s in order to save me? (ex. monks earning merits for other people)
4) Was Christ’s sacrifice sufficient or does God need to also add Satan’s death to make it complete? (only mentioning this because of some people’s mistaken views of the Scapegoat)
And, Adventists fully agree with Evangelicals on these points. If there is any difference, it is with Calvinists and OSAS Arminians, not with Classical Arminians(1).
Thus, in whatever evangelicals mean by the word Atonement when they say that the Atonement was complete at the cross, we agree with them as much as any other Arminian. However, we do at times use the word ‘Atonement’ more broadly than evangelicals as referring to God’s complete plan of salvation and, under that definition, the Atonement wasn’t completed at the cross.
Part IV – The Evangelicals
Adventist theologians have repeatedly categorized the evangelical QOD delegation as Calvinist, even though they themselves resisted this label. And, this was a mistake on our part. Walter Martin and his crew were not Calvinists. They were mixed. Walter Martin himself was Baptist and therefore Arminian; a significant difference. It was important to them to be recognized as a group that recognized and represented the different soteriological perspectives in Protestantism. Had we recognized this fact and acknowledged it, we could then have more effectively brought their attention to the fact that there are three camps in Protestantism not two, when it comes to the theology of salvation: Calvinism, Once Saved Always Saved Arminianism and Classical Arminianism. And, while they had representation for the first two groups, we as Adventists belonged to the third.
Had this issue been clarified, it would have been a lot easier to explain doctrines like the Investigative Judgment to them as the result of combining Classical Arminianism and Soul Sleep. And, what I’ve written above about how a rejection of the immaterial soul changes how one approaches the subject of the Nature of Christ, would have resolved their concern on that topic as well.
Their only other issue would have been Ellen White. And, frankly, Adventists need to stop speaking out of both sides of their mouth on this issue. While we believe Ellen White had prophetic authority, we don’t believe she had doctrinal authority. If this had been made abundantly clear by the church, Walter Martin would not have been talking about Ellen White being our ‘Infallible Interpreter of Scripture’ years later.
Part V – The Delay
The idea that our church has delayed Christ coming is closely tied to Last Generation Theology and Andreasen in the mind of most Adventists. In reality, this concept is unavoidably derived from the traditional Adventist understanding of 1844 and related concepts. If God has set up 1844 as the date when He would begin the pre-Advent judgment as the final element in His dealings with sin, it makes no sense for us to still be here 170 years later. Not just because an investigative judgment shouldn’t take this long, but because, for this to be meaningful as a message of warning for the world, it would need to have met its fulfillment far quicker.
Thus, any rational Adventist today is in the precarious position of either accepting the delay or rejecting 1844. But an acceptance of the delay carries serious implications. As a denomination, we desperately need to stop, figure out where we went wrong, and fix it.
For six decades our church has been interrupted by the split caused by QOD. If this paper is correct and the division was in fact unnecessary and superficial, it’s time for our people to put aside our differences and work towards healing.
1) The Protestant world is fairly evenly divided into three camps: Calvinists, Once Saves Always Saved Arminians and Classical/Traditional Arminians who reject OSAS. Regarding the Atonement, we take the same stance as all the other traditional Arminian groups.