Is Desmond Ford Really the Dark Lord of Adventism?
By Stephen Ferguson | 7 March 2018 |
Growing up as an Adventist in Australia during the 1990s-2000s Desmond Ford was something of a legend. By legend I mean he was like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series: the Dark Lord, never to be named.
For those who don’t know, Dr. Ford challenged the traditional Adventist doctrine of the pre-advent investigative judgment (PAIJ) which had been based on applying a day-for-a-year principle to the 2,300 mornings and evenings prophecy of Daniel 8:14. The investigative judgment refers to a pre-advent judgment in which the cases of all those who have ever accepted Christ are examined from the record books, and the sins of those accounted righteous are blotted out. This judgment began in 1844 and will end with the close of probation. on 2 September 1980 the General Conference recommended Dr. Ford be stripped of his ministerial credentials.
What did Desmond Ford actually say in 1980?
This provides some backdrop to an unusual conversation I had with Gillian Ford, the wife of Desmond Ford, concerning a review of my book, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know. She had some concerns about my suggestion that the PAIJ was now, “a rather obscure belief, at least amongst ordinary Adventist laypeople under about forty years’ of age, which make up over half of current SDA membership.” 
To older generations this topic probably seems passé. Yet as a member of a younger generation, I thought I’d challenge the misconceptions and haziness of this history in my own mind by taking a fresh look at the original 1980 material. This included Dr. Ford’s own 991-page manuscript, as well as the Consensus Document endorsed by the delegates, and the Ten-Point Critique later used to defrock Dr. Ford. Here is what I found.
1. Dr. Ford didn’t say what I think modern generations of Adventists think he said: he acknowledged the prophetic importance of 1844
I was always under the impression that Dr. Ford had suggested the date 1844 had no prophetic or eschatological (end-time) significance, that the SDA Pioneers had all been duped, and thus the Adventist movement was built upon a lie. Underneath all the technical scholarly arguments about the parsing of Hebrew and Greek words, this seemed to have been the core psychological issue. For example, the delegate’s Consensus Document noted the SDA Pioneers:
“could see that although they had been mistaken, they had not been utterly deluded; they still had a mission and a message.”
I was therefore surprised to read Dr. Ford affirm:
“On 1844 we shall say that in the providence of God, He brought to the birth the movement with the last message for the world – the third angel’s message in verity, justification by faith… 1844 and the Advent movement are indeed a fulfilment of Dan. 8:14.”
2. Dr. Ford recognised a pre-advent judgment, but did challenge how we view its investigative aspect
The second assumption I always had was that Dr. Ford had rejected the idea of a PAIJ in its entirety. I was again surprised to read in his 1980 manuscript Dr. Ford affirm:
“The Scriptures indeed teach a pre-advent judgment whereby the destiny of all men is settled while Christ is still our High Priest in the sanctuary above.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Ford held, “In none of these [texts] does the context speak of the saints being investigated.” It seems the investigative part worried him.
Yet, in a certain way of thinking, I wonder if Dr. Ford expanded the concept of investigative judgment. Dr. Ford said there is no need for a special “investigative judgment for the sake of the angels” because “the angels themselves are familiar with the thoughts and intents of our hearts.” “Nothing is secret from Him” (Job 7:17-20; Matt. 18:10), and angels do not “need books and 140 years to settle the destiny of men” (1 Kings 19:5-8; Ps. 91:11-12; Heb. 1:14, 13:2).
These statements are not an entire repudiation of investigation. They are an affirmation of heavenly inquisitorial observation, contrasted with the role of the saints’ petit jury during the Millennium, where time and books will be required (Rev. 20:12). What I take Dr. Ford meant was that the pre-advent judgment was not investigative in the sense of a merits apud iudicem trial.
3. Dr. Ford accepted the gift of Ellen White, but upheld sola scriptura
A third misconception I held was that Dr.Ford supposedly rejected Ellen White. However, Dr. Ford was explicit:
Dr. Ford did reject Mrs White’s infallibility and affirmed the Bible as the basis of our doctrines:
“As an inspired leader she has and does teach the flock, but never are her writings to be made the sole basis of doctrine.”
But do you know who agreed with these sentiments? Ellen White herself!
4. Dr. Ford still taught the little horn was the Papacy. He was condemned for saying “a” rather than “the”
A fourth misconception I had was that Dr. Ford had supposedly taught that the “little horn” prophecy of Dan. 7:8 was not the Papacy but the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c.215-164 BC). Dr. Ford was also supposedly a preterist, meaning someone who sees biblical prophecy already having been fulfilled in the past. However, Dr. Ford actually said:
“the Dan. 8 prophecy had a limited fulfilment in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, another in pagan Rome, another in papal Rome, and yet will have final fulfilment in Satan’s manifestation just before the millennium and at its end.”
Note the word “another”. He didn’t let the Papacy off the hook.
He likewise said 1844 was “a fulfilment of Daniel 8:14.” Note a fulfilment – not the fulfilment.
Dr. Ford did this by invoking the apotelesmatic principle whereby “a prophecy fulfilled, or fulfilled in part, or unfulfilled at the appointed time, may have a later or recurring, or consummated fulfilment, with the recurring fulfilment repeating the main idea”. An example accepted by most Adventists includes, “certain of the predictions of Matthew 24 pointed forward both to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and to the end of time.”
General Conference scholars acknowledge this too, admitting, “It is true that Seventh-day Adventists have made two applications” of Bible prophecies. However, they claim Dr. Ford was still wrong because, “The apotelesmatic principle fails to differentiate between fulfillment and application.” What they mean is anyone’s guess given “apply” and “fulfill” are virtually synonymous.
Dr. Ford was also condemned for saying the Bible points to a 1st century Second Advent, but that Christian inaction has caused its delay:
“According to Ford, Christ planned his return to coincide with the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. This is pure 100% preterism!” 
However, the delegates at Glacier View also accepted this position:
“Does the New Testament indicate the likelihood of a first-century return of Christ? VOICES: ‘Yes’. (No objections).”
Paradoxically, I find Dr. Ford’s thoughts on conditional prophesy and eschatological delay most prevalent today within conservative Last Generation Theology movement. This movement has seen support from our current General Conference president, whose father reigned in 1980.
5. The delegates never actually condemned Dr. Ford as an apostate. He was at most heterodox, not a heretic
It is true Dr. Ford had some challenging ideas, but did they constitute biblical apostasy? The language in the Consensus Document is itself far from categorical:
- The precise meaning of the Old Testament prophecies is a matter that calls for ongoing study…
- The year-day relationship can be Biblically supported, although it is not explicitly identified as a principle of prophetic interpretation…
- While there is, therefore, not a strong verbal link between this verse and the Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16, the passages are, nevertheless, related…
- But while we believe that our historic interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is valid, we wish to encourage ongoing study.
The Ten-Point Critique used to defrock Dr. Ford also said his views were “an unwarranted reduction of Adventist belief”. A reduction is hardly a wholesale departure. President Neal Wilson himself admitted, “I don’t think Dr. Ford’s basic view of justification necessarily leads to divergent doctrine.” The language in the Consensus Document and Ten-Point Critique seem to treat Dr. Ford’s ideas as heterodox—an alternative acceptable opinion.
6. There was almost a compromise – and Elder Wilson was almost a hero
Finally, I was surprised how close the parties came to a compromise. First of all, “The two consensus statements unanimously voted at Glacier View by his peers were accepted by Dr. Ford. He was therefore in harmony with his brethren.” Second, Elder Wilson was almost the hero of the story because he accepted a compromise: Dr. Ford was to remain silent on the PAIJ:
FORD: “…Since October 27, I have refused to speak on the judgment, and I have no intention of speaking on it until the brethren have studied it…”
WILSON: “…I believe it is an answer to prayer. I accept your statement, Des, at face value. At no times has this church endeavored to control minds…Yes, I would accept that.”
So why didn’t the compromise stick? I get the sense it came down to a conflict of personalities, where Dr. Ford unnecessarily exasperated some peers and administrators. That may be true, but scripture teaches ill feelings aren’t relevant to administering justice (Ex. 23:4-5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 5:44-48).
Can we now say the Dark Lord’s name openly?
Dr. Ford was perhaps many things, but it seems he was never the Adventist Dark Lord of my childhood. So why was he presented as such to me?
No doubt church leaders thought they were only protecting the flock and that a message had to be sent. However, the ends never justify the means (Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15). It wasn’t even an eye for an eye, which is actually a biblical passage about proportionality (Ex. 21:24). No, it was an eye for a head. The above illustrates there are serious questions about Desmond Ford’s “trial” in 1980. Like some divine comedy, we should remember Glacier View was about defending a doctrine concerned with divine justice and vindication. The irony! Given church administrators are today grappling with similar issues of theological diversity and organisational rebellion, Glacier View provides valuable lessons, if only we will listen and take heed. If Ted Wilson were a great man (and I think he could be), he might consider issuing an apology to Desmond Ford for what occurred during the administration of his father, Neal Wilson. Not for the merits of his father’s beliefs, but perhaps because of the overzealousness of the process. Fiat justitia ruat cælum (Matt. 6:10).
- Yes, I am using a descriptor from a fictional series about witches and wizards. And yes, I think that is entirely appropriate, because in the minds of many Adventists, I am sure Dr. Ford might as well have been accused of the biblical crime of witchcraft. That is the whole point of this article! ↑
- W. H. Johns, “The ABCs of Dr. Desmond Ford’s Theology”, Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 7/22/98), ff1.<https://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/pdf/desmondfordtheology_0.pdf>See further No. #24 of the statement of Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs. ↑
- “This is, and is not, a Des Ford meeting. Des is not on trial before this group, though some of his views are on trial”: based on the shorthand transcript recorded by Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, cited in Desmond Ford, Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, A Retrospective on October 27, 1979, (2017), Kindle Ed., loc. 1333 at 62%. ↑
- Ibid., loc. 1778 at 83%; Richard Coffen, “Glacier View: A Retrospective”, Adventist Today, (2016). ↑
- 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 (Seattle: Amazon Press, 2016), pp. 60-61. ↑
- I recall reading somewhere there has already been something like 75 separate studies on Dr. Ford, Glacier View and the PAIJ. ↑
- Dr. Ford’s original 991-page manuscript is entitled, Daniel 8:14, the Day of Atonement, and the Investigative Judgment. Note: I have used and cited the version published by Life Assurance Ministries, which I think has different numbering from other versions. However, it is the version that can be downloaded, and found at:<http://www.lifeassuranceministries.com/pdf%20files/Dr-Desmond-Ford-Daniel.8.14.pdf>Other material included a summary prepared by Raymond Cottrell; the “Consensus Document: Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary,” Ministry, October (1980), pp.16-18; and a volume of different, interesting documents found in Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980). ↑
- “Consensus Document: Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary,” p.16. ↑
- Ford, Daniel 8:14, pp.407-408. ↑
- Dr. N. Young similarly observes, explaining my own confusion, “On the one hand he accepted a preadvent judgment, while on the other he denied there was any investigation of the sins of believers. It was widely perceived that for Des, believers did not come into judgment. I made a failed attempt to modify this perception, but to no avail”: Norman Young, “A Reluctant Participant”, Adventist Today, vol. 4, issue 6 (2006), p.9. ↑
- Ford, Daniel 8:14, p.420. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Citing Ellen White, 1T, p.544; Ford, Daniel 8:14, p.313. Ford cites “Heavenly angels are acquainted with our words and actions, and even with the thoughts and intents of the heart”: Ellen White, 1T, p.544. ↑
- Ford, Daniel 8:14, p.408. ↑
- Ibid., p.421. ↑
- An issue I want to explore in a future article. ↑
- Ford, “Ford’s Second Reply”, Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.78. ↑
- Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, Kindle Ed., loc. 1891 at 88%. ↑
- Ford, “Ford’s Second Reply”, p.78 ↑
- “In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His word is true, and in Him is no variableness or shadow of turning”: Letter 10.“We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed”: Selected Messages, Book One, p.416 and 37.“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation”: Counsels to Writers and Editors, p.35.“The Lord desires you to study your Bibles. He has not given any additional light to take the place of His Word”: Letter 130.“Thus saith the Lord is the strongest testimony you can possibly present to the people. Let none be educated to look to Sister White, but to the mighty God, who gives instruction to Sister White”: Letter 11. “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice”: Early Writings, p.78 ↑
- “In my analysis Dr. Ford is a preterist wearing the hat of a historicist and the cloak of a futurist… The Preterist says that almost everything in the book of Revelation was fulfilled long ago”: Johns, “The ABCs of Dr. Desmond Ford’s Theology”, p.7. ↑
- Ford, Daniel 8:14, p.319, emphasis added. ↑
- Ibid., p.408. ↑
- See Raymond Cottrell, “Daniel 8:14 and the Day of Atonement (Summary)”, Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980). I am informed by Mrs Ford that this document is wrongly attributed to Dr. Ford, when in fact it was written by Raymond Cottrell. See also Ford, Daniel 8:14, pp.485, 489. ↑
- Ibid., p.321, citing Ellen White in Desire of Ages, p.628; Great Controversy, pp.22, 25. Other examples of the prophecies with dual or multiple fulfilments include Abraham’s seed pointing to both Isaac and Jesus (Gal. 3:16); Moses’ prophecy of a successor pointing to both Joshua and Jesus (Deut. 18:18); Jesus’ citing Isa. 61:1-3; John the Baptist and Elijah (John 1:23); Pentecost fulfilling Joel but also pointing to the last days (Acts 2:16-21); and the seven letters of Revelation being to seven literal churches in 1st century Asia Minor but also to all Christendom across seven church ages. ↑
- Ibid., 12. ↑
- W. H. Johns, “The ABCs of Dr. Desmond Ford’s Theology”, p.13. The idea of distinguishing “application” from “fulfilment” seems to have first been raised by Leroy Moore and K. G. Vaz at Glacier View: see Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, loc. 1513 at 71%. ↑
- The Webster Dictionary defines “application” as an act of “applying”, meaning “an act of putting something to use”. The word “apply” likewise means, “to bring into action, to put into operation or effect”.The word “fulfilment” means “the act or process of fulfilling”. The word “fulfil” likewise means, “to put into effect”. Thus, both “apply” and “fulfil” mean something akin to “to put into effect”. Moreover, Mr Johns (see above) tries to make some point about the world “fulfilment” in Greek, which is telos. However, I don’t quite follow his point given telos is itself hotly debated because it can, ironically, have multiple meanings! For example, the word as found in Rom. 10:4 can be translated as either “end” or “goal”, something Lutherans and Calvinists have been debating for centuries. ↑
- Johns, “The ABCs of Dr. Desmond Ford’s Theology”, p.8. ↑
- Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, loc. 1430 at 67%. ↑
- “This is why Peter urges the Christian to ‘hasten’ the coming of Jesus by means of the practical holiness being described (II Peter 3:12), and why he urges believers to be ‘found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless’ (verse 14)”: Kevin Paulson, “Five Popular Myths about Last Generation Theology”, ADvindicate, May 21 (2017). ↑
- “The belief that Christians cannot ‘hasten or delay’ the Second Coming is a misconception”: “New Adventist president envisions a church marked by prayer, revival,” Adventist News Network, Aug. 2 (2010). ↑
- “Consensus Document: Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary,” pp.16-18, my emphasis. ↑
- “The Ten-Point Critique”, Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.73. ↑
- I note Norman Young, who wrote those words, in fact wished to change and soften that statement further, “and requested that he change the word ‘unwarranted’ to ‘considerable’, but he declined, considering that the process was too far advanced to allow such editorial adjustments: Norman Young, “A Reluctant Participant”, p.7. ↑
- Neal Wilson, “Wilson Responds”, Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.66. ↑
- From the Greek word for “other opinion”, heterodox beliefs are neither orthodox nor heresy: see Oxford Dictionary Online; see also Dr, Franz Pieper, The Distinction Between Orthodox & Heterodox Churches (1889). ↑
- Andrews Scholars, “An Open Letter to President Wilson”, Spectrum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.61; Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, loc. 1937 at 91%. ↑
- Ibid., loc. 1566 at 73%; 1643 at 77%. Jack Provonsha from Loma Linda had explicitly put it to Elder Wilson, on Desmond Ford’s behalf, that it would be impossible for a person of integrity to preach something he did not personally believe. However, he could remain silent: “But if you asked me not to speak publicly on certain matters, I could put them in my pocket… would you accept it in good faith?” President Wilson explicitly affirmed a policy of silence would be enough. ↑
- For example, “Frankly this attitude mystified more than one of the committee members. In all honesty I must state that Des’ unchangeable and inflexible stand on every position, major or minor, seemed to give the impression of an attitude of inerrancy… [President Wilson] mentioned Dr. Ford’s charisma and how this quality causes people to rally about him regardless of the rightness or wrongness of his doctrinal position”: J. Robert Spangler: “Editorial Perspectives”, Ministry, October (1980), pp.6, 9. ↑
- For example as to why the compromise of silence was ultimately rejected, the Australasian Division President had said, “But it is not enough to say that you are willing to be silent on some things. Your document has gone everywhere in Australia, and we have a pastoral problem of tremendous magnitude there as a result”: Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus”, loc. 1597 at 75%. ↑
- And still presumes mercy trumping judgment (Matt. 5:38-48; Jam. 2:13). ↑
- Including by association, all of those who also suffered injustice as a consequence of Glacier View, especially those clergy who supported Dr. Ford and likewise lost their jobs. As I note in my own book, this included persons such as Dale Ratzlaff, who “was abruptly fired by the Conference for expressing a conviction shared by a majority of the forty or so Bible scholars at Glacier View, that administration had misjudged and mistreated Desmond Ford the year before”: Raymond Cottrell, ‘The Sanctuary Doctrine: Asset or Liability’, JIF symposium in 02-04 November 2001. It would seem fair to say Glacier View made many unnecessary enemies of the SDA Church. ↑
- To avoid any doubt, no one should suggest Ted Wilson is in any way personally responsible for the actions of his father, given the biblical command in Ex. 18:19-20. However, Ted Wilson does lead and speak for the corporate Church, just as his father did in 1980. It is in that corporate capacity – as ruler and employer, not son – that Ted Wilson should consider apologising on behalf of his father’s administration. ↑
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.