A Holy and Just God (Joel)
Leading Question: What do natural disasters tell us about the God we serve?
Note on the book of Joel: The book of Joel offers several “special” themes that are worth pursuing in a Sabbath School study:
Eschatology : Four Perspectives
Comment on the four perspectives. Historicism, the classic reformation approach to last things, has been the traditional Adventist “home” when it comes to eschatology. But the “delay” has encouraged many thoughtful Adventists to re-think the “signs of the end,” especially since the dominant “signs” in Joel (darkening of sun and moon, falling of the stars) appear again in Acts 2 at the Day of Pentecost. Those same signs appear yet again in connection with the Second Coming as depicted under the “sixth” seal in Revelation 6:12-17. Does all this lay down a convincing pattern that would allow for the re-application of biblical material to different settings? The dark day in Joel is clearly a grasshopper plague in Joel’s own day. This “day of the Lord” then became a type that later writers could pick up and reuse in their own writings.
These two questions can be evaluated on the basis of a chapter from Alden Thompson’s Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (PPPA, 2009). In chapter 18, Thompson suggests the phrase “applied historicism” as a way of preserving the best of historicism while integrating the idea of re-application of prophetic imagery.
“Greatest Hope, Blessed Hope: Into the Kitchen, Even the Garden,”
The Bible says: “The Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel. And the Lord said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Beth-lehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.” – 1 Samuel 15:35 - 16:1, KJV
In the last chapter we had the good stuff, Dinner and Dessert. It was the Blessed Hope, something near and dear to the heart of Adventists. But in a few places, you might have sensed some unusual and subtle flavors. How did the cook do it and why?
So let’s head for the Kitchen, and yes, even venture into the Garden, to find out what really happened for Dinner and Dessert.
We’ll start with a touch of honesty: when it comes to religion, almost nothing divides the human family so quickly as discussions of last things, “eschatology,” to use the technical word. It also has the potential for dividing liberals and conservatives among Adventists, too.
But before we panic, let’s remind ourselves of two things as many times as necessary, reminders that we must take seriously if we are going to live and hope together as liberals and conservatives in Adventism.
Specific Questions that Divide Adventists
A conviction that is deeply rooted in the souls of devout conservatives is that when God speaks, he gets it right! I believe Adventists need to say with greater clarity that in the ultimate sense God does indeed get it right. He will come again. But before he actually comes, we need state more clearly that the events preceding the coming may not follow our timetable and some of the events on our list may not end up on God’s list! The two Old Testament stories cited at the beginning of this chapter, the stories of Jonah and King Saul, couldn’t be clearer: The Lord can declare a position and then “change his mind” – “repent,” to use KJV language. Ninevah was marked for destruction – but then was saved because the people repented. Saul had been appointed king at God’s direction, but then lost the kingdom. The Lord took it away from him because Saul did not repent, or perhaps we could say more accurately, because he did not repent until it was too late.
Can we expect that kind of change in our understanding of events that lead up to the end? The “Disappointment” experience, when linked with the stories in the Bible, should enable us to say yes, even if it is not an easy “yes.” But before we go further, let’s spell out some of the questions that Adventists debate when talking about the end:
In what follows, I will argue that preserving the traditional Adventist understanding of the end time, including specifics relating to the questions noted above, is crucial for preserving our understanding of the issues involved in the great conflict. In that sense I am with the conservatives. But I also argue that the “Disappointment” experience opens the way for us to stay current in addressing these issues by allowing us to see other events and other players as current illustrations in the great battle between good and evil. Thus we can always speak clearly to our age, to our contemporaries, as history moves towards its final climax. I suggest the phrase “applied historicism” as a convenient label for an approach that preserves a both/and approach to final events, a way of preserving a “landmark” perspective and a “present truth” perspective, to use Adventist jargon.
Liberals are more inclined to recognize the validity of alternate applications simply because the current situation is more visible to our eyes. Conservatives are more likely to defend the tradition. If we force an either/or choice, everyone loses. If we can develop a both/and approach, everyone wins. In short, we need to find ways of preserving both perspectives if we are to be an effective community. In what follows, I hope to show how we can do that.
The Delicate Task of Proving Our Position
Before we proceed, I want to speak a caution about the use of “proofs” for faith. The critics “out there” have often appealed to science, archeology, and even to the contradictions in Scripture, to “prove” that the Bible could not be the word of God. In response, we who are conservatives have often developed our own “proofs” from science and archeology and have sought to “explain” (or “explain away”) the contradictions in Scripture. I would like to suggest that in important ways both sides are off base.
Speaking as a believer, I want to affirm that my hope is a simple hope. But because it is a “hope,” it cannot be proven formally – or disproved formally! Naturally, I am grateful for every piece of evidence that supports my faith, but both in terms of my relationship to God and my relationships with people, the really important things in life cannot be “proven” formally. That includes faith, hope, and love. Because faith, hope, and love spring from a relationship to a person, they are even more precious to me. “For in hope we were saved,”says the Apostle Paul, thus reminding us that formal “proof” is not an issue. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” he declares, “For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” [Rom. 8:24-25]
For those of a more rationalist bent, who may find it difficult to believe in the supernatural – perhaps because they have been steeped in a modern scientific world – a line from Kathleen Norris might be helpful. Norris is a literary person who has moved back to faith from a more secular perspective; her husband David, somewhat hesitantly, has come to faith with her. She quotes him in a chapter entitled “Truth,” in her book, Amazing Grace. Describing him as “an amateur mathematician and part-time computer programmer, passionately committed to that which can be proven by means of reason,” she then records his response to a journalist who was pressing him to define his religious beliefs. “He drew himself up,” she says, “until he looked a great deal like Lord Tennyson, and declared, ‘I am a scientific rationalist who believes in ghosts.’” [Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), 375]
It is important to recognize that even very important truths cannot be “proven” in the formal sense. If that feels uneasy, we can remind ourselves that those things that cannot be proven are not easily disproved! I cannot “prove” my wife’s commitment to me, but I know about that commitment in ways that would make it very difficult for anyone or anything to draw us away from each other. Our commitment to each other is one of the most precious things in the world to me. And that is also a model for how I understand my relationship to God.
But now we need to look more specifically at some matters of history, matters that are more important to conservatives than to liberals, though how we deal with them could be crucial in determining whether or not liberals can come on board with the conservatives.
Second Coming: Then and Now
In contrast with the liberals “out there” for whom the Second Coming would be mostly a puzzle, conservative evangelicals fervently believe in the Second Coming (and in hell!) and they think they know exactly what is going to happen at the end of time. That fact that no two of them can readily agree on the details, however, should be an important cautionary note.
But the landscape doesn’t look at all like it did in 1844. A huge shift in beliefs about the Second Coming has swept through Protestantism since then. When William Miller began preaching that Jesus was coming, he became part of a growing (premillennial) movement that was reacting against the popular (post-millennial) view that the world was getting better and better and that Jesus would return to this “improved” world at the end of 1000 years. Miller opposed that optimistic view of history and we would say he was right. So, even though our 1844 fathers and mothers were wrong about setting a date, we believe they were reading their Bibles correctly when they announced to the world that things were getting worse and that the world would soon go up in flames at the Second Coming, an event that would take place at the beginning of the 1000 years.
The convictions of our Adventist pioneers were rooted in their understanding of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. “Historicism,” the technical term for the way Adventists (as well as the Reformers) interpreted these books, recognized that each line of prophecy in the book of Daniel, for example, ended with the second coming and restoration. In a simple chart form, this is what it looks like:
Daniel 2 Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the great image: One kingdom follows another until a great stone (the kingdom of God) destroys the human kingdoms represented by the image. The stone grows until it fills the whole earth.
Daniel 7 Four beasts represent four successive kingdoms, but the last one is finally destroyed and the Son of Man receives the kingdom. In the interpretation of the vision, however, the Son of Man has become the “Saints of the Most High,” an Old Testament pointer to the church as the body of Christ.
Daniel 8-9 A ram and goat battle each other, the Sanctuary is polluted, but is finally cleansed and restored at the end of time.
Daniel 10-12 A great battle in heaven and struggles on earth continue until the end of time when Michael stands up. Then God’s people are delivered. The dead are raised, some to eternal life, some to eternal judgment.
In short, each vision takes us through history until God’s kingdom is fully established. In all, four panoramic views of history pass before us, each ending in the dramatic restoration of God’s kingdom. This approach is called “historicism” because it portrays a grand march through history to the kingdom of God.
But after the Great Disappointment of 1844, the story takes a novel twist. Daniel and Revelation both contain several prophetic time periods. [ In Daniel, for example: one time, two times, and half (7:25; 12:7); 2300 days (8:14); 1290 days (12:11); 1335 days (12:12). In Revelation: 42 months (11:2; 13:5); 1260 (11:3;12:6); time, times, and half a time (12:14).] These have been subject to a wide variety of interpretations through the years. [For a history of the interpretation of Daniel, see SDABC 4:39-78 (1955); for a history of the interpretation of Revelation (“the Apocalypse”), see SDABC 7:103-32 (1957).] But when the longest one, the 2300 days, came to an end – on October 22, 1844, according to the Adventist understanding – historicism no longer carried the “predictive” punch it once did. Indeed, all serious Christians who believed in a personal God had to take a long look at their convictions about prophecies of the end time. Those Adventists who believed that God was at work in the 1844 movement took steps toward conditional historicism, a position that enables believers to focus less on quantity (charts) and more on the quality of our Christian life and witness and our relationship with Jesus. Those who rejected 1844 moved toward dispensational futurism, a position that continues to call for charts of events, but all in the future. Those two options did not come clear immediately, but the die was cast and much of the common ground disappeared. Let’s look more closely at the differences.
Two Choices: Conditional Historicism or Dispensational Futurism
According to Whitney Cross, a well-known non-Adventist scholar, “All Protestants expected some grand event about 1843, and no critic from the orthodox side took any serious issue on basic principles with Miller’s calculations.” [ Whitney R Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 321. Cited by Rolf Pöhler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000), 23.] But all that was before the Disappointment. Understanding what has happened since then is crucial if we are going to be effective in taking the Good News of Jesus’ return to the world in our day. One of our greatest challenges is that a huge gulf now exists between Adventists and most other conservative Christians who believe in the Second Coming.
While Adventists continue to hold to conditional historicism, dispensational futurism – the “Left Behind” movement – has swept the field as the most popular view of the end times. [Popularized through a phenomenally successful series of “Left Behind” novels (Tyndale) and a movie by the same name.] Like Adventists, these futurists are “pre-millennialists,” believing that Jesus will come at the beginning of the 1000 years of Revelation 20. But as far as last day events are concerned, these futurists differ dramatically from Adventists (and traditional Protestantism) in many respects, driven by the futurist conviction that any prophecies and promises to God’s people in the Old Testament that were not fulfilled in the Old Testament era, will be fulfilled at the end of time. In short, futurists completely reject the idea of “conditional” prophecy, that is, prophecy that was not fulfilled because the conditions were not met. As a result of rejecting the concept of “conditional” prophecy, dispensational futurists differ dramatically from Adventists in a host of ways, summarized below under three headings:
By contrast, Adventists have maintained the traditional Protestant understanding of a public Second Coming at the beginning of the 1000 years, just one public Second Coming, not a secret one followed by a public one seven years later. But Adventists have taken the almost unique position that the 1000 years are spent in heaven. During that time the earth itself is empty and desolate. At the end of the 1000 years, Jesus, God’s people, and the New Jerusalem all come to earth for the final judgment and the elimination of evil.
Now a crucial question: If Adventists and dispensational futurists both claim the Bible as God’s Word, how can we differ so widely in our understanding of the book? We’re not talking here about differences between “supernaturalist” conservatives who affirm God’s personal presence and miraculous activity in the world, and the “naturalist” liberals who want to overlook the supernatural aspects of Scripture or explain them away. We’re talking about two groups of rock-ribbed “supernaturalist” conservatives, if you please. How did we get so far apart on last day events?
The crucial issue is whether or not one can actually “see” the conditionalist elements in Scripture. The ability to see conditionalism has been a gift that God has given us through the Disappointment experience. Let’s look more it more closely.
Conditionalism: The Adventist Difference
The clue to the great gulf between futurist dispensationalists and Adventist historicists, lies in the qualifying word that Adventists (cautiously!) began to add to the word “historicism” when Jesus did not return soon after the Great Disappointment: conditional historicism. Adventists concluded that Jesus did not return immediately because his people did not fulfill the “conditions” necessary for his return. In short, God “delayed” his return, an idea suggested by a line in the parable of the ten virgins: “The bridegroom was delayed.” [Matt. 25:5] Adventists believe that human beings play a key role in the unfolding events of the great cosmic conflict between God and Satan. Put bluntly: we make a difference for good or for evil in the great conflict. From such a perspective, even “predictions” by inspired prophets can be postponed or actually fail because humans do not make the right choices. That is how Adventists explain the shift from literal Israel to spiritual Israel: God’s chosen people rejected their Messiah, opening the door to a new people, those who follow Jesus, a kingdom based on choice, not pedigree.
The fact that “predictions” can turn out otherwise than predicted is already confirmed by the stories of Jonah’s preaching to Ninevah and King Saul’s loss of the kingdom to David. But those applications are not made by dispensational futurists. And that’s where we part company with them, for they reject the idea of conditionalism with reference to God’s people Israel. They believe that if God gives promises to his people, those promises must be fulfilled precisely as found in Scripture. God can be trusted not only to know and predict the future but also to bring it to pass. Thus, as far as the Old Testament is concerned, if God gave promises and predictions about Israel that have not been fulfilled – and all readers of every shape and flavor, both conservatives and liberals, agree on that conclusion – then those promises and predictions must be fulfilled in the future (hence the label, “futurism”).
Perhaps the most startling aspect of that kind of futurism is that it “predicts” a return to animal sacrifices in a restored Jerusalem temple. These are devout Christians who believe in the finality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Yet because of their rejection of conditionalism, they are forced to bring everything from the Old Testament into an earthly kingdom after the Second Coming of Jesus. On this view, instead of moving us toward a perfect world, the Second Coming takes us back to a world that includes animal sacrifices, political conflict, childbirth, and death. All of that lasts for 1000 years. Then the world will be made new.
But all of this begins to point to a very important question: Who shapes history: God or human beings? We take up that question next.
Does God Shape History Or Do We?
To be perfectly honest, I know my church well enough to know that even if we might agree in our rejection of the futurist approach, not all of us would be enthusiastic about the way I have described the Adventist position above, at least certain features of it. Even though I have tried to be honest and even-handed in describing where the church stands “officially,” questions of how the human will relates to the divine will defy easy answers. The crucial issue is: Does God shape history or do we? Adventists would love to answer that question simply with a resounding Yes! – thus affirming both sides of a paradox that resists a tidy solution. In fact, saying Yes! to both sides is basically what we have done. After all, if Scripture affirms both positions, why shouldn’t we? It’s a simple solution, but a practical one rather than a strictly logical or rational one. It may be as close to the truth as we are able to get. And it is indeed “rational” to note that Scripture affirms both sides of the question without telling us just how to put them together.
Can we talk further about that? Let’s try and I’ll start with a story.
In 1985, at the Springville campmeeting in Utah – a beautiful garden of Eden out in the middle of nowhere – I was giving a series of studies on Jeremiah, a book pulsating with conditional elements. I vividly remember the setting at the beginning of day two. It was a gorgeous day; a gentle breeze was rustling the leaves, the sides of the tent were up; we could hear the birds singing.
“I’d like to start with a summary of what we discussed yesterday,” I said. “The first point is that in some sense God knows the future.”
Immediately a voice rang out from the back of the tent. “What do you mean, “in some sense God knows the future”? God knows the future!”
I started to respond by referring to passages in Jeremiah that we had discussed the day before, but I was interrupted by the same voice again: “I don’t care what the Bible says,” he said with conviction and a grin, “God knows the future!”
Surprise! I had come face to face with a good Adventist Calvinist!
But now I want to address the two sides of the question from a perspective that I believe will help us understand each other better, indeed, bring us onto common ground. This is only a quick a snapshot; it deserves a whole lot more.
“Let me do it!” (Human Will) Or “Carry me, Daddy!” (Divine Will)
Human will or divine will? That’s the crucial question and the great divide. Many Christians, even very devout ones, would simply shrug and say, “Both, of course. What’s the problem?” The problem is that not everyone is able to say “both,” at least not with any enthusiasm. Some would argue tenaciously for the priority of the human, others just as tenaciously for the divine. The tussle between the two perspectives has been a huge source of tension throughout history. We’ll look at just a small slice of history here so that we can focus on the differences between Adventists and dispensational futurists.
Those who emphasize the human side of the story, talk about free-will, human freedom, holiness, human responsibility. In Protestant Christianity, this free-will tradition traces its roots to the Dutch theologian Arminius (1560-1609) and the Anglican clergyman, John Wesley (1703–1791), founder of Methodism. “Arminian” and “Wesleyan” are the labels used to describe this kind of theology. Among Protestants, its primary supporters would be found among the Methodists and Nazarenes. That’s Adventism’s natural home too.
By contrast, those who emphasize the divine side of the story, talk about divine election, divine sovereignty, divine grace. Total depravity and original sin are also prominent in their vocabulary, ideas that simply go missing in the free-will tradition. Among Protestants, this tradition goes back to Luther (1483-1546) and even more to Calvin (1509-1564). But the great Roman Catholic churchman, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), is generally considered the true father of this “grace” tradition. And in Augustine’s mind, free-will and grace simply did not fit together: “In trying to solve this question,” he said, “I made strenuous efforts on behalf of the preservation of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God defeated me.” [Cited by Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford, 1986), 117, quoting Retractationes ii.1 (addressed to Simplicianus of Milan).]
Interestingly enough, though Augustine is highly revered by Roman Catholics, the Catholic tradition, in general, moved in the direction of free-will and human responsibility, so much so that it triggered Martin Luther’s “by faith alone” rebellion, the Protestant Reformation. Among Protestants, Presbyterians and members of the Christian Reformed Churches identify with this Augustinian tradition. Indeed “Reformed” is the label that distinguishes this emphasis from the Arminian/Wesleyan free-will tradition. In America, at least, the term “Evangelical” generally carries a strong Reformed flavor. The popular Christian journal Christianity Today is much more Reformed than Arminian.
It must be noted, however, that the free-will tradition can also emphasize grace. John Wesley’s theology is a good example. But Wesley emphasized the human role so strongly that he and one of his early compatriots, George Whitefield (1714-1770), actually had to part company. Both continued with very effective ministries, but with each going his separate way, Wesley emphasizing the human will, Whitefield the divine.
To give a more earthy flavor to the discussion, I use two quite different phrases that I heard from our two girls when they were growing up. The labels don’t fit any more now that the girls are grown, but at one point, one was much more inclined to say to her father, “Let me do it!” the other one, “Carry me, Daddy.” Would you believe that those differences are reflected in the world of worship and theology? They are indeed.
Courage, Hope, or Just Plain Confusion?
As I was discussing the tension between the two positions with a good friend, I commented that I took courage and hope from the fact that the labels did not appear to be permanent. They could be moved, remodeled and changed! I’ll comment further on that below.
But his response was one of puzzlement: “Why should that give courage and hope?” He asked. “It just sounds like confusion to me!”
So why do I take courage and hope instead of simply seeing confusion? Because it means that we have a clear mandate to seek ways of shaping the church so that both perspectives can remain strong. The fact that there is a certain fluidity means that many have not yet settled into their natural “home” where they can love God wholeheartedly. Helping people find their “home” is the crucial task facing every parent, teacher, pastor, and indeed every believer. Recognizing the diversity in Scripture and in experience means that we dare not zero in on just one answer and try to force everyone into that mold.
In that connection I must say that based on my own observations, Methodist parents tend to give birth to Calvinist children and Calvinist parents tend to give birth to Methodist children. But families can also be divided and communities tend to drift back and forth, too. In Moscow, Idaho, for example, a prominent family of ministers has divided along the human-will/divine-will fault line. As a result, two of the brothers are Reformed ministers while the father and one son have remained free-will. Feelings are so strong, in fact, that one of the Reformed brothers forbid the members of his church to even talk with the members of his brother’s free-will church.
The Reformed brother who decreed the separation between the two churches, has written a book that forcefully presents Reformed theology. The first edition closes with a poem that reveals the deep sense of horror that rushes into a Reformed believer’s soul when free-will people start to question God. Questions that seem quite innocent to free-will people easily sound blasphemous to the conscientious Reformed believer. The last two lines of the poem are revealing:
So hold your peace, rebellious pot,
[Douglas Wilson, Easy Chairs, Hard Words: Conversations on the Liberty of God (Oakcross Publications, 1991), 189. The poem is omitted from a second edition that carries the same 1991 copyright date, but is published by Canon Press, P. O. Box 8741, Moscow, Idaho 83848].
The fluidity of the two traditions, however, is revealed in more subtle ways. At major conventions, for example, I have heard mutterings from professors on both sides of the divide complaining about the drift from Reformed to Arminian theology, on the one hand, or from Arminian to Reformed theology, on the other. And several years ago at a seminar I was holding at a United Methodist Church in Florida, I asked for a show of hands in response to my question: “How many of you have family, friends, or acquaintances who at one time were in the free-will tradition but who have moved to the Reformed tradition?” In that group of some 45 believers virtually every hand went up.
When I discuss the subject, I make a serious effort to use neutral language as much as possible. That makes it easier for us to fill in the spectrum between the two extremes. On the divine side, for example, “predestinarian Calvinist” is too narrow a term. It’s too easy for free-will people (the starting point for most Adventists) to dismiss “predestination” out of hand and not even think about it anymore. It’s just too troubling for them, even though the Bible, especially the Apostle Paul, uses that language without hesitation. [E.g. Rom. 8:29-30; most of Romans 9 to 11 reflects Paul’s struggles to bring the ideas of free choice and God’s election into some kind of harmony.] One devout Adventist, for example, obviously a free-will supporter, even went into print with the line, “The Satanic God of Calvinism.” [Ralph Larson, The Hellish Torch, published privately (1998). Larson, a conservative Adventist perfectionist, declares “that Calvinism sees God as “arbitrary, cruel, unforgiving, tyrannical” (p. 6).] That’s strong language to use for a Reformer who merited several pages of laudatory comments in Ellen White’s The Great Controversy! [GC, the chapter entitled “The French Reformation,” especially pp. 219-221, 233-236.]
If we explore the full spectrum of beliefs on the issue, we will discover that some will emphasize the sovereignty of God and divine foreknowledge while avoiding or even rejecting the idea of predestination. But as one moves deeper into free-will territory, the idea of divine foreknowledge comes under fire. The “openness of God” theology is an attempt to address that issue by claiming that God knows everything that can be known, but chooses not to know our moral decisions lest such knowledge compromise our freedom to choose. [Richard Rice is an Adventist author who has contributed significantly to the debate. See his The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald, 1980); reissued as: God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985). See also, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).] That’s a departure from the more traditional position that God knows everything.
Even with qualifications, however, “openness” theology is likely to horrify true believers in Reformed theology. They quite rightly sense that if one keeps moving far enough toward the free-will side, God simply disappears, leaving only the human. The so-called “slippery slope” will do its deadly work and belief in God disappears. The result is pure secularism.
One last comment about the labels before we focus again on eschatology: churches (like their seminaries) can shift their theologies. Several years ago when I was teaching a class in Modern Denominations, the Presbyterian pastor who visited the class sounded almost like an Adventist, even though he was from the Reformed tradition. He certainly was much closer to Adventism than the pastor from the United Methodist Church who told the class that “God is not a person and heaven is not a place.” The students were so startled they hardly knew where to begin with their questions.
Finally one of them asked, “Then where is God?”
“We swim in God,” said the pastor, a reply that would have astonished John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, fully as much as it did us. Clearly the free-will tradition had led this particular pastor far afield.
Now what is so tantalizing in this whole discussion is that the Bible gives us wonderful fodder to support both sides. Not surprisingly, however, one side grabs the texts supporting free-will, while the other side grabs the texts supporting the priority of the divine will. And both sides find it easy to ignore or re-interpret the other set of passages. So the arguments continue to boil with neither side actually hearing the other and neither side taking seriously all of Scripture.
What I find to be even more intriguing and challenging are the implications of the generational shift that I noted above: the switch from Methodist to Calvinist and back to Methodist. Those who love their church and their children are eager for their children to share their deepest hopes and fears. But in an individualist culture like our own, if a church cannot satisfy the spiritual needs of the children, they will be tempted to go in search of one that does.
To spell that out, if children of a free-will bent find themselves in a church that doesn’t give enough emphasis to human freedom, the children could easily be tempted to find a church that stresses the importance of human initiative and freedom.
Similarly, if children who are longing for a clearer sense of divine direction find themselves in a church that stresses human initiative and freedom, the children could easily be tempted to find a church that emphasizes divine sovereignty.
I believe Adventism has a wonderful opportunity to meet the needs of both sides. But because the love of human freedom is so deeply rooted in the Adventist soul, we don’t always do a very good job of meeting the needs of those who long for a stronger sense of divine direction in their lives. And I am convinced that such an impulse lurks in the hearts of millions of Adventists. I think we can do better.
But now we must turn to some aspects of Adventist history that may help us understand ourselves as well as our futurist friends, and ultimately help us take all the Bible seriously, not just the texts we happen to like.
The Fruit-Basket-Upset Principle
The crucial factor that ultimately opened the eyes of Adventists to the possibility of conditionalism was the Great Disappointment. It was a “Fruit-Basket-Upset” experience, as a friend pointed out, one that forced us to look more closely at each piece of fruit as we put it back into our basket.
Initially, the Great Disappointment felt like a horrible disgrace and a disaster. But with the passage of time, it became clear that several blessings had come from the experience, a confirmation of Romans 8:28 that God is at work in all things. In particular, I am referring to the intriguing role of what sociologists call “social support,” the powerful effect that the people around us have in helping us believe or disbelieve. And it is indeed a two-edged sword that can cut either way, reinforcing truth or reinforcing error. One sociologist noted rather wryly: “Much of what we consider reasonable is largely the consensus of the people around us.” As uncomfortable as that may sound and feel, there is evidence that seems to point in that direction.
In that connection, I like C. S. Lewis’ candid admission of vulnerability. Arguing that difficulties with faith may have little to do with intellect and reason, Lewis asks: “How many of the freshmen who come up to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment?” He goes on to admit that “mere change of scene” tends to “decrease” his faith, at least at first. “God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College. The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless.” [C. S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 42.]
Does that same process work on the positive side? Of course, and here we have the testimony of Scripture. The Epistle to the Hebrews admonishes us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” But hope doesn’t just depend on God, argues the inspired author. We have a work to do for each other: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” [ Heb. 10:23-25]
Precisely in connection with the Second Coming, I heard a fascinating illustration of how “social support” made it possible to believe a doctrine that otherwise had seemed impossible. In November of 1991, I heard Eta Linnemann tell the powerful story of how she emerged from the thorough-going rationalism of her German university experience into a living personal faith. The key turning point was coming to the conviction that Jesus was not simply a wandering Palestinian prophet, but was, in fact, her Lord and Savior. Every week she was meeting with a community of devout Christians who had surrounded her in love and were helping her to grow in faith. [Eta Linnemann told her story at the November 1991 meetings of the Adventist Theological Society in Kansas City, Missouri.]
When former students heard of her conversion, one of their first questions was: “And do you believe he is coming again?” “Not yet,” she had to tell them. She then told us, her audience, that it took several more weeks of meeting with the believers before the doctrine of the Second Coming actually became believable for her. [Relevant observations on Linnemann’s experience are found in the early pages of her Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology. Reflections of a Bultmannian turned evangelical (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 7-20.]
Often a “fruit-basket-upset” experience can clear the way for new insights. When we are securely and comfortably rooted in a “traditional” environment, the Spirit can not so easily impress us with anything new and dramatic. But when someone or something upsets our fruit basket, we can see all kinds of things we didn’t even know existed before.
In Eta Linnamann’s case the “fruit-basket-upset” was triggered by a personal crisis. New converts to any community are most likely to come from people who are in transition or who have been in turmoil. In the early years of Adventism, the “fruit-basket-upset” experience of the Disappointment led to the establishing of the “landmarks” that are so essential to Adventist identity. The “little flock” who came through the experience still believing that God had been at work were cut off from non-believing family members; they were mocked and derided by their detractors. It was no fun at all. But what that painful experience did was open a window of opportunity for them so that they could take a fresh look at every aspect of their faith. As they grew and discovered things together, they reinforced each other’s faith along the way.
Thus, during those difficult months following the Disappointment, our pioneers met together for prayer and serious Bible study. In the late 1840s, these “Sabbath Conferences,” as they came to be known, brought the believers together in homes, barns, and upper rooms, as our pioneers hammered out our essential beliefs. That’s when they came to clarity on the non-immortality of the soul, the seventh-day Sabbath, and the heavenly sanctuary, beliefs that were quite different from anything they had grown up with. The chaos of the Disappointment had opened their minds to new beliefs. They saw Scripture with new eyes, eyes that could not begin to see the implications of conditionalism as it related to the end of time.
A Fresh Look at Prophecy: Moving Toward “Applied” Historicism
The next step in this process involved the Adventist understanding of prophecy. How could they explain the delay when the prophecies seemed so very clear? Had God let them down? The most pointed explanation came from the pen of Ellen White in 1883 when she decided to respond to critics who were mocking Adventists for their continuing faith and hope: “The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short,” wrote Ellen White. “Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional.” [Ms. 4, 1883 (1SM 73; Evangelism, 695).]
And so it was that the idea of “conditionality” began to make its way into Adventist thinking. The book of Jonah illustrates this phenomenon in God’s gracious response to the repentant sinners of Ninevah. The KJV bluntly describes the events like this: “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he said that he would do unto them; and he did not do it.” [Jon. 3:10, KJV] Instead of “repented,” the NRSV says God “changed his mind.”
How does that square with God’s response to Samuel when Saul disobeyed God’s command to destroy the Amalekites? Again, from the KJV: “The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.” [1 Sam. 15:29, KJV] The key phrase is “he is not a man.” In other words, God does not repent like a man because a man repents because he finally admits that he has done wrong. Interestingly enough, just a few short lines after the declaration that the Strength of Israel does not repent, Scripture records the statement noted at the beginning of this chapter, that “the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.” [1 Sam. 15:35, KJV]
A solution to the puzzle of divine repentance can perhaps be glimpsed in the fact that throughout Scripture God consistently responds graciously to repentant sinners. Thus he “repents,” if we use the language of Jonah. Indeed, Jonah admits that the reason he ran away in the first place was because he “knew” God would forgive if the people repented. Though he doesn’t say so directly, Jonah seems to have been worried about his prophetic reputation. Apparently he didn’t realize that from God’s perspective, a failed prediction could mean a successful prophecy!
In any event, Jonah did his job well. And he seems to have been the only one to worry about possible negative fallout from his effective preaching. At least the Bible itself records no complaints or mockery from the people of Ninevah.
But the story of Jonah is troubling for predestinarians. Indeed, they have a hard time with all those passages in the Old Testament that speak of God’s “repentance.” And it doesn’t help when modern translations (like the NRSV) say God “changed his mind.” Seven times the Old Testament affirms that God does not repent. [Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29 (2x); Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:28; 20:16; Ezek. 24:14.] Yet God still repents! In fact, if we simply look at the word “repent” and its close cognates in the Old Testament, based on usage in the KJV, God “repents” three times more often than all the other “repenters” put together. The actual score is 28 to 9! [According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, the word “repent” or one of its cognates and derivatives appears a total of 44 times in the Old Testament. Only nine of those speak of human repentance, all the rest refer to God. Of the 35 times that it refers to God, seven are instances in which God does not repent, generally said with emphasis. That still leaves 28 passages in which God does repent.]
In the New Testament, not only is repentance much more popular – “repent” or a related word appears 64 times – but the people also do far more repenting than God. Only once does the New Testament say that God repents, and that is a quotation from the Old Testament. [Psalm 110.4, one of the OT passages affirming that God does not repent.] Thus in the contest over repentance, God wins in the Old Testament by a score of 28 to 9. In the New Testament, the people win by a score of 63 to 1. We’re just playing with words, of course. Modern translations have found other ways of communicating the idea, especially with reference to God, but also with reference to human beings.
But is there common ground between us and our futurist friends? Most likely we could all agree that God forgives sinners who repent. That’s what both Testaments affirm. And that is really the bottom line in the book of Jonah. The challenge for predestinarians is to see how God (apparently) tries every possible method to lead sinners to repentance. How could the Great God of the universe “experiment”? Doesn’t he know what will work?
