Contrasting, the New Theology with the true theology
In its early and middle days, it was relatively easy to spot the New Theology. Its proponents openly claimed that, this side of translation, real victory over sin was impossible. But with increasing frequency we hear advocates of the New Theology say that yes, you can have victory over sin by the understanding of salvation that they teach. The “Can you have victory over sin?” test no longer suffices. The disease has advanced to another stage.
The notion that we cannot have victory over sin is rightly identified as a New Theology trademark. But there are two aspects to consider when pondering the New Theology, and both are very important. One part is the experiential claim made for it. The other part is the doctrinal system that supposedly takes you to the experience made in that claim. The doctrinal system does take you to the experience of its theology. The problem in the case of the New Theology is, it is not an experience of complete overcoming.
Today one hears the experiential claim made that by the doctrinal system underlying the New theology, we can completely overcome. The problem is, there is no way to get from the doctrinal system to the experiential claim. That is, when we accept certain notions about the nature of man, the nature of Christ, and the doctrine of sin, we cannot—within the doctrinal system encompassing those notions—actually get to the place where we overcome.
Advocates of the New Theology today make their claim of total victory. They may not explicitly mention the doctrinal system that is supposed to take you there. It is implicit; it is implied.
Some proponents of the New Theology today will even be heard to make the experiential claim that one must overcome. The problem these have is that with the doctrinal understanding of the New Theology, you have a system that cannot get you to that place.
Thus it is especially in regard to doctrinal system and not the experiential claim that we must today identify a teaching as being—or not being—the New Theology. Anyone can claim that by their system you can arrive at an experience of victory over sin. But what if they are teaching a merely human system in which the power of God is not present? Remember this prediction from a century ago (pay particular attention to the emphasized text):
The enemy of souls has sought to bring in the supposition that a great reformation was to take place among Seventh-day Adventists, and that this reformation would consist in giving up the doctrines which stand as the pillars of our faith, and engaging in a process of reorganization. Were this reformation to take place, what would result? The principles of truth that God in His wisdom has given to the remnant church, would be discarded. Our religion would be changed. The fundamental principles that have sustained the work for the last fifty years would be accounted as error. A new organization would be established. Books of a new order would be written. A system of intellectual philosophy would be introduced. The founders of this system would go into the cities, and do a wonderful work. The Sabbath of course, would be lightly regarded, as also the God who created it. Nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the new movement. The leaders would teach that virtue is better than vice, but God being removed, they would place their dependence on human power, which, without God, is worthless. Their foundation would be built on the sand, and storm and tempest would sweep away the structure (Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 204, 205, emphasis added).
Here is classic prediction foretelling the arrival of the current error. Those who brought us the New Theology really thought they were bringing a great reformation to us. The new views concerning what Christ’s humanity was like and what sin has meant for human nature, brought changes to the baseline principles of truth God gave to this people. A hundred years of sound, unified Christology was discarded. Advocates of this New Theology have never urged anyone to sin.
They have always taught that virtue was better than vice. But their plan was one not devised by God. It counters His truth that
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world (1 John 4:2, 3).
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:3, 4).
Advocates of the New theology say that our nature itself is condemned, while inspiration says that our condemnation comes from retrenching behind the selfish tendencies we are born with and making them a part of our character. These teach that virtue is better than vice, but at the end of the day, their talk of victory over sin is suspect, for their own theology does not make room for any such victory. Still always there is that fallen humanity, with but little offered in the way of definitions of what such teachers mean when they say they believe in “victory over sin.”
One who teaches this kind of “victory over sin” was heard to say the following at the end of a recent sermon on John 15:3: “We’re like those disciples:
stubborn hearted, failing, fumbling, and all kinds of pride still wrapped up in our hearts—[even so] we hear the sweet whisper of Jesus, ‘you are clean.’ “You are already clean through the word I have spoken to you.”
But inspiration comments on the same:
These words mean more than bodily cleanliness. Christ is still speaking of the higher cleansing as illustrated by the lower. He who came from the bath was clean, but the sandaled feet soon became dusty, and again needed to be washed. So Peter and his brethren had been washed in the great fountain opened for sin and uncleanness. Christ acknowledged them as His. But temptation had led them into evil, and they still needed His cleansing grace. When Jesus girded Himself with a towel to wash the dust from their feet, He desired by that very act to wash the alienation, jealousy, and pride from their hearts. This was of far more consequence than the washing of their dusty feet. With the spirit they then had, not one of them was prepared for communion with Christ. Until brought into a state of humility and love, they were not prepared to partake of the paschal supper, or to share in the memorial service which Christ was about to institute. Their hearts must be cleansed. Pride and self-seeking create dissension and hatred, but all this Jesus washed away in washing their feet. A change of feeling was brought about. Looking upon them, Jesus could say, ‘Ye are clean.’ Now there was union of heart, love for one another. They had become humble and teachable. Except Judas, each was ready to concede to another the highest place. Now with subdued and grateful hearts they could receive Christ’s words (The Desire of Ages, p. 646).
