I have very little interest in soccer and do not belong to the fans of a particular club. Of course, I have noticed that Ajax has had a very successful season. But that sums up how much I know of the state of Dutch soccer. I must admit that I had some admiration for Johan Cruyff, and that is also true for Jan Mulder. Whenever I see his face on tv, I tend to be at least mildly curious for what he has to say.
Mulder is now in his mid-seventies. After a brilliant career as a soccer player (In particular with the Belgian club Anderlecht and Ajax of Amsterdam), Jan Mulder became a popular columnist for a number of publications, and authored more than twenty books. For many years he has made a frequent appearance in various television programs. Currently he presents a series of six programs on Dutch television with the name: Jan Mulder’s eternal life.
The few programs that have already aired leave the viewer in no doubt that Mulder hopes for a very long life. He does not want to die and for six consecutive Friday nights he explores in his program the possibilities of eternal life. I wonder whether in the instalments that are yet to come Mulder will also approach his topic from a religious perspective. I watched with keen interest the interview of Mulder with Dr. Ian Pearson, an English futurologist who predicts that by the year 2050 eternal life should be within our reach. However, it must be noted that the kind of eternal life the professor envisages is not something that excites me. This English expert on future developments believes that within a few decades technological progress will enable us to connect our brain with the digital world and that we can continue to live ‘in the cloud’ after our physical body has ceased to function adequately. Our digital ‘I’ may then choose a robot as the vehicle that will allow us to participate in this world. It was clear that Mulder was also not convinced this was the kind of eternal life he is looking for.
I have no idea what technological innovations will change our lives in the future. These developments will almost certainly prolong our lives with a number of years and perhaps we are only at the beginning of replacing failing body parts with ever smaller implanted artificial objects and wireless instruments, etc. However, there will always be a limit to what we can do. As a believer I am convinced that creating life and offering perfect eternal life is beyond that limit. His search for eternal life should take Mulder to his Creator rather than to dr. Pearson.
In the meantime I fully understand Jan Mulder’s eagerness to hold on to this life and to push his death as far as possible into the future. The question whether eternal is indeed an option has also occupied my thinking in recent years. It has recently inspired me to write a book about this topic. I have been looking for answers by taking the Bible as my point of departure. Some of my questions have so far remained unanswered, but I have been able to choose a title, based on a firm conviction: I Have a Future, The English edition of the book will come off the press later in this year. But I have now also started work on a Dutch edition. As soon as that appears I will send a copy to Jan Mulder. I will address it as: Jan Mulder, Bellingwolde. I have no doubt that it will reach him in the small village in the province of Groningen where he was born and where he now lives.
I do my very best to stay informed about religious and church events in the Netherlands. This week three things caught my attention. First, I saw an item in my newspaper about the planned fusion, in the Dutch village of Langerak, of two congregations belonging to different orthodox Reformed denominations. These denominations were split-offs from the larger Reformed bodies and date from 1944 and 1967, respectively. Most Dutch people would not know in what ways these various Reformed denominations on the right side of the ecclesial spectrum actually differ. And I must admit that I am also not always totally sure. But, fortunately, here and there people discover that differences can be bridged, and that there often are many more things that unite than divide, and that it is possible to step over the shadows of the past.
The second item that was reported in the press concerned a few Roman-Catholic women who were baptized by immersion in a place in the center of the country. They belong to a charismatic current in the Catholic Church and wanted to confirm their bond with Christ in this biblical manner. This did in no way jeopardize their membership in their church, even though it was emphasized by the authorities that immersion is, of course, a beautiful symbol, but must not be viewed as a real baptism. But even so . . . there is, apparently enough space in the church to tolerate the decision of these women.
A third event during this week was especially impressive. After four centuries the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands declared that their church had been wrong in its historic attitude toward the Remonstrant Church and that the age-old controversy should not have escalated as it did. In the seventeenth century a bitter conflict erupted about two opposing views regarding the road to eternal salvation. The traditional Calvinist view that before all eternity God already decided who would be saved and who would be lost, was vehemently opposed by the supporters of Arminius, a theology professor at the University of Leyden, who maintained that the Bible teaches that every human being has a free will and can decide to accept or reject the offer of salvation. When national politics got heavily involved in the matter, things escalated beyond control.
The famous Synod of Dordt condemned the Arminians. The end result was the establishment of a new denomination—the Remonstrant Brotherhood—which exists until this very day. However, developments in the church did continue. Most Calvinist Protestants (except spme smaller orthodox denominations) in the Netherlands nowadays only pay lip service to the original ideas about predestination. And, as far as the Remonstrants are concerned, they gradually moved to the very liberal part of the ecclesial spectrum. Many of its members are attracted by the fact that they may write their own personal confession of faith!
Seventh-day Adventists, with their belief in man’s free will, are Arminians. It should be noted that Protestant America—which for a major part has its roots in Calvinism—has been quite reticent in embracing the doctrine of predestination. This teaching did not fit well with the American pragmatic ‘do’-culture, in which every person must be responsible for all aspects of his life.
What do I take away from these three items that appeared in the Dutch press of this past week? They do have something in common, namely that space was given to diversity. These three events show that, apparently, at times it is possible to distance oneself from earlier standpoints and to provide space for thoughts and practices that differ from traditional views. This inspires optimism. Much that happens in the church is very human, but now and then it is clear that the Spirit is still at work. That gives hope when one, all too often, is confronted with seemingly unchangeable standpoints.
Last Friday afternoon I was in the building of the UN High Commission of Human Rights in Geneva. Together with the other participants of the conference of theologians that was held, just across the border into France, at Collonges-sous-Salėve, I took part in the excursion to the headquarters of this section of the United Nations that has it headquarters in the Wilson Palace in Geneva. It proved to be an educational afternoon. First we received a detailed explanation of the work of the section that monitors the implementation of the Treaty against Torture, which was signed by about 170 countries. Then we moved to another large meeting room where we received detailed information about the Faith for Rights initiative of the UN, which underlines the important role faith communities can play in the promotion and implementation of human rights. This visit, however, was not the only time in the past week that I was confronted with human rights issues.
The worldwide implementation of human rights remains, also in 2019, an important priority, and it was good, once again, to be made aware of this. I consider it a privilege to live in a country where the human rights situation is quite good. People in the Netherlands are free to hold meetings, and to express their opinions; they are also free to organize protest demonstrations–just to mention a few of the human rights. The Dutch also live in a country where freedom of religion is cherished as a fundamental human right. However, there may at times be situations when these rights must face some restrictions. According to the Dutch authorities the plan of the American pastor Steven Andersen to come to the Netherlands, and to preach on May 23 in Amsterdam, was such a situation.
What was so special about the plans of this pastor? The fact that someone has outlandish ideas or preaches a bizar form of religion is, in itself, no reason to block him or her from entering the country. Members of the ‘flat earth society’ may freely promote their theory and wicca’s and even Satanists are free to say what they want as long as they do not endanger the public order. However, pastor Andersen is known as someone who denies the holocaust. It baffles me how someone can claim that the holocaust never happened, but the danger of this belief is that it fits into an ant-Semitic pattern. In the light of history the authorities are fully justified in ensuring that a person who will, directly or indirectly, incite anti-Semitic sentiments, does not get a platform. Pastor Andersen also believes that people with a non-hetero sexual orientation should be executed by the government. This pastor is free to believe that homo’s will not get to heaven, but he is not free in inciting hatred towards homosexuals. The authorities should not lightly decide to silence people with generally unwelcome opinions, but in this case we can only regard it as positive that the Dutch government decided not to allow the pastor to enter the Netherlands. In this instance, the rights of the people in general carried more weight than the right of free speech of pastor Andersen.
Very recently something else happened in the domain of human rights, specifically the right to religious freedom. It was a great moment when in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church, during the Second Vatican Council, declared that it would henceforth recognize the right of religious freedom. The document that was adopted in 1965 has now been revised by the International Theological Commission of the Vatican, and approved by Pope Francis on April 23. The document supports unequivocally full religious freedom for Christians and for all other people. The report states that there can be no return to a church which once upon a time was opposed to religious freedom! Of course, there will be those who totally mistrust the Catholic Church, and who will maintain that these words are simply meant to mislead the world and disguise the Vatican’s true intentions. I believe, this is an unchristian attitude. Non-Catholic Christians should rather be grateful that the road that the church entered upon over half a century ago has not proven to be a dead-end street, but has now been newly paved.
It is Wednesday morning. I am sitting at Schiphol Aiorport near Gate B 36, from where one hour from now my flight toi Geneva will depart. I am on my way to the Adventist College for Higher Education, just across the Swiss-French border, at the foot of the characteristic Salève—an elongated mountain range that is often referred to as the ‘balcony of Geneva’. This is the place where tonight the bi-annual European Theology Teachers Convention will start. One might say that I do not really belong to this group. Indeed, I retired a considerable time ago, and I never was a full-time theology professor for any length of time. But I am happy to be among the group pf Adventist theology professors who are invited for this event and I very much appreciate the fact that the Trans-European Division continues to extend this invitation to me (and allows me to report my expenses to them).
Conferences such as these are extremely useful, not just because of the many interesting papers that are presented around a particular theme, but also because of the opportunity to network and the possibility to talk freely about theological and ecclesial matters that are hot in current Adventism. The theme for our meetings in the coming days is: Pastoral Ministry and Ecclesial Leadership, and thus concerns the relationship between the pastoral ministry and the church administrators. My paper for Friday morning is entitled: The Freedom and Influence of the Pastor.
A few days ago the theology professors of the Adventist universities on the West Coast of the USA met for a few days. Their meetings had as its motto: ‘Conversations among Colleagues’. This could in fact also be used as the sub-theme for our conference, as it points to the atmosphere and the nature of our meetings. Our conferences must provide a safe environment where open conversations can take place, without anyone having any fear that tomorrow some statements, usually taken out of context, will appear on some critical website.
The work of an Adventist theologian is scrutinized through a number of magnifying glasses. Colleagues provide critical comments and indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with what a fellow-theologian says or writes. That is as it should be. The dialogue between theologians sharpens insights, inspires towards further study, and shows that some things may not be clear or that different approaches are possible.
However, the work of the church’s theologians is also put under the magnifying glass of the church administrators. It is a good thing that they want to stay informed about theological developments in the church. It is also essential that they themselves have a theological education, for leading a church is quite different from managing an insurance company. The leaders have the responsibility, when needed, to stimulate certain developments, to put the brakes some developments or, at times, to correct. At the same time, the administrators should never forget that professional theologians play an important role in the continuous process of re-thinking what we believe, what we want to communicate to others, and of helping the church to connect our faith with ecclesial practices and the daily life of the believer. In order to do their work well the theologians need to have the trust of the administrators and must get the space to ask new questions and take another look at traditional answers. Unfortunately, they do not always have that trust and are not always given that space.
The work of the theologians is also viewed critically through the magnifying glass of the church members in general. But they often hand their magnifying glass to people who are mostly on the edges of the church, and who follow the work of the ‘official’ theologians with great suspicion. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who are constantly looking for what they consider to be ‘heresy’ and who find great satisfaction in searching for anything that even slightly differs from the Adventist Truth. A significant number of websites, a flood of dvd’s and various publications warn the members for the dangers that are invading the Adventist Church. I must, however, say that I usually cannot find much spiritual food that nourishes my sould when looking at these websites, dvd’s and publications.
I believe the theologians in our tertiary educational institutions should simply just carry on with their important ministry and not waste too much energy and time in reacting to the critics at the margins of the church. They are seldom listened to with an open mind. The negative activities at the extreme right side of the theological spectrum should perhaps inspire the professional theologians to try harder in making the results of their work more accessible to the church membership at large.
Whatever be the case: the group of theologians that is gathered at Collonges will in the coming days be able to enjoy ‘conversations among colleagues’ in a safe environment.
I recently completed a book manuscript about the topic of the resurrection. In this Easter blog, I simply want to quote a few paragraphs from the book that will, if all goes well, be available just a few months from now. If the publisher (Stanborough Press Ltd) follows my suggestion the title will be: ‘I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Our resurrection depends on the great Life-giver who died and was raised—as we remember once again in a special way during the Easter season.
In this book I do, of course, raise the question how we can be sure that Jesus did indeed come back to life? Do we really have hard facts? Can we be sure of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? In my book I devote a long chapter to this crucial question. Below I quote the few final paragraphs of this chapter:
Speaking of hard facts, there is one fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences:
That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.
N.T. Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.”Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while he earlier flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.
This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchus Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the birth and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions:
How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did notfinally scatter, were notforgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did notreach its infamous end at the cross?
In other words: How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Saviour of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?
Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”
 Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 216.
 Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope(London, SPCK, 2011)., p. 73.
 Pinchus Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg: Fortress Publishing House, 1982), p. 123.
This past week the executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church met in Silver Spring for its second most important annual session: the Spring Meetings. This two-day meeting was also attended by the presidents of the world divisions. (Most other committee members who live outside the USA, as e.g. the union presidents, only attend the autumn meetings in October.) These Spring Meetings were sandwiched between two special conventions. On Wednesday afternoon a conference started about the traditional Adventist view that those who enter military service should, if at all possible, opt for a non-combatant status. It is gratifying to see that this theme is once again put on the agenda.
The Spring Meetings were preceded by a study conference on the issue of membership losses as a result of people leaving the church (the Nurture and Retention Summit). This concerns a very serious problem as the statistics underscore. Dr. David Trim, the official in the church’s head office who is (among other duties) responsible for the compilation of the denominational statistics, reported that since 1965 no fewer than 15.132.555 persons left the church—often within a short time after their baptism. This is a huge number and explains to a major degree why the church has not grown as exponentially as was predicted a few decades ago.
Membership of the Adventist Church now stands at about 21 million. This means that the denomination is a religious organization of considerable substance. There are more Adventists then Jews in the world, and we have now almost surpassed the number of Sikhs. Both groups are normally categorized as world religions! Also, there are now considerably more Adventists than either Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. And while most Protestant churches continue to decrease in membership, Adventism still shows significant growth. These positive indicators should not, however, blind us to the fact that official church statistics show that within a few years after their entrance into the church around forty percent have again disappeared.
And, unfortunately, this is not the whole story. In many countries membership statistics are extremely unreliable. The church books list millions of names of people who are no longer actively involved with the church, and many of them are even no longer alive! And being an official member does not guarantee regular church attendance. Worldwide the percentage of registered members that attend church services on a regular basis is about 60 percent. Moreover, there is a large group (worldwide no doubt several million) of people who grew up in the church but never actually joined.
Clearly, it is a good thing that the church studies this issue and wants to come up with ways of halting this continuous hemorrhage. At the end of the discussions of just a few days ago the president of the General Conference spoke. As we have come to expect, he focused on a number of quotations from the writings of Ellen White—this time from the book Christian Service. These statements were put forward as the remedy of the problem. They emphasize that people must be put to work. When people become active, they will not leave the church.
It is certainly true that being actively engaged in the promotion of an ideal and to be active in an organization are important in giving a sense of involvement. However, I do not believe that this is the key issue. When working on my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventists ‘on the Margins’I saw how complex the problem of church leaving is. I saw ever more clearly that many, either slowly or more suddenly, move towards the back door, because they feel that their church is no longer sufficiently relevant for their everyday life, and because they do not experience in the church the space they need in order to be who they are, with all their questions and doubts.
I would like to suggest to brother Wilson that he should talk more with the people who have left the church, and to read more about this topic and consult more intensely with experts in or outside our denomination. Perhaps this will convince him that the massive exodus from the church has many causes and that people will only respond to his call to become active if they feel truly ‘happy’ in their church. This is, I believe, the question that must be addressed: How can we become a church that the people will experience as a warm spiritual home, where everyone is welcome and where we can all have the space to translate the Christian values and Adventist principles to fit our own situation, in an atmosphere of freedom and respect? Those who become part of such a community will not want to leave and will become active and will, with the support of others, keep growing in their faith.
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 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. 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. 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. )
 Reinder Bruinsma, In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology (Oak & Acorn, 2018).
 Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (Oak and Acorn, 2019)
 George R. Knight, Ellen White: Afterlife (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2019)
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.
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!
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 “Gil”, 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.