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Moribund: The State of Contemporary Conservative Adventist Hermeneutics


Nearly five years ago, at the conclusion of the San Antonio General Conference (GC) session, the GC Biblical Research Institute was authorized to team up with unnamed GC officials in revamping our Hermeneutics document. Their charge was to produce a new report to be voted on at the Indianapolis GC gathering. Since then, against normal protocol and in spite of a church constituency clamoring for transparency, this committee’s work has been shrouded in secrecy.

I do not doubt that there is a resultant hermeneutics document somewhere. What I doubt is whether it is inclusive and represents the broadest voices of trained Adventist thinkers. My suspicion is that this unrevealed product constitutes another seized opportunity by the church’s Conservative leader base to tug us further toward the ideological Right. In any event we find ourselves, during this last quarter before what would have been the Indianapolis GC session, studying the Conservative Right’s version of the new Hermeneutics, as presented in the current Adult Sabbath School Guide.

And already, midway into the lessons, a trend toward problematic concepts is emerging. An anti-intellectualism that caricatures “thinkers” as nonbelievers who “reject the teaching that God made the world in six days.” An undisguised literalism that characterizes non-literal approaches to understanding the Bible as a necessary step to the conclusion that “the stories in the Bible are made up stories.” Promoting a nebulous notion of “plain reading” that assures us “The Bible is so clear that it can be understood by children and by adults alike.” But within the same text it takes the earlier assertion back, conceding: “Of course, we will read verses and ideas in the Bible that we do not fully understand.” A key takeaway from these weekly lessons is a shepherding of biblical thinking toward the simple. We are told we only need to allow the Holy Spirit to direct our thinking and everything will become plain. If we have difficulties with, or question any part of scripture, then by inference we have denied the Holy Spirit access to our hearts.

Basically the lessons teach a proscribed, static, right way of thinking and understanding scripture. They lay down markers for a settled Adventist orthodoxy, one that eschews questioning. We are to hold firm and not deviate from established beliefs because deviation leads to ungodly philosophies. And worse – bad behaviors. I suspect a key reason contemporary Conservative Adventist hermeneutics posits settled fundamental positions and understandings is to keep faith with our 19th century founding vision, even if those ideas have lost relevance. But this view is reactionary. And because we hold on to an immutable understanding, our church continues to deny women full participation in gospel ministry. We contend the world is 6,000 years old. We continue to teach that Sunday Laws are on the horizon. And we should be ready to flee to the mountains when the whole world comes after us. Therefore we maintain a hermeneutic posture dedicated to preserving the status quo. Which then absolves us of any responsibility to reinvestigate our founding positions, though the world we inhabit is different from the worldview that Scripture and EGW evoke.

The resulting effect of these exegetical machinations, whether intended or not, is an argument against change. But Jesus, if he represents anything at all, portrays change: new, fresh, even radical. Change that insists that new wine be put only in new wineskins, not recycled in old ones. We have chosen to forget that the Bible depicts the cultures of people, comprising their education, politics and thinking, which were never intended to be viewed as static recipes for other ages. They changed their views as their experiences required new adaptations and as new data became available.

I submit that the resolute adherence to past theological positions or scriptural interpretation promoted by the Adventist Right is inconsistent with the Bible and EG White. Both make accommodations for building on the knowledge and ethics of their times. Conservatives frequently refer to Jesus’ “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: … one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till they all come to pass” (Matt 5:17-18) as validation of hermeneutical immutability. But the same Matthew shows Jesus expanding the meanings associated with the law and prophets. “You have heard it said,” he would remind them, “but I say to you…” His new exegetical approach turned the interpretations of the familiar Jewish code on its head, exposing concerns and giving richer meanings to such subjects as capital punishment, adultery, divorce, oath-swearing, retributive justice and neighborly love.

