Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist message? What would you consider as the component of the Seventh-day Adventist message that distinguishes it from the preaching of other Christian denominations? Would it be the doctrines of the perpetuity of God's law and the seventh-day Sabbath, Christ's heavenly ministry, Christ's Second Coming, the conditional immortality of the soul, or the prophetic gift of Ellen White?
I firmly believe that our distinctive doctrines contribute to the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist message. But I do not believe that any of these doctrines (or even all together) can genuinely account for the overall uniqueness of that message as understood by the founders of Seventh-day Adventism.
Allow me to briefly present a few insights on (1) how early Seventh-day Adventists understood the uniqueness of their message; (2) how that understanding gradually shifted over the years; and (3) how to revitalize the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist message in our contemporary setting.
How Early Seventh-day Adventists Understood the Uniqueness of Their Message
The founders of Sabbatarian Adventism did not confine the uniqueness of their message to one, two, or more isolated doctrines. That uniqueness was seen in the overall setting of their integrated system of doctrines. Uriah Smith, for instance, stated in 1858 that "the present truth is harmonious in all its parts; its links are all connected; the bearing of all its portions upon each other are like clock-work; but break out one cog, and the work is stopped; break one link, and the chain is broken; let down one stitch and we may unravel the whole."1
In 1894 Ellen White asserted that "the truth for this time is broad in its outlines, far reaching, embracing many doctrines; but these doctrines are not detached items, which mean little; they are united by golden threads, forming a complete whole, with Christ as the living center." 2
These statements underline the fact that the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist message is found in the overall system formed not only by (1) all doctrinal components of that message but also by (2) all the linkages between those components and (3) a "living center." In other words, the whole of the Seventh-day Adventist message is far broader and richer than the simple sum of its parts.
My dissertation, entitled "The Sanctuary and the Three Angels' Messages, 1844-1863: Integrating Factors in the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrines," has shown that it was both the sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 and the three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12 that helped integrate the major doctrinal components of the early Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal system. 3
While the sanctuary typology integrated those components theological-historically, the three angels' messages integrated them historical-theologically. The theological-historical integration was due to the fact that the post-1844 cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary was theologically connected to almost all basic Sabbatarian Adventist teachings. The historical-theological integration of the system was brought about by the incorporation of those teachings into the chronological structure provided by the consecutive preaching of the three angels' messages. 4
Stephen N. Haskell was right when he declared in 1904 that "the truth has come to us as a system."5
Shift from a System Focus to a More Isolated Doctrine Approach
Up to the early twentieth century, Seventh-day Adventist authors continued to emphasize the interrelationship of doctrines. This emphasis, however, was gradually replaced by a more restricted focus on isolated doctrines.
Four factors seem to have influenced that shift. The first of those factors was the post-1888 attempt to make each of the Seventh-day Adventist doctrines Christ-centered.6 While attempting to make Christ the center of each doctrine, Seventh-day Adventists gradually lost sight of the integrating functions of both the sanctuary and the three angels' messages.
A second factor that fostered a more isolated-doctrine approach has been the influence of the Seventh-day Adventist dialogues with Evangelicals which began in the mid-1950 with Walter Martin and D. G. Barnhouse and continued within the broader scholarly milieu. Those dialogues helped Seventh-day Adventists to be better understood and accepted by the larger Evangelical community, but they obfuscated the overall uniqueness of the Adventist message.
In addition to the post1888 Christ-center emphasis and the Adventist dialogues with Evangelicals, the compartmentalization of theological training into distinctive specialties has produced a whole generation of specialists in a few specific doctrines who have felt uneasy to deal with the broadness of a theological system. This has become an increasing problem because of the considerable lack of dialogue between them.
A fourth anti-system force comes from the overexaggerated concerns in some Adventist circles about contemporary social and/or existential issues. Those concerns have generated an increasing anti-doctrinal feeling, leading to a further departure from the early Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the uniqueness of the Adventist message.
As a result, the restricted emphasis on isolated doctrines has led some Adventist scholars to limit the broad sanctuary message to its preadvent judgment dimension. Social-existential concerns have influenced other scholars to restrict the meaning of the 1844 event to a non-doctrinal, existential experience of faith and courage.7
Broadening Our Understanding of the Uniqueness of the Adventist Message
The shift of emphasis just mentioned calls for a broadening of our understanding of the uniqueness of the Adventist message. To meet this challenge, Seventh-day Adventists should, in my opinion, (1) revitalize the function of the sanctuary and the three angels' messages as integrating factors of the Adventist doctrinal system; (2) demonstrate how each Adventist doctrine is organically interrelated to the other doctrinal components of that system; and (3) show how the whole system can lead us to a more biblical and Christ-centered understanding of the Adventist message.
Starting with the messianic prophecies and the sanctuary typology of the Old Testament, we should be able to show how the religious life of ancient Israel and the teachings of the Old Testament were connected with the earthly sanctuary. Then we should explain how the life of the Christian church and the teachings of the New Testament are directly related to Christ's sacrifice on the cross and His priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. Finally, let us demonstrate how the doctrinal system integrated by the antitypical sanctuary has been revitalized and is being proclaimed by the three angels' messages.
I strongly believe that God has given the Seventh-day Adventist Church a unique message for the world. May God help us to proclaim the wholeness to that message "to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people" (Rev 14:6, KJV).
1 [Uriah Smith], "Are the Seven Last Plagues in the Future?" RH, Jan. 7, 1858, 72.
2 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1986), 2:87.
3 For a more detailed study of the integrating function of the sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 and the three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12 in the early Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal system, see Alberto R. Timm, " The Sanctuary and the Three Angels' Messages, 1844-1863: Integrating Factors in the Development of Seventhday Adventist Doctrines" (Ph.D. diss., Andrews University, 1995).
4 Ibid., 475-76.
5 S. N. Haskell, "The Sanctuary," RH, Oct. 27, 1904.
6 A classical expression of that attempt is found in W. W Prescott's textbook, The Doctrine of Christ: A Series of Bible Studies for Use in Colleges and Seminaries (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1920).
7 See, for example, Steven Daily, Adventism for a New Generation (Portland, OR: Better Living Publishers, 1993), 157- 68; Jack W. Provonsha, A Remnant in Crisis (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1993), 123-36.
Alberto Ronald Timm, Ph.D. writes from Brazil where he teaches theology and serves as elder in the church.