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What EGW Would Say Today about Minneapolis/1888

(Nov 15, 2000) - ©Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.




One of the basic theological controversies in 19th Century Christianity directly affected the atmosphere in Minneapolis during our 1888 crisis. For the first time in nearly 2000 years, Christian churches were divided between those who were called conservatives and those labeled liberals. The issue was basically authority and how it affected the plan of salvation: Was authority to be found in the divine revelation or in human reason, feeling, or historical research?

Key words for the conservatives were and still are, include transcendence, authority, orthodox doctrines, law, structure, security and grace—good words to hold on to. Key words for the liberals were and are, include immanence, freedom, responsibility, reason, flexibility, meaning, relevance, and personal faith—again good words to hold on to.

The historic weakness of conservatives has been to emphasize authority at the expense of human responsibility and freedom. Faith tends to become mainly mental assent to doctrine. Some form of "only believe" is stressed. The result too often is human passivity in the salvation process.

The historic weakness of liberals is rooted in its subjectivity. Pietists, mystics, rationalists, charismatics (and whoever else puts human autonomy "in front" of divinely revealed truths) base their security either on reason, feeling, intuition, or historical research. Absolutes are rarely appealed to.

All this was clearly perceived by Ellen White. In 1890 she wrote: "While one class perverts the doctrine of justification by faith and neglect to comply with the conditions laid down in the Word of God—‘If ye love Me, keep my commandments’—there is fully as great an error on the part of those who claim to believe and obey the commandments of God but who place themselves in opposition to the precious rays of light—new to them—reflected from the cross of Calvary. The first class do not see the wondrous things in the law of God for all who are doers of His Word. The others cavil over trivialities and neglect the weightier matters, mercy and love of God. . . .

"On the one hand, religionists generally have divorced the law and the gospel, while we have, on the other hand, almost done the same thing from another standpoint. We have not held up before the people the righteousness of Christ and the full significance of His great plan of redemption. We have left out Christ and His matchless love, brought in theories and reasonings, and preached argumentative discourses."—Faith and Works, pp. 15, 16. (Written in 1890 for the ministerial institutes in Battle Creek)

Practically speaking, what does all this mean for us today? The long shadow of both classes, as EGW defines them, reaches even to this very day, not only in the Christian world generally, but within the Adventist Church, most decidedly. The tendencies of Uriah Smith and George Butler have been reinforced by many through the years even as the direction taken by Alonzo Jones and Ellet Waggoner has been reflected by many to this day.

Whenever we see the tendency to overemphasize obedience, behavior and doctrinal correctness, we can see Smith and Butler reincarnated.

Whenever we see the tendency to overemphasize faith as being only mental assent and acceptance of what Christ did for us on the Cross, or whenever character development is declared to have nothing to do with one’s salvation, we can see the implications of misunderstanding Jones and Waggoner.

For examples, the problems that exploded within the Adventist Church in the 1950s, especially when reflected in QOD, are issues that were either prominent or pregnant in 1888. The two "sides" have feared each other ever since, fearing that the "other side" has all the dangers implicit and potential in roots going back to 1888.

Ellen White would lament today that we have not learned very much in more than 100 years. Why? Because the two sides are still very vocal and very sure that the other side is destroying the Adventist Church. How can this be? The answer is clear: We still do not have the gospel right. We have not learned how to express the everlasting gospel so that even Adventist church members can understand it easily, never mind the general public. And getting the everlasting gospel right is the core reason for the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In reviewing the 50s and 60s, Ellen would say, "Dear Milton Andreasen, you have too much of Smith and Butler in your spirit. Although you were correct in your stand on QOD’s confusion over Christ’s human nature, you were dead wrong in seeing devils in QOD’s new vocabulary as they tried to express Adventist sanctuary talk in the language that Evangelicals could understand."

And to those who ridicule Andreasen, and there are many today who do, she would say to all those who have permitted the Fordian doctrine of justification to sweep away the distinctiveness of Adventism, an emphasis that too many see in QOD, "Please, dear people, listen again to Jones and Waggoner and my writings—justification does involve conditions and character does determine one’s destiny.

