By Chris Daley, June 19, 2017: On a lovely Spring Friday afternoon at his Silver Spring (Maryland) home, I had the privilege to sit and converse with Dr. Clinton Baldwin about his new book, The Person of Jesus: God’s Obligatory Sabbath. Dr. Baldwin has been a pastor serving more than 30 Seventh-day Adventist churches during his time. This book calls the Adventist community to examine one of its core beliefs, the spiritual practice of the seventh-day Sabbath. In this interview, he shares who he is, what motivated his study on this doctrine and what are the key findings from his study.
Tell us a little about your roots and what led you to a vocation in pastoral ministry?
I grew up in Jamaica. As a child and teenager, books and church activities were my daily companions. We never had a television in our house; just could not afford it. My call to ministry was what I would describe as a process call. It emerged gradually over the years and by the time I was through with high school, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Was there a parent or a person that nurtured the idea of looking beyond the seemingly settled?
My mother had a very entrepreneurial spirit. She instilled in me the discipline of hard work and doing the very best in the least of activities. Somehow, as a teenager, I developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which kept me reading and thinking. I was also an introvert; probably still am. It’s a process.
You are perceived to be challenging one of the twin towers of Adventist orthodoxy, the Sabbath. Have you any prior engagement with stretching the mental muscle of the church?
No and Yes. No, in that I have never before engaged the church on such a wide scale, as I have done now, in terms making a national presentation and writing a book challenging one of the fundamentals of the church. Yes, in the sense that I have on a few occasions, locally, made presentations that some people … found challenging. However, none of those presentations contravened any fundamental beliefs of the church and the record is there to substantiate this. I cite one example. In 2014, I made a presentation at ASRS [Adventist Society for Religious Studies] in San Diego, California. In this presentation I literally begged not to be assassinated as it was a scholarly presentation and I was simply presenting ideas for discussion among my scholarly colleagues. The paper was published in Spectrum for all to read. As a result of this presentation, I was removed from the time table at Oakwood University and dragged through a most embarrassing inquisition process. The net result is that I was greatly stigmatized, barred from working in other Adventist institutions. In fact, by my assessment, from all Adventist institutions. So much more could be said here. We are still not the most mature in our handling of people who dare to think.
Study of the doctrine of the investigative judgement did not end well for another theologian, Dr. Desmond Ford. There is a high cost in prompting dialog in our rule-based church. How has this history shaped your relationship with the church?
Well, from following the events with Ford and others before him like Ballenger, W. W. Fletcher, Cottrell, etc., I became aware that there is no room within the church for challenging the orthodoxy of the church. Thinking is certainly allowed in the Adventist Church, but it is thinking within the Adventist box. One is relatively safe if one’s thinking affirms that which the church already considers to be true. Also, if you have some amount of power and prestige with the church, you may survive for a while, but not for long. Of course, Raymond Cottrell is a stellar exception. While I was within the church, I tried my best to self-censor my public speaking and took a research-oriented approach to issues that were seen as controversial.
Describe your present association with the church?
Honestly, I am not too sure how to describe it. Over the past 20 years or so, my church has been disgracefully cruel towards me. I have seen the face of evil in the Adventist Church. How I describe the Adventist Church is that it is a very good organization and at the same time it is a very evil organization. How is my association, with the church? I guess it is mixed, most of my friends are Adventists, but let’s see how many will continue to be my friends; it is still early days. Regarding the administration and the power structure of the church, I am rather disappointed. This material I have now published in my book is what I would have liked to have delivered to my church while remaining on the inside, however … there is no room for questioning our sacred orthodoxy without suspicion, persecution and being labeled as a heretic.
What sustains your courage and staying power in publishing such a provocative book?
My staying power is rooted in my relationship with Jesus. I maintain a steady prayer life and constantly draw on the interventions of God in my past. From my study of righteous by faith beginning in the early 1980’s, I have maintained a solid assurance of salvation from that time, and the abiding knowledge that God accepts me unconditionally, gives me staying power. I am blessed with a great family. My wife is a tower of strength. We have a solid relationship for 24 years now, my son Mendel adds to the inner shield. Then there are my siblings, we are all very tight-knit and that’s a foundation that is solid. Undergirding all this is the unexplainable presence of the Holy Spirit that keeps me at peace all the time.
Describe your personal Sabbath belief and practice.
Currently, I believe that Jesus is the Sabbath, and as such Sabbath-keeping has to do with resting in Jesus 24-seven. For me, keeping the Sabbath has to do with maintaining a balanced life, socially, spiritually, emotionally, etc. I try to rest intermittently throughout the week, so as not to overwork, and then like a traditional Adventist, I continue to “rest” on Sabbath and of course this is expressed more in terms of going to church. Going forward, I intend to participate more in church fellowship on Sundays. This is in keeping with my theology that the Sabbath is resting in Jesus, irrespective of days. To contend at the level of one day over another is to unknowingly battle over non-essentials.
So what motivated your study of the Sabbath?
My study of the Sabbath at this time is really the culmination of a very long process, some 32 years of thinking and research on the subject. I started studying the Sabbath on and off since 1985. Shortly, after I left college in 1985, I was led to a deeper study of righteousness by faith, and with it, the Sabbath. An exceptional spark was lit, when in late 1985, I read a magazine that included the interview of an Adventist religion scholar, the head of a theology department. In this interview, the professor remarked that many Bible scholars do not believe in the obligatory nature of the Sabbath. That really got me thinking. And so, on and off from then, privately, I began reading and digging on the topic of Sabbath. The more I studied, the more questions emerged, but not enough to cause me to separate from Adventism. I maintained a very active life within the church, both as a member and employee. … I was doing my fishing from the boat. As I had the privilege to do graduate studies, it became clearer and clearer that the Sabbath was not obligatory in the traditional sense of a specific day but as the person of Jesus Christ. So, the entire thing is more of a process than an event.
