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Nine foundations for an Adventist Hermeneutic

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Archives / 1999 / March

 

 

Nine foundations for an Adventist Hermeneutic

William Johnsson

William Johnsson, Ph.D., is executive publisher and editor of the Adventist Review, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

 

The most urgent task facing Adventist biblical scholars today is to reach consensus on principles of interpretation.

Of all Christian bodies, we are a people who, from our inception, have looked to the Bible as the source and standard for our beliefs. Because of our pioneers' understanding of what the Scriptures taught and did not teach, they stepped out from the existing churches of their day. Because of the same convictions, to this day Seventh-day Adventists retain a unique identity, core teachings, and sense of mission.

But the disturbing fact is that Adventist scholars are now divided over hermeneutics—how we should interpret the Bible. In my judgment they are not radically divided—the gap is not as great as some have stated—but significant differences do exist.

How we came to this point in our history makes an interesting story but cannot concern us here. The most urgent need is that we come to grips with our situation and find a process to reach speedy and genuine consensus.

In this connection the studies in this issue of Ministry by Professors Johnston and Gane provide a helpful beginning. Well-reasoned and thoughtful, they proceed from an embracive rather than a confrontational stance. This is the prerequisite for fruitful dialog. I shall briefly analyze these papers and then, employing perspectives from them, along with my own reflections on the topic, suggest nine foundations for an Adventist hermeneutic.

Observations about Johnston and Gane

The first thing to note about these studies is that they are not parallel. They intersect but do not have the same focus. Johnston is concerned with setting out his view of an Adventist hermeneutic, but Gane zeros in on the role of the historical-critical method in such a hermeneutic. Johnston's paper confines itself to Adventist scholarship; Gane's ranges more widely, taking up the various ways some non-Adventist scholars employ the historical-critical method.

Despite these different foci, the concerns of the two papers overlap so widely that they easily lend themselves to comparison and contrast. And the result that emerges—this is the second item to note—is the large measure of agreement between the two. If we compare Johnston's ten points with Gane's 11, we find full or partial correspondence in no fewer than nine areas. In fact, the two writers do not disagree on any major matter. The points they do not share—Ellen White's writings as a model (Johnston), the critical approach that dissects Scripture, and the danger of some commentaries (Gane)— are complementary to the areas of agreement, not areas needing heavy negotiation.

Third, I am struck once again with the slipperiness of language. Gane well describes the conundrum posed by the term "higher critical method" because of the several ways in which it may be understood, but another term, "inerrantist," begins to look problematical in view of the qualifications to the Chicago Statement pointed out by Johnston. Any attempt to achieve an Adventist hermeneutic will have to take into account the semantic loading of the agenda and seek to find a way through it.

Foundations for an Adventist hermeneutic

I propose the nine points that fol low as foundations for an Adventist hermeneutic. These suggestions are not in the nature of a via media or compromise between Johnston's and Gane's views. Rather, with Johnston's and Gane's fine contributions in mind, they are the distillation of convictions that have taken root in my soul from nearly forty years in Adventist ministry, 20 of them devoted to the teaching of Scripture.

1. An Adventist hermeneutic must be one for the whole church, lay people as well as scholars

As one who was given the opportunity for advanced studies, I hope we as a people will view our scholars as an asset, not a threat; as especially gifted servants of the church rather than distrusted functionaries. On the other hand, I hope our scholars will not view their learning as an end in itself but as a privilege that enables them to share the riches of Scripture with the people of the church. Above all, I hope we will sedulously refrain from setting up scholars as experts.

As Protestant Christians, Adventists have no "experts" in Scripture. Every man or woman may open the Bible and be taught by the one Expert, the Holy Spirit. Scholars can help us by suggesting insights and aids to understanding the Bible, but they can never—must never— replace the one-on-one dynamic of the individual believer with the God of the Bible.

No elitism in the Adventist Church! No hermeneutic that in itself tends to require a Ph.D. or Th.D. Nothing that makes it a necessity to know Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The Adventist hermeneutic must be one for the whole church.

2. The divine factor in Scripture

Ellen White, one of the most influential voices for Adventists, provides for me a most succinct and powerful understanding of Scripture: "The Ten Commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They are of divine, and not of human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that" 'The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us' " (John 1:14).1

We must first say of the Bible that it is the Word of God, just as we must first say of Jesus that He is the Son of God. Yet in coming to the Bible, most of us will first see it as a human writing, just as the people of Jesus' day first saw His humanity. In both cases faith leads beyond humanity to divinity. With that presupposition our underlying perspective changes.

For this reason I have a quarrel with any and all attempts to study the Bible merely as one would probe any other writing, ancient or contemporary. Researchers in any discipline agree that the method employed should be congruent with the content. Strangely, however, much of modern critical scholarship attempts to study the Scriptures while bracketing out any possibility of a divine element—which is in fact the constitutive factor. As a child of the Enlightenment and seeking to free study from dogmatic conclusions required by ecclesiastical officials, it has nonetheless set aside that which is at the heart of its subject matter. If we are to rightly interpret Scripture, we must come with an attitude of humble, prayerful listening to God's Word.

3. The humanity of Scripture

Concerning the Bible, we affirm: It is the Word of God, and it is a human word. There is a divine mystery here. Again, it is similar to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of our Savior. We may struggle to understand the conundrum, but ultimately we must accept the mystery. To insist on logical clarity will result in the improper placement of one element or the other.

We must candidly acknowledge the humanity of Scripture, with imperfections of language and concept, mistakes in copying and translation, lack of perfect order and apparent unity. It is true that "it is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired" 2—thus we do break with a fundamentalist stance.

These words are scary. It would be simpler to live with a Bible where every word was dictated by God, just as it would be easier to grasp the mystery of Jesus' person if His humanity was only a shell or a form. Just as some Christians have never really viewed Jesus as truly a man, so there is the strong tendency in others to think that the inspiration of Scripture is threatened if we take its humanity seriously.

Here is an example from my own field of specialized study, the New Testament: A significant group of scholarly critics have had a field day dissecting the Gospels, casting doubt on the very person of our Lord until one is left up in the air as to what Jesus actually said and what was put into His mouth by the church that succeeded Him; until His miraculous birth, miracles, and resurrection are relegated to the category of myth. These critics are prepared to concede one thing about Jesus, however: that He died on a cross.

Notice how each of the Gospels records the words Pilate placed over Jesus' head. The fact, surprising at first glance, is that each writer gives a different account of Pilate's words. How could this be? What did Pilate actually write? But let's step back and take another look at the cross. Whether we go with Matthew's Gospel ("This is Jesus, the King of the Jews," Matt. 27:37), Mark's ("The King of the Jews," Mark 15:26), Luke's ("This is the King of the Jews," Luke 23:38), or John's ("Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews," John 19:19), each writer makes the same point about Jesus—He was the King of the Jews. Memory is tricky and selective, but the key idea—the idea God wants us to get—comes through clearly.

4. Let the Bible interpret itself

Because the Bible is the Word of God, it has but one Author, along with many penmen. That means that the Scriptures have a deep unity, a spiritual unity, that reveals itself to the earnest, careful seeker. Often that unity is obscured by the humanity of the Bible— the frailties of the penmen, the time and place of the revealing of the Word of God—but we must always seek to see the big picture. We need to read and study the whole Bible, neglecting no chapter or book because it seems less appealing to us.

Allowing the Bible to interpret itself also means that we do not impose a priori conclusions on the text. We listen to Scripture; we do not assert, for instance, that because inspiration means such and such or our theology demands thus and so, the text cannot mean what it appears to say.

The Adventist hermeneutic must be shaped by actual study of the Word. We may with profit be informed by what others have written about the Bible, but our approach must arise out of the deep study of the Bible itself.

5. Interpretation is more an art than a science

God reveals Himself in the Bible— it is the Word of God—and He has not obscured the message He wants to convey. By prayerful, careful study of the entire revelation of Scripture, earnest seekers for truth will know what God is like and how they may come into saving relationship with Him.

But biblical study is an art more than it is a science. We bring to the Scriptures our individual personalities and backgrounds; we filter the Bible through our life experiences. Scripture has a mysterious way of speaking to us directly, one on one. In no sense, therefore, is it true that any one of us can lay claim to the one, definitive meaning of Scripture. I have been impressed with the truth of this many times as I have listened to others comment on a passage, such as when I have heard an African-American preacher unlock the richness and depths of texts that speak of Israel's deliverance from Egyptian bondage. This leads to the next foundation.

6. We need each other

The Bible is the book of the church, not merely of the university. We need to listen to each other, to learn from each other. The lay member needs the learning of the scholar, and the scholar needs the insights that the faithful lay member, nurtured by years of personal reflection and application of the Word, brings to bear on the text. And scholars need to listen to each other, to build bridges of communication and dialog.

This corporate dimension of interpretation is the complement of the individual aspect and serves not only to enrich but to protect. In the multitudes of counselors we find wisdom—and every believer is a teacher in the family of the church.

7. Jettison loaded terminology

Reluctantly, I have concluded that Adventist students of the Word would be advised to delete the term "historical-critical method" from their vocabulary. I am loathe to coin another term for our approach—do we even need a new term?—but I am certain that "historical-critical method" has become a bugaboo among us, an expression that raises hackles and engenders heat rather than light. Adventist scholars will not come together until they abandon this terminology.

I am quite clear that the ruling presuppositions of the method—the ruling out of the supernatural, history as a closed continuum, the merely "objective" stance—cannot be part of an Adventist hermeneutic. That approach eviscerates the text. It robs it of its heart and soul.

But I am also clear that, because the Bible is a human writing, it may be studied as such. I did my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, and, like other Adventist scholars before me, took the required course in biblical method from the late great Professor J. Philip Hyatt. The first area we studied under the historical-critical method was textual criticism. Today, I don't know any Adventist biblical scholar who does not see the value of, and employ, this method. Nevertheless, I think it invites endless debate to argue that, because of this common use of textual criticism, Adventist scholars have involved themselves in the historical-critical method.

We may need to jettison other terms that get in the way. For example, is the term "inerrantist" helpful or unhelpful? Are we all agreed on its precise meaning?

8. Concentrate on the plain teachings of Scripture, not the "hard nuts"

I don't say we should neglect the "hard nuts"—they may contain a kernel that the Lord will use to shake up our thinking and our living. But we should not focus on the difficult passages of Scripture, becoming preoccupied with problem texts until we begin to lose our underlying perspective.

The person for whom the Bible no longer contains any difficulties is the person who has ceased to think. But likewise, the person who continually dwells on the "hard nuts" will become unbalanced in hermeneutic and perhaps in faith.

9. Study, apply, do

The Adventist hermeneutic cannot be content with understanding alone. The apostle John sums up the purpose of Scripture: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31, NIV).

The text may be understood as coming to believe in Jesus as the Christ or continuing to believe in Jesus as the Christ (the ancient manuscripts vary in the tense of the verb). In either case, the point is cogent: The Bible is meant to lead to faith.

So our study of the Scriptures, whether we are pastors, scholars, or lay members, will not be an end in itself. The study involves intellectual activity, but it is not merely an intellectual pursuit. The Lord intends that our endeavors to interpret His Word will involve our whole being and will result in crucial changes in us. We will feed on His Word and interact with His Spirit and grow thereby. And further, we shall be better equipped to impart His Word to others.

The curse of so much modern biblical scholarship is its intentional stance of detachment from the faith and commitment that the text demands. We are all subject to falling into a similar pit—arguing about the meaning of the text instead of living the text or debating how to study the Bible when we ought to be actually interacting with the Lord Himself through it.

May that Lord make us men and women who rightly divide the word of truth. And who live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

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1 Ellen G. White, The Great Contro
versy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub.
Assn., 1888), v, vi.
1 See Ellen G. White, Selected Mess ages
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1958), 1:21.

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