What Do Adventists Mean by the Great Controversy Theme

First International Conference on Ellen G. White and Adventist History

Battle Creek, MI, May 15-19, 2002.  ©2002, Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.

Part One: Why We Need the Great Controversy Paradigm


Introduction: Perhaps no subject  is more needed in the Adventist Church at this time than an overview of what Adventists mean by the “Great Controversy Theme (GCT)”.


A. Most every theological argument or tension in our church for the past 50 years would not have happened if all concerned went for their answers within the GCT.


B. We owe it to our church members, old and young, to provide for them the grand picture of the plan of salvation that has been biblically illuminated by EGW.  Why? The GCT will become their first line of defense against (1) the barrage of misinformation coming from former Adventist pastors and scholars and against (2) the fog and divisions within their Sabbath schools and churches that so many are troubled about weekly.


I. So, what do we generally mean by the GCT?


Try it out where you go—the answers vary: 1) the last book in the Conflict of the Ages set; 2) the controversy between good and evil, sociologically, philosophically, politically; 3) The controversy between God and evil forces in this world—Jer 25:31; 4) The controversy between God and Satan, a cosmic conflict; 5) the controversy in every life between Light /Darkness, Christ/ Satan, Truth/Error, etc; 6) But the GCT is all these and more.[1]


II. How relevant is the GCT, or is it only a theological issue for theologians to discuss? 


A. The theological ellipse would have kept our church from its major theological disputes, such as righteousness by faith in 1888 or the atonement and the humanity of Jesus in 1955 to the present.  We’ll look at some of that in Part II.


B. A quick test of whether the GCT is making any difference in a person’s thinking (and thus, his or her life) is to ask: What is the purpose of the gospel?  What are the accusations against God that Jesus answered when He came to this world?  What role do God’s loyalists play in helping God tell His side of the story? What conditions in the church must develop before Jesus can return?


III. The GCT is Ellen White’s distinctive theological contribution.  The GCT not only provides a coherent theological system; it also provides the framework for her distinctive educational philosophy and advanced health principles, as well as other areas of her thought.  In fact, to put it another way, one cannot get the point of her educational principles or her health principles, if one does not understand the deeper purposes of the GCT.


VI. So, what do we mean by the GCT being a “coherent and unique theological system? We mean that theological concepts “grow” out of its organizing principle.


A. I like John Cobb’s (Claremont) way of saying it: “Any developed position is understood best when it is grasped in terms of its essential structure.  This structure in turn can be understood only as the immediate embodiment of the controlling principles of a man's thoughts.” 


After reviewing several seminal thinkers of the twentieth century, he wrote: “In each case, we have seen that the philosophy employed profoundly affected the content as well as the form of the affirmation of faith..  Furthermore, the implication of the whole program is that Christian faith depends for its intelligibility and acceptance upon the prior acceptance of a particular philosophy.  In our day, when no one philosophy has general acceptance among philosophers, and when all ontology and metaphysics are widely suspect, the precariousness of this procedure is apparent.”[2]


B. A coherent theological system, by definition, should rise above conventional paradoxes, tensions, and antitheses.  I wrestled with this concept for years after three years at our Seminary where I was exposed to the paradoxes and presuppositions of conventional theology.  I was supposed to be truly wise when I could bravely hold all of them in some kind of scholarly tension.  And, of course, I was a theologian if I could expound on what other theologians have said for the past 2000 years, proving my credentials by referencing what other theologians have said in all my articles.


C. Then I had the awesome privilege of working for almost two years on the Bible Commentary in the 1950s.  That experience helped me to see that something was implicitly wrong with my conventional theological training.  Working through the Bible day after day with EGW overview, I suddenly began to see coherence; this grinding out of material did not leave me with paradoxes or tensions—it resolved them.


D. A few years later, I began to see more daylight during my doctoral program.  I zoomed in on the subject/object antithesis in philosophy and theology, that constant see-sawing back and forth between objectivism and subjectivism, from the earliest Greek poets and philosophers (Hesiod and Thales, etc) , wrestled with Plato and then Aristotle’s rush into the vacuum left by Plato’s one-sidedness.  Down through Christian thought, I could see the same oscillation between the subjectivists and then the objectivists, each trying to balance out what the others seemed to be overlooking.  At last, I could understand better what Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann were reacting against in the first quarter of the last century.


Today, we have the ultra subjectivists taking over about everywhere.  For them, absolutes never existed, and authority no longer is relevant.  Truth is whatever the faith moment is for you and me, whatever fits our personal value system.[3]


E. When I got my arms around the subject-object way of understanding truth, the noon-day sun appeared after a long cloudy day.  And Ellen White came alive—no longer only my inspiration but now my theological mentor.  I was finally thinking outside of the box that I had been held in for about 15 years of professional life—outside of conventional definitions for good, old words such as faith, grace, righteousness, sin and love. The Bible was a new book, I was outside of the box!


F. I didn’t realize what was happening to me at first.  I just chugged along in the doctoral program.  But one day, another doctoral candidate (a teacher at a Congregational seminary in Yankton, SD) pulled his chair up to mine in the library and asked, “Douglass, what are you reading?” I leaned back and pointed at the rows of books stacked up in my carrel.  “No, we read all those, what are YOU reading?”  I was blank.  I had no idea what he meant. So I said, “Why do you ask?”  “Well, you are in all our seminars.  And we all have something to say.  But you sort of sit back and wait.  And then we turn to you, waiting for your input.  And then you simply put everything altogether and its over. What are you reading?”


G. Then it dawned on me.  It had to be Ellen White.  So I said, “Have you ever heard of E. G. White?” He gave a lame answer as if to say he had. So we got up and went over to that part of the library where a good many of Ellen White books were lined up.  And I showed him some particular ones, especially the Conflict set.  We looked at the cards and found that they had been read often by students.  The next day I went to the local Book and Bible House, bought soft cover copies of DA, SC, MB, and COL and gave them to him.  He left shortly and I stayed for a few more months.  At Christmas time we exchanged cards and his said, “P.S. Do you remember the day when you said that I would find The Desire of Ages to be self-authenticating.  Now I know what you mean.”


VI. The GCT provides a new pair of glasses to look at the biblical evidence.  It constructs a new paradigm with which we look at biblical words such as faith, grace, sin and righteousness and see them in a new relationship to each other, with dynamically fresh definitions.


A. Since the Reformation, Christians have had several paradigms to work with. Some among us have frankly opined that we finally discovered Reformation truths in 1888!  And I ask, which one of the Reformers should we choose in our so-called need to be Reformationist theologians?  Should it be brave Calvin with his Augustinian paradigm (original sin, faith given to the predestined, etc); or brave Luther with his Augustinian paradigm (bondage of will, faith primarily assent, etc); or braver Zwingli with his larger embrace of faith as a transforming experience.  And on it goes. Wrong way to look.


1. They all used the same words such as faith, grace, righteousness, works, and sin, but they all had different definitions, and thus different theologies.  Why different definitions? Because they each had a different theological paradigm that determined their own definitions.


2. The GCT paradigm sets us immediately apart from the Calvinists, Lutherans, etc.  As we will see later, their understanding of grace, faith, and sin, gives them only a limited gospel.  The marvel is that they believe that they alone have the gospel: ask any Evangelical today!


VIII. One of our major problems in the Adventist Church today is the misuse of EGW in theological matters.  We pull her in opposite directions on the very same issue; in our attempts to honor her, we come up with a “balanced” conclusion and call it scholarship and fairness!  No wonder, non-Adventists depict EGW with a “wax nose.”  It is more than a matter of proper context—it is a problem of different groups looking at EGW through different theological paradigms.


IX. The solution?  Instead of imposing a theological paradigm on EGW, let’s listen to her and discover her paradigm.  Her unfolding of the GCT highlights the organizing principle of her theological system.  And eliminates the charge of a “wax nose.”


A. The GCT is the key that unlocks what appears to most all biblical students to be vague, paradoxical, even contradictory.  We will look at a number of examples in Part Two.


B. The GCT employs the theological ellipse as the door to salvation truth.  The ellipse will do for us what hydrotherapy should have done for George Washington—whose physician could not think out of the box of blood-letting and into the box of the germ theory.


B. An ellipse has two foci; a circle has one.  When one focus is pushed too far, the ellipse is gone—the machinery doesn’t function.  In thought, over-emphasizing one focus, automatically diminishes the other.  We end up with two circles, tossing verbal grenades back and forth—the history of philosophy and theology from earliest times.  And the history of our church in the last 40 years.


C. Truth in any area of thought, whether in theology, philosophy, law, music, or has two foci.[4] The point is that neither focus is the totality of truth.  The human need for authority and order, on one hand, and the need for freedom, relevance and meaning, on the other, outlines the basic structure that truth is meant to satisfy. To ignore, or diminish, one focus in the attempt to emphasize the other leads to argument, division, and error.


X. The theological ellipse guards the main concerns of the subjectivists as well as the main concerns of the objectivists.


1. Key words for the Objectivists (conservatives): transcendence, authority, orthodoxy, rootage, law, structure, security and grace—all good words to hold on to. Too often Objectivists emphasize authority at the expense of human responsibility.  Thus, the character of the transcendent God is skewed, faith becomes primarily mental assent or trust, and we end up with various forms of human passivity          


2. Key words for Subjectivists (liberals): immanence, freedom, responsibility, reason, flexibility, meaning, relevance, and personal faith—also good words to hold on to. Subjectivists return the favor by putting reason, feeling, intuition, historical research, etc., in front of revelation.  Absolutes are rarely appealed to.


Today, leading voices no longer ask, “Is it true?” but rather, “Does it work?” Or “What is there in it for me?” instead of “What am I going to do about it?”


                                                                        XI. Ellen White, without formal training, saw through all this with laser precision:

“The progress of reform depends upon a clear recognition of fundamental truth. While, on the one hand, danger lurks in a narrow philosophy and a hard, cold orthodoxy, on the other hand there is great danger in a careless liberalism. [Note the hazard of the conventional either/or standoff] The foundation of all enduring reform is the law of God. We are to present in clear, distinct lines the need of obeying this law. Its principles must be kept before the people. They are as everlasting and inexorable as God Himself. [Note her appeal to revelation/orthodoxy]


 “One of the most deplorable effects of the original apostasy was the loss of man's power of self-control. Only as this power is regained can there be real progress.  [Note her appeal for responsibility as she starts to build the ellipse: “principles” joined with “self control”/responsibility]


“The body is the only medium through which the mind and the soul are developed for the upbuilding of character. Hence it is that the adversary of souls directs his temptations to the enfeebling and degrading of the physical powers. His success here means the surrender to evil of the whole being. The tendencies of our physical nature, unless under the dominion of a higher power, will surely work ruin and death.       The body is to be brought into subjection. The higher powers of the being are to rule. The passions are to be controlled by the will, which is itself to be under the control of God. The kingly power of reason, sanctified by divine grace, is to bear sway in our lives” (MH 129, 130). [ Note the ellipse as she appeals to “reason” in response to “divine grace”]


XII. In practice, the GCT, by its very nature, its scope and purpose (as we shall see in Part II), changes traditional doctrinal disputes (divisive circle) into an ellipse.  By using the principle of the ellipse, each focus finds its treasured truths (for which its adherents once died) safely preserved, even greatly enhanced.  In the ellipse, truth is no longer is seen as the sum of paradoxes.  Truth is the union of components, in such a way, that when one component is not connected to the other, something perilous happens to the meaning of each side of the ellipse.  For example, H2O is another way of saying "water”;  but hydrogen is not more important than oxygen. Without the proper emphasis of each side of the “formula” (or the ellipse), water does not exist.  Another example: RXF does not exist if justification and sanctification are not correctly defined and properly joined, any more than water exists without the proper union of H and O.


XIII. In Part II we will look at a number of Adventist doctrines which have been generally separated into circles and thus the cause for much mischief in the church—and the cause of so much turn-off in our young as well as their parents.  Until we get the ellipse working again through the oversight of EGW, there is no hope for a break through of what it means for Adventists to have a special message for a special time.


         A. The relevancy of the GCT seems obvious when we see/hear fellow church members wrestling with fallacious assumptions or the either/or strawmen which only leave confusion. 


         B. For example, check out the following real-life fallacies of these strawmen:



XIV.  We may become specialists without peer in the cataloguing of EGW words, thought, and practice, or experts in the history of this church—but without a clear presentation of what the messenger’s message is, we all have failed our responsibilities.  We would have failed her and the hopes of honest seekers in our membership worldwide.  We are only half done when we get the container just right. Why? Because the purpose of the container is to hold a special content. When we shy away from the content, we will fulfill her prediction that after her death her own church would make her message of “none effect.”

[1]Three books that focus on the phrase “the great controversy” are H. L. Hastings, The Great Controversy (1858), Joseph Battistone, The Great Controversy Theme in E. G. White's Writings (1978), and John M. Fowler, The Cosmic Conflict Between Christ and Satan (2001).  Hastings’ theme traced the implications of Jeremiah’s announcement that the “Lord has a controversy with the nations” (Jer. 25:31)  With no concept of a cosmic conflict between Satan and God and no insight as to how this cosmic conflict affected various theories of salvation, Hastings focused only on this earth's controversy between right and wrong.  Battistone’s 1978 volume is the first in print that recognized the centrality of the GCT in the writings of EGW.  His method was to permit the Conflict series to reveal how this conflict engaged men and women from Eden to the second advent.  This book is a treasure-house of homiletical gems for Adventist preachers who want the GCT to inform their preaching Fowler is the first, in book form, to develop certain aspects of the cosmic nature of the GCT which he did exceedingly well.

[2]-Living Options in Protestant Theology, pp. 12, 121. (Calvin—Sovereignty of God/Augustine; Brunner—Truth as Encounter/Buber; Schleiermacher—Inner Experience/Spinoza; Pinnock, Sanders, Rice, etal—Process theology/ Whitehead-Hartshorne; Bultmann—Existentialism/Heidegger, etc.)

[3] What is worse, is to hang on to something, bravely believing that truth is always the mean between two evils; that is, find a balance between the right and the left and stay in the middle of the road.  That is a sure prescription for blindness of conviction and theological inertia.  And that is the shortest description of how our church has steered its way through the theological mine fields of the past fifty years.  The point I am making  is that the GCT would have saved us from a multitude of so-called “balanced” committee/consultation reports we have endured in the last 40 years.  A truth-serving theological report from a “balanced” committee is an impossibility, a sanctified oxymoron.  Examples: Palmdale or Glacier View. Everyone went home thinking that at least he or she got something into the final draft. And nothing ever was settled.

[4] In politics—socialism and free enterprise; in music—Bach and Beetles; in economics—Keynesian, government control and free market; in education—content-centered and student-centered; epistemology—idealism versus naturalism (or realism); philosophy/theology—transcendence and immanence, etc.