And she would say to many who are valiant in keeping character development central to their message and who stand firm on doctrinal correctness, "Dear people, don’t forget that Christ must be in the law and in all discussions of the law, and that abiding in Him means more than knowing about Him. Your assurance should be in His mercies and presence, not in your doctrinal correctness."

The Adventist Church is as divided in 2000 as it was in 1888, perhaps more so. And the division is over the gospel, although it is rarely put that way! All this may sound too simple, for some even absurd. But to prove our point, all we have to do is to note the great differences over the meaning of the gospel in the books and magazines that come from our denominational presses, never mind the scores of private publications.

What is at stake here? 1) Ellen White knew that her integrity was at stake when those on both sides "quoted" her for support, making her into an internal contradiction. 2) The integrity of the gospel is at stake when those on both sides quote either Ellen White or the Bible for their support. Furthermore, 3) the integrity of the Adventist Church is at stake when we can twist EGW or Biblical quotes around as if both authorities have wax noses.

Ellen White understood well that this problem over the gospel in 1888 had been present since the first century. She presented the clear truth of the gospel in many of her books, such as The Desire of Ages, Thoughts on the Mount of Blessing, Steps to Christ, and Christ’s Object Lessons. She defined what happens when the gospel has not been understood in her volume, The Great Controversy.

She pinpointed the historic standoff between the two perennial classes: "The progress of reform depends upon a clear recognition of fundamental truth. While, on the one hand, danger lurks in a narrow philosophy and a hard, cold orthodoxy, on the other hand, there is great danger in a careless liberalism. The foundation of all enduring reform is the law of God. We are to present in clear, distinct lines the need of obeying the law."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 129.

"Hard, cold orthodoxy" and "careless liberalism" are the end results of dividing truth into two circles rather than letting truth be truth in its elliptical form. "Cold orthodoxy" and "careless liberalism" are the end results of over-stressing either doctrinal correctness or wrong concepts of faith and feeling. Ellen White’s theology transcends these two circles by uniting authority and responsibility, doctrinal security and heart assurance into the ellipse of truth. Wherever you look, all churches are divided, even our own—all theological arguments are caused— by separating the two foci of the truth-ellipse into two circles with their own foci.

Let’s think about this for a moment: We get water because of the ellipse of truth. Water is not formed until the circles of hydrogen and oxygen are reformed as an ellipse. And the truth of the gospel is not seen until the partial truths represented by the orthodox conservatives and the partial truths of those concerned with relevance and freedom are united in the "everlasting gospel."

The question is: How did Ellen White see all this so clearly and present the solution so simply? Because God helped her to see the Great Controversy motif and then to illuminate this Biblical theme as she was able to express it.

What do we mean by the Great Controversy Theme? It is the story of how God has been grossly misrepresented by Satan, that God was "severe, exacting, revengeful, and arbitrary. . . . one who could take pleasure in the sufferings of His creatures."—Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1890; see also, Steps to Christ, pp. 10, 11; Patriarchs and Prophets, pp, 38, 78.

What was God’s best answer to Satan’s charges? "The Father was revealed in Christ as altogether a different being from that which Satan had represented Him to be."—Ibid.

What was the purpose of Christ’s coming to earth? "The whole purpose of His own mission on earth [was] to set men right through the revelation of God. . . . When the object of His mission was attained—the revelation of God to the world—the Son of God announced that His work was accomplished, and that the character of the Father was manifest to men." —Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1890.

What then is the good news and the purpose of the gospel? In getting the character of God right, men and women would be set right. "The central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole Book clusters, is the redemption plan, the restoration in the human soul of the image of God. From the first intimation of hope in the sentence pronounced in Eden to that last glorious promise of the Revelation, ‘They shall see His face, and His name shall be in their foreheads’ (Rev. 22:4), the burden of every book and every passage of the Bible is the unfolding of this wondrous theme, —man’s uplifting,—the power of God, ‘which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ l Cor. 15:57."—Education, p. 125. "The very essence of the gospel is restoration."—The Desire of Ages, p. 824.

If restoration is the core purpose of the gospel, how does this concept affect theology, education, health principles, stewardship, social diversity, etc.?

