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Adventist Pilgrimage 1.12: "The Enigma of Last Generation Theology."

Episode Transcript


Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity and readability. We don't apologize for any typos. Deal with it.


Welcome everybody to the newest and latest edition of the Adventist pilgrimage podcast. We are getting things started today with a topic that frankly I've had my eye on for a long time. It's been something I've studied for quite awhile. And I think as me and Michael talked more and more about it, that it just keeps kind of coming up in a variety of different ways as we start studying a lot of our earlier Adventist history and it's theology. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to it.

Michael's book, 1922, just came out recently here and some of the themes and ideas that he was working through in his research brought us back again to this topic. And so it's one of those things that we're going to kind of look at here. If you don't know what I'm talking about, it is last generation theology, folks. This idea has been pervasive in Adventism for quite a long time. Frankly, it comes back in waves [as] I've seen, just in my reading and how it gets emphasized. It's never really gone away though. And lots of folks in Adventism that have believed in and still believe in this idea, bring it up on a pretty consistent basis because it is kind of one of those overarching theologies. If you buy this thing it's something that's going to make your worldview much more distinct. So it's not something that folks who believe in it really get away from it. It informs a lot, but without going too much further on: Michael, you've done a lot of work on this. You even presented on this one, just a couple of months back, and one of the Sabbath schools online. Tell us a little bit from your perspective, what is the last generation theology?


Yeah, Greg, we're really exploring a very relevant topic, I think, in Adventism because it's this, this infusion of this idea that somehow we have to be perfect in order for Christ to come.

And now there's a lot of variations of that. It's a term that's been kind of picked up and popularized in the nineties onward. I think George Knight actually is one of the first, if not the first, back in the nineties to really kind of coin this term. It's, it's not just a term itself. It's an idea. It's a theology, as you mentioned, it's a kind of an ethos and it's certainly not unique to Adventism. You go back all the way to the ancient Jews of the first century. They believe that they could make the Messiah come. If all the Jews could keep the Seventh-day Sabbath perfectly two consecutive Sabbaths in a row. And so there's this kind of notion that somehow by this special sanctification process and here's the thing, Greg, is last generation theology - this idea of the last generation - is true. There will be a last generation. And that's going to be really incredible. It's going to be special. And I hope by God's grace, you and I are part of that, right? But the challenges is that if we have all of the focus on ourselves, that that's where we're running into trouble.

What's, what's intriguing to me with this 1922 books, which we've chatted a little bit about, is that there was so much research I could have easily doubled it in size. I had to cut because of size parameters that Pacific Press gave me, which is fine, but I have a whole bunch of chapters that have been working on that kind of continue the story. And so maybe, I don't know, I might have to end up with like a trilogy of 1919, 1922, and, I don't know, maybe 1925 or something.


I was going to say, yeah, you're going to have to continue the three-year jump and just go to '25.


Right, right. So this is what we're dealing with is this development of Adventist fundamentalism and the cool or the crazy thing about all of this research is that now you can see a direct link between some of these theological concepts that we call last generation theology that become really important in the story of Adventist history in the 20th century, the history of ideas and we see that that genesis. I kind of like the word "enigma" because it's kind of has these more mysterious origins, right? Where did this come from? The enigma of last generation theology which can be directly traced to the 1920s. I mean, you and I both been pastors; we've, we've had to deal with some of the challenges of last generation theology I'm sure, right?


Absolutely. I can remember a couple of different folk who very clearly got into the idea that there was something we had to do to get the second coming to happen sooner. And I think it's, I think it's really part of, if I had to guess... The psychology of Adventism requires that we wrestle with the question: "Why is it still taking so long?" Right?




I mean George Knight says it the best. He says, "Adventism is biggest problem is time."


Yes. The delay and the eschaton.


Exactly. Because as long as it keeps going on and on and we keep preaching this soon coming savior it's going to have to come up. What's the holdup?


