A Parable of Jesus as a Clue to Biblical Interpretation

Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, and a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Saviour? Why could not one of the disciples have given us a connected account of Christ’s earthly life? Why does one writer bring in points that another does not mention? Why, if these points are essential, did not all the writers mention them? – It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain Scripture truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than others.1 –Ellen G. White

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/04/11/parable-jesus-clue-biblical-interpretation

A timely piece to defend the histo critical method. The higher levels of the Adventist Church have much in common with the Jewish leaders of Christ’s day. Triumphalism is a curse that had infected the church and the nation. In my 93 year, I have found my Saviour, but I have children, grand children and great grand children, The red books have burned them all. slowly they are finding the Gospel in other communities. I pray for all who have been led astray by perfectionism. Anyone reading and believing in the first three chapters of the Gospel according to John is on safe ground.


Thank you for this timely reprint during this passionate Holy Week.

Indeed, during my days of studying theology (the time this essay was authored) emphasis was put on outcome, not method. Historical-critical methods were viewed with caution, but at the same time with the clear understanding that we as Adventists, using such tools, could and did come to different conclusions than (“liberal”) scholars outside of our church.

Today the powers to be assume that the method automatically leads to conclusions that “undermine the authority of the word of God”. I am too old fashioned, (in)formed by my own Adventist theological training to swallow that kind of argument.

Whether we admit it or not - any scholarly exegesis is using methods that fit into the broad category of historical-critical methods (which incidentally have developped quite beyond Graf and Wellhausen - just like tools of medical diagnosis have developped and you probably would no longer use Röntgen’s X-Ray machine, but a more current one).


Each of us will “harmonize” the great Gospel stories in our own individual study. Weaving the gospels together is possible, but the gospels should never be taken as an exhaustive biography in the modern sense. Instead, the accounts follow the common method of highlighting key events and themes that meet us at the point of our needs and humanity. Each telling presents a distinct perspective on the same life. This focus helps us understand what each writer intended to emphasize in the character of Christ. It is an amazing tapestry of love and inspiration.

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This essay by Dr. Brunt and others before him proves that the attack on the historical-critical method (different from some of the presuppositions behind it) is prejudiced and irrational! For it to be essentially “forbidden” as a method is a profound violation of what Adventism has meant to us–“progressing in truth.”

What is unchristian and unforgivable is the fact that one group of scholars in the Adventist community persuaded church leadership that only “they” were being faithful to the essence of Adventism and conservative Christianity. Unwilling to deal with those scholars that disagreed with them either in open forums or in print, they “back-channeled” into administrative personnel so they could shape the church’s convictions about the nature of inspiration and the dangers of any interpretive method other than their own.

I have loved this church all my life. It truly was the agent of salvation for me. But it has profoundly disappointed me over this and related issues. More than one “older” member has said to me: “This is not the church I signed up for.” The more we move in this direction, the more I feel the same pain.


I’m with you, Jim. To forbid theologians the use of the historical/critical methodology in their studies is similar to telling a physician that antibiotics are forbidden. Some are dangerous, therefore, throw them all out! What is of interest is that the same people who reject the historical/critical method apply the process to Ellen White’s writings. They may not know they are guilty of this lapse. They apply the historical/critical method to EGW’s work in attempts to enhance their understanding of what the woman wrote. How unfortunate that church administrators have taken upon themselves the mantle of infallible judge of orthodoxy. In the process they have double failure: they fail as theologians and as competent administrators. (Skilled administrators do not alienate their front-line and most valuable asset–
people.) They follow the path laid down by others who felt it their destiny to “finish the work,” and end up by doing it in. Sad!!


We need conversation!

The Seminary is considering, or has already endorsed (I’m not sure), a document that says faculty there agree with an official statement on biblical interpretretation that disallows at least some of what John Brunts is saying.

Can’t someone from the Seminary, or some other proponent of the “official” view, jump in and explain, if Brunt is wrong, just how he is wrong?

We have trouble even beginning to embody the spirit of Matthew 18. If it’s because people are afraid to get into conversation, that’s a terrible indictment on us. We can do better.


