Reinder Bruinsma may be retired as far as career goes, but at 74, this former pastor, teacher, and high-ranking administrator has viewed retirement as freedom to double down on what he loves most. He preaches, writes books, translates scholarly tomes, and from time to time, joins his local hiking club for a 10-mile hike along the canals. And when he is not doing that, he will be lecturing or presenting papers at conferences in his own country and all over Europe. He and his wife Aafje live in The Netherlands where people know how to pronounce his name.
Dr. Bruinsma has been particularly concerned about reaching out to those who find themselves on the periphery of the church: “For me, building bridges remains a sacred task. What can I do to help those who hardly know any doubt and who have no major concerns about the way the church operates to realize that the doubts and concerns of others are very real and touch their entire being?”
You have written that the Adventist church today is divided into two main groups: those who are comfortable in the church and those who are not. If I understand you correctly, you also see this as a worldwide phenomenon although the issues may vary. Could you elaborate on this?
It is, of course, difficult to provide a one-page analysis of what is happening in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. There are different kinds of fault lines in Adventism. Firstly, there is a widening chasm between the South and the North. Then there are those who mostly look to the past for inspiration and security, and there are those who are more focused on the future and who want to find creative ways of keeping, or making, their faith relevant for the Twenty-first century. In addition, we may differentiate between sections of the church that tend to read the Bible in a "plain," literal way and to promote a "conservative" theology, while another segment of the church prefers a different kind of hermeneutic and feels more akin to a "progressive" or "liberal" kind of theology. Such fault lines intersect at different points. But, yes, I feel that there is perhaps a deeper, and possibly more significant, division among Adventist believers.
On the one side are those who feel comfortable with their church. They want to keep Adventism the way it is and do not want change; if anything, many in this group want to strengthen the traditional identity of Adventism. They support the kind of leadership that wants to protect the past, and many welcome measures to ensure that the Adventist teachings are defined into ever-greater detail and that leaders, in particular those who have teaching and editorial responsibilities in the church, adhere to these. To a large extent, this segment of Adventism also supports the traditional eschatology and retains the "us" (the remnant) and "them" ("apostate" churches) end-time view.
On the other side are those who feel less and less comfortable with that approach. They want to see change; they want an aggiornamento (bringing up to date) that ensures that the church—what it does and believes, and how it translates and communicates its convictions—remains relevant to the present and relates to the society and culture they live in. They want a much greater freedom in what church members can believe as long as they support the really basic doctrines of the church. They feel very uncomfortable with the way current top church leadership tries to tighten rules and regulations and to get an even firmer grip on what may be said and written in the church; they no longer want to think in terms of "us" and "them," but they want to recognize and appreciate real Christianity where they see it. The tragedy is that many have become so uncomfortable that they have already left or find themselves "on the margins" of the church.
You have for a long time been reaching out to those who find themselves on the periphery of the church. You have written a number of books addressing this concern such as It's Time to Stop Rehearsing What We Believe and Start Looking at What Difference It Makes (1998), Present Truth Revisited: An Adventist Perspective on Postmodernism (2014) and Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers "on the Margins" (2016). The last book was received very well, especially in Europe, where secularization is decimating the Christian church, but Adventist church leaders, especially those at the hierarchical pinnacle of the church, reacted very differently.
Indeed, I have become increasingly concerned about the disturbing fact that so many Adventists have given up on their church, and about the possibly just-as-large group of people who are still in the church but who wonder whether they will have the courage (and the interest) to stick with the church as they know it.
You mention some titles of books, in which I have addressed issues that are related to this concern. It is interesting that you should remember the small book that the Pacific Press published now almost twenty years ago (It's Time to Stop Rehearsing What We Believe and Start Looking at What Difference It Makes). It was inspired by an extraordinary experience I had. I visited a church member who was terminally ill. He was more conservative than most ultra-conservatives and knew exactly what God wanted from all of us. But on his deathbed, he engineered a very dishonest financial deal. That made me think and ask myself this question: To what extent do the doctrines we profess actually influence the way we live? After all, Christ told us that the Truth will set us free. In other words, the Truth is not just a set of intellectual propositions, but it must do something for us. So, I took all 27 Fundamental Beliefs (the 28th had not yet been added) and in as many short chapters, I asked myself in each case: what difference does this doctrine make in the way I live? How does it make me a better, more loving, more mature, and more pleasant Christian? That approach appeared to ring a bell with many readers. I received more positive reactions from readers of this book (that has now long been out of print) than I had received on anything else I had previously written.
