Adventist Tomorrow, Part 1: Reading Your Bible with Greater Care
by Jack Hoehn, September 18, 2017: There is a confluence of ideas coming from within and without the Seventh-day Adventist church that suggests places this church can go with its theology and mission. Jack wants to talk with you about some of them. This article is # 1 of a series, available on the Adventist Today website; others will follow.
You’re an Adventist Today reader, but are you an Adventist Today supporter?
But to read your Bible regular reading glasses are not nearly enough. I would like to suggest that at any age it is very dangerous and can lead to a lot of trouble to read the Bible without very special spectacles. These lenses need to be rose-colored, very sharp, and able to not only let you see the words, but also to see far behind the words.
Dangers of Bible Reading
Bible reading without “special Bible reading glasses” has led to a tremendous amount of trouble in this world. A.A. Milne’s statement that “the Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written” is well supported by Richard Dawkins who infamously taunts, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Oh no, traditional Adventists cry, you don’t get it! God is kind and good, merciful, loving. Just like Jesus told us, God is love. But the truth is if you try to simply read your Bible word for word, without any filtering or interpretation, and expect it to be literal and undiluted as the whole Word of God you will find a lot of problems and inconsistencies, as any good atheist can cheerfully show you.
How about the famous “Song of Moses”?
“:23 I will heap calamities on them and spend my arrows against them. :24 I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague; I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers that glide in the dust. :25 In the street the sword will make them childless; in their homes terror will reign. The young men and young women will perish, the infants and those with gray hair. :26 I said I would scatter them and erase their name from human memory…”
:40 I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear: As surely as I live forever, :41 when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. :42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.”
We hold Moses inspired. Is this what he was inspired to write? Is this the God of love? “Obey me or I’ll cut off your head”?
Editing the Bible?
There are at least two ways of looking at this:
- God is God; we can’t judge Him. Like it or not, just accept that “God is love,” even though this doesn’t seem loving. Don’t try to figure it out. This is John Calvin, Martin Luther, Reformed theology. Suck it up and believe that God is both loving and vengeful at the same time, and you are not smart enough to figure it out.
- Or, before Jesus, no one, including Moses knew what God was like, and even though inspired, Moses’ conception of God was partial and substandard. You are reading what Moses thought, not what God really is. You cannot understand what Moses was writing about God unless you understand Moses’ context, his education, his culture. And then judge and translate his statements through Jesus-shaped glasses.
It’s not only Moses; David too needs to be read with “Jesus-shaped glasses.” There are approximately one thousand passages in the Old Testament that depict God as sanctioning or engaging in bloody violence. And there are many others that modify but do not forbid slavery. Even the Philistines knew the reputation of David, “Is this not David, of whom they sing in the dances, saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands’?” (1 Samuel 29:5) David is happy to inform us, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1). Thank God for the 10,000 men I have killed?
The prophet Nathan assures David, in a rebuke over taking Bathsheba, that God provided women David needed, and if they weren’t enough along with his seven wives, God could have given him even more, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more” (2 Samuel 12:8).
Some have suggested, just throw out the Old Testament. But Jesus did not permit that. If God inspired the Old Testament, what is the back story? What are the circumstances? What does this tell me about a God who permitted himself to be partly misunderstood and often misrepresented?
With cross-shaped Jesus glasses on, we accept that what God is really like was NOT known to the ancients. That the Old Testament gives us the story of how God descended to meet them where they were, and to begin to reveal to them as much as they could comprehend. God begins to reveal himself through their cultures, only to climax in Jesus many years later.
Why Are There Inspired Errors?
As Gregory Boyd explains, God “is a God who involves himself in human violence because this is the only way he can minimize its destructive effects and bring good out of it. The violent portraits of God thus reveal a God who is not above sullying his reputation by working with a fallen, violence-prone people in the midst of an oppressed, violence-filled world.” And if “God is as self-sacrificially beautiful as he is revealed to be on the cross, and thus confident that God is not like the ruthless violent warrior deity his ancient people sometimes imagined him to be…” we will refuse to “allow our imagination to be shaped by the fallen imagination of ancient people who conceived of God and depicted God in fallen and culturally conditioned ways.” 
