Higher criticism in the Adventist church

The question of women’s ordination dominated the headlines at the recent 2015 General Conference, but the real concern was the advancing power of “higher criticism” within the church. Many faithful Adventists in favor of women’s ordination saw the issue in simple terms of fairness and equity without realizing the true source of contention—the question of biblical authority. In reality, the foundations of current theological disagreements in the church are changing because the hermeneutical principles of many Adventists are changing.


The Reformation, which preceded the growth of modern science, made the Bible the most influential book in Western society. The exponential growth and reach of the Bible as the source of truth was astonishing. Never before had the Bible touched such a wide audience. The first book to be printed by Gutenberg Press was a Latin language Bible in the late 1400s. Many common people read or heard the Bible read, freeing themselves from the many superstitions and delusions propagated by the medieval Church. This freeing of the human spirit opened the way for modern science. Human authority could be questioned and truth could be discovered by the direct, unimpeded, study of nature and the Scripture.

As the influence of the Bible grew, it gained critics as well as adherents. The book that had freed the human mind became itself the object of an all-out assault. Skeptics placed themselves above the Scripture, and higher criticism was born. Science became emboldened to question the fundamentals of the biblical worldview, even to doubt the very existence of God. Critics of the Bible challenged the assumption that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (English Standard Version, Prov. 1:7). Modern skeptics attempted to do the impossible—find meaning and truth without reference to God. 

Every possible branch of science was enlisted by enemies of the Bible to undermine its authority. Geology and biology played the most significant roles. The words of Paul in Romans 1:21 became more meaningful than ever: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”


For well over two hundred years, the Bible has been attacked with devastating effect. Millions of believers have lost their confidence in the Bible. Learned authorities assert that much of the Bible is nonsense. Walking on water? Ridiculous. The virgin birth? Impossible. A world-wide flood? An entertaining story. A creation in six days? Pure myth. Gender distinctions? Don’t exist. Homosexuality? Not a sin.

The essence of higher criticism is the arrogant idea that mere mortals can speak with greater authority than the most authoritative book of all time. Higher critics stand in judgment of a holy thing. However, Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). By chipping away at this or that apparent error or this or that failure to live up to man’s expectations, higher critics claim god-like powers of discernment in their interpretations of Scripture. 

At the grassroots level, where the members of the church look to the pastor for biblical guidance, higher criticism has its most serious effects. The pastor must tread lightly through the Bible. There are passages in the Bible that are hard to explain in modern terms with modern presuppositions. (A woman once turned to her husband in church, exclaiming that what the preacher had just said was highly offensive. He replied, “Sweetheart, he was reading from the Bible.”)

Pastors under the influence of higher criticism are fearful of biblical mysteries and quandaries that fall outside their own understanding. Did God really ask Abraham to kill his own son? Did God really command that all men, women, and children from a certain town be killed? Did God really command that a man be stoned to death for picking-up sticks on the Sabbath? Did Jesus really say we must hate our own families in order to follow Him? Did Christ have to die? 

Unfortunately, higher criticism has offered simplistic answers to these so-called problematic concepts. The difficulties have been explained away by applying faulty means of interpretation. The obvious question becomes, Why bother studying the Bible carefully?  
The sad thing for the church is that many people’s Bibles are getting shorter and shorter. The number of acceptable texts is receding. If present trends continue, the Bible in one hundred years will consist of one reliable statement: “God, if he or she exists, is sometimes a nice person.”

An old pastor was asked many years ago, “When will the Lord come?” He responded, “When the power comes back in the preaching.” Has higher criticism destroyed the possibility of powerful preaching from the Word of God?


Instead of relying on the simplest and most elegant means of interpretation - the plain reading method - higher critics in the Adventist church, without much fanfare, have offered an altered interpretive system, a system substantially different from the one that helped create the Adventist Church. They advocate a principle-based, historical/cultural method of Bible interpretation. This method stands as a corrective to the Bible when it fails to conform to contemporary philosophies. 

Women’s ordination has become a wedge issue in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Higher critics, and that is what cultural critics are, have attempted to sway unwary Adventists with a no-brainer question: Aren’t women equal to men? Since the answer to this question is “yes,” the argument appeared to be over. But at the General Conference the church rejected the “obviously true” cultural argument. 

Through its “no” vote, the church offered a nuanced biblical interpretation. Yes, men and women are equal before God, but biblical distinctions in gender roles remain. The higher critics depended upon the general acceptance of a modern belief system, feminism, while at the same time suggesting that the Bible is culturally backward and misogynistic. The General Conference delegates depended on the plain-reading method of study of the Scriptures and a review of the position taken by pioneers of the church, including Ellen G. White.


The “no” vote on women’s ordination, as well as the clarification of the church’s teaching on the short-age of the earth, brought about a telling response from some Adventists. Higher critics within the church charge that Adventism has fallen into “literalism” and “fundamentalism.” 

A little history is important: In a effort to halt the advance of Bible skeptics, believing Christians in the nineteenth century created a coherent intellectual response that became known as “fundamentalism.” On solid intellectual grounds, fundamentalists fought to maintain the integrity of the Bible. They sought to preserve certain fundamental teachings as non-negotiable truth. As the battle between believers and nonbelievers raged into the twentieth century, a caricature of the conflict gradually emerged: smart people don’t take the Bible literally, but ignorant people believe every word. This stereotype is now pervasive in Western culture.  

Though Adventists are technically not fundamentalists because they reject certain fundamentalist teachings such as verbal inspiration and an ever-burning hell, Adventists are literalists. What is misunderstood is that literalism is essentially the same as historical/grammatical interpretation, the traditional method of biblical study. Adventist pioneers were literalists. To charge the Adventist Church with literalism and fundamentalism is meant to demean and ridicule the church for simply being itself. In other words, higher critics want to characterize those who disagree with them as ignorant and unsophisticated. 

What higher critics choose to ignore is that not all literalists are the same. Some literalists are ignorant. They deny the interpretive importance of figures of speech, literary genre, and symbolism. This version of literalism is biblically unsound. Adventists accept the Bible as a literary book written in human language for the understanding of human beings. This is the plain-reading method of interpretation. 

Literalists look at the Book of Genesis, for instance, and find no intellectual reason within the context of the Scripture to treat a day of creation as anything other than twenty-four hours. They see from Scripture that Adam and Eve were real people (as did Jesus since He speaks of their son Abel as a real person; see Luke 11:51). Higher critics judge these passages, not on biblical grounds, but on scientific grounds. The creation story cannot be literal, they argue, because certain scientific data says it’s impossible.


The Apostle Paul foretold that the church would become the object of certain sorts of people from within. He described them as being “lovers of self,” “proud,” “arrogant,” “unappeasable,” “slanderous,” and “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2-5). If one thing is certain, it is that higher criticism denies the miraculous power of God. 

The Bible records the supernatural acts of God. If the Bible is meant to communicate with humans, it must do so in human language. Literalism means reading the Scripture in the same way people read any literature. That is, by using common reading skills that are so obvious that they should not need to be explained. For example, it does not take an expert to understand Psalm 36:1, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart.” This text involves the personification of sin, but no readers are confused by this figure of speech because they are endowed by God with the ability to understand how language works. 

Early reformers such as Wycliffe had no trouble understanding the truths in the Bible. All they needed was free access to the Scriptures to learn truth. Before higher criticism, no one questioned the plain teachings of Scripture. What was questioned was whether or not the Scriptures had ultimate authority for the believer. The Roman hierarchy did not doubt what Scripture plainly asserted. The Church simply doubted that those assertions were more authoritative than tradition. After all, “Even the demons believe and shudder!” (James 2:19). The devil himself is a “fundamentalist” and “literalist” because, intelligent as he is, he knows what the Bible is saying only too well. He is no fool. Instead of doubting the Word, he uses his supernatural ability to distort its plain meaning.


The Law of Moses, the totality of which encompasses the first five books of the Bible, is a single literary unit. It often uses the language of legal contracts. What higher critics fail to see, when they attack a literal creation, is that the Book of Genesis is part of a contract between God and man. Genesis lays out the background of the contract. 

Law is meant to be clear to all the parties involved. Higher critics wish to break the unity of the Law of Moses by making Gen. 1-11 mythological and symbolic. No judge would ever admit “symbolic” evidence into court. How can God hold mankind accountable to a Law that cannot be clearly understood? 


Higher critics in the Seventh-day Adventist Church want to destroy some of the church’s most fundamental beliefs and substitute them for the deductions of secular science. It is dangerous that such people are willing to replace the plain teachings of Scripture with the shifting sands of human rationality. In these last days, the words of David are truer than ever: “Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie!” (Ps. 40:4)