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The Ear: Sigve Tonstad, Physician-Theologian


Sigve Tonstad is currently working in Oslo, Norway, where he teaches and produces scholarly writing, as well as working as a physician.  At the same time, he holds the position of associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University, from which he earned his medical degree.  He has also studied at Middle East College, Andrews University, Duke University and the University of St. Andrews, where he earned a Ph.D. in biblical studies.

A prolific writer of books and papers, Tonstad in 2006 published, with the Continuum Press in New York, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation.  In 2009 the Andrews University Press came out with his The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, a lengthy and elegantly written exposition of the Sabbath.  Another work is forthcoming, currently titled God of Sense and Traditions of Nonsense: Suffering and the Quest for Meaning.

Here is his point of view on the work of the Adventist theologian:

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical.  How do you connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering? 

Answer: I am reluctant to relate to the ‘theologian’ label, but I won’t make it an issue.  Given that I have worked as a physician much of my adult life and still do, human reality is never distant.  Moreover, I consider the Holocaust a landmark event and an event that cannot be relegated to the past.  I constantly seek to deepen my knowledge of this reality and to convey it in the classroom in a class called God and Human Suffering.  

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work.   How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic—on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter?  What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today?

Answer: All of Scripture is priceless, but all is not equal.  The revelation of God in Jesus is most definitive and ‘normative,’ as the New Testament testifies.  In Revelation, Jesus is the slaughtered lamb in the sense that he is a victim of violence.  That is shocking, of course, and non-use of violence characterizes God’s side in the cosmic conflict.  Conversely, coercion and use of violence are the hallmark of the opposing side – with the outrageous twist that the opposing side poses as though it is ‘Jesus.’  It is a brazen case of identity theft and quite successful, given that the ‘Christian’ world has embraced coercion and condoned violence throughout much of its history.  

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is.  Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: I believe that there is an identity crisis, but we need a long and nuanced dialogue as to where the problem lies.  In shorthand, I believe that there is ideological and theological sclerosis, perhaps facilitated by the fact that television is now the medium of discourse, and television is a shallow medium. If sclerosis seems uncharitable, we can call it defensiveness, anxiety, and suspicion.  Signals from the top that we should look to the past are more an expression of the problem than a remedy.  But I have high hopes for the relevance of Adventist distinctives once they are configured to address the world as we find it.  I find descriptive adequacy and unequalled explanatory power in cosmic conflict theology.  But this means that we will need to talk more about events on earth in 1944 (Holocaust) even if it comes at the cost of talking less about events in heaven in 1844.  We must get better at conveying God’s presence in situations of God’s apparent absence.  The Sabbath will shine more as proof of divine commitment than as a divine commandment, and it will be anchored in a theology of the cross.  Our belief in the indivisibility of the human person, that is, our monist anthropology, has always been a wonderful belief, and it will be increasingly relevant in the 21st century (if it is possible to make it more relevant than it already is).  In the era of factory farming and impending ecological meltdown, we need to make the care of creation more important than the now all-consuming question of origins.  I don’t mean to disparage the latter concern, but God expects more of us with regard to the former question than with the latter.  Finally, Adventist theology and preaching have been strong on eschatology but has never quite understood New Testament apocalyptic.  Our eschatology will remain deficient unless it is coupled to a better grasp of apocalyptic.  If we had accepted New Testament apocalyptic, the ordination question would not have arisen, and if we really believe that the second coming is near ordination on a large scale would have been a matter of course.  But eschatology is enormously important.  Without eschatology theology will become idolatry, and we will not have hope.  

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church; perhaps you were born into a church-member’s family.  But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason? 

Answer: In conversations with my children and close friends, the three distinctive Adventist beliefs I tend to emphasize are the right picture of God, the cosmic conflict, and the non-immortality of the soul, to put the latter in somewhat archaic terms.  These are existentially important beliefs to me.  I could belong not to a church that believes in an everlasting hell.  My church, too, needs to do better with regard to notions of divine retribution.  We should be able to say without flinching that God does not do torture.    

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