Biblical interpretation has caused many schisms in Christian history. Increasingly, due to hermeneutics, Adventism faces its own growing divide. The Biblical Research Institute’s recent publication of Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach argues that differences are emerging due to an incorrect usage of the historical-grammatical method. But this reveals a misunderstanding of the fundamental problem facing Adventist interpretation.[i] It does not take into consideration the very likely possibility that the method itself may be the cause or whether a correct Adventist presuppositional framework is even possible.
Differences that arise within a single structure can emerge from the same foundations. Many Adventists hold to a high view of scripture, Christology, and—for the most part—our founding doctrines: Sabbath, state of the dead, the law, Christ’s righteousness, and even the investigative judgment.[ii] That is, we construct interpretations based upon a general trust in our history, traditions, and biblical understanding. Beyond that, when divergent readings emerge, they reflect the silence and the ambiguity that often attends the text itself, but also involve personalities and unstated biases. Diverse readings within Adventism are an organic expression of faith within an anti-creedal, eschatologically focused, free-will theological movement. Thus, arguing for a correct presupposition or even a monolithic interpretation is a call to change the very fabric of our Adventist identity and should not be taken up lightly. For the remainder of this article, I would like to address the pursuit of a correct presupposition as the means for developing an Adventist interpretation of scripture.
After the last General Conference session and the controversial vote concerning women’s ordination, some were confused by how Adventists could interpret scripture so differently.
We have a world church looking at the same Scriptures and coming up with very different interpretations. I think that points out that this church has a very divided hermeneutics or rules of interpretation. The world church should take time to study and to bring together what our hermeneutic really is, because we’re using two very different ones.[iii]
This statement is packed with assumptions concerning the fundamental problem and solution for Adventist hermeneutics. And these assumptions miss some obvious reasons why we see things differently. While we are looking at the same scriptures, we are not reading the same thing. Different translations, different worldviews, and different cultural pressures lead to preferences in what and how and when scripture is read. Underlying all of this is a commitment to systematic approaches, topical bible studies, word studies, and proof texting.[iv] In other words, we have a tradition of a reading that encourages us to line up scripture in whatever way we see as relevant to our experience.
The problem with these approaches is that we fail to understand how to acknowledge and correct for personal bias. By emphasizing the need to explicitly outline presuppositions, biases, and cultural perspectives, we gain a better framework to use these approaches in the study of scripture. Such a prerequisite would not challenge our foundation but offer a more careful way to distinguish tradition from scripture. Instead of lining up scriptures because they “sound” the same, what happens when we line up scriptures because they “think” the same? How do the ideas interact with my present time and how does the present impact my understanding of what I am reading? By encouraging this kind of self-interrogation, we will produce a more grounded understanding of scripture and ourselves in our global context.
To the issue of a “divided hermeneutic,” permitting the possibility of our current approaches lacking any significant self-critique, we must also contend with the realization that we have always been divergent in our readings. That is, we have always come to different understandings of scripture, often due to our obsession with minute details surrounding eschatological inquiries. For example, we can think back to “the daily,” the various time prophecies, the trumpets, as well as the identity of the kings North and South. All these examples and more, to this day, entertain divergent and often contradictory readings that have become normative expressions of faith within the Adventist church. Calls for institutional reform, doctrinal correction and personal conduct, and the reprisals and challenges in response from those in power are also embedded practices within Adventism. The problem is not that we have divergent hermeneutics, or that there are calls for reform; the problem is that we think we never had divergent hermeneutics in the first place!
While I believe the premise for problematizing divergent readings is misguided, I do see fruit in attending to “what our hermeneutic really is.” And I would like to suggest that what makes Adventism so special is our ability to work with and understand varying presuppositions. Now, I believe that for the most part this practice has gone on unstated, in the background as it were. In this day and age, though, we are faced with a greater awareness of one another and are more sensitive to how we impact our planet. For example, our missionaries are now invested in learning the languages and understanding the cultures in which we are seeking to bring the gospel. Therefore, I propose that our growing awareness of each other has manifested the revelation of dynamic presuppositions that have been with us all along. Kwabena Donkor touches on this in “Presuppositions in Hermeneutics.”
Since interpretation without presuppositions is an impossibility, it becomes extremely important not only to reflect on the nature of an interpreter’s presuppositions but also to understand the manner in which they affect interpretation.[v]
Donkor here provides a beautiful metric by which to engage our presuppositions to develop constructive interpretations. Ironically, his article offers an example of the opposite of this approach. Donkor proposes biblical presuppositions but does not first address the range of biblical options or productive alternative presuppositions that attend such readings. For example, in reflecting on the world, Donkor cites evangelical scholars, one of which emphasizes the impossibility of an infinite universe.[vi] But this is something that does not emerge concretely from a Bible-only reading. In fact, one can derive a myriad of cosmological constructions suited for the God of our faith. In short, while Donkor offers a reasonable biblical reading, it does not preclude other reasonable biblical readings.
I applaud the efforts of the Biblical Research Institute to articulate their presuppositions and interpretations, and I look forward to engaging in their proposals closely. Unfortunately, I do not yet see them articulating an Adventist approach. As I attempted to argue above, an Adventist approach to scripture must address our practice of dynamic, diverse, and sometimes contradictory biblical readings. This, I propose, is the traditional identity of the Adventist movement. It has never been about getting everything right or reading from the top-down. Rather, the attractiveness of Adventism has revolved around religious liberty and personal piety, temperance, and faith. We have also constructed a tradition of outreach through our educational, medical, and missional pursuits. Finally, from our conception, we have come together to trumpet the message that Jesus is coming. If we are to construct a “true” Adventist hermeneutic, let its foundations not be dogmatic homogeneity. Instead, let our hermeneutic be centered around Christ’s methods alone. Care for one another and then bid each other, follow Jesus. This should be our creed, our song, and the lens through which we interpret scripture.
Notes & References
[i] Frank M. Hasel, ed., Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institution/Review & Herald Academic General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists).
[ii] I leave out the Sanctuary doctrine for obvious reasons.
[iii] “Thirteenth Business Meeting: Sixteenth General Conference Session: July 9, 2015, 9:30am,” http://www.adventistreview.org/thirteenth-business-meeting cited in Frank M. Hasel, “Introduction,”
[iv] And here I lament the inconsistent approaches used in our Sabbath School quarterlies along with the inconsistent training at the local level. For a helpful approach for addressing Sabbath School see Serban, Laurentiu A., "Factors Related to Declining Attendance at the Adult Sabbath School in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventist Church" (2014). Dissertations. 690. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/dissertations/690
[v] Kwabena Donkor, “Presuppositions in Hermeneutics,” Hermeneutics: 7-30
[vi] Donkor, “Presuppositions,” 22-23.
Jon-Philippe Ruhumuliza is a graduate of Andrews University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His MA thesis is titled “Paul and Maps: Exegeting Acts 13-14 through the Lens of Lived Space Cartography.”
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