Shall we offer guidelines for God?

By Jack Hoehn — February 20, 2017:    I love Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen. As a 17-year-old college student, in a wild and unpremeditated move I impulsively signed up for the Adventist Colleges Abroad program, and with very little forethought found myself for a second year of college completely out of California culture living in the Sound of Music world of rural Austria.

In mature retrospect, my young sails were filled by the gusts of the Holy Spirit who took me in love to Bogenhofen at the time and with the intentions of His unseen hand who knew what my character and personality needed to open a life of service and happiness to me. Without boring you with the details, Bogenhofen, Austria, culture shock, and language immersion were the medicines that boy needed to make this man.

I was the only English-speaking boy in the Burschenheim (boys’ dorm) so I experienced the life-changing experience of being born again into a new language by total immersion. It taught me cultural humility to see that everything I thought and knew in my mother tongue could be experienced and repackaged completely in another language.

This earned bilingualism made me sensitive and flexible with the later Sesotho and Chichewa a mission doctor would need. Learning two languages makes a third and fourth and fifth more approachable. I am not a linguist, but I have been for the rest of my life comfortable with foreign languages and find them a pleasure, not a problem.

For a smart, conversational American college student to become in German a mute who knew what he wanted to say, but could not at first communicate it, taught me how to listen to people more carefully. I learned that those who have expressive challenges may be as smart and capable as I thought I was, but as tongue-tied as the village idiot! It made me a better listener.

And the kind hospitality and patience I experienced from my Swiss, Austrian, and German roommates and dorm neighbors (Edwin Ruegg, Urs Brunner, Lothar Bucher, Gerhard Pfandel, Klaus Zachhuber and many more), as well as the family atmosphere of the faculty who encouraged us to call them Tante and Onkel (Aunt and Uncle) instead of the usual Germanic title formality of Herr Uberprofessor und Dirketor Doktor Philosophie Hans Heinz were Christian character lessons I began to learn by osmosis.

The religious climate of Bogenhofen was strict and conservative but fairly rigorous. Yet I found that cultural differences in things like Sabbath keeping showed that behaviors are often culturally determined, not necessarily divinely ordained. In my California conservatism, sports were not Sabbath activities, but conservative Austrian Sabbath keepers played harmless group games on Sabbath afternoon walks. And as in Norway a strict Adventist diet includes fish, so in Austria the land of beautiful cows and goats in high meadows, a strict Adventist diet includes cheese. (I never learned the fish lesson, but I have learned cheese. And Swiss classmates taught me that chocolate is an essential nutrient, not an indulgence!) With dietary changes my body slimmed and I came back from my year abroad a leaner young man instead of a chubby boy.

So, when I saw that our Sabbath School (SS) lessons for this quarter come from the head of the theology department at Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen (they train German-speaking pastors there, as well as being a small junior college) I was excited. My New Testament studies began under Hans Heinz at Bogenhofen (his son Danny was still a toddler then) and I was eager to see what a rich, deep, rigorous, and exciting series of lessons we would be given by Onkel Frank M. Hasel, PhD (now moved by his General Conference-approved conservatism to the Biblical Research Institute).

I listened to the Bogenhofen-produced video the online SS lesson site offers from Dr. Hasel and read his first lesson, with my drooping sails ready for a fresh and exciting gust of unpredictable and excitingly wild Spirit wind.

The wind “bloweth where it listeth,” shaking trees and sometimes uprooting mountain tops with its ferocity. It can whisper gently and sweetly; it can drive you in fear into your basement bunker. But where it comes and where it goes, nobody knows.

How disappointing then to read in the first lesson, the introduction to the God who moved on the surface of earth’s waters during creation of all that is, who lights fires on the tongues of Pentecostal believers, who leads into all truth, far beyond the truths of AD 31 and AD 125 and AD 2017, an attempt to box the Spirit into our present and past understandings!

It felt to me, with my unfilled sails, like at the beginning we were asked to tie down the possible movings of the Spirit to our 28 human-crafted Fundamental Adventist Belief statements. The introductory paragraphs start with telling us that “Fundamental Adventist Belief #5” makes it OK, dear worried Adventist, to study Him.

And then halfway through the first of 13 lessons, we are warned at the outset to not dare let the Spirit lead us any way from any of our other carefully crafted and set in stone 28 beliefs? And I quote:

                “Though, of course, the Bible was written by those living in specific times and places and cultures (how could it have been otherwise?), we should not use that fact to water down or dismiss the message of the Bible to us. Once that door is opened, the Bible becomes subject to humans and to their determination of what is truth. The result is that many people, while claiming to believe the Bible, reject such things as a six-day creation, a worldwide flood, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the literal Second Coming. These are just a few of many biblical truths that fallible people, sitting in judgment on the Scriptures, have thrown out. That’s not a path any of us should ever take.”

