A popular theological vulgarism just now, in various circles of contemporary Adventism, is what has become known as the “proof text method” of Bible study. This is not, to be sure, a new marker of scorn among those Adventist intellectuals in recent times who sail under the so-called “progressive” theological banner. One leading critic of this method was the late Raymond F. Cottrell, who attacked the Biblical underpinnings of the investigative judgment doctrine because, in his view, it was based on Biblical “proof-texting.” Cottrell stated:
The traditional Adventist understanding of Daniel 8:14 was formulated on the basis of what is commonly known as the proof-text method of Biblical study and interpretation (2).
Robert Brinsmead, in his 1981 attack on the Sabbath, likewise faulted the adherence of Seventh-day Adventists to the Sabbath doctrine because of its alleged reliance on this method:
Twentieth-century biblical studies have demonstrated the inadequacy of the proof-text method of handling the Bible. . . . The entire Bible is written in a certain historical context, and what is written is conditioned by that context. It is most unsatisfactory to approach the Bible as though God had revealed Himself in abstract propositions which could be understood apart from the historical situation (2).
Describing in depth what he held to be the shortcomings of this method, Cottrell stated that “since the beginning most Adventists have followed this method, but no reputable Bible scholar follows it today” (3). (Cottrell’s criteria for what constitutes a “reputable” Bible scholar was never explained.) Cottrell himself adhered to what he described as the “historical method” of Bible study, which is really an abbreviated term for higher criticism of the Bible. Cottrell lists the following five characteristics of this method:
- [It] aspires to be as objective as possible.
- [It] endeavors to understand the Bible as the various writers intended what they wrote to be understood and as their original reading audience would have understood it from their cultural, historical, and salvation history perspective.
- [It] considers words, literary forms, and statements according to their meaning in the original language as normative.
- [It] endeavors to evaluate data objectively.
- [It] bases its conclusions on the weight of evidence (4).
Cottrell goes on to say:
This method requires either special training in biblical languages and the history and milieu of antiquity, or reliance on source material prepared by persons with such training (5).
Cottrell goes on to criticize what has become known as the historical-grammatical method of Bible study, employed by most conservative Adventist Bible students and endorsed by church leadership since the adoption of the “Methods of Bible Study” document at the Annual Council of 1986. Cottrell claims that this method “consists of historical method procedures under the control of proof-text presuppositions and principles” (6). But what he failed to articulate was the stark contrast between the so-called historical method’s reliance on “experts” to explain the Bible to the average person, and the affirmation by the historical-grammatical method of both the Bible’s transcendent relationship to the human experience and its ability to explain itself. The Methods of Bible Study document, noted above, states as follows:
Human reason is subject to the Bible, not equal to or above it. . . . God intends that human reason be used to its fullest extent, but within the context and under the authority of His Word rather than independent of it (7).
The Bible is its own best interpreter and when studied as a whole it depicts a consistent, harmonious truth. . . . Although it was given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern/Mediterranean context, the Bible transcends its cultural background to serve as God’s Word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages (8).
Those who would have Christians rely on scholars with specialized training to explain the inspired Word to them might best consider the words of Jesus, who prayed: “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them unto babes” (Matt. 11:25). The apostle Paul warns of those who, “professing themselves to be wise, . . . became fools” (Rom. 1:22).
Thankfully, the inspired writings offer a better way, which the aforementioned historical-grammatical method of study seeks to embody.
Inspiration Its Own Interpreter
The fact is that what many deride as the “proof text method” of Bible study is in fact the Bible’s own self-explanatory method. Let’s be clear from the outset, of course, that we are not discussing the practice—too often indulged by certain ones, whether inside or outside Adventism—of taking Bible verses out of their immediate context and reading into them something entirely foreign either to the surrounding passage or the inspired consensus. That isn’t the issue here.
What we are in fact describing here is the Biblical recognition that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16). The author of this verse clearly includes both Testaments in his reference to “all scripture,” as in the previous verse he writes to Timothy that “from a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (verse 15). The only Scriptures Timothy was taught from his childhood would have been those of the Old Testament, as no part of the New Testament had likely been written prior to Timothy’s formative years. Elsewhere the Berean Christians were praised by the apostles for testing the apostles’ teachings by the Scriptures (Acts 17:11)—doubtless, once again, those of the Old Testament. Elsewhere in his epistles Paul frequently cites the Old Testament as the authority for the various doctrines he preaches (e.g. Rom. 1:17; 4:6-8; I Cor. 9:9; Eph. 6:1; I Tim. 5:18).
So it is all of Scripture which must be acknowledged as the transcendent, timeless, divine authority in all matters spiritual. These inspired words are declared not to be the word of humanity, but rather, of God Himself (I Thess. 2:13; II Peter 1:20-21). And according to Paul, what the Holy Spirit inspires is to be understood by comparison with itself:
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:12-14).
Whether the issue is salvation by grace through faith, God’s moral standard of righteousness, what happens at death, or the meaning of symbolic and prophetic passages, comparison of one passage with others where similar language and themes are found is the key to understanding. When Paul writes in Romans 4:6 of how “David describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom the Lord imputeth righteousness without works,” we understand better what Paul means by “without works” when we consider the full text of the passage Paul is citing, in which David describes the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity as one “in whose spirit there is no guile” (Psalm 32:2). “Without works,” in other words, doesn’t mean without heart transformation, as other passages by Paul on the scope and substance of salvation bear witness (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5).
The Biblical testimony of what happens to people when they die is articulated and clarified by comparison of passages which address this topic in both Testaments. When we read, for example, in Job 14:12, that “man lieth down, and riseth not; till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep,” we find the timing of this event clarified in both Old and New Testament passages (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29; I Thess. 4:16; II Peter 3:10).
When the book of Revelation depicts two women as respective symbols of the true and false churches—the one dressed in white (Rev. 19:8), the other dressed in scarlet (Rev. 17:4)—we learn more clearly the meaning of these colors when considering Isaiah 1:18, which declares that “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Other Bible passages also underscore the use of such symbols as a pure woman (Jer. 6:2; II Cor. 11:2) and a harlot (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1) as respective metaphors for faithful and faithless communities of believers.
When we consider the identity of the figure described as the “king of the north” in Daniel chapter 11, other passages enable us to identify this power based on similar language and the parallel theme of God’s people under attack by forces from the same direction (Jer. 1:14-15; 4:6,13; Dan. 11:40).
When this self-interpretive approach to the Bible is applied to the issue of spiritual gender role distinctions, the whole of Scripture—as in other cases—should be assembled to articulate and clarify what is stated. No single passage can be studied without comparison with other passages. The first chapters of Genesis, for example, must be placed alongside those New Testament verses which make plain that while men and women hold equal standing before God relative to salvation (Gal. 3:28), the primacy of the male gender so far as spiritual leadership and salvation history are concerned is nevertheless clear (Rom. 5:12-19; I Cor. 11:3; 15:22; Eph. 5:22-25; I Tim. 2:12-13). What has often caused confusion and misguidance in this particular controversy is when one or more passages are isolated from the rest of Scripture and analyzed in meticulous depth—linguistically, culturally, with all possible nuances explored in detail—without permitting other Bible passages on the same subject to clarify and offer comment on what the passage in focus is saying. This method of “exegesis” tends both to ignore the Biblical principle of inspired self-explanation and to rob the text of any transcendence, to the point where few are likely ever again to tremble at the Word of the Lord (Ezra 10:3; Isa. 66:2).
What Scripture teaches regarding the above doctrinal issues helps explain what is meant by the statement that Inspiration is its own interpreter. Formal scholarship is not necessary as a means of understanding these verses. This is what Ellen White means when she says that “the Bible was not written for the scholar alone; on the contrary, it was designed for the common people” (9).
Ellen White confirms the self-explanatory nature of Holy Scripture in such statements as the following:
The Bible is its own expositor. One passage will prove to be a key that will unlock other passages, and in this way light will be shed upon the hidden meaning of the word. By comparing different texts treating on the same subject, viewing their bearing on every side, the true meaning of the Scriptures will be made evident.
Many think that they must consult commentaries on the Scriptures in order to understand the meaning of the word of God, and we would not take the position that commentaries should not be studied; but it will take much discernment to discover the truth of God under the mass of the words of men (10).
The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the word as a whole and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme—of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for the supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy to the great consummation (11).
The Bible is its own interpreter. With beautiful simplicity one portion connects itself with the truth of another portion, until the whole Bible is blended in one harmonious whole. Light flashes forth from one text to illuminate some portion of the Word that has seemed more obscure (12).
Let the Bible explain its own statements. Accept it just as it reads, without twisting the words to suit human ideas (13).
The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed (14).
The same principle, according to Ellen White, is to be used in understanding her own writings:
The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture (15).
No Coherent Alternative
More often than not, it is the aforesaid self-explanatory approach to the inspired writings, both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White, which is targeted by negative references to the so-called “proof text” method. But what critics of this method fail to do, most notably, is to provide a coherent and Biblically faithful alternative approach to Bible study.
In the first place, all Christians who take the Bible seriously use proof texts. John 3:16 is a proof text. First Corinthians 13 is a proof text. Galatians 3:28, often used—illegitimately, to be sure—to demolish gender role distinctions in the realm of spiritual leadership, is also a proof text. Indeed, if one is a Bible believer and is persuaded by Biblical evidence as to the truthfulness of any doctrinal or moral imperative found in the Sacred Pages, how is one to avoid the use of relevant texts as proof for one’s convictions?
During the past several decades, efforts to cobble together alternative approaches to Bible study—in contrast to the classic Adventist method outlined in the previous section—have lacked Biblical coherence or even simple logic, sometimes embarrassingly so. One of the most egregious of these examples was articulated by Desmond Ford at the Palmdale Conference on righteousness by faith in 1976, where he alleged that the scope of Biblical righteousness by faith could only be explained by Romans 3:21-5:21 (16). Ford would insist in a subsequent declaration, with a dogmatism for which he offered no Biblical support, that “the Cross had to be endured before it could be explained” (17), on which basis he stated that the “definitive word on the Gospel” couldn’t be found in the four Gospels of the New Testament (18). Following his later dismissal from the Adventist ministry, Ford likewise stated:
Paul was the greatest preacher of the gospel that there has ever been. You say, What about Jesus? My friends, Jesus came to make the atonement, not to explain it (19).
Interestingly, what might be called the “newer is truer” premise, with which the above approach to Scripture seems at least to some extent to embody, is contradicted by Ford himself in his later defense of the seventh-day Sabbath, in which he affirms that “for the most part the gospels were written later than the epistles” (20). If so, why wouldn’t the presumably clearer understanding of the Cross and salvation found in Paul’s epistles be reflected in the later theological statements found in the Gospels?
The fact is that the doctrinal, prophetic, and moral themes of the Bible are thoroughly interconnected, within and between both the Old and New Testaments. From Moses and the Old Testament prophets to Jesus and the New Testament apostles, the theological and practical underpinnings are the same, even when one considers such factors as the fulfillment of the Old Testament ceremonial law at the death of Christ and the end of the civil theocracy of Old Testament Israel. In all doctrinal, prophetic, and moral pronouncements, what appear to be discrepancies are resolved by consulting the self-explanatory Biblical consensus. And for Seventh-day Adventists, the inspired and authoritative writings of Ellen White reaffirm and further clarify the collective testimony of Holy Scripture (21).
All inspired passages must be considered with reference to their immediate context. But they must also be considered with reference to similar themes and language in other parts of the Sacred Writings. As humanity is involved in what the inspired writings call the great controversy between good and evil, proofs in favor of truth and against error are essential. Hence the need to marshal relevant inspired evidence with regard to right and wrong relative to a host of issues.
I fear that the dismissal by certain ones of the “proof text” method of Bible study is often the unintended admission that the weight of inspired proof is stacked against the posture they have taken regarding any number of contemporary issues. The same holds true with the writings of Ellen White. Our initial task as students of the inspired documents is not to approach these writings with preconceived opinions, but rather, to ascertain the eternal divine perspective on any given subject through comprehensive consideration of all the inspired writings say, devoid of the intrusion of personal opinion, popular culture, scholarly speculation, and the vagaries of individual experience. Our ultimate task is to accept the self-explanatory proofs offered by the inspired text, irrespective of their personal, professional, social, or cultural cost.
1. Raymond F. Cottrell, The “Sanctuary Doctrine”—Asset or Liability? (transcript of address delivered at San Diego (CA) Adventist Forum, Feb. 9, 2002), p. 17; see also Cottrell, “Sanctuary Debate: A Question of Method,” Spectrum, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 21-22.
2. Robert D. Brinsmead, “The Life Situation of the Apostolic Church,” Verdict, June 1981, p. 8.
3. Cottrell, The “Sanctuary Doctrine”—Asset or Liability?, p. 17.
9. Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 89.
10. ----Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 187-188.
11. ----Counsels to Teachers, p. 462.
12. ----Our High Calling, p. 207.
13. ----Loma Linda Messages, p. 55.
14. ----The Great Controversy, p. 598.
15. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 42.
16. Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression, ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith (Goodlettsville, TN: Jack D. Walker, Publisher, 1976), p. 4.
17. ---“Righteousness by Faith,” Study Papers, Series 1: Righteousness by Faith (Angwin, CA: Pacific Union College Religion Dept, 1979), p. 17
19. ----The Adventist Crisis of Spiritual Identity (Newcastle, CA: Desmond Ford Publications, 1982), p. 253 (italics original).
20. ----“The Sabbath: Brinsmead’s Polemic,” Spectrum, vol. 12, no. 1, p. 67.
21. White, Early Writings, p. 78; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, pp. 98-99; Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 32; Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 655-656; Gospel Workers, p. 302.