It's as if we need some kind of rational explanation for that holdup. But, you know, I keep coming back to this concept of "here is the patience of the saints." You know, that's a description of God's end-time people, too. You look throughout salvation history [and] there are these pivotal turning-point moments, but usually they never happen as fast as we would like them to happen: Noah and the Flood, that was a apocalyptic too, right? You have the intertestamental period waiting for the Messiah. And all the way for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of those things were, in their own way, apocalyptic. They represented the end of the world for those people at that time.

And a generation of believers who played a very significant role, you know? And so I don't want to lessen in any way the idea that God's people at the end of time do have a significant role because that is part and parcel... it's to the very core, it's the heart of Adventist identity and I think we should celebrate that. We should and it's absolutely essential because that's part of our job, Greg, is patiently waiting and proclaiming the news that Jesus is coming.

The problem is [that] in my pastoral experiences that some of the strongest advocates that I've met (and some have passed away now) of what we call last generation theology, were so focused on themselves being perfect that they had no assurance of salvation. They tended to be very focused on lifestyle behaviors, on dress reform, on health reform and the most common theme had something to do with 1888. It might have somehow identified with some of these reform groups, like the 1888 Message Study Committee.

It was sometime later that I finally realized that a big part of their theology is about all of this last generation theology, this kind of perfectionism. And we see it in a lot of reactions to I in the the 20th century. Desmond Ford grew up very influenced by Brinsmead when he was into last generation theology - this perfectionist hyper-perfectionism. And of course he reacts and flip flops to the other side where he's then very progressive and moves in a very, very different direction; very grace oriented. A big part of that is this reaction again, to what I would consider theological extremes. And so you kind of flip flop from one extreme to the other.

When I would meet with church members, I remember meeting some dear saints who had given their lives to the church; faithfully served. I remember one lady that was a Dorcas leader for years and years. And then I held her hand on her deathbed and just, "Oh pastor, I don't know that I could ever be good enough to be saved." And she was just really into this last generation theology. I held her hand and said, "It's not about you being good enough. It's Jesus is good enough. And you just need to trust Jesus." And then all of a sudden her brow, which was just so furrowed and pensive, just suddenly she had a smile of assurance.

She just needed to be reminded that it wasn't about her being perfect. She just needed to trust Jesus at that moment. I was so grateful that I was there at that home and I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, Greg, but I can think of in fact, sad to say, numerous times when I've had similar kinds of situations.

So something's wrong if we have church members - faithful, lifelong Adventists who have given themselves to the church - and they just have no assurance of salvation. I think a big part of it - not always - but often it seems in my experience, at least is been this concept of last generation theology.

And here's the kicker: In last generation theology, the focus is on you instead of Jesus. The kicker is there's never going to be a time we don't need Jesus. And even into all eternity.


Exactly. That I'd say - I think you've highlighted it really well - is the core result of last generation theology is that you don't have that assurance and you better figure out what you're doing wrong because clearly this isn't happening and you're part of the problem. And that been the verbiage that I hear from a lot of folk in my churches and other circles.

They don't have that idea that their actions are just effecting themselves anymore. It is this wider picture, but with that comes a certain level of guilt, introspection, obsession over the lifestyle rules and regulations. It's a different way of seeing it.

Now, before we go too much further... I love where we're headed, but I want to help our listeners, too. This type of history that we're kind of doing here - and especially when we're talking about theology - specifically is a history of ideas or it is also terms sometimes "historical theology." It's kind of a treasure hunt. In fact, I find it to be one of the hardest things that we do in history is to try and track down how an idea or where an idea came from and started and evolved over time.

This idea is a hard one. You basically have to know it and then read a bunch of stuff and hear the echoes of it in somebody's word somewhere. It's not a simple version of history where we open up a biography and follow, oh, they went here, they went there and then they did this. It's much more of: How were they influenced and who said this around them that they then took and changed into something else? The history of ideas is a complicated one. I think that makes looking at the last generation theology a little more complicated as well, because a lot of the history happens in the head.


Yeah. Well let's look back. We've already talked a little bit about 1888 and I think you've been doing some diving into that. So where do these ideas come from? Is there a link with Jones and Wagner, Greg?