My book An Adventist Perspective on Postmodernism had to be published privately as an e-book. Several denominational publishing houses said they liked the manuscript but felt that it was not "opportune" for them (that word was actually used several times) to publish it. I felt increasingly that there were things about the world around me (and especially about the new generation, including my own children), which I did not understand. That led me to become heavily interested in the rise of postmodernism and in how postmodernism has influenced Christianity, definitely including the Adventist Church. For a number of years, I did a lot of lecturing to students and other audiences about this topic and tried to help hem understand some of the present tensions in the church that had much to do with the dichotomy between modern and postmodern Adventism.
But, currently, much of my attention is focused on the topic of my latest book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers "on the Margins." It has so far appeared in English and in my mother tongue (Dutch). Editions in French, Russian, and Danish are soon to appear, and I hope some other languages, such as German and Portuguese, will follow. I have not even tried to have it published by denominational publishers, knowing that this would not be possible even if the leaders of these institutions themselves might have been interested in its publication. The denominational channels for promotion and distribution are likewise not available for this book, so I have had to rely mainly on the social media. Spectrum and Adventist Today have been very supportive, and the word about the book has spread widely. Amazon.com is the main channel for the distribution of the English edition, but many other on-line bookstores, in different parts of the world, also carry the book.
In this book I want to address the large numbers of men and women who are "on the margins" of the church—many who have left the church but still have many—social and other—ties to their former spiritual home, and those who have serious doubts, especially with regard to some of the traditional Adventist views and who find that the church allows them less and less breathing space. And I address the group that feels uneasy about the way the official church forces certain standpoints on its members (and its educational institutions). Among these are the issue of hermeneutics (how do we read the Bible?) and of a six-day literal creation week, aspects of the sanctuary doctrine and related issues, and the discrimination of women and of people with a "different" sexual orientation.
I have made myself rather vulnerable in the book by freely speaking also about my own doubts and concerns. At the same time, I want to appeal to my readers not to give up on their church but to find ways of constructively dealing with their doubts and concerns and to simply take the freedom to think for themselves and not let others determine whether they are ‘genuine’ Adventists or not.
Can you describe the reaction to your book and what surprised you the most about it?
I have received, as was to be expected, some very negative comments. Some have (often without actually having read the book) stated that the honest thing for me to do would be to hand in my credentials as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, considering that—in their view—I no longer believe in some fundamental Adventist teachings and actively seek to undermine the faith of church members around the world! Readers of this website may remember the scathing review by Clifford Goldstein, who at the General Conference level is responsible for the creation of the adult Sabbath School materials. His review was, I think, very unfair and based on a biased reading of only part of the book. But such criticisms have been very limited in number. The reactions of the leadership at the General Conference and the Division levels have been mostly in the category of total silence. However, through my social network, I have heard that some have (silently) welcomed the book and have told colleagues that they agree with many of the things I say.
I do understand that church leaders are in a very difficult position. More than a few of them are not happy with recent developments in the church, but they can only continue to lead and have a mitigating influence if they move very carefully. Moreover, their constituencies are often quite polarized and openly endorsing such a book would not help them in their work. For that reason I have not asked any church leader—and many of them are among my friends or at least good acquaintances—to openly endorse the book since I do not want to make things more complicated for them than they already are.
By and large, the reactions that I have received are mostly positive. Both people "in the pew" and ministers tell me that they recognize their own dilemma in the book and that they find it helpful that someone brings it out into the open and helps fellow-believers to face their doubts and concerns in a constructive and positive way.
From the feedback I receive, I must conclude that the book has so far not reached many people who are already at considerable distance from the church and that it also largely fails to reach the younger generation. Maybe someone else (younger than I am) must take up the challenge to deal with this topic in a way that will touch the millennials. On the other hand, it has been surprising to get so many reactions from people who say that they are probably regarded by their fellow-believers as solid Adventists, but that, in fact, many of the things I raise have been troubling them for a long time. This group, in particular, seems to appreciate the book.
As far as I can tell, you like the concept of “unity in diversity.” How much diversity can unity absorb?
It would still be true to say that Adventism displays a remarkable degree of unity. At the same time it cannot be denied that Adventism also manifests an ever-growing measure of diversity.
Any worldwide church must face the challenge Adventism is facing: enormous ethnic and cultural diversity and an inevitable variety of theological thought. Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism—just to mention two examples—must, like Adventism, also deal with very significant diversity within their ranks. Most denominations, even when their presence is largely confined to one country or one area of the world, have different theological streams, or modalities, which may roughly be labeled as "conservative" versus "liberal." And in at least some denominations the gap between the two is much wider than in Adventism.
Adventism has spread over the world and has found a response among all "peoples, nations and tongues." The Adventist public has, over time, also become much more varied. Today, we see a church with large numbers of highly educated people and with men and women of all walks of life. Many Adventists have become aware of what other Christians are thinking and realize that their questions and concerns are often very similar to theirs. Moreover, many Adventist church members realize they must find answers to questions the founders of the church did not ask and address.
It would be unnatural and very unhealthy if the church would be a monolithic, never changing structure, displaying strict uniformity in the way it manifests itself in the world, addresses different issues (some of which may be more acute in particular parts of the world than elsewhere), worships in the same ways and adheres in every detail to the same kind of theology.
You are right when you say that I seem to "like" the idea of "unity in diversity." However, not only do I like it, but I strongly believe that the future of Adventism as a world movement is threatened if this idea is not wholeheartedly embraced. Diversity is essential if the church is not to become a museum that only displays interesting things from the past, with guards everywhere to ensure that the visitor does not touch anything. The church must be a living organism. Significantly, one of the preferred biblical metaphors for the church is the term "body." That image sharply underlines the fundamental value of diversity. We must certainly continue to emphasize the unity of the body of Christ. But I am reminded of something I read somewhere: The oneness of the flock is in the fact that we have one shepherd, not in the fact that all sheep are clones.
How much diversity can the church tolerate without falling apart? I would suggest that we need to agree on some basics. In the last chapter of my recent book, I have listed a number of the things that are "basic" for me. And, with all the diversity that I notice, I observe a fundamental unity in our church with regard to these "basics." Let me briefly mention some aspects.
Not for a moment do I want to deny the very real challenges of the theological diversity among us. But I do not want this to make me blind to the strong degree of unity that continues to prevail in the Adventist faith community. Whatever labels we may give each other, it is gratifying to see that there is more that binds us than what divides us. When we look at what proponents from different currents within Adventism tell us they believe, we notice that they are held together by important basic convictions. I know there are different perspectives on the inspiration of the Bible, but I know of no Adventist theologian who does not, in some way, take the Bible very seriously. I realize we have differences in Christology, but I know of no Adventist colleague for whom Christ is nothing but a human person and who does not believe that he is our present Mediator and that in the "near" future he will return to this earth. We may hold different theories of the atonement, but all of us believe that salvation is in Christ and that we are saved by grace. I know of no serious Adventist theologian who denies the value of the Sabbath and still calls himself or herself a Seventh-day Adventist. I hear everywhere within Adventism about the same holistic view of human nature and "conditional immortality." In spite of many different theories about the end-time events, I do not think there are many (if any) Adventists who have rejected the biblical teaching that human history, as we know it, will end and that Adventists have a special mission in preparation for that. And for all, it is clear that faith affects lifestyle and that stewardship and discipleship are close twins. With this kind of underlying unity, we can handle, and even celebrate, the diversity that our faith community experiences.
It has been said that authority is like soap: the more you use it, the less you have left. Are you concerned that church leaders—and you have been one–like so much of society these days will be tempted to dispense with dialogue in favor of brute force to resolve issues that divide the community?
No organization can function without a clear line of authority. But here is one of the areas where the distance between modernism and postmodernism is very pronounced. In segments of the church that are still mostly "modern," authority automatically follows election or appointment to an office. In that paradigm, the key words are obedience and compliance. In other segments of the church—in particular, but not exclusively, in the Western world—authority must be earned. The keywords are trust, authenticity, role-modeling, and a willingness to listen and to dialogue.
Enforcement does not result in compliance and peace but in alienation. This is, I believe, what is sadly happening in the church. At the General Conference level and in a number of divisions and "lower" church entities, a "modern" type of leadership and of exercising authority is still seen as the kind of strong leadership that the church needs. As a result, the authority of these leaders is eroding in sections of the church where the more postmodern idea of authority has become prevalent and the older, often authoritarian, leadership style only brings aversion.
I found the Scandinavian approach to women’s ordination fascinating. First Denmark, then Norway, and later on others, decided to do away with ordination—period. As far as I know, ordination originally was the church’s way, in an age of “heresy,” of letting Christians know who had its blessing when it came to administering the sacraments and representing the community of believers. You have a Ph.D. in church history; in your opinion, is ordination a question of organizational power, a working policy of sorts, or does it fall within the realm of theology?
The Scandinavian approach to the ordination of female pastors cannot be the final answer. It is walking a tightrope between the pressures that come from above (the church’s hierarchy) and from below (a majority of the members). Some temporary solutions can, however, help members live with the dilemma for the time being.
The issue of the ordination of women has become a symbol for the two major parties that have formed in the church on this topic. The underlying questions are these: How do we read the Bible? and How does living in a culture that differs from the culture of Bible times influence how we interpret the biblical data? And there clearly is the fear of a "slippery slope." What will be the next thing on the liberal agenda once women’s ordination is conceded?
I have no problem with ordaining people for a particular church office although I find no biblical basis for the precise way we should "set people apart." We are all part of the New Testament priesthood that comprises all believers, but some are clearly given a special—often full-time, and/or paid—assignment in the church. It would seem appropriate to have some ceremony to mark this. The "laying on of hands" seems a fitting symbol. The problem arises when the church decides that it will not allow for the ordination of women to the ministry in the very same way as it has arranged for the ordination of men. At the top of the church, this has become more and more a matter of policy compliance and of organizational power rather than of principle. It disregards one of the Fundamental Beliefs that underlines the fundamental equality of the genders. It goes against the moral compass of many Adventist believers, young and old. The church has made a mess of this issue. Who is able to explain that ordaining female elders and female deacons is all right while ordaining female ministers is not? Are there different kinds of blessings involved?
But I remain hopeful that the leaders in Silver Spring will fairly soon understand that they must find a way to solve this issue, even it this may mean ‘losing face.’ If they do, it will, I am sure, be appreciated by many as an act of courage and true leadership and will help to restore at least some of their credibility.
You have focused on the dynamic aspect of Adventism as a movement and not a static entity, a society of sorts for the preservation and promotion of 19th-century religion. One of the aspects of 19th-century Protestantism, especially in the U.S., was the deep-seated suspicion, if not outright hostility, with which denominations interacted. Orthodoxy, which every Christian group defined in its own dogmatic terms, was de facto the conduit through which God’s free grace was communicated to sinners, and dogmatic disagreements were, to a large extent, interpreted as hostility directed at God and his clear word. Is it time to move beyond dogmatic hostility and embrace other believers, including Catholics, as fellow Christians?
I have long been a fervent believer in the fact that we must leave our traditional "us" and "them" mentality behind and that we must no longer foster a church culture in which we are the "good" ones, and everybody else is, at least ultimately, "bad." The idea that Seventh-day Adventists are the remnant people who will make it to the kingdom, while everybody else is part of "Babylon," no longer convinces large groups of our church members. If we look into our history, we can understand that this traditional perspective emerged, which expressed itself, in particular, in a strong anti-Catholicism. The Adventist believers were not alone in this line of thinking. Other Protestant denominations were frequently even more anti-Catholic than Adventists, and Ellen White’s words about Roman Catholicism were often milder than those of many other American Protestant authors of the late 19th century. Adventists have, however, been unable to change their anti-popery tune after Ellen White put the anti-Catholic rhetoric in concrete in her book The Great Controversy. I have frequently suggested that we must learn to read her writings—including The Great Controversy—against the background of her times rather than as a recipe for our approach more than a century later.
Christianity is in our present world in a crisis. It is rapidly losing influence. This is also true of the Roman Catholic Church in many parts of the world. Today, the greatest danger for Adventism does not come from fellow-Christians, however much we may disagree with them on many points. The greatest challenge today comes from the growth and spread of non-Christian religions and—especially in the Western world—from rampant secularization.
This does not mean that we can never criticize other Christians for what they believe—but we should do so only after we have made a sincere effort to actually understand what they believe. And we must base our opinion on what they say and do today—and not mainly on centuries-old sources. Moreover, we must make sure that we know how we, as Adventist Christians, can learn from others and can contribute to a better understanding of God’s Word by placing important specific accents in our sharing of the gospel. And we must get much better at doing this in the kind of language that people today understand and that reverberates with them.
I fully accept that there will be a remnant. But rather than arrogantly claiming that my church is that remnant, I must focus on how I can be sure that I belong to that remnant and how I can live and speak in such a way that others around me will be drawn to follow their Lord in such a way that they will also be recognized by God as part of that remnant.
You are currently doing research for a book on the variety of perfectionism called "Last Generation Theology"—the idea developed by M.L.Andreasen that the redemption of the earth is held hostage by Adventists who fail to reach God’s standard of holiness. What led you to take an interest in this strand of theology?
LGT (last generation theology) is not something new. As you state in your question, it was developed by M.L. Andreasen although he borrowed ideas from earlier Adventist authors. Today the LGT is becoming more popular than ever and is embraced by many of our prominent speakers and leaders, often without calling it by that name. It is based on a few premises that I believe are unbiblical and detrimental to our individual spiritual life and that of the church. One of these premises is that Christ took, when he was incarnated, post-fall human nature. He was like Adam after our first parents surrendered to sin. Yet Christ succeeded where Adam failed. With all the evil inclinations and "propensities" that human beings are subject to, he was able to live a sinless life. Therefore, the argument is, we have no excuse to keep on sinning. It ought to be possible for us to arrive at the point where we have gained complete victory over sin. This may seem very unlikely, but the LGT proponents believe that those who live just before the Second Coming will come to this point. This must happen, it is claimed—mostly on the basis of a few selectively chosen statements made by Ellen White—for it is a condition for Christ’s return. He will not come back until "his character is perfectly reflected" in his remnant people of the last generation.
I (and many with me) believe that this theory is based on a very selective reading of Bible texts and Ellen White statements and that it has many flaws. It stresses the fact that the timing of Christ’s return depends on our efforts. It thus sends us on a guilt trip: we are the reason why Christ has not yet come! My reading of the Bible tells me that many factors are involved, but that the timing of this momentous event is fully in God’s hands. Furthermore, my study of theology tells me that I must be very reluctant in defining Christ’s human nature. What happened in Christ—God becoming man—is and remains beyond our understanding. Christ was—and is—somehow God and man. He is unique, and no one else can be compared with him. My knowledge of Adventist history informs me that, when people suggest that perfection is within our reach, our human role in our salvation is usually emphasized to the detriment of the basic principle of salvation by grace and faith alone and that this inevitably leads to legalism.
Bart Ehrman here in the U.S. and Harry Kuitert in The Netherlands are prominent examples of theologians who lose faith after decades in academia, but their reasons, which receive a lot of attention, are not the reasons why so many Christians abandon faith. As you have pointed out, it is the lack of relevance that is the main challenge facing the Christian religion, at least in the western world. People do not abandon church because they lose faith in the doctrines of the church but because they do not see how they contribute meaning to their lives. How do you approach this problem?
It is true that doctrinal dissent is not the main reason why people abandon Adventism. I am convinced, however, that it frequently does play a role. Why people decide that Adventism is no longer relevant for them is usually rather difficult to pinpoint. Trends in their local church, the lack of space to be who they are and to approach things in their own way can often play an important role. The sense of no longer feeling at home in the congregation to which they belonged or disagreements with fellow-believers may also be important factors. But doctrines often are also somehow part of the equation.
Faith is not the same as assent to a list of doctrines. Faith is trust in the Object of our faith—the Lord of our life. Faith is a willingness to become disciples of Christ and to enjoy a relationship with the One we want to follow. Theology and doctrines must help us as we try to understand what is involved in having faith and in growing in faith. Doctrines are for faith what grammar is for a language. But doctrines must always remain just a tool for putting into words what we believe about God and his involvement with the world and with us.
Theology—doctrinal truth—is always a work in progress. As the times are changing and as we must relate to different cultures, we must ask new questions and look for answers that are relevant for us today. This is what I see as the pursuit of "present" truth. We must always realize that we stand on the shoulders of men and women of the past, yet we must break new ground and realize that we never know the full Truth. Everything we say about God is tentative and preliminary. As soon as we have said something about God, we must take a step back and admit: This is how I understand it at present, but I know this is just my limited, human view that can never grasp how it really is.
The problem with people like Harry Kuitert (I know him better than Bart Ehrman) is that he gradually came to the position that everything we say about Above comes from below. In his old age, he has come to the point where he has lost the concept of revelation.
I just read an excellent biography of Harry Kuitert, and I have read a number of his books. I have many experiences that are similar to his. I am not quite as old as he is. I believe he is now 92 years old, and I am, at 74, much younger. Kuitert has continued writing books until very recently, and I hope that I will also still be given a good number of years to write some more books. But, like him, I have revised many of my earlier ideas. Like him, I have gradually moved away from my rather fundamentalist beginnings, and I must admit that there are many questions to which I no longer have the answers. But I do not agree with the idea that everything we say about God emerges from our human imagination. I continue to believe that the great God, our Creator (how he did this, I do not profess to know), has graciously decided that he wanted to communicate with us. Unlike Kuitert, I believe in divine revelation. This does not mean for me that a book dropped down from heaven, that it is inerrant, and that everything in it is historically accurate. It must be read as a divine-human effort to communicate essential information about God and about his determination to rescue us from the earthly mess we are in. In spite of the many questions I have for which I do not find ready answers, I believe that what God has revealed is enough to live a life of faith and that it offers sufficient ground for me to continue my journey of faith in "the Adventist way."
Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond Public School system in Virginia and is a frequent participant in conversations on SpectrumMagazine.org.
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