One of the most fervent and ongoing cautionary appeals from the current Seventh-day Adventist General Conference administration, led by Ted Wilson, involves hermeneutics—the theory and methodology of biblical interpretation. In Wilson’s Sabbath sermon prior to the 2021 Annual Council, this subject was one of his 14 points of concern:
There are people who . . . use the horribly self-centered historical-critical or higher criticism approach, placing their own private interpretation on what the Bible says. Seventh-day Adventists believe in the historical-biblical or historical-grammatical approach, allowing the Bible to interpret itself . . . The historical-biblical hermeneutical method is the only method accepted by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
And Wilson raised the same issue in his 2010 inaugural sermon as GC president:
Our church has long held to the Historical-Biblical method of understanding scripture, allowing the Bible to interpret itself; . . . one of the most sinister attacks against the Bible is from those who believe in the Historical-Critical method of explaining the Bible. This unbiblical approach of “higher criticism” is a deadly enemy of our theology and mission. This approach puts a scholar or individual above the plain approach of the scriptures and gives inappropriate license to decide what he or she perceives as truth based on the resources and education of the critic.
Now, Wilson is certainly not an outlier within Adventist leadership in being opposed to higher criticism. Several days after Wilson’s 2021 Annual Council sermon, Vice President Artur Stele made a presentation regarding implications of the “new hermeneutics” (meaning higher criticism). A central point (at 2:10:12 in the video) was: “Although the Bible is culturally and historically constituted, it is NOT culturally or historically conditioned” (text of his PowerPoint slide). Now, surprisingly, just a few moments later (2:11:20) he said: “It’s very interesting that Ellen White recognizes here the human element, the culturally conditioned, so to speak, element." So, he first says the Bible is not culturally conditioned, then says Ellen White recognizes that it was culturally conditioned. I think Stele simply misspoke. But I also think it illustrates how similar the ideas of “constituted” and “conditioned” are. That he would interchange them, likely in error, makes one wonder how there is such a “horribly” and “sinister” difference between the two methods.
To the casual believer, the phrase higher criticism might seem, on its face, to be anti-god. Criticism can be understood as speaking disapprovingly about the subject material—the Bible in this case. And higher can give the impression that the critics view themselves as being higher than God. But the term actually should never be viewed this way. The word “criticism” in this context should be understood technically, not pejoratively. And “higher” was a label used simply in contrast to “lower.” There is a lower criticism which has a more limited domain of interest. So, I think it is crucial at the outset to establish what these supposedly contrasting hermeneutical labels actually mean.
The leadership-endorsed method is called the historical-biblical or historical-grammatical method. The disapproved, presumably unbiblical approach is called historical-critical, or by its somewhat better-known name: higher criticism. There are multiple objections made against higher criticism in the above quotes, repeated frequently by Wilson and others in leadership over at least the past decade-plus. It is considered to be: self-centered, using private interpretation, unbiblical, a deadly enemy that puts the scholar “above” the Bible, giving inappropriate license to the interpreter, etc.
These are heavy charges indeed. And the stronger (or extreme) any assertion is, the stronger the corresponding supporting argument(s) must also be to sustain it. In this essay, I hope to explore what the differences between these two methods actually are and whether Seventh-day Adventist leadership can substantiate their stated position.
I begin by trying to fairly define these two methods. I invite you to compare definitions, as given by Wikipedia (and feel free to search the web for additional ones, if you are somewhat distrustful of Wikipedia):
Historical-Grammatical Method (HGM): "Discover the biblical authors' original intended meaning in the text . . . based on an analysis of the grammatical style of a passage (with consideration to its cultural, historical, and literary context), [If] the author intended to convey an account of events that actually happened, then the text should be taken as representing history; passages should only be interpreted symbolically, poetically, or allegorically if to the best of our understanding, that is what the writer intended to convey to the original audience."
Higher Criticism (HC): “Investigates the origins of ancient texts in order to understand ‘the world behind the text’. The primary goal . . . is to discover the text's primitive or original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense . . . The secondary goal seeks to establish a reconstruction of the historical situation of the author and recipients of the text. That may be accomplished by reconstructing the true nature of the events that the text describes.”
I hope you can see how similar these two definitions are. It seems evident to me that, thus far, there is little methodological difference being described. Hardly the sort of danger that ought to elicit such “God vs. Satan” criticism from leadership.
Now, there is Wikipedia commentary (in the historical-grammatical entry) regarding method dissimilarities:
[Higher criticism] uses different approaches, like source criticism, genre criticism, tradition criticism, and redaction criticism in an attempt to discover the sources and factors that contributed to the making of the text as well as to determine what it meant to the original audience. There also is a systematic use of historical, sociological, archeological, linguistic, anthropological and comparative mythology data. Scholars who use the historical-critical method treat the Bible as they would any other text. In contrast to the historical-grammatical method, historical-criticism does not aim to determine what a text means for people today nor to produce novel theological insights. For those reasons, some traditional scholars and conservative Christians tend to reject the method, even though many of them use aspects of it that naturally overlap with the historical-grammatical method, such as attempting to determine what was meant when a passage was written.
