It is Friday morning, around six o’clock. Today the conference of Adventist theology professors from all over Europe, which started here (at the campus of Friedensau University in Germany) on Wednesday evening, will continue. I am, in fact, not one of the typical participants. Not only have I now already been retired for a considerable time, but my career has largely been outside of lecture rooms. Nonetheless, I am always invited at these bi-annual events and usually I take an active part in the program. That is also the case during this year’s conference. At 9.30 it will be my turn to present a lecture. I am one of the four so-called ‘plenary’ speakers. That means that I have been given a period of about 90 minutes to speak and for the questions and discussions that follow. During other parts of the program shorter lectures will be presented by two speakers simultaneously, which means that one has a choice to attend the lectures that one finds most interesting).
The theme of the conference is: On the Freedom of a Christian– Human accountability and Liberty in the Light of the Reformation”. Since 2017 is the year in which it is commemorated how 500 years ago Luther ‘launched’ the reformation by nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the ideas and actions of Luther also play a major role in most of the lectures.
On the Freedom of the Christian is one of the best known early publications of Luther. My lecture is also inspired by that theme. The first part of what I am going to say deals with Luther’s concept of ‘freedom” and with the way in which Luther practiced ‘freedom.’ For Luther, freedom, in the first place, meant that a human being must be free from the oppression of the law. We become free by accepting in faith that we are justified by God, without contributing to this ourselves in any way. Freedom it first of all is a matter of inner freedom. This is the core of reformation theology. What also appeals to Protestants is that Luther had the courage to protest against the many errors and unbiblical practices of the medieval church and wanted to be free from the papal tyranny of his days.
In these respects Adventists feel very much akin to Luther. But this is much less so when it concerns his further ideas regarding freedom. The reformer objected to the view that human beings have a free will. Like Calvin he taught his followers that there is a (double) predestination, in which the human will plays no role. With many other, especially evangelical, Christians Adventists firmly disagree with this.
Also with regard to other aspects of freedom Adventists are no disciples of Luther. The reformer did not support full religious freedom for all. And deviant theological view were not tolerated in the Lutheran camp. Moreover, Luther did not want a separation between church and state. In many ways Adventists are closer to the ‘radical’ reformers, who advocated a full separation between church and state and defended a much greater degree of tolerance for other ideas and of religious freedom.
In the second section of my lecture I will emphasis that in this Luther-year, we must not only pay attention to what Luther said and did in the domain of freedom, but that we must also look at ourselves. From the inception of our movement we have fought for religious freedom. Often we were confronted with the need to defend our own rights (for instance with regard to unimpeded Sabbath keeping). But we have also come to the defense (and are still prepared to do so) of others whose religious rights are denied. Unfortunately, however, we must admit that within our own church organization we find that, increasingly, the freedom to think independently is curtailed or taken away. There is a tendency to ever more define in detail what one must believe in order to be viewed as a ‘genuine’ Adventist. And at present we see, in particular, concerted attempts by the leadership of the church to limit the academic freedom of the theologians within the Adventist Church. That is why I conclude (very carefully) my lecture with this paragraph:
“In many ways Luther’s views—and those of Calvin and other magisterial reformers—remained defective. Five centuries after that momentous morning in Wittenberg, when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church, we may rejoice in the fact that today human rights are in most countries high on the agenda and that religious freedom is defended and practiced by many. It is gratifying to see that the Adventist Church has made freedom of conscience and of religion a point of major emphasis. But the time may have come that the church should consider giving a greater degree of freedom to its members and clergy to explore new ways of doing theology and of sharing their theological convictions with others. This, it would seem to me, would be an important lesson that we can draw from our study of the concept of freedom in the thinking and acting of Luther and the other Reformers.”