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Methods of Bible Study (1986) is the most recent formal codification of Seventh-day Adventist understanding about hermeneutics, but this essay by Richard Davidson (2003) can be fairly characterized as the most recent and the most thorough explanation of Seventh-day Adventist understanding about hermeneutics:

I find this to be the most important statement in the essay: “Those who follow the historical-biblical method apply the same study tools utilized in historical criticism. There is careful attention given to historical, literary and linguistic, grammatical-syntactical, and theological details, as we will outline in the next section of this paper. But while utilizing the gains brought about by the historical-critical method in sharpening various study tools for analysis of the biblical text, there is an [sic] consistent intent in historical-biblical study to eliminate the element of criticism that stands as judge upon the Word.” p. 12. All tools that help us discern the meaning of the biblical text are permissible, so long as we do not use those tools to “criticize”, i.e., put to the test or challenge, the truthfulness of the biblical text. John Brunt’s essay can be deemed orthodox in my opinion, because he does not do the latter.

Perhaps the most famous application of Davidson’s rejection of the latter–the attitude of criticism, as it were–is my observation that the GC’s 2004 Statement on Creation’s pedagogical mandate is ironically reflective of a hermeneutic of criticism, in that science teachers are directed to put Scripture to the test by marshaling extra-biblical science data for the purpose of validating the biblical account of creation. This observation proved to be a major turning point in the creation/science controversy involving La Sierra University.

Davidson, whom I have never met, is my hero, but I can briefly offer a gentle critique of his essay, which in all fairness to him was written 14 years ago:

  1. Despite the distinction he draws between tools and critical attitude, he may be a tad bit overly confessional and polemical in his description and discussion of various critical tools.

  2. He appears to conceive the study of hermeneutics to be subsidiary to the study of theology. In reality, the study of theology is a subsidiary discipline of the multi-disciplinary study of hermeneutics. Contributions from other subsidiary disciplines, such as history, psychology, law, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, literary criticism, etc. do not appear to inform his understanding of hermeneutics.

  3. He is a tad bit overly confessional and polemical in his advocacy of the hermeneutics of the Reformers. That history is more of a mixed bag than we typically acknowledge.

  4. I fear that his understanding of hermeneutics is largely derived from secondary sources written by evangelical Christians rather than original works. Consequently, he is overly dismissive of various thinkers.

  5. If he is aware of the philosophical turn in the study of hermeneutics–(he briefly mentions and dismisses Gadamer)–he does not seem to be fully aware of the philosophical dimension that has always inhered in methodology. Paradoxically, the philosophical dimension is of acute interest and relevance to Seventh-day Adventists, most of whom have no understanding of the study of hermeneutics. We need to address all aspects and contours of meaning.

Be that as it may, his essay is an excellent work. His rejection of the hermeneutic of criticism has withstood the test of time, has had legs, as it were. And he has more knowledge of the Bible in his pinky finger than I will ever have. He is one of the most important biblical scholars in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And no doubt, his understanding of hermeneutics is not fixed in time in the year 2003. Most certainly, my gentle critique probably does not do justice and capture the full picture.

I am optimistic that he and other Seminary faculty know quite a bit more than what they have time to write. I have a little bit of inside knowledge, but even without that, I am not concerned about the Seminary and its hermeneutical approach to the biblical text.

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For those who may not have noticed, the author of the current Sabbath School quarterly blatantly misinterprets II Peter 1:20. On page 84 of the quarterly (May 31) he suggests that the text “Knowing this that no prophesy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” has somewhat to do with the danger of trying to study scripture exclusively on one’s own. In the last paragraph, the lesson author states, “Peter is urging them to submit their interpretation of Scripture to the leading of the church as a whole.” His language in the preceding paragraph paints what might be considered to be a subtle, but dangerous picture of ‘group think’ and discourages individual study, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary in the first paragraph.

The SDA Bible Commentary, in commenting on this same text clearly states that the proper interpretation of verse 20 is that the prophet was not to inject his own ideas into a message given to him by God. Quite a different interpretation, and one that is clearly contextually consistent. Peter wanted his readers to have confidence in scripture. His intent was not to have them rely exclusively on the church’s interpretation of scripture.

This is the sort of thing those of us who teach adult Sabbath School classes face and it occurs far too frequently.

Thank you for this. I will read Davidson with great interest. Your comment about Gadamer tells me a great deal about Davidson’s perspectives which are an outgrowth of the Reformed approach to these issues which is very difficult to defend in the present.

EDITOR: I cannot find a “lounge” for this article. Can you create one and include all these comments so we can continue the discussion?

The lounge version was created on April 11. Here is the direct link, which should work for anyone who has Lounge access: http://conversation.spectrummagazine.org/t/a-parable-of-jesus-as-a-clue-to-biblical-interpretation/13295

Comments do not carry over from the main website to the Lounge, but you are welcome to continue your discussion there.