Friday, October 19, 2007


Lawrence G. Downing

Dr. Earle Hilgert, former Andrews University Seminary professor and Professor Emeritus at McCormick Seminary, in his presentation at the inaugural Richard Hammell Lectureship at Loma Linda University Church, examined what he termed the Essentials and the Accidentals of the Christian faith. He defined Essentials as those properties that are fundamental to an object or person. He defined Accidentals as those properties which are part of an object but are not essential to its being. Hilgert employed the metaphor of a triangle to illustrate his point. The angles of a triangle will add up to 180 degrees—always. This is an essential. The area of a triangle is an accidental.

Hilgert’s search to discover the Essentials of the Christian faith led him to discover what appear to be the earliest New Testament confessionals. From his examination of these confessionals, Hilgert concluded that the first Christians counted the following as Essentials: Jesus Christ is Lord, he was crucified, and he rose from the dead.

Examples of Accidentals, using Hilgert’s definition as a starting point, include the Nativity story—Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth; Mark, John and the other New Testament writers don’t. These authors do not tell us where He was born and make only oblique reference to His virgin birth. We find similar divergences when we read what the New Testament authors wrote about Jesus’ divine/human nature and the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

This paper argues that Hilgert is “on to something”, in that it offers an explanation for the current theological divisions in the Adventist Church and the growing influence of administrators on theology and practice.

Hilgert chose geometry as his metaphor to illustrate the difference between Essentials and Accidentals. He might also have used a musical note. A trumpet, a piano, flute or violin each has the ability to generate a tone. When a tone is produced with a vibration of approximately 440 vibrations per second (v.p.s.) at 72ยบ F, it is an “A”. The vibrations per second produce the Essential. The harmonics, or accidentals produced by the individual instrument, are what differentiate one instrument from another. This is how we know the difference between a trumpet and a bassoon.

What we discover, however, is that when one examines individual instruments from within the same subgroup, accidentals have a subtle, though significant role. A concert violinist, when given the choice, will select a Stradivarius over a 21st Century mass-produced violin.

Triangles and musical instruments are one thing; religious belief and practices are quite another; however the metaphor is instructive. Religious organizations subscribe to commonly accepted Essentials, such as belief in the existence of a higher Being God, and the notion that human beings have the potential to become better in some broadly defined moral sense.

Subgroups within the Christian metagroup affirm a sub set of Essentials. These are beliefs regarding the Trinity, baptism, forgiveness of sin, salvation by faith in Christ alone, and the authority of Scripture. What differentiates one Christian group from the other is the emphasis a specific entity places upon the Accidentals. The Seventh day Adventist Church emphasizes a particular day for worship. Baptists believe in an eternal hell fire and in baptism by immersion. Roman Catholics affirm the infallibility of the Pope and Mormons believe the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints Church is endowed with the prophetic gift.

What one subgroup identifies as an Essential may be viewed as Accidental, inconsequential, or heretical by another group. For example, both Methodists and Baptists believe in baptism. The Methodists baptize by immersion or sprinkling. Baptists do not accept sprinkling. The mode of baptism is an Essential to the Baptists; it is an Accidental to the Methodist.

As one more closely differentiates between subgroups, Accidentals tend to become Essentials. Because Accidentals are what define and give character to individual subgroups, the more distinct the Accidental, the more importance it may have for the group. To illustrate this point I will reference the church I know best.

The Adventist Church has a set of 28 Fundamental Beliefs. These are its Essentials. This list includes beliefs commonly accepted as Essential by other Christian groups: God is the Creator, salvation is by faith in Christ alone and Scripture is God's authoritative word. There are, however, other statements of belief within the 28 that most Christians do not accept: the seventh day Sabbath; the 2300 days prophecy found in Daniel 8:14; abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and unclean meats; tithing; and the belief that Ellen White was a prophet of God. These Accidentals turned Essentials provide this subgroup with its unique identity and have become basic to its continued existence.

Religious subgroups sometimes consider it mandatory to persuade members of its Metagroup to accept their beliefs and adopt their Accidentals as Essential. These refinements tend to further isolate these subgroups from others in the metagroup. Energy and effort is also required to defend and promote these doctrines. If members of the subgroup challenge one or more of these “official” beliefs, group leaders may try to mediate differences and/or attempt to enforce established doctrine.

Christian church history suggests that there is a common thread of paranoia and intolerance in subgroups as they more carefully define and emphasize the aspects of the beliefs that differentiate them from the metagroup. As a subgroup begins to focus on and promote its peculiar characteristics, Accidentals tend to become Essentials, and the subgroup becomes increasingly certain of its unique role in the cosmic scheme of things. As a consequence, it perceives its Essentials to be of increasing importance. The gulf between the subgroup and the metagroup increases, and the subgroup comes to believe that if they modify or abandon their unique Essentials, their identity will be lost and their existence threatened. Ironically, this course of action may weaken their influence within the metagroup and lead to their eventual irrelevance and dissolution.

Today, Seventh-day Adventists are under pressure to decide if it is possible for one member’s Essentials to be another member’s Accidentals? While the majority of Adventists accept the Sabbath as an Essential, there is less support for the Church’s official position regarding inspiration, eschatology, a short-earth chronology, and a worldwide flood.

Can the Seventh-day Adventist church permit a diversity of belief without destroying their Christian fellowship? For some Adventists this question is debatable; for others it is not. There are those who believe it is important to precisely define the Essentials and set precise doctrinal boundaries. These members expend energy and resources to promote what Hilgert defines as Accidentals. The end result of these efforts is division, infighting, and loss of credibility. As a result, the Adventist church’s contribution to a progressive understanding of Essential Christian theology will be heavily discounted.

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