“The Remnant of Her Seed”: How Should Seventh-day Adventists View Other Christians?

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“The Remnant of Her Seed”: How Should Seventh-day Adventists View Other Christians?

The recent presidential candidacy of Ben Carson has, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, catapulted Seventh-day Adventism into the spotlight of national, and even international, consciousness. Along the way, our fundamental beliefs have been put under a microscope by some, including news outlets and other places in the blogosphere.

Not all of this analysis has ended with a positive verdict. Any quick Google search will reveal that many people, including other Christians, have responded to Carson’s notoriety by adding to the already quite noticeable prejudice against our church found on the Internet. For decades some Christians have viewed us as a cult. On the other hand, many other Christians have viewed us as fellow believers in Christ who have some rather odd beliefs.

But what about us? How do we, or should we, view other Christians?

One approach is to call them all “Babylon”—according to the descriptions of the prostitute apostate church in Revelation 14 and 17. Ellen White refers to the Roman Church as Babylon and calls churches who follow her doctrines the children of Babylon (GC 382).

On the other hand, Revelation 12:17 refers to the remnant church as being part of the seed of the woman. Who is the woman? She is the one who survives the 1260 years of persecution. Certainly (as we have correctly taught) the woman refers to God’s faithful people from the time of 538 to 1798, culminating in the history of the Protestant Reformation, which Ellen White traces in the book The Great Controversy.

Prophetically speaking, Adventists are the remnant of the seed of the Protestant Church woman. On the other hand, we are to call people who are in the very Protestant churches that came from this woman away from Babylonian confusion and into the special truths for this time. How can we relate these two paradoxical truths to each other?

Adventism’s Lineage

In the historical sections of The Great Controversy, Ellen White celebrates the insights of the great Reformers Huss, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, and others. Of course she knew that they retained some of the errors of tradition (see, e.g., 1SM 402, GC 236), but she was also clear that they were called and guided by God, were assisted by holy angels (1SG 119), and presented some important Bible truths with clarity. Particularly in regard to questions related to salvation—including justification and sanctification—she highlighted the areas in which the Reformers proclaimed a biblical doctrine over against Rome’s works-based system:

The great doctrine of justification by faith, so clearly taught by Luther, had been almost wholly lost sight of; and the Romish principle of trusting to good works for salvation, had taken its place (GC 253).

Wesley’s life was devoted to the preaching of the great truths which he had received—justification through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, bringing forth fruit in a life conformed to the example of Christ (GC 256).

Surrounded by the members of the household, he [Calvin] read the Bible and opened the truths of salvation. Those who heard the message carried the good news to others, and soon the teacher passed beyond the city to the outlying towns and hamlets. To both the castle and the cabin he found entrance, and he went forward, laying the foundation of churches that were to yield fearless witnesses for the truth (GC 221).

Some among us, in their well-meant zeal to emphasize the unique role of our movement, have unintentionally undermined our very purpose as the continuation of, rather than a replacement of, the Protestant Reformation. For example, there is a recurring irony that some of the Seventh-day Adventists who are the most vociferous in their castigation of other Christians, even in the time of the Reformers, and the most intent upon the absolute uniqueness of our teachings are also the most similar to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (which was convened specifically to combat the doctrines of the Reformation) in their understanding of salvation. I know of many Seventh-day Adventists who would say a hearty “Amen” to these Catholic canons if they were unaware of their origin:

Canon 11. If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

Canon 12. If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

Canon 24. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

I am not arguing that these canons are wrong simply because they are Catholic, but rather that they exhibit unbiblical (see, e.g., Rom 3-5; Eph 2), merit-based views of salvation that contradict the teachings of the Reformation.

The other important point is that Ellen White possessed a quite substantial library and (as we have known for some time) was led of the Lord to find “gems of truth” from within settings of error (TSS 52) from those books written by other Christians. How then can we speak and write as if everything from “Babylon” is erroneous “wine” (Rev. 18:3)? Wine there is aplenty (immortality of the soul, Sunday sacredness, eternally burning hell, eschatological confusion), but surely there are many gems of biblical truth that our Christian brothers and sisters are faithful in proclaiming.

On the other hand, it would also be problematic for us to accept everything we see or read from other Christians (historically or currently) uncritically. We are to test all things and hold on to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21). Contrary to what many claim, it is not arrogant to describe ourselves as the remnant church of Bible prophecy—provided that what we mean is that there is a visible corporate body (the Seventh-day Adventist Church) that fulfills the prophecies of Revelation, but that there is also an invisible body of believers that comprise the wider remnant.

