At ASRS, Christ in Scripture and Sermon: A Puzzle

Insight outstripped irony.

Scholars with the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) were gathered in Atlanta for reflection on the church’s witness in “the Public Square,” the theme of this year’s annual meeting. Now, with members joined in Sabbath morning worship, William Johnsson, the former editor of the Adventist Review and, in 1979, the first president of ASRS, was the preacher.

His remarks, entitled “Leaving the Comfort Zone: From John the Baptist to Jesus,” lifted off from the base of passages in Matthew on the two figures in his title. Both of them, he said, preached a message of repentance, and both died young. As for John the Baptist, he stuck to the desert, and people traveled out from the cities to hear him. By contrast, Jesus went where the people were, to the cities, to “the Public Square.”

Johnsson noted that Adventists “have followed John more than Jesus,” wanting to keep to the country, away from the risk of engagement with city life. Now, however, it is “high time” for the church to move “from the desert to the city,” from “John to Jesus.” Johnsson was calling his fellow scholars—his fellow Adventists—to set themselves on a new path, a path “beyond our comfort zone.”

At the request of meeting planners, Johnsson then told the little-known story of several interactions, in which he himself was involved, between high-level Adventist leaders and the leaders of other faith communities. With Gerhard Hasel, William Shea and Bert Beach, he met with evangelical leaders headed by Kenneth Kantzer, who was the editor of Christianity Today. Later he participated in conversations with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, and still later with leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance. In each case the key question was whether Adventists could be seen as authentically faithful by the rest of the Christian community, and in each case (though with varying degrees of difficulty) discussion led to consensus that the answer is Yes. They conversations were difficult, and took the Adventists participants out of their comfort zone. But Johnsson was grateful for the end result, and also grateful, as he put it, that “my own thinking was broadened.”

After his retirement from the Adventist Review, Jan Paulsen, then the General Conference President, authorized Johnsson to engage in inter-faith dialogue with Muslim leaders who were living in Australia, and he found great satisfaction in that process as well. But in this case, leadership skittishness finally brought an end to the official interaction.

This was deeply disappointing, and having said so, Johnsson turned again to the Bible, now Hebrews 13, where Jesus is described as having suffered “outside the city gate,” or “outside the camp.” From the highly priestly standpoint, this was an unclean place. But the author of Hebrews nevertheless charged his Christian readers as follows: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp…”

Now the sermon’s point sounded forth again. “No place is off limits,” Johnsson said. Christ is Lord of all, “including the Public Square.” At his final words—“Let us go outside the camp; let us go outside our comfort zone”—ASRS worshipers arose in applause.

But here was the irony. Although Johnsson had just invoked the example of Jesus as determinative for Christian life—as somehow superseding that of John the Baptist—his fellow Adventist scholars had earlier balked at the suggestion that Jesus is determinative for the interpretation of Scripture. The ASRS leadership had presented a draft statement on the “Centrality of Christ” for resolving apparent differences (as concerning, for example, violence) among biblical passages. The draft noted that “‘selective’” mining of biblical texts can lead to mistaken and even dangerous conclusions, and said “internal evidence” from the Bible “makes the risen Christ the ultimate criterion for interpretation.” The point of coming to agreement on a statement was to bear witness to church leaders and other Adventists with respect to sound principles for reading Scripture.

But for one reason or another many members were unsatisfied, some because they did not agree with making Christ the key to biblical hermeneutics. So on Friday a small taskforce was asked to return with something different. The new draft came back during the Sabbath School hour, and reference to Jesus had been completely eliminated. This new draft did warn against confusing “the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture” with “a selective or superficial reading of the text.” And it did affirm the “unity of Scripture,” while allowing that “we always read the bible as broken people who need the Spirit of God and each other’s correction in order to read well.” But Jesus as a methodological principle, as the criterion for determining how to apply the biblical witness to our actual lives—was gone.

Partly with this in mind, members decided on Sabbath morning to leave the second draft on the table for further consideration. The support given to Johnsson just an hour later may, together with the earlier discussion, portend a change of heart when the draft statement on biblical interpretation comes up again. Johnsson’s sermon was itself an instance, it seemed, of Jesus as Scripture’s ultimate voice.

Below is the revised Statement on the Interpretation of Scripture drafted by the Adventist Society for Religious Studies on November 20, 2015.

As our church community gives renewed study to how Scripture is read and interpreted in the church, the members of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies believe that it is important to participate in this process. ASRS affirms that an adequate hermeneutic asserts the full authority of Scripture in its plain and intended meaning. The “plain reading” of Scripture, however, is not to be confused with a selective or superficial reading of the text.

An adequate hermeneutic facilitates the sharing of the wonders of Scripture so God’s Word can live anew in our worship, ministry and mission. It affirms the unity of Scripture even as it acknowledges the diversity within it. It affirms the full authority of Scripture as the inspired word of God, even as we admit that we always read the Bible as broken people who need the Spirit of God and each other’s correction in order to read well.

The hermeneutic needed suggests that a true plain reading of Scripture is not a superficial reading. As scholars, we long to assist our church as it seeks to be ever more faithful to the Word.

Charles Scriven is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum Magazine.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7202
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Our church members need to listen to their “teachers” and “leaders” as they discuss this festering disagreement: What is the most faithful way to interpret Scripture and Ellen White? Are we being faithful to the Bible itself or to some arbitrarily selected presupposition or methodology?

In any case, this conversation needs to happen out in the open where laypeople can participate, not in closed, secretive meetings of hand-picked individuals. Nor is this a matter that can be resolved by finally “voting” in a GC session or by sending a recommendation up to the executive committee of the GC. It needs “airing” across cultures and languages in either our periodicals or a website established for this purpose. Let papers appear on such a website and let them invite comments (in a manner, perhaps, already demonstrated on Spectrum and Adventist Today websites) which all can prayerfully study with their Bibles open. We have almost five years to do it. Let’s do it openly, honestly and faithfully.


The ATS group created itself in the early 80’s because it did not want to fellowship with ASRS members who, apparently, were too "liberal’ to be safe. They created barriers to ASRS joining them while there were none on the other side. They developed a hermeneutic and other positions more acceptable to church leadership (without leadership viewing the larger picture), effectively silencing their colleagues and markedly restricting their contribution to and involvement in the life of the church. We do now worship together in church at the AAR/SBL meetings and use the SDA hymnal, and eat together for a meal. But the only way to build a consensus is by dialogue. The question is, will both sides agree to do that, or is only one side willing to do so, meaning there is no dialogue?

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I have been a member of the SDA church for 57 years - actively for 42 years. I wish I was astounded to read:[quote=“spectrumbot, post:1, topic:10056”]
But Jesus as a methodological principle, as the criterion for determining how to apply the biblical witness to our actual lives—was gone.
[/quote]

Why am I not a participating member at this point? That is why.

So, in a nutshell, let me say that I see the church much more intent on saving the SDA narrative than to read and understand the Bible from a strictly Christian point of view. I’m not surprised that other denominations require some sort of assurance that we are a Christian church rather than some kind of cult.

We are forever trying meld Christology with our fundamental beliefs. I’m sure it drives the theologians up the proverbial wall to do it - but do it they must - until they retire.

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Educated and trained in the health professions during war time, I never learned either Hebrew or Greek. thus for my study, I have six translations and Strong’s , plus several Reform commentaries. Thus I find no Scriptural support for I J or for the Sabbath as the final test. Dear friends, if you let Ellen Whitebe your interpreter of Scripture you are in fact not reading the text as inspired.You are reading a distorted A Holy Club ire with a quasi dispensational understanding of apocalyptic literature. So the scholars play games with the brass. Tom Z

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Indeed, that is how much SDA’s approach the study of the Scriptures: EGW is the umpire and final determiner as to what those Scriptures mean. It’s a real problem that needs a fully open address, as Mr. Londis suggested in the first comment to this article. Our Christology should be determining our fundamental beliefs, not the other way around.

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it probably also needs a general understanding that Adventist Society for Religious Studies is only one of the academic communities in our church…for instance, Adventist Theological Society also met in atlanta this past wknd, and featured ted wilson as its keynote speaker…

it would be nice if our academics could all sing from the same hymnal…until that happens, consensus on something like hermeneutics is probably elusive…i think lay people tend to line up behind academics who represent their views, if they pay attention to academics at all…

EDIT: i believe i noted that walla walla’s carl cosaert, previous president of ASRS, is ATS’s new president elect, replacing outgoing felix cortez from andrews seminary…whatever “barriers” ATS has imposed on ASRS members, they don’t appear to extend to its presidency…i did note, though, that ATS appears to be primarily conservative, although ted wilson, in a public interview on sabbath afternoon, was peppered with some fairly left-leaning questions, submitted by cosaert and andrews seminary’s teresa reeve, that included a request for a clarification on what he means by “plain reading”, and whether he reads anything outside of the bible and egw…

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jjlondis said: “We have almost five years to do it. Let’s do it openly, honestly and faithfully.”
James it has taken me less than an hour to type these thoughts into my computer taking my Bible as my guide. I did it honestly and faithfully as you have suggested.
Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of God, superior to and exalted above everything and everyone else. He is the beginning of all things, Creator; the middle of all things, Sustainer and Purifier; and the end of all things, Heir (see also Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16).

If as Chuck Scriven says about Dr. Johnsson’s efforts to point the church towards Jesus – “Now, however, it is “high time” for the church to move “from the desert to the city,” from “John to Jesus.” –
What is the problem? Why isn’t more obvious? Why does it take 5 years for us to get it?

The Son is the manifestation of God, the radiance of God’s personal glory, the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4). In Him all deity dwells (Col. 1:15–19; 2:9). Because of His deity, He is superior to the angels who worship Him. Even God’s title as Father is a reference to His essential relationship to Jesus Christ. God is presented in the New Testament more as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:27; John 5:17–18; 10:29–33; 14:6–11; 17:1–5; Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3, 17; Phil. 2:9–11; 1 Pet. 1:3; 2 John 3) than as the Father of believers (Matt. 6:9).

When Jesus called God “Father,” He was not emphasizing primarily submission or generation but sameness of essence-that is, deity. Moving as a church from “John to Jesus” we need to study John 5:23, where it sums it all up by demanding “that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father.” No one can worship God unless he worships Him as the God who is one with King Jesus-“the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Give me Jesus first, in the middle and last!

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I thought I read on Spectrum that a GC official said to the large audience at San Antonio that 2015 was going to be the last GC session…because Jesus was coming back before 2020.

Anyway…this interpretation fray is not just restricted to SDA. My former mega-church non-denom preacher said that several of some prominent preachers could not agree on what the gospel was after being gathered together for 7 hours in a hotel room.

Jesus said…
John 7:17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

Just yesterday a preacher of a 5000 member, non denom mega church presented a sermon about dealing with timing and involvement related to God’s will and never used bible to describe how one knows what it is.

Same thing happened at a local SDA church I visited. The pastor mentioned God’s will about a dozen times in the sermon but never explained in any detail what it was.

Gospel, grace, salvation, God’s will. Terms heard so often and yet who really knows what they mean…and could explain them to the unchurched…or even the churched?

57,600 seconds during waking hours every day. Redeem the time?

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ASRS’s revised Statement on the Interpretation of Scripture is a sad piece of writing. These are my observations:

  1. Although there is a connection between hermeneutics and phenomenology, we should not confuse and conflate one with the other. How Scripture is read or should be read is a different issue than how Scripture should be interpreted and understood. We can study how Seventh-day Adventists read Scripture. My guess is that we would find that they read Scripture in the same manner as they read any other text. And we can make recommendations about how they should read Scripture, i.e., in a quiet room with no music blaring in the background, after saying a prayer, after eating a healthy meal, etc. Our phenomenological study no doubt would reveal that most Seventh-day Adventists’ reading of Scripture is indicative principally of a quest for a devotional experience that reflects little attention to the meaning of the text. I do not disparage such a devotional approach to Scripture, but if we are to articulate a statement regarding hermeneutics, we should presuppose that discernment of the text’s meaning is imperative.

  2. The Statement is unclear and imprecise. The Statement asserts that a “plain reading” is not a “selective or superficial reading.” The Statement later asserts that a “true plain reading” is not a “superficial reading.” But the Statement does little to further define what a plain reading or true plain reading is. Accordingly, we are justified in deducing that a plain reading or true plain reading is indeed a selective or superficial reading. I cannot think of any counsel that is more ludicrous and that bespeaks in a more profound way one’s ignorance of Scripture and the study of hermeneutics than that we implement a “plain reading” or “true plain reading” approach to interpreting Scripture.

  3. The sad reality is that the members of ASRS do not possess the multi-disciplinary expertise that the study of hermeneutics demands that would enable ASRS to articulate a cogent and helpful statement regarding hermeneutics. We see nothing in the Statement that reflects a knowledge of the literature. The salient issues regarding hermeneutics are not only ignored but are in all probability little known to the members of ASRS. I am confident that the members of ASRS (and ATS for that matter) are competent, even brilliant, theologians, but theology and the study of hermeneutics are two different things.

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If we interpret religious beliefs through the lenses of our brain then perhaps the reason may go deeper that just “not agreeing with each other” as there is emerging research data that brain structures, brain circuits and pathways differ from one individual to another and may serve as limiting factors as to what we can believe similar to sex and gender. And if the church is incapable of asking the right questions regarding homosexuality, then by extension it is also incapable of asking the right questions in regards to how the scriptures should be read and interpreted.

Below is a link to an interview with Andrew Newberg, MD, Director of Neurotheology, Jefferson Medical School on “Your Brain on Religion.”

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“The point of coming to agreement on a statement was to bear witness to church leaders and other Adventists with respect to sound principles for reading Scripture.”

The first step in hermeneutics is clarifying the purpose or interests of a document, its readers and authors. This sentence above does not really explain much to us, as it has no reference to any context, personnel, issues or concerns. Clearly a statement of a few hundred words such as the one produced must have mainly a symbolic value.

So I ask Prof Scriven, what really was the intention behind producing the “document” ?

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It seems that some persist in this foolish errand of trying to distinguish Christ from the written Word. Yet it was Christ Himself who declared, in His conflict with Satan in the wilderness, that man shall live " by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4).

If the Savior Himself was constrained to rely on the written Word in His struggle with the adversary, it is hardly a sustainable position that somehow Jesus is superior to the Bible.

Regarding the alleged distinction between Jesus and John the Baptist, this again comes without a solid inspired basis. Ellen White is clear in The Desire of Ages that John, like Jesus, went into the cities from time to time and mingled with the people (DA 102), that his life was not spent in monastic isolation despite his home in the wilderness.

The Christ of Scripture and the Christ fabricated by the postmodern “leave religion to follow Jesus” illusion, are not at all the same. Read through Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation, and very quickly one finds the credo of open-ended “non-judgmentalism” evaporating in the glare of our Lord’s rebuke of false doctrine and sinful practice. The apostle Paul writes of how Jesus was the One who guided the children of Israel through their wilderness wanderings, and was thus responsible both for their merciful guidance and the divine punishment inflicted on wrongdoers (I Cor. 10:1-11).

It is Jesus who, at the close of the book of Revelation, is shown smiting the nations with the sword coming out of His mouth at His second coming (Rev. 19:15)—a scene not exactly calculated to give postmodern freethinkers warm fuzzies inside!

In short, the Jesus of Scripture was subject to the written Word, and the blend of justice and mercy found throughout the Sacred Pages is reflected in the Bible’s collective portrait of the Savior.

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Even the working of the Holy Spirit upon the heart must be judged by scripture.

Jesus is the word made flesh.

All of scripture every jot and tittle is the record of the evidence upon which we based our faith. Contrary to popular opinion faith is not blind.

Jesus on the road to Emmaus did not use sign or miracles but lead the two disciples through the evidence of scripture following which their hearts burnt within them and their eyes were opened.

O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. (Luk 24:25) Remember Jesus said truly I say unto you till heaven and earth pass away one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.

We are not left in the dark as to these things, they are in the record of the evidence holy men of God wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. The word of God is living and active sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit…

It is written… Was how Jesus meet the devil, by the word of God anything else is sinking sand.

The Great controversy over the character and government of God is the larger context that connects all of scripture. Reading all of scripture through the context of the great controversy is one of the main contributions SDA can make to the gospel of God. Jesus Christ absolutely use scripture as evidence.

So, let me offer, for what it might be worth, a reason why declining to make Jesus determinative for the interpretation of Scripture actually makes sense as a way of honoring and taking seriously Scripture in its own right, despite overwhelming Protestant Christian…protestations, for lack of a better word.

I studied with a brilliant Old Testament scholar and professor at La Sierra University whose contention was that superimposing the life and teachings of Jesus on the text of the Hebrew Bible was both anachronistic and a kind of violence against the text.

An analogy that he didn’t use, but with which I suspect he would be comfortable, would be to say that making Jesus determinative for all of Scripture would be like making Martin King determinative for understanding Slavery and Jim Crow in America. One could superimpose King’s life and his speeches onto the Slavery - Jim Crow narrative, and say that one can only properly understand those events through the witness of Martin King. One could flatten all those stories into a larger narrative called the African American March Toward Freedom, or some such thing. But doing so would mute the voices of slaves and the voices of those who lived through Jim Crow, making them accessories to the story of Martin King–subservient, in a way. King, of course, was not present during the Slavery era, during the Jim Crow era. And while some might say that King’s life and his dream was, in a sense, the aim or the hope of the March Toward Freedom (insofar as that might even be considered an actual thing), each epoch really should be considered fully in its own right rather than in some wooden, flattened way.

