Presuppositions: The Invisible Elephant in Our Hermeneutical Discourse

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Published:
January 20, 2022

It took seven years—two more than originally allotted—and several false starts, but the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI) finally made good on its response to the hermeneutics “homework” it was given at the end of the 2015 General Conference session. The Frank Hasel edited collection—Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach—is essentially a compilation of fourteen scholarly “position papers” written by eleven theologians and a scientist, who attempt to make a case for a uniform Adventist hermeneutic. As we might recall, this project grew out of the bitterness and hand-wringing that ensued after the defeat of the vote that would have allowed each of the church’s thirteen divisions some leeway to address women’s ordination. The central question then was, “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No?” The world church voted no, opting for global uniformity on the ordination question.

It was the ensuing rancor resulting from that vote, it could be argued, that led to the belated recognition by some senior officials that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no longer a monolith that can be easily orchestrated to dance to one individual’s tune. This awareness, some perceptive critics of the Wilson administration contend, might have inspired the hermeneutics undertaking—not as a genuine pursuit of biblical interpretation but as a pivot and diversion from the root cause of our discontent: the church’s refusal to accord women equal seating around the ecclesiastical table. Our current leadership’s position on women’s ordination is illustrative of an intolerant attitude toward change, no matter how self-evident.

But however we got here, we have to work with the hand we are dealt, which in this case is the BRI book. For starters, I find it odd, but sadly also predictable, that the BRI papers did not have a single female contributor. That is not necessarily the BRI’s fault. It is a fairness issue, one which the Wilson administration has been extraordinarily tone-deaf in addressing. The document showcases fourteen articles. Three of the twelve authors wrote two articles each, the Hasel cousins, four. If there was room for three individuals to contribute multiple papers on this contentious topic, couldn’t one or two have been written by a woman? Surely it isn’t because there are no competent Adventist women with expertise on this subject. Olive Hemmings and Jean Sheldon readily come to mind, but they are by no means the only Adventist women who could have broadened the discussion.

While this exclusion might be purely accidental, it goes to illustrate how the continuing absence of women in Adventist leadership circles where key decisions are made keep perpetuating male-only views. It doesn’t matter that it is not official policy to keep women out. (Or is it?) But the effect is the same for many young and not-so-young women. For them, the nagging suspicion is that they are locked out of important church discussions because some “important men” have decided that women have no business anywhere else beyond being wives and mothers.

We all come to the subject of biblical interpretation from varying backgrounds, encompassing many different points of view, not the least of which is the perspective of gender. Feminist theologians, for example, have taught us much from the biblical text that for a long time seemed limited to the purview of their male counterparts. That history is regrettable and shamefully regressive. Yet as we begin this important undertaking within Adventism, which ironically was occasioned by a dispute about women’s role within the church, we continue to exclude the female voice.

Still, there is much to gain from the fourteen articles. Though breaking no significant new ground on the overall biblical hermeneutics dialogue, these articles advance a distinctively Adventist perspective, one that in turn provides theological backing for some of our unique doctrines. Whether it succeeds awaits future judgment.

From my viewpoint, having painstakingly read all fourteen essays, I find the document’s very first chapter by Dr. Kwabena Donkor to be the most compelling. This essay deals with the presuppositions we bring to the theological table. And these are, in actuality, the invisible engines that propel our beliefs and subsequently, actions. By definition, presuppositions are rarely ever articulated or defended. But through a semi-conscious, often tacit buy-in to their underlying assumptions, they provide “shelter” for community-wide, mutually-enforced understandings. They equate to the acculturated particulars and accustomed baggage we bring to the interpretive process. By forthrightly addressing this line of thinking at all, in such a defining Adventist conversation, Donkor cracks the window open a bit. And like a blessing, it enables us to feel the touch of the cool evening breeze. In the past, just by our heavy promotion of the proof-text method of Bible study, we have created the impression that biblical meaning and understanding is achievable mainly, if not exclusively, by letting the Bible “interpret” or “speak” for itself. And we have helped the Bible do the “interpreting” by simply and non-contextually stringing texts together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Donkor notes that the mundane influences we bring to the text significantly shape our understanding in ways we seldom acknowledge. This is a thoughtful concession rarely given an open voice within Adventism. And it should be celebrated because such an admission opens the door to examine other closeted presuppositions undergirding some of our beliefs and practices, which, having lost currency in our time, we nonetheless still “abide” by.

In his essay, Donkor gives an example of his community’s male elders blithely asking, after a mother gives birth, whether the child is a girl or a “human being”—with “human being” equating to a boy. This acutely illustrates how easily our social blinders occur, because the elders are often oblivious that their attitudes disparage women. Often it takes a formal reorientation from the enabling environments for one to become aware of, and subsequently change, those ignoble ingrained impulses. Until then, we inhabit our hateful racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other similarly addictive putdowns. They are like comfortable shoes we mindlessly slide our feet into. Because they fit snuggly, we pay little heed to the fact that the worn-out soles are the reason we walk askew and are why our feet also hurt.

So, in future essays in this column, we will explore those habituated presuppositions harbored within Adventism that make us resist revising theological positions whose “glory days” are far behind us. On the macro level, we will examine such topics as revelation and how it works, biblical ethics and whether it is binding across cultures and throughout time, and why we are Seventh-day Adventist Christians and not Catholics or Muslims. In the process, we will touch on why we accept Ellen G. White’s “prophetic” ministry but not that of others, our reluctance to extend equal status to women in gospel ministry, and why we insist that God exclusively inhabits our Adventist camp as his declared Remnant Church.

In the short space remaining, I will highlight a common presupposition we bring to discussions about God’s “ethical behavior.” This is evident by what we say of him and how that assertion is contradicted by how he is actually portrayed in scripture. What sustains our acceptance of this dichotomy, it seems to me, is our reliance on the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance: between 1) ethically questionable behavior or statements purported to be from God, and 2) the gloss we put on the same actions or pronouncements when they are scrutinized.

My favorite example of this conundrum is Samuel’s (1 Sam. 15) contention that the order to wipe out a people group and all their livestock from the face of the earth came from God. According to Saul, he had held back on God’s orders and kept some of the best spoils from the massacre because he wanted to honor God by presenting them as burnt offerings. But it would be a gross miscalculation that would cost him his kingship. As Samuel memorably put it: “To obey is better than sacrifice; and to heed better than the fat of rams.” And with that the template was cast for future war criminals who would assert, We were just obeying orders.

But the Amalekite story is by no means the worst example of what would constitute genocide, even by human ethical standards. The Noah flood story, by the sheer magnitude of death and destruction involved, is worse. If a Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot was behind this carnage, humanity’s opprobrium against them would be swift, and deservedly so. But when we attribute such behavior to God, we equivocate in our condemnation. Why? Likely because we assume that if God does it, as bad as it looks, there must be a good reason for his actions. After all, the idea of a good God doing bad things is inherently inconsistent. Hence we accede to the demands of cognitive dissonance.

Why is this important? The use of cognitive dissonance, as unconscious presupposition, provides us the space to avoid honestly facing the real likelihood that these different portrayals are human impositions on God and not necessarily God’s actual dictates or behavior. That would explain some of the reprehensible—even for humans—actions or commands laid at God’s feet. So if we hear the lofty “thou shalt not kill” command by God, and in the next breath this same God coolly orders the killing of those not of our tribe, it might not be the actions of a schizophrenic God but those of humans who assume his voice to make him behave this way. If we sense an inconsistent ethic of goodness between the God of the Old and that of the New Testaments—well, there is. But it isn’t because God lowers his ethical standards to accommodate us, as we sometimes perversely imply when we twist ourselves into pretzels to justify clearly unethical actions. We try to rationalize those bad behaviors because we construe them as emanating from God.

We saw something like this in Clifford Goldstein’s approach (see week six of the 2021 fourth quarter Adult Sabbath School lesson study) to the Baal Peor incident (Num. 25:1-15), where 24,000 Israelites were killed to appease God’s anger for their “harlotry.” Goldstein enjoins this episode, and its shadowy hints of racial intolerance, with the many commands from God to annihilate their enemies during their sojourn to the Promised Land and concludes: “However uncomfortable we are with the stories of Israel wiping out some of the pagan nations around them, this account certainly helps in explaining the logic behind the command.”

Like Goldstein, we read these stories with little reflection and therefore fail to question their logic. What, for example, did all these mass killings, supposedly ordered by God, achieve? In the Genesis account, following the flood, Noah and his six other survivors planted a vineyard and got drunk from its produce, ushering a quick return to the pre-flood debauchery that necessitated the mass annihilation in the first place. After the Amalekites and Baal Peor slaughters, the Israelites didn’t seem to learn any lessons from these deaths, suggesting that the killings were neither deterrent nor instructive. And since an omniscient God would not keep advocating for remedies that do not cure, the likelihood that people speaking for him or on his behalf might have mistakenly (or deliberately) attributed their own voices for God, for some sort of gain, should not be ruled out.

Here is where we might consider another presupposition whose disregard has perpetuated the good God/bad god dynamic we encounter in the two Testaments. That is, we should come to the Bible under the assumption that an ethical God—one worthy of worship—would not behave unethically. And that he/she, by definition, would be incapable of committing or directing genocides of the kind Samuel attributes to him. Such a God, again by definition, would from the very beginning be universal, transcending tribe and partisan affiliation. He would not be so partial as to adopt one nation above all others, privileging it in ways that condone or justify ethnic annihilation. Any god who behaves this badly is a human creation, similar to the one depicted in the affairs of Old Testament Israel.

The usual pushback against the idea that a good God would not exhibit or encourage bad behavior is the charge that such thinking leads to picking and choosing which biblical narratives depict God’s voice and which are “some human putting false words in God’s mouth,” like Jefferson’s folio that contained only the parts of the Bible that did not offend his enlightenment sensibilities. But that was precisely what Jesus’ high church contemporaries might have concluded of him. His ministry was a continuing critique of what had been laid down in the Old Testament as gospel but which he found to be inconsistent with God’s true character. Hence his “it has been said . . . but I say unto you” expositions. Or his attempt to clear the lingering confusion about God’s core being when he said: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father.” Implication! Regardless of what you have been taught about God, if that ethic is inconsistent with what Jesus embodied, it must be rejected as false representation.

But many religious leaders, and the Goldsteins in our churches, cannot bring themselves to have such thoughts because their presuppositions will not let them. And therefore we stay in the safe zone of prevarication, dithering on whether to call genocide, genocide. Are we afraid God might not be pleased? The reality is that we catch up to God’s ideals, not he to ours. And in any area, but especially in ethics, we should never come to a place where we behave better than our God. So if we find a god doing ungodly things or promoting actions he tells us elsewhere to eschew, we should not waste our time debating the inconsistency. Chances are that humans are doing these bad things and pinning them on God. If God is good, he should be good all the time.

 


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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