Fundamental Belief Number 11 (Growing in Christ)

By His death on the cross Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil. He who subjugated the demonic spirits during His earthly ministry has broken their power and made certain their ultimate doom. Jesus’ victory gives us victory over the evil forces that still seek to control us, as we walk with Him in peace, joy, and assurance of His love. Now the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us. Continually committed to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, we are set free from the burden of our past deeds. No longer do we live in the darkness, fear of evil powers, ignorance, and meaninglessness of our former way of life. In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship, and participating in the mission of the Church. We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs of humanity. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience. (1 Chron. 29:11; Ps. 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Matt.20:25-28; 25:31-46; Luke 10:17-20; John 20:21; Rom. 8:38, 39; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18; Gal. 5:22-25; Eph. 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; Phil. 3:7-14; Col. 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; 1Thess. 5:16-18, 23; Heb. 10:25; James 1:27; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 1 John 4:4.) (Ps 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Col 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; Luke 10:17-20; Eph 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18; Phil 3:7-14; 1 Thess 5:16-18; Matt 20:25-28; John 20:21; Gal 5:22-25; Rom 8:38, 39; 1 John 4:4; Heb 10:25.)

This is the newest of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs (they were 27 before 2005). It grew out of a series of observations made by the Mission Issues Committee of the General Conference around the turn of the millennium. One of these observations was that many Adventist believers in Africa and parts of Asia did not have any problem combining occult practices with Adventist faith. Another observation was the absence of a devotional life in many of the same places. A third had to do with the relative absence of Christian education in much of the world. The excuse given for non-practice in all of these areas was: They aren’t in the Fundamental Beliefs! If we need to have a devotional life, tell us plainly. If we need to avoid the occult, tell us plainly. If we need to put our children in Adventist schools tell us plainly. So this fundamental attempted to address the issues of the devotional life and avoidance of the occult (the issue of Christian education as an expectation for all Adventists did not make the cut in 2005). Fundamental 11 is, therefore, something of an awkward mixture of two different themes. The framers of these changes didn’t want to add two or three new fundamentals so they combined two into one here.

In addition to the changes in the text list at the end of the statement (as voted in San Antonio 2015), a sentence was added toward the end: “We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs of humanity.” There was strong pressure to add a new Fundamental on Christian Social Responsibility. Rather than proliferate fundamentals further, it was felt that adding a sentence here could cover that concern in the larger context of Christian spirituality. References to mental and emotional needs indicate the church’s increasing awareness of mental and emotional illness and of the therapies needed to deal with them. That is a very positive development.

The irony here is that this fundamental calls for the very kinds of practices that are involved in what many call “spiritual formation.” Spiritual formation was taught at the Seminary for more than twenty years of my term there. During that time, however, I never heard the kinds of things that people today associate with “spiritual formation.” So phrases like this can have different meanings in different contexts and different meanings at different times. In order to avoid confusion, the Seminary has decided to change the title of this discipline to “Christian Spirituality.” The content has not changed significantly, and in my mind didn’t need to change, but the mere use of the phrase has become controversial. That is, perhaps, another reason to combine the occult and the devotional life together in one fundamental. “Spiritual formation” is thought, in many parts of the church, to open the way to the occult and Satanic influence. Since those are never good things, the topic of spirituality requires vigilance.

At Loma Linda University we have a number of classes in “religion and culture.” When dealing with culture the lines between truth and error, light and darkness, are not always as clean as we would like, or as many would like to paint them. For example, after the tsunami in Indonesia, western healers went in and often made things worse, especially in terms of emotional healing. The locals seemed to respond better with native methods of healing. That was a surprise to the Christians involved. There are principles in yoga and acupuncture that seem to have scientific evidence behind them, the line between a health practice and a dark spirituality is not always as clear as we would like. In a mission book called Bruchko, a Western missionary recognized an illness and had a medical cure, but the people wouldn’t take the medicines from him! He found it much more effective to convince the witch doctor to dispense the medicine for him, and then the people were cured. Did he do the right thing in intervening in that way or should he have allowed them to die by their own choice?

Another challenging line we wrestle with is the one between demonic oppression and mental illness. In the New Testament, behaviors that we would describe as mental illness were almost always attributed to demonic oppression or possession. Does that mean there was a lot more demonic activity back then? Or were they simply more conscious of demonic activity? Were they confusing the demonic with what we would understand as severe mental illness?

I was asked to address these issues at a psychiatry conference at Loma Linda a couple of years ago. From my reading of Scripture and experience with both mental illness and demonic symptoms I drew the following distinctions between the two, in order to help practitioners distinguish them. 1) If the patient is hearing and seeing things no one else can see, it is likely to be mental illness, not demonic possession. If the healthy people in the room can also hear and see bizarre things, the phenomena are likely demonic. 2) If a person exhibits symptoms associated with mental illness but demonstrates knowledge or abilities that there is no reasonable expectation for them to possess (such as speaking foreign languages they have never been exposed to), demonic manifestation may be involved. 3) Where the presence of certain objects (talismans) seems to aggravate symptoms of mental illness, a demonic element may be involved. 4) If symptoms of mental illness are relieved by medication or medical interventions, the issue was probably mental illness. If symptoms are instead relieved by prayer or spiritual counseling the chance of demonic involvement is much greater. Today’s world is more complicated than the ancient world was.

In the Western world it is often thought that demonic possession and spiritualism are largely manifested in more “primitive” parts of the world. But vampire movies and movies about exorcism give evidence of a latent spiritualism in the West as well. There is much of the demonic in Western culture. For example, the Hollywood concept of a spider-man is widely accepted as a reality in primitive cultures. In addition, many people in the West consult psychics or horoscopes.

An important distinction that is worth mentioning is the distinction between healing and curing. People are cured by the right medicines at the right time, but true whole-person healing comes by other means. We may not in this life be completely sure of the line between physical and mental illness, on the one hand, and afflictions that have a more spiritual origin. Both maladies may often present themselves in the same person. Jesus was able to heal both, but relied on a process when dealing with mental illness (based on John 5:14 in the Greek). Since demonic involvement provokes both physical and mental symptoms, mental illness and the demonic may sometimes interweave with each other.

The entire world is becoming multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, so the cautions in this Fundamental are most appropriate, especially the middle sentence beginning with “No longer do we live. . .” Various cultures see things differently, and there are positive things in many cultures, but much that is taken for granted in every culture is worthy of criticism, avoidance, and/or careful reflection.

