From ANN and NAD News, July 12, 2015: The official statement of the doctrines of the Adventist denomination is the Fundamental Beliefs document. It is seldom revised. So why were so many changes made at this year’s General Conference (GC) Session?
There are at least seven reasons why a denomination might consider a revision to its belief statements. It might wish to (1) Find smoother language and sentence structure. (2) Find language that is easier to translate into other languages. (3) Update terminology when the meaning or usage of language has changed. (4) Clarify language that may not clearly state where the church stands. (5) Address new situations that call for clarification. (6) Add an emphasis that was not mentioned in prior statements. (7) Change or add new statements that add to or change the meaning of the prior statements.
There were no changes in the revisions adopted last week that represent the last category. While there were no major additions (category 6), there were a few minor ones. For example, belief number 2, the doctrine of the Trinity, added the phrase, “God, who is love.“ Belief number 11, entitled “Growing in Christ,” emphasizes the social dimension of biblical Christianity. Affirming the love of God and emphasizing community welfare has always been important to the Adventist denomination.
Many changes fell into the first two categories. For example, in number 17, the doctrine of spiritual gifts, a word changed from “which” to “that.” In number 25, the doctrine of the Second Coming, a phrase changed from “Christ’s coming is imminent” to “Christ’s coming is near.” This change not only has the advantage of using biblical language, but it makes for easier reading and is easier to translate.
There were also many changes under category 3, changes in the meaning of language. Belief number 7, which was labeled “The Nature of Man,” is now “The Nature of Humanity,” representing gender-inclusive language. In number 23, “Marriage and the Family,” the term “partners” was changed to “a man and a woman.” The meaning of the word “partners” with reference to marriage has changed in social usage to indicate a commitment to either same sex or opposite sex marriages. The current meaning was not prevalent in 1980 when the document was originally created. This editorial change signals that the church will remain true to the Biblical concept of marriage in spite of changes in contemporary culture.
Significant changes took place in category 4. In number 9, “The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ,” the term “bodily” was added in front of “resurrected.” We have now clarified that the resurrection of Jesus was not a continuing influence nor a spirit experience, but an actual resurrection of Christ in His total person, including His body. Although Scripture emphasizes this point, it is rejected by many theologians, who do not acknowledge the historicity of the biblical account. Thus, it was important to add the word “bodily.”
In number 18, “The Gift of Prophecy,” some felt that the prior version gave Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White authority comparable to that of the Bible. Changes were made to remove this potential ambiguity. White herself emphasizes that her authority is subject to the Scriptures. The new wording of this statement does not in any way diminish the church’s understanding of the authority of the Bible or the prophetic role of White.
In number 8, “The Great Controversy,” the previous version contained a phrase on the “worldwide” nature of the biblical flood. The intent of that statement was to represent the biblical teaching that the flood covered the entire world. It was not anticipated that “worldwide” would be reinterpreted by some who do not accept the historicity of Genesis 1-11 to mean “the then known world,” portraying a large regional flood. Thus, this GC session changed the word to “global.”
Ahead of the session, the proposed statement on Creation had resulted in considerable discussion. Some Adventists expressed concern about language in the revision that seemed to further restrict views on the age of the earth and length of the creation week. As delegates pondered this statement on Tuesday morning (July 7), Dr. Angel Rodriguez, a member of the drafting committee, stepped to the podium and affirmed that the statement on Creation was purposefully drafted to exclude any potential allowances for long-term evolutionary chronology.
Departing from literal biblical language, the revision changed the description from “In six days … “ to “In a recent six-day creation …” It also added a phrase characterizing the Sabbath as a memorial of God’s “creative work, performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.”
Paragraph 6 on the doctrine of Creation was a major reason why the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs was reviewed at this GC session. There was a concern that the previous version might have been reinterpreted by some to mean almost anything they wished on the topic of origins, including theistic evolution. In 2004 the GC executive committee produced a statement that clarified that life on this Earth began just as stated in Genesis 1 and 2.
Those who chose to reinterpret Belief number 6 maintained that the 2004 statement was not authoritative since it was not voted at a GC session. Thus, the 2004 statement was affirmed at the 2010 GC session, with the request that the substance of the action be worked into the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs. The revised statement voted by this session makes it clear that God created life in six actual days, and with the addition of the Sabbath, it was a week as we know it today.
The small drafting committee was chaired by Dr. Artur Stele, director of the denomination’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI). Along with Rodriguez, the other members of the committee were Dr. Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, and Dr. Gerhard Pfandl, and associate director at BRI.
Most of the revisions were minor semantic efforts to clarify the original wording or add textual support for the statements of belief. For example, the suggested revision for Fundamental Belief Number 1 on The Holy Scriptures changed the descriptive phrase for the Scriptures from “authoritative revealer of doctrines” to “definitive revealer of doctrines.” Those concerned that the authority of Scripture was therefore being diminished in the statement found reassurance in another revision earlier in the paragraph which described the Holy Scriptures as “the final, authoritative, and infallible revelation” of God’s will.
Often the nuances of just one word were enough of a catalyst for active discussion among the delegates. Fundamental Belief Number 4 on The Son originally stated that Jesus became truly man. Rodriguez explained the rationale for a change: Scripture describes Jesus as becoming flesh, or in other words, human. He came to earth, not just to identify with the male gender, but with all mankind — the human race. While a few delegates actively challenged this proposed change, they eventually approved the revision that used human instead of man.
Stele reminded delegates that all revisions by the writing committee were an effort to most accurately describe each belief within the English language. Yet attention was also given to words more easily translated into other languages. An example was highlighted in the Fundamental Belief 20 on The Sabbath. The writers suggested describing the Creator as gracious instead of beneficent. Such changes for clarity and to accommodate the nuances of other languages were efficiently explained and quickly approved.
It would indeed have been a laborious process if each of the 28 statements had inspired long lines of delegates at the microphones. But, in fact, most were approved without much deliberation. But four of the revised statements garnered significant discussion in Monday’s meeting: Number 1 on The Holy Scriptures, Number 6 on Creation, Number 8 on The Great Controversy and Number 24 on Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary. These statements were sent back to the writing committee on Monday with instructions to consider additional revisions for further discussion on Tuesday.
When delegates reconvened for the Tuesday morning session, Knott addressed an undercurrent of concern about cultural influences. He assured delegates that the committee had worked hard to avoid political or cultural biases. They sought only to clarify positions in a way that Adventists around the world could fully embrace.
Yet, the revisions brought back by the committee on Tuesday were minimal. They recommended the change of one word in Fundamental Belief Number 24 on Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary. The phrase “His intercessory ministry, which was symbolized by the work of the high priest …” was altered by replacing the word symbolized with typified. In the Fundamental Belief Number 8 on The Great Controversy the committee changed the term worldwide flood to global flood.
It may be surprising that such seemingly minor alterations engendered such vigorous discussion. But it was also quickly obvious to even the casual observer that the delegates took guardianship of the church’s core beliefs seriously. They have devoted extensive time to keep these 28 Fundamental Beliefs consistent with the church’s traditional biblical interpretation. In doing so, it seems the majority of delegates concurred with an earlier statement by Stele.
“Looking at all the changes,” he said, “I must say there are none that bring anything new to our beliefs. This is what we have always believed. The commission only sought to express this better and help to avoid possible misinterpretations.”
The 28 statements are an ongoing effort by the world church to succinctly describe the theological parameters of Adventist belief. The world church adopted 27 Fundamentals at its business session in 1980. The current Fundamental Belief Number 11 on Growing in Christ was added in 2005, bringing the present total to 28.
The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news agency of the denomination and NAD News is the bulletin of the denomination’s North American Division (NAD).