by Russ Spangler | 6 January 2022
Seventh-day Adventists believe that if we can just get people to read the Bible, they would see that God is real, and that God loves them.
That hasn’t worked for everyone. A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, wrote:
The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the other counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.
Milne may have been thinking about texts like this one in Leviticus:
Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head (Leviticus 20:9 NIV).
What would happen if that were enforced today? How many more generations would the world last?
And there are many other passages like it. Should we, for example, keep trying to explain Lot’s behavior regarding his daughters simply as typical Middle Eastern traditional hospitality?
Or, how about this advice in Deuteronomy 21:18-21: if you have a stubborn and rebellious son who won’t obey you, take him to the elders of the city where “all the men of his town are to stone him to death.” Harsh punishment, indeed, especially inasmuch as God seems to be trying to raise up a people and a nation.
Add the brutal and merciless wars during the occupation of Canaan. These stories were written from the victor’s viewpoint, and because they glorify Israel’s history, Jewish scholars thought they deserved a place in the canon. But as for real “inspiration” or spiritual value—not so much. How do these bloody, historical tales benefit us today? Asking for a friend.
Is it any wonder that when people from our century and our culture read the barbarism commanded or condoned in the Bible, they are horrified? The tendency is to reject the Bible altogether, and with it the God that it portrays.
What is Bible truth?
We may feel the need for God-given rules for daily living. How comforting, for instance, to know that
All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV).
Except remember that Paul is referring here to the Old Testament scriptures—the same Old Testament scriptures that say, “You may treat your slaves as your property ….” (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT). Or Exodus 21:20-21, which clarifies that after you beat your slave, if he does live for another day or two, then there is no punishment, for “he is your property.”
Here we begin to see how Bible truth is shaped by culture. There are around 200 verses in the Bible that affirm slavery. Yet most Christians today would condemn slavery, even though the Bible condones and accepts it. But when the Bible condemns homosexuality in a few verses here and there—not even close to 200—Christians are heatedly divided. Ted Wilson at the 2021 Annual Council said of homosexuality,
We must make a conscious choice, even though unpopular, to speak up for Bible truth and not simply go along with societal trends.
Ah, but what exactly is “Bible truth,” Elder Wilson? Like beauty, it is so often in the eye of the beholder—or in this case in the hand of the compiler, the proof-texter, or the man making dogmatic statements from the pulpit.
What of those 200 pro-slavery passages, Elder Wilson? Why didn’t you preach on those?
God said it; I believe it; that settles it
This cliché has been badly misused ever since it was first uttered. It shuts down discussions, starts fights, or signals a retreat to bitterness. When they say “God said it,” they mean, of course, that “the Bible says it ….” We have tens of thousands of denominations started up over relatively small doctrinal differences over interpreting what the Bible says according to people’s own distinct interpretations.
And distinct they are. There may be no other subject that can provoke such self-righteous, bitter arguments and long-lasting divisions as religion, often over things that aren’t relevant.
Clair Sauer, a United Methodist minister, tells the humorous story of how back in the 1830’s, when indoor plumbing became available, some of the saints cited Deuteronomy 23:12-13, which dictated that the latrines were to be used outside the camp with proper shovels. Some preachers preached from the pulpit that the outhouses must remain, and no indoor plumbing should ever be allowed inside the church building.
After all, God said it! Didn’t He?
So what is the best way to understand the message of our Bibles? Here are some pertinent questions.
Did God actually say it? In what context? Context makes a big difference.
Did He mean it to be a law or rule for all time? For example, if we say that the Levitical laws were done away with at the cross, can we bring back and enforce Leviticus 11’s clean and unclean laws?
Did the prophet couch the message in terms he knew his audience would understand, or with literary devices common among the people to whom he was originally writing, but would mean something different today?
Richard W. Coffen has asked us repeatedly to employ a well-known communication model in reading the Bible, a model that asks not just what was said, but takes into account the encoding communicator, the decoding communicatee, and the noise (potential for misunderstanding) from when “God said it” until the message reaches our minds. He reminds us that biblical communicators “wrote thousands of years ago, using dead languages, to communicatees steeped in an extremely different culture.”
In fact, we have seen how the Bible can be used to say almost anything, especially when taken out of context or used in a proof text fashion. Given such a large number of books, by at least 40 different authors, written over a span of thousands of years, and translated into languages we barely still understand, it contains enough words that it can be twisted, distorted and interpreted in a thousand different ways.
When the Bible is actually taken as a whole, when it is understood that God did not write it to teach science or even cultural advancements beyond the time of the people to whom He is speaking, then we come closer to understanding what it really means.
Calvin called this the principle of accommodation. He explains that God reveals Himself to biblical writers in ways that they could understand. He wrote:
God is wont to “lisp” in speaking to us (as nurses do with infants) to accommodate our knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.
It is extremely helpful, on occasion, to ponder God’s “loftiness,” and how far beneath it we are.
I was excited about the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope—the most powerful telescope ever, 100 times more powerful than Hubble. We can only imagine the views that it will give us into the utter vastness of the universe, and how it will inspire us with the majesty and power of a Creator who could fling all that into space.
Now, imagine that loftiness descending low enough to reach and teach us with our “slight capacity.” It is little wonder, then, that there has been so much written and discussed as we try to understand “inspiration.”
Adventists and inspiration
Adventists have had an interesting journey when it comes to inspiration. Alberto O. Timm says that there are numerous quotes and articles in the early Review & Herald in the 1880’s where they reprinted articles that supported a verbal, even mechanical, “not one single error” type inspiration.
Then in 1886, Ellen White made her famous statement that “the writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen…. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.” The pendulum swung back and forth for many years, and continues to do so today. There are rumblings from zealous young Gen Z types and fervent Last Generation Theology people that seem to trend back to a literal, verbal view of inspiration again. Matthew Quartey recently said this regarding the Last Generation Theology views:
These purists are apt to declare inerrancy in both scriptures and Ellen G. White…. They generally endorse a verbal view of inspiration and are reluctant to concede that both biblical writers and Ellen White explain phenomena according to the general understandings of their times.
It was interesting, then, to read from Ted Wilson’s Sabbath sermon quoted above, where he also says in his list, under #1:
Seventh-day Adventists believe in thought inspiration, not verbal inspiration. However, God allowed the prophets to use words portraying God’s message. Do not try to change them or speculate using your own private interpretation. I have even heard of an attempt to question the reliability of the 66 books of the canon, suggesting we need to look at non-canonical apocryphal books to perhaps broaden our view on truth.”
This last was a reference to Matthew Korpman, who has already ably defended Ellen White’s use of the apocrypha in an article in Adventist Today, October 14, 2021. However, it also appears that Ted Wilson, with his new title of “President of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church” (not of the General Conference), is really saying that since the prophets were allowed to use “words,” then he is free to demand that we “do not try to change them!”
No speculation? No interpretations? I guess this means that we must understand the kidneys as the source of instruction in the night seasons (Psalms 16:7)? That we take literally the notion that the world rests on the “pillars of the earth” as in 1 Samuel 2:8, as Hannah probably did? What about a two-tiered cosmology of heaven and earth, used throughout the Bible? Or that there are two distinct creations in Genesis 1 and 2? Or the hardest of all to affirm scientifically: a global world-wide flood only four millennia ago?
These thoughts were already forming in my mind way back in Seminary days, when Dr. Siegfried Horn and Dr. Leona Running and Dr. Alger Johns taught us that the Hebrew Bible is full of poetry, literary devices and structures familiar to the Ancient Near Eastern audience, and used regularly by people then. So when God tried to explain what really happened in “the beginning” to Moses, is it possible that both God and Moses wrote these accounts with words and concepts that conveyed the theological message to the original intended readers?
And one more thought: if the purpose of the Bible is also to communicate not just to the original audience, but to those of us thousands of years later, then why not allow for some interpretive Holy Spirit “inspiration” today to help us filter the differences in culture and scientific understandings that have taken place over the centuries?
- A.A. Milne, cited in 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught (1996) ↑
- Clair Sauer, “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” Sermon contributed to Sermon Central on April 28, 2016 ↑
- Richard W. Coffen, “A Fundamental Exegetical Principle,” Adventist Today, October 27, 2020 ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1 ↑
- Timm, Alberto R (2008) “Adventist Views on Inspiration,” Perspective Digest, Vol. 13: Iss. 3, Article 2 ↑
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 21. ↑
- Matthew Quartey, “Embedding Last Generation Theology in Sabbath School Lessons.” Spectrum, February 21, 2019 ↑
Russ Spangler has an M.A. and B.D. from Andrews University, and Ph.D in Communication from Michigan State University. He has been a pastor, teacher, a director of admissions at Union College and a broker. He is currently retired with his wife, Ann, in Abbotsford, British Columbia