The gentleman in Western Tanzania was drop dead drunk, but his dull red eyes brightened. He flashed a toothless grin when he heard I was an Adventist.

“So am I,” he said cheerfully!

He probably was.

The way I see it, it’s a “behaviors versus beliefs” issue. One can behave like an authentic Adventist, or believe like an authentic Adventist, or both.

I consider myself a bit of an expert on authentic Adventist behavior. I’m great at evaluating lifestyles and assessing appearances. It’s an important part of my life as an Adventist. I can observe what you eat and drink, how you dress, what you do on Saturdays and Saturday nights, how and whom you love, and tell, with a great deal of confidence, if you’re behaving like an authentic Adventist. I’m very good at it.

But I would never claim to be an authority on Adventist beliefs.

On the beliefs side, I’m relatively ignorant. Or at least confused. I have limited access and little insight into the hierarchy of all the pronouncements, guidelines, rules, principles, commitments, vows, fundamental beliefs, position statements, and requirements that an Adventist must hold and uphold socially, spiritually, economically, ethically, and theologically to permit me to identify an authentic, belief-based Adventist. It may not even be possible.

Part of the problem is that Adventism apparently is not a single, unified church. The late William Johnsson, editor of the Adventist Review for a quarter century, claimed that there are two different versions of Adventism, while Jon Paulien, the past dean of the Faculty of Religion at Loma Linda University, has identified at least four brands of Adventism. It’s difficult to define authenticity among those in division.

We Adventists come to our present discord, in large part, because of our church history. Our denomination was born in confusion and disagreement. Adventism suffered a “great disappointment” based on a significant misinterpretation of prophecy, and then splintered into numerous Adventist components. The splintered components then fragmented further.

As with many Protestant churches, early Adventists claimed to believe in the “priesthood of all (male) believers.” They also believed in “present truth,” the idea that truth was progressive; dynamic, as opposed to static. This is a formula for fragmentation.

Having a church full of individual “priests” studying the Bible for themselves leads to singular convictions that often result in sharp divisions and disputes among members and between members and leaders. This difficulty was magnified in the group that eventually became the Seventh-day Adventists. There, believers could not only study and view biblical writings differently, but they could also study and interpret the writings of their “prophetess” differently. This led to confusion both inside and outside of the church.

To prevent and suppress such chaotic behavior, most churches adopt a standard creed. Our denomination, however, was founded by leaders who were not just non-credal, they were dogmatically anti-credal. Many of them felt that creeds stifled the work of the Holy Spirit. However, not having a creed, or even a list of fundamental principles or beliefs, made it difficult to “shepherd” the members, and almost impossible to explain to the outside world what it was that they believed.

There was no “officially” pronounced set of fundamental beliefs for more than a century of the church’s existence as an organization. Unofficially, though, in 1872, Uriah Smith, the editor of the church’s leading periodical, published a “Declaration of Fundamental Principles.” He did this, in large part, to address the confusion that reigned in the Christian community regarding what it was that made Adventists different. This unadopted and unofficial list of Adventist principles essentially defined the church and explained its mission until 1931. Unfortunately, it included key items that were not only unorthodox, but they were also seen as being heretical by many non-Adventist Christians.

By 1931, church leadership realized that the “Declarations of Fundamental Principles” were causing Adventism to be seen as a cult. Additionally, requests to clarify our beliefs were coming in from church divisions around the world. In response, a committee was established to produce “a statement of what Seventh-day Adventists believe” to be printed in the church’s Yearbook. It was felt that “such a statement would help government officials and others to a better understanding of our work.”

The committee’s product became known as “The Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists.” This was first presented to the public in the February 19, 1931, edition of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. There was no official church vote on its acceptance, nor was there any apparent push to adopt it as a creed for the denomination. However, it finally offered to the world, and to church members, the articulation of “our faith” in a manner that presumed to reflect an entirely agreed upon system of beliefs. Importantly, it corrected the heretical positions that had been present in the earlier list of principles.

Unfortunately, this document was not widely disseminated, and the odor of heresy and the criticism of being a cult continued to hang over the church.

In 1955 and 1956, a group of Adventist scholars and theologians met with several non-Adventist Evangelical leaders over a period of eighteen months, hammering out answers to a number of questions about our church and its beliefs. This led to the publication, in 1957, of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. This book warmed the hearts of leading American fundamentalist Evangelicals, who finally agreed that Adventists should be admitted into the Christian fold.

Many Adventist theologians who had not been involved in the publication, however, loudly criticized the work. They felt we had surrendered too much of our distinctiveness in purchasing a seat on the bench of so-called Christian orthodoxy. And, although the book was “prepared and authorized” by the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference administration, it was not an “official pronouncement” of the church, as it was never “endorsed or adopted” by the General Conference in session.

Finally, in 1980, at a representative meeting of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in session, the church officially adopted a comprehensive summarization of “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” in 27 paragraphs. The Bible remained as the church’s only creed, but the church officially now had a statement of the shared beliefs of the community in a form which was structured by subjects which summarized its core tenets. This was in contradistinction to a creed, which has been defined as “a statement of the shared beliefs of a community in a form which is structured by subjects which summarize its core tenets.”

In 2005, a 28th fundamental belief was added to the list to apparently help support and assist perfectionists. This list constitutes the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. The Bible is still our only creed, but we now have an “official” way of identifying, by both beliefs and practices, an “authentic” Adventist.

Or do we?

Sadly, confusion remains, at least among some of us living in the intellectual and theological hinterlands. While we have the 28 fundamental beliefs, there are still two different sets of baptismal vows and dozens of official church position statements that expand on and attempt to clarify the list of beliefs. Knowing which of these statements are authoritative is perplexing, as they have been variously approved by the General Conference Administrative Committee, the General Conference Executive Committee, the General Conference in session, the General Conference Communications Department, and the General Conference Communication Department on behalf of the President’s Office.

Personally, there are some official statements and positions with which I disagree. Fortunately, I have been told by several local pastors and conference officials that one does not have to believe all of the Fundamental Beliefs and official position statements to be an Adventist. But still I worry. Am I authentic? Who has the ultimate right to decide?

Our church includes numerous categories of believers, all of whom are encouraged to spread our beliefs to the world. There are lay members, such as I. There are Bible workers, local pastors, elementary and high school Bible teachers, college and university professors, independent and employed evangelists, and seminary theologians. Additionally, there are local conference officers, union and division administrators, and executives of the General Conference. But not everyone is on the same page. Does the General Conference president speak with more authority regarding our Fundamental Beliefs and positions than does a local Bible worker? How can one be certain?

The official position of the church is that our fundamental beliefs and doctrines are given the formal imprimatur of the church when the Adventist General Conference is in session, with accredited delegates from the whole world field present. These General Conference in session meetings occur every five years. Perhaps the safest thing to do is to wait until 2025, when, hopefully, we’ll once again find out what it is that “authentic” Adventists believe. Until then, however, I’ll just keep spreading my own little list of present truths! I am, after all, an authentic (male) priest.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]