EGW: Separating fact from fiction

In recent months I have lectured in various places, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere, about something that is currently a hot topic in many Adventist circles. I am referring to Last Generation Theology (LGT). The core idea of this theology’ is that Christ cannot return to this earth until there is a ‘last generation’ that ‘perfectly reflects’ the character of Jesus Christ. I have written a book on this topic[1] that was published about a year ago and this has resulted in quite a few invitations to come and speak about this subject.

The arguments of the supporters of LGT (Last Generation Theology) are to a large extent based on statements by Ellen G. White. This Adventist pioneer has left us with a large oeuvre, about many different topics. She wrote over an extensive period of time during which many of her ideas developed and matured. Because of the sheer quantity of what she has written there is an ever present danger to quote very selectively, when one is in search of support for a particular theory. I have found that the supporters of LGT do indeed often quote extremely selectively. This has prompted me to read very widely what Ellen White wrote about the themes that are relevant for this LGT topic, since my aim is to show that a balanced approach to her writings may not answer all our questions but certainly does not give support to this ‘theology’.

I must, of course, expect that, when I speak about LGT, some people in my audience will accuse me of not giving due respect to Ellen White’s writings. Last Sabbath, when I gave some presentations to the Adventist church in one of our Swedish Adventist churches, one person told me he believes that what Ellen White wrote has exactly the same status as the Bible. This is, however, claiming more for her than she ever claimed for herself and something she actually repeatedly denied. It is, however, a fact that the church is becoming ever more polarized about the person and work of Ellen White. On the one hand there is a group who places her on a high pedestal, while, on the other hand, many others have more and more questions about her work and the nature of her inspiration.

It is more important than ever before that we base our opinion on solid facts. It was not until the 1930’s that the view gained general ground that every word Ellen White ever wrote was inspired. This development must be seen against the background of the growing fundamentalism at that time in protestant America, with its increasing emphasis on the verbal inspiration of the Bible. This fundamentalism also influenced the way many Adventists began to understand the inspiration of the Bible, and also how they regarded the inspiration of Mrs. White. Many were more and more convinced that Ellen White was also verbally (word for word) inspired. Therefore, it seemed logical to collect everything she ever wrote about specific topics and to publish these collections in book form. This was the origin of a significant number of compilations (Counsels for Young People, Counsels on Diet and Food, Counsels for Sabbath School Workers, etc. etc.).

Since then some enemies of the church (e.g. D.M. Canright) as well as people who (at first) were loyal to the church (e.g. Walter Rhea, Ronald Numbers) made significant discoveries about how many of the books by Ellen White actually came about. The accusation of plagiarism became ever more louder.

Gradually much of the mist around these controversies had cleared and the time has come to ensure that careful historical research will reveal the truth. In recent months two important books have come off the press that can provide a lot of clarity. First, there is a book that came out in 2006 in a small edition but did not get a wide distribution, and this has now been re-published. It is written by Dr. Gilbert Valentine, who has carefully analyzed what happened after Ellen White died.[2] A fierce battle ignited between the heirs of Ellen White and the leadership of the church about the question who owned the rights to her writings and who could decide about further publications. The unfortunate fact that Ellen White left a substantial debt when she passed away made things immensely more complicated.

Another book that appeared just a few weeks ago is written by Dr. George Knight, one of the top experts concerning the history of Adventism and also of the person and work of Ellen White. His newest book is entitled: Ellen White: Afterlife.[3] Knight carefully chronicles the history of the reception of, and the approach to, the work of Ellen White in the century that has gone by since her death. It presents the reader with a fascinating survey of the dilemma’s that surfaced and of the hesitations on the part of the leaders of the church to acknowledge that the picture that was presented to the church about the ministry of Ellen White was not always fully true to all the facts.

These two authors have no intention to bring Ellen White down but rather to separate fact from fiction and to help the church members to form a more balanced view of this remarkable women.

(PS.  The simplest way to order these books is through Amazon.com. )

 

 

[1] Reinder Bruinsma, In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology (Oak & Acorn, 2018).

[2] Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (Oak and Acorn, 2019)

[3] George R. Knight, Ellen White: Afterlife (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2019)

“Generous spaciousness”

A Christian Reformed pastor, of Dutch descent (as her name clearly indicates), wrote about the attitude she believes the church members in her denomination should have with regard to the gay issue. Wendy VanderWal-Gritter gave her book the title: “Generous spaciousness.”  This is, she argued passionately, the way Christians should treat others when they do not agree with their own standpoints. They must be “generous” in the “space” they will give one another in dealing with their differences.

