As part of my daily morning routine, I check the official Adventist Web sites—national and international—to see what is happening in my church. For balance, and out of curiosity, I then look at the independent Adventist news sources on the Web. More recently, I have wondered whether I should change this habit as I am more and more irritated by what I read, especially on the independent sites, both left and right. This irritation is accompanied by a growing uneasiness about my church. What is happening? Where does this increasing combative atmosphere come from? How should we deal with issues that concern us? Where will this ultimately lead?
The current debate
I am specifically referring to the discussion about origins. As I understand it, the main issue the church finds itself confronted with when dealing with this topic is at least twofold: the question of origins in general and the specific debate about the possible rewording of fundamental belief number 6.1 This has, I think, a number of distinct elements that play a significant direct or indirect role.
- First of all, there is the ongoing discussion about the relationship between science and religion in general. This has long been a topic of debate, even controversy, among Christians. The question of how to view evolution in particular has been answered differently in different denominations.
- We recognize this topic of Creation as an important issue in the Adventist Church, which has traditionally defended a literal understanding of the Genesis account. At times, however, some have expressed reservations about a literal six-day Creation, and proposed a form of theistic evolution as a more satisfactory way of reconciling biblical and scientific data.
- In view of the questions that some have raised regarding a literal interpretation of the Genesis Creation account, an initiative has been proposed2 to close any possible “loopholes” that deal with creation by rewording fundamental belief number 6. This will include such language as “recent” and “six literal” days of 24 hours, which were “contiguous”—thus precluding any kind of “gap theory,” or interpretation of the “six days” as longer periods.
- The debate has received further fuel as a result of reports that, in Adventist universities, some professors teaching biology may not have been as “Adventist” as might be expected.
This matter has serious implications. First of all, there exists the danger of a further escalation of the difficulties within the Adventist educational system. It concerns such fundamental questions as the responsible use of academic freedom, denominational control over the curriculum in our schools, our procedures for dealing with conflict, the need for balance, linked with total transparency, and—most of all—the question of how to adequately define what the church considers as sound teaching. In other words: one of the basic underlying issues is our individual and collective pursuit of Truth.
As soon as we touch on the topic of our pursuit of Truth, numerous questions arise—general questions and some that pertain directly to the topic of origins. I would like to focus on two specific aspects: (1) How essential is it to refine doctrinal statements even further? (2) How necessary is it for the church to arrive at a position on every important issue and, in particular, on the correct understanding of the details of the Creation story?
The corpus of Adventist theology has developed over time. Starting from a strong suspicion towards any detailed description of doctrine, we have gradually arrived at a rather comprehensive statement of our doctrine. The present Statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs was adopted in 1980 (as 27 Fundamental Beliefs), with the addition of a twenty-eighth in 2005.
Although officially the church maintains that it has no creed,3 it is difficult to deny that, in fact, the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs now functions as such, considering the authority that came to be attached to this document and all the steps necessary to change even a few words. This seems to confirm a pertinent statement once made by George Lindbeck, a Lutheran scholar, who taught at Yale University before his retirement, the “creedless Christianity” professed by various denominations “is not genuinely creedless. When creedlessness is insisted on as a mark of group identity, it becomes by definition operationally creedal.”4
There is no doubt that the church needs doctrines that must be defined carefully and clearly. Although faith is more than doctrine, faith requires doctrines to clarify what the community of faith believes in and considers to be the main implications of that faith. Doctrinal statements may be human products, but they enable us to give structure to how we think and talk about our faith.5
There is also no doubt that it is important to give doctrinal structure to our thinking about the relationship between God and man, and Adventists will want to underline that the relationship between God and us is rooted in the fact that He created us, as the Bible tells us. Thus, there can be no doubt about the legitimacy of having a statement such as found in fundamental belief number 6.
But does the current statement on Creation need to be reworded? Some claim that our entire doctrinal edifice will be undermined if we leave doubt about a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis. The slightest opening given to the adoption of some form of theistic evolution, it is asserted, will also shake other truths, such as the worldwide Flood, and the entrance of sin and death.
Flexibility on the Creation doctrine may have far-reaching repercussions.
This fact would tend to favor urgent measures to change the wording of the fundamental belief on Creation. This would seem the normal route to take and to be in line with the historical fact that any formulation or reformulation of doctrinal statements usually occurred in the context of doctrinal controversy. This occurred when it was not just deemed necessary to better define truth, but also to expose erroneous thinking and put up a defense against apostasy. Should we therefore take steps to do just that and revisit the current statement? I would like to list a few considerations which, in my view, would tend to suggest that this not be done in haste.
Firstly, we might ask: Is it possible and desirable to ensure that doctrinal statements are without any ambiguity, and that they can be redefined to the point where no questions remain and all conceivable erroneous conclusions can be pre-empted? Take a look at the wording of all 28 fundamental beliefs and you may well conclude that in the case of each one of these statements, questions remain and ample opportunity exists for “wrong” conclusions. Should we try to remedy this situation?
Secondly: What could a more elaborate statement on Creation possibly achieve? Certainly, it would please those who are pleading for the adoption of the kind of language that will more clearly stress that any nonliteral reading of Genesis is unacceptable. On the other hand, there will be great disappointment—in some cases even despair—on the part of others that the church is not willing to allow for a greater degree of independent thinking that may deviate in some respects from the traditional Adventist viewpoints.
