Fundamentalism or liberalism?


The rise of liberals and fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century impacted American Christianity broadly, including Seventh-day Adventists. The ripples of this clash continue to reverberate through the Adventist Church in how we interpret Scripture. And how we interpret Scripture, it turns out, impacts broadly on our beliefs and practices. And yet very few of us are familiar with the different strains of scriptural interpretation surging through the Church, and their implications. To understand them, we must first examine their origins. 

The tension between liberals and fundamentalists arose in response to a crisis of authority and certainty in the larger world. The rise of empirical science caused philosophers and intellectuals to discount truth and knowledge that could not be touched, measured or counted. It was believed that this was the only knowledge and truth of which you could be absolutely certain, and that religious knowledge was far inferior, based merely on faith and feeling.

We are caught between competing ideologies of fundamentalism and liberalism.

Christians responded to this challenge to their faith in at least two ways. Conservative Christians began to emphasise the absolute certainty of the truths of Scripture. This was in part why theories of verbal inerrancy developed. The belief was that absolute certainty required absolutely perfect data, which could be turned into absolutely perfect propositions of truth. This became the core of the fundamentalist project, which became in many ways a quest for perfect orthodoxy based upon a perfect Scripture. We might call them the “propositionalists”, as they believed the essence of Christianity and salvation lay in mastering the perfect propositions of a perfect Scripture.

More liberal Christians recognised that the Bible was not absolutely perfect in every detail. This was especially true given that we have no original manuscripts and must rely on copied documents, which always have some errors. Then there are the changes that occur in translation. These Christians despaired of knowing truth perfectly, or that Scripture could contain it perfectly, and they turned to the experience side of Christianity. Rather than being a document of perfect propositions, they viewed the Bible as a record of experiences with God, which could serve as a model for experiences we could have. Thus, certainty lay not in things we could know about God or truth, but things we could internally, subjectively experience. We might call them the “experientialists” because for them, the core of Christianity is found in our own personal subjective experiences and feelings.

Which view did Ellen White take? We might view her as being in the propositionalist camp as she certainly defended the truth of Scripture; however, she never accepted the idea of verbal inspiration and did not share the propositionalists’ intense focus on propositional truth as the foundation for certainty.

Here is what she said, in one of her most famous works, while this debate was raging:

God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence upon which to base our faith. His existence, His character, the truthfulness of His word, are all established by testimony that appeals to our reason; and this testimony is abundant. Yet God has never removed the possibility of doubt. Our faith must rest upon evidence, not demonstration.1

Here she affirmed the importance of evidence but denied that that evidence provides absolute certainty. She saw the limits of objective, propositional truth, and did not fall into the fundamentalist trap of arguing for spiritual empirical certainties.

However, she did not leave us with only probability. Later, in the same chapter, she turned to the experiential component of the Christian’s experience. Here she defined genuine certainty:

There is an evidence that is open to all—the most highly educated, and the most illiterate—the evidence of experience. God invites us to prove for ourselves the reality of His word, the truth of His promises . . . And as we draw near to Jesus, and rejoice in the fullness of His love, our doubt and darkness will disappear in the light of His presence.2 

In this statement, Ellen White joined the concerns of the propositionalists with those of the experientialists without going to the extremes of either. She presented a balanced platform of truth, based on the Bible, showing that truth is practical, that it is based both on ideas of Scripture and on experiences of the individual. Here we have the scriptural balance between doubting Thomas, who would not accept the message of Christ’s resurrection unless he touched Christ’s scars, and the Thessalonians, who were less noble than the Bereans, as they too easily accepted Paul’s words without verifying them in Scripture.

Many of the theological conflicts we have in the Church are based on emphasising one pole of either proposition or experience to the exclusion, or improper diminishment, of its opposite. We are caught between the competing ideologies of fundamentalism and liberalism.

We need both to study with each other and to obtain the historical perspective provided by the reformers and our own pioneers, to see where we have been tainted in our approach to the Bible by one extreme or another.

What this historical experience means is that issues in our Church avoid easy categorisation into a “right” view and a “wrong” view. Rather, there are often two extremes on a given issue, with a healthier view being at times overlooked by both sides. Truth is not a compromise between two views. Rather, it is often truths from both sides held in a constructive tension and embrace. Satan has different temptations and pitfalls for different kinds of people and personalities. He desires to move people to one extreme on an issue, and he does not mind if the extreme is on the fundamentalist right or the liberal left.

Ellen White wrote that, “as a people we are certainly in great danger, if we are not constantly guarded, of considering our ideas, because long cherished, to be Bible doctrines and on every point infallible, and measuring everyone by the rule of our interpretation of Bible truth. This is our danger, and this would be the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people.” She went on to bemoan the closed, self-righteous spirit found in many of the conferences that displayed itself in a rigidity on secondary matters.  