Typically, yeah, last generation theology people have pointed towards some of these different quotes and ideas coming down from Jones and Waggoner. Waggoner himself is best known as connected again to that 1888 conference. He was a young co-editor of the Signs of the Times; a big figure in the church throughout the 1880s and the 1890s. And eventually he comes to this view of righteousness by faith that was kind of adopted and supported by Ellen White but not so much by some folks in a larger church.

Waggoner moved along towards the end of his time in the States to England as editor of the Present Truth magazine. And he was there for quite a while, 10 years I think it was from the look of things. He comes back for a General Conference session in 1897. And here's where folks have found some of his early statements to possibly start the last generation thinking. He says in one of his talks:

God has left the vindication of his character to his children. He has, as it were, risked His character with men.

Now that idea is one of the foundational concepts in last generation theology: That God in this particular back and forth with Satan needs to have some sort of justifiable vindication for his actions and his actions being: "Here is my law. Here are my commandments.

This is a requirement for all who follow me." And therefore Satan's response is: "Oh yeah. Well, you've got this whole planet that isn't following you. How you going to justify bringing them back to heaven? That's that's not going to look fair, right?" And so God has to vindicate his actions. That concept that he has somehow left the vindication up to humans is core to last generation theology because he keeps on going in there.

The next year, he was talking about the 144,000 and he says:

In these people, God sees the work that he designed to do for men. And he's willing that these shall be known everywhere as the proofs of his saving power. He's willing to be judged by these results and he puts his own seal upon them. His commandments are known to them as life everlasting and Christ, Christ dwells in them so that they have the faith of Jesus and they are his perfect representatives.

Again, that's coming from Present Truth (1898), and what's striking, I think, is the idea that he's bringing in here that God needs us somehow to prove to the universe that he is just, he's fair, and he's a loving creator. That kind of grows on a theme, right? The reason that we're here isn't to just accept and to know Jesus and to be saved, but we are actually participating in the greater cosmic struggle. That we are the representatives that make the rest of the universe go, "Ah, yes, God is fair. He is just."

So some of these ideas Waggoner brought in there are mentioned and they kind of provide a greater backdrop. By 1901 - and this is kind of the last big quote that I looked at - Waggoner seems to have developed his idea of vindicating the greater theme and he says:

Before probation ends there will be so complete in God that, in spite of their sinful flesh, they will live sinless lives. They will live sinless lives in mortal flesh because he who has demonstrated that he has power over all flesh lives in them lives a sinless life in sinful flesh, and a witness then, which no greater can be given. Then the end will come.

Now that's where I start to hear this extra piece of the second coming narrative. Not only do you live a perfect life and not only are you fully sanctified - a sinless life and sinful flesh - but that is what the end is dependent on. When Jesus sees that we have reached that state of sinless perfection, then he can come.So you kind of put that together with vindication. You put that together with some ideas about sinlessness and you've got the germs of a last generation theology.


I find this very interesting because Jones and Waggoner... Ellen White even says if they were to lose their way it wouldn't negate the message that they had. But some people have taken this literalistic, almost quasi-inspiration approach that because Ellen White supported their theology, then they're almost inspired. Maybe not quite as much as Ellen White, but almost. And so then they kind of go back and reconstruct but it's interesting in the latter part of the 1890s, they're also starting to teach pantheism or panentheism this idea that God is in nature or in us. That kind of concept. They're obviously, theologically, going in some new directions. But if you believe that that they're sort of inspired, then you're going to kind of reconstruct their whole theology and I can see why now based on what you're sharing, Greg, why people start going down that path of, of this whole thing and, and that becomes really important, this connecting point.