OK, you might say, I’m OK with that. I want God to be like Jesus said he was, not like he appears to be in parts of the Old Testament. But in saying that, do you realize what you have just said about inspiration, about revelation? We need to rethink what we mean when we say that Moses and Ezekiel and Paul and Ellen White are inspired. We are saying that Inspiration is not in control of their writing. That you cannot safely take the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Spirit of Prophecy as infallible, that you cannot take any of them “just as they read” without judging them. Isn’t this dangerous? Aren’t you putting yourself and your reason “above the Bible”?
No, we are not using our own ideas. We are using reason to evaluate the prophets based on Jesus and his opinion. This includes what 2 Timothy records about women teaching, and what Patriarchs and Prophets says about the duration of creation. This is what that holy, inspired person thought, but does it fit with what Jesus thought and taught? Does it fit with what reason tells us? Does it agree with the facts? What was the culture these thoughts came from? What were the issues this command was to address?
Read your Bibles. God has preserved them for us. But read them with the foreknowledge that the full revelation of God through Jesus and his love-death is not in Genesis, but on the cross. Don’t let Moses’ advising stoning for sexual sins, cursing God, worshiping idols, not washing properly before entering the tabernacle, kindling fires or gathering sticks for a fire on Sabbath, put rocks in your hands.
Don’t let Paul’s trying to quiet down flamboyant divisive women in Corinth put a muzzle on the women commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to his resurrection to their brothers. St. Paul gave this advice, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good…”
Bible Based Is Not Enough
Have you heard this? “We just need to read the Bible and do what it says.” “We need to get back to the Bible.” “We need to get back to how they did things in the early church.” “We need biblical womanhood, manhood.” “We need a Bible diet.”
Rob Bell reminds us that the supposition behind these statements is “that there is an ideal state or culture or way of doing things that if you could just get back there, then you’d be all set. But reading the Bible, you learn that it’s not about trying to be something you’re not…We’re not living in the first century or the ancient Near East—we’re here, now. At this time. In this world…so we don’t need to replace one culture with another, we open our eyes to the divine invitation right here, right now in this one.”
Revelation does not fall directly from heaven to make natural mysteries known to the writer. God speaks to us from within the world, taking the prophet’s own experiences as a starting point. God’s word builds on what is already present in the writer, as it adapts itself to the level of culture of those God is “breathing” through. His inspiration thus participates in and reflects the religion, culture, and politics of those he is inspiring. Hence, we find, to one degree or another, something of God and something of the human authors in all inspired writings.
Adventists Tomorrow can no longer afford to “read the Bible, simply as it reads.” Adventists Tomorrow can no longer afford to accept inspired advice “simply as it reads.” We need to read the Old Testament and the New Testament through the lens of Jesus cross-shaped glasses. We need to read Ellen White through the lens of her age, education, and culture. We can agree that inspired writers were always honest, always doing their best for God, but not always fully correct. If that was OK with God, could it become OK with us too?
 Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Vol 1, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) 347, 537-38.
 1 Thessalonians 5:20,21.
 Rob Bell, What Is the Bible? p. 131 [downloadable ebook].
 This paragraph is largely a paraphrase of Greg Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume 1, pages 483-84.
Dr. John B. (Jack) Hoehn, MD(LLU), CCFP(Canada), DTM&H(London) has been an Adventist Physician for 45 years.
Comments are on Facebook’s Adventist Today Page. I have selected the following helpful comments:
L Humberto Covarrubias Thank you for bringing up this theme. Following on your statement that God meets us were we are, God has done every thing necessary to catch our attention, to maintain some connection with us, to interfere with our destroying ourselves and to prepare us for His ultimate manifestation of His character and how He runs His government: The Cross. He has taken great risks and has been misunderstood all along even with the reason for the Cross -that His justice demands the death of His rebellious children! We need to take a closer look at the issues of The Great Controversy over the character of God and the way He runs His universe that we may understand all the evidence He has been giving us from the very beginning
Terry Westerbeck That’s for sure. I’m amazed that God hasn’t blown a fuse and not knocked more heads together than He has over the stupidity and self-centeredness of the human race. His ghastly and cruel murder helps to show us that He is broken hearted over the way His children have and continue to behave, and would rather die than have to destroy them. Thanks for lending us your glasses.