Fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have progressed in its history.
By Michael W. Campbell
“All Christians engage in confessional synthesis,” wrote theologian Carl R. Trueman.1 Some religious groups adhere to a public confession of faith that subject to public scrutiny, whereas others are immune to such scrutiny. Early Seventh‑day Adventists feared that the creation of a statement of beliefs might at some point cause exclusion of those who might disagree. Another danger was that statements of belief might prevent new discoveries from Scripture, that a new truth might be stifled by appealing to the authority of an already-established creed. Some early Sabbatarian Adventists remembered the time when during the Millerite revival, statements of belief were used to exclude them from church fellowship.2
These fears were expressed in 1861 during the earliest organizational developments of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church. According to denominational co‑founder, James White: “making a creed is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement. . . . The Bible is our creed.”3 Another Adventist minister, J. N. Loughborough, reiterated their collective fear: “The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.”4
Early Seventh‑day Adventists were fiercely anti‑creedal. Their confessional synthesis morphed from a private statement of beliefs (1872) that was considered somewhat normative among early believers. The next statement gradually became somewhat more visible (1931) until it finally became an official and public statement of belief (1980).
Like most evangelical Christians, early Seventh‑day Adventists adhered to the antebellum mantra of “the Bible and the Bible alone.” A theological crisis resulted, however, from the American Civil War (1861–1865), when it became clear that this dictum was not sufficient because some of the brightest religious minds on both sides of the conflict claimed “the Bible and the Bible alone” both for and against slavery. Thus, within Seventh‑day Adventism, internal and external factors contributed to the milieu within which Seventh‑day Adventists birthed their statements of belief.
The fact that each of the Seventh‑day Adventist statements of belief (1872, 1931, 1980) affirmed the “Bible and the Bible alone” as their only “creed” demonstrates a commitment to progressive revelation. They recognized their need for a flexible confession of faith. At the same time, all these statements of belief, as they morphed from private to public, indicate some form of exclusion. Who were they meant to exclude? Why was each written? The process behind the formation of Adventist statements of belief reveal underlying assumptions about unity within the Seventh‑day Adventist Church.
The 1872 Fundamental Principles
Within a decade of the church’s founding in 1863, anti‑creedalism began to melt away. “Our views are maintained by the Bible,” noted Adventist minister D. T. Bourdeau in 1874. “Our people are united on doctrine. But we are careful not to retard the work of reform and advancement in the truth by binding ourselves by human creeds to believe just what your fathers believed, right or wrong.”5 Such openness toward the articulation of doctrinal statements is evident as church leaders during the first decade after the formation of the General Conference defined their beliefs.
Two years earlier (1872) Uriah Smith published Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by Seventh‑day Adventists to help explain Adventist beliefs to others outside of Seventh‑day Adventism, especially in light of recent criticisms: “Our only object is to meet this necessity [criticism]. As Seventh‑day Adventists we desire simply that our position shall be understood; and we are the more solicitous for this because there are many who call themselves Adventists who hold views with which we can have no sympathy, some of which, we think, are subversive of the plainest and most important principles set forth in the word of God. As compared with other Adventists, Seventh‑day Adventists differ from one class in believing in the unconscious state of the dead, and the final destruction of the unrepentant wicked; from another, in believing in the perpetuity of the law of God as summarily contained in the ten commandments, in the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church, and in setting no times for the advent to occur; from all, in the observance of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath of the Lord, and in many applications of the prophetic scriptures.”6
Uriah Smith, who commented regularly on publications received from various other Adventist entities, recognized that Seventh‑day Adventists were all too often confused with these other Adventist groups. Smith regularly used his editorial pen to try to set the record straight. Thus this statement was intended to provide greater clarity to distinguish themselves from other Adventist denominations, and, in turn, provide additional clarity for outsiders.
This statement furthermore implies tension between early Seventh‑day Adventists and other Adventist groups. This is not surprising since other Adventist groups developed their own statements of belief. The Albany Conference, on May 1, 1845, developed a statement for the majority of Millerite Adventists after the Millerite disappointment. This statement was affirmed at least twice. A second major statement, adopted by the Evangelical Adventists in 1869, indicates their own theological and organizational maturity.
