Book Review: Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method

Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method, published by Eerdmans in late 2016, was written by John C. Peckham, an Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He has his doctorate and masters from Andrews University, and his undergraduate degree from Atlantic Union College in Lancaster, Massachusetts.

In the forward to Peckham’s book, Craig G. Bartholomew, the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, writes:

The issues involved in the canon debate are complex and multiple. At their heart, however as John shows in this book, they come down to where we locate final authority, whether in Scripture or some version of ‘the community.’”

The complex subject of what constitutes the Canon has been debated since the early centuries of the Christian era. Today, the debate takes on a scope unparalleled in Christian history, especially between the two prominent views of community versus intrinsic canon models.

In my opinion, the debate should have been settled with Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the Third Century when he defined the 27 Books (Writings) of the New Testament. In his Easter Letter of 367 he categorically wrote:

In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."

These writings were recognized by the early church fathers as the Canon in addition to the 39 books of the Old Testament. Their acceptance was based on the concept that the Holy Spirit had established the canon of these 66 Books, and there could be no addition to the Canon since Jesus Christ was the final revelation of God to His people, and thereby the Canon was closed.

On page 19 of Canonical Theology, Peckham writes, “I define the intrinsic canon as the corpus of writings commissioned by God to be the ‘rule’ or ‘standard’ of Christian faith and practice. Thus, the intrinsic canon refers to those writings that are intrinsically canonical by virtue of what the canon is as the result of divine action.”

In the book, he proceeds to defend his position and to contrast the intrinsic model against the communitarian model, which is where the community defines the canon and its applicability based on time and circumstance. For him, as it was with Athanasius, the canon is closed with the 66 Books as found in the Protestant Bible.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have both included additional Apocrypha-Deuterocanonical writings in their Bibles. These books, like First and Second Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, etc., are not viewed as intrinsically canonical in nature by most evangelical scholars.

This raises some serious questions for an individual who is seeking the true path of knowledge. How is a person to know what to do when so many voices are clamoring for his/her attention?

Peckham states:

. . . the canonical approach faces no difficulties in relation to the question regarding which community or tradition is adequate because the canonical approach denies that any community, tradition, or creed should operate as hermeneutically authoritative rule in biblical or theological interpretation. Moreover, the canonical approach maintains that each individual has a right to religious freedom and a duty to engage and interpret Scripture and theology in accordance with the individual’s own conscience. The question regarding which community of faith one should be a part of, then, is left to each individual’s decision. Everyone must ultimately choose which religious beliefs to accept (if any) and which community most closely allies with those beliefs. With a canonical approach, the question becomes which community of faith possesses a system that appears to best correspond to the canon, with internal consistency” (190).

Peckham addresses the Trinity Doctrine, which has stirred controversy in many circles. What is the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and can a definite answer be found in Scripture for this doctrine? It is a complex subject, which he examines based on the intrinsic model.

In addition, in the last chapter he examines the nature of divine love toward humans. He discusses five aspects of divine love: “the volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal” (253).

Canonical Theology concludes with the following statement:

One of my goals in this work has been to lay out a plausible and workable canonical approach to systematic theology, which can be practiced by others across the vast range of Christian communities who recognize the common canonical core and might engender dialogue via a common starting point and preliminary approach. Thus, while I do not expect this canonical theological method to be endorsed by all readers, I do hope that this treatment might stimulate thought and advance the conversation regarding the role of canon and community in theological method. In this regard, I hope this work illuminates some avenues toward continual retrieval and implementation of the guiding canonical principles, ‘To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn’ (Isa 8:20), and ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:16). As such, we might together proclaim along with the psalmist: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps. 119:105)” (259).

The brevity of this review does not render justice to this fine book. It would be a welcome addition to the collection of any serious student of theology.

G.D. Williams is recently retired after working in Adventist higher education for 30+ years. His pursuits include photography, genealogy, collecting antique books, and working on his old farmhouse.

Image Credit: Eerdmans Publishing

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I have often wondered why Paul’s epistles were included in the canon because :
He most emphatically and energetically endorsed SLAVERY with his pernicious pronouncement: SLAVES OBEY YOUR MASTERS.

Coming from the upper echelon of Jewish society, Paul no doubt had wealthy Sanhedrin friends who owned slaves, and this was a sop to his high end buddies.

Thereby, Paul gave cover to two millennia of slave owners and slave traders.
Even today, the slave trade is alive and well in LIBYA.

Did Paul,expect that teen age slave girls should “obey their masters” as they were being raped by them——a common occurrence?

Furthermore, Paul’s injunction WIVES SUBMIT YOURSELVES TO YOUR HUSBANDS, gave cover to countless generations of wife beaters and spousal abusers!

And his misogynist remarks are now splitting Adventism!

When we include two millennia of gays who suffered gay bashing, bullying and worse, because of Paul’s homophobic remarks, we can assert that Paul has caused more misery on this planet with his unfortunate remarks, than Hitler and Stalin combined .

At least those two despots only impacted their own generation.
Not two miserable millennia for slaves, abused wives, and persecuted gays.

So why is Paul in the canon of scripture ??

This strikes me as a good example of begging the question, or assuming one’s premise.

While I haven’t read the reviewed book, I would say, offhand, that circular reasoning is likely not the way out of the labyrinth we’re in.

This article by David Larson has always been a favorite of mine:

What Adventists Can Learn from John Wesley by David R. Larson

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Even though John Wesley never used the term, he is credited with a distinctive way of thinking about controversial issues called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

This term honors the way Wesley did his theological work as leader of the Methodist revivals and spiritual grandfather of Adventism.

It is a method that formulates Christian views and values by interweaving interpreted lines of evidence from four sources:

  • Scripture

  • tradition

  • reason

  • experience

Instead of basing his convictions on any one of these, Wesley interpreted and drew on evidence from all four.

I believe we Adventists should do the same.


Why then it is some in positions of influence if not power would include Ellen White as equal if not part of the canon.

Cassie makes a valid point, one which afflicts all efforts to make the canon “intrinsically authoritative” by investing the writings themselves with divine authority that the church simply “recognizes.” This is known as a presuppositional methodology; that is, you begin with the assumption that the writings are “inspired” in a way no other materials are inspired (the model of the prophets is assumed; i.e., the Holy Spirit “inspired” the thoughts and words intending them to be ‘the canon’) and only need to “recognize” that inspiration. The quote from Athanasius glosses over the fact that there was a vigorous debate and much disagreement for centuries over which writings should be in the canon. How does one find unanimous recognition of their “intrinsic authority” in that process?

As Peckham describes the process (assuming the book review is accurate), it was a strictly “spiritual” one with political issues either non-effective or non-existent. Historical research proves otherwise. The “miracle” here is that after all that, the church has found the resultant decision a workable blessing, and a reliable guide, for millennia. One can affirm the work of the Holy Spirit by faith and not infuse the text with a quality that only needed to be “recognized” or “seen” by the church fathers. Why can’t the Spirit function effectively to lead us into truth in spite of wrangles and disagreements?

The notion of “inspiration” which operates in this presuppositional methodology is not even true to Scripture itself. One cannot equate the efforts of Luke to interview those closest to Jesus in order to write an orderly account with any process in which the “thoughts” were passively received by a writer either in vision or in a state of spiritual receptivity that is “unique” to inspired writings. Not even Ellen White claimed to work that way all the time. It also leaves open the question why Paul could quote from the oral tradition (“God loves a cheerful giver”) or Jude from the Book of Enoch, neither passage of which is within the canon, and yet we give those materials the same authority.

Given all the issues, the most important factor is not the intrinsic authority of the texts because they are “inspired” and we recognize their divine origin, but that however they came to be, they are the materials which gave birth and nurture to the earliest Christians and have continued to this day. They are authoritative because the Church cannot go forward without them, even if parts of these writings are not up to the revelatory importance or power the gospels and/or Paul. They are the only recognized witness to God’s acts with Israel and to the message of Jesus which evokes our faith. For this reason, it is misleading to call the “canon” the Word of God as if they contain the “words” or even “thoughts” of God in some unalloyed fashion. Only Jesus is called the “Word” of God, and rightly so.

