The Adult Bible Study Guide begins the week with a reference to The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, the 1678 allegorical novel by Paul Bunyan. It quotes from a section where the protagonist, Christian (a Christian), prepares to battle a destructive dragon named Apollyon (Greek: destroyer). Adding to the allegorical allusions, Christian dons discrete pieces of armor, referencing Ephesians 6:10-20. Although the lesson covered the exact same passage last week, it goes over the panoply (full armor) of God in exhaustive detail again, spinning out a variety of spiritual applications. In doing so, this General Conference product reverts to a methodology that reveals an Achilles heel in the so-called “safe Adventist hermeneutic.”
Allegorical literature uses direct naming and analogous comparison to create larger spiritual meaning. The use of a character’s name to represent their role is a classic example. Genesis employs a version of this withʾādām, which means “humankind” or “earthling” in the early part of the book. Later in the ancient story, the word takes on individual name and gender characteristics. Allegorical interpretation expands the creative textual field beyond overtly metaphorical narrative. In doing so, it utilizes interpretative tools like analogies to draw meaning from details and make comparisons that elucidate spiritual significance. For example, identifying ten political entities in post-Roman Europe because the statue in Daniel 2 has ten toes typifies this hermeneutical style. This allegorist approach is the foundation on which lie the symbolic and typological fascinations that drive distinctive Adventist hermeneutical revelations. However, while many proponents of the General Conference’s so-called Adventist hermeneutic publish pages of historical references and grammatical observations, the reality remains that most function as allegorists.
On a high note, Sunday’s lesson emphasizes the communal salvific focus of the text, as Spectrum did last week. It carefully interprets the language of Ephesians to state that the battle armor is not about a personal divine relationship or individual conflict but “is primarily addressing the church’s shared battle against evil.” From there, the week deteriorates with details about each piece of the armor and corresponding life applications. “This body armor or breastplate protected the vital organs from the blows and thrusts of the enemy,” the lesson explains on Monday. It then interprets, “in an analogous way, believers are to experience the spiritual protection offered by God’s protective gift of righteousness.” The repetition of “protect” in the sentence doesn’t help, but it’s also not clear how the state of being morally justified compares to liver-saving armor. A tool in the allegorical “this means that” framework, analogies should draw on comparable details to make interpretation clearly logical.
From there, the week becomes a blur of objects with spiritual meaning: shoes, shield, helmet, sword. Military sandals = peace, supported by an allusion to Isaiah 52. Wednesday explains that a shield that extinguishes “the flaming arrows of the evil one” because it has been soaked in water, which “reflects the Old Testament use of the shield as a symbol of God, who protects His people (Gen. 15:1, Ps. 3:3).” So God is symbolized by a shield. But Ephesians 6:17 says that shield = faith. The lesson continues on. These sorts of comparisons can create spiritually meaningful and creatively fulfilling methods for study. But it is essential to recognize that they can quickly become more about the associative and creative skills of the interpreter rather than providing a historical consciousness of the text.
This leads to the problem with the current denominationally prioritized hermeneutic. It is not critically-informed. It lacks a necessary philosophical awareness that addresses the larger questions of semiotic meaning and the multivalent nature of language. Beyond the lesson, an example of this comes from the 2015 Theology of Ordination Study Committee report from the North American Division. Two men—Clinton Wahlen from the General Conference’s Bible Research Institute and Edwin Reynolds from Southern Adventist University—wrote a brief dissent from the overwhelming NAD consensus in favor of women’s ordination. Embedded in their argument were theology-defining points based on minor details in the biblical narrative. Page 198ff includes several examples of how they allegorically show that the Genesis story defines professional gender roles. In doing so, they get down to the details of creation order and even go so far as to use word order in a sentence which lists “man” before “woman” to buttress their point that women cannot come before a man—so therefore women cannot lead in the church. Going further along this allegorical path of finding cosmic meaning in minor textual details, they write about the subsequent post-fall disorder, blaming the fall on Eve because she took on a male role:
In sharp contrast with Genesis 2, in which the woman is called “his woman,” the man is now called “her man.” In other words, in place of the woman being defined by the man, he is now defined by her. But the narrative goes further. It also describes the man in terms of the woman as being “with her.” In short, there is a total reversal of the principle of leadership based on the creation order. The man ate the fruit second, following the initiative and example of the woman.
Both of these authors have written repeatedly to define this historical-grammatical approach as the Adventist hermeneutic. In a presentation for Stephen Bohr’s Last Generation Theology-promoting organization, the now retired Edwin Reynolds, a research professor at Southern’s School of Theology, concludes, “This historical-grammatical method was effective in restoring truth to Christianity, and it is still needed to separate truth from error in this postmodern age. Any deviation from this method poses a danger.”
The real danger lies in mistaking minor syntactical details for major theological proofs. “Allegorical interpretation entails that the interpreter assumes that the terms in the passage are to be taken as symbols and he then sets about finding meanings for them taken as such,” writes Edward W. H. Vick in his 2011 book, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully. Vick taught at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in the 1960s until he was pushed out by a fundamentalist General Conference president. Vick adds, “This method of interpretation, if the term ‘method’ is not too complimentary for it, has sometimes been used of texts not originally intended as allegories and not obviously to be taken as such, with often unusual and bizarre results” (270).
In a 2018 interview with Charles Scriven, Vick offers a constructive hermeneutics, stating it should always be “distinguishing between the framework, or worldview, in which a message is placed, and the essence of the message itself.” He adds, “you can hold on to that essence without supposing the worldview, as the ancient writers did, that the earth is flat, or that the sun moves across the arch of heaven.”
In the Teacher Comments, this penultimate lesson of the quarter ends by zooming out from textual details to focus on the world historical theme of cosmic conflict. Apparently this is predicated on the dress-up for battle sequence in Ephesians 6. The lesson draws on Norman Gulley and Herbert E. Douglass to explain the terrifying literal reality of God and Satan fighting. This Great Controversy theme is touted as the grand interpretative frame for Adventist theology, with specific reference to the Fall and the Flood as proof. For us pilgrims trying to progress through life—aiming to lighten burdens and connect to the divine—not-so-great allegorical conflict defines this journey in more ways than one.
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: H.C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo, Christian’s Combat With Apollyon, circa 1850.
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