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Systematic Misinterpretations

Systematic misinterpretations are more complicated. To avoid them requires a broad understanding of the Bible and Ellen White’s writings. To respond to them requires a more systematic approach than this brief treatment. But this page is provided as a starting point for further research.

Logic, Grammar and Selective Insistence on Literalness

Systematic misinterpretations are much easier when one does not have a firm understanding of the role of language in the communication of ideas. Language has a set of rules, norms and conventions that we call grammar. There is an inherent logic involved in coding and decoding language. Language is overwhelmingly the most common medium we use to convey ideas. To understand inspired writings, one must understand and consistently apply the principles of language and interpretation of language.

It is possible to bring various attitudes and methods to questions of interpretation of inspired writings relating to the Godhead. E.g.,

  • Language is rigid and must be used in a fixed, completely transferrable, absolute sense
  • Language is fluid, but can be understood by plain reading when the context is understood, and when compared with other uses of similar language, to understand the semantic range, idioms, etc, when technical issues arise
  • Language is too flexible to contain any meaning of substance and is completely open to interpretation

A quick look at Isaiah 9:6 and Proverbs 7 through 9 suggests that a rigid approach to language is not going to yield much light on the matter, otherwise we would end up having the Son and the Father as the same Being (Isaiah 9:6), and female (Proverbs 7-9 uses a Hebrew word that is feminine for wisdom, hence the use of feminine pronouns in English translations). I wouldn’t suggest a completely flexible approach to language either because then I wouldn’t bother to engage in any meaningful communication about any topic.

So context, semantics generally, word meanings, metaphor, etc, are all important in our understanding of the Bible and Ellen White’s writings. We simply need to be fair to the text, allowing language to follow its normal rules.

God Subject to Time or Time Subject to God

This area of systematic understanding of God and time relies somewhat on logical deduction beyond what is articulated by clear revelation. But it still serves as a powerful restraint to those who would question the “Godness” of Jesus.

There is significant biblical evidence that God is not a linear Being with respect to time. Examples are inhabiting the future as implied by the prophecies and the statement: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).

Though not needed as proof, science appears to support this, in that Einstein proved that time is not strictly uniformly linear for all objects. If it is possible for an object at the speed of light to experience time on a different scale or dimension to the rest of matter/beings, then it would seem extremely probable that God is also able to experience (or even direct) time in a way that we as humans cannot and would not understand.

It is clear from Scripture that God has and does (at least some of the ‘time’) operate within time in a way to which linear beings can relate. But it seems quite dangerous to construct a theory of the Godhead that requires God to ALWAYS operate as a linear Being with respect to time, and in which Jesus, at one point in time, did not innately possess omnipotence or inherent life, or did not even exist, as some go so far as to say. This would then make it impossible for Jesus to be called “God” at all, if all of my logical deductions stand.

So either Jesus was and is always “God” in the fullest sense, or He never is/was. To suggest otherwise severely constrains “God” and “Godness” into linear thinking and dimensions. While ever there is talk of a process of passing on of ‘life-source’ or such like, ‘process’ must be understood as humans only can understand it; that is, requiring time in a linear dimension.

God is Love

It has been argued eloquently by others that for the statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8) to hold true eternally, there must always (i.e., from all eternity) have been an object for interpersonal love. (See 1 Cor 13 for characteristics of love defined such that there must be an “other”: e.g., “seeketh not her own” (v. 5).)

A counter-argument is that “God” in 1 Jn 4:8 is referring only to the Father, and not the Godhead generally. However, whether the reference is to the Father or the Godhead, the original argument still holds. That is, for God (whether the Father or all members of the Godhead) to always be love, there must always be an object for interpersonal love.

Conflation of Righteousness by Faith and Constructed Antithesis

A relatively new addition to the rhetoric of those opposing a triune view of God is imposing on our understanding of God a framework of righteousness by faith that only loosely fits humanity, much less God. The framework is a constructed antithesis between value by performance and value by relationship. Such a framework is helpful in the human domain, where humans DO require righteousness by faith. Yet for some reason it has been applied to our definition and characterisation of the Divine, for Whom righteousness by faith is not a personal need or relevant in the same sense as it is for fallen humanity.

