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Part 3. The Story of a Pilgrimage
As Christians who take the entire Bible seriously, we have not always found it easy to reconcile the seemingly sharp contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Although the picture has often been overdrawn, the God of Sinai does appear rather forbidding when compared with the approachable God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The writings of Ellen White present us with a strikingly similar contrast, one that can be fully as perplexing. On the one hand stands the "encouraging" God of Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages; on the other, the "discouraging" God of the Testimonies.
As a fourth-generation Adventist, I learned early in life to cherish the writings of Ellen White, but my own reaction was often mixed. Her works on the life of Christ I found immensely helpful, but the Testimonies were a struggle. Every time I started through them, I somehow managed to find an excuse for turning my energies elsewhere. This was troublesome, for I knew that every "good" Adventist should read the Testimonies. For a long time I had no answer, but kept the faith while continuing to be both blessed and perplexed by what God had done through Ellen White.
But then the light began to shine. From where? From Scripture, from Ellen White, and from Scotland. A curious mix, I know, but it worked. Here's how.
As American Adventists, my wife and I had never been confronted by a culture in which tradition is highly valued. Americans are on the move. If we have a problem, we tackle it. No sacred cows stand in the way. The challenges of the frontier have vanquished the claims of tradition. The work of the church reflects a similar pattern: Do we need a church school? Let's build one. In our evangelism we preach the truth and expect a decision. Now. Why should anything stand in the way? Away with tradition! That is typically American. But in Scotland we learned a thing or two about tradition.
Grocery shopping provides a good example. Americans like to buy in bulk, but the Scots prefer smaller daily purchases. Our desire to buy apples by the box dumbfounded the Scottish shopkeepers. And when we finally found one who would sell in bulk, the other customers were convinced we were running a boarding house. Numerous such experiences helped us understand tradition and its impact on the work of the church.
We had left a comfortable Adventist community in America with 6,000 Adventists among a local population of 40,000, where no one ever asks, "Seventh-day who?" By contrast, Scotland can claim no more than 400 Adventists among its 6 million inhabitantseveryone asks, "Seventh-day who?" We loved the land and its people, but the force of tradition made it extremely difficult to share our faith.
As I embarked on my doctoral program, that Scottish environment provided a unique setting for my long hours of study in the Old Testament and for an intense dialogue with Scripture and my Adventist heritage. The result was an exciting new world opening before my eyes.
First, I learned to read the Old Testament. That is, I actually heard the Old Testament itself speaking instead of Uncle Arthur! I was startled to learn that Jephthah really did sacrifice his daughter, that Esther's concept of virtue was quite different from mine, and that Elisha actually had given Naaman permission to enter the temple of a pagan deity with his master. (Judges 11:31, 39; Esther 2:14-17; 2 Kings 5:15-19). I also began to ponder the implications of the God-given laws that assumed slavery, bigamy, and blood vengeance (Ex. 21:1-11; Num. 35:16-21). A twentieth-century American God would have abolished such customs on the spot.
I had probably been slighting the Bible
Second, I began to realize how creative Ellen White had been in interpreting the Old Testament. As I compared her interpretations in Patriarchs and Prophets with Scripture, I found them much more understandable than the bare Old Testament narratives. For example, when Scripture tells the story of Israel's rebellion, God sends the snakes to punish the people (Num. 21:6). But as Ellen White tells the story, Israel turned away from God and thus had no protection from the snakes that were already there. (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 429). I liked what Ellen White did, but upon reflection I decided that I probably had been slighting the Bible in favor of Patriarchs and Prophets. Even in my Bible reading I had been hearing Patriarchs and Prophets (and Uncle Arthur) instead of the Bible itself. I needed to learn to hear them both.
Third, Ellen White helped me come to grips with some of the sharp contrasts between Bible writers. How could the psalmists be inspired and yet pray such frightful things about their enemies? (e.g., Ps. 69:21-20; 137:7-9). It was a far cry from Jesus' prayer on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). But Ellen White noted that Bible writers "differed widely" even in their "spiritual endowments" (The Great Controversy, p. vi). Yes, it was possible that even an inspired writer had not yet grasped the full meaning of forgiveness. Without support from Ellen White, I probably would not have been bold enough to suggest that.
