The Investigative Judgement—A Personal Experience
Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant. ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
Every time Don Leatherman spoke, I found time stood still almost as if my consciousness was transplanted into an infinite realm. He lectured calmly, leaning back on an office chair while occasionally stroking his beard. There wasn’t much charisma, but decades of scholarly wisdom undergirded just about everything he said and I was hooked.
The year was 2014. I was a new theology student at Southern Adventist University and Dr. Don Leatherman was my Studies in Daniel lecturer. Mesmerized, I frantically took as many notes as my mortal fingers allowed. I didn’t miss a word save for the few times I got distracted by that guy watching basketball games on his laptop. Seriously, what was wrong with him? He was totally missing out.
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The semester progressed and the class quickly made it to my “most awesome of all classes” list. We studied scholars, critics, and the Glacier View document prepared by the late Dr. Desmond Ford. We also explored the structure of Daniel, its context and it’s objective. Dr. Leatherman even took the time to debunk some good old Adventist myths about the visions. Soon, we were required to select a topic for a research paper ranging from the historicity of Daniel and it’s authorship to it’s thematic structure and exegesis. But I didn’t have a hard time choosing. My eyes were set on one topic and one topic only. As Dr. Leatherman went through the class asking for each students choice I silently begged that no one would steal mine. My wish came true and when, at last, he called my name. I answered: “The Pre-Advent Investigative Judgment” (henceforth PAIJ).
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I chose the PAIJ because it was the one thing in Daniel, and in fact all of Adventism, that I wasn’t convinced of. I wanted to know once and for all, is it Biblical? Or is it an Adventist fabrication designed to soften the blow of the Millerite disappointment? So I got to work reading both critics and supporters. I wrestled with questions like, Is this doctrine taught in Daniel? Is it compatible with the gospel? Does it flow with the rest of scripture’s narrative? Can it be demonstrated logically and rationally? And so forth. For me, the questions were of extreme value. Coupled with the heretical influence of Last Generation Theology, the doctrine of the PAIJ had caused me untold emotional and spiritual damage. I had little motivation to defend it or to find an excuse for its validity. I needed answers, and I was going to get them.
Nevertheless, there was a sense of trepidation. If I concluded that the doctrine was simply not defensible then, in the timeless words of the Hamlet character Polonius I would “to [mine] own self be true” meaning, at least in my estimation, that I might actually part ways with the church I had always called home. The thought was uncomfortable but the lack of answers was worse. So I picked my topic and got to work.
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After tons of research and study, I submitted a 21-page paper in which I traced my journey toward not only concluding that the doctrine had biblical grounds but that I actually kind of really liked it. Dr. Leatherman replied that my paper exceeded the page limit but because he enjoyed it so much he would not dock my grade. In addition, he added he would keep the paper in his file. I never actually told him, but for me, that was the equivalent of a famous celebrity telling me they thought I was cool. I was on cloud nine.
Why Does it Matter?
Years have passed. Nothing has changed. I still place Studies in Daniel in my top 3 favorite classes of all time (right next to Biblical Exegesis and Adventist History). But the time has finally come for me to address the one thing about my experience with the PAIJ that I did not answer then nor for many years to follow. That question is simply this: Why does any of it matter?
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Now you might be wondering, How could you write a 21-page paper and not address that foundational question? And my answer is I did. But the problem is, I also didn’t. My excitement for the relevance of the PAIJ was built on the enthusiastic approach I had toward the entire course, to begin with. As a result, the PAIJ was relevant to me because I was a bit of a theological nerd with a reasonable amount of theological baggage. But would it be relevant to anyone who didn’t share my context? And to this day, as I navigate through life in a secular, Australian context I find that the relevance of a doctrine like the PAIJ is far from self-evident.
At this juncture, many would simply throw their hands up and say,
That’s it! Doesn’t matter! Let’s just focus on the simple gospel and move on.
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But not me and for two reasons. First, my mind doesn’t work that way. I want to know, once and for all, does the PAIJ have anything meaningful to say to anyone who is not enamored with points of interpretation that have seemingly little to do with everyday life?