Whereas the New Theology preacher claims that he teaches victory over sin, his statement said we were clean even while remaining with “all kinds of pride still wrapped up in our hearts.” But the true theology said that Jesus’ actions changed the hearts of the disciples. When Jesus said they were clean, they truly “had become” teachable, truly had had their hearts cleansed. The New Theology claims victory over sin but at the end of the day accepts defeat. The true theology cleanses and washes away. Inspired writings showed the preacher to be wrong. Yet many who participated in that meeting were perhaps misled. It is a subtle day. Down the hallways of time we have arrived where all apparent claims must be tested.
What is the New Theology?
Why Address This Topic Now?
While liberal and mainstream elements within the Adventist Church have moved from the New Theology to what we have called a Newer Theology,1 among a certain circle of conservative Adventists, the New Theology not only continues to be accepted, but to receive strong promotion. It is in full display on even Adventist airwaves, and has found a convenient home in the work of some evangelists. If anything, it is more dangerous today than ever before. Hence, we blow the trumpet.
One Among Many Unfortunate Phrases
The term, “New theology,” is itself an unfortunate label. The phrase itself contains little information. The word “new” is implicitly contrasted with the unfortunately connotated word, “old”; but the actual issue is error versus truth. The deficiency of the phrase “New Theology” is shown by the fact that it has been used in several different denominations with reference to various perceived inroads in their own belief systems.
Receiving a new theology is not necessarily receiving a bad theology, if it means the introduction of legitimate present truth Adventism. We must realize that in their day, neither the Lutherans nor the Methodists could rightly be classed as Babylonian. That was then; this is now. Hence, the teachings of Martin Luther presented within the timeline context of the days of the Protestant Reformation, were certainly not the teachings of Babylon. But today present truth includes that which was true in the teaching of Luther combined with the light that has been continually shining upon truth from then until now.
Some of the earliest computer screens had a resolution of only 640 x 480 pixels. As time has gone forward so has resolution increased. Now 1024 x 788 is common, and 1600 x 1200 and higher pixel counts are being offered. The screens are larger and the resolution gives considerably more detail. We should expect that our understanding of the great controversy war and of righteousness by faith will become ever more finely grained as we approach the end.
“New Theology” is not the only phrase that is hard to work with. We also use the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” The usefulness of a label is in its idea payload and in its generally accepted meaning. A word or phrase must hold a meaning accepted between those who use it in communication, or it can do little for us. Rightly or wrongly, these are the best known terms. Sometimes we use an already established terminology which may be less than ideal. We can use the liberal/conservative axis as a shorthand, but we should not let the somewhat clumsy phrases themselves format how we think. Our faith can only be true to the concept of reform so long as we continue to make progress. Not progression as the liberals play it, discarding what is disdainfully viewed as having been merely mistakenly called light, but progression in the sense of discovering more clearly God’s revealed will for us in solidarity with previous light.
The False-to-True Progressive Continuum
There is another way of looking at the continuum within Seventh-day Adventism: on the basis of a false-to-true progressive continuum. Here is a scale of five groups within the church. Which group have you belonged to recently?
The New-modelers2 are a small group with an apparent influence far greater than its actual reach. These understand what they are doing in willfully endeavoring to change our belief system while at the same time they are professing orthodoxy. They claim they are in harmony with the beliefs of their spiritual predecessors even as they undermine the system of belief known by their spiritual predecessors.
The Misguided are sincere but on the wrong path. These follow the lead of the New-modelers. There is some hope if they will study for themselves, but their energies are misused to promote error instead of truth. They are a larger group than the New-modelers but smaller than the Place-holders.
The Place-holders are by far the largest group in the church. These are sleeping through the most glorious hour in history. They have been called to duty yet know not what their duty is, what the teachings of present truth are, nor who is administering truth, nor whom not. Many of these tithe and keep the pews warm. They are busy with the varied minutia of life that choke out the deep things of faith. Were these to arouse and labor for the Master, the work would be finished quite quickly.