Denis Fortin has analyzed these two statements and compared them with the first Seventh‑day Adventist statement of belief in 1872. He argues that together they demonstrate “similar religious roots and theological heritage, and some divergent theological frames of reference.”7 These two latter statements of beliefs (1869, 1872) show both an evangelical heritage with “a different understanding of anthropology. Seventh‑day Adventists were the most theologically removed from evangelicalism in emphasizing their doctrine of the sanctuary as the center of their theological articulation.”8
Seventh‑day Adventist minister J. N. Andrews acknowledged the 1869 Evangelical Adventist Statement of Beliefs. Any apparent warmth belies increased tensions with these other affiliated Adventist traditions. James and Ellen G. White met Miles Grant, the leader of the Advent Christian Church on a train in 1868. In the conversation Grant stated: “I can worship with you, but your views will not let you worship with me.”9 James White mistook this as a gesture of good will and followed it up the next year by bringing a small delegation to attend one of their camp meetings in Illinois. They were kicked off the campground.10 Joshua V. Himes tried to intervene, but Grant and Himes were already in a power struggle that culminated with the expulsion of Himes in 1876. This humiliation on the part of the Whites was met with an additional testimony by Ellen G. White, in which she described “our most bitter opponents are found among the first‑day Adventists.”11 Seventh‑day Adventists, she admonished, should never engage with them in such “unjust warfare.” Instead, “silent contempt”12 was the best approach. For his part, Miles Grant held a personal vendetta against the Whites as well as Seventh‑day Adventists in general, going out of his way to attack both Ellen G. White and the Seventh‑day Adventist Church.
Early exchanges between Seventh‑day Adventists and other Adventist traditions contributed to the formulation of early statements of beliefs from 1869 to 1872. Each sought to define its own identity and to distinguish itself from others. James White desired to develop a warm relationship between Seventh‑day Adventists and what they broadly described as “first‑day Adventists” that could be similar to the cordial relationship they had with the Seventh Day Baptist Church. His desire to have such a relationship did not materialize. It culminated with a confession of faith written by Review and Herald editor Uriah Smith that defined the boundaries of belief between the two denominations. At the heart of the 1872 Fundamental Principles was the doctrine of the sanctuary. This more than anything else defined the unique theology of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church.
The 1931 Statement of Beliefs
On December 29, 1930, the General Conference Executive Committee noted a request from missionaries in Africa for a Statement of Beliefs. Adventist historians consider the 1920s the “golden age” of Adventist missions as new mission stations, schools, and clinics blossomed around the globe. The growth of missions appears to have been a catalyst but not necessarily the primary motivation for the 1931 Statement of Beliefs. The official request came through H. Edson Rogers, who desired to place a statement of beliefs in the Seventh‑day Adventist Yearbook.
General Conference president Charles H. Watson noted that he along with three others (M. E. Kern, F. M. Wilcox, and E. R. Palmer) formed a committee of four to review this statement of Fundamental Beliefs. According to Watson, the real impetus for this “Statement of Beliefs” was the aggressive charges made by dissident E. S. Ballenger in The Gathering Call, which prompted church leaders to produce a “true statement of essential points of faith.” He additionally noted that no formal approval was given to the statement so that it would not be considered a “fixed creed.”13 Adventist authors R. F. Cottrell and Lowell Tarling both document the strain that Ballenger’s challenges to the sanctuary doctrine had on this time period.14 And, as if this were not enough, two other prominent Adventists, W. W. Fletcher and L. R. Conradi, defected and objected to the sanctuary doctrine shortly before the 1931 Statement of Beliefs. Minutes and correspondence from General Conference administration in 1930 indicate that Fletcher and Conradi presented challenges that took up a considerable amount of time and resources.
F. M. Wilcox, editor of the Review and Herald, wrote the primary draft of the document that was published in the 1931 Seventh‑day Adventist Yearbook and the 1932 Church Manual. While change was possible, the primary ethos from this time was to avoid a “fixed creed.” Thus, the 1946 General Conference session voted “that no revision of this Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, as it now appears in the Manual, shall be made at any time except at a General Conference session.”15 In effect, this made it much more difficult to make any changes to Adventist beliefs.
Of the 25 beliefs listed in 1872, the list was condensed to 22 beliefs in 1931. A comparison of the two lists of beliefs reveals some important shifts:
A comparison of the two statements demonstrates a shifting emphasis within Adventist theology. Clearly the 1931 “Statement of Beliefs” was informed by the earlier 1872 Statement of Beliefs. At the same time, theological priorities had definitely changed by 1931.
The 1931 list of beliefs was less concerned with Bible prophecy than the earlier 1872 statement was (note the exclusion of 1872 beliefs Nos. 6, 7, 8). The 1931 statement also demonstrates an increased interest in defining the sanctuary doctrine and confirmed Watson’s recollection of challenges to the sanctuary doctrine by Ballenger (and others) as the primary cause for the new statement of beliefs. The renewed interest and affirmation of the sanctuary doctrine is showcased by how much attention was given to it. Belief No. 18 in the earlier statement was expanded into two separate beliefs (Nos. 14 and 16). These two beliefs formed the most points of belief from the 1931 Statement of Beliefs.
Other notable theological observations include a trend toward consolidation. The beliefs of repentance and conversion (No. 14) and keeping God’s law (No. 15) in 1872 were combined into a single belief (No. 8). Furthermore, the bodily resurrection (No. 21) at the Second Coming (No. 22) in 1872 were combined in 1931 into a single belief (No. 11). These helped to shorten the overall list.
Also of note were new doctrinal additions in 1931 that included the doctrine of the “Trinity, or Godhead” (No. 2), the body as the temple of God as the basis for healthful living (No. 17), and tithes and offerings (No. 18). While the Second Coming was listed separately, it was largely implied collectively in the other beliefs in the 1872 “Statement of Beliefs.” Merlin D. Burt, director of the Center for Adventist Research, has conducted a careful analysis of the development of the Adventist understanding of the Trinity doctrine, which he argues was largely confirmed with the 1931 Fundamental Beliefs even if some dissonance occurred afterward.16 And finally, the new focus on Adventist lifestyle along with tithes and offerings (a focus on outward behaviors) corresponded somewhat with the rise of the historical Fundamentalist movement and a new preoccupation with Adventist lifestyle in the 1920s and 1930s.
Early efforts to distinguish theological beliefs among Adventist denominations from 1869 to 1872 gave way eventually to a new set of challenges from within the Seventh‑day Adventist Church in the late 1920s and early 1930s. During this time, evidence of gradual development can be seen with the belief of the Trinity, first promulgated in the 1890s, and that represented a consolidation of this shift in the 1931 Statement of Beliefs. More significantly, the 1931 Statement of Beliefs showcases a greater clarification about the sanctuary doctrine. Clearly, Seventh‑day Adventists were concerned about Ballenger and others when they wrote the 1931 Statement of Beliefs. The new confession was written by four people instead of only one. While the editor of the Review and Herald, as in 1872, wrote the primary draft, the process indicates a subtle shift from a private to a more visible and therefore public confession. Perhaps the greatest shift was that the sanctuary doctrine was clarified and affirmed as the central focus for Adventist beliefs.
The 1980 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh‑day Adventists
A significant change from the previous two statements of belief (1872, 1931) was the public adoption of the “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh‑day Adventists” during the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas, Texas. The 1946 resolution passed by the General Conference in session that no changes to the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs as published in the Church Manual created this more public venue. As in both previous statements of beliefs, the preamble affirmed that “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.”17 The way was left open for possible future revisions.
As early as 1974, a suggestion was made that the list of fundamental beliefs needed to include the Lord’s Supper. Shortly afterward, there was a significant push for doctrinal statements about creation and inspiration. A new generation of scientists and popular promulgation of evolution presented new challenges to a Seventh-day Adventist understanding of origins. Some Seventh-day Adventist educators went so far as to advocate theistic evolution.
These issues combined with new questions about the inspiration and authority of Ellen G. White raised by the publication of Ronald L. Numbers’ book Prophetess of Health(1974). The General Conference Officers (PREXAD) cited growing concern that heightened in 1979 with additional allegations by Walter Rea that Ellen G. White plagiarized most of her writings. These new challenges were especially problematic as church leaders found traditional books such as Questions on Doctrine and L. E. Froom’s Movement of Destiny inadequate to explain Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Something new and more definitive was needed to meet these new challenges.
