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The Babble Over the Bible PDF  | Print |  E-mail


(Why the “Liberal” and “Conservative” Camps in the Church?)
Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Ph.D.
Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference
[Article excerpted from author’s Must We Be Silent?]

"Scripture is the foundation of the Church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of Scripture shines bright [sic]; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; . . . and as a rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church."---John Albert Bengel


    At a recent Michigan Conference camp meeting, a speaker shared with us the following story by an unknown author:

One Sunday, the minister was giving a sermon on baptism and in the course of his sermon he was illustrating the fact that baptism should take place by sprinkling and not by immersion [the method prescribed in the Scriptures]. He pointed out some instances in the Bible. He said that when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, it didn’t mean “in”; it meant “close to, round about, or nearby.” And again when it says in the Bible that Phillip baptized the eunuch in the river, it didn’t mean “in”--it meant "close to, round about, or nearby.”

After the service, a man came up to the minister and told him it was a great sermon, one of the best he had ever heard, and that it had cleared up a great many mysteries he had encountered in the Bible. “For instance,” he said, “the story about Jonah getting swallowed by the whale has always bothered me. Now I know that Jonah wasn’t really in the whale, but close to, round about, or nearby, swimming in the water. Then there is the story about the three young Hebrew boys who were thrown into the furious furnace, but were not burned. Now I see that they were not really in the fire, just close to, round about, or nearby, just keeping warm. But the hardest of all the stories for me to believe has always been the story of Daniel getting thrown into the lions’ den. But now I see that he wasn’t really in the lions’ den, but close to, round about, or nearby, like at the zoo. The revealing of these mysteries has been a real comfort to me because I am a wicked man. Now I am gratified to know that I won’t be in Hell, but close to, round about, or nearby. And next Sunday, I won’t have to be in church, just close to, round about, or nearby. Thanks. You have really put my mind at ease.”

    We may laugh at this story. But we need to remember that, in the realm of the church’s life and mission, there is also a subtle effort by entrenched liberalism within the church to overthrow biblical teaching and practice by undermining the Bible’s full inspiration, trustworthiness, and sole-authority. Let me explain.

    Assault on the Bible. Throughout centuries the Bible has come under vicious attack from critics outside the church. In some instances, the Bible was ridiculed, banned, and even burned. Yet the Bible not only has survived, but Christians have also received the Word as the inspired, reliable, and authoritative revelation of God’s will.

    Today, however, an assault on the Bible is coming from people claiming to be Christians and occupying positions of responsibility in the church. A careful look at the contemporary theological scene will reveal that much of today’s theological activity is directed towards discrediting the Bible or creating doubts over its trustworthiness and absolute reliability. Many theologians in the classrooms, many preachers in the pulpits, and many leaders in administrative positions are subtly creating doubts in the minds of their hearers by suggesting that the Bible can no longer be fully trusted on almost any issue.

    Nature of the Doubts. Contrary to the claims of the Bible, these dissenting theological voices allege that fulfilled prophecies of the Bible were actually written after the events took place. The Bible’s history, they say, is not historical, its science is not scientific, its stories are myths, its facts are fables, its heroes were immoral, and its ethics are not practical today. All these they present as new views of the Bible that will bring about a greater “appreciation” of the “beauty” of the Bible! To make this perspective palatable to unsuspecting believers, these critics have come up with different theories to explain the nature of the Bible (inspiration) and the appropriate method for its interpretation.

    These two subjects--inspiration and interpretation--have a bearing on whether the Bible is fully trustworthy, absolutely dependable, and completely reliable in all that it deals with. These questions of biblical inspiration and interpretation have contributed to doubting the Word.

    Theological Divisions. In my earlier book Receiving the Word, I explained how this crisis over the Word has caused division in various denominations. For lack of standard terminology, I described the three major positions in contemporary theology as: (i) the Liberal (Radical) position, (ii) the Conservative (Bible-believing) position, and (iii) the Moderate (Progressive/Accomodationist/neo-liberal) position. [1]

    These three factions are divided over their use of the method of higher criticism (or the historical-critical method), an approach growing out of the Enlightenment assumption (or basic presupposition) that denies miracles or supernatural intervention in history. [2] Radical liberals employ the method with its naturalistic (anti-supernaturalistic) presupposition; moderates/accommodationists believe they can use the method without its underlying assumptions; and conservatives find the method unacceptable since it cannot be separated from its basic presuppositions.

    Liberals: Bible Rejectors. Theological liberals deny the full trustworthiness of the Bible. Seeking to accommodate Bible truth to modern culture or science, they deny the validity of miracles and the supernatural, and they adopt the methods of higher criticism as the way to restore the truthfulness of the Bible. In terms of numbers, the liberals are relatively few, but they hold prominent positions in various theological institutions and sometimes in the churches.

    Their impact stems largely from the articles, books and commentaries on the Bible that they have published. These works are treated as the standard criteria for scholarship, and those who do not accord with them are treated as academic misfits. Because their publications tend to be reference works, when new believers or untrained students are exposed to them their faith in the Bible and its teachings is shaken.

    Conservatives: Bible Believers. Theological conservatives, as their name implies, seek to conserve or preserve the traditional view of Scripture against the newer views. This does not mean that they accept tradition uncritically or that they refuse to be open to new ideas. Rather, they aim to preserve the view of Scripture set forth in the inspired Word which has been the consensus of Christendom from its very beginning until modern times. Bible-believing conservatives accept the full reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible in matters of salvation as well as on any other subject the Bible touches upon. Conservative scholars also reject even a moderate use of the higher critical methodologies.

    As a conservative denomination, Seventh-day Adventists historically have affirmed their faith in the inspiration, unity, authenticity, and authority of the Bible as the Word of God in its totality. The very first of their Fundamental Beliefs reads: “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.” The conservative implications of this fundamental belief are reflected in the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study Report” voted by church leaders in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and published in the Adventist Review, January 22, 1987, pages 18-20 (and reproduced as appendix C in Receiving the Word).

    Generally, a large majority of church members tend to be conservative Bible-believing Christians. Recognizing the power of Christ in their own lives, they submit to the authority of their Savior and His written Word. In their search to know Christ and His Word better, these Christian believers sometimes find themselves confused and shaken by the discordant notes of liberals and moderates in the church.

    Moderates or Accommodationists: Bible-Doubters. Theological moderates give the appearance of being conservatives, and yet they hold onto a liberal agenda. Because they accommodate conservative beliefs to liberal thought, moderates can very well be described as accommodationists. Unlike liberals, moderates accept some or even all of the Bible’s miracles and supernatural events, but they maintain that the Bible is not fully reliable in everything it says since it contains some minor “mistakes,” “discrepancies,” “inconsistencies,” “inaccuracies,” or even “errors.”

    By errors they do not simply refer to the ones that apparently crept into the text during the process of copying the manuscripts (e.g., occasional discrepancies due to the copyists’ glosses, slips, misspellings, etc.) and which can be ascertained and corrected by comparing the various available manuscripts. [3] When moderate liberals speak of errors or discrepancies, they are referring to mistakes that are purported to have originated with the Bible writers themselves. These alleged errors include statements in the Bible that deal with chronology, numbers, genealogy, history, geography, and science, which the scholars insist are inaccurate.

    Moderates, however, argue that these “inaccuracies” are few and largely trivial factual mistakes. They also add that in the areas of religion and ethics, and especially in the central teachings regarding God, Christ, and salvation, the Bible is most dependable. Those in this group generally believe that it is possible to make a moderate use of the higher critical methodologies.

    Although the moderates do not come out as strongly as the radical liberals, yet in subtle ways they present modified and popular versions of liberalism to unsuspecting believers. Moderates tend to occupy high positions in the church where their neo-liberal influence is felt in the classrooms, in the pulpits, and in administrative decision-making. Therefore, when many church members speak of “liberals,” they are actually referring to these accommodationists in their churches.

    In short, (1) radical liberals accept the method of higher criticism with its basic presuppositions denying miracles; (2) moderate liberals (accommodationists) believe that modified versions of the method can be used apart from its basic presupposition; and (3) conservatives hold that the method is unacceptable because it cannot be isolated from its basic presupposition.

    Issue Dividing Factions. All the three factions–theological liberals, moderates/accommodationists, and conservatives–claim to take the Bible very seriously. Their quarrel over the Word started when some confronted seemingly unresolvable difficulties in Scripture. While the three groups all claimed that in the face of difficulties they would allow the Bible to speak for itself, it became apparent that letting the Bible “speak for itself” meant different things to liberals and moderates on the one hand and to Bible-believing conservatives on the other.

    Unlike conservatives who take very seriously the claims of the Bible to be truthful, liberals and accommodationists who come across difficulties in the Bible do three things. (1) They declare these problems as inaccuracies, contractions, or errors. (2) Then, to account for these alleged errors or contradictions in the Bible, they redefine the meaning of inspiration or the nature of the Bible to allow for the possibility of mistakes or inaccuracies in the Bible. (3) They adopt different versions of the higher critical methodology as appropriate in resolving the scriptural difficulties.

    Adventism’s Challenge.
In Receiving the Word, I also argued that the on-going theological debates in our own Seventh-day Adventist church, result largely from the cracks created in our theological foundation as some scholars have attempted to marry Adventism’s high view of Scripture with the moderate use of liberalism’s historical-critical method. I brought readers up-to-date, by documenting how entrenched liberalism within the church is attempting to undermine our biblical faith and lifestyle.

    Receiving the Word generated considerable interest, discussion, and heart-searching in the Adventist church. [4] On the whole, the overwhelming majority of Bible-believing Adventists worldwide–scholars, leaders, members, and students–embraced the book as reflective of the church’s long-standing position. Predictably, however, scholars who are sympathetic to the use of higher criticism loudly denounced the book for generating the energy for the Adventist church’s alleged drift towards fundamentalism. [5]

    Also, because the book attempted to uplift the trustworthiness of Scripture by demonstrating that many of its alleged errors, mistakes, or contradictions are either distortions due to the transmission process of its original text, or our failure to understand its true meaning, [6] some of the book’s critics mistakenly suggested that Receiving the Word teaches “inerrancy and verbalism,” popular expressions used to suggest a mechanical or verbal dictation view of Scripture. [7]

    As will become evident in the next chapters, these criticisms of the book came from individuals who have either embraced aspects of liberal higher criticism or who have seriously misunderstood the key theological and hermeneutical issues involved in matters dealing with the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.

    Key Issues. The critical issue we must address in the Adventist debate over the Word is whether or not we can legitimately use any version of contemporary higher criticism (the historical-critical method), since the method ultimately denies the full inspiration, reliability, unity, and normative authority of Scripture. The specific issues raised by the above question are as follows:

(a) Are there degrees of inspiration in the Bible, so that some parts of the Bible are more inspired than others?

(b) Are there inaccuracies, mistakes, or errors in Scripture, so that some of the Bible’s accounts (e.g., on history and science) are not fully trustworthy?

(c) Does one part of the Bible contradict another, so that there are conflicting theologies in the Bible?

(d) Does an insistence on sola scriptura (the Bible and the Bible only) allow Bible students to reinterpret Scripture by external norms like contemporary culture, psychology, philosophy, or science?

In other words, does the Bible merely contain “a great deal of accuracy” in its historical and scientific details? Or should the inspired Book be trusted as fully reliable in the areas and issues it teaches and touches upon?

    Forbidden Issue. What is really behind the mistaken claim that those who uphold the longstanding Adventist view on the Bible’s inspiration, trustworthiness, and sole authority are fundamentalists and verbal inspirationists?

    As we address this forbidden question we shall understand why some of our scholars oppose key concepts in our Fundamental Belief #1. We shall also identify the crucial questions one must ask to ascertain whether a person is using the methodology of liberal higher criticism.


[1]    As I explained in Receiving the Word, 58-59, although the terms, “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate,” are now employed in theological discussions, one crucial point should be emphasized in the use of these labels, namely: the terminology is also used, if not borrowed from, the world of politics. Because of the political undertones undergirding the use of these words and because it is very easy to mistakenly assume that the terms liberal, conservative, and moderate mean the same things in both politics and theology, it would have been preferable to avoid these labels altogether. Besides, these terms sometimes have completely opposite meanings from their usage in the past.
    For example, there was a time when a Christian could proudly carry the label of a liberal and boast of being warm-hearted or generous, open-minded, or free from narrow-minded thinking, prejudice or arbitrary authority. But as we shall show in the succeeding pages, today, when a Christian is described as a liberal, it connotes one who has betrayed the truths of the biblical religion, which if cherished can make a person truly generous, open-minded and free.
    Similarly, in the past the term conservative had negative undertones. In those days a conservative Christian described a person who blindly fastened himself to prevalent views; was cautious toward or suspicious of change or innovation and had a tendency to avoid open-minded discussions for fear of being won over to the other side. In fact, most of Ellen G. White’s usage of this term carried this negative meaning. Notice the context in which she employed the word: “But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, 38; cf. Testimonies to the Church, 5:706, 370; The Signs of the Times, December 10, 1894).
    Ellen G. White’s uncomplimentary use of the term conservative in other places of her works could aptly describe today’s theological liberals. She, for instance, classed the conservatives in her day among the “worldly” and “superficial” class; those whose influence retard the progress of God’s work by putting “worldly conformity” first and God’s cause second, or whose sympathies are with the enemies of God’s truth; those who instead of being true to biblical convictions would rather shape the scriptural message “to please the minds of the unconsecrated”; those who betray the cause of truth by compromises and concessions; those who choose to be “self-centered,” instead of “living the unselfish life of Christ”; and those who defer to the “traditions received from educated men, and from the writings of great men of the past,” instead of seeking guidance from the “holy principles revealed in the word of God.” (See Christian Service, 158; cf. Testimonies to the Church, 3:312; 5:463; Testimonies to the Church, 5:263; cf. Christian Leadership, 73; Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 21, 1914; Selected Messages, 3:397; cf. The Signs of the Times, January 3, 1884; Testimonies for the Church, 3:165; Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 30, 1899; Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 7, 1893; cf. Medical Ministry, 99)
    Therefore, because the theological labels--liberal, conservative, and moderate--also describe political views, and because today the usage of these terms often varies from its use in the past, our own preference would have been the following terms: Bible-rejectors, Bible-believers, and Bible-doubters. However, we have chosen to maintain the above theological labels because, rightly or wrongly, they are the best known. To avoid confusing the three warring factions in the Christian church’s ongoing quarrel over the Word, we shall now (a) briefly describe each of the theological divisions and (b) explain why they are engaged in this family feud.

[2]    Contemporary higher criticism or the historical-critical method is based on three key assumptions: (1) the principle of correlation, which says that every historical event must be explained solely by natural causes; (2) the principle of analogy, which holds that past events must be explained on the basis of present occurrences; and (3) the principle of criticism, which maintains that skepticism is the key to establishing truth. The German theologian and historian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) holds the distinction of formulating the three cardinal principles of the historical-critical method. For his contribution, see Robert Morgan, Introduction to Ernst Troeltsch: Writings on Theology and Religion, trans. And ed. Robert Morgan and Michael Pye (Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox, 1977). For a summary discussion of “Nineteenth-Centuy Protestant Liberalism,” see my “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical Interpretation: A Study in the Writings of James I. Packer,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Andrews University, 1998), 86-93.

[3]    A detailed discussion of these transmission errors is found in chapter 8 of Receiving the Word, 225-236.

[4]    For conflicting reviews of the book, see George W. Reid (pro) and George R. Knight (con) in Ministry, December 1997, 30-31. Reid is director of the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute, and Knight is a professor of Church History at the SDA Theological Seminary.

[5]    See Charles Scriven, “Embracing the Spirit,” Spectrum 26 (September 1997): 28-37; Norman H Young, “‘Moderate Liberalism’ Threatens Adventism,” Spectrum 26 (May 1997): 49-50.

[6]    See Receiving the Word, 279-304.

[7]    George R. Knight, “Review of Receiving the Word,” in Ministry, December 1997, 30; cf. his, “The Case of the Overlooked Postscript: A Footnote on Inspiration,” Ministry August 1997. Cf. 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.