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How Biblical is the Adventist Church? – On The GC Presidential Election (III)


The last General Conference meeting and presidential election in San Antonio clearly showed that, for institutional Adventism, the Bible doesn’t represent a problem, because we consider Adventism as the natural extension of the Bible and the Bible as the natural source of Adventism. But that’s precisely the problem! Not, paradoxically, women’s ordination, evolution or homosexuality – but the Bible itself, with the related hermeneutical question at the center. This is our main theological impasse because, in a differentiated analytical assessment, Christian churches are judged negatively when they detach themselves from the Bible but also when they create an excessive and undue symbiosis with it. And this is the case of Adventism.

The normal situation of any Christian community with the Bible is and should always be problematic. There is not a natural pathway from the Bible to any specific religious group. And this structural asymmetry is not a default but a guarantee. The problem we Adventists have with the Bible is not failing to read or distribute it enough, as the religious pragmatism of the new elected president keeps suggesting, with simplistic linear thinking. The problem of reading and applying the Bible, although important, is a secondary theological problem. Our fundamental problem is how to read the Bible. And this undervalued and misunderstood hermeneutical question, even by our own specialists, has now become crucial for us because it is determining our choices and our policy – not only on doctrinal issues (Belief number six) but also in administrative (the autonomy of our Unions and Conferences) and cultural issues (Women pastor ordination) as well – as we tried to show in two previous columns posted in past months.[1] The hermeneutical question obliges us to ask the apparently idle question: How truly Biblical is the Seventh-day Adventist Church? The relevance of this question is grounded in three theological reasonings.

First, “the Bible is not Adventist”. This is the “Exclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. Even though our message is Biblically based we should never forget that the Bible is bigger than Adventism. We can pretend that all our teachings are contained in the Bible but not the opposite – that all the Bible is contained in our teachings. All the corporative injunctions, the deep cosmo-centric and pre-modern ecological sensibility, the centrality of emotions and feelings as main components of a balanced anthropology, mystic and aesthetic motives and experiences. These are just some examples of important Biblical categories we Adventists pay little attention to or simply overlook. And the same hermeneutical clause is applicable to any church or faith community, as well as to individuals. For this reason Biblical interpretation always requires humility and sobriety, not as ethical, but as primary hermeneutical attitudes. And in this respect we should learn to de-construct the misleading myth that Adventism preaches the whole Bible. When we say that pedagogically or homiletically, that could make sense and be acceptable. But when we say that theologically, and particularly when we believe it is true, then we enter into a theological disruption. Actually, our reading of the bible, as with any other Christian reading, is very selective. The fact that some other religious communities are still more selective than us is not a sufficient reason to proclaim us to be neutral, non-selective readers of the Bible.

Second, “Adventism is not thoroughly Biblical”. This is the “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. This cause states that no church is based only in the Bible, and for this reason not all non-Biblical elements are necessarily anti-Biblical. There are administrative, cultural, socio-economic or political elements that every Christian group introduces within its own experience and for its own survival. None of these elements is automatically negative or disruptive. And even though they need to be continually assessed, these extra-Biblical elements can legitimately enter in dialogue and interact with the Biblical ones. The “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics acknowledges them as legitimate and also treats them as necessary expanders of the Biblical meaning.  This can allow a religious community, such as Adventism, to pretend to be Biblical under one condition – that of establishing a clear distinction between elements “contained” and elements “based” in the Bible. While, as we affirmed before, no Christian community can pretend to have only elements explicitly “contained” in the Bible, it is possible however to proclaim oneself Biblical on the basis of including elements “based” on the Bible. The structure of our administration, the homogeneous ideal type of unity, our voluntaristic ethics, our individualistic anthropology or our anthropo-centric vegetarianism, though not strictly “Contained”, are nevertheless some of the Adventist extra-biblical elements “Based” in the Bible. But as much as the “Inclusive Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics allows the Bible to be flexible and inclusive with Adventism, the same happens with all other Christians communities. We cannot pretend that the inclusive Biblical perspective of our non-Biblical Adventist elements ought not to be also applied to other Christian communities. And above all Adventists cannot pretend that these elements “Based” be considered “Contained” in the Bible. That would be a substantive hermeneutical mistake.

Third, “Culture is always nearer to us than the Bible itself”.  This is the “Paradoxical Clause” of Biblical Hermeneutics. We are usually unaware of the fact that our beliefs are very often shaped more by our own culture than by the Bible. We perceive the Bible always through our own culture and, even though we are not necessarily culturally determined beings, we are massively influenced by it, particularly in our main religious presuppositions. And the omission of this uncontroversial fact pushes us to simply think that our Adventism is – since we have honestly prayed and believed – automatically biblical and therefore normative for everybody. We seldom stop to really reflect on which parts of our beliefs come from the Bible and which parts from our own culture. And this exercise in learning how to make this important distinction is never ending, and never perfectly achieved. Only mature religious groups and individuals get involved in this process and receive its liberating benefits. Also our individualistic approach to the Bible in its newest post-modern form, our pragmatic or functionalist understanding of the Biblical mission or the anthropo-centric reading of Christian ethics and lifestyle are more dependent and conditioned by Western culture than by the Bible itself. But the same difficulty is seen in non-Western Adventists. That happened in San Antonio with the women’s pastoral ordination vote. Non-Western Adventists incurred in the same hermeneutical mistake. In that vote Latin-American and African Adventists were elevating their own culture to universality and thought that all other cultures should follow theirs. They were so certain about their understanding of the Bible that, without hesitation and doubt, they boldly declared they were not defending their own culture but just what the Bible says. Not being able to distinguish between what we say and what the Bible says is the first sign of idolatry and undue universalization of a culture. Paradoxically, that’s precisely what non-Westerns have always criticized about Westerns. But in this case non-Westerns themselves were committing the same mistake.

For these three reasons the initial question – How Biblical is the SDA Church? – is not a secondary or idle question but represents the starting point for a new Adventism. The hermeneutical question has become central for Adventism, hidden in the diversity of administrative, evangelistic, theological or identity challenges we are facing today.  And we need to know that today’s requested and desired Biblical centrality could be misleading if we detach ourselves from outside reality and it leads us to enclose ourselves in a book. Hermeneutically speaking, our church has made positive steps forward. In fact we have passed from a “rule-based” hermeneutics. In the past Adventism was entrapped in a reductive Biblical fundamentalism through the implicit and sometimes explicit defense of the inerrancy principle. While there are still some sectors in our church that maintain this Biblically reductive view, the official church has moved forward to what we could call a “principle-based” hermeneutics, developed by our best theologians. But that is not enough because rule and principle, though different and opposed, still share a common, intra-Biblical perspective. It means that they don’t really confront themselves with the extra-Biblical reality. A “rule-based” hermeneutics makes normative a circumstantial event while a “principle-based” hermeneutics refuses the universality of that particular event by rescuing the principle behind. But, strictly speaking, we still don’t find in them both a whole and complete hermeneutical process. There is true hermeneutics only when we preserve the two components of the “hermeneutical circle”: the “text” and the “extra-textual” component as incarnated in the reader and his world.[2]. In other words there is hermeneutics only when we confront the meaning of the Bible and test it with the extra-Biblical reality and its pressing challenges. And that is precisely what the official Adventism is avoiding, lead by the strong but shortsighted convictions of our newly elected president.

And it is here, in a defense of the complete hermeneutical circle, that the work and legacy of Roy Branson is valuable and unforgettable. Roy’s constant call was to understand and articulate the Adventist, Biblical – great intuitions – not isolated from society but in constant dialogue and critical confrontation with it; through a new understanding of the apocalyptic option – not understood as a sublimating mechanism for escaping society, but as positive yeast able to transform society from within.

[2] as the founders of modern Hermeneutics – Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer or Ricoeur, have taught us.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.


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