When dealing with matters such as this, it is helpful to remember that memories are very creative, so we must be cautious when we hear reports of demonic possession. If someone says things like God spoke to me, or I had an encounter with the demonic, we have to honestly say that we cannot be sure on the basis of such a report exactly what took place. But the spiritually wise thing to do is treat the reports as if they were true and then assess them with all the tools one has available.

Fundamental Belief Number 10 (Experience of Salvation)

In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ, as Saviour and Lord, Substitute and Example. This saving faith which receives salvation comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God’s law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment. (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 45:22; 53; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 33:11; 36:25-27; Hab. 2:4; Mark 9:23, 24; John 3:3-8, 1616; 16:8; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:6-10; 8:1-4, 14-17; 10:17, 23; 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13, 14, 26; 4;4-7; Eph 2:4-10; Col. 1:13, 14; Titus 3:3-7; Heb. 8:7-12; 1 Peter 1:23; 2:21; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rev. 13:8.) (2 Cor. 5:17-21; John 3:16; Gal. 1:4; 4:4-7; Titus 3:3-7; John 16:8; Gal. 3:13, 14; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; Rom. 10:17; Luke 17:5; Mark 9:23, 24; Eph. 2:5-10; Rom. 3:21-26; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26; John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:23; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 8:7-12; Eze. 36:25-27; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rom. 8:1-4; 5:6-10.)

A couple of small changes were made in the middle of this FB in San Antonio. “Lord and Christ” was replaced by “Saviour and Lord.” The meaning and purpose of “Christ” here seemed unclear to many readers and replacing it with the word Saviour seemed more helpful. “Saviour and Lord” parallels “substitute and example” in the last clause of the sentence. Placing “saving” ahead of faith instead of after it, ties the salvation to the person rather than to the word faith. This was felt to be better English grammar and more accurate theologically as well.

This fundamental belief has quite the individualistic tone. Although there is the repeated use of the plural (“we” and “our”), the things discussed in this statement are things that happen in and to individuals, not in communities. So the statement is lacking in social ethics. It is about dealing with personal sin, exercising faith, being justified and adopted, and becoming born again. On the other hand, while Romans 3 may seem individualistic at first glance (3:10-12, 20), Paul’s view of sin is quite social and community oriented, at least in the examples he chooses to share. Sin happens when people shed blood or heap curses on each other (3:13-15), there are societal consequences when sin occurs and healing from sin has social consequences as well. Sin affects “all” (3:23) and so does the remedy for sin. The solution to sin is God’s “right-making” in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (3:22). In making individuals right with God (justified) God is also making them right with each other, at least within the saved community.

There is also a surprisingly strong focus on “participation” in this statement. That emphasis builds on the statement in 2 Peter 1:3-4, we are “partakers of the divine nature.” Adventists here maintain a strong focus on what comes after salvation. Participation in the divine nature means that there is not an infinite gulf between God and the creation (as in Greek philosophy and some Islamic theology). The Hebraic God is very much involved in the material world, He is near as well as transcendent. Adventists generally try to be as balanced as possible on the great theological issues.

One of the great questions of salvation is whether God accounts us righteous or makes us righteous. The former is often thought to be the Protestant view and the latter the Catholic view. This statement affirms both perspectives, not forcing people to make a choice. The SDA Fundamental Beliefs as originally written try to include more than to exclude. These statements are reflective of the community’s positions rather than an attempt to be prescriptive.

But being open and inclusive does not mean anything goes. You cannot accept this statement and still buy into everything that has been said by other Christians on the subject. For example, this statement excludes “Five-Point Calvinism,” with its strong focus on predestination and a lack of human freedom. It also rejects the concept of “double predestination,” that some people are predestined by God to be lost. This statement affirms that Adventism is strongly on the side of Arminianism, which sees human beings as free to make decisions for or against God and to be deeply participatory in their relationship with God. The Holy Spirit clearly plays a major part in orchestrating that freedom, but Adventism emphasizes human choice and freedom as a crucial theological element.

A number of my colleagues noted that this statement seems rather flat and uninspiring. It is as if a committee sat down to design a horse and ended up with a camel! It is careful to say all the right things but does not say them in a way that would be inspiring. Another seeming lack in the statement has to do with the eschatological element of salvation. It is hardly mentioned until the very last phrase. This future aspect of salvation is certainly emphasized in texts like Romans 5:9-10 and Titus 3:7. One final point seems worth mentioning as well. The statement is full of metaphorical language (righteousness, faith, gift, deliverance, Lordship, adopted, born again, sanctified, hearts) yet offers no indication that the language itself is metaphorical, which could lead to extremism and misuse (taking a metaphor too literally and trying to apply it in inappropriate ways).

Fundamental Belief Number 9 (Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ)

In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness. The death of Christ is substitutionary and expiatory, reconciling and transforming. The resurrection of Christ proclaims God’s triumph over the forces of evil, and for those who accept the atonement assures their final victory over sin and death. It declares the Lordship of Jesus Christ, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth will bow. (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 22:1; Isa. 53; John 3:16; 14:30; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 John 2:2; 4;10.) (John 3:16; Isa. 53; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:6-11.)

Aside from a reshuffling of the biblical evidence at the bottom, there are no changes in the wording of FB9. Since this fundamental focused on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, one wonders why it isn’t listed after number four, which dealt with the nature of Christ. The answer probably is that the first five fundamentals focus on the persons of the godhead and the next five or so focus on the actions of the godhead. There is never a perfect grouping of beliefs like these, the order that was chosen is probably as good as any.

The religion scholars at Loma Linda have historically expressed concerns that legal substitution not be seen as the controlling metaphor of the atonement, as it often is in Protestant Christianity. But this statement certainly does not limit itself to legal substitution. This statement offers an excellent balance among the various biblical metaphors of the atonement. Legal, substitutionary atonement was seen as liberal and “new theology” in the 1970s, and therefore suspect, but now it has become the conservative view. It is interesting how theology changes over time and people hardly notice, because a new generation sees what was recently new and the new normal. In our resistance to change we often end up changing without realizing it.

In the broadest sense, atonement is seen as having both objective and subjective elements in it. The objective side of the atonement focuses on what happened outside of us on the cross. Did the cross in some way change God’s mind? Did it defeat Satan in some way? Did it somehow satisfy the justice of God? The subjective side of the atonement, on the other hand, focuses on how the cross changes us. Through the cross we learn that God is fair and just, that the law is for our good, that God is on our side. We are moved from serving God on account of fear to trusting Him. Another way to express this contrast is this: Which is more important, the Christmas story or the Easter story? Do you focus on the life of Jesus or on His death and resurrection as the driving forces behind the atonement? At Loma Linda there is a tendency to focus on the life and death of Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God’s character, the strong emphasis of chapter one in Steps to Christ, whereas at Andrews and other places, the emphasis is more on the death and resurrection of Christ as an atoning sacrifice. This fundamental affirms both as part of a balance and tension.

