Desmond Ford Redux?
Is it Time for the SDA Church to "Normalize" Relations with Desmond Ford? A Reaction to Avondale Church's Membership and Relational Issues Committee Document "Mapping the Past and Sketching the Future" (MPSF).
Larry Kirkpatrick. 8 March 2002 (minor revision 17 March).
The Avondale College SDA Church has prepared a document and solicited reaction to it.1 The thrust of this document is to pave the way for a change in the SDA Church's relation to Dr. Desmond Ford and to openly request that denial of key points regarding the biblical teaching of the 2300 prophecy and its relation to October 22, 1844, be accepted.
More precisely, the document seems to imply that one who has been defrocked, de-credentialed, and barred from speaking in our churches,2 and who even had his membership from the SDA church dropped,3 could be permitted to now bypass these realities.4
Because the document we discuss has not yet seen broad circulation, let us briefly describe it. It consists of some 23 paragraphs/text-blocks, plus endnotes. The copy I have has rather small print and covers five pages; probably the length would be almost double at more common print sizes. The document seems to express hope that "the heresy of one generation may become the orthodoxy of the next."
What might be less obvious but more telling is that from its first sentence onward the document is very concerned with perceptions. It is a biblical axiom that truth does not change from generation to generation, only aspects of emphasis. Looking at error with scholarly assurances that it is not error stacked around it in aesthetically pleasing configurations cannot make error into truth. Truth is objective and exists outside of perception. Changing the way the picture hangs doesn't change the picture. Real heresy never becomes real truth.
The intent of the MPSF document includes remapping the past. That is, changing the denomination's perception, if possible, about what happened through those years of the Ford crisis. For example:
Given the resources that are now available to facilitate an understanding of the past and to chart viable patterns for the future, these matters [including the teachings of Desmond Ford] do not appear to necessitate continuing division or sustained conflict.5
That is, now, with the passage of time and the diligent work of scholars, the church has something that it didn't have when the initial crisis occurred: a ready means of explaining away the church's rejection of Ford's teachings and re-perceiving them as kosher.
Remapping the Past
Here is how this works. The document claims that we have insight now into how various groups handle the introduction of new information. "Sociological studies," they say, show that "when a significant amount of new data inundate a religious group within a short space of time, three responses typically occur: reversion, rejection and transformation."6 Accordingly, it is claimed that during the years of the Ford crisis, "large amounts of new information began to deluge the church."7
What is the committee's analysis of that new information as it relates to the gospel? That Dr. Ford was at that time a major agency "making a clearer expression of 'the everlasting gospel.'"8 Again, "since the 1950s, despite his evident humanness, Dr. Ford may have done as much as any other Adventist to help the church achieve the maturity of its present position."9 Also, that "on calmer reflection after twenty years, we see Dr. Ford is not only still pressing toward the city of God as a committed Adventist; his path and ours are essentially one in direction despite short-term divergences."10
What the church lacked back then, we are told, was sufficient time to process the "new" information. However, this was not the sense of many historical participants. The information brought by Dr. Ford and his supporters was not so much "new" as it was simply erroneous in essence and direction. The many references to this "new" light cannot make it such. Leading workers who examined that new light at the time saw it as destructive error, and opposed it as such.
The genius of the sociological explanation is it allows the church to make a mistake because of situationally innate sociological pressures. Removed thus from the status of overt, premeditated moral failure, we can simply tuck away all the work of the Glacier View Sanctuary Review Committee in some quiet place and now relabel what they called heresy as our orthodoxy.
"Hey Mikey, They Like It"
A second argument offered in favor of "normalizing" relations with Dr. Ford is that he is likable. "Dr. Ford returned from the United States in August 2000 to live in active retirement in Queensland where he is being welcomed by Christian and secular Australians as a presenter of the gospel."11 However, the fact that Ford is experiencing acceptance as a presenter of the gospel by those who do not share SDA biblically-derived perceptions of what that gospel is should have little weight with us. In fact, it should be viewed as a flashing red danger signal!
