Guests: Dave Thomas and Paul Dybdahl
Response to Dale Ratzlaff
By Alden Thompson
Ministry, February 2004, 30-32, 38
Since shortly after the middle of the twentieth century, Seventh-day Adventists have been in sporadic and sometimes painful dialogue with the Evangelical community. Influenced by the Fundamentalist movement, many Evangelicals still hold to the doctrine of biblical “inerrancy,” though differing widely in their definitions. With notable exceptions Evangelicals have been predestinarian in their theology, standing in the Calvinist tradition, thus emphasizing divine sovereignty, and other evangelical tenets such as justification, grace, and the security of the believer. Besides this, there are many Evangelicals who are dispensationalist in their outlook, claiming a discontinuity between the “Old” and the “New” Covenants.
By contrast, Adventists stand closer to the Arminian/Wesleyan tradition, with a strong emphasis on human freedom and responsibility, sanctification and obedience. Evangelicals have taken issue with Adventism over our sanctuary doctrine and our use of Ellen White as an extra-biblical authority. And they have chided us for our unhealthy tendencies towards legalism and perfectionism.
For all the differences, however, Adventists and Evangelicals still hold much in common, sharing key elements of “conservative” Christianity: The divinity of Christ, His incarnation and bodily resurrection, the atonement, and the advent hope itself. Some of what has tended to keep Adventists separate have been issues related to the seventh-day Sabbath, eschatology, lifestyle, and the use of Ellen White’s writings.
As a result of extensive dialogue in the 1950s between leading Evangelicals and key Adventist leaders, Adventists published Questions on Doctrine (1957), seeking, among other things, to demonstrate to the larger Christian world on biblical grounds that we are indeed part of Christianity proper and not a cultic deviation.1 In response, Walter Martin, speaking for many Evangelicals, published The Truth about Seventh-day Adventism (1960), in which he admitted (somewhat reluctantly) that Adventists really are brothers and sisters in Christ. In reality, some Adventists were very unhappy with what they considered regrettable “concessions” in Questions on Doctrine, just as some Evangelicals today remain unconvinced that Adventists are truly Christian.
In the early 1980s, crucial issues in this long-standing debate within Adventism surfaced again in conjunction with the challenges presented by Adventist theologian, Desmond Ford. While reflecting many Evangelical impulses, including a strong emphasis on justification, Ford himself has remained committed to the seventh-day Sabbath. Others, however, have gone further, separating themselves from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and adopting a “new covenant” theology which excludes the Sabbath command on the grounds that it is ritual not moral and finds its terminus in the person of Jesus. They do this while still advocating a high moral standard, a “righteousness beyond the law.”
Adventists would whole-heartedly agree that the New Testament (for example, Jesus’ comparisons between the old and the new in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount) teaches a morality far exceeding the basic Sinai commands. The crucial question, of course, is whether the Sabbath is included in Jesus’ moral vision or is set aside as ritual.
In 1989, responding to these and other issues, a former Adventist pastor, Dale Ratzlaff, published Sabbath in Crisis, now reissued in a revised edition as Sabbath in Christ (2003). In 1996 he published The Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventists.2 In 1998, six former Adventist pastors3 collaborated in a video entitled “Seventh-day Adventism: The Spirit Behind the Church.”4 Strongly implying that Adventism really is a cult after all, the video is especially critical of the ministry of Ellen White and the cluster of doctrines which grew out of the 1844 Disappointment experience. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that some former SDA pastors were willing to identify themselves, perhaps unintentionally in some instances, with a video which criticizes Adventists for rejecting the doctrine of an eternally burning hell.
When I saw the video, I was troubled by what I considered to be its misleading representation of Adventism. So I asked Dave Thomas, pastor of the College Place Seventh-day Adventist Church (now Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla College), if he would collaborate on a response to the video. The result was an hour-long video dialogue.5
The letter which follows is a revision of one which I sent to Dale Ratzlaff in April 2001, and further revised after he responded to it. The letter was triggered by a telephone conversation with him when I called his 800 number to order several books and copies of the original video. Our conversation at that time was informative, candid and cordial. I promised to send him a letter addressing several of the issues we had discussed by phone.
In subsequent contacts Ratzlaff has made it clear that he does not identify with all the positions represented in the video, “Seventh-day Adventism: The Spirit Behind the Church.” In particular, he would take a more nuanced approach to traditional Evangelical positions on divine sovereignty and predestination, a position which includes an element of free will.
As for hell, Ratzlaff is ambivalent. In an email to me, he says that he does not want to be seen as a “promoter” of the doctrine and argues that the true nature of “hell” or “eternal destruction” is “beyond human understanding.” Furthermore, he believes that an effective, saving proclamation of the Gospel can be made without the threat of hell fire.