But Jesus also enlarged scriptural meanings in unexpected ways. He “disobeyed” some codified laws to demonstrate their true intent. He famously refused to sanction killing the woman caught in adultery, going so far as telling her “I don’t condemn you,” (John 8:11) a position that contradicts the capital punishment prescription for adultery. (Lev 20:10) Similarly, the established law dating back to Moses sanctioned killing Sabbath breakers by stoning. (Ex 31:14) Yet we find Jesus and his disciples going through a cornfield, plucking and eating ears of corn, actions understood in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day as unlawful Sabbath work. The Pharisees would protest, and Jesus would proclaim his Lordship over the Sabbath. After that we have a better sense of Sabbath observance so that killing Sabbath violators is no longer binding in the Bible, or the law in any land.

So, far from endorsing a literal understanding of “the law and the prophets,” Jesus pointed his followers to a transcendent ethic. Still, he went further. Hinting that such ethical re-conceptualization would be ongoing, he said to his disciples: “I have much more to say to you. [But] It is more than you can handle right now.” (John 16:12 NIRV) We can make multiple inferences from this statement. First we can generalize this to mean that God’s self-revelation or his “truth,” in the words of EGW, is progressive. But on the micro level, Jesus seems to signal that he did not address all ethical problems in his time, in part because the people were not ready, the time was not right, or he did not want to overwhelm his early followers. It was not by accident that Jesus began his ministry in the year of jubilee, the period when crippling burdens – debts, even sins – are forgiven, and the weary are revived to start anew. In this way he laid the groundwork for his true followers to continue his liberative work.

Thus every new generation of Christians should look for and address those blights that mar the Christian cause. And, finding them, gnaw, until their demise is so complete that those who come after would presume those ills never existed. Here on earth there will always be work for the Christian who, like Christ, recognizes our shackles and works to release them. Which is why Progressive Christians in all generations, motivated by his example, have championed the causes of society’s powerless and marginalized, exemplified by slavery emancipation and women's rights.

Slavery is not new. Not new in the sense of novelty. This evil existed in different forms before – during Christ’s lifetime and after. But it became new for William Wilberforce and his generation. They doggedly pursued its destruction until the British abolished it in 1833. Thirty-two years later, abolitionists in the United States, the largest slave market, achieved the same goal with the 13th Amendment. When the odious practice re-emerged in another form, dressed in the legal finery of a Jim Crow South, it took another Christian visionary who saw, in the same Bible that Southern Christian preachers used to justify and preserve this perversity, a way to point us to a higher human ethic. An ethic that envisions former slaves and their owners, their children and their children’s children, breaking bread together.

Like slavery, discrimination against women was endemic in the scriptural Judaism of Jesus’ time. Arbitrary limitations were placed on women simply for being born women. They were barred from touching the Torah or studying from its pages, making the priesthood the purview of only men. Their consolation: motherhood and the kitchen. This domestication of women had its routes in the Covenant and Israel's founding. By designating male circumcision as the sole rite of passage to the Abrahamic God, men became privileged oracular custodians at the expense of women’s unhindered access to God.

Until Jesus. Much is made by Conservatives, particularly Headship proponents, that Jesus’ disciples were all men and that if he had wanted women in ministry, he would have included some among the inner twelve. This might seem plausible until we also consider that these twelve were all Middle Eastern, Jewish, and largely illiterate fishermen – delimiting factors that have not barred men from Christian ministry.

In significant ways, Jesus broke down some artificial barriers imposed on women. We forget that the first genuinely great Christian evangelist was a woman who, having tasted from Jesus' jug of living waters, could not constrain the impulse to share it with her whole village. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah? “(John 4:30) They went to see Jesus and “because of his words many more became believers.” This, before the twelve or the sixty were even sent out. And why do we keep forgetting that the resurrection message – “He is not here, but is risen” – was first given to a group of lowly women, whose retelling was dismissed by the male disciples as “idle tales," so that "they believed them not?” (John 24:11) Both “Biblical orthodoxy” and scriptural interpretation has consistently shifted over time.

And what about early Adventism? Did our founders always hold unswervingly to all earlier positions? Were they "conservatives?" The record disputes that our pioneers held rigidly to all earlier theological views. In fact, in several areas they proved to be pragmatic, if not malleable. For example, on Christology, our earliest position was closer to Arianism, the doctrine that Jesus was “begotten” of the Father at a point in time and therefore subordinate to the Father in all things. We later switched to our current Trinitarian position. We also once believed that the Ten Commandments are salvific. But gradually, after the 1888 Minneapolis GC session, where presentations on Righteousness by Faith predominated, we moved away from this doctrine and now see the “schoolmaster” reference in Galatians (3:24-27) as inclusive of the moral law. This was not a small shift, but EG White (EGW) was instrumental in helping with the pivot. In other areas such as the short lived “shut door” doctrine, our pioneers initially linked the events of 1844 to “the final call for salvation,” insisting “the door of salvation was shut” to those who rejected this message. The closest EGW came to repudiating this teaching was her concession that this was a personal belief (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 74) and not one she received in a vision. Though we never disavowed this view outright, after 1844 we found a new application in the Investigative Judgement doctrine, and allowed the “shut-door” teaching to die of neglect.

In addition to changing positions on doctrine, we hold positions that go beyond biblical claims. Vegetarianism is one such case, but I will stick with slavery, a perennial ethical concern in the Bible. The portrait of slavery in the Old Testament (OT) is checkered and expansive, at one time depicting the entire Hebrew community in Egyptian bondage. After emancipation, slavery found muted acceptance and was referenced in their most sacred code, the 10 Commandments, in Exodus 20. But in chapter 21, the hesitation was gone, replaced by total recognition as rules were established to regulate the expanding practice. In the New Testament (NT), Paul came closest – “In Christ there is no … slave or free” – to renouncing the practice altogether. But even he equivocated. We find ten counsels on the subject in his writings: two to slave masters, eight to slaves. On the whole he and the entire NT writers, like their OT predecessors, seemed more accommodative, if not indifferent, than prohibitive of the sordid business.

Fast forward to early Adventism. Ellen White was 34 years old when the American Civil War began. Her personal views against slavery were on the record, but it is the unusual strength of the statements on slavery she attributed to God himself, that garnered attention. It might be a stretch to intuit that no “prophet” was as categorical in expressing God’s displeasure with slavery as she did, especially her statements about those who had tolerated slavery’s continuation. Her contention in 1864, as the long gruesome war neared the end, that “God is punishing the North that they have so long suffered the accursed sin of slavery to exist; for in the sight of heaven it is a sin of the darkest dye” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 339) – is breathtaking.

This is probably the most unambiguous recorded equation of slavery to sin ever attributed to God by a “prophet.” The remarkable thing about this statement is that God would single out the North for its duplicity in tolerating slavery, even when the North was spilling its blood in a war dedicated, in part, to ending slavery. It is only when allowance is made for progressive ethical reassessment of Scripture that God could be imagined unequivocally condemning a practice he had tolerated in the past. The static hermeneutic projected in the current Sabbath School lessons cannot adequately explain God’s evolution on slavery as advanced by EGW. The prophetic role we have carved out for EGW, and for that matter the emergence of post-1844 Remnant Adventism, is possible only as we allow for future possibilities outside a closed canon. Until 1844, nothing in scripture appeared to signal to earlier Christian communities that such staple Adventist conceits: Investigative Judgment, Three Angel’s Messages, Sunday laws, Time of Trouble, could be deduced from Scripture as foreshadowing the Adventist Church. We read ourselves into these positions. But having made room for our existence this way, we cannot now close the door to other future possibilities by insisting that biblical interpretation is settled.

There will always be various biblical understandings in a church as diverse as ours. This diversity guarantees that members will encounter the text from different backgrounds and influences. Our hermeneutics should recognize and even embrace this dynamic because it allows for a “big tent” church such that a nuclear scientist and an illiterate peasant can find community. But the attempt by some in our Conservative leadership seems to force a singularity, a so-called “plain reading” that only achieves one understanding. I get why some want to do this. But it does not serve us well, for while the uninformed may, for example, find solace in the notion that our world is just 6,000 years old, scientists among us whose training tells them otherwise, are deprived of a home.


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 at:

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