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Key Questions on the Bible's Inspiration--Part 1 PDF  | Print |  E-mail


(Ways to Identify Contemporary Higher Criticism)
[Excerpted from the Author’s Must We Be Silent?]
Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Ph.D.
Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference

    Sometimes proponents of contemporary higher criticism resort to straw man arguments to articulate their views, or they employ impressive scholarly jargon to camouflage their babble over the Bible. They carefully ignore the substantive theological issues raised by their use of the liberal methodology. The result is that not a few are able to see through the smokescreen of the ideology of higher criticism.

    The purpose of this chapter is to focus on the key questions being raised by those opposing the church’s official positions. Clarifying the issues and identifying the relevant theological concerns in the Adventist debate over the Bible will enable readers to determine whether or not a person is employing the assumptions of higher criticism.

    Clarifying the Issues

    During the last decade scholars representing the two major sides in the Seventh-day Adventist cold war over the Bible published conflicting articles and books on the Bible. [1] As significant as these works may be, it is a mistake to treat any of them as the reference point for any serious discussion of the church’s understanding of the Bible’s inspiration, authority, and interpretation. [2]

    The Adventist church has explicitly expressed and clearly articulated its position on the Bible’s inspiration and interpretation. Therefore, those who discuss the hermeneutical crisis within the Adventist church should be encouraged to reckon with the official views before pointing to unauthorized opinions. [3]

    1. Two Facts. Two facts are often ignored in present discussions. First, the Seventh-day Adventists Church upholds the Bible as God’s inspired, trustworthy, and solely authoritative Word. This high view of Scripture is expressed in the first article of the church’s Fundamental Beliefs. Among other things, the first article of faith affirms that: (1) Scripture is of divine origin though written by human hands, (2) Scripture is an “infallible” revelation of God’s will, (3) Scripture is the sole-authoritative norm for religious doctrine, and (4) Scripture’s record of God’s acts in history is “trustworthy.” [4]

    Second, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a hermeneutic. The church’s position, setting forth the hermeneutical presuppositions, principles, and methods that are to govern its members’ approach to Scripture, was approved at the 1986 Annual Council of church leaders. The “Methods of Bible Study” document (or the “Rio Document,” as it is popularly referred to) is “addressed to all members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church with the purpose of providing guidelines on how to study the Bible, both the trained biblical scholar and others.” Among other things, the church rejects “even a modified use” of the historical-critical method as inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture itself. [5]

    Indeed, a careful study of official church publications during the past decade confirm that the positions of the Seventh-day Adventist church on the nature, authority, and interpretation of Scriptures have not changed, since they were last formulated in the 1980s. For example, the Adult Sabbath School Lessons for the first quarter of 1999 and its companion book titled Show and Tell, as well as the articles on “Revelation and Inspiration” and “Biblical Interpretation” in the recently released Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (2000), volume 12 of the commentary series, confirm the long-standing Adventist position on the full inspiration, infallibility, and trustworthiness of Scriptures. [6]

    2. Why the Controversy. As mentioned earlier, the current hermeneutical controversy in the church arises from the fact that some scholars within our ranks do not want to accept the established views of the church in their entirety. [7] Some take issue with aspects of Fundamental Belief #1, raising questions about the nature of the inspiration of the human and divine aspects of Scripture, and also about the nature of the Bible’s authority, infallibility and trustworthiness.

    Others are opposed to the hermeneutical position reflected in the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study” document, objecting to the church’s categorical rejection of the historical-critical method.[8] Still, others would not want to accept the authoritative guidance of Ellen G. White on theological and hermeneutical issues. [9]

    Even though the above concerns underlie Adventism’s ongoing civil-war over the modified use of the historical-critical method, much of the recent discussions have carefully avoided to mention these facts. Some prefer not to engage in the discussion, maintaining that debates over the Bible are unimportant or trivial domestic squabbles among quarrelsome Adventists.

    Other scholars are more negative in their assessment of these debates, claiming that they are attempts towards a theological witch hunt. To such, recent discussions over the Bible’s inspiration and interpretation are lamentable symptoms of “extreme fundamentalism” in the church, a theological neurosis believed to have been brought about by divisive individuals seeking to make mountains from mole hills. Those who share this view believe that consensus in Adventist interpretation can be reached merely by moving beyond these annoying discussions about the Bible and “embrace the Spirit.” [10]

    The failure to grasp the importance of the issues at stake in the debate have led some scholars to suggest that the term “historical-critical method” be abandoned altogether, ostensibly because it is so loaded and often misunderstood. They seem to assume that if the expression is not employed, the method will cease to be identified as historical-critical. Others have also simply dropped the word “critical” in the phrase “historical-critical method,” referring to their scholarly approach as the historical method or a historical analysis. Still, others prefer to disguise the method by repackaging it as principle approach, progressive approach, casebook approach, commonsense approach, contextual approach, matured approach, developmental approach, sensible approach. [11]

    These proposals are seriously misleading, in that they fail to discuss the real differences between the advocates and opponents of the historical-critical method.

    The Differences Between the Two Approaches

    It is possible that many who engage in discussions over the Bible are not fully aware of what the real issues are. As a first step in clarifying the questions associated with the use of contemporary higher criticism, I will briefly set forth the differences between the liberal methodology and the long-standing Adventist approach to the Bible.

    1. Methodological Assumptions. The difference between Adventists who seek a modified use of the historical-critical method and those who reject it does not lie in the fact that one method is scholarly and the other not. Both groups of scholars seek an understanding of Scripture that takes into account the historical and literary contexts of the Bible. The difference lies in the assumptions which undergird the respective methods.

    Unlike the official Adventist approach, advocates of the higher-critical methods assume that: (a) the Bible is not fully inspired (i.e., some parts of the Bible are more inspired than others); (b) the Bible is not fully trustworthy (because of alleged mistakes in some of the Bible’s historical and scientific assertions); (c) the Bible is not absolutely authoritative in all that it teaches or touches upon (portions allegedly shaped by the personal or cultural prejudices of the writers and their times are uninspired and not binding on us); and (d) there are internal discrepancies, contradictions, or inconsistencies in Scripture; this diversity in Scripture (i.e., pluralism or conflicting theologies in the Bible) is believed to be caused by the Bible’s many human writers. Are these assumptions valid?

    2. Historical Inquiry. The Adventists opposing the modified use of the historical-critical method do not object because they do not want to study the historical or cultural backgrounds of the Bible. They welcome the inquiry of those who accept what Scripture says as trustworthy and who desire simply to learn its meaning. What they reject is the intrusion of unbiblical assumptions drawn from secular thought, culture, or subjective experience as the basis to judge the credibility of the biblical record and to conjecture and reconstruct what may or may not have actually happened.

    The historical interpretation of the historical-critical method, if adopted, will breed a new papalism of scholars, since ordinary laypeople who are not trained as historians will be expected to depend on the experts for understanding the real historical backgrounds of the contents of the Christian faith. Besides, such a historical approach fails to show a way out should the historical experts disagree.

    How much easier it would be to follow the example of Jesus in simply taking the Bible as historically reliable. He believed in the historical trustworthiness of the account about Adam and Eve, Satan, Cain and Abel, Noah’s universal flood, and Jonah’s story (Matt 19:4, 5; 23:35; 24:38, 39; 12:40; etc.). Should we not? [12]

    3. Critical Reasoning. The difference between the traditional or official Adventist approach to Scripture and the historical-critical approach is not that the latter is critical while the former is not; both are critical, depending upon how one defines the term.

    If by critical interpretation we mean the answering of questions about the date, place, sources, background, literary character, credentials, and purposes of each biblical book or composition, then Adventists upholding the church’s position will have no difficulty in describing their own approach as critical. If, however, the term implies charging the Bible with untrustworthiness or fraudulence of any kind (which is what proponents of the historical-critical method intimate), then they are opposed to it.

    Adventists who are tempted to adopt the reasoning of the historical-critical method face a major dilemma. How do they exalt the Bible as the judge of human errors and at the same time keep the human interpreter as the arbiter of Scripture’s errors? How can they commend the Bible as a true witness yet charge it with falsehood? Is this not theological double-talk? It seems to me that those seeking to use modified versions of the higher-critical methodologies are riding two convictional horses---religious certainty about the Bible’s power, and an intellectual uncertainty about its full truth.

    4. Scientific Objectivity. The difference between the official Adventist approach and the historical-critical method is not that the latter is scientific or objective while the former is not. Such an assessment can only be made after understanding the meanings of the terms.

    If by scientific or objective is meant that one is neutral in one’s assumptions, then it must be pointed out that there has never been, and indeed, can never be, complete scientific objectivity or neutrality in the study of the Bible. For the moment anyone begins to interpret the biblical data, presuppositions set in. Therefore, the claim to divorce the study of Scripture from presuppositions (whether biblical or non-biblical), in the hope of achieving a scientific objectivity is not only impossible, but also an illusion.

    An interpretation can only be said to be genuinely scientific, in the proper sense if, and only if, it is wholly determined by the object of study---which in this case is Scripture itself, the self-revelation of God. Since the historical-critical method is shaped by some a priori philosophical presuppositions that are brought from outside to Scripture, it cannot legitimately be described as a scientific method. Only the church’s official position can correctly make that claim, for it seeks to interpret Scripture solely on the basis of correct inferences from Scripture.

    5. Doubts and Skepticism, the Result. In rejecting even a modified use of the historical-critical method, Seventh-day Adventists opposed to the method are guarding against the repudiation of biblical teaching and lifestyle that inevitably results once the method is adopted.

    This point is best illustrated from the published works of some of our scholars who have embraced modified versions of the method. As we have shown elsewhere, these scholars are not only questioning the trustworthiness of some scriptural accounts, but they are also raising doubts over basic Adventist teachings like a literal six-day creation, a worldwide flood, the Ten Commandments, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the sanctuary, clean and unclean meat, homosexuality, etc. [13]  

    It is evident from the above example that once we start questioning or passing judgment upon the Word of God, it does not take long before we begin to criticize or reject its message. This skepticism may explain why the Adventist pioneers were opposed to the use of higher criticism. [14]  It may also explain Ellen G. White’s unfavorable view about the method, tracing it to Satan himself. She writes:

Satan had the highest education that could be obtained. This education he received under the greatest of all teachers. When men talk of higher criticism, when they pass their judgment upon the word of God, call their attention to the fact that they have forgotten who was the first and wisest critic. He has had thousands of years of practical experience. He it is who teaches the so-called higher critics of the world today. God will punish all those who, as higher critics, exalt themselves, and criticize God’s Holy word (Review and Herald, March 16, 1897).

    The knowledge that “God will punish all those who, as higher critics, exalt themselves, and criticize God’s Holy word,” should caution us against the temptation of using even a modified version of the historical-critical method.

[Continue with Part 2]



[1]    In addition to several articles, four significant books emerged during the past ten years. In the early 1990's the two major works were Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991), and a response by Frank Holbrook and Leo van Dolson, eds., Issues in Revelation and Inspiration, Adventist Theological Society Occasional Papers vol. 1 (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society, 1992). In the later half of the 1990's the two conflicting views were articulated in the books by Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible Impact Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Berean Books, 1996) and George R. Knight, Reading Ellen White: How to Understand and Apply Her Writings (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1997). For more on this, refer to our discussion in chapter 22 of this present volume.

[2]    Besides the nature of the discussions, the focus on Inspiration and Receiving the Word at the expense of the church’s longstanding position is one of the major flaws in some recent articles. See, for example, Timothy E. Crosby, “The Bible: Inspiration and Authority,” Ministry (May 1998): 18-20; Robert M. Johnston, “The Case for a Balanced Hermeneutic,” Ministry (March 1999): 10-12.

[3]    This point is particularly pertinent in light of a misleading editorial comment in the April 1999 issue of Ministry, a journal published for Seventh-day Adventist ministers. Instead of pointing to the church’s official position, the editors recommend articles in their March 1999 issue as “more representative of our Church’s position on biblical hermeneutics.” An examination of their recommended articles, reveals, however, that at least one of them explicitly advocates the modified use of the historical-critical method, an approach that is rejected by the church. See editorial comment to P. Gerard Damsteegt’s article, “Scripture Faces Current Issues,” Ministry (April 1999): 23.

[4]    Fundamental Belief #1 states: “The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.”

[5]    At the 1986 Annual Council meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, church leaders representing all the world fields of the Seventh-day Adventist church approved the report of the General Conference’s “Methods of Bible Study Committee as representative of the church’s hermeneutical position. This document was published in the Adventist Review, January 22, 1977, pages 18-20, and reproduced as Appendix C in my Receiving the Word, 355-362. Generally, loyal Adventists embrace the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study” document as reflective of the principles of interpretation that have been historically accepted by Adventists. For a discussion of how Adventist scholars have reacted to the “Methods of Bible Study” document, see my Receiving the Word, 75-99.

[6]    The principal author of the first quarter 1999 Adult Sabbath School Lessons was Leo R. van Dolson; his companion book to the quarterly is titled, Show and Tell: How God Reveals Truth to Us (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1998). See also the articles by Peter M. van Bemmelen, “Revelation and Inspiration” and Richard M. Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, vol. 12 of commentary series (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2000), 22-57 and 58-104, respectively. Observe that “although each article [in the Handbook] is signed, it was agreed from the start that all contributions would be subject to review and suggestions from the Biblical Research Institute Committee (BRICOM), a group of 40 persons predominantly scholars but including a few administrators. With its international composition BRICOM was called to function as an efficient sounding board. . . . This book is not simply a collection of parts written separately by individual contributors. In fact, no part of it is the work of a single author. As the text proceeded through editing and consultation, all parts of the book and the book as a whole profited from this cooperative approach. The whole working team, i.e., authors and BRICOM members–many of whom were authors–could claim to be genuinely international. . . They wrote this work for a worldwide readership” (see Raoul Dederen’s “Preface” in Handbook, x-xi).

[7]    For more on this, see my Receiving the Word, especially chps. 4-6, 75-206. In response to this challenge, a June 1998 “International Bible Conference” was convened in Jerusalem to urge Adventist scholars and leaders around the world to reaffirm their commitment to the authority of Scripture. The Jerusalem Bible Conference was sponsored by the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of SDAs, the Adventist Theological Society, the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, and other SDA entities. The opening address was given by the President of the General Conference of SDAs.

[8]    Because of the “Methods of Bible Study” document’s categorical rejection of even a moderate use of the historical-critical method, some advocates of the method have also fought against it using the argument that it was an “approved,” and not a “voted,” document. In response, it should be noted that the intent of the world church regarding the 1986 document’s place in Adventist practice is not only indicated by its publication in Adventist Review (1987), but also in the reference to it in the 1988 book Seventh-day Adventists Believe, where it is cited among works furnishing “the general Seventh-day Adventist understanding of biblical interpretation” (see page 15, note 5). The introductory comment about this book is equally applicable to the “Methods of Bible Study” document: “While this volume is not an officially voted statement---only a General Conference in world session could provide that---it may be viewed as representative of ‘the truth . . . in Jesus’ (Eph. 4:21) that Seventh-day Adventists around the globe cherish and proclaim” (Seventh-day Adventists Believe, iv).

[9]    Just as every Christian denomination respects the interpretative insights of leading figures in their respective traditions, the Seventh-day Adventist church takes seriously the works of Ellen G. White. In fact, given their belief that Ellen G. White received the true prophetic gift, Adventists value her theological insights more highly than any uninspired authority or expert: “As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested” (SDA Fundamental Belief # 17). Thus, any credible discussion of Adventist hermeneutic must not fail to pay heed to Ellen White’s written statements.

[10]    See, for example, Charles Scriven’s Embracing the Spirit: An Open Letter to the Leaders of Adventism (Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, MD, 1997). For a response, see my In the Spirit of Truth: A Review of An Open Letter Titled “Embracing the Spirit” (Berrien Springs, MI: Berean Books, 1997).

[11]    For more on this, see Receiving the Word, 79-92, 167-175.

[12]    Ellen G. White also affirmed the full trustworthiness of the Bible’s historical accounts. The Holy Spirit “guided the pens of the sacred historians” in such a manner that “the Bible is the most instructive and comprehensive history that has ever been given to the world. . . . Here we have a truthful history of the human race, one that is unmarred by human prejudice or human pride” (Gospel Workers, 286; Fundamentals of Christian Education, 84-85; cf. Education, 173). There are no distortions in the biographies and history of God’s favored people for, in the words of Ellen White, “this history the unerring pen of inspiration must trace with exact fidelity” (Testimonies for the Church, 4:370). Whereas uninspired historians are unable to record history without bias, the inspired writers “did not testify to falsehoods to prevent the pages of sacred history being clouded by the record of human frailties and faults. The scribes of God wrote as they were dictated by the Holy Spirit, having no control of the work themselves. They penned the literal truth, and stern, forbidding facts are revealed for reasons that our finite minds cannot fully comprehend” (ibid., 9).

[13]    Besides the examples cited in chapter 22 of Must We Be Silent?, one may also refer to Receiving the Word, 105-111, 144-148, 156-163, 169-175, 181-194.

[14]    A detailed discussion of the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers’ attitude toward higher criticism can be found in Peter van Bemmelen’s paper, “Seventh-day Adventists and Higher Criticism in the Nineteenth Century,” Andrews University, 1977, available at the Ellen G. White Research Center of the James White Library, Andrews University, in Document File 391-h.; cf. idem, “The Mystery of Inspiration: An Historical Study About the Development of the Doctrine of Inspiration in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, With Special Emphasis on the Decade 1884-1893,” unpublished manuscript (1971), available at the James White Library, Andrews University.