An Alternative View of Church Unity

Weiers Coetser

An Alternative View of Church Unity

This article was first published by Adventist Today in June 2017.

 


Midway through 2017 we find ourselves, for better or worse, on the rutted and pothole-filled road of “church unity.” The landscape that this road tries to navigate has been defined by some as justice. But it’s all very complicated, and here I’m going to try to give you a better lay of the land.

“The beat of justice resonates within you,” said Dan Jackson warmly and reassuringly shortly after the October 2016 Annual Council decision to accept the draft Church Unity document. He was addressing those in the North American Division who felt disillusioned by the Church’s persistent unwillingness to deal equitably and fairly with all its members and clergy—male or female.

But will things take on a different nuance if we look back at our past? Commentators have observed our tendency to co-opt, and collude uncritically, with the dominant socio-political realities of our time. A bird’s-eye view back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in order. We bought into the great American dream. We shaped our global expansion on the same lines. We did it with the same inexorable drive as the most august institutions of colonialism and global capitalism.

The Historical Path

Here are some connections between Adventist history and the history of colonialism:

In 1863, when the Seventh-day Adventist church was beginning to take official shape, David Livingstone was still exploring the Zambezi. Much of the African continent had not even been charted. The West was enthralled by stories of adventure purveyed by newspapers who sponsored exploratory journeys through the “dark continent.”

As the Seventh-day Adventist church put down its roots in America, and as the civil war was being fought around the issue of slavery, colonialism was far from a retreating force. Significant swathes of the world were still up for grabs by exploitative entrepreneurs and nation-states. The conditions that the colonial drive created over the next few decades were truly horrifying. Between 1860 and 1910 more than 10 million people would die in the Congo alone.

The Seventh-day Adventist church’s first missionary drive into Africa and the Orient coincided with the height of colonial optimism. Diamonds, gold, and rubber all drew prospectors and businesses to this new frontier to amass a fortune without regard to the welfare of the local nations.

Along with them went our church’s first missionaries on their own project of global expansion.

Along the way, it would be safe to argue, we Adventists bought into the worldview that underpinned colonialism. We exported an American product to the world, laced with the language of a peculiar kind of exceptionalism. In return we were buoyed by the accomplishment of our great commission as the world was transformed by this American/European vision of reality. Seldom did the Church show a deep-seated interest to engage with the cultures that it encountered, to risk being transformed, or to acknowledge the potential for diversity. Additionally, our inspired organisational structure allowed for strong centralised control.

The extent to which the Adventist church mirrored the colonial project deserves to be explored in more depth, but the evidence shows that we cannot claim that we were immune to the ideologies that undermined the fabric of society. The South African church, for example, simply mirrored South African Apartheid. We’ve been slow at setting up centres of leadership and learning in the countries we entered, relying much more heavily on a retainer class of church administrators and thought leaders who had studied in the United States, such as in the halls of Andrews University.

Colonialism insidiously undermined the fabric of the historic communities where we drew our members from. Many argue that patriarchy was a rarity in earlier indigenous societies and was a result of colonial exploitation. Women bore the brunt of the economic and physical violence perpetrated by the colonial project. Think of a system where men are forced to become migrant laborers, in cities that are designed to exploit labour but destroy family bonds. They would return only occasionally to rural areas to bring money and HIV/AIDS infections to the women and girls at home. Did we preach headship theology historically? Perhaps this was a tacit endorsement, validating violent systems of patriarchy.

Colonialism eventually collapsed, giving rise to anarchic political situations in the countries that were under the grip of Western powers for many decades. The West’s exploitation, however, did not end there. Now the international market economy took over, creating the dependencies (sometimes by propping up deeply flawed dictators, or loaning excessive amounts of money to weak nations leaving them forever indebted) and the opportunities for great multinational companies to exploit every bit of wealth that might still be present in these parts of the world.

Turning of the tide

In recent decades, however, the instability that culminated from centuries of exploitation without building healthy societies has begun to bite back. Perhaps the most telling example is the current migrant crisis where Europe and the West is being overrun by the same people whose natural resources and labour they have benefited from over the last five centuries of slavery, colonialism, and globalisation.

“Postcolonial” migrants are now coming with huge needs and stringent expectations. Europe’s response is to be completely perturbed. The European states seem inept in engaging with the crisis in any way other than to protect self-interest. Fences are being erected (literally and figuratively). The response is mostly defensive, trying to find ways to define how the situation should be managed. But the rest of the world now seems unwilling to play according to the Western rules. They keep piling in by the droves. In boat after boat they arrive to claim some of the perceived wealth and stability that Europe and America had benefited from for hundreds of years—at their expense.

Unsurprisingly it seems a parallel phenomenon is happening with Adventism. The global product of American evangelical fundamentalism that we exported to the rest of the world is coming home. I would suggest that this global picture of justice, (or the historic lack thereof) is what shapes the landscape that presents itself on the floors of the General Conference and the Annual Council.

As I listened to the October Annual Council debate last autumn, I sensed that the church still has a long way to go to deal with its colonial legacy.

