To Be Faithful to the Past Means to
Move Forward in the Spirit of Our Predecessors
Rolf J. Pöhler
Seventh-day Adventists like to see themselves as heirs of the Protestant Reformation. What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? Will the spiritual and doctrinal renewal of the church ever be completed? What implications does the ecclesia semper reformanda have for us today?
Five hundred years ago, on the 18th of October in the year 1502, the University of Wittenberg was founded by Frederick III, called the Wise, elector of Saxony. He named it ‘Leucorea,’ which means ‘White Mountain.’ It was here that fifteen years later a young university professor by the name of Martin Luther started a public debate on some controversial religious issues, which threw the small town of Wittenberg into the spotlight of world history. There is hardly an event that has shaped the history of Europe to a larger extent than the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Within a century the ‘Alma Mater Vitebergensis’ became the largest university in Germany, a champion of modernity known under the names of ‘Humanism’ and ‘Renaissance,’ and the intellectual and spiritual centre of European Protestantism. With fewer than 5,000 citizens, the 2,000-3,000 students who were coming to Wittenberg each year made up a third of the population—an unprecedented ratio.
What was it that made Wittenberg such an attractive place? What were the ideas that inspired so many German youth to choose this place as their academic home and future alma mater? What is the genius of Protestantism that inspires us even today to study the Reformation and its impact on the contemporary church? What makes the short (5 ft. 4 in. or 162 cm) and depressed monk-turned-rebel so fascinating? What does he have to tell us today?
The question to be asked is this: Can Seventh-day Adventist Christians, particularly young believers, walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? What does the 16th-century Reformation mean to us today? Can, should, or must we share their beliefs, imitate their behaviour, copy their attitudes? The question I am raising in this essay is even somewhat more narrowly focussed: Are we as Seventh-day Adventists true heirs of the Reformers or are we simply paying lip service to them? Do we merely claim their name or are we, indeed, moved by their spirit? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
The Adventist claim revisited
Seventh-day Adventists see themselves as heirs of the Reformers, continuing and completing what they had begun. There is hardly an evangelistic series during in which it is not intimated that Adventists are rightly wearing the cloak of the Reformers. The story usually goes like this: All Protestant churches began as genuine reformation movements. However, in the course of time, they became satisfied with their beliefs, stopped advancing in understanding, codified their doctrines, and ceased to grow in faith. When new, genuine reformation movements arose, they resisted and opposed them. In this way, they became traditionalists and lost their high claim to be genuine reformers. They declined spiritually as well as morally and became part of apocalyptic Babylon.
Then the Seventh-day Adventists came onto the scene. They too started as a small but genuine renewal movement. They preached the neglected Advent message, restored the biblical Sabbath, discovered the true sanctuary in heaven, and founded the remnant church having the spirit of prophecy in their midst. At this point the story usually ends. The lecture is finished, the altar call is given: Come and join the Adventists, the true reformation movement of today!
But there are some questions that need to be addressed: What has happened to Seventh-day Adventists since the time of the birth of their movement? How is our record as a reformation movement? Are we still on track, do we continue the Reformation with vigour and zeal? Or have we perhaps already completed it, having reached the culmination point after which there is no more truth to be discovered, no more doctrine to be reformed, no more behaviour to be changed? Or—allow me to ask this somewhat disturbing question—do we follow in the footsteps of our predecessors by resting satisfied with what we have achieved, stifling further growth, resisting the advance of truth, becoming dull traditionalists ourselves? Are we perhaps promising more than we can actually deliver? Are we keepers of the flame or just preservers of the ashes?
The paradox of reformation movements
There seems to be a certain paradox involved in the history of all reformation movements. Usually they begin with the firm determination to return to the Scriptures and to be faithful to all of its teachings. This sound and admirable attitude allows them to discover biblical truths that had been neglected or forgotten. Their new exegetical and doctrinal insights are then passed on to the following generations, sooner or later in some codified form (like in creeds or statements of faith). Valuable as they are, these truths are highly prized and carefully protected. Any deviation from them is regarded as a denial of biblical truth and branded as error or heresy. New insights are shunned, doctrinal change is regarded as a betrayal of truth, and those claiming to have new insights are treated as heretics. Strange as it may seem, it is exactly by trying to preserve their valuable tradition that the would-be reformers of ecclesiastical traditions have become stiff traditionalists themselves.
