Jesus and the 28 fundamental beliefs: Are they compatible?
Propositional truth has become one of the most devalued currencies in the market of Christian life today. Many pulpits have been taken over, complained one evangelical, by “therapists” more concerned with stimulating good feelings than with brokering biblical truth.1 Meanwhile, an increasing number of Christians seem to prefer a “sweeter, closer walk with Jesus” rather than wrestling with the doctrinal teachings of Scripture. Experience, feelings, and individual perceptions of truth have become some of the hallmarks of postmodernity, which contributed to the rise of what is called “post-truth.”2 This religious and social backdrop may explain in part why, for an increasing number of church members, the cognitive dimension of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, especially as expressed in the church’s Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, may seem less relevant to the Christian experience than in the past. Jesus is often pitted against doctrine, and the doctrinal content of Scripture is made to appear as more of a hindrance than a guide to a genuine relationship with the Lord. Although fashionable, such a misperception contradicts Scripture as well as many of Jesus’ most explicit statements on the cognitive content of the faith (Matt. 21:42; 22:29; Mark 12:24; Luke 24:45; John 8:32; 14:6; 17:17).
Jesus and the Word
Scripture portrays Jesus as the incarnate “Word” of God (John 1:1). The Greek term logos, though often translated as “word,” does not usually refer to a single word but, rather, to a set of words composed of a subject and predicate that make a proposition or even a discourse.3 As the Word, Jesus’ Person and teachings are God’s salvific propositions, or discourse, to humanity.
Jesus spent His life on the earth performing works of love; and, through “words”/“propositions,” He explained the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in the kingdom of God. Jesus also reaffirmed the relevance of Scripture as a witness to Him, and He made it clear that God’s Word remains in force (John 5:39; Luke 16:17). Therefore, truth as understood and taught by Jesus is not only personal but also propositional. It makes no sense to claim Jesus as one’s personal Savior and then reject the propositional truths related to His Person and work. As Ellen G. White said: “Those who think that it matters not what they believe in doctrine, so long as they believe in Jesus Christ, are on dangerous ground.”4 A genuine relationship with Jesus includes acceptance of His Person and conformity to His teachings (Matt. 7:21–27).
The idea, therefore, of receiving Jesus and disregarding the Scriptures is an oxymoron because it is only through the Scriptures that Jesus can be identified and known as Savior and Lord. Without the primacy of Scripture as the propositional revelation of God, there would be no way to identify the true Messiah among the several claimants to messiahship who have arisen from Second Temple Judaism even to this day. In addition, only through Scripture can we tell the difference between the Word made flesh—who died for us on the cross—and the fictional portraits of Jesus offered by the gnostic gospels. And without the testimony of Scripture, our understanding of Jesus would be dependent on subjective reconstructions, such as those proposed by the various quests for the historical Jesus.
Different cultural and intellectual environments have produced portraits of Jesus according to their respective political agendas and cultural interests. Jesus has been portrayed as a cynic-like philosopher, a Spirit-endowed holy man, a social revolutionary, an eschatological prophet, or the Messiah.5 It seems evident, therefore, that a true picture of Jesus can emerge only from the careful study of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The 28 fundamentals
What, then, are the nature and role of our 28 fundamental beliefs as expressed in the short summary statements voted by the world church in their General Conference sessions? First, these statements are not meant to function as creeds. Our only creed is the Bible.6 Creeds, as manufactured by religious traditions, often become unchangeable and fossilized expressions of a given generation’s faith and, as such, become barriers to a proper grasp of Scripture. Our belief statements, however, are dynamic expressions of the collective wisdom of the church guided by the Holy Spirit. They may be improved, expanded, summarized—or clarified as the church grows in its understanding of Scripture.
But, as they stand, they express our best current biblical understanding of God’s love and His work of salvation through Jesus Christ, the nature and condition of humanity, the church, the Christian life, and the eschatological hope in the Second Coming. Clear statements about knowing Jesus and His will for us are of utmost importance “in this age of deception, doctrinal pluralism, and apathy. Such a knowledge is the Christian’s only safeguard against those who, ‘like savage wolves,’ will come speaking perverse things in order to subvert the truth and destroy the faith of God’s people (see Acts 20:29, 30).”7 Furthermore, such statements also “assist those who are interested in knowing why we believe what we believe.”8
Inasmuch as the fundamental beliefs express our best current understanding of some crucial biblical teachings, disregard for or the denigration of these statements actually indicates a more troubling attitude toward the Bible itself. Therefore, since the fundamental beliefs are not a creed—and rightly so—disagreement with them must always be treated in light of their corresponding biblical foundation. In other words, the ultimate criterion to assess anyone’s commitment to the fundamental beliefs remains the Bible and the Bible alone
Interestingly enough, the importance of doctrine in general—and our fundamental beliefs in particular—has been succinctly summarized in this way: “Doctrine is an essential part of the glue that holds together the institutions in which most of us acquire the skills needed to engage in the adventure of theology. Neutralize the glue, and the institutions fall apart. And if the institutions disappear, the church will lose a major part of the connectivity between generations. If we discard our doctrine, the church will lack the structure our children will need when it comes their turn to pass on the faith to their children.”9
Although we may disagree on minor points and may not yet have answers for all our questions, as we grow in our understanding and application of Scripture, we must stay united on those propositions that the worldwide church has voted as expressions of our best current understanding of biblical teachings. Far from being a dry list of intellectual propositions, our fundamental beliefs point to the Jesus of Scripture as the ultimate center that keeps the church united as a worldwide body of believers. As Ellen G. White noted, “Christ is the center of all true doctrine. All true religion is found in His word and in nature.”10 Thus, for Seventh-day Adventists, Scripture remains the source, and Christ the center, of every doctrine or belief that we have adopted as a world church. Thus we are called to embrace both Christ, the Living Word, and His written Word, with “head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love.”11 But in dealing with opposition to or outright rejection of our core beliefs, we should bear in mind Ellen White’s sobering statement: “Truth held in unrighteousness is the greatest curse that can come to our world. But the truth as it is in Jesus is a savor of life unto life. It is worth possessing, worth living, worth defending.”12
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1 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 65.
2 See Lee C. McIntyre, Post-Truth, MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018); Mikael Stenmark, Steve Fuller, and Ulf Zackariasson, eds. Relativism and Post-Truth in Contemporary Society: Possibilities and Challenges (Cham,Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Michael A. Peters et al., eds., Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity and Higher Education (New York: Springer,2018).
3 Robert H. Gundry, Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002),xv.
4 Ellen G. White, Christ Triumphant (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1999), 235.
5 See Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 2007), 380.
6 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 416.
7 Ministerial Association, Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), viii.
8 Ministerial Association, Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . , viii, ix.
9 John McLarty, “Doctrine and Theology: What’s the Difference?” Adventist Today 6, no. 1 (January– February 1998): 21.
10 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub.Assn., 1943), 453.
11 John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 15.
12 Ellen G. White, “The Church of God,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 4, 1900, par. 10.