Having read the Sabbath School Lessons for the second quarter 2020 and this nice review of Lesson Number 1, I notice that one important question is ignored: What is the Bible?
Seventh-day Adventist readers, most of whom are woefully ignorant of hermeneutics and phenomenology, can be persuaded that the essence of the Bible is not the leather covering or I-phone or other material that holds the Bible together or conveys the divine revelation. In our eidetic reduction of the Bible, we can agree that the materiality of whatever Bible we are holding in our hands is not in essence the Bible. Whatever material we use, the essence of the Bible remains the same.
Let’s continue this eidetic reduction of the Bible. What about the words? The words are like the material described above. Linguistics, a subsidiary discipline of hermeneutics, falsifies the notion that words can be divinely inspired. Not even the words written or spoken by God are divinely inspired. Language is a human construct. Words do not have fixed meanings; the meaning of a word is derived from the word’s paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations with other words, which themselves do not have fixed meanings. Words do not have a divine origin but are conventional. Words do not have a natural relation to what they signify, except in the rare case of onomatopoeia, but are arbitrary. Ellen White prayed to the Lord when stumped about what words to use. She could have walked to the local tavern and asked the patrons, “What words should I use here to communicate what I am trying to say?” The words provided by the patrons would not be in any respect inferior to the words provided by the Lord, because again, language is a human construct. And if Ellen White were to use synonyms of whatever words the Lord were to provide her, that would not alter the meaning of what she wrote, because the meaning of what she wrote is determined not by the words she used but by her authorial intent. The meaning of a text is not what the words say but what the author intends to say. We could switch out all of the words of the Bible and substitute different words and not change in any respect the meaning of the biblical text. Accordingly, the words of the Bible are like the material of the Bible in that neither is what the Bible in essence is.
(Alberto Timm wrote an essay that chronicles 150 years of Seventh-day Adventist struggle with Ellen White’s famous quotation about word/thought inspiration. Having read this quarter’s Sabbath School Lessons, I see that this struggle continues. Why is it so hard to learn linguistics? Why is it so hard for the Lessons’ authors or any other theology teacher to walk across campus and ask the teacher of linguistics, “Please allow me to sit at your feet. What do I need to know about language and words in order to fully understand and appreciate Ellen White’s famous quotation about word/thought inspiration?”).
Our eidetic reduction of the Bible continues. What about the biblical message? What about the teachings and doctrines set forth in the Bible? The Bible is historically conditioned. We do not worship a Platonist deity but a personal God who has inserted Himself in our time and space. The essence of the Bible is not what God communicated to the ancient Israelites and NT Christians but what He is communicating to us today. There is a lot of overlap, but the two are not the same. Our historical context has many commonalities with the historical contexts of the ancient Israelites and the NT Christians, respectively. But our historical context is different. Accordingly, God’s revelation for us is different than His revelation to the ancient Israelites and the NT Christians. And it is His revelation to us today that constitutes the essence of the Bible, at least for Christians who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and purposed for our salvation. This concludes our eidetic reduction of the Bible.
There is one more reduction to undertake, the phenomenological reduction of the Bible. Our interpretation of the Bible is affected by our presuppositions. In order to “go back to the things themselves” and clearly discern the essence of the Bible, we must free our mind of presuppositions. But this is dangerous. The phenomenological reduction is a rigorous meditative practice. It is mysticism, in which one empties the mind. Eradicating our mind of presuppositions might be throwing out a lot of good with the bad. We are warned not to engage in mysticism. How a Christian approach to phenomenological reduction should be undertaken is an issue we can discuss at another time.
My plane is landing. Thank you for this essay.