Precept Upon Precept
by Ron Corson
There is a common myth in Adventism which amazingly enough is used as a text for how to study the Bible; it is so contextually inaccurately that it would be funny if not so sad. The following is a section from the Immanuel Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church website page entitled How to Study the Bible:
"Whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand doctrine? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line, here a little, and there a little." Isaiah 28:9, 10.
“We must study broadly, permitting the Bible to define its own terms. This will preserve us from the practice of some, in taking an isolated passage and twisting it to fit or "prove" their own ideas. We should always approach the Bible with an open and honest attitude, willing to lay aside any established beliefs and practices, whenever we find them to be without scriptural foundation.”
Most Adventists realize the Isaiah text above is also frequently used by Ellen G. White which probably explains why, even though the context in Isaiah has nothing to do with studying scriptures, it is still used by Adventists as if that is what the text is about. In the case of the Immanuel SDA church the text is used contrary to the statements before and after the text. This is actually just the process they seek to avoid: taking an isolated passage and twisting it to prove “their own ideas.”
This verse in context is not a description of how to study the Bible or any of the component parts of the Bible. As the Expositor's Bible Commentary states:
“Many commentators have been puzzled by verse 10 and have wrestled to make sense of the Hebrew. The truth of the matter seems to be, as the NIV margin suggests, that it is not meant to make sense. Isaiah's words had hardly penetrated the alcohol-impregnated atmosphere that surrounded his hearers. What they picked up were simply a few stray syllables, some of them repeated, like the baby-talk that delights the child but would insult the adult. They mouth this gibberish back at the prophet. The transmitter was as strong and clear as ever; it was the receivers that were at fault. Their judgment, meantime, lay in their failure to hear the word that could have led them back to God; but there was another judgment on its way, most appropriate in its form. Their sin had turned the word of God through Isaiah into a meaningless noise that might just as well have been a foreign language.”
We can grant that Ellen White held to a Christian tradition with her use of the “precept by precept” quote being common, however, this does not make it any more true or useful (see the article about the mis-translated text used as a catch phrase). Even if it were taken to be a description of proper Scriptural study, it is a very poor method. Simply take from here or there a precept or a line and add it to another precept or line. Context or meaning should not be mere obstacles we overcome with a bit of editing here and there.
The reality is that we have to do far more than comparing scripture verse with scripture verse. The Bible does not explain itself as in this article I have not explained to you what an article is. Language is like that. We use the terms of knowledge of our day and assume the listeners or readers will also understand those ideas from our common background. The Bible authors did this just like any other writers. The text does not spend much time defining itself. We determine the meaning from the context of the statements or stories. If we make wrong assumptions about certain forms of Biblical literature we can come to far different meanings then may have been the original intent — the original intent may no longer even have application in the world we live in.
It is the nature of inspiration the original intent may have different applications, its use for ancient Israel may be different from it use for modern Americans. For example, the concept of tithe rendered to a storehouse does not work apart from the nation and the support of Levities. Yet in modern times it is used by many denominations with the application of a tithe to support the church. An apocalyptic text may be interpreted differently depending upon where in history one is. One answer may not be correct at any one time, but there may be an application that can be used in multiple circumstances by different people in history to comfort or edify their situation as Christians. That inspiration aspect makes the Bible of use throughout history and stand as something that is deserving of continual study and reassessment. There is a kind of timelessness to some Bible texts, the idea of divine inspiration would seem to cover the idea that God expects that history and time advances, progressing with increases in knowledge and understanding. God continues to inspire His followers to understand useful applications for their lives.
The Immanuel Seventh-day Adventist church is quite correct when they say the study of the Bible must include everything the Bible says on a subject. But the Bible requires even more than that to truly be interpreted. As the website states, “we must study broadly”. Adventism has had a hard time with this idea, as we don't want to study broadly, we want to study in a restricted “Adventist only” perspective. This idea was emphasized by General Conference President Ted Wilson, in his opening sermon, Go Forward. He stated, “Look WITHIN the Seventh-day Adventist Church to humble pastors, evangelists, Biblical scholars, leaders, and departmental directors who can provide evangelistic methods and programs based on solid Biblical principles and The Great Controversy Theme." The Seventh-day Adventist church, even though barely 150 years old, is not the authority on all things Biblical and certainly not an authority on the context and language of the Bible. We have scholars, and those scholars learned from outside the Adventist church. There is no reason to stop this practice and we must resist those like Ted Wilson who want to direct Adventism back into themselves. It is those who have turned in upon themselves that have instilled the idea of “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little there a little” as if this is a valid technique of Bible study.