“Notwithstanding the spiritual darkness and alienation from God that exist in the churches which constitute Babylon, the great body of Christ’s true followers are still to be found in their communion” (GC 389). Thus it would be problematic to ignore our lineage as the seed of the woman—to claim that no one has ever understood any of the important doctrines of the Bible before our church came on the scene, or that all current writings other than those of Seventh-day Adventists are by default doctrinally suspect and erroneous.

Those Awful Evangelicals

Perhaps the most egregious problem is the ubiquitous habit many of us have of referring to “evangelicals” almost as if this is a bad word. While there certainly areas where Adventists have biblical disagreement with certain doctrines held by most evangelicals—and indeed it is these very doctrines (noted above) that so deeply involve the need for our movement—it is also true that there are deep and broad areas of doctrinal agreement. According to the Statement of Faith from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Seventh-day Adventists would (should, at least) most certainly be called evangelicals.

Not all evangelical Christians are the same—so we should avoid simple generalizations. Some evangelicals are determinists,[1] others believe in God’s gift of freedom,[2] some accept the biblical teaching of conditional immortality (state of the dead),[3] some believe in the continuing validity of the Sabbath but move it to Sunday, others believe in the continuing validity of the seventh-day Sabbath (such as Seventh Day Baptists), some believe in infant baptism (such as Presbyterians), others believe in believer’s baptism (such as Baptists), some are dispensationalists who believe in the secret rapture (such as many Southern Baptists), and others are adherents of covenant theology (such as Reformed and Presbyterians).

Probably the most popular misconception (as evinced in many evangelistic campaigns) about other Christians is that they do not believe in obedience to the law of God. Numerous times through the years I have heard Seventh-day Adventists say that those “lawless” “evangelicals” believe in “cheap grace”—that they don’t believe in obedience to God. This is refuted not only by my own experience in 20 years of attending these churches Sunday after Sunday as a church musician,[4] but by the very clearly stated official doctrinal statements and confessions of these churches[5]—which, fortunately, some of our evangelists helpfully highlight when bringing attention to the importance of the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath. Notice especially the section of the Westminster Confession (see the link in the footnote below) on the role of the law, to which I think any solid Adventist could append their signature.

The problem here (in most cases) is not evangelicals’ view of the law or of salvation, but rather the fact that the fog of long tradition has obscured God’s unchanging creation memorial that was attached to the seventh day, never to any other, and, like the other nine commandments, was never weakened or removed (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 30:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Heb. 4:1-11; Matt. 24:20; Acts 16:13; etc.). Just as we would not want to be called “legalists” by those who have not looked at our doctrines, should we not also do unto others as we would have them do to us and not call them “antinomians”[6] when such an accusation is unwarranted?

Affirming Common Ground

While it is true that there is confusion in the Christian world regarding essentially important doctrines for this time (hence the appropriateness of the term “Babylon” to describe them), the fall of Babylon is not complete.

The second angel’s message of Revelation 14 was first preached in the summer of 1844, and it then had a more direct application to the churches of the United States, where the warning of the judgment had been most widely proclaimed and most generally rejected, and where the declension in the churches had been most rapid. But the message of the second angel did not reach its complete fulfillment in 1844. The churches then experienced a moral fall, in consequence of their refusal of the light of the advent message; but that fall was not complete. As they have continued to reject the special truths for this time they have fallen lower and lower. Not yet, however, can it be said that “Babylon is fallen, . . . because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” She has not yet made all nations do this. The spirit of world conforming and indifference to the testing truths for our time exists and has been gaining ground in churches of the Protestant faith in all the countries of Christendom; and these churches are included in the solemn and terrible denunciation of the second angel. But the work of apostasy has not yet reached its culmination. . . .

Not until this condition [that of 2 Thess. 2:9-11] shall be reached, and the union of the church with the world shall be fully accomplished throughout Christendom, will the fall of Babylon be complete. The change is a progressive one, and the perfect fulfillment of Revelation 14:8 is yet future (GC 389).

What is fascinating and noteworthy about Ellen White’s indictment of Protestantism in this section of The Great Controversy is that she cites the writings of prominent Protestant teachers to covey the recognition of the problems. Given that this is the case, we should avoid the kind of prejudice against other Christians that denies the fact that we stand on the shoulders of their founders (the Reformers) who have gone before us. We are the relatively late newcomers, and as such we have much to learn from those who have preceded us. To the extent that other Christians are faithful to the teachings of their founders that are in harmony with Scripture, we should affirm them wholeheartedly. This is what Ellen White did, and it serves as a fruitful example for us.

