Sigve Tonstad

I don’t know him as a intimate friend, but I know him well enough to say that he is a pleasant and inspiring person, and over time I have read enough of what he has written to conclude that he is a creative and competent scholar. I first met him when I lived in the UK and worked for the European regional office of the church. I met him from time to time during visits to his home country Norway. At that time he worked as a medical doctor and also served as a pastor in Oslo. Years later I had the pleasure of staying for about a week in his home near Loma Linda University, where he continued to be active in his original field of medicine, but served most of his time as a theology professor in the School of Religion of Loma Linda University. Since then we have met occasionally. He had, in the meantime, earned his doctorate in theology from the St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is one of the thinkers in Adventism for whom I have a great admiration. I am referring to Sigve Tonstad.

Sigve has written a number of though-provoking books. His most notable publications are a book on the Sabbath (The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day) and a commentary on the Book of Romans (The Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists). But he also writes lots of articles (notably in Spectrum) and is active on Facebook, where he frequently publishes poems.

When, in 2009, I edited (together with the late Danish Borge Schantz) a Festschrift for former General Conference president dr. Jan Paulsen, I also invited Sigve to contribute a chapter. He responded with a surprising but very insightful article entitled “The Nimble Foot”. Therein he told the story of the Rosenborg soccer club in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, with just 180.000 habitants, which even beat some of the top clubs in Europe, as e.g. A.C. Milan. Their success was to a large extent due to their unique team spirit and the determination to help other members of the team to play well. This piece should be required reading for anyone who is enrolled in a leadership course or attends a leadership seminar!

Writing this blog about Sigve Tonstad resulted from reading his latest book Revelation, which has been published in the Paideia Commentary Series (Baker Academic, 2019). It had been on my stack of “to-read” books for some time. But beginning to read a commentary from cover to cover usually takes some determination. However, once I had started I was hooked on it.

Many Adventist readers will wonder whether Tonstad has written an Adventist commentary. I believe he has. He shows how the great-controversy-theme is the thread that runs through this entire Bible book. He does not follow one of the traditional models for interpreting the Revelation, applying it either to the first century, with the Roman Empire as the great villain, or to the end of time with some monstrous Antichrist as the world’s ruler. And he shies away from the view that sees the prophecies of the Apocalypse fulfilled in the course of history, and that puts the papacy in a sinister “beastly” role. That certainly is a break with Adventist tradition. In doing so he follows a path where many of his scholarly colleagues in the church still fear to tread. Openly denying the historicist approach to the Revelation usually spells trouble for Adventist theologians who want to work within an Adventist academic environment, even though many of them have their doubts about the validity of many of the traditional explanations of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation.

Tonstad has had the courage to read the Revelation with new eyes. The book he has written gives evidence, page after page, that he has read widely in the relevant literature. After carefully weighing the different viewpoints he proposes his own interpretations. I do not have the expertise to judge in all cases whether Tonstad’s standpoints are fully defensible. However, I applaud any attempt by any Adventist scholar who is prepared to take a fresh look at this part of the Bible that is so important to our faith community.

We can only hope that this part of the Bible continues to speak to us as we dare to engage with it in a new and creative way. With this new commentary, through which the cosmic conflict between Good and evil runs as a red thread, Sigve Tonstad has made a great contribution to Adventist thinking about the last Bible book. Many theologians and church leaders in the conservative segment of the church will not appreciate Tonstad’s conclusions, but it will no doubt help many others to find new meaning in the Apocalypse. This was certainly my experience. I hope it will stimulate many fellow-believers to try to look with fresh eyes at old views and traditions, and gain a new understanding that is relevant for their spiritual journey in the twenty-first century.