And second, the fact that the PAIJ appears to be irrelevant is not in itself a denunciation of the doctrine for that which is seemingly irrelevant can still emerge as fundamentally meaningful to the human experience. The laptop in my hands, for example, emerges as the conclusion to a series of processes I find utterly meaningless to contemplate. Likewise, I can type this paper on Google Docs thanks to a sequence of complex programming codes and engineering marvels that I would likewise, think awfully tedious to ponder. Nothing about the laptop’s assembly interests me and yet, the laptop itself is profoundly relevant in my life. In the same vein, when I look at a doctrine like the PAIJ, I cannot discount it simply because it appears irrelevant. I must, instead, explore the possibility that its irrelevant assembly may potentially effectuate something meaningful for the human experience; and what might that be? I certainly don’t want to miss walking on the edge of something grand because I struggle to identify its immediate grandeur. I must then continue to explore for as the poet Edgar Allan Poe surmised, there are indeed times–more common than we think–when “truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”
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Therefore, in this article series “The Death and Rebirth of the Investigative Judgment” I want to submerge into the question, does the PAIJ matter? Is it relevant? Does it serve any other purpose besides the corporate identity we claim it provides us with? Or, to borrow from Andre Reis, does it simply “[massage] our corporate ego”? This question of relevance will be the central focus of this entire article series.
But it is also necessary for me to explain what the series is not about. This series is not about whether the PAIJ is biblical. I am beginning from the assumption that it is and challenging its experiential utility from that starting point. Therefore, if you are convinced that the PAIJ is an unbiblical doctrine, this series offers no satisfaction to your contentions. This series is also not about whether the PAIJ contradicts the gospel. Plenty has been written to respond to those charges already and I have personally moved beyond that part of the conversation. Finally, this series is not about side issues related to the PAIJ such as Ellen White’s relationship to the doctrine, exegetical questions concerning the meaning of certain texts or concepts in Leviticus or Hebrews. Those are issues that are likewise, effectively dealt with elsewhere.
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Therefore, the single focus of this series is, assuming the validity of the PAIJ what then is its utility?
Critics Have A Reason
There is a collective struggle with voices emerging each year that question this. These voices are often interpreted as mere critics, neo-Fordians who are unbending ideologues that can never be satisfied. But the truth is, at least from where I stand, we may actually be more at fault than we like to admit. Even I, a firm believer in this doctrine, must admit that we have struggled to provide truly compelling answers, to begin with. Thus, at the end of our lengthy dissertations we can’t seem to get away from the notion that, from the perspective of the non-academic, the PAIJ simply adds little to no significance to the overarching thematic evolution of scripture’s narrative. To the academics, yes for the doctrine certainly resolves wrinkles and gaps left by the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition upon which Adventism is built. But is that enough to make it relevant for anyone else? It appears the answer is no.
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There is also the individual struggle betrayed by the fact that most church members neither understand the doctrine nor care much for it. As a pastor, I have yet to find anyone who gets contagiously excited over it. It makes sense, yes. We can see the pieces click together, yes. But there is that annoying pragmatic challenge that keeps staring at us like an elephant in the room demanding an answer: What difference does it really make in my spiritual walk? If little to none, then what is the point of believing it? And perhaps this would not be a big deal if it was some obscure teaching that had little to do with our systematic theology but the truth is, this doctrine is at the center of our identity! How terrible then that so few understand it or value it. Is the fault theirs? I think not. Rather, I am inclined to agree with Harold A. McGregor who wrote that the Investigative Judgement “remains an essentially indigestible aspect of Adventist teaching.”
Beliefs Affect Our Actions
Finally, there is the corporate struggle where the doctrine is held on to because it gives us some sense of identity and yet if we are honest with ourselves, this uniquely held ideological construct has failed to produce in us anything exceptionally compelling or attractive in terms of actions or habits. Mahatma Gandhi captured the relationship between belief and habit well when he said,
Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits…
In other words, a person’s belief leads naturally to a change in a person’s actions and habits. Ellen White expressed a nearly identical sentiment when she wrote,
If the thoughts are right, then as a result the words will be right; the actions will be of that character….
