New light on ‘Steps to Christ’

 

The discussion about Ellen G. White’s use of the work of other authors is not new. In 1883 the book Sketches from the Life of Paul was published. Soon criticism arose, even from some important Adventist leaders of that period. It was discovered that a substantial part of what Ellen White had written in this book strongly resembled the work of a few other authors.

Ever since the accusation of plagiarism has regularly been revived. It was soon clear that in her perhaps most important work—The Great Controversy—she derived a lot of her information from historical sources and that she quoted freely from these without, at least initially, mentioning her sources. That only happened in the final edition of 1911.

When Ellen White wrote The Desire of Ages (during her stay in Australia), she relied heavily on her faithful assistant Marian Davis. In the 1980’s Fred Veltman was commissioned by the General Conference to investigate the rumors that in producing this book Ellen White had made substantial use of the work of others. After his 8-year study he concluded that about 30 percent of the content of this book about the life of Christ was in a greater or lesser degree dependent on various outside sources.

For a long time the denomination downplayed the fact that Ellen White made extensive use of other sources. The frequent accusation of plagiarism was simply pushed aside with the (in itself correct) argument that it was quite common in her days to cite other authors without giving them due credit. And when some persons attacked Mrs. White publicly this often happened quite aggressively—which in turn provoked an almost equally aggressive defense of her person and work. A well-known example was the controversy that erupted around the book The White Lie, written in 1982 by the recently deceased Walter T. Rea.

Often those who argued that much of what Ellen White wrote was not original, were accused of no longer believing in the “Spirit of Prophecy’. Indeed, this was true in some cases. Some critics felt that Ellen White had, for them, lost all credibility. But the question is not primarily—at least not in the context of this discussion—whether Ellen White was indeed a prophet. What is here at stake is that—assuming that somehow God spoke (and speaks) through her in some special way—we must try to understand in what manner God inspired her. Apparently we are not dealing with a concept of inspiration that implies that everything was directly revealed to her in some supernatural way. This, of course, also has consequences for the way we look at inspiration in general (also of the Bible). The Adventist Church could have avoided a lot of hassle if the leaders had, at some earlier stage, been more willing to share with the members in the pew what many of them had already been aware of for a long time.

Gradually attempts are being made to give fuller information to the church members. Dr. George Knight, in particular, has made significant contributions in this respect. However, very recently, a new development may further hasten this process. Andrews University Press has just published an annotated edition of Steps to Christ. Denis Fortin, a former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, comments extensively on the history of this popular book. It first appeared in 1892 (published by Revell, a non-Adventist publisher). It consists almost entirely of material Ellen White wrote at some earlier stage and that was compiled by her ‘book maker’, Marian Davis. Fortin also explains that Ellen White worked in a particular historical context. Her Methodist background ‘colored’ her theological understanding at least to some extent. Moreover, in this book we also find traces of material from other sources.

But does all this make the book Steps to Christ less valuable? Must we conclude that it was not really inspired? No, but we must be prepared to recognize that inspiration apparently functions differently from the way our Adventist tradition has usually insisted upon. Fortin’s work shows that we have now come to a stage where we can openly say such things. This may make us hopeful that it is, indeed, possible to adjust long held standpoints. (And I could suggest a few others topics where, in my opinion, some adjustment would be welcome!)

 

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March 25 – Day of Dialogue

 

The preparations are in the final stage for the event that will take place on March 25 in the Triumfator-church in Utrecht (the Netherlands). Until recently the church was the home of one of the congregations of the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN).  It has now been bought by the Adventist Church, after its former building in the center of the city was sold. Those who have not yet visited this ‘new’ Adventist church should decide to do so. The event of March 25 is an excellent opportunity.

On March 25 a day of dialogue will take place around the theme: DO I GO or DO I STAY? Most of my blog readers will know that some six months ago a new book of mine was published. The theme of this special day reflects the title of the Dutch edition of that book. (The English edition is entitled: FACING DOUBT.) This book has caused a considerable amount of discussion. A small group has now taken the initiative to organize a day of dialogue devoted to this topic.

The first part of the program will consist of two short introductions. Pastor Rob Doesburg will explain why he decided to leave the Adventist Church. After having studied to become an Adventist pastor, he continued his theological studies elsewhere, and he is now a pastor in the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands. His story promises to be very interesting and personal. I will be the second speaker and will explain why I decided to remain in the Adventist Church—despite my doubts regarding some doctrinal issues and my worries about recent trends in my church.

These two introductions will be the basis for an open discussion during the rest of the morning. In the afternoon the visitors can choose from five different ‘workshops’. The topics will be:

  1. Who makes the decisions in the Adventist Church?
  2. How do you read the Bible?
  3. Contemporary trends in Adventism
  4. Question regarding the 28 Fundamental  Beliefs
  5. How relevant is the church of today?

The final part of the program will be a plenary discussion. Hopefully it will also become clear whether this initiative must be followed by something else—and if so, in what form.

I look forward to this day with great interest. I believe it can help many people to understand more clearly their own role and place in the church, and how they can constructively deal with their own doubts and concerns. I hope this can be a start for a further, open dialogue, in which difficult questions are not evaded.

If you happen to be in the Netherlands around that time, please note these details:

Where:          Triomfatorkerk (Adventist Church, Utrecht) Marco Pololaan 185, Utrecht.

Time:             25 March,   10.00  to 16.00 hrs.

(Bring your lunch. There will be soup and coffee. No program for children. Adequate parking near the church).

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Update FACING DOUBT project

 

Since my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ was launched, a lot has happened. Messages from around the world, but in particular from the USA and Britain, indicate that the book has found its way to a wide array of readers, and has also caused a lot of discussion. Some (but not many) have reacted negatively, as I had expected. But I have been surprised at the many positive reactions I have received from people who have told me that they recognized themselves in the book and have found it stimulating and helpful to read it. I want to thank all who have encouraged me to pursue this project further.

The English and Dutch editions have now been available for some six months. The major hurdle that we have faced (and are still facing) is that it has (predictably) proven very difficult to get publicity through the regular Adventist media—with some notable and much appreciated exceptions. We have been fortunate in receiving good support from Adventist Today and Spectrum, but we have had to rely mostly on the social media and word-of-mouth.

It would seem that the time has come to ask you, as my blog readers, to help give the project another boost. You can do this by making others aware of the book, and by sharing the Facebook message that I just posted on my FB page.   @Reinder Bruinsma. Please do so, and ask you FB friends also to share this announcement.

You may also want to look from time to time at the special FB page for the book:  @Facing Doubt, or to check the reviews on the Amazon.com website.

The main distribution channel for the English edition edition is: www.amazon.com, but many other on-line booksellers in many different countries also carry the book. The Dutch edition may be ordered by sending an e-mail (with name and mailing address) to book@bruinsmas.com.

We expect to launch the French edition: FACE AU DOUTE per 1 April. The main distribution channel will be www.amazon.fr.

The Russian edition is also about to appear. It will be available though a Russian on-line-bookshop.  Details about the name of the website and the sales price in rubles will soon be announced.

Work on a Danish edition is progressing nicely. The plans for a German edition are now also taking definite shape.  In addition, we are pursuing Czech, Norwegian and Portuguese editions.  And we will promptly react when further opportunities present themselves (and as funding for the initial expenses is available.

So—once again—please help to promote this important project further. There are thousands of people ‘on the margins’ of the Adventist Church that we are eager to reach—all around the world. Let’s do what we can to tell them they are not alone in their doubts and concerns, and that there may yet be a constructive way forward for them in the church they once embraced.  Thank you so much for all the help you can give in making people aware of this book that could be meaningful to many of them.

 

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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 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 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 many 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 few 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) a 1000-piece jig-saw puzzle with “my” windmill. It is still sealed in cellophane. I knew I was not going to put the puzzle together, but I could not resist buying the thing.

Perhaps it is not so strange that I continue to have such 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. Looking it the 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 unjustified 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 our 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 some of them.

 

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A few remarks about Trump

 

I realize that CNN may have been somewhat biased in the way it reported on the Trump presidential campaign, and that it since his inauguration shows a clear antipathy towards the new president. I try to balance their reporting with what I see on other channels, such as the BBC, Euronews, and other European and non-European news channels. And, of course, I also follow the main Dutch media. (I have always been interested in what happens in my country and around the world.)

I must admit that lately I am more emotionally affected by what I see, hear and read than usual. Hearing the Trump rhetoric during his inauguration speech, for instance, and listening (last night) to his address to the Republican leaders in Congress and in the Senate, made me really depressed. Is this megalomaniac, egocentric business tycoon, who is unable to utter any two sentence without using expletives like ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘tremendous’, ‘fantastic’ when describes his plans and capabilities—is he going to do all the things he has, often so incoherently, announced? It made me almost physically sick.

Now, I know that many of my fellow-believers actually voted for this immoral, but self-confessed born-again Christian, and that one of the prominent members of my  church even accepted a cabinet post. It is truly beyond me. The official Adventist media are very careful in commenting on political issues. To some extent, this is to be expected and even respected. Yet things change when moral issues are concerned. In such cases these media should be clear where Christian (and Adventist) values are at stake and in great danger of being ignored.

The Adventist Review has, as far as I can tell, made a few exceptions and has reported on two issues that are related to the political earthquake that has shaken the USA. It has reported in rather positive terms on the fact that a Seventh-day Adventist now occupies such a high position in the new US government and that the daughter and son-in-law of the president are Sabbath keepers. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior advisor in the White House, is a Jew and Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism. The Adventist Review applauded the fact that their Sabbath keeping will ensure that the importance of the Sabbath is highlighted in a very special way.

I would have hoped that our official church media had been more reluctant in their ‘endorsement’ of Ben Carson. The 64.000 dollar question is not whether it is good (and may be useful?) to have a Seventh-day Adventist close to the president, but whether he will show in his conduct, his influence and the policies that he will propose and put in place, that he is guided by Christian values and principles.

And what about the Sabbath keeping of two members of Trump’s family? Let us remember the prophetic words, as for instance found in Isaiah 1 and Amos 5, that tells us that Sabbath keeping is only pleasing to God when those Sabbath keepers ‘do justice, encourage the oppressed and defend the case’ of the disadvantaged in society. It remains to be seen whether mr. Jared will live up to that prophetic challenge. The omens are not very good and positive reporting on him in Adventist media is, in my view, at least premature.

 

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