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

The Law in Galatians Controversy and the Covenant Concept

In the year 1886, E.J. Waggoner was the editor of the Adventist paper, The Signs of the Times. Beginning in the July eighth issue, he wrote a series of articles in response to one written by 0.A. Johnson in the April thirteenth issue of the Review and Herald. Johnson had claimed that the law in the third chapter of Galatians was the ceremonial law. Waggoner took exception and maintained that the law in Galatians referred to the moral law. Through an interesting series of events, George I. Butler, then the General Conference president, published a pamphlet entitled, "The Law in the Book of Galatians." Butler opposed Waggoner's view and supported Johnson's interpretation. Waggoner countered with a pamphlet significantly named, "The Gospel in the Book of Galatians."

This debate between Butler and Waggoner was the first in a series of conflicts over certain subjects and issues that would bring forth a message that Ellen White would label the beginning of the loud cry and latter rain; the message of righteousness by faith.33 The issues in this encounter obviously involved the proper identification of the law in Galatians. However, the underlying arguments reveal that both men were dealing with the covenants. Waggoner was to develop his views of righteousness by faith from this exchange, changing little until his death in 1916. In reviewing Waggoner's writings, it will be necessary to compare Butler's beliefs to clarify the, presentation. Furthermore, Ellen White's assessments of the whole situation will also be referred to since they reveal what was truly at stake in the debate.

First, it is important to establish what points Butler and Waggoner did agree upon. Both men believed that man was to be a keeper of all the commandments of God, including the seventh-day Sabbath.34 Neither man disagreed that God had made a covenant with Abraham, which defined the terms of salvation for all men.35 Even though the two held different views of the old covenant, there was a mutual understanding that God's remedy for sin had been offered to the Jews and anyone who chose to accept its terms was eligible for the blessings given to Abraham.36 Both men believed that God desired a people who would rightly represent Him on this earth and be the base for the evangelism of all nations.37 Although it was not forthrightly said, neither man would have ventured to state that God had made a mistake in making any covenant. Their whole arguments would not tolerate such a notion. Any fault must be attributed to the people of Israel. From these points of agreement, one can see that the conflict over the identification of the law in Galatians chapter three would have to center around such issues as the meaning and purpose of the old covenant, and its relationship to the new covenant. It would also include the relationship of law to the gospel and the application of these subjects to present experiences of the church.

Butler's purpose for disagreeing with Waggoner on the law in Galatians was to protect the church's argument for the need to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. It had not been a part of those ceremonial laws that had been nailed to the cross.38 But Waggoner also believed the Sabbath was to be kept as a part of the Decalogue. Then, why was Butler so opposed to Waggoner's view? Surely, part of the discussion was due to misunderstandings and emotions that had been strained by improper communication on both sides. Waggoner had not followed proper channels in presenting his view in open forum in the Signs. Butler had been fostering a "kingly" attitude in which he sought to mold the work to his particular mind.39 This, however, does not account for the actual content of the two presentations.

Butler was convinced that the ceremonial law was connected with the old covenant and the ten commandments were connected with the new covenant, which was the common Adventist position at the time.40 Judging from the statements he made such as,

The errors in the Galatian church which Paul was so vigorously combating, were not merely the theoretical view that they were justified by their obedience to the moral law and hence needed not a Saviour; but they practices which really undermined the truth of the gospel, those connecting it with circumcision, the symbol of all laws particularly Jewish.41


Before we close this argument, we wish to impress point more fully, to convince our friends, if possible, who hold the opposite view, that this question of circumcision in the apostolic church was not one of minor importance, but in its effects upon the progress of Christianity and the presentation of gospel truth, was equal in the apostles's mind to even the much-vaunted doctrine of justification by faith. As we have said, we hold to the latter to be a very important doctrine. But the special thing with which the apostle had to contend in his work among the Gentiles, was to show the proper relation between his work and the old system that was passing away.42

The issues involved the proper relationship of law to the covenants. Butler was arguing that Waggoner was being too theoretical with the "much-vaunted doctrine of justification by faith," and not seeing the importance of "practices" or works or obedience to the law of God. Waggoner was arguing that Butler was too much of a legalist, in danger of making the same mistake as the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.

The two pamphlets become very interesting

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Waggoner's View of the Covenants