Are all truths Truth?

Are all truths Truth?

 Some thoughts on the classification of beliefs

Reinder Bruinsma

 On May 20, 2004 Albert Mohler Jr, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, posted an article on his website entitled: ‘A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity’ (Mohler 2004).  The word triage comes from the French word ‘to sort’ and is mainly used in the medical sphere. In times of war, or when catastrophe strikes, it must be determined who requires priority medical care. Not all wounds are of equal seriousness. In a similar way, Mohler argues, Christians must determine ‘a scale of theological urgency.’ He suggests that there are ‘first-level theological issues’ that include doctrines which are ‘central and essential to the Christian faith.’ Those who deny these doctrines would cease to be Christians. Then there are second-degree doctrinal issues. They too are important, but in a different way. They mark Christians as belonging to a particular denomination. A denial of these doctrines would make it difficult, at the very least, to remain within the faith community that accepts these doctrines as important. Thirdly, there are theological positions over which even members of one and the same congregation or a particular denomination may disagree, without jeopardizing their fellowship. Mohler contends that such a ‘triage’ is important since it will help us to avoid fighting over third-level issues as if they were first-order doctrines, while on the other hand it also sends a strong signal that certain first-order doctrines should not be treated as if they belong in the second or third order. It would seem that this issue has significant implications for the way in which a church community proclaims its message, in particular in the emphasis particular facets of their teachings receive.

Mohler’s statement has been reprinted in several places and caused considerable discussion on the internet. He was, however not the first person to raise the issue, nor will he be the last. The question as to what are ‘essential’ or ‘first-order’ doctrines comes in many variations: What is the core of the Christian faith? What are the key doctrines of the church I belong to?  There are many different answers. Michael Michael Maneval, a correspondent for a local paper in Ridgeway, PA, claimed that the Church of the Nazarene has, in fact, only two core doctrines: justification and sanctification (Maneval 2005). In a recent book Darren C. Marks, professor of theology and Jewish studies at Huron University, distinguishes seven key doctrines (Marks  2009). Rose Publishing, a firm that specializes in Christian educational materials, advertises a series of pamphlets in which fourteen ‘basic doctrines’ of the Christian faith are explained (Geisler  n.d.).  R. C. Sproul seems to employ the term ‘essential’ more loosely, considering his book about no fewer than ‘100 key doctrines’ (Sproul 1992)

Why have doctrines?

When speaking about doctrine, many wonder: Why do we need doctrines? Doctrines and dogmas[1] are associated with theology and with an intellectual approach to religion. Why, many would say, is it not enough to have ‘simple’ child-like faith?  Faith and doctrine, however, may at times be in tension with each other but they are not opposites. Doctrine—or theology—results from faith and then nurtures faith. Faith, according to the famous dictum of medieval theologian St. Anselm, ‘seeks to understand itself.’[2] This ‘seeking to understand’ is not just an individual quest for truth, but takes place in the context of a community. The community of believers naturally wants to put what it believes in some kind of systematic order as it searches for the implications of its faith, in theory and practice. Most Christians would say that the doctrines they believe in are based on the Bible. However, ‘the community’s understanding of the Bible’ always happens ‘within the dynamic context of its concrete historical development’ and is not just a ‘summary of diligent biblical exegesis  (Rice 1991:89-92).’  It is one of the positive aspects of postmodernism that it has made us more aware of the fact that Bible reading does not happen in a vacuum, but usually within a community, with its own presuppositions, its own specific use of language and symbols, and its own traditions.

Doctrines are important for the nurture of the faith of the individual believer, though, admittedly, how doctrine interacts with individual faith varies greatly from person to person. Doctrine plays also a vital role in apologetics: in its defense of the faith and its rejection of ideas that find no support in Scripture.

Grammar is not the same as language, but grammar gives structure to language, and so enables communication—in particular about more complicated issues. In a similar manner doctrine may be considered as the grammar of faith (Jones 2002). It provides the structure for religious discourse.[3] George Lindbeck, who taught religion at Yale University (and became well-known as a champion for a post-liberal approach to religion and theology), stressed that, unless we acquire language of some kind, we cannot ‘actualize our capacities for thought, action and feeling.’ Therefore, ‘to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion’ (Lindbeck 1984: 34).

