Fundamental Belief Number 20 (Sabbath)

The beneficent gracious Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God’s kingdom. The Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God’s creative and redemptive acts. (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11; 31:13-17; Lev. 23:32; Deut. 5:12-15; Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Ezek. 20:12, 20; Matt. 12:1-12; Mark 1:32; Luke 4:16; Heb. 4:1-11.) (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; Luke 4:16; Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Matt. 12:1-12; Ex. 31:13-17; Eze. 20:12, 20; Deut. 5:12-15; Heb. 4:1-11; Lev. 23:32; Mark 1:32.)

Aside from the Scriptural references, the only change in this fundamental is using the adjective “gracious” instead of “beneficent.” Gracious is considered a clearer and more up-to-date word.

It is interesting that this statement makes no reference at all to Judaism and its role in preserving the Sabbath through the centuries. One would expect such a reference here. According to this fundamental belief, Adventists start the Sabbath at creation, touch base with the giving of the commandments in Exodus 20 and then jump straight from Exodus 20 to the Adventists as “His people.” The entire history and role of Judaism is bypassed. This statement unintentionally supersedes the Jews as if they are and were of no importance to God. But we should give thought to the fact that more people in the world know about the Sabbath because of the Jews than because of Adventists. In fact, the influence of Abraham Joshua Heschel (a Jewish scholar) helped to bring about a change among Adventists back in the 1960s, he helped move Adventism as a whole from legalism to celebration with regard to the Sabbath (he had an equally strong impact on Judaism).

On the positive side, a major Adventist contribution to the Sabbath is to underline its universality. Many people don’t know that Jews are often puzzled by Adventist fascination with the Sabbath and the law of God. For Jews, Gentiles are not obligated to keep the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments. These were given specifically for the Jews in a specific context. But Adventists rightly note the universality of the Sabbath and the law of God for all people, including Gentiles.

We often think of the Jews as rather burdened about Sabbath keeping, but actually it is quite different from that. For Jews keeping the Sabbath holy is not a somber thing, Sabbath is more of a celebration, even a party! Sabbath for Jews is a day of joy. It is more about carrying a sack of diamonds (delight) than a bag of rocks (drudgery). Adventists have not always captured that side of Sabbath keeping. We are the ones who are most likely to be legalistic and burdened about the Sabbath. That probably comes from Puritan influence and is somewhat of an American phenomenon (along with anywhere influenced by American missionaries). But there is at least a hint of joy and celebration in the above where it says, “a day of delightful communion” and “joyful observance of this holy time.” Rightly handled, the Sabbath can be one of the best things about Adventism that people can experience. To be fair, many Jews have experienced Orthodox Sabbath-keeping as lifeless and burdensome and left it, so this is not a black and white case. On the other hand, the very diversity in Sabbath practices is one thing that holds Jews together. They all have the Sabbath in common even though they celebrate it differently. Perhaps Sabbath-keeping should unify Adventists more than it divides them.

Synagogue worship on Sabbath only started during or after the Exile to Babylon (Daniel’s time). Before that, worship at the temple occurred three times a year for most Israelites and less often for those outside the country. Sabbath as a day of worship, therefore, was not typical in ancient Israel. The Sabbath was more of a day off from work and from the drudgery that often comes with the struggle for survival.

Like good Americans, Adventists think of the Sabbath in individualistic terms, rather than social terms, as expressed in Exodus 20. In the Hebrew context the Sabbath explicitly affected their relationships, not only with family (son or daughter), those who worked for them (manservant, maidservant), but even visitors, refugees and foreigners who might have resided in their households. The Sabbath was even applied to the animals in the house! So it was designed from the beginning as a very social experience. Adventists today are increasingly embracing the social side of the Sabbath, even though it is not highlighted in this fundamental (except for the brief remark about “communion. . . with one another.”

A missing element that could be emphasized a bit more is the idea of God’s presence in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is more than a memorial of creation or salvation, it is an agent of God’s presence. Perhaps the Sabbath is as much about God’s commitment to be with us as God’s commandment to us. In John 5, the Sabbath is not about rest, it is about working in line with God’s mission of healing and blessing on the Sabbath.

Another missing element in this fundamental is the concept of Sabbath as resistance against the demands of the consumer culture. Such a view of the Sabbath is very appealing to millennials. Those who keep the Sabbath are not accommodating to the system, they are resisting the demand to produce more and more, and to fill our lives with texts, emails, phone calls, pressures and other distractions. Sabbath as resistance is a very Jewish thing and it is also a very liberating thing.

