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Why Hermeneutics is Our Biggest Problem


During the General Conference Session in San Antonio, David Ripley, Ministerial Secretary for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division, made a speech noting that the Adventist Church lacks a unified biblical hermeneutic (methodology for interpreting Scripture). Ripley said that this more than any other issue divides the Adventist Church, and he insisted that the church conduct a study of hermeneutics to clarify the denomination’s method of biblical interpretation. The following day, it was announced that the steering committee had considered Ripley’s recommendation, and in collaboration with the Biblical Research Institute, the General Conference would study the issue during the next quinquennium.

Spectrum asked Ripley to tell us more about his concern and proposal.

Question: When did you start feeling that biblical hermeneutics is an issue in the Adventist church, and why?

Answer: Twenty-five years ago while pastoring a church I met a challenge over eschatology, and the understanding of Daniel and Revelation. It became clear that we were reading the same Bible, but arriving at very different conclusions. We were using different tools for the understanding of the Scriptures. Therefore we started at separate points and so our ending points were very far apart. It brought church leaders and a group of church members to such different understandings of end time events that they actually left the church because they could no longer believe as Adventists.  

Through my years of pastoral ministry, several years of conference and division service, I have seen many occasions that have brought strange and unusual beliefs because people started their journey into Scripture with a different set of hermeneutics and presuppositions. 

People say, “I am staying close to the Word! Sola Scriptura. So my conclusions must be right!” But when people start with a different toolbox, the end results will be vastly divergent.  

That is why it is so critical that Adventists use the same hermeneutical approach. There will still be differences, and still be disagreements of understanding, but we will at least be arguing from the same points of reference to reach a conclusion.

Who had you spoken to and what processes had you followed already to bring this issue to the forefront before the GC Session in San Antonio?

I had spoken about this to others around me in the months and even years before GC session. I discussed with other pastors and administrators, and of course I discussed with the three other pastors in my family. My brother is a retired pastor, my wife is a Commissioned Minister who works as the Associate Ministerial Secretary of the NSD, and my daughter is an experienced pastor working in the Potomac conference in the USA. 

In the training I bring to pastors in the NSD and in the places I have been asked to share in other parts of the world, I have attempted to make it clear that where we begin and what we believe, or presuppositions, and hermeneutical tools, will make the difference between success and failure in mission. The greatest obstacle to successful mission in the local church is not the community, conference, finances, or infrastructure, but what we believe in our minds — the presuppositions we bring to the challenge of mission. 

Now this may sound like a different subject, but it is the same phenomenon that brings us to such inability to see the conclusions of others in understanding Scripture. Where we begin is just as important as our conclusions, because the place we begin is what drives us to predicable conclusions.

When and why did you decide to bring the issue of the study of hermeneutics to the floor of the GC Session?

After the presentations on Wednesday [July 8, 2015] over whether divisions can decide on their own about ordaining women it was clear that we were very polarized. Both yes and no speeches were coming from sincere Seventh-day Adventist Christians reading the same Bible, but their conclusions that were worlds apart.  

I also felt that the same thing was happening with other issues, such as the creation and marriage topics we touched on in the discussions about the Fundamental Beliefs and the Church Manual. All these divergent conclusions were showing we were not beginning with the same toolbox — or at least not using the same tools. Starting in different places gets you to different conclusions.

I felt that if we as a church did not get a better grasp of the starting point — our hermeneutics — then we would continue to be polarized; instead of arguing in the same ballpark we would be shouting from locations farther and farther apart until we could not even hear each other.

In your speech, you said that “this issue more than any other divides the Adventist church.” Why? How?

I was concerned about the polarizing effect happening in the church over the issues that would come to GC session. Most of the discussion has been about the end conclusions that each side has believed to be Bible-based. I think it would be helpful to step back and take a look at where each side is beginning its journey in the Scriptures. They are not the same place.  

I have come to believe that the journey through the Scriptures can be represented by a straight line, so in order to end with the same conclusions we must start in the same place, or nearly so.  This is where hermeneutics and presuppositions come in.  

By the way, these are driven strongly and influenced powerfully by culture. Now I know that when I say the word “culture” I could be getting into trouble. When I use the word culture in this sense, I am not talking about American, Korean, German, or Kenyan culture, but organizational culture. While organizational culture can be driven by our national culture, it is separate from and often, in the Adventist church, is counter national culture.

A culture in the context of a group is the system of values and beliefs a group holds that drives actions and behaviors and decisions. Our way of life — our organizational culture — is constantly with us; yet, it operates largely outside of our conscious awareness. We automatically participate in it. This culture is largely hidden from and invisible to the people within the system. It is like air: we do not notice it until it is gone. 

The good news is that the hermeneutics can be the same for the different cultural groups. It is the presuppositions that drive what tools we will bring out of the hermeneutical toolbox, which hand we will hold them in, and how we will apply the Scripture. We will surely be better off if we all start with the same hermeneutical toolbox and then bring our presumptions to a conscious level.

What do you envision for the study of hermeneutics you proposed? Something like the Theology of Ordination Study Committee? What do you think would be ideal?

I hope we don’t go the TOSC route. First, it is too costly, and second it takes so much energy away from mission. Third, even after we spent a lot of money getting people together for TOSC, and a lot of time and energy, its conclusions were not used and only briefly mentioned during the discussion about ordination at the GC session. The people — delegates of the session who had not had the benefit of years of close study of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy — were asked to make a decision based on their personal study that did not take into account the TOSC years of work. I wonder what percentage of the delegates actually did an extensive study of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy? It was evidently quite low based on the content of the two-minute speeches I heard. 

Also we had a great document on a Theology of Ordination that was not used at all to guide the discussion, either. If we collectively could not remember to use these documents only created recently, it indicates how hard it is for a document from 21 years ago to influence us.

Now my memory may be faulty, but I think I tried to emphasize the need to educate on Adventist hermeneutics, not necessarily the need to reinvent the wheel!  I was a little flustered by the desire of the chair to push aside my concern, but he was just trying to get the business assigned to him done.

So you are referring to the 1986 Rio document. I was going to ask you why you feel this study of hermeneutics is important, since it seems that the church already addressed this issue with the Rio document. Is there something that still needs to be decided?

The Rio document is really an exceptional document.  I recently went back and re-read it. What we need is for it to become a document that is not just a statement, but a living document that is more fully understood and used as our starting place. 

When you read the document you can see that it was designed as counsel to both lay members and experts in studying the Scriptures. It is comprehensive and useful — if used.

If I could speak again to the world church on this proposal I would emphasize that we have a great document that is unknown to much of the world church. We are 21 years from Rio and it is time to develop a plan to bring this document to the radar of everyone in the church.  

The document should be discussed in college and seminary halls, in conference, union, mission, division, and General Conference offices, as well as in local churches. Perhaps even a curriculum of some kind could be developed to be shared with the different levels. 

It is obvious that we have different conclusions. We should focus our attention on the starting point so that our conclusions will begin to end up in the same local arena instead of worlds apart. [Note: See the Rio document here.]

Can you give us a specific example of when different understandings of biblical hermeneutics caused difficulties in a congregation you pastored, or a group you worked with?

One memorable time was when I was pastoring a local church and there were some church leaders who were teaching that the Bible revealed that Jesus was coming in 1996. They based this on their hermeneutic that Daniel is all about before the cross and Revelation only talks about things after the cross. Just think for a moment what that presupposition would do to so many Adventist conclusions interpreting Daniel and Revelation.

The Rio document spells out a different approach.

“(6) There are two general types of prophetic writings: non-apocalyptic prophecy as found in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and apocalyptic prophecy as found in Daniel and the Revelation. These differing types have different characteristics.”  

The document goes on to explain fully the difference between apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic prophecy.

Well, we are still here.  If they had understood the Rio document it would have saved them from this and many other unusual interpretations from Daniel and Revelation.

Why is a “unified” biblical hermeneutic important? Isn’t it okay to disagree?

A unified Biblical hermeneutic is important. But we also need to educate on the presuppositions and organizational culture and how they influence how we will use our hermeneutical toolbox. 

It is okay to disagree. It has always been a part of our church history, and I suspect will continue to be. In fact discussion about our disagreements should be encouraged and supported. But it is also obvious to me that the disagreements are coming from positions farther and farther apart. This should be a concern and we need to look at the beginning of the study of Scriptures not only the conclusions. This means knowing our hermeneutics.

Would a unified biblical hermeneutic help you in your ministerial association work? 

In this information age the differences of the church are not all home grown in the local churches but almost any discussion we have about issues in the church are reaching everywhere.  When I visit a remote area of our division I am asked about the same questions that are being discussed across North America, across Europe, or in Africa. 

Independent ministries and even independent employees of the church are driving many discussions.  Sometimes, especially in remote areas, the sense of reality of what the church teaches and believes is driven by others, often on a different continent. The church needs to train its members, pastors, and leaders to carry the same hermeneutical toolbox and how to use it to ask critical questions about the many voices they hear.

A unified Biblical hermeneutic, or better, a unity of awareness, understanding, and application of a unified Biblical hermeneutic would go a long way toward allowing the church to pull together for mission and not look across the aisle with an eye full of suspicion.  This suspicion of each other keeps us from focusing on mission. Perhaps that is the plan of the enemy of God and man.  

As a pastor, when I found a theological divide I had to heal that wound before the church could even think of mission and vision.  After that is mended, then the church can go forward to accomplish great things for God. 

My wife, Lynn, and I have had the privilege of pastoring several amazing churches that have sometimes doubled in size. But it was after dealing with issues generated by differences in hermeneutics that we saw great blessings and growth.

Do your colleagues agree or disagree with you about the importance of this issue?

For the most part, most of the people who have come and talked to me have thanked me for speaking up and trying to steer the church towards the problem instead of the symptom. Of course there are those who say, “What about Rio?”  But when I ask them what the Rio document says and they really do not know, then it dawns on them that it is time for us to revisit it, and make it truly our working approach to Scripture as a world church.  

You were also prepared to speak on the floor of the General Conference session during the discussion about ordination, but time ran out and you did not have the opportunity to speak. What were you going to say? 

I had not written it out, but I had notes. I was going to share from Acts 11 the story of Peter going to the Gentiles, seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. When Peter returns to the brethren he is confronted for spending time with them. It was against their theology, practices, and beliefs. Peter shares how the Holy Spirit worked in the Gentile lives and says, “Who am I to go against the Holy Spirit?”  

The brethren then went silent. They changed their theology, practices, and beliefs. 

Then I was prepared to share that over 50% of those leading churches in the Northern Asia-Pacific Division are women — more than 3,000. The best church planters in the world are Adventist church leaders who are women in China. Several of the largest Adventist churches in the world are led by women in China. The men are doing a mighty work there, but the witness of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the women leading churches is overwhelming and is an applicable witness to the argument.

I have witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit and who am I that I would oppose the Holy Spirit?  Only a vote “yes” would have been according to the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit.  How can we stand against the Holy Spirit working in the lives of these courageous workers for the Kingdom’s growth?  It is beyond my comprehension how we can, and how we did vote “No” on July 8, 2015 in the Alamodome.

In his career as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, David Ripley has pastored a number of churches, primarily in the Texas Conference, as well as served in the administration of the Minnesota and British Columbia Conferences, before joining the Northern Asia-Pacific Division as Ministerial Secretary.

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