Intermezzo

 

As the first storms of the autumn were pounding the country, I spent, together with my wife, my sister from Canada and her husband, a few days in Friesland (Frisia), one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands. For our short family trip we had chosen an attractive arrangement in a hotel in Makkum, one of the smaller of the eleven Frisian cities. From there we explored the area. Friesland has lots of small, cozy villages and towns and offers of rich collection of small, and not so small, historic churches and a wide choice of museums, while there is no shortage of café’s and restaurants. So, all together the perfect recipe for a few nice days, in spite of wind and rain.

Every visit to Friesland inevitably awakens plenty of nostalgic feelings. This is where, in 1966, I began my career as a pastor, with responsibility for a small group of believers in Sneek, that assembled every week in a small rented room in the center of  town. I also assisted the pastor in nearby Leeuwarden, who had temporarily been incapacitated because of a fall from his roof. On my moped I sped from place to place through the wide open Frisian terrain to visit the members who lived all over the province and to check on the students of the Bible correspondence courses. It did not take long before I discovered that this can be a very unpleasant process in the midst of winter. So, I borrowed 1.600 guilders (about 750 euros) from the local bank to buy my first car: a second hand Renault Dauphine. It had already gone some 70,000 kilometers (quite a respectable amount of mileage in those days). I paid 2,000 guilders, while my salary in those days amounted to a meagre monthly sum of 600 guilders (gross).

These are the kind of nostalgic sentiments that arise whenever I visit the area of my first parish.

Having come home last night (Thursday evening), we are now, on this Friday morning, preparing for a little trip to Belgium. Tomorrow a ‘spiritual congress’ is to be held in Brussels, where Adventist church members from all over the country will meet for a day of fellowship. It will be a pleasant occasion where I meet many people whom I got to know during my rather recent period of activities in Belgium.

I look forward to a good sermon tomorrow morning by Jean-Claude Verrecchia, a Frenchman, who teaches theology at Newbold College in England. In the afternoon I will present one of the workshops. My topic will be the role of doctrines. Why do we have them? How do they develop and how might they change over time? How many do we need? And: are all doctrines equally important? Fortunately, I had already prepared this presentation a few weeks ago. This leaves me today without worries.

We will stay for a few days with friends in Belgium. My readers will understand that this morning I had but little time for writing a new blog. It has therefore remained rather short. Next week there will, I hope, be a blog of ‘normal’ length—and with a little more depth.

 

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I believe . . . what I believe

 

It was an important week for the international Adventist Church. The full executive committee of the denomination—the leaders from the headquarters office and representatives from all over the world—met during the past week in Silver Spring (near Washington DC). A total of well over 300 (mostly) men and women. I tried to follow the proceedings from a distance as best as I could. The constant Twitter message of a Spectrum reporter were especially helpful.

By far the two most important items on the agenda were (a) how to decide about the ordination of female pastors, and (b) the changes in the wording of some of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Concerning (a) it was, after much debate, decided that the 2,000-plus delegates to the General Conference in July 2015, in the Texan city of San Antonio, will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the option that, in the future, the various regions in the world (‘divisions’) will be allowed to determine whether it is appropriate to ordain female pastors in their territory.  This may be a somewhat disappointing result, but, in any case, the discussions during this Annual Council did not end with a final ‘no’.

The current situation is being evaluated in different ways. Some feel that we are now almost back to where we were in 1995 in Utrecht, when the same question was posed to the delegates and when a large majority of these delegates rejected this very same proposal. But many things have happened since 1995 and I am hopeful that we may now see a different result.

As I have repeatedly written in my blogs and elsewhere: I am a fervent proponent of full equality between the genders. There are, I think, no solid theological arguments to deny ordination to women. On the contrary: the gospel is clear that ‘in Christ’ all inequality in the status of men and women before God has been ended. The gospel leaves us no other choice but to allow the  ordination of women. But, we will now have to wait and see. The pro- and the anti-lobby will, no doubt, be very vocal in the coming months. I have noted, though, that the anti-lobby is more and more resorting to rather peculiar arguments. This will, I believe, give many who have so far opposed women’s ordination second thoughts. I was glad to see a new book coming from a decidedly conservative corner that gives clear replies to all possible objections people might have to the ordination of women. (See: Martin Hanna and Cindy Tutsch, eds.: Questions and Answers about Women’s Ordination (Pacific Press, 2014).

The revised wording of some of the Fundamental Beliefs concerned, in particular, article 6 that deals with the Adventist view on creation. In the newly revised version, that will be proposed to next year’s General Conference, it states that Adventists believe in a ‘recent’ creation (i.e. the beginning of everything is not millions of years in the past but was rather some 6-10 thousand years ago), and that the creation happened within a time period that we still experience as a week. It is very clear: every possibility of  considering another option (such as a form of theistic evolution) had to be excluded.

I have much difficulty in accepting this process. Why must our Adventist ‘truth’ be defined in ever more detail? Why can we not be content with a short list of the main tenets of our faith that are decisive for Adventism and then allow the individual members to fill in the details? I see myself as a Christian who has chosen to experience and express his Christian conviction within the framework of the Adventist tradition. I plan to continue doing this. But I have no need—or, to say it  more strongly, I experience it as wrong and as suffocating—when institutions and people ‘from above’ want to proscribe what exactly I should believe.

When it comes to this article six about creation: I believe that God is the Creator of everything. That is the basis of my faith and it informs me about my own identity: I am a  creature with responsibility towards his Creator. But as to when God exactly did his creative work? The Bible tells me that it was ‘in the beginning.’ That is enough for me to know. How did God create? I have many questions. Undoubtedly, science can provide me with some answers. But the core is: everything that exists does not result from mere chance but rather from a divine initiative. Did it take God a week before everything was ‘very good’? I have no idea. The biblical creation story is referred to as ‘authentic’. That, it seems to me, is a good term to use. The biblical story of God’s creation ‘in six days,’ with the sanctified seventh day as apotheosis, is true—and authentic. But does this necessarily imply that every detail is historic?

Some time ago I decided no longer to get overly worried when my church wants to decide what I should believe. I simply believe what I believe. Of course, I keep thinking and studying God’s Word. I also continue to listen to what others—leaders and theologians in my church included—are saying. But, in the end, it is not up to them to determine what I should believe. I believe . . . what I believe.

 

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A deplorable lack of imagination

A few days ago I met Eppe de Haan. After more then 45 years I would not easily have recognized him if I had met him accidentally on the street. Once upon a time he was my student in a small group of first-year theology students at ‘Oud Zandbergen.’ In those days I was in charge of the boys’ dormitory and taught some classes at ‘Oud Zandbergen.’ The ‘seminary’ had been established in 1947 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It was home to a secondary school and a small theology department.

I knew a little about Eppe’s background. I had preached quite a few times, in the 1970’s, in the house church in the village of Bierum (in the north of the province of Groningen). On Saturday afternoon a group of Adventist believers would meet in the living room of the small farm house of the Froma family. Eppe had ended up in Bierum after his widowed mother had remarried with Eppe’s stepfather.

Perhaps Eppe’s move to Oud Zandbergen was more of a flight to escape the dullness of the land just behind the Groninger dyke, rather than a sacred calling.  Anyway, dr. Pieter Sol, the principal of the school, saw possibilities in Eppe that others had not discerned. Sol himself had an education of fine arts and urged Eppe also to seek his future in that direction, since he was clearly artistically gifted.

Today, scores of years later, Eppe is an internationally renowned artist, who has, in particular, made a name for himself as a sculptor. On October 5 an exhibition of his work was opened in the well known gallery Het Depot in the Dutch town of Wageningen. It was a very special experience to meet Eppe en his partner Julia again!

Both Eppe and Julia no longer regard Adventism as their spiritual home. They share this experience with many others who grew up in an Adventist environment. In some cases there is an sudden rupture with the church of their youth. More often we see a gradual widening of the gap. Usually this is not due to a change in theological insights. More often they experience the church as too narrow and feel that what happens in the church and what they hear in the church no longer aligns with the kind of world they now inhabit.

For people like me—who did decide to remain in the church and have continued to support the church—this is a sad state of affairs. But it is a situation for which I have a lot of sympathy.

Through the years it has become increasingly clear that it seems almost impossible to keep (younger and older) people who are endowed with special creativity within the walls of our church community. Though in general many Adventist will more often visit museums than they did in the past, we find few artists in the pews and there are but few members with an occupation in the artistic domain. Surely, there are exceptions: here and there a few art teachers, art historians, graphic designers, journalists and musicians. But Adventist novelists, poets, dancers, actors, fashion designers, painters and sculptors are scarce indeed. Most Adventists educational institutions have few offerings in the arts. Occasionally, an ‘artist’ finds his/her way to our church. But, more often than not, this proves to be a temporary relationship.

Why is this? Is man not created by God ‘after his image’? Would this not lead us to expect that we would pay special attention to the creative abilities that God endowed us with as the bearers of his image? Or is there deep down in our Adventist soul the Puritan, Calvinistic, conviction that in whatever we do in life we must be ‘useful’? Or do we perhaps think that ‘art’ and everything that falls in that category may easily lead as away from God rather than enriching our inner life? Or is there somehow in the Adventist tradition a a fatal lack of imagination?  I fear that this is the case.

But whatever be the case: Eppe—like so many others—still has (and acknowledges) his Adventist roots. In the new book that has just been published about his work (Gijsbert van Es, Eppe de Haan—Dream and Desires, 2014) Eppe tells about his background. Aan Adventist buyer will read this book with special interest. But besides: A visit to the exhibition in Het Depot in Wageningen is a treat for every lover of art (whether he/she is an Adventist or not).

 

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The Bible in Everyday Language

 

Last year we  already got a foretaste of what the newest Dutch Bible translation (The Bible in Everyday Language) would be like. Since last Wednesday we have the complete ‘new’ Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. During the official presentation the first copy was presented to his majesty, the king of the Netherlands.

As was to be expected, the first reactions were quite diverse. On the one hand, there were very positive comments: This is my kind of language; this ensures that the words of the Bible are received loud and clear. On the other hand  people complained that familiar expressions have been removed, and that everything has become very ‘common’. Bible language, they say, should remain a bit solemn.

Much will yet be said about the value of this new translation.  Many will, for instance, question how accurate the translators have been.

As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian I inevitably took an immediate look at some texts that are important in the context of Adventist doctrine. What have the translators done with Daniel 8:14? It must be admitted that the text has been translated in a comprehensible manner (and that was, of course, the aim of the translators), but Adventist Bible exegetes will want to refer to other translations to ensure that the Adventist interpretation is safeguarded. I also checked on Luke 23:43, since I wanted to know how Jesus’ words on the cross to the criminal next to him have been translated. According to this newest translation Jesus said: ‘ Even today you will be with me in heaven!’ Here, clearly, some interpretation is taking place. But then, Adventist readers will be happy with the way another crucial text (Colossians 2: 16, 17) has been rendered.

Every translation of the Bible is also a matter of interpretation. This new translation has been prepared with great care, with a lot of expertise and creativity. The aim was to translate, as faithfully as possible, the meaning of the original text, in such a way that the result would be easily understood by the average reader of 2014. Whereas in the translation that was produced ten years ago 14.000 different words were used, the Bible in Everyday Language only employs ca. 4.000 words. But, as in every translation, there is an element of interpretation. This new translation is not supposed to replace all other, earlier, translations. It remains wise to compare different translations if you want to dig deeper in God’s Word.

No doubt, I will find some instances in this new translation where I had preferred a different wording. Nonetheless, I am very happy with the appearance of this new translation. I am certainly planning to use it. It will, I believe, be a means whereby God’s Word can speak to me in a new way. And I am sure that it will help many people to get more out of their Bible reading. When Jesus was on earth he used the language of the people of his time. This continues to be our challenge: the find contemporary words that will bring the Word closer to the people!

It may take some time getting used to it, but I was immediately inspired by the new version of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
let everyone give praise to you.
May your new world come.
May your will be done on earth,
just as this happens in heaven.
Give us today the food that we need.
And forgive us whatever we did wrong,
for we have also forgiven other people their mistakes.
Help us never to make the wrong choices and to go against your will,
and protect us against the power of evil.
For you are the king,
and you reign with great power.
for always.
Amen
 
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Objectivity is an illusion

 

Last week’s blog was about reading the Bible. The short argument I presented may be summarized as follows: Reading the Bible objectively, and a ‘plain’ reading of the Bible, is simply impossible. We all wear our own spectacles and read from a particular ‘social location.’

Neither can we hope to achieve real objectivity when we study the past. Why do we choose to study  a particular subject rather than another? What sources do we select—either consciously or by chance? Do we have sufficient knowledge to place the things that we study in a broader framework? How prejudiced are we?

Today (before the deadline of September 30) I informed the organizer of the European Theology Teachers’ Convention (to be held in March next year) about the topic of the paper that I would like to prepare. The overall theme of the bi-annual conference (to which I continue to be invited, courtesy of the TED) will be about ‘revival and reformation’. Most of the papers will deal with theological aspects, but I hope to make a historical contribution by focusing on an event that took place in the Netherlands—in the Adventist Church. In 1902 the fledgling Dutch Adventist movement suffered a painful schism.  From a membership of just over 250, about 200 members left the church. A deep controversy had arisen, with a certain Johan de Heer as one of the three main leaders.

After his separation from Adventism Johan de Heer became a sworn enemy of his former brothers and sisters. But as time went on, he developed into a popular revivalist preacher. His movement (Zoeklicht=Search light) still exists and tens of thousands of Dutch evangelicals and others still enjoy singing from the hymnal that he put together.

I intend to use the events around Johan de Heer as a launching pad for dealing with a number of issues, such as the question whether a rigid emphasis on doctrinal points leaves room for a spiritual revival that expresses itself in new forms of piety and a new religious experience. If Johan de Heer had remained an Adventist, would he have been given the space he needed for his later activities? And may we, in fact, expect that the current attempts of the Adventist top leadership to lead the church members towards a ‘revival and reformation,’ can have success when, simultaneously, they place so much emphasis on doctrinal fine print?

While giving some thought to ways in which I might deal with this topic, I realized that I would find it hard, or rather, impossible to look at Johan de Heer objectively. As soon as I see his name, I cannot help but think about all the damage he caused to my church. For me his very name calls forth all kinds of negative images and I must fear that these will continue to play a role as a study my topic in depth.

But then: objectivity is impossible. We can only hope to arrive at a satisfactory picture of what happened when the results of my historical pursuit of the events around Johan de Heer are linked with the findings of others, who look at him from a different perspective. Once again, I sense loud and clear that objectivity is an illusion.

 

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