The Holy Scriptures
The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration. The inspired authors spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to humanity the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history. (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Heb. 4:12; 2 Peter 1:20, 21.)
In a recent online post I read, the author noted that many doctrinal belief statements begin with a treatment of the Bible or Scriptures. He went on to suggest the doctrine of God should really come first. After all, everything is about God. All our beliefs find their reason and source in Him.
In contrast, the Bible is a human book and only a secondary revelation of God Himself. Have we Adventists got the order of our doctrines wrong?
From known to unknown
There are a number of suppositions implicit in the order of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs—first, that before we can say anything concrete about God, it needs to be revealed to us. So to entertain the idea of God—to understand His character or discover truth about Him—there must first be some kind of revelation or encounter.
While we could start by postulating about the doctrine of God it would be equally legitimate to deal with the doctrine of man. We could note what we know to be true from our experience about human nature, sinfulness, love, relationships, how we die, suffer, search for meaning and so on.
Instead, we start at a place where the human and divine intersect. The Bible is not the first, not the only, not the best revelation of God (see Hebrews 1:1-3). But it is common to us all. It is a shared reference point.1
We move from what is known, in this case our reading of Scripture, to what is unknown—the Person of God.
Human limits of knowing God
Therefore, systematising our beliefs begins by recognising that theology is both enhanced and limited by our human condition and experience. To pray, write or speak of God requires language (itself an arbitrary human construct). To think of God or commune with Him requires human consciousness, created in a matrix of organic chemical and electric impulses that we do not fully understand but that is very much human.
Through such impulses, visionary states, vivid dreams and impressions, men and women feel compelled or driven to give voice and word to their thoughts.2 These, of course, are steeped in cultural nuisances, historical references, local idiom and exotic world views that may be foreign to us.
To experience the acts or presence of God engages human senses of sight, sound, touch etc, which are profoundly personal and also subjective. Scripture, therefore, is an artefact of this encounter between the human and the divine. We cannot isolate it from the human experience of ancient people or ourselves for that matter.
The fact God reveals Himself to us at all should cause us to engage in theological dialogue with a great deal of humility and some holy hesitation. Having read the first doctrinal statement, we should proceed to the other 27 with caution—for to be certain about God implies a certain misguided over-confidence in ourselves.
Despite being an infallible and authoritative revelation of His will, the Bible leaves plenty of room for uncertainty. Yes, there are profound statements of truth, confidence and faith. There are voices from heaven and glory on mountains. But there are also doubts, struggles, contradictions and unanswered questions that Scripture leaves us with. Its revelation, while necessary for a knowledge of God and salvation, is partial and incomplete. The theological controversies in our own denomination should be evidence enough of this.
Even the Gospels—God’s ultimate self-revelation in the Personhood of Jesus—are limited. What we know about God, as revealed in Creation, personal experience and the collective experience recounted in the historical record of Scripture, is only made possible by an act of divine grace. It is at God’s initiative.
Divine revelation then is a fusion of divine and human elements, the distinctions of which are mostly indistinguishable. The Scriptures are the fruit conceived by the intimate union of the human and divine.
As the Spirit hovers over the waters in Genesis 1, the Logos (Word) of God speaks life into existence. In the same way the Holy Spirit hovers over Mary3 and the Word of God is fulfilled with the incarnation of Jesus as the Logos4 becomes flesh and makes His home with us (John 1). [pullquote]
So, too, the Spirit hovers over the words of human vessels. The Spirit animates ideas, gives life to words and hovers over the writer, and the reader, so that God is conceived and takes form in human language and imagery.
The agency of the Holy Spirit means Scripture is more than inspirational, it is inspired. It is more than historical, it is historic. It is more than myths and legends and tales of heroes and villains. It is the human story. It is God’s story. It is our story.5
Reading Scripture today
There is always the danger we may overemphasise either the human or divine element of Scripture to the detriment of the other.
Adventism emerged in the fallout of the enlightenment, humanistic rationalism and democratisation. Our pioneers approached Scripture much as people would a textbook, formula or thesis. They mined the Bible for truth to be proven, argued and defended. It was an exercise in reason and it has become our legacy. Yet that encounter with Scripture was not devoid of human emotion, charismatic experiences or deep encounters with a personal God. The beauty of literature gave way to the beauty of Jesus. Not an idea, but a person.
The theological exercise of thinking and talking about God should not take place in a vacuum, devoid of a personal relationship with God or without reference to humanity. Scripture causes the reader to know more about God while leading to a deeper subjective connection. It should also lead us to a deeper knowledge of ourselves, enabling us to be more fully human, while also deepening our connectedness with others.
As I read Scripture, I remember I am doing it through the eyes and experience of another person just like myself. By putting myself in their shoes and understanding their story I can gain a better sense of what God revealed to or through them.
Then I can reflect on how it applies to my own life narrative. I remember our stories aren’t the same. I may draw insight from the interpretation or application made by others who have read the same passage. But I am also mindful the same Spirit hovers over me, the reader. With a whisper the inception of an idea transforms me through the renewing of my mind. At many times and in various ways I am moved, compelled, carried forward to action with divinely-inspired words, thoughts and actions. God has made Himself known to me. Another cycle of His revelation is complete.
Damien Rice is a former pastor and conference president. He writes from Lake Macquarie (NSW) where he dabbles in digital marketing and consults on people, culture and strategy. He tweets @damorice.