At Loma Linda the Sabbath has had a widespread impact even among those who have come from other religious backgrounds. The Sabbath tells us that it is OK not to produce. Highly driven people tend to “produce” around the clock, creating value for their employers or for their own bottom line. But the Sabbath teaches us that production is not the primary goal of life and that it is alright to take time off from “production” to nurture the deeper values of human existence. The Sabbath also teaches us that it is OK to take care of yourself, to avoid burnout by taking time for reflection, social interaction and rest, both psychological and physical. More than this the Sabbath teaches us to put God first in our lives every day of the week. But by a special focus once a week our relationship with God is renewed every day. The Sabbath also encourages us to care for the environment. In the biblical context, even the land was to experience Sabbath and be allowed to restore itself. So although many employees of Loma Linda University Health are not practicing Seventh-day Adventists, the Sabbath has had a powerful impact on their lives as well.

Fundamental Belief Number 19 (Law of God)

The great principles of God’s law are embodied in the Ten Commandments and exemplified in the life of Christ. They express God’s love, will, and purposes concerning human conduct and relationships and are binding upon all people in every age. These precepts are the basis of God’s covenant with His people and the standard in God’s judgment. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit they point out sin and awaken a sense of need for a Saviour. Salvation is all of grace and not of works, but and its fruitage fruit is obedience to the Commandments. This obedience develops Christian character and results in a sense of well-being. It is an evidence of our love for the Lord and our concern for our fellow men human beings. The obedience of faith demonstrates the power of Christ to transform lives, and therefore strengthens Christian witness. (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 28:1-14; Ps. 19:7-14; 40:7, 8; Matt. 5:17-20; 22:36-40; John 14:15; 15:7-10; Rom. 8:3, 4; Eph. 2:8-10; Heb. 8:8-10; 1 John 2:3; 5:3; Rev. 12:17; 14:12.)  (Ex. 20:1-17; Ps. 40:7, 8; Matt. 22:36-40; Deut. 28:1-14; Matt. 5:17-20; Heb. 8:8-10; John 15:7-10; Eph. 2:8-10; 1 John 5:3; Rom. 8:3, 4; Ps. 19:7-14.

 Only a few minor changes were made to FB 19 at the General Conference in San Antonio during the summer of 2015. Right in the middle was the statement: “Salvation is all of grace and not of works, but its fruitage is obedience. . .” It was voted to replace “but” with “and” to express that obedience is complementary to grace, not in opposition to it. The word “fruitage” was changed to simply “fruit.” And in the next to last sentence, “men” was changed to “human beings” in harmony with a general attempt to use inclusive language wherever possible in the 28 Fundamentals.

Usually, when Seventh-day Adventists talk about the law of God in the Bible, they do it to defend the Sabbath, so the absence of Sabbath talk here is surprising until you realize that an entire Fundamental (number 20– Sabbath) will be dedicated to that topic next. Fundamental 19 is a more general exploration of the topic of obedience, followed by a more specific focus on the Sabbath.

While this Fundamental talks about the Holy Spirit and “fruit” in passing, there is no sustained reference to the fruit of the Spirit. The reason for that is the fact that this theme also has its own Fundamental (number 17—Spiritual Gifts and Ministries). The problem many people have with the SDA Fundamentals is the seeming lack of balance in many specific fundamentals. They are read most safely when looked at as a whole, as we are trying to do in this series of blogs.

Another seeming omission in this Fundamental is the absence of any reference to the ceremonial laws of ancient Israel. My immediate guess was that this topic would be handled by Fundamental 24 (Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary). But the ceremonial laws are not mentioned there either. The SDA Church apparently does not have an official position on either the ceremonial laws or the Jewish feasts, whether or not Adventist can or should keep them. In practice then, no harm is thought to be done if a member of the SDA Church chooses to celebrate Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. Such a practice only becomes challenging when it is aggressively marketed to other Seventh-day Adventists as a divine obligation.

It is interesting that a fundamental on the Law of God would make no mention of Galatians 3. Galatians 3:19 tells us that “the law” was added because of transgressions. In other words, in a sinless world there would be no need for a written law. Such a law was given as an emergency measure because we needed it (PP364). At Loma Linda, Galatians 3:19 has played a major role in how law is viewed. Law is a very important guide to the mind of God, but it can be overplayed. While Matthew 5 is mentioned in the fundamental, Matthew 5 underlines the deeper principles that lie behind the law. Mere surface or slavish obedience is not what God delights in, it is a heart commitment to the principles behind the law that makes up true obedience. A related matter of importance can be found in Romans 8. There it tells us that the law isn’t everything, there are things that it cannot do, and those are the things God accomplished at the cross of Christ. The Adventist pioneers were truly on to something when they emphasized God’s law, but if taught outside the context of the cross and the gospel, it can make people “dry as the hills of Gilboa, which have neither dew or rain.”

An interesting omission in this fundamental regards the cultural significance of the law. The Reformers (particularly Calvin) talked about the three uses of the law. The law was useful to 1) restrain evil and motivate what is good in society, 2) lead sinners to Christ, and 3) serve as a guide to Christian behavior after conversion. The second and third uses of the law are strongly expressed in FB 19, but the social and cultural role of the law is not. The law of God has certainly played a very important role in all societies that have been strongly influenced by Christianity.

Matthew 22:36-40 is mentioned among the Bible texts and the fundamental speaks about “love for the Lord” and “concern for our fellow men.” Perhaps the theme of love to God and love to others is a bit more central to the teachings of Jesus than one might conclude from reading this statement. The New Testament concept of law seems broader and more positive than this. You can “obey” the negatives of the law, but that is only the beginning, obedience is much more than simply avoiding evil. It is easy for Sabbath-keepers to become more concerned with the exact time of sundown than how one behaves during the Sabbath hours. On the other hand, many Adventist rules and regulations provide helpful reminders of God in a distracting world and should not be lightly discarded.

Fundamental Belief Number 18 (The Gift of Prophecy)

One The Scriptures testify that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and we believe it was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her Her writings speak with prophetic authority are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. (Num. 12:6; 2 Chron. 20:20; Amos 3:7; Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; 2 Tim 3:16,17; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10; 22:8, 9.) (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10.)

This was perhaps the most thoroughly changed of all the 28 FBs, even more than number 6 on creation. The phrase including “Scriptures” makes the point that Adventists recognized in Ellen White’s ministry the biblical gift of prophecy. The multiple changes in the third sentence seek to avoid the impression that Ellen White and the Bible are equal sources of truth. The word “source” is difficult to translate into some languages without leaving the impression that her writings are equal to the Bible. “Authoritative source of truth” was the phrase that troubled many people, leading to the significant changes in this FB. This is one fundamental that isn’t based solely on Scripture. The biblical writers didn’t know Ellen White, so it is necessary to know a lot about her life and work to evaluate the gift that is claimed for her. To understand the relationship of Ellen White and the Bible within Adventism I strongly recommend the 1982 “Affirmations and Denials” document on the Ellen White Estate web site: http://www.whiteestate.org/issues/scripsda.html.

The church is beset by the tension between those who revere Ellen White and a generation that hardly knows her. This is unfortunate on both counts. Those who revere Ellen White often use her writings in ways that appear helpful to them but may diminish her reputation among many or most others. The way we present her ideas is probably as important as the content we share. On the other hand, those who are ignorant of her writings are missing out on a key element of a healthy Adventist mindset. To ignore John Wesley would be totally inappropriate for a Methodist. To ignore Ellen White is to miss out on an essential element of what it means to be an Adventist.

Loma Linda University has a long history of taking Ellen White seriously but not uncritically. To take her seriously means to talk about her and her writings a lot. It means to ponder their significance for a very different world than the one she lived in. It means to weigh both what is crucial for our ongoing heritage today and what is peripheral. Like most of us do with our mothers, it is important for Adventists to take Ellen White very seriously even when they discover that she was human and sometimes made mistakes. Recent Ellen White research has helped us to better understand both her best intentions and her limitations. Faculty at the School of Religion are in the process of evaluating all courses and putting more focus on Ellen White and Adventist heritage whenever appropriate.

The major challenge with this statement is that it largely lacks definition. It uses words like “prophecy” without defining them, assuming that readers will understand what was intended. What is meant by “prophecy” here? Is prophecy primarily about the future, about where history is going? That would not be the case with Ellen White. Like most of the biblical prophets, Ellen White was primarily a “forth-teller” rather than a “fore-teller.” Her mission was understanding history, speaking to the present and preparing for the future. To be a prophetic movement is more than just talking about the future, it includes speaking out against injustice and disobedience to the covenant.

In 2009 there was an important conference of scholars interested in Ellen White and 19th Century American religion. A third of the scholars were not of the Adventist faith and most were fairly unfamiliar with Ellen White. As they learned more and more about her, they came to believe that she had had more impact on American history than perhaps any other woman. They often asked questions like, “Why are you hiding her? Why don’t you place her in her historical context so that everyone can benefit from her contribution?” Most Adventist scholars seem interested only in Adventist sources and Adventist issues, but such an approach locks Ellen White away from others who might be quite interested if we were more willing to engage mainstream scholarship.

The sheer volume of Ellen White’s writings has made it a challenge to understand the balance and main emphases of her work and life. All that many enthusiasts seem to be interested in are her end-time writings and her guidance on diet. But these two issues, while important, do not come close to encompassing her entire life and thought. We desperately need good hermeneutics and balance as we study her writings.

The fundamental above starts with a broad approach (“one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. . .”), building on the previous fundamental, but quickly narrows its discussion of these gifts to focus exclusively on the ministry of Ellen G. White. But that raises the question. Was Ellen White the only prophet since John the Revelator? Is there not more to the New Testament gift of prophecy than simply the work of Ellen White? Similarly the phrase “gift of prophecy” is probably better than “spirit of prophecy.” The latter makes it appear as if the Holy Spirit has done little else in the last twenty centuries than inspire Ellen White. The Holy Spirit is a living voice and many of today’s youth would be more excited about Ellen White’s work if they understood the “living” nature of the Spirit’s work.

