Monthly Archives: April 2015



There is good news for all who enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies of spiritual leaders. Just days ago the third volume of the Dutch translation of Hans Küng’s memoirs appeared. The book costs almost 60 euro’s (about 80 dollar), but it is value for money, for it runs to 752 pages.

Hans Küng, the famous but controversial Roman-Catholic theologian, is advanced in years. When he had completed the second volume of his autobiography, he expressed his fear that he might not live to finish the third volume. Fortunately, he did. The book covers the period of his life since 1980, when the Catholic church withdrew his teaching license. But that did not silence him, as we read on the back of the book cover. Since that time he has been especially active in the dialogue between the world religions, while he also wrote a number of highly interesting books. I have read some of these, and also the first two volumes of his autobiography. These made fascinating reading, and it will not be long before I will buy the third volume. I am, in particular, curious about the final chapters in which Küng addresses some crucial questions: Was it all worth it? How will I die? And what will come after death?

But currently I am reading the biography of the Dutch emeritus-cardinal Ad Simonis, written by historian Ton Crijnen (Kardinaal Simonis: Kerkleider in de Branding; Published by: Valkhof Press, 2014; 592 pp.; 39,95 euro). Like Küng, Simonis has been very controversial, but in a different way than Küng. Where Küng longed for a renewal of Catholicism, Simonis has always been a man of the tradition. In the part of the book that I read in the past few days Simonis appears mostly as a rather tragic figure—a man with a high calling and with solid principles, but unable to understand contemporary culture and also the changes among the Catholic believers. I fear that he will be mostly remembered because of his unfortunate statement ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’! in his 2010 television interview about the sad story of sexual abuse in the Roman-Catholic Church. However, the biographer also presents him as a simple and cordial man. This is also my own recollection from a very pleasant visit I had, together with two colleagues, with him in his home at the Maliebaan in Utrecht, at the time of the Adventist world congress in1995 in that city.

I am very interested in this kind of biographies and autobiographies of church leaders and theologians, specially of those who belong to he Catholic tradition. I usually find in their life and in the ministry in their church much that evokes a sense of recognition. It reminds me over and over again how much my church resembles the Church of Rome—in particular in its structure and its dealing with problems—in spite of the strong traditional anti-feelings towards Catholicism.

In a paragraph in one of the first pages of the book (in the Introduction) I was struck by a statement about Simonis which made me think about a clear parallel between him and the top leadership of my own church. It is said of Simonis that he had a very poor relationship with the progressive 8-May movement. He simply could not see this movement as ‘the other face of his church’. Instead he saw this liberal movement as ‘the face of a different church’. Throughout his ministry Simonis did not strive for unity in diversity in his church in the Netherlands. He did all he could to hold on to traditional ideas, that were no longer experienced as relevant by many members of his church, and he resisted everything that differed from age-long tradition. It is not difficult to see a parallel in the tragic attitude of (in any case: a part of) the leadership of the Adventist world church.

A comparison


I have a reasonably good idea of what there is in Europe with regard to Adventist theological education. A few weeks ago I attended a conference of Adventist theology teachers, who work in the various European educational institutions. About eighty people—mostly with a Ph.D. in some theological discipline—participated.  The meeting was at Newbold College in the UK, where, in addition to a sizable group of bachelor students, some 70-80 young men and women work on their masters degree in theology. This past week I was a few days in Collonges, in France but just across the Swiss border near Geneva, where an institution of about the same size is located. A German-language Adventist university, not far from Magdeburg, where I also visit on a regular basis, has about the same number of theology students. In addition, there are, spread over Europe, about a dozen other smaller institutions with an  average of 10-20 theology students.

Admittedly, the institutions of the Adventist Church in Europe that cater for its theological education have plenty of problems.  The finances, in particular, remain a matter of grave concern. However, the overall picture is quite impressive, especially with a view to the fact that the total number of Adventist church members in Europe is less than half a million!

Wile, during the past week, I was a few days in France, my wife noticed that one of the regional Dutch television stations was to broadcast a documentary about the training of priests in the archdiocese of Utrecht. She recorded the program, which was entitled: ‘And yet, I want to become a priest’, thinking (correctly) that this would interest me. The documentary told the story of the Ariens Institute, the official theological education of the Utrecht archdiocese.

The archdiocese of Utrecht is the largest of the seven dioceses in the Netherlands. It covers, apart from the Utrecht provinces, also the provinces of Overijssel, Gelderland and Flevoland. The total number of Catholic church members in this organization is about 700.000. In other words: more than the total number of Adventists in all of Europe.

This Dutch archdiocese needs a constant replenishment with  new priests.  The documentary took the viewer to the Ariensconvikt—the stately building in the center of Urecht, where the theology students of the archdiocese live and follow part of their studies. They also have lectures elsewhere, as e.g. at the Utrecht branch of the Tilburg Catholic University. To my amazement (and, in fact, also to my dismay), the total number of theology students currently enrolled is thirteen—of which five have come from Colombia. They have come to the Netherlands, with the intention of serving the Dutch church, knowing that there is a serious shortage of priests.

It may be that some of my fellow-Adventists feel good when viewing such a documentary which does not precisely present a living, vital Catholic church community. I do not share such sentiments. I found the dedication of the men who were interviewed quite impressive. Here were some young men, who were very much part of this world, but who testified of their calling and their ideals.  But, yes, I wondered with sadness: How is it possible that a christian church is going down so quickly? How much future is there for a church if it no longer succeeds in recruiting people to serve within its structure?

In the traditional Adventist scenario of the future Catholicism is attributed a rather sinister role. From a European—and certainly from a Dutch—Adventist perspective that view is no longer very convincing!

However, in the meantime: let us be grateful that European Adventism—in spite of all its problems and current controversies—is in much better shape. But rather than leaning back with satisfaction, let us concentrate on our task of communicating the gospel to people in a society that moves further and further away from church and faith.


Change from ‘below’


I hope that many things in ‘the’ church will change, in particular in my own denomination—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, in recent years I do see a lot of change at the highest level of my church, but (at least that is what I think) in many cases not in a positive direction. With regards to many issues, I see a deplorable trend towards ‘the right’, and a glorification of the past, rather than a renewing engagement with the present and the future. Will this change in the near future? Time will tell.

It would, however, seem that change in the church happens more and more at the local level. And it also seems that the voice of the world church (certainly in the western world) is considered as less and less relevant. My experience of today (Saturday April 11) is a small but telling illustration.

Today I preached two sermons. After having said ‘amen’ at one location, I hurried to another, nearby church. I was in Huis ter Heide (near Utrecht, the Netherlands), and the distance  between the church-operated care home for the elderly (‘Vredenoord’) and the local community church nearby, on the campus of the union office, is only a distance of a few hundred meters.

One might expect that a group of elderly residents of a care home do not make for a progressive church. Yet, in the recent past I have seen various signs of renewal. The Bible study (Sabbath school) has been moved to the Friday night. This morning I saw to my delight a burning candle on the platform and I also noticed that the attributes for the Lord’s Supper have been placed on the communion table. These may small, incremental changes, but they are not unimportant. They show that the church is giving thought to how it worships and is not just following old traditions. Moreover, This morning the service was led by a female elder. The most important thing I have noticed in recent years in this special church is a different kind of atmosphere—with much more openness than in the past.

In the not too distant past the local community church in Huis ter Heide, where I arrived (almost out of breath) at 11.30, was not known for many signs of progressiveness. I was surprised by what I saw this morning. The average age of the circa one hundred attendees was, I guess, not above forty. A praise-team, with a small band, led the church in contemporary music. It is a church where people of different ethnic origins gladly worship together, and where there is space for people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation. In short: I saw a living church that seems to have found a way of keeping many of its young people on board, and that only very faintly resembles the church that I used to know. And I did not get the impression that this church cares very much about what happens in Silver Spring or in St. Albans!

I could list a good number of other examples of Adventist churches in my country that have significantly changed or are in a process of change. This offers hope for the future. And I am happy to see that the leaders of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands provide space for these developments. They have better understood than many of their colleagues at higher administrative levels, that change originates in local churches. Let us not forget that this is the model that we find in the New Testament. Organizational structures are necessary, but they are nothing more than tools. The church is primarily a collection of local faith communities. The New Testament does not know of a strong central church organization with an office in Jeruzalem or Antioch. The church was the (local) church in Jeruzalem, in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, etc. Perhaps this model must receive greater emphasis, if the church is to change into a living faith community in which ever more people of our time can find their spiritual home.


Liberal – II ?


In my previous blog I declared myself to be a liberal Protestant c.q. Adventist. I did, however, state that the use of the term ‘liberal’ does, of course, depend on how it is defined and with what it is being compared.

Today—in the Easter weekend—I want to add something important to what I wrote last week.

This is Easter-weekend. For a segment of the Dutch population Easter is still a meaningful religious event. And the Easter story continues to draw the interest of even a large number of people who will not attend church on Easter Sunday. They enjoy the Mattheus Passion, or other versions of ‘the passion.’  This was also demonstrated last Thursday evening , when one in every five Dutch persons watched the televised passion story. I was one of the ca. 3.5 million Dutchmen who were fascinated by the contemporary way in which the passion story of the death and resurrection of Christ was enacted in the Dutch city of Enschede.  However, for millions of other people in our country (and in many other so-called ‘christian’ countries), Easter has simply become the day when they welcome Spring, have a good meal and enjoy an extra day off work. Millions of young—and not so young—people simply have no idea what Easter is about.

Today many believing christians, however, are far from sure whether this beautiful, heartbreaking  Easter story  is, in fact, more than that. Did it actually happen? They believe that there (probably) was someone called Jesus who was brutally killed by a riotous mob, that was incited by the religious leaders. But that the death of Jesus –some two thousand years ago—ensured that all the wrong thing they ever did (and do) are taken care of . . . that seems too good to believe. And that Jesus came back from death to life after about 36 hours, well . . .?  It is a beautiful story, but did it happen? Even for many church-going christians this is a bridge too far. And many theologians and pastors have long ago taken leave of their faith in a literal resurrection. They often refer to themselves as ‘liberal.’ They confirm the conclusion: Liberal christians do not believe in a literal resurrection of the Lord.

Seen from this angle, I am definitely not a liberal—in spite of what I wrote last week.  I am sure: What happened at Calvary was not just a tragic legal mistake, but the final solution for all things I have done wrong in my life. And it is the guarantee that eventually all will be right for me. I am sure the message of Easter is true: The Lord is truly risen! And I agree with the apostle Paul who told us:  If Jesus Christ is not risen from the tomb, then there is no possibility that there is life for me after death. And as a result, the apostle tells me, I would be among the most miserable of all people.

So, am I a liberal?  Yes (see my blog of last week). No (see above). Maybe we should begin thinking about a good alternative for the word ‘liberal’.