The Three Forms of Unity and the Fundamental Beliefs
by Reinder Bruinsma, August 18, 2015: At the time when our son was enrolled in the Christian elementary school in the Dutch town where we lived, now over 40 years ago, my wife offered to assist as volunteer to help the students in acquiring good reading skills. Her offer was appreciated, but there was a small problem. The school had an explicit Calvinist basis and demanded of teachers and volunteers the signing of a statement that they agreed with the Three Forms of Unity. My wife had never even heard of the “Three Forms.” She did not want to sign anything and, as a result, offered her volunteer services to the adjacent public school.
What are these Three Forms of Unity? They concern documents the Dutch Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century accepted as authoritative. These were the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberger Catechism (1563), which defined in great detail what was considered “the truth.” Some fifty years later the Canons of Dort were added. They owe their name to the fact that they were agreed upon by the famous Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19), where proponents of predestination won their bitter conflict with the followers of a certain Arminius. These Arminians argued that people have a free will. This group was usually referred to as the “remonstrants” and the Canons of Dordtare (therefore, often also called the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants).
Even though the school administrators indicated that signing the statement was a mere formality, my wife did not like the fact that she was obliged to formally indicate agreement with these ancient documents. Until today, they belong to the so-called confessional documents of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). Does this mean that most of the members of this denomination (and most other denominations in the Calvinist tradition in and outside the Netherlands) know what these documents contain? Certainly not. My guess is that the vast majority have never even read one letter of them. But many discussions about certain articles (in particular in the Belgic Confession) have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to change anything. And from time to time these confessional documents are used to assure that people stay in line (or to refuse a volunteer who wants to assist in a reading program in an elementary school).
This is precisely what the early leaders of the Adventist Church had in mind when they stated that they were against adopting any formal confession of faith. They had seen how these documents had received, in the denomination in the US that they were acquainted with, almost the same level of authority as the Bible, and how difficult it had become to start an open discussion about some biblical theme. Everything had been defined once and for all, and one had to stick with what the wise men in the past had decided. The Adventist pioneers knew for sure: “We have no creed but the Bible!”
Gradually the conviction that it was wrong to develop a “creed” was pushed aside. And now we have a document that is known as the (28) Fundamental Beliefs. It has become much more than a simple enumeration of the most important Adventist beliefs. Just as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberger Catechism in Dutch Protestantism, the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs have become a test of orthodoxy. This is what you must believe, if you really want to be part of it.
Does this mean that all Seventh-day Adventists know more or less what the 28 “fundamentals” are all about? Far from it. I have at times done a little research and concluded that most Dutch Adventists at best are able to list 10-12 of their “fundamentals.” And, let’s be honest: most newly baptized members only have a vague idea of the content of these 28 Beliefs. In far-away countries the situation is probably not any better. I do not think that most of the 30.000 members that were recently baptized in Zimbabwe, after an evangelistic campaign of some weeks (just to mention one example), will be able to enumerate more than ten “fundamental” Adventist beliefs. Yet, at the same time, church leaders have at various occasions said that you cannot be a good Adventist if you do not fully subscribe to all 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Without any doubt, the Three Forms of Unity are important historical documents. They have helped to safeguard many of the basic Calvinist convictions in Dutch Protestantism. But the details in these documents hardly play any significant role in the daily life of today’s church members. Likewise, the Adventist document with the Fundamental Beliefs is an important document. Nevertheless, we must not make it more important than it is. We must conclude that most Adventists share a number of important general Christian and more specifically Adventist convictions, without continuously referring back in their daily life to the text of the document with the Fundamental Beliefs. And the 28 Fundamental Beliefs may never acquire the sterile status of a “confession of faith” that can be used as a checklist to determine someone’s orthodoxy (or the lack thereof). That simply is totally at odds with a precious Adventist tradition.