Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.
Reading Ellen White’s Great Controversy as a young adult blew my mind. I was expecting something old-fashioned and stuffy, and I was kind of right—I still struggle to connect with White’s dated language and style. But her ideas were radical!
Again and again, as she recounted the history of God’s people since the end of New Testament times, she slammed empty church traditions and upheld a fresh, vital faith, rediscovered and reinvented for each generation. And, as one of the youthful founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church herself, Ellen White didn’t just promote these ideas, she lived them.
I discovered reading Great Controversy that Adventists are restorationists. This has nothing to do with rescuing old motorcycles or furniture and everything to do with recovering and re-embracing the vitality and original truths of New Testament Christianity.
“Before the final visitation of God’s judgements upon the earth there will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times,” predicted Ellen White in Great Controversy.
Primitive godliness—that’s a powerful turn of phrase that resonates very deeply for me. How do I open myself up to God so that He can restore in me the Spirit-led power of the early followers of the Way? And how does a worldwide denomination of 20 million worshippers participate together in this work of restoration? The answer is hinted at in the preamble to the Adventist Church’s official doctrinal statement, 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Although the preamble is not one of the fundamental beliefs itself, it establishes the context for the 28 points that follow—and is too often overlooked as extraneous to the “main event”. The preamble reminds us that 28 Fundamental Beliefs is a fallible human document—a hand-drawn sketch of the multi-dimensional living colour we see in the pages of the Bible. However, it also implies that each of the 28 points are the product of countless hours of study, prayer and deliberation—painstaking processes where those involved sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit among them.
To understand the preamble is to understand the origins of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Many early Adventists saw themselves as the inheritors of a Reformation tradition that emphasised the rediscovery of forgotten Bible truths and the rejection of human religious traditions. Hence, Adventist believers differed from other Christians in promoting the sanctuary doctrine, the seventh-day Sabbath, soul sleep, healthy living, et cetera. These were not new teachings but neglected and misunderstood Bible truths that were being re-established.
The Adventist pioneers detected a worrying pattern in Christian movements of the past: While many of them were genuinely called by God and began doing the valuable work of reformation and restoration, their vital energy and commitment dissipated as they became established.
A number of early Adventist leaders were determined to avoid repeating these mistakes and resisted calls for more organisational structure, including a definitive statement of doctrine. “[T]he first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe,” warned J N Loughborough. “The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.” Ouch. Strong words that were controversial even then.
Nevertheless, from the earliest days, Adventist leaders found it necessary to have an answer for those who asked, “What do you people believe?” The earliest official summary of doctrine—just five points—appeared on the masthead of Review and Herald in 1854. Various other “fundamental principles” appeared over the decades containing 25, 28 or 22 statements and were increasingly the product of committees of Adventist leaders/scholars and subject to formal votes by the General Conference (GC) in session.
At the 1980 GC Session, Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists was approved. It contained 27 points and, for the first time, the current text of the preamble, which states the document is not the denomination’s creed and notes it is subject to variation.
So what exactly is a creed? And how is it different from the Fundamental Beliefs? This has worried me for a while, because a bald assertion that the Bible is Adventism’s only creed is worse than useless if the evidence points the other way.
The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, meaning, “I believe”; creeds too are statements of belief. Credo is the first word of both the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, two of the most well-known expressions of fundamental doctrine in mainline Christianity and both clear, biblical statements with which Adventists would struggle to disagree.
Creeds were used historically to examine incoming Christian converts. Much like a wedding celebrant will ask, “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” new Christians were asked, “Do you believe . . .” followed by the words of the creed. A shortened version of 28 Fundamental Beliefs is put to similar use in Adventist baptismal services. It has become, in Loughborough’s words, “a test of fellowship”. I have to admit, this discomfits me, although I struggle to imagine how a purely “primitive”, “apostolic” statement of faith at a baptism might look.
But Loughborough’s concern was how creeds were ultimately used to “try members . . . denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And . . . to commence persecution.” [pullquote]
Here we begin to see differences between how creeds and 28 Fundamental Beliefs are used. Yes, there have been times when the fundamentals were used as a test of orthodoxy. But, generally, Adventist leaders have shied away from this kind of “blunt instrument” approach. Why? Because of the preamble, which explains that, unlike a fixed creed, 28 Fundamental Beliefs is subject to change.
There’s a hierarchy of authority: the General Conference Session outranks the fundamentals, and clearly the Bible outranks them both. Thus it’s neither reasonable nor practical to root out heretics using the finer points of the fundamentals.
Yes, 28 Fundamental Beliefs is supposed to be taken seriously but it’s also subject to investigation and review. As inheritors of the Reformation, we Adventists need to maintain our commitment to progressive revelation, which is neatly summarised in the preamble: “when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth”. History demonstrates the reality of this perspective; over the centuries new light has repeatedly flared from the pages of Scripture.
“[T]he word of God is alive and active,” says the writer of Hebrews.
The alternative is an all-too-human attitude of self-sufficiency: the mountain of truth has been climbed, the summit has been attained; all that remains is to shout instructions to the stragglers below. This kind of mindset is a very real risk for our denomination as we mark our 155th anniversary this year. Adventism provides a wholistic and rational paradigm of God, life and truth and its legacy is a comfortable resting place.
It’s also a legacy worth defending. In the face of threats from secularism and liberalism, the temptation is to reinforce the bulwarks of doctrine and empower authoritarian efforts to silence dissent. But in doing so, we are in danger of betraying the very principles on which our legacy is established.
Adventists need to maintain both an open Bible and an open mind—channels through which the Holy Spirit can pursue His agenda of restoration and renewal. This is true in both a corporate theological sense and a personal devotional sense. The Holy Spirit also influences what the Adventist pioneers called “present truth”; that is, the aspects of Bible teaching that are particularly relevant in the contemporary context. What is God’s message to today’s world as it struggles with millions of refugees, the commodification of sexuality, an overburdened environment, the information technology revolution and the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation? 28 Fundamental Beliefs does not pretend to address these immediate issues; only a careful, prayerful investigation of God’s Word can do that.
The preamble to Adventism’s fundamental beliefs urges us towards humility, a closer connection with the Author of the Bible and a readiness to grow in our understanding of truth. It provides the essential balancing context for the 28 points that follow. And I, for one, am glad it’s there.
Starting in 2018, Adventist Record is revisiting, re-imagining and reminding readers of the Church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs.