Monthly Archives: June 2015

On Biblical Hermeneutics (The Science of Biblical Interpretation)

Recently many people are suggesting that support for a Yes vote at the General Conference is grounded in a “new hermeneutic,” reading the Bible differently than the way the pioneers of Adventism read it. There is some truth in this suggestion and it bears some careful investigation. The implication some suggest is that the new hermeneutic results in a fundamental distortion of the Bible’s message regarding the role of women, a message that is clear and unequivocal. To read the Bible any other way is to place oneself in rebellion against the clear teachings of God. This is a serious accusation and I believe it arises out of a shallow understanding of hermeneutics.

There are in fact two basic hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), but the right and wrong of this issue is not as simple as some would make it. There is a way to read the Bible that is seemingly safe and secure, but often does not withstand detailed investigation. That way is sometimes called the “proof-text method.” It involves using a concordance to select passages from all over the Bible that seem to address a particular topic and attempting to understand their collective weight in light of current questions and concerns. At its best this method is a form of biblical theology, gathering everything the Bible says on a topic and seeking to learn from that data how to understand the mind of God on that topic. This method has been used within the Adventist Church from its very beginning and is quite efficient in quickly exposing biblical evidence related to a topic. It leads to relatively easy conclusions that work for a time, but tends to gloss over many things along the way. At its worst it is a powerful way to pick and choose one’s evidence and confirm preconceived opinions. At its worst it appears to honor the Bible while ignoring or distorting the message of the Bible. The selective method without exegetical (careful understanding of the original context) controls makes it too easy for one’s personal biases to determine what texts count as evidence and which ones don’t. The quality of the outcome can depend more on the character of the interpreter than the evidence itself.

The other hermeneutic is grounded less in concordances and more in broad reading of Scripture. One explores the Bible as a whole, taking it book by book and seeking to understand the questions the Bible writers were addressing and the issues they were facing. The interpreter recognizes that God meets people where they are (there is plenty of Scriptural evidence for that assertion– see the opening chapter of my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World), so the teaching at any given point in the Bible may not be a final word on all related issues, but may be a specific answer to a specific issue in that time and place. Understanding the meaning of each text in its context is crucial to developing a biblical theology that can address today’s issues. In the Bible God sometimes allows or even seem to approve of actions that elsewhere are treated as wrong (how about the seeming approval of polygamy in 2 Sam 12:8?). So comparing Scripture with Scripture may still leave one short of explicit answers to every one of today’s questions, requiring one to explore where God’s revelation is trending. This is the method that has led Christians to abolish slavery, even though the New Testament seems not to forbid it (Eph 6:4-9).

At its best this method takes the whole Bible and its original contexts into account. It helps us discern what is clear in God’s revelation and what is not. It avoids the selectivity of the proof-text method and provides safeguards against our natural human biases. But this method also has its limitations. Few people have the desire or the time to master the Bible as a whole. Even for those who do, the process is lengthy and subject to human forgetfulness. In addition, understanding the context of each biblical story and message is best served by knowing the biblical languages and a great deal about ancient history and culture. This makes it easy to leave deep Bible study to the experts, who may become our authorities on what the Bible says rather than allowing every member to do their own diligence in the Word. In addition, projecting the “trajectory” of what God is doing in this world is often necessary, but it too introduces a human element into the process that can project trajectories God Himself might not recognize. So this method is not a fool-proof answer to all questions when the church is divided.

I have used both methods and see that there are strengths and weaknesses in each. A healthy church will not be limited in its approaches. But the outcome of my decades of study in hermeneutics indicates to me that God has not chosen to satisfy our curiosity about all matters in His Word. At creation God granted human beings intellect, reason and considerable freedom. Such freedom is best exercised when we don’t know the answer to everything. God calls us to sharpen our minds by wrestling with the difficult issues that He has chosen not to settle. So when the church, after years of study, remains divided on a question, humility and kindness are the appropriate response. Everyone agrees that the Bible is clear on how we should treat one another. What a shame it would be if we hammer others on things that in the Bible are not truly clear, while transgressing those teachings of the Bible that all agree are clear.

Politics in the New Testament (June 21, 2015 version)

In the previous blog posted a few days ago I raised the question whether or not there should be politics in the church. On the surface the obvious answer would seem to be “no.” Jesus’ teaching is clear. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other for a second strike. If someone curses you, offer instead a blessing. If someone abuses you, pray for him or her.” (Matthew 5 among others) This seems to leave little room for “competing interests” in the church. All subgroups in the church should adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus toward others.

Yet all who have experienced religious institutions recognize that political action is alive and well in them. Church people struggle to find a balance between competing interests among ethnic groups, people from different economic backgrounds, and people with differing theological perspectives. While it seems they should be exempt from politics, theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion would favor the competing interests of one side or the other in a church. Is there any way to get rid of politics in the church?

A careful look around the New Testament suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not often followed to the hilt, even in the earliest church. Within a short time of Pentecost, competing interests arose in the Jerusalem Church (see Acts, chapter 6). It seems the Jerusalem Church set up a safety net for the widows in the church who may have been abandoned by their families when they accepted Christ. The Greek-speaking members of the church complained that the Greek-speaking widows of the church were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food. The complaint was brought to the apostles and they responded that it was not their responsibility to turn away from preaching to be arbitrators over food distribution. They invited the church instead to appoint seven men to take care of the matter.

But there are two elements in the story that are puzzling if these “deacons” were simply being appointed to relieve the apostles of administrative responsibilities. First of all, the seven “deacons” hardly confined themselves to menial tasks. The two we know the most about, Stephen and Philip, did a lot of preaching themselves, and in Philip’s case, he even did a lot of traveling. So the seven “deacons” behaved much as the apostles did. The other puzzling element in the story is that the seven deacons all had distinctively Greek names. While some of the apostles had adopted Greek names, their primary names were Hebrew: for example, Peter was a Greek name, but that is only because of translation, his real name was Simeon and Jesus’ gave him the Aramaic nickname Cephas, the linguistic equivalent of Peter (“Rocky”). So it seems likely that the seven “deacons” were added to leadership to ensure that the interests of the Greek speakers were fairly represented in the councils of church leadership. The problem in the church was competing interests, the solution was to make sure the neglected segment of the church was represented in the decision processes of the church. Sounds like a political solution to me.

A little later in the book of Acts (15:36-39), Paul and Barnabas are contemplating a second mission trip together. The previous trip had been hindered somewhat when John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, suddenly abandoned the apostles at a difficult time. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance to prove himself, but Paul would have none of it. There arose such a sharp disagreement (the underlying Greek word is the root of the English word paroxysm) between the two apostles that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus and Paul sought out a different companion for his mission to Asia Minor and Greece. Couldn’t one or the other of the two apostles have “turned the other cheek?” Couldn’t they have worked it out in the “spirit of Jesus?” Maybe they could have, but they didn’t. Instead they chose to go their separate ways, pursuing a political solution to strong differences.

A less-well-known story in the Book of Acts has to do with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21:16 and following. Paul, Luke and a number of others, including at least one Gentile Christian named Trophimus, came to Jerusalem and stayed at the house of Mnason who had been an early disciple of Jesus (probably one of the 70 or 72 mentioned in Luke 10). The text tells us “the brothers received us warmly” (Acts 21:17). So at first glance, Paul and company seem quite welcome in Jerusalem. The next day, however, it is clear that thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem did not yet know Paul was there (Acts 21:22) and these were believing the worst about him. Following the advice of the apostles to appease this other group of believers, Paul is arrested in the temple and his mission in the Book of Acts is brought to a close. Clearly, the church in Jerusalem remained divided between Greeks and Hebrews many years after Acts 6. Mnason, a Greek believer from Cyprus, was happy to welcome Paul. The rest of the church in town thought other thoughts about him. The end result was pretty ugly.

This brief survey of just one book of the New Testament makes it clear that politics in the church are the norm rather than the exception (see also Galatians 2:11-14). If the apostles themselves could not avoid it, church leadership today will not be able to eradicate politics from the church. Instead, it is wiser to be aware of the politics and find ways to manage political action in a way that causes the least possible damage to the gospel. In the shadow of San Antonio, the New Testament way to handle such politics would seem to me to call for a Yes vote on the ordination issue. That will ensure that those who prefer to ordain women will get a fair hearing in their various constituencies.

Politics in the Church

We can probably all use a break from the ordination debate, so I thought I’d repost a couple of blogs that I did about six years ago and were lost in the Go-Daddy meltdown. Many people are distressed by the politics in the Adventist Church. There are voices at both extremes of the Women’s Ordination debate who are saying something like “The Bible is perfectly clear and if you don’t see that you will burn in the fire!” But their “clarity” is in opposite directions. Others say the Bible doesn’t address the issue, so let culture and local consensus be the primary guide to God’s will in this matter. People are not only confused, but fear that the “politics” itself is a major problem. So the thoughts that follow should be timely, even though they were written mostly six years ago.

Should there be politics in the church? Isn’t the idea of politics in the church something of an oxymoron (putting two things together that don’t fit together)? At its most basic, I define politics as the process of balancing competing interests in a social system. For example, in the island nation of Fiji you have two main ethnic groups, native Fijians and Asian Indians. The two ethnic groups have very little in common. Native Fijians are darker-skinned (Melanesian) and have lived in the Fijian islands since before being “discovered” by westerners. The Indians are lighter-skinned and arrived during the colonial period. The Fijians tend to farm and live in the countryside, the Indians tend to live in the cities and towns and to be involved in commercial businesses. The Fijians tend to be Christians, while the Indians are usually Muslim or Hindu. When it comes to dividing up the island nation’s resources, the interests of Fijians and Indians almost always diverge. So the political way to keep the peace is to make sure that the respective political interests of Fijians and Indians are kept in a rough sort of balance. Colonial rulers sometimes kept the balance out of a lack of interest in the concerns of either side. But now that Fiji is an independent country, the prime minister will naturally come from one group or the other. There is always potential for power plays and strife as the competing interests are sorted out.

Sometimes different regions within a country will have competing interests. In China, for example, the people who live on the coast have very different interests from those who live in the interior. Coastal people tend to be involved in business and trade, people in the interior tend to be involved in farming. Coastal people interact more with the outside world, people in the interior of China tend to be more inward-looking. The coastal areas of China have a larger proportion of Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group. Various parts of the interior have large numbers of other ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Bao people in Yunnan. Keeping the country together by distributing resources fairly is a major focus of Chinese government. But competing interests have made it hard to keep the country together throughout its history.

Whether we like it or not, there are competing interests in any religious organization. Growing up in New York City, I remember the tensions that arose in my own church conference (diocese) between Hispanics and Anglos. The power in the conference had historically been held by Anglos, but as the Spanish-speakers rose in numbers, they felt that they were often left out in the distribution of power and resources and demanded greater representation in the “halls of power” or they would secede and form their own conference. Today there are strong and continuing efforts to make sure the composition of leadership in that church organization roughly reflects the ethnic makeup of the membership. Should it be that way, or should the leadership be chosen by God through more “spiritual” processes?

Theological differences can also create competing interests. Among Seventh-day Adventists, for example, there has always been some tension between a healing and service focus, on the one hand, and a doctrinal focus based on the study of biblical apocalyptic, on the other. Both of these foci are grounded in Scripture and in books like Ministry of Healing and The Great Controversy (neither of which contain the main emphases of the other), but tend to lead in somewhat different directions theologically. The healing side of Adventism tends toward an outward focus of engaging the world to make it a better place. The apocalyptic side of Adventism tends toward an inward focus of avoiding contamination from the world. Naturally, when Adventists from both sides get together, there can be tension, as it is always possible that each side will see a given issue from a somewhat different perspective. Theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion could favor the competing interests of one side or the other within the church.

Is the politicization of a theological discussion helpful or hurtful? Is there any way to avoid such politicization? Does God express his will through the outcome of political debate or does political discussion make it harder for people to hear the voice of God? Is it possible to balance competing interests in the church without conflict?  Is “politics in the church” always a bad thing? Stay tuned. The next blog will explore what the Bible has to say on the subject of politics in the church.

Appendix to Ben Clausen’s Series on Design

Below Ben shares brief summaries of leading scientists who share the conclusion that the universe gives abundant evidence of design:

Numerous scientists are recognizing the evidence that life is possible only because the universe is fine-tuned. John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1986) may have the most complete list of fine-tuning examples in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Hugh Ross (1995), a physicist and Christian apologist, points out some of the coincidences in The Creator and the Cosmos. Paul Davies (1984), a theoretical physicist, has written a much shorter version entitled The Accidental Universe. Martin Rees, a professor of astronomy at Cambridge University, along with John Gribbin (1989) have written a book along the same line, Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind, and Anthropic Cosmology. It has a leaning toward New Age philosophy. Many other books and articles emphasize similar ideas from both an agnostic and a religious viewpoint (e.g., Heeren 1995; Templeton 1994; Bertola and Curi 1993; Leslie 1989; Robson 1987)

Walter Bradley (1994), a mechanical engineer previously chairing that Texas A&M University department, has given a talk entitled “Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God” at most of the Ivy League and Big Ten schools. He says it is “one of the most exciting adventures of my life: challenging students and faculty alike to consider the overwhelming evidence from modern science for the existence of God.” In his talk, available online, he gives numerous examples of scientists with no religious motivation, who are emphasizing the evidence for fine-tuning:

  • Many scientists who were not long ago certain that the universe was created and peopled by accident are having second thoughts and concede the possibility that some intelligent creative force may have been responsible. — The Washington Post, describing an international conference held in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s
  • The equations of physics have in them incredible simplicity, elegance, and beauty. That in itself is sufficient to prove to me that there must be a God who is responsible for these laws and responsible for the universe. — Paul Davies in Superforce (1984)
  • Such properties seem to run through the fabric of the natural world like a thread of happy coincidences. But there are so many odd coincidences essential to life that some explanation seems required to account for them. — Sir Fred Hoyle, the famous British astronomer and agnostic, in The Intelligent Universe
  • Slight variations in physical laws such as gravity or electromagnetism would make life impossible … the necessity to produce life lies at the center of the universe’s whole machinery and design. — John Wheeler, Princeton University professor of physics, Reader’s Digest (September 1986)

Francis Collins (2006), head of the National Institutes of Health, points out some of these examples of fine-tuning in his book, The Language of God, and concludes that they provide “an interesting argument in favor of a Creator.” Speaking of our fine-tuned universe, Nobel prize-winner Arno Penzias (Margenau and Varghese 1992, p.78) says that the universe has “the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Paul Davies (1992), in The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, says:

  • … There is no doubt that many scientists are opposed temperamentally to any form of metaphysical, let alone mystical arguments. They are scornful of the notion that there might exist a God, or even an impersonal creative principle or ground of being that would underpin reality and render its contingent aspects less starkly arbitrary. Personally I do not share their scorn. Although many metaphysical and theistic theories seem contrived or childish, they are not obviously more absurd than the belief that the universe exists, and exists in the form it does, reasonlessly. It seems at least worth trying to construct a metaphysical theory that reduces some of the arbitrariness of the world. But in the end a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. — p.231

And in God and the New Physics, Davies says,

  • The delicate fine-tuning in the values of the constants, necessary so that the various different branches of physics can dovetail so felicitously, might be attributed to God. It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out. – p.189

John Polkinghorne (1986), mathematical physics professor at Cambridge University and Fellow of the Royal Society, who also trained for the Anglican priesthood, says:

  • The rational order that science discerns is so beautiful and striking that it is natural to ask why it should be so. It could only find an explanation in a cause itself essentially rational. This would be provided by the Reason of the Creator … we know the world also to contain beauty, moral obligation and religious experience. These also find their ground in the Creator—in his joy, his will and his presence. — p.79

Heinz Pagels (1985), executive director of The New York Academy of Sciences and a theoretical physicist at the Rockefeller University, says that “the anthropic principle is convenient, but it’s not science”. In a 1985 article he concludes with:

  • There does exist a line of thinking that is in direct competition with the anthropic principle. Edward Harrison, in his textbook Cosmology, advises his readers early on: “We shall occasionally refer to the anthropic principle, and the reader may, if it is preferred, substitute the alternative theistic principle.” The theistic principle is quite straightforward: the reason the universe seems tailor-made for our existence is that it was tailor-made for our existence; some supreme being created it as a home for intelligent life. Of course, some scientists, believing science and religion mutually exclusive, find this idea unattractive. Faced with questions that do not neatly fit into the framework of science, they are loath to resort to religious explanation; yet their curiosity will not let them leave matters unaddressed. Hence, the anthropic principle. It is the closest that some atheists can get to God.