Larry Kirkpatrick

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Rightly Dividing the Word, part 2: Opposing the Historical-critical and Embracing the Historical-grammatical Method

What Is and Is Not Bible Study?

We have significantly lost something which we must recover, or else fail in the Heaven-assigned mission we have embarked upon. It is very important that we understand what is and is not actual Bible study.

Bible study is not watching or listening to the latest sermon from your favorite preacher. Sitting here in this camp meeting, listening, even if you are thoughtfully and biblically engaged, is not Bible study. Laying in your bed every morning reading for an hour from a deep theological book you bought off of Amazon is not Bible study. Opening your Bible once a week during Sabbath School, even with an excellent teacher, hardly constitutes the kind of Bible study which we must engage in. All these thins are good, even spiritually helpful. Yet even more necessary is Actual Bible study.

Actual Bible study of the variety that can justly be identified as such, means to sit down in quietness with a refreshed, engageable mind and engaging it to study Scripture in depth. It means working, and I mean working, through those passages which are especially pertinent to your study. It means being willing to be challenged in one's approaches and study methods. It means the expenditure of personal time, prayerfully, thoughtfully with God in a focused, intentional effort to be receptive to His Holy Spirit and to understanding and applying His Word in your life.


As we stated in yesterday's presentation, there is a Seventh-day Adventist way of interpreting the Bible. And while we cannot understand as much why this is so important before considering my two following presentations, I am going to present it now, praying that you will have a stronger appreciation after you have heard the whole series.

We have the hand-out that we mentioned yesterday. It's official name is, "Bible Study: Presuppositions, Principles, and Methods." You may remember it better if you think of it as the "Rio" document.


The Rio document is the Seventh-day Adventist Church's definitive answer to the question of what to do or not do about the historical-critical approach to the Bible. The church chose to do something about it. Very simply, the Church stated that we have no agreement at all with the historical-critical method, and then spent the other 98% of the document outlining our positive, longstanding alternative: the historical-grammatical method.

Some have claimed that Rio and the Historical-grammatical method was something new, unknown to Adventism prior to 1970. And yet, just as the Historical-critical method is cross-cutting, affecting numerous denominations with a variety of theological backgrounds, so too is it to be anticipated that a methodology approaching the Bible from a standpoint of faith would be articulated among numerous denominations with a variety of theological backgrounds. For example, before Rio in 1986, the Chicago Statement of Hermeneutics was developed in 1982 and signed by 100 scholars from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Further back, we find the Historical-grammatical method outlined in 1924 by the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Ludwig Ernst Fuerbringer in "Theological Hermeneutics: An outline for the classroom." An examination of these examples shows that, with minor variations, both compare well with the Rio statement.

Another source, a current theological textbook by Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva, Biblical Hermeneutics, 1994, speaks of the method, identified as such as far back as 1788. The terms "Grammatical-historical," "Grammatico-historical," and "Historical grammatical," "Syntactical-theological," with and without hyphens, are all interchangable and refer to the same understanding. Sometimes you will see it suggested that Martin Luther used the Historical-grammatical method.

Through the Rio Document Statement-by-statement

1. Preamble

  • The guidance in this document is for all members of the SDA Church.
  • All methods acceptable which are consistent with Bible claims and teachings.
  • The Historical-critical method has been the most prominent false appproach.
  • The Historical-critical method does not see Bible history as being authentic, includes the principle of criticism, subordinates the Bible to human reason.
  • Adventists do not accept even a modified use of the Historical-critical method.
  • Adventists use the Historical-grammatical method.
  • The Bible is a blend of the divine and the human.

2. Presuppositions Arising From the Claims of Scripture

  • a. Origin
    1. The Bible is the Word of God, His primary and authoritative self-revelation.
    2. Divine thought in human words. 2 Peter 1:21; cf. The Great Controversy, pp. v, vi.
    3. All Scripture inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Not continuous chain. Scripture interprets Scripture. Is consistent, harmonious (Hebrews 1:1, 2); Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 19, 20; The Great Controversy, pp. v, vi.
    4. Given in a particular cultural context, but transcends; not culturally conditioned.
  • b. Authority
    1. OT/NT clear, infallible revelation of God’s will and salvation. Bible alone is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested (2 Tim. 3:15, 17; Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 2 Thess. 3:14; Heb. 4:12).
    2. Scripture authentic, reliable record, is the normative theological interpretation. Supernatural acts in Scripture historically true (e.g. Gen. ch. 1-11).
    3. Bible is indivisible blend of divine/human. Human study methods inadequate. Only a method that fully recognizes the indivisible nature of the Scriptures can avoid distortion.
    4. Human reason subject to Bible, not equal to or above it. Presuppositions must harmonize with claims of the Bible, and are subject to correction by them (1 Cor. 2:1-6).
    5. Revelation of God in nature, properly understood, harmonizes with the written Word.