Now the groups begin to get smaller again. The Preservers are most interesting. The preserver loves truth. He understands that the message we have been granted by Heaven is truth. He understands that in the Bible and in the Spirit of Prophecy writings, God has spoken to His people through His Holy Spirit. The preserver has unquestioning faith in the validity of this message and the writings that contain the treasure.
But these, while determined to preserve the truth have sometimes done so in an unfriendly manner. We exist in tumultuous times, every wind of doctrine blowing in shrill gale through the corridors of the remnant church. It is a time of intensity, and our reactions to the challenges we have faced have not always seen us at our best. One need not be converted to be a preserver; all you need is to bite down on the fact that this material is inspired, and lock your jaws.
We see the truth trodden down in the halls where it should be respected. Our feelings are touched. Yet what ought to be righteous indignation is sometimes mere bitterness. Ellen White spoke of the danger to some preservers:
When the shaking comes, by the introduction of false theories, these surface readers, anchored nowhere, are like shifting sand. They slide into any position to suit the tenor of their feelings of bitterness…. Daniel and Revelation must be studied, as well as the other prophecies of the Old and New Testaments. Let there be light, yes, light, in your dwellings. For this we need to pray. The Holy Spirit, shining upon the sacred page, will open our understanding, that we may know what is truth… (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 112).
While few of us would consider ourselves to be “surface readers,” still we must be wary. We have not always been the students of inspiration we have thought. The 1844 generation experienced a deep disappointment and yet that very experience was used to educate them, to teach a lesson. Do we know the lesson?
The message was designed for the testing and purification of the church. They were to be led to see whether their affections were set upon this world or upon Christ and heaven. They professed to love the Saviour; now they were to prove their love. Were they ready to renounce their worldly hopes and ambitions, and welcome with joy the advent of their Lord? The message was designed to enable them to discern their true spiritual state; it was sent in mercy to arouse them to seek the Lord with repentance and humiliation.
The disappointment also, though the result of their own misapprehension of the message which they gave, was to be overruled for good. It would test the hearts of those who had professed to receive the warning. In the face of their disappointment would they rashly give up their experience and cast away their confidence in God’s word? or would they, in prayer and humility, seek to discern where they had failed to comprehend the significance of the prophecy? How many had moved from fear, or from impulse and excitement? How many were halfhearted and unbelieving? Multitudes professed to love the appearing of the Lord. When called to endure the scoffs and reproach of the world, and the test of delay and disappointment, would they renounce the faith? Because they did not immediately understand the dealings of God with them, would they cast aside truths sustained by the clearest testimony of His word?
This test would reveal the strength of those who with real faith had obeyed what they believed to be the teaching of the word and the Spirit of God. It would teach them, as only such an experience could, the danger of accepting the theories and interpretations of men, instead of making the Bible its own interpreter. To the children of faith the perplexity and sorrow resulting from their error would work the needed correction. They would be led to a closer study of the prophetic word. They would be taught to examine more carefully the foundation of their faith, and to reject everything, however widely accepted by the Christian world, that was not founded upon the Scriptures of truth. With these believers, as with the first disciples, that which in the hour of trial seemed dark to their understanding would afterward be made plain. When they should see the ‘end of the Lord’ they would know that, notwithstanding the trial resulting from their errors, His purposes of love toward them had been steadily fulfilling (The Great Controversy, pp. 353, 354).
The Seventh-day Adventist Church today needs to be alive to this same lesson. We need to beware lest we “accept the traditions and theories of men” where we have understood ourselves only to have been accepting the teachings of the Bible. We need to study God’s Word, its prophecies, and their connection with righteousness by faith in the end-time setting. Are you and I truly ready “to reject everything, however widely accepted by the Christian world, that was not founded upon the Scriptures of truth”? Only then may we be classed as members of the small group of truly progressive people coming next on our list, at the other end of the continuum…
The Preserver-extenders both love and are aggressive about preserving truth, and, they are determined to “follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth” (Revelation 14:4). They hold to all the truth Heaven has delivered to the remnant, but they are open to Jesus going even further; they are ready to walk with Him through the relentless spiritual bombardment with error experienced by God’s children in the end-time, and accept every ray of light that presents itself. They both preserve and extend God’s light. It is granted place in their lives.
These are not chasing rabbits, uncritically accepting anything and everything presenting itself as present truth. They are discerning. Rather than sensational claims and glass-beads, these have with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, entrenched themselves in God’s Word. He shows them mighty things out of His law. They keep every particle of truth, and He gives them yet more: more clarity, more depth, more discernment, more light, more unfoldings.
