A More Perfect Union: Unity and Diversity in the Context of Mission

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A More Perfect Union: Unity and Diversity in the Context of Mission

What You Will Learn:

The purpose of this four-article series is to help the reader to:

  1. Understand the basis on which theological unity in the Seventh-day Adventist church is built (see article 1: Unity and the Structure of Belief)
  2. Understand the role (a) hermeneutics and (b) theological method plays in establishing theological doctrine and unity (see article 2: Unity and Diversity in the Context of Mission)
  3. Understand (a) the theological factions in the church, (b) the existing barriers to church unity, and (c) how divisive debates over working policy, fundamental beliefs, and the church manual are merely symptoms of deeper issues in the church (see article 3: The Local Church and Mission)
  4. Explore practical solutions that (a) solve the root problems behind church disunity, (b) rebuild trust between church entities, and (c) help members to experience biblical unity in diversity (see article 4: We Have This Hope)

Introduction—Understanding Unity in the Context of Mission


Summary of Part 1: In article one, we took a look at how the Structure of Belief as outlined in Dr. Barry Oliver’s 3-part system of unity—1) Structure of belief, 2) Purpose (mission), and 3) Function—was formulated in both the early Christian church and the early Advent Movement.

In the early Christian church, we saw that three days into Paul’s conversion, the future major writer of the New Testament was physically blind and unaware of his own role in fulfilling the church’s mission. Yet, instead of directly instructing Paul as to his mission, God sent him to His church. Paul’s subsequent education by the church regarding the mission raises some important considerations for us today: What is mission? And how does the church discover its mission?


Purpose of Article 2: The quotation, “we make decisions and they turn around and make us,” is commonly referenced, and aptly describes the purpose of this article. This article has two sections:

  • In section one, I will demonstrate how the macro-hermeneutical principles we hold profoundly impact the decisions regarding the accomplishment of the mission entrusted to the church. We will cover some essential historical background to the hermeneutical issues, and then investigate the role of biblical hermeneutics in the current debate and its potential to bring unity to the church.
  • In section two, we will take what we learned about the decisions made regarding hermeneutics and apply it to the mission of the church. We will 1) define the nature of our mission, 2) examine the concepts of unity and diversity in the context of mission, and 3) examine the barriers that exist towards the concept of unity in diversity in our church, evaluate several competing solutions to remedy that, and finally see precisely where unity and diversity fit in the accomplishment of the mission God has set for His church on earth.

Macro-Hermeneutics: /’makrō-hərmə’n(y)oodiks/ n. the foundational or base level of hermeneutics.

Section 1: The Role of Hermeneutics in Unity


The Diversity of Bible Writers: The Bible is a remarkable book; its writers span over fifteen-hundred years and come from a diverse range of experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. Some writers were highly educated, such as Moses, Daniel, and Paul, while others, such as David, Amos, and Peter, were shepherds and fishermen. But despite the diverse backgrounds, formal training, and multiple genres of literature, these authors express an inner coherence of thought regarding God.


Inspiration the Heart of the Hermeneutical Conflict: The Bible is also unique because its construction is both divine and human; its author is God and its writers are human beings. The issues regarding how God communicated with prophets and biblical writers (Revelation), and how the prophets and biblical writers understood and wrote the message we take as “Scripture” (Inspiration), are at the heart of the conflict in Adventism over biblical hermeneutics.[1] Adventists hold in fundamental belief number one,


The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.[2]

Hermeneutics: /hərmə’n(y)oodiks/ n. the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.

How the Bible Writers Were Inspired: Ellen White wrote her classic statement on the subject,


It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.[3]


Dr. Rodriguez Explains the Impact of “Thought Inspiration”: Dr. Angel M. Rodriguez, past director of Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference, explains the above statement from Ellen White:


[Ellen White] establishes, through the use of biblical language, that the Bible is of divine origin and that God was involved in the process of transmitting and recording the divine revelation. It avoids the phrase “thought inspiration” as well as the idea that the very words of the Bible were dictated by the Spirit to the prophet. In spite of the fact that thought inspiration is not explicitly mentioned in Fundamental Belief number one it has become the predominant view among Adventists. Unfortunately, this view has more recently been misused by placing it at the service of the historical-critical methodology.[4]


“Thought Inspiration” Impacts Mission: Rodriguez shows the profound impact “thought inspiration” has on the minds of some Adventist theologians. He goes on to describe how this understanding of Revelation-Inspiration—buttressed by a distortion of Ellen White’s classic statement— dramatically impacts our church’s understanding of the creation story in Genesis 1. Our biblical understanding of a literal six-day creation, which pervades all of Scripture (including the Three Angels’ Messages in Revelation 14), impacts our understanding of mission, for we derive our mission from the Three Angels’ Messages.[5]


Hermeneutics the Key to Unity: Understanding just how our church came to be divided on its interpretative methodology (hermeneutics) is key to grasping the problems that prevent us from experiencing unity.