3. Principles for Approaching the Interpretation of Scripture

  • a. Believers able to accept, understand, apply Bible to own life, seeking divine power to obey all scriptural requirements and appropriate personally all promises. Is necessary tp follow light already received to receive further illumination (John 16:13, 14; 1 Cor. 2:10-14).
  • b. Necessity of Holy Spirit.
  • c. Bible must be studied by faith in a teachable spirit. Must be willing to submit all presuppositions, opinions, conclusions to correction of the Word. May understand salvation apart from human explanations.
  • d. Necessity of a sincere desire to discover and obey God's will and word.

4. Methods of Bible Study

  • a. Select Bible version faithful to meaning contained in languages it was written in. No major doctrinal points requiring certain version.
  • b. Engage in definite plan of study
  • c. Seek the simple, most obvious meaning.
  • d. Seek underlying major themes. Two special themes: The person and work of Jesus; the great controversy perspective.
  • e. Bible its own interpreter; compare scripture with scripture.
  • f. Study the context.
  • g. Ascertain historical circumstances.
  • h. Determine literary type. Certain Bible versions especially helpful.
  • i. Do not force a text to fit predetermined categories.
  • j. Note grammar and sentence construction to discover author's meaning.
  • k. In connection with the biblical text, explore historical and cultural factors.
  • l. Ellen G. White's expositions are an inspired guide to the meaning of texts without exhausting their meaning or preempting necessity of exegesis (e.g., Evangelism, 256; The Great Controversy, 193, 595; Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 665, 682, 707-708; Counsels to Writers and Editors, 33-35).
  • m. After studying as outlined above, consider commentaries, etc., Carefully evaluate.
  • n. Prophecy.
    1. The Bible claims God’s power to predict the future (Isa. 46:10).
    2. Prophecy, moral purpose; not to satisfy curiosity. Some purposes: strengthen faith (John 14:29), promote holy living, readiness for Advent (Matt. 24:44; Rev. 22:7, 10, 11).
    3. The focus of much prophecy is on Christ (both His first and second advents), the church, and the end-time.
    4. Norms for interpreting prophecy in the Bible itself: time prophecies and historical fulfillments; NT cites fulfillments in OT Messianic prophecies; OT presents types of the Messiah.
    5. NT application OT prophecies, some literal names become spiritual.
    6. Two types prophetic writings: non apocalyptic, and apocalyptic. a. Different characteristics: NA addresses God's people; A more universal. b. NA often conditional, obedience or curses; A emphasize sovereignty of God. c. NA leaps from local crisis to end-time; A course of history to end of the world. d. Time prophecies in NA generally long (Gen. 15:13; Jer. 25:12). Time prophecies in A generally phrased in short terms (Rev. 2:10; 13:5). A stand symbolically for longer periods of actual time.
    7. A is highly symbolic, interpret accordingly. In interpreting symbols, the following methods may be used: a. Look for interpretations (explicit or implicit) in passage itself (Dan. 8:20, 21; Rev. 1:20). b. Look for interpretations elsewhere in the book or writings by same author. c. Use concordance, study symbols. d. Study ANE documents, although scriptural use may alter meanings.
    8. Literary structure often aids interpreting it. e.g. Parallels in Daniel.
  • o. Parallel accounts in Scripture, differences in detail, emphasis (Matt. 21:33, 34; Mark 12:1-11; and Luke 20:9-18; or 2 Kings 18-20 with 2 Chron. 32). Verify parallels actually refer to same historical event. Total message of Bible is synthesis of all parts. Each book or writer communicates that which the Spirit has led him to write. Each makes his own special contribution to the richness, diversity, and variety (The Great Controversy, pp. v, vi). Reader must allow each Bible writer be heard while recognizing unity. Look for underlying harmony. Dissimilarities, minor errors of copyists (Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 16), or result of differing emphases and choice of materials, written for different audiences (Selected Messages, Book 1, pp. 21, 22; The Great Controversy, vi). May not be possible to reconcile minor dissimilarities . Suspend judgment.
  • p. Scriptures practical--reveal will of God to humanity. Addressed to peoples of Eastern cultures and expressed in their thought patterns. Some expressiosn commonly misunderstood (1 Sam. 16:15; Matt. 12:40, etc.). Scriptures commonly credit God with doing actively that which in Western thought we would say He did not prevent. Command to Israel to engage in war and execute entire nations (Gen. 18:25). Not a direct model for Christian practice. God did not all that He permitted. Jesus made this clear in His statement with regard to divorce (Matt. 19:4-6, 8). Christ Himself is the ultimate revelation of God's character to humanity (Heb. 1:1-3). God progressively unfolded His revelation to men as they were able to grasp it (John 16:12; The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 945; Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 21). Every experience or statement of Scripture is a divinely inspired record, but not every statement or experience is necessarily normative for Christian behavior today. Both the spirit and the letter of Scripture must be understood (1 Cor. 10:6-13; The Desire of Ages, 150; Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 10-12).
  • q. As the final goal, make application of the text. Ask such questions as, "What is the message and purpose God intends to convey through Scripture?" "What meaning does this text have for me?" "How does it apply to my situation and circumstances today?" In doing so, recognize that although many biblical passages had local significance, nonetheless they contain timeless principles applicable to every age and culture.


In the "Introduction" to The Great Controversy Ellen G. White wrote:

The Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that 'the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.' John 1:14 (p. vi).

As it is impossible for those who do not accept Christ's divinity to understand the purpose of His incarnation, it is also impossible for those who see the Bible merely as a human book to understand its message, however careful and rigorous their methods.

Even Christian scholars who accept the divine-human nature of Scripture, but whose methodological approaches cause them to dwell largely on its human aspects, risk emptying the biblical message of its power by relegating it to the background while concentrating on the medium. They forget that medium and message are inseparable and that the medium without the message is as an empty shell that cannot address the vital spiritual needs of humankind.

A committed Christian will use only those methods that are able to do full justice to the dual, inseparable nature of Scripture, enhance his ability to understand and apply its message, and strengthen faith.

Addendum I

The Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics 1982 (excerpts)

Article VII. Single meaning, many applications

WE AFFIRM that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.

WE DENY that the recognition of this single meaning eliminates the variety of its application.

Article VIII. Not culturally conditioned

WE AFFIRM that the Bible contains teachings and mandates which apply to all cultural and situational contexts and other mandates which the Bible itself shows apply only to particular situations.

WE DENY that the distinctions between the universal and particular mandates of Scripture can be determined by cultural and situational factors. We further deny that universal mandates may ever be treated as culturally or situationally relative.

Article IX. Meaning of revelation not determined by interpreter's understanding

WE AFFIRM that the term hermeneutics, which historically signified the rules of exegesis, may properly be extended to cover all that is involved in the process of perceiving what the biblical revelation means and how it bears on our lives.

WE DENY that the message of Scripture derives from, or is dictated by, the interpreter's understanding. Thus we deny that the "horizons" of the biblical writer and the interpreter any rightly "fuse" in such a way that what the text communicates to the interpreter is not ultimately controlled by the expressed meaning of the Scripture.

Article XIV. Bible history is accurate

WE AFFIRM that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact.

WE DENY that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated.

Article XIX. Preunderstandings subject to Bible

WE AFFIRM that any preunderstandings which the interpreter brings to Scripture should be in harmony with scriptural teaching and subject to correction by it.

WE DENY that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism.

Addendum II

Historical critical method used in the SDA Church

As far as the Seventh-day Adventist Church goes, Raymond F. Cottrell claimed ("Blame it on Rio," pp. 33, 81) that some Seventh-day Adventists had begun to use the historical-critical method as far back as the 1930s.

Receiving the Word, p. 95, fn 15. Jerry Gladson, "Taming Historical Criticism: Adventist Biblical Scholarship in the Land of Giants," Spectrum 18/4 (April 1988:34, note 65).

Receiving the Word, p. 95, fn 10. Des Ford Consensus Statement ii. "Descriptive aspects" can be separated from naturalistic presuppositions. See Alden Thompson, Inspiration, pp. 271-272. cf. Spectrum December 1981:40-52. Consultation ii was "framed largely by proponents of the historical-critical method among SDA biblical scholars."

Author of Inspiration (Alden Thompson climaxed discussion of Seventh-day Adventist hermeneutics with conensus statement ii in 1981--not with Rio in 1986! See receiving the Word, p. 96, fn 27.


Republic WA Sheridan Meadows Camp Meeting Upper Columbia Conference 2013-07-25