The first 168 years of Adventist history offer cogent warnings that the current proposal to change the wording of Fundamental Belief 6 is unwise. While at least a substantial paper needs to be written in support of the following observations, many observers are already aware of the substantive data that relate to each point.
First, since “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed” (Preamble, “Fundamental Beliefs”), it is particularly desirable that sensitive matters be expressed, insofar as is possible, in the language of Scripture. Research by historian and General Conference archivist, Dr David Trim, indicates the present wording of Fundamental 6 was carefully considered during the 1976 to 1980 discussions, and adopted as a considered attempt to include responsible believers who were struggling to understand and faithfully apply the biblical text.
Second, the interpretation of Genesis has been given extended attention in living memory, and there is no indication that any one of the 2012 Adventist formulations is ready to be canonised. Specifically, the stances that I was taught as a BA (Theology) student at the Australasian Missionary College from 1954 to 1957 were radically revised by my lecturers at the SDA Theological Seminary between 1970 and 1972. Since the latter experience, vast new perspectives have been tacitly or specifically approved by the church’s Biblical Research entities and its Geoscience Research Institute. Hence any tight creedal statement written in the 1950s, the 1970s, or now, would inevitably draw painful and unnecessary lines of exclusion. Often Adventists handle such realities by observing that their history offers powerful support for the concept that Ellen White repeatedly describes as “present truth.” What is important at one point of the Adventist journey may require adjustment or even replacement at another phase of the journey. The current situation of Fundamental 6 resonates with this concept.
Third, creeds have been useful descriptors in the life of Christian movements; for instance, the misnamed Apostles Creed seeks to express the essence of Christian thought in 111 words (according to one translation) and has endured from the Second Century to the present. However, Christian and Adventist history show the wisdom of avoiding the pitfalls of creedal misuse. It was with careful consideration of the context within which Adventism developed that our pioneers were deeply impressed by John N. Loughborough’s cogent warning in this regard:
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 is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such (“Organisation of the Michigan Conference,” Review and Herald, 21 October 1861, 176. During his many fruitful years as a White Estate researcher, Ron Graybill wrote the best-ever historical treatment of this subject as “Adventism’s Historic Witness Against Creeds.” The article was first published in 1977 and updated in Spectrum 38:3 (Summer 2010), 31-35, 54-55.)
Fourth, the discipline of Adventist Studies and its subset, Ellen White Studies, has received enormous attention during the last four decades. There is no evidence that Ellen White was told in vision that the earth is six thousand years old; there is every reason to believe that as an earnest nineteenth-century Christian she derived this view by looking in the margins of the Bibles that were available to her. Hence faithfulness to Ellen White requires us to interpret her statements about the age of the earth in the same way as we interpret her statements about a large number of scientific concepts like amalgamation, vital force, volcanoes, medicine and related issues.
Careful listening to presentations by the members of the Geoscience Research Institute indicates there are huge bodies of evidence that these researchers are as yet only beginning to consider. Until a responsible jury can give its verdict regarding these significant matters, we should point to Scripture itself rather than human interpretations of the Bible that are likely to be temporal at best. In short, Adventist history indicates the pastoral wisdom of retaining, for the present, the 1980 expression of Fundamental 6.
Arthur Patrick, posted 24 May 2012