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Hearing the Prophetic Voice: The Question of Interpretation

When we fail to give due respect to the Sacred Scriptures as a great collection of literary works written many centuries ago over many centuries, written by many different authors in diverse circumstances for diverse purposes, and with diverse points of view, any meaning we take from it signifies an appropriation of power to ourselves that leaves the text itself powerless to say what it means to say. We can hear the prophetic voices in the text only as we return to the place from which those voices came and encounter real people with genuine struggles. This is what we refer to as “biblical exegesis.”

If we seek to listen to the text from where we stand, the voices we hear are not those from the text but our own voices, and the text represents our own creation of hypothetical people with hypothetical issues that can be applied to any circumstance we choose. This is what we call “homiletics.”

Homiletical interpretation is sometimes intentional and represents the wanton use of the biblical authority to advance particular social and political agendas. Here interpreters may even apply what seem to be appropriate methodologies, but twist them toward their own agendas.1 In such instances, the Bible carries only as much authority as particular communities or individuals lend it in the justification of their particular points of view.

In this brief commentary, I will attempt to present examples of exegesis and homiletics and in the process demonstrate how an exegetical approach to Romans may refute common assumption as to who comprises the community of the saved.


Biblical exegesis acknowledges that the Bible presents an example of God’s condescension. “It is not the words…that are inspired, but the men.…” (Ellen White, Selected Messages, 1:21). God used people where they were. In exegesis, we not only analyze the literature in and of itself but we must also rummage through the debris of human imperfection through which that literature came to hear the voice of God.2

For example, in the first century, when Paul wrote, “Slaves obey your masters,” and “wives submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22–6:9), the Holy Spirit did not impress upon him to tell the church that the domination of one set of human beings by another is wrong. That is not something that average people would comprehend in an ancient socio-economic system built on slavery and steeped in the ideology that only men are created in the image of God and in which women were the property of men. So Paul taught the timeless principle of mutual respect and unity in the church in language they could understand.3

Although our concern today is with the morality of slavery and male domination, that was not the concern of Paul or the Mosaic covenant. Their concern was with how the slave and the woman were treated by their owners. We cannot teach this same timeless principle of justice and unity in Ephesians 5 and 6 today in the same terms that Paul and the Mosaic covenant did, for now we know that all are created in God’s image and that for one human to enslave or dominate another is a violation of the golden rule.

When Christians used this passage to oppose the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century—and use it today to advance arguments and institute symbols of the authority of males over females—we silence the voice of Paul on justice and unity.


Strictly speaking, the term homiletics refers to the art of sacred speaking or preaching. However, the term has come to be used to describe a method of biblical interpretation that is more concerned with using biblical texts to make a point, rather than with discovering the point that the texts actually make. Homiletical interpretation tends to disregard the literary and historical context of a biblical text. It tends to approach the text with a topic or agenda and then creates a patchwork of texts that matches that agenda regardless of the literary or historical context of those texts.4

For example, one may go to the Bible for proof that someone is a true prophet. One text used among a patchwork of others is I John 4:2–3. We, however, cannot use this text to make a universal conclusion that only a Christian prophet is a true prophet. John was dealing with the problem of Docetism in his community. Docetism is the belief that came out of Gnostic philosophy that since the flesh is evil, the divine logos could not possible have taken on flesh, thus he only seemed to be in the flesh and only appeared to suffer. John was trying to counter this false teaching that was threatening to take over a local community of believers.

Also, one may use Greek word study and the like without regard for the experiences that created those words. Words mean nothing if they are isolated from their cultural and ideological contexts. Humans first experience the world, then we put our experiences into symbols we call words, which become the building blocks for language.

One example is the interpretation of the word logos in John’s Gospel (see John 1:1, ff) translated “word.” If we lose sight of the Greek philosophical implications of the term logos as the rational force through (not by) which God brings everything into creation, we will come away from the text equating the divine logos with the Bible (literal words). The Greek term logos does not carry the same implication as the English term word. John was not trying to tell us that the Bible is a divine incarnation and equal to the incarnation of the Divine logos, as some theologians have claimed.5 He was telling us only about Jesus of Nazareth, his origin, nature, and purpose.

