In October last year I was one of the main speakers during the “Big Camp” event, which the South Queensland Conference organizes annually on its campsite just outside Brisbane, Australia. During the first Sabbath of this major event, shortly before I was due to go onto the platform to preach, I was approached by a lady, who introduced herself as “Gill”, the wife of Desmond Ford. She told me that “Des” would like to meet me, but that, unfortunately, his health did not allow him to come to the campmeeting in person. Would I be willing to come and visit them in their home, some forty kilometers from the site, if she arranged for my transportation? I visited Desmond Ford that very same afternoon.
I had seen Dr. Ford once before, from a distance, in the early 1990’s, near Andrews University. The university authorities had refused to let him speak on the university campus, and therefore a venue was arranged at a short distance from the university. Ford had become persona non grata in the Adventist Church. He had lost his credentials, after he had become embroiled in a serious conflict with the church’s leadership over some of his theological insights. During the infamous Glacier View Conference in August 1980, the church leaders there assembled had in majority concluded that the standpoints of dr. Ford were a danger for the stability and the future of the church. Looking back at the proceedings, now almost forty years ago, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Ford had no chance to survive this ‘tribunal.’ His condemnation was mostly based on ecclesial-political grounds.
Desmond Ford came from Australia, where he had become a very popular speaker and theology teachers at Avondale College—the institution of higher learning of the church in Australia. He then moved to the United States—at the urge of church leadership in his home country—where he was appointed as theology professor at Pacific Union College in California. Soon the theological problems for Dr. Ford began to escalate. He became known as a fierce opponent of any form of perfectionism and emphasized untiringly that our salvation is through grace alone. However, his ideas about apocalyptic prophecy became increasingly suspect. The most important controversial issue was his assertion that the so-called ‘investigative judgment’–which according to traditional Adventist teachings had been going on in the heavenly sanctuary since 1844—missed a solid biblical foundation.
Ford’s condemnation, however, was not the end of the matter. The conflict and its aftermath caused a worldwide upheaval. In Australia alone it lead to the—voluntary or forced—exodus of hundreds of pastors. And Ford remained active as speaker and writer—almost until his death a few days ago. Regrettably, the church has not shown the generosity to rehabilitate him at some point. The reality, anno 2019, is that many theologians and pastors in the church agree with a good deal of Ford’s views. Unfortunately there are at present many places in the church whether it is not ‘safe’ to talk about this. Many, in particular, place—just as Ford did—question marks after the traditional Adventist position regarding the ‘investigative judgment.’
I already believed in some form of the so-called apotelesmatic principle, long before I ever heard this technical term. Ford introduced the term for his view that an apocalyptic prophecy often has a provisional fulfilment, or more of these partial fulfillments, before the final fulfilment takes place. And since a few dozen years I have shared in his views of the investigative judgment. Why can this issue not be openly debated, and why would it be so worrisome if there is diversity of opinion with regard to this point? It does in no way demean the fact that there is a heavenly high priest who has provided us with direct access to our Father in heaven. And, really, does an infinite God need a few centuries to go through heavenly books in order to decide who can be admitted to eternity?
The Dutch theologian Johannes van der Ven wrote in one of his books that a church needs conflicts. Only a church that is no longer alive does not have any controversies. Theological controversies force a faith community to re-assess its theological identity. And that is why a denomination must provide for channels through which this dissent can be communicated.
Ford did not get that opportunity within the confines of the church he loved, But also without his church credentials he remained an utterly committed Seventh-day Adventist. He did not become bitter, but continued to challenge all who came to listen to him, or was willing to read his books, to totally rely on God’s grace. I am thankful that I still had the chance to meet him in person. In our conversation of about an hour and a half he never said a negative word about the church. It was clear that I met with a real Christian.
Desmond Ford did the church a tremendous service by prompting many to think more profoundly about their faith. The way he was removed from his position remains a sad example opf how not to deal with doctrinal dissent. Shortly after ‘Des’ celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he closed his eyes forever. He has been a great blessings to untold thousands and his influence will continue, even now, when he is no longer in our midst.