Engage

​The Way We Were

A theology for understanding change

Our title is a nod to Barbara Streisand’s song about past experience, with its penetrating question “Can it be that it was all so simple then?”

Memory can be selective. I think back to when my brothers and I used to go canoeing for one long weekend each summer down the Delaware River. One year the weather was extremely hot and humid, and the river was low so we had to work extra hard. We were complaining that our destination couldn’t come soon enough. We wanted out!

But now when I think back to those canoe trips my mind doesn’t go to the hard rowing in the hot sun. Instead, I remember the camaraderie we shared, the wildlife we saw, and the gentle sound of the river outside our tent as we fell asleep. In my memory the experience is more wonderful than it was at the time.

So the song asks, “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” That’s a question to ask not only about canoe trips, but of our own Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Yesterday

There’s an ache in many hearts for what used to be. Troubles seemed so far away from our yesterday. The older I get, the more nostalgia I harbor for simpler times gone by. Pictures of things and events from the days of my American boyhood in the 1960s, and my teenage years in 1970s, give me a warm feeling and tempt me to believe things were better then. Maybe there were things worth cherishing. But clear-eyed history shows the 1960s and 1970s to be turbulent times. The sexual revolution and the drug culture were in full swing. Civil rights battles were an ugly struggle. The assassinations of U.S. president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy first stunned, then fractured, and finally destroyed our sense of innocence, leaving us a deficit of national optimism.

Adventism Yesterday

When we think back to our own church history, we may be tempted to believe that things were simpler and better. The entire family went to church, and even arrived for Sabbath School in time to get their week of missionary work included in the class activity report. There was Uncle Arthur’s Bible Story series, and his Bedtime Stories at bedtime; Ingathering on cold winter nights; King’s Heralds music and the radio preaching of H.M.S. Richards, Sr. Back then we went from door to door on Sabbath afternoons handing out literature before returning to the church for Missionary Volunteer (MV) Society meetings. If you had children, they went to church school.

But all our memories are not quite as warm: dresses and skirts subjected to the kneeling test; guitars and their players—like the Wedgwood Trio—considered instruments of the devil; beards that got men dismissed from Adventist schools; and our defining lists of “don’ts” that measured the Christian walk. The times have surely changed, and faith and practice seem much different now.

There’s an ache in many hearts for what used to be.

But how comfortable are we about change? Do we see adjustment to technical innovation as a compromise of values? Do we hear new ideas as undermining the truths of our message? Or has the spirit of Athens become our own? The Athenians, you recall, “used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21, NASB).1 How can we know whether the next step takes us over a cliff to crash on the rocks below, or into God’s wondrous plan for this church?

One thing is for sure: we don’t have to be afraid for the future. Church cofounder Ellen White speaks confidently about tomorrow: “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what God has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us.”2

Things We Forget

Unfortunately, we do tend toward rather tricky ways of forgetting. Either that, or we are tempted to a romanticism that glosses over our history of denominational and doctrinal development. As if the early pioneers of our faith passively sat around in full agreement with one another over all points of our denominational and doctrinal development. This, of course, is far from the truth.

The momentous significance of our movement to God’s last-day purposes, and the rugged individuality of our pioneers, meant that the establishment of Adventist church structure and theology was no walk in the park, or season of peace and tranquillity. With regard to such theological issues as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, America’s mid-nineteenth-century theological climate effectively mirrored the state of the Christian church in the fourth century. The emergence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church from that climate could be expected to reflect the challenges and issues of the day.

By way of example, brilliant administrator and theologian Uriah Smith, longtime editor of Adventist Review, progressed through multiple stages in his view of the nature of Christ, from basic Arianism (Jesus Christ was “not the beginner, but the beginning of the creation, the first created being”) to acceptance of His full deity. His positions on the atonement also migrated toward orthodox Christianity’s acceptance of Christ’s death on the cross as making full atonement for sin, though Smith, dedicated and godly, never seems to have arrived at that orthodoxy.3

What Keeps Us Together

Smith was one of several early Adventist leaders who were either dubious about or categorically opposed to the doctrine of God as three distinct persons of underived and equal power and authority. Perhaps the principal force that held them together and guided them into the miraculous unity they came to experience was their faith in the authority of the Word of God.

The Sabbath Conferences between 1848 and 1850 demonstrated their commitment, and were a prelude to the church’s future commitment until today to prove all things, searching the Scriptures as the Bereans did, holding fast only to that which Scripture showed to be good (see 1 Thess. 5:21; Acts 17:11). So while misunderstanding, prejudice and the climate of independence played their part, the pioneers were united in basing their arguments on Scripture. As long as their sincere recourse was to Scripture itself rather than to a creed as their rule of doctrine, they were bound to discover truth sooner or later.

Even when the issue of righteousness by faith became the focus of unseemly contention among them in the 1880s and early 1890s, the vehemence of their disagreements was over what the Bible says. The church’s ministers, theologians, and other leaders may have been divided in opinion, but they were all united in their devotion to the Bible, and their conviction that God would show them from His Word what they were to believe.

The progressive understanding of truth has always involved groping after it, documenting partial understandings that would be corrected and advanced by others afterward. In the growth and progress of our church we may observe a pattern of divine leadership. We see that God seldom gives light until His people have done their best to investigate what the Scriptures have to say on the subject. Understanding and accepting their obligation to study to show themselves approved before God (see 2 Tim. 2:15), our pioneers were reluctant to make official statements of doctrine. They refused to vote a creed, and so do we today—because they recognized, as we still do, that there was more truth coming: the path of the just is like a light that shines more and still more until the light of day (see Prov. 4:18). None of us wants to hinder the sun’s advancing rays by sealing the doors and windows through which God shines His truth.62-1.jpg

What We Can Learn

Our history, we have seen, has been characterized by both division and unity, by the spirit of independence and the willingness to come together in the truth. Ours is a history of men and women willing to leave their established churches and ready to enlist in the vanguard of a new thing that God was doing. They could resist and rebel, and they could also conform and organize—eventually!

What does their example and our history teach us? I suggest at least two lessons.

First, much of what we believe today is the result of God choosing to lead through the process of theological debate. Second, knowing the difference between principles and policies is critical. Distinguishing between principle and policy is itself one hermeneutic rule or interpretive strategy among many. A principle is a fundamental truth that serves as the foundation for beliefs or practices. A policy is the local application of a principle that makes it right and true for certain times, places, or people. Sound hermeneutics, i.e., sound strategies of interpretation, will help us respond correctly to issues that confront us, distinguishing between fixed principle and variable policy.

God’s demand that Moses remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground (Ex. 3:5) does not constitute a rule that I remove my shoes when entering a place of worship. The principle of respect should always apply. But policies on the practice of respect may vary from culture to culture. The hermeneutic principle involved here is that circumstances may alter either meaning, or requirement, or both.

Both Mark’s rich young ruler (Mark10:17-21) and Paul’s Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30, 31) ask what they must do to be saved. But Jesus and Paul provide very different answers. Whether geographically, politically, or spiritually, the jailer and the young ruler were in very different places. Their differences required different answers.

The challenge of correct interpretation is not going away this side of heaven: a car flashing its headlights at you at sunset may mean that you need to turn on your headlights; or that you do have your headlights on—on high beam; or that there is something to be cautious about as you approach the bend in the road—perhaps an animal, or an accident, or a radar trap. We will always need humility to acknowledge that there are answers we do not yet have—we have not yet gone round the bend; humility to concede that there are questions we have not yet heard; humility to admit our limitations before the challenge of new questions. Also, we will always need the wisdom of heaven to help us toward correct conclusions. And humility to grant that though we prayed and waited and listened, we may still not yet have come to the best of conclusions.

A third hermeneutic principle is the do-your--homework principle. It involves bringing together all the data available upon the topic before drawing a final conclusion. Isaiah’s instruction is surely apropos: precept must be connected with precept, line must be added to line (Isa. 28:10). It’s the connect-the-dots principle. Don’t jump to precarious conclusions when you can get there safely and comfortably.

What We Fear

The ultimate fear in some minds is that allowing change in our church means losing our identity as Adventists who faithfully follow God’s will. But this is not a fear that we need to have.

Our history shows that God is fully capable of leading His church. Indeed, it is we who often get in His way, declaring ourselves the church’s gatekeepers, armed with our lethal weaponry of criticisms. If we must be keepers of the gate, let us be there to keep them open that the world may know that all are welcome into the family of the people of God.

Open and welcoming arms are agents of change: they change the church’s numbers; they show the passion of our compassion; they change our composition, and thus change onlookers’ perspectives about us. Change based on constant, careful Bible study is fulfillment of God’s promise already noted in Proverbs 4:18. Living organisms change as God constantly gives new life. We can trust Him; this is His church. And lest we forget, let us say it again: “We have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”4


  1. Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  2. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 31.
  3. For the story of Uriah Smith’s various theological blunders and improvements on the nature and divinity of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, see LeRoy Edwin Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1971), pp. 158-166.
  4. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 196.

Rick Labate is an associate director of pastoral ministries for the Potomac Conference in Staunton, Virginia.

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