The Law of Unintended Consequences and Adventist Scholars

By the time Michael Pearson got up to preach on Sabbath morning at the conclusion of the recent Adventist Society for Religious Studies annual meeting, the conference-long discussion of Martin Luther seemed to have covered everything about the German reformer. His anti-Semitic and racist sins had been significantly cataloged and discussed. He had been contrasted and compared with Ignatius Loyola and Martin Luther King, Jr. His personal conversion story had been told and claimed as his redeeming insight, in spite of his other sins. His influence on history examined from multiple angles. His principle of Sola Scriptura had been turned upside down and inside out. What was left to say?

In a powerfully quiet and poetic sermon, Michael Pearson, emeritus principal of Newbold College, counted the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions in Wittenberg such as:

  • destabilizing Rome and generating Protestantism,
  • creating a church specifically named after him which today numbers 80 million adherents world-wide,
  • modernizing and unifying a language which hitherto had been a mosaic of dialects, and encouraging mass literacy,
  • fostering the idea that we are individuals before we are members of society,
  • acting as midwife to the idea of the nation state,
  • contributing to long conflict in Europe. . .,
  • becoming, based on his published views on the Jewish people, the poster-boy of latter-day fascism.

Martin Luther’s life illustrates the law of unintended consequence—writ large, Pearson said. But he went on to show unintended consequences in the Seventh-day Adventist church today, in personal lives, too.

To understand consequences and intentions, Pearson went back to Eden itself and Genesis 3 where God told Adam: “eat. . .and you will surely die.” The serpent said to Eve: “eat and you will have opened eyes.”

“What did Adam intend?” Pearson asked. “How should he be judged? How could he give any meaning to the word ‘die’? Was the fall an unintended consequence of creation? Was Adam’s use of the gift of choice an inevitable consequence of his condition? What did God intend? How can God not intend anything that comes as a result of the gift of choice?”

“Sometimes, I feel I have hit a rational brick wall,” Pearson confessed as he turned the conversation away from theological maneuvers to get God off the hook and turned for help from a story, the story of the disappointed pair of Jesus followers on the Emmaus road. They had also hit a rational brick wall known as Golgotha, not the intended destination of the disciples’ travels. They were trying to make sense of it all when a stranger showed up and an absurd conversation ensued. So Jesus began to teach them until they reached Emmaus where he made as if to go on, but they urged him to stay.

“Stay, which is sometimes the only prayer that I can offer,” Pearson said. “‘Please stay!’ And so it is in the simplest everyday gesture of welcome—the offering of a crust of bread—that they know! Know that it is Him. They know that they are loved. Loved beyond any shadow of doubt. He cares enough to return, to eat.”

And that is the lesson that brings tears to the eyes of the religion scholars in Boston as Pearson acknowledges the emotional difficulties that can cause havoc in life, but he goes through his list of what he personally says he can claim to know:

  • that he can be held accountable for his choices and their unintended consequences,
  • that he cannot allow himself to be paralyzed by fear of unintended consequences,
  • that he must live always intending the good,
  • that he must acknowledge the randomness in the world as another mystery of God
  • that he must pray for God’s presence
  • that he must live freely choosing options and embracing responsibilities brought on by consequences which he did not intend.

“But most importantly—and here we come to the heart of the matter—I, we have to know deep inside ourselves that we are loved by God.” He admitted that it sounds simple, but is not, and may be painful. “It is one thing to affirm that ‘God so loved the world. . .’ but it is quite another to say ‘I know myself loved by God.’”

He said that guilt, shame, and exaggerated expectations of self and others can produce many unintended emotional and relational consequences.

“To know ourselves truly loved by God. I find it is not easy. I suspect I am not alone even among teachers of ‘religious studies.’ Maybe it is ‘the work of a lifetime,’ to borrow a phrase.”

He suggested that we need to submit to a discipline, “yes, a regular discipline of knowing myself deeply loved by God.”

“Have I travelled across the Atlantic just to say that?” he asked. “Yes, I have.” He added that there are many voices telling us that “we barely make it into the suburbs of God’s affections.” But that in 2017, this year of remembering, “perhaps the most important thing for us to remember is that we are, I am, loved by God. To know ourselves truly loved by God. I wonder what the unintended consequences of knowing that would be?”

Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum. Image Credit:

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There is probably a huge difference between the “I am Loved by God” and the “we are loved by God”. The “I am loved by God” could lead to the Westboro Baptist Church kind of actions. The We are loved by God could lead to such pacifism that, no action is taken against a cruel aggressor, leading to loss of freedom and repression for many. Unintended consequences are often only unintended, they could often be expected if we looked ahead at possible outcomes…though that would likely lead to inactivity which might even be a bigger consequence.

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How can we know deep inside ourselves that we are loved by God? If this is not simple, what if we take it to the next level? Our God not only loves us, He has created deep inside each of us a new heart and there He dwells by His Holy Spirit and He will never us - that’s His promise.

This is the Holy Spirit who has poured out the love of God into our hearts. Not only are we loved by our God He has filled our hearts with His love and there the God who is love dwells.


Before knowing “deep inside ourselves that we are loved by God,” we must have developed the ability to feel and experience God and love, two functions whose origins and development hark back to infancy and childhood. These ego functions are a result of biological, psychological, parental and social factors and their outcomes are not uniform. For instance in regard to unity and equal opportunity as children of God, we may ask “Why does our GC leaders have a trajectory not shared by all?” when all of us feel “loved by God?”

The simple answer is each of us will always have a God formed according to our childhood and parental experiences who cannot be modified simply by joining a denomination which subscribes to an ideal God. There will always be a discrepancy between the two Gods and how we perceive His love, regardless of how we feel loved by Him. This discrepancy constitutes the individual’s spiritual journey and must be respected by all, without the likes of “14-page document” and all.


Was Adam, on Earth, the first to ‘intend’, to ‘choose’, to ‘fall’ ? . . . or, was Lucifer, in Heaven ?:

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer,son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!"
Isaiah 14:12 NKJV

But even as a sinner, man was in a different position from that of Satan. Lucifer in heaven had sinned in the light of God’s glory. To him as to no other created being was given a revelation of God’s love. Understanding the character of God, knowing His goodness, Satan chose to follow his own selfish, independent will. This choice was final. There was no more that God could do to save him. But man was deceived; his mind was darkened by Satan’s sophistry. The height and depth of the love of God he did not know. For him there was hope in a knowledge of God’s love. By beholding His character he might be drawn back to God.” DA 761-762

while we were yetsinners, Christ died to set us free. Free to do justly, love mercy and to walk teachable with God in Christ by the a Holy Spirit. The preface to all man’s thoughts and action should be—-In as much!


Author seems to “suffer” from a theological light touch. I like that. And i lament the scarcity of this gift in myself and my “large” church. Or even the church at large.

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There was no Lucifer in Heaven. There was no Lucifer in Isaiah 14. Lucifer is a Latin word coined much later out of two other Latin words as the name of the “Morning Star”–by the early Catholic “Fathers”(!).

Isaiah 14 explicitly states that the subject is the King of Babylon, who bragged that he was the Morning Star (which periodically rose above the most high Sun at dawn and subsequently appeared to be cast down into the earth). The Fathers rejected what the Bible says and speculated instead that the “Lucifer” in the KJV was Satan and the whole world–including us–followed suit.

Ellen White once wrote that if we ever caught her contradicting the Bible, we should just “set sister White to one side”. Well, kudos, Sis, this appears to be such a time.

Just think, we have a doctrine that was unwittingly derived from a tongue-in-cheek taunt song which purportedly quoted dead pagan kings refusing to let the recently deceased King of Babylon join them as they reigned in the underworld. (Thank goodness we didn’t use this passage in our state-of-the-dead teachings.)

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Would be interested in briefly speaking to Michael Pearson of Newbold College since one of his seminary professors was the one who presented a sermon on perfection and stated that a person can not stop sinning but only subdue it. I would like him to conduct a survey of the staff and see what % have the same opinion/position of NON victory.

It is God’s wish that we all come to the point of knowing that , " We are loved ." The power of love would change our hearts , and make us better people .

I am surprised more have not commented on unintended consequences. Perhaps since it is something we can do nothing about, it is not worth comments. But the Pearson’s sermon was specifically about that.

What are we to do with that issue? I think Pearson answered well. We do our best, intending to follow proper principle and then leave it up to God. Will others take advantage of any weakness we may exhibit? They will. Luther has been besmirched because of this attitude toward the Jews.

But I like Pearson’s reply: He will not be paralyzed because of this realization. An excellent and godly attitude.


Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.

For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.

Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.
Isaiah 60

(Perhaps the unintended consequences of eisegesis are not all bad… :slight_smile: )

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