Monthly Archives: October 2019

We are not expected to understand God, but to worship Him

In recent times the opposition within the Seventh-day Adventist Church against the doctrine of the Trinity has been increasing. It took a relatively long time before the doctrine of the Triune God was fully endorsed by most Adventist theologians and church leaders. But the influential book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957) left the reader in no doubt that Adventists had come to agree with most of historic Christianity on this important theological Issue: God is One in three Persons.

Why is there increasing unease with regard to this crucial doctrine that is also clearly underlined in the Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church? There are, as I see it, a number of factors: (1) The method of ‘plain reading’ of the Bible, which has been strongly promoted in recent years, is not very sensitive to underlying theological issues. (2) There is a strong sense on the part of many members that the Adventist Church has departed from many of the principles of the ‘pioneers’. Several of the important men (!) in incipient Adventism were opposed to the Trinity-doctrine. That is, they say, a good enough reason to look at this teaching with great skepticism. (3) It is also argued that the Trinity is a Roman-Catholic invention, and that in itself is for some the definitive reason why it must be wrong. (There was, however, a consensus about the Trinity doctrine long before the Roman-Catholic Church as such existed!).

Early on in my graduate theological studies I was required to read what the famous theologian Karl Barth had written about the Trinity. Reading Barth is quite a challenge and I remember progressing at the rate of about two pages an hour. It was, however, worthwhile and it has ever since given me a clear direction for my thinking about this complicated topic. But already at that time I concluded that the word ‘Trinity’ is a term which we humans use in trying to say something that is, because of its very nature, indefinable in human language. Somehow, God the Father (also a very human term) and God the Son (another human term) and the Spirit (again a human term) share in infinite divine power, and though they are distinct, they are One in their essence. All discussions about God must end with the conclusion that everything we say about God remains no more than a human attempt to explain something that human beings can never fathom. Therefore, in the end we must bow before the divine mystery. We are not called to understand who and what God is, but to worship the One who made us, sustains us and saves us.

This sense, that every human analysis of who and what God is must ultimately fail, was reinforced this past week as I was reading the book: The Doctrine of GOD: Introducing the Big Questions, written by John C. Peckham, one of the prominent theologians at Andrews University (T&T Clark, 2020). It is a very informative book that I warmly recommend to all who are interested in theology. For those without theological training it may at times be heavy going, but it is worth the effort. Peckham does not only deal with questions pertaining to the Trinity Doctrine, but also addresses a range of other issues. If God is unchangeable, as most theologians have traditionally argued, does that mean that God cannot interact with us and that he cannot show emotions? For do responses to humans not imply at least some change in God? Another major problem is God’s relationship with time. If God is eternal, can he experience the flow of time and does he therefore have a past and a future? Does God know everything? If so, does this not conflict with the concept of a free will? If God knows everything, it seems to suggest that everything I do is already pre-determined. And, if God allows evil, does this not somehow make him co-responsible for the existence and continuation of evil?

These and many other questions are worth pondering. In our study of these questions we must conclude that the Christian views about God have been profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy and have often resulted in views that conflict with that of the biblical God. But reading Peckham’s book reinforces my belief that my analysis of God will always remain a poor human attempt to reach the Unreachable. Perhaps the best definition of God, so far, was given by the eleventh century theologian Anselm of Canterbury, who said: ‘God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.’

Therefore, I repeat: We are not called to understand who and what God is, but to worship the One who made us, sustains us and saves us.

Are most people OK?

Many (especially older) people in the Netherlands with a religious background studied the doctrines of the church from the age-old Heidelberger Catechism. During 52 Sundays the young people were instructed, through a format of questions and answers, about the main teachings in the Calvinist version of the Protestant faith. In question eight (Sunday three) the reader is told that from his birth, by nature, man is utterly ‘corrupt’ and that he is ‘totally unable to do any good’ and is ‘inclined toward all evil’. Sure enough, the catechism also points to the possibility of being saved from one’s sins, but the student of this venerable document is presented with a rather dark view of humanity.

A totally different perspective is offered in the title of a recent book by Rutger Bregman (1998), a young Dutch historian and opinion maker, who had part of his education in the United States. The title of the book (De meeste mensen deugen) is a bit difficult to translate but expresses the idea that most people around us are basically OK. It is currently number one on the Dutch bestseller list under the category of non-fiction. Based on the newest insights from psychology, economy, biology and archeology, Bregman concludes that most people on our globe are not ‘corrupt’ and are not ‘unable to do any good”, but are ‘basically OK’. I have not yet read the book, but did order it this morning from the Dutch equivalent of Amazon (bol.com). I am very curious to find out what arguments Bregman puts forward.

Which of the two approaches has the best credentials? Those who value the Bible cannot ignore the phenomenon of ‘sin’ and must accept that that we all fall terribly short if we measure our lives along the divine measuring rod. However, the picture that is painted by the Heidelberger Catechism, and is still underlined in some ultra-orthodox denominations, is one-sided (to say the least). In spite of all our shortcomings we are the bearers of ‘the image of God’ and are given the privilege of calling ourselves ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:1).

Yet, at the same time I feel rather attracted to the ‘statement’ by Rutger Bregman that most people are basically OK. At times, I feel rather awkward when I am meet and talk with certain church members and I get goosebumps when I hear some of the theories that are doing the rounds. Unfortunately, meeting such people happens all too often. However, after giving it some thought, I usually come to the conclusion that most people in the church are OK. Or, to put it differently: There are plenty of unpleasant people in the church whom one would like to avoid, but most people are nice and are ‘OK’. Perhaps the well-known Pareto-principle does also apply here. This principle was discovered by the Italian mathematician and economist Pareto. He noticed that 20 % of the Italians possess 80$ of all riches. And the 20’80 rule appears to be valid in many areas. For most companies 20% of their articles are responsible for 80% of their total turnover, while 20% percent of the customers bring 80% of all complaints. It has been found that 80% of all smart-phone owners use only about 20% of the possibilities of their phone and that 20% of the You-tune films are seen by 80% of all visitors. Examples of other instances where the 20/80 rule applies is plentiful.

Pastors and chaplains know that the Pareto-principle also applies to their work. A relatively small percentage of the church members are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of all problems and complaints that come their way. And perhaps I also meet the Pareto-principle in my contacts with those church members whom I find it difficult to relate to. My thoughts are sometimes so much focused on this group, that it can at times be easy for me to forget that ‘most’ (at least 80%) of my fellow-church members are definitely ‘OK”.