Another issue with the statement is how it ties the Spirit’s work to the church. If taken at face value, one might get the impression that the Spirit has nothing to do with the rest of the world, but that would not be biblical (John 1:9; 16:8-11) or true to experience. Missionaries have learned that their first responsibility is to find out what the Holy Spirit was doing in the local culture before the missionaries got there. Every culture and religion is a battle ground in the Great Controversy. The Holy Spirit is the primary agent of God’s activity within and in behalf of each culture.

Fundamental Belief Number 17 (Spiritual Gifts and Ministries)

God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts which that each member is to employ in loving ministry for the common good of the church and of humanity. Given by the agency of the Holy Spirit, who apportions to each member as He wills, the gifts provide all abilities and ministries needed by the church to fulfill its divinely ordained functions. According to the Scriptures, these gifts include such ministries as faith, healing, prophecy, proclamation, teaching, administration, reconciliation, compassion, and self-sacrificing service and charity for the help and encouragement of people. Some members are called of God and endowed by the Spirit for functions recognized by the church in pastoral, evangelistic, apostolic, and teaching ministries particularly needed to equip the members for service, to build up the church to spiritual maturity, and to foster unity of the faith and knowledge of God. When members employ these spiritual gifts as faithful stewards of God’s varied grace, the church is protected from the destructive influence of false doctrine, grows with a growth that is from God, and is built up in faith and love. (Acts 6:1-7; Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 27, 28; Eph. 4:8, 11-16; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; 1 Peter 4:10, 11.)  (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:9-11, 27, 28; Eph. 4:8, 11-16; Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; 1 Peter 4:10, 11.)

The changes in San Antonio were very minor. The change from “which” to “that” was editorial for the sake of current English usage. “Apostolic” was dropped because it was felt to be unclear to most readers without definition or elaboration. As with the other FBs, the Bible texts at the close have been re-arranged.

The wider Christian Church basically ignored the spiritual gifts for centuries, so it is not surprising that other Christians criticized Ellen White and the Adventist Church for receiving and promoting the gift of prophecy. Adventists themselves, on the other hand, basically ignored all the other gifts, emphasizing only the gift of prophecy. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way in both contexts. Evangelical churches are much more open to spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy, and Adventists are emphasizing the broader panoply of gifts, although prophecy still has pride of place (Fundamental 18). So the very existence of this fundamental is an advance and an expansion on the original Adventist tendency to emphasize only the gift of prophecy.

It is interesting that the church’s practice in regard to women in ministry is not entirely in line with this fundamental. There is no gender language at all in the statement, in implying that the gifts of the Spirit are equally available to all. Yet many parts of the church question whether some of these gifts are available to women or at least whether we are allowed to publically recognize that these gifts are available to women. If the Spirit called another Ellen White today, many in the church would probably reject her for the very same reasons that they reject the ordination of women.

The statement makes no reference at all to speaking in tongues. One might have expected a negative reference, but there is none. Speaking in tongues is not encouraged by the church but is not forbidden either. In practice members can speak in tongues as long as they do so privately and do not make it a public issue. When speaking in tongues goes public in the Adventist Church it leads to unnecessary division, but it is not forbidden in principle. In many ways, speaking in tongues is like keeping the feast days of the Old Testament. It is permissible under some circumstances, but must not be mandated.

This fundamental is particularly important for the work of Loma Linda University.  The purpose of the School of Religion at Loma Linda is not generally the training of ministers, but the training of laity for ministry. And the spiritual gifts provide the biblical basis for such a mission (note the wording “all members of the church”). It is interesting that the statement moves from a focus on general gifts that all might exercise in behalf of everyone else to a more narrow focus on the kinds of gifts more typical of clergy.

Interesting question. Can non-Christians have spiritual gifts and in fact be part of the body of Christ even though they don’t know His name? John 1:9 indicates that the light of Christ to some degree enlightens every human being (see also Acts 14:14-17 and 17:26-28). So there is a healthy tension between what God is doing in the church and what He is doing through the Holy Spirit more broadly in the world. I have found in dialogue with non-Christians that a lot of spiritual learning can take place in both directions. There is mutual transformation when open hearts encounter each other. The Spirit is the agent of transformation among Christians, but also is present wherever genuine inter-religious dialogue occurs. The Holy Spirit can use people from very different backgrounds to change us.

