by Jack Hoehn  |  December 7, 2019  | In the Beginning Was the Word.

I’d love to be one of those nocturnal camel-backed wise men following a wonder-star through dark night after dark night, secure in the knowledge that in my saddle bags I had the stash of golden staters that would both sparkle for the infant, and overwhelm his Joseph and Mary. In reality all I can do is listen to my mother or my father read me the story.

“When stories are read to us in childhood we accept them without question. Spoken as they are by someone we trust and who forms part of the world into which we have come, they seem to us as natural and inevitable as that world itself.” Gabriel Josipovici[1]

In all our beginnings we learn the spoken word. But soon children become readers and find out that the spoken words can be written down. We soon learn we can play with words. We can spell them, translate them, redefine them, question them. We can pick up a book, and put it down again. Now the word does not control us, we begin to control the word. We can even start to question the words. “Who was Moses? Did the plagues really occur? Was Jesus really the son of God?”[2]

The Word Has Been Made Flesh

I love the older English, “sundry times,” “divers’ manners,” “spake,” and “hath” held over from the 16th century by King James Bibles.  

“God, who at sundry times and in divers’ manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…[3]

Sundry–Various. Divers–Different. Spake—spoken and then written down. Those “in times past” words have been eclipsed by a brand-new thing. Some One beyond inspiration, beyond prophecy, something bright, fresh, new. The living Jesus comes with powers better than those possessed by angels, truths beyond anything in print. The Bible and its written or printed words must bow to a new living Word.

Figure 1. Leonardo da Vinci.

A living Creator’s words are no longer manageable as the words of the Bible were. We cannot pick Jesus up from the manger and put him down at convenience as we would a book. With the incarnate Word one must live. With the living Word we must walk, eat, sleep, listen, argue, and be surprised. We are on his schedule, not ours.

Jesus was hours old to the shepherds, months old to the wise men. The risen Lord is no longer the meek and mild holy child, nor the precocious teen testing his teachers. He is no longer in his thirties as he was for the four Gospels. So how old is Jesus today?

The sacred Bible words were written and now are fixed into print. On those words we have built our traditions, as had the early disciples of Christ in AD 31. But the inanimate words of their sacred Bible were modified and their traditional understandings of them were often greatly enlarged or corrected by the living Word. Listen to him:

“You have heard that it was said…, but I say unto you…”
“You surely must have read what David did… Or
have you not read in the Law of Moses…
[but] I tell you that there is something here greater…”[4] 

Greater than their Bibles? Yes, dear hearts. Greater than their Bibles–Jesus.

Danger of Challenging the Old Testament

The living Word of God was put to death by his own words. He said things contrary to the Old Testament (OT) they thought they were living by. He contradicted their understanding of the holy words. Blasphemy is not giving a new scientific theory or fancy poetry; blasphemy is contradicting sacred words—their accepted, clear, simple understanding of the Torah, the Law, the Prophets, the Writings—their Old Testament Bible.

“The high priest said to him, ‘I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus replied, ‘You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming in the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, ‘Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’ ‘Guilty!’ they shouted. ‘He deserves to die!’”[5]

He was put to death for the guilt of challenging their understanding of holy words. Was Jesus guilty of modifying their written Bible? At very least he was guilty of modifying their understanding of the OT Bible. How dare he? He dared.

For contradicting their understanding of the Old Testament, Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried. On the third day he rose again, but shortly after that he ascended into heaven. And now more words have been written and turned into our many translated New Testaments. Have we gone from OT words to The Living Word? and now are we back to just printed New Testament words again?

Back into the Manger

The wider world has put Jesus safely and harmlessly back into the manger. The Christian world has also largely frozen Jesus in the printed Gospels. Here is one Christian’s confession:

“I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God…” Parker Palmer[6]

When eighteen, I visited a museum in Florence, Italy, preserving Christian art through the centuries. As I walked through the different rooms progressing in time from the earliest illustrations to the later ones, I noted the devolution of Jesus in the art. The earliest pictures were simple reconstructions of Bible stories—Eve and Adam, Noah and animals, Jesus as an adult boated on Galilee. But as time progressed Jesus became littler and littler. Till most of the art showed an infantized Jesus in the arms of his adult mother, surrounded by adult bishops and popes.