So, there are some differences in focus and intent. And historically many HC scholars (especially nineteenth century German theologians) have been avowed skeptics, which perhaps is an underpinning for the above Wikipedia comment that HC would “treat the Bible as they would any other text.” This may be, in part, why Wilson would believe and complain that HC uses “inappropriate license to decide what he or she perceives as truth based on the resources and education of the critic.”
But please recognize that a method is not the same as practitioners of the method. I think a fair analogy here is between the practice of science and the beliefs of many scientists. Conservative religionists sometimes cast aspersions on science because it has reached conclusions antithetical to cherished beliefs. There is talk of atheistic science and scientists. And it is true that many scientists are atheists. But the practice of science is agnostic regarding belief. Certainly, some scientists cross the line into what is called scientism—perhaps the most (in)famous being Richard Dawkins. But Dawkins has been called out for his overreach, notably in the book The Dawkins Delusion by Alister and Joanna McGrath. Similarly, if a proponent of higher criticism (the method) overreaches, exhibits bias and/or bad argumentation, this is detectable by fair-minded and literate observers. A method ought not to be tarred for any perceived impiety or excess by its practitioners.
The Bible Interpreting Itself
But I think the core objection is found in leadership’s belief that in contrast to higher criticism, the historical-grammatical method allows “the Bible to interpret itself.” And this presumably would not place the interpreter above the Bible. So, let’s take a closer look at this assertion.
First, what does it literally mean for “the Bible to interpret itself”? This phrase is used a lot within the Adventist subculture, as is the term “plain reading.” Well, the most “plain reading” of the expression “the Bible interpreting itself” is nonsensical. The Bible is an inanimate object and has no interpretive faculties. Only sentient beings, like people, can interpret. And people are both fallible and sinful, thus both capable of theological errors and are certainly documented historically to have made lots of them. Thus, it seems like “the Bible interpreting itself” is actually supposed to mean something like "God’s true meaning in the material." Well fine. But how can we arrive at a conclusion that some particular interpretation is actually God’s true meaning? Any process involves potentially fallible human interpretation. I think there is a serious risk here that this phrase, as used by leadership, can disingenuously “baptize” one’s preferred understanding into being called God’s correct understanding. At least, anyone who wants to make this logical jump has certainly not gotten off the hook of explaining why such equivalence is defensible. And so, we’re right back at the need for any interpretation to be adequately justified. Consequently, such “Bible interprets itself” phraseology is useless.
In reality, I think Wilson et al. warrants much of their theology based on an understanding of Ellen White, which is considered 100% authoritative. But this is not determinative, as the question of whether Ellen White is actually theologically correct in some particular remains. It’s still necessary to warrant the warrant. You can, of course, simply declare that any Adventist who doubts Ellen’s White’s blanket authority is wayward. But this is no argument. It’s an ad hominem attack. Bottom line: the idea that Adventist understanding is indeed God’s truth is a conclusion that needs to be demonstrated. And this is precisely what one aspect of Adventist evangelism is all about (i.e., “we have the truth”). But demonstrating the theological truth of an Adventist belief is not limited to trying to convert the at-large public. Every card-carrying Adventist, unless they’ve “checked their brains at the door,” is also open to further information as to whether church doctrines are in need of revision or even rejection.
And an assumption that we have it all right has multiple unfortunate consequences:
1) You can then consider these positions to be God’s truth. Thus, any different views can be labeled satanic.
2) If the positions are God’s truth, then of course there is no purpose in further investigation. It only confuses and risks leading the unwary astray.
Historically, some Adventists have also pushed the idea of a “plain reading” as if it is both obvious and some sort of axiom that precludes the need for deeper analysis such as might be provided by methodologies like HGM and HC. In 1996 this concept was articulated by Samuel Koranteng-Pipim in his book Receiving the Word—a title that, in itself, suggests that biblical truth is purely a matter of reception that doesn’t require any interpretation by the reader.
Now, some biblical messages are sufficiently clear—across time, language, and culture—to be essentially “receivable” without much risk of substantive misinterpretation. Verses like: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NKJV). But such examples are not the concern of theologians and administrators seeking to uphold historically-accepted Adventist doctrine. You won’t find Micah 6:8 as an issue in Wilson’s 14 points. He wishes to justify positions that are more interpretively complicated and contested. In this area, some sort of “plain reading” is perhaps not so plain, when more involved analysis is applied.
