Guiding the Ship of Truth

How shall we determine what course to steer in order to reach the correct harbor?

E. Edward Zinke is assistant director of the Biblical Research Institute.


What course shall we sail in theology? How can we deter mine the right heading by which to steer? Method—that little known, often ignored, sometimes despised and almost totally misunderstood discipline—is the compass guiding us to the conclusions we reach in religious truth. The possible starting point for theological method the authority of the pope, councils, tradition, reason, experience, or Scripture—orientate the com pass of method just as the North Pole orientates the navigational compass.

Eve in the Garden of Eden charted her course in life according to a particular method. God had graciously condescended to give His Word to the human race. This Word was to have been the starting point for all thinking about God and the world that surrounded man. But Eve abandoned that Word for what seemed to her to be a superior compass—her own thinking process interacting with her perceptions of the natural world. The essence of Eve's sin lay in turning from the Word of God to herself as the principle for interpreting her world. So long as Eve interpreted the center tree in the Garden in terms of God's Word concerning it, she was safe from the delusion of the serpent. How ever, the moment she made herself the basis for understanding the significance of the tree, she declared herself independent of God and became vulnerable to Satan's temptations. God had warned that eating of the tree would result in death. Eve, however, observed the facts, the raw data, processed them through her mind, and came to the conclusion that this was not the case. She observed that the serpent, rather than suffering death, had been elevated to a higher plane of existence, in which he was capable of speech and great wisdom. She therefore concluded that the tree was good for food and that it was able to make one wise (Gen. 3:6).

Thus Eve reasoned from an idea or concept of God rather than from the Word of God. The thought that God would withhold such beautiful fruit from His creation was to Eve a contradiction of His love and compassion for man. A God of love would not bring such disastrous results upon one whom He had created and loved. Therefore, God must not have meant what He said regarding the nature of the tree. By choosing a method that did not have its orientation in the Word of God itself, Eve plunged the human race into millenniums of searching for theological methods that take as their point of departure the world of man instead of the Word of God.

The Noachian flood also illustrates the various ways in which the theological compass can be orientated. The antediluvians analyzed the possibility of a forthcoming flood from the standpoint of philosophy and science, so called. Such an occurrence as a flood of water had never taken place before. It was contrary to the laws of nature for water to descend from the sky. Philosophically, it was contrary to the nature of God as a God of love to destroy the creatures He had formed. Therefore, they concluded, such a flood as Noah predicted was an impossibility. Noah, for his part, did not understand how such an event could take place either, but because of his dependence upon the word of God, he recognized that such would be the case. "The wise men of this world talked of science and the fixed laws of nature, and declared that there could be no variation in these laws, and that this message of Noah could not possibly be true. The talented men of Noah's time set them selves in league against God's will and purpose, and scorned the message and the messenger that He had sent. When they could not move Noah from his firm and implicit trust in the word of God, they pointed to him as a fanatic, as a ranting old man, full of superstition and madness. Thus they condemned him be cause he would not be turned from his purpose by reasonings and theories of men. It was true that Noah could not controvert their philosophies, or refute the claims of science so called; but he could proclaim the word of God; for he knew it contained the infinite wisdom of the Creator, and, as he sounded it everywhere, it lost none of its force and reality because men of the world treated him with ridicule and contempt." —ELLEN G. WHITE, "An Example of Saving Faith," Signs of the Times, April 18, 1895, pp. 243, 244.

The builders of the Tower of Babel accepted the fact of the Flood, but did not know how to interpret it. Instead of accepting the significance of the rainbow as God had given it, they argued that a God who would so rashly destroy His creation by a flood could not be trusted a second time. Therefore it was necessary, they felt, for man to obtain security in dependently of God. Man could trust nothing but a tower, a work of his own hands, as a basis for securing his future existence. Thus, they built not only a physical but also a philosophical tower as a means for determining the nature of God, with its ultimate implications as to how man should live.

As on the plains of Shinar, so today man does not live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God but by the work of his own hands. Philosophical towers have led them to place trust for their salvation in physical towers of their own creation rather than in God.

In the life of Christ we find the orientation of the compass reversed. In the wilderness, Christ was also tempted by Satan as Eve had been in the Garden to derive His method of truth-determination from an idea about God. Implied the tempter: "A God of love surely would not allow His Son to suffer deprivation of food and companionship in the wilderness for forty days." Thus his doubt-laden insinuation, "If thou be the Son of God ..." But the response did not come from man's initiative. Rather it flowed from what God had given. "It is written" was the only appropriate criterion by which to set the compass of theological thinking.

Method likewise played a determining role in the direction charted by the Reformation. We often think of the Re formers as men who were battling systems of self-salvation in which man held within his own hands the control of his eternal destiny. In contrast to such systems, the Reformers yielded even their good works, depending upon salvation by faith in Christ alone for the restoration of a right relationship with God. But we must also recognize that alongside this basic principle was another that gave orientation to the compass; namely, the sole authority of Scripture as the Word of God.

The Reformers reacted to the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, which, by using a method derived partly from the natural world, compromised its intention to derive its self-consciousness from Scripture. The medieval theologian attempted a "scientific" theology. The Scriptures, the traditions of the church, and the pronouncements of the pope were supported, interpreted, and structured in the context of contemporary procedures for human thinking. Thus their "scientific" theology was a theology controlled by human disciplines that had been developed within the natural world. That which gave structure to their theology was the philosophy of the ancients rather than the Word of the Ancient of Days. By placing Scripture within the context of that which was controllable within the human sphere, scholastic theologians were instructing Scripture. They could hear from it only that which their human system would allow.

The Reformers, by contrast, yielded themselves not only to the all-sufficiency of God's grace but also to the authority of Scripture as God's Word. They were willing to allow Scripture to chart the course even for its own study. Zwingli, for example, "submitted him self to the Bible as the word of God, the only sufficient, infallible rule. He saw that it must be its own interpreter. He dared not attempt to explain Scripture to sustain a preconceived theory or doctrine, but held it his duty to learn what is its direct and obvious teaching. He sought to avail himself of every help to obtain a full and correct understanding of its meaning, and he invoked the aid of the Holy Spirit, which would, he declared, reveal it to all who sought it in sincerity and with prayer." —The Great Controversy, p. 173. God Himself, said Zwingli, helps us to recognize that Scripture comes from God. The Word of God cannot fail; it is bright, it discloses itself, and it illumines the soul with grace so that man is willing to humble himself—in fact, forfeit himself—in order to embrace God. Zwingli thus gave himself fully to Scripture. Philosophy and scho lastic theology suggested quarrels, but Zwingli came to the place that he was willing to lay aside the intent to be the controller of his theology in order to listen to the Word of God, to learn the meaning of God purely out of His own simple Word. When he began to ask God for light, the meaning of Scripture be came clear. (See The Great Controversy, p. 174.)

Luther, likewise, allowed Scripture to set the direction of his compass. He acknowledged no foundation for religious truth but the Holy Scriptures. (See The Story of Redemption, p. 340; The Great Controversy, p. 120.) He saw the danger of exalting human theories above the Word of God. Thus he attacked the theology and philosophy of the schoolmen, denouncing their studies as not only worthless but detrimental. He purposed to turn the minds of the people from the philosophers and theologians to the Word of God. (See The Great Controversy, p. 126.) With the Word of God "he warred against the usurped authority of the pope, and the rationalistic philosophy of the schoolmen, while he stood firm as a rock against the fanaticism that sought to ally itself with the Reformation." The rationalism of the schoolmen, which idolized reason and made it the criterion for religion, was in its starting point no different from the assumed authority of the pope or the fanaticism of Munzer. Each in its own way set aside the Holy Scriptures and exalted human reason as the source of religious truth and knowledge. (See The Great Controversy, p. 193.)

There is need today that our theological compasses be set by the "Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty." (See The Great Controversy, p. 205.) God will have a people upon the earth who will maintain the Bible as the only standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. They will exclude any and all voices arising from the natural world as the basis for setting theological compasses, whether these voices be ecclesiastical councils, the deductions of science, the opinions of learned men, or the dictates of the rational world. A plain "Thus said the Lord" will be the only evidence that will be accepted for or against any statement of religious truth. (See The Great Controversy, p. 595.) When we turn away from Scripture as the guide and source of theological thinking, we build our own tower as the way to climb up to heaven.

We enthrone a philosophical idol in the place of Jehovah. (See The Great Controversy, p. 583; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 124.)

A theological compass heading that is based upon external criteria in the natural world allows the hearing of only that which the method will allow. By contrast, theological thinking that receives its orientation from Scripture is open to the possibility of hearing its message as a means of understanding the natural world. By laying aside our desire to be master of our own theological system and by submitting ourselves to Scripture, we may adequately know God as He is, for He has revealed Himself in His Word.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
E. Edward Zinke is assistant director of the Biblical Research Institute.

December 1978

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Don't forget the children

Are you overlooking a rich source of productive ministry? C. Lloyd Wyman gives direct, useful suggestions for reaching this important segment of your congregation.


The Incarnation takes on a different aspect viewed from the perspective of Mary's husband-to-be.

From the Editor

General Conference president, R.H. Pierson, announces his retirement and voices a closing challenge.

Science and Religion

Was There a Population Explosion After the Flood? Eight people could produce 100 million by Abraham's day, but with difficulty.

Health and Religion

What You Need to Know About High Blood Pressure. Several fairly simple practices can actually help lower your blood pressure.

Health and Religion

An effective union of health education and evangelism requires a new breed of minister and physician.

Biblical Archeology

"You Shall Not Go Empty." An understanding of ancient customs sheds light on a puzzling text.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)