“Tradition is the living faith of the dead,
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.…
It is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” – Jaroslav Pelikan
True “Tradition” vs. the Status Quo
The year is 1885. A thirty-five-year-old Adventist is in his study investigating some of the positions of the Adventist church. He thinks he’s on to something. It’s a minor point, but the problem is that his conclusions don’t harmonize with what the church has been teaching for decades. He doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s about to rock the boat and nauseate some folk. His name is Alonzo Trevier Jones, aka, A.T. Jones.
Just a year previous the delegates of the 1884 General Conference asked him to begin a research project to corroborate Adventist interpretations of prophecy with accurate historical evidence. Most of the interpretations were substantiated, except one minor point. Based on the evidence at his disposal, Jones concluded that there was a mistake in the typical Adventist interpretation of the tens horns, or kingdoms, of Daniel 7. While Adventists had been saying that one of the ten kingdoms was the Huns, Jones concluded that the better fit with the prophecy was the Allemanni. A simple fix, you would think. Not quite.
For Smith, departing from the conventional view was too dangerous a risk, regardless of the evidence.
The key proponent of the conventional view was Uriah Smith, who also happened to be the church’s authority on prophetic interpretation and author of the widely respected book, Daniel and the Revelation. In May of 1885, Jones wrote to Smith: “I have tried my best to bring about an agreement, but with no authorities that I have, can I make it fit… I don’t want to disagree with you on them if it can be prevented.… If you have evidence on this to which I have no access, please let me have the benefit of it.”1
In spite of appeals for open and friendly dialogue, Smith would not cooperate. After further unheeded requests, Jones continued his research, which he published in Signs of the Times. In November of 1886, Smith spoke out, and he wasn’t happy. He was irritated about the disagreement: Why should Adventists now change their position when it has been preached that way for “the past forty years,” he asked? Adopting Jones’ suggestions would discredit the church because “thousands would notice the change” and suspect that Adventists were wrong on other points.2 In other words, what would the world think if Adventists conceded a mistake in their view? For Smith, departing from the conventional view was too dangerous a risk, regardless of the evidence.
Wrong response for a man like A. T. Jones who was allergic to the status quo. Avoiding change simply because we’ve held this position for forty years? Not a chance. Jones replied on December 3, 1886, maintaining that the real danger was in ignoring glaring weaknesses in the church’s positions. When subjected to the scrutiny of the world, the Adventist church would have to “present some better reason for our faith than that ‘it has been preached for forty years.’”3 He pressed on:
If I find myself wrong, I am ready to change for something that is right at any time. It only shows that I have learned something I did not know before… even though it had been preached for a thousand years… that is no evidence to me, I will change at the first chance to get the truth.4
If I find myself wrong, I am ready to change for something that is right at any time.
Jones would go on to plead in more letters for Smith to send him the sources that supported the traditional position. “I promise you that I will put it in the Signs as soon as I can do it, and with it I will put a retraction of what I have printed… nothing would please me more than to have it printed in the Signs.” 5
But to no avail. The schism between the two men would get pushed into the 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, and President G. I. Butler, in league with Uriah Smith, would vent in frustration that Jones was violating “the long established faith of our people taken forty years ago.” 6 The tense debate ended with no resolution. Ironically, the church would eventually adopt Jones’ position.
So which of these two men—Jones or Smith—was the real champion of Adventist tradition? For many readers, it may seem that it was Uriah Smith. But was it really? One of these men was lobbying for the importance of singing the same tune that had been sung for forty years; the other was advocating the importance of careful and responsible research to substantiate the church’s positions with facts. Backing up one’s beliefs with solid evidence and good sense is a far greater Adventist tradition than the “tradition” Uriah Smith was urging.
A.T. Jones was invoking an ideal grounded in the very foundation upon which Adventism was built. He was standing on the shoulders of giants, the pioneers that lay resting in their graves—men like Joseph Bates, J.N. Andrews, and James White. Jones was emulating true Traditional Adventism—the living faith of the dead. That was a vibrant faith, one with vision and openness to adjust to fine-tuning and to correcting misconceptions within the church.
…changing beliefs we’ve held for many years is actually very much an Adventist thing to do.
Smith, on the other hand, was representing Adventist Traditionalism—the dead faith of the living. “Dead” in the sense of being static, resistant to growth and change. When motivated by the testimony of Scripture and sound reasoning, changing beliefs we’ve held for many years is actually very much an Adventist thing to do. Settling for the status quo is an un-Adventist attitude.
The problem is not that Uriah Smith was too traditional, the problem is that he was not traditional enough. His version of “traditional” did not reach deep enough into solid Adventist bedrock.
Is it possible that we might be prone to resisting change and finding security in the status quo? Is it possible that we have been predisposed to simply continue to do what we have always done without careful self-reflection?
Now let’s rewind one more time…
The Weakness of Defensiveness
The year is 1884. A twenty-nine-year-old Adventist is in his study enraptured with the dimensions of the gospel revealed in the book of Galatians. He is struggling to account for the lack of revival in the Adventist Church. He thinks he’s on to something, but the problem is that his conclusions don’t harmonize with what the church has been teaching for decades. He doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s about to unleash a debate of seismic proportions. His name is Ellet Joseph Waggoner, aka, E.J. Waggoner.
A doctor by training, Waggoner was a second generation Adventist who, while sitting in a tent meeting one gloomy afternoon, had a rich conversion experience. As he described it: “I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me, and that Christ gave Himself for me personally. It was all for me.” That profoundly moving experience would shape his approach to the Bible and his vision for the church.
“I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me…”
In Galatians 3, Waggoner, along with Jones, discovered that the law referred to by Paul as “our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ,” was the Ten Commandments, and not merely the ceremonial law as taught by Adventists for about thirty years. Waggoner’s conclusions were not exactly new. The interpretation he was suggesting was actually the position held by key Adventist leaders—such as Joseph Bates, James White, and J.N. Andrews—in the 1850s. But the church changed its position in reaction to Protestant dispensationalists who, using Galatians 3 as their prooftext, claimed that the law was abolished by Christ’s sacrifice. Sensing a threat to some of the denomination’s central tenets, Adventists reacted by identifying the law in Galatians as the ceremonial law, thus protecting the Ten Commandments.
When Jones and Waggoner began teaching and writing about the relationship between the law and the gospel, and about the subject of righteousness by faith, they stirred up some Adventists. Uriah Smith and G.I. Butler were leading the opposition. They claimed that Jones’ and Waggoner’s views were dangerous; that their teachings were a threat to the centrality of the law and the Sabbath. If the outside world learned of a changed position regarding the law in Galatians, the church would lose credibility before the world.
Wrong response to a man like Waggoner who was seeing with greater clarity the exalted role of the gospel in the Adventist system of truth. He urged his readers that far from undermining the importance of the Ten Commandments, his teachings on the law in Galatians actually emphasized “how thoroughly the majesty of the law is vindicated throughout, and its perpetuity shown, and also how beautiful is the harmony between the law and the gospel.” 7
Waggoner could sense the lack of gospel emphasis within the church at a time when the faith of Jesus, as Ellen White put it, was “talked of, but not understood.” It was a time when Seventh-day Adventists harped on the Ten Commandments, but not enough about the “law and the gospel going hand in hand.” 8
“…they had perverted ideas of what constituted the old landmarks…”
But not everyone saw things that way. It was too much for Smith and Butler, who rallied the troops and agitated the old guard to resist these young cavaliers. One could have doubted whether Jones and Waggoner were genuinely Adventists judging by the accusations and criticism leveled against them. Yet the resistance to their message was in large part due to fear mongering. They were viewed as a threat to traditional Adventism.