Loma Linda is a place where people of other faiths, including non-Christian faiths, have found common cause with Adventists in the mission of continuing the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus in today’s world. The Hebrew of Malachi 1:11 affirms that people ignorant of the biblical God may yet offer acceptable worship to Him from a sincere heart. At Loma Linda we have often experienced this. So I have suggested a unique Loma Linda application of this belief. I can say to non-Christians, “If God brought you here (to Loma Linda), you belong here and you are called to contribute to the unique mission of Loma Linda University Health. If God called you here you have something we need.” So even non-Christians can have a role in training laity for ministry. That’s the way the Spirit works.

A final observation. All the Bible texts for this fundamental come from the New Testament. This pattern has been increasingly the case as we move through the fundamental beliefs. One wonders what that says about the value that is placed on the Old Testament in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Fundamental Belief Number 16 (Lord’s Supper)

The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the emblems of the body and blood of Jesus as an expression of faith in Him, our Lord and Saviour. In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again. Preparation for the Supper includes self-examination, repentance, and confession. The Master ordained the service of foot washing to signify renewed cleansing, to express a willingness to serve one another in Christlike humility, and to unite our hearts in love. The communion service is open to all believing Christians. (Matt. 26:17-30; John 6:48-63; 13:1-34; 1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:23-30; Rev. 3:20.) (1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:23-30; Matt. 26:17-30; Rev. 3:20; John 6:48-63; 13:1-17.)

 This fundamental was unchanged at San Antonio, except for the re-arrangement of biblical texts. It is interesting that the statement makes no reference whatsoever to the Adventist tradition of communion once a quarter. This once a quarter tradition is rooted in the Calvinism of Geneva, with its strong resistance to the daily eucharistic tradition of Roman Catholicism. The absence of the tradition in this statement leaves open the possibility that churches could do communion more often if they wished. After all, would we want to receive tithe only once a quarter? Some Adventist communities do the supper more often than once a quarter, but without having the foot washing every time (a colleague, on the other hand, noted that Mother Teresa did the foot washing every day).

The core of this belief is not related to the time when communion is performed, nor the liturgy or manner in which it is performed. The greater emphasis is on preparation for the service and the ideal follow through afterward. There is more focus on what you do before and after the service than on what occurs during the service itself. The spirit of the foot washing and the Lord’s Supper is to continually permeate our lives. Every aspect of church life could benefit from this kind of preparation and seriousness.

There is a quasi-sacramental tone to this statement. Unlike Catholics and some Lutherans, Adventists do not see a real presence of Christ in the emblems of communion (bread and juice). But there is a real presence of Christ in the “experience of communion.” In a secular world, this is a promising perspective. We need to expand people’s opportunities for living, real encounters with God. It is interesting that in the Western world Adventists tend to treat things like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day more seriously than they do Easter, Christmas or even communion. Loma Linda, on the other hand, takes the foot washing and communion principle and applies it broadly to the work place and the classroom. How can we “wash the feet” of those we lead or those we serve? How can our hearts be more closely bound in communion to God and each other as we continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ?

One of the best aspects of Adventist community is the open communion that is affirmed here. It is a powerful counter to the tendency to take the remnant doctrine of FB 13 to an extreme of exclusivism. Adventism rightly acknowledges the importance of avoiding the appearance of evil and experiences that might degrade our spiritual commitments. On the other hand, “abstaining from the world” can quickly degenerate into exclusivism and triumphalism (the sense of ultimate superiority). Given the Adventist tendency to exclusion, the openness of this fundamental is refreshing and affirming of the Christian commitments of others.

One reason people tend to avoid communion is that the service is often much longer than the regular service of worship. A long sermon on communion day can overwhelm the liturgy. So it might be better, given the tone of this fundamental, to have a sermon about communion the previous Sabbath and allow the communion Sabbath to be focused on the experience of foot washing and the Lord’s Supper.

An interesting suggestion was made to include communion in Adventist weddings. There is much marriage imagery in John 13 and 14 (the context of the original foot washing service—particularly John 14:1-3). It could be a beautiful experience for bride and groom to wash each other’s feet (signifying the daily forgiveness that both foot washing and marriage imply) and then share in the Lord’s Supper together. When both parties are lifelong friends of God it is inevitable that they will be lifelong friends of each other.

Issues with the Blog Site

Friends, I just went deep into the blog site and discovered that eight months of comments had not been approved or responded to. My web master has had a lot of things to deal with recently and has not been able to play that role. It never occurred to me that I could or should approve comments on a regular basis to keep things flowing. My apologies. I have responded to nearly every comment now and hope that you will forgive the delay. I appreciate this online community very much.

Fundamental Belief Number 15 (Baptism)

By baptism we confess our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and testify of our death to sin and of our purpose to walk in newness of life. Thus we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, become His people, and are received as members by His church. Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, and our reception of the Holy Spirit. It is by immersion in water and is contingent on an affirmation of faith in Jesus and evidence of repentance of sin. It follows instruction in the Holy Scriptures and acceptance of their teachings. (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 2:38; 16:30-33; 22:16; Rom. 6:1-6; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12, 13.)  (Rom. 6:1-6; Col. 2:12, 13; Acts 16:30-33; 22:16; 2:38; Matt. 28:19, 20.)

This fundamental is also unchanged, with the exception of the re-arrangement of texts. It equates baptism with joining the church. While the statement doesn’t specify who “the Church” is, one presumes the SDA Church is in mind here. Aligning baptism with church membership is pretty common practice among Seventh-day Adventists around the world, but it can be challenging at the local level. It collapses two things that should probably be distinct. As a pastor I often felt that I was baptizing people too late and bringing them into the church too soon. When a person is clearly committed to Christ they long for baptism to seal that full commitment. Yet at that point they are often far short of the theology and practice expected of members in good and regular standing.

Some other dilemmas occur with regard baptism: Do we baptize people primarily in light of their spiritual achievements (“you have made all these changes in your life”) or in recognition of a sinful past that is being abandoned? Is baptism an individual thing, a personal commitment, or is it entry into a community?

Matthew 28:19-20 places baptism in the context of discipleship. It is not so much a single act along the way as a step on a journey that is lifelong. It is the starting point to a way of life. Even after baptism, we are to keep learning and keep growing. In Romans 6 baptism is not the key reason for the passage, it is mentioned in the context of Paul’s doctrine of renewal. This fundamental calls people to newness of life, the beginning of a journey. Many people feel that baptism is a great moment of change, and they often feel disappointed when afterward little seems to have changed. We need to emphasize to new believers that baptism is the first step on a journey and that there will be pitfalls along the way.

Baptism is also immersion into a grand narrative, it relives the history of a people, the Exodus, which was the foundational act of God in the creation of Israel as a people. Baptism also ties people to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the great act of God in the New Testament era. Just as the Israelites passed through the sea to take on a new kind of life, so individuals experience freedom and restoration as a consequence of baptism. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper also connects the believer to both the cross and the Exodus.

In our discussion, questions arose about the concept of “union with Christ.” What exactly does that mean? Does that mean absorption of the individual into the divine in some fashion, or is the term to be understood more on a bridal analogy. At a wedding, two individuals are united together, but they don’t lose their own individuality and personality.

As often happens with this subject, the conversation ended up with a group of pastors swapping hilarious stories of baptisms that went wrong, such as small preachers trying to baptize large men in knee-deep water! Feel free to share your favorite baptism story in the comments section.

Fundamental Belief Number 14 (Unity in the Body of Christ)

The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us as His children. (Ps. 133:1; Matt. 28:19, 20; John 17:20-23; Acts 17:26, 27; Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; 2 Cor. 5:16, 17; Gal. 3:27-29; Eph. 2:13-16; 4:3-6, 11-16; Col. 3:10-15.)  (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Matt. 28:19, 20; Ps. 133:1; 2 Cor. 5:16, 17; Acts 17:26, 27; Gal. 3:27, 29; Col. 3:10-15; Eph. 4:14-16; 4:1-6; John 17:20-23.)

Aside from the re-arrangement of Bible texts, this fundamental was unchanged in San Antonio. Like Fundamental Belief 12, this statement is quite open and inclusive. Since Fundamental 13 is more exclusive and potentially divisive, it seems that there was a deliberate attempt to “sandwich” the harsher (at least toward outsiders) fundamental between two others that are more irenic and inclusive. But even so, the focus on unity in this statement could be balanced with the concept of diversity (how about titling this FB “Unity and Diversity in the Body of Christ”?). Unity can be hollow if it means everyone conforming to a single culture or a single standard of appearance. “If you’re not united with us, if you don’t do and think exactly like us, you are out!” Unity is not complete until we value the diversity of the other. The civil rights of others are not truly appreciated until we value the differences that they bring to our attention. It is interesting that the text of this fundamental mentions the differences, but they find no place in the title!

A question that came up when my faculty discussed this belief related to the meaning of “high and low” in line three. Who are the high and the low? We couldn’t figure that out. In relation to the other points of diversity (male and female, rich and poor), it seems to express the idea of people who are powerful and weak, or famous and insignificant, in the larger scheme of things (see Ezek 21:26). The exact phrasing is found in Psalm 49:2 (along with rich and poor—see also Psalm 62:9) but the text is not cited as the source. Regardless of meaning the phrase does point out the importance of diversity and differences within the larger goal of unity.

Actually, at the surface level of any congregation, what you see are the differences, the diversity. Unity, when it happens, is not on the surface, but is something that happens at a deeper level and may not be obvious to casual observers. The sense of oneness in a community can be profound, even when the theological and cultural differences are obvious.

One wonders how this fundamental would play out in the real world when it comes to things like the regional conferences in the North American Division (organizational entities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church). It would be a huge challenge to change the current administrative system, in which there are parallel church entities for work among blacks and for all others. The system arose in order to empower black leadership, but in a world where blacks are found more and more in leadership, is such a system still needed or helpful? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

One faculty member suggested that women are less concerned with being treated equally than they are with being treated fairly or justly. Equality needs to be grounded in a recognition of God-given diversity and in the practice of inclusion.

It’s interesting that there is a group called “Atheists for Paul” who believe that the body metaphor of community is very promising for the wider society, even those who don’t embrace Paul’s religion. Paul emphasizes that all parts of the body are important, though their roles may be different, they are all critical to the full functioning of the body. From a believing perspective, 1 Corinthians 12:13 ties both baptism and the Lord’s Supper into the body image of the community. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two things that unite us as a church body because we all experience them.

While the language of this fundamental could be applied to all followers of Christ, coming after FB 13, there is a sense that “church” in this fundamental does not mean all followers of Christ, but is limited to Adventism, although this FB does not state that in so many words. We would be interested to know if those who wrote this fundamental intended that these things would apply only to the Adventist church or equally to other denominations?

In John 17:20-23 we are invited to take unity even further than what is stated in this fundamental. We are invited to participate in the divine community (the Trinity and the angels of heaven) and then reflect that to the world. How to do this is not spelled out, but it is a breath-taking challenge and opportunity.

Fundamental Belief Number 13 (Remnant and Its Mission)

The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ, but in the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. This remnant announces the arrival of the judgment hour, proclaims salvation through Christ, and heralds the approach of His second advent. This proclamation is symbolized by the three angels of Revelation 14; it coincides with the work of judgment in heaven and results in a work of repentance and reform on earth. Every believer is called to have a personal part in this worldwide witness. (Dan. 7:9-14; Isa. 1:9; 11:11; Jer. 23:3; Mic. 2:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Peter 1:16-19; 4:17; 2 Peter 3:10-14; Jude 3, 14; Rev. 12:17; 14:6-12; 18:1-4.)  (Rev. 12:17; 14:6-12; 18:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:10; Jude 3, 14; 1 Peter 1:16-19; 2 Peter 3:10-14; Rev. 21:1-14.)

 Aside from re-arranging the texts, there were no changes in this fundamental and that was a bit of a surprise to us. There is language here that sounds awkward and exclusive in today’s world. For example, “apostasy” is a strong word for this generation; it comes across as elitist and disparaging to all who might disagree with any of the assertions in this statement. In a diverse world, language like this is hard to sell, it can come across as mean and divisive. How would we feel if other Christians applied that term to us?

On the other hand, the fundamental goes out of its way not to name the apostasy, which might be surprising to many. The traditional Adventist teaching on the Mark of the Beast is popular in evangelism, but is not actually specified at the core of Adventist belief. This is as close as any of the 28 fundamentals come to naming the Antichrist, but it refrains from doing so. In the broadest sense, this is a fundamental written by a Christian minority to warn other Christians not to accommodate to Rome.

Of all the Fundamental Beliefs, this is the most parochial. The very language of the statement would be largely meaningless to the average person on the street (next most parochial is probably number 24). One needs a certain amount of context in Adventist history and ways of thinking to understand what is being said here. In San Antonio it was voted to use more in-house language in Fundamental 6 as well, breaking the general practice of fundamental beliefs staying as close to the biblical language as possible. It will not be surprising if that trend spreads to other fundamentals in the future, but it can be questioned whether the trend is positive or negative for the future health of the church.

 

In a way, this fundamental comes across as self-congratulatory. Note how the language of believe/believer shifts from beginning to end. The first use is universal. All who believe in Jesus Christ are part of the universal church. But in the last sentence, the word believer clearly refers to Adventists and their unique mission. The statement would be less jarring to outsiders if it recognized that what is wrong with the world is also wrong with the church. But the statement in its present form does not go there. Instead it implies, without saying it directly, that the SDA organization is the ideal, not the real. On the other hand, the statement does not actually say that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is, in fact, the remnant church. The language chosen to express this belief is of the kind one would more likely use for a movement more than an institution.

Jack Provonsha, Professor of Christian Ethics at Loma Linda University several decades ago, wrote a book on the theme of this statement. He preferred to use the term “prophetic minority” to state what Adventists actually mean by the remnant. Although the new book on the remnant from the Biblical Research Institute clearly outlines three different types of remnants in the Bible, the language of this statement does not allow for multiple remnants. Allowing for multiple remnants takes away the sting of exclusivism, recognizing that at different times and different places God has worked with a variety of groups, like the Waldensees, the Reformers, the Methodists and others. Such a multiplex approach would probably eliminate the charge of elitism and also be more true to the biblical evidence. For more on this see http://www.thebattleofarmageddon.com/JATS_remnant.html.

