Among theologians

It is Wednesday morning. I am sitting at Schiphol Aiorport near Gate B 36, from where one hour from now my flight toi Geneva will depart. I am on my way to the Adventist College for Higher Education, just across the Swiss-French border, at the foot of the characteristic Salève—an elongated mountain range that is often referred to as the ‘balcony of Geneva’. This is the place where tonight the bi-annual European Theology Teachers Convention will start. One might say that I do not really belong to this group. Indeed, I retired a considerable time ago, and I never was a full-time theology professor for any length of time. But I am happy to be  among the group pf Adventist theology professors who are invited for this event and I very much appreciate the fact that the Trans-European Division continues to extend this invitation to me (and allows me to report my expenses to them).

Conferences such as these are extremely useful, not just because of the many interesting papers that are presented around a particular theme, but also because of the opportunity to network and the possibility to talk freely about theological and ecclesial matters that are hot in current Adventism. The theme for our meetings in the coming days is: Pastoral Ministry and Ecclesial Leadership, and thus concerns the relationship between the pastoral ministry and the church administrators. My paper for Friday morning is entitled: The Freedom and Influence of the Pastor.

A few days ago the theology professors of the Adventist universities on the West Coast of the USA met for a few days. Their meetings had as its motto: ‘Conversations among Colleagues’. This could in fact also be used as the sub-theme for our conference, as it points to the atmosphere and the nature of our meetings. Our conferences must provide a safe environment where open conversations can take place, without anyone having any fear that tomorrow some statements, usually taken out of context, will appear on some critical website.

The work of an Adventist theologian is scrutinized through a number of magnifying glasses. Colleagues provide critical comments and indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with what a fellow-theologian says or writes. That is as it should be. The dialogue between theologians sharpens insights, inspires towards further study, and shows that some things may not be clear or that different approaches are possible.

However, the work of the church’s theologians is also put under the magnifying glass of the church administrators. It is a good thing that they want to stay informed about theological developments in the church. It is also essential that they themselves have a theological education, for leading a church is quite different from managing an insurance company. The leaders have the responsibility, when needed, to stimulate certain developments, to put the brakes some developments or, at times, to correct. At the same time, the administrators should never forget that professional theologians play an important role in the continuous process of re-thinking what we believe, what we want to communicate to others, and of helping the church to connect our faith with ecclesial practices and the daily life of the believer. In order to do their work well the theologians need to have the trust of the administrators and must get the space to ask new questions and take another look at traditional answers. Unfortunately, they do not always have that trust and are not always given that space.

The work of the theologians is also viewed critically through the magnifying glass of the church members in general. But they often hand their magnifying glass to people who are mostly on the edges of the church, and who follow the work of the ‘official’ theologians with great suspicion. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who are constantly looking for what they consider to be ‘heresy’ and who find great satisfaction in searching for anything that even slightly differs from the Adventist Truth. A significant number of websites, a flood of dvd’s and various publications warn the members for the dangers that are invading the Adventist Church. I must, however, say that I usually cannot find much spiritual food that nourishes my sould when looking at these websites, dvd’s and publications.

I believe the theologians in our tertiary educational institutions should simply just carry on with their important ministry and not waste too much energy and time in reacting to the critics at the margins of the church. They are seldom listened to with an open mind. The negative activities at the extreme right side of the theological spectrum should perhaps inspire the professional theologians to try harder in making the results of their work more accessible to the church membership at large.

Whatever be the case: the group of theologians that is gathered at Collonges will in the coming days be able to enjoy ‘conversations among colleagues’ in a safe environment.

Easter: The “mother of all facts”

I recently completed a book manuscript about the topic of the resurrection. In this Easter blog, I simply want to quote a few paragraphs from the book that will, if all goes well, be available just a few months from now. If the publisher (Stanborough Press Ltd) follows my suggestion the title will be: ‘I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Our resurrection depends on the great Life-giver who died and was raised—as we remember once again in a special way during the Easter season.

In this book I do, of course, raise the question how we can be sure that Jesus did indeed come back to life? Do we really have hard facts? Can we be sure of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? In my book I devote a long chapter to this crucial question. Below I quote the few final paragraphs of this chapter: 

Speaking of hard facts, there is one fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences:

That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.[1]

N.T. Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.”[2]Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while he earlier flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.

This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchus Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the birth and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions:

How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did notfinally scatter, were notforgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did notreach its infamous end at the cross?

In other words: How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Saviour of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?[3]

Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”[4]



[1]  Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 216.

[2]  Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope(London, SPCK, 2011)., p. 73.

[3]  Pinchus Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg: Fortress Publishing House, 1982), p. 123.

[4]  Ibid, p. 129.

15 million and counting . .

This past week the executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church met in Silver Spring for its second most important annual session: the Spring Meetings. This two-day meeting was also attended by the presidents of the world divisions. (Most other committee members who live outside the USA, as e.g. the union presidents, only attend the autumn meetings in October.) These Spring Meetings were sandwiched between two special conventions. On Wednesday afternoon a conference started about the traditional Adventist view that those who enter military service should, if at all possible, opt for a non-combatant status. It is gratifying to see that this theme is once again put on the agenda.

The Spring Meetings were preceded by a study conference on the issue of membership losses as a result of people leaving the church (the Nurture and Retention Summit). This concerns a very serious problem as the statistics underscore. Dr. David Trim, the official in the church’s head office who is (among other duties) responsible for the compilation of the denominational statistics, reported that since 1965 no fewer than 15.132.555 persons left the church—often within a short time after their baptism. This is a huge number and explains to a major degree why the church has not grown as exponentially as was predicted a few decades ago.

Membership of the Adventist Church now stands at about 21 million. This means that the denomination is a religious organization of considerable substance. There are more Adventists then Jews in the world, and we have now almost surpassed the number of Sikhs. Both groups are normally categorized as world religions! Also, there are now considerably more Adventists than either Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. And while most Protestant churches continue to decrease in membership, Adventism still shows significant growth. These positive indicators should not, however, blind us to the fact that official church statistics show that within a few years after their entrance into the church around forty percent have again disappeared.

And, unfortunately, this is not the whole story. In many countries membership statistics are extremely unreliable. The church books list millions of names of people who are no longer actively involved with the church, and many of them are even no longer alive! And being an official member does not guarantee regular church attendance. Worldwide the percentage of registered members that attend church services on a regular basis is about 60 percent. Moreover, there is a large group (worldwide no doubt several million) of people who grew up in the church but never actually joined.

Clearly, it is a good thing that the church studies this issue and wants to come up with ways of halting this continuous hemorrhage. At the end of the discussions of just a few days ago the president of the General Conference spoke. As we have come to expect, he focused on a number of quotations from the writings of Ellen White—this time from the book Christian Service. These statements were put forward as the remedy of the problem. They emphasize that people must be put to work. When people become active, they will not leave the church.

It is certainly true that being actively engaged in the promotion of an ideal and to be active in an organization are important in giving a sense of involvement. However, I do not believe that this is the key issue. When working on my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventists ‘on the Margins’I saw how complex the problem of church leaving is. I saw ever more clearly that many, either slowly or more suddenly, move towards the back door, because they feel that their church is no longer sufficiently relevant for their everyday life, and because they do not experience in the church the space they need in order to be who they are, with all their questions and doubts.

I would like to suggest to brother Wilson that he should talk more with the people who have left the church, and to read more about this topic and consult more intensely with experts in or outside our denomination. Perhaps this will convince him that the massive exodus from the church has many causes and that people will only respond to his call to become active if they feel truly ‘happy’ in their church. This is, I believe, the question that must be addressed: How can we become a church that the people will experience as a warm spiritual home, where everyone is welcome and where we can all have the space to translate the Christian values and Adventist principles to fit our own situation, in an atmosphere of freedom and respect? Those who become part of such a community will not want to leave and will become active and will, with the support of others, keep growing in their faith.

EGW: Separating fact from fiction

In recent months I have lectured in various places, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere, about something that is currently a hot topic in many Adventist circles. I am referring to Last Generation Theology (LGT). The core idea of this theology’ is that Christ cannot return to this earth until there is a ‘last generation’ that ‘perfectly reflects’ the character of Jesus Christ. I have written a book on this topic[1] that was published about a year ago and this has resulted in quite a few invitations to come and speak about this subject.

The arguments of the supporters of LGT (Last Generation Theology) are to a large extent based on statements by Ellen G. White. This Adventist pioneer has left us with a large oeuvre, about many different topics. She wrote over an extensive period of time during which many of her ideas developed and matured. Because of the sheer quantity of what she has written there is an ever present danger to quote very selectively, when one is in search of support for a particular theory. I have found that the supporters of LGT do indeed often quote extremely selectively. This has prompted me to read very widely what Ellen White wrote about the themes that are relevant for this LGT topic, since my aim is to show that a balanced approach to her writings may not answer all our questions but certainly does not give support to this ‘theology’.

I must, of course, expect that, when I speak about LGT, some people in my audience will accuse me of not giving due respect to Ellen White’s writings. Last Sabbath, when I gave some presentations to the Adventist church in one of our Swedish Adventist churches, one person told me he believes that what Ellen White wrote has exactly the same status as the Bible. This is, however, claiming more for her than she ever claimed for herself and something she actually repeatedly denied. It is, however, a fact that the church is becoming ever more polarized about the person and work of Ellen White. On the one hand there is a group who places her on a high pedestal, while, on the other hand, many others have more and more questions about her work and the nature of her inspiration.

It is more important than ever before that we base our opinion on solid facts. It was not until the 1930’s that the view gained general ground that every word Ellen White ever wrote was inspired. This development must be seen against the background of the growing fundamentalism at that time in protestant America, with its increasing emphasis on the verbal inspiration of the Bible. This fundamentalism also influenced the way many Adventists began to understand the inspiration of the Bible, and also how they regarded the inspiration of Mrs. White. Many were more and more convinced that Ellen White was also verbally (word for word) inspired. Therefore, it seemed logical to collect everything she ever wrote about specific topics and to publish these collections in book form. This was the origin of a significant number of compilations (Counsels for Young People, Counsels on Diet and Food, Counsels for Sabbath School Workers, etc. etc.).

Since then some enemies of the church (e.g. D.M. Canright) as well as people who (at first) were loyal to the church (e.g. Walter Rhea, Ronald Numbers) made significant discoveries about how many of the books by Ellen White actually came about. The accusation of plagiarism became ever more louder.

Gradually much of the mist around these controversies had cleared and the time has come to ensure that careful historical research will reveal the truth. In recent months two important books have come off the press that can provide a lot of clarity. First, there is a book that came out in 2006 in a small edition but did not get a wide distribution, and this has now been re-published. It is written by Dr. Gilbert Valentine, who has carefully analyzed what happened after Ellen White died.[2] A fierce battle ignited between the heirs of Ellen White and the leadership of the church about the question who owned the rights to her writings and who could decide about further publications. The unfortunate fact that Ellen White left a substantial debt when she passed away made things immensely more complicated.

Another book that appeared just a few weeks ago is written by Dr. George Knight, one of the top experts concerning the history of Adventism and also of the person and work of Ellen White. His newest book is entitled: Ellen White: Afterlife.[3] Knight carefully chronicles the history of the reception of, and the approach to, the work of Ellen White in the century that has gone by since her death. It presents the reader with a fascinating survey of the dilemma’s that surfaced and of the hesitations on the part of the leaders of the church to acknowledge that the picture that was presented to the church about the ministry of Ellen White was not always fully true to all the facts.

These two authors have no intention to bring Ellen White down but rather to separate fact from fiction and to help the church members to form a more balanced view of this remarkable women.

(PS.  The simplest way to order these books is through Amazon.com. )

 

 

[1] Reinder Bruinsma, In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology (Oak & Acorn, 2018).

[2] Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (Oak and Acorn, 2019)

[3] George R. Knight, Ellen White: Afterlife (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2019)

“Generous spaciousness”

A Christian Reformed pastor, of Dutch descent (as her name clearly indicates), wrote about the attitude she believes the church members in her denomination should have with regard to the gay issue. Wendy VanderWal-Gritter gave her book the title: “Generous spaciousness.”  This is, she argued passionately, the way Christians should treat others when they do not agree with their own standpoints. They must be “generous” in the “space” they will give one another in dealing with their differences.

I have more and more concluded that this is precisely what my church needs. And with the term “my church”, I refer to all levels of the Adventist denomination. I am a member of a small local church. I know that not all members agree with some of my opinions and with some of the things I say and write. But I appreciate immensely the fact that I sense a “generous spaciousness” rather than critical comments or hostility, because I am not as “orthodox” as some would like me to be. When I look at the Dutch Adventist Church in general, there are many elements that I like, but there are also quite a few places where I sense a definite lack when it concerns this “generous spaciousness.” And when I consider recent developments in worldwide Adventism—especially at the highest level of governance—I must regretfully conclude that this “generous spaciousness” is often sadly lacking.

My influence as a retired church worker is rather limited, certainly internationally. That is only natural. I had my last pay check as an active worker over a decade ago and no longer do I have the opportunity to attend meetings where I can mix with the leadership of the church. I am grateful for the opportunities I still have to travel extensively and preach and give presentations in many places. Earlier this month I preached in the United Kingdom and in Paris, and next Sabbath I am scheduled to be for a full day with the church in the Swedish city of Göteborg. And my books are still being read in many places around the world. However, I am realistic as far as the decreasing impact my activities have.

Recently, a few people have initiated a project in the Netherlands to stimulate a “generous spaciousness” in the Dutch Adventist Church. I have gladly agreed to support the project that has been started. On April 6 there will be a special program, hosted by one of the churches in the center of the country, that will focus on this “spaciousness.” The aim will be to make people around the country more aware of a few initiatives that already try to provide safe havens for free dialogue, where doubts may be expressed without fear of being criticized, and where new ideas as well as controversial issues can be freely discussed. For those who have found those safe havens, where they can experience “space”, this often is now the most meaningful link with their Adventist heritage. The aim of the new initiative is to strengthen these “safe” places and give more prominence to the quarterly vesper services, which provide a type of worship that is “normally” not readily available in the Adventist Church. But a further goal is also to explore ways of increasing the number of places that allow for “generous spaciousness.”

It is true that for some this idea of “spaciousness” is a threat. They want to strengthen the walls around their traditional ways of ”being church” and interpreting the Adventist message. They are afraid that a call for space is a call for the dilution of Truth. I do my best to understand their concerns. I want to also extend “space” to them. But, somehow, they must come to see that far too many members—young and older—are drifting away from our church, because they can no longer breathe in the nineteenth century air of their church environment. They want to open the windows and want breathing space as they think, pray and live their faith.

Come to Leusden on April 6.  Asschatterweg 1, Leusden.  For further information see my EXTRA Dutch blog of MARCH 19. Google Translate will give you the info you need to know.