Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians?

Image © Graham Braddock from GoodSalt.com

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 http://amzn.to/2qblR9tam 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.

BIG STORY

(God before creation)

LITTLE STORY

(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.

BIG STORY

(God before creation)

MIDDLE STORY

(Battle between good and evil/ Great Controversy)

LITTLE STORY

(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?

(Arminianism)

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.

Conclusion

Where does Adventism belong in the Christian conversation? Answering this question is important for two primary reasons.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Note: This article was originally published at thethinkingadventist.blogspot.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.


Amen!(5)

1 comment(s) for this post:

  1. Winfried Stolpmann:

    25 May 2017
    Thank you,great research on the topic of a progressing covenant relationship. Indeed, many of our friends in other denominations are argueing in favour of a more or less broken covenant relation of the Old and New Covenants, especially as far as the decalogue in that covenant setting is concerned, and as far as different types of laws are concerned, whether moral,sacrificial or other. There is no space and time right now to retrace these elements within the New Covenant setting.

    As we currently are studying the second epistle of Peter, I again come across the view of most commentators argueing for a second century date of the epistle due to gnostic elements of that century. (2 Peter 2) See also the epistle of Jude. I myself do not share that view as only embryonic elements are seen in both epistels, such as the teaching of freedom in sin (2 Peter 2:18-19) in comparison with the gnostic systems of the second century in their fully developed stage.

    As to covenant theology, I notice that there is, in early history of christianity, a radical break between the 0ld Covenant and the New. Gnostic traces in the early stage may be reflected by Paul speaking of a pseudo-Gnosis with their “antithesis” (some kind of putting one set of belief against the other). (1 Timothy 6:20-21) In gnosticism the creator is believed to have fallen in sin by creating evil matter. Light sparks, having fallen from the world of light in another cosmic drama, are believed to be chained in evil matter, the body. At death the light spark is set free to return to the light world. There is a dichotomy between evil matter und the light sparks, between creation and redemption, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Salvation within the New Covenant becomes salvation from the 0ld Covenant, salvation form the God of the Jews. This dichotomy goes so far as to deny incarnation, as this would mean that Christ was born with evil flesh. So his body was not a reality but rather a phantom with no real substance at all. (1 John 4:2-3) What kind of Christ would have died on the cross? To avoid this dilemma, somenone other than Christ is believed to have died on the cross.

    It seems to me that this kind of dichotomy, of radical separation of the New Covenant from the Old covenant dies hard in the history of salvaion theology, although such extremes of gnosticism are not expressed as such today. However, the main characteristic of a radical break between both Covenants are still alife.

    The God of the Old Testament, in the epistles of Peter, is the same as the God of the New covenant, as Peter is pointing back to the holy God of the Old Covenant, calling for a holy life. (1 Peter 1:16-17) The eternal word of God of the Old Covenant climaxes in the apostolic preaching. (1 Peter 1:24-25) The suffering servant of God (Isaiah 53:4.7), predicted in the Old Covenant, is fuliled in the New Covenant. (1 Peter 2:21-24) The same God who carried out judgement in the Old Covenant is the same God who will carry out judgement at the end of time. (2 Peter 2:4-9) Sin distorted creation will be created anew as the Old Testament has predicted, now taken up and proclaimed by Peter (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13).

    The author of the book of Hebrews makes it clear: The same God who has spoken to the Fathers through the Prophets of the Old Covenant has now spoken through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The speaker of both Testaments is the same, although the culmination of God`s revelation is consummated in His Son. Within this setting there is a progression of covenant history moving to a climax.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic for discussion, reflection and further consideration.

    Winfried Stolpmann

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