“Our laborers should be very careful not to give the impression that they are wolves stealing in to get the sheep, but should let the ministers understand their position and the object of their mission—to call the attention of the people to the truths of God’s Word. There are many of these which are dear to all Christians. Here is common ground, upon which we can meet people of other denominations; and in becoming acquainted with them we should dwell mostly upon topics in which all feel an interest, and which will not lead directly and pointedly to the subjects of disagreement ” (RH, June 13, 1912, italics supplied).

Ellen White even referred to ministers of other denominations as “shepherds of the flock”—meaning that they were really leading fellow Christians, members of God’s invisible church.[7] “Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations. Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ’s messengers we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock” (6T 78).

Related post: Ellen White on Interfaith Relations

What Makes Adventism Unique?

On the other hand, in no wise should we water down the distinctive nature of our end-time mission. Where does our real uniqueness lie? Many other Christians both now and presently believe in conditional immortality; many have accepted the Sabbath truth; many have recognized that their bodies are God’s temple and that they should be healthy; etc. Our uniqueness lies in the Great Controversy paradigm, which is highlighted by our timely prophetic message—Rev. 14:6-12. God throughout history has been and is revealing His character through the plan of salvation, which is shown most fully in the sanctuary—at the heart of which is the atoning work of Christ. He is seeking a free response of love from His creatures in response to His saving initiative (1 Jn 4). We are here to proclaim a return to the Creator by honoring His holy Sabbath and warning people of the coming crisis in which rebellion against God from among those claiming to worship Him will culminate in the setting up of a false system of worship with a false sabbath enforced.

No other Christian group is presenting the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation with the clarity and historical foundation that we are. We are the bearers of the message for this time. But unless we proclaim our message from within the context of the “everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14:6) that has been proclaimed by the Protestant Reformation before us, it will fall to the ground with no power. As Ellen White put it, “Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel’s message, and I have answered, “It is the third angel’s message in verity” (RH, April 1, 1890).

The everlasting gospel was here before we were. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and other Reformers understood it at its core, despite some traditional errors on the periphery, as Ellen White recognizes in The Great Controversy. Despite the quite problematic idea of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others (which they got from Augustine) that God determines everything unilaterally and unconditionally,[8] including salvation or damnation, God used them to proclaim the core of the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith. Despite John Wesley’s errors in which he held to tradition or had problematic views of sanctification,[9] Ellen White, as we have seen above, recognized his great insights into God’s way of salvation. We are part of the mighty stream of the Protestant Reformation—we are here to continue it, not to start a new one.

Luther came not with human ceremonies, traditions, and fables, to impose on the credulity of the people, but with the truth and the power of God to enlighten their understanding, and free their souls from the bondage of superstition and the tyranny of sin. He declared to his hearers that they must individually believe in Christ, if they would receive salvation through him; no priest or pope could take the place of the divine Mediator. Those who came to Jesus as repentant, believing sinners, would find pardon and peace, and would have his righteousness imputed to them. Sanctification is the fruit of faith, whose renewing power transforms the soul into the image of Christ. It was by faith in a crucified Redeemer that souls were saved in the days of the apostles; it was only by the same faith that souls could be saved in the days of Luther. He taught the people that they must exercise repentance toward God, whose holy law they had transgressed, and faith in Christ, whose blood could atone for their sins. He showed them that all who were truly penitent would pray earnestly for divine aid to battle against their evil propensities, and he also urged upon them the fact that the sincerity of their prayers would be evinced by the energy of their endeavors to render obedience to the law of God.

Precious indeed was the message which Luther bore to the eager crowds that hung upon his words. Never before had such teachings fallen upon their ears. The glad tidings of a Saviour’s love, the assurance of pardon and peace through his atoning blood, melted their hearts, and inspired within them an immortal hope. A light was kindled at Wittenberg whose rays should extend to the uttermost parts of the earth, and which was to increase in brightness to the close of time” (ST, June 7, 1883, italics supplied).

As the heirs of the Protestant Reformation who are to carry on that torch that was kindled at Wittenberg, it behooves us to carry it humbly, with the recognition that we are merely the last in a great line of a great cloud of witnesses. We must recognize our continuity with them even as we continue to call other Christians (and ourselves!) away from the entanglements of tradition. Some aspects of the Protestant tradition are scriptural, and others are not. Some have set up their own traditions in Seventh-day Adventism that need as much to be torn down as the errors of Rome.

Seeking Greater Light

Ellen White wrote that the problem with the Protestant movement was that the churches refused to keep growing in knowledge and that they stopped where their founders did (GC 292). The errors of the Reformers did not prevent God’s working through them any more than it prevented His working through the pioneers of our church, despite their errors. We face the same danger of not continuing to study the Scriptures for further light (CW 34-37).[10] At the same time, we should recognize that God has given us a sure foundation upon which to build (CW 31).[11]

As we read of Luther, Knox, and other noted Reformers, we admire the strength, fortitude, and courage possessed by these faithful servants of God, and we would catch the spirit that animated them. We desire to know from what source they were out of weakness made strong. Although these great men were used as instruments for God, they were not faultless. They were erring men, and made great mistakes. We should seek to imitate their virtues, but we should not make them our criterion. These men possessed rare talents to carry forward the work of the Reformation. They were moved upon by a power above themselves; but it was not the men, the instruments that God used, that should be exalted and honored, but the Lord Jesus who let His light and power come upon them. Let those who love truth and righteousness, who gather up the hereditary trusts given to these standard-bearers, praise God, the Source of all light (1SM 402).

______

Notes:

[1] This is the idea (held by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others) that God determines everything that happens, including (unconditionally) who will be saved or lost. See, e.g., Luther and Calvin. According to the Westminster Confession (adhered to by the Reformed and Presbyterians), “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. . . . By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.” This is what is usually referred to as “predestination.” This term is misleading, in that it is a biblical one (Eph 1; Rom 8:29) which is held by those who are not determinists. The most succinct way of describing the difference is that determinists believe in unconditional election, while non-determinists would say that God predestines and elects based on foreseen faith in Christ (Rom 3; John 3:14-18, 36; 1 John 5:12; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11-12; etc.).

[2] The Reformers Philip Melanchthon and Jacob Arminius departed from the determinist viewpoint and claimed instead that God’s offer of salvation was for all people, and that their salvation involved not merits, but the condition of acceptance of the wooing grace of God. See Melanchthon’s Commentary on Romans, Arminius on salvation. John Wesley also accepted this view. Denominations that believe in this view would include Methodists, some Baptists, some Lutherans, Mennonites, most Pentecostals, and others. Roger Olson provides his own list on his blog.

[3] For an important evangelical proponent of conditionalism, see Edward Fudge: http://edwardfudge.com/, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpY9ikfydHM&list=PL47E4B260BB3B0E3C. For a massive Seventh-day Adventist study of those who have accepted this teaching through the centuries, see Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers.

[4] Because the vast majority of Adventist churches do not pay their professionally trained musicians (the subject for another article, perhaps), many of us have played or sung professionally for other Christian churches. While the cause for this reality is unfortunate—Adventists not paying their musicians—this is actually a great witnessing opportunity (if a person is fully grounded in their Adventist worldview).

[5] For Lutherans, see the catechisms here; for Methodists, see Article VI of their Articles of Religion. For the Reformed and Presbyterians, see Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession.

[6] This term refers to those who are against (anti) the law (nomos is the Greek word for law).

[7] As our Fundamental Belief 13 puts it, “The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ.” For an excellent article regarding the relationship of Adventists to other Christians, see Nicholas Miller, “Adventists and Ecumenism.”

[8] See above on determinism.

[9] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/perfection/files/perfection.html. Though there were some excesses in Wesley’s thoughts on sanctification, e.g., that Christians could experience a “second blessing” in which they were freed from their sinful natures (http://wesley.nnu.edu/fileadmin/imported_site/wesleyjournal/1986-wtj-21.pdf, p. 137 ff., etc.), he still understood that even a “perfect” Christian was not free from unintentional sins, ignorance, or “mistakes.”

[10] “A spirit of pharisaism has been coming in upon the people who claim to believe the truth for these last days. They are self-satisfied. They have said, ‘We have the truth. There is no more light for the people of God.’ But we are not safe when we take a position that we will not accept anything else than that upon which we have settled as truth. We should take the Bible, and investigate it closely for ourselves. We should dig in the mine of God’s word for truth. . . . There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation. . . . This was the spirit cherished among us forty years ago. . . . We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.”

[11] “When the power of God testifies as to what is truth, that truth is to stand forever as the truth. No aftersuppositions, contrary to the light God has given, are to be entertained. Men will arise with interpretations of Scripture which are to them truth, but which are not truth. The truth for this time, God has given us as a foundation for our faith. He Himself has taught us what is truth. One will arise, and still another, with new light which contradicts the light that God has given under the demonstration of His Holy Spirit.”

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Timothy Arena is a Ph.D. student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary studying systematic theology with a cognate in New Testament. He is a gifted pianist and is passionate about Seventh-day Adventist theology and history.