Perhaps one way to take seriously the biblical witness would be to let each book in the biblical text, each person in the biblical narrative, each thought and word of each speaker in the pages of Scripture speak on their own behalf. To let each person and each story describe God through their own eyes and in their own voices, rather than woodenly superimposing some unifying principle onto all of them, and insisting that Slavery can only be properly understood through the lens of Martin King, as it were.

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It was the NT writers: the Gospels, Paul, and all the rest that superimposed Christ on the OT stories multiple times as fulfillment of OT prophecies. How can the NT be divorced from Christ’s life and meaning if we do not explain the NT’s constant reference to the Old?

I agree with the OT scholar that superimposing the life and teaching of Jesus on the text of the Hebrew Bible is both anachronistic and does violence to the text. Where are such scholars today?

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Elmer
"Your Brain on Religion" is an insightful discussion.
I would think that this topic provides information as to WHY some enjoy the Spectrum discussion on Rituals on Film.
And WHY some see Rituals on Film as perhaps in some way anti-SDA.
And were confused by Rohans Video on the site.
Anyway, thank you. Shared it on my Facebook as I have “friends” of various and no religion.

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I can’t tell you how frustrated I am with these rules that don’t allow us to actually discuss a subject in full. At least we should have one chance to defend our position.

Yeah sure, take it on down.


I’ve copied and pasted my comment to the Lounge discussion on this article, and I would be happy to continue the conversation there. -Jared Wright

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A complete failure to distinguish between the words that come from the mouth of God - very few indeed - and the words that have been orally replicated, written, edited, selected, edited, translated, and interpreted to make our Bible.

Again, the Bible of today did not exist in Jesus time. Instead there was a range of books of varying popularity that Jesus’s chronicler selected appropriate portions of to claim that He said.

EGW herself said she simply went to other materials of her day to get the details to flesh out her messages, and we know it was her assistants as well as her that did this copying. She is not an authoritative source for John’s activities.

Hmmm - I think it was the most detailed and literalistic interpreters of the Books of Moses that Jesus rebuked for their false doctrines.

You mean the Children of Israel didn’t have the words of God to guide them? How ever did they manage without the SoP to explain the meaning of the Canon to them?

Why not?

The entire NT was written after Jesus was dead. How could He possibly be subject to it? He is the subject OF it.

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The Old Testament tell us He is promised and is expected.
the Gospels tell us He arrives, ministerss And dies.
the epistles tell us He is risen as our Advocate
revelation tells us He reigns and will return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. tom Z

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Graeme,

Sorry to be slow. Thanksgiving and all that, plus I was trying to attend ASRS and later AAR/SBL meetings as well as write a bit about ASRS (which I find usually satisfying even when I disagree with what may be going on).

I dashed off the story, and so missed some clarifying detail. The background was a motion, passed right at the end of the 2015 General Conference Session, to look officially at “hermeneutics,” much as the leadership community looked at the ordination of women (TOSC) during the previous quinquennium. I believe the idea of the statement was to make a preemptivea gesture BEFORE the only option for scholars was to respond to some top-down initiative or draft, or some inadequate consensus statement. The worry is that official Adventism might turn to some more-fundamentalist-than-thou theory of biblical interpretation. The draft ASRS came to (but will revise) ends up in silence with respect to the authority of Christ. (A shame, even a betrayal, if you ask me.)

While I’m at this: Kevin, I invite you to consider one text: Hebrew 1:1-3. This is an unmistakable affirmation that the authority of Scripture subserves the authority of Christ. I know this last sentence itself raises questions that deserve our sustained attention. But the last sentence is still TRUE–unless Heb. 1:1-3 is false. (In this connection, also read Colossians 1 or Romans 1 or many passages in the Gospel of John, among others.)

Jared: You and your OT scholar/teacher are right: the “centrality of Christ” ought not to mean that we import the post-resurrection perspective into our reading of the OT. Rather, we should acknowledge the integrity of the OT in its own right, and then emphasize that understanding Jesus himself requires that we pay attention to HIS scripture, and his scripture ON ITS OWN TERMS. This scripture was, pretty much, what we call the OT.

Still, from the NT perspective, Jesus is Lord. Not Samuel, not the author of Ecclesiastes, not ANYONE else.

Chuck

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