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Sorting Out the Testaments

In the new believer’s class I teach in my church, I always begin with the statement that “95 percent of what we Seventh-day Adventists believe we share with most other Protestant Christians.” What makes up that differing 5 percent? “The Sabbath, of course” I reply. “The state of the dead. Clean and unclean meats. The 2300-day prophecy.” (A century or so ago I could have said “The second coming of Christ,” but different eschatological features aside, an imminent Second Coming isn’t a unique Seventh-day Adventist doctrine anymore.) I then open the Bible to texts that support these beliefs: Exodus 20:8—11, Ecclesiastes 9:5, Leviticus 11, Daniel 8:14.

Notice something interesting about these key Adventist proof texts? They’re all from the Old Testament.

That may be a reason some other Christians are confused about who Adventists are and question whether we are really Christians at all.

One problem, it seems to me, is that the relationship between the two testaments isn’t clear to many Seventh-day Adventists. I’ve heard preachers and Sabbath School teachers read a single verse from the Old Testament, and say, “See? It is perfectly clear. That’s what the Bible says.” What they don’t explain is why we don’t do, or teach, or act upon, what might be in the chapter just before or after that one. I agree that the Ten Commandments are applicable in a way that, say, Leviticus’s priestly inspection of mildewed clothing isn’t—but why, precisely? There’s an answer, of course, but too many Bible students don’t know it, and are just taking the word of others.

I’ve met Adventists who suppose that the whole Bible is equally and evenly useful, Old and New Testaments, with minimal interpretation necessary. This is absurd, for if we could pull passages out of the Old Testament and declare them normative with no critical reading in the light of the New Testament, we would still be sacrificing bullocks.

On the other end of the span are some who take the New Testament as complete, and more or less ignore anything in the Old Testament except as somewhat unreliable history or background. This is the position of a pretty substantial chunk of Christianity. (Though a few revive their interest in the Old Testament when they want to prove that homosexuals are going to hell, or that it’s OK to wage wars and execute criminals.)

In the middle are some models for Old Testament usage that I’ve seen employed by us Seventh-day Adventists. I think of them like this:

We accept those parts of the Old Testament that are affirmed by the New. For example, the affirmation of the law by Jesus, at least in its essential principles, keeps the Ten Commandments active in our lives. The Sabbath might be easier to set aside were it not for Jesus’ example in keeping it (Luke 4:16).

We accept those parts of the Old Testament that aren’t disqualified by the New. Dr. Richard Davidson has suggested celebrating some of the Jewish feasts whose symbolisms haven’t yet been fulfilled. If a rule or practice hasn’t been disqualified, this argument goes, we must continue it.

Fortunately, animal sacrifices have been replaced by Christ’s atonement, repealing them as rules for Christians, and freeing pastors like me from having to butcher lambs every Sabbath. (Thank you, Lord!)

We accept as normative those passages in the Old Testament that clarify things the New Testament isn’t clear about. Like it or not, the New Testament isn’t unambiguous about the state of a person in death, so we fall back on Ecclesiastes 9:5: “the dead know not anything.” The Sabbath isn’t talked of as insistently in the New Testament as in the Old, so we rely upon Genesis 2 and Exodus 20. The New Testament isn’t especially clear on the clean-unclean meats distinction for Christians, so we refer back to Leviticus 11.

We could accept those parts of the Old Testament that seem to give us useful advice, even if it wasn’t given directly to us. If it was good for people back then, shouldn’t it be good for us now? We’re not exactly sure why pork was disallowed (there are various theories), but God must have had a good reason or he wouldn’t have proscribed it. On the other hand, Divinely-ordered revenge killings, or the barbaric test of wifely unfaithfulness, or having the pastor inspect our houses for rot doesn’t strike us as necessary anymore, so we don’t do them. (Thank you again, Lord!)

My amateur analysis won’t impress those of you real hermeneutists, so let me make it clear that I’m not an expert in this area of biblical hermeneutics. I do know, though, that many Seventh-day Adventists, even some seminary-trained preachers I’ve listened to, are less clear that this is a problem than I am.

It’s an area that needs work, and here’s one reason why.

In our lifetime, North American Division Seventh-day Adventists have moved to the evangelical side of the spectrum. Nowadays most sermons in NAD churches place the New Testament and Jesus’ sacrifice in the forefront, and see everything else through it.

This has not yet separated us from our Old Testament-based doctrines, but I submit to you that without a hermeneutic understandable to the layperson, confusion is increasing. The more Christ-oriented we are, the harder it may be to maintain our interest in passages like Leviticus 11.

And the less we maintain those distinctive doctrines, the harder it may be for us to know just who we are.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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