Books and their authors

Meeting with authors usually has the added benefit of getting a free copy of their latest book. Recently I spent two weeks in Southern California for some speaking appointments (and in connection with receiving the Charles Elliott Weniger Award of Excellence). This also gave me the opportunity to meet once again with friends and some colleagues whom I greatly admire. Among them, for instance, are Richard Rice, David Larson and Zack Plantak, who all teach in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. In their respective field they are all eminent scholars and gifted teachers. But not very far from Loma Linda University is another Adventist university: La Sierra University. Near the campus meets every Thursday morning a small group of Adventist theologians. They call their informal gathering: The Dead Prophet Society. I had the pleasure of meeting with them in their usual meeting place: Starbucks.

One of those present was Fritz Guy. Though he is in the age category of the ‘strong’ (Psalm 90) his mind is as sharp as ever. If there were a list of the ten most influential Adventist theologians, he would certainly be among them. He may be best known for his book Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Andrews University Press, 1999). It was a faith-building pleasure to read it—now many years ago. Recently, Fritz Guy has authored, together with Dr. Brian Bull (a pathologist at Loma Linda University), a series of three books about an issue that remains very important for many Adventist believers, namely: How to read the book of Genesis, in particular the chapters 1-11. Fritz gave me a copy of the third book of the series, which recently came off the press. It is published by Adventist Forum, the parent-organization of the Spectrum Journal.

Arriving home, this book, entitled God, Genesis & Good News, was at the top of my reading list. It proved to be one of those books that confirm what one has been thinking, but that articulate it in all along, but does so in a way that helps to get a much firmer grip on the issue. Brian Bull and Fritz Guy set out to provide a new translation of the original Hebrew text, which they call the Original Hearers Version (OHV). They tell the reader of their book that they can only have a proper understanding of the Genesis account, if they ask how its original hearers understood it. The book of Genesis must not be used to find answers to modern scientific questions. It is theology rather than science or proto-science. It is about God and his works, as understood by the first hearers, several millenniums ago. If read in this way, there is no longer any need for a reconciliation between the biblical stories and the current state of scientific research. I have just ordered the two previous books of this trilogy and look forward to also reading those.

Ronald Graybill was also present at the Starbucks meeting. He is an accomplished historian. Thirteen years of his working life were spent as a key staff member of the E.G. White Estate, the office that cares for the literary heritage of Mrs. White. He gave me a copy of his meticulously researched book that has also very recently appeared: Visions and Revisions: A Textual History of Ellen G. White’s Writings (published by Oak and Acorn, 2019). I read this while I was still in the USA. Graybill gives a fascinating description of the process that begins with the handwritten manuscript and ends with a printed copy of Ellen White’s messages. The deciphering of these original documents is often much more challenging than most people know, and the role of her husband James and many assistants in the further processing of what Ellen White had written, was in most cases much greater than most current readers are aware of. Bonnie Dwyer, the editor of Spectrum, who happened (like me) to be a one-time guest at the Starbucks meeting, asked me to write a review of the book for Spectrum. I gladly agreed to do so. The review is now posted on the Spectrum website. See: https://spectrummagazine.org/2020/visions-and-revisions-textual-history-ellen-g-whites-writings-book-review

Death and beyond death

For years my blog has been announced as ‘almost weekly’. As far as I can remember I haven’t once skipped a week in the years I’ve been writing my blog. But last week was an exception. I was in the United States with my wife. There, as mentioned in an earlier blog, I received an award for my work in the Adventist Church. In addition, I had appointments for a few lectures and sermons, and we had the opportunity to visit some good friends who live near Loma Linda University. However, we decided to end our trip prematurely, when my wife’s sister’s health became critical. She died three days after our return.

A death in your immediate surroundings–of a family member or a close friend–confronts us with the fragility of human existence. And regularly paying visits to a hospital, as my wife and I did for a number of weeks, has a similar effect. You see too much evidence of physical detoriation and misery! And there are also too many reports from one’s circle of family, (former) colleagues, friends, neighbors and other acquaintances about tia’s, infarcts, bypasses, artificial hips and cancer-diagnoses. You sometimes almost feel guilty if all you have so far experienced is suffering from a bit of high blood pressure and/or an elevated blood sugar level. Having said that, it is important to always remind ourselves that, fortunately, there are also many robust and healthy people, and that there are still lots of people who almost effortlessly cross the threshold of ninety years. According to recent data, there are now more than 2100 centenarians in the Netherlands!

It so happens that the Dutch version of my recent book about death, resurrection and eternal life is coming off the press this very week. It is based on the recently published book: I HAVE A FUTURE: CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND MINE (Stanborough Press, 2019). The Dutch title is: IK HEB EEN TOEKOMST: over dood, opstanding en eeuwig leven. The Dutch version is published by the Dutch Adventist Church and can be ordered through the Service Centre of the church. The link is:

https://www.servicecentrum-adventist.nl/a-59051024/welkom/ik-heb-een-toekomst/

The price is € 12,95.

It is up to others to judge the content of the book. For me, writing it was an intense, but very positive, experience. It helped me to think through the problems of death and resurrection in a structured way. Do I really believe that there is life after death? Is there enough evidence? Is the gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection really credible? And if there is eternal life, what does it look like? I didn’t find a definitive answer to all my questions, but it was a very constructive process. I myself have the impression that this book is perhaps the best I have written so far. But maybe some readers will think differently. I am curious. In any case, I hope that my reflections will at least help a number of people in finding answers to their questions about life and death.

