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Sigve Tonstad: Making Sense of God in the 21st Century


Sigve Tonstad is a medical doctor and a professor of theology. He is a prolific author whose books have gradually made him well known within the Anglophone Adventist world. When I was an Adventist, he was the one I wished I were, and even now, thirty-five years after our ideological paths diverged, I still strive to emulate the same values and ideals that he represents. What is so refreshing about Sigve (who, like his early mentor Carsten Johnson, is no fan of titles), is that he does not allow concerns about career, prestige, and orthodoxy get in the way of his quest for meaning, for trying to make sense of God, mankind and the world. To Sigve, scholarship is a means and not an end. I probably drive him to distraction with my brazen disagreements over ontology and theology and no doubt a number of other "ologies," but to me, Sigve is a model of what it means to be homo sapiens or, as he might put it, to shoulder the burden of being created in the image of God.

I recently read his book, God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense and asked him to speak to some of the issues that he addresses in it. But first a few introductory questions.

When I came into the church in at the beginning of the 1970s, Adventism was buzzing with enthusiasm. To me, it seemed as if an entire generation of young people, especially in Scandinavia, but also here in the US, was genuinely excited about being Adventists. I don’t see any evidence of that today. Instead, it seems as if the Adventist church, like so much of mainstream Christianity, is in decline both here in the U.S. and in Europe.

What happened?  

I agree with your impression. I think there are pockets of enthusiasm today, too, but overall there seems to be a loss of momentum. At the beginning of the 1970s, we had some highly educated, charismatic leaders in Scandinavia, Carsten Johnsen and Jens K. Jensen among them, who took young people seriously and made them feel good and even confident about being Seventh-day Adventists. The ideological and intellectual distinctive may have been different in the U.S., but Loma Linda University had characters like Jack Provonsha and A. Graham Maxwell who commanded respect and admiration. I remember Insight magazine and extremely gifted writers like Tom Dybdahl, Jon Dybdahl, Chuck Scriven, Mike Jones, and others. There also seemed to be more bounce in magazines like the Adventist Review and Ministry. If I were to suggest a narrow and incomplete reason for the decline, I would point to the rise of official and independent television ministries and the decline of print media. For the latter, I include books as well as the magazines. I also think that the surviving magazines have less editorial independence—they are more than ever official organs of the administrative arm of the church. Spectrum is an exception. Television may have a place, but it is a superficial medium, far less suited to complex issues that require in-depth studying and careful documentation.  In my view, this shift has made Adventism more superficial, more populist, and less interesting.  

I have noticed over the years that you have always distinguished clearly between the Adventist Church and the organization appointed to lead it. How do you rate the General Conference on its leadership of the church through the years? 

I am a pessimist when it comes to leadership. Lord Acton’s dictum is one reason why. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In my view, it is easier (or too easy) for leaders in our type of organization to do harm than to do good. That is to say, the potential for top-level leadership to do good is limited, but the potential for harm is considerable. The good leader is in my view a person who recognizes the limitations of the office, allowing the church to flourish at the levels where the reality of church meets the road: in the local congregation, in the church operated-hospital, and in our schools. The pastor of the local church has by this criterion a greater potential for doing good than the administrator at the top level of the organization. I’ll try to be specific on three counts.

First, the leadership is primarily accountable to the members, not the other way around. This creates a logic that favors local autonomy. The cement or connective tissue of this type of organization is trust. If the top-level leadership signals that it distrusts scholars, for instance, we shall have insecurity, and the scholar’s voice will be subjected to the whims of the administrator.

The previous Roman Catholic pope, Benedict XVI, was the most highly educated pope in the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church and the author of many thoughtful books. The current pope is also highly educated, a man who reads books, if I may put it that way. Whatever opinion you and I may have of the RCC, these men have advanced the interests of that church.  In the Seventh-day Adventist organization, I hear rumors that we are about to add “education” to our list of Fundamental Beliefs—and this at a time when scholars and scholarship do not feel secure and may even feel threatened.