The result is circular reasoning, where a deficient method for determining the attributes for God is assumed, then used to establish the original assumption.

Eisegesis vs Exegesis

Eisegesis means coming to Inspiration with a pre-determined view and bringing it into the text, thus forcing the textual evidence to fit it. Exegesis means allowing the textual evidence its full weight to speak the author’s intending meaning.

Refer to the page “The Broader Issue of the Godhead” for an example of this. The overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that the Holy Spirit is a distinct Being, and one of three Persons in a Triune God. Other interpretations only seem possible by eisegesis and abuse of language. It seems that the motivation for denying the distinct personhood of the Holy Spirit may be the strong appeal of a theory that has one Divine Being (the Father) who was able to generate or create all other life, including that of a non-co-eternal Son, Jesus Christ. If it was not for the appeal of this theory, it would presumably be easy to find people who did not believe in the eternal pre-existence of Christ, yet did believe in the distinct personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Those upholding a non-triune view of God have a lot more riding on both questions (regarding the nature of the Son and Holy Spirit) being answered together in their favour than anyone else. This predisposes them toward bringing a pre-determined theory to the text (eisegesis).

Nevertheless most of us, me included, have been guilty of eisegesis at some point. It is a discipline to come to the text completely neutrally and objectively. To avoid this error, we have to examine our interpretation, our motivation, and whether we have any pre-determined paradigm or pattern of thinking that drives our understanding.

Confusion of Functional Subordination and Essential Equality

Functional subordination and hierarchy is not incompatible with essential equality. Another way of saying essential equality is ontological equality.

Ontology = what one is (the nature of a being)
Function = what one does

Thus, male headship in marriage and male priesthood in the family is an example of functional hierarchy rather than ontological. We understand male and female to be equal, though distinct, expressions of human nature. Ontological differences between male and female may be related as far as there being good (as opposed to arbitrary) reasons for chosen female submission, but these do not necessitate this familial hierarchy. Thus a widow is able to function in the role of head and priest of the family for the children, in the absence of a father.

There is essential, that is, ontological, equality in the marriage between husband and wife. The reason the wife and mother submits, in the presence of the husband and father, is out of love. It is a willing and free choice. Husbands do not own or control their wives in a God-ordained marriage.

This chosen subordination is seen in the Godhead. For example, Jesus totally depended on the Father while on earth; and the Holy Spirit does “not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak… He will glorify me” (Jn 16:13-14).

There are actually several other options other than a simple choice between functional subordination and ontological subordination, when it comes to examining the apparent and real subordination to the Father in the life of Christ:

  1. Eternal subordination, both functionally and ontologically
  2. Eternal subordination functionally, but never ontologically
  3. Non-eternal but pre-Incarnational subordination functionally, but never ontologically
  4. Incarnational-subordination functionally, but never ontologically
  5. Differentiation in function, but never any subordination
  6. Differentiation in ontology, but without ontological subordination (e.g., the fully Divine Son of God is also fully human, with corresponding elements of functional subordination; whereas the Father and Holy Spirit do not have human natures)

That there is some functional subordination in the Godhead is usually agreed by all. There are some texts and quotes, however, that are more contentious. Three of these are cited very briefly here.

1. “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.” John 5:26

Note that this verse does not talk about the Father giving life to the Son. It says that the Father has “given [i.e., granted, permitted: actually a Semitic idiom] to the Son [the right] to have life in himself.” There is still subordination, where Jesus laid aside His divinity in most aspects. This is incarnational subordination, but not ontological subordination. This verse is describing an exception, though, because the Father grants the Son to retain the aspect of Divinity that will allow Him to lay down and resume His life:

“No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.” John 10:18

2. “(1) God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, (2) Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; (3) Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; (4) Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. (5) For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” Hebrews 1:1-5

This passage also quotes Psalm 2:7. The whole context is most definitely talking about Christ’s incarnation and exaltation post-incarnation, with a reference back to His Creatorship. To apply the subordinated concepts of any of these verses to some ‘way-back-in-eternity’ origin or inheritance of Christ into divine Sonship is completely missing the point of these verses. Psalm 2:7, in context, is incarnational, and is applied either incarnationally or post-incarnationally by NT authors (see also Acts 13:33: applying “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” to the resurrection of Jesus).

