I am writing this blog in an elegant room on the third floor of the hotel in the German city of Eisenach that is run by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. My wife and I are here, because I have been invited to give a presentation to the members of the AWA.
The acronym AWA stands for Adventistischer Wissenschaftlicher Arbeitskreis. It is an association of German Adventists who meet from time to time to study and discuss relevant topics for contemporary Adventists. AWA might be compared to the American Spectrum/Adventist Forums organization. It is an independent group, but the fact that the president of the North German Union will preach tomorrow morning, is a clear indication that the AWA is not seen as negative or as a group of rebels.
This year’s topic is the outcome of the recent General Conference in San Antonio. What were the crucial trends? What does the future look like after San Antonio? My lecture on Sunday morning will focus on this latter question.
I do not know whether it is a coincident that this year’s meeting is in Eisenach, or whether choosing this place is meant to be a signal. Eisenach is one of the famous Luther-cities in Germany. Looking from our window I se,e at a distance of a few hundred meters, the top of a high hill, with the Wartburg castle—the fortress where Luther took refuges for about a year and where he translated a major part of the New Testament into German.
Luther is seen by most Adventists in a much more favorable light than Calvin and most other reformers. Luther is the great reformer who dared to challenge the mother church. He had the courage to criticize the many things in the church that were patently wrong. After intensive study he had concluded that essential aspects of the gospel were no longer preached and practiced. Against his initial intentions, this eventually led to a tragic split in the sixteenth century church.
Now, five centuries later (the fifth centennial of the Reformation will be celebrated in the Luther Year in 2017), most Protestants not only see the great achievements of Martin Luther but also his shortcomings. And, at the same time, Luther is no longer only seen in a very negative light by all Catholics. There is a widespread consensus that lots of things in the church of Luther’s days needed urgent correction. But for a long time the opinions differed sharply. For most Protestants Luther was a hero, while most Catholics saw him as a apostate rebel who inflicted great damage on his church.
In spite of major reforms, the church is never perfect. This church is semper reformanda (it must constantly be reformed). In the past few years the leadership of the Adventist Church has been calling for ‘revival and reformation’. Simultaneously, there are many members in the pews who also want to see changes and ‘reform’ in their church. But when they speak of change, or ‘reformation’, they mean something quite different. They want to say that their church is in danger of becoming a system that in many ways resembles the system that Luther protested against. They want to emphasize their own freedom and responsibility before God, when they read their Bible and draw their conclusions, without having to accept every syllable of an almost infallible document with 28 detailed Fundamental Beliefs. They refer to a system of church governance in which the members (all members; men and women in full equality) form the basis of authority, rather than a subservience to a strictly ordered hierarchy. I expect that in the next few days we will be talking about that kind of ‘reformation’.
It is no surprise that the call for this type of reform is not welcomed by the church’s bureaucracy. This form of criticism is usually regarded as a kind of rebellion that will damage ‘the church’. But those who keep their eyes on the Wartburg (even though not all share in my current privilege of seeing it with my physical eyes), know that bringing ‘reform’ always takes time and effort, But in the end it is liberating and will help many to more clearly see the core values of the gospel. [However, we must do all we can to ensure that the ‘reformation’ which the Adventist Church needs, will not lead to the kind of fatal split that occurred in Luther’s days.]