The Lord is coming. But when?
The second day of the symposium on the theme “The Kingdom of God Is at Hand” was more specifically dedicated to aspects that closely connect with traditional Adventist apocalyptic concerns. Whereas all speakers in yesterday’s program are connected with Friedensau University in Germany — the Adventist university hosting this symposium — today’s presenters were a much more diverse international group. Today began, and the next two days will begin, with a short spiritual message from Dr. Kendra Haloviak Valentine, who is an associate Professor and Chair of the Biblical Studies Department in the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University in Riverside, CA. In this short devotional time she stressed the continuing role of apocalyptic in shaping Christian theology. This morning she focused on the characteristic of Daniel and Revelation as resistance literature, and on how the “empire” is exposed as the counterfeit force of all times. It will ultimately be clear that “the Lord God Almighty” is “the King of the nations” before whom all will worship.
Kayle B. de Waal was the first of six presenters during this second day. He has worked in ministry and teaching in South Africa, South Korea, and New Zealand and in the higher education sector in Australia. Currently he is a senior lecturer at Avondale University College in Australia. One of his main academic interests is apocalyptic literature. He was truly “burning the midnight oil” as he presented his paper just after midnight (Sydney time, which is around 3:00 p.m. CET). De Waal’s paper was entitled: “The Hour of His Judgment has Come,” with the subtle: “An Investigation into the Historical, Intertextual, and Theological Significance of Revelation 14:7.” This Bible text is probably one of the ten most cited Bible passages in Adventism: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come.”
De Waal began his lecture by pointing to the traditional historicist understanding of this text, which according to Adventist pioneers referred to “the last work of the gospel on earth.” This understanding, however, falls short of the meaning John intended to give to this text. We should, he said, position, the eternal gospel message, that includes the reality of the judgment, in the wider “narrative landscape” of Revelation 12-14 that describes the cosmic conflict. This view is confirmed when we take the close intertextual relationship between Daniel and the Revelation into account, as well as a number of linguistic elements. De Waal further stressed that God’s Word must be applied in every generation, and in order for us to be able to do so, we need proper “exegetical, literary, intertextual and theological analysis.” When applying these, we discover that the phrase “the hour of his judgment has come” must be understood in the context of the “great controversy” between God and the forces of evil, and should not be specifically connected with the so-called pre-Advent judgment. In the eschaton the aspects of “gospel” and “judgment” are both significant: God sets his people free through the gospel and at the same time defeats his enemies!
Next was Professor Ross E. Winkle, who teaches New Testament theology at Pacific Union College in the USA, and is the chair of its department of theology since 2005. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic of clothing imagery in the book of Revelation. His lecture touched on an aspect of Adventist eschatology that has long fascinated Adventist scholars, but also many of our members in the pews, and has often instilled a significant amount of fear in them. It had the intriguing title: “A Calculated Risk? Towards Resolving Tensions within Seventh-day Adventism Regarding the Interpretation of the Number of the Beast in Revelation 13:18.” Dr. Winkle did not defend or condemn the traditional Adventist identification of 666 as referring to Vicarius Filii Dei, an alleged title of the pope. He carefully argued, however, that the option of an alternative explanation, based on the symbolic value of the number “six,” or by emphasizing the “triple six” aspect, is not warranted. Winkle pointed to examples, just before or shortly after the origin of Revelation, in which a special technique is found of using certain Greek letters as a kind of shorthand for names of actual people. This seems to suggest that the original audience of John’s Apocalypse did understand that the “number of the beast” could be “calculated” and applied to a specific person or power, whose identity so far remains unknown to us.
Johannes Hartlapp, a well-known expert in church history, who has had a life-long career at Friedensau University, also chose a topic that revolves around a key aspect of the Adventist dealings with apocalyptic prophecy: “The year 1755 and the Emergence of the Mathematical-Arithmetical Model of Prophetic Interpretation.” Hartlapp connected the earthquake of an 8.9 force on the Richer scale — which destroyed about 85 percent of all buildings in the Portuguese capital — with the issue of theodicy. He briefly described how philosophers such as Leibnitz, Wolff, and Newton approached the age-old problem of how evil can co-exist with a God of love, before looking at the various ways in which the Lisbon disasters influenced the thinking of subsequent philosophers and theologians. The various approaches all shared in the Enlightenment preference for rationalism.
