Monthly Archives: January 2020

The miracle of how God speaks to us

I’m halfway through an interesting book on the subject of the Trinity. I have recently read several books on this fundamental Christian theme, and the subject continues to fascinate me. However, in the book that I am currently reading, I came across a facet that has a much broader scope, namely what happens to biblical thought when the original biblical text is translated. In this book the author points out that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains many references to a diversity in the Godhead, which can be interpreted as hints to the existence of God as Trinity. These hints were lost in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), which was the prevailing Bible version in the days of Jesus and the apostles and was also much used in later times.

Anyone who has some experience with doing translation work knows that a translation always contains an element of interpretation. The translator understands the text in a particular way and then tries to find the best possible equivalent in the other language. This is no different with Bible translations. Even if it says in the front of a Bible that the translation was made from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek and a few small pieces of Aramaic) this is the case.

It is good to realize this when we read our Bible. However, we have to go back quite a bit further before the translation phase. Between the time the Bible books were written (over a period of many centuries) and the moment we read our English Bible lies a long and complicated process. It starts, most Christians believe, at the moment when God ‘inspires’ the writers. In most cases we don’t know exactly how that happened. But people somehow were guided to report certain events and write down particular thoughts. There are many different theories about what exactly happened to those different ‘sources’ from there on. It seems certain, however, that over time fragments of text have been passed on to others, preserved in certain circles, and revised by ‘editors’, before they eventually got on their present form and began to play a role in the religious life of Israel and then also of the early church. Finally, a choice was made from the many writings that were in circulation, and thus the biblical canon was decided upon. Whether or not some of the writings actually belong in the canon remained a matter of discussion for a long time.

Initially, the biblical writers used parchment. None of the original documents has been preserved. We must be satisfied with copies of copies, and copies of those copies, and so on. Copying mistakes were made, and words or sentences have been omitted, or added ‘to clarify’ particular issues, advertently or inadvertently. There are many thousands of text fragments, belonging to different textual families. There are also various ancient translations that sometimes go back to manuscripts that are now lost but were older than the oldest ones we now possess. It is a science in itself to compare all these manuscripts and to get as close as possible to what the original text must have been. The work of the scholars who have been doing this has resulted in a ‘received’ text that has become the starting point for the ‘modern’ translations of the last few centuries. The translators face many challenges, because not all languages have the same richness of vocabulary and certain nuances are difficult to reproduce in other languages. Older manuscripts of parts of the Bible have been discovered over time and knowledge of the ancient languages has increased. Therefore, newer translations are generally better than, for example, the Dutch seventeenth-century translation or the King James Version.

We are fortunate to have several translations of the Bible at our disposal, which, moreover, are so cheap that they are available to everyone. (In the Middle Ages, however, this was a different story and the possession of a Bible was only a privilege of the very rich.

It is often said that the Bible is a unique book because it was written by about forty people, with totally different backgrounds, over a period of about fifteen centuries and yet is a unity with a consistent message. I think the real miracle of the Bible is that, in the year 2020, I can listen to what God has to say to me by reading a book that has gone through such a strange, complicated history. That realization cuts through every thought of verbal inspiration and through what these days in Adventist circles is often referred to as ‘plain reading’. This does not diminish the value of the Bible. The miracle happens over and over again as we open our Bible and experience while reading in this unique book, that has gone through such a remarkable history, that God speaks to us.

The drama of intolerance

According to a report by the Dutch-based Open Doors Foundation, the persecution of Christians worldwide is still a problem that deserves great attention. In 2019 more than 3,000 Christians were killed because of their religious beliefs. In addition, large numbers of Christians in dozens of countries suffer from other forms of persecution or from serious obstacles to the practice of their faith. These can include imprisonment, torture, being ostracized from the community, a ban on gathering for church services, open evangelism, as well as economic obstacles and thwarted careers. North-Korea once again ranks first among the wordt offenders. China continues to score very high, while Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Pakistan also remain near the top of the list. (For a ranking of the fifty worst culprits, see Sometimes special incidents reach the world press, such as when the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death, was given permission to leave the country. And we haven’t forgotten how in 2014 some 50,000 (Christian) Yezidi’s tried to save their lives on the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq, fleeing the terror of Isis.

As a Christian I naturally feel very directly concerned when the lives of fellow Christians are in danger, or when they are unfree in the ways they can profess and practice their faith. For Seventh-day Adventists this interest is particularly strong, because Adventists have often been (and sometimes still are) a specific target of deplorable measures in intolerant countries. But it is important to remember that it is not only Christians who are affected by intolerance. Unfortunately, there are still horrible (and sometimes deadly) expressions of anti-Semitism–not only in the Middle East but even in the so-called civilized countries of the Western world.

Muslim minorities are also persecuted in a range of countries. This is the case, for example, in India, but also in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are in such dire need that they felt they had no option but to flee their country on a large scale. The situation is such that a number of nations, led by The Gambia, have even accused Myanmar of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Chinese measures against the Uighurs also justifiably arouse a great deal of indignation throughout the world. An estimated one million men and women from this ethnic Muslim minority are now locked up in re-education camps. And this does not exhaust the list of examples of large-scale religious terror.

Unfortunately, we also have to conclude that groups within a particular religion can persecute each other, as for example the Islamic Shiites and their Sunni brothers and sisters! But before we, as Christians, judge these groups too harshly, we do well to remind ourselves that for centuries there has been hatred, and often deadly violence, between Catholic and Protestant Christians.

And, going a step further, we must recognize that intolerance goes far beyond physical persecution. Feelings of aversion and intolerance, as for instance towards Islamic immigrants, can poison social relations. It is not so long ago that Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats in Northern Ireland. The relationship between Protestants and Catholics has not yet been normalized everywhere in the world, and various Protestant groups also have great difficulty respecting each other.

Even within church communities there is often still a considerable way to go when it comes to tolerance. Incomprehension is frequently the cause. But whatever the background, we must not forget that intolerance (and even outright persecution) starts with feelings of antipathy and aversion that easily turn into hate and hostile behavior. Freedom of confession and practice of belief is a fundamental human right, which becomes increasingly important as the world further globalizes. However, the exercise of that right does not stop at the contours of a religion or religious community, or even at the walls of a local mosque, synagogue or church!

Does prayer make any difference?

Last week, the President of the Adventist Church sent a message to all members around the world, asking them to pray for the people who are suffering as a result of the forest fires in Australia. He called on the church to ask God to stop the fires that have now reduced large parts of Australia to ashes. A few days ago the President sent a similar call for collective prayer, this time on behalf of those in the Philippines who are threatened by the Taal Volcano in the Bantangas province, which is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Asia. He added that the church’s regional office in Southeast Asia and a university that is operated by the church, at a short distance from the volcano, are also under threat.

It raised a question that I have asked myself many times: Do such prayer initiatives really help? And is there a greater chance of ‘success’ if large numbers participate? This is a complicated issue. Believers usually assume that God is omnipotent, and is therefore able to answer such prayers. They also usually agree that God is the personification of loving goodness. On that basis it is, they feel, to be expected that God will be happy to respond positively to prayers that beg Him to stop terrible situations such as in Australia and in the Philippines.
Moreover, if we are dealing with a loving God who can do anything, shouldn’t we expect him to simply prevent all these kinds of disasters from happening in the first place?

Prayer plays an important role in my faith experience, but not in the way I sometimes see with many fellow believers. I regularly pray to God for protection, but I do not have the habit of always saying a short prayer before I start the car to run an errand. And I don’t expect God to find a parking space for me when I arrive in the center of Amsterdam.
I trust in the words of the apostle James that it is important to pray for seriously ill people, but I do wonder if the apostle could not have been a bit more reluctant with his assurance that: “Prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). After all, we all know that many prayers for healing remain without the desired result. There is, of course, the escape clause that we must always end our prayers with the statement that not our will, but God’s will must prevail. And yes, very often the divine will turns out to be rather unfathomable (or some might say: capricious).

For many people, this is a reason to abandon their faith. They cannot believe in a God who apparently may help somebody get rid of his cold or to find her keychain, but looks the other way when the holocaust takes place or an atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima. When people talk to me about this and ask me why God allows all sorts of terrible things to happen, and why he apparently answers some prayers but ignores others, I must admit I have no real answer.

Still, the problems surrounding prayer are no reason for me not to pray anymore. One of the books that have helped me to continue praying, despite the many questions, is that of the well-known American writer Philip Yancey: Prayer: Does it Make any Difference? (2006). Yancey emphasizes that God is there for us, whether or not we experience him and feel his presence. In our prayers we acknowledge God’s presence and respond to it. Praying means that we know our place in the grand scheme of things; that we realize our limitations and smallness, and are willing to do what we can but ultimately leave everything to God. Prayer is a time for expressing our gratitude for all the good things that we experience every new day. It also includes thinking about what we did wrong and asking for forgiveness. Whatever else it may do, praying for others helps us to take our responsibility for others more seriously. Prayer is being silent before the God who–even though it often doesn’t seem to be that way–somehow knows what is happening and why it is happening. The apostle Paul wrote to the members of the church in Rome that we often don’t actually know what to say to God in our prayers, but that somehow even our wordless sighs are of value to God (Romans 8:26). That in itself is reason enough to keep praying.

Studying the book of Daniel

During the first quarter of this year, the Seventh-day Adventist Church will once again study the bible book Daniel. In recent years we have had a number of Sabbath School quarterlies about the prophecies, and especially about the so-called apocalyptic parts of the Bible. Each time we were presented with the traditional Adventist interpretations. The explanations invariably followed the historicist approach, i.e. that the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel’s and Revelation was found in the course of historical events. An important part of this was the emergence of apostate religious systems which, in the end times, will cause more and more problems for the relatively small group that remains faithful to God and his Word. We also find this approach in the study guide of the quarter that has just begun.

One could ask why it is necessary to focus on these topics again and again for a full quarter. Is it because the originators of the study material for the weekly Bible study are afraid that these topics have gradually ceased to interest many church members? That might indeed be the case. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this.

Unfortunately, the focus on Bible reading and Bible study among Adventists is no longer what it once was. And there also appears to be a certain fatigue, due to the fact that the treatment of the content of Daniel and of Revelation hardly brings any new points of view. But the most important thing, in my opinion, is the fact that many traditional interpretations, also of the book of Daniel, no longer sound so convincing to many of us. Many church members have gradually become aware that other approaches to this book of the Bible are also possible. According to the vast majority of Bible scholars in our time, the book of Daniel was written, or compiled, in the second century BC and not in the sixth century BC. The book reflects the time when Israel was in the power of the Seleucids (one of the powers that arose from the Greek world empire). Scholars are quite generally of the opinion that King Antiochus Epiphanes was the great evildoer (the ‘little horn’). He had caused the Jerusalem temple to be defiled in a gruesome way!

The new quarterly does not address this problem. By the way, other things about which there are serious questions are not mentioned either. I might mention the year-day principle as an example. The quarterly presents it as if it is an established fact that in ‘time prophecies’ a day symbolically represents a year. It is essential to accept this idea if we want to arrive, via Daniel 8 and 9, at the year 1844. But the basis for this theory is quite weak. More and more Adventist theologians, who teach in our colleges and universities, agree. But they don’t get the space to openly admit that we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

When the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Commentary was produced, now some sixty years ago, the writers and editors were struggling with a number of difficult issues, including the question of the day-year principle. Raymond Cottrell, one of the most important persons behind this major project, later admitted that there were a number of issues that could no longer be defended (including the day-year principle), but that had become so much part of the Adventist tradition that pastoral considerations made them decide not to tinker with these!

I don’t have an answer for all the problems that arise from a study of the book Daniel. But I am convinced that concealing these and other very real problems does not serve the Church. It’s time to explain in a responsible, open way where the bottlenecks are. And even if certain sacred cows will have to die, we can still continue to draw a lot of inspiration from the book of Daniel.