The Cure for Adventist Fundamentalism: Reading the Bible in Context

Every now and then, in moments of sublime self-reflection, we discover things about our lives' journeys that humble us. When we dare step outside of the self and take stock we find surprises about singular events that have shaped our lives in sometimes spectacular and consequential ways. In my case, that life altering experience occurred when I crossed paths with Dr. Bill Fitts in Freshman Composition.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thank you! Very well written! With so many Universities around the world, shouldn’t this be something self evident, and recognized by most members. Why hasn’t this proof-texting and reading without context died out long time ago?


Bravo for the entire article; but the above statement is the crux of the problem. The Adventist system, and probably others, base the allegiance of its members on just this concept - in other words, “salvation by correct belief”. That being the case, there can be no wiggle room as to what chapter and verse; and from which version of the Bible it comes. The truth has to have strict parameters where nothing is left to question; where the words “I DON’T KNOW” can never be uttered.
Once God’s Word is liberated from its linguistic shackles, we see that THE WORD is indeed a living, breathing, risen Christ. God’s revelation is so much richer than what a few scratches on old parchments reveal. Originally, God spoke through nature; and to my mind, His primary signature; followed by men’s imagination breathed on by His Spirit. But alas, men are imperfect, as C.S. Lewis says, "bent " and see, “as through a mirror darkly”. Even the shadows they were able to describe give us glimpses of God as he flowed through the history of men - to be revealed in the person of His Son. And we know what that means, people are complicated; and there is always much to learn.


I appreciate this article! There are so many paragraphs worthy of quoting and posting! Thank you for writing it and thank you Spectrum for publishing it!


Thank you Matthew! Fundamentalism is a heavy yoke that burdens many - and not just SDA’s. IMO there can be no more important misunderstanding to correct. No reading of a Bible book should ever take place before these issues are dealt with. I would go so far as to suggest that no Bible reading is often better than Bible reading undertaken with the wrong perspective.


Back in the early 1970s, I was employed by the General Conference Education Department to compose new Bible textbooks for grades 7 & 8 in the English-speaking Adventist school systems. Early in the process, a major conflict emerged about which version of the Bible could be used for these young minds. The Biblical Research Institute (BRI) waged a vigorous argument that only the King James could be used. After hours of intense discussions, what emerged was that certain doctrines could be substantiated only by KJV wording. For example, Revelation 12:17 and 19:10 were used both to defend the SDA church as The Remnant and to support Ellen White as the marker for that claim. Even the recently released Revised Standard Version did not lend itself to that interpretation. Daniel 8:14 was equally problematic. My fellow writers and I mounted the argument that church doctrine should not stand or fall on the basis of one version’s reading. The leaders at Headquarters finally and reluctantly agreed that we could direct students to several versions as they did their inductive study so long as one of them was always the KJV. The church was taken at the time with the arrival of J B Phillips New Testament, the Good News Bible, and other somewhat vernacular versions, which I suspect caused a bit of heartburn in some circles. Thank you, Matthew, for this reminder that the paradigm is still shifting for many.


Thank you so much, Matthew, for a provocative and mind-expanding article. To me, it seems a seminal contribution to the topics of revelation, inspiration, canonicity, and the limitations of a too-fundamental reading of the Word.

As a college theology major at PUC, prior to pursuing my M.Div. at the Andrews seminary, I wrote my senior paper on the formation of the New Testament canon. Personally, I believe some of the so-called apocryphal books that didn’t make the canon have some beneficial insights and history to offer.

Finally, the more years through which I’ve lived, the more I’m inclined to create a box I call “Abeyance,” into which I store up things I don’t understand about God or His Word - things to ask Him on “the other side.” Abeyance, of course, means being able to live for now with uncertainty - something not all are willing or able to do in their need to nail down tight every truth, doctrine, or spiritual issue.


Excellent article. Can we use the Sabbath School study time to make this happen? Reading the Bible in context? This should be a priority, or so it seems to me.


Why is it that unbelieving Shakespearean scholars have little difficulty understanding the words of the KJV? By way of analogy: the NT was written in Koine Greek or “common” Greek. It was the language of the day–easily understood from Athens to Rome, from Carthage to Jerusalem. Should not our modern translations also be easily understood? To be sure, some of the concepts are not easily grasped, even for mature believers (Peter said as much about Paul’s writings). But why make the language a stumbling block? The cross alone should be the stumbling block. It is sufficient.

One of the editions of Theodore Beza, done in the late 1500s, constituted the text behind the King James NT. By 1550 the third edition of Stephanus’ Greek text included in the margin textual variants from several witnesses, but the text was still largely that of Erasmus. By 1633 this text had gone through some more minor changes, but was stable enough that the edition published by the Elzevirs was called in the preface the “the text now received by all,” or the Textus Receptus. Interestingly, this was more publishers’ hype than consensus, for many if not most NT scholars had long noted the inherent weaknesses in this text. The text published was thus, even in the seventeenth century, more a text of convenience than one of conviction.

So, is there a conspiracy today? yes, I believe there is. But the conspiracy has not produced these modern translations. Rather, I believe that there is a conspiracy to cause division among believers, to deflect our focus from the gospel to petty issues, to elevate an anti-intellectual spirit that does not honor the mind which God has created, and to uphold as the only Holy Bible, the KJV, a translation that, as lucid as it was in its day, four hundred years later makes the gospel seem antiquated and difficult to understand. It takes little thought to see who is behind such a conspiracy.


Thank you Matt for writing such a great article, but I wonder if you didn’t go far enough! I too was a theology major back in the day at PUC, and learned much from the likes of Veltmann and Symes. It was there that I began to read the Bible in a more serious light.
Over the years I have been growing more and more distained of the Adult Sabbath School quarterly that seems to thrive on using a few verses to make a profound point, but has nothing to do with the story of scripture. As a “people of the book” we know scriptures (and can recite them), but fail to understand the story of scripture - which makes a huge difference.
For example, I Cor 15:31 where Paul says “I die daily”, has been spiritualized to talk about coming to Jesus every day in devotion, yet Paul is being almost sarcastic by saying I put my neck on the line or I risk death everyday to preach the gospel to you. Since Ellen White uses it in a spiritual context, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use it in its true context.
In I Cor 3:16 it talks about we are God’s temple, and therefore should live our lives as healthy as possible. But again, the context of this verse is talking about something entirely different. Try reading it in context and you will see that bodily health is not the point. Of course we can turn to I Cor 6 for a bodily health emphasis, but again the admonition is for those who would join themselves to a prostitute. If we want to spiritualize it about the evils of eating cheese, we can,but that is not the teaching of scripture.
I teach a Sabbath School lesson at our church, and teaching the story of scripture has made a huge difference and been a tremendous blessing. It essentially comes down to the proof text method of Bible study vs the contextual study. One’s view of inspiration largely dictates which one a person uses. All I can say is studying the scriptures in context is an amazing and eye opening experience and that will revitalize the Spirit.


Well-written article, produced in a kind and courteous spirit! Perhaps you did not take your concerns far enough, unsure of how Spectrum readers might respond, and so I hope you will come back and dialogue with us.

If so, here are my questions: 1) If contextual reading is the cure for fundamentalism, and such reading must be formally learned over many years, then how can fundamentalists be really helped ? 2) Contextual reading will bring us a lot closer to the intentions of the original writer and audience, but how does the message of scripture then find its way back to our time and situation?


So good to see my friend Bill Fitts mentioned here.

All of life should be contextualized.

Thanks, Matthew.

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You know…it would be good to really drive home the focus of the piece by making a second article to bring things into perspective.
You could show us both sides of the coin.
You could title it; The cure for Adventist Progressivism.
Have any insights on that as well?


One word describes this article: Brilliant!


No, that’s a “virtue”, it doesn’t need a cure. Same as homosexuality. No wonder they support it.
In fact, “adventist progressivism” isn’t adventism anymore. I wonder why they are so stubborn to stay in such a Church. Their so called “contextual interpretation” render the Bible and Adventism useless.


Regarding fundamentalists vs progressives
as menssana seems to feel about them.

Perhaps The Fundamentalist Church is promoting The Commandments only.
Perhaps the Progressives of the Fundamentalist Church would also like to promote The Faith of Jesus.

The Jesus Creed has two [2] parts.
Love God
Love your neighbor. [Not just tolerate your neighbor]
AND, if Christ is the God of the Old Testament, then as Micah 6:8 says, to work for justice, to provide and give mercy, while walking with God.

Fundamentalists do not do well with Justice Issues, do not do well with Mercy Issues.

Charles – the easiest way to kill something is to send it to Committee. Look at the fiasco on the Role of Women in the Church “committee”. Millions spent, a split committee vote.

Maybe it is the Person who Edits the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly who has the FINAL WORD on Biblical Interpretation in the SDA church. This piece of SDA literature is probably the ONLY SDA literature that is read and digested. The SSLQ said it, I believe it, and THAT settles it for me – mantra.


“…never get to the place where we presume to have the definitive answer to anything.”

Well, I must be one of those rabid, ignorant, rigid fundamentalists, but I see a problem with this statement.

Sometimes we have to act even though uncertain. That is life, and the life of faith often involves uncertainty.

But to make uncertainty the mantra of your life means you are adrift. As I recall there is a verse that says, “This is the way, walk ye in it” (Sorry it is from that dread KJV, I usually use the NIV, but I am quoting from memory). Babies take uncertain steps. Adults stride.

Besides that, this is a divisive essay. Liberal folk have their own set of problems that are little discussed here. They are just as rigid and difficult to deal with. To single at the Fundys as always in the wrong is to miss the great contributions they have made. Ahem…

I find it interesting that I hear more about this issue here than anywhere else. Maybe I just don’t frequent the right circles!


Yes, of course that may be the reason. Not only not the “right” circles but not wide enough circles. The wider the circles, the more learning takes place. If you are willing to widen your circles, you just might learn something new. I used to believe as you do but when I was forced to widen my circles, I began adding to my knowledge. It can be scary to face new knowledge, to be moved from our long-held places of comfort, but it is so worth it.


Here’s what bugs me:

Fine pieces like this come out, and persons with high responsibility for how Adventists read the Bible, such as members of the Biblical Research Institute, or editors at the Adventist Review, or even Andrews University seminary professors, never chime in.

Who are the main champions of Adventist fundamentalism? Would even one of them risk attempting to refute the point of this article?

Conversation matters. Remember that the 2015 General Conference delegates asked for an official statement on hermeneutics to be voted in 2020.



Thank you, Matthew. for your very timely and appropriate essay. You have touched on our reading of the Bible as an accurate and literal account and the belief so often expressed that it is the very “Word of God”, not to be questioned as divine.

This position results in a quandary, of more questions than have answers. It is a history, but a history as the Jews orally recounted for many years, and as only they wrote. Not comparing it with other histories covering the same period of time is to have only one description, and a bias of the writers. All histories have some biases, but when limited to only one account we rob ourselves of not seeing the larger picture. Just as the Jews or Germans writing of the period prior and after WW II, we should not expect the same account as the U.S. writers.

This is such a wonderful essay for further discussions and that is guaranteed here in the Lounge. Thanks again for reintroducing this subject.