The postmodern camp fiercely objects to the emphasis on the propositional content of the Christian faith and untiringly stresses the priority of experience over intellectual assent to doctrines.  When everything is said and done, the postmodern person claims, all truths remains relative.  Many theologians have argued however (and I believe justifiably so) that logic demands that we reject complete relativity and that we accept that not everything can be true at the same time.  At the very least, some propositions must be false if they flatly contradict other propositions; they cannot all be true simultaneously (Plantinga 2000:422-457). It must be admitted that, for many Christians—Adventists most definitely included—the rational element has often tended to fully overshadow the experiential and relational aspects of religion. Yet, religion that goes to the other extreme and over-emphasizes experience to the detriment of all propositional content, must remain shallow and ultimately unsatisfactory. There must be both a what and a how to our religion, a cognitive and an affective dimension, resulting in a synthesis between knowing and feeling (Groothuis 2000:83-110; Bruinsma 2006: 37-42).

Doctrine and truth are related concepts. Doctrines are, it is commonly stated—in any case by most in the conservative and the evangelical camps—an attempt to translate Truth into human language. This imposes many limitations, even if the Holy Spirit is recognized as a major player in the process. For it will always remain impossible to fully express the divine in human categories, concepts, symbols, and language.

Postmodern thinking presents a number of major challenges, not in the least because it has made it increasingly difficult to convince thoroughly postmodern people that there is indeed Absolute Truth. But it has, I believe, done us a great service in making us more aware of the issues surrounding our human understanding of eternal Truth. While as conservative Christians we must insist on rejecting the postmodern view that there is no Absolute Truth, and must continue to protest against the idea that we must be content with each having our own individual set of ‘truths’; and while we will not agree with the suggestion that truth is utterly relative, many of us must, I believe, learn to admit that, while Truth is complete and perfect and does not change, our understanding of the Truth will change as the world and the conditions around us change. And while we will not accept the postmodern verdict that Christian language—and thus also doctrinal language—can never be more than a human expression of  time-conditioned ideas about things ‘above,’ many of us may need to consider that there may not be as many absolute certainties and ‘truths’ as we once believed there were.  (For a fuller discussion of the issue, see e.g. Phillips 1995; Wells 1993; Middleton 1995; Groothuis 2000; Bruinsma 2006.)

Statements of Belief

The traditional ‘main line’ denominations have at times been criticized by newcomers on the religious scene that they have fossilized their beliefs into an unchanging belief system that would not allow for any creative renewal on the basis of new insights into biblical truth. Some of these new denominations, in particular those that were part of the nineteenth century ‘restorationist’ movement (Knoll 1992: 237, 238; Knight 2000:30-32), of which some denominations are a contemporary reminder, were characterized by the urge to renew ‘simple’ New Testament Christianity. Several important leaders of early Adventism came to their new faith with this background, and strongly opposed the creation of a ‘creed’ for their own movement. They felt that accepting a creed would, in fact, be a step towards apostasy. It would, they contended, easily lead to spiritual tyranny and hinder any further advancement in the understanding of the truth (Knight 2000:22).

But although the Adventist Church still maintains that it has no creed other than the Bible,[4] it has, as time went by, developed a rather elaborate formulation of its main doctrines. The first version of an official statement of Adventists beliefs was adopted in1872 and consisted of 25 articles. The intention of that summary of beliefs was not ‘to secure uniformity,’ but rather ‘to meet inquiries’ and ‘to remove erroneous impressions’ (Schwartz  2000: 161; Land 1986:231-237). The revised statement issued in 1931 had 22 articles (Land 1986:237-241.[5]  This statement stood until 1980 when the church adopted a new, often more detailed, wording for the basic teachings of the church in 27 ‘fundamental beliefs,’ to which a 28th article was added in 2005.  The preamble indicates that the text of the statement could be subject to further change.  A revision of these beliefs ‘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’ (Church Manual  2005, 9). But those who have observed how complex the process was that preceded the 2005 addition of the section on ‘growing in Christ’—which was mainly addressing pastoral needs in some areas of the world, without actually adding any doctrinal content that was not already implicit in the 1980 version—will realize that significant revisions (or reductions) are not likely in the foreseeable future.