As a fully indoctrinated Adventist-Protestant visiting amazing Catholic-Christian temples, I quietly shook my head in disapproval of the Mariolatry magnifying Mary and diminishing Jesus. Those steadily more magnificent churchmen in their extravagances were clearly illustrating the reverse of John the Baptist, saying instead: “Jesus must decrease that I, bishop and pope, may increase.” Century by century they and Mary began to dominate each painting, sculpture, and window. Jesus was pretty much relegated back to the manger.

Still Alive?

Let us be honest: Seventh-day Adventists pride themselves as people of the Bible. Especially since 1919 we have become “Back to the Biblicists.”[7] We give more authority to the written Word than to any ecstatic appeals to the Spirit of a living Jesus. We value the words of the Bible, over any claims about hearing changes in what was written from the living Word.

A printed book is solid and approachable. We do what we assume is “the clear reading” of the Bible (even when it is not always that clear). Our attitude is, “Don’t confuse us with nuances, changes, reinterpretations, or contradictions to the B-I-B-L-E.” It seems dangerous, uncertain, and possibly subversive to follow a living Christ communicating to us in the here and now by the living but invisible and not controllable Spirit. We prefer to see things in black and white print. With black and white answers.

As a dead and buried Mary magically translated into heaven became a de facto Catholic substitute for the living adult Christ, so a dead Ellen safely entombed in books becomes an Adventist substitute for a living progressive 2020 Jesus. We fence in “what would Jesus do” with texts and quotations. Here is classic Adventism:

“To the law [Old Testament] and to the testimony [Ellen White], if they speak not according to [our interpretation of] this [printed] word, there is no light in them!”[8]

Traditional interpretations trump progressive truths, and instead of “a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through… His flesh”[9] we default back to the old static way of what we read in the printed Bible as explained in print by Ellen White.

We sing what we do not seem to believe: “We serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today. We know that he is living, whatever men may say. We see his hand of mercy, we hear his voice of cheer, and just the time we need him, he’s always near.”[10]

Really? Really, Adventists? Are we ready to let the living, active, unsenile 2,024-year-old Jesus challenge and update our understandings of the 3,400-year-old Bible or the 170-year-old visions of Ellen White? Do we really have a living Jesus not just sitting, but actively “standing” today at the right hand of God[11], a position of power?[12] Don’t we limit claimed communication from the mature, alive, active Son of Man to our parsing of unliving print?[13]

We need to recheck the pulse of our Jesus. If still alive, why would he not continue to modify, expand, refocus or correct our traditional understanding of the words of the Bible? Shall we permit Jesus to teach us things not yet printed in our Sabbath School quarterlies?

Examples

In 1888, when still living and listening to a living Christ, a matured Ellen White sought to reinterpret and refocus the tenor of her younger writings from “righteousness by obedience” to “righteousness by faith.”[14] But the bearded brethren dared quote her own published words against her new enthusiasm for “righteousness by faith.”[15] The printed testimonies she had written had been imbued with authority over the actual living speaking prophetess! They sent Ellen White to Australia for nine years[16] so they could study the printed Testimonies to the Church without the inconvenience of hearing spoken a new emphasis, a destabilizing new light, and change in emphasis from the lips of the living prophetess who claimed her living Jesus had given her a new emphasis–a new interpretation of older texts, a correction of misunderstanding of her previous visions.

If a modern version of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (that is Leonardo’s beautiful painting of Mary and Jesus above) were to walk into your Seventh-day Adventist church offering to enrich your congregation with the pathos and beauty of their talents, perhaps asking to be officially married into a lifelong sexual monogamy, what would you feel about those artists? [17] If you knew them as children and watched them grow up, you might first feel some “echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” You might wish to welcome them in. You think, “They were such nice little boys.”

But then something stiffens and you think, but what does the Bible say? What does my church teach? Any generous spiritual inclination to be kind and understanding of the so-born, any heart response of “what might Jesus do,” is subordinated to “what did Moses write?” Ted Wilson was very clear why gay men would not be welcomed into his Adventism, “It is inconsistent with the Church’s understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings.”[18] Not “It is inconsistent with the character and teachings of Jesus” but inconsistent with “the Church’s understanding” of the Bible. So, who wins–“the Church’s understanding” or “what would Jesus do?”

Authority

Adventists today may feel the same as the Jewish leaders did.

