The Red Herring of Creedalism

Few words have become more misleading in the vocabulary of certain contemporary Adventists than “creed,” “creedal,” and “creedalism.”  Equally misleading is the way the usage of these words is often traced through Adventist history, particularly as these terms were used by the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers as distinct from how some use them today.  The apparent assumption in certain contemporary Adventist minds is that any statement or set of beliefs on the part of the church, to which contradiction in either faith or practice is disallowed on the part of employees or members, constitutes a dreaded “creed” that our Adventist founders would have repudiated, and that sensible Adventists today should have nothing to do with.

Everyone a Creedalist

Let’s start with an assumption all would likely agree with.  Everyone in the church, regardless of how theologically conservative or liberal, believes in a standard of right and wrong—whether theoretical or moral—to which contradiction and/or disobedience should be disallowed so far as church employees and members are concerned. 

If, for example, a professor at one of our universities were to teach that persons of African descent are culturally or intellectually inferior to persons of European descent, one would hope an across-the-spectrum consensus would exist in the church that such a one should be both fired from church employment and removed from church membership.  Racism is certainly one of the most degrading and horrible sins yet devised by humanity, one which flies directly in the face of clear Biblical teachings in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Gen. 12:3; Isa. 56:7; Matt. 8:11; 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 17:26; Rev. 14:6).

Other ideologies or behaviors could be mentioned here as well, such as atheism, denying the supernatural divinity of Jesus, sexual harassment in the workplace, child molestation, spousal abuse, and others.  The fact is that so long as ideologies or behaviors contrary to Scripture happen also—to one degree or another—to be culturally or intellectually unfashionable, even repugnant, or sufficiently extreme to provoke widespread consternation, the church won’t likely brave opposition from the “anti-creedal/academic freedom” crowd if it holds employees or members accountable for their stance regarding such theories or conduct.

The problem arises when accountability is demanded relative to ideas or practices that, like those noted above, are contrary to Scripture, the writings of Ellen White, or the Fundamental Beliefs of the church (or all of the above), yet which—unlike those noted above—a certain segment of the church is prepared to vocally defend on academic, cultural, or experiential grounds.  Examples in this category would include denial of, or disputes regarding, the literal six-day creation of this world, the classic Adventist sanctuary doctrine, the historicist approach to Bible prophecy, Biblical standards of sexuality, and other issues we could mention. When laity or leaders in the church talk of holding employees or members accountable regarding these issues, the charge of “creedalism” on the part of those seeking such accountability is practically guaranteed.

But upon reflection, it is difficult if not impossible to escape the fact that everyone (or nearly everyone) in the church qualifies as a creedalist, if in fact “creed” is defined as a statement of beliefs and behavioral expectations from which variance is not allowed.  The word “creed,” of course, derives from the Latin word “credo,” which means, “I believe” (1).   Everyone in the church, we can fairly assume, believes something, and nearly all of these would admit that a certain standard of belief and practice should be acknowledged by all who join or participate in the faith community.  The only point of dispute involves which doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and moral expectations should be part of such a standard.

Early Adventists and the Creedal Issue

The fact that many early Adventists held strongly negative convictions regarding formal creeds is a well-known historical fact.  Many are familiar with the following statement by J.N. Loughborough regarding the path of apostasy which he believed the churches that constitute Babylon had hitherto pursued:

The first step in apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we should 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 (2).

James White expressed the concern that if a formal creed were adopted by Seventh-day Adventists, it would impede the work of spiritual gifts, in particular the gift of prophecy:

I take the ground that creeds stand in direct opposition to the gifts.  Let us suppose a case: We get up a creed, stating just what we shall believe on this point and the other, and just what we shall do in reference to this thing and that, and say that we still believe the gifts too.  But suppose the Lord, through the gifts, should give us some new light that did not harmonize with our creed; then, if we remain true to the gifts, it knocks our creed all over at once (3).

Uriah Smith, at a later point, wrote an article listing some of the Roman Catholic errors that so many professed Protestants had embraced.  One of these was the adoption of creeds which tended to obstruct further advancement in Biblical truth.  Smith noted that in many such cases the Bible had been twisted into supporting pre-determined systems of belief (4).

Ellen White, addressing the issue of man-made creeds, wrote the following:

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union; all who bow to this Holy Word will be in harmony.  Our own views and ideas must not control our efforts.  Man is fallible, but God's Word is infallible (5).

In another statement she admonished the church:

Do not carry your creed to the Bible and read the Word in the light of your former opinions.  Do not try to make everything agree with your creed (6).

“Every Person Has His Creed”

But what is important to bear in mind is that this opposition to creeds on the part of Adventism’s founders did not mean they were opposed to formal statements of belief, provided these statements were based on Scripture alone.  L.A. Smith, son of Uriah Smith, wrote in 1887 that “adopting a statement of faith amounts to taking a doctrinal position, and taking such a position is scriptural” (7).  He pointed out in the same context, of course, that only beliefs in harmony with Scripture should be part of such a statement.  He went on to say:

If there is anything which Scripture plainly teaches, it is the importance of possessing a clear and definite faith, or summary of religious beliefs; in short, a “creed” in harmony with the truths God’s word has revealed (8).

J.H. Waggoner, in his 1886 book on church organization, wrote the following as justification for the adoption by the church of a statement of belief:

Repentance and faith are almost universally recognized as requisites to Christian character.  But beyond this brief statement—to brief to indicate the position of the church or the candidate—each denomination of professed Christians has some definite declaration of its faith, some peculiar expression of faith and practice, which it requires that all its members shall endorse and receive.  Were not this the case they would not possibly satisfy even their own minds that there is any reason for their denominational existence.  Which is to say that different denominations attach different ideas to the words repentance and faith and these definitions with their results become the peculiar basis of their organization (9).

S. Joseph Kidder, commenting on the above statement, writes as follows:

Waggoner seemed to emphasize that certain Christian expressions as “repentance and faith” are ambiguous since other Christian bodies use them in differing ways.  Therefore, affirming the Bible as the only creed is not enough.  The Bible must be opened, and what it teaches must be confessed.  L.A. Smith drove this point home when he wrote again in 1888 that “every person has his creed and might have it in spite of himself.  His creed is simply his belief.”  Since this was the case, he insisted that individuals must adopt creeds that have the support of the Scriptures (L.A. Smith, “Creeds,” Review and Herald, Nov. 6, 1888).  For these reasons, the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church had no problem adopting some statements of belief (10).

L.A. Smith’s statement that “every person has his creed” calls to mind our observations at the beginning—that even in our postmodern age, nearly every Christian, regardless of their position on the conservative/liberal theological spectrum, holds certain doctrinal and moral expectations to be non-negotiable.  The real debate, therefore, is not over whether the church should adopt and uphold such a statement, but rather, what should go into that statement.  From the above survey of early Adventist thinking on this issue, what mattered most was not whether such a statement should be developed, but rather, the insistence of our founders that any such statement must be exclusively based on the Bible, and not at all on fallible human tradition.

Unity and Accountability

This consensus on the part of early Adventists as to the necessity of a formal statement of belief appears evident when the first major statement of this kind was adopted in 1872.  As Kidder writes:

The degree of unanimity may not have been as marked as the statement suggests, but whatever disagreements there were between the believers were over the content of the declaration rather than the fact that a statement of belief had been formulated and published (11).

Ellen White, soon thereafter, wrote the following appeal for doctrinal unity:

God is leading a people out from the world upon the exalted platform of eternal truth, the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.  He will discipline and fit up His people.  They will not be at variance, one believing one thing, and moving independently of the body.  Through the diversity of the gifts and governments that He has placed in the church, they will all come to unity of faith.  If one man takes his views of Bible truth without regard to the opinions of his brethren, and justifies his course, alleging that he has a right to his own peculiar views, and then presses them upon others, how can he be fulfilling the prayer of Christ?  And if another and still another arises, each asserting his right and believe and talk what he pleases without reference to the faith of the body, where will be that harmony which existed between Christ and His Father, and which Christ prayed might exist among His brethren? (12).

