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Jerry Gladson on the Battle Between Text and Tradition

Jerry Gladson arrived at Southern Adventist University in the fall of 1972, the year before I did. He had just started his doctoral program in Old Testament studies at Vanderbilt University, and what he learned there he shared with us. Instead of trying to trip us up with deceptively phrased multiple choice questions, he insisted we write essays to show him what we actually knew.

Gladson was a scholar of strong Adventist conviction, but he was no propagandist. His aim was to understand what a text actually said, not what Adventist tradition dictated that it said, and he insisted that a scholar be able to use the best tools available to do that. From then on until he was “banished” from Adventist academia in 1987, he was suspected of thought crimes against the Adventist creed by denominational leaders.

After years of being mauled by the hounds of heresy, Gladson rebuilt his life and his career within mainstream Christianity. Now retired from pastoral life but continuing to teach at Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta, Jerry and his wife Laura make their home in Kennesaw, Georgia. In a completely re-written account of these events,1 Gladson describes in grim detail how cruel and un-Christian fundamentalists can be in defense of tradition and creed, but also how warm and embracing Christians from other and more inclusive traditions can be.

Dr. Gladson, in your book you recount a contentious meeting in the mid-1980s with the Southern Adventist University president in which he told you, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of our finest professors. What we need at Southern, however, is not excellence but solid, conservative orthodoxy. Mediocrity in teaching doesn’t matter so long as one is perceived as orthodox.” Why is it that fundamentalists tend to be more attached to their creed than to the Bible and are willing to destroy people who are perceived to be a threat to the status quo?

Gladson: You use the word “fundamentalist” with a small “f” rather than a capital “F.” Fundamentalism (capital F) refers to movement within Christianity that formally began in the 1910s as a reaction to the liberal theology prevalent at the time. It was expressed in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals that apologetically covered a whole range of traditional Christian teachings. These teachings were considered to be the final and absolutely necessary interpretation of Scripture. The fundamentals were thus regarded as permanent and unchanging. This gives Fundamentalism and fundamentalist faith communities a certain creedal rigidity when it comes to doctrine. 

Adventists were not a part of the Fundamentalist movement, although they were strongly influenced by it, particularly in the area of science and religion. Adventism, however, has tended to act in a fundamentalist manner when it comes to its doctrines, especially those that distinguish Adventism from other denominations. Instead of remaining open to new insights, based on new or reinterpretations of scriptural passages, Adventism has tended to “freeze” doctrine—just as Fundamentalists do—and in effect substitute doctrinal formulations for the actual dynamic, broad and variegated teaching of Scripture. Like many Fundamentalists, they read the Scripture through the lens of the doctrine rather than the other way round. This frozen doctrinal formulation, considered to be identical to the scriptural witness, then becomes inviolate, incapable of alteration.

This is especially true when Ellen White has endorsed an Adventist doctrine. Thus, when someone criticizes an Adventist doctrine or suggests modifications, this is regarded as an attack on the entire denomination. The controversy in the 1980s over Desmond Ford’s reformulation of the Investigative Judgment doctrine and his subsequent exile from Adventist academia is a tragic example of how this works. The critic has to be silenced, no matter the means, lest the entire church be infected.  

Is it possible, in your opinion, to exercise true biblical scholarship in a fundamentalist setting, given the fact that you will typically be viewed as a rebel against God and his church if your conclusions challenge creed and tradition?

If you mean by “true biblical scholarship,” scholarship that follows the text with all its permutations, while remaining aware of the origins and development of the text, and of its ambiguity and indeterminacy, no, I don’t think such scholarship is possible, except to a limited degree, in a genuine fundamentalist setting. A fundamentalist biblical scholar has to begin with a pretty rigid cluster of assumptions about the text (e.g., it is inerrant, accurate in all details) and with firm expectations of what the final interpretation is going to be. The biblical text, I’m convinced, doesn’t support some of these fundamentalist assumptions, so to impose them on the text at the outset of a scholarly investigation seriously compromises the analysis. But these assumptions are not open to question, so a fundamentalist biblical scholar has to accept and try to work within them. That severely limits the range of biblical scholarship.

More than 30 years have elapsed since your banishment from Adventism. In the years since, you have pastored mainstream churches, taught Hebrew and Old Testament studies at two universities, and in retirement written scholarly works within your field.2 Against this background, how do you now view the Adventist church?

I officially withdrew from the Adventist church in 1991 and joined the United Church of Christ and later also the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I now have ordained ministerial standing in both these denominations and have pastored churches in both. During this time as an adjunct faculty member, I have also continued teaching, mostly at the graduate level, at various universities and seminaries. 

When I withdrew, I decided I would not linger around the fringes of Adventism as so many who have been “banished”—to use your word—have done, but I would try to rebuild my life and career in a new setting outside Adventism. I still have many friends in Adventism, however, and they have kept me informed as to developments within it. It has changed a bit since I was in it. There are no “witch hunts” going on now so far as I am aware. The paranoia that seemed to grip frightened church leaders in my day has lessened. 

Although sociologically and culturally the Adventist church has changed, substantially it has not. It still advocates the same theological positions that I had gradually come to question during my final years in it. So far as I can tell, the denomination has made little, if any, progress in reviewing and revising its traditional theological agenda. I still find myself in fundamental disagreement with its central claim that it is the “remnant” church, the supposed uber-church of end-times, tasked by God with bringing reformation to Christendom and the world. Most of its eschatology stems originally from a serious misinterpretation of apocalyptic literature that has led to a vast conspiracy theory—the “great controversy” motif—about the final fate of the world. None of this has changed in Adventism. Since the church’s very identity is so wrapped up with this eschatology, I don’t see it changing to any appreciable degree in the foreseeable future. I left Adventism primarily because I could no longer accept such theological ideas and their damaging effect on people. There was no longer any place for me in the denomination. 

At Vanderbilt University you studied under James Crenshaw, one of the world’s leading specialists in biblical wisdom literature. What was it about him that impressed you and that led you to pursue an academic career in the same field?

Crenshaw was one of the first professors I encountered in my doctoral studies. His lectures were carefully constructed, accurate, very perceptive, and deeply interesting. He seemed to lecture without using notes—something I’ve never been able to replicate in my own teaching! I began to notice that his scholarly writings seemed to be appearing everywhere in the scholarly press, especially in the field of wisdom literature. After taking one of his seminars on the book of Ecclesiastes, I decided I wanted to specialize in Hebrew wisdom and work with Crenshaw as my doctoral mentor. That began a close friendship that lasts until this day. James Crenshaw, as they say, is a “scholar’s scholar.” Taking a look at his online biographical article in Wikipedia will give you some idea of the impact his scholarship has had on Old Testament wisdom research.

Wisdom literature was a popular genre in the Near East. Why do you think Judaism made room in its canon for this type of literature that is rather universal in nature and that makes little or no reference to Israel’s covenant status as Yahweh’s chosen people or the Torah?

Within the Old Testament biblical literature, there are four books written in Hebrew and one in Greek that are considered wisdom literature: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon. The latter two are in the deuterocanonical literature (the Apocrypha). These books bear a strong resemblance to other ancient Near Eastern wisdom texts from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syro-Palestine that have come to light in the last century and a half, many of them older than our biblical wisdom examples. These ancient Near Eastern texts make it virtually certain that the Hebrew wisdom texts followed in the same wisdom tradition that was more or less universal in the ancient Near East. It also seems that Israel borrowed in some manner from some of these ancient texts although they adapted it to their native Yahwistic traditions. Still, the result is that this biblical literature makes little or no reference to Israel’s covenant or status as Yahweh’s chosen people.

Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are exceptions to this, but they are both late compositions (second and first century BC). Why are such works in the Hebrew canon? In part, they have been preserved as constituents of the sacred text because they present a kind of “theology from beneath,” based on practical experience and observation that was deemed empirically relevant and useful for community life. 

You have recently written a fascinating two-volume critical study of Ecclesiastes.3 How do you account for the inclusion of this skeptical voice in the canon? As you point out, Qoheleth, the narrator, challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Jewish and Christian thinking.

Qoheleth, whoever he was (the word is probably a title), is certainly the “odd man out” in the Bible. His book is essentially a “deconstruction,” I would say, of Hebrew wisdom in that he takes exception to almost all the assumptions that wisdom literature makes about the world and human life. An editor has added an epilogue (12:9-14), one of the purposes of which seems to be to contextualize or mitigate some of Qoheleth’s extreme statements. This epilogue may also have saved the book from extinction because, as the rabbinical tradition says, to paraphrase, “Qoheleth begins with Torah and ends with Torah.”

So Qoheleth was included in the canon although not without some controversy. That the book stands within the canon says something about the commitment of the wisdom tradition to debate and discussion of epistemological, theological, and legal issues, even when they challenged the tradition. That legacy still exists in contemporary Judaism, especially in rabbinical studies.