Are Adventists an exception to this? Or are there indications that this paradoxical turn of events applies even to us? Imagine for a moment that we as Adventists had not yet discovered the biblical truth about the Sabbath, or had not yet resumed the practice of footwashing at the communion service. Suppose your pastor would preach a sermon on Isaiah 58:12, claiming that Adventists are called to be the ‘repairers of the breach.’ He would then argue from Scripture that Saturday, not Sunday, is the seventh day of the week to be kept holy as a day of rest, and that we should also practice footwashing before celebrating communion.
How would we react to this? Would we be ready to accept these biblical teachings and reform our practices? Would we perhaps start a Bible study group in order to find out whether the pastor is right or not? Would we refer this issue to the General Conference for further study and decision? Or would we tell him: ‘Come on, pastor, who do you think you are? There is nothing in our doctrinal tradition to support your views. If God wanted the church to accept these ideas, he would have given these insights to our pioneers long ago. Do you really think that God wants the remnant church to change its beliefs and practices at this late hour of earth’s history? And, by the way, nowhere in the writings of Ellen White do we find support for your strange views. They are not found in our fundamental beliefs. Besides, it is unrealistic to expect our church members to jeopardize their jobs in order to keep the Sabbath. Neither do we see light in washing one another’s feet; we serve each other in love and humility—isn’t this the true meaning of footwashing, after all? No, brother, forget it. We have never done this, and we are not ready to do so now. This is no time to change our beliefs and practices; rather we should preach the truths we have and call people out of the Babel of false teachings to the true remnant church proclaiming the last message for this world.’
Honestly, I suspect that my church—and I myself—would rather search for arguments to oppose such challenging ideas than welcome and accept these insights. True, there is in our own tradition the strong impulse to accept truth whatever it may cost and wherever it may lead. For example, in 1849 John Nevins Andrews, who later became the first missionary sent by the Seventh-day Adventist church to Europe, exclaimed: ‘I would exchange a thousand errors for one truth.’ I am wondering, would we be willing today to change ten errors for one truth, or perhaps five, or even a single one? Is the radical and idealistic attitude of young John (he was only 20 years of age at the time) still representative of us Adventists? Do we still share the naiveté and optimism of our pioneers? Or have we become realists shunning such high-flying dreams? Have we matured, have we come of age, or have we just become traditionalists ourselves? Are we still keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
The true spirit of the Reformers
What, then, is the true spirit of the Reformers that should inspire us today, challenge our thinking and guide our actions? Let me give you two examples of what I think represents the true spirit of the Reformation—and of the Adventist spirit as well.
a. The early reformer Jan Hus (c. 1372-1415) wrote late in his life, ‘From the beginning of my studies I have made it a rule that whenever I come to know a sounder opinion on an issue, I will gladly and humbly give up the first opinion knowing that what we know is very little in comparison to what we do not know.’ This attitude had made him a worthy chancellor of the University of Prague. It was the same attitude, however, that would cost him his life when he refused to deny his biblical convictions at the Diet of Constance in 1414.
For many years I have quoted this statement to my theology students at Friedensau Adventist University; was I right in doing so? I have also repeatedly asked Adventist congregations whether they thought it proper for me to challenge my students in this way. Invariably they have agreed that this attitude represents Adventism at its best! Former General Conference President Neal C. Wilson once wrote, ‘No serious student of Adventist history can study our past without noting that one constant factor in Adventism has been its willingness to change.’
b. When in 1521 Martin Luther was challenged at the Diet of Worms in no uncertain terms to renounce his views or face excommunication and possibly even death, he was fearful to take a clear stand and asked for some time to reconsider his views before giving a final answer. After a night of intense inner struggle, he faced the assembled authorities of state and church, courageously giving what was unquestionably his most famous testimony. After pointing out that even church councils can err and have, in fact, erred in the past—a truth which his opponents did not want to hear but could not deny—he added, ‘My conscience is bound in the Word of God; therefore, I cannot and will not retract, as it is neither safe nor upright to act against one’s conscience.’ The criterion used by Luther in evaluating claims of religious truth was his conscience, bound by the Scriptures and enlightened by human reason (ratione evidente). As a contemporary and representative of the spirit of Humanism, he regarded reason and conscience, shaped by faith in God’s Word, as proper judge of church teachings.
