The Bible—The Authoritative Source of Our Theology

One of the things that impressed me when I first started dating David (whom I would marry eventually) was his knowledge of the Bible. Of course, I was a sophomore in high school at the time and he was a senior, so his advanced sophistication and understanding of many things impressed me. Nevertheless, I was amazed that his four years of attendance in the local Adventist elementary academy had given him far more exposure to the Bible than I had picked up in my stints at Sunday School and youth classes at all the various churches that I had attended while growing up. This stirred my interest in a church that valued Scripture enough to impart a knowledge of and respect for the Bible that exceeded the custom of choosing certain verses to remind congregants that departure from God’s required path led to certain destruction, an end only avoided by confessing Jesus as savior and repenting of one’s (many, daily) sins.

Little did I know at the time that this interest would lead to baptism, a terminal degree in theological studies, and a career teaching religion at Adventist colleges and universities. I would not have guessed that I would eventually end up teaching Adventist history and discover the roots of the Adventist respect for the Bible as “the authoritative source of our theology,” as the quarterly authors titled this week’s lesson. Least of all would I have suspected that I would be drawn into a lengthy research project on women in the church with my colleague Dr. B. Beem that would introduce me to original, historical Adventist hermeneutics. Yet, here I am, reading the quarterly and reflecting not only on what it says, but what it leaves out in its discussion of the Bible and our theology.

The lesson holds forth strong instructions for “the people of the book” as it acknowledges that the way we interpret Scripture is influenced by a variety of factors, including cultural factors, group traditions, personal experience, and reason. The lesson notes that we need to “be loyal to the living God,” displaying a faithfulness to God’s revealed will that critiques and transcends culture and tradition. The point is well taken; we are born into social groups and socialized into attitudes and behaviors that reflect the mores and values of those groups. We are taught patterns of conduct that the group has developed and calcified into tradition. We are assured that conformity to these norms will bring success: deviation, failure or disaster. Personal experiences with group approbation or negative sanctions tend to reinforce what we have been taught. It seems only reasonable to accept group definitions and interpretations that touch our daily life, whether the issue is on how to become a successful individual, parent children, or pursue spiritual development. Much of the information inculcated in us is helpful, providing a map of the mazeway that will lead to coveted results. The trick is that the cultural formulas provided to navigate life and reach the promised prizes all fail to successfully deliver the ultimate reward: fulfilling God’s desire for us to grow into fully formed human beings, reflecting his image of love. Thus, the lesson’s warning: reason, tradition, culture, and social mores are fallible guides that will leave us short of the desired goal of experiencing the community of God. Only following the path towards God, with God, will bring us home to dwell in God. And the Bible is an immeasurable help along that journey; so, we must privilege the Bible over culture and tradition, as the lesson so helpfully points out. Our loyalty to God must be beyond that to social and cultural mores, and even personal inclinations, if we are to move forward towards growth into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Yet, when we take a closer look at the lesson note that says we need to “be loyal to the living God,” we observe that the statement continues further to assert that this is the God “who has revealed His will in the Written Word of God.” A caution must be inserted here: acknowledging that God has revealed His will in the Bible does not mean that we are infallible discerners of that will. Herein lays the rub: there is no reading of Scripture without interpretation. We come to the text wearing eyeglasses, shaped by those above-cited cultural factors, which incline us to “see” certain parts of the text while ignoring others. As one of my sociology professors was fond of saying, “Any way of seeing is a way of not seeing.” Therefore, choosing to privilege the word of God over reason, tradition, and culture is not the same thing as being able to read Scripture without the biases imparted to us by our backgrounds. No one, despite claims to the contrary, takes the Bible “Just as it reads.” We can only “take the Bible” as we read it, and we always read it with our spectacles on. And further, our pledge to loyalty to God over tradition and culture gives us absolutely no assistance in discerning when society may actually be closer to modeling God’s will in a certain area than are the traditions of our own religious subculture, which form the bedrock of what we “know” about what is right and what must be eschewed. In truth, our religious sub-culture tends to determine for us what is acceptable or repugnant to God, and we read these assumptions into the texts we encounter.

We do not have to wander from America’s history to find examples of how this has functioned in the past. How many Christians heard slavery justified by preachers who pronounced it the will of God, a product of the curse on Ham, further vindicated by Paul who remanded the slave Onesimus to Philemon, and slavery established as an acceptable Christian institution in the various epistles that admonished slaves to obey their masters? When I was completing my doctorate, a visiting professor shared with my graduate course the predicament of his aged Southern parents who were suddenly hearing that segregation was a sin and integration was God’s will, when they had been instructed in their church since infancy that the opposite was the case. They felt confused and betrayed as they had been taught from the Bible that God’s will was the separation of the races. Now the law (society) was telling them that they needed to disregard what they had been taught at church and faithfully lived out all their lives. There is a lesson for all of us as we make glib comments about the problem of allowing culture to determine our actions instead of the Bible. The lesson should be one of humility as we recognize that we do not always read the Bible skillfully or set the standard of God’s will for human relationships. Too often we find texts to support our proclivities and prejudices without even suspecting that we blatantly prefer human error over what God would have us learn about His will in His word.

Similar points could be made when it comes to matters of gender relationships. The Christian church has not always been in the forefront of advocating for women. While contemporary efforts are being made in the Adventist Church to reduce violence towards women, many churches still promote headship doctrines that studies have shown to be associated with increased levels of domestic violence. Again, pastors preach the subjection and subordination of women from the pulpit, utilizing verses from Pauline epistles. Victims of domestic violence have been sent home to their abusers with “biblical advice” to submit, with the additional argument that they may convert their abuser. The Adventist Church needs no reminder that wage-equity for women came at the insistence of legal action against it. Again, despite the fact that God chose a woman to guide and bless the Adventist Church from its beginning, preaching from its pulpits and examining candidates for ministry, serving as His mouthpiece and prophet, groups desiring to demonstrate loyalty to God’s written word actively fight against the presence of women in the pulpit. And while repeated world-church study groups have shown no biblical injunction against women’s ordination, certain churches within the denomination work to remove women elders from local church leadership under the premise that biblical faithfulness demands it. For those opposing women in ministry and their ordination, the hue and cry is that the recognition of God’s work through ministering women represents the incursion of outside influences on the church, influences that must be resisted. From their perspective, the church must stick to God’s will as revealed in the Bible and not be co-opted by culture. The individuals struggling to hold the line on this issue are being loyal to what they have been taught that the Bible reveals as God’s will.

In reviewing the ways in which past attempts at loyalty to the Bible and its teachings have served as unreliable guides on issues where we were unable to separate what we believed Scripture taught from its intent, it is apparent that determining to use the Bible as the single measuring rod is fraught with pitfalls. While I agree that it is the yardstick against which to test our traditions and experiences, as the lesson author urges, I must also remonstrate that it is only trustworthy as an instrument if we possess absolute commitment to use sound principles of biblical interpretation as we endeavor to incrementally discern God’s good will for us as His children. The alternative, a naïve trust that a cursory reading of texts, or a dependence on the interpretation handed to us by church traditions or current leadership, can lead us as far astray as simply following societal norms, which are merely human endeavors to create a functional community.

The obstacles cited in using the Bible as the “authoritative source of our theology” must always be acknowledged, but that does not mean that they cannot be mitigated or that they disqualify the use of the Bible as the significant source of our theology. I would shudder at the thought of replacing the Bible with any other source for the foundation of our belief and praxis. I believe that the Bible has demonstrated through the centuries God’s ability to use His Book to overthrow oppressive human conventions, even those justified by the misappropriation of His word. In part, my faith in the transformational ability of Scripture stems from studying early Adventism. One of the most fascinating insights to emerge from my study of nineteenth-century Adventism was the experience of hearing the church pioneers detail their own commitment to Bible study and spiritual growth. They did not assume that a superficial reading of a text revealed its full meaning or that isolated texts provided a dependable index of God’s thoughts on a subject. Ellen White, reflecting the ethos of the Advent movement, was not content with faith built on superficial, sentimental, or casual study of Scripture. As she instructed the flock:

We cannot obtain wisdom without earnest attention and prayerful study. Some portions of Scripture are indeed too plain to be misunderstood, but there are others whose meaning does not lie on the surface to be seen at a glance. Scripture must be compared with scripture. There must be careful research and prayerful reflection. [1]

From the beginning of the Advent Near Movement, A clear paradigm was laid out to the approach to scriptural study. William Miller described his own technique of Bible study, saying:

I proceeded to lay aside all my presuppositions, to thoroughly compare scripture with scripture, and to pursue its study in a regular and methodical manner. I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded as to leave me free from embarrassment respecting any mysticisms or contradictions. Whenever I found anything obscure, my practice was to compare it with collateral passages: and by the help of Cruden, I examined all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then, by letting every word have proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty.[2]

This method became the standard approach to study, its principles echoed by James and Ellen White, as well as the various well-known pioneers of the movement. The articles on Bible study that they composed for the Review and Herald reflected Miller’s approach and were crystal clear on several points: Study needed to be systematic, diligent, carefully reasoned, and thorough. Preconceptions had to be set aside: truth had to be more important than traditions, previous beliefs or social mores. As churchman R. Cottrell announced,

The only way open before us is to return to the fountain of living waters, the written word which God has given us, and no longer hew out to ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Let vain traditions go, and embrace and heartily obey the truth, and it is possible that we may yet be saved. Who will do so? Who will renounce the false traditions of men, and cleave to God alone and obey his word?”[3]

The radical willingness to “let go” of former beliefs and praxis extended so far as to require a willingness to subject the most basic assumptions of church practice and social life to reconsideration in light of a more complete investigation of issues. A clear example of this is found in an 1859 article:

I know that most of us have been gathered into the message of the third angels from the sectarian churches where we received our religious training, which we now, in the clear light of God’s truth see was defective, both in doctrine and practice; and we are aware that in them the pride, and popularity, and conformity to the world, and worldly fashions tolerated by them, and besides in some of them the prejudice against woman’s efforts and labors in the church, have crushed out her usefulness.[4]

The author continued by acknowledging “many of you feel the embarrassing influences of our former associations,” and then invited them to carefully consider scenes from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost where the “tongues of fire fell upon on all that were present.” He noted that the women as well as the men prophesied, setting an example for Spirit-filled Adventist women. His basic argument to his readers was to draw on reason, then apply it to the issue at stake. His address encouraged Adventists to study and use reasoned contemplation of scripture to reform Christian practice, reject established traditions, and adopt a more Biblically informed praxis.

In their approach, every word had to be given its due attention. The issues under consideration had to be approached not only prayerfully and humbly, but also with an attitude of honest inquiry, where reason and revelation were simultaneously honored. Further, the practices of contextualization and the harmonization of all statements on the topic were deemed essential steps in adequate Bible study. Additionally, not only were all of a particular author’s statements on a topic to be considered, the perceived views of that writer had to be measured against the testimony of the Bible as a whole. The question had to be asked, “How did this interpretation fit in with the overall message of the Bible?” As early as 1857, well-respected church pioneer D[avid] Hewitt outlined the importance of this accepted Adventist approach to interpretation:

It is the custom with all Bible students to find all the important texts that bear on any one subject, and compare them together until they come to a satisfactory understanding of what the penman means. No one should found a theory on one single isolated passage, for this mode of proving things has produced many discordant theories in the world.[5]

Reading further in the article, one finds that Hewitt contended that, when trying to understand the meaning of any particular Pauline statement, “the candid reader of the sacred pages will find other declarations of the same apostle that must be brought to harmonize with this in order to get a clear understanding off the Apostle’s meaning in 1 Cor. xiv.”[6]

James White wrote several strong articles stressing similar sentiments and extending the understanding further. In a short essay, “Paul Says So,” White challenges the readers to a) examine what they bring to the text as an assumption of its meaning; b) ask if the answer is contained completely in one text; c) demand that a text be harmonized with both the remainder of Paul’s decrees on similar issues and his recorded practices; d) that it be harmonized with the rest of Scripture; and finally, e) be subjected to critical thinking on the issue. James White was insistent that an interpretive position on a text must “harmonize with both revelation and reason.”[7]

As to the understanding of Scripture, individual believers were expected to utilize concordances and commentaries to expand their knowledge base and acquaint themselves with various readings on an issue. After gathering facts and applying logic and reason to reach a preliminary conclusion, thoughts were then moved to the public arena to be examined and analyzed by more students. Individuals retained the freedom to believe whatever their study led them to conclude, but introducing the idea to the public forum for an inspection of evidence and logic created an atmosphere of accountability to rational investigation in the place of idiosyncratic ideations. It allowed for individual growth through the review of one’s initial responses to a subject. It also increased the possibility of breaking through unsuspected prejudices introduced by the lens through which one’s background predisposed the student. This practice can serve as a critical safeguard today: comparing notes with readers from significantly different experiences can reveal ways in which social positioning and cultural background determine what we see and don’t see.

Especially interesting in terms of the commitment to the Bible as the authoritative source of our theology was the pioneers’ stance on the functions of Divine and human roles in the creation of Scripture. Ellen White, in a unique position to opine on the nature of the Divine/human collaboration underlying the production of God’s messages to people, left no doubt concerning her stand in either her personal correspondence or the statements on inspiration she prepared for publication on the question of how the Scriptures were created. As she said:

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.[8]

Again, in the same manuscript, Ellen White denied the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it not God’s mode of thought and expression. Men will often say that such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not his pen. “[9] Her book, The Great Controversy, reflected similar thoughts:

The Ten Commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They are of Divine, and not of human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14[10]

Ellen White repeatedly stressed that human agents left “human fingerprints” on Scripture.[11] Thus, Scripture must be understood as an amalgamation of the human and the Divine, and that it is that very fusion that makes it comprehensible to human minds. Human beings live within an imperfect world, within culturally determined structures of thought and language. White was clear that God’s condescension includes communicating through limited and fallible vehicles: “The Bible is not given to us in grand, superhuman language. Jesus, in order to meet man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect.”[12] The Bible is ultimately a compilation of human attempts to convey their best understandings of God’s message to them. If the Bible is imperfect, great care must be taken when certain texts are drawn out to make cases that may adversely affect the spiritual progress or acceptability of a portion of humanity. Once gained, this fundamental understanding compels us to proceed with great caution when interpreting Scripture that appears clear at first glance but may not withstand close scrutiny in light of God’s revealed will: the healing and salvation of humanity.

For Adventist pioneers, this understanding of the imperfection of the text did not remove one iota of either human responsibility for seeking God’s will through careful Biblical study or the freedom to move forward in understanding as God gave additional light. In their view, truth must be pursued through study and personal spiritual preparation to receive further light as it comes along.[13] Adventist theologian Edward Heppenstall captured the core of this essential aspect of Adventist Scriptural hermeneutic when he said:

Freedom belongs to man on religious grounds. Freedom is the gift of God. . . . The most troublesome thing is suppressed truth. It will not stay suppressed. . . . Religion that is afraid of investigation and scholarship tends towards superstition and emotionalism. . . . Blind credulity as to the truth one holds is the refuge of sluggish minds. It relieves the individual from the real study of God’s word. It settles all differences by silencing all opposing voices and denying the right to ask questions. This takes the meaning out of religion, leaving it ignorant, superficial, intolerant.[14]

According to Ellen White, the process of increased understanding of God’s will and word are to be viewed as ongoing:

New light will ever be revealed on the Word of God to him who is in living connection with the Son of Righteousness. Let no one come to the conclusion that there is no more truth to be revealed. The diligent, prayerful seeker for truth will find precious rays of light yet to shine forth from the word of God. Many gems are yet scattered that are to be gathered together to become the property of the remnant people of God.” [15]

Accordingly, we can expect to continue to have to relinquish beliefs that we have held. As the prophet remarked: “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”[16]

Where does this leave us today? How do we approach the Bible as the “authoritative source of our theology,” while recognizing that commitment to this has led us up blind alleys in the past and may be dividing us today, at a time when the world needs the liberating message of the gospel as never before? Do we, as some have, simply turn away from the Bible as unhelpful at best and absolutely destructive at worst? Or, alternatively, can we affirm that the Bible, along with the Holy Spirit, holds our best chance of realizing a theology that is redemptive and life giving? Adventist pioneers may have the answer that we need in their approach to pursuing biblical truth. No less than they did, we need to gather together prayerfully in humility and commit ourselves to the process of honest inquiry, subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit, being willing to abandon the traditions of even our own church subculture, using the reason and skills we have been given as we study the Scriptures to discern God’s revealed will for us as individuals and a church as we seek to prepare ourselves to be God’s ambassadors to a distressed and dying planet. Our efforts will undoubtedly be flawed and imperfect, “as God and heaven alone are infallible,” but I trust that “God’s grace will be sufficient” to us.

[1] Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1979), 60.

[2] James White, Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller, 38.

[3] R. F. Cottrell. “Tradition Preferred to Truth” Review and Herald 31, no. 17 (April 7, 1868): 268-69.

[4] B.F. Robbins, “ To the Female Disciples in the Third Angel’s Message” Review and Herald 15, no. 3 (December 8, 1859): 21-22.

[5] D[avid] Hewitt, “Let Your Women Keep Silence in the Churches,” Review and Herald 10, no.24 (October 15, 1857): 190.

[6] Ibid. Another example of the application of the “harmonization” principle is found in an article submitted by M. E. Cornell, our early evangelist to Woodland, California, who complained that the work was impeded there by the notion that women should not take an active role in church meetings, based on a faulty interpretation of certain Pauline verses. The evangelist argues for full participation, stating: “But the Scriptures seem clear on the point. Not one word in the whole Bible is ever found with which to oppose it, except in the writings of the apostle Paul. And a careful comparison of all Paul’s statements on the subject shows that he had reference only to unbecoming conduct of women in the public assembly, such as contradicting, altercating, and assuming authority over men in business meetings of the church.” M.E. Cornell, “Woodland, Cal” Review and Herald 41, no. 25 (June 3, 1873): 198.

[7] James White, “Paul Says So.” Review and Herald 10, no.9 (September 10, 1857): 152.

[8] Manuscript 24, 1886, from which this often-cited statement is drawn, appears in Selected Messages 1, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958): 21. Ellen White’s series of statements prepared in the 1880’s, “The Inspiration of the Word of God,” “Objections to the Bible,” and “The Mysteries of the Bible a Proof of Its Inspiration,” clarified both her stance on the nature of Biblical inspiration and how the process worked in her own writings. While chosen individuals were filled with the Holy Spirit, they retained the responsibility of finding words to most beautifully express the vision or ideas that had been presented to them.

[9] Selected Messages, 1:21.

[10] The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1888), 5.

[11] For Ellen White and other Adventist thought leaders, this understanding of inspiration had practical implications. It accounts for the changes in tone, voice, style, and level of literary sophistication from one book to the next. It allows for the differences in the Gospel accounts where writers describe the same events from diverse perspectives. It even helps eliminate the tension created by different ordering of events from one Gospel to another or the conflict between texts that tell the same story but give different details.

[12] Selected Messages, 1:20.

[13] Ellen White expanded the significance of study and search for truth when she tied it with one’s ability to comprehend Scripture. She posited a mental law of use or atrophy, saying: “The mental powers will surely be contracted, and will lose their ability to grasp the deep meanings of the Word of God, unless they are put vigorously and persistently to the task of searching for truth.” Fundamentals of Christian Education, (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association), 127.

[14] Edward Heppenstall, “Academic Freedom and the Quest for Truth,” Spectrum 4, no. 1 (Winter, 1972): 34-38.

[15] Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work: A Compilation from the Writings of Ellen G. White (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1892), 34.

[16] Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures,” Review and Herald 69, no. 30 (July 26, 1892): 465.

Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Thank you for your balanced and renewed focus on the Bible as our source of truth. One of the confusion points I’ve run into when trying to establish (discover,validate,examine) many truths in the Bible is to determine who has the final word. Your reference to EGW writings in this article leaves the premise that the final decision would lean ultimately to the Bible and the truth therein as the – final reference upon which to settle any arguments/discussions/clarification.

In a practical sense, this is not how much of the rank and file of Adventist members “exegete the truth”.
Much of the commentary, when EGW is referenced, begins with the caveat that she is the “prism” or ultimate authority on biblical truth. Sentences, which use the wording “according to the Spirit of Prophecy”, “pen of inspiration”, etc - these create a dual sourcing enigma — specifically if you ask a member to show the source of the issue from the Bible, in practical analysis EGW is sourced and vice versa with the bible being used to shore up/prove a statement from EGW.

This begs the question that is… it even possible to be a “biblical Adventist”, I guess so, if you include EGW as part of the biblical canon, if not it’s at the very least duplicitous?

Can you actually consider EGW inspired and not include her in the biblical canon? if you cant’ why not?

If every clarification and view of truth necessitates looking through the “lense” of her myriad set of writings, which writings are included? COAS? EW? all of her letters and correspondence? how about compilations? are they excluded? Upon which truth or process do you make these determinations.

If you take EGW on source with the bible, she should be included in the canon. To do otherwise is confusion for the true bible student who is trying to establish truth through comparison and analysis with “just the bible”.

with kind regards,



Ellen White’s dichotomizing of Scripture into “portions too plain to be misunderstood” and obscure portions is hermeneutical error, but we should not be too hard on her. She was merely echoing the Reformers, who for polemical reasons urged that any dumb farmer is as capable as a learned scholar of interpreting the Bible. And for those portions that the Reformers were forced to concede as obscure, the dumb farmer could be taught hermeneutics, which would enable him or her to interpret the obscure portions. Ellen White echoed this polemical urging not only because she opposed medieval church authority, but more importantly, because she wanted to exhort the dumb farmers, who were her readers, to try their best.

And she was totally unaware of Schleiermacher, the Father of Modern Hermeneutics. Schleiermacher rightly rejects this dichotomization and declares that everything is obscure. Nothing is plain; everything must be interpreted. This declaration facilitates his transformation of hermeneutics from a mere auxiliary of theology (and law and the Classics) that consists of fragmentary rules of interpretation into a general science of interpretation and art of understanding. Because of Schleiermacher, we today are correct in conceiving hermeneutics as the umbrella over which all of the human sciences, including theology, reside.

Ellen White’s echoing of the Reformers does not constitute a credible rejoinder to Schleiermacher, of course. The only significant rejoinder we have is provided by Heidegger, the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. He turns interpretation and understanding upside down. For Heidegger, understanding precedes interpretation. We are “thrown” into the world and bombarded by meaning. What we observe is “ready-at-hand” like a hammer. We don’t analyze the hammer and interpret it; we simply pick it up and use it.

I should point out that Heidegger does not inform those Seventh-day Adventists today who insist that the Bible is plain. That insistence is largely the result of anti-intellectual know-nothingness. The reason I suggest that we not be too hard on Ellen White is because she was not a dummy like many today who read her writings and quote her. Given a different historical context, I have no doubt that she would be on our side.

By the way, if you quarrel with Schleiermacher’s astute insight, then simply choose a verse in the Bible and think about what that verse means. After a while, you will discern that the verse you have chosen is obscure. Let’s try this thought experiment. Perhaps the most beloved verse of Seventh-day Adventists is John 3:16. What is love? What does begotten mean? How is it that Jesus is the Son of the Father? What does it mean to believe? These are profound questions that reflect that there is nothing plain about John 3:16.

How is it possible, then, that a simpleton can understand many of the grand truths set forth in Scripture? The answer is that the simpleton is not interpreting Scripture with accuracy and precision but merely relying on heuristic shortcuts. Seventh-day Adventist theology is fundamentally pre-hermeneutical. The doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are fundamentally heuristic shortcuts. Heuristic shortcuts are useful and valuable but they do not substitute for accurate and precise interpretation of the biblical text.

Ellen White does not get sufficient credit for her accurate approach to thought/word inspiration issues, because Seventh-day Adventists in general do not understand linguistics, and thus, have never fully understood her famous quotation discussed in this essay. Her famous quotation anticipates the lectures on linguistics given by Ferdinand de Saussure, the Father of Modern Linguistics and the most influential thinker, not philosopher but thinker, of the twentieth century.

Seventh-day Adventism’s unique contribution to hermeneutics and Ellen White’s most important contribution to hermeneutics is not fully realized by most Seventh-day Adventists. It’s not even discussed in the Sabbath School Lessons for the second quarter 2020. It is the Great Controversy, which we typically describe as our unique contribution to theology but not as our unique contribution to hermeneutics. Ellen White did not know Friedrich Ast, who some regard rather than Gadamer as the true Father of Philosophical Hermeneutics, but the Great Controversy can be regarded as a bold extension of Ast’s ideas. His object of interpretation is the spirit of the age, with special focus as a philologist on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ellen White offers that our object of interpretation in everything that we see is a Geist not of a particular age but of the cosmos. This Geist has at its core a Grundidee that everything we see bears on the Great Controversy between God and Satan.

Thank you for this essay.


Could not agree more with this understanding, but we should also remember that all new light must be consistent with the rest of Scriptures. New light never represents taking a single Bible verse or even what seems to be a “new concept” and twist it to say something that is counter to or incompatible with other Bible teachings.

This statement is subjective and an oxymoron - if we have turned into “blind alleys” as you say it certainly would not be due to our commitment to using the Bible as “the authorative source of our theology”, unless of course you fee that The Bibles is not the ultimate source of truth.
The rest of this closing and long paragraph is less than clear using trendy cliches, such as our current (SDA) stance is divisive (Jesus came to divide truth from error by the way), or with nuanced statements such as perhaps it is not based solely on the Bible and the Holy Spirit or is not redemptive, but rather it is simply based on learned subculture or tradition.

This last sentence essentially unravels all the previous sentences you made concerning using a humble approach similar to the one our pionneers used. As the Bible says: a little yeast leavens the whole batch

There is a new Gospel named “Adventist Lifestyle”, a copy of the Petites bourgeois` ideas of being a “good citizen / believer”, just upgraded with some elements of yesteryear. and I find some alarming tendencies :

So, WE only accept being fully awake or being at sleep. “Altered States on Consciousness” (title of a scientificallly sound book) are the devils . And Paul never was in a state of ecstasy - correctly translated ( ! ) it means “delight” - so the one Professor of an SDA theological faculty. Never ask for what “koith” stands in Greek New Testament - it is derived from Latin “coitus” ! - - so one of his colleagues - -

Some odd exaples of the environments influences : When short sleeves came into everywomans life here the depilation of the axle hair was was seen as being lewd, now as a lack of cleanliness. And when Mrs white was on visit in Vohwinkel, Germany she bothered abot two young ladies renewing their make up in the ladies restroom, not aware that young ladies travelling first class just had to display a perfectly powdered face - - - trying to meet contemporyary local challenges is denounced as “creeping compromises” - - - here and there.

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Pretty sure I saw almost all of the arguments presented here in an earlier post - how do you confirm this statement is fact and not just opinion?

this was an excellent article for many reasons, not least of which was the inference that it is possible to study the bible, sincerely believing it to be the word of god, and yet come to wrong conclusions…while this article may have been attempting to comment on the wrongness of using the bible to invalidate WO, in reality, and as was emphasized well, it is a fact that everything in our understanding of what the bible is saying is subject to the same weaknesses that drive headship…

it is quite evident that the most stringent and correct methods, and the most astute scholarship and sound reasoning, used by the brightest minds, can lead to error, as we can see from the science of evolution and earth origins…in the case of the bible, and the subject of salvation, it probably really is the condition of our heart and relationship with god that can save us from ourselves…if we really are in a living connection with the son of god, we will be recipients of ideas and impressions that it is the work of the holy spirit and holy angels to impart…but if we aren’t in this living connection, even while we think we are, we’ll only be reading our fallen selves into what we study, which means opening the bible becomes worse than a waste of time…

of course the issue probably boils down to who can say whether anyone is in a living connection with christ or not…obviously both those who are, and those who aren’t, will believe they are…

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All valid points but, IMHO, a huge problem has been overlooked.
Yes, every word should be considered and yes, many factors need to be taken into account and biases recognized but the Bible we read today is not in the one scribed in its original languages. Thus, whether we realize it or not, we are subject to the competence of the translator(s) to first of all have a knowledge of what the recorded word in ancient Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic meant during the time it was written down and secondly how to accurately capture that ancient concept in modern English. And of course, the theology of the translator also has an effect.
There are several ways to minimize this translation bias. Study several modern translations (one Christian commentator I have read uses 30!) but also study more literal translations such as Young’s or the Concordant Version. Hebrew OT and Greek NT Interlinear versions are also available. Good ones give a concordance reference number enabling one to easily look up the range of meaning for a specific word.
I recommend using such tools as it can make a significant difference in understanding the Bible.

Are you a recent convert to the Seventh-day Adventist Church? If not, you should be able to grasp the self-evident truth about what I wrote. Anti-intellectual know-nothingness is such a prominent characteristic of our Seventh-day Adventist sub-culture that Bill Knott, editor of Adventist Review, felt the need to write an award-winning editorial aptly titled, “Reclaiming the Library.” See


I understand what is being said, but I still have a problem. Why do we need so many sources/additional material/more Bible versions to understand how God would like for to live or lives and what the future is for believing in Him? That has always been a puzzle to me with out a straight answer from theology. God really intended it to be this difficult that the average person can not understand the Bible? How can that be? We are missing something!!


Phill, please be patient with the neophytes… :wink:


For some weird reason, the Lessons do not identify and discuss the principal writings of Ellen White that reflect her hermeneutics: Selected Messages, Volume 1, p. 5-76 and Selected Messages, Volume 3, p. 28-86. She was aware of William Miller’s fragmentary rules of interpretation and offered words of affirmation about them. But notice in these principal writings that she does not set forth fragmentary rules of interpretation. Her approach is more ontological in nature. One might boldly claim that she anticipates the philosophical/ontological turn in hermeneutics that occurred in the twentieth century.

Schleiermacher correctly bemoaned fragmentary rules of interpretation and somehow his brilliance appears to have been seconded by Ellen White, who knew nothing about him.

Evangelical Christians, in contrast to Seventh-day Adventists, look to Milton S. Terry for hermeneutical inspiration. His hermeneutics are more methodological in nature. The first edition of his treatise was published in 1883. His work appears more comprehensive and scholarly than what Ellen White wrote, but her principal writings on hermeneutics identified above have greater staying power and relevance, as demonstrated I think by subsequent hermeneutical thought. Accordingly, you should stick to the standard literature; stay away from books on hermeneutics that one might find in a Christian book store.

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Phil, well, I am greatly moved by Bonhoeffers “Nachfolge” - what he writes - more than 75 years ago - rather meets my situation than “Messages to Youg People” . once upon a time ! And my exegesis is shaped by my fathers example oif studying - studying - studying the Bible ! Honestly searching the meaning and the message ! And him constanty questioning and his approach ad his understanding and his reading.and his preaching - - -


I am not a recent convert and your “self-evident truth” seems to be little more than an opinion based on the proof you presented. I knew Bill Knott casually through my parents, who were friends and across-the-street neighbors with his parents.for 20+ years. We studied at AUC the same year (for one year) but I was pursuing Computer Science and he was studying Religion. Something happened to Bill while at George Washington University (great Jesuit school), although he is a historian his career as the editor of the Adventist Review (including the article in the link you provided) seems to have been consumed more with political concerns than with scholarly systematic theology.
My experience with SDA theology is completely different than yours (I am guessing) due to our very different views. As I have already mentioned a few times, I have no formal education in theology, divinity, Etc. but I did take an initial theology bachelor’s program in my first college year, under two professors I admired (Mario Veloso and Humberto Treyier - both scholars in their own right). I was not pursuing a degree in theology, I had intellectual interests in this area and I wanted to get a baseline in my knowledge before moving on to other studies.
I ended up leaving the SDA church for more than two decades primarily due to frustration with politics in the church and the effect they had on my family. As an adult my interests in the knowledge of God has remained and I have come back to the church informally out of conviction that no other religious organization (corporately or individually) come even close to the understanding and acceptance of biblical truths. And I stay away from church politics something I have found to have very positive results in my spiritual life and peace of mind.
EGW was not a Systematic Theology scholar but are you saying that Evangelicals today are more methodical than SDAs in their hermeneutics? Are you including all the ecumenical agreements they have signed where they essentially throw away all doctrine of the last 500 years?
If SDA members are know-nothing anti-intellectuals as you said, what denomination do you find superior in this regard? (I already asked this before but your answer wasnt straight forward).

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The Bible can be read and understood on many levels. Andrew Jukes said it is both a revelation and a veil.

Each one of us is unique due to our culture, upbringing, and personal experiences. Each of us has a certain way of looking at reality. The genius of the Bible is that it can accommodate the entire range of what mankind needs from it. I believe God had it written that way. It causes some friction between groups but that should teach us to appreciate other views. I believe one day everything will be clear to all of us but right now God, in His wisdom, has deemed it otherwise.

I can only speak from my own experience. I used to get into some interesting discussions with Calvinist friends. I now understand that they needed a God of holiness, power and justice. They were thankful that He had chosen them for salvation.

My Adventist exposure saw the relationship between God and man quite differently. I have come to see the Adventist view is what most people who are brought up in and stay in Adventism are content with or those who gravitate to Adventism need.

I struggled trying to reconcile passages that support my friends’ Calvinist views with what I had been taught in Adventism. I could not do it. For many years I had no answer, so I guess, in a way, I had similar concerns to those you brought out in your comment.

I was an Adventist for almost twenty years. Then, because of some profound changes in my personal circumstances, I was impelled to rethink my theology. You could say it could no longer satisfy me; my need had changed.
I needed to find a new way of thinking about the love of God, particularly how that love defined the plan of salvation.

It can be risky to venture out because in a sense you must set aside what you think are essential elements of your faith, or at least some things you have been taught are givens, are unquestionable. But if God has placed a different desire in your heart, to know Him in a different way, then I believe He will help you.

It’s hard to know if sharing what one has found is helpful or not. We are all in different places. My comment was an effort to point out resources available to those not content but still searching.

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Appreciate your comments and understand. I remain amusingly frustrated by humans constant need for more 'sources to learn the truth. I don’t think the Bible is all that difficult to understand because I probably see it differently. A historical record from humans viewpoint and they in return explained their view of God from that point in history. Looking at the whole, for me, simplifies it. It becomes a story about a Being, that if one chooses to believe, has and can do wondrous things. It presents a past and a future where we can see this being always present. We can not view this being in a static manner but a dynamic process. It seems that organized religion wants this God to be static. I am too logical minded to believe that.

I am still an SDA member, but believe in using the mind I was given, not sure that is a desirable trait desired by the .org!


It’s not. Most if the people in scientific fields today hardly have any interest in philosophical discourse, and some go as far as saying that philosophy hasn’t made any contribution to the human development. I disagree of course, but I hardly think of hermeneutics as an umbrella over human knowledge, since hermeneutics itself has to reference a wide range of concepts from logic to linguistics, to semantics for it to make any sense. It’s not fundamental in any way even though the function of human psyche depends on the interpretive contextualization, in most cases of our being it’s automation that informs conscious awareness and not the other way around.

As you point out below:

That’s not the case when it comes to the broader continuum of cognitive process in which we get to re-cognize something, with cognition being an interpretive concept that will contextualize hammer before it flows up as a “ready made” awareness in consciousness.

Gadamer correctly pointed out that we neglect language, and that language and though is exactly the same thing. He also points out that truth is a meaningless concept apart from it being a conceptual and interpretive alignment in a process of intersubjective communication. So, the symbol representative of the hammer isn’t of itself true. It’s a subjective assignment and cognitive process that makes it a viable representation of these conceptual relationships.

For EGW, and subsequently Christian fundamentalism that follows similar trajectory, the truth is not found in conceptual alignment, but is embedded in the text itself. So, the symbols themselves become true… which is the dominant error of Christian literalism and deification of the Bible as “the word of God”.

I highly doubt, based on what I’ve read by EGW, that she had a good grasp on theory of language or that she understood that the words she was reading and writing are representational links to concepts in her head, and couldn’t viably contextualize truth if these symbols don’t link up with same or similar concepts in heard of other people. For her, even questioning such as a problem would be amounting to criticizing scripture and not trusting that God could properly structure the Bible in a way that anyone reading it has capacity to properly understand it.

Well, in terms of the title of this article, imagine a scenario in which there’s a tribe of illiterate people who pass Christian narrative as an oral tradition of basic gospel story that encapsulates and contains a summary of Christian narrative which this tribe imported and perpetuated as oral tradition from before the NT. As such, there is no verses and chapters. There are no books of the Bible. There’s only a story that structures human relationships in that tribe in context of sacrificial relationship to each other as a counter-narrative of the internal evolutionary argument of survival of the strongest.

Would that narrative be lacking something? Do we really need to re-read consolidated Jewish and early Christian Church directives that can only be properly contextualized in that culture in order to understand that narrative?

The major issue is that Bible becomes the externalization of largely traditional narrative, which is subsequently appropriated by a priestly class that has to constantly recontextualize via proper hermeneutics, while the faithful lug it around like a book of magical spells.

Bible is and always be a static encapsulation of otherwise traditional narrative that’s meant to be organic, but instead was captured and frozen in time. And as such, it will always have a diminishing influence as cultural aspects of early culture diverges and flows further away from year 0.

As ironic as it may sound, Christianity should be freed from prison of the book, and become a living narrative it should be, instead of being a tool of institutional control and oppression it has been with Bible as the dominant tool which only preists can read properly.

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I am sorry, Arkdrey, but you don’t know what you are talking about. Your impertinence is off-putting. I am not going to engage you in conversation. But just to give you a little glimpse of your ineptitude, I can offer you this: Contrary to your assertion in your comment, Gadamer did not believe that language and thought are exactly the same thing, as explained by Jean Grondin, the leading authority on Gadamer and the most important hermeneutist in the world today, in his Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics.

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These words seem to indicate that EGW thought God and everyone else in the Bible actually spoke in the “thees” and "thou"s, etc., of the King James Version.

There are other problems with their being verbatim:
When quoting the Ten Commandments from Ex 20, she almost always removed the first 23 words that God spoke, immediately following the declaration that,

" And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

[Well,Sister White, why the expurgation–of the Ten Commandments, of all things? Did you intend to divert attention from the fact that the Ten Commandments were addressed expressly to the Israelites and not everybody? Did the Pope change the Ten Commandments this much?]

Finally: If God transcribed all ten, why were the last 7 commandments written in the third person, and not in the first person like the first 3 if we are to understand that God wrote all of the words on the tablets?


I think merely pointing out a leading authority as the only proper way to read the text would be impudent , if you ask me.

Here’s from Gadamer’s “Man and Language”:

“For it is part of the nature of language that it has a completely unfathomable unconsciousness of itself To that extent, it is not an accident that the use of the concept “language” is a recent develop-ment. The word logos means not only thought and language, but also concept and law. The appearance of the concept “language” presupposes consciousness of language. But that is only the result of the reflective movement in which the one thinking has reflected out of the unconscious operation of speaking and stands at a distance from himself. The real enigma of language, however, is that we can never really do this completely. Rather, all thinking about language is al-ready once again drawn back into language.: We can only think in a language,} and just this residing of our thinking in a language is the profound enigma that language presents to

We can’t differentiate between thoughts and language in context of what these are on a continuum of communication.

He goes on emphasis mine

Language is not one of the means by which consciousness is mediated with the world. It does not represent a third instrument alongside the sign and the tool, both of which are also certainly distinctively human.* Language is by no means simply an instrument, a tool. For it is in the nature of the tool that we master its use, which is to say we take it in hand and lay it aside when it has done its service*. That is not the same as when we take the words of a language, lying ready in the mouth, and with their use let them sink back into the general store of words over which we dispose. Such an analogy is false because we never find ourselves as consciousness over against the world and, as it wore, grasp after a tool of understanding in a wordless condition. Rather, in all our
knowledge of ourselves and in all knowledge of the world, we are always already encompassed by the language that is our own.”

While he doesn’t outright state that language and thoughts are equivalent, he points out that we can’t tell the difference in the scope of function of our psyche. We know and think in language.

While It’s certainly more convenient to name drop some authority and proclaim victory over those who are ignorant in the conversation, for someone who speaks so much about hermeneutics, you sure take very little time to try to understand what other is speaking about and reflect that in your response beyond outright dismissal.

I probably shouldn’t be carrying discussions with someone who retorts by referential name dropping of “ultimate authority” that trumps all opinions, instead of attempting to answer criticism with something of substance.

On top of that , I’m not really sure that you are interested in structuring coherent logical argument without making appeals to authority instead of providing viable content and relating it to your thoughts.