It is not that the church creates the canon and therefore has the ultimate right and responsibility to interpret it accurately and authoritatively (generally the Roman Catholic position), but that after centuries of prayer, discussion, disagreement, and a holy passion to however imperfectly decide which writings will guide the church determinatively going forward, the Spirit (we all believe) led them to this conclusion. With the advantage of hindsight, we can be grateful for that. It is also important to note that the people of God, under the guidance of the Spirit and assiduous study and research, with wrangling and disagreements, can center on the gospel message and love each other even if they do not all agree.

Much more could and should be said, but another book on this subject is unwarranted. I would recommend reading Dr, Alden Thompson’s writings on this subject if you want an alternative Adventist view, For those more theologically inclined, one should peruse Dr. Edward Vick’s book on the authority of Scripture published by Energion,


“For him, as it was with Athanasius, the canon is closed with the 66 Books as found in the Protestant Bible.”

Except that Athanasius’ OT canon included Baruch and did not include Esther.


Let me start by saying that this review is extremely limited and does not do justice to the book. I highly recommend reading the full volume as it is pivotal for Adventist theology and will influence Adventist scholarship for decades to come.

Peckham actually does not spend a lot of time defending the canon in the book. He argues that, in spite of all the debates over which books belong to the canon in the early church, today there is general agreement about the contents of the canon and those who disagree do accept the same 66 books but have several others to add. So, at least on the 66, there is consensus. The focus of Peckham’s book is rather on the inner logic of the canonical methodology.

Peckham looks at two competing ideas, intrinsic vs. communitarian. As an analogy imagine a basketball coach that observes all the students in a school playing the game and then selects a wining team by handpicking those students who show the most talent. The role of the coach in this situation is to recognize the skill and talent already present in the players. Instead, the coach might have chosen the students arbitrarily and then trained them into a winning team. The problem with the communitarian model is that the community is unlikely to choose as authoritative those texts which criticize its present condition and thus, the community loses the benefit of a prophetic voice that can stand in judgment over the community.

The problem with calling this a ‘presuppositional methodology’ is that all methodologies are presuppositional to some degree. Essentially, we’re dealing with different epistemic models each of which builds on distinct presuppositions and develops into a complete system of thought with its own strengths and weaknesses. In Christianity there are models that rely on an authority (the church, the holy spirit, prophets, scripture etc.) and non-authority models that attempt to create a rational basis for faith (ethics-ex. Kant, psychology- ex. Schleiermacher, history- ex. Barth, etc.). Again, each model has its pros and cons and, the less there is an expectation of authority, the more difficult it is for that model to compete with non-Christian or atheistic worldviews. Based on your comment I’m guessing you would probably fit into the neo-orthodox model which has had its share of criticism in academia.

But, regardless of which model one prefers, it should go without saying that the canonical model is the most accurate classification of Adventist theology. Other models can be found in Adventism, but the one that best resonates with the trajectory started by the pioneers and that best incorporates Adventist fundamental beliefs is definitely the canonical model. And, while this model is definitely open to criticism, the only honest criticism would be when an alternative epistemic model is clearly identified and the strengths and weaknesses of both are compared side by side.

(I should add this article for more details on the epistemic models

Note to Web Editor: Shall I respond at length here or in the Lounge?


Conversations like this one, between Jim and Mike, should be shared on this site, and not relegated to the Lounge. Appropriate judgement should be applied. Civil society might be messy, not in this case though, but must give open access to the diversity of voices it deserves.

It is the only safety valve we have against censorship and totalitarian control, which is an important topic in the SDA church today.


@JXLB, at the risk of opening a can of worms and fielding complaints on other articles, I’ll tentatively say “go for it.” Two reminders to you and @mikecmanea: 1) the rule of showing respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree still applies and 2) the “one comment” rule was a decision made by the Adventist Forum board of directors and not one Spectrum editors are at liberty to change. We have, however, made an exception on a very small number of recent book reviews due to their low risk of spiraling out of control into hostility and malice. So, bearing those caveats in mind, feel free to proceed. -WebEd


Thank you. Will get to it tomorrow morning. And will dialogue very respectfully.


Dear Mikecmanea:

I have carefully read both your response and the attachment you sent. At first I was tempted to write a dissertation on what I see as a “better way;” however, it became much too long and I was barely half-finished. So, always desirous of brevity, I have decided to respond to each major point with which I either have further questions or a disagreement. On the disagreements, see me as not speaking alone for Adventist thought on this issue.

1. “The inner logic of the canonical methodology.” You see Peckham offering a binary choice between two ideas: intrinsic (I) vs. communitarian © and use selecting a winning basketball team as an analogy. As a consequence, the C approach is “unlikely to choose authoritative texts which criticize its present condition and thus, the community loses the benefit of a prophetic voice that can stand in judgment over the community.”

I am puzzled by this. You seem to be suggesting that the Jewish and Christian communities would not canonize such writings if they were making the choice in a vacuum. They chose some materials and rejected others for criteria and that do not fully understand, though eyewitness accounts or secondary accounts sourced in eyewitnesses seemed to be at least one criterion. Your binary choice is a false one. The events that created and nurtured the community (I) authority? were recorded in manifold ways and those that seemed essential to the ongoing work of the Church under the Spirit became authoritative. Rather than “binary,” this was mutually reinforcing and cooperative. A better analogy, I think, would have been the process often used in library-building. One must choose between those books that clearly demonstrate lasting importance and those that do not, even if they address the same subjects. In the case of the church, “lasting” had far more significance that mere endurance. It had to do with the relevance of the writings to both the events behind them and to the future before the community.

  1. Presuppositional methodology: (PM) [quote=“mikecmanea, post:7, topic:14981”]

The problem with calling this a ‘presuppositional methodology’ is that all methodologies are presuppositional to some degree. Essentially, we’re dealing with different epistemic models each of which builds on distinct presuppositions and develops into a complete system of thought with its own strengths and weaknesses.

This phrase is problematic because it often refers to a methodology which assumes certain “givens” and then bases its conclusions on those givens. If one us restricting all Scriptural authority to a deductive argument (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”) and we must begin with that flat assertion suggesting that the canon as it is already existed in God’s planning and in the minds of the councils that debated it, that seems to me to fly in the face of the historical process which created the canon. We now know that these writings are a human and divine synthesis, but not always in the “prophetic model” of every idea coming somehow directly from God. What I am pleading for is an inductive methodology which begins by allowing the Bible to speak as it wishes to speak. Yes, that is a presupposition, but unless you are going to insist that there is almost no truly human contribution to these materials (in recording, editing, transmitting and translating) which is false on the face of it. I’m not in the Neo-Orthodox camp, but I am any camp that tries to justify an uncritical plenary or even verbal inspiration for every sentence in Scripture. That is indefensible and historic Adventist tried arduously to avoid inerrancy, but often flirted with plenary despite its weaknesses, even for Ellen White.

**If in this statement you are claiming that currently, given the presuppositions behind the MOBS document, that the canonical model described by Peckham is where we are? No doubt, but that is precisely the issue in question. If I were to rehearse for you the history of why we are where we are, you would see that where we are was not decided by wide open councils (as in the early Church) but by closed meetings with few participants who used the PM approach to reassure administrators that our doctrines are in jeopardy without it. Your added claim that this best resonates with the trajectory started by the pioneers ignores many decades of Scriptural and Ellen White research. The alternative epistemic model you allude to is what I outlined already in the “inductive” model.strong text

Christian Epistemic Models Attachment

This paper’s broad generalizations left me wondering about the argument you were mounting. You say that if we claim “high certainty” in our epistemic model, we must have an authority source to guarantee divine knowledge is communicated to us. One of the following three, you suggest, must be viewed as the ultimate authority: (the Church, the Scriptures, or the Holy Spirit. You say that if all three of these are rejected, Christian theology becomes arbitrary. One goes around similar to a potluck picking whatever their personal tastes dictate. This is why we have so many denominations, you assert. This is one of those “generalizations” that I found confusing and therefore unhelpful. The rest of your admittedly very brief summation covered centuries and movements at such a surface level that no one, including myself, who has studied most of these materials in a serious way, could take your summation at face value. You say that without an “authority source” in Scripture, a new grounding was needed (mostly what you called “liberal” approaches were cited as offering an alternative grounding). Liberal approaches, however, “lack a basis for making high certainty claims regarding God, who He is, what He is trying to accomplish and what He expects from us.”