Let me add this: In many publications of Adventist vintage one finds very frequent quotes from the books of the most famous Adventist author, Ellen G. White. I deliberately did not follow that model. My reasoning is based on the Bible and I have consciously attempted in my use of terms and my over-all approach to ensure that also readers with a non-Adventist background will feel addressed. Whether I have succeeded will have to be seen. Any reactions from readers will be very welcome!

The Charles Elliott Weniger Award

Nobobdy could have been more surprised than I was when last July I received a message from dr. Bernard Taylor, the president of the Charles Elliott Weniger Society for Excellence that I was one of the four persons the board of this society had chosen as the 2020 recipients of the Charles Elliott Weniger Award of Excellence.

This was what he wrote to me by way of explanation: Seminary dean, English professor, gifted public speaker, Charles Elliott Weniger influenced a generation of ministers through his classes in homiletics at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary in the 1950s. His students remembered him for his modeling of excellence and his kindness, the two proving to be an inspiring combination. In 1974, ten years after the death of Dr Weniger, three of his friends established the society to honor his memory and the qualities of excellence that were paramount in his life. Through its annual award program, the Society seeks to identify and recognize the contributions made to the world by Adventists with similar significant traits of character.

I was informed that the 2020 awards would be given during a ceremony in Loma Linda on February 15. Besides myself, the persons to be honored are Dr. Andrea T. Luxton, president of Andrews University, Dr. Richard T. Hart, president of Loma Linda University and Dr. A Danoune Diop, director of the department of public affairs and religious liberty of the General Conference of the Adventist world church.

The awards have now been given for some 45 years and many leader and scholars in the church have been honored with this ‘award of excellence’. Among them are such eminent men and women as Jan Paulsen, Bert B. Beach, Nils-Erik Andreasen, Ella Simmons, Lyn Behrens, Roy Branson, William Johnsson, Richard Rice, and Fritz Guy—just to name some of them.

The program for the Award ceremonies on February 15 will begin at 4.30 pm and will be held in the Loma Linda University Church. It will be streamed via the LLBN (Loma Linda Broadcasting Network). For those interested, the link is: https://www.llbn.tv/home. Note that 4.30 pm is the local time in California, which is 1.30 am Dutch time and 2.30 am UK time.

The Coronavirus – ‘a sign of the times’?

As I write this blog, more than 400 people in China have succumbed to the Coronavirus and over 20,000 cases of infection have been diagnosed. The virus has not yet surfaced in the Netherlands, but today it was announced that one of the Belgians, who were evacuated from Wuhan, is infected. The World Health Organization is taking the matter extremely seriously, and it is widely anticipated that the disease will spread and cause numerous casualties worldwide.

Many readers of the Gospel of Matthew will almost automatically think of the words of Jesus in the twenty-fourth chapter, in which the Lord predicts that all kinds of disasters will happen before the Second Coming. As one of the disasters, the seventeenth-century Dutch Bible translation mentions ‘pestilences’ (verse 7). The Revised version of this Bible translation renders this as ‘infectious diseases’. In more recent Dutch Bible translations this aspect of the so-called ‘signs of the times’ is not mentioned separately. The King James Version also mentions the ‘pestilences’ that will come, while more recent English translations do not explicitly mention this facet either. My knowledge of New Testament Greek is still adequate enough to check in my Greek New Testament that the newer translations are correct.

But, in any case, the coronavirus is a serious problem, and because of the enormous globalization the danger of a worldwide spreading has, of course, greatly increased. But is it a sign of the imminent end?

And what about the Brexit? Is that a fulfilment of the last phase of the prophecy of the image King Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream? Can we see before our eyes that the ‘kingdoms’ that emerged on the territory of the Roman Empire will not form a lasting unity, as the prophecy foretold? And what to say of the political tensions and the many wars, and of the threat of war that is constantly being felt? And what to make of the many earthquakes that occur? I am not so much thinking of the repeated tremors in the Dutch province of Groningen, however annoying they may be, but of quakes that go beyond seven on the Richter scale.

Are they all ‘signs of the times’? For some, no doubt they are. When they see these things, they are more than ever convinced the coming of Christ is at the door, perhaps even during their lifetime! Others are not so sure and point out that terrible disasters have always happened. In the last few days I have repeatedly heard the comparison between the Coronavirus in the Spanish flu. At least twenty million people died from that epidemic in the years 1918-1919. Some historians think that there were even about a hundred million casualties.

It is important to put all this in a proper biblical perspective. The New Testament shows that the ‘time of the end’ is the period between the first and second coming of Christ. And throughout that period there are ‘signs’ that constantly remind us that history is going to come to an end. We are in the final phase. In Greek the word ‘semeion’ is used. This is generally translated as ‘sign’. However, it is not a miracullous sign. The Greek has another word for that. Perhaps the word ‘signal’ is the best rendering. There have always been signals that time is not always going to continue. Those signals occur also in our day and age, and it is important that we recognize them as such.

Some will say: But this end-time has now been going on for about two thousand years. How can that be? Yes, it seems to be very long, at least if we date the beginning of this world in a relatively recent past, maybe some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. For those (and I include myself in that category) who see the beginning, when God set his creation in motion, as probably much further in the past, an end-time of 2,000 years is a relatively short period–certainly from a divine perspective. But in whatever way we think about this, the ‘signals’ keep reminding us that the end is definitely coming, and that the promise of a new world will come true.

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.