A few words need to be inserted at this point about the nature of doctrinal change, as this is relevant with regard to the question whether and/or how we may be able to differentiate between major doctrines and less important doctrines.  The process of determining what is ‘fundamental’ and what is not, it not a new trend invented by contemporary liberally-inclined church members who have been infected by postmodern ideas of deconstructionism, and  are now in search of ‘the core of Adventism.’

Change in doctrine, or ‘development of doctrine’ as others prefer to say, has been and is a constant feature of the Christian church. The many volumes written about the history of dogma testify to this. There is a great variety of theories about the way in which doctrinal development takes place. Some argue that later doctrinal development only makes explicit what was already implicit in early Christian teachings, while others allow for more ‘real’ change.[6] An analysis of doctrinal change in the course of Adventist history would show that it has mainly been of a particular type. Adventists have not so much initiated new doctrines, but have seen themselves as God’s instrument in the re-discovery of New Testament truth. Subsequently, they have, however, also seen the need to change particular emphases in the way in which they expressed their doctrinal views, in order to restore balance and defend their fully Christian identity.  But even though it must be admitted that change comes in different forms, and that gradual developments differ from sudden, radical changes whereby previously held beliefs are henceforth denied or totally ‘new’ doctrinal convictions are adopted, a development or a different emphasis does constitute a change, which over time may have a significant impact.

Among early authors who went to great lengths to provide historical credentials for ‘new’ Adventist doctrinal insights were John N. Andrews and Uriah Smith with their well-researched books on the Sabbath (Andrews 1862) and conditional immortality, respectively (Smith 1861). Later, LeRoy E. Froom left as his magnum opus his 4-volume Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, in an attempt to show how the ‘new’ prophetic understandings of Adventism were mainly re-discoveries of interpretations that were held by many theologians and church leaders in centuries gone-by (Froom 1950:1946). This, he maintained was also true of the Adventist re-discovery of a number of foundational Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, and the full deity and eternity of Christ, to which he referred as ‘eternal verities’  (Froom 1971:33ff). The publication of the rather controversial book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Knight 2003) offers further proof of the felt need to clarify some Adventist beliefs and to show that these beliefs, in fact, conformed to orthodox Christian dogma. Even today, however, many believe that it did much more than this, i.e. that it signified a real substantial dogmatic re-orientation (Knight  2003: xiii-xxxvi ).

The pillars of our faith

There is no doubt that there has been change in Adventists beliefs and in the manner in which these have been expressed in print and otherwise. This change has often been gradual and seldom assumed the form of a direct denial of a conviction that was previously held. Yet, George Knight is right when he opens the first chapter of his book on the development of Adventist beliefs with the statement that most of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church would not be able to join the church today if they had to agree to its current theology (Knight  2000:17). The same author affirms that ‘the history of Adventist theology is one of ongoing transformation’  (Knight  2000:12). In other words:  doctrinal change is not a matter of imagination but has been real. Another factor to be noted is the insistence by the Adventist ‘pioneers’ (Ellen White most definitely among them) on the dynamic nature of ‘present truth,’ that is recognized in the distinct possibility of “new light’.  Even today the Adventist Church has a process to seriously study any ‘new light’ that might emerge.  These facts are important to keep in mind as we discuss the matter of differentiating between various strands of doctrine and it helps us not to take immediate recourse to stressing the dangers of relativism and subjectivism if people are looking for the ‘core’ of Adventist teachings.