The Case of Romans and the Elect

Homiletical interpretation may occur even with the best intentions and the attempt to use all the available tools of interpretation. Although the Protestant method has done invaluable service for the interpretation and application of Scripture, the question still remains as to whether given correct tools of interpretation we come away with what the text actually says or with what we want it to say because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.6

The interpretation of Romans provides just such a case in point. In light of new studies on Paul called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), triggered by the work of E.P. Sanders, many New Testament scholars now recognize that Martin Luther interpreted Romans mainly from where he stood rather than from where Paul stood.7 Martin Luther stood at a place where the Church advanced a system of individual salvation through works such as penance. Thus he assumed that Romans addresses the same issue. By his review of the extant Palestinian literature, Sanders has brought attention to the fact that what Paul addressed in Romans (and Galatians) is not legalism but “covenantal nomism.”

Covenantal nomism renders historical Israel the community of salvation, or the community of the righteous, not because of their achievement but because of God’s mercy.8 It maintains that the law does not earn Israel salvation, but is required as a means by which Israel participates in God’s gracious salvation. Indeed, if we read the Old Testament closely we have to agree with Sanders. Covenantal nomism thus requires that one become a Jew in order to receive the benefits of salvation.

This is the problem that Paul directly addresses in Galatians. Paul uses the term works of Law to refer to the claim that membership in historical Israel (of which circumcision is the sign) is a condition for salvation. In Galatia, Jews who accepted Jesus as the Christ assumed that Gentiles must also become Jews to access the benefits of salvation. Paul also uses the term law in its Greek context to refer to basic principles of right and wrong of which everyone with a conscience is aware (Rom. 2:14). Thus, Paul argues that it is not membership in a particular community that qualifies one for salvation, rather it is membership in the community of humanity that has only one God (Rom. 3:21–30) and to which everyone is accountable to do right (Rom. 1:19, 20).

Paul points to the common plight of all humanity, both the Jews with the law and the Gentiles without the law (Rom. 1:18,ff; 3:9,ff.). By his redefinition of righteousness, Paul asserts that the community of the righteous extends beyond the people of the Torah to all who live out their God given conscience of right and wrong (Rom. 2:12–15).

At the place Paul stood, the non-Jew had no access to salvation unless he became a Jew. Paul’s entire argument on righteousness by faith in Roman and Galatians was to refute this assumption. So if we listen to Paul today, we will hear him say that the Jew with the Torah, the Christian with the Bible, and the Muslim with the Koran will all perish if they violate basic principles of justice. But those who do what is right regardless of religious affiliation will “receive glory and honor…for God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11). This, for Paul, is the great provision of God’s grace that is available to every human being because of the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ.

Strict biblical exegesis is not very popular within communities of faith for it does not always allow us to hear what we want to hear, but it is powerful and transforming. Let us continue to embrace it as we learn more about the context of the Biblical texts, for this is the means by which the prophetic voice can be fully heard.

Notes and References

1. For an extensive study of this phenomenon in Seventh-day Adventism, see my Ph.D. dissertation, “Sacred Texts and Social Conflict: The Use of Bible in the Debate over Women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Claremont Graduate University, 2004.

2. This includes all the stages of transmission of the text from original writing, through copying, translation, and canonization.

3. Of course, Paul challenged the early Church to consider whether social stratification ought to exist among those who are in “in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

4. Matthew used this method in applying the Old Testament to Jesus life. This does not necessarily dilute Matthew’s sermon. In fact, it lends it more power when we recognize and interpret Matthew with an honest recognition of his methodology. However, that does not give us excuse to use it today. We now have access to more effect tools of literary analysis than Matthew did. God used what Matthew had and thus God expects us to use what we have today. That is the miracle of Divine Revelation.

5. This claim amounts to bibliolatry and reflects fundamentalist ideological agendas such as reflected by Samuel Koranteng-Pipim in his book, Receiving the Word (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Berean Books, 1996), 51–52.

6. Most Protestant denominations, including Seventh-day Adventists, are intellectually committed to the classic Protestant method of interpretation, the historical-grammatical method, which asserts the consistency and authority of the Bible. This principle operates on two basic axioms. The first is that the Bible is the authoritative source of every aspect of human life. The second asserts that it can contain no internal contradictions. The principles themselves do not pose a problem as much as the axioms on which they operate because these axioms can be overstretched to the point of bibliolatry.

7. E .P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

8. Ibid., 422.

Olive Hemmings is a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.

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