Larry Kirkpatrick

A Positive Place on the Web for the Third Angel's Message

Rightly Dividing the Word, part 1: God Will have a People

kirkpatrick-sm2013-handout1.pdf (Introduction and Survey of the History of Biblical Interpretation )


As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe that God has called us. A part of our mission is especially outlined in this statement:

God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority--not one or all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain 'Thus saith the Lord' in its support (The Great Controversy, p. 595).

Notice, God will have "a people." There are many peoples, many groups, which exemplify the opposite, aren't there--groups who make the wrong sources just mentioned the standard and basis for what they do. How many churches rely upon ecclesiastical councils composed entirely of their bishops, or theories prominent in the age, like evolution, or lists of dogma cemented by ages of tradition?

God intendeds that the Seventh-day Adventist Church shall be different. Not merely a subgroup of Adventists, but all Adventists, "a people," are to come into clarity and understand what we believe based upon a plain reading of the Scriptures.

We are to let the Bible itself provide its own baseline understanding for how it is to be interpreted. This doesn't mean that it will always be easy to determine the plain meaning, but that we have the expectation that in the end we shall be able to sufficiently determine what the plain meaning is, to find the path where God is leading us.

In other places Ellen White speaks also of our surrendering individual judgment to the larger Seventh-day Adventist Church. When the Church speaks in a General Conference session, its decisions are to be respected. White's statement in The Great Controversy, p. 595, then, is not about ignoring the SDA Church. We are not isolated atoms; we are a movement, a remnant, a church, and we are committed to following Spirit-guided, biblically faithful, collective decision-making conducted by the combination of clergy and laity of the Church. If we will follow divine counsel, looking for plain Bible evidence upon which to base our beliefs, reforms, and points of religious faith, we will be prepared for our mission.

In this and my following three sessions, we will speak plainly about doctrine, specifically, the kind of Bible interpretation that enables us to accomplish this objective of grasping the plain teaching of the Bible on points of Present Truth.

We shall pull back the veil and show why we cannot follow the opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds, the decisions of ecclesiastical councils, or the voice of the majority, when it comes to what we believe and practice. I want to share how you can strengthen your Bible study skills so that you can discern the plain teaching of the Word of God.

But there is a problem. Unless we understand something of what led up to the beginning of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and what has happened since its launch, we will not understand the critical situation in which we now find ourselves. We tend to assume that we can merely quote the right verses, listeners will see the clarity of our reasoning and accept the testimony of the Bible.

But people are not falling over themselves to become Seventh-day Adventists.

In part, this is because, while we rightly look to the Bible and its straightforward interpretation for what we are to do, we do not have a good understanding of how others are thinking about the Bible and its interpretation. We shall now discover how that is the case with a brief survey of the history of biblical interpretation.

We need to know what ideas were current in biblical interpretation when God raised up this Remnant people to uphold the Scriptures. Friends, Christianity was almost literally burning down all around our pioneers. The same principles that were destroying religious bodies then have not gone away; they have developed into ever more subtle approaches. They are more dangerous now than then and are ready to destroy the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. If we forget how we've been led, if we do not know why we were led, why our approach must be different, we will doubtless absorb the same disasterous approach to the Bible that has wrecked Babylon. The Beginning of the Bible and Necessity of Interpretation

One last preliminary item: is it necessary to interpret the Bible or not? Can't we just read it without interpreting it? Think about that question. Before there is interpretation, there is the beginning of the Bible. Listen to Ellen White:

During the first twenty-five hundred years of human history, there was no written revelation. Those who had been taught of God, communicated their knowledge to others, and it was handed down from father to son, through successive generations. The preparation of the written word began in the time of Moses. Inspired revelations were then embodied in an inspired book. This work continued during the long period of sixteen hundred years--from Moses, the historian of creation and the law, to John, the recorder of the most sublime truths of the gospel.

The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all 'given by inspiration of God' (2 Timothy 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men. The Infinite One by His Holy Spirit has shed light into the minds and hearts of His servants. He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed have themselves embodied the thought in human language (The Great Controversy, p. v).

God is the Author, but the light given to His human agents is expressed in the words of men. Divine thoughts are embodied in human language. The thoughts of others can be challenging to figure out sometimes. The text of the Bible, whenever we read it, must be interpreted.

