the case for a balanced hermeneutic

A centrist but more "progressive" view of the issues

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., chairs the New Testament Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

In recent years Adventist scholarship has been exercised over issues of aspiration and methods of Bible study. Our struggle closely resembles a similar one currently going on in the evangelical world.

Few, if any, Adventists have been attracted to the kind of radical liberalism that superciliously dismisses the Scripture or subjects it to destructive criticism.

But many have accepted the other extreme of a sort of neo-fundamentalism that makes untenably exaggerated claims.1

Writing from within and for the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, Alden Thompson sought to expound a middle way in his groundbreaking work, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers.2 Thompson's effort was immediately opposed by Adventist proponents of the inerrantist position.3

Thompson's "codebook vs. case book" approach is one possible subset of what is referred to as the "incarnational model" of inspiration, while his opponents would not hesitate to designate themselves as inerrantists.4

Two views

The two views may be contrasted in various ways. Incarnationalists see the Bible as God's Word given through human expression. Though assuming divine inspiration, they emphasize the human side of the Bible because that is where the points of contention reveal themselves and because this is the aspect that challenges interpreters. Inerrantists stress the divine nature of the Bible and do not see the human instruments as making much significant impress on the communication. They typically see inspiration extending to the very words of Scripture.

The two approaches start from opposite ends of the problem. The inerrantists reason deductively from general statements that the Bible makes about itself, such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. They assume that such texts imply inerrancy. They labor to resolve specific apparent difficulties and discrepancies found throughout the Scriptures, trusting that those they cannot harmonize will someday be resolved. 5 By contrast, the incarnationalists' approach is inductive, beginning with the "phenomena of Scripture." To them, whatever inspiration means, it does not eliminate human slips, so long as they do not impair the main message. When Jesus sent out the Twelve, did He allow them to take a staff (Mark 6:8) or forbid it (Mat thew 10:10; Luke 9:3)? Incarnationalists do not regard such details as important; their faith in God's message is unaffected, ascribing such things to the human pen men. Inerrantists, on the other hand, could not concede such a thing without great damage to their faith, for to them everything the penmen wrote is what God said.

Inerrantists base everything on those classic texts in which the Bible writers affirm the divine origin of their messages, such as 2 Timothy 3:16. We must begin, they say, with what the Bible says about itself.

The application of their approach has some problems. First of all, none of these texts is able in fact to bear the weight such an approach forces them to carry. When closely examined, none of them claim inerrancy. Their messages are from God, they are moved by the Holy Spirit, and they are profitable for making us wise unto salvation and instruction in righteousness, and so forth, but nowhere do they claim exactitude in incidental details such as chronology or numbers. They maybe right about such things, say incarnationalists, but they do not need to be; that is not necessary to the infallible communication of God's message.

Another problem with the inerrantist approach is its own inconsistency and tendentious selectivity, in that it ignores some things the Bible writers say about themselves. Thus Koranteng-Pipim takes Thompson to task for saying that some Bible writers depended on "Spirit-led research, not revelation in the technical sense."6 But Pipim ignores that Thompson had cited specific texts where the writers explicitly acknowledged such dependence (1 Kings 11:41; 1 Chron. 29:29; Luke 1:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:11). This and similar instances make it appear that inerrantists make their deductions selectively from only those texts that might support their presuppositions.

The most obvious problem is that inerrantism has no really effective way for dealing honestly with all difficulties. It can rightly solve some problems, it can provide tortured and seriously questionable solutions for others, but it must simply ignore or deny most of them.

A sensible approach

Space allows only a bare outline of what seems to me a sensible approach to these issues, to which large volumes have been devoted.

1. The Bible is God's Word, given through the Holy Spirit, communicating His saving message. This is a given, accepted by faith and confirmed by experience. The Bible is authoritative: It has normative value for people who seek to know and do God's will. It is wrong to try to sort out inspired portions of scripture from uninspired.

2. God's messages were delivered through human instrumentalities and thus bear the impress of human expression. Humanity affected the content, the composition, the textual transmission, and the translation. Human expression includes language, idiom, rhetoric, cultural perspective, illustrations, incidental facts, and some aspects of worldview. When pressed, even inerrantists concede this. 7 It is necessary to sort out what is human expression and divine message, even though all are inspired.

3. The real issue between the two approaches is not about belief in the Bible but about how the Bible is best under stood. Every reader, incarnationalist or inerrantist, can read the Bible only with human eyes and understand it with a human brain. The choice is not between God's Word and human judgment but between one human understanding of God's Word and another human understanding of God's Word. The difference between the two approaches does not lie in the application of human judgment, for all do it,8 but in whether or not one acknowledges it. In this connection there are only two kinds of people: those who realize they are applying human judgment to the Bible and those who do not realize they are doing it.

4. Seventh-day Adventists have a special advantage in understanding inspiration, in that we have had in recent memory a modern example of it in the work of Ellen White. In saying this I do not mean to ascribe canonical status to Mrs. White's writings but only to say that in them we have a manifestation of the phenomenon that is recent enough to afford considerable insight into it.9 We have her actual autographs, exhibiting such editorial changes as will exclude any idea that inspiration is verbal.

5. Ellen White explicitly supports the incarnational model of inspiration: "The Bible, with its God-given truths ex pressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine with 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.' " 10 To be sure, there is a mystery about it.

6. In the Bible we can discover "a spiritual unity" 11 but not a mechanical, superficial unity. Unity in diversity is more profound than mere uniformity, just as singing in parts, with occasional dissonance and counterpoint, is richer than singing in unison.

7. The Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy but not inerrant. By "reliable" we mean that the message God intended to be delivered was delivered and that if the message is believed, obeyed, and followed, the hearer or reader will be guided in the direction God wants him or her to go. By "not inerrant" we mean that attendant details with which the message is infleshed, but which are not an essential part of it, may have their origin in the culture or personality of the human messenger. As even the inerrantist Chicago Statement says, "We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose... ."'12

8. Interpretation has two aspects: discovering what the Bible writer meant when he wrote for his original audience (exegesis) and discovering what the writing means for God's people today. The two aspects are joined by analogy, for God and human need do not change. The first aspect is the realm of literary and historical study; it is discoverable by close and careful effort, informed by all the information and scholarly tools we can get our hands on. In principle, even an unbeliever, if honest and competent, can make such a study, for one need not be a believer to learn Hebrew or to study archaeology and history or to master literary forms. But the second aspect is a field open only to believers, for proper application of the Word to our own condition is possible only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 13 The two aspects correspond to works and faith. Exegesis is hard work, but it bears no fruit unto salvation without faith.

9. God in His merciful condescension does in fact accommodate His message to popular opinions, even opinions that are in error (pace Pipim!). 14 Jesus said that Moses did it (Matt. 19:8), and Ellen White said that Jesus did it. 15 Some laws, such as many of the laws of Moses in Leviticus, are contextual applications of broader, eternal principles.

10. The technology of exegesis welcomes any method that shows promise of being helpful. This includes the historical-critical disciplines, which we do not hesitate to apply to the writings of Ellen White and which we ought not to hesitate to apply in a reverent and respectful way to the Bible. Source criticism, for example, is evident in the end-plates of the Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, as well as in recent stud ies on the sources Ellen White used for The Desire of Ages and The Great Controversy. Redaction criticism has been usefully applied also, as for example when our very passages in 1 Selected Messages dealing with inspiration (taken from MS 24,1886) are placed alongside the corresponding passages in a book by Calvin Stowe that was apparently one of Ellen White's sources."16 She did not simply copy but made significant modifications, the study of which affords a valuable clue to her theology. 17 It is in deed possible to utilize these study methods without embracing any tendencies toward anti-supernaturalism.18 The application of the historical disciplines is simply attending to the "time, place, and circumstances," as careful students of Ellen White's writings have told us to do. 19

The imperfection and inadequacy of human understanding must be acknowledged, but it must not be despised, for it is all we have. We must apply it to the Bible with vigor and then apply the Bible to ourselves with vigor.

By applying to the Bible writers what we know about Ellen White, we resolve many problems. We are left with a truly Adventist hermeneutic that is a via media between the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of the radical skepticism of Modernism.

Such a hermeneutic makes us distinctive, but there is no virtue in that. The virtue of the Adventist hermeneutic is that our special insights enable us to find our way in our own search for truth and make a contribution to the Christian world in its quest.

1 Such views were vigorously promoted during
the last three decades by certain teachers in the
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and some
members of the Biblical Research Institute. Perhaps
the noblest articulation of this position by Evangelicals
is the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
The latter has been published in several places; e.g.,
see Ronald Youngblood, ed., Evangelicals and Inerrancy
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 230-239.

2 Hagerstown, Md: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,

3 Frank Holbrook and Leo Van Dolson, eds., Issues
in Revelation and Inspiration
, Adventist Theological Society
Occasional Papers, vol. 1 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventist
Theological Society, 1992); see also Samuel Koranteng-
Pipim, Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible
Impact Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle
(Berrien Springs,
Mich.: Berean Books, 1996). An admirably cogent critique
of the positions of both Thompson and Pipim has been
provided by Tim Crosby, "The Bible: Inspiration and
Authority,"Ministry (May 1998), 18-20. Unfortunately,
Crosby's own proposal seems to be rather forced.

4 Thus Koranteng-Pipim states as an assumption:
"All the claims that the Bible makes on any subject—
theology, history, science, chronology, numbers,
etc.—are absolutely trustworthy and dependable"
(Issues in Revelation and Inspiration, 63, n. 3).

5 Thus the Chicago Statement says, "Apparent
inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them,
where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage
our faith, and where for the present no convincing
solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting
His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appear
ances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day
they will be seen to have been illusions" (Youngblood,

6 Issues in Revelation and Inspiration, 36; Pipim is
referring to Thompson, 48.

7 Thus the Chicago Statement says: "We affirm that
canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the
basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in
determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each
passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims
and character as a human production. In inspiration, God
utilized the culture and conventions of his pen-men's milieu,
a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it
is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.
"So history must be treated as history, poetry as
poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor,
generalization and approximation as what they are,
and so forth. Differences between literary conventions
in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since,
for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise
citation were conventional and acceptable and violated
no expectation in those days, we must not regard these
things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When
total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor
aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture
is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by
modern standards, but in the sense of making good its
claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at
which its authors aimed" (Youngblood, 337,338).

8 Thus, when Pipim explains why 2 Samuel 24 says
that God provoked David to number Israel, but
1 Chronicles 21 says Satan did it, he resorts to the concept
of God's permissive will (Issues in Revelation and
Inspiration, 52). This concept does not come out of the
text but from systematic theology. It is a useful concept
but nonetheless a human explanation.

9 The Chicago Statement would deny any such
thing. Article V states: "We further deny that any
normative revelation has been given since the completion
of the New Testament writings" (Youngblood, 232).

10 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampa.
Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1950), vi.

11————, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 1:20.

12 Article XIII, Youngblood, 233-234. Similarly Pipim says,
"Mark's allegedly wrong citation is actually the result of
some twentieth-century scholars' insistence that the first
century Jewish writer must follow modern literary
standards.... Mark, however, does not follow our modern
conventions" (Receiving the Word, 294,295).

13 Systematic theologians distinguish between
inspiration (that which is granted to the Bible writers)
and illumination (that which is granted to Bible readers).
It is a distinction the Scriptures themselves do not make.
Ellen White uses the terms interchangeably, as when she
says, "Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the
scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and
evil have been opened to the writer of these pages" ( The
Great Controversy
, x).

14 Pipim finds this idea especially distasteful. See
Issues in Revelation and Inspiration, 49.

15 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 263.

16 C. E. Stowe, Origin and History of the Books of the
, Both Canonical and the Apocryphal, Designed to Show
What the Bible Is Not, What It Is, and How to Use
It (Hart
ford Conn.: Hartford Publishing Company, 1867), 13-20.

17 See David Neff, "Ellen White's Theological and
Literary Indebtedness to Calvin Stowe" (1979), an
unpublished paper available from the White Estate.

18 Ernst Troeltsch gave the historical-critical method
its classical articulation. He based it on three foundational
principles: criticism, correlation, and analogy. We
can have no argument with the first principle, we must
disagree with part of the second, and we who have
experienced miracles in our own lives can accept the third.

Many Adventists know only a caricature of the
historical-critical method, reacting emotionally to the term
without really understanding what the term stands for,
and being unaware of use of the method by conservative
scholars such as F. F. Bruce, T. W. Manson, Eldon Ladd,
and Robert H. Stein. For a genuinely educational
treatment by evangelical scholars, see David Alan Black
and David S. Dockery, eds., New Testament Criticism and
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub.
House, 1991).

19 See Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord:
The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White
(Nampa, Idaho:
Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1998), 372-465.

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Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., chairs the New Testament Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

March 1999

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