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Third Quarter 2012 (July–September)
Commentary on "1 and 2 Thessalonians"
Commentary on "When the Lord Descends From Heaven"
It was reported that an Adventist member uttered the following prayer of thanks in public: “God, we don’t understand, but we are grateful because we know that this is Your truth”. He expressed what many people in the pews of the Seventh-day Adventist Church felt while going through Clifford Goldstein’s Sabbath School Quarterly The Gospel, 1844, and the Judgment a few years ago. The lessons were a failed attempt to make Adventists more confident in their unique doctrinal base. This attempt was necessary because of the difficulties implicit in the convoluted system of prophetic interpretation inherited from their Millerite ancestors. Instead of being assured of having enough biblical grounds for their expectations regarding the times of the end and the long-awaited second coming, the people in the pew were unable to comprehend the arguments nor the logic espoused by the author.
Six years later the Adventists are embarking on another study with the goal of strengthening the members’ faith in the Adventist message—a faith which is badly shaken by the delay of the second coming. The two Epistles to Thessalonians constitute the subject of this series, studies prepared by Jon Paulien, dean of the school of religion at Loma Linda University. Of the thirteen weeks of lessons, ten are reserved for the study of 1 Thessalonians, and only three weeks are given to the second epistle. Still, Paulien’s commentary on the later epistle sheds significant light when his take on the first epistle is compared with it.
Jon Paulien wants to help Adventists live ethically in a proper expectancy of Jesus’ second coming, and he sees 1 Thessalonians as being a source of instruction for living morally in the end-times. His general target is the Adventist community at large which is being influenced by the world’s morals. For example, Paulien brings up subject of sexuality and supports his concerns with Paul’s usage of the Greek porneia (1 Thessalonians 4:3). In particular, however, Paulien focusses on a certain category that is peculiar to the Adventist mindset: prophetic calculation and date setting. From his perspective, those involved in such endeavors are losing their sense of urgency and are slipping into complacency and loose morality. In other words, if they have a date set for Christ’s coming, they can take a break from the battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil and thus delay their preparation. Furthermore, the subsequent disappointment when their expectations for His return are not fulfilled leads to disbelief. Jon Paulien writes:
“As we think about prophecy, we must remember that it is not given to satisfy our curiosity about the timing and details of end-time events. Prophecy has an ethical and moral purpose. God designed it to teach us how to live. It is intended to provide encouragement and purpose, especially in the midst of suffering and loss.”
If Paulien were to be consistent, however, he would have to dismiss the prophecy that led the Millerites to October 22, 1844. If, as he contends, the timing of end-time events is not revealed to satisfy the believer’s curiosity, the date that birthed the Adventist movement would have to be rejected. In fact, his fellow contemporary Adventists who try their hand at prophetic calculation are merely following the example of the pioneers of the Adventist Church; condemning these contemporary date-setters without saying a word about the dubious practices of their ancestors doesn’t build trust among the laity.
Next, Paulien deals with non-Adventist views about end-times, entering into dispute with a dispensationalist interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4. Arguing in favor of the Adventist interpretation, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that the evangelical community shares different perspectives on that chapter. He leaves to the reader the impression that there are only two valid interpretations: the Adventist or the dispensationalist view. Apart from the merit of either one of these two perspectives, his tactic leaves, perhaps unintentionally, the impression that in this domain there are only two options: one is right and the other is wrong; one comes from God, the other comes from the devil—a black and white fallacy.
In the Christian and evangelical community at large there is in general a consensus that eschatology (the doctrines related to end-time events) doesn’t constitute central dogma. Christians can hold different eschatological views while mutually accepting themselves as brothers in Christ. The non-negotiable truths which constitute the center are the gospel, justification by faith alone through Jesus Christ’s life, atoning death, and resurrection, while eschatology falls in secondary place. Regarding eschatology, however, there is room for disagreement. This subject is not a black and white issue with salvation being at stake. The identity of being a Christian is given by faith alone in Christ alone.
Being an Adventist, however, is another story. A member cannot hold divergent views regarding eschatology or different systems of interpretaion. He cannot be dispensationalist, amillennialist, postmillennialist, or premillennialist and still be Adventist. He has to embrace the unique eschatological message of the Adventist organization, and Paulien doesn’t fail to mention that only Adventists preach that message. The Adventist identity is tied closely to its eschatology.
At the same time, however, an Adventist is free to believe in different theories of atonement; he can believe in the moral influence theory (see Graham Maxwell’s theology), or he can hold various views about Jesus’ humanity and still remain Adventist. His identity is not tied to these elements which in the evangelical world constitute essential truths. Indirectly this hierarchy of values speaks volumes about differences between evangelical and Adventist systems of belief.
Nevertheless, the biggest problem for Jon Paulien’s analysis of the apostle Paul’s messages to the Thessalonians is generated by his commentary on 2 Thessalonians. He rightfully notices that Paul is dealing with a heresy which in our contemporary setting bears the name of full preterism, the idea that Jesus’ parousia (appearance, second-coming) had already taken place. The solution he sees in Paul’s response, however, is dangerously close to that of liberal or agnostic theologians like the popular writer Bart Ehrman. Paulien’s interpretation portrays a message that puts the two epistles in contradiction.
Bart Ehrman considers 1 Thessalonians to be authentic Paul, since it presents what was, in his view, the belief of the first generation of Christians, the expectation that they would witness the parousia, or Jesus’ appearance in His second coming. In Bart’s opinion, 2 Thessalonians is not Pauline because, according to Bart, its author does not share Paul’s belief regarding the time of parousia. Consequently, he concludes, this is a writer of a future generation not connected to the apostolic community which expected parousia to be a contemporary event. While not going so far as to classify the second epistle as a forgery, Jon Paulien is on a similar track, since from his perspective the second epistle has the goal of placing the parousia beyond Paul’s life and the life of the first community of Christians. According to 2 Thessalonians, this event cannot fall in the lifetime of the first generation because Antichrist must first manifest explicitly, and this apparition is going to appear after the fall of the pagan Roman Empire. This timing obviously removes any possibility that the first generation of believers to whom he writes could be alive at the time of parousia. To remove any shadow of doubt that this is his position, he quotes from Ellen White’s Great Controversy:
“The apostle Paul warned the church not to look for the coming of Christ in his day. ‘That day shall not come,’ he says, ‘except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed’ (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Not till after the great apostasy, and the long period of the reign of the ‘man of sin,’ can we look for the advent of our Lord. The ‘man of sin,’ which is also styled ‘the mystery of iniquity,’ ‘the son of perdition,’ and ‘that wicked,’ represents the papacy, which, as foretold in prophecy, was to maintain its supremacy for 1260 years” (Great Controversy, page 356).
When compared with his commentary on the first epistle, Paulien’s position regarding 2 Thessalonians raises the eyebrows of those who followed his argument closely: What is the issue? Were those in Thessalonica wrong for expecting the parousia later or sooner? According to Jon Paulien, they were in danger at the time of the writing of the first epistle. By expecting the parousia at a later date, they were, according to Paulien, giving in to spiritual lazines, by embracing a “peace and security” worldly mindset (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
What actually prompted the writing of the second epistle, according to Paulien, was that the Thessalonians were wrong in expecting the parousia to be much, much sooner—expecting it to happen in their lifetimes. According to Paulien, the author of 2 Thessalonians tells them that their expectations of a contemporary parousia is deadly wrong. How is this conclusion different from Bart Ehrman’s view that sees a full-blown contradiction between the message of the two epistles in regard to the time of the parousia?
Unfortunately, after finishing this three-month study, the Adventists in the pews will experience again the same confusion they entered into after going through Clifford Goldstein’s study The Gospel, 1844, and Judgment. Jon Paulien leaves them with a perspective on the two epistles that has more in common with the liberal/ agnostic/ atheist view than with orthodox Christianity. He fails to see that Paul doesn’t try to make any prediction regarding the time of parousia; he doesn’t tell his readers to expect it sooner or later, in their lifetimes or after they are dead. In the first epistle he simply shows that there is no sequential entering into the future blessings of Jesus coming; the living believers will not inherit them before those of them who died, but both categories will receive these blessings simultaneously (1 Thessalonian 4:15-18). He speaks generically from the perspective of one who is alive, to an audience that is alive. It’s reading more into the text than is actually there to imply that Paul places parousia in his lifetime.
In the second epistle he deals with a proto-preterist view that was teaching that parousia had already happened (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Paul’s answer is that parousia could not yet have happened because a certain event has to precede it, and this event had not yet occurred: the apparition of antichrist and the apostasy. Besides establishing a temporary order and sequence of events, Paul doesn’t formulate any timeframe; rather, he speaks about antichrist (or spirit, mystery) already present but not yet fully revealed, an explanation which leaves the door open to the future time of revealing: it can be in the time of Paul, or it may be later (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8). Consequently, the question of the timing of the parousia is left unanswered: it can happen in the lifetime of the apostles, or later.
While this Sabbath School Quarterly constitutes an improvement in rapport compared with other studies, Jon Paulien reveals his limitations, his indebtedness to the Adventist perspective. He sees Adventists as unique, gifted in a special way, having an understanding of prophecy and of 2 Thessalonians that makes them the only exegetes able to understand Paul’s message. Perhaps the greatest irony comes from the fact that the contemporary postmodern world likes to hear about secret messages, while Adventists present themselves as those who deciphered Paul’s secret message of 2 Thessalonians—even if this Adventist conclusion contradicts everything Apostle Paul stands for in his first epistle.
When examined closely, Adventists are just one step away from liberal theologians or agnostics like Bart Ehrman who labeled the second epistle as a forgery due to its alleged radical different perspective on the timing of the parousia. It would not be too much or inappropriate to request the Adventist leaders to do their homework better since the timing of parousia is at the center of their name and identity.
Copyright 2012 BibleStudiesForAdventists.com. All rights reserved. Revised June 26, 2012. This website is published by Life Assurance Ministries, Camp Verde, Arizona, USA, the publisher of Proclamation! Magazine. Contact email: BibleStudiesForAdventists@gmail.com.