What is really ‘fundamental’?

 

In last week’s blog I suggested that many of the things we refer to as ‘fundamental’ are not really so very ‘fundamental’. I referred among other things to the 28 so-called Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I asked the question: How in the world can 28 points all be truly ‘fundamental’? Moreover, these are not only 28 short sentences, but each of these is developed in quite a bit of detail, and those details, presumably, also get the label of ‘fundamental.’ That many take this view, was clearly illustrated a few weeks ago during the World Congress of the church, when a full day was spent on the precise rewording of some of ‘the 28’, and 2500-plus delegates were asked to vote even on the sequence in which the supporting biblical passages are listed.

I promised to draw up a list of those aspect of my beliefs that are ‘fundamental’ for my personal faith. Please note: I am not thereby saying that all other elements in ‘the 28’ are not correct or totally unimportant. But if I have to summarize my beliefs—as these currently function for me—my statement of beliefs will look something like this:

I believe

-       in God—three in one: Father, Son and holy Spirit.

-       that God is the creator of everything, and that I, therefore, am a created being with the privileges and responsibilities this iimplies.

-       that Jesus Christ came to our earth and has radically solved the sin problem through his death and resurrection—for the world and for me.

-       that the holy Spirit guides my conscience and equips me with certain gifts, as he sees fit.

-       that the Bible is an inspired book that tells God’s history with mankind, and provides me with basic guiding principles, so that I can live as God intended.

-       that, as a human being, I am subject to death, but that, when I die, my identity is safe with God; he will give me a new start in an eternal existence.

-       that our present world is infected by  evil of demonic proportions, so that a solution is needed from on high; to realize this Christ will come once again to this earth and create a ‘new heaven and a new earth.’

-       that as a follower of Christ I can only live authentically if I consciously seek to shape my life after the principles he has modeled for me.

-       that every seventh-day Sabbath I have the unique opportunity to find true rest in the rest that God provides.

-       that I am responsible for how I treat this earth and use my time, my material means, my talents and my body.

-       that, together with all true christians, I can be a member of God’s church.

-       that the faith community to which I belong has an important part in the worldwide proclamation of the gospel and has the task to place a number of important accents.

-       that through my baptism I may be part of God’s church and can, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, be regularly reminded of Christ’s suffering and death; and that I may experience spiritual growth together with those in the community of which I feel a part.

Of course, such a list can never be final. And what I have listed is ‘fundamental’ for me–others will have to reflect on what is ‘fundamental’ for them, and will probably use different words, add certain points, or leave out certain points.

This is the crux of the matter: It is good to reflect from time to time on what is really ‘fundamental’. It helps to differentiate between primary and secondary things and not to treat secondary things as if they are the most important. That, unfortunately, is all too often done by us—individually and collectively as a faith community.

 

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Is everything equally important?

 

No, not all things in life are equally important. We often say: ‘ The main thing is to be healthy!’ And, fortunately, most people rate family and friends higher than all sort of material things. Life becomes very difficult if one does not know how to differentiate between things that are really important and the things that have a lower priority.

The same applies to the sphere of church and spiritual life. The ‘higher’ church organization (in the Adventist church: General Conference, divisions, unions, conferences) certainly have a role to play, but the local church is the place where the rubber hits the road. A good understanding of theological issues is important, but a close tie with God and a faith that keeps you going in daily life is much more essential.

Is everything in the Bible equally important. It may be risky to ask that question, for who am I to say what parts of the Bible are more or less essential. In times past church leaders and scholars decided what writings to include in the Bible and what not to include. Catholics (and also Lutherans) made a decision that differs from what Protestants have agreed upon.

Protestants tend to be satisfied with a biblical canon without the apocryphal books. The Bible is an authoritative book for them. But even most of those who claim to take everything in the Bible literally (as it ‘plainly’ reads), tend to have something like a canon within the canon. Not everything in the Bible carries the same weight. Many Bible readers feel (to mention just one example) that they get more out of the Gospel of John than from the book Ecclesiastes, and that they find the Psalms more helpful than the book of the prophet Ezekiel. This is also try for me. There are parts of the Bible that I read and re-read, but I must confess that there are also segments in the Bible that I have not read in recent years.

