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. (See the last section of Andreasen’s Letters to the Churches and the last part of his Sanctuary Service book – both linked above – for more on his views on the atonement)
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 and how much these views motivated his reaction to QOD. 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 all over the world today, that are still preaching what can rightly only be labeled heresy. And, the time is way past due for this to stop. The church shouldn’t turn a blind eye to such a teaching. If in fact as a denomination we disagree with Andreasen on this point, we should make this very clear. There are Adventists who have been led to believe that Andreasen’s view of the atonement is the official view of the Adventist church.
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.