SDA Fundamental Belief Number 2 (Trinity)

There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three coeternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. God, who is love, He is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation. (Gen. 1:26; Deut. 6:4; Isa. 6:8; Matt. 28:19; John 3:16 2 Cor. 1:21, 22; 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2.)

With the exception of  some re-arranging of the Bible texts, the only change made to this fundamental in San Antonio was replacing “He” at the beginning of the fourth sentence with “God, who is love,”. There seem to be two motives for the change, inclusive language (“God” vs. “He”) and adding a reference to love in the statement on the Trinity.

After reading this statement and some of the texts connected with it one of the faculty playfully asked, “If I invited the Trinity to dinner, how many plates should I place at the table?” One response was, “Just one, we are monotheists.” Another suggested, “Three plates, but one chair, and serve three different types of foods.” The struggle to answer a simple question illustrates the difficulty people have had for centuries in articulating the Christian picture of the godhead. Christians are monotheists, which means they don’t believe in three gods (or Gods), yet there is more to be said than simply that God is one (Deut 6:4). If one approaches the issues psychologically one could say that God is one in mind, yet there is a sense of three “personalities” (an analogy that I don’t think the Bible itself actually makes). If God is absolutely one, was Jesus praying to Himself while He was on earth? There is clearly also a social side to the gospel, members of the Trinity (also not a biblical term) can somehow converse among themselves and direct one another.

The bottom line with the Trinity doctrine is that these huge themes can only be approached through metaphor. Everything that we can possibly say about God is inadequate in the ultimate sense. For me, the most important thing about God as three is that it makes eternal love possible. If God were one in the absolute sense, God could be many things but love would not be one of them. Love would not be part of God’s essence. Love, in that case, would be possible only after creation. It would be a quality that responds to the creation. So it is interesting that Muslims, who have an absolute view of monotheism, have ninety-nine names for God, but don’t usually think of God in terms of love. If God is Trinity, then love is essential to God’s nature from the beginning. It is not something that happens only on account of creation, unless the created  universe itself was as eternal as God. John 1:1 clearly states otherwise—at the moment when “all things” were created, the Logos and “God” were already there. As parents know, a couple’s love can be quite self-centered on their own, but with the arrival of a baby, true love becomes complete.

Is the Trinity present in the Old Testament or does only the New Testament point toward it (the word “trinity” and the explicit concept in the FB above are not directly expressed even in the NT)? In our discussion, Genesis 18 was suggested first; the three visitors that came to Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom. Genesis 1 also speaks of God in plural, “Let us make human beings in our image.” And even the very Hebrew word for God (Elohim) is plural. Also in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, when it says that “God is one,” the Hebrew word for “one” (echad) expresses a compound unity. So while it would be inappropriate to say that the Trinity is clearly expressed in the OT, the OT data leaves the way open for the idea.

Is there a Loma Linda perspective on this doctrine? How we understand Trinity is very important to our concept of God. The Bible is clear that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:18-19). The cross of Christ does not occur to placate a wrathful Father or change His mind regarding the human race. God Himself provided the atonement because He loves us (John 3:16-17). All three members of the Trinity are involved in the work of reconciliation, in these matters, as Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). If you have seen Jesus you have seen the Father (John 14:9). So there is no wedge between the Father and the Son. If the Father had come down and lived on this earth as Jesus did, He would have looked and behaved no differently. There is perfect unity in the godhead.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 1 (Holy Scriptures)

“The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.” (2 Peter 1:20, 21; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 4:12.)

As my colleagues and I looked at this fundamental, a number of things stood out. First of all, was the word “infallible.” For some of us, that suggested eerie echoes of the Papacy and the inerrancy positions of some of our Evangelical colleagues. But in fact, when this fundamental was voted (1980), the word was carefully chosen to be a step short of “inerrant.” Adventists wanted a more flexible approach to Scripture than that of “inerrancy in the original documents,” but they didn’t want to imply that the Bible was full of errors, either. There is a balance in the Bible between the divine and the human. While the “Word of God” would be infallible by definition, the Bible was written by human beings and exhibits human characteristics, cultural differences, and at times grammatical mistakes (Book of Revelation). If you’re not familiar with the last point, ask me about it.

In formulating our view of the Bible it is important not only to take into account the assertions about the Bible made by the biblical authors (such as the texts included with the Fundamental above), but also the evidence of the Bible itself. Whatever we mean by inspiration, it does not preclude inspired writers from disagreeing on the order of events in Jesus’ life, writing in different styles and quality of Greek, or emphasizing different metaphors of the atonement. In the Bible God meets us where we are and where we are is rarely the perfect venue for expressing the infinite truth of God. So we need to test our understanding of inspiration, not only against the statements of the Bible on inspiration, but also against the phenomena of how God chose to reveal Himself to human beings.

Example: I would not have expected, on the basis of this fundamental, for God to use an idol as a means of revelation. But then I read Daniel 2 in the original language! Nebuchadnezzar recognized the “image” (Aramaic: tsemel) as something that could and should be worshiped (see chapter 3—also tsemel). In the dream of Daniel 2, therefore, God described the future of the world by means of an idol image. God met Nebuchanezzar where he was in order to move him a step or two in the right direction. We would not expect that on the basis of an absolutist reading of Isaiah 8:20 or John 17:17.

Another important distinction comes in how we read the Bible. It is easy to say, “I take the Bible as it reads.” But then the question arises, “Whose reading is the correct one?” One common way of reading is to understand the Bible to be a static document. Every statement of Scripture expresses exactly what God would say in every other situation as well. In the static understanding, I just need to take the Bible at face value and apply my understanding everywhere. Some call this type of reading “literal,” taking the Bible literally, as if it was not given in a particular language, culture and historical situation. But if we insisted on taking the whole Bible literally, we would still have slaves today, we would execute our children for rebellion against their parents, and we would never wear clothing with a mixture of fibers (to list just a few examples). The reality is, no one takes the whole Bible literally. To read it literally means to pick and choose the texts you wish to emphasize and that is not really taking it literally any more. The texts you choose to emphasize determine the outcome of your study.

But if God meets people where they are, we would not expect the Bible to be static. We would not expect every statement of the Bible to be God’s absolute will for all time. Instead, we would expect to see God meeting people where they are and seeking to move them in the direction He wants them to go. For example, God chose not to confront the issue of slavery head on in the context of the brutal Roman Empire. But through Paul He taught people how to treat slaves the way God treated people in Christ (Philemon). That was a huge and revolutionary step that inevitably led to the recognition that if all people are equal at the foot of the cross, then slavery is not the will of God.

When Paul told wives to submit to their husbands, he was not endorsing spousal abuse, he was radically modifying the marital relationship in the light of the self-sacrificing love of Christ. Submit to a man who would be willing to die for you the way he submits to the Christ who died for him. While the language of the text adopts the common language of submission, it transforms that language in the light of Christ. If all are equal at the foot of the cross, then God’s aspiration for women may be higher than the direct statements of Scripture would suggest. God meets us where we are and seeks to move us toward a goal. This means reading the Bible as a dynamic text that enables our understanding of God’s will to grow along with our capacity to understand. As Jesus said, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now.” (John 16:12, my translation)

Loma Linda University is certainly committed to the primacy of the Bible in determining what is truth. But it is also committed to the integration of all knowledge, and this can only happen when submitted human reason is carefully applied to the evidence of both Scripture and nature/science. As such, the Loma Linda perspective seeks to understand the Bible in its original context, and is observant of distinctions between poetry, narrative, history, prophecy and apocalyptic. It takes the Bible seriously as it reads, but as it reads in a whole Bible. The richness of Scripture is a continual source of developing truth.

But above all else, the Loma Linda approach to the Bible sees in it a “larger view” of God and the cosmic conflict that is an essential context for all 66 books of the Bible. This “larger view” was stimulated by broad reading of Ellen White’s books like Steps to Christ and the Conflict Series. Ellen White encourages the biblical reader to see the entire Bible in the context of the conflict between Christ and Satan. But this is not a reading imposed on the Scriptures. Through history, many great readers of the Bible have also seen this, from Origen, to Dante, to Milton to C. S. Lewis. While not always on the surface, the cosmic conflict is the essential undercurrent of Scripture, without which it addresses merely the human point of view on God and the problem in the universe. Seeing Scripture through the lens of the cosmic conflict is the reason Scripture at Loma Linda is seen more through a healing lens than a legal or punitive one. But the healing side of Adventism must not be used to negate the other (apocalyptic, end-time approach). They are rather like two sides of a coin. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

On the Preamble to the SDA Fundamental Beliefs

Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”

I understand that the original draft of this Preamble was written by Ron Graybill, in hopes of forestalling any trend toward a creed. Ironically, the Preamble is now being used to “tighten up” the wording of many of these Fundamentals to make them harder to “get around.” Concerns about development of a “creed” have grown in recent years. One of the SDA Church founders, James White, was afraid of putting beliefs on paper as the mere act of doing so would become a creed (like Loughborough’s comments in the previous blog). But here we are. The time has probably come for SDAs to consciously defend that what they have produced is not a creed, if in fact Adventists don’t want one.

What is the difference between a creed and a list of fundamental beliefs? For one thing, creeds are usually quite a bit shorter than the SDA Fundamentals. They usually express minimal expectations and are often intended for memorization and recitation in worship. The SDA Fundamentals are far from memorable, even a list of the 28 is difficult for most people to remember. In addition, a creed is something that doesn’t change. It expresses a point of view from a particular point in time. It may be interpreted in different ways, but the wording tends to be fixed. By all these definitions, the 28 Fundamentals probably do not qualify as a creed, at least not yet.

I remember an important conversation with a major church official ten years ago. Based on the Preamble, he stated his belief that the Fundamentals could grow or change, but they could never shrink. I protested that they were probably too long already and that some were more major than others and we should be open to the discovery that we could be wrong on one point or another. In looking at the Preamble, however, I can see where he might have gotten that perspective. The Preamble anticipates changes when a “fuller understanding” is developed or we find better language to express what is already there. I, on the other hand, would understand “fuller” to include subtraction as well as addition, if we decided that a certain concept might be true, but didn’t need to be elevated to Fundamental status. In my view, our understanding should become more accurate and complete, but not necessarily greater in quantity. But it is just such ambiguities in the current formulations that enable discussion and growth in understanding.

When it comes to statements of consensus, the more people that are involved the harder they are to achieve. What usually happens in large organizations is that a few strong leaders cast their vision of what should be, and they usually carry the day. But is that the way the Holy Spirit leads to consensus?

What is the relationship between Fundamental Beliefs and the Bible? A popular phrase, inherited from the Reformers, is “sola sciptura,” meaning roughly “The Bible Only.” But the meaning of that phrase today is often different than it was back then. The Reformers didn’t mean by this that all ideas had to be directly based on the Bible. There are many sources of moral and theological wisdom outside the Bible, and the Reformers recognized and used them. They meant, rather, that the Bible operates like a measuring stick, setting the basic principles and helping people distinguish truth and error in other sources of wisdom. To limit our understanding of theology to what is explicit in the Bible was never the Reformers intention.

A Loma Linda perspective on this Preamble would be to underline its openness to evidence and to science as a source of truth and wisdom. Adventists have never believed in a fixed creed. There has always been the sense that we know in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12), that there is more to learn (Prov 4:18) and that our knowledge will increase along with our effort and our capacity to understand (John 16:12). SDAs, therefore, have been remarkably open to theological and structural development in the past. We have changed our organizational structure at least four times (1861, 1863, 1901, 1903). We believed in a Shut Door (to salvation) at first, but now are an aggressive, worldwide evangelistic movement. We once thought Turkey was the key to understanding the end-time prophecies of the Bible, but we gradually abandoned that view after World War I. We “discovered” righteousness by faith in 1888 and still struggle to implement it in places. To be honest, most of the SDA pioneers (1840s and 1850s) couldn’t have signed on to all 28 of the current Fundamentals. So this Preamble is a nice statement of the “Adventist Spirit” of research, openness to new truth, and growth in understanding.

The 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists

Since the Seventh-day Adventist Church has just completed the process of re-evaluating and re-wording its 28 Fundamental Beliefs (finalizing in July, 2015 in San Antonio), as called for in the Preamble to the Fundamentals, I thought it would be interesting to toss these 28 to my faculty one at a time and see what kind of dynamic that would create. And if you’d ever wanted to be a mouse in the corner at one of our faculty meetings, I plan to give you a chance. We will consider them one by one and I will reflect on that conversation here. The goal will be to post one a week at the blog site (www.revelation-armageddon.com) until we’re done.

Since I mentioned it, we’ll begin next week with the Preamble, which provides the basis for re-evaluating the 28 Fundamentals from time to time. Oddly, when I began preparing for this project a couple years ago, I had great difficulty even finding the Preamble online. Apparently, for some time the official web site of the SDA Church published the 28 without the Preamble, which is odd. There may have been a certain logic to that, since it is not a part of the 28 themselves (I have sometimes called it “Fundamental Zero”). But it is not a throwaway, it is really critical to the whole philosophy by which the Fundamentals need to be understood. I don’t know if I influenced the decision (I complained loudly about his in a number of places), but the Preamble is now once again proudly lodged at the top of the 28 Fundamentals on the General Conference web site: https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf.

Ideally, the fundamental beliefs are not a “creed,” they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. “Here is what Seventh-day Adventists generally believe. We invite you to consider these and decide whether you’d like to join us.” That is a description of how most SDAs look at things. But these days more and more people seem to be treating the Fundamentals as prescriptive, telling us exactly what we must believe. And threatening consequences should we differ in as much as a word.

Such a perspective on the fundamental beliefs goes directly contrary to the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who would say things like, “We have no creed but the Bible,” and “The Bible is our only rule of faith and practice,” and “let us not think that all our expositions of Scripture are without error.” How could an Adventist ever change and grow in the understanding of Scripture unless someone, somewhere, questions something in one of the Fundamentals? To reduce the Bible to a set of propositions that cannot be reconsidered seems the height of apostasy to me.

An early Adventist pioneer, John Loughborough, agreed. In a General Conference session he opined as follows: “The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

In the spirit of Loughborough, the 28 Fundamentals of the Seventh-day Adventist Church begin with a Preamble as follows: “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”

In the spirit of the Preamble, this blog will report discussions of the School of Religion faculty on the Preamble itself and each of the 28 Fundamentals. These discussions will not be prescriptive, telling you what you must believe, but descriptive of what a significant group of Adventist thinkers finds of value in these fundamentals and suggesting ways to understand them better. I can’t promise this process will be a lot of “fun,” but I hope all who read these columns will be drawn closer to God and be more ready for the return of Jesus.

Disappointment with the San Antonio General Conference Session

Last weekend was spent at the Calimesa SDA Church Retreat at Pine Springs Ranch in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. During the Sabbath School time the teacher was addressing the weekend’s theme of “When Things Don’t Turn Out. . .” He was addressing how we should respond when things don’t turn out the way we expect, personally, in local communities, and worldwide. He invited me to be prepared to say something about the General Conference Session and the big thing that didn’t “turn out” there, the vote to give official endorsement to divisions of the church to consider mission as a key factor in decisions regarding women’s ordination. Time ran out before I was able to speak, but I thought my notes there might be useful or encouraging to someone here. My apologies if this blog is annoying to those who might disagree with my conclusions.

Let me begin with the history of ordination. While the word “ordination” appears in the King James Bible, that English word comes from the Latin, it is not found in the New Testament. Ordination as we know it developed gradually over the early centuries and became fixed in the Middle Ages. Ordination of women did not occur then on two grounds: 1) the Bible nowhere required it, and 2) no one had ordained women before, so tradition supported the Bible’s silence on the question. These two reasons also sufficed for the Adventist pioneers, who adopted male ordination from their previous churches. This was not a theological act but a practical one, providing credentials to those who spoke for the church. When I entered ministry in the early 1970s, the traditional situation remained in place and the lack of biblical clarity meant I was neutral to negative on the question when calls to ordain women began in the 1970s.

In the years since, society in many parts of the world has completely changed on the role of women. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, fireman, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. In more and more places today, women fill virtually all roles in the work place except for ministry in churches like ours. Absent a clear “thus saith the Lord” on the matter, a tradition was threatening to present the church as completely irrelevant to society in many parts of the world.

So I took a fresh look at the Bible in light of the new situation. Acts 15 provides encouragement to do that. The earliest church believed that the Bible (the Old Testament at the time) taught circumcision as an unchanging requirement for salvation. But God’s providence in their experience led them to re-read the Bible and open the way for uncircumcized Gentiles to participate in the church. Things that once seemed obvious from their study of the Bible were no longer so in light of the Spirit’s leading. In my own fresh look at the Bible it dawned on me that the Bible nowhere asks the question “Should women be ordained?” It doesn’t address the issue directly. That means that the “answers” people were finding on both sides of the issue lacked the clarity of direct speech from God. Why doesn’t the Bible address the issue directly? What does that tell us about God? Evidently God never addressed the question in Scripture because He could live with the situation as He found it (male ordination). It was not the most important thing to challenge people with in those days. God addressed people on issues when they were ready to hear it (John 16:12) or when the mission required it (Acts 10-15).

This was the conclusion of the majority of members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. For many it was a change of mind. They learned that the Bible does not settle the matter in an absolute sense. Where mission requires it, women can be ordained. Where mission suggests that ordaining women would harm the church in a particular society, it should probably not be done. There were holdouts on both sides who believed the Bible clearly forbade or required universal women’s ordination, but the clearest trend of Bible study was in the direction of mission being the determining factor in any part of the world. That meant the world church allowing local jurisdictions to decide what was the best approach for their areas. This was not a pro-women’s ordination conclusion, it was a pro-mission conclusion. And it seemed to me that this was the only reasonable outcome at the General Conference session in San Antonio (July, 2015). I realize that there are many on both sides who still disagree with me on this. And I affirm them as brothers and sisters who have the same right I do to study and seek the mind of God on this question. Where God has left room for differing opinions, we dare not cut each other off.

Having said this, the denial of the TOSC conclusion and process in San Antonio was heart-breaking for many of us. I was heartbroken for the many women who felt the action showed disrespect to their perception of a call from God to do ministry. I was disappointed for those parts of the world who felt distrusted when their local judgment on the matter was rejected. I felt distrusted and disrespected when my earnest attempts to bring reason into the discussion were summarily dismissed with assertions and condemnation, rather than collegial debate.

But I realize that in the ultimate scheme of things my disappointment and that of others does not matter all that much. If I am right about Scripture and about God, God has been waiting a long, long time to see His people come to their senses on many issues. He has been waiting a long, long time to see healing of the divisions in the universe. He has been waiting a long, long time to see the ministry of women being affirmed by us in the same way He affirms it. If that is true, things in San Antonio didn’t turn out for God either. . .

Review of Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon

A new book is coming out shortly by a couple of friends of mine. I thought you would want to know about it. The book Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon, was designed as an enhancement to the Third Quarter 2016 Sabbath School lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. As such, the book was subject to many constraints. It was held to a brief and fixed length. Each of its thirteen chapters had to be similar in length. And each chapter had to correspond to the topic of that week’s lesson. The format has been a popular one, since many members and teachers are eager to supplement the Sabbath School Quarterly with additional resources.

Given the constraints of the format, I didn’t expect the book to break any new ground. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. This is a landmark book. It not only advocates that every Adventist church should be deeply engaged in its community, but it provides dozens of specific illustrations of Adventist churches around the globe who are doing just that. These kinds of ministries are divided into four types: 1) relief, 2) personal development, 3) community development, and 4) confronting injustice. Colons use a fishing analogy to describe these ministries. 1) Relief is giving a hungry person a fish, 2) personal development teaches people how to fish, 3) community development provides the fishing tools, and 4) social justice makes sure everyone has equal access to the fishing pond.

Gaspar and May Ellen Colon are eminently qualified for the task they take on in this book. For many years she has been in the General Conference Office for Sabbath School/Personal Ministries and Gaspar has been director of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry based at Washington Adventist University. In these capacities they have traveled all over the world encouraging community outreach and observing first-hand the many success stories that are out there. While most churches in the Western world are stuck in neutral, some have actively filled recognized needs in their communities, causing these churches to be highly valued by those outside the church. These success stories are a gold mine of fresh ideas that stimulate thought and provide readers with options that their own churches can consider.

The book is extremely well written and easy to read. The variety of stories keeps the reader’s attention. But the stories are not just random and entertaining, they are structured into a carefully crafted philosophical foundation. That foundation is built on both Scripture and the best scientific evidence of how groups of people relate to each other. While the Colons are not specialists in the Bible, their use of Scripture is measured, solid and persuasive. The stories illustrate how real churches in real communities apply both biblical and scientific principles to real-life problems.

This book is MUST reading, not only for SDA Sabbath School teachers, but for pastors, local and worldwide church leaders and all members who desire that churches make a difference in their local communities.

Combating Terrorism

Recently I presented on the above topic at the first public health conference since the shootings in San Bernardino (which were perpetrated at a social gathering of public health officials). I spoke alongside a couple of muslim scholars representing biblical scholars who are also interested in the Qur’an and Islam. I suggested that Muslims and I share three core convictions that are pertinent to the issue of combating terrorism. I sense that my Muslim co-panelists agreed with me enthusiastically.

The first conviction is that there is a cosmic conflict, or cosmic jihad as Muslims might call it, between good and evil, God and Satan. In texts like Revelation 12, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, Genesis 3 and Job 1 and 2, the Bible draws back the curtain to reveal behind the conflicts of this earth a universe-wide conflict over God’s character and government. Various aspects of this cosmic “jihad” are also clearly expressed in the Qur’an (1:1-4; 7:11-15, 20-22; 15:39; 17:62-65; 25:52; 26:94-98; 30:11-14; 59:19), building on the earlier prophetic revelations in the Bible. This large theme tells me that there is a battle between good and evil at the heart of every religion, including Islam. Every religion has the capacity for good or for evil. To simply say Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of violence is not an adequate analysis. Islam is part of the battleground in the cosmic conflict or jihad. Any analysis of the history of Christianity will affirm the same there. All religions here on earth are battlegrounds in the cosmic conflict.

Second, God is a God of love and love requires freedom in order to be truly love. So human beings have been created with the freedom to love God and each other or to be rebellious and violent. That means that there is no compulsion in true religion. The religion that has God’s approval is one that values human freedom and does not coerce. And a God of love and freedom does not normally intervene to interrupt the consequences of human rebellion. Hence the terrorists have the freedom to do their work with all of its horrible consequences for the innocent as well as the guilty (Gen 2:17-17; 3:11; Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15; John 8:32-36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13; Qur’an 2:256; 4:115; 16:125-128; 17:62-65). Furthermore, the lack of religious freedom in most muslim countries is the work of the evil one rather a manifestation of true faith.

Third, it is a law of life that we become like the God we worship. If we believe that God is arbitrary, punitive, judgmental and severe, we ourselves will become more and more like that. If we believe that God is loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful, we will become more and more like that. In their actions the terrorists betray a horrific view of God, and since they believe that their theology is right, their actions reveal what they think God is like and what God approves. While there are many texts in both the Bible and the Qur’an that have been used to justify such a violent God, both sacred texts climax with a very different picture. The high point of the Bible on this question is John 14:9. There Jesus affirms, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The life of Jesus, in its love, mercy, kindness and self-sacrifice, is a picture of what the Christian God is truly like. Likewise, in the Qur’an, the high point is in The Opening to the Qur’an (al Fatiha), 1:1-4. The character of Allah is there summarized in two words, merciful and compassionate (compare with Exodus 34:6-7). The God of the Qur’an is not a monster, but is gracious and compassionate toward humanity. In fact, this description of God is at the head of all but one of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an and the rest of the Qur’an needs to be read with that picture of God in mind. The two high point passages referenced above have many counterparts in both sacred texts. Violent humans have cherry-picked sacred texts for centuries to justify evil actions. But at the core of the Bible and the Qur’an are affirmations of a gracious God. How one reads is a choice, and we become like the God we worship.

Followers of ISIS and al Qaeda might be comfortable in general with the first point. They would see themselves as God’s true warriors, fighting the cosmic jihad for Him on this earth. But the God that they are fighting for is nothing like the God introduced in the opening phrase of the Qur’an. And they certainly do not respect the freedom of any who disagree with them. Their use of sacred texts is selective in the extreme, and the God they worship has all the characteristics of Satan: He is punitive, judgmental, violent, and hates His enemies. In the service of God it is possible to behave like the Enemy (compare Rev 16:2).

The Status of ISIS

In the wake of the Brussels attack (and Paris and San Bernardino and Istanbul) people are wondering if ISIS is getting too strong to stop. Actually the opposite is the case. I believe that ISIS as a traditional caliphate is on the ropes. The recent attacks in Europe are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Let me explain.

The core theology of ISIS is an eschatology grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. It envisions the end-time re-establishment of the caliphate, a form of government which is ruled directly by God through a designated caliph, the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A crucial element that distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda is the possession of a trans-national territory, the Islamic State. In the theology of ISIS, as soon as the end-time caliphate is established, all faithful Muslims are to come to it and pledge allegiance to the caliph. Leaving it for nearly any reason thereafter is considered apostasy. So the fact that they are now sending people on terror missions to Europe is an act of desperation that goes against their own theology.

By declaring a state, ISIS in a sense planted the seeds of its own demise. To run a state, one is actually forced to govern; to collect taxes and provide services, including the kind of conventional military defense that is necessary to hold and govern territory. Governing territory has taken the bloom off the Islamic State dream. The citizens of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly restive. At the same time, the bumbling alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the Levant is now beginning to close in on all sides. Many cadres of ISIS are deserting their forces and sharing their knowledge of ISIS with its enemies. This gives Western intelligence the location of top leaders, who are being picked off one by one.

As a trans-national entity that governs and wages traditional warfare, therefore, ISIS’ days seem to be numbered. But as a force capable of spreading terror outside the Islamic State, they will probably continue for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, arises, how can Muslims themselves combat terror? What type of theology may be persuasive for those considering jihadism as a way of life?

To be concluded. . .

Can Muslims follow Christ as Muslims?

This is the last in a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gaby Phillips. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

We need to clarify this question before we attempt to answer it. Before the Enlightenment and the subsequent modernity project, there was no concept of religion as something separate from culture and ethnicity. This is why the ancient gods were attached to people groups: the gods of the Babylonians, the gods of the Assyrians, etc. The idea that one could choose one’s religious affiliation is a rather new idea, particularly outside of traditionally Christian lands.

This means that as a Muslim encounters Jesus, his worldview, beliefs, values and practices will be gradually reoriented to reflect his newfound Kingdom identity. Some will express this transformation by removing themselves from association with anything Islamic. Others may choose to retain their birth identity when they become followers of Christ: culturally they remain Muslims but spiritually they are disciples of Jesus, and are no longer attached to that which conflicts with their allegiance to Christ.

This is a choice that is best left to the new believer, since for those of us outside of their context, it is difficult to assess how much they can keep and how much is a compromise that leads to syncretism. So our role is to nurture the new believer and constantly ask questions of clarification that may help them to think deeply about matters of faith, practice and allegiance to God in Christ. We offer them biblical guidance but allow them to choose the path to which God is leading them.

How are we to understand Islam then? Islam is contested territory where God and Satan are both at work, acting from within. For the past twenty years I have witnessed the manifold wisdom of God among Muslims. I have seen redemptive windows in their most important ceremonies. I have seen cues about Jesus that point to him as the Word of God, the Spirit of God, sinless, born as God’s mercy to mankind. I have been able to piece together the story of the Great Controversy from the Qur’an and have used it as a bridge to the biblical witness in which Jesus is central. In the poetry of Rumi I have rescued lines that invite intimacy with God. I have found questions that have triggered meaningful and relevant conversations with Muslims. Questions such as, “what does it mean that Jesus is known as Messiah?” or “do you know what Jesus is doing in heaven right now?” “Why is the Sabbath so important in the Qur’an?” Or “how can ISIS be defeated in the way of God?” That question can lead to the understanding that God’s government excludes the use of force.

Like never before, Muslims are searching for partners in faith who are willing to put an arm around them and point them forward. Sadly, such partners are few, since too many are more interested in denouncing than in restoring.

The current crisis of radicalism is waking up the Muslim world, and according to the Qur’an God has a group, the true People of the Book, who can be trusted and will provide answers. God is pouring out dreams and visions in the Muslim world. In addition, missiological research and anecdotal evidence are showing that God is using what Muslims already know about Jesus as a door opener.

Isaiah 60 gives us a window into the future: the descendants of Ishmael are coming to worship God, bringing the gifts from the land. Because of the faithfulness of God, we can joyfully join him in reaching out to Muslims, knowing that the vision is certain, and it will not falter.

I plead with you, dear reader, to change the conversation with regard to Muslims. Make joining God’s mission the burden of your heart and tongue. You will be blessed!

What about the “Muslim God”?

According to the Bible, there is only one God, the One worshiped by Abraham. Other gods do not exist. Satan and his associates are imposters, God’s rivals in name only. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree on this.

This one creator God is known by various names in different languages and those who worship him in all these languages and cultures have very different ideas of who He is. So while we disagree about his nature, the fact remains that there is only one God, whom we all (Muslims, Jews and Christians) worship with greater or lesser insight into his true character and mission.

Are Muslims worshiping a “different god,” meaning a different spiritual entity? No, that is not even possible; because we do not believe a different god exists, unless we are prepared to believe that Muslims worship Satan unknowingly.

Jesus’ example towards the Samaritan woman is instructive here. He did not tell her, “you worship the wrong God.” Instead He told her: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” And then he led her into a full understanding of who he was in comparison with that which she did not know. This is what I mean when I say that we move from common ground to higher ground.