Centuries later Ellen G. White, the most important of the early Adventist reformer-pioneers, reflected this view when she wrote, ‘In matters of conscience the soul must be left untrammelled. No one is to control another’s mind, to judge for another, or to prescribe his duty. God gives to every soul freedom to think, and to follow his own convictions.’
W. C. White, Ellen White’s son and companion during her later years, once wrote, ‘Seventh-day Adventists claim to be different from all other denominations in this: That they are willing to receive new light.’ Then he hesitated and added, ‘Is this so?’ Today, we still have reason to ask ourselves: Are we still keepers of the flame or merely preservers of the ashes?
The human limitations of the Reformers
The Reformers were humans, not superhuman saints. They shared in the finiteness of all humanity. They were neither inerrant in their views nor infallible in their behaviour. We should not claim more for them, nor for any other messenger or prophet sent by God to guide his church through perilous times. To turn these saintly men and women into superhuman heroes, to ignore their intellectual, moral and spiritual limitations, to treat them as the final authority on each and every issue faced by the church today, is to misuse what God has given to them and to us.
To illustrate this, let me give a few examples from the lives and times of the 16th-century Reformers.
a. There is, for example, Luther’s well-known attitude towards the peasants who were yearning, not only for spiritual freedom, but also for liberation from earthly oppression, hoping for social justice. When he realized that the cause of the Reformation was seriously threatened by the peasants’ uprising, Luther turned strongly against them and advised the political authorities in no uncertain terms to use all available means to stop it. Kill them! was his clear-cut advice. When the East German socialist regime in the 1980s tried to use the popular sympathies for the Reformer for their own political ends, they clearly overstated their case. Luther was no social reformer, no champion of human rights, and no pre-democratic freedom fighter.
b. Then there is Luther’s anti-Semitic language and thinking, which was in harmony with the spirit of the time. If you visit the town of Wittenberg and take a tour of the city, you will be shown at the outside wall of the city church the so-called Jewish pig (‘Judensau’), a sculpture mocking Jewish religious scruples and dietary restrictions. It was already there in Luther’s time, and apparently no one thought of removing it because of its slanderous nature. After all, even the great Reformer obviously didn’t mind.
c. You may also have heard of Luther’s strong language used in dealing with some of his opponents. These were at times true invectives (‘Schimpfkanonaden’). We would hardly consider it acceptable for a sincere Christian today to use such insulting language.
d. In addition, Luther was not exactly a model representative of Christian, let alone Adventist, temperance and health reform. For example, he liked to drink beer and even had a brewery in his own house.
e. Last but not least, there is the shocking intolerance of John Calvin, the Reformer at Geneva, who even had one fellow Protestant preacher burned at the stake because he was rejecting infant baptism and questioning the doctrine of the Trinity. (I suspect we would have to burn quite a few church members if we followed his example today.)
Would we today be justified in holding similar views or in behaving in like manner? Can we turn our backs on the burning social issues of our societies, claiming to be in harmony with Luther himself? Is there any justification in harbouring anti-Semitic ideas or using anti-Semitic language, even in seemingly harmless jokes, by pointing to the Reformers’ example? Is it morally kosher to denounce one’s opponents—be they Roman Catholics or confessing Adventists—in abusive language by referring to the professor from Wittenberg? Should we abandon the concept of health reform because the Reformers were oblivious to it? And is it acceptable to treat those within the church who hold differing views on some doctrinal points as hopeless heretics? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
Ecclesia semper reformanda
One of the famous Latin phrases characterizing the Protestant Reformation was the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning that the church of Christ is constantly and permanently in need of change and reform. Spiritual renewal, liturgical adjustment, organizational restructuring, and doctrinal change are never just a thing of the past or of the future, but also of the present. There is always a need for aggiornamento, the improvement of the church, the upgrading of its heritage, the reformulation of its belief, and the deepening of its faith. This is one of the most basic and important insights of the Reformers.
The 95 theses that Martin Luther posted on the door of the palace church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 were an attempt by a young university professor to get a scholarly debate going on the letters of indulgences (Ablasshandel) that enraged the conscience of Luther who was about to discover the biblical gospel of grace. In the first of his theses, the author expressed a biblical truth that is so important that it became foundational to the Protestant Reformation as a whole—and to any true reformation at that. I believe it should guide all of our thinking even today. It reads: ‘As our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says, ‘Repent’ etc. (Mat 4:17), he wanted that the whole life of the believers should be repentance.’
Applying this basic insight to the church as a whole, the Reformers were fully convinced that the Christian church is in constant need of reformation: ecclesia semper reformanda. Do we still believe this? Does our Adventist view of the church as God’s last-day remnant leave enough room for true repentance, confession of denominational sins, and the genuine desire to change for the better? Or have we become so self-assured that we no longer feel the need to change our thinking, to critically review our teachings, and to revise our actions? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
What about our Protestant heritage?
The lasting influence of the 16th-century Reformers, particularly of Martin Luther, can be felt even today–and rightly so. As the towering figure of the Reformation, he remains important to us as exegete and theologian, Bible translator and hymn writer, university professor and confessing Christian. His deep insight into the radical nature of human failure and sin, his liberating discovery of the divine way—and the assurance—of salvation, his high regard for the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, his courage in the face of stiff opposition, his firm eschatological hope—all this and more can and should inspire us to become better Christians, to grow into a better church, and to build a better society.
At the same time, we should not try merely to copy the Reformers’ views, to imitate their behaviour, or to duplicate their words and deeds. Not everything they believed and did is exemplary, or even normative, for us living today. We need to make sound and informed judgements with regard to the lasting aspects of our Protestant heritage, proving everything, holding fast to what is good, while discarding that which belongs on the trash heap of history (1 Thess 5:19-22). This task requires spiritual discernment, intellectual rigour and moral strength. In the face of this challenging and risky task of distinguishing the outstanding from the outworn, differentiating the time-proven from the time-conditioned, and selecting the valuables from the basket of tradition, I suggest that we should apply the following guiding principles.
Firstly, we should strive to emulate the spirit (Gesinnung) of the Reformers. Their undivided heart wholly given to God, their determination to follow the Word and will of God, their loyalty to his church on earth, their zeal and dedication—these are truly admirable and inspiring. We have every reason to follow them in this respect, to develop the same attitudes in our own lives.
Secondly, we should uphold the basic principles (Grundsätze) which guided the Reformers in their times. The fourfold sola of Reformation theology (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus) is a lasting contribution to the church of all ages. It has also become foundational to Adventist thinking and we should take pains that it will remain so in the future.
Thirdly, we should learn from the experience (Erfahrungen) of the Reformers, applying their insights to our own times and cultural contexts. Just as following Jesus does not require us to wear sandals or beards, so following in the steps of the Reformers does not imply that we think and act exactly as they did.
In short, we should always bear the question in mind: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
What about our own Adventist tradition?
In the context of the intense debate preceding and following the General Conference of 1888, Ellen G. White made a number of highly significant statements that have not lost their urgency and appeal a century and more later. Here are some of them:
‘The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light. . . . No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation. . . . This light [of present truth] should lead us to a diligent study of the Scriptures, and a most critical examination of the positions which we hold. God would have all the bearings and positions of truth thoroughly and perseveringly searched, with prayer and fasting. Believers are not to rest in suppositions and ill-defined ideas of what constitutes truth. . . . It is important that in defending the doctrines which we consider fundamental articles of faith, we should never allow ourselves to employ arguments that are not wholly sound. . . . We should present sound arguments, that will . . . bear the closest and most searching scrutiny.’
Here the prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is challenging her fellow believers to study their doctrinal and other ecclesiastical traditions, to review their adequacy, to grow in their theological understanding, and even to revise their teachings, if necessary. The Preamble of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, voted at the General Conference Session in 1980 and enlarged in 2005, is an impressive contemporary reflection on these inspired quotations. Recent studies in Adventist theological history, undertaken by authors like George Knight and myself, have demonstrated that Adventists have improved and adjusted their theology repeatedly in the course of time. It can be expected that we will also do so in the future—unless we stop growing in faith and refuse to advance in our beliefs. In this case we would become traditionalists, just like others about whom we have spoken critically.
There is, then, a crucial difference between esteeming one’s own tradition, on the one hand, and revering it in an almost idolatrous manner to the detriment of the church and its advancement, on the other. Containing the richness of the experiences and insights of our spiritual predecessors (warps and woofs included), tradition is an invaluable source of information, inspiration and motivation. However, it should never be used to prevent deeper studies into the truth, to stifle the intellectual progress of believers, or to hamper the doctrinal growth of the church. Tradition is like the rails on an Autobahn, allowing cars of all shapes and sizes to travel safely at an appropriate speed. Or, to use a nautical term, tradition is like an anchor used by sailors to move a vessel stuck in a sandbar into deeper waters. This process of using an anchor to move a ship ahead, not to tie it in place, is called kedging. In this sense we should use our tradition as a kedge, i.e., as a proper means to move forward, not to stay put or even move backward. As Richard O. Stenbakken wrote: ‘We can use the past to assist our progress into the future. Anchors can help us live from the past rather than in the past. Kedging keeps us sailing ahead, keeps us salient, current, and futuristic. Without values and virtues we are, literally, dangerously adrift.’