Actually I'm going to argue... I want to build on what you're saying, but in the1920s, people are very interested in Jones and Wagner's theology again. Some people are arguing 40 years in the wilderness. Kind of this illusion to the to the Exodus account, right? You have Taylor Bunch who writes this book, The Exodus in Type and Antitype. So it's directly in line with 1888, but I I'm going to argue that it's directly tied and built upon these ideas that as they become popularized again in the 1920s with Adventist Fundamentalism. There's definitely a direct link in some way, but it's also complicated. It's not just like one kind of thing, right? It's complex. History is complex usually. So it's not this kind of monolithic, one thing happened and then suddenly everyone believed inlets generation theology.

I'm going to argue that there's a second connecting point that also reifies or helps to strengthen these ideas because nobody uses the term last generation theology in that way. Nobody says, "I believe in last generation theology." Waggoner didn't say that, but clearly the ideas are there. When I was preparing for my 1922 book, I re-read George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture - his new third edition. There's a whole chapter on the Victorious Life Movement. And when I read that, slowing down and reading page by page through the Review and Signs, I had this "Aha!" moment. I was like, oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. There's 'victorious life' stuff everywhere. There was a victorious life editorial department in the Review and in the Signs. There's all this literature from the wider Fundamentalist movement that's very influenced by this wave of holiness teachings and, I know, Greg, you've been doing some work on the holiness with some of your professors. Tell us what that is for someone that may not be familiar.


Sure. The Holiness Movement was... I would say it contains the early proto-Pentecostal view of Christianity. Now we look at Pentecostalism today and say, "Oh, you know, it kind of grew up in the early 20th century," but really a lot of their ideas and their thinking came through an earlier group of folk that we're teaching what's called "holiness." That's coming to us from Wesley and Methodism through a couple of different channels, but the Holiness Movement teaches that the true, full gospel is experienced by the christian through entire sanctification. Entire sanctification is not the work of a lifetime, says the Holiness Movement.

You are able to access sanctification now in the present in an instant. And through that victorious living of Jesus through you, you experience the full gospel. You are clearly are part and parcel of this experience and they kind of had four big testimonies. The phrase that gets thrown around is, "I know in whom I have believed. The Lord is my savior,

My sanctifier, my Healer, and my coming king." Those four ideas: savior, sanctifier, healer, and coming king - That's an element of the holiness movement that clearly is absorbed by the wider group of Christians in America, because a lot of it is popularized by early holiness teachers [like] Phoebe Palmer and her Wednesday afternoon prayer meetings that became really, really popular. I think if you look at the holiness movement's teachings of entire sanctification as a work of the now and not as a work of a lifetime then all of a sudden you've got this idea that we can be perfect and Jesus can make our lives sinless now and we can experience that altogether. To me, it's a blurring of the line between sanctification and glorification.


A big part of their language is like the second blessing. That once you experience that second blessing you will achieve this holiness and that will then usher in... There are some that are a little bit apocalyptic, but Adventists obviously are strongly apocalyptic and adapt some of these ideas to an Adventist context, no doubt.

Another popular term that really startled me as I was going diving into the victorious life or the holiness or Keswick ideas and teachings is this idea of power for witnessing. And then I saw that I saw that and I was like, oh my goodness, A. F. Ballenger, who later will leave the church, that's the title of his book! You start looking into that and, oh my goodness, there's holiness stuff all over the place. Obviously it's having an impact on Adventist thinking and ideas at the turn of the century. To me it's most intriguing that there's obviously these very strong ties between Adventism and holiness.

Two other ways that, that we see it: The Holiness Movement is very good at talking about the role of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. I think Gil Valentine has done some good work in some articles and research he's published that that directly tie the Holiness Movement and H. Camden Lacy, and his ideas about the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. He'll become a strong advocate of that in Adventism. As mediated, if you please, through H. Camden Lacey, that will have a strong impact in Adventism and eventually even Ellen White, too. She thinks very highly of H. Camden Lacy and his views.

The other one is Ed Allen at Union College and has been doing a lot of work on the student volunteer movement, which was very, very much coming out of that kind of Keswick/Holiness tradition: the idea of missions and student missions. These are, I think, very positive trajectories where you can see significant positive impact from this wider world of ideas and exchange of ideas as Adventism is wrestling and studying with its own identity.