For Protestants, the Bible is the highest treasure and main point of reference in the construction of our faith. Through it God has made known his salvation and has made us citizens of his kingdom. But the question of the meaning, nature, interpretation and use of the Bible doesn’t concern only the people who still have not chosen God and his kingdom. It concerns, above all, those who already are Christians. And surprisingly, it is those who regularly read the Bible who are more susceptible to deform and manipulate it.
The Adventist church has an insuperable commitment that embraces the whole Bible, Old and New Testament. Adventism is undoubtedly a Bible-based church. This fact, which has been clear since our very beginning, gives us a valuable confidence. Our theology would be more vulnerable if it were mainly based in tradition, natural theology or philosophical speculation. And precisely for this reason, the critical question: "How really sound and reliable is Adventist Hermeneutics?" is not a useless question entertained and articulated only by trouble-makers, but should represent a continuous concern for a healthy Adventism. It’s not enough to say that our theology is not built on tradition and human speculation. Being Bible-based still doesn’t guarantee that it’s automatically historically relevant and biblically sound.
Adventist hermeneutics has some imbalances and short-circuits, and this can be seen from various perspectives. One is the profile of the people we are “producing”. Our way of interpreting the Bible is certainly producing highly convinced, militant and efficient believers. But these very committed, diligent and coherent believers unfortunately are very often also intransigent, intolerant, insensitive, impatient and sometimes even cynical. We can’t increase the anthropological quality of our members if we don’t first correct the imbalances of our hermeneutics. Many people throughout the world admire us for what we do, but how many appreciate us for what we are and say? There is a surprising parallelism between Adventists and “the Bible” they read. The Bible very often is considered today, by those outside the church, like some Adventists themselves: unpleasant, intransigent and intolerant. We Adventists too often are doing everything to make the Bible look just like this. The Bible says everything, knows everything and has always the last word. What people have to say, in expressing their worries and concerns, has, in the eyes of this “biblio-centric” perspective, little value in comparison to the unique and absolute value of the text. The result is that the Bible becomes an unbearable and bossy book. One that closes, instead of opening and motivating.
And here it is perhaps worthwhile introducing some categories that can help us better understand this issue within our church. From a quantitative point of view, we Adventists read the Bible. But qualitatively, it doesn’t always seem that we are getting the benefit of it. Like in economics, also in the spiritual life, we can speak of "growth" and "development". They both describe a process of improvement, but not in the same way. Growth expresses quantitative improvement, important and necessary, but still insufficient to foster a healthy improvement. Development, on the other hand, expresses a qualitative improvement which must be taken into account in order to truly speak of an economic or spiritual process worthy of that name. For example, in economics the surprising “growth” of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), is unfortunately inversely proportional to their “development”. In the religious domain, our biblical “spiritual growth” unfortunately often seems to be inversely proportional to our “spiritual development”. The criteria for development are different than those which determine growth. In economics a main criterion for growth is the annual GDP. Conversely, for development the criteria include: reliability of the institutions, division of powers, respect for minorities. Criteria for “spiritual growth” include: baptisms, programs, buildings. Criteria for “spiritual Development” are instead: the guarantee of internal alternatives, respect for the various levels of governance, quality of satisfaction, recognition of other churches’ mission and ministries, etc. And included with spiritual development are what I call a “Healthy Hermeneutics of Biblical Complexity”. Let’s briefly explore this biblical complexity by considering the "centripetal" (authoritative component) and the "centrifugal" (dialogical component) dimensions of the Bible.
1. The "centripetal" dimension of the Bible
This is best expressed with the concept of authority. The Bible cannot renounce its authority as the word of God. If this dimension of authority were amputated it would automatically cease to be the word of God. In this sense the Bible is not a collection of wise suggestions or opportune spiritual advice but it is God's command, with the strong constraint of obedience. It claims to speak the truth of God and, as such, claims that everyone and everything should bend to, and follow its requirements. It is the center (centripetal) towards which everything else must converge. But this undeniable dimension of the Bible can be viewed in various ways. And the ways, words and categories used to express this indelible dimension of the Bible are not always the best. The traditional term "supreme authority", referring to the Bible, perhaps was appropriate in other times. Today it’s certainly counterproductive because it does not express the kind of authority that the Bible represents. "Supreme authority" today designates an authoritarian, non-dialoguing and inflexible power. Biblical authority is only partially a “commanding” authority. Most of the time it’s a “teaching and serving” authority that hardly matches with the contours of what we understand by “Supreme authority”.
But the preferred and more common term used to express biblical authority is "Sola Scriptura". The idea and intention is legitimate because it expresses the sense of priority and absolute precedence that the Bible has over any human source. But unfortunately today this has become an ambiguous formula that frequently expresses a sense of arrogance, unwillingness to dialogue, insensitivity and arbitrariness that cannot be descriptive of what the Bible is. In fact, biblical authority is, above all, expressed in an indirect way. It is not a frontal authority. Proof of this is the type of language it uses. The Bible is basically narration, poetry and symbol. This type of language is essentially both authoritative yet non-authoritarian. It expresses a mediated, indirect, diffuse authority. But it is even more effective because it maintains a fixed point in substance, yet in a form articulated in a less confrontational way. In other words, the Bible is authoritative without becoming demanding, orienting without ever being deterministic.
2. The "Centrifugal" dimension of the Bible
But the Bible has a second dimension, the "centrifugal" one, which is often neglected and even completely overlooked. In this dimension the center is not given by the Bible but by human reality. Here the Bible does not have any problem to "decentralize" itself, to listen to others and even subordinate to them. In this dimension the Bible is not interested in asserting its authority but rather in making others authoritative. And in order to do this, the Bible puts itself aside. It does not disappear, but it makes others protagonists. Making others (humans) the center – that’s its major concern here. This is the conversational word that does not block the word of others but rather makes it possible. Through the Bible, when God's word is expressed in its centrifugal dimension, humans overcome the paralyzing fear that frightens them. They begin to speak, to sing and to witness. Here the Bible is a motivating word, a facilitating and a mediating word. In this sense the Bible gives space to our essential humanity and, in order to achieve this, makes silence. The Word of God is also made of silence. Not a self-referential silence selfishly articulated to meditate in its own wisdom, but a relational silence. A silence to appreciate the gifts and witness of others. In this sense the Bible is not the only source of wisdom and meaning. The Bible allows us to be completed by the human word. And it is not a jealous word. It does not claim to have the exclusivity of what is right and good. It rejoices if others can express its intentions in ways that better suit the listeners. In this sense it does not say everything and does not pretend to be the last word. The Bible is not the logorrheic (excessively wordy) and obsessive Word of God, compulsively articulated to say everything, everywhere and for everybody.
3. Building a "Hermeneutics of complexity"
A consistent Hermeneutics then can’t be identified with just one of these two dimensions of scripture. The "centripetal" (authority) and the "centrifugal" (dialogue) dimensions are both necessary and structural. Only together can they articulate and embody the nature and meaning of the Bible. This certainly creates tension, but it is this tension that guarantees the nobility of the biblical meaning. And tension is sometimes visible in the same verse; sometimes we need to consider a whole chapter and sometimes a whole book. To perceive and to confront ourselves with this tension and complexity is what it really means to find the essence of Scripture. Every reading of the Bible is valuable. Every honest and spontaneous reading of the Bible brings a benefit, and in this sense, is legitimate. But not every reading is necessarily representative of the biblical richness. Only readings which express this complexity and tension between the "centripetal" and "centrifugal" dimensions of the text can be truly balanced. When this happens the Bible ceases to be a book full of answers, a manual of spiritual casuistry, or a dispenser of mechanical and fast solutions. In this hermeneutics of complexity the Bible, from “understanding”, also leads us to “non-understanding”; from “clarity” to “mystery”; from “efficiency and usefulness” to “supplication and prayer”. Reading and meditating on the Bible this way leads us to the conviction that we know that we do not know. And yet we are at ease and even comforted because we have, by our side, a noble Word which we don’t possess or manipulate. A Word that accompanies us even though we do not know all the answers. A Word that gives us peace to resist the continuous, deceitful temptation that meaning arrives through possession of some "complete truth". The comprehension of Truth is always partial in that the Bible itself is the sober, partial and centrifugal Word of God.
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.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
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