How Biblical is the Adventist Church? - On The GC Presidential Election (III)

The last General Conference meeting and presidential election in San Antonio clearly showed that, for institutional Adventism, the Bible doesn't represent a problem, because we consider Adventism as the natural extension of the Bible and the Bible as the natural source of Adventism. But that's precisely the problem! Not, paradoxically, women’s ordination, evolution or homosexuality – but the Bible itself, with the related hermeneutical question at the center. This is our main theological impasse because, in a differentiated analytical assessment, Christian churches are judged negatively when they detach themselves from the Bible but also when they create an excessive and undue symbiosis with it. And this is the case of Adventism.

The normal situation of any Christian community with the Bible is and should always be problematic. There is not a natural pathway from the Bible to any specific religious group. And this structural asymmetry is not a default but a guarantee. The problem we Adventists have with the Bible is not failing to read or distribute it enough, as the religious pragmatism of the new elected president keeps suggesting, with simplistic linear thinking. The problem of reading and applying the Bible, although important, is a secondary theological problem. Our fundamental problem is how to read the Bible. And this undervalued and misunderstood hermeneutical question, even by our own specialists, has now become crucial for us because it is determining our choices and our policy – not only on doctrinal issues (Belief number six) but also in administrative (the autonomy of our Unions and Conferences) and cultural issues (Women pastor ordination) as well – as we tried to show in two previous columns posted in past months.[1] The hermeneutical question obliges us to ask the apparently idle question: How truly Biblical is the SDA Church? The relevance of this question is grounded in three theological reasonings.

First, “the Bible is not Adventist”. This is the “Exclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. Even though our message is Biblically based we should never forget that the Bible is bigger than Adventism. We can pretend that all our teachings are contained in the Bible but not the opposite – that all the Bible is contained in our teachings. All the corporative injunctions, the deep cosmo-centric and pre-modern ecological sensibility, the centrality of emotions and feelings as main components of a balanced anthropology, mystic and aesthetic motives and experiences. These are just some examples of important Biblical categories we Adventists pay little attention to or simply overlook. And the same hermeneutical clause is applicable to any church or faith community, as well as to individuals. For this reason Biblical interpretation always requires humility and sobriety, not as ethical, but as primary hermeneutical attitudes. And in this respect we should learn to de-construct the misleading myth that Adventism preaches the whole Bible. When we say that pedagogically or homiletically, that could make sense and be acceptable. But when we say that theologically, and particularly when we believe it is true, then we enter into a theological disruption. Actually, our reading of the bible, as with any other Christian reading, is very selective. The fact that some other religious communities are still more selective than us is not a sufficient reason to proclaim us to be neutral, non-selective readers of the Bible.

Second, “Adventism is not thoroughly Biblical”. This is the “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. This cause states that no church is based only in the Bible, and for this reason not all non-Biblical elements are necessarily anti-Biblical. There are administrative, cultural, socio-economic or political elements that every Christian group introduces within its own experience and for its own survival. None of these elements is automatically negative or disruptive. And even though they need to be continually assessed, these extra-Biblical elements can legitimately enter in dialogue and interact with the Biblical ones. The “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics acknowledges them as legitimate and also treats them as necessary expanders of the Biblical meaning. This can allow a religious community, such as Adventism, to pretend to be Biblical under one condition – that of establishing a clear distinction between elements “contained” and elements “based” in the Bible. While, as we affirmed before, no Christian community can pretend to have only elements explicitly “contained” in the Bible, it is possible however to proclaim oneself Biblical on the basis of including elements “based” on the Bible. The structure of our administration, the homogeneous ideal type of unity, our voluntaristic ethics, our individualistic anthropology or our anthropo-centric vegetarianism, though not strictly “Contained”, are nevertheless some of the Adventist extra-biblical elements “Based” in the Bible. But as much as the “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics allows the Bible to be flexible and inclusive with Adventism, the same happens with all other Christians communities. We cannot pretend that the inclusive Biblical perspective of our non-Biblical Adventist elements ought not to be also applied to other Christian communities. And above all Adventists cannot pretend that these elements “Based” be considered “Contained” in the Bible. That would be a substantive hermeneutical mistake.

Third, “Culture is always nearer to us than the Bible itself”. This is the “Paradoxical Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. We are usually unaware of the fact that our beliefs are very often shaped more by our own culture than by the Bible. We perceive the Bible always through our own culture and, even though we are not necessarily culturally determined beings, we are massively influenced by it, particularly in our main religious presuppositions. And the omission of this uncontroversial fact pushes us to simply think that our Adventism is – since we have honestly prayed and believed – automatically biblical and therefore normative for everybody. We seldom stop to really reflect on which parts of our beliefs come from the Bible and which parts from our own culture. And this exercise in learning how to make this important distinction is never ending, and never perfectly achieved. Only mature religious groups and individuals get involved in this process and receive its liberating benefits. Also our individualistic approach to the Bible in its newest post-modern form, our pragmatic or functionalist understanding of the Biblical mission or the anthropo-centric reading of Christian ethics and lifestyle are more dependent and conditioned by Western culture than by the Bible itself. But the same difficulty is seen in non-Western Adventists. That happened in San Antonio with the women’s pastoral ordination vote. Non-Western Adventists incurred in the same hermeneutical mistake. In that vote Latin-American and African Adventists were elevating their own culture to universality and thought that all other cultures should follow theirs. They were so certain about their understanding of the Bible that, without hesitation and doubt, they boldly declared they were not defending their own culture but just what the Bible says. Not being able to distinguish between what we say and what the Bible says is the first sign of idolatry and undue universalization of a culture. Paradoxically, that's precisely what non-Westerns have always criticized about Westerns. But in this case non-Westerns themselves were committing the same mistake.

For these three reasons the initial question – How Biblical is the SDA Church? – is not a secondary or idle question but represents the starting point for a new Adventism. The hermeneutical question has become central for Adventism, hidden in the diversity of administrative, evangelistic, theological or identity challenges we are facing today. And we need to know that today’s requested and desired Biblical centrality could be misleading if we detach ourselves from outside reality and it leads us to enclose ourselves in a book. Hermeneutically speaking, our church has made positive steps forward. In fact we have passed from a “rule-based” hermeneutics. In the past Adventism was entrapped in a reductive Biblical fundamentalism through the implicit and sometimes explicit defense of the inerrancy principle. While there are still some sectors in our church that maintain this Biblically reductive view, the official church has moved forward to what we could call a “principle-based” hermeneutics, developed by our best theologians. But that is not enough because rule and principle, though different and opposed, still share a common, intra-Biblical perspective. It means that they don't really confront themselves with the extra-Biblical reality. A “rule-based” hermeneutics makes normative a circumstantial event while a “principle-based” hermeneutics refuses the universality of that particular event by rescuing the principle behind. But, strictly speaking, we still don't find in them both a whole and complete hermeneutical process. There is true hermeneutics only when we preserve the two components of the “hermeneutical circle”: the “text” and the “extra-textual” component as incarnated in the reader and his world.[2]. In other words there is hermeneutics only when we confront the meaning of the Bible and test it with the extra-Biblical reality and its pressing challenges. And that is precisely what the official Adventism is avoiding, lead by the strong but shortsighted convictions of our newly elected president.

And it is here, in a defense of the complete hermeneutical circle, that the work and legacy of Roy Branson is valuable and unforgettable. Roy's constant call was to understand and articulate the Adventist, Biblical – great intuitions – not isolated from society but in constant dialogue and critical confrontation with it; through a new understanding of the apocalyptic option – not understood as a sublimating mechanism for escaping society, but as positive yeast able to transform society from within.

[2] as the founders of modern Hermeneutics – Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer or Ricoeur, have taught us.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7115
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as usual a powerful essay. Doubtful if the corporate entity or it elected officers will take heed. However to the person in the pew it is meat in due season. I was 56 before that reality dawned on me. My Children caught on by the age of 16. The Bible carries a powerful message of hope and assurance, it is not a battering ram. Rather than face the Truth, one side deals in trivia and the other a cat of nine tails… The church is now in the whipping phase. Tom Z

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Until we have resolved WHY the Bible, then there will be no hermeneutic that can accommodate everyone.

The 28 Fundamental Beliefs state in FB #1 that therein “God has committed to humanity the knowledge necessary for salvation.” Yet, if Jesus be believed, we know that this is in fact not the case. Did he not chastise the intelligentsia of his milieu with “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” It matters not the viewpoint by which a writing is read and understood: knowledge, knowing, is attained only by practical experience. Intellectual assent does not cut it.

Trust God.

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We have been stuck I the “proof text” method of bible study that we haven’t been able to move on into a more mature address of the Sacred Writ. And we also spend more time “proving our positions” than finding Jesus and what He means to me in the Scripture. Yes, we can study thinking all along that we have eternal life, and not even begin to venture closer to Christ. Hence, we are woefully deficient in our ability to properly reason from the Scriptures and know how to guard our interpretations from simply being extensions of our backgrounds, experiences and culture, and that culture danger runs both ways with conservatives as well as liberals. But it is very hard to learn to identify those cultural biases and exercise a work that seeks to get to what the text is saying without our baggage being hung upon it.

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Thank you for an astute [not to mention courageous] article. And thank you too for your insightful understanding of Roy Branson’s vision of a joyful apocalyptic of inclusiveness and transformation, not exclusion and isolation, a theology that compels us to be in - and of - the world.

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I see the answer to how biblical is the Adventist church differently. God has provided His Word to us to serve as a Guide. The word of God is the standard by which we test extra-biblical reality (The World) and its pressing challenges not the other way around. The Word of God is the standard that we use as a church and has children of God, to deal with the reality of the knowledge of good and evil. Principle based hermeneutics does just that, it is because of the righteousness and truth of God’s principles why God’s Word Transcend Culture and speak to all of Humanity. Any hermeneutic that seeks to understand and relate to human reality by lifting up extra biblical reality and its challenges as the standard by which to test The Revealed Word of God is to my mind Idol worship. Scripture repeatedly warns and provide evidence about trusting fallen Babylon ( principles constructed by men to save them self apart from God) over the truth of Word of God.

From Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path. I have sworn and I will confirm it, That I will keep Your righteous ordinances. (Ps 119: 105-106)

Adventist would do well to cleave to principle based hermeneutics "Conformity to the world can be prevented by the truth, by feeding on the Word of God, by its principles circulating through the entire life current and working out that word in the character. Christ exhorts us by the apostle John to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is plain language, but it is God’s measure of every man’s character.–MS 37, 1896

In order to be effective in ministering to the world however, we need to be wise as it relates to worldly customs “When Principle Is Not Violated, Follow Custom.-- When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God, you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work, but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor and hinder them from accepting the truth.–RH, Apr 6, 1911”.

A Line of Demarcation.–A deep and thorough work of reform is needed in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The world is not to be allowed to corrupt the principles of God’s commandment-keeping people. Believers are to exert an influence that bears witness to the power of heavenly principles. Those who unite with the church must give evidence of a change of principle. Unless this is done, unless the line of demarcation between the church and the world is carefully preserved, assimilation to the world will be the result. MS 78, 1905

Conformity to worldly customs converts the church to the world; it never converts the world to Christ. GC 509 (1888)

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Is ‘How Biblical?’ the right question?
Should we rather ask ‘How Christian? or How Christlike?’

The Old Testament offers a range of leadership models to include, Patriachal, Prophet, Priest, Kings & Judges - they all succeeded at times, and they all failed - yet they are all Biblical. Thus the question may not be as helpful as intended.

If anything, the Christlike model, is a model of service and self sacrifice. A model that eschews the hierarchical power of human political constructs.

The question is then not so much whether the process or form of appointment is Biblical but rather whether the outcome is designed to serve, or to be served.

It seems me that the use of democratic power to dragoon people into conformity rather than the liberality of mutual service, is fundamentally un-Christ like, regardless of which Biblical snippet we latch on to.

The Lordship of Christ illustrates the futility of all human models of Leadership.

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Unfortunately, the same argument can be made (and often is) by Latter-Day Saints who quote their prophet(), by Christian Scientists who will not test their belief in “non-material reality” against anything that contradicts Mary Baker Eddy, and by snake-handlng fundamentalists. The notion that nothing “extra-biblical” should be utilized to understand Scripture is nonsensical on its face. Much of Scripture assumes a flat earth (the “four corners of the earth”) and the appropriateness of slavery (to name just two), both of which either science or a raising of cultural and MORAL consciousness convinced us was wrong, pure and simple. The writer assumes that every decision he or the church at large choose to make is based on a “principle-centered” hermeneutic which transcends culture. When specific SDA churches, conferences and even the General Conference supported blatantly racist policies, where was the “principle?” The “worldly culture” called us to account. You see, more often that we are willing to admit, the "children of men are wiser than the children of light."
We ought to be ashamed of ourselves when the courts tell us we “must” pay women for equal work rather than trumpeting our behavior as flowing from a “principle-centered hermeneutic.”

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First of all or in the first place: God is not Adventist.

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I agree with the author that hermeneutics is crucial and that how we read the bible is a problem…yet I disagree with him that the problem is not failing to read it.

How can he write this with only assumption and/or guesswork?
75-90% of churchgoers in Christianity have never read the whole bible…based on significant sample size surveys.I challenge any pastor or conference official/leader to get a good sample size of what % of SDA read their bible in a significant way. The SDA church is presently studying the book of Jeremiah. I challenge any SS teacher to find out what portion of their class even read several verses of Jeremiah before the class. What SS teachers even invite their listeners to open the bible to study Jeremiah?
Where is the incentive to read or study the bible? Prove to anyone that the bible gets anywhere the attention that TV talent, reality, sitcoms, news, sports programs get.
SDA = “People of the Book”??

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And it will always remain a problem. It’s the nature of the beast and more so in spiritual matters.

There are no two or more SDAs who was share common life experience, let alone genetic endowment, so therefore there will be no two or more SDAs who can read the bible with the same understanding and affective involvement. They could possibly come to the same conclusion and this is the more important factor for church leaders to remember. Why they insist that church members read the bible with one and only one method is more reflective of their personality traits and biases than their spiritual inspiration.

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Which sectarian banners Adventism derived from: cut, needled, sewn together, don’t tailored their own moral heavy fanatics stick entity of by-products cultured from the Bible selected passages essence their unique manufactured “Brand names” of Christian products. Adventism runs parallelism to the Latter-Day Saints, Christian Scientists, Christian Fundamentalists, for all these are symbolism of greatness “Made in USA” exports of Americans identity of American worldly culture. What and whose poor from the under developed countries refuse the acceptance of harmful American imaginary message that “Jesus the saviour is the detour to power and wealth?” Not every fifth ( four) corners of the world worship Americans in wrong principle identity to the expense of Jesus devalued Christ. The Bible is jewel of hind-sights, wisdoms and prophetic woes. It’s the American culture of bloated, egotistical, propaganda’s of everything hugh to colossal dollars psychic obliterated the greatness of the son of God. Cultural and MORAL? The Bible speaks of eloquence to its gems, values and merits. The hypocrisies of Adventism blatant kills the Messenger.

James J Londis hits the iron spike on the head when he delivered these head splitting headaches.

JJLondis quotes: When specific SDA churches, conferences and even the General Conference supported blatantly racist policies, where was the “principle?” The “worldly culture” called us to account. You see, more often that we are willing to admit, the "children of men are wiser than the children of light."
We ought to be ashamed of ourselves when the courts tell us we “must” pay women for equal work rather than trumpeting our behavior as flowing from a “principle-centered hermeneutic.”

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I’m glad you’re asking the question “How biblical is the SDA church?”. I wonder that, too, but not nearly as much and as seriously as I do “How biblical is the church?”; the reasons being that the SDA church is only part of the body of Christ or at least I hope we see ourselves that way given Jesus’ prayer(John17) “that they be one”. Besides, SDA Christians are not all that distinct from the greater body of Christians as I see us. I also question how Biblicallyl(according to God’s will) we do church, we worship, and we live as Christians. I have a feeling you too might consider the issues you cited in your article such as presidential election, women’s ordination, evolution, homosexuality, etc. rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. Love to hear your thoughts!

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What does “God is not Adventist” mean? Doesn’t Adventist mean “Looking for Christ’s return”?