It cannot be denied that Adventists have, from the very beginning of their movement, understood certain biblical truths as more prominent than others. The 1872 statement of beliefs stated that the intent was to highlight ‘the more prominent features’ of the faith (Land 1986:231).  The fact that to early Adventists some teachings were of special importance and apparently ranked over other doctrines, is probably best illustrated by referring to some statements made by Ellen White. She often referred to the ‘pillars of truth’ and to the ‘landmarks’ of our faith.  Although her application of these terms was rather fluid, it is clear that she did not regard all doctrines as having equal importance. The messages of ‘the three angels’ held a unique status; they were, in her mind, at the very basis of the self-understanding of the Adventist Church (White  1958:104-107). Thus she wrote: ‘The theme of the greatest importance is the third angel’s message, embracing the messages of the first and the second angels’ (White  1946:29, italics supplied). The theology of the heavenly sanctuary and its ‘cleansing’ was also  a ‘landmark’ truth (White  1946:30). In The Great Controversy Ellen White stated: ‘The scripture which above all others had been both the foundation and the central pillar of the advent faith was the declaration: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Daniel 8:14’  (White  1911: 409, italics supplied). In addition she identified the Sabbath and the ‘non-immortality of the wicked’ as ‘landmarks’ (White  1946: 30, 31). The perpetuity of the divine law was clearly a cardinal element in Adventist teachings. This was also true for Ellen White, but as time went by she did her utmost to help restore the lost balance between law and gospel. In a sermon during the watershed Minneapolis General Conference in 1888, she criticized her fellow believers as follows: ‘The third  angel’s message is the proclamation of the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ. The commandments of God have been proclaimed, but the faith of Jesus Christ has not been proclaimed as of equal importance, the law and the gospel going hand in hand’  (Ellen White, Manuscript 24, November or December 1888. Quoted in: Knight   1987:40, italics supplied).

These quotes from a primary spokesperson for early Adventism, to which many more could be added, illustrate that early Adventists did consider some doctrines as more essential than others. It is quite evident however that this judgment was not primarily based on careful theological analysis, but had to do with how they perceived their mission: to preach those truths that had been obscured by traditional religion and were now being rediscovered.  It should, of course, be noted that this preaching took place when they could assume that most people in their audience subscribed to the basic Christian teachings of conservative Protestantism, and that, as a result, these doctrines were not highlighted.

The realization that other elements of the Christian message that were part of the orthodox Christian tradition must not be neglected, while the specifically Adventist doctrines were emphasized, emerged gradually, but increasingly strongly, as the denomination further developed.  This also can aptly be illustrated by referring to the writings of Ellen White. As she matured in her thinking her emphases changed significantly.  A quote from 1893 may serve as a fitting example: ‘Christ and his character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth, He is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked’ (Webster  1984:150).[7]

Which fundamentals are truly fundamental?

Do these doctrinal developments and statements about ‘more important’ (and thus, by implication, also of less important) beliefs in earlier Adventism suggest that any present attempts to distinguish between essential fundamentals[8] and more peripheral fundamentals would fit into the Adventist tradition? Or is the very concept of  a ‘peripheral fundamental’ an oxymoron?  In reply to this, it might, first of all, be argued that any attempt to compile a list of fundamental beliefs requires a process of evaluation; some doctrines rather than some others are eventually included. It also demands that the ‘fundamentals’ that are selected are put in a particular order, at least partly determined by their relative importance. [9]

The fact that not all of the 28 fundamental beliefs carry equal weight seems to be confirmed by the fact that the prescribed statement of ‘commitment’ to which baptismal candidates are expected to give their assent, offers a summary of just thirteen doctrines, which are expressed much more concisely than in the corresponding wording for these particular doctrines that is found in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 34-35). The thirteen-point ‘Baptismal Vow’ closely reflects the statement of commitment. Interestingly, a much shorter ‘alternative vow’ is also considered acceptable. This alternative vow contains a reference to ‘the teachings of the Bible as expressed in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs’, whereas in the regular vow no such reference is deemed necessary, even though it is not as complete as the full text of the 28 Fundamentals.  Can the list to which baptismal candidates give their assent perhaps be considered as more ‘fundamental’ than ‘the 28’?

Opinion of church members regarding the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs differs greatly. I have found that there are church members who hold a very ‘high’ view of the Fundamental Beliefs and who regard each line or even each word as semi-inspired. It is an attitude that borders on what one might call ‘fundamentolatry.’[10] On the other hand there is, I believe, a widespread sentiment that the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs is too detailed (Ball  2009:67) and strangely mixes life style standards with doctrinal issues.

