By Reinder Bruinsma

Our Adventist forefathers were adamant: “We have no creed but the Bible!” When they joined the Advent movement, the “pioneers” left the church communities of which they had been part. Most of these communities had a “creed” or “confession of faith” that defined their official beliefs. Their main convictions had become codified in documents that often became even more important than the Bible, as they, once and for all, summarized and set in concrete what, in their view, the biblical message was all about.

The early Adventist believers started on a journey of discovery. They found new “truths” and saw things in the Scriptures they had not seen before. They wanted to continue mining biblical truth without being impeded by a rigid body of unchangeable dogma that put an end to genuine Bible study.

It was only when James White, one of the first generation of Adventist leaders and the editor of the earliest denominational journals, received letters from the public, inquiring what Seventh-day Adventist Christians believed, that he reluctantly gave (in 1853) a short list of the main views that by that time had more or less crystalized. The first version of an official statement of Adventist beliefs was adopted in 1872 and consisted of 25 articles. The introduction stated: The intention of this pamphlet is not “to secure uniformity,” but rather “to meet inquiries” and “to remove erroneous impressions.” In other words, producing this summary of Adventist beliefs was a public relations project, a service to the public, and not a prescription of what every church member should believe.

As time went by, Adventists lost their inhibitions with regard to producing doctrinal statements and embarked on a process of ever more precisely formulating a list of doctrines. This eventually resulted in the Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs, as recently revised during the 2015 General Conference in San Antonio. Even though the church continues to assert that this list of “fundamentals” is not to be seen as a “creed,” there is every indication that, in actual fact, this document today very much functions as such.


Opinions differ greatly with regard to the development and authority of the Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs. On the one hand, many church members feel it is good to define Adventist teachings in as much detail as possible, and they have no doubt that every “true” Adventist ought to fully agree with all aspects of it. Others think this document has become far too detailed and insist that we do not have to agree with all the doctrinal fine print, as long as we accept the core values of the Adventist faith.

This, of course, raises all sorts of questions. The reality is that most church members only have a vague knowledge of many of the “fundamental” beliefs. When large baptisms take place in developing countries, doctrinal instruction has usually been limited. But also in the Western world, a large percentage of our members—either newly baptized or with vintage membership cards—are not familiar with most of “the 28.”

Should that worry us? And should the church insist that all members know and accept all doctrines as they are officially formulated? Or is there space for differences of opinion and for private interpretation as long as one is committed to the basic Christian and the most significant Adventist convictions that are generally seen as the core “truths” of Adventism? But what might constitute a core of Adventist teachings that most members would agree are basic?

An ever-recurring question is whether all doctrines are equally important. Some would maintain that all “truth” is important and we cannot relegate any point of “truth” to the category of “secondary” or “less important.” Others feel that we are all entitled to put our own doctrinal package together and should not be under any pressure from the church or from fellow church members as to what we “must” believe. Still others, like myself, find themselves somewhere in between those two opposing viewpoints.

The Role of Doctrine

A short article like this cannot begin to address the questions I just raised, let alone many other doctrine-related issues. There are, however, a few points that are of crucial significance when we ask what role doctrines play in our spiritual life.

We must realize that doctrines represent an imperfect, human attempt to put into words what goes far beyond our human understanding. Doctrines are never the Absolute Truth, but are expressions of what a faith community has come to believe about God—who He is and what He does for us through His Son and through His Spirit. Christians must accept biblical truth in faith, but this never means they cannot have questions or even doubts. We have been created with brains and must worship God with both our hearts and our minds (Mark 9:24).

As Christians, we will continue to prayerfully probe the divine mysteries and must never think we know all there is to know. We must “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, NLT). This “growth” implies that our views will develop or may even change as our spiritual growth takes place.

Doctrinal truth is important. After all, when we say we believe in God, we naturally want to put into words who this God is, what He does for us, and how He wants us to respond to Him. But doctrines are never a goal in them- selves. They are, as it were, the grammar of faith. Knowledge of grammar is essential if we want to effectively use language. But language is more than grammar. Similarly, doctrines help us to think about our faith and to communicate the content of our faith. But doctrines are not to be confused with faith. They are a tool that we may gratefully use as we go on our journey of faith.

It is important to remind ourselves and others of the fact that we must always go back to the Word and must continue to immerse ourselves in it. We must refuse to think “creedally,” as if our Adventist experience is little more than intellectual assent to a list of “fundamentals.”  Human beings are always tempted to worship idols. Christians may worship the church or the pastor. Adventist Christians may worship their traditions or the Fundamental Beliefs. However, only God is worthy of our worship!

l Faith is more than accepting a list of doctrines. It is first of all a relationship with the One who is the Source of Truth.

What Does It Do for Me?

In John 8:32, Jesus tells His followers that the truth will set them free. In other words, the truth must do something for us. It must change us into better, more balanced, happier, and more fulfilled human beings. As we think about our doctrinal heritage, this one question must be uppermost in our minds: What does it do for me? How does the doctrinal content of my faith help me to become a more faithful follower of my Lord and a more caring neighbor?

If doctrine remains only a matter of mental assent and does not translate into a way of life, we have sadly missed the mark!

–Reinder Bruinsma is theologian, writer, and former church administrator. His recent book is In All Humility. Saying No to Last Generation Theology. He writes from the Netherlands. Email him at: [email protected]