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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.
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