by Olive Hemmings  |  2 September 2020  |

“You perpetually search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, but they are what testify about me” (John 5:39, translated directly from the Greek NT).

When we claim sacred texts as the word of God, and institutions claim them as the authority that governs them, this makes it possible for the sacred text to become an instrument in the hands of institutions and their agents, and to be weaponized in the interest of domination and control.

The Bible is the tool by which Christian faith communities maintain particular belief systems, perpetuate cultural predispositions and ideologies, and sometimes simply beat people into subjection. And so the Church has always claimed the authority to centralize and control the outcome of Bible interpretation.

But if the focus is on the outcome of interpretation, does it not compromise the integrity of the interpretive process? We may observe the way particular Christian denominations use the Bible to advance their particular “truth.” Let us observe the case of Roman Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism, for example:

For one thousand years the Roman Catholic Church denied the populace access to the Bible.

And everyone was happy—sort of. There is nothing like blissful ignorance. After all, as children we may have happily eaten dirt and drunk toilet water, because we didn’t know any better. We know better now. Eventually, the people of this renaissance and reformation period knew they needed the Bible, and some brave scholars set about making the Bible available again.

Yet so seriously did the church take this prohibition against the Bible that Wycliff’s body was exhumed and burned, and William Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake, only because they bravely translated the Bible into English. Virtually every person who tried to translate the Bible into their vernacular was threatened, if not martyred. Tyndale said it as it was: the Church forbade owning or reading the Bible to control and restrict the teachings, and to enhance their own power and importance.

We recognize this as a flagrant attempt to control what people believe and practice—to actually control people’s minds. But it is important to ask whether our church—the Seventh-day Adventist Church—has followed a similar, albeit not identical, path in controlling the interpretation of scripture.

Methods of Bible Study

In 1986 the Seventh-day Adventist Church produced an official statement on biblical interpretive methodology titled Methods of Bible Study. This document was the church’s response to the theological crisis that began in the 1970s, a period which saw serious challenges to fundamental Seventh-day Adventist doctrines such as the doctrine of the Sabbath, the prophetic authenticity of Ellen White, and the doctrines regarding the sanctuary and the investigative judgement. The challenge to the doctrine of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment by Desmond Ford,[1] a leading Australian Adventist theologian, led to Glacier View, the boiling point in the conflict. Ford was summoned to appear before the Glacier View Sanctuary Committee, comprising 115 theologians and administrators from around the world, which met August 8-11, 1980, in Denver, Colorado. It was a professional inquisition. Ford was axed.

The Desmond Ford case gives us a vivid insight into the church’s approach to Biblical authority. Has it submitted to the authority of scripture, or does it use scripture to maintain its own authority and control?

It is very important to note here that Ford did not at any point violate the church’s accepted method of biblical interpretation. His concern was biblical interpretive integrity and nothing else, as he pointed out the exegetical interpretive problems of the sanctuary doctrine. According to Raymond Cottrell, most of the scholars present agreed with Ford, and the consensus statement which emerged from the committee focused on maintaining the church’s traditional interpretation of Daniel 8:14, without facing up to any of the exegetical and hermeneutical problems posed by Ford.[2]

Cottrell concludes: “In the thinking of the majority at Glacier View, Adventist tradition was the norm for interpreting the Bible, rather than the Bible for tradition.” Indeed, the then-director of the Biblical Research Institute wrote regarding the theological crisis: “These landmark doctrines are to be received and held fast, not in formal fashion but in the light of divine guidance given at the beginning of the movement and made our own. Thus we become part and parcel with the movement, and the beliefs that made the original Seventh-day Adventists, make us Seventh-day Adventist too.”[3]

The Slave Bible

If one should visit the brand new Washington Museum of the Bible located in the United States capital, one may happen upon the Slave Bible. The Slave Bible excludes 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. All the prophetic oracles against injustice and exploitation are not there. The story of the Exodus of Israel out of Egyptian slavery is not there. But Ephesians 6:5 is included in this truncated Bible: “Slaves, submit to your masters.”

But all the passages that promote the fullness of humanity are not there. Why? The Bible was edited, so that the enslaved Africans might not read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel.

Even though we use the unedited Bible today, this editing has gone underground, manifesting in (mis)interpretation and selective emphasis. For example, our church maintains a policy against women’s ordination, using 1 Corinthians 11:3 without paying attention to the entire passage and its conclusion that the only head over humanity is God (1 Cor. 11:11-12). It also focuses on Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” to maintain a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies. But it overlooks the verse before that which subverts the abusive Roman Household Code that the passage reflects (husbands over wives over children and slaves).

So Is The Bible the Word of God?

The Scriptures (hai graphai) and the Word (ho logos) are not the same thing.

The Bible is the Christian scriptures. It is the word of God from the finite human standpoint, insofar as God is intimately involved in the human process. The Holy Spirit acts through human instrumentality towards human salvation. It tells a story of God’s dealing with humanity. That story is a story of liberation that must be liberated from the human vehicle (the various cultural understandings) through which it comes.

The Bible is not the Word of God from the infinite standpoint. Because humanity is in process, what we express about God at particular junctures in history reflects the limitation of our finiteness. The Bible did not fall from the sky. It emerged from genuine human struggles, so it reflects that finiteness. It is a story of liberation that must be liberated from the human vehicle through which it comes. It is in that liberation that we find the word.

The Word of God (According to the Bible).

In beginning was the logos (word), and the word was with God and the word was by nature God. …. Everything came through it, and without it nothing came. That which comes by it is life…And the logos became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14, translated directly from the Greek New Testament)

What is this prologue of the Fourth Gospel telling us about the Word of God?

It says:

  1. The logos is life.
  2. The logos was in beginning (archē).
  3. The logos was by nature God.

Logos (Greek “word”) is life itself, which emanates from God, the ground of existence. The logos incarnates in Jesus of Nazareth and reveals who God is (John 1:14,18). It seeks also to incarnate in you and me through love: “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). The one who loves abides in God and God in them (1 John 4:16). The one who does not love abides in death (1 John 3:14).

Paul Agrees That The Scriptures Is Not Equivalent to The Word of God

In Romans 2:14 Paul says, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves.”

What is the law? “Law” is the term used for scripture in the first century. In the teaching of the early church, what does the law require? “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV). “Owe no one anything but to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV).

Clearly, then, there is Divine enlightenment for these Gentiles, even though they don’t read the Bible. That doesn’t mean the Bible is unnecessary, but it does show the power of God to reach even those who can’t or don’t read the Scriptures.

Unlike the Logos, the Bible Is Not Life

The Bible is a paradigm of human history. It testifies to life. It is not life. It comes through the vehicle of history, meaning that divine revelation comes to humanity within time. But that history represented in the Bible is a sample. It does not include the history of the past 2,000 years.

History is the progression of life through time. We know a lot more about the world today than Biblical authors did. The Bible contains a lot of human baggage. The logos is the pure light of God that shines through pure hearts and teaches us how to love every step of the way. The scriptures testify to and point us to that light. We find that light when, like Jesus, we apply a hermeneutic of liberation to scripture, rather than perpetuate human sinfulness by attending to the letter (literality). The focus on humanity—culture, for example—makes the Bible itself into idolatry of that which is human.

Thus it becomes useful in the enactment of human purposes even if such purpose is evil.

The Bible as an Instrument of Authority

To use the Bible itself as an authority can lead us precariously close to abuse. Even further, this kind of usage enables those who claim the sole authority to determine its meaning to play God. We play God when we use it to lock down creeds, by which we claim the corner on truth and then weaponize it against those who do not live up to our dogmatic constructions.

However, the Bible asks that we open ourselves to the Eternal Word and see that incarnated in humanity. The Word exposes us to the human ups and downs, ins and outs, failures and triumphs, strength and weakness. It is a call to vulnerability—to not knowing in the midst of deep awareness that God is present in the eternal Word, which is life itself.


Notes:

  1. A major problem that Ford has with the doctrine is, first, that there is no biblical basis for the “year-day principle” on which the doctrine reckons 2,300 days in the Daniel prophecies to be 2,300 years. Ford argued that Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6 are taken out of context, and that the 2,300 evenings and mornings met their original fulfillment when Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. He proposed the “apotelesmatic” principle as a solution, which assumes a twofold application of prophecy, one primary and contextual, and one secondary. He therefore expresses his belief in the 1844 event that gave rise to Adventism as part of the Divine providence. Second, based on a contextual interpretation of Hebrews 9 the high priest’s ministry in the holy of holies symbolizes the whole period from the cross to the return of Christ, not a period that began in 1844. Thus he argues that the Adventist doctrine of an “investigative judgment” that began in 1844 is not biblical. (See Desmond Ford, “Daniel 8:14 and the Day of Atonement,” Spectrum 11:2 (November 1980): 30-36
  2. See Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus,” Spectrum 11:2 (November 1980):18. For more insight into the discussion of church authority versus biblical authority see: Roy Naden, “The Authority Paradox,” Ministry, April 2000, 16-20; Douglas Clark, “Are Adventists Still People of the Book?” Spectrum 25:1 (September 1995): 25-29; Raoul Dederen, “The Church: Authority and Unity,” Supplement to Ministry, May 1995; and C. E. Bradford, “The Authority of the Church,” Adventist Review, 19 February 1981, 4-6.
  3. Richard Lesher, Adventist Review, 13 March 1980, 7.

Olive J. Hemmings is a professor of religion and ethics at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. 

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