Searching the Scriptures, serving the church

Searching the Scriptures, serving the church: The mission and ministry of the Biblical Research Institute

The editors of Ministry interview the theologians of the Biblical Research Institute.

Derek J. Morris, DMin, is editor of Ministry.

Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

Editor’s note: The editors of Ministry interviewed the theologians who comprise the staff of the Biblical Research Institute. They are Artur Stele, director; Ekkehardt Mueller, deputy director; and associate directors Elias Brasil de Souza, Kwabena Donkor, and Clinton Wahlen.

Derek Morris (DM): Tell us about the Biblical Research Institute (BRI). How did it come about? How long has it been functioning?

Ekkehardt Mueller (EM): BRI was established in 1975 by action of the General Conference Committee to facilitate theological research, apologetics, and service to the church. Its roots go back to 1943 when the Defense Literature Committee was established, and to the Committee on Biblical Study and Research, founded in 1952.

DM: How well-known is BRI among our church leaders and pastors around the world?

Kwabena Donkor (KD): As recently as ten to fifteen years ago, many of our people didn’t know much about the organization. That picture has recently changed because of an increase in BRI Bible conferences held around the world, and because of more involvement by the Institute in publishing theological and research

DM: What is the primary purpose of BRI? 

Clinton Wahlen (CW): As church growth increases around the world in varying cultures, one of the fundamental challenges is to foster and maintain theological unity and faithfulness to God’s Word. Holding Bible conferences is one of many ways of doing that. We work closely with biblical research committees organized at the division level and periodically hold theological/biblical conferences in each division to deepen the study of the Bible, address local theological issues, and foster theological unity. We also hold Bible conferences for Adventist Bible teachers on the college and university level, publish books, and have a wealth of resources on our Web site, AdventistBiblicalResearch.orgOur quarterly publication, Reflections, is also available on our Web site. These resources help pastors and Bible teachers with questions they may have and the issues they face in their ministry. We also act as consultants when pastors or church leaders have questions, as they are encouraged to contact us.

EM: As mentioned earlier, we can summarize our tasks in three categories: theological research, apologetics, and service to the church. Theological research includes identifying and researching areas that need strengthening, and out of that grow practical applications. Let’s say we want to broaden our understanding, for instance, of ecclesiology, where we feel we are a little weak; then research is commissioned in that area, involving the best of our church scholars. Two books on this subject are now available on our Web site.

Apologetics is another category. Some people think that is the major part of what we do, but apologetics is only one of several areas of our engagement at the world church headquarters. And then service: we help leadership at the world church and serve the world field by providing resource materials and Bible conferences. We take care of pastors and scholars.

KD: In recent times, BRI has released some significant publications that have increased its profile around the world. These publications cover such fields as ecclesiology and hermeneutics.

EM: A word about our organization. At the General Conference level, we have the Biblical Research Institute. Each division has a biblical research committee (BRC). They all meet in their respective territories twice a year. In addition, we have a worldwide commit­tee (BRICOM) of forty leading scholars and administrators including represen­tatives from all the BRCs. It meets twice a year here in North America.

Artur Stele (AS): Just recently an ethics committee was established to bring the best ethicists of the church to serve as a sounding board to help develop answers to ethical issues that arise from time to time. This committee functions approximately like BRICOM. Another function of BRI is to keep the church’s focus on Sola Scriptura. Scholars in systematic and biblical theology are at work to maintain the Bible as the essence and foun­dation of all our theological under­standing and of all the information we share with the church.

Willie Hucks (WH): We some­times don’t think of the local pastor as a theologian—just a practitioner. What counsel can you give pastors as it relates to conducting effective theology within their congregations?

AS: Well, unfortunately, we dichotomize practitioners (pastors) and theolo­gians. Actually, every pastor, in a sense, needs to be a theologian, for pastors are theology’s trumpets, so to speak. They proclaim the Word, so their work, whether preaching, counseling, or pray­ing, needs to be theologically sound. If pastors seriously take the Word as the Word of God, they must study it. And the very fact that a pastor studies the Word seriously, he or she is, in effect, doing theology. We at BRI would like our pastors to be involved in biblical study and research—begin with reading the wide literature BRI provides and participating in Bible conferences.

Reading theological literature is important, but a deep and regular study of the Word of God must never be neglected. We cannot say that theolo­gians work at the table and the pastors go and work in the field. In reality, both are doing the same work. So, the key is to prayerfully study the Scripture and all available materials.

EK: Our regular newsletter may be a little more technical than Ministry in some respects, but not always. Reflections goes to all the pastors around the world.* When I was a pastor, I was always interested in seeing what was going on in the church by reading materials produced by the church. Even among theologians, there’s sometimes a divide: you have the biblical scholars with systematicians on one side, and then practical, applied theologians on the other side. We have tried to bring them to work more closely together. You cannot have one without the other.

KD: What we are seeking to do in the Sola Scriptura committee that meets twice a year is to see if we can find a basic bottom line, a common meth­odological framework for the way we approach Scripture. This does not mean that all theologians should be using the same method. Biblical scholars have methods suited for their discipline, just as systematic, historical, and practical theologians employ different methods in their disciplines. What we are seeking is a common intellectual/philosophical point of departure. When we begin from the same point with the same perspec­tive on methodology, we can arrive at the same goal.

WH: What pastoral needs or challenges does BRI address?

KD: A common need pastors have is proper hermeneutics. And for that, BRI has published two volumes under the titles Understanding Scripture and Interpreting Scripture. Volume one is more about theological under­standing—how you would interpret prophecy, poetry, psalms, parables, for example. Volume two deals with the more difficult texts and passages. This particular publication has been very helpful to pastors.

CW: Pastors should especially have Interpreting Scripture, because it deals with the most dif­ficult questions they face, such as, How do we relate to the Bible? Are there errors in the Bible? BRI has also published other important works like Message, Mission, and Unity of the Church—a very practical book on how to accomplish our ministry and mission.

KD: Some pastoral needs are regional in nature. This may require contextual­izing the message within a region, addressing their unique needs. For example, the creeping in of African tribal religious beliefs and practices into the Christian church. Here you stand the risk of syncretism; so we published a book with the title The Church, Culture, and Spirits. Another serious issue pastors face in many parts of the world has to do with the meaning of “the remnant.” Our book on the remnant serves this need.

EM: BRI has also been responsible for other important reference works, such as Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association in 2000, as volume twelve of the Bible commentary series. This semi­official volume deals with the core beliefs of the Advent movement and is a must for every pastor to better understand Adventist theology

AS: BRI is also working with Logos Bible Software to have our books in electronic format for iPads and iPhones so that readers may have easy and better access to them.

WH: What are some of the big theologi­cal challenges facing the church today?

EM: Hermeneutics is one. For example, in the recent ordination debate, we have different camps, and all of them claim to use the same method of inter­pretation but arrive at completely different conclusions. This is dangerous, for it may pave the way for saying, “Let’s forget the Adventist method of interpreting Scripture and go somewhere else.”

CW: That is why the church has set up an extensive study process. We are a Bible-based denomination. We believe that who we are arises from Scripture. So the answers to every question of faith and practice should be founded on Scripture. The basic question of our identity is something people are asking everywhere I go. For example, many do not have a clear sense of what it means to say that we are the remnant of Bible prophecy and we have an end-time role in proclaiming the three angels’ messages and preparing the way for Jesus’ second coming.

Elias Brasil de Souza (EBdS): Creation and evolution has become another challenge. And it has serious implica­tions to hermeneutics and our view of Scripture.

EM: Another challenge is our relation­ship to evangelicals. We may have adapted to evangelical theology in some areas. We always felt that evangelicals are closer to us than other Christians in the way we interpret Scripture. But if you look at evangelical churches and institutions today, they are further away from us, because they are moving away from the Sola Scriptura principle. They espouse theistic evolution. So that becomes a real challenge for us.

AS: In communicating theology, we face the challenge of the generation gap. Young people have a totally dif­ferent view of many things we take for granted. We need to find a way to make our message more attractive to the younger generation. Worship is another challenge. How we worship speaks volumes. Sometimes we practice things that, theologi­cally, would raise big questions. We need to find a way of worship­ping in truth and spirit.

EBdS: Also, the Judeo-Christian worldview is no longer taken for granted. In fact, there is a growing rejection of the biblical world-view in modern society. So it is a real challenge to communicate theology in this so-called postmodern culture.

EM: Another challenge for us as a church is that members don’t read the Bible, and there’s a kind of disinterest in theology and doctrines.

DM: It has been my observation that many pastors stop reading after they finish seminary. They get into the busy­ness of pastoral ministry. What practical things did you do in your ministry that kept time for careful Bible study?

CW: We’ve all been pastors. I know what it means to preach once or twice a week in addition to leading out in prayer meetings, and so on. It is not easy. People need to carve out time for enrichment and continuing educa­tion regardless of which profession they are in, but particularly in ministry where they are expected to be available twenty-four/seven. That’s one reason why we publish books and a quarterly newsletter.

As far as resources, a good Bible software system is a great help. I per­sonally like Accordance Bible software. Others prefer Bible Works, Logos, or PC Study Bible. Whatever the system, it should enable you to dig more deeply into the original languages and pro­vide a range of scholarly, exegetical, theological, and devotional helps. Other resources include The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology; the Ellen G. White app; The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia; a good study Bible such as The Andrews Study Bible produced by Andrews University; and The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (with five volumes for the Old Testament and four for the New. Also available is The Bible Background Commentary with one volume for each of the Testaments). The Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, found at, is another valuable resource.

KD: When a pastor stops reading, his or her ministry enters into a dangerous zone of what I call the “maintenance mode.” Many Adventist churches can go on and on without any vision. Vision is what provides a goal and direction to pastoral ministry. And as long as you keep that goal alive, you cannot help but study, because you have to put together programs and activities that will lead you to that goal. But when we go into a mode where we sing routinely and preach any kind of sermon, that’s the real sign: it’s time to read, study, and create a vision.

EM: When I left college I made a commit­ment to myself: I’m not going to preach without looking up the text in the origi­nal language. That takes time, I know, but in the end you’re blessed. As a pastor I set aside the morning for studying. Pastors should challenge themselves. They could offer a seminar on topics one cannot deal with in the sermon. I had Sabbath afternoon seminars on solid Bible topics. To do that, I had to study and prepare. When seminar attendees asked, “Can we ask questions?” I would say, “OK. Ask questions. I will try to answer them.” I never knew what was coming, so I had to prepare.

We do that sometimes at Bible conferences too. Things like that help us train church members. Teach them some exegesis. In order to do that, I must know the task myself. To enable the pastors to do this, the administra­tion has the responsibility to facilitate continuing education for all pastors in all branches of theology, not just in practics. This is somewhat lacking in our church. Every profession requires constant upgrading. Ministry cannot afford to lag behind.

AS: When we say to pastors, “You must read,” they may react by saying that their schedule is busy. But we need to develop a culture that says, “You cannot afford not to read.” If I don’t visit members and don’t read, I don’t know what to preach. If I visit members and read constantly, I always know what to preach. Pastors cannot afford not to read, because it makes their lives so much easier. And, by the way, church members recognize very quickly if their pastor stops reading because he or she preaches the same thing from different passages.

CW: Writing will also help, because clear thinking is assisted by writing, and vice versa. As we write it out, our thoughts become clear. And I know that Ministry is always looking for good articles from pastors. In the process of writing, we have to do more reading. Pick areas of interest that the congregation wants to know more about. Write it out and preach it.

EBdS: Pastors should be required to set goals for themselves. In some parts of the world, they are used to baptism goals, tithe goals, and they know how to measure those goals. So I would start at the beginning of the year with some specific goals. Let’s say this year I will study certain themes or sections of the Scriptures in Hebrew or Greek. If it is important to have goals in regard to baptism, tithe, congregations, visita­tion, we should have intellectual goals too. Personally, as ministers, we should evaluate ourselves at the end of every year. It may be that the conference or union does not put emphasis on that, but we should personally do that for our own sake and to be of better service to the church.

WH: What counsel would you give to students preparing for pastoral ministry, and especially those who have an inter­est in pursuing advanced or terminal biblical or theological studies?

EBdS: Before coming to BRI, I taught in the Theological Seminary at Northeast Brazil College. Students would ask, “What advice do you have for me, because I want to become a scholar?” My answer would have four points.

First, have a strong devotional life. Students are used to a more devotional approach to the Scriptures in their home congregations. When they preach and teach at home, they do it in a devotional way. This feeds them and the congregation. But when they come to the seminary, they tend to develop a more academic approach to Bible study. In that context, they often risk neglecting the personal appropriation of the Scriptures. They shouldn’t forget studying the Bible devotionally and keeping up their prayer life.

Second, develop a high view of the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures and learn to think biblically.

Third, read as much as you can. Sometimes we received students who were not fond of reading. They just wanted to get a diploma and work in the field. They were not committed to the academic process. Someone who wants to pursue an academic career needs to enjoy learning, reading, and doing research to find scriptural answers to theological issues.

Fourth, be focused on what you are going to do. What is the area of your interest: Old Testament, New Testament, systematics, or philosophy? You need to start reading as much as you can in that area. When a person becomes competent in the chosen area of study, the church is well served. When you study the Bible, when you investigate, you are involved in intel­lectual work. You can honor God by what you do in any of these fields. So take it very seriously.

KD: There are people acquiring degrees and not studying theology with the point of view of the integrity of Adventist theology. Adventists have a unique way of doing theology. So wherever you are, keep in mind the integrity of Adventist theology.

CW: Especially if you’re going to pursue an advanced degree, write a thesis or dissertation, make sure that it is a topic that not only you are interested in but one that your readers will be as well. If you’re going to invest that length of time, make it a topic that will be helpful for the church and theology and understanding our purpose as Adventists.

EM: Whatever you do, strive for excel­lence. We are not here to be placed on a pedestal—we are here to serve. Try to do the best you can. Remain humble. Learn from each other. Listen to the church, and colleagues. This is the advantage we have in BRI, that we can bounce ideas off of each other.

CW: To illustrate that point, a Bible teacher whom I respected very much once said, “You can call me ‘Doctor,’ but I would prefer if you would call me ‘Pastor’ or ‘Elder’ because the trust that was placed in me when I was ordained to the ministry in the Adventist Church means the most. More than any doc­toral degree, more than any academic degree, the calling of God as a pastor is the most important one to me.” That’s the ideal I want to emulate.

DM: Thank you for your practical counsel to present and future pastors, and for sharing about the important ministry of the Biblical Research Institute.

* If you are not currently receiving Reflections, ask for a subscription by writing to [email protected] and provide your name, email address, and current ministry position.

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Derek J. Morris, DMin, is editor of Ministry.

Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

June 2014

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