by Admiral Ncube | 24 August 2021 |
Having been expelled from their former churches and rejected by other adventist groups, early Seventh-day Adventist church leaders were understandably hostile towards creeds. The Bible alone, they said, is our rule of faith and practice. Their comments in those early meetings show that they feared that those who disagreed with a given statement of belief could be excluded, or that a statement of belief might be used to prevent new discoveries from Scripture, or afterward a new truth might be stifled by appealing to the authority of an already established creed.
Yet they themselves held a set of beliefs which set them apart from other religious groups. Initially, Adventists refused to list our beliefs. But with the passage of time, our leaders felt the need to clear up misperceptions of who Adventists really are. As much as it helped to define us, listing our beliefs shifted the focus of our faith to our beliefs rather than to the basis of our beliefs. With the claim that our beliefs were derived from the Bible, we became content in emphasizing beliefs, via carefully crafted and voted lists, rather than teaching members how to study Scripture verse by verse.
How we got here
Our Fundamental Beliefs evolved from a private statement in 1872 aimed at differentiating early Adventists from other groups, to a visible statement in 1931, and later a public declaration in 1980 in response to internal theological challenges. The 28 Fundamental Beliefs are now pivotal to Adventist identity.
That Seventh-day Adventists had no articles of faith or creed aside from the Bible was also a position emphatically stressed by Ellen White:
The Bible and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union; all who bow to this Holy Word will be in harmony. Our own views and ideas must not control our efforts. Man is fallible, but God’s Word is infallible.
In 1872, Uriah Smith published Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by Seventh-day Adventists to help explain Adventist beliefs to others outside of Seventh-day Adventism, especially in light of recent criticisms. The statement was not intended to be a creed, but to help Seventh-day Adventists distinguish themselves from other Adventist denominations, and also provide additional clarity for outsiders.
Fast forward to December 1930. Church historian Michael Campbell explains that, in response to requests from missionaries in Africa and internal theological challenges, the General Conference Executive Committee came up with the 1931 Statement of Beliefs, initially 22 in number. To avoid making it a fixed creed, no formal approval was given to the statement when published in the 1931 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook and the 1932 Church Manual. Michael Campbell further adds that all three statements appear to have been generated in response to internal theological challenges, the major one being the sanctuary doctrine.
But in 1946 the General Conference Session voted that no revision to the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs shall be made at any time except at a General Conference session. Thus, beginning with informal explanations of merely what Adventists believe, the Fundamental Beliefs had evolved into a public statement that is definitive of Adventist orthodoxy.
A creed or not?
In the prologue to our current Fundamental Beliefs, there is an admission that our statement of beliefs isn’t perfect—that it is an attempt to express what we have found the Bible to teach.
But in actuality, it is more than that. By (i) establishing that changes to the Fundamental Beliefs only occur during the General Conference Session, (ii) including Fundamental Beliefs in the baptismal vows and, (iii) legislating that deviation from the fundamental beliefs constitutes a denial of faith that invites disciplinary action, the Fundamental Beliefs have been elevated to be a form of creed.
Some have argued that the Fundamental Beliefs are an inevitable part of organisational development, and that as the church evolved it was necessary to have a definitive statement of beliefs. However, if indeed the Fundamental Beliefs are not a creed then they must be regarded as a “working document” that leaves room for differing viewpoints—not the final word. To be received in that spirit, the Fundamental Beliefs would have to be treated as descriptive (stating what the majority of Adventists currently believe) and not prescriptive (stating what every Adventist must believe.)
There is a big difference between a description of our beliefs, versus saying that our statements represent the only valid interpretations of the Bible. The latter makes them codified human statements that fix in place one particular interpretation of Scripture, proscribing all others. Our pioneers insisted that our being Protestant meant the freedom to constantly question and review our positions. Ellen White wrote,
There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation (Counsels to Writers, p.35).
Implications for mission
Yes, we are Seventh-day Adventists, and we have an identity that distinguishes us from others. But by officially voting our major beliefs, including them in our baptismal vows, and defining faith in Christ by them, are we not unwittingly placing inordinate attention on our beliefs rather than on the Bible?
This has ramifications on the way we do mission, as priority naturally shifts to projecting and protecting our identity rather than preaching faith in Christ. Our traditional evangelistic series have become about what we believe, and how correct our position is compared to others.
This is also reflected in our requiring potential members to first believe and behave before they can belong. Prior to baptism, our baptismal vows say, the convert has to accede to all our fundamental doctrines before being accepted into fellowship.
In other words, we conflate church membership with conversion to Christ. The Fundamental Beliefs serve as a sieve through which one has to pass on their way to Christ.
The underlying question is why it should be mandatory to subscribe to all our doctrines before accepting Christ through baptism. Do candidates have a choice to admit ignorance, or say no without setting back their baptism? By attaching our beliefs to someone’s decision to accept Christ, we are coercing them into assenting to what they may not understand.
I believe it is time for us to revise this approach, to go beyond projecting and protecting our identity when we bring people to Jesus. Post COVID-19, strategies for mission will require reconfiguring to be more responsive and relevant to the new constraints and new opportunities.
Our doctrinal beliefs remain important, but their place in our mission needs rethinking.
Implications for church life
Membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church includes adherence to a list of both prescribed and proscribed behaviours contained in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the Baptismal Vow, the Church Manual and Adventist tradition (be it local, regional or worldwide). It is assumed that these regulations are founded on the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White—which assumption is contestable. Yet our Church Manual says that
Denial of faith in the fundamentals of the gospel and in the fundamental beliefs of the Church or teaching doctrines contrary to the same
constitutes a disciplinary matter. Though no definition is provided on what is entailed under “the fundamentals of the gospel,” local churches have subjectively and variably applied these sources as tools to rein in perceived rebels, or to craft a checklist on what makes one a true Adventist.
As much as members are encouraged to “lay at the door of investigation your preconceived opinions and your hereditary and cultivated ideas” (Manuscript Releases vol 4, p.431), our danger lies in unintentionally creating a boundary fence between the soul and Christ which one cannot cross. Without critical reflection, and based on a fear of deviating from the established path, are we content in regurgitating old positions simply because they are the established positions? Even if we can agree that our understanding of truth is progressive, how does one progress when boundaries have been legislated?
Using Fundamental Beliefs to choke meaningful debate fuels theological arrogance that is not helpful to mission. I wish, for example, our Bible studies would steer away from fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions about Adventist beliefs, but focus on a verse-by-verse unfolding of Scripture.
As Andy Nash puts it, our danger lies in this: that instead of studying scripture to form our beliefs we study our beliefs to form our scriptures.
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.