Reflections of a theologian

Reflections of a theologian: Raoul Dederen on theology, the church, and life

An Adventist theologian shares his reflections on the Scriptures, life, and several decades of distinguished training of thousands of ministers.

Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.

Raoul Dederen is a professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. Before joining the seminary in 1964, he served as a pastor in his native Belgium (1947–1954) and then taught in the seminary at Salève Adventist University, Collonges-sous-Salève, France. While teaching in France, he took up doctoral studies at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he completed the degree of Dr. es Sc. Morales. In 1964 Andrews University invited him to be a guest professor at the seminary. His theological depth, inspirational teaching methods, structured courses, and caring relationship with students immediately made him one of the most well-liked teachers. What was to be a brief guest lectureship turned into a lifelong commitment to the seminary. From his classes have gone thousands of graduates to every part of the world, carrying the same commitment to the Lord, His Scripture, and His mission. His most recent contribution to Adventist scholarship is the editorship of the monumental Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, volume 12 of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series. At my request, Dr. Dederen took time to share the highlights of his ministry and mission. He and his wife, Louise, live in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Nikolaus Satelmajer: You came to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in 1964. That was quite some time ago.

Raoul Dederen: When Louise and I came to the seminary 42 years ago, there were 13 or 14 professors. Today there are over 40.

NS: I remember your telling us then that you saw three theological issues of major importance to the church: Revelation-Inspiration, Christology, and Ecclesiology. Forty years later, has there been a change?

RD: Those issues and their by-products continue to dominate theology. They are part of the foundation of all the rest. Every single doctrine is affected by how one approaches these foundational areas of theology.

NS: Looking over the last four decades, are you encouraged or concerned about the movement or lack of movement in these three areas?

RD: You mean among Seventh-day Adventists? Yes, there has been a lot of movement, numbers of meetings and publications. Most of them positive and encouraging, at least from my perspective. There still is a tendency at times to use presuppositions that are extrabiblical.

NS: Such as?

RD: Encounter theology presuppositions for instance. In this case, one approaches Scripture with the a priori view that there is no truth content when God and the prophet meet. God is not supposed to reveal truths to a prophet, but Himself. Once the encounter is over, the prophet interprets the encounter in terms relevant to the situation. Thus God did not reveal truths to Moses, but Himself. Moses then translated the encounter in laws and precepts relevant to a people of slaves. You can easily imagine what this does to the authority of the Scriptures. There is also postmodernism, which holds that if there is such a thing as revealed truths, they cannot be absolute. Such truths are so colored by one’s personality, by the baggage we bring along, that nobody can speak with certainty or authority. Hence nothing is binding; your view is just as good as mine, especially as long as they both lead us to Christ. The question remains, of course, “Which Christ? What is He? What did He come for?” As you can see, we are far from the apostles’ certainty. We cannot be sure of the reliability of what the Scriptures say. Nor should we insist, we are told, on our understanding of their teachings as truths.

NS: So, where does it all take us?

RD: It often slowly leads to the denial of the veracity of various scriptural statements. Take Rudolf Bultmann, probably the single most influential theologian of the second half of the 20th century. As he sees it, not only did the New Testament authors write about God and reality in terms that reflected the popularly held views of the first century— which are untenable today—but their writings are not even to be regarded as objective and reliable accounts of what happened in their lives. What they wrote, explains Bultmann, is in reality an account of the impact these occurrences had upon them. Just an impact. I mean events like the incarnation of Christ, the virgin birth, the Transfiguration, most of the Lord’s miracles and teachings. These have to be “demythologized,” which does not mean eliminated but reintegrated in terms and categories relevant to the modern and scientific world in which we live. Thus, for instance, the apostles’ statements about Christ’s resurrection and ascension were not intended to tell us that Jesus did in fact come to life again, but that they had been resurrected, lifted from their self-centered lives. These were not objective occurrences, says Bultmann, but dynamic impacts that followed Christ’s death on the cross— which he recognizes—and changed their lives, opening them to the future, as he liked to explain.

As I said earlier, such a view will lead one to wonder how much of what we find in the Scriptures is authentic and reliable.

NS: Who are some of the other wellknown theologians that you had the privilege of knowing in those days?

RD: Emil Brunner came to the university a few times when I studied in Geneva (1955 to 1963). Karl Barth, too, a few times. They varied sharply regarding the issue of Creation, which Brunner regarded as a valuable, though limited, source for one’s knowledge of God.

NS: How about Oscar Cullmann?

RD: Ah, yes. Oscar Cullmann was a Lutheran biblical scholar and a personal friend. I have letters from him. I have been regarded by some as Cullmannian more than once, and I am almost proud of it. His Christ and Time left a marked impression on me. He emphasized the importance of the biblical view of history, and particularly of sacred history of which Christ was the midpoint. This midpoint, as he saw it, was the clue to the understanding of world history, which he regarded as linear, running from Creation to the end time. This more objective understanding of Scripture was in radical contrast with Bultmann’s existential interpretation.

The last time we met was in Tantur, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in 1972. Louise and I were part of a three-month-long gathering of some 30 theologians. Cullmann and his sister were our immediate neighbors. His appreciation of Adventism grew during that time, and he kindly told me he wished I were his son.

NS: Which of these theological giants influenced you?

RD: It is hard to tell. Cullmann, probably. And still, while these and others forced me to reflect on the nature and authority of the Scriptures, I had early on decided to let the Scriptures talk for themselves. Their word was final. When Brunner, for instance, tells us that what basically happened between God and a prophet or an apostle was an encounter, I had to put the view to the test of Scripture. According to its writers, was there or was there not, beyond the impact of an encounter, any communication, any sharing of information, between God and the prophet? Their answer seemed quite clear to me. A resounding Yes. On what basis should encounter theologians be taken more seriously than those who underwent the phenomenon?

NS: The first time I met you was in a class at the seminary at Andrews University. You taught your classes with passion. And now, you still discuss theology with enthusiasm. What brings about such passion for theology?

RD: I don’t know. I think it is some sort of a burning devotion to something or someone you have discovered. Christ found me back in the 1940s, and I started discovering one fascinating biblical truth after another. Once you have grasped a biblical truth that answers your questions, that moves you, even changes your life and view of things, nothing and nobody can keep you from sharing it. And in the process, it grows in you. That’s what happened in my case.

And this passion, as you call it, is not in contradiction with reason. On the contrary! For you need to understand what found you, and you need a rational way to share it or Him in an intelligible way, naturally, spontaneously. I have come to believe that this may well be where my seven years of classical training, especially in Latin and Greek, one hour a day each, five and a half days a week, between the ages of 12 and 19, shaped my way of expressing things. Much of that happened before I came to Christ.

NS: That makes sense. Two things I remember about your teaching are passion and structure. You knew where you were heading. By the way, did you know Seventh-day Adventists during the war?

RD: In 1939 when World War II began, I was 14. I was 20 when the war ended. Louise and I have vivid memories of those years. There was so much destruction, pain, and blood. I was often disturbed by the fact that my Catholic faith hardly answered my questions, especially about good and evil as well as about my future and that of Europe. I refused to go along with Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, very popular at the time. I refused to accept the view that man faces an absurd world with feelings of anguish and disgust. Then I came in contact with Seventh-day Adventists. Their grasp of the great controversy between Christ and Satan and their interpretation of biblical prophecies gave me some meaningful answers. It all started with a snow party in the winter of 1942. My sister and I, while sledding down the snowy hills not far from home, ran into two or three young Adventists whom we had met a few years earlier. We invited them to join us. As we walked up the slopes, they shared their faith with us, starting with the doctrine of the millennium.

NS: Of all things, the millennium?

RD: Yes, the millennium. It was a most relevant topic in those days. Adolf Hitler, who reigned over most of Europe, had promised a thousand-year German Reich. This led us to the end-time prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. We met several Sunday afternoons. I was intrigued and wanted to look deeper in these prophecies that dealt with events so close to my studies in antiquity. My new friends quite wisely put me in the hands of an Adventist layman some 15 years older than myself. From there we considered other biblical teachings. I never received a single Bible study from an Adventist minister. There were not many available at the time. Months later I started attending Sabbath afternoon meetings, most of which I found boring except for the fact that my layman friend was in charge and that I found myself again with my young friends of the snowy hills. After that, I got increasingly close to one of them, Louise, who became my wife in 1947.

NS: A few years ago, you went through a very challenging period in your health. How did you come through that?

RD: In early 2002, some three weeks before I was to embark on a series of meetings in Greece and the Far East, I felt pain in my stomach. Dr. L. B. Hamel, our family doctor, ordered an endoscopy and discovered cancer. Surgery followed right away, and Dr. D. Rasbach took out all my stomach, the spleen, and part of the pancreas. Death stared me in the face. There was very little chance of survival. During that entire ordeal, I refused to even ask the question “Why? Why me?” I knew there was no answer to that kind of question. I’d been telling that to people all my life as a minister. “Just trust God and rely on Him.” That’s what I had been telling those who faced such unanswerable questions. This time I lived that experience existentially. Louise did not want to ask the question either. She told me, “Raoul, there must be a reason, there is a reason why you are going through this.” She suffered immensely, no question more than I, but she never gave up faith and just waited. I said to God, “If this is the end of my life, I’m grateful, very grateful for the years I lived and shared Christ and the Scriptures.” I was tube fed and needed help 24 hours a day. The doctors wanted to move me to an assisted living place. I tried to convince my wife that she would not be able to make it. She adamantly refused, telling the doctors that if I were not to survive I might as well die among my books. The Lord extended His hand, and we are still here today, both of us, along with the doctors.

NS: In the midst of it all, you reached out in faith, and we rejoice that you passed that difficult part in your life.

RD: I often muttered passages from the Scriptures. And a few hymns too. Two in particular, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord.”

NS: Very simple but profound words. Can you tell something about your pastoral days?

RD: I stepped out of Roman Catholicism and was baptized in the last days of December 1944, in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were retreating just a few miles away from our home, and the big guns were roaring around us. In the fall of 1945 I started my ministerial training at our seminary in Collonges-sous-Salève, France. I had no problem with my studies. I lacked neither intellectual discipline nor persistence. My previous training had taken care of that. My problem was elsewhere and much more serious. I was quite embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of the Bible as a whole. Besides, my fellow students could sing hymns without help from a hymnbook. I could not. It was a rather humiliating experience. Dr. A. Vaucher, the main Bible teacher, must have become aware of the situation, for one day he took me aside and said, “Brother Dederen, you are bright, the best of the class, but something is wrong. You don’t know the Bible. Is that it? Come to my place. I’ll teach you how to study the Bible on your own.” That was obviously what I lacked. From then on, every week for several months we spent a couple of hours at his place, and I learned several ways of studying the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments. I owe an enormous debt to Dr. Vaucher.

NS: What were some of the methods he taught you?

RD: They were in fact quite simple. Studying a specific book of the Bible. Studying a chapter at a time. Studying specific words, researching their meanings in the Bible. I remember very vividly Dr. Vaucher asking me to report to him on the use of the word hand in reference to God, and what did it mean to me. It was an incredible experience, an incredible eye opener. There was also the study of biblical persons, and a study of prayers in the Bible. An exhaustive concordance—in English!—became one of my most useful tools, an indispensable tool.

There was one more thing on which Dr. Vaucher insisted: “Never use one method more than two months. If you ignore this principle, you will develop a couple of hobby-horses. We have enough of such preachers.”

When we entered the ministry in Brussels in 1947, Louise and I made a covenant. I would devote all my mornings to the study of the Bible, five days a week. It was all divided by hours. I started at seven o’clock in the morning. In the first hour I just read the Bible; just read it. When I finished, I started over. The second hour, I read about the Bible. I bought two Bible dictionaries, one one volume and the second a five-volume set. That second one was in English. I read them from A to Z over a seven-year period. The third hour was devoted to the study of the Bible itself on the basis of the methods taught by Dr. Vaucher. The fourth hour I worked on my Bible studies and my sermons, and the fifth hour was devoted to my mail. In the afternoons and evenings I was more than busy giving Bible studies to those interested in them. After just a few years the word went around that I was Bible-centered, preaching from the Bible.

After two years of internship in Brussels, I was asked to fill a gap in Liege, our second largest French-speaking church in Belgium. Just for some six months, till they found a man of experience.

But we stayed five wonderful years. I preached from the Scriptures and held two public evangelistic meetings a year, one six weeks long, and the other three, five nights a week. They didn’t bring in large crowds, but 50 to 60 people, which was quite a number at the time. The local church grew by leaps and bounds. Those were incredible years. Louise and I enjoyed our pastor-evangelist ministry.

Then in 1954 came the call to return to our seminary in France and teach. I was 29. At first we turned it down, but on the insistence of “the brethren,” especially Dr. Vaucher, we decided to give it a two-year try, convinced they would see their mistake. We stayed ten years at Collonges-sous-Salève, till 1964, during which I also worked on a doctorate at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. We enjoyed the teaching ministry as much as the pastoral one.

NS: And then you came to the seminary.

RD: Yes, and here again it was supposed to be for a year or two. We wanted to go back to Europe, but quite early Dr. Richard Hammill and Dean W. G. C. Murdoch insisted that we stay. Brother, did we pray about it! So we stayed, and we have been here for the last 42 years. And once again a most blessed experience.

NS: It has been a blessing. Your former students literally circle the world.

RD: It’s a blessing both ways. Whenever I meet my former students, they do express their appreciation for focusing on what it has been my privilege to teach and develop, more particularly Revelation-Inspiration, Christology, and the doctrine of the church. What an opportunity and what an experience! I still have difficulties grasping how amazingly God opens doors and is eager to grant you specific gifts each time He calls on you for a particular task. For it has all been His doing. When I am asked to summarize my experience, I usually am unable to improve on Paul’s statement that I am “a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1).

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Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.

November 2006

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