How Evangelicals Neutered Adventism
Some sixty years ago Walter Martin, who was an evangelical Cult expert, met with a group of Adventist leaders to determine ‘from the horse’s mouth’ if Seventh-day Adventists should be classified as a Cult or not. Several points of interest were discussed but in this paper I will be focusing on the topic of the ‘Nature of Christ.’
The allegation from Martin was that Adventists believed Christ had a fallen human nature (Adam’s nature after the fall) and that this belief was heretical. The Adventist leaders he was speaking with however reassured him that this wasn’t the case but that Adventists believed Christ was born with an unfallen nature. They even published a book called Questions on Doctrine to, among other things, promote this view of the Nature of Christ.
This caused a reaction among other Adventists who felt that our denomination had always believed Christ had a fallen nature and that the Adventist leaders in question were making compromises in order to appease the evangelicals. Entire ministries were formed to counteract this new view and even today, decades later, battle lines are still drawn around this subject. People who otherwise agree on most other essential topics cannot work together because of disagreement regarding the Nature Christ. Moreover, disagreements on this point are contributing to our confusion regarding the gospel.
There are actually four views of the Nature of Christ not just two like most people assume.
If you ask a post-fall person why it is important to believe Christ was born with Adam’s nature after the fall they will tell you that if Jesus had an unfallen nature He was too different from us to be an adequate example. And, if Jesus’ life wasn’t meant to be an example, that becomes an excuse for sin.
A pre-fall person on the other hand will tell you that claiming Jesus had a fallen nature is demeaning and sacrilegious. Did Jesus think lustful thoughts when an attractive woman walked by? Did He lough at His disciples’ off-color jokes? If we bring Jesus down to our level we lower the ideal we are supposed to be striving for.
And here is the clincher: On each side of the issue, there are people who do hold these views and there are people who don’t. In other words, some people on the pre-fall side believe we don’t need to overcome sin while others think we do. And, some people on the post-fall side do hold a very profane view of Christ while others don’t.
So we can categorize these four groups as follows:
A. Jesus had the nature of Adam before the fall so we don’t have to turn from sin to be saved.
B. Jesus had the nature of Adam before the fall but we do have to turn from sin to be saved.
C. Jesus had the nature of Adam after the fall but He was still holy and pure.
D. Jesus had the nature of Adam after the fall so He was carnal like other human beings.
Here are these four groups in a graph:
And, the point of all this is that in most discussions that 28-Fundamentals-Believing-Adventists have, people on the pre-fall side assume their opponents belong to group ‘D’ while people on the post-fall side assume their opponents belong to group ‘A’. And, among these Adventists, that is hardly ever the case. Thus, people are in agreement on the most relevant and practical aspects of the issue and disagree only on the abstract and theoretical. And, if Adventists weren’t so petty, they would realize that the nature of the disagreement is so insignificant that they should have no problem working together in spite of it and just never bring it up again.
Now some people on both sides of the issue will argue that whatever view of the Nature of Christ you start with, the rest of your theology is an unavoidable logical outflow. So if you start with the pre-fall nature you will eventually end up excusing sin while if you start with a post-fall nature you will end up with a profane view of Christ. But how about we don’t worry so much about ‘unavoidable logical outflows’ and worry instead about what people actually believe.
There actually is no such thing as the Nature of Christ in Adventist theology since Adventists are not dualists.
I wanted to make the previous point first so that if someone does not agree with what I am about to introduce in this section, they can still take something from the article that will help ease tensions over this topic in the future. However, I will argue here that the controversy over the nature of Christ makes no sense in light of our theology of the nature of man.
What do I mean? Consider for a second how Evangelicals view this topic. They believe human beings have a body and a soul. So the question to ask is, when Adam sinned, do they think something changed in Adam’s body or in Adam’s soul? And the answer is that they believe something changed with Adam’s soul such that every human being born thereafter was also born with a tainted soul.
Now some evangelicals believe Jesus had a human body and a human soul besides His divine nature while others that He had a body and the divine nature replaced the soul. So you can imagine how ludicrous our beliefs sound to this second group. To claim that Jesus was born with a fallen nature sounds to them like we are saying that the divine part of Christ’s divine-human nature was tainted with sin (or that maybe we believe he did not have a divine nature at all).
Take a look at the following graphics to see this more clearly:
But even if they believe Jesus had a body, soul and divine nature, their concerns still don’t apply to us since they believe the soul was tainted with sin. And, as Adventists we don’t believe that human beings have a soul but that we became ‘Living Souls’ when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. And we don’t believe that this breath of life is something that could be tainted by sin and therefore, any change that happened as a result of sin happened to the body only.
While this second view is not as bad as the first, the implications are still serious. If Jesus was born with a tainted soul it means in essence that He was born evil. His morality was compromised from birth. And, it is fairly easy to see why this would be a concern to evangelicals. Instead, here is what Adventists actually believe:
Some people might argue here that while it is true that the changes happened to Adam’s body, there were in fact psychological changes as a result of sin that were passed on to his progeny. But we must realize that there is no biological mechanism for such changes to be passed on. If I cut my arm, my children are not also born without an arm. If I suffer brain damage during a car accident and have kids afterwards they are not also born with mental deficiencies.
So then what exactly changed since obviously there are significant differences between us and Adam before the fall? And, because biological changes would not have been passed on to Adam’s children, any change had to have been external. Human beings were created by God to be temples of the Holy Spirit but, as a result of sin, the Holy Spirit had to withdraw from us as a race (though not entirely). Without this union we became incomplete and susceptible to sin. Jesus on the other hand was born fully connected with the Holy Spirit (born born-again) and, in my experience, this is something that people on both sides of the Nature of Christ debate wholeheartedly believe.
As Adventists we do actually believe that Christ was born with Adam’s nature after the fall but in this we believe something completely different than the Evangelicals who use that same terminology. We believe, that as a result of sin, the human body degenerated over time. Human beings decreased in size and longevity while our survival instincts or appetites became stronger and stronger. Christ was born with a body not only like Adam’s after the fall but one that had degenerated for several thousand years beyond that. And that brought with it the baggage of increased susceptibility to temptation that other people of that generation had to deal with. And, if that wasn’t enough, He was also brought during His lifetime into situations where His human nature was tested to its absolute limits (ex. 40 days in the wilderness) so that He would be able to relate to even the most far-gone drug addict.
One thing is definitely certain in all this:
Adventists cannot have a discussion about the nature of Christ without first developing a theology of Christ’s nature in light of our unique perspective on the nature of man. It makes no sense to participate in the same discussion evangelicals are having when our view of man is so different.
So over half a century ago Evangelicals introduced a conflict into Adventism that wasn’t there before and which makes no sense in light of our unique theology. Yet, none the less, this conflict has kept us at odds with each other all this time and has prevented us from joining forces to accomplish our mission. And thus, this is how Evangelicals have, in effect, neutered Adventism.