Good Faith Questioning Is Not the Enemy

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Published:
February 17, 2022

In my first essay on the General Conference Biblical Research Institute’s (BRI) Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach, I discussed Kwabena Donkor’s leading paper, which deals with subtle presuppositions that influence how we interpret the Bible. I suggested then that perhaps we could use its insight as a linchpin to a less constrained interpretive stance on our hermeneutics journey. In this second look, I take up Frank Hasel’s article, “Elements of Biblical Hermeneutics in Harmony with Scripture’s Self-Claims.” Hasel outlines general principles intended to nudge the church towards a “safe” encounter with the Bible. Following Donkor’s lead, I want to focus on one overarching presupposition that Hasel seems to enjoin the church to adopt: that it is dangerous to encounter the Bible with a skeptical mind.

Anchoring our 28 Fundamental Beliefs is its statement on Scripture. How we understand and use the Bible came into sharp focus at the 2015 San Antonio General Conference session. After years-long Women’s Ordination debates, a vote at that meeting chose to reject allowing women into full gospel ministry. Our leaders seemed genuinely perplexed that even though church members used the same Bible during our ordination study, we came to such strikingly polarized conclusions on this question. So we created a Hermeneutics Committee and gave the BRI five years to find out why.

Virtually all the 14 essays in the BRI response book touch on different aspects of biblical understanding. But Frank Hasel’s piece comes closest to prescribing a systematic Adventist approach to navigating it. Unfortunately, three quarters into his article, while discussing the inherent “dangers” of failing to “affirm” the “full trustworthiness of Scripture,” he came perilously close to proscribing independent thought on, or dissenting from, perceived biblical orthodoxy. He warns that those who hesitate to declare the entire biblical composition faultless soon “begin to question some passages of Scripture.” He likens questioning Scripture to embarking on the dreaded “slippery slope.” Then, leaning on Ellen White for ultimate support, he cautions, “There is a disastrous consequence of such an approach.”

Hasel lost me from here on because such a conclusion, inserted in the context of an academic discussion of hermeneutical approaches, contributes little to our attempts to understand the Bible in our time. If we shouldn’t question any scriptural passages, fearing some “disastrous consequences,” what are we to make of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians to “prove all things and hold fast to what is good?” (5:21). What is there to prove if questioning is an enemy of truth? Why was the Berean congregation, and not their “closed-minded” Thessalonian brethren, lauded for possessing a “noble character?”  Because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11 NIV, emphasis mine) By ostensibly disapproving of the Berean example, Hasel herds us through the gates of biblical infallibility.

Finding no significant new insights from Hasel, I turn to Fundamental Belief #1, which is our belief statement on the Bible. Here we encounter a smorgasbord of catchwords: inspiration, supreme, authoritative, trustworthy. And phrases: written Word of God, inspired authors spoke and wrote, moved by the Holy Spirit, the knowledge necessary for salvation, infallible revelation, standard of character, test of experience, definitive revealer of doctrine, record of God’s act in history.

Until you pay attention, you don’t realize how much verbiage we heap onto Scripture and how much of that is babble to the average congregant. The committee that was assigned the responsibility of defining the Bible obviously took their mandate seriously and left no stone unturned in this endeavor. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. What, for example, do we mean by these highfalutin words and phrases? What do nonacademic church members understand by authoritative, infallible revelation, definitive revealer of doctrine, or inspiration?

In Adventism, we approach the word inspiration with some trepidation, as the reaction, especially from denominational leaders, revealed when Alden Thompson made such an attempt in his 1991 book Inspiration: Hard Questions Honest Answers. We pack a lot of loaded words and phrases that sound great into our belief set until we attempt to unpack them, at which point we unsheathe our swords to defend our private understandings.

At other times we invoke the Protestant mantra of Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), insisting it is our only creed, as John Peckham tries to do in his essay in this collection, “The Prophetic Gift and Sola Scriptura.” By giving credence to this concept, we deny any reliance on tradition. It is always a thankless job when Peckham, an academic, is called upon to harmonize belief in the Bible alone with Ellen White’s prophetic persona within the church. And yet because of the unique circumstances of our founding and the implicit authority accorded to White and her writings—as the ready stand-in when Scripture is silent or seems inadequate—we often have some difficulty pulling off the marriage between Sola Scriptura and Ellen without specially pleading her case.

Which begs the question of our conception of Scripture itself. What do we mean when we use the word “Scripture” or “Bible” in ordinary conversation? Is there a definitive biblical composition all Christians could subscribe to? Christendom has not settled this question. There are 83 books in the Catholic Bible, 81 in the Ethiopian, 79 in the Greek/Eastern Orthodox. Or, because we are Protestants, do we consider our familiar 66 books more legitimate? We ignore the uncomfortable questions that lurk just below the surface: why will the same God inspire different compositions for different Christian groups? Until Constantine’s forced consolidation, the definition of Scripture was elastic and only became restrictive after Nicaea. Viewed another way, is the 219-word 3 John (KJV) any more inspired than non-canonical books such as 1 and 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, or Didache? After all, the latter three were all very popular in the early church and even included in some pre-Nicaean “Bible” collections.

