The Doctrine of the Sanctuary as SDA Philosophy of History

By Joe Greig


The doctrine of the sanctuary and the identity of the remnant emerged from a Millerite interpretation of biblical prophetic texts that were thought to identify the earth as the sanctuary which would be cleansed by fire in the fall of 1844 at the second coming of Christ. The failure of this interpretation resulted in the great disappointment and the subsequent reinterpretation of the prophetic texts after Hiram Edson identified the sanctuary, not as the earth itself, but as the sanctuary in heaven. 1844 was not the end of the world, but the beginning of the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary and the investigative judgment. After this judgment was completed, the second coming of Christ would occur. The entire process would be short and the second coming would be soon. This expectation has also seen a sequence of "lesser failures"resulting in a general unease in the church and an ongoing discussion of the meaning of "soon" within the context of God's timetable.

The Need for a Different Interpretation

Students of the Bible now know a lot more about texts, the history of interpretation, and the nature of time and reality than our theological ancestors. I suggest that work go forward on novel reconstructions of Adventist doctrines, especially the doctrine of the sanctuary, in the light of this new information. The following is a proposal based on the acceptance of an analytical approach to the biblical text, which departs from traditional ideas of being "biblical," and the sectarian understanding of prophecy as having one intentional referent (us), and entertain the idea of doctrine as "myth" in the sense that myth is the ideology or story we live by in our attempt to be true to God, ourselves, and reality. A powerful myth of this type which we are all familiar with is: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness-." Destroy this myth, and our democracy goes down with it. Retain it and reinterpret it, and our democracy becomes more inclusive and vital.


The following defense of the sanctuary doctrine presupposes a 2nd century B.C. E. date for the book of Daniel, affirms the transmission of the text in its Massoretic form, as well as the translation of relevant texts in versions conforming to the Massoretic Text. It concludes that the doctrine as historically interpreted is without critical textual support. That is to say, excluding the problem of textual transmission and version adoption, it was created by a misunderstanding of biblical texts as they were written by their authors. But being "strictly" biblical has seldom, if ever, been the major moving force in the creation of a biblical religion. An argument may be made that the New Testament is not "biblical" in the sense of it arising of necessity from the explicit prophetic and historical expectations of the Old Testament text. Judaism also has a claim on the understanding of these texts. The early Christian church appropriated these texts for themselves by claiming that Jesus was the expected messiah. "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (Hosea 11:1) is a historical reference to Israel, not Jesus. Similarly, "Yahweh says to my lord: 'Sit at my right hand' until I make your enemies your footstool" (Ps. 110:l), refers historically to David and other Israelite kings, not Jesus (Matt. 2:15). The reinterpretation depends on a community which is creating its living mythology. Mythology, in this sense does not mean falsehood, rather it is true, but in some way other than being historically accurate.

Once a text is considered central to the identity and life of a group, that text is appropriated, and that group, within ethical and experiential boundaries, may be considered a privileged community in the interpretation of that text. African American experiential identity with the Hebrew slaves delivered from Egyptian bondage is a case in point. The interpreted text begins to function as a myth by which the community lives and understands itself in relation to God and other human beings. In the sense of community myth, the text means exactly what the community says it means. However, the traditional defense of SDA exegesis of texts in Daniel that insists our understanding of the text has to be exactly what the author meant in writing it amounts, at best to ignorance of the history of hermeneutics, or, at worst, to a kind of self righteousness deception.

A Proposal

That being said, our denomination's ancestors gave us a doctrine which was crucial to their call and identity, and it is up to later Seventh-day Adventists to decide what to do with it: abandon it, or keep it and reinterpret it in ways that go behind its external-literal history-like meaning and give it a positive contemporary mythological or theological significance. This approach justifies the doctrine by looking at it as an expression of the Adventist self-understanding of its mission, not by insisting on the infallibility of the traditional exegesis and interpretation of the text.

There may be more than one way of reconsidering the meaning of the doctrine of the sanctuary. What I have proposed is that the doctrine may basically be understood as an Adventist philosophy of history, or if it is preferred, a theology of history. (1) In this context it is important to recognize that history is a "vehicle" for the Gospel, (2) not the Gospel itself. In an ontological sense, the Gospel is more important than history, the vehicle which conveys it.

To understand the full implications of the following proposal on the doctrine of the sanctuary as a philosophy of history it is helpful to have some understanding of the philosophy of history and some of the philosophical structures that have been created to give interpretations of history, for instance, what factors or patterns are present in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Philosophers tend to study the histories of nations to discern patterns, especially rational patterns, operating in these histories, those that are creative and those that are destructive. Three philosophies of history are offered as examples: those of Hegel, Marx, and Oswald Spengler. (3)

Hegel was an idealist; therefore, he subordinated the empirical content of history to concentrate on the logic of the historical process. Hegel imagined the world progressing as reason coming to expression as Spirit (understand this as team spirit) in humanity, then in the State. The State, as the embodiment of reason or spirit makes law which provides freedom to act rationally possible. Central to this process is the continuous conflict of ideas. Thus, history moves rationally by a dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Spirit is the resolution of the idealistic conflict, but always containing its own opposite moves progressively to transform the State.

Marx adopted Hegel's dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, but transformed it by discarding its idealistic foundation and replacing it with "materialism," thus the expression, "dialectical materialism." For the conflict of ideas, Marx substituted the antagonism of social and economic forces. Economics, for Marx, was the central feature of human history. History was a progressive record of class struggles involving production, distribution, and exchange. When economic structures change, modifications in class relations are affected which in turn affect political, social, moral and religious traditions.

Spengler rejected the linear view of historical development, thus the theory of progress. Instead he adopted a cyclic view of history which he expressed in seasonal cycles. Strongly influenced by romanticism, he disdained the scientific approach to history, instead preferring something like the idea of destiny, and employing his instincts and intuitions to understand the process of history. History, is like a living organism, and must be "experienced," "relived," by internalizing its process. More important than intellect are: "sympathy," or sympathetic understanding, "flair," "immediate and inward certainty," to name a few points constituting his methodology.

For Spengler, the high time of history was exemplified by cultures with economic permanence, a sense of duty, and a work ethic. He detected a steady decline from this ideal until the present age of decline characterized by the dictatorship of money, quantity replacing quality, utility replacing beauty, and life becoming artificial. Attending these observations are intellectual decline, loss of personal freedom, and finally the loss of democracy to developing imperialism, accompanied by waging war. Spengler considered inevitable his decline of civilization .

It is instructive to realize that it was with the rise of the philosophy of history, Marxism in particular, that theologians and Christian philosophers began to formulate the idea of God revealing himself in the historical process, and worked toward a Christian doctrine of history.

However one looks at the question of how history moves or progresses, and despite the interest in initial cause, and serial cause and effect, history appears to operate much like a chaotic system. Ultimately, its unity and progression is achieved as a human construct of certain selected events and series of events driven by some ideology which determines the interest a person or group of persons has in the events. This interest merits remembering them, recording them, interpreting them, and living by them. It is from these events and processes that the group's or nation's story or myth is created.

An Adventist Philosophy of History

In developing an Adventist philosophy of history we may look at The Great Controversy by E.G. White first to see how early Adventists understood themselves to be the culmination of a long history with God, especially detailed in relationship to the history of the Reformation. They created a contemporary history of salvation, in which they were the final time-specific agents of proclamation, which attached to the biblical history of salvation in which Christ became the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Thus, the doctrine of the sanctuary with its temporal components commits Adventists to history in order to further the will of God in the world, as contained in the Gospel. This is a very risky claim; nevertheless, one which I believe must be affirmed, though with great humility..

The Adventist confrontation with history began with the Great Disappointment. After the failure of prophecy, Adventists found themselves, not in a timeless heaven, but on earth and facing the implications of the continued existence of time. This situation still confronts the church today.

The church has always affirmed that the first angel's message of Revelation 14 took place within the general understanding of the rise of the Advent Movement. The text states that the preaching of the everlasting Gospel brings the world into judgment. But while under judgment the Gospel offers salvation. It is from this point that we may understand the peculiar characteristics of the Adventist commission expressed by the doctrine of the sanctuary, and the church's understanding of the historical process, and the church's place in history.

History does not merely happen! By this I mean cosmic as well as social history. (4) It is created by observant human minds interacting with rather nebulous raw data. Thus, history is not a structure in which the events of salvation merely occur, but, and primarily for the Christian, history is created by events of salvation. (5) History is created by human beings who perceive significance in an event or a series of events which they somehow string together into a meaningful story. (6) The central event in the Christian story is the Incarnation which is the most important element in the series. If events can differ from one another in importance and selected from others because of their importance, then one event may be deemed more important than all other events, and the meaning of all other events may even be concentrated in this single event. Thus, Christians affirm that the meaning of all history lies in the story of Christ's life, death, and resurrection; they may be subsumed under the idea of the Incarnation.