Take a moment and articulate the core thesis of your book.
The core of the book is that the resurrected Jesus is the Christian’s Sabbath and as such the Sabbath is no longer obligatory as the observance of a specific day but as an abiding relationship with Jesus, 24 seven. Because Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, the person who accepts Jesus is indeed a Sabbath keeper at a deeper level. Thus, all sincere Christians are Sabbath-keepers, but not all Sabbath-keepers are Christians. True Sabbath-keeping requires and empowers the Christian to be relieved of all cares not just one day per week, but seven days per week. For me it is extremely good news. The seventh day has lost all its Old Testament meanings to the person of Jesus, just as the sacrifices, circumcision, Day of Atonement, tabernacles, Pentecost, Sabbatical Year, Jubilee Year, etc., have all been fulfilled in Jesus and He, in His resurrected existence continues to satisfy all these meanings and functions for the believer.
I believe that the contention over whether or not the Sabbath is Saturday or Sunday is misguided. As Adventists, in treating the Sabbath issue, we have been asking and answering the wrong question: Is the Sabbath one day versus another? I think the correct question is whether or not the Sabbath is a day or a person? I think the New Testament is clear; it is the person Jesus Christ.
This accentuates the obligation of unbroken holy time with God every day each week. Time for rest and congregational worship is therefore optional in contrast to rest in Jesus which is continuous. Frankly, I think most Adventists, by acknowledging that the Sabbath is no longer the seal of God for the person in Christ has surrendered the obligatory nature of the seventh day without realizing it.
What would you consider to be the bull’s eye for a reader picking up your book?
Chapters 2, 8 and the conclusion.
What is the resultant transformation for the reader you are hoping for?
I am hoping that every Seventh-day Adventist and all other Sabbatarians embrace the gospel in a more fulsome manner in terms of seeing the Sabbath as resting in Christ and not necessarily as resting on a specific day. Emphasizing a specific day of rest is good, but it is a good that has become the enemy of the best. True Sabbath rest in Christ, I believe will shift the emphasis from doctrines to love, social and economic justice which is the real spin off of genuine Sabbath keeping in Jesus.
Martin Luther had 95 theses. We do not have time right now to delve into all your ideas. Please share concisely three key findings and the contrast between the conventional Adventist understanding and your teaching.
Permit me to say three emphases, because, to many scholars, these are not really new. My packaging of them in my book may have a unique angle, but in many respects the points have been around for a while.
First, the resurrected Jesus continues to be the only obligatory Sabbath for the Christian which means that a specific day is no longer obligatory as such, rather all days are now one hundred percent holy days. This is in contrast to the traditional Adventist position that stresses the seventh day as being the exclusive and required Sabbath for all humanity.
Second, stemming from the concept of Jesus being the Sabbath, the Sabbath has lost its elective function; it can no longer serve to attribute special status to anyone or any one group. This means it is no longer the seal of God and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nor any church for that matter, can claim exclusive remnant status. To claim exclusive remnant status, as we now do, is classic salvation by works, a bold denial of the gospel whichever way you may nuance it. Too many Adventist pastors and Bible scholars know this, and it is full time that they make their voice heard on this issue.
Third, Adventists do not really keep the Sabbath. As I demonstrate, particularly in Chapter 13, the Sabbath is the only commandment which can only be kept if another person violates it on your behalf. (I here paraphrase Coffen.) But there is no such provision in the Decalogue. If such is the case then, Adventists are not Sabbath keepers as one cannot proclaim innocence for not robbing the bank, simply because you drive the get-away car. Especially if you keep on driving it on a regular basis, once per week. We employ several categories of workers to do things for us on Sabbath that we would not normally do for ourselves. Additionally, Adventists really do not place the Sabbath on the same moral status as they do the other nine commandments. For example, we believe …
(A) People who do not keep the Sabbath as a practice, can accept Jesus and certainly have the seal of God (Eph 1:13, 14). However, people who kill, steal, commit adultery and worship idols as a regular practice cannot be said to have truly accepted Jesus and certainly do not have the seal of God.
(B) People who violate the Sabbath commandment, but have accepted Jesus are one hundred percent justified, however, people who violate the commandments regarding killing, stealing, committing adultery and worshipping idols, etc., cannot claim to have accepted Jesus and are not justified.
(C) People who do not keep the Sabbath as a practice but who have accepted Jesus are called Christians but people who kill, steal, commit adultery and worship idols as a practice, are not called Christians.
(D) People who do not keep the Sabbath, but accept Jesus can become members of the Adventist Church without baptism as opposed to people who kill, steal, commit adultery and worship idols as a practice, cannot become members of the Adventist Church.
All these positions indicate that we really do not place the Sabbath on the same moral plane as we place the other nine commandments. Our current Sabbath emphasis on a specific day borders on sheer legalism. There is great need for Sabbath reform in the Adventist church, in fact, not only a Sabbath reform, but a total overhaul of the entire doctrinal construct of Adventism. Too many people know this and are keeping quiet. They owe it to the members in the pew to speak up.
Will you be available for a follow up interview to test the Biblical staying power of your findings and answer questions that may come from our readers?
Certainly. I will always remain a learner in Christ.
The featured photo is that of Baldwin and his new book in his study.
Chris Daley volunteered to interview Baldwin for Adventist Today because of the requests we have received and widespread rumors among Adventists in the Caribbean basin. He is a board member for Adventist Today and local elder in the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, on the campus of Washington Adventist University.
If you have questions for Adventist Today to pass on to Baldwin, please send an email to email@example.com and put “Baldwin” in the subject field.