This is the group that is standing when God at last finishes the work of the Reformation through His remnant. They may be but small in size as compared to other groups, but these actually are the true progressives in the church. They are its best friends—even if they make other members nervous. God is searching out those whom He can work through today, who are willing to be preserver-extenders.
Are we truly reformers or are we only playing at our own religion, unwilling to see the defects of our favorite preachers and evangelists? Some will be tested on this point in what immediately follows…
The New Theology Defined
If several of the following points are found clustered together, you are likely dealing with the New Theology. Even just one can be a strong marker suggesting the presence of this deadly and popular error.
- Sin: Is it choice or nature. (The New Theology says it is nature.)
- The Humanity of Christ: Is it prefall, synthetic, or postfall? (The New Theology says it is not postfall.)
- Justification: Is it counting right or counting and making right? (The New Theology says only counting right.)
- Obedience: Is it a condition of salvation or does it only follow salvation? (The New Theology says that it only follows.)
- Justification and future sin: Are sins cancelled forever at justification, or is retaining justification conditional? (The New Theology says sins are cancelled forever at Justification.)
- The Gospel: Does it include justification only, or both justification and sanctification? (The New Theology says that the gospel only includes justification.)
- 1844/Heavenly Sanctuary/Investigative Judgment: Does it really matter? (The New Theology advocate often says that the heavenly sanctuary is necessary, yet in his actual teaching, closely examined, the opposite is shown.)
- The Spirit of Prophecy: Shall we use it selectively, or gather all bearing data and determine by weight of evidence? (The New Theology makes only a selective use.)
- The substance of 1888: Shall we hear Heaven’s message through A. T. Jones, E. J. Waggoner, and Ellen G. White, or ignore it in favor of a selected and highly interpreted set of the ideas of Martin Luther? (The New Theology either does not address 1888 or puts an enormous spin upon it, preferring to advance the idea that Luther’s view on righteousness by faith was essentially complete, meaning the 1888 message was only a reemphasis, not actually something necessary and new.)
On every one of the above points, the New Theology presents not only an erroneous position, but its teaching undermines the truth with that which is specifically antagonistic to the core belief system of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The plan upon which we shall proceed for each point is, to (a) clarify what we mean, (b) demonstrate that what we oppose is in fact an accurate representation of the New Theology position, (c) show how the New Theology view is false, (d) give the corrected view, and (e) show how the New Theology view is specifically antagonistic to core Seventh-day Adventism. Keep in mind that the following is only an overview; a book length discussion of the matter will have to wait until some other occasion.
The essence of the nine points we now explore is this:
Standing at the edge of the age, behind us stretch footsteps through many places. The nexus to which we have been providentially led is where the inspired information concerning the Fall of humankind, how sin affected man, what the gospel is meant to do in man in this age, the ultimate conflict between absolute selfishness and absolute unselfishness, and God’s character, meet. All those miles traversed have led us to this inevitable point of intersection.
The New Theology itself offers subtle variation with unsubtle results. Heaven plans to use the remnant church to tie-off the great controversy and finish the work, but Satan purposes to lead us merrily on a further excursion to nowhere. We row in circles while he fires harpoons after our souls. The New Theology is a dangerous diversion from the completion of Adventism’s journey. Just one more step to go, only the bringing together of its truths into the experience of the final generation remains. But the New Theology derails all of this, piety and solemn claims notwithstanding.
The nine points examined in more detail in what follows, penetrate down yet deeper, to three issues at the heart of the great controversy war and at the heart of the New Theology heresy: (1) Freewill, (2) Transformation, and (3) Interpretive Methodology. In each case then, we study with these points in mind.
NEXT: What is the New Theology Part 5: Sin: Is It Choice or Nature?
- Larry Kirkpatrick, “New—or—Newer Theology?” Editorial, February 13, 2003.
- “What was the origin of the great apostasy? How did the church first depart from the simplicity of the gospel? By conforming to the practices of paganism, to facilitate the acceptance of Christianity by the heathen.… As the founders, those who possessed the true spirit of reform, pass away, their descendants come forward and ‘new-model the cause.’ While blindly clinging to the creed of their fathers and refusing to accept any truth in advance of what they saw, the children of the reformers depart widely from their example of humility, self-denial, and renunciation of the world. Thus ‘the first simplicity disappears.’ A worldly flood, flowing into the church, carries ‘with it its customs, practices, and idols’” (The Great Controversy, pp. 384, 385).