But, are we allowed to extend his argument even further? May we, for instance, say that some doctrines are more important than other doctrines? Adventists recognize ’28 Fundamental Beliefs’. Are all of these equally ‘fundamental’? How in the world can they all be really fundamental, i.e. foundational? Often I hear people say: It is all part of the truth, so we cannot say that something is unimportant or less important than the rest. But, let’s be honest: that is not how reality functions. Most (maybe all) Adventists sense that particular points define their being-Adventist, while other points do not fall in that same category. I believe it is useful for all of us to draw up a short list of what is really ‘fundamental’ for us, and what might, in fact, be more in the periphery. Next week I intend to say more about this and will share my own short-list of what I consider truly ‘fundamental’.

P.S.

A few years ago I did a presentation for fellow Adventist theologians about the question whether all doctrines are equally important. A little later I rewrote the text of this presentation and submitted it as a chapter in a Festschrift for Dr. Jon Dybdahl—a much valued friend and colleague, with whom I worked closely together at Andrews University for a number of years. Jon (now retired) was (and is) a gifted teacher and for some time served as the president of the Adventist Walla Walla University in Washington State (US).

For those who are interested: the text of this chapter, entitled ‘Is all Truth Truth? may be found on my website: http://reinderbruinsma.com/are-all-truths-truth-2/

 

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The Three Forms of Unity and the Fundamental Beliefs

 

At the time when our son was enrolled in the christian elementary school in the Dutch town where we lived, now over 40 years ago, my wife offered to assist as volunteer to help the students in acquiring good reading skills. Her offer was appreciated, but there was a small problem.  The school had an explicit Calvinist basis and demanded of teachers and volunteers to sign a statement that they agreed with the Three Forms of Unity. My wife had never even heard of the ‘Three Forms’. She did not want to sign anything and, as a result, offered her volunteer services to the adjacent public school.

What are these Three Forms of Unity? It concerns documents the Dutch Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century accepted as authoritative. These were the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberger Catechism (1563), which defined in great detail what was considered ‘the truth’. Some fifty years later the Canons of Dort were added. They owe their name to the fact hat they were agreed upon by the famous Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19), where proponents of predestination won their bitter conflict with the followers of a certain Arminius. These Arminians argued that people have a free will. This group was usually referred to as the ‘remonstrants’ and the Canons of Dordt are, therefore, also often also called the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants.

Even though the school administrators indicated that signing the statement was a mere formality, my wife did not like the fact that she was obliged to formally indicate agreement with these ancient documents. Until today they belong to the so-called confessional documents of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). Does this mean that most of the members of this denomination (and most other denominations in the Calvinist tradition in and outside the Netherlands) know what these documents contain? Certainly not. My guess is that the vast majority has never even read one letter of them. But many discussions about certain articles (in particular in the Belgic Confession) have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to change anything And from time to time these confessional documents are used to assure that people stay in line (or to refuse a volunteer who wants to assist in a reading program in an elementary school).

This is precisely what the early leaders of the Adventist Church had in mind when they stated that they were against adopting any formal confession of faith. They had seen how these documents had received, in the denomination in the US that they were acquainted with, almost the same level of authority as the Bible, and how difficult it had become to start an open discussion about some biblical theme. Everything had been defined once and for all, and one had to stick with what the wise men in the past had decided. The Adventist pioneers knew for sure: ‘We have no creed but the Bible!’

Gradually the conviction that it was wrong to develop a ‘creed’ was pushed aside. And now we have a document that is known as the (28) Fundamental Beliefs. It has become much more than a simple enumeration of the most important Adventist beliefs. Just as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberger Catechism in Dutch Protestantism the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs have become a test of orthodoxy. This is what you must believe, if you really want to be part of it.

