I’ve been thinking about something for a while. In the recent discussions with Adventists I’ve started to realise that Saturday observance, in the way modern sabbatarians teach it, is actually more than just a theological difference, more than just a minor error. It’s a complete defect in the nature of the New Covenant. Most of Christianity teaches pretty much the same thing. Many Catholic-Protestant disagreements, in my opinion, are the two sides of the same coin arguing with each other about who is the coin. Or, in the Catholic view, Protestant theology simply lacks insight into a specific truth, or lacks completeness. Yes, there are real differences as well, but the two sides, when thinking rationally, can recognise each other as Christians. The Gospel is the same, the concept of the New Covenant with God is the same, the grasp of Christian morality is the same.
When it comes to Sabbatarianism, the authentic Christian relationship with God appears to be there, and for individuals it probably is, but the entire New Covenant they believe in is distorted and faulty. They take half of it, and discard the other half. The Epistle to the Hebrews is emptied of its meaning. They still want to cling to half the Old Covenant, and as a result, their theology is stuck half way between legal-minded Judaism and grace-filled Christianity. Just as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a radically distorted concept of Jesus and the Father, so Sabbatarian theology has a radically distorted theology of the Christian relationship with God. And that’s a serious thing to have a problem with.
After years of thinking of the Sabbatarian movement, especially the Adventist church, as mainstream Protestants with a quirk, I’m starting to think of them as a truly borderline Christian religion. Yes, there is the evangelical Adventist movement, and those who adhere to the pseudo-Evangelical Adventist document “Questions on Doctrine“, and I’d put them in with Evangelical Protestantism, with a quirk, and perhaps a bit laboured with semi-Christian baggage. I do not consider Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to be unsaved because of their theology, and with all the limitations their theology imposes, I believe they have a good relationship with God.
I’m starting to consider Adventism, in its mainstream form, as producing Christians in the same category as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps this is the reason Adventism was initially classified as a cult by Walter Martin, who reversed his opinion when the Adventists showed their more evangelical Protestant side, a side many Adventists reject to this day.
Deeper than just the sabbath
Dietary laws are another symptom of Adventism’s lack of understanding of the New Covenant. In my posts on the dietary laws, I show that the distinction between clean and unclean meat was instituted as a sign of Israel’s separation from the Gentiles. In the New Testament, it’s revealed to Peter that the Gentiles are no longer to be excluded from God’s people, and the symbolic distinction of clean vs unclean meat can be abandoned as it no longer serves any purpose. Paul tells us that we need not be judged by what we eat. Jesus himself declared all food purged of uncleanness.
By clinging to these dietary laws, Adventism seems to fail to grasp the full extent of the Gospel and the New Covenant. Or perhaps better stated, their defective understanding of the Gospel and New Covenant prevents them from discerning type from antitype, shadow from fulfilment. Their theology, in part, is still waiting for the Messiah to come.
Most Christians, past and present, have celebrated Jesus’ birth, resurrection, baptism, and so forth with great joy. Having no holy days of our own instructed explicitly in the Bible, we celebrate Jesus’ life. For many Adventists, that’s too Catholic, and so they celebrate nothing. Having no holidays of their own instructed explicitly in the Bible, they are left with only Jesus, and can’t bring themselves to celebrate him as the rest of us do. (Of course, they have the expectant sabbath we’ve got the conclusion to.)
Perhaps one of the more sinister indicators of their defective theology is their understanding of Jesus’ nature. The rest of Christianity teaches that Jesus had Adam’s initial unfallen nature, untainted by sin. Adventists teach that Jesus had a sinful human nature, and managed to resist temptation and live a sinless life, thus being more of an example by which we can save ourselves than a saviour.
He came not to our world to give the obedience of a lesser God to a greater, but as a man to obey God’s holy law, and in this way He is our example. The Lord Jesus came to our world, not to reveal what a God could do, but what a man could do, through faith in God’s power to help in every emergency.
– Ellen G. White, Bible Commentary vol 7, p. 929 par. 6
Similarly, that man one day will stand before God without Jesus as a mediator is another sinister Adventist teaching. This could be any day now, with 1844 being the first date they assigned this event (after it failed as a prophecy of the return of Jesus on 22 October of that year.) According to Adventists, when Jesus died, the atonement was not complete (cf “It is finished” in John 19:30) but in 1844 he started a new phase of his ministry, which, when completed, would lead into the time when mankind had no mediator any longer. Eventually, according to them, the saved would be resurrected, and spend 1000 years checking the books of judgement in heaven, ensuring God got it right when he decided who was saved and who not.
- Have their only celebration taken from the Old Covenant and ignore the joys of the New Covenant
- Celebrate a day looking back to the exodus from Egypt instead of one celebrating our new life in Christ
- Look back to the old creation and ignore the new
- Retain the Old Covenant symbolism of the separation between Israel and the Gentiles
- Have an Old Testament-style prophet who called them out of the rest of Christianity as a “remnant” group, similar to other movements of the time (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example)
- Believe Jesus had a sinful human nature, and is seen (perhaps like Islam) by many as more of an example than a saviour
- Believe Jesus’ role as mediator will cease at an unknown future date
- Are like Abraham’s wife Hagar, who represents the law given at Sinai (that they follow this law they acknowledge), instead of being like Sarah, who represents the New Covenant (Gal 4:21-31)
These are not necessarily the causes of their theological deficiency, but rather symptoms of something greater and more sinister and heterodox deeper within their theology that makes it significantly defective. I acknowledge that not all Adventists may share a faith this defective, and the Adventists who have led me to this conclusion may not represent the entire denomination. But that this problem exists is surely a sign that there are serious flaws, possibly to the extent of large parts of Adventism lying outside the fringe of normal mainstream Christian theology.
What Precisely is the Gospel? … by Bishop Robert Barron