Relevant Biblical Passages: John 10:10; Romans 8; 1 John 1:1-4
The New Covenant Life: The final lesson in this series on covenant focuses on the quality of life which the believer can expect when one is in a covenant relationship with God. Issues of assurance, obedience, joyous sharing become crucial. The leading biblical passage is John 10:10: ” I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Are there different ways of experiencing God’s gift of life? Indeed there are. In Adventism, some focus on the optimistic way suggested by James and Peter. These are the ones who are most confident in being able to follow Jesus in joyous obedience.
By contrast, Paul suggests that the human instrument is woefully inadequate. Only in Christ and in the knowledge of his sacrifice can one find peace and hope.
Still another perspective is suggested by John, where Jesus is the “mediator” presenting the Father to us rather than presenting us to the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And in one of the most startling passages in Scripture, Jesus even declares that one day he won’t pray to the Father on our behalf because we will understand that the Father himself loves us. (John 16:25-27). That passage should enable frightened Adventists to gain a new perspective on that sobering line that we must stand in the presence of a holy God without a mediator. In other words, Jesus can show us how to transform a threat into a promise.
The following passages illumine different aspects of the “new covenant life” which will be seen in differing ways, depending on the experience of a particular believer:
Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
Luke 15. The story of the prodigal son: a covering robe, but no emphasis on sacrifice.
1 John 1:1-4: The joy of buoyant sharing – “so that our joy might be full”
Matthew 28:19-20: The joy of sharing – or the responsibility to share? How does one make it a joyful experience?
The following excursus looks at the three dominant perspectives in Adventism: The cheerful optimists take their cue from Matthew, Peter and James: “We can do it.” The introspective twice-born experience knows it is impossible – except through Christ; these take their cue from Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians. Finally, there is the gentle perspective suggested by John’s “friendly” God: “Just do the best you can.” The following discussion grows out of a “creative” treatment of 1 Corinthians and the tensions in that community. The material was originally intended for inclusion in my book Inspiration (RH 1991), but was thought to emphasize “diversity” a little too much for the church at the time.
The Adventists at Corinth and Their Favorite Preachers
[chapter originally written for Inspiration]
Alden Thompson, October 1991
This chapter is intended to be brief and tantalizing. But I want to share at least a brief sketch of a perspective on the church and Scripture that has been both a help and a blessing to me.
Our starting point is 1 Corinthians and Paul’s observation that the Corinthian believers were choosing up sides behind their favorite preacher: Paul, Cephas (Peter), or Apollos. A few sanctimonious souls apparently were claiming that they would not choose sides because they simply followed Christ.
Now my hypothesis is that the three major parties in Corinth represent the three major “traditions” in Adventism. That there are three Adventist traditions is quite certain. That they match up with the elements in Corinth is debatable. But at least the church in Corinth provides the occasion for us to talk about the same problem in Adventism: choosing up sides.
Now Paul does not argue that the sides should disappear. That is a key point. What he does argue is that they should work together, pooling their strengths for the sake of the church. In one of the few places where he is specific enough to distinguish his emphasis from that of the other preachers, Paul states: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor.3:6). We might surmise from that comparison that Paul was better at front-line evangelism, Apollos better at Christian nurture.
While recognizing the gaps in our knowledge, we will use the names of the leaders claimed by the Corinthian factions as a means of organizing some observations about Adventism today. Now most Adventists are mainstream enough to share in the characteristics of all three. The spokespersons for each position are more likely to tangle (politely, we hope) than those in the pew. I have heard in the same campmeeting, speakers from all three “traditions,” giving quite different emphases, and the saints quite pleased with all — even when some of the speakers were dropping darker hints about the dangers in Adventism (i.e. represented by other speakers at the campmeeting, or perhaps last year’s speakers), though seldom were the “culprits” named.
So what follows here are characterizations of types more-or-less pure. The more zealous advocates generally want to spread the word and divide the church more than the church itself wants to be divided. And there are strengths in each position, if we can learn to capitalize upon them without imposing our own views on others in such a way as to make the others unable to function.
The followers of Peter adopt a straightforward and concrete approach to the Adventist world. Often using the phrase “historic Adventism,” they believe that Christian perfection is both possible and necessary. They are optimistic about human nature. Retaining the traditional doctrines of Adventism is very important to them, for our doctrines, especially the doctrine of the Sanctuary, distinguish us as a people. The Book of James is a favorite.
