"For many years Seventh-day Adventists have been handicapped by the lack of a comprehensive volume which adequately defines their doctrinal position." So wrote Walter Martin, an evangelical scholar and a specialist in cults, in his book The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism.1
The book came out after Adventist scholars published Questions on Doctrine2 in response to issues that were raised by Martin and Donald G. Barnhouse, then editor of Eternity magazine, on what Adventists actually believe. In his book Martin extended to Adventists the hand of full Christian fellowship.
That was 35 years ago. But there are still fellow Christians who question Seventh-day Adventist belief, and who persist in their suspicions that Adventists are somehow cultic. I would like to suggest one thing that could be done to ease this perception.
A few years ago Carl R H. Henry, the evangelical theologian and founder of Christianity Today, visited the Southern Adventist University campus, where I teach. I asked him if the cult conception that some denominations have of Seventh-day Adventists could be overcome by placing our 27 fundamental beliefs in a logical, orderly, and, above all, Christ-centered arrangement. He indicated that it would.
In this article we will look at (1) some problems with the present expressions of our beliefs; (2) why a systematic rearrangement of those beliefs is necessary; and (3) how it could be done.
Problems to confront
The first problem we must confront involves the arrangement of our 27 fundamental beliefs. These beliefs are arranged as a chain of 27 links, each representing one tenet of our faith. The 27 links are joined in such a way as to give the appearance that each belief is of equal value. For example, the doctrine of the gift of salvation is placed tenth, and the doctrine of spiritual gifts is sixteenth.
This unintentionally seems to reduce Christ and His sacrifice to just one of many gifts God has given. It could also give the impression that to Adventists the gift of salvation is only important enough to be mentioned tenth in a list of 27 teachings.
The second problem concerns the apparent lack of logical order among the 27 expressions of our faith. There are three on Christ (4, 9, 23), not including the one on His second advent (24). Note the great distance between these three. A system would place them together.
The third problem has to do with chronology. The Son, as Redeemer (4), is presented before Creation (6). The creation of humankind (6) is presented before the great controversy (8). Yet chronologically the great controversy preceded Creation, and Creation preceded the coming of Christ as Redeemer. One finds no stated reason for this arrangement.
A systematic solution
In recent years some have claimed to have discovered the true gospel outside our belief system. For example, a book published in 1990 entitled Sabbath in Crisis rejects the relevance of the seventh-day Sabbath for Christians. The author, Dale Ratzlaff, is a former Seventh-day Adventist minister who believes he has found the gospel in a way unexpressed in Adventist belief. This view of the gospel has led him to believe that the Sabbath is no longer needed.
Others on the opposite extreme have remained in the church but are incarcerated in legalism. They live by the letter of each one of the 27 beliefs, but without a living relationship with Christ. They are sincere, but as unhappy and divisive as the Pharisees of Christ's day. Every pastor is aware of this problem.
Those leaving the church for the gospel and those remaining in it without the gospel are equally faulty. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) gives some insight into these two groups. Two prodigals emerge in the story: one who left for a fling and one who stayed and slaved. Upon returning home, the younger wanted to be come a servant (verse 19); the older, who had stayed, was morose and dissatisfied with everything, including his father (verse 29). To serve as free sons was what both needed to discover.
Truth must be studied in the light of the One who is the truth (John 14:6), or it loses its power and becomes enslaving. When we know the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21), that truth will set us free (John 8:32) to be children of our Father.
Truth in its wholeness cannot be seen in a gospel that is divorced from the full expression of the beliefs that cluster around it. It is just as true, however, that truth is definitely not the beliefs of the Adventist Church minus the gospel. The messages of the three angels (Rev. 14:6-13) are joined to the everlasting gospel (verse 6). We must see our 27 beliefs in the setting of the gospel, or they are devoid of saving content.
It is enlightening to review briefly the thinking of Ellen White on this element of the centrality of the gospel. Throughout her writing we find the phrase "the truth as it is in Jesus." It is a recurring refrain. Mrs. White also speaks about a system of truth. For example: "In every school established the most simple theory of theology should be taught. In this theory the atonement of Christ should be the great substance, the central truth."3 "The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary."4 This is unmistakable, all-inclusive language. Every truth of the entire Bible must be studied in the light of Calvary.
Furthermore, if all the 27 beliefs were clustered around Calvary and studied in the light of the cross, it would become evident that each of them can be understood only from that vantage point, and that each, in its deepest meaning, reflects the gospel. Pastors and members grasping the 27 beliefs in this context would not be tempted to jump the church to find the gospel elsewhere. There would be a great source and center of ultimate meaning for their faith.
