How the “Stingy Critics” Get It Wrong

A friend told me a few years ago, “I find so much to be attracted to in Judaism. “Sometimes more than in Christianity.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s such a rich, beautiful tradition,” she said.

Of course it is. Especially are the performed metaphors lovely. Think of Fiddler on the Roof. Yet most of what people admire about Judaism isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible. What we find distinctive about Judaism owes more to three millennia of passage through various cultures and experiences than it does to Genesis through Malachi. People gave meaning to the text by filtering it through experience, and created a religious tradition. As charming as Judaism appears in a Sholem Aleichem story, that doesn’t come from the original Hebrew Bible. If my friend looked farther, she’d see that the same text is the seed for quite dysfunctional forms of that faith, such as those in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, or New York’s Borough Park and Kiryas Joel. This is evidence of the texts’ flexibility: it’s only by what human beings make of them, emphasizing some passages and ignoring others, that a religious text spawns a workable faith, and occasionally even a good one.

I was taught when young that there was no other way to understand the Bible than the way we Seventh-day Adventists understood it. If you could find a person who was a perfect tabula rasa, someone with no religious preconceptions, pretenses or prejudices, and you handed him a Bible, he would arrive at precisely the beliefs that we hold. Anyone who would see it differently was deceived or dishonest. I now have more appreciation of the effect of culture, and a much clearer understanding of the latitude that religious texts allow. I’ve come to believe that there is much in religion that’s less about the sacred text than about what its followers make of it.

Take worship, for example. I once attended a Coptic church service, and though it had a certain alien beauty to it, there were few touch points to make it meaningful to me. Yet they use the same scripture that we do. We might accuse the Coptic faith of relying more on tradition than do we Adventists, though that’s arguable. Both have been shaped by the cultures in which the text was used and read, where meanings and customs took shape.

I hope you’ve had the chance to read Graeme Wood’s important piece in the March Atlantic (recommended reading—online in its entirety here, main points summarized here) about ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Many of us over the past two decades have defended Islam against bigoted attacks, saying that what the terrorists represent isn’t real Islam. But, says Wood, ISIS follows the Quran and the hadiths, albeit with a medieval restorationist hermeneutic. "People want to absolve Islam," Wood quotes scholar Bernard Haykel. "It's this 'Islam is a religion of peace' mantra. As if there is such a thing as 'Islam'! [Islam is] what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts." I added the italics, because this point is crucial. Islam need not necessarily be violent—the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists—but it would be a mistake not to recognize that violent Islamic movements are rooted in Islam. The texts allow a violent interpretation, or a peaceful one. It all depends on the cultural hermeneutic applied.

I have often explained to my congregations that the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is that Catholics give greater authority to church leaders and the tradition that the church creates than Protestants do. Protestants have church leaders and traditions, but we always subjugate them to the Bible. The Bible is all we need. James White’s and John Loughborough’s warnings against standardizing our beliefs are too familiar to need to be quoted here. Should God want us to see something new, said White, we’d be locked into our creed and unable to respond to His leading. They were afraid that we’d become like the Catholics, where we had to ask the church what we should believe.

But we do now have a creed: an authoritative, formulated statement called the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. We Adventists regularly meet and ask the church what God’s truth is for enforcing upon all of us, without any apparent sense of irony or contradiction. That we vote on God’s opinion is more evidence that a religion isn’t created by the text alone, but by the people who read the text. The text is only a starting point. What makes it a religion is the interpretations we bring to it.

It’s the failure to account for the human element that has led so many of us to be so opinionated about what we think the Bible says. Let me try to illustrate this by going back to my friend’s fascination with Judaism. The Hebrew part of the Bible contains some beautiful thoughts, some profound ones. Some of our Adventist distinctives can only be given form there. Yet there are parts of the Old Testament that I find deeply disturbing. In the Old Testament God is said to have told his chosen people to wipe out entire populations, to practice infanticide, to enslave conquered people, to treat women like salable property. What do you do with these texts? We might say that these things don’t apply since theocratic Israel was replaced by Christ’s kingdom. Yet a God who had ever had slavery, genocide, or baby-smashing as tools in his management arsenal is impossible to harmonize with the Savior of the New Testament. Could it be that some of these things that God said He really didn’t say, and the authors are attributing Him because it seemed sensible to them in the time and place in which they lived? In other words, cultural?

Now, there are those among us who believe that God really said these things and meant them, even if he doesn’t intend them to apply now. That they’re quite sure that that’s how God really is—an inconsistent despot who demands that people follow commands explicitly even if they appear immoral—helps explain how they can make a smattering of weak texts into “thus saith the Lord” and insist we all follow them. Why, in a recent case, they think God has denied church leadership to the best of half of those created in his image in favor of even the least competent of the other half just because of their differing roles in reproduction. They’re unaware that this is a hermeneutic they’re bringing to Scripture, an interpretation laid over the text—one that makes God look stern, unreasonable and quite unlikable.

The appeal of the literalist point of view, that it is somehow purer and nearer to truth is, it turns out, based on false premises. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “that fundamentalists claim to be taking scriptures more literally than their Christian rivals gets read as evidence that they really are going back to what orthodox Christians once all believed, and that they’re right to regard non-fundamentalist forms of Christianity as theologically compromised relative to their own purer, back-to-the-beginning approach. Which is sometimes the case, but quite often not. Both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are traditionalist in some respects but quite modern in others, and some of the most important elements in their back-to-the-sources vision tend to be only comprehensible in a modern political-intellectual context, both as reactions against and imitations of secular trends and patterns and ideas.”

That is to say, the idea that the earliest forms of a religious faith were woodenly literal, and that modern interpretations came as a result of later worldly compromises, is simply not true. Even Paul, when he quoted the Old Testament, didn’t always insist on using the passages in their literal sense. Nor did our Adventist pioneers. Compare the attitudes that led to the crucial vote at SA15 with this far more generous one from James White: “We object to that narrow-souled theology which will not allow the old ladies to have dreams because the prophecy says, 'your old men shall dream dreams;' and that will not allow young women to have visions because the prophecy says 'your young men shall see visions.' These stingy critics seem to forget that 'man' and 'men' in the Scriptures, generally mean both men and women. The Book says that it is 'appointed unto men once to die.' Don’t women die?”

Please don’t misunderstand me (though I’m sure someone will insist upon it) that I’m saying the Bible is merely human, or that there aren’t any clear teachings in Scripture upon which we can settle, or that I’m ignoring the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I’m not saying any of those things.

What I am saying is that our divided church’s struggle to unite on some Biblically-ambiguous points is evidence that not every question can be addressed by the kind of proof-texting done by the TOSC. Modern Adventist fundamentalists, those “stingy critics,” are as much products of the culture as the progressives are, and in some cases more.

I am suggesting that rather than the literal reading of Scripture being the way to find God’s will, we need to start owning some of these disputable opinions (for that is all they are) that make up our faith. Then we can move them into the realm where they can be talked about, compromised with. Where they can be studied in terms like psychology, leadership, culture, capabilities, organizational politics, rather than only “What’s God’s precise demand upon us?”

As Haykel says of Islam, Seventh-day Adventistism is what Seventh-day Adventists do and how they interpret their texts. To say God is on my side alone is, it seems to me, just what the third commandment warns about: using God’s name to enforce a human opinion. Which means that humility, not blustering arrogance, is the necessity in any effort to hear God’s voice through the cultural noise.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

one might also cite Mormonism and the Pearl of Great Price etc. Dogma and dogmatic have a chilling effect on reason. Tom Z


Very good article until the slight in the last paragraph. Unnecessary. That comment, the very last sentence, has the ability to undermine the good work done prior.


“That we vote on God’s opinion is more evidence that a religion isn’t created by the text alone, but by the people who read the text. The text is only a starting point. What makes it a religion is the interpretations we bring to it.”


“Modern Adventist fundamentalists, those “stingy critics,” are as much products of the culture as the progressives are, and in some cases more.”

Absolutely. They are all mired in the pre-1970’s Adventist culture and refuse to see this. “Self- supporters” are about roughly 1800’s to about 1940’s and the “Last Gen. Theology” folk are about roughly 1940’s to 1960’s. They all don’t see their similitudes but they are certainly there and collectively feel that their “message” is the “True Adventism”. One can’t develop in a culturally devoid bubble and Adventism has had negligible impact on popular culture- but popular culture has alway had its effect on Adventism.

“But we do now have a creed: an authoritative, formulated statement called the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.”


'The Bible is all we need."

Is it? I don’t believe that Adventism has proven this to be true…but I would like it to.

Thank-you, Loren, for your cogent thoughts.


You are asking us to move back to 1870 when James White said SDAs "Generally Believed’ the few Doctrines he listed.
You are asking ALL SDAs to begin reading and studying the Scriptures for Each One’s Selves. To not read a Book to tell them what they believe, and skip the reading and studying and thinking of the Bible.

I think it is obvious that most people want to be told what to believe. It offers safety, it builds a spiritual comfort zone. Authorities KNOW IT, so we can trust them to tell us. And so we ALLOW them to do so. We see this in the way our Corporate Worship Programs are designed and implemented. From Juniors all the way up through Adults, through Old Age.


Sorry you feel that way, Tony. I would normally like to give the benefit of the doubt to most anyone who is preaching some truth, even if I disagreed with parts of it. But in the past year, I’ve found these particular parties unusually arrogant, talking without listening, advocating for their point of view rather than preaching the everlasting gospel, which is what we want evangelists to do.

To balance out the criticism, however, I will admit that I saw almost no one on either side of this issue actually studying the fruits of female pastorship, as I suggested here. All of them, pro and con, tried to defend their point of view by texts and interpretations. Had we started with studying the work of women pastors, we might have had a different outcome.


I agree with you on their arrogance. Just didn’t think it added to the article.


Let me share my lifes experience : My father had a book for every days devotional in the family, based mostly on Psalm texts. . I just remeber now : “He, that dwelleth on the secret place (Luther : “Schirm” = umbrella !) of the most holy shall abide under the shadow of the almighty” Psalm 91 :1 - - “The Lord shall fight for yoa and you will hold peace " (Luther : " - werdet stille sein.”) Ex 14 : 14. - - “He delightet not to the strenght of a horse, he taketh not pleasure on the legs of a man.” ( (Psakm 147 : 10.) Visions, pictures in my phantasies, words still ringing in my ears.

And my father lived according to these words, even quoting them as an explanation for everydays decisions. - - - - Well , is was the text of Luther, and Luther was a poet, but dear young ones, every few years a new translation, “better to understand” (?) - How can you memorize these remarkanble , impressing, poetic words ?

Do not miisunderstand me : With 14 I just wanted to have Greek six classes the week for four years and - at least for the NT - got very new, strange impressions of the texts. And I still can argue about the katapetasma in the book of Hebrews with my dear Friend Otfried Hofius - but the sound already of the first words of this letter is overwhelming : “polymerws kai polytopws - - -” Once I read I. Cor 13 publicilly in Greek for a devotional. The believers were deeply imptressed.

As I said in another thread : The Syria born author, now for twenty years living in Germany (and to improve his German writing had copied Goertehs novel “Werther” by hand - to better expirience the new language.) And he said of his homelands - and the suurounding nations - languages: “Talk, where the sound of the words is more important than the logical sense of the sentence.” This sound already creates a vision in the listener.

By the way : How do you mean, did the auditorium and those watching th GC worldwide understand Ted Wilsons statemen of what means “recent” to him ? - - My house is 170 years old , just built two years before the 1848 revoluton - that already is for the most people here somewhere in the deep eternity of the past ! And now, with which vision of the pst do those in Africa or India or Samoa live ?


Thank you so much for this opinion piece. I appreciate the last paragraph. Here’s why: The gentlemen you have mentioned by name are the very ones who are introducing and insisting on a new fundamental belief of “headship” which totally changes the fundamental belief on the Trinity.

If they were preaching a new doctrine of a different Sabbath, or state of the dead, or something else, there would be a revolt against them.

However, in the thread on the Florida Conference’s interaction with Doug Bachelor, so many respondents want to give him a pass, downplaying his variance with the church on this critical doctrine we embrace, Christ as an equal partner in the Godhead.

We can only conclude they have no idea of the ramifications of the Headship Heresy an its removal of Christ as the head of the Church and permanent subjugation in the Godhead.

It is shocking that our members allow and embrace these ideas from pastors from the Calvinist churches in the 1980s (wouldn’t they call any other doctrine from other Protestant Church apostate?) introduce the new theory of Headship and its Trinity implications.

Thank you for calling Headship’s perpetuators and antagonists by their right name: arrogant.

To embrace Headship changes the entire doctrinal basis of our church, even though, yes, some of our early pioneers were not Trinitarians.


One of the questions that must be asked of our independent evangelistic organizations: are they preaching core SDAism to those outside, or advocating for controversial views to insiders? One qualifies as evangelism, the other might not.


This is a call to abandon the Reformation ideal of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice. Loren does not say it that plainly–maybe he cannot even bring himself to think of it that clearly–but that’s what it is.


Loren, I believe your forthrightness will cause many to believe that you have failed to place the echo of God that comes to us through millenia of telling, retelling, writing, rewriting, redacting, re-redacting, copying, recopying, translating, retranslating, and printing above the Living God who comes directly to our hearts through His Spirit. I don’t think that’s a failure at all.


Instead of taking the stance that the writer of Scripture attributed to God what they thought He would do when it was ordered to slaughter entire populations, etc., I think we can say that God accommodates Himself to culture and works through it. He doesn’t create it. The slaughter of entire nations isn’t uncommon in that time. It is what nations did to each other. Through that culture God worked justice and mercy (remember the blinded Syrians to be marched into Jerusalem only to have eyes opened and God’s people being told to feed the prisoners and release them). If the cultural mores were just and right in God’s purposes then God worked through them. We also see where God didn’t accommodate all culture: ie. no offering children to gods, raising the status of women, though perhaps only slightly, through bills of divorce and potions for wives of jealous husbands. No, He didn’t create the patriarchal system, but He did utilize it and work through it, but it isn’t His norm or a reflection of His ideals, or original intents.

Good thoughts in the article, but the final line should have been deleted. Why take pokes at and name others we disagree with? If one is going to point out flaws in the right we need to be willing to name and point out flaws of the progressives, too. However, the article has some serious and important points to consider about how we read the bible, now we interpret it, how culture and human flawedness contribute to our notions of what the Bible means. What it is we most often find that we all don’t agree in all things. We need to allow for that difference.

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There are two foci to an interpretation: the text and the interpreter.

It is a terrible mistake for a college student interested in theology to take a lot of religion classes on the undergrad level. Instead, the college student should pursue a broad liberal arts curriculum that is oriented toward study of the human condition rather than the biblical text. Courses in psychology, sociology, history, political science, English literature, especially Shakespeare, linguistics, economics, interpersonal communication, and philosophy will better equip the student for future interpretations of the biblical text than the study of substantive truths in religion classes.

Many hermeneutical mistakes I observe in various interpretations of the biblical text are the result of the interpreters’ stunted self-awareness. Seventh-day Adventist Church theologians, very few of whom possess any understanding of hermeneutics, regularly mine the biblical text in search of new glittering insights. But rarely is such industriousness devoted toward study of the human condition that underlies interpretation. I think the best scholarly work evidences that considerable thought has been given to both foci of interpretation.


This is what is so much needed in the church. WO is not the only area where this needs to be practiced, but also in the area of origins and LGBT issues. To assume that the Bible answers all our concerns about origins or LGBT issues, let alone that our church seems to believe these are totally settled issues, is to be presumptuous. All we need to do is to look at past history within the Catholic Church, and even on some issues in our own church, to know that what we consider settled issues today, may turn out to be not so settled once we have more data and the culture changes as well.

What is it about our church that we feel such a need to quash any pretense of plurality? I suppose those that are most behind this believe it is the cost of unity, but to what purpose? Is it really going to make a difference in my salvation if I believe women should be ordained (and to not do so is sexist), that God may have created the world longer ago than 6,000 years, that the Noachian flood may have only been a local event and that same-sex marriage should be embraced by Christians? To hear some talk, apparently believing he wrong way on these issues is a salvation issue.


Because it is belief about X that determines Adventyness, starting with the Great Deception. Which of course creates some other form of mission, teaching one’s rightness (especially concerning trivial, non-theological matters) is the only way. Doing the Gospel Jesus’ Way is so far a completely different galaxy. I’m betting the embarrassment of 1844 is to blame. It may be noted in the notorious disaffection of the Holy Spirit that it is rare to find one that does …

Trust God.


Since Loren specifically mentions Doug Batchelor, Steven Bohr and “cultural noise,” I’m directing my response toward the headship issue and the recent vote in San Antonio.

In past years, I (“Cassandra”) have written a great deal on this forum about steeplejacking and the influence of the New Calvinists on the Adventist church, and I have also written extensively of my years in the 1980’s in a Gothard-oriented dominionist church.

Most, or all, of what I’ve written has disappeared with the change of forum software, and I won’t try to recreate it here.

Ellen White said to lay the ax to the root of the tree.

The root of the headship tree is Christian Reconstructionism, as Gerry Chudleigh, God rest his soul, made a good start at pointing out last year on this site:

Book: A Short History of the Headship Doctrine in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, by Gerry Chudleigh

Headship is a relatively new emphasis in Adventism, and it’s easy to trace the roots of this movement to New Calvinism. This is far from a benign relationship, in my opinion.

Samuel Bacchiocchi drew from Wayne Grudem, as Gerry Chudleigh points out, and Larry Kirkpatrick, of Ordination Truth, quotes Piper and Grudem:

However, I think Adventism, by its very nature, is peculiarly susceptible to this political ideology, because of its authoritarian view of God and its authoritarian eschatological vision, which will always remain rooted in the “authoritative source of truth,” Ellen White.

Indeed, reading over the Biblical and Ellen White arguments made by the SDA headship fifth column, I really must agree with Larry Kirkpatrick that the Adventist hermeneutic was confirmed at San Antonio.

Ellen White can be the stingiest of critics, and I don’t believe one can argue cogently against this headship thrust being “new light” on the Adventist path which she has already pre-sanctioned in numerous clear statements, even if she didn’t emphasize this at the level of social organization during her lifetime.

In other words, it was more or less inevitable for Adventism to fall prey to this political movement because of deep-seated Adventist genetic predispositions.

I’m glad Loren brought up “cultural noise” because this exactly fits the stochastic resonance metaphor I have in mind.

The irony of Adventism becoming the image to the religio-political machine/beast it so despises is excruciating, but not surprising, I suppose.

I believe that inevitability has set in, and nothing can be done.

If the Adventist church ever could have sorted Ellen White out, that time is long past.

Surely we all agree that squabbling over political power and real estate is unbecoming of Christians.

The alternative to revolution is evolution. Lonely business.


Thank you Loren for a another thoughtful article.

Having been reared in fundamentalism and finding it wanting, it is easy for me to have antipathy towards such narrow thinking, yet I am mindful that most absolutist thinking is a human reaction to the existential insecurities we all endure. If we keep this reality in mind, it is easier to harbor compassion towards those who inappropriately elevate a variety of authorities (creeds, holy writings, institutional process, tradition, etc.) in untoward and idolatrous ways.

A couple of years ago or so, I posted comments on a Church forum regarding the proposed changes of wording in the FB on the Genesis creation narrative. My brief comment state that it was my hope that the committee considering the wording change would include prominent representation from the science community. Someone responded with the following entry:

“Our mandate is from God through His Scripture. We are to represent His way as He directs from His book…If God indicates something in His word, whether it conflicts or agrees with science, whether or not it seems reasonable, we accept it. God is the arbiter of all truth. His word is absolute. Scientific explanations and social mores must bend to Scripture, not the other way around.”

Such a statement assigns zero value to human sense or reason, and is impervious to dialogue or just normal brain engagement. It also challenges any attempt to assign hermeneutical value to God’s book of nature, or to consider the possibility of inadequate understandings that the original author may have had, as well as possible varied interpretations each of us might bring to the text itself. Officially Adventists do not believe in inerrancy, yet in practice it tends to be a different story.

A similar absolutist approach has been applied to the women’s ordination issue, where “tradition” and “institutional process” have become the wrecking ball of choice.

I would propose that the way we extricate ourselves from all idolatry is to recognize it for what it is, as well as where it comes from—the human desire to live purposeful lives with psychological certainty in a world that isn’t quite so accommodating. It may be that it is only as we come to recognize the arrogance of such assumptions, as well as their pathological manifestations—corrosive to nations, social institutions, and individuals that we can learn to build “purpose” around a new master narrative of hope that is modestly realistic and circumspect.


Which means that humility, not the blustering arrogance of Doug Batchelor, Steven Bohr and Advindicate, :grin:

@lorenseibold I agree with the sentiment but I’m surprised you managed to slip this one past @webEd

Can I just say in defense of Doug Batchelor that I enjoy his preaching when it is Gospel/Christ based. It seems to me that Stephen Bohr too often ends up Papacy bashing, but his explanations of the Sanctuary doctrine and Revelation in general are interesting.

Enjoyed your article thanks!

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I asked Rich to edit that last line, because I felt it was getting in the way of the more important point I want to make. That final sentence, naming specific individuals, was unnecessary to the point of being wiser in understanding the hermeneutic that governs our decisions, and I have no objection to dropping it. I don’t want to contribute to an uncivil discussion, or be uncivil toward anyone. Thanks for bearing with me!