For SDAs it is good to see an increasing focus on atonement at the cross, but it would be unwise to lose the pioneer sense that the cross has ongoing significance. It represents the way that God behaves and rules in all times and places. The gospel is not about sinners in the hands of an angry God, it is about God in the hands of angry sinners. In addition, the cross is not just about how God behaves on this earth; past, present and future. It also has a cosmic dimension, it changes everything at the level of the whole universe, not just earth.

2 Corinthians 5 has an interesting universal tone. God was reconciling the whole world to Himself in Christ. But a universal tone is not the same thing as universalism. The very ones who are reconciled to God at the cross still need to “be reconciled” to God. Having said that, the availability of universal salvation involves the possibility of universal salvation. No one is excluded, all have equal access to God and salvation at the foot of the cross.

In our discussion we considered one possible corrective to this excellent fundamental. The way this fundamental expresses the cross focuses much more on us than on God. It might have been helpful to explore a bit more questions like, What did it cost God to go to the cross? What does it mean when divinity suffers? Did the experience of sacrifice leave a mark on God? Did He lose something that He doesn’t get back? The natural human tendency to focus on ourselves is not easy to overcome, even in the writing of fundamental beliefs!

Fundamental Belief Number 8 (Great Controversy)

All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law, and His sovereignty over the universe. This conflict originated in heaven when a created being, endowed with freedom of choice, in self-exaltation became Satan, God’s adversary, and led into rebellion a portion of the angels. He introduced the spirit of rebellion into this world when he led Adam and Eve into sin. This human sin resulted in the distortion of the image of God in humanity, the disordering of the created world, and its eventual devastation at the time of the worldwide flood, as presented in the historical account of Genesis 1-11. Observed by the whole creation, this world became the arena of the universal conflict, out of which the God of love will ultimately be vindicated. To assist His people in this controversy, Christ sends the Holy Spirit and the loyal angels to guide, protect, and sustain them in the way of salvation. (Gen. 3; 6-8; Job 1:6-12; Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:12-18; Rom. 1:19-32; 3:4; 5:12-21; 8:19-22; 1 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 1:14; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 3:6; Rev. 12:4-9.  (Rev. 12:4-9; Isa. 14:12-14; Eze. 28:12-18; Gen. 3; Rom. 1:19-32; 5:12-21; 8:19-22; Gen. 6-8; 2 Peter 3:6; 1 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 1:14.)

Aside from the re-arrangement of the biblical texts, the major change in this fundamental was the addition of a sentence that could have been placed in FB6, “as presented in the historical account of Genesis 1-11.” I understand that there were two reasons for placing the statement here instead. First, it is the only place in the 28 FBs where the Flood is mentioned. Second, since this fundamental also mentions creation, it made it possible to reference Genesis 1-11 as a whole and not just the chapters related to the Flood. While many scholars have questioned whether the primary intention of Genesis 1-11 is history, this sentence certainly expresses how the average Seventh-day Adventist views these chapters.

This statement opens with the phrase “all humanity,” but that by itself is open to misunderstanding. The entire universe is involved in the great controversy and is affected by its outcome (Col 1:20; Eph 1:9-10; Rev 12:7-10), as the sentences that follow in the statement make clear. The ultimate outcome of the controversy is the vindication of God’s character of love. The statement leaves ambiguous, however, just how or by whom God’s love is vindicated. It is interesting that while the worldwide flood is mentioned here, the cross is not! From the Adventist perspective, the cross is more about theodicy (vindicating the character of God or defending God’s reputation) than it is about soteriology (how people get saved). Recent scholarship affirms that even Romans and Galatians are more about God and His character than what Luther saw in them, a revelation of how we get saved.

A key text upon which this statement is based is Revelation 12. At first glance Revelation 12 seems to be about a war against aggression and rebellion. How do you reconcile the self-sacrifice of the cross with such an aggressive story? A closer look at Revelation 12 makes clear that the battle language there is metaphorical. It is not a war fought with tanks and planes and guns, the great controversy is a war of words. The tail of the dragon (Rev 12:4) reminds the reader of prophets telling lies (Isa 9:15). The ancient serpent of 12:9 recalls the Garden of Eden where the serpent spewed out deceptive words (Gen 3:1-6). The method of the dragon’s attack in heaven is to accuse the “brethren” (Rev 12:10). And he is overcome by “the word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11). The battle language is the metaphorical backdrop to a war of words.

A Loma Linda perspective on this Fundamental focuses on the picture of God that human beings hold. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be. He is not arbitrary, vengeful, unforgiving and severe. Instead He is both infinitely powerful and infinitely gracious. Not everything that religion says about God is true and some of the things even Christian religion says about God make Him look bad in the eyes of the world. God is often portrayed with a character more like that of Satan. So a major theme in Adventist evangelism is that everyone, including Christians, need to critique their own religion. Human beings do not, by nature, gravitate to an accurate picture of God. And if all who want to know God are willing to exchange what they think they know for truth, it will bring us all closer together.

There are practical implications of this picture of God for patient care. In more traditional types of chaplaincy, people are encouraged to think of death as simply part of life. When people are suffering, Jesus is portrayed as a sustaining presence more than as a healing one. There is also a desire to avoid doctrine at the bedside. While these points make sense in general, at Loma Linda we find it helpful in many cases to go further. While doctrine may not normally be appropriate at the bedside, it can at times be important for the chaplain to explore with a patient. Chaplains need to minister to a patient on the basis of the spiritual resources the patient brings with them. And in a world of great diversity, the chaplain needs broad spiritual and doctrinal understanding in order to be able to minister to many different types of people.

It is also true that there are occasions where what the patient believes is itself a source of suffering and can make both the dying process and the healing process harder than it needs to be. Patients often believe that they are sick because God is punishing them. While a doctor or a chaplain may not want to get into the details with a patient, the great controversy motif gives the caregiver the confidence to gently confront destructive doctrines with a message of God’s love and care even for those who have made a mess of their lives. The great controversy offers a perspective for understanding some of the difficult stories in the Bible that may be part of a negative narrative in a patient’s life.