Some other aspects also suggest that not all doctrines listed in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs are of equal weight, if not in theory then at least in praxis. For instance: an Adventist pastor who has doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity (nr. 2) or about the full divinity of Christ, or holds a ‘low’ view of the inspiration of Ellen White (nr. 18), probably runs a smaller employment risk than one who does not abstain from tobacco (nr. 22). Yet, few would, I hope, argue that, after all, smoking is a more serious theological problem than a denial of the Trinity or of the godhead of Christ.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that disagreeing with some aspects of the Adventist end-time scenario that are not mentioned in the Statement may well pose a greater occupational hazard for pastors than expressing doubt about some articles that are included in the Statement!  No doubt, some would argue that what happens in a disciplinary process is bound to be influenced by many other, often non-doctrinal, considerations. But do the examples given not suggest that some views that are outside the official Statement may be considered as more ‘fundamental’ than those that are actually listed?

How do we proceed?

If there are grounds for entertaining the premise that some doctrines are more important than others, how can we then get beyond our individual preferences and beyond a fairly general sense that not everything can be equally important? Can we establish some sound criteria by which we may establish a hierarchy of doctrine in Adventist theology?

Whatever model we develop, one foundational fact is clearly provided by Scripture in an ipsissimum verbum of Christ, as reported in John 14:6. Christ declared that He is the Truth, i.e. that all Truth radiates from Him. Every doctrine that claims to be ‘truth’ must therefore be related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ is the center. He gives the foundation to any truly Christian ‘system’ of ‘fundamental’ truths. This is what the gospel—the good news—is all about. ‘It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16). ‘Salvation is found in no one else,’ but Christ (Acts 4:12). Denial of this foundational truth determines whether one is part of God’s camp or not. Again we can quote a word from Christ’s own lips that confirms this: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. But whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him’ (Johan 3:36).  The ‘knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ is crucial, and believers must make sure that it is not ’ineffective and unproductive’ (2 Peter 1:8). John uses even stronger language: Everyone ‘who denies that Jesus is the Christ’ is labeled ‘antichrist’ (1 John 2:22).  George Knight underlines the importance of this point of departure by stating that ‘a relationship with Jesus and an understanding of the cross of Christ and other central elements of the plan of salvation informs a person’s understanding of doctrine’ (Knight  2001:5-7). Fittingly he refers to a statement made by Ellen White, in which she states that ‘the plan of redemption’  is the central theme of the Bible. When ’viewed in relation to the grand central thought . . . every topic has a new significance’  (White  1952: 125).

Although this consideration is a solid point of departure, more needs to be said. For what will be the next step in this process of performing a doctrinal triage? How to establish a proper methodology is beyond the scope of this chapter but must be an urgent topic for discussion among Adventist theologians.  Some initial suggestions may, however, be helpful in starting this further discussion.

A two-, three- or four-tiered doctrinal edifice?

The first question that the book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine deals with is: ‘What doctrines do Seventh-day Adventists hold in common with Christians in general, and in what aspects of Christian thought do they differ?’ In the reply three categories of doctrines are distinguished: (1) doctrines the Adventists have ‘in common with conservative Christians and the historic Protestant creeds’; (2) ‘certain controverted doctrines that we share with some but not with all conservative Christians’; and (3) ‘a few doctrines [that] are distinctive with us’ (Knight  2003:21-24). The total number of doctrines listed in these three categories is thirty-six.  This reminds us of Albert Mohler, whom we met in the introductory paragraph of this chapter, and who, likewise, suggested three different doctrinal layers.

A similar  approach has been suggested by Robert C. Greer in his widely acclaimed book Mapping Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options (Greer  2003).  He pleads for a two-tiered system. (1) In the ‘Top Tier’ we should place ‘those articles that establish the parameters of orthodoxy’: those doctrines that correspond ‘to the creeds of the early church that have historically defined orthodoxy.’ (2) In the ‘Bottom Tier’ we may place those doctrines that correspond ‘to the particular distinctives of individual ecclesial bodies’ (Greer  2003:172ff).