Indeed, if like-ability is our measure, why stop with Ford? Let's introduce into our fellowship John-Paul II also. Think what an influence this could have on all the Roman Catholics. We could tell them also, as it is proposed that we tell ourselves, that the acceptance of 1844 and the 2300 days prophecy is merely optional. Along with the point that Ford is appreciated by non-Adventists, we are also reminded that a large number of Australian SDAs also prefer his gospel.12
New Documents and Agreements in Intervening Years
A third reason suggested is that several developments in intervening years have produced various documents that are supposedly in harmony with much of what Dr. Ford has espoused. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors operating in this plea, because among those documents we find reference to the 1980 statement of fundamental beliefs. But a different analysis prevailed among our chief workers at that time. Ford's views were not seen to be sufficiently in harmony with that statement for him to continue formally to teach Seventh-day Adventism.
The claim of MPSF on this is similar to its claim that the church was deluged with new information through the ministry of Dr. Ford. They wish to add to that new information in the form of consensus statements and reevaluations of the role of Ellen G. White since then. The list offered is unimpressive, especially to one who has read through most of those documents.13 Not one of these five so-called achievements of the church sustains the notion that the SDA understanding of the biblical teaching sustaining 1844 as the termination of the 2300 days prophecy and the present operation of heaven's investigative judgment is faulty and could be downgraded to a mere optional belief.
Current Acceptance of Ford Teaching by the Church
A fourth reason given is that the teachings that then were rejected by the church are now accepted within her.
Surveys of the literature produced by Dr. Ford and the church since 1980 indicate that at present a new door of opportunity may be open to the church, offering an opportunity for reconciliatory healing."14
And the next sentence:
Several aspects of doctrine which Dr. Ford's critics classified as aberrations in the late 1970s/early 1980s were proclaimed with great acceptance at a recent campmeeting by a respected past president of the Adventist Theological Society.15
It is after this line that we get the heresy of one generation becoming the orthodoxy of the next statement. Just here I can only say that yes, we are presently experiencing widespread acceptance within the denomination, at least in some important venues, for most if not all of that which previously had been classed as error in the teaching of Desmond Ford. I have consistently outlined this development in items published on this website.16 In case folks weren't listening, you should be listening now! The chickens are coming home to roost. Don't forget the reference we already saw. Those among us pressing for Ford's reacceptance are looking at the church in her current estate, and indicate their sense that God's church has now achieved as "the maturity of its present position" a capacity to accept Ford's teachings as legitimately SDA.
But the fact that pro-Ford views are regularly canvassed in the Review, while not labeled as such, still doesn't convert error to truth; it merely testifies of the pointed need for change at the Review. Remember, the fact that the heresy of one generation may become the orthodoxy of the next is nothing new. Weighing history we realize that what happened to the church under the philosophical influence of developments many hundreds of years ago was the same thing. The incorporation of Sunday observance into a departing-from-truth church's belief-system didn't convert that teaching then into truth, did it?
Subtle Change Exposed
What about it? Will you accept statements such as the following as being sufficiently sound to pass as SDA? "Since October 23, 1844, as pilgrims journeying toward the city of God, 'the true tabernacle' and the ministry there of our Great High Priest has been a landmark truth."17 Or this: "Providentially, the study of Daniel 8:14 was a major factor in the rise of the Second Advent Movement to which we belong by conscious choice."18 Neither of the above affirms the validity of the biblical interpretation held by SDAs concerning the teaching of an investigative judgment which commenced at the close of the 2300 year prophecy.
Remember, our agreed upon statement as a people includes this definitive line:
In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, He [Jesus] entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry. It is a work of investigative judgment . . ."19
In contrast to that, Dr. Ford states,
Our traditional method of explaining the pre-Advent judgment will not stand up to critical examination. There are no texts teaching an investigative judgment as we proclaim it.20
Indeed, we are aware of no statement by Ford extant in any of his writings between the time of the controversy surrounding his teaching and the present day, where he finds himself able to agree with the above statement from our fundamental beliefs. There are several wiggly, cleverly-worded statements about 1844, but no agreement here. Nor has the passage of time Avondale Church's Special Committee reminds us of led to any change in Dr. Ford's position. The change is entirely with those who are now willing to receive him with his view unchanged.
"Mapping the Past and Sketching the Future" even admits this. Consider this important fact as embedded in endnote seven of that document:
There is much evidence that God has led and is leading our movement to a fuller understanding of Daniel 8:14 through linguistic, historical, contextual, comparitive and other studies. As we have sought to learn from the past and follow God's leading in the ongoing present, we acknowledge that contrasting understandings of one or more aspects of Daniel 8:14 have become evident. Discussion of such matters must never draw us from our mission to proclaim 'the everlasting gospel . . . unto them that dwell on the earth.' Up to this point almost all informed Seventh-day Adventists can say a hearty amen. So the present challenge is whether we can agree on one more sentence: 'Even though we draw contrasting conclusions from one or more aspects of Daniel 8:14, from contrasting perspectives, we accept each other as loyal members of the family of God and we covenant to deal graciously and truthfully with each and winsomely with the world.'21
"Contrasting understandings" is doublespeak for saying "two mutually exclusive views, both of which cannot be truth, but at least one of which must be error." In this light, Ellen White's statements concern us:
The Scripture which above all others had been both the foundation and the central pillar of the advent faith was the declaration: 'Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.' Daniel 8:14.22
The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God's hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people.23
In the future, deception of every kind is to arise, and we want solid ground for our feet. We want solid pillars for the building. Not one pin is to be removed from that which the Lord has established. The enemy will bring in false theories, such as the doctrine that there is no sanctuary. This is one of the points on which there will be a departing from the faith."24
The time is near when the deceptive powers of satanic agencies shall be fully developed. . . . Satan is striving continually to bring in fanciful suppositions in regard to the sanctuary, degrading the wonderful representations of God and the ministry of Christ for our salvation into something that suits the carnal mind . . . Thus he would rob us of our faith in the very message that has made us a separate people, and has given character and power to our work.25
The latter two statements come in 1905, initially centering around the apostasies of A. F. Ballenger and J. H. Kellogg, and offering preview of apostasies to occur at some later time.
Perhaps our time.
If the present challenge is whether we can agree on one more sentence
Is it time for Desmond Ford redux? No. That which they call new information is old error; that which they call "the maturity of the church's present position" is more the persistent growth of error left over from the Ford crisis. At that time, the obvious attacks on the sanctuary were defended against but the salvation understanding of Ford was entering by the backdoor, and mostly left unaddressed. How that omission haunts us today!
What will we do?
In the light of the above points, I protest most vigorously any act whereby the biblical beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church be impaled upon giggling scholarly sentences peddled in documents such as "Mapping the Past and Sketching the Future." I add my own appeal to leadership to reject in its entirety the initiative represented by said document. God grant our leaders and ourselves fealty to truth, and the firmness necessary to reject the threat that has presently arrived.
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Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick is an ordained minister of the gospel. Since 1994 he has served in the American Southwest as pastor to several churches. He received his BA in Religion from Southern Adventist University in 1994 and a Master of Divinity from Andrews University in 1999 with a specialization in Adventist Studies. While in Michigan he was employed by the General Conference at the White Estate Berrien Springs branch office. More important than his scholastic preparation has been his immersion in the biblical and Spirit of Prophecy materials. He is author of the 2003 book Real Grace for Real People. Presently he serves as Pastor of the Mentone Church of Seventh-day Adventists, located near Loma Linda, California. Larry is married to Pamela. The couple presently live in Highland, California along with their two children, Etienne and Melinda.
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