  • In gathering of global church leadership we are still having problems pronouncing the names of international speakers while those of many North-American speakers pose little problem. To what extent is the notion of a global, international church just a veneer even at the level of the highest most global of executive committees? Is this perhaps a marker that we have some way to go to develop the necessary relationships and skills to deal with the intricacies of being a global church?
  • The overwhelming majority of responses were from American and Europeans. Whether opposing or supporting the motion (having to do with a document to bring North American unions that ordain women into line with the General Conference) one wonders who the real intended audience of these entreaties were. Was it the small group that drafted the report? Was it top level administration? How successful were they in addressing the global church?
  • Almost every African member that spoke (there were very few) seemed to demonstrate a completely incommensurate view of the world.  I perceived little or no interest to engage in any of the clever or intricate arguments made by the North American and European speakers. They defined the issues differently and they too were unapologetic about their point of departure.

It was like two ships sailing past each other at night. The one was largely silent. The other was full of sound and fury, but the occupants of this ship did not seem to recognise how radically power has shifted in the church. In the battle for the correct view of justice, meaningful relationships seem to have fallen on the wayside.

What about Ted Wilson?

Those in favour of women’s ordination see Ted Wilson as the one who embodies the fundamentalist drive to enforce unity. If they can make him out to be the pariah, they can still believe that they are busy with an internal theological debate within a Western church with a range of Western theological perspectives.

One commentator recently asked if Ted Wilson does not merely have his finger on the pulse of the church and knows where the power lies and the energy flows. I think that Elder Wilson embodies the challenges that face the church. His leadership has become the focal point of tensions brought about by our colonial legacy. Our real failure seems to lie in our incapability to meet in meaningful engagement across the divisions created by our legacy.

What lies ahead?

There is a danger that the church will become more fragmented. The Western church could easily dissolve in the face of the results of its own historic legacy, and become invisible. It could continue to insist on its right and ability to define the terms of engagement, erecting more robust boundaries, leaving the rest of the global church poorer. Administrative decisions by Annual Councils and General Conference sessions could become punitive, even more quickly weakening the Western church.

Or we could choose a more hopeful route. We could acknowledge the complexity of the situation and open ourselves up to learn a new set of skills to pursue justice on a broader level. The clarion call of the Gospel will never go away: for us to be big hearted and generous as we encounter the strangers at our gates.

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Bosom of the Father

The "begotten' Son of God

Bosom of the Father

Pastor Pieter Gey van Pittius has been involved in pastoral work since 1986.  He  graduated with a BA Theology degree from Andrews University in 1991 and was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1995, In the same year he graduated from Pretoria University with a BA Honors in Biblical Studies, cum laude. He worked in South Korea as a teacher for 9 years where he  completed an M.ed in Curriculum and Instruction through the American College of Education, summa cum laude. In Korea he became involved in outreach to the unchurched and reaching other faiths with the gospel. He is now back in pastoral work in South Africa and is is currently doing preparatory work with the purpose of enrolling for a Ph.D. in apologetics at North West University in Potchefstroom.

The article below is the second of a series in which Pastor Pieter responds to Dr. Martin Bredenkamp’s arguments about why he no longer accepts the Trinitarian doctrine as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Our readers are invited to respond to the ideas of these two authors by commenting in the comment space below the article or on the Adventist Soapbox Facebook Page.


The Word who is God

Bosom of the Father

In my first response to Dr. Martin Bredenkamp’s article I promised to address the reference to the ‘bosom’ of the Father. The verse referred to is John 1:18 “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” ASV. The Greek word used for ‘bosom’ in this verse is kolpon[i] and according to Dr.Bredenkamp this term shows that Jesus is a Son of God in a “more literal manner” (sic) or elsewhere, “This strongly implies that Christ is the literal son of God.” I’m at a loss at exactly what is implied by this statement. The closest equivalent I can think of, is what the Latter Day Saints say: that God had physical relations with a woman (whoever that may have been) and that Jesus was born from that liaison? I quote from their website “Jesus Christ is literally the son of God the Eternal Father.”[ii] Although God and his family are referred to as ‘spirit beings’, the relationships implied are literal. Once a statement like that is made, one runs into all kinds of dead ends.

The meaning in broader cultural context

However, the word itself had a wide range of meaning at the time. It could mean lap, bosom or the womb of a mother, but it could also indicate the place of honor at a table. It had a whole lot of other meanings as well, but what interests me most is that it was used in the LXX (The Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate the word that expresses marital (intimate) fellowship! The final conclusion about the use of the word ‘bosom’ in John 1:18, according to Rudolf Meyer, is that it “expresses the closest fellowship”. This kind of fellowship is very close and very personal.[iii]

A close, personal relationship

 Looking at the wider context of the word ‘bosom’, we must read from chapter 13:23[iv] to bring us closer to the meaning the Gospel of John wants to convey with this special word. “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” (KJV). John was part of the inner circle of three with James and Peter, but of the three he was the closest to Jesus.[v] He modestly refers to himself in the third person when he says he was the disciple “whom Jesus loved.”[vi] There was a special bond between John and Jesus, a bond of close friendship as we already saw above.  What is more, at the last supper John sat in the most honored position.[vii] This is a comprehensive, balanced and correct understanding of what is indicated by the word ‘bosom’ in John 1:18. A literalistic approach to this phrase inadvertently blinds us to the depths and rich meaning of the text and leads to a reductionist, wrong understanding of the whole passage in question. The bond between God the Father and God the Son (the Word) is extremely personal and close, this is what John is trying to tell us.