During the 1970s, this complex milieu contributed to the need for a new and official statement of beliefs. General Conference vice-president, W. Duncan Eva, led a team that included B. E. Seton, C. E. Bradford, N. R. Dower, C. O. Franz, W. J. Hackett, Richard Hamill, G. M. Hyde, Alf Lohne, and A. L. White. General Conference President Robert H. Pearson served in an ex officio capacity, and then after his resignation in late 1979 because of ill health, the newly elected Neal C. Wilson supported the development of a statement of fundamental beliefs. The initial draft of the statement was significantly rewritten and largely adopted by professors at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Additional input came from a draft published in the Adventist Review in which readers were given an opportunity to ask questions and submit suggestions.
The level of anxiety increased significantly with new challenges from Australian Bible teacher Desmond Ford. He questioned the Adventist understanding of the sanctuary, including the investigative judgment. A follow-up committee examined his 991-page manuscript, Daniel 8:14, the Day of Atonement, and the Investigative Judgment. Church leaders gathered 114 individuals in August 1980. Ford was ultimately dismissed as a minister and religion professor. Although his case was not officially decided until after the 1980 Fundamental Beliefs was voted on April 25, 1980, the controversy certainly contributed to the theological tension in the time period leading up to the new statement of fundamental beliefs, including a strong re-affirmation of the doctrine of the sanctuary. Apologetic responses to challenges about the sanctuary and the inspiration of Ellen G. White continued through the 1980s. Such concerns raised questions about Adventist theological priorities. A comparison and contrast of the 1931 and 1980 statements of beliefs showcases these priorities:
The 1980 “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” was an affirmation of much of the 1931—and by extension, 1872— statements of beliefs. Similar to the 1931 Statement of Beliefs the 1980 Statement of Fundamental Beliefs strongly affirmed the doctrine of the sanctuary. In fact, it synthesized points 13, 14, and 16 into a single doctrinal belief (No. 24, “the heavenly sanctuary and the judgment”). The mission of the “threefold message” of Revelation 14 (No. 20 in 1931) was broadened to use “remnant church” language (1980 belief No. 16). Other changes include nuance such as the expansion of the doctrine on baptism (No. 5) in 1931 to couple it with the addition of the Lord’s Supper in 1980 (No. 13). Adventist eschatology was re-emphasized, similar to the 1972 statement, by providing a new doctrinal statement on the Great Controversy (No. 8). Similarly, Adventist lifestyle concerns were expanded to include a new and separate doctrine on “marriage and the family” (No. 22).
A significant change in the 1980 statement has largely been observed by Rolf J. Pöhler in his Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (2000) about the development of a distinctive Adventist ecclesiology. This corresponded, as Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart have astutely noted, with an emphasis on ecclesiology within other religious traditions. “Adventists were not entirely alone in this since there was a late-twentieth-century rediscovery of the doctrine of the church on the part of other evangelicals.”18 For the 1980 Fundamental Beliefs, this development corresponded with beliefs in “the church” (No. 11) that defined Christ as the head, “unity in the body of Christ” (No. 12), and “the ministries of the Church” (No. 17). Clearly, a new theological priority for Seventh-day Adventists was ecclesiology. Each of the statements was, furthermore, written in a much more relational way as drafters worked to become more intentional to connect doctrines to actual practice. At the same time, the boundaries of orthodoxy were being spelled out. Soon afterward, Bull and Lockhart observed, this took on tangible form when church leaders trademarked the name “Seventh-day Adventist” (1981).19 Denominational leaders clarified who could or could not use, and therefore benefit, from the official identity of the church.
Another significant addition to the 1980 statement was a doctrinal statement on “Creation” (No. 6) that highlighted new interest in defining origins. In the earliest statement (1872), this was largely assumed, as evolution was promptly rejected. In the 1931 statement, following the peak of the Fundamentalist movement during the 1920s, this was again simply assumed. Yet by 1980, there were new challenges as thought leaders wrestled with issues related to science and religion and questions about the origins of the Earth.
These additions should be juxtaposed against one significant deletion: the anti-creedal statement that Seventh-day Adventists believed in the “Bible and the Bible alone” was modified to state that they believed in “the Bible.” The Bible remained the only creed for Seventh-day Adventists, but Adventists recognized different hermeneutical approaches based upon different presuppositions. In this sense Adventists remained in harmony with the Protestant principle of sola scriptura, or the belief that the Bible should interpret itself, and the interpretation should not rely upon church tradition.
