Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists...Are Adventists?

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Published:
July 15, 2015

I was disappointed, as many Spectrum readers probably were, at the results of the 2015 General Conference vote on women's ordination and the revisions to the Fundamental Beliefs on creation and the flood.  There was also a resolution on the agenda reaffirming confidence in the writings of Ellen White (page 71 of the official agenda).  Why, with so many issues facing the church, do we spend so much effort and time on issues that will only serve to divide the church?  Are there not more pressing issues for the Kingdom that we should address?

My interest was piqued by a book titled, "Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists."  It hasn't been until recently (the last twenty years) that Adventist scholars have explored the Wesleyan connection to Adventism.  There were two articles in the Spring 1995 issue of Spectrum Magazine, one by A. Greg Schneider and the other by Woodrow Whidden.  Whidden has also published articles by the Wesleyan Theological Journal and by the Biblical Research Institute on the Wesleyan connection to Adventism.  These are all available online.  While most attention by those within and outside Adventism tend to be focused on those doctrines unique to Adventism, such as the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the state of the dead, etc., the core soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is Wesleyan.  This came through Ellen White, whose family were members of the Methodist Episcopal denomination. So given the Wesleyan heritage of Adventism and the recent fundamentalist trajectory of the church, I was intrigued by the title of the book by Truesdale, Why Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists.

Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists was published in April 2012.

The book is a collection of essays by authors who are associated with the Church of the Nazarene.  Most of the articles are written by professional academics.  The book has an Introduction, eight chapters, and a Conclusion.  Chapter 1 is an introduction to fundamentalism.  Chapters 2-7 are how a fundamentalist approach differs from a Wesleyan approach when it comes to such issues as how we relate to the Scriptures (Chapter 2), how we relate to the opening chapters of Genesis and creation models (Chapter 3), how we relate to science in general (Chapter 6), etc. Chapters 2-7 are followed by a brief "Why it Matters" response on why the fundamentalist approach or the Wesleyan approach matters.  These responses appear to be written by people in a more pastoral role as a result of focus groups of lay persons and their reactions to that chapter.  So the book provides a good balance between the academic discussion and the practical implications from a lay person's perspective.

The term "fundamentalist" derives from a set of booklets published between 1920 and 1925.  The book notes that it is primarily using the term fundamentalist as it is used in American or British contexts.  "In the United States and Great Britain a fundamentalist response to perceived threats to orthodox Christian doctrine occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. It was a reaction to something broadly known as theological modernism."  The author cites one source and notes that fundamentalism had three characteristics: (1) a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible; (2) a strong hostility to modern critical study of the Bible; and (3) an assurance that those who do not share the fundamentalists' religious viewpoint are not really true Christians. Later in the book, the author notes that this fundamentalist orientation originated and was promoted with those associated with a Calvinistic theology.  Thus it starts to become clear where the divergence between a Calvinistic and Wesleyan approach started.  While Adventists do not believe in an inerrancy (as defined in the book to mean verbal inspiration) in the Bible, for practical purposes, Adventists treat Ellen White as verbally inspired.  Adventists leadership is likewise critical of modern critical study, and Adventist leadership is ready to exclude Adventists who do not agree with their literalist viewpoints on Genesis.  Last August in St. George President Ted Wilson stated, "If one does not accept the recent six-day creation understanding then that person is actually not a 'Seventh-day-Adventist…'" So, according to how "fundamentalism" is defined in this book, it is alive and well within Adventism.  So how does this fundamentalist mindset affect one's theology and practice and why does it matter?  That is the question the rest of the book tries to answer.

Other than hopefully generating enough interest so people who read this review will purchase and read the book, I am not going to summarize each chapter.  I will offer a few teasers.

In Chapter 2, "The Wesleyan Doctrine of Scripture," M. Robert Mulholland notes that fundamentalists see scripture as a warehouse of information to form propositional statements about what the Bible teaches.  Wesleyans, on the other hand, "developed a doctrine of Scripture that focused on its rule in transforming the believer's inner being as the ground for reordering behavior." The author not only sees a direct conflict between a Wesleyan view of Scripture and a fundamentalist view, but also that a fundamentalist view destroys the very purpose the Wesleyans understand for the Bible.  "When the Bible is understood primarily as a body of propositional truths to be understood, accepted, and affirmed by believers, all too often the essential transformational dimension vanishes."

Chapter 3 addresses the issue of origins.  God has revealed himself both in the Bible and nature.  Robert Branson, the author of Chapter 3 asks, " Why would the God who has so grandly written his signature in creation and who has made known his redemptive purpose in Scripture place the two testimonies in opposition?" " The Bible eloquently proclaims that God is the Creator of all that exists. Must these two stories conflict? Must one story suffocate the other?"  The fundamentalist position is the young earth position that the earth was created in 6 literal 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago.  The author presents three options, the young earth creation (YEC), the concordance approach, which sees the creation in 6 long ages, and a functional approach, which is described in the book by John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One.  The author prefers this last approach.  That said, he feels that whether young earth, concordance, or functional, we should be able to find a common ground on "who" created the cosmos.  The fundamentalist approach demands an interpretation of Genesis that puts the scientific evidence in conflict with the Bible.  One must choose between a YEC fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis or science. Lest anybody think the YEC position is supported by science, the author does address some of the major scientific problems with the YEC approach. In the "Why it Matters" response, another notes, "I watch as fundamentalism obstructs a full engagement with the Bible's riches. At heart, fundamentalism represents a sincere desire to be faithful to God's Word and to Christian faith and practice. The problem is that good intentions do not necessarily lead to sound theology." "Being faithful to the Christian story means being open to the love of the risen Christ. It rules out arguing about the minutiae of Scripture or insisting on how it should be understood in all its details."

As a Seventh-day Adventist, I found this book timely in terms of the decisions at the 2015 General Conference.  The responses of Adventist leadership to the challenges faced by the church are a natural response of a fundamentalist approach to the Bible and practice.  The root of our problem is not our modifications of the Fundamental Beliefs, or our the refusal to allow the ordination of women, or our doubling down of stated support for Ellen White, but a fundamentalist approach to theology and practice.  It is sad, given our Wesleyan heritage, that we have adopted the strategy of fundamentalism from the Calvinist denominations and not a Wesleyan approach that values how our theology and practice lead to holier lives and productive wholesome relationships within the church.

 

Dennis Stevens is a retired electrical engineer and local elder residing in the Portland Oregon area with his wife Eira.

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