I have more and more concluded that this is precisely what my church needs. And with the term “my church”, I refer to all levels of the Adventist denomination. I am a member of a small local church. I know that not all members agree with some of my opinions and with some of the things I say and write. But I appreciate immensely the fact that I sense a “generous spaciousness” rather than critical comments or hostility, because I am not as “orthodox” as some would like me to be. When I look at the Dutch Adventist Church in general, there are many elements that I like, but there are also quite a few places where I sense a definite lack when it concerns this “generous spaciousness.” And when I consider recent developments in worldwide Adventism—especially at the highest level of governance—I must regretfully conclude that this “generous spaciousness” is often sadly lacking.

My influence as a retired church worker is rather limited, certainly internationally. That is only natural. I had my last pay check as an active worker over a decade ago and no longer do I have the opportunity to attend meetings where I can mix with the leadership of the church. I am grateful for the opportunities I still have to travel extensively and preach and give presentations in many places. Earlier this month I preached in the United Kingdom and in Paris, and next Sabbath I am scheduled to be for a full day with the church in the Swedish city of Göteborg. And my books are still being read in many places around the world. However, I am realistic as far as the decreasing impact my activities have.

Recently, a few people have initiated a project in the Netherlands to stimulate a “generous spaciousness” in the Dutch Adventist Church. I have gladly agreed to support the project that has been started. On April 6 there will be a special program, hosted by one of the churches in the center of the country, that will focus on this “spaciousness.” The aim will be to make people around the country more aware of a few initiatives that already try to provide safe havens for free dialogue, where doubts may be expressed without fear of being criticized, and where new ideas as well as controversial issues can be freely discussed. For those who have found those safe havens, where they can experience “space”, this often is now the most meaningful link with their Adventist heritage. The aim of the new initiative is to strengthen these “safe” places and give more prominence to the quarterly vesper services, which provide a type of worship that is “normally” not readily available in the Adventist Church. But a further goal is also to explore ways of increasing the number of places that allow for “generous spaciousness.”

It is true that for some this idea of “spaciousness” is a threat. They want to strengthen the walls around their traditional ways of ”being church” and interpreting the Adventist message. They are afraid that a call for space is a call for the dilution of Truth. I do my best to understand their concerns. I want to also extend “space” to them. But, somehow, they must come to see that far too many members—young and older—are drifting away from our church, because they can no longer breathe in the nineteenth century air of their church environment. They want to open the windows and want breathing space as they think, pray and live their faith.

Come to Leusden on April 6.  Asschatterweg 1, Leusden.  For further information see my EXTRA Dutch blog of MARCH 19. Google Translate will give you the info you need to know.

The message of the Revelation

Although I often preach on Sabbath at some distance from where I live, I have made it my practice to attend Sabbath School whenever that is feasible. Sometimes I arrive a little late, when I first drop off my wife in the church where we have our membership and where my wife is quite active.  I must admit that attending Sabbath School during the quarter that is now almost ended has not always been an unmitigated pleasure.

This past quarter the worldwide Adventist Church studied the Bible book of the Revelation. The interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation has been very important to the Adventist Church and many Adventists have felt from the very beginning that, besides a few key doctrines (such as the second coming, the Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, and the state of the dead) their particular interpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible has sustained their identity. There was considerable knowledge of this interpretation among the church members, and even in my youth most Adventist families that I knew possessed a few thick books on the topic, written by such men as Uriah Smith, James White, and Louis R. Conradi, and were also well acqainted with Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy.  They knew about the order of last-day events and about how these events would affect the world, but also ‘the remnant’ of the believers who kept the Sabbath and who would have to endure the ‘great tribulation’, before they would ultimately be saved at the return of Christ. They were regularly assured in the Sabbath sermons that all this was going to happen very soon, very possibly even during their lifetime.

The leaders of the world church are keen to keep this sentiment alive and are adamant that the Adventist believers should stay with the traditional Adventist eschatology (literally: doctrine of the last things). The present Sabbath School study guide was intended to reinforce that tradition in the minds of the Adventist believers. Andrews University scholar Ranko Stefanovic was asked to write a study guide for the study of the Revelation for the first quarter of 2019.  I imagine that some of the leaders at the church’s headquarters have since regretted this, for, although his manuscript was by no means sensationally different from the traditional Adventist view, the author tried to say a few things differently and to change some of the traditional emphases. Before the translations into the various languages were made and could go to press, significant ‘corrections’ were sent (twice) to all translators around the world. These ‘corrections’ were clearly intended to strengthen the historicist approach and to provide a more ant-Catholic slant to the quarterly than the author had intended.

Protests were heard from around the world. Lots of people indicated they want to hear something else–something that relates more to their twenty-first century than to the situation in nineteenth century America. I count myself among this group and do not want to see the bashing of other Christian churches continued. I also place many question marks behind the application of many of the sections of the Revelation to specific historic events, and today I feel far less sure than I did a few deacades ago about some of the confident predictions regarding the end-time scenario. More and more I try to read the Revelation as a dramatic piece of literature that bolsters the confidence of God’s people–when it was first written as well as in our age–that God’s reign will be established in spite of all the forces, religious and otherwise, that seek the thwart his plans. That is enough for me. And, from what I have heard in quite a few of the sabbath school discussion groups that I have attended, this is enough for many people that participated in these groups. I heard many comments that, after studying this study guide, people felt more confused than ever and that it did very little, if anything, to fortify their faith.

A week ago I visited the beautiful Sainte Chapelle in Paris. I looked intensely at the big rose window that displays over a hundred scenes of the book of Revelation. It struck me that in the very center of this magnificent colorful display is a beautiful stained-glass window of Christ, walking between the golden lampstands, which (as we are told by John) represent the churches (that is: us, the believers!). That is the message of the book of Revelation: Christ is very close to us.  I wished I had heard this more often during this almost past quarter!

PS: This phone app gives a marvelous impression of the windows of La Sainte Chapelle:  http://www.sainte-chapelle.fr/en/News/App-Unlock-the-secrets-of-the-windows

Desmond Ford (1929-2019)

In October last year I was one of the main speakers during the “Big Camp” event, which the South Queensland Conference organizes annually on its campsite just outside Brisbane, Australia. During the first Sabbath of this major event, shortly before I was due to go onto the platform to preach, I was approached by a lady, who introduced herself as “Gill”, the wife of Desmond Ford. She told me that “Des” would like to meet me, but that, unfortunately, his health did not allow him to come to the campmeeting in person. Would I be willing to come and visit them in their home, some forty kilometers from the site, if she arranged for my transportation? I visited Desmond Ford that very same afternoon.

I had seen Dr. Ford once before, from a distance, in the early 1990’s, near Andrews University. The university authorities had refused to let him speak on the university campus, and therefore a venue was arranged at a short distance from the university. Ford had become persona non grata in the Adventist Church. He had lost his credentials, after he had become embroiled in a serious conflict with the church’s leadership over some of his theological insights. During the infamous Glacier View Conference in August 1980, the church leaders there assembled had in majority concluded that the standpoints of dr. Ford were a danger for the stability and the future of the church. Looking back at the proceedings, now almost forty years ago, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Ford had no chance to survive this ‘tribunal.’ His condemnation was mostly based on ecclesial-political grounds.

Desmond Ford came from Australia, where he had become a very popular speaker and theology teachers at Avondale College—the institution of higher learning of the church in Australia. He then moved to the United States—at the urge of church leadership in his home country—where he was appointed as theology professor at Pacific Union College in California. Soon the theological problems for Dr. Ford began to escalate. He became known as a fierce opponent of any form of perfectionism and emphasized untiringly that our salvation is through grace alone. However, his ideas about apocalyptic prophecy became increasingly suspect. The most important controversial issue was his assertion that the so-called ‘investigative judgment’–which according to traditional Adventist teachings had been going on in the heavenly sanctuary since 1844—missed a solid biblical foundation.

Ford’s condemnation, however, was not the end of the matter. The conflict and its aftermath caused a worldwide upheaval. In Australia alone it lead to the—voluntary or forced—exodus of hundreds of pastors. And Ford remained active as speaker and writer—almost until his death a few days ago. Regrettably, the church has not shown the generosity to rehabilitate him at some point. The reality, anno 2019, is that many theologians and pastors in the church agree with a good deal of Ford’s views. Unfortunately there are at present many places in the church whether it is not ‘safe’ to talk about this. Many, in particular, place—just as Ford did—question marks after the traditional Adventist position regarding the ‘investigative judgment.’

I already believed in some form of the so-called apotelesmatic principle, long before I ever heard this technical term. Ford introduced the term for his view that an apocalyptic prophecy often has a provisional fulfilment, or more of these partial fulfillments, before the final fulfilment takes place. And since a few dozen years I have shared in his views of the investigative judgment. Why can this issue not be openly debated, and why would it be so worrisome if there is diversity of opinion with regard to this point? It does in no way demean the fact that there is a heavenly high priest who has provided us with direct access to our Father in heaven. And, really, does an infinite God need a few centuries to go through heavenly books in order to decide who can be admitted to eternity?