It is important to see this statement in its historical and social context. It arises out of a movement made up of victims rejected by society. Under those conditions language adverse to society’s mainstream is understandable. But now Adventists themselves are mainstream in more and more countries and in such contexts this statement can sound more arrogant and self-absorbed than was originally intended. It is shocking to realize that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is now the fifth largest Christian denomination in the world! It will be interesting to see how Adventist self-perception changes as its role in the world becomes more accepted and more mainstream.

Fundamental Belief Number 12 (Church)

The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In continuity with the people of God in Old Testament times, we are called out from the world; and we join together for worship, for fellowship, for instruction in the Word, for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for service to humanity all mankind, and for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. The church derives its authority from Christ, who is the incarnate Word revealed in the Scriptures , and from the Scriptures, which are the written Word. The church is God’s family; adopted by Him as children, its members live on the basis of the new covenant. The church is the body of Christ, a community of faith of which Christ Himself is the Head. The church is the bride for whom Christ died that He might sanctify and cleanse her. At His return in triumph, He will present her to Himself a glorious church, the faithful of all the ages, the purchase of His blood, not having spot or wrinkle, but holy and without blemish. (Gen. 12:1-3; Exod. 19:3-7; Matt. 16:13-20; 18:18; 28:19, 20; Acts 2:38-42; 7:38; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:22, 23; 2:19-22; 3:8-11; 5:23-27; Col. 1:17, 18; 1 Peter 2:9.)  (Gen. 12:3; Acts 7:38; Eph. 4:11-15; 3:8-11; Matt. 28:19, 20; 16:13-20; 18:18; Eph. 2:19-22; 1:22, 23; 5:23-27; Col. 1:17, 18.)

There were a few changes in this fundamental, voted in San Antonio 2015. The switch from “all mankind” to “humanity” was for the sake of inclusive language. The major change was to follow “the incarnate Word” with “revealed in the Scriptures” and eliminating the rest of the original sentence. The original sentence was thought to imply that there are two sources of authority for the church, Christ and the Bible. Here it is clarified that the church’s authority rests in Christ, but that what we know about Christ is what the Scriptures reveal to us. The last part of the eliminated wording (“which are the written Word”) was felt to be redundant in light of added phrase “revealed in the Scriptures.”

The only Old Testament text cited here is Genesis 12:3. In it Abram is promised to be a blessing to all the nations. This is a foundational text for Old Testament understanding of Israel and New Testament understanding of the relation between Christ and the church (Gal 3). In Isaiah 19 the promise to Abram is expanded to include the Assyrians and the Egyptians. But to read the text in light of the ancient culture is even more interesting.

It was unique in the ancient world for a deity to take the initiative to bless someone. Generally, blessing came only after the right incantation or a significant period of obedience. So the graciousness of Abram’s God comes through strongly here. In addition, it was unique in the ancient world for a deity to use His own people to bless outsiders. Back then, various gods were only interested in their favorite people. But the God of Abram cared about the whole world and its people. This was quite startling in the ancient context.

This statement is very positive and inclusive, one could even guardedly use the term “ecumenical,” although that word is overloaded with negatives in many people’s minds. This statement is not about the Adventist Church primarily, it is about the universal church, all who are in Christ. The next Fundamental, number 13, focuses specifically on the role and mission of the SDA Church within the larger body of those who follow Jesus. The challenge we will address when we get there is, how do you put those two statements together? One statement is more universal, seeing God at work among all who confess Christ. The other is more particular, focusing on the unique role of the Adventist Church in the world.

This statement is full of symbols derived from the Scriptures. We need to see these in terms of the ideal and the real. The authority of the church, for example, is an ideal, but it is not always achieved. The visible church is far from being a perfect embodiment of Christ. But in spite of those flaws, Matthew 16:13-20 places a great deal of authority in the visible church, even though that point is handled lightly in this fundamental. Perhaps one could say that the authority of the church is potential, as Christ works through its flawed members, but it is also real and significant.

It may be helpful to distinguish between the church as an organization and the church as an organism. As an organism (like the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12), the church feeds me every day, in one way or another. As an organization, it often disappoints all of us. Another way to express this– there are many that God has that the church doesn’t have, and there are many the church has that God doesn’t have. The body imagery of the church is a rejection of hierarchy, the only head of the church is Christ. All other members of the body are important in their submission to Christ’s headship. The body parts function well to the degree that each is connected to Christ.

In today’s world, it is harder and harder to convince the younger generation that they need the visible church. Many of them relish community, but prefer open and accepting communities that don’t require commitment to a long list of beliefs in order to participate. This development is particularly challenging to the Adventist Church in Western countries and is becoming increasingly so elsewhere. Loma Linda University embraces the inclusive side of Adventism express in this fundamental.