Differing Approaches to Biblical Interpretation

Excerpted from Edwin E. Reynolds and Clinton Wahlen, “Minority Report,” Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report, November 2013, North American Division, Seventh-day Adventist Church, pp. 195-197
The current divergence in views on the subject
 of women’s ordination is due in part to different understandings of the nature of Scripture and 
how it should be interpreted. Some advocate an approach that takes into account the “trajectory” of Scripture. And there is, in a sense, a progression in Scripture from Eden lost to Eden restored, based on God’s plan of salvation.18 But the suggestion is made in some Adventist circles that we should take the notion of a progression in Scripture even farther. They urge that God can lead His people to a better understanding only as the social and cultural conditions permit the implementation of a higher ethic than was possible in Bible times. Thus, according to this view, the progression within Scripture must be extrapolated so that the trajectory beyond and outside of Scripture can be seen. While appealing on the surface, the problem with this approach is its reliance on an authority beyond the pages of Scripture to determine present truth in cases where the inspired writings are supposedly less clear. Such an approach, even though it might broadly affirm the Bible’s inspiration, nevertheless undermines
 it by characterizing selected portions of Scripture as time- and culture-bound and, therefore, tinged with the author’s or his community’s prejudicial views on such topics, rather than God’s thoughts which are valid for all places and all time. According to such a view, the Bible is not a unified, harmonious revelation and Paul’s interpretation of Genesis, for example, is not normative for us today.19 Most Adventists, on the other hand, consider that there can be no fundamental homogeneity in Scripture apart from supernatural intervention by revelation. They understand the Holy Spirit as the divine mind behind the human penmen. He is the One who has ensured that the entire canon of Scripture is theologically unified, that its teachings are valid for all time (Rom 15:4), and that they produce no conflicting opinions or opposing theological views (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Fortunately, with regard also to the question of ordination and the role of women in the church, God has given ample guidance in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy to help us resolve even this seemingly intractable issue. But in order for Scripture to serve its intended purpose, all of what God says on this subject must be studied until we can perceive its underlying harmony. According to Ellen White: “To understand doctrine, bring all the scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence; and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error.”20 The “Methods of Bible Study” document (MBSD) approved by the Annual Council in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, Oct. 12, 1986, also gives important guidance: “Human reason is subject to the Bible, not equal to or above it.” “The Bible is its own best interpreter and when studied as a whole it depicts a consistent, harmonious truth. . . . Although it was given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern/Mediterranean context, the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve 
as God’s Word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages.”21 Those who are uncomfortable with the plain reading of the Biblical text look for a meaning or trajectory that goes outside of what Scripture explicitly teaches, but such an approach risks reaching decisions that are not Biblical.
Regarding cultural issues, the Bible itself provides us the key as to how to handle them. For example, while some Evangelical Christians would classify the Sabbath as a temporary, cultural institution,22 Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 20:11 show that it originated as part of God’s perfect plan for humanity 
and is therefore applicable in all cultures and for all time. Decisions regarding the perpetuity of institutions originating after the Fall is more difficult, especially in the case of those that seem to have been divinely established. Although circumcision began with God’s command to Abraham, like the presence of the temple, it was no guarantee of God’s favor without a right covenant relationship (Jer 4:4; cf. 21:10-12; 22:5). In fact, the time would come when God would treat the circumcised like the uncircumcised (Jer 9:25; cf. 1 Cor 7:18-19), apparently pointing to circumcision no longer serving as a sign of the covenant. This is confirmed by the New Testament, in which the reality symbolized by circumcision (Deut 30:6; 10:6)—a change of heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:7-11; Rom 2:28-29)—is replaced by baptism (John 3:3-8; Col 2:11-13). In fact, baptism itself derives from a Jewish cultural form of self-immersion in water for purification from ceremonial defilement (baptizō, Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38). Its meaning, however, is inseparable from the form, which transcends the meaning of circumcision in being egalitarian and symbolic of the believer’s being washed from sin, identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and acceptance of Him as Saviour (Rom 6). Furthermore, the command is given in a universal setting (“all nations,” Matt 28:19). Therefore, in the case of baptism, the form itself is universal and unchanging.
Slavery, on the other hand, was never instituted by God; it is a cultural and legal institution. God redeemed Israel from slavery and provided legal protections so that no Israelite would ever be sold into perpetual servitude (Exod 21:2-6). No such provision for servants existed in the New Testament church. Through Christ’s sacrifice the door of salvation is open to everyone—rich and poor, slave and free, male and female (Gal 3:28)—and through God’s grace we are all free moral agents. The slavery existing under Roman law, though much milder than the racial-based slavery of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America,23 had to be borne by Jews and Christians alike, “but from the beginning it was not so” (cf. Matt 19:3-8). Christians are instructed to treat slaves with compassion as fellow-servants of Christ (1 Cor 7:22-23) because, as believers, we are all “slaves,” with Christ as our one Master (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1). In the Lord, then, no one is to remain a slave, but is considered as a sister or a brother (Phlm 16).
As the above examples illustrate, indications exist within Scripture itself to guide us as to whether
 and when an institution is to be discontinued. The relevant historical-cultural contexts are vital to consider when studying the Bible. As the MBSD states, “In connection with the study of the Biblical text, explore the historical and cultural factors. Archaeology, anthropology, and history may contribute to understanding the meaning of the text.”24 However, it is one thing to study the historical-cultural backgrounds to enlighten our understanding of the setting in which the text was written; it is another thing altogether to suggest that the text was culturally conditioned and that, therefore, a trajectory beyond the text must be constructed for our current, more enlightened, age.25 If the latter were true, it would mean that the Bible does not set forth universal principles but only that which was perceived by the inspired writers to be valid for the local situation at the time or, even worse, reflects then-current prejudices and misunderstandings.
In that case its relevance for other times and places would be muted, perhaps not even reflecting divine truth or principles. This is an important distinction to keep in mind when studying ordination in Scripture. What evidence does the Bible provide that the counsels it gives are culturally conditioned or of timeless value? How would one discern the difference?
These are crucial questions and, once again, the Scriptures themselves help us answer them. First, the merely descriptive must be distinguished from the normative, or else we would be practicing many of the sins of our forefathers, including idolatry, polygamy, slavery, and even murder. Jesus clearly indicates what constitutes normative behavior when He prayed, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10; Luke 11:2). Practices that reach back to Eden or extend to the new world constitute God’s will for all time. Without question there is a progression in Scripture whereby God is working to restore human beings into the image of God, but this should not be used to invalidate principles grounded in creation such as the equality of male and female, whose roles, however, are not completely identical. Interpreters should be extremely cautious in concluding that certain passages in Scripture pertain only to a given time or place. In fact, there would appear to be no secure basis to reach such conclusions without clear Scriptural indicators because, through divine foresight, the Bible’s horizon extends beyond that of the human author to accomplish God’s purposes until the end of time (Isa 55:11).

Edwin E. Reynolds, Ph.D.
Edwin Reynolds is a professor of New Testament and biblical languages and is the School of Religion graduate program coordinator at Southern Adventist University. He holds a doctoral degree in New Testament from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Reynolds was the editor of the Guide for Research Writing: AIIAS Theological Seminary, 2d ed. (Silang, Cavite, Philippines: AIIAS Publications, 2002) and Asia Adventist Seminary Studies, and is a former editor of and regular con- tributor to the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society. 

Clinton Wahlen, Ph.D.
Clinton Wahlen is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute. He holds a Ph.D. degree in New Testament from Cambridge University, U.K., and has authored Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits in the Synoptic Gospels (Mohr Siebeck, 2004) and James (Adult Bible Study Guide, forthcoming). He has also published academic articles in journals such as New Testament Studies and Biblical Interpretation, and written for biblical dictionaries published by InterVarsity Press.

18 Cf. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, 19: “The illuminated soul sees a spiritual unity, one grand golden thread running through the whole, but it requires patience, thought, and prayer to trace out the precious golden thread.”
19 Paul’s statements citing Genesis 2 and 3 as a Scriptural basis for his arguments are minimized—even though they speak directly to church matters (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 11)—because supposedly they apply only to Ephesus or Corinth, while a single Pauline verse is elevated to supracanonical status (Gal 3:28). Genesis 2-3 is also reinterpreted and pitted against Paul’s interpretation of the same, which goes against the principles of sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura as well as Christ’s injunction that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). See the discussion (pp. 16-18 below) on 1 Timothy 2:13-15 and 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9.
20 Ellen G. White (quoting approvingly of William Miller’s hermeneutic), “Notes of Travel,” RH, Nov. 25, 1884, par. 24.
21 “Methods of Bible Study Committee (GCC-A)—Report,” Adventist Review, January 22, 1987, 18; online: http://docs.adventistarchives.org/ docs/RH/RH19870122-V164-04__B.pdf#view=fit; accessed 31 May 2013. Notably, the NAD Theology of Ordination Study Committee was unable to agree on acceptance of the Preamble of the MBSD, though the body of the document was accepted.
22 E.g., William Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 126-27 (favoring women’s ordination, considering the Sabbath cultural); Wayne Grudem, “Review Article: Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?” JETS 47/2 (June 2004): 299-346 here 327 n. 20 (opposing women’s ordination, denying the Sabbath a normative status in Eden).
23 Bondservants had strict protections under Roman law: they could earn their freedom, hold private property, and often occupied very responsible positions as lawyers, shopkeepers, and even financial managers working with huge sums of money as the parable of the talents shows (Matt 25:14-30).
24 “Methods of Bible Study,” 19.
25 For a recent critique of Webb, who advocates such a trajectory hermeneutic, see Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 2012).

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