Although this type of classification may be helpful in clarifying what is, and what is not, unique to the community to which one belongs, it does not offer us much assistance for determining which Adventist doctrines may be more fundamental than others. The adaptation offered by Woodrow Whidden may be useful in taking us a step forward (Whidden 1997:77-88). He suggests, much in line with Greer and others, that we must distinguish between doctrines that reflect the common orthodox Christian heritage from those that are ‘Adventist.’ He correctly, I think, observes that the first category cannot be limited to the early Christian Creeds that ‘have historically defined orthodoxy’ (Greer) or that we have ‘in common with conservative Christians and the historic Protestant creeds’ (QOD), but must also be informed by some Wesleyan / Arminian strands. Then there are Adventist doctrines which Whidden calls ‘essential’: those elements that form the ‘essential framework of Adventist theological discourse.’ He further suggests that some Adventist doctrines may rather be seen as ‘processive’ issues, or may be considered as ‘non-essential’ (Whidden  1997:80).[11]  Knight, in contrast to Whidden, is of the opinion that life style issues must also fit somewhere into this classification of truth (Knight  2001:5-7).

I would like to propose a model in which elements of both Knight and Whidden are combined. Graphically it would look more like a few concentric circles than like a pyramid or stack of building blocks. In his article that I have referred to several times, George Knight depicts a ‘hub-in-a-wheel’ model to illustrate what he wants to say. The cross of Christ stands at the center, the various doctrines serve as spokes, and life style issues form the rim of the wheel of Truth (Knight  2001:7).  My model is similar but makes, I believe,  a few points somewhat clearer, even though I also want to stress the distinction between foundational Christian and specifically Adventist doctrines.

Doctrine as an  arrangement  of concentric circles: (going from the core to the outer periphery

Core:   Jesus Christ

  1. Foundational Christian doctrinal principles
  2. ‘Essential’ Adventist doctrinal principles
  3.  ‘Less essential’ Adventist doctrines and main life style issues
  4. Common ideas and cultural and time-related interpretations.

Let me suggest some examples of doctrines and views for each category. In category (1) I would situate for example: God as Trinity; the triune God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe; salvation and eternal life and judgment through Jesus Christ; the active presence of the Holy Spirit; the inspiration of the Scriptures; a revealed moral code; the main phases of the salvivic process; and a call to preach the gospel. In category (2) a number of Adventist ‘essentials’ would find their place, such as the seventh-day Sabbath, the imminent premillennial return of Christ, baptism by immersion, the belief in Christ’s  high priestly ministry, man’s call to be stewards, man’s conditional immortality and the continuation of spiritual gifts. Category (3) would, in my view, be the location for such Adventist teachings as specific applications of the historicist interpretation of prophecy, tithing, specific health laws, the time aspect of the high priestly ministry (‘1844’), and, possibly, footwashing, etc.  In the last concentric circle (4) I would tend to place certain traditional prophetic interpretations, specific issues surrounding the inspiration of Ellen White,[12] the ideas of what is allowed or not allowed on the Sabbath, styles of worship, the specifics about the wearing of ‘jewelry’, etc.

A few final remarks

I realize that suggesting a model as this will not be welcomed by all Adventists. Some will probably be totally opposed to it, or will react even more strongly. I realize, in particular, that mentioning examples of what should be placed in each category could prove to be an exercise that is extremely hazardous for my denominational comfort.  As mentioned above, a proper methodology would need to be developed to guide us in working out the details of such a ranking of doctrinal beliefs. But there is little doubt that many in the church would welcome a discussion such as this and long for an honest debate about what truly belongs to the core of Adventism and what is not ‘essential’ in quite the same way.

In this discussion a few things must, I believe, be kept in mind.

  • All doctrinal principles and specific doctrines, wherever they are placed in this model, must in some way clearly relate to the Center: Jesus Christ. Doctrinal truth only becomes Truth when it is connected with the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • The lines between the categories will not always be totally clear.There will, of necessity, remain some difference of opinion about certain beliefs, as to whether they should be just above or just under the line. The crucial question is: Can we point to a few key doctrines that, without any doubt, solidly belong in each category. The process of answering this question can be immensely productive for us as individual believers as well as for the community to which we belong. If there is a ‘core’ of beliefs, these doctrines would be part of the first two categories.
  • The fact that foundational Christian doctrines are separated from Adventist ‘essential’ doctrines is very intentional. It would not be helpful to try to put these under one heading, even though they, of course, interrelate in many ways. It is not, for instance, helpful to compare the relative weight of the Sabbath with that of the doctrine of the Trinity, and then ask ourselves which of the two is most important. It would in many ways be a matter of comparing apples with pears. The Seventh-day Adventist identity is determined by a firm commitment to both categories. The fact that we are Christians first, and, as Christians, have also chosen to be Adventists, entitles us to be called Adventist Christians (Ball  2009). Ensuring that prime attention be paid to the foundational Christian elements will be a constant reminder that in our day and age we cannot take it for granted that both the audiences in our church and outside the church bring these doctrines along when they begin to consider the Adventist version of Christianity.
  • The label ‘less essential’ exactly means that. It should not be understood as ‘not foundational’ or ‘not-essential’ or ‘unimportant.’
  • Admittedly, any process of classifying doctrine is a subjective undertaking. This model is no exception. Mistakes can be made. However, it is not totally subjective and need not be a sure recipe for disaster. There is guidance through the inspired Word and through the living Spirit. We need to remember that, as long as we are imperfect humans, any theological activity will remain subjective and, in a sense, risky. Yet, apparently, this is how God has in his providence and wisdom determined that we should operate, considering the fact that He has not done this job for us, and has not seen it as propitious to arrange for an inspired  Statement of Fundamental Beliefs or for a list of core doctrines as part of the Bible. Formulating doctrinal statements is a human assignment that calls for much humility, study and prayer. But it not an assignment that should simply be shunned as too dangerous and as leading to a moribund ‘slippery slope.’ It is an assignment that is never fully completed.
  • Some readers may in the latter part of this essay have missed a reference to the ‘three angels’ messages.’ Is Revelation 14:6-14 not an ‘essential’ Adventist doctrine? they may wonder. I believe the answer must be ‘no.’ These text are indeed seminal for our Adventist self-understanding and they lead to a particular emphasis on a number of ‘essential’ doctrines, as those of creation, the Sabbath, the judgment and salvation for those who choose it. Thus, these verses from the Bible are ‘essential’ in the sense that they lead to a renewed emphasis on a number of foundational Christian doctrines, but they should not in themselves be referred to as a ‘doctrine.‘
  • It took Adventists more than a century to arrive at the current summary of ‘fundamental beliefs.’ It was an organic process that involved the entire community and was not without pain. Doctrinal development takes time. Similarly, it is not to be expected that arriving at a consensus of what constitutes the core of Adventist beliefs, can happen overnight. It will require patience . . . and tolerance!
  • In the unlikely case that any time soon the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs is to be substantially revised, the new text should, I believe, be limited to these doctrines that are ‘foundational Christian’ and ‘essential Adventist.’ And hopefully, those who would be involved in the actual drafting of a new text, will take heed of the words of Robert Greer: ‘. . .  doctrinal statements . . . should not be too comprehensive. When a doctrinal statement is too comprehensive, it (a) runs the risk of becoming dangerously seductive, since it offers a finality of Christian thought that for some people is attractive and comforting; (b) eliminates the need to think critically; (c) mutes the Holy Spirit, who may wish to speak afresh from Scripture to a given individual or community; and (d) breeds triumphalism, which discourages rather than encourages theological conversation across denominational or ecclesiastical boundaries (Greer  2003:174).


It is impossible within the limitations of this chapter to discuss in any detail the implication of  a project as we discussed above. Some might warn that promoting such an endeavor will only cause disunity and will lead the church away from its focus on the church’s mission. And, undoubtedly, there are serious dangers and one must seek to do it in responsible and sensitive ways. But not attempting it carries its own risks and may, in the long term, be even deadlier for the life and wellbeing of the church.

It is no secret that many church members are, in actual fact, operating with a limited set of beliefs that they consider ‘fundamental,’ with a list that is usually quite a bit shorter than the official statement they are supposed to agree with. Others are asking for help in their search for the essence—the core—of Adventist beliefs and find it difficult to accept that 28 complex theological paragraphs can all be equally ‘fundamental.’ They are not led by a desire to have an ‘easier’ faith, but they are searching for a faith that can be expressed in more relevant terms.

A continuing individual and corporate search for the ‘foundational’ and ‘essential’ elements in Adventist Christianity will also be an important element in promoting and safeguarding responsible evangelism, assuring that it does not major in minors. And, it will be of great importance in the pastoral duties as well as in the preaching of our ministers. Hopefully, these aspects can be treated in some depth at some future occasion. In the meantime the question  whether all truths are Truth in the very same way will not go away.


[1]  Although often used (almost) as synonyms, the two terms do, in fact, both reflect what is the topic of our present discussion. ‘Doctrines’ is a wider term referring to the systematized understanding of the Christian faith,  which is useful in the processes of instruction,  discipline, propaganda and controversy. Dogma usually has a more specific reference to the ‘basic, axiomatic’ principles that form the foundation of all further doctrinal reflection. See the article ‘Doctrine and Dogma’ in Encyclopedia Britannica (Online): In this essay we will use the term ‘doctrine’, also in cases where some would use its more restricted corollary ‘dogma.’

[2]  In Latin: ‘Fides quaerens intellectum.’

[3]  It is not within the scope of this short essay to discuss the philosophical problem of the nature of language, such as whether members of a community merely play a ‘language game,’ with their language meaning anything they intend it to mean, or as a vehicle to provide information about some objective entity to which it refers. The latter view is the underlying assumption in this chapter. For a fuller discussion, see e.g. Murphy,  1996), especially the chapter ‘Description or Expression: How can we speak about God?’, pp. 36-61.

[4]  See the preamble to the ‘Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists’. This statement is found in many Adventist publications, e.g. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 2005 ed. pp. 9-19.

[5]  The text differed significantly from the 1872 document, for instance in its clear enunciation of the doctrines of the Trinity, the full divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

[6]  For a useful discussion of these theories, see Rolf Pöhler, Continuity and  Change in Christian Doctrine (Frankfurt am Main: Per Lang, 1999).

[7]  Ellen G. White, ‘Contemplate Christ’s Perfection, not Man’s Imperfection’, Review and Herald, August 15, 1893. Quoted in:  Eric Claude Webster, Crosscurrents in Adventist Theology (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1984), p. 150.

[8]  The use of the term ‘fundamental(s)’ may not be entirely fortuitous, as it is so closely associated with the rather loaded term ‘fundamentalism.’  Most Adventists would object to being classified as fundamentalists, but it must be recognized that, when the fundamentalist movement began with the publication of the Fundamentals (series of pamphlets written in reaction to rampant modernism), there was widespread sympathy for this new current. Adventists in the earlier part of the twentieth century often applied the term ‘fundamentalists’ to themselves, and many embraced the concepts of verbal inspiration and inerrancy, which became standard fare among fundamentalists. See Reinder Bruinsma, ‘Adventist and Protestant Fundamentalism’, in Spectrum (vol. 30,  nr.  1),  pp. 24-36.

[9] Whether the order in which the current ‘Fundamental Beliefs’ are given in the best possible order and whether they are presented in the best possible wording is debatable. George R. Knight, is not convinced that this is the case. See his article  ‘Twenty-seven Fundamentals in Search of a Theology,’ Ministry (Febr. 2001), pp. 5-7.

[10]  A neologism inspired by the term bibliolatry, that refers to a worship of the Scriptures.

[11]  One may question whether the distinction between ‘important’ and ‘less important’ is fully synonymous with the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential.’  The latter distinction may be a bit sharper, but each set of terms points to a difference in ranking, where those points that are considered ‘important’ or ‘essential’ play a more prominent role than those considered ‘less important’ or ‘non-essential’, cq. ‘less essential.’

[12]  That fact that Ellen White refers to her own writings as a ‘lesser’ light that directs people to the’ greater’ light (the Bible), provides the justification to place particular views about her inspiration in this category. See Review and Herald, January 20, 1903. Quoted in Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 30.

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