The Historical Adventist Method
The historical Adventist method of Bible study, also known as hermeneutics, is detailed in “Methods of Bible Study,” an official document approved at the 1986 Annual Council. This method focuses on reading the Bible literally, except when context indicates that a selection is to be read figuratively. It recognized the divine-human nature of the biblical text insofar as God inspired human being with thoughts which they wrote down in their own words. Thus, it recognizes that specific words are not inspired, but the thoughts are. In recognition of the divine source of the thoughts of the Bible, this method recognizes that the Holy Spirit will guide the earnest seeker for truth when such a seeker asks for divine insight. (Compare John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:14)
This method includes a strong emphasis on allowing the Bible to be its own interpreter, comparing Scripture with Scripture. It also includes the necessity of considering the context in which a passage is found. Thus an examination of the literary, historical and cultural context of a passage is important in discerning its meaning for us today, particularly on potentially divisive subjects. While this method recognizes that God met man in the context of human culture, it also recognizes that the essential truths of the Bible transcend its cultural and functions as the Word of God for all cultures.
In interpreting apocalyptic prophecy, this method find the keys to symbolism in the rest of Scripture and anchors interpretation of future events in the pattern of already fulfilled prophecy, in contrast to the futuristic method of interpreting prophecy, which allows for great latitude in interpreting prophecies of future events.
The Historical Critical Method
As practiced in much of contemporary Christianity, this method gives higher priority to science, secular history, archaeology and culture than does the Adventist Historical method. The findings of science are deemed as fact and applied to the text of Scripture to determine what the Bible means. In effect, this means if there is an apparent difference between the findings of the modern sciences and the text of Scripture, science wins. For instance, this method sees the first chapters of Genesis as an instructive myth, rather than historical fact, whereas the Adventist Historical method regards these chapters as historical fact which is more reliable than the paradigms of modern science.
While the official Adventist church does not accept the hermeneutics of the historical-critical method as described here, many of its educated members do accept this method due to the perception of the overwhelming evidence of science in its favor. To understand that the evidence of science is not as overwhelming as presented in popularly understood, please see our Creation and Science resource page.
The allegorical method is a method of assigning “hidden meanings” to passages of Scripture, limited only by individual imagination. This method was used to arrive at the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church which are not supported by a more natural interpretation. Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected this method because it tended to ignore the plain sense of passages and were impossible to critique in any fair manner. (How exactly was one to know if such allegories were true or not?)
The allegorical method of the interpretation has a long history among the Greeks, pre-dating Christianity, and it was adopted by Jewish scholars before Christ. It was apparently first used among Christians by the “church father,” Origen or Origen Adamantius (184/185 – 253/254). It allowed him to find support in Scripture for some ideas that were not supported by a more natural meaning.
While Adventists have generally rejected the allegorical method, it tends to creep in when certain individuals believe they have discovered “new light” in Revelation or even in the Old Testament sanctuary. For instance, items in the sanctuary are assumed to have hidden meanings that are nowhere referenced either in Scripture or the writings of Ellen White. The same is done in Revelation, with no way of determining whether the interpretation is correct, as contrasted with the historicist method which contains checks and balances in reference to biblical typology and actual dates in history.
While it may be reasonable to draw parallels, as in “This reminds us of …,” we should beware of persons who declare “This means that …” without any support in Scripture.
We believe that the only proper use of allegory in interpreting Scripture is when the texts itself instructs us to do such, as in Galatians 4:24.
[Note that this page is still under construction]
Articles on Adventist Hermeneutics
A Truthful Ministry by L.H. Christian. (Brief editorial in Ministry Magazine, 1928.)
Hermeneutics: Interpreting a 19th Century Prophet in the Space Age. (Ellen White Estate,Taken from Journal of Adventist Education, Summer, 1988 pages 16-30.)
Another Look at Adventist Hermeneutics by George W. Reid. (Biblical Research Institute General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists®, 1998.)
“How to Listen to the Messenger” (section on hermeneutics in the book Messenger of the Lord by Herbert E. Douglass, 1998. You can download the whole book for free, read it online, or buy it in Kindle or paper format on Amazon.com)
“Nine Foundations for an Adventist Hermeneutic,” by William Johnsson, Ministry Magazine, March 1999.
“An approach to the historical-critical method,” Roy Gane, Ministry Magazine, March 1999. (Is it possible to engage in the historical-critical method without denying the overarching inspiration of the Bible?)
“Learning from Ellen White’s Perception and Use of Scripture: Toward an Adventist Hermeneutic for the Twenty-first Century,” by Arthur Patrick, Research Fellow, Avondale College, 2003. Quite readable scholarly article.
“Interpreting Scripture According to Scripture,” by Richard M. Davidson, on TED website, first published by Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, March 2004. Thorough, scholarly examination.
“Salvation, Hermeneutics and Culture,” by Lael Ceasar, Ministry Magazine, November 2012.
“Christ-centered Hermeneutics: Prospects and Challenges for Adventist Biblical Interpretation,” by Frank M. Hasel, Ministry Magazine, December 2012.
“Biblical Hermeneutics 101,” by Michael Zwaagstra demonstrates the importance of context. (Adventist Review, December 2014)