Does his mean that all Seventh-day Adventist know more or less what the 28 ‘fundamentals’ are all about? Far from it. I have at times done a little research and concluded that most Dutch Adventists at best are able to list 10-12 of their ‘fundamentals’. And, let’s be honest: most newly baptized members only have a vague idea of the content of these 28 Beliefs. In far-away countries the situation is probably not any better. I do not think that most of the 30.000 members that were recently baptized in Zimbabwe, after evangelistic campaign of some weeks (just to mention one example), will be able to enumerate more than ten ‘fundamental’ Adventist beliefs. Yet, at the same time, church leaders have at various occasions said that you cannot be a good Adventist if you do not fully subscribe to all 28 Fundamental Beliefs.

Without any doubt, the Three Forms of Unity are important historical documents. They have helped to safeguard many of the basic Calvinist convictions in Dutch Protestantism. But the details in these documents hardly play any significant role in the daily life of today’s church members. Likewise, the Adventist document with the Fundamental Beliefs is an important document. Nevertheless, we must not make it more important than it is. We must conclude that most Adventists share a number of important general Christian and more specifically Adventist convictions, without however continuously referring back in their daily life to the text of the document with the Fundamental Beliefs. And the 28 Fundamental Beliefs may never acquire the sterile status of a ‘confession of faith’ that can be used as a checklist to determine  someone’s orthodoxy (or the lack thereof. That simply is totally at odds with a precious Adventist tradition.

 

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Your friend Jan . . .

 

A week ago Jan T. Knopper died in far-away Australia. He lived to be 91 years. Jan Knopper was a Dutchman. He worked his entire working life in the publishing branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as coordinator of literature evangelism. First in the Netherlands, then in Kongo in Africa. After this he served in Northern-Europe and Australia. And in his retirement he spent a significant  period in Russia as a volunteer.

I knew him from the time when he worked in the Netherlands. Later I met him from time to time when he furloughed in his home country, together with his wife Reintje. To be honest: I did not like him at that time. He was theologically extremely conservative and was rather harsh in his judgments of other people and of events in the church that he did not like. Nonetheless, I have kept on a intense e-mail correspondence with him during the past four years. They always ended with the words: Your friend Jan.

People who know me and also have known Jan Knopper may be rather amazed when they hear that we were in very regular contact. For we are a somewhat unexpected duo: An arch-conservative man (of another generation) in far-away Australia and someone who is seen by some (probably with some justice) as rather liberal.

In 2011 I was in Australia to give a few lectures during a conference that was organized by Avondale  College—the Australian Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning. Jan Knopper lived just a few kilometers away from this place, at some 120 kilometers from  Sydney. He sent word to me that he hoped I would pay him a visit. With some reluctance I drove to his retirement home. I hoped I would be able to get away after less than an hour, but it became a five-hour visit.

I visited Jan at a crisis moment in his life. His wife Reintje was to be admitted in a care home the very next day. After a long life together they were now to be separated. The man who once appeared so unapproachable to be, now was very vulnerable and needed someone with whom he could share his devastation. He did almost all of the talking that afternoon. A few days later he sent me an e-mail to thank me that I had come to be with him and his wife. He was very grateful that I had offered a listening ear. It had done him a lot of good at that difficult moment in his life.

After this visit somehow our e-mail correspondence started. He wrote me about lots of things that he disagreed with. At times he had heard (through very conservative channels) about the terrible things that were happening in the Dutch Adventist Church. I responded by asking him to consider whether he had heard the full story, and whether he might have received rather one-sided information. I told him about the many positive things that are happening in the Dutch church. He was a staunch admirer of Ted. N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist world church since 2010. I told him I did not share in this adoration and why this was the case. He totally disagreed with my (what he considered) too ecumenical views. He believed I was far too vague in my interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation. For him the pope remained the ‘little horn’ whom we should carefully watch. Of course, Jan Knopper was also a fervent opponent of women’s ordination. And he was totally against any recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate option and any acceptance of such an ‘abomination’ in the church.

