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GOD Means What He Says and He Says What He Means

by Leon Mashchak
The method most widely used in the Adventist church is still the most defensible method of biblical interpretation available today. This method has been advocated by such scholars as George E. Ladd of Fuller Seminary, W. Kaiser of Wheaton College, R. Preus of Concordia Seminary and G. Hasel of the Adventist Theological Seminary. Because these scholars use such terms as "historical," "grammatical," and "theological" to describe their approaches to scripture, I will call my preferred method the "historico-grammatico-theological." For the sake of brevity, I will refer to it as the grammatical approach.


Every method has its presuppositions. The method and its presuppositions are inseparable, for they depend on each other. I have three core presuppositions.
1. The Bible is its own interpreter.
2. The biblical canon includes both Testaments, forming an inseparable unit.
3. God is the author, and inspired people were the writers of the Bible, and therefore:
a. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.
b. Authority of the Bible is the authority of God.
c. The Bible is both human and divine.

"In My Ears"

In spite of the differences among Adventists in understanding the manner and extent of revelation, most agree that God revealed himself. The next question is: What happened when God revealed himself? Did God share any information? Most will agree that God encountered humankind. But was this encounter limited to a meeting with God without providing information or did it include information exchange? Did it have a cognitive dimension? Limiting ourselves to the information found in the Bible, we read that God revealed himself to Moses, the Israelites, Samuel, Solomon, Isaiah, and others. The crucial question is: Did each of these encounters contain specific information?

We find that in each case the revelation is indeed of God himself (self-disclosure), but always combined with a cognitive dimension--God always shared information and ideas. Moses received specific instructions regarding the building of the sanctuary during his encounters with God. Similarly, when God revealed himself to Samuel in Shilo, he gave Samuel very specific information about the house of Eli. In the case of Solomon, God also gave him propositional information and verbal promises. In the writings of the prophets we repeatedly read statements like "thus says the Lord," "God revealed Himself in my ears," "the word of the Lord came unto me," "hear the word of the Lord," and "the hand of the Lord was upon me," to mention the most common ones.

From these few statements it is evident that the revelation of God is both an encounter and a communication, first a meeting and then a knowing. This revelation and propositional disclosure of God's will was occasioned by divine purpose and invariably connected to humankind's need. Before the Fall, God communicated with humans to warn them of the dangers of sin, and after the Fall to facilitate their redemption. In other words, it was always an encounter with a purpose. Christianity is a "revealed" religion for the purpose of redemption. This includes salvation from sin, equipment for holiness, and provision for life in communion with God.

Revelation and Inspiration

While "revelation" may be described as the message, the control over the transmission of this message is described in the Bible as the "inspiration." The recipients of God's revelation were entrusted with the task of delivering the revealed information to the rest of humankind. We read in Ezekiel, "Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them" (Ezek 3:4). We also read that God would be with Moses' mouth (Ex 4:15), and that he would put his words in Jeremiah's mouth (Jer 1:9). These statements imply that God himself would empower and enable his spokespersons to transmit his message faithfully. This process is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we refer to it as the work of "inspiration."(1 Sam 10:6; Isa 42:1; Hos 9:7; Zech 7:12; Neh 9:30; 2 Tim 3:16)

We are reminded that "no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man" but that humans spoke for God, "being carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet 2:20-21). Based on Peter's observation, we are correct in stating that prophetic messages were not the result of the prophet's own meditation, nor of the prophet's later reflection on an encounter with God in which he only saw, heard, and felt God's presence, but were actual information provided by God. Inspiration is described as the power of the Holy Spirit that takes control of men and women with their varied backgrounds, abilities and sinful tendencies, and instructs and empowers them to transmit God's redemptive message in a trustworthy and authoritative manner. According to the apostle Peter, God does not allow the prophets to treat his messages according to their own preferences and interpret it according to their own pre-understandings and goals.

Revelation versus Inspiration

Some scholars demand a separation between biblical revelation and inspiration. Some assert that while revelation, being the product of God, is very reliable and authoritative, inspiration is more or less reliable in controlling material and consequently is less authoritative. This reasoning is based on the fact that the Holy Spirit, who is infallible, employs humans who are sinful and fallible.

However, the Bible is treated by biblical writers as an inseparable mixture of divine revelation and human transmission. Similarly, we received the ultimate revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, an inseparable mixture of divine and human. The product of inspiration is what we call the Word of God. Even the revelation of God through Jesus the Christ comes to us today through the Bible. We do not know what Jesus said or did, except through the Bible. The same is true of God's revelation in the Old Testament. We may know it only through the writings of God's men and women.

Someone may ask: How do we balance the divine and the human factors in the Bible? The answer is we do not balance these factors, for they are inseparable. They became one under the power of the Holy Spirit. No one would ask us to describe the words and actions of Jesus the Christ and distinguish between those of Jesus the man and Jesus the God.


The most important argument for the authority of Scripture is its own claim for itself. When we review the teachings of Jesus, the New Testament view of the Old, and the authority of the apostles, it is clear that they all unite in proclaiming the authority of the Bible. When biblical writers refer to any passage of the Scriptures they treat it as the Word of God, equal to the authority of God.

The quest and pride of this century has been freedom from external authority. This tendency, however, has produced a large crop of theological reconstructions, with the result that everyone is their own master, and right is what one thinks is right. This became popular even within our church through the influence of the work of Joseph Fletcher, author of Situation Ethics. The authority of the Bible has been replaced by the subjective standard of "love."

Knowing and Obeying

In formulating our view of the authority of the Bible, we must remind ourselves that there is no knowledge of the authority of God without a revelation. However, God did not reveal himself to humankind only to be known in a cognitive sense, but to be obeyed. This process of knowing and obeying is possible only through the work of the Holy Spirit. God revealed his authority through the writings of the apostles and the prophets, and supremely through Jesus the Christ. Thus, God's authority is presented and interpreted to us through his chosen media. The writers of the Bible were God's chosen and providential personalities. These writers were not "corrupters" of the self-disclosure of God (through and in Jesus the Christ). They were its transmitters. These writers did not intrude upon God's revelation, for they were a part of the scheme of revelation. To deny supreme authority to the Bible is to deny that God revealed himself, oversaw the process of inscripturation (through the Holy Spirit), and modeled his self-disclosure in the person of Jesus the Christ.

The Grammatical Method

The grammatical method of interpreting the Bible may be summarized by the following six guidelines:

1. Choose the most accurate text. For those who know the original languages in which the Bible was written, the text should be based on the best critical edition. For those who do not know the original languages of the Bible it is best to choose a translation made by a group or team in preference to a translation made by just one person. It is good to make use of more than one translation for comparison.

2. Analyze the historical setting of a passage. It is beneficial to know who wrote it, to whom it was written, and in what historical setting the message was delivered. To this should be added the analysis of the culture, customs, and beliefs of the people addressed by the passage. This analysis is much different from historico-critical analysis of history, because that method wrongly ignores to a large degree the information found in the text and instead hypothetically "reconstructs" the historical setting of the text in agreement with the method's own godless presuppositions.

3. Analyze the literary setting of the text. The text came to us in literary forms such as prose, poetry, letters, legal documents and business records. In addition, it is well to identify such literary forms as: prayers, songs of praise, dirges, lamentations, proverbs, sayings, allegories, love songs, or gospels. We should be aware of the existence of idioms and the use of parallelism, stylistic envelopes and similar literary conventions. We should keep in mind that literary analysis has little in common with what is known as literary criticism, which is based on hypothetical reconstruction of the life setting of the text.

4. Analyze the words, sentences, and units. Words in a passage are bound by grammatical form and syntax. There is great difference between the syntax of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) and Greek languages, and both differ from modern languages. The basic (root) meaning of a word is affected by its grammatical form and its connection to other words in the sentence. While knowledge of the same words in cognate languages is very useful, we must keep in mind that priority must be given to the meaning of a word within the biblical context. The term "biblical context" of a word includes its setting in a sentence, in a unit, in a chapter, in a book, and finally in the whole Bible.

5. Our understanding of a given passage gleaned by following the first four steps should now be compared with most, if not all, passages in the Bible dealing with a similar topic. Our own interpretation of a passage should not contradict God's will stated in other passages. There may be a case where we will not be able to completely understand a given passage. In those cases we do well to remember that there is wisdom in admitting our limitations. Some passages of the Bible are more difficult to understand than others. Those who wrest the scriptures that are difficult do so at the risk of their own condemnation.

6. Often the most elusive part of biblical interpretation is personal application. How should we read and understand the Bible? This part is impossible to accomplish without the influence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps a good rule to follow would be to refrain from imposing our own understanding of a passage upon others in the community of faith. We could present our findings to others without encroaching upon their freedom of searching for themselves.

Women's Ordination

The reason for studying a passage such as 1 Timothy 2:10-12 is to find out what the Apostle Paul had to say about women. We are presently interested in this topic because in recent months it was discussed by the General Conference in session, where a vote was taken denying the rite of ordination to women. Both proponents and opponents of women's ordination claimed that their position was supported by the teaching of the Bible. No one wants to admit that his or her method of interpretation is wrong. Even though I am convinced that there are proper and improper methods of studying the Bible, the problem arose when we started to "proof- text" from the Bible, thus advancing our own ideas about women's ordination.

I conclude with five points of analysis of the 1 Timothy passage:

  1. Most references to the role of women in life and in the church deal with what women could or could not do. There are no statements as to what women could or could not be or become.
  2. None of the few references to women's activities addresses the issue of their ordination.
  3. The basic meaning of the word "ordination" deals with "appointment" and only secondarily may refer to the "rite" that accompanies, or should accompany, any appointment. There are examples in the Bible of women appointed to the highest positions in the nation of Israel in the areas of leadership and teaching (theology). We need only to recall the names of Deborah and Hulda.
  4. The denomination's policy dealing with the appointment and the rite of ordination to the gospel ministry has, in my opinion, little or no connection to the biblical teaching on the subject.
  5. Ordination is the "task" performed by the church, and it is not something a man or a woman should or should not do.

Leon Mashchak, Ph.D., has taught theology at Loma Linda University and Southern College. More recently, he has led in efforts to start new evangelistic work in unentered areas of Europe and the former USSR.
This article originally appeared in Adventist Today, in the Jan/Feb 1996 issue.

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