Most often the problem with interpretation is not obscurity; it is with the fact that we understand things too well. A statement like Philippians 2:14 that says, "Do all things without murmurings and disputings," is not hard to understand but hard to obey. We can understand the Bible. The default position as stated by Ellen White, is that, the "plain meaning" is there.

The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed (The Great Controversy, p. 598).

Every reader is at the same time an interpreter. Do we start, though, by looking for the plain meaning, or for some symbolic meaning? What we think we find is powerfully influenced by what we expect to find. The expectations that you bring to a text concerning its meaning govern its interpretation unless those expectations are modified. It is impossible not to bring who you are with you to the Bible.

What's more, if you are working from an English Bible, you are already involved in interpretation. Translation is a necessary part of interpretation. Whatever translation you are using, it is your beginning point. But it is the end result of much work and interpretation others have already engaged in. You are already quite a long ways down the road of interpretation when you are only just opening the pages of your Bible.

We are not limited only by our human frailty, or, by our limited information and abilities. The Bible itself is a combination, an indivisible blend: divine thoughts with human words. Written long ago, in a culture alien to us, it is also His transcendent and eternal Word. And so, we must interpret. That task has two parts: (1) our attempt to hear what they heard in the way that they heard it, and (2) our attempt to hear the same Word but in the here and now. In all this, the original meaning of the text is the objective point of control. Our part is to seek out that original meaning. The true meaning of a biblical text is what God originally intended it to mean when first spoken.

When you boil everything down, interpretation is the whole game. Whatever is decided concerning interpretation all but determines the outcome. All theological battles, all determination of the church's relation to truth and error, is accomplished in the selection of the interpretive approach.

Survey of the History of Biblical Interpretation

The Bible must be interpreted. The devil was not asleep in the days when revelation was being given. He was thinking about this extraordinary phenomenon of inspired thought and human words all along. Naturally then, what began in a relatively straightforward manner soon became a forest because the devi has been quite busy planting new trees! And we shall not see how important is our topic unless we engage now in a survey of the history of biblical interpretation.

Hillel (c. 110 bc-10ad)

We may as well start with Rabbi Hillel, immediately before Christ. Hillel did not originate but was the first to write down seven rules for interpretation. They are mostly straightforward and if we took the time to examine them at any length, we would see that we use these rules in most of our interpretation today.

The Seven Rules of Hillel

  1. Light and heavy (what applies in a less important case will certainly apply in a more important case. ("How much more") (e.g. Proverbs 11:31).
  2. Equivalence of expressions (where the same words are applied to two separate cases, the same considerations apply to both) (e.g. 1 Samuel 1:10 cf. Judges 13:5).
  3. Building up a family from a single text (A principle is found in several passages: A consideration found in one of them applies to all)
  4. Building up a family from two or more texts (A principle is established by relating two texts together: The principle can then be applied to other passages) (Hebrews 1:5-14)
  5. The General and particular (A general principle may be restricted by a particularization of it in another verse--or, conversely, a particular rule may be extended into a general principle.) (Genesis 1:27 cf. 2:7, 21)
  6. Analogy made from another passage (Two passages may seem to conflict until compared with a third, which has points of general though not necessarily verbal similarity.) (Leviticus 1:1; cf. Exodus 25.22 cf. Numbers 7:89).
  7. Explanation obtained from context (The total context, not just the isolated statement must be considered for an accurate exegesis) (e.g. Romans 14:1) .

The seven rules of Hillel, insofar as they are extracted from the text itself, are more or less the foundation for all following biblical interpretation.

Antioch versus Alexandria; Origen, Allegory, the Quadriga

The viewpoint which unfortunately soon became a minority trend was that of the school of Antioch, which sought to practice a kind of interpretation which sought to discover the plain meaning of the text. In contrast to this were the allegorizing views of the "early church fathers," the "patristic" period. An early example of this was a fellow who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, named Origen (c. 184-253). He would spin-out "spiritual" meanings based on names, and persistently fled from literal and historical meanings to allegorical ones.

Origen made his emphasis not the plain sense of the text, but replaced that with allegories by which he explained the text. That allegory was then seen to reveal the intended meaning of that text. What the text actually said was no longer what it was thought to mean; the allegory became the authoritative element. The idea illustrated by the allegory was imposed onto the text. The text decreased but the allegory (and its human creator/interpreter) increased.

