Ellen G. White Writings

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Basic Rules of Interpretation-Internal and External, Page 8

Rules of Interpretation—External

“Many men take the testimonies the Lord has given, and apply them as they suppose they should be applied, picking out a sentence here and there, taking it from its proper connection, and applying it according to their idea. Thus poor souls become bewildered, when could they read in order all that has been given, they would see the true application, and would not become confused.” 1Selected Messages 1:44.

Eight basic rules of interpretation that embrace a document’s wider context would include:

Rule One: Include all that the prophet has said on the subject under discussion before coming to a conclusion. 2See T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1955), pp. 438-450.

This rule seems obvious; yet, it probably is the first reason why confusion reigns when people disagree. The reason: most people see only what they want to see. This simple fact influences most all research, whether in astrophysics, medicine, politics, or theology. Unfortunately, few people will admit it. We call this phenomenon, the paradigm fixation or the problem of presuppositions. 3Note the kind of scientific thinking that prevailed before Copernicus changed the worldview of astronomers (and everyone else) with his paradigm shift, placing the sun instead of the earth at the center of the solar system. Consider the physicians who bled George Washington, America’s first president, to death because their medical paradigm did not understand the germ theory nor even the strong possibility that hydrotherapy treatments might have reversed his chest infection. One of the chief responsibilities of those searching for truth is to examine the lens through which the researcher searches for truth. The lens (the paradigm or worldview) by which we look at information determines how we evaluate so-called “facts.” Alfred North Whitehead said it well: “When you are criticizing [or, one may add, interpreting] the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible.”—Science and the Modern World (New York: Mentor Editions, 1952), pp. 49, 50. Especially in studying the Bible, nothing seems more difficult for most people than to look at all the facts! This difficulty is not because a person’s capability to think is deficient. The difficulty that separates thinkers looking at the same information is that their presuppositions are different, presuppositions not only of the head but of the heart.

Presuppositions most often steer students only to “see” what they want to see, thus they overlook the total range of what a writer has written on a particular subject. These paradigms control the mind in what it wants to see, and the heart in what it wants to believe. Earlier 4See p. 373. we called this phenomenon “attitude.” These deep, often unverbalized, attitudes most often determine one’s conclusions. 5Attitude determined how first-century Jews looked at Jesus as recorded in Matthew 16: If this young Galilean teacher did not fit their paradigm of what they thought the Messiah should be, they would look elsewhere—and they did. If one does not believe in miracles because of some kind of scientific paradigm, the Biblical story becomes folklore. If one does not believe that God speaks through men and women through visions, he/she then searches for reasons to explain away the vision phenomenon. And on it goes.

After recognizing this hovering cloud of presuppositions (paradigms or world-views) that every student should recognize, the next challenge is to examine all that a person has said or written on the subject under discussion. Only in this way can the writer (or speaker) be treated fairly.

Many Biblical scholars through the centuries have accepted Isaiah’s principle: “But the word of the Lord was to them, ‘Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little’” (28:13). Accepting this principle assumes that the Bible contains a unified, harmonious unfolding of God’s messages to human beings. But this principle does not teach that all texts are equally clear, or that the meaning of a verse can be understood apart from that verse’s context. The over-arching message of the Bible (or any other book or author) provides the final context for the meaning of any particular “precept” or “line.”

The same principle applies to the writings of Ellen White. She wrote often: “The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture.” 6Selected Messages 1:42.

She believed her writings to be consistent and harmonious from beginning to end, revealing “one straight line of truth,

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