A personal God versus an impersonal God

 The conclusion that we worship a God who is highly personal, who stands in an acutely personal relationship with his Son, is quite revolutionary when it is contrasted with the Greek idea of God at the time of the writing of the Gospel of John. At first the Greek gods were simply viewed as basic forms of reality and later they increasingly denoted impersonal, metaphysical powers and forces.[viii] In a more recent study of the matter Ronald Nash points out that the prevalent view of God in John’s time was Stoic, which viewed God as impersonal and incapable of knowledge or love[ix] (emphasis mine). In contrast to this cold and impersonal force or power as our God, John communicates to us through the use of the word ‘bosom’ that God is someone more than capable of the closest, intimate relationship. He created us in his image and therefore our lives find the highest meaning in close, intimate and personal relationships. This is the way God created us to be. Little wonder, the longest running study of all time (75 years), done by Harvard University over a broad spectrum of society, concluded that healthy relationships keep us healthy and happy![x]

The image of God

We find further confirmation and illumination of the truth of God as an intensely relational God in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”[xi] This doesn’t mean that we are gods like some erroneously infer from this passage, but that we are like God. In other words this passage is a ‘snapshot’ of what God is like.[xii] We are like God because we are created in relationship, male and female. This is the closest relationship known to man, even closer than our relationship with our children,[xiii] because we do not share nearly as many dimensions with our kids as we share with our husbands and wives. In Genesis chapter 2, when Adam meets Eve, he exclaims in jubilation that she is “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh”.[xiv] In other words, seeking for someone that he can have a relationship with (he was alone and that was not good), he searched in vain among the animals who were not bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, they did not have the same nature as him. A meaningful and deep relationship was only possible with someone who was of the same nature.[xv] In the same way it is impossible for the Word to know the Father so intimately as to be “in” his “bosom” if they were not of the same nature. John 1:18, then has very little to do with ‘literal sonship’ in the way that Dr.Bredenkamp implies, but everything to do with the nature of the God that we worship.

A meaningful relationship means being equal in nature

Let’s look at this from another angle. It is not possible for one to have a deep, intimate and meaningful relation with an ant.  With a dog, one can have some kind of relation. One can love it a lot, but the relationship with the dog will always fall short of all the dimensions of a relationship with a fellow human being. Even though in this crazy world, a man married to a doll claims that he has a “meaningful emotional connection”with it,[xvi] we know in our heart of hearts that this is absurd! It is clear, from the context of John chapter 1, as we shall see, that the Word and the Father are equal in nature, clearly not in status but definitely in nature. Both are fully God in nature, because they share the same Being.

Face to face, equal in nature

 When we look at the immediate context of the word ‘kolpos’ or ‘bosom’, it has an even deeper meaning. In John 1:1 we read that the “Word was with God” (KJV). A literal translation will be ‘The Logos was face to face with (pros, πρὸς) God’. “It is the word used of two people looking into each other’s eyes and loving one another.”[xvii] The same word is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 to convey the idea of knowing something fully, or face to face. In other words, the Logos is in a face to face relationship with God the Father in which they know each other fully! It is only God that can know God fully. That is why John, to make sure that we understand what he says, immediately continues to say in the following phrase “and the Word was (ēn, ἦν) God” (KJV). There is no doubt in his mind. Only God can know God, in such a complete and intimate manner. Moreover, the verb ‘was’(ēn, ἦν) is a conjugation of the verb (i-mee’, εἰμί) when Jesus identified Himself with the God of the burning bush whom Moses encountered, the ‘I am’. John 8:58 “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am (KJV, emphasis mine). In other words, the Word ‘was’(keeps on existing) as God forever.

Conclusion

 The word ‘kolpos’ is part of the context of John chapter 1, and is used together with the concept ‘face to face’ of John 1:1, to establish that the Word and God are in a very personal and close relationship. Moreover, this relationship is only possible if the Word and God are of the same nature. In other words, they both need to be God to be in this kind of relationship. This is also reflected in the “Image of God” in man, a ‘snapshot’ of who God really is. In my next article, I will give attention to the rest of John 1:1-18 in relation to more statements made in Dr. Bredenkamp’s original article.


[i] κόλπον is the accusative, a declension of – κόλπος

[ii](https://www.lds.org/manual/doctrines-of-the-gospel-student-manual/chapter-4-jesus-christ-the-son-of-god?lang=eng)

[iii]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel &translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol III, 1965, WM. B. Eerdmans Pub Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 824-826

[iv]κόλπῳ, the dative, a declension of κόλπος

[v]David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible, A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 2015, p.889

[vi]John 19:26; John 13:23

[vii]Pierre Steenberg,“It was for me, I’m forgiven”, 2017, p.19

[viii]Kleinknecht, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel & Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol III, 1965, WM. B. Eerdmans Pub Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 68-69

[ix]Ronald Nash, “Was the New Testament Influenced by Stoicism?”, March 30, 2009, Christian Research Institute, Article ID: DA242

[x]Robert Waldinger,“What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”, Jan 25, 2016, Youtube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KkKuTCFvzI, Retrieved on March 27, 2017

[xi]Genesis 1:27 (KJV)

[xii]Dick Staub, March 4, 2013, “What ‘Made in the Image of God’ Really Means Taking a second look at a very misunderstood part of our faith.”, Relevant Magazine, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/23549-qmade-in-the-image-of-godq, Retrieved on March 27, 2017

[xiii] David Pawson, Unlocking The Bible, A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 2015, p.52

[xiv] Gen 2:23 “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (KJV)

[xv] David Pawson, Unlocking The Bible, A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 2015, p.50

[xvi]Sullivan, R,October4,2013, Davecat tells how he married a RealDoll named SidoreKuroneko,NewsComAu, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/relationships/davecat-tells-how-he-married-a-realdoll-named-sidore-kuroneko/news-story/80430b9b61b5ebccaa2655581ad57710, Retrieved March 27, 2017

[xvii]David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible, A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 2015, p.903


Do you agree with the author’s reasoning in this article that Jesus was not a literal son of the Father, but that the phrase “bosom of the Father” rather describes the intimate relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Please share your response in the comment box below or on the relevant Facebook page. Please “like” this article on the Facebook page.


 

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Doctrine of the Trinity

A first response to Dr. Bredenkamp

Pieter, author of blog

Ps. Pieter Gey van Pittius

The trinitarian formula

 


Pastor Pieter Gey van Pittius has been involved in pastoral work since 1986.  He  graduated with a BA Theology degree from Andrews University in 1991 and was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1995, In the same year he graduated from Pretoria University with a BA Honors in Biblical Studies, cum laude. He worked in South Korea as a teacher for 9 years where he  completed an M.ed in Curriculum and Instruction through the American College of Education, summa cum laude. In Korea he became involved in outreach to the unchurched and reaching other faiths with the gospel. He is now back in pastoral work in South Africa and is is currently doing preparatory work with the purpose of enrolling for a Ph.D. in apologetics at North West University in Potchefstroom.

The article below is one of a series in which Pastor Pieter responds to Dr. Martin Bredenkamp’s arguments about why he no longer accepts the Trinitarian doctrine as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Our readers are invited to respond to the ideas of these two authors by commenting directly on the respective blog posts or on the Facebook pages where these blogs are also featured.


A need for reverence

I’ve thought seriously on how to approach my response to Dr. Bredenkamp‘s article. It is impossible to answer all his statements in this one post and therefore I’ll do it in several deliveries.

The first point that I would like to emphasize is that one must be careful when talking about God and for very good reason: We are but mere creatures talking about our Creator and this is why we should be reverent and humble when discussing our God. This is why I was greatly disturbed by the opening story in Dr. Martin’s article, the picnic story about God. It is impossible for me to determine whether the description is a faithful account of the original content of what the preacher told his congregation, but the way it is portrayed in Martin’s post, in my opinion, shows a  lack of reverence.

The incomparable God

I don’t want to be guilty of the same mistake and that is why I start with this verse from Isaiah 40:25 “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One…” This is of course a rhetorical question with only one answer, “No one and nothing else!” This is why we should be careful when starting a phrase like “God is like…” Nothing can be like God for there is only One like Him and that is God himself. In other words, when we use analogies to try and explain Him, they can only serve in a limited way to illustrate certain aspects of His character. When any analogy is pushed too far, it breaks down (James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity, 2012, p. 13).

God’s Word in human language

Even when scripture uses analogies we must remember that “the writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men…. The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language.” (Selected Messages 1,19-21). Ellen White is not alone in her conviction. Most serious scholars through the ages hold similar views about talking about God. For instance, Durand, Alfred (1910). “Inspiration of the Bible”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York);  Luther when he said “The actual writing was a human not a supernatural act” (Farrar, F. W. (1886). History of interpretation (p. 339). London: Macmillan and Co.), and so also, Calvin (Ibid, p.345).

Human language itself breaks down when trying to describe the Divine for one thing, because of the connotations we as humans have for certain words (James R. White, 2012, p.13). One example would be the word “Son”. Martin Bredenkamp says that the use of the word ‘bosom’ “indicates that Christ was a literal son of God.” This is using this word out of its context. When reading John 1:1-18, it becomes abundantly clear that the Word is God from eternity. This exegesis I will leave for a later contribution.

Authenticity of the trinitarian formula

I want to confine myself here to one more issue from Dr. Martin’s article: “The Johannine Comma”  (1 John 5:7-8) and “The Great Commission” ( Matthew 28:19). Dr. Martin lumps these two verses together in one category as extra biblical content that have been added to Scripture hundreds of years after the New Testament was written.

These two verses just do not belong to the same category. Scholars do not dispute the fact that the Johannine Comma is a later addition. This can be well attested by studying early manuscripts. As to the truth of what this later addition affirms, it is another matter entirely. On the other hand, it is easy to prove that Matthew 28:19 is original and not inserted by Athanasius in the fourth century as Dr. Martin claims.

The internet is frequently used to spread ideas that cannot be academically justified. One instance of this is  the hype about Matthew 28:19’s authenticity that has been produced by Pastor Reckart’s statement that a Hebrew manuscript of Matthew 28:19 has been discovered without the Trinitarian formula .

What Reckart doesn’t explain to his readers is that this manuscript dates from 1380 AD! (William Horbury, Appendix p.729 in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew ed.D. Davies, William David Davies, Dale C. Allison).

The Didache and the trinitarian formula

There is a lot of additional proof that can be cited in defence of the authenticity of Matthew 28:19, but here I will only focus on the Didache. This is unquestionable, rock-hard evidence. The Didache is a document dated by various scholars from as early as 50 AD to as late as 150 AD, but the majority dates it earlier in the first century between 60 and 80 AD (Cross, edited by F.L. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 482. ISBN 978-0192802903.)

The Didache quotes the “trinitarian formula” twice. First in 7:1 “Now concerning baptism, baptize thus: Having first taught all these things (everything Jesus taught us to do), baptize ye into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living (running) water.” (The Didache, Phillip Schaff translation). The same formula is repeated in 7:3 as well, (I included some explanation in brackets for clarity). There are only two possibilities here, either the writer quotes directly from Matthew 28:19 or uses a common source. In both cases it excludes the possibility of a fourth century interpolation by Athanasius! Matthew 28:19 is authentic and was spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Conclusion

In this article I emphasized that  we worship a God that defies definition. That means that we should be humble and reverent when talking about Him. Further, when scripture describes God, human language is used and that should be taken into account. Finally, I presented evidence that the trinitarian formula is as old as Christianity itself and Matthew 28:19’s authenticity is vindicated by the Didache beyond a doubt.

In a following article I will address John chapter 1 and the reference to the ‘bosom’ of the Father. I will show how John specifically addresses the divinity of Jesus and how that impacts the rest of the book of John and the New Testament’s testimony about Jesus.

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Trinity

An alternate view of the godhead

Author of the Trinity post

Dr Martin Bredenkamp

Editor’s introduction: In a previous blog, “Storms in the Adventist Church“, we made reference to a number of contested theological topics in the Seventh-day Adventist church that sometimes impact on congregations or individual members. The issues often result in confusion and discord. From time to time members choose to leave the church as a result.  We would like to explore this situation further. Our purpose is not to promote a particular cause or to engage in traditional apologetics for the Church. We believe the act of careful listening and trying to understand positions that we don’t necessarily agree with can open dialogue that is enriching for those who are on a journey of discovery. If the process of listening and conversation is conducted sensitively and honestly, it will almost always be an enriching exercise for all who engage in it, even if agreement is not reached. It is in this spirit that we publish Dr. Martin Bredenkamp’s  article, even though we do not endorse or agree with his conclusions.  Martin Bredenkamp grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church and worked in its education system, but he has resigned his membership because he feels he can no longer believe in some of the key doctrines of the Church, one of these being the doctrine of the Trinity. We asked him to explain his thinking around this issue. Our questions to our readers are: What do you think of Martin’s general argument? Does he raise issues that require further investigation? Is there room for development in one’s thinking about the Trinity. Please share your insights.


Disclaimer: “The Adventist Soapbox” does not necessarily agree with or subscribe to all the views of our various contributors.


The Trinity

I have heard a sermon where the pastor used the following analogy to try and explain the concept of the Trinity and and their respective roles in the plan of salvation. He stated: “The Trinity is like three people planning a picnic. One said he would bring the food and vegetables, Another volunteered to bring the drinks, and the Last quite willingly agreed to bring the dessert. Likewise the three Gods (that are one) volunteered for their respective roles in the plan of salvation. Christ offered to become human and be the sacrifice to pay for the guilt of man. The Holy Spirit volunteered to be the omnipresent influence among humans to woo their hearts to salvation. The third, the Father, would stay in heaven and take charge of the plan, and orchestrate the activities of the the Trinity,.” This is obviously an extreme oversimplification of the concept, but it does contain the basic ideas that most Trinitarians believe in. I, however, could never agree with, this understanding of God. For me the New Testament is very clear that Christ is subordinate to the Father. Since childhood, I have accepted that God is in charge, Christ is subordinate to Him, and that the Holy Spirit is subordinate to both of them. Then, some years back, my wife was concerned about the Trinity doctrine, and I explained my understanding of it. She was not satisfied with my view, and the two of us embarked on a deep study of the Trinity. We came to the conclusion that the Trinity-concept is not Biblical. In fact the word does not even occur in the Bible. We shared our conclusions with staff and faculty at the Asia-Pacific International University (AIU) where we were employed, and the inevitable happened: We were asked by the church elders to step down from our positions in the church. One of the theologians on campus then provided us with a book written by three Adventist scholars on “The Trinity.” We soon realized that the doctrine is built on a mere 28 texts in the Bible that could be misconstrued to support a godhead of three equal beings, compared to over three hundred texts that indicate that Christ is separate from, and inferior to the Father. A closer look at these 28 texts revealed that these scholars had “cherry picked” translations to suit their dogma for these texts. The original Greek often meant something else. Sometimes it was a missing comma that conveyed the wrong ideas. Two texts had been inserted into the Bible by people promoting the false doctrine of the Trinity:

  1. Matt 28:19 by Athanasius in the fourth century that states we should baptise in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and
  2. the ‘Johannine Comma’, 1 John 5:7,8, in the 9th century, that states there are three witnesses in heaven.

The fact that these texts were inserted into the Bible is all the more reason to suspect the doctrine on the Trinity.

Christ the Son

As we were studying through the New Testament, we found that calling Christ the Son, is not just an analogy to have us relate to the connection between the Father and Son, but should be interpreted in a more literal manner. The King James Version says that Christ comes from the bosom of the Father (John 1:18). A study of the meaning of this takes us to the practice of women in the time of Christ who wore a sheet across their shoulders, tying a belt around their wastes. The sheet would make a fold above the waist, and in this fold lactating women often carried their babies, allowing them to suckle unhindered. These babies were in their mother’s bosom. Likewise Christ came from the bosom of the Father. This strongly implies that Christ is the literal son of God. Hebrews chapter 1, quoting Psalms 2, indicates that Christ was an angel that pleased the Father so much, that on a “day,” he made Him His Son. He chose Him from among His companions, the angels. The Father calls Him God at this point. This is one of the few places in the Bible where Christ is called God. Christ was not eager to accept obeisance as God, and discouraged it sometimes such as when the rich young ruler called Him “Good Master.” His reply to that was that there is no one good but the Father. The concept of being chosen from among the angels finds support at an unexpected place: Lev 16. This chapter defines the rituals on the Day of Atonement. Two goats were brought on that day, and lots were cast on them. One became the sacrificial goat, the other the scapegoat, representing Christ and Satan respectively.

The Holy Spirit

Through the years many scholars have found it difficult to determine whether the Holy Spirit is a being or the heart of God among us in His absence. Isaac Newton, for instance, studied this concept throughout his life, and never came to a final conclusion. The Holy Spirit is argued to be a third member of the Godhead. Arguments such as Him having a personality since we must not grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30) have been put on the table. Yet it is indicated that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father, and the Spirit of Christ. For example, in John 14:18, Christ says, He will not leave them comfortless, but will come to them. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is therefore Christ coming to them. The Holy Spirit is actually the Spirit of the Father through Christ.

History of the doctrine of the Trinity

What does history teach us? Eusebius (AD 260 – 340), the theological historian was not a Trinitarian but a Binitarian (Father and Son only). It is clear from his writings that the Trinity was not an accepted church doctrine before his time. Athanasius, mentioned earlier, strongly promoted the concept of three gods in heaven and largely through his influence the Trinity was accepted as doctrine at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 (http://www.quodlibet.net/articles/perry-athanasius.shtml). The doctrine of the Trinity was one of the changes brought about to unify pagans and Christians in Rome, together with Sunday worship, Easter and Christmas. The pagans believed in three gods: Baal (father), Ashtoreth (mother) and Tammuz (child) (https://biblespace.org/2013/09/30/baal-astarte-tammuz/). In the places of these three heathen gods came the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Son. Thus three gods in heathenism became three in one gods in Christianity – the Trinity. When Adventism came into being, many of our pioneers recognised the heathen origins, and the lack of support for the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, and did not believe in it. However, in the 1930’s, long after the pioneers had passed away, LeRoy Edwin Froom, a well known Adventist scholar, developed an interest in the Trinity doctrine in the SDA church. He did much research and wrote the four volume set, “Prophetic Faith of our Fathers,” and also “Movement of Destiny.”  He researched the works of E.G. White, and collected every statement that he thought could support the doctrine of the Trinity. From this he compiled the book “Evangelism”. Some have concluded that this book reflects his bias in support of the Trinity doctrine. Many think that E.G. White wrote the book “Evangelism,” but it is a compilation. The publication of this book, together with the volumes mentioned earlier contributed to the formal acceptance of the Trinity doctrine as a doctrine of the Church in 1980.

The Adventist Church an Apostate church

The Adventist church has essentially apostatized. We are characterized as a church defending the fourth commandment. However, while we heroically protected our front door against apostasy in the Sabbath command, an enemy slipped in through the kitchen window and brought in a greater apostasy – the doctrine of the Trinity. We believe we are free from the mark of the beast by not keeping Sunday holy, but in the meanwhile we have received its mark by accepting its greater apostate doctrine of the Trinity. I believe the issue of the Trinity will be the test of loyalty to God at the coming crisis rather than the Sabbath doctrine. In summary, the doctrine of the Trinity is not Biblical. God is one God, and has given us His only begotten Son who lived for us on earth, died for us, and was resurrected and ascended for us. God’s Spirit works through His Son to influence and woo us to Him. The Spirit is not a personal being but the unseen presence of God through His Son.  Adventism started in the belief of the One true God, but the forces of Babylon infiltrated the doctrine of the Trinity into our church, making us unwittingly a part of Babylon. The final showdown at the end of time will address this false doctrine and God’s people will return to worshiping Him, the one and only true God.

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Blogging through “The White Elephant” No. 6

Weiers Coetser, co-editor of Adventist Soapbox

Weiers Coetser


A Response to Brian Neumann

In a sport like football or rugby, an ultimate fear for any player is scoring an own goal. This fear also exists within the world of critical conversations or debates. This is exactly what Brian Neumann says I have done.

I wrote a blog engaging with the first chapter of Brian Neumann’s new book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism. I raised a question about the method that Brian employed in quoting verses from Scripture to establish a standard by which one should test a prophet. His proof-text approach seemed arbitrary to me, even though Brian presented it to be hard-coded into Scripture.

Brian’s response was that I have misrepresented his project, and furthermore, that my approach undermined the faith tradition that I represent in the very same breath.

In this blog, I suggest that when it comes to reading one another’s perspectives, the danger that is bigger than scoring an own goal, is that we end up misreading each other and that we essentially seem to be on the same field, but that we are playing different games altogether.

In his response, Brian made a few comments that I take to mean that if I had read his chapter with an open mind, I would not have critiqued the way that he came to his conclusions. I therefore went back and read Brian’s chapter again, along with the material that he submitted afterwards. Here is what I understand him to say.

  • Firstly, his main interest in the chapter is to make the point that he wants to use a scriptural standard as a means to evaluate the life, teaching, and work of a prophet (but not only a prophet – Scripture is his standard for measuring anything.)

This is his main argument.  And as such I think that I have misread him. I struggled quite a bit to extract a template or a list of proofs or tests by which he wants to evaluate the work of Ellen White. He does mention a number of these tests in his chapter, but every time I read the chapter looking for a coherent list, I struggled to distil exactly which elements are important to him. The eventual list that I thought he had come up with was: 1.) Does her life and teachings conform to the Bible? 2.) Did her predictions come true (except if there were clear conditional elements.) 3.) Does her visionary experiences conform to the visionary experiences of Biblical prophets?  But subtly throughout the chapter he states that he is not convinced by this third test, and his second chapter confirms that he rejects this element as a proof.

What confused me was that he mentioned some other aspects of prophets that never featured in this final list, for example, the variety of ways in which they received messages from God, and the fact that prophets were not always exemplary in their lives and witness. He also stated that he is not trying to do an in depth, systematic study of the prophetic gift in the Bible. He also completely overlooked key New Testament passages about the gift of prophecy. This left me with the feeling that everything is just a bit too arbitrary – especially if he is trying to set a strict “legal standard” and a direct scriptural pattern by which to evaluate the work of a prophet. I was looking for a systematic study of the phenomenon of biblical prophets, but I never really found that.

It is in this context that I noticed that he strings (what seems to me to be unrelated and, at times, even spurious) Bible verses together to make his argument about the need for a prophet to conform to the whole of Scripture. I chose to call that out. I still stand by my view that there are better ways to make an argument for employing Scripture. But having read Brian’s responses carefully, I am quite willing to admit that I got out of the starting block too quickly to make generalisations about his approach. I don’t think that my critique undermines his argument that we should use Scripture as the final standard to evaluate the spiritual impact and truth claims of a prophetic life and message in general.

The lack of a systematic study of Biblical prophets at the beginning, does however mean that he will have to work harder in future chapters to show that he is in fact employing his scriptural standard wholistically, consistently and with fairness. I am quite happy to give Brian the benefit of the doubt to see where he will go with the standard. I look forward to see how he will do it. In my Blog number 4 I tried to outline some of the elements of prophetic ministry that I would like to be on the lookout for.

I hope that this response will satisfy Brian. I also hope that Brian will be willing to read my comments as a token of friendship. We live in a world in which it is very difficult to get people to really stop and pay attention to each other. Often we struggle with ideas in isolation. Writing can be a lonely process. It’s a pleasure to be able to take time to really engage.

Own Goal?

Let me address the question about the own goal. Brian is keen to point out that my interpretation of Isaiah 8 places me at odds with Ellen White, and the scriptural tradition that I come from.  He quotes sources at length to prove this. I can see that Brian feels that he is justified in using Isaiah 8:20 to make his argument. I agree that, based on a long tradition of reading scripture, this is defendable. (I have far bigger objections to the other verses that he employed in his argument.)

He might find it strange that I do not yet feel the compulsion to change my perspective on Isaiah 8. I have set out the method by which I have approached the text, which I believe is defensible and faithful to the standards that one should use when one takes Scripture seriously. I also reject the notion that there is any attempt to obfuscate Scripture in any way.

I would suggest to Brian that it is a misreading to conclude that I am therefore disregarding my heritage and my faith.  I don’t believe I am less committed than Brian, or any Seventh-day Adventist for that matter, to give an accurate account of what Scripture teaches, or to hold it as the highest standard. My critique was never intended to undermine this principle. Perhaps the best way to show a commitment to Scripture is to put one’s best efforts into reading it. This is in my DNA as an Adventist.

I am also committed to the heritage that has brought Seventh-day Adventism to where it is today. In my teaching and in my ministry, I always set out to help support and nurture those who I have the privilege to encounter, to affirm and grow in their understanding of Bible fundamentals and Adventist beliefs.

Adventism is however a big tent and there is constant debate and conversation about how to interpret Scripture and history. Just this week (19 February 2017) I received a newsletter of the Adventist Theological Society announcing plans to publish several new Bible commentaries before the General Conference Session of 2020. These new commentaries contain some of the latest Bible scholarship, and new discoveries that have been made in biblical archaeology and the biblical text.

There is room for new perspectives around Scripture. While I am not going to presume that Ellen White would agree with my conclusion on Isaiah 8, I at least know that she would not be offended. She was a proponent of independent study of Scripture. Take this statement as an example:

“When no new questions are started by investigation of the scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.” Testimonies 5. p.707. (1889).

There are also new perspectives that develop around Ellen White and around the views of our church pioneers. There are even disagreements. It is simply impossible to paint an ideal historical picture of what a true Seventh-day Adventist should be and then expect that to remain the same for always and forever.

This creative tension between continuity and discontinuity is not confined to Seventh-day Adventism, or even to faith traditions in general. At the time of this conversation there is considerable public debate around the appointment of a new supreme court justice in the United States of America. One of the core issues that is being fiercely contested is how one should give proper account to the original principles of the United States constitution. Some choose a fundamentalist reading which try to retain the original core principles of the constitution independent of context, while others argue that the original principles of the constitution require that it be reinterpreted in the context of present day society. Both camps remain fundamentally American in their thinking even though they take different approaches.

In the process of trying to distil my thoughts for this article, I read the last chapter of The White Elephant. In that chapter, Brian also sets the requirement for every Seventh-day Adventist who wants to stand by the prophetic ministry of Ellen White to fit into a very specific mould that he thinks adherence to Ellen White would require and to be consistent with every truth claim, scriptural interpretation, and lifestyle standard that she proposed.

When I look at Brian’s interaction with me, and I read the testimony of Kamy in the context of this last chapter, I sense that Brian does not accept that there is room for pluralism in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. He sees anything other than a full commitment to a certain version of historical Adventism as fundamentally dishonest. Brian’s arguments against Ellen White works very well if he can convince his readers that there is only one legitimate way to read Ellen White. He can then point out the inconsistencies and this then gives him significant authority to force readers into an “either you are in or you are out” approach.

When a pastor or a reader of Ellen White chooses to make accommodations for faults or weaknesses in the way that our faith tradition has been shaped, or even in the life of Ellen White…if a re-interpretation is suggested… this is regarded as dishonest, double dealing, and portraying a lack of integrity. For Brian the only option is to either accept everything lock stock and barrel, or to reject it. He would even argue that this is intrinsically part of the fundamentals of Adventist belief and that Ellen White herself demands this. The ferocity of Brian’s attack against those who disagree with his version of historic Adventism suggests to me that his arguments against Ellen White stand or fall on this narrow binary view.

My intuition is that this will ultimately prove to be the biggest weakness of Brian’s argument. Such an inflexible monolithic view of a system of faith, and how adherents to a system of faith function, simply does not conform to reality.

The life of every human being consists of a mixture of passions, commitments to truth, personal failures, weaknesses and contradictions. This is true of Biblical writers as much as it is of modern people. We are all also products of our culture and our environment and we cannot escape this. There is no person who does not lose their way from time to time. Everybody, at all times, have many forces acting on them. Our lives also do not remain static, but follow trajectories in which change happen for good and bad. When you combine many such lives and individuals into a community, or into an institution the complexity becomes even greater.

The amazing thing about the testimony of Scripture is that God really works through these human factors – often despite these human factors.

It is for this reason that grace becomes such a prominent theme in Scripture. As Christians wend their way through the inevitable difficulties of the human condition, some of the Bible’s most salient bits of advice is to be patient, generous, longsuffering, slow to find fault… to treat people as you would like them to treat you. There is nothing dishonest about doing this. God did this for us. I would urge that this is the biblical standard by which we should also evaluate anybody whom we encounter in our lives.

By all means! — Let us be honest about the history and the true nature of how we, and our pioneers live our lives and interact with our world. I think this is the strongest contribution that Brian makes in his book. It is wrong to try to suppress or hide what is true. Unfortunately, many of these details have been slow to emerge.

But a hermeneutic that does not make allowances for the human condition, as well as factors such as interpersonal and broader historical context, while insisting on being the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong, is in my opinion unbiblical and needs to be approached with some suspicion and care.

What is your response to the concepts discussed in this blog? Please leave a comment below or take part in the dialogue on Facebook.
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