Twenty-seven fundamentals in search of a theology

The need for a less fragmented and more integrated expression of Seventh-day Adventist belief

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Seventh-day Adventists need an integrated theology! Don't get me wrong. Adventism's 27 fundamental beliefs are well defined and adequate in what they attempt to do as individual statements. It is not the 27 that I am questioning, but the way they are presented.

To put it bluntly, the 27 fundamentals are set forth as a list, somewhat like a string of beads with each bead having the same size, shape, and weight. And beyond the official 27, Adventist "oral tradition" provides individuals with innumerable other beads that flow off of each end of the string. "Thou shalt not go to movies in a movie house," "Thou shalt not dance socially," and "Thou shalt not drink coffee," are examples of supernumerary beads. While the official list is a voted document adopted at a General Conference session, the extra doctrinal and lifestyle beads are added by individual Church members, by subgroups within the Church, or by the force of tradition. While not official beads, the supernumeraries appear to be equal in weight to the official ones in the minds and consciences of many church members and pastors.

The problem with the string-of-beads approach to fundamental beliefs is that it indicates no priorities, it doesn't help people see that some beliefs are more important or more "fundamental" than others. As a result, I have seen young people and unperceptive Christians reason that since they have "gone to a dance" or broken the Sabbath they have in effect rejected Jesus. After all, they reason, if I have broken one rule or rejected one belief (official and even unofficial in many cases) haven't I rejected the whole package since every part is of equal importance? I have seen some leave the Church in despair in the wake of that train of logic.

Such reasoning can arise when people are taught the string-of-beads approach, the approach that says that each of the 27 has equal weight and importance.

The Bible takes quite a different approach. For example, while the Bible writers are unanimous in abhorring sins and faithless unbelief, the Bible is quite clear that "if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, RSV). Thus, doing wrong or even believing wrong does not necessarily imply a rejection of Jesus. The plain truth is that not all the beads are the same size and weight. Some of the 27 fundamentals are "more fundamental" than others.

When I floated my string-of-beads perspective past one of my friends he startled me by pointing out that while he agreed on the beads model he couldn't find the string. In short, he implied that Adventism's 27 are more like a pile of beads rather than a string of them. But for my purposes in this article the effect is the same. While the "pile" or "string" approach may be helpful in presenting and understanding Adventist beliefs, I believe that there are models for organizing the denomination's beliefs that are much more effective in enabling people to grasp the totality of what the Bible teaches or the Church believes. It is to one such model that we now turn.

A hierarchical model of beliefs

Not every doctrine is created equal! Some beliefs reflect theological realities more basic than other beliefs! Such are two of the basic postulates of the hierarchical model.

Foundational to any understanding of the Christian faith is that Christianity is not a body of doctrine or a way of life. Individuals will not be saved by what they believe intellectually or do behaviorally. A person can believe all the right things and perform all the right actions and still be lost.

In its essence, Christianity is a Person Jesus Christ who died "once for all" (Heb. 8:27), rose on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3, 4), and is coming back to take His children home (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Without Christ there could still be beliefs and actions but there would be no Christianity. The very most important entity in biblical faith is Jesus Christ and what He has done for a lost humanity. Thus, in a hierarchical model of Christian theology, Christ and the Cross are at the very apex. Jesus knew what He was talking about when He claimed that "this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3, RSV); "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 3:36, NIV).

Every Christian needs to know that the most fundamental aspect of any list of fundamentals is knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. As a result, the most basic belief in Christianity is not a belief per se but an experiential relationship.

Closely tied to that relationship is a set of beliefs about human lostness and God's solution to that lostness through the cross of Christ. Thus, at the top of the hierarchy of belief are Christ, the human problem, and God's solution in the Cross. Without these elements one not only has no Adventism but no biblical Christianity.

Using the hub-in-a-wheel model (rather than the hierarchical model), essentially the same concept is set forth when it is said that "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. . . . The great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemptionXthe Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every dis course given." 1 In another context she penned that "the central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, the restoration in the human soul of the image of God." 2

One thing is obvious. Some beliefs are more important than others. The most important of those has to do with not only "knowing" Christ as Savior but with those understandings related to the cross of Christ as the only solution to the presence of sin in the human soul. That concept is reflected in the hierarchical model by the Cross being placed in the topmost portion of the pyramid.

The role of the "doctrinal" fundamentals

Doctrines are not ends in them selves. They are not all-important. The belief that doctrine is all-important led to both Protestant and Catholic "inquisitions" in the history of the church. In a similar manner, it led some Adventists in 1888 and at other times to lose their Christianity in defense of their beliefs.

Mere doctrine is not Christianity. On the other hand, a genuine Christian experience will by all means lead to a biblical search for those understandings that are important in God's revelation.

