Biblical Inspiration: Culture or Revelation?
by Jay Gallimore
Adventists have always believed that more and more truth will burst from the Bible. In our search for truth, loving-kindness toward each other must always prevail. So in a spirit of charity toward all I address this sensitive issue.
The World Church, in its General Conference (GC), has voted twice not to allow the ordination of women to the office of elder/minister. This was not because the GC saw women and men as created unequal, but because of divine order assigning different roles to the genders. Once again the issue is being urged. So the GC has invited all of its divisions to give input on the matter.
Just for the record: the Michigan Conference policy on ordination supports the voted policy of the GC. So this article is not about ordination or its pros and cons!1 Yet this topic has recently brought a larger matter to the forefront that will affect a lot of issues as you will see. That matter is “the methods of Bible study” often called hermeneutics.
Since the methods of Bible study affect everything we believe, it would be perilous to ignore them! For instance, have you ever shared the Sabbath with someone only to have them say, “Well, that is your interpretation?” Using the Bible’s own methods to study the Bible is what gave birth to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They are as critical to the search for truth now as they were then!
At the North American Division’s (NAD) 2013 Year-End meeting, the NAD Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) gave its report. Most of the members of the committee favored the ordination of women. They based their support on a “principle–based-historical-cultural” hermeneutic. Some other divisions’ TOSC’s have reached the opposite conclusion based on the historical understanding of the “Methods of Bible Study” voted in 1986 the by Annual Council. So you can see the challenge.2
I had not heard of this hermeneutic before and was curious as to what it meant. This is the definition I discovered: the Bible is seen as “contaminated by the social, cultural, historical, and language” of the prophet. So while the Scripture contains the truth, it needs an interpreter to distinguish between the divine principle and the prophet’s “baggage.” Therefore “a plain reading of Scripture could be misleading.”3
Historically, Adventists have promoted that we should “seek to grasp the simple, most obvious meaning of the biblical passage being studied” in its context. We have also been positive that “the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve as God’s word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages.” We have insisted that methods of Bible study must arise from the Bible itself. And while we believe that the prophet’s thoughts were inspired rather than all of his words dictated, we believe the Bible is the word of God and does not simply contain it!4
Because the Bible has a Divine Author, there will be mysteries. When confronted with puzzling matters, we have urged “search-ing the Scriptures” by comparing text with text in their context until the meaning becomes clear. The Divine message is simple and deep as well as clear and profound. So only the Bible can teach us how to study the Bible.
In a different symposium, another professor reflected that we use one hermeneutic for proving the Sabbath and another for the ordination issue. Questions automatically arise. How will we defend such a position to Sunday-keepers? Will not conflicting hermeneutics lead to conflicting teachings?
Ellen White gives a great overview of “methods of Bible study.” You will find them in the Great Controversy, pp. 563 – 602 in the chapter, “The Scriptures a Safeguard.” For sake of space, I have attempted to summarize her support of the Scripture’s own hermeneutics in my words.
- The Scriptures are the inspired word of God. They teach the will of God protecting the believer from sin and deception. (John 5:39; Nehemiah 8:18; 9:3; Deuteronomy 30:10-16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17)
- Bible truth can be discovered by the earnest seeker. It is unchangeable and inseparable from the glory of God. God cannot be honored with error. (John 1:14-17; 2 Corinthians 1:13)
- We should approach the Bible as a humble learner not a judge, laying aside our own preconceived opinions. (Acts 17:11)
- The Bible is its own interpreter and should be studied diligently by comparing scripture with scripture and taking into account the context. (Luke 24:27; Acts 17:2-3,11
- It is a false doctrine that teaches that the language of the text is mystical and secret and that its meaning is not apparent. (Matthew 12:5; 19:4; 21:6; 21:42; 22:31; 24:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Revelation 1:3)
- The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is used. (Luke 10:26; 1 Timothy 4:13)
- Prayer for the Holy Spirit should always precede the study of the Bible. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
- We should meditate on Bible texts as a safeguard against temptation. (Revelation 2:11; Psalms 1:2; 143:5; 119:15,23,48,78,148)
- Understanding the Bible depends on our willingness to obey it. (2 Timothy 3:14-17; Revelation 1:3; John 7:17)
- The theme of the Messiah underlies all Scripture. (2 Corinthians 3:12-18; John 5:39-40)
Now the question should be asked, is there Scriptural support for this “principle–based-historical-cultural” hermeneutic? The “Methods of Bible Study” document, voted in 1986, especially the preamble which I hope you will take time to read for yourself, doesn’t seem to sustain it.5
A fair-minded person is sure to ask, “Haven’t we always recognized there were principles in Scripture that guide application?” The answer is yes. However, I think we would all agree that applications must uphold the Bible’s principles, not destroy them. Otherwise such a method would not be in harmony with the Bible itself.