The Argument for Hermeneutical Diversity: However, several theologians and philosophers in the Adventist church have suggested that diversity at the foundational level of hermeneutics—the macro-hermeneutical level—is not only normal but essential to maintaining unity in the church.


Dr. John R. Jones, in his paper, Chrysanthemum Mirror and Sword: Unity and Diversity in the Church, citing Catholic theologian Dr. Hans Kung, builds the case for diversities on “all levels,” which includes “different churches” within one Church.[6] Dr. Charles Scriven—chairperson for Adventist Forums, which produces Adventist Today and Spectrum—in his paper, Conflict and Reconciliation: The Church Living the Peace of Christ, builds the case for non-fundamentalist scientists to espouse alternative theories of creation within the church. Inexplicably, he believes that the “primacy of love” will overcome the theological incompatibilities.[7]


Hermeneutical Platform Affects Interpretation of Genesis 1: Others such as Dr. Rodriguez—as shared above—and Dr. Canale disagree. Canale writes:

Theologians who adhere to the “thought” or “encounter” theories of revelation-inspiration and to the Quadrilateral sources will be more likely to contemplate a harmonization between the biblical doctrine of creation and the theory of evolution and to consider such a harmonization as a positive scientific advance that Adventist theology should recognize. Theologians who believe that inspiration of Scripture reaches not only its thoughts but also its words and who hold the sola Scriptura view will be more likely to reject the theory of evolution as being incompatible with Christian teachings. Thus, the choices regarding the material condition of theological method clearly determine the coherence and viability of harmonizing biblical thought with scientific theories.[8]


Evolutionary Presupposition Affects Salvific History: Canale shows what happens when evolution reinterprets salvation history:

When evolutionism becomes a presupposition to explain other areas of reality, it ceases to be a scientific theory and becomes a metaphysical or religious belief we accept by a leap of faith… Creation and evolution are not only competing in the scientific attempt to interpret the history of our planet, but as they elicit our assent, they become metanarratives we accept by faith and use to build our understanding of the world and of Christian theology. Each narrative generates conflicting views of the entire world of human experience. Creation and evolution are metanarratives in conflict.[9]

Evolutionary theory challenges much more than the deep historical-theological meaning of Gen. 1-2. It calls for a wholescale deconstruction and reinterpretation of the fundamental principles of Adventist theology and the rejection of the historical understanding of salvation as presented in Scripture. Accommodation to evolutionary history implies rejecting and replacing the theological [ground] from which Adventism originated. In turn, the community will lose the uniqueness that is its reason for existing. Adventists need to consider these points carefully before harmonizing Seventh-day Adventist beliefs with evolutionary patterns and history.[10]

Metaphysics: /ˌmedəˈfiziks/ n. the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.

Metanarrative: /ˈmedəˌnerədiv/ n. an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences.

Dr. Jan Barna’s Prediction: Newbold College of Higher Education lecturer, Dr. Jan Barna, correctly predicted, two years before the critical vote at GC 2015, that the problems regarding the nature of inspiration, the nature of Scripture, and the interpretations that arise from mutually exclusive theological methods, are divisive enough to not bring unity in the church regardless of which way the church voted on the issue of ordination:

The basic assumptions about (1) the nature of inspiration, (2) the nature of Scripture, and consequently (3) the nature of interpretation are the core issues that make opponents and proponents tick in their own theological ways. There is therefore no simple theological or administrative patch which can be applied to bring a desired unity. Even if the 13 division committees and the GC TOSC committee will restudy the subject from the perspective of ‘ordination’ as such, it still begs the question just how deep into the basic convictions theological studies can reach without seriously addressing these three core issues.


Rather, the question of hermeneutics and its nature has to be raised fair and square if the minds of committed opponents and proponents are to be convinced. Undoubtedly, there is much more to be said on this problem (which I do in my book), but one thing appears fated: Unless both sides make conscious attempts to address the critical questions of their hermeneutical positions, there is every chance that the theological differences between the two sides will remain unresolved even after 2015.[11]


Clearly then, we can see that there are significant irreconcilable differences at the hermeneutical level that bar any semblance of unity. We will now turn to the historical background for Adventist biblical hermeneutics to see how two different and competing theological methods are vying for supremacy in the church. Both have significant impact currently and offer divergent and mutually exclusive pathways for the future of the church and its understanding of its mission. It is safe to say that the concept of unity in diversity depends on your choice of a theological method.

Historical Background—Adventism’s Hermeneutical Shift


The Millerite Turn to Scripture: After the Great Disappointment, the Millerites resolved to go back to Scripture to find out where they had gone wrong in their interpretation of the time prophecies. As they studied, God led them to understand Scripture’s truths as a comprehensive system of truth.

As Adventism progressed, other theological methods were introduced to the church resulting in major theological battles, unity being fractured, and the focus on mission beginning to diverge. We will now look at the role of hermeneutics and its impact on unity and mission.