The followers of Paul are not at all optimistic about human nature. Every act of humankind is tainted with sin. We stand condemned before the judgment bar of God. But Christ intercedes on our behalf. In Him we find our perfection even while we sin. The courtroom metaphor is dominant. Romans and Galatians are favorite books.
The followers of Apollos are much more philosophical about life. They stress the importance of knowing the truth about God as this is the crucial factor that will determine one’s final standing in the great struggle between good and evil. As illustrated in the story of the Prodigal Son, God is a loving Father and we understand Him best in the metaphor of family. The Gospel of John is a favorite.
To further illustrate the differences, we can look at some key concepts and compare the three approaches:
|Peter:||Possible and necessary|
|Paul:||Impossible except in the sense of complete loyalty|
|Apollos:||Possible in the sense of full commitment|
|Peter:||Emphasis on wrong acts freely chosen by an act of will|
|Paul:||Emphasis on twisted nature|
|Apollos:||Emphasis on motive|
|Nature of Christ|
|Peter:||The sinful nature of Adam after the Fall|
|Paul:||The sinless nature of Adam before the Fall|
|Apollos:||Not a burning issue|
|Primary Role of Christ in Human Affairs|
|Peter:||Example more than substitute|
|Paul:||Substitute more than example|
|Apollos:||Friend and revealer of the Father|
|Role of Mediator|
|Peter:||Standing without a mediator is possible.|
|Paul:||Standing without a mediator in court is not possible. In a courtroom setting sinful man always needs a mediator; because the family metaphor is not fully developed, generally does not transform the threat into a promise and view the mediator as introducing God to the believer.|
|Apollos:||Standing without a mediator is a promise, not a threat. The mediator functions in a family setting to introduce God to the believer.|
|Peter:||A worm who must become a jewel|
|Paul:||A worm who stays a worm; becomes a jewel in Christ|
|Apollos:||A jewel in the rough that can be polished|
|Primary Practical Concern|
|Peter:||Carelessness in the church|
|Paul:||Danger of discouragement|
|Apollos:||Distortion of the truth about God and His character|
|Primary Spiritual Danger|
|Peter:||Pride: “We are the true Adventists”|
|Paul:||Pride: “We have the true Gospel”|
|Apollos:||Pride: “We understand the truth about God”|
|Primary Strength to the Church|
|Peter:||Reminds us that we can do what God expects; there are objective right and wrong acts.|
|Paul:||Reminds us that everything touched by human beings is tainted by sin. Our only hope is in the righteousness of Christ.|
|Apollos:||Reminds us of the larger issues in the struggle between good and evil, and that human motive and human choice are crucial to the outcome.|
Let me try one more illustration to caricature the three positions in such a way as to clearly distinguish them from each other. Imagine with me a child taking piano lessons and preparing to play a Mozart concerto.
Peter would say: You must play the piece perfectly and without mistake. If the child reaches that standard and gets all the notes right, it still will not be a masterpiece. An objective standard has been reached, but one that was set low enough for the child to manage.
Paul would say: There is no way that you can play this piece. You must keep practicing, of course. But when it comes to the recital, I will play it for you. In this instance, someone other than the child makes the music. The standard has been reached because a master substitute has taken the child’s place.
Apollos would say: The important thing is to do the best you can. As long as you try, that is what matters. Here the standard has become so amorphous that it would be hard to know whether it has been reached. But one thing is certain, the child did not play the concerto as a masterpiece.
An ideal teacher of music would skillfully combine all three elements: an objective standard that the child can reach, recognition that the masterpiece can never be played as it should be, but is worth striving for; and a recognition of the importance of intention and effort.
In the Christian life, the same strengths and weaknesses exist. We have to recognize that what God expects we can attain (Peter). But we must also realize that the ultimate will elude us, regardless of how much we strive for it. Yet God provides a substitute on our behalf (Paul). Finally, we must know that motive and intention are crucial elements in determining what is right and good in God’s eyes (Apollos).
One could say that our body chemistry determines our theology. And there is some truth to that point. But only when Peter, Paul, and Apollos come together as a united church will the church be at maximum strength.
In my own experience, the relationship between the “traditions” and those who hold to them is tied in with some poignant moments. In 1980, as I was presenting a first draft of my Sinai-Golgotha series at the West Coast Religion Teachers’ Conference, a question was raised right at the end of my formal presentation. It was from my Old Testament colleague, Jon Dybdahl. We had known each other from seminary days, played touch football together, talked theology together. And now we were teaching colleagues at Walla Walla College.