The Dutch theologian Johannes van der Ven wrote in one of his books that a church needs conflicts. Only a church that is no longer alive does not have any controversies. Theological controversies force a faith community to re-assess its theological identity. And that is why a denomination must provide for channels through which this dissent can be communicated.

Ford did not get that opportunity within the confines of the church he loved, But also without his church credentials he remained an utterly committed Seventh-day Adventist. He did not become bitter, but continued to challenge all who came to listen to him, or was willing to read his books, to totally rely on God’s grace. I am thankful that I still had the chance to meet him in person. In our conversation of about an hour and a half he never said a negative word about the church. It was clear that I met with a real Christian.

Desmond Ford did the church a tremendous service by prompting many to think more profoundly about their faith. The way he was removed from his position remains a sad example opf how not to deal with doctrinal dissent. Shortly after ‘Des’ celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he closed his eyes forever. He has been a great blessings to untold thousands and his influence will continue, even now, when he is no longer in our midst.

Help, thank, ‘wow’

I realize that prayer is an essential part of being a Christian. If there is a God (and I believe there is), and if he somehow is at the root of our existence (as I believe he is), it makes sense to believe that he communicates with us, and that we are supposed to respond to this communication and to his presence. We do this through prayer.

Sometimes I am touched by the prayers I hear others pray and by some of the classical prayers that are a beautiful part of the Christian tradition. And at times praying gives me a sense of somehow connecting with the Beyond. But I must confess that I am not a prayer warrior, who spends countless hours on his knees. I have found many of the prayer sessions I have attended quite tedious, and I have never gotten used to the praxis of saying a short prayer any time I get in a car to drive even a short distance—as I have often experienced with drivers in other countries. I wonder what God thinks about this pious habit. (As I write this, I am aware of the fact that I, inevitably, use very human language when referring to God). And what about all the prayers that are continuously offered around the world for a change in the weather? How does God decide which prayer he will answer when the farmer asks for rain and the holidaymaker prays simultaneously for a day without rain and plenty of sunshine?

I read in Philip Yancey’s book on Prayer the following statement that someone made who doubted the efficacy of prayer. In many ways it echoes what I also have often thought: “If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces, but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz or Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Since Hiroshima and Auschwitz did occur, one must infer that God cannot (or has a policy never to) influence the course of worldly events.”

Yes, prayer (and how God deals with it) remains a great mystery to me. We plead with God to heal someone who is dear to us. Of course, we include a sentence like: “If it is your will”, or: “Not our will but your will be done.” But really, why should it not be God’s will that a sick person would recover?  Ok, I realize that God did not make the gas ovens of Auschwitz, but the Nazis did. And God did not throw the bomb on Hiroshima, but an American bomber did. And God does not make people sick, but all kinds of natural and environmental processes do, and in many cases a person’s stupid life style choices do. However, it does not answer the question why an all-powerful and loving God does not intervene and prevent the suffering of mankind in past and present.

I have concluded that I will have to live with this dilemma. And, in spite of my questions I will continue to pray. Yesterday I received an advertisement of a new book that has been published by the Dutch publishing firm J.H. Kok. It is the Dutch translation of a book by the American bestseller author Anne Lamott. She writes fiction and non-fiction and some of her books are about the Christian faith. Her latest book is about prayer and is entitled: Help, Thank, Wow. I plan to order the book. The title is intriguing and the book may well provide inspiration for a sermon. Perhaps the title is the best summary of what our prayers should be: Relating to God and asking for his help (regardless of some of the problems I hinted to above), show appreciation for the many good things we experience, and showing respect and wonder for the world around us.

The Danish theologian/philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote these often-quoted words: Prayer does not change God, but it changes us. I agree that prayer can influence us, for engaging in prayer is not first of all uttering some (often quite predictable) words, but it is an attitude—an admission that there is more than us. Someone (I have forgotten who) said that prayer is an attitude of perpetual metanoia. This Greek word means: remorse, repentance. It signifies that we sense our shortcomings and incompleteness and our need to grow—for which we need inspiration and power from Someone beyond us.  It indicates that we know our place. So, I will keep asking for help with some difficult issues I face. I will keep thanking for all the good things in my life and in the world (in spite of all tge bad things), and will try to more often say: “Wow.”