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The Cure for Adventist Fundamentalism: Reading the Bible in Context


Every now and then, in moments of sublime self-reflection, we discover things about our lives' journeys that humble us. When we dare step outside of the self and take stock we find surprises about singular events that have shaped our lives in sometimes spectacular and consequential ways. In my case, that life altering experience occurred when I crossed paths with Dr. Bill Fitts in Freshman Composition.

I am indebted to Dr. Fitts above all else for teaching me how to read, and not necessarily what to read. I recall his once saying in class that emphasizing what to read is tantamount to attempting to censure one's way into good reading; attempts analogous to trying to separate the bad fish from the good fish in the ocean. "It can't be done for the simple reason that there are too many fish in the ocean. Invariably, some bad fish are bound to slip through.” Similarly, we cannot prescribe our way into good reading. There are just too many books in the world. However, if we learn how to read, "what" to read will follow necessarily.

One of Dr. Fitts' pet peeves on the how of reading was the importance of context as one encounters the text. In grad school, three of my literature professors—the late Drs. Waller and Ronk, and Dean Ogden—continued to underscore the importance of context in analyzing text.

So what's the problem?

Remember when we prided ourselves as being "People of the Book?" The designation implied that we were known to be good students of the Bible. And when we compare ourselves to members of other Christian denominations concerning basic knowledge of the Bible, we may be justified in our collective back-patting. But is knowing the content of the Bible all that is needed? One area where we significantly fall short about our knowledge of the Bible is its history. Oftentimes, we lack awareness of the history of the composition of the Bible or how it came to be canonized. This deficiency of knowledge in this regard has tended to predispose the fundamentalist wing of our church to unbridled literalism and a flirtation with verbal inspiration. To the fundamentalist Adventist, Luther's "sola scriptura" construct is taken from its nuanced context and worn with the pride of the initiate.

Let's take the contention by the writer of 2nd Timothy that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" as a case in point. Fundamentalists equate "scripture" in this context as a stand in for the Bible as we have it today, and argue that every one of the 66 books in today's Protestant canon is referenced by the "all" in this text. But 2nd Timothy was written sometime in the later part of the first century. At the time of its composition there was no composite canon that this statement would have pointed to. In fact, during the first almost 400 years of Christianity, scripture was free-floating. There were many more presumed inspired writings than those that made it into our present canon.

Constantine was exasperated by this multiplicity of "scripture" because it presented an unnecessary challenge to his aspiration to use his newfound religion as a unifying force throughout the Roman Empire. This is why, from Constantine's perspective, the tree had to be pruned of some of its branches. Even so, it took several decades after the initial attempt to get to the 66 books in the current Protestant Bible. An imperfect analogy might be comparing it to the U.S. Constitution or the Magna Carta. Because we are so far removed in time from the initial deliberations and multiple drafts these documents were subjected to, we see only the final product and fail to appreciate the time and compromises it took to arrive at what now seems perfect.

Eventually, the 66 gained canon status, and with it, in my estimation, the beginning of the closed-mindedness that many fundamentalists bring to the Bible. To the fundamentalist mind, the canonized Bible froze the dynamics and conversation of all things concerning Christian thought, and for all time. Consequently, they make the Middle Eastern world described in the Bible normative for all peoples and cultures for all times. As any linguist will attest, there is elasticity to the spoken word that is surrendered when the spoken becomes written. Something similar to this happened when the current 66 books became the only recognized books for the Christian Church. It became much easier for the Church to argue for orthodoxy after canonization.

This is further complicated by the dynamics of translation. In general, Christian fundamentalists—Adventists included—in the English-speaking world privilege the King James version over all other versions. For these Christians, the "Thus saith the Lord" that thunders from the pages of this translation are considered to be the true voice of God. There is a pregnant irony about all this that is sometimes unappreciated. As Dwain McBride never tires of pointing out, Jesus spoke in Aramaic; his “words” were initially documented in Greek. It was only much later that they became immortalized in 17th-century, King James English. Which of these renderings of Jesus’ “words” constitutes his true, original voice?

Another phenomenon concerning the canon that has greatly impacted how fundamentalists approach the Bible is the chapter and verse divisions introduced by Archbishop Langton in the thirteenth century. Just as decreasing the number of available books deemed "scripture" in the fourth and fifth century narrowed the source material for Christians, this late addition of chapter and verse division, though immensely helpful as a structural devise in locating Biblical material, has had an unfortunate effect of limiting the depth range in theological discussions. Fundamentalists in particular, though not exclusively, have fallen into the bad habit of stringing lots of verses together to advance theological thought with little regard for the contexts from which the verses derive. This is why the proof-text method of Bible study is so popular with fundamentalists. It is easier to thread Bible verses together on any subject and make them say the same thing than to develop coherent theology by looking at the broader contexts in the pericopes from which the verses originate.

Within the Adventist tradition, we have followed a similar script, especially with regards to the Ellen G. White writings. The Conflict of the Ages series bears this out. The Desire of the Ages is arguably the most beautiful account of the life and teachings of Jesus ever written. However, by harmonizing the gospels to tell a consistent story, this narrative robs us of the important emphasis of each gospel and the unique point of view of the authors to the Christ event. The resultant trade off of her harmonized portrayal of the Jesus story, I contend, is a net negative to succeeding generations of Christians who try to understand Jesus in their own times. We learn more from each gospel writer's perception of Christ's ministry than we do when all the gospels are collapsed into one and made to be supplements in a single story.

What White does with the gospel accounts in The Desire of Ages and the Old Testament narratives in Patriarchs and Prophets and Prophets and Kings, pales in comparison to what the White Estate does with a number of selected topics through the compilations of her writings. In many of the early compilations, such as Messages to Young People, passages are taken from their original contexts and joined with others to advance particular theses. In these compilations, White is more often than not made to espouse views that in aggregate appear more strident and uncompromising than her statements on similar topics written outside the compilations. In these instances, the compilations tend to tell us more about the theological leanings of the compilers than the compilations do of White herself.

There are important reasons why we should strive to read the Bible with an eye to its history. For one thing, a close study of the history of the composition and eventual canonization of the books that comprise the Bible today show a far greater direct involvement of humans than of the divine. So when we diminish or de-emphasize the role of humans in this endeavor, we inch too close to total divine authorship. Making God the author of our sacred books comes with risks. Why, for example, would God command humans to do otherwise unethical things like committing genocide? We go through all sorts of mental contortions in attempts to justify why evil is acceptable if God orders it, because we are reluctant to entertain the proposition that human authors might have put such words in God's mouth, so to speak, for political advantage. Throughout history, human agents have not been above appropriating the voice of God to their advantage. Human misbehavior in the biblical account, even when supposedly directed by God, is better explained by positing man as the author of the accounts than by saying God is author. It is much more comforting to know that the creator God who is the paradigm of ethics and morality is not the same one who calmly instructs on the dos and don'ts of offering our daughters as sex slaves.

A much more insidious pitfall inherent with the proposition that God is the revelatory author of the Bible, which fundamentalists find reassuring, is the notion of certainty. The idea is that because God had an orchestrating hand in bringing the Bible into being, we can be certain that what is contained in it is accurate even to the point of inerrancy. But a strict adherence to this concept breeds intolerance of other viewpoints. Fundamentalist Adventists often reveal their intolerance of dissent every time they bristle when fellow Adventists question any tenets of the church’s beliefs. “Why do you continue to call yourself Adventist if you don’t subscribe to all the church’s doctrines?” They ask with relish. For these brothers and sisters, their clarity on all our doctrines is so complete that the choice is always only between black and white, right and wrong, and anything grey or nuanced is denounced as spineless dithering. 

But if you think about it, if God is the author of one’s sacred text, what incentive is there to accommodate positions that may challenge one's theological understandings? To the same extent that one recognizes that the books of the Bible might have authorial ownership that tilts away from the divine to humans—humans whose political and theological leanings on occasion find expression in their compositions—one will likely be less rigid in forming theological stances and be more open to other views. Too much certainty, on the other hand, makes us more triumphant in the rightness of our theology, and militant against those who disagree with us. It makes us behave as though we deserve the mission; that our access to this “right” knowledge sets us apart and make us unique—make us special. But if we must err, such as becoming more accommodating in our belief systems, then we should err on the side of making God alone the judge of belief, because no one is saved by their mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions.

How do the positions we take find expression in everyday life? An example: It is more difficult to argue for a restrictive role for women in ministry on the basis of Pauline theology if one's view of Paul is expansive. An expansive view of Paul in this respect recognizes that some of his counsels are localized and temporal. On the other hand, if one believes that God is the actual author of what Paul wrote, and that Paul is only a conduit through whom God expresses Himself, then it is easier to insist on only one correct way of interpreting Paul. It is in this respect that some in our church demand that in early Genesis, a day is exactly 24 consecutive hours, and that the creative order is a mere six thousand years old.

When we read the Bible with its historical context in mind, however, our overall horizon on any given subject is broadened. Reading contextually, for instance, makes it possible to appreciate many genres employed by Bible writers on their own artistic merits without the need to strain constantly for a theological explanation. A good example is the Songs of Solomon. This book can be read and enjoyed purely as a work of art, but it barely made it into the canon because some of the bishops saw too much eroticism on its pages. In the same way, the book of Job shows its range when read as a metaphor. Of course it could be read as a literal historical account, as we often interpret it. If we read it this way, as an actual happening of events that took place in heaven and earth, then we have to contend with the implications of Satan having continual access to the counsel of God after the fall, as well as other similar darker implications suggested by such a reading. For instance, what kind of deity plays dice with an innocent life to such disastrous ends? Who among us truly thinks our uniquely individual children, family members, and friends, are that easily and neatly replaceable?

Read as an extended metaphor, however, the entire story becomes a parable on the finitude of human knowledge and understanding—that often there is more that goes on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Read this way, the salient unmistakable lesson of the story is an appeal to caution: be careful not to jump to quick and easy conclusions. Job is also provides a corrective against the impulse to use proof texts and one-liners to construct theology, because proof texts and clever lines could be marshaled in service of almost any position one holds about the Bible.

Paul was up to something when he observed that there is a natural progression in understanding phenomena: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." This idea was prominent in early Adventism. We called it progressive revelation. We called it present truth. Inherent in this notion is the humbling recognition of the limits of our understanding; that we can never get to the place where we presume to have the definitive answer to anything. Our understanding of phenomena grows with each discovery of a new idea that expands our vision of the unknown. When we start insisting that there is only one acceptable way of understanding or interpreting the Bible, we come close to playing God. And that is a stance no one should aspire to, especially if that stance entails precluding any from entering into the rest to which the Gospel calls all people.

We will do well to heed the admonition of the 18th century, pre-romantic English poet Alexander Pope: Be not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside. 


Matthew J. Quartey is a member of the "Open Door" faculty Sabbath School class at Andrews University, which he credits for grounding him in the church. He just returned from Tanzania where he made his first successful climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

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