Much more has been said of this need: "The knowledge of the Saviour's love sub dues the soul, and lifts the mind above the things of time and sense. Let us learn to estimate all temporal things in the light that shines from the cross."5 "Let the cross of Christ be made the science of all education, the center of all teaching and all study. Let it be brought into the daily experience in practical life. So will the Saviour become to us a daily companion and friend."6 There is no balanced study of fundamental be liefs apart from viewing them in the light of Calvary.
The message given to us to proclaim to the world is the "eternal gospel" (Rev. 14:6; cf. Matt. 28:20), a message at the very heart of each aspect of our faith. There is no either- or here. It is not the 27 beliefs without the gospel; it is not the gospel without the 27 beliefs. We must hold the two together as a comprehensive whole. Presenting truth or doctrine without the cross may be likened to Cain's lambless sacrifice (Gen. 4:3-5). "Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world."7
A proposed rearrangement
Systematic theology has been divided into several major areas. The 27 beliefs can be arranged in six major theological divisions (see Illustration 1). These are the doctrine of God (theology), the doctrine of humanity (anthropology), the doctrine of Christ (Christology), the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology), and the doctrine of final events (eschatology). We propose that these six major divisions be arranged concentrically around the cross, with the near est circle, the doctrine of God, beginning the six ever-widening circles, the last one being the doctrine of final events. In this way, each division and each fundamental belief within that division would be viewed from the core of Calvary.
The six concentric circles around the cross (see Illustration 2) give a chronological movement for the 27 beliefs that is not found in the present arrangement. The journey begins with the great controversy as the biblical worldview within which all truths unfold. It is necessary to begin with the great controversy theme, as this clearly spells out the sweep of sacred history from the beginning. The Trinity and Scripture are next. The doctrine of God follows, including the great controversy against Him, the Trinity who make up the Godhead, and their self-revelation in Scripture.
It is this God who created the human race and it is humanity who rebelled in Eden, necessitating the coming of Christ as a human being to save humanity. This saving process involves His life, death, resurrection, and present intercession. This work of salvation also involves the Holy Spirit, who brings Christ to human beings and works within the minds of people, bringing about the reality of salvation, including mature Christian behavior. This is being done in the lives of numbers of people, who together form the church that practices baptism and the Lord's Supper, is united in the body of Christ, practices stewardship, and considers sacred both marriage and the family. God has an end-time remnant: His church who by faith keeps His law, including the Sabbath, and believes in spiritual gifts and ministries including an eschatological prophetic gift.
We are moving through end-time history on to the second coming of Christ. In the meantime, each Christian's death is an event that brings them into unconsciousness as they await their coming Lord. All who die await the resurrection, either at the Second Advent for God's saints or final death at the end of the millennium for those outside of Christ. God's people will go to heaven at the beginning of the millennium to participate in the millennial judgment and return to a new earth to live with God forever.
In this way the 27 beliefs unfold chronologically as a story, from the beginning of the great controversy until its culmination in the new earth. This arrangement implies that the whole story was settled at the cross. All preceding events lead up to the cross, and all subsequent events flow from it. Calvary is the decisive and determining event that qualifies the whole story. It towers over all truth, and the highest place to study the 27 beliefs now and for ever will be at the foot of the cross (see Illustration 3).
Advantages of this expression
The advantages of what we suggest here are twofold. First, the 27 beliefs are presented not as though they are separate doctrines, but as parts of an unfolding story. People may consider doctrine boring, but everyone identifies with a story. Doctrines by themselves can seem as lifeless as a skeleton. But clothe that skeleton with Christ, and it comes alive.
Second, the study of the 27 beliefs in the light of the cross8 changes lives. If the study of each one of the beliefs is seen as an opportunity to lift up the cross, Seventh-day Adventists will be known as genuine Christians because they are genuinely Christian.
Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32, NIV). Only as the 27 beliefs are seen in the light of Calvary can they become exciting, have transforming power, and prepare a needy world for Christ's return.
1 Walter R. Martin, The Truth About Seventh--
day Adventism (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Pub. House, 1960), p. 47.
2 Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions
on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957).
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1946), p. 223.
4 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915),
5 Ellen G. White, Lift Rim Up (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988) p. 248.
6 Ellen G. White, in Signs of the Times, Oct. 17,
1906, p. 4.
7 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, p. 188.
8 To show how each fundamental belief
is illumined by Calvary would take another