Apocalypticism and our role in society.
Having inspired the symposium participants on Tuesday and Wednesday in short meditations on the themes of “Apocalypse and Resistance” and “Apocalypse and Ecology,” Dr. Kendra Haloviak Valentine asked her listeners at the beginning of this fourth and final day to focus for a few moments on “Apocalypse and Slavery,” and to reflect on some important questions. In many respects we are slaves, but whose slaves are we? Who do we belong to? Whose seal of ownership do we carry? Do we realize that the Apocalypse was given to show Christ’s “slaves” (Greek: douloi) “what must soon take place?”
With Roland E. Fisher, the first speaker of the day, we were back to a presenter from Friedensau. Since 2016, Dr. Fisher has served as the rector (president) of Friedensau Adventist University. He has just been re-elected for five years in this position. His professional specialty is Practical Theology. Thus, it is not so surprising that his topic for the symposium had to do with preaching: “Eschatology and Apocalypticism in Seventh-day Adventist Preaching — The Shift in Prophetic Preaching.”
Fisher first spent a few minutes on answering the question “What is preaching?” before making this question more specific by asking “What is Adventist preaching?” and then: “What is prophetic, eschatological, and apocalyptic preaching?” He used two interesting case studies to illustrate how in times past the aspect of hope was not absent in Adventist apocalyptic preaching, but that the emphasis was to a major extent on the fearful threat of the calamitous final events. There has gradually been a definite shift, and it is now more clearly realized that “prophetic preaching must both criticize and challenge the status quo and announce the new reality God is going to bring about in the future. Prophetic preaching aims to redeem and to transform, i.e., to bring people back to a saving relationship with God.”
The second lecture took us to Revelation 13, where “The ‘Lamb-Like’ Nation Speaks as a Dragon.” Jeffrey Rosario, a PhD candidate in American History at the University of Cambridge, dealt in his talk with the “Tensions between Apocalypticism and Political Engagement,” that are at issue in this chapter of Revelation. The speaker is originally from Miami, Florida, USA. Before enrolling in the prestigious British university of Cambridge, he completed a master’s degree in the history of Christianity at the no less prestigious Yale University in the USA.
Rosario very eloquently reminded his audience that the “land-beast” of Revelation, which Adventist interpreters traditionally have defined as a symbolic representation of the USA, has two horns, which symbolize civil and religious liberty. Adventists around 1900 were greatly concerned about the relationship between these two aspects. There was a consensus that Adventists should defend religious liberty, but also uncertainty as to whether protesting against a lack of civil liberties would be too political and would go against the important principle of separation between church and state. The issue had special significance at that particular time, as the USA had “embarked on an imperial program in the Philippines,” which many Adventists felt was morally wrong. The publication of a book by Irish-born Percy T. Magan — who taught history at Battle Creek College and also had an important role in the founding of an educational institution at Loma Linda, California — about the peril of American overseas expansion, caused considerable controversy among church leaders. Some felt the book was too political in nature. However, there was a growing consensus that a balanced form of political and social involvement by Christians is justified, as political developments are closely intertwined with matters of religious freedom.
The final lecture: “‘You Must Prophesy Again’: Towards a Postcolonial Adventist Apocalyptic Eschatology” was perhaps the most ambitious project of the symposium. It was a combined presentation by two young scholars: Chigemezi Wogu, who was born and raised in Nigeria, and Daniël Muller, who comes from the far North of the Netherlands. This may explain why in the program two blocs of time had been allocated to it. Wogu has worked for five years as a research assistant at Friedensau University, and is currently preparing for his PhD at the Free University of Amsterdam, while Muller is an editor and researcher of the Nexus Institute in Amsterdam (a research center for European culture), and is involved in a research project at the University Medical Center in Groningen about moral injury in military veterans. Wogu and Muller alternated in presenting sections of their study.
The first part of this combined presentation sketched the “entanglement” of the Adventist missionary enterprise with western colonialism. Missionaries often cooperated with the colonial structures for the sake of mission. In their communication of the gospel, western values and European Christian traditions tended to set the tone. Africans who were converted to Christianity were expected to forsake their own culture, and the newly-converted often felt that they could only make it to heaven after having been transformed into Caucasians.
To the African mind, Adventist apocalyptic thinking, with its preoccupation with time and the chronology of events, remained very Western. The interpretations of Daniel and Revelation were characterized by “whiteness” and were centered on Europe and on the United States, without any eye for the histories and perspectives of the South. Wogu and Muller insisted that there is a need for envisioning an African apocalyptic perspective, that must be incorporated into “the main framework of the overall European and American eschatology,” and “for retrieving and conceiving a truly biblical, postcolonial proclamation and praxis.”
Pastor Dennis Meier, the president of the German Hansa Conference of the Adventist Church (covering the North-Eastern part of Germany, with Hamburg at its center), was given the challenging task of tying together the various strands of the symposium proceedings, and of suggesting to the conference participants (and, in particular, to the organizers) “where we should go from here.” His analysis was presented, as we have come to expect from him, in a creative, insightful, and inspiring manner.
Meier began his resume of the symposium by suggesting that the speakers at the conference applied the concept of apocalypticism in different ways. Some of them focused on apocalypticism in general, as a unique literary genre, while others dealt more specifically with the Adventist apocalyptic understanding, from a historical, theological, ethical, or experiential perspective. In developing his remarks, Meier followed the threefold structure of Dr. Rolf Pöhler’s keynote address: surveying issues of the past, the present, and the future. A major part of the symposium was dedicated to various aspects of Adventism’s past dealings with the apocalyptic dimensions of faith and practice since the establishment of the denomination. He observed that, in writing and speaking about our, often rather dubious, past record, we tend to be “rather nice to ourselves,” even though there has been much that was actually quite harmful. He noted that “retention or even mission by instilling fear” — this is what Adventist preaching and teaching about apocalyptic prophecy often did — is, in fact, a form of spiritual abuse, and that, therefore, in many respects “we are in need of healing.”
When moving to the present, Meier wondered how “we managed to do four days of rigorous apocalyptic” with hardly any “reference to the raging global crisis around us.” He recalled yesterday’s lecture of Professor Theodore Dickson from Nigeria, who reminded us that apocalyptic is not just about “what is happening” or is going to happen to the world, but first of all about “what is happening to me” in the present.
Several speakers emphasized that many of the traditional Adventist views of apocalyptic need a serious update, to ensure that the apocalyptic message remains meaningful to us today, and provides hope rather than causing fear. We need to move into the future, Meier continued, “with lessons learned from the past.” And if there is any theme that should have absolute priority on our apocalyptic agenda, it is the development of “an Adventist eco-theology.” This, he emphasized, was the one item on his wish list for the next symposium.
Meier’s impressive statement toward the end of his remarks is worth quoting: “Here is my final thesis and perhaps a way forward: Apocalypsis is not about us, not about our petty role in an end-time scenario or elite group. Apocalypsis is about HIM. It is theology, Christology, and soteriology, before all the rest. And how should it be done? When John in Revelation 1:17 makes his first eye-contact with the angel who is to lead him through the visions, what does he hear? “Fear not!”
The last item on the agenda before the closing remarks was announced as a plenary discussion, but in reality it had somewhat of a different character. Dr. Rolf Pöhler, who had coordinated the symposium, invited all speakers to make a few comments about the conference. This exercise confirmed my own impression that the scope and quality of the symposium had been greatly appreciated. In his final words Dr. Stefan Höschele, the dean of the Friedensau theology department, expressed his appreciation for the work of the technical support staff behind the scenes, for the work of the scholars who presented the lectures, and for all others who made this fourth International Symposium — in spite of all the coronavirus restrictions — a resounding success and a launching pad for further studies.
Many will be looking forward to soon seeing the lectures of this symposium in print, and to the Fifth International Symposium that is planned for April 2023.
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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