Adventism’s Weird Fringe: Heterodox or Heresy?
by Stephen Ferguson, November 12, 2017: I have a particular fascination for what many would consider the fringes of religion. I especially love religious documentaries, such as Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, which has examined televangelists, UFO-ologists, Black Hebrew Israelites, Indian gurus, Jewish ultra-Zionists, the Church of Scientology, and the Westboro Baptist Church (considered the most hated religious family in America).
Enforcing Adventist “Orthodoxy”
The irony of this fascination is that I belong to a religious community – the Seventh-day Adventist Church – which itself is often viewed as a fringe religious movement. As many of you no doubt know, we were largely considered a cult until the 1960’s, when anti-cult expert Walter Martin, of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), decided to remove us from his seminal publication Kingdom of the Cults. Martin took the brave step of judging Adventist belief and practice essentially “orthodox.”
Although claiming to hold no creed other than the Bible itself, in the last few decades the world Adventist Church has taken steps to define and safeguard this newfound orthodox status. This was most notably seen in 1980, when the General Conference Session introduced a statement of (then) 27 Fundamental Beliefs. The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual similarly empowers Church authorities to discipline members, including disfellowshipping (excommunicating) in cases of, “Denial of faith in the fundamentals of the gospel and in the fundamental beliefs of the Church or teaching doctrines contrary to the same.”
This raises an obvious question: what makes a belief “fundamental”? When do we consider something Adventist “orthodoxy” and when Adventist “heresy”?
Perhaps some practical examples might better illustrate the point. In answering this question about Adventist orthodoxy, how do you rate the following fringe ideas – some “conservative” and some “liberal” – but now increasingly popular within corners of the Adventist web?
Popular “fringe” ideas within Adventism
Semi-Arianism: Citing certain Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) pioneers who often misunderstand the historic formulation of the Trinity, today’s semi-Arian Adventists usually adopt one or both of the following ideas: the Father alone is the only true God, with Jesus merely a literal son created sometime in the past; and the Holy Spirit is not a separate divine “person” or “being” of the Godhead. The problem is these proponents almost always strongly endorse the prophetic authority of Ellen White, who said, “From the days of eternity the Lord Jesus Christ was one with the Father…. In Christ is life, original, borrowed, underived.” Similarly, Mrs White said, “The Holy Spirit has a personality…. He must also be a divine person.” This results in a reluctant acceptance that God is in fact somehow, “One God in three persons.”
Lunar Sabbaths and Jewish Feast Days: Instead of counting the Sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, lunar Sabbath-keepers count seven days from each new moon, making Sabbath fall on different days of the week. Lunar Sabbath-keepers also often celebrate Jewish feast days, such as Passover or the Day of Atonement, which are tied to Hebrew lunar months. The problem with lunar Sabbaths is they just don’t work mathematically. As a lunar month has 29.5 days rather than 28, counting each Sabbath from a new moon results in one to two days being leftover every fourth week. Given Ex. 16:4-5 says the Israelites were to gather a double portion every sixth day to account for the Sabbath, a lunar Sabbath would have resulted in the people’s starving on days 29 and 30. Similarly, Lev. 23:15-16 says the feast of Pentecost is the 50th day after seven Sabbaths, but 7×7=49 doesn’t compute if you have those extra 1-2 days every month.
Universal Legal Justification: Universalism says all human beings will, in the end, be saved. An increasingly popular Adventist variation is “Universal Legal Justification” (ULJ), supposedly based on the 1888 message of A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. ULJ-proponents reject the pre-destination of Calvinists, but argue the free will approach of Arminians turns salvation by faith into something we must “do” – in other words, faith becomes a type of “work.” The solution is to see salvation as an “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” system. Waggoner affirmed, “The judgment will reveal the fact that full salvation was given to every man and that the lost have deliberately thrown away their birthright possession.” Official Adventist leadership is hardly enamored with the idea, because to equate faith with a type of work seems directly contrary to scripture, with Eph. 2:8-9 explicitly saying faith is not a type of work.
