In a series of three blogs I have briefly reviewed the two main approaches to Scripture exhibited in the discussions over women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One is the proof-text method, designed to “take the Bible as it reads.” This method collects biblical texts on a particular topic to determine the Bible’s overall teaching on that topic. The other method explores the Bible as a whole, seeking to understand each portion in light of the issues Bible writers were facing. It seems self-evident that both methods have value and should be practiced by those who desire to know God’s Word. But what has distressed people is the discovery that the two methods have led people to opposite opinions in regard to ordination and the role of women in ministry. For some, this raises questions about the value of hermeneutics at all. They may abandon careful Bible study thinking that there is no reliable way to know the Bible’s actual meaning. Others reject the method that didn’t produce their desired results and limit themselves to one method or the other. But since the two methods naturally correct each other, rejecting one or the other subjects people to the weaknesses of their preferred approach, which I have laid out in the first blog in this short series.
At a time when the church is threatened with division, we should practice more careful study of the Bible rather than less. Devotional methods of reading, taking the Bible as it reads to me today, can be very beneficial to one’s spiritual experience. But when the church is divided, careful exegesis in context is required to make sure we are all reading the same text. Human beings are too prone to self-deception to simply “take the Bible as it reads.” Internal mechanisms frustrate our desire to know the word and leave us likely to read ourselves into the Bible. I have laid out in the previous two blogs a way to bypass some of those defense mechanisms and reconcile the two methods with a simple approach that anyone can do. This approach was presented in five parts.
1) Approach the Bible with prayer for the Spirit’s guidance and much self-distrust. 2) Use a variety of translations. 3) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time in the clear texts of the Bible. 4) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time reading the Bible rather than engaged in selective study. 5) Subject oneself to the criticism of peers who are studying the Bible as carefully as you are (if you are following the first four principles). This method does not guarantee that all things will instantly become clear. But this method puts one on a path where the Word of God can gradually transform one’s understanding of God and truth and become more attuned to the Spirit that inspired the Bible. It also builds humility, as broad reading of the Bible will make one aware of how little one actually knows about the Bible. The end result (after decades of careful study) will be true lay Bible scholars who know how little they know and, therefore, handle God’s Word with great respect and reverence.
Such an approach leads to the discovery that not every question we ask of the Bible receives a clear and unequivocal answer in the Bible. On such matters it is better to allow for personal conscience. Unity does not require complete uniformity. When our peers are divided on what the Bible means, it may clearly show us that the Bible is not clear on that subject. Such occasions are not invitations to violence (whether in word or deed) but opportunities to shower grace and charity upon each other.
God’s people today desperately need an approach to biblical study that is authentic, simple, practical, and available to all. The following five principles, I believe, fulfill those requirements.
A) Authentic Prayer and Self-Distrust.
When you open the Bible, it is important to open it in much prayer and self-distrust. If human hearts are exceedingly wicked and deceptive, then the greatest barrier to Scriptural understanding is the lack of a teachable spirit. If you don’t have a teachable spirit, then it doesn’t matter how much Greek you know or how many Ph.D.’s you accumulate, your learning will not open the Word to you. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study. It arises from a willingness to receive the truth no matter what the cost (1 Cor 2:14; 2 Thess 2:10; James 1:5).
So I’d like to suggest that you begin your study of the Bible with what I call authentic prayer. That means prayer for a teachable spirit. Prayer that God will open your heart, bypass your defense mechanisms, and teach you what you need to know. Authentic prayer goes something like this: “Lord, I want the truth no matter what the cost to me personally.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. But that kind of prayer will open the way to fresh insight into the Word.
B) Use a Variety of Translations.
Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses, and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). So the safest course of action for a Christian who doesn’t know the original languages is to compare several translations against each other. Let’s suppose you are comparing five different translations of a particular text. If all five translations agree, the underlying Greek text must be reasonably clear. On the other hand, if all five translations go in different directions, it is a signal that the original language is ambiguous in some way. But if four translations say roughly the same thing and the fifth is way different, you have just discovered the bias of that fifth translation. The authority that you as an interpreter give to any particular translation of a text will depend on the level of certainty that it is accurately based on the original. Looking at a variety of translations breaks us away from pet readings that feed our own biases and can give anyone a clearer picture of the original text.
C) Favor the Clear Texts
If you want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, spend the majority of your time in the sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible that are reasonably clear and others that are quite difficult. A great safeguard to your study of Scripture is to spend the majority of your time in the sections that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of Scripture establish the reader in the common ground of the Bible and the great verities of its message, safeguarding the interpreter against an inappropriate use of texts that are more ambiguous.
Adventists in particular seem to gravitate to the ambiguous texts of the Bible, texts that are difficult to understand because they can point in more than one direction. People who misuse the Bible tend to work with unclear texts, treat them as if they were clear, and then base their theology on this “clear” reading. When people spend the majority of their time in the difficult texts of Scripture they usually end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message of the clear texts contradicts the theology they have developed from the unclear texts. But if you spend the majority of your time in the clear texts of the Bible, they will gradually shift your thinking in a more biblical direction.
D) Favor General Reading
A fourth, and most vital, principle is to spend more time reading the Bible than “studying” it. People often study the Bible in a fragmented way. They study a verse at a time, and then compare that verse with all kinds of other texts found in a concordance. In a way the concordance becomes their real Bible. They take a word, look at snippets from 300-400 texts, and pick out those that seem to say what they believe the Bible is saying. The best safeguard against such unintentional misuse of Scripture is much general reading of the Bible. Broad reading of the Bible sensitizes you to the literary strategies of the biblical authors. Use of a concordance, on the other hand, puts you in charge of the process, instead of the biblical author. The process is even more dangerous when the concordance is a computer. One can look at text after text without ever reading them in context.
The use of a concordance and the comparing of scripture with scripture has its place. But when you spend all of your time comparing scripture with scripture you can lose the forest for the trees. General reading of the Bible, on the other hand, helps you to look at the big picture and put isolated texts together with their contexts so that the meaning can become clear. It safeguards the reader against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading helps bring you into a teachable spirit and helps you see the text as it was intended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible. Hence the recommendation, “Spend the majority of your time reading the Bible instead of studying it.”
E) Criticism of Peers
A vital principle for the study of the Bible is to give careful attention to the criticism of peers, in other word, anyone who has given the biblical text the same kind of careful attention you have. As I mentioned before, one of the biggest problems in biblical understanding is that each of us have a natural bent to self-deception (Jer 17:9). That self-deception is so deep that sometimes–even if you are praying, using a variety of translations, and focusing on the clear texts and broad reading–you can still misread the Bible on your own. So the best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one’s own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.
Two kinds of peers are particularly valuable: 1) people who have studied the text carefully and who disagree with you, and 2) people who are particularly gifted or experienced with the tools of exegesis, including the original languages. We need the criticisms of others who say, “I’ve looked at this text carefully and I just don’t see what you are seeing. To me the text says something totally different.” It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. But we need to. You see, I don’t learn much from people who agree with me because we already see things the same way. It is people who disagree with me, who see the text differently than I do, who can teach me something about the text. We all have certain blind spots with regard to the Bible. These blind spots are rooted in our self-deception. But when I am confronted with someone very different from me, someone of another race, or even another religion, I am confronted with realities in the text that I would never have seen on my own. I may not end up agreeing with them, but my view of the text will be sharpened. Even in the study of the Bible, we need to listen to others, particularly people who have also studied the Bible carefully and have come to different conclusions than we have.
There is a major problem that we all face when we open the Bible: self-deception. One Scripture deals directly with this problem: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) The problem described here is self-deception. It is easy for us to read our own ideas, concepts, and needs into Scripture and turn the Bible into a book that reads just the way we believe. Human beings naturally–even unconsciously–tend to avoid ideas and situations that would be painful to them. So whenever you come face-to-face with the Bible, knowing that you are looking for truth, there is a tendency for the natural defense mechanisms of sin to get in the way. In a sinful world, it is natural to read the Bible in such a way as to avoid learning what we don’t want to know. And we often do it without realizing it.
The best safeguard against self-deception is an exegesis (discovering God’s original intention for a text) based on the original languages, the Greek and the Hebrew. Genuine descriptive exegesis is more difficult for me in English (my native language), because English is filled with associations to my own, personal past. For me, every word of the English Bible triggers associations with my own previous life experience. It evokes the events and contexts in which I encountered those words before. It’s almost impossible, therefore, not to read my own ideas into the Bible when I read it in English. Reading one’s self into the Bible is perfectly natural until one becomes conscious of the need to learn a better way of reading the Bible.
Learning to read the New Testament in the Greek, for example, allows you to break the bonds of the past and experience the text as it was meant to be experienced when it was first written. To learn the Greek of the New Testament is to break away from the familiar associations that blind interpreters to the deeper connections of the text. When an interpreter develops a reading knowledge of the Greek New Testament, associations start popping up that would not have been seen in translation. But here’s the best part. Once you have exegeted a biblical text, you can never read it the same way again. You cannot avoid the deeper implications of that text as might have been possible before.
The problem with exegesis based on the original languages is that most people who study the Bible will never have the opportunity to learn Greek or Hebrew. So such a requirement would limit good biblical study to an elite few, and this does not seem to be God’s intent in giving us His Word. Is it impossible, then, to do serious, honest exegesis? I don’t think so. I believe there are five simple, practical safeguards that will help anyone interpret the biblical text while avoiding the kind of bizarre misreadings that come so naturally to the human condition. These five principles provide interpreters with the kind of biblical balance that is necessary when dealing with divisive theological issues.
Here is a short summary of where I am on the issue of women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For decades I have read multiple studies on the subject on both sides. Many studies on both sides seem very convincing until you read the arguments from the other side. It finally dawned on me that the one thing we seemed to agree on was that the Bible itself never asks the question we are asking, “Should women be ordained to the gospel ministry?” While there are people who disagree with that assertion, no one has been able to point me to a text that actually asks the question, so I continue to hold that position. And there is a good reason for that. Ordination as we know it largely developed in the Middle Ages, so the Bible could not and would not address the question, except perhaps in a prophecy of the future.
In light of that, I observe that in my part of the world NOT ordaining women exacts significant costs on the church’s mission and credibility in the wider community. No one from another part of the world could truly understand or assess those costs. Are those costs worth bearing? Only if the Bible is clear. But the assertions that the Bible is clear are mostly coming from parts of the world that have never studied the question as deeply as I have been forced to study it. I find it interesting that the only substantive studies against women’s ordination in the SDA Church are coming out of North America, the very place that doesn’t generally find those same studies convincing or helpful. And the best arguments against women’s ordination originated with a segment of non-SDAs who have historically been hostile to both Adventism and Ellen White.
I also note that the SDA Church did not adopt ordination as currently practiced from study of the Bible. It was adopted for practical reasons, to validate who spoke for the church and who did not. Today women around the world are hired and trusted to speak for the church in various capacities, even in parts of the world that don’t want to ordain them. But making a distinction between women and men in terms of ordination puts meaning into the act that it never had for the SDA pioneers.
In light of the above I have slowly come to the conclusion that this is one of those issues (like food offered to idols in the NT) that is best handled at the local level. I do not want women’s ordination to be forced on those who would pay a heavy price in their culture for doing so. Similarly, those paying a heavy price for NOT ordaining women should be allowed to assess those costs and act as the Spirit leads. The world will not end and the church will not fall as a result.
The easy answers provided by selective proof-texting sound pious and “clear” but often don’t stand up to careful investigation. So the weight of evidence causes me to withhold judgment on women’s ordination in the Bible and similar issues. A proof-text reading of the Bible tends toward opposing women’s ordination because there is no explicit proof-text telling us to ordain women (or even giving us the concept of ordination, which was a later development). But there is a trend in the Bible toward justice, fairness and equality that leads me to believe God might have worked with the patriarchy of ancient times (God meets people where they are) without approving of it as the ideal. Today the world is trending toward justice and equality and that reality opens the way to see things in the Bible we hadn’t seen before.
Something similar happened in Acts 10-15. As a result of Peter’s experience with Cornelius, the whole church read the Old Testament differently (see Acts 15:13-18). Very few of those who oppose women’s ordination take a comprehensive view of the Bible. The few that do are forging a new path and I don’t find them very convincing at this point. While I don’t think the Bible settles the issue one way or the other, the trend of God’s working with humanity from Abraham to John the Revelator suggests that ordaining women will not bring about the end of civilization or the work of God on this earth. It actually might be just what the church needs in some places.
Human beings like quick fixes. The perfect proof text, the simple answer that settles everything. But I don’t think that approach does justice to the Word of God. When someone says “the Bible is clear” on a subject like women’s ordination, all I have learned from that is that the Bible is “clear” to that person. It is a fact of human nature that the less we know about any subject the more confident we tend to be in our opinions and conclusions. The confidence so many have in their conclusions on ordination is evidence to me that they haven’t looked seriously at the arguments against their point of view.
This scholarly tentativeness can be frustrating to people of faith, who are used to hearing quick and easy answers to difficult questions. But I think that frustration arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of what true scholarship really is. A true scholar is not someone who knows many things, rather, a true scholar is someone who knows how little he or she knows. It is just as important to know when you are ignorant as to know where you are an expert. Being a scholar is like a farmer standing at the edge of a field. As long as his or her knowledge is limited to the surface of the field, the farmer might seem to know everything there is to know about that field. But scholarship is like the same farmer digging a post-hole at the edge of a field (an analogy for the dissertation). The farmer now knows all (s)he needs to know about the contents of that post-hole. But digging the post-hole teaches the farmer something else. The farmer now knows how deep the entire field goes. By digging that post-hole the farmer’s awareness of ignorance has grown faster than his knowledge.
This is why biblical scholars rarely approach issues with the confidence and clarity that evangelists (like Bohr, Batchelor and Nelson) have. Evangelists have been able to narrow their biblical focus to the things that help them persuade people. This is a very important gift and a very important task. But the church would be unwise to draw its conclusions about the Bible from the limited perspective of the evangelist. While certainty is attractive, it can lead one to a false confidence. As the Apostle Paul said, “We know in part, we prophecy in part, . . . we see through a glass darkly.” Both methods of Bible study (see previous blog for details) are valuable. Both Bible scholars and evangelists have their place. A certain level of confidence is commendable. But the greatness of God suggests we submit our confidence to a reasonable humility.
Coming up: A concise and clear summary of where I stand on the question of women’s ordination and the Bible.
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.