In the last article, we explored the power of presuppositions (preconceived ideas) and how they can either enhance or obscure our understanding of the world, including the Bible. We also established that:
1) we all have presuppositions
2) we can’t get rid of presuppositions.
We also seem to born with a certain aversion toward correct presuppositions about the reality when they are of a spiritual nature (Jeremiah 17:9). This is a serious problem in regards to Bible study because presuppositions can blind us to what the Bible actually teaches, thus thwarting our theological enterprise of becoming systematic Adventists. Thankfully there is a remedy for this dilemma. Through the illumination of the Spirit, Bible students are enabled to identify and adopt Biblical presuppositions in the place of inaccurate presuppositions.
Jesus once asked the religious leaders of his day a very important question:
What is written in the Law? […] How do you read it? (Luke 10:24, NIV).
This question is fundamental to how we will go about interpreting Scripture. How we read the Scriptures can make all the difference in our personal understanding of God and salvation as well as determine our trajectory in building a system of beliefs to adhere to. In our last article, we briefly discussed the so-called Christocentric hermeneutics and Feminist hermeneutics. What we were really discussing is the fact that some people have adopted a set of presuppositions (Christocentric, Feminist, etc.) that allows them to see certain things in the Biblical text that may otherwise go unnoticed. However, we also recognize that these same presuppositions can see things in the text that aren’t really there, thus obscuring the text’s true meaning.
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In order to alleviate this conundrum, we need to adopt Biblical presuppositions. Again, presuppositions are the ideas and concepts that help us make sense of the world, including the narrative of Scripture. In theology presuppositions are sometimes called “hermeneutical principles” and in philosophy, they are sometimes referred to as “first principles.” These are foundational ideas about how we view reality and answer the following questions…
- What is real?
- What does it mean to be human being?
- How did the world come into existence?
- How does everything in the world/universe relate to each other?
Humanity has tried to answer these 4 questions in various ways via different academic disciplines.
- In regards to answering the question of “what is real,” this has typically been studied under the philosophical discipline of ontology.
- What it means to be human is the question studied by anthropology.
- How the world or life came into existence is studied by many disciplines including Geology, Biology, Astronomy, and Chemistry.
- Finally, the question of how everything relates to everything else is also addressed by multiple disciplines within philosophy and the sciences.
Originally, all of the questions used to be the explicit domain of philosophy but over time the burden of answering these questions has shifted to the sciences. However, though we may consult philosophy and science as resources to help us in answering these questions as Christians we should ultimately determine the answer to these questions based on Scripture. Thankfully the Bible does provide answers to these philosophical and scientific questions, but in order to discover these answers for ourselves, we will need to take what is called a phenomenological approach.
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As in my attempt to explain epistemology in broad terms in the previous installment in this series, I will again provide a brief, cursory, and simple explanation of a robust philosophical concept—that of the phenomenological method for doing research. In this method of research the subject does the following exercises in order to achieve an objective view of the object of study. Note that I have appended the method with prayer as this is a vital component to fruitful and accurate Bible study. The simplified and adapted steps for our approach are as follows:
- Identify your presuppositions
- Bracket or suspend presuppositions and judgments
- Observe what the text says
- Allow the text to dictate what you should believe
In Matthew 18:2-4 Jesus said the following:
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 18:2-4, NIV)
Essentially, what the phenomenological method does is allow us to follow Christ’s admonition to read the text “naively” as “little children.” Though children have presuppositions, their presuppositions are malleable and can be easily substituted by authority figures, such as a parent, in the life of the child. This is essentially what Bible study calls for in the life of the Bible student—a humility of heart that is willing to be corrected even at the level of presuppositions and worldview. The text is the authority figure in the life of the Christian because it is the word of the divine Parent. A willingness to accept what is plainly revealed in the text is the key to successful systematic Bible study.
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Where to Look?
Now that we have identified a method or procedure for identifying Biblical presuppositions, we now need to answer the question of where to look. The Bible is a huge book, a collection of sixty-six narratives, poems, songs, letters, prophecies, parables, and proverbs. Though I would definitely recommend reading through the Bible at least once in your lifetime—reading through it to find a workable starting set of presuppositions is a bit daunting. What I recommend instead is to start with the first books of the Bible, the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the book of Job. As far as we can tell, these were the first books of the Bible written and presumedly they were all written by Moses who by default then is also the first canonical prophet.
We should start with Moses’ writings since they chronologically were written first before any other books of the Bible and thus they serve as the foundation for the rest of the Bible. And since they are the foundation, it would make sense for God to address the most fundamental questions of existence—the questions that presuppositions try to address—with the first canonical prophet. This allows future works to be understood and humanity would not be at a loss for understanding the first Biblical books because of a lack of Biblical presuppositions.
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Before moving on, take a moment to ask for God’s guidance in helping you see the Biblical presuppositions that are the bedrock for a Biblical worldview. Then follow the steps of the phenomenological method above as we work our way together through the Scriptures.
What Does it Mean to be Real? (Genesis 1)
There are several things we can learn from this passage but we’ll want to focus on answering the question of what it means to be real.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1:1-2)
When we look at what it means to be real (ontology), we can find answers in Genesis 1. God fills the void of this world with real objects, animate and inanimate and he does this in time as specified by the demarcations of the first day, second day, etc. throughout the chapter. What this tells us is that real things exist in time and space and are composed of matter whether it be physical or spiritual. Reality is temporal and spatial.
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What Does it Mean to be Human? (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:7, 16-17; 3:19)
Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Human beings are defined as beings that are made in God’s image. Regardless of what this means exactly, it infers that human beings are special as they are the only creatures said to possess this status or feature in comparison to all the other creatures created by God.
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
Here we find the two ingredients for what composes a human being, namely, dust (or physical matter) and the breath of life. Notice both elements are necessary in order to create and sustain a human being or soul. Genesis 2:7; 3:19 tells us that a separation of these elements is possible and results in death.
And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’ (Genesis 2:7)
‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ (Genesis 3:19)
Thus, human beings do not possess immortality naturally and after the fall of Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis, all of humanity is subject to death and will suffer the penalty of eternal death without divine intervention.
How Did the World Come into Existence? (Genesis 1)
As already noted in our investigation of what makes a thing real, we saw that God is the author of real things with real things being defined as occupying space in time. However, we did not address how God the world came into existence. To answer this, we may consult the same passage of Genesis 1. Here we find that God spoke life into existence. Describing the origins of the world is sometimes called cosmogony. The Biblical cosmogony is one in which God speaks and reality instantaneously comes into existence.
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Is There Interaction Between the Different Parts of the Universe (Genesis 1:1-3, 15; 3:8-9, 15, 21)
Again, from studying Genesis 1 we see that God interacts with His creation, even stooping down to form humanity from the dust of the ground. Thus, we see that there is a level of compatibility between the infinite God and the finitude of creation. In addition, the parts of creation also interact with each other. God talks with his creatures and his creatures respond to him in kind. Thus, there is communication between God and creation. We also see the same types of interaction between creatures such as Adam and Eve, and between humanity and the animal and plant world. Reality is interconnected.
Hermeneutical Principles (Biblical Presuppositions)
The questions we have just answered reveal the Biblical presuppositions of reality and the world. They outline the boundaries of theology so that we know what is possible and what is not possible in our interpretations of Scripture. In short, it identifies the basic building blocks of a Biblical worldview about reality, God, humanity, life, etc.
What we will come to learn is that the four pillars of the Seventh-day Adventist Church implicitly answer the four philosophical questions about reality answered above. These four-pillar doctrines provide the hermeneutical principles, presuppositions, and worldview we need to correctly interpret the Bible.
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The Pillars of Seventh-day Adventism
What follows is a quotation from Ellen G. White describing the four pillars of Adventism (also known as “present truth”). These four pillars implicitly answer the philosophical questions we engaged with above.
The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God’s people upon the earth, [also]  the first and second angels’ messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, “The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” One of the landmarks under this message was the  temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the  law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God’s law. The  nonimmortality of the wicked is an old landmark. (Ellen White, Counsels to Writers & Editors, p. 30.2; emphasis supplied)
Before we go any further, it should be noted that I am not using Ellen White here as a source for theology, but rather as a founder of the church and as a historical witness as to what Adventists taught as the pillars of their faith. White identifies four pillars or landmarks:
1) the three angels’ messages,
2) the temple of God [the sanctuary],
3) the law of God [the Ten Commandments], and
4) the non-immortality of the wicked [non-immortality of the soul].
In another place, White suggests that Adventism by its very nature is systematic (thus implying that a simplistic belief in a list of doctrines is insufficient for truly understanding what Adventism is all about).
The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God’s hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people. (Ellen White, Great Controversy, p. 423.1; emphasis supplied)
Constructing “a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious” is exactly what we are attempting to do in this series and apparently early Adventists recognized the sanctuary as the key to revealing this system.
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Where Did These Pillars Come From?
