The man had the best of intentions. During his 77 years, he had accomplished more than most, yet there was another project he longed to carry out. Carefully he gathered the necessary items: a sharpened razor, glue, and “six printed volumes published in English, French, Latin, and Greek of the Gospels of the New Testament.”1
Placing the items on a flat surface, he began the meticulous work of cutting out what he believed to be the relevant parts of the Gospels. He then pasted his selections together, telling “a chronological and edited story of Jesus’ life, parables, and moral teaching. Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection.”2 These he called “things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.”3
Completed in 1820, this 84-page handcrafted book came to be known as Jefferson’s Bible, although it was originally titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually From the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English by the compiler himself, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, was well educated, gifted in multiple areas, and the principal author of the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
He was also a deist: one who insists that “religious truth should be subject to the authority of human reason rather than divine revelation.”4 Deists deny that the Bible is the revealed Word of God and reject Scripture as a source of religious doctrine. Jefferson viewed Scripture via the eighteenth-century “Enlightenment,” using a naturalistic lens and accepting only those things that could be explained from a naturalistic, or scientific worldview.5
In putting together his Life and Morals of Jesus, Jefferson believed he was preserving the pure teachings of Jesus while stripping away unnecessary fabrications that were added later.
This eighteenth-century “enlightened” practice is in wide use today. Known as the historical-critical method, it continues to put human reason above divine revelation in Scripture, ruling out supernatural intervention and seeking to find meaning through humanistic assumptions and understandings. Although those employing the historical-critical method today no longer use a razor and glue to put together their own version of Scripture as Jefferson did, the result is the same: a poorly constructed humanistic version of a divinely inspired book.
The Protestant Hermeneutic
In contrast to this is the historical-biblical method,6 the Protestant method of biblical interpretation that was used by Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers, and has been used by Seventh-day Adventists since the beginning of the Advent movement. It is also the way the Bible writers themselves seem to interpret Scripture: comparing scripture with scripture.
Unlike the historical-critical method, the historical-biblical method (also known as the historical-grammatical method) assumes that there is a Creator God who is active throughout human history, accepting that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It recognizes that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), and that human reason cannot therefore sit as judge above God’s Word.
When God created human beings, He endowed them with reason, giving them the ability to observe, analyze, and draw conclusions.7 So through prayer, guidance of the Holy Spirit, and sanctified reason submitted to God and His will, we are well able to have a clear understanding of God’s Word.
First and Highest Duty
Divine inspiration tells us: “It is the first and highest duty of every rational being to learn from the Scriptures what is truth, and then to walk in the light and encourage others to follow his example. We should day by day study the Bible diligently, weighing every thought and comparing scripture with scripture.”8
We are also instructed about how to understand Scripture: “The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed. . . . If men would but take the Bible as it reads, if there were no false teachers to mislead and confuse their minds, a work would be accomplished that would make angels glad and that would bring into the fold of Christ thousands upon thousands who are now wandering in error.”9
Finally, we are admonished to use our minds as we study Scripture, but always with a humble, teachable spirit, depending on God for wisdom. Ellen White wrote: “We should exert all the powers of the mind in the study of the Scriptures and should task the understanding to comprehend, as far as mortals can, the deep things of God; yet we must not forget that the docility and submission of a child is the true spirit of the learner. Scriptural difficulties can never be mastered by the same methods that are employed in grappling with philosophical problems. We should not engage in the study of the Bible with that self-reliance with which so many enter the domains of science, but with a prayerful dependence upon God and a sincere desire to learn His will. We must come with a humble and teachable spirit to obtain knowledge from the great I AM. Otherwise, evil angels will so blind our minds and harden our hearts that we shall not be impressed by the truth.”10
One of my favorite Bible passages is John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God’s Word is powerful. Through this collection of sacred writings produced over 1,500 years, God speaks with one voice. Across ages, languages, places, and cultures, God’s unchanging truth is proclaimed through His revealed Word, the Bible. While we don’t worship the Bible as some religious relic, we worship the God of the Bible, whose voice can still be heard clearly speaking through His Word today for all who will listen.
1. “Thomas Jefferson’s Bible,” American History, Smithsonian Institution, p. 4, americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/history/page-4.cfm.
3. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, Aug. 4, 1820, www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl261.php.
4. Darren Staloff, “Deism and the Founding of the United States,” National Humanities Center, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/deism.htm.
5. “Thomas Jefferson’s Bible,” p. 3, americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/history/page-3.cfm.
6. Richard M. Davidson, “Interpreting Scripture According to the Scriptures: Toward an Understanding of Seventh-day Adventist Hermeneutics,” May 20-21, 2003, p. 10, thestairview.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/interp-scripture-davidson.pdf.
7. See Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, “Human Reason and Biblical Hermeneutics: An Introduction,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 27, no. 1-2 (2016): 85-97.
8. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 598.
9. Ibid., p. 599. (Italics supplied.)
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. Additional articles and commentaries are available from the president’s office on Twitter: @PastorTedWilson and on Facebook: @PastorTed Wilson.