Monthly Archives: June 2016

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.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 1 (Holy Scriptures)

“The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.” (2 Peter 1:20, 21; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 4:12.)

As my colleagues and I looked at this fundamental, a number of things stood out. First of all, was the word “infallible.” For some of us, that suggested eerie echoes of the Papacy and the inerrancy positions of some of our Evangelical colleagues. But in fact, when this fundamental was voted (1980), the word was carefully chosen to be a step short of “inerrant.” Adventists wanted a more flexible approach to Scripture than that of “inerrancy in the original documents,” but they didn’t want to imply that the Bible was full of errors, either. There is a balance in the Bible between the divine and the human. While the “Word of God” would be infallible by definition, the Bible was written by human beings and exhibits human characteristics, cultural differences, and at times grammatical mistakes (Book of Revelation). If you’re not familiar with the last point, ask me about it.

In formulating our view of the Bible it is important not only to take into account the assertions about the Bible made by the biblical authors (such as the texts included with the Fundamental above), but also the evidence of the Bible itself. Whatever we mean by inspiration, it does not preclude inspired writers from disagreeing on the order of events in Jesus’ life, writing in different styles and quality of Greek, or emphasizing different metaphors of the atonement. In the Bible God meets us where we are and where we are is rarely the perfect venue for expressing the infinite truth of God. So we need to test our understanding of inspiration, not only against the statements of the Bible on inspiration, but also against the phenomena of how God chose to reveal Himself to human beings.

Example: I would not have expected, on the basis of this fundamental, for God to use an idol as a means of revelation. But then I read Daniel 2 in the original language! Nebuchadnezzar recognized the “image” (Aramaic: tsemel) as something that could and should be worshiped (see chapter 3—also tsemel). In the dream of Daniel 2, therefore, God described the future of the world by means of an idol image. God met Nebuchanezzar where he was in order to move him a step or two in the right direction. We would not expect that on the basis of an absolutist reading of Isaiah 8:20 or John 17:17.

Another important distinction comes in how we read the Bible. It is easy to say, “I take the Bible as it reads.” But then the question arises, “Whose reading is the correct one?” One common way of reading is to understand the Bible to be a static document. Every statement of Scripture expresses exactly what God would say in every other situation as well. In the static understanding, I just need to take the Bible at face value and apply my understanding everywhere. Some call this type of reading “literal,” taking the Bible literally, as if it was not given in a particular language, culture and historical situation. But if we insisted on taking the whole Bible literally, we would still have slaves today, we would execute our children for rebellion against their parents, and we would never wear clothing with a mixture of fibers (to list just a few examples). The reality is, no one takes the whole Bible literally. To read it literally means to pick and choose the texts you wish to emphasize and that is not really taking it literally any more. The texts you choose to emphasize determine the outcome of your study.

But if God meets people where they are, we would not expect the Bible to be static. We would not expect every statement of the Bible to be God’s absolute will for all time. Instead, we would expect to see God meeting people where they are and seeking to move them in the direction He wants them to go. For example, God chose not to confront the issue of slavery head on in the context of the brutal Roman Empire. But through Paul He taught people how to treat slaves the way God treated people in Christ (Philemon). That was a huge and revolutionary step that inevitably led to the recognition that if all people are equal at the foot of the cross, then slavery is not the will of God.

When Paul told wives to submit to their husbands, he was not endorsing spousal abuse, he was radically modifying the marital relationship in the light of the self-sacrificing love of Christ. Submit to a man who would be willing to die for you the way he submits to the Christ who died for him. While the language of the text adopts the common language of submission, it transforms that language in the light of Christ. If all are equal at the foot of the cross, then God’s aspiration for women may be higher than the direct statements of Scripture would suggest. God meets us where we are and seeks to move us toward a goal. This means reading the Bible as a dynamic text that enables our understanding of God’s will to grow along with our capacity to understand. As Jesus said, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now.” (John 16:12, my translation)

Loma Linda University is certainly committed to the primacy of the Bible in determining what is truth. But it is also committed to the integration of all knowledge, and this can only happen when submitted human reason is carefully applied to the evidence of both Scripture and nature/science. As such, the Loma Linda perspective seeks to understand the Bible in its original context, and is observant of distinctions between poetry, narrative, history, prophecy and apocalyptic. It takes the Bible seriously as it reads, but as it reads in a whole Bible. The richness of Scripture is a continual source of developing truth.

