Each historical period, and each Christian community within that period, works with a particular understanding of what the Bible is. That understanding is certainly legitimate and necessary because the Bible is for everybody and persuasively reaches every historical period. But at the same time that understanding is also necessarily limited and unilateral. This principle of analysis then can’t be applied only to medieval times and the catholic church. It’s applicable also to Protestantism, to Adventism and to modernity. In other words, we shouldn’t see only the misconceptions and not the benefits of a catholic reading of the Bible, any more than we shouldn’t see only the benefits and not the misconceptions of a protestant reading of the Bible.
Protestantism is not only about “Reformation” but, after some centuries, is also about “De-formation”. And some anomalies facilitated by the protestant approach to the Bible are, for instance, the individualistic, rational or pragmatic reading that tends to dismantle a sense of solidarity, belonging, mystery and contemplation woven into its very structure. But probably the major anomaly caused by the protestant approach is its obsession with clarity. The Bible would be, according to this protestant “vulgate” approach – “clear” and “immediate” in its meaning. This is for instance what the major protestant German word for the Bible means: “Offenbarung” (Revelation) – i.e., to make it completely open, manifest, clear. The Latin word for the Bible: “revelation”, doesn’t imply this quasi obsession with clarity. Revelation means to manifest or unveil, but also to remain partially veiled. This noble commitment to clarity has gone astray in protestantism, to the point of giving birth to a “biblical positivism”. And this protestant anomaly is as pernicious as medieval biblical obscurantism. And “biblical literalism”, or its harder version of “biblical inerrancy”, are only two extreme forms of a more diffuse and growing biblical positivism that has become the soft and gentle heresy of our times.
Adventism has, and is developing today, a sophisticated form of this typical protestant anomaly about the sacred text. The average Adventist already believes, with unstoppable conviction and spiritual zeal, that: 1) the Bible not only speaks about everything, but also 2) is immediate in its meaning. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the Word of God. And this deep conviction is hardened and radicalized by the additional erroneous belief that the Bible is Adventist in its general perspective – otherwise we wouldn’t be the end-time Church. The major efforts of our church’s leaders today are unfortunately oriented to reinforce these two evident misconceptions.
This is what I call the typical Adventist misconception of the Bible as a Text. We have developed a very static and substantialist approach to theology. Adventist theology is certainly not the only possible biblical theology. And understanding this, besides corresponding better to the Bible’s inclusive spirit, would also be healthy for Adventism itself. This view is biblical because the Bible is God’s testimony that allows various possible readings. To elevate one’s own biblical interpretation to be unique – is idolatrous. But it’s also healthy for Adventism because this beneficial partial dissociation between Adventism and the Bible can help us to be healed, at least partially, from a seriously detrimental attitude. One that compulsively pushes us, using the Bible, to make absolute and definitive that which is in fact relative, transitory and circumstantial.
Adventism and the Bible certainly need to be maintained in a close relationship, as our pioneers have done, but not symbiotically. A symbiotic relationship dishonors the Bible because it diminishes its universality and openness. But it also damages Adventism because it perpetuates subcultural biases, contradictions and fears by giving them a biblical endorsement. And we need to remember that a community’s fears, tensions and uncertainties do not always manifest themselves through insecurity and vulnerability, as we might expect. Often they manifest through arrogance, an unassailable certainty, an exclusive spirit and even aggressiveness – articulated as unconscious, social and detrimental religious defense mechanisms.
“Biblical positivism” basically tends to ignore and then dismantle the structural complexity of the Biblical text. And this complexity is not given just by the transitional and reconcilable pluralism of authors and ideas. More essentially it manifests in the irreducible heterogeneity and intentional limitedness of the sacred text itself.
Let’s briefly consider each of these two characteristics.
1. Heterogeneity of the Text
First, the biblical text is structurally heterogeneous because it is plurivocal. It necessarily has various possible meanings. What interpretation does is to choose one meaning among the various possible meanings – but just temporarily. In that specific interpretive moment the text is invested only with one meaning. That is necessary in order to personalize the meaning and make it applicable. The other possible meanings are not abolished by this reading procedure, just put “in parentheses”. The heterogeneity expressed in this latent plurivocity of the text remains intact. The various meanings are not transitional or just preparatory to some “one final meaning”, but rather the other way around. The synthetic “one final meaning” is just transitional and circumstantial. What remains, in fact, are all the various meanings, because only together will they express the full essence of the text. This is the reason why the Bible’s literary form is not like a univocal mathematics or philosophy, but rather the multifaceted and polymorphic form of poetry, narrative, metaphor or prophecy.
Second, the biblical text, in addition to this implicit linguistic heterogeneity, also becomes heterogeneous because, although a literary artifact, it tries to preserve the different and even contrasting visions of a same event. While in the Koran the stories are synthetically narrated by a unique narrator, in the Bible we find various versions by various authors that the final editor just put together with some bridging mechanisms. That’s visible for instance in the two narratives of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2, but this occurs throughout the Bible. Consequently, truth in the Bible doesn’t becomes multiple and differentiated only with subsequent interpretations. It’s already multiple and differentiated from within, in the Bible itself, at its very origin. The biblical truth is never monolithic or compact. It always includes healthy alternative versions from within.
2. Limitedness of the Text
But biblical complexity is not due to its heterogeneity alone. Paradoxically is also because of its intentional limitedness. First, the Bible intentionally renounces the temptation to say everything. If it tried to say everything it would not immediately become a better text, but instead a heavy plethora of words that is meaningless and anonymous because it pretends to say all. There are some texts that can be considered great – because they give up the obsession with unattainable completeness. A good text often says more when says less. This is the magic of poetry but also of the short, powerful texts like some great political Constitutions.
Second, this beneficial limitedness of the Bible is also tied to the character of its eventual readers. In order to really involve and include the reader, a good text must remain simply evocative. Only a partial description of reality, typical of evocative texts, is able to wake the attentive reader’s imagination. And without imagination it is impossible to evoke any ethical or religious learning process. So the Bible is limited and partial because it targets the reader as a participant in the creation of meaning. This is what the concept of “hermeneutical circle” really means. Text and reader go together. A perfect and exhaustive text would in fact be bad because it would exclude the reader as superfluous. A good text, such as the Bible, is good because it makes the reader necessary – not only as depository of an existent meaning, but as a co-participant in the creation of a new meaning.
This is what Gregory the Great in the 6th century tried to express when he wrote: “The Word of God (Bible) grows together with the one who reads it”. In this he expressed an incredible understanding of what the “hermeneutical circle” really means.
Today it is not enough to say we are “biblical”. When we say this we must specify what we understand it to mean, and particularly which kind of text we are referring to. The Bible has certainly been a blessing for Adventism in the past. Unfortunately it can’t be said that it will be the same in the future. We hope it will be but there are worrying signs. It would be a disconcerting paradox if Adventism became impoverished and caricatured by an insolent two-fold “biblical positivism” – both grotesque, and refined.
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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