Are Adventists Fundamentalists?

A look at the history of Fundamentalism and its relation to Adventism.

WILBUR K. NELSON, Ministerial Association Secretary, South China Island Union Mission

Seventh-day Adventists strongly emphasize the great fundamentals of the Christian faith and the importance of sound Bible-based doctrine. Some decades ago a conservative theological faith was popularly called Fundamentalist and generally Seventh-day Adventists did not object to this categorization as descriptive of their own theological position. Since the development of the so-called Fundamental­ist movement in the early twentieth cen­tury an increasing disrepute has come upon the term so that its use by Adventists today might, unfortunately, be misleading. Thinking of the term in its original mean­ing it is still occasionally used by our writ­ers and speakers. Some have even thought of us as "fundamentalists of the funda­mentalists."

The conservative reaction to inroads in American theological education by the in­fluence of highly critical liberal philo­sophical thought and the accommodation of theologians to Darwinian evolution led to the publication of a series of twelve small books called The Fundamentals. This en­deavor, begun in 1910, presented the con­victions of conservative scholars on what constituted the sine qua non of Christian­ity, i.e., the infallibility of the Bible; Christ's virgin birth; His substitutionary atonement, resurrection, and second com­ing. Naturally Seventh-day Adventists sub­scribe to these essentials of faith and appre­ciated at the time the clear warnings of other Christians against the vagaries of what came to be known as Modernism. Even so, we would observe that The Funda­mentals presented only a partial, if cen­tral, statement of the meaning of the Chris­tian faith.

The emphasis on a few major doctrines was sometimes carried too far so that all of Christian doctrine was reduced to a few essentials. Funda­mentalists were often guilty, for example, of reducing the Christian message to one of salvation alone."

As time passed far more serious criticism of those carrying the Fundamentalist ban­ner developed. With evolution as the move­ment's archenemy the Fundamentalists de­veloped a distrust of science generally, and their critics viewed them as a group of anti-intellectual obscurantists. Their appar­ent depreciation of scholarship marked them as having a zeal without knowledge. Further, they were seemingly unconcerned with the problems of society and practical life in reaction to an objectionable social gospel. These later developments and de­partures from the distinguished positions of early Fundamentalist champions (no­tably J. Gresham Machen) led to consider­able acrimony within the movement. Fun­damentalists became noted for their at­tacks and counterattacks, suspicions, and accusations, so that they were thought of by some as no longer representing a the­ological position but rather a particular disposition in conflict and bigotry. The identity with Fundamentalism of "holy rollers" and what appeared as Protestant­ism's "lunatic fringe" brought additional disrepute upon the name.

Carl F. H. Henry, editor of Christianity Today, in an article entitled "What Is Fun­damentalism" stated:

By some fundamentalism is considered a sum­mary term for theological pugnaciousness, ecu­menic disruptiveness, cultural unprogressiveness, scientific obliviousness, and/or anti-intellectual in­excusableness. By others, fundamentalism is equated with extreme Dispensationalism, pulpit sensationalism, excessive emotionalism, social with­drawal, and bawdy church music.2

The wide identification of Fundamen­talism with the arbitrary and erroneous exegesis of Dispensationalism would of course destroy the usefulness of the term for Seventh-day Adventists. Dispensationalism carries objectionable connotations of a "pretribulation rapture," 144,000 Jews to be saved during a seven-year tribulation period, the dividing of the history of the Bible into seven fixed dispensations, and the concept that the Old Testament is pri­marily "for the Jews." We thus cannot ex­pect to convey our intended meaning of a people with a faith based upon the Word of God, who constitute God's remnant peo­ple, by identification with the Fundamen­talist movement of today.

Theological labels frequently distort the spirit and life of a Christian movement. This is surely the case in the use of this term. Those believing in the Bible and the whole Bible, for the preparation of the whole man to meet Christ, represent a prophetic response to world needs in this final hour. This total Christian life expres­sion should be best represented as "Sev­enth-day Adventist."


1 Ronald H. Nash The New Evangelicalism (Grand Rap­ids; Zondervan Publishing House, 1963) , p. 24.

2 Quoted by Nash, ibid., p. 28.

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WILBUR K. NELSON, Ministerial Association Secretary, South China Island Union Mission

April 1965

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