Plain reading?

A few days ago I was working on a new sermon, which is based in Luke 7:36-50. In this passage we read how a feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee was disturbed by a woman who had somehow gained entry, poured costly oil over Jesus’ feet and dried his feet with her hair. We also are informed that the woman was known in the city as a notorious sinner, but that Jesus’ told her that all her sins were forgiven.

It is a beautiful subject for a sermon. We all are sinners, like this woman. But at the end of the story Jesus’ regards her as a forgiven sinner. The point of the story is that Simon could only see this woman as a despicable sinner, but that Jesus changed her status in that of a sinner who had received forgiveness. This greatly encourages us. Whatever people may say about us, the only thing that really matters is how we are seen by God.

Working on this sermon I was once again made aware of the differences we notice in the descriptions of the gospel writers of particular events. This is certainly also true for this story. In this case the differences between the four versions of the gospel writers are such that most commentators have concluded that there must have been two similar occurrences. Matthew, Mark and John place this event just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, while Luke places it towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

So, the question is: are we dealing with one event or two different events? In reading the book The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, one quickly discovers that this author regarded it as one and the same occurrence. For many Adventists that settles the question. Many feel that Ellen White has the final say with regard to the interpretation of the Bible. Others, like myself, question this view. But whatever be the case: Those who maintain that the stories all describe the same incident, must take considerable liberties with the text and just ignore some significant differences.

It is interesting to see how Ellen White fuses the different versions of the story. Just one example of this is the description of what this woman actually did. Did she pour her oil over Jesus’ head, as Matthew and Mark tell us, or over his feet, as we are told by Luke and John. Ellen White solves this problem by simply stating that the woman poured her oil on Jesus’ head as well as over his feet.

Should something like this worry us? That depends. It is no problem for me. My definition of inspiration is broad enough to accept that the Bible writers may not have remembered every detail of the events they describe, or may have used sources that were not totally correct oreer incomplete. But those who defend a much more strict theory of inspiration and are convinced of the so-called ‘plain reading’ approach to the Bible, do have something to explain. They must face the fact that there are clear discrepancies between several biblical passages about one and the same event that cannot be simply ignored. And they will have to explain how one can, following the ‘plain reading’ method, fuse different stories without dealing with these clear differences. It seems to me that this leads to the conclusion that Ellen White took certain liberties with the text that can hardly be defended from a ‘plain reading’ perspective.

In my sermon I will not dwell on the many technical issues concerning this story from Luke. I will also leave the question of the identity of this woman aside. John is the only evangelist who mentions the name of Mary. Was she the sister of Martha and Lazarus (as the Desire of Ages tells us) or does the story in Luke perhaps point to Mary of Magdala? My sermon will emphasize the underlying message of the story for me and for the people who will listen to me, namely that we are also forgiven sinners and not just sinners. But those who push the ‘plain reading’ theory should give it considerable thought how they can reconcile the differences in the versions of the four gospels.

 

Lessons from the life of S.N. Haskell

Seeing a new book that was written by someone I happen to know always makes awakens my curiosity.  That was the case when I saw a book by Gerald Wheeler that was recently published by the Pacific Press. I first met Gerard, some forty years ago, at a convention for Adventist editors that was held in the Adventist conference center Glacier View—high in the Rocky Mountains. (This place would later achieve some notoriety in the Adventist Church as the place where a church tribunal condemned Desmond Ford.) Gerald spent his entire church career at the Review and Herald Publishing Association and was widely known as a highly skilled book editor.

Wheeler’s first biography of an Adventist leader in the early period of Adventist history appeared in 2003:  James White: Innovator and Overcomer. The book was based on meticulous research and gave an honest, and at times quite astonishing, picture of James White, the husband of Ellen G. White. Thus it was with great expectations that I started reading his newest biography: S.N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelst, Missionary, and Editor. I was not disappointed.

Stephen Haskell (1833-1922) did not belong to the oldest group of pioneers who had a personal involvement with the Miller movement. However, he was one of the many self-made men, who—without much formal education—grew into many-faceted and powerful church leaders. Wheeler follows Haskell through the various phases of his long life, in various roles (and often combinations of roles). He follows him to the places in the United States where he worked (first in the East, then more westward and ultimately in California), and on his many journeys to Europe and Australia, and other continents, which might take him away from home for many months or even longer than a year. It was the life of a hard-working, utterly dedicated and versatile man, but also of an individual who could be very stubborn and was not always ready to accept advice from others. He received countless letters and ‘testimonies’ from Ellen White. Although he received much criticism from her, he gradually became very close to her. He even proposed to her after she had become a widow. The book is also very valuable in that it consistently places Haskell in the time and culture in which he lived and against the background of the developments (and troubles) of the steadily growing Advent movement.