Ellen White, on the other hand, believed the young men were breathing new life into Adventism. As for the opposition, she explained that narrow-minded men “decided it was a dangerous error removing the ‘old landmarks’ when it was not moving a peg of the old landmarks, but they had perverted ideas of what constituted the old landmarks… All this cry about changing the old landmarks is all imaginary.” 9
In the heat of the tension, Waggoner responded to the opposition’s concern about a change of position:
I know you will say that it will be a humiliating thing to modify our position on so vital a point as this, right in the face of the enemy… But I do not see anything humiliating in the matter. If our people should today, as a body… change their view on this point, it would simply be an acknowledgment that they are better informed today than they were yesterday. It would simply be taking an advance step, which is never humiliating except to those whose pride of opinion will not allow them to admit that they can be wrong.10
A willingness to acknowledge that we see things clearer today than we did yesterday? Sounds pretty dangerous. A humility of opinion that is fine with admitting when we are wrong? Sounds pretty risky.
Waggoner insisted that his teaching on the law and the gospel was not a “new idea.” “It is not a new theory of doctrine,” but is actually “perfectly in harmony with the fundamental principles of truth which have been held” by our people. 11
In other words, this is traditional Adventism! This is that old school Adventism anchored in the everlasting gospel and centered in the faith of Jesus.
So what was going on in the heads of Smith and Butler? What was wrong with those men? The sobering reality is that, if we look close enough, we would see their reflection in the mirror.
These two scenarios with Jones and Waggoner are merely examples that illustrate a larger challenge facing the church. Is it possible that Adventists might be prone to taking certain positions from a defensive posture? Could such a posture, though with good intention, nonetheless eclipse the church’s representation of the Gospel and hinder its ability to be forward-thinking? Can a kind of narrow-minded paranoia creep into our mentality and cause us to think we are defending traditional Adventism when we are actually resisting the Spirit’s moving?
Oh, by the way… several years later Ellen White chimed in that the law in Galatians is referring to “both the ceremonial and the moral code of Ten Commandments,” but that the apostle Paul was “speaking especially of the moral law.” It looks like those two troublemakers were on to something. 12
How Traditional Are You?
Don’t be duped into merely assuming that you’re resting safely, Sabbath after Sabbath, in the comfortable embrace of traditional Adventism. If you’re too comfortable—if you haven’t challenged your set of common assumptions about God, the Bible and the church—then there’s nothing “traditional” about your Adventism.
Why? Because real traditional Adventism is edgy, open-minded, forward thinking, and progressive. And yes, I just used the “p” word. But before we get nervous, I mean it in the sense that Ellen White meant it when she declared that the Bible is “a progressive book,” fostering spiritual development and understanding.13 True traditional Adventism welcomes Spirit-led change.
…real traditional Adventism is edgy, open-minded, forward thinking, and progressive.
The absence of these qualities may suggest that what you’re experiencing is not traditional Adventism, but actually a stale traditionalism.
Smugness—whether generational, cultural, ideological, etc.—will not survive the light of day when exposed to the fresh, invigorating rays of the Three Angels’ Messages.
May we all gravitate toward what is truly traditional Adventism. May we embody a willingness to challenge the status quo; an openness to acknowledge where we can change and grow. May we surmount our tendency to take a defensive and reactive posture and instead foster a mentality that is proactive.
May we be grounded in the “everlasting gospel” (Revelation 14:6) and encounter the three angels’ messages in a fresh way, allowing the Spirit to stir up our creative juices to meet the demands of the times.
May we emulate that kind of Adventism that propels us forward in a progressive vision for what the church can be in this world.
- A.T. Jones to Uriah Smith, May 18, 1885
- Uriah Smith to A.T. Jones, November 8, 1886
- A.T. Jones to Uriah Smith, December 3, 1886
- ibid, emphasis supplied
- A.T. Jones to Uriah Smith, December 27, 1886
- G.I. Butler to Ellen G. White, October 1, 1888
- Signs of the Times, September 2, 1886, p .534
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 172
- Ellen G. White, 1888 Materials, p. 518
- E.J. Waggoner, The Gospel in Galatians, p. 53
- Ellen G. White, Ms. 87, 1900; Ellen G. White to Uriah Smith, June 6, 1896
- Ellen G. White, 1888 Materials, p. 259
Light Bearers' mission is to vindicate the beauty of God’s character. As the immensely blessed recipients of God’s grace, we possess an abundance of life-transforming truth and we deeply desire to share it with every person on earth.