Why Adventist Scholars Should Revisit Perfection Theology

Share It :

google+
More
Why Adventist Scholars Should Revisit Perfection Theology

For the past several weeks I have been writing out rebuttals to Kevin Paulson’s series in support of Last Generation Theology on Compass Magazine. In response to Article #6, I left a brief comment regarding which Compass Magazine asked me to write out a fuller explanation. Here is that comment:

 

It breaks my heart reading articles like this because, had Adventist scholars understood the link between the immortal soul and original sin, they might have prevented the LGT epidemic from taking over the church and delaying Christ’s coming by nearly a century now.

There is no conflict between Adventist theology and sinless perfection; LGT does not have ownership of perfection theology and neither does evidence for perfection theology make the case for LGT any stronger. The potentiality of perfection is not only a biblical teaching, but is the default perspective. In other words, it is not one’s responsibility to offer proof for perfection, someone has to offer proof against it. And, the only way to make a coherent case against it is to adopt the notion of the immortal soul.

As it stands, every time our scholars argue against LGT by denigrating or minimizing perfection theology, they create the very links that LGTers can hang their hooks on in people’s hearts. Thus, anti-LGT publications end up being the very fertilizer for LGT in the church.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: How to Conquer Sin Through Jesus

 

Before I begin, I need to provide several explanations:

 

1) There are multiple theological communities in the Adventist Church that are different enough from one another, that, in order to communicate effectively with any such community, one takes the risk of being misunderstood by the other communities. Therefore, I ask the reader to suspend judgment until I have the chance to explain myself adequately.

 

2) Because at the moment I am still waiting for Kevin to complete his series before I address certain pertinent topics (ex. the LGT Vindication Motif), I will not here dive into these topics too deeply.

 

3) Some will undoubtedly have concerns about my statement regarding Christ’s coming being delayed. After Kevin completes his series and I have a chance to respond, I plan to write an article entitled, Why Adventist Scholars Should Revisit the Delay Theology. For several years now I have been collecting objections against the concept of a delay and, in this article, I will demonstrate that these objections are not sound. It is not possible to prove with 100% certainty there has been a delay, using the Bible alone, but the probability it happened is high enough for Adventist thought leaders to take it seriously. I request that discussion regarding the delay be postponed until I complete that article.

 

4) For many decades now, the LGT debate has been set up as a false dichotomy: LGT supporters have argued that sin is willful action only, that Christ took Adam’s nature after the fall and that the last generation must attain to sinless perfection. Adventist scholars, on the other hand, have argued that sin is nature, that Christ took Adam’s nature before the fall and that sinless perfection is not possible. I will demonstrate below that there is a third option that is, in fact, far more compatible with the foundational premises of Adventist theology than either option above.

 

5) I propose that, even though LGT is a heretical construct that belongs in the same category with the Shepherd’s Rods, Anti-trinitarians, etc. and even though it has done untold damage to our denomination (will demonstrate this in future responses to Kevin’s series), the reason it continues to exert significant influence on our membership is because the opposition to LGT has been conducted poorly. People come under the influence of LGT not so much because they agree with the LGT position but more because they disagree with the anti-LGT position. To those raised in the Adventist culture and familiar with Ellen White’s writings, the claims that sin is nature, Christ took the pre-fall nature, and perfection is not possible, just ring suspect. Once under LGT’s influence, however, they are exposed to much more damaging elements.

 

6) With a proper understanding of righteousness by faith, belief in the potentiality of sinless perfection does not become an oppressive burden—given that our salvation is secured in Christ—but a blessing to look forward to.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Jesus Christ–Savior and Example

 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the theology and nature of sin.

 

The False Dichotomy over the Nature of Sin

 

To help the reader better understand what I mean by a false dichotomy, consider the question, ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ What would be the correct answer to such a question? If you say ‘No,’ that means you are still doing it. If you say ‘Yes,’ then you are admitting to having done it in the past. A false dichotomy is an artificially concocted situation that purports only two options are possible, when in fact more exist.