As far as Sabbath is concerned, Sabbath in Christ succinctly states Ratzlaff’s opinion that the old covenant meant “physical rest,” the new offers the “rest of grace.”6 The Sabbath as a command to keep holy the seventh day of each week, simply does not apply to Christians because it is ritual, not moral. Commenting on the Sabbath miracle at Bethesda (John 5), he says: “Christ considered the Sabbath to be a ritual law that pointed forward to the rest He would bring and now it had little, if any, value.”7
In our conversations, Ratzlaff has repeatedly expressed his amazement at my deep appreciation for the writings and ministry of Ellen White. He pointedly states that his relationship with God improved significantly when he quit reading Ellen White.
My own experience with Ellen White has been quite different. By helping me make peace with diversity and change, the two features of Scripture which are often so troublesome for devout conservatives, Ellen White has played a crucial role in nurturing in my soul an enduring faith in God and in Scripture as God’s Word.
So, with reference to Sabbath, to Adventism as a community, and to the writings of Ellen White, Ratzlaff and I differ significantly. It is a great sadness for me that any conscientious believer would feel the need to leave Adventism and Ratzlaff is clear that he left for reasons of conscience. Ironically, I know that I must stay, also for reasons of conscience.
So what happens when we conscientiously disagree? For my part, I find it helpful to remember Ellen White’s counsel, originally given to A. T. Jones, to “treat every man as honest” (6T 122). That simply echoes the teaching of Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV).
Here then is my recently edited letter to Dale Ratzlaff:
The Letter: Thompson to Ratzlaff
23 April 2001
Dear Dale: I appreciated the opportunity to talk with you by phone. I suspect we could have lengthened the conversation considerably. My own “Arminian-Wesleyan” experience would differ from yours in several ways, I suspect. But I have become increasingly concerned that the Adventist emphasis on human freedom and responsibility makes it more difficult for us to give proper recognition to divine sovereignty and grace. That’s part of the reason why your writings and the video are of such high interest to me.
As I see it, however, the Evangelical/Reformed tradition finds it more difficult to make peace with the critical issues which our increasingly secular age presses upon us. One of my doctoral mentors, for example, became an Evangelical Christian in his teen years, but lost his faith when continuing studies undermined his “inerrancy” view of Scripture.
What struck me about the video was that virtually every criticism leveled against Ellen White and Adventism can be paralleled with similar critical attacks against Scripture and Christianity: there is at least as much to question in Scripture from a “scientific” point of view as there is in the work of Mrs. White. Scripture certainly contains (conditional) predictions which did not come to pass; and the “great disappointment” with its aftermath shows striking parallels with that earlier “great disappointment” which nearly crushed Jesus’ disciples.
When, at my request, my earlier-mentioned believer-turned-atheist mentor read and critiqued the manuscript of my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? two of his comments struck me with particular force:
1. “As you would expect, the overall argument of the book does not convince me, though at a certain stage of my intellectual and spiritual development I can see that it would have considerably alleviated my doubts.”
2. “If I ever return to faith it will be as a Jew and not as a Christian.”
I could also add to the list of quotes his personal comment to me in conversation: “If I had maintained my devotional life, I never would have lost my faith.”
Speaking specifically to your interest in the “two covenants,” I would want to point out that the “new” covenant promise appears first in Jeremiah, a promise to the people of Jeremiah’s day. In other words, it was an “Old Testament” experience as well as a “New Testament” one. In that same connection, when Jesus says in Matthew 5 that he came to “fulfill” the law, the context indicates that he did not set the law aside, but made it even more rigorous, more demanding.
Thus I would take quite a different approach than the one found in your chapter 14 in Sabbath in Crisis (pp. 219-234, 2nd edition).8 At root, however, I surmise three key issues to be paramount in the experience of those who leave Adventism for an evangelical community:
1. Assurance. Paul (most forcefully in Romans and Galatians) finds assurance through a courtroom emphasis with Jesus as the all-sufficient sacrifice and advocate on our behalf. That perspective comes clearest in the Reformed and Evangelical communities. But the other New Testament road to assurance, perhaps more typical of Wesleyan communities, uses a family emphasis or model.
It is nurtured by the Gospel and Epistles of John and is best illustrated by Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. In that parable one finds grace and acceptance, to be sure; but instead of an accent on the price paid at the divine initiative, the parable highlights the human decision to return home to a loving and accepting Father. Some in Adventism have often gotten the worst of both worlds, suggesting a demanding Judge who waits to see if the prodigal son can do it right before granting him entrance to the welcome-home party. Salvation by works is always a distortion of the truth. The biblical view of obedience presents it as a grateful human response to divine grace.
2. Relations with Other Christians. When Adventism leaves a conscientious believer haunted with a sense of impossible demands, the discovery of gracious and buoyant evangelical Christians who do have assurance of acceptance through Christ, raises significant questions about the “truth” of Adventism. “Remnant,” “Babylon,” and “beast” can all become troublesome terms in this context. Here I find biblical models helpful.
A strident (sectarian?) separation seems to have been unavoidable at crucial points in the experience of God’s people: Israel and the Egyptians; Israel and the Canaanites; Judaism in the days of Ezra-Nehemiah; Christians and Jews in the days of Stephen. No wonder the Jews stoned Stephen – just read his blunt speech in Acts 7!
As for Adventism, events and circumstances in the 19th century made the scenario outlined in the book Great Controversy quite believable. But the book The Desire of Ages points to a quite different approach to people, one which seeks first to affirm people for their goodness rather than attack them for their evil. In this respect, the remarkable chapter 70 in The Desire of Ages (pp. 637-641) is crucial.
In interpreting the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Ellen White notes that the judgment of the nations turns on “one point”: “what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering” (p. 637). She goes on to claim for God’s kingdom those among the heathen “who have cherished His principles,” “who have cherished the spirit of kindness” (p. 638). Evangelicals often stumble at that point, wanting to include only those who have explicitly accepted Jesus Christ. Those heathen who are “good” in God’s sight, the “good” Moslem, the “good” atheist are all excluded – in spite of what Romans 2:12-16 seems to make quite clear.
Similarly marking a positive approach to others is the counsel given in Gospel Workers on how to work for others: “Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus” (GW 119-20). “Come out of her my people” (Rev. 18:4) represents quite a different perspective. Clearly both are biblical, but circumstances and experience determine which emphasis receives priority. I focus on the growth and development of Ellen White’s experience and theology as part of the solution to these tensions.
3. Sabbath: Gift or Test? Traditionally, Adventists have linked Sabbath with eschatology, emphasizing Sabbath as a test, and hardly noting it as a gift. Thus if a monolithic view of Adventist eschatology collapses for whatever reason, then the Sabbath goes with it.
Quite frankly, I don’t know how one can experience a joyous Sabbath gift if one thinks of it first of all as a test – even though I would affirm that the Sabbath is a test in a more subtle way. If my wife were to insist that a timely arrival in the evening is a “test” of our love, it would be difficult for me to return home with joy. The same applies to the Sabbath.
Ironically, just when former Adventists are jettisoning the Sabbath, an increasing number of thoughtful Christians are casting longing eyes at the idea of Sabbath and writing some very good things about Sabbath (e.g., Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson), even if their view of Sabbath does not include an emphasis on a specific day of the week.
With reference to all of the above, the extent to which I am willing to modify traditional Adventism is solidly rooted in Scripture, in my study of Ellen White, and in my knowledge of Adventist history. “Change,” “growth,” and “development” are all difficult words, especially for those drawn to the Evangelical and Reformed tradition (as over against those in the Arminian and Wesleyan traditions).
Particular end-time scenarios are very fragile in Scripture. Dispensational evangelicals (the true inheritors of the Adventist love for a precise series of end-time events), solve the problem by projecting all unfulfilled aspects of Old Testament prophecy into the future, linked with the rapture, rebuilding of the temple, and an earthly millennium. To make it work, dispensationalism even brings back animal sacrifice during the 1,000 years. I believe there is a better way of being faithful to Scripture and to our Lord.
This is far more than you bargained for, Dale. By God’s grace, good may come of it. May the Lord bless and guide you in your work.
Sincerely, Alden Thompson, School of Theology, Walla Walla College, College Place Washington 99324
- Reissued in 2003: George Knight, ed., Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine: Annotated Edition. Edited with notes and a historical introduction (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003).
- All Ratzlaff’s titles are published by his Life Assurance Ministries, Glendale Arizona. Further information on the web at www.ratzlaf.com
- Mark Martin, Dale Ratzlaff, Sydney Cleveland, Wallace Slattery, Dave Snyder, Dan Snyder.
- “Seventh-day Adventism: The Spirit Behind the Church.” Jeremiah Films, PO Box 1710, Hemet CA 92546, 1998 [800-828-2290; www.jeremiahfilms.com].
- “Seventh-day Adventism: The Spirit Behind the Church: A Personal Response,” by Alden Thompson and Dave Thomas (March, 2001), a one-hour video produced for and shown by Blue Mountain Television. Available @ $17.00 from Blue Mt. TV, PO Box 205, College Place, WA 99324; 509-529-9149; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See chart in Sabbath in Christ, 348.
- Ibid, 152.
- Sabbath in Christ (2003) introduces a new chapter (Chapter 20, “Righteousness Beyond the Law,” 293-299) which, in my opinion, more nearly captures the spirit of Matthew 5. The chapter with which I take issue, however, remains – largely unchanged – as Chapter 18, “Jesus, the Law’s Fulfillment,” 265-78. The one significant change is the deletion of the last section (“New Covenant Morality,” 231-33, in Chapter 14 of Sabbath in Crisis), the material developed in the new Chapter 20, “Righteousness Beyond the Law.”