Thursday, September 04, 2008

Book Review: Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist

Milton Hook has written the first full biography of Desmond Ford - and it is a great read! It provides some timely insight into the man, his message, and the denomination he served for so many years.

Hook writes passionately about his subject and disclaims any idea that history can be written absolutely objectively. Despite that, Desmond Ford is superbly documented with detailed endnotes. And for those of us who know some of the history it resonates as truth. As Hook points out in his introduction to the reader, many of the people he refers to as he tells Ford's story intersected with Hook's own life giving him a direct perspective on the events. But the primary source for the story comes from Des Ford himself.

I can remember, as a young boy, sitting in my country church listening to a much younger Des Ford answering question after question on the Bible. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and the passion with which he spoke. Since then I have met Des Ford quite a few times and heard him speak. One thing that always shines through is his consistent focus on the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. And this focus remains to this day.

Des Ford's life has been inextricably entwined with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Because of this, Hook's book is much more than a biography of Ford. It is also the story of what must be seen as one of the worst periods of Adventist history when it comes to the way that theology has been done and people have been treated.

Hook begins his book by describing the event that occurred on Saturday afternoon, August 23, 1980 when an enormous crowd heard that Des Ford's thesis was rejected at Glacier View and was probably to face disciplinary action. Hook asks:

Why would a Christian church, in the enlightened and progressive Twentieth Century, deliberately deprive itself of one of its best theologians, who at the same time was loyal, industrious, and arguably their most dynamic preacher of Christ's gospel?

Why, indeed? Hook returns to Ford's childhood in Queensland, Australia to begin to find an answer to that question. From that point the story is a compelling one of a man who is passionate for God and the gospel coming into conflict with a church administration that is more concerned about preserving tradition and power than it is about pursuing greater understanding of theological truth.

The subtitle of the book is reformist theologian, gospel revivalist. This subtitle perfectly describes the life of of Des Ford.

Reformist Theologian

Des Ford was one of the best theologians that the SDA denomination has ever had. From a very early point in his thinking he had questions about the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment. For much of his career he struggled to find biblical ways to support the doctrine until, eventually, he came to acknowledge that it had no biblical basis. Once he began to publicly share his views, the denominational administration responded by using political machinations to ultimately defrock him.Sadly, the church decided to make decisions on the basis of tradition rather than Scripture.

Des Ford has always remained loyal to the church despite the disgraceful way it treated him. His recent decision to withdraw his membership was also more about his respect for the denomination than his own personal interest. It has also allowed him to carry out his calling to be a gospel preacher without the hindrances of a denomination that constantly instructs its members to have nothing to do with him. His first desire to reform the theology of the church from within was not to be — although for many church members their theology has been reformed!

Gospel Revivalist

The traditional SDA doctrine of the Investigative Judgment is a doctrine that leads to uncertainty of salvation, guilt and frustration, and heightened anxiety around behaviour. In essence, it obscures the true gospel. Keenly aware of the way that perfectionist tendencies in the church were constantly obscuring the beauty of the gospel of justification by grace through faith Des Ford made it his life mission to preach that gospel.

Ford was in constant battle with those who wished to impose their perfectionistic theology onto the church, claiming that theirs was the true Adventism. Ford, one of the denominations clearest articulators of the gospel, found himself constantly battling to keep the message of Jesus Christ's imputed righteousness for sinners alive and shining as a beacon calling church members out of the bondage of a legalistic righteousness that could never save. Thousands of people have found liberation from the burden of guilt and frustration as a result of Des Ford's gospel preaching which still goes on today.

Milton Hook has provided an invaluable resource with Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist. Not only do we learn about the man; we also learn about the SDA Church. At times, we tend to lose sight of Ford as Hook provides detailed discussions of theology and SDA church history.

This, in my view, is probably one of the weaknesses of the book as biography. It is completely understandable that the story of Ford is also, to a large extent, the story of a denomination. But these two stories seem to struggle for dominance in the book. Hook's passion for Ford and the way he was treated by the church comes through strongly. But I would like to read more about what was going on in Ford's mind and how he understands it all.

