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The Bible — The Authoritative Source of Our Theology


One of the things that impressed me when I first started dating David (whom I would marry eventually) was his knowledge of the Bible. Of course, I was a sophomore in high school at the time and he was a senior, so his advanced sophistication and understanding of many things impressed me. Nevertheless, I was amazed that his four years of attendance in the local Adventist elementary academy had given him far more exposure to the Bible than I had picked up in my stints at Sunday School and youth classes at all the various churches that I had attended while growing up. This stirred my interest in a church that valued Scripture enough to impart a knowledge of and respect for the Bible that exceeded the custom of choosing certain verses to remind congregants that departure from God’s required path led to certain destruction, an end only avoided by confessing Jesus as savior and repenting of one’s (many, daily) sins.

Little did I know at the time that this interest would lead to baptism, a terminal degree in theological studies, and a career teaching religion at Adventist colleges and universities. I would not have guessed that I would eventually end up teaching Adventist history and discover the roots of the Adventist respect for the Bible as “the authoritative source of our theology,” as the quarterly authors titled this week’s lesson. Least of all would I have suspected that I would be drawn into a lengthy research project on women in the church with my colleague Dr. B. Beem that would introduce me to original, historical Adventist hermeneutics. Yet, here I am, reading the quarterly and reflecting not only on what it says, but what it leaves out in its discussion of the Bible and our theology.

The lesson holds forth strong instructions for “the people of the book” as it acknowledges that the way we interpret Scripture is influenced by a variety of factors, including cultural factors, group traditions, personal experience, and reason. The lesson notes that we need to “be loyal to the living God,” displaying a faithfulness to God’s revealed will that critiques and transcends culture and tradition. The point is well taken; we are born into social groups and socialized into attitudes and behaviors that reflect the mores and values of those groups. We are taught patterns of conduct that the group has developed and calcified into tradition. We are assured that conformity to these norms will bring success: deviation, failure or disaster. Personal experiences with group approbation or negative sanctions tend to reinforce what we have been taught. It seems only reasonable to accept group definitions and interpretations that touch our daily life, whether the issue is on how to become a successful individual, parent children, or pursue spiritual development. Much of the information inculcated in us is helpful, providing a map of the mazeway that will lead to coveted results. The trick is that the cultural formulas provided to navigate life and reach the promised prizes all fail to successfully deliver the ultimate reward: fulfilling God’s desire for us to grow into fully formed human beings, reflecting his image of love. Thus, the lesson’s warning: reason, tradition, culture, and social mores are fallible guides that will leave us short of the desired goal of experiencing the community of God. Only following the path towards God, with God, will bring us home to dwell in God. And the Bible is an immeasurable help along that journey; so, we must privilege the Bible over culture and tradition, as the lesson so helpfully points out. Our loyalty to God must be beyond that to social and cultural mores, and even personal inclinations, if we are to move forward towards growth into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Yet, when we take a closer look at the lesson note that says we need to “be loyal to the living God,” we observe that the statement continues further to assert that this is the God “who has revealed His will in the Written Word of God.” A caution must be inserted here: acknowledging that God has revealed His will in the Bible does not mean that we are infallible discerners of that will. Herein lays the rub: there is no reading of Scripture without interpretation. We come to the text wearing eyeglasses, shaped by those above-cited cultural factors, which incline us to “see” certain parts of the text while ignoring others. As one of my sociology professors was fond of saying, “Any way of seeing is a way of not seeing.” Therefore, choosing to privilege the word of God over reason, tradition, and culture is not the same thing as being able to read Scripture without the biases imparted to us by our backgrounds. No one, despite claims to the contrary, takes the Bible “Just as it reads.” We can only “take the Bible” as we read it, and we always read it with our spectacles on. And further, our pledge to loyalty to God over tradition and culture gives us absolutely no assistance in discerning when society may actually be closer to modeling God’s will in a certain area than are the traditions of our own religious subculture, which form the bedrock of what we “know” about what is right and what must be eschewed. In truth, our religious sub-culture tends to determine for us what is acceptable or repugnant to God, and we read these assumptions into the texts we encounter.

We do not have to wander from America’s history to find examples of how this has functioned in the past. How many Christians heard slavery justified by preachers who pronounced it the will of God, a product of the curse on Ham, further vindicated by Paul who remanded the slave Onesimus to Philemon, and slavery established as an acceptable Christian institution in the various epistles that admonished slaves to obey their masters? When I was completing my doctorate, a visiting professor shared with my graduate course the predicament of his aged Southern parents who were suddenly hearing that segregation was a sin and integration was God’s will, when they had been instructed in their church since infancy that the opposite was the case. They felt confused and betrayed as they had been taught from the Bible that God’s will was the separation of the races. Now the law (society) was telling them that they needed to disregard what they had been taught at church and faithfully lived out all their lives. There is a lesson for all of us as we make glib comments about the problem of allowing culture to determine our actions instead of the Bible. The lesson should be one of humility as we recognize that we do not always read the Bible skillfully or set the standard of God’s will for human relationships. Too often we find texts to support our proclivities and prejudices without even suspecting that we blatantly prefer human error over what God would have us learn about His will in His word.

Similar points could be made when it comes to matters of gender relationships. The Christian church has not always been in the forefront of advocating for women. While contemporary efforts are being made in the Adventist Church to reduce violence towards women, many churches still promote headship doctrines that studies have shown to be associated with increased levels of domestic violence. Again, pastors preach the subjection and subordination of women from the pulpit, utilizing verses from Pauline epistles. Victims of domestic violence have been sent home to their abusers with “biblical advice” to submit, with the additional argument that they may convert their abuser. The Adventist Church needs no reminder that wage-equity for women came at the insistence of legal action against it. Again, despite the fact that God chose a woman to guide and bless the Adventist Church from its beginning, preaching from its pulpits and examining candidates for ministry, serving as His mouthpiece and prophet, groups desiring to demonstrate loyalty to God’s written word actively fight against the presence of women in the pulpit. And while repeated world-church study groups have shown no biblical injunction against women’s ordination, certain churches within the denomination work to remove women elders from local church leadership under the premise that biblical faithfulness demands it. For those opposing women in ministry and their ordination, the hue and cry is that the recognition of God’s work through ministering women represents the incursion of outside influences on the church, influences that must be resisted. From their perspective, the church must stick to God’s will as revealed in the Bible and not be co-opted by culture. The individuals struggling to hold the line on this issue are being loyal to what they have been taught that the Bible reveals as God’s will.

In reviewing the ways in which past attempts at loyalty to the Bible and its teachings have served as unreliable guides on issues where we were unable to separate what we believed Scripture taught from its intent, it is apparent that determining to use the Bible as the single measuring rod is fraught with pitfalls. While I agree that it is the yardstick against which to test our traditions and experiences, as the lesson author urges, I must also remonstrate that it is only trustworthy as an instrument if we possess absolute commitment to use sound principles of biblical interpretation as we endeavor to incrementally discern God’s good will for us as His children. The alternative, a naïve trust that a cursory reading of texts, or a dependence on the interpretation handed to us by church traditions or current leadership, can lead us as far astray as simply following societal norms, which are merely human endeavors to create a functional community.

The obstacles cited in using the Bible as the “authoritative source of our theology” must always be acknowledged, but that does not mean that they cannot be mitigated or that they disqualify the use of the Bible as the significant source of our theology. I would shudder at the thought of replacing the Bible with any other source for the foundation of our belief and praxis. I believe that the Bible has demonstrated through the centuries God’s ability to use His Book to overthrow oppressive human conventions, even those justified by the misappropriation of His word. In part, my faith in the transformational ability of Scripture stems from studying early Adventism. One of the most fascinating insights to emerge from my study of nineteenth-century Adventism was the experience of hearing the church pioneers detail their own commitment to Bible study and spiritual growth. They did not assume that a superficial reading of a text revealed its full meaning or that isolated texts provided a dependable index of God’s thoughts on a subject. Ellen White, reflecting the ethos of the Advent movement, was not content with faith built on superficial, sentimental, or casual study of Scripture. As she instructed the flock:  

