God, Greeks, and the Great Controversy

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When we think of the Great Controversy, what usually comes to mind is the story of the battle between Christ and Satan.  While this story is certainly true, it is incorrect to limit the Great Controversy to a simple narrative, to be simply counted in a list of doctrines.  It is, rather, a theme that unites and systematizes all of our beliefs as Adventists.

Unfortunately, many limit the potential of this great theme by their uncritical acceptance of, perhaps surprisingly, Greek thinking!

What does Greek thinking have to do with the Great Controversy?  In order to even begin to answer this question, we must first take a very brief look at Greek thought and its results.

Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) described reality as consisting of two worlds, the “heavenly” and the earthly.  The “heavenly” world, which Plato considered to be the “real” world, was incompatible with time and space because in that “heavenly” world there is no time or space.  The earthly world, which consists of the historical and the material world, is actually just a copy or shadow of the “heavenly” world.  God was interpreted on the basis of the heavenly, or “real,” world, rather than His interactions with men.

In this Platonic worldview, God is reflected in the earthly world and even occasionally reaches down Himself with a lightning bolt or two, but He is not interactive: that is, He is not involved in everyday human thoughts, feelings, and events.  Why?  Because the “heavenly” realm is timeless and therefore incompatible with the passage of time on Earth.

A rudimentary illustration of Plato’s worlds

It may come as a surprise to most readers, but Christianity from after the death of the disciples all the way down to our day has been—and I cannot emphasize this enough—heavily influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers. If we compare the doctrines of the Church to raw pieces of data and Greek philosophy to a software program, all of the doctrines of the Christian church (the data) were processed through Greek philosophy (the software program).

How does this affect our view of the Great Controversy? In Plato’s system, history is not essential or important because the real, or “heavenly,” world has no time and space, both of which are necessary for history.  As a result, the Great Controversy, which has unfolded over the course of history, is in one bold stroke eliminated from having any theological significance.

When the Greco-Roman astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (90-168 AD) began his calculations on planetary motion, he made one critical—and fatal—assumption.  He assumed that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all other planets revolved around it, including the sun.

For centuries no one questioned his assumption: instead, scholars simply kept tweaking it when the data didn’t seem to support the Ptolemaic view of the universe. Only in the sixteenth century did Copernicus (1473-1543) dare to question Ptolemy when he proposed that the sun, and not the earth, is in the center of our solar system. When this new hypothesis was tested, previous problems with ill-fitting data disappeared.

Similar to the choice that Ptolemy made centuries ago, the Christian church has made the same fatal assumption with Greek philosophy, which has been used to process our understanding of doctrines and theological issues.  Christian theologians chose “the earth,” Greek thinking, to function as the ultimate center of Christian thought rather than “the sun,” the Great Controversy.

For centuries hardly any one questioned this fatal assumption until the discovery of the Great Controversy theme by our Adventist pioneers.  Unfortunately, on account of the tremendous influence of Greek thinking within Christian thought, the Great Controversy theme has not been discerned as a paradigm equivalent to the position that the sun is the center of our system.  Instead, it has been treated even in our denomination as simply “another one” of our doctrines.

To an extent, we have all fallen prey to Greek thinking. The Great Controversy tells us that our everyday experience falls within a larger story. Our temptations, decisions, and relationships are all part of a cosmic, ongoing conflict between God and Satan. History is not unessential; on the contrary, it is a testament of God’s ongoing interest and involvement with humanity.  But many of us live our lives as though God is still up in His timeless box.

Contrary to what is implied by Plato’s two worlds, God takes a very real interest and has His hand guiding our moment-by-moment human affairs.  In fact, the Bible is from cover to cover thoroughly a record of God interfacing with, pleading with, and saving humanity.  Jesus became flesh and dwelt with us (John 1:1)—His name, “Immanuel,” means “God with us.”  He has not returned to some heavenly, timeless box, either.  He is up in heaven right now (at 11:25 a.m. on Thursday, February 20, 2014, and also when you’re reading it!), working in real-time to intercede for our sins before the Father, and has sent the Holy Spirit to convict and change our hearts.

Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that the Great Controversy is just an interesting narrative.  It is literally the key to developing a correct understanding of our Christian experience and doctrine.