I would like to suggest that doctrines are instrumental rather than being ends in themselves. As noted above, no one will ever be saved by doctrine. But that does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. On the contrary, correct doctrinal understanding helps Christians understand the cross of Christ better. It also helps us know how to relate more effectively to Christ as Savior and Lord. Thus, doctrinal understanding is important even though it is not all important or even most important. Doctrinal understanding at its best is an instrument that helps us grasp the seriousness of the sin problem, God's solution to that problem through Christ, and how to relate to Him better. The central role of doctrine is to inform a Christian's walk with God. Thus, the upward arrow to the right of the theological hierarchy in Figure 1.

Note, however, that there is also a downward arrow to the left of Figure 1. That arrow represents the fact 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. This is nicely put when it is said that "viewed in the light of" the grand central theme of the Bible, "every topic has a new significance." 3 Christ's work in the plan of salvation informs all other understandings.

The role of lifestyle

Just as one can believe correct doctrines without being a Christian, so a person can also live a "good" lifestyle without knowing Christ as Savior or without even understanding correct doctrine. Like doctrinal understanding, living a biblical lifestyle is instrumental rather than an end in itself.

For example, take healthful living, or health reform as it is traditionally known of among Seventh-day Adventists. Some years ago during an evangelistic campaign, someone from a denomination other than my own helped me think through why I was even devoting an evening to the topic. In the midst of the second week of the meetings, she told me that she wasn't going to come the next evening because she didn't like my topic; that I was going to tell her what she shouldn't do. Personally, I thought my topic was right on! After all, with a title like "Why I Don't Eat Rats, Snakes, and Snails," how could I go wrong? Humbling myself, I told her to come the next evening and she would conclude that it was the best sermon yet.

With a promise like that, I was driven to think through what I really hoped to accomplish. In retrospect, I am everlastingly grateful to that woman. She forced me to think through my priorities and my goals, and how my topic related to the central issue of Christianity.

The next evening I focused on the central theme of the BibleXthat God loves us. Within that context, I noted that because He loves us He wants us to be happy. And, I pointed out, we are happiest when we feel good, when we are healthy. Therefore, God wants us to take care of our bodies and our minds; not in terms of an offensive collection of negative restrictions but as a positive blessing of inestimable value.

With respect to the theological hierarchy of Figure 1, the instrumental nature of health reform is evident when we realize that a healthy body provides for clear thinking so that we can better understand the doctrines. With that better understanding, as noted above, we can serve Him more intelligently. A healthy body also is instrumental in helping us relate to God and our neighbors better. After all, people are grouchy when they are ill. We are more effective lovers of both God and other people when we aren't preoccupied with our own aches and pains. Thus, health reform helps me not only relate to God better but to be more like Him. Thus, the upward pointing arrow to the right of Figure 1.

The downward arrow to the left of Figure 1 implies, as it did in relation to doctrine, a two-way directionality in the hierarchy. Thus the cross of Christ, a person's relationship with Him, and the gift of the Holy Spirit provide the inspiration and power to live a Christian lifestyle. Beyond that, doctrinal understandings inform a Christian lifestyle. For example, the Bible teaching that a person's body is the temple of the Holy Spirit certainly informs a person's approach to lifestyle.

Similar understandings permeate the way one keeps the Sabbath, a topic that has both doctrinal and lifestyle aspects. Christ as Redeemer and Creator provides the motivation for Sabbath keeping, while cognitive doctrinal insights related to the Sabbath provide data that help Christians keep it more adequately. On the upward-arrow side of Figure 1, keeping God's Sabbath spiritually helps individuals find time to know Him better at the cognitive level and provides space for Christians to reach out more fully in love to both God and other people.

Refining our understanding

The theological hierarchy model is far from perfect. It certainly doesn't answer all the questions. Nor is it the only possible model. Two others that readily come to mind are the hub-in-a- wheel model referred to above (see Figure 2) and the foundational model (see Figure 3).

In the hub model the cross of Christ (and related issues) stands at the center, various doctrines serve as spokes, and lifestyle issues form the rim. Likewise, there are excellent arguments for picturing the relational/ cross aspects of Christianity as foundational to doctrinal understandings and lifestyle issues.

In the long run, however, it is not the model or specific approach taken in this article that is important but the need for Seventh-day Adventists to provide perspective for their theology. This article is not challenging any of the 27 fundamental beliefs of the Church. Rather, it is arguing that Adventism (or any faith structure) needs to move beyond the string-of-beads model to one that helps people see more easily what Christianity is all about and how the various aspects of the belief system fit together. Any reformulation, of course, must not merely be an intellectual exercise. It should be aimed at helping people live fuller and more consciously informed Christian lives.

1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 315.

2 , Education (Nampa. Idaho: Pacific Press? Pub. Assn., 1952), 125, cf. 190.

3 Ibid., 125.

 

 

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 2001

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