April 16, 2008

An Impenetrable Mystery

2008 1511 page5 capn the December 20, 2007, issue of Adventist Review I wrote an editorial entitled “A Cosmic ‘Gamble.’” The piece described the Incarnation as an “incredible risk” on the part of God in our behalf, citing the extraordinary statement by Ellen G. White that God permitted Jesus to come to earth “at the risk of failure and eternal loss” (The Desire of Ages, p. 49).
One reader, taking exception to the idea, wrote me a thoughtful letter. Anchoring his argument on the foreknowledge of God, he made the point that “there is no way that God can be surprised by anybody or any event.” “God is not a ‘gambler,’” he said. “[God] knew that the mission that was assigned to Jesus . . . would be completely successful. . . .” Another reader wrote that “if . . . Christ’s first coming . . . had a risk element to it, then how could we believe His promise to come again . . . ? Maybe He would, maybe He wouldn’t, depending on how things would shape up.”
In what follows I share part of my written response to the first letter, and also reflect on the thoughts expressed in the second:
“[Your letter is] a difficult one to respond to,” I wrote to the correspondent, “since we’re dealing here with mysteries and imponderables.”
2008 1511 page5“You assumed . . . ,” I continued, “that I hold the view that ‘God is limited in His knowledge, especially knowledge of what we call the future.’ That, however, is not the case. For me, God and omniscience go together. In my mind, there is no intellectual or logical way of separating the two. God knows the end from the beginning and everything in between.”
“I find myself very impressed by your argument,” I continued, “that for God who knows the outcome, there can be no risk, which is one reason I used the word ‘gamble’ advisedly . . . by putting it in quotation marks. At the same time, however, recognizing my own human limitations, I fall back heavily in cases like this upon divine inspiration”—by which I meant, in that context, the writings of Ellen G. White, whose normativeness on the issue in question both correspondents had rejected. White “made mistakes and contradictions,” one of them had written. And the other had admonished me in a follow-up letter to “confine . . . [my] sources for authoritative information to the Bible.”
Space is limited, but I would just say that my recourse to the White writings in the editorial was studied and deliberate. To dismiss out of hand the possibility of a prophetic voice after the close of the biblical canon is to deny what the canon itself affirms (see 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11-13). Scholars among us who’ve spent decades grappling with the Incarnation and related issues would testify to the astuteness of the Ellen G. White writings on those subjects. An untrained theologian, she nevertheless makes her way through the theological minefields and pitfalls with incredible adroitness. To say there was no risk in the Incarnation is to argue the biblically untenable position that it was impossible for Jesus to sin. If that were the case, then we’d be into divine playacting of the most cynical kind. And Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, His all-night prayer vigils, and His agony in Gethsemane would all amount to a cruel farce.
No one is talking here about God being surprised by anything. The issue is not that God in His foreknowledge was unaware of the final outcome. The unassailable point, rather, is that it all could have turned out differently. Reality is not all cut and dried. And if Jesus was at all an example for us, He had to have come with the same freedom we all have as humans to choose God’s will or to reject it.
Thus, Jesus during His life here “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). In sync with those sentiments, Ellen White, in another remarkable statement, said that as Jesus faced Gethsemane, He “could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal” (The Desire of Ages, p. 753). To say there was no risk would be to say that Jesus could not sin just because God knew that He would not.
“No,” I wrote the first correspondent, “I can’t explain it all, but I would invite you to join me as we marvel together in front of this impenetrable mystery.”

Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.