Origen's allegorizing is seen in his interpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan.

The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn] which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. . . . The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming (from, accessed 2013-07-04, Origen, Homily 34.3, Joseph T. Lienhard, trans., Origen: Homilies on Mark, Fragments on Mark, 1996, 138).

This kind of interpretation continued through the medieval ages. John Cassian (ca. 360 - 435) teaches "the fourfold sense" of Scripture early in the fifth century. For centuries exegetes were taught the rhyme, "The letter shows us what God and our fathers did; the allegory shows us where our faith is hid; the moral meaning gives us the rules of life; the anagogy shows us where we end our strife"). Anagogy is the mystical interpretation, more mystical even than the allegorical.

A thousand years later, we come to Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) finding the "allegorical sense" remains a prominent concern. Luther also was taught Cassian's "Quadriga" (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical). Luther later called allegorization "mere jugglery," "a merry game," "monkey tricks." He said, "When I was a monk I was an adept in allegory. I allegorized everything" (Martin Luther, WA (Weimarer Ausgabe) I, p. 136). Nor did Luther completely eradicate his allegorization, but often relapsed.

Luther's Gospel Principle versus Calvin's Theolegoumenon

Martin Luther is well known to us for his urgent principle of Sola Scriptura, deciding matters not on the basis of the early church fathers or the councils, but Scripture.

Alas, Luther but rarely effectively carried out this ideal. When it came to "unclear texts," Luther said that what the text meant was to be decided on the basis, not of the so-called "fathers," but by Christ in relation to the gospel. Unfortunately, Luther here opened a dangerous space for subjectivity. He legitimized the operation of a "canon within a canon."

All the Bible is inspired, but when we favor a certain part and minimize the importance of other parts, or we make one idea central while neglecting other important themes, we are creating a canon within a canon. This making of the gospel central may sound quite pious. But who then determines which ideas are included in the gospel? This will be fatal later for Lutherans, for it will be used to bring evemntually to bring the acceptance of homosexual sin to all the large Lutheran bodies. By subtly redefining what the "center of the gospel" is, by claiming that certain egalitarian assumptions are part of it, Scripture passages that mandate otherwise will be declared merely local or time-conditioned. The "gospel" will rule, but is it TO EVANGELLION or is it a blended construct, part of God and part of man?

We come also to Calvin (1509 - 1564). In his case, the Bible is from God; God Himself is the speaker. The result is that the Bible is taken more literally. John Calvin, Institutes I, VII, 5:

Paul testifies that the Church is 'built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,' (Eph. 2: 20.) If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist. . . if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed. Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent.

It would take us beyond our topic, but it is also important to recognize that both Luther and Calvin were deeply entrenched in the thought of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo from 1,000 years before, many of whose theological views became dominent in Christianity from then until the day of the reformers. Luther and Calvin, used of God as they were, were coming from the place of being "all buried up in error" (Early Writings, p. 222).

Additional Developments

Andreas Osiander (b. 1543) publishes De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. and Johannes Kepler (b. 1571) builds on this. The eventual result will be the practical separation of scientific questions from the Scripture.

Rene Descartes (b. 1637) introduced radical doubt. Followers carried this further than Descarte, questioning faith and Scripture.

Jean Mabillon (b. 1686) offers a system for determining the date and authenticity of ancient documents. Mabillon's ideas formed the basis of the modern practice.

Baruch Spinoza published his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). Spinoza's view boils down to the Bible being studied as any other book.

For as the highest power of Scriptural interpretation belongs to every man, the rule for such interpretation should be nothing but the natural light of reason which is common to all--not any supernatural light nor any external authority; moreover, such a rule ought not to be so difficult that it can only be applied by very skilful philosophers, but should be adapted to the natural and ordinary faculties and capacity of mankind (Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ch. VII, 196).

Reason is sufficient according to Spinoza; no supernatural help or insight is needed to understand the Bible.

Another development was by the French priest Richard Simon, Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1670) and Histoire critique du texte du Nouveau Testament (1689). Simon combined the principles which would later be seen in the historical-critical method. As a Catholic, his goal was to support the Roman Catholic plan of the Bible plus tradition, and to attack the Protestant plan of Sola Scriptura. However, even though his work received the imprimatur, it aroused serious resistence and his books were placed on the Index of forbidden books. Their circulation was quite limited.

