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Should We Take Prophetic Utterances at Face Value? A Case for an Open Canon

An open bible sitting on a table with with a drink mug in the background.

In the 2022 fourth quarter Adult Bible Study Guide on “Death, Dying, and the Future Hope,” the author made repeated references to variations of the expression “The Biblical Worldview.” In each usage, the reader is left with a clear impression that there is a “correct” way to interpret or understand the Bible. But is this true? Unless we mean a particular view on a subject could merely be deduced from the Bible, the “proper biblical teaching” conceit is, at best, simplistic. Such a proposition presupposes some coherent, overarching narrative from Genesis to Revelation, an assumption belied by Scripture itself.

Second Timothy’s postulation that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (3:16) is often advanced as laying a groundwork for interconnectedness within the books. However, the context of this statement is usually ignored when such a claim is made. For example, at the time of Timothy’s writing, there were no canonical books as we have today. Additionally, many of the free-flowing compositions in the mid-first century that were considered as “scripture” did not make the cut when Constantine’s canonization initiative took place.

It matters what kind of worldview we bring to stories in the Bible because, even if we take a liberal view of inspiration and accept that God actively orchestrated all biblical writings, we are still confronted with the problem of scriptural contradictions and inaccuracies. What actually is inspiration if what you believe one author has been inspired to convey turns out to contradict the assertions of another equally inspired writer? Whether a writer’s verbiage passes an “inspiration test” should not hinge only on human attestations or its inclusion in the canon. Humans are too self-serving and their motivations too malleable. Thus, their self-proclaimed testimonies of inspiration become suspicious. Comparing the starkly differing portrayal of King David in 1 and 2 Samuel and Kings with that in 1 and 2 Chronicles demonstrates how “prophets” have the capacity to bend God’s will to their vision.

It therefore might not necessarily be inspiration but rather individuals or schools of writers expressing different opinions derived from accepted community beliefs. This could account for some misalignments in biblical stories. When we find jarring or even subtle deviations from entrenched positions in Scripture, it should alert us to consider pushing back against presumed orthodoxy. This reaction manifests in different ways in canonical scriptures. The most obvious are similar stories twice- or sometimes thrice-told, often with slight but important variations. A good example is the two creation stories in early Genesis. These are two accounts that have much in common but also show significant, even incompatible, differences.

The two accounts are considered to have originated separately as distinct traditions from Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms, then fused into one document by later editors, or redactors. In the first story (Genesis 1:1–2:4a), God created the man and woman in one fell swoop, as an undifferentiated unity, and it gives no room for hegemony or hierarchical comparison between them. It is in the second story—in which the woman was created later, almost as an afterthought—that the order of creation significantly impacted their later relationship. It strains credulity to insist that these two stories, with their many dissimilar details, are a unity.

Another obvious biblical doubling story is the two Ten Commandments accounts in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Though the two share content commonalities, the Deuteronomy version, generally thought to be a revision of Exodus 20, gives deliverance as a completely different reason for Sabbath keeping. The erstwhile Egyptian sojourners are asked to remember that they “were once slaves in Egypt.” This makes sense especially if this revision has an exilic or post-exilic influence. If so, then it shows that someone, or a group of individuals from the exile community, felt the need to reinterpret some of their traditions in light of contemporary exilic experiences.

Also, in the Deuteronomy version, we notice a subtle rearrangement of the commandment prohibiting covetousness. Men, who are the implied “you” in the injunction, are first prohibited from desiring their neighbors’ wives. Then the ban is extended to their households, including items belonging to their neighbors they might be inclined to envy. This is a seminal moment in Israeli thinking because the editor(s) consciously divorces a man’s wife from his other belongings. Unlike the original account in Exodus, where a wife is lumped into a man’s generic household or property, in Deuteronomy she is a stand-alone, an individual, separate from his land, servants, oxen, and donkeys.

Retaining the option to revise the biblical text is a win-win proposition because it allows for future progress where editors point us forward to God’s ideals. It demonstrates that no community perspective is fixed forever, and any perspective may change with time and new insights. Women might have been considered property in one era, but thought leaders of a different generation within the same community came to see them differently. We Adventists probably tend to ignore the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue because the Exodus account, which links Sabbath-keeping to creation and God’s ensuing rest, fits more neatly into our origins and Sabbath doctrines. But in doing so, we miss the dynamic richness in the ways Deuteronomy’s redactors applied earlier texts to their own experience.

Sometimes a writer challenges the status quo, thus adding to biblical inconsistencies and contradictions—not by editing an existing narrative but by telling a new story. That is what we find in Job and Jonah. Both texts critique prevailing understandings of how God relates to people by pointing out some inherent fallacies about what they had long believed. In Job, the author resorts to epic poetry to dramatize and punch holes in the accepted correlation between uprightness and God’s favor. If you are prosperous and in good health, the community believed, God has blessed you for your good behavior. The converse was considered equally true: adversity signals God’s displeasure with one’s behavior and triggers his punishment.

But in the story, a redactor assures us that what Job goes through does not follow this prevailing logic. On several occasions, the redactor has God himself speak approvingly of Job’s character, which then should have resulted in God protecting Job and his loved ones. Yet nothing went well in Job’s life. His loved ones died, he lost his wealth, and eventually his health.

But if the book has a sixth-century authorship, then the writer could have been using the poem as a vehicle to discuss the Israeli exile itself. Were they banished because they had displeased God by disobeying his laws, as the rabbis contended, or did their plight disprove the long-assumed causality between good behavior and personal or communal well-being? Job’s friends were the mouthpieces of this communal belief that God never inflicts punishment unless an individual or group has offended him. And they were frustrated because he wouldn’t recognize this basic social construct.

