Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Righteousness by Faith and a Search for Balance in Adventist Theology

by Michael W. Campbell


Adventism was born in the midst of antebellum revivalism. A significant part of its origin can be traced to the Christian Connexion, a loosely affiliated group of Christians during the mid-19th century who were obsessed with the notion that Protestantism must return to the model of the New Testament Church. Church hierarchy and anything remotely resembling institutionalization was anathema. Joseph Bates and James White, both co-founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, were ordained Christian Connexion ministers.[1] In the same spirit, William Miller, the apostle of the second coming of Jesus and namesake of the Millerite revival, was himself a revivalist. His numerous speaking appointments across New England brought revival. Some ministers invited Miller to speak at their church, not because of his novel idea of the second coming of Jesus but because they had heard through other ministers of the revivals that occurred in the wake of his preaching.


It seems natural that Seventh-day Adventists, as Protestants at the heart of this revivalism, naturally believed in the notion of righteousness by faith. Early Millerites wrote about the importance of accepting Christ’s righteousness as the only source for salvation.[2] What is significant is that as the group of Sabbatarian Adventists who formed what later became the Seventh-day Adventist Church after 1863, the emphasis on revivalism shifted to that of the distinctiveness of Seventh-day Adventism. Thus, the “five pillars” of the Sabbath, Sanctuary, Second Coming, State of the Dead, and the Spirit of Prophecy were showcased in both pulpit and printed page. Early Sabbatarian Adventist preachers were well known for their knowledge of the Bible, and especially, Bible prophecy.


Christ, the Way of Life and Minneapolis


By the late 1870s, Adventist leader and two-time church president James White sensed that Adventism needed a fresh infusion of grace into its core beliefs. This is best illustrated through the famous “Way of Life” charts first instituted by Adventist physician Merritt G. Kellogg, one of Adventism’s pioneer missionaries to California. The chart was a “vivid portrayal of the plan of salvation” first published in 1873. The most prominent feature of the chart was the Ten Commandments at the center of the engraving. By 1880 James White produced a new sketch entitled “Behold the Lamb of God,” which placed Christ on the cross as the central focus. Although James White did not live to see the revised picture, his family made sure it was completed. Similarly, shortly before his death, James White printed several tracts emphasizing the need for a more Christ-centered Adventism.[3]


In many ways these charts signaled a larger shift within Adventism that would occur the following decade in the famous 1888 Minneapolis General Conference Session. It was at this meeting that Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner, two young ministers, presented “a most precious message” that uplifted Christ as the center of Adventist theology. Whereas the content of what that message entailed continues to be debated within Adventism, there is no doubt that these meetings were an outgrowth of a tremendous need for a more Christ-centered righteousness by faith emphasis within Adventist theology. Ellen White recognized the need, stating that Adventists had preached the law until they had become as dry as the hills of Gilboa.[4]


The actual General Conference session was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from October 17 to November 4, 1888. A ministerial institute (Oct. 10-19) preceded the meeting. Tensions escalated as controversy over the interpretation of the law in Galatians and the identity of the 10 horns in Daniel became contentious issues for debate. Ellen White, recognizing the significance of Jones and Waggoner’s presentations beyond the immediate issues, cautioned those present to exhibit a Christ-like spirit toward one another.[5] Despite her warnings, she wrote about the mean spirit exhibited at Minneapolis. “Never in my life experience was I treated as at that conference.”[6]


The greatest contribution of Jones and Waggoner was their emphasis on righteousness by faith, which was desperately needed to bring balance to Adventist theology. “The third angel’s message,” she stated, “is the proclamation of the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ. The commandments of God have been proclaimed, but the faith of Jesus Christ has not been proclaimed by Seventh-day Adventists as of equal importance, the law and the gospel going hand in hand.”[7]


The Fate of Righteousness by Faith


One of the great ironies of Seventh-day Adventist history is that Jones and Waggoner, who became the most prominent Adventists within Adventism for more than a decade after their debut in 1888, would ultimately leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Does that mean that the message of righteousness by faith disappeared with them? I don’t think so. One of the most compelling aspects of the 1888 story in Adventist history is the twist of fate showcased by two of Jones and Waggoner’s fiercest opponents, Uriah Smith (editor of the church’s flagship Review and Herald) and George I. Butler (who after the 1888 General Conference session moved to Florida into obscurity and retirement), both of whom repented of their opposition to the role they had played at Minneapolis. The two would later go on to make some of their most significant contributions within Adventism after they repented. Butler, more specifically, was responsible for starting the denomination’s fledgling work in the American South and later, at a critical juncture, was single-handedly responsible for saving the newly formed College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center). One of the great stories of Minneapolis is the power of grace to changes lives—even some of the most hardened and critical leaders who resisted the fresh infusion of grace at Minneapolis.


It seems that every generation since Minneapolis has had to wrestle with the meaning of righteousness by faith for their generation (a topic that extends beyond the scope of what I can write about in this article). During the 1920s Arthur G. Daniells, especially after his retirement as church president in 1922, traveled across the country preaching a message of revival that distinctly emphasized the importance of righteousness by faith. Two of his co-patriots, Meade McGuire and Taylor G. Bunch, both of whom became well-known Adventist preachers through the 1930s and 1940s, became prominent within Adventism for their message of righteousness by faith. Taylor Bunch, in particular, would trace some of his insights back to the memorable Minneapolis meeting. Later still, during the 1970s, another resurgence of interest in righteousness by faith occurred with the preaching of Morris Venden, Robert H. Pierson, and other prominent Adventists who once again wrestled with the meaning of righteousness by faith for their generation. Today, a postmodern generation must again wrestle with the meaning of Adventist theology. And, once again, it remains to be seen where, on the continuum of Adventist theology, our church is headed other than the fact that yet another generation will once again wrestle with the central question of what makes Adventist theology distinctive. And closely related to that question, what role will the teaching of righteousness by faith play within Adventist theology?



[1]Bert Haloviak, “A Heritage of Freedom: The Christian Connection Roots of Seventh-day Adventism,” unpublished paper, 1995.

[2]Cf. William Miller, “Letter from Mr. Miller, No. 3 on the Return of the Jews,” Signs of the Times, April 15, 1840, 14.

[3]See Woody Whidden, “’Christ, the Way of Life’ Prints” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Jerry Moon and Denis Fortin (Review and Herald, forthcoming). See also, James White, Redemption (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1878), Idem., Christ in the Old Testament (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald, 187-?).

[4]Ellen G. White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), 557.

[5]Idem., White, Letter 20, 1888, in 1888 Materials, 40.

[6]Idem., Letter 7, 1888, in 1888 Materials, 186-189.

[7]Idem., 1888 Materials, 217.

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