This week in the Adult Bible Study Guide is the second of three weeks which focus on Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief no. 11, “Growing in Christ”. This is the most recent addition to what were, for 25 years “the 27 Fundamental Beliefs”; it was only added by the 2005 General Conference Session (resulting in the “28 Fundamentals”). Its addition reflects the global nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, for in many parts of the world, where belief in spirits and demonic power is common, there was concern that Seventh-day Adventists had no formal statement about “God’s power to give believers in Christ victory over the forces of evil.” (1)
This context is helpful to understand, I think, because otherwise the language of the Fundamental Belief, and indeed of the title of this week’s lesson, “Victory over evil forces”, could be misunderstood. In some Seventh-day Adventist circles, at least, “victory over evil” would instinctively be understood as meaning “victory over sin” (also described as “total victory over sin” or “overcoming sin”)—the possibility of which is central to one Adventist soteriological school of thought. (I have written about this in a previous article on this website: http://spectrummagazine.org/article/ david-trim/2011/10/31/face-law-and-grace-adventist-views-salvation-and-how-we-speak-about -th). For this reason, I imagine some Sabbath School students might have felt their hearts sink when they came to this week in the Study Guide, imagining that an old, old debate was about to be rehearsed for the umpteenth time. Seeing that James 4:7 is among the set texts for the week (“Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you”) might have seemed to confirm the suspicion, since James of course stresses the need to ally faith to works. (2)
Yet this week’s lesson is very definitely not urging the perfectibility of humans before the Judgment. Its concerns lie elsewhere. Dr. Kwabena Donkor, the author of this quarter’s Guide is a distinguished Bible scholar. He links James 4:7 with 1 Peter 5:6–10 (verse 8 famously declares: “Be sober, be vigilant; becauseyour adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”). Donkor rightly points out the context of this latter passage: “Peter wrote these words to … Christians who were suffering persecution.” The focus is on staunch adherence to God’s truth, in the face of circumstances that appear very dark, not about keeping the Law.
Nevertheless, there is, I think, just a little bit of fuzziness in this week’s lesson, about just what “evil forces” means; and this, I suspect, is because in some parts of the world, concern about demonic power is not a major issue. Dr. Donkor is, however, obliged to do justice both to the intent of the Fundamental Belief –– and to the fact that, however Westerners might choose to explain it, in many parts of the world, believers and unbelievers alike feel all too keenly the effect of actions by “principalities[and] powers, [by] the rulers of the darkness of this age, [and] spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”(Eph. 6:12; cf. Rom. 8:38). My own instinct is to find rational explanations, but I am cautioned by the wisdom of veteran missionaries in Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific: men and women who had enjoyed sophisticated educations and had keen, critical minds, but who honestly related that they had seen things for which merely materialistic explanations simply could not account; and I recall Hamlet’s caution to his best friend: “There are more things in heavenand earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”(Hamlet, I.v). This week’s lesson, then, will be encouraging and relevant to many Seventh-day Adventists.
That said, however, Dr. Donkor attempts to give his conclusions a wider relevance. And as many of the readers of this website are from Western countries and will retain a degree of skepticism, they may ask “what’s in this week’s lesson for me?” This is where the lesson attempts to have things two ways, at least implicitly, if not explicitly.
For it seems to me that the tone of this week’s text implies that a firm stand against evil will allow a wider triumph over it. Thereby, it raises a theological issue almost as vexed as that of (if not for Adventists as much as other Christians): namely, theodicy. Monday’s text, in particular, cites Romans 8:28 (“We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose“), which is a wonderful text and a huge encouragement to all of us in our lives, but does beg the question: what about when things go wrong?
This is a particularly topical question now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and its devastation. My wife and I, living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., suffered no wind or storm damage to any part of our property, and while we lost power twice, once was for about twenty seconds and the second time for no more than 10 minutes. I thanked God, on the Tuesday morning, for our safety; but over the course of the day discovered the full extent of the devastation further north.
Had God protected me but punished those in New Jersey and New York? That is the logical implication of taking promises like those in Romans and applying them too narrowly.
Much more could be said about the problems of why bad things happen to good people (as well as the, to me, even more problematic question of why good things happen to bad people!). This is an old, old question and it may seem that new insights are unlikely. But in fact, this week’s lesson sparked a train of thought that gave me, at any rate, a new way of thinking about theodicy.
Dr. Donkor points out that “Romans 8: 29, 30 has been a battleground for discussions on predestination” (3). Another key passage for predestinarians is of course Ephesians 1:3–14. However, Eph. 1:4 states that God “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself,” while verse 11 states: “ In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (emphasis supplied).My former colleague at Pacific Union College, Dr. Leo Ranzolin Jr. pointed out to me that the context in Ephesians is the Church. Logically, then, the plural refers not to believers en masse but individually, which is the basis for predestinarian interpretation, but rather to believers collectively—as a corporate body—i.e., to the Church.
And this interpretation offers interesting possibilities for theodicy as well. If many of the texts that are studied this week in the Adult Bible Study Guide are to be applied to the Church, instead of (or in addition to) individual believers, then there is much less of a problem of asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Rather, these texts are promises to the body of Christ—the Church—that it will triumph over evil forces: not only over the Devil, but also over “principalities and powers”, over the human beings perpetrating appallingly wicked actions.
This is, to me, no less an encouraging message. But it is also a call to arms, as it were. We have a duty, as followers of Jesus, to stand firm against the forces of evil on earth. This is a solemn responsibility and our heavenly obligations may often clash with our earthly desires for peace and quiet. But we can be assured of ultimate victory, even if it costs us temporal popularity and peace of mind. For “in all these things we [that is, the Church] are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
NOTES (1) Preface, Adult Bible Study Guide (Fall Quarter, 2013): 3.
(2) All quotations from the Bible are from the New King James Version
(3) Adult Bible Study Guide (Fall Quarter, 2013): 48.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4861