Fourth, I discovered that two Bible writers could tell the same story but give quite different interpretations. According to 2 Samuel 24:1, when David ordered his ill-fated census, God was responsible. But a second and later inspired writer assigned the responsibility to Satan (1 Chron. 21:1). Here was the Biblical confirmation for the process of inspired reinterpretation that I had already discovered in the writings of Ellen White.
Fifth, I had to learn to be more tolerant of those who use a different method of interpreting Scripture. "Reading in context" had been drilled into me by my teachers, but the New Testament writers seemed to break all the rules when they quoted the Old Testament (e.g., Matt. 2:15; Hosea 11:1; Heb. 11:27; Ex. 2:14). They often employed the Jewish practice of reading later events back into earlier passages.
Sixth, I finally was able to admit that the contrast that had puzzled me in the writings of Ellen White is thoroughly Biblical. If we let Scripture itself speak to us, the contrast between Sinai and Golgotha is unmistakable.
All these individual aspects were a necessary preparation for the day when the pieces of the puzzle would fall together. That day came when one of the professors urged me to attend a lecture he was giving to the theology students. Since I was focusing my attention on the problem of evil, his title was indeed of interest: "The Demonic Element in Yahweh."
Approaching the topic with evolutionary assumptions, the professor noted that because Satan is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament, both good and evil must come directly from the hand of God. To illustrate, he cited a string of "demonic" acts of God in the Old Testament; the destroying angel in Egypt, Uzzah's "electric" ark, and others (Ex. 12:23, 29; 1 Sam. 6:6-9; see also Ex. 4:24; Eze. 20:25, 26). His conclusion: The God of the Old Testament was a combination of a desert demon and a good deity.
The lecture brought no joy to the ministerial students, but it did do something for me. I was not interested in his evolutionary assumptions, but his observations about the absence of Satan in the Old Testament intrigued me. In fact, the great controversy story came together in such a way that I was almost tempted to preach a good Adventist sermon to those dejected ministerial students. If I had succumbed to the temptation, my sermon would have gone more or less as follows:
The problem of evil had its roots in heaven when Lucifer rebelled against the law of God, claiming it to be arbitrary. But God declared that love freely chosen and given is the law of life. There is no other choice, for selfishness leads naturally to death. The rebel was clearly a threat to the universe, but to destroy him instantly would simply confirm his accusations. The very nature of God's law required that Lucifer have time to develop a "government" based on selfishness. This world became the primary theater where Satan has been seeking to establish the rule of selfishness and God has been seeking to establish love. Only when the universe clearly understands that selfishness destroys, can God destroy selfishness.
This cosmic struggle between good and evil provides the key for interpreting the Biblical data.
When Adam and Eve chose selfishness, they opened the floodgates of misery. Genesis 3-11 describes the tragic results of Satan's success as one rebellion after another undermines the foundations of truth and love. By the time of Abraham, the truth about God had almost died out. Abraham himself told half-truths and took a second wife with no apparent qualms of conscience (Gen. 12:10-20); 16:1-7). Even his own family worshiped other gods (Joshua 24:2). Why did God allow such backsliding? Because Satan and selfishness must have their day in court.
A bold plan
But with Abraham, God embarked on a bold plan to win back His world. How far can He take Abraham? Not very far, at first, for Abraham has to choose to follow. God cannot coerce, for that would be contrary to the law of love (It was precisely at this point that our experience in Scotland proved to be a help to me, for I had begun to realize that deep-seated customs and habits do not change easily. Not even God can change people instantaneously, for that would be contrary to His law.)
As we follow the story from Abraham to Moses, we see the flame of truth flicker and almost die. But then we come to the Red Sea and Sinai. With massive, bold strokes, God vanquished the gods of Egypt, served notice on the gods of Canaan, and won the hearts of a reluctant people. As Sinai thundered and shook, Israel was petrified but impressed. Here was a God they could trust, One who had opened paths through the sea and moved mountains.
And where was Satan? Right there, to be sure, but for a very good reason the Biblical account does not mention him.1
Israel had just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped a host of deities, beneficent and malevolent. Polytheism was thus a real threat for Israel. It would have been all too easy for them to worship Satan as a god, the god of evil. Rather than run that risk, God deliberately chose to assume full responsibility for evil. The larger picture of the battle between good and evil would have to wait.
