Method and structure in pedagogy matter. Back in June, this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide, which focuses on Ephesians, opened with helpful historical and thematic details. But as the lesson moved into the chapters on slaves, marriage, and armor, it revealed the limits of a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, or what General Conference President Ted Wilson tautologically calls the historical-biblical method of Bible study. Once more: the farther out of context one interprets a verse by looking in other books, not to mention different genres or the other testament, biblical meaning-making becomes more about creativity and less about scholarship.
A week ago, I received correspondence from Seventh-day Adventist New Testament scholar Herold Weiss. He said some nice things about last week’s commentary, which provides examples of how some denominational scholars are really allegorists. Weiss pointed out that the Wilsonian hermeneutic “is not a method, but an open field for you to pick and choose.” He adds, “the ancients used allegory at a time when the tools for checking the occasion in which something was said or written were not available. They were retelling oral traditions that had become standardized in totally different situations.” Weiss goes on to say:
Before the nineteenth century retelling, the past had either an apologetic or a moralistic aim, with no concern whatsoever with what had “actually happened.” It was von Ranke who told historians that that was the only legitimate purpose for the writing of history. Paul allegorized the story of the two wives of Abraham and says that that is what he is doing. The gospel writers allegorized the parables of Jesus and put them in the mouth of Jesus; parables and allegories are not the same thing. Adventist hermeneutics of biblical apocalyptic scenarios are allegories constructed to give unfulfilled trajectories a new lease on life, in order to implant fear of hell on suffering humanity. To link the armor of the Christian in Ephesians with the cosmic conflict in the Adventist imagination is obviously the work of someone's mind, a plain and simple modern concoction. To pretend that “this is what the Bible teaches” is a deception.
This week’s final look at Ephesians—clearly a summary—shows why an over-focus on literalism and detail is not needed. Each day, the lesson hits the high points of the respective chapters and major sections. Grace, unity, being kind, and waging peace together emerge as takeaways, according to the lesson itself.
In particular, Monday’s title reminds readers that we “are redeemed for community,” which beautifully expresses the message of Ephesians chapter 2: “Through His cross, Jesus demolishes all that divides Gentile believers from Jewish ones, including the misuse of the Law to widen the gulf.” The idea that God requires obedience to ancient Near Eastern cleanliness codes in order to bless humans defies both logic and the gospel of Christianity. The Jesus movement spread as this planet shrank. As local evils became mass-weaponized, institutionalized (even in the church), and industrialized, the reality is that the matrix of human relationships remains the moral landscape that ultimately matters. The lesson summarizes the core of this faith tradition: “through the grace of God, you have the privilege of living this day in solidarity with Jesus and your fellow believers.” The Jesus movement powerfully united varieties of identities through shared values and hope. It offers us the same tools today.
Except when humans fall back to parochial turf battles. This happens so often. Adventist apologists drag us into the miasma of a debate about the types of slavery or women’s biblical roles in an effort to defend a book of the Bible, but always emerge trying to provide what the historical-critical method already offers—a higher view of scripture. In the Teacher Comments, the lesson again provides a good summary of Ephesians, but then shoehorns in another discussion of The Great Controversy theme. Without quotation marks, it quotes the final four paragraphs of Ellen White’s book, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. I like to see where White quoters start and stop. Interestingly, this paragraph, immediately preceding the ones excerpted in the lesson, seems like the sort of prose that might adorn an institute of advanced studies or perhaps come from a presidential speech to inaugurate a space program or inspire high intellectual labor to defeat a foe.
There, immortal minds will contemplate with never-failing delight the wonders of creative power, the mysteries of redeeming love. There will be no cruel, deceiving foe to tempt to forgetfulness of God. Every faculty will be developed, every capacity increased. The acquirement of knowledge will not weary the mind or exhaust the energies. There the grandest enterprises may be carried forward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions realized; and still there will arise new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of mind and soul and body.
Obviously, the context for this totally free, high intellectualism is heaven. However, as we are called to bring heaven down to earth in moral behavior and character development, it’s important to remind denominational leaders that there are “new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend.” In fact, this quarter’s Bible study method lesson proves this progressive, present truth reality in how it operates. The Adult Bible Study Guide reads modern morality about slavery and marriage back into the text as a new truth. And this week, it has papered over those particular problematic passages by focusing on the higher, critical issues for believers today. What might Adventism achieve if we agreed upon God’s grace, accepted all identities in Christian solidarity, pursued new truths, and applied those truths to our present moral issues? It might feel like heaven. Or as Ellen White writes in the paragraph directly preceding the one above (which actually references the book in question):
There the redeemed shall know, even as also they are known. The loves and sympathies which God Himself has planted in the soul shall there find truest and sweetest exercise. The pure communion with holy beings, the harmonious social life with the blessed angels and with the faithful ones of all ages who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, “the sacred ties that bind together “the whole family in heaven and earth” (Ephesians 3:15)—these help to constitute the happiness of the redeemed.
This new truth, egalitarian, philosophical transhumanist utopia sounds heavenly. See you there!
Speaking of the new, next quarter I am focusing on some of my other Spectrum duties: keeping an eye on the General Conference Executive Committee Annual Council meetings, attending the North American Division’s Women in Seventh-day Adventist History Conference, and meeting with more than a dozen Ellen White scholars to create a special issue of the journal. And that’s just October. Thankfully, Vaughn Nelson, who is currently working on a PhD dissertation in religious pedagogy at Boston University, is going to run our commentary on next quarter’s lesson: God’s Mission My Mission. Enjoy!
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: Corrado Giaquinto, Apotheosis of a Saint (c. 1750), Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, museum purchase through gift of various donors and from Eleanor G. Hewitt Fund.
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