Author Archives: Reinder

What kind of church do we want to be?

Adventist leaders might benefit from a study of Dutch church history. The Netherlands have become a very secular country, but its spiritual roots continue to shape at least part of its national identity. Through the centuries religion and church were crucial pillars of Dutch society, and its theologians were respected far beyond its borders. Moreover, Dutch ecclesial life was diverse, to say the least. A striking maxim underscored this: One Dutchman, and you have a theologian; two Dutchmen makes a church; three Dutchmen and there is a schism.

The two southernmost provinces of the Netherlands remained largely untouched by the sixteenth century Reformation and stayed predominantly Roman Catholic until a few decades ago. Most of the country, however, converted to Calvinism. Why the Dutch preferred Calvinism over Lutheranism is a fascinating story, but I am happy they did, for by so doing they provided me with inspiration for this blog.

A parting of the way
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, until some recent reconfiguration, Dutch Calvinism consisted of two major blocs: (a) the Dutch Reformed Church and (b) a wide array of Christian Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk) aspired to be a spiritual home for the entire population. It aimed at providing a religious habitat for a broad range of theological persuasions—all rooted in Calvinism but extending from quite conservative to exceedingly liberal, and everything in between. The Christian Reformed branch (the Gereformeerden), which separated from the main Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, soon suffered numerous further splits, as theology professors and church pastors convinced groups of believers that they happened to be the sole custodians of unadulterated Bible truth. For example: In 1926 a bitter controversy erupted about the question whether the story of the speaking serpent in paradise had to be taken literally! Opinions collided and, once again, a new denomination was born.

Two types of denominational bodies
The Dutch ecclesiastical scene mirrors a general phenomenon in the Christian world. We see two different categories of church bodies: (a) global religious movements that emphasize unity, but allow for a considerable diversity within their ranks, rather than pushing for strict uniformity; and (b) denominations that define themselves very narrowly, both theologically and ethically. Prominent examples among global religious movements that want to keep all theological streams and traditions under one large umbrella are the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans. Compare these with such movements as the Baptists and the Lutherans. The Baptist World Alliance has 253 member bodies—independent entities that call themselves Baptist, spread over 130 countries—all with their own theological distinctiveness. In addition, there are other Baptist groups that have not joined this world alliance. Or take the Lutherans. The Lutheran World Federation is the umbrella for 149 Lutheran denominations. They share their Lutheran roots, but manifest a broad gamut of theological convictions, from quite “liberal” to defiantly “fundamentalist.”

Admittedly, we, Adventists, have also experienced some splits, but they were comparatively few and relatively minor. The most significant was the emergence of the Reform Adventist Movement, which still survives as an independent international denomination with about 40.000 members. Adventists have stayed together to a much larger degree than most other denominational families. But for how long will the Adventist Church succeed in preserving this organizational unity?

I believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a painful dilemma. Thus far the church has been unwilling to choose between the two patterns mentioned above. It has tended to define its theological boundaries ever more narrowly, while at the same time hanging on to the ambition of being and remaining a unified global movement. The leaders demand that all believers, worldwide, share in the same approach to the Scriptures, and expect the full adherence of every Adventist to a comprehensive doctrinal package. They insist on the importance of remaining a global movement, with the General Conference leaders (backed by the quinquennial sessions which they dominate), as the ultimate arbiters of what is truth, and of the policies by which the denomination must be administered. However, church history shows that, in the long run, you cannot have it both ways! You cannot expect that 22-plus million Adventists will interpret the Bible, and will define the church’s teachings, in exactly the same way!

An inevitable choice
I hope my church will—sooner rather than later—realize that staying together as one body (and not being fragmented into numerous denominations, each with its own brand of the “truth”) demands that there be space for different brands of Adventism. Based on a number of key convictions, each of these brands must be developed and expressed in a particular geographical environment, in a contextualized way that is informed by history, culture, and spiritual milieu. The church must encourage a honing of the Adventist version of Christianity to the cultures of the various regions (divisions) of the world, just as unions and conferences must accommodate cultural, ethnic and theological diversity. And local congregations must be intentional about nurturing an openness to differences among their members that will make a local church a real spiritual (and inclusive) community, where people can come, and feel safe, as they are.

Does that mean that anything goes and that anyone can call himself/herself a Seventh-day Adventist? No. Unfortunately, there are extremes on the ‘right’ and on the ‘left’ that have made a caricature of the Adventist rendering of the Christian faith. This unpleasant reality will be with us as long as Adventism stays alive and attracts all sorts of people. It is something we will have to live with, while we help those around us not to be drawn towards the edges.

Increasingly, Adventism is pulled in two directions. A strong, traditional segment insists that we must all believe in the same way and must all obediently submit to the directives of our denominational hierarchy. On the other hand there is an, often anonymous, part of the Adventist community that pleads for breathing space and for freedom to live his/her Adventist faith in an authentic way, in tune with one’s own conscience.

I see just one option if we want to have a church that is, and will remain, a living (and growing) faith community rather than a museum, where the dust gathers until the last visitor turns off the light. It requires staying together around a common theological core, rooted in our Christian past and in our specific tradition. At the same time it demands that we value diversity, also in our theology, and most certainly in the way we practice our faith in the specific corner of the world in which we happen to live.

And, when it comes to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs . . . Let us always remember that we are not saved by agreeing on a mass of doctrinal fine print, but by gratefully embracing God’s grace. After all, we have the certainty of salvation not because we are locked into a solid ecclesial system, but because we belong, now and in the future, to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The shaking and the fishing net

In his sermon during the recent Annual Council, our General Conference president commented on the ‘shaking’. In our Adventist jargon this term refers to a specific phase during the climax of end-time events, just before the ‘close of probation.’ Large numbers of believers will give up on the ‘truth’, turn their back on the ‘remnant’ church—and as a result will be eternally lost.

The concept of the ‘remnant’, and the conviction that ‘probation’ will close, as well as the expectation of an imminent ‘shaking’, raise all sorts of questions. Specifically: When I look at all Bible passages in which the word ‘shaking’ (or a synonym) occurs, I do not find biblical support for the notion of an end-time sifting process in which the body of believers will be starkly reduced. Even many of the traditional Adventist books about the time of the end say very little, if anything, about a shaking. To mention just two examples: in his very detailed 500-page book about the Adventist end-time scenario, Professor Norman Gulley, does not once mention the term ‘shaking’. Neither could I find it in the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology.
The shaking fits seamlessly in ‘last-generation theology,’ but it can only be defended through a combination of some Ellen G. White statements. The popular (and conservative) author Marvin Moore wrote proliferously about the last days. In his book The Crisis of the End Time he devoted an entire chapter to the shaking. It has just one or two indirect references to the Scriptures and relies almost totally on a series of quotations from Ellen White. For Ted Wilson this is hardly a problem, as he is an uncritical promotor of the writings of Ellen White and takes everything she wrote as just as fully inspired as the Bible, and totally applicable to our life today.
It would, however, seem that Wilson has overlooked some statements of Ellen White regarding the time of the ‘shaking’. In his sermon he was adamant that the ‘shaking’ is currently taking place. And he seems determined to do all he can to help this shaking process further along. He urges leaders at all administrative levels of the church, who do not agree with his theological views, to resign from their positions. And all who have doubts about any of the Fundamental Beliefs and/or do not accept the authority of the denominational structure, are no longer welcome in the Adventist Church. They are currently being shaken from their spiritual home. Wilson should, however, review some of the statements of Ellen White about the time of the shaking. In 1882 she wrote that the time for the shaking (or sifting) is ‘not far distant.’ In 1895 she said: ‘We are in the shaking time, the time that everything that can be shaken will be shaken.’

Wilson’s statement about the shaking is—to say the least—biased and opinionated. As I listened to Wilson’s long diatribe, my memory went back to a much shorter sermon I heard a few years ago. Dr. Laurence Turner, emeritus-professor of Newbold College, spoke at a conference of theology teachers. The conference had been negatively impacted by the judgmental attitude of some who strongly disagreed with a colleague about a particular aspect of his sanctuary theology. Some openly wondered: How could this man remain part of the Adventist community when he no longer subscribed to the traditional view? At the close of the conference, during the Sabbath service, Turner preached a great sermon about Matthew 13:47-50—the passage about the parable of the net. His sermon sublimely fitted the occasion.
Christ, we were told, compared his kingdom with the kind of dragnet that catches all kinds of fish: good and bad. The fishermen would pull the net on the shore and then separate the good fish from all that was unfit for human consumption. When comparing the dragnet to the kingdom, Christ emphasized that the kingdom-net inevitably contains all sorts of people, and must therefore be sorted. But that sorting would not happen until ‘the end of the age.’ Then the angels will come to separate those who will enter the kingdom from those who will not!

Wilson may not be happy with all those who have been caught in the Adventist dragnet, and he appears eager to keep some and to get rid of others. To be honest, I at times share in that same kind of feeling. There are many nice people in our church, but there are also men and women I sometimes wished were not there. There are legalistic, extremist, fundamentalist persons who often spoil the community spirit and bring discord, or worse. Sometimes I am glad when some members decide to transfer their membership to another congregation. But I must constantly remind myself that I am not called to do the sorting. That job is reserved for the angels at the end of time.

I have serious doubts that the traditional concept of the shaking is biblically defensible. I am totally sure that, if there is something like a shaking, none of us—Wilson included—is responsible for it. The parable of the net makes this abundantly clear. Earlier in chapter 13 of Matthew the parable of the good seed and the weeds underlines the same principle: There will, inevitably, be a mix of ‘good seed’ and ‘weeds’ (vs. 24-30). Not until the harvest time will the weeds be separated from the good harvest. Actually, most of us would make serious mistakes if we tried to do this. While the plants are still growing, we would often have a hard time to distinguish the good from the bad.
I can understand that, given his rigid ideas and considering the way he reads his Bible and adulates Ellen White, Wilson sees those who differ from him as a serious threat to the church. He must, however, come to realize that even his ‘plain reading’ of the words of Jesus forbids him to push for the separation (the ‘shaking’) of those who are welcome to remain in the church from those who should leave. That is simply not the work of him and his colleagues. God has assigned that task, when the time has come, to the heavenly angels and not to the General Conference!

Lectori salutem

Lectori Salutem. These Latin words sound like a somewhat solemn invocation–and there’s a reason for it. After much hesitation, I have come to a decision. This will be my last weekly blog. I don’t know exactly how many pieces I have written since I started, but I estimate the number to be well over 800. I began this project shortly after I became the president of the Dutch Adventist Church, in late 2002. Every week I posted a blog on the website of the Netherlands Union. It proved to be an excellent means of communicating with the church membership. After I retired at the end of 2007, I switched to my own site to put my (almost) weekly blog online. Since then, I have indeed managed to produce something almost every week–at first only in Dutch, but since 2012 also in English.

As my faithful readers know, most of my blogs were about church-related matters. Even when my active role as a church administrator ended, in many ways the church remained the center of my world. Thus far I have been blessed with fairly good health, and most of my time is still spent on activities directly or indirectly related to theology and church. My 2023 calendar is already beginning to fill up, with deadlines for articles and with appointments in the Netherlands and elsewhere for sermons, presentations and teaching. I also hope to begin work on a new book very soon. But as I recently reviewed my future activities, I felt it was time to wind down a few things. Therefore, this will be my last blog.

In my blogs I have always tried to be open and transparent with regard to my opinion on current issues and developments in the church. This was appreciated by most readers of my blogs, but inevitably some questioned my orthodoxy and sometimes my integrity. The latter group was often quite vocal, but fortunately relatively small, as the hostile critics of my blog usually faded away fairly quickly. All in all, the number of positive responses exceeded the number of cranky or downright nasty ones by at least a factor of ten.

Perhaps some of the approximately four thousand regular readers will be disappointed that I am ending what became a weekly tradition. But at some point everything comes to an end. And I must honestly admit that I sometimes lack sufficient inspiration and struggle to find a new topic. And it does at times cause a bit of stress, when after a week I still don’t know exactly what my next piece will be about.

For now, I’ll just leave the blogs on my site. [And maybe I will add another piece, now and then, when I can't resist the urge to respond to something.]

Many thanks to all my faithful readers.
And, of course, I wish all of you a blessed Christmas season and a happy, healthy and creative 2023.

Reinder Bruinsma
Zeewolde, December 14, 2022

Does God favor Argentina?

Does God favor Argentina?

I am not a soccer fan. I have never attended a soccer match in a stadium. So far, during this World Cup, I have watched maybe 20 minutes of matches on TV. And I look on with great amazement as a frenzied crowd goes wild when their favorite team scores.

Of course, I did follow the Dutch team’s performance in Qatar, and I am aware that the Dutch lost to Argentina, when it finally came down to penalties. (Actually, a strange way to decide a match. To me it looks like a lottery.) One in every three Dutch people watched the Netherlands-Argentina match. That is considerably more than will be sitting in church during Christmas. It does say something about our society. Incidentally, the question remains whether we should have participated in this tournament at all, given the history (read: corruption) surrounding the choice of Qatar, and the way in which this country treated the laborers who had to build the necessary stadiums and other infrastructure.

Disappointment all around! The Dutch did not make it. Louis van Gaal’s dream that the Dutch would become world champions was shattered. But is this disappointment justified? The Netherlands finished as one of the eight best soccer countries in the world. Surely that is a very good result in the 2022 World Cup. After all, you can’t all be the best. [I would love to be the best preacher in our little Dutch Adventist world, but I would also be very satisfied with a spot among the best eight . . . or even the best sixteen...]

Two things in particular have stuck in my mind in recent days. I have great admiration for Louis van Gaal. Not only is he a unique man, who knows how to liven up every press conference with some extradordinary remarks, but with his 71 years he is an inspiration for many older people who doubt whether they are still capable of some special achievement. Van Gaal managed to overcome his prostate cancer and went on to deliver an extraordinary performance.

And then one other thing. There was extensive mention in the newspaper that arrives in my mailbox every morning, that some of the players on the Dutch team place great value on prayer. And I also saw images on television of members of the Argentine team sending up their prayers to heaven before the match. I cannot help but think: They are giving God a hard time. After all, whose prayers will be answered by God? Does He make sure that the Netherlands will win, or does He answer the pleas for help from the Argentines? Which team does God prefer? The dilemma can be compared to praying in wartime. No doubt there are pious Russians now praying to God for victory, so that their boys can return home quickly from the front, but at the same time there are also prayers going up in the Ukraine, begging God to decide the war in their favor. To whom should God listen?

But, anyway: it is nice to see that there are soccer players for whom God still plays an important role in their lives–even if their theology of prayer probably needs some restructuring!

My smartwatch and the teleological argument for God’s existence

Since about two months I am the proud owner of an Apple Smartwatch. I got it for my birthday from my wife, at the suggestion of my son. The idea is, that for a man like me, who is somewhat advanced in age, this smartwatch can help monitor all sorts of health issues. The device not only looks smart, but can–in combination with my smartphone–also do an incredible amount of different things. Using all sorts of sensors, the smartwatch can count the number of footsteps during my daily walk, measure how many stairs I’ve climbed, the exact distance I’ve covered, and the calories I’ve consumed in these efforts. It can monitor my heart rhythm and even make an electrocardiogram (ECG). The smartwatch has an alarm clock and a GPS. It allows me to read my incoming e-mail, take pictures, check the weather forecast, make phone calls, and much more. Of course, I first bought a book to find out what my smartwatch can do. A Bible app would let me read the Bible, but I have yet to install that. [And yes, the watch also tells me what time it is].

By now, I can handle my new watch quite well, but I still have to figure out how to pay with it. Last night I managed to turn off the Siri function, because it can be annoying when the digital Siri-lady suddenly interferes. That happened this past week when, during a Zoom lecture I was giving, Siri volunteered several times that she could not find a certain term!

It is beyond me as a technical and digital ignoramus to understand how so many functions can be combined in such a small device, and then also has space left for a battery. When I look for a good term to define it, I quickly come up with the word “miracle.” And perhaps it is not so strange to think of a word with a theological association, for in the past people have regularly associated theology with watches.

The all-important theological question is, and remains, whether we can prove that God exists. Over the centuries, theologians and philosophers have come up with a number of classical proofs of God. One of these was the so-called teleological argument. The word “teleological” is derived from the Greek word for “purpose” (telos). The things we find in our world do not just happen to be there, but they have a purpose, and they were made by someone for that purpose. This type of argument for the existence of God will forever be associated with the name of William Paley (1743-1805), a British philosopher and theologian. He became best known for his treatment of the existence of God in his work Natural Theology, in which he used the analogy of the watchmaker. According to Paley, a watch is so complicated that it cannot have come about by chance. There must be a watchmaker. And that applies not only to a watch, but also to the whole world. And, therefore, we do have to assume that there is a “world maker”: God.

Many opponents of the theory of evolution still point to the fact that everything we see in nature shows evidence of “design”, and that, therefore, there must be a (divine) Designer. But nowadays, people generally don’t place much value on the classical proofs of God’s existence, and that includes Paley’s version of the teleological argument. In discussions with atheist friends, it makes little impression. I fear that if I brought up the watch argument, with reference to the “miracle” of my smartwatch, the response would be that my smartwatch does not point to God but to the miracle workers at Apple.

Even owners of miracle devices like the smartwatch will have to acknowledge that there is no “evidence” that God exists. But it is plausible that there is a Maker, and in my opinion, it is harder to believe that there is no God than to believe the opposite. The American theologian of Dutch descent, Alvin Plantinga (born 1932), wrote a book that has meant a lot to me. Its title is Warranted Beliefs. In that book Plantinga shows in a (for me) convincing way that belief in God, and in what has been revealed about Him, is entirely reasonable, even in the absence of absolute evidence. To me, it means that it is totally reasonable to assume that a supernatural Designer somehow “made” people in such a way that they would be able to develop “smart” watches.