The Great Controversy theme

The Great Controversy theme: What it means to Adventists

How this central biblical theme brings definitive meaning to every aspect of our theology

Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

When Seventh-day Adventists refer to the "Great Controversy Theme" (GCT) what do we mean?

Some may think of The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, the fifth book in the Conflict of the Ages series.1 Others may think of Jeremiah's announcement that the "Lord has a controversy with the nations" (Jer. 25:31), a theme that H. L. Hastings, in 1858, emphasized in his book, The Great Controversy Between God and Man, Its Origin, Progress, and End. 2

The GCT is more than an historical survey of the battle between Christ and Satan as traced through the events of secular and biblical history, more than an overview of the cosmic conflict as unfolded in certain biblical passages such as Revelation 12, more than an awareness of that struggle within our own lives.

For Seventh-day Adventists, the GCT is the core concept that brings coherence to all biblical subjects. It transcends the age-old divisions that have fractured the Christian church for centuries. It brings peace to theological adversaries who suddenly see in a new harmony the truths that each had been vigorously arguing for. Herein lies the uniqueness of Adventism. That uniqueness is not some particular element of its theology, such as its sanctuary doctrine. Rather, the distinctiveness of Adventism rests in its overall understanding of the central message of the Bible that is governed by its seminal, governing principle the Great Controversy Theme.

A central, governing theme

Every philosophical or theological system builds on a central, governing theme or paradigm. Its central theme becomes that system's core truth and determines all of that system's principles and policies. Stephen Hawking, the remarkable Cambridge physicist (cosmologist), wrote in his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, that should scientists discover the long-sought "theory of everything" to explain the varying mechanisms of the universe, "we should know the mind of God."3 Seventh-day Adventists have been given that a perspective which provides a "theory of everything." It introduces us to the "mind of God." We didn't discover it; it was given to us. We call it the Great Controversy Theme.

How we understand this core theme directly affects how we grasp the intent of biblical writers when they used words such as righteousness, salvation, gospel, etc. The GCT helps us to work our way through centuries of theological confusion over the meaning of such realities as justification, sanctification, atonement, obedience, and works. Without the GCT, all would remain divided over such subjects as the importance of the Old Testament sanctuary service and the New Testament view of Christ as our High Priest/Mediator, the meaning of faith and grace, the place of obedience in relation to legalism, why Jesus came the first time, why He came the way He did, and when He will return.

Regardless of the many reasons one reads the Bible, our study of it will be infinitely more meaningful when it is viewed in relation to the Bible's "grand central thought. Viewed in the light of this thought, every topic has a new significance."4

This "grand central thought" provides unity, coherency, transcendence, and lasting relevance to all the pieces of information found in all the books of the Bible. Each biblical message wherever found, when connected to the Bible's "grand central thought," takes on a "new significance."

What is the grand central thought?

Further, we are not left to ourselves to figure out what is meant by "the grand central thought." "The central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, [which is] the restoration in the human soul of the image of God. From the first intimation of hope in the sentence pronounced in Eden to that last glorious promise in the Revelation 'They shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads,' [Rev.

22:4] the burden of every book and every passage of the Bible is the unfolding of this wondrous theme man's uplifting, the power of God 'who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.' [1 Cor. 15.57]. He who grasps this thought has before him an infinite field of study. He has the key that will unlock to him the whole treasure-house of God's Word."5

How shall we unpack this remark able paragraph? First, this central theme is not just one concept among many. Rather, it is what makes sense of all other biblical subjects or concepts. Because this theme has not been grasped clearly in the past 2,000 years, the Christian church has fragmented into its hundreds of divisions. For instance, a limited gospel is proclaimed when only forgiveness is emphasized as the reason for Calvary. The GCT points higher to our "restoration" and "uplifting" as the purpose of the grace of God, undoing everything that sin has damaged. To focus on restoration in addition to forgiveness changes the whole landscape of theological discussion and the purpose of the gospel. 6

Distinguishing and making the difference

How do we discover this "central theme"? By looking at the Bible as a whole: "The Bible is its own expositor.

Students should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. They should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God's original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. They should understand the nature of the two principles that are con tending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working.... They should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience, how in every act of life they reveal one or the other of the two antagonistic motives, and that they are even now deciding on which side of the controversy they will be found."7

How does the GCT make a difference in understanding the plan of salvation? It focuses on the reason for the controversy and how it will be re solved. The controversy between God and Satan is over whose plan is best for the universe God's will (as expressed on earth in His commandments and yet more fully in Jesus) or Satan's notion of individual self-determination.

The heart of this conflict focuses on motivation and character: Satan has charged (and influenced men and women to believe) that God is unfair, unforgiving, and arbitrary. God's defense has been both passive and active passive in that He has allowed time to proceed so that Satan's principles could be seen for all their suicidal destructiveness.8 Actively, He has revealed His character and trustworthiness in Christ so that all inhabitants throughout the universe as well as on earth are able to make up their minds as to who has been right or wrong in the controversy.9

Thus, as the controversy began in heaven and is played out on earth "it has been Satan's purpose to overthrow the law of God.... To deceive men, and thus lead them to transgress God's law... The last great conflict between truth and error is but the final struggle of the long-standing controversy concerning the law of God. Upon this battle we are now entering, a battle between the laws of men and the precepts of Jehovah, be tween the religion of the Bible and the religion of fable and tradition." 10

How the GCT illuminates

How then do these basic concepts illuminate various aspects of the plan of salvation? 11 Each example below reveals the deep tensions that have caused great divisions within the Christian church but also shows how to resolve these tensions. Truth is not the sum of paradoxes but the union of often separated components. When one component is not connected within the ellipse of truth, something serious happens to even that portion of truth each arguing group holds precious. For example, water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. The question of whether hydrogen or oxygen is more important is meaningless when one needs a drink of water!

The truth about water is that water does not exist unless both hydrogen and oxygen are in proper relationship to each other. The same is true with components in the ellipse of truth. Each of the examples below demonstrates that the tensions that have traditionally divided are now seen as inseparable correlates, when understood in the GCT.12 Even as hydrogen and oxygen are both needed to produce water, each of the warring elements in the examples below are now seen as equally essential if we want truth.

When the GCT's goal of "restoration" is kept free from conventional qualifications, reservations, and paradoxes, the following doctrines stand fresh and powerful and distinctively Adventist as compared to the partial insights of conventional theological systems.

The following relationships need each component to receive equal emphasis in the ellipse of truth. This tends to happen when they are each and all seen in the light of the GCT.

1. The relationship between Christ's work on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers; 13

2. The relationship between the law and the gospel; 14

3. The relationship between Christ as Redeemer and as Ruler. 15

4. The relationship between objective authority and subjective responsibility in the faith experience; 16

5. The relationship between God's work and human work in the salvation process; 17

6. The relationship between imputed and imparted righteousness; 18

7. The relationship between forgiveness of sin and a transformed life in defining genuine Christianity; 19

8. The relationship between the prayer for pardon and the prayer for divine help to resist sin; 20

9. The relationship between Christ's role as Sacrifice/Saviour and as High Priest/Mediator;21

10. The relationship between the new birth and obedience to God's law;22

11.The relationship between repentance and reformation;23

12. The relationship between the work of Christ on the cross and the work of the Spirit within;24

13. The relationship between faith and works;25

For another example of how the GCT clarifies the distinctiveness of Adventist theology we may point to Adventist eschatology. The Adventist eschatological framework sets us apart from every other denomination that speaks of the end of the world because it is governed by the GCT. The distinctly Adventist view is formed by a "mutually supportive cluster" of ideas, including conditional immortality, seventh-day Sabbatarianism, a premillennial historicist eschatology, acceptance of the gift of prophecy in the ministry of Ellen White, teachings about the priestly work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, and a prepared people by His grace.

This "mutually supportive cluster" of ideas that marks Adventist eschatology exists today because the GCT informs all areas of Adventist thought. Every area, because it unfolds from this organizing principle, is coherent and interactive with all other areas. Helping believers to be restored physically, mentally, emotion ally, and spiritually is the purpose of the gospel and everything to do with the Advent. They are people the Spirit has prepared to meet the Coming Lord, the people John foresees in Revelation 14:12: "This calls for endurance on the part of God's people, those who obey God's commandments and are faithful to Jesus" (TEV). When the controversy is over, the purpose of the gospel will be seen as the vindication of the wisdom, power, and love of God. The anthems of heaven ring out:" 'Praise God! Salvation, glory, and power belong to our God! True and just are his judgements!'" (Rev. 19:1, 2, TEV).

1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Narnpa, Idaho: Pacific Prcssi Pub Assr.,1911).

2. In reviewing the bleak history of humanity, Hastings traced Jeremiah's announcement: "We are then to regard this controersy as a controversy between right and wrong, between good and evil . between a just and Almighty ruler and his frail and rebellious subjects" (Rochester, NY: H L Hastings, 1358), 11-17 Hastings revealed no concept of a cosmic controversy between Satan and Christ with supernatural implications involving the security of the universe. Nor did he depict how the controversy affects the conflict between various theories of salvation and hou these theories directly affect their proponents

3. New York: Bantam Books, 1988, 193

4. White, Education (Narnpa, Idaho Pacific Press'"' Pub. Assn., 1903), 125. (True Education, 74) In Ministry, May, 1982, the author developed these thoughts in a biblical overview entitled, "God on Trial."

5. Ibid, 125, 126 ( True Education, 75).

6. "The very essence of the gospel is restoration." Ellen G White, The Desire of Ages (N'ampa, Idaho: Pacific Press1-' Pub. Assn , 1940), 824.

7. White, True Education (\ampa, Idaho. Pacific Press"' Pub. Assn., 2000}, 115. (Education, 190).

8. "It was God's purpose to place things on an eternal basis of security,... that time must be given for Satan to develop the principles which were the foundation of his system of government" White, The Desire of Ages., 759, see \Vhite, Manuscript 57, 1896, in Manuscnpt Releases, (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1993), 18-36).

9. "Jesus came to teach men of the father, to correctly represent him before the fallen children of earth. . The only way in which he could set and keep men right was to make himself visible and familiar to their eyes.... Christ exalted the character of God, attributing to him the praise . of the whole purpose of his ov\n mission on earth, to set men freethiough the revelation of God . .When the object of his mission was attained, the revelation of God to the woild, the Son of God announced that his work was accomplished, and that the character of the Father was made manifest to men." White, Signs of the Times, January 20, 1890. See also Signs of the Times, Dec 30,1889.


10. ____, The Great Controversy, 582; sec also Ibid , xi, Christ's Object Lessons (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900), 415, 416; Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 33.

11. In this brief study, whenever we let Ellen White define her own words without impotting conventional definitions for key biblical definitions that have divided Calvinists, Lutherans, and even Wesleyan Methodists for centuries when we make sure of our contexts when White is quoted, we will be satisfied with her arching clarity and integrated theological thought Ail that happens when we see the coherency of the GCT theme.

12. See Herbert E Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub Assn., 1998), 260, 261,573, for a fuller discussion of these relationships.

13. The Desire of Ages, 671.

14. ____, Christ's Object Lessons, 128

15. ____, Faith and Works, (Nashville, Icnn : Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), 16.

16. ____Christ's Object Lessons, 112. "A nominal faith in Christ, which accepts Him merely as the Saviour of the world, can never bring healing to the soul. "The faith that is unto salvation is not a mere intellectual assent to the truth. He who waits for entire knowledge before he will exercise faith cannot receive blessing from God It is not enough to believe about Christ, we must believe in Him. The only faith that will benefit us is that which embraces Him as a personal Saviour; which appropriates His merits to ourselves. Many hold faith as an opinion Saving faith is a transaction by which those who receive Christ join themselves in covenant relation with God. Genuine faith is life. A living faith means an increase of vigor, a confiding trust, by which the soul becomes a conquering power." The Desire of Ages, 347.

17. ____ , Faith and Works, 26, 27.

18. ____, Steps to Christ, (Hagerstown, Md Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1908), 63

19. ____, Christ's Object Lessons,419, 420. "The atonement of Christ is not a mere skillful way to have our sins pardoned, it is a divine remedy for the cure of transgression and the restoration of spiritual health. It is the Heaven-ordained means by which the righteousness of Christ may be not only upon us but in our hearts and characters." Letter 406, 1906, cited in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:1074.

20. ____, Review and Herald, Nov. 3, 1885

21. ____,The Great Controversy, 488 On page 423, the author notes that the "subject ot the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844 [opening] to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious ." Historically, this biblical "key" illuminated "the past, the present, and the future" and opened the door to the larger, more expansive understanding of the GCT and thus a clearer view of the plan of salvation.

22. Ibid , 468

23. ____, The Desire of Ages, 555, 556; see also Patriarchs and Prophets, 92.

24. ____, Testamonies to Ministers (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923) 442, "The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteoutness by which we are sanctified is imparted. The first is our title to heaven, the second is our fitness for heaven." ____, Messeges to Young People (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Pub. Assn., 1930) 35

25. ____, Patriarchs and Prophets, 153,154

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Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

December 2000

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