By Stephen Ferguson | 15 January 2018 |
I was recently surprised and delighted to see a review in Adventist Today by Bill Garber of my book, Seventh-day Adventists, I don’t know about. I just don’t know.[i] The review was totally unexpected and certainly not solicited by me.
This statement seemed to generate some interesting discussion in the comment section. Readers rightly asked in what sense could Adventism, that small weird sect (if not cult), claim to be “orthodox,” let alone a “protector of orthodoxy”?
What is Christian Orthodoxy?
I guess the problem with this discussion is one of terminology. I for one, like to embrace and reclaim terms that have historically been pejorative to Adventists, including “apostolic,” “creed,” “catholic,” “charismatic,” “clergy,” “ecumenical,” “tradition,” and of course, “orthodoxy.”
What surprised me most about studying theology at an Anglican-Episcopalian seminary – the subject matter of my book – was an affirmation that the bulk of Adventist theology was basically orthodox. By contrast, I was completely shocked to discover just how aberrant “mainstream” Christianity had become.[ii]
To use a singular example, many mainstream scholars no longer seem to believe in a traditional bodily resurrection of Jesus with an empty tomb. Instead, they believe and teach their Seminary students that the apostles, when claiming to have met a resurrected Jesus, were in fact suffering some sort of mental hallucination brought on by grief.[iii]
So what is “orthodoxy” within mainstream Christianity then?[iv] The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church defines “orthodoxy” as “a religious system, right belief as contrasted with heresy.” The word “heresy” is in turn defined as: “In the early centuries [of Christianity] heresy was mainly a matter of erroneous attempts to understand the nature of the Person Jesus Christ, of the Trinity, or both.”[v] This first idea of “orthodoxy,” which puts emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity, is probably most widely acknowledged within the context of the Nicene Creed (325 CE) and Chalcedon Definition (451 CE).
A second and, in my view, better way to view “orthodoxy” is through a claim of connection with the earliest form of apostolic Christianity – the faith of Jesus, His apostles and the New Testament writers. I like this approach because it seems quintessentially biblical, in that every new era of progressive revelation must build upon and fulfil, but shouldn’t abrogate, what has come before (Deut. 18:15-22; Luke 24:27; Gal. 1:8; Rom. 10:4). This is also a central approach of early Christian apologists, who proclaimed the authority of New Testament texts by invoking continuity with the earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 1:22). Finally, it is also how our fiercest critics determine our place within broader Christianity, with prominent anti-Adventist Anthony A. Hoekema (Christian Reformed Church, 1913-1988) declaring, “there is in all cults an abrupt break with historic Christianity, and with its confessions”.[vi]
Is Adventism “Orthodox” under a Trinitarian approach?
As Adventists affirm “a unity of three coeternal Persons” and that “God the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ” who as “truly God, He became also truly human,”[vii] we seem to accord with that first creedal concept of orthodoxy.[viii] We even have our own Adventist equivalent to the Filioque clause![ix] This of course is what anti-cult expert Walter Martin (Evangelical, 1928-1989) of the Christian Research Institute found in the 1960s:
“It now appeared that the structure of SDA theology was essentially orthodox. Adventism affirmed the inspiration of Scripture, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and Christ’s deity, virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and second advent.”[x]
Is Adventism “Orthodox” under an Apostolic Approach?
I would go even further. I would argue many of Adventism’s “distinctive” beliefs and practices are expressions of orthodoxy according to that second approach, having an historic connection with original apostolic Christianity. As acknowledged by non-Adventist experts, concerning the:
- Seventh-day Sabbath, Jonathan Hill (Anglican, 1976-present) admits: “There is also evidence that Christian groups maintained Sabbath observance for centuries, perhaps even attending a synagogue on the Saturday as well as on Sunday.”[xi]
- state of the dead, John Bowden (Anglican, 1935-2010) admits: “Whereas the first Christians had hoped for bodily resurrection to be renewed and a restored world which would come very soon, by the Middle Ages resurrection was a remote prospect in another space and time. And whereas the first Christians simply believed that between death and resurrection the dead slept in the dust, over the cover of time ideas about their future came to be different.”[xii]
- biblical food principles, Géza Vermes (Jewish-Catholic, 1924-2013) admits: “No evidence suggests that Jesus intended to annul the distinction between clean and unclean foods. If it had been known among his early Jewish followers that he had such an idea in mind, Peter would not have been so shocked by the thought of touching non-kosher meat.”[xiii]
I could also refer to the great controversy theme (approximate in early Christianity to Christus Victor), foot-washing (pedilavium), forms of vegetarianism (approximate to fasting), contemporary gifts of prophecy (look up the Montanist Revival), upholding of the Noahide-Ger distinctions of the Law (as the apostles alluded to in Acts 15:19-21) and putting an emphasis on eschatology (the end of time), as concepts that are all emphasized in both Adventism and early Christianity.
Are Adventists the Hasidic Jews of Christianity?
Still confused? As Adventists are sometimes (wrongly) accused of being Jewish, I think a good analogy for understanding Adventism’s place within Christendom comes from a comparison with contemporary Judaism.
Some Jewish denominations, such as the 19th-century Reform Judaism movement with its 1.8 million members, are viewed by other Orthodox Jews as fraudulent imposters. Reform Jews aren’t even recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which means that “Non-Orthodox conversions in Israel are not recognised by the state.”[xiv] The hostility is so strong that the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem caused controversy by suggesting Reform Jews were worse than Holocaust deniers![xv] In understanding the source of such animosity, the same Chief Rabbi went on to accuse Reform Jews of seeking Jewish status while dispensing with the historic beliefs and practices that underpinned that status: “They don’t have Yom Kippur or the Shabbat but they want to pray at the Western Wall.”[xvi]
I see this as broadly analogous with how Adventists have often been viewed by outsiders. Along with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, our distinctive beliefs and practices are usually seen as mere 19th-century inventions.[xvii]
By contrast, consider Hasidic Judaism, which is a sub-movement within the “Ultra-Orthodox” (Haredi) tradition, also with some 1.8 million adherents. Despite looking seemingly medieval with their black coats, fur hats and curled sidelocks, Hasidism is also a relatively modern movement originating in the 18th century.
However, note how Hasidic Jews are viewed compared with Reform Jews. While seemingly a little extreme, “Hasidic Jews are a sect/movement within Orthodox Judaism.”[xviii] It is just that “Hasidic Jews are the strictest and most insular sect within Orthodox Judaism.”[xix] I think this is a much better and more accurate analogy for Adventism – a seemingly strict group within mainstream Christianity rather than an aberration outside it.
Could Adventism Become a Major Bastion of Christian Orthodoxy?
This of course means Adventists can still be criticized – I am not suggesting we escape deserved critiques. However, I think it manifestly preferable to be attacked for being “too orthodox” than for the opposite.
Some will legitimately ask whether all Adventist beliefs and practices, say for example, the pre-advent investigative judgment and 1844, are orthodox.[xx] Furthermore, others will ask whether Adventists can yet claim to be world protectors of Christian orthodoxy. My answer is, probably not yet. Let’s be honest, most Christians still haven’t even heard of us!
Nonetheless, to draw upon our Jewish analogy, by some estimates Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is likely to end up the dominant form of that faith.[xxi] Similarly, you may be surprised to learn the SDA (Seventh-day Adventist) Church is now the fifth-largest Christian denomination worldwide[xxii] and one of the fastest growing.[xxiii]
Meanwhile, much of mainstream Christianity seems to be in terminal decline, especially as its theologians continue throwing fuel on the fire, becoming the ones who now concoct the unusual doctrines at odds with historic Christianity.[xxiv] Thus, one could well imagine a day when Adventism indeed does become something of a world bastion of remaining Christian orthodoxy. As I say in my book:
“Probably the most singularly important thing I learnt from the Anglicans is that the grass outside Adventism isn’t greener. In many cases there isn’t even grass anymore.”[xxv]
So rather than being embarrassed or glum, hold your head high and be prepared to make your defense to anyone who demands your account for your hope (1 Pet. 3:15).
[i] If you are wondering about the unusual title, it comes from Donald Trump, who gave this line in order to attack prominent Adventist candidate Ben Carson during the Republican primaries: See “Donald Trump went after Ben Carson for being a 7th-day Adventist. Here’s the backstory,” The Washington Post, Oct 25, 2015.
[ii] As with the word “orthodox,” the word “mainstream” is also fraught with difficulty. For example, there is some debate about whether “mainstream” means the same thing as “mainline.” I tend to use the term to mean those older Protestant denominations – not Roman Catholics – and Protestant groups that have largely embraced higher criticism and other techniques of biblical interpretation. Thus, broadly I would include Anglicans-Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans as “mainstream.” By contrast, I would be cautious of calling Evangelical groups such as Baptists and Pentecostals “mainstream.” Although these latter groups probably think they now “rule the roost,” the fact is until quite recently, they were also aberrant “non-conformists” in the minds of most other Christians. It is also interesting that in my personal experience, the most ardent anti-Adventist rhetoric usually comes from Evangelicals and not “mainstream” Christians or Catholics.
[iii] For example, Denis Duling who wrote the Anglican textbook I had to buy at Seminary stated, “[Jesus’] appearance to Mary Magdalene… is typical of ASC experiences… that is, those who experienced altered states of consciousness (ASCs) such as spirit-possession or trances, hallucinations, and visions of the out-of-body sort”: Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament – History, Literature and Social Context (4th edition, Belmont CA: Wadsworth Thomson, 2003), 438. Also see chapter 8 of my book, which cites about 30 prominent theologians who now reject the traditional belief in a physical resurrection of Christ with an empty tomb.
[iv] To state the obvious, I don’t simply mean “Eastern Orthodoxy” as in the Russian Orthodox Church. I think most readers would have understood that, but I mention it here in the endnotes out of an abundance of caution.