Ideas like the Incarnation, or the cleansing of the sanctuary, have elements that are not strictly historical. There are metaphysical, or supra-historical elements present, and they cannot be the condition of their own historicity. Thus, when speaking of the Incarnation we say that God sent his son into the world, it is only the presence of the person of Jesus which may be thought of as strictly historical. The idea that "God sent" is supra-historical. If we have a broad grasp of the function of myth, we need not avoid using the word "myth" in the place of supra-historical. Both Jesus and the Church happened and meet the conditions of historical entities, or at least the raw materials of such entities. Thus, we have historical entities which possess both historical and supra-historical elements.

But supra-historical elements have no meaning except they are rooted in the historical, in existing historical realities. But grounding them in this way results in the supra- historical elements being responsible for the "historical nature" of the historical events, entities, and institutions. The existence and activity of the historical Christian Church is only possible because of the supra-historical elements in that historical entity. From the perspective of analytical history, it is the history of the church that is critical. One may argue that the presence of the Church in history is responsible to a colossal misunderstanding of reality, thus illegitimate. but that criticism is dependent on a particular kind of metaphysics. While this is an issue we need to come to grips with, we need not tackle that problem here, except to say that human history is also a history of spiritual human beings, and if spirituality is an integral part of being human, then history cannot be understood fully without including this element. (7)

Coming to the question of the heavenly sanctuary, the historical elements of that doctrine are not found in affirming their historical existence in time and space, or from the idea of Christ moving from one compartment to another, or in the idea of cleansing the sanctuary. Those are supra-historical elements, are highly symbolic, and under other circumstance might have taken different symbolic forms. The historical is found in the existence of early Adventists and their activity as the result of progressively formulating the doctrine of the sanctuary. The movement of Christ from one compartment of the sanctuary to another in 1844 is an exegetical or interpretive movement, not a physical or historical movement in time and space which is the condition of its own historicity. Its historicity is the result of being grounded in the historical Advent Movement. 1844 happened on earth, not in heaven. The core supra-historical element in this doctrine is that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is "presently" at work bringing judgment and salvation to the Creation through the historical agents of Gospel proclamation, in this case Adventists. This supra- historical element gave rise to the "historical nature" of the Adventist Church, and in my opinion, the mythological embedding of its mission in the sanctuary doctrine.

Historically, Adventists created that doctrine from an understanding of the text in a way similar to the manner in which the followers of Christ came to declare his messianic and divine identity. Thus the text and the Church mutually created each other. In the case of both Jesus and Adventism, the historical elements achieve their historical "significance" from the unhistorical supra-historical. Therefore, we live by faith that despite our flawed understanding of reality and God, we are not put on this earth in vain.

Early Adventists "believed" they were the remnant church, that the advent message was the culminating word of the Gospel which was to bring the world into judgment. And it was in response to that word of judgment that salvation or damnation would come to humankind. But like the early church, they learned that it is not the nature of time to come to an end with the fulfillment of prophecy.

However, the preaching of that message also moved history in the direction of God's purpose (admittedly a difficult concept). In this sense, even though early Adventists thought time would end, all Adventists after the great disappointment must be committed to preaching the Gospel to create history as a history of salvation for as long as that history lasts.

The rest of this defense of the Sanctuary Doctrine is in interpreting some of its components to bring it in line with this philosophical historical understanding. For instance, the preaching of the Gospel involving a history created by the Incarnation actually changes past history beyond mere reinterpretation of the static past, although it cannot undo base occurrence without atomizing reality into illusion. Thus, the past is alive by those who relive it.[See endnote 4.]

Interpreting Other Difficult Concepts (8)

A. Judgment on the Dead: We can find many instances in both ancient and modern history where new evaluations have turned saints into sinners and sinners into saints, written into history persons who had been ignored, and purged history of undesirable figures. So too, the judgment on the dead may be understood as a judgment on the past in light of the Gospel which has nuances which come from the time in which it is preached and from the subject matter it integrates into its preaching. The question is: can we, who are recipients of the Gospel, bring the actions of the dead into judgment by the Gospel without offering them the same forgiveness and salvation we receive ourselves? I affirm that we must if we are to see history as the will of God fulfilled..

B. Judgment on the Living: If this idea has merit, then the question of when the judgment on the living begins is transparent. It is at this moment, at all moments, in time and history, and always has been, that the Gospel as "Present Truth" brings us into judgment. Thus, these judgments are always going on simultaneously.

C. Close of Probation: The idea of the close of probation is a reality and reminder of our brief sinful, self serving, lives which do have an end, although the life of the church does not. "The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." One must surrender to the will of God.

D. Standing Before God Without a Mediator: Even the idea of standing before God without a mediator may make sense when, in light of the Gospel, we abandon the idea of absolute perfection, and modify our ideas of, and relationship to God because of developing ethical sensitivity. In my Christian experience, I have at times stood before God without a mediator, each time with the intention of unmasking him. And each time I "dare" to draw near (Jer. 30:21), I bow to the divine majesty revealed behind the mask. This, I believe, is the divine charge of an investigative faith.

It is this investigative and progressive understanding of doctrine, in this case the Sanctuary message, that obligates Adventists to confront contemporary issues within their philosophy of history; issues that affect the well being of the world in time and space-for example, gender equality, and the environment. The preaching of the Gospel must include all God's creation in the message of judgment and salvation.

The dangers of sectarian and political malfeasance are always issues in such an interpretation of a person's or institution's interfacing with the world in which they live. We must exercise humility, recognizing that in relation to present truth, no sooner are we declared righteous than God turns our righteousness into filthy rags. (9) But it would seem that a church that is not bold enough to be concerned with living in time and space, has no understanding of Present Truth, is unconcerned about moving the historical process in the direction of God's purpose, however difficult that purpose is to understand, is a church that is in danger of forsaking its call, thus losing its legitimacy for existence.


1. In 1957, John McIntyre published a book, The Christian Doctrine of History, setting off a hot debate, particularly among Scottish theologians, whether history was a "construct," or a biblical theme that could be legitimately be understood as a means of divine revelation.

2. I am attributing this expression to McIntyre, although it may also have been used by C.H. Dodd.

3. Discussions of these philosophers may be found in Bruce Mazlish, The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud, 1966.

4. It seems to me that history is comparable to a "chaotic"system which from its end appears determined, but not from within the process. This idea can accommodate the idea of providence. I view history similar to the way process philosophers understands it, although my ideas were initially informed by the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey, especially his understanding of the relation of parts to the whole, the causal nature of the historian's interaction with the data, and his idea of "verstehen." While Dilthey's view emerged from the social sciences, it suggests an analogous relation to the modern scientific idea of a wave collapsed to a particle by an observer. What we call events are first undulations of experience, nebulous potentialities, or occasions. They cannot be purified of psychological contributions. Such events come to be only when we interact with their compositional attributes. The context, or the extended story, is subject to similar quantum-like characteristics. The Incarnation, thus "existent," is not merely an event in a historical framework, but the result of human interaction with compositional fluctuations in the history or context in which Christ came. Thus, rather than the Incarnation being a vantage point from which we interpret or reinterpret history without changing it, our interaction with the potentialities changes the central nature of history itself. An observer not only collapses the wave, so to speak, but brings history into being by living it, both creating, understanding, and appropriating its truth value and offering it to the future. On a cosmic level, this position would accommodate some version of the anthropic principle.

5. Much of what I say here is reflective of McIntyre's thought, although not within the realm of Christian Dogmatics, and it does not depend on his exclusive categorical conditions without which history does not occur.

6. I will not attempt to discuss the nuances of the word “history” or “historical” when used in this article. The point is that history does not merely occur, and that human reference within significant experiences and observations, create the history we live and know as our history. Acts of God which exclude human contributions cannot exhaust what we mean by salvation in history. What we call modern critical history has its theological place. But used with malicious metaphysical intent to destroy myth, it is capable of destroying the creativity of the community living the myth, rendering them historically impotent, and destitute of the myth’s truth values. Though indispensable to any complete historical understanding, there is no salvation in critical history; only history perceived as a form of Heilsgeschichte can offer this truth component.

7. I would make a comparison with what I discern to be John Polkinghorn's position: Science is necessary for the understanding of reality, but scientific reality is insufficient and needs religion, and the element of religion is best provided by the Christian faith. Of course, he would say, there is a chance we may be wrong.

8. I would not insist that all elements of our doctrines need to be retained or refined, only those with more pivotal cultural and theological implications. I refer the reader to Ralph Wendell Burhoe's reinterpretation of "spirit," and "Holy Spirit," to represent the "invisible," "intangible," and "vital" forces of both external and internal nature (mind) that are acknowledged scientifically as indispensable to reality (Zygon, Dec. 2005, Pp. 799-812). There seems to be a "natural selection" of myths and religious traditions which contribute to our sociocultural systems because of the "truth value" they contain which is similar to naturally selected genetic wisdom (pp.801-2).

9. This wording I remember coming from Professor John Gibson of Edinburgh University. I apply it to all historical and theological understanding, including what I have written here.