Adventist Theology and the Exegesis Debate

I was recently talking with another Adventist who told me that the denominational position on 1844, the Sanctuary and the Investigative Judgment cannot be exegeted. In my opinion, we need to find much better ways to articulate the Adventist theological method to our members. I want to share some of my own thoughts on the subject and get feedback from group members as well.
 
When talking about theological method we have to determine the sources of theology, the relative weights assigned to those sources and, specifically, how Scripture is viewed and interpreted. Historically, the highest court of appeals when it came to Christian theology was the Church. Multiple truth sources were consulted, Scripture, Tradition, Philosophy, Science, Experience, Culture, etc., but the Magisterium eventually determined what the correct understanding of Christian theology was.
 
After the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation however, the Church could no longer be trusted as the authorized interpreter and it was determined that theology must be based on the Scripture alone. But there was a problem with this:
 
To illustrate, imagine that you worked as a missionary in another country for several years. You helped with a local church, you gave Bible studies and brought in new members, you preached regularly, you lived in member’s houses etc. Some time after returning to the states you decided to write a letter to this church. Now suppose another person traveling to that location, whom you asked to deliver the letter, decided to read it as well. Chances are, there would be things in that letter that would only be understood correctly by the people in the church who could read it in the context of numerous other conversations you had had with them while there. Without this context, this other individual will likely make some assumptions about what this letter is saying that are incorrect.
 
This illustration describes some of the limitations of text in carrying meaning. And, this is a problem that applies to all parts of Scripture. We simply don’t have a way to know the pre-understandings that each author assumed his audience would have when writing the text. To make up for this limitation of written text, the early reformers proposed that Scripture should be understood through the lens of early Christian tradition.
 
But, this approach proved only partly successful since, over the next few decades, it became evident that there was still quite a bit of disagreement even when using the lens of tradition. While on the one hand, the Catholic Church had lost its hold on society and on the other, the reformers couldn’t agree about what the Bible says, society was moving on to new sources of knowledge through the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.
 
Protestantism therefore was shaken by its own internal squabbles, by the Catholic counter-reformation, by enlightenment philosophy, by the scientific deconstruction of Scripture (aka higher criticism), and eventually, by developments in the biological sciences as well. As a last-ditch effort to save Christianity, sort of speak, Liberal Christianity emerged at this time and attempted to ground Christian theology in reason, morality and experience instead.
 
Finally, two additional movements emerged some time later as a reaction to Liberal Christianity: Fundamentalism and Neoorthodoxy. Fundamentalism decided to take it as a primordial assumption that Scripture is inerrant and infallible, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. It simply ignored the arguments of higher criticism and returned to the text.
 
Neoorthodoxy, on the other hand, adopted the presuppositions of Liberal Christianity but argued that divine revelation was still necessary for Christian theology. This revelation however was Christ Himself, and everything else we had, Scripture, Tradition, philosophy, were human attempts to make sense of that revelation. This approach made it possible to accept the findings of higher criticism while still maintaining continuity with orthodox Christian thought. (Incidentally, as a side note, while the biggest threat to Adventism in the 80’s came from fundamentalism, the biggest threat today is neoorthodoxy)
 
Now given these multiple approaches to theology and Scripture, there are still essentially two main philosophies of exegesis, and Adventism fits with neither. Because Catholicism has a third party authorized interpreter, Liberalism develops its theology rationally while neoorthodoxy centers its theology in Christ, none of these groups are heavily dependent on Scripture for theological development. They assume the main influence behind the Biblical text is the human author who might or might not be who Christianity historically assumed him to be, living or not, at the assumed historical time. If there is consensus among biblical scholars that the author was someone other than assumed, living several centuries later, then exegesis involves an understanding of that historical context, culture and linguistic bent as the way to get the most accurate understanding of the text and the author’s intent.
 
To reiterate, all these perspectives study the text in order to get as closely as possible to the mind of the human author because they don’t have the expectation of a divine mind directly influencing that author. They attempt to isolate the text under examination from biases inherited from tradition or from other parts of Scripture since they don’t have an expectation of Scriptural continuity and, any attempt to reconcile Scripture will only corrupt our understanding of this particular text.
 
Fundamentalism starts its exegetical process with completely different presuppositions which, ironically, still bring it more or less to the same place. Yes, fundamentalism rejects higher criticism, and assumes the authors were in fact those the church believed them to be historically. But fundamentalism also assumes that the true Author of the text was God and not the human agent. They believe the Scriptural text has a superior meaning-carrying-capacity than normal human text, allowing it to escape the limitations illustrated in the missionary analogy above. Because of this, fundamentalists adopt the same exegetical methodology as the liberals by isolating any given section from its greater canonical context since the best place to find the meaning of any given text is in the text itself.
 
Adventism rejects both these approaches. It views the Biblical text as having the same limitations as any other human text. The way the meaning of the text can still be discerned by us however, is by reading it not in the context of apostolic tradition but in the context of the Canon as a whole. The Bible, when read as a narrative, from beginning to end, becomes its own hermeneutical lens providing us the context for the individual sections (as long as we can approach it with a blank slate). It is as if a person looking closely at a mosaic on a wall, can see only the individual colored shapes, maybe squares, triangles and rectangles. But when they back away from the wall, the pieces come together to form a beautiful mural of someone’s face or of some nature scene. Then, the scope of the individual pieces becomes clear as well.
 
For this reason, Adventists cannot adopt the same methodology of exegesis as either fundamentalists or liberals. We must keep the parts and the whole of Scripture in tension since otherwise, the meaning of the text is obscured. The presuppositions we hold about the nature of the text, affect how we interpret the text. (see here several analogies that further illustrate the Adventist view of Scripture http://bit.ly/limitederrancy)
 
And, this unique methodology is responsible for our approach to books like Daniel as well. Before tackling such a book directly, we first attempt to discern the metanarrative of Scripture as a whole. We then follow the prophetic/apocalyptic genre throughout Scripture to determine its intended role and how it is meant to be interpreted. Only then do we take on the visions of Daniel themselves. Finally, we attempt to harmonize independent lines of evidence throughout Scripture, to see how they can be organized into one cohesive narrative.
 
So coming back to the beginning, the contribution we as Adventists have made to Christian theology is a unique theological method that has the potential to resolve many of the challenges faced by the other theological methods. We must work together to develop this methodology more fully, to codify it, and then to articulate it in a way that our own members as well as the Christian community at large can understand.

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