A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White

If you are looking for an authoritative figure who represents the views of mainstream Protestant evangelicalism in America, I would trust the Rev. Billy Graham way more than I would Donald Trump.

Take, for example, how evangelicals view the evolution (a dangerous word in this context) of some of the core doctrines in Seventh-day Adventism. While there are still evangelicals who like to use the word "cult" to describe this movement -- in a theological, not sociological sense of that word -- there are many more who, following in the footsteps of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, have come to view Adventists as small-o orthodox Christians.

There are complicated issues at stake here linked to the views of early Adventist leaders about the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the divinity of Jesus Christ, biblical authority and other doctrines, including the role of Ellen White as a prophet. Journalists who are covering the GOP primaries do not have to master all the fine details on these matters, but they do need to find some quality sources for background as long as Dr. Ben Carson is on the scene and his critics -- like Trump -- are using fighting words to describe the candidate's faith.

Consider, for example, this chunk of a USA Today story in the wake of Trump's sucker-punch comment about Seventh-day Adventism. The scene is Iowa, of course:

Carson's Seventh-day Adventist connection concerns Cedar Rapids retiree Barbara Nuechterlein.
"I just feel that -- how can I say it. All these religions are good, and none of us know which one is right, but I think Sunday is the day of the Sabbath created by the Lord, not Saturday," said Nuechterlein, who described herself as the first woman to work on a 17-man team at an Iowa electric company decades ago.
Nuechterlein also has qualms about Adventists who believe in the writings of evangelist Ellen White as much as they believe in biblical scripture.
"They're entitled to believe what they believe, and that's what makes America great," she said. 

Welcome to the debates about Ellen G. White and her recognized role as a prophet for Adventists. For some people, the word "prophet" alone is enough to raise this movement to the level of a "sect," if not a "cult." 

The one thing journalists cannot afford to do is toss a loaded reference like that into the mix and then walk away from it. Complicated subjects demand sources who know the fine details of these kinds of debates and, frankly, that takes room -- at least one or two accurate paragraphs, instead of a hit-and-run reference of this kind.

The truth of the matter is that it took some time, early in the history of this new movement, for Adventists to arrive at some solid, consistent doctrines on key doctrinal issues -- such as the Trinity. The Trinity and the divinity of Christ is crucial territory since, for many mainstream church historians, messing around with the inner workings of the Trinity is what will land people in doctrinal "cult" territory.

This leads me to a long and, at times, solid New York Times piece about Carson and his faith. This piece quotes a lot of people -- with attributions! -- about controversies linked to Adventism, but the key background material starts in a dangerous place.

It is not the first time that a leading Republican presidential contender has faced questions about how evangelical Protestants, who make up a large section of the party’s electorate, would view their religious beliefs. In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney had to explain to voters what it meant to be a Mormon, and despite losing the last election, he won nearly 80 percentof the evangelical vote.

So, is it true that evangelicals basically view Seventh-day Adventists as being doctrinal neighbors with believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? That, friends and neighbors, is a loaded question if there ever was one. And the answer is complicated.

Yes, we're talking about the Trinity again.

There are evangelicals who love to quote early Adventist writings and then toss around doctrinal "cult" language. But there are many more -- see "Graham, Billy" -- who believe that Adventists have evolved to an orthodox stance on the nature of the Trinity. I know of very few mainstream Christians of any stripe who would say that Mormon doctrines on the Trinity and the Godhead have changed enough to make that statement.

With that looming in the background, I would be interested in knowing what Adventist GetReligion readers think of the following Times material:

The Adventist legacy is rooted in the 19th century and grew out of what was known as the “Great Disappointment.” Most followers consider its initial founder to be William Miller, a Baptist preacher from upstate New York who calculated that Jesus Christ was due to return to earth on Oct. 22, 1844. When the savior failed to show up, the flock was left in a state of despair.
One of Miller’s followers, Ellen G. White, reconstituted the denomination under the doctrine that Jesus had actually relocated to a heavenly sanctuary where he would begin judgment of the world. She was seen as a prophet.
Unlike members of other Christian denominations, Adventists honor the Sabbath on Saturdays instead of Sundays. They tend to be vegetarians, and they continue to wait patiently for the Second Coming and the end of the world.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church counts more than 18 million members globally and 1.2 million in North America, but some skeptics see it as a sect out of touch with mainstream Christianity. 

This vague "some skeptics" shout "sect" language is pounded home later in the piece:

“I’m proud of the fact that I believe what God has said, and I’ve said many times that I’ll defend it before anyone,” Mr. Carson told the Adventist Report in 2013. “If they want to criticize the fact that I believe in a literal six-day creation, let’s have at it, because I will poke all kinds of holes in what they believe.”
For theological reasons, Adventism has faced tensions with the Roman Catholic and Baptist Churches over the years. Last spring, Mr. Carson was invited to speak at a Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in Ohio, but he faced opposition because of his beliefs and eventually backed out.
“Dr. Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist,” a group of pastors from the Baptist organization B21 wrote in protest of his visit. “Their official theology denies the doctrine of hell in favor of annihilation,” they wrote, “and believes that those who worship on Sunday will bear the ‘mark of the beast.’ ”
The church has also had a strongly anti-Catholic strain, and when Mr. Carson decided to attend Pope Francis’ visit to Congress last month,Adventist message boards lit up with questions about his presence with the pontiff. Some questioned his referring to the pope as the “Holy Leader” and wondered, “How do such words come from the mouth of a Seventh-day Adventist?”

The Southern Baptist spat is crucial and that topic will keep showing up in coverage.

These are very specific and, frankly, interesting and often valid issues to discuss. But what do the Adventists say in response? Do they all agree? Note, on the Catholic issue, that interesting Times "has also had" wording. Once again, is this an issue of what was said in the past or what is uniformly believed in the present?

If critics are going to get to toss out these kinds of verbal grenades, wouldn't it be nice to let a few experts -- inside the Adventist movement and outside of it -- respond with a crisp paragraph or two of details?

So what to do? Just to get started, let me point journalists toward an essay -- "Adventists and change" -- by George R. Knight in an Adventist publication called Ministry Magazine. I has lots of historical background on how modern Adventists got to where they are today, especially on the crucial Trinity issues. This is complicated, but reporters need to know some of the basics if they are going to get this right.

Also, former GetReligionista Mark Kellner -- an Adventist who has worked in the church's national press office -- produced this background essay for USA Today. It focuses on where Adventists are TODAY, as opposed to the doctrinal arguments in the past cited by critics, and ends like this:

Adventism is a Protestant Christian faith, albeit slightly different from the “down-the-middle” Presbyterian religion Trump claims. Its principal difference is found in the church’s name: Seventh-day Adventists worship on what we believe is the Bible Sabbath, the seventh day of the week called “Saturday” in English, but referred to as “Sabbath” in over 100 other languages, including Spanish, “Sabado.” The Adventist part? We believe Jesus is returning soon, although we have never set a specific date.
The church and its members also respect and take counsel from the writings of Ellen White, who we believe exercised the biblical gift of prophecy during her decades of public ministry. But we don’t worship White or her writings, nor do they substitute for the Bible. “Brethren and sisters, I commend unto you this Book,” were White’s final public words, referring to the Bible she held in her hands, at a 1909 meeting of Adventist leaders. (She died six years later.)
Not only do Adventists rely on the Bible as the final word on issues of doctrine, but we also work diligently to protect religious liberty. We’ve been to court on behalf of Sabbath-keepers, and filed a brief supporting Samantha Elauf, the Muslim woman refused a sales job by retailer Aberchrombie & Fitch because she wore a hijab. Adventists believe religious liberty belongs to all people, everywhere.
What Donald Trump doesn’t know about Seventh-day Adventism could perhaps fill a book or two. But the one million Adventists in the U.S. would be happy to tell him — or anyone else — the full story.

As our own Dick Ostling just noted, this story is going to get hotter as the major newspapers and wire services weigh in on it. What happens when it gets crunched into 30- to 90-second bites on network news?

Stay tuned. And be careful out there.

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