strong textAs a result, in your attachment you argue that the Scriptural Epimodel (SE) is the only one that provides the high certainty needed by the church if it is to avoid needless doctrinal conflicts over interpretation (yet numerous Protestant churches which accept this model do not agree). You object to any model that suggests that the "books of the Bible are multiple distinct sources which rely on some other authority to decipher the truth from this collection of ‘conflicting’ revelations. The SE "cannot follow this approach since, in this model, there is no higher authority between conflicting parts of the Bible. The model must therefore assume that all these unique parts of the Bible were somehow nonetheless orchestrated by God to paint one distinct picture. Just like a mosaic where different shapes of different colors come together to form a single portrait, so the Scripture must be seen as one story told by a collection of authors under the guidance of the principal Author."strong text

There is a lot here which needs to be clarified. You seem to conflate the “high certainty” from an epistemic model which is a rational, deductive argument, with the high certainty that comes from faith in the Bible. How “high” are we talking about? Is it just below “complete” or “absolute?” No serious believer would argue that faith in the divine origin of every thought or word in the Bible by some supernatural process is justified on rational grounds. No philosopher or theologian would ever argue that they have a model providing certainty for what God has revealed to us that comes from anything other than a leap or commitment to believe, even if one that respects relevant evidence. Furthermore, the notion that 'conflicting" (I prefer various which do not necessarily conflict in ways that would jeopardize the persuasive clarity of the Biblical story) books cannot rely on some other authority to determine what they mean. One must assume that there are many authors or writers, but one Author.

Does not every believer accept the Biblical story as a whole, even if a believer questions why there are historical inaccuracies in the Bible? If I told you the story of my life, it would be accurate in all the essential element, but not so in details or even understanding the meaning of those events. If the essential element of the resurrection accounts is that Jesus is alive, why bother about the textual mistakes? And why assume that such mistakes mean God failed in his effort to provide a story with high certainty? Your concluding assertion that the SE is the only way to claim that Scripture is the ultimate authority suffers from your passion to preserve Adventism in its current form at the expense of being honest about Scripture, I fear. One could quibble over the language: “ultimate” or “final” or “preeminent.” This allows solid research, and even the findings of science, to have a “say” which deserves a hearing as we read the Bible. Your model seems to deny that possibility, which may preserve the view that under no circumstances may any text or Biblical idea be challenged since no authority on earth is higher. That would seem to leech the Scripture from any threatening error, but at what cost? Scripture is a divine-human achievement which we, by faith, accept as authoritative for faith and practice as we follow Jesus. Why can we not honestly face and grapple with the human elements in Scripture, including its mistakes, weaknesses and historical confusions, and still affirm its authority in what truly matters to the church?

strong textNo doubt Peckham has read the evangelical books on canon which refuse to support a too divinely-controlled Scripture in all its particulars, as opposed to a guided process over many centuries through an enormous variety of people earnestly seeking the will of God who may or may not have received a direct revelation of the thoughts or words they penned.strong text


Thank you for your comment.

Let me start with some housekeeping items:

  1. First, I am going to stop speaking on behalf of Dr. Peckham or his book since I don’t want to misrepresent him in some way and become the reason why people choose not to read the book. I’ve already said that I consider this book essential reading for anyone interested in Adventist theology, so I’m gonna leave it at that.

  2. Regarding my attached article, yes, it is essentially an attempt to summarize 3 millennia of Judeo-Christian history in short enough a space that someone with a modern-day attention span might possibly be willing to read it. None the less, it is precisely because it manages to organize enormous amounts of data into a few manageable categories that I believe it to be very useful to furthering the conversation.

  3. That said, your synopsis/rephrasing of the things I’ve written, either in the attachment or above, sounded to me like something very different than what I actually intended to say. There is definitely a breakdown in communication that we will have to find a way to resolve if this conversation has any hope of making progress. As of now, the best I can do is to try to present the ideas from a slightly different angle, hoping that this will clarify things.

I will arrange things by letter in a logical sequence so that, if you disagree with something in A, we should resolve that before moving on to B.

A. I want to start by picturing a scenario where God doesn’t exist. Let’s assume for a second that modern atheists are correct and that reality as we know it is the product of natural causes.

Under this scenario, the only means at our disposal for learning about the nature of this reality are our reason and our senses. We can use our senses to study our surroundings and our reason to process what we’ve discovered. Our senses however are limited and prone to error (think of a stick that looks bent when submerged in water). Things that are too big, too small, too far away, happen too fast or too slow, have occurred in the distant past or occur randomly/sporadically and are therefore difficult to reproduce, are all difficult for us to study.

Our reason does allow us to go beyond the reach of our senses via imagination, but to do so it relies on presuppositions that cannot always be verified. So we might be able to say that IF presupposition X is correct, certain conclusions follow and, if presupposition Y, another set of conclusions, but we generally can’t verify either X or Y. The most we can do is hope that technology will improve enough for us to verify those presuppositions someday.

That of course only applies to material reality. If there is something beyond the material, a metaphysical reality, this would be entirely outside of our reach. Again, we could guess possible scenarios, but we would have no way to differentiate between them.

Thus, under a god-less scenario, access to knowledge would be limited and therefore, the only reasonable position for anyone to take would be that of an agnostic. This can be a sort of epistemic baseline in relation to which we can evaluate our claims to knowledge.

B. If a God does exist however, we are no longer alone in our quest for knowledge. The possibility exists that this God will provide additional guidance beyond what we can gather on our own.

Since we’re all theists here, I will skip over the question of whether God exists. We can take that point for granted and jump to the next question of how we can know which version of God and reality (as expressed by different religions or denominations) is the correct one.

So again, for the sake of saving time, I am raising the epistemic baseline from pure agnosticism to a sort of theistic agnosticism. How do we move beyond basic belief in God? As mentioned in point A, this would only be possible if God intervenes and somehow provides us with information we would not be able to acquire on our own.

Thus, anyone claiming that Christianity is superior to other worldviews is also claiming access to divinely provided knowledge.

C. Divinely provided knowledge implies a method by which this knowledge is communicated to us initially and then how it is preserved for future generations. And, it implies that there must also exist some trust factor or credential helping us to discern between competing claims. Otherwise, if we have no way to tell which of the claims is true, we’re back at the baseline.

In Christianity, as explained in my other article, there are several hypotheses regarding how Christian knowledge is formed and preserved:

  1. God revealed certain things in antiquity and that knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next: Tradition.

  2. God selected/ordained leaders tasked with preserving that knowledge: the Magisterium.

  3. God gives every believer the Holy Spirit which then guides the individual to a correct understanding.

  4. God has contemporary prophets tasked with sorting between truth and error.

  5. God has recorded His message in a Book.

And, a few others.

All these hypotheses make use of Scripture and the other elements in some form, but the question is which element calibrates the others. Moreover, all these hypotheses are built on a starting assumption regarding how God communicates; i.e. they’re all presuppositional to begin with and then supporters attempt to verify the model once developed.

So my question for you is how you build your knowledge beyond a basic belief in God? What element do you use to calibrate the others?

D. Regarding inerrancy, I want to use an analogy.

Imagine a very complicated piece of IKEA furniture that comes with a set of written instructions (just text; no pictures).

We can set up controls at both ends of the spectrum. Given a perfect set of instructions, there’s always some percentage of people who won’t be able to build the unit because, let’s face it, some people can’t build anything. At the other extreme, there’s some percentage of people that will manage to build the unit even without any instructions because they just can. In this experiment we will focus on everyone else.

Let’s imagine then that we take the instructions and run them through a computer program that generates varying degrees of random errors: replaces letters, words, sentences etc.

Most people will be able to accommodate some degree of error and still manage to build the unit. There comes a point however, if sufficient errors are introduced, that a significant number of people will no longer be able to complete the task.

Adventists have never been inerrantists; we have never advocated a form of divine dictation or verbal inspiration. To go with the analogy, we have never expected the instructions to be perfect. But we expected them to be good enough for people to still be able to build the unit.

Whenever someone claims that the degree of error in Scripture is higher than that, they are left with only two options:

  1. To choose another element (tradition, magisterium, contemporary prophet etc.) to make sense of Scripture. In this case the question is, do we have good reason to trust this other element?