In the Adventist view, the essential nature of God’s character is love. And for love to occur, it needs to be freely chosen. Love that is commanded or forced is not love. In creating the universe God was expanding the circle of love that was always there among the members of the Trinity. But for His creatures to truly love God they had to be free to do so. And being free to love meant they were also free to rebel and reject God’s love. God so highly values the freedom of His creatures, that He allows them the freedom to choose and also the freedom to reap the consequences of their choices. That means that God does not will that people be sick or die. Sickness and death are the consequences of freedom and illustrations of what happens when freedom is exercised in rebellion and self-centeredness. People are not sick because God is angry with them or because he is punishing them (although He can use misfortune to get our attention), suffering is a natural consequence of the present human condition. Suffering does not exist because God is evil or weak, it exists because God values freedom above all else. And one day the universe will be healed and safe, not by superior force, but through the abundant evidence that the universe is ruled by self-sacrificing love.

The Great Controversy motif also has powerful implications for geopolitical issues today. Some ask the question, Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of violence? In light of the Great Controversy that is the wrong question. There is a universal conflict between God and Satan. That conflict is being played out in every nation and every religion. The line between good and evil is not between “us” and “them,” it runs right down the middle of every religion and every person. That means God is at work within Islam, and so is Satan. God is at work in Christianity, and so is Satan. God is at work within Adventism, and so is Satan. Because of the cosmic conflict, Islam can be a religion of peace and a religion of violence at the same time, because both God and Satan are at work in the hearts of Muslims. This FB has powerful implications for many aspects of religion.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 7 (Nature of Man/Humanity)

Man and woman were made in the image of God with individuality, the power and freedom to think and to do. Though created free beings, each is an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit, dependent upon God for life and breath and all else. When our first parents disobeyed God, they denied their dependence upon Him and fell from their high position under God. The image of God in them was marred and they became subject to death. Their descendants share this fallen nature and its consequences. They are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil. But God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself and by His Spirit restores in penitent mortals the image of their Maker. Created for the glory of God, they are called to love Him and one another, and to care for their environment. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7, 15; 3; Ps. 8:4-8; 51:5, 10; 15; 58:3; Jer. 17:9; Acts 17:24-28; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Eph. 2:3; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 John 3:4; 4:7, 8, 11, 20.)  (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7; Ps. 8:4-8; Acts 17:24-28; Gen. 3; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Ps. 51:10; 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 20; Gen. 2:15.)

The changes in FB7 were few and simple. In addition to re-arranging the texts at the end and adding 1 John 3:4, the title was changed from “Man” to “Humanity” for the sake of inclusive language. The only other change was eliminating the phrase “under God.” The phrase was thought to be redundant with other things in the statement and could leave the impression that Adam and Eve’s sin was somehow under God’s direction or supervision.

This fundamental is another remarkable evidence that the writers of the original 27 were able to say many important things without taking sides on the most controversial issues among Seventh-day Adventists. When writing statements of belief, less is more. For example, the word “reconciled” points to the atonement in an open-ended way, not settling an issue upon which Adventists have sincere differences of opinion. This encourages continued study and discussion but enables us to stay unified, even in the midst of significant differences. The writers of these fundamentals were working to unite rather than divide. The changes made to FB6, however, seem intentionally divisive, or to be charitable, unifiying in a more exclusive sense. They were grounded in the concern that certain views will harm the body if not excluded. Time will tell if that venture will prove positive or negative for the church.

The SDA doctrine of human nature raises many more issues than does the doctrine of God (the subject of fundamentals 2-5), but these in general are left untouched in this statement. For example, How does the image of God relate to the nature of human beings who are marred by sin? In the intriguing words of one scholar, “Sin is unnecessary, yet it is inevitable.” What exactly do we mean by sin and how does this affect who human beings are and what they can become? While human beings are clearly physical, what do we do with aspects of human nature that seem to transcend the physical? One thing is for sure, the SDA view of human nature is much more popular among non-SDA biblical scholars and theologians than it was a hundred years ago.

One striking aspect of this statement is its focus on the more negative side of human nature, its enmeshment with sin. This is spelled out in some detail. But it would have been nice to give a little more detail on the positive side of humanity, not just noting that we were made “in the image of God.” What are some of the good things we retain from our origins, marred though they may be?

One thing not explored in this fundamental is the relational side of human nature. In the Protestant, Western tradition, theologians focus on individuality and freedom. But Genesis 1:26-28 focuses much more on relationships and community. The first humans were created with three basic relationships, 1) a relationship of submission to God (based on the “image” and “likeness”), 2) a relationship to the environment (“rule over, dominion”), and 3) a relationship with other humans (“male and female”). So a Hebrew view of human nature would focus more on the community than on the individual, which is central to Western thinking. The immediate consequence of sin was broken relationships, exile from the garden, the place where God can be directly encountered. Relationships with God, the earth and each other were broken after sin. So sin is manifested in the loss of community as much as it is in the internal distortions that occur in each of us. SDAs emphasize the individualistic nature of sin, but that is not a complete reflection of the biblical picture.

A Loma Linda perspective on this fundamental focuses on a number of things. 1) Adventists value the human body and thus focus on health and healing in spite of a strong apocalyptic mindset. 2) We also value the community. Resurrection means that people don’t go to heaven as individuals when they die. All remain “asleep” in their graves until the resurrection, and then the entire community is re-united in bodily form. 3) Additionally, this life is not the ultimate thing and death is a defeated enemy. We battle against disease and death because that is what God is doing. We battle in confidence that death is a defeated enemy, but we don’t get cast down when we lose a battle with death, because we know that we are winning the war. Deaths in this life are not the final word. Death on this side of Jesus’ return is just a sleep. The ultimate reality is beyond.

Although this is emphasized in later FBs, it is important to mention here that the SDA doctrine of human nature proclaims the unity of human beings (Gen 2:7; Eccl 12:7). Body, mind and spirit are not separate entities, but combined in a wholistic unity. This has powerful implications for the practice of whole person care and even more powerful implications for scientific research into human nature. Some of the best neurological and psychological research is increasingly substantiating the Adventist view of human nature. So this doctrine is a powerful guide to scientific research on the human body and mind.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 6 (Creation)

God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical account of His creative activity. He created the universe, and in a recent six-day creation six days the Lord made “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in themand all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His completed creative work the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was “very good,” declaring the glory of God.  (Gen. 1-2; 5; 11; Exod. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Isa. 45:12, 18; Acts 17:24; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; 11:3; Rev. 10:6; 14:7.) (Gen. 1; 2; Ex. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Heb. 11:3.)

In the 1980 version, this fundamental particularly sought to deny, on the basis of Scripture, three beliefs that Seventh-day Adventists in general reject. 1) It denied that each of the days of creation in Genesis 1 can or should be interpreted as representing long ages. 2) It denied the “gap theory” in which long periods of time occur between the various days of creation. 3) It denied that life on this earth, particularly human life, began long ages in the past. The large scientific picture of the universe is in broad agreement with that perspective. According to the current scientific understanding, the universe is perhaps 13 billion years old, the earth has been around for 2-4 billion and human life is an extremely recent development. While there were many issues unaddressed by the 1980 statement, it affirmed a broad consensus between the evidence of Scripture (the earth and the heavenly universe were here before creation week—Gen 1:2) and the evidence of science. A broad-based, inclusive statement like the 1980 version allowed for a variety of solutions to perceived differences between Scripture and science. But a series of conferences and recent science/faith controversies led church leadership to the conclusion that the 1980 statement wasn’t specific enough.

So this is the fundamental belief that was most changed by the recent actions in San Antonio.  As originally expressed (in 1980), the wording was largely drawn from the biblical text itself, and was careful not to say much more than what the biblical text actually said. This style was and is in keeping with most of the fundamentals, so there is danger that the changes mandated by a group process may create a type of fundamental that is different in kind from the others. The major concern is whether the new wording will tend to divide more than it unifies believers.

Looking specifically at the changes, four phrases are crossed out, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because the new wording replaced them with different, lengthier or more specific language. So let’s focus on the additions. To the first sentence was added the words “and historical.” This was to exclude the idea that Genesis was not intended as literal history, but as legend or poetry that should not be taken literally. As a student of Hebrew, I can affirm that Genesis is not poetry, it is narrative. Adventists generally agree that Genesis 1 is historical rather than legendary narrative, hence the addition. The addition of Genesis, chapters 5 and 11, to the text list was to provide biblical evidence for the relatively short length of the history between Genesis 1 and Abraham.

The addition of “He created the universe” is deliberately separated from the six-day creation to leave open the reading that suggests an old earth but a much more recent creation of life as we know it. A recent six-day creation” was designed to conclusively rule out the idea that the days of Genesis could be read as long ages, although the previous statement was clear enough for most on that point.

The biblical quotation from Exodus 20:11 was expanded to include “the sea and all that is in them.” The language of Exodus 20 seems to restrict the six-day creation to this earth. It is not talking about the original creation of the universe. Since Adventists believe there were other worlds watching the creation (Job 38:7) and that sin arose before the creation of humanity, it would be consistent to see Genesis 1 as describing a later act than the creation of the universe. So this expanded statement does not take sides in the young earth vs. old earth debate. The age of the earth is an open question, it is life on this earth that is “recent.”  The lengthy and awkward addition in the fifth through seventh lines (the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today”) was designed to exclude the idea the days of the week were different in length at the time of creation than they are now. The assertion, generally accepted by the church’s membership, is that the days of creation were roughly 24-hours long in today’s terms.

Because this fundamental has become as controversial as it has, it is difficult to get groups of people talking honestly about it. The discussion often bogs down to assertions, condemnation and ridicule, and such tactics can be used by all sides. A thoughtful exploration of what we know and what we don’t know on the topic can be hard to come by. One of the problems with this topic is that many or even most Christians who think carefully about the topic have come to believe that the science on the matter of origins has been settled, so the only issue is how to accommodate Scripture within the scientific worldview.

While there are a few Adventists, mostly practicing scientists, who have adopted such a view, most Adventists tend to differ. They believe that origins science is still in its infancy and that creation may one day, when we know more than we do now, have scientific credibility. So they are reluctant to allow science to determine how one reads Scripture and often feel that the “science” itself is more determined by atheistic presuppositions than by the evidence. So the Adventist Church has always been at the forefront of “creation science,” the attempt to apply sound scientific research principles to the matter of origins, seeking the holes in the arguments for macro-evolution (evolution as applied to long ages rather than observable experience) and also evidence for God’s design in creation and a relatively recent history for life on this earth.

But this viewpoint is challenging for most Adventist scientists, particularly when the evidence creation scientists uncover does not support traditional views, as is frequently the case (I have done tours of geological formations with some of the most fervent creation scientists and they have candidly pointed out difficulties). The danger of a more-detailed fundamental on creation (as recently voted by the world church) is that it glosses over the challenges and tempts proponents to manage the evidence in their teaching and preaching so as to win an argument rather than pursue the truth. Such “fudging” is very challenging for young people learning their way into the basic sciences. It can lead them to believe that the arguments for creation depend on the ignorance of the audience. They often feel that the more you learn, the less satisfying are the answers sometimes given.

I am not a scientist, I am a biblical scholar. So my default position is to approach the subject on the basis of the best understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 and similar biblical texts, rather than merely accept the consensus of science. But I realize that for a scientist, the matter is not so simple. I do not believe, therefore, that we should ask people to suspend logic, evidence, facts or reason in their pursuit of truth. I do not believe that we should ask people to believe that science as generally practiced is an elaborate deception, foisted upon us by those who are seeking ways to undermine the Bible and belief in God. What we need alongside this fundamental is a companion statement, written by believing scientists, that articulates exactly how evolutionary science should be taught and practiced in the light of the faith statement the world-wide representatives of the church have voted. I have often called for this, but I am not aware of such a statement at this time. Until it is there, believers will need to be very understanding of the deep challenges that young scientists face when they seek to integrate their faith with their practice of scientific method. Scientists need room to explore or they quickly fall behind their peers.

Let me suggest one possible way forward. The Asian mind can deal with tensions like this (between science and creation) better than the Western mind. The Western mind is shaped by Greek philosophical concepts that require black and white outcomes, and uniformity of thinking. This philosophical foundation permeates biblical scholarship as well as science, demanding precision where the Bible offers little, demanding answers when it asks all the wrong questions (like “Should women be ordained?” a question not asked in the Bible and, therefore, not answered compellingly in the Bible). The Asian mind, like the Hebrew mindset of the Bible writers, is OK with a little ambiguity. Perhaps on this fundamental, we should be OK with a little ambiguity as well.

Our discussion at the School of Religion raised some fresh questions that might illustrate some of the above. Do Genesis 1 and 2 discuss the creation of matter or the organization of matter? In the Hebrew mindset could there be distinctions between different kinds of death (first death, second death, natural death, death caused by sin), and would that have implications for the geological column? Is there a “biblical world view,” or is claiming such the result of organizing the Bible’s teachings on the basis of a person’s own experience and reasoning? If the purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 narratives is more theological than scientific, how much scientific information should we really expect from it? Genesis 1 is like a birth certificate, it establishes our identity as human beings more than it declares exactly how we got here.

