In 1978 over two hundred leading Christian conservative luminaries convened in Chicago at the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1). One of the key points was that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, with the general idea being that God superintended the endeavor such that we have full assurance that no error exists in the original autographs (2). While this statement was likely drafted by sincere and honorable individuals, those aware of the some of the actual issues raised have little choice but to conclude that this statement represents a vast overreach in its assertions, elevating Scripture to a seemingly idolatrous pedestal (3).
Seventh-day Adventists officially reject such a narrow understanding of Scripture, and largely have Ellen White to thank for this outcome. In this regard, most will likely be familiar with her statements that “the Bible is written by inspired men,” but that it is not “God’s mode of thought and expression…God, as a writer, is not represented…God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen (4).”
It was a direct result of this perspective that has influenced Adventists to steer clear of an idea that otherwise pervades much of conservative Christianity. Yet, in the real world many Adventists practice inerrancy of a different sort—an inerrancy of interpretation, a resolute certitude of conviction, with minds firmly closed to evidence and alternative ways of thinking. No place is such epistemological arrogance more evident than in interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, where an inerrancy subtext seems to govern and shape much of the discussion, often accompanied by a tone that poisons the possibility of dialogue.
Over against all of this are those who face the issues that grow out of the general umbrella of documents that many perceive to be the very word of God, and in doing so have confronted the evidence of a reality that is far from immaculate—issues with contradictions, some being very minor, but others being quite significant (5). For some, such disclosures can be a faith shattering experience, particularly for those who put their faith in inerrancy. At a minimum some of these issues present a cautionary tale that points to the wisdom of humility both in terms of the claims made about the original autographs as well as the certitude we bring to the discussion.
The last article I authored for Spectrum was entitled, “On Certitude” with it pertaining to how we go about differentiating “knowledge” and “opinion,” concluding that most of what we think we know not being actual knowledge—but opinion. Once we understand that basic point, we open the possibility of being more receptive to genuine two-way conversation.
So, with this as sort of the backdrop, let’s give some thought to how we interact with “revelation” and consider a possible method for having a more productive experience. To start with we must acknowledge the variety of approaches that contribute to understanding, for certainly a great deal can be distilled from cultural, literary and other forms of analysis. While I have no direct criticism of such methods, I would propose that many of our problems could be resolved by charting a slightly different path.
Since some of my professional life grows out of organizational development and strategic planning, I tend to view things from the big picture perspective—the metaphorical 30,000-foot level—offered by mission statements, or statements of organizational purpose from which flow goals and objectives.
This has gotten me to thinking that perhaps it is the big picture of divine revelation that may be the best picture—offering up the key insights that might be hard to see if we are overly focused on the detail. This is not to suggest the detail is unimportant, but merely the practical acknowledgement that it is easy to get lost in the detail. It is the big picture that offers the most balanced input to our information grid, and is sort of a forest versus trees way of looking at things. Such a reading searches for the key overriding principles being articulated, and attempts to capture its fundamental essence.
So, what is the big picture of Scriptures that a strategic reading will provide, and how do we go about capturing it?
If we were to engage in a little exercise to summarize the entire content of Scripture in the space of a paragraph, what would we say? If we were to shorten it even further to a phrase, what would we say? If we can figure that out, we are thinking strategically. As we think about that, we certainly must take note of the trajectory in Scripture that centers on a God who meets humanity in person, providing a window into the nature and character of the divine. So thinking strategically, one possibility that comes to mind in summing up Scripture in a phrase is, “God is benevolent and loving.”
Readers may come up with slight variations but I would predict that the vast majority would likely come up with similar strategic interpretations. From here, we are positioned to reach discriminating conclusions about some of the detail of Scripture, particularly when it is at variance with our strategic understanding. It is possible, for example, to legitimately question God’s sponsorship of genocide even though some biblical writers apparently believed otherwise. By developing a mature concept of strategic essence we are kept focused on those points that are central to the overall narrative, verses those that are either peripheral in importance or distorting in some way.
Our distilling the essence of Scripture outlined above would represent the highest strategic level because of its broadness in scope. But this same method can be used to study topically as well, for these can act as mere strategic subcategories.
With this in mind, perhaps we should take a look at the topic of creation in connection with Genesis 1 & 2 because of its current importance to Adventism. Strategically, very different conclusions emerge than what would be the case if we proceeded to a tree level analysis. By reading Genesis strategically it is possible to find certain key points that intersect quite impressively with the sciences, where otherwise a great deal of conflict seems to govern. Perhaps the highest strategic level related to these two chapters would be a simple “In the beginning God created heaven and earth…” It is broad and it summarizes the first two Chapters of Genesis quite nicely. While this statement does not rise to the level of a scientific hypothesis, it is not contrary to science and that does carry some importance. But as we move to the next strategic level we find a clear intersection with science, including the following:
- The universe as we know it had a beginning (6).
- Inorganic matter preceded organic matter into existence.
- There was a progression to the emergence of life running from the simple to the complex: first plant life, then sea life, then land mammals, and finally hominids.
- No timeframe is offered for when this all began, so deep time is possible (7).
Strategically, there is no reason we need to go further and mire ourselves down in details that otherwise lead to division and back us into an anti-scientific corner.
All substantive literary works can be studied strategically in the same way, including the writings of Ellen White. To proceed strategically in this latter case, we are provided a method for reading her thoughts in a new way and if practiced consistently could act as a direct assault on the dysfunctionalism and cultic tendencies that some of the traditional interpretive methodologies seem to inspire.
If we think strategically for a moment about her advocacy of healthful living, we would quickly realize the unimportance of parsing her every word for how to eat and live. The reality is that some of the specific details she put forth have little scientific currency today—in particular the emphasis she sometimes provided. To the extent that we focus at the tree level, rather than the forest as a whole, it is possible to run astray in a variety of fanatical directions. But by focusing strategically—at the 30,000-foot level—it is possible to discover that she was actually pretty much on the mark in a big picture sense, and this is evidenced by a leading Adventist community now being among a small handful of communities worldwide designated as a “Blue Zone” due to the statistically high number of citizens achieving centenarian status (8).
Likewise, the argument can be made that much of the current troubles Adventists have with Genesis are traceable to reading Ellen White at the tree level, rather than the 30,000-foot level. While she made many statements that would have difficulty standing up to the actual data in hand today, there is a strategic perspective that is more defensible, namely her concern that God be given credit—that the reality of the physical universe is not just a mindless, undirected process. If such understandings become foundational to our thinking, it is possible to retain sensitivity to her perspective, yet gives room for actually taking science seriously.
While not specifically related to the Genesis controversy, it may be instructive to consider comments made by A.G. Daniels in the 1919 Bible Conference transcript where he reported an event of a missionary who attempted to live a rigid health reform diet in a part of the world where fruits and vegetables were in short supply. As a result, he was not getting proper nutrition and suffered negative health consequences. When this account was detailed back to Ellen White, she is reported (9) to have said, “Why don’t the people use common sense?”
Perhaps we should be asking,
- “What is the common sense we should have towards Genesis and other points of belief in the 21st century?”
- Should it be a rigid 19th century view that ignores the vast quantity of data that has since been acquired?
- Is it possible to be sensitive to Ellen White’s perspective, but do so with 21st century sensibilities?
- In places where belief and science overlap, is there wisdom in allowing science to continue doing its work without engaging a disconnecting “non-overlapping magisteria” view that would otherwise suggest that data has no meaning for theological conclusions or for statements of belief?
How we answer these questions will be critical in the years ahead. To the extent that we ignore reason, including the findings of science, and substitute in expressions of certitude as if our interpretations are inerrant, dialogue will be difficult. The solution to much of the discord will likely be found in learning to civilize our opinions for if we are interested in the reality of the matter—and not just defending long held ideas for the sake of it—we must remain open to all evidence, and recognize that the best strategic interpretations of that which we count as divine revelation just might be at the 30,000-foot level. From this lofty perspective we have general principles and such principles can be conversation starters particularly if they engage a sense of propriety and modesty. The question that remains for us, collectively, is whether we have enough common sense to continue the conversation? After all, it is only the collective, we, that can answer that question.
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.
- Because this article is so significant to how we engage theology I asked my friend, Dr. David Larson Ph.D., to read an early draft for comment. He offered several suggestions and I wanted to thank him for his contribution in making this article a stronger end product.
- See generally for example Thom Stark, The Human Face of God (2011). Here he discusses in detail some of the problems of inerrancy.
- See Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 21
- See footnote 3; see also the numerous literary works of Bart Ehrman who transitioned away from fundamentalist Christianity to agnosticism due to the problems he discovered in Scripture.
- Most scientists and theologians now agree that the universe had a beginning. However, there is a minority who believe that the universe is ontologically dependent but not chronologically subsequent to God.
- This becomes a possible strategic theme due to a multitude of scientific indicators combined with the silence of Scripture.
- See Spectrum Vol. 10, No.1, p. 40