  2. To distrust all these elements, in which case we must ask if they have really moved beyond the theistic agnosticism baseline?

And this is the problem with criticism of canonical theology. It is always done in a vacuum; it never takes into account the problems with whatever alternative system the critics are proposing.

1 Like

Thank you for responding so thoughtfully and organizing your key issues. I will try to do the same.

A. When you say our senses are limited and prone to error, yes and no. Our senses are responsible for our mastery of the natural world, even if not perfect. And yes, there are limits to what we can “see” or “hear” directly, but so much of our knowledge comes from “inference” (the physics behind the size of the universe, its rate of expansion, relativity (which has been confirmed experimentally) and so on. Your statement seems to imply that most of our sensory is subject to error.

Our “imagination” permits reason to go beyond the reach of our senses, but depends on presuppositions that cannot always be verified. True, but one of the presuppositions is that we can be wrong and only further study and experimentation will correct us. The presupposition is that there is an answer somewhere and somehow (material reality). Where we reach our limit is what is behind what we sense since it is not observable? That too can be an “inferred” but not with absolute certainty, just rational probability. Many believe in a “metaphysical” reality for rational reasons, such as something must be self-existent to account for contingent existence. Revelation per se does not enter into that dispute since, in Scripture, the basic assumption from the first verse is that God exists and that God is personal. That is why I think you are mistaken to conclude that if if one depends only on the sensory universe one is automatically condemned to agnosticism.

B. If a God does exist however, we are no longer alone in our quest for knowledge. The possibility exists that this God will provide additional guidance beyond what we can gather on our own.

This is one way to reason to revelation; however, I would argue that it is openness to truth even in religious claims that leads to faith that God has revealed himself. The guidance of God is what is in some dispute here. The information God provides us includes what? Scientific information? Pre-historical information? Ethical and moral information that has not connection to ancient cultures?

Finally, you ask: What other method can we use to interpret or calibrate Scripture? Specific examples are needed. May I use modern science? If so, am I undercutting the Bible’s authority or undercutting how it’s been interpreted in an area that the ancient world could not possibly have know about, or more to the point, in a matter so foreign to their world-view and thinking that they would have thought the information was crazy?

In any event, thank you for a stimulating conversation, one which is truly critical to the future of Adventism.


A1 (sensory limitations) - I more or less agree with your first paragraph under A. I was alluding to the old discussion about how we don’t see things as they are in themselves (we see the reflection of light on objects etc.). I think it’s important in a discussion on epistemology to set realistic expectations regarding the capacity of our reason and our senses to perceive even material reality.

Yes, we can extend the limits of our senses with technology and then draw inferences even beyond those limits, in as much as the data we’re building on is accurate.

A2 - (contingent existence) Again, because this is not a theism-atheism debate, I don’t think its useful to spend a lot of time on the existence of God (we can take that for granted). But to be fair, today’s theoretical physicists don’t put much stock in the Cosmological Argument and see a purely naturalistic explanation for existence as perfectly plausible. So in this general context, since there isn’t a universally accepted rationale for the necessity of God, agnosticism has to be the default starting point.

But since in this context God’s existence isn’t in question, I moved that baseline to a theistic agnosticism: basically, God exists but we don’t know anything beyond that. (Let’s call this the TA Baseline)

(1) Now the first point I am making here is that using reason/science (sensory data) alone, we have no way of moving beyond the TA Baseline. Science or empirical inquiry by definition is limited to material reality. Rational inquiry can go beyond that but only in the form of guesses. It can propose possible hypotheses regarding metaphysics and can only eliminate some of those hypotheses if they lead to logical contradictions. This still leaves us with numerous possibilities and no means of choosing between them.

Christian theology however has been marked by the influence of rationally derived systems (guesses). Plato drew certain inferences from observable reality, extrapolated them to metaphysical reality,and then his system influenced Christian theology for the first millennium. Aquinas drew another set of inferences, developed natural theology and influenced Christianity for centuries to come. Even in modern times, someone like Barth could at the same time reject Natural Theology on the grounds that God is wholly other but then use that presupposition to draw inferences that are equally untestable just as all the others.

