Hermeneutical principles of early Adventists and their influence on Adventist theology
Hermeneutical principles are fundamental to the study and understanding of the Bible. When it comes to the theological development among early Adventists, William Miller’s hermeneutical principles and theological approach undoubtedly had an influence.1 What were those principles, and how were they developed? How did Miller’s principles influence the biblical interpretation and theological development of the early Adventists? This article will explore these questions.
Miller’s understanding of Scripture
Born in 1782 in a Baptist home, Miller turned to deism at the age of 22 and remained so for 12 years. During that period, Miller held that the Bible was full of “inconsistencies.”2 After a series of life-changing experiences—his participation in the War of 1812 between the United States and England and the death of his father in the same year3—Miller decided to come back to the Scriptures and “take [his] chance respecting them.”4 Thus, he determined that he would either harmonize the so-called contradictions of the Scriptures or remain a deist. This search for harmony in the Bible led Miller to adopt a rationalistic view of the hermeneutical method.5 After two years of study and trying to harmonize the biblical text, Miller affirmed: “The Bible was now to me a new book. It was indeed a feast of reason; all that was dark, mystical, or obscure, to me, in its teachings, had been dissipated from my mind before the clear light that now dawned from its sacred pages.”6
Miller adapted his newfound hermeneutical principle to the study of different prophecies to formulate a coherent system.7 He explains his hermeneutical method: “To get the whole truth, all those visions or prophecies must be concentrated and brought together, that have reference to the subject which we wish to investigate, let every word and sentence have its proper hearing and force in the grand whole, and the theory of system, as I have shown before, must be correct.”8 Thus, one of the major hermeneutical presuppositions of Miller was the concept of the Bible as a coherent whole, in which all the parts can be harmonized. He affirms: “The Bible is a system of revealed truths, so clearly and simply given.”9
These two basic principles— Scripture interprets Scripture and the harmonization of Bible passages—have a prominent place in his “rules of interpretation.” For example, the fourth and fifth rules state: “4. To understand doctrine, bring all the scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence, and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in an error. 5. Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself.”10
These principles are based on the hermeneutical presupposition that the Bible is a harmonious system. Since the Scriptures have only one Author, there is no conflict between the mes-sage of the whole Bible as a system and any particular passage—in other words, the whole as a hermeneutical key does not jeopardize the interpretation of the parts. As Steen Rasmussen states: “A major assumption” of Miller’s hermeneutics “is that the Bible contains a systematic presentation of God’s words to man, and that it is a collection of harmonious truths.”11
Early Adventist hermeneutical principles
Miller’s rules of interpretation had a deep impact on early Adventist hermeneutics.12 James White, for example, took a systematic approach to the study of the Bible, affirming that it is necessary to “[collate] the different portions of it”13 in order to get the complete meaning of a word, sentence, or doctrine. “Scripture must explain Scripture, then a harmony may be seen throughout the whole.”14 “Let us have a whole Bible, and let that, and that alone, be our rule of faith and duty.”15 This hermeneutical approach to the Bible as a harmonious whole allowed James White to see “a connected system of truth, the most beautiful in all its parts, that the mind of man ever contemplated.”16
Ellen G. White also emphasized a systematic approach to the study of the Bible. In 1887, she wrote: “I saw that the Word of God, as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion linking into and explaining another.”17 She understood the Bible holistically, where the parts are perfectly linked: “The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts.”18
Based on the principle that the Bible is a harmonious system of truth, Ellen White emphasized the need to compare Scripture with Scripture as a sound hermeneutical procedure: “The Bible is its own expositor. One passage will prove to be a key that will unlock other passages, and in this way light will be shed upon the hidden meaning of the word. By comparing different texts treating on the same subject, viewing their bearing on every side, the true meaning of the Scriptures will be made evident.”19
Although Ellen White did not elaborate a detailed list of hermeneutical principles, she emphatically endorsed Miller’s method. After summarizing Miller’s “simple but intelligent and important rules for Bible study and interpretation,” White affirmed: “The above is a portion of these rules; and in our study of the Bible we shall all do well to heed the principles set forth.”20 In her summary of Miller’s rules, White emphasized the harmony of the Bible as a system of truth and the need to bring all the Scriptures together on a given topic.
Ellet J. Waggoner, for his part, articulated in a Signs of the Timeseditorial what is considered “the first comprehensive presentation of Seventh-day Adventist hermeneutical principles.”21 These principles uphold the Bible as a harmonious system of truth, in which all the parts perfectly fit in the whole. In addition to emphasizing the full inspiration of the Scriptures as the first principle, Waggoner lists four more, three of which are noted here:
“[1.] The Bible is one connected, consistent, harmonious book. It is com-posed of many books, but these books form only one Book. . . . This Book was written by many different persons, yet it has only one author, and that is the Spirit of God. The different parts are inspired by the same Spirit, and have one purpose; there is a vital connection between them.” . . .
“As a corollary to this principle it might be stated that the Bible does not need to be ‘harmonized.’ . . . The Bible is already harmonized.” . . .
“[2.] The Bible must interpret itself. ” . . .
“[3.] One part of the Bible cannot be fully understood when taken by itself, apart from its connection, or without reference to the remaining portion of the Bible. . . . If the Bible is one connected whole, then all the parts are necessary to the formation of that whole. There is a mutual dependence between all the parts, and therefore in considering one part, attention must be given to the other parts. True, we may not misunderstand one portion of the Bible even though we study it by itself; but it is certain that we cannot have a complete understanding of it until we study it with reference to the Bible as a whole.”22
In Waggoner’s view, the systemic understanding of the Bible requires a systematic approach that takes into account the whole Bible in searching for a theological meaning. Clearly, the emphasis is on the overall view rather than on the meanings of isolated parts. Other prominent early Adventists, such as Uriah Smith, also followed these hermeneutical principles.23
In summary, the Bible as a harmonious system of truth was the basic hermeneutical presupposition of early Adventists. This assumes the existence of a “system” (as a principle of articulation of the whole) in the Bible. Since early Adventists recognized the vital connection among parts of Scripture, the hermeneutical task was not over for them until a word, symbol, or topic was studied in the light of the whole Bible.
Early Adventists’ theological approach
Although early Adventists worked within the context of the principle of sola Scriptura, they did not use the modern tools of theological discipline, such as exegesis. Paulien points out: “When we examine the work of our SDA pioneers we quickly discover that, with the possible exception of J. N. Andrews, exegesis as we [know it now] was rarely, if ever, performed by them.”24
On the other hand, early Adventists’ view of the Bible as a harmonious system of truths led them to develop a “systematic” approach to theology. They understood their theology as a harmonious system of interrelated doctrines with the heavenly sanctuary as its “center.” The sanctuary gave a systematic point of integration to Adventism because it was connected to almost all basic Sabbatarian Adventist teachings.
Several early Adventists recognized the theological centrality of the heavenly sanctuary. Joseph Bates, for example, saw “a harmonious perfect chain” of truth in the antitypical fulfillment of the typology of the sanctuary.25 In Uriah Smith’s view, the sanctuary is “the grand nucleus around which cluster the glorious constellation of present truth.”26 J. N. Andrews considered the sanctuary to be “the great central doctrine” in the Seventh-day Adventist system, because “it inseparably connects all the points in their faith, and presents the subject as one grand whole.”27 Ellen White summarized the general understanding about the sanctuary: “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious.”28
Denis Fortin notes that the sanctuary doctrine was “the theological center of early Seventh-day Adventism and became the principle of articulation of all other doctrines.”29 This early Adventist search for the inner logic of Scripture in its totality required a systematic approach that used the synthesis or articulation of the texts, teachings, notions, and
Early Adventists did both biblical and systematic theology, but they always searched for the coherent integration of the different doctrines in the harmonious whole of the theological system—a systematic approach, for sure. In summary, the early Adventists’ approach to the Bible as a system, the use of synthesis as a methodology that seeks to put together the parts in a harmonious whole, the locating of a “center” around which all revealed truth relative to salvation clusters—all are elements that point to a systematic approach to the theological task.30 However, it is necessary to clarify that systematic theology presupposes a previous task of interpretation of the text through the process of analysis that characterizes the exegetical and biblical theologies. Although early Adventists did not use the modern tools of exegesis, they went through a process of interpretation of the text that pays attention to the context but always with a systematic intention. To them, the system was the ultimate objective.
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1 Merlin D. Burt, “Historical Introduction,” in Memoirs of William Miller, ed. George R. Knight, Adventist Classic Library (Berrien Springs, MD: Andrews University Press, 2005), xv.
2 William Miller, Apology and Defense (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1845), 3.
3 See Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853), 28–55.
4 Miller, Apology and Defense, 5.
5 David L. Rowe, Thunder and Trumpets: Millerites and Dissenting Religion in Upstate New York, 1800–1850 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 10.
6 Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, 76, 77.
7 Baconianism had become the classical scientific method of the Evangelical movement in antebellum America, which consists of gathering information from nature and deriving conclusions based on these “facts.” See Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977), xv.
8 William Miller, Evidences From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843 (Troy, NY: Kemble and Hooper, 1836), 5, 6.
9 Miller, Apology and Defense, 6.
10 William Miller, “Mr. Miller’s Letters. No. 5: The Bible Its Own Interpreter,” Signs of the Times, May 15, 1840, 25.
11 Steen R. Rasmussen, “Roots of the Prophetic Hermeneutic of William Miller” (master’s thesis, Andrews University, 1983), 100.
12 George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs, Adventist Heritage Series (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 11. See also Alberto R. Timm, “Historical Background of Adventist Biblical Interpretation,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. George W. Reid (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2006), 6.
13 James White, Life Incidents: Connection With the Great Advent Movement, as Illustrated by the Three Angels of Revelation XIV (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1868), 150, 151.
14 Joseph Bates, S. W. Rhodes, J. N. Andrews, and James White, “The Sabbath,” Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 7, 1851, 62.
15 James White, “Gifts of the Gospel Church,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 3, 1854, 62.
16 White, Life Incidents, 267.
17 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1945), 221. She repeated this same concept many times.
18 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 190.
19 Ellen G. White, “The Science of Salvation the First of Sciences, ” Review and Sabbath Herald, December 1, 1891, 737; see also Ellen G. White, “‘Able to Make Us Wise Unto Salvation,’” Signs of the Times, May 1, 1907, 4; Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 9, 1883, 625.
20 Ellen G. White, “Notes of Travel,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 25, 1884, 738.
21 Jeff Crocombe, “ ‘A Feast of Reason’: The Roots of William Miller’s Biblical Interpretation and Its Influence on the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (PhD diss., The University of Queensland, 2011), 178.
22 E. J. Waggoner, “A Few Principles of Interpretation,” Signs of the Times, January 6, 1887, 6.
23 Uriah Smith, “The Bible, and the Bible Alone,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 19, 1857, 155.
24 Jon Paulien, “Three Ways to Approach the Bible: Disciplinary Distinctions—Some Suggestions” (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1997), 18.
25 Joseph Bates, A Vindication of the Seventh-Day Sabbath, and the Commandments of God: With a Further History of God´s Peculiar People, from 1847 to 1848 (New Bedford: Press of Benjamin Lindsey, 1848), 90.
26 Uriah Smith, “Synopsis of the Present Truth. No. 19,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 25, 1858, 148.
27 John N. Andrews, “The Sanctuary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 18, 1867, 12.
28 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 423.
29 Denis Fortin, “Nineteenth-Century Evangelicalism and Early Adventist Statements of Beliefs,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 36, no. 1 (1998): 65.
30 George Knight remarks that early Adventists saw in the “theological orientation that saw ‘the sanctuary in heaven as the grand center of the Christian system,’ a concept that helped them unify all their other beliefs.” Knight, A Search for Identity, 74, 75.