Built Upon the Rock
By E.H. ‘Jack’ Sequeira
In one of the last letters he ever penned, the apostle Paul reminded young Timothy:
2 Timothy 3:15-17
...And how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Adventists believe that the Bible’s main purpose is to make them “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” All Scripture points to Jesus Christ and His salvation. The Judaism of Christ’s day failed to recognize this connection, and Jesus Himself reminded its leaders:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me....
He again emphasized this connection, after His resurrection:
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them [the disciples] what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
So Paul’s counsel in 2 Timothy 3 is clearly still valid, as the foundation of the everlasting gospel and fundamental belief. In the passage cited earlier in this chapter, Paul lists three basic facts:
The Great Controversy, pg. 595
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.
Faith means taking God at His word, even though it may seem to defy human rationale or imagination. This is how it was with Abraham, and this is how it must be today.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed — the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul presents a similar idea:
1 Corinthians 2:9-10a
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
Scripture reveals God’s unconditional love and the incredibly good news of salvation. In turn, we are invited to accept these truths, even though they may seem too good to be true.
Only through Scripture can Christians clearly understand the everlasting gospel; doing so through human reasoning is impossible. As Jesus said:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.
The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible writers also illuminates and guides the reader. And He does so through the Word of God — the only pathway to a saving knowledge of the incredibly good news of the everlasting gospel.
This brings us to an important question: What is inspiration? The words “inspired” or “inspiration” mean different things, even among conservative Christians. To define inspiration is particularly important today, as destructive ideas about inspiration are undermining the faith.
Christians today usually define inspiration in one of the four following ways:
The Infusion and Illumination Theories. These first two theories are often referred to as the “Historical Critical Method,” and place the human mind and its reasoning power above the authority of the Word of God, in the process of inspiration. The theories are not viable from a biblical perspective, and we will not discuss them here.
The last two theories, however, are held widely in conservative denominations today, especially among those who hold, with Martin Luther, to Sola Scriptura (the Bible only).
The Dictation or Mechanical Theory. This theory of inspiration is commonly referred to as “word inspiration.” Many Bible-believing Christians assume that God spoke, or dictated, His Word and that Bible writers were His secretaries. Those who hold this view believe that every word in the original Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament is inspired.
Because of insurmountable problems created by this theory, Adventists do not accept it. The theory does not explain discrepancies in wording in the Bible. For example, when Jesus was crucified, Pilate nailed an inscription on the vertical bar of the cross. When we read the inscription as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we find that the words are not identical, though the idea is the same in each.
Each Gospel writer gives his own wording to the inscription. Matthew quotes the inscription as, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews,” [Matthew 27:37]. Mark records the sign as reading, “The king of the Jews” [Mark 15:26]. Luke sees, “This is the king of the Jews,” [Luke 23:38]. And John records it as “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” [John 19:19].
The idea is identical in each gospel, but the actual wordings differ. So clearly the gospels were not dictated verbatim, but the thoughts behind them are identical. The Bible is clearly thought-inspired rather than word-inspired. As we study the Bible, then, we must ask ourselves, “What are the thoughts of this inspired writer? True Bible study seeks to arrive at the thoughts of God, as revealed in His Word.
The Verbal or Dynamic Theory. Seventh-day Adventists have traditionally held to this dynamic theory of inspiration. Bible writers were God’s penmen, not His pen. They expressed in their own words the thoughts God impressed them to share. The Spirit may have also guided these writers in their choice of words, but each writer’s clear purpose is to express the thoughts of God. This theory of inspiration is known as plenary, or thought inspiration. This understanding of inspiration is now being challenged, however, and the very foundation of Adventism seems to be eroding.
Not only must we correctly define inspiration, we also need to use sound rules of interpreting the inspired word. Too often we make the Bible say what we want it to say, by stringing together out-of-context “proof texts.” We will revisit this problem toward the end of this chapter.
The Bible and the Bible Only
Another area of concern has to do with the claim that Adventists are “the people of the Word” or “the people of the Book.” Many Christians, however, see Adventists as a people whose beliefs and practices rely primarily on the writings of Ellen G. White.
I once discussed this perception with the late Walter Martin, author of The Kingdom of the Cults. He told me, “I am convinced that if Ellen G. White were to rise from the dead today, she would be horrified at the way your church is using her.” He went on to give me several examples I could not refute.
Dr. Martin’s observation was correct. The way some have used Ellen White’s writings has led observant, honest Christians to label Adventism a cult, and some compilers of her writings have taken statements that deal primarily with the fruits of the gospel and have equated them with the gospel itself. Thus, the gospel according to Adventism has become good advice (with many do’s and don’ts) rather than good news.
This has tended to obscure the fact that Seventh-day Adventists are legitimately a gospel-centered people, who believe and teach that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
Therefore, all fundamental beliefs must be based on Scripture alone and vitally connected to the everlasting gospel. Because the doctrine of the Sabbath and the Investigative Judgment are often preached outside the context of the gospel, many Christians see Adventists as relying on works for salvation. This has greatly hindered Adventism’s global mission to restore and proclaim the everlasting gospel as God’s final plea to a doomed world.
Speaking of last-day events, Jesus prophesized,
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
In response to those who were opposing the precious message of Christ’s righteousness and righteousness by faith, in 1888 Ellen G. White penned these words:
Review and Herald, March 11, 1890
You will meet with those who will say, “You are too much excited over this matter. You are too much in earnest. You should not be reaching for the righteousness of Christ, and making so much of that. You should preach the law.” As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law, and there will be sap and nourishment in the preaching that will be as food to the famishing flock of God.
That same year, she penned these words:
Faith and Works, pgs. 15-16
On the one hand, religionists [referring to Dispensationalists] generally have divorced the law and the gospel, while we [Seventh-day Adventists] have, on the other hand, almost done the same from another standpoint. We have not held up before the people the righteousness of Christ and the full significance of His great plan of redemption. We have left out Christ and His matchless love, brought in theories and reasoning, and preached argumentative discourses.
The Bible and Ellen G. White
While Ellen G. White possessed a special gift from God, her writings are not to take the place of the Bible, but to guide the church in proclaiming the everlasting gospel. The threat of misusing her writings pales, however, in comparison to the dangerous infiltration of liberal views of inspiration in the church. The subtle introduction of these views is destroying the very foundation of the gospel message and the church’s fundamental beliefs.
Some Adventist scholars, with high academic degrees from prestigious universities, are now teaching future pastors new ideas about the Bible’s inspiration. These ideas are based on the “historical-critical method” of Bible interpretation, in which the human mind becomes the ultimate measuring stick of truth. This undermines the authority of Scripture as the inspired Word of God.
We do not have space here to deal in full with the issue of the historical-critical method and its effect on one’s view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. But I do recommend Eta Linnamann’s book, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical, to those who would like to study the issue further. The book is published by Baker Book House of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the story of her experience as a former supporter of the historical-critical method.
The Illumination of the Holy Spirit
The church’s first fundamental belief correctly states that all Scripture is inspired by God. But no matter how meticulously one applies the rules of interpretation, this in itself does not ensure a correct understanding of God’s Word. The Bible, after all, is a spiritual guide, not a mere academic textbook. Yes, we must follow sound rules of interpretation. But unless the Holy Spirit illuminates the thinking, the conclusions drawn will be superficial and incomplete.
The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible writers, and now He illuminates and guides the reader’s mind into all truth, when he or she approaches God’s Word prayerfully and in a humble spirit. Following all the right rules is meaningless without the right attitude and a prayerful approach to God’s Word. Consider this, Paul’s statement to the Corinthian Christians:
1 Corinthians 2:12-16
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit who gives us understanding. It is our responsibility to meditate prayerfully over the Word of God, as the Holy Spirit illuminates. Jesus promised His disciples,
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
A primary function of the Holy Spirit is to guide us into all truth, and we must claim that promise when we study God’s Word. Matthew illustrates this in the life of Peter:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
We must keep in mind when we come to God’s Word that each text, or passage of Scripture, may be interpreted in one of three ways. The technical names for these three approaches to interpreting Scripture are: (1) eisegesis; (2) exegesis; and (3) spiritualizing.
A while back, an unsolicited magazine arrived in my mail, containing an article on the important subject of justification by faith. In it, the author quoted Romans 2:13 as proof that we are not justified by faith alone, but by works of the law, as well. The text itself reads:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Now, on the surface this text might seem to support such a view. But when we examine the verse’s context, we find that it is saying the opposite. For here Paul is addressing his fellow Jews, who believe in justification by works of the law. According to verse 17, the Jews were boasting of their knowledge of the law, and Paul’s response in essence is: “The fact that you have a clear, explicit knowledge of the law and believe in it does not qualify you for heaven. The law demands perfect obedience. If you want to be justified by the law, you must obey it perfectly and continually. Nothing else will do, as far as the law is concerned.” This is the message of verse 23!
Continuing to read, we find in verses 17-24 that Paul explicitly states:
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
“You call yourselves Jews. You boast about your knowledge of God. You claim to be teachers of the law, and instructors of the blind. Yet you who teach each other and brag about the law, are you not dishonoring God by breaking the law?”
Like many Christians today, the Jews in Paul’s day gave lip service to the law, and they defended the letter of the law. They conformed outwardly to a set of rules, but were so far removed from the loving spirit of the law that they became obstacles to those who were earnestly seeking God’s will.
Paul is telling these misguided teachers that it is not enough to know the law, or even to believe in the law. If a person wants to be justified by means of the law, he or she must keep it in every detail — in thought, word, and deed — something no fallen human being has ever accomplished on his own.
Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.”
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”
Paul makes it clear in all his epistles that justification is by faith alone, through grace alone, and because of Christ alone, and defines the good news of the gospel as “the righteousness of God.”
That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
God justifies sinners who put their faith in Christ apart from their works of the law.
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
But the writers of the article in question chose to take Romans 2:13 [above] out of context and, in so doing, were able to make it appear that Paul actually teaches that which he consistently condemns!
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
From this example of eisegesis, we see how important it is to follow sound rules of interpretation if we are to come to a saving knowledge of the truth.
We also need to pay special attention to the action words, or verbs, in Scripture. At the end of this chapter, I have listed some basic rules we should apply, if we hope to reach a correct exegesis of a passage of Scripture.
An excellent example of true “spiritualizing” is the lesson most preachers draw from the parable of the prodigal son, illustrating the unconditional love of God for sinners. Ellen White, herself, does this. But though the parable does manage to illustrate God’s unconditional, redeeming love, this lesson is secondary in Christ’s actual story.
As recorded in Luke 15, Jesus uses the story to respond to scribes and Pharisees who are murmuring against Him because He eats with publicans and sinners — the prodigals of His day.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees see this as reprehensible behavior on the part of a religious leader such as Jesus.
Jesus responds by telling three parables, in series: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and finally, the Parable of the Lost Boy, or Prodigal Son. In the first two parables, He illustrates God’s attitude toward sinners — that there is great rejoicing in heaven on behalf of every reclaimed sinner.
But Jesus saves His most specific response until the final story in the trilogy — that of the Prodigal Son. He wants to contrast God’s attitude toward sinners with the judgmental murmurings of His accusers. So Jesus presents the Father’s attitude toward his erring son as an example of God’s acceptance of those who have turned their backs on Him, but now want to come back. Like this loving father, God is constantly waiting to welcome sinners back into the fold; the story eloquently presents this side of God the Father.
But this is not the Parable’s punch line. That comes with the arrival on the scene of the self-righteous older brother, whose unforgiving attitude toward his brother represents the scribes and Pharisees’ hateful attitude toward sinners — the same spirit we see among the self-righteous in our churches today.
To spiritualize a passage of Scripture is by no means wrong; to attach a spiritual meaning that may not have been the primary point being made by the Bible writers is common practice, and often Ellen White spiritualizes a text rather than interpreting it. This is why those of us who read and appreciate her work must always do an exegesis of the texts she uses, to discover whether she is actually interpreting the Bible, or spiritualizing it. Both are acceptable, but differ in their intent.
The goal of spiritualizing is to draw a spiritual lesson from the Bible passage that harmonizes with the general teaching of Scripture, even if that lesson may not be the writer’s primary emphasis. The goal of exegesis is to determine the primary teaching the writer was out to convey. Every doctrine and truth we proclaim must stand on the authority of Bible passages, rightly interpreted.
As we approach the end of time, I pray that God’s people will be recognized, not only as “the people of the Word,” but as men and women who know how to rightly divide that Word. Only then can they successfully witness about the everlasting gospel, as represented by their fundamental beliefs.
Before ending this chapter, let us look briefly at the various Bible translations that are flooding the market today. All these translations may be grouped into three basic categories.
Some 800 words in the King James Version are either no longer used today in English or have changed meaning. For example, the King James Version of Philippians 3:20a says,
For our conversation is in heaven....
Today the word “conversation” means two or more people talking to one another. But, in 1611, conversation meant “destination” or “citizenship.” So when we read the King James Version, we must remember that some words no longer mean what they did when they were first translated. The New King James Version attempts to correct this problem.
But there is danger that, in dynamic translation, the theological views of the translator will find their way into the final text. This is far less likely to happen in literal translation.
Rules of Interpretation
This chapter on the first fundamental belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church would be incomplete without attempting to deal with the question, “How does one rightly divide the Word of God?”
An approach common within Adventism is the proof text method. This method attempts to arrive at truth by stringing together groups of texts on given subjects, and correctly acknowledges that truth is spread throughout the Bible, “here a little and there a little.”
This method has been abused, however, by some who manage to take texts out of their historical and grammatical contexts and to support positions they wish to “prove.” To help us avoid such pitfalls, I will conclude this chapter with seven basic rules that will guide us in rightly dividing the Word of God. These same rules, I might add, apply as we read the writings of Ellen G. White and other theological and inspirational authors.
Seven Rules of Interpretation
These seven points are basic rules one should keep in mind when studying the Word. For the more serious Bible student, I recommend Lee J. Gugliotto’s Handbook for Bible Study: A Guide to Understanding, Teaching, and Preaching the Word of God. Published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, this highly recognized tool, written by a Seventh-day Adventist, is an excellent guide in understanding, teaching, and preaching the Word. It is recommended as an addition to the libraries of those who are intent on rightly dividing the Word of God.