Are Adventists Afraid of Bible Study?

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Luke, a Plagiarist? "Are Adventists Afraid of Bible Study?"

A Book Review article by Alden Thompson

Spectrum 16, no. 1 (April 1985): 56-60.
George E. Rice. Luke, A Plagiarist? 110 pp. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1983. $4.95 (paper). Reviewed by Alden Thompson, Professor of Religion, Walla Walla College, College Place, WA 99324.
Luke, A Plagiarist? is a surprising book. And lonely. Surprising, because it reflects a method of study which key spokesmen within Adventism have adamantly opposed during the past decade. (1) Lonely, because the last time it was advertised in an Adventist Book Center "Shopper," it stood unique as the only in-depth study of the text of Scripture. (2)
Why would the publishers for a "people of the book" advertise a select list of devotional books, stories, and outreach booklets--even a sprinkling of heavier stuff (generally historical studies)--but just one "serious" work on the Bible? Is the Bible too hard for Adventists? Or too easy? Or are we afraid of detailed Bible study?
Both the timing and titling of Rice's book reflect the heightened interest in Adventism in such questions and suggests something of the community's struggle over the issue of inspiration. Although the title, introduction, and conclusion of the book mark it as an apologetic for Ellen White's literary practices, the actual content is a provocative comparison of the gospels using "redaction criticism," a so-called "historical-critical" method which analyzes an author's purposeful adaptation of traditional (or "borrowed") material. The logic is transparent: if the "inspired" authors of Scripture could "borrow," how can Ellen White's borrowing be an argument against her inspiration?
Such emphasis on the "human" side of inspiration, however, stands in tension with the more typical tendency of conservative Christians to emphasize the "divine." In its classical form, the "historical-critical method" treats Scripture as a strictly human production. And just as radical historical criticism represents a reaction to the divinization of Scripture, so the more vigorous opponents of the "historical-critical method" are reacting to the radical humanization of Scripture.
For good reason, the author, George Rice, Professor of New Testament in the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, chooses not to use the term "redaction criticism" or explain his relationship to the "historical-critical method." Official Adventist publications have tended to reject all use of the method in connection with Scripture.(3) The church confronted the issue of the "historical-critical" study of the Bible at Consultation II in the autumn of 1981, where the delegates tentatively affirmed (no binding or official actions were taken) that Adventists scholars could indeed make use of the descriptive methodologies associated with the historical-critical method without adopting naturalistic presuppositions of the more radical critics. Now for the first time -- almost unashamedly -- an Adventist author and an Adventist publisher have teamed up to show how it's done. (4)
One of Rice's basic contentions is that the differences in the Gospel narratives are both real and intentional, serving the authors' literary and theological purposes. By contrast, most Adventists, along with other conservative Christians, have tended to treat the differences between the gospels as imaginary or accidental -- harmonizing, minimizing, or ignoring them in the interests of producing a single "master" account.
That harmonizing tendency is deeply rooted in Christian history, reaching back at least as far as Tatian's Diatessaron, a four-into-one harmony from the second century. In Adventism, Arthur Maxwell's Bible Story and Ellen White's Desire of Ages stand in the same tradition, weaving one seamless "life of Christ" from the four gospel strands. Somehow, singing in unison has seemed easier than struggling with four-part harmony.
But Rice wants to hear the four parts; he actually relishes "discrepancy." While recognizing the commendable desire of the harmonizers to prove the Bible trustworthy, he argues that the attempt to downplay the differences does the church a "gross injustice." In his view, "no 'discrepancy,' no matter how 'minor,' is 'unimportant' or 'of a minor order'" (p. 71). The evangelists themselves (not later copyists) deliberately introduced the "discrepancies," "changing" what they found in their sources, for "each change makes a contribution to what the writer is saying about Jesus" (p. 82). Furthermore, Rice notes that changes often initiate a chain reaction as the evangelists seek to be consistent with themselves. Thus "some changes that appear to be 'discrepancies' are nothing more than attempts at being consistent" (p. 74)!
To justify this kind of free handling of the gospel traditions, Rice proposes what he calls the "Lucan model of inspiration" as the necessary complement to the "prophetic model." Based on the implications of Luke 1:1-4, the Lucan model posits human research as the source of the inspired writers' material. By contrast, the prophetic model attributes the content of inspired documents to direct revelation (visions). In Rice's words: "The time is long overdue for us to think in terms of both models being present in the work of an inspired writer" (p. 15).
Although the title implies a defense of Ellen White, the book says very little about her. Rice obviously respects her and has taken seriously her explicit statements on inspiration. That sympathy for Ellen White's stance combined with a desire to be honest with the text of Scripture results in an amazing freedom of expression, dangerously free, in my view, if one thinks in terms of the potential reaction of the church. His chapter titles are incredibly blunt: "Small, Unimportant Changes," followed by "Large, Important Changes," to mention the two most striking examples. He describes the "relocation" of the call of the disciples as "a major piece of surgery performed by Luke" (p. 84). The story of the woman's anointing of Jesus' feet is "a surgery even more radical" (p. 88). I think Rice is correct, but his language is volatile.
For many church members, the price demanded by the book's approach will be a steep one. In fact, the potential reaction of the church is perhaps the most significant question which the book raises. I am sympathetic with Rice's method, but my own teaching experience has made me painfully aware of how difficult it is for some to accept that "many of the events in Jesus' ministry have been moved out of their historical sequence" (p. 25). (5) When I assigned the book to my upper division class in Inspiration/Revelation, I expressed my concern over his bluntness. But virtually without exception, the students took to the book with enthusiasm. "I can now read the Bible without fear that I'll find some inconsistency," wrote one. Another hoped that the church could accept the book, feeling that "it would help a lot of people who are very scared and about to give up their faith."
The book's strengths are numerous. Rice deals honestly with the text of Scripture without fear or anger. The reader senses that the author has faced some tough questions yet still believes. Potential liabilities become assets as Rice demonstrates how the evangelists sought to meet the practical needs of the believers. Nevertheless, some difficulties remain. Rice overstates his case when he sees all discrepancies as theologically significant. And I wonder if he has really solved the problem of "inconsistency" by removing the onus from God and placing it on man. Rice does not want to admit inconsistency in a vision (cf. p. 40). But why must "revelations" under the prophetic model be rigid, unadaptable, and inerrant, if we are willing to allow God's spokesmen under the Lucan model to adapt, mould, and apply their messages with freedom? Certainly the differences between the two editions of the decalogue (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) suggest that we don't know precisely what came from God's finger when he inscribed the law on tables of stone. Yet we would certainly say that the decalogue is "revelation."
Rice also seems to be methodologically unsound when he occasionally appeals to a particular gospel or to Desire of Ages (e.g. pp. 79, 95) as the final authority for certain historical details. Once one allows the human element to the degree which Rice is willing to grant, the inspiration issue becomes more complex than Rice seems to admit.
But if one does not follow Rice, what are the alternatives? Moving to the left on the theological spectrum, one could adopt the "historical-critical method" in its classic and thoroughgoing form. Based strictly on naturalistic principles, such an approach denies the possibility of special divine guidance or intervention in the production of Scripture (i.e. it would eliminate "revelation" and "inspiration"). In addition, the "historicity" of the material would be evaluated more negatively, the evangelists being free to invent new material as well as to adapt what is passed on to them. The more radical critics virtually eliminate the historical element in the Gospels, viewing them rather as a "creation" of the early church. Rice rejects such a radical approach, clearly affirming the principle of divine guidance for both the Lucan and the prophetic models of inspiration (6) and accepting the full historicity of the events narrated in the Gospels.(7)
Moving to the right side of the theological spectrum, one can reject the "historical-critical method," including thedescriptive tools such as "redaction criticism." One spokesman for this more conservative position is Gerhard Hasel, currently Dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. In his Understanding the Living Word Of God, also published by Pacific Press (1980), he denies the possibility of a "moderate" position relative to the historical-critical method. (8) In contrast with Rice, Hasel argues against any view which would describe the Gospel writers as having "transformed" or as having adapted their material "to fit a particular need." He explains the differences between the gospel accounts by positing different occasions and settings. (9)
The differences between Hasel and Rice typify the two sides of the debate which has enlivened (and embittered) the academic scene in Adventism during the last decade. Ever since the Bible Conference of 1974, the use of the historical-critical method has been the focus of an intense struggle at the higher levels of administration and academia in Adventism. The issue simply has refused to die.
In 1974 the Biblical Research Institute excluded the "moderate voices" from the Bible Conference. But the avalanche of criticism against Ellen White's writings was just beginning. When the human aspects of Ellen White's literary activity could no longer be denied, many Adventists took comfort in the biblical parallels which they had previously refused to recognize. With amazing alacrity, the pragmatic Americans at the White Estate began producing "source-critical" studies in defense of Ellen White. The spokesmen for the Estate readily cited the biblical parallels.
Meanwhile those who opposed the use of the historical-critical method in the study of the Bible stood their ground. The continuing tensions ultimately led to the convening of Consultation II in the autumn of l981. The concluding group reports at the Consultation reflected a willingness to adopt a "moderate" approach to the historical-critical method. In other words, the delegates rejected the "all-or-nothing" alternatives at the opposite ends of the theological spectrum. Adventist scholars could indeed use the descriptive tools associated with "historical-critical method" (e.g. source criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) without adopting the naturalistic presuppositions affirmed by the thoroughgoing practitioners of the method.
The delegates at the Consultation voted to recommend that a representative group of scholars prepare a descriptive document illustrating how Adventist scholars study the Bible. The General Conference responded somewhat tangentially, appointing "A Methods of Bible Study Committee" chaired by Dr. Richard Lesher. Advocates from both sides were invited to present their cases before a "jury" which was to decide the issue. Some of the scholars who participated in Consultation II expressed their misgivings; a "jury" implied prescription rather than description, and raised the specter of guilt vs. innocence. In short, after the consensus of Consultation II, a "jury" seemed inappropriate.
But Lesher's response seemed reassuring: "There is no group in the church that can make a theological decision for the church. Committees do not decide theology for the group, rather they prepare materials for the church's examination and study, and the body of the believers must themselves decide where they stand on the issue." (10) The appearance of Rice's book while the "jury" is still out may be another indication that an appropriate spectrum is still alive and well within Adventism. Furthermore, it is at least interesting to note that the same press published the books by Hasel and Rice and that both Hasel and Rice are colleagues at Andrews University -- with the moderating figure of Lesher now as their president.
But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the inspiration discussion in Adventism is the interplay between Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. If the church had not felt the need to defend Ellen White's literary practices, I doubt if Rice's book would have seen the light of day. Is it possible that the crisis over Ellen White's ministry could lead to a re-discovery of the Bible among Adventists? Rice's book suggests that it might. Furthermore, though Rice himself does not make the point, the content of Luke, A Plagiarist?) also offers a means of resolving the nagging tension which many Adventists sense in relating the writings of Ellen White to Scripture. If the gospel writers could differ from one another in their recording and interpreting of Gospel traditions, being more concerned about "practical" application than absolute historical precision, then we may lay differing inspired interpretations side by side, looking for the "underlying harmony" or a "spiritual unity" rather than an absolute harmonization of every detail. (11)
How many times have devout Adventists turned their attention elsewhere because a fresh insight into Scripture was stifled by the rejoinder, "But Sister White says. . ."? If I might hazard an answer to the rhetorical question raised at the beginning of this review, I would suggest that the "ABC Shopper" does not advertise in-depth books on Scripture because Adventists actually are afraid of Bible study -- our conclusions just might differ from those of Ellen White. And no one wants to quarrel with a prophet. The beauty of Rice's book, if the church could only discover it, is the demonstration of the principle that inspired writers can give differing perspectives on the same passage or event. In other words, we could take Ellen White's applications of Scripture seriously, without using them to quench the Spirit in our study of God's Word. (12)
Once upon a time, Adventists bought books from the ABC out of loyalty. But times are changing. Part of the reason why Adventist publishers face enormous financial challenges lies in the fact that an increasing number of devout Adventists never darken the doors of an Adventist Book Center any more. Those who want serious books on Scripture are turning to other publishers. And thus they miss out on those few serious books which are available at the ABC. The church hasn't tried hard enough to tell them what it had to offer, and they got tired of digging through piles of story books. It would be a great tonic to Adventism if books like Rice's weren't quite so surprising in the future. Or so lonely.
1. See report on Consultation II in Spectrum 12/2 (December, 1981), pp. 40-52.
2. Luke, A Plagiarist? was advertised in the supplement to the Adventist Review of February 9, 1984. Two later ABC "Shoppers," Adventist Review supplement of May
3, 1984, and the "Camp Meeting Edition, 1984," carry no advertisement for the book -- nor for any other in-depth study of Scripture.
3. A typical example of the whole-hearted opposition to all aspects of the historical-critical method is provided by an earlier book (1980) from Pacific Press, Understanding the Living Word of God, by Gerhard Hasel, currently Dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Hasel states: "The theologian or exegete must not get the impression that he can safely utilize certain parts of the historical-critical method in an eclectic manner, because there is no stopping point" (p. 26). For Hasel, the historical-critical method includes "source criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism," as well as "structural criticism or structuralism" (p. 28).
4. The book's novelty as well as the community's mixed feelings towards the methods it employs is flagged by the publisher's disclaimer: "The purpose of this book is to investigate a concept of inspiration not generally held by most Seventh-day Adventists" (p. 4).
5. Ellen White comes close to saying the same thing when she observes: "There is not always perfect order or apparent unity in the Scriptures. The miracles of Christ are not given in exact order. . ." (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 20). Rice seems to have adhered rather closely to the implications of Ellen White's statements on inspiration in Selected Messages, vol. 1, and the "Introduction" to Great Controversy, but his language is more flamboyant.
6. "The Holy Spirit was actively engaged in both models" (p. 25).
7. "Each event recorded by the gospel writers did take place historically" (ibid.).
8. Hasel, p. 26.
9. "Jesus seems to have told the same story or parable to different audiences and at different times and places. One Gospel writer may have cited the incidence [sic] in one such setting and another in another setting. The slight differences can thus be much better explained than by the assumption that the words of Jesus, the circumstances, or both were invented by the early church, the respective Gospel writers, or altered to fit a particular need and serve a given purpose of the early church" (pp. 224-225).
Another quotation highlights even more clearly the differences between Hasel's and Rice's approach: "The theological interests of Matthew and Luke respectively may be reflected in their selection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit of a related parable from different circumstances in the life of Jesus. Each Gospel writer incorporated the parable he selected into his Gospel. Neither Gospel writer can be said to have manipulated or transformed the material" (p. 227).
10. Personal letter from Lesher to the reviewer, dated November 17, l982, cited here with Lesher's permission.
11. Note Ellen White's statement: "The Bible was given for practical purposes" Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, p. 20. The phrases "underlying harmony" and "spiritual unity" are also Ellen White's, cited from the "Introduction" to The Great Controversy, p. vi and Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 20, respectively.
12. An ancient tradition (Eusebius, citing Papias, citing John the Elder) suggests a conclusion analogous to that which Rice proposes on the basis of more modern methods of study, namely, that the "practical" needs of the believers provided the occasion for the origin of the gospel accounts. As cited in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History iii. 39, Papias recalls the conversation of John the Elder relative to Mark's Gospel: "Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow Him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord's oracles" (translation from The Apostolic Fathers, translated and edited by J. B. Lightfoot [Baker Book House reprint of 1891 ed.], p. 265).

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