We cannot obtain wisdom without earnest attention and prayerful study. Some portions of Scripture are indeed too plain to be misunderstood, but there are others whose meaning does not lie on the surface to be seen at a glance. Scripture must be compared with scripture. There must be careful research and prayerful reflection. [1]

From the beginning of the Advent Near Movement, A clear paradigm was laid out to the approach to scriptural study. William Miller described his own technique of Bible study, saying:

I proceeded to lay aside all my presuppositions, to thoroughly compare scripture with scripture, and to pursue its study in a regular and methodical manner. I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded as to leave me free from embarrassment respecting any mysticisms or contradictions. Whenever I found anything obscure, my practice was to compare it with collateral passages: and by the help of Cruden, I examined all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then, by letting every word have proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty.[2]

This method became the standard approach to study, its principles echoed by James and Ellen White, as well as the various well-known pioneers of the movement. The articles on Bible study that they composed for the Review and Herald reflected Miller’s approach and were crystal clear on several points: Study needed to be systematic, diligent, carefully reasoned, and thorough. Preconceptions had to be set aside: truth had to be more important than traditions, previous beliefs or social mores. As churchman R. Cottrell announced,

The only way open before us is to return to the fountain of living waters, the written word which God has given us, and no longer hew out to ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Let vain traditions go, and embrace and heartily obey the truth, and it is possible that we may yet be saved. Who will do so? Who will renounce the false traditions of men, and cleave to God alone and obey his word?”[3]

The radical willingness to “let go” of former beliefs and praxis extended so far as to require a willingness to subject the most basic assumptions of church practice and social life to reconsideration in light of a more complete investigation of issues. A clear example of this is found in an 1859 article:

I know that most of us have been gathered into the message of the third angels from the sectarian churches where we received our religious training, which we now, in the clear light of God’s truth see was defective, both in doctrine and practice; and we are aware that in them the pride, and popularity, and conformity to the world, and worldly fashions tolerated by them, and besides in some of them the prejudice against woman’s efforts and labors in the church, have crushed out her usefulness.[4]

The author continued by acknowledging “many of you feel the embarrassing influences of our former associations,” and then invited them to carefully consider scenes from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost where the “tongues of fire fell upon on all that were present.” He noted that the women as well as the men prophesied, setting an example for Spirit-filled Adventist women. His basic argument to his readers was to draw on reason, then apply it to the issue at stake. His address encouraged Adventists to study and use reasoned contemplation of scripture to reform Christian practice, reject established traditions, and adopt a more Biblically informed praxis.

In their approach, every word had to be given its due attention. The issues under consideration had to be approached not only prayerfully and humbly, but also with an attitude of honest inquiry, where reason and revelation were simultaneously honored. Further, the practices of contextualization and the harmonization of all statements on the topic were deemed essential steps in adequate Bible study. Additionally, not only were all of a particular author’s statements on a topic to be considered, the perceived views of that writer had to be measured against the testimony of the Bible as a whole. The question had to be asked, “How did this interpretation fit in with the overall message of the Bible?” As early as 1857, well-respected church pioneer D[avid] Hewitt outlined the importance of this accepted Adventist approach to interpretation:

It is the custom with all Bible students to find all the important texts that bear on any one subject, and compare them together until they come to a satisfactory understanding of what the penman means. No one should found a theory on one single isolated passage, for this mode of proving things has produced many discordant theories in the world.[5]

Reading further in the article, one finds that Hewitt contended that, when trying to understand the meaning of any particular Pauline statement, “the candid reader of the sacred pages will find other declarations of the same apostle that must be brought to harmonize with this in order to get a clear understanding off the Apostle’s meaning in 1 Cor. xiv.”[6]

James White wrote several strong articles stressing similar sentiments and extending the understanding further. In a short essay, “Paul Says So,” White challenges the readers to a) examine what they bring to the text as an assumption of its meaning; b) ask if the answer is contained completely in one text; c) demand that a text be harmonized with both the remainder of Paul’s decrees on similar issues and his recorded practices; d) that it be harmonized with the rest of Scripture; and finally, e) be subjected to critical thinking on the issue. James White was insistent that an interpretive position on a text must “harmonize with both revelation and reason.”[7]

As to the understanding of Scripture, individual believers were expected to utilize concordances and commentaries to expand their knowledge base and acquaint themselves with various readings on an issue. After gathering facts and applying logic and reason to reach a preliminary conclusion, thoughts were then moved to the public arena to be examined and analyzed by more students. Individuals retained the freedom to believe whatever their study led them to conclude, but introducing the idea to the public forum for an inspection of evidence and logic created an atmosphere of accountability to rational investigation in the place of idiosyncratic ideations. It allowed for individual growth through the review of one’s initial responses to a subject. It also increased the possibility of breaking through unsuspected prejudices introduced by the lens through which one’s background predisposed the student. This practice can serve as a critical safeguard today: comparing notes with readers from significantly different experiences can reveal ways in which social positioning and cultural background determine what we see and don’t see.

Especially interesting in terms of the commitment to the Bible as the authoritative source of our theology was the pioneers’ stance on the functions of Divine and human roles in the creation of Scripture. Ellen White, in a unique position to opine on the nature of the Divine/human collaboration underlying the production of God’s messages to people, left no doubt concerning her stand in either her personal correspondence or the statements on inspiration she prepared for publication on the question of how the Scriptures were created. As she said:

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.[8]

Again, in the same manuscript, Ellen White denied the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it not God’s mode of thought and expression. Men will often say that such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not his pen. “[9] Her book, The Great Controversy, reflected similar thoughts:

The Ten Commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They are of Divine, and not of human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14[10]

Ellen White repeatedly stressed that human agents left “human fingerprints” on Scripture.[11] Thus, Scripture must be understood as an amalgamation of the human and the Divine, and that it is that very fusion that makes it comprehensible to human minds. Human beings live within an imperfect world, within culturally determined structures of thought and language. White was clear that God’s condescension includes communicating through limited and fallible vehicles: “The Bible is not given to us in grand, superhuman language. Jesus, in order to meet man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect.”[12] The Bible is ultimately a compilation of human attempts to convey their best understandings of God’s message to them. If the Bible is imperfect, great care must be taken when certain texts are drawn out to make cases that may adversely affect the spiritual progress or acceptability of a portion of humanity. Once gained, this fundamental understanding compels us to proceed with great caution when interpreting Scripture that appears clear at first glance but may not withstand close scrutiny in light of God’s revealed will: the healing and salvation of humanity.

For Adventist pioneers, this understanding of the imperfection of the text did not remove one iota of either human responsibility for seeking God’s will through careful Biblical study or the freedom to move forward in understanding as God gave additional light. In their view, truth must be pursued through study and personal spiritual preparation to receive further light as it comes along.[13] Adventist theologian Edward Heppenstall captured the core of this essential aspect of Adventist Scriptural hermeneutic when he said:

Freedom belongs to man on religious grounds. Freedom is the gift of God. . . . The most troublesome thing is suppressed truth. It will not stay suppressed. . . . Religion that is afraid of investigation and scholarship tends towards superstition and emotionalism. . . . Blind credulity as to the truth one holds is the refuge of sluggish minds. It relieves the individual from the real study of God’s word. It settles all differences by silencing all opposing voices and denying the right to ask questions. This takes the meaning out of religion, leaving it ignorant, superficial, intolerant.[14]

According to Ellen White, the process of increased understanding of God’s will and word are to be viewed as ongoing:

New light will ever be revealed on the Word of God to him who is in living connection with the Son of Righteousness. Let no one come to the conclusion that there is no more truth to be revealed. The diligent, prayerful seeker for truth will find precious rays of light yet to shine forth from the word of God. Many gems are yet scattered that are to be gathered together to become the property of the remnant people of God.” [15]

Accordingly, we can expect to continue to have to relinquish beliefs that we have held. As the prophet remarked: “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”[16]

Where does this leave us today? How do we approach the Bible as the “authoritative source of our theology,” while recognizing that commitment to this has led us up blind alleys in the past and may be dividing us today, at a time when the world needs the liberating message of the gospel as never before? Do we, as some have, simply turn away from the Bible as unhelpful at best and absolutely destructive at worst? Or, alternatively, can we affirm that the Bible, along with the Holy Spirit, holds our best chance of realizing a theology that is redemptive and life giving? Adventist pioneers may have the answer that we need in their approach to pursuing biblical truth. No less than they did, we need to gather together prayerfully in humility and commit ourselves to the process of honest inquiry, subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit, being willing to abandon the traditions of even our own church subculture, using the reason and skills we have been given as we study the Scriptures to discern God’s revealed will for us as individuals and a church as we seek to prepare ourselves to be God’s ambassadors to a distressed and dying planet. Our efforts will undoubtedly be flawed and imperfect, “as God and heaven alone are infallible,” but I trust that “God’s grace will be sufficient” to us.


Notes & References:

[1] Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1979), 60.

[2] James White, Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller, 38.

[3] R. F. Cottrell. “Tradition Preferred to Truth” Review and Herald 31, no. 17 (April 7, 1868): 268-69.

[4] B.F. Robbins, “ To the Female Disciples in the Third Angel’s Message” Review and Herald 15, no. 3 (December 8, 1859): 21-22.

[5] D[avid] Hewitt, “Let Your Women Keep Silence in the Churches,” Review and Herald 10, no.24 (October 15, 1857): 190.

[6] Ibid. Another example of the application of the “harmonization” principle is found in an article submitted by M. E. Cornell, our early evangelist to Woodland, California, who complained that the work was impeded there by the notion that women should not take an active role in church meetings, based on a faulty interpretation of certain Pauline verses. The evangelist argues for full participation, stating: “But the Scriptures seem clear on the point. Not one word in the whole Bible is ever found with which to oppose it, except in the writings of the apostle Paul. And a careful comparison of all Paul’s statements on the subject shows that he had reference only to unbecoming conduct of women in the public assembly, such as contradicting, altercating, and assuming authority over men in business meetings of the church.” M.E. Cornell, “Woodland, Cal” Review and Herald 41, no. 25 (June 3, 1873): 198.

[7] James White, “Paul Says So.” Review and Herald 10, no.9 (September 10, 1857): 152.

[8] Manuscript 24, 1886, from which this often-cited statement is drawn, appears in Selected Messages 1, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958): 21. Ellen White’s series of statements prepared in the 1880’s, “The Inspiration of the Word of God,” “Objections to the Bible,” and “The Mysteries of the Bible a Proof of Its Inspiration,” clarified both her stance on the nature of Biblical inspiration and how the process worked in her own writings. While chosen individuals were filled with the Holy Spirit, they retained the responsibility of finding words to most beautifully express the vision or ideas that had been presented to them.

[9] Selected Messages, 1:21.

[10] The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1888), 5.

[11] For Ellen White and other Adventist thought leaders, this understanding of inspiration had practical implications. It accounts for the changes in tone, voice, style, and level of literary sophistication from one book to the next. It allows for the differences in the Gospel accounts where writers describe the same events from diverse perspectives. It even helps eliminate the tension created by different ordering of events from one Gospel to another or the conflict between texts that tell the same story but give different details.

[12] Selected Messages, 1:20.

[13] Ellen White expanded the significance of study and search for truth when she tied it with one’s ability to comprehend Scripture. She posited a mental law of use or atrophy, saying: “The mental powers will surely be contracted, and will lose their ability to grasp the deep meanings of the Word of God, unless they are put vigorously and persistently to the task of searching for truth.” Fundamentals of Christian Education, (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association), 127.

[14] Edward Heppenstall, “Academic Freedom and the Quest for Truth,” Spectrum 4, no. 1 (Winter, 1972): 34-38.

[15] Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work: A Compilation from the Writings of Ellen G. White (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1892), 34.

[16] Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures,” Review and Herald 69, no. 30 (July 26, 1892): 465.


Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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