Why would we be presumptuous enough to announce where and within what parameters we shall permit the Spirit to move believers?

I am glad that Uncle Frank recognizes that many people” who read the Bible do understand the 7-day Creation story as a beautiful and ancient outline of creation, not a 21st-century scientific statement on the age of the earth or an imposed limit on the Creator as to how and when He had to accomplish His creation.

And Noah’s worldwide flood could of course mean either covering Noah’s world or covering the planet earth (Mt. Everest and all), so the interpretation of its extent is not a Biblical question, but a scientific one.

While questioning the virgin birth might have been based on incomplete science in past centuries, no one in the 21st century could reject the possibility of a Divine manipulation of a human ovum based on scientific issues in this age of chromosomal engineering.

Arguing over the exact nature of Christ’s second coming that hasn’t happened yet clearly is a field open for anticipation and speculation, not dogma.

So please. In my youth, I was unpredictably pushed by the Holy Spirit to places I was previously unaware of; I learned lessons I didn’t know I needed to know; and I was prepared for a life of happy service with tools that made that life fruitful and possible.

So why begin the study of the wild, free, silent but powerful, hidden and potentially disruptive God by setting down SDA dogma limits from yesterday on just where Adventists can be Spirit-led tomorrow?

Elder James White explained why the Seventh-day Adventist church was to be led by “the gifts” of the Spirit, and not by creedal statements, in the Review and Herald October 8, 1861:

  • “Let us suppose a case: We get up a creed, stating just what we shall believe on this point and the other, and just what we shall do in reference to this thing and that, and say that we will believe the gifts, too.But suppose the Lord, through the gifts, should give us some new light that did not harmonize with our creed;then, if we remain true to the gifts, it knocks our creed all over at once.Making a creed is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement. God put the gifts into the church for a good and great object; but men who have got up their churches have shut up the way or have marked out a course for the Almighty. They say virtually that the Lord must not do anything further than what has been marked out in the creed.Now what is our position as a people? The Bible is our creed. We reject everything in the form of a human creed. We take the Bible and the gifts of the Spirit; embracing the faith that thus the Lord will teach us from time to time. And in this we take a position against the formation of a creed.”

So how have we come as Adventists to dare present the Holy Spirit as restricted, tied down, limited to our Adventist creeds? In the video mentioned Elder Hasel suggests the Holy Spirit is not just the inspiration for Bible writers, but “the Author of the Bible.” How comfortable are you claiming that the Holy Spirit is the author of Psalm 137:9? Would the Spirit of Jesus be author of Nehemiah 12:25?

Hasel’s video continues to warn us that if the Holy Spirit inspires someone today, we should limit the freedom of that inspiration to our present or previous understanding of the Bible. His quoted words are, “The Holy Spirit cannot contradict the Bible.”

Jesus did. (Matthew 5:43-45; Matthew 19:7-9; John 5:39). Why would we not expect the Holy Spirit to correct and extend and reapply with deeper broader understanding the truths begun to be revealed in Scripture and needing newer and better applications today? Jesus told the Sadducee Bible students they erred (Matthew 22:29) for two reasons: 1.) They didn’t understand the writings. 2.) They didn’t understand God and His powerful character.

I’m certain the Bible was written by inspired authors, but I would not like to defend that this makes the Holy Spirit “the Author of the Bible.” Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Luke and Paul are the authors. And this is why we find revelations clothed with so many obvious human imperfections. The Bible tells me what people thought and did when inspired, but as Ellen White so clearly reminds us, “God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible.” The Bible is the word about God, not the words of God.

The wish to “live Biblically” is an escape from life. We need to learn from the Bible not how to live as they did, but how to live as God wants us to live now in the 21st century. We learn from their errors as well as from their truths. “He will guide you into all truth,” was Jesus’ promise about His Spirit. (John 16:13). Why “guide us” if we already have all the truth we need? Because we don’t!

The Bible contains divine truths, but it is an introduction to truth, not all truth. The Bible is a light to our path, not a fence to prevent us from moving forward and upward closer and closer to Heaven.

This is no hope that the Holy Spirit shall overthrow the Bible, but I am fairly certain this Spirit will be quite willing and able to overthrow our misunderstanding of the Bible and our idolatry of elevating our interpretation of the Bible to the level of inspiration.

Surely, He who inspired the writers of the holy letters, which are said to be profitable for reproof, correction, instruction (II Timothy 3:16,17) should be able to reprove, correct, and instruct us in how to understand the ancient writings better today than yesterday.

If we begin our study of the Holy Spirit by boxing in the Spirit with Adventism’s past and present creeds,  then we are simply trying to nail down the Dove.


Photo:  Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen with morning sun over the Teich.

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