A few years ago I went through one of the most defining seasons of my life. Having been raised a Seventh-day Adventist I had come to the place where I had to confront, once and for all, the legalistic faith I had developed. The journey was both difficult and exhilarating at the same time. The more I studied and explored the more I discovered that my legalistic worldview was a perversion of true Adventism1.
By the time my journey was over I was, for lack of a better phrase, “in love” with Adventism and decided that I would spend my life telling its story. Seventh-day Adventism, I had discovered, was a story of grace from beginning to end. It was a Jesus-only narrative that was both rooted in historic Protestantism and yet unique enough to give it its own voice.
But then came the next challenge – a challenge which has remained to this day: the critics. Yes, every church has critics. No, there is no way to avoid having them. And no, we will never get rid of them. That’s just the way life is. But what troubled me was that the critics seemed to have an argument I could not answer. For them, Adventism was an “Old-Covenant” faith. No matter how much grace we preached, the fact that we believed in the perpetuity of the law and honored the Sabbath was proof that we were not “New-Covenant” Christians. To top it off, I even encountered critics who accused Adventists of having a view of the covenants unheard of in Christian history.
How was I to make sense of this? How could Adventism be both a grace-centered faith and yet believe in the perpetuity of the law and proclaim the continued validity of the Sabbath? From my perspective, it seemed quite clear that all other grace-centered faiths rejected these conclusions. And saying “the Sabbath doesn’t save us” or “we keep the law because we are saved, not because we want to be saved” just didn’t cut it. The very fact that Adventism was Sabbatarian and grace-centered meant it was either a pseudo-grace-centered faith at worst or a systematically inconsistent one at best.
I began to search for an answer, and it didn’t take long before I got stuck. The answer, I reasoned, must lie in a proper understanding of Scripture’s covenantal thought. After all, the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant was what the entire debate seemed to boil down to. Those who disagreed with our position spoke confidently of the New Covenant abrogating the Old. Of the Sabbath pointing to Jesus and meeting its fulfillment in him. Of freedom from the law, and at times, from the Old Testament in its entirety. However, I could not find a single Adventist resource that explained Scripture’s covenantal thought. Of course, I am not saying that there weren’t any, for I have since come to discover that there are. But I had to search long and hard to find them. Covenantal thought, it seemed, was just not that central to Adventist thought.
However, I soon ran into another problem. All the resources I found in our church (which were very few) presented a system of covenant thought from an Adventist perspective and nothing more2. Yet, after being accused by critics of Adventism that Adventism held to a view of the covenants unheard of in Christian history, an Adventist explanation simply wasn’t enough for me. I needed to see how our explanation matched that of the Reformers and Christian thought as a whole. For years I searched for a resource that would answer those questions and explain covenant thought from a bird’s eye perspective, but I found none. The place of Adventism within covenant thought is, by and large, unknown both to us and our critics.
In this series of articles, I would like to introduce and explore this topic briefly. We will begin by answering the question “Why is covenantal thought seemingly absent in Adventism?” One possible answer to this question will be explored. Once that foundation has been laid, we will explore the main systems of covenant thought in the Protestant tradition. From there we will identify Adventism’s place in that continuum and conclude with an Adventist approach to covenantal thought.
Covenantal Thought and Adventism
Historically speaking, Christians have always viewed Scripture as a story. From beginning to end the Bible, we believe, is telling a grand story that we are invited to know, understand, and enter into. This grand story can be separated into two headings – the Big Story and the Little Story.
The Big Story
The first is the Big Story of God. The Big Story is defined as the most transcendent part of Scripture’s story and deals almost exclusively with who God is and what He is like, apart from creation. The most popular understandings of the Big Story within Protestant Christianity are two systems of thought known as Calvinism and Arminianism3. Both of these Big Stories tell different stories of who God is and what he is like which, in turn, impacts how one views the “Little Story.”
The Little Story
In the Little Story the question of how this God from the Big Story relates to, interacts with, and operates with His creation is answered. And for most Protestants, this question is answered through God’s covenants with man. In other words, the covenants God makes with man from Adam to Christ are the connecting points in the story of Scripture, and from them we derive our fullest understanding of who he is and what he is like.
(God before creation)
(History of man, Covenants)
Adventism as the Inheritor of the Middle Story
Adventism also has a Big Story that informs who God is and what he is like (Adventism is Arminian-Wesleyan). Adventism also has a Little Story which informs how God deals with and relates to our world. However, because of its Arminian-Wesleyan heritage Adventism has another element of the story that, while certainly present in Calvinist and Arminian traditions, forms the heartbeat of Adventist thought – The Great Controversy. This concept is born out of our Wesleyan heritage (a further development to John Wesley’s “aesthetic theme”) and forms, in essence, the Middle Story of Adventist theology4. For Adventists, the question of God’s character in light of the universal war between good and evil has become the heartbeat of how we view scripture.
(God before creation)
(Battle between good and evil/ Great Controversy)
(History of man/ Covenants)
Therefore, a suggested approach would be to view Adventism’s narrative as having three parts: 1) the Big, 2) the Middle, and 3) the Little. The Big Story is simply God, who He is and what He is like irrespective of creation. The Middle Story is how the Big Story plays out in the battle between good and evil in the created realms, and the Little Story is basically how the Big and Middle stories play out, for the most part, on our local planet.
But why exactly is this unique? The answer is simple. Calvinists don’t need a Middle Story that explains the presence of sin and evil because their world view teaches that everything that happens in creation has been pre-determined by God, thus securing Him as sovereign over all things, including history. So at the end of the day, there is no need to explain the battle between good and evil. A Calvinist either accepts it as a mystery or presents that battle as part of Gods pre-determined will for creation in order to bring about the glorification of His Son. Free will is not part of the story because to accept free will is to throw God’s sovereignty into question5.
For Arminians, on the other hand, the concept of free will is foundational to their Big Story. For an Arminian, the most important attribute of God is the attribute of love. Everything is an outflow of God’s love, including His sovereignty. Therefore, all of God’s creation was designed to operate under the law of love – a law which harmonizes only with freedom, because love cannot be coerced, manipulated, or determined. This other-centered paradigm was to be the basis for temporal reality and eternity. However, the concept of God as love is challenged by the presence of evil. How could a loving God allow such things? Such questions lead men to doubt the Big Story and demand an explanation. That explanation is found in the Middle Story.
This was the soil upon which Adventism was planted and watered. As the Adventist narrative began to emerge, it was this concern and passion for a renewed understanding of the heart of God and His government that gave birth to the “Great Controversy” theme – Adventism’s Middle Story. This theme not only answers questions related to the origin of sin and suffering in the universe but also vindicates God’s character from the charges made against him by Satan. And it is in this theme – which emphasizes the loving character of God over and against the presence of evil and suffering – that Adventist theology finds its heart beat6. The Great Controversy is, for us, the unifying element that strings together the entire narrative of Scripture from creation to consummation.
And that is what brings me to my next point. Because the Adventist narrative is strung together via this “Great Controversy” motif, many of us have tended to ignore the issue of the covenants (the unifying element that binds together the narrative of Scripture for many other Protestant denominations). Since we tend to focus on the Big and Middle Stories more than the Little Story, the relevance of covenant progression – which falls under the Little Story (see below) – is simply forgotten or viewed as a non-issue. In some ways, it can even appear to be an over-complication for us because we are more concerned with understanding the heart of God than we are in covenantal debates – a posture we inherited from our Wesleyan forefathers7.
|BIG STORY||MIDDLE STORY||LITTLE STORY|
Who is God?
What is he like?
What are his attributes?
What is his essence?
Why is there evil?
Where did sin originate?
Is God responsible for pain?
Vindication of God’s character.
(The Great Controversy)
How did man fall into sin?
How can we be saved?
How does God relate to us?
Where is our world headed?
(History/ Covenants/ Prophecy)
In short, Adventists have the same story as other Protestant faiths, but we are particularly fond of the Middle Story, not the Little Story. As a result we have tended to place little emphasis on the covenants. Nevertheless, I propose that this is a mistake, because the Great Controversy narrative we so love is not simply the Middle Story; it influences how we understand the Little Story as well. This is most clearly seen in apocalyptic prophecy, which deals exclusively with how the Big and Middle stories play out in our local world. It is at this juncture that our views on the law of God and the Sabbath become central once more, and without a proper understanding of covenant thought, we will continue to fail at communicating this story that we believe we are responsible to tell. Therefore, I propose that the hole in Adventist theology is a thorough and holistic approach to Scripture’s covenantal progression that is both informed by the Arminian Big and Middle Stories and identifiable in the historical development of covenant thought within Christianity.
Where does Adventism belong in the Christian conversation? Answering this question is important for two primary reasons.
- Because many other Christians understand their theology primarily via the covenants, as Adventists we will never be able to communicate our own story, which we understand via the Great Controversy, unless we contextualize our story within the language and thought of the Christian community to which we belong.
- And second, because the rest of the Christian world views Scripture via the covenants, they will never truly know where Adventism belongs, unless they can see our place in the historical development of covenant thought.
In the next two posts, I will present a bird’s eye view of covenant thought, and in those that follow I will identify where we belong in the history of Christian thought through comparison and contrast. In the end, I will briefly review the Adventist narrative via the covenants by introducing a proposed Adventist approach to covenantal thought. (See the next installment, Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians? (part 2))
Note: This article was originally published at www.pomopastor.com as “The Hole in Adventism: Identifying our Place in the Continuum of Protestant Covenantal Thought.” It has been edited for republication on Sabbath School Net.
- I first shared the conclusions of all my research in a response I wrote to a former Adventist who left the church due to her legalistic upbringing and accused it of being an “Old Covenant” faith: “RECLAIMING ADVENTISM (A RESPONSE TO THE TESTIMONY OF FORMER ADVENTIST ELIANA MATTHEWS)” ↩
- This is not to say that these resources are not excellent studies on the topic. Gerhard Hasel’s “Covenant in Blood” (available in Kindle or Paperback format at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca) is a fantastic book. See also “The Gospel in Galatians” by Marvin Moore (Amazon.com author link, Amazon.ca), and the Sabbath School Lesson “Christ and His Law.” What these sources miss in a bird’s eye view that demonstrates where Adventism resides in the continuum of covenant thought. It will become more apparent by the third installment of this series why this bird’s eye view is so important ↩
- On Calvinism see: https://carm.org/calvinism; On Arminianism see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arminianism ↩
- On the Great Controversy see: https://www.adventist.org/en/beliefs/salvation/the-great-controversy/ ; On Wesley’s “Aesthetic Theme” see: http://evangelicalarminians.org/john-wesley-on-the-origins-of-evil/ ↩
- This concern over God’s character and reputation is shared by free-will theologians that both preceded and came after James Arminius. These include Philip Melanchthon (Lutheran), and the evangelical Anabaptists. Then, after Arminius came the Remonstrants, Hugo Grotius (the father of the “Moral Government of God” theory) and John Wesley – father of the “Aesthetic theme” which was both a further development of the Arminian Big Story/macro narrative and heavily influenced Adventism’s “Great Controversy” theme ↩
- See “The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy theme in the Writings of Ellen White” by Herbert E. Douglas (Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca ↩
- This explanation only seeks to provide one possible angle for why Adventists tend to ignore covenant thought. Many other angles may exist. In addition, Adventist theology does not completely ignore the covenants. Many Adventists passionate about the gospel are generally well schooled in the covenants as well and understand the complexities involved in those narratives. In addition, Adventist systematic theologians are both familiar with, and have written about the covenant progression in Scripture. Nevertheless, Adventists are not generally focused on the covenants and the remainder of this series of articles will base that posture on the aforementioned position ↩