Adventism 202, Part 4: How to Get Your Theological House in Order

Share It :

google+
More
Adventism 202, Part 4: How to Get Your Theological House in Order

A few years ago while attending seminary, I took a class a class on the Gospels. The professor, Dr. Teresa Reeve, introduced the course with a lecture entitled “How the Bible Came to Be, and How the Bible Came to Me.” The wittiness of that title is an accurate summary of what the next three articles in this series seek to extrapolate in detail.

 

In our journey from “List Theology” Adventists to Systematic Adventists, we will go beyond the simple affirmation that the Bible is the Word of God and actually explore what that means. By doing so we will be able to answer the questions of “What is the Bible?” and “Where did it come from?” Ultimately, we will be able to reconstruct the doctrine of Scripture by looking at the phenomena which is called in theological circles “Revelation” and “Inspiration.”[1]

 

In the last article, we established that the Bible is our map and compass for doing theology, specifically to guide us from simply being “List-Theology” Adventists—Adventists who give mental assent to the fundamental beliefs but lack the ability to see the inner coherence of belief—to Systematic Adventists—Adventists that possess a coherent understanding of the interconnectedness of our doctrines and can identify Adventism’s (and the Bible’s) doctrinal core.

 

Since we have chosen the Bible to be our trustworthy and reliable map and compass for this journey, it is important for us to understand how to use the Bible for this purpose. However, before we can use the Bible, we need to understand:

 

  1. What the Bible is,
  2. How the Bible came into existence, both of which will
  3. Help us use the Bible properly by way of interpretation and application.

What you believe about the first two concepts directly affects how you read the Bible and ultimately how you interpret and apply the Bible. So essentially, before we can reconstruct the doctrinal core of Adventism through studying the Scriptures, we will first need to Study the Scriptures by reconstructing in our minds the doctrine of Scripture.

 

It is not sufficient—especially from an evangelistic perspective—in Post Modern times to simply believe that the Bible is the Word of God; we must understand what that actually means.

 

Wise Builders

 

I recently purchased a home that was still under construction which provided me and my wife the special opportunity to drive by our future home, which I planned to one day live in, and see its incremental progression from a frame, to plumbing, to electrical, to insulation, to walls, and so forth. My point in relating this experience is to make the connection between building a house and building a systematic view of Bible doctrine.

 

These two apparently unrelated acts of construction both begin with two pivotal actions to complete one all-important step, namely to lay a solid foundation. Jesus uses this object lesson to conclude His Sermon on the Mount and perhaps you have even sung the popular Sabbath School song as a child “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock.”

 

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27 NIV).

 

The actions required to begin any construction project include:

 

  1. digging to clear the ground and remove rubbish and
  2. the selection and installation of solid foundation material.

 

You cannot start construction for a house by building the roof or doing the electrical work. It must always start with the foundation (clearing the ground and pouring concrete). The same is true for theology (if it is to be systematic). We must carefully construct a solid foundation or else the rest of our enterprise will be on metaphorically shaky ground.

 

In line with this thought, we are not going to begin our journey with the Sabbath, or sin, or some other doctrine (as important as they are). We have to begin with the very foundation of the Christian faith, which is and always should be the doctrine of Scripture.

 

We must clear the ground by putting aside [suspending] preconceived ideas and inherited traditions that may keep us from seeing what the Bible actually says about itself. And we must select proper materials for our concrete mixture by reading the Bible, gleaning ideas and various phenomena that appear in the text, allowing the Bible itself to tell us its composition.

 

As Jesus seems to suggest, we will begin constructing our theological house (system) by suspending our preconceived ideas about what the Bible is and then proceed to build on the solid foundation of Christ’s words, the Bible.[2]

Next, we will identify and reconstruct four core doctrines [pillars] of the Adventist faith that produces a matrix, framework, and worldview that holds up and sustains the rest of Adventist doctrine (The 28 Fundamental Beliefs). By proceeding in this manner, you will be able to see the interconnectedness of Adventist theology which will serve as a bulwark against a whole host of heresies, conspiracy theories, and other diversions that we have been warned would come upon God’s people in the last days. Most importantly you will develop a Biblical worldview.

The Foundation

 

As already stated the foundation of our theological house/system is Scripture. However, this foundation is composed of multiple layers. Theologians call these layers:

 

  1. Revelation,
  2. Inspiration, and
  3. Hermeneutics/Interpretation.

Without these layers our foundation would collapse along with the rest of the theological house we will construct. Essentially, these three terms tell us what the Bible is, how it came into being, and how to use the Bible—precisely the three things we need to know in order to proceed with actually reconstructing the doctrinal core of Adventism.

At this point, I must recommend to the reader two books by Dr. Fernando Canale, a systematic theologian whose specialty was the doctrine of Revelation-Inspiration.

 

The first book: The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: An Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible,[3] is a must-have classic in which Canale goes into much more detail then space allows for me to do in this article. Indeed, most of what I’m about to cover in this article and the next is contained in this book.

 

But for the more philosophically inclined I would also recommend Canale’s Back to Revelation Inspiration: Searching for the Cognitive Foundation of Christian Theology in a Postmodern World.[4] Both volumes are valuable but for the average reader, I would recommend the first book as a primer as it is more accessible to non-theology students.

But before going any further let’s define our terms that compose the foundation of our systematic theological house.[5]

Revelation is an event in which God communicates a message to a prophet, either supernaturally or naturally, and the message is communicated with the intent that the message will be published or shared with God’s people. [6], [7]

Inspiration is the technical term for describing the process of how the Bible was written [codified].[8]

Hermeneutics is simply the art of interpretation.

What these terms describe is a process of how the Bible comes into existence and how God’s people use it. Below are the more detailed steps of how the process works:

  1. God has an idea that He wishes to communicate to humanity.
  2. God selects a human being, a spokesperson also known as a prophet, to receive the idea and communicate this idea to humanity.
  3. God reveals His idea to the prophet by sending the Holy Spirit who selects and utilizes one or more of the six modes/methods of Revelation to communicate God’s idea to the prophet.
  4. The prophet proceeds to publish the idea that was communicated through Revelation by preaching and/or writing under the influence and supervision of the Holy Spirit. Once the prophet has finished writing the end product is what is called Scripture.
  5. The people of God then receive the communication from God by reading and hearing the message(s) of the prophets.
  6. God’s people then interpret the message (hopefully) through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

The process looks something like this:

Figure 1 Canale’s Depiction of the Revelation-Inspiration and Interpretation Process

At each stage of the process the Holy Spirit is involved, revealing the divine content to the prophet, supervising the prophet’s work in publishing the revelation as Scripture, and illuminating the minds of God’s people to understand the Scriptures.

 

In addition, another work of the Holy Spirit could also be added in that the Holy Spirit is active in preserving the Scriptures to ensure the messages are accessible to God’s people. I want to highlight this because some theologians and lay people alike assume that at some point in this process God is absent.

 

Some assume that God may communicate the revelation to the prophet accurately but the prophet may not understand the message. Others believe that the prophet is left unsupervised in the writing process. And still others believe that God has not played an active role in preserving the Scriptures and thus what we have today as the Bible cannot be trusted because “who really knows whether what is in today’s Bibles is what the prophets actually wrote?”

 

Lastly, some people believe that the common layperson does not have access to the Holy Spirit as a teacher and tutor and thus the common person can have no confidence in their ability to interpret the Scriptures. Consequently, the work of interpreting the Scriptures is left to “the experts.”

 

Contrary to these notions, however, we will find that God is intimately involved in the entire process from beginning to end, including your reading and understanding of his divine revelation.

 

At this point, we will now turn our attention to the first layer of our theological foundation, the miracle of Revelation.

 

Revelation – Divine “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe”[9]

By now I’m sure you’ve figured out that by “Revelation” I do not mean the last book of the Bible but rather, Revelation in the sense of “something that is revealed,” specifically a divine message of some sort to a human being.

 

Again, by definition Revelation is an event in which God communicates a message to a prophet, either supernaturally or naturally, and the message is communicated with the intent that it will be published or shared with God’s people. But typically, when we think of revelations given to prophets, we usually only think of visions and dreams.

 

But are there other modes and methods of Revelation at God’s disposal?

In actuality, God has several means of communication to choose from when he wants to deliver a message to his people through a prophet. In this article, we will briefly look at six of them:[10]

  • Direct Revelation
  • Verbal Revelation
  • Prophetic Revelation
  • Historical Revelation
  • Existential Revelation
  • Wisdom Revelation

(1) Direct Revelation – Revelation Par Excellence

One of the most astounding ways that God reveals divine content to prophets is by means of what has been coined “direct revelation” or “theophany.” Essentially this is an event in which God actually appears to a human being to communicate a message. There are several instances of this in the Scriptures.

 

In Exodus 24:9-11, Moses (and some of the elders of Israel) apparently saw the feet of God and had lunch with him. In another instance, in Exodus 33:21-23, Moses sees God’s back. But perhaps the most famous theophany that occurred in the life of Moses is the burning bush incident in Exodus 3. In all of these instances, God reveals divine content to Moses and it is recorded in the Bible for us—God’s people.

 

Other instances of theophany point to God’s ability to appear in different forms. As discussed already he appeared in a bush on fire to Moses. But He has appeared on several occasions throughout the Old Testament as “The Angel of the Lord.”[11] Many Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, conclude that this was Jesus in his pre-incarnate state.[12]

 

However, one of the greatest theophanies of all time took place 2000 years ago. As I’m writing this we are approaching the Christmas holiday in which the majority of the Christian world celebrates the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

This theophany, the 1st Advent of Christ, is the theophany of theophanies as God made Himself flesh in order to interact with us in a way that humanity has not known since the evening walks through the Garden of Eden millennia ago.

 

(2) Verbal Revelation – God as Author

 

The next type of Revelation that God can use is Verbal Revelation. Verbal revelation is an interesting mode because in a sense it bypasses the prophet. All the prophet can do with this type of revelation is to write down exactly what God already wrote. There are at least two examples in the Bible of this type of Revelation.

 

When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18).

 

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. (Daniel 5:5).

 

There are apparently some instances in the Bible in which God engages in authorship. Exodus 31:18 shows that the Ten Commandments were actually written by God himself. In this case, the human element is totally excluded with nothing to contribute in terms of style, phraseology, or personality. It is purely a divine document addressed to all of humanity directly from the hand of God.[13]

 

(3) Prophetic Revelation – Visions and Dreams

 

Prophetic revelation is what we normally think of as the phenomena that occurs to someone blessed with the prophetic gift. But there is variety even within this category. Some visions and dreams are of real events, as they will occur.

 

For example, when the Apostle Paul was on his journey to Rome as a prisoner, he declares that he saw in a vision that none of his shipmates would lose their lives even though they were in the midst of a terrible storm.[14] Another example is the prophecy given by Christ in Matthew 24. These are literal events seen and described, as they would take place without hidden meanings.

 

However, there are other types of visions that appear in signs and symbols. These are referred to in many cases as apocalyptic visions; the books of Revelation and Daniel would be prime examples of this type of literature. Apocalyptic visions can be understood by using other portions of Scripture to unlock and decode the symbols presented.

 

(4) Historical Revelation – Sacred History

 

So far we have covered types of revelation that we are comfortable with. What I mean is that there is clearly a supernatural component in the revealing of the content/messages to a human agent. But going back to our definition, we must also recognize that there are “natural” methods of revelation that the Holy Spirit uses to communicate God’s ideas to His people.

 

When confronted with this type of revelation it can be a bit jarring to the paradigms we have inherited about how the gift of prophecy (the production of inspired writings) actually works. This is where we must begin to think systematically and ensure that the doctrine of Scripture we are building takes into account all of the evidence the Bible presents. One of these lines of evidence in regards to how Revelation works which is particularly challenging is found in Luke 1:1-4:

 

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NIV).

 

What is challenging about this particular example of Revelation is that there is no mention of visions, no signs, no voices, no golden tablets, or theophanies. There is only interviews and investigation, essentially what we would refer to today as research. But the Gospel of Luke and his other volume Acts, are not the only example of this in Scripture.

 

There are also the books of Chronicles and Kings—all of which are accounts of God’s movements and the movement of God’s people in sacred history. Apparently different individuals throughout sacred history have been prompted by the Holy Spirit to pick up a quill and record major events of salvation history to be preserved for posterity.

 

(5) Existential Revelation – Personal Experiences

 

Another challenging form of Revelation comes in the form of trials and troubling experiences of select individuals whose grief and suffering (along with the Holy Spirit) prompts them to write out their experiences for the benefit of others.

 

Granted, individuals who had already demonstrated the prophetic gift in the past wrote most of these passages, but nevertheless, this genre of literature is not prompted by vision or theophany but by an apparent subtle urging from God to write their experiences down.

 

There is a revelation in the experience. Some examples of this are David’s Psalm 51 and Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations. Through the tragedy of human experiences with sin, bitter repentance, and spiritual disaster the divine message is communicated to the prophet.

 

(6) Wisdom Revelation – Revelation through Universal History

 

This mode of revelation is particularly challenging and yet, it is the source of one of the most beloved books of the Bible, the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a collection of universal wisdom sourced from the observations of the world.

 

The wise King Solomon sits at the window of his house and observes human behavior and gleans lessons from the foolish as well as the wise.[15] But he also observes nature[16] and he preserves the wisdom and proverbs told to him by his mother and father.[17]

 

In a sense, it is general revelation (the observable) becoming specific revelation (codified). In addition to Proverbs, we also have Ecclesiastes:

 

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 NIV).

 

There seems to be a particular type of wisdom that is not just the product of the human mind but is of divine origin and thus revelatory. This was the case with Solomon according to 2 Chronicles 1:11-12.

 

Why So Much Diversity?

I still remember sitting in seminary and listening to Dr. Canale explain the broad spectrum of modalities that the Holy Spirit can use to reveal divine content to a prophet, and it wasn’t too long until the thought came to mind as I am sure it has come to you. Specifically, what is the point of having so many different modes of operation?

 

There could be several reasons as to why God uses different means to communicate to different prophets but what follows are the ones I find the most compelling.

 

(1) He Really Wants us to Get it!

 

As a former pastor, my primary responsibility was to get up on Sabbath morning and explain the Word of God—AKA preaching. Every week I was tasked to deliver a sermon that was compelling, easy to understand, challenging enough to stretch spiritual muscles and intellect, interesting enough to keep people from falling asleep, and practical and memorable enough so that the message had some impact on my audience outside of the church building.

 

Not only that, my audience was for many years as diverse as could be: gender, race, socio-economic status, professionals, working class, students, citizens, foreigners, young and the not so young. Every week required, one message, to adequately feed ~175 souls on any given Sabbath. To communicate at that level requires adaptation and a plethora of examples coming from every angle conceivable so that each person could at least take one nugget of spiritual truth to heart.

 

I share this, with the fact in mind that God’s audience is vastly more diverse and more complicated then any audience I will ever have to stand before, so it shouldn’t surprise us that he uses different forms of revelation often to communicate the very same message!

 

We’re all different, but at the end of the day we are all God’s children and he has studied each of us from the day we were conceived and knows exactly the most effective means to reach us. So, one reason God uses many different forms of revelation is that when the revelation is codified into Scripture it will appeal to the broadest audience possible—the whole of humanity. There are four Gospels for a reason.

 

(2) Prophets are Human Too!

 

Not only is God’s audience diverse, but the prophets are diverse as well. Consider the wide variety of educational and ethnic backgrounds of the Biblical authors.

 

  • Amos was a shepherd and had no professional experience in ministry when he was called to the prophetic office.
  • Isaiah was a professional prophet and probably related to the royal family.
  • Jeremiah was from a Levitical priestly family and was well versed in theology.
  • Moses was a prince of Egypt.
  • Joseph was a slave.
  • Peter and John were fishermen (i.e. businessmen).
  • Paul was a rabbi.
  • Luke was a doctor.

 

From this perspective, it actually would be strange if God didn’t use different means of communication to “speak” to these prophets and apostles. Their educations were so varied, their backgrounds so diverse (Luke wasn’t even a Jew), it just makes sense that God, instead of straight-jacketing every prophet into a particular mold and confining even Himself to a single means of communication, would rather use His divine creativity to deliver His Word in the best possible way that the prophet He had chosen would understand.

 

In other words, God chooses the mode of communication, based on the prophets’ abilities to comprehend a divine message. God fits the message to the messenger.

 

(3) “Form Follows Function”

 

In the arts and architecture, there is a famous maxim and design principle that states “Form Follows Function.” What this means is that whatever you design or make, the form of the thing should not interfere with the function of the thing.

 

For example, a wristwatch should be easy to read for the time. But consider the popular trends of fashion watches today. It is not uncommon to run across an all black dial with matching black numerals and matching black hour and minute hands and markers. They may look great (form) but its function is compromised due to illegibility. The same is true of communication and messaging. Not all messages can use the same vehicle of delivery.

 

Dr. Canale explained it best by stating, how odd it would be for God to use visions and dreams, theophanies, or verbal revelation to communicate the content and message of Song of Solomon!!! The content and message of that book necessitate a different form of revelation, specifically one of the non-supernatural modes.

 

Essentially, the third reason I believe God uses different modes of revelation is that His messages are diverse, just like his audience, and just like his prophets. It may be that verbal and theophanic revelations are more suited to messages of love and comfort while messages of warning and rebuke align themselves more with apocalyptic signs and symbols.

 

The Bottom Line

 

But regardless of the reasons for all these different modes of revelation one thing is sure; God wants to talk to us. He has a message and He has communicated that message to humanity.

 

Furthermore, you have a part to play in this process, specifically, in order for God to be successful in communicating with you, at some point you must open the Bible for yourself and read it. As a Christian, and as an Adventist, it is your spiritual birthright and privilege to read the Word of God. It is God’s revelatory love letter to you as His son or daughter.

 

In the next article, we will lay the second layer of our foundation for our theological house and explore how a revelation, given by God, actually becomes physical Scripture that we can hold in our hands and see with our eyes—the miracle of inspiration.

Click here to read the rest of Ingram’s series on Adventism 202

______

Notes.

[1] Or as Dr. Fernando Canale phrased it “Revelation-Inspiration” conjoining the two terms to emphasize that either is obsolete and useless without the other.

[2] Matthew 7:24.

[3] Fernando L. Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Lithotech, 2010).

[4] Fernando L. Canale, Back to Revelation-Inspiration: Searching for the Cognitive Foundation of Christian Theology in a Postmodern World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).

[5] Canale defines inspiration as “…the process by which the biblical writers put into writing the contents, ideas, and information they received through the prior process of revelation.” See Fernando L. Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (2010), p. 11.

[6] Note the definition of Revelation in regards to Scripture and prophets is not simply God communicating with a human being. The intended ultimate recipient of the message must be God’s people. Communications that God gives to individuals for their own personal benefit, instruction, and reproof, do not qualify that individual as a prophet and it certainly does not make the message a Revelation proper as in something that should be subsequently turned into Scripture. The divine intent that the message is published and shared is essential to identifying genuine events of Revelation. God communicates with every Christian in different ways but that does not mean that these messages are Scripture and it certainly doesn’t make the recipient of the message a prophet.

[7] Canale defines revelation as something that “…points to how God’s ideas came to the mind of the biblical writer.” See Fernando L. Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (2010), p. 11.

[8] Canale defines inspiration as “…the process by which the biblical writers put into writing the contents, ideas, and information they received through the prior process of revelation.” See Fernando L. Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (2010), p. 11.

[9] The words “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe” are typically sung by children while randomly choosing between equally viable options in a variety of scenarios. For example, one may hear children using this technique when picking teammates for a ball game, or choosing between ice cream flavors. By attaching “Divine” to this expression I do not wish to communicate that Revelation or God have a tendency towards randomness (though it may appear random to human observation) but rather that God has a variety of available methods to communicate to a prophet.

[10] For a more detailed description and analysis of the different modes of revelation I would again recommend Fernando Canale’s The Cognitive Principle, from which much of the content of this article is derived and reformulated.

[11] Judges 13:17-22.

[12] As a tangential note, it baffles me at times that other denominations can accept Jesus being depicted in the Bible in his pre-incarnate state as an angel, but find it difficult to identify this same being with the “angel” Michael in the Old and New Testaments.

[13] The giving of the Ten Commandments is particularly fascinating since the authenticity of the document could be verified by literally millions of witnesses. Before writing the law on tablets of stone and giving it to Moses, God had already declared the Law verbatim in Exodus 20 to the entire nation of Israel 40 days earlier. Every Israelite knew what the Commandments were and could corroborate the authenticity of the written copy that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

[14] Acts 18-19.

[15] Proverbs 7:6-9.

[16] Proverbs 6:6-8.

[17] Proverbs 1:1-8; 31:1.

Share It :

google+
More

About the author

Ingram London

Ingram London is a PhD student studying systematic theology at Andrews University. He serves as head of content development for The Compass Magazine.