Early Adventist Hermeneutics: Analysis of the history of Adventist biblical hermeneutics shows that the pioneers used a specific theological method to understand Scripture, and used the Sanctuary as a hermeneutical system to “unlock” its truths. Writing on Millerite and early Adventist hermeneutics, the late Adventist Church Historian, C. Mervyn Maxwell, identified four basic characteristics of the hermeneutical framework on which early Adventist theology was constructed:


  1. Deconstruction of Tradition
  2. The Tota Scriptura principle
  3. Typological understanding
  4. The Vision.[12]


Hermeneutical Shifts in Adventism: By the GC Session in 1888, the second generation of Adventists had changed the hermeneutical system from the Sanctuary to a Christo-centric one.[13] Between the time period from 1888-1920, a third strain of Adventism had arisen: fundamentalism. As the 1919 Bible Conference transcripts have shown, this movement had a Verbal or “Mechanical” Inspiration[14] view of Scripture that very closely mirrored the fundamentalist movement in Christianity.


The Problems with Verbal Inspiration: In this view, God gave both the thoughts and the actual words to the prophets, who then wrote it down. This view is problematic because it introduces the concept of inerrancy—the Bible is correct in every aspect of its telling of facts. This view is immediately challenged by minor discrepancies in the Gospel accounts which cannot be resolved through inerrancy. The same problem occurs when one realizes that Mrs. White edited her materials, including major books such as the Great Controversy.


Evangelical and Historical Adventism: By the 1930’s, the Christo-centric hermeneutical method gave rise to the theological faction known as Evangelical Adventism, while fundamentalism gave rise to Historical Adventism.


Desire for Outside Education: Over time, the church sought to professionally train its gospel ministers through post-graduate training at universities outside the Adventist church. As the first few theologians ventured out to gain their post-graduate education, they came in contact with other Protestant denominations at world-class secular academic institutions. Here they learned to apply the latest techniques to their study of ancient manuscripts and documents associated with Scripture.

The Effect of Protestant Hermeneutics on Adventist Theologians: This education had a dual effect: 1) it trained our theologians to use scientifically valid techniques and methods when examining manuscript fragments to understand how Scripture was preserved during the dark ages, and 2) it introduced them to an array of disciplines and a theological method (Historical-Critical Method) that was alien to the primitive Adventist theological method used by the pioneers.

According to Dr. Canale,

Adventists found scholarship using two different exegetical methodologies: the grammatical-historical method originating in Luther and the Reformation and the historical critical method originating in the Enlightenment. Biblical Adventists follow the grammatical-historical method, while Progressive Adventists follow a “modified” version of the historical critical method.[15]

Historical-Critical Method—A Concept Incompatible with Adventism: Canale asks:

Is historical critical methodology compatible with biblical thinking and Adventist theology? Should Adventists use the historical critical method or avoid its conclusions and criticize its operations epistemologically? Briefly put, because the application of the historical critical method leads to a reinterpretation of what actually took place in history, Adventist theology cannot use it without forfeiting the sola-tota Scriptura principle and the complete system of theology and truth the Sanctuary hermeneutical vision opens to view. Let us remember that the historical critical method reinterprets not only the “History of Israel” but also God’s salvific acts in the Old and New Testaments. As a result, two different accounts of the same history stand side by side: the “scientific” account of what “really took place” stemming from the application of the historical critical method to biblical history, and the biblical account of what “really took place” from the perspective of the common everyday experience of history. Because Bible history presents God acting within the flow of history as an agent among others, science cannot accept it as real, but only as a mythological product of religious imagination.  In fact, empirical science unleashes the modern reinterpretation of Christianity that reaches the ground, the method, and the system of Christian theology. From the scientific perspective, the Scriptures are myths generated by human imagination and labeled Heilsgeschichte (History of Salvation). One cannot miss the fact that historical criticism follows from a strict understanding of reality that prevents us from accepting the biblical account of God’s acts in history as “real.” Yet, is the scientific view of reality absolute? Is there another understanding of reality that may ground the historical facticity of biblical Heilsgehichte [sic.]?[16]

Epistemology: /əˌpistəˈmäləjē/ n. the theology of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope; it is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

The Impact of the Historical-Critical Method on Adventist Biblical Hermeneutics


Interpretation of Daniel not Sustained by Historical-Critical Method: Dr. Raymond F. Cottrell, one of the first to undergo theological training outside the church, when working with a team of theologians to write the SDA Bible Commentary, came to the conclusion—with a few others—that our church’s understanding of Daniel 8 and 9 could not be sustained using modern techniques of biblical exegesis with the Historical-Critical Method.[17]


Discrepancy Brought to the General Conference: Cottrell wrote a confidential letter to the General Conference administrators to alert them to the crisis. The brethren in the administration did what they do best: they established a committee to discuss the issue. Five years went by, and, unsurprisingly, nothing had been resolved and now Pastor Robert H. Pierson ascended to the presidency.


Pierson and Cottrell Coming from Differing Backgrounds: Pierson had started his service around the same time Dr. Cottrell had in the 1930s. He had taken a different path from Cottrell—one that took him outside the United States for several decades as he led several divisions in the Global South.

