“When I took up advanced theological studies in 1973, the issue of doctrinal change immediately caught my attention,” Dr Rolf Pöhler states in the preface of one of his books, entitled Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999).
God changes not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Should the Christian faith, therefore, be static? Not according to Pöhler. And he has credentials that make his testimony impressive.
By 1975 Pöhler had earned a Master of Divinity degree summa cum laude from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (Michigan, USA). Three years later he wrote a study on early Adventist history that caught my eye, leading me to expect more from a researcher who demonstrated such thoroughness and skill.
But for long years Pöhler seemed invisible, immersed as he was in pastoral and leadership duties back in Europe. Only one more of the 100 articles and book chapters he wrote filtered down to the Southern Hemisphere.
Finallt, in 1975, Pöhler completed a Doctor of Theology degree at Andrews University, supervised by Dr Raoul Dederen. University Microfilms International of Michigan has available almost every doctoral dissertation accepted in the United States since 1861. So the Avondalke College library could secure a copy of Pöhler’s magnum opus; 591 pages of fascinating reading.
Better news still: Pöhler has since published his dissertation in two volumes; the slim one named above and the other, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000).
This two-part study is exciting because Pöhler has researched his 1973 issue of doctrinal change more thoroughly in Christian and Adventist sources than any other mortal has chosen to do. Part of the proof of this is plain to see in his bibliography of 94 pages. Now, any diligent student can create a long list of relevant sources. But Pöhler understands the vast literature that bears on his topic, and he stands on the shoulders of many comptetent writers who have already researched aspects of his theme.
No-one can claim any longer that Christianity is a static religion. Jesus was sensitive to what the disciples could “bear”while He was still with them and promised the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16: 12, 13). The richness of truth embodied in the Scriptures has challenged His followers for 20 centuries. Adventist evangelists celebrate this reality as they invited people to accept “the truth as it is in Jesus” (to use a cherished refrain from Ellen White’s writings).
What about Seventh-day Adventists? Pöhler’s second volume documents “the historical reality of doctrinal development” in our peripheral teachings, fundamental doctrines and distinctive beliefs. Then he explores the nature and direction of doctrinal development through seven eras of Adventist history, identifying three concepts we have adopted.
The static approach presupposes doctrine is “unvarying,” whereas the opposite stance opts for “unrestrained change.” Neither is adequate. By contrast, Pöhler is drawn toward the “dynamic approach” with its built-in safeguards. In this choice he has a lot of sterling company, like F.M. Wilcox who wrote in 1930: “The pioneers of this movement never claimed infallibility, nor do we claim it for them. We do, however, believe in the sincerity of heart and honesty of purpose which prompted their lives. Instead of censuring them for their limitations of vision and their lack of understanding divine revelation, we honour them for their loyalty to truth as they saw it, for their honesty of heart in renouncing error as it was revealed to them, and for their lives of labour and sacrifice in the promulgation of the cause they espoused.”
The most important chapter in Pöhler’s books is surprisingly short–a mere 20 pages. Entitled “Prophetic authority and doctrinal change: An analysis,” it claims that Ellen White “exerted a significant influence on the development of Adventist doctrines, being actively involved in the formation, preservation, and revision of the teachings of the church.”
Not only did she surpass her fellow believers in the depth of her understanding, “but also in striking a balance between the need for theological continuity and substantial identity, on the one hand, and the possibility of theological revisions and doctrinal changes, on the other.”
Adventist pioneer John Andrews had a similar attitude. He declared, “I would exchange a thousand errors for one truth!” Thank God that Pöhler has enabled Adventist Studies to take another leap forward, more accurately understanding and faithfully applying our heritage.
Arthur Patrick, posted 11 August 2012, originally published in Record, 15 March 2003, page 10.