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.

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