It’s difficult for most Protestants to look back on the actions of the Catholic church in the fourth century A. D. with any enthusiasm. And yet, if my understanding (see the last post for that) is correct, God willed that they should prevail in the struggle to define Christianity. And define it they did, for more than a thousand years. This does not mean that God approved of everything they did. Far from it. But the God we see in the Bible is amazingly practical. He knows, even if we forget it, that human perfection is impossible. They were not going to get everything right.
Knowing that they would not get everything right, he guided them to getting the most essential things right: the canon of scripture and the divinity of Christ. Was it enough? Apparently, for God, it was. He knows the end of the beginning. He knows how flawed human beings are. And in his wisdom, he determined that this was all his true followers were able to understand and accomplish at that time. That’s pretty sobering, at least to me.
But we see this again and again throughout the history of God’s interaction with human beings. He knows that we are dust, that our comprehension and ability to deal with change are severely limited. At Sinai, he knew that the Israelites could not yet comprehend that he was the only God, and so he said to them, “You shall have no other gods before me.” He did not say, “I am the only God.” That comes much later in the Bible, much later in history.
And as we review the history of the Christian church, we see the same thing. Martin Luther did not get everything right. But he did get the most important thing right: righteousness by faith, and others as well. In fact, at every point in the history of the church, as truth has been revealed or restored, it has generally been one or two or a few ideas at a time.
The Anabaptists realized that becoming a Christian had to be a matter of informed consent. The Wesley brothers realized that although we are saved by faith, our conduct still matters. None of these moments got everything right, but each of them advanced our understanding of God’s plan for his people.
If we look at this objectively, then we must realize that it also applies to us. We know that our pioneers did not have everything right. Not only the significance of the ending of the 2300 day prophecy, but also issues like “the closed door,” and evangelizing the world. The process of understanding God’s plan for his people is a continuous one.
Sadly, every movement, and every denomination, tends to regard itself as a final depositary of all revealed truth. “We have the truth,” we say. Perhaps. But if history has any lessons for us, it cautions us that we might not yet possess all the truth. Indeed, if we already possess all the truth, then eternity will be very boring.
It seems to me that we must accept the fact that we do not have all truth. And even if we did, our understanding of that truth may not be complete. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that my understanding of that truth is not complete.
This recognition, that we not achieved total knowledge — not to mention total wisdom, which is quite another thing — should be both humbling and liberating.
I have heard many young pastors asked the question, “Where does our denomination fit in with the other denominations?” They are uncomfortable with the notion that we are simply right and all others simply wrong. They have met many Christians, devout, sincere, and grace-filled, who belonged to other denominations. This understanding, that we Adventists do not have all truth, but that God has given us “present truth,” crucial truths for this time in world history, helps bring that relationship into perspective.
Instead of thinking ourselves superior to other denominations, perhaps we should simply be grateful to them, to thank them for having been pioneers of the truth themselves at earlier times. We should recognize that there are many beautiful Christian people in these other denominations, and perhaps God is keeping them there to safeguard them from some of the extremes that are too often found among us. “Other sheep I have,” Jesus told us, “which are not of this fold.”
Being thankful to the Methodists, the Baptists, the Lutherans, and yes, even to the Catholics for the part they played in preserving and advancing the cause of God does not mean we have to be blind to their mistakes. Neither does believing that we have present truth for this time mean we have to be blind to our own mistakes. To say that each has had a unique part to play, and may well continue to have a unique part to play in the cause of God, takes nothing away from our unique identity and purpose. We can be humble and thankful to all who are on their journey to the kingdom without fear of losing our way.
“But wait,” someone may say, “saying that we have ‘present truth’ unique to this time in its history, aren’t you really saying we are somehow better? Our messages more timely, more essential?”
That’s a fair question, and one I’ll take up in the next blog.