Pierson did not receive the advanced theological training outside the denomination as Cottrell and others had, and, more importantly in Cottrell’s mind, lacked the collegial relationships that administrators had built with North American Division theologians.


Cottrell Writes Again: Cottrell prepared a thirty-page paper outlining the irreconcilable difficulties that the theologians had encountered, and suggested to Pierson that he create a new Biblical Research Institute staffed with theologians to deal with the issues.


Solutions Sought for by Pierson: If Pierson was concerned about the problems of the church’s theological method, he did not let on in public. In private, however, according to church archivist Dr. Bert Haloviak, Pierson sought solutions which were within his power and influence to meet this crisis. His solution was to institute policies and administrative practices to exclude biblical scholars and teachers from key positions in the church who embraced the Historical-Critical Method.[18]


Seeds of Distrust Sown: It is at this critical juncture in Adventist history that the seeds of distrust between the emerging Progressive Adventist and Evangelical Adventist theological factions and the General Conference began to take root.


A Knowledge of History Impacts Unity: Understanding this history helps us see the reasons behind the genesis of Adventist Forums and Desmond Ford’s divergent interpretations of our prophetic identity and theological position on Sanctification. Anyone who is attempting to find a pathway to unity in the church will not find it unless they understand the actions of these individuals and the subsequent impact on Adventist history.


The Impact of the Historical-Grammatical Method on Adventist Biblical Hermeneutics


Dr. Hasel and the Historical-Grammatical Method: The story of the Historical-Grammatical Method becoming the official method for interpretation in the church, from the mid-1970s till its official adoption by the General Conference, is a story of administrative maneuvers and academic resistance. Cottrell’s telling is somewhat colored by his frosty relationship with its main progenitor, Dr. Gerhard Hasel. Dr. Hasel most likely matched Cottrell in intelligence and theological ability.

However, Hasel’s training, which was also done outside the church, helped him develop or adapt the Historical-Grammatical Method to the needs of the Seventh-day Adventist church, which preserved the church’s historic interpretation of the Sanctuary in Daniel 8 and 9. It doesn’t take much to imagine that, in Hasel’s Historical-Grammatical Method, Pierson must have felt that he had finally found a scholarly solution to Cottrell’s theological conundrum.


Scholars and Teachers Blocked from Seminary: Together with pastor Gordon Hyde and elder Pierson, Hasel’s influence on the church was immense. Cottrell asserts that Hyde, Pierson, and Hasel combined to create a “decade of obscurantism.”[19]

Taking Cottrell’s version of history with Dr. Haloviak’s, it is easy to see that this “trinity” of individuals resulted in the retirements of key biblical scholars and teachers, such as Dr. Sakae Kubo, and a blocking of others, such as Dr. Fritz Guy, from the Theological Seminary at Andrews University.


General Conference Statement and Vote on Higher Criticism: Pierson’s immediate successor, Elder Neal C. Wilson, pushed through a statement of Fundamental Beliefs at the GC Session in 1980, and a vote at the GC Session in 1985, declaring the Higher Criticism Method in all its forms to be incompatible with the Seventh-day Adventist church’s theological method. The Session also embraced the Historical-Grammatical Method as its approved method for the formal study and interpretation of Scripture.


A Lack of Consistent Theological Accountability: One might wonder, if our message and mission is global and the same around the world, why a professor deemed theologically unfit to be a teacher at our flagship seminary could successfully find employment elsewhere in the church, and why their employment at our union colleges would inure them from removal by the General Conference—as Dr. Sakae Kubo and Dr. Fritz Guy did. The answers here are multi-layered and complex.


Decentralization or Academic Freedom the Cause: Some point to the decentralization of the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1901-1903, which led to the creation of unions. In this view, the unions have the responsibility and jurisdiction to ensure theological integrity at our union-funded educational colleges.[20] Others point to academic freedom and assert that theological diversity should be protected as essential for academic excellence.


But does such a model of unity, which presupposes diversity in method at the hermeneutical level, experience biblically sound diversity? Can the Seventh-day Adventist church discard its sanctuary system and still have a message for the world?


Isaiah 58 or Revelation 14 the Answer to Mission: Some seek to re-interpret the remnant concept along socio-political lines. Prompted by the social evils in the world, it is proposed that, foremost the role of the remnant is to address social and political issues and to promote reform in these areas.[21]

In this view, the church sees Social Justice as its primary vehicle for ushering in the kingdom of God on earth. Along with promoting equality and embracing LGBTQ lifestyles, the church must be “honest” about Mrs. White’s “mistakes,” and can embrace Guy’s more scientifically aligned theory of origins, along with his concept of deep time and theistic evolution. Conversely, Canale believes that only by refocusing back on the Sanctuary as the system—not just “a distinctive doctrine”—can our church find true unity and diversity.