For many, a push for the rewording of statement number 6 is not just about our understanding of Genesis 1. This statement is also widely regarded as an example of how the Adventist ecclesial system tries to prescribe exactly what members (including teachers and other scholars) should believe if they want to be viewed as true Adventists.
Thirdly, there are several much broader issues to consider, because the concerns that surround the Creation statement are part of a much bigger picture. Questions about inspiration and biblical hermeneutics continue to occupy many minds in spite of recent publications by the Biblical Research Committee.6 It may, therefore, not be so wise to deal with the Creation issue as if this is a stand-alone problem that needs to be handled decisively. The discussion about hermeneutics has not ended and the church must provide space for a continued attention for this basic theme.
Also, the search for more satisfying answers regarding the relationship between science and biblical revelation will continue, and the questions that arise when the data of the biblical record and the book of nature seem to conflict will continue to be asked. Many Adventist scholars sincerely struggle with these issues and one cannot but wonder how helpful it might be, at this point in time, to tell these scientists: “Listen, there is only one way of looking at this, and this you must accept to be counted as a faithful Adventist.”
Fourthly, let us realize that the development of doctrine comprises a complex phenomenon.7 This applies in general, but most emphatically, also to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventist doctrine has not been static but has seen considerable development and change in the relatively short history of our church.8 It is naïve to suggest that we simply need a re-reading of our Bibles to get all our answers. Nobody reads Scripture in a vacuum; this reading always happens in a particular historical and cultural context. We find it important that we try to determine what a particular teaching means for today and how we can limit the danger that faulty teachings arise or can be advocated without any attempt at correction. But it is also essential that we do not let ourselves be unduly pushed by pressures of the moment. Many things do take time, and we recognize doctrinal development as one.
If the history of doctrine can teach us anything, it is that doctrines are usually the outcome of a lengthy process. The doctrinal developments in the early centuries, when the doctrines of the nature of Christ and the Trinity and other fundamental Christian teachings were formulated, spanned centuries. Our own church history reveals that the development of certain Adventist teachings took several decades, or more.
It may be important to arrive at clear positions regarding important matters, and the church must make pronouncements that are relevant to the times in which we live. But due care should be taken lest further controversy is stimulated and arguments are used that may not stand the test of time.
This, fifthly, leads to another concern: the Adventist Church has, rightly, always been critical of other religious communities that have allowed the traditions of the past to guide present thinking, and even more so, of systems that rely on a magisterium to make final pronouncements. Are we in danger of doing the same? Again, a need for balance must be maintained. The church must most certainly guide and protect doctrinal developments, but at the same time the church needs to take care not to institutionalize the development of the thinking of its thought leaders and not to bureaucratically try to restrict the search for truth. The discovery of truth is, I believe, not primarily through committees, institutions, and other administrative processes. Spiritual convictions do not result only from majority votes in annual councils and General Conference sessions. Such things eventually have their place, but we must recognize the importance of enough time and space reserved for dialogue and discovery, for convictions to emerge as the Holy Spirit moves on a faith community that listens to His voice while reviewing its teachings and continuously studies and restudies the Bible as open-mindedly as possible. Maybe our leaders should feel less pressured to intervene expeditiously and force the process along, and be more patient and expect more from the working of the Holy Spirit.
Patience is not a sign of weakness but is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Effective leadership does not require that, at all times, firm positions are taken and defended. We should not think it necessary to quickly have a final position on every important issue. Issuing position papers or pushing for pronouncements by the world body may be premature and stimulate polarization and controversy rather than provide the kind of nurture and direction that is beneficial for the body of believers as a whole. Strong leadership may perhaps demonstrate itself above everything else in intentional and systematic attempts to create the atmosphere in which genuine dialogue and spiritual growth can take place, in which the people will actually listen to each other and will, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, move together, maybe slowly yet surely, towards a deeper understanding of particular truths. Eventually, this may or may not cause the institutional church to decide to move toward a formal ratification of what has come to be understood as the best wording for a given conviction.
Does this entail some risks? Will it mean that some will remain unsatisfied and make sure others know about their feelings? Of course. Therefore, I am not pleading that this approach be followed without any parameters or a strategy to provide the membership with the resources needed for a meaningful dialogue and deeper study in God’s Word. But in the end, it is more risky to rely on hasty administrative processes that result in winners and losers, than to exercise patience and rely on the workings of the Spirit.
1 For specific wording of this fundamental belief, please see Seventh-day Adventists Believe ... A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2005), 79–89.
2 For the background of this, see, Adventist Review, June 29, 2010, “Actions and Proceedings, Tenth Business Meeting.” Available at: http://www.adventistreview.org/article .php?id=3604.
3 Alister E. McGrath defines a “creed” as “a concise, formal, and universally accepted and authorized statement of the main points of the Christian faith.” See his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 30.
4 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), 74.
5 Ibid., 79–84.
6 George W. Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute / General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), and Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute/ General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010).
7 For an excellent survey of the various factors that play a significant role in doctrinal developments, see Rolf J. Pöhler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1999), 44, 45.
8 See Rolf J. Pöhler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 2000, adapted from the 1999 ed.) and George R, Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000).