The church moves closer to schism.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) has taken its strongest action yet to quell the theological controversy that has been erupting over one of the church’s basic doctrines—the investigative judgment of Christ, which the church believes was revealed to prophetess Ellen White in 1844.

Church officials have “annulled” the ordination of Desmond Ford, an eminent Australian theologian who has been kindly—but persistently—denying that anything of heavenly significance occurred in 1844. Efforts are under way to revoke his Adventist church membership. Two of Ford’s colleagues, Smuts van Rooyen and Noel Mason, have also lost their ordinations, and two Adventist college presidents have resigned. Ford estimates that in all, some 150 Adventist pastors and teachers have been fired or forced to resign recently for their theological dissent. (A church official puts that number at far less.)

The action against Ford and the others was precipitated by an official committee, responsible to Adventist World President Neal Wilson and his advisers. The committee held a last-ditch meeting January 14–17 at the El Rancho Motel near the San Francisco airport with Ford and three other prominent men accused of “heresy, apostacy, rebellion” in the rhubarb over the investigative judgment.

They studied hermeneutical approaches to prophecies in Daniel and Revelation, with Ford denying that 1844 or any other apocalyptic date could be found in the two books. Ford presented 80 “implicit” teachings on the investigative judgment, which he claimed were not biblical. None of these were accepted by the official group. Ford maintains that a “cordial spirit” existed throughout the meeting. Nevertheless, the official committee reported back to Wilson that the gap was too big to make further study profitable.

Wilson then telephoned Ford on January 27 that he was giving the Australasian division the go-ahead to revoke Ford’s ordination. Three days later, Ford received a telegram from his home division stating that his ordination had been “annulled.” A follow-up letter also said he would be stripped of his church membership. However, Ford’s membership is with the Pacific Union College Seventh-day Adventist Church in Angwin, California, and he expects support when the issue comes up there.

The ordination of Ford’s colleagues, van Rooyen and Mason, were also annulled, with calls issued for loss of their church membership. No action reportedly has been taken yet on the standing of Calvin Edwards, editor of Good News, the journalistic voice of the dissenters.

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“We’re not antagonistic to the church,” Ford insisted in a follow-up statement. “We just want to see it come into full harmony with Scripture. The big problem is that administrators are not well informed. SDA scholars haven’t been teaching or writing on the investigative judgment for decades.”

Ford says that besides the 150 Adventist pastors and teachers who have been forced out over the investigative judgment doctrine, “thousands of others are just hanging on.” Ford thinks “pressure from mainline evangelicals for the SDA to be biblical” could prevent mass firings. C. E. Bradford, vice-president of the Church’s North American division, said only about 20 pastors and five or six teachers are out.

Sources say that numerous SDA ministers have had to take loyalty oaths on the investigative judgment issue, with some sending in manuscripts and cassettes of sermons to be checked. Many are reportedly reluctant to identify with Ford because of fear of being unable to find other remunerative work in a time of recession.

Several college administrators are reported to have been caught in a squeeze, trying to protect assertive faculty—who sympathize with Ford—from traditionalist trustees and denominational officials who want a further cleansing of the ranks. Two—Jack Cassell and Frank Knittle, presidents of Pacific Union College (near San Francisco) and Southern College (near Chattanooga) respectively—have resigned, ostensibly to take sabbaticals. Knittle says openly, “Ellen White should not be considered as an authoritative source in the development of church theology.” Knittle, who in 12 years saw his enrollment increase from 600 to 1,200, maintains that this has always been the official position of the church. “Many of our people talk about historic Adventism and have never taken time to research what Adventism really is. They would be surprised to find that some of those accused in the present controversy are more in harmony with historic Adventism than their accusers.” Knittle said he became tired of the “hassle” of being an administrator and will look for a job in his scholarly field of medieval studies.

The doctrinal struggle is rooted in the very founding of Adventism. William Miller, a Baptist preacher and Bible scholar of the last century, predicted that Christ would return on October 22, 1844. He based his stand on the cleansing of the temple mentioned in Daniel 8:14. After the “Great Disappointment,” two of Miller’s followers, Hiram Edson and Ellen Harmon (the future Mrs. White), reported having visions of Christ’s entering “the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary,” just as the priest entered the Holy of Holies in the temple to make atonement for sin. This is what Christ actually did in 1844, the visionaries said, and thus the movement was saved.

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Later, Ellen White expanded her vision into the doctrine of the investigative judgment. It holds that although man’s sins are forgiven at the Cross, they must be blotted out by Christ before man can enter heaven. This blotting out of sin is what Christ has been doing since 1844, but only after evaluating the life of each believer to see whether he is worthy. Thus salvation is never secure.

Ford and many other Adventist theologians say the investigative judgment is nonbiblical, denies justification by faith, produces a remnant mentality, and encourages perfectionism. Removal of the doctrine from the Adventist statement of faith would put the church close to mainstream evangelicalism, Ford contends (although Ford and other dissenters continue to worship on Saturday).

The investigative judgment doctrine has been further undermined by evidence, long known but newly public, that White borrowed liberally in her writings, even though traditionalists in the church have believed that what she wrote was inspired, as were the Old Testament prophets. Last year a California minister and researcher, Walter Rea, dropped a bombshell in his new book The White Lie. He said White appropriated as much as 90 percent of some chapters of her books from other authors, often quoting verbatim.

Rea also charged that much of what is credited to White was actually written and/or edited by her husband, James, and various editorial assistants. Defenders of White, while giving ground, said it was possible for her thoughts to be inspired even though her language was not original in all cases. On November 13,1980, after giving an interview to the Los Angeles Times, Rea was fired for “negative influence upon the church in regard to an important church doctrine.”

Unlike Ford’s manuscript, which is irenic in tone, Rea’s work is punctuated by bitterness and cynicism. Sample: “Past heretics found … it did not pay to rummage around too much in Ellen’s pawnshop and look at the labels on her merchandise to see if they were firsthand or second. Some who did were silenced, shifted from place to place, or rejected as unfit for God or his work.”

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Adventist history shows a steady parade of defections since the beginning, most over White and the doctrines she delivered to Adventism. One splinter group is the tiny Seventh-day Church of God. However, not until 1976 did many problems in her writings become widely known.

That year SDA historian Ronald Numbers published his much-contested Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. Numbers documented how White was influenced by other health reformers, including Sylvester Graham (Graham crackers) and John Kellogg (corn flakes). Numbers noted that much of White’s health ideas were sound and some even far advanced, yet at some points she was ridiculous by modern standards. Examples: Wearing of wigs could lead to insanity and moral recklessness. Masturbation could result in “imbecility … and deformity of every description.” Wasp waists, produced by wearing tight corsets, could be passed on to children.

Numbers’s book provoked spirited defenses in Adventist curriculum and more scholarly interest in White’s writings. But the book raised few ripples across Adventist constituency.

Then a long-suppressed transcript of a leadership Bible conference in 1919 turned up in the May 1979 issue of Spectrum, the unofficial but sanctioned Adventist Forum’s journal for discussion. Many Adventists learned for the first time that leaders had long known of serious problems in White’s writings. One officer admitted in the 1919 meeting, “We have not taught the truth, and have put [Mrs. White’s] Testimonies on a place where she says they do not stand.” Some conceded that James White and secretaries had doctored White’s works to put them in good literary form and even added material.

The Spectrum disclosure sent tremors through Adventism. Some who had passed off Numbers’s book as a biased secular history had to respect the words of long-revered leaders, some of whom were now urging caution in using White’s works.

Four months later, Ford told a forum at Pacific Union College that there was no biblical support for the investigative judgment (CT, Feb. 8, 1980, p. 64).

Ford was given a paid, six-month leave to prepare a defense of his position. In August 1980 he brought a 990-page document to a restricted gathering of 100 SDA administrators and scholars in Glacier View, Colorado. The group pored over Ford’s manuscript, some agreeing and some disagreeing at various points. But because Ford wouldn’t back down, his ministerial credentials were revoked, and he was fired from his teaching job at Pacific Union (CT, Oct. 19, 1980, p. 76). Ford later said he was booted out “because I dared say in public what many other Adventist scholars have long been saying in private.”

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The strong action against Ford, van Rooyen, and the others indicates that Adventist officialdom is determined to eliminate public dissent in the matter of the investigative judgment, even though there seems to be some softening in the doctrinal belief about just how Ellen White should be regarded today. Bradford, the head of the North American division, said, “We’re now looking at Mrs. White’s fidelity to Jesus Christ, and how she relates to the main pillars of our faith.” A dissenting Adventist, however, says: “The question isn’t what we will do with Ellen White. It’s what we will do with Jesus Christ.”

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