I responded to him—at times very carefully, but more often quite clearly. In most cases he continued to disagree. But gradually my respect and sympathy for him grew and I answered his mails at some length. It happened occasionally that he was willing to revise his views a little, but that did not happen very often. However, he continued to correspond with me and gradually, I suppose, he came to see me as someone who wholeheartedly wants to serve the church and wants to live his faith in an authentic way, in spite of the fact that I had (in his eyes) some very terrible liberal ideas. This enabled him to always end his mails to me by wishing me God’s blessings and by signing with: Your friend Jan.

What occurred in the past four years between Jan Knopper and me is a small illustration of how people who deeply disagree, and are unable to convince each other with their arguments, may nonetheless have a ‘brotherly’ and friendly relationship, in which they can keep the dialogue going. If that is possible at the individual level, it should also be possible for groups that differ theologically within the church. Listening with respect is the keyword. I recognize that this may be somewhat more complicated on the collective level than between between individuals. But we can all make a small beginning in the personal contacts we have. That this may work a miracle is demonstrated in the correspondence between myself and my ‘friend Jan’.

 

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YES

 

It is one week since San Antonio. This dust is beginning to settle. But the debate will go on. In the past week I have intensely participated in the digital discussion about the position of women in the Adventist Church. My blog of last week, entitled NO, has been read by a few thousand people. I received many e-mail reactions and comments on Facebook. Many of these were positive, and some were heart-warming, but there was also a sizable amount of hate-mail. In one reaction I was even referred to as ‘one of the most evil leaders’ in the Adventist Church. Well, i can live with that. It even gives me a certain degree of satisfaction that the writer of this comment thinks that I continue to have some influence.

At present I am still on vacation. However, when I return to the Netherlands, some time next week, a number of very busy months are awaiting me. One of the projects I am working on, at the request of the Dutch Adventist Church, is a completely new translation into Dutch of Ellen White’s book Education. The old Dutch translation is in urgent need of refreshing. It is a challenging assignment to render the text of this book into the kind of Dutch that (also younger) people still want to read. Therefore, the language of the book must be brought into the twenty-first century.

In this book Ellen White makes a statement that is extremely relevant in the context of the current discussions about the ordination of women. I quote: ‘The greatest want of the world is the want of men – men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.’ This quote emphasizes the need for total integrity. And, indeed, that is what counts. God has created men and women with equal status. The NO-vote by some 60 percent of approximately 2,500 people does not change that. We cannot play with that principle: men and women participate equally in the priesthood of all believers. YES, in Christ all differences in status (that for a long time were culturally stamped by a patriarchal society) between men and women were annulled.

By the way, now that I mention the name of Ellen White, it is good to realize she never slavishly followed the ideas and decisions of the church leaders. Repeatedly she protested against the ‘kingly power’ that ‘the brethren’ often claimed for themselves. I have a strong suspicion that, had she lived today, she might have uttered a similar criticism. Church leaders who continuously cite her books (at time more frequently than the Bible) should take such statements much more seriously.

Ellen White also quite often commented critically on the way presidents of the General Conference approached certain issues. If in doubt about this, read the book The Prophet and the Presidents, written by Dr. Gilbert Valentine. It was published in 2011 by one of the official denominational publishers (Pacific Press). Here we may also say: Had she lived today, she might have sent some critical testimonies to the current president of the world church.

Church leaders often tell us that a decision of the a general conference session must be interpreted as God’s voice. Admittedly. Ellen White made comments to support this. But such statements must always be balanced by other statements that she made and that point in a different direction. When I do this, I cannot escape the conclusion the ‘the church’ may at times err and that leaders must be loyally, but also very critically, supported.

Then, just one more thing at the end of this blog. There was a time when our faith community practiced large-scale racial discrimination. We still detect traces of this. And we should still feel ashamed because of this. Do we now enter the history books also as a denomination that officially approves of gender discrimination? The very thought makes me ashamed.

 

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