Monthly Archives: October 2017

Reformation: a renewal of our mind

Five hundred years ago, on October 31 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  He was not the first nor the last of the reformers, but he stands out as a giant among them.

In Luther’s days a reformation of the church was long overdue. But today Adventists would tend to say that he was not radical enough. And many would argue, there is still a great need for reform in contemporary Christianity, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The famous theologian Karl Barth–possibly quoting church father Augustine–emphatically stated that the church is, and always will be, in need of reform: Ecclesia semper reformanda. The corporate crhurch and all individual church members must always be ready for a critical self-analysis and be prepared to change.

Luther will always be remembered for his emphasis on the three sola’s: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Scriptura (only by faith; only through grace, with the Scriptures as our only source). And another (German) term that was essential for Luther is:  ‘Was zum Christum treibet’ (what pushes us towards Christ).

Seventh-day Adventists proudly claim that they are heirs of the Reformation.  As the world focuses on Luther in this year of the fifth centennial of his ‘coming out’, Adventists would do well to ask themselves if they are really doing justice to the key elements of Luther’s work. Officially things seem to be quite ok. We confess that we are saved by faith and through divine grace alone. And our Fundamental Beliefs make clear that we only accept as ‘truth’ what we find in the Scriptures. And, yes, we claim that Christ is the center of our theology, our beliefs and practices. But let us face up to the fact that we still have some major challenges in these areas.

This is, first of all, true with regards to the sola fide and sola gratia. There has always been the temptation to also strongly emphasize (and often over-emphasize) our own contribution in the salvation process. Problems with legalism and perfectionism have never been far away. We cannot claim to be true heirs of the Reformation unless the sola fide and sola gratia are key elements that reign supreme in our thinking and way of life.

But many Adventists also continue to struggle with the principle of Sola Scriptura. Officially we believe that the Bible is the ‘supreme, authoritative and infallible revelation of God’s will.’ But actual practice sometimes differs sharply. Many put the writings of Ellen G. White at the same level as the Bible, and some pay even more attention to her writings than to the Bible. I have heard many sermons, even preached by top church leaders, that contained more Ellen White quotes than Bible citations.

There is no doubt that Ellen White has played an important role in Adventist history. Her writings have been, and are, an important source of inspiration. But we must never lose sight of the important reformation principle: Sola Scriptura -  our faith rests on the Bible alone.

Was zum Christum treibet–Luther placed a strong focus on the BibleHe translated the Bible for the German people. He constantly emphasized that in our dealings with the Bible we must look for Christ. and for what ‘pushes’ us towards him. Officially, Adventists fully agree that we must always make Christ the center of what we do and say in the church. But, in actual practice, many have a long way to go.  For do we really make Christ the center of all our doctrines? Does the way we do theology and read the Bible always ‘push’ us towards Christ? After all, Christ said: I am the Truth. In other words: it is only in a relationship with Christ that we find Truth.  Our doctrines, practices (and even our policies) must ‘push’ us towards Christ

We must constantly ask ourselves, at every level of the church:  Do we bring people closer to Christ by the way we speak about him, the way we worship him and the way we practice our faith and organize things?

As I think about the meaning of ‘reformation’, Romans 12:2 comes to mind: ‘Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.’ (New Living Translation)

Reformation is not primarily about changing behavior or even correcting doctrine, although this is certainly involved. But what is most of all required is inner change, a transformation in the way we think: a new mindset – a way of thinking that ‘pushes’ us and others towards Christ.


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.