By Edison García-Creitoff | 30 September 2021 |
It is May 1863. Hiram Edson, James White, his wife Ellen, John Andrews, and John Norton Loughborough, and many others, are meeting to define the course of a movement that took root around 1840 with the idea that Jesus Christ is returning soon, and that everything possible must be done to make that happen.
They were at this point just Adventists—believers in Jesus’ return.
The road has been long, difficult, and winding. William Miller had predicted an exact date for the second coming of Jesus, sparking an amazing revival in the United States. Thousands were baptized because they expected an imminent reunion with Jesus and their loved ones. It united people from different congregations. Some (like the Harmon family) were expelled by their own churches for believing it.
Jesus did not return. Their interpretation of Daniel and Revelation had been wrong. It was from an error that the Advent Movement was born. Despite the Great Disappointment, the yearning for Jesus’ imminent return didn’t disappear. They had no interest in organizing a church yet. But by the grace of God they continued to meet to study the Bible, to try to understand the reasons why their prophecy of the expected Advent had failed.
The Holy Spirit led the movement. They began to understand where they’d gone wrong, why Jesus hadn’t returned in 1844. They studied the heavenly sanctuary and the investigative judgment. And with the help of Seventh Day Baptist sister Rachel O. Preston, they discovered the Sabbath.
What to believe?
At this point, Adventism was an idea, not a doctrine. The believers came from many different denominations and traditions, united only by their desire to prepare for the second coming of Christ.
Among the questions they considered was whether they all needed to believe the same thing. They had been, up to this point, relying upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, not a set of beliefs.
In this meeting, they appear to craft a set of principles and attitudes to bring together all these people of different beliefs and Christian faiths.
One of those principles was to make the Bible the source of all teaching. A creed separate from the Bible was unnecessary, they thought. In terms of organization, anything that needed to be done had to be done on a biblical basis. The Bible was the foundation of the movement, both beliefs and organizational principles.
Some believed that what was not expressly mentioned, or stated in the Bible, could not be done—that they must follow the letter of the Bible. But with the Holy Spirit’s guidance the movement went in a different direction. The Pharisees had followed the letter of the Bible, some pointed out, but Jesus followed the spirit of the Bible. Following the letter leads to legalism. It is not enough to read and interpret the words literally and legalistically. We read to know God and of his Son, Jesus, and to live what they taught.
Like Jesus, these early believers said, we Adventists would follow the spirit of the Bible.
In May 1863, the group met to formally organize and ratify these principles. They emphatically clarified that the church will not have a creed. Their creed will be the Bible.
The Spirit’s guidance
The Holy Spirit gave the right words to John Norton Loughborough and James White, whose warning voices we must still hear today.
John Norton Loughborough:
The first step to apostasy is to raise a creed that tells us what to believe. The second is to make that creed a test of discipleship. The third is to test the members with that creed. The fourth is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe in that creed. And fifth, to begin the persecution against such.
I take the ground that creeds stand in direct opposition to the gifts. Let us suppose a case: We get up a creed, stating just what we shall believe on this point and the other, and just what we shall do in reference to this thing and that, and say that we will believe the gifts too. But suppose the Lord, through the gifts, should give us some new light that did not harmonize with our creed; then, if we remain true to the gifts, it knocks our creed all over at once. Making a creed is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement. God put the gifts in the Church for a good and great objective; but when men raised their churches, they closed or tried to mark the way to the Almighty.
Ellen White herself voices what these Spirit-led men said:
The spirit of Adventism in its origin was to be totally different from the other denominations. Our founders held that the Holy Spirit is the one who thinks for us so that “we should not look at any man as perfect criteria, nor creeds or decisions of councils as evidence for or against any point of religious faith.” (Ellen White in CS, RH 18 meeting of 1889)
In summary, our pioneers said that we believe
- in living our lives in discipleship with Jesus;
- in a non-legalistic understanding of the Bible, emphasizing its spirit rather than its rules;
- that the Spirit reveals the truths of the Bible as we need them (“present truth”), and
- in the freedom of members to think for themselves as they are in a personal relationship with God.
