by Mark Gutman | 19 April 2023 |
This piece was originally published on March 24, 2016.
- Scene 1: The judge explains to the jury that they were about to see and hear a lot of evidence. But no matter what they saw, she tells them, they should vote that the defendant is guilty.
- Scene 2: The scientist carefully follows scientific methodology until he discovers that three of the ten results didn’t fit his theory. In his reporting of his findings, he barely mentions the outliers.
- Scene 3: The pastor tells the church members that their study group would use a book that considered the historical-critical method to be useful. “But,” the pastor warns, “stay away from that method. In fact, hold on—I’ll find a different book that isn’t so risky to our spirituality.”
In all three scenes, a respected authority told people something about “truth” even if it disagreed with evidence. In the third scene, the authority didn’t want people to investigate some of the evidence in the first place!
In an Adventist World article, a writer counseled readers that “We’re to follow the historicist view of prophecy and biblical understanding. Don’t let anyone turn you from the historicist understanding and the historical-biblical interpretation of Scripture” (Ted Wilson, “Faithful Followers,” April 2016, page 8). The writer explains that “[t]he historical-critical method applied to the Word of God reduces its effectiveness as authoritative.”
While I am not urging readers to use the historical-critical method, I question the reasonableness of crossing it off your list before you even try it. Refusing to use the historical-critical method because it has led some to new views seems a little like refusing to listen to a witness in court because you fear that she may lead you to change your mind about the guilt of the defendant.
Evidence kept from you?
When an attorney is told to stop presenting a certain line of evidence, the jury is curious. “What are we missing?” When a newspaper presents a sensational medical news story, it frequently leaves out the fact that one hundred other trials of the medication produced no significant benefit. Some readers then get their hopes up over the potential new medical breakthrough, only to be disappointed. And angry, when they discover that they weren’t told the whole story. People used to “soft-core” Bible study may have no idea that there are other ways of approaching the Scriptures.
1 Thessalonians says to “test everything that is said” and to “hold on to what is good” (5:21 New Living Translation). How do we decide that the historical-critical method is bad if we haven’t examined it ourselves? Should we only read material that we have been assured probably won’t change our beliefs? The historical-critical method has problems and benefits, as does the historicist. Does a search for more light limit itself at the start?
I remember reading stories about people interested in Adventist teachings who quit investigating because their priest or pastor warned them away. Shame on them! Could we be copying the naughty clergy by telling parishioners to stop investigating something because we fear it might lead them to believe differently from us?
“God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence upon which to base our faith,” says Ellen White in Steps to Christ (p.105). Sometimes religious people are tempted to limit that evidence. To make sure that others only see the data that convinced them. To make sure troublesome data are not allowed to rear their ugly head.
The Clear Word and Sabbath School lesson quarterlies sell better to church members than books that seriously study the Bible. Most church members probably won’t be interested in the historical-critical method, so badmouthing it won’t have much effect.
But I have been amazed at what I’ve learned about the Bible from non-Adventist scholars or commentators who were using the historical-critical method. The method just might wake up a few sleepy Bible students. Is it better to let them yawn?
Books sold in Adventist Book Centers tend to be safe and soft. (Alden Thompson’s books are a notable exception to the tendency to avoid uncomfortable issues in or about the Bible.) A devotional approach leaves many readers scratching their heads over why to bother with most of the Bible. “It’s in the Bible, so it must be important” means that members feel compelled to regard every verse as devotional material superior to anything outside the Bible; any Bible study method that doesn’t agree with that philosophy, they’re told, is to be shunned.
If we want to learn what the Bible writers are really saying, should we avoid all books written by non-Adventists, or books to which our pastor doesn’t give a thumbs-up? Whose agenda are we fulfilling by limiting ourselves that way?
Your view vs God’s view
Robert Price complains about Rick Warren’s writing: “Isn’t he saying that his reading of the Bible ought to govern your whole . . . life? Again, all fundamentalists do this. ‘Well, friend, there’s your view, and then there’s God’s view,’ because God is smart enough to agree with me.”(Robert Price, The Reason-Driven Life: What Am I Here on Earth For? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006, 64)
In the quotation from Steps to Christ referenced earlier, Ellen White adds, “God has never removed the possibility of doubt. . . . Those who wish to doubt will have opportunity; while those who really desire to know the truth will find plenty of evidence on which to rest their faith.” Do we protect believers by not letting them hear the questions that might cause doubt? Is what seems risky to me probably too risky for them? Do we care when members ask, “Why didn’t somebody tell me these things?”
If a defendant is innocent, a prosecutor has no business hiding evidence that would free him. Scientists who manipulate or ignore evidence in order to arrive at a pre-approved conclusion don’t help.
How do theologians or pastors help people spiritually? By helping them avoid whatever might make a desired conclusion less likely?
If you’re sitting on a jury, please listen to the presentations of both sides, even if you form an opinion quickly. If you’re a scientist, pay attention to the data that don’t fit your hypothesis. And if you’re a Bible student, don’t toss a method of looking at the Scriptures before you even give it a chance, especially when it might open your eyes to many things you’ll never otherwise learn.
Mark Gutman has worked as a pastor, a teacher, and an auditor for the church. He is now retired and living in Battle Ground, Washington, with his wife, Heather.