3. “Looking unto Jesus we see that it is the glory of our God to give.  “I do nothing of Myself,” said Christ; “the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father.”  “I seek not Mine own glory,” but the glory of Him that sent Me. John 8:28; 6:57; 8:50; 7:18.  In these words is set forth the great principle which is the law of life for the universe.  All things Christ received from God, but He took to give.  So in the heavenly courts, in His ministry for all created beings: through the beloved Son, the Father’s life flows out to all; through the Son it returns, in praise and joyous service, a tide of love, to the great Source of all.  And thus through Christ the circuit of beneficence is complete, representing the character of the great Giver, the law of life.” (DA 21)

This quote definitely talks of subordination, but the first two levels (of the five listed above) are not necessitated. I personally see pre-incarnational but not eternal functional subordination, and definitely not ontological subordination.

The flow of equality -> subordination -> exaltation is most eloquently portrayed in Phil 2:5-11.

Straw Men

Another logical fallacy often used by those who put forward strong views on the Godhead is that of the straw man. This fallacy involves constructing a misrepresentation of an alternative viewpoint such that the alternative view actually held is not truly represented at all. It is then easy to prove that the constructed misrepresentation (straw man) is faulty. This can be done dishonestly or through naivety – i.e., never really understanding the alternative viewpoint.

The suggestion that a triune-view of God necessitates Divine role-playing is an example of a straw man argument.

Ad hominem

Yet another logical fallacy is determining doctrine based on criticism of the person or character of those who hold an alternative viewpoint. Asserting that nobody who has held an alternative view of the Godhead has experienced victorious Christian living is a thinly veiled form of this fallacy. It would be fairer to demonstrate theologically why a particular doctrine presents a barrier to victorious Christian living.

Personal Experience

On the flipside, conflating positive feelings or perceived improvements in one’s Christian experience is also an unsafe way to establish truth. Fruits are a necessary test of our beliefs and experience, but are not a good sole basis for adopting an otherwise untested belief system.

Many Buddhist converts experience new heights of peace in the simplicity of austerity. People who speak in tongues speak of overwhelming spiritual elation.

That someone can have what they feel is a deeper spiritual experience in response to a certain belief does not mean that belief therefore must be true.

For example, let me put forward a new view of God for evaluation:

“God is in everything. God is in all living things, as He is the Fountain of life. Every tree carries, and essentially is, the Divine Being. Likewise every flowering plant, and every blade of grass, as well as every animal and all things living. So when I see a branch broken, a leaf fall, or an ant perish, God is giving me a visible demonstration of His self-sacrificing love for me – that He would allow Himself to die continually so that I can live. A plant has to die for me to be able to eat it, and thus I am continually reliant on God sacrificing Himself every day just to exist. Thus I am continually reminded of God’s great self-sacrificing love for me.”

Yes, this is pantheism; yet it thrilled many people. Ellen White called it the Alpha of apostasy! That gave the precedent for the omega of apostasy and others like it – people being led to think that they are having a deeper experience with God, only to be deceived.

Many who follow new teachings that differ from a triune view of God are attracted because of factors outside the strict adherence to revelation and inspiration. These include:

  • Bad experiences with family (particularly a relationship with a father), or the church. Alternative viewpoints of the Godhead are conflated with comforting ideas of identity, authority, headship, value, and a model “Father-Son” relationship in God the Father and Jesus.
  • The appeal of something simple, easy to grasp, and that seemingly finds a fitting application in one’s spiritual experience. There is strong appeal to be able to turn our beliefs into practice and experience – to be able to perform them. Theological investigation, no matter how relevant or correct, does not seem to have as much weight for our generation as compared to whether something will make a difference to one’s experience – whether it will work! All of this puts the triune perspective at a potential disadvantage from the start, because such unthinking experientialism is willing to sacrifice a more complex system of truth and experience (due to the paradoxical nature of truth) for something more simplistic that can be grasped immediately. Thus paradoxical truth may be equated with things that are unsatisfactory in one’s experience to date, whether true or not. Previous generations were more likely to place the authority of the Bible higher than personal experience, as compared to my generation. This may account for a significant resurgence of non-triune views, particularly among youth and young adults, who are usually not so interested in painstaking systematic searching of the Scriptures.
  • Attraction to a strong personality who becomes somewhat of a guru and discipler. This is especially appealing if the leader restores confidence in a strong group identity in comparison to what is seen as a floundering, fuzzily-identified present church that seems to have lost confidence in the reliability of Inspiration.
  • Sympathy for someone who appears to have been treated unfairly or otherwise sidelined or marginalised.
  • Curiosity regarding something that is said to be heretical and may appear to be swept under the carpet or misrepresented and said to be a means of protecting tradition, establishment, employment or reputation.
  • The desire to be part of an exclusive group that has, or claims to have, greater light.
  • The desire to be able (or needed) to impart to others unique or special knowledge and information, and to disciple others.

Ellen White gave this advice to those evaluating alternative doctrinal teaching:

There are a thousand temptations in disguise prepared for those who have the light of truth; and the only safety for any of us is in receiving no new doctrine, no new interpretation of the Scriptures, without first submitting it to brethren of experience. Lay it before them in a humble, teachable spirit, with earnest prayer; and if they see no light in it, yield to their judgment; for “in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” 5T 293.

Many who question the wisdom of the multitude of counselors are unwilling to concede error in interpretation when it is clearly presented to them. They seem unwilling to engage in the priesthood of believers, jumping to other lines of evidence rather than dealing with data that doesn’t fit their theories.

Selective Focus on Church History

In a significant number of discussions, I have observed that there seems to be an emphasis on obscure historical anomalies while other relevant historical data are given less focus.

For example, many Adventist pioneers are quoted in their response to what we all agree are erroneous understandings of the Godhead. But because the umbrella term of ‘Trinity’ used at the time seems linked to any triune view of God, incorrect assumptions are made based on isolated statements of some Adventist Pioneers. This ‘umbrella interpretation’ is applied even when using the term ‘Trinity’ in a significantly different sense.

Undue emphasis is placed on, and/or questionable conclusions are drawn from, the divergence of views at the 1919 Bible conference. The background to a 1931 statement of beliefs on the Godhead is sometimes presented as a conspiracy. However, a categorically triune statement in the Review & Herald in 1913, two years before Ellen White died, is often ignored.

Similarly, much is asserted regarding links to Catholicism for a Triune view of God. However, the proponents of a non-triune view would be surprised to discover that the Catholic teaching is closer to their view than the triune view! This is from the Catechism:

“It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Pauls, Strathfield, New South Wales, 1998, Pocket Edition, Complete and Unabridged, paragraph 254).

Further, from Paragraph 246:

The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: “The Holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and Son; He has his nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration….And, since the Father has through generation given to the onlybegotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son” (ibid., para. 246).

Selective Focus on Elements of Paganism

Those upholding a non-triune view emphasise that there are some pagan beliefs that identify multiple gods. This argument only helps make the Sabellian (or Modalist – the non-trinitarian who believes that the ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ are simply three alternate modes of the one God and not three distinct Persons) look farthest removed from paganism, notwithstanding the essential unity in the triune view. Most that adopt a non-triune view of God still believe in two Divine Beings: the Father and Son. Undeterred, those who argue against the triune view identify pagan religions with three gods or three primary gods, such as the Babylonian religion, saying that this is the basis for a triune Christian Godhead.

A more striking feature of pagan deities, however, is held in common with the non-triune view of God rather than the triune. Greek and Babylonian gods are characterised by their ability to generate other divine beings or gods such that there is a hierarchical family tree of underived and derived divine beings.