Last Generation Theology, Part 2: Historical Development

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Last Generation Theology, Part 2: Historical Development

Note from Author: All Ellen White references in the article are referenced from the book: God’s Character and the Last Generation, and not directly quoted from the original sources.

The first article in this series was a brief exposition of core Last Generation Theology (LGT) teachings and the problems they raise. This second article summarizes the historical development of LGT, primarily as presented by Woodrow Whidden in “What is the Last Generation Theology?”[1]

 

The summary consists in a chronological look at the key ideas advanced by E. J. Waggoner and M. L. Andreasen, the foremost LGT proponents within Adventism. A few remarks on recent and contemporary LGT theologians will conclude this article.

RELATED LINK: Theology of the Last Generation

 

E. J. Waggoner

 

The most significant contribution of Waggoner to LGT dates from the 1890s onward as he began to focus more on the last judgment. Waggoner believed that, according to the Bible, the final judgment will be primarily a judgment of God’s character, which has been called into question by Lucifer and needs to be answered. Thus, God’s judgment of the works of men is chiefly meant to show His fairness before the universe and it will prove once and for all that God is righteous.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: E. J. Waggoner – The Man and His Legacy

 

Initially, Waggoner held that, while the witness of the redeemed will be of great value before the universe in the last judgment, God does not really need any humans in order to vindicate himself against Satan’s accusations.

 

Men have nothing to do with giving Christ His kingdom,[2]

 

he stated, emphasizing that if all humans failed and none were saved, God could raise witnesses even from the stones. Divine vindication does not depend on humans any more than the veracity of the Bible rests on the number of people practicing its precepts.

 

A subtle shift is to be noted here, though. If at some point Waggoner rejected the idea of God needing any witnesses, he came to state that God would have witnesses, even if raised from stones.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Stubble for the Lake of Fire

 

The next and more straightforward step in his advance of LGT occurred in 1897 at a GC session, where Waggoner stated:

 

God has left the vindication of His character to His children. He has, as it were risked His character with men.[3]

 

The obvious implication is that God’s vindication depended on human beings. One year later, Waggoner linked LGT with the 144,000 in Revelation 14, interpreting the passage to suggest that this group would be God’s “perfect representatives” who “shall be known everywhere as proofs of His saving power.”[4]Even more clear is his statement in The Present Truth:

 

God has never left Himself without witness in what is termed the works of nature; but that witness is insufficient; man, the highest of God’s creatures, must witness to Him as well as the lower things that God has made…. It is not merely single individuals, but a body of people ‘called out,’—the congregation, the church, -that constitutes God’s house. Before the end comes, and at the time of the coming of Christ, there must be a people on earth, not necessarily large in proportion to the number of inhabitants of earth, but large enough to be known in all the earth, in whom ‘all the fullness God’ will be manifest even as it was in Jesus of Nazareth. God will demonstrate to the World that what He did with Jesus of Nazareth He can do with anyone who will yield to Him.[5]

 

The unavoidable implication—that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough to vindicate God’s character—was subsequently stated in plain words by Waggoner with the following reasoning: if God only revealed His fullness in Jesus, then humans would rightfully think they cannot be like Him and would give up even trying. This would give Satan grounds to accuse God of being unable to affect the perfection of sinners. The sinless nature of Christ was therefore a stumbling block in the process of vindicating God’s character.

 

But Waggoner continued to contradict himself, at times, by clearly upholding the need for human witnesses of God’s ability to effect perfection, and at others claiming the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in settling the Great Controversy, as in this quote:

 

If Christ had failed or become discouraged because of the difficulties of His task, God’s oath would have been broken; but if God’s oath had been broken, God’s own life would have been forfeited; and since He is the Creator and upholder of all things, everything would have ceased to be. … God placed Himself and the weight of the entire universe upon it, and it stood the test. Therefore, we can rest upon it in confidence. It is a precious stone to those who believe.[6]

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Christ in You the Hope of Glory

 

Eventually, his emphasis on the need for human witnesses was decisive. By creating beings meant to reflect the divine image, God proved “such confidence in man … that He is willing to risk His character with him, and to this end He calls upon men to be His witnesses.”[7] Before the glorification of humans at Christ’s return, God will prove what He is capable of doing “in spite of corruption and mortality.”[8]