What is clear from the testimony of Ellen White is that whatever flexibility and differences in faith and practice might be tolerable within the church, this flexibility and tolerance cannot extend to those areas where Scripture and/or the modern gift of prophecy have articulated doctrinal and/or moral clarity.  When A.F. Ballenger presumed in later years to deny the substance of the Adventist sanctuary doctrine and the fulfillment of prophecy in 1844, Ellen White penned the following warning:

When the power of God testifies as to what is truth, that truth is to stand forever as the truth.  No after suppositions contrary to the light God has given me are to be entertained.  Men will arise with interpretations of Scripture which are to them truth, but which are not truth.  The truth for this time God has given us as a foundation for our faith.  He Himself has taught us what is truth.  One will arise, and still another, with new light, which contradicts the light that God has given under the demonstration of His Holy Spirit. . . .

We are not to receive the words of those who come with a message that contradicts the special points of our faith (13).

At approximately this same time, Ellen White wrote the following regarding who should not be accepted as teachers in our schools and churches:

Any man who seeks to present theories which would lead us from the light that has come to us on the ministration in the heavenly sanctuary should not be accepted as a teacher. . . . Let us, brethren, take the things that God has given us, and which His Spirit has taught us is truth, and believe them, leaving alone those theories which His Spirit has not endorsed (14).

For Ellen White, in other words, doctrinal unity means doctrinal accountability.  And as with all her teachings and counsels, this principle traces its origin directly to the Bible.  The apostle Paul, by the definition being used by many theological “progressives” in contemporary Adventism, would certainly be tarred with the “creedal” label on the basis of such verses as the following:

But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8).

And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (II Thess. 3:14-15).

 As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine,

Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith; so do (I Tim. 1:3-4).

Conclusion: The Red Herring of Creedalism

What should be clear by now is that in no way can the early Adventist opposition to the adoption of a creed be understand either as opposition to a formal statement of beliefs, to the reality of objective truth as revealed through the written counsel of God, or to the discipline of church members or employees relative to their positions on doctrinal issues.  When so-called theological “progressives” in the contemporary church cite early Adventist opposition to creeds as justification for their own support of theological and moral pluralism in the church, they are mixing, not apples with oranges, but salad greens with poison oak! 

The present hue and cry of certain contemporary Adventists against creedalism, in other words, can rightly be called a red herring—a term defined as a distraction from a relevant topic in a given context (15).  As we have noted already, if the definition of creeds currently used by certain ones among us is accepted, few if any contemporary Adventists couldn’t be said—in the words of L.A. Smith—to have a creed.  The only question is, What is to be included as part of such a creed?  Clearly, in the view of the SDA pioneers and Ellen White, nothing not supported by Scripture can be part of such a statement.  But the reality and necessity of a Bible-based, objective measure of right and wrong—whether doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or moral—was most assuredly acknowledged by the founders of the great Advent movement, in particular by the one founder who was divinely inspired.  Their spiritual heirs in contemporary Adventism would do well to acknowledge the same.

REFERENCES

1. “Creed”

2.  Quoted by James White, “Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, Acts 5:16, 1861,” Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1861.  Much of the material for this section is taken from S. Joseph Kidder, “Creeds and Statements of Belief in Early Adventist Thought,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 2009, pp. 101-116.

3.  Ibid.

4.  Uriah Smith, “The Reformation Not Yet Complete,” Review and Herald, Feb. 3, 1874.

5.  Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 416.

6.  ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 432.

7.  L.A. Smith, “The Value of a Creed,” Review and Herald, May 10, 1887.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Joseph H. Waggoner, The Church: Its Organization, Ordinances, and Discipline (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1886), p. 105.

10.  S. Joseph Kidder, “Creeds and Statements of Belief in Early Adventist Thought,Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 2009, p. 110. 

11.  Ibid, p. 113.

12.  Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, pp. 446-447.

13.  ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 161.

14.  ----The Upward Look, p. 199.

15.  “Red herring