But above all else, the Loma Linda approach to the Bible sees in it a “larger view” of God and the cosmic conflict that is an essential context for all 66 books of the Bible. This “larger view” was stimulated by broad reading of Ellen White’s books like Steps to Christ and the Conflict Series. Ellen White encourages the biblical reader to see the entire Bible in the context of the conflict between Christ and Satan. But this is not a reading imposed on the Scriptures. Through history, many great readers of the Bible have also seen this, from Origen, to Dante, to Milton to C. S. Lewis. While not always on the surface, the cosmic conflict is the essential undercurrent of Scripture, without which it addresses merely the human point of view on God and the problem in the universe. Seeing Scripture through the lens of the cosmic conflict is the reason Scripture at Loma Linda is seen more through a healing lens than a legal or punitive one. But the healing side of Adventism must not be used to negate the other (apocalyptic, end-time approach). They are rather like two sides of a coin. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

On the Preamble to the SDA Fundamental Beliefs

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.

The 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists

Since the Seventh-day Adventist Church has just completed the process of re-evaluating and re-wording its 28 Fundamental Beliefs (finalizing in July, 2015 in San Antonio), as called for in the Preamble to the Fundamentals, I thought it would be interesting to toss these 28 to my faculty one at a time and see what kind of dynamic that would create. And if you’d ever wanted to be a mouse in the corner at one of our faculty meetings, I plan to give you a chance. We will consider them one by one and I will reflect on that conversation here. The goal will be to post one a week at the blog site ( until we’re done.

Since I mentioned it, we’ll begin next week with the Preamble, which provides the basis for re-evaluating the 28 Fundamentals from time to time. Oddly, when I began preparing for this project a couple years ago, I had great difficulty even finding the Preamble online. Apparently, for some time the official web site of the SDA Church published the 28 without the Preamble, which is odd. There may have been a certain logic to that, since it is not a part of the 28 themselves (I have sometimes called it “Fundamental Zero”). But it is not a throwaway, it is really critical to the whole philosophy by which the Fundamentals need to be understood. I don’t know if I influenced the decision (I complained loudly about his in a number of places), but the Preamble is now once again proudly lodged at the top of the 28 Fundamentals on the General Conference web site:

Ideally, the fundamental beliefs are not a “creed,” they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. “Here is what Seventh-day Adventists generally believe. We invite you to consider these and decide whether you’d like to join us.” That is a description of how most SDAs look at things. But these days more and more people seem to be treating the Fundamentals as prescriptive, telling us exactly what we must believe. And threatening consequences should we differ in as much as a word.

Such a perspective on the fundamental beliefs goes directly contrary to the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who would say things like, “We have no creed but the Bible,” and “The Bible is our only rule of faith and practice,” and “let us not think that all our expositions of Scripture are without error.” How could an Adventist ever change and grow in the understanding of Scripture unless someone, somewhere, questions something in one of the Fundamentals? To reduce the Bible to a set of propositions that cannot be reconsidered seems the height of apostasy to me.

An early Adventist pioneer, John Loughborough, agreed. In a General Conference session he opined as follows: “The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

In the spirit of Loughborough, the 28 Fundamentals of the Seventh-day Adventist Church begin with a Preamble as follows: “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.”

In the spirit of the Preamble, this blog will report discussions of the School of Religion faculty on the Preamble itself and each of the 28 Fundamentals. These discussions will not be prescriptive, telling you what you must believe, but descriptive of what a significant group of Adventist thinkers finds of value in these fundamentals and suggesting ways to understand them better. I can’t promise this process will be a lot of “fun,” but I hope all who read these columns will be drawn closer to God and be more ready for the return of Jesus.