Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists...Are Adventists?

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 a inerrancy (as defined in the book to mean verbally inspiration) in the Bible, for practical purposes, Adventist 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 from a fundamentalist view, but a 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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6970
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Recent experience clearly shows that there are both fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists among the Adventist population. Appeals to heritage, reason, and a proper hermeneutic will do little to change this fact. Christ-like forbearance is a challenge for many individuals in both groups. The character-defining question, I believe, is as to which of these two groups might take actions to disfellowship the other.

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"The root of our problem…is a fundamentalist approach to theology and practice…"
I agree. Can it be, that this described fundamentalist approach is alive and well in the developing world but almost dead in our universities?

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egw predicts the development of two “parties” in the church, and implies there are wheat and tares in each, 2SM:114…i don’t see massive disfellowshippings on the part of either party, although there may be many isolated examples…

my mother’s parents were both wesleyan before they married…my grandmother was very much into inward purity, intuition and anything artistic…it seems her wesleyan roots may explain this…but i don’t think the divide between fundamentalism and wesleyanism in adventism is necessarily completely cut and dry…for instance, i supported the general conference votes to tighten our fundamentals, but i didn’t support the anti-wo vote…

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I think part of the problem is we as a people don’t Read and Study the bible for ourselves and want the church to tell us what to think. Instead, we should prayerfully read our Bibles and study what we interpret the Bible to mean and ask God for guidance while studying and trying to understand His Word. He didn’t give us His Word to cause us confusion, He gave it to us to lead us to Him and to learn what His character is.

As far as the fundamentalist approach or Wesleyan approach: I’ll keep studying the bible for myself with the help of Ellen G White, since I have for myself confirmed that all I have read of her is in line with what the Bible says. God is going to judge each of us individually, not as a group. So study the Word for yourself.

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Speaking of Wesleyanism vs. Calvinism, it seems that Adventist soteriology is drifting from its Methodist roots toward Calvinism. We see this in the 1957 rejection of the post-Fall human nature of Christ, and the logical progression toward a “total inability” view of humanity and the necessity of being saved in our sin, not from it.

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This is because the fundamentalist approach produces a belief system that is a house of cards. Everything has to hang together in perfect order, with proof texts for each part of your belief system. The issue with this is that if one belief is proven false, you can lose your faith.

In this particular case, the fear is that without the literal 6 days of creation we will lose the Sabbath. It has somehow become important to us to know that the Sabbath, as we observe it today, started at the conclusion of the literal creation week. It is not enough, for example, to notice that the first mention of the Sabbath in the bible is in Exodus, mentioned in context of the bread (manna) from heaven. Here is what Exodus says:


Exodus 16:22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” 27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.


To me this is a recounting of the story of the sabbath when it was new. Manna from heaven was also new, but even so, the people could not at first be convinced that it would appear for 6 days and not on the 7th.

If they had been ardent sabbath keepers already, this would have been obvious to them, especially as they were previously told exactly what would happen with the manna.

Verses 29 - 30 sound a whole lot like Moses saying, as if to a child, “See, God really does mean what he says with these new commandments of ours that we are to follow. You need to change your ways to be in sync with this new Covenant we have with God”… And then they did.


I like this, from Augustine, written 1,600 years ago, regarding Genesis 1:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such as case we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

  • St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 1:37, AD 401-415.
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So we should set aside any issues that are divisive, and just accept any version of “truth” that is expressed? There will always be issues that divide the church. The Creation issue, in particular is critical, because the reliability of Scripture is at stake. If we cannot have confidence in Genesis, why should we have confidence in Matthew, et. al.? And the inspiration of Ellen White is also a critical issue. If one believes that she was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what she did, one will have a different approach to our core doctrines than they will if they reject her writings. Jesus was probably the most divisive individual who ever walked the earth. He did not shy away from divisive issues, and never compromised where principle was involved.

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When it comes to Genesis, those who interpret it in a less literal fashion are not questioning the reliability of scripture. What is being questioned is the literal method of interpreting Genesis. If essentially all scientific evidence points to a much older universe and earth than the more literalist interpretation of Genesis supports, then maybe the method of interpretation needs to change. Why is it that every time this is suggested, people say that it represents a questioning of the reliability of Scripture?

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And let’s not forget, the headship doctrine, on which the anti-WO position is based, is also Calvinist. We truly have been drifting in a Calvinist direction.

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The same standard should then be applied to the Gospels. “If essentially all scientific evidence points to” the impossibility of resurrection from the dead or instantaneous healing, " then maybe the method of interpretation needs to change." We reject scientific claims when it comes to Jesus. Secular science is no more reliable when it comes to origins. They’re shooting in the dark, and too many Christians have accepted their interpretation of the universe over what is pretty plainly written in Genesis.

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Really? Even in something as straight forward as age of the earth and universe?

That is not the same. The resurrection was a one time event of a non-historical nature (i.e. there is nothing in history that proves or disproves it, although we know Jesus existed as a real person). Something like the age of the earth has other evidence that can be brought to bear.

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i think this is the crux of the problem…people aren’t understanding that the bible is miraculously adapted for the common person who wants to do god’s will, john 7:17…

as i see it, bible and egw interpretation is very much dependent on individualistic factors like sincerity, faith, experience, culture, mental ability and academic background…different combinations of these factors produce different impressions and takes, which can sometimes lead to identical, complimentary, or opposing interpretations…sometimes it can take years of added experience to grow in an understanding of a single text…

no-one is saying bible and egw study are easy, but the thing to definitely not do, in my view, is to blindly yield to experts to determine what a passage means…they could be completely off, as were the pharisees and sadducees on the mission and identity of jesus…everyone brings unique qualities to the table, regardless of their background, which has the potential to lead to new, exciting insights…but none of that is going to materialize if an artificial hermeneutic developed by an expert, however logical, is imposed on everyone, and if the final arbiter for the use of that hermeneutic is the expert in question…the bible wasn’t miraculously compiled and preserved just for experts…

having said this, it does no harm to see what experts do conclude…sometimes an understanding of original languages, original cultures and historical backgrounds do lead to broader understandings…

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[quote=“vandieman, post:13, topic:8963”]
having said this, it does no harm to see what experts do conclude…sometimes an understanding of original languages, original cultures and historical backgrounds do lead to broader understandings…[/quote]

I completely agree with that after you’ve done your own study. Thanks for pointing that out.

You have just proved the premise that there are both Fundamentalists and Calvinists, and more, in the Adventist church. Vive le difference! How utterly boring if we thought and breathed in unison. Why would there be a need for Spectrum where so many like to comment? Would it all be “Amens”? Is it even possible when a few are gathered? Remember that even the very first Church had disagreements and differences and God did not direct them to all think alike.

I think you mean Fundamentalists and Wesleyans? Still, the thing that I find depressing is that only one of the two sides actually accepts the proposition that more than one view is possible. It is hard to have a discussion with someone who is always right, and if you don’t agree with them you are not a true SDA.

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this is a really big deal in our past…together, these questions form the basis of the “new theology” that drove thousands of conservatives out of the church in the '80’s and '90’s, and into independent organizations, some of which have been aggressively sued by the general conference…

the use of egw proves conclusively that christ had our fallen nature, but not it’s sinful component…christ’s sinless fallen nature is unique for all time, and had to be, or he couldn’t be our sacrifice…generally the objection to this view of christ’s nature centers around the function of christ as our pattern: if he wasn’t exactly like us, how could he experience our temptations and be our example…but egw, and a certain approach to passages in paul and john, show that christ was our pattern, even though his temptations were on a different level than ours…it’s helpful to note that we cannot equal the pattern of christ, yet our responsibility is to copy it as closely as we can…

salvation in sin can be a matter of semantics…the use of egw proves conclusively, again, that even when we are no longer sinning willful known and knowable sins, this result still requires the mediation of christ…some people say this represents salvation in sin, but egw doesn’t categorize it like this…salvation from sin means salvation from known and knowable sinful acts…it has nothing to do with the original sin in our fallen nature…

What does that even mean? What is a fallen NATURE? What is a NATURE? Please define that nature.

What is “its” COMPONENT? Please explain.

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I picked up a read the bible in a year pamphlet at a Calvary Chapel site and noticed that it said that 90% of churchgoers have never read the whole bible once.

Do pastors promote bible reading?

I agree.
Calvinism has more of an antinomian flavor to it.
The defeatist sanctification mode has been gaining ground for 40 years.

Another problem is that the denomination has no polls/surveys in place to catch how widespread or prolific this is …in seminaries, among pastors or the laity.