he Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of health rests on four fundamental axioms: (1) the biblical account of origins, (2) the Bible’s view of human nature and destiny, (3) the biblical worldview of the great controversy, and (4) the divine rescue plan (the plan of salvation). These four fundamental presuppositions define the four major subdivisions of our brief essay.
The Biblical Account of Origins
By the middle of the nineteenth century, various theories of the origin of the Earth and the life on it were circulating among the intellectual elite. Evolution proved to be among the most credible hypotheses, especially when Charles Darwin published his synthesis entitled Origin of the Species in 1859. As he endeavored to assemble a new theory of the origin, and thus the nature, meaning, and destiny of human life via a scientific empirical method, so a small group of Christians set out at the same time in a diametrically opposite direction. Their query focused on the origin, nature, meaning, and destiny of life according to the ancient writings of the Bible. The biblical text begins with the creation narrative, which declares that a personal, omnipotent, and benevolent God created this world as a cosmos, as part of the “order” of the universe. Just a cursory look at the process described in the first pages of the book of Genesis yields several important observations.
1. Order. The sequencing of events during Creation week is significant: light appeared before eyes and growing things, air before the breathing organs, and food before digestive systems. The creation account records no pain, no struggle, no survival of the fittest. On the contrary, there was singing and shouting for joy (Job 38:7). As the complexity of every new creative event intensified, the activity of each previous day accommodated the present day’s needs. And when the sixth day arrived, with human beings on board, everything stood ready.
2. Method. God created out of nothing; no preexisting material was needed. As the apostle Paul signals, this fact is known by intelligent faith (Heb. 11:3). But why faith, and why not reason? Well, first of all, why not? Who said that reason alone can yield the whole truth? The omnipotent, omniscient Being described in the Bible would have needed no help. As He made things, so He made the stuff of which the things were made (John 1:1-3). In the same way that time and competence were not limitations for Him, so also He faced no limitations imposed by preexistent “stuff.” Moreover, there are dimensions of life where reason is dumb. For example, it is impotent to define phenomena such as anger or anxiety, even if it can describe the physiological changes that take place in the human body when such phenomena occur.
3. Stewardship of Life. God is not only the Author of life, He remains its Owner as well. But when it comes to management, He entrusted that into the hands of Adam and Eve and their descendants (Gen. 2:15, 16). It is He who instructed them to care for ecology, including human life, and He will have the final word on the issue of abuses of both (Rev. 11:18).
Human Nature and Destiny
The biblical account of human nature became the second pillar of the Adventist philosophy of health, and a parallel subject of study. If existence in general has meaning, then human life must be understood and lived sensibly as well. Several aspects of the creation of man and woman are relevant for human health.
1. Planning and Pattern, Purpose and Method. As the stratosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere came into existence, as God saw everything that He had made and behold it was very good, there came a pause, a halt, to His creative activity. The arrival of human beings required special consideration. No existing specie could accommodate what He had in mind. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (RSV); a creature who could exercise dominion over fish, birds, cattle, and over all the earth (Gen. 1:25, 26.). So God then adopted a very personal, direct, hands-on approach to creating. During the previous six days God had spoken creatures into existence (Gen. 1:3-24), but for the creation of Adam and Eve God used His own hands. He selected every element for their formation in exact quantities, out of which he synthesized every substance, tissue, organ, and system of the human anatomy. As a result, a perfect yet inanimate human body (not a corpse) lay motionless and unresponsive before him. Then God imparted His own breath to the man and he became a “living being” (Gen. 2:7, 21, 22, RSV). This special attention and purposefulness given to the project of creating human beings by God compelled our Adventist pioneers to give the same care for human life and health.1
2. Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Unity. Based on careful study of Scripture, the Adventist pioneers concluded rightly that the human being is an integrated, indivisible, and harmonious alloy-like creature. From the union of body and breath emerge the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of humanity. All three are interdependent and cannot exist apart from the other two. In the words of Ellen G. White, one of the most insightful of Adventist pioneers, the interaction between the different dimensions is “a mysterious and wonderful relation” (Counsels on Health, p. 121). Adventist theology still holds firmly to this multidimensional, indivisible wholeness of human nature.
