August 3, 2015

​God and [Adventist] History

In the annals of human history the growth of nations, the rise and fall of empires, appear as dependent on the will and prowess of man. . . . But in the word of God the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, . . . the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.1

God will always be more than history. Certain spiritual and eternal implications of this basic truth deserve further comment.

The Standard Definition

History, as traditionally identified in our culture, is a finite, quantifiable thing. There needs to be something measurable, something scientific about a narrative before it can qualify as history.

Fairy tales do not usually qualify as history. Undocumented narrative about things that allegedly happened before reliable record keeping is called pre-history. Hence the academic distinction between the historical section of Genesis that covers the patriarchal period (Gen. 12-50), and the primeval section that opens the book (Gen. 1-11).

For many scholars, Genesis 1-11 is not history. Whatever their doubts about the historicity of the patriarchal period, popular questioning of the Abraham and Isaac stories is secondary to wide scholarly agreement about the difference between Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50. According to such thinking, Genesis 1-11 is not history.

Adventist Understandings

Seventh-day Adventists thoroughly disagree with any distinction that makes later chapters of Genesis more or differently believable than others. Such thinking sets up an inappropriate rivalry between human and divine definition. For it is God, the Alpha and Omega, and not creatures, or some company of creatures, who determines what is true, what has been, what is, and what will be. It is He who deposes and establishes kings and gives kingdoms to whom He wills (Dan. 2:21; 4:17).

God will always be more than human, academically defined reality. God is the Lord of Adventist history. And because He is the Truth, our own documentation of history continually points toward Him, and aims to be a reflection of His character. Clearer views of Him continuously modify our understanding and teaching, our doctrines and record.

All our godliness, sincerity, and personal integrity still do not guarantee or prove our rightness about a given word on history.

Generations of students in our schools have learned to appreciate how “behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, [are] silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.”2

Interestingly enough, though Adventists are at odds with academia on definitions of history, we have nevertheless earned significant global respect for our work with history; witness, for example, Edwin R. Thiele’s painstaking delineation of the chronology of ancient Israelite royalty.

Thiele’s work clarified generations of misunderstanding and drew forth the praise of once skeptical Professor William A. Irwin of the University of Chicago’s Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures. Irwin had previously quipped that the Israelite “historians” simply didn’t know how to count.3

Adventists are just as careful about their own on-going history. Witness, for example, our documentation of the painful losses that occur when those who have joined us leave. General Conference executive secretary G. T. Ng recently commented that the equivalence of those losses to membership gains through the last five years has been 48 to 100. And though that ratio does have multiple explanations, there is no way to be consoled about it. Nevertheless, we do document it, because Adventists are serious about history.

Faith in History

History’s infinite variety of ways of telling may inspire increased faith in its value. We trust our record more because we can see it from the angle of political developments, economic transactions, legislative initiatives, and company policies. We identify historical epochs based on multiple considerations public and private, secular and spiritual.

The General Conference department of Archives, Statistics, and Research is now working with Adventist Review Ministries on an encyclopedia of Adventist history that could include local church board matters, union conference ordination votes, and General Conference session proceedings that thousands of readers are already familiar with from their reporting in Adventist Review daily bulletins.

Idiosyncrasies exposed from one or many of these angles may or may not embarrass or bemuse us. But we value our record keeping. Adventist Review Bulletin 7 of the recently concluded General Conference Session in San Antonio celebrated the brilliance of Mark Kislingbury, official session recorder, who holds a Guinness World Record for his recording work (see p. 53). His is the kind of story that may even inspire exaggerated confidence in our record of history. For we are capable, as humans, of investing more trust than our evaluations deserve, and less focus than appropriate on the God who transcends all our documentation of Him and His involvement in our history. God will always be more than history.

And because He is so awesomely transcendent, human beings must always keep in proper perspective the difference between our documents, secular or religious, and the reality of the infinite, inerrant deity who rules both us and our attempted documentation In fact, it may amuse you that even as I write this commentary I receive e-mail from one of our church’s leaders pointing out a flaw in the Adventist Review’s much esteemed record. Our flaws may range from typos to misinformation to errors in our voted policies. But our Adventist commitment to God’s ultimate definition of history encourages hope in the face of the gap between our current sense and His ultimate understanding.

To put the matter of Genesis more acutely, we do not subscribe to distinctions between the story of Eden’s perfection and the narratives of Abram’s dishonesty in Genesis 12 and 20. We understand that in the end the God of the original bliss-filled and perfect creation is the One who rules through and above all the world’s distractions; we know that “all things are open to His divine survey; and from His great and calm eternity He orders that which His providence sees best.”4 We know that He, the Alpha and Beginning, is guiding us, stumbling at times as we go, to Himself, our glorious and climactic Omega and End.

God, History, and Beyond

At present, like our father Abraham, we do not do everything right. All our godliness, sincerity, and personal integrity still do not guarantee or prove our rightness about a given word on history. We are painfully conscious of what sin has done to our physical powers, mental capacity, and spiritual vision.5

Moreover, we understand that human beings have always had blind spots: even before sin, in their perfection in Eden, Adam and Eve were “students receiving instruction from the all-wise Creator,”6 learning because they did not know. We are compelled to grant that as human beings we will always have blind spots: those who will not come to the cross now will not be ready for school in heaven. For the cross is “the study which shall be the science and the songof the redeemed through all eternity.”7 School in eternity will amaze us at the ignorance in which, on earth, we used to be so confident.

Finally, we are encouraged, in our finitude, by the truth that creatures of all sorts live with limitations. We have heard how Abraham’s faithful obedience in the task of sacrificing Isaac brought enlightenment to unfallen angels.8 They needed to learn because, as creatures, they do not know or underst
and everything. We are thrilled that God can still use us, despite our tragic failings and blunders, to educate His angels. Eternity will be glorious because, among other things, we and they will be able to keep learning together from Him.

Regardless of how long eternity may roll—regardless of how voluminous the documentation of its history—God will always be more than history.

  1. Ellen White, Education, p. 173.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Thiele “has taken passages commonly regarded as patent disclosures of carelessness, if not of ignorance, on the part of Hebrew historians, and has shown them to be astonishingly reliable”—William A. Irwin, “Introduction,” in Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. xvii-xxiv; p. xxii.
  4. Ellen White, Counsels for the Church, p. 77.
  5. See Ellen White, Education, p. 15.
  6. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 50.
  7. Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 115.
  8. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 155.

Lael Caesar, an associate editor of Adventist Review, looks forward to attending Jesus’ school in eternity.