A GIANT AMONG MEN
December 17, 2014 Lemuel Sapian
When I first encountered the name of Herbert Douglass, I was in derision of the concepts he taught and advanced in his books and talks. I was fresh out of a long run of giving evangelistic seminars home and abroad and in the prime of my life in my mid-twenties. For me, Adventism was about filling the pews and getting people to know the Lord and the means always justified the ends. But this talk about reflecting Jesus and living a life of victory over sin was just plain silly. Sanctification was an optional work, and seeking salvation by any method, regardless of the implications therein, was the only important philosophy in life. I was chest deep in cultural evangelical Christianity so much so that at times I felt embarrassed to hold to certain Adventist distinctives. I defended the Adventist faith anyway. But to do so I felt like I had to deemphasize its peculiarity. So I largely ignored the heaps of theological books with the author “Douglass” stamped on them and moved on.
I had to defend Ellen White to defend Adventism, so I focused on every section in her written works that I felt reflected the proper view of the Gospel, anything that seemed to give a hint that while our doctrines are indeed unique and helpful, ultimately in the grand scheme of things they were all optional. I hated that commandment keeping was preached from our pulpits and I felt uneasy whenever a speaker quoted from the Spirit of Prophecy during the Divine Worship hour. Weren’t we supposed to talk Christ alone and commandment keeping mongering was the wretched disease of the Galatians? Certainly Ellen White only contributed to the confusion!
Still, I felt there was enough in Adventism to hang on to it, and at one point I even envisioned being part of a reformation to turn the Adventist Church around from its ridiculous legalistic trends into the evangelical juggernaut it could be. This was around the time I had begun observing GYC evolve from its relatively humble beginnings into the movement it is now. Such an army of youth that could be most effective if trained in the right way! The “right way” for me, however, was to deemphasize, but not totally eliminate, our core doctrinal beliefs on anything but salvation. So I tried to gear all my sermons and talks in this direction.
This is when I ran headlong into the concept of what is now commonly known as “Last Generation Theology,” a theological construct built upon the premise that God’s last generation of men and women on earth before the Second Coming would live sinless lives. I read about M. L. Andreassen’s role in helping to shape this distinctive idea and digested hook, line and sinker the critics’ line about this theology being destructive to Adventism and people in general. There was no question as to what my “calling” was at that time and I worked tirelessly in my free time to flood internet discussion forums with my extreme displeasure that this was an actual concept embraced by some in the Church!
God had different plans for me, however. Call it a “Road to Damascus” experience, but the more I sought to kick against what I perceived to be thorns, the more soft my heart became on the issue. I felt the Spirit’s leading to give the teaching some consideration, a least. So I did. I read Andreassen himself, instead of reading what others wrote about him. I attended a fantastic seminar by one Elder Dennis Priebe, which was eye-opening to say the least. And I finally found myself immersed in the writings of Herbert Douglass, who, to my surprise brought about a dynamic dimension to this “Last Generation Theology.” Like John Wesley’s being warmed by the reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Commentary to the Romans,” I was warmed by Douglass’ literary explanation of Christ being the center of this grand plan and the enabling power of the Cross to not only save to, but also change to the utmost.
Instead of this idea being destructive to Adventism I began to see that it was Adventism embodied. Douglass’ explanation of the problems we face when trying to combine certain systems of theology made too much sense. Some theological concepts are mutually exclusive. You had to pick one or the other and this was more than evident in the “Theological Earthquake” that fractured Adventism in the mid-1950’s known as the “Questions on Doctrine” debacle. Center to this ongoing conversation is the nature of sin (hamartiology), the nature of Christ (Christology) and victory over sin. As a Church we have never been able to completely reconcile on these core issues at stake. After much prayer, personal struggle and Bible study, I embraced Last Generation Theology.
Douglass made it awfully clear that as Adventists we can choose to model our theological systems after the pattern of other denominations but that it would come at a horrible price. The question now was, were we willing to pay that price? To me, this made Dr. Douglass rise head and shoulders above many other scholars in our Church today. He was willing to go where many were either too weak or afraid to. He recognized that many of our theological issues stemmed from a lack of understanding of theological systems, compromise, and the general failure to consider the ramifications before running off with an idea.
While in theology he was uncompromising, he was never a cynic. He always saw the good in others, even in those who were his theological opponents. In his curriculum vitae he listed not only those who referenced his works favorably but also those who were critical. He believed in the objective reality of truth, but also acknowledged the inevitability that others could and would disagree. The theme throughout his written works was focused around that Blessed Hope and the desire to see it in his lifetime.
I first met Herb at the 2010 GYC Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. I had just finished listening to his lecture and it was the last one of the evening. I remember his jolly smile and he took my hand not like a teacher shaking the hand of a student, but like a man grasping the hand of friend. His character was unassuming and he talked to me like we had known each other for years. I helped bring his equipment to his hotel room and I remember our conversation. He lamented about his beloved Church and shook his head in sadness, remarking, “Many just do not understand”. It wasn’t a statement made in hubris, but one of concession, almost as if he felt he was responsible for not doing enough to create positive dialogue around the important issues and allowing many to come to an understanding of them.
I had the privilege of meeting him again in Battle Creek, two years later at a conference for the study of Last Generation Theology. He was delighted that we had formed the group and were engaged in deep and thorough study of last day issues. As usual, his presence lightened the room. Among our group were the esteemed Dr. Colin Standish and the late Elder Ron Spear. I was amazed at how much these modern Adventist icons approached present truth all in their own different way! It wasn’t in the way portrayed by some as a closed minded exercise in rehashing already pre-conceived and settled ideas but an actual exchanging of ideas, sometimes conflicting with one another. In the end, Christ-like characters prevailed as the focus of a perfected final generation is Christ indeed.
Elder Herb always uplifted Christ, and in his many works he laid out his biblical understanding that Christ is the model and example for humanity. Though often accused by some (I was once part of that crowd) of teaching an “anthropocentric” or human focused gospel, his understanding of the gospel was more Christ focused than any I have ever come to know. What could be more Christ focused than seeking to reflect Jesus in all that you do! Most “Christ-centered” versions of the gospel like to parade themselves as such by focusing solely on the sacrifice aspect of Christ’s ministry. While the cross is indeed central to the plan of salvation, it is still only a piece of the puzzle, albeit the biggest piece. Herb understood this well just as our pioneers did, and sought to make sense of the “Big Picture,” which is the Great Controversy.
I left the meetings in Battle Creek hoping to meet Elder Herb again. I believe I shall, although no longer on this side of heaven. He passed to his rest on December 15th, 2014. I will miss our talks and correspondence. He never missed an opportunity to reply to me through email, constantly offering words of encouragement and support with each letter. From what I hear, even in his final hours he remained his cheerful self, continuing to be a blessing to all he came in contact with. I believe he was one of those described by Ellen White when she wrote thus:
Be ambitious, for the Master’s glory, to cultivate every grace of character. In every phase of your character building you are to please God. This you may do; for Enoch pleased Him though living in a degenerate age. And there are Enochs in this our day. Christ Object Lessons, pg. 332
We should not be afraid to reflect Christ as Enoch did, and as I believe Herb did. He was a giant among men not only for his theological acumen but for his desire to reflect what he taught. Despite his passing, we can honor his work by picking up where he left off and carry the banner of Christ that he bore until the work is finished. As Ellen White wrote about the death of another great man in Israel, her husband James White:
Like a tired warrior, he has lain down to sleep. I will look with pleasure upon his resting place. The best way in which I and my children can honor the memory of him who has fallen, is to take the work where he left it, and in the strength of Jesus carry it forward to completion. We will be thankful for the years of usefulness that were granted to him; and for his sake, and for Christ’s sake, we will learn from his death a lesson which we shall never forget. We will let this bereavement make us more kind and gentle, more forbearing, patient, and thoughtful toward the living. Life Sketches, pg. 253
It won’t be long now. Let’s finish the work so we can go home.
This article was originally published at ADvindicate.com. It is reposted with permission.
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