[v] E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford Uni. Press Inc., 2006), 268-269.
The word “heresy” probably finds its genesis in the Greek word hairesis, meaning “self-chosen opinion.” The word is used in the later NT epistles such as 2 Peter 2:1 to designate a dissenting sect, and popularly applied by “Church Father” Justin the Martyr in his fight against the Gnostics: Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2009), 143. There is probably a third possible test for “orthodoxy” bound up in a comparison to ancient Gnosticism, linked to NT texts again Docetism and “anti-Christs.” However, that would probably require a separate article on its own. I would argue, though, that Adventism can sometimes appear either the most or least Gnostic-like denomination in Christianity today.
[vi] He means to include Adventists as one of the four supposed cults, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Christian Scientists, in his book: A. A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Grand Rapids: Exeter, 1963), 374-375.
[vii] See SDA Fundamental Beliefs Nos. 2 and 4.
[viii] As I say in my book, as an Adventist, I think I could affirm most, if not all, of the statements in the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon Definition, but just not “as a creed.”
[ix] The Filioque clause is a Western Christian concept (accepted by Catholics and most Protestants) that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and not merely from the Father alone (as taught by Eastern Orthodoxy groups). One will similarly note that SDA Fundamental Belief No. 5 says, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son.”
[x] Kenneth Samples, “An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism,” Christian Research Institute Journal, (Summer 1988, Volume 11, Number 1), 9.
[xi] Jonathan Hill, Christianity: The First 400 Years (Oxford: Lion Books, 2013), 77. Moreover, 4th-century historian Evagrius Scholasticus confirmed Christians continued to celebrate communion on the Sabbath, at least outside Alexandria and Rome – see Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 5, 22; NPNF 2nd, II, p. 132. Similarly, the fact that some 2nd-century church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (c.110 AD) urged Gentile Christians to stop living like Jews by keeping the Sabbath, demonstrates there could hardly have been a clear and universal apostolic prohibition on the practice during the New Testament period. All it proves is that some early Christians were still keeping the Sabbath.
[xii] John Bowden, “Resurrection,” Encyclopaedia of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1030. Similarly, as Bishop N T Wright admits: “Again, much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we all do indeed have souls that need saving and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word soul, though rare, reflects when it does occur underlying Hebrew or Aramaic words referring not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality, seen as being confronted by God” – see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 2.
[xiii] Géza Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 52-53. Moreover, “Church Father” Tertullian (c.160-225 AD) similarly observed in Apol 9., alluding to early Christians’ keeping the kosher rule against eating blood: “Further, how absurd it is for you to believe that they, who you are assured, abhor the blood of beasts, are panting for the blood of man, unless perchance you have found the former more palatable!”
[xiv] Simon Rocker, “Fury over Israeli plan to limit conversions,” The Jewish Chronicle, May 26, 2017.
[xv] Jeremy Sharon, “Reform Jews Are Worse than Holocaust Deniers, Says Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem,” The Jerusalem Post, Sep 6, 2017.
[xvii] And in fairness to Jehovah’s Witnesses, they could probably equally claim historic connection to ancient Arians, and for Mormons with much of ancient Gnosticism. However, unlike Adventists, they would still fall outside that first Trinitarian approach to orthodoxy.
[xviii] “Hasidic vs Orthodox: What’s The Difference?” The Hasidic World, Nov 11, 2016.
[xx] Adventist leaders have repeatedly said the pre-Advent investigative judgment (PAIJ) doctrine is our “unique” contribution to Christianity. However, this might just be a positive way of saying something quite negative – it is the one doctrine that is unorthodox, being a mere modern invention.
I would, however, argue the broad idea of the PAIJ is historic and therefore orthodox, because something akin to a pre-parousia judgment of an investigative nature has been believed since the earliest days of Christianity. The Nicene Creed explicitly mentions judgment. The idea is still found within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy today in the concepts of “particular judgment” and “general judgment.” Nonetheless, the specific prophetic 1844 date is admittedly much harder to address. See Angel Rodriguez, “The Judgement and the Second Coming,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 11/01).
[xxi] Harriet Sherwood, “Majority of British Jews will be ultra-orthodox by end of century, study finds,” The Guardian, Oct 16, 2015;
[xxii] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “The Season of Adventists: Can Ben Carson’s Church Stay Separatist amid Booming Growth?” Christianity Today, Jan 22 2015.
[xxiii] Jeffrey MacDonald, “Adventists’ back-to-basics faith is fastest growing US church,” US Today, Mar 17, 2011; “Adventist Church in Australia Has Record Growth in Official Census,” Adventist Today, Feb 6, 2013.
[xxiv] As a singular example, look at the near civil war within “mainstream” Christianity over the “New Perspectives on Paul” movement. I won’t offer a view here other than to observe both sides seem to be claiming Apostolic connection with early Christianity, while calling their opponents modern heretics.
[xxv] Page 48.
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.