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The Doctrine of the Everlasting Covenant in the
Writings of Ellet J. Waggoner

An Evaluation of Waggoner's Covenant Concept

In evaluating Waggoner's views of the covenants, one must remember the views others had of the subject during the same time period. There was tension within the Christian community concerning the covenants at the time the Seventh-day Adventist church was in the process of formation. The two major traditions, Reformed and Anabaptist, were in many respects, contrary to one another in the area of the covenants. This was due to their different emphases, the former upon the sovereignty of God and the latter upon the importance of man. De Jong states that the Reformed-Calvinist position had been eclipsed by the more individualistic and experimental approach of the Anabaptists by the time of the Second Great Awakening.107 His solution to the covenant tension in the church is to return to the Reformed position. By doing this God would be again seen by sinful man as the only source of salvation and restore man to his proper relation to God.108 More recently, McMahon has echoed the same sentiments, but arrived at his conclusion by actually comparing the Reformed view of the law and the gospel to Waggoner's views.

McMahon states that Waggoner denied the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith by teaching, 'effective' justification, sanctification by faith alone, the sinful nature of Christ, perfectionism, and the mystical atonement. He also claims that this was the reason for Waggoner's fall into pantheism.109 But one must understand that McMahon is judging Waggoner's teachings by his understanding of Reformed theology. The question that needs answering is whether or not the Reformed position is really the solution by itself.

There are, however, serious problems with the Reformed concept of salvation. This is best explained by Sequeira in his pamphlet, "How Can We Know The Truth Of Righteousness By Faith?". He suggests that the main weakness of Reformed position is that it fails to deal effectively with the "central issue of justification", namely, how God can justify the sinner and still be true to the law which condemns the sinner to death. Although Christ is our Substitute, by law, the results of sin cannot be transferred from the guilty to the innocent. The position really fosters a kind of "legal fiction." Due to their stand upon legal justification, the Reformed portray Christ as unable to deliver man from the principle of sin and self. Because of the doctrines of predestination and election, they deny that Christ's death gave legal justification to all men. This results in a misunderstanding of the new birth experience, the relationship of sanctification to justification, and the nature of faith.110

The Reformed position is also weak because of its beliefs concerning the application of the covenant concept to church polity and political theory. The great emphasis upon the "theocratic ideal" has many times in their past been another name for the combination of church and state. The weakness is not so much the ideal of a "holy community" as it is the ways in which attempted. The New England theologians consistently developed a theocratic ideal which, to an observer, resembles the establishment of a second Israel.111 The "nation under God" ideal was a vestige of the national church concept that these settlers brought from Europe. True, democratic tendencies were latent in some of their theories of church government, but they resemble Anabaptist theology and not Reformed. This is supported by the history of the strict Calvinistic covenantors of Ireland and Scotland who applied the covenants to church and state issues.112 De Jong identifies the Presbyterians as being those who brought this concept to America.113 This emphasis would prove to be the foundation for the National Reform Association of the late 1800's.

Many good points can be found in the Reformed position. The covenants were understood not as a doctrine of the church but as a "basic motif or pattern continuing and modifying various doctrines in systematic theology." The Fall of Man is seen not only as the breaking of law, but also the breaking of a relationship or covenant. Salvation was to restore that relationship. God is always pictured as inititiating all covenants and defining all limits and requirements. the view of the Christian life is one that the entire life and everything with it should be consecrated to God, not just one's spiritual life. Finally, history should be interpreted from Eden lost to Eden restored in light of the covenant relationship.114

The Reformed position, due to its weakness in the area of "the central issue of justification", really does not offer the solution to the tension within the Christian church in regards to the covenant question. It does hold certain views that enhance the covenant concept which truly aid in affecting a unifying influence in the religious and practical life of the church. The Anabaptist tradition also has its good points, such as the voluntary membership in the covenant. This would be considered more in line with Christ's legal justification for all men and the nature of faith which affects regeneration of the heart of man. Historically speaking, this approach has placed less emphasis upon ritual and sought to incorporate religion into one's daily life. Civil government should be obeyed unless it conflicted with Scripture.115 All these positions strengthen the moral side of the church in ways that the Reformed position has failed. The revivals of the 1700's changed many religious notions within this tradition.

Revivalism set its mark indelibly on American church life. It explains the intensely emotional quality which has persisted in certain strains of American Christianity; it is responsible for the slightly defiant repudiation of the intellectual elements in the faith. Undoubtedly it met the basic needs of the frontiersman: the stark simplicity with which it set forth sin and salvation as alternatives demanding an immediate choice were close to his experience and within his grasp. … The profounder regions of Christian experience remained outside of the grasp of the revivalist. The crudity and violence of frontier life naturally resulted in a strong emphasis on the moral transformation which faith effects. But morality was conceived wholly in personal terms. Its wider implications were ignored, and its attack was often limited to the more obvious evils—drinking, swearing, gambling. … It lacked theological depth, but like the society which it served it was possessed of abundant vitality, and had as little doubt of its power to claim America for Christ as of its duty to do so.116

The danger that the revival movement represented to the Anabaptist approach can be understood when one remembers that it already tended towards the practical instead of the theological.117 With the coming of the revivals of the 1800's, there was a the great difference between, say, Menno Simons' teachings, and that social gospel of the revivalists. Thus, due to the overbalanced preaching during these periods, much of the good doctrine had been neutralized into simple legalism, moralism, and emotionalism.

The National Reform Movement that arose during the mid-19th century was a mixture of the above traditions. Unfortunately, it appeared to have the worst of both. It combined the "theocratic ideal" of the Reformed theology with the emotionalism of the revivals. The results were bad, not only for those it discriminated against but for the churches that espoused it. By accepting such a position, spiritual matters were forgotten by the all-consuming crusade to make everyone religious. It is ironic that in striving so hard to institute religion, many would actually lose their ability to represent God aright as One who seeks the best good by love.

As for Waggoner's Presentation itself …

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Waggoner's View of the Covenants