And what is the book of Jonah if not an argument against Israel’s belief that God was theirs alone, his blessings not to be shared with anyone else? This “we-are-special” certainty was so ingrained in Israeli culture as to be taken for granted. Jonah’s writer seems to disagree with this caricature and argues against the notion of a tribal God. The Jonah character resists all entreaties to share his God with his neighbors because he is suspicious that his God would extend love and mercy to them. The book, in essence, anticipates John’s God who sets no boundaries and testifies that God’s love for the whole universe is why he sent Jesus to redeem the world.

There are other times when biblical writers challenged an entire paradigm. Which is right? Is it Wisdom Literature’s hedonic advice to “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (Ecclesiastes 8:14-15)? Or is it the biblical passages that postulate a judgment after life? Is a God who commands that infants, children, and the elderly should be killed as war reprisal any more credible than a God who protects the vulnerable and urges us to do the same? Did Moses reflect the image of the same God who required “an arm for an arm,” compared to Jesus who said to “turn the other cheek?” When Jesus set up the contrasting visions between himself and Moses in his “You have been told, but I tell you” discourse, was he reflecting the ethic of the same God who purportedly inspired Moses’s directives that Jesus now repudiates?

All these rather contradictory divine portrayals couldn’t have emanated from the same God. If we go to an authoritative source for our ethics, we should evaluate its claims rationally. The only credible way this makes sense is to assume that different “spokespersons” depicted God as they understood him in their time. We therefore have to make room in our thinking for the likelihood that their depictions were time and knowledge conditioned. And as such, they could be insufficient, inaccurate, and sometimes woefully wrong in their representations of God. The Bible’s internal evidence shows a long, vibrant tradition of ongoing edits and redactions, which constituted individual and group challenges to existing tenets. Yet the originals and their alternatives were allowed to coexist and circulate freely over millennia. Isn’t this a testament to the belief, by the various intellectual communities that witnessed the changes, that the benefits of retaining the additions far outweighed excluding them?

This is the kind of intellectual vitality that we’ve lost to canonization and how we’ve consequently interpreted the Bible. Like the transition from oral to written language, the canonized books not only froze time and meaning in their pages but also made contesting the ideas they espoused impossible, if not irrelevant, because now the challenges take place on different planes. The canonized books challenge each other from inside their bubble, while all others attempt to look in from the outside. Still, in a small sense, the canonization results remind us that the process was difficult and contested. There are at least three major biblical canons with different compositions (Protestant 66 books, Catholic 73, and Ethiopian 84) that speak to a human role in putting them together. If God was solely in charge and wanted uniformity, why did three different canons get produced?

By now we should be comfortable that the books comprising our different Bibles underwent multiple revisions before canonization. And unless we have some mechanisms that allow for a similar kind of “editing,” we should not approach Scripture as an infallible rulebook or guide for our lives. Of course, we could insist on using our current Bibles this way, but that would mean cherry-picking and ignoring large portions that evoke morals we no longer accept. For example, we have transcended many unrevoked laws in the Old Testament that we have forgotten even still exist. I know of nobody in my circle who contemplates selling their daughters into sexual slavery, let alone consulting Exodus 21 to do it right. This brings me to the essence of this essay: to ensure that the Bible continues to be relevant in all ages, we should recognize that it is time- and culture-bound, and it can only keep pace with evolving ethics and moralities by reconsidering its content.

This means we evaluate God truthfully, with no obligation to defend indefensible actions attributed to him in Scripture. We don’t expunge elements that are inconsistent with God from the Bible, but we recognize that if a “prophet” claims that murder is justified when God orders it, we may also question the prophet and his premise, because it is ethically inconsistent for a true God to endorse murder. Chances are that the “prophet” misheard, misconstrued, or deliberately fabricated what he relayed to us. The onus should be on the spokesperson to explain why a morally ethical deity would champion unethical behavior. We shouldn’t go in search of suitable defenses for evil simply because a “prophet” put God in the untenable position of making him a perpetrator of evil.

We often give biblical prophets a pass regarding questionable orders they claim were received from God by not asking why we should believe them. There is a baseline that scriptural messengers have outlined as ethical—fidelity, respect for life, caring for the vulnerable, for example—and have encouraged us to emulate. So, if another writer comes along telling us this same God wants us to steal, murder, and mistreat the powerless, we should question the latter messenger because his propositions are ethically incompatible with a God we can, or should, respect and worship.

So, what does all this imply? I don’t think God wants to put us through an obstacle course of dubious and contradictory ethics just to teach us how to relate to him. A more likely explanation could be that humans everywhere have tried to figure God out and follow his will. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is a more evolved version of this search, but not entirely different. Sometimes they got it right and other times horribly wrong. That they constantly made God the author of their edicts isn’t surprising, as humans in religious societies have always used God to validate their own visions of who God is, or what he expects from them. The important thing is that over time our morals and ethical trajectory have trended forward.

The results of our efforts have sometimes seemed paltry and taken us too long. But it is by persisting that we’ve stopped stoning people who break the Sabbath—with or without the Bible’s approval. We’ve stopped, or at least withdrawn, legal backing for selling our fellow human beings—with or without the Bible’s explicit prohibition. We’ve stopped treating women as property, even though the idea seems enshrined in the commandments. We have to continue opening ourselves up to higher truths and possibilities that are often hinted at but not fully explicated in Scripture. Adventists should be at the forefront of encouraging an open canon. After all, this is how we became a church and made a case for Ellen White’s “prophetic” ministry. Our pioneers called it “present truth,” or “progressive revelation.” This echoes Jesus’s statement: “I have much more to tell you, but you are not ready yet.” Are we ready now?

This article was originally presented at the Sligo Faith and Reason Sabbath School Class on March 25, 2023.


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:  Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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