She also cautioned that, “if one should hold ideas differing in some respects from that which we have heretofore entertained—not on vital points of truth—there should not be a firm, rigid attitude assumed that all is right in every particular, all is Bible truth without a flaw, that every point we have held is without mistake or cannot be improved. This I know to be dangerous business and it proceeds from that wisdom that is from beneath.”3  

Dr George Knight, in his book A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Belief, poses the question, “What is Fundamentalist in Adventism?” He examines how the Adventist Church was strongly influenced by the fundamentalists in the early 20th century. As he notes, we felt that we had to choose between modernism and fundamentalism, and to some extent overlooked a third option—the middle way that Ellen White and a number of the pioneers had sketched out for us.

Many in the Church fell into a practical view of verbal inspiration of both the Bible and Ellen White, which she had never endorsed. She believed that the prophet was inspired, not every single word he or she wrote or spoke. Along with this embrace of an artificially rigid view of inspiration came an adoption of Southern fundamentalist social and political conservatism.

The Southern churches in the United States, along with their rigid views of verbal inspiration, also adopted rigid and exaggerated views of the separation of church and state. Rather than just separating the institutions of church and state, they wanted to separate morality from the state. They desired to prevent the church or Christians from making moral arguments criticising slavery and segregation.

Northern Protestants, such as Adventists, also respected the separation of church and state, but that did not stop them from bringing moral arguments to bear on such topics as abolition of slavery, opposition to fugitive slave laws, the campaign for temperance and prohibition of alcohol, the fight against duelling, and the mistreatment of Native Americans.

Ellen White took a pragmatic approach to these issues. She recognised that in the climate of hostility and violence of the South, the Church could not confront head-on what was called the “colour line”. But this was to change, she clearly taught, when the Lord was able to show a better way, as attitudes became less violent in society. After her death, and with a tighter embrace of verbal inspiration at the 1919 Bible conference, Adventists slid away from their activist stance on these issues of social justice. As society at large became more progressive on these matters, Adventists followed the fundamentalists and became less progressive. Some of our colleges and institutions that had been racially integrated in the 1920s became segregated in the 1930s.

As late as the 1970s, the first black teacher at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University experienced great difficulty buying a house in the local community of Berrien Springs, Michigan. He had to send a white professor to initiate the buying process. When the black professor showed up at closing to sign the papers, the owner of the house—a fellow church member—tried to back out of the deal, refusing to sell the house to a black man. Finally, the bank intervened and forced the sale to go through.

There is a lesson here. In seeking to avoid the risks of liberalism, portions of the Church went to another extreme, and we took on baggage that over time we have come to realise is not biblical. But then the same thing happened in the other direction.

In reaction, or over-reaction, to this brush with fundamentalism in the early to mid-20th century, there was in parts of Adventism a push back into liberalism. Starting in about the 1970s, people began to realise that Ellen White did not operate with verbal inspiration. The use of sources and editors and revisions began to be understood more fully. This shook the faith of those who espoused verbal inspiration, in some instances irrevocably, resulting in their leaving the Church. 

Others did not leave but radically adjusted their views of inspiration. Rather than being only a source of propositional truth about the world and doctrines, they began to view the Bible as only testifying to encounters people had with God. Thus, the Bible became a human product, even if it was a description of human encounters with the divine. This caused a portion of the Church to move onto the edges of, if not fully into, the liberal theological camp that the Church had worked so hard to avoid in the early 20th century.

This leads us to where we are today. Certain parts of our Church want to revise the Church’s view of inspiration, both in Ellen White and the Bible, abandon a literal view of creation, revise our understandings of a substitutionary atonement, accept same-sex marriage and homosexual practice, even within the Church, and jettison our view of the last days. We must get beyond this dangerous divide by accepting our pioneers’ balanced, thoughtful approach to understanding Scripture. As Ellen White demonstrated, the way to read and apply Scripture is not with a rigid fundamentalism that shatters in the face of reality. Nor is it with a vague liberalism that embraces theories and practices explicitly forbidden in Scripture. Rather, a balanced, thoughtful, principled centralism produces a growing understanding that brings us closer to God and His truth, while learning from each other.        

1 Ellen G White, Steps to Christ (Ellen G White Estate, Complete Published Ellen G White Writings), 105.

2. Ibid., 111-112.

3. The Ellen G White 1888 Materials, p 830 (italics added).

Professor Nicholas Miller lectures in church history at Andrews University, Michigan, United States. This year Professor Miller published The Reformation and the Remnant, a book exploring the Reformation’s relevance to Adventists as we prepare to commemorate 500 years since Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenburg Castle Church door in 1517. The Reformation and the Remnant, from Pacific Press, is available at Adventist Book Centres.