Thus, while we should respect and revere our tradition, we should beware of traditionalism. One cannot be a Christian without having a high regard for the past. After all, Scripture is an ancient book, and our salvation was accomplished by Christ many centuries ago. In fact, to believe in Christ means accepting the testimony of others who have lived long before us. However, in order to have a living faith, it is mandatory for us personally and individually to share the faith that is alive in the church of Christ. In the words of church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.’
This also holds true for Seventh-day Adventism. One can hardly be an informed Adventist without realizing how much good has come to us from our denominational past. At the same time, one cannot help but realize that Adventist church history also saw its share of errant doctrinal views and outworn practices. Some in the church attempt to restore the past, trying to lead us back to an earlier level of theological understanding. Claiming to be ‘historic Adventists,’ they have become champions of a fossilized faith, wooing our children and youth with their siren songs. Do we really want to follow them? Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?
So what about us today?
Samuele Bacchiocchi, the widely-read Adventist author and lecturer who was known for his conservative views on issues of ethics and lifestyle, once wrote in an e-mail message, ‘We need to be open minded and be willing to re-examine our beliefs. I have changed my thinking on numerous issues, as my books show. One day I may write a book on my theological development. The issue is not age but the capacity to think critically and to have the courage to change our thinking, when confronted with compelling facts.’ Is this view typical of Seventh-day Adventists? Or does it rather sound as if it’s coming from the schismatic or heretical fringes of Adventism?
Ellen White once wrote this challenging statement: ‘Ignorance does not increase the humility or spirituality of any professed follower of Christ. The truths of the divine word can be best appreciated by an intellectualChristian. Christ can be best glorified by those who serve him intelligently.’ Do we believe this? Are we indeed striving to be intellectual Christians, capable of giving a logical and convincing exposition of our faith? Is it our personal priority to serve God intelligently, to truly understand the Scriptures, to discover its deeper meaning which requires much time and effort? Or are we satisfied by a mediocre theological understanding? Are we still keepers of the flame or merely preservers of the ashes?
Summary and Conclusion
Seventh-day Adventists like to see themselves as true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. In this essay, we have repeatedly asked ourselves the intriguing question: What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? Do we actually honour, or rather betray, their cause by codifying their religious and theological insights? What implications does the ecclesia semper reformanda have for us today? How can we honour our Protestant (and Adventist) tradition without becoming traditionalists? The answer I have suggested can be summarized like this:
To be faithful to the past means to move forward in the spirit of our predecessors. This is to say that we should emulate their attitude, uphold their principles, and learn from their experiences while, at the same time, constantly advancing in the understanding and appreciation of revealed truth. Or, in the words of Jean Juares: ‘Take from the altar of the past the fire, not the ashes!’
 This essay was originally presented at the Second European Congress of the Students’ Association of the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists, held in Eisenberg, Germany, November 1-3, 2002.
 Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), 127.
 John Hus, ‘Defensio liberi De Trinitate Magistri Joannis Wiclif’, presented in Prague on 27 July 1410.
 Quoted in the Adventist Review, 9 July 1981.
 ‘Mein Gewissen ist gefangen in Gottes Wort; daher kann und will ich nichts widerrufen, da es weder sicher noch recht ist, gegen das Gewissen zu handeln.’ (WA 7, 838, 4-8)
 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940), 550.
 W. C. White to F. E. Belden, 9 February 1888.
 Ellen G. White, ‘Attitude to New Light’, in: Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1946), 33-42.
 George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000).
 Rolf J. Poehler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development, Friedensauer Schriftenreihe, Series A: Theologie, vol. 3 (Frankfurt, New York, Oxford etc.: Lang, 2000).
 Richard O. Stenbakken, ‘Kedging the future’, College and University Dialogue, 14:1 (2002), 3.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971-1989), 1:9.
 Samuele Bacchiocchi, Email to <sdanet.org> 20 April 2000.
 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students Regarding Christian Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association), 361.