For example, Jesus rebuffed the criticism of the Pharisees after the disciples had picked some grain on Sabbath. Satisfying hunger on the Sabbath is not sin. But to use that as an excuse to crank up the combine on Sabbath would be to use an application that destroys the principle.
Another case in point is our Sunday-keeping friends who insist that they are not breaking the law of God by disregarding the seventh-day Sabbath. They claim that they are keeping the “principle” by keeping one day in seven. Yet we believe that to disregard the seventh day is to abolish the principle because the seventh day is inseparably linked to the Sabbath. Together and only together are they the memorial of Creation itself.
This is illustrated again by homosexuals who claim they are applying the biblical principle of faithfulness to their “marriage.” However, marriage from Creation cannot be separated from the faithful union of one man and one woman. So since their application destroys the principle of a faithful union between one man/one woman, it also destroys the principle of both faithfulness and marriage.
Others have tried to say that the command to circumcise was overturned by “principle.” But there is no principle-based application here. It is the New Testament itself that releases the believer from this practice. In general terms, it replaced the symbol of circumcision with the symbol of baptism showing that salvation was open to all.
In another venue, one scholar promoted the idea that to take the text literally, as it reads, in plain, clear language is dangerous and foolish because the Scripture is culturally conditioned from Genesis to Revelation.
We have always seen that culture is part of the Bible. But here is the real question: is Bible truth culturally conditioned? Is the Sabbath just a Jewish thing? In some cultures, stealing is allowed in certain situations. But the Bible teaches that stealing is always wrong.
Distorting truth with culture is a popular hermeneutic in some denominations. It is often called the “historical-critical” method. And it opened the door for them to embrace such teachings as evolution and homosexuality! No wonder the GC document firmly rejected this by saying, “Even a modified use of this method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists.”6
We all need to be like the noble Bereans who took the time to search the scriptures to see “if these things are true.” All members should test religious teachers/ministers by the Bible using its own methods. Any other position is dangerous to our own souls.
One person put it this way, “Common sense guides common readers…. We wouldn’t want to use a method of Bible study that would disenfranchise an uneducated traveling man. And why not? Because the Bible was also written for him. If our method places the Bible out of his reach, our method is flawed.”7
Does the Bible have a wax nose depending on the culture in which it is read? Can it be made to say just the opposite of what it teaches? If that were true, how could God ever speak to us through His word? My plea is that in our search for truth, regardless of the issue, we must be humbly committed to the Bible’s own hermeneutics.
Celerating diversity in the world church that does not conflict with Scripture is important. But that is not the basis of our unity. Our unity comes from our unity in Scriputre! And nothing is more fundamental to that than our “Methods of Bible Study.” So if we start using non-biblical hermeneutics that gave Protestants Sunday, instead of the hermeneutics that led us to the Sabbath, then what? Where would that lead us?
- The passage of scripture in discussion. 1Timothy 2:11- 3:15
- The passage of scripture in discussion. 1Timothy 2:11- 3:15The passage of scripture in discussion. 1Timothy 2:11- 3:15
- Concerning the ordination issue, you can find the papers on both sidesfrom the GC Theology of Ordination at these websites. [http://www. adventistarchives.org/january-2013-papers-prensented#.UgAcV9-B1MO] [http://www.adventistarchives.org/july-2013-papers-presented#.UgAcnd- B1MO]More papers from the January 2014 will be available in February.
- Jan Barna PhD.; Ordination of Women and Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical; Paper presented for the Society of Adventist Studies at Baltimore, MD, 21 November 2013.
- The official document voted in 1986 Annual Council, called Methods of Bible Study at [www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/ documents/article/go/0/methods-of-bible-study/]).
- Women’s Ordination, p. 21, Eugene Prewitt