Author Archives: Reinder

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!

About the theological dangers which supposedly threaten the Church

As I write this blog, the Annual Council of the global Adventist Church is almost over. The council consisted of hybrid meetings, with part of the GC executive committee physically present in the chapel of the headquarters office in Silver Spring (USA), and most of the board members scattered around the world, at often inconvenient times, participating via Zoom. In terms of technology, it is quite a feat, with live streams in five different languages and many fine graphic presentations. I am pleased to see that, despite the corona crisis, the church has managed to stay afloat organizationally, and has suffered relatively limited financial damage. But the pandemic has not left the church untouched. It is estimated that some 17,000 church members succumbed to the virus, including some 800 employees. Anyone who thought that God would protect all faithful Seventh-day Adventists from the Covid-19 epidemic urgently needs to revise his/her theology.

I realize that from a distance I have not been able to get a complete picture of everything that has been discussed and decided in the past few days, but there are a number of aspects about which I am very concerned and which depress me quite a bit. First of all, there is the statistical report by the flamboyantly dressed David Trim, the director of the statistical office and the archives of the Church. Over the last two decades we have become accustomed to the fact that the membership of the Church worldwide each year increased by more than a million people. During the recent pandemic that figure remained at about 800,000. The question is whether this decline is only due to the practical problems during the pandemic or whether it also confirms a negative curve in church growth. More alarming in the statistical report is the graph that shows that of every 100 men and women who join the church, 41 leave again after a shorter or longer time. That frightening percentage is slowly but surely creeping further upward. And the unpleasant reality is that this number is actually even higher, since many drop out without this being registered anywhere.

Church leaving is a complicated issue that most denominations have to deal with and that has many aspects. But I am convinced, it certainly also has to do with the conservative course that the church leadership of the Adventist Church has embarked upon, especially since the current president of the world church took office. This ultra-conservative course was again strongly emphasized during the past few days. It was very clearly expressed in Ted Wilson’s sermon on Sabbath morning, in which he listed no less than fourteen dangers threatening the Adventist Church. He called his sermon “pastoral,” but it was anything but that. Brothers and sisters of non-heterosexual orientation are more likely to have felt that there is no place for them in the church. Many of them wonder why they should stay in a spiritual community where they are not welcome.

One of the important agenda items on Monday also had to do with the “theological dangers” threatening the church. A group of four men, led by the president, was tasked with identifying these threats. Their list of ten points mostly paralleled the sermon of Sabbath morning. Many have already commented on this via the social media, both pro and con. I was particularly struck by a comment on Facebook from someone who noted that it was not he who had left the church, but that slowly but surely the church had left him! We need to keep that aspect in mind when looking at church figures about church leaving.

A burning question concerns the role of the hundreds of theologians associated with the Adventist colleges and universities. The situation is sad and disconcerting: almost all of them are sidelined. The list of the “theological problems” on the agenda of this fall meeting was compiled by just a few confidants of the president of the Church. Guarding the “doctrine” of the church apparently cannot be entrusted to people with solid theological training but depends on the insights of a few top executives. (By the way, it is striking that the list of dangers fails to mention the heresy of Last Generation Theology! One wonders why.) Rightly (but at this point in vain) the previous General Conference president called for the building of bridges between theologians and administrators!

All in all, the past few days have left me rather depressed. But I am not giving up hope that at some point a new wind will begin to blow. If it doesn’t, the Church to which I belong, with all my heart and soul, risks becoming a museum instead of a place where I can recharge myself spiritually, and where my faith connects with the challenges of everyday life.

Seventy years of television

This week, for days the programming on Dutch television has been dominated by a celebration of seventy years of television. We tumble from one retrospective program to the next. And, surely, we can hardly imagine life without television.

In my early teens there was an old house next to the watermill where our family lived. For many years an elderly Amsterdam couple used it as their weekend home. Apparently the candy store they had in the center of our capital city was doing well, because these people not only had a vacation home but were among the first small group that could afford a television set. Every week on Wednesday afternoon they put about ten chairs in a cinema arrangement in the small living room. The curtains were almost completely drawn and the children from the neighborhood were welcome to come and watch a black and white program. It was a much appreciated treat.

Television viewing remained quite expensive for many years. The second-hand black and white set that my wife and I could afford, after having been married for a few years, cost about the same amount as we recently paid for a brand new state of the art smart-TV. This was around the year 1970. The viewing options we enjoyed cannot be compared to today’s program offerings. We could choose from two channels that were only on the air for part of the day.

In the first decades of the 1970s many people doubted whether we should be happy with this invention. In his book The World’s Only Hope, Pastor F. J. Voorthuis (1904-1986) (who was perhaps the most influential leader in the history of the Dutch Adventist Church), told his readers that the invention of television was a clear sign of the times. Daniel 12:4, where we read that in the time of the end knowledge would increase, was now unmistakably being fulfilled.

Among Christians on the right side of the Dutch Reformed world, the advent of television was highly controversial. In the strictest groups, church members were told that they were not allowed to purchase a television, and from time to time church elders would come to inspect whether that rule was being observed. In the so-called Bible-belt, oak cabinets in which a television set could be stored behind doors, became very popular.

In the Adventist Church, believers were urged to be very selective in their viewing. And watching television on the Sabbath (including Friday after sundown) was “not done.” To what extent today this “rule” is still observed is hard to say, but I do not have the impression that it is still a major issue. Being selective in viewing has, however, remained an important principle.

Has television enriched our lives over the past seven decades? There has no doubt been an interaction between the changes in society and developments in what can be seen on TV. The range of offerings has grown exponentially, but there is a lot that I can really only refer to with the word “garbage.” One could say, I guess, that on the whole the use of language has not improved and that morality has changed considerably-and in most cases not for the better. But it is difficult to determine to what extent television has a negative influence on how we think and how we behave, or whether television is of rather a mirror of how our society has evolved.

Meanwhile, for the time being television will not disappear, but other media are very clearly supplanting television especially among young people. Television and the newer media have brought us much that is worthwhile, but a selective use remains essential–not just on Friday nights, but on every day of the week!

Loyalty and Responsible Dissent

Among the people whom I have greatly admired is Dr. Roy Branson. I do not remember exactly when I first met him. It may have been at some event in the 1980’s. What I do remember is that in the 1990’s, when I regularly came to Washington DC to attend the Annual Council of the General Conference and other meetings, Roy would usually make contact with me and invite me to give a presentation in his very popular Sabbath School class in the Sligo Church. This church with a membership, at that time, of more than 2,000 people had the reputation of being rather “liberal”. It was the church where the first female Adventist pastors were ordained to the ministry—notwithstanding the heavy opposition from the denominational head office nearby. Roy’s Sabbath School was non-traditional, and, yes, possibly at times somewhat “liberal.”

Branding Roy Branson as “liberal” would, however, not do him justice. He was a unique, creative, human being. He was a scholar with broad interests—a theologian, an ethicist and an activist. He was born in 1941 in the Middle East in a missionary family. His grandfather—William Henry Branson—was president of the General Conference from 1950 to 1954. Roy’s academic career was partly within the Seventh-day Adventist educational system and partly elsewhere. The leaders of his church did not always appreciate what he had to say, and Roy did not always like what his church was saying on particular issues. This was a definite factor in his role in co-founding the Spectrum journal and serving as its editor for a number of years. But Roy continued to love and serve his church. His last assignment in the denomination was his directorship of the Center of Bioethics at Loma Linda University, while being the associate dean of the School of Religion of this same university.

Our paths crossed again when I was invited in 2014 to come to the School of Religion at Loma Linda University for three months as a visiting professor. Although I do not know the details about how this invitation came about, I have a hunch that Roy was involved in making the suggestion. I look back with great pleasure at the three months that my wife and I spent in southern California at “Loma Linda”. We treasure the warm friendships that we established with a good number of people at that time.

It was a terrible shock when about a year later we heard that Roy had quite suddenly died. One of the ways in which his name lives on is through the initiative of dr. David Larson, who made sure that the sabbath school that was led by Roy Branson was continued under the name Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School (RBLSS). It was a great pleasure to visit and to actively participate a number of times in this class that assembled every Sabbath morning in one of the amphitheaters of the School of Religion. But then . . . Covid struck and for the past 18 months or so, the RBLSS has met on line. During that time I have made several presentations, followed by a discussion, from behind my laptop in Zeewolde. It is not quite the same as being in the amphitheater with some 60-70 people, but the digital variant has served the group quite well and will continue to do so for some time.

Next Saturday morning (California time), which is Saturday evening Dutch time, I will begin with a series of eight presentations in the SBLSS. The series is entitled: Christian Profiles in Courage: Examples of loyalty and responsible dissent. On October 2, I will begin with a general introduction to this theme, and from October 9 onwards I will discuss a number of courageous persons who, through the centuries, showed great courage and loyalty, while disagreeing with their church—beginning with Erasmus. In each case I will seek to relate the issues these people were dealing with, with parallels in Adventism. In many ways this series is also a tribute to Roy Branson, who was indeed a great example of responsible dissent and of loyalty—to himself, the people he cared for, the causes he was passionate about, and the church he served.

For those who might be interested in visiting the RBLSS, see: http://bransonlegacysabbathschool.com