Nostalgia

 

During most of my childhood years and early teens I lived in a Dutch windmill. Built in the 1630′s, this tall wooden structure with its thatched roof was used, together with dozens of such windmills, to pump the water from a lake of roughly 6.000 acres and to transform it into a fertile “polder”.  At the ground level we had our simple living quarters: four small rooms with a total of about 600 square feet. Our family of  (initially) three adults and four children had moved there because my father was suffering from a debilitating illness, and we were dependent on a small amount of social security. The fact that the rent was dirt cheap had inspired my parents to move from a regular house in the village into our new abode.

I have often gone back to “my” windmill and each time I visit, alone, with relatives or with foreign visitors, I take some pictures. They are always the same! When I visit my two sisters in Canada I see the same pictures of “our” windmill on their walls as I have at home. A good number of years ago I was in a US bookshop and saw a calendar with Dutch windmills. And, lo and behold: “my” mill was on the front cover of the calendar. I bought several copies of it. I once happened to see (in Holland, Michigan, VS) a 1000-piece jig-saw puzzle with “my” windmill. For many years it stayed in its cellophane cover. It was not until quite recently that I decided to part with it and give it to a jig-saw adept.

Perhaps it is not so strange that I continue to have  an intense interest in windmills. But, at times, I step back and force myself to look at the reality and not simply cherish my nostalgic memories. As I think back, I often tend to forget how cramped the rooms were and how cold it was during the winter. I somehow seem to have forgotten that we had to get our drinking water from a neighboring farm; that we had no electricity but used oil lamps, and that we had an outdoor toilet. When looking at picture postcards the Dutch windmills may look romantic, but I can ensure you that they did not make for very comfortable living.

When people in the church tell me they want to go back to Adventism of the past, I must conclude that they have fallen victim to an unfortunate form of nostalgia. It seems to be in human nature to look very selectively at our past and to sift out those things that were not so pleasant. We often seem to have an uncanny way of pushing these elements far back into the recesses of our minds. And so, when people say, they want to go back to the church of the past, they, in actual fact, tend to work with a heavily edited version of the past, from which the uncomfortable aspects have been erased.

The past has many good things that we must hold on to. There is nothing wrong in my regular visits to the windmill, to take even more pictures. The windmill is linked to my personal identity. But I do well to also remember the disadvantages under which we lived and to be grateful for the way my comfort in life has drastically been improved since.

When people tell us they want to recreate the church of the past, they actually mean that they want to go back to the nostalgic, expurgated version of the past that they have created. There are many elements in our collective Adventist past that we must cherish. If we lose them we are in grave danger of losing major chunks of our identity. But if we think about it (and do a bit of reading) we will soon see that there are also aspects that were not worth keeping. In fact, as a church, we have every reason to be grateful that we have moved away from quite a few of them.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Where the rubber hits the road

 

There has lately been a lot of discussion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about the place and the authority of the higher church administrative echelons (in particular concerning the role of the General Conference). This continued in the past few weeks—after the world congress of the church in San Antonio. Much of the debate focuses on the question to what extent the ‘lower’ administrative levels of the church (conferences and unions) may decide a number of important issues. Everything points to the fact that the denominational leadership in Silver Spring is doing all it can to ensure the supremacy of its own authority. This means, specifically with regard to the status of women in the church (which has recently been so much in the forefront), that unions cannot independently decide which persons they will ordain. Their authority is delegated authority, we are told!

It seems that we have now entered a phase in the dispute where the question of power has become all-important. In many respects, the administrative structure of the church—and the way in which the ‘highest’ administrative unit functions—resembles ever more the organization that we have always vehemently condemned: the church of Rome, in which the line of authority runs from the top to the bottom, and where the sense that, in fact, all authorities of ‘the top’ must be derived from what happens at the base of the church, has completely disappeared.