Last Generation Theology: Last Generation Theology (LGT) was popularized in the late 1930’s by M. L. Andreasen and held that Christ would not return until the last generation of believers had reached holy perfection, thereby rebutting Satan’s claim that no one could live by the law’s standards. As you can guess, LGT proponents have been accused of promoting legalism. The biggest problem is perhaps one of motivation, because even if you were perfect you would never know it, as that would be the sin of pride. Even Jesus, who was perfect, in his humility refused to be called good (Mark 10:18). Paradoxically, assuming the last generation on earth will be perfect, dwelling on that fact may actually be counterproductive to this goal.
Theistic Evolution: Although widely accepted by “mainstream” Christianity, theistic evolution is still a minority view within Adventism, evidenced by recent changes to fundamental belief number six. The biggest problem with theistic evolution for any Christian is it seems to deny a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden. So it would be silly to then believe God had to become a literal man, who died on a literal cross, to save humanity from a mere metaphorical first sin, committed by a first man and first woman who never actually existed. For an Adventist, it would likewise undo the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath, as it would link to a creation event that never actually happened.
Rejection of Pre-Advent Investigative Judgment: The final and seminal outlier belief is to reject the pre-advent investigative judgment (“PAIJ”). During the 1980’s, Dr. Desmond Ford caused near-official schism in many parts of the Adventist world by contending that “the judgment in Daniel 7 is not a pre-Advent judgment, that apocalyptic prophecy is also conditional, that according to the apotelesmatic principle a prophecy can have multiple fulfillments, and that the antitypical day of atonement began in A.D. 31 rather than in 1844.” The problem with rejecting the PAIJ is probably more sociological and historical than theological. This is arguably the founding doctrine of the SDA Church, coming out of the Great Disappointment. This perhaps explains why Ford was treated so harshly, even if the doctrine is arguably of minor relevance to the daily spiritual and liturgical life of most Adventists.
Adventist Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy or Heresy?
So what did you think about these outliers? Can you think of others? Are these beliefs Adventist orthodoxy or heresy?
Is there perhaps a third option: “heterodoxy”? From the Greek word for “other opinion,” heterodox beliefs are neither orthodox nor heresy.  For example, we could have a friendly discussion about Jesus’ likely hair and eye color, and it wouldn’t matter a great deal if we disagreed over this “non-essential” issue.
In considering the above fringe Adventist ideas, I am likewise inclined to consider them heterodox:
- Semi-Arians: As long as semi-Arians accept that there is “one God in three persons,” that seems enough – even if they refuse to use the word “Trinity.” Moreover, even mainstream Christianity has long debated the origins and nature of the persons of the Godhead (just look up the filioque controversy). Some ancient Christological debates seem pretty inane today (such as whether Christ is homoousios, “of one substance,” or homoiousios, “of similar substance,” with the Father).
- Lunar Sabbaths: The lunar Sabbath concept is probably beyond the pale. However, there is nothing wrong with keeping the Jewish feast days, as Paul’s own example of participating in Jewish purification rites shows (Acts 25:24). This is even though Col. 2:16 shows these ceremonial laws are no longer strictly binding.
- ULJ: The weakness of ULJ is also its strength – it arguably is simply traditional Arminianism reformulated. Just as the children of Israel were saved by grace through faith in the symbols of Christ’s death, even though they never actually knew him, so is everyone else. For example, while we might ask how a child can be saved by faith, the truth is that children do have faith through the symbol of their own parents, who are images of and co-creators with God. This might explain some of those unusual texts such as Matt. 18:3 and 1 Tim. 2:15.
- LGT: Those who advocate LGT probably have a legitimate concern – what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called “cheap grace,” They might also be legitimate in stressing that God can save us from our sins and not simply in our sin, which is actually a positive rather than negative message. As long as LGT proponents don’t mistake cause with effect, in making it about human effort, then the pitfalls of legalism can largely be avoided.
- Theistic Evolution: Contrary to popular opinion, there are a number of theistic-evolution scholars who still affirm a literal 144-hour creation with a literal seventh-day Sabbath. For example, John Walton’s “cosmic temple” theory says the six literal days of creation describe not the material construction of the earth, but rather its functional inauguration. The analogy is the Old Testament sanctuary, which did not “exist” when it was physically built until it was officially consecrated. Walton’s approach allows for theistic evolution to sit side-by-side with a literal creation week, literal Adam and Eve and literal Sabbath.
- PAIJ: The key thing to keep in mind about the PAIJ is that is it a belief shared to some degree by a number of mainstream Christian groups, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and even Methodists. These “mainstream” Christians also distinguish the pre-Adventist investigative “particular judgment” of the individual after death from the “general judgment” at the second coming. Where we differ is over when the PAIJ starts – is it AD 31 or 1844? But as Adventists believe we don’t subjectively experience the PAIJ anyway (as we are either unconsciously dead or it occurs in heaven without our knowing), does the start date actually matter a great deal?
Who is calling whom a heretic?
With these illustrations in mind, I think we are sometimes too quick to call someone we disagree with a “heretic.” But here is the rub – in my personal experience it is often those who promote these fringe ideas who themselves find perverse delight in this label. On several occasions, when I’ve pointed out to proponents that their beliefs are largely OK with me because they are still within the broad parameters of accepted Adventist “orthodoxy,” I’ve been met with the strongest of resistance. They reject my acceptance and court my rejection!
This doesn’t just seem to be a problem within Adventism; it seems to be a problem of Adventism. Probably the best example was when Walter Martin famously declared us not a cult, only to have a number of Adventists strongly disagree with his assessment. These critics especially damned the General Conference’s official response to Martin’s questions, later set out in the publication Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957). It seems these “Concerned Brethren” (as they became known) became pedantic on non-essential issues of doctrine, such as the nature of Christ, and objected to the way the General Conference sought to portray Adventism in as good a light as possible.
As someone who has studied theology at an Anglican-Episcopalian seminary, deliberately to understand and be understood by non-Adventist Christians better, this self-alienating attitude seems insane. So I leave readers with a question: why do so many Adventists actively seek to portray our own beliefs and practices in as weird and negative way as possible, actively seeking rejection, if not persecution, by others?
 Louis Theroux, Born Again Christians (BBC, 1998).
 Louis Theroux, UFOs (BBC, 1998).
 Louis Theroux, Black Nationalism (BBC, 1999).
 Louis Theroux, Indian Gurus (BBC, 2000).
 Louis Theroux, The Ultra Zionists (BBC, 2011).
 Louis Theroux, My Scientology Movie (BBC, 2016).
 Louis Theroux, The Most Hated Family in America (BBC, 2007).
 Kenneth Samples, “From Controversy to Crises: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism,” Christian Research Institute Journal (Summer 1988, Volume 11, Number 1), 9.
 The Preamble to the Fundamental Beliefs states: “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.”
 Now 28 Fundamental Beliefs. See Michael Scofield, “How the 27 Fundamental Beliefs Came to Be,” Adventist Today (2008).
 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th Ed. (2010, 62)
 The word “orthodoxy” has its origins in the Greek words for “straight” and “opinion”: Oxford Dictionary Online.
 The word “heresy” has its origins in the Greek word for “choice,” as in an individual belief outside the accepted collective norm.
 For example, many SDA pioneers, not reading Greek and only understanding poor English translations of the Trinitarian formula, especially the English word “person” which did not quite equate to the original concepts of “persona” or “prosopon.” Thus, they often mistook the doctrine of the Trinity for tritheism – the Father, Son and Spirit as three different “persons” in the way that Tom, Dick and Harry are different persons in the everyday English use of the word: See Denis Fortin, Ellen G. White and God: One, Two or Three? (2007, 8-9).
 Kevin Paulson, “Three Co-Eternal Persons,” ADVindicate (May 7, 2017).
 Ellen White, Desire of Ages (1898, 19, 530).
 Ellen White, Evangelism, p. 617, is indexed as Manuscript 20, February 7, 1906.
 Consider, for example, question 18, of Daniel Mesa in “Spirit, Being or Person,” Jesus or Barabbas,
 Angel Rodríguez, “What about a lunar Sabbath,” Adventist World (2008).
 Joseph Olstad, “Universal Legal Justification: A Failed Alternative Between Calvin and Arminius,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 23/1 (2012): 96-119.
 Waggoner on Romans, 101, quoted by Mark Duncan, Legal Justification: Is It a Valid Concept? citing Glad Tidings, 13, 14.
 Joseph Olstad, “Universal Legal Justification: A Failed Alternative Between Calvin and Arminius.”
 Angel Rodríguez, “Theology of the Last Generation,” Adventist Review (Oct 2013). LGT proponents point to Mrs. White’s statement, “When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.” – Christ’s Object Lessons, 69.
 Gerhard Pfandl, “The Pre-Advent Judgment – Fact or Fiction,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Oct 14).
 For example, even amongst the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC), today’s conservative independent youth ministry, the investigative judgment is not one of the group’s core ten beliefs, which they say constitutes Adventism’s “distinctive message.”
The ten stated beliefs GYC says make up the “distinctive” Adventist message include: scripture, spirit of prophecy (Ellen White), piety, reverent worship, evangelism, accountable relationships, godly lifestyle, service, commitment to the SDA Church, and defense of Adventist teachings: “Spirit of GYC,” GYC,
<https://gycweb.org/about/>, retrieved Feb 2, 2016.
 Other ideas that came to mind included: open theism, rejection of Ellen White, women’s ordination (both sides), Jesuit conspiracies, and deliverance ministries.
 Oxford Dictionary Online; see also Dr Franz Pieper, The Distinction Between Orthodox & Heterodox Churches (1889).
 The filioque controversy was an 11th-century debate between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity. The West said the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and Son, while the Eastern Orthodox said the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone (as scripture affirms the Father as the source).
 Joseph Olstad, “Universal Legal Justification: A Failed Alternative Between Calvin and Arminius.”
 In explaining the Cosmic Temple view, Walton gives the following analogy – “When does a restaurant, he says, begin to exist? It is not just when the building is finished and the kitchen is installed and the chairs and tables set up. It is when the restaurant opens for business and begins to function as a restaurant. That is when the restaurant is really created. It is not enough just for the material building to be built for that to be a restaurant. It needs to be functioning in a certain way. When it begins to function in that way, that is the date at which you would say ‘this restaurant began to exist’”: Craig William, “Creation and Evolution (Part 7),” Defenders: Reasonable Faith (2013).
 Angel Rodriguez, “The Judgment and the Second Coming,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 11/01); J. McHugh, “Particular Judgment,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
 Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 351, cited in Woodrow W. Whidden, “Adventist Theology: The Wesleyan Connection,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), Apr 18, 2005.
 The approach of these “concerned brethren” was doubly bizarre because the SDA church has “not elucidated in a doctrinal statement the specific nature of Jesus’ human nature… For decades Adventists have been debating the question of Jesus’ human nature without resolving the diversity of views that characterize the debate”: Angel Rodriguez, Does the church have a position on the human nature of Christ? (Washington: Biblical Research Institute General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2003).
 You can read about my experiences of engaging with Anglican theology in my book, Stephen J. D. Ferguson, “Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know…”: A Lawyer’s Defence of Adventist Belief and Practice (2016),<https://www.amazon.com/Seventh-day-Adventist-dont-know-about-ebook/dp/B01MQXGNWD>.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy, and has one child, William. Stephen is a member of the Livingston SDA Church.