One of the most vexing questions surrounding how God communicates with humans is determining the authenticity of his emissaries. How do we establish that a “spokesperson’s” claim as God’s representative is true? Invoking inspiration will not do, because inspiration is neither self-defining nor self-evident. We have to explain, and yes, interpret what the word connotes to us. And there’s the rub. Because even Jesus’s admonition that we can distinguish between genuine and false prophets “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16) is problematic. The common biblical “fruit” metaphor, widely construed by later scriptural adherents as a literal outward manifestation of faith and therefore validation of a “spokesperson’s” legitimacy, is not always a reliable measure. Humans have become so good at projecting outward appearances of piety and godliness, it is increasingly difficult to judge character by external evidence alone.

Take the case of America’s two self-proclaimed, homegrown Christian prophets and the denominations they founded: Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints/Mormons) and Ellen G White (Seventh-day Adventists). The two churches trace their beginnings to the first half of the 1800s, LDS in 1830 and Adventist in 1844. Both denominations now have an impressive global following and world-class institutions. Each founding leader is believed by members of their respective churches to be a prophet, and their writings, which espouse dramatically different theologies and worldviews, have attained the status of “minor scriptures.”  However, neither church accepts the “prophetic gifts” of the other leader as genuine and vehemently disavows the legitimacy of the other’s claim as God’s end-time spokesperson. Same God. Same eras. Different prophets. Different messages. In this situation, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the imposter from the genuine just on the basis of their “fruits” alone.

But let’s turn our attention to slavery, probably the most dehumanizing “business” ever set up in human history, which also appears to be scripture-endorsed as a test of Christ’s ethic of individual worth. Hasel would rather we don’t ask why, worrying that such questions are a precursor to languishing in a spiritual abyss. But we don’t solve life’s problems by closing our eyes and thus hoping to see no evil. Sadly, by adopting such an attitude, many Christians read only the wholesome parts of Scripture and ignore the unsavory. Ignoring Bible passages that affront our moral sensibilities is an ostrich-like burying of our heads in the sand. But unlike the ostrich, who sticks its head in the sand to ensure the survival of its unhatched offspring, we do so to avoid facing up to inconvenient truth. The two Testaments are replete with narratives that upset our moral compass, with none more horrifying as scripture’s seeming approval of slavery.

Exodus 20 is probably the quintessential Adventist chapter in all of Scripture. And for good reason. This 26-verse passage is home to the Decalogue, with its Sabbath commandment, and also provides a rationale for our creation doctrine. The enduring salience of the 10 Commandments is the reason for its universal appeal and why most nations model aspects of their moral and penal codes after it. But what about the next chapter, Exodus 21? We don’t hear too many preachers extolling its virtues—because they can’t. The transactional delineation of the laws governing indentured slavery proffered here is so antithetical to the soaring pronouncements of the preceding chapter that we can’t hide our befuddlement that the God we are asked to believe in proposed both. Consider this: “If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him forever” (21:4-6).

When God’s laws demand that a man choose between his freedom without his family and lifelong servitude with them, even the devil would be hard-pressed to equal the ingenious wickedness of this bargain. But Hasel warns us not to question such barbarousness. It is in Scripture and we don’t want to risk God’s ire.

There is more. A few verses later, laws regulating the sale of one’s daughter for sexual favors are codified: “And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her” (21:7-8 KJV). When slavery was legal, many “good” Southern Christian slave owners would degrade these laws even further, availing themselves of their “possessions”—our mothers, their daughters, our sisters—as the owners’ fancies drove them. This went on far too long, but eventually our collective humanity rose above the practice of buying and selling people as chattel. After a long and costly civil war, this “beloved tradition” was outlawed in the United States.

Much earlier, slavery and its attendant atrocities had been banned in Europe because other Christians, who read the same Bible, were moved to challenge some of the inhuman laws it seemed to advocate. If they had followed Hasel’s warning about questioning Scripture, I shudder to think how morally different our world would be today. Paul would return Onesimus to his master, still a slave, after the latter ran away from servitude. Paul sent him back, appealing to his friend’s better self on Onesimus’s behalf. A different generation of Christians who witnessed other slave-owning Christians mistreat their slaves would not rely on the goodwill of the oppressors and campaigned to end the practice. The world is a better place because they did.

Adventism questioned biblical orthodoxy until we became a church. But now, having become one, we should be careful not to shut the door to questioning, especially of morally dubious directives—even if they are contained in the Bible or supposed to be from God. Jesus’s core teaching is clear: if a law takes advantage of the vulnerable or violates God’s ethical ideal, we should question it, as God might not be its source.

 


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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