Theology: This fundamental concept of restoration directly affects the way we think about God, salvation, the atonement and every other Biblical doctrine. We may find ourselves using different terminology to express these subjects and this may make some uncomfortable. For example, if God is understood as the Father portrayed by Jesus in the Parable of the Two Sons, the Parent Model will override the Calvinist portrait of God being Sovereign Judge with all the negative theology that follows. And listening to Jesus describe God as Our Father in Heaven will keep us from the opposite errors in some Arminian theologians who tried to offset Calvinism but lurched into universalism.

This fundamental concept of restoration directly affects what Jesus accomplished in His life and death. Note how EGW put a larger meaning into Christ’s life and death: "All the suffering and humiliation of the Son of God was endured that we might understand how God loved the world, how He purposed to bring moral power within our reach that we might be ennobled, elevated, and become partakers of the divine nature."—RH:June 29, 1897. Or, "Christ died to give men moral independence, freedom to exercise their God-given ability."—The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 1592.

"When Adam and Eve transgressed, Jesus said: "I will take upon me the sin of the fallen race. I will bear the penalty of sin, that I may impart to men my strength and righteousness." When Jesus came to the world it was as our substitute and surety. He passed through all the experiences of man, from the manger to Calvary, at every step giving man an example of what he should be and what he should do."—ST:4/18, 1892.

"Human wisdom is to be combined with divine wisdom and the mercy of God. Let us hide self in Christ. Let us work diligently to reach the high standard God has set up for us,—moral transformation by the gospel. God calls upon us to advance in right lines, to make straight paths for our feet, lest the lame be turned out of the way. Then will Christ be satisfied.—CDF:211

The cross of Calvary challenges, and will finally vanquish, every earthly and hellish power. In the cross all influence centers, and from it all influence goes forth. It is the great center of attraction, for on it Christ gave up his life for the human race. This sacrifice was offered for the purpose of restoring man to his original perfection; yea, more. It was offered to give him an entire transformation of character, making him more than a conqueror. Those who in the strength of Christ overcome the great enemy of God and man, will occupy a position in the heavenly courts above angels who have never fallen.--GCB:4-01-99. (Ms56, 1899); see also Lift Him Up, p.230; 6BC:1113; Sons and Daughters of God, p. 242

We may need larger definitions for justification by faith and righteousness by faith: "In order to obtain the righteousness of Christ, it is necessary for the sinner to know what that repentance is which works a radical change of mind the spirit and action. The work of transformation must begin in the heart, and manifest its power through every faculty of the being. . . . No one can believe with the heart unto righteousness, and obtain justification by faith, while continuing the practice of those things which the Word of God forbids, or while neglecting any known duty."—Selected Messages, vol 1, pp. 393, 396 (1893)

"The absence of devotion, piety, and sanctification of the outer man comes through denying Jesus Christ our righteousness. The love of God needs to be constantly cultivated. . . . While one class pervert the doctrine of justification by faith and neglect to comply with the conditions laid down in the Word of God--'If ye love Me, keep My commandments'--there is fully as great an error on the part of those who claim to believe and obey the commandments of God but who place themselves in opposition to the precious rays of light--new to them--reflected from the cross of Calvary. The first class do not see the wondrous things in the law of God for all who are doers of His Word. The others cavil over trivialities and neglect the weightier matters, mercy and the love of God."—Faith and Works, pp. 15-16.

Education: "To restore in man the image of his Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind, and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realized—this was to be the work of redemption. This is the object of education, the great object of life."—Education, pp. 15, 16.

Health: "God desires us to reach the standard of perfection made possible for us by the gift of Christ. He calls upon us to make our choice on the right side, to connect with heavenly agencies, to adopt principles that will restore in us the divine image. In His written word and in the great book of nature He has revealed the principles of life. It is our work to obtain a knowledge of these principles, and by obedience to cooperate with Him in restoring health to the body as well as to the soul."—The Ministry of Healing, pp. 114, 115

"Let it ever be kept before the mind that the great object of hygienic reform is to secure the highest possible development of mind and soul and body."—Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 23.


Copyright © 2000 Herbert E. Douglass.  All rights reserved.

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