Guests: Larry Veverka and Paul Dybdahl
John 1:1-3, 14; 8:58; Heb. 5:7-9; Phil. 2:1-11
A Body You Have Prepared for Me. Today’s lesson focuses on one of the most tantalizing mysteries in Christian theology: the Incarnation, especially as it relates to the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. In perhaps the only place in her published writings where Ellen White uses the word “contradictions” in a positive sense, this is what she wrote about the nature of Christ:
Great contradictions presented themselves in Jesus. He was the divine Son of God, and yet a helpless child. The Creator of the worlds, the earth was His possession, and yet poverty marked His life experience at every step. – The Desire of Ages, 87-88.
Within the Adventist community, however, many are unaware of the fact that early Adventists were not Trinitarian. Thus they would not have believed that Jesus Christ was God from all eternity. And neither the standard study guide nor the teachers’ edition seem to make any reference to this fact. In the article “Christology,” all three editions of the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1966, 1976, 1996) quote James White to illustrate the anti-Trinitarian impulse among our forebears. But instead of quoting his original words in their full forcefulness (“the old Trinitarian absurdity”), all three editions close the quote after “Trinitarian,” replacing “absurdity” with “idea.”
The result of this caution is that ordinary church members are not encouraged to face the hard struggles which our forebears confronted, nor are they encouraged to delve into the issues as Jesus’ disciples and the early Christians most likely faced them.
Informed Adventist scholars uniformly credit Ellen White for moving Adventism to an orthodox position on the nature of Christ. Perhaps the most notable quote in that respect is found in The Desire of Ages, 530 (1898): “in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.”
In his book, Search for Identity (RH, 2000), George Knight describes the impact of that particular quotation on M. L. Andreasen, a young Adventist preacher:
The forcefulness of that sentence caught many off guard. One was a young preacher by the name of M. L. Andreasen. He was convinced that she really hadn’t written that statement, that her editors and assistants must have altered it. As a result, he asked to read her handwritten book manuscript. She gladly gave him access to her document files. He later recalled that “I had with me a number of quotations that I wanted to see if they were in the original in her own handwriting. I remember how astonished we were when The Desire of Ages was first published, for it contained some things that we considered unbelievable, among others the doctrine of the Trinity which was not then generally accepted by the Adventists.”
Staying in California for several months, Andreasen had adequate time to check out his suspicions. He was especially “interested in the statement in The Desire of Ages which at one time caused great concern to the denomination theologically: ‘In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.’. . . That statement may not seem very revolutionary to you,” he told his audience in 1948, “but it was to us.. We could hardly believe it. . . . I was sure Sister White had never written “the passage.” “But now I found it in her own handwriting just as it had been published.” – MLA MS, Nov. 30, 1948; cited in Search, 116-117.
Our interest here is in facing both the divine and the human aspects of the Incarnation question as the first Christians may have faced them.
Discussion questions and themes:
- John 1:1-3, 14: The Word becomes flesh
- John 8:58: Before Abraham was, “I am”
- Philippians 2:1-11 : In the “form” of God and in the “form” of a servant
- Hebrews 5:7-9 : The Son learned obedience through suffering
- Jesus’ humanity. During Jesus’ time on earth, it was apparently quite easy to accept Him as fully human. The gospels record that He could be tired to the point of exhaustion, hungry, and thirsty. He wept and He got angry. Admittedly, the Gospels record no laughter; even rejoicing is in short supply – only in Luke 10:21 is Jesus recorded as rejoicing, and even then it was only “in the Spirit” when the 70 returned from their successful outreach mission. Still, Jesus was obviously a human. Question: What did Jesus say and do that might have suggested to his disciples and listeners that He understood Himself to be more than a man? One of the more revealing stories tells how Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins – in the hearing of the Jewish leaders. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they asked (Mark 2:7). That was the right question. For believers, the answer to that question led to the logical conclusion that Jesus was God incarnate.
- Jesus’ divinity. In the Gospels, the clearest and most forceful statements of Jesus’ divinity come from the Gospel of John, so clear, in fact, that more radical scholars believe they were put in Jesus’ mouth by His followers. John’s prologue declares that the Word was God and became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14); from Jesus’ own mouth is the claim, “Before Abraham was, I am” – taken by the crowd as a claim to divinity, enough so that they were ready to stone him (John 8:58-59); in the heart of John’s Gospel is His discourse with the disciples (John 14-17) and the striking statement: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Finally, Thomas declares to the risen Jesus: “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).Question: If the claims about Jesus’ divinity were so clear, why did it take until 325 CE (Common Era = AD) and the Council of Nicaea before the church was able to speak clearly about the dual nature of Christ? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Messiah, as presented in the Old Testament, was simply the human son of David.And even though the prophet Isaiah describes him as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), most likely those titles would simply have been seen as honorific descriptions more than as a description of a divine nature. Clearly, the people were expecting a “messiah” (= “an anointed one”), but he was to be a conquering king, not a suffering servant. To imagine that God himself would come and die, was so far out of the realm of possibility that no one could scarcely have imagined it until after the resurrection. Even then, it came hard and slow.
- Jesus’ humanity, once more. Once the conclusion was clear that Jesus was fully divine, then the temptation arose to see him as less than human. For several centuries the debates raged over the dual nature of Christ. And while Christians now describe their faith in terms of the “trinity,” even that is almost impossible to explain. That’s why the 17 th century English preacher, Robert South (1634-1716) could exclaim: “As he that denies this fundamental article of the Christian religion may lose his soul, so he that much strives to understand it may lose his wits.”
Question: If the dual nature of Christ is so difficult to understand, and if early Adventists did not understand it in the same way as modern Adventists do, how crucial is it that a person understand it correctly? In light of the complexity of the issue, should the church be more tolerant in allowing a diversity of opinion on the nature of Christ?
Additional background material: The author of the Probe Study Guide experienced a remarkable “Aha!” moment when he discovered that Jesus’ was God incarnate. Here is a slightly revised version of an article originally published in the NPUC Gleaner:
“I Was 23 When I Saw the Light”
By Alden Thompson
(Cf. Gleaner, 18 September 1995)
It happened in my second year of Seminary at Andrews University. I was 23, a fourth generation Adventist with a theology degree from Walla Walla College. All my formal education had been in Adventist schools. Why hadn’t I seen the light?
I don’t know why. But here’s the story of the what and the how.
It started with a question that was dogging my Christian experience: If God loves me, why do I need a mediator? Sharpening the issue was that troubling line in The Great Controversy that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (p. 425).
Tackling the question in a seminar, I discovered a two-part answer in John 14-17, the first part a thunderclap, the second a gentle rain.
I remember sharing the thunderclap with my friend Jon Dybdahl as we walked home from campus one day. “Guess what I discovered!” I exclaimed. “Jesus is God!” It was no surprise to him. He already had realized the truth of Jesus’ words, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9). But with me, that message had just struck home. Though words like “Son of God” and “divine” were in my vocabulary, I hadn’t “known” that Jesus is God.
My excitement was heightened by the second part of the answer – the gentle rain – Jesus’ promise in John 16:26-27 that we would pray in His name but that He would not pray the Father for us.
And why not? Because the Father Himself loves us.
In short, seeing the Father through Jesus transforms the threat – standing in God’s presence without a mediator – into a promise.
Sin, of course, complicates the story. Like Peter, we sometimes beg the Lord to depart because of our sin (Luke 5:8). But desperate need also drives us, like Jacob, to grasp the Divine and not let go without a blessing (Genesis 32:26).
God knows all that. That’s why Jesus is our Mediator whenever and as long as we need Him. But someday we will meet God face to face. That’s a promise, not a threat.
The long-term results of my discovery fall under three headings:
- From fear to joy. Most important for me, the thunderclap truth transformed my view of God. If He took our flesh to live and die for us, then salvation was not a begrudging process in which a lesser being paid the price for unworthy rebels. In short, God is not reluctant. He actually wants me in His kingdom.That meant joyful service to a gracious God instead of strenuous efforts to please a reluctant One. God no longer demanded my obedience; He had won my heart. And all because Jesus is God.Then I discovered that my own pilgrimage from fear to joy was paralleled in Scripture by the contrast between Sinai and Golgotha: At Sinai, God came to kill: “Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death” (Exodus 19:12, NRSV). At Golgotha, the “author of life” (Acts 3:14, NRSV) came to die. This is not a contrast between law and grace, for both mountains were part of God’s gracious purpose. But the joy in the story comes first and foremost from Golgotha.
- Diversity . God used different methods and even different “truths” to point me towards Him at various points in my life. Seeing that diversity in myself helps me recognize the diversity of experiences in others.Perhaps the most challenging task facing the Spirit and the church is to match the right truths with the right people at the right time. It means the right mix of mercy and fear (Jude 22-23), or the choice between stick and gentle love (1 Corinthians 4:21). And all of us see only part of the picture in that respect. As Ellen White put it, “Often through unusual experiences, under special circumstances, He [God] 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.” – Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-33.
- Patience. I’m sometimes embarrassed that it took me so long to see the light. But that long trek means I have good reason to be patient with those who see things in a different light. Indeed, my “light” is quite unlikely to be just right even yet. Many aspects of truth defy human explanation. Just ask any two Christians to explain the Trinity….But you don’t have to be bright or educated to know that Jesus died for you and is coming again. And if God grants you more “light,” rejoice, for it doesn’t have to mean a change in goal, just more joy along the way.Ellen White once reminded health reform enthusiasts how important it is to recall our own struggles, “remembering the hole of the pit whence we were digged” (Testimonies 3:21, citing the words of Isaiah 51:1, KJV). Theologians can listen in:
“If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them…. We should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.” – Testimonies 3:20-21.
And so I try to remember what happened to me when I was 23.