 

His views could not be clearer than stated thus:

 

He has condemned sin in the flesh, showing that even in sinful flesh He can live a sinless life. His perfect life will be manifested in mortal flesh, so that all will see it… This wonder must be worked out in sinful man, not simply in the person of Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ reproduced and multiplied in the thousands of His followers.[9]

 

And again:

 

[B]efore probation ends, there will be a people so complete in him that in spite of their sinful flesh, they will live sinless lives.… and that will be a testimony that cannot be gainsaid, -a witness than which no greater can be given. Then the end will come. This will be the kingdom of God manifested to all nations for a witness to God’s power.[10]

 

Waggoner did nuance his views with the idea that humans will be able to live sinless lives because God will live in them, but the expectation of a sinless group of humans had been categorical. Furthermore, his emphasis on the indwelling of Christ reveals a view of salvation wherein atonement and eschatology were both elements of redemption, thus minimizing what Christ accomplished on the cross.

 

M. L. Andreasen

While there is no evidence of personal interaction between Waggoner and Andreasen, his influence is very likely, given the similarities in their views. The most influential theologian within our church during the 30s and 40s, Andreasen’s work on the sanctuary and atonement have left a lasting imprint on Adventism.

 

The key concepts and influences on Andreasen’s LGT are:

  1. The view that the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement involves both the heavenly sanctuary and the cleansing of the believers’ souls on earth.
  2. Two assertions made by Ellen White that seem to support LGT: her statement in The Great Controversy and Early Writings according to which the final generation of believers on earth will experience the end-time tribulations without the intercession of Christ, and her assertion in Christ’s Object Lessonsthat “[W]hen the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.”[11]
  3. The idea that the nature Christ took upon himself at the incarnation was Adam’s nature after the fall—a sinful human nature. This view had been propagated in the church by leading figures such as Jones, Prescott, and Waggoner. Since Jesus had our nature, He is the perfect example of how we, too, can achieve sinless perfection through obedience to God and His laws.
  4. The notion that, by achieving sinless perfection, the last generation would demonstrate before the universe the character of God.
  5. Christ’s atonement was not complete at the cross, the cross being only one of the three phases of atonement: Christ’s perfect life, His sacrifice, and Christ’s high-priestly ministry along with the last generation’s victory over sin. “The final demonstration of what the gospel can do in and for humanity is still in the future. Christ showed the way” and “[m]en are to follow His example and prove that what God did in Christ, He can do in every human being who submits to Him. The world is awaiting this demonstration…. When it has been accomplished, the end will come.”[12]
  6. If salvation is to be complete, it must be more than forgiveness of sin; it must be salvation from sin. Thus, sanctification—a process of overcoming “behavioral and attitudinal sins,”[13]becomes part of salvation. It is only when believers are ready for translation, when they can stand sinless before God, that He seals them for eternity, for then His work in them is complete. The last generation of men living on earth “will demonstrate that it is possible to live without sin.”[14]In this lies the power of the gospel to save us from sin. During the last plagues, the believers, sealed by God, can no longer sin. Again, Andreasen’s points are made clear: “It is in the last generation of men living on earth that God’s power unto sanctification will stand fully revealed. The demonstration of that power is God’s vindication. It clears Him of any and all charges which Satan has placed against Him. In the last generation God is vindicated and Satan defeated.”[15]
  7. Satan was not fully defeated at the cross, but only experienced a setback. It is only after waging war with the last generation and losing in this final battle that his defeat is complete. Should we, then fail to gain victory over sin, Satan’s defeat could be forfeited. “In the remnant Satan will meet defeat. The charge that the law cannot be kept will be met and fully refuted. God will produce not only one or two who keep His commandments, but a whole group, spoken of as the 144,000. They will reflect the image of God fully. They will have disproved Satan’s accusation against the government of heaven.”[16]

The importance of the last generation in the Great Controversy is evident in Andreasen’s teaching. The 144,000 in Revelation 14 provide the grounds for God’s vindication. As if playing a role would not be sufficient, Andreasen appears to elevate the role of the last generation above all other aspects of atonement:

 

God has reserved the greatest demonstration for the last generation.[17][for i]n the last generation God gives the final demonstration that men can keep the law of God and that they can live without sinning. … Through the last generation of saints God stands fully vindicated. Through them He defeats Satan and wins His case. … The cleansing of the sanctuary in heaven is dependent upon the cleansing of God’s people on earth. How important, then, that God’s people be holy and without blame! In them every sin must be burned out, so that they will be able to stand in the sight of a holy God and live with the devouring fire.[18]

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Rejecting a Human-Centric Gospel

 

Contemporary Influences 

LGT has gained some acceptance within Adventism under the influence of Waggoner and Andreasen, as well as later writers who shared their ideas in similar or modified form. For example, in the 1960s, David Brinsmead taught in Australia a radicalized form of LGT which claimed that the purging of the sanctuary in heaven should be interpreted as a cleansing of God’s name.

 

He took Andreasen’s doctrines further by stating that humanity was created for the purpose of vindicating God’s law and character and help defeat Satan. In his view, a sinless last generation would be, in addition to Christ’s sacrifice, the best argument that will ensure everyone understood sin has no place in the universe.

 

One decade later, two prominent church theologians promoted LGT: C. Mervyn Maxwell and Herbert E. Douglass, whose role as editor of the Review and Herald allowed him to exercise a significant influence in Adventism.

 

Douglass emphasized the sacrifice of Christ but adopted an LGT approach in order to encourage believers to strive towards being like Jesus, thus retaining a problematic view of salvation. According to him, Christ’s delay is due to the fact that the harvest is not ready, by which he meant that the last generation has not achieved sinlessness.

 

Mervin Maxwell taught that the cleansing of the sanctuary was first the cleansing of the believers’ hearts, achieved through the process of sanctification. Once believers reached sinless perfection, the believers could not commit sin. The testimony of this group, claimed Maxwell, is crucial in settling the great controversy, for their lives will demonstrate before the universe the character of God.

 

The influence of LGT continues in our church today under vocal contemporary advocates. However, as this article and the previous one indicate, LGT raises some serious problems by elevating the role of humanity in salvation and undermining the role of Christ.

 

In the next three articles, we will examine how LGT stacks up against the Bible. We will also examine some Ellen White quotations which appear to support LGT, but when understood in context they harmonize well with the overall theme of salvation in Scripture.

Read the rest of Adelina’s series on Last Generation Theology

______

Notes.

[1] Jiri Moskala and John Peckham, eds. God’s Character and the Last Generation (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018).

[2] E. J. Waggoner, “The Authority of Christ,” Present Truth, April 12, 1894, cited inGod’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 26.

[3] E. J. Waggoner, “Witnesses for God,” General Conference Bulletin 2, no. 1 (1897), p. 55, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 27.

[4] E. J. Waggoner, “Notes on the International Sunday-School Lessons. The Captivity of Judah. Jeremiah lii. 1-11,” Present Truth, December 8, 1898, p. 770, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, 28.

[5] E.J. Waggoner,” ‘The Sanctuary of God,’ “Present Truth, December 8, 1898, p. 774, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 28.

[6] E. J. Waggoner, “The Gospel of Isaiah. The Sure Foundation,” Present Truth, May 11, 1899, 293, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 29.

[7] E.]. Waggoner, “God’s Witnesses,” Present Truth, June 1, 1899, p. 339, cited inGod’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 29.

[8] E. J. Waggoner, “Back Page,” Present Truth, May 9, 1901, p. 304, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 29.

[9]Ibid.

[10] E. ]. Waggoner, “Sermon,” General Conference Bulletin, Thirty-Fourth Session, First Quarter, April 9, 1901, p. 147, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation (2018), p. 30.

[11] White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, p. 31.

[12] M. L. Andreasen, The Sanctuary Service (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1947), p. 299, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, p. 32.

[13] M. L. Andreasen, The Sanctuary Service, p. 302, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, p. 32.

[14] Ibid., p. 303-304, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, 32-33

[15] Ibid., p. 303-304, cited in God’s Character and the Last Generation, 33.

[16] Ibid., p. 315, cited in Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 310-312, cited in Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 319-321, cited in Ibid.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.