by Lawrence Downing

I do not know Reinder Burinsma, PhD. I’ve neither seen him nor heard him speak. I did once send him an email stating my appreciation for an Adventist Review article he wrote. I did not hear back from him, so am unsure if he ever received it. I know little about him beyond the information provided in the article he wrote that is the subject of this post: He is retired but currently serves as president of the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference in Brussels, Belgium.
I want to make clear that I do not have Dr. Bruinsma’s permission to write what follows. I hope that should he read it he will not be distressed by my attempt to convey his ideas.
The article referenced above by Dr. Bruinsma appears in the December 2012 Ministry, an international journal published for pastors by the Ministerial Association of the General Conference. In the article, written under the title “Creating a climate for the discovery of truth: A perspective on doctrinal development,” is a reasoned and sensible response to issues currently stirring up the Adventist world.  My guess is that few church members, other than pastors, read Ministry. I’d like a wider audience to have access to his observations and suggestions for they would, I believe, result in a fundamental shift in attitude, should what he suggests be adopted. This blog will not reach a significantly wider audience, but it is a medium I can access. Here goes.
In the first paragraph of his article Bruinsma addresses “this increasing combative atmosphere” that plagues the church. His evidence: the harsh interchanges he reads on various Adventist web sites, both left and right wing, which cause him irritation. Questions multiply: “What is happening?  Where does this increasing combative atmosphere come from? How should we deal with issues that concern us? Where will this ultimately lead?" He gets more specific as he identifies one of the issues that prompts current discussions: origins. The subject of origins takes him to the proposal to reword fundamental belief number 6, the statement on Adventist understanding of creation.
He addresses the current discussions in the church as people examine the relationship between science and religion. He points out that Adventists are not alone in this conversation. Different denominations have come to different conclusions as they consider the question of how to view evolution.
The Adventist Church, he reminds the reader, has adopted and defended a literal understanding of the Genesis creation account. Bruinsma acknowledges that some Adventists have expressed reservations about a literal six-day creation. These people are more comfortable with a form of theistic evolution. This view, they believe, provides a means to reconcile science and the Bible account. (I appreciated that he made no moral or theological judgments. He states the obvious and moves on.)
Adding complexity to the science/religion discussion is the proposal from some within the Adventist Church “to close any possible ‘loopholes’.” This will be accomplished by including language such as “‘recent,’ and ‘six literal’ days of 24 hours, which were ‘contiguous’—thus precluding any kind of ‘gap theory,’ or interpretation of the ‘six days’ as longer periods.” The catalyst for these proposed changes may lie with reports that professors in certain Adventist universities may not be as “‘Adventist’” as some wish. Bruinsma sees a potential for trouble in this reaction. It may be a precursor for an “…escalation of the difficulties within the Adventist educational system. Questions of the responsible use of academic freedom, denominational control over school curriculum, procedures for dealing with conflict, the need for balance, linked with total transparency, and—most of all—the question of how to adequately define what the church considers as sound teaching.” This is a significant issue at stake: our individual and collective pursuit of Truth.
The pursuit of Truth raises significant questions in Bruinsma’s mind. He centers on two: (1) “How essential is it to refine doctrinal statements even further? (2) How necessary is it for the Church to arrive at a position on every important issue and, in particular, on the correct understanding of the details of the Creation story?”  Bruinsma’s answers to these questions are instructive. There is not room enough in this forum to set out his responses. I will make an exception for answer No.5. Think of it as “Bruinsma’s Fifth.”

“The Adventist Church has … always been critical of other religious communities that have allowed the traditions of the past to guide present thinking, and even more so, of systems that rely on a magesterum to make final pronouncements. Are we in danger of doing the same? Again, a need for balance must be maintained.  The church must most certainly guide and protect doctrinal developments, but at the same time the church needs to take care not to institutionalize the development of the thinking of its thought leaders and not to bureaucratically try to restrict the search for truth. The discovery of truth is, I believe, not primarily through committees, institutions, and other administrative processes. Spiritual convictions do not result only from majority votes in annual councils and General Conference sessions. … Maybe our leaders should feel less pressured to intervene expeditiously and force the process along, and be more patient and expect more from the working of the Holy Spirit.”

In his concluding paragraphs, Bruinsma holds out for patience as a viable response to issues that have potential to disrupt a system or organization. Patience, Bruinsma affirms, is not a sign of weakness. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22. Effective leadership, he posits, does not demand that firm positions be taken and defended, come what may. Polarization and controversy are not the marks of a nurturing and mature leadership style and will not benefit the body of believers. A better way is to encourage and demonstrate genuine dialogue and work toward a deeper understanding of particular truths.  He acknowledges that there is risk in this approach. It is important, therefore, that resources be available to the membership to provide a background for meaningful discussion and deeper study in God’s Word. “But in the end,” writes Bruinsma, “it is more risky to rely on hasty administrative processes that result in winners and losers, than to exercise patience and rely on the workings of the Spirit.” This sentence concludes the article.
If it were in my power I would require administrators to post this article on their refrigerator door and read it every day for a week—and then implement what they have read! Any errors or misstatements in the above post are mine alone.