I recommend this book in particular to those who, like me, enjoy reading biographies. However, I would also strongly recommend it to those Adventists who keep on telling us that the Adventist Church should follow the patterns laid out by the pioneers of the church. It is true that in Haskell’s days many good things happened in the church, and that there were many committed people who brought great sacrifices ‘for the cause’. There is much in the history of that period that can inspire us. But the book about Haskell also clearly shows that there was much in the church that was not so good. There was rivalry between leaders. At times there were bizarre ideas that brought confusion.  Projects could fail because of mismanagement and often there was a distinct lack of unity. Many decided to join the church, but many also left again—some respected leaders among them.

In actual fact there is not that much difference between the present and the past. Today’s church is far from perfect, and that is true of the leaders as well as the members in the pew. This is no excuse to just accept whatever happens. This book is, however, a strong warning not to be too quick in assuming that the church of the past—and certainly in the days of the pioneers—was far better than it is today. And a nostalgic looking backwards to an often romanticized past is no panacea for all the problems and challenges the church must face today and will be confronted with in the future. If in doubt, allow yourself to be convinced by reading this fascinating biography of Haskell (which may be ordered at Amazon.com).

 

Voices from 60 years ago

It has been said that Adventists will eventually react to changes that occur in the rest of the world, but that it does take them about fifty years to do so.  Fact is, that the issues that are affecting society—and other christian denominations—eventually also come to our door.

Last week I read a book by a Dutch theology professor, Dr. Hans Snoek, entitled: Van Huis uit Protestant, which translates best as ‘Raised a Protestant.’ The subtitle describes the content: Hoe de leer verdampte en het geloof veranderde (Or: ‘How doctrine evaporated and faith changed’.)[1]

Giving some historical background to the challenges of Dutch Protestants, Snoek points to two authors who, some sixty years ago, tried to give an analysis of the situation Protestants were confronted with. They pointed to elements that needed to be faced. However, the books they wrote pointed in dramatically different directions.

One author—Prof. R. Schippers—strongly believed that the greatest danger confronting the conservative stream of Dutch Protestantism was the tendency of many church members (in particular of the younger generation), to follow ‘worldly’ trends. He emphasized the problem of the deterioration in sexual morals, and the lure of unacceptable forms of amusement, such as the cinema.

The other author—Thijs Booij—also writing in 1954, argued that the conservative Dutch Protestantism he saw around him was mostly defined by a culture of old age. The dynamic character of the church had disappeared, giving place to stagnation.  He saw very little growth—intellectually and spiritually. Too many people, Booij contended, are focused on the past, which has led to a ‘monologue-culture’ that has preciously little to say and mostly repeats itself. He signals a lack of imagination, a distaste for experiment, a lack of improvisation and of creative planning.

Booij goes on to say that one of the problematic elements in the conservative Dutch Protestant world of his days, is that church culture is male-dominated. And he adds that it is characterized by a strong intellectualism that leaves very little room for the experiential aspects of faith. This tendency towards abstract thought leads to building systems, which encourages people ‘to define their doctrinal differences in six decimals.’

In contemporary Adventism many would agree with Prof. Schippers. Much more emphasis ought to be placed, they say, on leaving ‘the world’ and on striving for the kind of character and lifestyle that God expects us to develop. Well, who can disagree with that?  And yet, it struck me that what Mr. Thijs Booij wrote more than half a century ago seems a very accurate description of what contemporary Adventism is like.  By and large, Dutch conservative Protestantism did not heed the warning of Professor Schippers. Nor did it adequately respond to the concerns listed by Mr. Booij.  Will the Adventist Church fare any better?

A denomination that mostly repeats itself without the kind of ‘present truth’ that relates to the issues of our times, that is male dominated, and is afraid of new forms of spirituality, may still exist for a while, but is not going to be very appealing to most of the men and women around us who are in search of a spiritual home. Let’s not wait another fifty years before we address these important concerns.


[1]  Published in Kampen by Uitgeverij Kok, 2015.

Easter morning: women first

The male disciples were painfully absent at the crucifixion. John was the only one who stuck around.  Besides him, remarkably enough, only Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a few other women, stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus died.  And when Jesus was taken from the cross, and had to be ‘buried’ as quickly as possible, the men who had been Jesus’ disciples were not there, and left this task to Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus.

But then it is Easter morning. At dawn a number of women go to the cave where Jesus had been laid. They went there to care for his body, since there had not been time to do so on Friday afternoon, as the Sabbath was near. They were greatly worried about the big stone that had been put before the entrance of the cave. Who would be able to roll it away? Their concerns were, however, unnecessary. The stone had already been rolled away. The tomb was empty. Two angels tell the women that the Lord was risen!