The importance of the ‘base’ of the church was clearly brought home to me in the past few weeks in my contacts with local churches. From July 25 onwards, I have an uninterrupted series of weekly speaking appointments in local churches: Amsterdam, Enschede, Amersfoort. Hilversum, and in the next few weeks: Huis ter Heide, Harderwijk, Meppel, and Utrecht. Invariably, my experience is that for most church members the events of Sam Antonio are already in a distant past—and that there is very little talk about events that happen in the higher regions of the world church, not even during the collective coffee hour after the church service (which has become an established custom in almost all Dutch Adventist churches).

Occasionally I find some church members who try to stay abreast of what happens in their church in far-away places, through the social media or the information that is provided by the Dutch union communication department. And, of course, the mission story during the Bible study period is still a fixed element of the service. But by far most members are first of all interested in the local church to which they belong, where they meet their fellow-believers and charge their spiritual batteries for the week to come. Everything else is, at most, of secondary importance. And that is how it should be!

In its earliest beginning the christian church consisted only of local groups of believers. Often they were so small they could meet in the home of one of them. Gradually a structure developed with elders and deacons. In addition, there were many who had some spiritual gift(s). The apostles had a special role and cared for the contacts between the churches and between them and the ‘mother-church’ in Jerusalem. All other supplementary models, which through the ages have been introduced into the church, were human inventions. Some of these have functioned quite well, and some did not.

The Adventist Church has also developed a specific organizational model. An initial strong distaste for any umbrella organization was, in the course of some 150 years, gradually replaced by an intricate hierarchical network of ecclesial structures. Many aspects have served us quite well. And some aspects are still OK. But let us never forget that, even though we have prayed and sought felt divine guidance, in final analysis our model was mostly borrowed from others and further devised by ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, but this realization should  prompt us to relativize the enduring usefulness of our organizational model.

Many organizational patterns in the Adventist Church have from time to time been adapted. But it became ever more complex: many things were added, but existing things were seldom discontinued. The territories of some divisions were repeatedly changed, and many conferences and unions were added. In the meantime the so-called ‘working policy’ of the church (the rules that have been agreed upon to structure the work of the church) has become an steadily more voluminous book. This is understandable, for many things have become more complex and, as the church grows, new situations had to be addressed. But this does not alter the basic fact: it is and remains human work.

That is why such statements as:’ Well, this is simply how the church functions. . ., and, ‘This is what the policy says’ and, ‘This is what you find in the Church Manual’, are often totally inadequate. Things can be changed! And it is risky to ignore the many voice that clamor for change. Ignoring this will only stimulate a process where ‘the base’ is less and less interested in what happens ‘at the top.’

It seems to me, that the time has come, as never before, that we become collectively aware (including the leadership at ‘the top’) that all authority in the church rests with the local churches. The members run their own  churches and delegate certain powers to ‘higher’ administrative levels. This is what the Adventist Church still maintains in theory, but seems to be more and more forgetting in its actual practice.

When I preach tomorrow morning in one of the Dutch Adventist churches (my sermon will be on Hagar and her confession: You are the God who sees), I will be reminded of the important fact that, whatever some people may say, the rubber hits the road in the local church.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What is really ‘fundamental’?

 

In last week’s blog I suggested that many of the things we refer to as ‘fundamental’ are not really so very ‘fundamental’. I referred among other things to the 28 so-called Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I asked the question: How in the world can 28 points all be truly ‘fundamental’? Moreover, these are not only 28 short sentences, but each of these is developed in quite a bit of detail, and those details, presumably, also get the label of ‘fundamental.’ That many take this view, was clearly illustrated a few weeks ago during the World Congress of the church, when a full day was spent on the precise rewording of some of ‘the 28’, and 2500-plus delegates were asked to vote even on the sequence in which the supporting biblical passages are listed.

I promised to draw up a list of those aspect of my beliefs that are ‘fundamental’ for my personal faith. Please note: I am not thereby saying that all other elements in ‘the 28’ are not correct or totally unimportant. But if I have to summarize my beliefs—as these currently function for me—my statement of beliefs will look something like this:

I believe

-       in God—three in one: Father, Son and holy Spirit.

-       that God is the creator of everything, and that I, therefore, am a created being with the privileges and responsibilities this iimplies.

-       that Jesus Christ came to our earth and has radically solved the sin problem through his death and resurrection—for the world and for me.

