Perspective: Who Will Rescue the Bible?

(system) #1

We can no longer think of the Bible as a helpful guide for humanity. It is full of contradictions. It is an engine of violence. At the same time it is a conversation stopper, and so, like totalitarianism, it shuts down the avenues to moral progress and human betterment.

That’s my summary of a perspective increasingly commonplace in popular culture. If you pay attention to the New Atheists and their ilk, you hear it a lot. And for anyone who loves the Bible, it’s a blow to the ear and the heart alike.

Comedian-provocateur Bill Maher sounded off against Muslims and their Scripture the other day during an interview with Charlie Rose. It was familiar territory—except for the brazen focus on what is, in the West, a minority religion. The New York Times immediately published a criticism of Maher that purported to offer a better understanding of how religious people relate to their “holy texts.”

At first I thought Reza Aslan, the author and a well-known professor of creative writing, just didn’t get it. His article seemed to reduce holy texts to complete irrelevance. Then I saw his exact idea playing out at the 2014 Annual Council. Both the head of the Biblical Research Institute and the President of the General Conference said things that underscored the fragility of the Bible’s influence even in our own community. Let me clarify.

Critics of religion, Aslan said, “scour” the various Scriptures for “bits of savagery” that illustrate the “oppression” they associate with religious faith. But that is no help; it’s misleading. Aslan explained that identification with a religion actually concerns a person’s culturally and politically generated identity. When you say, “I am Muslim,” or “I am a Christian,” you are describing how you see your “place in the world.” It a “fallacy,” he said, “to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”

You can’t, in other words, take “bits of savagery” from “holy texts” to represent how religious people really think or feel. Scripture’s abiding appeal rests, indeed, on its “malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires.” Then he referred to familiar conflicting commands from monotheistic religions; from the Hebrew Bible he mentioned “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) and “kill” all the Amalekites, including women, children and animals (1 Samuel 15:3). How a believer relates to such conflicting commands depends, he said, on the believer. Whether your culture, ethnicity, nation or politics has made you peaceable or violent will determine what you emphasize.

So Scripture is no teacher; people read it as an echo of what they already want or believe.

What, then, happened at Annual Council?

Head of the Biblical Research Institute, Artur Stele, who is also a General Conference General Vice President, met with younger delegates to Annual Council and told them that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) had yielded no clear consensus on whether women may be ordained. Committee members had looked at Scripture but differed over how to interpret its message regarding equality for women in ministry. “The crux is, do you want it or not?” he said.

But that seems to reflect Reza Aslan’s claim: The Bible does not really say anything except what its readers want it to say. It’s “malleable.”

Later, before the entire Annual Council, General Conference President Ted Wilson objected to doubts about inserting the word “recent” into a revised statement of Adventist belief regarding creation. After all, said one delegate, the word is not in the biblical text. Wilson replied that he did not favor anything anti-biblical, but then appealed to a non-biblical authority, Ellen White. She is clear; creation was recent. That was justification enough for saying “recent” in the church’s official statement.

Again, a church leader was illustrating Aslan’s point: You insert what you want to insert, irrespective of what the holy text actually says.

How, then, does Aslan fall short? His account seems to fit.

First, he clearly over-generalizes. Religious people do, at least now and then, appeal to Scripture to authorize a conviction that goes against the grain of dominant culture, and even against the grain of their own life stories. People now and then realize that long-held wants and desires have to change because the holy text pushes us in a new direction. That was the case, for example, when Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, first preached an explicit condemnation of the institution of slavery.

Aslan misses something else that pertains at least to Christianity’s holy text. Here a criterion appears for settling quandaries about conflicting Scriptural passages. The Christian Bible expects readers to acknowledge that it is a story tending toward a grand ideal. The Bible is not just a catalogue of sayings and stories, but is rather the inspired (as we Christians say) account of a people’s journey. On that journey the turning point, or grand ideal, is Christ—Christ risen and Christ present through the Holy Spirit. The living Christ is the Bible’s interpretive key. Here is the single, most important factor for determining what in Christian life and thought is true, or justifiable, and what is not.

What’s crucial, in other words, is to discern the plot of the entire story—to catch its direction—and then to identify not just (as we inevitably do) with biases inherited from society but also, and most fundamentally, with where the story is going. And most assuredly, it is not headed toward the ultimate triumph of patriarchy. The story is headed toward the victory of the One who serves--and does not lord it over—others; the One who welcomed Mary into the inner circle; the one whose message led Paul to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

Interpreting Scripture isn’t easy. More than a millennium after Gregory’s sermon against slavery, the Christian West was busy with the slave trade, and Christian preachers were busy defending this practice from the Bible. But now we all acknowledge that slavery is wrong, and we all acknowledge that it is wrong because it conflicts with the plot, or direction, of the Bible story. It simply doesn’t jell with the grand ideal—Kierkegaard called it “the abolition of dissimilarities” as factor in our regard for others—that is signaled by Jesus story.

If the Bible can say whatever we want it to say, then those who doubt its value are surely right. And so is the devil. In “The Merchant of Venice” one of Shakespeare’s characters says the devil “can cite Scripture for his purpose,” and if any passage has authority equal to any other, and the story doesn’t take us to an ultimate criterion, who can doubt that this is so?

We’d be more faithful—more responsive to what God is telling us—if we adopted a Christocentric, or story-sensitive, way of reading the Bible. Our leaders need to catch on.

Charles Sciven is the Board Chair of the Association of Adventist Forums

Photo courtesy Viviene Martinelli / Adventist News Network

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Marianne Faust) #2

Thank you for your thoughts! Yes our leaders need to catch on, and our theologians need to get much more involved.
As long as our leaders seemed to be sure that the Bible is clearly anti-wo. the whole thing needed to be studied by theologians, When they found out that the Bible rather pointed into the other direction, our president declared the issue to be much less theological. The good work of our theologians has been rejected. (How) will they react?

(Denny) #3

Church doctrine is not based on following Christ who did not follow the status quo when it came to women and nonJews. Church doctrine is based on following as close as possible ancient cultures without breaking the law of the land. If the church was really interested in morality back in the 1960’s it would not need a civil law to tell the GC segregation is illegal and immoral, it would have spearheaded the campaign. Our pioneers must be weeping in their graves at our backwardness.

(Elaine Nelson) #4

To expect readers to discern the plot of the Bible story is asking more than even the most diligent students of the Bible throughout the ages have not easily and readily understood, assuming there is one.

Why should we rely on the many writers to report that without hyperbole, distortion, and even "fudging the facts as did the Hebrews on many occasions? Why should we believe them when they reported that their God commanded them to kill all the Amlakites? It has always been the method of one tribe to eliminate another when vying for territory as us occurring today in the tribal warfare in the Middle East,

Humility should lead everyone to realize that they ALWAYS use subjective reasoning to both write and read written words. The Bible is no different, it can be used in support of both love for enemies or death to them.

Many Christians have made the mistake for reading and seeking more into the Hebrew writing than the NT which was specifically written for Christians as THEIR guide to living; NOT the OT. When the NT reiterates maxims for living such as to love your neighbor and the Golden Rule it is simple, and never complex as many have made it.

(George Tichy) #5

It sounds like a mistrial, doesn’t it?

(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

the critical answer to the most basic of questions is found in Acts 16:25–. the jailer asked what most I do to be saved. the answer was quick and to the point: Believe in The Lord Jesus Christ, Not a word about IJ, the sabbath, diet, dress, WO, tithing, No piling on or scare tactics, or affiliation requirements. fellowship is a nature outcome of belief. in that context, thus the way at the end time it will be ecumenical in confidence in the finished work of Christ, and He alone is worthy of worship. Tom Z

(Elmer Cupino) #7

Actually, there is nothing complex about the bible. The bible serves as a “stimulus” (think inkblots) to draw out our true character. How else could you explain how a group of people reading the same bible and coming up with different conclusions? This could not be any variation of spiritual inspiration.

Besides nobody in earth’s history has changed without their will, bible or not. How else can you explain Moses coming down from Silver Springs, uh-I mean, Mount Sinai, and seeing his people worship a calf, minutes or hours after convening with God Himself. So close, and yet so far.

(Allen Shepherd) #8
  1. Although you seem to feel that TW is antiWO, he has had to concede at least that the scripture is not all his way.
  2. The theologians could not come to a conclusion, and rightly so. The Bible does not teach we must ordain women (theres is no example of such), nor does it say we can’t. So, it is neutral. Even Ted said so.
  3. Where do you get the idea that the “good work of our theologians” was rejected. There was no consensus. So in fact, it was accepted. No recommendation.

(Elmer Cupino) #9


I’m glad you are beginning to see it “our” way. And to think we did not have to resort to demonizing (think Type III) the other “gospel truth.”

(Allen Shepherd) #10

An interesting post.

The secular left is having a hard time with Islam: the atheists see them as crazy religious fanatics, while multiculturalists want to be inclusive as they can. There may be other currants as well.

Aslan, though an apologist for the multiculturalists, does seem to take a low view of scripture likely because that is how he would handle it. Malleable so as one can do with it as one sees fit. He would not support any “absolutism” of any kind. A postmodernist at heart.

Stele is just telling it like it is with WO: it is an issue that scripture does not give clear advice. The pro quote Gal 3, while the con tell of male headship. Jesus and Paul never ordained any women, but did not say we couldn’t.

As far as “recent” goes, there is no way that evolution could be fit into the Bible story, as there is a creation story with man present at the end of the first week. Pushing long ages has been tried in multiple ways, but either the text is manipulated, or the science has to be adjusted, or some of it ignored. No one has ever shown me a way to integrate Paul’s salvation story in Romans and evolution: There is just no place for a “fall” in evolution.

So, I don’t see Ted as being so off the mark by saying the the creation is recent with or without EGW. And I don’t see how the Bible can be read any other way, even if you want to make recent 100K years.

And of course the Devil quoted Scripture to Jesus, so that it is used improperly should be no surprise. But I am not sure the “story-sensitive” method avoids what Chuck wants it to, as it seems it can made to be too malleable as well.

(Allen Shepherd) #11

I have never opposed WO, but just the way it has been done in the church. I have even heard comments here about that since it is a “fait accompli”, that it has to be accepted. That is just railroading. And I don’t respect such tactics even though they are successful at times. They do not respect the vote of he majority, and in a sense negate majority rule, or order at least.

I have never felt the theology was settled, in fact the committees report, or two reports sort of agree with what I have said all along. It is a cultural issue, not a moral one, so should be allowed on that basis. The liberal wing here has been bucking my view because I won’t take a stand on its “morality”, which you folk have not proved, nor can.

I am not sure what you mean by “Type III”.

(Elmer Cupino) #12

Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines morality as: “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.” Wouldn’t you say that subscribing to “generosity and equality” is morality?

Type III? Just jesting.

(Allen Shepherd) #13

Well, I have always taken Jesus over Webster, and Jesus never ordained any women. At least that is an airtight argument. But I don’t want to argue with you about this. You have your mind made up, as others here do, and I will not try to dissuade you. The church will take a vote on it. I predict the divisions will be allowed to do it if they wish, and that will end the discussion. It is not being decided as a moral issue, either. Our theologians could not decide: does not that seem to take it out of the realm of morality?

(George Tichy) #14

Exactly! The Bible is not at all complicated about the simple principles that should guide our daily life. It’s when the “interpreters” (which we have a bunch here) start to read it with the intent of establishing “rules for others” that the situation starts to become complicated and even obnoxious. And it gets worse when the element CONTROL is added to it.

If those “important people in black suits upstairs” understood the basis of the Gospel and Christian love, they would stop that dysfunctional behavior that is certainly ruining people’s emotional structure. I mean, just think of the females in church, and how they are hurt by these discussions about discrimination of females. So many mean things being said in order to keep women’s heads under the lid - and those “machistas” still have the nerve to pray so many times asking God to bless their attacks on women? They must pay you a visit for some pills!!!

(George Tichy) #15

Allen, as I stated here tens of times for months, it’s certainly not a theological issue - as now finally recognized even by the PREXAD. But, beside being a cultural issue, there is no doubt that it is also a moral issue.

Discriminating other human beings is certainly related to some flawed morality.
Check also the definition Elmer provided.

(Elaine Nelson) #16

Allen, if you strictly follow Jesus you will remember that there are more things he did NOT do, than those he did. If you follow the absence of actions as how to live, a whole host of things he did NOT do, you will be living back in the first century.

Jesus never learned to drive; he never married; never had children; never traveled outside Palestine; and NEVER gave us specific instructions on every possible human action.

Surely, you jest.

(Elmer Cupino) #17

Small doses of D2 blocker, for a period of six to twelve months, particularly in the mesolimbic and mesocortical dopaminergic pathways will do the job. It’s a win-win situation. It modulates the delusions of grandeur in a manageable level, leveling the field for males and females, officers and non-officers, spectrumites and non-spectrumites.

(jeremy) #18

in general, this article contains good, interesting thoughts…i would add, though, that our concept of the christocentric story is itself fraught with risks, all of which tend towards inborn or externally induced sentimentality that has the potential to destroy that true christocentric story, which outlines the existence of a satan in addition to a savior…in other words, the true narrative of the bible has to be reclamation from sin and jesus’ role in that reclamation…it cannot be over-stressed that the christocentric story in the bible is not about a feel-good jesus around which tolerant ecumenism - read i’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine - flourishes…

(Bille) #19

I think we have already seen how our theologians will react… Jon Paulien’s blog, which we have mentioned previous, is one example of how a prominent current SDA theologian has responded. See

The official statement issued by the SDA Seminary at Andrews… which was affirmed by all but one of the many theologians and Biblical scholars there… is another. It would be nice if one of our net admins would gather together in a blog essay a bibliography of current SDA scholars who have made comments on the situation having to do with both WO and Male Headship.

There is most likely going to be a veritable barrage from those who are fighting against WO and equality. We need to meet and overcome their negativity with our positive assertions and reference materials. We hear a lot of accusations… a lot of opinions… could we take some looks at reliable source material as to what actually does constitute appropriate guidelines for Bible interpretation and application?

(John Alfke) #20

from the article:
“You insert what you want to insert, irrespective of what the holy text actually says.”

so can you also DELETE what you don’t want?

so when we want our Heavenly Father to be a “Loving God”, we are justified in overlooking the millions of people and animals deliberately massacred by this same Godi n the legendary "flood? and we can simply ignore how God allegedly commanded his fave people to actually celebrate (by killing an innocent sheep) the “fact” that He had deliberately massacred innocent Egyptian kids to impress the pharaoh?

maybe the only way to “rescue” the oldest parts of the Bible is to realize that they seem to represent more “man’s musings” , often as a guide for what NOT TO DO, and not as “God’s book”…of what to do…