After intense discussions in the 1863 meeting, there formally emerged the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
They established only two conditions to be part of the church
We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together as a church, taking the name Seventh-day Adventists, convenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.
That’s all. Two things. To keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.
So why were the 28 Fundamental Beliefs written, contrary to the recommendations of our founders?
A corporate movement
The principles voiced in that 1863 meeting didn’t stop the debate about creeds. Some founding members had immediately begun to waver from the pioneers’ original position. There were those who believed that it was necessary to collect all the beliefs of the movement and impose them as a requirement on members in order to be part of the organization. They justified this on the basis of internal unity and unanimity on matters of faith. They began to publish pamphlets declaring their versions of the doctrines of Seventh-day Adventists.
This bringing together beliefs was in fact making a creed, an enforceable set of doctrines common to a community. It seems that having become an organized denomination with a corporate legal personality made some think that we could not exist without a creed that outlined our agreement on doctrines. The idea gained sympathy. Doctrines, they felt, were important in building the corporate church.
The Adventist Church is still in this debate. On the one hand are those who maintain that to be part of the Church, the only creed to adopt is the Bible. Many, though, feel that an identity based on uniform beliefs is necessary.
Today our church is a traditional corporation with bylaws and rules of corporate conduct. A structure and infrastructure have been built in the establishment of the General Conference, the divisions, the unions and local conferences and missions. We have a complex financial structure, employees, communication departments, a governance system that mixes a bit of democracy and a large amount of authority, and a Church Manual that encourages not mere unity, but uniformity in our discipleship.
It appears now that our leaders have become consumed by corporate functioning. The principles, purpose, and mission of the Adventist Movement have been displaced. The 28 Fundamental Beliefs have become merely theological bylaws. This idea reached its maximum expression in the 1980s, with the compilation of all our doctrines into (at that time) 27 Fundamental Beliefs, by an ad hoc committee.
As our pioneers prophesied, we do in fact misuse these doctrines. No matter how we describe them, they function as a creed, as an enforceable set of beliefs. The average Adventist may believe that our 28 Fundamental Beliefs are principles of discipleship, when in fact they are a creed that prescribes theological obligations.
Those principles that we defined in our origins have been shuffled into the background. Some of us have become contaminated with our pride in our 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Some are enchanted by the corporate success of the church, the “only” church that has “the truth” that must be defended and enforced among ourselves, and that makes us superior to other denominations.
A transformed identity
So where are we headed with our beliefs now?
In spite of what I see as our current distorted identity, I believe God is slowly transforming his people, including Seventh-day Adventists, through his Holy Spirit. A new Spirit-led Adventist church is emerging. Everyone, from the conferences on down to the local churches, leaders and pastors and lay people, is gradually learning that what’s important is having an experience with Jesus—practicing his love, modeling his character, and living the fruits of the Spirit.
I believe our troublesome doctrinal and corporate identity will be left behind if we focus on the principles suggested by Adventist Today Editor Loren Seibold in his proposal for a 29th Fundamental Belief: that we be “kind, respectful of others’ feelings and opinions, and behave toward others according to Christian principles.”
Adventists are one group of God’s people. But we are not all of God’s people. We will have to make the decision to return to being a movement of revival and reform led by the Spirit, and quit thinking of ourselves as the only people with truth. Jesus and only Jesus should be the cornerstone. Changes through the Holy Spirit will occur progressively, eroding the old institutional identity until it collapses. It will be a long process, but our God is a God of progressive changes.
If we don’t, God will replace us with a new generation of God’s people—as Caleb and Joshua replaced Moses and Aaron, as the Hebrews were replaced by the Christians, as the eschatological churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia and the rest were replaced by the Gentile churches of the world, as Roman Catholics were superseded by Protestants.
God can replace us, too, if we refuse to be anything but another rigid, legalistic group guided by a creed.
Edison Garcia-Creitoff taught ethics and communication in universities in Puerto Rico. He is a social worker, conflict mediator, attorney and lay chaplain who considers himself a progressive Adventist.