Editor’s note: Colleen Tinker of Life Assurance Ministries brings key insights into learning to read and understand the Scriptures without viewing them through group filters and proof-texts. Essential reading for anyone moving away from a cult, and for those helping in that journey.
Part of the work we face as we retrain our Adventist-shaped minds and become biblical Christians is learning how to read Scripture. We were steeped in proof-texting and “bargaining”, on the one hand saying we were “sola scriptura” and on the other saying that the Bible contains some errors which, as with our handling of Ellen White’s writings, we had to explain away or ignore. We were subtly taught that, just as EGW’s writings had errors we had to sift, so did Scripture—because we were taught that EGW and the Bible writers were inspired the same way.
When we leave, however, the only way to navigate away from Adventism successfully is to decide what we will trust. Ultimately we come to a crossroads: will we trust Scripture as the inspired word of God, as it states that it is, or will we trust a human commentary on Scripture?
Richard and I saw there could only be one right answer to that question: we had to trust Scripture. Ellen could not be considered a Bible writer, and no human mind could be trusted to give us eternal truth. We had to go with the Source that claims to be the word of God
God is faithful; His Spirit confirms His word and teaches us it is trustworthy as we submit to it and read it contextually.
How to Start?
We were completely new to inductive Bible study and even to normal Bible reading as we began to question Adventism. Even though both of us had read the Bible as Adventists, our worldview had filtered everything we read. So, for example, when Richard read through Romans in college, he realized that if what he thought he read was true, it would threaten everything he knew about Adventism, so he pushed those things back in his mind and didn’t deal further with the dissonance—at that time.
Years later, when we began having weekly Bible studies with our Christian neighbors (the idea that they might become Adventists was always in the backs of our minds), we began reading Scripture with them in a way we never had before.
We began to read through whole books of the Bible, one chapter at a time, and as we discussed those chapters with our neighbors, we began to see our proof texts in the context in which they originally appeared.To our shock, those familiar poof texts didn’t say the same things we had learned they meant! Read in the context first of the surrounding verses and further in the setting of the whole book, we couldn’t find the support for Adventist doctrines we had learned they provided.
If a person is just starting to read Scripture to find what it REALLY says instead of what Adventism told us it said, the most important first step is simply to begin reading IN CONTEXT. Pick a book (any will do, but for us formers a New Testament epistle is sometimes a good place to start), and read it from beginning to end. Even if you read only one chapter at a time, take notes about what you read, and ask God to teach you what He knows you need to know.
This practice of contextual reading is perhaps the most basic, most profound step to take as you seek to know how to read the Bible correctly. Context dictates meaning, and suddenly proof-texts become parts of a cohesive whole that makes sense!
One of the most helpful rules of thumb I learned was from Elizabeth Inrig in her women’s Bible study: “Words Matter, and Context Is Everything”.
I was taught as an Adventist that I had to understand much of the Bible as allegorical or metaphorical speech that somehow informed me of principles for life. I was not taught the most obvious reality: we read the Bible in the way we read any normal book using the normal rules of grammar, vocabulary, and structure. Moreover, the Bible is a collection of books written in different genres; we read these books understanding their genres just as we would read textbooks understanding their genres.
We have already discussed the importance of the context of the book we are studying, but there is more to context that helps us orient ourselves to Scripture’s words. First of all, it’s important to understand what a book of the Bible meant to the first audience. For example, Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy were written to the Israelites as they left Egypt, became a nation, wandered in the wilderness, and finally were poised to enter the Promised Land after Moses died.
God’s commands in Exodus were given to those particular people. We can’t take those words and just apply them to us. What God said specifically to His people in Israel must be understood in their context. We can’t apply those things to us on this side of the cross as if it were written to us.
Another part of context is a book’s genre. For example, the Old Testament has five books of law (the Torah), 12 books of history, five books of poetry/wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), five major prophets (“major” because Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations [written by Jeremiah], and Ezekiel are long books), and 12 books of minor prophets. These books use normal language and styles of writing including figurative language such as metaphors, similes, personification, and so forth. Approaching the Bible as we would approach a normal book will help us understand how to interpret these things.
For example, the books of history (including Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) tell the stories of Israel including events, dates, lists of names of kings and priests and so forth. These should be read as statements of fact—as data. By contrast, the books of poetry and wisdom will contain much more figurative language, just as poetry does. In Proverbs, for example, we find examples in the first few chapters of the writer (Solomon) personifying wisdom.
Now, wisdom is not a person per se. Yet Solomon speaks poetically about wisdom as a treasured woman who “shouts in the streets” calling the naive and scoffers to give heed to her and to leave their waywardness and to “be at ease from the dread of evil” (Prov. 2).
Again in chapter 3 we read, “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.”
In these cases we understand that we are reading figurative language, not literal statements of objective fact. We do not LITERALLY bind kindness and truth about our necks nor write them on literal tablets of our hearts, but we understand, just as we would understand when reading any poetry, that the author’s point is that we are to commit our hearts to loving kindness and truth (which are only known through knowing God), and valuing these things should be our dearest commitment.
We also find prophetic statements within the poetry of the Psalms. (I had no idea, as an Adventist, that Psalms was full of Messianic prophecies!) A great example of this poetic prophecy is in Psalm 110, where David says, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” Even if we can’t understand exactly what David means at the first reading, we can know some things for sure: David is not writing about himself.
