Relevant Verses: Acts 4:8-12; Matt. 15:1-13; Exod. 20:8-11; 1 Cor. 15:51-54
Leading Question: Does a faith community decide issues of belief by democratic vote?
This week’s lesson focuses on particular beliefs that are important to Seventh-day Adventists. They sometimes come under the heading of “landmarks.”
The companion term to “landmark” is “present truth,” truth that is cutting edge, new for the “present” time.
Adventism has always experienced a certain tension between those who want to call everything “landmark,” even the smallest point, and those who are eager to explore the new. Ellen White fully affirmed the landmarks, but she opposed the impulse to call everything a landmark. In the great Righteousness by Faith General Conference in 1888, the two great issues that divided the delegates was whether the 10th horn in Daniel 7 was the Huns or the Alemanni, and whether the law in Galatians was the moral or ceremonial law.
While Ellen White affirmed the landmarks, her strongest words focused on the non-Christian spirit which was driving the delegates. The following two quotes vividly express her concerns:
The remark was made, “If our views of Galatians are not correct, then we have not the third angel’s message and our position goes by the board; there is nothing to our faith.” I said, “Brethren, here is the very thing I have been telling you. This statement is not true. It is an extravagant, exaggerated statement. If it is made in the discussion of this question I shall feel it my duty to set this matter before all that are assembled, and whether they hear or forbear, tell them the statement is incorrect. The question at issue is not a vital question and should not be treated as such. The wonderful importance and magnitude of this subject has been exaggerated. For this reason–through misconception and perverted ideas–we see the spirit that prevails at this meeting, which is unchristlike, and which we should never see exhibited among brethren. There has been a spirit of Pharisaism coming in among us which I shall lift my voice against wherever it may be revealed….  And for the first time I began to think it might be we did not hold the correct views after all upon the law in Galatians, for the truth required no such spirit to sustain it. (EGW MS 24, 1888 [EGW1888 1:220-221])
I returned to my room questioning what was the best course for me to pursue. Many hours that night were spent in prayer in regard to the law in Galatians. This was a mere mote. Whichever way was in accordance with a “Thus saith the Lord,” my soul would say, Amen, and Amen. But the spirit that was controlling our brethren was so unlike the spirit of Jesus, so contrary to the spirit that should be exercised toward each other, it filled my soul with anguish. (EGW MS 24, 1888 [EGW1888 1:223])
Question: Is it more important to know what our significant beliefs are or how we arrived at those beliefs? Can we do both? These two questions give us our starting point for our lesson.
Comment: In 1889 when the issue of landmarks was being agitated by those who wanted a longer list, Ellen White described the experience of those formative years and concisely summarized the landmarks. The very point she was trying to get across was how short the list of landmarks actually was:
The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God’s people upon the earth, [also] the first and second angels’ messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, “The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” One of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God’s law. The nonimmortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks. All this cry about changing the old landmarks is all imaginary. – Ms 13, 1889 (Counsels to Writers and Editors, 30-31)
Obviously, the 1844 experience was crucial, especially its link with the Adventist understanding of what was happening in the heavenly sanctuary. She cited Revelation 11:19: “And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.” The three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 also loomed large, especially the last line of the third angel’s message that refers to the “commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
The sanctuary doctrine was crucial because it highlighted the ark of God in heaven and the three angels’ messages seem to have been most important because of its reference to the “commandments” and the “faith of Jesus.”
Also intriguing is her phrase, “nonimmortality of the wicked,” not the more generic “immortality of the soul.” Her rationale is reflected in two vivid quotes from The Great Controversy, namely a concern for the reputation of a God would would burn people forever:
“The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to receive it as the word of God.” – GC 525
“How repugnant to every emotion of love and mercy, and even to our sense of justice, is the doctrine that the wicked dead are tormented with fire and brimstone in an eternally burning hell; that for the sins of a brief earthly life they are to suffer torture as long as God shall live.” – GC 335
When the early Adventists selected a formal name, they chose to focus on Sabbath and Advent as a way of distinguishing themselves from other Christians. And the simplicity of their belief structure is reflected in the covenant they used when they began to organize their first churches in 1861:
“We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ [Rev. 14:12].” – published in Review and Herald, October 8, 1861 (SDAE  416)
The next to last lesson in this quarter will bring us back to the question of how we arrive at these beliefs as the theme is “Church Organization.” But for purposes of discussion, we can note the beliefs that are listed as important in the official study guide, under these major headings:
Salvation in Jesus
Second Coming of Christ
Jesus’ Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary
Death and Resurrection
In short, the lesson seeks to give a list of important Adventist beliefs, not a list of landmarks as originally understand by our Adventist pioneers. I would heartily agree that those beliefs are important, but they are formulated in a way that meets the needs of modern Adventists. Thus one finds a clearer focus on Salvation and Jesus’ ministry on our behalf. Could one say that the Adventist interest in “present truth” is reflected in the official study guide? That’s good. But we also need to remember the historical origins of our key beliefs.