The Loma Linda approach to this topic is grounded in our value of humility (LLU has seven foundational values: justice, compassion, humility, integrity, freedom and self-control/purity). True scholarship is not so much about how much one knows, it is about knowing how little one knows. What science does NOT know is much greater than what it does know. What Genesis does NOT say is much greater than what it does say. A standpoint of humility allows the freedom to think and explore within broad general guidelines. On the whole, the 28 SDA Fundamentals do a marvelous job of managing the church’s approach to challenging topics. Time will tell how the changes voted in San Antonio will play out in the church’s experience.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 5 (Holy Spirit)

God the eternal Spirit was active with the Father and the Son in Creation, incarnation, and redemption. He is as much a person as are the Father and the Son. He inspired the writers of Scripture. He filled Christ’s life with power. He draws and convicts human beings; and those who respond He renews and transforms into the image of God. Sent by the Father and the Son to be always with His children, He extends spiritual gifts to the church, empowers it to bear witness to Christ, and in harmony with the Scriptures leads it into all truth. (Gen. 1:1, 2; 2 Sam. 23:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 61:1; Luke 1:35; 4:18; John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26; 16:7-13; Acts 1:8; 5:3; 10:38; Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 12:7-11; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Peter 1:21.) (Gen. 1:1, 2; Luke 1:35; 4:18; Acts 10:38; 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:11, 12; Acts 1:8; John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26, 27; 16:7-13.)

As usual, the Scripture texts were re-arranged in this fundamental. Aside from one major addition, the wording is identical to the 1980 version of the statement. The added sentence, “He is as much a person as are the Father and the Son,” is clearly intended to rule out the view that is popular in some Adventist circles; that the Holy Spirit is not a unique person or entity, but is simply the omnipresent power of God the Father (and sometimes also Jesus Christ—in the latter case something of a “Binitarian” view). It also affirms by implication the divine personhood of the Son, in case anyone would ever challenge that.

According to the way this doctrine is written, the Holy Spirit never acts alone. In all of His activities the Father and the Son are also involved. Adventists are, by profession, monotheists, not “tritheists” (believing that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate and distinct gods). It was the relationship between Father and Son that split the early church into Eastern and Western traditions. The Eastern church wanted to clearly distinguish the work of the Father and the Son, the Western church wanted to emphasize the unity between them. Seventh-day Adventists have adopted the Western side of the debate, not surprising, since they are rooted in American Protestantism, which arose in Western Christianity. Eastern Christianity has never had a reformation like that of Luther and Calvin in the West. A result of this split (formalized in the year 1054 AD) is that Western Christians, including Adventists tend to subordinate the Holy Spirit to a degree. Father and Son are both seen as “sending” or having authority over the Spirit.

Exactly how the members of the Trinity relate to each other is debated among all Christians. Does the Trinity represent three “centers of consciousness” (note that the NT does not use the term “persons” with reference to God as most Christians today do, including SDAs in Fundamental 2)? Or is the Trinity one center of consciousness that we experience in different ways and at different times? The first leans toward “tritheism” and the latter toward absolute “monotheism.” Furthermore, the Eastern church tends to have a social view of the Trinity, emphasizing the inner relationship among them, while the Western church has a more psychological view of the Trinity, emphasizing their distinction and uniqueness. Each side of the debate does what it can to balance its own over-emphases. Clearly, the sharper you try to define your view of the godhead, the more mind-bending the outcome. Some things are best left a bit blurry, lest we subtly come to think we can control or manage God.

The Loma Linda view of these things tends to heighten a focus on the Father and on the wholeness of God as a model for the way we view human nature. If one makes the distinctions among Father, Son and Holy Spirit too strong, one can end up with three gods. At Loma Linda Jesus is the clearest revelation of what God (including all three) is like, if you have seen Him you have seen the Father (John 14:9), and by implication also the Holy Spirit. But enough on the godhead as a whole, this fundamental is about the Holy Spirit.

Once again this fundamental seeks to be clear without being too specific, it is careful in what it says and what it doesn’t say. For example, the Holy Spirit “draws and convicts human beings” (ironically, in the NT it is the Father [John 6:44] and Jesus [John 12:32] who do the drawing, that term is never used for the Spirit). The “convicts” part is firmly based on Scripture (John 16:8-11), yet does not probe very deeply into that process. How the Holy Spirit works in our lives is largely left open to experience, research and individual impressions, which is as it should be. The Spirit is described as the active agent of the godhead in the present age. “He” inspires, fills, draws, convicts, renews, transforms and empowers. All of these activities can be known in human experience, yet are hard to detail and define.

Throughout church history, people who emphasize the Holy Spirit tend to be spiritual “insurgents,” people who press for change and new ideas (see John 3:8). So it is not surprising that Adventists today tend to de-emphasize the Spirit. It would be interesting to research what happens when people over-emphasize or under-emphasize the Spirit. When people over-emphasize the Father (at the expense of the Son and the Spirit), it tends to lead to a dark and foreboding religion, where God is severe and punitive and people are fearful. When people over-emphasize Jesus Christ, the religion tends toward sentimentalism (like the song “In the Garden”), an over-focus on one’s own sinfulness, and a loss of majesty and awe in relation to God. When people over-emphasize the Spirit, it can produce a focus on self and the need for more and greater experiences with God. When those experiences don’t happen it can lead to disillusionment and loss of faith.

SDA history includes periods of Holy Spirit over-emphasis and ecstasy. One of these was at the very beginning, when the “shouting Methodist” background (the charismatic roots of Ellen White herself) led to noisy gatherings with people being “slain in the Spirit.” There was a strong emphasize on manifestations and less on sober research and reasoning. Another period of over-emphasis was the “Holy Flesh” movement around the year 1900. Adherents sought a physical experience of the Spirit, shouting and praying until someone fell unconscious, after which they would be considered ready for translation and no longer able to sin. When the Holy Spirit is emphasized too much we tend to baptize our own impulses.

One of the first “heresies” of the Christian Church involved the Montanists in the second Christian century. Arising in Asia Minor, they were doctrinally orthodox in general, but believed that the Bible (the OT and the apostolic writings at that time) is not the most direct path to God, the experience of the Holy Spirit is. So they practiced the spontaneity that comes from the Spirit and believed that, in a sense, every believer is as inspired as the prophets and the apostles. They sought to reform the church but were soon isolated and marginalized.

A concluding note. There is nothing said in this fundamental about the charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues. While that phenomenon has rarely been part of Adventist experience and would be awkward in most Adventist worship gatherings, there is no specific condemnation of it in the SDA fundamentals. In practice this means that Adventists who wish to are free to practice some form of speaking in tongues as long as they do so privately and do not agitate within the larger body over the matter. When the issue is agitated, it quickly leads to strife and division, which becomes a problem of order rather than one of theology. It is like keeping the feast days of the OT. It is permissible but must not be mandated.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 4 (Son)

God the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Through Him all things were created, the character of God is revealed, the salvation of humanity is accomplished, and the world is judged. Forever truly God, He became also truly humanman, Jesus the Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived and experienced temptation as a human being, but perfectly exemplified the righteousness and love of God. By His miracles He manifested God’s power and was attested as God’s promised Messiah. He suffered and died voluntarily on the cross for our sins and in our place, was raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven to minister in the heavenly sanctuary in our behalf. He will come again in glory for the final deliverance of His people and the restoration of all things. (Isa. 53:4-6; Dan. 9:25-27; Luke 1:35; John 1:1-3, 14; 5:22; 10:30; 14:1-3, 9, 13; Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4; 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:17-19; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-19; Heb. 2:9-18; 8:1, 2.)

Aside from re-arranging the texts and inclusive language, the only significant change voted in San Antonio was the addition of “to heaven” after the word “ascended.” This was intended to state explicitly what was formerly assumed, that the ascension was to heaven not some other place.

This statement is a marvelous example of the church choosing to express itself in a way that all can agree on without taking sides in the internal debates. The language here seems to deliberately echo some of the creeds in the early Christian centuries. The statement carefully balances between pre- (Jesus had the human nature of Adam before the Fall—“sinless”) and post-lapsarian (Jesus had the nature of Adam after the Fall—“sinful”) positions. It carefully leaves room for both sides to live according to their consciences while staying unified on the things that are most clear. One might wish that the same approach had been taken in regard to FB6 (Creation), where the recent action at the General Conference in San Antonio codified a more narrow position that might not prove helpful to the very people who need clarity on this issue the most (scientists).

It is interesting that FB4 states things very differently than some or most early Adventist positions. This is one of the current fundamentals that our earliest pioneers would have had a hard time signing on to. Joseph Bates, James White and Uriah Smith would probably have rejected language like “God the eternal Son” and “Forever truly God.” E. J. Waggoner, of 1888 fame, never accepted the eternity of Christ, and he flourished five decades after the Millerite movement. Ellen White never challenged the views of Waggoner and Jones on this matter, possibly preferring to protect their view of the gospel rather than challenging their deficiencies in the area of Christology in the early 1890s.

The other possibility is that she herself was still growing in her understanding of this subject. Recent historical evidence suggests that Ellen White’s own shift in regard to issues of salvation and the deity of Christ occurred in Australia in the year 1896, when she attended a camp meeting lecture series on the Gospel of John by W. W. Prescott. The series focused on these very issues and articulated positions she took in Desire of Ages (1898) and later. It seems providential that SDAs moved in this direction (deity of Christ). We would have had a much harder time engaging other Christians in the 20th Century and beyond had our views on Christ been less orthodox.

On this doctrine Adventists are very much in line with the orthodox tradition, the great creeds of the early church. But if you go back to the fourth and fifth centuries, the orthodox position on Christ was anything but sure to win the doctrinal contest. In the early centuries Arianism (the view that the heavenly Christ was not truly divine but was a created being) was more popular than the orthodox position, so the early church’s move to the full deity of Christ and the Trinity was a bit startling when it occurred. While to us many of these ancient debates seem “much ado about nothing,” early church leaders were seeking to safeguard the essence of salvation. If Jesus is anything less than God, how could He truly be our Savior? In a real sense, salvation and the nature of Christ are closely related.

It is sometimes said that heresy is the mother of orthodoxy. In the early church debates, people often explored both extremes (Christ was primarily divine or human, for example) and then the mainstream of the church reacted by saying the truth couldn’t be either extreme, it must, therefore, be somewhere in the middle. The reality is, orthodoxy is almost always more complicated than heresy. Heresy is often the result of over-simplification. The resulting orthodox view of the trinity and Christ expressed things differently than the New Testament did, but was as faithful to the Bible as possible, given the nature of the questions people were asking at the time.

Something to think about. What if Christianity had come to the United States as an Asian religion rather than a European one? What would it have been like? What would we be like? But that is a speculative point. As it is, Adventism came to embrace the full orthodoxy of the Christian church on the subject of God and Christ. Adventist uniqueness becomes visible in other points of doctrine.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 3 (Father)

God the eternal Father is the Creator, Source, Sustainer, and Sovereign of all creation. He is just and holy, merciful and gra­cious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also those revelations of the Father. (Gen. 1:1; Deut. 4:35; Ps. 110:1, 4; John 3:16; 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:28; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 John 4:8; Rev. 4:11.)

The only change outside of some rearrangement of the texts was replacing the word “revelation” with the word “those.” Rather than saying that the actions of Jesus and the Spirit are revelations of the Father, the focus is on the equality of the three.

A crucial text in relation to the character of God is Exodus 34:6-7. What kind of God does this text portray? The passage piles up all the words in the Hebrew language that express the idea of grace in its various applications to the human condition. It expresses that God is love in the inmost aspects of His being. The text begins by saying that the Lord God is “merciful and gracious.” The Hebrew word for “merciful” (rachum) is related to the Arabic opening of the Qur’an, where Allah is described as merciful and compassionate (rachman ir-rachim). God is also described as “long-nosed” which is often translated “slow to anger.” The Hebrew word for anger is related to the nostril, since anger is often expressed in heavy breathing. If the nose is long, it expresses the basic idea is that it takes God a long time to get angry.

There is a disturbing picture (for many) in the latter part of this passage, the idea that negative judgment would fall on four generations, one of which would be at most children at the time of the offense being considered. Our discussion noted several aspects of the larger context. For one thing all four generations would have lived in the same compound (super-extended families), so there are corporate aspects in the actions of a family’s leaders. The three or four generations is, however, in contrast with the thousands of generations to which God’s expresses love and mercy. So even when He is making threats, God leans far in the direction of mercy.

The text goes on to say that God forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin,” but will by no means “leave the guilty unpunished.” First of all, the same word for forgive (naqqeh) is found in both sides of the expression. Literally, God forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, but does not forgive the guilty (pôqêd). How is it that the guilty are somehow less forgivable than the “guilty.” Aren’t they all guilty? Here it is helpful to note that the “guilty” are those who are outside the covenant, in other words, outside of a relationship with God. To be outside the covenant is not something people stumble into, it is the consequence of their own choices. So the dark side of this text is not a threat to be feared. Rather, the text implies that there is lots of latitude for those who are in relationship with God. The key is not the type of sin but whether or not the person is in covenant relationship with God. Perhaps the words of Ellen White are appropriate here that it is not the occasional good deeds or misdeeds that counts, but the larger trend of the life (Steps to Christ, 57.2).

In ancient times the gods were very wrathful and arbitrary. In that context it may not have been possible for Israel’s God to gain the respect of the people without some thunder and threats. But in texts like Exodus 34, John 3:16 and 14:9, we see a picture that cuts against the grain of the violent picture of God that ancients and many moderns have held. The Bible is often more ambiguous than we would like. But ambiguity in our understanding of God is not a weakness, it is a strength, helping us to maintain humility, and humility is one of the core values of Loma Linda University.

This Fundamental Belief clearly soft-pedals the harsher aspects of how God’s judgments are sometimes portrayed, and the above examination of Exodus 34 is supportive of how the topic was handled. Adventism at its best has a beautiful picture of God.

My colleagues and I reflected on the sacrifice of Isaac and God’s strange request in that situation. Is it appropriate that a child suffer in behalf of another? Clearly God had no intention of Isaac ever being sacrificed, as he intervened the moment Abraham came close. But why then the experience? I sometimes wonder if Abraham might not have been more obedient if he had simply said “no” to God on this one. He certainly does something like that in debating with God over the fate of Sodom, and God seems to have approved of him doing so (Gen 18:25-26). Similarly, Moses argues with God in Exodus 32-34 that it is not appropriate for God to wipe out Israel and replace them with Moses and his descendants (Exod 32:11-14). Perhaps God would have been glorified even more had Abraham said no. He would be held up as an example of reasonable faith, a faith that trusts God enough to challenge what appears to be an irresponsible request. God is OK when His friends challenge Him.

Since Abraham said yes, God used the story as a beautiful illustration of how much He would be willing to sacrifice in order to win back the human race. In the prophets on the other hand, especially Ezekiel 18, we see a more straightforward sense that everyone is responsible for their own choices. So Israel’s understanding of God seems to have shifted by the time of the prophets, anticipating the enhanced revelation of the New Testament.

At Loma Linda University there is a strong focus on God as the creator and sustainer of the world. In the mission of healing, we are continuing the creative and sustaining mission of God, who experiences the pain of His creatures along with them. In the earthly experience of Jesus, that ministry of healing was most clearly seen. Many patients come to Loma Linda with a negative view of God as one who is punishing them for their sins with sickness, accidents or chronic disease. It is very healing for them to learn about the union of love and purpose between the Father and the Son. If the Father had come done to earth instead of Jesus, He would not have been any different than Jesus was. It is a healing theology that lays out the complete unity within the godhead, and the gracious character of the Father.

Much of my life I have had something of a good cop/bad cop view of God. The Yahweh of the Old Testament was tough, judgmental and often scary and intimidating. The Jesus of the New Testament was gracious, kind and accepting. The two views of God kind of played off against each other. But I realize now that that picture was based on a misreading of Scripture. Jesus came to show us what the Father is really like. And what the Father is like is Jesus. There is no difference between the two. That is a strong Adventist contribution to Christian theology.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 2 (Trinity)

There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three coeternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. God, who is love, He is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation. (Gen. 1:26; Deut. 6:4; Isa. 6:8; Matt. 28:19; John 3:16 2 Cor. 1:21, 22; 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2.)

With the exception of  some re-arranging of the Bible texts, the only change made to this fundamental in San Antonio was replacing “He” at the beginning of the fourth sentence with “God, who is love,”. There seem to be two motives for the change, inclusive language (“God” vs. “He”) and adding a reference to love in the statement on the Trinity.

After reading this statement and some of the texts connected with it one of the faculty playfully asked, “If I invited the Trinity to dinner, how many plates should I place at the table?” One response was, “Just one, we are monotheists.” Another suggested, “Three plates, but one chair, and serve three different types of foods.” The struggle to answer a simple question illustrates the difficulty people have had for centuries in articulating the Christian picture of the godhead. Christians are monotheists, which means they don’t believe in three gods (or Gods), yet there is more to be said than simply that God is one (Deut 6:4). If one approaches the issues psychologically one could say that God is one in mind, yet there is a sense of three “personalities” (an analogy that I don’t think the Bible itself actually makes). If God is absolutely one, was Jesus praying to Himself while He was on earth? There is clearly also a social side to the gospel, members of the Trinity (also not a biblical term) can somehow converse among themselves and direct one another.

The bottom line with the Trinity doctrine is that these huge themes can only be approached through metaphor. Everything that we can possibly say about God is inadequate in the ultimate sense. For me, the most important thing about God as three is that it makes eternal love possible. If God were one in the absolute sense, God could be many things but love would not be one of them. Love would not be part of God’s essence. Love, in that case, would be possible only after creation. It would be a quality that responds to the creation. So it is interesting that Muslims, who have an absolute view of monotheism, have ninety-nine names for God, but don’t usually think of God in terms of love. If God is Trinity, then love is essential to God’s nature from the beginning. It is not something that happens only on account of creation, unless the created  universe itself was as eternal as God. John 1:1 clearly states otherwise—at the moment when “all things” were created, the Logos and “God” were already there. As parents know, a couple’s love can be quite self-centered on their own, but with the arrival of a baby, true love becomes complete.

Is the Trinity present in the Old Testament or does only the New Testament point toward it (the word “trinity” and the explicit concept in the FB above are not directly expressed even in the NT)? In our discussion, Genesis 18 was suggested first; the three visitors that came to Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom. Genesis 1 also speaks of God in plural, “Let us make human beings in our image.” And even the very Hebrew word for God (Elohim) is plural. Also in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, when it says that “God is one,” the Hebrew word for “one” (echad) expresses a compound unity. So while it would be inappropriate to say that the Trinity is clearly expressed in the OT, the OT data leaves the way open for the idea.

Is there a Loma Linda perspective on this doctrine? How we understand Trinity is very important to our concept of God. The Bible is clear that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:18-19). The cross of Christ does not occur to placate a wrathful Father or change His mind regarding the human race. God Himself provided the atonement because He loves us (John 3:16-17). All three members of the Trinity are involved in the work of reconciliation, in these matters, as Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). If you have seen Jesus you have seen the Father (John 14:9). So there is no wedge between the Father and the Son. If the Father had come down and lived on this earth as Jesus did, He would have looked and behaved no differently. There is perfect unity in the godhead.