Do we need doctrines?
Every doctrinal expression must be Christ-centered, otherwise it has neither relevance nor use for the Christian.
Not so long ago, I was visiting a Sabbath School class and took my seat in a corner with the anticipation of calm thinking and reflective listening. Rarely do I get such an opportunity, and usually I end up either teaching the class or becoming an active participant. But on this Sabbath, the situation was different: not too many people, including the teacher, knew me. Hence my anticipation.
But the anticipation of calm and quiet listening vaporized within minutes, and soon the class was in a “war” of words, reminding me of what William Sumner once wrote: “If you want a war, cherish a doctrine.” That Sabbath morning, what should have been a study of the greatest wonder this world has ever known — the incarnation of Jesus — turned into a noisy, at times discourteous, shouting match: What nature did Jesus take? Was it the pre-fall nature or post-fall nature? Could Jesus have sinned? If He could not, how is He an example to us? If He could, how does He become our Savior? And so on.
In the midst of it all, one young college student asked a question that turned the direction of the discussion: Do we need specific doctrines? Is Jesus not enough?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has 28 fundamental doctrines, ranging from confessing theological particulars to practicing that confession in everyday life. Acceptance of and obedience to these doctrines are considered essential for baptism and fellowship within the Adventist church.
Is doctrine essential to Christian redemptive experience? The question is an important one and deserves careful consideration. We can perhaps approach this issue by raising four questions: What is a doctrine? Is Jesus a person or a doctrine? Is doctrine essential for salvation? Is acceptance of our 28 fundamental beliefs a prerequisite for baptism and acceptance into the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
What is a doctrine?
A doctrine is a statement one makes and holds to be true. No religious or philosophic school can exist or begin to function without a core doctrinal system that is accepted by the adherents of that school. To raise the question as to whether a religious body, such as a church, needs doctrine is to ask the obvious. Of course it does. The kind of doctrine it holds defines its nature, mission, and purpose.
Take the idea of God, for example. Many statements can be made about God. One could say that God is the absolute mind, from which all ideas emanate. That is a doctrinal statement. Whether the doctrine is right or not, those who hold that teaching have a certain perception of God that defines their life, mission, and purpose.
Another person could say that God is the ultimate good from which all sense of ethics and aesthetics flow. Those who accept that as their doctrine of God may insist that as long as they do some good in life, to that extent they are participating in the will and the way of God.
Still another person could say that God is an absolute impersonal force, permeating all nature, both animate and inanimate. Those who hold such a belief may look at life as a continual cyclic process, without beginning or end, ever seeking to become part of this absolute force. In this process there is neither birth nor death, neither joy nor pain, neither here nor there.
Someone could deny the existence of God altogether. That too would be a doctrine — the doctrine of atheism. Hundreds of people build their edifice upon such a doctrine and lead a life without any need for recognition of a supreme being.
Then someone else might say that God is a person — infinite in wisdom, love, and power — and that He has chosen to create humanity in His own image. Indeed, this God is so loving that when humanity chose to rebel against Him, His love sought after them in the person of a Son who made the infinite sacrifice of dying on a cross to save them from sin.
The last statement about God is quite different from the previous ones, and those who seriously accept it would relate to God on a personal basis, accepting His Son as their Savior.
The belief system, the worship practice, the relational structure, the ethical norms flowing out of each of these statements about God would all be quite different. Without considering the rightness or the wrongness of each doctrinal statement, one can easily see the importance of doctrine in anchoring one’s belief, practice, and purpose.
Jesus and doctrine
The moment they take the name of Jesus, some Christians immediately go on the offensive. Jesus is all we need, they say. Don’t confuse us with doctrines. One cannot quarrel with the first part of that statement: Jesus is certainly all we need. The Bible says so: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
But when it comes to the statement “Don’t confuse us with doctrines,” the problems mount. For example, which Jesus? Is He the prophet that Muslims accept? Is He the great teacher, a good man, one of the many incarnations of the Absolute Force that Hindus would worship? Is He the model person that humanists would project? Or is He the myth that must be rejected in order that the profound moral teachings of the Gospels may emerge as the lofty ideal for humanity?
Immediately you see the need for a definition of Jesus. We must let the Bible define Jesus. He is God. Being God, He took upon Himself human flesh. In that flesh, He bore our sins, died for our sins, rose victorious over sin, ascended to sit on the right hand of the Father to be our high priest, and will soon come again to take us where He is. That is the definition the Bible gives. To make that statement, to confess that belief, is the purpose of the doctrine of Christ. Theologians call it Christology. Without that doctrinal clarification, we won’t know which Jesus we are worshiping.
It’s not a question of Jesus versus doctrine. The issue, rather, is the need for a statement of truth about the person of Jesus so that those who trust in Jesus will know the Person in whom they place their trust.
Doctrine and salvation
Can one be saved by believing in a doctrine? The answer is obvious. John Wesley once said that “the devils believe, and still remain devils.” Theoretically, knowing Jesus, even the Jesus of the Bible, is not going to save anyone. Knowing that two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen make water is not going to save a person dying of thirst. No, they need to drink that water.
So with Jesus. Correctness of knowledge about Him will not save anyone. Salvation is a result of accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior — coming to Him, placing our lives in His trust, walking as He walked, living as He lived, abiding in Him without any deviation or hesitation. All by His grace and power.
If salvation is accepting Jesus and through His grace overcoming sin, do we need the doctrine of Jesus? Absolutely. For we want to make sure that we go to the right Jesus. In other words, the doctrine of Christ tells us who Jesus is, what He has done, and what kind of relationship He wants to establish with us. After knowing that kind of Jesus, I must make my choice and hand over my life to Him. He gives me salvation, and He leads me through.
Upon my acceptance of Him as my Savior, I am baptized into His body — the fellowship of other believers who have accepted Him before me.
Baptism and the 28 fundamentals
In recent times some Adventists have expressed their discomfort in making acceptance of the 28 fundamental beliefs a prerequisite for baptism. The discomfort largely arises from their dissection of the 28 fundamentals into two parts: the Christian core and the Adventist essentials. They would go so far as to say that baptism into the body of Christ requires only the acceptance of the Christian core. After baptism, the Adventist essentials should be taught to those baptized in order that they might become full-fledged members of the Adventist Church.
I find such dichotomy between baptism into Christ and entry into the Seventh-day Adventist Church untenable. It assumes that the two are different. If we go back to 1844 and accept the stand of our pioneers that in God’s own way and time He raised up a body of people conscious of their commitment to the Jesus of the cross and the Jesus of the eschaton, we would realize that the pioneers made no difference between being the body of Christ and being Seventh-day Adventists. Long before the latter name was coined, the pioneers recognized themselves as the true body of Christ, taking upon themselves that prophetic term “remnant,” defined as those who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17).
The name “Seventh-day Adventist” does not create a body distinct and exclusive from the body of Christ. Rather, it calls for faithfulness to the full teachings and lifestyle involved in the body of Christ. Read again the 28 fundamentals.* Which ones shall we leave aside as of postbaptismal importance, to be taught for entry into the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Which ones shall we consider as Adventist essentials? I would say none. The so-called Adventist particulars in the 28 fundamentals are particulars only to the extent that other churches over the centuries have neglected, ignored, or altered these cardinal truths that were the heritage of the New Testament church. It fell to the Adventist pioneers to discover and reaffirm their commitment to the full teaching of the Bible.
Take, for example, the doctrines of the Sabbath, baptism by immersion, and Christian conduct. Are they not also Christian essentials? Are they not part of the life of the New Testament church? If we say that Sabbath-keeping is not essential for baptism, we send out a terrible message, one that ultimately compromises the entire doctrinal corpus of Scripture.
Some Christians, including Adventists, would argue that the New Testament requirement for baptism was simply “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31). True enough. So should it be today. But we must remember that in the first century, to believe in Jesus and to claim Him as Lord and Savior was to make an awesome choice that made the difference between life and death. Such a choice placed a Christian against the religious establishment of the day, on the one hand, and on the other, pitted the Christian against a Roman establishment that recognized only Caesar as Lord. It was not an easy choice to make. In fact, one made that choice knowing that the result could well be persecution or death.
Moreover, the early church did not have to debate about other particulars of Christian life. They had no problem about Sabbath or baptism or the state of the dead. The New Testament witnesses to the observance of Sabbath (Luke 4:16; 23:56; Acts 13:14; 17:1, 2; 18:4), the practice of baptism (Matthew 3:16; Acts 8:38, 39), and safeguarding the body as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). Not until later in history, with the onslaught of Greek philosophy and the intrusion of alien cultures, did church leadership succumb to foreign doctrines, such as salvation by works, Sunday worship, infant baptism, and the immortality of the soul.
Revival of these biblical emphases by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the mid-1800s does not make them “Adventist particulars,” useful only for entry into the Adventist church, any more than Luther’s discovery of justification by faith was a Lutheran emphasis useful only for entry into the Lutheran church. The point to note in either case is discovery and recovery of truth. The doctrines that may appear peculiar to Adventists must be looked at from that mode of discovery and recovery so that what we teach as Adventists is biblical truth in all its fullness. Viewed thus, we will not speak about two modes of truth: one to enter the Christian body through baptism, and the other to grow into the Adventist Church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is Christ’s body. If it applies to itself the description of the end-time church — “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12, NKJV) — it does so not to assume an arrogance of exclusivism but to affirm total commitment to the message and mission of Jesus, who did come and who is soon coming again.
The 28 fundamentals are not varied statements of doctrines, but expressions of truth as it is in Jesus, and He affects the life and lifestyle of His followers. Every doctrinal expression must be Christ-centered, otherwise it has neither relevance nor use for the Christian.
John M. Fowler (Ed.D., Andrews University) retired recently after 52 years of serving the Adventist Church in various positions, the last being associate director of education at the General Conference. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.