In the first Old Testament class I took from you in 1973, I remember you saying that any concept of inspiration would have to take into account inconvenient facts such as literary dependency. Your example came from Proverbs chapter 22, which consists largely of an excerpt from an Egyptian source. What do we know today about the impact that these cultures had on the Bible and Judeo-Christian rituals and institutions?

I’m impressed that you remember the class from so long ago! If I recall correctly, we were considering the fact that Proverbs 22:17-24:22 seems dependent on an Egyptian wisdom text, the Instruction of Amenemope, which is now known to antedate our text of Proverbs. The literary structure of the Amenemope (“thirty chapters”) and much of the content is virtually identical to Proverbs 22:17-24:22. Borrowing in this case seems highly likely. We had this discussion, I remember, in view of Ellen White’s borrowing, which was then only beginning to come to light. 

We know from archaeological and cultural discoveries in the ancient Near East that the Hebrew religion and its institutions were largely adaptations of the same general culture. The Old Testament, in other words, was very much a part and parcel of the ancient Near East. This is not to say that there weren’t unique features in Hebrew religion and culture, but in Yahweh’s revelation to Israel as found in the Bible, there is much that is comparable to the prevailing culture. In theological terms, the divine revelation that came to Israel was a culturally accommodated one.

Finally, is there a biblical doctrine of inspiration? Or is “inspiration” merely a retroactive designation given to writings that a community of faith considers authoritative?

I think it must be emphasized that the Bible doesn’t set forth a formal doctrine of inspiration. What we think about inspiration has been unfortunately shaped by philosophical ideas of what it must mean rather than consideration of the actual phenomena of Scripture. The term “inspiration” as thus applied to the Bible comes from 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God,” or “Every scripture inspired by God,” it could be rendered. The Greek term here is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), literally “God-breathed.” What does it mean to be “God-breathed”? The text doesn’t say. This is an incidental comment, meant to reinforce the fact that the young Timothy was a devout student of the Scripture. In its context, this comment refers to the Old Testament, which was probably then (late first century CE) about to reach its final, canonical form. Christians would go on from this point also to apply the category of inspiration to the emerging New Testament writings, of which the letter of 2 Timothy would be a part. In both the Jewish and Christian tradition, as you indicate in your question, inspiration was an a posteriori discovery, not an a priori assumption. 

Having personally examined carefully the actual phenomena of Scripture, it is my opinion that inspiration must apply to the long process through which the content of the Bible eventually reached its final form. Inspiration is operative from its inception in oral or written form, on to its supplementation, revision and editing, and into its scribal transmission up until the final form. It includes all the authors, tradents, editors, glosses, and revisions through the entire process of development of the Bible. In other words, inspiration applies not just to the final form of Scripture but to the entire process that produced it—from beginning to end—in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The inspiration of the Spirit must be seen at work at all levels in this centuries-long process and not merely at the single point of its final encoding. Such a conception of inspiration, with the Spirit subtly and providentially guiding, allows us to account for the actual manner in which Scripture was produced as a whole and in its individual parts.

End Notes

1. Jerry Gladson, Out of Adventism: A Theologian’s Journey (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017). The book is forthcoming, and will be available in the autumn. The first edition of the book, published in 2000, was titled A Theologian's Journey from Seventh-day Adventism to Mainstream Christianity. The new edition is much more nuanced than the first, according to Gladson, as he tries to portray the internal conflict he endured as he weighed Adventism in the scales of biblical exegesis.

2. Jerry Gladson, The Five Exotic Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible [the Scrolls of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther]: The Prominence, Literary Structure, and Liturgical Significance of the Megilloth (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009; The Strangest Books in the Bible: Preaching from the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (XLibris Press, 2010); A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ruth (Edwin Mellen Press, 2012); A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Edwin Mellen Press, 2016).

3. Critical, in this context, means going back to the original languages and the culture that gave birth to this book. It means trying to determine authorship, literary dependency (if any), its point of view (its theology), etc. The book is written for the scholarly community, but it is a treat for anybody interested in a literary and theological detective story. Gladson clarifies the text of Ecclesiastes, but concedes that there are limits to how much scholarship can say about this book with any degree of certainty. In that context, I love the quote from Rachel Naomi Bemen that Gladson has placed at the head of chapter 7 (History of Interpretation):

“Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers, but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” And Dr. Gladson is indeed good company.


Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond public school system in Virginia.

Image Credit: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Marietta Georgia

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