 

Even though Andreasen began developing his system (LGT) decades earlier, in the 1950s, when the evangelical cult expert Walter Martin contacted our church, he along with Andreasen plunged our denomination into a false dichotomy that ended up causing decades of unnecessary division and distraction. Two opposing sides were created that were more concerned with the perceived problems of the other side than with problems on their own side. To better understand the reasons behind this, we need to take a brief excursion into historical Christian theology.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Case for the Last Generation Theology –Is Sinless Obedience Possible?

 

When as Adventists we began considering the question of what exactly sin is, whether willful action or inherited nature, what we inadvertently did is to step into 2000 years of Christian theological development that, as a church, we were not then quite ready to tackle. It was not until within the past 30 years that Adventist scholars began to finally wrap their minds around the foundational elements of Catholic and Protestant theology to better understand the reasons behind the similarities and differences we had with other Christians. It was thus discovered that the root cause of the differences could be traced back to Greek philosophy.

 

In the early church, as Christianity was spreading all over the Roman Empire, it eventually began to attract the attention of and to win converts from the educated class. At this time in history, the philosophical perspectives of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, were taken for granted as undeniable fact (even though they sound childish to modern thinkers). When critics of Christianity began to use philosophical arguments against the early church, it was the converts with a background in philosophy that rose to prominence developing a philosophical defense of Christianity. In doing so, however, they also adopted many of the presuppositions of the Greeks.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Balance of (Human) Nature

 

Chances are, that many of these philosophical perspectives would have died out with the passing of time, were it not that they became immortalized in Christian tradition. Christians have always been taught to regard with respect the views of the early church fathers, as those who lived closest to the time of Christ and the disciples, and were most likely to have inherited the correct interpretation of Christianity. Thus, via the church fathers, and by means of tradition, Hellenistic philosophy has maintained a prominent place in Catholic and Protestant theology to this day.

 

Because today many of us have a very different view of reality, it is not always easy for us to relate to the Greek way of thought. The Greeks had developed a very distinct view of God and man, and, subsequently, this view influenced the development of Christian doctrine, including the doctrine of original sin. The first component, the Greek concept of God, is a bit more complex than I can address quickly, so instead, I encourage anyone interested to read Fernando Canale’s Basic Elements of Christian Theology. This will help clarify, among other things, why Catholics and some Protestants believe things that appear strange to us, like for example, that sacraments, infant baptism, and the Eucharist, have the capacity to partially fix the sin problem in some way.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Ellen White on Sin and Human Nature

 

The second component, the Greek concept of man as a dualistic being with a mortal body and an immortal soul, is much better understood by most Adventists, so I will spend most of my time explaining why this concept plays a major part in the debate over the nature of sin. The question to start with is, what exactly do other Christians refer to by the term ‘nature’ when they speak of a ‘sinful nature?’ And the answer is that they are speaking of the immortal soul part of the human being. This begs the question then, of how all this translates to Adventist theology, given we don’t believe in an immortal soul.

 

So, let’s take a moment to understand how other Christians reason through the issue of human nature and its fallen condition. First, we need to differentiate between action and identity. A person can be a thief, even if they are not stealing anything at this moment in time. They are not a thief today, because they stole something, and no longer a thief tomorrow because the day went by without them stealing anything. Even if such a person managed not to steal anything for an extended period of time, you would not leave them unsupervised in a room full of valuables. In other words, they steal because they are thieves, rather than being thieves because they steal.

 

Now you might say, sure, but they became thieves because they first made the choice to steal. In historical Christian theology, however, the individual’s identity already exists from the time the soul first comes into existence. Not specifically whether they will become thieves, murderers or something else, but the primordial elements of their identity, the foundations upon which everything else is built, are present from the instant the soul comes into existence. And, corruption or sin is hardwired into this identity from the start.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Sin and Salvation in Genesis 3

 

Thus, when other Christians speak of original sin, what they are referring to is a factory defect in the soul itself. They explain this either by assuming that God creates defective (sinful) souls every time a new baby is conceived, or, that there is a mechanism by which the soul of the baby is created from the soul of the parents just like there is a mechanism by which the body of the baby comes from the body of the parents, and this explains the passing on of corruption from one generation to the next. It should be fairly clear by now why the idea of Jesus taking on a sinful nature would sound so sacrilegious to an evangelical.

 

So then, if the word ‘nature’ is a synonym for the soul to other Christians, how exactly do Adventists relate to this?

 

Well, one option is to revert to belief in an immortal soul. And, there are Adventists who have done this, unfortunately. Another option is to have the same dualistic anthropology as other Christians with the one exception that the soul sleeps in death. This also is a major departure from traditional Adventist anthropology and relies much more on Greek philosophy than the Scripture.

 

Probably the majority of Adventists who hold a sin=nature view, have transferred the essential elements of the original sin doctrine from the soul to the body (our physical biology with its urges, drives, and impulses). And, while at face value, this might appear more ‘Adventist,’ it is actually a nonsensical position. If sin is part of the atoms that make up our bodies, then we’re more or less adopting Gnosticism. If we try to maintain a concept of identity, like the evangelicals, we have to remember that, materially speaking, there is a point in time when the human body is nothing more than a tiny sac of DNA. If the mere presence of human DNA constitutes sin, what if I transcribed the entire DNA sequence unto a piece of paper? Will that paper become sinful as well? Moreover, even a cursory understanding of genetics is sufficient to realize that the genetic mechanism cannot be an adequate explanation for the passing on of original sin from Adam to us.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Unbearable Failure of the Last Generation Theology –The Effect

 

In attempting to remedy this problem, some of our theologians have tried to reintroduce a variant of the concept of original guilt: humans are sinful not because of something in themselves, but due to legal standing of condemnation that the human race is corporately under. This, however, carries dubious ethical implications and does not actually solve the problem under consideration.

 

Finally, another explanation has been that humans are sinful because we are born separated from God. And, while this might prove a good explanation for why we do develop a sinful nature overall, the separation itself cannot be considered sin, as that would amount to a purely arbitrary requirement on the part of God.

 

Essentially, when as Adventists we rejected the dualistic anthropology of the Greeks, we also rejected with it the ability to have a pre-formed identity from birth, that can then be legitimately considered sinful, like what other Christians hold. Our anthropology requires that we view identity as something we develop into rather than something we are born with; as something a lot more fluid than what evangelical anthropology allows for.

 

So where then do we anchor human identity if we reject the notion of an immortal soul? We anchor it in the character. The character is for Adventists what the soul is for Catholics and evangelicals, and this carries significant implications that we need to be mindful of when developing our theology. We can’t just transfer things over from other Christians as if their beliefs could fit just as well in our system of thought as it does in theirs.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: What human nature did Jesus take? Fallen

 

Does this mean then that LGT proponents were right all along? No, what LGTers did is to fall into another ditch while trying to avoid the first ditch. Saying that the basis of sin is the character is very different than saying sin is only the willful action. Character transcends the will.

 

The LGT reasoning on this point relies on another logical fallacy known as ‘moving the goal post.’ LGTers will here say that the character itself is the product of choice, but in doing so, they fail to distinguish between two types of choice. A toddler has some level of self-determination and is able to make right or wrong choices that contribute to their character development. If threatened with punishment, the child has the ability to choose to stop harassing their siblings. So in that sense, the character is subject to the will. But, at the same time, it is usually not until the teenage years that the individual is fully capable of understanding the moral implications of their choices and can, therefore, become accountable before God for their actions. Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate between pre-accountability choices and post-accountability choices.

 

What this means is that the character is shaped long before the person can legitimately choose whether to surrender to or to rebel against God. In fact, the character begins to form from the womb, before the infant is even self-aware. By the time individuals reach the age of accountability, they have a firmly established character, years of patterns of behavior that are deeply ingrained and hard to change. Trying to become a better person at this time is a lot like trying to warm up a freezing lake, one cup of hot water at a time.

 

Not just this, but we have only a limited grasp of the full content of our characters. We don’t know ourselves; “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”[1] We see only the tip of the iceberg, when in fact there is a much larger mass hidden beneath the surface that maybe our friends and family might see but most often only God sees.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Unbearable Failure of Last Generation Theology –The Law

 

It is possible for a person to minimize their own exposure to temptation, by joining a monastery or moving to the country, and appear with time to live a fairly sinless life. But if transplanted to a different environment, a war-torn neighborhood in the Middle East, for example, sides of them that neither they nor anyone else knew existed, might come to the surface. Minimizing all this under the label, ‘willful choice’ is disingenuous and detrimental to a healthy spiritual life. It sets the stage for the formation of Pharisees, who think themselves better than anybody else. Wash the inside of the cup, and the outside will be clean also; make the tree good, and the fruit will be good as well.

 

But can character rightly be labeled sin? After all, the Bible does say sin is the transgression of the law. The problem is that we are asking a question that is not adequate for the conclusion we are trying to reach; another case of equivocation (a logical fallacy). What we are trying to determine is what ‘imperfection’ is, so that we can then determine, by contrast, what ‘perfection’ is. But regardless of how we define sin itself, there is no doubt that someone with a deficient character can never be considered perfect. Because of this, character has to play a central role in the discussion.

 

However, with all that said, we have to also recognize that the implications of sin as character are very different from the implications of sin as nature. If nature is defined as the soul (defining nature as biology is nonsensical), as evangelicals do, then the sinful deficiencies are hardwired into our identity and will not be removed until Jesus comes. Without belief in a soul, on the other hand, our sinful identity is not hardwired but develops with the formation of character. And, just as the character can be formed sinful, it can also be transformed and become more and more like Christ’s character, with the potential to even reach perfection. In other words, Adventist anthropology lacks the element that prevents other Christians from believing perfection is possible. The Bible is full of examples of faithful people with character deficiencies that, with time, overcame those deficiencies, and there’s no reason to think that there must be a limit to this process.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The nature of Christ–Four measures of mystery

 

When it comes to the nature of Christ, if we believe as the evangelicals that Jesus combined His divine nature with human nature, which is composed of a material body and an immaterial soul, then we have to reject the idea that Christ took Adam’s nature after the fall, since that nature/soul had a corrupted identity. In the Adventist anthropology, however, the physical biology of our body is morally neutral and our identity is anchored in the character. Jesus then took a biology affected by the thousand years of sin just like everyone else. But He had a perfect character. Somehow, even from the womb, when other children begin to develop faulty characters, Jesus was prevented and maintained a pure character all the way through. As a toddler, He did not exhibit the temper tantrums of other children, even though He was not mature enough to understand what He was doing. This makes Christ significantly different than ourselves because choosing to be obedient contrary to a sinful character is much more difficult than if the character is untainted and lacks decades of bad habit formation.

 

In conclusion, a negation of the evangelical position on the nature of sin, the nature of Christ and perfection, does not lead to LGT, as there is a third, middle position between the two. To summarize,

 

SIN

  • Evangelicals: Nature
  • LGT: Action
  • Adventism: Character

 

CHRIST

  • Evangelicals: Pre-Fall
  • LGT: Post-Fall
  • Adventism: Neither/Both

 

PERFECTION

  • Evangelicals: Not possible
  • LGT: Possible and Necessary for the last generation to Vindicate God
  • Adventism: Possible

 

My recommendation is that Adventist scholars seriously reconsider their stance on these topics. A more balanced position can be adopted that will make it very difficult for LGT proponents to have anything left that members will resonate with. Moreover, I appeal to any young person interested in studying theology to consider doing a Ph.D. on these issues and to help develop a more thoroughly Adventist understanding of the nature of sin.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Perfection Theology.

______

Notes

[1] Jeremiah 17:9.

Share It :

google+
More

About the author

Avatar

Mike Manea has a masters of divinity degree from Andrews and La Sierra, an undergraduate degree in Biology and is currently working towards a doctorate from Andrews. He is the pastor of three churches under the Gulf States Conference and is the co-founder of Intelligent Adventist. Mike is married and has a young son.