He writes these things in first person, yet we know he is not the ultimate fulfillment because of the grammar. The book of Hebrews explains in depth how this psalm is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus, but even at the first reading of David’s words we can know that the Messianic prophecies God gave David were fulfilled in Jesus as the Son of David. In other words, God’s promises to David that clearly are greater than David himself are fulfilled through David’s promised Son who would sit on David’s throne forever. The figurative language and the use of poetry are the media the Lord God chose to reveal some of these promises, and we are to observe the language and grammar, to know that figures of speech represent things that are real, and the Lord is revealing things that are true.
A similar understanding helps with prophecy. For example, the New Testament has four gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ ministry, one book of history (Acts), 21 epistles or letters to the church and early believers, and one book of prophecy (Revelation).
Revelation uses a great deal of figurative language that describes things that haven’t fully come to pass. We have to know that the figures of speech are not LITERAL (for example, beasts rising from the land and sea), but at the same time, they are revealing truth that will become clear as the events come to pass. At the same time, it’s clear when the language is real and should not be “interpreted” to mean something different from what it says.
For example, Adventists love Revelation 14:2: “Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” This verse is one of Adventism’s proof-texts that those who are saved must be keeping the Ten COMMANDMENTS, including the fourth!
Yet the context contains nothing to support such a notion. Without an Adventist interpretive grid, one could not read Revelation 14 and understand the Adventist interpretation that says the Babylon out of which people are being called is the false first-day worship of papal Rome. Neither could they glean the notion that the mark of the beast will be literally going to church on Sunday—yet Adventism makes these understandings doctrinal absolutes.
There is no contextual permission to interpret this chapter to make it a mandate for Sabbath-keeping. John, the last of Jesus’ disciples to remain alive, is writing God’s final revelation to him. He is addressing the believers alive at that time, about 90 AD, and they (especially the seven churches named in the first three chapters) would have been the first recipients of this book.
We have to ask ourselves: Where else does John write about “commandments”, and does he ever mean “law” when he uses the word “commands” or “commandments”? Would his audience have understood him to be talking about the Decalogue?
The answer is that John uses “commandments” and “commands” repeatedly in his gospel and his three epistles. Never does he mean “law” when he uses “commandments”. When John refers to the law, he uses a different Greek word. Even here in Revelation 14:12, the meaning has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments. That meaning has been imposed by Ellen White and Adventist theology that needed proof-texts to demand Sabbath-keeping.
They conscripted John’s “commandments” to mean “law”, and it does not! Instead, John’s repeated uses of “commandments” refer to Jesus’ new command to love one another as He loved them (Jn. 13:34), to Jesus’ statement that the work of God is “to believe in Him whom He sent” (Jn. 6:29), and to all of Jesus’ teachings and instructions for believing in Him in order to pass from death to life and to live with dependence upon our sovereign God.
In other words, the first thing we must understand when reading Scripture is what it meant to the first audience. Only after understanding that message can we look at what that teaching meant in other books by the same author and in then same Testament.
Then, after establishing that, we can cross-reference the subject with the other Testament, and the last thing we do is to say, what application does that revelation from God have for me today in the New Covenant? We have to know that no application we would make to our own lives can be wildly different in meaning from its meaning given to the first audience.
I am the Last, not the First, Recipient
Adventists have taken God’s revelations to Israel and taken them out of context and applied them to themselves. Yet using Scripture that way violates it. The New Testament clearly reveals how the Mosaic laws were shadows of Christ and set apart Israel to be His holy people, undefiled by the pagan religions surrounding them. When Jesus came, He fulfilled all those shadows.
Today His born again believers are still set apart and holy; in fact, the NT is full of exhortations to live holy lives, but now this set-apartness is accomplished in our new birth in Jesus. We are transferred out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of he Beloved Son and filled with His Holy Spirit.
So we can’t look at those commands given to Israel and transfer them directly to ourselves. We have to understand the audience and their purpose, and we have to see how the New Testament sheds light on the shadows given to Israel before we apply those things to ourselves.
In other words, “What does this mean to me?” is NEVER the first question we should ask. We can only know what something means after we understand what the author actually said and read the words using the normal rules of grammar and vocabulary. After we understand the context and audience, then we begin to understand how those words inform our lives.
It’s important to remember that WE are not in the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself and His unfolding, eternal plan to redeem mankind. When we read Scripture, we are reading God’s story of His interaction with real people who have lived over the last several millennia.
God invites us into His story, and when we trust Jesus, He makes us His and gives us His Spirit and His work to do. He is not passively waiting for us to come to Him. He is sovereign, and His word reveals His authority, grace, mercy, justice, and eternal power. This almighty, eternal God has called us to Himself, and He has revealed His will and His love and His faithfulness in His living word.
I have found that submitting my mind to the literal words of Scripture and believing that they mean what they say instead of trying to allegorize them or figure out a deeper meaning that’s not clearly stated has changed the Bible for me. Verb tenses, prepositions, pronouns, punctuation—these things reveal the actual intention of the original languages. As I’ve begun to pay attention to these things while studying, the Bible has become incredibly rich.
Finally, God is faithful. He has given us His word, and He has sealed us believers with His Spirit. He will reveal His will and His truth as we immerse ourselves in His living word! †
Colleen Tinker, the editor of Proclamation! magazine, and her husband Richard left Adventism in 1998 with their two sons, Roy and Nathanael, who were in grades six and ten. They have co-led the Former Adventist Fellowship since 1999. Colleen, a graduate of Walla Walla University, is a former high school English teacher and also the former managing editor of Adventist Today magazine. Colleen became the stepmother of Roy and Nathanael in 1989, and in 2008 she adopted them. Romans 8:15-17 has assumed new depth and significance for her and Richard since she and her sons chose to claim each other legally and permanently. She and Richard share an office and a commitment to sharing the gospel of the true Jesus with all of those seeking a way out of the bondage of the false gospel of Adventism.