Christ and the Conflict of Interpretations: Hermeneutics Transfigured


In his telling of the history of Adventism, George Knight divides the phases of Adventism’s development into three distinct stages, centering around three distinct questions. The pressing question for most of the pioneers of the de­nomination was “What is Adventist in Adventism?” The emphasis during the formative years of 1844–1885 was on the unique teachings that set Adventism apart from other denominations—the Sabbath, Sanctification, the Spirit of Prophecy, State of the Dead, and the Second Coming. This fifty-year focus on doctrinal distinctives, however, led to sectarian tendencies, and the following phase of development served as a corrective, centering around the question of “What is Christian in Adventism?” Adventists during this time, 1886–1919, (re-)discovered the significance of the apostle Paul and the doctrine of justification by faith. This was followed by a third phase of development, 1919–1950, centered around a third question—“What is fundamental in Adventism?” Here Adventists grappled (and continue to grapple) with a host of contemporary issues, as do other denominations trying to find their way in the modern world: issues regarding discoveries in science, the role of women, and sexuality. Today, since 1950, Knight writes, all three of these ques­tions are on the table for Adventists and there is confu­sion and disagreement about which of these questions is the most fundamental to Adventist identity—the beliefs that make them unique as a people, the beliefs they share with other Christians, or their beliefs about important is­sues being debated in society.1

Knight’s analysis clarifies the central theological con­cerns that have shaped the way many Adventists study the Bible and illustrate the more fundamental hermeneu­tical insight that what an individual or community takes from the Bible to teach, what they derive from the Bible, is largely determined by the questions and concerns they bring to the text. In what follows, I will be suggesting an alternate path of inquiry, one I take to be a more fruitful and faithful one, guided by a different question.

Why the Conflict of Interpretations?

Why do conflicts of interpretation happen between well-meaning people looking at the same text? Simply put, as Hans-Georg Gadamer points out, all textual in­terpretation is shaped by the pre-judgements and expec­tations readers bring to a given text. And, because the meaning of a text is co-determined by the text and reader, a degree of plurality of legitimate meanings can­not be eliminated, even with careful attention and scholarship.

“Not just occasionally, but always,” Gadamer argues, “the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.”2 Once it is “in the wild,” as they say, the meaning of a text is no longer under the control of the author, because readers are now involved. Because humans are finite and historical beings, living in various places and times, they will ap­proach texts with different prejudices which can be modified, but never entirely eliminated.3 Thus, while not every interpretation is a valid one, an irreducible plurality of possible mean­ings still remains; one can narrow, but never eliminate the hermeneutical circle.

But beyond the subjectivity of the reader, which forms both the condition and limit for any kind of intelligible experience, is the di­verse nature of Christian Scripture itself. The Bible is actually a collection of many texts, writ­ten and compiled over many years. This results in, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “a polyphonic lan­guage sustained by [a] circularity of…forms.”4 The Bible speaks in many voices about God, ad­dressing different people in different contexts, and what these voices claim is often in tension, if not conflict, with each other, regarding the nature of God’s will. And this tension exists, not just between the two major divisions of the Bi­ble—the first and second testaments—but within them as well.

Take, for example, the shifting standards for membership into the community of God’s people. Walter Brueggemann draws our atten­tion to two texts: Deuteronomy 23:1–8 and Isaiah 56:3–8.

Deuteronomy 23:1–8 1 No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the lord. 2 No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the lord, not even in the tenth gen­eration. 3 No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the lord, not even in the tenth gener­ation. 6 Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Isaiah 56:3–8 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the lord say, “The lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name bet­ter than sons and daughter.

Deuteronomy, the earlier text, sets out the standard for membership into the Israelite com­munity, and the liturgical acts central to the life of that community, along lines of reproductive capacity and proper bloodlines. Isaiah, how­ever, according to Brueggemann “sets out to contradict and overthrow the ancient rules of Moses . . . by asserting a principle of inclusive­ness against that of ancient exclusivism.”5 In Isaiah, God goes on to promise foreigners “joy in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 6:7). Their sacri­fices will be accepted in the temple. “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” God declares.

“This is an ancient text that corrects an even more ancient text,” Brueggeman observes.6 The tension between these texts illustrate a wider, basic tension in the Old Testament, between the priestly and prophetic traditions. The priestly tradition conceives of holiness in terms of cultic purity. The prophetic tradition places the con­cern for justice, and more specifically protective justice for the most vulnerable of society, along­side that of purity.7 Some of the later prophets argue that justice supersedes purity. Micah, for example, insists that God does not want sacrifices at all, preferring acts of justice and mercy (Micah 6:6–8).

One could point out similar tensions in the New Testament. Again, one encounters a diver­sity of literary genres—parables, narratives, let­ters, visions, etc.—that seem to offer, at times, conflicting normative guidance. For example, Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, seems to recom­mend a renunciation of possession. “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). Com­pare this with what Paul says to the believers in Corinth (2 Corinthians 8:14), as he appeals for his collection for the church in Jerusalem. Here the recommendation is generosity, rather than renunciation.8 Another example is the believer’s relationship to the state. Romans 13—“They are God’s servants . . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (vs. 4–5) and Rev­elation 13—“And I saw a beast coming out of the sea . . .” (vs. 1)—do not say the same thing. These are, as Richard Hays points out, “radi­cally different assessments of the relation of the Christian community to the Roman Empire.”9

The diversity in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Old Testament with the New Testament is a major source for the diversi­ty of interpretations about the Bible. Combined with the diversity of readers located in many times and places, conflicts of interpretations are inevitable. Diverse communities (and diverse individuals who comprise those communities) read diverse texts with a diversity of questions and expectations, facing diverse circumstances; hence, there is an inescapable diversity of inter­pretations about a single book.