Scripture would answer with a resounding yes! Of course God knows what will work. But at the same time, it reveals a God who tries every possible method to draw sinners back to him, to repentance and salvation. For Adventists, the great fruit-basket-upset of the Disappointment pushed us in the direction of accepting the principle of conditionality. And we gradually began to realize that divine foreknowledge does not mean a fixed plan. Thus we are able to look at Old Testament passages and recognize that some of the features of the end time may not happen in just the way the prophets described them.
Scripture affirms that God knows our hearts: “You discern my thoughts from far away,” declares the psalmist. “You are acquainted with all my ways.” Even before a word is on his tongue, exclaims the psalmist, “O Lord, you know it completely.” [Ps. 139:2-4.] But Scripture also affirms that God will try every possible method “as if” he did not know what would work. Amos 4, for example, ticks off a long list of methods (most of them disasters) by which God tried – unsuccessfully, we could note – to win the hearts of his people.
Jeremiah is another Old Testament book that paradoxically throbs with examples of conditionality, yet opens with the affirmation that God knew Jeremiah while he was still in the womb. [Jer. 1:5.]
But now let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. We may chide our dispensationalist friends for not looking seriously at the texts that teach the Sabbath and the non-immortality of the soul. We may even chide them for avoiding those passages in which God is said to repent. But let me be blunt: dispensational futurists have dealt much more seriously with some Old Testament eschatological passages than we have. Chapter 17 refers to Isaiah 65-66, Old Testament passages that point to a new world where people die. But only old people die in that new world, not the young. Zechariah 14 is another important chapter, one that suggests a gradual elimination of evil rather than a clean break. An excellent article in volume 4 of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary takes those passages very seriously. But I find that very few Adventists have paid much attention to it, either among the pastors or the laity. [“The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” SDABC 4:25-38 (1955).] It’s time to look more closely at the principles laid down in that article. Perhaps the idea of “applied historicism” can help bring the pieces together.
If we take all the Bible seriously, it will point us to the kinds of answers we need in order to be faithful to our heritage, to Scripture, and to our mission. I do not believe that we should abandon historicism, even if virtually everyone else has. Historicism is too clearly taught in the book of Daniel for us to choose any other alternative. But if we can add the word “applied” to “historicism,” we come very close to a simple approach already used in the Bible. Indeed, it is everywhere present in the book of Revelation. Instead of crying, Rome! the Bible says, Babylon! The application works because everyone knew the beastly characteristics that had made Babylon the symbol for everything evil. Thus believers could say “Babylon” but know that it meant “Rome”!
In “applied” historicism, then, the key players in the “historicist” drama become symbols for similar behavior elsewhere. With such an approach we can ask a question that vexes many Adventists these days: Where is Islam in biblical prophecy?
Nowhere and everywhere. Scripture appears to be silent about Islam. But wasn’t it also silent about ancient Rome? Are we then left speechless? Not at all. If any kingdom, any power, any church, even any believer, behaves like the beast, we can apply the principles which are so clearly illustrated in Scripture by the historical entities to which the Books of Daniel and Revelation point.
But in making the application, we should be very careful not to simply label a particular institution, nation, or church as evil and beastly as if it were evil in some kind of pure sense. We may be thoroughly opposed to the principles on which a particular system functions, but that does not mean that everyone within the system shares the evil characteristics of the system itself. That is true of Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, even Secularism. There are precious people in each of those “isms.”
When James and John, for example, asked Jesus for the two highest positions in his kingdom, they obviously assumed that Jesus operated on hierarchical principles. Not so, said Jesus. The Gentiles use authority in that way. But in my kingdom serving is the key idea, not ruling. That is clearly demonstrated in the fact that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Matt. 20:28.] Jesus’ response strikes right at the heart of hierarchical forms of church governance. That is our fundamental objection to Roman Catholicism. But within the Catholic community are many beautiful Christians. Within every community there are beautiful people. We must not attack their institutions, their nations, their religions in such a way as to drive them away from the truth. In the words of Ellen White, we should not accost others in “a very abrupt manner” and make the truth “repulsive” to them. [4T 68 (1876)]
Jesus had strong words for the leaders of his day, yet Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were part of the group that he criticized so strongly. Jesus chose twelve disciples, yet Judas was among them. It may very well be that when we set out to hunt down the beast, we should play closer attention to Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. At some points it is very difficult to tell them apart. But even when the tares are fully evident, pulling them out could destroy the wheat, too. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” Jesus said.
While we are waiting for the harvest, we should bend every effort to present a positive message, even when we are dealing with unhappy themes and evil people. Ellen White’s counsel to A. T. Jones is worth remembering, indeed worth memorizing: “The Lord wants His people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong,” she wrote, “even though the condemnation be just. He wants us to do something more than to hurl charges at our adversaries that only drive them further from the truth.” [6T 121 (1901)]
Applied Historicism: Bringing Liberals and Conservatives Together
Let’s be extraordinarily honest now, as to how “applied” historicism could bring Adventists together on eschatology.
The conservatives “know” their last day events. Everything is spelled out in The Great Controversy. But they worry that Islam doesn’t seem to be present in biblical prophecy; they worry about Sunday legislation in two ways. First, in the sense that a “time of trouble” will, in fact, be a time of high stress. None of us would choose voluntarily to go through difficult times. But second, they worry that at the practical level, almost no one pays any attention to Sunday anymore. It has simply become a day for work, shopping, and recreation. After dark the haunting worry might be that if the Sunday law doesn’t come as predicted, then prophecy gets a black eye and God’s reputation suffers. What can we trust anymore if we can’t trust Bible prophecy?
Understanding “conditional” prophecy is the best way to address those worries. There is a little bit of Jonah in us all. We want things to stay put. We want prophecies to be fulfilled to the letter. We need to recognize, however, that reading the Bible from the perspective of conditionalism won’t make much sense unless you immerse yourself in the Bible after you have become convinced of the possibility of conditionalism. There is an unhappy little proverb that all of us need to hear: “If I hadn’t believed it, I never would have seen it with my own eyes.” Ouch. True. But ouch.
While speaking of conservatives, let me add a worry of my own, namely, that Adventist conservatives may not be worrying enough about the “beastly” attitudes reflected in conservative Protestantism. Southern Baptists, for example, our former allies in the battle for religious liberty, have jumped ship and now want to legislate religion and morality in America. They intend to use the ballot box to gain the majority and then force the country to be holy and to be good. We are with these devout people on many aspects of morality. But we should whole-heartedly oppose their view of how authority should be used in the name of God.
“Applied historicism” works wonderfully here. Sunday legislation may not be obvious on the horizon. It could return, of course, but whether or not it does, the “beastly” attitudes toward “authority” that Adventists have said would move us toward an enforced Sunday law are everywhere to be seen. We have reason to be concerned and to be vocal about our concern!
Now let’s talk about the liberals. Their great danger is that they shrug too easily. They are more in touch with the “world” than conservatives and will be more deeply affected by secularist impulses. In many cases, they are almost biblically illiterate, never having learned how to build bridges from an ancient sacred text, the Bible, to a modern world. Conservatives read their Bibles. They may be highly selective in the way they read, but they do read their Bibles. But the hidden fundamentalism among the liberals is revealed in their tendency to ignore the Bible once it is shown to be adapted rather than absolute. Liberals, both “out there” and within, are most likely to be excited about the Bible when reading it as literature. That’s not wrong. But it is not the same as reading the Bible as God’s Word.
Liberals need to be aware that the tendency to keep the traditional pieces in place has great value. None of us can read the future. Yet we know from Scripture and history that attitudes toward force and authority tend to be cyclical. Just how those will manifest themselves in the future no one knows. But keeping all the pieces of the puzzle together will ensure that we preserve what is most important. Conservatives help do that for us. Our dispensational futurist friends keep all the pieces in a way that is very troubling. But they do keep the pieces, including some that we need to look at more carefully from the standpoint of conditionalism. We don’t want to throw out the book of Zechariah any more than we want to throw away The Great Controversy. All the details in both sources can give us a clearer understanding of how God has dealt with human beings in the past. That is very important as we seek to understand how he will deal with us today.
I have one more concern that may be the most crucial one of all, and that involves evangelism. The vast majority of people in our world assume that when God speaks, that word applies to all people at all times. On such a view, if God predicted something, it must come to pass. And that is where “conditionalism” is potentially dangerous. While it is thoroughly biblical and very practical in the end, it can lead to the collapse of faith if not handled with a great deal of care. That’s why I believe it is so important for us to keep the solid foundation of historicism in place. Historicism has been a marvelous gift of God to his people. We are on the threshold of the kingdom and don’t know when or how the final moments will take place. But holding firm to our historicist heritage can keep us pointed in the right direction. What we have said about Rome, Protestantism, and the United States in prophecy may or may not take place in exactly the way that we have envisioned it. But the story of those great powers illustrate the forces that are at work in the great conflict between good and evil. Understanding those forces is very important for us today.
From a practical point of view, however, knowing exactly what is going to happen should make no difference in our daily lives. Indeed, we should listen more carefully to the words of the angels to the disciples when they expressed their curiosity about the end of time: “It is not for you,” they said, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” [Acts 1:7]
Similarly, Paul had good words of counsel to the Thessalonian believers, words that we need to hear today. In his first letter, after describing the events connected with the Second Coming at the end of chapter 4, he gives this practical counsel: “I don’t need to write you about the time or date when all this will happen. You surely know that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. People will think they are safe and secure. But destruction will suddenly strike them like the pains of a woman about to give birth. And they won’t escape.” [1 Thess. 5:1-3, CEV]
As helpful as historicism is to God’s people, it does tempt us to forget that most important teaching of the New Testament, namely, that the Second Coming will be a surprise. It will be a surprise for everyone, for those who are ready and those who are not. If we are right with the Lord it will be a happy surprise. If we are not, it will be the kind of surprise that is no fun at all. Our goal must always be to make sure that as many of God’s children as possible will be ready for a happy surprise when the Lord comes.
Finally, let me emphasize the clarity with which Scripture speaks about the end of time. Even in the Old Testament where the idea of full restoration does not seem to have been fully present, the idea of a future restored world is still very clear. And that unerring focus on future restoration is the crucial difference between the religion of Israel and that of her Canaanite neighbors. Theirs was a fertility religion that wasn’t going anywhere. Israel looked forward to a new heaven and a new earth. They did not see with the same clarity that we can see in the light of the New Testament. But they still lived in hope.
Today the contrast is equally sharp. Adventists accept the clear biblical teaching that Jesus is coming again to usher in a new age. His return is the goal of history, the “Blessed Hope” for which we have so earnestly longed.
It would be wonderful if Adventists could get serious about Bible study again, liberals and conservatives together, using their respective strengths to shore up each others’ weaknesses. It would help us discover those things that really matter and it would bond us together just as our pioneers were bonded to each other in the Sabbath conferences of the 1840s. That would be good. Very good.