The 1980 Fundamental Beliefs were a strong affirmation of the 1931 Statement of Beliefs. Both strongly emphasized the doctrines of the sanctuary and the Trinity, in response to doctrinal challenges. And while not as explicit at first, the 1980 Fundamental Beliefs appeared to answer challenges at the time relating to revelation/inspiration. Theological priorities had both remained the same as well as shifted. Now, not only were the margins more clearly defined, but the new emphasis on ecclesiology also gave more substance to what was within the boundaries of Adventist theology. Earlier private confessions now received full public scrutiny.
Theological Development and Unity
Seventh-day Adventists have consistently affirmed the Bible as their only creed. This openness toward change, in large part a response to the theological milieu in which Sabbatarian Adventism was born, created a fear of a public creed. The 1872 statement of beliefs by Uriah Smith morphed into a subtly more visible statement of beliefs by a small committee instead of a single individual. This changed after 1946, when the General Conference voted that any future changes must be made in General Conference session, which forced a private declaration to undergo full public scrutiny in 1980. “Perhaps the most astounding and important thing about the 1980 statement of fundamental beliefs is the preamble,” observes Adventist historian George R. Knight. “The preamble not only begins with the historic Adventist statement that ‘Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures,’ but also leaves the way open for further revision.”20
One thing that did not change between the three Seventh-day Adventist confessions was a commitment to present truth even if the “alone” part was dropped in 1980. It should be noted that Adventists have always adhered to the belief that absolute Truth exists, but that human understanding of truth is limited; and therefore, it is this understanding of truth that grows over time. The statement did not prescribe a specific approach to Scripture, which would leave room for later clarification. Yet at the very heart of Adventist theology there remains a commitment to study the Bible to progressively better understand what is Truth.
All three statements furthermore appear to have been generated in response to theological challenges to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The first was in response to other Adventist groups, in particular, Miles Grant. The 1931 and 1980 statements of beliefs were strong affirmations of the sanctuary doctrine. In a sense, the sanctuary doctrine played a unifying role by being the theological focus of these statements of beliefs.
The internal and unifying nature of the sanctuary doctrine cannot be overestimated. Ellen G. White observes this significance in relationship to the search for truth soon after the Great Disappointment: “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God’s hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people.”21
Similarly, new challenges from science brought up questions about the origins of the Earth. This was addressed by restricting the 1980 statement to biblical language. Perhaps an unintended result was that both literal creationists, who adhered to a short-time chronology, as well as those who adhered to a much longer time span, discovered that they could each live with this language. Thus, a compromise was achieved that allowed two mutually exclusive worldviews to co-exist.
One notable shift in Adventist theology between 1872 and 1980, as Bull and Lockhart observe, concerns the atonement. In 1872, Uriah Smith argued that the atonement began on October 22, 1844. This concept was affirmed and expanded in 1980 but with the added emphasis on Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice. This emphasis was at least due in large part to the evangelical conferences and publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957. Another notable shift that occurred from 1872 to 1980 was the development of the Adventist understanding of the Trinity doctrine, especially as it pertained to the full divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
The transition from a private to a public confession demonstrates a need to define the boundaries of Seventh-day Adventist theology. Although denominational pioneers were excluded during the Millerite revival, as the Sabbatarian Adventist movement matured, they were through their interactions with other Adventist groups forced to distinguish themselves from others. The exchange between Miles Grant and James White demonstrates a reluctant embrace of confessionalism. Such a statement “inevitably excludes those who disagree with its content.”22
Later boundaries were defined not from without, but from within. The genesis of the 1931 and 1980 confessions furthermore demonstrates that later confessions were in large part responses to internal theological challenges. While Seventh-day Adventists clung to the notion of progressive truth, they increasingly defined the boundaries of orthodoxy. The orthodoxy centered on an affirmation of the core doctrine of the sanctuary. This did not change even as the articulation of beliefs grew from a private declaration (1872) to a full public and voted statement of fundamental beliefs (1980). Unity did not require complete uniformity as each statement showcases various theological priorities, but the sanctuary doctrine was a non-negotiable that defined orthodoxy versus heresy.
Michael W. Campbell, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Adventist Studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS), Silang, Cavite, Philippines.
NOTES AND REFERENCES