Transfiguring the Conflict of Interpretations

What should one do in the face of this inev­itable conflict of interpretations? A story found in all three of the gospels and, arguably, allud­ed to in John—the Transfiguration—provides some suggestive hermeneutical insights.10 The Markean version, most likely the earliest ver­sion of the story, provides the relevant details with its typical concision.

The message of the story, found in Mark 9:2–8, is enigmatic. Jesus takes His inner cir­cle of students—Peter, James, and John—up onto a mountain top. There, Jesus’ appearance changes. “He was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” Mark recounts (vs. 2, 3). Two figures appear, identified as Elijah and Moses, and talk with Jesus. The disciples are terrified and one of them, Peter, proposes to build three shelters. Then a cloud appears and a voice speaks from the cloud identifying Jesus and issuing a com­mand—“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him” (vs. 7). Suddenly, the disciples look around and they stand alone on the mountain with Jesus. “They no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus” (vs. 8).

The point of the passage emerges when read in light of the stories that immediately precede it and also the Old Testament passages it refer­ences and echoes. Two stories come before this one. The first is one of Jesus questioning His disciples in light of His spreading popularity. “Who do you say I am,” he asks (Mark 8:29). To which, Peter responds, evidently correct­ly, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). This is followed by a story of Peter’s response to Jesus as he begins to speak of His coming suffering and death. This, understandably, causes some consternation with the disciples. Peter takes Je­sus aside and rebukes him (Mark 8:32). Jesus in turn, rebukes Peter, calling him Satan and de­claring that His followers must deny themselves and take up their crosses (Mark 9:34). The wid­er narrative context for the Transfiguration sto­ry, in other words, is one where the disciples, with Peter representing them, are confused about Jesus’ identity and mission.

The story also alludes to numerous figures, passages, and images from the Old Testament. Moses and Elijah, the figures who speak with Jesus, simply put, are two of the greatest fig­ures in the Old Testament. Moses is the leader who led the nation of Israel out of slavery from Egypt. He is the giver of the Law and was re­garded as the author of the Pentateuch. Moses’ burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:5–8) leading to the idea that he had been taken up by God.11 Elijah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. At the end of his life, Eli­jah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1–11).

Interestingly, both men had their own moun­taintop encounters with God—Sinai and Car­mel. Together, they represent the greatest leaders in the Old Testament. And this helps explain Peter’s confused suggestion (other than sheer fear, as Mark surmises). Peter wants to keep the conversation before him going as long as possible. He is amazed at the company Jesus keeps. As one commentator puts it, “The offer to build three tabernacles—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah—would pre­sumably encourage the stunning consultation to continue indefinitely.”12

Peter seems to either think that Jesus is as great as Moses and Elijah or that he derives His great­ness from His relationship with Moses and Eli­jah. This confusion is addressed by the descrip­tion of Jesus’ appearance and the voice from the cloud. When it comes to Jesus’ appearance, two passages from the Old Testament provide some relevant background. Exodus 34:30 describes Moses appearance after he had been with God on Mt. Sinai—“His face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.” In another pas­sage, Daniel 7:9, Daniel describes a vision, writ­ing, “As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool.” Jesus’ appearance, where His clothes become a “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” echo these passages, indicating the presence of the divine. Somehow God is with and in Jesus.

The visual cues are accompanied by an audi­tory declaration and command. First, the text indicates that clouds appear. In the Old Testa­ment, clouds are an indication of God’s pres­ence and glory. For example, Exodus 19:16 tells us that a cloud covered the mountain where God gave the Ten Commandments—“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning cloud over the mountain … Everyone in the camp trembled.” When it comes to the voice at His baptism, recounted at the very be­ginning of Mark’s gospel (1:11), only Jesus (and the readers) hear the voice declaring Jesus to be “My son.” Now, the three disciples also hear the heavenly voice attesting to this relationship.

This voice gives very concise instructions. There is only one command: “Listen to Him” (Mark 9:7). The verb ἀκούετε is a present im­perative, implying continuing action. “Keep on listening to Him” or “Continue to listen to Him,” the translation could go. (Interestingly, Mark’s ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ seems to echo Deuteron­omy 18:15, where Moses predicts the coming of another prophet like himself and instructs the Israelites to listen to Him—αὐτοῦ ἀκούσεσθε.13) What happens next makes the point clear. Mo­ses and Elijah disappear. The sudden disappear­ance of the cloud and Elijah and Moses underscores the point that the disciples are to look to Jesus to be their teacher. The heavenly voice implies that Peter’s request to build the taberna­cles was misguided, because he and his fellow disciples are to listen, ultimately, to God’s Son. To drive home the point, Mark adds a redun­dant point of emphasis: “they no longer saw anyone, but only Jesus with them” (Mark 9:8).

“Listen to Jesus. Keep listening to Him.” The same point communicated to Jesus’ original stu­dents applies to the early Christians hearing this story—Mark’s original audience. In a world of conflicting voices, and at times, when Jesus’ teachings seem confusing, and at times when the way looks dark, they, too, are to continue looking to and listening to Jesus, over every other voice. This same point applies to pro­fessed followers of Jesus in every succeeding generation, in all times and places, including to­day. Taking the message of the Transfiguration seriously would transform the way Christians in the twenty-first-century deal with the polyph­ony of voices within Scripture and conflicts of interpretation about Scripture.

Like Peter, many of Jesus’ students today face the temptation of a flat hermeneutic, where the voice of Jesus becomes one of the many voices of Scripture, rather than the authoritative voice of Scripture. Jesus’ teachings are lined up with all the teachings of the Bible, systematized, and His voice competes amongst many other voices for attention.

His voice, at times, is muffled and interpreted through other voices; perhaps, if not by Mo­ses and Elijah’s voices, by voices that follow Him. The apostle Paul, for example, might be­come the ultimate theological authority. “Many Christians in our day treat the gospels as the optional chips and dip at the beginning of the meal…” N. T. Wright observes, “there’s some nice stuff to crunch there, but then you go and sit at the table and have the red meat of Pauline theology. That’s where we’re all headed.”14 We could call this a reversed hermeneutic, where Jesus’ teachings are interpreted through some other lens.15 In contrast, with a transfigured hermeneutic, Jesus is the ultimate authority—Jesus’ voice, his teachings, take obvious and intentional priority over all other voices. Jesus receives hermeneuti­cal priority over the rest of Scripture.

The same point is made in the opening lines of the epistle to the Hebrews:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the uni­verse. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his pow­erful word (Hebrews 1:1–3).

The opening of the letter sets up a theme to be repeated throughout the rest of the letter—the superiority of Jesus to other revelations, powers, and ministrations. Addressing a community un­der severe persecution, the writer unleashes his rhetorical energies to persuade his audience to stay committed to their relatively new faith and not to return to former ways. This bold opening affirmation of who Jesus is, and His relation to other revelations, makes a clear point with pro­found hermeneutical implications—what Jesus reveals is superior and singular when compared to other previous revelations. All revelations may be inspired by God, but not all revelations are equal before God, including other revelations recorded in the Bible.16

Jesus and the Conflict of Interpretations

So how, exactly, does looking to Jesus help us deal with the conflict of interpretations within and about the Bible? We should remem­ber that Jesus was a teacher of Scripture, who, amongst other things, taught His students how to interpret Scripture. Christians, of course, af­firm Jesus as being more than a teacher, but He was at least that and anyone calling themselves his students should treat Him accordingly, as their rabbi.

This would entail, as it did in second-centu­ry Palestine in Jesus’ day, the serious attempt to learn their mentor’s teachings.17 Students would commit years to learning the teachings of their rabbi and committing them to memory. They endeavored to live out these teachings in their day-to-day lives. They would take notes as their rabbi debated other rabbis. By doing all this, they were learning a new skill—how to think like their rabbi and respond to new situations unaddressed by him in ways that were faithful to him. They would read sacred texts, new and old, like him.18 Jesus’ promise to His students, then and now, is that, once trained, they will be “like a householder who brings forth out of his storehouse treasure that is new and [treasure that is] old [the fresh as well as the familiar]” (Matthew 13:52).19

Glen Stassen and David Gushee, in their study of the Sermon on the Mount, provide an insightful summary of the interpretive princi­ples that Jesus used to interpret Torah.20 First, they note, Jesus “understood the Law as an ex­pression of God’s grace, calling for a faithful re­sponse.” Jesus loved His Bible and had the high­est respect for it. (Jesus, I think, would respond as any teacher would today when students ask what part of a given reading assignment is real­ly important—“All of it.”) He clearly states that His teachings do not detract from anything the Torah teaches, but clarifies its true meaning (Matthew 5:17). Jesus, like the other rabbis of His day, viewed the Law as a gift from God. God had chosen to give it to them. This was abundant grace.

Secondly, with this said, certain teachings of the Bible were clearly more significant to Jesus than others. As Stassen and Gushee put it, Jesus “placed more emphasis on the moral than on the cultic aspects of the Law.”21 Take, for exam­ple, Jesus’ teaching about neighbor love, which is drawn from Leviticus 19:18. If you look it up, it is actually a secondary clause to a larger teaching prohibiting revenge—“Do not seek re­venge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

What is even more striking are the instruc­tions in the verse that immediately follows it: “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” The rationale or the significance for these latter teaching is unclear; perhaps they were self-evi­dent to those living in an ancient agrarian soci­ety. Commentators note that Leviticus 19 has, as a whole, no clear organizing thread. Rather it is a loose association of ideas. In many ways, it is a microcosm of the Bible, as a whole, or the way it seems to many people trying to make sense of it. The phrase “love your neighbor as yourself,” in other words, is one easy to over­look; it is surrounded by all kinds of other in­struction. Yet Jesus homes in on this one phrase and makes it central to His teaching. All laws are not created equal, it turns out.

Thirdly, and this relates to the second princi­ple, Jesus “had a prophetic rather than a legal­istic understanding of righteousness; true righ­teousness consisted of deeds of love, mercy and justice, especially to the most vulnerable.”22 This returns us to the tension between the priestly and prophetic traditions in the Old Testament. It would be inaccurate to say that priests did not care about justice and that prophets did not care about ritual; but they seemed to focus on or emphasize one as being important to ful­filling God’s will. How is one faithful to both these traditions when they come into conflict? Which should be prioritized over the other? Jesus clearly sides with the prophets. As Rich­ard Bauckman points out, “Jesus does not reject the rules for priestly purity, but he downgrades them. Weightier considerations take prece­dence.”23 This is clear in Jesus’ commentary on the punctilious payment of tithe by religious leaders. Jesus admonishes them for neglecting “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). This is why Jesus stretched His reading of Scripture to include as many people as possible. One’s neighbors weren’t just faithful Jews; they in­cluded enemies, Samaritans, women, children, the demon-possessed, the imprisoned, tax-col­lectors, widows, and the poor.

Lastly, Jesus “placed emphasis on the root causes of behavior, i.e. the heart or character.”24 Take His teaching on the proper washing of hands and the eating of food: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15). He goes on to ex­plain to His students, who are just as mystified by His dismissive declaration as the religious leaders He is addressing, “‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)”25 (How one interprets this paren­thetical comment says a lot about which of the three hermeneutics options that have been laid out—flat, reversed, or transfigured—they are opting for.)

Jesus continues, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” In this, and other, engagements with the scholars of His day, Je­sus had the ability to engage in sophisticated and legal moral casuistry. But that wasn’t His focus like other teachers. Rather than more head knowledge, His teachings were crafted to identify, challenge, and transform matters of the heart.

Adventism and the Conflict of Interpretations

Jesus appreciated all of Scripture, but read it pro­phetically, focusing on how people treat others, especially those on the margins of society, and seeking to transform the character of His listen­ers. Early on, at its inception, Christianity was clearly a movement based on the teachings of Jesus. The New Testament had not been canon­ized, so believers were reliant on the teaching of the apostles, who, as students of Jesus, in­terpreted the Scriptures they did have, the Old Testament, like Jesus—prophetically, ethically, and transformatively. But something shifted as the growing community of Jesus’ students encountered competing philosophical and re­ligious groups. Christianity became creedal, more and more about the beliefs one had about Jesus than living one’s life inspired by the teach­ings of Jesus.26

The number of doctrines that defined what it meant to be a Christian grew like a patch of unruly weeds. In addition to beliefs about God and Jesus, were eventually added affirmations (and denials) about the precise meaning of Je­sus’ death, the appropriate mode of baptism, what happens when one takes communion, the best way to organize a church, what happens at the end of the world, the true day of wor­ship, etc. These are all, undoubtedly, important issues. Are they equally important? And how does this way of reading the Bible reflect or re­late to the way Jesus read Scripture?

The time has come to rediscover Jesus as a teacher of Scripture and to restore His teaching authority in the church that bears His name. Like most Christians, Adventists believe that God inspired those who wrote the Bible and, through it, has something to say to them. We have approached the Bible with important and interesting questions—returning to George Knight’s summary: “What is Adventist in Ad­ventism? What is Christian in Adventism? What is Fundamental in Adventism?” Such questions have led to the discovery of many new insights. It has also generated, as we are aware, many new controversies and debates.

Is it possible, to quote the great theologian Bono, who in “11 o’clock Tick Tock,” sings: “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.” Is it possible there are better questions we could have been and could be asking? What if we seriously started asking a different question as individuals and a community—How did, and would, Jesus interpret the Bible?27

References & Notes: 1. George Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown: Review and Her­ald, 2000). 2. Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 269. 3. Gadamer argues that “[r]eason exists only in concrete, historical terms—i.e., it is not its own master but remains constantly dependent on the given circumstances in which it operates.” Ibid., 277. 4. Paul Ricoeur, ed. Mark I. Wallace, “Philosophy and Religious Language” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (Fortress Press, 1995), 41. Through legislation, wisdom literature, narrative, epistle, hymns, etc., Ricoeur notes, “God appears differently each time: sometimes as the hero of the saving act, sometimes as wrathful and compassionate, sometimes as the one to whom one can speak in a relation of an I-Thou type, and sometimes as the one whom I meet only in a cosmic order that ignores me.” 5. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 53. 6. Ibid., 55. 7. Ibid., 49. See also Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978). 8. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1996). Text as quoted by Hays. 9. Ibid., 190. 10. See John 1:14. 11. According to Origin (c.185–c.254), the dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over Moses’ body in Jude 9 comes from a treatise entitled: “The Ascension of Moses.” 12. C. A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, Vol. 34B, (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2001), 37. 13. Ibid, 38. 14. N.T. Wright, “Look at Jesus.” Interview for The Work of the People. 15. Paul, according to scholars, was technically the first interpreter of Jesus, as his letters form the earliest writings of the New Testament. Chronology in writing, I am arguing, does not supersede the weight of content, nor does it discount the weight of earlier circulating oral traditions that inform the Gospels. 16. See also, John 1:16, 17: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” 17. This, of course, would be done with an awareness that we each approach the Gospel texts with our own expectations and interests. Our understandings of Jesus, mediated through the Gospel writers, are interpretations of interpretations. Acknowledging this, and the possible plurality of interpretations that inevitably arise, does not mean that all interpretations are equally legitimate; interpretations of Jesus can still be evaluated on the parameters set by the text and, furthermore, compared with other interpretations. For a fascinating survey of the way Jesus has been interpreted in American history, see Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). See also Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) for a wider historical survey. 18. See Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 28–37. Jon Paulien and the late Hans LaRondelle write: “For a Christian believer, Christ is the true Interpreter of Scripture. His way of understanding the Old Testament, therefore, becomes the true standard for understanding Scripture. Followers of Jesus must be taught by Him, surprised by His personal knowledge of God, and ready to accept His interpretation of the Scriptures…” See Hans K. LaRondelle and Jon Paulien, The Bible Jesus Interpreted (Logos Bible Software: 2014), 29. 19. The Amplified Bible. 20. Glenn H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: 2003), 92–3. See also Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 68–75 for a very helpful overview of Jesus’ interpretive approach to Torah. Richard Hays also provides a summary in Chapter 7 of The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 163–167. 21. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 92–3. 22. Ibid. 23. Bauckman, Jesus, 71. See 68–75 for another, similar overview of Jesus’ interpretive approach to Torah. 24. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 92–3. 25. Paul, in Romans 14:14, prior to Mark, also quotes Jesus: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” See also Romans 14:17. 26. Justo Gonzalez summarizes the outcome of the first six major church councils: “In this process, the historical, loving Jesus of the New Testament was left aside, and the Savior had become an object of speculation and controversy; he was now described in terms totally alien to the vocabulary of the New Testament—‘hypostasis,’ ‘nature,’ ‘energy,’ etc.; he had become a static object of discussion rather than the Lord of believers and of history…” See A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 2, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 90. 27. An initial version of this essay was presented for the 2017 Adventist Forum Conference on Celebrating the Word and I am grateful to the organizers of the conference for the opportunity to share it and the lively conversation with attendees that ensued. Additionally, I am grateful to Dr. Norman Young, who read and offered constructive feedback on the manuscript of my presentation, helping me better understand the dating of and relationship between the Jesus and Pauline traditions of the New Testament (See notes 15 & 25).

Zane Yi, PhD, is an assistant professor of religion at Loma Linda University’s School of Religion, where he teaches courses in philos­ophy and theology and directs the MA in Re­ligion & Society program. He serves as an of­ficer in the Society of Adventist Philosophers. This article first appeared in the latest print edition of Spectrum(vol. 45, no. 4). Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Further Reading: Why Hermeneutics is Our Biggest Problem — a Spectrum interview with David Ripley, Ministerial Secretary for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division Forgotten Homework: The 2020 Study in Hermeneutics — by Spectrum columnist Matthew Quartey Reading and Misreading the Bible — by Adventist Forum Board Chair Charles Scriven

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A near-perfect, balanced and thoughtful meditation on how SDA’s could engage the Bible reflectively, spiritually, and helpfully to our unity in Christ. Thanks Zane!!

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This reminds me of what a Baptist pastor friend admitted to me. “Christianity is Pauline.”

As I interact with others of different persuasions, I hear that Jesus was a Jew and the gospels were written for Jews.

So… Paul becomes a type of anti-Christ.

Another point can be made is one of emphasis.

By size…what decalogue commandment gets more exposure, in the gospels, than all the other nine put together? (Talk about Christ & conflict of interpretations)

Yet…99% of Christianity ignores it.

Is this a clue of supercede to deletion thinking .

Can this concept be used to delete the cross?

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” 1 JN 1:7 (I realize "walk in the light requires explanation)

Another example of pic n choose is how I hear 1 JN 1:9 quoted way more often, in churches, than 1 JN 1:7:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Lip service is much easier than living a transformed life.

Those who do what Jesus did will understand scriptures.

“I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.” Ps 119:99

“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” Jn 7:17

Even bible scholars have to deal with what to do with 7000 waking minutes each week.

I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for the illumination.


At best this statement is only a half truth. As important as the teachings of Jesus are, Christianity from its inception was clearly a movement based on and empowered by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was not just another rabbi. Christ’s teachings only have significant meaning as seen through the lens of the cross.

There were many things Jesus wanted to teach His disciples during His ministry as recorded in the four Gospels that they could not comprehend. They simply had no place for a crucified rabbi or Son of God in their thinking. Fortunately for us, after His death and resurrection, the living Christ spent forty days giving the disciples many convincing proofs and teaching them the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Paul? Paul was an apostle born out of his time but he received his revelation from Jesus Christ Himself. We need Paul. We need John the beloved and Peter and James and Luke. We need what they wrote. We must have the the four gospels interpreted by these inspired Bible writers in the context of the death, burial, resurrection and High Priestly ministry of Christ. We must know and experience the practical, daily administration of grace upon grace that flows from Calvary. We glory in the living Christ who dwells in us through the Holy Spirit and imparts to us His resurrected life in place of our old self that was crucified with Him.

Let me say this. The Law came through Moses. Grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ, first in His teachings but ultimately through Calvary and all that this means. In Christ we have grace upon grace - His forgiveness, His righteousness, His peace, His rest for our souls, His life, His love, His revelation of the Father - all because He shed His blood for us. The gospels lead up to the watershed of Calvary. The Bible writers who followed, especially Paul, (although I also love what John and Peter had to say) explain the fundamental truths that we all need as Christian believers.

Zane I agree with you on the diversity in the early Christian church. It’s an interesting point you make about the Bible and particularly the NT speaking to different people in different voices. I would suggest that it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that is the unifying factor in this diversity. The public announcement that launched Christ’s ministry was, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and that is still key to our world-wide message today.

There is a factor that I think must have influenced Christ’s ministry that I have come to consider in recent times. Christ was born under the Law, the Law of Moses John calls it. In other words, He lived and ministered under the terms of the old covenant from Sinai. Most of the people He ministered to lived under the same covenant. The Pharisees were arguably the most devout and religious group that the world had seen to that time, committed to the Law as they were.

Christ knew that He was soon to bring the old covenant of law to an end by His death on the cross and that He would introduce a new covenant of grace through His shed blood and broken body. Further, John had announced that Jesus would baptise in the Holy Spirit. The new covenant in Christ’s blood was empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit who was promised to every believer.

On one hand, Christ was teaching under the Law, the old covenant, but He was at the same time establishing the foundation for the new covenant and preparing the people for the transition. The Spirit had not yet been given because Christ had not yet been glorified. Maybe this helps explain some of the variations between Christ and Paul and the other apostles.

Paul had a different set of problems to deal with. He was the apostle to the Gentiles who were separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. To make things worse, the Judaisers came in trying to teach the Gentiles converts the old Sinai covenant, or at least selected parts of it. The gospel that Christ commissioned for Paul to preach was a gospel that did not grow out of an understanding of the teachings of the Old Testament. Paul preached Christ, crucified, risen and ministering His grace through the indwelling Holy Spirit to all who believed in Him.

The issue I see in all this is that when we recognise this diversity between Jew and Gentile backgrounds, we can begin to understand better the variations in teaching and experience as taught by Jesus and later by the apostles. Christ was managing the change from the old covenant to the new covenant. Paul was preaching and teaching to an audience who did not grow up under the Law of Moses. Christ broke down that wall of partition between Jew and Gentile and the church was united in Christ under the ministry of the Holy Spirit. At least that is how it should have been and how it should have stayed.

This leaves us with a challenge. Some of what Christ said to the Pharisees and others was based around old covenant teaching. Christ even came to the place where He told them plainly that none of them kept the Law anyway. On the other hand, much of what Christ taught was leading away from the old covenant and was establishing the Grace and Truth of the new covenant. If the Judaisers had left Paul alone, the Gentiles would have been able to glory in the new covenant of grace and tn the ministry of the Spirit of life without any distractions.

On this basis, I see a number of key areas where Christ sowed the seed and after the resurrection, the apostles were able to preach and teach the deeper meaning that Christ intended for a diverse audience.


Thank you for your thoughts , Zane.
Yes, there are positives in doing hermeneutics. And you refer to some. Never-the-less, the ‘danger’ lies in that we may lose the simplicity of the Gospel and the hope we have in Jesus, because the whole hermeneutical exercise may end up being merely a language-word game, in which the central message of the biblical text is reduced to ‘noise’ - intervening variables - in the communication between writer and reader.
Worse may result, in that reading the biblical text can become a quantum-mechanics-like experience where we simultaneously deconstruct, re-construct and destruct (perhaps the latter to our eternal loss).
As part of endeavoring to do the hermeneutical ‘thing’, we may find that we’ve embraced a fully-fledged post-modern worldview where any sense of Truth is an amorphous concept.
Pilate asked, "What is truth?’ The answer is plainly stated in John 14:6; but hermeneutics might suggest one cannot take such a statement at face value. For some/many people ensuing cognitive dissonance may result in the ‘baby being thrown out with the bathwater’.
“And Jesus wept”.


Adventism has managed to divide and compartmentalize the entire scope of the scripture. We go to Daniel and Revelation to build a foundation of Adventist’s special status and uniqueness, which has become its main focus to be preserved and pursued, no matter what. At the same time, we tap into the Gospel and sing Amazing Grace, while we draw halos around the fourth commandment that marks our identity.

We deny an entire group’s equality in our pulpits, as we teach equality at the foot of the cross. Somehow we can declare the “priesthood of all believers” as we deny more than half of our members God’s call.

We fail to see the primacy of the Gospel as it unfolds on the cross - over the shadows that were supposed to lead us to it… We still shuffle in those shadows, even as the brightness of the resurrection lights up the world, and we somehow are able to equalize perfection and grace.

It’s not enough to repeat random verses and imagine we are weaving a fabric of faith. To be a Christian with understanding, one has to be able to make qualitative judgments as we “search the scriptures”. If, as Christians, we can’t see the centrality of the cross and its equivalent, the resurrection, we are left with stories on the level of all other stories that sit on dusty library shelves. The Christian faith has just one focus - the rest just makes up the path that leads us to it.


How is this any different from WWJD? How might we avoid ending up justifying our self-portraits? I’m reminded of the various “quests of the historical Jesus”.

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Adventism places its self identity on issues that arise from a flat reading/proof-texting of the Scriptures, with little regard for narrative and historical development. It leads to skewed results that are at variance with the gospel, healthy spiritual community, and a Christ centered hermeneutic.

One must see the development of NT theology and practice in light of the admission of Gentiles into the covenant people as Gentiles. Thus, issues such as circumcision, Sabbath observance/holy times, and abstension from unclean foods as identifying badges of the people of God become nebulous at best, and, more likely, were left to the side as necessary for belonging.

IOW, righteousness/full belonging to the covenant people of God in Christ was truly by faith/joining up with Christ alone, not by works of Law. This is in keeping with the view that the time of the Old Covenant, and its visible identifiers of the people of God, was truly up, and had met its fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Hence, all who joined with Jesus and his movement, Jew or Gentile, and received the gift of his Spirit, were counted as God’s people. There was no distinction, all were one in Christ. Letters such as Romans and Galatians make no sense without such historical context, and, without such, the reading and application of the gospel and righteousness by faith become totally individualized and distorted.

This is exactly what the western protestant tradition and Adventism has done and continues to do. It totally individualizes the gospel and salvation, and practically divorces it from the overriding reality and dynamic creation of inclusive community of the kingdom of God. Additionally, Adventism resurrects aspects of the law in order to proclaim its self identity, and to demarcate who is in the kingdom and who is out. It is divisive to healthy and inclusive Christian community by its very nature.

Jesus, in the gospels, is not seen confronting these issues as fully as the church, and specifically as Paul did, after him. Yet, Jesus’ reaching out to the disenfranchised, the outcasts, and to Samaritans, Gentiles, and Roman centurions surely set the course for what came on a broader scale afterwards. So did his emphasis on the two great commands, and the Golden Rule as the summation of the ethical call of the Torah, and the entire OT. IOW, God wants a people united in love for one another, regardless of race, gender, social class, or religious background, and regardless of our observance or non observance of dietary regulations or holy times.




Great points, Frank, on the ways Paul is partially understood to the point of being misunderstood, and thus, creating distortions of the gospel as pertaining mainly or only to individual salvation in the afterlife. This is an understanding that is difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and demonstration of the kingdom. I think you are right on in pointing out Paul’s concern for including Gentiles in God’s covenant people and that Paul is being faithful to a trajectory demonstrated by the inclusion demonstrated by Jesus in his ministry. Understood this way, Jesus and Paul are not in conflict with each other.

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Hi Joselito. It’s been too long!

Regarding your question(s), I suppose I’m suggesting a version of WWJD, but trying to attempting to articulate in a substantive way what this would look like, i.e. reading the gospels closely, studying Jesus’ actual teachings, and trying to understand why Jesus is saying what he is saying and how this is similar different to the interpretations of other rabbis of this day.

I think the various quests for the historical Jesus illustrate the inevitability of the hermenuetical circle; no one escapes it, not even NT scholars. The studies I am familiar with are insightful in their own way, helping us better understand the historical/cultural contest of the gospels. Methodologically, I’d be less inclined to discount certain sayings/teaching recorded of Jesus as been less authentic or not authentic, as some do. I’d propose taking the gospel texts, in their diversity, as capturing what Jesus said and did and attempting to understand what this might have communicated to ancient audiences and how this might apply to us today. Perhaps this is a bit naive. :slight_smile:

I find it interesting that in early eras, as the church encountered Gnosticism, the emphasis was very much on the incarnation–Creator taking on creaturehood–in order to heal and elevate humanity. Also fascinating is the church’s emphasis on Ascension, Jesus, the Son, returning to the Father in a body.

I wonder if you’d include such beliefs about Jesus as being as important as cross and resurrection. If not, why not?

Valid point, Ray, about the diversity of early Christianity, one my statement, perhaps, oversimplifies in trying to make a point. A book on my reading list is James Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, which argues the New Testament read closely doesn’t contain one theology, but several theologies! This seems to support one of the premises I am advancing in this essay that the Bible, in both Testaments, speaks in many voices; it is a polyphonic text. So, I’d imagine some early churches being deeply influenced by the Jesus presented in the gospel, and others, perhaps the one’s started by Paul, deeply influenced by Jesus as presented by Paul. So the question becomes if and how to reconcile these two understandings as these communities came into contact with each other and aware of each others liturgical documents. To be clear, I’m not arguing an either/or here, i.e. Jesus vs Paul and the rest of the Bible, but I am advocating a clear priority. We read the rest of the Bible through Jesus as presented in the Gospels.

So complicated.

And this without even touching on integrating theology (priestly or prophetic; Pauline or Christic) and hermeneutics (literal, moral, allegorical, or anagogical) with philosophy (analytic or continental)…or science.

How did we get so top heavy, and why do we suppose there is any hope in intellectual religion?

Surely we have set ourselves an impossible task.

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Thank you for replying. Without repeating, my main point is that Jesus’ death and resurrection is central to the entire Bible - for the Christian. Jesus didn’t come to give meaning to the OT; instead, the OT exists to point a way to Christ. Adventist theology is built on the OT, and the NT legitimizing it for all. Admittedly, Jesus was not a “Christian” as we know it today, but was born out of the Jewish tradition. He was not here to change Judaism into Christianity. In fact, he was not here to change or create any institution. Jesus’ ministry was aimed on the individual and universal human need - met by his universal message.

The specifics of Jesius’ life were Jewish, faithful to Judaism; and not meant to be elevated or copied in its detail. Christianity has superimposed meaning on the life (and death) of Jesus. Much of it based on Jesus’ own comments and meanings, it appears, he placed on them. All of it, a product of interpretation.

I suppose this was a gentle nudge that I may be creating independent boxes within the story, as well. Honestly, I have always lumped the ascension in with the rest of the story as natural conclusion to Jesus’ life and purpose. Thinking about it now, I’m not so sure. For Adventists, Jesus returning to “heaven” has taken on special meaning as culminating Jesus work as our mediator, ultimately cleansing something in heaven. This, of course, is an interpretation born of desperation.

And the search goes on…


The questions and as a matter of fact any questions of this nature are valid but should be understood in the context of a developing stage as clearly the questions parallel the development and maturation of the brain, mind and self.

The first question “What Is Adventist in Adventism?” is similar to the question every child would ask in a family “Who is my family?”

The second question “What is Christian in Adventism” is similar to the question every adolescent would ask in a family “Who am I in my family?” as they enter abstract thinking.

While the last question “What Is Fundamental in Adventism” is similar to the task an early adult would struggle when entering the world of adulthood, “What is about my family that I must retain to keep my identity.”

All questions are valid but only if it were in a positive trajectory. It is the slope of the trajectory that matters as we strive to achieve full autonomy and responsibility to reflect what God has bestowed upon us all, full expression of our DNA as evidenced by full and mutual respect as a universal principle.

This is where the problems simmer. When each question must be seen as fixed and unchangeable it becomes pathological such as cancer or a developmental disorder such as autism and mental retardation among many others.


Understanding, no matter what the topic is, will and always will be based on assumptions. To understand is to find the correct assumption or correct set of assumptions and proceed forward. Mountains of data used to come to the conclusion of a matter can all come crashing to level ground if the basic assumption(s) are incorrect. We must all rely on the the Holy Spirit to guide us into ALL truth. That would include starting with the correct assumption(s)…


Yes, it has been a while! Thank you for the reply.

Since Luke and Mark were known associates of Paul, it would be safe to assume, and there’s evidence to suggest, they were all acquainted with many of the same oral traditions about Jesus.

One example is 1 Cor 11:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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Sirje, I appreciate you pointing out the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection in NT thought. My general point, without denying this, is that Jesus comes as a package and the gospel includes everything Jesus accomplishes through incarnation, life, teaching, life, as well as death, resurrection, and ascending to the Father.

I’m curious about your statement that Jesus’ life was “not meant to be elevated or copied in detail.” On the one hand, I understand that none of us are Jesus and have his unique identity or calling. At the same time, Christlikeness (including taking up the cross and suffering) is very much a NT ideal, no?

My concern, one I will repeat to Ray Smith below, is reflected in a statement made by Bonhoeffer, regarding the church in his day, and it’s understanding of grace: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” I’m not suggesting you are advocating cheap grace, but by driving a wedge between what Jesus taught and what Jesus did seems to make discipleship peripheral to the gospel.

Ray, your introduction of covenant theology into this discussion adds yet another complex layer to consider! In an attempt to keep our discussion as stream-lined as possible, let me focus on what I take you to be suggesting regarding Jesus and Paul and their respective audiences and the practical outcome of this for us today.

  • Jesus’ main audience as a Jewish one, one that existed prior to his death, and had the Torah, but did not have full access to the Holy Spirit.
  • Paul’s main audience as a Gentile one, after Jesus’ death, and did not have Torah, but had fuller access to the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus’ teachings, as recorded in the gospels for pre-crucifixion Jews, had to be distilled by his apostles to apply to a wider audience. They do not apply directly to Christians today.

If this is an accurate summary (please correct me, if not), a few points/questions:

  1. The Gospels, themselves, were written after Jesus’ death. Who were they written for and why?

  2. Marcion, in the 2nd century, thought that Christians needed to clarify their Scriptures and distinguish them from Jewish Scriptures. He rejected the Old Testament. His Bible included one gospel (Luke) and certain letters of Paul. The church responded by affirming the Old Testament as Scripture, ended up included 4 gospels, and numerous other letters, some of them in tension with Paul’s theology, James, for example. (Marcion, interestingly, made a sharp distinction between old and new covenants.)

This to me communicates that the early church placed great emphasis on the teachings of the Old Testament and all the gospels, and I’d argue, their value was more than providing a background for the teachings of Paul and the gospels. They said something true about God and what God wants for all humans.

Practically, my concern, one I made to Sirje, is that this kind of approach drives a wedge between what Jesus taught and what Jesus did, rather than viewing it all as “good news.” It seems to make discipleship peripheral to the gospel. I think it is a both/and.