By Reinder Bruinsma — In the first small church which I pastored in the north of the Netherlands was a peculiar gentleman. Brother K. was a loyal member of the congregation. He was friendly and active, but he was definitely one of a kind. Soon after I met him, he told me what had attracted him in Adventism. As an accountant, he understood numbers and, lo and behold, here was a church that also appreciated numbers: 2300, 1260, 666, etc. That was the kind of religion he could relate to! It was something he could understand.
Some years later I had other assignments in the Dutch Adventist church. At that time, I was a member of a congregation in the center of the country. I soon learned to expect at regular intervals a call from Els, a mid-aged woman who truly suffered from her inability to understand the details of several Adventist doctrines. She would often be in tears as she asked me: Would I please explain something to her? And, more importantly, did I think God would accept her even though she did not grasp all the doctrinal small print in the church’s publications?
I was reminded of these two persons as I considered the topic of this article: What role does our reason–our understanding or the lack thereof—play in our spiritual life? Could there be a danger that we sometimes overemphasize the role of studying and knowing things about God and about our faith, and undervalue the importance of other aspects of a healthy spiritual life?
Entry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is by baptism through immersion upon the confession of one’s faith. This confession is meant to be more than a simple statement that the candidate has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Prior to her baptism, she is expected to “study” the Bible and, more specifically, accept the doctrines the church has distilled from the Scriptures. In many cases the process that precedes becoming a church member, and that continues after baptism, is of a highly cerebral nature, characterized by such elements as reading, thinking, studying, understanding, being convicted, and making decisions.
Often people who first connect with Adventism, have very little or no knowledge of the Bible. They may have some vague sense that there is a God, and as they are searching for more meaning for their lives, they may wonder whether having a faith and belonging to a church will help them along that path. Usually, from the first, the contact with them has a predominantly intellectual character. Evangelistic sermons and individual Bible studies about key church doctrines tend to be the main spiritual diet that must prepare them for their migration into the Adventist world. Others are already Christians before they discover Adventism. They are expected to compare the teachings of the faith community they are about to leave with those of the “remnant” church, and to conclude from what they “learn” in their Bible “studies” that the Adventist Church has “the Truth” or is, at least, closer to “the Truth” than other denominations. Studying, understanding, and knowing seem to be some of the key words.
As the centuries went by, the Christian Church defined its doctrines in ever greater detail. We see this same pattern in the history of most denominations. Remarkably, in its earliest phase, the Adventist Church was reluctant to develop a body of doctrines to which all members had to sub- scribe, but over time, that reluctance dissolved completely. When I was baptized in the 1950s, I gave my assent to 22 Fundamental Beliefs. Since then, the number of Fundamental Beliefs has increased to 28, and some of them have been much further refined.
In addition, we recently discern a tendency in our church to emphasize full doctrinal purity even stronger than before. We may wonder whether this is a wholesome trend. Regardless of how we want to answer that question, let us not too quickly jump to the conclusion that doctrines are actually not very important for our spiritual well-being.
What is this God like? What has He done in the past? What is He currently doing for us, and what can we ex- pect Him to do in the future. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins and that He is coming a second time? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Etcetera.
We need doctrinal language to structure our beliefs and to be able to talk with others about our faith. Doctrine may be compared to the role of grammar. Grammar is not the same as language. But we can only use language effectively if we employ grammar in such a way that our language gets structure. This enables us to think and talk about things. Likewise, in order to give words to our faith, we must have a doctrinal framework. It is, so to speak, the grammar of our faith language. But let’s not think that doctrine and faith are identical. Doctrine is primarily just a tool to think and talk about our faith.
Having said that, we must stress another important point. Doctrine is never perfect; it is and remains a human project. Moreover, doctrines are always constructed from a particular perspective and inevitably reflect the time in which they are formulated. We must, therefore, never forget that, as soon as we think we understand the tenets of our faith, we ought, in humility, to take a step back, realizing that our knowledge and insights will always remain partial. Our understanding will always remain tentative. As the apostle Paul says: “For now we see only reflections as in a mirror!” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Thank God that we have brains and that we can serve God with our intellectual capacities. But let’s also thank God that we are more than our brains, and that we cannot only think and argue and (to some extent) understand, but that we also have feelings and emotions. All that we have and are should be involved in our walk with God. God wants us to serve Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind’ (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5).
Doctrines can easily remain mere theory—interesting constructs, but little more than that. Some academics defend the idea that one can study theology without being a believer. I refuse to believe that. Faith (and theology, doctrine) has to do with my entire being. How can I think about God’s gracious gift of salvation without being emotionally touched? How can I meditate on the love and sacrifice of Christ without feeling? Moreover, what good will it do me that I have doctrinal knowledge if it does not personally affect me?
When Christ referred to himself with the term “Truth”, He did not emphasize that He has “the Truth”, but that He is the Truth (John 14:6). In other words: divine Truth does not just have to do with intellectual knowledge but is relational in its very nature. And link this to another core concept. The divine Truth, Christ stated, “will set you free” (John 8:32). This means that the truth will not just satisfy our curiosity and provide us with intellectual knowledge, but it will do something for and in us. It will change us and make us new, better and happier, people. As this happens, we acquire a unique kind of knowledge— perhaps better referred to as total inner certainty: “We know that we are children of God!” (1 John 3:2).
This new, inexplicable certainty is not totally detached from our intellectual knowledge. But it goes beyond some- thing we can prove. Even as we do not find a firm intel- lectual foundation for everything, we can rest assured that there is enough for us to build on as we seek answers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard (1813-1855) was, I believe, right when he wrote that we can never prove that God exists by purely intellectual proofs. In the end, we become fully convinced that God is there, and that He is there for us, and that we are His children, in our worship.
As we worship our Lord with all aspects of our being, we do not only gain a better understanding of God’s dealing with the world, and with us individually, but we also experience relief of guilt, because we “know” that our sins have been dealt with. We also experience inner peace and find comfort in times of distress and difficulties. Our faith provides us not only with doctrinal information, but also, with power and moral courage, and with perseverance.
Serving God with our heart, soul and mind means worshipping Him in a balanced way, with our intellectual knowledge supporting our sense of security and peace, and our love for God ensuring that our study of the Bible and our intellectual pursuit of theological knowledge has the right motivation. The heart and the brain must never be played off against each other. When the balance is impaired, our faith loses much of its spiritual power. As Adventists, we sometimes suggest that feeling plays too prominent a role in the life of particular religious groups. That may be so, but Adventists easily run the risk of letting the intellectual aspect—knowledge and the doctrinal element of their faith—obscure other elements that are just as precious.
Surely, we must continue to ask, “What is truth and to mine the Scriptures for the things that God “has revealed to us and to our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29). But let us not only ask the question: “Is it true”, but also: “Does it give me peace” and: Does it strengthen my inner certainty that I am a child of God?
In conclusion, I suggest you ask yourself: Do I not only know what I believe but also feel what I believe?
–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. His latest book is He Comes. Why, When, and How Jesus Will Return (Autumn House Publications). Email him at: [email protected]