Desmond Ford tends to be more of a chronicle of events, discussion of theology, and criticism of the denomination. One day I would really like to see an autobiography written by Ford or a biography that truly delves into the mind and heart of the man. Having said that, enough of the mind and heart of the man is present in Hooks book to lead us to admire Des Ford's courage, determination, patience, and passion as he sought, and continues to seek, to bring the good news of salvation through grace alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Despite the sadness of a story of a church that rejects its own "children", it's a celebration of the power of the gospel to reassure us that we are children of God and that it matters naught what humans think. Des Ford's life is a powerful illustration of that fact.

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  1. Wonderful review.
    Thank you for sharing this with us all.
    I can't wait to read this book.
    Thank you for inspiring us and challenging us to stretch our hearts and minds by reading various topics.
    I want you to know that I really enjoy reading this blog.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. I am surprised at the lack of comments on this article/posting. Is this now a non-issue in the SDA church?

  3. Hi Gordon

    Yes... it is a bit of a surprise! It's possible that people haven't had a chance to read the book yet. If my review encourages them to do so, I will be happy.


  4. The 1888 message was the true "Righteousness by Faith". The rejection of it lead to the confusion and Legalism..finally resulting in the counterfeit message of Des Ford

    To constantly point to him as the one who preached the "Gospel" to the Adventist Church is a lie

    Des Ford's Gospel is the Evangelical version, not the true version as preached by Jones, Waggoner and EGW.

  5. Steve Parker's original above: "At times, we tend to lose sight of Ford has Hook provides detailed discussions of theology and SDA church history."

    I think it should read "as" instead of "has."

    Regarding "van glorious" comments I would like to remind him that Ellen White writes that justification by faith is the 3rd angel's message in verity. Ellen White also supported that the law in Galatians was not only the ceremonial law but the moral law as well.

    We find both the justification and santification statements in EGW.

    Desmond Ford not only preaches the gospel but he lives it, and that is no lie!

    Mike MacLennan

  6. Thanks for the correction, Mike. I have fixed it.


  7. Mike, yeah I agree Ellen White said that Justification by Faith is the 3rd Angels Message in Verity...the version as understood in 1888,which points out, contrary to Ford, that Justification is a life changing event, not some legal declaration with no effect on earth.

    Ford's message is essentially Legalism. Adventists are repairers of the breach between Law and Grace. Ford perpetuates this breach. Justification and Sanctification are not meant to be fractured.

    Ford's Theology is Catholicism dressed as Reformationist

  8. I have to add, that it's insulting to hear people say that Ford "brought the gospel to the Adventist Church"....and Ford never rebukes people for it, showing himself to be deluded..wake up to yourselves!

  9. Hi Van Glorious

    I must say your comment that

    'Ford's message is essentially Legalism. Adventists are repairers of the breach between Law and Grace. Ford perpetuates this breach. Justification and Sanctification are not meant to be fractured.'

    does mystify me a bit for a number of reasons:

    1. Ford has constantly stated in public and his writings that legalism is earning salvation by keeping the law. He has also stated that obedience is essential but that it is a fruit of salvation rather than the root of salvation. It is just incorrect to construe Ford as a legalist.

    2. I have personally heard Ford and read in his writings that justification are distinct but should never be separated. It is hard to see how that could be seen as a fracturing of the two.

    3. Ford sees the gospel as a life changing event. He repeatedly states that justification is the basis of salvation and that obedience is a response of love to justification. It is obvious that Ford believes in repentance and obedience as a response to the grace God has demonstrated in Christ. To suggest that Ford doesn't believe in a life changing gospel seems to ignore just about everything he has written.

    There is no doubt that Ford, like the rest of us, is flawed (he'd be the first to admit that) and doesn't have a perfect grasp of truth (who does?). But if one is to criticise him, it would be advisable to represent him correctly.

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