A four-day reminder that “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.”
The Fourth International Symposium, sponsored by the Institute of Adventist Studies at Friedensau University, was planned for April 2020. But, as has happened with so many academic and other events, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the wheels. But now, at last, the symposium about the “Adventist Interpretation of Biblical Apocalypticism” is under way. Apocalypticism is best defined as the idea that human history on this earth will soon end because of divine, salvific intervention.
Although most of the approximately 250 registered participants from some thirty countries are not physically present at Friedensau, the number of those who have registered is more than three times what it would have been if all would have had to travel to Germany in person. It is significant that Friedensau University is the sponsor of this intellectual Adventist feast about different features of apocalypticism.
Those who have visited this German Adventist university, some 120 kilometers south-west of Berlin, have seen how one of the oldest buildings on the campus has the words “Der Herr Kommt” (The Lord Comes) in big letters emblazed on one of its walls. When, at the initiative of pioneer Ludwig Richard Conradi (1856-1939), this building was erected in solid red brickwork, these words expressed the fervent hope of the small community that started the Friedensau project. The robust building still stands as a token of German solid building practice, while at the same time the text on one of its walls testifies of the continued trust in the certainty of the Second Coming of Christ. The theme of this conference: “The Kingdom of God Is at Hand” fits perfectly with the foundational ethos of this university, where students and staff are daily reminded that “Der Herr Kommt.”
The four-day conference features twenty-one speakers from various countries in Europe, but also from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Nigeria. Due to the fact that speakers and participants live in widely different time zones, the times on the daily schedule had to be creatively adjusted. The speakers are connected via Zoom, while the audience can choose between a YouTube channel in English and one with a simultaneous German translation. For me, writing from the Netherlands, the program runs from 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Dutch time.
On Monday April 26, 2021, Dr. Rolf Pöhler, the director of the Adventist Studies Institute, opened the proceedings with his keynote address, after a short video about the history of Friedensau University and a word of welcome by Dr. Roland E. Fisher, the rector of the University. Rolf Pöhler, now retired, has been connected with Friedensau as a professor of systematic theology since 1992. In his address, he developed his thoughts about “Adventist Apocalypticism Facing the Times” in three steps, focusing consecutively on the future, the past, and the present. With regard to the future, Pöhler pointed to two major challenges. The world, on the one hand, is in serious danger of falling apart as many current developments indicate. This is according to Adventist expectations. On the other hand, many of the elements of the traditional Adventist end-time scenario seem increasingly unlikely and lots of things are actually getting better.
Developments which seemed plausible in the nineteenth century appear rather fanciful in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. While many Adventist believers no longer find the original Adventist views about the end of time very persuasive, others embrace conspiracy theories in which unsavory things that allegedly occur behind the scenes will ensure that the traditional end-time scenario will come true.
Turning to “Adventist Apocalypticism Facing the Past,” Pöhler first noted how important it is to study the past. This “implies the recognition of lessons learned once and for all, the openness for a still deeper penetration of truth, and the willingness to admit mistakes and aberrations.” When critically looking at the Adventist interpretations of the apocalyptic portions of the Bible of the past, we may have to review our historicist reading of the Bible, which has often led to a “scissor-and-paste” approach to the Bible, fraught with “arbitrary interpretations, failed predictions” and far too much speculation. In addition, there has been a widespread neglect of the history of the formation of the Scriptures, and of the different literary genres and theological diversity of the Bible. Moreover, the concentration on Daniel and Revelation — a “myopic reading,” without due regard for other parts of the Bible — has often led to “the tendency to read these books as if they were primarily written for the Adventist remnant.”
This brought Pöhler to the question how Adventist Apocalyptic must face the present. He stated that Adventists must more clearly recognize the New Testament dialectic between the “not yet” and the “already.” The Kingdom is already present, but we are still awaiting its future consummation. This principle must guide us in our present reading of apocalyptic texts. What was written for people long ago can strengthen the faith and endurance of believers in all ages, including Adventist Christians today, and can help them live a life faithful to God in spite of enemy threats. It is of primary importance that we do not read these apocalyptic prophetic portions chronologically, but rather theologically. Our aim is not to discover secret knowledge but to understand the meaning of history! This symposium will hopefully contribute to that end.
All other speakers during the first day also happen to be connected with Friedensau University. Kerstin Maiwald, the first lecturer after the well-structured, provocative, and inspiring keynote address, is an Assyriologist who recently earned her PhD degree. She presently works as a research associate and part-time lecturer at Friedensau University. Building on her special expertise, she dealt with a unique element of apocalypticism, as the title of her lecture indicated: “Creation Forever Updated vs. New Heaven and Earth: Implications of Mesopotamian ‘Apocalypticism’ for Adventist Eschatology.” Dr. Maiwald made us aware of the fact that cuneiform tablets have been found in Mesopotamia that show apocalyptic elements which are in some respects similar to Old Testament apocalyptic material, but also miss some aspects that are found in the Old Testament. She gave details regarding six of these Akkadian “apocalypses” and highlighted similarities and difference with biblical sources. One key difference, Maiwald stressed, is the lack of eschatological hope in these ancient non-Biblical sources. Seventh-day Adventists might learn from this that they would do well “to emphasize more strongly the… final raising up of the Kingdom of God by God himself and the hope that is connected with it.”
Norwegian born Jan Sigvartsen not only serves as an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Friedensau University, but is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and is involved with the Balu’a Regional Archaeological Project, one of the largest archaeological sites in Jordan. In his Symposium presentation Sigvartsen compared the understanding of God’s kingdom in Old Testament times, in the Second Temple period (the centuries between the two testaments) and in the Book of Revelation. Over time, there was a shift from seeing the kingdom as an earthly reality to perceiving it as a heavenly reality, while in John’s Apocalypse we find a combination of both perceptions. Sigvartsen further explained how this dual view emerged as a central element in Adventist eschatological beliefs.
During the intertestamental period a plethora of eschatological views developed. The emphasis shifted from a “national resurrection hope,” as found in the Old Testament, to a multitude of various afterlife and resurrection beliefs. Some apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings point to an earthly eternity, while other documents present an otherworldly eternity.
The views of the Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding the future kingdom of God have remained rather stable from the beginning until today, with the temporal, millennial kingdom in heaven, followed by the eternal kingdom on earth. Sigvartsen ended his talk with a challenging question: How do Seventh-day Adventist academics present eschatological belief statements in such a way that they are meaningful, attractive, and life-changing for current and future generations?
Bernard Oestreich, who since 1978 has taught biblical exegesis and homiletics at Friedensau University, addressed the topic of “Ritualized Actions Stimulating Eschatological Hope.” In this fascinating lecture, professor Oestreich first asked how we explain that after waiting for some 150 years for the coming of Christ, Adventist Christians can still sing with gusto: “Lift up the trumpet and loud let it ring: Jesus is coming again,” and how we account for the fact that Wayne Hooper’s hymn “We believe the time is here!” and “Nations are angry — by this we do know: Jesus is coming again” is still sung with enthusiasm at major church meetings. His answer centered around the two terms: “habitus” and “ritual.”
The classic theory of “habitus” resulted from the investigations of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This scholar found that attitudes, feelings, and convictions of religious groups tend to remain stable because certain ritual actions are inscribed in the body’s memory of individual people. The continuance of the values and convictions of a community is not so much achieved by indoctrination or enforcement, but by actions that are mimetically (by a process of constant repetition) inscribed in the body’s memory. A “habitus of hope” helps people to cope with disappointments, and ritualized actions by a community, rather than rational arguments, can play a major role in keeping the eschatological hope alive. That was true for early Christians, when they encouraged one another with “Maranatha,” and it is just as true today that for us such acts as singing together can evoke a sense of hope!
The contribution by Oestreich’s colleague Igor Lorencin, who seven years ago joined the Friedensau staff as an associate professor of New Testament studies, after serving at the denominational college in Croatia, could be characterized as a sequel to the lecture by Oestreich, as the title of Lorencin’s lecture clearly revealed: “Communion and Coming: The Role of the Lord’s Supper in Keeping the Advent Hope Alive.” Building on the ideas of “mimetic bodily participation” in distinct rituals, Lorencin investigated in his paper how participating in the Lord’s Supper strengthens believers in their eschatological expectations.
Referring to the communal practices of the early Christians — in particular as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 and as found in certain passages in Acts and in the communal prayers in the early Christian document Didache — he explained how their experiences “inscribed hope in the bodies of believers and ritualized it.” Lorencin concluded that Adventists unfortunately have tended to place their emphasis far too much on cognitive knowledge and have developed “a certain disinterest in rituals.” However, Adventist ritual actions have the “potential for confirming and renewing Advent hope,” which may be especially significant in the COVID-19 situations of isolation.
This first day of the symposium, with a varied pallet of lectures interspersed with question and answer periods, ended with the possibility for the participants to meet in a number of “breakout rooms” for further discussions with the presenters of the day. But for me the time had come to do some further work on my first report, and get it ready for sending it to the editors of Spectrum.
Reinder Bruinsma (PhD, University of London, UK). Retired since 2008. Bruinsma served the Adventist Church in various assignments, in pastoral, educational and publishing work, and subsequently as a church administrator. His last assignments were executive secretary of the Trans-European Division, followed by a term as president of the Netherlands Union. After he retired, he served for 18 months as the interim president of the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference.
Since then, Bruinsma continues to be active as a speaker and writer. He has written numerous articles, translated a number of major scholarly theological works, and authored ca. 30 books, either in English or Dutch. A number of these are translated in several languages. Among his most recent books are In All Humility: Saying ‘No’ to Last Generation Theology (2018), and I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine (2019).
Photo courtesy of the author, symposium logo courtesy of Friedensau.
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