The way he couched his question led me to suspect that I had touched something in a hurtful way. He was talking about the “Great Controversy” model for explaining the problem of evil. “What do you say to a student,” he asked, “who expresses discomfort with being `used’ by God? Recently a young man came to me and said, `It is so much more meaningful to me to picture God giving me the gift of salvation rather than putting me on trial with Him before the universe. I would rather receive God’s gift than be used by Him.'”
Time did not allow us to pursue the question then. But I asked Jon if we could talk. The two hours spent together would have to rank as one of my most precious memories, almost hallowed. In my presentation, I had traced the development of Ellen White’s theology, including her views on the atonement. I had given the impression that she was moving away from the “objective” atonement, central to Pauline theology and toward a “subjective” atonement, central to Johannine (Apollos) theology. In the objective atonement the cross points heavenward, satisfying the “objective” demands of divine government. In the subjective atonement, the cross points earthward as a means of revealing the nature of God. The objective atonement views Jesus’ death as sacrifice, the subjective atonement sees it as a revelation. It is now clear to me that Ellen White was not moving from objective to subjective, but adding the subjective, a both-and approach. But I had suggested otherwise in my presentation.
My natural inclination is towards the third tradition in Adventism, the one going under Apollos’s name here. I knew that Jon had a Pauline bent. But we had never really talked the matter through. During our two hours, Jon told how the substitutionary death of Christ had become particularly meaningful to him when he was in Thailand in mission service. It had transformed his experience. I listened hard, trying to understand a view that did not come “naturally” for me.
In seminary days, I remember walking toward Garland Apartments with Jon and telling him about a “discovery” I had made, namely, that Jesus was God. How I had gotten that far without making that discovery is an interesting question. The nature of Christ, of course, is a mystery. It could never be adequately explained to a child. And which adult would claim full understanding? But I had long wondered why I needed a mediator if God Himself loved me? So I signed up for a seminar and tackled the topic of mediation. It was during that study that I discovered the beauty of John 14-17, and in particular, John 16:26-27: “In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not [emphasis supplied] say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.”
Suddenly, the mediator turned around for me, and introduced the Father to me, not me to the Father. Standing in the presence of a holy God suddenly became a promise, not a threat, and I was ecstatic. A fully orthodox theology does eliminate some potentially misleading aspects of the substitutionary atonement. In common thought, it is easy to portray the Father as the stern Judge, who sends his Son to pay the price for us. A mature theology sees the Father and Son in full harmony. The Son as God volunteers to receive the punishment for sin. In short, God punishes God on our behalf. That eliminates the picture of God “demanding” His pound of flesh. Whatever or whoever demands the “pound of flesh,” God himself pays it in the person of Jesus.
When I shared my discovery with Jon, he had already seen all that. But that did not dampen my enthusiasm for the “new” view of the mediator which my study had gained for me. But note that my study came from the Gospel of John, not from Paul.
Both Jon and I shared our experiences and explained why our particular views were important to us and our experience with the Lord. What I did not yet clearly see was that the “legal” model dominates Pauline theology, while the family model is at home in John’s Gospel. I described a book I had read recently which attempted to impose the Pauline judicial model on the Gospel of John. “It’s not fair to impose a legal model on John’s Gospel,” I protested.
But Jon had been pondering another approach which imposed Johannine theology on Paul, so his rejoinder followed immediately: “And it’s not fair to impose the Johannine model on Paul.” We looked at each other and grinned. And there we agreed that we would let Paul be Paul and John be John.
We have continued to carry on “Yes, but” conversations over the years. We still do not see eye to eye on the atonement. But we understand each other and recognize, I believe, that our different emphases in theology meet the needs of our differing experience. Yet we are both wholehearted members of the body of Christ.
I wish I could communicate to the church the joy of finding that our experiences could complement each other for a richer, stronger friendship and a more unified and effective church. Analytical study helps us see the differences between Johannine and Pauline theology. In other words, the milk is no longer homogenized, but separated into milk and cream. But that same analytical ability which enables us to recognize the differences in theology and in practical experience, enables us to forge a new unity and a better way of working together.
Once again I am reminded of Ellen White’s comment in Counsels to Parents and Teachers. It is a fitting conclusion to this book, and presents a truth that we all need to understand if we are going to be the kind of community God wants us to be:
Often through unusual experiences, under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught (CPT 432-433).
May God grant us the grace to continue to learn from one another and to grow together towards His kingdom.