Next you have John Locke and reason as natural revelation (Essay on Human Understanding, 1690). This prepares the way for Deism, peaking 1700 - 1750.

The Enlightenment (c. 1650 – 1800)

Different flavors:

  • French: Reason discovers truth; atheistic
  • German: There is God, but reason, not Scripture, is primary in finding Him
  • Scottish: There is indeed God. Reason, practicality, realism, reject skepticism

From Immanuel Kant's 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!'--that is the motto of enlightenment. . . Men work themselves gradually out of barbarity if only intentional artifices are not made to hold them in it. . . I have placed the main point of enlightenment--the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage--chiefly in matters of religion because. . . religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all. . . As nature has uncovered from under this hard shell the seed for which she most tenderly cares--the propensity and vocation to free thinking--this gradually works back upon the character of the people, who thereby gradually become capable of managing freedom; finally, it affects the principles of government, which finds it to its advantage to treat men, who are now more than machines, in accordance with their dignity.

Kant is here pounding on dogmatic religion and applauding reason, free-thought, and government encouragement of that. Remember, the Reformation had giantly changed the balance of power from church to state. Kant and others saw the state as an engine of reason that would help mankind advance to new heights now that the chains of superstition (belief in the Bible) were off. Bible religion was out, natural religion, even atheism, in!

This was the background in which developed what came to be known as the Historical-critical method.

Unelaborated notes:

  • Rationalist antisupernaturalism (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (1737 - 1794).
  • Barthold Georg Niebuhr, Romische Geshichte (1811 – 1812). "What is the evidence?"
  • Friedrich Schleirmacher, Hermeneutik (1838).

Schleiermacher's great prestige made the use of philological and historical methods respectable in Germany. Biblical studies shifted to the universities, where a new sense of freedom made impartial and objective research the ideal (Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, p. 24).

Reading the Bible as any other book:

It is difficult to overestimate the significance the nineteenth century has for biblical interpretation. It made historical criticism the approved method of interpretation. The result was a revolution of viewpoint in evaluating the Bible. The Scriptures were, so to speak, secularized. The biblical books became historical documents to be studied and questioned like any other ancient sources. The Bible was no longer the criterion for the writing of history; rather history had become the criterion for the understanding the Bible. The variety in the Bible was highlighted; its unity had to be discovered and could no longer be presumed. The history it reported was no longer assumed to be everywhere correct. The Bible stood before criticism as defendant before judge (Krentz, p. 30, emphasis in original).

Hermann Gunkell (1862 - 1932). Form criticism, History of religions school.

First World War calls into question the previous optimism. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann.

Historical-Critical Method Described

Remember, the "historical-critical method" is really collection of principles employed together. The Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3rd ed. outlines these as (I have adapted from p. 78):

  1. Reality is uniform and universal.
  2. Reality is accessible to human reason and investigation.
  3. All events occuring in it are interconnected and comparable by analogy.
  4. Human experience today provides criteria to determine what could and could not have happened in the past.

Edgar Krentz in The Historical Critical Method (p. 55) speaks of the following three principles (adapted). Ernst Troeltsch (1865 - 1923) was the first to express these together in this way.

  1. Principle of methodological doubt, criticism. (Religious tradition must be subjected to criticism).
  2. Principle of analogy. Present experience and occurance are the criteria for the probability of things claimed to have happened in the past.
  3. Principle of correlation. All historical phenomena are interrelated. This principle rules out miracles and salvation history.

The desire of the adherents of higher criticism was to be "scientific" and "free of bias."

One more description that might be useful is the following by former historical-critical scholar Eta Linnemann:

. . . [E]very sentence is suspected of containing Luke's theology rather than a reliable report of what actually happened, and that theology is presented as practically obverse of good theology. Using grotesque literary methods which would lead immediately to absurd results if they were ever applied to the work of a poet or a theologian--say a Goethe, or Barth--claims of inauthenticity are established for the pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Ephesians, and Colossians. . . Differences between individual books of Holy Scripture are blown out of proportion and played up as inconsistencies. . . . one finds in the Bible only a handful of unrelated literary creations. . . they are not considered to be revelation. They are regarded merely as literary and theological creations. . . . Since the content of biblical writings is seen as merely the creations of theological writers, any given verse is nothing more than a non-binding, human theological utterance (Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology?, pp. 85, 86).

Ellen White took an equally dim view of historical-criticism, which in her day was known as "higher criticism":

The warnings of the word of God regarding the perils surrounding the Christian church belong to us today. As in the days of the apostles men tried by tradition and philosophy to destroy faith in the Scriptures, so today, by the pleasing sentiments of higher criticism, evolution, spiritualism, theosophy, and pantheism, the enemy of righteousness is seeking to lead souls into forbidden paths. To many the Bible is as a lamp without oil, because they have turned their minds into channels of speculative belief that bring misunderstanding and confusion. The work of higher criticism, in dissecting, conjecturing, reconstructing, is destroying faith in the Bible as a divine revelation. It is robbing God’s word of power to control, uplift, and inspire human lives. By spiritualism, multitudes are taught to believe that desire is the highest law, that license is liberty, and that man is accountable only to himself (Acts of the Apostles, p. 474).

White identifies higher criticism/historical-critical method as a form of speculative belief involving dissecting, conjecturing about, and reconstructing the message of the Bible. It increases misunderstanding of the Scriptures. No wonder then that the SDA Church addressed the historical-critical method in the 1974 Bible conferences and extending to the 1986 Annual Council in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, the document "Bible Study: Presuppositions, Principles, and Methods," was voted accepted. This document posed the Historical-critical method in contrast to the Historical-grammatical method. Hear what the Seventh-day Adventist Church said about the Historical-critical method:

In recent decades the most prominent method in biblical studies has been known as the historical-critical method. Scholars who use this method, as classically formulated, operate on the basis of presuppositions which, prior to studying the biblical text, reject the reliability of accounts of miracles and other supernatural events narrated in the Bible. Even a modified use of this method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists.

The historical-critical method minimizes the need for faith in God and obedience to His commandments. In addition, because such a method de-emphasizes the divine element in the Bible as an inspired book (including its resultant unity) and depreciates or misunderstands apocalyptic prophecy and the eschatological portions of the Bible, we urge Adventist Bible students to avoid relying on the use of the presuppositions and the resultant deductions associated with the historical-critical method.

Ellen White wrote about higher criticism in another place, in 1893:

A day or two later, some one brought to Elder Starr a pamphlet containing the sermon of an influential Wesleyan minister delivered at a recent conference held in Dunedin, in which he defended the 'higher criticism' of the Bible, and made light of the opinion that it is a divine book, and that all portions of it are inspired. This led to more lessons on this subject, and a sermon on the 'Higher Criticism' that was well attended by the people of Napier. We were surprised to see the extent to which our own brethren had been affected by this infidelity. We see more and more clearly, that, in all our labours, the Bible must be exalted, and that our people must come to know the wisdom and the power that are in the Word of God. To the close of the meeting, and in all our labours since, this subject has been made prominent (Bible Echo, June 1, 1893).

So, here is Ellen White, an evangelistic meeting is under way. A new distraction comes in. And our Adventists? "We were surprised to see the extent to which our own brethren had been affected by this infidelity."

No wonder then she had written in The Great Controversy that the opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds, the decisions of ecclesiastical councils, and the voice of the majority, were all to be laid aside for the plain meaning of the Bible so far as could be determined.

In a way, we have not gone quite far enough here, but this is where we stop for now. We have been unpacking two millenniums. We'll leave the strong and more recent impact of postmodern interpretation for another presentation.


We have surveyed the history of interpretation because it giantly matters. Every Bible reader is also an interpreter. We, upon whom the end of the ages is come, must, all of us, interpret. And today we must do so in an ideological environment that has been carefully developed so as to make it as lethal as possible.

All the understanding of God's people is determined by what He has sent to us and preserved for us in His Word. Why have we just considered centuries of strangeness and often error? We shall set forth tomorrow morning an awesome fact: there is a Seventh-day Adventist way, that is, a Bible-way, of interpreting Scripture. And whereas today we have shown something of the jungle, tomorrow we'll share the means God has given us for finding our way through it to a successful exit.


Republic WA Sheridan Meadows Camp Meeting UCC 2013-07-24