While the human spirit and mind have enjoyed high respect in human thought and religion due to platonic body/soul and Cartesian body/mind dualism, the fate of the human body has a different history. In the thought of Plato and Descartes the body received an inferior grade, playing a dependent role or assuming a mortal fate. Scripture is silent, however, on the doctrine of the inferiority of the body. Likewise, it is well recognized that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in some Christian theologies reflects the powerful influence of Greek philosophies but finds no direct support in the Bible.2 In fact, at death it is not only the body that dies; rather, the whole person dies. There is no more knowledge, no memory, no love, no hate, no envy in death (Eccl. 9:5, 6). Thus, in the Bible there is no elevation of the human soul at the expense of the body.
Consequently, the biblical study of early Adventist pioneers restored the proper, high respect that the Bible accords to the human body, and in the same event it provided the biblical warrant for caring for human physical health along with mental and spiritual well being. “Do you not know,” asks the apostle Paul, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19; see also 1 Thess. 5:23). At the resurrection, the body will be transformed rather than annihilated (Phil. 3:21).
The results of these findings in the Bible proved a powerful impetus for providing the best possible care for the human being, including the body, mind, and spirit. In fact, human compassion and love received the authority of divine mandate for the wholistic approach to health. “It cannot be to the glory of God for His children to have sickly bodies or dwarfed minds,” explains Ellen G. White (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 486). She states elsewhere, “Anything that lessens physical strength enfeebles the mind and makes it less capable of discriminating between right and wrong. We become less capable of choosing the good and have less strength of will to do that which we know to be right” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 346). Based on such an understanding of the importance of physical health, Adventists soon began to establish a variety of health-care institutions. From the first such institution established in 1865, today’s statistics number 168 hospitals and sanitariums, 130 nursing homes and retirement centers, 433 clinics and dispensaries; 33 orphanages and children’s homes; 10 airplanes and medical launches; and 14,171,454 outpatient visits.3
The Biblical Worldview of the Great Controversy
In order to understand better the third presupposition of the Adventist philosophy of health, we must become aware of the concept of illness and its causes and treatments in the middle of the nineteenth century. “The Christian world generally believed that illness and suffering were divinely inflicted because of sin. Healing, if possible, was the result of prayer and faith.”4 In terms of diagnosis, the possible causes of diseases included variations in body fluids, filth, odors, and too much or too little of certain “stimuli.” Treatments consisted of massive blood letting, purgatives, emetics, or polypharmacy.5 Whenever people occasionally suggested the possibility that nature itself could contain healing powers, they were confronted with scorn and opposition by the established medical practice.6 It is therefore no surprise that “in 1860 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, professor of anatomy at Harvard University, wrote that ‘if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes.’”7
1. The Great Controversy. The Adventist understanding of the nature of health and sickness began to change slowly but dramatically during the mid-nineteenth century. Adventist pioneers realized that blaming Heaven for human illnesses removed personal responsibility for health. Gradually these pioneers, along with some of their contemporaries,8 came to the sobering conclusion that all too often our habits and lifestyle may be to blame for disease. This awareness came again as a result of continuous study of Scripture, and the insights developed in the minds and experiences of divine guidance. The pioneers discovered what we consider the third fundamental axiom of the Adventist philosophy of health, namely, the great controversy. They saw the world and human beings as subject to malicious agents who affect the nature and quality of life on earth. Every man, woman, and child stands in the crossfire between good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong, life and death, and health and sickness.