Since our Scriptures were written first for Israel, their first task was to meet Israel's needs. Had God told the story for us instead of for them, they could not have understood. Hence, in the five books of Moses and in much of the Old Testament, everything comes directly from the hand of God; the serpent in Genesis 3:1 is simply the most subtle creature "which the Lord God had made"; even in the book of Job, Satan makes only a limited appearance. God tells him: "You moved me against him [Job] to destroy him without cause" Job 2:3, R.S.V.). Job himself never once recognized the presence of Satan. As far as he was concerned, God was his tormentor (cf. chap. 16:7-14).
Another result of Israel's long years in slavery was the further development of customs that we find troublesome: slavery, polygamy and blood vengeance. But if God were to win these people, some customs would have to be temporarily controlled rather than abolished immediately (see Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 515). God will not take His people faster than they can follow.
In that connection we face an important question: On what basis do we judge certain customs in the Old Testament to be "troublesome," even wrong? Is it not in the light of the cross? Polygamy as such is nowhere condemned in the Old Testament and nowhere in the entire Bible is slavery condemned. But as Christians we judge such practices to be out of keeping with God's law. Such a conclusion is possible only under the guidance of the Spirit as we meditate on the cross of Christ. The cross is supreme, but our understanding of it will ever deepen.
From my own experience, however, I know that we as Adventists have sometimes found that admission difficult. I think we need to overcome our shyness and admit that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the clearest revelation of God. Our attachment to Sinai is understandable. But if the New Testament can clearly see Golgotha as better than Sinai (Heb. 12:18-24), then we can too.
That word better could cause us to stumble, however, for two quite different emphases are possible: better in contrast with worse, or better as the next step up from good. For example, when someone in the family is sick, we automatically think in terms of "worse-better." But when it comes to the replacement of a much-used Bible with a new and "better" one, every one of us thinks in terms of "good-better," for the old Bible has served us well, and has been very good.
As applied to Sinai and Golgotha, the word better suggests a certain ambiguity. Because of the terrors of Sinai, our feelings point toward the "worse-better" contrast, and that could lead to the rejection of Sinai. But sequence is clearly to be preferred. Sinai was not bad; it was precisely what those people needed, and was good. Even today it still has its place to meet emergencies caused by sin. But the revelation at Golgotha is indeed better because it is supreme. It is God's ultimate gift to mankind.
But having recognized the validity of both revelations, we must know why one is better, and here the choice is clear: on the one hand we find fear and command; on the other, love and invitation. God can and will use commands and even appeal to fear, but only in emergencies. A lasting bond can be built only on love and in response to gracious invitation. That is what is much clearer at Golgotha than at Sinai. God was obvious and impressive at Sinai, but Golgotha seemed God-forsaken.
God-forsaken? Yes, at least to the ordinary eye. To be sure, the thief and the Roman centurion sensed the presence of God, but for the disciples, for Mary, and even for Jesus Himself, the words of the psalmist were painfully real: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps. 22:1). Love had died, hope had gone, and Satan had wonapparently.
But the resurrection changed all that, and the cross began to etch a new pattern of life on the souls of the disciples. They began to realize that Golgotha was the essence of God's gracious invitation to man. God was indeed present on that lonely mountain. He uttered no threats; He gave no commands, but offered instead a compelling invitation to life. The active presence of God's holiness threatened no one on Golgotha, for God did not come to kill, but to take our place. He gave no clarion call for the destruction of the wicked, but offered a prayer for the forgiveness of His enemies and showed the tenderest regard for a heartbroken mother. Here was the seal to God's promise that He would write his law on the hearts of men.
And so it is that Golgotha has become the symbol of the God who is willing to go to the cross so that we may live. That is the message that lies at the end of the Sinai-Golgotha road.
1 Satan is mentioned by name only in three Old Testament contexts, all of which belong to books that were either written or canonized toward the end of the Old Testament period: 1 Chron. 21:1; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech. 3:1,2. Job, significant for the Adventist "great controversy" story and generally attributed to Moses in Jewish tradition, was not accepted as canonical until the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings.
First published in the Adventist Review, December 17, 1981