During the past dozen years, I’ve invested hundred of hours in trying to understand the tragic conflict that impacted the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia and New Zealand during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve written various papers and articles unpacking some of the issues; people with contrasting viewpoints have quoted, published or distributed these as they have attempted to support or demolish my analyses. I thank all those folk who have (usually with the help of computer technology) shared pro and con convictions with me. We grow from receiving the insights of even our sharpest critics.
The series of articles that begins with this blog will focus on a single aspect of the wide-ranging discussion referred to above: the reality of change in Adventist teaching.
I do not submit this article with any claim to know everything that needs to be known about the history that it reviews. It’s just another humble attempt to assist the ongoing dialogue. The community of faith to which we belong is struggling to understand its heritage more fully; if an individual makes a mistake while interpreting the past, the rest of us need to lovingly offer facts and interpretations that will correct the error. That way, we all mature in understanding and faith. Read the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald from 1850 onwards, observing the vigorous discussions that characterised the early years of Sabbatarian Adventism. We can renew that healthy process in the twenty-first century!
Continuity and Change: A Case Study
Adventists are a pilgrim people, journeying from the counterpart of Egypt to the real Canaan. On such a journey through a vast landscape, landmarks are essential. The Bible gives us the significant truths that meet this need.
A number of years ago, I was one of a party of four that hiked in the Warrumbungle National Park where volcanoes and time have created fantastic mountains. Colourful names for various peaks reflect human perceptions and experience: Crater Bluff, Split Rock, Needle Mountain. And Mount Exmouth, reaching 1206 metres into the clear sky of New South Wales, beyond the Great Dividing Range.
Let’s press Mount Exmouth into service as a symbol of an Adventist teaching, the message of the First Angel. See Revelation, chapter 14, especially verses 6 and 7.
Even though it towers over other impressive tors like the Breadknife and Bluff Mountain, Exmouth cannot be seen from Blackman’s Camp. From that angle, other peaks hide Exmouth.
From part of the walking track, Exmouth looks like a single, rounded mass of rock.
When at last we reached its crest, Exmouth was a small range with a number of rocky outcrops.
How similar is the “range” we call the First Angel’s message: proclaiming the everlasting gospel for earth-dwellers, announcing judgment in the present tense, calling for worship of the Creator. Each of these “outcrops” is a guiding truth for our spiritual journey.
But each aspect of this teaching has been viewed very differently from various vantage points during more than sixteen decades of the Adventist journey. Let’s test that statement with reference to just one feature: the gospel, for everyone.
In 1845 when William Miller read in his King James Version about preaching “the everlasting gospel unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” he wrote: “We have done our work in warning sinners, and in trying to awake a formal church. God in his providence has shut the door; we can only stir one another up to be patient, and to be diligent in making our calling and election sure.”
No sense of continuing mission there!
When Uriah Smith read those same words in 1859, he wrote that the United States “is composed of people from almost every nation.” He mused that it may not be necessary, then, to go everywhere preaching the gospel; and probably there wasn’t time to do so, anyway, because Jesus was coming so soon.
That was an improved but short-sighted concept of mission! Jesus declares in Matthew 24:14 (NIV) that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
The concept of mission we cherish from Revelation 14:6-16 propelled earnest folk from North America to every continent, beginning with John Andrews and his two motherless children who went to Europe in 1874. By 1885, that message was moving Stephen Haskell and his ten companions past Samoa and Auckland to Melbourne, to begin their Australian mission.
By the 1950s some Adventists were beginning to ask whether our mission should target non-Christians more effectively. Rather than a main emphasis on re-converting believers, shouldn’t we go more intentionally to those who had never heard the name of Jesus? That line of thinking would develop research centres focused on how best to present Adventism to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on.
Late in the 1960s a fresh concept of mission was forming in the minds of people like Gottfried Oosterwal of Andrews University, formerly a pioneer missionary in what was Dutch New Guinea. By the 1980s for Oosterwal and the church the necessity was clear, Adventists must consciously plan what is now called “Global Mission,” a way of reaching every people group within every nation. For instance, it will never do to tell the story of salvation to just the Anglo-Saxon Australians: our Aborigines must hear the Good News, as must immigrants from India, China, Cambodia and everywhere. God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9.
The New International Version expresses the Adventist task unmistakably: the gospel must go to “every nation, tribe, language and people.” Currently Adventists are working in over 200 of the geographical divisions of the world. The other countries are in their minds, as is every people group in every nation under heaven.
So much for a brief account of over 160 years of Adventist mission. Of course, like Exmouth, the vital truths of the First Angel’s message were there even when we failed to see them at all, or when we peered at some of them as through a dark glass. And as our vantage point changed, so did the substance of what we saw.
All of us need to take responsibility for understanding the truths of the Bible in the light of history. Ellen White’s memorable words reassure us: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history,” Life Sketches, page 196. One of the deepest problems Adventists face is that we forget what God has clearly taught us in the past. That’s like paying for experience but failing to keep the receipt.
To summarise: the concept of world mission was crucial in Millerite Adventism. It was put on hold in the era of transition when Millerites were becoming Sabbatarian Adventists. After the theological foundation of the new movement was laid effectively, Seventh-day Adventists developed an understanding of their mission in several stages, matching the capacity of the movement to engage with an ever-enlarging task. Thus believers were challenged progressively to better perceive and implement the biblical ideal: God’s Good News is for everyone.
Undergraduate students study such conceptual change in subjects like Seventh-day Adventist history and the life and writings of Ellen White. Seminary or graduate students go into it all in far greater depth when they undertake subjects relating to the development of SDA theology. But all of us need to benefit from understanding how God has led our pilgrimage. Not all of us can sit in college or seminary classrooms. But we can learn a lot about the essentials with the help of books, journals and magazines, plus valuable information we can access at the push of a few computer buttons.
Arthur Patrick, 2 March 2012