“One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. ‘Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,’ they said. ‘Who gave you this authority?’”[19]

Can we listen if Jesus through His Spirit challenges our previous understanding of Scripture? How can we test new ideas that contradict what we used to think the Bible was saying? Perhaps Ellen White will guide us:

  • We are not permitted to challenge the movings of the Spirit by the authority of position. December 9, 1888, Ellen White wrote, “We should not consider that either Elder Butler [GC President] or Elder Smith [editor of Review] are the guardians of the doctrines for Seventh-day Adventists, and that no one may dare to express an idea that differs from theirs…No man is to be authority for us.”[20]
  • We are not permitted to appeal to the authority of Adventist traditional understandings. In 1890 Ellen White wrote, “As a people we are certainly in great danger, if we are not constantly guarded, of considering our ideas, because long cherished, to be Bible doctrines and on every point infallible, and measuring everyone by the rule of our interpretation of Bible truth. This is our danger, and this would be the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people.” [21]

Not Orphans

When Jesus left this earth, he didn’t tell his disciples, “You have all you need to know. I’m leaving you the Old and New Testaments; study ye them, and stand by the old waymarks!” But he did tell them,

“I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.” [22] “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but he will tell you…”[23] “He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me.”[24]

A very alive Jesus was once active in speaking to Adventists. He impressed William Miller with new ideas about prophecy. He impressed Joseph Bates with new ideas about the Sabbath. He impressed James White that contrary to societal and traditional rules, he was in fact speaking on a fairly regular basis with Ellen Harmon. Early Adventists abandoned old understandings of the Bible for new and better ones. What about Bible questions today?

  • Jesus, do you still want us to stone to death Sabbath breakers?[25]
  • How about women taken in adultery?[26]
  • Is it still true that no one who is blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed, or has a crushed testicle (or no testicles at all) is permitted to be a priest or ordained as a pastor?[27]
  • I know you were against prostitution of girls or boys in both Old and New Testament times; were you talking about gender-diverse LBGQT people?[28]
  • Are Pastors Stephen Bohr and Doug Batchelor right? Do you want the Persian laws recorded in the Bible for male headship to still rule in your church?[29]

Can We Know?

How can we know when Jesus is leading us to new answers? Satan-the-deceiver might just be whispering in our ears. How can we be sure it is the Holy Spirit? Thomas (you know, the skeptical one) asked the same question before Jesus left. “Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus gave him three standards: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” [30] Here is what he might say to us:

  • First, understand truth is not static. I am a Path for you to follow. Prepare to move on from where you were before to someplace better, higher, and, yes, perhaps harder, but closer to me. End-time Christianity is not sitting still but progressing with the Lamb. Revelation’s faultless 144,000 are not called “the ones who follow the Bible best” but rather “the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”[31] He is moving; we are to be following.
  • Secondly, I am the Truth. So, when something challenges your Bible, first off—is the fact true? If you once thought the Bible considered the earth flat, and now you know it is a sphere, change your interpretation. If the earth goes around the sun and not the sun going around the earth, change your interpretation of the Bible to line up with the truth. Is it true that this earth and life on it are older than 6,000 years? Then I am the Truth, and Bible words about me must be lined up with the truth. All truths are mine. Your understanding of the Bible, a prophet, a doctrine must always be made to align with truth.
  • Third, I came in the flesh and share human Life. The circumstances of life twist and change. What once worked under one set of circumstances may not work as well under changed circumstances. That is why nature adapts or evolves to changing circumstances. All living things need to be flexible and adaptable. The same will be true for my church and its members. Rigidity to change can mean physical death. Rigidity in standards can mean spiritual death. If your marriage becomes broken, move on with whatever will improve your and your children’s lives. If your children turn out gay, do what opens up things for them, not what cuts them off from you. If you have nothing to eat but Spam, make the choice that preserves life, even if you have to stop eating kosher to do it. I want your marriages all to be happy, your children all to be perfect, your diets all to be optimal. But in case you haven’t noticed, we are at war. I am the creator of beauty, of harmony, of abundance. But you will find things that mar the beauty, spoil the harmony, and impoverish us. Respond to these challenges not by saving rules, but by saving lives. Make decisions that make bad things better, even if they can’t be perfect. And if you have to err, err on the side of mercy, not on the side of justice.

God Doesn’t Change–We Must.

Some believers when challenged to change their application of the Bible, quote back Malachi 3:6:

 “I am the Lord, I change not.”

He does not change, but we must change. Our understanding of the Lord needs to change, to mature, to improve. Inspired writers admit they only had a partial understanding of truth.[32] You and I have only a partial understanding of truth. Changing how we understand the partial understandings of the writers of the Bible is not changing God; it’s letting God change us.

Ellen White describes the tumult when the church of the Old Testament was being transformed by the authority of Jesus:

“They had rejected Christ…deceived by priests and rulers…[and] if they continued to look to these men for counsel, and waited for them to acknowledge Christ before they dared to do so, they would never accept Him… The scriptures that Christ had explained to the disciples stood out before them with the luster of perfect truth. The veil that had prevented them from seeing to the end of that which had been abolished, was now removed, and they comprehended with perfect clearness the object of Christ’s mission and the nature of His kingdom… traditions and superstitions inculcated by the priests were swept away from their minds, and the teachings of the Savior were accepted.” (Acts of the Apostles, p 44-45.)

Which of our beliefs should be abolished and are now outdated traditions inculcated by leaders? Which of our prejudices are superstitions held by society at large? Are we experiencing a living God, or studying old printed words—abstractions–about God? Will we let a very much alive Jesus modify and reapply ancient scriptures to the current issues of our time?

Yes, we need to be cautious about what seem big changes. But a living Christ can make clear to you what changes are necessary. Just don’t be surprised if Jesus encourages you to open up and change your mind. He said,

I didn’t make this up. What I teach comes from the One who sent me. Anyone who wants to do his will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up.”[33]

Please have a Merry Christmas, but remember, the living Jesus no longer fits into a manger. He has not left us orphans with only printed words but will inspire us with new and better ways to apply the Scriptures. His Way to apply present Truth to Life today must not be restricted by our previous partial misunderstandings.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God—A Response to the Bible, page 3. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) One of my favorite books on understanding how the Bible is different from all other books.

[2] Ibid, page 4.

[3] Hebrews 1:1.

[4] Matthew 5:43,44; Matthew 12:3-6 [Contemporary English Version].

[5] Matthew 26:63-66 [New Living Translation]

[6] Parker Palmer, quoted by Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise—an Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, page 91.  (New York: Penguin Books, 2017)

[7] See Michael W. Campbell, Southwestern Adventist University “The Haunting of Adventism: Ghosts from the 1919 Bible Conference” — Quoted in https://atoday.org/the-2019-asrs-conference-part-1/  .

[8] Isaiah 8:20.

[9] Hebrews 10:20.

[10] After SDA Hymnal #251, He Lives.

[11] Acts 7:56.

[12] Mark 14:62 [New International Version] And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand.

[13]You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…” John 5:39, [Berean Study Bible]. “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” Matthew 15:8 [Berean Study Bible].

[14] The progression of Ellen White’s beliefs during her life has long been documented by Alden Thompson, Escape from the Flames—How Ellen White grew from fear to joy…(Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2005),

[15] George R. Knight, A Search for Identity—the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs, Page 96. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000)

[16] Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, Page 118. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013)

[17] Both artistic geniuses are known to have been homosexual men. See Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci, page 368. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).

[18] “Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices,” April 8, 2014, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Spring Meeting 2014. www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/guidelines/article/go/-/responding-to-changing-cultural-attitudes-regarding-homosexual-and-other-alternative-sexual-practice/

[19] Luke 20:1,2.

[20] Ellen G. White, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/428.936#936

[21] Ellen G. White, Letters and Manuscripts—Volume 6, MS 37, 1890.

[22] John 14:18.

[23] John 16:12-13 [New Living Translation]

[24] John 16:15.

[25] Numbers 15:5.

[26] John 8:5.

[27] Leviticus 21:16-21.

[28] Leviticus 18:19-23.

[29] Esther 1:19-22. “So if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree, and let it be recorded in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed…  so all women, from the least to the greatest, will honor their husbands. The king and his princes were pleased with this counsel; so the king did as Memucan had advised. He sent letters to all the provinces of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be master of his own household.” [Berean Study Bible]

[30] John 14:5,6.

[31] Revelation 14:1-5.

[32] As St. Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete..”[New Living Translation].

[33] John 7:16 [Message Bible].

Dear Adventist Today readers: I’m inserting this note to tell you that we are right now conducting our end-of-year fundraiser. Adventist Today is largely a volunteer organization, but if we’re going to continue to provide you with stimulating news—often news you get nowhere else—and fascinating commentary by some of the best writers in the denomination, we do need some financial support. If you want to see us continue to do the journalism that you’ve been accustomed to from Adventist Today, become an AT member now or or give us a one-time gift. Loren Seibold, Executive Editor, Adventist Today website and magazine.


Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa. 

To comment, click here.