So again, if we can learn anything from several millennia of philosophy/theology, it should be that we cannot move beyond the TA Baseline using reason/science alone. Hence, if we claim to believe anything more than just basic theism we have to postulate some form of divine revelation.

Do you agree with this point, since everything else I am saying depends on this point?

(2) If we can agree that reason/science cannot take us beyond the TA Baseline and that Revelation is necessary, the next question is which is God’s primary means of communication?

So my second point here is that God can communicate with us through multiple means but, since at times these contradict each other, we have to choose one to be the primary source, the one we use to judge or calibrate all the others. And, when we examine the Christian community as a whole, we can identify multiple such Primary Sources that different groups use.

So to be able to have a meaningful conversation, we need to

a. Clarify what we consider that primary source of revelation to be,
b. Provide evidence in support of this source (otherwise our claim is fideistic and no better than belief in the Koran or the Book of Mormon), and,
c. Figure out what the implications are of using that particular primary source.

(again, as explained, science cannot be that primary source but it can be used to check those aspects of the primary source that deal with material reality)

I don’t care about the stock theoretical physicists put in the Cosmological Argument. It is technically a cosmogonical argument or better, an insistence that existence cannot rationally be self-explanatory. There is either a first cause (Aristotle) or “something” is self-existent but what? Nothing we have yet discovered in the universe. This makes the reality of God a rational possibility, which is important for thoughtful people who do not accept that the notion even makes sense.[quote=“mikecmanea, post:16, topic:14981”]
So again, if we can learn anything from several millennia of philosophy/theology, it should be that we cannot move beyond the TA Baseline using reason/science alone. Hence, if we claim to believe anything more than just basic theism we have to postulate some form of divine revelation.

Granted, this is obvious. Yes, posit some revelation.

How do we arrive at the “primary” revelation? You seem to say that we must assume it, which, theoretically makes sense. However, even our assumptions are based on something–an experience, an impression, whatever. That seems to be different for different people.

Thanks James,

Before I write anymore I want to make sure I’m not imposing on Spectrum’s hospitality or your time. As far as I am concerned this conversation is useful, especially since it is incredibly hard to find people that have something to say on the subject. But it can get drawn out as well. I generally don’t have the time to comment more than once a week consistently and don’t mind waiting for responses for a month or more if needed. So let me know what your thoughts are before I respond.


The Bible, Ellen White, and Church History might not be as neat and clean as we might wish them to be. They often seem to “mock the longings of the sin-sick soul.” Adventism (and all religious-organizations) desire solutions to their problems, and much more, but the real story of Earth and Humanity might be more difficult to deal with than even the best and brightest in Ivy-League Universities are capable of properly researching. Adventism’s solutions seem to reside in carefully picking and choosing. But really, Pluralistic-Education and Making-Money often seem to be much more important than Honest and Thorough Biblical-Research in the Context of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Notice how few comments have been made regarding the ‘Untold Story of the SDA Bible Commentary’ articles.

I’ve come very close to reading Volume Four (Isaiah to Malachi) of the SDA Bible Commentary, straight-through, over and over, year after year, just to see where this leads. BTW, what is the definitive Intertestamental Old-Testament Commentary?? Why isn’t the New-Testament essentially an Old-Testament Commentary?? Should the Five-Solas somehow apply to the New-Testament?? Many have found Peale appalling and Paul appealing, but Luther didn’t think Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation should’ve been included in the Canonical-Scriptures. Over the last few years, I’ve become painfully aware of severe criticism of the Pauline-Epistles (genuine and otherwise). I’ve attempted to remain responsibly-neutral, but just for conversations-sake, if we remove the 13 letters attributed to Paul, and the 4 books Luther didn’t approve of, we are left with 10 NT books. Modern scholars have raised serious issues regarding the Historicity of the first five NT books, so perhaps they should go too!! This would leave us with five short apostolic letters!! Upon This Rock?? Consider the following Minimal-List: Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Daniel, Luke, Acts, 1&2 Corinthians, Hebrews, James, John, and Revelation. Upon THIS Rock??

A helpful overview of complex questions raised by the canonical approach, from its early days as an interpretive method: