Presuppositions: The Invisible Elephant in Our Hermeneutical Discourse

It took seven years—two more than originally allotted—and several false starts, but the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI) finally made good on its response to the hermeneutics “homework” it was given at the end of the 2015 General Conference session. The Frank Hasel edited collection—Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach—is essentially a compilation of fourteen scholarly “position papers” written by eleven theologians and a scientist, who attempt to make a case for a uniform Adventist hermeneutic. As we might recall, this project grew out of the bitterness and hand-wringing that ensued after the defeat of the vote that would have allowed each of the church’s thirteen divisions some leeway to address women’s ordination. The central question then was, “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No?” The world church voted no, opting for global uniformity on the ordination question.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As this essay points out, doctrines of revelation and inspiration that are based on abstract. imaginary presuppositions and ignore the evidence on the surface of the biblical texts are totally irrelevant. The text contains the effort of human beings to express their faith in God within the cultural parameters of their own circumstances. Overlooking the evidence in the texts only results in unhealthy dogmatic distortions, whether they ridicule the Bible or make it into an idol.


Not our business to judge what God does as bad or unethical, especially in the light of one off events, sometimes separated by millennia. Our judgments are further invalidated by the constricted domain of our thoughts and knowledge. God’s judgments are informed by omniscience. Everything God does should be viewed in the light of the cross. If God wanted an entire people wiped off the face of the earth, I’m ok with that. Not for me but for thee kind of thing. I can join them if I don’t like it. A lot of people will. We can condemn God or we can justify Him.

God sometimes acted in recorded Scripture to save rather than destroy nations. Joseph in Egypt, for example. Jonah in Nineveh. We should be asking why God wanted nations/peoples destroyed, rather than criticizing their destruction

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Some are still comfortable with the ‘fear factor’. It makes illogical conclusions about the God of the Bible. In all actuality, we still have pagan concepts. Looking forward to more from the author. Thanks, Matthew!


Thank you for a voice crying in the Adventist wilderness.


This article seems to be trying to solve problems Adventist theology has already solved.

Mike, do you care to elaborate, for the benefit of some of the rest of us…


Presuppositions many SDA bring to Bible study include the idea that the word “commandment/s” or “law” in the NT always refers to the Decalogue. The proof texts in John often cited such as “If you love me, keep my commandments” or Romans “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid, we establish the law” aren’t talking about the Decalogue. Actually, none of the numerous references to “commandment/s” in John’s writings are [edit] talking about the Decalogue. They are a reference to the teachings of Christ. Paul does refer to the Decalogue…sometimes. Context is essential to determine his meaning. The term “law” does not always mean torah or Decalogue. It sometimes refers to the OT in its entirety i.e., the “oracles of God.” Another presupposition we bring to Scripture is that the Sabbath is the “seal of God.” There is no verse in the Bible that says the Sabbath is the seal of God.

Much of the erroneous presupposition we bring to Bible study is derived from EGW. In some cases, we read into EGW our own presuppositions derived from life experience, false teachings, etc.; consequently, we read into EGW false presuppositions which are then read into Scripture. It’s no wonder that false teachings regarding essential doctrines such as Christian compliance with God’s will abound in the denomination. We’ve got layers of presupposition through which Scripture is viewed.


I would be curious if the author believes in the lake of fire. God has the right to take life because He created and sustains all life. And He takes life to protect the harmony of all well-being of those who follow Him. Unless im mistaken, the author implies that a god who says “thou shalt not kill”, cannot himself then kill. This is absurd…does this mean Satan is not worthy of death??? Was hitler not worthy of death??? Was Nero not worthy of death? And if God kills them, then He’s a hypocrite?

The cross answers all questions of God’s goodness. He loves us so much He’s willing to die to save us. But if we choose to reject His offer of salvation, then the penalty of sin is death. Jesus Himself said in the judgment the cities that rejected Him would receive a worse punishment than Sodom and Gomorrah. This clearly indicates Jesus taught that death is the result of rejecting Him and God will impose this as a result of the cities choice to reject Him. The end result of the authors logic affirms the serpents original lie…”thou shalt not die”.


The theology of ‘The end justifies the means’! Been practiced so much by humanity down through the ages. And guess what, its Biblical!! Like I have come to learn and observe, many pagan ideas about the God of the Bible abound today!!


For those advocating that God has the right to commit genocide because he is God, the OT stories are saying that he directed people/Israel as his killing agents. How is that any different from radical Islamic terrorists flying planes into buildings on the orders of Allah?

If one trots out the defense that Allah is a false god and not YHWH the true god, then they are actually confirming their own tribal view of the god of the bible…our god is greater than your god, therefore our violence against you, in the name of our god is justified. This was the tribal attitude of the ancient Hebrews, an attitude that is seconded by those today who try to justify the OT tales of genocide as being the very orders and actions of god.

The reality is that this is the very belief and worldview that Jesus came to overturn. When his disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans, alluding to the OT, Jesus rejected their request out of hand, saying that they didn’t even know what spirit was motivating them. When his countrymen wanted to make him king, ostensibly to drive out and slaughter the hated Romans in the name of God, the land, and their religion, Jesus would have none of it. It led to his death. It also painted a picture of a God that would give himself over to death for his enemies rather than kill them in order to establish his rule. This is called the gospel. Where does one find this picture of God in the tribal portraits of him in the OT?

Peter Enns book, “The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It,” has much good to say about this.


It’s simply a matter of different strokes for different folks. Noah and his family survived in the ark. Lot and a portion of his family survived the destruction of Sodom. Elisha called bears out of the brush to kill disrespectful children. Phinehas executed the fornicators in front of all Israel. The Levites slaughtered the idol worshippers, as did Elijah and Jehu. Now, if you want to lift up your hand against the Lord because you don’t like the way he does things, you can.

I asked a Jewish friend what he thought about the Holocaust. “I don’t think about it,” he responded. “If you washed up on an island after a shipwreck and discovered a body, would you spend your time crying over the body or get about surviving yourself?” Now you may not approve of his answer but that’s how he, a Polish Jew, who taught himself Yiddish so he could talk with his grandfather, viewed the matter.

Abraham was well aware of God’s mercy, as he pleaded for Sodom. David often wrote about God’s mercy, his steadfast love. Jeremiah did, surviving the destruction of Jerusalem, as did Daniel, Nehemiah and others. Jonah said that he knew God would not destroy Nineveh: “2 And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, [was] not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou [art] a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Doesn’t that text prove my point that God is good?

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Of course the OT contains a variety of pictures that the authors give of God. The one who relents on judgement, the one who shows mercy to Israel, and also the one who as a tribal, warrior deity orders genocide against Israel’s enemies.

Two interesting NT contrasts…Jesus himself repudiates that last picture of God. His followers, his countrymen, the zealots, all want God’s vengeance against the occupying pagans…the idolatrous, immoral Gentiles. The very ones who would have been exterminated in the OT. Jesus the messiah tells his followers to put away their swords against their enemies, and instead dies at their hands, Jews and Gentiles, on a Roman cross. Nowhere in the OT, outside of the mysterious picture of the suffering servant, is God’s mercy depicted in this way, especially towards the “godless pagans.”

Secondly, Phineas’s act of holy violence in order to preserve the nation’s purity is said in the psalms to have been counted to him as righteousness. This was also called the zeal of Phineas. When Saul of Tarsus sought to exterminate Jesus followers, it was with this same motivation…holy, violent zeal to preserve the purity of his people, and the honor of God’s name. In his mind, it likely would have been counted to him as righteousness, and concerning zeal, he said, “I persecuted the church.” Iow, he was a religious terrorist in the name of adonai, following in the zealous and righteous footsteps of Phineas. Jesus overturned this as well, on the Damascus road.

There is real danger in taking the violence of the OT performed in the name of God as normative pictures of who God is and what he is like. Especially in light of the fact that Jesus himself is seen decisively repudiating much of this. If one does take these as normative, it can lead to the Sauls of Tarsus of this world, and the type of Christianity that says God bless America, code for our God is greater than yours, as we engage in violent rhetoric, and even pass the ammunition against the Muslims, the communists, the godless left etc., all in the name of God. Exactly what much of American conservative Christianity now looks like today.



I don’t agree that Saul’s zeal can be compared with that of Phineas. Phineas was blessed with a perpetual priesthood. Paul was struck blind. One was doing the right thing, one was not.

Not sure who considers the violent judgments of God in the OT “normative.” The Cross of Christ is “normative.” True, it was a very violent and horrible act but I don’t take issue with God because of it.

Bible study as an SDA requires more in the way of apologetics than hermeneutics. A lot of time spent trying to convince people that the Bible doesn’t say what it obviously says. One pastor noted that as a young person, he loved being an Adventist, until he started facing Romans and Galatians. A lot of the nonsense we have come up with is simply because we are not willing to face what Scripture says. I suspect, and that’s simply what it is, suspicion, that some of the novel emphases we have seen among us are because when faced with the Reformation gospel emphasis, some men were able to recognize that they could not work in the denomination and pointedly present justification by faith alone, Scripture alone, grace alone. It doesn’t have to be complicated stuff. if a person started teaching that there is no verse in the Bible which says the Sabbath is the Seal of God, how long would it be before his insurance rider with eyeglass and dental benefits vanished? Or would they vanish?

I recall Graham Maxwell saying that he and Dr. Heppenstall were called into the office nearly every week to explain things that their students were complaining about. From what I understand, Dr. Maxwell was not a proponent of the Reformation/Pauline gospel; nevertheless, if students were exposed to something new or different from what they learned in ~Bible Reading for the Home, their first move was to cry heresy. Hard to make progress with a mindset like that.


You misunderstand what I said. I’m not saying that God blessed Paul’s zeal. He would have considered his own actions as stemming from “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge,” after encountering Christ. What I did say was that his zeal that issued forth in religious violence came from the same type of motivation as Phineas.

Saul’s aim was to ensure that the nation was purified of this sect that was following a cursed, crucified, messiah wanna be. If God were to act on behalf of Israel, to bless them, to restore them to the head of the nations, to bring his presence back to the temple, and to destroy the godless, pagan occupiers, then such a movement that was so against the Torah couldn’t be tolerated. Just as Phineas acted, so did Saul Of Tarsus.

Whatever the OT may say of Phineas’s violence, we see that Saul’s imitation of it was stopped in its tracks when he met the risen Christ. Iow, violence in the name of God, whether it was genocide or murder in his name, and even if it was described to be directed and blessed by YHWH in the OT, was overturned consistently by Jesus.

The message is that this is not what God is like, it’s not how he works to establish his rule, and it’s not how his people are to act in this world. The religious motivation to dominate over others in the name of god, based on religious ideology, blood, tribe, or soil, which is seen in the OT, was overturned by Jesus.

It still seems that certain portions of the Christian church haven’t gotten the memo.



I doubt that either of us are promoting violence as a Christian way of resolving conflict. I’m certainly not promoting it in either the home or the church. The State, on the other hand, must resort to “violence” at times. Capital punishment requires violence; actually, a big problem with it’s implementation in the States is that it isn’t violent enough. It’s a legal issue, not a medical one; consequently, attempts to medicalize capital punishment have created numerous problems, e.g., venous access, drug procurement, drug resistance, etc. Bullets from a firing squad, although seemingly violent, are essentially less violent than a botched medical procedure.

“What I did say was that his zeal that issued forth in religious violence came from the same type of motivation as Phineas.” Perhaps I don’t grasp your meaning. Phinehas was motivated by [truly] righteous indignation. Paul was not. He was deeply misguided, Phinehas was not.

You take the OT depictions of violence in the name of God, be it genocide or holy murder, as being directed by God. As accurate depictions of what God was like and did. I don’t share that presupposition. I believe that they are tribal depictions of how they understood God. YHWH, in this particular sense, was portrayed to act much like the gods of their neighbors…our God is greater and more powerful than your God.

Jesus overthrew that entire line of thinking and belief. He frustrated that impulse amongst his followers and countrymen. I would say that he still does. In a slightly less blatant way, American Christians today who pronounce God bless America in the calls to war against either radical Muslims, the godless left, etc., are motivated by the same impulse that Jesus sought to quash amongst his followers. Whether they even realize it or not, they cite the OT for the justification of their ideology…not the Jesus who said that his kingdom doesn’t stem from this world.



My mother used to occasionally explain someone’s objectional behavior by saying they had a “mean streak.” In the Old Testament God’s “mean,” vindictive behaviors are certainly evident in the stories mentioned by Matthew and some of his respondents, but I don’t think all of the portrayals of God in the New Testament should be given a pass. In Paul’s writings, for instance, he speaks of God’s requirement of a death to satisfy His needs in the reconciliation process. In post-New Testament theology the idea of a penal substitutionary atonement was more fully articulated and is a bedrock of current Evangelical doctrine. Why do Christians not base their doctrine of reconciliation to God on Christ’s teaching? In the story of the prodigal son when the wayward son comes back to his father, the father does not dwell on his shortcomings. He does not express the need of a death to right His son’s wrongs. Rather, the father is extravagant in expressing His pleasure and exceptance, so much so as to annoy the non-wayward brother. This is not a picture of God that expresses the idea that vengence is Mine saith the Lord.


There was a death in the story of the prodigal, that of the fatted calf. Considering the use of symbolism in the story, i.e., robe, ring, shoes, the [substitutionary/atoning?] death of the calf fits right in. The prodigal was highly confused when he returned. He thought he would work his way back into his father’s favor. His “coming to himself suggests” human reasoning was what brought him home, not an understanding of his father’s grace and love.