Andrews Conference Marks Controversial
‘Questions on Doctrine’ Inspires Cordial Debate, Fellowship Results
BY MARK A. KELLNER, News Editor, Adventist Review, reporting from Berrien Springs, Michigan
uestions about what the Seventh-day Adventist Church believed — and believes — about the human nature of Jesus Christ when the Son of God walked the earth were discussed in cordial, but convicted, tones during a three-day seminar marking the 50th
anniversary of a book which purported to mark out an “Adventist position” on the matter.
That book, “Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine,” made its appearance in the fall of 1957. Its publication was hailed by some critics of Adventism —a movement which had passed the one-million adherent mark just two years earlier — as a document which helped lift the stigma of being labeled a “cult” by evangelical Protestant Christians.
“’Questions on Doctrine,’ for all its faults, is the best apologetic work this church has ever produced,” said Ronald Knott, director of Andrews University Press, which in 2003 reprinted the volume with extensive annotations and commentary by George R. Knight, professor emeritus of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
Approval came most heartily from the late Donald Grey Barnhouse, then pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as founder and editor-in-chief of Eternity, a leading evangelical magazine. Walter R. Martin, then an up-and-coming writer on non-Christian religions, joined Barnhouse in his discussions with Adventists. Martin, who died in 1989, later founded the Christian Research Institute, and maintained that Adventism, though “heterodox” in his view, was not a “cult.” His 1960 book, “The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism,” made that case as well.
However, the Adventist-produced book also roiled segments of the church, with some authors and scholars suggesting the church’s view of Jesus’ human nature as presented in “QOD,” as the volume came to be known, wasn’t quite as the book claimed.
According to Knight, while the majority of the QOD text was a good defense of Adventism, the questions about the human nature of Christ meant, “the whole 720 pages [of the book] came down to the head of a pin.”
|SEMINAR SPEAKERS: In front (left to right): Michael Campbell, an organizer of the conference; Seminary dean Denis Fortin; retired theologian Fritz Guy; Adventist pastor Larry Christoffel; retired pastor A. Leroy Moore; assistant religion professor Julius Nam of Loma Linda University; and Seminary professor Jerry Moon. At rear, left to right: Larry Kirkpatrick, pastor of Mentone Adventist Church; Jon Paulien, school of religion dean at Loma Linda University; Russell Standish, physician; Adventist Review associate editor Roy Adams; Colin Standish of Hartland College; George R. Knight, emeritus professor of church history, Andrews University; Dan Augsburger; Dr. David Larson, professor of Christian ethics at Loma Linda University. [Photo: Julius Nam]
That pin, however, has jabbed at Adventism for half a century. As soon as the book appeared, a then-retired theologian, M.L. Andreasen, launched a campaign to get Adventist Church leadership to revise the text in line with what Andreasen maintained was traditional church teaching.
The rift was reflected in letters and publications circulated by Andreasen and his supporters; over the years, those documents spawned a small movement critical of what it saw as a new theological direction. Some of those critics were invited to speak at the Andrews conference, part of a roster of 24 presenters who participated in a dozen sessions of the event.
“I think it is safe to say that no prominent players in the controversy…were left out,” Robert Johnston, professor emeritus of New Testament at Andrews University who chaired a panel discussion, said in a news release. “Every possible view that could be reasonably discovered was credibly represented.”
Most of the sessions featured academic papers representing differing perspectives on the history and theology of Questions on Doctrine, the relationship between Adventists and evangelicals, and the present and future of Adventism. Through all these, the goal of the gathering was “simply to listen to and understand each other better,” rather than to debate or to arrive at a binding consensus, according to the organizers representing Andrews University, Loma Linda University, and Oakwood College, the three co-sponsors of the conference.
“What we did here in the last three days,” said Jon Paulien, dean of the school of religion at Loma Linda University, referring to an open and cordial exchange of views, “is what we should have done the past 50 years.”
One guest speaker, Kenneth R. Samples, a former associate of Walter Martin’s who is now a senior research scholar at Reasons To Believe, a science-faith think tank based in Pasadena, Calif., noted the QOD debate might not have taken place were that volume to have appeared today: “We live at a time where Christians don’t really care about doctrine,” he noted.
Brothers Colin and Russell Standish, who have opposed the position on the nature of Christ adopted in the book, each presented papers on the theology and history of QOD and its effects on Adventism. Each presented their views cordially, and each was given a warm reception by the audience of 200 scholars, students, pastors and others. One of the more poignant events of the weekend was seeing the Standishes among those leading out at a communion service on the Sabbath, October 27.
Sabbath speaker Angel Manuel Rodríguez, director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute, pointed listeners to the central issue of the Gospel: God’s incarnation as a human, and the reaction of those shepherds who were first to see the infant in the manger.
“I cannot imagine them arguing about whether His human nature was pre-lapsarian or post-lapsarian,” Rodriguez said, smiling. “I [can] only imagine the shepherds possessed by wonder, by joy. No speeches, no analysis, just the Child and them, possessed by wonder.”
While Rodriguez noted that participants in the conference had differing views on QOD, there was “something more important” than the debates the book stirred up: “that is to worship the Child that became one of us, Who died on the cross.”
Colin Standish remarked in an Andrews University news release that the QOD event was “one of the most inspiring conferences” he has attended. Roy Adams, associate editor of Adventist Review who also gave a presentation, observed such an atmosphere was possible because “just about everyone was compelled to adjust their attitude” to be more sensitive toward each other’s views, “even if minds may not necessarily have changed.”
Another attendee, Lisa Clark Diller of Collegedale, Tenn., observed in a news release, “there was so much tear-shedding and constant reaffirmation of the Christian love that we share that I know the Spirit moved in really powerful ways.”
“Hopefully, from now on,” she continued, “people will recognize that it is too easy to caricature people you disagree with and that face-to-face prayer and study are the way to have unity in diversity.”
Edwin Reynolds professor of New Testament and Biblical Languages at Southern Adventist University, echoed Diller’s sentiments, according to the news release: "I hope we can have more conferences like this one to bring Adventists together to talk to each other about things we value, though we may differ on the details of interpretation."
All the papers presented at the conference and the video recordings of all the sessions are expected to be available in January on the conference web page at http://qod.andrews.edu.
And while many were intensely interested in the issues a 50-year-old book stirred up, the comments of one presenter may have offered a more rational approach: “’Questions on Doctrine’ hasn’t been my life,” said David Larson, a professor of religion at Loma Linda University whose late father, Ralph Larson, was a longtime critic of the QOD volume. “This is a big, beautiful world — get a life!”
— with additional reporting from Andrews University