2. From Cause to Effect. Their study of the Bible taught these simple and devout people that in both the moral and the physical realms, the law of cause and effect operates. Our human predicament as well as our well-being often proceed from the way we use our freedom in making our decisions and choices (Deut. 30:19). Our actions bring consequences in their wake (Gal. 6:7-10). The concept that some illnesses are a consequence of lifestyle was both liberating and sobering.9 As a result of this new discovery, a veritable explosion of health reform societies and movements sprang up almost overnight. Among them were movements supporting temperance, a vegetarian diet, sanitation and hygiene, water treatment techniques, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.10
3. Responsible Lifestyle. The awareness of a supernatural conflict hostile to human well-being created a new mind-set. All actions, thoughts, indulgences, and temptations became subject to the tribunal of the biblically inspired tenets of a wholistic lifestyle. Such a lifestyle included several principles:
(a) Nature is an ally in prevention and cure. “Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness . . . trust in divine power—these are the true remedies,” declares Ellen G. White (The Ministry of Healing, p. 127).
(b) Respect for the laws of human nature leads to optimal health. “To those who call themselves well we would say: as you value the blessings of health, and would honor the Author of your being, learn to live in obedience to those laws established in your being by High Heaven.”11
(c) Cleanliness of homes will enhance health and healing. Ellen G. White says, “I saw that the houses of the saints should be kept tidy and neat, free from dirt and filth and all uncleanliness” (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 274).
(d) Self-discipline of appetite is a key to personal health. If we wish for good health, we must take special care of our appetites and eat less fine food, free from animal fat. “Then as you sit at the table to eat you can from the heart ask God’s blessing upon the food and can derive strength from coarse wholesome food. God will be pleased to graciously bless it and it will be a benefit to the receiver” (Ibid.).
(e) “True temperance teaches us to dispense entirely with everything hurtful and to use judiciously that which is healthful. There are few who realize as they should how much their habits of diet have to do with their health, their character, their usefulness in this world, and their eternal destiny. The appetite should ever be in subjection to the moral and intellectual powers. The body should be servant to the mind, and not the mind to the body” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 562).
The Divine Rescue Plan
The idea that we human beings can of ourselves navigate through the vortex of sin within, and through the quagmire of the sinful world without, is as plausible as the proverbial pulling up of oneself by one’s own bootstraps. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Our limited knowledge, our wounded spirits, and our depraved willpower are no match for harmful habits, tendencies to indulgence, germs and toxic substances, and the craftiness of the devil, the archenemy of humanity.
So the fourth fundamental cornerstone of the Adventist philosophy of health is the divine plan of salvation. In that plan, every victim is accounted for, every soldier stationed strategically, every engagement foreknown, every dilemma solved in advance. Our supreme Commander, Jesus Christ, is the Victor over the prince of darkness (Col. 2:15). His intelligence can crack through any coded secret of the enemy of the souls (2 Cor. 2:11). He knows how much each one of His soldiers can safely endure (1Cor. 10:13), and has made provisions so that even death is a victory and a supreme gain (Phil. 1:21). Nevertheless, the experience of conflict, whether on a personal, familial, church, professional, or social level, calls for patient endurance (Rev. 14:12.).
1. Faith in God does not preclude the ministry of medical science. Ellen G. White insists: “We believe in the prayer of faith; but some have carried this matter too far, especially those who have been affected with fanaticism. Some have taken the strong ground that it was wrong to use simple remedies. We have never taken this position, but have opposed it. We believe it to be perfectly right to use the remedies God has placed in our reach, and if these fail, apply to the great Physician, and in some cases the counsel of an earthly physician is very necessary. This position we have always held” (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 135). The place of dedicated health workers belongs alongside that of pastoral ministers. Ellen G. White again: “I want to tell you that when the gospel ministers and medical missionary workers are not united, there is placed on our churches the worst evil that can be placed there. Our medical missionaries ought to be interested in the work of our conferences, and our conference workers ought to be as much interested in the work of our medical missionaries”(Medical Ministry, p. 241). It cannot be otherwise if we are consistent with our firm belief in human nature as an indivisible, interdependent, and coherent union of the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions.
2. Health and sanctification work hand in hand in harmony with the biblical view of the indivisibility of the human nature. The biblical theology of salvation does not teach a sacramental view of sanctification, wherein growth in holiness occurs mystically, nor does it claim salvation by passive faith. If works do not earn merits, neither is there any value in indolent faith. “It is not possible for us to glorify God while living in violation of the laws of life. The heart cannot possibly maintain consecration to God while lustful appetite is indulged. A diseased body and disordered intellect, because of continual indulgence in hurtful lust, make sanctification of the body and spirit impossible” (Councils on Diet and Foods, p. 44).
3. The healing of body, mind, and spirit must begin from within the human heart, from inside out. Ellen G. White assures us that “men will never be truly temperate until the grace of Christ is an abiding principle in the heart. . . . No mere restriction of your diet will cure your diseased appetite. . . . What Christ works within, will be worked out under the dictation of the converted intellect. The plan of beginning outside and trying to work inward has always failed, and always will fail” (Ibid., p. 35). Pressure, criticism, or intimidation may produce outward compliance, but inwardly they may inoculate the person against ever becoming open to embrace health reform. The same principle applies to the corporate church. “I saw that the angels of God would lead His people no faster than they could receive and act upon the important truths that are communicated to them” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 207).
4.God’s intervention on behalf of the human race is the proof of His love for us. It was manifested supremely when Jesus came as a vulnerable baby, as a volunteer missionary to care and provide for the total health of those who come to Him. The report tells us that He “went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). He Himself was the clinic, the laboratory, and the medical personnel. He had no use for beds (Mark 2:11), for His healings were instantaneous, and no use for morgues, for He resurrected the dead (John 11:43, 44). There were no fees, not even a polite “thank you” required (Luke 17:12-16). The conditions for healing intervention included the goodwill and faith of the patient (John 5:5-9; Mark 9:24). Jesus’ diagnostic abilities went beyond observable symptoms and data. When the paralyzed man appeared before Him, descending through a hole in the roof of the house, Jesus healed the body by healing his conscience and restoring his relationship with God (Luke 5:18-20).
This is one person’s look at the Adventist philosophy of health. As the above lines show, this philosophy is not based on clever hypothesizing or speculation. It is the product of careful and open-minded correlation of biblical teachings with the human condition. Historical records note the painful confrontation between biblical theology and the scientific establishment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Think of it: Adventist pioneers affirmed creation at the time of Darwin’s popularity, maintained the tridimensional unity of human nature in the context of empirical valuation of humanness, and proclaimed the doctrine of a cosmic war and God’s rescue plan. Each of these stances demanded considerable bravery and boldness. We owe our gratitude to God for the courage and insights of these dedicated men and women, on whose shoulders stands the Adventist medical establishment today.
Love is still the best motive, which fires thousands of health professionals to fight daily and heroically the battle against sickness and death. This, in spite of the fact that any success in this endeavor to maintain health is ultimately only temporary at best. All patients and all health professionals will die sooner or later, until the time of the second personal and public visit of Jesus, the Master Physician. At that time the Bible assures us that death itself will be put to death.
Adventist health professionals will never give up nor become discouraged. The inevitable mortality of every human being is not the true definition of the human nature. We are not created for death. God does not waste His time and energies creating the “clients” for mortuary businesses, as important and necessary as those businesses may be for now. The wise man Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:11 sets the record straight: “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”12 Death itself is welcome only when pain and suffering become unbearable and living becomes meaningless. But there is always so much left undone and unsaid, so many promises unfulfilled, so much love to be shared, and so many hopes unrealized. “When the perishable puts on imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54, 55).
Miroslav M. Kis, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Theology and Christian Philosophy and a professor of Ethics at the Andrews University Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.