Second, given what the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become, I have the impression that top-level leaders feel more at home in the context of 3ABN or ASI than at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University or with the organ transplant program at Loma Linda University Medical Center. I think there is a communal correlation for this impression. The people at 3ABN are close to the denominational leadership and vice versa in ways that the Seminary is not. Similarly, the good people of ASI feel seen and heard by church leadership in ways that the highly specialized doctors at LLUMC do not.

Third, the current issue of women’s ordination is just one example of leadership failure and loss of trust. It was unnecessary to second-guess the convictions of local congregations, pastors, and unions who concluded that the ordination of women was long overdue. Trust could have resolved what theology cannot. Top-level leadership will be rewarded for its lack of trust from the top down with lack of trust from the bottom up.  

You started out studying theology, then switched to medicine and then, in your late forties, you returned to theology again, getting a Ph.D in New Testament from St. Andrews University in Scotland. What led you to do that? And what was it like, as a biblical conservative, to work with professors who approached theology from a much more scientific and critical angle that what you would find in an Adventist university?

At the risk of being misunderstood, I am an interest- and conviction-driven person, not career-driven. My choices do not make sense if they are measured by a professional standard. I went to Middle East College to study theology because of my interest, not because I thought I could work as a pastor. One of my teachers paid me the courtesy of telling me that I did not have the right disposition for a pastor anyway! Then I studied medicine because Carsten Johnsen urged me to do it and because I believed the teacher who told me that I was not pastor material. In Oslo, I nevertheless spent ten good years in pastoral ministry.

My love for the Bible has been a constant ever since high school. I don’t think I ever “switched.” It has only been a matter of proportions. I completed an M.A. in Biblical Studies at Loma Linda University while doing my residency in Internal Medicine. Given that my medical identity is important to me—and perhaps not seen by those who think that I am mostly into theology—I was twice voted Resident of the Year by the teaching faculty at LLU. I am now teaching religion full-time at LLU, but I am about to return to my hospital job in Oslo because of my wife’s job situation. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given, and medical work is wonderful. I went to Duke University and then to the University of St. Andrews in my late 40s because of a question that would not leave me alone. I had read in a Greek grammar that the faith language in Paul quite likely has been misunderstood—that Paul speaks of “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” and not just of “faith in Jesus.” It puzzled me that scholars in the Adventist community did not find this distinction interesting.

The second point had to do with the Book of Revelation. I could not bear that this book—inside or outside the Adventist Church—has been the go-to text for a theology of retribution. These two factors motivated me to return to school to find out for myself. St. Andrews treated me very well despite differences in presuppositions. I am probably not mistaken if I claim that the academic standard at Duke or St. Andrews is more rigorous than in Adventist institutions.

I wrote my dissertation on Revelation.  My supervisor, Bruce Longenecker, who is now at Baylor University, told me that he will never read Revelation the same way again. He is the reason why I have been entrusted with the task of writing the Revelation volume in the Paideia New Testament Commentary series that is published by Baker Academic.  

I have for decades been saying that the riskiest thing a Bible believing Christian could do is to study theology from a scientific point of view. Your faith seems to be just as strong as it has always been, and in your books, you pay scant attention to the issues raised by so-called higher criticism while at the same time being very cognizant of them. Bart Ehrman lost his faith in the world of academics. You did not. How did you—and how do you–approach the faith-challenging aspects of biblical studies? 

This is a big and complex question. I am a very flawed person, but the academic study of a subject, whether theology or medicine, has for me only brought benefits. I loved basic science in medicine, and my wife keeps me posted on advances in mechanisms that become more and more fascinating the more there is to know. With regard to the Bible, I prefer to talk about my interest rather than my faith. Even so, meticulous study of Bible texts will in my view not harm anyone’s faith. Quite the contrary, the details will entice and sparkle more than the superficial view from afar. Bart Ehrman’s story is not my story.

Adventists may hold to something quite close to verbal inspiration in practice, but this has never been our theory, and it would be a bad theory if we were to adopt it. I have never believed in verbal inspiration like Ehrman did. The term "higher criticism" is a term that now mostly shows how badly out of touch the person using the term is. It has little or no explanatory power in practice. New Testament interpretation is a multi-disciplinary task that requires interest in history, original audience, social conditions, rhetoric, allusions to the Old Testament, narrative, and linguistic proficiency. No one "model" is adequate, and no one "model" controls the discipline. Moreover, the text trumps the models. The so-called "higher criticism" has been in decline for decades—its use by church administrators today is a straw man used by people who clearly have not paid attention to what is going on. Let me be specific on two points. First, one of the "dedicated" practitioners of "higher criticism" might be the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann who died almost fifty years ago. There is much to criticize in Bultmann’s work today, but his view of New Testament anthropology is in many ways much closer to an "Adventist" understanding that the view held by evangelicals whose company many conservative Adventists love to keep. For all its "higher criticism," Bultmann’s commentary on the Gospel of John is a masterpiece—a standard-setter for the level of immersion to which a top-level scholar might aspire. I do not agree with a number of his interpretations, but nothing good will be accomplished if some enterprising church administrator were to blacklist Bultmann. Second, academic study of the New Testament has on many points walked back many of the assumptions of the "higher critics" without making method subservient to presuppositions. For me, the Gospel of John is perhaps the greatest example of the shift, this Gospel now the main contender for what Richard Bauckham calls “eyewitness testimony.” Detailed study of this Gospel is one of the things I love to do.  

Can you speak a bit about your approach to theology? Would it be wrong to call you a biblical rationalist?

It might be enough to mention three things. First, I am a reader of texts. My discipline—and my skill, if I have one—is to work a text from all angles. I tell the medical students in my classes that just as there can be different explanations for a given set of findings with respect to a patient (it is called "differential diagnosis"), there can be different explanations for a text. Nothing is completely self-explanatory. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis is the best account of what I have in mind on this point. Second, I read, study, and write for personal reasons. The first reader of what I write is myself. I am not satisfied unless the writer (me) somehow manages to make sense to the reader (me). Third, I live in the Age of Genocide, after the Holocaust. This is the setting of my endeavors and my preoccupations. I don’t know about “biblical rationalist,” but I do not do dialectics like Karl Barth and others in that generation. I am hopeful on behalf of finding "sense." 

You point out that the backdrop to the synoptic Gospels is the anticipated apocalypse, the Day of the Lord when God’s messiah will re-establish the kingship of God on earth. To prepare people for the coming kingdom, Jesus urged his contemporaries to embrace the deeper ethics of their faith, warning them that theology is a poor substitute for values. In your book, God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, you write more from the perspective of the Gospel of John (and the SDA pioneers), focusing primarily on the importance of theology, of thinking right about God. Can you expound on that?

I will try a short answer. If, as I concede, there is a "problem of suffering" or a "problem of evil,’ I am looking for parameters for understanding the problem and for hope. The parameters are for me the biblical story of cosmic conflict. Evil cannot be understood only in terms of what human beings do. Hope, in turn, means that suffering must end. This leads to the biggest problem in the theological tradition because it does not promise an end to suffering. Indeed, at its most radical the tradition holds that most people who lived short and trying lives in this world will be subjected to torture throughout eternity. To understand this is impossible, of course, which is why I refer to it as Traditions of Non-Sense. “Right thinking about God,” as you put it, is everything but very hard to do. Many of the chapters in God of Sense aspire to show what “right thinking” might look like. The message of the Gospel of John is in that context a huge and shocking corrective to “wrong thinking.”  

The way I read your book, God of Sense, it is essentially an attempt to demonstrate that Origen of Alexandria was correct when he argued that the Bible offers “a coherent account of evil, both how it first came to exist and how it is being destroyed.” Origen is often dismissed as a purveyor of allegories and universalism, but you see in him a profoundly insightful theologian. What is it about Origin that fascinates you?