-       that the holy Spirit guides my conscience and equips me with certain gifts, as he sees fit.

-       that the Bible is an inspired book that tells God’s history with mankind, and provides me with basic guiding principles, so that I can live as God intended.

-       that, as a human being, I am subject to death, but that, when I die, my identity is safe with God; he will give me a new start in an eternal existence.

-       that our present world is infected by  evil of demonic proportions, so that a solution is needed from on high; to realize this Christ will come once again to this earth and create a ‘new heaven and a new earth.’

-       that as a follower of Christ I can only live authentically if I consciously seek to shape my life after the principles he has modeled for me.

-       that every seventh-day Sabbath I have the unique opportunity to find true rest in the rest that God provides.

-       that I am responsible for how I treat this earth and use my time, my material means, my talents and my body.

-       that, together with all true christians, I can be a member of God’s church.

-       that the faith community to which I belong has an important part in the worldwide proclamation of the gospel and has the task to place a number of important accents.

-       that through my baptism I may be part of God’s church and can, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, be regularly reminded of Christ’s suffering and death; and that I may experience spiritual growth together with those in the community of which I feel a part.

Of course, such a list can never be final. And what I have listed is ‘fundamental’ for me–others will have to reflect on what is ‘fundamental’ for them, and will probably use different words, add certain points, or leave out certain points.

This is the crux of the matter: It is good to reflect from time to time on what is really ‘fundamental’. It helps to differentiate between primary and secondary things and not to treat secondary things as if they are the most important. That, unfortunately, is all too often done by us—individually and collectively as a faith community.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is everything equally important?

 

No, not all things in life are equally important. We often say: ‘ The main thing is to be healthy!’ And, fortunately, most people rate family and friends higher than all sort of material things. Life becomes very difficult if one does not know how to differentiate between things that are really important and the things that have a lower priority.

The same applies to the sphere of church and spiritual life. The ‘higher’ church organization (in the Adventist church: General Conference, divisions, unions, conferences) certainly have a role to play, but the local church is the place where the rubber hits the road. A good understanding of theological issues is important, but a close tie with God and a faith that keeps you going in daily life is much more essential.

Is everything in the Bible equally important. It may be risky to ask that question, for who am I to say what parts of the Bible are more or less essential. In times past church leaders and scholars decided what writings to include in the Bible and what not to include. Catholics (and also Lutherans) made a decision that differs from what Protestants have agreed upon.

Protestants tend to be satisfied with a biblical canon without the apocryphal books. The Bible is an authoritative book for them. But even most of those who claim to take everything in the Bible literally (as it ‘plainly’ reads), tend to have something like a canon within the canon. Not everything in the Bible carries the same weight. Many Bible readers feel (to mention just one example) that they get more out of the Gospel of John than from the book Ecclesiastes, and that they find the Psalms more helpful than the book of the prophet Ezekiel. This is also try for me. There are parts of the Bible that I read and re-read, but I must confess that there are also segments in the Bible that I have not read in recent years.

But, are we allowed to extend his argument even further? May we, for instance, say that some doctrines are more important than other doctrines? Adventists recognize ’28 Fundamental Beliefs’. Are all of these equally ‘fundamental’? How in the world can they all be really fundamental, i.e. foundational? Often I hear people say: It is all part of the truth, so we cannot say that something is unimportant or less important than the rest. But, let’s be honest: that is not how reality functions. Most (maybe all) Adventists sense that particular points define their being-Adventist, while other points do not fall in that same category. I believe it is useful for all of us to draw up a short list of what is really ‘fundamental’ for us, and what might, in fact, be more in the periphery. Next week I intend to say more about this and will share my own short-list of what I consider truly ‘fundamental’.

P.S.

A few years ago I did a presentation for fellow Adventist theologians about the question whether all doctrines are equally important. A little later I rewrote the text of this presentation and submitted it as a chapter in a Festschrift for Dr. Jon Dybdahl—a much valued friend and colleague, with whom I worked closely together at Andrews University for a number of years. Jon (now retired) was (and is) a gifted teacher and for some time served as the president of the Adventist Walla Walla University in Washington State (US).

For those who are interested: the text of this chapter, entitled ‘Is all Truth Truth? may be found on my website: http://reinderbruinsma.com/are-all-truths-truth-2/

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Three Forms of Unity and the Fundamental Beliefs

 

At the time when our son was enrolled in the christian elementary school in the Dutch town where we lived, now over 40 years ago, my wife offered to assist as volunteer to help the students in acquiring good reading skills. Her offer was appreciated, but there was a small problem.  The school had an explicit Calvinist basis and demanded of teachers and volunteers to sign a statement that they agreed with the Three Forms of Unity. My wife had never even heard of the ‘Three Forms’. She did not want to sign anything and, as a result, offered her volunteer services to the adjacent public school.

What are these Three Forms of Unity? It concerns documents the Dutch Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century accepted as authoritative. These were the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberger Catechism (1563), which defined in great detail what was considered ‘the truth’. Some fifty years later the Canons of Dort were added. They owe their name to the fact hat they were agreed upon by the famous Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19), where proponents of predestination won their bitter conflict with the followers of a certain Arminius. These Arminians argued that people have a free will. This group was usually referred to as the ‘remonstrants’ and the Canons of Dordt are, therefore, also often also called the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants.

Even though the school administrators indicated that signing the statement was a mere formality, my wife did not like the fact that she was obliged to formally indicate agreement with these ancient documents. Until today they belong to the so-called confessional documents of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). Does this mean that most of the members of this denomination (and most other denominations in the Calvinist tradition in and outside the Netherlands) know what these documents contain? Certainly not. My guess is that the vast majority has never even read one letter of them. But many discussions about certain articles (in particular in the Belgic Confession) have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to change anything And from time to time these confessional documents are used to assure that people stay in line (or to refuse a volunteer who wants to assist in a reading program in an elementary school).

This is precisely what the early leaders of the Adventist Church had in mind when they stated that they were against adopting any formal confession of faith. They had seen how these documents had received, in the denomination in the US that they were acquainted with, almost the same level of authority as the Bible, and how difficult it had become to start an open discussion about some biblical theme. Everything had been defined once and for all, and one had to stick with what the wise men in the past had decided. The Adventist pioneers knew for sure: ‘We have no creed but the Bible!’

Gradually the conviction that it was wrong to develop a ‘creed’ was pushed aside. And now we have a document that is known as the (28) Fundamental Beliefs. It has become much more than a simple enumeration of the most important Adventist beliefs. Just as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberger Catechism in Dutch Protestantism the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs have become a test of orthodoxy. This is what you must believe, if you really want to be part of it.

Does his mean that all Seventh-day Adventist know more or less what the 28 ‘fundamentals’ are all about? Far from it. I have at times done a little research and concluded that most Dutch Adventists at best are able to list 10-12 of their ‘fundamentals’. And, let’s be honest: most newly baptized members only have a vague idea of the content of these 28 Beliefs. In far-away countries the situation is probably not any better. I do not think that most of the 30.000 members that were recently baptized in Zimbabwe, after evangelistic campaign of some weeks (just to mention one example), will be able to enumerate more than ten ‘fundamental’ Adventist beliefs. Yet, at the same time, church leaders have at various occasions said that you cannot be a good Adventist if you do not fully subscribe to all 28 Fundamental Beliefs.

Without any doubt, the Three Forms of Unity are important historical documents. They have helped to safeguard many of the basic Calvinist convictions in Dutch Protestantism. But the details in these documents hardly play any significant role in the daily life of today’s church members. Likewise, the Adventist document with the Fundamental Beliefs is an important document. Nevertheless, we must not make it more important than it is. We must conclude that most Adventists share a number of important general Christian and more specifically Adventist convictions, without however continuously referring back in their daily life to the text of the document with the Fundamental Beliefs. And the 28 Fundamental Beliefs may never acquire the sterile status of a ‘confession of faith’ that can be used as a checklist to determine  someone’s orthodoxy (or the lack thereof. That simply is totally at odds with a precious Adventist tradition.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment