Why Adventism's Next Big Disagreement May Be Over Biblical Literalism

On the penultimate day of the 60th General Conference Session of Seventh-day Adventists in San Antonio, Texas, a significant moment slipped inconspicuously through the morning’s business session. The moment paralleled a speech made during the 2010 Atlanta General Conference Session that set off the Adventist Church’s most contentious fight of the last decade—the fight over women’s ordination.

On July 1, 2010, during the 59th General Conference Session, Ray Hartwell, the President of the Pennsylvania Conference and a North American Division delegate, noted that the Adventist Church lacked a theology of ordination. Hartwell recommended that the denomination study the issue and establish a theology of ordination, which the General Conference Steering Committee agreed to do during the quinquennium ending in 2015. What followed was an at-times heated process that led to the vote on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 in which delegates refused to allow the church’s thirteen divisions to make provision for the ordination of women.

Almost five years to the day after Hartwell’s ordination speech from the floor of the Georgia Dome, David Ripley, Ministerial Association Secretary for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division, stood on the floor of the Alamodome in San Antonio and made a nearly-identical speech about biblical hermeneutics.

The morning’s business session agenda said “Church Manual,” but on the the day after contentious ordination vote, the session was punctuated by a calculated series of two-minute speeches on the need for greater representation from women and young Adventists in denominational leadership. Session Chair, outgoing Vice President Delbert Baker grew visibly frustrated.

Further delaying discussion of the Church Manual, President Ted Wilson paid tribute to Pastor Doug Batchelor’s Amazing Facts media conglomerate on the occasion of the organization’s 50th anniversary. Wilson used the moment as an opportunity to share a note of appreciation for the Three Angels Broadcasting Network as well.

To top off the free-wheeling discussion from the floor, two delegates attempted to introduce term limits for denominational administrators, something proposed and ignored with regularity at General Conference Sessions.

Baker diligently avoided being diverted by the proposals coming from the floor, and when David Ripley took the mic to discuss hermeneutics, it appeared his remarks would be acknowledged and disregarded as well. However, Ripley would not be brushed aside.

Noted that the Adventist Church lacked a unified biblical hermeneutic (methodology for interpreting Scripture), Ripley said that this more than any other issue divides the Adventist Church. He asked that the church conduct a study of hermeneutics to clarify the denomination’s method of biblical interpretation. Baker responded that Ripley’s concern had been noted and recorded, but Ripley was nonplussed. He insisted that General Conference leaders address the issue before the General Conference Session ended the following day. After a protracted back and forth, Baker told Ripley that he needed to make a motion to refer the item to the General Conference Steering Committee, which Ripley did. The motion was seconded and voted without discernible opposition.

The following day, during the final business session, Undersecretary Myron Iseminger reported back to the body that the Steering Committee had considered Ripley’s recommendation, and in collaboration with the Biblical Research Institute, the General Conference would study the issue during the next quinquennium.

On October 12, 1986 at the Annual Council Session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the General Conference Executive Committee approved and voted a 3,364-word statement entitled “Methods of Bible Study” that lays out the very principles of interpretation that Ripley seemed to be asking for.

The Rio Document, displayed prominently on the adventist.org website among the Adventist Churches official statements, self-describes as a statement intended for “both the trained biblical scholar and others.” It begins with a long preamble that repudiates the historical-critical method of study, in which scholars “reject the reliability of accounts of miracles and other supernatural events narrated in the Bible.”

“Even a modified use of this method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists,” the document states.

The document provides assumptions about Scripture’s origins (“indivisible union of human and divine elements”) and its authority (“the clear, infallible revelation of God's will and His salvation”).

Under the heading “Methods of Bible Study,” the Rio Document says this:

Recognize that the Bible is its own interpreter and that the meaning of words, texts, and passages is best determined by diligently comparing scripture with scripture.

Study the context of the passage under consideration by relating it to the sentences and paragraphs immediately preceding and following it. Try to relate the ideas of the passage to the line of thought of the entire Bible book.

As far as possible ascertain the historical circumstances in which the passage was written by the biblical writers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Determine the literary type the author is using. Some biblical material is composed of parables, proverbs, allegories, psalms, and apocalyptic prophecies. Since many biblical writers presented much of their material as poetry, it is helpful to use a version of the Bible that presents this material in poetic style, for passages employing imagery are not to be interpreted in the same manner as prose.

Recognize that a given biblical text may not conform in every detail to present-day literary categories. Be cautious not to force these categories in interpreting the meaning of the biblical text. It is a human tendency to find what one is looking for, even when the author did not intend such.

Take note of grammar and sentence construction in order to discover the author's meaning. Study the key words of the passage by comparing their use in other parts of the Bible by means of a concordance and with the help of biblical lexicons and dictionaries.

In connection with the study of the biblical text, explore the historical and cultural factors. Archaeology, anthropology, and history may contribute to understanding the meaning of the text.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that God inspired Ellen G. White. Therefore, her expositions on any given Bible passage offer an inspired guide to the meaning of texts without exhausting their meaning or preempting the task of exegesis (for example, see Evangelism, 256; The Great Controversy, 193, 595;Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 665, 682, 707-708; Counsels to Writers and Editors, 33-35).

After studying as outlined above, turn to various commentaries and secondary helps such as scholarly works to see how others have dealt with the passage. Then carefully evaluate the different viewpoints expressed from the standpoint of Scripture as a whole.

The Rio Document differentiates between non-apocalyptic and apocalyptic prophecies, it offers suggestions for reconciling passages that are seemingly in conflict, and says that “a background knowledge of Near Eastern culture is indispensable” for understanding particular phraseology found in Scripture. It is a strikingly thorough document.

Given the work that Adventist have already put into studying and interpreting the Bible, one wonders what more would need to be clarified for the Church. However, General Conference President, Elder Ted Wilson, in his 2010 inaugural address, "Go Forward," in Atlanta, Georgia, laid out a different vision for studying Scripture. At points Wilson's remarks sounded similar to the Rio Document in substance:

Let Scripture be its own interpreter. Our church has long held to the Historical-Biblical method of understanding scripture, allowing the Bible to interpret itself; line upon line, precept upon precept. However, one of the most sinister attacks against the Bible is from those who believe in the Historical-Critical method of explaining the Bible. This unbiblical approach of “higher criticism” is a deadly enemy of our theology and mission. This approach puts a scholar or individual above the plain approach of the scriptures and gives inappropriate license to decide what he or she perceives as truth based on the resources and education of the critic. Stay away from this type of approach because it leads people to distrust God and His Word. Selected Messages, Book 1, pages 17-18 speaks directly to this issue. “When men, in their finite judgment, find it necessary to go into an examination of scriptures to define that which is inspired and that which is not, they have stepped before Jesus to show Him a better way than He has led us…let not a mind or hand be engaged in criticizing the Bible…cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost.”

But Wilson’s address went beyond the Rio Document in one particular: its insistence on biblical literalism plus Ellen White’s writings as the preferable exegetical tool for Adventists’ use:

Stand firm for God’s Word as it is literally read and understood. Of course, we must always humbly recognize that we are finite, fallen creatures observing the works of an infinite, omnipotent God. There are things in both of God’s two great books of nature and Scripture that we do not fully comprehend. In fact, we are told that the sacrifice of Jesus will be “the science and the song of the redeemed throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity.” But that which the Lord in His mercy has given to us in clear language to be taken as fact simply because He said so must not be shrouded in skepticism. Don’t go backwards to misinterpret the first eleven chapters of Genesis or other areas of Scripture as allegorical or merely symbolic. As just this week we have once again affirmed in an overwhelming manner, the Seventh-day Adventist Church both teaches and believes in the biblical record of creation which took place recently, in six literal, consecutive, contiguous 24-hour days.

[…]

While the Bible is paramount in our estimation as the ultimate authority and final arbiter of truth, the Spirit of Prophecy (referring to Ellen White’s writings) provides clear, inspired council to aid our application of Bible truth. It is a heaven-sent guide to instruct the church in how to carry out its mission. It is a reliable theological expositor of the Scriptures.

If there is disagreement among Adventists on what the Church’s hermeneutic should be, it emerges most clearly in the contrast between President Wilson’s literalistic hermeneutic and the Rio Document’s comparatively robust use of exegetical tools and methodologies. Literalism is the one component missing from the Rio Document.

It remains to be seen how the General Conference Executive Committee and the Biblical Research Institute will address David Ripley’s request. Will they initiate another process like the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, whose supermajority view that women should be allowed to be ordained had no bearing on the final outcome of the denomination’s five-year study of ordination? Will the BRI simply be tasked with revisiting and revising the Rio Document?

However the issue is addressed, the one concern for the Wilson Administration not currently addressed in the Church’s statement on Bible Study is literalism, and if the Ordination study process provides any insight, its inclusion or exclusion could become the source of Adventism’s next great controversy.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6992
2 Likes

The Rio document’s refusal to allow ANY use of critical tools by assuming (incorrectly) that not one (or almost none) of them can be used without denying the supernatural claims of Scripture is also a problem in the document (others could be cited as well). Over the decades, this issue has been addressed several times in the pages of Spectrum, from both sides of the debate.

For example: See Jerry Gladson’s fine article Taming Historical Criticism: Adventist Biblical Scholarship in the Land of the Giants, Vol 18:4; John Brunt’s How My Mind Has Changed and Remained the Same with Regard to Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 34, Issue 3, Summer, 2006; and for a very different point of view, Richard M. Davidson’s *The Authority of Scripture: A Personal Pilgrimage," Vol. 34, Issue 3, 2006.

If you look at the history of the development of the Rio statement, people like Brunt, Kubo, Gladson and many others, were bypassed in favor of the most conservative scholars when it came to the creation of the “SDA Hermeneutic.” It frankly amazes me that a movement which, in its formative years, argued vehemently against the most conservative hermeneutic in Christendom, has now joined the very groups it once rejected. This seems to be an effort to “protect” all traditional formulations of Adventist doctrine and wall them off from the so-called heresies of modern science and biblical interpretation.

I suggest that those who care read the articles cited above!

25 Likes

Elder Wilson and TOSC’s Position 1 appear to have come to the identical conclusion on Women’s Ordination employing the same method:

“Seventh-day Adventists generally use the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. In 1986, the Annual Council of Seventh-day Adventists in Rio de Janeiro approved the Methods of Bible Study (MBS) document which outlines the components of the historical-grammatical method. It states that the student should “seek to grasp the simple, most obvious meaning of the biblical passage being studied” (4c). It further advises, “Recognize that the Bible is its own interpreter and that the meaning of words, texts, and passages is best determined by diligently comparing scripture with scripture” (4e). The principles of the historical-grammatical method as found in the MBS are not new; they have been used by Protestants since the time of the Reformation.” Position Summary #1.

3 Likes

It would be fair to say that most of the high profile controversial issues in the Adventist church have already really been about Biblical Literalism. The Rio Statement is incoherent at its core, rejecting the historical-critical method while seeming to affirm several of its key components. Elder Wilson and many others have taken advantage of this incoherence to position official Adventism among the Biblical Literalists and Fundamentalists (in his recent sermon at the PUC Church, following hard on the heels of San Antonio, Elder Wilson repeated almost verbatim elements from his “Go Forward” address, which apparently is a stock part of his “stump” sermon). If there was even a chance that a taskforce created by the GC could come out with a clear statement against Literalism and in favor of the tools of credible scholarship for studying the Bible I would be overjoyed, even if the statement was ignored at the next GC; sadly I doubt that the current GC administration would allow that to happen.

15 Likes

Thanks, Jim. It may be time to bring those articles out of the archives and republish them here online. I will look into that.

17 Likes

Adventist hermeneutics is based upon a yes but basis. the plain word of the canon is plain only in the light of the writings of Ellen White. The institutionalized scholar is trapped in an 19th century box. The sad point is that the G.C. president has set himself up as the final say in the matter. Everyone employed works under My Way or the Highway… Ford ism is dead. The point is there is no reconciliation between Adventist theology and Scripture on the key points that characterize Adventism . The vote was a clear shot across the Bow of the seminary at Andrews. The problem a scholar faces is where do I go from here?

I still hear that plaintive cry–Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief. The only thing that matters is the world’s financial markets are in worse shape than the church. MAy the Lord return to end this nonsense. Tom Z

11 Likes

It is a well known fact that an individual’s personality is influenced by their genotype endowment and maturation development. The other side of the coin regarding “Adventism’s Next Big Disagreement May Be Over Biblical Literalism” is the need to vet our officers to determine their genetic background and personality traits. A proper annual medical examination together with comprehensive psychiatric and psychological evaluations, with the likes of @GeorgeTichy , should be the cornerstone of such approach.

Just like the Israelites of old when Moses had them drink the grounded “Golden Calf” without success, we can elect officers with personality quirks based on their genotype endowment and fixated psychological maturation and will get nowhere, no matter what mandate are required of them. If we expect our officers to lead a certain level, we should make certain that they have the abilities and capabilities to succeed, both physically and mentally. We should never set them up for failure, otherwise there is no one to blame but us.

13 Likes

Elmer: This is pretty funny tongue-in-cheek (I hope).

4 Likes

Another good article you could have easily added to your list was Elder Brunt’s A Parable of Jesus as a Clue to Biblical Interpretation, where he put to full use the “historical-critical method” in revisiting the Gospels (Spectrum magazine, Volume 13, No. 2).

2 Likes

Sometimes, i feel that regarding this matter we are still living as cavemen or living in the time of the inquisition where ideas where very limited and confined in a box, so according with this everything that the Bible says needs to be confirmed by the Writings of EGW? i want to add something else our scholars don’t know anything or they don’t have a common ground in something bigger regarding Islam and Prophecy? how about that?do we know everything?

6 Likes

[quote=“jjlondis, post:2, topic:9048”]
It frankly amazes me that a movement which, in its formative years, argued vehemently against the most conservative hermeneutic in Christendom…
[/quote]Can you give a bullet point list of the conservative hermeneutic in Christendom that Adventism was vehemently against?

I just want to be clear on specifics.

Thanks…

4 Likes

Though I’d have to look this up, I believe someone writing for TOSC’s Position #1 might have already pointed out that the above observation in the Methods of Bible Study document is tempered by the following qualification: “Although it was given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern/Mediterranean context, the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve as God’s Word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages.”

This is off the top. Other problems will need more citation and comment to illustrate.

  1. Verbal inerrancy of Scripture–later amended to refer primarily to the “original” documents of which we have none. Every “word” of Scripture is “inspired” or in many cases even “dictated” by God (not just the prophetic utterances quoting divinity). It, therefore, cannot be mistaken.

  2. Modification of 1: “Thought inerrancy” or “propositional” inerrancy which means the writers used their own words to articulate thoughts given to them by God. The difficulty here is that not even this view is truly faithful to the Biblical witness as Gladson’s piece so adequately demonstrates. Example: Luke researched his gospel under the guidance of the Spirit; the thoughts were not given him (see Luke 1:1-4). But, if the authority of the Bible depends primarily or only on God giving thoughts rather the proximity of the early disciples to the life and teachings of Jesus, then at least some of the New Testament material cannot meet this standard. This tends to be the prevailing view of the Methods of Bible Study Document. The Old Testament is another issue entirely.

  3. That prophetic passages (Apocalyptic, and so on) are “fixed in interpretation” and not open to modification due to the notion of “conditional” prophecy or “progressive revelation.”

  4. The Bible is not “conditioned” in its counsel by ancient cultures and understandings, except in the most obvious ways.

  5. One must take the “plain, literal reading of the Bible” and not assume that the various “critical” tools or scientific insights can be helpful in getting at more profound and subtle meanings (were all demoniacs n the NT “demon-possessed” or might some, at least, have been schizophrenic?).

A great deal of this did emerge from the Reformers who wanted to establish beyond any doubt that the “Word of God” did not come through Church Councils but from the Bible itself. In this way they countered the view that the Church alone could interpret the Bible accurately since the Church created the Bible Canon (oversimplified but fairly accurate). For the Reformers, if each believer is a priest then God’s revelation is not dependent on Church Councils and Church tradition for the meaning of the text. The Spirit guides each believer in understanding what God is revealing.

8 Likes

Isn’t this is the primary disagreement we have always had or ever will have? Do we really think we can issue a document that will force a uniform approach to biblical interpretation and make the disagreements go away? The only “next”-ness about this disagreement is the heights to which we’re now willing to hoist our individual banners. The greater ill is how we treat each other through the disagreements.

8 Likes

Humor, like satire usually contains truth more subtly.

We should never forget that no one can control our conscience or method of interpreting the Bible unless we let them. God gave us our minds to use which no church was given. We must answer for ourselves, the church cannot and will not do that.

6 Likes

Wasn’t there a document voted at the last GC Session that Ellen White is our never questioned, ultimate interpreter of the Bible to which any other view is to be submitted? Something to the effect. So … no more hermeneutic at all (what for?). Just a quick look in the EGW Index and you are fine…

If you have any doubts - listen to TW’s sermon again… “plain reading of the word” means nothing else but: don’t fret over historical context, literary beauty with its artful storytelling, including allusions, intended puns, ambigious meanings etc. “Plain reading” is all we need.

Don’t get me wrong - I am not saying you can’t read the Bible without a PhD theologian at your side… Simply start with different translations to widen your horizon… Ooops, wrong again, there can only be one correct translation, of course.

Quo vadis, Adventist church???

14 Likes

My gestalt sense of this quote is that it is like something out of Pipim’s opus. A very unfortunate and slippery statement that basically allows literalism to trump almost any reasonable critical viewpoint.

Edit: Just googled the quote, and this is one of the links that comes up. Maybe my radar is working. http://www.drpipim.org/special-occasions-sermons-and-videos-98/86-key-questions-on-the-bibles-inspiration-part-2.html

And here is the trigger I was remembering:

" Issue #4: Does God’s communication to people in a particular historico-cultural setting imply that Scripture is culturally conditioned—that is, does the message of Scripture suffer from the limitations, prejudice, or ignorance of the Bible writers? [22] If so, by what criteria can interpreters isolate the culturally conditioned content from its trans-cultural message?

Adventists reject liberalism’s “cultural conditioning” argument which relativizes and arbitrarily picks and chooses from the message of the Scriptures. Instead, they insist: “Although it was given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern/Mediterranean context, the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve as God’s word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages” (“Methods of Bible Study” Report). They also recognize that “although the biblical instruction is relevant to all cultures and time, it was given to a particular culture and time. [Therefore,] Time and place must be taken into account in application.” As a general principle, Bible-believing Adventists “assume the transcultural and transtemporal relevancy of biblical instruction unless Scripture itself gives criteria limiting this relevancy.” [23]"
2 Likes

Humor, like satire usually contains truth couched in such language, just as satire points out truth better than mere facts.

3 Likes

Good point. Yes, I would have to agree that there seems to be a logical outcome in the nexus between the Methods of Bible Study document (MBSD) and so-called Literalism. I can’t comment on Pipim’s work since I’m unfamiliar with this passage or its source. What I will add, however, in reference to Jared’s insightful commentary on the apparent distinction between Elder Wilson’s position and the MBSD’s, is that we can perhaps perceive what Elder Wilson intends (e.g., “God’s Word as it is literally read”), by merely looking up the definition for “literal” (e.g., “Conforming or limited to the simplest, nonfigurative, or most obvious meaning of a word or words”), and then comparing it to the Methods of Bible Study document itself (e.g., “Seek to grasp the simple, most obvious meaning of the biblical passage being studied”), which might then cast further light on why both Elder Wilson and TOSC1 arrived at the same conclusion. Just thinking out loud.

2 Likes

I think we could do away with the seminary, the universities and replace all of this book learning worldly discernment with one basic principle beautifully articulated by Doug Batchelor:

“If you spend too long on plainly reading the Bible, pretty soon it’s not going to mean what it says anymore”

Genius!

7 Likes