When the traditional “proofs” for the existence of the Christian God no longer sufficed, a new approach was found in the “arithmetical” proof of God. Numbers were increasingly seen as utterly significant, and many scholars believed that a study of the numbers in Daniel and Revelation would provide fresh insights in God’s dealings with mankind. Hartlapp cited Martin Luther, Albrecht Bengel, Johann Philipp Petri, and William Miller as examples of the many churchmen who discerned in these numbers a “revealed biblical roadmap.” He concluded his presentation by pointing to two weaknesses in the arithmetical proof of God: a) too much emphasis is placed on the rational aspect of knowing God, forgetting that the gospel must not only touch our mind, but also our heart, and b) this type of reasoning can only appeal to the people in “a time in which rational thinking is the supporting foundation.”
Gilbert Valentine, now retired but still based at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, is another well-known scholar with broad international teaching experience, as well as a gifted author in the area of denominational history and Ellen White studies. His latest major publication is a masterly biography of pioneer John N. Andrews. For this symposium Dr. Valentine had chosen to deal with a topic that has become somewhat of an obsession for many Adventists: “The Relentless Delay.” He focused in particular on “Early Adventist Explanations for the Absence of the Parousia,” limiting himself to the 1844–1868 period.
The earliest Sabbatarian Adventists believed the Second Coming would occur “within months.” The continuing disappointment and frustration about the fact that the Lord “tarried” led to various reinterpretations of apocalyptic passages, and to the adoption of new theological motifs, such as the “shut door” and the “investigative judgment.” In seeking to maintain the element of immediacy, the language of “delay” was introduced. Christ’s service in the heavenly sanctuary provided an explanation for the delay of his return to earth, as did the application of the Laodicean message to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a shift in the meaning of the investigative judgment, and the development of several other themes. According to Valentine, these various explanations provided the early Adventist believers with continued grounds for hope, and he pointed out that the quest for effective explanations for the non-arrival of the Lord continues in the twenty-first century.
Jón Hjörleifur Stefánsson, whose name betrays his Icelandic origin, is preparing at the Free University of Amsterdam for his doctoral degree. For some time, he has worked as a research assistant with the project Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Like several of the other presenters Stefánsson participated also in earlier Friedensau sponsored symposiums. His presentation was entitled: “Life and Death, Blessings and Curses: Ellen White’s Apocalypticism and Conditionality.” The fact that the Second Coming has not yet occurred constitutes on ongoing crisis for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Why have many biblical prophecies and numerous prophetic statements by Ellen White remained unfulfilled? Stefánsson’s reply to that question centered on the phenomenon of conditionality.
God’s promises to ancient Israel were embedded in a covenantal relationship, in which loyalty to Him would result in blessings. However, if Israel did not meet this condition, the promises would not come true, but instead “curses” would follow. This pattern of conditionality also applies to the history of the church. The fulfilment of divine promises continued to be conditioned on an obedient faith in God.
Ellen White, with her Arminian background, did not see everything as predestined, as her Calvinistic contemporaries did. She adopted “the great controversy” motif as her basic philosophy of history. Prophecies about this conflict were always conditional, with different outcomes depending on how the people reacted to God’s instructions. The emergence of the Adventist remnant was God’s answer to the failures of the historic church. The aspect of conditionality, in her view, continued to apply to unknown aspects of the future, as, for instance, the time of the delay in Christ’s coming. Various theories have been developed in Adventist circles to explain this delay, but in Stefánsson’s view, this simply demonstrates that the crisis is continuing.
Jonathan Butler is a widely recognized expert on Millerite and early-Adventist history. He studied at the University of Chicago under the famous American church historian Martin Marty, and subsequently taught at a number of Adventist institutions of higher learning. Butler is the author of several books and chapters in books, as well as articles in academic and other journals, which contribute to Ellen White studies. In his eloquent lecture in this symposium Butler returned to his 1979 article in Spectrum, entitled “The World of E. G. White and the End of the World,” which, at the time, caused considerable commotion. In this seminal article Butler “tried to recapture White’s eschatology as a product of her times.” Four decades later he realizes that the article itself was also a product of its time!
Butler argued in this 1979 article that Ellen White’s eschatology was “to no small degree time-bound to the nineteenth century.” But the commotion was, in fact, more about issues surrounding White’s inspiration than about the substance of her eschatological views.
Her eschatological views may seem rather esoteric to us in our times, but they made excellent sense to her contemporaries. Ellen White provided an eschatological perspective that fit with nineteenth century Protestant America, but it is now up to us to provide one that makes sense in our time.
With the last of the sixth lectures of this day, in each case followed by a question-and-answer period, the second day of the symposium ended. Clearly, the conference is building momentum, as it was focusing more specifically on some of the issues surrounding the end of time and the Second Coming — issues that have occupied Adventist thinking from the very beginning, but ever more intensely as time progresses. Day three will pick up some other aspects of this quest for a further understanding of God’s future for us, and will touch on some practical life issues as we continue to live in expectation of the climax of history.
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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