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Why Can’t I Own Canadians? Grace, the Holy Spirit and the Threat of Fundamentalism, Part II

You may read part one of this conversation here.

    “Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
    —from “The Merchant of Venice”

The devil can do this, and so can his legion of lackeys.
Anyone (as we saw) can call up a key text from scripture in support of owning Canadians.
For that matter, anyone can call up a key text in support of genocide. If I had joined the Nazis, or the Hutu extremists in Rwanda, would that have been okay? Well, the Bible says (Deuteronomy 20:16, 17): “…as for the towns of these peoples…you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them…just as the Lord your God has commanded…”
Under certain circumstances, then, God requires genocide. So joining the Nazis or the Hutus might have been okay. Except that not one of us would agree. Not one of us would stand up for genocide on the basis of one text, or even of several.
Some might explain, “Israel was theocracy then,” as if that settled the problem. But of course it would make matters worse: How can the Bible command genocide (or permit slavery) only when God is directly in charge?
There is an answer to this and related questions, and it is simple—though also, somehow, hard to accept.
The Bible commands genocide only when those who speak for God don’t see the whole meaning of divine grace. It is the same for the Bible’s endorsement of slavery and of punishment by stoning: the problem comes up when those who speak for God don’t understand how radical grace is.
The Old Testament began to understand this. According to Isaiah 52 and 53, God is someone whose true servant makes no violent response to his enemies. He bears the “sin of many,” and makes “intercession for the transgressors.”
This picture anticipates the very one that Paul draws upon in Romans 5: God “proves his love for us” by undergoing suffering and death, through Christ, for the sake of the “ungodly.” It is through such generosity toward those who sin against God, Paul says, that divine grace abounds.
So the whole meaning of grace, or of “radical grace,” comes into perfect focus at the point of the Jesus story. This is the exact meaning of the single best New Testament passage for light on how to read the Bible: God spoke in the past (Hebrews 1:1-3) “in many and various ways by the prophets,” but it is the Son who alone is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Nothing could be simpler, and nothing (apparently) any harder to grasp. Certainly fundamentalists don’t grasp it. And all of us struggle with it all our lives. It is radical grace. It is at once astonishing and counterintuitive.
The disciples lived for a few years in the very presence of such radical grace, in the very presence, that is, of Jesus. But he would return to the Father, and when the time for this was approaching, he promised the disciples an “Advocate.” This Advocate (John 16) would be “the Spirit of truth,” and would “glorify” Jesus by declaring the very things he had not yet been able to teach. (“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus said, “but you cannot bear them now.”)
In Romans 8 Paul seems to identify the “the Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ.” The presence of one is the presence of the other; the leading of one is the leading of the other. And like the author of the Gospel, Paul recognizes (I am citing Ephesians 3 now) that through the Spirit’s teaching function—this function itself, he says, an expression of “God’s grace”—Christ’s followers may learn things they did not know while Jesus was on earth. No one in the Gospel story sees with the clarity of Paul that through Christ “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body” as the Jews. This was “the mystery made known” to him “by revelation,” that is, “by the Spirit”—and it was new. Even Peter and John were initially taken aback by it, or so we learn from Galatians 2. But it was all in accordance with the “eternal purpose” carried out “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
All this constitutes unassailable evidence for the teaching function of the Spirit. The Spirit grants new truth, and the new truth bears witness to Christ. This is how, for new times and places, God casts new light on the meaning of Jesus’ exaltation to “the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). Thus God’s Word remains, through all the years and centuries, God’s Living Word; thus we may gain (if we listen) ever-deeper insight into the meaning of radical grace. The Bible, in Leviticus 25:44 among other places, allows slavery. But slavery is different from genocide in that Scripture nowhere categorically condemns it. Yet there is a consensus, among us all, that this institution is incompatible with the Lordship of Christ. That consensus is testimony to the fact that the Holy Spirit continues, long after the biblical period, to be our teacher and to grant new truth.
So there is such thing as “new light.” I’ll say more in the next installment about how to decide on whether a proposed doctrinal shift should be taken seriously. For now let me only say that in this matter the spirit of the Adventist pioneers has much to teach us.
During the nineteenth century, after all, Adventists feared closing off conversation, and took pains to prevent the formulation of a creed, which they saw as a conversation-stopper. Twentieth century Adventists paid lip service to this fear (by avoiding the word “creed), but developed lengthier and, as it appears, still lengthening, statements of belief. The function of these statements, at least in part, was to control conversation about church teaching, to make that conversation less adventurous and more predictable than it once was.
When the 1980 statement of Twenty-Seven Fundamental Beliefs was voted, the Preamble, an affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s teaching function, was… an afterthought. (Thank God for small favors: it was a providential afterthought.) But then, in 1988, the General Conference Ministerial Association published a book-length exposition of the Fundamental Beliefs and left out (!) the preamble. Now the General Conference session in Atlanta has triggered new worries about whether we can affirm the Holy Spirit’s ongoing witness to Christ.
What we see now, in short, is escalation of a fear opposite to that of the Adventist pioneers. It is a fear that conversation may continue, and that it may take us to paths not yet fully explored. But you can see that this fear, besides betraying the pioneers, is against the Holy Spirit, and against the grace that offers this good gift.
I did not, in the first installment of these reflections, name any Adventist fundamentalists. But in website comments on Part I a few respondents actually self-identified as fundamentalist. And it is certain, I think, that if we don’t reverse direction, many more Adventists could reflect, and even want to reflect, the “key tendencies” of fundamentalism that I described last week.
The whole Bible is “useful,” as 2 Timothy puts it, for “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But not—let this word go forth—not if we resist grace, not if we turn our backs on the Holy Spirit.
Next week Part III: Biblical Realism
The chair of the Adventist Forum board (publisher of Spectrum), Charles Scriven, PhD, is president of Kettering College of Medical Arts and author of The Promise of Peace: Dare to Experience the Advent Hope.

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