All four of the pillar doctrines of Adventism were rediscovered and birthed out of intense Bible study and theological reflection. Some of the most prominent pioneers in the Adventist faith and their contributions are categorized below. Note that this group of pioneers is a mix of first-day Adventists as well as those who would eventually become Sabbatarian Adventists.
|Pillars||“Discoverers” and Proponents|
|1st Angel’s Message (Judgment & Soon Return of Christ)
|William Miller (North America)
Joseph Wolff (Central Europe, Middle East, Asia, & North Africa – Traveled Internationally)
700 Ministers (Anglican/Episcopalians) – England
Robert Winter – England
Manuel Diaz Lacunza – South America & Western Europe
|2nd Angel’s Message (Identification and Fall of Babylon)||Charles Fitch
|3rd Angel’s Message (Sabbath)||Joseph Bates
Rachel Oakes (Seventh-day Baptist)
|Sanctuary (Judgment & the Complete Gospel)||Hiram Edson (Correct View)
O.R.L Crosier (Correct View)
Several Millerite Preachers
|Law of God||Joseph Bates
|Non-Immortality of the Wicked (State of the Dead)
D. M. Canright
You will notice that Ellen White is not listed amongst this these doctrinal pioneers. This is not because she had nothing to contribute to Adventism, but simply that her contributions were not foundational to the church’s rediscovery of its pillars. Ellen White’s early prophetic voice was one of admonishment, correction, and validation not innovation and discovery. The pillars of the Seventh-day Adventist Church rest soundly on Scripture and correct Biblical presuppositions.
Though we have identified various individuals as being responsible for the rediscovery of the pillar doctrines that would eventually be adopted at the pillar doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we have not really answered the questions as to where and how these pillars came to be rediscovered.
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The answer to this question is really what Fernando Canale once called “the genius of Adventism.” In essence, the forebearers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church were forced to engage in a phenomenological approach to Scripture because of faith challenging and crippling experiences of the events leading up to the Great Disappointment and the event itself.
William Miller began his study of Scripture from the perspective of a Deist (someone who believes that God created the world but has left the world to operate on its own after creating it). Because he had no particular theological commitments to any of the Christian churches of his day, when he finally began studying the Bible he was not carrying the baggage of creeds and confessions from Christianity. In other words, without these prior commitments (presuppositions) he had the opportunity to read and accept the realities that the text put forth much more readily than some of his contemporaries.
Furthermore, as William Miller began preaching the soon return of Christ, many individuals who followed his teaching were ejected from their churches (including the family of Ellen White). This again provided an opportunity for many Millerite Adventists to take a look at Scripture with fresh eyes and receive new presuppositions about what the Bible taught.
Finally, the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, placed the faith of many Christians in existential crisis forcing them to once again return to the Scriptures with fresh eyes to discover the error of their interpretations of the book of Daniel, Revelation, and many other passages of Scripture. They were forced to pray, identify their inaccurate presuppositions that were adopted from their prior churches, bracket them in suspended judgment, read the text with humility and observe the phenomena it projected, and finally allow their presuppositions to be challenged and modified. This process was repeated numerous times until consensus was established in what were known as Sabbatarian Adventist conferences.
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The Bottom Line
What we have come to see from this article is that presuppositions are powerful in that they either enhance or obscure what we can see in the Bible. Beyond this, we have identified the Biblical presuppositions about reality from examining the bedrock of Scripture, namely the book of Genesis. These Biblical presuppositions are embedded in what Adventism maintains as its four major pillars or landmarks including the three angels’ messages, the sanctuary, the Ten Commandments, and the non-immortality of the soul.
Lastly, we have seen that these pillar doctrines are not grounded in the writings of Ellen White but rather we rediscovered through intense Bible study by the Millerites and early Sabbatarian Adventists Bible students. With these elements established we will now move on in our next installment to how to use the pillars in studying the Bible by looking at two test cases. We will also see how the Holy Spirit sharpens or clarifies our Biblical presuppositions over time so that we can see Scripture in more and more clearly.
 This article is deeply indebted to the work of Fernando Canale. For a more detailed explanation of the material covered in this article I recommend his work, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (Andrews University Lithotech. Berrien Springs, MI. 2010).
 For a much more in-depth analysis of the issues covered in this article, I highly recommend Canale, Fernando L.. “Deconstructing Evangelical Theology?.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 44.1 (2006): .
Available at: https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol44/iss1/5
 Remember in our study of Ellen White we established that there are different kinds of prophets. Canonical prophets are prophets who wrote down their messages under the influence and supervision of the Holy Spirit. Their writings were then added to the Canon after being tested by the community. Moses was the first Canonical prophet. His writings are composed of the first five books of the Bible and the book of Job and probably a few of the Psalms.
 The Hebrew term nephesh translated as “being” also means soul. Thus human beings do not possess souls but rather are souls—a soul being a composite of physical matter and the breath of life.
 For a more detailed explanation of how the Adventist pillar doctrines were adopted I highly recommend Gerard Damsteegt’s Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission.