“Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”
I understand that the original draft of this Preamble was written by Ron Graybill, in hopes of forestalling any trend toward a creed. Ironically, the Preamble is now being used to “tighten up” the wording of many of these Fundamentals to make them harder to “get around.” Concerns about development of a “creed” have grown in recent years. One of the SDA Church founders, James White, was afraid of putting beliefs on paper as the mere act of doing so would become a creed (like Loughborough’s comments in the previous blog). But here we are. The time has probably come for SDAs to consciously defend that what they have produced is not a creed, if in fact Adventists don’t want one.
What is the difference between a creed and a list of fundamental beliefs? For one thing, creeds are usually quite a bit shorter than the SDA Fundamentals. They usually express minimal expectations and are often intended for memorization and recitation in worship. The SDA Fundamentals are far from memorable, even a list of the 28 is difficult for most people to remember. In addition, a creed is something that doesn’t change. It expresses a point of view from a particular point in time. It may be interpreted in different ways, but the wording tends to be fixed. By all these definitions, the 28 Fundamentals probably do not qualify as a creed, at least not yet.
I remember an important conversation with a major church official ten years ago. Based on the Preamble, he stated his belief that the Fundamentals could grow or change, but they could never shrink. I protested that they were probably too long already and that some were more major than others and we should be open to the discovery that we could be wrong on one point or another. In looking at the Preamble, however, I can see where he might have gotten that perspective. The Preamble anticipates changes when a “fuller understanding” is developed or we find better language to express what is already there. I, on the other hand, would understand “fuller” to include subtraction as well as addition, if we decided that a certain concept might be true, but didn’t need to be elevated to Fundamental status. In my view, our understanding should become more accurate and complete, but not necessarily greater in quantity. But it is just such ambiguities in the current formulations that enable discussion and growth in understanding.
When it comes to statements of consensus, the more people that are involved the harder they are to achieve. What usually happens in large organizations is that a few strong leaders cast their vision of what should be, and they usually carry the day. But is that the way the Holy Spirit leads to consensus?
What is the relationship between Fundamental Beliefs and the Bible? A popular phrase, inherited from the Reformers, is “sola sciptura,” meaning roughly “The Bible Only.” But the meaning of that phrase today is often different than it was back then. The Reformers didn’t mean by this that all ideas had to be directly based on the Bible. There are many sources of moral and theological wisdom outside the Bible, and the Reformers recognized and used them. They meant, rather, that the Bible operates like a measuring stick, setting the basic principles and helping people distinguish truth and error in other sources of wisdom. To limit our understanding of theology to what is explicit in the Bible was never the Reformers intention.
A Loma Linda perspective on this Preamble would be to underline its openness to evidence and to science as a source of truth and wisdom. Adventists have never believed in a fixed creed. There has always been the sense that we know in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12), that there is more to learn (Prov 4:18) and that our knowledge will increase along with our effort and our capacity to understand (John 16:12). SDAs, therefore, have been remarkably open to theological and structural development in the past. We have changed our organizational structure at least four times (1861, 1863, 1901, 1903). We believed in a Shut Door (to salvation) at first, but now are an aggressive, worldwide evangelistic movement. We once thought Turkey was the key to understanding the end-time prophecies of the Bible, but we gradually abandoned that view after World War I. We “discovered” righteousness by faith in 1888 and still struggle to implement it in places. To be honest, most of the SDA pioneers (1840s and 1850s) couldn’t have signed on to all 28 of the current Fundamentals. So this Preamble is a nice statement of the “Adventist Spirit” of research, openness to new truth, and growth in understanding.