To show this complexity problem more clearly let’s consider the issue of literalness in the Genesis account. In Wilson’s sermon, point 11, he states: “God recently made this earth in six days and rested on the seventh day which He made holy.” This view is in alignment with Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief #6: “God has revealed in Scripture the authentic and historical account of His creative activity. He created the universe, and in a recent six-day creation . . . work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.” And note that additional phraseology was added in a voted action during the 2015 General Conference to make this literal interpretation unmistakable. Specifically, the words: “historical,” “recent six-day,” “during six literal days,” and “constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.” These additions go beyond what is directly stated in the Bible but are certainly consistent with orthodox Adventist understanding. And it will illustrate how this idea of “plain reading” or “the Bible interpreting itself” can become an issue. Fundamental belief #6 now says “six literal days.” And there is no allusion in Genesis to anything allegorical or qualified—so why not add specific verbiage to remove any possibility of interpreting it as non-literal? It’s a plain reading, right?
But now consider these verses:
And God said, "Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault "sky." (Genesis 1:6–8 NIV)
The Hebrew word translated “vault” is raqia and is also variously translated as “dome” or “firmament.” The verb form raqa means “to beat out” or “to stamp,” as in an artisan beating out some metal—e.g., gold, silver, brass—into a utensil shape, like a bowl. Now that is surely odd imagery to translate into the word “sky.” We moderns, without special historical/cultural literacy into the original author’s and receivers’ world, are almost sure to be unaware of the original meaning of raqia. Thus, we would likely pass over the imagery and with minimal thought simply accept the meaning as "sky." But it is exactly this image of a giant, physical, inverted metal bowl separating earth-resident land and seas from the watery locations above the immediate surrounding atmosphere that the original recipients of the text would view as physical reality. Their “plain reading” would be vastly different from our modern understanding.
Problematic literalism also occurs in the Bible locations referencing “pillars.” See 1 Samuel 2:8, Psalms 75:3, and Job 9:6 (KJV). Now, as these verses are used metaphorically, it would be unsurprising if a modern reader treated a word like “pillar” as poetic. But metaphors can and often do compare some abstract idea to a corresponding physical reality. And your confidence might wane a bit if you understood that the original audience believed the world they walked in was inside a physical dome and was upheld by physical pillars. Now, since we know this is not what material reality actually looks like, it would be understandable, and tempting, to believe that the Genesis writer did not intend the concepts of dome and pillar to be understood literally. But this would be forcing a modern worldview back onto the worldview of both the Genesis author and their intended audience. And it is disciplines like HGM and HC that are in the business of finding out the original meanings —linguistically and culturally. What is deeply underappreciated by the casual modern reader is how radically different these perspectives are and how this difference has the potential to seriously alter the intended meaning of the texts. And, specifically addressing the Adventist position that a plain reading would obviously mean a day is 24 literal hours, why then wouldn’t an equivalent plain reading, as intended by the author and understood by the original audience, equally demand that the earth is—per inspiration—physically a dome in the sky with the earth supported by pillars?
Now, many additional details as to why this concern is significant and demands proper attention far exceed the constraints of this article. The whole subject of original Genesis context and how it might affect correct biblical exegesis has been explored at length in books like: The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton (and follow-on works: The Lost World of Adam and Eve and The Lost World of the Flood). And another book, this time by Adventist authors Brian Bull and Fritz Guy: God, Sky & Land (and follow-on works: God, Land, and the Great Flood and God, Genesis, & Good News).
There is a significant disconnect between Wilson’s (and other leaders’) portrayal of higher criticism and the actual details of what its practitioners do. Notably, there is nothing in the method descriptions that designates HC as “horribly self-centered” while HGM lets “the Bible interpret itself.” It is certainly true that, historically, many (most?) initial nineteenth century HC developers tended to be skeptics. But a method is not the same as the practitioners of a method. As I argued above, some have a parallel concern about science. Many scientists are atheists, but that doesn’t invalidate science—specifically because science does not involve metaphysics. A similar argument should be persuasive here. An HC practitioner who seeks to “attempt to discover the sources and factors that contributed to the making of the text as well as to determine what it meant to the original audience” doesn’t need any faith at all, let alone evangelical bona fides, to produce competent work.
What has been done then by Adventist leadership (notably Wilson) is to construct a straw man argument. Then the straw man “beating” occurs when the approved method is wrapped in godliness while the disapproved one (higher criticism) is demonized. I do not believe this is deliberate, but that doesn’t improve the situation. Either way, one of the “benefits” of Wilson’s move, if his readers/listeners accept it, is to delegitimize any pushback, any attempt to consider the results of HC on their merits.
All of this discredits Adventism with not only potential converts but also current members. Adventism must be truth-seeking, not position-defending. Scholarship in books like The Lost World of Genesis One brings important new insights to bear on problematic textual material, like the creation account in Genesis. We must be open as a denomination to possible change. Bad arguments produce resistance and bring into question the objectivity of those who make such arguments.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.