The gospels inform us about a series of ‘appearances.’ Jesus meets with individuals and some groups of people. Would it not have been more logical for Jesus to appear first to the eleven men who were going to be the apostles of the early church? We would have expected that in a society where men always came first. Yet, the first witnesses of the risen Lord are a women. It is a powerful affirmation of the important role Jesus attributes to women.

How tragic it is that almost two thousand year later we must conclude that many who claim Jesus as their Lord, have still not paid attention to this aspect of the resurrection morning, and still do not give women the status in the church that is rightfully theirs. And this also applies to many Seventh-day Adventists. Unfortunately, many have closed their ears for the powerful statement Jesus made by first appearing to women.

Could things change before we celebrate another Eastern? I am not very optimistic when I consider the bureaucratic preparations for the new round of meetings (during the GC autumn council of 2018), which will once again discuss what must happen to those church leaders who have agreed to ordain female pastors, or at least have taken measure to ensure that male and female pastors are treated equally. Must there be punitive measures? It is as if we hear the apostles say to Jesus: ‘Lord, excuse us, but should you not have appeared to us first?

What might be done to change the minds of those church leaders who continue to discriminate women? Perhaps the only way to put this across is to ask all women to discontinue their activities in and for the church during a few weeks. How would the church function if all female pastors and elders would stay home, and if all women who serve in some capacity in the Sabbath school, who play the piano or the organ, or serve as greeters or in whatever other role, would just sit in the pew and passively listen to the men? Would that perhaps get the message through to those who oppose ordained women pastors that putting women in second place goes against the Spirit of the gospel?

In any case: On Easter morning Jesus made clear that for Him women come first.

 

The Lord is risen

For many—whether they are, or are not, versed in theology—the resurrection is a beautiful story, but nothing more. Its inspiring and uplifting message is: Do not despair when things are not going so well. You can always make a new start.

The apostle Paul totally disagrees.  He makes that abundantly clear in 1 Korintiërs 15. He is not satisfied with a symbolic interpretation. To deny Christ’s bodily resurrection changes the gospel into a miserable lie. It ceases to be Good News. And, he emphasizes, if Christ is not risen then all hope that there is something beyond death for us evaporates. Our faith would lose all meaning.

The resurrection of Jesus is a core truth of the Christian faith. There is no living faith if we only have a dead Jesus. The reality of death and the reality of his resurrection must go together.

There is no absolute proof for Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, we have the story of the empty tomb, but we have no witnesses who saw what happened and can take a polygraph test to give credence to their testimony. There are stories that Jesus appeared to some individuals and to some groups of people. Remarkably enough, these appearances do not continue indefinitely. This usually happens when stories that have no basis in truth begin to circulate. Such stories become more and more embellished, and more and more people become involved. But stories about Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection stopped after just a few weeks. Why? Because he was not only risen, but also had ascended to heaven.

Journalist Frank Morison was a skeptic, who believed that the idea of a resurrection was utter nonsense. He decided to write a book about this grand delusion. But after having thoroughly studied all the arguments, he concluded that the resurrection must have been reality after all. His book Who Moved the Stone? became a classic in defense of the resurrection. From a total skeptic he became a fervent disciple of the risen Lord.

For me, personally, the existence of the Christian church is the most powerful argument in favor of the reality of the resurrection. Jesus’ mission seemed to have ended in disaster. The Jewish leaders, with the approval and technical support of the Roman authorities, succeeded in having Jesus crucified. The Man from Nazareth, who for some time had a significant following, died between two criminals—just 33 years old. His disciples were in total despair. Only John and Mary, and a few other women, remained with Jesus to the end. His own brothers and sisters (most likely from a former marriage of Joseph; see Matthew 13:56, 57) had never become convinced that he was anything else but the physical son of Joseph and Mary.

However, just weeks after Jesus’ ignominious death, thousands of people believe that there was more to it. They become believers in a risen Christ. On the Day of Pentecost they come to Jerusalem from many different regions in the Middle-East. They listen to the apostles, they hear what has happened with Jesus, they are convinced, and they take this conviction with them when they travel back home. The disillusioned disciples  become enthusiastic apostles who are prepared to give their life for the Truth of the Risen Lord. James, one of the brothers of the Lord, is no longer a skeptic, but becomes one of the key leaders of the early church (Acts 15:13). What made them change their minds and made them believers rather than disillusioned skeptics? It must have been some momentous event: the resurrection.

I know that even this argument is no final proof. We still must take a leap of faith. And yes, I am prepared to take that leap.