Desmond Ford: The Prophet as Heretic
10 April 2019
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The SDA church martyred Desmond Ford in 1980. His symbolically-spilled blood gave life to many toiling away in the shadows of perfectionism, brought “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Luckily, I was one of them.
Of course I had heard of Ford in seminary in the 1990s, but his name remains a four-letter word in Brazil. My renewed exposure to Ford’s writings came as I grieved the loss of my mother a decade ago. This may sound unusual, since Ford was not necessarily known for his views on death. But at the time of my bereavement, I was looking for assurance that the end of my sorrow was just around the corner. As I searched for light in the prophecies, I eventually came across Ford’s views.
What I found was better than I had anticipated. It was Ford’s views on righteousness by faith which shone high above the sterile controversies over apocalyptic prophecy. Ford’s preaching of forensic atonement was a breath of fresh air blowing softly on weary, desert-bound souls like me, withering in legalistic perfectionism.
Many things about Ford impressed me: his passion for the Gospel, his derision of the evils of perfectionism and legalism, his love of Scripture and his courage to challenge deeply held beliefs. In my personal communications with him, he was always positive and encouraging. In reaction to one of my articles (can’t remember which), Des called it “first-class.” He even quoted me in a book. He had an innate ability to encourage young talent and I’m grateful for that. I missed seeing him in Australia in December 2018 when I graduated with a Ph.D. from Avondale College––his disease was already taking its toll at that time. (Our meeting will have to be “under the tree of life,” as we used to say in the old days of Adventist Youth (AY) meetings.)
It also strikes me how Ford’s life was full of paradoxes.
Ford wrote the leading denominational commentary on Daniel, but was ousted from the ministry because of his views on Daniel. When he spoke candidly about doctrine, he caused many to leave Adventism but he himself stayed on. He rejected Ellen White’s role as the arbiter of Scripture, but benefited from her pastoral leadership and health-based message (he credited his longevity to following her writings). He was disdained as a “heretic” but remained one of Adventism’s foremost champions of the Second Coming and the Sabbath, the two main pillars of the denomination. He accepted the church’s views on salvation as held by Ellen White and the pioneers since 1888, but was sacked because the church had been steadily returning to perfectionism and Last Generation Theology––supported by General Conference President Robert Pierson and Kenneth Wood’s tenure as editor of the Adventist Review. And I’m sure there are more paradoxes to give us perspective and pause.
The problems with the doctrine of 1844 and the Investigative Judgment have not abated since Ford raised his voice against it in 1979. In the same token, church leadership continues to respond in similar fashion to controversies, not so much for the theological contingencies of doctrine, but for the need to maintain the status quo out of business/monetary concerns. (At bottom, similar business concerns govern the recent debate on women’s ordination). The General Conference after all, often operates like the headquarters of a business conglomerate made up of hospitals, schools and real estate under a religious banner.
The unrelenting doctrinal and legal setbacks faced by the SDA church since the late 1970s have not made the church humbler. To the contrary, the church’s go-to response to threats is hardened fundamentalism and litigation––which leeches millions of dollars a year in tithe money from the church’s coffers. It feels like the church has been sold to the highest bidder: a conglomerate of fundamentalist business owners safeguarding business interests disguised as obscurantism, perfectionism and sectarianism––the “mossbacks,” as Ford biographer Milton Hook called them.
Many regret that the church did not make amends with Ford. But how could it now? It had a higher chance to make reparations with him in 1980 than it does now under the stranglehold of the second Wilson administration. Would the church now recognize the abject failure that was Glacier View? Not a snowball’s chance in hades. If in 1980 disrupting a deeply-held belief was bound to set in motion an institutional earthquake whose shockwaves could crack the entire edifice––even non-business-minded (and non-reading) administrators could see that––admitting to a grave mistake now would be catastrophic.
So, it makes sense for the business to keep Ford a “heretic.” It shows that the church is proactive in addressing “error” and perpetuates the Adventist need to have someone to fight against. As a result, most Adventists continue to believe as Gerhard Hasel framed the issue at Glacier View (to a loud chorus of “Amens”): “God’s only intention in Daniel 8:14 was to point forward to 1844.” In other words, the Adventist interpretation confirms the meaning of Scripture.
In many ways, Ford’s trajectory in Adventism parallels that of another heretic, Galileo Galilei. When our intractable Italian genius could not live with the lie of geocentric cosmology, he made his conclusions known, to the chagrin of the powers that be. Despite his friendship with Pope Urban VIII, Galileo was summoned by the Inquisition to expound his views and came, hoping that the undeniable facts of his position would prevail over obscurantism. There, he used God’s second book, nature, to counter bogus proof-texts used by the church to defend geocentrism. When Galileo failed to recant, he was deemed “vehemently suspect of heresy,” condemned to house arrest and his writings placed on the Index of banned books. (Legend has it that as Galileo left the witness stand, he muttered “Eppur si muove,” “And yet it moves,” referring to the earth).
Just as it is impossible to defend the Inquisition, neither can the meetings at Glacier View ever be redeemed. It was a monkey trial, set up to bestow ecclesiastical legitimacy to a process that was compromised from the start; a trap, a cloak-and-dagger operation that Ford naïvely fell for and couldn’t possibly win. If anything can be rescued from that fatidic week in 1980––when bell-bottoms glumly gathered and bespectacled sideburns grimaced––let Ford’s character stand in stark contrast to that of the “brethren.”
Despite continuing to tout the delusion that the church “dealt with Ford” in the embarrassing meeting and the ensuing DARCOM books––masterpieces of confirmation bias and deductive methodology––the fact is that Adventism continues to stumble under the rigor mortis of the failed doctrinal experiment it still carries on its back. Ford knew that about 1844 and moved on; many scholars gathered at Glacier View agreed with him on many points, before administrators hijacked the meeting and issued the papal bull Adversus Haereses Glacierum Vieworum. Likewise, hundreds of ministers and tens of thousands of members have moved on to superior matters of the faith. (Read here the independent report Spectrum published in 1980.)
Many left the church altogether; others decided to stay because, like Des, they refuse to leave Adventism for disagreeing over the interpretation of an obscure passage in the book of Daniel. Adventism means more to them than doctrinal acrobatics, ancient numerology and administrative tunnel vision. They stayed because they found the assurance of salvation and feel they can live out their Christian lives within a big-tent, worldwide apocalyptic movement. They can freely celebrate the “Christ event” which already unleashed the eschaton, whose final consummation we await with bated breath and busy hands.
Ford never claimed prophetic visions or dreams. But his untiring voice and characteristic Aussie accent––presenting Christ’s righteousness imputed on our behalf and calling for sanctified obedience––was no less prophetic than canonical or not-so-canonical ones. Ford’s ministry was an echo chamber of Paul’s soteriological proclamations; his sole dream was to see the Adventist church come “full circle with the Gospel,” as he used to say.
I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered. As for the other controversies, let sleeping corpses lie.
André Reis, Ph.D., is the author of the upcoming book The Day of Atonement in the Book of Revelation. The title of this piece is adapted from Jonathan’s Butler’s “The Historian as Heretic” in Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health, 2nd edition.