With the idiosyncratic and classical protestant European theme of “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda”, the 2015 ETTC (European Theology Teachers Convention) took place March 25-29 at Newbold College, England. What does the word “reform” mean today? This is easier to proclaim than to understand and implement, which is often the reason self-proclaimed “reforming” movements have paradoxically behaved as reactionary and nostalgic. European Adventism should remember and learn this from its own past history. The difficulty in understanding what a “reform” means is tied to the fact that the process of change, alluded to by that word, can’t be separated from what the other accompanying words imply, in the previously quoted Latin formula. What does “Ecclesia”, “Semper”, “Reformanda” and the correlated word “biblical” mean? More particularly, what “Europe” itself means today requires something more than a pious and well-intentioned desire. European Adventism probably is more European than Adventist and, as such, it shares its fundamental phenotypic and genotypic cultural traits and historical destiny. And rather than an Adventist understanding of Europe, we have a European understanding of Adventism. It couldn’t be otherwise. This is not necessarily negative as the majority of Adventists might believe. To me, a Peruvian Adventist, it appears instead as a blessing, provided that such a blessing also be considered and understood within its limits, ambivalence and paradoxes.
The complex relationship between Adventism and Europe, viewed from within Europe, is not extrinsic to what Adventism is in essence. The same dilemma is lived, even if often not understood, in all the other continents, and it is central also to the very core of Adventist identity and mission. What Adventism is, is never culturally neutral. It is always incarnated in specific geographic and cultural forms. But, as much as the strength of Adventism resides in this inculturation, Adventism should also be able to detach itself from limited geographical or cultural forms. Not with the naïve intention to soar above as a free and ethereal a-cultural reality, but rather to adapt, adopt and create new cultural forms of expression more consonant with its own historical context. This is probably what “to reform” most deeply means. Not to change (reform) the church for its own sake or in relation only to its founding principles, but to rework these same principles in relation to its new external context. And even have the courage to change that context itself, or at least try to maintain it while facing new questions and challenges. Adventism justifiably has identified itself with “modern” North-American and European cultural paradigms. But does Adventism today need to keep identifying itself so massively – and to remain irreversibly so much attached – to liturgical, administrative, theological, psychological, missiological and catechetical forms of this problematic “modern” paradigm in Europe or elsewhere?
The ETTC meetings and presentations wisely addressed this issue from an internal church perspective. What is the task and responsibility of the theologians in this process of “aggiornamento” (updating) within the church? The organizing team proposed Ellen White’s challenging motto as leitmotiv for the convention: “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn” (Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, 26/07/1892). What do we have to learn and unlearn in the fields of Biblical Studies, Systematics, and Practical Theology? What should be the leading methodological principles at work in this on-going and never-ending process? Revival and reformation cannot be a mere repetition of the past.
First, from a Biblical Studies perspective: Bernhard Ostreich (Friedensau, “The Role of the Sabbath in Adventist Eschatology according to Hebrews 4”, among other biblical presentations), convincingly argued that the traditional Adventist interpretation of this text has been doctrinally correct but exegetical deforming because the final result transformed the Sabbath from an “experience of rest” to an “experience of test”. The Sabbath, understood just as test of theological orthodoxy, misses the main religious and existentially positive impact of that passage.
Second, in the Systematic Theology sections: Gunnar Pedersen (Newbold, “Towards a canonically based systematic theology”) and Rolf Pohler (Friedensau, “Fundamental Beliefs: Curse or Blessing”, among others), argued in favor of a less mechanical and pragmatic approach, and for a more self-aware, balanced and healthy understanding of what a Biblical Theology and a Church System of Doctrines means. A biblical-theological “Credo” must be, on one side Comprehensive, Systemic and Pluralistic (biblical theology as Canon, Pedersen) and on the other side Provisional, Generic and Partial (Doctrines as Testimonies, Pohler). Just the opposite of what Adventism is actually doing. The misreading of the natural and legitimate cultural and religious heterogeneity of our world-church today is pushing official and institutional Adventism to use, and even to manipulate, Biblical Theology and Doctrinal Statements to impose a forced and fake unity based on a rigid, homogeneous and pretended-exhaustive Theological Statements.
Third, even more innovative and refreshing reflexions came from the Practical Theology group. Gabriel Monet (Collonges, “The Chaos Theory and today spirituality” and other meditations) and Bjorn Ottesen (Newbold, “How does the church respond to the challenge of individualism?”) urged the church to a shift-paradigm, encouraging the theologians to facilitate passage from a “controlling” to a “supportive” church. All this in accordance to the new post-modern ethos of the European population.
Particular mention needs to be given also to the inspiring Laurence Turner’s Sabbath morning sermon “Being content with Ishmael” and to the challenging and enriching Mike Pearson’s opening Keynote Address on the new emphasis Adventism needs to give to its neglected relational and emphatic attitudes that should be more person than program-centered. The convention ended Saturday evening, March 28, with the release of Newbold Press’s first publication, entitled: “Journeys to Wisdom: A Festschrift in Honour of Michael Pearson.” Dr. Michael Pearson has served Newbold College as a lecturer and administrator for 42 years, inspiring and enriching the life and ministry of pastors and theologians all over the world. But Michael Pearson’s profile is not understandable without the human and fine theological sensibility of his life partner, Helen.
All these positive and encouraging signs emerging in the European Adventism breathed at these ETTC meetings go unquestionably in one direction: it’s time to make the Adventist identity and mission more flexible and person-centered. Not people for the Church but Church for the people. Somehow that sounds familiarly evangelical. But here we need to ask a second fundamental question. One that can’t be overlooked and comes not from within but from outside the Church. Is this rediscovered intra-ecclesiastical wisdom enough to correct the traditional and chronic narcissism that generally and continually haunts European Adventism? A short-sighted and purely internal understanding of what a reform implies could eventually make this narcissism even worse. A major paradox would be that internal healing of European Adventism could coincide with its greatest isolation from others. In order to avoid such a rift European Adventism urgently needs to learn to dialogue. The main goal of European Adventism can’t be reducible to proposing an alternative model of church to the so stigmatized, pragmatic, American Adventism. European Adventism must think universally and not pretend to teach the world, as has happened in the past, but just to learn to interact equally with the world-church in a common, humble search.
And that starts with three dialogues.
1. Theological intra-European dialogue.
European Adventism doesn’t dialogue within itself. “European Adventism” and “Adventism in Europe” are not synonyms. European Adventism is this particular Adventism, positively contaminated by the European socio-cultural ethos. But there are other co-resident Adventisms that are less or not sensitive to this socio-cultural ethos. The first task of European Adventism is to acknowledge this irrefutable fact and become a mediator between all the Adventisms present on this continent. But beyond this there is also a task for Division theological institutions such as Newbold, Collonges and Friedensau. These institutions are not dialoguing with minor and more peripheral sister theological schools in Prag, Belgrade, Zagreb, Bucharest, Valencia or Florence. European Adventists in general, and theologians in particular, are today foreigners to each other.
2. Theological dialogue with Administration.
Administration and theology in Europe go parallel ways. Sometimes they meet to exchange some politically correct words or just to stigmatize each other. Administration without theology easily becomes myopic and theology without administration easily ends as romantic exercise. The Theological Adventism School System in Europe is a big administrative problem because it has become very expensive and, unfortunately, also inefficient. Consider, the Inter-European Division (EUD). In this Division there are actually eight theological schools with a total of only 200-250 students maximum. This fact clearly represents an untenable administrative situation which the Division Education Department and the Division itself in Bern have been, until now, unable to resolve. They are, in fact, diligently making it worse. With such reduced numbers of students it is not justifiable to maintain two schools of theology (Collonges-Sous-Saleve and Friedensau). These schools received last year (2014) 3,280,855 Euros subsidy, while the other European theological schools got nothing and even contributed to support these two schools. That amount of money represents the 27.01 % of all tithes in this Division and 21.07 % of the annual Division budget. Such huge, unjustifiable subsidies don’t create dynamic institutions but rather apathetic and self-referential ones. They are unable to create and promote a European net of theological institutions through continuous dialogue and initiatives in Rome, Milan, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona, Bucharest, Zurich or Vienna. They are just national (French and German) institutions improperly financed via common funds. This is a costly and bureaucratic way of being and thinking “European” – only in form but not substance. We need to propose the creation of a European Theological Initiative (Seminary) with the participation of all the Adventist European theological schools and Conferences – as the Baptist European Church (International Baptist Theological Seminary) has, for instance, recently done in moving its headquarters from Prague to Amsterdam.
3. Theological and Multicultural extra-European dialogue.
European Adventism doesn’t represent a mainline Adventism. It’s a minority Adventism and I postulate that it will never become the majority perspective in the world Adventist family. Actually European Adventism represents a real treasure that the world church should preserve with care and promote with trust and vision for the benefit and theological balance of Adventism in general.
But European Adventism needs to learn to see beyond its borders and its own navel to embrace the global church problems as its own – not in order to dictate what needs to be done, but to interact and dialogue in a communal exercise of continuous sharing. There is no victory in giving up a voracious narcissism, typical of the 19th and 20th secular and religious Europe, to adopt a depressive wise post-modern one, typical of 21th century conformist Europe. European Adventism needs to overcome the temptation to be Eurocentric and narcissistically entrapped in itself. For this reason it appears to me that the main challenge of European Adventism today is not safe keeping the various idiosyncratic traits of its unique profile, but rather to work them out in dialogue with other theological projects and profiles worldwide.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy