Responsible preaching

It is Thursday. My sermon for the coming Sabbath is ready. In fact, I put the finishing touch to it already a few days ago. I consistently avoid having to work on my sermon at the very last moment. It is something I find far too stressful. I like preaching and have always considered it as a privilege, but also as a great responsibility. Communicating the Word requires faith and commitment, but also knowledge and communicative skills. Sermons have influence, often far beyond the expectations of the preacher. This influence is supposed to be positive. The sermon must be inspiring and uplifting—-helping the listeners to face the challenges of another week.

But sermons can also have a negative impact and even lead the listeners astray. This week two examples of such negative influence caught my attention—one in my own denomination (the Adventist Church) and one in another faith community in the Netherlands.

An Adventist pastor in the New York Conference got into trouble after he told his congregation that a wife is the property of her husband and that the only kind of rape that is justified is that of a wife by her husband. The reaction of the various Adventist church bodies in the USA was as quick as it was required. Someone who feels he can include this horrible (even criminal) idea in his sermon can no longer be a pastor and must no longer have access to the pulpit.

A Dutch minister who is employed by an evangelical organization suddenly became a well-known personality. He preached a sermon entitled “The Great Reset,” a term he borrowed from the World Economic Forum which promotes a new world order. In less than two weeks the sermon has been listened to by some 800.000 people. The sermon was based on Revelation 13—which is about the beast, the image of the beast and the mark of the beast. There was no reference to the powers and phenomena that are usually mentioned in Adventist interpretations of this chapter of the Bible. The Dutch pastor warned his audience that they should keep their eyes wide open and be aware of what is going on in the world. There are, he says, dubious powers operating that will take away our freedom. Recent events in the Corona-era have shown how easily this may happen. The sermon received a lot of publicity—-most of it negative. The organization which employs the pastor has now apologized and made clear that the message this pastor preached was biblically unsound.

Two examples of sermons that should not have been preached! Two examples of preachers who shared a dubious kind of theology. The Adventist pastor was infected by the so-called “headship theology” that not only has convinced many Adventists that female pastors should not be ordained, but that eventually leads to the belief that women are the property of their husbands and can be treated as such. The evangelical pastor in the Netherlands ignored one of the ground rules of preaching, i.e. that a sermon must always be based on the careful exegesis of a biblical passage and not on his own creative ideas. He simply took a few verses of Scripture and linked these to the feelings of unease that he observed in society, and on that basis wildly speculated about possible future developments in society. These speculations contained elements that can only be defined as conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, this is a trend that is present in a major part of evangelical Christianity and—also in the Netherlands, in a growing number of main-line protestant congregations.

Sound theology that refrains from speculation and sensationalism must remain the basis of responsible preaching. It is something the individual preacher should always remember and his/her employing organization must constantly emphasize and demand.

The Word of God or words of men?

During the months of October and November I am having the pleasure of interacting with the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School at Loma Linda, Cal. It is a group of some 50 people which, since the beginning of the Corona-era, still meets every Saturday morning via Zoom. Because of the time difference it is already evening in Netherlands, when I sit down behind my laptop. I am giving a series of presentations, followed by intense discussions, about some men and women who, in past and present, have shaken their church with provocative ideas. In this series about “loyal dissenters” I focused last Saturday on the Roman Catholic, Rumanian-born, Elizabeth Schlussler-Fiorenza, a prominent feminist theologian (b. 1938) and dealt, more generally, with the main concerns of feminist theology. This eight-week project has required a lot of preparation, but it is proving to be a rich learning experience for myself.

One of the things that this current project has once again (and probably more forcefully than before) impressed upon me is that theology always operates from a particular perspective. Feminist theologians very consciously want to start from the experience of women and their struggle to find their place in the church. In her well-known book Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (1985), Professor Fiorenza argues that the Bible has often been used as a weapon against women. Instead, she wants to use it as “a resource for courage, hope, and commitment,” as she seeks to “understand and interpret it [the Bible] in such a way that its oppressive and liberating power is clearly recognized.”

One of the key points of Prof. Fiorenza and of other feminist theologians is their conviction that the Bible originated in a patriarchal context and that feminist theology must deliver it from its male bias. She states: “A feminist hermeneutic cannot trust or accept Bible and tradition simply as divine revelation. Rather it must critically evaluate them as patriarchal articulations since . . . biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men.” (pp x, xi).

In the days that have passed since my Zoom-talk last Saturday evening this particular statement has been milling around in my head. I have asked myself: Can one really say that the biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men, and that this fundamentally qualifies God’s revelation? Does this concept not go against the generally accepted orthodox definition of inspiration? Should we not attach value to the Bible precisely because it does not consist of the words of men, but of the infallible Word of God?

Inspiration is a miracle. It is a divine secret how any communication between heaven and earth can take place. It is one of the great paradoxes of our faith: the Bible is God’s Word but it is also a human product. We must give full credit to both elements. If we take away from the divine aspect, the Bible loses its power and authority, and ceases to be revelation. But if we undervalue the human aspect, we end up with an impossible theory of inspiration that goes against everything we know about the language, structure, and origin of the Bible. Prof. Fiorenza is right in claiming that the Bible is not the words of God but the words of men. Nonetheless, we must stress: it is the Word of God.

The miracle of inspiration is that God speaks to mankind with a human voice. That is the only way the divine Word can reach us. And this human voice is always heard in a particular historical setting, within a specific culture and in the language the addressee can understand. In a patriarchal society that voice has a male tone. In a pre-scientific world that voice does not offer information that will stand the criticism of twenty-first century science. In a Mediterranean world that voice will refer to customs and traditions that do not fit with our postmodern culture. That is why God wants human beings, in any time and at any place, to translate his Word into language that the people of a given time, culture or social category can relate to. Translating the biblical texts anew from time to time, to ensure that God’s Word continues to be available in a language that can be readily understood by the people who read it today, is a holy, God-given task. And translating or interpreting the Word in such a way that it not only reads as the words of men but also becomes the words of women is a genuine extension of the miracle of inspiration. God communicates with all of us. And his Spirit enables us to find the enduring message for all categories of people behind the inevitable dressings of time and culture.

From my reading in recent months, in preparation for the series of presentations for the RBLSS-group, I have gained a better appreciation of the fact that all theology, and thus all approaches to the interpretation of the Bible, happen from a particular perspective. We all read the Bible though our own glasses, which are cut by our background, our gender, our age, our education, and many other factors. We look at things from a particular perspective. It enriches me to try to read the Bible from different perspectives. But there is one important caveat: God’s revelation is so full and deep that all perspectives together do not exhaust the Word that God has for us in the words we read and study.

The Glasgow Conference and the Three Angels’ Message

The three-angels’ message has always been an important concept in Adventist teachings. But never before have I encountered the term as often as in recent weeks. The church’s media are currently full of it. Even the readings of the week of prayer, that is currently underway, are devoted to it. Traditionally, the introduction to the booklet of the prayer readings and the first reading are written by the president of the General Conference–the umbrella organization of the worldwide Adventist Church. In his introduction, President Ted N.C. Wilson writes that there has never been a time when the passing on “with Holy Spirit-inspired power” of “the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14:6-12 was as crucial as it is today.”

There is a problem with this, however, because most church members don’t know exactly, or even know at all, what these six verses from the book of Revelation mean, and, therefore, what they are to communicate to others. And I have often wondered how a few Bible verses that most church members do not understand can be the core of the message of Adventism, as we are repeatedly told. And why every effort should be made to tell other people something that most of them probably won’t understand either.

In a recent article in the Adventist Review–the official journal of the Adventist Church–editor Marcos Paseggi underlines that probably only a minority of the church members can explain to others what the messages of the three angels embrace (Note that this is not a statement from a blogger who may be seen by many as quite “liberal,” but from someone who is co-responsible for the official organ of the church.). By the way, a few very simple small-scale surveys I conducted myself confirmed the massive, worldwide surveys which tell us that among the majority of Adventists the knowledge of Revelation 14:6-12 is extremely limited!

A wealthy fellow believer was so shocked by his discovery that knowledge of the three-angels’ message in the church is very poor, that he decided it was time to thoroughly address this problem. He has agreed to fund the development of a curriculum aimed at teaching children as young as six years old (!) what the three-angels’ message is all about.

While the week of prayer is going on, a very different event is attracting worldwide attention, namely the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland (November 1-12). Delegates from governments from all over the world are meeting to (hopefully) reach new and sharpened agreements to limit global warming, with all its associated catastrophic consequences, to a maximum of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. This is an issue that Seventh-day Adventists should be keenly interested in. After all, for Adventists stewardship is an important element of their faith. For most of them stewardship is a much more understandable and concrete topic than the three-angels’ message. A community of faith that seeks to honor God as the Creator (see the first angel’s message) must first and foremost make this visible in how we deal with what the Creator has entrusted to our care. Paying attention to what is going on in Glasgow would have a lot more meaning for many younger (but also older) Adventist believers than listening to readings about the three angels’ message for the umpteenth time.

What church would Jesus choose?

Last week I read section of a book written by Fr. Dale Tupper. I had never heard of this Catholic priest but the title of his book fascinated me: The Postmodern Catholic (Lionine Publishers, 2020). The topic of postmodernism has long fascinated me, and thus I decided to order this book from Amazon. Unfortunately, its content disappointed me and part of the book will remain unread.

However, I owe Father Tupper my subject for this week’s blog. He reports that at a given time he attended a panel discussion with some 15 local Protestant ministers. These pastors shared stories of their personal journey of faith, followed by a Question and Answer time. One of the questions was: If Christ were to come today, which church would He join?

Of course, this is a very hypothetical question. Nonetheless, let’s just consider it for a few moments. We would assume that Christ would go for a Christian denomination. If so, our Lord would have a rather wide range of denominations to choose from. Nobody really knows how many denominations there are globally. According to Wikipedia there are worldwide at last 45.000 different denominations. Would He find among all these church organizations a church where He would want to attend regularly, or would even want to become a member?

Many fellow Seventh-day Adventist Christians might think that the answer to the question what church Christ would choose is rather easy. Jesus was known as a regular Sabbath worshipper. He even actively participated in the Sabbath worship. So, it seems rather obvious that He would choose a Sabbath keeping denomination and that the Seventh-day Adventist Church would be the most likely candidate. After all, would the One who called Himself the Truth, not want to associate with those of His followers who pride themselves that they have discovered and preach the biblical truth?

But, let’s not be too quick with our answer. What we learn about Jesus’ character and about the ways in which he interacted with people, when He was with us some 2000 years ago, and what we distill from his discussions with the men and women He met and from his teachings and sermons, should give us an indication which church He would select. There is little doubt that He would pick a denomination where everybody is welcome, regardless of education, social status, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation; where love and tolerance are highest on the hierarchy of values; where people practice peace and forgiveness and have learned to be non-judgmental. Christ would choose a spiritual family where serving others comes natural to all members. He would want to be among people of all ages, children, youth and young adults most definitely included—even if He would not like all of their music and would not share all of their interests. And, surely, He would prefer to be in a church community that would be eager to listen to His Word and to the Spirit that He sent them. He would be looking for people who long for a close relationship to His Father—a community of faith that truly enjoys life and that knows how to experience true rest. And He would recognize His true followers from the commitment to the mission with which He entrusted His people.

Is this a picture of the denomination to which I belong? Worldwide? Does it reflect the denomination in my region of the world? In my country? Is this the profile of the local church where I attend and where my membership is registered?

The question which church Jesus Christ would choose, if He were at earth at this moment, is, indeed, hypothetical. But we cannot simply dismiss it. If Christ would not choose my denomination or my local church, why would I?

Therefore, an urgent follow-up question emerges: How do we make our church the kind of community where Christ would feel truly welcome and which He might decide to join it?

PS: It is assuring to know that Christ is used to associate with imperfetc people.

Do we need a new Bible?

Last week King Willem Alexander received the first copy of a new Dutch Bible translation, the NBV21, out of the hands of the president of the Dutch-Flemish Bible Society. I now also have my copy! Yesterday a representative of the Bible Society gave a lecture at a meeting of Dutch Adventist pastors about the translation principles underlying this new translation. The speaker, Cor Hoogerwerf, was, as a specialist in translation and exegesis of the New Testament, directly involved in the work on the new Bible translation, of which all pastors present received a copy as a gift.

Actually, we are not dealing with an entirely new Dutch translation, but rather with a thorough revision of the edition of the Bible that appeared in 2004. It was foreseen at the time that this translation would require further work. Not only would there be new scholarly insights, but there were also the (inevitable) errors that had to be corrected and on numerous points the Dutch language could be improved. When the 2004 edition appeared, readers were asked to send in their comments and criticisms, and make suggestions for improvements. Many did so, so that the translators and the Dutch language specialist had to review several thousand responses. Their work ultimately led to some 12,000 (mostly) minor and (some) major changes. In many cases these changes concern punctuation, but sometimes it may involve changing words or the word order, and being more consistent in the translation of certain Hebrew and Greek words into Dutch equivalents. In a number of places one will find more notable changes. For example, in Isaiah 34:11 “porcupine” is replaced by the name of a bird and in a dozen or so texts “strong drink” is replaced by the word “beer.” Recent archaeological research has shown that Israel had breweries and that “beer” is the most logical translation!

Another aspect generated by far the most discussion, namely, the reintroduction of capital letters (the so-called “reverential capitals”) for personal pronouns referring to the Godhead. These capitals had been omitted in 2004. It was thought at the time that the capital letter was on its way out in written Dutch. This, however, turned out not to be the case, it was now concluded. Moreover, there was a feeling among many Bible readers that the capital letter had be be brought back in order to express our reverence for God. It is a sentiment I often heard in the Adventist faith community as well.

I am pleased with this new translation of the Bible, and suspect that it will fairly soon be used by many Dutch Adventists, including in the pulpit. In the past new editions of the Bible have always been accepted fairly quickly in Dutch Adventist circles, and there is every reason to believe that this will also happen this time. But there will also be some stiff opposition. There are still quite a few people in “our” church (as well as in many other denominations) who want to hold on to the Dutch equivalent of the King James or its revised version, as they see these as “purer.” For most of those who feel this way, this is based on tradition and feeling, and that is understandable. If you are attached to certain expressions, it may be not easy to let go of them. But that the more recent Bible translations would be less “pure” and further from tje original language is not true. On the contrary.

Translation is a complicated process. It is about a faithful rendering of the source text and an easily readable and understandable version in the language of the target group. Different translation methods may be used in this process. Some methods put all emphasis on the original Hebrew and Greek text and want to stay as close to this original as possible. Other translation methods want, first and foremost, to provide a translation that is easy to read and understand. The NBV21 takes a middle course.

A new Bible translation is not only about linguistics, but also about theology. Most Bible readers believe that the Bible is not an ordinary book but somehow has to do with divine inspiration. God has revealed Himself through his Son Jesus Christ, but also through the written/printed Word. He has used people to do this, down through the ages. These people use their own words and literary style to put in writing what they have recognized as God’s message. Since then, those words have been copied over and over again, and translated into countless languages. The Bible is God’s work, but also very emphatically a human work. At every stage of history, and within every culture, the words of the Bible must time and again be given a new sound, so that they appeal to the people for whom they are intended. God has given human beings the task of passing on his words, as best they can. And since knowledge of the original languages is continually increasing and the language of the readers for whom a translation is intended is continually evolving, new translations are always welcome gifts from God that enrich us.

Those who wish to continue to use the older, historic translations- must certainly feel free to so. But let no one claim that it is evidence of piety and of faithfulness to God’s Word to reject newer translations. Therefore, there is every reason to gratefully start using the NBV21!