I had not thought much about Origen until I read Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan while studying in Scotland. Her view of Satan aside, she refers extensively to Origen’s view of the cosmic conflict in such books as First Principles and Contra Celsum. Origen (185-254 AD) was an extremely learned man who might be seen as the C. S. Lewis of his time. His output was prolific. Origen’s scriptural armamentarium for the story of cosmic conflict is virtually identical to what Seventh-day Adventists find in the writings of Ellen G. White. Many Adventists do not know this, and I would be surprised to find a single administrator who knows it (I say this given that administrators seem eager to hold scholars in check). Here are three points for which Origen should be a person of interest. (1) His apology for the story of cosmic conflict—showing an approach to theology that is narratival, not doctrinal. (2) His understanding of freedom and repudiation of coercion. "Repudiation of coercion" is an oxymoron because coercion was anathema to him and to the early Christians. All this changed with Augustine.  (3) His tendency to see salvation in medical terms. Human beings need healing, and most of all healing of their misperception of God.    

In the Jewish community, the Holocaust is the incarnation of evil. Among Christians it seems to be more of a footnote in the long history of human suffering. You are the only Christian theologian I know of who is preoccupied with the Holocaust. What is it about this bit of history that speaks louder to you than to most, if not all, of your colleagues? And as follow-up question, what is it about the current political situation both in Europe and the U.S that makes you worried that evil on that scale could once again manifest itself?

The Holocaust happened—that is why. I know that as a Seventh-day Adventist I am supposed to be interested in what happened in heaven in 1844, and I have taken an interest in that in the course of my life. More and more, however, my interest has gravitated to what happened on earth in 1944. I am not interested in the Holocaust for reasons of agenda, obligation, or anything else. More than forty years ago, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, on the plane from Rome to Amsterdam. Like Francois Mauriac, who wrote the foreword in my version of the book, I broke down and wept. Since then, I have read many Holocaust books, two more during this quarter of teaching God and Human Suffering at LLU. And yes, I have many times broken down and wept. This preoccupation is inevitable. I do not want these voices to speak in vain. In God of Sense, I make it show by saying that the Holocaust is both an obligation and an opportunity. Hitler’s political brand dealt in resentment and in the creation of an unwanted "other." Nothing in Nazism is more significant than this. As for the current situation in Europe and the U.S., any politician that stirs up anger and resentment should be seen as a dangerous person. Such unattractive and potentially dangerous people are now voted into office, and Seventh-day Adventists are voting for them.

You argue that the God of the Bible is not a transcendent Greek deity who must forever remain an enigma to humans. God, you say, wants people to rise up and state their case, like Job did, and demand that God provide them with an understanding of the framing narrative of human existence, especially the nature of evil and why we suffer. And with Origen, you argue that God already has done so in the Bible. If so, why is that the majority of Christians cannot find these answers in the scriptures and conclude that “sense” is beyond reach.

If the goal is a causal account of evil, "sense" is certainly out of reach. This applies to me, too. In fact, it is important to realize that we cannot have, do not seek, and do not want a causal account. But the majority of Christians are hostage to a flawed and even terrible theological tradition. In the Augustinian version, this tradition has two main elements: predestination and eternal punishment. The former means that the decision for heaven or hell is arbitrary and not in our hands. The latter means that I may end up suffering eternal punishment for a decision that I am powerless to change. Augustine argues that God is just to everyone, the punishment included, but God is merciful only to a few. It is not for us to understand this. This is why understanding is not on offer in the Christian tradition. I take issue with this tradition, as you can tell. Today, the problem of understanding is less likely to be in relation to predestination or eternal punishment. Perhaps it is the Holocaust. Perhaps it is the suffering of children, as it is for Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. The theological tradition casts a shadow over these questions, too, because it has compromised the resources with which to talk about evil, and it has mostly been interested in personal salvation. This is also true for the Adventist community.


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

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