Hermeneutical Framework Affects Church Organization: It is clear that Cottrell’s views are not compatible with the historic views of the Seventh-day Adventist church. His understanding of Scripture, which is built from his theological method, did not allow him to see a hermeneutical role for the Sanctuary as the pioneers had.

Individuals who are unable to see the inner logic of the Sanctuary and the Three Angels’ Messages in their hermeneutical role will, when given enough time, logically develop a different system of beliefs and mission, and a different logic for organization.


Cottrell’s SolutionAutonomous Divisions: Cottrell noted that in 1995, when the church voted to proportionally grant representation for each division, the Global North would lose its influence and power over policy on the world stage. Consequently, he called for autonomous divisions, with the General Conference and its Session decisions being advisory in nature to be “accepted or rejected” as each division saw fit regarding its own sense of mission in its region.

Thus the General Conference would be “free” to work with other “developing” divisions to help further the work in un-entered areas in the world. Presumably, as each “developing” division matured, it would then become autonomous and conduct its own work without interference from the General Conference and its Session.


Justification for Parallel Existence Desired: Thus, those like Cottrell, who are highly skilled theologians, see the General Conference leaning towards a different theological method. Therefore, like Ahithophel of old, they see no future for themselves in the church, and instead have carved out a turf for their own existence at the union level, using legitimate processes of union constituencies to develop a justification for a parallel existence.

Thus, they see the Biblical Research Institute not as a theological advisory team, as Cottrell had envisioned, but as a cudgel used by the General Conference to beat them into submission. They see the General Conference in Session as being illegitimate and out of its jurisdiction when it tries to ensure that the beliefs we agree upon—as expressed in the fundamental beliefs—are preached throughout the world.


Conflict Not Dividing the Church but Uniting on Better Reality: And as a result, through their own professors, ministers, and historians at the union level, they perpetuate their war according to the dictates of their conscience, which is informed by their hermeneutical method. To them, their fight is not dividing the church, but rather, it is a work towards uniting it on a new and better reality. Therefore, they reject all claims to the contrary, and any policy enforcement by the General Conference, as being harsh, vindictive, anti-conscience, “catholic”, etc.


Section 2: Mission in the Context of Unity and Diversity


Defining Mission: In our quest to understand the basis upon which unity in the Seventh-day Adventist church is predicated and how we can again be united, we must understand how the church defines and derives its mission. The church derives its mission from two main passages in the New Testament, 1) the Great Commission[22] and 2) the Three Angels’ Messages.[23] However, the concept of mission is not restricted to the New Testament. The Old Testament is replete with the concept of mission, and God is portrayed as the first missionary.


Mission—Both a Local and Global Concept: Acts 15 shows that the New Testament era churches understood the concept of mission to be both a local and global concept. The Great Commission and the Three Angels’ messages do not leave any doubt as to the global nature of the work. The worldwide need of a Savior presupposes that there is a message that is also applicable worldwide.

Paul writes that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”[24] Along with key passages in Genesis 1-11, the Bible asserts that the problem of sin is universal; it is a condition that can only be remedied by a Savior. Thus, the message regarding salvation is universal in nature, and is applicable to all nations, tongues, and peoples.


A Work Not to be Accomplished by a Few: Clearly, mission cannot be accomplished by one or two individuals. This implies that the work of God is to be accomplished by His people all over the world in an organized and thorough manner; therefore, the work must be a delegated trust extended to members, to faithfully carry out the mission in their region.


Because our church is global and culturally diverse in nature, we face unique challenges in the accomplishment of God’s work (our mission) on earth.[25] We define mission here in the very specific sense of accomplishing the task of taking the Gospel to every kindred, tongue, and people, making disciples, and teaching them what Jesus has commanded us.[26] Through our personal witness and public proclamation, we share the message of the Three Angels with urgency, because we understand that Christ’s coming is soon.


Mission Not Just the Impartation of Intellectual Knowledge: This sharing of the gospel is not merely a transfer of theoretical knowledge from one person to another, but rather, it is the exemplification of a life that is surrendered to God. Naturally, each area of the world is different and requires an in-depth understanding of the culture, history, and social conditions of the people that exist there.

Often, the best people to take the gospel to an area are the very individuals who live there. Where tribal or ethnic barriers exist, we endeavor to send expatriate missionaries to pave the way for the starting of the work in that region. To accomplish the work, we grant groups of individuals the trust and resources needed to accomplish the work in their region. We trust that they are as faithful in accomplishing the work of God as we are in our region. Therefore, when the needs arise for personnel or funding, we collectively raise the money and send the personnel as needed.


Confusion Regarding our Identity as the Remnant: We derive our mission from Scripture. Because of mutually exclusive theological methods that are used in our church to make sense of Scripture, we have mutually exclusive views of what our mission is. Confusion regarding the nature and identity of what the remnant should be is one example of how problematic this is for our church.


These days, the concept of the remnant, for some in contemporary Adventism, according to Frank M. Hasel, Dean at the Bogenhofen Seminary in Austria, is shaped by the reaction against it outside our church. He writes, in his essay in the book, Toward a Theology of the Remnant, that “our stance has been at times been viewed by other Christian communities as being ‘arrogant,’ ‘exclusivist,’ and judgmental attitude toward the spirituality of others.” Hasel continues that “this concern has had an impact on some Adventists who have attempted to redefine their understanding of the concept of the remnant.”[27]


Hasel lists several views on the remnant that conflict with the understanding of the remnant concept that the founders of Adventism understood and believed, as follows:


  • The remnant includes other Christians
  • The remnant also includes non-Christians
  • The remnant is an invisible entity
  • The remnant is a future reality.[28]


Problems with Reinterpretation of the Identity of the Remnant: However, there are significant problems with this view. If the remnant includes other Christians, then why did our founders come out of Protestantism? If the remnant includes non-Christians, then can someone who denies Christ’s divinity, like Muslims do, be considered the remnant? If the remnant is invisible, then why does the Adventist church claim to be the remnant church? If the remnant is a future reality, what prophecy is still outstanding regarding the remnant?[29]


Arguments for the Remnant Being Only a Social Movement: Some seek to re-interpret the remnant concept along socio-political lines. Prompted by the social evils in the world, it is proposed that, foremost, the role of the remnant is to address social and political issues and to promote reform in these areas.[30]

Others have gone even further, Hasel reports, and have divested the remnant concept of almost any religious content, being transformed into a social movement of reform in opposition to social abuse and oppression, largely to the neglect of its clear religious dimensions.[31]

While the remnant should have social impact and must condemn evil in all its forms, this new approach radically redefines the concept along sociological lines and neglects the fact that the biblical remnant is fundamentally a religious entity.


Fears of the Global South and Historical Adventists in the Global North: For many in the Global South and historical Adventists in the Global North, these differences and re-definitions of the remnant into a Social Justice movement stoke fears that this “push” for women’s ordination is just one more attempt to “be like the world.” And in some quarters in Adventism, this is true; equality of the sexes and acceptance of alternate sexualities are part of the driving forces that animate them and keep them engaged in bringing change to the church.


Incompatibilities in Theological Method Impede Mission: Due to incompatibilities in theological method, it becomes impossible to reason with each other; coordination in the work of God slows to a halt as arguments become heated and divisions intensify. Incompatible theological methods are the root cause of division in our church, and it leads to a lack of trust.

These problems of trust bleed into other areas and color the perceptions of each faction in the church. Consequently, even requests made in good faith are often viewed as suspect, and the decisions from the world-church body, denying such requests, are often viewed as restricting the work of God on earth.


The Push for Women’s Ordination Denied for Decades: Over the last three decades, and perhaps even more than that, the Global North has expressed the need for women to take their place alongside men as ordained ministers of the gospel. This request has been deferred (1990), the special request by the North American Division (NAD) was rejected (1995), and the choice of having this decision made by divisions rejected (2015) by the General Conference in Session.


Fear of Disunity: The reason given in 1990 for deferring the request was that such a move would harm the unity of the church and affect the accomplishment of its mission. Needless to say, these disputes have caused a considerable amount of angst among those who wish to see the church move forward on this issue in the interests of its mission, as well as those who wonder why we are yet again considering this issue. As such problems of trust proliferate, and as confusion regarding our mission perpetuates, unity in mission becomes scarce or non-existent, and fights over theological conclusions proliferate.


Conclusion —The Road to Unity


Understanding How We Derive Mission—The Way Forward: The way forward towards unity is to understand how we derive our mission. The theological method that our pioneers used to derive the Sanctuary as the system of truth is slowly being replaced by a protestantization of Adventism. Our exegetes even on the Historical-Grammatical side scarcely realize that our church’s self-understanding built from Scripture exceeds exegetical methods alone.

Due to the fact that our unions have long harbored theologians and ministers who embrace, teach, and perpetuate a different theological method, our administration at the General Conference level needs to realize that they cannot simply call for a vote and expect the lower of levels of the church to comply. This theological method has given rise to the Evangelical and Progressive factions within the church; these factions have matured, and their hold on local churches is strong.

Exegete: /ˈeksəˌjēt/ n. an expounder or textual interpreter, especially of scripture.

Sola-Tota Scriptura Must be Reintroduced: To produce change in the church, the General Conference needs to take the long view and initiate systems and processes that reintroduce Sola-Tota Scriptura to the members of the local churches. It then needs to nurture young and upcoming leaders who will lead the church administratively and at the academic level to foster an environment where biblical Adventist churches can flourish. It is only at this point that issues of distrust at the individual, local, regional, and global levels will turn into mutual trust; it is then that the church can answer the call for service and mission needs again.


Theological Factions Must be Engaged: Truth can withstand scrutiny; thus, I believe that Progressive and Evangelical Adventism, with their theological methods, should be given a chance to demonstrate to the church how they interpret Scripture and how they derive from it the church’s mission. The epistemological frameworks upon which they build their theology need to be examined in-depth and critically evaluated to understand their impact on the current and past understanding of the church.

It is only in actively engaging these two theological factions in Adventism that our church will move forward. Similarly, Historical Adventism, with its Last Generation and 1888 theological sub-factions, needs to be engaged by the church. Their impact on the church is immense and cannot be ignored.


Two Central Models for Unity or Diversity: Finally, as members, we need to understand that there are two central models for diversity in our church. One model has diversity at the top—at the ecclesiological level—and assumes unity at the hermeneutical level using the Sanctuary.

The other model has diversity at the bottom and assumes diversity at the hermeneutical level with multiple sources of authority interpreting Scripture. Both of these models are mutually exclusive and produce radically different theological doctrines, which give rise to different soteriologies and missions. Only one of them can prevail in the church for unity to exist.

Ecclesiology: /əˌklēzēˈäləjē/ n. theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church.

Soteriology: /sōˌtirēˈäləjē/ n. the doctrine of salvation.

The Choice is Up to Us: Just like taking a pill, we can choose whether or not to take it, but once we do, we lose control over the effect it has on us. Scripture can be read by letting itself be its own expositor, or we can choose to let other sources of authority decide what it says. However, once we have chosen, our conscience then conforms to our choice.

So, choose prayerfully, and ask God to guide you as you learn from Scripture what His way and will is for your life. The church is what we make of it, and our mission is ultimately derived from the methods by which we interpret Scripture. Knowing what the choices are is the first step towards experiencing biblical unity and diversity.



[1] For a historical overview on the topic of Revelation-Inspiration please see: Dr. Alberto R. Timm, “A History of Seventh-day Adventist Church Views on Biblical and Prophetic Inspiration (1844-2000),” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 10.1,2 (Spring-Autumn 1999), p. 486-542.

[2] General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 28 Fundamental Beliefs (2015), p. 3.

[3] Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book 1 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1958), p. 21. See also Manuscript 24, 1886; written in Europe in 1886.

[4] Angel Rodriguez, “Issues on Revelation and Inspiration,” Biblical Research Institute.

[5] “At the beginning of the twenty-first century thought inspiration has been radically separated from the words of the Bible. It is now argued by some Adventist theologians that the theological task is to uncover the thoughts God revealed to the prophets and not the means they used to embody that thought—e.g. the culturally conditioned story they told or the culturally determined legal materials found in the Bible. This dichotomy between thought and words allows them to argue, for instance, that we should consider the story recorded in Gen 1 to be an ancient Near Eastern cultural expression used by the biblical writer to communicate the divine thought revealed to him, namely that God is the Creator of everything. That is what was revealed and not that God created in six days and rested on the seventh (the how of creation). Behind this view lurks Greek dualism. Accordingly, the ‘thought’ would be the equivalent of the ‘soul’ and the ‘word’ would be the ‘body.’ The task of the interpreter would be to release the thought from the words in order to be able to apprehend the divine.” Angel Rodriguez, “Issues on Revelation and Inspiration,” Biblical Research Institute.

[6] Dr. John R. Jones, “Chrysanthemum Mirror and Sword: Unity and Diversity in the Church” (Palmer House, Chicago: Adventist Society for Religious Studies, 1984).

[7] “The Fundamental Beliefs Review Committee currently preparing for the next General Conference session is operating under a mandate to incorporate words about the doctrine of creation that were voted by Adventist leaders—overwhelmingly Adventist clergymen—at the church’s 2004 Annual Council. The voted statement says that creation is ‘recent’; and happened over six ‘literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week.’ A series Faith and Science Conferences had taken place between 2002 and 2004, with organizers reporting that their experience confirmed the importance of science, but not science that conflicts with literalist interpretation. But one motif in their report was that ‘some among us interpret the biblical record in ways that lead to sharply different conclusions.’ There are ‘different theological interpretations among us regarding Genesis 1-11,’ organizers wrote. The 2004 Annual Council’s action was a response to all of this and appears, therefore, to be an effort marginalize non-fundamentalist scientists.” Charles Scriven, Conflict and Reconciliation: The Church Living the Peace of Christ, Footnote 29.

[8] Fernando L Canale, Creation, Evolution, and Theology: An introduction to the Scientific and Theological Methods (Entre Rios, Argentina: Editorial Universidad Adventista Del Plata, 2009), p. 108.

[9] Ibid., p. 89.

[10] Ibid. 136.

[11] Jan Barna, “Ordination of Women and the Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical,” Adventist Society for Religious Studies, (Baltimore, MD: November 21, 2013), p. 5.

[12] C. Mervyn Maxwell, “A Brief History of Adventist Hermeneutics;” cited by Fernando Canale, “From Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Theology—Part I: Historical Review” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17/2 (Autumn 2004), p. 8-11.

  • Deconstruction of Tradition: While Protestant reformers rejected some customs and traditions, Adventist writers manifested a sharper rejection of tradition. Early Adventists were aware of the traditions of Christianity their former churches embraced. Yet, instead of taking them, as either sources of theology, hermeneutical guides for interpretation of Scripture, or understanding doctrines, they decided to engage them critically. Unless we deconstruct tradition and distinguish it from Scripture we may be in danger of confusing ideas received from tradition with biblical ones.
  • The Tota Scriptura Principle: Martin Luther was well known to have rejected the Epistle of James and made very little use of the book of Hebrews—in doing so, setting up a canon within a canon. John Calvin virtually rejected the book of Revelation. Contemporaries of the Adventist pioneers rejected the entire Old Testament. The Adventist pioneers, however, insisted on taking truth from the entire Bible.
  • Typological understanding: Maxwell remarks that ‘whereas the Reformers made enthusiastic use of the Old Testament types of the cross, Adventist writers made richer use of biblical types and antitypes that were seen to anticipate last day developments.’ The Adventist pioneers used the first three characteristics of their hermeneutics to derive the fourth one.
  • The [Macro-Hermeneutical] Vision: The final difference between Protestant and Adventist hermeneutics should be traced back to the early pioneers’ use of prophetic fulfillment as a hermeneutical tool. Once established as scriptural, the fulfillment of prophecy in the Second Advent movement became a hermeneutical tool for helping establish the Sabbath, sanctuary, spiritual gifts, the true church (remnant), Second Advent and other doctrines.

[13] For a fuller treatment of early Adventist hermeneutics please see, Adrian Zahid, “The One Project: The ‘Jesus. All.’ Paradox,” Compass Magazine.

[14] There are several divergent views on Revelation-Inspiration in our church. Revelation-Inspiration is a technical theological term used by theologians to denote the process by which God inspires a prophet (Revelation) and the process by which the prophet writes down what they saw in vision (Inspiration). Taken together, it is the process by which the Holy Spirit inspired “holy men of old” to write Scripture (1 Peter 1:21).

[15] Fernando L. Canale, “Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Systematic and Biblical Theologies—Part. 2, Journal of Adventist Theological Society 16/1-2 (2005), p. 120.

[16] Fernando L. Canale, “Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Systematic and Biblical Theologies—Part. 2, Journal of Adventist Theological Society 16/1-2 (2005), p. 122-123.

[17] Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Role of Biblical Hermeneutics in Producing Unity in the Church: part 1.”

[18] Bert. Haloviak, “Approaches to Church Organization,” Commission on World Church Organization,

(Cohutta Springs, GA: Office of Archives and Statistics General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, February 1993). See also Cottrell’s paper cited below.

[19] See Center for Adventist Research.

[20] Please see Adrian Zahid’s series, “A House Divided (3): Catholic or Adventist – Evaluating Pro-Union Arguments,” on the Union-GC Constitutional Debate for a sampling of these arguments.

[21] Please see Charles Scriven, Peace and the Remnant for a lay-member oriented book on the subject. For a more thorough discussion by the same author please read, Charles Scriven, “The Remnant and the Church: A Reconsideration,” (Heritage Room, Andrews University: 1984; unpublished paper). See also, “The Real Truth about the Remnant,” Spectrum 17/1 (1986), p. 6-13. You can also see an analysis of this view in A. Rodriguez, Toward a Theology of a Remnant, p. 164-172.

[22] Matthew 28:16-20.

[23] Revelation 14:1-3.

[24] Romans 3:23.

[25] Since 1863, our church has grown by leaps and bounds, and now is present in almost every country on earth. We have developed large systems for education, healthcare, and the ministry. Our ministers in the Global North are among some of the highest educated clergy on earth, and many ministers in the Global South are now receiving graduate and post-graduate training to become biblical scholars and teachers. These advancements in medical training, ministerial training, and educational institutions has been a blessing inside and outside the church. Millions of people interact with our members and come in touch with our institutions through media, ADRA, and our healthcare system. Many of our older institutions have the basis of their founding in the visions received by God through His prophetess Ellen G. White. Subsequent institutional growth through the generosity of private giving and sacrificial missionary service has led to the conversions of thousands every day into the church.

[26] Matthew 28:16-20.

[27] A. Rodriguez, Toward a Theology of a Remnant, p. 164.

[28] Ibid. p. 164-172. See also, Adrian Zahid, “Beyond the One project: The War Over the Local Church (5a),” Compass Magazine, footnote 80.

[29] Cf. Revelation 12:17.

[30] Please see: Scriven, Charles. “The Remnant and the Church: A Reconsideration,” (Andrews University, Heritage Room, 1984; unpublished paper), see also, “The Real Truth about the Remnant,” Spectrum 17/1 (1986), p. 6-13.

[31] W. Charles Teel Jr., “Growing up with John’s Beasts: A Rite of Passage,” Spectrum 21/3 (1991), p. 25-34.

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About the author


Adrian Zahid is a recent survivor of advanced-stage cancer, he is trying to make the most of the second lease on life that God has given him. He is the co-founder of Intelligent Adventist and in his free time enjoys helping nonprofits be sustainable and the Seventh-day Adventist Church succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission.