Monthly Archives: November 2021

Responsible preaching

It is Thursday. My sermon for the coming Sabbath is ready. In fact, I put the finishing touch to it already a few days ago. I consistently avoid having to work on my sermon at the very last moment. It is something I find far too stressful. I like preaching and have always considered it as a privilege, but also as a great responsibility. Communicating the Word requires faith and commitment, but also knowledge and communicative skills. Sermons have influence, often far beyond the expectations of the preacher. This influence is supposed to be positive. The sermon must be inspiring and uplifting—-helping the listeners to face the challenges of another week.

But sermons can also have a negative impact and even lead the listeners astray. This week two examples of such negative influence caught my attention—one in my own denomination (the Adventist Church) and one in another faith community in the Netherlands.

An Adventist pastor in the New York Conference got into trouble after he told his congregation that a wife is the property of her husband and that the only kind of rape that is justified is that of a wife by her husband. The reaction of the various Adventist church bodies in the USA was as quick as it was required. Someone who feels he can include this horrible (even criminal) idea in his sermon can no longer be a pastor and must no longer have access to the pulpit.

A Dutch minister who is employed by an evangelical organization suddenly became a well-known personality. He preached a sermon entitled “The Great Reset,” a term he borrowed from the World Economic Forum which promotes a new world order. In less than two weeks the sermon has been listened to by some 800.000 people. The sermon was based on Revelation 13—which is about the beast, the image of the beast and the mark of the beast. There was no reference to the powers and phenomena that are usually mentioned in Adventist interpretations of this chapter of the Bible. The Dutch pastor warned his audience that they should keep their eyes wide open and be aware of what is going on in the world. There are, he says, dubious powers operating that will take away our freedom. Recent events in the Corona-era have shown how easily this may happen. The sermon received a lot of publicity—-most of it negative. The organization which employs the pastor has now apologized and made clear that the message this pastor preached was biblically unsound.

Two examples of sermons that should not have been preached! Two examples of preachers who shared a dubious kind of theology. The Adventist pastor was infected by the so-called “headship theology” that not only has convinced many Adventists that female pastors should not be ordained, but that eventually leads to the belief that women are the property of their husbands and can be treated as such. The evangelical pastor in the Netherlands ignored one of the ground rules of preaching, i.e. that a sermon must always be based on the careful exegesis of a biblical passage and not on his own creative ideas. He simply took a few verses of Scripture and linked these to the feelings of unease that he observed in society, and on that basis wildly speculated about possible future developments in society. These speculations contained elements that can only be defined as conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, this is a trend that is present in a major part of evangelical Christianity and—also in the Netherlands, in a growing number of main-line protestant congregations.

Sound theology that refrains from speculation and sensationalism must remain the basis of responsible preaching. It is something the individual preacher should always remember and his/her employing organization must constantly emphasize and demand.

The Word of God or words of men?

During the months of October and November I am having the pleasure of interacting with the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School at Loma Linda, Cal. It is a group of some 50 people which, since the beginning of the Corona-era, still meets every Saturday morning via Zoom. Because of the time difference it is already evening in Netherlands, when I sit down behind my laptop. I am giving a series of presentations, followed by intense discussions, about some men and women who, in past and present, have shaken their church with provocative ideas. In this series about “loyal dissenters” I focused last Saturday on the Roman Catholic, Rumanian-born, Elizabeth Schlussler-Fiorenza, a prominent feminist theologian (b. 1938) and dealt, more generally, with the main concerns of feminist theology. This eight-week project has required a lot of preparation, but it is proving to be a rich learning experience for myself.

One of the things that this current project has once again (and probably more forcefully than before) impressed upon me is that theology always operates from a particular perspective. Feminist theologians very consciously want to start from the experience of women and their struggle to find their place in the church. In her well-known book Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (1985), Professor Fiorenza argues that the Bible has often been used as a weapon against women. Instead, she wants to use it as “a resource for courage, hope, and commitment,” as she seeks to “understand and interpret it [the Bible] in such a way that its oppressive and liberating power is clearly recognized.”

One of the key points of Prof. Fiorenza and of other feminist theologians is their conviction that the Bible originated in a patriarchal context and that feminist theology must deliver it from its male bias. She states: “A feminist hermeneutic cannot trust or accept Bible and tradition simply as divine revelation. Rather it must critically evaluate them as patriarchal articulations since . . . biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men.” (pp x, xi).

In the days that have passed since my Zoom-talk last Saturday evening this particular statement has been milling around in my head. I have asked myself: Can one really say that the biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men, and that this fundamentally qualifies God’s revelation? Does this concept not go against the generally accepted orthodox definition of inspiration? Should we not attach value to the Bible precisely because it does not consist of the words of men, but of the infallible Word of God?

Inspiration is a miracle. It is a divine secret how any communication between heaven and earth can take place. It is one of the great paradoxes of our faith: the Bible is God’s Word but it is also a human product. We must give full credit to both elements. If we take away from the divine aspect, the Bible loses its power and authority, and ceases to be revelation. But if we undervalue the human aspect, we end up with an impossible theory of inspiration that goes against everything we know about the language, structure, and origin of the Bible. Prof. Fiorenza is right in claiming that the Bible is not the words of God but the words of men. Nonetheless, we must stress: it is the Word of God.

The miracle of inspiration is that God speaks to mankind with a human voice. That is the only way the divine Word can reach us. And this human voice is always heard in a particular historical setting, within a specific culture and in the language the addressee can understand. In a patriarchal society that voice has a male tone. In a pre-scientific world that voice does not offer information that will stand the criticism of twenty-first century science. In a Mediterranean world that voice will refer to customs and traditions that do not fit with our postmodern culture. That is why God wants human beings, in any time and at any place, to translate his Word into language that the people of a given time, culture or social category can relate to. Translating the biblical texts anew from time to time, to ensure that God’s Word continues to be available in a language that can be readily understood by the people who read it today, is a holy, God-given task. And translating or interpreting the Word in such a way that it not only reads as the words of men but also becomes the words of women is a genuine extension of the miracle of inspiration. God communicates with all of us. And his Spirit enables us to find the enduring message for all categories of people behind the inevitable dressings of time and culture.

From my reading in recent months, in preparation for the series of presentations for the RBLSS-group, I have gained a better appreciation of the fact that all theology, and thus all approaches to the interpretation of the Bible, happen from a particular perspective. We all read the Bible though our own glasses, which are cut by our background, our gender, our age, our education, and many other factors. We look at things from a particular perspective. It enriches me to try to read the Bible from different perspectives. But there is one important caveat: God’s revelation is so full and deep that all perspectives together do not exhaust the Word that God has for us in the words we read and study.

The Glasgow Conference and the Three Angels’ Message

The three-angels’ message has always been an important concept in Adventist teachings. But never before have I encountered the term as often as in recent weeks. The church’s media are currently full of it. Even the readings of the week of prayer, that is currently underway, are devoted to it. Traditionally, the introduction to the booklet of the prayer readings and the first reading are written by the president of the General Conference–the umbrella organization of the worldwide Adventist Church. In his introduction, President Ted N.C. Wilson writes that there has never been a time when the passing on “with Holy Spirit-inspired power” of “the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14:6-12 was as crucial as it is today.”

There is a problem with this, however, because most church members don’t know exactly, or even know at all, what these six verses from the book of Revelation mean, and, therefore, what they are to communicate to others. And I have often wondered how a few Bible verses that most church members do not understand can be the core of the message of Adventism, as we are repeatedly told. And why every effort should be made to tell other people something that most of them probably won’t understand either.

In a recent article in the Adventist Review–the official journal of the Adventist Church–editor Marcos Paseggi underlines that probably only a minority of the church members can explain to others what the messages of the three angels embrace (Note that this is not a statement from a blogger who may be seen by many as quite “liberal,” but from someone who is co-responsible for the official organ of the church.). By the way, a few very simple small-scale surveys I conducted myself confirmed the massive, worldwide surveys which tell us that among the majority of Adventists the knowledge of Revelation 14:6-12 is extremely limited!

A wealthy fellow believer was so shocked by his discovery that knowledge of the three-angels’ message in the church is very poor, that he decided it was time to thoroughly address this problem. He has agreed to fund the development of a curriculum aimed at teaching children as young as six years old (!) what the three-angels’ message is all about.

While the week of prayer is going on, a very different event is attracting worldwide attention, namely the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland (November 1-12). Delegates from governments from all over the world are meeting to (hopefully) reach new and sharpened agreements to limit global warming, with all its associated catastrophic consequences, to a maximum of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. This is an issue that Seventh-day Adventists should be keenly interested in. After all, for Adventists stewardship is an important element of their faith. For most of them stewardship is a much more understandable and concrete topic than the three-angels’ message. A community of faith that seeks to honor God as the Creator (see the first angel’s message) must first and foremost make this visible in how we deal with what the Creator has entrusted to our care. Paying attention to what is going on in Glasgow would have a lot more meaning for many younger (but also older) Adventist believers than listening to readings about the three angels’ message for the umpteenth time.