Thus, if the PAIJ is deeply embedded in our belief as Adventists then one would expect to see something captivating in our actions and habits. Our unique doctrine would naturally lead us toward a unique expression of faith that is impossible to miss. And yet, we are not significantly more attractive than any other religious community. Our local churches are just as dead as most other ones. Our cultures are just as judgmental, cold, formal, traditional, and stifled as other churches. We argue about the same things, get bogged down in the same nonsense and replicate the same brokenness as our contemporary societies. Racism, sexism and elitism, abuse, control, and division are just as present among us as they are in people groups who do not hold anything remotely close to a doctrine like the PAIJ. And even when we get it right and show love, compassion and stand for justice in our communities we don’t necessarily stand out. For a people who hold a belief no one else seems to hold, I find it odd that we perpetuate a culture everyone else seems to have. In other words, if the PAIJ matters in any way, shape or form then it is fair to expect its proponents to navigate reality in such a radically redemptive way that the whole world would take notice. But we don’t.
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Kept? Discarded? Or Reevaluated?
Thus, George P. Saxon author of “The Investigative Judgment Really Ended in 1846” got it right when he asked,
Does believing or not believing in the Investigative Judgment help or hinder you in your walk with Jesus? Should the investigative judgment be retained as a doctrine of the SDA Church? I would argue that this issue has been decided. Adventist ministers and administrators do not preach about this subject, and will not voluntarily discuss it. The younger Adventist population knows little or nothing about the Investigative Judgment. By their collective lack of interest the Adventist population has voted against it.
So where do we go from here? From a logical standpoint, it appears we have only three options. The first is to maintain our course and allow the number of people who care about the PAIJ to continue to dwindle until only a small, nostalgic club remains. The second is to bow to the critics and either admit the whole thing was a sham or concede that despite its theological validity the doctrine has little to no experiential utility. And the third is to start over and find what, if anything, this fundamental notion has to offer to a fragmented culture wandering a path littered by the shards of daily suffering, naked and barefoot.
I suggest it’s time we do the later and revisit this doctrine with a singular focus on its relevance. Can the question be adequately answered? I honestly don’t know. The church has vacillated on this issue for so long, giving patriotic, immaterial and one dimensional answers to this multi-dimensional existentially driven question that we may very well be at a point in history in which the very mention of the PAIJ causes those who need this exploration the most to roll their eyes and walk the other way. And for good reason. They have already wasted enough time and gotten nowhere. Nevertheless, I believe providing a meaningful way forward will be of benefit to emerging generations, evangelistic efforts, and the collective Adventist consciousness. And perhaps, the efficacy of each of these will bring meaning and value to the spaces we, as a global movement, inhabit.
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Not Yet Finished Speaking
But there is something more that drives this search, at least for me. And that something more is best captured by the words of late journalist Italo Calvino when he wrote,
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
Because the PAIJ has never, in my estimation, been adequately explored in terms of its relevance it sits there, as a man alone on his ethereal bench staring down at us. It stares at us, eyes wide open, begging to speak and say something of meaning and value to a moribund generation and yet it cannot speak. We must speak for it. We must be its voice. And yet, we have not. And in that sense, it appears to me as though the PAIJ is a doctrine that has not yet finished saying what it needs to say. We have robbed it of that pleasure by reducing its complexity to religio-centric arguments that satisfy our dogmatic agendas but we have yet to let it sing its song over the agony of the human experience, replete with its myriad of stories. And to this end, I am compelled to continue to explore because perhaps the problem with the PAIJ is not that it is, as the critics assert, a bankrupt ideology but that it is a classic that has not yet finished saying what it has to say.
 Andre Reis, “Perspective: 1844 -Pillar of Faith or Mortal Wound?” Spectrum Magazine, October 22, 2015.
 Harold A. McGregor Jr., “The Investigative Judgment has Three Main Problems,” Spectrum Magazine, December 6, 2013.
 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character and Personality, vol 2 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1977), p. 655.
 Italo Calvino, As quoted in, Bernard Harrison, “What Is Fiction For?: Literary Humanism Restored,” p. 56.