Not quite 40 years ago, I felt a deep lack in my spiritual life. I had been raised and educated as an Adventist, but not, as I soon realized, an Adventist Christian. At the same time, I found Bible study tedious. Most of the devotional books I read seemed pretty shallow.
I was a denominational employee, a school teacher, and for various reasons was exposed to the corruption that exists in every human institution. My wife was clearly disappointed in my spiritual leadership in our home, and I couldn’t disagree.
The moment of my actual conversion remains vivid in my memory: driving along a country road near Decatur, Illinois, I prayed, “Lord, I can’t do this. You’re going to have to do it for me.” However, no mountaintop experience followed. though I had chosen a new life, I had no idea how to live it. Frankly, it appeared to me that there were very few, if any of my acquaintances, that did know. My struggles did not go away, they intensified.
Finally, at one point, in a bookstore, I prayed, “Lord, give me a hunger for your Word.” Nothing dramatic happened that day. But I kept praying that prayer, and over a period of weeks and months, that prayer was answered. Suddenly, the Bible contained all these fascinating passages.
And so I began reading the Bible; not in order, not to finish the whole book in one year, not to report in Sabbath School. I became intrigued with the stories. One thing led to another.
I had never much cared for Bible-marking classes. It always seemed to me that people almost picked verses at random and declared them related. It seemed to me that there must be some better way to study the Bible. There ought to be some approach, some method — I did not yet know the term ‘hermeneutic’–whereby different people could systematically study the Bible and not come to contradictory interpretations.
Note that I didn’t say we would all agree; that’s not likely in any human setting. But I felt there must be some way of approaching the text so that what emerged from study would be useful, persuasive because logically consistent, and authoritative.
God blessed me, sent good teachers into my life, and gave me opportunities to learn such an approach. And wherever I have taught it, on several continents now, it has been received with joy by many.
In future posts I will go into more detail, especially as we explore some of the contentious issues between Traditionalists and Compassionates. And I have what I call my “wrestling rules.” I call them that because for me Bible study is like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. I get ahold of a text, and won’t let go until it blesses me.
For this blog I’ll only start with one, but it’s an important one. The Bible gets to tell me what it says; I don’t get to tell it.
I”ll give one example, which no doubt will upset some.When a Biblical author uses a word, his usage of that word is the primary indicator of what he means. A simple but telling test case is the Godpel of John.
If ye love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15
Ever mindful of the fourth commandment, Adventists love this text. “See,” we love to say, “we have to keep the 10 commandments.”
Only one problem. That’s not what Jesus is talking about. John 13 through 17 is Jesus discourse at the Last Supper. Out of 21 chapters, this discourse takes up most of 5. Another way of putting it is that this discourse occupies nearly 1/4th of the entire gospel of John. That’s a clear indication that the author considers this discourse important.
And in that same discourse, several times Jesus says words to this effect: This is my commandment, that you love one another. A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.
It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is telling us precisely what it means when he says, If you love me, keep my commandments. He’s saying, If you love me, you should love one another. It’s consistent with everything else in that discourse. When he washes the disciples feet, he says, If I have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.
The Adventist in me wants the text to refer to the 10 commandments; but the Bible student tells me it’s not so.
That’s just one of many examples. What I’m declaring is that my loyalty is first to the text of the Bible, and only after that to my own doctrinal preferences. If my belief cannot be sustained through a fair reading of the text, then my belief will have to yield.
In closing, I will be blunt. I don’t see that willingness in either the Traditionalists or the Compassionates (as a group, mind you; individuals of course can differ). Instead of going to the text, and asking what that human author received from God and was passing on to us, too many go to the Bible looking for support. When they have what they feel is sufficient support–they generally stop looking. And they generally resist any reading of the text that doesn’t confirm their position.
Put another way, we’re supposed to go to the Bible, and based upon that study, come to conclusions. Far too many start out ‘knowing’ what the Bible just has to say, start with the conclusion, and seek support. And both sides either ignore, minimize, or explain away difficult passages that might undermine their preferred positions.
Finally, let me say, sometimes the only correct answer is “I don’t know.” Next time I’ll look at why some find that upsetting.