Yearly Archives: 2017

Is this still my church?

Together with thousands of other Adventists around the world I followed with keen interest the proceedings during the meeting of the Annual Council on Monday October 9.  The executive committee of the Adventist world church discussed the now (in?)-famous 14-page document about the punitive measures to be meted out to leaders of ‘non-compliant’ unions. I did not just follow it with keen interest, but also with growing disgust.  It made me wonder more acutely than ever before: Can this be my church?

I am not going to analyze the document. Many others have done so already and have pointed to the manipulative way in which the document made its way to the AC floor and to the bias of the chairman of the meeting.

But I praise God for those who were willing to oppose the proposal: the 184 persons who decided that the document should be sent back to the committee that drafted it. I praise God for people like Jan Paulsen, Dan Jackson, Brad Kemp, Thomas Mueller, and others. I praise God for the courage of the GC treasurer, who made it clear that he does not agree with the anti women’s-ordination stance of President Wilson. I praise God for a man like Thomas Lemon, a vice-president of the world church, who did not mince words in his description of the authoritarian tendencies in the Adventist Church. Were it not for people like them I might perhaps be getting ever closer to the exit of the church.

But, it is not only because of such people as I just mentioned that I remain committed to my church.  Last Sabbath I had the privilege to preach during the annual rally of Dutch senior (55-plus) Adventists. The topic that I had been asked to preach about was: Believing: does it make sense? When in mid-August I started working on this sermon (at the kitchen table in my son’s house in Sweden), I wondered what to do with this theme. But I gradually warmed to it, as the sermon was taking shape. And it seems that the sermon was meaningful to many of my listeners. At least that is what I concluded from the many positive comments. But the extraordinary fellowship during this day and the spiritual and warm atmosphere–it all reminded me of something I sometimes almost forget in the midst of all the political woes in the higher echelons of the church:  The church is not to be equated with the organization that has its headquarters in Silver Spring.  The church is first of all the people at the grassroots who, in all their diversity, live their faith in the context of their local or regional faith communities. It is that conception of the church I remain committed to.  Of course, I realize we need umbrella organizations, and we must exert any influence we may have to ensure that these organizations serve the world church rather than rule over it. But in the end: the New Testament concept of the church is that of a community of the sinners/saints in a particular geographical area. That is where the real action is. And I am glad to say: that is where there is still a lot of very positive action.  Or, in other words: there is for me reason enough to stay wih my church!


Worried about Sunday Laws?

I live in village with some 20.000 inhabitants. A very sizeable percentage of the people who attend church go to churches of the more conservative Reformed type. We are not part of the Bible Belt of the Veluwe (an area in the center of the country), but we are on its edge and feel its influence. For many, Sunday keeping is still quite important and the local administrators must be careful as to what they allow to happen on the Sunday. But, as in most parts of the Netherlands, more and more people want to go shopping on Sundays. So far Sunday shopping is very strictly restricted in our village, but just last week I received a questionnaire from the local administration about the possibility of extended Sunday shopping. Things are changing, also where I live.

When I see what has been happening over recent decades with regard to the Sunday as a day of rest in the Netherlands (as well as in other European countries) it is hard to imagine that there will come a moment when Sunday keeping will be strictly enforced by the authorities, and when those who refuse to comply will be persecuted! However, the idea that enforced Sunday worship, with the corollary of a prohibition of Sabbath keeping, is still very much alive among many Seventh-day Adventists.  Just a few days ago I saw messages on Facebook announcing that Donald Trump has signed an order telling the American public that, in his efforts to make America great again, he has decided that all American must worship on Sunday and failure to do so will mean getting arrested and doing ten years of hard labor. Well, especially when the name of President Trump is attached to something, we expect to see ‘fake news.’  Nonetheless, reality is that some people are so exercised about this topic that they find it necessary to produce such nonsense. And if you wonder whether the topic of Sunday laws is still on many Adventist minds, just spend some minutes googling!

During last week’s Annual Council in Silver Spring all executive committee members of the General Conference received a copy of a compilation of Ellen. G. White statements entitled Last Day Events. One of the longest chapters in this book is about Sunday Laws!

Ellen White wrote against the background of the final decades of nineteenth century America in which there were strong voices advocating strict Sunday Laws. Some laws were actually passed at the state level, resulting in arrests and fines for Sabbath keepers. And today, admittedly, there are still individuals and organizations promoting laws that would make Sunday worship obligatory. But these are of relatively little importance.

As a result there is at present a large gap between the traditional Adventist interpretations of some parts of biblical prophecy and reality. It is simply no longer a credible idea that in the future Sunday worship will be enforced by the state worldwide, bringing persecution to those who keep the Sabbath. And this is not something to simply ignore. When there is a major dissonance between reality and some prophetic interpretions, it causes many to lose interest and confidence in the entire area of biblical prophecy.

Adventists have plenty of important things to say about the benefits of keeping the biblical day of rest in a meaningful way. It is an important and an attractive message in an age in which most people find it ever more difficult to create periods of  ‘rest’  in their busy lives. Let us do what we can to convince others of the blessings of Sabbath keeping, without burdening them with theories that seem ever more incredible.


An interesting approach to history

I am an admirer of the Dutch historian A.Th. van Deurssen (d. 2011).  One of his books has especially fascinated me. It is entitled: Een Dorp in de Polder (A village in the polder, 1994).

In Een Dorp in de Polder van Deurssen writes about daily life in Graft in the 17th century. Graft is a small town not far from Alkmaar, about 25 miles North of Amsterdam. As a child and teenager I lived about 6 miles away from Graft. But at the time I had no idea about the illustrious history of this tiny town, which in the seventh century was well-known for its whale hunting far away in the Northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. All kinds of coincidences have resulted in the interesting fact that more sources about the daily life in Graft during the ‘Golden Age’ have been preserved than of any other town or village in Holland. The interesting thing about van Deurssen’s book is not only that it informs us in detail about the lives of a few families in Graft in that period, but that it, by doing so, in fact offers us a much better insight into this period than we get from most classical history books.

Some other historians have used the same model. A famous example is the study by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, who a few decades ago—in his book Montaillou— gave a detailed description of how the Inquisition operated in a small fourteenth-century village in the Spanish Pyrenees. The inhabitants of that village were suspected of belonging to the sect of the Cathars (often also referred to as Albigenses), a movement that was hated by the medieval Church. Though the book seems to be very limited in scope [a few families in a small village], one gets nonetheless the feeling that it provides an in-depth survey of the Cathar movement—of what these ‘heretics’ believed, of what motivated them, and of how they were treated. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the book. When in the late 1980’s I lived in Cameroon, I lent the book to the Dutch ambassador, but he failed to return it!)

History books often focus on the role of important leaders and their great achievements (or the lack thereof). Usually little attention is given to the lives of ordinary people, and, as a result, the reader gets a very limited and rather one-sided picture of what, in fact, happened. That is also true with respect to the history of the church. When dealing, for instance, with the history of the reformation of the sixteenth century, the emphasis usually is on men like Calvin and Luther and their associates. We hear preciously little, however, about the experiences of the men and women in the pews, or about how it was for a village priest to evolve into a Reformed minister.

Historians of the Advent movement tend to stress the role of important church leaders—the ‘pioneers’ of the early period and the presidents of the General Conference who followed—and the proceedings of the most prominent church meetings (such as the conferences of 1888 and 1901). But that does not tell the full story of the development of Adventism.

The history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands cannot be pictured by means of the photo gallery of union presidents in the corridor on the ground floor of the union office building (even though I am pleased to see my picture among them).

If someone would consider to write a history of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, he/she might want to focus on just one or two local churches, and research the history of these particular churches: What has happened there over the years, and what processes were at work? How did these churches function in, say, the 1950’s? What did worship look like fifty years ago? And thirty years ago? And today? What families have played an important role through the years? How did that affect their church? How did evangelism change over the years? What do the minutes of the church board reveal about disciplinary measures? Etc. Etc. This could give a fascination picture of the actual history of Dutch Adventism. Let us hope that someone will some day feel the calling to write such a book.

The Battling Brothers

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg is one of the most fascinating and colorful figures in Adventist history. In his youth a protégée of James and Ellen White, he was sponsored by them to pursue medical studies, and at the early age of 24 he was appointed head of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek. This first Adventist health institution would develop into the famous Battle Creek hospital, and for decades J.H. Kellogg was the ever innovative supreme captain on this flagship of early Adventism.  Adventist historical sources paint ‘the Doctor’ as a genius, who in many of his ideas was far ahead of his times–a famous medical doctor, an author of dozens of book, an inventor of all kinds of health-related equipment, and the one who developed a number of world-renowned health foods. As time went by the rich and famous of his time would travel to the small town in rural Michigan to seek treatments in the Battle Creek Sanitarium (as the institution would soon be called).

Adventist historians who have written about John Harvey Kellogg (foremost among whom is Richard W. Schwartz[1]) have not only eulogize the great achievements of ‘the Doctor,’ but also admitted that he was often a very difficult man, who was increasingly at odds with Ellen White and the leaders of the Adventist Church. This eventually led to a separation of their ways and even to Harvey Kellogg’s being disfellowshipped from the Adventist Church. His alleged leanings towards pantheism in his book The Living Temple were the direct reason for this drastic measure, but in reality the underlying problem was that Kellogg had simply become too big and toopowerful to still fit into the small Adventist denomination.

In Adventist books little space is usually given to John Harvey’s younger brother Will Keith. This is understandable since the older brother has had a larger impact on early Adventism than his junior brother. But both men were important in their own right, and Will Keith left an even more impressive legacy than John Harvey.  Will Keith died, like his brother, at the ripe age of 91. At the end of his life he was very wealthy and the charity he set up still exists with assets of some 10 billion dollar.

Just a few weeks ago a very well researched (and also very readable) book came off the press that, other than the Adventist literature, deals with both brothers and, especially, with their extremely complicated relationship. It is written by Howard Markel, a professor in the history of medicine at the University of Michigan and is entitled: The Kelloggs: the Battling Brothers of  Battle Creek.[2]

Will Keith’s career started in the employ of his brother John Harvey at the San, as the Battle Creek Sanitarium was popularly referred to. He developed into the business-mastermind behind the gigantic enterprise with more than one thousand employees, but received hardly any recognition from his brother. In fact, they were constantly at odds–John Harvey with his enormously inflated ego and his brother with, at least initially, a gigantic inferiority complex. But when, after 25 years of acid cooperation, Will Keith separated from his brother, and started his cereal empire, built on cornflakes and many other successful products, his own stellular rise began. Unfortunately, the ‘battle of the brothers’ did not stop. Fighting about patents and other business matters initiated a ten-year legal battle, that eventually was settled in favor of Will Keith in the Michigan Supreme Court.

I found this book about the two brothers not only fascinating, but also extremely tragic. They started as committed Adventist christians, but became gradually estranged from their religious roots. Neither of them became happy, in spite of their immense success. Their lives were plagued by an intense bitterness, and they were never able to come to a reconciliation in spite of a last minute effort by ‘the Doctor’.  I asked myself as I was reading: Is this what religion does to some people? Is the Christian faith not supposed to bridge differences and make people into real brothers and sisters?

When in the furture I open the Kellogg cornflakes box, and look at Will Keith’ s signature, that is still displayed on every Kellogg product, I will no doubt continue to remember some of the tragic things I read in this book. It will remind me that christianity has failed if it does not make us ‘nicer’ people who strive for peace in their relationships.

[1] Richard W. Schwartz, John Harvey Kellogg, MD (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1970). [2]  Published by Pantheon (New York, 2017).

Can we ‘hasten’ the return of Christ?

As I am working on a book about the dangers of Last Generation Theology, I must read up on several issues that are, to a lesser or greater degree, linked to LGT.  One belief that many Adventists –and not just LGT supporters–have in common is that Christ’s coming has been seriously delayed by our lack of enthusiasm in spreading the ‘three angels’ messages.’ If we (previous generations included) had been more zealous, Christ would already have come. Those who give this explanation for the apparent delay of the second coming, will find a few quotes of Ellen White to undergird their view.  One of these statements is found in the book The Desire of Ages: ‘Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.’[1]

The flipside of the coin is that, if our lack of missionary zeal has been a factor in ‘delaying’ Christ’s return, a greater evangelistic push would bring the coming of Christ closer.  That seems a reasonable conclusion, for does 2 Peter 3:12 not tell us that we can actually ‘hasten’ the coming of the Lord? Ellen White is adamant: ‘By giving the gospel to the world it is in our power to hasten our Lord’s return. We are not only to look for but to hasten the coming of the day of God.’[2] And: ‘He has put it in our power, through cooperation with Him, to bring this scene of misery to an end.’[3]

Among the many Adventist authors I consulted in these past few days are Norman Gulley and Sakae Kubo.  Both are respected Adventist scholars. Kubo is now in his early nineties, while Gulley is not quite as advanced in age but is also in his retirement years. It would be fair to say that Kubo is theologically somewhat left of the middle and Gulley somewhat to the right of center.  Both make it very clear that the Greek word speudo that is used in 2 Peter should perhaps not be translated as ‘hastening’ but rather as ‘eagerly longing for.’  Both authors also emphasize that the idea of ‘hastening’ the second coming has some serious theological problems.  These concepts of ‘delaying’ or ‘hastening’ cannot be taken in any absolute sense but express our human perception.

Let me quote briefly from both authors: Gulley: ‘If humans could really ‘hasten’ the Advent by themselves, Christians would face the greatest salvation-by-works emphasis ever–in spite of the gospel.’[4] Kubo puts it even more poignantly: ‘It is well to keep this in mind that we do not blasphemously think that we can somehow by our own merely human efforts bring Christ down.’[5]

Much more could be said on this topic than I can put in this one-page blog. I would like to encourage those who have uncritically imbibed the notions of delaying or hastening the second coming, to study the topic in more depth. This may well give them a more balanced picture.  And let me add this: Kubo’s book God Meets Man, which deals with the Sabbath and the Second Coming, remains in my view unsurpassed. I just wonder: why has it not been re-published?

[1]  Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 633, 624.[2]  The Desire of Ages, p. 633.[3]  Education, p. 264. [4]  Gulley, Christ is Coming, p. 542. [5]  Kubo, God Meets Man, p. 101.